By Laura Davis
PROMPT—No one noticed ...
* Laura first composed this story as a teenager, and in the intervening decades, rewrote it dozens of times. She planned to include it in her new memoir, The Burning Light of Two Stars, but when she stared down at the need to cut tens of thousands of words, she realized that this formative experience, though pivotal in her life, was not pivotal in the arc of her story. In her final 12,000 word cut, she finally let this beloved story go—and the pacing of the memoir is better without it. Now, she’s now happy it’s found a new home.
The summer I turned ten, our family took a camping trip across the country. We left New Jersey as soon as school let out in our white Dodge Dart and camped all the way to California and back.
As soon as we pulled into a new town, my father picked up the local newspaper to learn about nearby events. We asked locals about the best swimming holes. Paul, 14 and eager to connect with his peers, put up wishful notes on bulletin boards at every campground: “Any teenagers want to hang out? Come to campsite number 42.”
That summer, we visited Mesa Verde, Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain National Park, Yosemite and Yellowstone. Paul got to live out his ultimate fantasy—surfing in Redondo Beach. I spent my 10th birthday in San Francisco and two weeks later, scrambled after a lamb at a 10-and-under rodeo in Jackson, Wyoming. We toured a meat packing plant in Minnesota and Mom grossed us out by eating the cold cuts they served at the end of the tour.
All summer long, temperatures soared into the nineties. My parents chain-smoked and we drove with the windows down, thighs plastered to sticky seats. An imaginary line bisected the back of the car: there were no seat belts to keep us in place. Paul had his side and I had mine. Woe be to me if so much as a finger strayed into his territory.
Everywhere we went that summer, Paul and I swam: in rivers, lakes, inlets, streams, reservoirs, and oceans.
At the end of week one, we pulled into the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area on the border of Kentucky and Tennessee. After we set up camp and gathered kindling, Paul and I ran down to the lake. I practiced my butterfly and my backstroke. We raced and dove and dunked each other.
Suddenly there was a shout from down the beach. The lifeguard stood on a stump, yelling for everyone to come. We ran, dripping, and gathered into a silent crowd. Two boys, age five and eight, had been out on rafts. They drifted out too far and the younger boy had fallen in. He hadn’t come back up.
The lifeguard took stock of us, a random group of strangers. “We’re going to form a human chain and drag the lake. We’re going to walk across the lake until we find him.” He gestured to a place midway up his chest. “This is how tall you have to be.” That’s how tall I was.
We joined hands and entered the water. We walked slowly, cautiously. None of us wanted to be the one to find him. The water got deeper and deeper. I stood on tiptoe, but finally, I could no longer reach the bottom. I took in a mouthful of water and had to drop out of the line.
I ran around to the other side of the lake, and there was the family. The mother was sobbing. The father, pacing. The older boy sat in the doorway of the tent, shivering in a wet suit, staring at the lake. Folks from nearby campsites fanned out in a silent arc. The sun was beating down.
The line of water walkers came closer and closer to us. The man next to Paul motioned below him. The lifeguard dove down, and when he came up, he carried a small wet bundle in his arms. He set the limp body on the beach and started artificial respiration.
Twenty minutes had passed since the boy had fallen into the lake. His skin looked pasty and grey. His eyes were open. Small insects climbed up his chest and neck.
The boy’s father screamed at his older son. “It’s your fault. You did it. You killed him!”
The lifeguard kept trying, but it was too late. He stepped back and left the boy alone, lying on the beach, breaded with sand. The bugs crawled into his eyes and nose and mouth. No one brushed them away.
I looked at the boy. Then I looked at the lake. That’s when Mom’s arms surrounded me. Her fierce voice whispered, “Thank God it wasn’t you,” and I melted into her embrace.
I could still let her comfort me then.
Laura Davis is the author of seven bestselling books, including The Courage to Heal and I Thought We‘d Never Speak Again. Her groundbreaking books have been translated into 12 languages and sold two million copies. In addition to writing books that inspire, the work of Laura’s heart is to teach. For more than twenty years, she’s helped people find their voices, tell their stories, and hone their craft. Her memoir, The Burning Light of Two Stars: A Mother-Daughter Story, tells the dramatic story of becoming a caregiver for a parent who betrayed you in the past. You can learn about Laura’s books and workshops, read the first five chapters of her new memoir, and receive a free ebook: Writing Through Courage: A 30-Day Practice at www.lauradavis.net.