Prone on her belly, Caroline could watch the gentle waves on the water through the space between the whitewashed boards. She was warm, the sun’s rays penetrating her skin, relaxing her further into the dock. Every so often one of the white puffy clouds floating by on the lake-colored sky would come between her skin and the sun, cooling her to a point that made her want to roll up in her beach towel. The gentle breeze filled her nose with a mix of fresh air off the water, fish and fumes from a pontoon passing by that was pulling two screaming kids on a tube.
Caroline was clinging to this last bit of paradise. Summer was ending and soon the same wooden boards supporting her would be piled on the shoreline for the winter, first looking sad and abandoned in the wet decaying leaves and then leaving only an outline, covered in snow.
She laid her hands on the boards feeling the warmth as she pushed herself up on all fours. A small sliver smarted her palm just under her ring finger. Caroline gently brushed over the fragment to see which way it had gone into her hand. A pinch and a tug on the exposed piece of wood brought relief as the sliver slid out cleanly, sparing her the pain of a needle extraction later that evening. Grandpa was a kind man, but she suspected that he took some pleasure in taking a sewing needle, running it through a match flame to sterilize it and then pulling away the layers of skin. He would dig as deep as he needed to free the sliver even if it meant drawing blood; all the while sulfa fumes would burn her nostrils.
Caroline jumped from the dock feeling the warm August water move from her toes to her knees to her waist and up over her head. She instinctively pulled her knees up to her chest under the water, just in case a slow moving catfish was passing below. She dreaded the thought of touching her toes to a whisker.
Labor Day was here, signaling the end of summer vacation. It seemed like Grandpa had just made his annual beginning of summer announcement, calling all lake-house inhabitants under the age of 16 to the dock. That was the Friday before Memorial Day, the other bookend of summer, when the lake water was still frigid.
That day the summer stretched out before Caroline like it could go on forever. She was practically giddy with anticipation of days lying on the dock, floating in the water, riding on the boat, helping Grandpa clean perch for dinner and walking down the path along the shore to the amusement park.
She knew better than to argue with Grandpa's call to the dock, knowing from past years that even a plea to Grandma would not spare her. If she wanted to be outside the house without wearing a life jacket, she had to pass the test. There were no exceptions, not even the dog and cat, held firmly in her arms wriggling to escape. Then Grandpa came down the line, one by one, oldest to youngest and threw each member of the lineup into the freezing water. If you could swim to the ladder, you would be free to enjoy summer unencumbered.
As the oldest, Caroline went first, handing Thomasina the cat down to the next sister in line. The cold water took her breath away as she quickly swam to the dock. She passed. The cat was handed down to her youngest sister as her middle sister landed in the water with a gasp and successfully swam to the ladder. Her youngest sister required some help in the water and thereby, sentenced to add a lifejacket to her summer wardrobe. She cried. The dog was next, looking resentful as he splash landed and rather than swim to the ladder, paddled his way in protest to the shoreline and up to the house. Last in the lineup was the cat, who practically walked on water and was back on the dock angrily licking the little bit of lake water that got on her paws, nine lives intact. Even though she was declared safe to wander, Caroline never saw the cat venture to the dock all summer, happy to lie on the steps of the house watching for songbirds to chase.
Now the summer was gone. The sun was setting earlier and earlier. Caroline dried off and headed up to the house for another annual event, closing up the house for the winter. She tried to prolong the summer with talk of an autumn lake visit, but to no avail. Reluctantly, she placed a sheet on each chair, sofa and bed to keep dust from settling into the cushions or sun from fading the fabrics.
As her grandparents loaded the car with leftover food from the fridge and linens to drop at the laundry, Caroline sneaked away for one last chat with the lake, a goodbye and a promise to return. Summer ended and it was time to turn her thoughts to the school year ahead and friends she’d missed over the summer.