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Falling for Summer

By´╝ÜBridget Essex

My sister drowned when she was ten years old.

I grip the steering wheel a little tighter as I take a deep breath, willing the cold sweat that just broke over my brow to go away. To leave me alone. My mouth is dry; my heart is palpitating; memories are already flooding my head...

This isn't how I wanted this vacation to start.

But all of it comes back to me instantly, unbidden, because it's the one thing I've never been able to forget...the one thing I've never been able to forgive myself for. The one thing that has influenced every day of my life.

My sister drowned when she was ten years old. And I could have saved her—but I wasn't there.

I wasn't there.

My sister drowned because of me.

I shouldn't go back to Lake George. I mean, it's a great place, a gorgeous place. It's the beautiful little town where I grew up, a perfect lakeside town where the trees line the road, and the cool lake breezes make you crave cold sodas and skinny-dipping late at night when your parents aren't around, the thrill of being a teenager still racing through your blood. It's where everyone in eastern New York goes for summer vacations, lounging around the lake, buying ice cream and building happy memories. It's a place people want to visit, where people would want to live all year round, if they could. And though it's a little town, and—traditionally—little towns are places you want to move away from, most people in Lake George stay put because it's just that damn wonderful.

But the moment I turned eighteen, I couldn't leave fast enough.

I grip the steering wheel harder now, my knuckles white against the black leather as I try to take deep, even breaths, flicking on the cruise control as I merge onto I-87.

So, yeah, even though it's the ultimate vacation destination, even though it's a wonderful place...there are a million reasons that I shouldn't return to Lake George. It's certainly not home anymore; after all, I haven't considered it home since that night. And ever since my parents moved down to Juno Beach, Florida, there isn't even a physical house in town for me to return to. They sold the house before they moved.

Every place in Lake George reminds me of my greatest mistake. Every place there, no matter how beautiful, how full of happy memories for other people, reminds me of the night that I would do anything to go back and change.

I pass a tractor trailer, flooring the gas pedal as I merge back into the right lane, gritting my teeth. The bank of dark gray clouds along the horizon are drifting ever closer, threatening rain, and the gloomy sky matches my mood.

Before I left New York, Ashley told me that going back to Lake George was a really stupid idea. She's the closest thing I have to a best friend, my long-suffering secretary who has been there with me through everything, and she advised me forcefully, clutching one of the company iPads to her chest, her mouth in a thin, straight line, that what I intended to do was going to be a mistake. “What could you possibly gain from going back there and torturing yourself?” she asked me, real concern making her eyes narrow.

“It's over and done with, Mandy, all of it,” she told me then, her voice soft, quiet. “You don't have to pay penance for something that happened almost twenty years ago. Your sister would have wanted you to live a good life, not keep looking back to that night and living in purgatory because of it.”

Ashley's right, of course. She's always right. She's the glue that keeps my online advertising company, Dynamic Unlimited, together, and she's my rock in all other areas. Yeah, she's my secretary, but she's been by my side since college. She really has had my back through everything, driving over to my high-rise condo in the wee hours of the morning when I'm having a panic attack about that night again. Coming over and soothing me with tea and a big hug and reminding me, over and over, that the accident wasn't my fault. Even though I know it was.

Ashley's done everything within her power to convince me not to do this.

And I know I shouldn't go back to Lake George. But I'm compelled to. Every year in the summer, I could have gone back, and I didn't. But this year... This year, things are different.

Because this summer marks the twentieth anniversary of my sister's death. Of Tiffany's death. Twenty years ago, I was seventeen, my whole life in front of me, and I made a stupid mistake. Twenty years ago, because of my stupid mistake, my little sister's life was cut short.

And ever since then, I've been wishing that I could go back in time, go back to that night. I wish I could go back and fix it more than I've ever wished for anything else. But I can't go back in time, no matter how many times I've wished it, and I can't fix what happened that night, or its tragic outcome. But the twentieth anniversary of Tiffany's death seems extra poignant somehow. My nightmares have increased in frequency lately: I've been having them about once a week instead of once a month. Once a month I could almost handle. Once a week is killing me.