You’re getting ready to go to the lake with your family. You’re 9 years old. It’s already a beautiful, warm day and it’s only 10 o’clock. Your mother is preparing the picnic – roast chicken, green salad with spring onions and cherry tomatoes. You ask her if you can bring along the sweets from your birthday, but she says no.
Your brother is next to you, buzzing with energy. He’s 6 years old and you adore him.
Your mother is always telling you: “He’s your responsibility.”
She says it so often that the rhythm is as familiar as your breathing, like a second pulse.
He follows you around everywhere like a shadow. When he’s not there, you have the impression that something is missing, like an arm or a leg.
Your father shouts from the car: “Jesus! Come on! What are you all doing in there?”
You stand at the door looking at him. He’s drumming his fingers on the steering wheel impatiently. He doesn’t understand that going to the lake takes a lot of time. Forget just one thing and you can ruin the whole day.
You’re already wearing your bathing suit – you don’t wear a bikini just yet. You will.
You check your bag for sun cream. You burn easily. Every summer your mother grumbles as she slathers aftersun on your cherry-red back, freshly roasted from the sun.
“Didn’t you feel yourself burning?” she asks.
You shake your head, enjoying the sensation of the cold cream on your back, even though it stings. Your mother puts the cream on roughly, like spreading inch-thick butter on a piece of burnt toast. You can feel the irritation in her hands. Your mother never hits you, but sometimes you can feel anger crackling off her, popping like the sparks of a fire.
In your bag, you have clean underwear for later, a book and a sun-hat.
Raphael joins you at the front door. He also has a small backpack with more or less the same contents, but with an orange ball replacing the book.
“I love the lake,” he says.
“Me too,” you reply.
He puts his arm around your waist and leans his head against you. In these small moments you always want the world to stop. These tiny moments of perfection you wish you could draw out: The anticipation of the lake, the warming smell of the sun on your skin, Raphael’s head against your ribs. You want to press pause, but even at 9 years old you know the world doesn’t work like that.
You finally all get into the car, close the doors and leave. Your father is driving a little recklessly. He’s annoyed. Are you late? Late for who? For what? The lake isn’t going anywhere and you’re not meeting anyone. He’s annoyed. That’s all.
At the roundabout, just before the lake, your father pulls over. The tyres crunch on the gravel and you look out of the window to see why you’re stopping. A man is parked with his van full of fruit. The van itself isn’t very tempting – the tyres look like they haven’t been changed in a long time and are half-flat. You could almost say the same thing about the fruit seller himself. He looks hot and sweaty, his half-deflated belly hanging over his trousers.
Your mother gets out to buy cherries.She smiles at the man and after a couple of seconds he’s laughing. You see him throw in a few extra ones after she’s paid.
Your father doesn’t look at her, but just starts the car and pulls away, the tyres spinning slightly on the gravel, spitting out the stones behind you as you all drive away.
“Look!” your mother says, turning back in her seat towards you and Raphael.
She hangs the cherries over her ears and starts dancing in her seat. Your father shakes his head, smiling. Your mother does this every time she buys cherries. She turns back to the front and pops a cherry in your father’s mouth.
You soon arrive on the winding road that leads down to the lake. Your father told you it used to be a quarry. He often came swimming here when he was a kid. The road to the lake is full of bends and he always drives around them slowly as Raphael feels sick if he goes too fast.
Once at the lake, you get out of the car and immediately start getting undressed.
The lake is waiting for you.
“Your brother!” says your mother. “Don’t forget your brother!”
You look at her, but your thoughts stay below the surface, like the weeds lying hidden in the lake. You turn towards your brother.
“Come on! Hurry up!” You help him take off his t-shirt where he’s managed to get both his arms stuck. He has on a pair of banana-yellow swimming shorts and his tanned skinny legs show no real difference between the thighs and the calves.
“Let’s go!” You pull on his orange armbands and quickly inflate them. You pull them into place and feel them sticking against his skin.
“Ow! Not too tight, Sarah,” he says, frowning.
“Is that better?” you ask, letting out a little air.
“Yes,” he says, wiggling his fingers.
You’re in a hurry. You’re hot. You want to be in the water.
You both go in the lake. You dive under and touch his feet.
“I’m a crocodile! Snap! Snap!” you say, sticking your head out from the water.
“No, no, no!” he shouts, swimming back towards the beach.
“Snap! Snap!” you shout after him. It’s a game you play each time you come here. He doesn’t like it much but it makes you laugh to see him trying to swim so fast.
He scrambles out onto the beach, puffing, and glaring at you.
You stay in the water. You float on your back. The sun is beautiful and you’re happy. You look towards the beach. Your parents have gone off somewhere. There are two or three other families enjoying the sunshine as well. Your brother starts playing around with his ball.
You let yourself sink under the blue-green water. You can’t see much. You float again. Your brother is stretched out on his towel. You go under again, enjoying the silence. You’re alone and it feels good. You come back to the surface and swim back to shore.
“Everything okay?” you ask.
Your brother nods.
“I don’t know.”
You wonder if you should go and look for them or not. Maybe they’ve run away, leaving you and your brother here at the lake with some roast chicken and cherries. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
Just then, your parents arrive. Your father looks less annoyed than before.
“Isn’t the lake lovely?” says your mother, her flushed cheeks matching her scarlet sundress.
You think your parents are stupid.
After lunch, they fall asleep in the sun.
“Can we go swimming, Sarah?” asks your brother, tugging on your arm. You fold over the corner of the page you were reading. You look at the lake and feel it calling you, like it always does.
“Sure, why not?” You glance over your parents, waiting for them to say yes, but your father is snoring and your mother seems to be sleeping too.
“Let’s go,” you say. Raphael grabs his ball and comes with you.
You both wade into the water. He’s holding your hand. You can feel his bony fingers holding your first two fingers. He never holds more than that.
“Don’t do the crocodile,” he says, squeezing your fingers.
“Promise?” You know he doesn’t believe you.
“Yes. I promise.” You give him a kiss on the head. He pushes you away but he’s smiling.
“I’m going to swim for a bit. You’ll be okay?” He nods.
“Don’t go too far,” he adds, throwing the ball up in the air.
You swim alone under the water for a moment, for a minute. The water slips across you. You can make out some things under the blue-green water, blurred images. You come back to the surface and glance around for your brother.
You can’t see him.
Maybe he’s hiding, trying to get you back for the crocodile. You look towards the beach. He isn’t there. Nor are your parents. You think that maybe they are all together. You hope they are.
“Raphael?” You say quietly. You don’t want to shout. “Raph!”
You look around you. The water glistens under the sun, holding secrets beneath its smooth surface, impenetrable. There’s no movement at all. It’s the first time the lake has scared you. All you want is to see your brother.
Then, quite far away, you see an orange armband, floating, alone. It’s bobbing lifelessly.
“Raphael!” you scream.
You swim towards the armband but you can’t find him. He’s gone.
Your screams catch the attention of the other families on the beach. Two fathers immediately plough into the water to help you.
“What’s his name, sweetheart?” asks one.
“Raphael.” You start crying. You still can’t see him. Nor can they.
“Raphael! Raphael!” Now everyone is shouting, the women on the beach are standing, tightly holding onto their own children. You wish your parents would come back.
Everyone starts looking for him, but the water stays as calm and silent as a graveyard.
And then they find him. The long grass under the water was holding onto his foot and he was floating just below the surface. Not so far away. For one brief second you think he’s alive, but it’s just the movement of the water. A father carries him out of the water, trying not to cry as he lays him on the sand.
Raphael is cold and white, one deflated armband clinging to his arm. He’s not moving.
“Sweetheart, where are your parents?” asks one of the mothers.
You can’t speak, but you point at their empty towels.
It’s the end of your childhood.
* * *
Your mother blames you. It’s easier than blaming herself, but you don’t understand that yet.
“He was your responsibility! How many times did I tell you that? How many times?” she says, over and over. Your father pulls her away.
At night, you hear them talking downstairs. Generally your mother is crying. Your father holds her, tells her that she needs time.
“I don’t need time,” she sobs. “I need my son.”
He reminds her that they still have you, and that you’ve lost your brother, but it makes no difference. Your mother never really sees you again – she just sees the watery shadow of your brother beside you.
* * * *
You don’t go to the lake for about five years, but you often speak with Raphael. You have the impression he’s still there, holding tightly onto your fingers and that reassures you. Sometimes you feel a ghostly hand tugging on your arm, but when you look down, he’s never there.
When you turn 14, a friend takes you to the lake.
“You have to do it,” she says.
She’s known you since primary school and she’s often right. You both cycle to the lake. By the time you arrive, the sun has burnt off the clouds and you can feel your skin starting to prickle. You understand when it’s burning now.
You can’t wait to get in the water. For a moment you forget about Raphael.
The lake is calm. It’s waiting for you. The trees are reflected quietly on the surface, shimmering gently under the sunlight. Nobody else is there – it’s too early. The families don’t arrive until later.
By now you’re wearing a bikini, even if your father doesn’t agree.
“You’re too young!” he growls.
“I’m 14!” There isn’t much to fill up the bikini but all of your friends are wearing them and you don’t want to be left out.
Your friend stays on the beach.
“The water’s too cold,” she says but really she knows you need some time alone.
You dive into the blue-green water. It’s like coming home. You see shadows of the long weeds which want to hold onto your feet. A sharp image of Raphael’s skinny legs gently moving in the water comes back to you. You burst through the surface. You can’t breathe.
“Everything okay?” shouts your friend, looking worried.
You force a “yes” from your throat and it frees you. You try to breathe more calmly. To breathe with the movement of the water, letting it soothe you.
You close your eyes and see Raphael again, smiling and laughing as you played in the lake. People kept telling you it would get easier. They were wrong. It just changed. The pain didn’t disappear, but constantly hummed beneath your skin. By now it was part of you, like the lake itself.
“Snap, snap,” you whisper.
You dive back under. The lake washes away your tears. It caresses you. You see more shadows of Raphael under the surface, but this time you try to touch them. You wonder if his soul stayed here, swimming every day, doing the crocodile. A part of you hopes it’s true. A part of you wishes you could join him.
You swim back towards the shore, get out and dry your face with your towel.
“Were we right to come?” your friend asks.
“You’re often right, you know?” You look over at her, stretched out on her towel, her eyes closed under the sun.
She smiles at you.
“I try to be.”
After that, you often come back to the lake, never saying anything to your parents. You sometimes come with your friends, but often alone.
You like to swim naked at night when everyone’s asleep. Your friends think you’re showing off but you’re not. The lake relaxes you and you love the water on your skin.
One weekend, a few years later, you go camping with friends. You go to bed slightly drunk, your skin still warm from the sun. You’re sharing your tent with a friend, Matthew, who is slim and almost delicate. He often makes you laugh and reminds you of Raphael. You know he wants to sleep with you but it’s impossible. You think you should be alone for the rest of your life, as a punishment. You can’t be trusted. After all, “Raphael is your responsibility.” Even now it’s still true. When your mother looks at you, all she sees is your brother. You spend as much time as possible out of the house. You spend a lot of time at the lake. You often speak with your brother.
You go to university and you meet Simon. You fall in love. After university, you move in together. You have the wedding, the flowers, the passionate nights. Everything goes well. He’s big and well-built. He plays rugby and couldn’t be more different from Raphael. You take him to the lake where you explain everything. He kisses you. He tells you it wasn’t your fault.
“It was an accident,” he says. “Your mother blames you because she can’t blame herself. No mother wants to lose a child.”
You nod, only half-believing him.
Simon is a good swimmer. Not like a fish, but more like a whale – he makes a lot of noise and you always know exactly where he is. He’s incapable of doing the crocodile and it’s better that way.
One day you spend the day at the lake with friends. In the evening, the others slowly drift home. You and Simon both drink a little too much wine and Simon suggests spending the night.
“We’ve got sleeping bags and a couple of blankets in the car,” he says. “It’s a warm night. Fancy a sleepover?”
You smile and remember why you love him.
You both fall asleep there, with the sound of the water gently lapping in the dark, collapsing onto itself. You go to sleep happy, under the protective glow of the stars.
The next morning you wake up early. You’re warm even though you’re naked under the blanket. The sun is just coming up. You slip quietly out of the sleeping bag and walk gingerly into the lake. The sun hasn’t yet had time to warm the water. You dive in and the cold takes your breath away, like swallowing shards of ice, but after a few moments you breathe more easily. You float on your back, the lake holding you gently. You watch the stars and the approaching dawn.
When you come out, you sit on the beach, a blanket wrapped around you, waiting for the ducks to wake up. When they do, they take off with frantic splashing and you hear the sound of their wings as they pass. You watch as they circle, getting into formation, then heading off.
Simon is still sleeping, looking like an exhausted gladiator.
Nine months later, your son arrives. You name him Raphael. You couldn’t possibly call him anything else.
Your baby is well-built, like Simon. He likes you carrying him and you have a constant backache, but you love it. Now when you speak to Raphael, you don’t quite know if you’re talking to your son or your brother. For you, it’s all the same. Either way, he’s your responsibility.
The summer arrives when your son will be celebrating his sixth birthday.
You want to go to the lake but Simon isn’t sure.
“It’ll be lovely, Simon.”
“It’s morbid. Maybe another birthday, but not this one.” He stands his ground, but you know he’ll give in eventually.
You’re not sleeping well and you keep having strange dreams: you’re under the water, you’re dying, but it’s so peaceful that you don’t fight it. You’re holding Raphael’s hand, but you don’t know if it’s your son or your brother. It feels like you’ve come home.
After several weeks, you manage to convince Simon that going to the lake is a good idea, that it’ll finish this story once and for all. You say nothing to him about the dreams. You convince him that you want this story to end.
“I want us both to have a clean slate, Simon. I’m fed up living with ghosts.”
The day of Raphael’s birthday arrives. You buy roast chicken and prepare a salad. On the way to the lake you stop to buy some cherries. Raphael smiles at you when you hang them on your ears and dance in your seat. He’s happy. Simon relaxes. The sky is blue and the sun is already burning your skin.
You put your towels on the ground, inflate your son’s armbands and you both go into the water. Simon stays on the beach but you know that he’s watching you and that reassures you. Nothing bad can happen.
You swim together, you and Raphael. The sun shines on the blue-green water. You pull on his feet from under the water and he laughs. You pull again, harder and his head passes under the surface. He bobs back up and looks at you, still laughing. Simon is lying on the beach. You think he’s looking at the sky.
You hold Raphael tightly in your arms.
“Raphael,” you say.
You glance back at Simon to see if he’s looking, but he isn’t, so you smile at Raphael, letting the air gently out of his armbands. The stream of air makes bubbles under the water and Raphael laughs.
“Snap! Snap!” you say. Raphael laughs again.
“Crocodile!” he says, smiling.
“That’s right,” you reply.
You wrap your arms around him and plunge under the water together. Raphael doesn’t react immediately. He thinks it’s a game, like before, but then he starts moving, first a little and then a lot. He’s strong, stronger than you imagined, but you manage to keep his head under the water. Your lungs start burning and Raphael won’t stop moving and kicking.
Suddenly someone grabs Raphael’s arm and one of your arms and pulls hard. It’s Simon. He’s hurting you.
“What the hell, Sarah? What the hell are you doing?” he shouts, taking his son in one arm, tightly holding your wrist with his spare hand. He looks furious and scared.
“Let me go,” you say, trying to get your breath back.
He lets go of your wrist. You rub it. It’s screaming red.
Raphael coughs a little, but he doesn’t cry. He’s watching you. You try to take him, but Simon shoves you away, back into the water.
“You’re out of your mind! I’m holding him.” Simon storms back to the beach, carving waves on either side of him. “What the hell were you thinking?” He wraps both arms around Raphael.
“I wanted to save him,” you shout to your husband and Raphael as they walk away. Raphael is looking at you over Simon’s shoulder. You wave at him and he waves back.
“Snap, snap,” you say to yourself quietly.
You let your fingers drift in the water and it feels like someone is holding onto them. You look down into the water, seeing nothing but ghosts.
You watch Simon and Raphael on the beach. Simon has taken off Raphael’s armbands and has wrapped him in a bright yellow towel. He’s holding him on his lap. He’s talking to him, reassuring him. Raphael is smiling. You smile at him, but he’s not watching you anymore.
You take a deep breath and turn back to the lake. You start swimming. The sounds from the beach drift away. You can no longer hear Simon. The lapping of the water starts to feel like breathing. You keep swimming. Your arms start to feel tired and you can hear your pulse. You turn your head briefly and look back at Raphael. You dive down into the water. The lake welcomes you, as it always has.
You never see your son again.
Tara Kenway is based in France. Her work has been featured in Toasted Cheese and in the collection ‘A Monster in the Closet’. Her story ‘We’re Not Common’ was nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Million Writers Award. When not writing, she’s learning to longboard.