Grady loves playing video games and hates being outdoors.
Jada loves photographing wildlife and hates cities.
Grady does not want to be here; Jada doesn't want him here.
But if they don't learn to get along soon they won't survive this day at Spooky Lake.
“Welcome to Spooky Lake!” Jada said.
She stood at the top of the trail with her arms crossed and her eyes narrowed, watching me like she wished I would go away and never come back.
To be honest, I wasn’t feeling the welcome.
But, I was too busy dragging my body up the final stretch of that horrendous trail to stress about it. My lungs screamed for oxygen. My leg muscles burned. One more step, and another, and another until at last I reached the top.
I sank to my knees. My backpack crashed to the ground behind me.
“Congratulations,” Jada said. “I never thought you’d make it.”
You and me both.
That’s what I would have said if I had a breath to say it with, but I was stretched out flat on my stomach by then, gasping for air and sweating buckets.
Jada crouched beside me. “You look like a ripe tomato,” she announced. “You need to take a rest.”
“Uh…” I tried to answer, failed, snagged a quick breath, and tried again. “…uh…no…fine.”
“Good to know.” She grabbed my backpack and stood up. “While you’re not resting I’ll get our kayaks ready.” She walked away chuckling to herself, just loud enough for me to hear.
I couldn’t move. All I could do was lie there watching my annoying cousin, not even winded, trot over to a small hill at the edge of the forest. Shaped like an overgrown anthill, it was covered with greenery that made it hard to spot from a distance. Jada started dragging leafy branches from the hill like she had lost her mind — assuming she had one to lose.
What was wrong with this kid? We might be related, but we had nothing in common. Not one thing. I mean, Jada was seriously weird while I was a totally normal teen. Ask anyone.
As she pulled away more branches a moss-covered roof began to show itself. I raised my head off the ground to see better. Jada kept yanking off branches and tossing them away until a four-foot high wall appeared, built with long, round sticks lashed together. The miniature hill morphed into a small shed.
Jada ducked inside.
She reappeared dragging a peppermint-green kayak. She towed the kayak to the water’s edge, opened its hatch, and stashed her backpack inside. Then she returned to the shed. This time she came out pulling a fiery-orange kayak. She lined it up beside the green one and placed my backpack in the hatch.
I had a bad feeling about this.
“Hey Grady, are you finished not resting yet?” she called.
My entire body ached, from the sweaty roots of my hair to the tips of my toenails and everywhere in between. I wanted to stay right there, stretched out flat on that cool forest floor for the rest of the morning. Maybe all day. But I refused to be shown up by this strange kid who would rather hike up some desolate mountain trail than spend the day doing seriously important stuff like playing video games.
I stifled a groan, struggled to my feet, and walked toward Jada on legs like that felt like jelly. Behind her a quiet lake stretched into the distance, green as jade. The lake was surrounded by dark green, forested hills that rose sharp and steep out of the water. At the far end, snow-capped peaks of craggy mountains soared up to a clear blue sky. Not one other human in sight.
How’s that for physical distancing?
“I wasn’t resting,” I explained, “I was enjoying the view.”
“It’s beautiful isn’t it?” Jada turned to gaze down the lake. “This is my favorite place in the entire world.”
She turned and handed me something that looked like two wide lapels attached to a supersize collar, kind of like a heavy black rain jacket with the arms and back missing but replaced by a couple of straps. “Since you’re not tired let’s go! Put on your PFD.”
“What the heck’s a PFD?”
She sighed. “A Personal Flotation Device, like a life jacket, but comfortable because it’s not all lumpy and bulky. Don’t worry, it will automatically inflate if you fall in. You need to wear it, just in case.”
I studied this thing, trying to figure out which way was up. “In case of what?”
But Jada was too busy donning her own PFD to pay any attention to me. I wanted to watch how she did it but she was way too quick.
So anyway, I tried to wriggle into that contraption by pulling it over my head. The next thing I knew I was trapped with my ultra-long arms waving in space. Jada didn’t say a word, she just yanked that thing off and held it while I put my arms through from each side. I managed to do up the buckle without help.
“That’s not going to work,” Jada said. “It’s set for my dad, but you’ll slip right out and sink to the bottom of the lake.” She pulled the straps tighter until it fit neat and snug. I had to admit she was right, that PFD thing was so comfortable I hardly knew I was wearing it.
Jada scooped up my cap, white with a Canuck’s logo on it, and plunked it on my head. “It fell off when you were doing your Houdini escape trick,” she explained.
I stared down at the two small boats, one green, one orange, pointy at both ends, with paddles sticking out of seats no wider than a human butt. How was anyone supposed to get in without tipping over?
Jada frowned up at me. “You have kayaked before, like you said, right Grady?”
“So you do know how to climb back in if you capsize out there? Because maybe you should practice before we head out.”
“Not a problem,” I assured her.
Not if I don’t capsize.
Jada made a face like she didn’t believe me. “I hope not,” she said.
She draped the strap of her fancy-expensive camera around her neck and stashed the lens case in front of her seat. Then she took off her sneakers and socks and tossed them after the lens case. “Take off your shoes,” she advised, “you need to keep them dry for the hike home.”
Okay. This was going to be embarrassing. I sat on the gravel beach and took my time unlacing my sneakers, hoping Jada would get bored and move away. No luck. She stood over me with her hands planted on her hips.
One shoe off and I got my wish.
“Oh.” She slapped a hand over her mouth and nose and backed away. “Oh, Grady, that is vile!”
I grinned up at her. “Sorry, my feet get a bit stinky when they sweat.”
“You’re not kidding! It’s gross enough to scare off all the wildlife for miles around the lake.”
A slight exaggeration, but to be honest, the stink was overpowering.
“Quick, toss them in your kayak. Push them to the front so you won’t pass out from the fumes.”
“Hilarious,” I said. But I had to admit it was a good idea as I used my paddle to shove them as far forward as possible.
“That’s better,” Jada said, dropping her hand. “Now, so you know, I gave you the orange kayak because it’s easier to spot out there, just in case.”
“In case of what?” I asked, same as before.
This time she was too busy pushing the green kayak into deeper water to answer me. She waded after it, picked up her paddle, and climbed in, tucking her legs inside. Just like that, quick and simple. But Jada was short and compact and efficient, pretty much the opposite of me.
I pushed the orange kayak into the water and tried to copy what Jada did but that first step was such an ice-cold shock it brought instant hurt. I had to get out of that water. Fast. So I flopped onto the kayak and landed across the seat with my scrawny legs kicking air on one side and my arms flailing on the other, swinging that long paddle above my head. The kayak rolled one way and the other and back again, tipping higher on each roll. I held my breath, bracing to get dumped into that green ice-water.
Instant death by hypothermia. Which is a fancy way of saying he froze to death.
Grady McPhail, human popsicle.
“Keep still!” Jada shouted.
I did. The kayak settled in the water.
“Okay, good, now lower your paddle, turn, and tuck in your legs. One at a time. Take it slow.”
I did that too. But that stupid kayak wobbled like it would turn turtle.
“Hold the paddle flat across your kayak in front of you. And sit still.”
I did as she said. The kayak stopped wobbling. I started breathing again.
“I’m so glad you know what you’re doing.” Jada remarked. “Because I was afraid you might slow me down. Now let’s go find Sasquatch.” With that she took off paddling down the lake.
Sasquatch? I followed Jada, getting farther behind by the minute. The harder I paddled, the more my kayak wobbled side to side. At the same time it veered one way then the other down the lake, zigzagging like a snowboard around moguls.
Tell me again how much fun I’m having.
“What’s this about Sasquatch?” I yelled, hoping to slow her down.
It worked. She stopped paddling and turned her kayak sideways.
I wobbled and weaved toward her. “And how come you called it Spooky Lake? That’s not what you said when we left your place this morning.”
Jada wrapped one of her dark braids around her fingers. “Locals call it Spooky Lake,” she said, “because weird stuff keeps happening up here, you know, like sometimes hikers hear spooky sounds as if someone is screaming from across the lake? Campers report being kept awake at night by heavy footsteps outside their tents or something big crashing through the bushes. Sometimes they hear loud grunts and growls so close they can smell the creature’s stinky breath. Then, last summer some hikers returned to their campsite and found all their gear had been ripped to shreds. Some people believe it’s the ghosts of those who once lived up here.”
“Are you kidding me? What kind of self-respecting ghosts go around at night grunting and bowling people over with their bad breath?” I thought for a minute. “Hey, wait! Maybe it’s the ghosts’ feet that stink, not their breath at all.” I laughed. “Do ghosts have feet?”
Jada rolled her eyes. “My grandmother says that in the old days people called this lake Spirit Lake in their native language because they believed the spirits of their ancestors lived up here. Later on, Spirit Lake became its official English name when white people also noticed inexplicable things happening.”
“But that’s crazy,” I said, “everyone knows ghosts aren’t real. And even if they were they’d be spirits, no way they could do stuff like ripping up tents and making stinky smells.”
“Exactly. That’s why most of us think it’s a grizzly.” She snickered. “Either that or a Sasquatch.”
Sasquatch. Huge, hairy, human-like creatures with feet the size of snowshoes. Which, when you think about it, might explain their stinkiness.
Sometimes I looked at pictures of Sasquatch online but the images were always blurry and far away. One of them looked like an Orangutan walking in a Borneo forest, another like a man dressed in a Sasquatch suit. Still, you never know, they could be out there, masters at staying hidden. Until someone proved they didn’t exist I liked to keep an open mind.
“Sasquatch? Really?” I asked.
Jada laughed. “Sasquatch are as real as ghosts, Grady, people see what they want to see. Sometimes a dark shadow under a tree can look like a Sasquatch if you have enough imagination, or maybe a grizzly standing on its hind legs in the distance. FYI, there are tons of grizzlies around here.”
“Oh.” I wasn’t sure which to be more scared of, a Sasquatch that might exist or a ton of grizzlies that do. Either way I did not want to be here. “So, tell me again, why are we here?”
“Simple. I need to get some close up shots of grizzlies for my portfolio. So, we’re going to paddle to the gravel bar at the far end of the lake and hope to spot a grizzly or two.”
“Yup. If we’re super lucky we’ll even see a sow with cubs. Trust me, I’ll be a famous wildlife photographer before I turn fifteen!” She started paddling away from me.
I followed as fast as I could paddle without tipping over. Not because I wanted to be up there, but because I didn’t want to be up there alone.