Haunted by his discovery of a beloved neighbor’s body floating lifeless in the lake where he’s fishing, 16-year-old Benjamin Baum is convinced she was murdered despite her death being deemed an accident. While those around him tire of his fixation on finding a supposed killer, Ben’s alienation leads to drinking and the reader begins to wonder if he’s a reliable narrator. The plot takes a shocking twist, revealing the terrifying reality that things are not what they seem—that, beneath a façade of prosperity and contentment, darkness lurks.
A week after Helen’s funeral, a wicked storm took out power on the lake. Heavy rain strafed the side of the house, spackling the windows with an abrasive mixture of dirt and leaves; the wind roared through a cluster of towering oaks; bending boughs groaned like funeral mourners; and in the rough water, the dock banged against the stone retaining wall.
That evening, my father and I built a fire in the living room hearth using dry pine and kindling stored in the basement, and we lit candles throughout the dark house. Rather than being frightened by the storm and the blackout, I felt secure, for I was home with my family, snug and protected, cut off from the outside world—the flames’ cozy glow dancing off the walls, the mirrors, the slick grass outside. That for a few hours we were transported to a simpler world brought me comfort. I felt as though my development were being frozen for the duration of the storm, encapsulated, my childhood somehow prolonged:
I felt as if I had stolen time.
I lay in my bed and tried to sleep, but the lake blared and cried around me: the lashing rain, a chorus of mad crows, the creaking branches, the thump of the dock against the wall, incessant and ominous, the house bending, resisting, lowering its achy shoulder into the wind. The noises unsettled me, and my thoughts turned to Helen. I looked out of my bedroom window—across the water—and there, in the patch of black before my grandparents’ house, I noticed what appeared to be the distant flame of Papa’s kerosene lantern.
My grandfather and I had developed a secret form of communication that involved two lanterns and a rudimentary version of Morse code. One flash meant come
over, it’s dinner time, two meant come over, the fish are biting, and three meant good night. The phones worked fine, of course, but Papa and I found something pleasurable in our lantern signals, something primitive, coded, and secret.
That stormy night, I glanced at the windup clock beside my bed and saw that it was a few minutes before midnight—and I was puzzled by the possibility that Papa could be up at this hour, outside during a storm. I pressed my nose against the window to get a better look, to confirm that I had not been mistaken. Again, I saw the lantern. One light, two lights. Come over, the fish are biting. It can’t be two, I thought. Maybe it was three for good night? Maybe I hadn’t counted correctly, for my grandfather would never be out in this weather, at this hour, when the fish were quiet. Papa typically flashed two lights as dusk approached, during feeding time, and I could not recall another instance when he had asked me to go fishing so late at night.
The distant lantern suddenly darkened, and all I could see was the radiant house of Herb Coleman—the rich butcher—who had installed a gas-driven generator that would now be the envy of the entire powerless lake. I kept my eyes trained on the patch of black that enveloped my grandparents’ house and waited for the next lantern flash. A few moments passed and the lights—misty white halos in the moist air—started again. I concentrated on each flash, counting with the tap of my foot. One, two. One, two. Yes, that’s fishing, I thought.
This strange communication from Papa, coupled with the mysteries that a storm can conjure in one’s mind, agitated and intrigued me. So I hopped off the bed and put on a pair of jeans, a nylon jacket, and my ankle-high rubber boots, grabbing my Coleman lantern before I left. Out in the hallway, I eyed the sliver of space below my parents’ door. With no sign of the candlelight that had earlier seeped out of their room, I walked down the hallway, my bare feet slipping in the rubber boots, the soles squeaking.
I stood alone in the messy night, unprepared for the weather conditions, which had worsened significantly since I was last outside. The wind was no longer gusty but now steady and continuous; the rain, moving almost parallel to the ground, mixed with leaves and dirt and stung my face; the branches of the old oaks twisted and growled, while the sagging arms of a rotten willow tickled the wet grass. As I walked to the shore, my feet sank into the sodden ground and water slid over the edges of my boots, which had become swollen, leaden, earthbound.
I raised the lantern above my shoulder and flipped the switch. One, two, three. Good night, I signaled. I waited, but my grandfather did not respond. Again, I signaled three times to Papa—but still there was no response. Then, through the screeching wind, I heard a noise that sounded like a door swinging on its rusted joints, then a frightful crack above me—the crack of rotten wood, an oak branch breaking from the stress of the wind and shooting like a spear into the ground before me, its jagged tip piercing the earth only feet away. I gasped and took a step back, away from the point of impact. I looked up to the canopy of oak branches and watched as branches swayed in the wind. Terrified, I took several more steps back toward the house, then raised the lantern. One, two, three, I announced again. Good night. I awaited a response from Papa, but to my disappointment, there was nothing but darkness and, at the far end of the lake, the rich butcher’s house lit up like a carnival midway.
I had trouble sleeping that night, as my mind was astir with thoughts of falling branches, of spears thrown and disasters averted, imaginary lanterns and headless horsemen, Papa and Nana too. I had a nightmare about Helen waving to me from her shiny coffin.
I awoke in the morning to discover that the storm had passed and power was restored. I stepped outside and marveled at the clarity and resolution of the world around me. Every impurity seemed to have been purged from the sky, the water, the trees, and the wind; the swallows, as if
reborn, sang with remarkable range and perfect pitch; a woodpecker launched a ferocious, rapid attack on a sweet birch. The lake, bathed and scrubbed clean, had been restored to its pristine state.
When I returned to the house, my parents were in the kitchen preparing breakfast, and I could see that my mother was in one of her moods. Lillian was for the most part a pleasant and loving woman, but during times of stress or disappointment or loss she could turn irritable, condescending, even cruel. Despite the infrequency of these dark moods, I kept vigilant watch for signs of her transformation and adjusted my behavior in an attempt to avoid her wrath. And on the rare occasion when I complained about her to my father, he would remind me to be patient with her, to channel some deep empathy for her loss—for the loss that we had all suffered when my sister died.
Lillian and Abe stood before the refrigerator, and I watched as my father sniffed the open bottle of milk.
“How is it?” she asked, testy and curt. Helen’s death had darkened her mood, and the storm and the power outage had made it worse.
My father poked his nose into the opening of the bottle. “I think it’s okay but I can’t tell.” He sniffed with a desperation that conveyed his fear of my mother’s temper. “The power was only off for a few hours, so it should be fine.”
“Get your nose out of there,” Lillian barked, then slapped at him with an oily dishrag. “And give me that.” She grabbed the bottle and passed the opening under her flared nostrils. “It’s turned,” she said, prompting my father to sigh. “The fridge is hot as an oven. If we had a generator … the Colemans have one, you know … if you got a generator like I asked you, we wouldn’t have to worry about spoiled milk.” She pulled a package of cream cheese from the refrigerator and examined it. “Now would we?”
Abe turned and saw me standing in the doorway. He winked at me, and I winked back—my attempt at showing
solidarity with him. “No … no, we wouldn’t,” he replied to Lillian in an inevitable concession. “Ben and I, we’ll run down to Shop-Rite and pick up some things for breakfast.”
Eager to escape my mother’s irritation, I tugged at Abe’s elbow and led him out of the house, toward the car. “You know how much those generators cost?” he asked. “The one the Colemans have?”
As we drove downhill, I looked out the car window and spotted Missy delivering papers on her bicycle, a heavy sack over her shoulder. She’s had a late start, I thought. I waved, but she didn’t see me. “I don’t know, Dad. How much?”
My father drove in silence for some time, perhaps a minute. “I don’t know either,” he said. “Expensive, though.”
When we arrived at Shop-Rite, my father directed me to get dessert while he searched for milk, juice, eggs, lox, whitefish, and second-rate bagels. I pushed the cart in search of aisle five, which, because it was packed with every type of sweet, was my favorite aisle at the supermarket. Upon my arrival at this corridor of confection, I gazed at the many treats: pies of all sorts, candies, babkas, hamantaschen, cake mix, chocolate syrup, and more. I took in this sugary paradise, one filled with fantastical collages of colors and smells, sweets and snacks. After scanning the shelves, I grabbed an Entenmann’s coffee cake, a cherry pie, and a bag of mixed chocolates, then turned to see my father standing at the end of the aisle with a full cart.
“Ready?” he called out.
I held up my booty. “Ready.”
“Excellent.” He beamed.
When we arrived back at the house, Abe entered the kitchen with the pride of a hunter who’d just bagged a fourteen-point buck.
“See,” he said, dropping the bags on the table, “fit for a king.” My mother scowled at him. “Or a queen,” he corrected.
Moments later, the jingle of the chimes on the front door announced my grandparents’ arrival, and I ran to greet them. I had been eager to see Papa, for I wanted to understand the mystery of the prior evening: the flashing lantern during the storm. I hugged my grandmother, inhaling her soothing rose perfume, and then turned to my grandfather.
“Papa, were you out last night? With the lantern?”
He appeared confused. “Last night?”
“Yes, you said you wanted to go fishing. Two lights, I counted. You did it twice, and it was after eleven thirty.”
Papa tousled my hair. “You must be mistaken, sport.
Only a crazy person would go out in that weather. It was storming like I haven’t seen in years. And fishing no less!” He guided me to the dining room, where we all sat down for breakfast. Papa’s denial had left me confused, and as I took a sip of orange juice, I considered the possible explanations for his response. Was he playing a joke on me? Or did he really not remember? Had he, perhaps, been sleepwalking? Tipsy? Was it possible that I had mistaken the flashing lights of a car for Papa’s lantern? Or, in the darkness, had I looked in the wrong direction?
“You sure?” I asked, apprehensive and skeptical. As I recalled the branch that almost brained me, my thoughts turned dark. Since Helen had died, my mind was filled with scary notions, paranoia, and conspiracy theories. My closeness to death, to the corpse of a woman I had adored in life, tortured me with irrational fears and nightmares. He smiled and then shook his head. “Sure, Ben.
You must’ve been imagining. All that stress from what’s happened here over the past few days. Or maybe Dr. Lowenthal was out doing something on his dock next door. He’s been acting crazy since Helen died, you know. Poor guy.”
“Okay, Papa,” I replied, unconvinced. I wondered if Papa was right, if Helen’s death had influenced my mental state, made me suspicious, confused—crazy like the surgeon.
My mother glided in from the kitchen and placed a basket of hot bagels on the table, next to a spread of cream cheese, red onions, sliced tomatoes, kugel, egg salad, lox, and smoked whitefish. A smile on Lillian’s face signified that her foul mood had passed. Now surrounded by delicious food and the people she loved, she had returned to her usual state of contentment—a transformation, sudden and extreme, that brought me both relief and apprehension.
As a frenzy of hands grabbed at the food, I imagined another possibility about the prior evening and the lantern lights: that this memory might have been nothing more than a dream, one that was inspired, magnified, and given life by the stormy night. But then I glanced over to the foyer and saw that my boots were right where I’d left them the evening before—untouched and surrounded by blades of grass and clumps of mud. I looked across the table to Papa as he draped a strip of lox on a sesame bagel.
When he bit into it, a dollop of scallion cream cheese stuck to the tip of his nose.
He smiled at me—and I assured myself that it was not a dream.
Thank you, Adam Pelzman and RABT Book Tours
About the author
Adam Pelzman was born in Seattle, raised in northern New Jersey, and has spent most of his life in New York City. He studied Russian literature at the University of Pennsylvania and went to law school at UCLA. His first novel, Troika, was published by Penguin (Amy Einhorn Books). He is also the author of The Papaya King, which Kirkus Reviews described as “entrancing,” “deeply memorable” and “devilishly smart social commentary.” The Boy and the Lake, set in New Jersey during the late 1960s, is his third novel.
An ebook copy and $5 gift card