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The cottage had been built in 1958, by Northwest Specialties of Elk Rapids, but they didn’t add running water until the year before Sarah’s first summer there ten years later, when she was six.  Prior to that, everyone bathed, did dishes, and washed clothes in the lake.  Drinking water was collected from the nearby spring, and it was clear and cold and magical.  Running water was a cause for celebration, because that meant a toilet.  No more traipsing into the woods to use the Bear Trap, which was what they had named the outhouse years before.  These details were not part of Sarah’s memories, but part of the collective memory of the lake.

The lake holds these collective memories still today, and it will continue to gather each tale, hold and keep it until someone digs it up from around the fire pit to be scrutinized and shared by the circle.  They are the nuggets of lore that have been contributed to over time by those who have come and gone over the many years.  Each contribution painted in the perspective of the contributor.  Each colored in the circumstance, familial filter, and lens of those who shared their stories around the fire pit. It is this collective memory that muddies the water between truth and myth.   

“I truly believe that some of these stories have been repeated so many times, that we have just come to believe they are true,” Nancy reached for a chip from the assortment of happy hour delights that covered the table on the porch.

“Lake Legends,” Laura quickly and alliteratively coined the phrase that accurately described the phenomenon.  “I think they’re all bullshit.  Like the one where Grampa Mertz pulled out a gun and shot a water snake while we were all swimming.  No way!  I think I would’ve remembered a gun at the lake.  Especially if someone had fired it in front of me.”

“Grampa was Detroit PD before he retired, and slept with a pistol under his pillow up until he died.  It drove my dad nuts.  Dad was worried that us kids would get into it.  We were forbidden to touch it, but we would sneak into his room and look at it every once in a while.  So there absolutely was a gun up here,” Margy confirmed. “Text Tom and Betz, they’ll tell you.”

Sarah leaned back in her chair at the table and held her Oberon, in its Torch Lake koozy, to her chest.  Ever since the late 1930s when her grandfather and his cousin (Margy’s grandfather) first bought land on Torch Lake, family had gathered on one porch or another to share food, drinks, and mostly stories.  Most of them were, in some way, true.  Some had, like a rumor on the playground, transformed into legend. At this point, many of the participants in the stories were long dead, and only the tales remained.

Laura typed a message into her cell phone to Betz.  She would know.  Sarah reached for hers and typed one out to Tommy.  In the back of her mind Sarah recalled that day, swimming out in the lake with Tommy, Betsy, and Laura.  They had done that every day of every summer for as long as they could remember, so that wasn’t news, but Sarah also vaguely remembered a snake in the water and running away from it.  “I kind of remember this,” Sarah said quietly.

“It’s bullshit.  Never happened,” Laura looked down at her phone to check for a return message.

Betz finally responded to Laura’s text.  “Yes, there was a snake, and yes, Gramps shot it.  We were all there.  How can you not remember this?”

“Ask her if the snake was on the shore or in the water when Mertz shot it,” Sarah suggested.  “I think it was on the shore.”

“She says,  ‘In the water.’”

Sarah’s phone vibrated and she looked at Tom’s response.  “Sigh, are we still debating this story?  Look, it went like this.  We were all out swimming in front of the cottages.  I was on the water bike when a snake slithered off the shore and was heading straight toward me.  People started screaming about a snake in the water.   I abandoned the bike in front of the cottage and swam in, trying to avoid the snake.  The snake, perhaps in response to the screaming, turned back toward our bank.  Gramps had heard the commotion and had gotten his .22, so when the snake reached the bank, Gramps shot its head off.

I remember Grampa Kay yelling at me for ditching the water bike in the lake.  I suspect that he was secretly rooting for the snake. The water bike was right out front, and I was about to be attacked by a snake.  What did he expect?!  I also recall Gramps dragging the snake’s body around to the back of the cottage.”

“I really think I remember this,” Sarah shook her head and absently took another pull on her beer.  Collective memories are weird, she thought.

“It’s all bullshit,” Laura stated.  “Just another Lake Legend.”

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“I truly believe that some of these stories have been repeated so many times, that we have just come to believe they are true,” Nancy pointed out, reaching for another chip.

“Lake Legends,” Laura quickly and alliteratively coined the phrase that accurately described the phenomenon.  “I think they’re all bullshit.  Like the one where Grampa Mertz pulled out a gun and shot a water snake while we were all swimming.  No way!  I think I would’ve remembered a gun at the lake.  Especially if someone fired it in front of me.”

“Grampa was Detroit PD before he retired.  He slept with a pistol under his pillow up until he died.  It drove my dad nuts.  Dad was worried that us kids would get into it.  We were forbidden to touch it, but we would sneak into his room and look at it every once in a while.  So there absolutely was a gun up here,” Margy confirmed. “Text Tom and Betz, they’ll tell you.” 

Sarah leaned back in her chair at the table and let her Oberon settle to her chest.  Ever since the late 1930s when her grandfather and his cousin (Margy’s grandfather) first bought land on Torch Lake, family had gathered on one porch or another to share food, drinks, and mostly stories.  Most of them were, in some way, true.  Some had, like a game of telephone, transformed into legend. At this point, many of the participants in the stories were long dead.  Only the tales remained.

Laura typed a message into her cell phone to Betz.  She would know.  Sarah reached for hers and typed one out to Tommy.  In the back of her mind, Sarah recalled swimming out in the lake with Tommy, Betsy, and Laura.  They had done that every day of every summer for as long as they could remember, so that wasn’t news, but Sarah also vaguely remembered a snake in the water and running away from it.  “I kind of remember this,” Sarah said quietly.

“It’s bullshit.  Never happened,” Laura looked down at her phone to check for a return message.

Betz finally responded to Laura’s text.  “Yes, there was a snake, and yes, Gramps shot it.  We were all there.  How can you not remember this?”

“Ask her if the snake was on the shore or in the water when Mertz shot it,” Sarah suggested.  “I think it was on the shore.”

“She says in the water.”

Sarah’s phone vibrated and she looked at Tom’s response.  “Sigh, are we still debating this story?  Look, it went like this.  We were all out swimming in front of the cottages.  I was on the water bike when a snake slithered off the shore and was heading straight toward me.  People started screaming about a snake in the water.   I abandoned the bike in front of the cottage and swam in.  The snake, perhaps in response to the screaming, turned back toward our bank.  Gramps had heard the commotion and had gotten his .22, so when the snake reached the bank, Gramps shot its head off. 

I remember Grampa Kay yelling at me for ditching the water bike.  I suspect that Grampa Kay was rooting for the snake. The water bike was right out front, and I was about to be attacked by a snake.  What did he expect?!  I also recall Gramps dragging the body out back.”

“I really think I remember this,” Sarah shook her head and absently took another pull on her beer.  Collective memories are weird, she thought.

“It’s all bullshit,” Laura stated.  “Just another Lake Legend.”

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“Tommy!  Toss me Richie Rich.  I haven’t read that one.”   I reach my grubby, s’more covered fingers toward the comic, but I am too late.

“Forget it, I’m not done with that stack yet.  Read Little Lotta,” Tommy smirked.  “That’s more your speed anyway,” he said twisting away from me using his back as a barrier against my grubby grab.

Laura flipped over in her sleeping bag, so that she was now facing the top of the tent.  Her mouse brown hair poked out of the top of the bag in an any-which-way it wants, no rules, manner that made me wonder how much of it was hair, and how much was pine tar and dirt. “Will you guys shut up?  I’m trying to read, here.”  Betz moved the flashlight so that she could better see her Hot Stuff comic. She was not about to get dragged into any bickering, so she kept to herself.  Amy giggled in the corner with a pile of Little Dot and her friends.  Amy didn’t need any of us to have a good time.  Her nickname was Polka Dot, so she thought that all of the Little Dot comics were written about her.  Her wild, curly brown hair, not so much framed her face, as allowed it to exist within it.  Her laughter was contagious, so quiet giggles were appropriate for settling us in for the night.

The scene was a familiar one, each of us head bent over a comic.  It’s what we did in the summer.  There was no TV to watch, and there were only so many times that we could read the same few Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books that were in the shack.  The comic book scene was familiar, though the tent was not.  We had begged our parents to let us spend the night out in front of the cottage in Great-Uncle Mertz’ army tent.  After an unusual amount of begging, we ultimately got the go-ahead and started setting it up.

It took forever to get it up and prepped for our adventure.  I’m not sure what we expected, but when you are 10, and sleeping outdoors with your best friends all night, the world is your oyster.  The adventure came with the rush of independence, the sense that for the next ten hours, we were in charge.  If we wanted to stay up all night and read, no one would be there to stop us, and if Old Man Marker’s ghost decided to pay us a visit…no one would be there to protect us.

The tent was ancient, army green canvas and fit all five of us with room left over to house a tribe of Pygmies.  Once up, its gaping, musty, mouth revealed a coated canvas floor that crinkled as we began staking our claims with sleeping bags and piles of Harvey, DC, and Action Comics.

Dinner had been perch that Grampa ‘Kay had caught that morning with Mertz. It was delicious and pared with a three bean and onion salad that Gramma ‘Kay had made. Yummy as it all was, it would prove to be the potential unraveling of our adventure.

He travels with an entourage these days, one in front, and one in back, frequently hangers-on crowd along his side.  His gait is deliberate. People take notice when he enters a room.  They pause from their meal, their conversation, their cocktail and watch as the group passes.

Ahead, the door is held for him, wide and welcoming. Heads turn at a table nearby, all eyes upon him.  People smile, and titter, and make way. Someone standing nearby quickly moves an errant chair out of the way as he heads toward a chosen table.  The table is covered with the bounty of summer.  Bowls of fresh cherries shimmer in the sun, chilled glasses of recently poured IPAs fizz, while giving off a golden glow.

A woman, noticing him at the door, leaves her position at the table and heads over to him.  She moves efficiently, yet gracefully, in his direction.  Her sun-kissed nose and cheeks reflect the flickering light.  Her hair curls softly about her face, the blonde dulled with age, but still lovely.  She smiles comfortably as she approaches, and holds her arm out to him.

“This way, Dad,” she says, as she steers him toward her table.  The entourage peels away like the petals of a banana, leaving the tender fruit exposed.

“Oh, it’s you!  Are you Kathy or are you Sue?” he asks with a goodnatured smile.

“It’s me, Dad.  It’s Kathy.”