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The past and present collide as five women work to save the summer camp of their youth in this heartwarming novel
The Firelight Girls is a story of three generations of women and men whose lives are pieced back together when they return to the place that made them who they are, a summer camp on Lake Wenatchee in Washington State. Seventy year old Ethel is directionless after losing Haddie, the love of her life, to a heart-attack. Camp was where they met way back in the fifties, and they made their home down the shore from camp. Once a vibrant, capable camp counselor, Shannon has just had her heart shattered by the loss of her job. Ruby, estranged from Ethel for fifty years, has been living with a secret for almost as long. Finally, there is Amber, a homeless teen who has been hiding out in one of the cabins, hoping that no one at school will catch on to her plight. When they learn that the camp’s future is in jeopardy, Ethel and Ruby send out the alarm, reuniting campers and staff to save the place that was so instrumental in all of their lives. A story of enduring friendship and romance, The Firelight Girls is about what has been lost and what can still be created.
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Kaya McLaren is from the mountains of Washington State and spent six magical summers of her life working at Camp Zanika on Lake Wenatchee. Since she loves adventures, nature, and exploring new places, she currently lives in Todos Santos, Baja Sur, Mexico.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Ethel sat across the small table, eating cornflakes and talking to Haddie’s urn, which now sat where Haddie’s food used to. A few months ago, Ethel had found the urn to be a bit impersonal, and so she had drawn a face on it with a Sharpie marker and tied several lengths of black yarn to the lid as a makeshift wig. Recently, she had acquired a hand-knitted wine bottle cozy that she fashioned into a stocking cap for the urn. After all, it was beginning to get cold outside.
“Are you ready to go to camp today?” she asked the urn.
Adjusting to Haddie’s absence after sixty years had been unfathomable—so unfathomable, in fact, that Ethel hadn’t adjusted to it.
There had been several traumatizing moments associated with the passing of Haddie: the moment Ethel realized what was happening and that she could lose her, the moment she had to tear herself away from Haddie’s pleading eyes and tight grasp to make the phone call Ethel had hoped would save Haddie’s life, then returning to Haddie’s lifeless body after the call, knowing she had abandoned her best friend and companion during her final moments of life. And then there had been that moment Ethel had picked up Haddie’s urn from the funeral parlor.
“I can do this, I can do this. She’s not in here, she’s not in here, she’s not in here, she’s not in here…,” Ethel had quietly whispered to herself as she walked into the funeral parlor. She had settled the final bill and then was handed this urn. It was much heavier than she had expected, and although that caught her off guard, it seemed appropriate that the weight of her loss should be so great.
In the days prior to picking up the urn she had imagined Haddie in heaven, but after Ethel held what remained of Haddie in her hands, the physicality of ashes began to seem more and more real than spirit. It wasn’t instant. As she walked out of the funeral parlor on that day, she was still repeating, “This isn’t her, this isn’t her, this isn’t her, this isn’t her.”
Ethel had paused on the sidewalk for a moment and looked at the world around her, this world that had never understood the love Haddie and she had shared, this world that had at times been so unkind. Was she really supposed to plan a memorial service and invite to it people like Haddie’s religious family—people who had no idea who Haddie really was? People who would have called her a sinner and banished her if they had? A feeling washed over Ethel, something she hadn’t felt with that intensity since they were young—that feeling like it was Haddie and she against the world. She gripped the urn tighter and slipped into the safety of her car, where she placed the urn gently on the passenger seat.
As she drove down the road, she found her hand resting on the urn as if it were Haddie’s leg, only significantly colder and harder. Maybe that had been the turning point in Ethel’s attachment to the urn—that moment that had simply allowed Ethel the comfort of habit.
Now, almost a year later, Ethel chatted at the urn across the table from her while she ate her cereal and made a list of things to remember. “Oh yes, good thinking,” she said to the urn when a new idea popped into her head. She continued to talk to the urn while she washed her dishes and while she packed her things, and then she tucked it into her coat and headed out the back door.
Crunchy vine maple leaves littered the brick stairs from the cabin down to the lake. As Ethel descended the steps, she dragged her old green army surplus duffel bag behind her. Everything she could possibly need fit into it. A couple of times, it picked up speed, so that she had to step aside and let it go. After it hit a tree and stopped, Ethel resumed dragging it down to the dock. On her hands and knees, she rolled the duffel bag into the canoe and set Haddie’s urn comfortably on top. Then Ethel made four more trips back up for jugs of water.
Ethel loved this charming cabin Haddie and she had shared since they had retired. It was just two miles down the south shore from Camp Firelight, which had been their home for over forty years. Although significantly quieter, it had still felt like home. Almost every morning they had kayaked past camp as if they were its guardians, which was exactly how they had felt.
On this day, since she had such a large load, Ethel took the canoe instead of her kayak. She sat on the dock and gently eased herself onto the seat. It was the first time she could remember taking the canoe out all by herself. It felt so empty without Haddie in it.
As Ethel paddled down the south shore, she wondered if anyone would show up at all. She’d always thought camp was important to many people, but maybe she was wrong. After all, had it really been that important, it wouldn’t be going defunct. Maybe she would be all by herself out there this week. Sometimes she liked having camp all to herself, but under these circumstances it would be like having a funeral for someone she cherished and having no one else come. She looked at the urn. Yes, it would be just like that. There was comfort in being in the presence of others who knew what was lost. She couldn’t bear to go through another loss without that.
When she paddled around a little point, she saw her neighbor, Walt, floating in a cove in his rowboat. It was hard to miss his red plaid wool coat and matching cap with earflaps. He was around her age and had lost his wife about a year before she had lost Haddie, and something about just seeing him was a comfort to Ethel—perhaps that he was proof a person could somehow endure this heartbreak, or perhaps that he was proof she wasn’t as alone as she felt most of the time. She saw him fishing on every calm day like this one. On most days the lake was windy chop and on those days he often didn’t bother, but these calm days were not to be taken for granted. He missed not a one.
She paddled right up to him. “Good morning, Walt. Any luck?”
He held up two perch. “Dinner is served.”
“Well done, sir,” she replied.
“You look like you and Haddie are going somewhere.” He was the only person who knew about Ethel’s attachment to the urn. The first time he saw it, she knew it needed explanation and, since he had recently gone through the same thing, she knew he would understand rather than judge her.
“We’re off to close up camp. They’re shutting it down for good.”
“No,” Walt said.
“I know. I can’t believe it either.”
“It seems like just yesterday I was twelve and getting pelted by the mud balls you Firelight Girls threw at us whenever we’d sneak out of the Boy Scouts camp and try to raid.”
Ethel smiled as she remembered making mud balls.
For a moment, both of them were silent. Then he asked, “How long will you be there?”
“I’ll bring you some fish.”
“Why, I would appreciate that, Walt. I’m hoping some old friends will show up and help.”
“Then I’ll bring plenty of fish.”
“All right, then. I’ll leave you to it. Always a pleasure, Walt,” and with that she pushed off from his boat and paddled away.
“Good luck, Ethel. I’m so sorry,” he said as she left.
The north shore of Lake Wenatchee had changed so much in recent years because people in the software industry had bought up the charming cabins, leveled them, and built giant dwellings they rarely visited. But the south shore, where she lived and where camp was, was in the shadow of Nason Ridge and didn’t get the sun that the north shore did, so it wasn’t as appealing. Therefore, it had been mostly spared.
Elks Beach was closer to the Lodge than the main waterfront area, so Ethel glided in there, stepped out in her tall rubber boots, and pulled her boat in. Oh, this place. Of all the places in camp, this place was her favorite. She held Haddie’s urn to her chest and breathed in deeply. “It’s our place, Haddie. We’re here.” Ethel put the urn down and lay next to it, then reached over and placed her hand on it. It was nothing like Haddie’s hand—nothing like it. But having something to touch had come to feel comforting anyway. It was better than having nothing at all.
When the moment passed and she was ready to get up, Ethel wrestled her duffel bag out of the canoe and dragged it up the pebble beach, up the bank of tangled roots, and up to the main trail that took her to the Lodge. Although the Firelight House had been their home for forty years, Ethel wanted to sleep upstairs in the Lodge, where it all began. She didn’t know how to say good-bye to a place that was at the core of who she was, but she figured maybe a person just started at the beginning.
The Lodge was the oldest of all the structures at camp, made of long, straight, old-growth cedar logs. Unfortunately, paint was invented before stain and so it had been painted brown at some point. It always struck Ethel as tragic to cover up the character of the wood.
Above the huge picture window Ethel reached up and found the key she had hidden so long ago. Yes, it was still there. She unlocked the padlock on the giant door and, with a great heave, pushed it open.
The Lodge had always been the heart of camp. It had a kitchen in one end and a mammoth stone fireplace in the other. On the wall hung an old black-and-white photograph of it being constructed in 1933, one log at a time. She breathed in deeply and tried to pick apart the smell like wine connoisseurs did with a fine Pinot. Cedar. Fireplace. Dirt. Subtle hints of paste and tempura paint. Memories. Yes, mostly it just smelled like memories.
Just before the kitchen door was a staircase leading to the dorm room above the kitchen where the cook and her helpers used to stay. Gripping the handrail, Ethel slowly ascended the stairs and entered the quarters she and Haddie had shared with Cookie their first year when they were kitchen staff instead of campers. After pausing in the doorway to take it all in, Ethel put Haddie’s urn on her old bunk and then unrolled her sleeping bag on the bunk that had been hers. Overwhelmed with the heaviness in her heart, she lay down. Oh, Haddie. What Ethel would give to see her in this room again for even just one minute. Ethel rolled over onto her side and stared at the urn on the bunk across the little room.
Amber Hill woke up in the middle of the night needing the bathroom. After she used it, she detoured through the living room looking for her mother’s purse to see if she had made it home from the bar where she worked nights. There it was, sitting on the end of the counter. When Amber turned around, there was a dark-haired man standing in the hallway, his eyes hollow and vacant and devoid of conscience. She could see that right away.
He stared at her fifteen-year-old body. “You’re even hotter than your mother,” he said.
It was one of those moments when time slowed down and Amber suddenly had a very keen awareness of everything. She was aware, for instance, that the fireplace poker sat in the stand just two steps from her. She was aware of a chair that was within arm’s reach. She was aware of a picture that hung on the wall in a glass frame. She was aware of his size in comparison to hers and aware that if she locked into battle with him—even with a fireplace poker or a shard of broken glass from the frame—she’d likely not win.
“Hey, Mom,” she said, as if her mother was standing right behind him, and when he turned around Amber tipped the chair over in his path and bolted out the door and into the woods. She heard him stumble out of the trailer behind her, so she kept going.
Her impulse was to continue running, but she had to be careful, so despite her panic, she slowed her pace. After all, sticks could pierce through her foot and branches could stab her in the eye. She could not afford to fall. And she had to be wary of the noise she made.
After a little while, she stopped and listened but couldn’t hear anything over her own heartbeat. She waited for the loud beating to slow and listened again. Although she heard nothing, she walked farther away still. A broken branch on a downed tree reached out and snagged her flannel pajama bottoms, tearing a breezy hole in the pant leg. Almost immediately after that, she walked too close to some devil’s club and it scratched her arm.
She realized it was probably safer to stop than to continue, so she sat down at the base of a large tree and leaned back against it. Hearing a semitruck pass on Highway 2 nearby gave her confidence that she could find her way out of the woods when light returned. But would she make it through the October night? It was cold and she was in nothing but her pajamas. She put her arms inside her short-sleeved T-shirt like folded wings. She wished they were real wings, wings that could take her far, far from her life here.
There, at the base of the tree, she weighed her options. She could walk to a neighbors’ house, knock on the door, and hope they didn’t mistake her for a threat and shoot her in the middle of the night. In these parts, that was a big gamble. What else could she do? She could walk to the highway and hide behind a tree until she saw a state patrol car. But if she asked for help from anyone, she would end up in foster care, potentially living with a man every bit as creepy and dangerous as the one in her house right now. That was not an option. If she entered the foster-care system, she’d probably have to change schools—maybe even several times. She’d never be able to keep her grades up if she had to change schools, so seeking help was also not an option. After all, right now she had straight A’s. Grades meant scholarships, and scholarships meant a ticket to a better life. It was the only ticket she had, and one she could not afford to lose.
But another night like this was not an option either. In winter, a night like this would be deadly. In addition, if she had been sick or injured and hadn’t been able to move as fast she might have been raped by that man. No, this could not happen again.
From day one of Amber’s life, her mother had been on her own. It had been a hard life, but it hadn’t always been as bad as this. For a few years, Amber’s mother had waitressed at the Diner and had been home at night with Amber. But nine years ago, that all changed. When the opportunity arose to work at the bar, the hourly wage was better and so were the tips, so her mother took it. She had assured Amber that life was going to get easier. Maybe it had for her mother, but it sure hadn’t for Amber. Since her mother changed jobs, Amber only saw her for about ten minutes after school and spent the rest of the night alone—that is, until her mother came home around 2:30 a.m., often with a stranger. Amber forgave her and hated her at the same time. She had only been seventeen when she’d had Amber and dropped out of school. What a hard road. Amber really couldn’t imagine how her mother had done it as well as she had. But sometimes … well, sometimes like now, Amber just hated her for being so stupid and so neglectful. Amber hated her for being unable to do better.
Eventually, the sky began to brighten, barely enough to be noticed by eyes that weren’t desperately searching for a sign that night was ending. But even when the sun rose, it wouldn’t mean that it would be safe to return home. Who knew how long it would take for that guy to leave? Amber was cold to the bone and seriously wondered whether she’d outlast him or freeze to death before he left.
She slowly picked her way back through the forest. His sparkly blue Plymouth Satellite still sat in their driveway, so she wandered back deeper into the woods to wait a little longer. Surely she would hear it when he fired that beast up ...
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