Lake House
A Short Story by Jim McCollum
Written using the suggestion "Washington"
Originally featured on 08-07-2007
As part of our series "Out of the Sandwich"

Amy shifted the weight of the backpack on her shoulder; she slung it over one side, hefting the textbooks, tennis shoes, and clothes she carried. The sun felt hot outside of the air conditioned taxi cab. She handed the driver a twenty, and told him to keep the change. She watched the cab drive off, took a breath, and then walked up the stairs to the door. When she knocked on the massive oak door, her sister, Ellie, answered.

“Oh, Amy,” Ellie said, “I’m so glad you’re here.” Ellie took a step onto the porch and hugged Amy, pressing her palms into Amy’s shoulder blades. Amy recoiled a bit, uncomfortable due to her sister’s uncharacteristic affection. Her sister usually preferred to remain cool and, Amy thought, too quick to offer advice or assert herself.

“This place is gorgeous,” said Amy as she followed Ellie inside.

Ellie smiled. She walked through the entranceway with an air of assured confidence. The house opened up before her, cavernous, the walls and furniture were made of dark, polished wood, and only the faint sound of a radio, somewhere in the house, left a soft trickle of jazz music in what otherwise would have been a still and silent space.

Ellie had been explaining some of the history of the house to Amy, but stopped now. “Would you like something to drink? Pardon me, but I have something in the oven.”

“Can I help?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, relax,” She smiled, and walked past Amy into the kitchen.

Amy could hear the clicks of switches and dials on the over, the sound of the oven door opening, and then Ellie returned.

“Let me show you the guest room.”

Ellie lead Amy up a wooden stair case, running her hand along the polished banister. From above, Amy could hear the sound of steps, muffled on the Persian rug draped over the stairs; the steps came in threes, as someone walking with a cane.

Ben, Ellie’s husband, met them on the steps. Ben wore a burgundy sweater and old corduroys, his skin seemed like paper, white and thin, and stretched across his cheekbones. He was only thirty-seven, but looked much older.

“Amy,” Ben said, “Oh, it’s been a while. It’s so good to see you.” Ben slowly stepped down the steps towards Amy, supporting himself with a metal hospital cane.

“It’s good to see you too, Ben, how are you feeling?”

“Better these days.”

“Ben hasn’t had any radiation for a few weeks now,” Ellie said, taking Ben’s hand in hers and smiling.

The guest room had been turned out beautifully. A soft white comforter had been spread out on the bed, smoothed by careful hands. Amy sat on the edge of the bed and let herself ease back, sinking into the down. Out her window, she could see the sun hanging low in the sky, just above the mountains and trees that surrounded the house. Below the window she could see a beach, where the water lapped up on the sand in a gentle rhythm. She thought for a moment about her school work. She wanted to study. However, Amy shrugged off the impulse; she placed her book on the night stand and made her way back down to the kitchen.

Ellie had dishes of food spread out on the table.

“I probably made too much food,” Ellie said, as she checked inside the oven. “It’s almost ready; I just have some garlic bread still in the oven. Can you tell Ben that dinner is ready?”

Upstairs, Amy knocked softly on the door to Ben’s study.

“Come in, Amy,” Ben said from within, and, when she had entered, “is dinner ready?”

“Yeah, Ellie is just putting the finishing touches on everything.” Amy put her hands in her pockets and looked around. Sketches hung on the walls, drawings in pencil, and some photographs were pinned to a corkboard. Ben worked as an illustrator. Amy lightly touched a print hanging on a tack.

“Most of this is for pleasure now,” Ben said, his gaze moving around the room, “I haven’t done much work the last few months, but I like to stay busy. I’m working on a children’s book now,” he smiled, “I suppose someone just has to write it.”

They ate, and Ben and asked Amy about her school work.

“Have you decided on a major yet?”

“I’ve been thinking about anthropology,” Amy said, between bites of risotto. “I’m not sure though; I just took one class on tribal beliefs that I liked.”

“I thought about anthropology too,” said Ellie, “but I decided just to declare myself pre-law, but unlike you, I knew what I wanted to do when I graduated.”

“Do you think you’ll go back to being a lawyer,” Amy looked at Ellie and Ben together, “Someday?”

Ellie took a bite of food and chewed, she seemed careful of her lipstick. “Well, I left the firm I had been working for, but the exit options are pretty good, so it wouldn’t be so hard to go back to it,” she took a sip of wine, “if I ever wanted to.”

They finished eating. Ellie had bought a small package of tiramisu from the local grocery store, and they each ate a small piece. They had another glass of wine.

“Well, I don’t know about you two, but I am getting tired,” Ben rose from the table. He fumbled, trying to carry his glass, plate, and his cane. Ellie quickly stood up and helped him with his plate to the kitchen. Ben then turned and began climbing the stairs.

When he had gone, Ellie poured Amy and herself another glass of wine. They sat quietly for a moment. Amy had a sip of her wine. It tasted rich and dark, and it felt like a heavy fabric slowly fell over her head.

“It’s hard,” Ellie said.

Amy looked at her sister.

“Being here in this house, it’s peaceful. It’s what Ben and I always wanted, to live in a place like this when we retired. We just had to do things a bit earlier.” Ellie smiled and had another sip of wine.”

“Your house looks beautiful, Ellie,” Amy said, “and dinner was fantastic.”


In her room, Amy sank into the large bed. The duvet and linens wrapped around her. Amy slept for most of the night, but when she awoke, the moon shone brightly into her window, reflecting off of the placid surface of the lake. Amy went downstairs, to the kitchen to get a glass of water and found Ben seated at the table.

“Can’t sleep?” Ben asked.

“I’m just thirsty,” Amy said.

“I have trouble sleeping. I’m always tired, but when I try to sleep, I just can’t get a good rest.”

Amy went into the kitchen and then joined Ben with her glass. Ben had a glass of whiskey, he swirls the ice around in the glass.

“Do you still do photography?”

“I haven’t for a little while,” Amy said, “I mean, I took a class while I’ve been at college, but I just never really got what the professor was saying.”

“Ah, don’t worry about that, no one ever does anything interesting in school. All the good artists did their best stuff later.”

“I don’t know, I guess I just didn’t feel like I was any good.”

“Well, you never will know how good you can be if you don’t try.”

“I suppose that’s true.”

“I wish I had taken more pictures when I was your age,” Ben took a drink, “I have some pictures of when I was a child, and then barely any until I married your sister. When you get older, you forget. I suppose that happens to some of us earlier than others.”


“Take lots of pictures, Amy, that’s my message to you,” Ben lifted his glass towards Amy.

“Why don’t you take more pictures now?”

“I’ve been taking more, but I suppose now, most of them are for other people; for people to remember me.”

Amy sat and held her glass of water, it felt cold. Tiny bubbles clung to the side of the glass, when she tapped on the side, they floated to the surface.

“Well,” Ben said, finishing his drink, “good night.” He stood and left up the stairs.


Amy woke in the morning and went for a jog beside the lake. The water reflected the trees, and the light, it shimmered, but remained clear far out from the beach. Amy ran hard, sweat soaking her hair. She ran around the lake, and when she got back to the house, she waited outside, panting. When she went inside, Ellie sat at the table, she had notebook pages spread across the table in front of her.

“Do you want anything from the store, Amy? I’m going to go in a bit.”

“No, not that I can think of. When are you going?”

“In fifteen minutes or so.”

“Ok, then.”

Amy showered. She used the bar of soap to scrub the dirt and sweat from the run off of her body. She dried her hair and looked at herself in the mirror. To her, it was clear that Ellie had the looks in the family. Amy never quite grew out of her tomboy phase, she had a flat nose, and her hair always looked dirty. She had none of the natural grace or poise that Ellie possessed. She sighed, and dressed, and then tied her hair behind her head.

Amy went from the bathroom up to Ben’s workspace. He sat with his back curved over his drawing table. His pencil scratched on the paper, gently, as a soft wind would rustle leaves.

Amy entered the room unnoticed, and walked over to a small boom box that sat on a book case. She flipped through the CDs that were on the shelf, knowing now that her presence must have been detected. Miles Davis’s horn filled the space. Amy looked up, Ben was watching her.

“Working on your book?” Amy asked.

“Yes,” Ben said, “I only have a bit more to go.”

“This is going to be easy,” she said.

“What do you mean?” asked Ben.

She walked over to him and placed her hand on his arm, and then on his leg.

“You don’t have to think of me as a child anymore.”

Ben turned towards her, spinning on the stool he sat upon; his body opened up.

Amy smiled.

Read More By Jim McCollum

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