When the engine started to sputter halfway across Lake Neville, I should have worried. But instead, I gave the accelerator a kick and the boat jerked a bit then sped up, running smoothly again. The day was perfect. Overhead, an endless sky. On the water, light gleamed from every ripple. I was taking Roz—short for Rosalind—to our family’s cabin for the first time.
The cabin was the only structure on the far side of the lake. It had been my grandfather’s and stayed in the family even as the surrounding woodland was put into conservation. When Granddad was too old to travel, my father abandoned the cart trail that led to the cabin, preferring to go by boat. He had an arrangement with the people at Tall Pines Camp to use a rickety old dock at the edge of their property. On a day like this, boating was far more pleasant than hiking around the lake.
Rosalind sat in the bow, wisps of her ash blonde hair streaming from the knot on the back of her head, her eyes fixed on the approaching shore. Tall Pines was behind us, receding, as were the four outlandishly large summer homes just beyond the camp. Nothing could have been better.
Roz and I had moved in together in the spring and were still discovering each other. She was even-tempered, smart, and witty. And beautiful. I also believed that she had much finer qualities than I did. Nonetheless, I was determined to impress her.
As we approached the dock, the engine coughed again, and then stalled as we glided to a stop. I hoped Roz thought I’d planned that maneuver. I climbed out and tied up the boat, lifting the cooler and three jugs of water onto the dock. Roz handed me a tote bag full of clean sheets and towels my sister Connie had sent out. Connie had been at the cabin the previous week. She told me not to drink the water. I wouldn’t have anyway. I hated working the rusty hand pump.
After we set our baggage on the porch, I turned to retrieve the key from its special place in the outhouse. “Wait for me here,” I said to Roz over my shoulder as I started up the path. In the summer, locking the door was a formality, or perhaps just a habit. Nobody came near this side of the lake. We mostly locked against snowmobilers. I had the key in hand when I heard a high-pitched “Ow!” from Roz. I ran toward where she stood on the porch, holding her forearm.
“What is it?” I asked.
“A wasp. I’ve been stung. I was just brushing some leaves off that bench,” she said, motioning with her head, “and before I knew what was happening, I got stung.” There was pain in her expression.
“Let me see it,” I said, suddenly feeling a hot flash of guilt and apprehension. I had abandoned Roz to the predatory Hymenoptera residing on our porch. She lifted her hand to expose an angry red welt. “Let’s go inside. We need to take care of this.”
I unlocked the door. Roz followed me, looking more like a timid child than the Roz I knew. She flopped into an armchair while I rummaged for some baking soda. I should have known there wouldn’t be any. Even in the summer when the family was in and out of the cabin, we kept very little food, and what we had was locked up so bears couldn’t smell it.
I did manage to find a first-aid kit with some rudimentary tweezers. “I’m going to take the stinger out before this thing gets worse,” I said, holding her by the wrist. I had misgivings about my surgical skills, but apparently my uncertainty didn’t show. Roz sat obediently while I made several attempts, finally clamping onto the stinger.
“Now we need to put something on this.” All I could think of was antiseptic and ice. I opened a foil packet and swiped antiseptic over the sting, which had now spread its swelling up her arm. What little I knew told me this was trouble. “There’s one of those little ice blocks in the cooler,” I said. “Let’s get it, and then let’s get you across the lake. They have an infirmary at camp.”
When Roz stood up, she was a little wobbly. “You okay? Can you swallow?” I snatched the flashlight hanging by the door, and asked Roz to open her mouth. Although I was no expert on normal-looking tongues, hers looked slightly puffy. “How’s your tongue? Swallow for me.” Roz swallowed. “My tongue’s okay, just a little bit fluffy.”
All I could think of was getting to the camp nurse. We left everything on the porch and launched the boat. This time, Roz didn’t scan the shoreline confidently. She held the ice block on her arm and kept her head down.
Before the boat was even at full throttle, the motor started to cough. I backed off on the gas. The engine caught and we were underway. Now the brilliant sun only felt hot and penetrating, and the fear of one who knows just enough to think the worst gnawed at the edges of the confidence I tried to show for Roz’s sake.
“You ever been stung before?”
“Once, when I was little,” she answered. “I was playing under the apple tree. My father told me I was stung by a yellow jacket. He said they liked the fallen apples.”
“What do you remember about it?” I was afraid of the answer.
“Only that it hurt,” she said. I was relieved. Maybe this wouldn’t be the fatal sting; just a warning.
We were close enough to the camp to see a man walking toward the parking area when the engine coughed to a stall. I tried several times to restart it. At first, it caught but wouldn’t stay running. Then it wouldn’t respond at all.
Frantically, I flipped through the directory on my phone, looking for the camp. Roz sat still, saying nothing even though we were adrift on the lake. When I found the number, under Pines for some reason, the phone rang until an answering machine picked up. I tried again.
My blood pressure rang the gong thumping in my ears and made my cheeks burn. I wanted to take charge of this incident. I wanted to solve the problem and be the cool, savvy one who intuitively did the right thing. I wanted to be Roz’s knight on a white horse. Instead, my fingers became clumsy as I dialed 911.
The dispatcher answered with a bored, “What’s your emergency?”
“I, well, not an emergency. We just need help.” I didn’t want to alarm Roz. “I’m in a boat on Lake Neville, almost at Tall Pines, and the engine quit. We just need a ride to Tall Pines.”
“You’re in a boat? Is that why you’re calling?”
“No, it’s the insect sting.” I was beyond cool and I knew it. “I have a passenger who needs to get to Tall Pines so the nurse can look at a sting.”
“Oh. A bee stung you? In a boat?”
“No! I was driving the boat to get across Lake Neville so we could get help for a sting that had already happened. A bad one. Look, all I need is for you to try Camp Tall Pines. I couldn’t get anybody there. Or try someone on the lake. There are four houses there. Somebody has a boat. It’d take two minutes to get us ashore.”
“The fire department has a boat. Is that what you want?”
Impatience crept into my voice. “You can send Fire and Rescue, but by the time their boat gets here, this sting could have gotten a lot worse. There are boats right here on the lake. Ask the police or the town clerk. They’ll know who lives here. Get me a boat!”
Now I knew I had totally destroyed my image with Roz, but I didn’t care. This was about getting help before we drifted any further away.
The dispatcher changed her tone. “I am putting in a call for Fire and Rescue,” she said, “but please hold.”
I was doing this for Roz, but as I held the phone, I realized I had been ignoring her. “Roz, how’s your tongue? Can you breathe?”
She replied quietly, “I’m breathing, and my tongue is still fluffy. I’m okay. Really.” She swiped at stray hairs brushing against her cheek.
After an interminable few minutes the dispatcher returned. “I am sending an ambulance to Tall Pines. The fire department will be there with the boat if you need it. Now tell me, is this person breathing regularly?” I answered with a frustrated yes. What good would an interrogation do?
“Hives? Swelling?” I looked at Roz. “Yes.”
I was just about to say something about silly questions when the whine of an approaching engine distracted me. A speedboat approached so fast I thought it would ram us, but just as it neared us, the driver cut the engine and slid his boat alongside mine. Roz and I stared at him as he hung bumpers over the side. He was blond, probably bleached, I thought, sun-bronzed and well-muscled.
A distant siren caught my attention next. I knew it was the ambulance. The young man in the boat held out his hands. “I’ll take the lady,” he said, “and I’m going to toss you a line so I can tow your boat to the dock.”
He scooped Roz aboard his boat, and the line landed next to me with a thwack. I tied it to the bow and with a low rumble his boat moved slowly forward. “I’m Eddie,” he called over the stern of his boat. “From up there.” He gestured toward the summer homes.
The ambulance had backed almost to the beach, where the camp director paced. Eddie slipped his boat up to the dock expertly. He and the camp director hoisted Roz out and supported her as she wobbled toward the waiting EMTs. I tied up my boat and undid Eddie’s line. There was at least one knight on a white horse on scene, but it wasn’t me.
As I walked off the dock, Roz was strapped to a folding gurney, and deftly lifted into the ambulance. The doors slammed shut, and the boxy vehicle bumped its way over tree roots and hummocks, back toward the road. I walked behind it, headed for my car, when I felt Eddie’s hand on my shoulder. I had forgotten to thank him.
“Dude,” he said, “you’re gonna need a ride back out to your cabin to button it up. Whenever you’re ready, just come see me. Fourth house down the road. Long driveway. It has no name on it, but there’s an iron gate, and a granite post engraved with ‘The Lodge.’ Anytime, man. I’ll be right there.”
I thanked Eddie and told the camp director I would move my boat before sunset. “That’s okay,” he assured me. “This is change weekend. Last month’s kids left yesterday. Most of the staff is in town doing laundry and shopping. The next batch of kids comes tomorrow afternoon. I’m sorry I missed your first call.”
When I reached the emergency room, I found Roz propped up in bed in one of those little bays surrounded by curtains. “I thought you might want this,” I said, holding out her purse, which had been locked in my car. Roz nodded. “Thank you. They asked me for my insurance card, but we’ll have to take care of that when they unhook me.” She was referring to the monitor taped to her chest, and the blood pressure cuff on her arm.
As I stood there the cuff made a chuffing sound, visibly tightened, then let go with a sigh. Roz began to nod off. “They gave me a shot of epinephrine and an antihistamine. The antihistamine’s making me sleepy, but the epi has turned my heart into a kettle drum, booming away.” Her eyelids lowered. Hives covered her arms and crept toward her face. I felt helpless.
A nurse swept into the room, looked at Roz’s monitor, and patted her on the shoulder. “You’re doing alright, kid,” she said, and left.
All at once, I thought about retrieving my boat, locking the cabin, finding a mechanic, and somehow redeeming myself in Roz’s eyes. I reached for her hand, which I had forgotten was clipped to an oxygen monitor. I laid my hand on her wrist. “Roz, I’m sorry. Very sorry. This should’ve been a beautiful afternoon by the lake. I got you into this. I shouldn’t have left you alone in an unfamiliar place. I didn’t think about things my family might take for granted there, but you didn’t know. And the boat, I didn’t realize . . .”
Roz opened her eyes and looked directly at me. “Don’t apologize,” she said. “That’s the 84th problem.”
“The what?” I shot her an uncomprehending look.
“The 84th problem. It comes from an old Buddhist story. Everyone has problems. At least 83 of them.” Her voice was soft, her expression dreamlike. “These, they can’t do anything about.”
I nodded, wanting her to think I understood.
“The 84th problem,” she said, “is that you don’t want to have any problems.”