The Fourth of July, the halfway point in summer vacation, a time for celebration, fireworks and food made on a grill and eaten with fingers. That year was no different than the last. My parents had their party, the four of us and our siblings spent the day on the beach while the adults sat around a grill, drinking beer and making more food than there was people. 

As the sun started to set, us kids made our way back to the campsite to change into dry clothes and graze through all the food. "I swear I gain 20 pounds every 4th of July!" Becca laughed as she filled up a plate. "I think we burned through most of those calories swimming all day, so it's ok it evens out" I teased as I filled my own plate "no, the guys burn through it, us girls pack it into our hips and butt and outgrow the swim suits" she said, looking at the boys. Max snorted "I put it in my biceps, see?" He held up his scrawny arm in a flex. Becca reached over, patted his arm and said "you need to eat more!" Max's face blushed red and broke into laughter, the rest of us joined in. 

"You kids having a good time?" My dad smiled as he browsed through the food "ugh if I eat any more I will explode!" He added with a chuckle. 
"Oh yeah Mr. Martin, thank you for inviting us!" Max exclaimed and the other 2 followed with similar thank you's in agreement. 
My dad chuckled again "oh who invited you? I thought you guys were our other kids." He beamed and added "by the way, just call me Charles, please. Mr Martin was my dad and it makes me feel old" he laughed, the all nodded in agreement while I rolled my eyes. Catching my eye roll, he added "I'm thinking about trading Gabriella here for you guys, I seem to embarrass her and you guys laugh at my jokes" he laughed hard at his own joke and I replied with a laugh "oh thanks, Dad" "sure thing sweetie" he gave me a wink and joined the other adults. 

For the next couple hours, we ate until we thought we would pass out, we goofed around, we laughed. For an entire day we forgot about the horrors we had witnessed the last month. 
We laid beach towels out on the sand and plopped down on the beach to watch fireworks, making sure to position ourselves well away from the adults, who were buzzed from the beer, some of them well into drunk by now, which meant that once the fireworks started, they would all start singing (very off key) the star spangled banner as loud as they could. I am certain they did it to embarrass us kids and it worked well. 

The beach wasn't near as packed as it had been in the past, which we just viewed as more leg room to stretch out and comfortably watch the fireworks show. After the grand finale, we packed up our things and headed back to the campsite, which was considerably less crowded now. My dad saw us coming and yelled "hey kids! I brought 2 small tents if you don't want to share a camper with us!" "Sure!" I called back and we ran the rest of the way up there like little kids going after the candy thrown at parades. When we got there he handed me a tent and Max the other "boys in one, girls in the other. No funny business" his face was stern and I wrinkled my nose "gross, dad! They're like brothers that's just wrong" he cracked a smile and said "good. But still, humor me" I shrugged, it didn't matter to me anyway. 

We set up our tents a few feet from the camper, around a small built in charcoal grill. The boys were trying to get a camp fire going in the grill, I went to the camper to get us some sodas and see what I could muster up for junk food. When I got back, there was a small fire going and Becca was sitting on the ground laughing so hard she had tears in her eyes. "What did I miss?" I asked, passing out bottles of coke. When I got to Max, he was sulking in a lawn chair, when I got closer, I saw it and I was the one laughing till I cried. He was having trouble lighting the grill so he found some lighter fluid and lost his eyebrows. Luke shrugged with a smile "I warned him, but nooo he is invincible.  That should teach him...hey did anybody bring a camera?" 
At that, Max mumbled some profanities under his breath, but I saw the little smile creeping across his face. 

We went to sleep around 1am that night. At 3am, I awoke with a jump. Someone was outside our tents walking around. I nudged Becca and whispered "hey, wake up I heard something outside". She rolled over groggily, furrowed her eyebrows "what time is it?" "Nevermind, do you hear that?" I whispered. She sat up for a moment then said "yeah so? One of the guys going down to the bathrooms, you're just scaring yourself, go back to sleep" I decided she was right, I must have been more on edge than I thought I was. I laid back down and went to sleep. 

When I awoke again, it was still dark. I saw Becca unzipping the tent "where are you going?" I asked her. "The bathroom, so when you hear footsteps outside you will know it's me" she giggled at that and left the tent. I lifted my arm to my face and illuminated my watch. 3:35. What? I've only been sleeping for maybe 20 minutes, how can that be? I was too tired to worry about it, I went back to sleep. 

This time I woke up to sunlight illuminating the tent, I yawned and rolled over and saw that Becca's sleeping bag was empty, weird, I thought but didn't think too much else about it. I stretched and dug some clothes out of my bag. 

When I stepped out of the tent, I could see the guys over by the camper while my mom made breakfast. I went over to greet everyone when I noticed that Becca wasn't with them. "Morning guys, is Becca over here with you?" I was beginning to feel uneasy. "No you guys are the last ones up" my mom replied without looking up. "Huh, I wonder where she went" I muttered. "She probably went to shower, she will be back in a few minutes" my mom replied reassuringly, she sensed the tension.  "Yeah you're probably right" I said and sat down next to Luke at the picnic table. 

She never returned. By late afternoon, there was close to 50 people combing through the trees and the whole site, cops were searching campers and by the time the light started to fade, there were plans to drag the lake. I heard them planning it, the whole idea make my stomach sink to my feet and my blood went cold. 

She wasn't found in the lake either. Having to leave without her was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. I didn't want to abandon her. 

I didn't eat much for the next few weeks, all I wanted to do was sleep. 

The end of July, Max and Luke called. "Hey Gabs! Can you meet us at the park? I think we figured something out, besides you need to get out of the house" I wanted to hang up on him for being so cheerful on the phone, but I didn't. Something told me I should listen to them, call it a gut feeling or a hunch but I knew I needed to hear what they had to say. 

An hour later, I pulled up next to the picnic table the boys were sitting at "so, what's going on?" I cut right to the chase. "Whoa! Slow down there, missy" Max said with a smile, I gave him a "drop dead" look and he reached over and grabbed my arm to pull me into a big hug "hey I didn't forget her, she is our friend too" he said in mg ear, and I broke down. 

When I pulled myself together again, Max said "we need to go back to that cabin, she's there, I know it, we need to get to her before he or it or whatever this thing is, decides she is lunch"

I didn't know why, but it sounded like a good idea. 

We were going back. 

I will never forget that Fourth of July, those were some of the last good memories I have from my childhood. 

After that night, everything changed...