Though the rain began to splatter hard not just spit, her mom and aunt didn’t hurry up and follow her to their car. Frankie was a little tired, ready to go, and leaned against the Oldsmobile’s back door, waiting. A shiver rippled up her trunk, making goose flesh on both arms from gusts of wet wind. They had walked three miles around the greenway. It had been awhile since they’d visited so even though dark towering rain clouds had gathered, they’d taken their time. Frankie liked harvesting blackberries from their heavy bushes in summer or wading in the creek for starters, but in spring there were other treats like deep pink salmon berry flowers, rocks along Salmon Creek’s steep banks. Ducks and turtles over at the grassy pond, the one her mom called the Good Old Pond (there was another pond at the other end of the park). They had seen a blue heron last year; it was so close to her it spooked her and then she couldn’t take her eyes off it. She looked for it today but it wasn’t there. Probably off looking for its friends or more food.
Once they’d lived three blocks away but that was before things got fancy, she was told. Before the woods, creek and marshland were made a regional park. Her parents were offered a decent price to move so a bunch of men and huge machines could smash the ramshackle house and cart shingles, cement and splinters away. That was when her parents were fully together. Frankie barely remembered it. She remembered crying and being given an ice cream cone. Now it was just Frankie, her mom and Aunt Jean.
She looked around and saw them heading for the other pond, the one her mom and aunt called Big Money Pond, sniggling like it was was a bad joke. She wasn’t sure what they meant and when she asked, her mom said, “Oh, just taxes and all. Crying shame but that’s government, taking what you care about or need, charging you for it.”
They’d brought an umbrella because of the storm forecast. Aunt Jean had said, “Nothing like a handy lightning rod for our walk.” But they rarely wore water repellent jackets, just hooded sweatshirts. Frankie scurried after them as rain pelted her with fat drops. They’d get drenched but you just didn’t argue with them, especially Aunt Jean. She ran things most places, even in their house, never mind that it didn’t belong to her. She was a supervisor at the paper mill; her mom worked there, too, but in a different area, thank god.
“If I had her as a boss I’d walk out every hour,” she’s told Frankie one times after the sisters argued about kitchen duty and Aunt Jean had won out.
Frankie had taken the tea towel and slapped it at the counter top a couple times. “Well, when I grow up I’ll get a maid or robot.”
“When you grow up you won’t have two nickels to rub together unless you get better grades and go to college.”
“Maybe dad should send more child support so we can get our dishwasher fixed.”
“Don’t you bring that up again, Francine, or you’ll do the whole sink full , scrub the stove top and dry them dishes, too.”
“You can’t make me!”
Her mom yanked the tea towel from her hands and snapped her rear with it once. That was enough.
That’s how it went a lot at their house. But her aunt and mom could be fun, too, playing video games with her or board games. Taking her places like the movies or a park. And Aunt Jean helped with bills, yard work and knew how to fix some things–like motorcycles; she rode hers even in downpours–and played rummy with Frankie. She filled in a lot of gaps after her mom and dad split up for the last time. Frankie couldn’t remember anymore what it was like without her in the house or making a mess in the garage, raking leaves or fussing over veggies in tubs along the narrow back yard. If her mom was gone, Aunt Jean was there. If her mom and Aunt Jean were both there it was like having the same person times two but with different voices and somewhat different ways. They looked much alike, rounded and tall, dark brown hair, light brown eyes. But her mom loved her more. She said she would eat octopus tentacles for her, certainly die for her if necessary. Whereas Aunt Jean cackled and said she’d give up a tooth or two in a fight for her, but not her whole gorgeous person. She would definitely not eat octopus.
Frankie found them sitting on a slope by the pond. “What’re you doin’? It’s raining now.”
Her aunt held the umbrella, checked her cell phone. Her mom was standing with arms crossed, watching a handful of people on the other side fishing. The rain ran off her like she was made of duck feathers. She didn’t even blink.
“Fish are biting good, the rain you know,” her mom said. “Should’ve thought of that. Still got a couple poles in the garage.”
“What are they fishing for? I forget,” Frankie asked, grabbing a small lap blanket (her aunt had used it for a sit by the creek, funny about getting too messy that way) and putting it over her skinny back.
“Steelhead. They stock it. No more natural-born fish hangin’ out here. Mac and I used to fish once a week for dinner, pulled out as many as four or five–”
“Don’t start that now.” Aunt Jean looked up at her sister and stared hard.”It don’t ever change nothin’.”
“Well, it all fell apart after we sold our first house to move to the city and that’s solid fact.”
“Stop, it don’t help to keep sayin’ it.”
“We loved it out here when it was just the outdoors and a few of us…”
Aunt Jean turned to her, said something Frankie couldn’t quite hear, gave her a dark stare that even Frankie could feel, almost like a finger snap on the head. She withdrew a heavy oblong stone from her sweatshirt pocket, tossed it with all her might over her aunt’s umbrella. She watched it splash into the bright green surface, then went to her mom. Put her arms around her waist and hugged. After a couple seconds, her mom pulled her off and sat down by her sister half-under the umbrella. Frankie tossed a few more stones after she saw the two of them whispering more. Sometimes Aunt Jean stirred it up instead of helping.
The older woman didn’t like her dad’s name brought up; he had hurt her sister. Plus, one of her sayings was “the less news of the past, the better.” But Frankie loved her dad so much, even if he was in jail for a “B and E” and attempted theft or something like that. Her mom didn’t know she knew, but she had ways. Frankie’s older friend Joe whose dad knew Mac, told her what it was. Then he said he’d heard Mac had broken into a pole barn, he knew the guy and was trying to steal back a lawn mower and some expensive tools he said had been borrowed but never returned but the guy said he’d traded for them fair and square. He pulled his BB gun on her dad and told him to get off his property but her dad hadn’t left, just laughed at him. But the guy had already called the cops. It was a mess. Frankie felt sure about that much. It made her feel a little sick.
Aunt Jean was pointing across the lake. “See that, over there? That new construction? That used to be Ted Burkett’s land.”
“No talking about the past, right? I know their story, anyway. There’s lots like it.”
“This is different, sis, this is an old couple who passed last year, whose ten acres got sold by greedy sons. Sold it for what–a million or two?–and now look what they’ve done. A park boundary line must be on that side of the pond so looks like monster houses are going up around the water.” She shuddered.
Frankie took a seat by her mother, squeezed in close. She took in the spot they were studying. Remembered that last summer there had been nothing but massive trees right there. An earth mover was parked by the end of the pond.Her mom shook her head. Frankie’s eyes swept over the area again. It was still mostly green, really, only with that new building tucked in. It looked out of place, but it could be worse.
They’d lived in their own newer house for four years now. She didn’t recall what the old one was like as she was barely five when they’d moved. But she knew her mom missed it badly sometimes despite liking the nice brick ranch style with three bedrooms, a fireplace and fenced yard. Even if it was on a noisy street. Well, maybe not that.
This park was one of her favorites to visit. They had just one tiny corner park by a train stop in the city neighborhood. So Frankie could get worked up about coming here to play on colorful playground equipment, all new along with other developments the last couple years. The Big Money Pond was also a swimming pond in summer, it even had life jackets for row boaters and people who couldn’t swim well and kids. But she could manage. She swam like crazy at the community pool. Her mom told her she was a real water baby–she should make it her sport in middle school. That made Frankie happy.
It was perfect here, she thought.
Oh. It was perfect. She got it now. It must have been even more perfect back then, with the mammoth ole swimming hole and natural fishes that belonged there forever, woods humming with only animal goings-on. Less people. More spring peepers, her fave along with turtles and snakes and herons. For a moment she wondered what it’d been like–did she remember it?–to take a silent canoe down the creek when it ran high and faster as her dad had told her, Frankie bundled between parents as they guided it without any trouble. It must have been something else, like heaven with all the birds singing to them, lots of bald eagles swooping over. She had just seen one of those today, wondered if there was a nest nearby.
“Well, kids, I’m moving out,” Aunt Jean said, her free fist hammering twice on her thigh.
Frankie’s and her mom’s heads to her, mouths dropped open.
“Yeah, I’m coming back here, ladies. There’s some condos being built the west end of the park. I already seen a model of one I want to buy.”
She didn’t look at her niece or sister. Kept staring at that house going up, the sound of a band saw out there somewhere whirring so loud the fish probably gathered to hide a long the bottom of the pond.
“Wait a minute!” her mom screeched. “You just gave me all that crap about the land over there and the poor family and you’re joining the enemy, buying a condo at the edge of this park? Have you lost your friggin’ mind?”
Frankie covered her ears, then bent over to see Aunt Jean’s face. She was kinda smiling, the sort of curled lips that warned you to watch your step.
“Well, hold on, we all gotta grow up sometime. I’ve been hanging out with you way too long! Time to move on, do my own thing, free up a bit. No offense.”
“You can’t be serious?” Frankie said, leaning across her mother.”You are really leaving us? What’d I do?”
“She’s serious, Frankie, she wouldn’t a said it. I do not get it, Jean, Really!”
“Of course you get it if you think it over more. Frankie, don’t be ridiculous, nothing you done. I’ve saved a lot staying with you two. I can afford my own cubby hole now, thanks to you, sis. Aren’t you a little happy for me?”
“Hell, no,” Frankie said and slumped over face to lap, ready to get slapped on the noggin for swearing. But they all were saying bad stuff and no stinging smack came.
“Watch your mouth!” they both said at once, then laughed when she peeked up at them.
Then fell silent again. The rain lessened, the water’s surface calmed, then the wind gave a little hiccup and sighed.
“Mom, listen. We’ll just have to sell our house and move here, too. I like it over here more–you do–and I want to learn to fish and swim more and catch turtles just like you and Dad did. We could just move, so why in heck not?”
Both inclined their heads to Frankie. She held fast their gazes, sat up tall and said louder: “Why not?”
The sisters looked at each other with eyebrows raised halfway to their hairlines, then stared out at more beauty, lost in thought. The pond was a sweet green, dimpled with raindrops, ruffled by another breeze. The group of fishing folks was packing up gear and heading home. Giant clumps of clouds had thinned, flattened like cotton batting Frankie had felt through frail edges of a quilt her dead grandmother had made for her mom. Frankie believed in guardian angels so even though her grandmother died when she was six, she could still help out with this. Maybe if her dad didn’t have to be in jail for long and they moved back here, he’d come around more and get smarter. And her mom and she could swim together in summer and have picnics with Aunt Jean anytime they wanted.
Couldn’t things be somewhat the same even if they changed? Or better?
Her mom cupped Frankie’s chin in her hand. “I don’t know what you’re cooking up, Frankie, you think too much.” She smoothed back the rain-wet hair from her daughter’s forehead. “You’ve got good ideas, too. This might be one of them. You can’t keep any turtles, though, not from a protected area like this now. But you can still swim and canoe…we would do that. It seems more what we want. The city isn’t all that great.”
Aunt Jean stood up with effort. She’d only turned forty-two but often complained of her back.”I know I’m sick and tired of doing lawn work for you. I’ll have no yard to speak of, at the new condo. It’s all done for us, anyway.”
“You’re getting too rich for my blood.” Frankie’s mom got up without a hitch and put her hand on Jean’s shoulder.
“Always had it going on, you know I’m a social climber!”
“That’s just wrong! But how come you didn’t tell us?” Frankie asked.
Aunt Jean held the umbrella over the other two as the girl got up, her jeans’ seat damp from muddy ground, a foot slipping. Heart squeezed up with fear and excitement.
“Didn’t want to worry you about things, lovey.”
Her use of that silly name was too much. Her sudden tenderness landed inside Frankie, started to shake loose a pile of things.
“She mentioned it a few months ago,” her mom said. “I just didn’t think it would happen. Or not this fast.”
“Oh well, no one told me, I need to know things, too!”
Her mom nodded. “You’re right. But don’t get excited, she isn’t just disappearing. And we’ll study on this. Talk.”
“I’ll never get away from you two, why bother trying? It’s a terrible fate!” Aunt Jean let out that signature boom of a laugh, causing passersby to glance over.
Frankie ran ahead, feeling a little raw with irritation about a few things, the inside of her head jostling with new worries. But she also felt ticklish bubbles. Anticipation, hope. Maybe they would move here and make things fresh, and she would grow bigger and happier being outdoors more. Aunt Jean might have even wondered if they’d think of it. They might still be together, just more separate. It seemed strange but not so bad.
She got to the car, turned around to see if they were hurrying up. Their arms were linked together; that made her forget her worries some. The two women walked awkwardly until they readjusted themselves: her mom taking longer strides that got reined in, her aunt gallumping along with her barest limp, smaller steps that began to lengthen. They still looked cut from the same good rough-and-ready cloth, all three of them were or that’s what her dad had told her once. And he’d beamed down at Frankie like she was made of the best part.