What would she tell him and what would she keep to herself, she wondered as she trotted along the well-beaten path. Low branches snagged her sweater and bright flying hair. Wild blackberry bushes grabbed at her ankles. She made note of where they were so she could gather the last ripe offerings. How many Lil had harvested in late summer and still there were more. They hung on until the very end, fat with life, earthy and sweet. Stubbornly hanging on, those last berries. Stubborn like she was. And Quinn.
Lil was looking for him, zigzagging through the woods, up and down gentle hills but she was running from Ray and his words. Their father, more or less. He had it in for Quinn now and that meant likely Lil, too, in the end because they stuck together. The last of his words still rang in her ears.
“If that brother of yours still thinks he’s got to have his way, it’ll be a futile tug of war!”
It wasn’t a new threat, that his dominant role would insure authority. Yet the way it was said and when could mean little or much, and this time it was a warning she knew to heed. Quinn had shrugged off confrontations since he’d gotten a lot taller than Ray. If not as big otherwise. In fact, that was another thing Ray said a lot—Quinn had better grow up more if he planned on talking back all the time. And cut “that damned hair” or Ray would do something about it for him.
Lil pressed a palm to her forehead, swiped away sweat and stray hairs and something with wings that got away in time. She slowed her pace, calling out his name now and then. It was a lot of acreage, twenty acres and wooded for the most part, especially when you had to search. Quinn was fifteen, twelve months ahead of her, but he acted older, went his way as he pleased. To be honest both went their own way since their mother had died three years ago, but he’d be gone for a couple days or more, camping alone or staying with friends. She had bitterly argued against his taking off many times. Said he should take her with him, anyway.
“Why do you have to leave me here with him? He gets riled up and his mood turns sour. And he acts like I’m the only one who can make a bed or chop wood or simmer a pot of stew when you aren’t there to help us. I’m suddenly indispensable. Right in his line of vision like I’m some quarry. Well, maybe not quite that bad but still…”
Quinn always said, “If he ever hits you or anything else I’ll have to kill him.” He gave her that dramatic look beneath the fall of his hair, deep blue eyes going black.
How much he had changed, she thought, and yet not at all. Just tougher beneath his creative, pensive ways.
“Come on, you know it’s his words. They’re like rocks from a pile he hordes until he wants to throw his weight around. Ray can act mean, then he isn’t, anymore. You know, hot and cool.”
Quinn would lower his eyes, give her a quick hug, shake the hair from his face and say, “Yeah, but sometimes I have to leave before I lose my mind. Before I remind him again that Mom would never talk that way. He’s just privately a fool with a fat public job, he’s the one who needs to grow up–”
“Try to come home at night, though? I hate being in my room by yours and I can’t tap out a message on the wall because you aren’t there like before, any time I want. Lying there half-blind, listening to Ray snoring across the hall, muttering away. It’s worse when I’m alone. It makes me so want Mom back…”
Quinn calmed. “I can’t always have you with me, Lil, you know that. We just do guy stuff, we’re up too late and you have school.” He glanced at her. “I know I do, too, but it’s different for me. You were born with so much more potential.” A wry smile.
“Don’t be impossible!” She threw him a playful punch, he fended her off and they headed outdoors to Eagle River to forget the way things were. To take in unspoiled air, watch for beautiful, stealthy deer and name birds on the wing. Hope for a glimpse of the rare Sierra Nevada red fox, more silver than red one time they saw it. A lucky break, or a wilder magic.
Their talk was such a tired talk, anyway, repeated often. And she tried harder to hide her hurt from him so he wouldn’t feel guiltier, because it was true he had it worse with Ray. He took the brunt of all the grief and anger their mother’s death had poured into the man. Never mind that they had their own.
Ray was not their biological father, turning up two years after she—Surprise! Here’s Lillian Grace!–was born and their real father left with some stranger for parts unknown. Their mother was mostly okay with that, she’d said, in the end for the best, and then she met Ray in town one summer. Things rebalanced some, though he was more impatient than their own father if a steady man, a good provider, as she let slip from her thoughts behind his back. Then she got sick doing her own job, and left him on his own. Ray never expected to have to raise kids this way. Without the woman he adored with a doting if faulty love. And there they all were, three alone together. Except Quinn and Lil were a team, after that much more so.
It stung Lil deeply that her brother could ever leave her behind, though she understood he felt harassed, and he was older and a boy. As if that gave him extra rights.
The loamy river scent filled her nostrils as she ran. She thought of what Quinn always implied–that she’d finish school and have a chance at college. That he would not. But it wasn’t meant to be that way. Their mother had had high hopes for them both and Quinn was just as smart. Just not as motivated to learn from school books. Not these days. And Lil wasn’t that clear what she wanted to do. But she did know she didn’t want to be a nurse like their mother, catch a terrible sickness from patients, end up dying too young.
She felt a wave of relief as she lightly panted, feet slowing. There were glimmerings of reflected light on Eagle River, just beyond a scrim of leaves starting to slip off their greenery and put on gold and rust. Surely he had to be on this stretch of the bank, another favorite area. He hadn’t been at the dock or the stony ridge at the inlet. By then Ray had stopped yelling at her to come back; she’d known he wouldn’t try to follow her. A week ago he’d hurt his knee during a fall from his truck bed. He’d unloaded a half cord of wood for their wood stove and somehow toppled. It had been one more reason why he’d steamed at Quinn, who had of course taken off in the middle of it, having heard more about his hair and friends.
It had started as usual.
“That hair will blind or strangle you one of these days, it’s always in your eyes or hanging around your neck. You need to clean up, Quinn. Get a job after school. And also leave that Wilson girl alone, she’s not in your league.”
“My hair is none of your business and it’s ridiculous you make a big deal of it. And what would you know about who’s in my ‘league’, as you put it? It’s clear you don’t think I’m good enough, just say it!”
Quinn had stomped off, gotten his bike, stirred up the dirt and dust. Lil helped with the wood. It was no big deal, not really hard, she just wished Quinn was helping her stack it so they could exchange a look, get the work done faster while Ray moaned on the couch, frozen bag of peas clamped on his knee. In two days it was better but he still limped about.
This time, though, Quinn had just wanted to go fishing. He was anxious to take off and was waiting for her to get home. As usual, Ray had things to say first.
“Your brother got caught with the Wilson girl today, I heard.”
He said this as soon as she was dropped off by her friend Carol and her mother and entered the house. Like he’d wanted to drop this bombshell for her ears despite Quinn standing there, too. She nodded at Quinn, eating cold macaroni and cheese from a plastic container; he tossed it on the counter and it slid, fell into the sink.
“Don’t talk about Anne.” The fork in his hand was pointed toward Ray, emphasizing each word. “And don’t imply I did something wrong.” He turned to Lil, who stood in the kitchen doorway, eyebrows raised, half-smiling. “I talk with her before and after school–you’ve seen us, right?” He tossed the fork into the sink, put the leftovers away.
Lil shrugged. “And? So?”
“Nothing, he just likes to yak at us.” He lowered his voice. “But I did get a crappy grade on that world history test. That sucks, have to do a re-take. But now I’m going fishing. Want to come?”
“Sorry about the test.. No, not yet, I have homework. Maybe in a half hour, but then there’s dinner…”
“Let him start it, he knows how.”
Ray looked around the living room corner where he sat at a small desk paying bills. “What’s that?”
Quinn grabbed his fishing gear and left by the side door, urging her to join him. And she should have right then–didn’t she want to hang with him more? But the door banged shut and she went to her room to work on Algebra. In fifteen minutes, there was a knock on her door.
She said, “”I’m busy, Ray, homework.”
“Sorry, but we should talk.”
She ignored him, kept working.
“It’s about Anne Wilson and Quinn.”
Her pencil hovered above the paper as she considered. Was he going to just complain to her, gossip as ever, then go on his way? Or was it serious?
Ray Leger managed the historic, expensive hotel on the edge of nearby “wine country heaven” and he had long, sometimes variable hours. It must be a day off or he’d go in later, be back in the wee hours. Ray got to hear a lot of stories being the big manager there. Everyone had info to swap about residents as well as upscale visitors. The Wilsons were a family that recently moved there after vacationing in wine country for some years. She didn’t know what the parents did but Anne was popular in school now– smart enough, chatty and sporty. Lil liked her alright but from a distance. She’d been surprised her brother found her that interesting.
Lil got up to open the door. At least Ray never just walked right in, he gave them that.
“Thanks, Lillian.” He looked around for her blue antiqued wood chair, pushed off her robe and sat. “I’m hoping you can persuade your brother to stop seeing this girl before there’s more trouble. Mr. Wilson came to see me today at the hotel and he’s worried about his daughter’s reputation.”
“Really? Doesn’t he know we’re a family with a good rep? Didn’t he know and accept you before when they came down as tourists? Didn’t Quinn and I get introduced to Anne by her own mom? In fact, Mom helped out when Mrs. Wilson was ill with–”
“He saw them smoke together today, Lillian, before school.” Ray leaned toward her, his hands splayed on his thighs, feet planted on the floor. “Pot, you know. That’s not good.”
Lil inclined her head, frowning. “What? Pot? You mean Quinn doesn’t even drink, but he smokes pot from time to time and that’s the whole nasty situation?”
“Well, Jud Wilson is a chemist or something–he knows about drugs, all the affects. And he feels pot is super bad for teens and doesn’t want his daughter mixed up with it. Plus, there’s the hair issue.”
“Almost all of Oregon smokes pot, Ray. It’s legal. Where has he been?”
“They’re from Utah, originally. I think they lived in Arizona awhile.”
“Oh, they’re religious, maybe… might be Mormon? No, that can’t be it, he and his wife love the wine here.”
“I don’t know about all that. They’re not liberal, no, and not everyone is here, you know.”
“Well, Anne should make her own decision and that should be that, right? She needs to discuss it with Quinn and her dad. We don’t have to deal with it all.”
“Wrong, he said he doesn’t want her to see him again. And he was very put off by his hair down his back, said it’s not what he’d expect from my kids…and Anne has other friends and Quinn should back off.” He spread his hands wide. “Made it clear. And I will not disappoint long-time associates….”
“How rude!” But Lil bit her lower lip hard, blinked a few times. Where was her mother when she needed her? They were her kids, not his, really–weren’t they, still? She would know what to do. Really, his associates?
“But worse, he’s bound to tell the law. You have to be 21 to buy marijuana, you know, just like for alcohol.” He shuddered ever so slightly. “And my hotel cannot afford any bad press, not of my kids not doing the right thing. It reflects on me, after all, then it gets out and it’s bad for business. It has to stop now. But he won’t listen to me!”
“Quinn already knows about being seen smoking with her?”
“No. I didn’t get that far. But they–parents and Anne– are coming over tomorrow night. Luckily, they were busy tonight. Gives us time to talk, think things out.”
Lil got up and paced. “Actually, you want me to break it to him so you won’t have to face off, right?”
“I wouldn’t say that. Thought you’d be concerned, too.”
“Or were you concerned about your job? You know he smokes. I have a couple times and you have, too, I’m sure! And you like your wine wine, drink at the hotel bar sometimes after work. I mean….both are common here, so isn’t it that this might somehow ruin appearances, us teenagers who can’t seem to toe the line?”
She felt disgusted, done with the conversation. Let him fight his own social battles and deal with Quinn himself. It was not her problem.
“No, not entirely. Maybe that’s why he isn’t doing as well in school the past year or two, have you thought of that, Lillian? Maybe he’s too stoned to care.”
Well, maybe our mother died and we still want her here, have you thought of that, Ray? she wanted to shout back. But she just sat on the edge of her bed. Saw the late day sunlight seep through blinds and paint thin bright stripes on the hardwood floor. Her feet were cold. Her hands were almost cold. It was going to start raining every day and she’d be outdoors less as temperatures dropped. Quinn and she would be trapped here with this man who didn’t even know them…well, a man who watched over them but lacked the skills and love their mother had.
Had his own worries and frustrations, sure. Hard to hate him for any of it. His own loss. Like hers, but different.
Still. She let out a long sigh.
“I do care, Lil, I really do– for both of you but he sure won’t hear that. Maybe he’ll think things over if it’s your voice saying it.”
Lil got up and went to the door. “You could be nicer to him. And you should go now. I’ll think it over.”
He looked at her without wavering long enough for her to feel pinpricks of tears. Who were they for this time? Him? Or as usual, for herself? And for her almost twin, Quinn?
But she left the room first. Ray followed a few steps, the felt the familiar sad emptiness as she bounded toward the front door to go warn her brother of impending complications.
He couldn’t stop himself so he yelled: “If that brother of yours still thinks he’s got to have his way, it’ll be one futile tug of war!”
Lil parted the heavy branches and there he was.
He was not fishing. He was in the river, clothes still on from what she could see. Eyes were closed tight against the world. Looked like he’d churned up the river bed. His long hair streamed over his shoulders. He must have heard her but didn’t speak. It scared her, his being so still, and she slipped into the water, too. Stood near him, unwilling to disturb his reverie further.
And for a perfect moment, she saw their mother. In his features, in the way he stood so quiet with calm face tilted toward the muddied, swirling surface. How she loved it there, fishing or swimming in it, playing “catch” with her dog, Jersey Girl, or teaching them how to snorkel and ride rubber tubes downstream after it rained and the water ran faster.
People often remarked that they looked like twins, Quinn and Lil. That they took after their graceful mother rather than their disappeared father who was tall, mammoth-shouldered and walked heavily and confidently like the lumberman he’d been.
They both had some of her for always.
“I know,” Quinn said, “I know.”
“All of it, Anne told me. Don’t ask why I jumped in, just wanted to. It feels good.”
His eyes were still shut. His body was moved a little by current that ran swifter there. They both held their ground and she shut her eyes, too, just to feel it all with him. Chilly and warm as currents altered their courses; soft and strong; familiar and strange with its power.
“Okay, ” she said.
“It’ll be alright, Lil. Anyway, I know a couple other girls– Anne isn’t the only fish in the river. And I don’t like to smoke that much so stop worrying.”
She looked at him then as his eyes flashed open. He grinned at her, grabbed her arms and dunked her; she dunked him right back. Soon they were in full skirmish, laughing and gasping, swimming out of each other’s grasp. They finally gave up, fell into each other as they scrambled and slid on the muddy, stone-embedded river bank, water streaming from every limb and their dirty faces. When they reached the flatter grassy part, Lil and Quinn collapsed under a tree, more happy.
A few yards away Ray stood watching, recalling the past. Ache filled him. How he wished he had some of what they had, was welcomed into that circle as he had been when they were small. He wanted to remember her with them now. He took a step forward. But it felt too hard and he turned back to the house as the two teenagers got on their feet. And saw him thread through thickets of blackberries, then limp through cottonwood, alder, maple and fir that stood tall in a dusky autumn haze–this place that was now shared by three.