Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Invisible

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“Coming? Or is breakfast going to be your diner?”

Marni yelled upstairs toward Amanda’s and Tim’s bedrooms. Her son emerged immediately, his gangly length led by slipping, stockinged feet. She noted the hole in one sock toe. Darning was not a skill, though for her kids she’d do most anything. Darning socks was the least of it. He landed with a sliding thud.

She waited for Amanda, gave up and padded to the kitchen in her new navy scuffs with a trillium on each toe. Tim helped himself to eggs and sausage. She poured herself a big mug of coffee and sat across from him, chin propped in her hand. Every time she caught sight of her scuffs, she smiled to herself. Simplest pleasures made a difference.

As Tim ate, she thought over a conversation she’d had with her best friend a week ago. Lana had often suggested Marni begin to relinquish control of her family and was getting more adamant. “Or perceived control”, she’d added wryly. Now that Amanda was seventeen and Tim almost fifteen, it was time and then some. Time to get back into the workforce or into college studies or at least engage in a worthwhile hobby–ceramics, stained glass, anything but try to keep up her domestic goddess status. In fact, Lana insisted, Marni was the one and only such creature she knew–and that fact might give her a clue that it was an anachronistic state of being.

Their last lunch date was annoying to them both.

‘Unless you used it to build a gazillion dollar empire, let’s face it.” Lana smirked, knowing such a notion would never occur to her friend. “But, then, you’re undermotivated, being married to Rob the VP of Tomkins and Sons and a man with serious political leanings. You can afford to stay home, I grant you. The question is–“

Marni cut her off with a slice of the air with her fork. “You know why. I like being home and Rob likes me the way I am, and I am truly not ever unhappy as you think, so much so that I must go off in search of ‘fulfillment’, as you keep suggesting.” Lana’s words stung no matter how often she’d heard them, which was every few months.

Lana bit her tongue. Of course he did, Marni was everything he needed and more to aid and abet his career and keep their family ship afloat. “Yes, alright, I know…”

“Besides, we know you have a great career and travel often, are single and have one absent kid–so your perspective is askew. Not everyone is quite so independent and free.”

“He is not absent, he’s at university and busy practicing being an adult. I hope. I am also not what you’d call a free agent in my work position, either. And all you give me are rationalizations.” Lana sighed. It was useless to talk sense to her. “What will happen when they leave–like my Jason did? I had Plan B and C. You’ve spent years submerged in home life and you’ve well succeeded at all you’ve done. But don’t forget that dream you had recently. Your subconscious is knocking on your door, my friend.”

“It wasn’t a nightmare, it was just frustrating feelings emerging. Every mother has those!”

Lana’s highly arched eyebrows lifted. “Swinging high from a huge tree, people pushing and grabbing and pulling until you fall from that glorious moment of bliss halfway to the sky and then plunge into nothingness which wakes you up in a sweaty panic. Time’s a wastin’. Forty and counting, now.”

Marni toyed with her chef salad, then patted Lana’s elegant, bronzed hand flattened on the white expanse of tablecloth. “Relax, I’m okay. My life is good and you know it. Now tell me about your trip to Norway.”

“First commit to a spa day with me next month.”

“That’s easy, yes, if it has a eucalyptus steam room.”

Marni loved hearing about Lana’s adventures in work and life. Not that she hadn’t travelled some, attended concerts and plays, created interesting community events. But the truth was, she had long ago lost a taste for the kaleidoscopic, hectic, demanding world beyond her doorstep. She had long been aware of living in her own encapsulated time and space. It bothered her little–but lately, more often, for all the reasons Lana harped on. But what was actually worth more effort? Much of what mattered to her had gradually changed over the years–wasn’t that true of everyone? So she wasn’t as ambitious as she had once been, while most women she knew had gotten bolder, smarter, more accomplished. Well, once knew. She’d been left behind almost imperceptibly over the years and now it was an occasional meet-up, a shared charity responsibility. But sometimes they’d looked at her with a touch of envy when she talked about her life, while she found them more worn around the edges. If perhaps more confident in some ways. She’d make the same choices–would they?

But it was easy to be smug about one’s own life when you knew so little of the other person’s, or what all the options even were, she thought then. And thought again a few times.

When Lana and she had first met, Marni worked in publicity for a great regional magazine (which had become glossier and more literate). It was a good job, one that got her going each day and brought her to a restful closure, more often than not, by evening. But Lana had climbed the ladder fast, then moved on. And Marni stayed until Amanda was born and she never went back full-time. Then Tim arrived and it seemed right to be home awhile longer. Time passed. She followed the new parenting agenda. It soon felt as if she was on a train and there was no stopping it; she hunkered down, learned along the way, determined to excel at her more mundane job. But often treacherously difficult.

She thought over these things as Tim scarfed down the remains of his breakfast and slurped a latte. He watched her with dancing brown eyes and she smiled back.

She sat forward with a start as Amanda joined them–tall, lean, hair half-brushed, clothing disheveled.

“Okay there, Mom, or is that your third cup of coffee?” Amanda asked.

“Is virtual learning a reason to get sloppy?” Marni retorted, then regretted it as her daughter slumped into her chair.

“I’m dressed, not naked, right?”

Tim laughed, spewing latte, “Crap, no!”

Amanda threw a pinch of cold toast at him, then another.

“Enough, you two!” Marni did not think this exchange was hilarious. She longed for order at her tables.

Rob rushed by, grabbed his coat from the coat tree in the foyer. “Have a breakfast meeting at the club, remember?–See you all tonight!”

She rose, awaiting a quick kiss. He paused, blew an air kiss, and left whistling.

Go get ’em Tiger! she thought ungenerously and softly slapped at the countertop with a damp tea towel. She hoped the kids didn’t notice her irritation. She needed to get over the feeling of being snubbed by her own spouse.

******

With an hour to go before taking Tug, their collie, to the groomer’s, Marni later sought out Amanda in her room. After knocking and getting an assent, she entered and sat in the computer desk chair.

“What, Mom?” Her head was haloed in sunlight, a tangled cascade of hair resisting her brush-out.

“We have to talk about this summer.”

“Summer? It’s April. And I have to sign in for remote Calculus in a few.”

“Aren’t you going to apply to Blue Lake Summer Arts Camp this year? The due date is April 20 and you haven’t done a thing with your application.”

Amada rolled her eyes, pulled her hair into a messy ponytail. “Maybe, maybe not.”

“Why is that?”

“Derrick will be in town, working at the golf course as a caddie.” She rubbed her face with her palms to wake up better. “So, that’s a no, I guess…”

“You’d miss a fabulous eight weeks of creative engagement for…some new boy? He’ll be here when you get back.”

“Mom! You can’t talk to me about missed opportunities! I actually do lots of stuff, you know. What have you tried lately that has been remotely interesting? Sorry–but true. You barely know Derrick, anyway–he is definitely not just ‘some boy’.”

That was true–she didn’t know him much though they’d met; he was well mannered and conversationally adept so those were pluses but that meant little when her daughter was out there with him.

“There isn’t much more to say, but can we talk later? Class begins in a minute.”

Dismissed, Marni left.

Days like that she wondered what she was doing there? It seemed as if her children had gotten their footing well enough that her advice meant little to nil. She was what to them all? A glorified cook/chauffeur/ occasional therapist/housekeeper. And she had to get Tug to the groomer. His hair was everywhere; she’d had enough of that, too. Otherwise, he was the only one that minded her, anymore.

******

That evening she swung on the porch swing in tender, bluish twilight, wondering if Rob was really at Capitol Steakhouse for dinner with a cronie. She saw him less and les, yet it meant little more to her. Everyone knew who Rob Henninger was. She was introduced to new people with: “You know, she’s married to Rob!” and people would beam at her until they realized she had nothing much to add to that. Plus, Marni was not gregarious and did not have a paying career. But she was good for helming causes behind the scenes, so was handy to have as an acquaintance.

All Marni could do was write a little. But no one knew that, not even Lana, it was not meant to be known. Well, Rob did in the abstract. He was aware she got up before anyone else to spend intense time at her computer and closed it when the house became more lively. He knew she loved fiction, kept trying to write it, and that was enough for him to know. Well, he had his coin collecting, a holdover from childhood. He had his passion, golf. Everyone needed something pleasing to do.

So she kept her ideas to herself. Her fantasy stories would draw giggles from her kids, a blank face from Rob. It was her quiet space, her private time, life outside the family.

Swinging gently, she thought of the current story she was working on. How, if it ever seemed good enough, maybe she’d finally want to share it, but with whom? Still, thinking of her characters, letting them walk about in her mind as if they were cohorts from an ethereal–yet very present–zone…this always cheered her. She pushed off from the porch to swing more.

The sweeping front yard was breathtaking. Daffodils proud and still along hedges, and daphne bushes letting loose their heady perfume to dazzle all who passed, and the delicate cherry blossoms so blush-white against the darkening sky. Marni feasted her eyes and soul on the opulence of early spring: nature in its powerful unfoldings held her in its thrall. She was welcome within it all. She never felt set apart by nature. Unlike her family. She was a part of all that occurred in nature’s stirrings. And, perhaps, art. Left to her own devices, unconstrained by timetables and ever-urgent voices. Her viewpoint opened to a wider, deeper vista then, her experiences a tapestry of peculiarities and wonderments. And nothing and no one could disturb the outcome of what she made of words and imaginings, but herself.

That was the rub, she saw with a shock. She had begun to feel less welcome in her family’s world, in the finely appointed home, the stratified society in which she maneuvered. But give her an hour alone with language and she was set free.

If only she might attend an adult summer arts camp. Like the one Amanda found meaningless this year after five years attending a diverse program, studying flute, at which she excelled. It saddened her to think her daughter might be moving away from such times. Tim had been drawn to outdoor camps; now he went on camping trips with friends and their less city-centric parents. A vacation is what all parents needed, her acquaintances admitted and she had agreed–though Rob always planned a luxurious trip for them in between his own career engagements. Trips that made her fretful, itchy with boredom by a turquoise pool as he mingled and played golf.

As Marni’s swinging slowed she was startled to feel a sharp twinge of desire, an ache of need for a new environment: the arts within nature’s arena. She felt like a flowering bush straining for more light and space. A plant stymied was like a life hemmed in, doomed to not rise up strong enough, eventually to wither unless given needed nurturing and nutrients. Oh, she’d go on being wife and mother. But beyond that, who?

She had to do something to move from the shadows, make her secret self known or be left behind. Barely visible, in the wings of a stage full of family bustle and drama. Indispensable, always at the ready. Rarely acknowledged.

Now she saw the sense of what Lana had seen, and knew things had to change.

******

She sat cross-legged in bed next to Rob as he snored away. She was scanning possibilities– book stores and art stores for part-time jobs opportunities; literary conferences for volunteer work; small spaces in the country where she might rent a studio or cabin for a couple weeks. She hopped from one idea to the next, dissatisfied, headachy and blurry-eyed. Personal brainstorming was laborious.

Until, a bit after midnight, she found something. Marni leaned hard against the headboard with a small “Huh…”

Rob mumbled, “Okay, honey?”

She patted his shoulder; he went back to sleep.

“Yes, I just might be.”

******

By mid-May the rains had slowed from a rowdy polka to a short waltz now and again. Spring was offering everyone an infusion of good cheer and the balm of brilliant beauty. So, one Saturday afternoon three -quarters of the family lounged in the screen in back porch, enjoying soft breezes, sipping iced tea with lemonade, snacking on pretzels and peanuts.

Amanda said in a rush of words, “I applied for a job at the golf course.”

“No brainer,” Tim said and went back to his cell phone.

Marni looked up from a warm dry jumble of laundry. “Doing what? You don’t like golf much.”

“At the snack bar right off the green.”

“You don’t even know how to make a decent turkey sandwich!” Tim snorted.

“If you went there you’d know it was just drinks and packaged snacks, dummy!”

“Good, you won’t accidentally poison him.”

“Poison who?” Marni asked. “Oh…Derrick is to work there.”

“I’d like making some of my own money but yeah, he will be.” Amanda blushed enough that Marni knew she had lost track of the burgeoning romance.

“I’m all for that,” Rob said, as he walked in following an emergency town council meeting about zoning problems. I can help you with references, call Stan–“

“No thanks, Dad.”

The family chattered on as Marnie folded clothing. Shortly she carried the heavy wicker basket upstairs to the five bedrooms, then stopped and left it on the hallway floor. Let them put away their own things. She entered a spare bedroom and rummaged in a desk drawer, found what she wanted and descended the stairs.

Waves of rippling laughter slowed her before she came to a stop at the open French doors. They had all seemed more relaxed the past weeks, or maybe it was her. The good weather had been part of it. But, too, they each had pleasing things going on–Tim gearing up to help with Little League; Amanda with her boyfriend, a new job ahead; and Ron playing more golf and working in the yard a bit with her. They both loved their yard and flower garden. But Marni had something of her own, too.

“I have something to share with you,” she announced.

They swiveled to her, eyes narrowing in bright sunlight, and fell silent. A flicker of anxiety crossed her daughter’s face, and Tim slightly frowned. Rob rubbed his cleft chin, a fidgety thing. She unfolded the long envelope and pulled out a letter, then cleared her throat.

“Dear Marni Henninger, it is our pleasure to inform you that you have been selected to join Wild Salmon Arts Colony for a summer residency. We have further waived half the tuition based on the merit of your fine writing sample. The residency session is to begin August 1st through August 31st.” She glanced up nervously. “There’s more but that’s the gist of it.”

Rob stood and took the letter from her. “Very interesting…an arts’ retreat, a summer school or what?”

“The residency people make their art. Writers, dancers, composers, artists. A dozen at most. The spend a month working on their creations, then sharing them with each other.” She couldn’t temper the excitement she felt and smiled widely at them all–but she wanted to shriek with joy.

Rob sat down. “That’s something, honey… who would have thought?”

The spike in adrenaline fell off and Marni’s heart began to sink. Didn’t they get it, at all? She could see Amanda and Tim were more perplexed than he was. But of course they would be.

Amanda spoke up, gingerly. “Oh, like my summer arts camp? That’s great, Mom…but what were you thinking of doing? Or is it more like a school?”

Tim gripped his knees as he used to as a nervous child. “You aren’t, uh, really craftsy–are you? What will you even do for a month? Make flower arrangements or something?”

She felt as if a giant bubble of weird giddiness was filling her head, or was it dizzying disbelief. Her own family! They didn’t even know who she was, did they?

“She does write in the mornings,” Rob interjected. “I just didn’t know it was so important to you, Marni.” His wide eyes searched her face.

She sat down again, set the letter on a side table, smoothed her khakis. “I write fantasy stories.” She looked at her hands, then her children. “I’ve started… a fantasy novel. When you all are sleeping.” Then she threw up her hands. “My gosh, it isn’t so strange as all that, is it? I’m going to an arts residency to write and enjoy a whole new experience with other people who love to create. That’s it! Get used to it!”

She jumped up and her daughter and son did, too, with a rush of flailing arms about her and words of congratulations floating around–while Rob stood back, wondering what this meant to him, to their marriage, to her. He felt proud, but also suddenly anxious.

“Fantasy stories! That’s too cool, you kept this from us!” Tim said.

“Mom, you’re a mystery, this is great!” Amanda said.”What next?”

She’d thought of calling Lana, but they had a lunch date tomorrow, so she’d wait, put it all on the table. It might shock or amuse her, but certainly please her. Lana was her greatest support even if she didn’t know it fully. Or maybe she did–she had a keen nose for truth and never backed down from it. Her caring was steady. She foresaw changes, saw Marni clearly before Marni had come to really see herself.

At the end of the day, when the kids took off with friends, Rob wrapped her in his arms a few moments, then retreated to the family room with a glass of wine and his sports channel. The house felt huge, he realized, with the kids gone so much these days.

Marni sat on the front porch swing, watching and listening. She wanted to discern the inner workings of the dark sky. It was all so great an unknown. Her skin got goosebumps, and she hugged herself close. Maybe it was best to mainly appreciate what she saw and heard and felt. Until she could write out her thoughts and sensations.

It all felt good and right. She had made a marriage and two children; none of it was an easy thing to do. But it got so familiar it all had blended into her, the good with the not-so-good, an everyday-ness. She was quite overdue to map new courses, to create more curious, astonishing worlds. To offer up what she’d long and secretly imagined.

“So. I’m not going to be invisible, anymore,” she whispered to Venus, set like a jewel in the crown of the heavens. As if Venus didn’t know such earthly and other things already.

Wednesday’s Words/Flash Fiction: Dangerous Life

“You’ll break your neck!”

That’s what she said when informed he was taking windsurfing lessons for his 59th birthday.

She nearly wept; his legs, badly injured in the war. She got him cargo shorts, a fly fishing guide. Neither was what he needed: a major jolt. The old ways no longer satisfied. He’d watched the windsurfers; they inspired him as nothing else in years. It was his turn out there.

“What do you know of that river, its winds?”

He knew some things and wanted more. Trouble was, her adrenaline had been waylaid, passions dampened by defeatist views.

Still, friends cautioned him: age, dangers.

His strength and resolve grew.

When he at last hit water, then sailed, freedom from years of her worry and his subterranean fear arrived. Not easy; not disappointing. He fully awakened.

Finally, he turned back.

Only then did he see her with fists raised in victory.

Wednesday’s Word/Fiction: A Lateness of Words

He was about to walk into the sprawling blue house on Merton and Fifth. That is, after he had decent coffee (if he could find the cozy weathered spot he’d always gone to), driven past once more (he was confident this wouldn’t be difficult) to better prepare himself, and called Rennie for support.

After parking at a corner he knew like the back of his hand, he slouched about, hands in pant pockets, looking this way and that. There was the hardware across the street with new awnings and paint; there was the staid brick bank; there was the grocery, although with new name and entryway. But no Dot’s to be seen. Instead, a hair salon sat in the coveted corner property. It had been a few years, okay, but Dot’s was an institution, the place everyone met up for a quick or leisurely cup from breakfast ’til dinner.

He dashed into the street between two vehicles to cross the street and he got a better look at things. There had been more alterations; it was looking oddly prosperous in spots. It was disorienting, shiny storefronts jammed between almost ramshackle ones. Then he saw it. “Dot & Daughter” was proclaimed in calligraphic gold and black above the double door. That would be Dot, yes, and …Hannah? He guessed she’d be early thirties now. He was surprised–she had said she was leaving, too–so he crossed back over and went in.

Even though he was stunned by the fancy decor and too many coffee choices beaming at him from the menu, he knew Hannah right off. It was the back of her head he was staring at as he got in line. With heaps of unmistakable glossy black curls as always, she turned and it didn’t seem like years had passed. She looked past him, waved at another customer. He gawked at scattered quaint cafe-style tables and stools, the glass case tempting with baked goods plus pita bread and hummus, veggie wraps, yogurt, cheese and crackers– it was like he was in a big city place trapped inside a small town.

“How you doing? What can I get you?” Hannah greeted him with appropriate cheer as she pushed away a stray spiral of hair.

“Espresso, two shots.”

She noted the order, looked at him a second time with lips parted then firmly closed. One more moment and she frowned, then recovered. “Name for order?”

“Hank.”

She dismissed him with raised eyebrow and nod.

He stepped quickly away from the counter, stood along the wall. He could have given his real name. Arley, the nickname of yore; now he was just Arlen. She may not have remembered him, but he suspected she might though he’d changed his look. No shaved head, no scraggly beard and feathery mustache. No black jeans and torn jacket, no heavy motorcycle boots. “Arley and his Harley”, a joke, a stupid one since he never got a Harley. He’d become a grown man. So different from the young man his hometown knew that he surely blended well for a few hours– and then he was gone. It had been right, even necessary to leave years ago. And good to be a bona fide grown up, slowly transforming.

It was taking much longer than he wanted so he zipped his jacket, made for the door. He didn’t want to revisit any of it, no good would come of it; just a stop at the house. But then “Hank” was called out, a hand holding out his espresso, and he was about to down it when he felt her eyes on him. And then another gal’s and guy’s then as he shifted his gaze felt all were looking at him–or trying to not look at him. Just what he didn’t need. Arlen;s heart raced, his stomach turned. He left.

“Arley, wait.”

He opened his car door and got in but Hannah was fast on her feet. He lowered his window by half despite a chilly shower descending. She stood there with arms across her chest, leaning in a bit.

“It is Arley Whitaker, right? Come home for a visit?”

He responded with the grin that used to get everybody, easy and warm as a summer breeze. But inside he felt cold as the rain, and miserable.

“Your mama, I guess? Heard she was doing poorly. I hope you’ll come back to Dot’s and Daughter’s before you go. Catch up.” Her gaunt face softened, seemed hopeful.

“How you doing, Hannah Jean? And where is Dot today?”

“Oh, I’m good, married Jeff, got a kid. Mama’s in the back but she’d come out and say hi, I’m sure–“

“That’s okay. On my way.” He started the engine and shifted.

“Nice car you got, must be having better times,” she said, eyeing the pristine, refurbished silver Camaro. “Fast bikes and fast cars forever, I guess!” She then had the decency to slap a hand to her mouth, knowing too late he’d not want to hear it put that way.

“Give your mother my regards, great coffee as always.” He waved at her like he was in some damned parade; she stepped back, staring after him.

Arlen drove off nice and slow as he could, foot just itching to slam the gas, hand gripping the gear stick knob. She was still nosy and naive, but good for her and Jeff, he was better than most he knew.

There was no one and no thing that could permanently lure him back to his hometown. It was one stop for today, and he already half-regretted it. He dared a cop to get him for speeding as he wheeled out of downtown.

******

He drove right by, eyeing the house, noting the long-faded blue needing a repainting. Surely it hadn’t been like that for almost ten years. The yard was emerald green even in the silvery drift of rain, and mostly tidy as always; the porch swing was gone but nothing looked decrepit. After circling the block, he parked a couple houses down, got out his phone.

She answered right off.

“Arlen, love, you there now?”

Her words came to him like petals floating on a pond, peaceful, gentle. He mused again over her absence; he missed her already. She had said it was his journey, not hers, and he should get it done alone. She’d meet up later. He supposed she was right. It was all before her time, his wrecked life to try to better restore.

“Got a coffee, felt like the town was breathing down my neck so came straight here. I can make it to the cabin by four if this is a short visit. Which it should be…”

“Take it as it comes. It’ll be good or it won’t, but you at least are there.”

He had nothing to add to the bare facts. Rennie knew the whole story, she knew he hadn’t set foot into that house for nine years, and he and his mother spoke briefly only on Christmas. Until the last one, when they had talked a little more, updated a few things. And he’d found she had had pneumonia, had been in the hospital and he didn’t even know; she was still weak. It struck some nerve deep inside. She’d always been so healthy, strong, more resilient than his father who had died at 52 when Arley was in his senior year. Before the even worse thing.

He shook his head. “I know, but what if she–“

“Keep it honest and to the point unless it feels right to do more. Remember? Trust your gut, honey.”

Silence rang between them. He fiddled with his key chain, finally pulled it out of the ignition. The windshield was fogging up; he cracked his window since the rain had let up. Fresh air gave him more calm, some strength.

“It might not be such a good idea, but I drove five hours top do it, so I’m going in. At least I can get to the cabin right after. Spread my thoughts and feelings over Lake Michigan, listen to music of the waves.”

“That’s my baby. And I’ll be there tomorrow by noon or 1:00. I’ll love you back to normal, so no worries either way.”

Arlen released the worst of his simmering fears in a short exhalation.

“Okay, here goes. See you tomorrow.”

******

At first his feet wouldn’t move up the path. He knew what he had to say. He had called her the night before, said he had some business up north, would it be okay if he stopped by a few on his way. When she didn’t respond, he panicked, nearly told her never mind. Instead she had told him between a deep cough and wheezing that sure, he could come on by. She had said it as if he was in the neighborhood and she was accustomed to his visiting. Then they hung up, both of them shocked by what they’d just done.

The porch was deep and wide and he had half a mind to walk it, get the sense of it and the moment, look back at the street to see how it felt. He didn’t have time. The white door with the stained glass rosette window opened wide, and his mother stepped back as Arlen came into the house where he was raised.

“Mom.”

“Hello, Arlen.”

They looked at each other, eyes startled, secretive, and looked away–but not before she took his upper arm, led him in. Her still-firm grasp felt foreign yet too familiar, and yet he let her do it.

The smells, then. Musky and sweet like ancient dried roses (the garden’s) she had kept in a pretty wooden box. Yeastiness of baked bread that has cooled awhile. And still those worn wood floors with a rug here and there. Smooth dark wood banister on a long staircase that led up to dark halls and quiet bedrooms. He averted his eyes from the upper reaches. Where her and his siblings had slept, squabbled, studied.

The living room beckoned with low lighting, same green velvet love seat and deep gold with green couch. The fireplace stood gawking, empty of fond memories of roaring fires.

She began to sit first and, as he had been taught, he waited until she was settled in her arm chair, then sat on the couch.

“This is a surprise, I know,” he said. “I said I’d never return. But we have talked a bit more, I felt I could come, finally. If you wanted that.”

She laughed, just barely, as she coughed easily. “You knew I got sick, about to die, maybe?”

“You were?”

She waved that away. “Not yet. You know how they talk around here, always drama. I make progress daily.”

“Yes. Good.”

She settled the afghan over her lap. She was not old, maybe sixty, he had forgotten to his dismay, but she looked almost old in the dusky room. Her hair, for one thing, had gone all steel grey, and was pulled back from her pale, lean face.

Arlen sat back, trying to not think of “Then versus Now”, how different it was despite a strange sameness of the place. Heat rose from his chest, trapped beneath his jacket–she kept the rooms too warm, as before– and he wanted to take it off yet was unwilling to do so. It might be thought a signal, give her the idea he wanted to stay awhile and maybe she would hate that. He didn’t want to, really, although they hadn’t embraced, or acted so glad to see one another at least she hadn’t said anything terrible yet. Nor had he. What words could ease such distance between them, the misery gnawing and creating the deep impasse to separate them?

He’d imagined he’d offer a few but true sentences and be gone. But they now dissipated. And she spoke.

“I made bread. And coffee. Would you like some, Arlen?”

He followed her into the high-ceilinged kitchen with big six burner stove. Fresh bread perfumed all. How she had once loved to cook. The worn teak table in the dining room beyond was set with pretty placemats; a loaf of bread on cutting board with a knife; plates and knives and a butter dish all in a row. The coffee carafe and cups were at the ready.

It was then that a small, persistent lump formed in his throat. The trouble she had gone to. The way it had been before…how they all had been happier more often than not, better off than most, a home filled with industry and ideas and play– and kids and adults who had learned–primarily– reasonable ways and developed good plans for life, together or apart.

“How is your business faring so far this year?” she asked. She buttered two pieces of bread for each of them, poured the coffee. Gestured toward the homemade pear preserves which she’d forgotten he didn’t like much.

“The shop is busier all the time; I have so many new orders this past year. The cars are beautiful once rebuilt, restored. You should–” He had forgotten himself, got excited. He wanted to tell her more but why? It was his unusual interest in vehicles, his mechanical talents that did the damage.

“That’s good, Arlen, you’re doing well then.”

Arlen was good with mechanical things since childhood; his father and he had shared the knack. And it wasn’t long before he fell in love with all things related to engines and wheels, especially motorcycles though his father didn’t, not really. But he encouraged his children in their interests.

In a short few years Arlen gave in to his growing need for power and speed. The desire for not just the fun weekend dirt bike but then a fine sport bike, not the Dodge Tomahawk he desperately wanted to ride one day–but, still, the Honda Blackbird was a dream, its acceleration, its dexterity, how it hugged corners, gave him that charge of adrenaline. And it was true he changed some as he rode more. It emboldened him, gave him a sense of freedom, a confidence as never before. Too much confidence. Arlen the “all around good guy” got a bit tougher and some said wild even as he increased his skills with hands, and his riding. Well, he met people. He met guys who liked those things rather than studying and such so by high school he had slipped from one social side of things to another. It wasn’t bad, he felt–it was just…faster, riskier, and when on a motorcycle this is what counted to him. Challenge and reward.

The slices of bread seemed to melt in his mouth, such richness, smoothness on the tongue, how they filled him. The coffee, though weaker than he’d make, was also a pleasure as they talked some more. Just this sharing of food and drink with his mother was easier than he had thought it could be.

He dipped into the vast pool of family matters. “You hear from Marilyn? About coming for awhile to help out and all?”

She brought a tissue to lips, coughed three times, hard. “In a couple of weeks. She had to take time off her county job, find someone to help out Dan with their two kids. Your niece and nephew…”

“Yeah. I have pictures.”

“When did you last see them?”

It sounded accusing but maybe he was wrong. She looked calm, interested.

“It’s been awhile.” They’d been two and three, respectively. They were now seven and eight, at least he thought. But he and Marilyn were never too close, she was older than he and…Doug, and after what happened, they were in touch twice a year, maybe three times max.

“Do you miss Dad still? I do,” he said before he could stop himself. He should not be going down that path. He should stick to script. Just make amends and be gone.

“Do you really mean, do I still miss Dad and Doug?”

Arlen felt the slippage inside him, as if he was coming off his moorings, fear threatening. He looked at his hands holding bread, put the slice down, lowered them into his lap where his fingers twined into knots.

“It’s funny,” she said, adjusting the afghan on her lap, smoothing the placemat, “how you can finally get used to losing a husband who died of a heart attack, yes, you actually can–with practice of new routines, after much mourning. But a child? That is another process; it never really ends.”

Arlen couldn’t bear to look at her so looked at the large portrait still hanging as it always had, taken one moment in time when they were all presentable and accounted for–all alive in this house.

“But.” His mother’s voice came out in soft breath, then almost a whisper. “But to lose a husband a son and then, despite him still being alive, another son–to lose, essentially, most of a whole family–that is the hardest thing of all, Arlen. The thing that cannot be forgotten.”

He rose then, paced back and forth, gesturing at nothing but the walls, careful to not see her eyes. “I didn’t make him get on, didn’t encourage it, not on that bike, I swear it! Dad had just died, we weren’t even thinking right. I kept saying that after he…I told you then but no one heard me. He insisted, he felt left behind, he had to have some fun he said, even when I told him he shouldn’t get on, I was still learning the Honda’s ways. And Doug jumped on behind me as I was taking off but I didn’t for one tiny second think we would get so far as to find trouble, much less crash on the hilly curve… I’m so sorry, I loved him, too–I’m so sorry, Mom!”

“I know, I truly did later realize it. Come here, son, come.”

He got down on his knees, wrapped his arms around her frailness and she clutched him to her, patted his back, smoothed his hair.

“Forgive me, forgive me, Mom…”

“God forgive us all, let’s leave what’s been lost, be thankful for what we have now,” she said clearly at his ear.

Then closed her eyes and shed tears with him but not like when it was her hard time of sorrows. This time it was for her only son’s return to her. And he at long last released that aching for it all, and felt salvaged by her arms about him once again.

******

“Here I am,” Rennie called out, hoisting bags of food and other supplies from her truck.

Arlen lay the ax atop the pile of wood pieces he was splitting and pulled off leather gloves. They embraced heartily and he took two bags as they went inside. Rennie removed cap and jacket as she moved purposely across the small living room.

She held out her hand. “You came, Mrs. Whitaker, glad you did. I’m Rennie.”

The older woman rose on steady legs and swiftly passed the dancing, popping fire in the fieldstone fireplace, and took the young woman’s capable hands into her own.

“I’m pleased to meet the woman who loves my son–and be asked to visit this fine cabin. Come and sit, get warm, let Arlen do the work.”

Arlen left the food on the table and returned to the wood, every strike a blow to the ravenous past, every new split log a store against the coming winter’s brittle cold, it’s astonishing yield of snow, All the more reason to gather his family within the cabin. His dad and Doug sure would have liked it. At first that thought jarred him, then felt pretty good. His mother gazed through the window so he raised a hand in response and tossed another log onto the pile.

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Shadows in the Light

They say sunlight is required to be happy, the more the healthier. I was not of that mind; I left the sun to its work, but lived beyond its searing touch when possible. It reveals far too much, demands my response. Barrow’s Forest removed yearnings for its direct reach when I was seventeen and was moved here from the city. From the other life.

It’s the usual story: child loses parents and is given to grandparents to continue on while everything is wrapped in fog, as if my body and mind were covered with a heavy scarf. Nothing was worth remembering for awhile, in any case. It was shock to everyone, a mad accident of fate as one lumbering, reckless car crossed the line and the other, a bright sporty thing booming with laughter, taken out of this reality. I know about the laughter because that’s how they were, especially when coming back from a tour. That time I was home, studying, ready to graduate. Which I did, barely. Then I was insistently removed and re-positioned in looming woods with two old people who knew me from afar. I was an obligation, if a not an altogether unpleasant one. Though they would and did tell it differently. But that is the gist of it. Out of the light and into shadows. But light can be unnerving, hard to dwell within. They were getting known, my parents, for their music, and for the last year the media was more and more at us.

So I was moved; I didn’t even resist after a day or two of loud protestations. What was there to hang onto without my parents? My grandparents, is all.

I took up residence on the cabin’s second floor. Stayed right there except to eat a bit for weeks. From my window I started to watch the woods, how it took over at the edge of the clearing. Those voluptuous greens turning black as I peered deeper and deeper until I felt blind with looking. There might be a rustle or flutter that I couldn’t name at all, the barest outline of something in motion. I felt drawn to the center except for that unknown thing or person. When I asked Gran she said pay no mind, someone from the other side, meaning other side of the forest, near the village, but it felt like another place altogether, perhaps where my parents were resting in limbo. Somewhere that finally held more meaning, or even a way into any sort of hope. That movement carried to me a respite of wishfulness that distracted me from sorrow.

Out my eastern window, though smaller, I could see a neat vegetable and flower patch, and past that chickens, a pig, two goats, two dogs, a cat that belonged to no one but took a liking to me because I paid no attention to it. In time, I grew to like the pig, its smart, odd expressions, but it was given away later that year. Or sold for meat, no one said. I liked best the birds that gathered and swooped about day and night, despite the cat. They sang and sang their hearts out.

It was, then, generally sunny on one side of the cabin while darker on the other. There was ample space. (Years later the cabin was encroached upon by bushes and underbrush, more Douglas firs and Sitka spruce, western hemlock, red cedar. No one beat it back but let it happen as nature wanted.) I was an oasis of shadowy light amid conifer-captured acreage.

I grew restless watching giant trees sway in dampening wind, coolness soothing my feet and neck as I leaned into my open window. I closed my eyes, heard the wind speak of ancient times as if it was the present, no beginning, no end. I did not speak much, only listened, and even to my grandparents as they grew less mournful. Eventually, Gran directed me to get moving, out and about, to help pick huckleberries and salmon berries. I don’t know how she figured it was time but she was right.

“Earn your keep now, Tally,” she said with sideways glance, “and learn where you live now, how to survive it all.”

PawPaw scratched his beard, winked at me. It was strange to actually look at them close up, their feelings hovering under the surface like fish that came up for air occasionally. But they were strong if also so worn. I didn’t smile in return. I just got ready to follow. In nubby navy sweater, ratty sweat pants and dirty sneakers, I trailed after her. And that was that.

Outside, the smells. I had once been surrounded by cigarettes, musky perfume, wine and pasta with sauces, overcooked beef. Here the cabin was imbued with woodstove’s tantalizing smokiness; the sweet, clean scents of vegetables right from the ground and waiting on the counter; a sharpness from fresh meat I could not often name. And beyond the door was a potpourri of tree bark and leaves that made me feel almost drunk in an hour.

The stained baskets swung on our arms, berries piling up in tender mounds. Gran quizzed me on salmon berries and huckleberries, others that were poisonous, which berries were ripest. I sampled, felt hunger surge in me. I sought sweet wood strawberry and tried to avoid blackberry brambles which caused itchy, painful scratches as discovered as a child. Gran carried a soft damp cloth to clean small wounds.

I was still alive, that’s what the pain told me and berries bursting on the tongue, an almost terrible wonder of happy juiciness–all, I felt, barely deserved. Great gulps of air were taken into my lungs, richness of forest and meadow life that egged me on, alongside birds, butterflies and bees as well as my grandmother far from and back to the cabin. A home that now included me. If I’d cried I would have known, wouldn’t I? But Gran’s rough fingers touched my cheek, wiped away wetness. I looked down and away from her grey-blue gaze. Her eyes were light and dark all at once and clear as water, a balance and rightness in a world off kilter, leaving me sad and grateful. Still adrift within that forest life…which pulled me like an earthly tide, right into its embrace.

I slowly relented; it was a relief. In time, I became known to the forest as it became known to me. I missed less and less of the old life as it was not a life at all without my parents–this was what I had left. My few friends had stopped contacting me. It mattered little. I had all I needed, or pretended it was so and then found it, more often, to be.

There was that shadowy figure that came and went in turn with the other creatures. It was as regular as any other happening. Once the person stepped out into a sun-filled meadow as I wandered at the other edge: lanky, gleaming blond, tanned, fleet of foot. An Irish Setter raced with him and they were that fast gone. I didn’t see them again but glimpsed them, knowing to look for that hair, their sounds and daydreamed of village life despite being well planted in my woodland refuge.

I was soon eighteen, nineteen, twenty and had started working at the nursery and garden supply. I had to adjust to relentless sunlight as best I could, took cover in shaded corners when I could. But I did not have a need to leave the general territory, run to the city to get lost and go wild. My parents had done all that for me when young. I rambled through my life with comfortable routines, counted the ways I loved the trees and my small family.

The forest boy disappeared for four years but though I missed our near- close encounters, the regularity of his passing through dim forest and farther off  the wide meadow, there were just enough people in my life. I had a friend or two, when there was time to see them. And I had discovered clay and my generous grandparents gave me a potter’s wheel. I built a kiln with PawPaw and things changed.

******

In good weather, Pawpaw read while to each morning with a big mug of coffee, chair set on the splintery porch. The village has expanded farther but the woods even more, and overlapping shadows dominated. Milky dapples of light slipped in and out. Soon his eyes closed; he dozed there or later settled in a creaky rocker inside. I worked in my potter’s shed if not at the nursery.

Gran had not been around for two years now to keep us in order, give a bit of chatter, to direct each day and ease us towards night. I somehow found my way but she taught me well. Her love was an engine; it  had empowered me again. It faltered, yes, but I knew how to keep on. Work and love, the same as she had done. PawPaw was a kind, decent if tough skinned man, often lost in his even more private thoughts. His presence reassured me as it always had, though I worried. He did not complain when I cooked with minimal enthusiasm or barely sorted animals’ needs. He pitched in as he could. We then had just one goat, a smattering of chickens and a half-lame terrier due to a coyote encounter which PawPaw ended with his shot gun. The cat had long ago left for better adventures, or so I imagined.

PawPaw did aright despite slowing way down. I could manage well enough, thanks to their training on all critical matters. I worked at the nursery and garden shop three to four days a week, labor that was good to me. Then I retreated to the wheel, creating, and sold ceramics in the village as tourism picked up more.

Before Gran passed she put a name to the mysterious flitting shadow figure when she pointed him out in town. She gave a shake of her head, let go a sudden short laugh.

“Lane Harold. Money there,” she said, “not a bad sort. They say he’s got talent, is an artist. Like you.” She tapped me on the shoulder to emphasize. “Your forest frolicker. They live right beyond the stands of red alders and firs, you know, that big place made of redwood and glass?”

Of course I knew, it was a village by us, everyone knew the Harolds. But I didn’t know it was him… I appraised him slyly: rangy, with a way of holding his head as if aloof and studying all, hands stuck in his pockets as he listened to a fawning young woman. As we passed he glanced at me, brow knitted. I thought he might say something, but it passed immediately, so on to the next errand. I did not look back but wondered often, of much.

Month melded into month. Gran woke up ill one day, passed without much suffering; winter arrived and then they both left us. The spring to summer transition was welcome–more work for me, more clement weather for PawPaw on our porch. It was a pace that spoke of reckoning with whatever came, one’s mind on one’s work or rest. No call for deep mourning then, we had each other and the land.

On a recent trip for supplies, I was frankly identified at Jack’s General Store.

“You’re Tally McBride, right?”

I nodded, knowing who he was already. “And you’re Lane Harold.”

He had a can of linseed oil as well as a box of gauze and bandages; I noted his hand was scraped. I had toothpaste, two bars of glycerin soap, tissues and coffee beans for PawPaw and a magazine that had newly arrived on the small rack. Surprised to see a periodical about crafts, I snatched it up.

He looked at the magazine and nodded. “I saw your ceramics at Moonstone Gifts. Good work.”

That touristy gift shop’s name uttered by him was embarrassing. I couldn’t say I saw his paintings because it would have sounded stupid. His art was everywhere in town and beyond, by then. He was making a very fine living, had his own place with a studio but it wasn’t like mine in a corner of our tumbledown shed, my handmade brick kiln at work outdoors. His was a whole building with glass walls and skylights, I had heard. He gave tours of it at times, it was that beautiful. I hadn’t seen it. The forest shadow had become other than what I had imagined, less magical, more flesh and blood –and profitable.

I paid for my items and started out when I felt a touch on my elbow.

“We should do a joint show at Pine Tree Gallery. I’ll talk to the owner, Madelyn, if you’re amenable.”

Was I amenable for an art show? I just made things to order, when a shop requested a few more. I enjoyed my hands in the tacky, malleable clay; the repetitive movements of palms and fingers molding and reshaping; the earthy glazes a series of chemical surprises. I was not an artiste, just a diligent potter. And I liked it that way.

“Really, a show?”

I turned toward him but leaned away like he did, ever so slightly, and stared almost unabashed for the first time. He met my eyes with a strange familiarity, surely aided by those years of not speaking while playing a sort of forest tag, not meeting directly but by way of random rustlings or swishes, grasses pressed to the side as any beast might do, twigs making arrows on a path, marsh marigolds trampled when leaping the spring and summer creeks. Faded blossoms left in a tree hollow.

My arms crossed over chest then uncrossed self consciously. Who was he? Just a childish shadow boy. A rich college guy, a townie who painted. But oh, so very well. “I make things for tourists now and then, not to exhibit. I am not in the business of showing cups and plates like art works. I can’t compete with your skill and talent.”

“It needn’t compete but complement one another. Paint and clay–a good combination.” The sales person awaited his purchase. “Think it over, we’ll talk.”

I bought my items and left. He was nowhere to be seen. My free hand clenched and unclenched as I walked off, irritated with myself. What was I thinking to turn him down right off? What was he thinking to accost me with that? Was it, perhaps, a little funny to him?

As I rounded a corner rapid steps rushed up behind me and I moved over to let the runner pass.

“Wait, Tally, let’s talk now.”

Lane halted beside me and his hand pulled at my forearm.  “You live at the Rollins’, right? Grandparents. So my mother said, she knew them. I’m sorry you lost your grandmother.”

I shielded my eyes. I rarely carried sunglasses and I was blinded trying to look at him as his back was to full sun. “That was some time ago, yes, and thanks. What’s so pressing you nearly ran me down?”

We resumed walking. “I remember, that’s all. You at the cabin’s upstairs window, both of us out there but never meeting in the Barrow’s Forest or the meadow. It was like you hid from me. From everyone. I often wondered about you–you didn’t grow up here. Your mother did…”

“Yes. We often played in parallel, true. I watched, you watched. But you looked up in my window? That is bold…”

He chuckled. “Occasionally, but don’t worry. My curiosity was harmless. I think.”

I stifled an urge to smack him on the shoulder but we didn’t even know each other. Did we? It felt more like walking and talking with an old acquaintance– at very the least–the longer they reminisced.

“Well, anyway, so you know, I tracked you like a dog, scouting out your direction, spying on your childish activities.”

“You didn’t, I would have realized! Or my dog.”

I shrugged, hands with palms up. Let him think about it. The dog was not always with him.

“The point is, you were sort of a part of my youth….an enigmatic part.”

“You’re an old man, now, is that it?”

“I’m pushing twenty-six–it has been a few years since our romping about.”

“I’d call it stealth practice, to pass the time.”

“And you the elusive object of interest.”

We both laughed at such foolishness, feet shuffling as if to go.

“Say, would you like coffee and a pastry or something? We’ll make art talk. ” He indicated the cafe behind them.

I imagined PawPaw snoring in his chair, Tim the terrier at his feet. They jaywalked to the cafe.

******

Two months later, nearly everything sold during the annual July holiday exhibit. This was was “Clay and Paint by Tally and Lane.” Tally was amazed Lane was listed second. But, then, everyone knew his fine, expensive oils and were barely familiar with her groupings of colorful dishes and vases, bird sculptures and bells. If at all.

But not after two weeks when the show closed. Tally McBride was “a refreshing talent worth admiring and supporting, and she held her own with Lane Harold’s fine nature renderings. May the pairing share offerings in the future.” That was per The Village Clarion, for starters. There was more good reviews elsewhere, many top notch about him.

Later, we sat on the cabin porch and PawPaw, who had attended proudly, chatted Lane up as if they all had been cozy forever and it was half-true. The families only a quarter mile from each other had been friends. So very long before Lane had come to be. Way back when Sylvie, my mother, was born a bit later in life, to their surprise. But the Harolds became more busy and prominent, had two sons of their own. There were other matters to attend to, different people to know. It all receded more each year, except for Sylvie and her gorgeous singing, and the marriage he shared and loved long and well. And the forest, their good little world. He ambled off with a contented sigh and a pat on Lane’s back.

We sat and looked into the heart of firs and alders and beyond. The sun’s last rays tinged treetops pink and coral, then vanished as if someone pulled the shade. Day birds settled. Creatures of the night hunted and romanced in their own language under soft cover of darkness. We were silent but our fingers found each others’. Summer’s eve glittered with cool pulses of starlight and the piney community exhaled, kept close the human secrets again.

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Spoken, Unspoken

teenager-72-2 photo by Jeurgen Teller

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.

“Quinn!”

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.”

Lil waited.

“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.