Squeek….Squeek…Squeek…Oars dipped in and out of the water in measured, methodical strokes. The creaky oarlocks of the rowboat twisted with every pull, announcing Holly’s presence on the still lake. Ensconced in fog, she paused to listen for the tiny swish of a fishing line, the plunking of the sinker on its descent to attract some poor creature to its doom. It would be another fifteen minutes or so before the sun would burst over the mountain, calling the fog home, but that’s why Holly was here.
She stowed the oars with a resounding clunk and looked out across the dark water. Her bare feet dangled over the side of the boat and a life jacket served as a pillow as she laid back. The water, cold at first, soothed her sunburnt feet. She took a deep breath and wrapped her hand around the sapphire on her neck.
“Mom, if you can hear me, I need you,” she whispered. Of course there would be no answer, that wasn’t the point. Tendrils of fog marched around her, as if listening to her request. Her grandmother, grandfather, cousin, best friend’s parents, those taken by the world danced across her memories in the murky silence. The brightest stars flickered in and out of sight with the onset of dawn. Holly arched her neck to see the star named for her mom, but the brightening sky overpowered it.
Dark wings flittered across the morning canvas, Holly smiled with the memory of that one time when a bat got stuck in her mom’s hair. Ever since, her mom would only canoe at night with a hood secured over her head. A tear formed in the corner of Holly’s eye as she drifted…drifted…
“If mom were here, this wouldn’t even be an issue!”
Holly sighed at her sister’s outburst. “It’ll be ok, Tasha. Do you want me to talk to Dad?”
“No,” Tasha said. “Then he’ll talk to her.”
“Cindy is going to be in our lives now. It’s a good thing.”
“But she asked me to be a bridesmaid! I’m not ready to be a bridesmaid for my father’s wedding!”
“Didn’t we agree that Dad shouldn’t be alone?” Holly asked.
“Yes, but –”
“But not like this?”
Tasha answered with an exasperated sigh.
“Talk to Dad,” Holly said, “you’ll feel better.”
“How can I? He’s planning for his second wedding.” Tasha’s voice cracked.
“I know, honey.” Confronted by Tasha’s heartbreak, Holly pulled her sister into a strong hug. Crying wouldn’t solve anything and both of them had spilled enough tears. “I’ll be with you and Sophie’s going to be the flower girl.”
“How are you so calm about this? About Sophie calling her ‘Mum-Mum—”
“She’s not calling her Mum-Mum.” Holly pulled back from her sister. “No one will use mom’s name!” Sophie never met her Mum-Mum, but she damn well knew the stories. “She’ll call her grandma, just like we did for grandpa.”
“And I guess she’s going to be our step-mom.”
“She’ll be Cindy, but she won’t be our mom,” Holly said. It’s not that Cindy was a bad person. She had gotten to know the family through sporting events, vacations, holidays, and had been there for Tasha’s wedding, for Sophie’s baptism, and charmed everyone in the family. No one could deny the happiness she brought to their father.
“I still see her, Holly. Every night.”
“I know,” Holly said. “It will never go away, but coping will get easier.” Holly kept making the promise, but five years later and it was starting to sound tired.
“I’m not ready for this.”
“No one ever is.”
A chorus of birds interrupted the memories. Tasha was back at the house with the family, probably still in a booze-induced slumber. Of course she took it the hardest, she was the one that found their mother face down; dead in her bed. No warning. No screaming. Just… gone.
The sun peeked over the mountain, so Tasha slid her dripping feet back into the boat. She sought out a towel to wipe them clean in the chilly morning and rolled her jeans back over her ankles.
Today will be better, the sun promised as it burned her protective fog away, whisking the spirits back into the sky. Holly rolled her shoulders, stretching out her sore arms. Vacations at the lake house always involved rowing and ice packs.
Swash…swash…swash…swash… paddles across the lake drew Holly’s attention.
“Mommy!” A small girl cried out. “Mommy where are you?”
“I’m over here, baby!” Holly said. A pause in the swashing and a paddle boat appeared, carrying two important passengers.
“Someone woke up, and apparently you’re the only one that matters. She didn’t believe me when I said you’d be back.” Tasha held the energized five year old to her seat by her the straps of her life jacket. “Stephen’s up too but your husband’s taking care of him.”
“That’s ok,” Holly said. “Take the oar.” Tasha pulled on the oar to drag the paddle boat alongside her. Holly reached across, pulling the squirming ball of energy into her arms. After a successful transfer, the boats separated. “Now Sophie,” Holly said. “You’re going to help mommy navigate home.”
“Three lights, like Orion’s Belt! That way!” Sophie pointed toward shore, in the correct direction. Clearly a trait she had gotten from her father.
Holly nodded. “As you say, Captain!”
“Mommy,” Sophie looked at her mom with questioning eyes. “Grandpa says I get to call Ms. Cindy Grandma soon. When is soon?”
“A few months, love.” Holly’s eyes went beyond her daughter to meet Tasha. Tasha turned away. It was hard. Every day was hard.
“Dad’s making waffles. I’ll head back in to help.” Tasha paddled away.
“We’ll be in soon.” Holly furrowed her brow at her sister’s departure. Sophie sat in the bottom of the rowboat, but her little fingers dipped in the water. “No no sweetie, keep your hands inside.” Sophie flashed her father’s mischievous grin and her whole hand plunged into the lake. “I don’t want your fingers getting squished, little one. You only have ten of them.” Sophie frowned.
“But I want to play splish splash!”
“When we get home, you can splish splash with your brother, deal?” Holly asked. The little girl bobbed her head. “Now, my Captain, we know where we’re going, how about a song to get us there?” Sophie’s eyes lit up.
“The rowboat song!” The pair sang and squeaked their way back to shore. Tasha waited for them at the dock. Holly pulled up on the shore and allowed her sister to scoop her daughter up from the bottom of the boat, her bloomers soaked. Holly pulled up the oars and dragged the boat onto the sand of their small beach. By the time the boat was safely on land, Sophie was already off, dancing in circles in the yard. Holly passed an oar to Tasha and took her arm with her free hand.
“It will be all right, little sister.”
“Eventually,” Tasha said. Holly squeezed her arm.
“No one can ever replace mom,” Holly said, “but there’s room in our hearts for Cindy, too.”
“This shouldn’t be happening.”
“No.” Holly released her sister’s arm. “But she’s a good person, Tasha.”
“She’s not our mom.”
“She’s our dad’s fiancee. Mom would want to see him happy, to see us happy. You’re right, she’s not our mom, but she is family now. Besides, mom wouldn’t want us to —”
“Mommy!” Sophie stopped her dancing to call to the women. “Look! It’s Mum-Mum” She pointed to the bird feeder above the deck. Tasha and Holly fell silent, identifying a pair of cardinals. “Hi Mum mum!”
“See?” ” Holly gestured to the birds. “Sophie knows her mum mum, and you and I will always have our memories. Everything will be fine.”
“I miss her.”
“Me too, Tash, me too.”
The women followed the five year old into the old lakehouse. The cardinals watched them from the safety of the tree until the shadow of death departed.