Afternoon sun blazed liquid gold across the heavens. The maples were dressed in crimson buds, the birches sported verdant green catkins. Even the murky river reflected a rainbow of Springtime hues.
It all looked grey to me.
I sat down and dangled my feet over the edge of the dock. Waiting. If I pointed my toes, they’d skim the water. I didn’t dare.
Above, a pair of sparrows chirped in serenade and the baritone croak of a frog harmonized from the embankment. A breeze chattered through the new growth in the treetops. Mother Nature conducted a riverside symphony.
It sounded discordant in my ears.
I checked my watch and swung my legs back and forth. I didn’t have to wait for long. The wind died, the birds fell silent.
“You shouldn’t keep coming here.”
She settled down next to me, close but not touching. I hadn’t heard her approach. I never did.
“I miss talking with you.” Eyes fixed on the opposite bank, I refused to look at her.
“I know, darling.” Her voice quivered. “I do too.”
Now she was here, the words bottled up in my throat. The deep river flowed, deceptive and quiet. On the surface it appeared calm, but underneath the current was strong and swift. Dangerous territory.
“Out with it, then. What’s bothering you.”
“It’s Becky’s birthday.” My fists twisted in the hem of my t-shirt. “Dad’s throwing her a party.”
“Love isn’t finite. Caring for her won’t diminish what you both feel for me.” She chuckled. “Besides, parties mean cake.” Her laugh turned into something else, reminiscent of a gurgle. “I miss cake.”
I stared down at the water, and blinked back tears. “I just wish it could go back to the way things were.”
“It would astonish me if you didn’t.” Water dripped down the piling. “But you can’t change what happened.”
Thinking about that day twisted my stomach in knots. The images were jumpy and disjointed, like a scratched up DVD. A loud crack of splintering wood. The shock of the freezing water. Thrashing arms and legs. Burning lungs. Panic. Darkness.
It took four days for my body to learn to breathe on its own again. When I woke, I drowned anew. This time in guilt.
“I see your father fixed the dock.” Her voice pulled me from the memory.
I touched the wood between us. Two unpainted planks showed sharp contrast to the darker, weathered ones on either side. “Yeah. Becky likes to kayak. She asked me to come with her a few times. Said it might be good for me, but…” I trailed off.
The silence stretched, as she waited for me to finish. “I’m so sorry, momma.” I choked the words out over a sob.
“Sweetheart, it was an accident.” She cleared her throat. “I saved you.” She coughed and continued. “I’d do it again. A million times over.”
I stared at my hands.
“Look at me, baby.” She used her ‘mom voice.’ The one that brooked no argument.
I forced myself to turn my head. Her skin was pallid, lips tinged blue. Ropes of dripping hair clung to her face like blond seaweed. Water trickled from her nose. Her hazel eyes, twin to my own, were clouded over. She flickered as if she were pulled elsewhere, but was tethered here by my remorse.
She reached a translucent hand toward me, fingers hovering inches above my arm. With a look of regret, she folded them in her lap. I wished she would touch me. She never did.
“Loving your stepmom isn’t betraying me.” She said it gently, but it still stung. “I just want you and your dad to be happy.”
I scrubbed my sleeve over my eyes.
“You have to let me go.” Her ‘mom voice’ was back. “Enjoy the party. Eat the cake.” A ray of sunshine fell on her, and for a moment I saw her as she had been – long frizzy curls framed smooth rosy cheeks, her twinkling eyes full of laughter. “I hope it’s chocolate.”
The words sounded like goodbye.
I blinked and she was gone.
The sparrows started to sing as I scrambled to my feet. If I didn’t hurry, I’d be late for the party.