by Emily Marcason-Tolmie
Their suitcases were stacked like puzzle pieces in the far reaches of the car. Bridget and her younger sister, Lucy, sat in the back seat with their heads slightly touching. Lucy flipped through one of her mother’s fashion magazines circling all the dresses she thought were pretty with a pink marker. Bridget gazed out the window as the trees and sky passed by in a vibrant blur. School started in one week. A pang of uncertainty filled her chest with anxiety. Junior high loomed. She twirled her long blonde hair around her slender pointer finger, every so often bringing the silky strands under her nose. The narrator’s voice telling the story from her mother’s book on tape reminded her of her father. She wished her mother would turn it off.
The cottage was painted white with red shutters framing its windows. The musty smell inside dissipated soon after their mother pushed open all the windows. The girls decided after exploring all three of the bedrooms to claim the one with two brass twin beds. The beds were each draped with a homemade quilt. The delicate yellow curtains, made to match the quilts, fluttered in the breeze of the open window. The warmth of the room felt familiar like the bedroom they shared at home.
Bridget and Lucy were born 18 months apart. They were each other’s tormentors and fierce protectors; playmates and sources of envy. Before bed each night their goodnight was always the same. That first night at the cottage was no different.
“I’m sorry if I did anything bad to you today,” Bridget would say.
“Yes. I forgive you,” Lucy would respond, “Do you forgive me?”
“Yes. I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
The early morning sun flooded the kitchen. The girls ate their scrambled eggs while convincing their mother to let them explore on their first morning of vacation.
“We won’t be long, Mom,” Lucy pleaded.
“Not long at all,” Bridget echoed.
“Stay close to the cottage. Your father might still make it in time to take you girls fishing today,” their mother said as she scrapped the leftover eggs into the trash.
The girls skipped down the cottage’s front steps. The warm breeze carried the forest’s subtle perfume of sweet sap. The grass under their sneakers faded into a brown carpet of dirt, sticks and pinecones that crackled under their feet. The morning sun crept within the majestic pine
trees. The birds chirped, perched high in soaring branches that seemed to touch the sky. Large tree roots covered the ground like old, bumpy veins. The grass reappeared at the water’s edge and Bridget kicked off her sneakers. She felt like she was standing on green velvet. She inched her toes into the cool water. The sun light hit the lake in a way that caused it to sparkle like a million twinkling stars on a clear night. Lucy relaxed into the grass with her legs extended. She leaned back on her elbows.
“I think they are getting divorced,” Lucy said.
Bridget wiggled her painted blue toenails under the water. “They aren’t splitting up,” she countered.
“You don’t hear them fighting at night. You always sleep through it.”
The girls were quiet. Lucy drew her bare knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. “I want to be a doctor when I grow up,”
Lucy finally said.
Bridget shrugged. “Why?”
“He is helping people.”
“He will be here. He promised,” Lucy said.
“It’s a promise he can’t keep,” Bridget said.
“It’s not his fault.”
“Stop defending him,” Bridget said. “It’s annoying that you always stick up for him.”
“What does that even mean?”
“It is pretty clear that Dad has always loved you the most,” Bridget said.
“He loves us both. And if that is what you think, then I think Mom loves you the most.”
“Mom is too preoccupied with Dad not being around to love either of us.”
“He doesn’t miss your soccer games, does he?”
“He went to your art show,” Lucy stammered.
“Did he?” Bridget asked with raised eyebrows.
“I must have missed him. I only remember you, Mom and Grandpa coming that night.”
Lucy was quiet a moment, “I’m sure he wanted to be there.”
“Maybe Mom told him not to come this week,” Lucy said. “Maybe she tells him not to come at all. Maybe it is her fault.”
Bridget tossed some rocks into the water. “I’m so tired of all of this,” she said.
Lucy inched closer to her sister in the water. “After they split up if you want to stay with Mom then I will stay, too,” Lucy said. She squeezed her sister’s hand. “I will never leave you, Bridget. I promise.” Bridget didn’t answer her.
A girl about Bridget’s age, with long blonde hair pulled into a lose braid, crouched on a nearby rock. Dirt was smudged on her forehead and left cheek. She wore a sleeveless red sundress that graced the tops of her knees. Stray threads from its ripped hem dangled in the warm breeze. Her feet were bare. The girl smiled and waved. She jumped from the rock with a minimal splash.
“My name is Caroline.”
“I know,” Caroline responded.
“How do you know my name?”
“I live here,” Caroline said as she gently tapped Bridget’s forehead.
Lucy glanced over her shoulder. “We should get back, Bridget. Mom might start looking for us soon.”
“Stay with me,” Caroline said. “It’s lonely in the darkness.”
“I can’t,” Bridget answered. “My Dad wants to take us fishing.”
“You know your father doesn’t keep promises,” Caroline said.
“Bridget, maybe Dad is here,” Lucy said. She moved towards the bank where their sneakers were piled.
Bridget didn’t move.
“She isn’t like us,” Caroline whispered with a nod towards Lucy.
“Bridget, come on,” Lucy said. Her sneakers were on and tied. Her hands were perched on her hips.
“Stay with me,” Caroline repeated. “Don’t send me back to the darkness.”
The water climbed Bridget’s legs with each step she took until it was just below the hem of her dress. Lucy was removing her sneakers. She was coming back into the lake. Bridget wished their father was standing on the water’s edge with the fishing poles in his hands. But, she saw no one.
Caroline’s grip tightened. “I will always be here if you need me. Trust me, Bridget.”
Bridget plunged into the cool water. She thrashed, grasping at life. Her face scraped the rocks at the bottom of the lake. She struggled with someone until everything went black. Bridget dug her fingers through the green velvet deep into the Earth as her eyes fluttered open from the lake’s grassy bank. Her red dress was soaked and the hem was ripped. Dirt was smudged on her forehead and left cheek. A throbbing in her head forced her to sit up. She saw Lucy floating face down nearby. Caroline was gone.
She left in the early morning when the sky was just turning pink. There was a cryptic note in her flowing cursive left on his bedside table as he slept in the twisted white bed sheet. She picked up a gray hooded sweatshirt that still smelled like him and slipped it over her head.
Stepping over the wadded blue scrubs from yesterday’s shift she glanced at him one last time before slipping out of the bedroom they shared.
The sun peeked through the pine branches. Shadows and light danced on her lap in rapid movements as her car sped up the highway. Every so often the princess-cut diamond ring on her left hand would mingle with the sunlight in perfect unison to create a spectacular prism of light on the ceiling of the car. The radio station was now nothing but static. It didn’t bother her. The white noise soothed her cluttered mind. On the passenger seat next to her lay an opened map of the Adirondack Park with a specific route outlined in red ink. She had a destination.
A for sale sign swung in the late afternoon breeze as she drove up the driveway bringing the car to a slow stop. The white cottage with the red shutters looked as she had remembered it in all of her dreams. It stood at the edge of the pine tree forest. The peeling white paint rolled itself up from the rotted planks. A red shutter on an upstairs window hung sideways. A gusty wind would easily cause it to fall to the ground with a thud. It was only a matter of time. The front yard with its once velvety green grass was now an overgrown mass of weeds.
She stood facing the cottage. Despite the warm day her hands were clammy. She wiped them on her jean shorts. No one knew she was here. Her mother and father had tried so hard to forget because it was too painful to remember. They wanted her to forget, too. But, she was wrapped in guilt about that day like a warm sweater on a cold winter’s day.
She made her way past the cottage. She could hear the soft rippling water of Lake Lonely in the distance. She remembered every detail of that day. It was her penance. The crackling of the pine cones and sticks under her feet. The birds chirping. When she reached the lake’s bank she slipped her sandals off of her feet. She inched towards the water’s edge letting the water nip at her toes. She pushed her sunglasses back into her wavy blonde hair. She heard a familiar voice call her name. She froze. She heard the voice again.
Tears streamed down Bridget’s flushed cheeks as she turned around. It was her. “I did a very bad thing to you that day. Do you forgive me?” Bridget whispered.
“No. Will you forgive me?”
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