Still summer, p.23
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       Still Summer, p.23

           Jacquelyn Mitchard
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  “It’s battery operated. It does what it does,” Cammie said.

  Not long after sunset, a small plane buzzed low over their heads. Cammie lit and threw flare after flare, and the pilot, whose head she could see, dipped a wing in response.

  “Did you see that, Mom?” Cammie shouted in ecstasy. “He saw us. If he saw us, that means he might have seen the SOS on top of the boat. He knows we’re in trouble! He’ll send someone!”

  “Probably not, but I pray to God,” Tracy said.

  “Can you boost me up to the top of the cockpit? I want to make sure the paint is still good. It’s waterproof, so it should be fine.” Tracy helped Cammie, who felt alarmingly light in her arms, to put her elbows on the roof of the cockpit. She felt Cammie slump in her arms.

  “What’s wrong?” Olivia called from within the cockpit.

  “It’s gone,” Cammie said.

  “What is?”

  “The sign is gone. It must have been knocked off.”

  “Cammie. Stuff happens.”

  “Not over and over. It’s happening over and over, like I deserve to die.”

  “I know I don’t!” Olivia snapped from the saloon, where she was drinking a thimbleful of red wine.

  “She didn’t mean it that way,” said Tracy. “You’re overreacting, Liv. You too, Cam.” I am sick to death of playing peacemaker, she thought. Let them get along or punch each other out. This isn’t a drama. It’s real. The first thing Tracy intended to do when she returned to Lowell Street was run for miles, run until she was breathless, exhausted. As soon as all the bruises and cuts she had not noticed when they happened healed, she would run and run. She would climb to the top of a hill and breathe deeply of the ordinary air of life. They were trapped, like hungry rats in a cage, eyeing one another with malice and ill will—confined in the midst of a ceaseless, breathless expanse of sky and ocean. The irony was too vast for Tracy to make out all its contours. She willfully tuned out Cam and Olivia’s low-level bickering, and Holly’s occasional barb, until the talk evaporated, meaningless as mist and less substantial.

  Holly shivered in the heat. Darkness brought no relief. No amount of aspirin seemed to break her fever, and each night she used her flashlight to examine the dark line creeping inexorably up her thigh, perceivably longer day by day. She tried to turn her attention to the others, away from her own troubles. Nothing else had ever worked. Holly tried to examine the degree of selfishness that had marked her life. Yes, she had been selfish—too much the tease, too eager to claim the stage. But she had been no more selfish than any ordinary person and less so than many. She had forgone pleasures for her children’s sake, and frills for her and Chris’s dream of a vacation cottage. But was this charity? Had she ever really given of her self, her soul’s muscle tissue? Not until this trip, Holly thought, and then it had been to do murder. She drew her blanket closer around her.

  “I can’t just sit here! The only thing we can do is find more wood and make another sign and nail it up there,” Cammie said. “Let’s get going. There’s wood paneling all over the walls of the cabins.”

  “You get going,” Olivia said. “I’m tired of getting going. I’m tired of hauling and steering and pumping and staying up all night. This trip was your idea, Tracy.” She took her last sip of wine and stuffed the cork back into the bottle.

  “Olivia, is this really an act?” Holly asked suddenly, her examination of her soul interrupted by a sudden quirt of rage. “Or could anybody really be such a simp?”

  “Oh, shut up. . . . Except for your big moment, you haven’t done anything but sit on your fat ass and whine about your leg for two weeks.”

  Her voice dangerously soft, Holly replied, “Look, Livy. Face facts. I happen to be hurt. Badly hurt. You might have noticed if you gave a damn. You might be used to people catering to your whims. But guess what? You’re the same as us, Countess. My leg is infected. Cam’s heart is cut to ribbons. Tracy killed a man. I killed a man. And you come tripping up every day as if you’re ready for your close-up. I hear you use the shower. Where do you think that water’s coming from? The rest of us have had two showers exactly since we left. You take one twice a day, while they’re too busy and I’m too out of it to stop you. And now you want big, strong Tracy and Cammie to do the work that could save you. That’s not going to cut it right now.”

  Olivia sighed. “You seem as though you can handle any crisis. You certainly showed that. You hardly need my contribution.”

  “Will you talk normally, Livy? You’re Olivia Seno, a kid with a nice ass and a B average from the west side of Chicago. Get down off your high horse. Your best friends are in danger. Camille is in danger. If you had so many bloody fucking friends in Italy, you’d never have come home anyhow. Your mother lives in the same little house in Westbrook she lived in when you were twelve. Why hasn’t she got a villa, Countess?”

  “I’ve given my mother trips, clothing . . . not that she ever did shit for me.”

  “But she lives in a dump,” Holly continued. “So does your brother and his wife. Joey works in a bindery, Liv. Why? Could it be because you never offered to help them do better?”

  “Why would I?” Olivia asked. She whirled, stomped up the steps from the saloon, and made her way by moonlight to her cabin.

  “Look, we’re tired,” Tracy began. “They really never did do anything for her.”

  “Maybe she was always like this.”

  “No, you don’t know. Her family was like a pack of wolves, and not very nice ones.”

  Holly snapped, “Well, my mother slapped my face if I chewed with my mouth open. Your parents were drunk half the time. We don’t act that way. No. I’m tired of her, Trace. I don’t owe her.”


  “No! Listen, Trace. Remember how cool and daring and gorgeous Olivia seemed to us when we were kids? She was so ‘what the hell’? And we just loved it? She’d do anything. That’s why she was the queen of the queens, the capo of the Godmothers. We were really just ladies-in-waiting, her underlings, her little people.”

  “What are you getting at?”

  “Well, what I think is that Olivia is a sociopath.”

  “Holly!” Tracy stared. It was unseemly, disturbing, to seem as . . . eager as Holly seemed in sharing such information. But that was exactly how she seemed, avid—as though she’d been carrying an object around for a very long time and had finally figured out its use.

  “No, listen. I’m a nurse, Trace. Most sociopaths go through life like everybody else does. They don’t become mass murderers or even poison their neighbors’ cats. They just don’t give a damn. That’s the difference between us and Olivia. She didn’t give a damn for anyone but herself then, and she doesn’t give a damn for anyone but herself now. Sociopaths are very charming and attractive. That’s because they can tell what everyone needs. They have, like, an instinct for it.” Tracy glanced at Camille, who was listening, her attention captive. “And they give them what they need so people will fawn on them or do what they want. That’s one thing when you’re a wild kid and you want some boy who’s got a fake ID to buy you beer. It’s another thing when you’re a grown woman who’s supposed to have a conscience. Olivia doesn’t really care if we all get out of this alive, as long as she does. She doesn’t care.”

  “You don’t believe that really,” Tracy said, aghast. “You’re angry.”

  “No, I do believe that really.” They heard a rustle as Holly ran her fingers through her stiff hair. “I do.”

  “Well,” Tracy said slowly. “Even if what you say is true, then she’ll have to do more to help or she’s going to be out of luck, just like the rest of us.”

  “You’d think so,” Holly murmured slowly, her tone maddeningly cryptic.

  “Let’s make the sign,” Cammie said. “It’s creepy, and we’ve had enough creepy shit to last ten lifetimes. Let’s talk about practical things. Aunt Holly, the box you broke into. It was waterproof, and all the batteries we have are in it. You broke it op
en, and now it’s not waterproof. So what if the boat turns over or something?”

  Holly shrugged. “Then it’s not going to matter if the batteries are wet. Is it?” she asked.

  Tracy was silent for a long interval. Then she asked quietly, “It wasn’t really the bigger bed you wanted, was it, Hols?” Holly said nothing. “It wasn’t just that, was it? You wanted to be the one in charge of whatever happened with everything that was in the box.” Holly didn’t reply. “Holly?”

  They heard her get up and listened to her uneven footfalls as she walked away. They heard her cabin door click and then a subtle tick. The sliding lock.

  Day Fifteen

  With wood ripped from the walls of Michel’s cabin, Cammie and Tracy made another sign and nailed it to the roof, this time using twice the number of nails they’d used before. As they worked, they heard a small plane buzz high overhead, but neither even bothered to look up. Cammie was distracted. The sight of Michel’s books, his shirts, his picture of him with his mother at an outdoor restaurant, his sunglasses on a hook, all these still turned her heart. She slipped the sunglasses off the hook and put them on. They were huge but somehow comforting, protective. She felt better, as if Michel were somehow closer by.

  When they were finished, they were famished, so each of them counted out a dozen almonds to go with their water instead of the ordinary six. “Go crazy, Mom,” Cammie said.

  “Yeah, I don’t know what number the sin of gluttony is, but I’d give my right bicuspid for a big filet, medium well . . .”

  “Baked potato with sour cream and chives . . .”

  “Lemonade and a pile of those lousy, doughy rolls Ted used to eat right out of the cardboard tube . . .”

  “I miss Ted. Remember, he used to eat butter, too? And cream cheese the way a person would eat yogurt?”

  “I can’t talk about food anymore,” Tracy said. “It’s like soft porn or something.” Surprising themselves, they both laughed. “Besides that, I have to steer.” And then they heard, rather than saw, Holly’s approach. Step, drag, step, drag.

  “Hi, Hols,” Tracy said stoutly. She had examined her own face in the bathroom mirror last night, shocked that she had not noticed that her lower lip was crusted and swollen, that it had broken open, bled, and scabbed. Shocked that her nose was as raw as chopped sirloin. She hadn’t forgotten to use sunscreen. Or had she? She could tell, and it frightened her, that bits of memory, and even time, were becoming slippery. But Holly, Holly looked ghastly. “Let me get you a blanket so it’s softer on the seat. There’s one over here that’s maybe even more or less dry.”

  “You see, I had to come up,” Holly said distantly, as if she were not awake and with them, but explaining something to someone they couldn’t see.

  “Of course, honey,” Tracy replied.

  “No, I had to. I was dreaming. I thought I’d had a dream. Because the funniest thing happened. I went into Olivia’s cabin to get a book, that’s right, a book. She was in the bathroom. Before I came out here. And I found these,” Holly said, holding out a handful of wrappers, neatly folded, and a stack of what looked like candy bars. “Her mattress had slipped, and a few things went fluttering out onto the floor,” she went on. “So I picked them up and looked. Cammie, go watch the wheel for a minute, hon. I don’t want you to listen right now. Will you please go instead of Mom, and not argue? Will you please send Olivia down?” Something unstinting in Holly’s level gaze galvanized Cammie, who turned and hurried for the steps.

  Slowly, within moments, Olivia picked her way down the stairs from the cockpit, exchanging places with Cammie. “I thought my head would explode from you guys pounding up there,” she said.

  “We saw another plane when we were nailing, Livy,” Cammie said as she passed. “Maybe we’re getting closer to an airport. That’s twice in two days.”

  “Let’s hope, darling,” Livy said. Cammie closed the cockpit door behind her.

  “Now, Olivia,” Holly continued, instantly more present than she had been in days. “Let’s tell me . . . no, let’s tell Tracy and me what these are.”

  “I assume,” Olivia said, “they were Michel’s. He kept them in a plastic box in a drawer built into his berth.”

  “And what are they?” Holly asked, her eyes molten.

  “They’re . . . energy bars, I suppose.”

  “They are, Liv! Good! They’re energy bars. They’re loaded with vitamins and calories. They’re meant for people who are using up . . .” She paused for breath, and Tracy heard the slight crackle from Holly’s chest. “Tons of calories exercising, like doing marathons. Or for old people who aren’t getting proper nourishment. Or for people who are starving, whose food was ruined or thrown away by some goddamn criminals, on a boat, and who had to find some way to survive on what little was left.”

  “And?” Olivia asked, gazing at the horizon.

  “There were twenty-four bars in the box. I found the box, too. Folded flat. And each of the wrappers, folded, under the mattress, except for these last six. And I thought I would show them to Tracy and you.”

  “You didn’t eat them, Livy,” Tracy pleaded.

  “A few, I suppose.”

  “About eighteen, I suppose,” Holly said.

  “Lenny may have eaten some of them. And Michel.”

  “What if he did? We’ve been without food for days, basically. I know I’m the only one who’s sick, and it’s not because of lack of food. But what about Cammie and Tracy? They’ve been lifting and cleaning up glass and running the bilge pump by hand and making sails and breaking open cans and everything else a human body can do, for the sake of all of our lives. Do you think they might have been able to use an energy bar?”

  “I certainly don’t think you needed it, or Tracy. You both could have lived off, well, your stored—”

  “Don’t insult me, you bitch. Answer the question.”

  “I’m small. I don’t have Cammie’s youthful reserves of energy. I felt that if I could contribute anything, I needed the extra nutrition.”

  “And still, you didn’t contribute anything. Not one fucking thing but a few Valium,” Holly said.

  “Tell me,” Tracy begged, “you didn’t just find those bars and decide they would be your personal stash of calories.”

  “I didn’t want to take anything away from the rest of you! And I couldn’t stomach all that fried fish and bread and butter Holly and you were stuffing down the first days. I’m not built that way.”

  “How are you built?” Holly asked quietly. “For example, what did the Wizard give you in place of a heart? You’d think you’d at least have felt some responsibility toward the young one, toward Cammie—”

  “Oh, can it, Holly!” Olivia screeched.

  “No, you can it, Countess. We all took your orders in high school, but this is over the top, even for you! What I should do is what I did to that poor kid.”

  “You’re some hero all right!” Olivia said.

  “We’re scarcely moving,” Cammie said, hopping down from the cockpit. “What’s all the screaming about?”

  “These,” said Holly, holding out the handful of wrappers and bars.

  “You found energy bars! Aunt Holly! You’re amazing! How did you . . . What’s wrong with everyone now? I thought we all sort of agreed there would be no fighting anymore.”

  “I didn’t find them. Olivia, the contessa, hid them under her mattress. That’s why she looks so good, Cammie. Why she isn’t trying to live on a spoonful of cereal and a nut. She’s had these all along.”

  “No,” Cammie said. “No way.”

  “I told them. I can’t eat that . . . fried slop or canned garbage. I’d have died by now. I don’t have any fat tissue. . . .”

  “That’s so fucking right! It’s all been sucked out!” Cammie cried.

  “I’m naturally small,” Olivia said. “So are you. Did you want me to completely cave in, like Holly?”

  “Did you want me to?” Cammie retorted. “I’m nineteen years old
. I’ve never even been in love. I’ve never had a real job or gone anywhere but . . . right here. To hell. You’ve gone everywhere! You’ve had enough money and sex and plastic surgery for ten lifetimes!”

  “Cammie, it must be painful to be so jealous of someone twice your age,” said Olivia, the vitriol in her voice snapping and spitting like hot oil.

  “I’m not jealous of you! I feel sorry for you! You’re so totally desperate! If you think all the face work doesn’t show, you’re so mistaken. You look like someone pulled all your skin up and wrapped a rubber band around it and cut it off!”

  “Camille, I had a touch-up while I was still young so I wouldn’t have to have some drastic measures taken when I was older. It’s important to preserve your looks, Cammie. You have good genes, and that helps. You’re lucky you’re not going to grow up and look like your mother, with freckles and wrinkles and—”

  “What in God’s name are you talking about, Olivia?” Tracy asked incredulously. “Why are you talking about the relative merits of face-lifts? Now?”

  “She accused me—”

  “You said my mother was the best person you know!” Cammie cried.

  “She is, but there’s a difference between good and good- looking. Good means a guarantee that people will take advantage. People have been taking advantage of Tracy all her life. She thinks it means she’s good. She is good. But good doesn’t always win. Naturally, if your father could have had me, he would have, but one time was enough. . . .”

  “What are you talking about?” Tracy asked.

  “About Jim. About Jim and me.”

  “Jim. And you?”

  “A little tryst, which I assure you meant nothing to me, while you were off banging balls up and down a basketball court in the cornfields—”

  “You slept with Jim?”

  “You know about it, of course. Well, if you don’t, what does it matter? We agreed at the time not to tell you. You were already engaged.”

  “You’re lying, Olivia.”

  “Okay, I’m lying. I’d be lying if I said Dave wasn’t right there waiting his turn, too, although Chris seemed a little bit unsure about the sexual side of things.”

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