Still summer, p.27
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       Still Summer, p.27

           Jacquelyn Mitchard
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  “I haven’t prayed so long and hard since I was a girl taking my First Communion. I was afraid for my soul then. And I am now, too.”

  “Well, I’ve always felt closer to God here than anywhere else. Perhaps He will hear you.”

  Janis went on, “I keep thinking that if I hadn’t been such a weenie and stayed behind, I’d have been able to help them. Although I’m utterly useless around any machinery except a word processor.”

  Reginald came up, wearing a pullover sweater over his pajama pants. A cloth fisherman’s hat was stuffed down over his bald head.

  “No word,” he said.

  “Nothing yet. I’ll turn in,” Sharon said.

  “Get some sleep, Janis,” Reginald suggested.

  “I can’t.”

  “Well, lie down, then, here on a canvas chair. When I was young, I had trouble sleeping. My father never locked the doors, and we lived far, far out, past the last house on the street. Not a streetlight to be seen, but this big gutter with a manhole cover right outside our front door. I imagined that something would creep out of that manhole into my room in the night and kill me. Slither right on up. Not that anything could have got past my aunt Patricia. She lived with us, and Lord, that woman was ferocious. . . .”

  Janis was asleep, and Reginald smiled.

  Cammie read the instructions for the EPIRB. She had to pull a loop to activate and get it in the water. She tied it to a tether, tied the tether to a life jacket, pulled the loop, and threw it overboard, waiting to see if it came up to float. A light pulsed from it so she could keep her eye on it.

  A light and then a heavy rain began to fall, but the wind was bearable. Cammie did not think there was anything left that she could not bear. Except one thing. She thought of her mother, rowing through darkness. “Tracy is like the North Star,” Olivia had said just before she betrayed Tracy. And Cammie had betrayed Tracy. Why had she wasted months and years on spite and rebellion? Why had she wasted even one day? She had been such a dumb kid. She set out the two buckets to collect rainwater.

  After giving some of it to Holly, although most of it dribbled out, Cammie ate the last of the almonds. Olivia still lurked behind her locked door, with, Cammie knew, all the water Cammie had made the previous day. To her surprise, as she sat rubbing Holly’s shoulders, Holly spoke.

  “Cam,” she said, “it’s slowing down. The world is slow.”

  “It is, Aunt Holly,” Cammie answered softly, dreading that she knew what Holly meant. “You should try to get up and walk.”

  Holly did, giving it her best effort. Her leg was bloated and splotched with red, thick and bulbous as an uncooked sausage.

  “Do you remember,” Holly asked slowly after she lay down again, “coming to stay with me when you were little? When I worked the PM shift and you went to half-day kindergarten?”

  “I remember the grass,” Cammie said, lying on the bunk beside Holly. They had spent hours together lying on the grass, watching the ants determinedly build their homes. Cammie would stagger up to Holly’s door under the weight of her backpack, which felt enormous, and Holly never failed to greet her with a joke.

  “Are you married yet, Cammie?” she would ask without cracking a smile, or, feigning a look of terror, she would stop Cammie before she set down her backpack and whisper, “Don’t move. I’m going to try really hard to get that great big spider off your forehead before it bites. I can’t promise anything, but I’ll try. . . .”

  Then she would snatch up Cammie in a hug that was big and splendidly yielding and cuddly. She would give Cammie things that Cammie had never realized existed in the world—Twinkies and marshmallow pinwheels, Kit Kats and Starbursts, treats health-conscious Tracy had never allowed Cammie even to glimpse. One April afternoon, when Cammie was mourning that she would never again be able to play in her sandbox, that summer would never, ever come, Holly simply took her hand and hauled her outside. Using the garden hose, she made Cammie a mud hole, where Cammie rolled and sculpted for hours. Unable to resist, Holly sat in the mud beside her. Tracy showed up just as they were making their way to the back door. Horrified, she threw down her huge duffel bag and demanded to know why Holly hadn’t called her at work to tell her Cammie had fallen and been hurt. Cammie remembered Holly’s brush-off: “Dirt is not an injury. You keep a kid too clean, you’re going to raise an anal retentive. She’s washable, Trace.”

  Cammie stroked Holly’s tranquil face. Did it hurt? Cammie prayed it didn’t hurt. How many times had she come home from college and contented herself with beeping out the window at Ev and Ian as she drove past? Too busy to go in and visit, even for a half hour? Aunt Holly, Cammie wanted to shout, don’t sleep! Don’t sleep until you can’t wake up. Cammie’s mother was careful, resourceful, protective, and gentle. But Aunt Holly was fun. Holly let seven-year-old Cammie sit on the couch and hold Ian and Evan, just a week old, one under each arm, like little footballs, again reassuring Tracy that babies were basically made of rubber, and as long as Cam didn’t shake or drop them, they’d be happy for the contact.

  She’d given Cammie her first tampon (Tracy feared toxic shock) when Cammie was twelve. When Cammie was sixteen, Holly had given Cammie her first beer. “Tastes like piss, doesn’t it?” Aunt Holly had asked. “Well, that’s the point.” It was to Holly that Cammie had confided that no one had asked her to the prom. It was Aunt Holly who had suggested the totally classy solution of dressing up in a big, old-fashioned, fairy princess gown with a crinoline (all the other girls were wearing identical strapless sheaths) and talking Jim into renting a tux with tails. Cammie had taken her dad as a date and been asked to dance by about fifteen boys and got her picture on the front page of the local as well as the school newspaper.

  Aunt Janis was great, but she was like a clone of Mom.

  Aunt Holly did it her way.

  Now Holly noticed that Cammie, while not having moved a single muscle, was looking at her. “Poor baby,” she said.

  “No, Holly,” Cammie said.

  “You know what’s happening to me. And your mom knew, too.”

  “No!” Cammie covered her ears.

  “Listen, Cammie, no one ever leaves who was loved, because of . . .” She paused and struggled to breathe deeply. “Of memory. Help Evan and Ian remember. I’m not being a drama queen. They need you. They’re just kids. And, you remember, too. Everything that happened to us out here doesn’t mean that life is bad. It means the exact opposite. Life is . . . wonderful, Cam. Keep fighting. Forgive Olivia. You’re the only good thing she ever did. Forgive me for letting you down.”

  “You didn’t let me down! You didn’t let me down!” Cammie cried.

  “I should have known sooner. . . .”

  “Aunt Holly, no!”

  “It’s how it is, Cam. And I’m not scared now. I love you, Cam.”

  “I love you, too.”

  “You go to sleep, and I’ll see you in the morning.”

  Cammie left her, taking Lenny’s tools, his hammer and crowbar. Systematically, she began to rip the beautiful varnished paneling from the steps of the cockpit and its roof. She tore the benches to shreds and ripped off their backs. With bleeding hands, she tied all the boards together, the small splintered pieces on top of the largest board, the padding from inside the cushions on top of that, and then bound them with a line so they would float next to the boat. She sucked out a scant quart of fuel and found a quarter bottle of Haitian rum, the last liquid on the boat except for the few inches of rain. When the rain stopped, Cammie soaked all the debris as best she could, in booze and gasoline.

  As soon as it got dark, she climbed down the ladder and set the wooden pyre on the water. Then she threw lit kitchen matches at the pile of boards and fluff until it caught. The flames soared and crackled as they drifted. Somehow the line went taut, and the boat didn’t catch. It was still burning when Cammie lay on her mother’s bed, wrapped herself in Tracy’s blanket, and cried in her new, curious dry way, until she slept.

  Day Twenty

  Janis woke, breathless, a bird beating against her ribs. Had she missed something? But Reginald was gone, and she could smell fresh coffee. Sharon was at the wheel.

  “Do not feel guilty, missy,” said Sharon. “We’re making fine time, and you were desperately jet-lagged and worn out. Don’t you think stress always tires us?”

  “I suppose,” Janis said. “I know you’d tell me if there had been any news. . . .”

  “Actually, there has. There was a signal, an electronic signal, seen about one hundred miles north of Honduras off and on, and a U.S. Coast Guard cutter is heading that way. Also, a sailing ship, I believe it was called Sable, out of Belize, heard a weak radio transmission late last night. A Mayday from someone in an inflatable. A life raft, if you will. Someone else, in a light plane, a corporate plane, saw a fire, something burning, around the same place.”

  “Is that Tracy?” Janis cried, leaping out of the chair. “Is that their boat on fire?”

  “I can’t hear,” said Sharon. “Wait. . . . Fine. Over.” She turned to Janis. “I’m not sure, and neither was the pilot or the captain. But whoever sent the radio message was a woman, and she said that she was approaching an island she thought was inhabited.”

  “So it could have been Tracy?”

  “It was a woman.”

  “How could you not know whether an island was inhabited?” Janis asked. “Aren’t they either inhabited or not, and isn’t that on the map?”

  “People have private islands, dear. Rich folk or poor folk. The rich folk are living there in seclusion, and the poor folk might be living there illegally. Either way, they don’t want their locations on charts.”

  “I see,” Janis said. “A fire? A signal? I don’t mean to be rude. All this. Why didn’t you wake me?”

  “Well, what would you have been able to do? We’re just heading that way, and now we’ll have some coffee and breakfast and see what the day brings us.”

  They were eating when a static-riddled radio voice asked for contact with the sailing vessel Big Spender. Sharon snatched up the radio.

  “Captain Gleeman, we have successfully located Opus, and a rescue operation is in progress. There are three aboard, and three apparent fatalities, I’m very sorry to report. Over.”

  “Carry on,” Sharon said. “Over.”

  “Reports are one passenger also missing. We are bringing the survivors to Hospital General San Felipe on Honduras for evaluation, where the navy, which intercepted the drug smuggler who seems to have attacked these women, will arrange transport to . . . Corpus Christi. Yes, to Texas Lutheran in Corpus Christi. We’ll report when the evacuation is complete. The vessel is to be abandoned. Do you wish to arrange for her towing? Over.”

  “Yes, I do. I’ll do that on my own,” said Sharon. “Thank you for most gallant service, sir. Over.”

  “You’re entirely welcome, Captain Gleeman. This is Telecommunications Officer William Thane signing off.”

  “Fatalities?” Janis asked softly. “Did they say it was my niece? Tracy? Or your friend?”

  “Of course, that’s what we fear. But we do know that one of the smugglers died. Perhaps the body—”

  “You know it was one of them.”

  “Yes, dear. I hope, for your sake, that it was not your cousin. I know how you cherish her. I hope for my sake that my friend is alive. But one of us is going to lose.”

  “All of them . . . on the boat . . . are dear to me. I never knew Lenny, of course. But I know from what you say, he must be, or have been, a fine man. But we’ve been friends since we were girls. Olivia spent the last twenty years or more living in Italy. She fell in love during junior year abroad. She was studying art. She married a wealthy older man, a lovely guy, Franco Montefalco.”

  “The winery? I’ve enjoyed those wines for many years. I can’t handle a Chianti, except drinking that Montefalco is like drinking perfume.”

  “Well, he died from pancreatic cancer, quite horribly, last year. And Livy sold the winery, and the cruise was to welcome her home, you see . . . we’d all been to her wedding, in the vineyard. There was an arch of flowers, all magnolias. She wore Franco’s mother’s wedding dress. . . .”

  “You sound very fond of her,” Sharon said.

  “Actually, she and Tracy were the ones who were so terribly close. I was a hanger-on. But yes, wherever Livy went, something exciting happened. We all knew something wonderful would happen to her, and it did, for a while. She was like a fairy princess. But now, I don’t know. She’s hard. She always was, not cold, exactly . . .”

  “I know that kind of person. Aloof, you might say.”

  “That’s almost it.”

  “And so, if someone has died, you hope that it’s she.”

  “No!” Janis cried. “I wouldn’t wish that on Olivia! But Tracy is my . . . She’s more than a cousin to me. We grew up together, and except for when she was in college, we’ve never lived more than a mile apart. Our children . . . my daughters and Cammie are more like . . . Cammie is my niece, in my heart, rather than my cousin. I love them very much. And Holly! Holly’s heart is just as big as her head. Everyone loves Holly. She has twin sons only twelve years old.” Sharon Gleeman squeezed her lips together and shook her head. “I wanted so much to go on this trip, but I couldn’t. My husband was ill.”

  “I hope he’s better now,” Sharon said politely.

  “He is.”

  “I suppose you’re glad you didn’t, given how things happened.”

  “Actually, I’m not. I wish I’d been there. I wish I could have done more. I wish I had been with Tracy, if Tracy is . . . hurt. I think she must need me,” Janis said. “It had to have been Tracy in the inflatable. Livy would never have gone. She’s not used to work. Tracy would never have allowed Cammie to be at risk in a little rubber boat. And Holly’s tough, but she just isn’t as strong and fit as Tracy. Tracy was an athlete. She still teaches gym class.”

  “Then I would imagine she made it to land.”

  “I pray that she did.”

  “I will pray with you, if you like. An old renegade Presbyterian’s prayer might not be quite the thing. But there’s a sailor’s prayer I recall. It goes, ‘Though my sails be torn and tattered, and my mast be turned about, let the night wind chill me to my very soul, though the salt spray might sting my eyes, and the stars no light provide, just let me another morning light behold.’”

  “That’s beautiful,” Janis said, and unable to prevent herself, she added, “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, amen.”

  “Amen,” Sharon said.

  Cammie lay on the deck in the sun. The sun felt healthful, as if it might give her some kind of nutrition. Didn’t it have vitamins? She knew it must. That was why sunscreen could be dangerous. No, it wasn’t. It was the IV rays. No, the UV rays. Was it vitamin A or vitamin D?

  All the sunscreen was gone.

  She wished she could lie on the ground, in the grass, even the grass on her front lawn or the hill leading up to her dorm, lie in its strong and motionless embrace and cling to it. Earth. Just solid earth. The geography of her world had been deconstructed.

  Aunt Holly, she thought.

  She had known the moment she’d opened Holly’s cabin door. Holly’s limp arm was still warm.

  Cammie raced for the portable defibrillator. When she could not rouse Holly, she cracked the mirror in Holly’s bathroom with her fist and, using one of the larger pieces from the sink, held it to Holly’s still, blue lips. No mist formed.

  “Oh Aunt Holly,” Cammie cried, shaking and shaking the dear, still shoulder in its T-shirt that read NURSES DO IT ALL NIGHT. She began to sob, leaning deep into Holly’s chest as if Holly would somehow find a way to reach up and comfort her. She laid two fingers against Holly’s wrist. Not a flutter. The tip of Holly’s nose and her fingers were already cool. All Cammie could do for Holly was weep without tears for her two little cousins, all unknowing that they were now motherless. Very likely she, too, was a mot
herless child. Her still not quite adult mind could not fathom this.

  A memory coalesced in her mind of Ian’s and Evan’s third birthday—just before Christmas, the year she was ten and Emma and Ali just a year or two younger.

  For some reason, Holly had sewn matching outfits for all of them—not only her boys, but all of them. The girls wore red knit skirts with striped red-and-black tights and black velour long-sleeved shirts. Teddy and Ian and Evan wore rompers with little straps over the shoulders. At nineteen, Cammie could see now that these outfits actually were cute and still current. At the time, she wanted to be boiled rather than put hers on.

  Over and over, the parents begged and cajoled all of them to stand up straight and smile once—just once—and then they could all fall on the cake and devour it.

  But in every picture, Emma slouched, or Cammie pouted, until finally Holly turned off the camera.

  “Listen, brats,” she said, “I worked on those outfits until my fingers were like pincushions. And I don’t care if you like them. And I don’t care if you like this. But you stand up and give us one good picture of you or I’ll give that sheet cake to the dogs.” So they all did, brightly, frightened by something in Aunt Holly’s tone of voice. “You don’t know it, but someday you’ll look at that picture and be glad you have it. You’ll be glad you had a picture of all of you, at just that time, all together, before you grew up and went your ways. And you’ll look at pictures of your folks and not be able to remember that we were ever so young. It’s the way things go. I know.”

  At Christmas, Holly had given every one of them a copy of the photo in a strong pewter frame. Cammie’s was still stuck at the back of her bookcase, her outfit in her “mem” box, saved for Cammie’s own little someday daughter. She wished she had the photo now. She wished she could hold it to her now. Aunt Holly wasn’t really old. She still had half her life ahead. Neither was her own mother old.

  Aunt Holly was right. Except that Cammie would never be old enough to marvel at how young her parents had looked. . . . Very likely she was as old as she would ever be. If she lived, she would be good to Ted and help him make his way. She would love her father and comfort him. She would help Ian and Evan remember and be their big sister.

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