This story is by Ingrid Pearce and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A year of therapy couldn’t do for me what I did for myself that day.
Wildfires raged through this section of back country two years ago and I hadn’t been back since. I drove the rutted, pot-holed track through the decimated forest, but I was in no mood to care. I’d seen fire burns before. Things grow back. I knew that the firefighters had saved the buildings, or else I wouldn’t have come. Still, when I inched down the last hill, past the sparse, blackened ruins to the few remaining living trees, the lack of foliage that always hid the cabin left me feeling exposed. Vulnerable.
Kit and I had been together for awhile and it wasn’t perfect, so I brought him here a few times, hoping it would make things better, being away from everything, just the two of us. It never worked. It did the opposite. I would get sadder, meaner, withdrawn. He annoyed me when he said I was the taker, never the giver, but I knew he was right.
I’d been here alone for a week. My mother’s father built the only cabin on this remote northern lake to trap in the winter and I when I was young, I came here every summer with my parents. There was never another soul around, probably because it was so hard to get here. We liked it that way.
Spending time with nothing but birds and the occasional, curious four-legged animal was peaceful. I fished from the tin boat and swam in the lake that was like silk. In the evenings, I sat in quiet reflection on the porch and watched the sun glow orange through the dead trees before it set behind the mountains. In my solitude, I let the memories flow unbidden.
“Mummy, look!” I held up the biggest rainbow trout I had caught in my eight years.
“Careful, Sammy! You’ll tip the boat!” Dad laughed, pulling me down to sit.
My father had an aneurysm and died at forty. Losing him rocked my ten year old world.
I was a broken mess, and when my mother married Frank, she thought it would help calm me down. It did. He had charisma and spoiled me and always took my side when my mother and I argued. Frank became my ally.
The wildfires triggered something in me. I was relieved that the cabin was saved, and yet I couldn’t shake the agitation growing in me. The old wound never went away, my mother’s drowning in this cherished place. Deep inside, I seethed and churned with something I found no words or feelings to describe. Kit suggested the therapist, to talk things out, but I always hit a wall and resented them for it. I knew something wasn’t right and I agonized in my isolation for answers.
Think, think. The three of us were happy. Dad died. Mom married Frank. Frank was nice. Mom drowned. Frank left soon after. I moved in with Mom’s sister. I made a lot of bad choices until I met Kit. Every time I brought Kit here, we’d end up fighting. Why did a place that filled me with so much joy, leave me so troubled? Think. Think. Thinking just made me tired.
“Frank! What are you doing?”
A crack of thunder woke me. Pelting rain hammered the tin roof and I sat on the bed, listening and watching the intermittent lightning illuminate the room; the small pine table, the counter, the brass clothes hooks, the wood stove and the tools beside it…shovel, poker, broom. Frank and I smiled from the faded photograph on the wall with my mother beside him, straight-faced and stoic. I looked at the girl in the picture, the one who betrayed her mother and was ashamed.
By morning, I had it figured out. I was the selfish brat, the anchor that dragged my mother down after my father died. We might have worked things out, made our own way, been a team. My mother might not have felt the need to marry Frank to help raise me. I was the problem. I loved Dad too much and her, not enough.
Kit deserved better than that. Being alone at what was once my happiest place, didn’t cure me, change me, or shine the proverbial light down on my soul. But, I knew I loved Kit enough to not inflict my incapacity to give him everything. If I couldn’t be there for my own mother, how could I do the same for him? I was going home, to tell Kit I couldn’t do this anymore. It was over.
I should have paid more attention to the road after last night’s storm, but my mind was whirling all over the place, so when I crested the hill and took the blind turn too fast, a violent whack and uncontrollable skid slammed me into a hole. I was a cartoon character with stars swirling around my head, stuck in a washout the size of the Grand Canyon.
“Stupid,” became my mantra as I wobbled back to the cabin to get some extra rope for my winch.
While I rummaged around the tool shed, I noticed the small, dust-covered pewter flask Frank kept for “emergencies”. I unscrewed the cap, took a sniff and gagged. I hate whiskey.
I walked back, rope over my shoulder, along the sandy shore and looked out over the lake where the image of the desolate landscape mirrored on the water as smooth as glass. I saw my young self standing on the dock and my mother in the water, arms wide open.
“Jump, Sammy. Mummy’s here to catch you.”
She was an excellent swimmer, yet she drowned.
It was unclear to me at that moment why I was drawn back into the cabin. But, there he was, my father, sitting at the table, smiling. The gentle face I loved so much turned serious. He nodded toward the tools beside the wood stove, looked at me, into me, and disappeared.
Think. Stuck, whiskey, Mom swimming, Dad pleading without words, the fireplace tools.
A memory crept in, reaching for the light.
Frank and I are at the cabin and my mother is meeting us there the next day. It is summer, a hot evening.
“Want to play Poker?” Frank said.
“I don’t know how.”
“Easy. I’ll teach you. You play hands. If you lose, you have to pay.”
“I don’t have money.”
“You don’t need money. You lose a hand, you take something off. Say, I lose, I take off my hat, or watch. It’s fun.”
“But, I’m not wearing a hat or watch or much at all.” I wore a red and white polka dot halter top and cut off jeans.
“Ah, you don’t have to take everything off. Here, have a little drink.”
I was thirteen.
It was coming, I could feel it now, the tidal wave.
Frank is shirtless. A cigarette dangles from his grinning lips. I’m in my underwear, my scrawny teen-aged body. I’m nervous, exposed and frightened. I want Mom. I’m drunk and want to go to bed. Frank obliges and helps me.
“Let’s get you into your nightie.”
He touches me. I’m confused but not oblivious. It’s wrong. I’m afraid. I’m…a child. There is more. Pain. A mess.
“Frank! What are you doing?”
I dream my mother’s face, shocked, fierce and primal. She wields the fire poker and strikes. I am dizzy, blinded by tears. My mother is defending me. Frank grabs, hits and my world turns black.
Collapsed on the floor and emotionally drained, silent tears spilled down my cheeks. All this time, it was gone, buried, like my mother. Now, in this place that pulled me back time after time, taunting me, I understand what must have happened.
She came early and found him abusing her daughter. She found the closest weapon and tried in vain to stop him. While I lay unconscious, he took her out to the middle and threw her body into the depths of the lake and told me she went for a midnight swim and drowned. The shock from that trauma erased the other.
My truth came from a wildfire.
I took a last look around before crumpling a newspaper under the bed and lit a match. Outside, I watched the flames engulf the cabin and devour the ugliness that haunted me. At the end of the dock, with all my strength and fury, I flung the fire poker into the lake.
“I’m sorry, Mom.”
And when I walked away for the last time, I discovered that beyond the charred, bleakness there was beauty. At the top of the hill surrounded by wildflowers and pine saplings, a figure stood watching me. My pace quickened and I knew I would be all right. After the misery, there was still life, and hope and I would find my way back to him. And me.