This story is by Katie Conrad and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
The waves lapped around the edges of Nicole’s body. She floated on her back, watching the lumpy clouds blowing across the sky. She glanced at the shore to check that she hadn’t drifted too far.
She closed her eyes. She was a boat at anchor, waiting for her cargo to be loaded. Taking a deep breath, she rolled over, the orange water wings on her upper arms helping to stabilize her front float. Now she was a whale, surfacing for air.
She opened her eyes. The salt water stung, but it was clear. She could see down to the bottom, which was covered in gravelly pebbles. Her lungs started to burn, so she lifted her head from the water, allowing her feet to touch the bottom.
“Lizzy! Nicky! Dinner!”
Nicole made her way back to the shore. The air had cooled off, covering her skin in goosebumps where it emerged from the water. When the water was shallow enough that she was more out than in, she made a mad dash for the beach, water splashing up around her legs. She wrapped her towel around herself, using the ends to dry her legs and rub some warmth back into them. When she had stopped shivering, she slipped her feet into her sandals, and went to get her dinner.
Lizzy sat at the top of the beach, near the short path that led back to the cottage. Long skinny legs stuck out of cut off shorts. Her freckled face was hidden in a book.
“Come on, Lizzy.”
“It’s Elizabeth to you, twerp.”
“Dinner’s ready. Mom said.”
“Yeah, yeah. Just let me finish this chapter.”
Nicole continued up the path and climbed the three steps onto the cottage’s porch. She removed the water wings and dropped them into a blue plastic bucket that sat by the door. She removed her sandals and set them next to the bucket before brushing the sand off her feet.
The cottage smelled like tomato sauce and garlic. Her mother stood in front of the stove with her blank face on. She was staring at a spot on the kitchen wall. It wasn’t until the door banged shut behind Nicole that her head snapped around, swapping out her expression for a quick smile that didn’t reach her eyes.
“Hi sweetie. How was the beach?”
“Good. Same as yesterday.”
“Anything exciting happen?”
“I saw a crab. Lizzy called me a twerp.”
Her mother sighed.
“You two have got to stop fighting.”
“We weren’t. She just called me a twerp. It wasn’t a big deal.”
“If it wasn’t a big deal, then why am I hearing about it?”
“You asked how the beach was.”
“Why don’t you go get out of that wet bathing suit while I get dinner on the table?”
Nicole went to the small bedroom that she shared with Lizzy and put on her favourite shorts and a tie-dye t-shirt. When she returned to the kitchen, there were three plates of spaghetti on the table and a basket of garlic bread in the middle. Her mother was already seated, fiddling with the edge of her napkin. Nicole climbed into her usual chair and reached for a piece of bread.
“She wanted to finish her chapter.”
Her mother got up and went out to the porch.
“Lizzy! Dinner! Now!”
Nicole had already finished half her spaghetti by the time Lizzy joined them, trailing sand into the kitchen. She set her book down on the table next to her while she pulled her hair back away from her face.
Their mother put on her smile again.
“Here we are, all together. Me and my girls. Isn’t this nice?”
“How was the beach, Lizzy?”
“What are you reading today?” Their mother leaned over to peer at the book cover.
“Must be something if it was more important than dinner.”
“She’s reading romance novels. Ones with kissing.” Nicole pursed her lips into a kissy face and made smooching sounds. Lizzy smiled. Mom didn’t.
“Nothing wrong with a romance novel. As long as they’re only kissing.”
“That’s my girl.”
A silence followed, interrupted only by the slurp of spaghetti.
“So, good vacation? You girls have fun this week?”
“Good. Good.” The edges of her mouth twitched upwards. Her eyes flicked from one daughter to the other, before coming to rest on a spot on the table.
“What’s up today, Nicky? Back to the beach?” Her mother was folding clothes into a suitcase, getting ready to go home the next day.
“Yeah.” Nicole fiddled with the shoulder strap of her bathing suit. “I guess.”
“What’s wrong? I thought you loved swimming.”
“Then why the long face?”
“Can’t you come with me, mama?” Her eyes sought her mother’s face. “It’s our last day and you haven’t even been in yet.”
“I don’t know, Nicky. I don’t much feel like swimming.”
“I thought you loved swimming.”
“Please, mama. You used to swim with me all the time.”
Her mother sat down on the edge of the bed.
“I know, baby, but it’s different now.”
“Why? Why does everything have to be different?”
“Nicky, sweetheart, I know it’s been -”
The slam of the door cut her off.
Nicole marched down to the beach, slipping her arms into the water wings as she went. Lizzy was already there, book in hand.
“Hey, Nicky. Going for a swim?”
She walked on past. She dropped her towel in a heap as she continued to march straight into the water, not giving herself time to adjust to the cold as she usually did, but walking straight out without stopping. The water splashed around her legs. Her pace slowed as she got out further and had to push her body through the weight of the water. Hot tears ran down her face and mixed with the cold salt of the ocean.
After a minute, she heard footsteps splashing along behind her. Lizzy soon caught up.
“What’s going on, Nicky?”
“Right. You want to talk about it?”
“You want a hug?”
“What do you want, then?”
“I want everything to go back to normal.” She was in up to her shoulders now, and turned to face Lizzy, who crouched down to get on her level.
“I know, kiddo. But that’s not going to happen. We have a new normal now.”
“I don’t like it.” Nicole tried to cross her arms, but her water wings wouldn’t let her.
“Me neither. Not much we can do about it, though.”
“Why won’t mommy swim with me?”
“She’s just too sad, that’s all.”
“Sure she is. Same as you and me.”
“You’re as sad as me?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I am. We all loved him so much.”
“But you’re big! I thought you stopped being sad when you grow up.”
“No. You just learn to hide it. Or try to.” Lizzy reached out and pushed a wet strand of hair off Nicole’s face. “That’s why mommy doesn’t come swim with you right now. She doesn’t want you to see how sad she is. She’s afraid it’ll make you feel even sadder.”
“When do we stop being sad?”
“Never. Never ever. Not really. After a while it stops hurting so much, but it doesn’t really go away. We just get used to the sadness.”
“How do we do that?”
“We find the things that make us happy. Like swimming.” Lizzy flapped her arms in the water. “Hey, you wanna race?”
“Too bad. Last one to the buoy is a rotten egg!”
Lizzy took off at a front crawl. Nicole hesitated, just for a moment, then followed her sister.
They were floating on their backs, exhausted from racing, when there was a gentle ripple next to them.
“Hi girls. Can I join you?”
Nicole’s feet hit bottom.
“You were right, kid. This is pretty nice. You two have been swimming?”
“Yeah. We were. Now we’re tired.”
“Float with us?”
Their mother eased back into a float, a small sigh escaping her lips.
Nicole reached out with one hand to take her mother’s bigger one. On the other side, she reached for Lizzy. They floated together, watching the clouds, the waves lapping at their bodies.