Resur­fac­ing

Prairie Fire - - CARLY ROSALIE VANDERGRIENDT -

THE VOL­UN­TEERS WAIT IN A CLUS­TER on the beach. Thirty or so of them in all. Faces Jackie rec­og­nizes, peo­ple who’ve been com­ing to the Point for a long time. If her mother were here, she’d be nudg­ing Jackie, whis­per­ing, That twit brings his wife up one week­end and his mis­tress the next.

Or, Boy did the De­Witt girl ever straighten out.

The af­ter­noon sun spills across the sur­face of the lake. You wouldn’t know a man drowned here this morn­ing. An out-of-towner. Male. Early thir­ties. It’s al­ways the men, thinks Jackie. They un­der­es­ti­mate the rip cur­rent. It’ll pull you half­way to Erie, Penn­syl­va­nia be­fore you even re­al­ize.

“His poor fam­ily,” says Anna, stand­ing next to Jackie. “How terrible.” A la­dy­bug lands on her bare shoul­der. She flicks it away.

What does Anna know about terrible things? Jackie won­ders, glar­ing. There’s a dull ache in her fore­head, tucked be­hind her skull. She was try­ing to sleep it off when she heard the he­li­copter. It cir­cled for hours. She knew what it meant. Af­ter lunch, she told Chris to take Felix to town for the af­ter­noon. Her brother, Jeff, went with them. Anna stayed. Some­one from Nor­folk County Fire & Res­cue came by the cot­tage, say­ing they needed vol­un­teers to help with the search.

Now, another County man ap­pears be­fore the crowd with a mega­phone.

“We’re go­ing to make a chain,” he calls, cor­ralling them.

The group thins out. Anna seizes Jackie’s hand be­fore she can move away. The lady who ends up on her left has a cot­tage on the chan­nel side. Jackie thinks she was at the fu­neral.

The County man wades out to a Sea-Doo and revs the en­gine. It’s a slow march into the wa­ter. Jackie’s arms break out in a rash of goose­bumps. The lake is al­ways colder af­ter a storm. And opaque. Brown. Un­set­tled.

“I kind of hope we don’t find him,” whis­pers Anna. “Is that bad?”

“Don’t think about it,” says Jackie. Though she’s thought about it her­self. What it might feel like. A wa­ter­logged body. She imag­ines a cer­tain leaden­ness, pick­led skin. She shiv­ers.

Jackie has been com­ing to the Point her whole life. When she was lit­tle, she’d wade into the wa­ter hand in hand with her mother. Her fa­ther wasn’t a swim­mer. He never went in, only stayed on the shore.

They reach the first sand­bar and stag­ger to a col­lec­tive stop. Jackie is stretched be­tween Anna and the woman from the chan­nel side. Gen­tle waves slosh at her knees.

“We’re stop­ping?” Anna pokes her head out, look­ing down the line. Another call from the County man, and they ad­vance in slow mo­tion. The last time the Van Leeuwens came to the Point as a fam­ily, Jackie was fif­teen. Later that year, her fa­ther dis­ap­peared. He was gone ten whole months be­fore he reap­peared like it was noth­ing. He wouldn’t say where he’d been. Jackie’s mother never got over it.

It prob­a­bly killed her. That came later, though. Years of high blood pres­sure. Nar­row ar­ter­ies, a weak heart—she was at an Aquafit class the first time it gave out. That time, she sur­vived.

The wa­ter is up to Jackie’s hips now. This is where it drops off, she thinks.

“That’s six to four,” said Jackie. Smug, be­cause she and Anna were win­ning. She pushed the cards to­wards Chris. “Your deal.”

Chris didn’t care for eu­chre. Not like the Van Leeuwens. The Van Leeuwens were a eu­chre-play­ing fam­ily. That is, when they were still a fam­ily. Now, Jackie’s mother was two years dead. Jackie no longer spoke to her fa­ther. She saw Jeff once a year, when she and Chris brought Felix here for a week in the sum­mer.

“Time out,” said Jeff. “Any­one want any­thing?”

“Another beer,” said Chris.

“I’ll take a top-up.” Jackie handed Jeff her glass.

“Noth­ing for me,” said Anna, ris­ing from the ta­ble. The Van Leeuwen cot­tage was mod­est—just a large room, re­ally, that opened onto three closet-sized bed­rooms. She walked to the row of win­dows at the back, look­ing out at the shift­ing dark­ness that was the lake.

“You sure?” called Jackie. All of the win­dows were shut, but the roar of the wind and the crash of the waves filled the cot­tage.

Anna must not have heard, Jackie thought as she watched Chris deal the cards. On his face, the same look of forced con­cen­tra­tion Felix, made when he read. She smiled at the thought. Buoyed by a mul­ti­tude of rum and Cokes, she could for­get the fight he’d put up about brush­ing his teeth. Maybe he wouldn’t cry for her later tonight. Al­co­hol made rais­ing a child seem only mildly aw­ful.

Chris doled out four neat piles of five cards. He put the kitty in the mid­dle of the ta­ble and turned over the up­card.

“Not yet,” whis­pered Jackie. “Jeff’ll mur­der you.”

He turned the card back over. Un­der the ta­ble, she rubbed a clumsy foot against his. God, she loved him. For step­ping in when Felix got mouthy. For play­ing eu­chre. For mak­ing an ef­fort with Jeff and his fun­sponge of a girl­friend. When Jeff brought her last year, Jackie hadn’t paid much at­ten­tion, be­cause Jeff’s re­la­tion­ships never lasted. He didn’t even have a type. Women, plu­ral. That used to be his type.

Jackie stud­ied Anna as she re­turned to the ta­ble, won­der­ing what it was that had made Jeff set­tle on her. Anna was pretty in an un­ex­cep­tional way, and gawky. She had that thing all the twenty-some­thing women were af­ter: a thigh gap. Jackie’s thighs were dim­pled and doughy, like oliebollen bat­ter. They prob­a­bly hadn’t not touched since 1985.

“Windy out there,” Anna mur­mured.

Looks aside, though, thought Jackie, she was too aloof.

“Gear­ing up for a storm,” said Jeff. He smiled, set the drinks on the ta­ble, and took his seat next to Jackie.

“Erie likes to show off,” Jackie added. A thun­der­cloud groaned in the dis­tance, as if to prove her point.

“Guess that’s our cue,” said Chris, turn­ing over the up­card. “Game on.”

“Yes sir,” said Jeff.

They were silent as they stud­ied their cards. Jackie thought about the count­less sum­mer storms she’d played out here as a girl, in the com­pany of her par­ents and brother. The four of them would sit around this very same ta­ble. When the elec­tric­ity went, they lit can­dles. Jackie could still picture her mother’s smirk, her cards held to her chest like a tit­il­lat­ing se­cret. If Jackie’s fa­ther had a good hand, you’d never know it. She used to ad­mire that about him. Her par­ents had mar­ried in their thir­ties—late, for their gen­er­a­tion. As a girl, Jackie had taken this as a pos­i­tive sign. They were sen­si­ble, sure of each other.

“Jackie? Your turn.”

Look­ing down at her cards, Jackie re­al­ized she had a dis­mal hand. Three nines, two queens, and one of ev­ery sin­gle suit. She passed. The oth­ers did, too. Jeff and Chris took five tricks, ty­ing the game. It was Jackie’s turn to deal.

“Do you re­mem­ber,” started Jeff, “when Mom used to go away for the week­end and we’d stage those eu­chre tour­na­ments in the base­ment?”

“Marty lost his old junker in a bet,” Jackie said, grin­ning as she shuf­fled the cards. “And on Mon­day morn­ing his dad showed up at school to beg Jerry De Vries to give it back.”

Adult­hood had set Jeff and Jackie adrift of one another. Now, when­ever they got to­gether, they ended up rem­i­nisc­ing about that time. “Where was your mom?” asked Anna.

“Our dad left,” Jackie be­gan, deal­ing the cards. “Our mom was, you know. Dev­as­tated. She used to go around to dif­fer­ent cities show­ing his picture to peo­ple.”

“Ac­tu­ally, he went miss­ing,” said Jeff. He was still in con­tact with their fa­ther.

“You mean he de­cided to go miss­ing.”

“We don’t know—”

“We would if he would just tell us what hap­pened,” said Jackie, turn­ing over a queen of spades.

“So your par­ents just left you alone?” asked Anna. White light filled the cot­tage, il­lu­mi­nat­ing the freck­les dot­ting her nose.

“It was the eight­ies,” said Jeff. “Things were dif­fer­ent then.”

“To be fair,” said Jackie. “Jeff was sev­en­teen. He should have been ca­pa­ble of look­ing af­ter me. In­stead, he started an il­le­gal gam­bling op­er­a­tion in our base­ment.”

“What about that babysit­ter Mom hired?” asked Jeff. “She wasn’t ex­actly go­ing out of her way to stop me. Pass, by the way.”

“She was nine­teen.” Jeff al­ways brought up the babysit­ter, thought Jackie. Did he know? She stud­ied her hand. She had both bow­ers. If she picked up that queen, she could go this round alone. That’d be four points a win for her team. That’d show Jeff.

“Pass,” said Anna.

“Pass,” said Chris, eye­ing Jackie.

“What was her name again?” asked Jeff.

“Sharon,” said Jackie, offhand­edly. “Spades. And I’m go­ing to go it alone.”

“Win­ner gets the loser’s car,” said Jeff, play­ing the ace of di­a­monds. “You want our mini­van?” asked Jackie. She took the trick. “It’s yours.”

“You know she was at Mom’s fu­neral.”

“Who?”

“Sharon.”

“I know,” snapped Jackie. See­ing Sharon at the fu­neral had sparked a small-scale, pre-midlife cri­sis, dur­ing which time Jackie be­gan to look at women the way a man might. There was Felix’s grade two teacher, a sinewy woman with a mop of tight auburn curls. Or, the Of­fice of Ex­ter­nal Re­la­tions woman, with the New Agey name Jackie could never re­mem­ber. Aura, or some­thing. Did Jackie have a type? She had no clue. Once, Sharon had been her type.

“She looked,” said Jeff, “dif­fer­ent. Don’t you think?”

“I’d hope. Twenty years later,” said Jackie. What was he get­ting at? “Look. Can we, like, drop the babysit­ter thing?”

“I thought you guys were friends?”

“Why would I be friends with our old babysit­ter?” She slapped the left bower down. Jeff laid a low spade, Chris an ace. Jackie took the trick. Three more tricks, and she’d get her four points. She looked at Anna, who was sit­ting with her chin propped on her hands, a yawn about to slide across her face.

“You were close back then.”

“Are you still friends with every­body you knew back then?” The wrong ques­tion, Jackie knew im­me­di­ately. Be­cause Jeff had never left their home­town.

“Don’t get so worked up.” Her brother was the only per­son in the world who could use that line. Now, she couldn’t deny be­ing worked up without sound­ing worked up. Jackie had a thought, then. What if she told him?

She played the right bower. “You know what,” she started.

“What?” asked Jeff, lay­ing an off-suit card.

Chris hes­i­tated, sur­vey­ing Jackie. He laid a di­a­mond. Jackie took the trick.

“Sharon and I,” she con­tin­ued. She had to play a card first. King of spades or king of clubs? She chose the spade.

“Yeah?”

“We were girl­friends.” No, thought Jackie. That wasn’t quite right. Not girl­friends. She had girl­friends—fe­male friends—now. “We were. To­gether.”

“What?”

“We were,” she hes­i­tated. “Ro­man­tic.”

A se­ries of thin fur­rows ma­te­ri­al­ized be­tween Jeff’s eye­brows. He had their fa­ther’s wide fore­head, the same deep-set navy eyes. He set the jack of di­a­monds down on the ta­ble. Chris played a nine. Jackie took her fourth trick. She lifted her chin as she swept away the cards. Anna was watch­ing her.

“You were. What, fif­teen?” said Jeff, at last. “Isn’t that kind of. Wrong? She took ad­van­tage of you.”

“Right,” said Jackie. At the fu­neral, the four years be­tween them seemed ut­terly in­signif­i­cant. “Be­cause you never dated any­one that young when you were nine­teen?”

A clap of thun­der sounded, so force­ful Jackie saw the cards trem­ble on the ta­ble. Felix would be awake soon. She played her fi­nal card.

“That’s dif­fer­ent,” said Jeff. “I mean, at that age. How could you know?”

“Know what?” asked Jackie.

Jeff played a low di­a­mond and looked to Chris. “Did you know about this?”

“What does this have to do with him?” Jackie in­ter­rupted. She heard a moan from Felix’s room.

“Yeah,” Chris an­swered, clutch­ing his last card. “I knew.”

“And you’re okay with it?”

“Yeah,” said Chris. He set down the ace of clubs, tak­ing the trick as Felix erupted into a full-fledged howl.

“Then I guess ev­ery­thing worked out,” said Jeff, look­ing from Jackie to Chris and back. He swiped the cards into a messy pile. “What is that now? Seven to six?”

Jackie frowned. “What are you say­ing?”

“It means you didn’t get your four points,” said Jeff.

“No,” said Jackie. “You guess ev­ery­thing worked out? You mean I didn’t end up with Sharon? You mean I’m not—” Jackie stopped her­self. She had never felt right call­ing her­self one thing or another. She stood up. She left the ta­ble.

In Felix’s room, the dark­ness was dis­ori­ent­ing. “Mummy’s here,” she whis­pered. She padded her way to his bed and fit her body next to his, lift­ing his py­jama to rub the hot skin on his back. “Shhh,” she mur­mured.

Around the same time Jackie’s fa­ther reap­peared, Sharon left for univer­sity. For months, Jackie wrote her long-winded let­ters in blue ink, the tip of her ball­point pen tear­ing the paper. When Sharon stopped writ­ing back, Jackie was in­con­solable. She wanted to tell some­one, but she couldn’t ex­plain what had hap­pened with Sharon—not even to her­self.

Mean­while, her fam­ily was im­plod­ing. Jeff had moved out. Jackie started spend­ing all of her time in her room, think­ing about Sharon. Her mother’s shouts car­ried up the stairs. Tell me. Where. You were. As far as Jackie knew, her fa­ther main­tained his char­ac­ter­is­tic self-pos­ses­sion. He never told her.

Felix’s breathing slowed. Jackie could feel his small body let­ting go, his aware­ness re­ced­ing.

Two years passed. Jackie left for univer­sity, where she met Chris. They mar­ried af­ter grad­u­a­tion, and for a while Jackie thought lit­tle of her past. She had Felix, and re­al­ized she blamed her mother for the way she’d han­dled her fa­ther’s dis­ap­pear­ance. She would not be like her. She would not aban­don her child be­fore he was ready. When her mother had the first heart at­tack, Jackie’s anger shifted. There was some­thing about her fa­ther—about the type of man that he was—that had es­caped her at­ten­tion en­tirely.

Jackie hadn’t re­al­ized she’d dozed off un­til the door opened. Some­one was stand­ing in the door­way.

“Chris?”

The light. From the bed, Jackie could see it sil­hou­et­ting Anna’s thighs, the space be­tween them glow­ing. She sat up, star­tled.

They’re up to their midriffs now, their linked hands sus­pended above the sur­face. Jackie looks back. Strung out on the shore­line, the pas­tel-coloured cot­tages look like beads on a candy neck­lace. She can picture her fa­ther, a lone fig­ure on the beach. In his swim trunks, though he never set foot in the wa­ter. Her fa­ther may have re­turned, but the man she be­lieved he was—that man was never found.

“I won­der,” says Anna. “How much far­ther. We can walk.”

“Erie is shal­low. There’s prob­a­bly another sand bar.”

“What I don’t get,” starts Anna. “Is how a full-grown man gets pulled un­der here?”

“That’s it,” says Jackie. “The cur­rent doesn’t pull you un­der. It pulls you out. You get tired. And then.”

“Oh,” says Anna.

“It hap­pens ev­ery year.”

“You mean, peo­ple drown?”

“Yeah.”

“Jeff never men­tioned that.”

“Mr. Pos­i­tive,” says Jackie.

“I know,” says Anna.

Jackie waits, won­der­ing if Anna will say more.

“Jeff is great.”

“Yeah?” asks Jackie.

“Mmhmm.”

Jackie frowns. She was still in a fog when Anna sat down next to her on the bed. Her hand grazed Jackie’s leg, ever-so-lightly. Jackie’s heat felt like shame, her son sound asleep next to her in the bed. She stood up. Dizzi­ness caught her, and then Anna was gone. She re­mem­bered Sharon, and felt some­thing be­tween sad­ness and fury.

The wa­ter laps at her col­lar­bone. It’s up to the chin of the lady from the chan­nel side. Jackie’s toes just graze the bot­tom. That’s when she sees it. A flash of some­thing pale be­tween the waves. Drift­wood, thinks Jackie, be­cause dead bod­ies don’t float. Or do they?

“Can you see that?”

“What?” asks Anna.

“There’s some­thing there.” Jackie points. The more she stud­ies it, the more it looks like a limb. An arm, maybe.

“I see it,” says Anna.

The wa­ter level is drop­ping now. Jackie’s soles meet the sand again. They’ve reached the sec­ond sand­bar.

“Come for­ward,” calls the County man.

Jackie keeps her eyes fixed on the float­ing thing. Shouldn’t the he­li­copter have spot­ted it stick­ing out of the wa­ter? It catches the sun­light, slick and shin­ing.

Jackie feels her­self be­ing pulled to­wards it, her hand locked in Anna’s. She tells her­self it’s just a piece of wood. Prob­a­bly blew in with the storm. So why isn’t it drift­ing closer? It dis­ap­pears, resur­fac­ing in the same place, about twenty feet away, a mo­ment later. For the first time in her life, she fears the wa­ter and what it might hold.

Once, just af­ter Jackie’s fa­ther dis­ap­peared, she over­heard her mother on the phone. He had a past, you know. What had she meant by that? Fif­teen feet. She is al­most sure now—it isn’t. Him. But then, there’s a heav­i­ness to it. It’s not bob­bing. Not like drift­wood. Jackie digs her heels into the sand. She lets go, break­ing the chain. Thing is, she has a past, too.

Anna is watch­ing her. Jackie takes one step for­ward, then another. Sud­denly, she sees the il­lu­sion. It’s just a branch. Just a branch that looks like an arm. She un­der­stands, then. Some things are meant to stay lost.

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