“No, that’s not going to work, Mom,” Ben replied, rubbing his temples with one hand as he held the phone to his ear with the other. “You can’t live on your own anymore, that’s the whole point.”
“Honey, honestly. Go with your brother. Please don’t come here.”
“I can’t do that. You know what the doctor said. You can’t be on your own.”
“What if I get one of those live-in nurses?”
“So now you’re willing to let a stranger into the house?” he asked with mock indignation.
Ben’s hand tightened into a fist and he clenched his jaw to keep from saying something he’d regret. If you’d listened to me a month ago, when I’d suggested it, my life wouldn’t be upside down. Ben closed his eyes and forced himself to take in a deep breath and calm down.
“I didn’t realize how limited my options were,” she said.
“Mom, what do you want in all of this?” he asked, frustration adding exasperation to his voice.
“I don’t want to be a burden. I’ve worked to be independent my whole life and this is humiliating.”
“I get it,” Ben replied, getting up from his leather couch to slowly pace the hardwood floors of his living room.
“No, honey, you don’t. I’m sorry to pull rank on you, but you don’t get it. There’s a lot you don’t get.”
“Come on, Mom, we want the best for you. We all do.”
Mom snorted at that. He didn’t blame her. His brothers hadn’t exactly been supportive or helpful. Ignoring what the doctors had to say about her health and what she wanted, they’d focused on silly, unimportant, material things. Ben only hoped they wouldn’t live to regret how they’d been acting, but he couldn’t fix them. He couldn’t fix her either. He could only help her, no matter how painful that might be.
“They do too, Mom,” he whispered.
“If they did then I wouldn’t have to put this all on you.”
“That’s not fair, if I didn’t want to do this, believe me I wouldn’t.”
“Probably not. But I don’t want you to come live here. I don’t want you moving in. I already had eighteen years of that,” she joked.
“That’s fine, but I’m coming to visit once a week.”
He heard his mom sigh.
“And you can accept it.” Ben furrowed his brow.
He would have preferred having this talk in person. He needed to see her and her reactions and to emphasize his concerns with his body language and undeniable presence. Ben knew all too well how easy ignoring a disembodied voice over a telephone could be. He’d done that to her for years since leaving for college. He had to take charge of her situation, he had to look out for her.
“Only if you stop pacing!”
Ben froze then sank onto the couch. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine,” she sighed. “Okay, once a week. Are you sure you can do this?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“Because if it’s too much, I can find someone else, someone to hire, someone without any ties to us.”
“Don’t do that. I can handle this, really I can.”
“Thank you. I love you.”
“I love you too. I’ll be leaving for Madeline in a couple days. After I am settled, I’ll come see you. Expect me early next week, alright?”
“Okay,” she said, resigned.
“Yes,” he hesitated.
“Have fun, okay?”
Ben chuckled. “I’ll try.”
He hung up the phone and immediately turned it on silent before shoving it under the cushions. Agreeing to help his family and actually helping his family amounted to two entirely different things. He’d stepped up because he’d been worried that no one else would and Mom deserved better than that. But if he were being honest with himself, he’d acknowledge that he loved being the hero. He loved being the best brother—the most responsible, the one with the best career.
But now? Dealing with doctors and lawyers, selling his townhouse, and fighting with his company for a sabbatical had him worn out. For the first time in a long time, he didn’t know what he was doing. He wished he could take a break and have fun, like mom suggested. Living without responsibility sounded like a dream that he knew he could never accept. He cared too much, especially for his family, and he’d never be able to pretend that he didn’t.
Reluctantly, Ben pulled the phone out from the cushions and put it on top of a box next to his couch. He had less than a day left in his home, but he couldn’t really grasp it. His mind refused to accept that he was moving on from his bachelor pad. He didn’t need to sell the condo, necessarily. But something had changed for him in the last month. Dealing with everything with Mom had put his life into perspective in a way. He didn’t want this anymore.
The phone rang again. He looked at it and promptly walked out of the room, collapsing on his bed.
– # –
Fresh air and an all-day drive had conspired against Darcy. Despite her best efforts to rise with the sun, she slept until her eyes couldn’t block out the light streaming into her room from the curtains anymore. She slipped from the bed and padded downstairs as quietly as she could. Char had always been a late sleeper, and if Darcy had slept until ten, then Char would surely be in bed until noon.
A cool breeze rushed through her shoulder-length hair and goose pimpled her neck as she reached the bottom step. Had she forgotten to shut one of the doors last night? The question alerted her other senses as she caught the smell of coffee wafting towards her and heard soft footsteps and cabinets opening and closing.
Steeling herself for a fight as she rounded the corner towards the kitchen, she grabbed the bear shaped umbrella stand, prepared to defend herself.
“ARGH!” Char screamed and dropped a ceramic mug as Darcy came around the corner.
Relief and embarrassment washed over Darcy as she met her best friend’s eyes.
“What on earth are you doing?” Char scolded.
“I could ask you the same!” Darcy retorted, retrieving the broom and dustpan from the hall closet and sweeping up the shards.
“I’m making coffee, you weirdo. Not trying to attack innocent women!”
“I’m sorry. But forgive my shock. When have you ever woken up before me?”
“You can sweep this up too,” Char pointed to the remaining shards strewn on the tile floor. “And then when you’re done I made a breakfast tray for us to eat outside.”
Darcy looked at the wooden tray laden with a coffee pot, several plates and cups, mixed berries, a small vase with a single flower, and a three buttered, toasted crumpets.
“When did you become such an elegant hostess?”
Char shook her head. “Just sweep this up, okay?”
Char glided through the screen door in the kitchen and descended the steps to the patio on the golf course. Darcy swept up the mess, but every few seconds, movement caught her eye and she paused. Charlotte fussed about setting up the table, dragging the metal chairs along the concrete in the loudest manner possible. Darcy threw out the shards and followed her outside.
“You okay?” she asked her best friend who attempted to arrange the plates while preening next door.
“Fine,” Char replied, glancing up towards the patio next door.
Darcy sat down. “You know he might still be asleep, we probably shouldn’t be so noisy out here.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” Char replied and sank into the chair opposite.
“Thanks for breakfast, this is really nice.”
Char smiled. “You’re welcome.”
“I was thinking it would be fun to explore more of the island today.”
“We could gather up a little picnic lunch and head up to one of the state parks.”
“That sounds fine.”
“Maybe we should leave in an hour. I can clean up and pack if you want to get ready?”
“Oh, okay,” Char said with a tinge of disappointment.
“You know it might be okay to be a little mysterious,” Darcy offered.
“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Char replied, smoothing out the napkin in her lap.
“Look, he seems great. And I think it’s nice that we met him. I’m glad you won’t be bored when I start work in a few days. But don’t…” Darcy trailed off at the challenging tilt of Char’s eyebrow. “Just be careful please,” she implored.
“I will and I appreciate what you’re saying,” Char bit out. “But you have to acknowledge, you don’t really have a lot of experience here.”
Darcy’s cheeks flushed and she turned around, eager to hide. Charlotte’s words stung but Darcy couldn’t deny them. She didn’t have much experience with dating. She’d dated a couple guys in high school, but never seriously. She hated the loss of control and vulnerability inherent in a relationship. At twenty-five, she had less experience than the average fifteen year old.
James had been her first and only real relationship. They’d dated on and off through college and when they’d both graduated and landed jobs in Chicago, their relationship had turned serious. Darcy could admit now that she’d almost resigned herself to being with him. It seemed inevitable that they would be together, no matter that she had never felt comfortable being herself with him.
Turning to work full-time in an effort to strike out on her own might have been the coward’s way out of their relationship. But it had been effective. Of course, only now did she realize how inexperienced she was when it came to the opposite sex. And even thinking about it made her palms itch and her heart race.
“Fair enough,” Darcy replied, her head stuck in the fridge, sorting through its contents.
“I’m all set,” Char announced, sailing into the kitchen in shorts and a t-shirt with full make-up and her red hair perfectly styled in ‘beachy’ waves.
Darcy bit her lip to keep from rolling her eyes.
“Great, do you have a bathing suit?”
“No. Do you think it’s warm enough to swim?” Darcy asked, raising an eyebrow. She couldn’t imagine the deep water being warm. It would have to be a hot, humid day before Darcy would even consider jumping in the lake.
“Well, not swim, but we might want to lay out?”
“Hmm, good point. I’ll be back.”
Darcy opened the front door, unlocked her car, and began dragging supplies from the house to load back in the CR-V. As she struggled to lift the cooler, John pedaled over on his bike and stopped on her driveway.
“Hi, need help?”
“Sure that would be great!”
Lifting the cooler entirely by himself, John gingerly placed in the trunk with ease.
“Sure,” he replied, wiping sweat from his brow. “You heading out on a picnic?”
“Yeah, we thought we might go up to Big Bay State Park.”
“Would you like to come?”
“Thanks. I might see you up there. I need to clean up first.”
“Fair enough,” Darcy nodded. “We have plenty of food if you do join us.”
“Great. I’ll see you later!”
Darcy waved and walked back inside. Probably she should tell Char about John, she mulled as she climbed the stairs. But then if he didn’t show up, she’d mope the rest of the day. Darcy stared at her feet, lost in thought, and crashed into Char.
“Oh, sorry! I’ll get changed and then we can go, alright?”
Darcy hesitated for a second.
“Something wrong?” Char asked.
“Nope, not at all. I’ll be a minute.”
Char nodded and continued down the hall.
Darcy raced to shower, find a bathing suit and shorts in her half unpacked suitcase, and get back downstairs.
“Okay, let’s go!”
Char followed her out. Life didn’t get much better than driving north on County Highway H on a bright blue day. After driving down a two-lane road surrounded on either side by pine forest for 20 minutes, Char began to voice her concerns.
“We’re heading to the beach?” she asked in total disbelief.
“This is what the map said. My GPS doesn’t work here. I had to resort to Rand McNally and this is the way.”
“You’re one hundred percent sure?”
Darcy shrugged. Following the signs for the park, she pulled into a heavily forested parking lot. Char blew out a dramatic sigh. “Let’s just give it a chance, please?” Darcy asked.
They unloaded the car and dragged their gear over a wooden bridge and down a packed dirt path. They wound through trees that showed no sign of letting up until suddenly the path ended in soft, powdery sand.
“See?” Darcy said triumphantly.
The beach hugged the coast as far as they could see, butted up against forest. The water looked like glass, perfectly calm and clear with each pebble, stone, log, and rock in view. They first walked through the sand to stake out a spot for their towels in the hard packed beach near the water then came back to lug the cooler together.
No sooner than they had dropped it on their towels then they heard a man’s voice shouting to them. They turned to see John.
“Hello!” he called again.
“Well you showed up about five minutes too late,” Charlotte teased.
“Sorry, I’m still working on my timing for helping damsels in distress,” he winked at her.
“How about you help us out now, by joining us for lunch? Then the cooler will be much lighter on the return trip.” Darcy asked.
“That sounds like a deal,” John agreed.
John sank onto one of the towels and Charlotte joined him, in a very decided change from the evening before. Darcy sat opposite and handed out rolls, chicken salad, chips, and bottles of water.
“So John, what are your recommendations for us while we’re here?” Darcy asked.
“I could tell you, but then you wouldn’t need me as your tour guide,” he replied.
“Oh, don’t worry about that.”
“You definitely need to see the other islands. This is the only inhabited one, but there’s a lighthouse on Raspberry Island that’s worth checking out. And it’s fun to boat around and visit the different beaches.”
“That does sound like fun, but we lack a boat,” Char added.
“And this is exactly where my services come in. Well, probably we should wait until my brother comes to visit. He’s much better with the boat then I am. I never really paid attention when we were taught.”
“Oh, come on, I’m sure you’re being too modest. It’s got to be like riding a bike, right? You know, I think I’d like to rent a bike when I’m here,” Char said suddenly before turning to John. “Do you like to bike?”
Shock quickly passed over Darcy’s face and she bit her lip. How had Charlotte stumbled onto that topic?
“I do,” John replied. “In fact, I was just out this morning. Did Darcy tell you?”
Char turned to look at Darcy in surprise.
“No, she didn’t,” Char raised a quizzical eyebrow.
“I actually have a couple of extra beach cruisers, if you’d be interested in borrowing one.”
“Thanks, that would be really nice,” Char agreed with a smile.
Darcy watched John smile back at Charlotte and realized she’d become the third wheel.
“I think I’m going to take a walk. I ate a little too much,” Darcy announced.
“Sure, we’ll be here,” Charlotte said, waving her off without turning to look at her.
Darcy kept to the water’s edge, finding it easier to walk on the hard packed sand. The occasional splash of icy water against her bare feet seemed a small price to pay. They had the beach to themselves, despite the perfect weather. Darcy walked until she stumbled upon a fallen tree. It lay on its trunk with its roots exposed like a gnarly spider web. She could imagine cutting off the roots and covering them with a piece of glass, turning it into a unique coffee table. Darcy turned to call over to Char to come look, and realized how far she’d strayed.
John and Char looked no bigger than ants in the distance. She gathered up her courage and gingerly eased her way into the water. Her first few steps in the icy water felt like stepping on knives. But after continuing in up to her knees, her legs had numbed to the cold. Little fish darted around logs and in between some of the bigger stones before swimming back out to deeper water. Darcy stood in the lake for some time, never seeing another person or even boat, until she could no longer feel her toes.
She reluctantly made her way back to the beach, regaining feeling in her legs as she went. She wished for a dog. Her summer had turned from one last girl’s getaway into a burgeoning summer romance for Char. If she had a dog, at least she’d have some companionship. But she didn’t have time. Her few days off had given her a false sense of vacation.
For nearly four years, Darcy had worked non-stop at the auction house. A deadline always loomed and every sale required constant attention. Her weekends gave way to writing appraisals, contacting buyers with condition reports, and finishing the latest catalogue descriptions. She loved the fast pace, but her work-life balance suffered as a result. Darcy stood on the edge of being a success or having a complete emotional breakdown. She loved her work but had come to understand that working as hard as she did for someone else meant she had no time to herself.
She’d gone to her boss to discuss taking time off when she’d been presented with her options quite clearly. Either she look for an opportunity to bring in more property of higher value and thus be given a raise, promotion, and the ability to hire someone under her to delegate many of her tasks to, or she could leave without a very good reference. The terms shocked her. Working her tail off would be nothing and she’d have little to show for it all. She’d of course accepted the challenge, her only real choice, and had been given the Upper Midwest territory by her boss.
Darcy shook off the memory as she reached John and Char. She’d prove herself to her boss, without a doubt. But maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to start thinking of her next move.
John and Char laughed as she approached, their heads nearly touching. Darcy sat down and smiled, eager to be let in on the joke.
“I think I need to head out,” John said. “It was great to see you again,” he told them both but his eyes lingered on Charlotte. “Thank you for lunch.”
“Sure,” Darcy replied.
“I’ll see you tomorrow then?” Char asked.
He smiled broadly. “Absolutely. Goodbye.”
Char and Darcy both waved and watched him retreat to the tree line.
“Tomorrow? How long was I gone?” Darcy asked Charlotte playfully.
Char picked up a stray flip-flop and threw it in response.
Darcy rolled her eyes and slipped down to her bathing suit, lying flat on her back.
“If it’s okay with you,” Char replied. “John said he’d take me on a bike ride around the island.”
“It’s fine with me. I probably need to catch up on email again.”
“Perfect. And maybe we can meet up later for lunch?”
“Sure,” Darcy shrugged.
“You’re not going to say anything? You aren’t going to offer a warning?” Char asked incredulous.
“Not at all. You’re right. You know what you’re doing.”
“Okay,” Char agreed.
“Now can we lay out please?”
Char threw the other flip-flop and they both laughed.