My world was off kilter, senses skewed.
Afternoon sun blazed liquid gold across the robin’s egg sky. Along the riverbank, the sugar maples wore crimson buds. Even the dark water reflected a kaleidoscope of Springtime hues.
I shook my head. The rainbow seemed washed out, like a sun-bleached photograph.
In the canopy above, a pair of sparrows chirped a lively serenade. A bullfrog, nestled in the muddy embankment, harmonized in a deep baritone. The breeze whispered through the treetops. Mother Nature conducted a riverside symphony.
It sounded discordant in my ears. Spidery footsteps tiptoed down my spine.
Dangling my feet over the edge of the dock, I wrapped one arm around the piling. If I pointed my toes, they’d skim the water’s surface. I didn’t dare. Checking my watch, I swung my legs back and forth and waited for her to arrive. I didn’t have to wait for long.
The frog leaped into the river with a faint plop. A cloud passed over the sun and the wind died. The birds fell silent. Huddled together on their branch, they fluffed up their feathers and watched with wary eyes.
“You shouldn’t keep calling me to meet you here.” She settled down next to me, close but not touching.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and I pulled my sweatshirt close. I hadn’t heard her approach.
“I know, Mom. I just miss talking with you.” Eyes downcast, I refused to look at her.
“Oh, darling.” Her voice quivered. “I do, too.”
Now she was here, all the words I’d been desperate to say bottled up in my throat. I fixed my gaze on the river below my feet. On the surface it appeared calm, but the water was deep and the current swift. Dangerous territory.
“Out with it, then. What’s bothering you?”
“It’s Becky’s birthday.” My fingers twisted in the hems of my sleeves. “Dad’s throwing her a party.”
“Love isn’t finite. Caring for her won’t diminish what you feel for me.” She chuckled. “Besides, parties mean cake.” Her laugh trailed off with a suggestion of a gurgle. “I miss cake.”
My face flushed as a wave of anger swept over me. “It’s not fair.” I blinked hard, refusing to cry. “I just wish it could go back to the way things were.”
“I wish that, too.” Water dripped down the piling, the individual drops swallowed up and swept away. “But you can’t change what happened.”
Thinking about that day twisted my stomach in knots. The fragmented images jumped in my memory, disjointed like a scratched DVD. A loud crack as the wood splintered. The shock of the freezing water. Arms and legs thrashed, turned heavy. Lungs burned. Panic.
It took four days for my body to learn to breathe on its own again. When I woke, I drowned anew. This time in guilt.
“I see your father fixed the dock.” Her voice pulled me from the memory.
I unballed my fingers from my sleeve and touched the wood between us. Two unpainted planks showed in sharp contrast to the darker, weathered ones on either side.
“Yeah. Becky likes to kayak. She asked me to come with her a few times. Said it might be good for me, but…” I trailed off. Fists clenched, my nails dug into my palms.
The silence stretched as she waited for me to finish.
“I’m so sorry, Momma.” I choked the words out over a sob.
“Sweetheart, it was an accident.” She cleared her throat. “I saved you.” A coughing fit stole her breath. An eternity passed before she could continue. “I’d do it again. A million times over.”
I stared at my hands.
“Look at me, baby.” She used her ‘mom voice.’ The one that brooked no argument.
I forced myself to turn my head. Her skin pallid, lips tinged blue. Ropes of dripping hair clung to her face like blond seaweed. Water trickled from her nose. Her hazel eyes, twin to my own, clouded over. She flickered as if she were pulled elsewhere. Somehow I knew my remorse tethered her. Selfish, I didn’t want her to move on. Shame swamped me.
She reached a semi-translucent hand toward me, fingers hovering inches above my arm. Regret crossed her face, and she folded her hands in her lap. I wished she would touch me, just once.
“Loving your stepmom isn’t betraying me.” She said it gently, but it still stung. “I just want you and your dad to be happy.”
I scrubbed my sleeve over my eyes.
“You have to let me go.” Her ‘mom voice’ was back. “Enjoy the party. Eat the cake.”
The clouds parted and a ray of sunshine fell on her. For a moment I saw her as she had been—long frizzy curls framed smooth rosy cheeks. Her eyes twinkled and the corners of her pink lips curled up in the hint of a smile. “I hope it’s chocolate.”
The words sounded like goodbye.
MM Schreier is a classically trained vocalist who took up writing as therapy for a mid-life crisis. Whether contemporary or speculative fiction, favorite stories are rich in sensory details and weird twists. A firm believer that people are not always exclusively right- or left-brained, in addition to creative pursuits Schreier manages a robotics company and tutors math and science to at-risk youth.
Recent publication can be found in The Corona Book of Science Fiction, OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters, Page & Spine, and Youth Imagine Magazine. Additional publication listings can be found at: mmschreier.com/publications/