"Daddy, remember last summer when you said I could have the cabin for a weekend with my friends? How does Thanksgiving sound? And I promise no boyfriends, just Nina and Wyn and me. So what do you think, would it be okay?" Josie batted her eyes at her father as he grumbled and lowered his newspaper.
"What's okay, what have I agreed to?"
"Nothing, at least not yet. You said last summer that I could have the cabin for a weekend with my friends. I want it Thanksgiving weekend, I know it's only two weeks away but I didn't think of it until last night. Please?"
August Parker grumbled and took off his reading glasses. "No, Josie, not during the winter, you girls can't start the generator and get the oil burner going and I don't like the idea of you girls traveling up in the northwoods alone this time of year."
"We could take our boyfriends to protect us and Kirby knows how to do all that stuff with the cabin."
"Oh, no, no boyfriends," boomed August. His daughter had his full attention now.
"But, Daddy, we could cross-country ski and it's so beautiful up there in the winter and you said I could have it for a weekend and we want to go over Thanksgiving. When spring is here you'll be up there fishing all the time and then we won't have a chance at our own weekend. Then it's graduation and everything will be so busy. Please, Daddy. I can start the generator, I've helped you a dozen times."
August frowned. It was hard for him to say no to Josie but the dangers of three seventeen year old girls spending a long weekend in the woods, it was just so isolated and starting the generator was tricky. "The only way I could allow it would be if Ethan was willing to go along with you girls, he doesn't have anything constructive to do, he's finished fixing up the guest loft and the plant is going to be closed for the long weekend. And you wouldn't get to leave until after Thanksgiving dinner, you know how hard your mother works on it. Ask your brother and if he's willing to chaperone I guess it would be all right."
Josie could hardly contain her excitement. She flew around the table and fiercely hugged her father. "Thankyouthankyouthankyou!" she shouted and was gone in an instant to find her brother.
Ethan was reluctant. He said no twice but Josie was an expert at alternately pouting and pleading and finally wore him down. "Come on, Ethan," she winked and grinned at him. "Give Hope a chance to miss you and maybe you'll get somewhere with her."
"You are a bad little girl! If you want me to do this enormous favor for you have a little respect. Show a little regard. Be mature. Put in a good word for me sometime when you're hanging around at Winbrook."
"You're saying yes, then? Oh, Ethan, you are the most wonderful big brother in the world. I will sing your praises to Hope Paxton. Then when she dumps her husband and marries you Wyn and I can really be sisters!" Josie was excited and dashed off to the phone to tell Wyn and Nina that the trip was on.
It was a four hour drive to the Parker's cabin in northern Minnesota. August Parker and Galen Beihn had shared equally in the cost of building it the summer that Josie was two years old. They both enjoyed fishing and shared a desire for an out of the way spot in the woods to get away to without having to make reservations. August and Galen had scouted around for a few acres of land with lakes and and recreation nearby and came up with a house plan to suit their less than outdoorsy wives. What had started out as a little rustic fishing cabin in the woods eventually evolved into a good sized house with two large bedrooms on the main floor and an upstairs loft with girl accomodations to the right of the stairs and boy accomodations to the left. The loft was furnished with two sets of bunk beds on each side so there was plenty of room for the Parker and Beihn children as well as some extras. DeeDee had insisted on a large, screened in porch so she would have a haven away from the summertime bugs. And she wanted a real kitchen to work in, she wasn't about to prepare meals on some primitive camp stove.
The five children in their combined families loved the times spent at the cabin. Hiking excursions in the woods and swimming and fishing in the lake and catching fireflies in jars and gathering wildflowers along the sides of the roads. Rising early in the morning and collapsing into their bunks exhausted from the activities of the day they were rejuvenated by the clear pine- scented air. As the kids grew up they took less interest in the cabin, preferring to stay in town with friends unless they could bring one or two along. When Ethan had been a senior in high school he had convinced his father that he was mature and responsible enough to have a weekend alone at the cabin with his best buddies. After that it had become a tradition for each of the kids to have the cabin for a weekend of their own when they were seniors in high school and Josie was more than ready for her turn. Ethan and Kirby had done it and it shouldn't matter that they were girls, they were just as capable of taking care of themselves and having to take Ethan along as insurance was a small price to pay. Josie had the feeling that he would avoid their company anyway, probably stick his nose in a book or something. All she had to do was keep Wyn and Nina from doing the same so they could have some fun.
Josie fidgeted her way through Thanksgiving dinner, she couldn't wait to change into the jeans and sweater and turtleneck that were laid out on her bed upstairs. She was making a genuine
effort to give Kirby some attention before she ran off with her girlfriends for the rest of the weekend. College was keeping him busier this year than he had expected so he and Josie hadn't been seeing much of each other. He had been disappointed that she was going away for the long weekend but he hadn't been all that surprised. Josie was so close to Nina and Wyn that he felt a little on the outside most of the time, it hadn't been so bad until Nina had shown up a year ago and now it was like they had these weird rituals and special things to do together that didn't include the guys. Kirby really felt like he might be in love with Josie and had wanted them to have a more serious relationship but she just teased him and held him at arm's length. Maybe it was just the age difference but he had always heard that girls were more mature. If only Josie came in a less appealing package. He feared going all the way with her because he could envision Josie getting on the phone immediately afterwards to describe every detail to Nina and Wyn. For the last couple of months he had been less frustrated by Josie's locked tight together knees because of a certain girl on the third floor of the dorm next to his. Maggie was a year older than he and had no qualms over dropping her clothes when he knocked on her door. Kirby was gaining confidence under Maggie's tutelage but what he really wanted was to make love with Josie. Maggie didn't seem to mind that he had a girlfriend, she was enjoying herself without becoming attached and was happy that he was emotionally occupied with someone else. Here he was with two women, one who only was interested in his body and another who claimed to love him but wouldn't let him near. Kirby didn't know how long he could go on like this, if Josie found out she would have his hide but he was tired of waiting for her to make up her mind. At least he knew he'd have plenty of time to write both of those term papers over the weekend.
Jeddy was bustling about in the kitchen when Josie popped in to say good-bye. To her great surprise Jeddy had been engaged in stocking an enormous care package of food and other various items for the trip. Josie protested, saying that it looked like enough food for an army as she poked through the two large cardboard boxes. She stopped complaining when she came across Jeddy's chocolate chip cookies and a container of home made beef stew. There was even a frozen apple pie that would be just thawed enough to pop into the oven and bake when they got to the cabin.
"Thanks, Jeddy, this is so great, I just figured we'd eat popcorn and s'mores, I didn't expect all this."
"You girls are going to get hungry and that brother of yours is going to need real food. If you're going to be out tramping through the woods and skiing you can't live on junk food! Besides, I'm used to doing this for the family trips up there. Your mother and I would start a month ahead of time making preparations when all of you were going up for a whole two weeks. You girls have a good time now, be careful and watch out for bears," said Jeddy.
"We'll be fine. Besides, the bears will be hibernating. It's going to be great. Well, let's get all of this loaded up in the Jeep. Thanks again, Jeddy, you're the best."
Ethan and Josie loaded the food and suitcases and various winter gear and were on their way to pick up Wyn and Nina. August went over his instructions one more time for the proper procedure in starting up the generator that provided electrical power for the cabin and lighting
the oil burner that provided the heat. Ethan listened patiently despite the fact that August had written everything down earlier. He reminded his father of that fact and that the instructions were also tacked up in the store room at the cabin.
Everyone stood in the driveway waving to them like they were off to uncharted territories and may never be seen again. Ethan referred to this ritual as the Swedish good-bye, everyone who wasn't leaving would first say their farewells in the house, then again on the front porch and once more for good measure as they stood in a line waving in the driveway. Sometimes you would have to roll down your window to hear one last bit of information before you could be on your way. Then they would finally retreat into the house after the car was out of sight and wait for bad news as if the anticipation of it would make it easier to take. Usually there was no bad news, travelers arrived safely at their destination and eventually returned without a scratch. This was one gloomy ritual that Josie swore she would not perpetuate into her own generation, it was as though their parents, and especially Grandma and Grandpa Amundson, enjoyed the prospect of something bad happening so they would have one more thing to accept if it actually came to pass. There had been no one standing in the driveway to see Annie on her way when she had left home over six years before. Her leaving was never acknowledged so maybe it never had taken place, maybe she had never been one of them at all.
"You're sure quiet," Ethan remarked as they turned into the drive at Winbrook.
"I was just thinking about Annie. I forgot the birthday candle," said Josie.
"Please don't laugh, and promise you won't tell Mom and Dad."
"It's our neice or nephew, you know, Annie's baby. I figured that he'd be born around Thanksgiving and that he'd be six now. I have a box in my closet that I put a birthday candle into every year at Thanksgiving. It has a bunch of pictures of Annie in it, too, and some other stuff to help me remember her and I just forgot about the candle, I was so busy getting ready to go this weekend that I forgot it."
"Hey, I think about her, too. It must be hard for you to remember, you were so little when she left."
Josie managed a smile. "Sometimes it's like Annie was never alive. If I didn't have the pictures I don't think I'd remember what she looks like."
Ethan reached over and lightly pinched Josie's cheek. "Just look in the mirror, kiddo."
"Do you really think so? Oh, pull up in the front drive, I'll hop out to get Wyn. Unless you want to go and get a peek at Hope!" Josie couldn't help it, she just couldn't leave the subject of Hope
and her brother alone, the possibilities were just too interesting.
Wyn promptly answered the door and soon she and Josie were stuffing her suitcase into the back. Ethan was glad that his father had traded in the old rag top Jeep for the larger Cherokee model. With all the food and one more girl with one more suitcase to pick up the old vehicle just would not have been big enough. Josie graciously offered the front seat to Wyn and got in the back. Ten minutes later they were tucking Nina's bag in and she got in the backseat on the passenger side, once again affording her the prime spot for gazing at Ethan. She decided that she liked his right profile better, not that the left was bad, she just thought the right was somehow more refined. The hardest part was to not appear obvious. She was becoming quite adept at making light conversation with her friends while very different thoughts raced through her mind.
The Virgins Club meetings were becoming difficult for her to endure. Ethan was so constantly an undercurrent in her thoughts that she was afraid she would slip and let on about her feelings for him. Nina reminded herself on a daily basis that it was just a crush and she would get over it so she just needed to sweat it out on her own. She didn't want to find out how Josie would react to such a revelation so Nina made a point of mentioning Tommy Carpenter and wondering if he was available. Tommy was cute and using him for cover helped keep her thoughts of Ethan at bay. Besides, both Wyn and Josie seemed pretty exited over the idea of Hope and Ethan getting together. Hope had come back to Walsh River in October and had once more taken up residence at Winbrook. Her marriage of four years was breaking up and she wanted the solace of her childhood home and her mother and sister. Hope wanted to spend some time with Grandma Winnie, too, she was a frail ninety-one year old who had outlived both her husband and her son. Her mother had warned Hope that Grandma Winnie had been steadily declining over the last few months and had encouraged her to come home and help with her care while she waited out the demise of her marriage. Almost immediately Wyn and Josie had jumped into playing matchmaker for their older siblings and were gleeful over the possibility of them getting together. Nina cringed inwardly over the progress of Ethan and Hope's fledgling romance. She cautioned Wyn and Josie not to push them along too quickly because Hope was vulnerable and a rebound situation should be avoided at all cost. She secretly wished for them to crash and burn in an emotional trainwreck so she could be there to comfort Ethan after the fall. It was a cozy little daydream she indulged in after telling herself that it was just a crush and she'd be fine no matter how things turned out. She could toy with him in her mind if she liked, she had a firm enough grip on reality. A fleeting fantasy wasn't going to push her over the edge, she could easily admire him from afar. Or even close up if she had the opportunity.
The weather was mild for late November on the northern plains. A couple of feet of snow lay on the ground and was drifted into high sculpture along fence and tree lines but the roads were clear and dry. Temperatures were in the teens but that was tolerable as long as you were dressed properly to be out in it. Wyn loved the stark contrasts of winter, the white snow next to the brown dirt and grass, the bare trees traced against the bright blue sky. The hemlock and pines that huddled together along the sides of the road and along the frozen river banks. She had her camera and several rolls of film along, she was looking forward to a winter hike through the woods, such an outing should provide plenty of opportunities for pictures. Wyn had been along for several summer trips to the cabin but this was her first winter trip and she was exited to see how different the familiar landscape would appear under the guise of winter. This was Nina's first trip and she had other things on her mind. Of course she was anticipating the potential situations that might leave her alone with Ethan and was anxious over the liklihood that she would say something remarkably stupid or do something idiotic. Nina was intrigued over the idea of people having more than one house. Having one house was extraordinary enough to a girl who only remembered living in a series of apartments and that one time in a trailer house. But to have two houses was almost too much to comprehend. You'd have so much stuff it would be impossible to ever move. Nina vowed to one day amass so much stuff that she would never have to move again, it would just be too difficult. Either that or abandon most material things and just live in the car. No happy mediums for her, extremes were much easier to stick to.
The drive to the cabin was without incident and even the last little stretch of gravel road off the hiway was clear of snow. Ethan offered the girls a last chance for a warm bathroom in the small town of Hampton about ten miles short of their destination. It would require several hours for the cabin to warm up once the oil burner was going and there would be no hot water until morning. With no takers they passed through Hampton and in twenty minutes were parked in front of the cabin. The full moon cast an eerie glow that was reflected off the snow. Their shadows, sharp as midday in the frigid air, followed them back and forth as they unloaded their belongings into the porch. Even their breath cast a shadow as it hung in the breezeless night in the sheltered yard. Ethan and Josie disappeared around the back of the house with a flashlight to start the generator. Nina and Wyn leaned on the front bumper of the Jeep with their fingers crossed, hoping they wouldn't hear a loud explosion or maybe a bloodcurdling scream. They cheered and hopped up and down on the creaky snow of the drive when the yard light burst into life illuminating further the edge of the trees and the outline of the two story house.
Once inside with a few lights turned on the girls took the larger of the main floor bedrooms leaving the other for Ethan. They discarded the idea of sleeping up in the loft, it was roomier but it didn't seem likely that the heat would get that far before it was time for bed, it made more sense for the three of them to huddle together and consolidate their body heat. There was only one electric blanket and Ethan laid claim to it since he was sleeping alone. Josie suggested various sleeping arrangements that ended up with her getting the biggest bed all to herself with the electric blanket. She was summarily voted down by the others and the original arrangement stood, the smallest person did not get to have the biggest bed even if she made the most noise about it. Nina blushed inwardly over the idea that she would share a bed with Ethan even if it was only for the purpose of surviving the cold. She joined in the banter and made a few suggestions of her own including sending Josie out to sleep on the porch if she got to have the electric blanket. Amid the giggles Nina and Josie unpacked the food and stowed it in the kitchen while Ethan and Wyn hauled in firewood from the porch and argued over the best way to layer the fuel materials in the fireplace. It was Boy Scout vs. Girl Scout for the best one-match fire starting method, a battle that could scarcely be settled for good over one weekend. Nina proposed that they should arm wrestle over it, at least that way there would be a decisive victory.
Josie announced that dinner was served when the stew was thoroughly heated. Jeddy's wonderful, flaky biscuits were the perfect companion to the hearty stew after a quick trip through the oven so they could properly melt the butter that was applied to them. Josie disappeared into the bedroom as they were sitting up to the table and returned with her hands behind her back and a sly expression on her face. She grinned as she produced a bottle of cabernet and set it on the table.
"Wine, anyone?" she asked. "I wonder if there's a corkscrew," she muttered as she rummaged in the kitchen drawers.
"Where did you get this?" asked Ethan.
"I snuck it out of the basement, there were three others so I don't think it will be missed."
"This is a bad idea but fortunately for all of you I was a Boy Scout," Ethan said as he produced his Swiss Army Knife from his pocket. "I'm always prepared." He unfolded the corkscrew and proceeded to open the bottle.
Josie giggled with conspiratorial delight as she returned to the table bearing four wine glasses. Wyn was accustomed to having wine with dinner so the woody, acrid flavor of the cabernet didn't surprise her. Nina didn't really care for it until she was halfway through her glass and then to her surprise the commingling aspects of the wine merged into a warm, mellowing experience. Josie wrinkled her nose up over her first sip, she preferred a sweeter taste and this stuff was downright sour. She left the table once again for the kitchen and rummaged in the cooler until she found a can of 7-Up. Popping it open she added some to her wineglass and took an experimental sip. She finally declared a fifty/fifty mixture to be drinkable. Ethan lamented over his sister's inability to appreciate the wine she had cadged from their parents' ample stock. He felt it was better to dump the deep red liquid down the drain than to insult it by diluting it with soda pop. He could see the headlines now. Ex-con found in love Nest in Woods with Three teenage Girls. He was pretty certain nothing would come of this but a return trip to prison wasn't something he looked forward to. With this in mind he limited himself to one glass. Excusing himself soon after dinner Ethan headed for bed, the long drive had been tiring and the wine had made him feel a little sleepy. He reminded Josie to close the glass doors on the fireplace whenever they decided to go to bed and bid the girls goodnight.
Josie insisted that since she had cooked dinner that the other two should be responsible for cleaning up. Nina protested that Josie had not actually cooked, she had merely reheated the efforts of someone else and that it didn't count as cooking. Wyn rose from her spot on the couch and began clearing the table and declared that whoever did the dishes would get the last glass of wine. Nina groaned and tore herself away from the fireplace to assist Wyn. She announced that she wasn't doing it only for the wine, she also wanted an admission from Josie that heating up previously prepared food did not qualify as cooking.
The apple pie was fragrantly baking in the oven as the girls relaxed around the fire. Wyn suggested that they call a meeting of the Virgins Club, the influence of the wine had put her in a confessional mood and she felt like sharing. As president she formally called the meeting to order and roll call was taken.
"So, Wyn, what's going on, some big development you have to share with us?" asked Nina.
"Okay, here goes." Wyn took the last sip of wine from her glass and took a deep breath. "I think maybe I might have had an orgasm but I'm not sure and as my best friends you have to help me through this."
"This is fascinating," said Nina. Her pronunciation was slow and deliberate, she was overcompensating for the effects of the wine and didn't want to appear as drunk as she felt at the moment.
"That's the problem with being a girl, there's no evidence, so how do you know." Josie looked at Nina and they collapsed on each other in a flurry of giggles.
"Come on you two, this is serious, don't laugh." Wyn implored as she was taken over by the giggles herself.
"Okay, we're sorry," said Nina as she straightened up. "Tell us what happened."
"Well, last night, after we went to the movies, Justin and I were at his house and no one else was home. So, we were on the couch and we were kissing and stuff and his hand was up between my legs on the outside of my pants. Oh, God, this is so embarrassing." Wyn stopped and buried her face in her hands.
"Go on, we're listening." Nina peered analytically at Wyn.
"So, we were making out and he's never touched me down there before and I realized that I was sort of pushing myself against his hand and that I liked it. It was kind of scary but I didn't want to stop but I was worried that his parents would all of a sudden come home and he was kissing me so hard and holding me so tight and then I felt this, I don't know what it was, sort of a tingly explosion down inside of me. And I think I kind of screamed a little or something and Justin pulled away from me, he thought he had hurt me. And then things were awkward and weird and he took me home. We talked on the phone this morning but it was weird, you know, like he really didn't want to talk to me."
Nina felt a smile begin to creep across her face. She looked intently at Wyn who was flushed and hesitant, waiting for Nina and Josie to respond. "It is my considered opinion that according to what you have just described, that you may indeed have experienced the big 'O'. In fact, having recently experienced something very much like you described, I'd say that you have." Nina smiled broadly as the other two stared at her.
"When? What happened to you?" asked Josie.
Nina leaned back on her elbows and stretched out her legs placing her stockinged feet up on the hearth near the fire. "I was going to tell you guys this tonight, anyway, so don't think that I was holding out on you. This is seriously embarrassing but here goes. You don't need a guy to have
an orgasm. You just need this." She held up her hand and wiggled her index finger back and forth.
"Omigod!" Josie squealed. "You've been masturbating!" All three girls giggled and squealed in a mix of horror and delight.
"You mean you just..." started Wyn.
"Uh-huh. I just." said Nina as she continued to wiggle her finger back and forth in the air with a knowing expression on her face.
"Why?" asked Josie.
"Why not?" replied Nina. "There I was, soaking in the bathtub, all naked and wet and slippery and then I was just, well, it works!"
"That's disgusting!" declared Josie.
"Is not!" Wyn and Nina retorted in unison. After a second of surprised silence they once more collapsed into giggles. Just then the timer on the stove went off, signaling that the apple pie was ready to come out. Suddenly hungry again Nina hopped up to remove it from the oven and to turn off the offending buzzer. Josie hollered that the pot-holders were in the drawer next to the stove and that maybe she should set the pie out on the porch to hasten its cooling.
Josie felt left out. It was an increasingly common occurance, one that she was beginning to struggle with. Wyn had been her best friend for as long as she could remember and Nina's arrival had altered the balance of things. She was envious of the many similarities they shared, from their choice of books they read to the fact that they had both lost their fathers at a very young age. She hated that she felt as though she was competing for time and attention from Wyn when she really liked Nina. But this whole proccupation the two of them had with masturbation and orgasms was pretty disgusting. Maybe she should try letting Kirby have his way with her, she knew that if she kept pushing him away she might lose him. She didn't want that to happen, she loved him so much but had such fears about sex and how she felt about her own body. What if she didn't like it and then had to keep doing it just to keep him. Maybe she should go on the pill, she knew other girls who had gone to the clinic downtown for information about birth control. But for Josie it wasn't just the fear of pregnancy that made her shy away from sexual activity. It was wanting to wear that white wedding dress and have it mean something. It was the way that people looked at her like they knew something about her just from her outward appearance, like they had some sort of checklist of failures that they couldn't wait to place her name on. So what if they did. She just might have sex with Kirby if she wanted to, even if it was just to get it over with. Nina awoke with her mouth dry and her left foot numb. She felt disoriented for a moment until she remembered where she was. All three girls were sharing the queen size bed in the master bedroom of the cabin and had determined the best way to do this was to have two of them sleep with their heads in the normal position with the third in the center of the bed with her head at the foot of the bed. Since they were to be there three nights each of them would have one night to sleep in the odd middle position. Nina sat up and rubbed her foot until it began to tingle and quietly limped toward the bedroom door. Easing the doorknob until it unlatched she turned toward the kitchen in search of a drink of water. She squinted in adjustment to the unexpected bright light in the great room that served as living room, kitchen, and dining area combined. Ethan was seated near the fireplace reading and was mildly startled to see Nina hobbling to the sink in the corner of the kitchen. "Hurt your foot?" he asked.
"Huh?" answered Nina. "Oh, no, my foot was asleep but its mostly okay now. I should have brought a glass of water back when we went to bed, I almost always wake up thirsty in the middle of the night. Whatcha reading?"
Ethan closed the paperback using his finger as a bookmark and held it up for Nina to read the title.
"The Exorcist." she read. "Cheery little story for late at night and all alone."
"I couldn't sleep and this was all I could find. Once you get into it you don't feel like sleeping. At all. So much for reading to get sleepy. Are those really your pajamas?"
Nina set her nearly empty glass down on the end table and picked up an opened roll of pep-o- mint lifesavers and popped one into her mouth. She liked how the mint made the water seem even colder and more refreshing. Sitting down on the couch she answered. "Yes, these are my pajamas, do you have a problem with them?" Her pajamas were a one piece affair with a zipper up the front that covered her from neckline to toe. She had kept the detachable feet on because even with three bodies heating up the bed her feet had remained chilled. "So what do you wear when you sleep? My guess would be nothing."
"That is none of your business, little girl."
"Well, you got it half right. I am a girl but I'm not all that little. Maybe you like little girls, demonically possessed ones at that judging from your reading material."
"I like women, as in adults, as in no longer dependant on their parents."
"Unlike yourself. As in the still living with your parents part. Sort of like and unlike Hope Paxton."
Ethan bristled at the mention of Hope. "Hope isn't a subject I'll discuss with you, our relationship really isn't any of your business. And what is it with you, anyway, you're always needling me and trying to rile me up about something. I like you, Nina, you're bright and funny and I like talking to you but sometimes you really irritate me."
"So let me get this straight, I'm bright and funny and you like me but you don't think I'm pretty?"
"Pretty is beside the point, you're seventeen years old and compared to you that would make me a dirty old man."
Nina moved from the couch to the hearth only a foot or so away from Ethan. "Well you can't say that you find me completely unattractive, remember that time at your house, out by the pool? I lost my balance and nearly fell in but you reached out and caught me. It wasn't for very long but it was longer than was necessary and I could feel something. I know that I did. I let go first." Ethan stared straight ahead and she could see his jaw tense in the glow of the fire. Instinctively she reached out to smoothe the tension from his face and felt the wiry stubble on his cheek. She moved closer. This was a new sensation she wanted to examine further. Her left hand went up and came to rest on his other cheek and he turned toward her. Slowly and quietly their lips came together in a gentle and searching kiss. Nina moved closer still and Ethan felt her left arm crook around his neck and her right hand steal down his throat and stop as she curled her fingers around the fold of cloth at the open vee in his shirt. Giving in to the moment his arms went around her and held on tight. Nina's lips parted in invitation and he could taste the peppermint she had just eaten. She moaned softly and her back arched toward him. Ethan became aware of the subtle roundness of her breasts against his chest with only the thickness of his flannel shirt and her fleecy pajama fabric between them. Her pajamas. Her powder blue fleecy one piece jammies that alarmingly resembled an infant's sleeper. Ethan regained his senses almost immediately and broke their embrace.
"Nina, we can't do this, I'm sorry."
"Why, what's wrong? I want you."
"That's the problem, I want you, too and that's why we have to stop." Nina watched him with dismay as he left the room, presumably going to his room where he wasn't any more likely to get some sleep than he had been in the living room with the company of a horror novel. She felt deliciously quivery inside and her breathing was quick and shallow. The fire was dying back and she closed the glass doors before getting up to go back to bed herself. She lingered for a moment outside Ethan's bedroom door, touching it slightly as she passed on her way to the door at the end of the hall. This was going to be one long, uneasy but enlightening weekend. Slipping under the blankets on the unoccupied side of the bed she was no longer chilled as she had been earlier. Ethan had succeeded in edging up her thermostat and Nina's hormonal furnace was churning out heat like nobody's business. She kicked off the pajama footies from her now warm feet and stretched out her toes in feline satisfaction. She instantly fell into a dreamless sleep while on the other side of the wall the object of her desire tossed and turned in frustration until dawn.
Wyn blinked her eyes and stirred under the tangle of blankets on the bed. She was alone. Stretching and poking her nose out from under the covers she was pleasantly surprised to find the room toasty warm, a welcome contrast to the chill in the air when they had retired the night before. Venturing out to the kitchen she found Josie and Nina respectively sipping hot chocolate and coffee from the white Corelle ware mugs. They were dressed and apparently ready for the day. "I need coffee. Why didn't you guys wake me up?"
"We tried," said Josie. "But you were really out, you were even snoring."
"Was not!" said Wyn, looking to Nina for reinforcement.
"Sorry, you were. Not really loud or anything, but definitely snoring." said Nina. "I slept wonderfully. How about you?"
"Okay. It's a little crowded with all three of us in the bed but it was fine. Didn't you get up for a while last night?" asked Wyn.
"Yeah, did you get lost looking for the bathroom or something?" said Josie.
"You guys are weird. I just got up to get a drink of water and my foot was asleep so I walked around for a while to wake it up." answered Nina.
Wyn joined them at the table with her cup of coffee. "Where's Ethan?" she asked.
"He went into town to get gas for the generator, I guess the tank was pretty low," said Josie. "Anybody want some toast? There's strawberry jam. I think there's a biscuit or two left from last night, too."
Nina chose a biscuit and Josie and Wyn had toast. After they ate their breakfast they decided to check the storage shed for skis while Wyn dressed. There was an assortment of cross-country skis and they found three pairs that were suitable among the clutter of a tangled volleyball net and several badminton rackets. They found the poles, too and it seemed to take forever to get everything strapped on comfortably. They set out on a wide path through the woods until the trees gave way to the open frozen expanse of the lake. Josie frequently complained that her longer legged companions should slow down and wait for her to catch up. This gave Wyn numerous opportunities to pull the lens cap off her camera to take pictures. Nina enjoyed the stillness and quiet of the setting and how it could suddenly be shattered by the cacaphony of geese flying overhead or by a gust of wind picking up speed over the flat runway of ice. They were ultimately driven back indoors by hunger and cold and need of the bathroom.
Back at the cabin they found cans of clam chowder begging to be warmed and consumed along with chocolate chip cookies and milk. Ethan was nowhere to be found and the Jeep was still missing so they assumed he had not yet returned from his trip into town. Settling down in front of the fireplace to play Monopoly the girls passed the afternoon with idle talk that ranged from boys in general to college applications to debate over what was the superior hair conditioner. Wyn's evil side emerged over the game board as she snatched up properties right and left while managing to amass a pile of cash at the same time. After a three hour tug-of-war over trains and hotels and paying rent Nina and Josie dropped out one at a time, victims of Wyn's competitive skill and remarkable luck. Ethan arrived at dusk bearing pizza from the little restaurant in Hampton. It needed to be warmed in the oven but turned out to be quite good. Josie observed that food always tasted particlarly good up here, maybe because there weren't all the distractions like at home, or maybe it was due to the fact that they were so close to nature. Nina was consumed with a quiet assurance and locked eyes with Ethan openly and without hesitation. She felt at last like she had the upper hand in whatever this was that was going on between the two of them and no longer cared if Josie and Wyn might observe her in the act of carnal contemplation. Ethan was guarded but not visibly uncomfortable in Nina's company, he now had a clearer understanding of her intentions but was still puzzled over what would motivate her attraction to him. He had never had any problems attracting feminine company but this was something new. He had very much enjoyed their intense although brief encounter the night before. Nina exuded a raw urgency that both attracted and repelled him. She was so young but in her eyes he saw the coruscation of an old soul, she was the manifestation of spectral opposites vying for control. She was the proverbial deep water whose tranquil surface hid the turmoil below. She was trouble and he should know to keep his distance.
Saturday it snowed and Ethan was concerned that maybe they should cut the weekend short and head back for Walsh River if there was much accumulation. The snowfall slowed toward late afternoon but it was decided that they should get an early start in the morning so the entire trip could be accomplished during daylight. It turned out to be near ten the next morning when they bid the cabin good-bye. The water had to be shut off and everything drained properly before the heat could be shut off and the generator shut down. And Josie knew well the very specific routine of packing up the laundry that would need to be done once they were home as well as the general clean-up that was required to leave the cabin in a pleasant condition for the next occupants. Unlike the dark, late afternoon drive up to the cabin the return trip was bright with the sun reflecting off of the new snow covering the fields and gulleys. It was also much quieter in the car, Wyn and Nina were busy with assigned reading and Josie was earnestly composing a poem for creative writing class. Thursday evening there had been anticipation and adventure while Sunday there was letdown and return to routine. Ethan concentrated on driving. Behind the convenient disguise of his sunglasses he stole glances at Nina in the rear-view mirror. She knew he was looking and was inwardly pleased, she was confident that he would come to her now, that the balance of power was now in her favor and hoped that she had the patience to wait it out.
DeeDee Parker ran her hand across the smooth, cool surface of the wondrous appliance that had just emerged from its cardboard and styrofoam wrapping. She traced her finger along the letters on the tempered glass door that spelled RadarRange. Catching her reflection in the glass as she admired the microwave oven she was aware for the first time that afternoon that she had not yet bothered to dress or comb her hair that day. She had left the dark refuge of her bedroom only to make coffee and had waited until she was certain that August had returned to work after coming home for lunch before venturing out. Half an hour earlier the sound of the doorbell had cut through her chemically induced fog and August must have answered the door. She had peeked out through the blind and seen the delivery van from Thompson's Appliance Showroom. August must have taken it out of the box and set it up on the counter. He still surprised her from time to time and she knew that buying her the microwave was his attempt to cheer her up and pull her out of the month-long funk she had settled into when Ethan had been carted off to prison. He still cared, she thought, despite his blustery exterior he still at times made an effort to reach out to her. Things had been so bad for so long that she wondered why he still bothered, wondered why he thought that buying her another thing would fix the years of neglect that had caused their marriage to deteriorate into this armed camp of an existance.
This was Wednesday so Jeddy wouldn't be in today, she came on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays now, DeeDee had fixed the schedule in her memory so she could be up and dressed and at least make it appear that things were normal on those days. She sat down at the kitchen table and lit a cigarette as she read through the manual for the microwave. There was a recipe book, too, and she marveled at how the cooking time for a baked potato could be reduced to a mere twenty minutes. When the coffee finished brewing she absently got up to pour herself a cup as she continued to peruse the cookbook. Wouldn't Jeddy be amazed tomorrow when she demonstrated cooking something in it at lightening speed. She had read about this revolutionary appliance in some women's magazine the last time she had been in the beauty salon. She wouldn't be surprised if hers was the first kitchen in town to be graced with this newfangled device. August did like to be first, he wasn't interested in just keeping up, he liked to set the pace.
DeeDee sighed deeply as she looked out the breakfast nook window at the bare trees and the snowdrift swept patio. She should be thankful that her husband had always so tirelessly pursued being number one. It was his drive and ambition that provided her with this lovely home and a lifestyle she never imagined existed as a child. She and August had been high school sweethearts but even then she suspected that his attraction to her was primarily due to the fact that she was just another "number one" that he wanted to collect. She had been an honor student as well as a cheerleader and homecoming queen her senior year. August had been an outstanding student as well but had also excelled in sports, football had won him a scholarship to the local state university. In the spring of 1948 when they both graduated from high school August had already decided two things, that he wanted to marry DeeDee Amundson and that he would not attend college. He was convinced that college would just take too long, that the four years spent acquiring a degree would be much better spent getting a foothold in the business world. He went to work with his father learning the plumbing trade and eventually took on Galen Beihn as a business partner. Harry Parker was highly skeptical over his son's insistance that they expand the business to include commercial heating and cooling systems. That was where Galen Beihn came into the picture. Always in pursuit of number one, August had been intrigued over the local inventor's new process for cooling and heating large spaces and became aware that he needed financial backing to patent the process. Harry Parker thought that the two young men were nuts, maybe the system worked but who would they sell it to locally? There was no large industrial base in Walsh River, it was a farming community that had recently had a boost when oil had been discovered in the middle of Duncan Whittaker's potato field. The local economy was anchored by the presence of the state university and slow growth and small improvements maintained a pleasant, small town atmosphere. Harry wasn't interested in seeing his home town evolve into some urban tangle of tract homes and big business. And Galen's notion that people who lived this far north would pay that much money to cool their homes in the summer seemed to Harry to be grounds for committing him to a looney bin, not for writing him a check.
But August had prevailed and before his and DeeDee's first wedding anniversary he was on his way toward being a wealthy man and was the proud father of an infant son. Securing the patent on Galen Beihn's rapid cooling process had advantageously coincided with the Paxton family's desire to build a plant to process the locally grown potatoes into frozen french fries. Soon August and DeeDee were breaking ground to build their dream home complete with a swimming pool and air conditioning. Even twenty years later Harry Parker had a hard time believing that air conditioning would catch on in such a big way. Anyone with a few bucks in their pocket who visited the Parker's home in the middle of a July heat wave would almost sign an installation contract on the spot. By the time their daughter Annie was born nearly every newly constructed home was equipped with central air conditioning provided by P& B Systems.
August and DeeDee settled into a comfortable life. He spent long hours at work while she stayed at home tending to the needs of their two small children and all the aspects of family life. Together with a dozen other local families of means they formed the Pine Glades Corporation and set about building a country club featuring golf and tennis and a first rate restaurant. Walsh River was growing due to the formation of the Paxton Industrial Park that was attracting new business to the area. The executive and managment sector of the new population that came along with the town's growth eagerly snatched up memberships to the country club, altering forever the social structure into myriad levels of have and have not. Harry Parker held his son personally responsible for what he felt was a degradation of the town that he had loved and chosen as his life-long home. He refused to join the Pine Glades Country Club but for the most part kept his opinions to himself. His son's success had allowed him to retire early and spend the coldest months of winter with his wife in Florida. He felt disloyal complaining out loud so he swallowed his diatribe in exchange for comfort. But there was no way he would ever join that damn country club. He didn't see the point to the game of golf and he had better things to do
than sit around swilling beer in the clubhouse after a round of eighteen holes.
By the time that DeeDee found herself pregnant for the third time she was beginning to feel more than a little trapped. She was regretting having married so young and having bypassed college. She had done well in high school and had hoped for a college education but she had been so completely swept off her feet by August that at the time of their marriage it had seemed the right thing to do. She felt that his now waning interest in her was due to the fact that she had nothing of her own to take pride in, nothing of interest to offer him to keep his attention. She had developed into a remarkable and talented cook and kept their beautiful home white-glove clean. The children were her real joy in life but they were just getting to a manageable stage where they didn't require such constant attention when the rabbit died the fall that Annie started first grade. What timing. She could forget about approaching August with the idea of taking some classes at the university so instead she threw herself into redecorating the guest bedroom into a nursery. Wallpaper sporting ducks and garlands of pink and blue bows was slapped up on the walls and she ordered all new furniture for the room including a rocking chair and a changing table that coordinated with the crib. August spent more and more time at either the office or the country club and DeeDee feared the worst. She suspected he had been seeing another woman, maybe one of the waitresses at the country club or one of the young women who worked for him. Well, why wouldn't he find another woman more attractive. Unlike the first two, this pregnancy was turning out to be difficult, her ankles were so swollen by the six month mark that she could only wear her bedroom slippers. Her complexion was mottled into a murky mask that pancake make- up couldn't touch. By the seventh month she experienced breakthrough bleeding and feared she would lose the child. Her doctor ordered her to bed and her mother had temporarily moved in with them to care for Ethan and Annie while they waited out the final weeks before she gave birth. At thirty-six weeks an emergency Cesarean was performed when premature labor set in. All four pounds, eight ounces of Josie Parker came squalling into the world in May of 1957. She was tiny and delicate and spent the first three weeks of her life in a lucite box with heating lights and tubes running in and out of her. She surprised everyone with her vigor and her ability to breathe on her own after the first two days on a ventilator and began to put on weight almost immediately. Ethan and Annie were amazed by how small their baby sister was and how disproportionatly loud she was when she cried. Josie was the obvious favorite in the house but no one begrudged her that charmed status. They were just happy that she was there.
DeeDee's coffee had grown cold while she read through the cookbook. She was planning a dinner of microwave roasted chicken with the steamed vegetables on page twenty seven. Lifting the cup to her lips and sipping the cold liquid she rose from her chair and had the coffee carafe in her hand to add some hot coffee to warm up the cold when it dawned on her that she could test this machine right now. Returning the carafe to the coffee maker warming plate and setting down her cup she pushed the microwave oven toward the nearest outlet. She unfurled the tightly wound cord and plugged the thing in. Just like her conventional oven, a light came on when she opened the door and set the cup of cooled coffee inside. She cranked the time setting dial past one minute and pushed the start button. Light filled the interior of the machine while it hummed away. It didn't look like much of anything was going on in there but DeeDee stood enthralled just the same. Before the minute had ticked away on the timer her half cup of coffee was boiling over the top of the cup and she yanked the door open. Amazing, she thought. Without thinking she reached in and grabbed the cup and was surprised at how hot it had become. She was equally surprised to hear herself holler and watched the cup in seeming slow motion as it flew up in the air and then down, shattering on the tile in front of her. As she cleaned up the mess of spilled coffee and yellow ceramic shards she decided that this would take some getting used to.
* * * * * * *
Belle Bradbury was sleeping in. The best thing about days when she didn't have to work was turning off the offensive alarm clock and rolling over for another leisurly hour. Add to that the fact that Nina would not be home until Sunday made her relish this quiet time even more. Nina was certainly her daughter in the respect that neither of them enjoyed getting up early in the morning but when they were both at home Belle felt a sort of twisted responsibility to get up and get moving. Nina would rarely make an appearance before ten on a Saturday morning and Belle smugly enjoyed being able to show her how much she had accomplished because she had gotten up. Nina's typical reaction was to roll her seventeen year old eyes toward heaven and settle in front of the television with a bowl of cocoa puffs to watch cartoons. But this morning, this Friday morning of Thanksgiving weekend Belle had every intention of lazing around and doing nothing more strenuous than a couple of loads of laundry.
She wondered if she'd bump into Stan in the laundry room downstairs. He was such a nice man. And two weeks ago she had actually been brave enough to accept his invitation for coffee in his apartment while their clothes tumbled in the dryer. The coffee had been wonderful and he had served tiny sugar cookies that melted in your mouth that he had baked himself. Never having become much of a cook herself she had been very impressed with Stan's baking skills. Eight forty-five. No longer sleepy Belle decided to get up and get dressed. She wondered if there was a way to coincide her trip downstairs with Stan's, at least something that wouldn't be terribly obvious, she didn't want him to get the wrong impression if she was being too forward. She had been impressed with his manners, holding doors and helping her carry groceries in on several occasions but she really didn't know too much about him. His apartment had been neat and tidy with African violets blooming in the east facing window of his living room. Near that east facing window was a table that was cluttered with wood carving instruments and painting supplies. Stan's passion since retiring had been carving wooden birds and painting them with great detail. He had told her that he liked to work in natural light so the table was close to the window for that reason. He preferred to do most of the carving in the warmer months out on his small balcony to keep the mess outside and then would do the painting during the winter. If he was some kind of pervert or something he was keeping it well hidden.
Not bothering to put on her robe she went into the bathroom and gave her face a careful examination in the mirror. She needed a perm, she decided, and would make an appointment today. Belle had always been careful about her looks, she chose tasteful, tailored clothing for work but hadn't paid much attention to how she looked at home. She felt a little silly being undecided over what to wear based on the fact that she might bump into a particular man. She was still a relatively young woman she thought, only thirty-eight years old and she didn't look too bad. Except for the half-pack of cigarettes she smoked in a day she hadn't developed any other vices that would contribute to premature aging. Maybe she should buy a pair of jeans or
maybe one of those denim skirts that she had seen in the window of Beck's Department Store downtown. With Nina away it would be a perfect time to shop for her Chrismas gift, she usually didn't start this early but it would be nice to get it out of the way. And if she happened to find a couple of new items for herself it might even be fun.
Belle loved to do laundry. Of all the domestic skills it was the only one she took any pleasure in. Cooking had always been terribly laborious to her and the results were often disappointing. Then there was a dreadful mess to clean up afterwards. General cleaning and dusting and vacuuming were dull and everpresent. If pressed she would have to admit that in most respects she was a bit of a slob and was amazed at the neat streak that resided in her daughter. But laundry was different. You took a pile of soiled and appalling clothing and household linens that were jumbled into a tangle in a basket and in a relatively short period of time they were transformed into fragrant, folded stacks of clean, identifiable garments. Just a little effort combined with water and detergent and fabric softener and a small miracle had occurred. And it fit in so neatly with commercial breaks on television or reading a good book. And lately this particular household chore was bringing her closer to socializing with a man than she had ever dreamed she would be comfortable with again. Parts of her that she had shut down so long ago were being revived and she was surprised that it was still possible to feel a little frivolous and light-hearted. In less than a year Nina would be leaving for college and Belle was beginning to realize that maybe it was time to think about her own needs.
After stripping the beds she had three loads to wash that morning, whites, darks, and the two sets of sheets. She checked the little flower pot on the windowsill in the kitchen for change and made a mental note to check her purse to replenish the supply of quarters and dimes. Belle decided that if she didn't casually bump into Stan on one of her trips back and forth tending to the laundry that she would come up with some sort of excuse to knock on his door. Before she had been invited to his apartment she had checked the mailboxes by the front door to find out which apartment he lived in. Third floor, apartment D. Just above and to the south of her own. Humming quietly to herself she opened the door and checking her pocket to make sure she had her key she locked the door behind her and started down the stairs to the laundry room.
* * * * * * *
Miriam Aurelia Anderson Paxton slowed her silvery station wagon to a full stop and waited for the gate to open. She always felt a little silly waiting there while the wrought iron grille moved slowly to the left allowing her passage onto the public street. When Freddie had died she swore she would have it removed, it served little more than a decorative purpose anyway. Here it was thirteen years later and the gate still stood guard at the end of the drive. What she really objected to was the idea of the gate. Freddie had needed all of this, the gate, the quarter mile drive, the stone wall that surrounded the entire property. Freddie's father, Old Fred, had liked the separation of his land, his estate from that of the common people of the community. Old Fred had liked thumbing his nose at Walsh River but Freddie had needed the separation for his own comfort and isolation. Miriam had never seen the point of the whole business but she had never had the dubious pleasure of meeting Old Fred. She only knew the stories about him, first from her parents and then from her mother-in-law. Winnie Paxton had been brutally frank with Miriam pretty much from the beginning about everything that had to do with Paxton history when she saw a serious relationship developing between Miriam and her only son.
Miriam had met Winnie before she met her future husband, during college she had done volunteer work with The Winifred Paxton Society, the local organization that Winnie had endowed, named for herself, and managed with her own hands. The Society had its fingers in most aspects of Walsh River life from providing shoes and clothing and school supplies for underprivileged children to giving scholarships for college to primarily young women who otherwise would have been closed off from higher education. Miriam had been one of those fortunate young women who through the generosity of the Society had been able to attend college. The only stipulation to getting funding was to keep up a good grade point average and to give back to the Society by putting in volunteer hours. Winnie would host a number of teas and luncheons throughout the year at Winbrook to solicit support for the Society from the well- to-do women of the community. Miriam had often been enlisted to serve at these events and on two occasions had been asked to speak as one of the Society's success stories. Miriam had at first been overwhelmed by the Winbrook Estate and all that it represented but the friendship that was gradually forged between the two women put her at ease. Winnie thought it was quite a hoot that the place had been named for her, she didn't take it seriously, she told Miriam that the sprawling estate wasn't who she was, it was just where she lived.
It was on one of Miriam's many visits to Winbrook that she met Freddie Paxton, the heir to Paxton Industries as well as the impressive property where he and his mother lived. He was handsome and somewhat distant but he paid Miriam more attention than Winnie had ever noticed him give another human being, normally he was only this comfortable around his dogs or his books. Miriam brought out Freddie's better qualities and Winnie had been thrilled when he asked her about Miriam's background and family. She heartily endorsed the two of them dating thinking that maybe this would be her son's only chance at a relationship with a woman and possibly even marriage. Winnie couldn't help thinking all the while that Miriam may in time feel shortchanged in a marriage with Freddie, he had always been cold and distant like his father but fortunately had never displayed his father's temper. When Freddie and Miriam became engaged and then married Winnie was deeply happy, of course she hoped for grandchildren and had feared for a number of years that Freddie would never marry. Winnie loved Miriam just as if she had been her own daughter and looked forward to a future with another generation of Paxtons. Not to mention that Miriam was just as committed as she was to the Society's causes, she took comfort in knowing that her daughter-in-law could be trusted to carry them out when she was gone.
Today Miriam was on her way to the Glades to take part in the Founders luncheon. She and Freddie were charter members of the country club and she felt obligated to attend. Making a showing was always good for maintaining contact with the financial uppercrust of Walsh River. She felt it was a success to come away from these usually boring, self-congratulatory gatherings if she had a donation or two for the Society all sewn up. It was amusing to Miriam how easy it was to get them to loosen their purse strings and open up their wallets when they were in the middle of patting themselves on the back.
Hope would be meeting her there, she had been at the Society's downtown office most of the morning organizing a childrens' Halloween party sponsored by the society and various businesses. Miriam was enjoying working with her daughter again but was dismayed over the reason she had moved home just a few weeks earlier. Hope and her husband Danny's marriage of four years was drawing to an angry, embittered close and Hope had moved home for a number of reasons. Waiting out the three month period for the divorce to be final was proving too difficult in the rancorous atmosphere of her own home. And Grandma Winnie wasn't doing well, she had insisted on recuperating at home after her stroke and her bedroom suite had been converted into a makeshift hospital room. There was a nurse on duty around the clock and the doctor stopped in twice a week but it just wasn't the same as having family around. Miriam had encouraged Hope to come home, her older sisters Greta and Thea were busy with their own families and couldn't get away so it seemed the logical thing to do. It would help Wyn, too, Hope's younger sister and Winnie's namesake granddaughter was holding up well but it was hard for her to watch her beloved grandmother slip away.
So Hope had come home to Winbrook thinking she could overcome some of her own pain by placing herself among those who suffered more. She had fallen into a comfortable routine of reading to and assisting Grandma Winnie at mealtime and working on Society projects with her mother. Hope and Wyn along with her friends Nina and Josie set up Sunday afternoons as a movie date with Grandma Winnie. The local ABC affiliate ran old movies on the Sunday PM Theatre, alternating romances with horror movies. Often Miriam would join them, too. The Sunday movie afternoons proved to be an elixir of life for Grandma Winnie. They all understood without saying it out loud that it was the time and space they shared in that room that was important. It really didn't matter why they gathered there together, it mattered that they did
Miriam had learned from Winnie the importance of strong alliances and friendships between women and had passed this knowledge on to her four daughters by example as well as by word. All of the girls had put in their time at the Society learning generosity and kindness at their mother's and grandmother's sides. Greta, Thea, Hope, and Wyn had seen the contrast of their own privileged lives with the not so fortunate in their own community from the time that they were very young. They learned that not just their wealth but that their compassion could make a difference in others' lives. How could Miriam refuse when the girls brought home strays of the feline and amphibious as well as human variety. All were taken in and cared for according to their needs be it a meal or medical attention or often just a cookie and a hug.
An early fall crispness was in the air, the leaves had not yet fallen but were turning to crimson and gold on the maple trees lining the street near the country club. Miriam's thoughts turned to Wyn, her baby was now a senior in high school. She knew that Wyn wanted to become a lawyer, she had talked about it from the age of ten. Miriam hoped that Wyn would choose to stay home and attend the state university to pursue her bachelor's degree. If Wyn was to depart for college in less than a year Winbrook would be a very lonely place to be. These were hard facts to face. Her mother-in-law's health was deteriorating rapidly and Hope was only here temporarily. It was hard for her to envision a future without her family gathered around her but she couldn't allow herself to ignore what likely lay ahead. Ignoring the elephant in the kitchen didn't make it go away but Miriam felt she shouldn't interfere. Don't worry, she chided herself, stop trying to predict the future. Just get on with life and let things unfold as they will. Appreciate what you have in this moment without wondering when you might lose it.
Miriam thought it was funny, using the same words to scold herself that she had used so many times on her children. She had done a good job of raising them, their father hadn't been much help but Winnie certainly had been. Pride may be one of the seven deadlies but Miriam allowed herself the indulgence where her daughters were concerned. She had always pitied Freddie his inability to bond with their children, the girls had always seemed to be a nuisance to him. He saw value in stock dividends and owning property and playing golf. He had given her diamonds and cars without ever knowing that the greatest gift to his wife had been their children. In the end his ignorance had turned out to a blessing, he died of a massive heart attack teeing off at the seventh hole at the Glades golf course without ever knowing how empty his life had truly been. Greived over in perfunctory fashion after his funeral his own family went on without him pretty much as they had with him. Wyn thought that her father's study was haunted by him and they had closed the door on his favorite room, leaving it just as it was. When four year old Wyn was missed she could be found in the leather chair at her father's desk busily scribbling pictures on his personal stationery. Seldom allowed in the study when he was alive Wyn found peace and quiet in the same room where her father had hidden himself from his own family. Having spent many hours leaning against the smooth mahogany of the closed door listening for clues as to what he could possibly find to do in there all alone she took great satisfaction in finally getting to sit on the other side.
In the end it had been Wyn who boldly stripped the study down to its bare plaster walls and completely redecorated it as a home office that she shared with her husband, Marc. The heavy burgundy leather and damask darkness had given way to bright wallpaper and fresh flowers that pleasantly contrasted with Wyn's law books and Marc's computer equipment. It seemed that Wyn's job in life was to clear out the cobwebs and stuffiness and leave in her wake a fresh start with light and openness. Miriam watched in amazement as Wyn exorsized her father's ghost from the room and moved in her own bright spirit to take its place. Miriam loved all of her daughters deeply and she thought equally but Wyn was like nothing she had ever experienced before. She was constantly astounded that she had brought this beautiful creature into the world and didn't feel guilty over taking most of the credit for it herself.
Heads she would go to the party. Tails she wouldn't. Nina flipped the quarter and it landed in the middle of the bed. Tails. Two out of three, then. Flip. Heads. Flip. Heads. She pounded on the mattress in exasperation and the quarter bounced around, flipping from one side to the other, engaged in an odd, gravity defying dance. If it lands on it's edge and stays I'm going. She stopped pounding and the coin landed tails side up once more. Okay, okay, I'm going to Wyn's winter party. I'm making a conscious, decisive move. I'm going.
Ethan would be there, he and Hope were acting as chaperones or something, grownups whose primary function was to keep the teenage guests from having too much fun or too much privacy in which to engage in too much fun. Not as old as their parents but enough older keep order without throwing a wet blanket over the festivities. He would be there and she would manage somehow to corner him alone just long enough to pique his interest. Just a little reminder of how she looked and moved and smelled and tasted. Nina shivered with delight and giggled out loud. You are such a bad girl, she told herself. Evil, wicked, bad, nasty. Yes, yes, yes! Throwing herself back on her bed she stared up at the ceiling and then down toward her feet. She pulled her robe belt as tight as she could and held her breath. She liked how the narrowness of her waist gradually sloped out into hips and then sloped in once more along the length of her legs on down to her ankles. Her toes wiggled a hello from the other end of her body before she swung them over the side of the bed and rested them on the floor.
Getting up she sashayed over to the full length mirror on the back of her door. She cinched the belt in once more and knotted it. She pulled the neckline open and down over her shoulders and leaned in just a bit, hunching her arms in to exaggerate her cleavage. Nina licked her lips and swallowed and met her own eyes in the mirror. Her robe slipped further down and she caught at it, forgetting that she had knotted the belt securely. Suddenly embarrassed by her own self- inspection she pulled the robe back up around her shoulders and sat down on the bed. How could he not want me, she thought. How could he not want me. It was too scary to contemplate the results of seeking Ethan out at the party tonight. But it was too tantalizing not to. Once again she hopped up from the bed to inspect the contents of her closet and select just the right outfit for tonight.
"Nina, just remember to be careful, you'll be skating on a river, not just an indoor rink like you're used to."
"Mom, it's okay, the ice is thick and they always block off the skating area with hay bales so
people don't stray off to where the ice is thinner. Besides, it's so cold out that we probably will be inside most of the time." Nina was anxiously waiting by the window for Josie to pick her up, she should have been here by now.
"Are you sure that coat is warm enough? You really should wear your long, down-filled coat if you're going to be outside. It's better to be safe than sorry."
"I need to wear my short coat to skate, the long one gets in the way. Besides, Wyn and I are practically the same size, if I'm cold I can borrow ski pants or something. There she is, I've got to go, now." Nina turned away from the window and gave her mother a quick squeeze around the shoulders. "Don't worry, Mom, everything will be fine. I'll call you later, and remember I'm staying overnight, Josie or somebody will give me a ride home tomorrow. Bye."
"Good-bye, sweetheart." Belle watched the apartment door fly shut behind her daughter. The door didn't latch and she walked over to push it closed, clucking her tongue and shaking her head the whole way. She got back to the window just in time to see the little red car that Josie Parker drove pull away from the curb. Belle sighed and pulled the drapes shut and then settled into the corner of the couch near her basket of crochet work. She picked up the TV listing from the newspaper and saw that How The Grinch Stole Christmas would be on in less than half an hour. Following that was the movie White Christmas. Well, she thought, by the time the evening is over I'll have finished this afghan. It was a baby afghan for one of her co-workers, Denise was due with her baby January fifteenth but was taking off for medical leave this coming week. Poor thing, her ankles were terribly swollen and she needed assistance to get up out of her chair. It would do her good to get off work early and get some rest, and now she would have a beautiful crocheted blanket to wrap her new little one up in.
A change was coming over Belle so slowly, so quietly, by such tiny degrees that she didn't know it was happening. Contentment was something that was so foreign to her that if it hadn't gained such a gradual hold over her she would have run screaming from it's comforting grasp. This new feeling of patience and stillness was making a long-delayed intrusion on her empty, cold center of emotion. Belle had been surprised and warmed by the quick hug her daughter had administered on her way out. She picked up the two-thirds finished afghan and located the hook that was poked in and out through the loose weave of pastel yarn. The job was good, she was even getting involved with her work mates of nearly one year. She liked this apartment, too, the only thing better would be a small house, but then the upkeep, all the little repairs and tasks that accompanied home ownership. Belle sighed and thought of the house she and Hal had owned when Nina was a baby. He had been so capable, so willing to fix a leaky faucet or oil the hinges on a squeaking door. She smiled inwardly as she crocheted and remembered that dream from years ago and was surprised when she didn't freeze the memory and change the subject. She followed the events of Nina's birth and infancy on up through her first steps around the living room as she cruised along the edges of furniture, then startling herself when she let go and stayed upright for several steps before landing on her thickly diapered bottom. Then that day when she had come in from the clothesline to find him on the couch. How at first she thought he had just fallen asleep but he didn't move when she nudged his shoulder and when she looked again how strangely still he was. Belle choked back a sob that soon gave way to full-fledged crying. After sixteen years she had let the floodgates open and she finally allowed herself to acknowledge and mourn her loss. And the world hadn't ground to a halt.
An hour later she was still there, she was alive and breathing and everything seemed to be in its place. Belle's sobs were transformed into laughter as she went about the room, turning lights on and off again and picking up pillows and magazines that were scarcely out of place and putting them down once more. She slid on her stockinged feet into the kitchen and turned on the water in the sink, changing the temperature from bone-chilling cold to scalding hot that made steam rise up and settle in a fog on the window above. She scribbled a hasty Merry Christmas in the haze and decided to have Nina come with her tomorrow to choose a tree to decorate. Belle settled once more on the sofa and began to crochet furiously. She was alive. And Christmas would be different this year.
The snow wasn't very deep. Just a Christmas card picture perfect dusting of a couple of inches was spread over Winbrook's back yard like vanilla icing on a cake awaiting further adornment. A dozen hardy teenagers followed Ethan and Hope's lead across the yard and over and down the hill to the bank of the frozen river. Ethan instructed them to close their eyes and to count down from ten. When their unison of voices reached one Hope plugged in the last stretch of extension cord and a true winter wonderland blazed into light. What could have been a typical blase adolescent response was instead a chorus of appreciative oooh's and aaah's. The decorating efforts of the afternoon had been obscured by darkness but were now revealed for them to admire. String upon string of colored lights were hung above them in the trees and stretched from one side of the river to the other giving off a glow like multi-colored stars. Enormous plastic candy canes outlined the skating area amid the row of straw bales that also provided seating. Huge hard candies fashioned from styrofoam discs and colored cellophane seemed to float in midair as they dangled at the ends of invisible fishing line. So this was why Wyn had turned down her offer to help with party decorations. She had wanted it to be a surprise. Nina had to admit that having the entire scene burst forth from the night before them had been pretty spectacular. Wyn and Justin had taken the middle of the ice first and when Wyn waved her hand a Strauss waltz issued forth from speakers up in the trees and they began to skate. The winter environment of night and cold was pushed back just far enough to give them room to skate and laugh and forget that the temperature was near zero.
Eventually the blustery wind forced the party inside where more guests had arrived. They were greeted by hot cider and chocolate and Christmas cookies of every possible variety. Snowball cookies rolled in confectioner's sugar of both lemon and almond flavors, cut-out cookies in the shapes of bells and wreaths and stars, tiny chocolate butter cookies half-dipped in creamy vanilla icing. Trays and trays of sandwiches and chips crowded the table in the dining room. In the center of the table stood a fabulous Black Forest cake, its many layers of solid devils food cake separated by billows of frosting that consisted of a blend of cream cheese and sweetened whipped cream. This stratified decadent delight was topped with sweet, dark cherries in a thick syrup of such remarkable viscosity that it did not drip down over the sides.
Nina wandered away from the feeding frenzy in the dining room with a cup of hot apple cider in hand. The entry hall with it's wide, curved staircase was set up for dancing with a stereo and
folding chairs along the walls. The game room containing a pool table was at the far end of the entry hall but it sounded quiet, Nina peeked in to find no one there. In the great room there was a welcoming blaze in the fireplace and she went in to warm her still-chilly legs before the fire. The cider was finally cool enough to sip without burning her tongue and it felt good to let its spicy pungence linger in her mouth before she swallowed it. Nina gazed around the room, taking in the burgundy and hunter green decorating scheme that served as a perfect backdrop for the pine boughs and velvet ribboned seasonal touches. She thought about what a good friend Wyn had become to her, how she had made her feel welcome and comfortable in the midst of all of this opulence that was so far removed from her own existance. She had been allowing herself the luxury of thinking that maybe this was good, that she could stay here a while. Her mother wasn't showing signs of restlessness, but even if she had she'd promised Nina that she'd get to finish school here. Then she'd be on her own, wherever she decided to go to college was where she'd make her home. It was so freeing, this idea that she would soon be in charge of her own destiny.
With the cider gone and her body temperature returned to normal Nina suddenly realized that she was hungry and thought she should return to the dining room. Maybe she should just forget about pursuing Ethan, he had been cheerful but distant earlier down at the river. He and Hope had showed off their skating prowess together as they danced across the ice holding hands. Nina had watched them with inward despair, what could she possibly do to attract his attention. She wandered into the game room and was absently rolling the cue ball back and forth across the table when Ethan appeared in the doorway and turned on the lights.
"Wanna play? Call or last pocket?" he asked.
"This isn't my game, I'm not very good."
"Didn't ask you if you were any good, I asked if you want to play. We'll just play a practice game, no bets till the second one."
"Okay." Nina smiled at him as he racked up the balls.
"There. Your break."
Nina chose a cue from the rack on the wall and positioned herself at the end of the table. Bending over and squinting she poked energetically at the cue ball and missed the arranged triangle of balls completely. "That was lousy. Let me try again. I mean, this is a practice game, right?"
"Go ahead, but let me show you something first." Ethan came around to her end of the table and set the cue ball down. "Now, get into position, line up your cue like this." He put his arms around her from the back and showed her where to place her hands on the cue and demonstrated how she should move and then stood back to watch. She glanced back at him. "Let 'er rip." Nina hit the cue ball square on and was delighted to see the balls scatter across the table. The solid purple ball fell into the left corner pocket on the far side of the table. "Solids are yours." he said.
Nina walked around the table inspecting the relative positions of the balls to see what would be the most likely shot to attempt. Her knees felt a little rubbery and she had to concentrate to walk normally, she didn't want him to see the effect his friendly billiards lesson was having on her. At the very least he could have the decency to smell bad, she thought. This would be so much easier if there was a built-in deterrant. She looked up to see him observing her and wished she had something brilliant to say. She decided to be blunt and met his eyes straight on. "Do you ever think about me? About up at the cabin when you, well, when we kissed? I think about it. All the time. And I just wondered, do you make passes at all of your sister's friends or am I special?"
Ethan sighed patiently and pushed back his hair as he looked at the floor. "I knew that this would come back to haunt me. Listen, Nina, you have to understand, we can't be involved with each other. I've let this flirtation or whatever it is go on because it was fun and flattering, it's all been my fault, but it has to stop. We can't be together, you're just too young."
"You didn't think I was too young a couple of weeks ago."
"Oh, yes I did, I just wasn't thinking clearly. Nina, Hope and I are seeing each other and it could be something serious, you need to find a guy closer to your own age, someone you'd be more compatible with."
"But I want you." Nina set down her pool cue and walked around the table to him and looked at him unflinchingly. "Tell me you don't like this and I'll leave you alone." She leaned toward him, hoping he would do the same, thinking that if he didn't kiss her she would die. She closed her eyes and opened them when she felt his hands on her shoulders, holding her at arm's length.
"Nina, this isn't going to happen, it has to stop now."
"I'll play the winner. Or the loser. I'm not picky." Nina turned to see Oliver Conner in the doorway.
"Hey, buddy, why don't you take over for me, this girl scares me, she's good." Ethan handed his cue over to Oliver and was gone.
"So, whose turn is it?" asked Oliver.
"Still mine, I have solids." answered Nina. Soon there were others in the gameroom, some there to play, others interested in watching. Nina and Oliver teamed up to play Josie and Tommy Carpenter and managed to hold the table for two more rounds. By then music had started out in the hall and some kids left to dance. Tommy held out his hand to Nina with a questioning expression on his face. She took his hand and followed him out of the gameroom. Nina really didn't want to dance but at least the music was fast so they joined in with the other two couples out on the floor. Josie had nabbed her brother and dragged him out to the middle of the floor and Wyn and Hope were engaged in a dispute as to who should lead in the modified polka they were attempting to fit in with the rock 'n roll beat. Unable to make it work they instead started a conga line and snaked off toward the great room to pick up more people and entice them to join in the dance.
Just when Nina was regaining her composure and starting to relax and enjoy dancing somebody changed the record. Stairway to Heaven was playing. Nina groaned. Not just a slow song but the longest slow song that existed, and when it finally sped up near the end of the song it wasn't quite fast enough. She thanked Tommy and was going to go sit this one out but he held onto her hand and pouted and said please so nicely that she relented and put her arms up on his shoulders. They were close but not too close. Nina saw that the conga line had broken up into couples and that Ethan and Hope were now dancing together. Closer than chaperones ought to, she thought, maybe someone should be keeping an eye on them. That was when she noticed the mistletoe. Hanging down over the dance floor from the chandelier. And she and Tommy were directly under it. When he saw that she was looking up he looked up, too, and grinned shyly at her. What do I do now. In the excruciatingly long seconds that ensued Nina glanced away and saw that Ethan was looking directly at her. She looked back at Tommy and planted her lips squarely on his and left them there for a full minute. When she pulled back she didn't know who was more embarrassed. She smiled at him and laid her head on his shoulder for the rest of the dance.
Nina wasn't sure nor was she concerned over what aftereffect the kiss had left on Tommy but one look at Ethan told her it had made the desired impression on him. He looked stunned. Maybe even a little hurt. Good, thought Nina. Don't think you can't be easily replaced. If you're going to abandon me I want to make sure you suffer a little. She leveled a cold stare at Ethan over Tommy's shoulder while she held him a little bit closer. Tommy obligingly let her and did the same. The next time she looked Ethan and Hope had left the dance floor. It was a bitter little victory and Nina didn't like how it felt, but she did like knowing that she had won this round.