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"Change just accept it, Marsha. The only thing permanent is death." Marsha Sullivan muttered her thoughts aloud.
Her mind filled with equal parts nostalgia and frustration as she leaned against the chalet's deck railing and gazed beyond the Lake Michigan beach to the glistening water. The cottage brought back too many memories. She had feared this would happen. It had once before.
She smacked her fist against the wooden rail and turned her back to the rolling waves. "Barb," she called to her sister inside the summer cottage, "let's go into town for a while and pick up groceries."
Straining to hear her sister's response, she waited a moment before calling again. "Barb? Did you hear me?"
"What?" Her sister's voice bounded through the screen.
"Let's take a ride into town for groceries."
The screen door slid open, and Barb stepped through the doorway with a frown darkening her face. "We just got here. We should have shopped when we got off the ferry."
Marsha's shoulders tensed. "We came here first because I thought you'd like to put away your clothes and unpack the car."
Barb's frame blocked the doorway, her cheeks flushing with color. "Don't think for me. Please. You're always doing that."
You're always doing that. Marsha sank onto the picnictable bench and leaned against the rough wood. "I'm sorry, Barb. I'm not trying to control you." Tension tightened the muscles in her back. She'd heard the criticism before, even from her husband, Don, before Lou Gehrig's disease had taken his life four years earlier. "I thought we could go into town and look around a little. Enjoy ourselves."
"I am enjoying myself. I'm in the middle of a novel." Barb swished a strand of hair from her forehead, her movement showing her irritation. She stepped back and slid the screen closed.
"Sorry I asked," Marsha mumbled, then immediately regretted her tone. She pulled her back from the hard table edge and pressed her fingers against her forehead. Finally, she stood, paused to calm herself, then pushed the screen along the track and entered the living room. "Okay. I'm going into town for a while. Enjoy your novel."
"Have a nice time," Barb said, her eyes glued to the paperback.
Marsha grabbed her purse from the kitchenette counter and strode to the back porch, not stopping the screen from slamming. She stood a moment outside, longing to bridge the distance that separated her and her sister, but she couldn't. She should be used to her sister's detachment by now. Barb had been like that for years.
Marsha wished she hadn't slammed the door. She knew her sister's ways and she understood. No, she didn't understand, but she wanted to. Her sister was only forty, two years younger than Marsha and her life had seemed to stall. Marsha had often pondered when Barb had changed so much and why.
When she was younger, Barb had been thin and quite pretty, but in her teen years, she'd changed. She'd let her social life slide and sat around the house avoiding exercise. She seemed to let food become her friend. How could two people raised in the same home be so different? The question was moot. Barb seemed happy with her life. It was Marsha who guessed that, deep inside, she actually wasn't. Marsha never asked why Barb had changed, and she figured her sister would never discuss it with her, anyway.
Marsha drew in a lengthy breath of clean island air and headed for her car parked on the gravel driveway. A pebble slipped into her sandal, and she stopped a moment, leaning her hip against the car, to remove a pea-sized stone. Amazing what tiny things could cause such irritation, she thought, then realized that seemed to be a truth for much of life.
As she stepped from beneath the shade of a cedar tree, the warm sun fell on her arms. She opened the car door and slid onto the hot seat cushion, raising her legs and wishing she'd worn slacks instead of shorts. Back home, she'd never think of wearing shorts in public, but here, no one knew her and she enjoyed the freedom.
Instead of using the air conditioner, Marsha rolled down the window and let the wind whip through her hair. Much time had passed since she'd felt this kind of liberation. "Thanks for buying this cottage, Don," she said, a bittersweetness welling inside her. She pushed away the feeling and kept her thoughts focused on her trip to town.
She followed the narrow road and, through the passenger window, Lake flashed between the evergreens. She and Don had rented a boat one summer and paddled around the lake, watching the turtles sun themselves on the lily pads. She recalled one day when they'd run into Don's brother, Jeff, and his wife rowing toward them on the lake. They'd teased back and forth, singing "There's a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea," each taking turns to add another line. Jeff's pleasant voice still rang in her head. He was such a handsome man, and Marsha wondered if she'd met him first what might have happened.
Guilt nudged at her for the thought, and she let it slip and filled her mind with the silly song. "There's a frog on the bump of the log in the hole in the bottom of the sea." She sang into the wind.
Marsha threw her head back, enjoying the memory. She wondered if Jeff remembered that day. Regret rolled over her. She hadn't seen Jeff in so long. Too long. She and Jeff spent so much time together, but after Don's death, she'd drifted away from the entire family. It was wrong. Jeff probably could have used her support when his wife had died so suddenly in that tragic car accident. She should have offered Jeff some help instead of clinging to her own loss for so long. Being the single parent of their disabled young daughter, Bonnie, couldn't be easy for him.
As the last view of the lake flashed past, Marsha pulled herself from her doldrums and breathed in renewed vigor. Maybe she'd rent a boat one afternoon, even if she had to rent it alone. Perhaps she could even convince Barb to go.
She shrugged off her melancholy emotions and enjoyed the scenery. The thick woods gave way to buildings as she drove into St. James, the island's only town. Nearing Main Street, Daddy Frank's caught her eye, a small gray-and-white building with a blue awning. In front, two white open-air tents had been erected for customers to sit beneath at picnic benches and enjoy their famous waffle ice-cream cones.
As if her car suddenly had a mind of its own, Marsha found herself veering to the right and put her foot on the brake. Ice cream. It could raise the most downcast spirit. She exited the car and went inside to order a double dip of peanut-butter cup.
She strolled outside and slid onto one of the picnic benches, licking the creamy dessert and convincing herself to ignore her disappointment with Barb and enjoy herself.
The afternoon sunlight blinded her, and she dug into her purse for sunglasses. Apparently, she'd left them back at the cottage when she had made her dramatic exit. She shook her head at the thought. I need patience, Lord, she thought as she shifted farther beneath the covering to avoid the direct rays. When she looked up, a man and young girl were climbing from a car parked beside hers. She felt her pulse skip, realizing it was her brother-in-law.
He turned and stared at her a moment as if he didn't recognize her. Then familiarity filled his eyes. "Marsha." He strode toward her, his arms open in greeting.
She rose and walked into his embrace. Her gaze shifted from his warm smile to the full head of dark hair that framed his classic features. Good-looking and always so nice. She realized how much she'd missed him. "I was thinking about you when I passed the lake."
A grin flickered on his lips for a moment. "The boat rides and that silly song."
She nodded. "You remember."
He grinned and gave her another squeeze.
Marsha searched his face, unable to get her fill of him. Seeing him on the island seemed so right. So real. It took her back to the good times years earlier.
His gaze swept her face. "I wondered how I'd entertain myself while I'm here, and here you are."
"That would be fun."
"And look at Bonnie. You're getting more grown up every day." Her niece had her mother's light brown eyes, her dad's slightly turned nose and those darling dimples, but the child's maturing form gave Marsha pause.
Bonnie gave her a shy look but moved closer and focused on the creamy treat in Marsha's hand. "We're getting ice cream, too." She motioned to Marsha's cone.
Marsha gave the ice cream another lick. "It's really good." Bonnie looked at the treat a minute and dragged her tongue over her lips before tugging on her father's arm. "Let's go, Daddy."
"In a minute, Bonnie."
"I want to go now." Her voice rose to a piercing whine. Jeff cringed, then sent Marsha a look that was probably supposed to be an apologetic grin. "We'll be back." He took Bonnie's hand and led her toward the building.
Marsha understood his look. She recalled that Bonnie tended to go into a tizzy when she didn't get what she wanted, and Jeff apparently had difficulty dealing with it. Having a disabled child was difficult enough for two parents. One parent having to do it all seemed an unfair task.
As strong as her faith had always been, Marsha wondered sometimes what God had been thinking when He'd taken the life of a major caregiver like Marilou. She'd been a gentle woman, so patient and understanding with Bonnie, while Jeff seemed to use avoidance as his method of coping.
Coping. In recent years, Marsha had learned to cope with difficulties and sadness as part of her daily life. Yet, she knew that God was good and He had a purpose for everything. She only wished the Lord would give her a hint sometimes. Maybe then she'd be more patient.
She turned away from the hot sun to face the door, her mind on Jeff's unexpected arrival. She really shouldn't have been surprised. They both owned summer homes on the island. Well, home hardly described her A-frame chalet, but Jeff's ranch was a real home, filled with all the loving touches that his and Don's parents had added over so many years.
Jeff's image settled into her mind as she watched the door for him and Bonnie. Jeff would probably be considered more handsome than Don, but Jeff lacked the deep smile lines that she loved about her husband's features. The brothers had the same trim muscular builds, about six feet tall and, when Jeff had given her a welcoming hug, she'd felt comfortable and almost whole again in his friendly embrace.
The restaurant door swung open, and Bonnie came through followed by Jeff. She held a double-dip waffle cone whose contents had already left a spot on her T-shirt. The girl looked a bit disheveled, as if needing a mother's touch.
Bonnie slid across the bench from her, the cone leaning precariously toward the ground, and Marsha shifted forward as if hoping to stop the ice cream from falling, but Jeff saw her concern and straightened Bonnie's hold.
"Be careful, Bonnie, or you'll be crying because you lost one of your dips. Push your hair out of your eyes, too, honey."
She looked at the cone and then at her dad. "I'm eating it. It's called bubble gum." She giggled. "But it won't blow bubbles. Look." She stuck out her tongue and blew a spray of ice cream into the air while it dripped down her face.
Jeff looked disconcerted and grabbed a napkin to clean up the mess. "It's ice cream. Bubble gum is just the name of it. Please don't do that again, Bonnie."
Bonnie scowled and lowered her head as if irked at her father's reproach.
Marsha wanted to say something to ease the tense situation, but Jeff's voice stopped her thoughts.
"I'm sorry I didn't get in touch for so long, Marsha. After Marilou's" He faltered and eyed Bonnie.
"I understand." Marsha's chest tightened. "I've missed seeing you. I" She paused, not wanting to mention Marilou again. "How long are you staying?"
He shrugged. "Maybe a month if we don't get too bored." He gave a toss of his head toward Bonnie. "How about you?"
His gaze unsettled her. His look seemed to probe so deeply into her eyes that she thought he was trying to read her mind. "About the same. I've only been here twice since "
She caught herself again and wished their conversation didn't hinge on the past, not only for Bonnie, but for herself. She'd lived too long in the shadow of Don's death and the sadness that had followed, and she was certain Jeff had struggled with the same grief over Marilou. "I've thought about selling the place. It's too lonely."
"I know." He glanced away. When the sun hit his face, he squinted, then slid farther along the bench into the shade. "And you figure you can handle it now?"
"The loneliness." The word came out softly and faded into nothingness.
She didn't want to talk about loneliness. "Barb's with me." He glanced toward her car. "Here?"
"She stayed back at the cottage." Marsha drew in a ragged breath, then stopped herself from complaining about her sister. "I suppose you have a schedule of activities while you're here."
"We have no particular plans." He gave her a questioning look, and the silence stretched awkwardly until his attention turned to Bonnie. He handed her another napkin to catch the leak at the bottom of the cone where she'd bitten off the end. "I'm just taking it day by day, so if you have any ideas let me know."
Plans? Marsha had been taking life day by day. She'd been alone for four yearsnever dated and couldn't imagine herself doing so, but plans with Jeff might be good for both of them.