The bus chugged to a stop twenty yards from us, making dust billow up around the tires in the warm air. I couldn't help marveling at the differences in temperatures from this summer and the one the year before. Mason stood beside me with my hand clasped in his. His prosthetic leg was a couple shades lighter than his skin. I had teased him the first time he pulled a pair of cargo shorts that he was going to have to get a tan prosthetic leg for summertime.
As if reading my mind, he tilted my chin up and dropped a kiss on my lips. I smiled wickedly at him when we parted and I licked my lips. I laughed when his eyes narrowed. It would be a long six weeks in our separate cabins.
"Ew, get a room pervs," Amy said, coming up to join us.
Mom ignored our exchange as she stood nervously on my other side. I couldn't help smiling as I recalled my own nervousness from the previous summer. I reached over and clasped her hand. "You got this," I told her, echoing words from so long ago.
She shot me a stilted smile, resting her free hand against her slightly rounded stomach. She and Rick had been nervous as hell to break the news to Mason and me after their spring wedding, wondering if it would be too much too soon.
"It's a good thing you're married," I had admonished, before breaking into a big smile as Mason clasped Rick into a tight congratulatory hug.
"We know we're older," she dragged out, obviously embarrassed about her age.
"Mom, women in their forties have been having babies for years. There's nothing special about you," I had teased, easing her fears.
I watched her now as she nervously waited for the bus to empty. "They're going to love you, Mom," I reassured her, giving her hand a squeeze as the doors of the bus opened.
Still clutching Mason's hand, I stepped forward underneath the Unlikely Allies sign and waited for my girls to disembark. I couldn't help laughing when they piled off the bus and surrounded me with their high-pitched chatter.
My eyes grew misty when Alyssa finally disembarked. She stood for a moment at the last step of the bus, uncertainty covering her face. When we made eye contact, she looked away quickly, as if she wanted to make a mad dash somewhere. I made my way through the crowd and stopped in front of her and opened my arms. She studied me for a moment and I swear I saw her eyes watering up, just a bit. She stepped forward into my embrace and hugged me tight.
“I’m sorry about last summer,” she mumbled, finally pulling back.
“Hey, it’s water under the bridge. Besides, what happens at UA stays at UA, right?” I said, draping my arm across her shoulder so I could propel her to the center of the group where she belonged.
Looking up, my eyes met Mason's and he smiled proudly at me.
“All right campers,” Dad bellowed into the megaphone, getting everyone's attention. “Girls, ages ten to twelve, you’re with Amy and Kimberly, my daughter, in cabin Raven,” he said, pointing to where Amy and I were standing. “Girls, thirteen to fifteen, you’re with Liz and my wife, Kate, in cabin Sparrow,” he said with sparkling eyes, pointing to Mom. “Boys ten to twelve, you’re with Travis and Ryan in cabin Blue Jay, and boys, thirteen to fifteen, you’re in cabin Eagle with Mason and John. Gather your belongings and head to your cabins. We’ll meet back out here at ten for orientation," he finished before joining us under the Unlikely Allies sign.
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“There are moments in everyone’s life that define the type of person you are, and the person you will become,” or so my dad always says—used to say, I corrected myself, kicking at the pile of discarded clothes at my feet. Ugh, how do you pick the right outfit to wear to your own father’s funeral? The words clanked through my head like a roller coaster ratcheting up the track. This was a decision I could use my mother’s help with, but she had spent the past few days adrift in a medicated stupor. She collapsed at the hospital after the no-nonsense surgeon came into the waiting room, informing us that the internal bleeding from the accident was too extensive. His words instantly snuffed out all the hope and optimism we had been clinging to, and in one life changing-moment, my father was gone.
I could ask my grandma for help, but I couldn’t handle the way her eyes swam with tears when she looked at me. As it was, I already felt like I was hanging on to a sinking life preserver, without her dragging me down farther. Her pain was understandable. My father had been her only son. I considered asking my Aunt Donna since she stoically refused to cry, which would have been refreshing amidst the sea of tears that surrounded me, but even she had finally broken down.
Finally giving up, I pulled out the black eyelet ankle length skirt my mom and dad bought me when they spent their twentieth anniversary in Spain the previous year. The skirt brought back bittersweet memories for me. I was jealous when they plan
ned their vacation abroad without me, but my dad pacified me by promising a month-long excursion across Europe once I graduated. That was my father. I could act like a jerk, but I was still daddy’s little girl. I swiped at the hot tears that trailed down my cheek, wishing I could somehow go back in time and take that moment back. There would be no take-backs, though. No second chances and no more plans for the future, only a yesterday full of memories. Gathering my wits before the sobs could over take me, I pulled on a black camisole and my favorite black loose weave sweater. My make-up, I kept minimal, not feeling up to putting in the effort I usually spent on my appearance. My dad would have been pleased. He had preferred the “au naturel” look, as he called it, always telling me, “You’re beautiful enough without all the extra junk.” My friends, on the other hand, would be horrified, but I couldn’t find the will to care. There were so many other important things that required my attention.
First and foremost being my little sister, Megan.
Megan had been a surprise addition to our family four years ago. I was twelve, almost thirteen, when my parents sat me down with the news that my mom was pregnant, that they had been trying for years to give me a sibling. New to the idea of where babies came from, I remember being appropriately grossed out at their phrasing of “trying for years.” Once my gag factor was under control, I was actually excited at the idea of having a real-life dress-up doll. That novelty was short lived though. After a few years, I realized that babies really didn’t do much and high school began to consume my life anyway. Megan proved to be a cute baby and an even more adorable toddler, but friends, cheerleading, and my new fascination with boys consumed my every waking moment. Megan would toddle around behind me, chanting my name in her cute little lisp as I fluttered around the house always on my way out the door. Except for the mandatory Friday family nights, which my parents insisted on, during which, I spent the majority of the time texting my friends, I had barely interacted with Megan over the last year. I regretted every single one of those texts now, yearning for just one more family Friday night.
As I left my room, I could hear the low mumble of my aunts talking while my grandma sobbed quietly behind the closed door of her guest room. I headed toward my parents suite and paused outside the door, knocking gently before entering. My mom was curled up on the side of the bed that my dad used to occupy. Her eyes were wide open and she was fully dressed, but she stared blankly into space, looking more lost than I had ever seen her. She was clutching my dad’s favorite shirt between her hands. The entire room was filled with reminders of her former best friend and true love: A closet filled with clothes, the remote control that sat on his nightstand because he loved to watch TV while lying in bed, and the familiar smell of his favorite cologne that still filled the room, all of which pinched my heart as I perched on the bed beside her. I reached over and gently grabbed onto her hand, yearning for her reassurance that everything would be alright, but her hand remained nothing more than a dead fish in mine.
“Are you going to get Megan ready?” I asked.