The two sisters laughed all the way back to the campsite. They were still giggling when they corralled Zoe and Brody into the motorhome for the night.
“Momma, what’s so funny?” Zoe said, bottom lip poking out.
“Your Aunt Phee is a silly girl,” Anna said.
“We already knew that,” Brody said.
“I heard the weatherman says it will be really hot tomorrow,” Anna said. “And I got a new bathing suit. How about we spend the morning at the pool?”
“Yes!” Zoe said. “Can you play Gopher with us? Brody cheats and he dunks me all the time.”
“I do not!” Brody said. “You’re such a baby. That’s the point of the game.”
“Ok, cool it, guys,” Anna said. “I will play Gopher with you but the minute I hear any arguing we’re stopping. Everyone understand?”
The mumbled agreement came from both children. She gave Brody a goodnight kiss before she crawled into bed with Zoe. The little girl yawned big. “Is Aunt Phee going to share the bed too?”
“Yup,” Anna said, putting her arms around her daughter. “Then you’ll be squished in like a burrito.”
“I love you, momma,” Zoe said as her arms wrapped around her mother’s neck and promptly fell asleep.
“I love you too, baby,” Anna said, stroking her daughter’s auburn curls. She felt her heart bursting to explode with love as she cuddled her baby girl in her arms. Tears leaked from her eyes. So many times Darren and she looked down at their children together and marveled at their beauty – a testament of their love for each other wrapped in a receiving blanket.
Darren had been an excellent father. He loved to hold them and bounce them and talk to them. He was the giver of tickles and wiper of tears. He was not a fan of taking the diaper pail out and dramatically held his scrunched up nose as he dealt with mustard yellow blowouts. Yet, the sweetest image she had of Darren was him bouncing their baby son as he fussed, burning up with an ear infection, so she could get a few precious hours of sleep.
“I miss you so much,” Anna whispered. “I don’t know why you had to leave me. Sometimes I’m so mad at you, and at God. What made you think I could do this on my own? And these beautiful children are growing up without their father. Especially Brody. There will be so much as a man he’ll need you for.” The tears flowed liberally now. Gulping back a sob, Anna held her daughter tighter and fell asleep, like so many nights before, with tears running rivulets down her cheeks and memories of Darren in her dreams.
The sun was just peeking through the motor home’s windows when she found herself pounced on by two very exuberant children already in their bathing suits.
“Mom, mom, mom, wake up!” Zoe said. “Grandpa says we can’t go to the pool until we eat breakfast.”
“Mom, I’m starving,” Brody said, hunched over in feigned agony.
“Let me get dressed, then I can get you some breakfast,” Anna said, sitting up.
She rubbed her tear encrusted eyes. She grabbed the new bathing suit and threw it on. She looked in the full-length mirror her mother had installed in the motor home. Anna kept her figure despite the two babies. She sighed, frustrated with her atrophied legs. She wasn’t Sports Illustrated material. When Darren was alive, it was a non-issue. He had loved all of her. But Darren wasn’t here now. And she had accepted the fact that her body would be as much an issue now, should she date again, as it was in high school. She shook her head, trying to get the negative speak out of her mind. She wasn’t trying to impress anyone anyway, so it only brought her down.
She grabbed a towel and scooted towards the little kitchenette. She pulled out the mini-cereal boxes and rummaged through the mini-fridge for the milk. With all the speed of a vacuum, her kids inhaled the cereal and ran out the door.
“Good morning, Anna,” Marg said. Marg pushed a large shop broom around the cement walkway to the pool. “It’s going to be a hot one today.”
“That’s what I hear,” Anna said. “The kids and I are going to spend some time in the pool, I think.”
“Good thinking,” Marg said.
Brody and Zoe flew into the pool. Anna parked next to the metal handrail that went into the pool and using her wheelchair’s seat for leverage lowered herself to the stairs of the pool. She tested the water with her hand. The water felt like bathwater that had just lost its warmth. Even though the sun had been up for only an hour, a hazy heat had settled over the camping site. Marg wasn’t kidding when she said it would be hot. With a push, Anna plunged into the water.
Anna loved swimming. The water didn’t hinder her crippled body. It was one of the first things she remembered about physical therapy – playing in the pool. She used to imagine herself a dolphin or selkie, doing lazy figure-8’s or splashing out of the water. She had excelled and had even considered entering the Paralympics after high school. Instead, she had met Darren and gotten married.
Brody splashed Zoe mercilessly. Anna dove under the water and grabbed Brody’s leg and yanked him under. She surfaced and once Brody’s head popped up she yelled, “Gopher!”
“I’m going to get you, mom!” Brody said, trying to catch his mother. She could easily dunk him again, but she allowed Brody to yank on the back of her swimsuit straps and pull her under. She came up laughing as Brody yelled, “Gopher!” Brody turned to his sister with a sinister grin. Zoe screamed and tried to swim away. Brody was bigger and faster and soon Zoe disappeared under the water, with Brody crowing, “Gopher!”
Anna and the kids took several turns playing Gopher, laughing and half drowning. She swam up to the stairs, winded. She laughed as she watched Zoe trying to dunk her brother with little success. “Ah, Brody, don’t be a spoilsport,” she said.
“Fine,” he said. Suddenly Zoe jumped up behind him, grabbed him around the neck and dragged him under the water. “Zoe, you jerk,” Brody said, sputtering and coughing as he resurfaced. “You’re not supposed to choke me.”
“I’m sorry,” Zoe said, trying to get near to her brother, hands extended to hug him.
“Go away,” he said, splashing her.
“No!” Zoe said, splashing back. “You’re my big brother!”
A deep-bellied laugh erupted from behind her. She swung around. A man in American flag swim trunks had settled just behind her on the stairs. To her horror, she realized that it was the security guard from the BoxMart store. The blood rushed to her cheeks, and she quickly looked away, hoping with every fiber of her being he didn’t recognize her. Her heart threatened to beat out of her chest.
“I remember when my best friend and I used to do this exact same thing,” he said. He moved down to the stair she sat on. “I think we ended up inhaling more water than we splashed at each other.”
Anna’s mind was a blank, trying to think of something clever or witty to say. Nothing. It was bad enough he had been devastatingly good looking in his security guard uniform, but now he was in nothing more than his swim trunks. She debated how she should just introduce herself but worried that her indecision was coming off as rude. In the end, he saved her the trouble.
“Hi, I’m Phillip Laughlin. They call me Phil, mostly.” He extended his hand.
She turned to him and took his hand, cheeks blazing. As soon as he got a good look at her face, his eyes widened a bit and he grinned. Anna wondered how all the blood rushing to her face didn’t make her pass out, but she managed to smile back. “I’m Anna Gilbert.”
“It’s nice to put a name to the face,” he said. “I’m assuming those two out there are yours?”
She nodded. “That’s my son, Brody, and the little girl is Zoe.”
“They look like a lot of fun,” he said, turning his head to watch them play. “And a handful.”
Anna laughed. He still had the dark brown eyes she remembered. She desperately struggled not to gawk at his physique. He didn’t look like he worked out, but that he worked outdoors and with his hands a lot. He had a tuft of curly dark hair between his pectorals that lead down towards his shorts. As soon as she found herself heading in that direction, she turned away and cleared her throat. “Yes, they are that.”
Silence settled between them for a while. She couldn’t think of anything else to say that didn’t sound stupid, but the silence was killing her. He seemed content to sit near her. His proximity made her stomach do flips.
She was about to open her mouth to say something when he did the same. They laughed, but she indicated he should continue. “So what brings you to Sweetwater? If you don’t mind my asking.”
“I’m here on vacation with my family,” she said.
“Oh,” he said. “I guess your boyfriend is off doing something else?”
“My husband died a few years ago. I’m here with my sister and our parents.”
“I’m so sorry,” he said, a blush spreading across his cheeks, intensifying the color of his eyes. She saw pain reflected back at her.
She nodded. “Me, too,” she said. “Could I ask you a question? If you don’t mind?”
“Sure,” he said.
“Do you live here?”
“If you mean the lodge, no. I have my own place a few miles down the road,” he said. “But Marg and Hank are like parents to me so I’m always puttering around this place. The 4th of July barbecue is in a couple of days, and I’m here to help Hank set everything up. Will you be staying for the barbecue?”
“My dad has his own funny timetable for this trip but I doubt he would say ‘no’ to something my kids and he would enjoy so much.”
Phil’s smile brightened. “It really is a lot of fun. Hank is a pyromaniac and Independence Day is like Christmas morning to him.”
Anna laughed. “Sounds like my dad.”
From the corner of her vision, Anna saw a white and pink blur screaming towards them. Ophelia breezed past them and cannonballed into the pool. The resulting tidal wave dunked the kids and splashed Phil and Anna. Anna laughed until she looked over at Phillip. He looked to have a death grip on the stairs and handrail. His eyes were clenched tight and his face pale. He murmured softly to himself. At first, Anna thought he might be upset at Ophelia for splashing them. When his death grip continued, she became concerned. She gave him a minute and then reached a hand over and touched his shoulder.
“Are you ok?” she said.
Phillip startled and opened his eyes. He looked at her with such an intense gaze; it took her breath away. He nodded and sat up a little straighter. “I’m fine,” he said. He took a deep breath and blew it out slowly.
Ophelia’s head popped up from the water in front of them. “Hey, guys!” she said. When she saw Phillip, her smile got positively Cheshire. “Well, hello there, Mr. Security Guard.”
“Phil, this is my sister, Ophelia. I believe you’ve met,” Anna said.
“Yes,” Phil said, chuckling weakly. “I remember. Something about an issue with one of the powercarts or something.”
Anna wanted to cover her cheeks with her hands.
“That’s right,” Ophelia said, looking at her sister. “A very nice Clark-Kent kind of guy rescued my sister, and in that suit she’s wearing, no less. It’s a shame that the pullover got damaged. But I guess it’s a lucky thing because she looks amazing in that swimsuit. Doesn’t that color accentuate her eyes, Phil?”
“Phee, stop it,” Anna growled.
“I thought the same thing a minute ago,” Phillip said.
Ophelia kept going despite the daggers coming from Anna’s eyes.
“So, Phil, what do you do for a living, or is the security guard Clark-Kent guy your full-time gig?” Ophelia said.
“It’s very part-time,” Phillip said. “It gives me something to do. I’m retired military and Marg and Hank keep me busy around here.”
“Military, huh?” Ophelia said. “What branch?”
“Army,” he said.
“Oh, dad is going to love you,” Ophelia said.
“Phee,” Anna said with emphasis.
“Our dad was in the Army, too,” Ophelia kept going. “Get him going and he could talk your ear off about the different bases he’s been stationed at, and battles and all that stuff.”
“Phee!” Anna practically shouted.
“What?” Ophelia said.
“Why don’t you go and play Gopher with the kids?” Anna gave her sister a very pointed stare.
“Ok,” Ophelia said, still grinning. “You kids have fun talking.” She splashed away and immediately pounced on Brody.
“I’m so sorry,” Anna said, looking back at Phillip. “She doesn’t know when to shut up sometimes.”
Phillip smiled. “She seems like she is very interested in her family’s happiness.”
“That’s one way you could put it,” Anna said, grimacing.
“I was going to swim some laps but I don’t want to ruin the kids’ fun,” he said, standing up. “I’m glad we bumped into each other. See you at the barbecue?”
She nodded. “See you around the lodge.”
“I hope so,” he said, the side of his mouth ticked up as he walked away.
Homesite of author Whitney Sivill. I'm a mother of three, a wife and a student. In between, I write clean romances, fantasy tales, and mid-grade & young adult fiction. I might throw in the occasional fanfiction, too.