A car was waiting for them at the station. The dinner, long, awkward, and tense went as well as could be expected. Ellette resorted to silence, and Rand did his best to get them both through the ordeal. They were a pleasant enough family, Rand’s stepmother and father, but she couldn’t help but feel terribly out of place. She hardly ate and couldn’t wait to get to the cabin, their retreat, their little sanctuary for the evening.
They found it as they had left it, padlock loose and the shutters in the upstairs room still ajar. Rand went about unloading the groceries in the kitchen while Ellette put their things in the master bedroom. She kicked off her boots, stripped off the dress, worked her way out of her leggings, and pulled on her more comfortable sleep clothes, a loose t-shirt, and sweats.
Settling into the only faintly musty smelling couch, she flipped on the television, finding mostly static. Eventually, she found some semblance of actual programming and settled in for whatever the mountainous region had to offer. There were about two channels of decipherable programming and she decided on her favorite offering of two, an old action flick.
When Rand emerged from the kitchen, he settled on the arm of the couch. His fingers were working at some melody only he could hear, and the flutter of movement made it clear he wouldn’t be settling in to watch the movie with her any time soon.
“You know, we’ve still got some light left, you want to show me around outside?” she asked after a while, flipping off the TV.
“Ah,” he fumbled, glancing down at her, “What would you like to see?”
She laughed and got up. “Anything. You know the area better than I do,” she called over her shoulder as she went to pull on some jeans and shoes. “And get your flute. I know you’re dying to.”
He stilled his hands and wiped them on his pants guiltily. “That obvious, eh?”
“Just a little, though you know... it won’t be like...” she couldn’t finish. Like the dream, where you were healed, when you could play like you did before. Even though they were in the place where he'd been whole again, the reality was, that had been a dream. The unspoken words hung between them, and he quickly changed the subject.
“Let's go see if there’s a boat in the shed, see if it’ll hold water. The stars from the middle of the lake are unbelievable.”
“You want to go out at night?” She wasn’t the outdoorsy type, and being on the water in this wilderness in the dark was not what she’d had in mind.
“Sure, I used to do it all the time as a kid,” he responded nonchalantly, holding the door for her.
She nodded and let him lead the way out to the old boat shed. It was latched, but not locked. An old rowboat and a canoe were housed there. Rand went over every inch of the old metal boat in the fading light before asking her to help him haul it out to the little dock. He then gathered an armful of the spare lifejackets in the shed and tossed them into the bottom of the craft. Ellette, arms crossed against the cold, watched him with a raised brow.
"Are you expecting guests? Or do you think those will help if this rickety piece of metal springs a leak?" she asked incredulously.
He smiled and shook his head. "You'll see, now let's go get some jackets. It’s getting chilly."
"I was about to do exactly that," she replied, rubbing her arms.
Back at the cabin, Rand not only grabbed a warm jacket, but dug around for a small basket in which to pack some snacks, slipped his flute in next to them, and found an old blanket tied into a bundle.
"Are we camping on the lake?" Ellette pondered, as she pulled her sweater on and draped a light wind jacket over her arm.
"Come on," was his only reply as he tossed the bundle of the blanket at her.
She caught it and trailed him out to the lake. The light was fading fast, and the moon hung ominously. She was only half-full tonight, her light not nearly as bright as it might have been. Yet the pull of the goddess was still strong. Ellette shivered and pulled on her jacket, willing down the fear of the moon, of her powers that had been growing in her of late.
Once the snacks, blanket, and Ellette were stowed safely at the front of the boat, Rand pushed it into the water and climbed in. As the little metal craft began to rock in the light current their movement made, Ellette slid off her seat into the bottom, thankful for the pile of lifejackets that kept her from having to sit on the cold metal.
Rand, busy with adjusting the oars and pushing the boat off only spared her a quick glance and a grin. Then, with a smooth and steady motion, he began to row them out onto the lake. Stroke after stroke, they were propelled towards the center, further from the land, further from warmth, comfort, and stability. Ellette found herself clinging to the seat behind her, staring at the receding shoreline with longing.
Once the shore was an impossibly long swim away from them on all sides when the motion stopped. With practiced ease, he settled the oars into place, resting along the side of the boat. She sighed with relief, but it was too soon. He stood, rocking the small craft once more, bent, and dropped something overboard. It took her a moment to realize that the cement-filled bucket on a chain was the anchor.
It was only then that he turned to face her. "Still wondering what the lifejackets were for?"
She shook her head and slowly eased onto the seat.
"Look up," he said, a hint of nostalgia in his voice.
She obeyed, and what she found was stunning. Never before had she seen the night sky ablaze with so many stars. A long, soft, "Oh," was all she managed. After a moment, the boat began to rock once more as Rand moved to settle down on the bottom of the boat, his head resting on the bench beside her, a life jacket as a pillow. His legs were draped lazily over the bench he'd sat on while rowing.
"Was a lot more comfortable as a kid," he mused.
She reached down and ruffled his hair as he had done to her so many times. "Grown a bit since then, have you?"
"Just a little," he said with a long sigh. "Come on, this is a lot better than that meadow in the park."
She gave in and settled down next to him, carefully and slowly, doing her best to avoid rocking the boat. At first, they didn’t speak. The stars glowing in the heavens, like a vast school of fish shimmering in an endless ocean, held their attention. It amazed her just how many there were, the brilliance of them, the variety of colors, the clusters and shapes they formed. It was as if they’d stepped off the face of the earth and were floating in space, no atmosphere between them and the rest of all creation.
“There’s so many, it's a little harder to find the constellations. I used to know them all...” Rand murmured. “Mother taught me, right out here, just like this.”
“I wish I could have met her...” Ellette said before she could catch herself. It felt taboo. She had no right to impose her thoughts on his memories. She knew nothing of the woman except for vague references and a photo on the wall.
“She would have loved you,” he sighed and adjusted his position so he could put an arm around her. “She never really liked Roxie. I mean, she did like Roxie, but I know she felt that she wasn’t the right fit for me. Roxie was too much like my father....”
“What happened to her, your mother?” Ellette whispered. The mention of Roxie, the thought of being compared to his estranged wife made her uneasy. Yet changing the subject to his mother in such a way, though she wanted to know she dreaded the answer.
“Lupus," he answered simply. "She was sick for a long time, off and on my entire life. She held on after Reid, and after...” He paused, considering how to continue. “After I recovered,” he tried, “her body finally gave out.” He squeezed her shoulder, his eyes on the stars. “We all knew it was coming, and I think it was a relief for her. Mother was a very gentle soul. But for most of her adult life, she was like a caged bird. My father was no tyrant, but he’d long since grown out of the rebellious boy who went against his family to marry the hippy girl he met in college. Mother, though, she stayed that girl, and I owe who I am to that.”
Ellette turned to wrap her arms around him, her face pressed against his chest. “I really wish I could have met her,” she murmured. “My mother was like that...”
He almost sat up at this revelation, rocking the boat. “Wait, what? I thought you were in foster care...?” Ellette clung to him, eyes widened at the movement.
“Well, I had a mother before that.” Ellette laughed, but it came out bitter and choked. True, she rarely spoke of it. Most of her childhood was a painful blur. “When mother was... healthy, she was so perfect, so wonderful.” It hurt to remember, the good and the bad. They were so intertwined, so inseparable. It was easier to keep it all buried, deep down inside.
Rand stroked her hair, letting the silence hang between them. Silence and patience were what she craved, what she needed. He’d learned that long ago with her. “Tell me more about your mother, please?” she managed after a while.
“Well,” Rand considered, “she loved this cabin and this lake. This was her sanctuary. Once I’d left for college, she’d be up here more often than not. It drove father nuts.
“He’d leave on a business trip and my ailing mother would have one of the drivers bring her up here, miles away from a hospital. She’d come back, hunched and aching from arthritis, and say, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine. Being a little tired never killed anyone.’ Oh, he’d go beet red, which is pretty hard with his complexion, and go into a lecture about how serious her condition was. The funny thing is, she always knew when she was getting sick, and coming here never resulted in a hospital visit.”
He paused for a moment then, and they were left to listen to the soft sounds of the forest around them. The lap of the water against the side of the metal boat, the crickets, and the chorus of frogs along the shoreline.
“Even though we all knew she was getting sicker, I don’t think father or I really expected her to go. She knew. She’d come to terms with it, spoke of it. Even though Father had been cheating on her for years, he still loved her in his way. It was hard, that last trip to the hospital. All she’d done to prepare us, it wasn’t enough. I still have a hard time believing she’s gone. I feel like I could pick up the phone and call her up any time. That she’s here, at the cabin, waiting for me to visit.
“I think that’s why I avoided it so long, and yet why I felt we should come here. Seeing it empty, it has helped provide closure. I’ve been able to come to enjoy this place and remember it fondly.” He sat up then as if talking it through had helped him to understand his purpose in this place. Ellette sat up reluctantly, feeling suddenly chilled in the absence of his body beside hers. She rubbed her arms and blinked up at him as he climbed into position on the bench. He pulled off his jacket and draped it over her, and she snuggled into the warmth of it, sliding back down into the bottom of the boat, safe and secure.
He sat there for a while, silent and pondering. Ellette felt herself drifting, her eyelids drooping. After some time, he fished his flute from the bag from where it nestled amongst their untouched snacks. His fingers were stiff from the cold, and the tune was slow and faltering. Despite his struggle with uncooperative hands, the sound of him playing was comforting, almost haunting. She was lulled into sleep before she could catch herself.