Smoke from the sopping firewood twisted into the low cloud cover.
“So, you don’t want to swim or play cards or go for a hike. What do you want to do?” Diane sat slumped in her camping chair.
“I don’t know.”
Lizzie’s mother heaved a sigh. “Kiddo…” Diane sat forward in her chair, “Lizzie, look at me when I’m speaking to you.”
Lizzie didn’t want to. She knew what her mother looked like, she knew that Diane’s hair was plastered to her head with grease, she knew her eyes were bloodshot, she knew there was the fleck of blood sitting like a beauty mark just below her left eye.
Diane stood, and knelt in front of Lizzie. She took the girl’s hands, moving and adjusting her unfamiliar grip. Lizzie met her eyes, dragging her gaze from the red drop. Her mother was looking at her the same way she did the day of the funeral.
“Is this about Kingston?”
A pebble weighed on Lizzie’s tongue. “No.”
Diane sighed, as if that was all the confirmation she needed. “If I could stay home and teach you, I would. But I can’t, and public school didn’t work out. This is all I can do.” Her voice cracked, and she cleared her throat.
Lizzie said nothing. She didn’t like to repeat herself.
Diane’s grip tightened, pulling Lizzie’s eyes back into focus. The girl’s breathing was growing heavy. She started counting in her head, the way Ms. Pollak taught her. It never worked like it was supposed to; it never stopped the pink slips or the visits to the principle.
“It wasn’t bad,” she said.
“Boarding school will be bad.” She pulled away from her mother’s icy grip, “And Dad wouldn’t have done this if he was still here.”
“Lizzie,” Diane stood, arms at her side. The campsite brightened with a passing cloud, casting a pallor over the woman’s features. “You don’t mean that.” The wind blew her hair over her shoulders. “I’m going for a walk.”
It took less than five paces for Lizzie to shoot from her seat, and gasp, “Why do you always leave? You’re never there. You always leave!” She repeated. Hot tears pricked her eyes as she stared at her mother’s back.
“I do not always-”
“You do! You always do!” Lizzie stomped the ground, her sneaker sticking to the mud. “You—you even left when dad was sick! Daddy was sick and you still went away!”
Diane spun, something new in her eyes. “Elizabeth. Stop this.”
The girl wiped her face with fast, broad strokes, as if clumsy speed would hide her wet cheeks. “The doctor said dad was going to die and you left the next day! You went away!”
Her mother shook like the San Andreas had made its choice, but Lizzie felt more still than she had ever been, more still than any of her teachers, her counselors, her mother had thought possible.
“Why are you saying this, Lizzie, what is the point of this?”
Lizzie sobbed, the noise echoing across the water, sounding the way she imagined El Ahogado did. A clean, cool raindrop mixed with the hot salt water on her cheek.
“Because if Dad was here, he would stop you. Because you hate me and you always have. And Dad. If you loved us you would have stayed—” Her voice was too tight, cutting herself off, strangling the words in her throat. “If you loved me you wouldn’t think of me as a problem. I wouldn’t go to Kingston.”
She shut her eyes tight, sealing away the wetness, keeping the pain back in her skull. Lizzie wanted everything to go away, wanted to sink into the mud and blackness, and be consumed by the flashing colors playing on her lids.
Diane’s arms engulfed Lizzie, and a hot, wet cheek rested on her shoulder. “I’m sorry. I love you. We can figure it out. I love you. I’m sorry you ever doubted that.”
The heavens let go, small wet drops pattering on the ground, dashing the water and wetting their hair. Lizzie opened her eyes and stared at the grey clouds spilling down to them. Diane stood, and covered her daughter.
“We should get to cover,” she said, brushing a lock of hair out of Lizzie’s face, “or else make our way into the lake; my mother always took me swimming when it rained.”
Lizzie stared up at the looming woman and thought, Why does she keep bringing that up?