Squaring myself, I crossed my arms and waited.
“Dad?” I called out after a good thirty seconds had gone by.
“Can I come in?”
My face twisted with confusion. Dad’s standard approach when entering my room was a quick warning knock before coming inside. He didn’t wait for an invitation. It had become such a pattern I hadn’t ever thought to give an invitation.
My door opened slowly as Dad made his way inside. When he saw the stuffed bag in my hands, he frowned. In ten minutes, he had transformed into a different man. Instead of red, his face was more an ashen white. The hollows under his eyes were now purple instead of black, and instead of trembling, his whole body sagged. Like he was defeated.
“Dad?” I took a step towards him. He looked like he might topple over any minute.
“I never told you about the day your mom died, did I?” His voice had also changed. It was so quiet I had to crane my head closer to hear him.
I swallowed. Dad and I never talked about Mom anymore.
“Yeah . . .” I started. “You’ve told me how she died.”
Dad nodded and leaned against my wall. “But I’ve never told you why she died,” he said, pausing. Almost like he was choking on the words. “Or about how I failed to keep her safe.”
No, this part of the encounter I’d never heard before. I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear it now.
Taking my silence as my answer, Dad pinched the bridge of his nose and continued, “Your mom was wild in her youth. I was wilder.” My eyes narrowed; this didn’t fit with the man I’d known as my father. “We loved any and every chance to test ourselves against the great outdoors, and when we weren’t working or sleeping, we were doing something outside that put us an inch or two above death. Once you came along, we toned down and pulled back a lot. As much as we loved putting ourselves to the test, we loved you more and we didn’t want you to be raised without a mom, a dad, or both.”
I had to take a seat on the edge of my bed. I already knew from the tone of things this was going to drain me.
“That day your mom went out kayaking, I was with her. It was during spring run-off and we’d had an especially snowy winter and an unseasonably warm spring. Your mom and I had kayaked that river dozens of times, probably even hundreds, but when I saw the rapids that day before dropping in, I knew those conditions, even for experienced river kayakers, could get sketchy. Your mom reassured me she felt up to it and I was so excited to have an afternoon off with her, I was careless.” Closing his eyes, his face went a shade paler. “As soon as we shoved off, I knew it was bad. I knew we never should have attempted it. We hadn’t been in for a minute before your mom’s kayak rolled. She couldn’t get it rolled back and no matter how hard I paddled toward her, the rapids I was in seemed to steer me farther away from her.”
I didn’t realize I was crying until I felt tears hit my legs.
“She’d been under a long time, but she was still fighting. I caught glimpses of her oar bobbing to the surface, trying to right herself . . . and then her kayak crashed into a boulder and your mom’s paddle stopped breaking through the surface.” Dad rubbed his eyes and took a slow, tortured breath. “Your mom died there at Haven Rock, but her body washed up on shore a few miles downstream. She died because I was careless. She died because I wasn’t strong enough to save her. She died because of my weakness.”
“Dad,” I whispered, shaking my head. I’d never guessed he’d carried this kind of baggage around with him for so long.
“No, no. I know what you’re going to say. I’ve heard it a million times before,” he said, staring at the carpet unseeingly. “It’s not my fault. There was nothing I could have done. It was God’s plan.” His voice took on a bitter hue. “And maybe that’s what others believe, but the point I’m trying and probably failing to make with you is that’s not what I believe. I believe I failed your mother . . . and I swore to myself I would never fail you.”
I felt emotionally drained already, and Dad was just getting to the point.
“I thought that if I kept you close, didn’t give you a long lead, and plotted out your life, I could keep you safe. Keep from failing you. And it seemed to work according to plan—you never expressed any resistance to the strict rules and lifestyle I expected of you—until lately.”
I suppose “lately” could have been defined as the last month.
“I don’t know who or what is to blame for this newfound asserting yourself thing you have going on . . .” Dad’s face lightened ever so slightly, “but I guess I don’t really care who or what is responsible because, at the end of the day, I’m proud of you, Elle.”
Say what? When I pulled up to the house, I knew the forthcoming exchange between dad and me would be epic. I didn’t expect it to be epically good.
“You’ve got so much of your mom in you, sweetie, so much spirit. I hated watching you repress that. I hated knowing I was to blame even more. I’m sorry I didn’t do a better job raising you. I was so busy running from the ghosts of the past that I ignored I was suffocating the life out of the living. I was suffocating you by not encouraging you to be the vibrant, tenacious young lady I know you are.” Dad smiled at me. It wasn’t an ear-to-ear grin, it couldn’t even be considered a wide one, but it was as big and as genuine a smile I’d seen on his face in a while. “But you’re also that sweet, thoughtful girl you’ve been leading with. You’re two different people living in one body like we all are. Most of us just choose to show one of those sides to the world and strangle the other until, eventually, it dies off. But you, Elle, you’ve found the courage to let both sides show. Whatever’s responsible for this change . . .” Dad shoved off the wall and nodded, “don’t let it get away from you.”
I wondered if Dad would still feel the same way if he knew the “something” responsible for my change was a young smokejumper with a checkered past and a day-by-day style approach to life. Maybe he wouldn’t care; this man standing before me spilling his guts was an alien life form in a kind of way. But it was an alien life form I hoped was here to stay.
“And, Elle?” he said, clearing his throat. “I don’t know where this leaves you and Logan, and you don’t need to tell me. But I can make an educated guess. You might not want him to be your husband anymore, but don’t forget he was your friend first. One of your best friends. Just be honest with him. Win, lose, or draw, Logan will be okay.”
Dad might have been right, but he wasn’t the one who would have to look Logan in the eyes, call it off, and hand him back a ring. Just thinking about it made me sick to my stomach.
“I’m sorry, Elle,” he said. “I know my reasons don’t excuse my actions, but all I wanted was the best for you and to keep you safe. I hope one day you’ll be able to find a man who can do a better job of it than I did.”
I was up and across the room before either one of us could say something else. Wrapping my arms tightly around Dad, I buried my head into his chest and let a few more tears fall. He hugged me back, quite possibly as hard as I’d ever been hugged before.
“You did a good job, Dad,” I said. “You raised a happy, healthy, mostly well-adjusted daughter. In case you haven’t seen the statistics, that’s quite the challenge these days.”
Dad’s chuckle rolled through his body, vibrating against mine. “I love you, Elle.”
I closed my eyes and believed everything was going to be all right. I’d talk with Logan, Cole would be back hopefully in a few days, and now that I’d had this unexpected heart-to-heart with Dad, I could figure out what I wanted to do after summer was over.
“I love you, too, Dad.”
He kissed the top of my head. “And that’s all that matters.”
The Fourth of July Festival was the same every year. I should know since I’ve been to it every year since I was born. I might not have had the brain capacity to recall the first few, but I knew what they were like. Exactly like last year’s, and the year before that, and the year before that.
Tonight though, the Festival would be different. At least for me and one boy who’d attended just as many of these things as I had.
Logan had rolled back into town earlier in the day. I’d really hoped to sneak in some time with him before the Festival, but when we talked, he said he was beat and in desperate need of a few hours of sleep before we met up. The Festival wasn’t exactly the ideal place for calling it quits with your lifelong friend and once-upon-a-time future husband, but I’d have to make do.
I’d been anxious all week, working out in my head what I would say to Logan, how much I would tell him. I was almost shaking from the adrenaline of knowing I was mere hours, if not minutes, away from giving the speech I was dreading.
But I had to do it. There was no way around it. I chose Cole. I had to let Logan go so he could hopefully one day find his female Cole equivalent.
Cole had been gone all week fighting the big fire down in Chelan. It was an area notorious for wildfires, and from the news, the smokejumpers and everyone else working the fire were having one heck of a time trying to keep it from spreading. I’d never been much of a news person up until that week. I don’t think I missed a newscast or article. Anything that had anything to do with the Chelan fire, I was glued to. From the sounds of it, the fire was mostly under control as of yesterday afternoon and the efforts were now concentrated on putting out hot spots.
I hadn’t heard from Cole since he took off with his crew last weekend—cell phones and wi-fi weren’t exactly readily available at the core of a wildfire—but I kept my phone close by at all times. I turned the ringer up to full volume at night just so I knew it would wake me up if he called.
By the time I pulled into the grassy lot a little after eight that night, the Festival was already in full swing. I had to park at the very edge of the lot, but even from there, I could smell the telltale Festival smells. Corn dogs, elephant ears, and something that wasn’t quite as pleasant tangled in the air, creating a potpourri that was familiar, yet it was already starting to feel foreign.
Foreign because I knew I was leaving Winthrop behind. Maybe not for good, but for a while. The day after Dad’s and my heart-to-heart, I broke the news to him. I was leaving in the fall to go to college. The one I’d decided on a couple weeks ago when this whole life altering path started. I don’t know who was more anxious over the idea—me or Dad—but for the most part, I was anxious in a good way.
I had a couple more months left of summer and Winthrop before I’d spread my wings and leave. I had a couple more months of Cole. That was what I dreaded most. The end of the summer. Me going one direction. Cole going wherever the smoke and fire led him. I’d chosen him and I wanted him, but I’d learned my lesson. I wouldn’t let the decisions I made that would affect my life be contingent on a man. Even a man like Cole.