Mortified, Clara picked herself up off the cold, ceramic tile floor. She could not believe she had actually gotten sick when she saw Marnie and Mike walk in together. There were a few friendly candles lit on the bathroom counter that tried to offer her a bit of warm cheer. But instead her tears started to rain down. She was just thankful she had made it to the bathroom and locked the door behind her because she kept hearing knocks and pleading voices at the door. She had the bathroom sink running with hot water and the fan on so she couldn’t hear who was trying to get in.
Sitting there with a hot washcloth in her hands, Clara was mopping up the sad evidence of another disastrous situation from her face. Tears and mascara were streaked heavily across her swollen eyes and she decided to scrub her face clean. She kept scrubbing and scrubbing until there was nothing left but irritated red skin. It looked like she would definitely be making an early exit from this horrible night. It was beyond embarrassing that she was ruining what should have been the most festive night of the year. How ridiculous it was for her to think she could actually go to this party!
Suddenly she saw in the foggy mirror that the door behind her was opening. She spun around and tried to get there to force it shut but in walked an impressively tall man. Through the steamy room should could see he had on a red baseball hat. Clara blinked rapidly realizing James Rhodes with his face that looked like home and his eyes that made her melt was standing before her. “Clara! I’m sorry. I followed you here. I was worried about you.” he said carefully. She fully surrendered at that moment and fell into his arms sobbing.
“Oh James! I’m so sorry for everything. I hate myself for this whole mess. It all feels like a nightmare I can’t wake up from. I’ve made things way worse for you!” She shook and tried to breathe deeply in between sobs. James hugged her tightly and kissed her forehead.
“Clara if this is anyone’s fault it’s mine. I should have fixed things with Marnie a long time ago. I should have forced her to listen to me. Instead I ran from the situation just because it was hard. I’m ashamed of what happened that day with my dad. I let Marnie distance herself to this level and let things escalate this far because I wanted to punish myself. I’ve hidden parts of what happened that day. But all I know is I love you and I’m not going to give up on us.” James grabbed her hand and led her down the hall into the living room.
All talking stopped when James and Clara emerged hand in hand. Eyes were wide and people were shifting their bodies around to get a better look at the controversial couple. Someone turned down the jolly music and Clara’s embarrassment tripled when she realized everyone was in the middle of exchanging the cookies.
“Umm sorry everyone…” James said nervously. “I need to speak with my sister Marnie. We will excuse ourselves from the evening and let everyone get back to the fun.” Marnie was in the back corner of the room with Mike. She looked truly shocked that James and Clara were standing there holding hands in front of the whole party. She began to shake her head no but changed her mind and stopped.
Marnie grabbed Mike by the arm and said, “Fine. Let’s go.” There wasn’t a trace of sympathy in her expression towards James or Clara. She maintained her icy exterior as she led Mike to the front door. Clara found Josie and apologized for disrupting the evening.
“Don’t worry Clara we want you to be here!” she said nicely while trying to convince her to stay. But Clara politely declined and the foursome left the party. As the front door closed a rise of excited voices began chatting wildly.
Just down the road there was an empty park. James suggested they all go there to talk. They agreed and walked silently down the vacant street. The night sky was cloudless and little stars twinkled impressively. Clara felt like she doing the ultimate walk of shame but was looking forward to talking to Marnie. Finally they found a snow covered table and sat down. Trees sparkled with snow and Christmas lights. James spoke first.
“Mike is it? I’m James, Marnie’s brother. I don’t know what she’s told you about me but I’m here to finally explain to her what exactly happened that day when our father died.” James looked straight at Marnie. “I know you blame me for what happened that day and you’re right. It is my fault. But I think you’re missing some key details.” He stood there trying to be calm and but he was clearly anxious. Clara gulped the cold air. Mike looked confused and uncomfortable.
“Except I’m not.” Marnie said with anger. “Mom has told me a million times what happened. I know she doesn’t blame you but I sure as hell do. You could have stopped him from getting in that water. You knew he couldn’t swim that well. Why didn’t you jump in before him? You’re in much better shape than dad was.” Tears started falling as Marnie’s pain about her dad’s death overflowed from her.
“I did jump in Marnie, almost at the exact same time as dad!” James shouted. Marnie looked surprised.
“No, you just sat on that boat watching, trying to use your phone to call for help! But you should have gotten in before dad!” Marnie was full on crying now. It was hard to watch. Clara looked down at the glowing snow.
James sighed. “I never told you and mom the whole story or anyone for that matter! But I realize that was a huge mistake now.” James then slowly confessed exactly what happened that day on the lake.
It was a rainy weekend in May over a year and a half ago. James and his father Greg drove to their cabin for their monthly fishing trip. Summer was coming and everything was fresh and green in the mountains. As they drove, they chatted excitedly about getting out on the lake in the old boat. It was having engine problems for awhile but James thought he finally got it fixed. The sun was setting behind the clouds as they got to the cabin. The smell of campfires and grilled meat filled the air. Low clouds made it look misty and dreamlike. James and his father spent the evening playing cards and listening to old rock on the radio.
The next morning the sun was up and shining brightly. James and Greg were having coffee and muffins together before they ventured to the lake. Greg was talking excitedly about the home project he just completed for James’ mother.
“Her very own greenhouse is complete!” Greg said proudly. “Now she can grow the quality fresh vegetables the stores are lacking. She can enter her homemade jams with her homegrown fruits in the County Fair now!” Greg and James laughed loudly together. They both knew it was Rose’s dream to be a County Fair ribbon winner. She spoke about it often. James just couldn’t wait to eat the jams on her homemade biscuits! The cinnamon muffins they were feasting on now were his mother’s creation. They were buttery and delicious.
When they finally got the boat on the lake James sat with his fishing pole between his knees and had his dad’s favorite book perched on his lap as well. It was an original copy of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens and James’ had finally convinced his dad to let him borrow it. When Greg surprised him with it in the truck, James’ couldn’t wait to start reading it. It didn’t matter that the flowers were in bloom and they were still months away from Christmas. James found himself lost in the pages quickly.
Suddenly they heard a scream and splashes nearby. Greg and James looked around them startled and frightened by the sudden interruption of the tranquil morning. In the distance to the left of them, James saw a little girl splashing and flailing in the water. She didn’t have a life vest on. He put the boat in gear and drove it towards the girl.
As soon as they got closer, Greg stood up to jump in the water. James screamed, “No dad! Let me!” But it was too late. Greg was already over the boat’s edge and into the freezing water.