THE SECRET POND
Lindsey McDermott walked along the rocky trail, a four-month-old black Lab running along beside her. She wondered how long her heart would be heavy—hollow—as she traveled these familiar paths. Lively conversation and laughter used to fill the air…now, nothing but emptiness surrounded her.
She glanced down at the puppy that had bumped her leg. Oh, not totally empty, she acknowledged. If she let it, the dog could bring a smile to her face with his antics. If she allowed sounds inside, she could hear the call of scrub jays and crows as they scolded her from the trees. She could hear the frequent sounds of the titmouse and chickadee as they flitted between the cedars and oaks and the clear, whistling melody of a cardinal as he sang to his mate. Occasionally, the shrill, sharp call of a red-tailed hawk circling overhead would have her searching the sky, hoping to catch a glimpse.
But it was the absence of sounds that saddened her the most. Children’s laughter, lost in the trees; playful banter between her brother and sister and their spouses; her father’s booming voice; her grandmother’s gentle laugh; her mother chasing after the giggling grandkids; her grandfather singing as they walked…sounds that haunted her now.
Empty sounds that had been haunting her for months. Sounds she would never hear again…yet sounds that would forever echo in her mind.
She took a deep breath, cursing the direction of her thoughts. Nearly every day she walked the trails that littered her grandparents’ property…trails that she’d help build over the years. It was an ideal piece of property in the Hill Country, bordered by the cool, clear waters of the Frio River on one side and little rock-filled Buffalo Creek on the opposite. In between were acres and acres of rocky hills dotted with oaks and ashe junipers—always referred to by the locals as cedars—prickly pear cactus, the thorny mesquite trees, the lovely mountain laurels and big tooth maples and the many ancient cypress trees that lined both the river and the creek. Paradise, her grandmother had called it. Now it was her paradise. And she’d found that paradise was a very, very lonely place.
Once again, she thought that maybe it had been a mistake to move here. But what else could she do? She wasn’t able to function out there. She wasn’t able to do her job. Hell, she barely had the will to live most days. No, her life had been torn to pieces. Shredded. She wanted to hide in a dark place and retreat from the world. Many a night she wished for it to end, hoping she wouldn’t live to see another miserable day. The sun rose again, of course.
She walked on, pushing out her thoughts as she usually tried to do. Max picked up a stick and carried it along as they walked. She needed to spend more time with him. He loved to fetch and she’d found an old tennis ball in the garden shed. When she could muster up the energy—and the want-to—she’d toss it to him in the evenings. He was a smart dog with boundless energy, and she should be using this time to train him. So far he’d mastered “sit,” which he’d do for all of three seconds, and he’d learned to “shake,” his new favorite thing. Of course, “ball” was the word that got his attention the most and even when she didn’t ask him, he’d often find the faded yellow ball and bring it to her. She ruffled his head now, then attempted to pull the stick from his mouth. He clamped his teeth down tightly on it, emitting a playful growl as he tugged it away from her.
Then she heard it. Laughter. A child’s laugh. At first, she thought it was a cruel joke. It sounded like Eli, her nephew. Her heart ached and she looked around, halfway expecting to see him running behind her, his grin contagious as he flew into her arms. No…the trail was empty. However, the laughter rang out again. Max turned, his floppy ears at attention, his stare going into the woods.
The trail they’d taken that day was on the eastern side of the property, adjacent to Buffalo Creek. As was normally the case, she’d taken her grandfather’s Kawasaki Mule to one of the cross trails and was walking from there, making a loop around that could take anywhere from one to two hours, depending on which route she took.
She decided to investigate the sound. It was coming from the creek, most likely. The creek separated her grandparents’ place from the Larsons on the other side. The McDermotts and the Larsons did not get along. She’d learned at an early age not to play in the creek if Old Lady Larson was out and about. She was a mean old biddy, and frankly, Lindsey had been afraid of her. She wondered if she was still alive.
When they got close to the creek, she silenced Max, holding him to her side as her gaze went down to the water. She was shocked to see a boy, eight or ten years old, tossing rocks into the water. A yellow dog, probably a puppy like Max, was attempting to catch them, causing the boy to laugh. She stood there, tears filling her eyes as she watched him. Eli would have been seven. Jett, nine. She could see them tossing rocks into the Frio River, not the creek. She could see them splashing in the pond or swinging off the rope into the river, laughing as they plunged into the cold water. The sight of this boy with his shaggy blond hair shining in the sun, the dog bouncing beside him, made her so incredibly sad, she felt her heart breaking all over again.
She retreated, away from the creek, her tears flowing down her cheeks. Max whimpered beside her, as he normally did when she cried. She went back to the trail, thoughts trying to crash in despite her best effort to push them back out again. The phone call, the tears, the funerals, the emptiness…and the loneliness.
As often happened, she simply couldn’t take it. She slumped down against a tree, sobs nearly choking her as she cried. The black dog lay beside her, his teeth nibbling at her hand. She didn’t know how long she sat there. It could have been hours. Long enough for her tears to dry. Long enough for the emptiness to surround her heart again.
Hannah Larson had learned a long time ago to tune her mother-in-law out. It was an art, really, to pretend to listen while letting her voice—and words—fade away as if they’d never been spoken. James had taught her how, saying he’d learned to do it with his grandmother when she would go on and on about something. Margie, his mother, had apparently learned the art of nagging from her. She had it down pat.
“Well? Does it not concern you?”
Hannah blinked her eyes. God, was she still talking about Jack and the creek? “He’s nearly ten.”
“And? He’s not familiar with the area, Hannah. I can’t believe you’d let him go out like that!”
She sighed. “I walked down there with him. I put markers out along a trail so he wouldn’t get lost. I put markers along both ends of the creek, telling him he could go no farther than that. He’ll be fine.”
“Not to belabor the point, but he grew up in the city. This is—”
“I know, Margie. I know. It’s just a little creek, though. It’s not like it’s a river or anything.”
“They say you can drown in an inch of water. They say—”
“Margie, please,” she said, holding her hand up. “We moved here because you wanted us to be close. You wanted him to experience living out here where his dad grew up. James told me on numerous occasions how he would roam the hills out here unsupervised.”
“That’s completely different. James was born and raised here. Jack, as I said earlier, wouldn’t have a clue what to do if he came upon a rattlesnake, for instance.”
“Yes, he would. He would run like hell.”
Margie’s face scrunched into a frown. “You know I don’t like you using that word, Hannah. I hope you don’t use it in front of Jack. I’ll say it again…he needs some structure in his life. He needs…”
Oh, God. Was she going to start in again on them going to church with her? She could almost picture James’ face as he stood behind his mother, making faces and rolling his eyes, she trying her best not to laugh. Once again, Margie’s voice faded away as she let her mind drift to James, his handsome face etched in pain, his slick head the result of chemo, his once-bright blue eyes dull and filled with agony. Her only consolation was that he didn’t suffer long, but suffer he did. The last month, the tumor in his brain caused him so much pain that he lived on morphine. The last two weeks, he’d been in and out of consciousness, she and Jack watching as he slowly, painfully slipped away from them.
She should have listened to her mother. She should have stayed in San Antonio. She had friends there. Jack had friends there. Her family was there, her support system. But nagging wasn’t Margie Larson’s only talent. No, placing blame and laying guilt as thick as molasses ranked right up there. James was Margie’s only son. Jack was her only grandchild. James’ grandmother, Lilly—Jack’s great-grandmother—had recently been put into a nursing home. The house was vacant…a house that James practically grew up in. How could she say no to Margie’s insistence that she and Jack move there? Still, she agonized over the decision. Their house was filled with James’ ghost, and she often found Jack sitting in it in a daze, tears running down his cheeks. It had been two months, and he seemed no closer to getting over James’ death than he had at the beginning.
That was the reason she decided to sell the house, decided to move. Jack needed a change, and she thought living out here, where he would have land to explore and where he could play where his own daddy had grown up might help him heal. He would make new friends, different friends. Utopia was a tiny community in the Hill Country, only a couple of hours from San Antonio. With a population of three hundred, she hesitated to even call it a town. She had told Jack they would give it a year. If either one of them wasn’t happy after a year, then they would move back to San Antonio, no questions asked. He agreed and they’d begun packing the very next day.
After a week of being here, though, she was already having second thoughts about her decision. Margie had been over every single day, something she’d feared would happen. The Larson place was over six hundred acres yet the prime spot was along Buffalo Creek. James’ grandparents’ house, which she and Jack had moved into, was less than a mile from James’ parents’ house. A very short mile.
“And I think that would be the best place for him to make friends.”
Hannah stared at her blankly. “I’m sorry. What? A camp?”
“The church camp. It’s only for a week. I’ve already reserved him a spot.”
Hannah shook her head. “No, Margie. We haven’t even gotten settled yet. I’m not sending him off, alone, to a church camp where he doesn’t know a soul. No.”
Margie smiled, a patronizing smile that she had grown to detest over the years. “That’s how you make friends, Hannah. It’s only for a week. He’ll be fine.”
“No. He’s not going. I’m sorry.” She made a show of looking at her watch. “I suppose I should get started on dinner. Thanks for dropping by, Margie.”
Margie’s smile faded a little. “I get the impression you’re throwing me out.”
“Of course not,” she lied. “I have things to do, that’s all.”
“You know, you and Jack are welcome to have dinner with us. In fact, when I envisioned you living here, I thought you’d come over quite often. So far, you’ve only managed to join us one time.”
“Well, we’ve only been here a week, Margie. Not even settled in yet. Besides, if I want to make this a home for Jack, then I need to get back to our routine, and that involves me cooking dinner.”
“I imagine it’s hard to cook now with James gone.” Margie’s face dropped and sadness prevailed. Hannah wondered how much of it was forced, just for show. “I do miss him. Jack looks so much like him.”
I must have been insane to move out here, she thought as the guilt started to pile up. Before Margie was through, Hannah found herself agreeing to dinner, and yes, she’d be there early so that Margie could talk to Jack about the church camp.
Oh, how did her life turn into all of this? How did she end up here, living near her in-laws, so far from the normalcy of her own family? It was easy to blame James, of course. If he hadn’t gotten sick…
She shook her head. No. She wasn’t going to go there. She wasn’t going to feel sorry for herself. She would save that for the nighttime, when she was alone. Jack wasn’t there to see her tears then.
She closed the door after Margie left and leaned against it. Eventually, to save her own sanity, she would have to talk to Margie. There was no reason for her to come over every single day. If there was one thing she and Jack needed right now, it was some space. Time to get used to living without James in their lives. She’d come to terms with it. Even before he died, she’d accepted what was going to happen. She and James had talked—and cried—at length and she’d made peace with it. That didn’t mean she was over it. That didn’t mean she didn’t miss him. There was an emptiness now that hovered around them, a dark cloud of sadness. She could see it in Jack’s eyes even though he bravely tried to hide it. And no doubt Jack could see it in her eyes too. She hoped this summer would help them heal. There was no school, no job, no doctor’s visits, no hospital to rush off to. There was only her and Jack…as they tried to learn how to be a family of two.
She smiled. Well, three, if she counted Barney. And Jack did count Barney. The dog slept with him, ate with him and played with him. That was one thing she had been adamant about to Margie. Even though Great-grandma Larson—Lilly—did not ever allow dogs in her house, Barney was to be the exception. Because right now, Barney was Jack’s only friend.
Lindsey sat on the back porch of her grandparents’ house, the ceiling fan buzzing lazily overhead. The covered porch was part of the original house. The expansive deck had been added later. She remembered when they’d built it. She was just a kid, barely six, but she had memories of helping to carry boards. Most likely she was getting in the way, but she’d been a part of the remodel, like her older brother and sister had been. Everything had been a family affair. For as long as she could remember, that’s how it had been. Every birthday, every anniversary, every event required a family gathering. To say they were close-knit would be an understatement.
She picked up her glass of amber liquid. Death required bourbon. That’s what her grandmother said when they’d buried her only sibling. Lindsey had been twenty-three at the time and after the funeral for Aunt Lena, they’d all sat around the table here, passing around an expensive bottle.
Death required bourbon.
She wasn’t sure if that was true or not…but it sure as hell didn’t hurt. She took a sip now, savoring the taste a few seconds before she swallowed. Max was stretched out beside her, his legs twitching as he dreamed of chasing a rabbit or something equally elusive.
She really needed to slow down on her nightly visits with the bottle. It could become a habit. Wine. She enjoyed wine more than bourbon. Her grandparents had quite an extensive wine collection. She’d eyed it a few times. She’d even opened a bottle once. But she’d been saddled with guilt…so much so that she couldn’t finish the bottle. Then she got angry. Angry that she’d felt guilty.
But guilt was what she carried with her. Survivor’s guilt. Her uncle, her only remaining relative, had tried to tell her to let it go. Easy to say, she’d told him. He was removed from it. Her father’s younger brother, he’d left the nest at eighteen, never to return. He’d made a life in New York City…far, far away from tiny Concan. Growing up, she’d rarely seen him. The occasional Christmas visit was about it. He had come down, though, after she’d called him. He’d stayed two weeks, helping to make the arrangements. They didn’t talk much. She’d been too distraught. Too traumatized by the events to make idle conversation.
It was Uncle Louis who had talked her into moving here. He had no hard feelings over the will. The bulk of her grandparents’ estate went to her father. Uncle Louis said that’s how it should be. That, of course, meant that it was now hers. At the time, she couldn’t even consider it. She could barely make it through a day without being medicated. Come here? Alone? Where the memories would flood her?
He’d left her in Dallas and headed back to New York. But he called every day, whether she wanted him to or not. His words finally struck a chord with her.
For your own good, you’ve got to go out there. That’s where they were happy. That’s where they loved and laughed. That’s where you loved and laughed. That’s where you were happy. Those memories are still there, Lindsey. You just have to find them…find them and let them in.
So she’d quit a job she could no longer function at. She gave up her apartment. She sold most of her furniture. She got a dog.
She reached down, running her fingers through Max’s soft fur. She got a dog and they packed up and came out here. The first month was brutal. She couldn’t even remember how she got through it. She didn’t remember eating. She didn’t remember sleeping. She remembered crying. A lot.
And she remembered the dark thoughts she’d had. Awful thoughts. If not for Max, she wondered if…well, she wondered if she’d still be here. Some days…some nights…she wondered still.
She had a plan, though. A plan she’d been mulling over for weeks. She hadn’t been able to get going, however. Tomorrow. Always tomorrow.
Well, tomorrow was a good day to start. She would take the Mule over to her parents’ cabin. It had to be done and she’d put it off long enough. She didn’t know why it was so hard for her. Their house in San Antonio, she’d cleaned out and put up for sale without much thought. Of course, her uncle had helped get it started. She’d been too numb to even sort through their things. He’d boxed up pictures and other keepsakes for her. The rest they’d either sold or given away. She hadn’t felt much attachment to the house. It wasn’t where she grew up. They’d sold that one not long after she’d left home. No, here was where the memories were. Here, at their little weekend cabin. When the family gathered, she always stayed with them. Her brother and sister, both with kids, would stay here at the big house with her grandparents.
So she’d go to the cabin tomorrow. She’d taken the trails along the river, but she’d always bypassed the cabin. It would be neat and tidy, as her mother usually left it. No doubt there would be food in the fridge that was months past good. That would definitely need to be cleaned out. She would open the windows and let in some fresh air. She wasn’t certain what she’d do with it yet. She really didn’t have to do anything, she supposed. The cabin sat at the edge of the Frio River. During the hot months of summer, she thought maybe she’d stay there instead of here. The cold water would be a refreshing change.
She pushed her glass away. No. She couldn’t. All the tubes would be there. The floats that the kids used. That section of river was wide but calm, just downstream of the rapids they used to float through. Many a lazy summer day was spent in that river, the kids laughing as they tried to flip her out of her tube. She closed her eyes, picturing her family, all fourteen of them floating idly in the water, her brother handing out beer from the cooler he towed behind him. Laughter…splashing…her grandfather singing…always singing.
“Christ…I can’t do it,” she murmured.
She sighed. Maybe tomorrow wasn’t the best day. Maybe it could wait another day or two.
She didn’t know why she’d taken the creek trail again instead of the river or even up north through the hills. The views up there were great and now was a good time to go, before the summer heat would keep her near the water. Without much conscious thought, she’d stopped the Mule at the crossroads, taking the lower trail toward the creek as she’d done yesterday. Max was already bounding ahead of her. There were spots along the trail where she could see the shallow water of the creek, then trees would hide it once again.
When she was little, before she’d learned to swim, they would come down to the creek instead of the river and she’d splash in the clear water. Inevitably, Old Lady Larson would hear her laughter and she’d come down to inspect. Her grandmother used to say that she wanted to make sure we weren’t crossing the creek onto their property. Her grandfather, however, said she came down because she couldn’t stand the sound of laughter and she wanted to put an end to it. Regardless of the reason, whenever the old lady showed up, they’d take their leave. There were lots of spots along the creek where she could have played, yet her grandparents always brought her here. Perhaps they liked provoking Mrs. Larson. They sure did laugh about it later. She smiled as she pictured her grandfather singing some old country classic at the top of his lungs as they climbed back toward the trail, Old Lady Larson glaring at them from below.
She stopped at the same place, the one where she’d first heard the little boy’s laugh. She tilted her head, listening. All was quiet except for a scrub jay that had been following them. She was about to walk on, then decided to head toward the creek anyway. She was oddly disappointed to find it empty, no sign of the boy and his dog. She was about to turn around when Max looked up alertly. Before he could take off, she grabbed his collar, holding him beside her. Sure enough, the yellow dog came running down the hill on the opposite side, the little boy hurrying after him. Today he was carrying a fishing pole. The creek was wide, twenty- to twenty-five-feet across in places, but it was too shallow, too rocky for fishing.
The boy placed his fishing pole on the ground, then proceeded to pick up some pebbles and rocks and began methodically tossing them into the water. As before, the yellow dog pounced after them, splashing the boy in the process. It was too much for Max to resist. He jerked out of her hold and ran down toward the creek, giving a high-pitched puppy bark in the process.
The boy ran back, startled. The yellow dog met Max in the creek, both their tails wagging wildly as they sniffed each other. As is often the case with puppies, the sniffing quickly turned to play and they were soon chasing in the water, running back and forth from side to side.
Instead of calling Max back—which she had no doubt he would ignore—she walked down to the creek to get him. The little boy looked at her suspiciously, and she gave him a smile, hoping to ease his fears.
“Hi,” she said. “I see our dogs have met.” The two dogs ran by the kid, nearly knocking him down. “What’s your name?”
He tilted his head, watching her from across the water. “My mom said I shouldn’t talk to strangers.”
She nodded. “I guess that’s a good rule.” She motioned with her head behind her. “I live back there though. So I’m not really a stranger. Where do you live?”
He turned and pointed up the hill. “Up there. My great-grandmother’s house.” He chewed his lower lip as if deciding whether to talk to her or not. “My name is Jack.”
She smiled again. “I’m Lindsey.” She pointed at the black dog. “That’s Max.”
He pointed to the yellow dog. “That’s Barney.”
She walked to the edge of the water. “How old are you, Jack?”
“Nine?” She looked around. “Kinda young to be out here by yourself. Easy to get lost.”
“I’m almost ten,” he said, as if that changed everything. “I have a trail marked. Mom cut up some old dress she found in one of the closets.” He grinned. “She said if Grandma caught her doing it, she’d be pissed as hell.” Then his eyes widened. “I’m not supposed to say those words. Or damn or…shit,” he said, his voice lowering to almost a whisper. “She says just because she says them that doesn’t mean I can.”
Lindsey couldn’t hide her smile so she gave up trying. “So who’s your grandma?”
Lindsey nodded. “Margie Larson.” She married Old Lady Larson’s son. From what her grandmother had told her, Margie was as sour and bitter as the old lady herself.
“Yeah, that’s my grandma.”
The dogs were up on the bank on her side, playing tug-of-war with a stick. She looked back over at him, her gaze going to his fishing pole.
“You like to fish?”
He nodded. “It’s too shallow here. I haven’t caught anything.” He looked downstream. “I can’t go any further, though. Mom marked it.” He pointed to a tree and she saw a piece of blue fabric tied to a branch. “Down at the other end, she put another one. I can’t go past that.”
That was smart of the mother, but she was surprised that a nine-year-old kid had obeyed. “That’s good,” she said. “Even though you’re almost ten, if you get lost out here, you’d be hard to find.”
“That’s what she said but I want to go exploring. I hope later this summer she’ll let me go farther.” He kicked at a rock. “My grandma said I wasn’t to cross the creek, though. She said mean people used to live over there. She doesn’t know who’s there now.”
Lindsey laughed. No, the McDermotts and Larsons never did get along. Her smile faded though. “Those…those mean people, as she called them…they…they died,” she said with difficulty.
“Oh.” He kicked at another rock. “My daddy died. That’s why we’re here.”
They stared at each other across the creek and it was only then that she saw—and recognized—the sadness in his eyes. Was that why he made this solitary trek to the creek? To think about his dad? Did he do it much like she made her solitary walks in the woods…to reflect on her family? She cleared her throat. She wasn’t in the mood to talk anymore.
“I should get going. Come on, Max.” She beckoned, but the dog ignored her. He and Barney were wrestling in the water. She looked over at the kid—Jack—and smiled. “I guess I might see you again. Looks like the dogs have made friends.”
He nodded. “I come down here every day. I can’t stay too long or my mom worries.” He tapped the large watch strapped to his thin wrist. “One hour at a time, then I have to go back and let her know that I’m okay.”
“That’s good. Well…maybe I’ll see you tomorrow then.”
She pried Max away from Barney, holding him while Jack called Barney back to his side of the creek. Barney apparently was better trained than Max. He went obediently over to Jack while Max struggled against her.
“We need to work on that, Maxwell,” she murmured as she pulled him up the trail. At the top, she glanced through the trees, back to the creek. Jack sat cross-legged on the ground, his dog squatting down beside him, licking his face. She didn’t know why the sight of that brought tears to her eyes, but it did. She wiped them away, then headed on down the trail to finish their walk.