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"The Lost Cabin": First Place, Family Circle Fiction Contest 2012

"The Lost Cabin," by Susan Ratkovic, won first place in Family Circle's 2012 Fiction Contest.

By Susan Ratkovic

Bench
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Marc Yankus

"Are you sure you aren't lost?"

Barbara looked in the rearview mirror at the girl sitting behind her. Her eyes were met with a scowl. The fifteen-year-old had her arms crossed at the waist and was slouched as far back as possible in the backseat of the compact car.

Oh, Miriam. Barbara loved the name, so classic and timeless. Her daughter, on the other hand, loathed it for the very same reasons, and she made sure her appearance said that she was anything but. Today her long, straight hair was mostly black, with bleached blond bangs and a few random blue highlights throughout. Barbara still wasn't sure if the blue was real hair or extensions. It was just another topic on which Miriam refused to divulge anything more than an eye roll.

"We aren't lost," Barbara replied, trying to keep her voice calm. "We're almost there."

"If Dad was driving we would already be there."

No, Barbara wanted to say. If Dad was driving, he would have dumped us at the side of the road and taken on a different companion. But she and Michael vowed to stay neutral when they split, for the sake of their daughter, and if there was one thing Barbara was good at, it was remaining faithful. Too bad she couldn't say the same for Michael.

They drove in silence for another fifteen minutes. Trying to engage her daughter in conversation would only intensify the tension between them. Barbara turned onto the long, winding road. The turnoff was easy to miss amid the dense pine trees, but unbeknownst to her daughter, Barbara had an uncanny sense of direction. The GPS, on the other hand, was frantically recalibrating as it showed the car driving into a nearby creek.

Wildflowers were in bloom, decorating tall blades of grass in Monet-esque swirls of yellow, lavender and white. Their temporary residence for the next week was another five bumpy miles off the main road. A small cluster of wood cabins sat nestled between pine trees and the creek.

No sooner had they walked through the door than Miriam whined, "There's no Wi-Fi! How am I supposed to text my friends and update my Facebook status so everyone knows I'm in the boondocks?"

"I think you will survive a few days without it," Barbara replied. She had survived four decades without Facebook. Her daughter could survive a week. But to point that out would only make Barbara seem more antiquated in her daughter's eyes, if that were possible.

Miriam threw her backpack on the floor with an exaggerated huff, loud enough to scare the wildlife. "If you're going to force me to spend a week in the middle of nowhere, the least you could do is let me talk to my friends."

"Why don't you write them letters?" Barbara suggested. "Wouldn't your friends like to get something in the mail for a change?"

"Ugh. So lame. As if my name doesn't make me sound ancient enough. Might as well send them a telegram." Miriam plopped facedown onto the bed. "I think you secretly take pleasure in making my life as miserable as possible."

Barbara left Miriam alone, telling her daughter she could find her out back. She slipped through the sliding glass door and curled into a hammock. The melody of the birds was mesmerizing, much more enchanting than car horns and police sirens. Up above, through the canopy of trees, she glimpsed the sun in the cloudless blue sky. Its light was blinding. Lost in the sounds and smells, she drifted to sleep.

A gurgling stomach awoke Barbara, and as she looked upward she realized why. The glaring light had mellowed to a rosy glow. The sun was setting, and they'd never even had lunch. Miriam must be starving too.

She jumped out of the hammock, ran frantically inside and found Miriam asleep on the bed. It took an act of self-restraint to keep from pulling the black Converse off Miriam's feet. Her long slender legs were snuggly enveloped in electric blue jeans. Even on a hot summer day, her daughter would sacrifice comfort for the sake of fashion. Pale arms extended from an intentionally tattered T-shirt and draped across the Aztec-patterned bedspread. Barbara had spent a lot of money on the T-shirt, only to be insulted when Miriam took a pair of fabric shears to the back and sleeves.

Barbara sat on the unoccupied twin bed and sighed. Of course Miriam was okay. After all, she was a teenager now, not a needy infant. She lay quietly staring at the ceiling until Miriam finally awoke.

"Hungry?" Barbara asked softly. "No," Miriam snapped.

She could be seven days into a fast and not admit she was hungry, Barbara thought to herself. "Well, I am, and I would appreciate your company."

Miriam pulled herself up, hugging her legs. "Fine, whatever. As long as we don't have to catch our own food."

Barbara laughed. "There's a restaurant by the lobby. I don't know what sort of selection they have, seeing that this is the boondocks, but we're bound to find something edible."

Miriam swirled french fries through a pool of ketchup while Barbara picked at a wilted salad that was better suited for the jackrabbits outside.

"I wish Dad was here," Miriam mumbled.

"I know you do," Barbara responded. "You'll see him in a few weeks. But you need to understand that we aren't going to be together anymore. And I want you to know that the reason for our divorce has nothing to do with you. You did nothing wrong."

"I know," Miriam scoffed. "I know why you are getting divorced."

Barbara dropped her fork, startled by Miriam's revelation. She had done her best to keep Michael's infidelity a secret. With eyebrows raised she asked, "You do?"

"Yeah. It's all your fault," Miriam said matter-of-factly before loading another fistful of fries into her mouth.

"Why do you think that?" Barbara leaned forward against the table, trying to catch her daughter's eyes, which were only looking at her plate.

"I think you just answered your own question," Miriam replied. "You are so busy playing shrink that you don't take time to play wife or..." Or mother, she implied in her silence.

"I'm sorry you think that," Barbara said.

"See, there you go again," Miriam said, her voice rising. "You stay so calm and cool all the time. It's like you don't even care. Why can't you ever show some emotion like the rest of us?" She was practically screaming by the time she finished. If the other patrons were watching, Barbara was too focused on her daughter to notice.

The only thing Barbara could muster was an "Ohhh." She bit her lip and finished her wine. A second glass, even of this cheap stuff, was tempting, but she knew better than to self-medicate. This getaway was supposed to be a way to connect with her daughter. And perhaps with herself, she started to realize. The only way to achieve either was through a clear mind. Maybe there was truth in Miriam's words. So much of her time was spent analyzing the feelings of others that she pushed aside her own. In an attempt to emotionally detach from her patients, she had detached herself from the rest of the world.

The next morning Barbara woke early, as her body was programmed to do. A couple of deer were nibbling on a bush out back. She brewed a pot of coffee and watched quietly from an oversize armchair, her legs curled beneath her, admiring their graceful movements and muscular bodies. Every maneuver seemed deliberate yet effortless. One looked up and focused its dark eyes on her. She sat motionless, pleading with her own eyes for it to stay. I'm harmless, she tried to say. The deer indulged her for a few more minutes, and in that short span of time, she let herself believe she'd connected with something in this world.

The quiet house gave her time to reflect. With no Internet or television, she had no other choice. The words from last night resurfaced. Michael couldn't escape without blame. If he was unhappy, he should have told her. But maybe he had. A relationship doesn't break instantaneously. It erodes over time, often unnoticed until the foundation is too weak to hold it together. And then there was Miriam. She needed to listen to her daughter as a mother, nothing more. Maybe she had been a little too confident in her abilities, thinking that it couldn't happen to her. Perhaps she should have invested some time worrying about the well-being of her family. Maybe she, too, was flawed.

The cabin was stocked with a few staples, enough for a batch of pancakes. As she made a mental note to drive the ten miles to the general store and pick up bacon, eggs and juice for the remaining days, Miriam silently joined her in the kitchen. Smudges of yesterday's mascara shadowed her eyes. They ate in silence, but at least they were at the same table.

"Is there anything you want to do today?' Barbara finally asked.

"Go home," Miriam muttered.

"I was thinking of a hike," Barbara half suggested, waiting for Miriam to ask to come along. "Why don't you relax with a shower? You can join me when you're ready."

A wrought-iron bench faced the water, its chipped ivory paint revealing a rusty base. Wild grass grew in patches around the legs. Barbara opened the leather book she had brought. She lost herself in her work and didn't hear the soft footsteps as they approached.

"So you're allowed to work but I can't even talk to my friends?" Her daughter's tone sounded more lonely than bitter.

Barbara closed the book and placed it on her lap. "Actually, I'm not working." She pointed to the empty seat beside her and was surprised when Miriam obliged.

Bony knees extended past the edge of the bench. Miriam wore black shorts today, short enough that the pockets could be seen protruding from frayed edges. Her pale legs were lightly dusted with freckles and a single mole on her left thigh. Like a constellation, Barbara could draw those markings with her eyes closed. On top Miriam wore a tank covered by a neon-checked flannel. She never fully exposed her body, always leaving one half to the imagination. Her fingernails matched the shirt, each one a different color. Barbara smiled in appreciation of her daughter's creativity and subtle inhibitions.

"What are you doing?" Miriam's interest in her mother was both startling and refreshing.

Barbara hesitated, clenching the book in her hands. "Drawing."

"I didn't know you draw."

Few people did. Not Michael. Not her best friend, whom she was lucky if she talked to once a month. Definitely not her patients. Only the elderly woman at the art supply store knew, and that was because Barbara had to ask her what kind of paper to buy.

"Can I?" Miriam gestured at the oversize book on her mother's lap. It was that same look of curiosity she'd had as a child when she would lift the lid off the pot on the stove, peeking inside to see what was cooking.

Barbara hesitated. Having never even taken an art class, she considered herself a novice. The thought of revealing something so personal left her vulnerable, a bit too exposed. What if Miriam laughed at the images? Sure, she was used to Miriam's scoffs about her appearance, vocabulary and taste in music, but her art was different. This is how Miriam feels, Barbara realized. Vulnerable, afraid of being exposed for fear of rejection. It had been so long since her teenage years, but she supposed those were feelings one never fully outgrew.

"You are the first to see this," she said quietly as she untied the sash that bound the leather book. "It's kind of like my version of a journal."

Miriam's fierce green eyes seemed to soften a bit as she held out her hand. Unlike the rest of her body, her fingers were still plump and delightfully childlike. She cocked her head to the side when she opened it, and Barbara had a hard time reading the expression. Surprise, but whether good or bad she wasn't sure.

"Wow," Miriam said in wonder. "I expected you to be drawing trees."

Barbara shook her head. "Like I said, it's my version of a journal."

"So these are all of us?" The sketches that filled the pages were in a variety of formats, from watercolor pencil to charcoals, depending on her mood. Some represented big moments in life like first steps, birthdays, vacations. Others were the simple moments in life, like Miriam falling asleep on the sofa with the cat cuddled in her lap or licking brownie batter out of a bowl, her face smudged with coarse patches of brown chocolate.

Barbara nodded her head. "I had hoped to find the courage to give them to you one day, maybe once you married and had a child of your own."

"That's cool," Miriam said casually, trying to mask any tone of sentiment as she continued to flip through the sketches. "By the way, thanks for the shampoo and stuff."

Barbara imagined her daughter's puzzled expression followed by delight when she opened her backpack and found a gift pack of luxury shampoo, conditioner, shower gel and lotion. "You're welcome. I hope you didn't mind that I put it in your backpack without asking. I promise I didn't look at anything else."

Miriam shrugged her shoulders. Her canvas sneaker toed through the dirt, making perfect circles then wiping them away. "That stuff was in one of my magazines. I've always wanted to try it."

"Maybe you can show me a few other things you might like. Some nail polish or makeup? I'm kind of out of touch, so I need your help. I got lucky with the bath set."

There was a slight flicker in Miriam's eyes as she laughed softly and said, "Yeah, sure."

"You were right, by the way," Barbara said.

"About what?"

"About me and my failures as a wife." She turned toward her daughter and added, "And mother."

"I never said mother," Miriam countered as she stared at the creek.

"You didn't need to." Barbara felt the moisture gather in her eyes. She squeezed them tight, rubbed at her temples. Instinct told her to refrain, but finally she gave herself permission to feel the emotions. Silently the tears rolled down her cheek as she placed an arm around her daughter's shoulder. Miriam didn't fight it, instead resting her head against her mother's chest. They both knew it didn't end here, but this is where it could begin.

shim