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Excerpt for Pieces of the Heart

Caroline sat and watched the small rock drop from her hand and into the dark, still water of Lake Ophelia, breaking the surface with a small plop. The ripples eddied out in tiny circles, gradually spreading into great gaping spheres of silent water, reaching out toward the depths of the lake until she couldn't see them anymore. Not for the first time, it reminded her of how a single event in life could reach out forever, drowning you in a circle of memories that never let go.

Two children, a boy and a girl, ran out onto a dock two houses down on the same side of the lake, the girl's shrieks echoing in the late afternoon air as her brother maneuvered to push her in. Their mother stood behind them, saying something and shaking her head, but they ignored her until they both landed in the water, creating small waves that bumped into Caroline's dock.

The mother spotted Caroline and waved before picking up discarded socks and sneakers. Caroline hesitated at first, then waved back. Out of habit, her hand fell to her chest to pull the neck of her tee-shirt higher, feeling the ridge of the old incision beneath her shirt.

She rested her cheek against drawn-up knees and stared at the fading waves as a chorus of cicadas erupted into sound then quieted just as suddenly. She closed her eyes, seeing the lake against her dark eyelids. I've missed the water. She let a toe dip into the surface, smelling her own sweat and the green scent that hovered over the lake in late summer. I've been gone too long from the water. And you, too, Jude. Always you.

The tap of her mother's heels against the wooden dock announced her presence. Caroline didn't turn around, but remained staring out at the lake towards Hart's Peak in the near distance. The sky was clear enough that she could make out the face of the fabled Ophelia on the side of the mountain, a woman supposedly cursed and turned to stone centuries before.

"There're a lot more houses than I remember-and a lot less trees. It's hardly the same place anymore." Caroline sighed and watched a black and white loon settle on a dock piling in front of one of the enormous cookie-cutter houses across the lake and wondered if her brother Jude would even recognize any of it. He had always loved this place; the pungent smell of the lake and the warmth of the people who lived around it. Only the cold, stone face of Ophelia herself seemed not to have changed.

Caroline could hear her pulse beating in her head, recognizing it as a warning sign from her doctor. Closing her eyes, she took long, slow breaths, focusing on the smell of the water and the sound of the lake nudging the dock under her, and waited for her pulse to slow. With her eyes still closed, she said, "At least we can be thankful for the ban on waverunners."

As if on cue, an engine started up across the lake and a teenage boy shot off from a dock on a sapphire blue waverunner, the solitary loon and other birds rising in a panic all along the edge of the lake.

Her mother sounded apologetic. "Some of the new people are on the town council. They voted down the ban eight to one."

"Damn," Caroline said, forgetting that her mother didn't like her to swear. "Who was the hold-out?"

"Rainy Martin. She's always been such an environmentalist."

Caroline looked up at her mother, the ash blond hair a shade darker than her own. "What about you, Mom?"

Margaret Collier crossed her arms and met Caroline's gaze. "They're my neighbors and I didn't want there to be any bad will between us. Besides, it's not so bad. You can hardly hear the noise from inside the house."

Caroline shook her head slowly. "Good ole' Rainy. This world would be a much better place with more people like her in it." Even saying the name filled Caroline with warmth. Rainy was the one connection to Jude she clung to, the only person who knew what she'd lost.

"Dad would have voted with Rainy."

Her mother crossed her arms over her chest. "Yes, well, your father has made his life in California for the last twelve years so any speculation as to what he would or would not do is pointless."

The waverunner came closer, drowning out Caroline's thoughts and making her pulse thrum louder in her head. She took another deep breath.

When the noise had faded enough to be heard, Margaret said, "Dinner's almost ready. I'm having a steak but I'm making you a skinless chicken breast." She paused, the air heavy with all the unsaid words that had grown between them in a lifetime.

Caroline looked up at her mother again. "I was hoping we could stop by Roberta's Bar-B-Que shack for dinner. I remember going there every Saturday when we were at the lake."

"Oh."

Her tone made Caroline snap to attention. It was the same tone Margaret used to tell her daughter news like all the cookies were gone or nobody had called to ask her to the high school dance. She normally delivered the bad news faster, as if somehow Caroline would miss the details and not be as upset. It usually just made Caroline's stomach turn over and set her teeth on edge.

"Roberta's changed ownership about a year ago. I'm sure I mentioned it to you at some point. She was bought out by one of those big chains. I've been there a couple of times-it's not bad. I could put the meat in the fridge if you'd prefer to go there."

Caroline swallowed her disappointment, wondering why she suddenly wanted to cry. "No, that's all right." She forced a polite smile. "I can eat at a chain restaurant every night in Atlanta. Chicken breast is fine." She had a brief flash of memory of her and Jude in Roberta's kitchen, sitting on tall stools and helping her make her famous barbeque sauce, and she felt the urge to cry again.

Margaret cleared her throat. "I saw you hadn't unpacked yet so I put away your things in your old room. I noticed you didn't pack a bathing suit."

Caroline closed her eyes and took three deep breaths, forcing her irritation to flow out of her body from her nose and ears and mouth, like Dr. Northcutt had suggested. She imagined a small puff emanating from her left nostril but that was it. The irritation was definitely still there.

She stood and faced her mother, plastering her well-worn polite smile on her face again. "I haven't worn a bathing suit since I was seventeen. Surely you've noticed that in the last thirteen years."

Her mother's head pulled back slightly in the way she had of hiding her hurt. But Caroline knew better than to feel guilt because Margaret Reed Collier could give as good as she got. Like an offended porcupine with sharpened quills, her mother raised an eyebrow.

"Now, Caroline-not that I don't think a woman your age shouldn't be figure-conscious, I just don't think it's necessary with only the two of us around. You know that you could wear a potato sack and I'd still think you were beautiful."

Caroline stared at her mother, once again thinking she should have her DNA checked. She took three more deep breaths, and imagined a larger puff of irritation floating out of her right ear. She was not going to argue with her mother. She had been forced into a leave of absence to rusticate at the lake to get away from stress, after all. Although more than once during the two hour drive from Atlanta in her mother's Cadillac she'd wondered if giving her mother a quick shove out of the moving vehicle would alleviate most of the stress from her life.

Caroline smiled again, her face stiff. "My figure has nothing to do with my not wearing a bathing suit." She thought of the scar on her chest again and how it still hurt her to know that her mother never seemed to remember it. "I'm hungry. Let's go eat." She stood and walked past her mother, the familiar feeling of needing to put as much space between them overriding everything else. "I need to wash up first."

Her mother's voice called out to her. "Your chicken is almost ready and I made a salad. You wouldn't be hurting my feelings, though, if you just had the salad. I have low fat dressing, too."

Caroline's smile fell as she counted to ten again, but she didn't turn around to respond. She kept walking toward the house, its gray-weathered boards familiar yet strange to her at the same time.

Damn, she thought, wearily pulling open the back screen door. It had only taken three and a half hours in her mother's presence to elevate her blood pressure and make her cuss. "Damn," she said out loud, letting the screen door bang shut behind her.

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