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Starting Late book cover

Starting Late
A Tale from Spearfish Lake
Wes Boyd
©2011, ©2013

Chapter 19

Mark was still sitting back in his office, trying to get his mind around this latest major change in his life, when his cell phone rang. It proved to be Jackie. “Henry just called,” she reported. “He and Florence should be here in a couple hours.”

“OK,” he said. “They must have gotten an early start. It sounds to me like Bree must have learned her early rising from Florence.”

“Sounds like it to me, too,” Jackie laughed. “Are you coming home for lunch?”

“Might as well,” Mark said. “We’ve got something to talk about, and it would be a good time for it. See you in a few.”

Over lunch, Mark passed along what he’d talked over with Ryan Clark, explaining that it sounded like a pretty good deal to him, and had every chance of being interesting. The news came to Jackie with considerable relief; she’d been worried about having Mark around all the time when she was trying to concentrate on a sign.

It was clear to Mark he wasn’t going to get any work done at Marlin Computer that afternoon. While Jackie just went back to the sign she was working on, he went to the computer out in his shop and tried to do a little research on the type of system that was going to be needed at Clark Plywood. There was a whole new batch of jargon he was going to have to learn, and some of the concepts were strange to him. It looked like it was going to be a lot of work, but interesting work he could get his teeth into. He could see it was going to eat up some real time until he learned his way around some new concepts, but the prospect of learning something new seemed like it would be interesting and rewarding.

Henry and Florence pulled into the driveway about an hour later, both of them looking remarkably fresh in spite of the long drive from Decatur. Though they’d only met Florence for a few hours down in Decatur the previous weekend, both Jackie and Mark had come to like her very quickly, and could see why the girls had been so attached to her. Having her present this weekend had the potential of being a watershed in getting the girls comfortable with living with them.

Henry reported that they’d had a good trip. They had indeed left very early, and had taken several stops along the way. He dropped her off and headed down to his folk’s home to shake off the drive a little and get a few other things done.

Over the last few days, it had been worked out that Florence was going to stay in Bree’s room while the girls doubled up. Mark and Jackie took some time to show Florence around; she seemed to have enjoyed the trip and didn’t appear to be very worn out from the long drive.

“When are the girls going to be home from school?” Florence asked almost as soon as Henry was heading back down the road.

“We’ve got about an hour,” Mark told her. “It’s the last day of school for the school year, so I doubt either one of them is learning very much today.”

“I seem to recall we never did much on the last day of school for the year, even when I was a child,” Florence laughed.

“Me either,” Mark smiled. “For me, it was always the time to celebrate the fact that the school year was over with, and that I’d have the summer to do the things I wanted to do. I have to say, though, I think Bree is going to be happier to have the school year over with than Becca.”

“That sounds a little strange for her,” Florence replied. “Bree was always the one who liked school, while Becca was the one who just about had to be dragged there.”

“Becca has been getting into sports and teams, although the school sports are done for the year, now,” Mark explained. “She’s looking forward to being on some of the summer teams. Bree, well, she’s been having trouble getting used to being in the new school. We’re hoping things will go better in the fall.”

“I guess that’s not very surprising.” Florence shook her head. “Bree tends to like things the way they were.”

“We’ve noticed that,” Mark smiled. “She also tends to like things her way, and she does her best to get her way.”

“It’s much the same thing. It may be a reaction to her sister, who is always looking for something new. Becca is much more active and likes to explore, to the point where it can get her into trouble.”

“We haven’t had any real trouble with her like that,” Jackie said. “She does seem to have a much wider range of interests than Bree though.”

“It could be she’s so busy exploring things that are new to her that she may not have had the time to explore areas that cause problems,” Florence explained. “Mark, were you ever the kind of boy who took an alarm clock apart to see how and why it worked?”

“Never an alarm clock,” Mark nodded. “But there were a good many other things that I had to figure out. I usually managed to get them back together, and they usually worked after I did.”

“Then you may not have noticed that little quirk of Becca’s, or it may not have come out yet. Becca, well, she’s not going to be one to take apart an alarm clock unless the question interests her, but the same principle applies with new ideas. She likes to delve into ideas to see how they work for her. She gets interested in things, sometimes is enthusiastic about them for a while, and when she figures she’s learned enough about it to suit her she moves on to other things. I suppose most kids are like that to some degree, but she has it more than most, where Bree doesn’t have much of it by comparison.”

“I think we’ve seen that,” Mark smiled. “Becca is often interested in things that leave Bree cold. I’d more or less thought it was just a way for Becca to tease Bree, to get a rise out of her.”

“No, it’s quite real. I’m sure Becca is using it to tease Bree, but there’s more to it than that. Becca knows Bree will react to some outlandish suggestion, so occasionally it makes it worth the trouble to follow through. But make no mistake, Becca is interested in things Bree is not, even though it may not be to the extreme it seems to be.”

Mark thought about Florence’s statement for a minute, remembering Becca’s interest in a visit to the West Turtle Lake Club as soon as she heard about it – and Bree’s emphatic negative reaction to the entire concept. When it finally came down to getting into the hot tub without a swimsuit on, Becca hadn’t been quite as enthusiastic about it, although she’d eventually followed through with it. It just hadn’t been an issue in the times they’d used the hot tub since, even though Bree still hadn’t been in the tub, even with just Becca. “Yeah,” he said. “Now that you mention it, I suppose you’ve got a point.”

“Oh, you’ve still got a great deal to learn about those two,” Florence smiled. “I have the advantage of having known them a lot longer than you have. They each have their strengths and weaknesses, and often they don’t complement each other. At the same time, they are very loyal to each other.”

“We’ve noticed that,” Mark said. “They pick at each other all the time, and it seems to me like Bree picks at Becca more than the other way around. But they stand shoulder to shoulder when the going gets tough. Bree has had more problems getting used to living with us than Becca has, but it’s always Becca she turns to for comfort.”

“That’s often the way sisters are,” Florence smiled. “With kids, it’s often an us-versus-them thing, and especially in their situation. They are still feeling you out, the way you’re still feeling them out. It’ll get better in time as you all get to know each other better, but I’m afraid it’s going to mean some rough times for a while yet.”

“I think we’ve figured that much out,” Jackie sighed. “It’s just that it seems like it’s taking so long.”

“It’s going to take a while. You really haven’t known them very long, and it’s a big change in their lives. You may never be as close to them as you would be if they were your natural children, but things will get better as they go along.”

“Well,” Mark said. “We certainly hope so. They seem to be pretty good girls, although we’ve all had troubles adapting. The next few years ought to be interesting, at least if we can survive them.”

“Oh, yes, you’ll have some good times and bad,” Florence smiled. “It’s not easy to be a kid at that age under the best of circumstances, and let’s be honest, these were not the best. I know Shannon loved her kids and tried to do what she could for them, but it was a struggle for her. I can see that you’re going to be much better prepared to care for them than she was, but there’s more to caring for them then just putting food on the table and giving them a warm place to sleep. It takes love, it takes compassion, and it takes caring. What’s more, it takes gentle guidance, because these are years that will determine much of what happens to them in their lives. It looks to me like you’re trying, and I know it’s hard for you since you’ve never had children before. But, I hope the time will come when you think of the girls as your kids, not just Shannon’s girls who you’ve taken in.”

“We’re trying,” Mark nodded. “I can see how someone could take in girls of that age and not really care for them very much. I mean, just as an extra burden. We’re trying to not think like that. The kids may not be ours, but we want them to be ours as much as they can be.”

“I think you’ll probably manage that,” Florence smiled. “You seem to be good, caring people, and you want the best for them. So long as you can love them and care about them, you have a pretty good chance of accomplishing it. There are times it won’t be easy. I’ve had kids that age and they can make you tear your hair out. If, in ten years you can still care about the kids and wish they were still around, you’ll probably have been successful.”

*   *   *

Florence rode along with Mark and Jackie when they went to pick up the girls from their last day of school. The girls knew Florence was going to be there, and they were delighted to see her.

Bree was the first one to be picked up. “Mrs. Engstrom!” she exulted. “I knew you’d come! I’m so happy to see you again!”

“It’s good to see you again, too, Bree,” Florence replied. “So, are you glad to be out of school for the summer?”

“Yeah, it’s good to be out of there. It wasn’t much fun.”

“Why wasn’t it fun?”

“I didn’t know any of the kids,” Bree told her. “I didn’t know what they were working on or anything. At least next fall we’ll all be starting out on the same projects and stuff at the same time.”

“It’s always difficult to have to change schools,” Florence told her. “It was hard even back when I was your age, and my family had to move a lot. At least you know you’ll be there next fall, and things should go better for you.”

“Yeah, but I wish I’d at least been able to finish the year at my old school,” Bree sighed. “At least I knew some of the kids there.”

“Give it time, honey. A year from now you’ll know a lot of the kids, and you’ll be a lot more comfortable.”

“Yeah, but it’s so hard,” Bree shook her head. “Everything is so different.”

“You’ll get used to it,” Florence told her. “Things are always going to change in your life, Bree. I know I’ve told you that before, and I know you know it.”

They had to wait a few minutes at the middle school before they could pick up Becca, who was about as delighted to see Mrs. Engstrom as Bree had been. “So, Becca,” Mrs. Engstrom asked, “How do you like your new school?”

“I like it a lot,” Becca smiled. “I’m getting to know some of the kids a little, and the softball team was a lot better than the one we had down at home.”

“That’s nice,” Florence smiled. “How about your classes and teachers?”

“They’re OK,” Becca said with a little less enthusiasm. “The work doesn’t seem as hard, and I think I did all right on my tests. It’s not quite the same thing we were studying at home, but it was pretty close.”

“Don’t forget that while your sports and your friends are important, you’re there to study and learn things.”

“I know, Mrs. Engstrom, but some of that stuff is so boring!”

“And some of that may prove to be very important to you,” Florence smiled. “I know it seems dull and boring right now, but it may prove valuable to you in the future.”

Mark hadn’t had time to take Florence around the town earlier, but now that they had the girls with them he gave her a quick tour. “It seems like a nice enough small town,” she commented. “When I was a little girl, we sometimes lived in towns as small as this. They always seemed to be different than living in a big city. I think it was because it was easier to get to know people.”

“I couldn’t compare,” Mark commented. “Other than when Jackie and I were traveling around on our honeymoon, and when I was in the Army, I’ve always lived here. I’ve always liked it, probably because I know my way around so well and knew most of the people here. It would probably be as hard for me to move somewhere else as it’s been for the girls to have to move here.”

“The girls are lucky they’ve got such a nice place as this to move to,” Florence said to Mark, but with the obvious intent of the girls overhearing her. “Just like they’ve been lucky to have a couple like you and Jackie to take them in.”

“Uncle Mark and Aunt Jackie have been pretty neat to us,” Bree interrupted. “I’m learning to help Aunt Jackie make signs, and Uncle Mark has taken me flying in his airplane. That’s really been fun!”

“You know,” Florence replied, “I’ve never been in an airplane. I think I’d be scared.”

“There’s not much that’s scary about it,” Bree said. “You mostly just sit there. Uncle Mark has been letting me fly it a little. You should try it, Mrs. Engstrom. There’s nothing to be scared of, really!”

“Well, maybe,” Florence smiled, giving Mark a wink to let him know she was giving Bree a little object lesson. “I’ll have to think about it. You know, your Uncle Mark and Aunt Jackie have a very nice house. I saw your rooms. Isn’t it nice to each have your own room?”

“I’m not quite used to it yet,” Bree replied. “It seems pretty strange to not have Becca making a mess all over the place.”

“I took a look at Becca’s room,” Florence smiled. “It didn’t seem that bad to me.”

“That’s because Becca spent some time cleaning it up,” Bree said. “You wouldn’t believe how bad she messed it up in only a few days. I’ve tried to keep my room neat and clean.”

Eventually they wound up back at the house. Both the girls seemed animated, and glad to have Mrs. Engstrom around, even though it would only be for a couple days. Mark and Jackie were relatives, true, but even though she wasn’t, she was about the only remaining vestige of their old life and their old family; Mark could see they were trying to desperately hang on to what little of it they could for as long as long as possible.

But, Mark could also see that Florence was trying to ease the transition for the girls as much as she could. She’d also given Mark and Jackie several hints about the girls that they hadn’t picked up on very much, such as Becca’s interest in new things and new experiences.

*   *   *

Shannon’s funeral, such as it was, came the next day, on Saturday afternoon. It was a gray and dreary day, which matched everybody’s emotions exactly.

Over the course of the week, the local funeral home had arranged to have Shannon’s body shipped up from Decatur. Since there were virtually no local connections, there was no visitation or formal funeral, only a brief service at the Spearfish Lake Cemetery. The girls and Florence were there, as well as Mark, Jackie, Mike, Kirsten and Henry. Mark’s mother was the only other person there, using her walker with difficulty to get to the gravesite. She was tearful and somber; Shannon had been her only living grandchild, so even though the girls were left it seemed as if a whole line of the family had come to an end. Even though, like Mark, she hadn’t really known Shannon very well, there was still a sense of loss to a small family, one that was now that much smaller.

Needless to say, it was a simple service. The minister from Mark and Jackie’s church had never met Shannon, of course, so had little in the way of specifics to say about her. He called Shannon a good mother, which as far as Mark and Jackie knew, she was; she’d cared about her children and had done what she could for them; it was hard to find much else to say.

Both the girls were tearful; it was their mother they were burying, after all, so they had every right to be. Even though they’d had weeks to come to grips with the reality of her being gone, it was right in front of them now, and there was no denying it. Mark would have liked to have avoided the stress on them altogether, but it was clear that there had to be some sort of a service, if nothing more than to mark the end of the old and the beginning of the new.

Whatever the reason for the accident, if that was what it had been, it was still a tragic loss for the girls; they deserved to have a completion in their lives, a break that noted the passing between the old and the new. Mark had not said a word to either Jackie or the girls of what Henry had told them down in Decatur the week before, and as far as he was concerned there seemed to be no purpose in doing so. For the present, and perhaps forever, it might well be best if it stayed what the girls thought it was: an accident. At the same time, there was no reason to reveal to them what he knew of what their mother’s secret life had been, or what she had done to support them. It could only serve to ruin a good image they had of her, and that mental picture was what he hoped they’d carry forth into the future.

Once again, he wished he’d known Shannon better. Because of their age difference he’d never been close with her father, even when they were both living at home. Over the years, he’d probably seen Shannon less than a handful of times in his life, and then never for very long; she was still essentially a stranger to him. Could things have been better with her if she’d had a better contact with the rest of what there was of the family? It was hard to say.

In spite of the negative things that could be said about her, Shannon had raised a couple of pretty decent girls. True, they had problems and were still working out their new lives, but most if not all kids had at least some problems, and these two were young and had time to change. Already Mark could see that the girls were bringing a dimension to his and Jackie’s lives that they’d missed up till now. They’d shied away from having children when they were younger, and once they’d made up their minds to try for them, it had been too late. Now their chance for a family had come, and in spite of the troubles they’d had with the girls so far, the future looked promising.

He didn’t know the girls well enough to be able to look far into their futures, but he could see that for at least a brief time he and Jackie would be able to experience some of what they’d missed. It was hard that it had to come from such a tragedy for those involved, but at least some good had come out of it for them.

When the service was over, it was hard just to turn and walk away from the scene; it seemed as if there should be something more, but Mark had no idea what it could have been, and neither did anyone else. At least, he thought, it would be one more step in the girls making the changes that had to be made in their lives.

If anything, Becca took it better than Bree, although that was to be expected. Mark imagined that Bree would be using her new bicycle riding skill to visit this place from time to time, and he couldn’t blame her. There was still a connection there, and he didn’t want to break that. Even though Shannon was gone, he hoped the girls would still retain good memories of their mother. He knew he’d do what he could to help them remember her.

There was little talking in the car as they drove back to the house from the cemetery. The girls sat in the back seat of Jackie’s car, clutching each other and on the verge of tears. After they made it back to the house and everyone gathered in the living room Bree curled up in a living room chair with Perky on her lap. She wasn’t saying much, just petting him and listening to him purr. It seemed like the cat was giving her solace no one else could provide.

Everyone was trying to maintain a good spirit, but really, it wasn’t easy. Even the normally outgoing Becca was quiet and reserved. About the best that could be hoped for is that it would be a new day in the morning.

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