Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
The somber mood of the ceremony around Henry Toivo’s grave stayed with Mark for several more hours, although he tried to be personable, given that they had Florence as company. He’d really come to like the woman, and it was a shame that it didn’t seem like there would be much opportunity to see her in the future. She and Henry were planning on heading back to Decatur in the morning, and while there had been invitations from the beginning to come back and see the girls again, Mark didn’t think it would happen very often.
The girls hovered around her, of course; she was about the last remaining contact of what their lives had once been, and having her gone would lose them another connection from their past, nearly a final one. He was sure they were going to be sad to see her go, and he noted that Florence seemed to be doing what she could to prepare them for it.
There was still a lot they needed to do to get the girls’ full confidence, to convert the four of them into a family. Mark still wasn’t concerned about Becca’s ability to adapt to the new circumstances, although Florence had warned them Becca had a streak of deviltry in her that hadn’t totally revealed itself yet. Still, from what she’d said, it didn’t sound like much of anything they couldn’t handle; it appeared to be mostly just teenage exploration, trying out ideas and limitations. Yes, she might get into trouble from time to time, but it didn’t seem like it would be serious trouble.
Bree, however, was another concern, and Mark was of the opinion that it might be a concern for a long time. She might never make a complete adaptation, and always be something of a stranger in the house. It wouldn’t keep them from trying to bridge the gap to her, but she was much more of an enigma than her older sister. He basically liked Bree – in some respects, more than her older sister, but she was still distant and something of a loner, except where Becca was concerned. Any wisdom he could get to work with her was welcome, whether it came from Florence, or Candice, or even Cody.
They had a late, big dinner that afternoon out on the deck, and at that, mostly off the grill – steaks and hamburgers, a festive meal for a festive occasion, capped off by a couple of Jackie’s pies. When Mark had first met her she was really not much of a cook – although he’d seemed to understand in time that few girls at that age really are. But she’d blossomed over the years, and her pies were among the best part of it. They were always something to look forward to, something to enjoy, and something to remember.
Afterward they sat around the deck, just talking lightly about this and that. “You know,” Florence said at one point while Bree happened to be inside, doubtlessly with Perky on her lap, “I’ve been wondering what that big square thing on the corner of your deck is.”
“Oh, that,” Jackie said. “It’s a hot tub. Well, technically a spa, but we call it a hot tub. The first one we had out here years ago was a redwood one, but we decided to upgrade a few years back. We usually have a soak two or three times a week. It’s a great way to relax after a hard day.”
“I pulled a muscle in a game last week,” Becca added in as she got up. “It really felt good to get in the hot tub and let the bubbler work on it. I hardly felt it when I went to bed. Mrs. Engstrom, I’ll be back in a couple minutes. I’m going in to get another bottle of pop.”
“You must have been doing it for a long time,” Florence smiled to Mark and Jackie as Becca went inside.
“It must be twenty years,” Mark said. “Mike and Kirsten got us doing it, back when they first moved here and we were first starting to be friends. The four of us have gotten together to soak for years, winter and summer.”
“Back when Richard was still alive we had the opportunity to use one now and then,” Florence smiled. “It was always an extra special time.” The twinkle in her eye told Mark and Jackie a great deal about things that otherwise had to be left unsaid, but they couldn’t imagine it hadn’t been a special time for a woman like her; Richard must have enjoyed it, too.”
“I was thinking it might be nice to have a soak a little later,” Jackie smiled. “You’d be welcome to join us.”
“I might take you up on that,” Florence smiled. “My word, it’s been years, but it sounds delightful. The only problem is that I didn’t bring a swimsuit. I haven’t even owned one in years.”
“That isn’t a problem,” Jackie told her. “Mark and I don’t wear swimsuits in it, unless we have a guest who insists on it.”
“You mean you wouldn’t mind an old woman like me joining you in the hot tub with no clothes on?”
“Sure, no problem,” Mark said. “Mom even comes over and uses it once in a while, although I have to lift her in and out since she doesn’t get around very well anymore. She never wears a swimsuit, either. She says a good soak makes her arthritis feel better. I look at it as anything that helps is worth the effort.”
“Do the girls join you?” Florence wanted to know.
“It’s their choice,” Jackie said. “Becca does on occasion, not all the time. Bree, well, she doesn’t.”
Florence furrowed her brow. “Somehow that doesn’t surprise me in the slightest.”
“We don’t want to force either one of them about it,” Mark said softly. “But it’s one of those things where there’s a wall between Bree and us. We’re willing to make a lot of changes to accommodate ourselves to the girls, but there are some, well, where we want to draw the line, and they’re going to have to get used to us. Becca has accepted that, but Bree, well, she’s Bree.”
“I see,” Florence nodded. “It’s something her mother never did with her, so it’s probably not something that she should be doing, at least as she sees it. It doesn’t surprise me that Becca would join right in, but Bree? As I told you, she’s reluctant about new things, especially things that might reveal something of her body or her personality.”
“I figured it was something like that,” Mark said. “It’s been one of those things where we haven’t wanted to push her, but I’m afraid it could turn into a real issue sooner or later.”
“Yes, and it’s something you should confront before natural stubbornness turns into ingrained hostility.” Florence sighed. “All right, I’ll see what I can do to help. Let me surprise her with it, though.”
The sun was noticeably lower in the sky and all of them were still on the deck when Florence commented, “I think it would be a good time to use the hot tub. Would anyone like to join me?”
“Sure, I will, Mrs. Engstrom,” Becca said, even before Mark and Jackie could comment.
“Bree?” Florence said. “How about you?”
“Uh, I don’t know,” she said. “I, uh, I haven’t done it yet.”
“It’s very relaxing,” Mrs. Engstrom said. “I haven’t done it in years, but I don’t want to head back to Decatur not having taken advantage of another chance for a soak. Wouldn’t you like to join me?”
“Well, uh, I guess maybe,” Bree replied haltingly. It was clear she didn’t want to do it, but it was hard for her to say no to this woman.
“Good,” Florence smiled. “Girls, why don’t we go up and change clothes? If we’re going to do it, we might as well do it. Mark, Jackie: why don’t you get the cover off while we’re all changing.”
“I guess,” Bree sighed unhappily.
Florence and the two girls headed into the house, while Mark and Jackie got the cover off the hot tub, stripped off their own clothes, and got in. Normally they would take a shower before using the tub, but this time they wanted it to seem instant and casual.
“I wouldn’t want to bet this is going to work,” Jackie said as she slipped into the water.
“Me, either,” Mark agreed. “But it looks like the best shot we’re going to have, now or ever.”
“I’m afraid you’re right,” Jackie sighed. “I’ve been reluctant to use this ever since we found out Bree was so uptight about it. I don’t want it to look like we’re excluding her from something.”
“We aren’t,” Mark said. “She’s been the one who has been excluding herself. But you’re right, it must make her feel like she’s something of an outsider, especially since Becca isn’t standing with her on this.”
Several minutes went by. Neither Mark nor Jackie could think of much to say; they mostly hoped things weren’t going too badly upstairs.
It wasn’t very long, even though it seemed like it, before the door opened; Florence and the two girls came out to the deck. Florence was wearing a bathrobe; Becca had on the bikini she’d worn in the hot tub before giving it up. Bree had on a very modest one-piece swimsuit complete with a skirt. Jackie had commented right after she’d purchased it that it was the most modest swimsuit she’d ever seen a twelve-year-old girl pick out for herself. Most girls her age would get very balky if their mothers picked out something that conservative and dowdy for them.
“I hope we didn’t take too long,” Florence said as she took off her slippers.
“No, come on in. The water’s fine,” Jackie said. At least it looked like they were going to get Bree into the hot tub, swimsuit or no. That was progress of a sort.
“I think I can get in without help,” Florence smiled. “Just sit up on the rim and swing around, right?”
“That’s sort of how we have to do it with Mom,” Mark said.
“Gosh, I haven’t done this in ages,” Florence said as she peeled off the bathrobe, revealing the fact that she was wearing nothing beneath.
Mark didn’t have much time to look at her, because he was mostly focused on Bree’s scream: “Mrs. Engstrom! You’re not actually going to go in there naked, are you!”
“Why not?” Florence smiled. “That’s how you’re supposed to do it, after all.”
“But . . . but . . . but . . . ” Bree stammered as Becca untied the strings that held her bikini top on, tore it off, then slipped out of the bottoms before swinging into the hot tub herself, leaving Bree standing outside at a loss for words.
“Come on in, Bree,” Mrs. Engstrom said. “You don’t have to take your swimsuit off if you don’t want to.”
“I . . . don’t?” Bree said, eyes wide as saucers.
“Of course not,” Florence said. “There’s nothing wrong about wearing a swimsuit in a hot tub, just like there’s nothing wrong about not doing it. It’s just that it’s more comfortable without.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure,” Florence smiled. “We’re just people, after all.”
“I . . . I don’t know if I could do it without any clothes on.”
“Well, there’s only one way to find out,” Florence told her. “You don’t have to take your swimsuit off right away, or even take it off at all. But come and join us, Bree. You look lonely standing out there by yourself.”
“Well, all right, I guess,” Bree said as she reluctantly stepped up to the hot tub. She looked inside, to see Mark, Jackie, Florence and Becca already there, although the bubbler was stirring things up so much it was hard to tell that none of them had any clothes on. She turned to put her fanny up on the rim of the tub, thought better of it, turned and looked at them again.
She stood there watching for what probably was only seconds before she turned away from them again – but this time, she reached up and untied the string that held the swimsuit up and slipped it off, leaving it in a pile on the deck. Once again she put her butt up on the rim, and swung around to put her feet in the water. In only an instant, she was in the hot water up to her neck. “Wow,” she exclaimed, “This is really hot!”
“It is a little on the warm side to just get in all at once,” Mark said. “Usually we take a little time getting used to it. You just sort of sit up on the rim and slide your body in a little at a time.”
“I’ll get used to it,” Bree replied defiantly. “Although it does feel pretty good.”
“It’s not really that hot,” Jackie smiled. “There are a number of families around here that have saunas. They’re much hotter, but without the water. You can really work up a sweat in no time at all. Then, if it’s winter, you go out and jump in a snow bank, or a hole chopped in the ice.”
“Gets the blood flowing, that’s for sure,” Mark agreed.
“You did something like that, Aunt Jackie?”
“Sure did, Bree,” Jackie grinned. “Kirsten and I were doing it when we weren’t much older than you are. Maybe we weren’t even that old. We’d do it with boys and girls together.”
“You didn’t!” Bree replied in a shocked voice.
“Oh, yes we did,” Jackie grinned. “It was fun!”
“I don’t like to think I’m a prude,” Florence said. “But boys and girls together? That seems a little, well, extreme.”
“There’s something about being in a crowd at maybe a hundred and eighty degrees that takes a little of the edge off fooling around,” Jackie grinned. “This is pretty tame by comparison. I’ll admit, sometimes it takes a little getting used to being in mixed company, but it’s pretty innocent. Besides, it answers some questions that both boys and girls have about each other without letting anything get too serious.”
“I’ve always thought you had to trust someone pretty well to be able to get into a sauna or a hot tub nude with them,” Mark said. “It’s one of the ways you show your friendship.”
“Bree, getting naked around other people is something you’re going to have to get used to,” Becca said. “You’ll have to do it when you take gym next year. I’ve told you that.”
“I know,” Bree said sadly. “I don’t want to do it. I mean, I really don’t want to do it.”
“There’s not going to be much getting out of it,” Becca told her. “The thing you have to remember is that it’s all girls, so it’s not quite as hard as it would be if you had to do it with boys around.”
“This will give you a chance to get ready for it,” Florence pointed out. “Won’t it be better being with friends and family and people who love you to get used to being around people without having clothes on.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Bree said. “But still, it’s going to be hard.”
“Bree, it was pretty hard for me the first time, too,” Becca told her. “But it was worse for a lot of the other kids than it was for me. I’ve gotten used to it, and I don’t mind any more. Besides, there are going to be times when you really want to relax, and this is a good way to do it. Just sit back and feel the bubbles working on you.”
Bree sat back and thought about it for a moment; it was clear she was starting to enjoy the sensations of being in the hot tub. “Am I going to have to be naked with Mr. and Mrs. McMahon in the hot tub, too?” she asked finally. “I’m not sure I’m ready for that.”
“Only when you want to,” Mark said. “Mike and Kirsten and Jackie and I have had soaks together I’d say, oh, more than once a week for maybe twenty years now, and we’ve gotten used to it. You can join us if you want to, or not join us if you don’t. If you do, you can wear a swimsuit if you want, or not. It’s your choice. The only thing is that you shouldn’t force your choice on other people.”
“Well, maybe,” she said uncertainly.
“Bree,” Becca said, “I know Mr. and Mrs. McMahon are Aunt Jackie and Uncle Mark’s best friends, but I’m not all the way sure I want to join them in a hot tub without a swimsuit on. Maybe not the first time, anyway.”
“Your choice,” Mark said. “They won’t force you or tease you about it, anymore than we would.”
“Well, maybe,” she said again. “Maybe I ought to have a swimsuit a little more like Becca’s, though.”
“I’m sure we can get you one,” Jackie smiled. “We’ll be running into town for other things sometime in the next couple days, and you can pick one out then.”
They wound up sitting in the hot tub for quite a while, and soon conversation drifted to other topics. When the time finally came to call it an evening, Bree didn’t bother trying to put her swimsuit back on, but just went up the stairs in the nude, like Becca and Mrs. Engstrom.
“Well,” Mark said as he and Jackie put the cover back on the tub. “It looks like we passed that milestone.”
“That was a tough one,” Jackie agreed. “I was a little surprised we managed it.”
“You mean, that Florence managed it,” Mark said. “We’d never have done it without her.”
“I’m sure she had to have set Becca up to say some of the things she did,” Jackie said. “It’s just too bad we’re not going to have her around the next time we hit a crisis with Bree.”
“We’re bound to hit one sooner or later,” Mark said. “But with this one out of the way, I think we’ve got something to build on. She trusts us now, at least more than she did before, even if Florence had to trick her a little to prove it.”
“You know, I sure like Florence,” Jackie shook her head. “It’s too bad we’re not going to have her around. I mean, I can sort of look at her and imagine what it would be like to have her for a mother. I think she must have been pretty cool at it. I missed that growing up, and I still miss it a lot.”
“You’ll remember I sort of let that idea drift past her while we were soaking,” Mark said. “But she didn’t seem interested. I don’t blame her. She has her friends down where she lives, the familiar things she does. She likes it there, it’s what she’s used to, and I guess, more the better. She does have other things in her life besides the girls, after all.”
“Yeah, but still,” Jackie sighed. “I hope she’ll be able to get up here and see the girls again, sometime.”
“We may have to go down and see her there, sometime,” Mark suggested. “But in a way, I’m glad she’s not going to be around, or it would be tempting to use her as a crutch to handle the girls. I think we have to learn how to do it on our own.”
“I suppose,” Jackie sighed. “But I don’t want to cut them off from each other entirely, either.”
“No need to do that,” Mark smiled. “But we need to have the girls depending on us and trusting us, rather than her, because we need to turn the four of us into a family. She helped us make a big step in that direction, not only in the hot tub but in this whole visit. That doesn’t mean they won’t see each other again. Before she and Henry head down to Decatur tomorrow, we need to make sure she knows she’s welcome here anytime she wants to be.”
They were all up early the next morning, early even for Bree. Henry wanted to get an early start so there would be plenty of time to take it easy and take breaks on the way back to Decatur. Besides, Mark wanted to get out to the Spearfish Lake Café for breakfast before he headed over to the Clark Plywood plant to get started learning about their warehousing problems. Jackie was behind on getting some signs done, and would appreciate the extra time to work on them, probably with at least some help from Bree. Becca was yawning and bleary-eyed; it took little skill at telling the future that she was probably going to head back to bed for a few hours before riding her bike down to Mrs. Wine’s house to get started on the ongoing basketball clinic.
But all of them were up early to bid goodbye to Florence; though Mark and Jackie had only known her briefly, they’d come to think of her as a special friend.
In the early morning light there were some hugs and kisses and not a few tears as the girls and Florence said goodbye. All too soon, Henry’s car was heading down the road and back to Decatur.
“I really hate to see her go,” Bree said as she held on tightly to Mark. “I’m going to miss her.”
“I think we’re all going to miss her,” Mark told the girl. “She’s some special lady.”
“Uncle Mark,” she said. “You know I’m really going to miss my mom. I miss her a lot, and I’m probably going to continue missing her a lot.”
“I know, Bree,” he replied quietly.
“But you know,” she said, “I always wondered what it would be like to have a dad. I’m glad I finally get to find out.”
“Well, I always wanted to know what it would be like to be a father,” Mark smiled at her. “I hate the way it happened, but I guess I’m just as glad to get the chance to find out what it’s like to be one, and I can’t think of any other two girls I’d rather be a father to.”
Mark leaned back and thought about it. It was good to be a father, even this late in his life. Becca was well on the way to becoming part of the family, and for that matter, Bree had taken the first steps down that road. There would be further problems with her, he was sure – but if he’d learned anything from Mike and some of the other people he knew, there would always be problems. Somehow, he was sure he’d work out a way to solve them.