“You shouldn’t.” Seth shakes his head firmly.
“Because getting married sucks. It makes you mean and then you fight all the time, and you mess around with strange men who like to beat your kids.”
I stop in my tracks and stare at the boy who is almost the same height as me and is the spitting image of his dad and his uncle.
“Come on!” he urges impatiently, and I fall back into step beside him as we walk past the edge of the pasture and into the brush. I can hear the rush of the creek now, and as we walk just about ten yards farther, I can see and smell it too.
“It’s pretty back here,” I murmur, and take a deep breath. “Damn, Seth, your dad was right. The water is really high.” The water is rushing past us at an alarming rate, deeper than usual because it’s crested the banks, due to the snow in higher elevations still melting.
“It’s not too bad,” he disagrees, and turns pleading eyes to me.
“You stay on the bank, understand? No wading in. This water is too high and running too fast.”
He flashes me his grin and my chest tightens. This poor kid has seen so much more than he ever should have.
He strips out of his socks and shoes, rolls his pants up, and I follow suit. I’m in shorts today, so I don’t have to worry about getting my pants wet, but I tuck my phone in my bra, just in case.
Seth baits the hooks and hands me a pole. “Okay, I’ll show you how to cast.” He sounds so mature and sure of himself as he steps into the edge of the water, just close enough to get his toes wet, pulls his pole back over his shoulder, and flings the line smoothly into the water.
“Your dad is a good teacher,” I mutter with a smile.
“Yeah, he’s not as bad as I thought he was.” Seth shrugs as I also cast my line, and we stand in companionable silence for a long minute until I just can’t stand it anymore and I have to ask some questions. He’s finally talking, it’s private and quiet here, and he’s doing what he loves.
“So, you know that not all marriages are like your mom and dad’s was, right?” I ask nonchalantly.
“I guess,” he mutters, and I can tell he’s not convinced.
“Did a lot of your mom’s boyfriends hurt you?” I cast again.
“Some.” I look back at him to find that he’s looking down into the water, not paying attention to his pole. He suddenly looks over at me with wide hazel eyes. “Why did she let them do that?”
I sigh deeply and blink the tears away, determined to keep this conversation comfortable and safe for him. “I don’t know, buddy.” I shake my head and reel my line in. “Some women just shouldn’t be moms.”
“Yeah.” He reels in his own line and casts it out again. “So, my mom is a bad mom.”
“It sounds like she won’t be winning any mother-of-the-year awards.”
“But not all moms are bad.”
“Nope, they’re not.”
He’s chewing on the inside of his cheek, watching the spot in the water where his line is sunk. “I hope she never comes back. I love it here, with Dad and Gram and Gramps and Uncle Josh.” He looks up at me. “I don’t ever have to go back with her, right?”
“No, sweetheart, you don’t.”
He nods and grins at me. “Maybe someday you’ll be my Aunt Cara.”
And there goes the wind right out of me.
The conversation ends there and we cast and reel, cast and reel, for a long while without catching anything. I find my mind wandering as I settle into the rhythm of casting, listening to the wild rush of water and the wind through the trees.
Just what did Josh mean when he said he didn’t want to hurt my feelings by telling me that I am not welcome to live here? If I’m not welcome here, why did he ask me to stay?
I don’t get it, but one thing is certain, I’ll be damned if I’ll move in now.
I suddenly hear an abundance of splashing and glance over at Seth, skipping through the water gleefully.
“Seth, I told you not to go in the water! Those rocks are slippery!”
“It’s not so slippery.” He jumps deftly from one river rock to the next. “See?”
“Keep splashing like that, and you’ll scare all the fish away!” I laugh at him as he plays in the water, then suddenly, to my horror, he slips.
He lets go of his pole and waves his arms frantically, trying to regain his balance, but it’s no use. He falls hard, and I can see by the angle that he’s hurt his leg.
“Ahhhh!” he cries as he falls into the water.
“Seth!” I throw my pole onto the bank and run as fast as I can through the rushing water to the boy, who is now sitting on his butt.
The water is cold, biting my legs as I scramble to get to Seth. Before he can slip off the rock into the dangerous current, I grip his arm and guide him to a rock on the shoreline.
“Ow!” He holds his ankle up out of the water, and I can see, even from here, that it’s broken.
Oh, shit! “Stay where you are!”
His eyes are wide and he’s staring at his ankle, clearly in shock. “It hurts, Cara.”
“I know, buddy.” I grip his calf gently in my palm and hold his leg up, examining it. “I think it’s broken, kiddo.”
“No!” He starts to cry and leans his forehead against my arm.
“Let me call Josh.” With my free hand, I pull my phone from my bra and call Josh’s number, praying he picks up.
“I need you.” I hear the near panic in my voice, but I can’t stop it. “Seth fell in the creek. I think his ankle is broken.”
“Where are you?” Josh’s voice is bewildered and I can hear Zack in the background.
“I don’t know,” I choke out, full panic setting in.
“Cara.” Josh’s voice has hardened. “Listen to me. Where are you, baby? I hear water. Are you at the creek?”
“Yes.” I swallow hard. “Seth and I are down at the creek behind the house.”
“We’ll be there in two minutes.”
The line goes dead and I stuff the phone back in my bra.
“Okay, your dad and Uncle Josh will be here in just a few minutes. I’m going to put your ankle in the water to keep it cold, okay?”
He’s sobbing now, bracing himself back on his hands on the rock. I lower his ankle into the water, keeping his toes above the waterline.