The sound of the radio mingled with the soft humming of a dark-haired girl. Her nose and eyes matched the man sitting next to her, in the driver’s seat, of the silver sports utility vehicle. They parked it along the street, outside a broken down and weather-beaten brownstone, idling. A second man, with sharp angular features and curling lengths of blonde locks, exited out of the brownstone, onto the steps, a duffel bag slung over one shoulder. With a black and yellow personal flotation device strapped around his chest, he juggled two halves of a dismantled kayak paddle in his free hand. He skipped three steps to come down with unexpected ease, and grace, onto the sidewalk outside the waiting SUV.
“Hey, hey kids,” called out Mac as he stood at the opened passenger’s door. He waited for Bethie, while she shuffled her body around and climbed over the front seat, making her way into the second set of seats. Mac tossed his gear in beside her and climbed in to the front, where Bethie had been sitting, moments before, beside her brother Liam. “Where’s Jay?” he asked.
Liam pointed to the furthest back part of the over-packed vehicle. “Tucked in snug as a bug, in the back.”
“Hey, hey, Jay,” Mac yelled out, with his hand cupped around the side of his mouth as if he had to throw his voice hard for Jay to hear across the small distance. “We ready to do this?”
Bethie smirked and nodded. “Ready.”
“Liam?” asked Mac.
Liam nodded and kept his dark eyes on the road. He didn’t utter another word before he pulled away from the curb. Mac clapped him on the upper shoulder.
“Did you ship your boat to the camp, Mac?”
Mac turned backward to answer Bethie. “Nah, I figured I’d grab one there this go ’round.”
“Really?” the brother and sister duo echoed in harmonized unity.
“Yeah, make it more of a challenge, ya know. New boat, new angles, a new strategy.” His face glowed with the thought of a new added thrill.
Bethie scowled. “Mac, maybe this trip wasn’t the best choice for that.”
“Stop being a mother hen, Bethie.” His brow knitted as he scowled. “It’s not our first time to the Rift.”
“It’s our first time without Judah,” she mentioned with a cautious air under her breath.
Mac’s tight lined jaw dropped. He was silent for a moment, but the tension was building. It was clear in the rise of his shoulders and the tight grip of his fingers on the dash. His voice came through gritted teeth, harsh and menacing, each word slow to escape his mouth. “What the fuck do you mean ‘without Judah’?”
“Hey Mac, take it easy,” chastised Liam. “He isn’t going, that’s his choice.”
Mac slammed the flat of his hand against the dashboard, sending out an echoing thwap. “Like hell it is. He is out of control. Where is he? At the loser, suit job?”
Bethie pursed her lips and nodded with caution, still anxious at Mac’s reaction.
“Liam, go there,” Mac demanded.
“Mac, I don’t-”
“Go,” Mac barked. He was seething in the front seat while the other passengers became silent and uncomfortable.
Liam pulled into the parking lot of a sky rise in Midtown. Mac turned and looked with hard eyes back at Bethie. “Get him.”
“Mac, he isn’t-”
“Goddammit, Bethie. He has to grow up and get on with life. We can’t do this without him.” Mac’s voice softened when he saw the glistening tears well up in the corners of Bethie’s eyes. He reached back through the seats and took her hand in his. “Please?” his tone softened. He leaned further back, past her small frame, his voice still soft. “Tell her, Jay. We need all of us to do this trip right.”
Once parked, the back door of the SUV opened and Bethie’s five foot two, lithe frame, slipped out onto the blacktopped pavement. She smoothed back her dark hair and pulled out an elastic hair tie from the back pocket of her shorts, twisting the length of her hair into a topknot on her head. Her hiking boots sent out a shallow clapping sound of rubber against the parking lot as she made her way past the parked vehicles, through the looming shadow of the towering building and up to the front doors. With a single finger, its nail chewed down to the nub, she stabbed at the elevator button, and the cart descended to scoop her up, and deliver her upward to the third floor. With an unpleasant, sterile, ping of a bell, the doors slid open and Bethie stepped out, smoothing her shorts and faded purple performance top into a wrinkle free presentation. She took a deep breath, hoping to steady her nerves and clear her senses before she made her way into the heart of the office space. No such luck.
A young girl, about the same age as Bethie, lifted her head away from the computer screen in front of her and looked directly at her. “Welcome to Baylor and Titus, how can I help you?”
A weak smile flitted across Bethie’s lips. “Judah Morgan?”
“One moment, please.” The receptionist, dressed in a form fitted black dress, her hair a slicked back sheen of perfection, tapped out a number with her glossy, well-manicured nails. Bethie shoved her hands deep into the pockets of her shorts. The tip of a single finger poked through a hole, worn in the fabric.
“Yes, Mr. Morgan, there’s a woman here to see you.” Long, coated lashes fluttered as “receptionist extraordinaire” looked back up from her computer screen. “Name?”
“Tell him it’s Beth,” she whispered with diminished confidence.
The girl stared at her, waiting for a last name.
“Just Beth. He’ll know who I am.”
With a tone of snippy impatience, the girl relayed the information. She then instructed Bethie with minimal direction, on how she could make her way to Judah’s office. When she knocked on the oversized glass door, her heart was pounding out a double step rhythm. It had been a few months since she’d seen Judah face to face, in person. They had limited their communication to text messages and the occasional Skype session. He looked so professional sitting there behind the ornate cherry desk. His dress shirt was pressed and starched, and a silk tie secured about his neck. Different from the everyday Judah she knew. When was the last time she had seen him like this? Her face shadowed when she recalled the moment, one she pushed away for months, and now she was facing it again.
“Beth, please come in.” Judah stood up and moved around his desk, gesturing for her to move forward into the office space. He wrapped her in a perfunctory embrace and signaled for her to sit in one of the two chairs poised in front of his desk. He, himself, leaned against the desk instead. His body language pronounced him as closed off, with his arms crossed over his chest and his legs casually crossed at the ankles. “How are you?”
Bethie smirked and shrugged. “As well as can be expected. You?”
He nodded. “Good, good. What brings you here?”
The corners of her mouth dropped, and she sat defeated in the proffered chair. “Seriously, Judah? You know why.”
He raised his eyebrows and pretended to give her statement some true thought. He scratched at his clean-shaven chin and shook his head. “No, I’m sorry,” he shrugged.
“Dammit, Judah. The Rift trip.”
He moved around to the opposite side of the massive desk, purposely putting some distance between the two of them. The scent of her skin, her perfumed detergent that cleansed her clothing and the smell of her shampoo was causing a whirlpool of emotions in his gut. “Is that this week?” He scanned over his desk blotter. “Wow, time has gotten away from me. I have so much to catch up on this week,” he sighed. “Deadlines looming.”
Bethie sighed. “Come on, Judah. You have known about this trip.” She stood up and stabbed her finger down on the miniature, daily, flip, desk calendar. “You’ve even got it marked. Do you honestly think a few months’ time would erase all your quirks in my head? Right there, on today’s date.” She tapped her finger on the small paper, with a penciled picture of five figures. “That is your usual stick figure drawing of all of us, sans the-” She leaned down closer to the page. “What is that exactly?”
Judah looked down at the cartoon drawing. He smiled. “It’s a hatchet.”
“And is that Mac’s head?”
Judah laughed and covered his mouth to hide his own amusement.
“Nice.” Bethie scowled.
“Speaking of Mac, where is he today?”
“Down in the car.”
Judah moved to the window and gazed downward. “With Liam?”
“And Jay,” she whispered.
Judah stepped back, his face sullen. “Beth, I can’t.”
“Yes, you can. You won’t.” Her small hands pressed into her hips, and she held her ground.
He paced behind his desk, smoothing his neatly trimmed, fresh cropped hair, back in anxious strokes. “I can’t. Not after you and-”
This made him stop pacing. He kept his eyes focused on some invisible scuff on the toe of his shoe.
“You even arranged for her to be away this week, didn’t you?”
“No.” His head shot up and he stared at Bethie, challenging her to object. “She went to see her parents. On her own,” he emphasized.
Bethie blew a breath of exasperation out in a heavy sigh. “I bet you have already sent the boats on ahead too. Tell me I am wrong, Jude.”
“I can’t spend a week with him, Beth.”
“Then spend a week with Liam and-,” her voice was tender. “It’s the Rift, Judah. Maybe the last time for us all, together.”
“I have nothing packed.”
She gave him a knowing expression with a tilt of her head. “I brought it all. Trust me?”
Judah scowled and shrugged.
“Fine, Judah.” Bethie tossed her hands in the air. “Whatever you need. It’s always all about Judah. Maybe you and Leslie can make it your thing now.” She got up and crossed to the door. “Bye, Judah.”
Bethie turned back, hopeful. Her hand paused over the brass doorknob.
“Tell Liam, I’m sorry.”
Her chest deflated as she released the breath she held. “I won’t. I’m done, Judah. I thought you were more than this. I thought we, Jay, Liam, all of us were more than this. I guess we will never be the same.” Bethie wiped the tears from her eyes and walked out the door, past the lobby and to the stairwell. She took the stairs two at a time. Her anger level moving upward with each downward step. By the time she reached the first floor, there were no more tears to shed. She wouldn’t give Judah the satisfaction.
“What took you so long?”
Bethie looked up to see Judah waiting at the front entrance. A duffel bag hung over his shoulder and his suit jacket draped over his arm. She smiled. “You’re really going?”
“I won’t be the one to blame when the lot of you crash and burn on the water. Besides, maybe it’s time to settle this.”
The two walked out the door side by side to the waiting vehicle. Bethie’s anxiety still heightened with each step. Her emotions were a mixed pot of satisfaction in getting Judah to join and the dread that he had. Judah tossed his bag in the back and climbed in beside Bethie. “Let’s do this.”