One hour after leaving the wedding reception where she destroyed the Hightower brothers with the truth she saw in those 328 pictures, Camille Wallace walked into the Shriner Burn Center in Galveston. She put her caramel colored hair into a blue surgical bonnet, and tied a gown over her clothes. Yellow gauzy booties covered her shoes, a white mask covered her face, and blue plastic gloves clung to her sweaty hands. Inside the room was her worst nightmare. With a deep resolute breath, she went in.
Half of her sister’s body was covered in burns, her legs and left arm had been amputated, too burned to save, burned to the bone. The amputations had been done to try to save the life within her. None of Mina’s honey colored hair remained on her head and her eyes were taped shut, one of her eyes was so damaged, it too had been removed to prevent infection. Cami would never see their pale blue again. A machine breathed for Mina, and another hydrated her. She wasn’t alive in any way that she would want to be, but Cami felt it was for the best.
The doctors looked up when Camille entered, their eyes were kind but sad, “Willamina is stable for now, we can do nothing more for her but make her comfortable and wait for the baby to be born. If she can make it through the next three to four months, the baby has a chance. The longer we wait, the better the chance.”
Camille laced her fingers into those of Willamina’s unburned hand, “Do whatever you must, our family will pay for it.”
Over the next hour they explained the difficulty they faced and how they would wait as long as possible before performing a cesarean to give the baby the best possible chance to survive. The main problem they faced was keeping Mina’s body alive. They were going to be doing everything medically possible to keep her organs from shutting down, and to keep her own burned lungs from drowning her. Her brain activity was of someone no longer considered alive, less than most coma patients’ had. They explained she would never wake up, she was basically brain dead.
Mina was gone, and the doctors wanted to let her go. But Cami strongly refused to let them turn off the machines, she believed with all her heart and all her will that if they were diligent and lucky they could save Mina’s child. She had to save the baby; it was the only thing keeping her going. Saving Mina’s child was Cami’s only purpose, it was the only thing keeping the pain at bay.
After the doctors left, Cami begged Mina, “I know you’re there, sis. I know you can hear me but can’t respond. You have to hang on, willow tree. You have to hang on for your baby. You can’t leave me alone, please don’t leave me alone. I’m not strong enough.”
Fifteen years later... February, present day Colorado.
“Thank you so much for coming, Mr. Hightower.”
“It is my honor to be here Mayor Reylts. I am looking forward to meeting the people of your community,” Kyle said with a gracious smile. “We hope to be a big part of your community and visiting a school function is a good way to build relationships. I want the town not to worry that we will be a disruptive influence on the life they have here.”
“Building our resort will here will be a boon to our town and the local economy, “the mayor gushed, “Your resorts are a success wherever they are built.” They stood in the parking lot outside the school. Banners were hanging in the large glassed in room to the left of the gymnasium, it looked like a cafeteria. Another identical glass room was on the opposite side. A banner across the top read ‘Nationals or Bust - Spaghetti fundraiser and banner hanging today.’
“Banner hanging?” He asked.
“Our swim and dive team just won state competition, the banner hanging is after the fundraising meal. Our kids are going to National level competition, some are even getting a look from the Olympic committee scouts,” Mayor Reylts boasted.
“You sound proud. Nationals and Olympics, huh? You have some talented kids in your community,” Kyle Hightower complimented.
“Talented kids and an extremely devoted coach. She’s a bronze medalist herself. Coach Wally’s amazing, wait till you meet her. And here we are.”
The mayor led him through the cafeteria. Pictures were plastered all over the walls of young men and women racing, diving, water polo, all grinning in blue pools. One picture caught his attention, nearly identical brunettes. Time lapse images of them side by side, falling toward the water, synchronized diving. They looked familiar and, for a moment, he wondered where he had seen them before. He shook off the uncomfortable nagging in his mind, if they were Olympic hopefuls maybe he’d seen them on ESPN.
“Ah, this way Mr. Hightower, they are serving food and afterward you can see what makes our community special besides our natural hot springs, and excellent skiing and mountain biking,” Mayor Reylts guided him to the line of people gathered. The mayor tucked a large bill into the donation jar. Kyle did the same.
“You don’t have to sell me on your community Mayor, I already bought the real estate,” Kyle grinned, and then he frowned slightly, “I thought the state education fund paid for sports programs.”
“No, they only pay for local competitions in popular sports like football, basketball, volleyball, basketball, and track. Our Swim and Dive program is completely community funded. The kids work hard to get the funds they need, just as hard as they practice.” The mayor said proudly accepting a large plate of spaghetti from an older woman. They walked to another table where they were given a cupcake frosted the same swirling blues as a custom cake featuring images of the different divers. Kyle was impressed with how professionally presented the early dinner fundraiser seemed.
“You sound like a proud parent; do you have someone on the team?” Kyle asked politely.
“My son and daughter are on the swim team and my nephew is a springboard diver, all three are already getting college offers,” the man boasted. “Can we join you, Tank?
A large man in law enforcement navy blue, smiled up at them, “Sure thing, Bill. Sheriff Thomas Tanner.”
“Kyle Hightower, Blue Water Resorts.”
“Ahh, the developer that bought the old Kemper Dude Ranch.” The sheriff stated knowingly.
Just as Kyle set down his plate, a girl rushed by, “Lemonade or tea, Mayor Reylts?”
“I’ll have lemonade, your mom around?” the mayor asked.
She shrugged and looked at Kyle expectantly, her expression changed and she began blinking rapidly.
Kyle stuttered out, “Tea, thanks, miss.” She looked so familiar, uncomfortably so. Her morning glory eyes reminded him of his brother’s.
Thomas grinned, “Can I get another, Willow?”
She grinned, “Sure, Sheriff Tank.” And she darted away.
“Tank?” Kyle’s mind quickly gave him the information he was looking for, “Thomas the Tank Tanner? All-pro Offensive lineman for the Houston Texans.”
Tank laughed, it was a hardy, amused sound, “That was a long time ago. You don’t sound like a Texan.”
Kyle grinned, “I’m not, I was building a resort in Galveston. Project got delayed after my brother and his fiancé died, but I went back to finish it. It was his dream.”
“The Island’s End Resort? The ex got remarried there, nice place. It is good that you finished it for him. Sorry for your loss.” Tank sounded sincere in his condolences, but Kyle also notice he had no bitterness in his voice when he remarked on his ex-wife’s remarriage, he found it was unusual. Exs usually hated each other, he certainly hated his.
“Thanks, it was almost 15 years ago,” Kyle answered, just as a girl set their drinks down. She looked remarkably like the girl the sheriff had called Willow. She stared at him for a moment, then was gone to another table before he could thank her.
Tank smiled, “Mostly, those two are our champion synchronized divers, Olympics bound, and some day I am gonna be their proud dad, cheering them on when they get their medals. That one was Gracie. The other was Willow. They are Wally’s girls.”
The mayor belly laughed, “She’s shot you down 8 years in a row, Tank.”
Tank pointed the piece of garlic toast he was eating at the mayor, “I’m an All-Pro offensive lineman and eventually I will wear down Wally’s defensive line.”
The Mayor just chuckled. “You’ll be a pool widower then, for sure. Oh and there is Coach Wallace now.”
Before Kyle could ask any more questions, a voice came over the PA that made his blood run cold. A voice he had not heard in 15 years, since the day before his brother died. His throat went completely dry and he almost couldn’t swallow the spaghetti that had turned to sawdust in his mouth. Camille Wallace stood on the stage, looking hardly changed after a decade and a half. In front of her, stood the school team with her two daughters in the center. Identical sets of blue eyes bored into his, eyes, he realized, that looked back at him every morning in the mirror.
“Hello Pagosa Cliffs and welcome! Thank you all for coming out to our fundraiser lunch and for supporting our Bluewings Go-Fund-Me page. We conquered at State and now on to Nationals!”
The cheering was deafening in the cafeteria. Kyle could hear her laughter over the PA as she tried to shush the enthusiastic friends and family of the team.
“Thank you, thank you all. Thanks especially to Millicent, Veranda, and Milli for the food and cake. I know everyone got enough to eat.” There was a polite round of clapping. “Now, if I can direct you to the north wall, your Pagosa Cliffs Bluewings Swim and Dive Team will raise our new State Championship Banners in Diving and Swimming.”
Two tall lithe boys climbed ladders and hung the State champion banners from hooks close to the ceiling as camera and phones flashed. Everyone rushed to surround the team. Soon women were clearing the tables, and the Mayor and Sheriff had gone off to talk to other leaving Kyle to his dessert and thoughts.
Kyle just sat there in shock pushing the pieces of cupcake around on his plate. His stupor was interrupted when the twin divers stopped in front of his and stared at him. Camille’s daughters eyed him like he was the enemy.
“Yep.” The taller girl popped the ‘P’ at the end of the word.
“Look at him, he looks exactly like the pictures. That’s Kyle.”
They both scowled in a nearly identical frown, then the slightly taller one asked, “Where’s Kent?”
“Look girls, I didn’t know...” Kyle started.
“No, you look, Ky-le,” The shorter one huffed, “You or your brother bother our mom in anyway and we’ll drown you.”
“Yeah, and the sheriff wants to be our stepdad, so he’ll cover it up for us,” The taller finished.
Then they turned as one and walked away just like Camille did all those years ago.
Kyle’s mind raced as they disappeared down a hall in the direction of the pool. Blue eyes and almost black hair just like his, with Camille’s cheekbones and lips, and her sister Willamina’s shaped almond-shaped eyes. For a moment, he thought he was having a heart attack. Camille had twins and she had never told him. She really did hate him and evidently their daughters did too. Worse, they had seen the pictures that had ruined everything.
Camille’s last words came back to haunt him. ‘A picture is worth a thousand words.’
‘I have daughters! As in two, as in twins!’ Kyle Hightower’s mind reeled from the shock as he numbly followed the crowd into a gymnasium that contained an Olympic sized pool.
The air was warm and muggy and smelled slightly of minerals and chlorine. He could see the swimmers and divers filing out of the changing rooms. Camille was standing in a dark blue robe, wearing a dark blue high neck one piece. He felt his chest clench as he wondered how many other men over the years had seen her blue butterfly tattoo.
The Mayor called him over and he sat, numbly watching the team race each other while family and friends cheered. A girl with a tight braid won the freestyle relay, a darker blonde haired boy lifted her onto his shoulder, seeming completely happy that she had beaten him.
“My Amy,” Mayor Bill Reylts said proudly. “And Will.”
“His little speedboats are the fastest on the team, she set three new state records this year and he set two.” Sheriff Tanner added, “Do you have children, Mr. Hightower?”
Kyle didn’t know how to answer, but he was saved by the announcement of the diving demonstration.
“There’s my boy,” Bill said quickly. “He is a Junior this year, Annapolis bound and an Olympic hopeful.”
“Congratulations.” Was all Kyle could get out as he watch Camille.
The announcer gave the names and grades of all the divers and which dives they were doing. Kyle felt a strange sense of pride as he watched each of Camille’s daughters performing difficult springboard dives. His daughters were just as talented as their mother. Camille paced up and down behind the boards talking to her students. Finally, the last of the divers were climbing to the 10 meter platform. Camille dropped her robe and climbed up after her girls.
The announcer declared the last dive of the program would be performed Coach Wallace, Willow Wallace, and Gracie Wallace. They stood bravely at the very edge of the platform, a caramel brunette in between the two darker haired teens. His heart seized when they all did a handstand. The crowd silenced around him.
Camille glanced at Willow on her right and then to Grace on her left. Both girls were the picture of poised concentration.
“Yes, Mom,” they chorused.
Together they assumed identical starting positions.
Camille counted, “One... two... three...”
Then they were falling, somersaulting toward the water, twisting into a pike, as the surface rushed to meet them. Silence engulfed them as the blue swallowed them up with barely a splash. They are surrounded with silky bubbles and through the water they could hear the crowd cheering, then splashes above as their teammates jumped into the pool to join them. Together, they sank in the warm mineral waters of the hot springs fed pool. Reaching toward each other they embraced like mermaids before swimming upwards toward the air achingly needed and the deafening noise.
Camille pulled herself out of the water to let the kids play. Many of her divers’ siblings are also jumping into the pool, members of her future teams. It made her smile. The hot springs allowed for natural warming of the pool to the desired 80 degrees, a temperature that would normally be achieved with expensive water heaters, especially at this altitude. The tiny school never could have afforded it but Mother Nature and Father God had blessed this little community with a way, and she would make sure their children used that advantage to get the best educations. Colleges all over the country wanted what she was training in the mountains of Colorado.
She had heard rumors of developer wanting to build a resort on the old Hidden Springs dude ranch and she hoped there wouldn’t be a problem with the proposed resort over pumping the reservoir. Her mind went to what had happened on Soda Springs to the north and she sent a fleeting prayer that it wouldn’t happen here. She blew her whistle and scowled at a group of boys trying to drown each other horse playing. They all looked sheepish, and then swam away. Forgetting her worries she focused on the water, too many bodies could be a danger if someone wasn’t vigilant.
Some of her team were standing at the ladders, Camille blew her whistle, three short burst and everyone looked her way, she bellowed, “Clear the Boards.”
The swimmers moved to the shallower end of the giant pool while the team, showed off for friends and family. Willow climbed to the 10M over and over, falling toward the water in graceful twisting movements, just like she always did. Gracie bounced slightly on the 3M board, the world shut out. A tight two and a half somersaults and she ripped the entry. Just like Willamina had before her heart valve and rotator cuff had sidelined her. Camille dragged her attention away from her memories and focused on the shallow end of the pool.
She couldn’t think about what had been lost; she had to focus on what had been gained. Her daughter and her niece were the best two young divers in the country. Come the next Olympics, China and Australia would find that real competition had emerged from the Rockies. Too soon she was whistling the ALL OUT signal to empty the pool, kids of all ages rushed toward the changing room. Suddenly, her girls ran back and bounced on the 3M boards, forward into triple somersaults. They came up laughing as their mom blew her whistle again and pointed to the edge.
“Sea Monsters!” Camille scolded over the amused murmuring of the leaving crowd.
“We’re not monsters,” Willow called out.
“We’re mermaids,” Gracie added loudly.
“OUT! Or I’ll get a net,” Camille shouted.
The girls porpoised to the side of the pool before they leapt out of the water with graceful ease. As some of the other parents laughed, Camille scowled at her girls trying not to smile. She and her sister had been the same way, some things never change, some things were never the same.