Martin guides the truck along the winding road, the sunlight blinking in and out from behind the thick Oregon forest. Hillary sings to them, a Pandora station of Disney movie soundtracks. As she starts each new song, Juliette sighs and moans again.
“Can we listen to the radio?” she asks.
“Jules, don't crush your sister's young, innocent spirit,” Martin says. He smiles, and Hillary smiles back and turns her volume up. Martin stares through his eyebrows at her. “But hey, don't push it, young innocent spirit.”
A hawk swoops out over the front of the truck. The sun catches the golden brown of its feathers and Hillary stops singing to stare in awe.
“Dad, look!” she yells, leaning forward into her seat belt.
“We're getting close,” Martin says.
After a few more long, winding turns, the truck rounds a tighter grouping of pines as the road meets up with the deep blue and churning rapids of a river. Fishermen stand every few hundred feet, flicking fly rods back and forth in the sunlight. Martin rolls the windows down a few inches and they listen to the river's roar.
“It's a great day to be on the river,” Hillary says. She says it with duty, like this is a phrase she has heard from adults, like this is a phrase people are supposed to say when heading to the river.
“A great day, indeed,” Martin says.
The three park and head downstream, away from the fisherman they passed on the drive in. Hillary takes the lead, but she loses the lead every time she finds a flower she likes, or a slug or snail on the trail. She stops to enjoy the little secrets while Juliette and Martin continue past her. As they hike ahead, Hillary stays as long as she can at the newest object of her curiosity. But her fear of being left behind takes hold and she runs back to the front until the next beautiful thing grabs her attention.
After a few series of going ahead and falling behind, the river widens and calms and the three lay down their bags and prepare their gear. The shore is clearer here, free from the thick tree branches overhead and the brambles and brush on the ground. The water is wider, deeper, calmer, and easier to fish. They know this because they have been here many times.
“First one with a fish gets out of gutting them,” Martin announces.
Hillary doubles her gear assembly speed. For her scattered mind, trying to go faster doesn't result in actually going faster. Trying to go faster makes her put her satchel on before her waders, so that once her waders are on she has to untangle her satchel strap from her wader suspenders. Juliette sees the struggle and laughs. She is pretending she doesn't care about the stupid competitions her dad sets up. She pretends she doesn't want to get the first fish. But once Hillary sorts out her gear setup and is laying into her first cast, Juliette reconsiders the prize. Not having to gut and clean the fish is a hefty prize.
She doubles her pace.
Hillary finds an eddy. A ten-foot boulder is breaking the river surface, forcing the water to run around it. The forced change of direction creates a small strip of boiling rapids, which calms itself around the backside of the rock. This clearing is at the end of a riffle, and the calm pool, a hole sheltered by the boulder, is a pinch point for current-carried food. It is a perfect place for a fish. Hillary casts and pulls out more line and casts again. She is fifteen feet from the riffle lie, and a feeding fourteen-inch rainbow trout.
Martin sees her choice and nods. She is getting good at this. He knows there is a fish in there waiting for her, and he can't wait to watch her scream as her dry fly disappears into the blue and pulls her line down with it.
Juliette secures her satchel and quick-steps down the trail. She also sees the spot Hillary has chosen and knows there isn't much time. There is a fish in that hole, she is sure of it, the only question is whether Hillary will be able to land the fish. After considering her little sister's growing skill, Juliette breaks into a jog.
Martin's dry fly hisses through the air and lands in an upstream torrent. The water soaks the fly and pulls it under. The current moves it between two rocks and into a calm stretch. The ants are out in force in the forest right now, so Martin hopes the drifting, seemingly drowned ant he is fishing with draws the attention of a hungry trout.
Juliette stops, spotting her target. The current is running around a rock, and the rolling water rising up from the river bottom is creating a clear bubble, about six feet by six feet. Those clearings make spotting bugs on the surface easy for the fish. She knows the prize, and her key to avoiding the feel of fish guts, is slithering slowly back and forth in the water a few feet beneath that clear surface. She wades slowly out a few steps into the water, braces herself against the current, and begins to arc the line back and forth in the mid-morning air. She lets the fly drop onto the surface. She is a few feet short. She pulls more line and flicks the fly rod again, back and forth overhead, before driving the pole forward. The fly, a few threads and feathers and hairs tied together to look like a caddisfly, floats over the river, carried by a sudden gust of cool forest breeze, and lands at the head of the clear pool. The hairs on the fly shine white in the sun, and Juliette watches and prepares to see it disappear beneath the surface.
Hillary has her third flick into the eddy above her riffle lie. The current takes the fly through a familiar winding path, and it pops up in the clearing and casts a shadow down through the darkness of the churning water to a pair of eager eyes below.
Martin flicks a perfect cast, high and soft over the pool. He knows, as the fly hits the water, that he will have his first strike. He waits, and he is right. A fish surges at the fly and breaks the surface. Martin pulls on the rod to set the hook, but the fish missed the fly. His jerking motion brings the fly whipping back to him.
Juliette lays out a similar cast and her caddisfly is spotted. A healthy twelve inch trout sees the fly alter the surface of the river and he slithers through the water, mouth open. He snatches up the bait, and before he realizes it is fake and spits it out, Juliette jerks at the line. The hook is set, tearing through the side of the fish's mouth. Her reel clicks and whizzes at the new pressure, and she shrieks as she begins to real him in.
“Got one, I got one!” she yells, turning her head upstream. Her words are lost in the crashing sound of the rapids. She cranks on the reel and the line goes tight, pulling on the pole and arcing the end of it downward toward the water. Her heart slams the walls of her chest and she can't help but cackle at her victory. She can't hide her excitement now, no amount of teenage coolness can cover the thrill of the first catch of the day. The teenage veneer comes crashing down and she screams again.
“I got one!”
This time when she looks upriver, Martin and Hillary are coming down the trail toward her. She smiles again, nodding toward the bending pole, and laughs about her victory. She is briefly surprised to see them. She thinks they must have heard her first yells and, having failed in their initial spots, decided to come watch her reel in her prize.
“It's a good one,” she says, reeling harder. When the line is pulled in and the fish appears from the water, dangling from the line, she is right. He is a thick trout, twelve inches long, with fake caddisfly hairs jutting from his open mouth.
She stops reeling and walks to the shore, laying the pole down and working to remove the hook. It pops free easily and she looks up at Martin and Hillary in triumph.
Martin is smiling, too. And so is Hillary, who is holding a fourteen inch trout in her tiny hands.
“I got one, too,” Hillary says, “about two minutes ago.”
Juliette's smile fades. She looks to Martin. He shrugs.
“She did, it's true,” he says, looking at Juliette's fish. When he looks back at Juliette's face, he can see she isn't happy about her little sister's achievement. “Oh, but, your fish is great, too, Jules.”
“Yeah, Jules,” Hillary says, “your fish is really... cute.”
Juliette looks at Hillary's fish and then back to hers. Then back to Hillary's. She holds her fish up next to Hillary's. Hers is thinner, a few inches shorter, and not as brightly colored down its sides.
“Nice try, though,” Hillary says.
Juliette's head drops and seems to darken in the shade of the river trail. When she begins to shudder and make noise, Martin thinks she is starting to sob. With her head down and her shoulders bouncing, it looks like she is crushed by the loss of the first fish contest and she is bawling. Hillary looks up at Martin and he looks back, stunned, and then afraid. This isn't where he wants to be, on a river trail path consoling his sixteen year old daughter because her fish is small and she caught it after her ten year old sister caught one that was bigger.
When Juliette looks up, Martin laughs out his relief. She isn't crying, she is laughing. She is laughing at how excited she got about catching a fish. She is laughing at how stupid it was to really really want to beat her little sister in a fish-catching contest.
“Show us your fish, daddy!” Hillary says. Martin's mouth drops open, astonished at how heartless and cruel his daughter has become. Juliette watches him, expecting him to pull a fish from his bag. When she sees his face, she realizes what Hillary is getting at.
“Oh, sassing my fish when you haven't caught one, yet, huh?” she says.
“Some people in the Bell family are better at fishing than others,” Hillary says.
“Oh ha ha, funny girl. I'm just getting warmed up. We'll see who has caught the most fish at the end of the day. Now get back to work. I could eat those two fish for lunch myself, and it would be terrible if you two had to go hungry.”
The hours have pulled the sun across the sky and down toward a horizon hidden by the mountains. A mist is rising, further darkening the river valley. Juliette and Hillary come back from the woods with rocks in their hands. They drop them on the grassy patch they all picked out and head back into the woods. Martin arranges the rocks in a circle, a small fire pit where he will be able to lay the metal grid from his portable barbecue. When the girls return, they are each carrying small twigs and sticks, dead and dried up from the forest floor. Like the fishing, they've done this many times.
The fire starts and Martin places the grill grid on top. Each fish gets its own tin foil wrapping, seasoned with salt, pepper, and lemon, and gets placed over the flames. In the end, there were six fish caught, and once all six are wrapped and placed, Hillary brushes her hands off and lets loose a greedy cackle.
Once cooked, the three take their foiled fish and open them on paper plates. The seasoned smell of broiled trout fat mixes with the lemon and rises to their flared nostrils. Juliette closes her eyes to take it all in. Martin hums out a happy tune. Before she forks into her broiled fish, Hillary bows her head.
“Thank you, Mr. Fishes, for you are so delicious.”
Martin and Juliette smile at each other and then quickly bow their heads, as well.
“Thank you, delicious fishes,” Martin says.
“Thank you, delicious fishes,” Juliette echoes.
Martin brought a small garbage bag for cleanup. Now, as the three sit together playing cards, the garbage bag holds crumpled tinfoil, discarded lemon peels, plastic forks, and a spent bag of barbecue potato chips. In the fire pit, the last of their paper plates and napkins blacken and shift into dust.
“Dad, did mom ever like to fish?” Hillary asks.
“Not really, sweetie, no. She went with me a couple of times, but she only did it to be nice. She just wanted to hang out with me so she tried to pretend she was a cool fisherwoman like you.”
“How could she not love fishing?”
“I know, right? That is a great question, Hill. This, especially with you two, is one of the best things in the whole world.”
Hillary nods and smiles.
“With us, of course.”
“Anything with us is the best thing in the world,” Juliette says. Martin sees that she meant the statement to be sarcastic, to be cutting, but the day has softened her attitude. It almost sounds like she means it.
“Yeah,” Hillary says, “of course, of course, we bring the party wherever we go.” Martin and Juliette laugh. “But of all the things we could be doing together, I'm glad we're doing this.”
“Me too, Hill.”
“Who taught you how to fish, dad? Was it grandpa?”
Martin picks up the discarded three of hearts and then lays it down with the two and the four.
“Yes, grandpa used to take me all the time. All the time. He loved to fish even more than I did, if you can believe that.”
“Who was better at it?” Hillary asks.
Martin presses his fanned out cards together and squeezes. When he fans them out again, he isn't looking at the suits or the numbers anymore.
“Grandpa? He was way better at it than I will ever be.”
Juliette looks at Hillary out of the sides of her eyes. She stares, hard, and wants to throw a hand over Hillary's mouth. Hilary is too young to really understand what it means, but Juliette knows there are two things that drain any stored fun from Martin's face. One of them is grandpa Bell.
“When will we be able to see grandpa again, dad?”
“Hillary, just play!” Juliette hisses. She looks at her as if they've had a conversation and come to an agreement that Hillary has forgotten about.
“You know, I'm not really sure, Hill. He is still pretty sick.”
“Does he still have trouble with his brain, trouble remembering things?”
Martin sees Juliette's mortified face and waves his hand.
“It's okay, Jules, it's okay. We can talk about it.”
“Are you sure?” Juliette asks. “We can talk about something else, something a little lighter, maybe?”
“You know, Hill, grandpa is still sick. He does have trouble remembering things.”
“Can't he get better?” Hillary asks.
Martin begins to respond but stops. He thought he was ready to talk about it with Hillary, but he was wrong. Grandpa can't get better. Martin knows this, and imagines his father stumbling around an empty room, screaming at people who aren't there, and dying alone and afraid.
“You don't really get better from what grandpa has,” Juliette says, jumping in. “He will probably always have trouble remembering things.”
“Always?” Hillary asks, stunned.
“What he has is a disease and doctors don't really have a cure for it yet.”
Hillary looks to Martin.
“Is that true, dad?”
Martin comes back to the conversation. He nods his head.
“It is, honey, it is. It is a sad... a very sad disease.”
“Why did he have to get such a sad disease?”
“Well that's one of the saddest things of all. They're not sure what causes it.”
“So... he can't... get better?”
Martin realizes he hasn't had to address these questions with Hillary, not in such a black and white sort of way. Juliette knows a lot more about Alzheimer's, having Googled the causes and symptoms and treatments herself. It is true, grandpa Bell will not get better. He will continue to deteriorate until he dies. It is a dark thought, a heavy, very final thought. Not the sorts of thoughts a 10-year-old should have too many of.
Juliette tries to be positive.
“Well, you never know. He could get better, he could suddenly be cured.”
Martin almost laughs out loud. He wasn't expecting that sort of optimism from Juliette. Not lately. When he looks at her, she is still looking at Hillary, and the sentiment seems to have been an honest, heartfelt one. It works, it helps ease Hillary's mind a little. For Hillary, as long as there is some amount of hope, even a faint, fractional sliver of hope, her cheery 10-year-old brain can rest easier. “Well, I hope he gets better and can come fishing with us.”
“He would be very impressed at your fishing skills,” Martin says.
They fold up their hands and stack the cards back into their original pile. Hillary scoops up the pile and stuffs it back into its box. Martin gets a bag with the items necessary for s'mores and the girls' smiles glisten in the fire light.
Martin's eyes are glistening, too.
The three ride home in relative quiet. The radio stays off, Hillary isn't singing because she is sleeping in the back, her head resting on Juliette's lap. Juliette is staring into the dark of the forest as it whips by her passenger window. Martin glances in the rear view mirror every few minutes. He feels like the day went well and that he made some real progress on getting her to stop treating him like he is the devil. But now, in the silence, he is second guessing the progress. She is staring, not frowning, but not smiling either. He knows if he asks her if she is okay, if something is wrong, that would be the worst possible thing he could say. She would definitely find that annoying, and annoyance leads to disgust, and at disgust he would be right back where the day started. He wonders if he said something or did something that made her mad. He plays the afternoon and evening back. Fishing seemed fun, the sandwiches at lunch and the fish at dinner were delicious. She even seemed to enjoy the silly card games they played. When Hillary started singing songs from the latest Disney movie, Juliette didn't roll her eyes or mock sing. She actually sang along. She sang well. Martin wasn't sure the last time he heard her sing.
When he looks into the rear view mirror again, a hand hits his forearm. He jumps and the truck swerves. Juliette bounces back and forth between the driver's seat and the front passenger seat.
“Whoa, dad, Jesus!” she says, stabilizing herself.
“Sorry, sorry,” he says, righting the truck back in the middle of the lane.
Juliette pulls herself over the center console and plops down in the passenger seat. She is laughing.
“Did I scare you?”
“What? No, no, of course not. I'm your dad, your big brave dad. Nothing scares me. I was just... testing the suspension. The tires felt a little splashy.”
Juliette laughs again, humming about scaring her dad.
“You did scare me,” Martin says, sitting up straighter. “You are my sixteen year old daughter, so yeah, you scare me. You scare me all the time.”
Juliette stops laughing and considers this idea.
“Good,” she says, finally.
“Pretty good day, right?”
“I know there are probably at least a million other things a sixteen year old girl would rather be doing than hanging out with her dad and little sister.”
Juliette looks back over her chair. Hillary is out, mouth open, snoring quietly.
“At least two million things,” she says, rolling her eyes.
“Thanks for choosing us.”
Juliette nods and smiles. Martin can tell she wants to ask him about something. She has more on her mind than fishing trips and family time.
“I'm really excited about the trip. I'm still kind of surprised you got all the money for it.” It is a harsh statement, and Juliette feels the harshness as she finishes the sentence. She tries to keep talking, to soften the harshness before Martin responds. “And... you even got it early.”
Martin lets her off the hook.
“Yeah, having a lot of money is definitely not my strong suit.”
“I'm sorry, that sounded horrible,” Juliette says. She starts to reach for Martin's arm but stops herself. The hands fold together and she presses them into her lap. “I didn't mean it like that.”
“It's okay, it's true. I'm working on it. I'm working really hard to get back on my feet. This is a tough time to be in construction.”
“Because of the economy?” Juliette asks.
“I know it's a lot of money and I... I just wanted you to know how grateful I am for it.”
Martin appreciates the sentiment, but he knows she didn't crawl into the front seat just for that.
“And...?” he starts.
She breathes in and out.
“I'm sorry, forget it. Thank you for the money, dad.”
“And...? It's okay, you can tell me. Do you need more?”
“I didn't want to tell you.”
“It's fine, I probably have the extra money. Don't worry about it.
Juliette stares at the hands folded in her lap.
“Juliette,” Martin says, low and slow. Juliette looks up at him. “How much?”
“I'm sorry, it's just that a few kids pulled out this week, last minute, like right at the very last minute, so the cost for each of us went up a little.”
“I'm so sorry, dad. I know you've already given me so much. I thought about asking mom instead, just not telling you the cost went up, but...”
“But I thought I should ask you first. I thought it would be weird if I didn't tell you and then you found out from mom or something and I didn't want you to feel bad but I also know you don't have a lot of...”
“Oh Jesus, Juliette, how much money?”
“Fifty dollars,” she says. She holds her breath.
Martin grabs his chest. He begins wheezing and coughing, swerving the truck back and forth in the lane. He yells out, about how he's done for, about how this is the end, everything is going black.
Juliette is not pleased.
“I feel bad,” she says.
“God help me it's so much money!”
“You're a terrible person.”
At that, Martin slumps in his chair and gurgles. He closes his eyes and sighs out a final death breath.
“Dad stop. Stop!”
Martin sits upright and straightens the wrinkles from his shirt. When he looks in the rear view, Hillary is still sound asleep.
“Man, what would it take to wake that girl up?” he asks. Juliette is back to staring out the passenger window, arms crossed.
“I'm sorry, I'm just messing around. You did the right thing, Jules. I'm glad you wanted to ask me first, that you were thinking about how I might feel if you didn't. That was very nice.”
“Yeah, well,” she says, furrowing her brow at him, “I'm a nice person and I do nice things sometimes.”
“We can stop by my apartment and grab it before I take you home.”
“No more, I promise,” she says.
“Hey, a measly fifty bucks for my future doctor? Sounds like a bargain. I'm just feeling dumb and weak. You are going to watch a surgery go down, with blood and bone and scalpels and everything. All that blood. I don't think I could handle that. How is it fair that you're smarter AND tougher than me?”
“Just lucky. Thank you, dad.”
Martin knows she would hug him if the center console weren't in the way. He can feel it, and it brings another broad smile to his face.
When they pull into the driveway at Martin's apartment, he jumps out of the truck and jogs to the door. As he is unlocking it, a figure appears reflected in the door-side window. It is Nate, massive hole still in his face. Martin turns, panicked. There is nothing there, no one behind him. Juliette watches, confused, from the truck. He shakes it off and runs inside.
Juliette squints her eyes trying to see what Martin would have seen to jump away from the door like that. She doesn't see anything. She settles back into her seat. She looks back to Hillary, still asleep.
Martin is back in a few seconds. He locks the door and bounds back out to the truck.
“What happened back there, did you see a spider or something?”
“The what? Oh, at the door when I... yeah, I thought I saw something in the reflection from the window. I thought something was behind me. It was nothing, just the old crazy brain messing with me again.”
He hands Juliette the fifty dollar bill. This time, the truck isn't moving, so she can sprawl across the console and give him a hug. She whispers in his ear.
“You're the best.”
When they get to Victoria's driveway, the front light clicks on and Victoria appears at the front door. Juliette grabs her bag and heads inside. Martin grabs a still-sleeping Hillary and throws her over his shoulder. He carries her up the front walk and hands her to Victoria.
“Looks like you guys had a good day,” Victoria says, hoisting Hillary over her own shoulder. If Hillary woke up during the exchange, it didn't last long. She nestles her face into Victoria's shoulder and is immediately asleep again.
“The best,” Martin says.
“See you next week, dad,” Juliette says. When she disappears into the house, Victoria looks at Martin and raises an eyebrow. Martin shrugs and can't hold back a satisfied smile.
“Thank you,” he says. He turns and heads back to the truck before Victoria can respond. When he gets to the truck he looks back. She waves to him from the front door. He waves back as they move inside. Not a bad end to the day.