Wearing a half-hearted smile, Mara looked out over the lake, trying to enjoy the beauty of the Minnesota morning. The laughter of a loon in the distance accompanied an earthy smelling breeze that rustled her golden blonde hair.
Mara's arm whipped, and the flat stone she held skipped out across the water, surpassing her earlier toss by several hops. Just around the bend of the shore, she heard her younger brother whoop, heralding the launch of the canoes on the morning fishing expedition.
The summer trip to the Boundary Waters had been a tradition for as long as she could remember. Her father had uncles and cousins aplenty in the area, and it was a time for catching up with the family, far away from the cares and responsibilities of home. Those very cares and responsibilities had kept them away for the last five years, and Mara was glad to be back.
Footsteps rustled through the leaves and undergrowth behind Mara, and she looked over her shoulder to see her mother approaching. Standing close together, it would be easy for one to mistake the pair for sisters, rather than mother and daughter - one of the more noticeable benefits from the dryad part of their heritage.
To most of the world, nymphs were mystical creatures of legend, created by superstitious peoples of the past to explain the unknown. Mara and her mother were living proof that the legends were true, though the family kept the secret close out of necessity. Now in the fourth generation springing from the love of an eternal dryad and a mortal man, they straddled two worlds, protecting the remaining pockets of nature from encroaching civilization.
It was that very secret that stung Mara's heart, keeping her from fully appreciating the return to this place of such happy memories from her childhood.
"Hey," Kia greeted her daughter.
Mara responded, "Hey, Mom," as she turned back to the lake. "I thought you were going out with everyone else."
"I was, but I decided that I'd rather get some sun instead. Care to join me?"
Mara fought down the sigh that tried to escape her. She knew that sunbathing was far down on the list of what her mother actually had in mind. There was little hope of avoiding this conversation for much longer. She'd already dodged it for more than two months, and so she resigned herself to getting it out of the way.
Kia gestured for her daughter to follow, and started back to the camp. Once there, she turned onto what was little more than an animal trail leading uphill toward a golden glow at the top.
The sunbathed hilltop, covered in soft grasses and moss, was the reason that the family chose this campsite on every trip. Firs and shrubs concealed it from view at lake level, providing complete privacy - barring a passing ranger float plane.
Mara couldn't resist looking up to feel the sun on her face. By the time she looked back down, her mother had already tossed aside her shorts. Mother and daughter undressed with a complete lack of shame or discomfort. Xantina, the ultimate dryad mother of the family, had a strong prejudice against clothing, and everyone indulged that whim. Nudity was as natural as breathing to those who spent their time around Xantina's pool.
Kia sat down and leaned back on her hands, lifting her firm breasts to the warmth of the sun. A contented sigh passed her lips as Mara sat down as well.
The elder woman wasted no time in broaching the subject that had brought them both to the hilltop. "So, how are you doing?"
Mara shrugged and frowned.
"You know that you can talk to me about anything. It might make you feel better."
"I know." Mara sighed as she watched a ragged V of geese pass overhead. "I just really don't want to think about it any more."
Kia scooted a little closer and covered her daughter's hand with hers. "Well, you obviously are. You haven't been yourself since you broke up."
"We didn't break up. He dumped me."
"What happened, anyway? You were so upset that night that I couldn't really understand."
"He thought I was cheating on him."
Kia scoffed. "What on earth would make him think that?"
"This bitch at school..."
"Well, she is. Anyway, she started a rumor that I was sleeping with Johnny Forsythe. Alan already knew that I was keeping secrets from him, so he believed all the stories going around."
"Oh, Xanmara," Kia said, using her daughter's real name, only known amongst family. "You blame yourself, don't you?"
"No. Well, sort of. I don't know. How am I supposed to be with anyone when I have to lie about who I am?"
"You aren't," Kia adamantly responded, knowing all too well how difficult it was to keep the secret of her dryad parentage. "You may not be able to tell everyone certain things about us, but I've never known you to pretend to be someone you're not."
"It's the same thing," Mara disagreed, and rolled over onto her side, facing away from her mother.
"It isn't, and deep down, you know it. If he didn't trust you, then he wasn't the one. Did he even ask you if the rumors were true?"
Mara tensed, the painful memory of him calling her a slut and demanding his class ring back making her eyes fill with tears. "No," she answered in a small voice.
"How could anyone who loves you do that? Believe you would do something so awful? Judge you that way?"
"I don't know," Mara murmured, her voice cracking with sobs trying to emerge.
"Neither do I." Kia stroked her daughter's hair. "It isn't your fault, sweetheart. He's the one that gave up what you had for a lie."
Mara finally broke, the wall she'd erected after crying herself to sleep that night crumbling. "I loved him so much."
"I know, and he obviously didn't deserve it."
Kia sniffled, her eyes misting up as well. "I'm going to let that one go, because I agree with you. Come here."
Need of the love and protection of her mother's arms welled up in Mara. She sat up, leaned into the embrace, and let her tears flow.
Though she'd resisted it with all her might, Mara felt a great deal better after a long cry in her mother's arms, followed by actually taking advantage of the hilltop to soak up the sun for an hour.
Since the plan was to take a swim after giving their early lunch a little time to settle, both women wore their bikinis beneath shorts and t-shirts. Even in the shade of the rustling trees, the air was hot and humid. With each passing minute, the thought of the cool water grew more inviting.
"Ho the camp!"
Mara's brow furrowed when she heard the call from the lake, as the voice seemed familiar. She and her mother shared a glance before rising from where they sat in front of the tent, to see a canoe down on the lake.
Kia waved as she walked toward the shore and called out, "Paul!"
Upon hearing the name, recognition fully dawned on Mara. Paul could almost be called a resident, and acted as an unofficial deputy to the park rangers during his frequent sojourns. His bushy black beard and wooden canoe served to make him look like a fur trapper of old, though his smile was anything but the sort of gruff expression one would expect from such a character.
"Kia? Good to see you back. You haven't changed a bit. Is that Mara?"
"All grown up," Kia answered as she reached the edge of the water, careful of her footing on the uneven stone.
"That she is. Dara's going to be heartbroken when she finds out she missed you, Mara. You two were always as thick as thieves." He drew himself up, his face filling with pride. "She's in medical school - top of her class."
Mara smiled, knowing that the older girl had always dreamed of being a doctor. "Tell her I'm sorry I missed her too."
"What about Wade?" Her mother asked.
Paul hiked a thumb behind him, even as the tip of a canoe pulled into view from around the bend where Mara had stood earlier in the morning.
"Hey! Look who it is," Wade called out as he paddled up to join his father.
Mara's eyes widened when she saw him. Though he had proved a nuisance sometimes, Wade was just as much a friend to her as his sister. When she'd last seen him, he was all skinned knees and elbows.
He was anything but, now.
"All grown up," Kia whispered, leaning over to bump into her daughter.
Mara's face burned when she realized she was staring at him, muscles bulging beneath his t-shirt as he propelled the canoe with powerful strokes. His pale blond hair stood up in spikes, looking artfully mussed as it always had, a sharp contrast to his father. She waved and smiled to cover her embarrassment, calling out her old nickname for him. "Hey, Fishbait!"
"I hardly ever fall out of a boat any more, thank you," he said as he sat down his paddle and drifted up next to his father's canoe. "There's a camp set up at forty-two, but nobody's there."
"Probably kin of yours?" Paul asked, his smile fading.
Kia nodded. "They're off fishing. Something wrong?"
"Happen to see a couple of blond boys in a red fiberglass? They were supposed to be back to the portage this morning, and they haven't showed."
"No, but I'll call Steve and the others. Mara, can you go get the radio?"
"Yeah, Mom," Mara answered, glad to have the chance to recover from her shock at the change in her old friend. When she returned, Wade and his father had paddled up to shore.
Kia pressed the button on the two-way radio. "Steve?"
"Yeah, honey," his voice answered.
"Paul and Wade are here. Have you seen two boys in a red fiberglass canoe?"
.... There is more of this story ...