A. Elizabeth Herting is an aspiring freelance writer and busy mother of three living in colorful Colorado. She has had short stories featured in Bewildering Stories, Cafe Aphra, Clumsy Quips, Dark Fire Fiction, Edify Fiction, Everyday Fiction, Fictive Dream, 50-Word Stories, Friday Fiction, Literally Stories, New Realm, Peacock Journal, Pilcrow&Dagger, Quail Bell Magazine, Scrutiny Journal, Speculative 66, Storyteller, The Flash Fiction Press and Under the Bed. She has also published non-fiction work in Denver Pieces Magazine, bioStories, and completed a novel called “Wet Birds Don’t Fly at Night” that she is hoping to find a home for. For more of her work/contact her at sites.google.com/site/aehertingwriter or www.facebook.com/AElizabethHerting
GIRL AT MIRROR
She watched the canoe slicing through the water, the late afternoon sun lighting up the scene like a Norman Rockwell painting. Joannie had just seen her mother’s old “Saturday Evening Post” lying on the cabin porch, rushing by it at a dead run on her way to the lake. Rockwell’s distinctive imagery imprinted itself onto her imagination as she cannonballed deep into the cool water. The cover pictured a girl gazing at her image in a mirror, a girl who looked to be just about Joannie’s age that summer. “Girl at Mirror” was featured in the March 6, 1954 issue of the Post. It was well over a year old now, but still about as current as her mother Vi would ever get. Magazines were considered a luxury to be savored in their household, read and re-read until they literally fell apart. Her mother never threw a single thing away and for once, Joannie was grateful.
She made a note to go back later and find the magazine, completely intrigued by the girl in the picture. The girl’s eyes were cautious, questioning as she compared her face to that of the glamorous Jane Russell in a upturned movie magazine perched on her lap. Just what did the girl see as she examined her own reflection? Joannie knew what she saw in her own mirror--an awkward, overweight ten-year-old tomboy with nails bitten down to the quick. She wasn’t at all the dreamy, tempestuous creature her eighteen-year-old sister Marilyn had morphed into, kissing her posters of Bobby Darin and Johnny Ray in their shared room, twice every day. Makeup and boys and bobby socks held no sway over Joannie. Certainly not in Waupaca, Wisconsin when the lake was only mere steps away, the long summer days stretching out before her in an endless, glorious line.
She waded out past the shore, waiting for her father to paddle in. He had stalled in the middle of the lake and she could see him lying across the seat, his tanned legs trailing in the water as the waves gently rocked the drifting canoe. The smoke from his cigarette lazily wafted by on the afternoon breeze. Lucky Strikes, she smiled to herself, the only kind he ever smoked.
Joannie decided to swim out to him. He’d always told her that she was born part fish and she was determined to prove him right. Ed was her hero. He could swim a whole mile without stopping, she had seen him do it many times. Joannie wanted to do that too, would do anything to make him proud of her.
She bent down in the shallow water, preparing the perfect launch to propel her on her way when she was rudely tackled from behind. Her brother Eddie had gotten the drop on her. Joannie had been distracted, hadn’t heard him in time. She wouldn’t let him get away with it--this was war! They went down in a soggy heap rolling around in the muddy water, wrestling and laughing as Joannie broke away, using his chest as a springboard and giving him a final splash in the face as a farewell. She had won this particular battle, but she knew that the war was far from over.
“I’ll get you Joannie Macaroni! You just wait and see!” Eddie yelled out after her. Joannie knew that she would have to keep a close watch out later in the day. Eddie was not shy about leaving the occasional frog in her bed or using the new bra that Mom had just given her as a makeshift slingshot. She knew that revenge was coming, just not from which direction.
Her father pretended to be asleep, acting genuinely surprised to see her as she swam up to the canoe. He scooped her up and placed her in the seat in front of him, allowing Joannie to paddle as he guided her arms and they slowly headed back into shore. She treasured their summers on the lake together. Ed sometimes had to work three jobs to support them and most of the time, she barely ever saw him. She adored her handsome father with his thick head of dark salt and pepper hair and bright hazel eyes. He was “Black Irish” he would say with pride and Joannie always knew that he had a soft spot for her. She was the spitting image of his favorite sister Mabel, everyone always said so. Mabel died in childbirth a few years back leaving her father heartbroken. Joannie was glad that he was so delighted at the resemblance, certainly, no one else was awed by her appearance. Her father always told her not to mind, that someday she would grow into her beauty, just like the duckling and the swan.
The sun began its descent when they reached the shore and beached the canoe. Her father put his arm around her as they turned to watch the sunset, the smell of her mother’s roast reaching them from the cabin. Her father chuckled lightly, Vi was notorious for cooking meat until it was black as coal. “Well done, but juicy” she called it. She well knew that her mother’s practice of charring food was forged during the Great Depression when they had to cook things to death just to make them safe to eat. Joannie made a silent vow that someday, just as soon as she was able, she would order a huge steak. Rare. In a restaurant. Maybe the Girl at Mirror would join her and they could talk about important things like horrid big brothers and moody teenaged sisters. Movie stars, boys, Bobby Darin and what great mysteries would be solved when they finally, magically grew up.
In the meantime, Joannie was simply content to hold her father’s hand as they gathered up the courage to face Vi’s pot roast together. Marilyn was staying in tonight, Ed had caught her kissing a boy behind the concert hall just last evening. He had snuck around the perimeter of the lake from their cabin to the hall and come up behind them. Boy, was she ever surprised!
Joannie would never admit it, but she was happy that her sister had been caught. That meant that the whole family would be together tonight, maybe even have time for a game or two of cards after dinner. The one thing her mother would never pass up was gambling--it was a family tradition. Joannie would definitely be sure to check her chair before sitting down. Eddie was still on the warpath and an ill-placed pinecone was a real possibility.
The music from the concert hall drifted in through the open window as they sat around the table, talking and laughing. Ed swept Vi up as she was clearing the dishes and danced her around the cabin’s tiny living room. Joannie decided that she didn’t need Girl at Mirror to talk to after all. Everyone she cared about was right here, in a little vacation cabin on a lake in Waupaca, Wisconsin. On a night like this, Joannie could almost even tolerate her brother. Almost.
An unspoken truce seemed to be in effect as the three of them watched their parents dancing in perfect synchronicity, the years melting away as they twirled around and around in joyful abandon. The mysteries of growing up would just have to wait. Joannie was not ready to step through the looking glass, not quite yet. She was certain that Girl at Mirror would understand.
Her sister tossed and turned restlessly in the bed. The hospice nurse had told her that it could be any time now, but she had held on for the better part of a week. So much longer than they had expected. She was only sixty-nine, eight years younger than herself. It was brutally unfair that this should happen to her baby sister. Marilyn always said that she had been there on the day Joannie was born and now it would seem, she would also be there on her very last day. She laughed as she remembered that their brother Eddie’s reaction upon hearing the new baby was a girl had been, “Oh no! Not another one!”
Marilyn held her hand softly and told the well-loved story again, attempting to soothe Joannie’s pain as she prepared to take her leave of the world. Her sister had been a great beauty with an adventurous spirit, had laughed and loved and lived life to the fullest. Joannie had been widowed for several years, so Marilyn and her sister’s only child had been keeping vigil around the clock as her condition worsened. In the quiet moments, as Joannie’s daughter left the room, it was just Marilyn at her side. It seemed fitting that the two sisters should be together in these final moments.
As she continued to talk about their childhood together, Marilyn could feel her sister relax, a sense of calm filling the darkened room. She had just finished reminiscing about summers on the lake long ago when her sister quietly slipped away, Joannie finally joining the Girl at Mirror in a heavenly, peaceful reflection.
Rockwell couldn’t have painted it any better.