Hank put the ER staff through the paces. The initial diagnosis seemed to be that Marion was simply drunk. They’d been directed down the path of least resistance by the medical community before, a path that would have led to certain death if not for Hank’s instinct that there was more to Marion’s illness. She’d been diagnosed with Stage IIIC intestinal cancer, prescribed a bunch of painkillers, and sent home to die. He knew it wasn’t cancer. It wasn’t wishful thinking; it was a fact. Marion had been out of her mind in pain, medicated speechless, and nearly dead when he discovered a fungal infection online that mirrored cancer symptoms. He’d done his own research and called doctors from Boston to Baltimore until he finally found a specialist who heard him and recommended a surgeon at Mayo Rochester who saved her. He’d been as sick as Marion, terrified that he would lose her. They were so close to parting that he couldn’t bear to contemplate the end of them.
He met her when she was just 18, the summer she’d graduated. He was pounding nails in the addition to her family’s bunkhouse camp on the lake. He was 20. She was a sweetheart bombshell, Audrey Hepburn’s face with Brigitte Bardot’s body. He watched her swimming in the lake and sunning on the float while he framed the addition. He volunteered to roof the place so he’d be able to get a better view of her red and white gingham print bikini; the polka dot one piece was no comparison. She worked nights at the White Pines restaurant on the other side of the lake. He spent a couple of Friday nights there and worked on the addition the following Saturday mornings. When she saw he was working alone, she brought him a cup of coffee and a blueberry muffin. “Thanks.” “You’re welcome. I made the muffins.” He looked at her over the rim of the coffee cup. “They’re good. You working tonight?” “Yes.” “I might stop by.” He climbed back up on his ladder to finish what he was doing.
He walked through the door at 11:30. His eyes traveled the room until he saw her. She saw him seeing her. She looked right at him and beamed, stood up straighter, and deliberately swished her skirt from side to side as she walked up to him. She’d had the guts to ask him if he was going to wait for her until closing time. He didn’t have any choice but to say yes. It was hot and humid in the Pines, hot and humid outside. She came out from the back after she counted her tips and cashed up. She handed him a six-pack of Ballantine and asked him if he wanted to go to her secret swimming place.
They followed a path through the woods. The air felt cooler and smelled of pine needles. The path ended on a small cove with ledges shaped like steps. They sat down on the edge of the steps and swung their feet in the bathwater warm lake. Marion looked directly at him. “Let’s stand in the lake, the ledge goes way out before it drops off. We’ll be cooler.” He was astonished, not shocked, disarmed. He’d never met a girl like her. “Alright but we don’t have suits.” “We’ll go in our underwear. I won’t look.” She was a little upstart. He was the one who wasn’t supposed to be looking. It occurred to him that maybe she’d been watching him, watching her, all summer long.
That night stayed with him, the iridescence of the water droplets on her skin in the moonlight, the line of demarcation from her bikini more perfect than a Coppertone ad. It was the first time they’d been skinny dipping and the last time he’d given serious consideration to nakedness with anyone other than her.