Margaret sits on a maroon and gold University of Minnesota beach towel that is spread smoothly over the grainy white sand. The lake is as clear as a mirror and there is an assortment of water worshipers enjoying the warm weather. The small Minnesota beach town of 6,000 swells in the summer to around 9,000 with sunbirds and college students on vacation. The window of summer in lake country is very short, and the visitors and natives take advantage of the little sun they are able to capture. A well-built man is paddle boarding with his faithful black lab braced for action at his feet. Off in the distance, a young couple bounces on a wave runner, gliding through the water, kicking up a spray of angel wings behind them. Closer to her blanket, three young children are running into the water, splashing and screaming, then running out of the water, only to repeat the process over and over again. Margaret rubs the back of the sleeping baby lying next to her on the blanket. She wonders if Gracie will love the sun and water as much as the squealing children on the beach do.
Thinking back over the first eight months of Gracie’s life, Margaret couldn’t help but smile. She did it. She escaped the dark crevasses occupying her mind and the three bad relationships with men she thought she loved. Margaret shutters at the memories. Nick was her first live in. He wanted her to cut and bleach her hair to satisfy his bizarre fantasies. The fighting and temper tantrums resulted in his fist nearly missing her cheekbone and thrusting through the apartment wall. Next there was Eric, whose dark outlook on life was a result of his grave upbringing by his psychotic mother. Margaret was attracted to his barbaric sense of humor and morbid view on everything from cemeteries to serial killers. When the put downs and insults weakened her self esteem to suicidal thoughts, she finally freed herself from his talons. Matt was the closest to becoming her ‘til-death-do-us-part partner, but he fled the scene when she suggested they move in together.
Margaret’s life changed when she adopted Gracie. A best friend from college told her about a pregnant teenager who wanted to give up her baby. Margaret had longed to have a child of her own, but since she had such terrible luck in choosing a compatible mate, she thought this would be a way for her to find the unconditional love she so desperately needed.
Gracie’s cries startle Margaret as she realizes she must have fallen asleep herself. Her head jerks up and she sees many of the sunbathers running in her direction. She looks in the direction they are running and sees the flames. The couple on the wave runner had slammed into the fuel pump on the marina and burst into a fiery ball. At first she couldn’t tell if the couple had escaped the inferno, but her gut told her the worst had happened. Screams, sirens, yelling, and chaos all compete as the smoke billows around the water. Margaret picks Gracie up and holds her close, grateful that nothing had happened to her. The children who, moments earlier, were playing tag at the water’s edge are now huddled together by their caretaker, an older woman with grey hair. The young man from the paddleboard hurries over to stand by Margaret, his black dog obedient by his side. They all feel helpless as the firemen work on extinguishing the fire. The paramedics finally arrive and strap the young couple to boards, their charred bodies unrecognizable. The sirens start again as the ambulance speeds down Main Street to the hospital.
It seems like hours while the flames are furiously trying to reach the clouds and engulf the other boats, but only minutes before the sunbathers suddenly realize how lucky they are. People cluster together, hugging their children, and gathering up their coolers and blankets to go home.
The man standing next to Margaret starts up a conversation. They recap the events that led up to the disaster and speculate how the young couple on the wave runner could have lost control.
Margaret still feels the uneasiness in her stomach even though she realizes how fortunate she and Gracie are. The wave runner could have come up on the beach and injured many people, including them. Her anxiety does not go away, so she gathers up her towels and baby bag, straps Gracie in her stroller, and hikes up the street to the hospital. She isn’t sure why she is there, but she has to ask the front desk about the couple who had just been admitted. Since the nurse can’t divulge any information, Margaret sits down in the lobby and waits.
An older couple comes running into the hospital, obviously distraught. Margaret immediately recognizes them as being the parents of Gracie’s mother. Her stomach feels as though it is going to explode. Margaret realizes from the faces of the parents at the front desk that the young couple is dead. Margaret picks up Gracie and walks slowly to face the middle-aged couple who are tightly wrapped in each other’s arms. She explains who she and Gracie are. The woman sobs even harder. Margaret holds the baby out to her. Gracie’s grandmother holds her for several minutes, studying her round face, stroking her soft hands, and inspecting the toes on her feet. Obviously pained, yet grateful, by this gesture, she hands Gracie back to Margaret.
Margaret leaves the hospital, clutching Gracie to her breast. The young man and his black dog are standing outside waiting for them. Margaret stares at his emerald jeweled eyes as he holds his hand out to her. For the first time in several years, Margaret does not feel the urge to run away, but takes his hand as they walk together away from the hospital.