Soft clouds streaked across an almost clear blue sky late one summer morning. Abby slung a shallow woven basket over one shoulder and tucked it behind her elbow, smudging her white sleeve with dirt. She reached for her watering can and tipped the spout into her broad tomato pots. She searched their colors, seeing many that were sage green and tinged with orange and some that were ripening into a rich crimson. She blew a strand of hair that somehow found its way between her lips, a tear trickling down her cheek. Something about this day reminded her very much of her mother.
After all the vegetables were watered, Abby picked one red tomato after another and set it into her basket. She discovered about five before kneeling down on a sunflower pad to keep her knees clean. A knife she had stashed with her watering can was used to saw away at the stems of her bulbous acorn squash, which she promptly placed into the basket.
Soon, the noontime sun beat down on her little garden. She pushed to her feet and wiped her dirty hands on her red jumper, gathered her basket and tools, and made her way through the back door of her home. Teddy met her at the door with a lively smile and led her to the kitchen at a trot, where creaking pipes could be heard.
"Well, I had assumed you would wear your work clothes outside instead," Gavin remarked as his disheveled daughter appeared in the doorway. She glanced down at herself and shrugged a little.
"This is my favorite dress."
"That's exactly why I hoped you would wear something else," he said as he waved her closer to the sink. When his children moved into the house, he constructed a small wooden step to help them reach the sink. Abby used it now, and set her basket aside on the counter.
"Where's Ethan?" Abby asked.
"Outside with the chickens. He should be back by dinner."
"You mean lunch?"
"Yes." Gavin reached for a tomato and began rinsing the dirt away. Abby studied exactly what he did before she reached for one herself and did likewise. Together, they washed all five tomatoes and set them aside on a paper towel. Then Gavin reached for a knife in the drawer beside him and looked at Abby. "I want you to watch exactly how I cut this tomato before you try it yourself."
"I will," she promised with an eager nod. Smiling, he pressed the very tips of his fingers against the tomato before slicing it into thin pieces. From the corner of his eye, he periodically checked to make sure Abby was paying attention. Once, she caught his eye and smiled back.
"There," he set the slices aside when he finished. "Do you think you saw that well enough to try it yourself without cutting your fingers?"
"Yes," she gave a definite nod.
"All right," Gavin suppressed another smile and passed the tomato and knife to her. With slow, deliberate movements, she pressed the knife down into the tomato, producing slices of a variety of densities. After she completed one, she reached for another and began her work on that one. Soon, she was on the last portion of her tomato. She poked her tongue out of her mouth with concentration as the knife inched nearer and nearer to her fingers.
"Abby!" Ethan came thundered down the hall and exploded into the kitchen. Abby shrieked, the knife clattering to the counter, and pressed her finger to her lips. "Abby, are you okay, sis?"
She whimpered and shook her head. Gavin gently pulled her finger from her mouth and examined the blood beginning to leak from a shallow cut. "Ethan, get a bandage and an antiseptic from the closet! Abby, you did nothing wrong, sweetheart. The cut doesn't look so bad. We'll try this again another day."
Ethan had scrambled away the moment his father spoke and soon returned with the bandage, the antiseptic, and an expression saturated in remorse. "I'm sorry, Abby. I didn't mean to scare you and make you cut yourself."
She sniffled. "It's okay."
"Now Ethan," Gavin said as he began plastered the bandage around her finger. "What was it that you rushed in here for?"
"Because there are a ton of chicks out there! A bunch of them all hatched at once."
"Good. Did you get the heat lamp on them like I asked you to?"
"Yes," Ethan answered curtly. "I got them all in that feeder and turned the heat lamp on."
"Thank you. Go take Abby out to see them while I finish these sandwiches. I'll go see how they are after we eat."
Abby smiled and scampered across the kitchen to join her brother at the doorway before they scurried out to the hen area. Gavin smiled and shook his head, shuffling around a drawer for his bread knife. By the time he slathered mayonnaise on the chicken and tomato sandwiches, hoping the kids would not notice the irony, they had returned with bright smiles.
"There are five!" Abby announced.
"And a couple more hatched while we were out there!" Ethan added.
"Well, it will be your duty to name them when they're old enough for us to tell the gender," Gavin said as he set their plates at the table. "Until then, thank your uncle Liam for the chicks he gave us that grew into these hens."
The three pulled back their chairs and sat, bowing their heads to say grace. Sometimes Ethan and Abby would pull one eye open and make silly expressions at each other, and though they were tempted, they made sure to focus this time.
"Dear Father in Heaven," Gavin prayed, "Thank you for the daily bread You have provided us. We thank you for each of these new chicks and ask that they grow to their full potential. And please bless this meal we have together. In the name of Jesus we pray—"
And each chomped into their sandwich. With a sigh, Teddy rested her chin on Abby's lap until a small shred of crust was sneaked before her lips. Gavin glanced beneath the table and smiled secretly.
"Dad, I need to talk to you," Ethan said.
"All right," Gavin wiped a napkin across his lips.
"Why are you and Mom apart?"
Abby stopped chewing and looked at her father, who sighed and set his sandwich down. "You should ask your mother. She would be the better one to discuss this with."
"Why? You are my dad."
Gavin released a sigh, pressed his lips to his folded hands. Ethan stared at him with a sort of desperate curiosity sparked in his eyes. Soon, they narrowed into a glare. Teddy glanced between the two with drooping ears.
"I'm nine, Dad! And no one ever told us why you were here instead of with us!"
"Ethan," Gavin said softly, "Please to not press me to explain this today."
"Why were you never around?" Ethan cried out, standing abruptly. "Did you leave my Mom?"
"She left me!" Gavin snapped. He snatched his sandwich and stormed through the door as Teddy barked after him. A very still silence lingered around the table. Abby set her sandwich down and shifted her eyes to her brother.
"You shouldn't have asked him that."
"You wanted to know, too!"
Ethan rose and stormed through the door, leaving Abby to kneel down and bury her face in Teddy's fur with tears streaming down her cheeks. The Golden Retriever swept away as many tears as she could manage with her pink tongue, leaving the girl to wipe away the rest.
A lark sang with jubilee on the property line fence outside and paused to listen to his mate sing along in a nearby fruit tree. Gavin sat with his knees drawn up and his back pressed against the fence post where he waited for the Miller children to come out and play as a child. He closed his eyes, enjoying the soft breeze against his face and the solitariness of living on a rural farm. The sound of a honeybee in his ear attracted his eyes to the clover where it led them. Something similar to regret stirred within his stomach. He spent so much of his time working to develop this section of farmland, but stunted the growth of his spiritual and family life. After some time, a shadow cast across the grass ahead.
"Dia dhuit," said a soft voice above him.
"Lauren," Gavin pushed to his feet and brushed his hands against his jeans. They stood together with an awkward silence a moment before Gavin met her eyes. "It's a lovely afternoon today."
Lauren shook her head and smiled. "Yes. Conas atá tú?"
He raised his shoulders in a slight shrug. "Níl mé go maith."
"Tá tú slaghdán orm?" she asked with a concerned crease in her brow. Her expression of sympathy was an often missed trait, especially when the sun danced on her golden hair. Gavin smiled briefly and shook his head, although his stomach churned as though he were indeed sick.
"Tá brón orm. For whatever it is."
"Go raibh maith agat. I really appreciate your friendship after all that's happened. Perhaps another time you should join me for tea."
"I'd like that," Lauren smiled. She leaned toward him slightly, and he received her with a kiss. A smile spread across his lips and a hunger arose within his heart. She kissed him a second time, and the hunger grew. When she released him, she added, "Let me know the date."
"With pleasure. I should go back inside."
Gavin gave her hand a squeeze and turned to see Abby with tears streaming down her cheeks. His heart pulsed in his ears as she stared at him with clenched fists. With a shriek, she brushed past Ethan as he drew near and sprinted toward and through the house.
"Abby!" he called. Ethan scowled at him and chased after his sister, who slammed their bedroom door shut in his face the moment she reached it.
"C'mon, Abbs," Ethan pounded his fist against the door. "Please let me in!"
Silence. Ethan rattled the doorknob again with his hand and beat the door again. Without a reply, he ran back through the back door and around to their open window. He perched himself on his toes and peered through, seeing only their two beds and a mess on their wood floors.
"Is she inside?" Gavin asked as he trotted nearer. Ethan ran his hands through his hair, slammed them on the window sill, and spun around with a glare.
"That," he pointed through the window. "Is because of you!"
Gavin rushed to the window and sighed. "We have to go look for her starting now."
"I will go look for her. She doesn't want to see you."
"You do not give me orders," Gavin admonished sternly. "We will both look. Go."
"I hate you." Ethan spat on the ground beside him and jogged around the back of the house. Gavin pressed his forehead against the house and began murmuring to the Lord.
"Lord, show me where she is. Please help them both to forgive me."
He closed his eyes and strained to listen with his heart and his ears. Something made him want to search around the Miller pond, so he returned to the fence line and trudged through the grass where the butterflies flittered curiously about with their soft white wings.
"I suppose there are several people I need to seek forgiveness from," he murmured to himself as he peered over the golden pond reeds to the Miller house. As he released a miserable sigh, and seated himself upon a smooth rock, he could swear he heard a small sneeze.
"God bless you," he smiled.
"Go away," Abby sniffled from somewhere in the reeds behind him. After pushing to his feet, he combed and crunched his way through the long grass until he discovered the young girl curled up with her chin on her knees amidst the cattails. She released a furious shriek as he knelt before her with open arms, striking her fists against his chest.
"No! I'm not going back inside that house!"
"But you're not staying here. Stand up."
"No!" Abby screamed, dissolving against him with a wail. She sobbed streams of tears into his shoulder before leaping to her feet and racing to the house as swiftly as she could. Ethan caught sight of her from the barn area and chased after her once again, slamming the door behind them.
Afternoon tea was a solitary event. Gavin sipped the strong drink in silence, the small house completely still. A trace of his children's voices reached his ears every now and then, but was always followed by that same thick veil of silence.
By evening, Gavin knocked lightly upon their door. Ethan threw it open and stormed outside with Abby close behind to accomplish their regular chores with scowls and without words. Teddy wandered out after them, glancing up at Gavin with sad brown eyes and drooping ears. Sometime later, he lifted the phone from its cradle and dialed with the hope of hearing forgiveness in Lauren's soft voice once again.
"Lauren, please do not be angry with me."
"I saw that girl! She had your general appearance. Why did you never tell me you had children?"
"Because I had no idea until recently. They are from me marriage. They had just come to live with me last year."
"Well, this is all just as well," she growled bitterly. "That kiss should never have happened. Be sure to read your next girl all the fine print before you have a relationship."
Then the sound of a monotone dial tone.
The sky darkened with a veil of mist cast across the hills as night swept in like a thief. The horses allowed their eyes to close as they stood in a silent doze, the chickens settled into their roosts, and the sheep lay curled beside one another and chewed their cud. The children had returned with rigid scowls and disappeared into their shared room.
Gavin poured tea into two china cups with painted sunflowers on the kitchen counter. One was sweetened with creamy milk and honey while the other was left black. He lifted them gently and crept to the children's door, knocking with one knuckle. After a pause, the door drew open and Abby scampered back to her bed. Gavin set the teas on small table beside Ethan, who glared at him with crossed arms.
"Abby, come join Ethan so I can speak to you both."
Abby leapt onto her brother's bed and slumped beside him with her head on his shoulder and crossed her arms. "You should never have kissed that woman."
"That was wrong," Ethan added.
"You're right. I should never have kissed Miss O'Driscoll."
"So why did you?"
"Well," Gavin released a reluctant sigh as he reached for the phone he had stashed in his shirt pocket, "I suppose I have been rather lonely since your mother left to go back home. I spoke with her this afternoon, and she wants to talk with you."
"But it's nine," Ethan protested.
"It's only one in California," Gavin reminded him as he placed a phone between them. "And I will let you stay awake late this time alone. When you're done speaking with her, let me know."
Abby and Ethan watched him leave the room and close the door softly behind him. After a moment of hesitation, he tipped his head against the wood and listened to the small voices in the room beyond. All of his manners said this was wrong, but something inside him couldn't bring him to tear himself away. He heard the children's inquiry and the sudden flood of tears that ensued ripped through him.
"But why?" Abby asked with incredulity.
"I loved your father dearly," Poppy promised. "But I married him so quickly, and I realized I wasn't prepared to leave my home here. I should not have leapt into that relationship so quickly. Marriage is based on a lot more than love. Please do not blame him for what I did."
"Why don't you come back, then?" Ethan implored her.
"I can't," Poppy said. "We have reestablished our separate lives."
"But we love you both," Ethan said. Poppy cleared her throat quickly and sucked in a deep breath.
"And we love you both. I know you will have a lot to ask, and your father and I will do our best to answer."
Gavin pressed his back against the wall beside the door and stared at the floorboards between his shoes. After some minutes, Abby drew the door open and ushered Gavin inside. "We have to discuss this together. We want to know if you still love our mom."
"That's not relevant now," Gavin answered as he stepped inside. "She lives in America."
"So you're not going to answer that?" Ethan asked with a suspicious eye.
"Not tonight. Perhaps another day."
Ethan and Abby exchanged glances and shrugs. Then Abby ushered him back through the door. "We need to discuss this in private now. Please excuse us."
The door shut, leaving Gavin alone to stare at it. After fifteen minutes, he cracked the door open and peered through with one blue eye. Abby, with cheeks rosy, slept soundly beside her brother, whose arm reached protectively around her shoulders. He sneaked into the room and seated himself on the old wooden chair at the opposite side of the bed. Very softly, he stroked the silken golden waves so similar to his own. She stirred and opened one eye for only a moment before drifting into sleep again. He cleared his voice and began to sing in a low, soft tone.
"Lilies pure white where sunlight spills
The sun stoops behind emerald hills
The fresh aroma is from the rain
That replenished the parched land again…"
And Ethan, expression pinched with such skepticism, moaned and began to settle into his slumber. Gavin so longed to reach out and touch him, but feared the contact would aggravate him. The Superman emblem on his shirt made his father smile.
"… The black velvet sky darkens into night
And the shimmering stars are a lovely sight
The children of Éire sleep and dream
Of rich hot cocoa and Irish cream…"
Gavin glanced around the room. Abby had made a tiara of daisies and yellow pansies tinged with maroon edges, which she laid on her own bedside stand. She had also discovered a couple of smooth stones by the creek, which she presented to Ethan and now lay on his own table with a Switchfoot CD.
"… But soon breaks the early dawn
Shines the wildflowers on the lawn
Softly drips the morning dew
As the sun arises a day anew."
Gavin then rose, unwrapped a floral quilt at the foot of the bed and folded it over the twins, kissed each of their foreheads. He stole toward the door as silently as he could manage, switched out the light, and let the room be consumed in darkness.