A rare sweltering May afternoon ceased the progression of a peach harvest. As Gavin stepped gingerly down a ladder against the tree, rustling the leaves, his daughter approached with a glass of fresh peach juice. Despite the tee shirt and jean shorts, the damp hair stuck to her rosy cheeks showed that she was wilting in the sun.
"Please don't make me sweep out the house anymore," she pleaded as he accepted the glass with a thanks. "It's really hot today, like how it gets back home."
"I agree," he answered after he drained his glass. He scanned the scenery and noticed the horses standing with the sheen of sweat. Even the chickens settled in whatever shadows they could find with parted beaks. "Get your brother and bring him inside."
"I will," Abby promised and reached for his glass to bring it back to the kitchen.
The clear sky remained so past noon. Gavin placed a large glass container in the kitchen sink and twisted the faucet handles. When water began to flow over the rim, he twisted the handles back and settled several tea bags into the container before screwing a lid onto it.
"What is that?" Abby asked as she and Ethan opened the kitchen door and came inside. "Looks like the sun tea Mom used to make in the summer."
"That's what it is. Come with me," Gavin answered, smiling when their expressions ignited with recognition. He drew the container out of the sink and made his way outside to set it on the ground outside the front door. He snatched the three fishing poles leaning against the cottage and a tackle box and waited for his children to chase after him.
"What are we doing?" Ethan asked as he managed to catch up. "We going fishing?"
"So long as you want to relax and escape the heat," Gavin said and handed him a pole.
"Grampa goes fishing all the time," Ethan said pensively. The line between Gavin and the Miller family was marked by a wire fence on the south-east side of the property, aside from a break where the pond edge protruded through. There was a narrow strip of land between the water and the fence that allowed someone to sneak through and fish or swim beneath the glade of trees as opposed to the direct sunlight on the McCallister side.
"Me brothers and I used to escape back here in the summertime," Gavin recalled with a smile on his lips. "The Millers become accustomed to us being on their property several hours at a time."
A lark sang his song at an ash tree beside the Miller Pond. The surface remained still and reflective, aside from the dragonflies that occasionally skipped along to get a drink. Gavin pushed aside the reeds and trudged to the edge of the water.
"Let me show you how to bait a hook," he said as he reached into his tackle box for a small jar of worms. Abby cringed when she passed him her pole and watched him press the end through the body.
He chuckled and gave the pole back. "Perhaps, but that's the way to catch fish for supper."
Ethan glanced around as he gave his father the pole he carried. "May I explore before I start fishing?"
"Only if you keep to this side of the fence."
Ethan traipsed through the whispering cattails around the edge of the pond and glanced from side to side. Wild periwinkles scattered themselves amidst the grasses as though they were hidden gems. Sheep called to one another in the distant pasture, and a rooster released a crow.
Laughter. Ethan peered back over his shoulder to see Abby watch Gavin casting his line before positioning herself to do likewise. She placed her finger over the line and swung the pole forward, allowing the line to sail forward and drop to the pond with a plop. Gavin praised her and there they stood, visiting with hushed voices. He couldn't decipher the words they spoke, but their smiles said more than he could ever eavesdrop.
A small copper butterfly settled in a buttercup beneath him. The chattering wrens exploded through the leaves and the butterfly started beating her wings when Ethan rattled a nearby ash tree by hand.
He wrapped his hand around the spindly branch, planted his shoe in the trunk division, and hauled himself into the tree. Leaves rustled and fluttered around him as he reached his shoe toward a slightly higher branch and pulled himself onto it. After several branches, he gazed over the shining pond and watched a loon and her young coast along the shore. He shifted his eyes to the right and discovered his sister casting her line. "Dad! Abby!"
They glanced around with surprise. Gavin lay down his pole and called "Where are you?"
"Look up!" Ethan shouted. He grinned and waved as their eyes settled on him. "Got a great view!"
Abby smiled and turned to ask her father a question. Gavin answered with a shake of his head, then rolled his eyes and reached for his pole. "Come down from there. You've startled the fish and that branch you're standing on is too slender to hold you. I'm amazed it has not dropped you yet."
"Naw, it's fine, Dad." Ethan gently bounced his weight on the branch, causing it to sway. "See?"
Gavin lay his pole back down on the dirt and trotted to the base of the tree. Then he stared up at his son and strained to recall anything he could say or threaten to do that would bring him to the ground again. Without a single idea, he cleared away the desperation in his voice and managed, "You're going to get hurt if you do not come down immediately."
"Maybe you should," Abby called to him with the pole still in her hands.
"Remember what Mom said at the airport, Abbs?" he smiled down at her. "She said that Dad is always more careful. And she was right. But she lets me climb trees at home."
"But none of them are that big."
"Please," Gavin repeated. "Come down."
Ethan studied Abby a second and said, "All right. I will come down, but I won't let this be the last time I climb one of these trees."
He clamped a hand on the branch above him and reached his shoe down to the one below. Carefully, he settled his weight into his show. Then he wrapped his arms around the main trunk and began to reach down again. This was not the sort of tree he used to climb at home, and the density of the middle made him leery. But he discovered the next branch nonetheless and sensed the sole of his shoe brushing across it. He released the trunk enough to slip down some, scraping his cheek against the bark a little, and planted the ball of his shoe onto the branch.
"Be slow and steady," Gavin reminded him. Ethan reached his leg out, attempting to gain better footing on the branch, but it proved useless. "Do you need any help?"
"I got this," he answered. He pressed as much of his shoe as he could against the branch, reached one hand to the branch beside him, and allowed himself to slip down. All his weight dropped to his heel, and the shoe slipped away. The surprise pulled his other hand from the branch and he sensed the tree suddenly rushing past him until he hit the earth hard.
"Ethan!" Abby screamed as she dropped the pole and ran closer. His arm ached beneath him with a shot of sharp pain. He gasped for breath and began to push himself up with his healthy arm until Gavin stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.
"Do not move anything," he said briskly. Abby dropped to her knees beside them with a trembling lower lip and tears streaked down her cheeks. She searched his eyes with her breath shuddering through her chest much like his own.
"Are you hurt?"
He nodded and produced his left arm, which he had curled against himself. "Yeah, I'm pretty sure I broke it again."
Gavin touched it ever so gently and chewed his lip. "I agree; it seems broken. Abby, go to the house and bring me something to cushion his arm."
Abby rose and scampered away, heart pounding in her ears as she ran with unsteady muscles. She made herself focus on the house the moment it was within sight and allowed her legs to reach it as soon as they could manage. She threw open the back door and slammed it behind her, attracting a perked Teddy from the kitchen.
"Teddy, what should I grab?" she cried in the vertical hall and stopped long enough to inhale a jerky breath. She then darted to the linen closet door and opened it to snatch a white towel, with a second for good measure, and rushed back through the door, leaving Teddy to stare perplexedly after her.
"Why did you refuse to listen to me, even after I warned you?" Gavin asked his son as he winced at the pain for the umpteenth time.
"Because I can climb trees at home whenever I want."
"Well, you're not living with your mother anymore."
"Exactly," Ethan managed between clenched teeth as a tear appeared at the corner of his eye. Gavin studied him a second before laying an arm around his shoulders. After only a couple moments, his son pushed him back with his right hand.
"I got two towels!" Abby cried as she ran around the bend of the pond. Gavin received them into his hand the moment she arrived and carefully swaddled the arm extended before him.
"There. Now let's take you to the emergency department."
He reached down and gathered Ethan into his arms, sending Abby back to retrieve as much of the tackle as she could manage.
The solemn parade began with Gavin striding through the grass with Ethan in his arms and ended with Abby trailing behind with three poles beneath one arm and a tackle box in the other hand. They passed the explosion of apple and pear blossoms in the orchards, soft as tufts of cotton. At the same time, the parade marched past the horse pasture, from which Calista released a pining neigh at her family. Ethan allowed himself to be curled against his father and attempted to settle down while he was carried all the way to the Ford. Abby pulled the back door open and Gavin placed him on the seat, kneeling down beside the car.
"We have to go to the Accident and Emergency Department because I can't set a cast. Abby will come with us to help me keep you comfortable. We should be waiting several hours, so she will retrieve any books you might like before we leave. And when we return, she and I will divide your chores until you recover. You and I will discuss your punishment later, but it will have to suffice for Abby, since she is paying for your recklessness."
Ethan gave a subtle nod and said, "But I am going to be climbing more trees."
"Stubborn child!" Gavin snapped with a roll of his eyes. He slammed the door shut and made his way to the driver's side with brisk movements. His son laid his arm protectively against his chest as he slept in an attempt to make the wearisome process of awaiting a cast even slightly more tolerable. "Get ready for a very long wait."
. . .
- Moonlight illuminated the path by the time the family rolled to a stop near the cottage. When the sun peered over the rolling hills that subsequent morning, Gavin strove to tune out his alarm. Eventually, he managed to heave himself into a sitting position and dressed to plant the zucchini and tomatoes.
By the time he returned to the cottage later that morning, he hesitated at the sound of voices and let them lure him to his own room, where Ethan sat on his bed, back pressed against the headboard, staring at his laptop on the dresser across from him. Two basketball players reached out to dribble the ball at the same time, but the man with the gold and white jersey prevailed. An excited announcer began speaking swiftly in a language Gavin was not familiar with.
"Are you watching basketball in Spanish?"
"Yeah, seeing as that was all I could find."
A buzzer sounded and the players slowed to a walk. Crowds loaded the stands, smiling and pointing toward their favorite players. The announcers began speaking again with much enthusiasm.
"I need to speak with you a little," Gavin said. "Look at me."
"There are only ten minutes left in the—" as Ethan spoke, the screen blackened and a red symbol began flashing beside the keyboard. "Awesome."
"Well, the timing was right."
Ethan crossed his arms and stared expectantly at his father. Gavin seated himself on the edge of his bed and studied the boy. "Do you understand now why I forbid you to climb that tree?"
"I don't care if you like it or not," Ethan snarled in a way that curdled Gavin's blood. "I knew what could happen if I climbed that tree, but I did it anyway."
"I can see that, and look what happened," Gavin snapped. "Why do you insist on disobeying me?"
"You never let us have any fun," Ethan answered more levelly. "When we're good, you keep us working. When we're bad, you make us work more. I am not allowed to play basketball, or climb trees, or do anything. What can I do except work all the time?"
"Idleness never builds character, but working does. Besides, we have a lot that needs to be done around here, and it's not going to get up and finish itself."
"Sports aren't idleness. So let me do both. I can play sports and work around the farm."
"You can barely keep up with what we do here," Gavin answered with a sharper edge than he had intended. "What makes you think you can accomplish both?"
"Because I want to."
Gavin considered the response with his head bowed in contemplation. He remained skeptical that Ethan could prevail in his promise, but how could the boy learn unless he made an attempt? And if he continued to discourage sports, Ethan would continue to rebel. But if the boy could see for himself how difficult it would be to maintain his promise… Gavin raised his eyes and slapped his son's knee.
"You may participate in basketball so long as you do not slack in your work. You are to dedicate yourself physically both on and off the court. Do we have a deal?"
"Yes," Ethan smiled.
"And," Gavin raised his index finger, "Because Abby will need to do most of your chores until you arm is healed, you will maintain the room you share, assist me with the meals and planning, and answer to my father for a weekend because he maintained this part of the property while we were gone."
"And should any of this not be accomplished, you may not become part of a time. Should you become part of a team and then start to lose sight of your responsibilities, it will be on you to get back on them. You will be committed to that team, but your home and family come first."
"I got it," Ethan replied with slight aggravation. Gavin stared at him severely.
"And you will not be short with me now that I have granted your desire."
"All right," was the gentler reply. As Gavin closed the door behind him, Ethan released a smile that threatened to reappear every minute that day until he retired into bed that night.
. . .
- Song Thrushes greeted one another as the sun arose in a soft cornflower sky. Ethan scrubbed his bloodshot eyes with the palm of his good hand and smiled. After peeling back his covers, he moved stealthily to his closet and reached for a crimson tee shirt and a pair of jeans. By the time he struggled into his clothes and pulled a coal beanie over his gingerbread hair, the glowing cherry numbers of his alarm clock proclaimed it to be fifteen minutes to six.
When he sneaked out the back door and closed eased it closed, Gavin rotated onto his right side. As he progressively realized his alarm soon would startle him awake, a sense of dread rose within him. Surely God could have mercy on him after such a restless week between harvesting the peaches, staying the night with Ethan and Abby at the emergency department, and laying awake with his son on his mind. Surely He would not mind if Gavin slept in another twenty minutes.
He rolled back onto his other side to prop himself on one elbow and reset his alarm.
When his alarm did startle him awake, he slapped his hand down on it to silence it. With a moan, he eased himself out of bed and swept the back of his hand across his eyes. After he dressed in jeans and a plain white tee shirt, he made his way into the second bedroom and peered through the door. Abby stirred in her sleep. But Ethan was missing. His heart skipped a beat.
The back door creaked open when he shoved against it and surveyed the orchards and pasture. A distant shape dressed in red caught his eye, and he squinted until a smile broke across his face. Ethan ceased running for a second to bend down and strive to even his breathing. He pressed his healthy arm to his dampened cheek and wiped away the sweat while his broken arm ached in the sling. Gavin would be furious if he knew that he was endangering that arm. He leapt into a second run anyway.
"Good lad," Gavin murmured as he stepped back inside and closed the door behind him.