The Scoil Mhuire De Paor was a square brick school on a yard of grass and partially surrounded by trimmed hedges. Inside, the halls and classrooms would have been a plain cream color, were it not for the various posters of molecules and math. But Miss Brown posted photos of fruits and fish and other wildlife that intrigued children in her third class room. As the young woman evaluated the students from behind her desk, she smiled.
"We will begin reading At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald seven days from now. I have thoroughly enjoyed each of you today. I can tell this will be a pleasant school year. Be sure to greet Ethan and Abby Montgomery as you leave."
Abby was jarred as something struck the back of her seat. She sneaked a glance to Ethan beside her, who had already twisted around in his seat to glare at the sturdy kid sitting behind her. The jarring ceased abruptly.
"Rónán," the teacher sighed. "Please do not harass your classmates on the first day. Now, gather up your things and I'll see you all tomorrow!"
The children all rose from their seats and rushed through the door, some pausing to thank their teacher as they left. As they poured into the hallway, Ethan reached into his pocket and drew out a charcoal beanie to stretch over his head.
"Wait," Abby stopped in her tracks. "I wanted to say good bye to our teacher!"
She darted back toward the classroom, but Ethan slung his red backpack further up on his shoulder and sauntered toward the door to leave. A blond kid ran up from the back of the crowd to catch up with him, saying in a clear voice, "Ethan Montgomery, am I right? You're one of the two new students."
Ethan lengthened his stride and kept his eyes locked on the door as children began to pour through. The boy hastened to keep up with him.
"My name is Astin Jay. We'll be seeing a lot of each other—"
Ethan broke into a run, sprinting ahead and out the door. Astin stopped in his tracks, mouth agape.
"Well, I'll see you tomorrow!"
. . .
Gavin clamped his hand down on a rough branch, and it wavered. His eyes searched the limbs and leaves all around, arm outstretched toward another smooth red Empire apple. He sensed it brushing against his fingers, and with one more stretch, he managed to wrap two fingers around it. With a gentle twist and a pull, he plucked it from its place and settled it into the straw basket.
Propped against the trunk was a lengthy pair of clippers with a shallow basket fashioned behind the metal pincers that Rearden assembled several years prior. Several apples dangled just beyond his reach, so he lifted the contraption and charily clipped the stem of each apple so they landed in the basket.
A crow peeled across the orchard, and a series of grumbles announced the arrival of a dark rooster splashed with reds and oranges. "Hello, Richard."
"Dad!" Abby and Ethan came racing around the side of the cottage to greet him. He smiled and stepped down the ladder to reach out his arms. Abby paused a moment before accepting his embrace briefly. Ethan crossed his arms across his chest and scowled.
"Did you enjoy school?" Gavin asked and held her away at arm's length.
Abby wrinkled her nose. "Miss Brown is a great lady, but I really miss my old school."
"I know," Gavin assured her. "But I hope you will come to enjoy this one as well."
Richard meandered closer to them and released a shrill crow that startled Abby and made Ethan smile and chase the rooster back to the cluster of hens pecking the ground several yards away.
"You know, I would appreciate your help in harvesting some of these," Gavin said as he made his way back up the ladder with the contraption in hand. "But there is only one ladder on the property, and you'll need one. So I am going to ask you to start checking water."
Ethan exchanged an exasperated glance with Abby and shoved his shoe in the fork of the nearest apple tree. After wrapping his hands around the branches on either side, he hauled himself into the apple tree. A harvestman spider scurried across his hand as he smirked across to his father.
"Abby, get me a basket, will you?"
"You can't in the tree and harvest at the same time."
Abby stopped and spun around with a smirk and announced. "Ethan can stay up there without dropping himself or any apples."
"All right," Gavin gave a nod of approval as she sprinted away. "Your cousins Annabelle and Rose will also be here tomorrow after school so they can earn some extra pay. You should come meet them."
"Doubt that," Ethan murmured as he peered at the clear sky between the leaves. When Abby returned with a basket for Ethan and some extras, along with a rope to dangle Ethan's from a branch as he worked, Gavin sent her a smile.
"Smart lass," he praised as Ethan accepted the basket and rope she raised up to him. "Will you be willing to run these apples to our kitchen with the cart by this tree as we load up the baskets? And when we go inside, I will add them all into the refrigerator in the utility room."
"That's where I will put them," Abby answered. Each time her father or brother loaded an entire basket, they would drop down and present it to her, or ease it down into her arms. She would then arrange them onto the cart until she could squeeze no more of them together and wheel it to the house. Each cleared a couple of trees by the time shadows stretched behind the orchard, chased by orange sunlight as the sun sank behind the horizon.
Gavin ladled chicken and carrot soup into three bowls and passed them Ethan and Abby to set at the table. When he sat down with them, he reached for their hands and said grace. When they raised their heads, he cleared his throat. "Has your mother ever mentioned anything about God to you?"
Abby threw a glance to her brother and straightened in her seat as she swirled the spoon around in her soup. "She says that people who believe in Him were the ones that founded America, and that was good for us because they had a set of virtues."
Gavin eased back in his seat, pleasure showing in the smile on his lips. "She was right. And has she said anything about Jesus?"
Abby slurped a spoon of broth and winced when the heat bit her tongue. After a sip of the ice water beside her, she answered, "Pretty much the same thing."
"When you lived in America, had you ever gone to church?"
The children exchanged suspicious glances. Then Abby responded with furrowed brows. "Why?"
Gavin breathed in deeply and leaned his forearms on the table beside his soup. "Because I was curious what you knew about God and how much He loves you."
"Why do you say He loves us?" Ethan demanded.
"Because He sent Christ to die—"
"Why would God try to kill Mom if He loves us?" Ethan shouted as he shoved back his chair and stormed to the room he shared with his sister. The door slammed within seconds and Abby returned to her soup broth with slurping sounds.
. . .
By the time Abby read several chapters of Little Women and sneaked into their room, Ethan was beneath the covers of his bed. He listened as she crawled beneath the covers of her bed and her breathing steadied. "Abbs," he murmured through the darkness. When she responded with a sleepy moan, he asked, "Do you still love me as much as you love Dad?"
His breath was caught in his throat as he awaited her reply. After a moment, she murmured "You're still my favorite person in the world."
He released a small smile and closed his eyes. Still, his imagination whirred with activity. And when the sun leaked its first rays through their drapes, he opened his bloodshot eyes with a scowl.