The sea of students poured into the school and rushed to their classrooms, abandoning Ethan and Abby to exchange a puzzled look and gaze around them.
"Astin said he was going to sneak that frog he caught into the school today, right?" Abby asked as she peered around the corner of the school. Her brother remained silent and still as he sheltered his eyes from the risen sun.
"Yeah," Ethan answered after a moment. "But we have to get to class."
He touched her elbow and they disappeared into the school, suddenly racing to the classroom with their shoes shrieking against the linoleum. They reached their classroom at the edge of the dispersed students arriving at their seats as the teacher began to speak.
"Good morning," he announced. "I am Mr. Clark. Let me see who us here. Alana McLean?"
She was the girl seated beside Ethan. Smooth almond hair reached her waist, and when she sneaked a smile at him, he noticed the lily complexion beneath her turquoise eyes was dusted with freckles. He returned her smile. Abby, who seated herself behind him, abruptly kicked his chair.
"Pay attention," she hissed.
He straightened in his seat and gathered his binder and pencil on his desk, sensing his sister roll her eyes behind him. Mr. Clark raised his attendance list to his eyes with a scowl, then moved it back.
"There it is. Jeremy Aldridge?"
"Yes, sir," Jeremy raised his hand from the back corner. Abby swept her waves behind her ears and shifted in her seat. Ethan recognized the frantic creak, but resisted the urge to swivel around in his seat to scowl at her. The last thing she needed was to solidify the kid's suspicion that she had a crush on him.
English class bled into physical education as the first day of school trudged onward. The dim overcast heavens released a silvery mist as the children trotted around the oval dirt track around the school. Mr. Carr was as the size and mass of a bulldog, and equally intimidating to some of the girls.
"Get moving!" he shouted to the two girls in sweaters shuffling ahead of him, pale blue eyes penetrating the backs of their heads. "You have to finish this stretch within two minutes!"
The small muscular man maintained his pace at the rear of the class, determined to complete the quarter mile within the allotted time. In order to accomplish this, all the students must run the same amount ahead of him. And he was determined to succeed in this each day, or there would be penalties.
The girl on the right cleared her throat abruptly to smother a cough. Her companion beside her threw her an anxious glance and slowed her pace slightly.
"A bit over a minute left!"
"Wait," Ethan managed as he dropped back to trot beside his teacher. "Jess has asthma."
"That is no excuse for a lack of effort," the man responded with his eyes on the girls. Ethan stared at him incredulously and shook his head.
"She clearly is putting in effort, or else she wouldn't be running. She's not going to be able to breathe if she keeps this up, and Casey's just keeping her company."
"Listen, her achievement – or lack thereof – is not your concern," Mr. Carr replied sternly. "Get ahead of me until you complete the run."
As he spoke, Jess diverted to the side of the track and stopped, bent in half. Ethan stopped beside her and put his hands on his knees as he peered at her. Mr. Carr continued on running, and he suspected the teacher would not be grading him well that day. Jess was coughing roughly now, with Casey's palm on her back. She extracted an inhaler out of her maroon sweater pocket and used it, but it was no use. After a couple minutes, as the class disappeared back into the gym, she threw up. Ethan leapt back and raised his eyes to Mr. Carr as he returned, hastening into a jog once he saw what happened.
"You have asthma, Jess?" he asked, more gently now. She nodded speechlessly as she gasped for air. Casey reached for the ash brown hair draped over her shoulder and laid it down her back to keep it clean. Mr. Carr released his breath and nodded, as though agreeing to his own thoughts.
"I apologize for not realizing the seriousness of the situation."
"It's all right," she gasped.
"She should go to the nurse," Casey interjected.
"I agree. Go ahead, ladies, and we'll discuss how to better incorporate you into the class later."
The rain ceased again. After he changed back into his uniform and rushed into the main building, Ethan stopped a moment to check his schedule again. Science was where he should be headed at the time, but the posse of Alyssa gushed out of the bathroom chattering about lip gloss and such. He darted into the enclave beside the water fountain and peered around the corner with one eye. She was not among them, so he emerged – just in time to almost collide into the girl herself.
"Well, Ethan, I have been looking for you all morning," she kneeled down in her crimson plaid skirt and shuffled around her backpack for a rumpled paper, which she shoved toward him. The sketch was rather primitive, and he squinted at it to see all the little figures standing at a wall. "See, I made this picture of the school. There is you and Abby, and me and the girls. I wanted to get everyone in the class there, but I don't think I'll have enough room—"
"Yeah, that's cool, but I have got to get to class—"
"Right! Well, I suppose I should be going as well. We can pick this up after this class, yes?"
She already disappeared. He shook his head and started rushed around students to get to his class on time, willing himself to dodge her better after the science students were released.
He succeeded until lunch, when he could see her seated across the room. He discretely crossed to another table and seated himself beside the basketball team, where he reached into his paper bag for a sandwich a crimson apple. He clenched the second mentioned between his teeth and rummaged around for an anticipated chocolate chip cookie, but upon discovering none, returned to his apple.
"Well, boy," Cameron jostled his ribs with a snort. "What about that game on Saturday?"
"What do you mean, what about it?" Ethan answered absently as he chewed. "We got it covered."
Cameron reached across the table and slapped the hand of David as he crowed. "I told you!"
"Montgomery," Jeremy seated himself at the edge of the table beside him. "I was going to ask your sister something after school. Will she be around?"
"She has somewhere to be after school. What are you going to ask?"
"Mind your own, Montgomery," he chuckled. "Will she be at our first game?"
"She may be," Ethan raised his shoulders in a shrug.
"Well, then, tell her I said hello."
"Yeah, right," Ethan grumbled as Jeremy moved away. A small boy standing awkwardly at the door made him do a double-take and rise to greet him.
"I was curious where you were earlier," he crunched into his apple as he approached. Astin stared at him with glistening eyes and swallowed. "What's the matter? What's going on?"
"Come with me," Astin plucked at his arm and dodged back through the door. Ethan pursued him until he pressed his back against the school with crossed arms. His eyes were crimson red and his breath rattled as he gathered up his words. "My father and Ciara took the boat out Saturday morning. There was a lot of wind, and it blew the boat over. Da drowned and Ma came out to discover Ciara crawling up the rocks beneath the lighthouse. She has pneumonia, and we believe it's bad."
Ethan reached his arms around the boy and held him as he dissolved into tears, dampening his collar. Astin clung to him almost as a scared child, and he was sure that realization drained the blood completely out of his cheeks.
"I have to go home," Astin sobbed fresh tears into the cornflower collar, "but I can't."
A robin sang merrily somewhere close, and a plane crossed the almost clear sky. Dandelions drifted in the grass with the breeze. The entire world seemed completely innocent of the tragedy that occurred, outside the lighthouse in Waterford and right outside this secondary school.
"You should get to class," Astin withdrew and smeared a palm across his swollen eyes.
"I'm not leaving until you're all right. Let me leave a note to Abby beside the door. The first thing school administrators do the times I've been late is ask her, because we're twins, so she must know."
Astin remained silent as Ethan completed the note with paper and a pencil lent from him. Then Ethan disappeared to stash the note where he knew Abby would check and returned to sit together, with their backs against the school, and discuss shreds of what happened and ponder to themselves in between.
The remainder of the school day was a strange surreal streak that ended with a rush of students filtering through the school doors and toward the vehicles in which they arrived, leaving Astin staring at the parking lot beneath the clear sky. Ethan edged toward him with his hand shoved into his pockets.
"So what's your plan?"
Astin shrugged vaguely. "Étaoin is with Ciara at the hospital, Ma is sorting out burial arrangements with Uncle Patrick while Aunt Máire is cooking the meals and such, and Peter is with some mates this week doing whatever it is that Peter does. So I haven't the faintest idea."
Ethan nodded and reached for the backpack his friend had dropped beside him. "You're going to come home with us. Come on. We're going to take the bus, since Dad is harvesting apples and Mom is trying to keep up with him while cleaning the house."
Ethan was seated between his sister and his friend, who leaned his cheek against the window and stared emptily at the violet-shaded overcast sky as it dissipated into clarity, and the lush fields peppered with buttercups as they flashed by. He sneaked sympathetic glances at the boy as they rode silently, anticipating the narrow street where they would be let off.
There, they scrambled over and crawled between the slats of the ivory painted fence and trudged through the grass until they discovered the path to the cottage. Assuming Poppy was in the kitchen with the apples, still cleaning as she promised she would be that morning, the children approached the western door at the right end of the home. But the moment Ethan reached for the brass knob, the door swung open.
"Good afternoon. Well, good to see you, Astin," Poppy said as she emerged from the kitchen with her flame tendrils pulled loosely back and a plate and dishtowel in her hands. "How's your day at school?"
Ethan sneaked a glance at his sister and friend. "Mom, can Astin stay with us until this evening?"
"Sure," she furrowed her brows with concern. "Come help me put some of these dishes away while Abby and Astin see whether your dad needs an extra hand with the apple harvest."
"Go raibh maith agat," Astin gave her a small smile as he exited the cottage behind Abby.
"All right," Poppy said with a maternal sternness as she returned to the kitchen sink with vigor. "What is going on that you are all so solemn, and Astin suddenly needs a place to stay?"
"Mom, he comes over here all the time."
"But this time, it's different," she insisted, pivoting toward him with a hand perched on her hip.
"I know," he answered softly.
"Out with it."
"Aaron Jay drowned when he and Ciara took the boat out on Saturday. She is in the hospital, and the rest of his family is clearly a little preoccupied. Seemed as though he should be, too."
Poppy pressed a palm to her mouth and absorbed the shock. "Well, that explains a lot. Poor kid; let him know he can stay as long as he needs."
She passed him the plates she dried and he settled them in their cabinet. By the time the last dishes were being stacked, Astin and Abby entered the side kitchen door with a basket of ripened apples each. Rebecca and Teddy trotted into the room behind them.
"Apple pie after dinner," Poppy announced. "And we're going to have steak with corn and iced tea."
"Sounds delicious," Astin responded with a solemn visage as he set the basket on the kitchen table.
"Come on," Ethan closed the last cabinet and passed Astin, settling a hand on his shoulder. "Let's go do something to occupy your mind."
They made an assembly line to mix the heated sugar water in several jars and set them aside until they cooled. Then Abby retrieved Diarmuid out of the pasture, and Astin and Ethan chased down Calista.
The two horses were groomed in record time, then saddled and mounted. A Painted Lady butterfly drifted across the almost clear sky as Calista tossed her mane and leapt ahead of Diarmuid and streaked along the edge of the grassy pasture. They reached the main house in minimal time, dismounted with their pails, and tied the lead ropes to the hitching post at the back. The teens reached the blackberry brambles and started plucking as many of the ripe berries as they could. Each was lost in his or her own thoughts until Abby started singing "It Is Well With My Soul" softly as she worked.
By the time they road back to the house and deposited the fruit in the kitchen, the sugar water mixtures were cool enough for the trio to gather and run out to the bee hives to replace the empty jars overturned on the lids. Gavin could be seen within the leaves and fruits of the apple trees as he harvested the last of the one in which he stood.
Afterwards, Abby made her way to the barn and extracted Lily from her pen to hitch her to the ring in the common area. She set a stool beside the Jersey cow and a pail beneath her, then started to milk her. Meanwhile, Ethan heated a bottle of milk replacer and returned to the barn to present it to the calf.
"Here," Ethan moved aside so Astin could accept the bottle. "Keep it propped up until she's done."
Sandra slurped the replacer noisily, spreading a smile across the boy's lips. Eventually, the teens returned to the cottage sweating and exhausted. Gavin returned to the kitchen with another deposit of apples and returned outside to evaluate the animals and ensure their water was plentiful.
By the time everyone seated themselves at the dinner table, the pastel heavens streaked with gauzy apricot clouds, illuminating the scattered buttercups in the fields. A pair of blackbirds erupted from one o f the oaks and raced across the horizon with a song.
At the grill beside the cottage, Gavin plopped a steak and an ear of corn onto the plates of the children, who each returned to the kitchen to scrape back and drop into an antique wooden chair at the small table. Poppy returned right after, with a maternal clap on Astin's shoulder.
She placed a mason jar of sweetened iced tea at each setting and dropped into her own chair as Gavin entered with his own meal. Astin eyed the teas perplexedly until Ethan raised his own to his mouth. Gavin seated himself and reached for the hands of Poppy and Abby on either side of him.
"Dear heavenly Father," Gavin swallowed as he realized he had no idea what he should say. "We appreciate Your provisions for this meal and for the fellowship we have with Astin. We ask that You keep his family in perfect peace as they struggle through this time. We pray this in Jesus' name, amen."
Astin reached for a lemon wedge on a saucer in the middle of the table and squished it onto the rim of the jar. Everyone sawed and chewed their steaks in silence. Even Rebecca made herself a log against the side door. But Astin sneaked a glance toward Teddy, who stood beside him with perked ears and a swishing feathery tail. Gavin swallowed the remainder of his bite.
"She is a bit more persistent than her companion, there. Don't mind her."
Astin continued eating while Teddy rested her chin on his leg. He gave her a passing smile and returned his eyes to stare intently at the red-and-white checkered cloth beneath his plate. She raised her head and whimpered softly.
"Sorry," Abby smiled gently at their friend and gave the Golden Retriever a stern expression. Teddy stared keenly at Astin as he sawed another chunk of steak and raised it to his mouth on the fork. All at once, she smacked the underside of his arm with her head, and the meat dropped to the wood beside her. Everyone stared as she gulped it down and swiped a tongue across her lips. Then the family raised their eyes to Astin, who seemed stunned.
A smile suddenly broke across his solemn expression, and a chuckle bubbled out of him. He covered his mouth as he laughed, and his companions started in as well – apprehensively at first, but soon as merrily as he was.
Eventually, he calmed enough to say, "I admit, I have never seen that much persistence!"
Ethan wiped his eyes. "She learned that when she was with her brother Meade. Did Abby ever tell you she stole her sandwich right out of her hands once?"
The entire cottage echoed with their laughter and even Rebecca picked her head up while Teddy listened with drooped ears. They exchanged stories about the time Calista sneezed into Abby's face, the incident where Ethan was trampled by his own pygmy goat, the way the chickens pluck the seeds out of the earth as Gavin plants them, the night Richard was convinced he defeated the fox that ran away with him, and the morning Delilah caught her entire head in the fence until Astin's laughter dissolved into tearful sobs. He smeared a palm across his eyes. "I'm sorry."
"There is not shame in mourning a loved one," Gavin responded simply while Ethan gave his shoulder a squeeze and Abby patted his arm. "'But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.' 1 Thessalonians 4:1-14."
Astin nodded and sniffed. "Yes, sir."
Poppy stood and reached toward his plate. "Are you all done? We have some pie if you are."
"Yes, thank you. You all really have been lovely to me."
"That's what families do," Ethan gave his shoulder a slap and a wan smile.
They digested their meal and the golden pie with spiced syrup was served.
"This pie is lovely," Astin smiled and met the eyes of each family member.
"That is Gavin's doing," Poppy said with a spark in her eye.
A rapping on the door sent Rebecca scrambling to her feet with a small snarl. "That would be me uncle," Astin scraped the last of the crumbs into his mouth as rapidly as he could while the two adults made their way to the front of the cottage. By the time Poppy pulled the door open, all three children and the two dogs were beside them.
"Hello," Patrick McPhee tipped his plaid flat hat with a meek smile and flushed cheeks. "I appreciate your looking after the boy."
"We were glad to," Gavin answered.
"And should you decide," Poppy ventured apprehensively, "we would be glad to have him stay here until you get everything settled at home. You could get Tango after school and keep him in the kitchen."
"That might be best," Patrick gave a single nod of affirmation. "Perhaps after school tomorrow?"
"That would do," Gavin sent his wife an approving smile. "We're sorry to hear of your loss."
"Go raibh maith agat," Patrick removed his hat and wrung it in his hands. He reached an arm toward Astin. "Come, lad, and we'll go back to the shop tonight."
The Montgomery children murmured good-byes to their companion as he peered over his shoulder at them with an upheld hand and a wan smile. Then he and his uncle disappeared into the moonlight night and started the silvery Ford. Streaks of light flashed through the windows when they drove away.
Later that night, Ethan leaned his chin in the palm of his right hand with closed eyes. His elbow bore into the checkered cloth on the kitchen table, so he laid his arms down and rested his cheek against them. But his ears were alert to the ticking of the grandfather clock and his eyes studied the shadows cast across the wood by the moonlight.
A creak startled his eyes toward the hall door, and he squinted at the silhouette. Gavin eased his shoulder against the door frame. "I imagine you can't sleep."
"Yeah," Ethan straightened and dropped his head back to stare at the ceiling. He listened to his dad release his breath and creak closer.
"Are you all right?"
The sound of the clock seemed to echo in the seemingly empty cottage. Then the creaking progressed away from him, and he swallowed deeply.
The creaking stopped. Ethan scraped the chair back and crossed the kitchen to throw his arms around his father. Gavin gripped him securely and rested his cheek on the gingerbread hair. Ethan choked down his tears and squeezed his eyes shut.
"I was furious when your teacher phoned and said you were twenty minutes late to woodworking class after you ate lunch, and how you and Astin were both ten minutes late to debate after that," Gavin admitted. "But I am so proud of you."
. . .
Riding home: "Our Father is Missing" by From Indian Lakes
Doing the chores: "Dancing to a Lot of Time" by Alasdair Fraser
Dinner: "Alive" by Kenny Chesney
Kitchen at night: "Over the River" by Jon Foreman