"That is Annabelle Milligan," Gavin pointed to a smiling girl with a pair of strawberry blond braids beneath her straw hat and a sundress printed with coral primroses. "She will show you how to get started and help you become acquainted with some of your cousins."
"Good morning," she said with only a soft accent as she approached the children with an outstretched hand to shake theirs. The dusting of freckles sprinkled across the bridge of her nose and pastel sage green eyes gave her an amiable countenance that set them at ease. "My name is Annabelle. Gavin is my cousin, so we're cousins as well. Come with me, and I'll show you how to pick these berries."
Several children dotted the rows of bushes whose branches drooped with clusters of ripe blueberries.
"The berries should be the darkest blue, and are coated with a sort of powder, so don't smudge them too much," Annabelle stopped beside the beginning of one row and set a bucket down at her feet. She reached into the bush and gently rolled the berries into her hand before dropping them into the bucket with dull plopping sounds. "There. Do you see how to do it?"
"Yes," Ethan and Abby answered at once.
"Good," Annabelle smiled and reached for a second bucket on the wooden table beside the rows. "Here is a second bucket for Ethan, then. Please comb through this entire row with one of you at each end working to meet each other."
Abby made her way to the opposite end of the row and reached to gently roll some berries into her hand. A couple were tinged with fuchsia and she winced, but she dropped them into her bucket anyway and wiped her hands on her crimson jumper.
"Ethan and Abby," Annabelle straightened suddenly. "You should get to know some of your cousins."
Ethan and Abby exchanged glances and bent their heads again to continue working.
"Me name is Case," announced a boy around their age in the row ahead. He met each of their eyes with his own blue ones behind round wire-rimmed glasses and gave a polite nod. "I'm Alasdair's."
"Good to meet you," Abby answered with a small smile. Ethan gave a nod of recognition and continued picking as swiftly as he could manage.
"Are you ever going to come to a Sunday dinner?" Case reached down for a jade plastic bottle and squirted what appeared to be orange Gatorade into his mouth. "We all meet there every week."
Abby threw a glance at her brother, but he picked as though there was no one around him. "Dad wants us to come this week. So maybe we can get to know you all better there, too."
"And in a couple more weeks, we'll be on a plane home," Ethan added under his breath as he evaluated his bucket. A layer of berries covered the bottom. He made his way to the cooler at the wooden table and raised the lid to snatch a fruit punch Gatorade.
Two small boys with copper and bronze hair were seated in plastic chairs between the rows and the cottage, swinging their legs back and forth as they chattered idly. As Ethan raised the bottle to his lips, Cherry sneaked around the corner of one bush at the back row with Marmalade close behind. The pair of boys leapt to their feet and rushed after the hens, shouting madly.
"What the…?" he murmured.
"Ruarí and Rupert belong to Eagan," Annabelle answered with a laugh. "Gavin hires them to chase the chickens away from his crop."
"Wait, how do you pronounce the first one?" Abby asked with a wrinkled nose.
"Ruarí. But anyone who can't pronounce his name has started calling him 'Rusty' because of his hair."
Ethan screwed the cap back onto the bottle and tucked it beneath his arm as he strode back to his end of the row. The prickly sensation on his skin made him aware that someone was staring at him, and when he raised his eyes, he saw Case squinting at him with a superior air.
"What is your problem?"
Case raised his shoulders in a casual shrug and continued picking. "You have on an Iron Man shirt. But Spiderman actually has special abilities, so he's better."
"I have a shirt with him as well, and I can wear it tomorrow if it'll make you shut up."
"Boys," Annabelle straightened with hands perched on her hips. "Is this what Gavin hires you to do?"
A sudden cry erupted from a row toward the back. Ethan dropped the bottle and sprinted toward the direction of the sound, where he discovered a slightly younger boy seated on the ground with a severe pout as he gripped his thumb.
"Koda," Annabelle approached from behind Ethan with a motherly tone. "What happened, honey?"
"A bee bit me," Koda knitted together his dark brows. Annabelle kneeled down before him and reached to examine his finger with Ethan peering over her shoulder.
"A bee stings, but does not bite," she corrected gently. "And the stinger is still in your thumb, so we are going to send someone to get your Uncle Gavin, all right?"
"I'll go," Case sprinted toward the cottage, and Annabelle enveloped the boy into her arms while tears streamed down his cheeks.
"Will Koda die?" Rupert demanded.
"No," Annabelle shook her head and strengthened her embrace around the boy. "Your uncle Gavin is going to come outside and make him feel better, you wait and see."
"Here he comes," Ethan announced.
Gavin strode toward them and kneeled down beside the boy. "Koda, I am going to scratch the stinger out by hand," he raised an index finger so the boy could stare it down with his brown eyes. "And Case is going to bring out the lemonade and sun tea I have in the kitchen so you can drink some when we're done with this stinger."
Case emerged from the cottage with a tray of two pitchers and several glasses as the children gathered around their cousin and Gavin. Koda bit his lower lip as the stinger was removed as only one tear trickled down his cheek.
"Good lad," Gavin praised as he planted a hand on his shoulder. "Rearden will be proud to hear how brave you were today. Do you want tea or lemonade?"
Koda pointed toward the tea. Gavin placed a hand on his dark head and reached for one of the glasses to pass to the boy, who drank deeply.
"Do you want to stop or keep going?"
He listened to the sounds of gulping as Koda swallowed the remainder of his drink and released a small belch. "Keep going."
"Good man," Gavin straightened with a smile and surveyed the children around him. "There will be fruit and sandwiches at noon, and you will all go home. Anyone who wants to come back in the afternoon and stay until they go home for supper is welcome. And Ethan and Abby, we will be going to me parents' to eat tonight."
At noon, Gavin emerged from the cottage with a plate stacked with sandwiches and a bowl of fruit salad with the request that Ethan and Abby retrieve silverware and plates from the kitchen. He seated himself in a plastic chair beside the wooden table after he set the food down and watched them gather what they desired to eat.
"What fruit have you got here?" Rupert asked as he peered into the bowl. "I see apples, melons, strawberries, and look! Blueberries like the ones we're picking right here."
"Are there any chicken sandwiches?" Ruarí examined the plate while they disappeared one-by-one as his cousins selected them. "'Cause I love the ones my Ma makes, if ya got any."
Meanwhile, Ethan pulled his sister aside with an excited whisper. "Did you hear what he said? We can come back and work in the evening! We'll be able to earn twice as much money as we thought we could. And we can leave sooner."
"We'll be working all day," Abby protested as she planted a hand on her straw hat to keep the wind from blowing it away, its crimson ribbon swirling in the air behind her. "We'll be so tired!"
"But we'll be working for less days, so it's all right."
"All right. But only if we leave soon."
"Deal," Ethan grinned and clapped her on the shoulder before seeking a lunch from the table. Abby released and sigh and followed after him, afterward seating herself beside Annabelle as she chattered about summer plans and the school year when it comes.
The afternoon shift was comprised primarily of the elder children. Ethan and Abby paired together in the back row, Annabelle and Rose accepted the one ahead, Case and Clare started harvesting somewhere in the middle, and Cadhla made her way up and down the rows until she chose one toward the front. The children harvested in silence, each occasionally popping a single berry into his or her mouth – aside from the twins, who strove to earn as much as they could.
"Do any of you do anything fun on the 4th of July?" Ethan asked suddenly.
"No," Case frowned and pushed his round glasses up his nose. "Why?"
"Why?" Ethan straightened up light a ruler. "Because it's Independence Day!"
"That is the celebration of independence in America," Annabelle corrected gently. "I made sugar cookies with red and blue sprinkles for myself, because I was born there. But most people here do not."
Ethan and Abby exchanged alarmed glances.
"Do you think we'll celebrate it?" Abby asked.
"We have no fireworks," Ethan answered.
"Wouldn't Da know we would want to?"
"He hasn't said anything about it!"
"Annabelle," Abby started and swiveled to confront the elder girl ahead, "would you come over and celebrate it with us?"
Annabelle giggled at their indignance, but attempted to smother it with her hand. "Yes. I will be here picking, so I can make some cookies to bring."
Ethan sensed an unsettledness rising within him. What country was this that people didn't celebrate the 4th of July? Surely not his country! He was an American, living here against his will. He remembered Poppy pouring sodas over the kitchen sink and passing them to himself and Abby in red solo cups before they would drive to the lake to watch fireworks at night. The crackle and bang, the shower of colors over the boats, and the reflections in the gentle waves sent him a pang of nostalgia.
No, he could not miss that. His mom would get better and they could go home. And if that didn't happen before their mom got better, he and Abby would get themselves home.
At the end of the day, the children and their dad assembled baskets of strawberries before they made their way toward the main house and arrived through the back door in time to breathe in the aroma of chicken stew with cooked carrots and tea. Abigeál bustled out of the kitchen with a crock pot between her sunflower-printed mitts and a smile.
"Good evening, me loves," she chirped as she set the meal on the table.
"Hi, Grandma," said Abby with a smile of her own.
"You two are hard workers, I hear," Abigeál continued while she retrieved five bowls and silverware out of the kitchen. "Your Da appreciates that sort of effort."
"Yes, I do," Gavin confirmed as he kissed her cheek while she set the silverware beside the bowls. They seated themselves and said grace before delving into the savory stew almost in silence. After the last bite of dinner was consumed, Abigeál rose and announced that she could serve some of the strawberries with powdered sugar, as Eagan had loved them.
"If you children love strawberries, I can't imagine you wouldn't love this!" she called from the kitchen. Abby sent her a smile, but everyone seated around the table remained in the same strained silence that surrounded them like static since dinner started.
Eventually, after dessert was enjoyed, Gavin led the meandering pair down the dirt road to see the sun sink beneath the horizon in an array of orange and buttercup rays.
"We'll have enough to go home by the end of the blueberry season," Ethan smirked at his sister. "Dad will never see it coming, but we will have our own money to decide with."
Abby stared down at the soil beneath her shoes as she traipsed along the edge of the grass. Her brother stared at her, his smirk melting away with every moment of silence.
"Abby? Aren't you going to be happy when we go home?"
There were spurts of poppies in the grass that caught her attention, and she halted in her tracks to study one such patch. When she answered, her voice cracked. "I want to go home and read with Mom, and watch the 4th of July fireworks, and go to the store with Aunt Rose. But when we leave, we'll have been mean to Dad. We're going to have made his life miserable and then we'll just leave him like that."
Ethan caught her arm and stopped. She crossed her arms when she turned to face him, but her eyes remained on the poppies dotting the wayside.
"Are you saying you don't want to go?"
After a moment, Abby opened her mouth to speak, but Gavin had stopped in the path ahead.
"Are you two coming? You should get to sleep soon as the sun sets so you have energy tomorrow."
Abby continued down the path without a second glance at Ethan, who stared after her a moment before trailing behind them. She sensed the anger radiating from him, but remained so steadfast that she would not sneak a glance beside her.
"Be that way," he snapped under his breath and stormed after her.
He was the last to stomp into the house and directly to their room, where he managed to play by himself with his Hot Wheels while Abby read until it was time to sleep. He crawled beneath the covers and made sure she was asleep before he sneaked out again and started to gather his things. He snatched the money their dad paid them with and stole out the back door.