Authors: Shelley Shepard Gray
To my agent, Mary Sue Seymour, who years ago mailed me an article about a group of Mennonites in Pennsylvania adopting children born to incarcerated parentsâand sparked a whole series.
Yes, miracles do happen to those who believe!
Call on me when you are in trouble, and I will rescue you and you will give me glory.
If you can't have the best of everything, make the best of everything you have.
Ten Years Ago
“Betcha can't put your skates on as fast as I can!” Christina shouted as she ran down the hill toward the frozen skating pond.
Aden Reese grinned as he watched his neighbor plop on the ground, hike up her blue skirts to her knees, yank off her boots without untying them, and then at last stuff each foot into a snug white leather skate. Christina was two years younger than himâtwelve years to his fourteen. Most boys he knew wouldn't be caught dead playing with a twelve-year-old.
Well, there was something about her that he'd never been able to ignore. It wasn't just her golden hair and light blue, almost silver eyes. No, it had more to do with her easy smiles. And the happiness that radiated from her.
It was also the way she never acted sorry for him when she realized that his parents were so busy with their handcrafted furniture business that they often left him alone for days at a time.
And the way she'd merely stood by his side two weeks ago, saying nothing when he learned that their van had gotten into an accident and they'd both died instantly. Instead, she'd slipped her slim hand into his and hadn't even flinched when he'd clung to it like a lifeline.
Christina was special to him. She was his friend. And one day? Well, she wouldn't be too young, and neither would he. Then he would court her properly until she agreed to marry him.
Until then, he would simply bide his time and look out for her.
“Aden, how come you're walking so slow?” she called out. “I'm ready to skate. What's wrong?”
“Me? Oh, nothing. Just a little cold, I guess. Um, will you be warm enough?”
She practically rolled her eyes. “
. I have on mittens, a cloak, a wool scarf, and even a bonnet over my
. You don't even have your coat on.”
“I don't need it like you need yours.”
“I'm not a child, Aden.”
“I know that.” Unfortunately, he knew that too well. Without wasting any more time, he sat down next to her and carefully removed his skate guards, then deftly switched out his boots for the skates. “Ready?”
“I've been ready. You know how anxious I am to try out my new skates!” She gingerly walked down the path toward the pond's edge, grasping his hand for support when he stepped to her side. She gave him a little smile of thanks before pushing off and gliding across the ice. With a feeling of satisfaction, he followed.
Time seemed to stand still as he skated by her side, her voice ringing in the chilly air as she told him the latest stories about her brothers and sisters. He smiled, happy to hear her chatter, just content to be doing anything other than thinking about how he was now all alone.
After they'd skated along the perimeter of the pond twice, she teased him again. “Betcha can't catch me now, Aden!” she cried as she sped forward, racing across the middle of the pond looking beautiful and ethereal.
Right until the moment he heard a sharp
and watched her fall through the ice.
His heart froze. “Christina?” he called out, skating around the edge until he got to where she was.
Her head popped up. She gasped. Her skin was already blue, her eyes panicked. Before he even considered the best plan of action, he jumped in.
The water was jarringly cold, though the temperature barely registered. All he felt was her body as he cupped his hands under her arms and pushed her upward.
Please, God, please, God, please, God
, he repeated to himself as they broke the surface.
And the Lord must have heard him, because He gave Aden the strength to push Christina out of the water and onto the ice. Then the Lord gave Aden the strength to pull himself out, using an overhanging branch for support. A branch that he hadn't noticed before.
Seconds later, they were on the bank and he was throwing his blessedly dry coat over her body and breathing life into her mouth.
Wonder of wonders, she finally gasped, inhaled, coughed, and then brought up what had to be a quart of pond water. And her eyes opened. “Aâ”
“Don't talk.” He pressed his lips to her forehead. “Shh,” he added as he yanked off both their skates, shrugged her into his coat, picked her up, and ran to her house. The whole time praying like he never had before.
“Please, please, please,” he murmured over and over again as he ran barefoot through the frozen fields, across the front yard, and up the front walkway to her house. Her parents must have seen him coming because they were already running to meet him, taking her from his arms and rushing her upstairs to a hot bath.
The moment she was out of sight, he knelt on their spotless kitchen floor and prayed. He prayed until his voice was hoarse and his throat was sore. Until Mrs. Kempf came downstairs and announced that Christina was going to be just fine, but that he needed to change out of his wet clothes right quick or he was going to get sick.
Her warnings hardly mattered to him, however.
His prayers had already been answered.
January third was, without a doubt, his least favorite day of the year.
For the last ten years, Aden Reese braced himself before he walked downstairs. Sometimes, he had to stop halfway down, take a few deep breaths, and remind himself that the family meant well. Then he would finally school his features into a twisted combination of pleasure and surprise when he approached the family gathered around the table.
This year, unfortunately, was no different.
“Aden, at last you are here!” Martha Kempf exclaimed as she rushed to his side and promptly threw her arms around him. “We were beginning to wonder if you were ever going to come downstairs.”
After the slightest hesitation, he hugged his adoptive mother back and forced himself to smile. “I'm sorry, I guess I'm a lazybones today.”
Martha patted his cheek. “Today is your day, Aden. You can be anything you want,” she added as she pulled out his chair. “Now, sit.”
As he sat, he smiled at the family surrounding him. Joe, his adoptive father, looked right back, his eyes moist. Just as they always did on this day.
Beside Joe, twelve-year-old Leanna looked at him in that bashful way she always did. Treva gazed with her usual somber expression. The boys, Nate and Henry, eyed him with a combination of respect and awe.
And Christina? Only Christina looked a bit amused. As if she were the only one who had the slightest inkling that he hated being the reason for so much fuss.
In the middle of the table lay all his favoritesâsausage and bacon, scrambled eggs and waffles. A pecan coffee cake. Orange slush and canned peaches. It went without saying that Martha and the girls had been up for hours preparing the feast.
The lump that was lodged in his throat now threatened to choke him.
Because they were all waiting, he said the same thing he always did every January third. “
for this fine meal. But, truly, there was no need to go to such fuss.”
“Of course there is,” Martha said. “Today marks the day you saved Christina's life. We will always, always be thankful for your bravery, Aden.”
Joe nodded. “Always. Now, let's give our thanks and eat.”
Aden closed his eyes and tried to simply concentrate on giving his thanks to God. And thanking the hands who had created the bounty. But all he could think about was how thankful he was that everyone had stopped staring at him.
Next, serving dishes were passed around, each one to him first. Each time, he took his portion, and then passed the serving dishes along to Christina. More than once, their fingertips brushed against each other. More than once, she blushed before quickly looking away.
Little by little, conversation began. Joe talked with Nate and Henry about jobs he wanted them to do at the farm. Martha cautioned Leanna not to be late for school.
Christina asked Treva about her new job at the fabric store in the Alpine Village shops.
At last the meal was over. After thanking everyone again, Aden was more than ready to escape the house and drive his buggy to the livery in Sugarcreek. From there, he would take a van to his new job at the hospital.
“Aden, I know you're short on time, but could ya still take Christina into work?”
Christina met his gaze for the briefest of seconds before speaking. “I'll be ready in five minutes, Aden. All I have to do is put my lunch together. And yours, too, of course.”
He felt his cheeks heat. He hated all these traditions! “I can make my own lunch, Christina.”
“I don't mind. I promise, it's almost ready.”
“Take your time, then. I'm in no great hurry.”
“We made you a special lunch today,” Treva told him with a wide grin. She had her father's dark brown eyes, and they looked as full of mischief as always. “We even put in three brownies.”
He bowed slightly. “I will enjoy them
much.” And though the chocolate-caramel concoctions would likely taste like sandpaper in his mouth, he knew he'd never tell them differently.
But he did need a breather. Gazing over Treva's head, he said, “Christina, just come out whenever you are ready. I'm going to go hitch the buggy.”
Two minutes later, with his wool coat thrown over his shoulder, he escaped to the barn.
When he was completely alone, his footsteps slowed and he forced himself to remember the day of her skating accident. It was truly one of the worst days of his life.
He still acutely remembered his panic. The fear that had overcome him for days and had interrupted his sleep for monthsâhe'd been so afraid he would lose her forever. But overriding it all was his extreme sense of guilt. A better friend would have looked out for her more closely. Would've inspected the ice before letting her race away.