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Authors: Carolyne Aarsen

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“Awwaw du wa,” were his eloquent words as wide blue eyes sparkled up at me, kindling a warmth as unexpected as it was welcome.
And in spite of the crust edging his mouth and the dirt in his hair and the ever-growing odor from his backside, I pulled
his rounded body close to me and kissed a sticky face only a mother could love. I could indulge in the love right now. At
home, I would have seen him as another job to squeeze in while I had one eye on the clock. Now, I could see the potential
sweetheart that was my adorable Nicholas under the grime and beyond the smell.

Good thing, because right now with Dan? Not so much with feeling the love.

As I washed and wiped, all the while breathing through my mouth, I reminded myself of my promise. I was going to make the
best of it. Be proactive. If you can't change it, adjust to it.
Carpe diem.
Seize the day.

I glanced at the clock, a surge of dread grabbing me. I had acres of time to carpe this particular diem. Since Anneke was
born, I had been chasing time, trying to catch up to it, to grab hold of it, and make it work for me. After we moved here,
it had taken me a surprising amount of time to get the house set up. My kitchen finally looked orderly. The house smelled
like artificial lemons.

Now I had time on my hands and I didn't know what to do with it.

Two days after we were done working with the cows, Dan turned his attention to the farm equipment to get it ready in time
for spring seeding. And he had been working on them ever since.

A passing glance at the windows gave me an idea. I could take the kids for a walk.

“Shall we get dressed?” I asked Nicholas and Anneke, injecting a note of fake heartiness into my voice. My morning conflict
with Dan still churned in my mind. As I brought the kids to the porch, I rehearsed alternate endings and gave myself much
wittier dialogue. My intelligence level always rose after our arguments. I would be ready for Dan if the topic came up again
tonight. Hopefully it would. Bringing an argument to completion in under twenty-four hours would be a novel concept for Dan
and me.

I laid Nicholas down on the porch floor to weave him into his jacket and pants. Anneke was at the “I-can-do-it-myself” stage
of dressing, which would give me enough time to get Nicholas ready, get dressed myself, file my nails, and maybe read a couple
of Shakespeare sonnets.

But I didn't need to stuff her protesting arms into a jacket, her twisting feet into boots, one eye on the relentless clock.
No schedule hung over my head like Damocles' sword as it had at home. We didn't need to rush off to day care so I could rush
off to work, where I rushed to catch up to a constant influx of patients, then rushed home through snail-paced rush-hour traffic,
my thoughts on my waiting children.

So I let Anneke dance around the porch with her mittens on her feet, entertaining her little brother, who was content to sit
like a bundled-up Buddha, babbling his incomprehensible jargon while I slowly put on a coat and gloves. I listened to a recitation
of a “pome” Anneke had made up about a frog and a ball and laughed with her at the ending. When she graciously allowed me to
zip up her coat, I made buzzing noises as I pulled the tab upwards and finished it off with a kiss on her pudgy nose.

“I love you, Mommy,” she crowed, grabbing me tightly around the neck.

Her four words shot straight to my heart and wound around it, slowly, holding it as tight as her arms held my neck.
She's mine,
I thought, jealously squeezing her hard.
She belongs to me fully and completely and wholly.
Dan's heart may have wandered for a time, Nicholas may treat my love for him as something to tolerate, but Anneke was purely
and wholly my child.

The warmth her declaration kindled in me lasted as long as it took us to step from the porch outside. A faint breeze sifted
through the buildings, snaking up through my jacket when I bent over to put Anneke and Nicholas in their plastic wagon. The
resulting chill was a leftover of a nasty winter more than content to stay around like an unwelcome guest who had one more
joke in his repertoire.

Beyond the house lay a large open patch of ground bordered by bare, red canes of raspberry bushes on one side and a row of
apple trees on the far south end. The garden itself was a clean, neat expanse of black dirt, waiting for planting.

An expanse of dirt that awaited the garden that Dan and his family thought I might want to plant. As if. The closest I got
to living things was my mother's single ivy plant, which my sister and I watered with leftover tea and, when we had money
to spare, soft drinks.

“Let's go, Mommy.” The handle of the wagon shook in my hands. The natives were getting restless. Anneke smiled as she rocked
the wagon. Nicholas's heavy coat bunched up at his neck, made his head effectively immobile, but his eyes flitted back and
forth, taking everything in. As I watched my two children act utterly content in the cold, I realized how long it had been
since I had taken the kids out for something as ordinary as a walk. Since the cow-moving day, I'd been either busy setting
up the house or the weather had been too cold.

Smiling myself, I turned around and started down the long driveway toward the road. Anneke burbled snatches of an unfamiliar
song—something macabre about God watching a sparrow falling—and then she belted out the chorus: “He loves me, too; He loves
me, too; I know He loves me, too.” And every now and again Nicholas burbled some unintelligible comment that I chose to translate
as “I'm happy.”

I sucked in a deep gulp of biting air and turned my eyes toward the road. In spite of a flush of well-being, something nagged
at me, scrabbling at the edges of my consciousness. Something eerie and unfamiliar. I paused. Listened. That's when I heard
it.

Nothing.

No cars. No horns honking. No airplanes. No people calling out to one another. No music. No neighbors.

I stopped, listening to the great big nothing. Anneke and Nicholas must have sensed my uneasiness, because they grew silent
as well.

Emptiness pushed on my ears, pressing deep into my head. I felt the sweep of the wind urging me along over the fields toward
the mountains that guarded our valley.

My heart pounded, pushing against my chest. I could hear it as my raspy breath drew in and out, in and out. I thought again
of that moment just before I had helped with the cows. The same feeling, but then I wasn't alone. Now it was just me, and
my two vulnerable, tiny children lost in this huge emptiness…

Don't panic. It's okay.

I breathed slowly, like I often told parents of patients to do.

Easier to be the coach than the coachee, I realized. I got control of my breathing as my heartbeat slowed.

Then, behind me, I heard the slam of a door. A truck starting up. Dan was leaving. And I would be all alone in this vast,
quiet nothingness.

I spun around and strode quickly to the shop, the wagon bump-bumping over the washboard ruts in the driveway as I honed in
on the truck. Nicholas squealed with pleasure and Anneke laughed as I quickened my pace.

Dan was heading toward the house when he saw us.

“Hey there. I was coming to say good-bye.”

“I thought we could go with you.” I had the panic under control now so I didn't miss the faint downturn of his mouth. Though
I couldn't speak mechanic, I had “Dan” pretty well mastered.

He didn't want us to come.

But Anneke heard “go with you” and with a high-pitched squeal repeated the words, effectively bolstering my faint suggestion.

“Are you sure? It's not going to be that interesting.” If it wasn't for the fact that Miss Bilingual had moved to Winnipeg
and he had promised me it was over, I would think he was heading out to meet her. He looked that guilty.

“I don't have a lot to do.”

Dan adjusted the fit of his ubiquitous billed cap and sighed. “I'll get the car seats.”

Moments later we had the kids strapped in and the wagon in the box of the truck. As I climbed into the cab, Dan adjusted the
radio, cutting off some country singer mid-sob. Dan never listened to country music at home. But then neither did he let his
hair get this long or go out in public without shaving.

I climbed into the truck, feeling like I had accepted a ride with a stranger.

“Are you sure you want to come?” he asked, giving me one more chance before he turned the key in the ignition. “The kids will
probably get bored and cranky. These sales go on a long time.”

“I like the idea of spending the afternoon together.” I wasn't going to let him talk me out of it. Besides, in my current
frame of mind I didn't know if I could deal with the strong possibility of a visit from Wilma.

“Okay,” he said in the “I-think-you're-crazy” tone that usually set my teeth on edge. But these days I was trying to construct
a new and improved Leslie VandeKeere and I let it slip under the radar.

We drove in silence as I stared out at the endless landscape of brown ditches, brown fields, and bare trees, stark and clear
against the leaden sky.
This is no different from Seattle this time of the year,
I reminded myself.
Just fewer houses and less traffic. Appreciate it for what it is.

I was starting to get good at this self-talk, I thought, leaning back in the seat.

Dan cleared his throat, laying his hand on my arm.

“I'm sorry about this morning,” he said. “I shouldn't have walked out on you like that.”

Usually this was my cue to meet him halfway, acknowledge my part in the argument, then shore up my defenses. But usually I
had most of the day or night shift at work to go over the argument and find weaknesses in his statements, and usually I had
the help of sympathetic co-workers who faithfully took my side.

But today he had caught me defenseless and rebuttal-less.

“I still think we should do the assessment.” Lame reply, but the best I could do on the fly.

Dan looked away. “If I agree, will you be willing to put our money into the farm?”

Marriage was about give and take, but on this I couldn't give. The money from the house was the down payment on the life I
needed to return to. On a future that had security and steady, regular income. I didn't dare risk losing any ground on that.
Not the way he talked this morning.

“I'm sorry, Dan, but I can't.” He held my gaze and I pushed. Had to. “We'll get money from that court case against Lonnie
Dansworth, then we'll be okay.”

“And if we don't?”

“Then we can use the house money to start up another business and in time, we'll get it back.”

“How can you talk about putting the money into a business I don't like, instead of putting it into something I do like?” He
looked ahead again, his jaw clenched.

And we're off… “Because we agreed we were going back.” I could do stubborn too. What I lacked in creativity, I made up for
in persistence. Dan, however, was exceeding his usual quota. Of course, he had the rallying support of his family behind him.
I was on my own. “We agreed, Dan,” I added for artistic impression.

Dan reached over and turned on the radio, filling the cab with wailing guitars and nasal twangs. The conversation was over.
And now I had put myself in the unenviable position of being stuck in close proximity to him for the rest of the day.

This was a mistake.

Chapter Six

A
long snakelike line of pickup trucks—twin metal caterpillars—lined each side of the narrow road leading to the farm sale.
As we walked toward the farm's driveway, I wondered where all these people had materialized from. In the twenty-five minutes
it had taken us to get here, I had counted maybe twelve yard sites. There were at least eighty vehicles parked along the road.

In the distance, as if in counterpoint to the silence that had risen between Dan and me, a nasal chanting rose and fell, then
paused and continued again. After a few minutes I realized the sound came from the auctioneer, his voice carried to us by
a faint breeze.

“So, why are there so many people here?” I asked, glancing sidelong at Dan. “Is this a special sale?”

Dan glanced my way, recognizing my conversational peace offering for what it was. Avoidance. But his light shrug told me he
was game. “Not really. I remember going with my dad to farm sales every spring. Most of the people are ‘lookie loos.’ It's
something to do and a chance to visit.”

I pulled my coat a little closer around me and thought of a hundred other ways to visit that didn't require standing around
in cold weather.

“So, why do people have farm sales?”

“This one is an estate sale. Dwayne Harris died about three months ago, and the wife is moving to town ‘cause the kids don't
want to take over the farm. Been happening a lot lately,” Dan said, melancholy edging his voice.

I was about to ask him if Wilma would have an auction sale when we left, but his tone told me he didn't need my happy questions.

We turned into a long, narrow driveway enclosed by trees. The amplified voice of the auctioneer lured us on while chiding the
bidders to recognize the deals they were getting. Bargains, folks. Absolute bargains.

The driveway wound for a few hundred feet and then opened up onto a wide yard. A large red barn, the kind that come with farm
play sets for kids, held court on one side of the yard, its doors and windows creating a face that looked with bored tolerance
at the large group of people milling about in the yard below it. Beside the barn, a large shed, open in the front, held an
assortment of machinery.

The house sat across the yard from the barns, an older two-story affair with a large wraparound porch. Brown paint peeled
off the siding and a few old pots trailing dead branches and leaves still hung from the beams of the porch. The house looked
weary, as if it were ready to move to town as well.

Furniture stood in neat orderly rows on the grass. A couple of couches, one with a matching chair and loveseat, some beds,
a dining-room table and chairs.

BOOK: The Only Best Place
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