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Authors: Carolyne Aarsen

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BOOK: The Only Best Place
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“Not here. But back in Seattle you'd be back to full-time work. At least here we get to see you during the day. Admit it,
Leslie. Moving could be just what we need.”

“Like we need your mother breathing down our neck all the time?” Encroaching on my territory. Taking my kids shopping for their
father's gifts.

I wondered what she bought Dan. Would she know that I hoped to give him some decent pajamas? A Swiss Army knife?

“She's trying to help.”

“Dan, she's trying to control you.” I dropped Nicholas's other boot on the floor with a muffled thump as it hit his jacket.

Dan picked up Nicholas's boots and handed them to Anneke, who dutifully put them away. “And what are you trying to do?” He
snatched Nicholas's coat from the floor.

“I'm trying to put our marriage back together.”

Dan's eyebrows snapped together. “You're not going to forgive me for that, are you?”

“I have forgiven you, and I want our marriage to work…” My sentence trailed off as the truth of what he said previously
struck me. Maybe I hadn't forgiven him as readily as I said. It had been a large hurt and betrayal. Another woman encroaching
on my territory.

“I'm not as strong as you, Leslie. I need help and support. And I feel like I'm getting that here. I'm tired of moving around.
I'm tired of trying to find out who I really am.”

“So, when we go back to Seattle, we can stay there. Settle down.”

“We can stay here.”

He spoke so quietly, I almost didn't hear him. His words underlined what had gone through my own mind just up on the hill.

“Oh, Nicholas, look at you,” I said in a shaky voice as I brushed the dirt off his clothes and Dan's suggestion out of my
head.

Dan swung Anneke in his arms and without a backward glance, strode out of the porch into the kitchen.

Nicholas declared his independence and elected to walk on his own. So I followed more slowly. Had he really said “stay here”?

Dan already had a tablecloth on the table by the time I came into the kitchen. Anneke crouched by the cupboard pulling plates
out and setting them on the floor. Nicholas scooted over to her and started slapping his dirty hands on the plates, which
initiated a skirmish settled as quickly as it began when Nicholas beaned Anneke on the head with a plate.

By the time I had the kids settled and Nicholas changed, supper was on the table.

Food trumped discussion, so we ate quietly, limiting our conversation to “pass the salt” tacking on belated “pleases” and
admonitions to the kids to eat. The homemade casserole was hot, spicy, and creamily delicious. Nicholas decided to eat it by
osmosis—mashing food into his face and hair.

When we were done I got up, but Dan put his hand on my arm. “Gloria gave me this children's story Bible,” he continued. “I
thought we could read to the kids at suppertime.”

What could I say to that? Gloria had given, and Dan had taken. But Dan's comment about wanting control, though thrown out
randomly had stuck as firmly as the pasta now decorating Nicholas's hair. This home was Dan's as much as mine. If he wanted
to read some story Bible, then I could go along with it. Nothing wrong with teaching the kids morals, I figured.

Dan beckoned to Anneke who scooted over to her father and his lap. Dan set a worn, dog-eared book on the table in front of
them and opened it to the first page. “In the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth…”

Once upon a time,
I thought, irreverently. But in spite of my slightly cynical bent, I caught myself listening. Getting caught up in the simple
language of the story that, I knew, was ages old. It was still around. It had lasted through generations.
Might be worth paying attention to,
I thought as Nicholas crawled out of his high chair and wiggled his way onto my lap.

As Dan read, his voice grew softer and the Leslie-induced frown on his forehead slipped away. Anneke leaned forward, engrossed
in the colored pictures.

This must be what Dan's youth was like,
I thought, glancing around the kitchen as the sun slipped below the horizon, drawing the dark across the sky. The kitchen
growing cozy, safe, secure. His father reading, his sisters sitting around the table, his mother maybe holding Dan on her
lap like I held Nicholas now.

My baby rubbed his face with one hand but lay quietly in my arms, a warm package of little boy wrapped up in stained overalls
and T-shirt. It didn't seem that long ago that he was just a tiny bundle of flannelette. Now his head lay pillowed on my shoulder,
his dimpled feet, minus the socks he had pulled off, rested easily on my knees. I nuzzled Nicholas's head, inhaling the smells
of little boy and food laced with a hint of dirty diaper. I glanced at Anneke pretending to read along, her bow-shaped lips
forming the words after Dan.

He closed the book, then moved directly into a short prayer. When he said “Amen,” Nicholas repeated it. I couldn't say anything,
but I had lots to think about.

C'mon, honey. Wake up.” I shook Nicholas gently, preparing myself for a full-scale onslaught. This early in the morning the
only light came from the glow of a Winnie-the-Pooh night-light. I heard the hiss and spit of rain on the windows.

Anneke sat on the bed across the room scratching her tummy. When we first moved into the house, I gave each of the kids their
own room, thinking I was doing Anneke a huge favor. Anneke—who always complained that Nicholas was manhandling her Barbies,
that Nicholas cried too loud, that Nicholas smelled bad, bad, bad—was now sharing with the same little brother because she
couldn't handle the bounty of a room all to herself.

“I'm tired, Mommy,” Anneke sniffed, letting her hands drop to her sides. “I don't want to go.”

“I know you don't,” I said, gently commiserating with her like the parenting magazines told me to. “I understand that you're
tired and that you would probably sooner stay here, but we have to get going or Mommy's going to be late for work.” Oh, very
well done. Verbalize the child's frustration to show that you understand; then tell her what's going to happen anyway. This
seemed like a lot of work but, apprentice that I was, I was always rooting around in parenting magazines. The magazines should
come with a warning, “serving suggestion only,” just so a mother doesn't get fooled into thinking her children might actually
resemble the perfection of the perfectly posed child on the cover.

“I want you to stay home,” Anneke grumbled as Nicholas started twisting like a snake, his face scrunched into deep lines of
disapproval.

“Warning, warning. Move alert to code red. Boy is waking up,” I heard a voice still raspy with sleep say with a chuckle.

I glanced over my shoulder at Dan, standing in the doorway scratching his stomach. Like father like daughter. His hair was
a tangle of blond that still needed cutting, his chin shadowed with whiskers, and his ragged pajama bottoms hung just below
his waist. He really needed new pj's.

But it was his smile that caught my attention. That slightly crooked lift of his lips that signaled that all was well with
his world. It was this smile that first attracted me to him the first time I saw him with his friends. It was the same smile
he had when I walked down the aisle toward him. A smile I saw more frequently.

I felt the low-level pull of attraction and in spite of Nicholas, now squirming under my restraining hand, grunting his displeasure,
and preparing for a full-scale assault on our senses, I couldn't look away from my handsome husband.

He moved toward me, lowered his head, and dropped a warm kiss on the nape of my neck. Guaranteed to create happy shivers down
my spine. His warm hand caressed my back and rubbed a gentle circle. “How did you sleep?” he asked, brushing another kiss
over my forehead.

“I slept good.”

A gust of wind threw raindrops against the window. “It's raining. Unbelievable,” he said, a trace of awe in his voice. He
walked to the window and placed his hand against the cold pane, as if touching the water that now ran down the glass outside.

He turned to me, his smile taking on a note of fun. “I have a great idea. Take the kids to our bed. We'll all cuddle together
for a while.”

I felt the pull of deep temptation and for a moment imagined myself and the kids curled up together, a little nest of a family
all warm and cozy while outside the rain came down.

He caught my hesitation and looked from Nicholas to Anneke, then blinked as if realization finally dawned. “You working today?”

I nodded.

“I thought you had it off.”

“I did, but yesterday Roberta called, frantic. She needed to switch with someone and couldn't find a replacement.”

Dan's face slipped into displeasure, taking with it my faint moment of happiness. “But we were going to Aunt Tenie and Uncle
Jeff's open house today.”

Surely I wasn't going
that
crazy? “I didn't know anything about that.” I barely knew anything about his Aunt Tenie and Uncle Jeff other than they were
connected to him through the young couple we met at church.

“They mailed us an invitation. I was looking forward to introducing you to more of the relatives.”

“I don't remember getting an invitation.”

He sighed, pressed his lips together, and nodded. A long-suffering nod. My least favorite nod. “Obviously not important, is
it?”

I turned away from the no-win discussion as my mind raced over the past few weeks. The junk mail consortium hadn't been alerted
as to our whereabouts, so we hadn't received any offers for low-interest credit cards or Publishers Clearing House prizes. Yet.

I wouldn't have missed addressed mail. Would I? Was I slowly going crazy living out here? But if I knew I was going crazy,
then I wasn't crazy. Was I?

I picked up the now-squirming boy throwing his head around in frustration. “No up, no up,” he grumped. I managed to make it
to the bathroom, get the diaper off, and get the majority of the mess cleaned up before Nicholas started thrashing in earnest.

While I performed my diaper-changing calisthenics, Dan silently hovered in the doorway, waves of disapproval crashing over
me as his young son made his own similar disapproval clearly known. Nicholas flailed his arms, one little fist connecting
solidly with my arm, a fat foot thumping me in the stomach as he screamed.

“Leave those poor kids at home today,” Dan shouted. “I'll take them to the anniversary party myself.”

I cringed as I thought of Dan showing up sans spouse. I imagined Wilma's and Gloria's surreptitiously exchanged glances, then
sighs. That Leslie.

As Nicholas's screams stabbed repeatedly through my Nicholas Defense System, I also imagined driving twenty minutes to Kathy's
house with this thirty-five-pound bundle of fury and dropping him off. “You sure you don't mind?” I asked.

Dan's long-suffering look normally would get my hackles up, but with Nicholas still screaming and the anniversary party coming
up, I was at his mercy.

“Just wanted to make sure.” I raised my voice so he could hear, then manhandled Nicholas back to his bed, his haven. But he
wasn't that easily pacified. I had pulled him from his beloved sleeping place and he wasn't going to let me off without a
fine.

He screamed some more, but then grabbed his blankie and pulled it toward him, rubbing it over his face with jerky movements
as his sobs decreased in intensity.

“I'm going back to bed,” Dan said, still holding Anneke. “I'll hold the fort and keep the family intact. You go to work and
make your money.” He yawned, a jaw-cracking, slow yawn, and then slouched back to our bed, Anneke's head tucked into his neck.

His comment, delivered so casually, pierced me with its barbs. It wasn't just about the money. I worked so we could have a
future. I worked so I could keep up my skills. I worked because it was as much a part of me as farming was for him.

But neither he, nor his family, seemed to recognize or understand that.

I heard Nicholas ramping down his anger, Anneke's muffled giggle, Dan's deep voice teasing her.

A few moments ago, I had wanted to cuddle in bed with my husband and my daughter. Now all I wanted was to get to the hospital
as soon as possible. Keep the family intact indeed. As if his one day of babysitting was worth more than the dozens of days
I had already spent with the kids. Dan was the kind of man who would take out the garbage once and give the impression he
had just cleaned the entire house.

I slipped out and almost tripped over Sasha, who lay huddled against the door. She jumped up, her mouth open in a happy, doggy
smile, her tail waving a welcome greeting. I took a moment to pet her. At least someone in this house loved me today.

She followed me to the car looking hopeful, then, when she realized there was no trip in the offing, her tail slowed down,
her head drooped, and disconsolate she trotted back to the house, dropped down in the lee of the overhang, and stared morosely
at me.

“I know how you feel,” I muttered as I shivered in the car, waiting for it to warm up.

I glanced up at the house. The lone square of light from our bedroom winked out, cutting me off, and as I drove away, I imagined
Dan and Anneke cocooned in a pile of blankets as they drifted off to sleep.

BOOK: The Only Best Place
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