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Authors: Carolyne Aarsen

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The seven adults seated themselves in chairs, on floor pillows, laughing and chatting as they settled in. I perched on the
edge of a kitchen chair that had been hauled in, feeling like the cliché homely girl at the prom who people smile patronizingly
at but never talk to. The noise coming from the kitchen counterpointed the buzzing talk in the living room. Judy and Gloria's
kids alternately cleaned up and entertained mine.

I shot a yearning glance over my shoulder at the chaos of the kitchen and the kids. Call me immature, but that party seemed
like much more fun.

“So, Mom, how are you doing? Really?” Judy asked point-blank during a lull in the conversation. “Keith's been gone two months
now. Have you heard from him?”

Wilma shook her head as she toyed with her wedding ring and released a long, slow sigh. “Not a thing. It's like our marriage
never even existed.” Wilma's voice wavered. The hint of vulnerability softened the starch in my spine I habitually felt around
her. I grasped that moment of pity I couldn't find when she was her usual pillar of strength. She pressed trembling fingers
against her cheeks. “I wish I knew what God is trying to teach me through this.”

A heavy silence followed that remark, and I resisted my usual urge to fill it.

Give me a sucking chest wound or a broken arm and I was Mrs. Capable and Efficient.

Broken hearts and questions about God were best left to those with more experience and wisdom.

Gloria patted her mother's shoulder instead. “God will make His purpose clear, Mother. We have to be patient.”

“But what are you and Dan going to do about the farm in the meantime?” the ever-practical Judy asked, her elbows resting on
her knees man-style. “Let's be honest, Mom. Keith was a worse farmer than he was a stepfather.”

“Judy, you shouldn't say that,” Gloria protested, glancing at me as if to gauge my reaction. “Keith did the best he could
with what he had.”

“Hey, Glor, is it time for your medication or mine?” Judy said in exasperation. “Keith was lazy. Straight up.”

“Judy, that isn't humorous,” Wilma said, but her tone held an air of resignation.

“I'm dead serious,” Judy continued. “Forgive and forget is important, but let's be realistic, Mom. He wasn't treating you
well the past few years. And we all know Dan left the farm because of Keith. This isn't classified. I'm sure Leslie knows
that he was a lousy stepdad.” She glanced at me, singling me out and in a moment of what could be described only as non-inspiration,
I gave a lame shrug.

“Now, now, Judy. That'll do.” Dayton put his hand on Judy's shoulder in a “down, girl” gesture that netted an angry glare,
but when she saw Dayton's smile, she laughed herself and sat back. Dayton turned to Dan. “Now that we've covered the past
we're supposed to forget, I'm sure you and Mom have gone over the bank stuff. Why don't you tell us how it's doing?”

Dan's shoulder drifted up as he glanced at Wilma. “Mom has a better handle on the money part than I do right now. I've been
concentrating on getting the cows fed and going over the equipment in time for spring seeding.”

I felt embarrassed for my husband. Wilma should have brought him up to speed on the farm's finances, but it was as if Wilma
had regained control and wasn't going to relinquish it too quickly. Which made me even more convinced that the farm needed
to be assessed before Dan did one more minute of work on it.

“I know each of you has your own farm and your own problems to deal with,”Wilma said, “but I hoped you could give Dan some
advice. He's been away from the farm for a while, and I'm sure he could use the help.”

I tried to catch Dan's eye, but the shag carpeting held his intense concentration.

Wilma informed everyone of the farm's financial affairs. Though it seemed the farm was doing well, it hadn't prospered under
Keith's tenure. Equipment hadn't been maintained, and land had been mismanaged. Income was steady, but it was down. The farm
would need an input of cash before Dan put a crop in. Gerrit recommended a short-term loan. The wheat futures were good, as
were cattle prices. With proper and diligent care, the farm looked like it might pull out of its current slump and pay it
back.

Which meant that the farm would be worth more at the end of our year than at the beginning. Which came back to the need for
an assessment to be done. I waited for Dan to assert himself, but he kept the topics of his conversation limited to putting
in the crop and what kind of fertilizer to use.

Suggestions were thrown out on whether to plant barley or wheat. Whether to hay the one quarter or silage it. Should Dan dig
a new well or hope for high rainfall to augment the irrigation available from the canals? Gerrit and Dayton launched into
a lively discussion about crop yield and water rights and the high cost of fertilizer, spray, and fuel.

Everyone had something to add, some piece of advice to give. The women as well as the men.

Everyone except Miss I Grew Up in an Apartment. Call me crazy, but I couldn't catch the wave of enthusiasm these people were
projecting over inanimate objects. Land. Seeds. Equipment.

“I don't want to borrow money if we don't have to.” Wilma twisted her hanky in her hands. “Your father worked too hard to
get this farm where it is now. In spite of Keith's lack of care, I know your dad would want Dan to take it over.” Wilma gave
Dan a maternal glance that held a world of hope and expectation. Which in turn sent a shiver down my spine. Did she know? Had
Dan told her?

“But the farm has a value, Mom,” Dayton said. “Borrowing isn't a bad thing. Not in long-term planning.”

I could feel my heart pushing hard and fast against my chest. Dan wasn't saying anything. His mother assumed we were staying
here. This had to be stopped.

“Has anyone done an assessment on the farm lately?” I blurted out.

Blank looks all around, then all eyes focused on me.

“There's never been a need,” Gloria said, frowning.

“I'd like to see one done before Dan does any more work here.”
There.
It was said and out in the open.

“Why do you want that?” Judy asked, snapping a cracker in half.

I took a deep breath, ignored my husband's warning glance, and plunged in. “I think it's important for us to ascertain the
value of the farm at the present moment.”
Listen to you, Leslie. You actually used the word
ascertain. “Because Dan will be working on the farm for a while and hopefully increasing the net worth. I would like to make
sure he's recompensed for his work.”

And now
recompensed.
Aren't you the business whiz?

“You're drawing a generous wage from the farm,”Wilma said, clearly puzzled where I was going and clearly unaware of what constituted
generous. “And you'll be building up equity over the long term.”

“Leslie means—” Dan started.

I cut him off at the impasse. Too late. I had the conversational reins now. “What I mean is
when
Dan and I leave”—I made sure to put exactly the right amount of emphasis on
when—
“I want to make sure Dan is paid for the work he's done on this farm. I don't know how much growth there'll be in the year
we are here, but Dan is a hard worker and I want to make sure that is recognized.”

If it weren't for the shag carpeting in the living room, you could have heard a pin drop. I did hear a whistling intake of
breath, then a “well,” and without moving my eyes from my fingers, twisted nervously around each other, I knew these ominous
sounds had come from Wilma.

I felt myself mentally backpedaling. But I pressed my lips together, holding back any verbal retreat I might be tempted to
indulge in. I risked a glance at Dan, who was tapping his fingers against his arm, staring at me.

I've seen a lot of Dan's expressions in our married life, but this boldly assessing look was a new one. And I didn't like it.

“I agree that we should have an assessment done,” Dan said, and I slowly felt the tension in my shoulders relax.
Finally.

“Why?” Gloria asked. “It's going to cost the farm money, and for what purpose?”

“The purpose is to make sure that if the value of the farm goes up because of the work Dan puts in it, that is acknowledged
when it's time for us to leave.”

Judy's puzzled look glanced off me and onto Dan. “You just got here! Why is Leslie talking about leaving?”

Dan had obviously not prepared them for this. Had he been hoping that once we were here I would change my mind?

I scanned the room. The sisters wouldn't meet my eye. Worse, they were looking at each other, and I certainly didn't have
to be a VandeKeere to know what they were thinking.

Our poor brother.

I closed my eyes, sucked in some air, and counted to seven. I couldn't wait 'til ten, but knew I needed more than five.

“Our move here was never meant to be permanent.” I focused on Judy, the one sister I felt the most connection with. But her
glance was the merest whisper of her eyes over my face, and in that brief moment I caught a shout of disappointment that hurt.
I resisted the urge to explain. Dan was supposed to have done all the groundwork, but obviously the sisters knew nothing.
His mother, even less.

Retreat in the face of overwhelming odds would not have been cowardly. But fear and pride can make people do undiplomatic
things.

“We're only here a year and then we're moving back to Seattle. That was supposed to have been made very clear.”
By your precious Dan.

Dan's arms folded across his chest as he leaned back. Away from me.

“Is she right?” Gloria asked Dan. “Why does she want to go back?”

“We had discussed it,” he hedged, lifting his hand in a vague gesture.

Discussed it?
We'd drawn up a plan with a timeline. Stay in Harland long enough to get the farm in decent shape to sell. Get Wilma set
up, give ourselves a chance to regroup, and make some decisions about what to do when we moved back to Seattle again. I had
initially lobbied for six months, but Dan had contended that it wasn't worth the bother if we didn't stay at least a year.

Gloria slipped her arm across Wilma's shoulders, as if protecting her from the heresy of a daughter-in-law who didn't want
to live here with the family. If anyone could imagine that. “This is news to us. However, if that is your plan”—her gaze cut
to me as if the idea were mine and mine alone—“then we shall have to work within that.”

Dan shot me daggers, and I knew we were going to have a “talk” when everyone left.

“For now we still need to decide what to crop,” Dayton said, tapping his large fingers on his arm, thankfully bringing the
conversation to a manageable, practical topic. “As well, the tractor needs a new engine. I'm sure you can get Uncle Orest
to help you put a new one in.”

More ideas surfaced, but I understood from the lack of eye contact that I no longer had a part in the conversation. At some
unseen signal, Judy got up and brought coffee around and Gloria brought out cream and sugar. The sisters worked in an easy,
efficient rhythm.

Me? I sat there. Inadequate hostess. Ungrateful daughter-in-law.

Finally I got up from my chair. “I'll go check on the kids.”

Eyes swiveled my way, telegraphing unspoken relief.

They wanted me gone. Well, gone I could manage. So I headed out of the room, leaving them to make their decisions without
the interloper.

I quietly made my way back up the stairs and slipped into Dan's old bedroom, where Nicholas now held court. He lay curled
up on his stomach, his behind in the air, his arms tucked under him like a cat. As I tried to rearrange him into a more comfortable
position, he flung his arms out and stiffened. I recognized the first step toward wakefulness and withdrew, pulling his quilt
over his shoulders even though I knew in ten minutes he'd shrug it off again.

Thankfully summer was coming and I wouldn't have to worry about how to keep him warm in this drafty old house.

Winter would be another story.

Don't go there yet. One day, one chocolate at a time was the only way I was going to get through this year. The jar sitting
beside my bed down the hall whispered to my mind like a siren.
Come eat us. Drown your sorrows in dark chocolate with creamy centers.
If scarfing down the entire contents of the jar would reduce my time here I'd be unwrapping and chomping quicker than you
could say “liposuction.” But it wouldn't shorten our time here, and it
would
make me sick. I glanced at Nicholas's window but caught only the reflection of light coming through the partially open door
behind me. Moving to the window ledge, I looked out at, well, nothing.

Just my ghostly reflection superimposed on a thick, heavy darkness broken only by pinpricks of light from the stars, millions
of miles away.

Cue the violins,
I thought, turning away. I headed downstairs and bypassed the living room, where the responsible adults were still talking.
I joined the kids playing board games in the kitchen. It was cozy, welcoming, and nonjudgmental.

BOOK: The Only Best Place
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ads

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