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Authors: Carolyne Aarsen

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BOOK: The Only Best Place
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My kind of place.

From: [email protected]

To: [email protected]

I wouldn't sweat the VandeKeere hegemony. Honey U need to get UR own job. UR own paycheck. Remember that dollhouse we got
when the Hardistys down the hall moved out? U were always playing with it, pretending family and house. Don't lose the dream.
If U Rn't careful that farm will suck U in and, maybe even suck U dry of money. And what if U don't end up with anything in
the end? U were born to be a nurse. Okay, U R a great mother too. And a good wife. But when I see U with patients I just know
this is what U R called to be. Think about it. BTW, gotta new man in my life. And no, I'm not going to pull a Mom. He's a nice
guy and I'm being careful.

Sultry Sister Sashaying in San Fran

From: [email protected]

To: [email protected]

Make sure you're careful. Remember, it's marry first, THEN have kids. I would love to go back to work, but my stock in the
family isn't real high right now and Dan is happier that I'm home with the kids. I have to confess I am too, but I do have
a lot of time on my hands. I love my kids, but I really miss my job. The eternal struggle between kids and purpose beyond
these four walls that are starting to close in on me at times. But don't worry about me. I'm okay. Or so Dan keeps telling
me. He's managing to keep busy. I'm still working out the whole “shouldn't he feel more guilty” scenario. He apologized and
it helped, but since moving here he's been happier, more settled and I'm the one feeling disgruntled. Also haven't heard a
thing from Josie back in Seattle. Some friend. At least you write once in a while. So. Write!!

Lugubrious Leslie

Chapter Five

I
think the next time you throw stuff like that out in front of my family, we should discuss it first.” Dan pulled Anneke's
toast out of the toaster and handed it to me to butter and spread.

“We did. Endlessly. One year. That's what you promised me.” I turned back to our son, his weaving head struggling to follow
the path of the spoon I waved around with my other hand. Hard to hold summit meetings and feed a squirmy toddler his breakfast
at the same time.

Nicholas got his plump lips around the spoon and then tried to grab it. “And we also agreed to ask for an assessment on the
farm,” I said, snatching the spoon from Nicholas's porridge-encrusted hands. I handed Anneke's toast to Dan. “Can you cut
this, please?”

“You didn't need to bring the assessment up at the family meeting,” Dan muttered, hacking the remnants of her toast into nine
small pieces. He handed the plate to Anneke, who grimaced at the mangled bread. No way was she going to eat that. Had I handled
her precious peanut-butter toast in such a cavalier manner, I would have had to convene the United Nations Human Rights Tribunal.

Dan glared at me as if the whole subject of the assessment had come from nowhere. Then wiped his knife on the edge of the
tablecloth.

I chose to ignore his culinary faux pas. I had bigger issues at stake than bread crumbs and peanut butter on my tablecloth.

“The farm isn't doing as well as we thought. And your mother wants to maintain control.” I enunciated each word as if I were
talking to Nicholas instead of to my husband. “If we are going to stay, we need to do an assessment and draw up an agreement
with your mother so we're covered for the time you put in.”

Dan tapped the knife on the table as if preparing for battle. I wished the battle weren't with me. I thought I'd get some
momentum from the warm and tender moment we'd shared the other night, but my insistence had precipitated a cooling trend.

“What is your problem with my mother?” he asked. “She's not trying to cheat us.”

“I didn't say that. You just need to get compensated for the work you do while you're here.” Nicholas jerked his head to the
side, his little sausage hands flailing at the spoon as he spat out his mouthful of porridge. Telling me in his usual diplomatic
way that he'd had enough of breakfast.

“It looks like we don't trust her,” Dan continued, dropping the knife with a clatter.

“It's not a matter of trust or greed,” I shot back, wiping Nicholas's mouth, then his hands, then everything within reaching
and spitting distance. I knew I was being practical. My voice was quiet, my body language nonthreatening. I was a living,
breathing ad for Reasonable and Practical Female. So why was Dan drumming his fingers on the table, telegraphing in a stuttering
Morse code his disapproval of what I had said?

“Daddy, you cut my toast too small.” Anneke shoved her plate back toward him. “Make it bigger.”

“Daddy can't make it bigger,” he grunted, rearranging the pieces into a bread shape and pushing the plate back at her. “It
makes it look like money is more important than helping my mother out.”

“Money is important.” I lifted the tray up and unbuckled Nicholas from the harness anchoring him to his high chair. “It's
the lack of it that got us here in the first place.”

“When are you going to get past it? The garage is gone. It's over. We're not going back.” Dan stared me down but I couldn't
give way.

“Maybe not to the garage, but we are going back to Seattle,” I said slowly, clinging to Nicholas like a lifeline. “We decided
that.”

“Maybe.”

Funny how that simple word could send my heart rate into coronary territory. “You don't really mean
maybe,
do you? You mean
when.

“We were barely hanging on there, Leslie,” Dan continued. “Money was tight, and neither of us was happy at work.”

I wasn't liking this. Moving to the farm was supposed to give us a reprieve from talking about money. From stressing about
how we were going to spend it and where. I watched reruns of
Little House on the Prairie
—I knew how this worked. I made the sacrifice of not going back to work so we could spend our mornings talking farmer talk.
Cows and crops and being all close to the land. Facing the elements together as a family and coming out stronger. United. With
one purpose. Strong in our relationship and ready to take on our future.

In Seattle.

Instead we were covering the same ground we had for the past two years. Our location had changed, but the view stayed the
same.

I lowered my voice, willed my heart to slow, and pressed on. “When we were dating, you told me you could hardly wait to leave
this place.” I smiled at him, hoping it softened my words. I really didn't want this confrontation. I wanted us to be husband
and wife again, not business partners. “In all the times we've moved, you never talked about coming back here.”

Dan ran his hands through his hair. He needed it cut, but there hadn't been time. Truth was, I kind of liked the shaggier
Dan. Made him look more like an Eddie Bauer model. When he was mechanicking he kept his hair short. He said it was easier
to wash.

I'm sure his bilingual secretary would feel the same about his new look. Which made me hold back and temper my words instead
of pushing hard and fast. A fragile relationship needed gentle movements. I learned this from working with the cows the other
day. Low and slow was the name of the game with skittish prey. Don't bring up subjects he'd assumed had been dealt with. Don't
ask too many questions. Just get through this.

Realize that someday we would look back at this time in our life, laugh nervously, and then change the subject.

“That was a while ago, Leslie,” Dan said. “And I had other reasons for wanting to leave this place.”

“Like your stepfather?” I asked.

“We had the worst kind of fights right here in this very room.”

Sort of like we're having now.
Although on an emotional level, we were only flirting with the “shock-and-awe” stage.

“Plans change. Life changes,” he said with a light sigh. “And if we're both honest, moving here works out for the best for
all of us.”

“I never had a problem with the moving-out-here part.”
Big fat liar.
“I'm having a problem with the staying-here part.”

I stifled a flutter of panic at the idea of being home all day, every day. Ever since I started working, I may not always
have had time, but I always earned my own way. I had agreed to stay at home while we were here. We would squeak by on Wilma's
“fair wage,” but if my car broke down or we needed to make a major purchase, we would have to dip into the “Dream Home Fund.”

I couldn't let that happen. The DHF had to be protected at all costs. I wasn't going to watch all the sacrifice of time I could
have spent with my family sift into the black hole of the farm. The lure of our own home on our own piece of property—a safe
place where my kids could play outside with room for toys and running and laughing—a home I could put my own stamp on—this
Thomas Kinkade vision kept me going to work, saving money, being cautious and careful. I couldn't sacrifice all of that to
help out his mother.

“I know that is a problem for you, Leslie”—he leaned back in his chair, frowning, looking all contemplative and serious—“but
with each day I stay here, I feel like I'm seeing things differently. I think it's a clear answer from God for us.”

“To what?” I didn't remember asking God any questions.

Dan's gaze flicked from me to the window beside the table. “When Anneke and I went to church last Sunday, the minister talked
about how God sometimes closes doors and opens others.”

“Losing you, Dan.” Nicholas and I hadn't attended church with him, so I couldn't partake in the pastor's insights.

Dan twirled a strand of hair around his finger. “I think that we had doors closed for us in Seattle.” He gave me a troubled
look. “Maybe they were opened here. Maybe God wants us to be here.”

Okay. He was freaking me out now. “Sorry, Dan. The little I know about God? I can't see that someone who flung stars into space
and came up with something as complex as the human body, would care whether we live in Seattle or Harland.”

“I don't like my crusts.” Anneke gave her plate a quick shove, sending it spinning across the table and onto the floor.

Dan ignored her, and I didn't dare take my eyes off him. The discussion was moving in a direction I hadn't practiced for.
I was fairly sure he received coaching from his family. As for me… a sister whooping it up in San Francisco was hardly a
fair competition to Wilma, Gloria, Judy, and assorted cousins, uncles, and aunts. Terra popped in and out of my life via e-mail
and the occasional phone call. His family, however, was always here, always present.

“It's called taking care of us. Taking care of our marriage,” I said slowly, hoping he didn't hear the rising panic in my voice.
“Something we haven't done as diligently in the past as we should have.”

Dan stared me as silence rose between us, heavy and threatening. And swirling around us as we faced off was the sibilant hiss
of one name. Missssss Bilingual. “I told you before we moved here—that's over,” he said, zipping up his vest. He stepped over
the pieces of Anneke's toast and strode toward the porch.

Coward,
I thought, watching as he jerked his bootlaces tight. I wanted to go out after him and finish this, but for now I was chained
to the kitchen by two soft but tyrannical obligations and nine pieces of toast scattered all over my kitchen floor.

“I'm going to be leaving for the auction in an hour,” Dan said as he slipped on his coat. “I'll stop by the house to say good-bye.”

Thank goodness for the auction. I needed a clothes dryer and Dan needed a few things for the farm. Our old dryer had come
brand-new with the condo and died about eleven minutes after the warranty expired and days before we had to move.

I had assumed we would simply head into town and pick up another one once we got here. But I hadn't counted on the Dutch tendencies
lying dormant in my husband and only now, in the bosom of his family, revealing themselves. Thankfully, last night Gerrit had
told Dan that the neighbor down the road was selling out and having a farm and yard sale so now Dan was going.

I cleaned up Anneke's bread and dropped another piece in the toaster while Nicholas rooted around on the floor for crumbs
I had missed.

My kitchen was finally organized and I'd had breakfast with my entire family for eight days in a row—a new record. I should
be full of warm, soft, motherly thoughts.

Instead I felt like I was running out of breath.

Toward the end of our time in Seattle, when I worked my crazy twelve-hour shifts and covered any extra ones I could pick up,
I would come home in the late morning to the smell of bacon and eggs still lingering in the air. I would feel a twist of sorrow
that Dan had been the one to give the kids their breakfast, bonding with them at their best time of the day, singing cute
songs and laughing, while I, the ghostly mom, struggled to keep the family and Dan's mechanic business afloat after the Lonnie
Dansworth debacle.

Sometimes things that are out of reach become appealing simply because they're unavailable. In my soft and tender dreams,
the boy I had a crush on could be both strong and gentle, wise and caring, and spend all his waking hours exuding sensitivity.
Reality is a boy who spends most of his waking hours wondering if his hockey team is going to make the playoffs and learning
to make interesting noises with his hand and armpit.

My little grimy boy with pablum in his hair and distinct diaper odor was someone I had forgotten in my dream breakfasts. As
was the daughter slowly working her way up the emotional scale from scattered periods of grief to a tsunami of hysteria because
her toast wasn't coming fast enough and her tummy felt sore, sore, sore. Pre-farm I'd had to deal with only a slice of these
family crises, never the whole loaf. It was exhausting and demanded a relentless creativity I'd never had to utilize before.

“You are a little worm, aren't you?” I said, hooking Nicholas around his chubby stomach in frustration and spinning him around
to face me. No way was I going to let him ruin my one and only semi-live plant.

BOOK: The Only Best Place
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