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A muscle pulled tight across Mary's abdomen, creating a line of pain from her hip to her belly button. The tightness made it difficult to walk. She didn't care what that website said. Three miles was too far for a pregnant girl to go in one day.
Not that she had a choice. Mary's mamm had slammed the door in her face before Mary had even gotten a word in edgewise, and Mary hadn't known when the next bus was scheduled to come down the deserted road. She had turned her back on her parents' home and cried good and hard for about a mile before talking herself out of her self-pity. She couldn't blame her parents for reacting the way they had. She'd even been expecting it. After not seeing her family for two years, she'd shown up wearing jeans and a Maroon 5 T-shirt. And pregnant. Mamm couldn't very well overlook that inconvenient fact. Mary should have taken out her earrings. Mamm might have at least listened if Mary hadn't been wearing earrings.
Mary huffed out a breath. She should have thought that one through a little better. Mamm was hurt and angry. The community might be even less forgiving.
Did she really want to raise her child in such a place?
If a wayward daughter wasn't welcome in her own house, how could Mary hope to be accepted by the community? Would the Amish treat her child like an outsider for the rest of his life? By mile number two, it was safe to say that Mary's hopes had fallen in the ditch. But Mary wasn't one to slosh around in her own tears. She'd made a lot of mistakes, bad ones, but she wasn't afraid to own up to them and get on with her life.
Finally, the Honeybee Farm came into sight as Mary rounded the next bend in the road. A big sign painted with flowers and butterflies stood right in front of the property. BEWARE THE HONEYBEES, it said. It wasn't a very friendly message and Mary didn't know Bitsy Kiem well, but something told Mary if anybody would take her in, Bitsy Kiem and her three nieces would. Bitsy had once been an Englischer. Surely Bitsy would feel sympathy for Mary's plight. Then again, Mary had been away a long time. Maybe nobody here would feel anything for her, not even obligation. Maybe she'd have to walk back into town and find a park bench to sleep on for the night. She hoped not. Her feet were going to fall off.
Mary clomped clumsily over the small wooden bridge that spanned an even smaller pond at the front of Bitsy's property. She passed several beehives on her left and nearly a dozen on her right. The hives hummed like a Corvette, and a cloud of bees flew in and out and around the hives. It was late spring, and they were busy. Mary inhaled the glorious scent of the flowering bushes lining the little lane that led to the house. The Honeybee Farm was the best-smelling property in Bienenstock, Wisconsin. The Honeybee Sisters had planted hundreds of trees, bushes, and flowers to attract and feed their bees. It was a heavenly place. Mary thought she could be quite happy here if Bitsy didn't throw her out before she even got in the door.
Mary climbed the porch steps, swallowed hard, and knocked. Her heart pounded against her ribs, and not just because she'd walked the three miles from her parents' house in flip-flops. Maybe Bitsy would have pity on her and give her a drink of water before kicking Mary off her property.
The door cracked open an inch, and the barrel of a shotgun appeared through the gap. Mary sucked in her breath. She had jumped the fence two years ago, but surely Bitsy didn't think she deserved to be shot for it. Mary took two steps back and raised her hands over her head like she'd seen people do in the movies. "I'm going. I'm going," she said.
The shotgun drooped, the door opened even farther, and Bitsy Kiem stuck her head outside. Under a red bandanna, her hair was a pleasing shade of blue, not too bright, not too faint. She wore a purple dress, pink earrings, and her usual frown. "Mary Coblenz? Is that you?"
Keeping her hands high above her head, Mary nodded slowly.
Bitsy grunted, propped her shotgun against the wall, and folded her arms across her chest. "I thought you were that magazine salesman. That boy won't leave me alone."
"I'm-I'm sorry," Mary stuttered.
"Don't apologize. I'm glad you're not the magazine salesman. I might have had to shoot you."
Mary giggled in spite of her racing heart. "I'm glad you didn't have to shoot him."
Bitsy's frown deepened, and she waved her hand in the air like she was swatting a fly. "I wouldn't shoot anybody unless they deserved it. I don't believe in guns."
For a woman who didn't believe in guns, Bitsy certainly treated hers like it was an old friend. And maybe she'd pick it up again as soon as she heard what Mary had to say. "Bitsy, I know this is strange — "
Bitsy stepped onto the porch, curled her fingers around Mary's arm, and nudged her into the house. "You look like you've had quite a time of it yet. Cum reu and sit down. I've got muffins fresh from the oven, and cold milk."
Nothing in the world sounded so good as muffins and cold milk. Mary closed her lips and sat down at the table. What she had to say could wait. She'd like to eat a muffin before Bitsy made her go. Maybe Bitsy hadn't noticed she was pregnant.
"Those shoes are the most impractical things I've ever seen," Bitsy said, taking a plate from the cupboard and putting two muffins on it.
"They are," Mary said, because the space between her right big toe and the next toe was growing a blister, and bits of caked dry mud stuck to her feet like moss on a rock.
Bitsy set the plate of muffins on the table with a knife, a spoon, and a jar of raspberry jam. Mary sighed out loud. She couldn't remember the last time she'd had homemade raspberry jam. Bitsy went to the fridge and poured the most delicious-looking glass of milk Mary had ever seen. "They're bran muffins, but don't worry. They're delicious. You can even make bran taste good if you use enough sugar, and Yost needs bran to stay regular."
Mary didn't know who Yost was, but bran muffins sounded like about the best thing in the world right now. Her stomach growled. She hadn't eaten anything since about five this morning except a bottle of water, and that definitely didn't count. She cut a muffin in half, spread on a generous dollop of jam, and took a bite. It was the best thing she'd ever tasted and probably the best thing she'd ever taste again.
Bitsy set the glass of milk on the table. "Good?" she asked.
Not wanting to talk with her mouth full, Mary smiled, nodded, and took a drink of milk. It tasted so good, she finished off a third of the glass before taking a breath. "It's appeditlich, Bitsy. Denki."
Bitsy studied Mary's face. "I've got some peanut butter in the pantry. You look like you need some protein. Or I could fry you up a steak right quick. I have a special seasoning."
"Nae. Of course you don't need to fry up a steak."
"I don't need to do anything, but I don't mind cooking a steak. It's not that hard."
"Please don't trouble yourself." Mary finished off her first muffin and started in on the second. She needed to get it down before Bitsy started asking questions.
Bitsy pulled out the chair next to her and sat down. "My muffins are famous, but I don't expect you came because you heard I'd made a batch today."
Mary looked down at her hands. "Nae. I didn't come for the muffins."
Bitsy nodded as if she already knew what Mary was going to say. "Well, it's lucky I had some on hand."
Might as well get it over with. Mary drank the rest of her milk and stuffed the last of the muffin into her mouth, taking a few seconds to chew before she explained herself.
She should have known Bitsy would be four steps ahead of her. "When's the buplie coming?"
Mary instinctively rested her hand on her growing abdomen. "August sixth."
Mary hadn't expected Bitsy to smile — she rarely did, at least since Mary had known her. Bitsy laid her hand over Mary's. "It's wunderbarr to have a baby, you know. I never got that chance."
Mary pressed her lips together. She'd spent so many months worrying about being pregnant. It was almost a relief that someone was happy about the baby. Of course, Bitsy probably didn't know Mary wasn't married. She might feel differently if she knew.
"They say your bladder will never be the same," Bitsy said, "but it's a small price to pay to bring another soul into the world. Boy or girl?"
"I don't know."
"We'll have to do the needle test on you. If it circles, it's a girl. If it goes back and forth, it's a boy. I've never seen it fail yet."
Mary nodded. "I ... I'd like to try that. It would be ... fun to know."
"Well, it's nice to be able to make blankets and booties the right color before the buplie comes. Have you had any heartburn? They say if you have bad heartburn, your baby will have lots of hair."
Mary couldn't speak past the lump in her throat. It was such a commonplace conversation — two women talking about having a baby, making plans, actually getting excited about it. Mary had missed so much.
Bitsy tilted her head and eyed Mary with all the understanding of a woman who'd raised three nieces. "That boy you ran off with, did he marry you?"
Mary shook her head and braced herself for Bitsy's indignation.
Mary's eyes nearly popped out of her head. "Thank goodness?"
"It's easier when you don't have to unstick yourself from a sticky situation. The lawyers get rich, and you get nothing but heartache." Bitsy poured Mary another glass of milk. "So. You're pregnant, you're unmarried, and you've completely lost your sense of fashion."
A laugh escaped Mary's lips, and droplets of milk shot out of her mouth and splattered the tablecloth. "You don't like my T-shirt?"
"It's a bad color on you and the earrings are all wrong, and since when does a self-respecting young woman wear holes in her jeans?"
Mary didn't dare take another swig of milk. Bitsy was so unexpectedly brash. "Everybody wears holey jeans these days."
Bitsy handed Mary a napkin. "You've got your mamm's smile."
"Denki," Mary said, not feeling all that much like smiling anymore. Mamm hadn't smiled this morning.
Bitsy heaved a great sigh. "I suppose she kicked you out."
Mary's shoulders sagged. "She didn't even let me in."
"So you came here?"
Mary caught her bottom lip between her teeth. "I should have known she wouldn't let me come home. I wouldn't have let me come home. I was foolish, deerich, not to have another plan when I left Green Bay, but I only had enough money to get here. You were once an Englischer. I thought maybe you wouldn't mind if I stayed here for a few days until I can make arrangements to go back to Green Bay."
"Do you want to go back to Green Bay?"
She might as well be honest, even if it made her sound pathetic. "Not really."
Bitsy leaned forward. "I need to know a few things first, Mary Coblenz. Are you afraid of bees?"
"Are you allergic to cats?"
"Not that I know of."
Bitsy frowned. "Too bad. It would have given me an excuse to get rid of them. I have four. People at church call me 'the cat lady' behind my back." She pointed to a fuzzy white cat lounging on the window seat. "Farrah Fawcett is as useful and as pleasant as a bowl of Brussels sprouts." Bitsy wiped at a spot of milk on her tablecloth. "This is the most important question. Will your parents be mad if I take you in?"
Mary's heart sank. And just when she was starting to feel a tiny sliver of hope. "I don't think they'll like it."
Bitsy smiled again. That was twice in less than fifteen minutes. "Gute. People need something to get worked up about. It's so much fun for everyone if I give them a reason to gossip."
"You don't care that my parents will be mad?"
"All my nieces are married, and I have three empty beds upstairs. You can spread out over all three if you want. And I won't hear talk about going back to Green Bay. Stay here as long as you like. This house needs a baby."
Mary had already bawled once today and she wasn't usually a crier, but tears pooled in her eyes. "That ... you don't mind if I stay here?"
"Of course not, and Yost will be thrilled."
"Who is Yost?"
"My new husband," Bitsy said. "He agrees with me on just about everything, and if he doesn't, he knows enough to admit that he's wrong. Yost is around about half the time. He works his farm as well as mine. He's a treasure." A shadow passed over her features. "I only have one request. If any boys come poking around, don't feed them. Boys are like stray cats. If you feed them once, they keep coming back."
Mary giggled. "I think we can safely assume that no boys are going to come poking around. I jumped the fence, I'm pregnant, and you have a shotgun."
Bitsy grunted. "Don't be so sure. Boys are very determined when they want to be."
Mary brushed crumbs into her hand from the table. "Bitsy, I don't know how to thank you."
Bitsy waved away any mention of gratitude. "You're welcome, and never mention it again. If the truth were told, I'm being selfish. I like it when people gossip about me."
"They're more likely to gossip about me."
"That's double the fun as far as I'm concerned. Now sit tight. I'm going to fry you a steak."
Alfie Petersheim was only eight, but he was old enough to know that Mamm had pulled one over on him.
Sleeping in the cellar will be a grand adventure, she had said. It will be like sleeping in your own cave, and you and Benji will have it all to yourselves.
Alfie should have known it was a trick. A dirty, dirty trick.
He lay on his back on the hardest air mattress in the world staring at the ceiling, which he couldn't see. The cellar was so dark, he wouldn't even be able to see his hand if he held it right in front of his face — although he hadn't tried it because he didn't dare let go of the blanket that he clutched for dear life around his chin.
The cellar smelled like dirty socks and moldy peanut butter. What had Mamm been thinking? Everybody knew mold was poisonous. Willie Glick even said so. And Alfie was sure a spider had crawled across his hand not one minute ago.
The ceiling creaked as if it was going to fall on him and his brother. Or maybe it was a ghost sneaking around upstairs waiting for Alfie to go to sleep so he could attack.
"Benji?" Alfie whispered, risking pulling his hand out of the covers to tap his twin bruder on the arm. Benji responded by rolling over and jabbing his knee into Alfie's side.
It will be fun, Mamm had said. You will love sleeping down there. It was the first time that Mamm had lied straight to his face. At least he hoped it was the first time. How many other lies had she told him? Had his hamster really run away?
Alfie was not happy that Benji could sleep through anything, even a ghost attack. "Wake up." Alfie shoved his bruder so hard that Benji slipped off the air mattress and thudded onto the cement floor.
"Hey!" Benji protested. "Stop it."
"We've got to make a plan," Alfie said, pulling the covers tighter around himself. It was almost summertime, but how hard would it have been for Dat to build a small fire in the stove so his youngest sons didn't freeze to death? Alfie heard some shuffling on Benji's side, then Benji fell hard onto the mattress as if he'd tripped trying to find it in the dark. His hard fall bounced Alfie into the air — not far, but high enough to wake all the spiders lurking under the mattress. There was a small pop and a hiss, and Alfie slowly started to sink. "Benji, what did you do?"
Benji sat up again. "I didn't do nothing, but I think there's a hole in here."
They both fell silent. A low hiss came from Benji's side of the air mattress, and no doubt about it, they were sinking like a leaky boat.
Mamm had told them not to turn on the electric lantern unless it was an emergency because it wasted the battery. Their mattress was flattening like a pancake, Alfie had probably already been bitten by a spider, and he was going to die from mold poisoning. As far as he was concerned, this was an emergency.
Alfie felt around the edge of the bed until his hand found the lantern. He flipped the switch, and the cellar flooded with light. There were some spooky shadows in the corner where monsters could be hiding, but Lord willing, the lantern would keep them safe.
"Come on, Alfie," Benji said, rubbing his eyes. "I want to sleep."
"You popped our mattress. Mamm said not to jump on it."
Benji sat cross-legged on the slowly shrinking mattress, squinting into the light. "I didn't jump on it. I fell." Benji was still wearing the trousers he'd worn during the day with nothing on top.
Excerpted from "Andrew"
Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Beckstrand.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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