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The smack of the baseball against an aluminum bat sounded like summer. At thirty-seven, Jennie Troyer hadn't been a student in many years, but the end-of-school picnic still caused her spirits to soar as if she were ten and set free for the next few months. She might be old, but she understood how her children felt. That curious lightheartedness for this one afternoon on the last day of April.
Smiling at the thought, Jennie clapped as Cynthia smacked a blooper into what served as right field and scurried to the discarded rug that did double duty as first base. Micah hurled the ball to Celia at second base, and the chatter from the parents seated in lawn chairs on the sidelines reached a crescendo. Jennie's children comprised almost half the players on the field. Their cheeks were red, their hair sweaty, and their clothes dirty, but they didn't seem to mind that summer had arrived early in Missouri.
After all they'd been through — no matter how much time had passed — they deserved a few hours of carefree, childish play. Despite the heat Jennie shivered. She studied the rows of corn plants in nearby fields and tried to recapture the happiness she'd felt only seconds earlier. Raising her face to the sun, she begged it to burn away a pain that still barged into her day at odd, unexpected moments.
"Your kinner are on fire today, aren't they? I'm surprised Francis isn't out there too." Mary Katherine Ropp plopped her dumpling-shaped body into a sagging lawn chair next to Jennie's. Grasshoppers sprang in all directions in her wake. She smelled of charcoal and grilled hot dogs. "He's Elizabeth's little shadow these days."
Afraid her perceptive friend would read her face, Jennie sprang to her feet and did a head count with her index finger. Matthew, her graduate and oldest son at fourteen, stood at third base, his hands on his hips, his usual sullen look on his face. Followed at various places on and off the field by Celia, thirteen; Micah, eleven; Cynthia, ten; Mark, seven; and Elizabeth, six and just finishing her first year of school. No Francis. At four, her youngest had a mind of his own, a penchant for trouble, and sturdy little legs to carry him there.
"Mark was showing him how to swing the bat only a second ago." With so many mothers in the mix on picnic day, Jennie could count on family and friends to keep an eye on her youngest, but still she surveyed the crowd. Force of habit. Since Atlee's death four years earlier, she held both father and mother reins in tight fists that she didn't dare relax. "I better track him down before he decides to eat an entire pan of applesauce cake or feed a worm to one of the boplin."
"He's probably playing on the swings. Let's talk about the store while we have the chance." Mary Katherine crossed her ankles and sat still for what was most likely the first time that day. "Your help would mean so much to me and the others, but even more, it would be good for you. It's time."
Not time. The mere thought of talking to the English tourists and making change while they waited made Jennie's hands tremble and her mouth go dry. Several families had pooled their meager funds to open a new tourist store in Jamesport. Jennie loved sewing quilts and baby blankets, embroidering dresser scarves and pillowcases, making jams and jellies, and baking cookies for the store. Working there was another angry beehive altogether. "I better check on Francis. You know how much trouble that boy can stir up."
"We need to talk." Mary Katherine tempered her firm words with a sweet smile that didn't match the worry in her blue eyes. "Soon."
Her friend never worried about anything. Leastways not that it showed. Torn, Jennie paused. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing. Nothing new." Mary Katherine clapped for Mark's single into right field. Jennie automatically joined her and the other parents. "The store was my idea. Folks need the income. They're not making ends meet just farming. They haven't for a long time."
"It was a good idea."
"We're putting a lot of our precious savings into the monthly lease payments and the renovations." Turning the space from a butcher shop into Amish Treasures had been a major undertaking, but one they'd accomplished together. "So far there's only a trickle of customers."
"The tourist season is only just beginning." Jennie let her gaze wander across the crowd along the sideline. No Francis. "Give it time. Everyone thinks it's a good idea."
Mary Katherine frowned, her freckled nose wrinkled. "I don't know about Freeman and the other men."
"They would've said no if they didn't."
"I'm a widowed woman. They want me to make myself useful, I reckon."
"You worked at the bed and breakfast. You're our scribe for the newspaper. You've always been helpful. Your middle name is helpful."
"My middle name is Katherine."
She said it with such aggravation, Jennie giggled. Mary Katherine shook her head and grinned. "Go find Francis. Make sure he's not climbing on the roof. We'll talk later. We also need to finish Bess's quilt. They'll be publishing their announcement any day now, if I'm not mistaken, and I've never been mistaken."
Indeed, she rarely was. They needed to finish the blue and white Double Irish Chain quilt for Bess Weaver, who would leave her widowhood behind soon — as soon as she and Aidan Graber got around to telling the world they planned to marry. The Gmay elders were pleased with that, even though everyone pretended not to know. How could they miss the looks that passed between those two? The elders likely weren't so pleased with the remaining trio of widows — Jennie, Mary Katherine, and Laura Kauffman — who each had more than their share of years alone.
Some things couldn't be helped. Or were meant to be. Or some other such silly platitude. Jennie kept busy and chose not to think about the empty corners of her life. If she didn't have a husband, she certainly couldn't be trotting off to work in the store. Her children already lacked a father. They needed their mother at home where she ought to be.
Jennie tried to keep her tone conciliatory. "Come by the house later. Pick up Laura on the way and we'll get in a few hours of quilting tonight."
"Good plan. We'll talk while we sew. Bring me a glass of lemonade when you return, if you don't mind." Mary Katherine scratched with plump fingers at barbecue bean sauce that had dried on her apron. Catsup and mustard stains made for an abstract painting with the apron as an impromptu canvas. Her tone said the quilt would not be the only topic of conversation. "All that burning hot dogs on the charcoal grill has given me a heatstroke. I'll cheer on the team."
At fifty-five plus, Mary Katherine had the constitution of a much younger woman with vim and vigor that Jennie tried her hardest not to envy. Most days she felt much older than her age. Envy was a big, fat, slimy sin. "Of course. Lemonade and humongous slices of applesauce cake all around."
Mary Katherine acknowledged the veiled compliment — she'd baked the cake — with a small grin. She leaned back in the chair with a contented sigh. No doubt, in seconds the older woman would be snoozing.
Swatting at a cloud of gnats, Jennie threaded her way through the clusters of folks visiting and eating homemade vanilla ice cream that called her name even though she was stuffed with hot dog, chips, baked beans, and coleslaw. No Francis at the food tables. No curly, brown-haired, dimple-cheeked little boy who looked like an angel and raced around like a dervish that reminded her all too much of Atlee.
Don't. Don't do it.
She forced herself to breathe, in and out, in and out.
A gaggle of girls cut in front of her, laughing, hands entwined, racing for the homemade ice cream station manned by Atlee's brother, Darren Troyer. Their gazes connected over the sea of white prayer kapps. He had that same dark, curly hair as his brother, but his was washed through with fine silver strands that stuck out from under his straw hat. His salt-and-pepper beard curled in just the same way as his brother. The same steely blue eyes cut through her. Jennie swerved left.
A sudden chill ran through her despite the humid air that warmed her damp face. She wrapped her arms around her middle and ducked her head. Her gaze landed on the bruise on her wrist. She'd hit it on the gate the day before, trying to corral the horses. The ugly black-and-blue mark mesmerized her.
Atlee grabbed her arm and jerked her around to face him. "You'll do as I say and you'll do it now, fraa."
Pain ripped through her arm and shoulder. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to disagree. I only meant —"
"You don't know your place. You never have." His fingers tightened in a painful grip. His other hand came up and wavered in the air overhead. It dropped. "Go on. Get in the house. The laundry won't do itself."
She stumbled back, afraid to look away, even though he rarely hit her. Not like that. He used words like fists. They hurt far more.
"What's going on, Ms. Jennie? You look perturbed."
Jennie flinched, jumped, and stifled a shriek. Her sisters-in-law — all three of them — looked up at the same time from a whispered conversation that surely involved a critique of her widow's life. Jennie shrugged and smiled. She turned to greet Nathan Walker, itinerant book salesman who always managed to arrive at these gatherings while food still prevailed in abundance. "Nee, no, I'm not worried."
It had been four years and still, those moments came. Not as often, but just as heart-stopping.
She schooled her voice to halt the tremble. "I'm looking for Francis. It seems he's wandered off."
Nathan shoved his red St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap back on his head, revealing a tan line across his forehead. His damp auburn hair was plastered to his skin. He wore his usual white short-sleeve cotton shirt, khaki pants, and Nike sneakers. He dressed like a man who didn't worry too much about what he put on in the morning. "Want me to track him down for you?" His broad smile warmed blue eyes with a slight tinge of lilac in them. A color that bemused Jennie every time she saw him. What exactly did a person call it? Something outlandish like periwinkle? "He can't have gone too far on those little legs."
It was her job alone to keep Francis safe. It had been since he was six months old and Atlee had left her struggling to care for seven children alone. No matter how hard it was, she couldn't shake a sneaky feeling of relief.
It had been fifteen years of never knowing what might set him off, never knowing what angry load he would decide to dump upon her the second he set the buggy in motion after a lovely, yet egg-shell fragile day. Guilt married relief. He was gone.
No one knew her guilty secret. But God knew. God knew because He let it happen.
Her dream of being a wife and mother became an increasingly menacing nightmare with each passing year and each new baby. What kind of monster did it make her that she had longed for sweet release and it had come — in the form of her own husband's death?
Stop it. Stop it. Stop it.
Nathan stared, a puzzled look on his face.
"Jah, yes, I mean. You'd be surprised." She swallowed against the bitter taste of bile in the back of her throat and perused the yard where the men had set up a trampoline. Several children took turns bounding into the air.
Think. Think. She wouldn't put it past Francis to try and skinny up the pole. No, he wasn't there. Nor had he convinced one of the younger mothers to push him in the tree tire swing. "Last week, I found him beating a path down to the pond on his own when he was supposed to be helping in the vegetable garden. I'm not sure if he intended to go for a swim or fish. He has no fear."
Francis also didn't seem to find it necessary to tell her about his adventures. He might be the spitting image of his father, but he didn't share Atlee's affinity for endless proclamations and angry tirades. In fact, he barely spoke a word. Probably because he couldn't get one in edgewise with six older brothers and sisters.
"He's all boy, that's for certain." Nathan laid his ever-present backpack of books on a picnic table bench. Not that he would sell books at the picnic. These were books he read. The man always had one at the ready in case he had a free moment. He turned and strode toward the schoolhouse, his long legs pumping. "I'll check inside if you want to look in the outhouses."
The thought of the trouble a four-year-old could get into in an outhouse curdled the food in Jennie's stomach. She broke into a trot and headed first to the boys' building. Empty. Fighting the urge to pinch her nose against the odor of bodily functions heated by a brilliant sun, she called Francis's name. No answer. "Anyone there? Francis, are you in there?"
No answer. She did a quick peek. Empty. No one in the girls' outhouse, either.
Where had he gone? Two purple martins scolded her from their perch on the bird apartment house the boys had constructed. Neither seemed willing to share her son's whereabouts.
She whirled and tromped through overgrown dandelions and scraggly grass to the school. Nathan bounded down the steps. "Empty except for Nellie and Sue Ann botching. I told them they should go outside and enjoy the day." He jerked his thumb toward the fence and the open field on the other side dotted with rows of corn stalks just breaking through the soil. Small leaves fluttered in the lackadaisical breeze. "Any chance he took off exploring on his own?"
Nathan's use of the German name for the clapping game made Jennie smile. He spent a lot of time playing games with the kids. "With Francis anything's possible."
Her blood pulsing in her ears, hands sweaty, Jennie gripped a fence post. Surely the gazes of her brothers, their wives, Atlee's family, and even Bishop Freeman were upon her. How did she get over the fence with its barbed wire without ripping her dress, or worse, falling?
Smiling, Nathan knelt and stretched apart the bottom wire and the second one. He smelled good. Like spicy aftershave. She tried not to notice, but a person couldn't help what her nose decided to do, could she?
She crawled through the space and straightened. Despite herself she looked back. Freeman frowned. The tribe of in-laws stared. His sisters had those same icy-blue eyes and the same black hair peeking around their kapps. It was as if Atlee peered at her wherever she went, following her, taunting her, accusing her.
"Are you all right? Aside from Francis taking the fun out of the picnic?" Nathan wiggled through the opening, an intricate feat given his six-foot frame, which appeared to be mostly legs. "You look ..." He paused as if searching for the right word. "Tired." His expression said that wasn't the word he sought.
No one, besides Mary Katherine and Laura, ever commented on how Jennie looked. She started forward, careful not to step on the plants. She let her gaze roam to the other side and the tree break that divided the field from another filled with sprouting rye. No sign of her son. "I'm fine. No reason to complain."
None whatsoever. Which didn't keep a body from doing it. It was human nature, Mary Katherine would say.
"If you need help with anything, I'm available."
This Mennonite traveling salesman wanted to help her? "How long will you be in Jamesport?" Not the proper response at all. She should've said thank you and let it go. "I mean, don't you have work to do?"
"Actually, that's what I wanted to tell you. I was looking for you —"
"Please don't do that." Fear thrilled through her. She quickened her step toward the heart of the field. "Francis, Francis! Are you out here? If you are, you better come back now." No answer. She didn't want Nathan thinking about her at all. She didn't want any man thinking about her.
She glanced over her shoulder again. In the distance, Leo Graber hitched his horse to his buggy. He probably intended to leave the picnic early. Not unusual for a man who wasn't much for socializing.
"Why would you be looking for me?"
"I didn't mean to offend you." Nathan's sunburned face turned a deeper, burnished red to match his hair. "I only wanted to say, well, nothing, I guess. I mean, just say hello, I guess."
His arm swept out, forcing Jennie to halt.
"Look." He whispered the word and then put a finger to his lips.
She followed his gaze. A sleeping Francis, his straw hat clasped in his dirty hands, his curly brown hair wet with sweat, lay sprawled under an inkberry bush sprouting below the farthest oak trees in the windbreak.
Excerpted from "Beneath the Summer Sun"
Copyright © 2017 Kelly Irvin.
Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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