“Bring me that bucket of staples, will you, Ben?” Peter watched him intently. Ben, the quieter twin and his favorite, had been distant all afternoon. In the month since Frank’s death, Ben had been pretty much himself. Not today. Today a cloud hung over him.
Ben handed the staples to Peter, hesitated as if to speak, then turned, walked to the tailgate of Frank’s old pickup and sat down. The cloud over him dripped worry.
Peter hammered the wire firmly into place, released the stretcher, picked up the hammer and staples, and carried them to the pickup. Dropping the fencing equipment over the side of the box, he pulled off his leather gloves, walked back and sat down by Ben. Tipping his cap off his forehead, Peter glanced over. Warmed by the sun from behind, his penetrating eyes shaded by the cap, he used his gloves like a broom, dusted pant legs and said, “That ought to keep your cows in for a while, don’t you think?”
Ben shrugged. The cloud held.
“They say it gets easier with time. I miss him, too.”
“That’s not it.” Ben’s eyes found Peter’s. “It’s . . . They didn’t know we heard. If I say . . . I don’t want to get into trouble with Aunt Margaret.”
The cloud moved, darkened Peter’s expression. “Evidently for more than graduation. What’s she up to?”
“I told Bill you wouldn’t let her leave. You won’t, will you?”
“What are you talking about?”
When Ben didn’t respond, Peter placed an arm around his shoulder. “Aunt Margaret won’t find out from me, so you won’t get into trouble; but I can’t help if I don’t know what the problem is. Who’s leaving?”
“We heard them this morning.”
“Momma and Liz and Aunt Margaret. Momma was crying, and Liz and Aunt Margaret were yelling at one other.”
“She after your mother to move again? Is that it?”
Ben looked up. “Worse.” He paused. “She’s taking Liz back to Omaha to work for Uncle Henry . . . so we can stay.” The cloud burst. Tears spilled from twelve-year-old eyes. “I don’t want to stay without Liz, Pete.” Fear thundered its warning. His scalped tingled. Peter tried to sound strong, self-assured. Inwardly, he was anything but.
“It’ll be OK, Ben. I’ll talk to her. Let’s go, see what she’s doing.”
More than anyone, Peter realized the precariousness of Marie Beehmer’s situation. Elizabeth was her one asset. He understood that, as surely as he understood this to be that wretched woman’s interfering; it had to be. He and Ben climbed into the pickup. The pickup fired, lurched up onto the road and bounced towards home.
“When is this supposed to happen, Ben? Did you hear that?”
Lightning struck. Peter’s world splintered, split apart and fell to earth. He felt chaos all around him.
Turning up the lane, he scanned the yard, searching for Elizabeth. Peter saw her turn from the clothesline, arms filled with laundry. Stopping the pickup, he hopped out and called, “Beth.”
She waved but hurried towards the kitchen porch.
“Beth!” he called again. His tone stopped her.
“I’m running late, Peter.” She reached for the screen door.
“Elizabeth, stop a minute!”
She knew then that Peter knew. Bill had asked her about it earlier. If Bill knew, so did Ben. Now, so did Peter.
When he reached her, Peter took hold of her elbow, pulled her away from the house. If her aunt were inside, he preferred not having to face her.
“Is what Ben told me true? You aren’t thinking of going?”
Elizabeth’s eyes rested on line-stiffened laundry.
“Beth?” Lifting her chin, he saw red, watery eyes, eyes that still avoided his.
Truth’s storm broke. Caught in its vortex, he felt his life’s breath sucked from him.
Barely a whisper, it brought her eyes to his. Tears coursed down her cheeks.
“I didn’t want you to find out, not like this. I don’t . . . I haven’t any choice.”
“What? Beth, you can’t.” Peter inhaled. Disbelief gave way to an angry gale. “I won’t let you go.”
The screen door banged. Margaret Harrison appeared. “I don’t think this is your decision to make, young man.”
“Aunt Margaret, this is between Peter and me.”
“Well, then, tell him. He needs to know the generous offer your uncle has made to you, to your family.”
“Aunt Margaret, please!”
“Fine. If he really cares for you, as he seems to think he does, I’m sure he wants what’s best for you . . . for your family. Why, he should gladly let you go.”
“Very well, dear. Just remember, not every girl is given such an opportunity; some would give their eyeteeth for such a chance! Why, the possibilities are endless!”
Aunt Margaret scanned the farm, the barn, the pig pen, the fields beyond. Her gaze ended on Peter. “Can you give her as much? Support her? Pay her family’s debts?
“Let me guess. About all you can offer her are empty promises and years of hard, backbreaking work. Right?”
Remembering their last confrontation, Peter looked from the iron-haired aunt to Elizabeth and remained silent. Again he saw averted eyes, again tears.
“Beth knows what I’m offering her,” he said willing the storm to subside, to move on. “She’s free to decide what she wants.” He turned away.
The absence of his touch wounded Elizabeth profoundly. But the hurt, the offense in his voice was the deeper cut.
“Peter,” she said, “Don’t go. Not like this.”
At his car, he hesitated, looked back, and said, “I’ll talk to you later—alone.”
He climbed in. The car jerked to life, pulled away. He did not look back.
Inside the car, Peter’s throat constricted. Once more, he was suffocating, drowning on dry land. His breath of life had been sucked from him, had escaped beyond his grasp. Graduation day, the day he’d been working for so hard, had been anticipating for so long, had taken on a new reality, one he could not have imagined just weeks earlier. The possibility that he would have to let Elizabeth go had never entered his mind. From that moment four-and-a-half years earlier when he’d climbed from the weed-filled ditch, had looked into those eyes, he’d never imagined himself alone. Surely, she would not go.
Neither spoke. Before the ceremony there had been no chance; now the two miles home were silent. For months they’d chatted happily about this very moment. Now even small talk was avoided. Words would lead, ultimately, to the inevitable.
Finally, heartsick and unable to bear her silence any longer, Peter ended the stalemate. At a tree-lined curve in the road half a mile from their country school, he stopped his old car, reached into his pocket, and withdrew the ring he’d been saving for, for months. Examining it in the deepening twilight, he glanced over and said, “I’ve been waiting so long to give this to you, I don’t want to wait any longer . . . that’s . . . Do you still want it?”
Elizabeth’s fingers trembled as she took it, studied the diamond in the twilight. Then, reaching her arms around his neck, she clung to him and gave in to the heart-wrenching sobs that had haunted her often since the accident. But these were new, deeper than before.
Peter wrapped his arms around her, pulled her close, held her until she began to relax. “Are you alright?” he whispered.
“No! I’m not! I don’t think I’ll ever be alright again!”
“Meaning?” he asked tremulously. His eyes pierced her heart anew.
“Peter, I need to know if . . . Are you’re willing to wait?”
“Until next spring.”
“A whole year?” Incredulity filled him. “Beth, how can you ask me that?”
“Uncle Henry wants a year’s commitment.”
“How about your commitment to me? Doesn’t that matter?”
“Of course it does. Peter, please. I can’t face this right now.” Her eyes pleaded with his. “We have so much to talk about, but everyone’s waiting . . . Oh, I don’t think I can face them any more than . . . this.”
“Then we won’t go.”
“We have to. Your mother has worked so hard.”
He studied her eyes. How could he say no to those eyes? How could he live without seeing them?
“Ok.” Taking the ring from her fingers, he slipped it on her hand and kissed her. “I’m not giving up, not yet.”
Their eyes held. Then he started the car, drove the short distance to his home. When he parked west of the house, Elizabeth looked up from the ring and said, “Right before we left, Jennifer wanted to know if we were having a ‘tiff.’” Her eyes met his. “I can’t stand her! She’s so . . . so self-centered. It breaks my heart that she can have so very much and still . . .”
She stopped herself, stopped the tears.
“If we just had something . . .”
“Well, I wouldn’t exactly say you have nothing.”
Peter got out of the car, reached back for her hand. Elizabeth slid towards him. He smiled. “You have me. That’s something Jennifer will never be able to say.”
“Oh, Honey, that’s not what I meant.”
“I know.” Taking her in his arms, he kissed her tenderly. Then he sighed, soberly studied her face, and asked, “Ready?”
Grasping his hand in her own, she said, “Just don’t get too far away. This is hard enough without my Dad. I need you beside me.”
They walked towards the house and nearly into the car with the 1-county license plates parked by the west porch.
“Is your aunt here?”
“I thought you knew.”
“No, I didn’t . . . didn’t think. Now I’m the one who doesn’t want to be here.” The same angst he’d felt earlier registered in his eyes. “Honestly, I’m surprised she could lower herself to enter my humble home.”
At Elizabeth’s hesitation, he added, “I won’t start anything, Beth, but I won’t back down from her, not this time. She’s just so damned interfering.”
“She had no right to say those things to you earlier. I’m so sorry she did.”
Peter’s eyes studied hers. “We’ll be fine . . . if she keeps her mouth shut. It’s . . . I can’t abide her self-righteousness.”
Her look said volumes.
“I’ll pretend she’s invisible, OK?”
“I hope so.”
“So do I.”
“What about what she wants!” Peter was livid. The room was hushed. Tension hung like cool fog over warm damp earth. “Didn’t you hear her? Evidently, what she wants doesn’t matter, not to you!”
Elizabeth’s eyes fell from their angry faces to the quilt, Grandma Kraus’ gift to her, on her lap. Its colors swam in confusion before her. Her world was falling apart. The loss of her father was so hard. To have her dreams dashed by it was unbearable. And now, another quarrel between her steel-willed aunt and the man she so desperately wanted to build a future with. Any pretense of peace between them had evaporated the instant her aunt had announced that Elizabeth was moving to Omaha to work for her uncle. “Their graduation gift to her,” she’d called it. Elizabeth had tried to forestall her. “I haven’t had time to tell them yet,” she’d said. Offended, her aunt had blurted out. “How can you be so ungrateful?”
“You don’t understand. I wanted to tell them myself.”
“Well, when, dear? Now is as good a time as any. I simply wanted . . .”
Elizabeth had reached for Peter as he stood. He’d pulled away, faced his nemesis. The scene was set.
“Peter,” his father interceded. “You can’t . . .”
“Can’t what? Can’t fight for what I want? You’re wrong! What I can’t do is stand here and let some meddlesome interfering old . . .”
“Peter!” Elizabeth wailed.
Peter turned on her. “I won’t have her stand here and announce to the world our wedding isn’t taking place!
“No one asked me how I felt about this, did they? Don’t I have a say in any of it?”
He turned back to the stunned, angry woman. “Do you ever think about what others may want? How they feel?”
Elizabeth slid the quilt onto the sofa, stood, and ran from the room. The back door slammed behind her.
Her mother moved to follow. Peter stopped her.
“I’ll go. It’s my fault. Besides,” he glared once more at the woman in the gray suit, “This party’s over!”
He turned and was gone.
The room behind him was silent and awkward. For his part, Peter did not care how they sorted things out.
“Beth!” he called and, seeing her running down the lane, raced after her. “Beth!”
He caught her at the bottom of the lane, grabbed her by the elbow. “Beth,” he repeated.
Limp as a rag doll, Elizabeth sank to the ground sobbing. He had to lift her, hold her to keep her from collapsing again. Seeing the effect his anger was having on her, he said, “Honey, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have but . . . I couldn’t stand it. Beth, I don’t want you to go. Please don’t go. Beth, please stay with me.”
Near tears himself, he forced her to look at him and begged once more, “Please don’t go.”
“I haven’t any choice!” she sobbed and wrapped her arms around him. Hot tears fell on his neck.
Unwilling to move, they clung to each other in the rising moon. As her tears began to subside, the trembling began. Turning, they climbed the hill to Peter’s car. He helped her in, crawled in beside her, and grabbed the worn blanket kept behind the seat for warmth. Wrapping her in it, he started the car.
“Where are we going?”
“Any where so long as it’s away from here.”
It didn’t take her long to realize where they were headed. Reaching the main road south from town, he turned left, then left once more at his grandmother’s farm. He drove up the lane, stopped where the trees arched over it, and parked beneath a canopy of new leaves.
Switching off the motor, he slumped over the wheel, looked over. “Why haven’t you any choice?” His eyes searched hers in the moonlight.
Elizabeth pulled the blanket closer, wiped her eyes with its frayed edge, and said, “Because my mother has nothing. There’s no insurance, no savings, nothing. We can’t pay the funeral expenses. All she has are a few cows and chickens, a handful of pigs, and bills to be paid.
“Do you understand that?” Her eyes searched his. “She doesn’t even have grocery money, Peter.
“Uncle Henry will pay the expenses, will give me a job and a place to live. And I can give my mother some time, time to decide what she’s going to do. All he asks in return is a commitment from me for one year.”
He studied her mutely. It was all too clear to him.
She went on, knowing she must before she lost her nerve. “What else can I do?”
He looked away.
“I can’t abandon my mother, Peter. You wouldn’t yours.”
“Surely there’s something else we can do, something closer. I’ll help your mother,” he said, pleading with his whole being. “Look for something else first!”
“I have looked. The closest thing is in North Fork, and by the time I pay my living expenses, I’d have nothing left to give Mom. And there’s still the funeral.
“You have this farm to run, to get ready for us. You can’t do both.”
Peter slumped back, defeated.
“I’m not calling off the wedding. I’m only asking to move it back to our original date. It’s not what I want either, Peter; I just can’t see any other option.”
The house on his left sat large and empty in the moonlight. Vacant windows stared blindly back at him. The moon shadow of the willow in the corner of the yard fell full across its blank face. Peter studied it in silence. Elizabeth waited expectantly. He did not respond.
“Peter, my mother needs some time. So do the boys. They can’t be jerked away from our home. It’s too soon.”
“But you can? Is that it?”
Anger sliced the darkness between them. He’d never felt so beaten. He glanced over to see she’d weathered the attack then gazed back at the vacant house.
“Your aunt is right. All I have to offer are empty promises and years of hard work. No guarantees here.”
“Don’t say that!”
Suffocating once more, Peter opened the door, crawled out into the cool night air. Leaning back against the vehicle, he examined the toes of his shoes. Only a short while earlier they had been black and shiny, polished for graduation. Now, dust covered them. Looking up, he watched the willow’s shadow sway across the empty bay window, watched it sweep back and forth while Elizabeth sat in the car frozen with fear that he’d actually meant what he’d said. Several long minutes passed. Then, without a word, he opened the door, reached for her hand.
“Where are we going?”
“Just come with me.”
The rooms were chilly beyond expression, the way empty houses are. It was hard to see in the kitchen as they passed through shadows and darkness. Peter led her into the dining room where moonlight falling through that bay window illuminated the hardwood floor, the leaded glass cupboard on the far wall.
Beth pulled the blanket close against the chill air. Dropping her hand, Peter walked to the window, stared out. His shoulders sagged; his forehead nearly touched the glass as his head hung towards the large window.
Beth had never seen him stand so. Peter always stood tall, proud of the Christiansen name and all that made him who he was. Unable to bear it, she walked up behind him, touched his arm. “Peter?”
“This is exactly what she wants, you know.”
When he turned to her, tears filled his eyes. His voice cracked as he whispered, “Honey, please. Don’t go.”
“I have to. They need me.”
“But, I need you, too,” he sobbed. “Oh, God, Beth, I do.”
“I know. I do,” she whispered and pulled the quilt tight around her, “but, as much as I love you, as much as I don’t want to go, I have to do this.”
Marie Beehmer lay in the too empty bed and listened as the minutes ticked away. She looked at the alarm clock on the dresser. Moonlight had flooded the east window beside the bed when she’d retired; now the moon had peaked, had moved beyond its zenith, cloaking the room in darkness. Still, she could not sleep. Sleep had been difficult in the best of circumstances since Frank’s death. Tonight it was impossible. Placing her head on his pillow, she wept silent tears as the evening’s drama reran yet again.
She ached to have Frank back, to have things as they’d been, to help her through this pain. Those thoughts only amplified her misery until the clock’s incessant ticking reminded her of time’s relentless passage and . . . of how very late her daughter was.
More than most, Marie understood what this separation would mean to both Peter and Elizabeth, how painful it would be, how painful it would be for her and the twins. She did not want Elizabeth to leave any more than she wanted to be the widowed mother of three. Wanting, however deeply, is not reality. She had two young children to consider. She, too, could see no better course.
Weary of lying awake, agitated by worry, Marie rose, put on the old robe at the foot of the bed, and slipped stockings on to warm her chilly toes. She walked through the darkened home. All was quiet. At the bottom of the stairs, she paused and listened long enough to hear sleeping sounds from the twins. The unnatural quiet coming from the south bedroom turned her away.
In the kitchen she stood watching moon shadows, the bare tree limbs outside her kitchen window danced ever so slightly against the still barren earth, barren as her life seemed to her at this very moment. Marie sighed and felt again gratitude that Margaret and Henry, as was usual, had gone to the Sturhman’s for the night. That small reprieve in mind, she walked back through the dining room, opened the front door, and breathed in the night-heavy spring air.
Moving to the rocking chair in the parlor corner, she waited. The rocking eased some of her tension. As she rocked, she wiped silent tears with the robe’s frayed edge.
When the car lights turned up the lane, she stopped rocking and waited. Part of her wanted to run out, to demand the explanation Frank would have. Instead, she sat and silently prayed for strength to let go, to deal with whatever might come.
The car’s motor died. Its door slammed against her exhaustion, her worry, her grief. Their footsteps were slow, hesitant. Usually when he walked her to the door, there would be quiet conversation, laughter. Tonight . . . tonight there was silence.
Leaning her head against work-weary hands, Marie waited.
Long minutes. Quiet whispers. He left. Elizabeth waited for the car to disappear down the hill before she entered, started for the stairs.
Marie rose from her chair, watched Elizabeth’s shadow cross the room.
Elizabeth turned. “Mom . . . You shouldn’t have waited up.”
“I couldn’t sleep.” Marie walked towards her daughter. “Liz, we need to talk about this.”
“What more can we say?”
“What about Peter?”
Elizabeth looked down.
“Is he still so angry?”
“No, and yes. He’s hurt, too. We both are.”
“Honey, you don’t have to go.”
“Yes, Mom, I do.”