One minute the lake was serene, its pristine surface clad in a silent blanket of snow geese. The next, it exploded in a fury of churning water and frantic honking. The geese rose from the water as one entity, sending a tail of sparkling water back to the surface like a heavy rain. The awkward ascent transformed into organized chevron flight as they circled the lake, honking a last chorus of farewells before heading south.
Cynthia clutched her heavy wool sweater tight against the cold. Autumn was a lonely time of year. She turned and gazed at the old two-story farmhouse. It didn't look much different than when she purchased it in the spring - not on the outside, anyway. Summer was gone, and half of autumn, yet what had she achieved? The oak siding was in desperate need of a paint job, but it would last another winter. At least she had completed caulking around the cracks, and the chimney was now free of two years worth of bird nests. The two spare bedrooms still needed sheetrock, but the insulation was stapled up. That would be a good job to do when the weather was too nasty to go outside. Not that she was in any big hurry to finish those upstairs rooms anyway. Right now they were simply unfinished rooms. Completed, they would be a reminder of something she would never have.
Thanks to Mr. Humphrey, she had plenty of wood to burn in the potbellied stove this winter. The grizzled old storekeeper was a childless widower who had practically adopted her. Maybe they got along so well because they shared the experience of losing a spouse, but more likely it was the harmony of independent spirits.
The honking of the geese faded into the distance, leaving a lonely silence. She turned to the old house for solace, but its curtainless windows merely gave her a blank stare. For the first time, she wondered if it had been a mistake to move away from family. It wasn't the departure of the snow geese that had sent her spirits into a nose dive, though - nor was it the onset of winter. It had been three years since Charles died, and they had only been married two years before the car accident. They had planned their future so carefully. Children had always been a part of their plans, but financial security had to come first. How ironic that she now had the insurance money and no husband or children. At thirty-one, the idea of childbirth was almost as unappealing as selecting another spouse, yet her dreams of late unveiled a desire for both.
One of the things that drove her to isolation was the desire to get away from well-meaning friends and family back in Arkansas. Eventually she would tuck Charles into the past, but no one could ever replace him - certainly none of the eligible bachelors that had been shoved at her on a weekly basis. And so she had purchased this run down North Dakota farm, leaving everyone behind - scratching their heads, no doubt.
"Yoo hoo! Ms. Deming. I brought you some company."
Cynthia shaded her eyes with one hand and squinted against the morning sun. Mr. Humphrey's bent frame and halo of white hair around a shiny bald spot made him identifiable from a distance, but she was certain she had never seen the other man. The stranger was about forty, with a receding hairline and a slight limp. He stood nearly a head taller than Mr. Humphrey, and his gaunt frame was draped in a blue plaid flannel shirt and faded Levis.
The two men stopped in front of her and Mr. Humphrey inclined his head to indicate the stranger.
"This is Dean Cotton. He's with the North Dakota Wildlife Department."
Cotton didn’t look like executive material. His casual clothing and relaxed stance might indicate he didn’t take the job seriously.
"I didn't expect them to send somebody out here," she said.
Cotton's thin lips slipped into a sideways smile that was a painful reminder of Charles.
"Ma'am, I didn't expect to travel this week, but I wanted to see those geese before they headed south." He squinted into the distance with eyes that perfectly matched the blue sky. "It looks like I wasted a trip, though."
She followed his gaze. "It takes you bureaucrats forever to decide to do anything,” she commented sourly as she watched the black spots fade into the horizon. "I wrote over a month ago."
A cool gaze riveted on her. "I'm not a bureaucrat. I'm one man with a lot of territory to cover."
She shrugged. "Whatever. You're welcome to look around. You can see where they've been nesting. The lake is spring fed, so it stays pretty much the same year round. It's not any thousand acre wildlife refuge, but the geese come here every year, I understand - and they stayed all summer."
He frowned as he surveyed the size of the lake. He rubbed his bristly jaw, producing a rasping sound not unlike sandpaper against wood.
"Five acres isn't a big lake, but situated the way it is, out here in the middle of nowhere...." His voice trailed off as his attention focused on the country.
Cynthia glanced down at her threadbare jeans and muddy boots. She looked a sight - and the wind had been playing havoc with her loose hair all day. She glanced up in time to catch Mr. Humphrey watching her with a wizened half smile. Warmth crawled up her neck. She turned toward the house.
"Well, Mr. Cotton," she said over her shoulder. "Stop by the house when you're done. I've got some pictures of the geese and a pot of coffee on." She glanced at Mr. Humphrey. "I think I can even scare up a piece of apple pie, if you'd like to join me."
Mr. Humphrey nodded his head vigorously; the white mane and flowing beard glistening in the sun. "I haven't had a good piece of apple pie in two weeks."
Cynthia cocked her head to the side and lifted one eyebrow. "Is that a fact? Weren't you out here last Thursday?"
Mr. Humphrey grinned. "I guess I was, at that. Well, I haven't had a good piece of apple pie in nearly a week, then."
Three pieces of apple pie and four cups of coffee later, Mr. Humphrey decided it was time to go. Cotton limped into the yard in time to say goodbye.
"Thanks for guiding me out here," he called. His gaze shifted to Cynthia. "I'd like to see those pictures now, if it isn't too much trouble."
Inside the house, Cynthia pulled a shoebox from the kitchen cabinet and set it on the table. She waved to a chair. "Have a seat. I'll get you some coffee...and a piece of pie?"
Cotton’s gaze settled on the three remaining pieces of pie on the counter. His attention jerked back to the photos, his response unconvincing. "I didn't come here to eat."
She smiled as she reached in the cabinet for a plate. "No, you came to see the geese, but you might as well get something out of the trip."
He pulled the shoe box closer and removed the lid without so much as cracking a smile. Maybe he wasn’t listening or maybe he didn’t have a sense of humor. That part wasn’t at all like Charles.
She set the pie in front of him and poured two cups of coffee. Settling into the chair opposite of him, she made a face.
"I'm not much of a photographer. All I have is a little 35mm instamatic. I’ve been thinking about getting a digital camera, but.…"
If Cotton didn’t come out to eat, he certainly didn’t come to hear about all the ideas she never followed through on.
He sorted through the pictures. "Actually, you're very good." He glanced up at her. "You seem to know where to aim the camera. You can't believe how many pictures I see of geese with their heads chopped off."
"How grisly," she replied matter-of-factly.
His thin lips twisted into that haunting smile and the topaz gaze gained a little life. He tossed one of the pictures to her
"I like that one. Could I take it with me?"
It was one of her favorites - a mother goose ushering her goslings toward the lake. Oh well, she had the negative. She pushed it back across the table.
"Sure, take what you want."
He leaned back and sipped his coffee, glancing around the room.
"It looks like your husband has been doing some remodeling."
She bristled. "My husband has been dead for three years and I'm the one who's been doing all the remodeling."
It shouldn't have bothered her. After all, it was a natural assumption - and she wasn't exactly a feminist. The work had been therapeutic to a degree. Along that line of thought, it would be nice to get a little recognition for all her hard work.
His neck gained color. "I'm sorry."
She sighed. "That he died or that I'm doing the remodeling?"
The color deepened and started up his cheeks. "That I mentioned it. Obviously it's a touchy subject."
She shrugged. "It was so needless. A drunk driver and all that."
His gazed sharpened at first, gradually becoming reflective.
"My wife also died at the hands of a drunk driver...me."
It was her turn to blush. Of course, she couldn't have known, but there had been little point in bringing it up. Actually, there was something about Cotton that was…comfortable. She didn’t need someone to talk to near as much as she needed someone to listen to – someone who might have insight.
She avoided his gaze. "You were driving the car?"
He sipped his coffee and for a moment she thought he wasn't going to respond. Not that it was any of her business, but he did bring it up. Finally he glanced up, dark brows crouching over eyes that begged for her mercy.
"No, I was slumped over in the seat next to her - drunk as a coot." He took another sip of the coffee and then continued. "I was arguing with her. She was looking at me when the wheel dropped off the side of the highway. She over-corrected and the next thing I knew the car was upside down in a ditch. I must have passed out. Who knows whether it was the bump on my head or the booze?" He slapped his knee. "She lost her life and I got a bum leg." The gaze that turned on Cynthia was filled with agony. "It should have been me. I should have died in that wreck."
Cynthia stared at him. How was a person supposed to respond to that kind of logic? He wasn't the first man to get drunk enough that his wife had to drive him home. Nor was he the first to argue with his spouse. That was probably the part that bothered him the most. At least she and Charles had a good relationship - right up to the day he died. Their last words to each other had been "I love you" as he headed out for work. Still, regardless of their different circumstances, neither she nor Cotton seemed to be able to make the past stay there.
She picked up one of the pictures and squirmed uncomfortably in her chair.
"Sometimes it's hard to figure why things happen the way they do."
He set his coffee cup on the table, staring at it with a sour expression.
"Because I should suffer for what I did." His gaze lifted to her. "I deserve it, but our daughters don’t."
"Daughters?" Cynthia asked, relieved at the possibility of a new topic. "How old are they?"
He scooted the piece of pie closer and picked up the fork. "Ten. They're twins."
She smiled. "I bet they're cute. I always wanted...." She hesitated. No, he was digging up enough old bones.
He poked at the pie with his fork. "They love the country and I've been promising to buy some land some day." He glanced around the house again. "Something like this. Right now I travel too much, so I leave them with a sitter in town while I'm gone, but some day...."
The words trailed off as he delved into the pie.
An idea flashed across her mind like a fiery comet. "Do they stay with relatives?"
He shook his head and washed down a piece of pie with some coffee before responding.
"Oh, I have relatives, but none that want to take on a couple of rambunctious girls." He employed the slanted smile again. "Some say I've spoiled them rotten."
Dean Cotton bore no resemblance to Charles, yet his conscious use of a smile to deliver a point was reminder enough. She tore her gaze from his face and stared into her coffee.
"Well, one person's idea of spoiled might be another’s idea of uninhibited."
A few minutes of uncomfortable silence passed as she contemplated an idea. When she finally spoke, she avoided his gaze. If he thought her idea was forward, it would be in his tone. She didn't want to see it in his eyes as well.
"Have you ever considered hiring a sitter who lives in the country?"
His tone started out conversational. "That's not a bad idea, but I don't know anyone...."
Seconds ticked away and finally she felt compelled to look at his face. His eyes narrowed suspiciously.
"You're not thinking about offering to watch my girls, are you?"
She shifted uncomfortably in the chair. "It crossed my mind. It gets lonely out here, and I love children. I was a teacher back in Arkansas, so I could home school...."
A slow flush crept up her neck. It was a stupid idea. What did he know about her? What did she know about him – or the girls? She had never home schooled.
He rubbed his jaw and gazed at her thoughtfully. Finally he leaned back in his chair, sipping from his coffee cup.
"The idea has its merit." He sipped the coffee again. "Of course, I'd have to think about it." He met her gaze with the slightest twinkle in his eyes. "And I'd certainly advise you to reconsider."
Naturally he would have to give the idea considerable thought, but she had already made up her mind. It was the perfect answer. The girls would keep her mind off Charles as well as provide companionship. It would be the perfect opportunity for the girls. It sounded like they could use a little one-on-one attention. She had the two rooms...and another idea. Only maybe this idea wasn't as good. Did he still drink? Could he be trusted?
"I'd have to finish the other two bedrooms." She hesitated, brushing pie crumbs from the table into her hand and dumping them into an empty cup.
"I know you'd feel uncomfortable about leaving them here alone with someone you hardly know, and I'd be glad to give you some references. But...well, the bedrooms are big, and the girls could use one - if you…." She bit her lower lip. He was bound to misinterpret the intent of her invitation. "I mean, I'd be willing to rent you a room if you wanted to stay here with your girls when you're not on the road."
His expression was unreadable. Maybe he didn't know what to think. Who could blame him? He couldn't know she had never been the impulsive type. She couldn't explain it herself – except that this might be the perfect opportunity and she might never see him again if she didn’t speak up now.
Cotton carefully set the coffee cup on the table and rose from his chair. "I'm inclined to say yes right now." He glanced around the tidy kitchen and nodded. "I reckon you could use some help on this house from time to time, and this is about dead center of my territory. It sure would be nice to come home to the girls every night. I know the girls would like it here, and I'd have a chance to study that lake."
He tucked his thumbs into his belt and limped over to the window. He stared at the lake for a long time. When he spoke again, his voice was strained.
"I never told her how important she was to me. Maybe I never really knew. Not until she was gone."
He sounded so vulnerable, and for a moment Charles spoke from his lips. No, she wasn't going to let Cotton drag those memories from the emotional maze of her mind. She stood and picked up her coffee cup.
"If we dwell on it, we'll find all sorts of things to make ourselves miserable. Surely you must have had some wonderful moments. Concentrate on those - and get on with your life."
She didn't mean for that last statement to sound so harsh.
He swung around and met her gaze for a moment. "Is that what you're doing out here by yourself?" he asked softly. "Getting on with your life?
She stared at him. At the time she bought the house, that was exactly what she thought she was doing. But had she actually been running away? Had she found her slice of the world to hide and lick her wounds? Was this isolated farm simply a place where no one would remind her of the painful reality that life does go on? Maybe that was why Cotton had appealed to her. He understood because he was doing the same thing. No one could replace his wife, and he didn't want anyone muscling in on her memory.
She sighed. "Maybe it's time I started letting go of the past." She rinsed the cup and wiped her hands on a towel. "Let me show you those rooms."
She led him across the living room, void of any furniture but a comfortable recliner; up the wide staircase with the polished banisters. This place had become more than a hideout. It was home. Did Cotton feel the welcome in its nostalgic grace?
She glanced at him. "I figure the upper rooms will stay warm because heat rises. I put that ceiling fan in the living room to circulate the heat."
His gaze ran over the room below them, settling on the wood stove and following the pipe up to the ceiling.
She reached the landing and led him down a short hall. "Here are the rooms. I think they will be nice once I complete them."
He stepped into each room and glanced around, nodding. "Nice job of insulating. It must have been a chore getting all that old plaster off."
She laughed. "You must have done some remodeling in an old house too."
"A few times," he mused, still glancing around the last room. "I'd be glad to help you put up the sheetrock. I doubt you can haul it up the stairs yourself."
It wouldn't be all that easy for him, either, but that probably wouldn't stop him from helping with the house any more than it stopped him from trekking all over the countryside.
He stepped back out of the room and pointed to an open place at the top of the stairs.
"If I were you I'd put a small gas heater right there. It gets mighty cold up here in the winter and that wood stove isn't going to be enough, especially at night when it burns down. I'd get a butane bottle and another gas stove downstairs."
She lifted a brow. "Then you’re interested in my offer?"
He nodded and charmed her with another lopsided smile. "I'll bring the girls out here to look it over and let you see what you're letting yourself in for. It'll give us both time to reconsider."
It would at that. Her decision was impulsive, but it felt so right. Maybe he had been sent to her for this purpose. Maybe that was why the idea popped into her head. She had certainly prayed often enough for help out of her depression.
She followed Cotton back down the stairs and out to the porch. He stopped and glanced around.
“You know, it’s hard to find these places with the wrap around porches like this. I’ve always liked that idea. You always have a place to sit in the shade, no matter what time of the day.
She gazed at the lake. The porch was what had drawn her to this place, though she hadn’t considered the shade advantage at the time. It was the panoramic view. It seemed strange that such flat land could offer so many alternate views. The wildlife was a surprise as well, though it shouldn’t have been. Eventually everything visited the lake for water or food.
She turned her attention to Cotton and found him watching her. The extent of her trust was suddenly overwhelming. Was she crazy? The panic must have shown on her face.
“You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. I’ll understand,” he said gently.
His voice and words stilled the fear and gave her renewed strength. This might be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Instinct had always guided her and this felt right even if it wasn’t logical.
She shook her head. “No, I think it’s good for all of us.”
His gaze drifted over her face, probably searching for the cause of her hesitation.
“If it’s any consolation,” he said, “I haven’t had a drink since the accident. It was the first time I.…” He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. I could have said no. I’m the one who made the decision to drink more than I wanted.”
His gaze left her and sought the soothing landscape. His wife had made the decision to take her eyes off the road too, yet he accepted total blame. No references could give her more pertinent information than that fact.
She smiled. “Life is a smorgasbord of decisions. Some of them are bound to be unpalatable.”
His gaze jerked back to her. For a moment he studied her face. Finally he smiled. “I like that. I’m betting it’s your creation.”
It was, but how did he guess? It was as if he could read her mind. No one had been able to do that accurately since Charles…but Charles was gone. If she truly wanted get on with her life, she would have to stop comparing everyone to him.
She nodded. “It is, and I haven’t changed my mind. You’re all welcome to share this paradise with me.”
“Good, I’ll let you know in a couple of days.”
That night snow blanketed the ground while she slept. Apparently the geese had sensed the weather change. A cold wind ravaged the house, but the wood stove kept the rooms warm. Cotton was probably right, though. This cold was surely nothing compared to the storms of January and February.
The next morning, she drove to town through the slushy snow and made arrangements for a large butane bottle to be delivered. Then she purchased two gas stoves - a large one for downstairs and a smaller one for upstairs. The store owner knew a man who did plumbing and he was willing to run the gas pipes for a reasonable price. With that completed, she visited the school to find out what she would need for home schooling.
There were a couple of other thing she wanted to do. She’d been thinking about them ever since she moved into the old house. Once she had checked on internet service, but dial-up was so slow and nothing she had heard about satellite service sounded like it was worth the price. A computer based job at home had seemed improbable. With the girls there, any service would be an advantage. Maybe she could even pick up a few more children to home school. Most of her neighbors were farmers. The other thing was getting some farm animals. She had stashed that idea in the back of her mind because she didn’t know if she would have to get a job in town. A garden could be worked in her spare time, but animals needed regular attention. Finally, she stocked up on groceries and returned to the house, excited about the future for the first time since Charles died.
Two long days later the stoves were in place. The weather didn't look any better. In fact, it looked like a storm was brewing in the Northeast. Cotton might change his mind, but she hadn't. She was more convinced than ever that she was doing the right thing. In the last two days she had hardly thought of Charles. On the other hand, Cotton occupied her mind frequently. Had he changed his mind? He said he was going to think about it and then call in a few days. There had been no call – not to confirm interest or to say he had changed his mind. Everything she had done to prepare the house would have been done anyway, so she had not been inconvenienced or wasted money. It was the idea that he might not come back that troubled her. Still, she had made a good decision. If it wasn’t him, it would be someone else. She would advertise in the paper if he didn’t call by next week. It was disappointing that she had judged him wrong. He seemed so sincere – so interested.
She was making a sandwich in the kitchen when Cotton's truck pulled into the drive. In the cab were two blond girls, and a blue tarp was tied down securely over something in the truck bed. As she stepped out on the porch to greet them, the girls danced around Cotton, unable to contain their excitement.
"Can we have a dog?" One pleaded. "And a horse?" the other one added.
Cotton looked embarrassed. "One thing at a time. Maybe Ms. Deming has changed her mind."
Cynthia smiled at him. "Not hardly."
"Ms. Deming," Cotton said, grabbing one of the girls as she darted by him. "This is Carla, and the quiet one is Clara.
The twins were not as similar as their names. Clara had large brown eyes, and Carla had blue eyes like her father. Both looked happy and healthy.
"Mrs. Deming, or Cindy," Cynthia corrected. "It's nice to meet you girls. Why don't you come in and have a sandwich? I was just making lunch."
Carla tugged on Cynthia's jeans. "Are you going to be our teacher? This is going to be cool. We don't have to go to school any more."
"You'll be studying here, just like school," Cotton reminded her. "If we stay," he amended.
"But Daddy," Clara said softly as she leaned toward him. "We already have our things packed."
Cotton gave her a stern look. "And we can unpack them back in Bismarck if things don't work out here." He glanced up at Cynthia. "The more I thought about it, the better it sounded to me. I don't mean to sound ungrateful but maybe you'd like to give this more thought."
Maybe she should, but she wasn't going to. She had made her decision, but what about Cotton? His words and tone indicated he had decided, yet something in his manner indicated he still held some reservations about the idea. Was it concern for the girls, or was it something else? She shook her head.
"No, I haven't changed my mind. But, of course, if you feel uncomfortable about the situation...."
"Daddy says you're a lonesome lady 'cause your husband died," Carla interrupted. "Are you going to be our Mom now?" The bittersweet chocolate eyes searched Cynthia's with obvious concern.
The words hung in the crisp air and everyone seemed to be waiting for an answer. Cynthia caressed the golden curls. "No, I'm not going to be your Mom, but I do miss my husband, just like you miss your mother. They wouldn't want us to be unhappy all the time, though, would they?"
Two blond heads shook in unison and wide eyes of blue and brown searched hers uncertainly. Finally Clara shifted her gaze to the lake. "Daddy says there are Snow Geese in the lake."
Thankful for the shift in conversation, Cynthia turned her attention to the lake. "They were here until a few weeks ago, but they're gone now."
"Did they go to heaven?" Carla asked softly.
Cynthia glanced down at her. "No, they went south for the winter. They'll be back in the spring."
Carla contemplated the idea for a few minutes and finally sighed. "Mama didn't like winter. She'd like to be where the snow geese live."
It was a comforting thought. Charles would have liked the snow geese, and somehow she had the feeling he had been watching them all along. They still shared the beauty of the farm as they had shared so many pleasant experiences. She gazed up at the drifting clouds. "I'm sure she sees them now, along with all the other wonderful things that we sometimes lose sight of for a while."
Cotton gave her a strange look and glanced up at the sky. "I never thought of it quite that way," he said.
In the quiet of the moment as they all gazed at the sky, a faint honking spoke to them. High above, the clouds parted to reveal an arrow of geese heading south. Seasons, like life, included some suffering and loss. Those who faced the cruel onslaught of winter and survived would eventually experience the beauty of renewed life.
Cotton's gaze rested on Cynthia and his mouth slid into the slanted smile. No words were needed. It was time to lay the past to rest.