Keller / AN AMISH GIFT
“What do you say, Scout? You want to stop for something to eat?”
Jennie Davis swiveled around as far as she could manage in the front passenger seat to direct her question to the black mutt with white paws and intelligent-looking black eyes, wedged in between the two teenagers in the back of the Honda.
Thirteen-year-old Willa rolled her eyes. “Mom, why do you always do that? Do you actually expect Scout to answer you?”
Jennie smiled at her daughter. “What makes you think he doesn’t?”
Tim, her fifteen-year-old son, spoke with exaggerated bewilderment. “Now, why would we think that? Maybe because that would make you the first person in history to have a conversation with a dog?”
Shep Davis glanced over at his wife. “After Scout has expressed his preference, could I get a vote? I’d like to stop for some coffee.”
Jennie rested her hand on her husband’s arm. “You know what? Even if Scout says no, we’re stopping for your coffee.”
He smiled. “Wow. I’m honored.”
Jennie smiled back. “On the day Scout drives for seven hours, he can decide when to stop, too.”
“She actually is insane.” Tim looked down at the dog by his side. “Don’t you think so?”
Scout only crossed his two front paws on the seat and rested his head on them.
Jennie nodded, satisfied. “You didn’t think he would talk against me, did you?”
Willa smacked her hand to her forehead in a theatrical show of exasperation.
“Hey, more cows.” Shep gestured in the direction of a small herd, tails swishing as they stood patiently in the hot August sun.
“It’d be nice to have our own cows,” Willa said.
Jennie swung around in her seat again. “Honey, we’re not going to have room for that. Not that we’d know how to take care of a cow, anyway. But remember, this isn’t a farm—it’s a regular house. With a lot of farms around the area.”
Jennie figured she was safe in making this limited assertion, though she hesitated to say anything more. They had seen only an old photograph of the house, taken from across the road. Online maps revealed that it wasn’t large, but they knew it contained at least three bedrooms, which was one more bedroom than they’d ever had.
“Even with just one cow, we could have our own milk.” Willa was getting excited by the idea. “It’d be all natural and stuff.”
Tim groaned. “Listen to this. Wilma, do you know how hard it is to take care of a cow? You getting up in the middle of the night to milk it?”
“Don’t call me Wilma!” She had always hated her brother’s nickname for her. “And don’t worry, nobody expects you to get up to milk it. Hard work is definitely not for you.”
“No, you’re going to do it, right? The person who’s afraid of her own shadow, just going to take charge of that two-million-pound animal.”
“Will you two stop?” Shep asked in annoyance.
Jennie was pleased to see an opportunity for distraction. “Look, there’s a place for coffee.”
“Can I get some?” Willa asked.
“We’ve gone over this,” Shep said to her. “No coffee at your age. The end.”
“You can get something else, though,” Jennie threw in. As long as it’s not too expensive, she silently added. It was hard to know how long they would have to make their money last, and it was little enough to begin with.
After arming themselves with coffee and soda, they continued on the last leg of the trip, another forty-five minutes to the heart of Lancaster County. Jennie and Shep commented on the beauty of the countryside, admiring the wide-open fields dotted by clapboard houses and storybook-perfect farms. The children were far more intrigued by the occasional horses and buggies they passed, staring at the Amish men and women sitting in the open wagons. Willa waved at them and was sometimes rewarded with a return wave from a woman or a man in a straw hat.
“That is beyond . . .” Tim’s words were lost as he rolled down the window to stick his head out and get a better view of a man and a boy in a closed buggy.
“Stop gawking,” Shep said. “They’re people, not exhibits for your amusement.”
Tim settled back in his seat. “If they didn’t expect people to gawk, they wouldn’t go out like that.”
Shep glanced at his wife, who was consulting a map. “I can’t believe what I’m hearing.” He looked in the rearview mirror at his son. “I’m ashamed that you would say such a thing.”
“Naturally,” Tim snapped back. “When are you not ashamed of me?”
Jennie interrupted. “According to this, we should be coming up to our street soon. But I don’t know whether we go right or left.”
No one said anything in the few minutes it took to get to the next intersection.
“This is it,” Jennie said. “There’s the street sign, that little one.”
“Okay, we’ll try this way first.” Shep made a wide turn to minimize any disturbance to the contents of the U-Haul trailer attached to their car. He drove slowly down the narrow road so they could check the mailboxes.
Willa spotted it first. “I think that says 225. See?” She pointed, keeping her other arm securely wrapped around Scout.
The numbers were partially worn away from the old mailbox attached to a tilting wooden post. Shep pulled into the driveway, drove a few yards, then stopped so they could get a broad view of the house. He turned off the ignition. The four of them stared at the sight before them in dismayed silence. It was a small saltbox half hidden behind long-untended bushes.
A fresh beginning, Jennie reminded herself. This will be a fresh beginning. Inwardly, she groaned. They could deal with the overgrown front yard, but the driveway desperately needed repaving, and the house’s paint was visibly peeling. She spotted a number of broken shutters at several windows; some were missing altogether. The whole thing was just sad-looking, she couldn’t help thinking. Nor did it bode well for what they might find inside.
Her son was first to break the silence, his tone threatening. “This better not be the place.”
Jennie tried to keep her voice cheerful. “It’s the place, all right.”
Her husband glanced over at her. “We passed all those big, open fields. I kind of hoped . . .”
She put a hand on his. “I know.”
Tim interrupted. “We left Lawrence for this?”
“Mom?” Willa’s voice was tremulous. “Mom, is this for real?”
“Come on, kids.” Jennie turned to them a final time. “It’s not so bad. I know it’s not what you probably dreamed of, but we’ll fix it up.”
“What we ‘dreamed of’?” Tim snorted. “This place is a dump.”
“But it’s our dump. All ours, free and clear.”
“Not sure what kind of person would pay for this,” her husband muttered under his breath.
“Shep, that’s not really helpful.” Jennie spoke softly but forcefully. “We need to have a good attitude.”
“In front of the children, you mean?” Tim turned to his sister. “Yes, by all means, let’s delude the children. It’s not as if they’re smart enough to see for themselves that this is even worse than Lawrence.”
“That’s enough out of you,” Shep snapped at him.
Jennie watched her husband get out of the car and slam the door. He was shaking his head, whether about the house or his son, she wasn’t sure.
“Mom, Tim is right. This is way worse than our house,” Willa pointed out in alarm.
True, Jennie thought, but she only smiled. “Nonsense. This place is ours, and our old place wasn’t. We can make it into anything we want.” She opened her car door. “And we’ll make it wonderful.”
Getting out to stand where the children couldn’t see her, she let her smile fall away. Finding out four months ago that Shep was inheriting a house had felt like winning the lottery. It meant they could leave their half of the cramped two-family house they had been renting for nearly ten years and move into a place that was theirs alone. Even more incredible, it was completely paid off. It came to them courtesy of a cousin of Shep’s mother whom no one had even known about. His mother had been dead for some twenty-five years, but apparently, this cousin, Bert Howland, had been a close playmate of hers when they were children. His wife had died long ago, and he had no other living heirs, so he’d named Shep the sole beneficiary of both his home and the bicycle shop he had operated for over thirty years.
They had been astounded by this act of generosity from someone who may have been a family member but was a total stranger to them. It had even come at the perfect moment, with Shep having lost his most recent job, and the two of them coming to the end of what little savings they had. Though it wasn’t an easy move to make, there wasn’t anything holding them in Lawrence, the small Massachusetts town where they had both grown up. There were few jobs to be had there, and it had gotten grimmer with every passing year. Yet they had never considered leaving, certainly not to go to a strange part of the country where they didn’t know a soul. The children were in shock about being dragged off to Lancaster County, which might as well have been the moon as far as they were concerned; characteristically, Tim was furious, Willa quietly miserable. Still, that was all beside the point. By some miracle, they had been given a reprieve from financial calamity through a place to live and a business handed to them with no strings attached.
The heat of the afternoon was oppressive. Jennie gazed at the large damaged patches on the roof of the house, wishing she could feel the same gratitude toward this mysterious relative that she had felt earlier. At the moment, what she felt was dread as she contemplated the work ahead of them. Thank goodness she and Shep could do most of the physical labor themselves; he was a magician at fixing things, and she would help. Still, they couldn’t afford to buy the materials they would need. More important, he had a new business to run, and she had to presume that it would demand most of his time and energy.
Well, she thought, they would simply find a way through. Somehow it would work out.
Scout bounded out of the car, thrilled to be released from his confinement. He gave a few joyful barks, then raced over to follow Shep, tail wagging, as Willa came to join Jennie.
“Let’s see what it’s like inside,” Jennie said. She bent over to peer at Tim, who was still in the backseat, his arms folded, his expression enraged. “You going to stay in there all day? I’d have thought you spent enough hours in the car.”
“I’d rather live here than there.”
She sighed. “Okay, you’ve made your point. Now come on out.”
Making no effort to hide his annoyance, he threw open the door and emerged. Tall and broad-shouldered, he looked remarkably like his father, with the same sandy-colored hair and hazel eyes. The only thing missing was the dimple on Shep’s left cheek, which, to Jennie, only made her husband more handsome when he smiled. Willa resembled Jennie, both of them with brown eyes and long brown hair usually tied back in a low ponytail.
Tim leaned back against the car, hands shoved in his jeans pockets, refusing to look anywhere but at the ground.
Excerpted from An Amish Gift by Cynthia Keller. Copyright © 2012 by Cynthia Keller. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.