Those Crazy Katz' of Windsong Lane

In honor of National Novel Writing Month, I have taken a deep breath and decided to post the little novel I wrote last year up here on my site.  I haven't had very much outside help, so if some of my facts are a little off I apologize  I hope you all enjoy it, as it was especially written for my homeschooling friends.

Chapter 1: A Bad Day

Karen stared out the window at her children playing in the yard. It was going to be a long day. Most days she was happy to be home with the kids, even though most of the people that lived in their town believed she was “some kind of nutty” to be homeschooling her kids by choice. They would argue that for someone to punish themselves with being with their kids all day, that person would have to have some compelling noose around their neck. Most days she would disagree and tell them that it was an honor to be able to share with her family all of the ups and downs that life has to offer on a daily basis. It made their family stronger.

However, today had started with the baby throwing up. Little Emma was only eighteen months. She had awoken in her crib crying at five this morning and promptly thrown up all over the bed. Since then, she had been running a fever and clinging to Karen like separation would be the death of her. Thankfully, Emma was now asleep in Karen’s lap.

Three year-old Joe had seen that she was focused on Emma and decided that he needed some attention too. Today he was mad at the world, fussy and clingy. He was hungry but didn’t want any of the foods she offered for breakfast. He did finally settle on a handful of Cheerios and a bite of cheese and was currently following the older kids around the yard. He was whining that he didn’t want to do whatever it was they were doing, but she was glad he had consented to go outside for a bit.

It looked like Sarah, Jack and Ellie were out there simultaneously tying each other up with jump ropes and digging a pit in the yard.  Thank goodness they knew not to tie anything around each other’s necks and to make sure the other person could actually escape if they wanted to. When this game had first been played it had scared her half to death. Some serious ground rules had had to be set immediately, but it seemed safe enough at the moment.

Karen was still in her pajamas, with her blonde curly hair a mess, and she was just now sitting down with a mug of very strong coffee and some toast. She was really feeling her forty-something years. It was already ten o’clock and it was lucky the rest of the kids had gotten to eat anything at all with Emma and Joe being so fussy. She had long since given up on having energy to do much schooling today. She was much too frazzled to be properly patient and kind. This was definitely the kind of day the home school critics probably shouldn’t know about. They could point to the situation and say, “See? If the kids were in school they would be able to remain productive while you would be able to attend to your young ones.” She had been living this homeschooling life long enough to know that tomorrow would probably be better, and that she should be thankful that they could actually take a break when they had an “off” day. The learning happened much more quickly when everyone was well rested and happy, and sickness was as much a part of life as multiplication tables, maybe even more so. For now, she had sent the older kids outside to run off some energy and give herself a few moments to re-group.

Thirteen year-old Sarah looked down from her perch high in the magnolia tree. Her long skinny legs were splayed out from either side of the branch and her blond curls, much like her moms, were being tossed about by the breeze. She was tired of the game they were playing. In the game, the evil wizard tied up the hero and left him trapped, while the wizard went to go do some other dastardly deed, at which point of course, the hero escaped. She couldn’t even remember who had come up with the idea. All she really wanted to do now was go find her book and read for a while, but she could tell that Mom really needed help today and Joe was in a snit. She sighed and climbed down. Joe was crying to himself and tearing a leaf apart bit by bit while sitting in the whole they had dug.

Their dog, Snitch, was standing over him as if he knew something was wrong and was going to protect him from the world. Snitch had been named during the Harry Potter craze that Sarah and Jack had gone through three years ago. When they had adopted him as a juvenile from the SPCA, he had started taking their stuffed animals and hiding them in unlikely places. He seemed to have some border collie in him, because he liked to heard things and also move things around. Sarah said that he was quick and sneaky like a Snitch from the Harry Potter books and the name had stuck. He had accepted the Katz’s whole-heartedly and seemed to consider them his own.

Sarah said, “What’s wrong Joey?” and sat down next to her brother at the edge of the hole. He sniffled and mumbled, “Nuffin.” Sarah felt his forehead and realized he was warm. Oh no, it looked like he might be sick too. “Joey”, she said, “I think you might be sick too. Come inside with me so we can have Mommy check.” “Otay” and he stretched up his arms for her to carry him. She could still do it, but just barely. He sure was getting big!

Snitch ran off to chase some chickens. That reminded her, “Jack!”, she said. “Can you go feed the chickens? I forgot!” “Yeah yeah.” He untied himself and loped off to the barn to get the feed and check for eggs. You wouldn’t know it from looking at him, he was a smallish dark-haired ten-year-old, but Jack loved living out in the country. The best part about the whole thing was that they could have chickens and goats and as many other pets as they wanted. Sarah had complained bitterly when it was decided they were to move this year. She hated leaving her friends and felt like she had been forced to move to the end of the earth, but Jack couldn’t be happier. He loved animals. He couldn’t get enough of them. He knew he wanted to be a veterinarian some day… or maybe a scientist like his dad, but not the same thing… something else. He wasn’t sure what.

He opened the doors to the big barn and found the chicken feed. Sometimes a mouse or two would be in the bin, so he opened it carefully. Nothing today! He put a couple of scoops into a pail and went around to the side of the barn where the chicken coop was. Those goofy hens were hiding in the garden again. They knew the kids liked to chase them around, so they ran and hid in the tomato vines whenever they heard someone coming. It didn’t help that Snitch was also sniffing around looking for a feather to sneeze at. He wouldn’t actually eat one of the birds (or so they all hoped), he just liked to tease them. As soon as they saw Jack had the pail, though, they ran out clucking and squawking, each one jostling to be the first to get to the feed. Jack spread it around and then checked the coop for eggs. His dad had built the coop the first week they had moved in. It was a really neat design. The hens would sit in a cubby and lay an egg right into a little compartment. If you went around to the other side of the wall, the egg would just be sitting there waiting for you to grab it.

These hens were still pretty young and new to laying, so there were just a couple of eggs today. Some were a nice light-blue color and some were brown. Jack had dreams of selling fresh free-range eggs to people in town to make some money. He might even be able to buy a new Wii game if he could sell enough of them! For now, he was just having fun feeding and watching over this fussy flock. The kids had taken turns naming them. There was Fluffy, Peanut, Mrs. Whatsit, Goose, Hercules (the rooster), Froda, Captain Pecack, Jellybean, The Name of This Chicken is Secret (otherwise know as Secret), and Turkeyleg (who had extra long legs). It was hard to remember who was who though, and sometimes he would get them mixed up. He decided that he was going to be the one to care of them, so he could argue later that they were his chickens! He already fed Snitch every day. It wouldn’t be a big deal to feed the chickens too.  Maybe he should ask his mom to make it his official job.

Meanwhile, eight year old Ellie had been digging yet another hole in the yard and was having fun collecting worms and bugs in a pail. She hadn’t really been interested in the game either, even though it had been her idea. She did love to find bugs, and there were so many out here! Some were a little scary, like that big yellow grasshopper she had found yesterday, but today there was a black beetle, several earthworms, a couple of grubs and a jumping spider. She wanted to go inside and find out what the beetle was. Afterwards, maybe she would feed a few of them to the chickens. She got up, grabbed the pail and headed back to the house. When she got to the door she heard Emma crying and changed her mind. Best not to be in the house with that noisy mess going on. Putting down the pail, she wandered around to the front of the house. Sometimes being a kid in such a big family was a pain. The good part was that even though they had had to move and didn’t know anyone really well in town yet, she still had people to play with. The bad part was that they never went home… they were home. If they had a fight they had to work it out. They couldn’t go away and avoid each other. Momma tried, but she didn’t always have time to listen to Ellie’s exploits with bugs and other things. It was also hard to find some quiet time in the house. This was a line of thought she had had before. She decided maybe she should just go get the mail.

She wandered up the driveway to the mailbox. It sat all by itself on Windsong Lane. In the distance on either side, over rolling green hills of grass and trees, Ellie could make out houses in either direction. Their closest neighbors were an older couple. They had three kids but they were all grown up and living elsewhere. Mrs. Batcherly busied herself by volunteering at the church in town most days, while her husband worked at the local hardware store and took care of things around their small farm. Mrs. Batcherly had come over a couple of times to try to encourage Ellie’s mom to take them all to church (“to get some gospel and to meet people”) and Ellie’s mom had had to explain that they were Jewish, but thank you anyway. Mrs. Batcherly had been very taken aback by that bit of knowledge. It had never occurred to her that this family, or anyone else really, might not be Christian like most people in town. Even though she was polite, it had seemed to cement in her mind an opinion that these Katz’s were a VERY strange bunch. It was hard to be new here anyway, but to be new AND not a part of the social network of the church AND to be homeschoolers and thus not part of school events…. Well, it was downright odd and antisocial. She stopped coming around after that.

With a sinking feeling Ellie looked at the mailbox and realized that someone had taken a piece of black charcoal and written on it in big letters “WEIRDOS”. She sighed. Suddenly she was furious but she also wanted to cry. Deciding not to let whoever had done this get the best of her, she wiped it out with her shirt sleeve, got the mail, slammed the mailbox lid closed, and ran back to the house.

In a tree nearby, a pair of gleeful brown eyes peeped from the branches.  Justin lived in a house a little way down the lane. He grinned while he watched the curly brown haired head of Ellie run off. He didn’t exactly know why he had done what he had done, but he had been so very annoyed with this new family. They lived so close and should have been playmates. Ellie was his age, but they all were so unlike him and (he would never quite admit this to himself) he felt a little intimidated. He was an only kid, and there were just so many of them. Then he found out that they didn’t have to get on the schoolbus every morning and didn’t seem to have to deal with all the stupid stuff he had to deal with all the time. That made him mad. It just wasn’t fair! They should suffer a little bit too.  He needed to think up another prank soon. He didn’t expect his little impulsive thing he had done to have gotten such a quick response and to have given him such a thrill of satisfaction. He was glad he could climb the tree fast enough so she didn’t see him. He was a good climber and his blonde hair and yellow shirt had blended in with the early fall leaves really well. He hopped down out of the tree and sauntered off down the lane. He’d have something to tell his friend at school on Monday… and maybe he’d get lucky and those other kids would leave him alone.

Ellie ran back into the house. She threw the mail onto the table and couldn’t help herself. Tears began to leak from her eyes. She flopped down on the kitchen chair. Her mom had just managed to get both little ones asleep and get dressed. Joe was in front of the TV wrapped in a blanket snoozing and Emma had been gently put back to bed. Her mom sighed, and said, “Honey, what is it?” Ellie cried, “Why does everyone hate us, mom? Why did we have to come here? Aren’t there any other families around here like us? People can be so mean!” Karen was alarmed, “What happened?” Ellie said, “Nothing! “ and ran upstairs to the room she shared with Sarah and threw herself on her bed.

Sarah was on her own bed finishing an essay she had been writing for her online book club class. At least she has friends online, Ellie thought. She gets to talk to them every day. I only get an email from Jenna once a week. Her mom keeps her too busy to check her mail too often. Ellie was feeling very lonely and sad and sorry for herself.  Sarah looked up from her laptop, “What’s wrong with you?” Ellie thought about keeping it too herself, but it all spilled out. She said, “Some jerk called us ‘weirdos’ on our mailbox and I hate it here. I mean, I don’t hate it here, I love it here. I love this house and all the bugs, but I hate it here.” “Hmm. I know what you mean,” Sarah said. “It’s only for a little while Ellie. Daddy said he just needed to be out here for a year to complete his fieldwork, and then we could move back to Raleigh so he could write up his results at the college. I miss my friends too, but it’s only for a little while. “ Ellie thought about that and started to feel better. Sarah was right. Sarah was always right. It was very annoying. Suddenly, she felt very tired.

Sarah finished up her report for her class, and looked over at Ellie. It seemed her sister had fallen asleep. That was very odd. Ellie never took naps. She went down the creaky stairs to see if Mom was ok. She thought the house was pretty neat. It was really old and not very big, but the fact that it had a wrap-around porch and some really big trees that were great for climbing made up for a lot. Her mom had said that it used to be a farmhouse and much of the land around them had been part of the property, but over time the land had been sold off, so that now the farmhouse just had the small barn and goat pen, a small garden, a few trees around an open yard, and a nice long driveway off the lane. It was secluded but it had pretty much everything they could need, and it was very different from their old house. Their house back in Raleigh had been a lot bigger and newer, but they had had a very tiny yard and no trees bigger than the width of her arm. Those little trees were useless for climbing. Neighboring houses had crowded close, and traffic had been pretty heavy on their street. They had had to be careful not to go out onto the street or throw anything out there. It was very different from here, and she liked the extra space and quiet. Still, it was getting harder and harder to find good friends and it was hard to be away from her best buddies. It was ironic that she was telling Ellie it wasn’t so bad, when the truth was, she had protested the loudest in the beginning. She had since resigned herself to the “year in exile” as she referred to it to herself. Mom kept saying that they could learn new things and meet new people, but so far it was just mostly chores and long-distance work. She loved the time they got outside with the animals, but she would have traded it all for a better library nearby.

Karen was finishing up the dishes and making lunch. She said, “Sarah, I sent Jack out to check on the goats. Could you get a load of laundry going and then go water the garden? I’ll have some lunch ready here soon.” Sarah balked a little. “Can I make the lunch instead?” She much preferred cooking to mucking about in the garden. “No hon. I just can’t leave the house today. Emma and Joe might wake up at any time.” Just then, a loud cry came from the bedroom. “Yup, there it is. If you get that done for me we can all have lunch afterwards.” She ran upstairs, leaving some bread on the counter and an apple half cut up. Sarah privately thought that lunch might be a while, but she went out to water the garden.

Jack was giving the goats some feed and fresh water and a rub or two behind the ears. There were just a couple of goats, sisters that they had inherited from the last people to live in this house. They were named Mazy and Lazy, and were very sweet and surprisingly clean, but you had to be very careful when you were around them, or they might eat anything they could grab at, like the buttons off your coat. They were really just pets for the Katz’s and the kids had been having fun figuring out how to care for them.

Karen was somewhat troubled. She wished Johnathan would get home, but he was pretty much unreachable when he was in the middle of a survey. He was a specialist in snakes, a Herpetologist, and had gotten a grant to survey the reptile population in this part of the state. He could be out for hours at a time directing his graduate students and setting up pit traps. Karen used to help him with that kind of work, but that was before kids.

They had met in college. She was an Education major and he was a scientist in training. She spent all of her time learning about how people learn and he spent all of his time memorizing scientific facts and doing research for his thesis. It didn’t seem like they had a lot in common, but somehow they had just fit together and had spent all of their free time together. It wasn’t long before they were married. Later on, she had gotten a job as a teacher while he completed his doctoral degree. When he was working on his post-doc, she had moved on to counseling and private tutoring. He had gotten very lucky, finding a job at North Carolina University, and soon after that Sarah had come along. Their roles switched, and while she had pretty much supported them before kids, she now got to stay at home and she considered it a privilege. By that time, Karen had seen enough of the school system to know that she didn’t want her kids to be part of it. Fortunately, North Carolina was a good place to homeschool, and it was a life-style that suited them.

They had followed a natural progression from exploratory toddler play to a little bit of focused learning each day, gradually mixing the two in whatever ways worked. When Johnathan was home, he gave his all to the kids, and he did his best to include them in what he was working on. Karen had always wanted a big family, but she never really expected it to be this big.  She hadn’t really planned on Emma coming along, but somehow she had ended up with five children. There was a huge network of homeschoolers in Raleigh they could go to for help, activities and other resources. Every now and then extended family would come and help out as well. On days like today, however, she felt extremely outnumbered and wished there were more of her. Sickness usually brought this feeling on. Well, maybe Johnathan would take a day off tomorrow, hand over some of the work to his grad students, and help her out.

Other than two feverish kids, she was also worried about Ellie’s latest outburst. She didn’t know what had happened, but it seemed to be connected to the unfortunate start they had gotten here with the people of the town. She had hoped to move in and deal with the “homeschooler” oddness without having to deal with the whole religion issue, but Mrs. Batcherly had forced the issue to the forefront. Now when they went into town for groceries or to go to the library, people just gave them funny looks and didn’t bother to try to talk. She was used to funny looks just for the size of their family, but it seemed more pronounced now somehow. Maybe if the kids got involved with some sports teams or other activities they would get to know some people and it would all work out.

She knew that on a day like today everything could look hopeless but it probably wasn’t as bad as it seemed. With Emma now on her hip, and looking flushed but a little better, she went downstairs to finish fixing lunch. Emma, surprisingly, let her place her on the floor amongst some toys, and Karen finished cutting up the apples. She got out some fresh milk and bread and peanut butter for lunch. Always willing to see the silver lining, she gave thanks for the easy access to farm fresh foods out here away from the city. The Saturday market had yielded much of this lovely food, and she had spent a little extra money, knowing that the farmers and the baker might remember the kindness and think better of them.

Meanwhile, Johnathan was on one knee, leaning over to look into a pit trap. It always paid to be extra cautious at this point. You never knew when you would end up looking into the beady angry eyes of a timber rattler. It was part of the reason he insisted on doing a lot of this work himself. The other part, of course, was that he loved it. Most of his time these days was spent writing papers and proposals and teaching classes. It was engaging work, but he often missed being out doing the grunt work. Unfortunately, as he got older it had become apparent that the graduate students had a lot more physical flexibility and endurance than he did. Getting older really stank. Well, at least he still had the skills and knowledge to teach them. He looked into this bucket in the ground and found a lovely little glass lizard. This was a terrific find. They were hard to find because they were wily and rather rare. They looked like snakes but were actually really more like legless lizards. His got a firm but gentle grip on it. You had to be careful with these guys because they could detach their tails at will. He measured it with his calipers. A nice twelve inches tip to tail. It was in good health, glossy scales and no obvious parasites. He rattled off numbers and observations and his assistant wrote it all down.

Just as he was about to let it go, he looked up to see an interesting character sauntering up to him. “A good afternoon to you sir!”, the lanky man said. He was wearing a wide-brimmed hat, blue jeans, a flannel shirt and flip flops. “Nice to meet you. I’m David.” He extended his hand to Johnathan. Johnathan looked at his own hands and back at this strange man. “Sorry, I’m a little occupied. My name is Johnathan. Nice to meet you.” “What do you have there?” David said.  He looked genuinely interested. “This here is a glass lizard, a very unusual type of lizard that looks like a snake but isn’t.” David said, “Wow, would you look at that?! I’ve never seen anything like that and I’ve been out here for a while! I was over there on my property looking at you folks here on the preserve and wondering what the heck you could be doing. I couldn’t quite figure it out, so I decided to come over here and see for myself. My wife said you had to be scientists of some sort. She used to help with bird counts, you see, and said that if there was a group of people milling about doing mysterious looking stuff they were probably doing science. Darn if she wasn’t right! “

The two struck up a conversation and before the day was over, David had invited the family over for dinner, although Johnathan had asked him repeatedly if he was sure. The Katz’s descending on any home was no small matter, but David assured him that his wife would love the commotion. Ever since their own kids had moved out things had been entirely too quiet around their place. David had been trying to grow and sell blueberries and the bushes were just getting big enough that he hoped to sell them next season. He had explained that his wife was an organic gardening specialist and that they had moved out to the sandhills from Charlotte a few years back. Johnathan sensed a sympathetic ear and was eager to get to know him better. After David left, he went on the finish checking all of the traps in that line. They closed them up and would set up some new ones the next day.

When he came home, however, it was evident that dinner was out of the question. Karen, looking very tired and flushed, sat on the sofa with Emma and Joe in her lap. Both kids had that pink cheeked, glassy eyed look to them that said “fever” bright as day. She was reading one of their favorite books to them and they were listening, but were being exceptionally quiet. The other kids were strangely absent. “Oh no!” he said. “Do we have some sickos here?” Joe nodded “yes”, stretched out his hands for Daddy and Johnathan picked him up. “When did this happen?” “Oh, about an hour after you left this morning,” Karen said. “First you leave before the sun is up and then poor Emma starts throwing up. I swear she waited for you to leave. She stopped doing that, thank goodness, but it’s definitely the flu. It’s all I can do to get her to drink something. It a miracle the other kids haven’t gotten it yet. Oh, and just to make matters worse, I feel like I’m coming down with it as well.” She paused. “Could you please go check on the other kids? They all went upstairs a while ago and I haven’t heard a peep since. It’s making me nervous.”

Johnathan went upstairs to find Ellie sleeping on her bed (hmmm, also not normal) and the two oldest playing a game of chess in Jack’s room. They were occupied, so he left them alone and reported back. “Looks like we have a full blown quarantine situation here. Ellie may be sick as well. Why don’t you go up to bed with Emma and I’ll handle little Joe here. I’ll call in sick tomorrow and hope they don’t run into anything dangerous without me. Oh, and by the way, we got an invitation to dinner tonight, but I’ll call and get a rain check on that. Looks like we aren’t going anywhere for a while.” Karen breathed a sigh of relief and gave thanks to the powers that be (whatever they may be) for good, loving, dependable husbands. She dragged herself and Emma upstairs and slept the rest of the evening away. It was an indication of how bad she felt that she didn’t ask who had invited them to dinner.

That night Johnathan, Sarah and Jack had a small dinner together, while Joe and Ellie ate crackers and sipped apple juice and went to bed early. It was a very quiet night. The next day, the three took care of the chores while the others recovered. Sometime in the middle of the afternoon the phone rang. Johnathan picked it up and there was nobody on the other end. He hung up, shaking his head about crank calls. The phone rang again, again nobody answered on the other end. At the third call, he was getting really annoyed. A strange voice said, “weirdos” and hung up. Johnathan decided they had better get a caller id. This kind of thing was unacceptable. It made him even more angry that it was getting under his skin. A stupid prank like this wasn’t worth getting upset about, and yet he was upset. He had been a bit worried about bringing the family out here, but they had all agreed it would be a great learning experience, and they could see eachother while he worked. He never seemed to get enough time to be with the kids, and to have had to commute this distance would have been a real hardship. He just hadn’t counted on the small town mentality. First, they were outsiders just because they were new to town and hadn’t grown up there. Next, they weren’t Baptist and in most peoples minds here that seemed to mean they were heathens. They weren’t event Christian, which was even worse. Thirdly, they didn’t send their kids to school. What kind of crazy family did that, unless they were extra devout or just plain odd? It didn’t seem to cross any of these people’s minds that in spite of those differences, they were a family just like any other family.

Chapter 2: On the Mend

Two days later Karen and the little ones felt better but Johnathan and the older two had come down with the illness. Karen sighed (she seemed to do this a lot lately), it always seemed go through the whole family when someone got sick. If they were lucky, not everyone would be sick at the same time and it would stop there. Sometimes it seemed to morph into another illness to make a second round. Her mom used to come and help out when these situations occurred, but she was too far away right now. Karen still felt very tired, but her fever was gone and her appetite was back. She’d have stayed in bed if she didn’t have a family to care for, but somebody had to be up taking care of things. She was contemplating dragging herself to the grocery when the doorbell rang. Who could that possibly be?

On the doorstep was a smallish lady with long grey hair down to her knees caught up in a braid, a floppy straw hat on her head, and overalls. It was hard to tell how old she was, but she could have been in her 50’s. She said, “My husband says you folks have been under the weather, and since we didn’t see your husband out there in the woods the past two days, we were worried you might need some help. David gave me your address, and I thought I would come check on you. I brought some chicken soup!” Karen smiled. It had been a while since anyone outside the family had shown her some kindness. “Thank you so much! We really could use this. I’d invite you in, but I don’t think you should. You might pick up some of this nasty bug and I would hate to do that to you.” “That’s alright. I never get sick. My name is Rose by the way. Let me put this down in your kitchen for you.” She stepped in and put the pot down on the counter, moving some dishes aside.

Emma was on the floor in a pile of Tupperware while Snitch surveyed the mess beside her. He came over and gave Rose a sniff. She must have passed the sniff test because he wagged his tail and went back to supervising. Joe was at the kitchen table making little monsters and pretend food out of play-dough. In the living room Ellie, Sarah and Jack were each in various corners of the room working in their math books. Sarah and Jack had piles of used Kleenex next to them and Jack was muttering to himself. Rose said, “I hope you don’t mind my saying so, the place is a mess, but you are an industrious bunch! Is there anything else I can do for you? I figured if you couldn’t come for dinner, I would bring some dinner to you. Oh! And here is some bread I just baked to go with it.” She placed a wonderful smelling loaf of bread next to the pot of soup. Karen said, “I’m speechless! Thank you so much. We’ll be ok, really, but this meal is very welcome.”  Rose said, “OK. I’ll just get out of your hair. Don’t worry about bringing the pot back too much. I don’t need it right away. I have another one and won’t miss that one. I’ll come by again soon!” and with that she was out the door. She was such a small person, but it seemed as if a whirlwind had just come in and out the door and left the wonderful smells of fresh bread, soup and lavender behind. Karen was so touched. She couldn’t believe it! Well, that solved the dinner problem!

Over the next few days everyone began to slowly get better and things started to get back to normal, if there really was a normal, which there wasn’t. The only difference was that they started to get regular visits from Rose and sometimes David and once they did actually drive out to the Greenberg farm for dinner. Surprisingly, the commotion of all of those kids seemed to make them happy instead of tense, and the kids had fun running around amongst the blueberry bushes. Rose showed them her garden, which was rather barren since it was Fall, but she showed them her cold weather plants (lettuce, broccoli and carrots mostly) and spun a picture for them about how it would look in the Spring and Summer. It was a large and well-tended garden with several large beds. She even talked about all of the beneficial bugs one would find there. Ellie was particularly entranced by this. It was nice to have someone in the area to talk to besides each other.

The following week Karen found a soccer league in town and signed the oldest three up for it. She felt they needed to make an effort to get to know people, and the extra exercise was good for them. Ellie was glad. She loved sports, but the other two protested greatly. Karen persisted anyway and hoped that it would help them to make some friends. They also joined the local 4H group, which was a little awkward. Most of the kids in the group had grown up around farm animals their whole lives, and also had known each other most of their lives. New people were not very common and it was hard to break into the circle of friendships. Some kids just ignored them, and others laughed at the differences (“What, you never heard of a heifer? Really?”) The Katz kids didn’t have the southern drawl and didn’t seem to know very much about life on a farm, didn’t know any of the local teachers, and didn’t get any of the inside jokes many of the kids shared. Several were friendly, but Sarah was puzzled when a really nice girl who was friendly and kind to her one week gave her the cold shoulder the next.

One day Karen and Rose were sitting down to share some tea. Rose had been coming over about once a week, she said to help out and see the kids.  Today, she confided that she had been lonely, and now that the growing season was over, she had less to keep her busy. Her son was away at vet school and her daughter had entered a school of the arts in New York City in the hope of becoming an artist. She didn’t get to see them as often as she liked. They did come home for holidays though. The two women had in common that they had not grown up in the area. Karen said, “Rose, the kids are having a hard time finding friends here. I don’t think we’ve ever had that problem before. It’s very frustrating. I know we are “outsiders” and we don’t go to school or church, but I guess I never expected that to be such a big deal. “ Rose said, “Hon, I’ve lived here for ten years now and I’m still an outsider and probably will always be. They’ve got me pegged as an oddball, but that’s ok for an old lady. You kinda expect old ladies to be a bit off their rocker! I’m not sure what to tell you, but my guess is that if you give them some time, they’ll all come around. Who could not like you guys?”

David had shared some of his tips for managing things around the house with Johnathan, like how to get the old heater to kick in, and how best to fix a broken fence. Johathan, however, didn’t have a huge amount of time to socialize. He was wrapping things up with his Fall reptile survey, and managing his help along with compiling the data they had collected was taking up all of his time.

Chapter 3: 4H and Other Animals

The next day was cold and rainy. The Katz’s piled into their beat-up minivan to go to a 4H meeting. It always took a few minutes to get everyone buckled up and in their car seats. While Karen was getting Emma in her seat she looked out the back window. Someone had scrawled in the dirt on the window, “Go away weirdos!” Infused with anger, she said in a low growl, “Which one of you did that?” They all turned around and looked. Jack said, “What the…?!” and with wide eyes, Ellie said, “Mom! The word “weirdo” was on our mailbox the other day! I swear I didn’t do that! Somebody is being really mean!” Sarah said, “It gives me the creeps that somebody might be lurking around here spying on us. Why would they do such a thing?” Karen said, “I believe you. Let’s talk about this later.” It was a very somber group that drove over to the community center. Karen was very disturbed, but she tried not to show it.

At 4H the kids were broken up by age into different groups to do their various activities. The toddlers were having fun just playing with some toys in a corner. Ellie and Jack were in a group learning about keeping goats and Sarah was in a leadership group with the other teens. Karen had stayed for the meeting to try to be friendly with the other moms, but although they were all very polite to her, nobody included her in their conversations. To be fair, much of it was about Church functions and frustrations with teachers and busses, and Karen couldn’t really sympathize or add anything to the discussion. Sarah was also having a hard time because she had been paired up with the girl who had turned a cold shoulder to her last week. They were to prepare a presentation for the following meeting about the things they loved to do. It was to be an exercise in public speaking. The problem was that the other girl was being very uncooperative. When Sarah had asked if there was a good time they could get together to work on it, the girl had maintained a determined silence. The girl then asked the leader if she could do her own project. Sarah didn’t know what to do.  She had never had anyone be so mean to her. It really hurt. As the girl left the meeting, Sarah saw her walk out the door with a very stern looking woman, who looked back at her as she left with an expression of loathing. Sarah wanted to cry. Karen saw the exchange and the expression on Sarah’s face and came over to give her a hug. Quietly, in Sarah’s ear she said, “Now that I know who her mom is, I think I might understand. That was the minister’s wife, and I understand they are very strict. They probably don’t trust anyone who is not part of the church. I’m sorry sweetie. I never expected you to have to deal with this. If you want to quit 4H, you can. I only wanted to give it a try.”

Sarah wiped away a tear, and said, “I don’t know mom. Let me think about it.” Just then a re-headed girl Sarah’s age with heavy black-rimmed glasses came up to them. She said, “I saw how Joetta was acting. It makes me so mad! I just want to tell you that not everyone here is so snotty. I’m Beth-Ann. Do you want to work on the project with me? I got here late, so I didn’t get a partner.” Sarah beamed through her wet eyes and said, “Sure!” They arranged a time to meet at the library that weekend.

That night Sarah was bubbling, full of hopefulness, and Ellie and Jack were grumbling about the soccer game they had to go to the next day. They were not looking forward to it. Although both were passable players, and Ellie was even pretty good, it seemed like the other kids were always being especially rough on the field and the coaches and referees didn’t ever call them on it. It could be a bang-up day tomorrow. They were anticipating many bumps and bruises. Sarah had gotten out of doing soccer, pleading that her other schoolwork took precedence. Truth was, she wasn’t much into sports and wasn’t really good at it. She tended to be somewhat afraid of the ball, so it was probably for the best.

Joe came into the girls’ room after dinner. He had on his superman costume and a pair of blue-rimmed sunglasses. He also had a new library book in his hands. “Sarah read me!” he said and climbed up on her bed. Sarah had been watching a video on her laptop. “Ok Joey, come here.” She put down the computer and hoisted him up to sit next to her on the bed. “Ducky” he said solemnly. The book was “Make Way for Ducklings” by Robert McKlosky. It was a favorite and Sarah didn’t mind reading it to him. Reading to Joey was a good excuse for her to re-read all of her favorite kids books, but she would never admit that out loud.

Suddenly there was a huge commotion outside. Someone was shouting. It sounded like it was coming from the goat pen, and Snitch was barking excitedly like he was finally about to catch one of those pesky squirrels.  Everyone ran outside. There in the pen was Justin. He was on the ground with his pant leg caught in the wire fencing. The goats were making a good effort of trying to eat his hair and jacket, and Snitch was outside the pen barking excitedly. He was a blur of black and white exuberance. He finally had something really important to bark at!

Karen said, “Aren’t you the little boy that lives down the road? Are you ok?” Justin just kept yelling, “Help me! They’re attacking me! Ouch! Help!” Jack opened the gate and went in to grab the goats and Karen handed Emma to Sarah and made an attempt to get Justin’s leg unwound from the wire fence. This took quite a few minutes and actually ended in them having to cut the wires loose. By this time Justin was breathing loudly but being quiet. He had a very curious expression on his face. It was a mixture of fear and defiance.

When they had gotten him untangled he had wanted to run off, but Karen grabbed him by the arm and insisted he come inside. She sat him down and had a good look at his leg. The jeans were torn and he had a nasty scratch on his leg. “Let me see if I can clean this up for you” she said. “Have you had a tetanus shot?” Justin nodded and sat still while she cleaned him up and put a band-aid on the wound. Meanwhile, all of the kids stood around in a circle watching. Sarah said hotly, “What were you doing in our yard?” She was angry. He had no business being there and she was pretty sure this was the same creep who had been leaving nasty messages. Justin said, “Your dog scared me and I was trying to get away from him. I thought maybe I would be safe with the goats, but I tripped and they attacked me! Maybe I should ask you why you let you dog roam free?” “Hmmm.” Said Karen. “Snitch never attacks anyone, and so far, out here in the country we didn’t think anyone would mind him. He never roams away from the yard.” She didn’t add that if Snitch had chased him she knew he must have been in their yard. “I need you to give me your parent’s number. I need to call them and let them know what’s happened.” After he had reluctantly given her the number, she dialed it, but nobody picked up the phone. She left a message, “Hello, this is Mrs. Katz down the Lane. We have your son, Justin, here and he’s had a little bit of a fall. We’ve patched him up, but I wanted to tell you he should probably be up to date on his tetanus shots. He is ok now. We’ll be sending him home shortly. Bye.” And she hung up.

Justin said sullenly. “Nobody cares where I am. Dad’s out somewhere and mom’s at work.” “Hmmm.” said Karen. “Well, then, you’ll have just enough time for some cookies and milk before you go home.” Justin was flabbergasted. He didn’t know what to think. He really had been creeping around their yard. He had half thought he might do something like open the gate and let the goats out, but really he had just been curious to see what everyone in this house was doing. He wouldn’t admit it to himself, but he was really lonely. Every day after school, if he survived the jerks on the school bus, he had to come home to an empty house. The farm wasn’t doing too well and his mom had had to take a job in town to try to make ends meet. Some days he didn’t see anyone until eight or nine at night. Sure, mom would call to check on him, and she did leave some dinner in the fridge just in case, but he hated being there by himself.

At the moment, three of the Katz’s were looking at him with glares. Mrs. Katz was being super nice, something he hadn’t expected, and the two littlest ones were staring at him with curiosity. Suddenly the toddler pointed at him and said, “Boy go fall down!” and started laughing hysterically, falling over on the ground in laughter. It was such a funny belly laugh, there was no way not to join in. Everyone cracked up. Jack said, “Look, if you want to come hang out some, just come by and knock on the door, OK? “ Justin just nodded. Why were they being so nice? They had a pleasant half hour of cookies and milk with everyone talking and trying to decide what game they could all play together that night. Justin just sat there quietly, listening, and then he went home. Stepping out of that house felt like stepping into the desert. He limped home silently by himself, deep in thought.

Ellie watched him go from the window, and suddenly all of her anger faded and she felt sorry for him. He just looked so lonely. Maybe he had done those mean things and maybe he hadn’t, but she’d give him a chance if he decided to show up again.

Chapter 4: Justin

It was a couple of days before Justin got up the nerve to come knock on the Katz’s door. When his mom had asked about the phone call and his leg, he had grudgingly explained the bare minimum of the incident to her. She called the Katz’s and spoke with Karen, and she had been very nice, explaining what had happened and that she was fine if Justin wanted to come over some days, as long as he behaved himself. Justin’s mom was thrilled at the possibility that he might have somewhere to go after school. She was aware of some of the talk in town about her neighbors, but she was just desperate enough not to care.

Justin’s mom didn’t just ‘not mind’ if he went over, she encouraged him. She hated leaving him, but she had been lucky to get a job at the restaurant in town. They desperately needed the money, but her boss was insistent that she stay until closing and make sure everything was cleaned up before she went home. This often meant she had to stay late. She had brought Justin in to the restaurant a couple of times to do his homework in one of the booths, but her boss had frowned at that. It was too bad her husband was also too busy to be there in the evenings. It really seemed he should have been able to work things around so he could. To make ends meet, he had started doing odd jobs for other people around town and on other farms. Some days he was too far away to come home, or so he said. She never knew when he would be home. He had been particularly uncommunicative the past couple of months and seemed to stay away more than was strictly necessary. They had had a few fights about it the few times they actually saw each other. They didn’t get a lot of time together these days, and Justin was just getting lost in the middle of everything.

Justin walked up the Katz’s drive one day after school. It had been a particularly bad day. His grades had been suffering recently and the teacher had given him a note to bring home to his parents. On top of that, the jerks on the bus snatched his hat away and threw it out the window. He had had to walk a mile back down the road to get it. After that, he didn’t really want to go home. He stood there on the front porch with his dusty crumpled hat and his backpack full of books, and didn’t seem to be able to get himself to ring the doorbell. What if they found out what a jerk he really was and threw him out of the house? Deep down, he really didn’t feel he deserved to have someone be nice to him.

He stood there for ten minutes until the dog sensed him there and started barking. He heard a commotion inside and then he heard “Snitch, shut up!” Suddenly, the front door swung open and Ellie was standing there. Her wild curly brown hair looked like she had stuck her finger in an electrical socket, and she was wearing a strange outfit that looked like something between a space explorer and a medieval princess. In spite of himself, Justin smiled. He couldn’t help it. She was just so… wacky! She said, “Oh, it’s you. Um, come in!” Justin stepped inside and she closed the door. “We were just making up a game. We all just finished reading ‘The Hobbit’ and felt like we wanted to make up our own story. You want to play?” “Um, what’s ‘The Hobbit’?” Justin said. “Really!?” Ellie said incredulously, “You don’t know!? It’s this famous fantasy book written by a guy named J.R.R. Tolkien.” Justin thought the name “Tolkien” sounded a little familiar, but he wasn’t sure. Ellie said, “Do you want to be a hobbit or an elf?” Justin just said, “Um”. Ellie said, “Well, don’t just stand there, put all of that stuff down and come on!” They walked into the living room and he saw it had been transformed into something else. The cushions on the sofa had been piled into what looked like a wall and blankets draped over it all. Things were draped everywhere and the rest of the Katz kids were there in various make-shift outfits. Ellie announced to the room, “Justin is here. I think he should be a good elf, what do you think?” Jack said, “Sure, we were about to enter the tunnels under the mountain. Are you ready? I think we may need some of your magic light. Here, hold this ball.”

That was the beginning of a cautious friendship. Justin was a little rusty with this “fantasy play” thing, so he was rather quiet the first few times he came over, but the Katz kids just did their best to include him, and he eventually loosened up and started to have fun. He could almost forget about everything else.

Of course, some days the Katz kids couldn’t play. They either had someplace they needed to go, or someone hadn’t finished their schoolwork for the day or they were still working on a project. On those days when Mrs. Katz insisted on quiet, she invited Justin to sit and do some of his homework at the kitchen table.

He had been ignoring his homework, and he really didn’t want to face it. It just made him feel dumb. A lot of the time he just didn’t get it and he didn’t like feeling dumb, so he ignored it. One day he took a paper out and just stared at the page. Mrs. Katz was spooning some food into Emma’s mouth in her high chair. She noticed him and said, “What is that homework about Justin?” He said, “Fractions.” She asked if he needed some help and he nodded his head faintly, so she finished feeding the baby and took a few minutes to help him. She took out some really neat magnets and showed him how, if you split things up in various ways they were fractions of the whole, then she showed him how you could add them together, and it all made sense to him suddenly. “Thank you Mrs. Katz. I… I just didn’t get it before. I figured I was just dumb, but now I see it’s not so hard. I think I can do it now.” The next day he handed in a fully completed piece of homework to his teacher for the first time in months. The teacher was pleasantly surprised. Maybe he wouldn’t have to repeat the grade after all.

One day in September, it was raining outside and the kids had all finished their schoolwork for the day. Justin was over and he and Ellie were playing a game of chess. Justin didn’t know how to play, but Ellie was trying to teach him, and she was trying not to beat him too badly. Justin seemed to be in a somber mood. He was in a somber mood much of the time, but today seemed to be a bit worse than usual. Justin said, “Ellie, can I tell you something and you won’t tell anyone else?” She said, “Don’t tell me, I don’t want to know.” He said, “Really, I just need to say this because I feel really bad about it and I need to tell you.” Ellie sighed. She had a feeling she knew what it was. “Aaall-right.” “Well, you know when I got caught in the goat pen?” “Yeah.” “Well, I was trying to spy on you guys and think up mean things to do. I don’t know why, but I hated you for being so lucky and also different, but you’ve been nice to me. I just want to say I’m sorry.” Ellie said, “You wrote those nasty notes too didn’t you?” He just looked at her. She said, “Well, those were really mean things to do and I should beat you up for it, but I guess I can forgive you. Just… don’t ever do anything so mean again.” She threw a pillow at him and he fell over and pretended to be dead.

Things were just a tad better after that. Karen and Johnathan had suspected the truth, but since nothing along those lines had happened in a long while, and no serious damage had been done, they let it go and had never pressed him on it. Even on the days when Justin had to be home by himself all afternoon, he wasn’t so sad anymore, because he knew he had some friends, and at school his grades got a bit better. He held his head up a bit more, and a couple of the bullies on the bus decided he wasn’t worth the trouble to pick on any more. The problems at home continued, but Justin had something good to hold on to now.

Chapter 5: Johnathan

Meanwhile, Johnathan was slowing down his work hours. When you have the funding to do field research, you do as much as possible when you’ve got the money to pay your help. He had been trying to survey the entire county, and that was a huge area to cover. Now that the weather was getting cool, he would send everyone else home for a bit and they would start again in the Spring. Meanwhile, he would be on sabbatical and have a little more time with his family.

Field research was rewarding work, but exhausting. They would have a huge collection of data to pour over when they were through. It could take him years to sift through it all. Tiring as it was, he loved being outside and getting to see what was in a trap. Other than the glass lizards, through the late summer and fall they had seen quite a few box turtles, black racers, rat snakes, timber rattlers, skinks and many, many lizards. He had also come upon a very frightened vole or two, and numerous insects. Anything small that fell into the trap couldn’t get out. The vertical, slippery sides of the buckets dug into the ground, and the cloth fences gently funneling animals into the traps were very effective. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a great way to get a survey of reptiles in the area.

They had also used nets for the aquatic species and found a good number of water snakes and turtles. So far he was heartened by his counts. Amphibians everywhere were in trouble, but most of his reptiles were hearty souls and survivors. He was doing good work, and it was the kind of work that might stand up for many years and be a solid contribution to science. It would also be helpful for regulators trying to protect key areas. Too often, a lack of information hampered these efforts. This refuge and the surrounding undeveloped forests really were a haven for these creatures and he hoped to prove it.

For the past several hours he had been sitting in his “office”, a small closet they had jammed a desk into in the most out-of-the-way place that could be managed in this house, but he hadn’t gotten very much done. Joe kept wandering in and giving him things: Legos, rubber balls, matchbox cars, wooden blocks, old Cheerios… Each gift was given with such an air of solemn and earnest love, that he didn’t have the heart to ask Joe to stop interrupting.

Downstairs, he had overheard Sarah and Jack have a rare and pointless fight (heated argument they would say) about who got to read the new book in their favorite series first. Then he heard Karen interrupting, asking them to give her the book, and would they please both sit down and finish their math work? Ellie slammed the door on her way out. She was probably going to go sketch some more bugs.

He had brought Ellie some of the more interesting bugs they found his fall, and she loved to look at them. She looked each and every one over carefully, and then flipped through the field guides to find out what they were called and learn about them. Often she would sketch them, and she liked to go out and see if she could find new ones she had never seen before. There was no shortage of bugs out here in the grassy fields and pine forests. He hated to think about what it was going to be like in the spring, however. The ticks would probably be pretty bad. They would have to all take appropriate and extreme precautions and he’d have to tell Ellie to restrict her wanderings.

Jack had begged to be allowed to come on the survey with him this season, but he had been a bit nervous about this initial effort. So many things could have gone wrong, and he had a responsibility to his graduate students and his funders to give them and the study his full attention. He hadn’t wanted the added distraction, but now he felt bad about it. It would have been a terrific learning opportunity. He would have to make sure that any of the kids that wanted to come out with him would get at least a day to do so when they started up again.

It did hearten him though, that of five children, at least two of them shared some of the love of animals he had always had. Karen had always been somewhat interested in the work he did, and was blessedly unafraid of the snakes and other things that he loved. She had forbidden him to bring any of them home though. She probably knew that if he started down that road, it would be a slippery slope, and the house was full enough as it is.

He looked out the window. The sun was setting through the pines and the light was a beautiful golden hue. Suddenly, sitting there trying to summarize his work thus far seemed unimportant. He went downstairs. Sarah was making spaghetti for the family for dinner and Karen was supervising while feeding Emma and giving Ellie a Spelling test. He said, “Hon, it’s beautiful outside, would you like to go take a walk? I can take care of things here for a bit.” Karen stopped and looked at him for a minute, trying to process what he was saying. “Well… yes, that would be nice.” She said slowly. What a wonderful surprise! She often had her nose bent so close to the grindstone that she forgot what it was like to stop and take time for herself. The golden light called to her, and she gratefully got up to let Johnathan take over with Emma and Ellie.

Chapter 6: The Walk

Several minutes later, Karen was out the door in the blessedly quiet afternoon. It was beautiful. There was something about the crisp, golden, clear Autumn days that she just loved. Also, she loved her family, but quiet was a rare and treasured commodity. She would soak it up while she could. Getting some exercise was an added bonus. She stepped off the porch and walked briskly up the drive, her multi-colored scarf wrapped around her like a flag.

Windsong Lane was a long lonely road. There was a little traffic, but out here it was mostly fields and forest interspersed with a few farms. As she walked she would enter a shaded patch of forest and then come out into the golden sun again at a field. It was getting dark and a light mist was rising from the ground. She would have to turn around soon. Nearby she heard a loud hooting that sounded like “Who Cooks For You? Who cooks for you allllllll?” It was a barred owl! On silent wings, the predator swooped off a nearby perch and glided over the field. Seeing it felt like a gift. She wanted to say, “Well, I cook for me and all those other people too!” but talking to herself would probably be a sign that she was finally cracking up and it would disturb the peace of the evening. Feeling gifted and fortified, she turned around and headed home.

She was almost there when she heard shouting down the lane. Craning her neck, she could make out a riding mower and someone yelling on the side of the road in front of the Batcherly’s home. She ran over and found Mr. Batcherly on the ground holding his leg and in what seemed to be a lot of pain. “Oh my gosh, Mr. Batcherly, are you ok? What happened?” Through clenched teeth he said, “Darn snake got me. It was a copperhead, because sure as shootin I never saw it before it bit. I got off my mower to move a dead branch over here near the woods and I musta scared it. It bit me and slithered off.” He showed her two very deep looking bite marks on his ankle. The skin around the bite was starting to swell and discolor. “Ohhhhh. I can’t stand it!” He said and writhed on the ground. Karen said, “Now you keep calm Mr. Batcherly. That is the best thing you can do. My husband is an expert on these things. I want you to lie right there and be real still.” She gently removed his tennis shoe and sock in case the swelling got worse and then ran up the lane to get Mrs. Batcherly. She yelled and knocked on the door. Mrs. Batcherly came to the door with a wary look on her face, but as soon as Karen explained what had happened, she ran to call 911. Karen said, “Get an ambulance out here right away and then go out there and keep him calm! I’m gonna run home and get my husband! He has a stock of anti-venom for his work!” With that, Karen sprinted back down their driveway and down the lane to her own home. She burst into the house out of breath.

Everyone was just setting the table for dinner and were startled by her dramatic entrance. This was not something that mom did very often! “Honey! Mr. Batcherly got bitten by a snake! He thinks it was a copperhead and it really got him good. Come help! He’s on the lane in front of his house!” Johnathan handed Emma to Jack and said, “Kids, take care of things for a few mintues.” He ran upstairs and grabbed his emergency kit. Part of the preparations for a reptile survey always included a very well-stocked snake bite kit. Not only that, but Johnathan was well versed in how to administer the anti-venom. He wasn’t going to take any chances with his or his student’s lives, and you never knew when tromping around in the woods would kick up some surprises. He had had to use it on himself once. Kit in hand, he ran downstairs and out the door in a matter of minutes.

Sprinting down the lane, he found Mrs. Batcherly standing over Mr. Batcherly in a panic, phone in hand. Mr. Batcherly was on the ground, deathly pale and gritting his teeth in pain. He was starting to breath irregularly and the ankle had started to swell up alarmingly. “How… long… did you say… it was going to take… them to get here!?” he said. “The dispatcher said they were thirty minutes away, but that they were coming as fast as possible.” Mrs. Batchely said wide-eyed, clearly near hysterics and not knowing what to do. “Mr. Batcherly”, Johnathan said, “I’m Dr. Katz. I’m a reptile specialist. I need you to trust me. I’ve got a stock of anti-venom here and I know how to administer it. I need you to lie down and try to stay calm. Mrs. Batcherly, can you get him something to put his head on and a blanket? How much do you weight sir?“ Johnathan could see Mr. Batcherly was going into shock and the anti-venom needed to be administered as soon as possible. He was one of the few people in the state outside of the medical profession qualified to administer it. He found a vein and hooked Mr. Batcherly up to a bag of saline solution mixed with the anti-venom in the amount recommended for a man of his size. He then held the bag in the air so it could start a slow drip into Mr. Batcherly’s body.  It was going to be a long process, but getting it started now would head off most of the damage. Johnathan wouldn’t have done anything if Mr. Batcherly had looked calm and was breathing normally, but he was very concerned about the man’s physical state. He also didn’t know how long he had been out here on the road. Finally, anti-venom was extremely expensive. Johanthan had used research funds to buy it because it had been deemed necessary enough to have a contingency in case of emergency. Not all hospitals, especially small hospitals, would have it in stock. He didn’t know if he was going to be able to replace it, but he couldn’t very well leave this man here to die when he had the means available to help him.

Mrs. Batcherly went back to the house and came out with a pillow and blanket. She lovingly placed the blanket over her husband, who was now shaking uncontrollably, and they waited. Karen came out to wait with them. She was so thankful that Johnathan had been there to help. The Batcherly’s probably had no idea how lucky they were.

Thirty minutes later, the ambulance finally showed up. The EMT’s were astounded to find the patient already being treated, and after examining the IV and the dosages, were also astounded that Johnathan had done what they would have done. He showed them his training certification, so they knew that he really was qualified to have treated someone and that the anti-venom was genuine. They could now get Mr. Batcherly off to the hospital and get him some painkillers to make him more comfortable. They admitted that the anti-venom was not on hand and was being ordered from a supplier. It wouldn’t arrive at the hospital until the next day. Johnathan gave them another vial just in case they needed it before the other stuff arrived.

After checking all of his vitals and the wound, the EMT’s loaded Mr. Batcherly onto a stretcher and into the ambulance for the long ride to the hospital. Being out in the country had its drawbacks. Mrs. Batcherly got in back with her husband, and Karen promised to close things up at their house and bring some items to the hospital the next morning. They might be there at the hospital for a while. The doors closed and the ambulance drove away, lights flashing silently.

That night, after the kids had gotten a shortened version of the story and were put to bed, Johnathan and Karen finally got to talk. Snuggling in bed together, Karen said, “John, it makes me so scared that something like that could happen to you or to one of the kids some day. I’ve always known those snakes were out there and that it was something to watch out for, but for some reason now it’s more real. It makes me not want to let anyone go out in the forest or fields. Ellie’s out there all the time. I couldn’t bare to loose any one of you crazy people.” “Well,” said Johnathan, “Here’s the real deal… and I know I’ve told you this, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded. Most of the time the snake leaves and you never even see it. Even if you do see it, it will do it’s best to hide or flee. If it can’t to either, it might just threaten you. If you back away even then, it’ll likely make an escape. If it feels it needs to bite, most snakebites either miss, fail to penetrate, or might penetrate your skin but fail to inject venom. In cases where there was venom injection, you likely have time to go check yourself into a hospital for treatment. Mr. Batcherly just had terrible luck and had a terrible reaction on top of it all. It was a direct and unusually deep bite. Most dangerous bites are on the arms and the reason is that the person that got bit deserved it… egging the snake on… usually some young dumb guy. I would hope that nobody in this house meets that description.”

Karen was silent for a minute. “You’re right, of course. Thank you, but I think we will all be a little more cautious for a while. I guess it’s getting colder. Hopefully we won’t have to worry about snakes until you start work again. That one must have been by the road sunning itself. It’s a bit chilly out.” Johnathan agreed. “You know, you were a hero today.” Karen said. “Maybe,” he said, “But wouldn’t you have done the same thing if you could? There are so many things that could have happened. I just hope he will be alright.” “Yes” Karen said, and they held each other extra tightly that night, at least until Emma woke up yet again in the wee hours of the morning. Karen couldn’t wait until that child started sleeping through the night. 

Chapter 7: Healing

The following day they made it a family project to check in on their neighbor’s house and go to visit them at the hospital. Karen called the Batcherlys at the hospital to get an update and found that Mr. Batcherly was doing well. Mrs. Batcherly humbly requested a change of clothes and her car to be brought to the hospital. She told them where to find everything. The house had been left unlocked. Johnathan drove the Batcherly’s car, the rest piled into the van, and they took the trip to the hospital, which was a half hour away in a slightly larger town. The hospital served most of that part of the county.

The older kids had each made Mr. Batcherly “get well” cards, and Karen had packed them a lunch as well. When they went up to the ward where the couple was, the hospital staff was a bit surprised by the large group of people in the hallway, but they directed them to the correct room. “How are you doing Mr. Batcherly?” said Karen. “Please, call me Jim.” He said in a solemn and matter-of-fact way. He was looking pale and rather frail and tired, and his leg was wrapped up in an impressive amount of gauze. He said to them in a rather scratchy voice, “I think I owe you two a heaping debt of gratitude, if not my life… Thank you.” There was a moment of silence.  In the corner, Mrs. Batcherly was sitting, looking ragged and tired. “Yes. Thank you.” She echoed. She was not her usual verbose self. Karen found her lack of conversation especially disturbing. It was an indication of how much stress the woman was under. Mr. Batcherly, Jim, cleared his throat, “Uh, the doctor let me know the cost of those vials of anti-venom Mr. Katz. Somehow, “thank you” isn’t enough. I’ll see if I can’t pay you back for those. We have some insurance. Hopefully they will cover some of it, and what they don’t, I will. It just might take me a while.” Johnathan said, “Please don’t worry about that too much… Jim… I only did what anyone would have done if they could have. I had that anti-venom as part of my research.”

The kids had been standing quietly at the door. At Karen’s cue, they now crowded in and each gave Mr. Batcherly the cards they had made and told him they hoped he felt better soon. He and his wife were so touched there were tears in their eyes. Karen asked after their kids and they told her that their son was on his way down to see him and would be there that afternoon. The other two were too far away, but knew what had happened and were very relieved that their dad was O.K. They visited for a little while and had a pleasant time and then left when the nurse came in to check on things.

Mr. Batcherly was in the hospital for a few days after that. It seems he had a heart condition which complicated things. There was some damage to his leg that couldn’t be fixed, but several rounds of anti-venom were given to clear the poisons from his body. Recovery was slow, but he was soon able to go home. He had a cane afterwards though, and moved very slowly.

Word got around about what had happened. Mrs. Batcherly was a gossip at heart and couldn’t help telling people all about why they had been in the hospital. Suddenly people were being much nicer to the Katzs. Not everyone was, but enough were that being out around town felt less hostile or dismissive and more friendly overall. One or two acquaintances even came up and commented to Karen that they couldn’t believe what her husband had done, and that it was nothing short of miraculous. It was as if a little bit of glow was attached to those close to the local hero of the moment and people wanted a piece of that. Nobody ever saw Johnathan, however. He was out in the forest all of the time, but they wanted to get to know his family just the same.

Chapter 8: Friends and Fall

Sarah and Beth-Ann had met a few times after the 4H presentation. Sarah found out that the red-head was a bit of an oddball herself. She was exceptionally outspoken and was part of debate club at school. She also spent a great deal of time practicing her violin. She was a bit of a prodigy with the violin and had traveled around the country for competitions. She and Sarah got along really well, and they had in common that they loved to read and to cook. Beth-Ann was very opinionated but Sarah really liked her wit and sense of humor. Of course, Beth-Ann went to school and then frequently had homework and practice after that, so they didn’t see each other that often, but when they did they really enjoyed each others’ company.

Beth-Ann lived in town and had one younger brother. Her parent’s didn’t seem to mind the new friendship, and the moms got to know each other at 4H meetings, at least in a semi-friendly way. One day, Beth-Ann came home with the family and the two girls had a lot of fun in the kitchen making cookies and talking about the various people in town their age. Beth-Ann was an encyclopedia of all the current and past gossip, and Sarah was fascinated with the world she seemed to live in.

At first Sarah felt a little left out, but as Beth-Ann continued to explain all of the fights and drama that went on, she changed her mind and decided she was probably lucky not to be part of all of that.  She did wonder if she would ever meet a guy she liked. She didn’t get to be around kids her own age too terribly much these days, and boys even less so. So far she had seen some guys that were kinda cute, but most of them seemed rather dorky in her opinion.

Unbeknownst to the older girls, Ellie had been ease-dropping from the other room. She was just as fascinated with Beth-Ann’s talk about who “liked” whom and who was fighting with whom, though if her sister had found her there, she would have denied it completely.

 None of the Katz's  had ever gone to school and it was hard for Ellie to imagine this world that Beth-Ann lived in. There were times that they had wondered if they were missing out, but Ellie always thought that it was terrible that most kids had to be away from their families all day, that they had to get permission to use the bathroom, and had to get up at six or seven in the morning most days to stay inside most of the day doing schoolwork. None of that seemed very fun to her and most of the time she’d had plenty of friends and didn’t feel any need to leave those friends for an unknown place that put a lot of rules on you. She could learn everything she needed AND have all of her friends and free time as a homeschooler.

It was, admittedly, a little harder this year. She had had to leave her friends in Raleigh, especially her best friend, Jenna. She did feel a little lonely, so this talk about what went on at the Middle School was somewhat intriguing  She felt a little bit naughty for listening in. It seemed like it was stuff she probably shouldn’t hear, but was her sister really the same age as Beth-Ann? Ellie couldn’t ever imagine her sister being so mean and preoccupied with boys as some of those kids seemed. Sarah was usually wrapped up in a story or some cooking or helping out around the house.

Beth-Ann soon returned to town, however, and the thoughts of the girls turned to other things. The leaves all finally fell off the trees and everything but the pines turned brown or grey. It rarely ever snowed in that part of North Carolina, but it did get a bit colder. The bright red male cardinals were easy to spot now. They were like flying splashes of color on a mostly monochrome landscape. The hens stayed closer to the coop in the cold and the garden was cleared after the first frost and planted with bulbs for the Spring. There was schoolwork to be done, and Thanksgiving was on the way.

Chapter 9: Thanksgiving and Coons

Time rolled on and the Holidays were around the corner. For the Katz’s it started with Thanksgiving and continued into December with Hanukkah and then New Years.

Thanksgiving Day was always something that they looked forward to. Sometimes extended family would come and visit; sometimes they would go visit them. This year nobody could make it out to visit until December, and with the animals, the Katz’s couldn’t really go anywhere for too long. As a result, they invited the Batcherlys and David and Rose over, but they each had their own kids in town and declined. They also invited Justin and his family, and surprisingly they did come.

Justin’s mom was a very petite bubbly blonde and she liked to talk. Her name was Carol. She kept up a pretty steady stream of comments and conversation from the moment she walked in the door. It seemed to be a nervous sort of chatter, but since Karen wasn’t very talkative herself, it worked out fine. Justin’s dad, Matt, by contrast, was extremely taciturn and hardly said a thing the whole night. Johnathan had a hard time trying to be sociable because the man seemed to speak in grunts. He was polite enough, but just didn’t seem to want to talk. He did thank them for taking care of Justin so many days, and for the meal, but that was about the extent of it. You could tell he spent most of his time outdoors because his skin was tan and weathered and he had the hands of a guy who did a lot of manual labor. He was a big guy too. Justin seemed thrilled to have both of his parents present and finally meeting the Katz’s.

Predictably, during the evening the topic of homeschooling came up. Justin’s mom asked, “So, how does that work?” Karen suppressed an urge to roll her eyes. When that question came up, and it always did, she was torn between the short answer and the long answer. The short answer was that things varied day by day with everyone working on their own set of schoolwork and projects, but especially when they were back in Raleigh, they could just have easily been out all day on various field trips and social excursions. The truth is, there is no easy answer to, ‘How does it work?” because it is different for each family and there are as many different answers as there are families.

Justin’s mom was merely curious, as anyone who never seriously considered homeschooling as an option would be. After all, the status quo is to send your kids to the “experts” all day almost every day to “be educated”. When most people find someone who doesn’t do that, they are either forced to rethink those assumptions or write the homeschooling family off as somehow odd or delinquent. Unfortunately, the later reaction was by far the most common and Karen was glad that Justin’s mom was at least willing to ask about it before judging. She actually seemed to be a bit fascinated, but in the end came away with another typical response, “Well, you must be very good because I could never do that.”

Karen could have cited various studies and statistics, but she restrained herself. Her degrees and history as a teacher seemed to validate their lifestyle to people, though if anyone had asked her, she would have said that those things had sometimes held her back. Being a teacher had trained her to expect that kids should work a particular way and follow a certain rigid path. She had learned with her own kids, sometimes the hard way, that each child was different and needed different ways of learning and different speeds for things. Little Joe was almost reading already while Jack had been a late bloomer. Jack had never been pushed on it and so never had to struggle with the idea that he wasn’t measuring up. When his brain was ready, finally, to read at the age of 8, he just did it. To be sure, Karen had privately worried, but she had faith in him and he had eventually gotten there. It’s hard to explain these things to people who have never gone off the beaten path, and so Karen kept all of this to herself.

The meal was the typical traditional American Thanksgiving fare. There was a turkey, bought from a local ranch, sweet potatoes, cranberries, rolls, stuffing, salad and green beans. Karen and Sarah had spent most of the day in the kitchen, with a little bit of help from Johnathan and Jack, and they had prepared a ton of food. It was so much food, in fact, that they had to serve themselves buffet style. It wouldn’t all fit on the table with the extra people. It also got so steamy in the house that they had to open some windows for some air. If you had been an opossum outside the house, you would have been able to hear the hubhub of all those voices from the far end of the yard. It was a good evening, if a little tense, but Karen was happy to have finally met Justin’s parents.

That evening they also learned that they needed some raccoon-proof trash cans. At two in the morning after everyone had gone to bed exhausted, there was a huge crash on the backside of the house. Johnathan got up and tentatively peeked outside with a flashlight to see four pairs of beady mammalian eyes glaring back at him. They hissed and ran off, but left behind a huge mess of turkey carcass and vegetable bits all over the grass, and two overturned bins.

The next day he ordered a set of “raccoon proof” trash cans from a specialty store online, and they couldn’t arrive too soon. Once those raccoons had found out what good food could be found in those cans, they were back every single night until the Katz’s finally decided to keep their trash inside for a bit. For example, when Johnathan bungeed the lids on, those pirates chewed through the industrial strength plastic of the bins, and that was after knocking them over first. They were nothing if not persistent.

When the new bins finally did come, the raccoons spent a week attempting every night to open them up, but having no luck, finally went elsewhere. It was none too soon either, because everyone was getting rather tired of being awoken every night with some sort of huge bang or crash. Any noise, of course, set Snitch off and the racket was unbearable. Snitch had started to behave erratically. He was on high alert and clearly not sleeping well. He walked around whining and following in everyone’s footsteps all day. He looked and sounded like he was going to have a nervous breakdown. When those pesky raccoons finally did leave, they all heaved an internal sign of relief and Snitch finally started to relax. Karen had thought she was about to go mad between the touchy whiny tired kids and the whiney touchy tired dog. She was an animal lover, but she was ready to go out and shoot those robbers if they didn’t stop.

The chickens had also become a lot less adventuresome. Between the cooler weather and the marauding raccoons, they stayed close to the coop, and Jack was very careful to lock them in at night. Even then, once the raccoons had given up on the trash, they did attempt to crack the chicken coop, and though they didn’t get in, they did find and take off with several eggs that had been left in odd spots. The goats also were edgy, though they had less to fear. It was a good thing they had a nice shed to go to at night and there wasn’t really anything in the shed the raccoons wanted. Goat was a bit big for their typical menu anyway.

Chapter 10: The Festival of Lights

The Katz’s were forced to try to tactfully bow out of the 4H Christmas Carol night. They did, however, look forward to the next day. The next day was the beginning of Hanukkah, and even better, Grandma and Grandpa Katz were coming to visit! The kids couldn’t wait. They were used to seeing their extended family often, but since they had moved it had been very quiet. Not everyone could go the extra miles into a place not well connected by plane or rail. Also, it was going to be a bit hard to fit more people into the house. Jack moved in with Sarah and Ellie, and Joe moved in with Emma and their parents. That left a bedroom free for the grandparents, and they pushed the two twin beds together to make one big bed. Bathroom time was always tight, but they were prepared for a little more waiting in that regard.

Sarah said, “I hope they get here before sundown! “ The kids were so expectant that they all just sat there looking out the window. They couldn’t stand it. The sun was inching toward the horizon and they couldn’t wait to see Grandad and Grandma. They were also so hungry! The intoxicating aroma of latkas was wafting out of the kitchen and it was driving them mad. Joe was literally jumping up and down in anticipation. Ellie couldn’t stand it and put her coat on to go wait by the lane for them. Jack decided to go out and join her, and Snitch crept out with them to see what was going on. They were both sitting on the fence on the lane, and Snitch was sniffing along the side of the road, when they finally saw a car approaching. It was an old model silver Subaru. It was them!!! Jack and Ellie both ran up the lane to reach the car and then ran back down the road with it as it turned into their long driveway. Consequently, when the car finally did stop in front of the house, the two kids and Snitch were both standing next to the car panting clouds into the cool air. “Nana and Oopa!!” they shouted and when the older couple got out of the car they ran up to trade really big hugs. The rest of the family had come out as well and there were hugs all around. When the excitement had died down some, the bags were retrieved and the whole crowd went back into the warmth of the house.

Grandma and Grandpa Katz had the same dark hair as Johnathan, though neither were quite as tall and both were a lot grayer. Grandma Katz’s hair was mostly white and she wore a multi-colored knit cap and matching scarf over her wool coat. Grandpa Katz had a similar dark trench coat, and they both looked very distinguished, if a little bit tired. They had driven a couple of hours from Chapel Hill to come visit them. Nana said, “Oooo, my grandchildren! I couldn’t wait to see you all! Look how much you have all grown in just a few months! I’m going to have to come down here more often!” Oopa talked about the drive and how they had gotten lost, turning on Windy Road instead of Windsong Lane. They had a whole bunch of packages, which they instructed Johnathan to take directly up to where they were sleeping, and they told the kids they would whip anyone caught peeking. “Oh, I’m so hungry!!” Nana said “and I smell latkas!” Karen said, “It’s almost ready. Let’s go in!”

This was the best part of any Hanukkah, everyone coming together to sing and light the candles. Traditionally, the youngest gets to light the first candle on the first night, so Karen helped Emma to hold the candle and light the menorah while everyone sang. For eight nights they would do this at sundown, each night lighting one additional candle and each night singing the same song in Hebrew with small variations. After candle lighting, they all shared a piece of gelt, or chocolate money, and sometimes if they were lucky they would get a gift. This first night, they went to eat first, since everyone was too hungry to wait, and latkas are best right off the griddle. Ellie personally thought that there wasn’t anything better in the world than her dad’s latkas with sour cream. She could eat ten of them if anyone would let her!

After dinner and the candle lighting, Grandpa minced his way upstairs and after a while came back with a box. Suddenly, it was quiet and all eyes were on him. Nobody wanted to say it, but they all hoped it was a gift! Grandpa sat down with infuriating slowness and five pairs of eyes were on him eagerly shining in expectation. He said, “Now kids, you know Nana and I went on a little trip this year. We took a nice cruise around the Caribbean, but we left from Florida, and while we were in Florida I found the perfect thing! Who wants to open the box?” They all said they did, but Oopa said that Jack could open it, so he ripped off the tape and opened the box up to find… um… a stuffed baby alligator. They were stunned. What?! Grandpa said, “Isn’t this the neatest thing you ever saw? I know your dad just loves those reptiles and we saw some live ones down there. They were just about in every hole filled with water and I just knew you needed one of these. I’ve got one at home for myself!” He looked around proudly, and the kids just either looked stunned or cleared their throats. Jack said, “Thank you Grandpa. We love it.” and gave him a kiss. The rest followed his cue and said thank you as well. Through all of this, Karen had been standing in the doorway watching. Then the alligator had come out it was all she could do not to bust out laughing. He did this to them every year, and every year those kids fell for it. Somehow, they were always hopeful that something really good was going to come out of one of his boxes. Every year he seemed to find something completely useless and unexpected to give them. Ah well, it was good to have to deal with disappointment every now and then. She’d make it up to them a little later. She had her own gifts to give.

The kids actually did think the alligator was neat. They marveled at its tiny teeth and long jaw, and the ridges on it’s back, and they wondered what it would be like to actually see a live one in a swamp. They couldn’t help wishing for something different, though. Every year each of them had their hopes pinned on a few personal wishes, but money was always tight and there was no telling if any of it would ever materialize. Sarah said to Ellie and Jack that night, “Do you remember last year? Oopa brought us sand! It was sand from the Mojave Dessert!” “Yeah”, said Jack, “I remember. It was neat, but… sand?” Sarah said, “Well, you know it’s usually really interesting though, and I kinda like thinking about what kind of crazy thing is gonna come out next. You really never know with Oopa and Nana. That’s what makes it fun!”

That night as Karen tucked the kids into bed, she gave them each something. Emma got a new soft baby doll, Joe got a toy car that would go on it’s own when revved up. Ellie got a new book for her sketches, Jack got a book called “All Creatures Great and Small” by James Herriot, and Sarah got a book of recipes. They each got a big kiss and a hug. Joe giggled in glee. He couldn’t believe this was just the first night of eight!

The following day Oopa brought down another box and produced a snow globe beach scene for them. Karen shook her head, what possessed him to buy that? After a pause, Nana piped up and told them about how they had visited Jamaica and how Jamaica has a bobsled team of all things, even though it’s a mostly tropical country. Then she brought out a bag full of knitted rasta hats for each of them and they spent the greater part of the rest of the evening trying to speak in Jamaican accents while playing dreidel with plastic beads for money.

And so it went. Hanukkah became a journey that the kids got to take with their grandparents through the Caribbean. They looked up each island or stop on the map each night. On the fifth night, Oopa told about their stop in Belize, which was probably their favorite. He brought out a little Mayan temple figurine and Nana produced a book of Mayan stories and they spent the night reading about the Mayan people. On the seventh night, they each got some plastic beads from New Orleans and read a book about a creole Little Red Riding Hood, a story called “Le Petite Rouge”. It was a lot of fun to try out the creole accents.

In this way, they spent a little bit of time in the middle of winter touring the tropics, and in-between was a great deal of visiting and catching up and showing Grandma and Grandpa around the place. The last night of Hanukkah was traditional in that they had latkas again and a turkey dinner. With some regret, they lit all eight candles and sang. They knew that Nana and Oopa would be leaving soon, and they loved the way Oopa’s deep voice rounded out their singing. Their grandparents had to get back to their own home, though. When they were in Raleigh, Nana and Oopa had come over every week and usually stayed for dinner at least one night. It wasn’t that way with them staying farther away now. It was a little sad to see them go. But, say goodbye they did.  After the two-week visit, it seemed rather calm in the house when they left. This was all a matter of perspective, however. Justin would never have said their house was calm or quiet. Everyone went back to their own rooms, and there was at least a little bit of relief in that.

Chapter 11: Yeller

Weathering the rest of December, as always, was a bit tricky for the Katz'. Everyone else in town was focused on Christmas, which was a holiday that the Katz’s did not celebrate. It usually didn’t cross anyone’s mind in this part of North Carolina that there was anyone in the world that didn’t also celebrate Christmas, and so people would often ask about what they wanted or did for Christmas, or what their favorite Christmas carol was, and they would have to answer that they didn’t do that. This, of course, just served to remind people that this family was a bit strange.

Oddly, they found out around this time that David and Rose were also Jewish. Karen thought to herself that she should have known. With those names, and having come originally from New Jersey, it should have been obvious. She felt bad about not having invited the Greenbergs over for Hanukkah. It did seem, however, that they were the only people of that heritage in the entire county. The Katz’s weren’t perverse about it. They could have been. If everyone around you constantly assumed that you were taking part in say, Diwali, and ignored the fact that you weren’t Hindu, but Christian, and acted like there was no such thing as Christmas, you might get grumpy about it after a while. The Katz’s were used to this though, so they took part in the annual cookie exchange and did their part to be sociable without getting too involved.

December was relatively cold, but not extremely so. The animals that stayed outside were just fine and really didn’t need any extra measures. The Katz’s made sure that the shed and chicken coop were snug and secure, and that was all that was needed. One early December day, however, Jack went into the chicken coop to find more than chickens and a few eggs. In one of the bottom-most hay-filled bins was a little yellow lump. On further inspection, it seemed to be a kitten. It was scrawny and its fur was all matted and muddy and the poor thing was tucked into a ball and shivering. The hens were crowded into the opposite side of the coop, not really sure what to make of this intruder. Jack couldn’t figure out how the kitten had gotten in there. It had been pretty cold last night and he had made sure the coop was locked up tight.

It’s a rare person who could look at that pitiful sight and not do something about it. Jack tentatively touched its forehead and looked closely to make sure it was breathing. A small mewing sound came from the matted thing. He picked it up and, cradling it, took it back to the house. It weighed almost nothing, and fit into the palm of his hand easily. He brought it into the light outside and this didn’t improve the look of the creature. If anything, it looked even more ragged, all skin and bones under dirty yellow striped fur. He ran to the house and yelled for his mom. Karen came out of the living room, where she had been folding laundry. “What is it Jack?”

“Mom, look! I found this kitten in the chicken coop!”

Karen said, “Jack, you can’t be serious?!” but she saw the bundle in his hands and realized that he was serious. “Oh, my!” she said. “The poor thing!” She came over and had a look and said, “I wonder how it got there? Well, lets see what we can do for him. Lets give him a warm bath and a good rub down. Hopefully that will warm him up. He doesn’t look to be more than four weeks old!” She dug out an old plastic bin and filled it with warm soapy water. She coaxed Jack to relinquish the kitten into the water to warm it up and get all of the mud off.

Unfortunately, she realized at this point that there were a great many fleas on the creature as well. She gave it a very complete lather and picked off every flea she could find. She also discovered that this was a female. She said to Jack, “Go see if you can get me the flea comb we have for Snitch. This little gal has quite a few! I don’t want them in the house.” After a good lather and combing, she placed the little cat in a warm towel and rubbed it dry. When they were done, they had a little yellow tabby with white paws and a white chin and nose. It kept trying to open its eyes but couldn’t seem to keep them open. Jack had been breathless through all of this, and the rest of the family had gathered as well. Even Johnathan had come down from his office to see what was going on.

Karen said, “Well, what should we feed it? Do you have any ideas John?”

Joe said, “Milk!”

Ellie said, “Peanut Butter!”

Johnathan thought for a minute and said, “I think I am going to need to make a trip to the vet and also the pet store, but for now, lets see if it will take some of that baby goat formula the other people left for us.” He went off to find it.

He came back a few minutes later with a can and a medicine dropper. They opened the can and warmed some of it up and placed the little dropper in the tiny mouth. The kitten took a little bit of the formula and then went to sleep, all the while being cradled in the towel in Jack’s hands.

“Stay there Jack. Let me call the vet and see if we can bring her in today. I suspect she is gonna need more than what we have here.”

Karen looked at Johnathan. They really couldn’t afford another pet, but they could tell in that way that married couples just know, that there was no denying this one. Johnathan nodded. It looked like, if this cat pulled though, they might have another member of the family. They’d pay the vet bills somehow. A quick call revealed that the vet could see them that day, so they all piled into the van. Nobody wanted to be left behind. Everyone could sense that this was big family news and they all wanted to be part of it.

At the vet’s, the kitten was examined closely and pronounced to be flea free... at the moment anyway. The vet said that the kitten likely had worms, but it would be best to wait for it to recover somewhat before de-worming it. She also confirmed that the kitten was probably around four weeks old, thus ideally she should be in the middle of the weaning stage. The vet gave her a syringe full of kitten formula with a feeding tube and explained that he hoped she would be strong enough to eat on her own soon. Using a tube to feed was risky if the person didn’t know what they were doing, but the vet hoped this meal would kick-start her to feed on her own. He advised that they either leave the kitten with him to recover and get her de-wormer and shots before going back to their place, or take her home for a day or two before bringing her back. They needed to be very careful about the worms and possibly other diseases spreading if they did take her home. Upon discussion, they all decided to bring the kitten home and keep her in the laundry room with a heating pad, so the vet gave the Katz’s a kitten formula and some cat-food as well as a mild flea bath to make sure the fleas were completely gone. They would bring her back in a couple of days.

On the way home, the Katz’s discussed a name. Joe wanted to name her “Yellow” and Emma wanted to name her “Kit Kit”. Karen said that Jack had found her, so he should be the one to name her. He thought about it most of the way home. So far the kitten had been in a bit of a stupor, but with some food in her belly, she was beginning to revive in a sleepy kind of way. Suddenly, she let out a really loud “MEW!”

Startled, Jack said, “How about 'Yeller'? She’s yellow and she yells, so I think she should be 'Yeller'. “

“Yeller it is!” said Johnathan. Now the little thing had a name.

For the next two days they kept her in the laundry room in a cardboard box to keep her away from the dog and to contain any more parasites she might have. Karen gave her another flea bath and she seemed to be free of the little pests after that. She ate really well. It was a mixture of water, kitten formula and small bits of solid cat food. She wasn’t really putting on too much weight yet, but she was more alert. She even started to potty train herself, mostly going on the newspaper and not in her box.

As she started to gain some strength, she started to move about and play and really wanted out of the room. The constant really loud “meowing” was hard to ignore, and it was next to impossible for the kids to get their work done. How can you ignore such loud and strident demands to be let out? They all just really wanted to go in there and play with her, and Karen could do without any more distractions. She was finding it hard enough as it was to get anyone to focus on their studies with the baby and Joe constantly interrupting, so it was with some relief that Karen and the kids finally took the kitten in to the vet for de-worming a couple of days later. The vet insisted that he needed to keep the kitten overnight. The initial de-worming could be a little messy and a tad risky on such a little kitten, but it needed to be done, so they sadly left her there. She would also get her vaccinations while she was there. Meanwhile, they prepared a nice little bed for her and a litter box for when she got home, and waited.

Snitch had been a little confused by all of this. He could smell the cat but he couldn’t understand why the smell and the sounds were coming out of the laundry room. He had sat by the laundry room the past two days perplexed and alert. There was definitely something in there alive and it was making the oddest sounds!

When Yeller came home from the vets, Snitch greeted his people and the cat with a whine. Something was odd here. Why were they holding that creature? They barely even said hello to him! They put the little creature down on the kitchen floor and Snitch came over to sniff it. There was a creature in his house, and it smelled like the thing that had been behind the door! He was supposed to protect his people from creatures in the house! He barked at it and the thing puffed out like it had suddenly grown two sizes and hissed at him. Really excited now, Snitch started barking and the thing ran like lightening into the other room. He’d get it now! He ran after it, barking all the way. He was being a good dog! But his people yelled “No Snitch!” and chased after him and picked up the creature and said he was a bad dog. How could this be? He whined. He was confused.

The biggest pup, Sarah, picked up the little yellow animal and hugged it. She said, “Snitch, this is your new friend. Be nice to her.” She held the thing on her lap and then allowed him to come up and sniff it. Yep, this was the smell from the laundry room. He looked at Sarah and back at the little furry thing. It hissed at him. He stuck his nose near it to sniff it again and the thing scratched his nose! Ouch! He didn’t like it! He whined and moved away. Alpha female said, “Snitch, you leave it.” Snitch knew these sounds. It meant he had to not play or eat whatever it was. Well, he was happy to “leave it” now. He went and lay down on his bed with a dejected air. He didn’t like this at all.

In the following weeks the kitten wreaked havock on the house. She peed and pooed in the wrong places, she scratched up the living room furniture, she jumped on the kitchen countertops, and she provided endless distraction for the kids. The baby, Emma, wanted to play with her and crawled around chasing her yelling “ditty!” Joe was even faster, but he didn’t know how to treat her gently. They are all on their toes constantly to prevent a calamity. Over time, though, they all learned how to deal with her gently and she learned her manners as well.

It was fortunate that the family was home most of the time. They were able to scoot her off the counter the moment she jumped up there, and tell her “no” and move her to the litter box whenever she eliminated in the wrong place. She acquired a shimmery red collar and started to grow, now that she was worm-free. She filled in and her fur became glossy and soft. She never did get very big, though, and they all wondered what had happened to her mother. They never did see any cats around the house before or after Yeller’s arrival.

It was agreed that she would have to remain an indoor cat. Nobody wanted to see what would happen when she met the chickens again, and Karen and Johnathan knew that one cat could decimate the local bird and reptile population, and they didn’t want to be a party to that. This, however, also took some getting used to. Yeller frequently tried to sneak out, and so everyone had to be a lot more careful going in and out of the house. She did get out once or twice, but fortunately, she never went very far, and it was easy to entice her with a bit of string or catnip.

Yeller met Justin and Beth-Ann. She also met Rose and David. They all just loved her. She provided endless entertainment with her antics. She would scoot a small toy across the hard floor with bats of her paws and then tackle it, simultaneously flipping over and landing on the floor to get it. A second later she would dash off and try to climb the drapes. You had be careful playing with her because her little kitten claws and teeth were razor sharp and she had yet to learn how to not bite or scratch so hard.

When Yeller was ten weeks old, she had to go back to the veterinarian’s office to get spayed. She stayed the night and came back with a shaved spot on her belly, several stitches, and a cone on her head. The poor cat. The cone was both amusing and sad to look at. It was meant to keep her from pulling her stitches out, but it also kept her from washing herself, running very fast, or eating without difficulty. She had this look of utter embarrassment on her face much of the time, which more than the cone, put everyone in stitches. Hearing people laugh at her was highly offensive of course and she would stalk off to sulk.

Strangely, Snitch at this point suddenly became friendly to the cat. He stopped trying to chase or ignore her, and actually came up and offered her some companionship. She couldn’t turn around and scratch him, so that might have been part of it. The cone eventually came off, but they were best buddies after that. They often slept together and groomed each other. They even learned how to play together, though Yeller often ended it just when Snitch was just getting interested. Yeller was of a very sweet disposition and she grew up very happy and comfortable around people and dogs. In the meantime, however, several pieces of furniture and a few pillows were ruined and many a lesson was interrupted by a flying yellow torpedo attack to the ankles. 

Chapter 12: Surprises

Sometime after the New Year, the Katz’s were treated to a couple of surprise visits. The first came when a ring of the doorbell revealed Mr. Batcherly on the porch. He was well wrapped in a heavy coat and scarf and hat, and was standing there with his cane and a package under his arm. Ellie yelled to her mom, “MOM! Mr. Batcherly’s here!”

“Come in sir, it’s freezing out there!”

He came in and took off his hat. Karen and Johnathan came into the front room and greeted him warmly. “I’ve got something for you folks. Is there anywhere I can set this down?” he said.

“Sure, Sure.” said Johnathan.

They cleared a spot on the dining room table (There was hardly ever a clear flat surface in the house. The table currently held the beginnings of an electrical experiment and a geography puzzle.) Mr. Batcherly put his box down. “Whew,” he said, “That was heavy. I don’t mind telling you that since the accident this fall, I haven’t quite been the same. It’s good to walk though. Anyway, I have here some things I think you might like to have.” He pulled a couple of vials out of the box, well wrapped and insulated. “These are to replace the two I used the day the snake got me. I can’t think how horrible it would be if one of you scientist types had an accident this year and didn’t have something to help because of me.”

“Oh, my! Thank you Jim.” Said Johnathan, “I was wondering how I was going to explain the use of these particular items on my expense report. I know they were not easy to get, and I don’t know how you managed it, but thank you all the same.”

“Well,” said Jim, “I must tell you, it’s a relief to have handed them over. It was very stressful carrying them over here. I kept thinking I might fall down and – poof - there goes all that money and trouble. Anyway, I also have something else for you. I spoke with your landlord…I grew up with him you know… anyway, your rent has been taken care of until your lease is up in July. Here is the documentation for your records.” He handed over an envelope to Johnathan.

Karen and Johnathan were speechless. “Uh… Jim… my gosh… I never expected… what…”

Mr. Batcherly said, “Never mind, it’s the least I can do. I’ll be going now.” He got up and moved quickly to the door and was gone before they could regain their wits and say anything else.

Johnathan ran to the door and yelled at Jim down the street, “Thank you Jim!!” and Jim just waved back without even turning around. He was hobbling quickly down the road. It was amazing how fast he could still move.

Karen and Johnathan sat down at the table, both still too stunned to speak. Johnathan opened up the envelope and read the receipt. “Rent paid in full through July 2012. He wasn’t kidding. I wonder if he paid that amount or if he got our landlord to waive some or all of the rent. “

Karen said, “I guess we’ll never know.” After a pause she said, “People never cease to amaze me. I’ll never believe that things are as bad as the news reports make them out to be. My experience says that wonderful things happen all the time. It’s just that nobody ever reports them… This is like a little miracle.”

Just then the cat came tearing into the dining room and a loud wail echoed from the kitchen. Karen smiled and said, “Guess I better go see what’s going on”. She got up and went to investigate. It sounded like Emma might have done something she shouldn’t have to the cat.

Johnathan just sat there for a few more minutes. The conversation they had just had with Jim seemed unreal. Did that man just show up on their doorstep and hand them a free ticket for the first half of the year? It seemed like he must have dreamt it, and yet he was sitting there holding the proof. When he had caught his breath, a huge smile grew across his face. He felt he must be charmed. How could his life be so good? He had a job doing what he loved, he had the best wife, and the greatest family he could have ever hoped for, and here was further proof that people were good. Life was good.

In February they had another surprise visit, and this one was a mixed bag. Right around Valentines Day, the house was humming with productive energy. It was a good day. Some days one or more individuals in the house would be out of sorts and this could throw everyone off. Some days, one person would be at the table crying in frustration that they just couldn’t DO the assignment, two other kids would need help with their work RIGHT NOW, and the two littlest would be seeming to try to add as much distraction as possible by demanding Karen’s attention in a sort of contest to see who could take up the most of her time. Those days were hellish and sometimes Karen just had to go for a walk so she didn’t scream at anyone.

This day was the opposite. It was one of those miraculous days where everyone was happy and quietly working in various corners of the house on their schoolwork or projects. Karen was in the kitchen cleaning up the morning’s dishes and Johnathan was upstairs typing up some analysis on his work from the fall. Suddenly, they heard a car come up the driveway. Karen looked up, puzzled. Who could possibly be visiting them? She went to the front and looked out of the window. Who the heck is that, she wondered. She knew that van. Where did she know that van from? Then it dawned on her. Only one person she knew had a VW Van like that. It must be her brother!

Karen ran outside just as he was getting out of the car. ”Eli! What are you doing here!?” Karen said.

“Is that all the welcome I get, sis? I wanted to surprise you!” Eli was a lanky man of middle height with a beard and reddish blonde hair tied back in a pony-tail. Behind him the van door opened and four more people piled out. His wife, Susan, was a small woman with short brown hair. Their kids were Shawn, age 10, who was just as rangy and red as his dad. Next came Evan, age 8, also red but not as lean, and finally Hannah, age 5. Hannah had her mom’s dark brown hair, but much longer. Also with them, was their little Jack Russell named, predictably, Russell.

Eli said, “I just felt like it had been too long since we’d seen you, so we just hopped in the van and came down. I thought you might like the surprise!” He smiled a huge grin. It was a grin he used often to defuse people. It was impossible to deny.

Karen said, “Eli, when have you ever known me to like surprises?” She sighed inwardly. There goes all the learning momentum they had going. Gathering up all her energy, she buried her irritation and said, “Well, it’s great to see you all!” and gave him a big hug. Everyone from inside came out and there was the general hubbub you get whenever big families say hello or goodbye. There were hugs and talking and the dogs running around very excited and getting to know each other all over again. Eventually, the van was unpacked, and everyone went back inside.

Whereas minutes ago all was peaceful and orderly, now it was total chaos. Yeller ran like lightning and hid in the master bedroom. He stayed there the rest of the day and didn’t come out until dinner that night. The two dogs were in a perpetual game of tag, running back and forth and generally creating noise and confusion.

The adults went into the kitchen to talk. Eli and his family lived in the countryside outside the Washington D.C. area. After he had seen his older sister have such a good time homeschooling, he and his wife had decided to do the same when they had kids. It was a good thing, because their eldest son was too smart for any classroom, and their middle son had some issues with ADHD and would never have been able to sit still. Hannah was a little princess and walked around in a tutu wherever she went.

As a unit, the whole family was a little bit on the wild side. They tended to flow with however they were feeling, and this spontaneity of her brothers had always driven Karen batty. He was an artist and it often seemed that the common sense part of his personality had never developed. Susan was sweet, but she seemed to thrive on that spontaneous atmosphere, and as a result they were lucky to get anywhere on time. Their homeschooling was more or less unschooling by default. They went with whatever the kids were interested in at the moment.

Karen had no idea where she was going to put them all. In the end, the boys ended up in one room and the girls in another, with the babies again in with Karen and Johnathan. Eli and Susan had to sleep on the couch downstairs. There just wasn’t anywhere else to put them. Every spare blanket and sheet was put into service, and the entire floor of each bedroom was covered in bedding. There were two bathrooms in the entire house, and they were in almost constant use. Somehow, they managed to scrounge up enough food to feed everyone dinner that night. It was going to be rough.

The next day, while Karen went off to town with Sarah to get some food, Shawn and Evan asked to go see the chickens. Jack led them out to the coop and yard area and let them help him to feed them. Shawn took a look and got bored and wandered off. They had seen chickens before, but Evan kept chasing them and trying to scare them and Jack asked him repeatedly to stop and he wouldn’t. He had to yell for someone to come and help. Susan came out and asked what was wrong. Jack was very upset. His chickens were his pride and joy and he didn’t want them harassed, but Evan wouldn’t listen. He explained that Evan wouldn’t stop. Susan said, “I bet those hens could use the exercise! Anyway, Evan, cut it out. Go find something else to do.” And she left.

Evan stuck his tongue out at Jack then. He was mad he had gotten into trouble. Jack and he did not get along very well. Jack felt it was really hard to have his cousins in his room, especially when they were so… crazy. The way Evan bounced all over the place and kept knocking things over drove Jack crazy. Shawn was nice enough, and they were the same age, but they didn’t seem to have anything in common. Shawn always just wanted to read or hang out with the grownups. It was even worse for Jack because he had no idea when everyone was going to leave. He liked to know what the plans were ahead of time. Like his mother, he didn’t like surprises very much. As a general rule, when their cousins came to visit, each night they all went to bed really late and then somebody woke everyone else up in the morning.

It was a pattern that was repeated this time as well. By the third day, everyone was grumpy and they seemed to be fighting most of the time. It wasn’t only the boys. Sarah and Ellie got along fine with little Hannah, but Hannah was starting to show the effects of lack of sleep and she frequently had temper tantrums. Also, the older girls wanted some time to do their own projects, but they pretty much had to entertain Hannah all day. Hannah wanted to play princess all day. Sometimes Hannah would play with Joe and it would all work out, but sometimes Joe and Hannah wanted the same thing, or somebody wouldn’t share, and they would both end up crying and yelling and someone would have to step in to break it up. Also, the mess was getting out of hand. The cousins never seemed to have learned how to put anything away.

Karen would have liked to have spent some more time catching up with Eli, but the pressure of putting out all of the little fires around the house, finding things for people and feeding everyone left her little time to talk. Susan helped a bit, but she didn’t know where anything was, so really couldn’t do much. She did do some dishes and offer to do some laundry.

One day Russell discovered Yeller and decided that it would be great sport to bark at, harass, and chase her out of her hiding place. They were of a similar size, so it was much harder for Yeller to get away from him than from Snitch. He chased her across the living room coffee table, knocking over a glass of water, and up the drapes and down again. Yeller finally stopped running and turned around with a hiss and gave him a good whack on the nose with her claws. He yelped and went cowering to Susan with a pretty deep scratch on his nose. Susan picked him up and cooed to him in baby talk about how her poor baby had gotten hurt by the mean cat. Karen gave Susan a cloth to clean up his nose, but she wanted to throw all of them out of her house at that point. She was at the boiling point. Many unkind thoughts were running around in her head, including some stuff about how the dog deserved it and had had it coming to him, and how Susan should have trained her dog a little better. The little creep had been putting his muddy paws all over their furniture all week. Having cousins to play with was nice sometimes, but in this tiny house and unannounced… it was just too much. Something was going to have to give soon.

Johnathan visited with everyone some of the time, but most of the time he seemed to have pressing business to work on and was upstairs in his office space or outside mending fences or doing other odd jobs. He had suddenly become very industrious.

It seemed that maybe Susan had finally picked up on some of this tension because the next day they announced they would be going home the following morning. To be fair, some good times had been had. The kids had actually occasionally enjoyed playing together, and games like tag had suddenly become much more interesting. Karen and Eli and Susan had had some nice discussions and had done some catching up on things.  Karen had gotten an update on her parents from Eli. He had gone to visit them before coming down to the house. Her mom was becoming somewhat frail and didn’t travel much, so it was nice to have another perspective on how she was doing. Karen made a mental note to go visit soon if she could.

It was with a collective sigh of relief, however, when the VW bus finally pulled out of the driveway the next day. Their cousins had been there a week. It was almost eerily quiet that day. It was like the aftermath of a bomb strike. The bomb had hit with a tremendous crash and then there was nothing but the destruction left behind. Baby Emma asked where everyone was. Joe said, “Good. I get my bed!” and ran upstairs to move his toys back into his room.

The beds were put back where they belonged and the proper occupants reinstated, and an enormous pile of sheets and towels sat next to the laundry room waiting to be washed. The family was so exhausted that nobody did much else that day. It took a couple of nights of sleep to get somewhat back to normal. Even Snitch slept really well that night. It had been stressful for the dog to keep track of all of those pups, and the other dog had made him nervous.

The reverberations of that visit continued for some time. Jack found that Evan had broken apart all of his Lego’s creations. This made him furious, but since the offending party was no longer present, he just beat up his pillow for a while and then went outside to sit with the goats. It had become his place to go to get away from everything. Somehow, just sitting out there in the pen calmed him down a bit.

All of Ellie’s Calico Critters had been taken out and strewn about by Hannah. No harm was done, but she never did find the little baby dog again. That made her sad, because it was one of her favorites. Sarah found that Shawn had gone through all of her books. She hadn’t minded him sitting there reading her books. At least he was occupied and not being a pest while he was reading, but he didn’t put a single one back, and she spent a week re-shelving them all in order.

It was a week or so before any of them wanted to see another living soul. Justin had come over a couple of times during all of this, and they had played some fun games, but when the weather had turned too cold, and everyone had had to go inside, the noise had proved too much for him and he had left. For the first time ever, he had been glad he was NOT part of a big family. The noise and chaos were defining. How could they live like that?

There was a silver lining to the visit though. Unbeknownst to anyone, Eli had gone out one day and painted the side of the barn. On the wall in bright primary colors was a huge chicken over a multi-colored background. It added some needed color to the drab February landscape and brightened up the yard. Eli had also done caricatures of each of them and left them tucked in a corner of the living room. This whimsical little surprise had them all in stitches that day. It was so funny to see themselves with each feature exaggerated. These they eventually had framed and put together on the wall in the hallway.

Chapter 13: Flying Friends

In March, the weather started to turn and signs of Spring were everywhere. Daffodils and crocuses were coming up, and also the garlic and onions. Little green buds appeared on the trees, and flocks of robins suddenly descended on the yard from who knows where. Rose had given the Katz’ a bird feeder for a holiday gift that winter, and Johnathan had hung it just off of the front porch. He didn’t want to encourage pests like the raccoons to come visit the hens again, and he hoped the spatial separation between the front and back of the house would prevent that. You could see the feeder out of the front window, and Ellie had begun to watch it to see what would land there.

Sitting there with a pair of binoculars and a field guide, she had taught herself most of the common species. There were cardinals and mockingbirds. There were juncos and wrens. She also saw blue jays and chickadees, tufted titmice and woodpeckers. Ellie particularly liked the woodpeckers. There were the little Downy ones, the Hairy woodpeckers, the flickers, and one day she even saw a Pileated, though he didn’t come down to the feeder.  The Pileated woodpecker was so much bigger and louder than all the other birds that even Joe was impressed. Yeller frequently joined her, sitting on the window sill, tail whipping back and forth. You could tell she would just love to get her claws into one of those juicy morsels. Ellie was glad she was an indoor cat even if Yeller didn’t agree.

In March, just about the time the robins showed up, the small grey juncos started to disappear, going back to their summer home in the mountains. There were also many little brown birds that Ellie had a hard time trying to identify. She did some sketching while she watched. Most of the bugs had disappeared for the winter, so she had started to draw birds instead. Sarah also sometimes joined her and they sketched and learned about the birds together. It was fortunate that the window was rather large.

One day Ellie noticed a woodpecker on a tree nearby that she had never seen before. A serious study of the field guide led her to believe this was called a red-cockaded woodpecker. She asked her dad about it and he said that that was a rare bird indeed. One of the best things about being in the sand-hill pine forests near a preserve was getting to see the red-cockaded woodpeckers. At first, they don’t look like much. They are smallish black and white striped woodpeckers with very little red on their heads. The neat thing about them is how they live, he said. Unlike most other birds in the United States, these guys live in cooperative family units. The grown up babies, usually the males, will hang around and help raise the next batch of babies.

They need mature pine forests because they make their homes and nests in holes pecked into big long leaf pine trees that have a little bit of heart rot. They make the hole really high up and the tree leaks sap all around the hole. The height and the sap are deterrents to predators such as snakes that are capable of climbing trees to eat the babies. They are bug eaters, and so dead snags are also important. Because there are so few mature long leaf pine forests left (we have logged them all), the red-cockaded woodpecker is endangered and so seeing one was especially lucky.

The family listened intently while Johanathan explained all of this to them. He also said that if he found a family nesting cavity on a tree, he might set a trap nearby because there was sure to be a snake around who was attracted to all of the fuss those birds and babies made.  Johanthan was getting geared up to start his work again. It was a bit early yet to set traps, but he was scouting out potential sites and working with his students to collect the necessary gear and living arrangements. He had been up to Raleigh at least once a week to help with all of these preparations and to take care of all of the paperwork involved.

One day two weeks later, when Johanathan had been out in the research jeep, he found a red-cockaded nest hole. He came home and the next day took the four eldest back out with him so they could see it. They had to walk in off the road into the pines for a bit, and it was slow going, what with all of the blackberry vines and other bushes. He had made sure they all wore long pants and sturdy shoes. When they got near the nest hole he told them to stand very still and make no noise. This was hard to do, especially for Joey, but they managed it well enough that soon they saw a woodpecker flit from another tree and land in front of the pine-sap covered hole. The bird went in and flew out again. It made a loud nasally squeaky chirp and flew away. Soon they saw several of the birds and they were all squeaking to each other.

One came and pecked at the outside of the hole. One went in and kicked some detritus out. Johnathan explained in low tones that they family group was preparing to nest. There were likely eggs in the cavity or would be soon and soon they would hatch and the whole family would have to work to feed them. The dad sits on the eggs, not the mom. This was an expectant family.

It was a lovely morning. It was sunny and the air was still cool but not cold. There was something magical about the open woodland. It was unlike anything else they had seen in North Carolina. Birds flitted in the underbrush and the lower branches of the trees. Ants crawled industriously over the ground and there were no mosquitoes yet. Ellie thought she could probably find some neat bugs in here.

When they got back to the truck, Johnathan instructed them to check themselves over for ticks. If the ticks weren’t out yet, they would be very soon. It was another reason for those long pants and covered shoes. Joe had been carried most of the way, so he didn’t have anything on him, thank goodness. Jack found a large tick crawling up his leg, and Ellie did too. She shivered. That was one bug she did NOT like. Just as they were about to leave, Jack pointed off the road in the distance and they all saw a heard of deer moving off away from them. “Good eyes, Jack” whispered Sarah. The deer were really well camouflaged and it took an observant person to see one, even if it was standing ten feet away.

They piled back into the jeep and headed home for lunch. Johnathan hummed to himself. Other than loving to share the places and work he loved with his family, he also thought that this had been a great learning experience. It’s one thing to read about things in books and quite another to see them for yourself.

Sarah couldn’t stop thinking about the ticks. Yuck! It was pretty out here, but she would stay inside all summer if that was what it took to keep them off of her! Jack and Ellie had been entranced by the birds and the woodlands. It had been a great morning. Joey seemed somewhat interested but he was ready for lunch!

When they got back home, Johnathan had them all take off their clothes at the door and put them right in the laundry. Sarah started the washer up set to hot water. Hopefully that would kill any other nasties that had come for a ride! They then needed to check themselves over again before getting dressed for lunch.

Karen asked him how it had gone. She would have liked to have gone, herself, except that Emma would have been too noisy and she couldn’t very well have stayed home alone. It was often very trying to be the wife of a biologist. The money was always tight, the work hours were erratic and often very long, but she couldn’t deny the benefit to her kids. They didn’t need a biology course, they got the real deal almost every day. Johnathan said it had been great. The birds were there and busy getting ready for some babies. Unfortunately, the ticks were already out. “Ugg” she groaned. There was the other bad thing about having a biologist for a husband. The daily tick-check. They would probably be on the dog and goats as well.

With Spring having been sprung, the chickens were also in fine fiddle and were starting to lay prodigious amounts of eggs. There were only about ten chickens, but nine of them were laying one every other day. It was a bit more than they needed, so every time Justin or Beth-Ann came over they would send them home with a dozen eggs. The eggs were good too. The chickens got their feed, but they also spent a good bit of time rooting around for bugs. Because of this, the egg yolks were a lovely rich orangey color and tasted really good. There really was no comparison between these eggs and the ones in the store. If you ate one of these eggs you would realize how bland and tasteless store-bought eggs are by comparison. Jack was especially proud. He knew he had a good product, and had visions of making some money. He just didn’t know how he could sell them. Maybe he could set up a stand by the lane, or talk his mom into driving him to the farmers market to sell them some time.

Chapter 14: Calamity

Justin jumped off the school bus that Wednesday. He had grown another inch in the past few months. He thought maybe his extra height had something to do with the fact that those kids on the bus had decided finally to leave him alone. It could have also be because he had gotten really mad one day and asked the one kid that was constantly taking his hat if he wanted a fist in his face. He had gotten in trouble with the bus driver, but they had left him alone after that. He walked home to get a snack and check on things. It was maybe a quarter mile down the lane, past the Batcherly’s and the Katz’s.

When he got near home, he looked at the empty field next to his house and thought about how it used to be planted with tomatoes or whatever else his dad thought would do well. His dad would do most of the planting himself and then hire help for the harvest. They had had pigs and chickens as well; also a few cows and a small orchard. Slowly over the last few years they had had to sell everything off. The cows went first, then the pigs. The chickens were last. Justin slowly had less and less to help his mom and dad with. Then one year his dad said he didn’t have the money to buy the seeds to plant and they he would be going out to see if he could find some jobs that needed doing. That’s when Justin suddenly didn’t get to see or be with his dad too much anymore. Now it was just a lonely house in the middle of a weedy field.

When he got close enough he noticed a car in the driveway. His mom was home? That was odd. She was supposed to be at work for another three hours. He went up the stairs and into the house with a bit of trepidation. Inside, his mom was crumpled in the living room chair. Her face was streaked with tears and she wasn’t even dressed. She was holding a piece of paper in her hands. “Mom!... What’s wrong?” he ran over to her.

She was silent, then quietly “Oh Justin. I just don’t know how to say this… What to say?”

“Mom, just tell me. It’s worse you not telling me!”

She sat up and took a breath, “OK. Um, well, I have bad news.” She paused gathering herself,  “It seems that we are going to loose the farm. The bank is repossessing it. We took out a loan to pay for those last two crops and used the farm as collateral and we haven’t been able to make the payments.” She said all of this in a very composed way.

Justin couldn’t process this. He had lived on the farm his whole life. What did that mean? “Mom, does that mean we can’t live here anymore?” Terror gripped his heart and he could hardly breath.

“Yes. Yes, that’s what that means. We will have to move. “ The way she said that made him even more afraid. It sounded like that wasn’t all. What more could she have to tell him?

“What else? I can tell you aren’t saying everything. What else?” 

“Oh, Justin.” Her face crumbled. “Your dad says he’s leaving. He wants a divorce.” She sobbed, “But he loves you Justin. He doesn’t show it much, but he loves you… His damn pride! That’s what this is about.” she said fiercely.

Justin was frozen. It felt like his heart was being ripped to shreds in his chest. How… how could they? How could his dad just leave them like that? It felt like the worst kind of betrayal. Suddenly he couldn’t breathe. He ran outside, and once he started running he just kept running. He couldn’t stop. He ran across the fields and into the woods and kept going until he was gasping for breath. He fell down to the ground and sobbed like his heart was breaking, which it was. His world had been slowly crumbling, but he had always thought that things would get better, but this… this was as if his life had exploded and nothing would ever be right again.

He stayed out there a long time. He started to get really cold, but he just couldn’t make himself move. To move would be to do something, to go on, and there was no point of going on. He was angry, and destitute and weary and in pain. He wouldn’t go back. He couldn’t just go walk in that door like he had always done because it wasn’t the same anymore. If he stayed on the ground maybe he could pretend it was all a mistake and everything was fine. It started to drizzle.

Justin’s mother was getting very worried. She knew he was upset, but she thought he would come back when he was ready. He had left without his jacket, though, and it was raining now. She was heart sore and weary to the marrow in her bones, but she just couldn’t leave him out there. What if he hurt himself? She put on her raincoat and went out to see if she could find him. She had seen him cross the field, so she went in that direction.

Meanwhile, Justin had gotten up and remembered a place he used to go to be alone. It was a little hollow under a rock that sat next to the little stream that ran across their property. It had been a private place for him when he was younger. He had liked to come and imagine living in the wilderness alone. Also, it provided a little bit of shelter. He was shivering now. He found it with very little trouble, having navigated through the woods and circled around to the other side of the property. He sat down under the rock near the creek and tucked his legs under his chin. Staring at the water was mesmerizing and in spite of the cold, he fell asleep.

On the other side of the fields his mother was calling for him and getting more and more frantic. Between the rain, the rock and his being asleep, he didn’t hear her calls. Carol didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t find him anywhere. She didn’t even know if he would answer if he did hear her. She knew that she had just dealt him a blow that would have knocked any kid down. How she hated to have had to utter those words, to have had to use the “d” word. She had seen the writing on the wall. Matt had been withdrawing for them for a long time now. Each blow to his pride, all the stress of possibly losing the family farm he had inherited, and the other thing that had happened… well, she had tried to deny it, but there it was. The other shoe had finally dropped. She still loved him and she knew he probably still loved her, but somehow she just represented his perceived failure as a provider. He had worked so hard, but they never seemed to have gotten a break. She was more mad at him for what he was doing to their son than she was about what had happened between the two of them. It wasn’t fair to Justin, the loss of his dad. His dad should have had the courage to face the situation and his own son, rather than run away from it. Her fury drove her on through the rain until her fear overcame it. She needed help.

Karen heard a knock on the front door. That was strange. It was getting close to dinner time and it was raining out. Who could want to see them? She yelled at Jack, “Could you please get that?” She was in the middle of changing Emma’s diaper. She heard some voices and Jack came in.

“Mom, it’s Justin’s mom, she says she really needs to talk to you. She’s out there and she’s all wet and her face is all puffy. I think something is wrong.”

“Here, you take over.” She said to him. Jack made a face. He hated that job, but he did know how to do it. He took Emma and finished up. Emma was mercifully cooperative. Karen ran down to the front door.

Carol said, “I can’t find Justin! We had some bad news and he ran off. I thought he would come back, but he hasn’t and I can’t find him. Could you help me? I can’t find him anywhere!” Karen recognized that frantic note in Carol’s voice. It was the voice of a mother terrified for her child’s safety.

She said, “Give me a moment. I’ll go get Johnathan and we’ll both help.” Karen ran upstairs and explained the situation to Johnathan, who had just happened to have returned from a trip to Raleigh that day and was finishing up some work. A few minutes later they were outside with rainjackets, flashlights and cell phones. Carol told them the direction he had initially gone, but they split up and headed into the woods in different directions to spread the search.

It wasn’t long before Johnathan came across the boulder by the creek. Even then, he would have missed Justin if Johnathan’s loud bellow hadn’t startled Justin awake. The movement of his yellow shirt caught Johnathan’s attention. Johnathan saw that Justin was shivering and his lips were blue. He could tell the boy had been crying. “Justin, it’s Mr. Katz. You need to come with me.” Justin nodded and tried to get up, but he was so stiff with cold he could hardly stand. He was a big kid, but Johnathan picked him up and carried him back through the woods. At the edge of the woods he gave a big shout and both women eventually emerged from the woods. Everyone made a beeline to the house.

Once inside, his mom took over. She had Johathan take Justin back into his room. She then dried and undressed him and wrapped him up in blankets. Justin was mute. He just stared into space and then lay down in bed, unresponsive. Carol came out to tell the Katz’s thank you. They were both standing in the threadbare living room, feeling a bit awkward. They wanted to ask what had happened, but weren’t sure if they should. Johnathan said, “He might have a touch of hypothermia. Keep him warm and keep an eye on him. Is there anything else we can do to help?”

Carol, shook her head “Thank you. You have already helped so much already. I was afraid he might have done something drastic. I’m so glad you found him.” There was an awkward silence.

Karen said, “OK, well if we can’t help, we’ll go now. Call me if you want to talk.”

Carol said, “I’ll come over soon and explain. I just can’t right now.” The look of pain on her face was enough for Karen. She gave Carol a hug and they both left.

The rain had stopped and the two of them walked together down the lane. “I wonder what got those two so upset.”

“I don’t know”, said Karen, “but I expect we’ll find out soon. It’s lucky you found him. His lips were blue and he wasn’t shivering. He hardly seemed the same kid.” Karen took his hand in hers and they went home in silence.

The kids, of course, wanted to know what had happened. They just said that Justin had gotten lost and that they had found him. Ellie thought that was very odd, because Justin knew the woods in this area like his own house. She couldn’t understand how he could possibly have gotten lost. Karen just told her that there was more to the story, but it was not for her to share. They would know more in time.

They all wondered about it, but Ellie and Jack in particular spent the evening tossing around possibilities in their minds. They wondered what had happened to their friend. Would he come over again soon and tell them of his adventure? Only, the days went by and they didn’t see him. Karen and Johnathan worried as well, so three days later Karen walked over to check on them. Carol answered the door and welcomed her in in a subdued way. She explained that Justin had gotten a cold from his exposure that night and had been at home sick the past few days. She said it was just as well, as she had lost her job and they had some other things to deal with. Karen asked if she wanted to talk, and Carol seemed like she really needed to. Sometimes just telling someone else about your problems helps.

Carol said that the farm was being repossessed by the bank, and that Justin’s father had moved out and filed for divorce. The stress of the past few years had taken a large toll on their family. There had been a second pregnancy that ended in miscarriage and she hadn’t been able to have any more children after that. On top of that, they kept losing money on this farm that Matt had inherited. The shame of losing the family farm, the farm he himself had grown up on, was just too painful. At first it was the odd jobs that took him farther and farther away, and somehow the distance had become his way of dealing with things. Justin, poor Justin, was caught in the middle.

Fortunately, Carol and Justin had finally talked heart to heart. They both had a lot of pain and feelings to deal with, but they agreed to work through it together and to be there for each other. They would get through it. Karen and she cried together and Karen felt that here was a strong woman. Carol said she would probably go back to Tennessee and move in with her parents for a bit, just until she could get her feet underneath her again. Karen was sad to hear they would be leaving, but agreed that was probably the best thing to do.

It was a couple of hours later when Karen walked slowly home. Her heart went out to Carol. What do you do when life just doesn’t cut you any breaks? How could you predict that a marriage would fall apart or that you would become destitute through no fault of your own? She felt she had been blessed in life. Somehow, though it had always been hard, everything had always worked out for her. She was overly blessed with people in her life whom she loved and who loved her. How could she complain? Fingers crossed, she thought about how everyone remained healthy and moderately happy. Somehow, they continued to stay afloat financially. Still, she knew that even if things did get worse in that regard, they would be ok because they would always have each other. Lucky… lucky indeed.

At home, she was able to share the major points with Johnathan and the three oldest kids. The upshot being that Justin would be moving away soon. They all felt so bad for him that the three eldest got together to make some get well cards for him. They spent most of the afternoon working on their cards and then packaging them up in a box they decorated in cheery colors. They were careful to just refer to his being sick. After that they went over and rang the doorbell. Carol came out and thanked them profusely but didn’t invite them in. They just said they hoped he felt better soon and left. Later that day Justin opened the box and was touched. It felt good to think he really did have some true friends who cared what happened to him. It didn’t change the heavy weight in his chest, but it lightened it a little bit.

About a week later, Justin came over to say goodbye. It was a really tense visit. Goodbyes are always hard. They asked him about his grandparent’s house. He said it was ok. It was kinda small, but his mom and he would probably share a room. It would be a new school, but he put a brave face on it and said with a small smile that it would be a new start. Ellie said she had saved something for him. She gave him a dead beetle in tiny clear plastic box. It was large and shiny green. She said that beetles like that were good luck and that’s why she wanted to give it to him. He took it and said thanks. He gave them his address. They had some awkward hugs, and he jogged off up the lane.

“I hope he’ll be ok” Ellie said to Sarah.

Sarah said, “Just imagine, this is the kid who wrote those little nasty grahams to us. Now we’re seeing him off and we’re sad about it.”

“Yeah, life is weird.” Jack said and they filed back inside.

Chapter 15: Spring

Spring means growing things and so Karen asked the kids to come up with a plan for the garden. They didn’t know if they were going to be there the whole summer, but they should try to get a garden going while they still had the opportunity to use this wonderful big garden space. Sarah decided they should go over to see Rose and ask her some questions. They had figured out how to get to her house using back roads. It was two miles away. Karen allowed them to go provided they stayed together and were very careful, and she said that if Rose was busy or unavailable they should come right home. She could have called Rose, of course, but it seemed more of an adventure for the kids to just go see.

They found Rose out in her own garden plot. She was planting lettuce, carrots and peas in her usual overalls and big floppy hat. It was a glorious cool sunny morning. She welcomed them and they offered to help, so she put them to work tilling the soil, pulling weeds, and putting seeds in the ground. They also marked each space with small plastic markers. They had a wonderful time, and eventually Karen drove up with Emma and Joe in tow to see what was going on. The kids had been gone for several hours.

What a learning experience! Rose told them what to plant in the early spring and how to care for what they planted. She told them how far apart to plant each seed and what to plant close to what. They also talked of other things. It was a very companionable morning, and when Karen showed up with the little ones, Joe had fun pulling weeds and Emma crawled around and generally tried to undo everything they had done. In a few minutes the two of them were covered in mud and having a blast.

When the sun was high in the sky, and they were all getting a bit tired, she looked up and said, “Well, I think it’s about time for a break. Thank you so much for all your help and companionship! I never would have thought all of this would have gotten done today, but you have saved me several days of work! Let’s go see if I have anything in the house to eat.”

They all filed in to her house, taking off their muddy shoes at the doorway. She sent them all into the bathroom to wash up. This took some time, as there were so many of them. Rose said, “I do love having a house full of kids!”

Karen said, “Well, this has been a very nice afternoon, and an educational one too!”

“Honey, you are all welcome any time.”

Karen said, “Well, we might just take you up on that. Don’t be surprised if some of us end up on your doorstep quite frequently. I suspect Ellie and Sarah are going want to be here a bit.” Rose brought out some crackers and cheese and they all had a nice and very informal lunch. The kids were enjoying the change of scenery and Rose was enjoying the company.

“Where is David?” Karen asked.

“Well, my daughter needed some help to move into a new apartment… she’s still in school you know… and David went up to help her out. He also needs to bring back her cat. They won’t allow pets in her new place.”

“Wow. How long will he be gone?”

“I’m not sure. It might be two or three more days. Somebody had to stay home and take care of things. I would have loved to have seen her, but I also wanted to get this garden planted. Besides, we had a lovely visit over the holidays. I’m sorry you didn’t meet either of my kids.”

“Yes, it would have been nice to meet them. Somehow, I think any kids of yours must be very nice people.”

“You’re very sweet” Rose said.

Soon after that, they took their leave. It was time to put Emma down for her nap. Of course, she was going to need a bath first. The kids got on their bikes and they all headed home. When they got home, everyone was tired and dirty, so after a round of baths they were happy to spend the afternoon inside.

Karen said, “Well guys, it sounds like you got quite a lesson in gardening over there. I think you all should get together and make a plan for our own garden. So that afternoon for Sarah, Jack and Ellie was pleasantly taken up with drawings and negotiations about what they would do. The garden plot that had been there when they moved in was smaller than Rose’s, but they had had a little success last year with carrots, peppers and tomatoes. They had tried lettuce late in the summer, but it had all gotten eaten by bugs and rabbits. In the end they each took a section and planned it for themselves the way each of them wanted it.

After their morning schoolwork the next day, Karen sent them out with spades and hoes and told them to weed and turn up the ground. They would go look for seeds the next day at the garden center. Ellie was in seventh heaven. Turning up the earth was bringing to light so many bugs, worms and cocoons. She got slightly distracted, what with studying and sketching some of them, that it was late afternoon before she finished with the hoeing.

Jack had to take several breaks. He would work really hard and then get tired and have to stop. Usually, he’d go in and get something to eat or drink. He seemed to be hungry all of the time these days.  Sarah got right to work and efficiently did her little spot in an hour or so and then went in to work on her writing. She had a story she was working on and several ideas had come to her while she was working. She was eager to go write them down. Joe and Emma came out several times to “help”. It was hard not to be outside with the weather warming up and getting so cool and sunny.

Karen would have loved to stay out more, but her allergies had taken hold of her and she preferred to stay inside if at all possible. Feeding the chickens, finding grass to feed the goats, shoveling dirt, finding bugs, and climbing trees were all favorite activities, especially with Emma and Joe. Emma was toddling around the yard and Joe was helping her to find some nice bits of grass to feed the goats. Joe had been talking up a storm lately, so he took great pleasure in telling her all about the goats and the chickens and the grass and what he thought about it all.

The older kids, Ellie excepted, kept and eye on them most of the time. Snitch even took part in the fun and made a circuit of the yard several times, checking up on each person or animal in turn. When the weeding and hoeing were at least mostly done, Joe got Jack and Ellie distracted enough with his new make-believe game that they had some fun pretending they were super heroes on a quest from the evil black and white monster (Snitch). This eventually devolved into a game of hide and seek. Playing hide and seek with Joe and Emma was pretty easy. Jack knew enough not to make himself too hard to find and to pretend like he couldn’t find Emma and Joe, even when they were giggling behind a tree. Pretty soon, Karen called them all in for lunch. It had been a terrific morning.

Chapter 16: Horses

While they had been out, Mrs. Batcherly had called Karen to tell her about a lady she knew that had some gentle horses and who offered horseback riding lessons. She seemed to think that this was something the kids just must do and urged Karen to get her kids going with it. Mrs. Batcherly could be a little pushy.

Karen was not so sure. This was generally a pretty expensive activity and somewhat risky. The protective momma in her balked at the danger of putting her children on 1,000 pound animals that were known to be somewhat unpredictable. With some hesitation, she broached the topic with the kids.

“Ok guys, I need your input on something. There is a lady who gives horseback riding lessons…. I am NOT saying we would definitely do this… but if we were to go try it out, is that something that would interest you?”

Four pairs of saucer-like eyes stared back at her. Sarah said, “Are you KIDDING? Of COURSE I want to go learn to ride!!!”

Ellie said, “That could be fun!”

Jack said, “Mom, we gotta go do that! Yes, Yes, Yes!”

And Joe said, “Yes, horsies!”

Jack and Ellie jumped around in glee. Emma banged with her spoon. Karen said, “Well… I never thought I would get THAT reaction! Well, let me talk to your dad and call and see what it would cost. I’m not sure we could afford it, but maybe we could go to a single lesson or at least meet the horses.”

The next day while Emma was taking a nap Karen called the lady, who’s name was Barbara, and asked her about the cost of a lesson for three, possibly four, children aged 13 through 3. Barbara was very accommodating. She said that she could give them all an introduction to horses for a group rate. It also turned out that she was about a half hour away.

When Karen asked Johnathan that night what he thought, he was all for it, so the following week they all got into the van. They had been almost beside themselves with excitement the whole week. It had been very trying, because Karen had been asked about ten times a day when they were going to go see the horses. That very day she had been asked about twenty times if it was time to go yet. It takes a long time to get a toddler, a preschooler and a teenager fed, dressed, and out of the house. Getting herself dressed was almost an afterthought. Sometimes Karen was lucky to get some clothes on. When they were finally in the van, there was a huge air of expectation and excitement.

It was a bit of a drive past farms and forest. Many of the fields held cows, goats, sheep or horses. Every time they passed a horse, Joe would shout “Horse!” Finally, they turned onto a gravel drive. Along both sides of the road were split-rail fences and fields. Several horses grazed in the fields.

They drove up the drive until they got to a large barn. Parking alongside the side of the drive, they saw a woman come out of the barn and wave. Getting out of the van was like a Chinese fire-drill. Kids just started appearing out of every door. Barbara said, “Well, it looks like my group is here!”

Karen said, “Sometimes there are advantages to having a large family. Hi, I’m Karen. This is Sarah, Jack, Ellie, Joe and Emma.” Emma was hanging on to her Mom’s hand and looking up at Barbara with a look of bashfulness. Sarah was holding Joe’s hand. Barbara said, “Well, it is nice to meet you all. My name is Barbara. You can call me Barb. Have any of your been around horses much?”

They all said no, so she said, “Well, I’ll start from the beginning then. Let’s go into the barn. I’ve got a fella for you to meet.” Once inside she said, “I have about ten horses. I got a lot of them from folks who just couldn’t take care of them anymore. This gelding here is called Jasper. He is about fourteen years old, and that is old for a horse, but he has the sweetest temperament. I will show you the different parts of the horse and you guys can help to groom him, then we’ll saddle him and take him out and you guys can take turns going for a ride. I have several gentle horses for riding, and I have students come out for lessons most days.”

She proceeded to tell them all sorts of things about what horses eat, how to care for them, the different parts of a horse and a lot of different things about riding. The kids asked a great many questions but they were itching to pet Jasper, so it wasn’t long before they were taking turns with a soft brush, combing his neck and flanks and tail. They were all entranced. Here was a very large animal. It was a little imposing how large he was, and yet Barb said that he was rather small as horses go. He wasn’t quite a pony, but pretty close to it. He was very patient and gentle and seemed to really enjoy the attention.

When he was well groomed, Barb brought out the saddle and the tack and explained what the different pieces were called and what they were for. She put on his saddle pad and saddle, and tightened the girth, then she put in the bit and they all led him out to a riding ring that was next to the barn. Barb asked who wanted to go first, and suddenly they were all a little shy. Ellie said, “I’ll go!” so Barb brought her over to a short set of steps she called a “mounting block” and helped Ellie get on his back. Being up there was a little scary! Ellie was suddenly a little afraid. She was up so high! What would she do if he wanted to do something? She didn’t know how to ride at all!

Barb said, “Don’t be afraid. I’ve got his halter and he’s not going to go anywhere unless I ask him too.” Barb led him around the ring once and then asked Ellie if she wanted to give riding him on her own a try. She explained how to use the reins to steer, but also explained that you never hold the reins too tight or you could end up being pulled forward onto the ground. Then she let go and Ellie, eyes wide with fright, walked around the ring on Jasper by herself. Half way around she got a huge grin on her face. She got to go around twice. Jasper just did a slow walk in a circle. It was something he was used to doing, so it didn’t take much input from Ellie. It was Sarah’s turn next and they all got to take a couple of circuits. Joe got on with a big grin and was led around a couple of times, and even Emma got to sit in the saddle.

All of this took over an hour and then Barb walked Jasper back to the barn and told them that part of riding was taking good care of your horse. She un-tacked Jasper and they all gave him another grooming and some hay and water.

When the Katz family piled back into the car, they were buzzing with happiness. It had been a really great morning. Of course, they all wanted to come back. Barb said that she could treat them as their own group lesson if they wanted to come at the regular time. Joe was too young for lessons just yet, but she could teach the older three. Karen had said thank you. They would need to discuss finances before she could give her an answer. Inside, Karen, was thinking that she should have known that one thing was going to lead to another and that regular lessons would be the next step. She could get a pretty good price as a group, but it still was a good chunk of money. Also, it would mean her bringing the whole family out every time, since Johnathan was deep into the new field season.

Discussing it that night, Johnathan said she should do it. They had a little extra money now, since they didn’t have to pay for rent. As long as they were out in the country, they might as well learn about some of the animals there. As far as he was concerned, it was a great way to spend their time. So, it became a weekly excursion for them. They all piled into the van and took the rather pretty drive out to the stables. There were a few horses they could use, and Barb started them out on Jasper and a couple of ponies she had for beginning riders. That way, they could all ride at the same time. They had to groom and saddle and then unsaddle and groom the horses again each time, and they were allowed to give the horses a small treat after each ride. Sometimes, they would see other riders either out in the ring or fields or in the barn. Barb actually had several clients and some were experienced riders and leased her horses to ride when they wanted to. Mostly they used English saddles, but some used Western saddles, especially for long trail rides. The kids just loved these days, and as time went on they became more and more confident and were able to post (use your legs to bounce with the horse) and trot. Karen explored the stables with Emma and Joe while the lessons were going on. She had to start taking allergy medicine to get through these mornings though. They discovered a couple of barn cats that were very friendly and had fun watching the barn swallows nesting in the rafters as they swooped in and out making mud nests and chattering to each other.

Chapter 17: Spring fog

On one of their trips they had stopped at the garden center and picked up some sprouts and seeds for the garden. They had another great afternoon planting it all, and then it was a daily chore, just like the goats and chickens, to water, weed and check on it all. 

Pretty soon there were little sprouts and they were hopeful. It was a challenge to keep Emma and Snitch out of it all. Snitch had an unfortunate habit of walking across the garden on the way from one part of the yard to the next, and they would find deep doggy footprints criss-crossing their carefully tended plots.

One day Jack looked out and said, “Mom! Why is everything all yellow?” There was a thick coating of yellow dust all over everything. It covered the garden.  It covered the fences. It covered the chicken coop. It even covered the goats. Short of some kid of chemical warfare, Karen had no idea what it could be. A light dusting was even on the windows and roof. They went outside and, yes, it was a kind of dust. It was puzzling. Well, there certainly had been no shortage of pollen in the air this Spring, maybe it as a new kind of pollen.

She called Rose up that evening and Rose said, “How long have you been living in North Carolina? Don’t you know that’s pine pollen?”

“Well, no, I suppose we were never under pine trees before. I think other people have told me about it but I’ve never really seen it. All of that stuff is really coming from the trees?”

It really was amazing. There were several pine trees next to the house, and the pollen would pile up in drifts on the porch, and if it was windy, the air would turn greenish yellow and everyone would stay inside. One or more of them would go outside and sit down and come back with yellow backsides and hands. This went on for a couple of weeks and then just as suddenly it ended. That was the end of the “yellow haze” as they called it.

Chapter 18: Scary things

Sarah and Emma decided to go visit Rose one day. They got on their bikes and headed out to ride the back roads. It really was a nice ride because very few cars were on these country roads and they would go by intermittent fields, forest and homes.

You could still see the drifts of yellow pollen, and sometimes if they were on a gravel road, the pollen would get kicked up into a yellow cloud behind them. The leaves on the trees were coming out and so everything was a new and a young shade of green and the air was still cool. The dogwoods and daffodils were blooming.

There was one house they were a little bit afraid of, however. Two dogs sat along the fence of this house and barked menacingly whenever they rode by. The girls had never said anything to their mom about this because they didn’t want her to tell them to stop going to Rose’s house. They loved to go over there and “help” Rose with her gardening because Rose almost always had something good to offer them to eat, and quite honestly, it was nice to get away from the little ones for a while. Their mom felt they were old enough to go off on their own at this point, as long as they stuck together. Karen trusted Rose implicitly.

This house with the dogs was a little intimidating. I was small and the bushes were grown up around it so you could hardly see the house. What little you could see was covered in peeling white paint. The chain link fence that surrounded the house, however, came right up to the road. The dogs, which looked like pit bulls, were always in the front yard and they would follow the girls along the fence, barking furiously the whole way. The gate on the fence near the front walk had been closed each time they came by, but it would have been a simple matter for the latch to not be properly hooked and the dogs would be out. The ferocity of the dogs was such that if the girls had known of any other way around to Rose’s house, they would have taken it.

This day was somewhat overcast and green-tinged in that way it can be in the new growth of Spring. The girls heard the dogs barking as they rode up. The two of them looked at each other for courage, and then picked up speed to round the corner and pass the house as quickly as possible. They rounded the corner and saw the house and just as immediately realized that the gate was open. Their wheels were spinning too quickly at this point, however, and there was no turning back. They passed the front gate just as both dogs, barking furiously, with teeth bared, charged out and after them.

Suddenly the dogs were at their heels, aiming to grab a foot or leg, and the girls were terrified. Ellie was just a bit faster than Sarah and edged ahead as both put on as much speed as adrenaline could give them. Sarah felt pain in her ankle as one of the dogs reached her, but she knew that it could be all over for her if she fell off her bike, so she kept going. When they got several block-lengths away, the dogs finally gave up and went home. The girls fell off their bikes in a ditch, breathless and shaking on the side of the road. That had been the most terrifying thing they had ever been through.

Sarah started to cry. Her ankle had teeth marks all along it and was bleeding heavily. Ellie said, “Oh my gosh, Sarah, did they get you!?”

“Yes, one of them got me. I just wasn’t fast enough.”

Ellie said, “What should we do?!” She had a wide-eyed look of fear on her face. Mom usually was there to take care of things, but she wasn’t there now and her sister was hurt, and she had no idea what she should do now.

Sarah tried to stifle her tears. She couldn’t help it. She had been so scared and now she couldn’t stop shaking and crying. Ellie needed her to be the big sister though. “Ellie, I was just scared. It’s not really that bad. We aren’t far from Rose and David’s. Give me a minute and I’ll see if I can walk the rest of the way.”

After a few minutes she had gathered herself together enough to try to stand up. It did hurt a bit, and it was starting to swell, but she thought she could walk. She managed to grab the bike and limp with it the quarter of a mile more to Rose’s house.  Ellie trailed along beside and slightly behind her, anxious and unsure what to do.

When they finally got to Rose’s, Ellie ran in to ask for help and Rose ran out.  “Oh dear! Sarah, lets get you inside and have a look at you. Was it those dogs down on Sandhill Road?” She gave Sarah her support, putting her arm over her shoulder, and they limped inside.

David was just coming in from his blueberries, “What happened here?” Sarah and Ellie took turns telling them what had happened. As they spoke, the expressions on the couple’s faces went from concerned to angry. Rose called Karen up and told her what had happened and Karen said she would be right over. Meanwhile, Rose cleaned up the wound a bit. She said that Sarah should go to the doctor and have them take a look at it.

When Karen showed up, she had the remaining three kids in the car. They all went into town to see the doctor. In the doctor’s office, Sarah had a tetanus booster, was given a prescription for antibiotics and then had given a report to the nice policeman that had shown up to investigate.

It seemed Rose had called the police and asked them to go over and talk to the Katz’s so they could file a report. She said those dogs had attacked someone else a few months ago. She had forgotten about it and was kicking herself for not realizing that the Katz kids were going right by that house. The policeman took the report and said he would investigate. The owner should at least pay for the medical costs, and if they wanted, they could press charges. Karen wasn’t sure that was necessary, but she was very angry. Any threat to her children awoke a raging dragon in her. She’d be willing to rip the eyes out of anyone hurting her children.

She was furious at the owner. She didn’t blame the dogs. Dogs do what they are allowed and trained to do. It was the owner’s job to keep them from being a menace to others, and clearly these dogs were a menace. If two unthreatening girls riding by could be attacked, what about someone just walking by? She didn’t want anyone else to get hurt.

Both girls had clung to her and cried when she had come to get them. They were both very shaken by the whole ordeal. When they finally did get home, Sarah curled up on the couch with her bandaged ankle and just sat quietly for a while. She was still very upset and suddenly very tired. Ellie went out back and climbed the Magnolia tree. She felt safe and alone in the tree and she sat there for some time and thought. She only came in when she got too cold to stay up there any longer.

Karen called Johnathan. He was out in a forest track somewhere nearby. Karen had lost track of where he was each day. She told him what had happened and he became even more angry than Karen had been. In fact, he was jumping up and down furious and he said he would come right home. He said he wanted to go out and shoot those dogs right now. How dare they attack his kids?! Karen said to calm down, and it wasn’t necessary to come home, they had already seen the doctor and everyone was just resting now. She just barely managed to convince him that he should finish his work for the day. When he did come home, though, he spent some time with both girls on the sofa cuddled up against him. It was good to have a daddy to cuddle against. They always felt so safe with him.

The next day a policeman came by and said that they could file a complaint and animal services would go by and check the dogs out. He said he had been by the place himself and seen the dogs and how riled up they were but had been unable to get anyone to come out of the house or answer any phone calls. It was too dangerous to go up to the door with those dogs there. He said, given their state, it was very likely the dogs would be impounded, but they had to go through the proper channels. He also said privately and unofficially that there were certain people in the area who liked to train dogs for dog fights and they mistreated the animals to make them mean. This owner was suspected to be one of these people and they would love to catch him in the act, but hadn’t been able to find any proof thus far. The Katz’s filed a complaint to get the official process rolling and left it at that. Sarah’s ankle bite wasn’t too deep. The dog had mostly just scratched her, so she was able to walk on it a couple of days later.

Chapter 19: Sarah

It was an eventful week for Sarah. Later that week, when the family was at the library, Sarah was approached by a young man. He introduced himself as Leo and said he knew Beth-Ann and wanted to meet the girl who was her friend but was never in school. He said she fit Beth-Ann’s description so he figured she must be Sarah. Sarah was flustered, she didn’t know what to think! Most teenage boys were not so forward. She flushed bright pink and said, “Nice to meet you,” and then stood there awkwardly because she didn’t know what to say.

After a pause, he said, “So how do you manage that? I thought everyone HAD to go to school?”

Sarah replied, “Well, it’s not like I don’t learn anything at all. I just do school at home.”

“What? You don’t just not like us people at school and try to stay away from us?” He was trying to be funny, she could tell. He wasn’t succeeding, but she smiled anyway.

Sarah said, “No. It’s not like that…” and she was going to say more, but then he changed the topic and asked her what happened to her ankle.

 “Dog bite,” she replied and then her mom waved from across the room that they had to go. She said, ‘Well, it’s nice to meet you… Leo… bye.” She rushed, limping, out after her family, with her arms wrapped tightly around the books she had in her hands and her head down. Why had he made her so flustered? She wasn’t usually like that. He was kinda cute, though in a rangy teen kinda way.

Sarah wondered how she could find out more about him. It was the first time any of the kids in the town, besides Beth-Ann, had made any attempt to get to know her. The family had stopped going to 4H when it became too difficult for Sarah’s mom to corral the younger kids for the whole time. Also, her mom had felt a little guilty about not being able to pitch in and teach as all the moms were supposed to do. She just couldn’t do it with so many kids to take care of, and she didn’t really want to, since she did enough of that at home. Sarah had gotten a lot less time with kids her age after that, however, and she privately wished they were back in Raleigh. She missed her friends there.

She called Beth-Ann that night. “Beth-Ann, there was a boy who came up to me today in the library and he said he knew you. I was wondering if you could tell me who he is?”

Beth-Ann was intrigued, ”What boy?”

Sarah said, “Well, he was kinda tall with blond hair and really blue eyes… He said his name was Leo.”

“Oh, Leo!” Beth-Ann said, “Well, what do you want to know? Our parents are good friends, but I don’t see him much these days. He’s all ‘Mr. Popular’ and I’m just the weird brainy girl.”

“Um, well, I don’t know,” Sarah said, “I just was surprised he cared who I was.”

“Ooooo,” said Beth-Ann. “I wonder if he likes you?”

“That’s silly,” Sarah replied. “He doesn’t even know me. How could he like me?”

Beth Ann was thoughtful, “Maybe your just too mysterious? I bet he is curious and wants to know about that beautiful mysterious girl I keep talking about.”

“Now I know you are loopy,” said Sarah. “How’s the practicing going?”

“Oh, you know, the usual. It’s so tedious, but I need to be ready for the next concert. They have an invitational concert to play with the North Carolina Symphony this week. I want to be ready. That means I’ll be gone again this week. I should probably homeschool like you. I miss so much school, I’m doing make-up work all of the time. Mom won’t even consider it though. Anyway, I should go now. They are calling me down to dinner. See ya girlie!”

“Bye,” said Sarah and hung up.

Her mom noticed that she was very preoccupied that night. Sarah barely said two words at dinner, and when Karen asked her what books she had gotten at the library she didn’t even answer at first. Even worse, when she did answer she said with a startled air, “I don’t know if I even checked them out mom!”

Karen said, “Really Sarah, how could you forget to check them out?”

Sarah was thinking, “Well I guess that’s what happens when a good-looking guy startles you in the library,” but she said, “I don’t know Mom. I was distracted I guess.” She didn’t know why she didn’t want to tell her mom. Somehow, it just seemed like something she wanted to keep to herself for the moment.

That night she found she just could not get the encounter out of her mind. It was very disturbing because she couldn’t sleep and couldn’t concentrate to read. She kept seeing Leo’s face smiling at her and it gave her a peculiar butterfly feeling inside. She wondered if she’d see him again. She really had no reason to. Maybe he would be at the library next week.

Chapter 20: Tortoises and time with Dad

Meanwhile, Johnathan was deep in his field season and loving the work he was doing in the sandhills region. It was a very unique and special habitat type, full of distributions and types of reptiles seen nowhere else. On one of his site-scouting trips, he had actually spotted a gopher tortoise hole. This is something unheard of in North Carolina. Gopher tortoises generally stay further south where it is warmer, so to find one in North Carolina at all was newsworthy! He decided that since he was coming back the next day, he would bring Jack with him to see how the survey was being conducted and to see the hole.

When he went home that night and told Jack that he could come the next day, Jack was beside himself. He couldn’t wait! He could barely sleep and was up before the sun, dressed and ready to go before his dad even made it downstairs for breakfast. When it was time to go, they got into the Jeep his dad was using for the summer, along with all of the gear that usually stayed in it, and made the long drive to the study site.

This particular site was on the far side of the preserve. They met Johnathan’s graduate students just as the sun was coming up, and together they all went over the plans for the day. The students would spend the morning digging and carefully placing a series of pit traps and then come back in the afternoon to see what, if anything, they had caught. At that time they would take down notes and observations about each find.

Jack was put in charge of the clip-board, and as they set up each pit-trap, he was given all kinds of numbers, from the current temperature, to the number and type of surrounding trees and the GPS coordinates. It was long, hot, and exacting work and he was glad his dad had insisted on long pants and boots as well as a wide-brimmed hat, bug spray, and lots of water. At least he didn’t have to dig the holes!

Jack also liked meeting the graduate students. One was a young exchange student from India by the name of Anaan. He was a cheerful and very energetic individual who had always been fascinated with reptiles. He worked hard and was very exact in everything he did. He was also very friendly to Jack and spent a great deal of time either teasing him or showing him how to do things. His accent was pretty heavy, but Jack could understand him most of the time.

The other student there that day was a girl by the name of Phoebe. She was short and thin but very tough. She had a tan that made her look as dark as Anaan. She was friendly, but very focused, and Jack was a little bit confused by the big words she kept using. Much of the time he didn’t really understand what she was saying. She also spoke really fast, which just made it worse. She and Anaan drove from the hotel they were staying in, an hour away, each day during this intense part of the sampling. When the sampling was over, they would return to the college and their usual lodgings.

When all of the pitfall traps were set and the data collected for the morning, they took a break and sat around or in the trucks to eat their lunch. It was really nice to sit and listen to them talk over the day. Jack didn’t understand all of the things the grownups were concerned about, but he did ask them if they had found anything interesting yet.

His dad was reminded then about the gopher tortoise and how he wanted to show it to Jack. They finished up quickly and he and Jack set off on foot to find a spot about a quarter of a mile away. Johnathan had to use a GPS unit to find it again in the scrubby pine flatwoods. It was, after all, just a hole in the ground under a bush. After some searching they finally found it by looking for tracks in the sand.

Johnathan explained that the gopher tortoise was found primarily in Florida and Georgia as well as the South Carolina sandhill areas. It was an animal of special importance because it was considered a “keystone species”. Jack interrupted to ask what a keystone species was. Johnathan explained that it was a creature that was especially important in an ecosystem, because if it was lost, that loss would impact many, many other animals and could even lead to the loss of the ecosystem. He said that gopher tortoises made big holes in the sand to live in and lay eggs in. Other animals loved to use those holes. The holes were important, because they provided shelter from extreme temperatures, predators, and fire when it came. Researchers had found snakes, frogs, burrowing owls, lizards, opossums, raccoons… all kinds of animals living together in these holes. He said that the fact that there was a gopher tortoise here so far north was very special and that they mustn’t tell anyone else where this hole was, so that it would remain undisturbed.

When they found the tracks, they saw that they led under a bush, and pushing the bush aside, could see the tortoise, itself, sitting there at the entrance! When it saw them, though, it retreated further down the hole and wouldn’t come out. Johnathan said this was a small tortoise and wondered out loud how it had ended up so far north. Gopher tortoises could get to be as big as sixteen inches. This one was only about six inches. Johnathan also pointed out a snake track and said it was probably living in the burrow with the tortoise. Johnathan also said he wanted Jack to do a report about the gopher tortoise and use it to tell the rest of the family about what he saw that day.

Jack was pretty fascinated, though he was already pretty hot and sweaty and was wondering how his dad did this every day. No wonder he was so tired when he came home at night! They headed back to the trucks, where Johnathan let Jack have a bit of a break. The two students went off to record some data and check some old traps, and father and son just sat on the tailgate for a bit enjoying the sound of the birds and the quiet. There was a loud nasally “kack-kack-kack-kack” and a huge pileated woodpecker flew up to a tree nearby to look at them and them flew off. Jack was amazed! This was the biggest woodpecker he had ever seen! It was even bigger than most of the crows!

The late afternoon was filled with rechecking the traps they had set that morning. They would leave them overnight and check them the next morning. Only one of them already had something in it. It was a skink, which is something Jack saw around the house all of the time.

When they finally went home that evening, Jack was exhausted. He just wanted to climb into bed, but his mom insisted that he remove all of his clothing in the laundry room and she checked him over. She found three ticks on him. Ewww! He was so, so freaked out! He loved animals but he hated ticks! Having had a lot of experience with tick-removal though, they soon had them off of him and he was sent upstairs to scrub himself really well in the shower.

Chapter 21: Emma and the Terrible Twos

While Jack and Johnathan were off having their adventure, Karen had been having one of her own. Sarah had spent the morning upstairs reading, while Ellie had gone outside to look after things right after breakfast. These days they had to take a basket out to collect all of the eggs. Karen sat Joe down and they were going to do some reading together.

These days she would read him a book and ask him to sound out words here and there. She had placed Emma on the floor with some blocks and puzzles, but had lost track of her when she was engrossed with Joe. When she and Joe had finished their story, she looked up and saw that Emma had toddled off and things were quiet, too quiet. Karen had an “oh no” moment. This wasn’t good. Quiet was almost never good with a two year old. She called “Emma!” and got up to start looking around. She didn’t find her in the kitchen or the living room, but then Karen noticed a light on in the bathroom. An awful smell came from there.

With a feeling of dread she looked in and saw Emma in the middle of the floor, diaperless, with poo all over her hands and streaks of it all over the walls. Emma said, “Me go potty!”

Karen said, “Oh, Emma, what a mess.” She wanted to throw up. The whole mess was so revolting. The smell was awful. She grabbed Emma under the arms and holding her at arms length, ran her upstairs to the bathtub. She and Emma spent a good half hour in there getting Emma cleaned up. Karen was just about done and was toweling Emma off when she heard a retching sound downstairs.

Joe came in and said “Ellie go blah” and then from downstairs an anguished sob.  

“MOM!!” Karen put her head in her hands. This was going to be a bad day. Why did things have to happen in these little storms?

She said, “Sarah! Please come here! I need your help!” Sarah had been completely oblivious this whole time. She was disappearing more and more in her own world these days, and Karen was at a loss of what to do with her sometimes.

Sarah got up and came into the bathroom. Karen said, “Please get Emma diapered and dressed, and be careful. She’s decided that taking her diaper off is fun. I gotta go help Ellie!”

With that, she ran out of the room and downstairs. Poor Ellie had taken one look at the bathroom downstairs and upchucked her breakfast all over the living room rug. She was in tears, “I’m so sorry mom!”

Karen went to go get her some towels and to clean up the mess. Now she had two messes to clean up, and quite frankly she was feeling a little queasy herself. As the mom, though, she had had to learn how to not do what Ellie had just done. It would just make the whole situation ten times worse. Somebody had to keep their composure!

She gave Ellie a rag and told her to go up and shower off and then set to work cleaning up the mess. This had not been one of her favorite mornings. It was almost as bad as when everyone had been sick at the same time. She crossed her fingers and prayed that this was her quota for the week. If she could just keep Emma from doing that again...

Emma was becoming progressively headstrong. People always talk about the terrible twos. Not all of her kids had been “terrible” at two. Sarah had always been a cautious and rather quiet little girl. Jack had been headstrong but easily distracted. Ellie had been difficult, and it seemed Emma was taking after her. It wasn’t malicious, they were just interested in everything and therefore into everything, and didn’t understand why they weren’t allowed to do whatever they wanted. They got upset and then got upset all over again when they couldn’t communicate what they wanted.

Emma had just probably not liked the feel of her dirty diaper, and having discovered how to get it off, had also discovered what was in it. Well, that was quite enough finger painting for one morning! She sent Joe to supervise the dressing of Emma while Ellie showered. From upstairs she heard “No! No pan. No pan!” (This meant no pants in Emma language.) She got some lunch going, hoping her stomach would settle soon. She’d put Emma down for a nap soon. Hopefully that would work out. This was another difficult area; Emma seemed to be on the cusp of not needing a nap but was too cranky still to stay up. If that worked at all, she would work with the older two on their schoolwork for a bit in the afternoon.

Unfortunately, Emma refused her nap and was whiney and cranky the rest of the afternoon. This made it very difficult for the other kids to work. Who could multiply fractions with a screaming toddler running around and looking for things to destroy? Joe also wanted some attention, so she ended up just taking everyone, except Sarah, outside. Sarah had her online class to attend to, and this was the only way to give her some quiet for that. It was especially hard sometimes trying to homeschool with a toddler around.

They roamed about visiting with the chickens and the goats. They also took a look at the garden and did some weeding (and mud throwing). At the end of that, Emma was tired enough that she did finally go inside and fall asleep on the couch, but it was late enough that Karen worried sleep in the evening was going to be a problem.

Karen had not actually planned for Emma. After Joe came along, she had felt that she had quite enough kids, but in the way fate seemed to decree things sometimes, Emma had come along unplanned. Karen had a lot of energy, but Emma was almost more that she could handle sometimes. She just felt more and more tired and old trying to keep up with this fifth toddler of hers. Thank goodness she had the older kids to help out at this point, and since they were all home together most of the time, the kids mostly got along with each other and were able to be mentors and friends to each other.

She scrambled to get the dishes and laundry done while Emma slept and Joe watched his favorite show on TV. Maybe tomorrow would be better.

Chapter 22: Birds and Butterflies

Ellie was feeling better the next day. When they had been wandering around outside the day before, she had noticed a number of different kinds of butterflies flitting around on the edges of the yard. With her butterfly net and sketch book in hand, she headed outside to see what she could find. She knew that a real entomologist would collect the butterflies and keep them after killing them to study. She couldn’t kill such beautiful creatures, though. She preferred to catch them and get a really good look at them and then let them go. If she sketched them she could remember the colors and shapes and look them up later.

She had seen so many new and beautiful butterflies out here. So far she had seen a few swallowtails, but since they were so big, those were the ones people noticed the most. She was finding that she was more and more interested in the little ones. Frequently they were beautiful colors, but they went unnoticed because of their size. The little white and orange “Orange Tip” looked like a pretty summer dress with its lacy green mottles and orange wing tips. The “Sleepy Orange” butterfly looked like an orange-cream popsicle. She caught another hairstreak and let it go. Many of these she had never seen in Raleigh. She wished Justin were still around. He wasn’t super interested in bugs like she was, but he had been willing to keep her company much of the time. There really weren’t any other kids out here her age to play with now.

Just then, Rose pulled into the driveway in her beat-up pickup truck. The dog bite incident had put a stop to their semi-solo bike rides to her house, so she often came over to say “hi” and bring them berries or vegetables.  Ellie was sitting cross-legged in the grass, sketching. She stood up when Rose came and ambled over to the car. “Hi” she said.

Rose said, “Can I see what you were doing there?”

“I guess so” said Ellie, and let Rose have a look at a new hairstreak sketch she had started.

Rose said, “You really are getting very good Ellie. I don’t think I’ve ever met another child your age who draws as well as you do.”

Ellie was feeling a bit shy about it, “Thanks” she said somewhat bashfully. Rose had something in her bag. She almost always brought something. Sometimes it was fresh bread, sometimes it was cookies, and sometimes it was something from her garden. Ellie wondered what she had brought today.

They went up onto the porch and into the house. Karen was just finishing the dishes. Rose took one look at her and said, “You look like you’ve had a tough morning.”

Karen gave her a level look and said, “You don’t know the half of it, but it is certainly better than yesterday.”

Rose said with a smile, “Sometimes coming over here makes me glad I’m done raising my own kids. Though, you never are truly done.”

“Thanks a lot!” said Karen. “I don’t think I want to think about being mom to five kids the rest of my life right now. I’m glad we can help you get over having an empty nest though!” This was all said in jest.

Rose said, “Well, I just got something for myself and they were so inexpensive, I got an extra one for you guys. Since the kids have been enjoying the bird feeder so much, I thought they might also like this hummingbird feeder.” Rose turned to Ellie. “Ellie, I’m going to put you in charge of filling this and making sure it’s got clean nectar all of the time. If you do that, you’ll get to see those little guys most every day.”

Ellie said, “I’m not sure I want more chores in the morning.”

Rose said, “Trust me. This will be worth it.” She showed Ellie how to mix up a batch of hummingbird nectar and put it in the feeder.

Next they had to decide where to hang it. In the end they hung it rather high up on the kitchen window. Ellie had to use a stool to get to it, but Rose explained that the higher up and more open the placing, the more likely the hummingbirds were to come and use it. Also, they loved the color red, and that was why the feeder was red plastic. Suction cups attached the feeder to the window.

Rose said, “Give it a few days. They’ll eventually find it and if they are brave enough to come around you crazy people, it’ll be a nice show to watch during your meals.”

Karen said, “Thanks Rose. You always have such interesting things up your sleeve. “

It did take almost a week before they saw any hummingbirds at the feeder. Ellie had had to clean it out once when the nectar had started to grow things. Finally, on the eighth day, they were all sitting down to a pancake breakfast when a tiny green ball of attitude landed on the feeder and took a long drink.

Soon after, that feeder was the source of constant activity as the little dive-bombers jockeyed for rights to the nectar. The little magenta-bibbed males would even chase others off, as is they thought the feeder belonged to them, and the yard would be full of whirring wings and chittering attitude all afternoon. Ellie found out that these were Ruby-throated hummingbirds, the most common kind on the East Coast. Yeller also enjoyed watching them and would sit by the window meowing softly, tail twitching.

Ellie also got to go out with her Dad that week. Johnathan had decided to take one kid a week on his workdays, and Sarah said she could wait, so Ellie was up next. The Graduate students enjoyed meeting yet another Katz kid and Ellie did pretty well as recorder, though she kept getting distracted by the flying, buzzing and fluttering things.

That day they caught a king snake and Ellie had to admit that it was pretty neat. Her dad told her that this snake was special in that it ate other snakes. One of the problems with this kind of sampling was the danger that something they had caught might eat something else they had caught. Judging by the size of this snake, it looked like it had had a recent meal. Johnathan wondered out loud if it had made a meal of another snake in the pitfall trap, but since they could only record what was actually seen, they could only guess at what it might have been.

Anaan and Phoebe were very impressed with Ellie’s bug knowledge and agreed with Johnathan that they might have an entomologist in the making in their midst. What Ellie learned about the most that day was how actual fieldwork was conducted and recorded. Everything had to be as consistent as possible and was done with exacting care. Here was the scientific method in action, and when she gave her report to her family that night, she spoke about that as well as the snake she saw.

Ellie also managed to get through the day having acquired only one tiny seed tick. Johnathan had begun to perfect his tick-avoidance strategies. Pants were always tucked into boots and covered with heavy socks. Long shirts with long sleeves were worn tucked in and everyone was sprayed well with bug spray. This was all pretty effective, if a bit funny looking and a bit warm.

Chapter 23: Sarah’s Turn

The following week, Sarah went with her dad to do his fieldwork. It was a much tenser group at that point. The graduate students were getting pretty tired. They were healthy, young and strong, but four solid weeks of hot outdoor work, dusk to dawn, was getting to all of them. This would be the last week and they would be wrapping things up. Everyone was in a hurry to get the work done.

If the grant was extended, they might be able to come back the next year, but the Katz’s had planned for this one year of solid work in the area. It was important to complete the work, because the more data they gathered, the more solid the conclusions. There were limits, though they were working as hard as possible.

Sarah did her best to keep up with the constant stream of numbers and observations. She thought the things that they found in the buckets were pretty neat. However, sometimes they would hike to a bucket and there would be nothing in it. Also, at each bucket they would record what was in it and then remove it, stow everything, and fill in the hole. They were wrapping everything up and trying to put everything back to the way they had found it. They were nowhere near the gopher tortoise hole, so Sarah wasn’t able to see that, and she was thoroughly exhausted by the time it was all over.

Personally, she knew her dad thought it was good for her to come out and see how he worked, but this was not her thing. She didn’t like sweating and she didn’t like being dirty and dealing with bugs, and she hated, HATED, wearing boots. When they were finally done and heading home she was glad to have had met Anaan and Phoebe and seen what her dad’s days were like, but she also hoped he didn’t insist she come with him ever again. For her, it was a kind of torture. She hadn’t complained, but Johnathan could clearly see the lack of enthusiasm. Since he loved what he did so much, he felt disappointed that his oldest child didn’t share that love, but he supposed you couldn’t win them all.

As they were driving through town on the way home, Sarah looked out the “window” of the open Jeep and saw a group of teens on the corner. Her first instinct was to duck, but before she could do that, she saw Leo and he looked right at her. He waved and she turned bright red and looked away. She was mortified. She was sweaty and her hair was a mess from the hat she had been wearing. She was sure she had dirt on her face. She must look awful. Then she thought, why do I care? She had so many confusing emotions. Fortunately, her dad didn’t notice at all. Phoebe did though, and she leaned over and said very quietly, “I think that young man likes you. Good looking guy!” She smiled at Sarah and Sarah smiled back. She didn’t know what else to say.

At the end of the week Johnathan called the sampling season over for the time being and invited Phoebe and Anaan over for dinner. When they came over they were bemused that their professor had such a large family. Anaan said he came from a big family himself and fit right in. He sat down on the floor with Joe and asked him about the puzzle he was doing. Phoebe and Karen started a conversation, and Phoebe was telling Karen how she hoped to be a Herpetologist some day and contribute a significant piece of research. She was particularly interested in the tropics, and she hoped to move on soon to a project in the Amazon.

Jack listened from nearby. To him, this sounded like the coolest thing he had ever heard. You could tell he was fascinated and a little bit in worship of this young College student. He hung on her every word. What she was saying seemed like the kind of thing that he read about in National Geographic. He always read those articles about faraway places avidly. The new and unusual places that the people would visit were so interesting. He wanted to go places and see things all over the world some day. He knew that the Amazon was a place of amazing numbers and kinds of plants and animals. How he would love to go there! It seemed way more exciting than his own life thus far.

They all sat around the dining room table and had spaghetti and meatballs. There just wasn’t any more room at the kitchen table. Emma didn’t really sit with them, but Joe tried. He wanted to be like the big people, but he only managed to sit until his food was eaten and then he had to go run around. Dinner was all very informal, though, so kids coming and going wasn’t a bit deal. The two college students had a wonderful evening and felt pretty lucky to be working with such a nice Professor. They knew other professors that seemed to enjoy giving people a hard time and generally being stuffy sticks-in-the-mud.

Johnathan was happy. He felt it had been a successful year and he could go back to Raleigh and be busy for some time to come. He just needed to get all of that data into the computer and start crunching the numbers. That and writing were what these and his other students would be doing for him in the coming months. Hopefully, he could get several papers out of it. On Monday he would head back to Raleigh for a bit to settle things and then he’d be able to stay home for a couple of weeks before they would need to start making plans for either moving back to Raleigh or staying here.

Karen and he had told the kids that this would be a temporary thing, but they had also discussed the possibility of not wanting to leave after a year. It was part of the reason why they had sold their house. They could have kept it, but paying for two places would have drained their finances and they hadn’t really been attached to the last house anyway. This house was pretty neat, but they were just renting it. It would be easy to move out when the lease was up. It had turned out to be a nice arrangement, and being able to stretch out at least mentally had been really nice. On the other hand, the resources here for classes and other homeschool friends were almost nonexistent. He and Karen had decided to wait until he was done to decide for sure.

Chapter 24: New Neighbors

It was July when Ellie came into the house and said that someone was moving into Justin’s old place. Jack and Sarah went out with her to the lane to peek surreptitiously around the corner. There was a large moving truck in the driveway and men moving furniture into the house.  Each of the kids was secretly hoping that it would be a family and that that family would have kids their age. Jack pointed when he saw a tricycle come out of the truck and the three of them hi-fived each other. There were kids there, and even if they were small, they would be happy to have some other kids around.

In spare moments that week the kids took to riding their bikes up and down the lane. A few days after the moving truck, Jack saw two boys outside with jump ropes. One of the boys saw him and waved, so he rode up the drive. “Hi. I’m Jack.” He said.

The older boy said, “Do you live here?”

“We live just down the lane a bit.” Jack said. “We saw you move in.”

There was a moment of silence. “Well, bye!” Jack said, and left. He was feeling inexplicably a little shy, but he did go home and tell his sisters what he had seen. Karen overheard this and decided to do something neighborly. In the quiet hour while Emma was napping she made a cake to bring over to the neighbors that evening. Of course, Ellie and Sarah and Jack all wanted to go, so she ended up bringing all of the kids with her.

The woman that answered the door was dark haired and well dressed. A little taken aback by all of the kids on her front porch, she thanked them and invited them in. Karen, having seen the initial reaction, declined, saying she didn’t want to inundate her with all of these kids while they were moving in. They all introduced themselves, and the woman said that her name was Rhea and her two boys were Nicolas, age eleven, and William age eight. There was also a little girl named Lilly who was five. Jack was really happy there was a boy near his age, and it seemed like Lilly and Joe could play. Ellie was a little sad that William was a William and not a Wilamina. Why were all the kids her age around here boys? Karen invited them to come over any time.

Over the next few weeks, they got to know each other a little bit better. It wasn’t all happy and easy though, because William and Nicolas were not very physical, didn’t know how to climb trees, and weren’t allowed to get very dirty. The Katz kids were frequently outside shoeless and in old shorts and t-shirts, while these kids always had nice clothes on and were not allowed to take their shoes off. They might have shorts, but they were always nice shorts.

The boys didn’t know how to play a lot of the games the Katz’s knew or didn’t want to do the things that they suggested, so there was a great deal of negotiating and frustration sometimes. Poor little Lilly wasn’t allowed to go down the lane yet, so Karen would sometimes bring Joe over, but she didn’t really have time to sit and chat all day, so it didn’t happen as much as Joe would have liked.

Also, the kids were in school all week and it became somewhat apparent that Rhea didn’t entirely approve of the Katz’s. The differences were apparent in their family styles, and knowing that the Katz kids didn’t go to school made them even more unsavory, it seemed. It wasn’t anything obvious, but in small things the boys would say and the way Rhea would react to things, Karen started to get the idea that there was a great deal of disapproval. Only once did any of the family go into the house, and that was when Jack was over and asked if he could use the bathroom. The large crucifix in the entryway was hard to miss. He quietly told his mom about seeing that that night when she came to tuck him in (She still did this with all of her kids no matter how old they were. It was a chance to check in and catch up on the day’s events and how each kid was feeling.). Karen shrugged to herself and privately thought that the two families were as miss-matched as two families could be.

It was amazing that they got along at all and it was probably really lucky that they didn’t live directly next to each other. The Katz house was always busy, frequently loud, and almost always messy. Rhea’s husband worked at the bank and they had moved from the other side of town. They owned no pets and Rhea seemed to keep her home spotless. The Katz house had animals inside and out and enough kids to keep the commotion constant. Karen couldn’t understand why this family had chosen to move into an old farmhouse in the middle of a field. Maybe they had gotten an exceptionally good price on it.

Ellie’s preoccupation with bugs had made for some sticky situations as well. One weekend, William and Nicholas came over. They were bored and had come over hoping for something to do. There was little in their own yard of interest, and even though they knew that their mom didn’t really approve, they were somewhat fascinated with all of the stuff going on at the Katz house. Every time they came over there would be something new and interesting going on. One day they came over and the Katz’s were putting on a play reenacting the Barbarians overrunning Rome. Another day, they came over and the kids were exploding a baking soda and vinegar volcano. Today, they found Ellie in the front yard with her butterfly net and her sketchbook. Yeller was watching her from the front window. It looked like she had caught something interesting.

William came over and asked her what she had caught. She said it was a tiger beetle and showed it to them. William said, “Wow, that’s neat!” Ellie said he could hold it and put it in his hand. He looked a little afraid but also fascinated. He had wide eyes and quickly asked her to take it back. They sat and watched a little while longer but Ellie didn’t have anything else quite as neat, and watching her draw wasn’t very interesting. Nicholas took off his jacket while they sat there and put it next to the bug bucket. He left it there when they ran off to find Jack. Later that evening he got his jacket back and put it on and he and his brother went home.

When his mom went to wash the jacket that evening, the tiger beetle, having climbed on to the jacket and ridden on Nicholas’ back all the way home, was sitting right on top. Rhea screamed and ran out of the room. She did not like bugs one tiny bit and this one was big and creepy. William came in to see what was wrong and said that that was the bug that Ellie had showed them that afternoon. Rhea was not at all impressed. She asked him to remove it from the house. He picked it up and put it outside. Rhea couldn’t understand why it would be on the jacket unless it was put there intentionally and ever after she was even more suspicious of the Katz kids. Her distrust got bad enough that the boys stopped coming over, especially on weekdays.

Chapter 25: Late July

In late July the girls and Jack had been taking riding lessons for several months and had become pretty comfortable around the horses. They were allowed to come and start tacking up, or saddling, the horses on their own. During their rides, they had progressed from simply walking to trotting, and a tiny bit of cantering. They knew that the horses could be a little bit temperamental, and some days the horses just wouldn’t listen. Sarah, in particular, seemed to have trouble some days. If she were feeling the least hesitant, the horses would pick up on that feeling and would refuse to do what she asked.

Sarah also suffered from jumpiness when a horse would seem to go faster than she expected. One day they were cantering, and the horse she was on got spooked by a cat that jumped up on the railing. The horse reared slightly, Sarah let out a small scream, and the horse became even more spooked taking off at a gallop. Fortunately, they were in a ring, so he couldn’t go far. When he reached the far end of the ring he stopped, but Sarah had been terrified and had almost fallen off. It took her quite some time after that to work up the nerve to canter a horse again. Ellie was a natural and didn’t seem to have the problems with confidence that Sarah did.

Jack loved the horses just about as much as the girls did. It was an experience he had never had before. It wasn’t just about riding that was fun for him, it was as much about getting to know the “horsiness” of these animals; how they acted and reacted to things. The instructors taught them about the parts of a horse and they also got to see the vet when she came and do check ups a few times. Jack stayed and watched with an eye to seeing if it were something he would want to do some day. Thus far, he just couldn’t make up his mind. So many things were so interesting. It was hard to pick one thing.
They all enjoyed the lessons and were very thankful to have the opportunity to learn about horses. Working with such a large and mostly gentle animal was mostly confidence inspiring, and there was something about being in the stalls and grooming them that enriched their outlook on things in an indefinable way.

Chapter 26: Damages

One evening after a lesson they came home to the smell of fire and a haze of smoke in the air. Johnathan said that the rangers on the preserve were doing a prescribed burn. He explained that fire was a natural part of this longleaf pine habitat. If they didn’t allow fire to come through periodically, the hardwoods would grow up and take over. The long leaf pines, themselves, actually needed the fire to reproduce. It seemed like the fire was close, because the smoky haze outside was pretty thick. They all stayed inside that day.

The haze was a fixture of their lives for the next week. They mostly stayed inside and they got used to not being able to see much beyond the house. Jack was worried about the chickens and the goats. This smoke couldn’t be good for them, but there was nowhere else for them to go. On the fifth day it seemed like the smoke was even thicker. Just beyond the backyard of the house was a border of the park. They actually saw flames this day. Several rangers were in sight of the house and reassured them that they would keep the fire in the preserve.

Unfortunately, a bale of hay had been placed against the fence and nobody had thought to move it. Before anyone had noticed, the bale was on fire and then it jumped to the goat pen. The goat pen was old and dry and went up like a candle. Ellie looked out the window and screamed. Karen ran to the window to look, and seeing what was going on, ushered everyone outside. Jack grabbed the cat and Ellie took Snitch. Johnathan ran downstairs and grabbed Emma. Karen had Joe. They all ran out front just as the henhouse caught fire.

Ellie screamed. “What about the goats Mommy?” “What about the goats?” There was nothing they could do. It was too hot and too dangerous to go into the backyard. The rangers who had been monitoring the flames were running and screaming on the other side of the fence and pretty soon a fire truck came howling up the lane. The Katz’s were crowded onto the lane in front of the house, watching in horror. The flames rose higher in the back and they listened to the screams of the goats and the screeching of the chickens, helpless to do anything for them. When the firemen finally got the fire out that night, the goat pen was gone, the chicken coop was gone, the barn was gone, the vegetable garden was gone and the back of the house was charred. The kitchen window had melted away along with the wall and was now open to the elements. It was all a terrible, wet, black mess. Most of the children were dazed and in shock. Ellie and Sarah were in tears. Karen also was in shock and exhausted from holding Emma. She didn’t want to put her down, for fear she would run off. Thank goodness they had all made it out safely, even the pets. It had been good that Jack had known where Yeller was because she had hidden under a bed and would easily have been left. Still, it looked like the house wasn’t in too bad a shape. It wasn’t their own house, but it had been home, and they still had all of their stuff inside of it.

They didn’t know what to do. The neighbors had come when the fire truck screamed up the lane. The Batcherlys and the new family were out there next to the Katzs. Rhea and her husband, Bob, offered to let them stay with them that night. Karen and Johnathan quietly accepted. Everyone was just too tired to deal with anything else. They would think about what to do in the morning. Mr. Batcherly assured them that the owner would understand that it was an accident they had been powerless to prevent and the Preserve managers would have to take responsibility for things getting out of hand. Repairs would likely be covered by the state. Still, all of that would have to wait. Johanthan sent Karen and the kids to Rhea and Bob’s and went, himself, around the house to make sure there were no animals left to care for. It was so sad, so horrible, to contemplate what had happened to the animals, but it was also entirely likely that at least the chickens had been able to jump out and run away. None of them had seen them, but it was possible.

He didn’t want to look at the black, charred, wet mess back there, but he forced himself to round the corner and look. There wasn’t much left. In the goat pen he thought he detected two lumps that had probably been the goats. He mourned them silently. This would be very hard for the kids. The chicken coop was gone, but he couldn’t tell if any of the chickens had been in there. There just was nothing left. He would have to look in the morning.

How could all of this have happened so fast? They had barely had time to grab their loved ones and get out. In a few moments time he could have lost everything and everyone he loved. He sat down in the middle of the yard on a rock and cried.

Meanwhile, at the house down the lane, Rhea and Bob Davis were doing everything they could to help the Katz’s out. They brought them into their home and provided them with the clothing they needed, a hot meal and blankets and beds for the night. Rhea seemed a little conflicted, she clearly didn’t like the necessary mess and disruption, but she said nothing and made sure that all of the kids were settled. Jack slept on the floor with the boys, the girls went into the floor of Lilly’s room, and Karen, Johnathan, and the two littlest slept in the living room together on the sofas.

The animals were a major problem. Rhea said the boys were allergic, and so, confused and upset, both animals spent the night in the garage. Snitch, in particular, did not like this and whined most of the night. He was used to sleeping at the foot of Karen and Johnathan’s bed. Karen found it hard to sleep, exhausted as she was, and it wasn’t just the whining. Like Johnathan, she couldn’t believe how fast it had all happened. When things like this happen, it’s hard not to feel the fragility of life and want to cling to all you have more tightly. She also felt horrible about the animals. A more awful way to die could be hardly imagined.

They awoke the next day and Rhea insisted that they have some breakfast before they went out. She made them all pancakes and eggs and coffee. Karen and Johnathan were very appreciative. Who would have known that a family so different and so clearly in dislike of them could show them such kindness?

Seeing everything in daylight was ten times worse than what they had seen the night before. Those lumps were indeed that was left of the goats, but to their surprise, all but three chickens were sitting in the yard waiting for breakfast. They must have flown out of the yard when the fire hit and stayed at a safe distance until everything had settled down. Everyone felt quite a bit better seeing them. It was a relief, and Jack was proud that what he thought of as “his” chickens had been wily enough to get themselves to safety.

The house was a mess. It wasn’t just that the kitchen and everything in it was burnt or damaged, the smoke had permeated the whole house and everything was covered in soot and smelt of the fire. They would be able to salvage much of their belongings, but it was going to be difficult to get the smell out of the furniture. Much of it was old and ratty anyway. Johnathan wondered if it would be easier to just dump it all and start over again. They did have renter’s insurance, so there was a good chance they would be ok. He felt bad for the owner. He lived in Asheville now, and would need to be called as soon as possible. Luckily, he found his phone upstairs. It was covered in soot, but it still worked.

Chapter 27: Adjustments

The people from the preserve came by that morning and were terribly sorry about what had happened. They assured the family that the damages would be covered, as it was their job to ensure the safety of the surrounding homes when burns like this were conducted. Johnathan said he understood. He had seen burns being set, and they usually burned low and slow and were easily controlled with a little preliminary precaution. It seemed that was where the managers had failed. A preliminary check would have ensured that the fence between the preserve and the house was clear of all flammable items. They also should have notified the family of the fire’s location ahead of time. These things just simply had not been done.

Rose and David came by that afternoon and extended an invitation for them to stay with them. She also said she would take the kids off of Karen and David’s hands for a while while things were worked out. This was a huge relief. Karen and Johnathan gladly accepted and told Rhea and Bob that they would be moving over to the Shwartz’s, explaining that the kids were used to being there. Also the Shwartz’s didn’t mind the pets. Rhea said she understood and had a hard time hiding her relief. It was a little farther to drive, but Rose was able to take them all in. They thanked the Davis’s again profusely. They were extraordinarily thankful for their kindness, especially since it had been so unexpected.

Karen went with the kids to get anything they had at the Davis’s, and then took the van, the kids, and a few of their smoke-soaked clothes and toys over to the Shwartz house. Rose and David provided them all with a lunch, and Karen brought some back to the damaged house for Johnathan. He had stayed behind to start packing and cleaning things.

That afternoon the landlord arrived to see the destruction. The Park officials came as well, and there was a long discussion about damages and reimbursement. Johnathan was extremely happy to be cleared of all blame. The park officials agreed to pay for the repairs to the house and any possessions that the Katz’s had that needed to be replaced. Johnathan knew that the park could ill afford the cost. Budgets were tight and getting tighter. Still, the error had been theirs. He was conflicted about this turn of events, but was glad they were taking responsibility.

The following day the insurance adjusters arrived, both the landlords and the Katz’s, and it looked like it would all be paid for. However, the Katz’s now had to find a new place to live and also to try to salvage their possessions. Also, where would the chickens go?

They decided to see if they could find a temporary apartment in town, and then move back to Raleigh just as soon as they could locate a home that suited them. This would mean a bit of travel back and forth and likely a storage unit until then. However, as the week went on, it became apparent that most of the furniture was not worth the cost and effort to clean up, and so the sofas and chairs, the beds and many of the books were consigned to a dumpster. The kitchen table had been burnt and was useless, but the dining room table, which had been a wedding gift to the Katz’s, was mercifully saved. The clothes and linens were taken over to the Shwartz’s and laundered, and later that week Johnathan was able to find a small furnished apartment for them in town.

The town was just outside of the golf zone. Pinehurst was nearby, and so there were a number of furnished apartments available for well-to-do golfers who wanted to come to the sandhills region for a while and get in a few games. Since the town was a little far away for most of this clientele, however, the cost of renting wasn’t too bad. It was, however, a tight fit for the family. They were used to sharing rooms, but Sarah and Ellie now had to share the pullout couch in the living room, while Jack, Emma, and Joe were in the second bedroom. In practice, however, Emma and Joe usually ended up in bed with Karen, and Johnathan ended up on the spare sofa in the living room with Ellie and Sarah.

Everyone in the living room was awakened by the first person up in the morning, which was usually Emma. The kitchen area was right next to the living room and there was no sleeping through her banging and chattering. Sometimes she even came over and sat on one or the other of them. Ellie was trying to decide what was more annoying, being woken up by a hungry cat or a hungry toddler. The scary night of the fire and all of the sudden changes in their living arrangements had also made Joe and Emma a little more needy than usual. They seemed to want to be with mom, dad, and Sarah at all times.

The place had a washer and drier, even though they were small, and they were being run pretty continuously to remove the smoky, sooty marks and smells from whatever could be laundered. The place quickly filled up with boxes and piles of the possessions they could salvage. Stacks of books and learning materials, and piles of bedding and papers were everywhere. It was so bad Karen worried Emma would pull on something and there would be an avalanche on top of her. Emma did, in fact do this more than once, but fortunately it was a stack of papers one time and a pile of blankets another.

Snitch and Yeller hated the apartment more than any of the kids. Neither was used to such close quarters, and it was necessary now to walk Snitch several times a day. This unfortunate job usually fell to Jack. He was fine with it at first, because it gave him a chance to get out and see what was around them, but he quickly realized that what was around the apartment complex was not terribly interesting. There was a semi-busy street, and a small park with a playground the next block over. The apartment was fronted by a smallish lawn, parking spaces, and a picnic table.

Jack soon started trying to talk Ellie in to doing the walking for him. Ellie didn’t mind the air either, but got as bored with the scenery as Jack. Between the two of them, though, they mostly kept Snitch comfortable. Snitch hated the leash and moped around like he was being punished. Yeller tried unsuccessfully to get out of the house every time the door was opened and they had to put a collar on her in case she did manage to escape. Other times she disappeared into the mess and they couldn’t find her.

They had stayed with Rose and David for three days, and in that time had felt right at home. Rose, as usual, said she missed her kids and loved the full house. If the inevitable chaos bothered her at all, she didn’t show it. Even when Joey got into her porcelain figurines, she didn’t get mad. He was actually very careful with them and only almost dropped one of them. She tucked kids into all corners of the small farmhouse to sleep and gave the cat and dog free rein. They had a cat of their own, her name was Precious, and she was Rose and David’s daughter’s cat. Precious wasn’t happy about the arrangement, but after hiding all of the first day, she came out and made friends with Yeller and Snitch. Snitch had learned his lesson and so didn’t bother her much.

 To get their minds off the fire, while Karen and Johnathan were out dealing with the mess and alternate arrangements, Rose had declared one day “Berry Day” and took the kids out to the blueberry patch. They spent the morning picking beautiful ripe blueberries. As many were eaten right off the bushes as were put in the pans. It was long, hot work and the berries seemed endless. It was fun nonetheless and it was an activity they all could do.

After they had as much they could carry, they tromped back to the house and got busy in the kitchen, making blueberry jam and blueberry muffins. The smaller kids had fun drawing some blueberries and Sarah made some hats out of blue construction paper that looked like the top of a blueberry. They all wore these and named themselves the “blue crew”. It was like a summer camp except better.

Another day, she got the kids baking cookies and even let Emma and Joe help. Sarah and Jack made sure the younger kids were taken care of. Emma and Joe didn’t like Mamma and Daddy leaving at all, but they were ok for the few hours needed and they were busy enough that they forgot to be upset. Sarah and Jack were good older siblings, and Rose was savvy enough when to push an issue and when to let it go. Not many people would have been comfortable taking on five kids at once, but Rose and David knew these kids and it all worked out fine.

Before leaving their house, Karen had told Rose in confidence that they would likely be heading back to Raleigh soon to look for a house. It would take a few weeks to find a place, but the thing she hated most was leaving Rose and David and all the wonderful people they had met. It had been an eventful year, and one they all would never forget.

Chapter 28: New Beginnings

Sarah sat on the step outside the apartment one day watching Joe play with chalk on the sidewalk. A tall blonde boy came up the walk and startled her by sitting down beside her. It was Leo. Sarah couldn’t have been more surprised had a green alien bid her “good day” and beamed her up to his space ship.

He said, “Hi!” After a pause he said, “I live just up the street there. What are you doing here? I thought you lived outside of town?”

Sarah was a little taken aback. “Not anymore”, she said. “We had a fire. This is just temporary. We’ll be leaving soon and moving back to Raleigh.”

“Oh.” He said, “I’m really sad to hear that. I was really hoping we could get to know each other a little bit more. You keep away from the rest of us most of the time.”

This of course, was not the case. She did not “keep away” from the other teens. She just didn’t have a lot of opportunity to be around them. “Well, we can talk now.” Sarah said, “At least, as long as Joey here doesn’t mind.”

Joey said, “Look what I made. It’s a truck, and it can drive all the way down this road.” He proceeded to tell Leo all about what he had drawn on the sidewalk. Even though most of it looked like chicken scratch, Leo was very patient and listened to everything Joey had to say, and even made comments and suggestions about it. When Joey finally got tired of sharing and couldn’t get this new big person to join him, he went back to his game and Leo and Sarah were able to talk finally.

At first she was a little hesitant. She had built up in her mind how it would be to talk to him. She was surprised at how easy it was. They talked about school versus homeschool, and what their families were like and what they liked to do. Leo had grown up and lived in the town his whole life. He only had one brother who was two years younger than him. His parents ran a shop on the Main Street that sold feed and other farm supplies. He loved to play soccer and basketball and had dreams and aspirations of going to college out of state some day. He wanted to go and see the world if he could.

Sarah talked about her family and the work she did for her schooling. She didn’t know yet what she wanted to do, writing might be fun, but traveling sounded like a terrific idea. She told him about the dog bite and the fire, and even cried a little. She didn’t cry to get sympathy, she couldn’t help it when she thought about those things, but he gave her a hug and that was really nice. They were out there so long that Joey got tired of his game and went inside before they were done. Karen was inside. She saw the two on the doorstep and decided to leave them be. It wasn’t often poor Sarah got to hang out with kids her age, and boys were especially rare.

Leo came by several days after that, each day after school, and even came in and met the whole family. Karen offered him a snack, and it was really nice to have a visitor to take their mind off of all the other craziness of trying to catch up with schoolwork, washing and stowing things, and figuring out what they still had and what they had lost. The craziness of the family in general never abated, of course. While Sarah, Karen, Leo, and Jack talked at the little four-seat kitchen table in the apartment, Joe and Emma were underneath the table with trucks playing, and Yeller was under there with them purring and rubbing against them and meowing. Yeller wouldn’t stop until Sarah realized that Ellie hadn’t fed her that morning.

It was during this time that they got a letter from Justin. He said that his Grandparent’s house was O.K. His mom had found a job, so she was gone a lot, but he didn’t have to come home to an empty house anymore. His Grandma made the best cinnamon rolls in the universe. He had to sleep on the sofa, but there was a little dog there named Scooter that liked to sleep on the sofa with him, and he liked the company. School was ok. He wasn’t doing as poorly as before, and it helped that there were new teachers that didn’t already know he was a lazy slacker (his words). He had been a little bit behind, but he had classes to help him catch up to his grade.

He went on to say that he had even better news. His dad had come back. His parents were still getting a divorce, but his dad had come and said he was sorry for going away and that he would try to be around more often. Justin said he had decided to give his dad another chance even though he was still pretty angry. Justin got to see him on weekends. His dad would take him out places and show him things. During the week, his dad was trying to find a job.

Ellie was glad Justin had written. She had wondered how he was doing and it sounded like things weren’t prefect, but that he would be O.K. She could definitely imagine having to move, they had never lived in one place for more than four years or so. She couldn’t imagine her parents not wanting to be together anymore, however. The thought of it was so distressing that she blocked it from her mind. She was glad Justin was O.K., even if he was a creep.

On the weekends they all drove up to Raleigh and started their house hunting. As hard as it was to move everyone down to the sandhill region for a year, the kids were mostly just as sullen about moving again back to Raleigh. Jack was mad about loosing his chickens. Ellie had really enjoyed the birds and the bugs and the room to roam. Emma and Joe, being little, just didn’t like change in any form. Sarah had her own private reasons, but mostly they had to do with a couple of friends she had made. The fact that they didn’t have a house anymore and were shoehorned into the little apartment made it easier to think of trying to find a new home, but they all knew that it was a step to leaving the new friends they had made and that made it a bit sad.

Rose and David said they would love to take the remaining chickens off their hands. David and Johnathan spent a couple of days building a new chicken coop in the Shwartz’s yard. The men acted like it was another onerous chore to do, but anyone looking at them could tell they loved doing it. It also gave the kids an excuse to invade the Shwartz home again and beg some more baked goods off of Rose.

The second day they were there she had made some wonderful smelling fresh yeasty bread, but she said that they couldn’t have any until everyone had done some work in the garden. Being summer, Rose’s garden was something to behold. It was everything the Katz garden had aspired to be but would never be. Rose had a section of tomatoes that were big and beautiful. They came in a number of different shapes and colors. She also had peas growing up trellises. They were mostly done blooming and covered in big green pods. There was also cucumber, bushy carrots, and beets in neat rows, peeking their multi-colored heads just slightly above the dark rich soil. The garlic and onion bulbs looked ready to pull out of the ground. She showed them the worms in the soil and the ladybugs on the leaves. There were herbs too: basil, rosemary, thyme, sage, and oregano. She encouraged them to take a leaf or too from each and smell them. Joey especially liked this idea. He got a sample and smelled each and then decided to put them all into a “stew” with some dirt and flowers. When they had been out there a while, David brought in some blueberries from his roadside stand and they had a nice snack that day of blueberries and fresh bread.

The house hunting was more difficult than they imagined. They wanted to find a place more suited to them than their previous home. It was crucial that they not be too far away from Karen’s parents in Chapel Hill. They wanted to be close to things, but they also wanted a bit of room to spread out. However, they couldn’t really afford what they wanted. It was a circus getting five kids in and out of the car, and each time they stopped at a new home to look, it took five minutes just to unbuckle and get everyone out. The realtor was extremely patient though. Everyone wanted to be part of the decision, so no one was left behind, and the circus commenced each weekend.

Everyone was usually grumpy and whiney by the end of the long days. None of the houses were right. Some were too small, some had too many stairs, some were huge, but they couldn’t afford the price, and some were in new well-manicured subdivisions the Katz’s just couldn’t see themselves in. Finally, one day after a long drive up to Raleigh, made longer by the multiple bathroom stops Joe and Emma needed, they went to go see an older house tucked into an unincorporated part of the county. It was fairly close to most everything, but also didn’t have the usual taxes and utilities, and even better, it was on an acre of land. There were four bedrooms and a basement, which could be used as an office or schoolroom. There were three bathrooms. The kitchen was rather old, but there was a fairly large breakfast area that would work well for them. It seemed perfect. They started to get excited about it and also about getting to see some of their old friends again.

Two weeks later, it looked like they were going to have this house for their home, and everyone started planning which room they wanted, where the beds would go, and where they would put the few things they had. They didn’t actually have beds to put in the rooms yet, so there were also going to be some furniture hunting trips. They needed beds and a kitchen table, living room furniture and new kitchen appliances, pots and pans and dishes. It was going to take time to find what they wanted, but they probably wouldn’t get another opportunity like this again for new stuff. The insurance was covering it all. Johnathan sent a silent prayer of thanks that he had made sure they were well covered in that regard. It would have been very easy to let it slide and then forget about it. Still, they might be sleeping on the floors of the new house for a little bit until they could get something to sleep on.

All of this was taking a tremendous amount of time from Johnathan’s work, though, and that was difficult. His sabbatical time was up and the college wanted him to teach some courses this next semester on top of everything else. He didn’t know when or how he was going to prepare for those, or to keep up with his grant work when every spare moment was taken up with house negotiations, childcare, and driving. Karen was frazzled from trying to manage all of the kids and all of the driving and she was feeling stressed about the fact that almost no school work had been done in the past month. They typically worked year-round, and this allowed them to be more leisurely about things and feel like they could take breaks when they needed to. This year had been far from usual and she could feel them slipping farther and farther behind. She knew that in the long run if a few worksheets didn’t get done it wasn’t a huge deal, but it didn’t stop her from stressing about it. She couldn’t wait until they were finally settled and she could put their life back together into something resembling a schedule.

With some help from Rose and David (those two were such a blessing), they finally closed on the house and began the process of moving everything up to it. It was fortunate in a way that there wasn’t that much furniture to move, but they still needed to rent a truck and get some help to move everything.

Chapter 29: Saying goodbye

One day while the truck was being loaded for, hopefully, the last time, Leo came over and asked if Sarah wanted to take a break and go for a walk to the park around the corner. Sarah asked her mom, and she said it was fine, so they headed off at a slow pace down the street. Leo gave her his address, which she took and tucked into her pocket. He then took her hand and said he really was going to miss her. Sarah suddenly felt very shy. She didn’t know what to do. This was a new situation for her. She had so many feelings when she was around Leo. Why was it that they had been there a year and she had only recently gotten to know him? She was afraid she’d never see him again after this. She said he had to write and also to call her at least once a week. They hung out on the swings in the park for a bit. The park was deserted except for them. They didn’t want to say goodbye, but they also knew that they should. Sarah hated goodbyes. She said maybe they would come down again to visit people or maybe he could come up to Raleigh some time. He agreed, but they both were a bit doubtful. It was easier to think it wasn’t goodbye forever though.

The Katz family was moving house that same day and would sleep in Raleigh that night. Sarah really didn’t expect to be back down again. He looked into her eyes and then bent and gave her a tender kiss. He gave her one last look then left. Sarah was left there breathless. That had been her first kiss. Her whole being wished it didn’t have to be that way. It was a first kiss and a goodbye. She walked home slowly, not really wanting to talk to anyone just yet. She wanted to savor the feeling and also to cry. The dramatic part of her wanted to fling herself down on the sidewalk and bawl her eyes out. She couldn’t do that though. Someone would come and ask her what was wrong and she didn’t want anyone to ask her what was wrong. She also felt rather giddy. It was all very confusing.

When she did finally get home, Karen took a moment from her mad packing to ask where Leo was. Sarah said he had gone home. She had a very dreamy, sad and distracted air and Karen could guess at what had transpired. With the hindsight of her years she could feel bad for her daughter but also knew that the heartache would pass and there would be others… maybe. One never knew. Maybe they would, in fact, stay in touch and something would come of that relationship. She hated to see Sarah in pain, but as far as the terrible kind of pain and confusion that could happen on the road to adulthood, she supposed this was not so bad by comparison.

He had been a nice kid, they both genuinely liked each other (so no unrequited love this time) and her protective mamma radar had not detected any excessive hanky panky. She could be wrong about that, but she didn’t think so. They had mostly been at the apartment under her watchful eye. She decided she better have a talk with Sarah soon about all of that. She was sure Sarah knew the repercussions of that kind of activity, but Karen needed to know that she really understood. It was going to be a tough conversation, especially since she was sure Sarah would be highly embarrassed, but when things settled down Karen resolved to bring the topic up. Sarah was probably too raw right now to have that conversation, besides, they would need some privacy and there was none to be had at the moment.

Moving was such an awful hassle. They had had to do it three times in this past year and she was somewhat regretting their initial idea to move for a year. Whatever had possessed them to sell their perfectly good house? They could have rented it out for the year and had a place to come back to. They wouldn’t have had to move EVERYTHING. Packing was hard enough, but packing with a toddler and a five year old in tow was next to impossible. She had set Jack and Ellie to work, but there was only so much they could do. She didn’t trust them with the breakable stuff. Some things, like the blankets and bedding were just getting thrown into the car. It just wasn’t worth the trouble to try to box it all, but with all the kids and the pets in tow, they couldn’t fit as much as she would like in there. She was exhausted and just wanted it all to be over. She didn’t care anymore where anything went, as long as it went, and by the end of the day all of their stuff was in one place. There was still the storage unit, but her brother and David had said they would help Johnathan with that, and for that she was infinitely thankful. She just hoped that Eli would actually show up.

There would be the clean up of the apartment, or maybe they would just loose the security deposit. There was no way she was going to bring all five kids back down to “clean up”. That would probably leave it dirtier than it was now. The house they had been living in was being worked on and didn’t have any new renters yet. She decided on the spur of the moment to take a break and go over there. She wanted to have one last look. Emma needed her nap, but Karen was pretty sure she would fall asleep in the car. There was nowhere else for her to sleep anyhow and she could tell that she wasn’t the only one wishing they could take a break. She spoke to Johnathan. He said he would continue to pack, but that it was a good idea. The kids were also up for it, though Joey said he was a little afraid. What if it didn’t look like their home anymore? Karen said that was possible. They would be in their new home very soon, and even if he didn’t believe her, it would feel just as much like home as the house they were going to see.

It was a nice drive out to the house. They went first though town, past all of the stores they had frequented, and the library. The community center and the soccer fields were next. Sarah said she really was going to miss horseback riding, and she said it with such a sad air that Karen said maybe they could try to find a place up in Raleigh to ride. Out past the soccer and baseball fields were patches of forest interspersed with homes and farms. They turned up Windsong Lane and drove past the Batcherly home, which was looking a little more ragged than usual. This was probably because Bill couldn’t do much of the work anymore. He did manage some of it, but it was difficult because his leg still pained him. Karen wished they had been over there more to help them out. She knew the Batcherly’s would have refused the offer though. Oh well, it would be a moot point after today. She did hope that the Batcherly kids took care of their parents in their old age. They hadn’t always gotten along, but they were good people and had always meant well.

Karen turned into the driveway at the house and saw that there were no repair trucks at the moment. That was a relief. She just wanted to look around one more time. Everyone got out of the car. There was a sort of melancholy to the family and a little bit of curiosity. Most went around to the back to see how the repairs were coming. The back wall had been stripped away and all of the burnt pieces removed. There was a large tarp over it all, and behind it, a new framework was being constructed to hold a new wall and window. It looked like this time the window was going to be a bay window. “Well, that will be nice.” Karen thought to herself. Beyond the opening she could see the kitchen. It was completely empty. There were pipes and the makings of a new floor, but nothing else. She could see the living room, though, and it looked passable.

She tried the back door, hardly needed with the big gaping hole in the wall, but it was easier than stepping up into the living room off the ground. It was open. She stepped in and had a look around at the empty room. She felt a little tug inside. They had had quite a year here. It seemed to have gone by so very fast. It seemed like everything just whizzed by these days. All seven of them had grown a year older. They had been through some really great times and some really scary times. They hadn’t gotten as much book learning done as she would have liked, but they had all learned so many new things.

Everyone, including herself, had made some wonderful new friends. In the case of the Shwartz’s, possibly life-long friends. She would definitely be willing to make the trip again to see them, and they had been invited to come up to Raleigh to visit any time they liked.

The kids had met some new people that they never would have met otherwise. They weren’t all necessarily the people they would have picked to be with, but each of them had taught them all a lesson about appearances and making assumptions. Every person has a story and a reason for the way they are. We might not always know what those reasons were, but it pays to keep that in mind if that person is being difficult. People can also surprise you, and the Katz’s had been shown the most astounding kindness by people she never would have expected kindness from. Others had judged them without really knowing them, and that was also a lesson.

Sarah had found her first love (or was it infatuation?), and Jack and Ellie had gotten to explore the freedom of the countryside and the plants and animals to be found in those open places. Most especially, they had learned about the Sandhills area of North Carolina. Karen was willing to bet that her kids knew more about that area and had seen more things, real things, like red-cockaded woodpeckers, than most of the other kids in the state. They now had first-hand knowledge of the region from their father, a scientist, in a way they couldn’t have gotten otherwise. Ellie had a notebook full of bug drawings almost good enough to publish, and she and Sarah both had books full of bird sketches. They still had the bird feeder, if not the hummingbird feeder. That had gotten burned in the fire. She would make sure to put it up in the new house.

Yes, it had also been a difficult year. It was a year of illness and health, pain and kindness, misunderstandings and reconciliations. Johnathan had gotten his field data, and thank goodness it was not all lost in the fire. The papers had all been covered in soot, but readable. They smelled like smoke, but she was sure those Graduate students would be able to muddle through them. The computer had been also covered in soot, but they were able to take it in and get it cleaned up and there was no major harm done. Again, it smelled distinctly of smoke, and she was sure Johnathan was going to get a reputation at school for that particular smell.

They had also learned a little bit about farming, if only just a little bit. They had learned about chickens and about goats and they had acquired one little waif of a cat. They had also learned that farming could be a very difficult way to make a living. She wasn’t sure any of them wanted to do that when they grew up.  Still, she was glad Jack had gotten a chance to get closer to some of the animals that he had always loved. They would try to keep the horses in their life, and maybe they could even get some chickens. It would be possible in the new house if they had a fence built. Well, one thing at a time.

Emma had taken her first steps in this house and had learned how to use a potty. Joey was learning things at such a fast rate, she didn’t even know what to think about him. Yes, a lot of living had happened in this house in one year’s time. It made her wonder about all of the living that had come to this home before them. She wondered who had lived here before and what had happened to each of them. Were there ghosts and echos here of those things? Did you leave a little bit of yourself when you left a place? Well, they seemed to have left a rather large calling card in the form of a large hole in the wall, she thought wryly.

Jack looked around and felt sad. He looked at the scratches on the doorframe to the hallway and knew that Yeller had put them there. The scuffmarks near the front door were from the day they decided to try to skid their way into the house in their best slippery dress shoes. He looked sadly out the back window to where the goat and chicken pens used to be. His chickens had just started laying well. He was so sad to have had to give them up, but he was glad Rose and David had them. They would take good care of them and he might even get to come visit them. Also, that spot in the goat pen had been his favorite spot for a while. It was just a blackened patch on the ground now. He felt a fresh wave of sadness for those gentle yet greedy little gals. He remembered how they had smelled and how soft they had been. He wiped away a small tear and looked around hoping that nobody had seen him.

Sarah looked at what was left of their climbing tree. It was a sad blackened pole at the moment. No more low branches to climb. They were all burnt off. She supposed the magnolia might be dead now. Not much could survive heat that could melt a window frame. What had been a sand box was a pile of sand. She was sad to see their garden was also a bare patch of semi-tilled earth and new weeds. Looking at that, she thought of Rose’s garden and felt a little bit better. It felt like Rose’s garden and everything about the Shwartz’s would be where it was forever. She wondered what their kids were like and thought them lucky to have grown up with Rose and David for parents.  Sarah wouldn’t miss the town too much. She would miss Beth-Ann, but they truthfully exchanged letters and phone calls more than actually seeing each other anyway, so moving wouldn’t change that too much. She had some friends in Raleigh that she was looking forward to seeing that she had really missed. It would be nice to get back into Raleigh for that reason, and to see Grandma and Grandpa Taylor. She had enjoyed being out in the country, but the only thing she would really miss would be the horse stables and Leo. She really hoped he would write to her or call her. She would make sure she wrote him when they got settled. She looked around and decided that she was ready to move on. This didn’t feel like home anymore even though it had been so for a year.

Ellie was very conflicted. She had really enjoyed the yard and the fields which had given her so much to study and sketch. It had also been nice to roam and she would miss that, but she missed her friends in Raleigh and was ready to go back. It had been a little bit lonely here. It was nice getting to know Justin, even if he was a creep sometimes, and the two brothers William and Nathanial were ok, but she missed girls her age. She didn’t know any other girls interested in bugs and birds and stuff like she was, but her best friend and she loved to run and climb trees and play make- believe games together and they almost always agreed on what to play, unlike the boys here and Jack. Jack was getting a bit too serious and full of himself these days anyway. He wasn’t as much fun anymore.

Joe was sad. He said he missed the way it used to be and the goats and the garden and the chickens were gone. Karen agreed and told him that she missed them as well. Karen suddenly had a feeling they were done here. A new home awaited, along with friends new and old. Life would go on like it always did and she found she wanted to be done looking back and go forward instead. It was time.

Johnathan drove up in the Jeep just then and came around to the back. Karen stepped out of the house. He put his arms around her, “You gonna miss it here?”

“Yes, a little bit.” She said. “I think it’s time to move on now though. You’ll probably not be able to recognize the place in a few weeks. They’ll get this new wall and windows done and re-do the kitchen. The house will probably get a new coat of paint and someone will come in and do a better job of taking care of the yard. Maybe it’ll look more like a suburb without the barn and pens. Nothing in the back looks the same. I wonder if the owner will replace the pens?”

“He didn’t say if he would or not too me. I don’t know. Anyway, I came out because this came in the mail while we were out finishing up with the truck.” He handed her a shoebox-sized package. “It’s from your brother.”

Perplexed, Karen took it and opened the brown paper-bag wrapping. Inside a shoe box with some tissue paper was a figurine of a dog. The dog was about a foot tall and looked just like Snitch except that he had a large rooster painted on one side. On the other side it said, “The Katz’s lived here.” In the dog’s mouth was a flaming torch. A note in the box was from Eli. It said, “I thought you might like something to leave behind as a momento to a special place and your year of living dangerously.”

“What does he mean by that?” Karen said.

“Beats me,” said Johnathan, “But I do kinda like the idea of leaving this behind. It’s kind of a homage to our year.“ They called the kids and they all talked about it and decided to put it near the fence over where the goats used to be. The workers were less likely to run into it or move it over there and maybe it would stay with the house and property for a while. Johnathan put it on the ground on top of a large flat rock and they all stood around and thought their own thoughts, each saying goodbye in a way, and then they left. Leaving felt not so sad for all of them now, except for maybe Joey and Emma. Most were ready to look ahead toward the next year and what it would bring.


The new house had turned out even better than Karen had even hoped. It really was perfect for them, and she didn’t regret their move so much. Every room had new bedroom furniture, all paid for by the insurance, and the living room and kitchen were graced with new sofas and a kitchen table they had acquired from a family that was having to downsize. It was a gorgeous farmhouse table, well marked and worn and big enough to seat all of them. It barely fit into the breakfast nook, but not everything could be perfect. It turned out to be a cozy space for meals and schoolwork. The kitchen really needed updating, but Karen could manage.

There was a lovely fireplace in the living room, and the basement was set up as both an office and a place to store the school materials. There was a desk for the kids to use if they needed to get away from everyone else to think. Finally, there was a computer down there for their use, in addition to the couple of laptops they had.

The yard was big enough for games of tag and for riding bikes up and down the driveway. They had also acquired a basketball hoop, and Jack, Ellie and Johnathan were really glad about that. Yeller had been quite upset with the move and had skulked about for a day, but then seemed to perk up and could be seen in every nook and cranny of the house exploring her new territory with alert interest. She took to sleeping with Sarah, and Sarah and Ellie were really glad for the extra space in the room they shared because Emma had moved in with them. There was a bunk bed and Ellie slept on the top and Emma on the bottom with a bed rail. She still ended up most nights in the bedroom with their parents, but she would probably eventually want to stay with the “big girls”. Jack and Joe had more space as well and Jack had his own dresser now, so that he could keep things private from his little brother. They had gone ahead and gotten a full size bed instead of a toddler bed for Joey, since he would be needing one eventually and the toddler bed they had had from Goodwill had been thrown away.

Snitch was as happy as he could be. He had his family all in one place again and a yard to patrol. This was much better than that little den they had not fit into very well. He was very glad the alpha he and she had decided to move dens again. It was just enough room for him and he could patrol the yard without anyone getting upset at him, and best of all, he didn’t have to wear a leash.

Grandma and Grandpa Taylor had come to visit and they had all been really glad of it. The kids had missed their Grandparents. They lived close enough now that the weekly visits could resume. Grandma Taylor looked a little thinner and frailer and Karen was a bit alarmed by this. She was glad she could be close by to help make sure her parents were ok. Eli meant well, but he wasn’t down their way enough to really know what was going on with their parents and she felt somebody needed to be nearby to help out. She didn’t have much free time, but at least she could go see them if needed.

Ellie and Jack and Sarah had all had playdates and park days with their friends and had had so much to talk to them about. Not much had changed here in Raleigh. Some of their friends had switched extracurricular activities and a couple had gone back to school, but in general, it was a community they could plug back into. Karen knew they were a bit behind with all of the activities. Fall was coming up soon and she hoped to get in on a co-op group or two. She had also located a riding school. The cost was a bit more than what they had enjoyed at the stables in the southern part of the state. She was still trying to figure out how to make that work. Ellie was so hopeful though, maybe just she could take lessons. It was yet another thing they needed to work out.

Other than the breakfast nook and the farm table that she was in love with, the best thing about this house was a window seat in the master bedroom. It was a cozy little spot where she could read or look out the window. Yeller had decided it was his favorite spot as well, and Karen would sometimes come upstairs to find both Sarah and Yeller curled up in it. Sarah would have her back to the wall and a book in her hand and the two would be bathed in sunlight. It was a very pretty picture. Karen could see herself having more time for that activity in a few years… she hoped.

Sarah seemed to have adjusted to the move. Karen had worried about her pining for Leo, but Sarah seemed to be ok. She got frequent emails from him. He had said he would write, but it turned out that he wasn’t much of the kind to write with pen and paper, especially when the computer was so much easier. Sarah had her own laptop, so she kept some of their conversations private, but Karen would sometimes take a peek just to see that all was on the up and up. Seeing that Sarah was on a pretty even keel emotionally, she had also had a talk with her and extracted a promise from Sarah that if she ever got to a point where she wanted to have physical relations that she would procure protection first.

Sarah was, of course, extremely embarrassed by all of this. She couldn’t imagine “physical relations” and talking about that with her mom was just beyond the beyond.  She missed Leo, but not as much as she thought she would. It was strange. When they had been together, she had felt like she wanted to be with him all of the time, but now it just didn’t seem so critical. It seemed like a lost cause anyway. He was never going to come up to Raleigh. His parents would never allow that.

The doorbell rang and Karen went to see who was there. The options at these point were either the neighbor kids on either side of them (There were two large families nearby and not all of the kids were her ideal for playmates, but it was nice to have other kids to play with on a moment’s notice. She did hate the constant interruptions though. Especially on weekends, the doorbell was wont to ring several times a day and it made it difficult to get lessons going. She was going to have to make a rule soon about no play until after lunch at least.), her parents, who sometimes showed up unannounced, or the mail delivery. She opened it to a surprise. David and Rose stood on the porch with a couple of big boxes in their arms. “David! Rose! What a surprise! Come on in! Give me a hug, we missed you guys!”

David said, “We had so much produce and nobody was buying, we thought we would take you up on your offer for a visit. I hope it’s not a bad time. Rose had an appointment up here and we decided to swing by and try to see you as well.”

Karen said, “I’m so, so glad you did! Come in and put that stuff down. What did you bring?”

Rose said, “Well, you know I get kinda of carried away in the garden. I have more cucumbers and peas and tomatoes and lettuce than we can eat and we knew it wouldn’t sell fast enough at the stand, so here you go.”

“Thank you!” said Karen. By then, the rest of the family had materialized out of every nook and cranny and were at the door with them waiting for the chance to say high and get a hug from their surrogate grandparents. Emma went to Rose and asked to be picked up.

“How long can you stay? Do you want to stay for dinner?”

“That would be lovely. said David. “We can’t stay the night, you know, because of those pesky chickens!” Jack asked if they were all ok and David said, “Onery as ever. Those little biddies discovered a stray cat in the yard and you know what they did? They chased that poor feline off, squawking and pecking and making such a fuss, I had to go see what was going on. They pecked and flew at the poor thing until it cowered and ran off. Hercules didn’t get with the program until it was all over with. Guess they didn’t need his protection. I’ve brought a few dozen eggs for you as well, by the way.” Jack was happy to know that the seven chickens still left were doing well. He hoped that his mom would let him get some more soon.

They had a lovely visit. Johnathan came home from work that evening and they used some of the stuff that the Shwartz’s had brought with them to make a dinner. The making of the dinner was a communal affair and a group effort. Rose and David got a tour of the new place and they pronounced it perfect for the Katz’s. Karen said that if they ever needed or wanted to come stay the night, they had an extra futon in the basement and would love to have them.

David went outside with Johnathan, Ellie, and Jack and played some basketball, but he didn’t last long. He said, “My old bones can’t take this kinda stuff anymore. You guys are wearing me out. Don’t break me. I gotta drive back home this evening.” It was a good game while it lasted though.

They had a wonderful meal of salads, kale, chicken, and homemade peach and blueberry cobbler for dessert.

David told them that the Davis’s had moved out already. It seemed that Bob had moved them there because he had seen the “for sale” notice while working at the bank and wanted to jump on it as an investment. Rhea had not taken to the place at all, though, so they had recently found a place that suited them better in town and had put the farm up for sale again. David and Rose had seen some people looking at the place last week that seemed very nice. It was a hardy looking couple with three kids. They looked like the kind of people that might be able to turn it into a productive place again. They would wait and see what happened. The father had even come down the lane to talk with them, having seen Rose out in her garden. It looked like this was a family seriously considering taking the place on. David had told him that it had been a family farm, a farm in the same family for three generations and that they had known the last owner. It was with great reluctance that the owner had left and would probably love to know that another family was taking it on. David didn’t mention the Davis’s.

They had a wonderful meal and it was times like this that the new house felt most like a home. Karen felt especially blessed. They were almost back where they had started. They had rekindled their old friendships and acquaintances and had moved into a place that suited them more the their previous home. The kids and she had grown in both experience and knowledge of the world around them, and they had made new friendships that might last a very long time. It was a bit like coming full circle, but it was a bigger circle and a sturdier one.

They said goodbye reluctantly that night. Johathan asked them repeatedly if they would be ok driving home this late. It was not a short drive, but they said they would be fine. Rose said she hardly slept much anyway these days and if David got tired she would take over. Karen wished she had something to give them in return for the food they had brought up. They would have to find something and send a package soon. They waved the two off and all was quiet again. Johnathan gave Karen a hug and said in her ear “I love you, you know.”

“I know you do and I love you too.” They turned to go in.

Just then the phone rang. Sarah answered it and after a moment she yelled, “Mom! It’s grandpa! He says Grandma fell down and they took her to the hospital! Come take the phone! I think we better get over there!” Oh, no! Karen thought. I knew there was something wrong. Her heart clenched in worry and she ran into the house to talk to her Dad. It seemed her mom had been out for her nightly stroll and had suddenly fallen down in a faint. They were evaluating her at the hospital and Karen’s dad really wanted Karen to come talk to the doctors. Karen was so worried she almost ran out the door without a jacket and keys. Johnathan asked her to slow down. He said he would take care of things, but that she needed to keep her head about her and then watched her drive away. He sighed. Somewhat wryly, he thought, things were never calm around them for long.

Copyright Sheri Soffian 2013

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