Chapter 1

GARRETT SLOWED his piece-of-crap car as he started to panic. The needle on the gas gauge hovered at the E and hadn’t bounced in a while, the way it could sometimes. He had to be running on fumes, and he hadn’t seen a town or even a house in miles. He looked from side to side, hoping to see someone. It had been ten minutes since he’d seen a car coming the other way. He’d made a wrong turn. He knew he should have gone back when he discovered it, but he didn’t have enough gas to backtrack, so his only hope was to find a town. Mentally, Garrett went through what he had to his name, and it was completely pathetic. He had twenty dollars in his pocket and a little change in the cup between the beat-up seats.

He needed a job, but not many people were willing to hire him. He was a high school graduate with few skills that anyone wanted. Most people looked at him and saw his strength, and he could do any kind of physical labor. When they began to talk to him, he was still okay. But as soon as they looked away, Garrett was lost, and then they would turn back to him, ask a question, and he’d speak. And then…. Garrett pushed the thought out of his head. Thinking about that stuff now wouldn’t get him anywhere. He rounded the bend in the road and saw a red barn. He sighed with relief and hoped like hell it wasn’t empty. After a few seconds a house came into view, and then a truck parked out front. A clean, bright sign read “Christmas Tree Village.” Maybe he was in luck.

Lights flashed on the dashboard, and the car lurched forward before slowing down. The engine light showed yellow. Garrett put the car in neutral and coasted to the driveway. He turned and pulled off to the side. Then he stopped and turned off the car. He had no idea what he was going to do now. After pulling out his keys, he opened the door and got out, looking all around him.

The big barn to the left had huge wooden carousel horse cutouts on the side, brightly painted, with trees planted in front of it that were strung with the old-fashioned kind of lights, the ones with big colorful bulbs. Behind the barn and down a path was a Ferris wheel. Trees must have blocked its view from the road, but it stood tall and gleamed in the sun. Everything looked fresh and new. Beyond the yard area, small Christmas trees spread out in every direction, covering a small rise and then continuing beyond. The air was thick with the fresh pine scent, and Garrett inhaled deeply. For the first time in days he felt like he could breathe, and some of the disappointment that always seemed to fill his life drifted away on the pine-scented air.

A hand landed on his shoulder, and Garrett jumped before turning around. “Hello…,” he said as clearly as he could, hoping to come off as normal.

The man, who looked a little older than Garrett, smiled, and to Garrett’s amazement, he lifted his hands and began to sign. “What are you doing here?”

“How did you know?” Garrett signed back.

“Your voice. You talk like Janey does,” the man answered. Garrett had no idea who Janey was, but he breathed with relief, and if he ever met this lady, he’d be sure to thank her. He’d spent so much of his life cut off from others that seeing this man sign was like manna from heaven.

“I ran out of gas. I haven’t seen anyone else in a while, and I thought I was going to be stuck alone. I parked—” His hands moved at lightning speed because he was so nervous.

“Slow down, please,” the man signed.

Garrett repeated what he’d said, then, remembering his manners, he added aloud, “I’m… Garrett… Bowman. I… have… been… looking… for work.” He spoke slowly, knowing his pronunciation wasn’t always clear or perfect.

“Connor O’Malley. What can you do?” the man signed, and Garrett’s knees buckled a little from under him. Hope. It had been so long since he’d felt any sort of hope, it felt strange, and he wondered if he were dreaming.

“I am strong, and I can do any sort of work you need,” Garrett signed, trying not to go too fast.

Connor nodded, and Garrett took a few seconds to take in the handsome, slightly older man with the kind face. He turned away slightly so Connor didn’t catch him staring. “I have trees that need to be planted, and I could use some help,” Connor signed as he continued looking him over. For a second, heat washed through Garrett, but then he realized it wasn’t that kind of gaze. “I had a man who was supposed to help, but it seems he isn’t going to show up. So if you’re interested, I can put you to work today.” Connor signed more slowly than Garrett, and he had to spell out some of the words.

Garrett nodded and his stomach twisted in its emptiness. “Thank you,” he signed gratefully. He tried to remember the last time he’d eaten and realized it had to have been almost a day—a candy bar that a lady dropped the last time Garrett had stopped somewhere. He’d been so desperate he’d scooped it up, then ran back to his car and wolfed down the chocolate. “I will work hard.”

Connor nodded and turned toward the house. He motioned for Garrett to follow as he walked toward the back door. Garrett did as he was told. Inside, what had seemed like a house turned out to be a Christmas-themed gift shop, at least in the front rooms. The kitchen didn’t appear to have been changed, even if it was a little old. Garrett peered into other rooms that were mostly dark without the lights on, but things sparkled and glittered in the light coming through the windows. He’d ended up in some kind of Christmas wonderland.

Connor tapped him on the shoulder, and this time Garrett tried not to jump. Connor gestured toward the kitchen table. “There isn’t much here, but I thought you might be hungry.” A plate had been set out, and Garrett nodded, desperate for something to eat. Garrett sat down, and Connor brought him some toast and put some butter on the table. Garrett buttered the bread and ate it in a matter of seconds while Connor poured him a huge glass of orange juice. By the time he was done, the scent of eggs cooking filled the kitchen. In a few minutes, Connor added a pile of eggs to his plate. They were scrambled, not his favorite, but Garrett didn’t care. He tucked in with the desperation of someone who literally had no idea where his next meal was coming from.

When he had finished eating and the juice was gone, Garrett took his plate and silverware to the sink. He felt full, a sensation that had definitely been missing for a while. He wanted to close his eyes and rest, but there was no way. He had work to do, and Connor was being nice.

Connor left the room and returned with a pair of work gloves. He handed them to Garrett, and then they left the house. Garrett followed Connor further back on the property to a shed. Connor swung the door open, revealing a tractor inside. Connor got on it, and Garrett got out of the way. Connor pulled the tractor out and hooked up a small trailer. Then he motioned for Garrett to follow him to the next building.

Inside were trays and trays of seedling trees laid out on shelves. Connor grabbed one, so Garrett did the same. They carried the trays to the trailer behind the tractor, then carefully laid them out. Then Connor grabbed two tools and put them on the trailer.

Garrett was used to using his eyes instead of his ears, so he watched Connor carefully and climbed onto the tractor, standing behind the seat the way Connor motioned. The machine rumbled under him, vibrating up his legs and back. Then they started to move, and Garrett grabbed the back of Connor’s seat so he didn’t fall off.

They rode down a path through groves of trees of various sizes. The place was like a dreamland, and after a while, the view of the land opened up into a large empty field that had been plowed in loose furrows. Connor pulled to a stop and climbed down. Garrett did the same and lifted one of the boxes of seedlings off the trailer just like Connor did.

“I’ll explain what we need to do and then show you. It’s pretty simple, but be sure to use your legs. If you try to use your arms, they will ache badly in an hour. Trust me.” Connor smiled and then drove one of the tools into the ground with his foot. He placed a seedling in the hole and then used his foot to tamp it into place. Garrett watched as he walked four paces and stuck the tool in the ground, repeating the process. Once he was done, Connor returned and filled two canvas sacks with seedlings, then helped Garrett get his over his shoulder.

Garrett nodded. He thought he understood what Connor wanted and stepped to the next furrow. He stomped the tool into the ground. It was harder than Connor had made it look, but he got it. He put a seedling from his pack into the hole and tamped the earth around it. Then he did what Connor had done and began the process again four feet farther over. It wasn’t difficult, and Connor went to work next to him. Connor soon got ahead of him, but it wasn’t long before Garrett fell into a rhythm and stayed steady with Connor. A few times Connor paused to check on Garrett’s work, nodding and smiling before returning to his own seedlings.

Thankfully the spring day was crisp, with a cool breeze off Lake Superior, because working like this in the heat would have been overwhelming. They reached the end of their rows, and Garrett noticed that his trees, while in a straight line, weren’t lined up with Connor’s. He pointed. “So you want them offset like that?”

Connor nodded. “The trees will get more sun when they get older if they aren’t lined up. It also gives them more room to grow.”

Garrett nodded and went back to work. He was running low on seedlings but planted what he had before going back for more. Back and forth on the field they went, staying close together. The repetition gave him a chance to clear his head. They had half the field planted by the time Connor told him it was time for lunch. Garrett had never been so grateful for a break in his life. They left the trailer and their equipment where it was and rode back to the house.

Another car was parked in the drive, and a man stood near the back door. He approached Connor as they pulled to a stop. He was younger than Garrett, with an upturn to his upper lip, scruffy beard, and rather dull eyes and brown hair. His flannel shirt was torn. Connor got off the tractor and walked over to the guy. He thought this was the help Connor was supposed to have had and figured the day of work was over for him. He stood back and saw the scruffy guy look over at him every few seconds, each glance becoming a little more hostile. He could read his lips when the man turned his way.

“You’re kidding me,” the guy said and a few seconds later. “This is bullshit.” The guy’s eyes blazed, and from his posture Garrett thought he might take a swing at Connor, but eventually the guy turned and stomped off toward his car. Mud flew when the guy left, and Garrett turned away. Connor raised his middle finger at the departing car, and Garrett saw him yelling. Though he couldn’t read his lips, he got the idea of what was being said.

“You have to be hungry, and I don’t have much here,” Connor signed. “Let’s go into town and have lunch before finishing up.”

Once again Garrett ran through in his head the amount of money he had and paled a little. But he didn’t argue. He had work for the day, and if Connor was happy, maybe he’d have enough to get to Chicago. He nodded and figured he could find something inexpensive that would be filling. He wasn’t picky about food. Hunger was a great way to make you grateful for whatever food you could get.

Connor grabbed a gas can out of the garage behind the house and put it in the back of the truck. Then he pulled open the driver’s door, and Garrett got in the passenger side. Garrett was used to his world being devoid of sound. He’d seen enough life to know that others tended to talk, but there was no way he could carry on a conversation while Connor drove. His main instruments of communication were hands, and Connor’s were busy. “Thank… you… for… helping… me,” he said.

Connor turned to him. “You are welcome,” he said slowly enough that Garrett could easily read his lips.

Garrett nodded and watched as the landscape went by while Connor spoke on the phone. He saw the sign for Marquette, Michigan, and soon Connor pulled up in front of a small restaurant. Connor parked, and Garrett got out of the truck and followed Connor inside.

The diner was full of people. He let Connor speak with the girl behind the counter. She motioned them back, and Connor approached a table with three other occupants: two men—one with a huge smile and very smartly dressed—sitting next to a little girl. The smiler got up and embraced Connor, holding his hand. They spoke, and then Connor turned to him. “Garrett, this is my partner, Dan, and our daughter, Janey. And this is Wilson. He helps take care of all of us.”

Garrett nodded. “Hello…,” he said as he signed, and all of them signed right back. He was stunned. To meet one person who signed was awesome, but the entire group? Amazing.

“Janey, say hello,” Connor signed, and the little girl pressed closer to Dan and shyly signed before looking away.

“Hello, Janey, you’re looking very pretty,” Garrett signed, and she smiled at him.

“Janey can’t hear,” Connor signed and then motioned Garrett to a chair.

“That… explains… why… you… all… sign.” He knew his voice sounded flat, but he still talked when it seemed like the right thing to do. It helped him keep up his skills. His brother and sisters had always made fun of how he talked, as had some of the other kids, so he’d learned to keep quiet. He hadn’t heard their insults, but their facial expressions and what he’d read on their lips had been more than enough.

“Yes,” Dan answered. “Connor and I adopted Janey about four months ago, and we’ve all been learning to sign.”

Garrett nodded. That explained why they spelled out some words and communicated slowly. He lifted his menu, trying to figure out what he could afford to order. Connor touched his shoulder and signed just below the table, “Lunch is on me, so order what you want.” Garrett wasn’t sure why they were being so nice to him, but he was grateful.