LACHLAN BUTTAR’S feet hurt already. He’d been walking for an hour and was getting short of breath. His shoes pinched the side of his foot with each step unless he tilted it a little, but after a while, that made his ankle ache.
On either side of the road, empty fields with the stubs of last year’s corn crop sticking out of the ground provided very little in the way of a view. Stopping at a country intersection, he looked ahead, as well as left and right, trying to figure out which way he should go. Not that it mattered very much.
His goal was to try to make it to Grand Rapids. Maybe there he could find work and try to figure out what he was going to do now. He knew the city was east, which was the way he was heading.
April could be a great time of year, but today wasn’t one of those days. He crossed the intersection and kept going. Standing in one place wasn’t going to get him any closer to his destination, despite how much his feet hurt. They didn’t matter; nothing mattered. It wasn’t like he had better shoes he could wear. These were the only ones he had, and they hadn’t even been new when he’d gotten them. To take his mind off the pain as he trudged along, the asphalt stretching as far as he could see, Lachlan tried to think of better Aprils, something to raise his spirits and occupy his mind.
Two years earlier, in what seemed like a completely different era, his mother had taken him on a vacation. She’d won some sort of contest, at least that’s what she’d told him. So she’d taken him out of school and they’d gotten on a plane and flown to Orlando, where they had spent four days in the parks. Somewhere in his backpack, he’d stuffed the dusky blue hat with Mickey on it that she’d bought him while they were there. He’d gotten to do everything imaginable while on that trip and was the happiest he could remember being. Well, at least it was the last happy time he could remember. After they’d gotten home, she’d told him the truth. There was no contest and the trip had been a charade of sorts, a last happy interlude before she gave him the news that would change his life forever and ultimately lead to him walking down a country road with the clouds overhead getting lower and heavier. It wasn’t going to be long before he’d need to haul out the small pink umbrella he’d stuffed in his pack. It had been his mother’s, and he hadn’t wanted to leave it behind.
Lachlan’s steps grew more torturous as he continued, the pain he’d been trying to ignore becoming impossible. He sat on an old stump and breathed a sigh of relief as the sharp pain became a dull ache and slowly receded. He didn’t dare take his right shoe off to rub his foot and make it feel better. It was likely swollen, and putting his shoe back on would be agony. Normally his feet were fine, but these shoes were… well, maybe he’d be better off barefoot. Lachlan got back up and continued on, one step at a time, and after a while, the secondhand shoes that were probably one size too small didn’t hurt so much anymore.
Knowing he had miles left to go, he picked up his pace, since walking faster would mean he’d get where he needed to go all that much sooner. Of course, that was when the rain started. Not just a mist, but a spring rain, full-on. Lachlan got out the umbrella, opened it, and held the small amount of cover right over him, walking on. The umbrella did a good job of keeping his upper body dry, but his lower pant legs were soon wet and his shoes and socks soaked through.
The pain in his foot came back with a vengeance a few minutes later, and Lachlan looked around for some sort of shelter. There were a few buildings ahead, and he single-mindedly headed for them.
He approached a farmhouse that, with its peeling white paint, looked as aching and miserable in this rain as Lachlan felt, but he was becoming desperate and turned off the road to walk up the drive. He took three steps, and a dog—big, black, and barking up a storm—raced around the side of the house, coming right for him. Lachlan turned back around and walked as fast as he could to the road, thankful the dog stopped at the end of the driveway, barking its fool head off, snarling, and watching after him. So Lachlan trudged on.
He crossed another intersection, the moisture seeming to climb his body, seeping deeper under his clothes, sapping away the heat. Misery joined his pain, but he had no other choice—he had to keep going. On the corner he passed what looked like a small stand of some sort, and Lachlan wondered if it was unlocked. He tried the door but it didn’t open. God, if he could only crawl inside, he’d have some shelter from the rain and would be able to rest for a while. No such luck.
At the next driveway, he stopped, wondering if there was another dog set to come at him. He didn’t see one. All he saw were cows huddled together, black-and-white beasts under an overhang, waiting out the rain.
Lachlan walked up the drive, half dragging his aching foot, which caught on a rock. He lost his balance, tried to catch himself, and managed to, partway, and at least he didn’t go head over heels. He ended up in the ditch, his feet and legs in frigid water. “Damn it,” he swore as his misery increased even more. Lachlan got up and groaned. The umbrella, his only shelter, was bent and torn. He tried to fix it, but that only made things worse and the spines just broke off.
He wanted to cry, but instead closed it and threw it on the ground. He didn’t know what to do.
“Young man!” someone called. “Did you hurt yourself?” An old lady under a large black umbrella was walking slowly toward him.
He took stock and realized he wasn’t hurt, just cold. “Only wet, I guess.”
She came close enough to look him over. “You better come inside with me. You’ll catch your death out here. This isn’t going to let up until tomorrow.” She turned to peer up both sides of the road. “Did you walk from town?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Lachlan looked down at his soaked shoes, wriggling his toes in an effort to try to warm them. It was futile, and he began to shiver.
“On a day like this? Are you touched in the head?” She ran her gaze over him, taking him in. “You don’t seem crazy.” She came closer still, her brown eyes meeting his. “You definitely don’t have the look, and I should know. I’ve met plenty of crazy in my life.”
Lachlan might have smiled if he wasn’t wet and cold and his foot didn’t throb. The thought of taking another step was too much to bear.
“Come on, honey. Let’s get you inside.” She motioned him ahead, and Lachlan put one foot in front of the other, trying not to wince with every step. “What did you do?”
“It’s the shoes, I think—” Lachlan shut his mouth. No one needed to hear his sob story. He straightened, ignored the pain, and walked to where he’d first seen her. Lachlan held the door for her, and after she went inside, he followed. He stopped in the mudroom, dripping all over the floor and not wanting to go any farther.
“Katie, what’s going on?” another woman asked. She was in a light blue blouse and jeans, with an apron on, her hair just turning gray, and Lachlan figured she was related somehow.
“I found me a drowned rat. This young’un walked from town. I’m not sure where he was headed, but as wet as he is, the logical place would be to the hospital with pneumonia if he doesn’t get warm.”
The other woman blinked at him. “Okay. I’ll go get some of Foster’s clothes so he can get dry, and you heat up some soup. He needs to be warm on the inside too.”
“Where is Foster?”
“He and Abe are in the barn, getting ready for milking, I’m sure. Javi made a run into town. He wanted to pick up the tiller from the repair shop.” She left the room, and Katie hung up her umbrella.
“Go ahead and get those shoes and socks off.” She went into the nearby bathroom and handed him a towel. “Dry what you can. I’m going to start heating you up something hot.” Smiling, she waved a hand in the direction the other woman had gone. “That was Harriet, my daughter-in-law. She’ll bring you some dry clothes. I’m Katie. Just call me Grandma Katie, like everyone else.”
“Didn’t I see you at church a few weeks ago?” Grandma Katie opened the refrigerator and hauled out a plastic bowl. She opened it, and the enticing scent of food reached his nose.
“Yes, ma’am, you might have. I was staying with the reverend for a little bit, and he brought me with him.” Lachlan dried his face and hair as Harriet returned with a small bundle of clothes.
“Change into these and come back out. We’ll get you fed, and you can tell us what you were doing walking all the way out here on a day like this.”
“Thank you.” Lachlan took the clothes and went into the bathroom. He closed the door and stripped off his wet things. Once he was in dry clothes, he instantly felt better, and the bone-deep weariness that had started to settle in caught up with him. His breathing was easier and his lungs no longer ached, though. That was a big improvement, even if his feet still hurt like hell. Clean, dry socks helped too. While he was in the bathroom, he washed his hands and face, feeling a little fresher.
Lachlan folded his wet clothes, and when he stepped out, Harriet took them. She turned and stopped, holding up a sock. “Are you bleeding?”
“It must be my shoes. I—”
Harriet hurried out of the room and returned a few seconds later. “Sit down and take off the socks.” Lachlan complied, and she tutted and tsked as she looked over his feet.
“The good salve is in the cupboard upstairs,” Grandma Katie told her.
“I’ll get it. You stay there.” She hurried out of the room, and Lachlan sat still, a little afraid to move. These two were like a whirlwind of care and concern, something he hadn’t felt in a while, and he didn’t want to do anything to upset the applecart. When Harriet returned, she treated his feet and helped him get the socks back on. “You need to rest for a while. Your feet are a mess. Where did you get these shoes?” Harriet went over and picked them up off the mudroom floor, examining them.
“The charity bin at the church,” Lachlan admitted, feeling a blush creep over his skin.
Grandma Katie brought over a steaming bowl of soup and placed it in front of him, along with a huge glass of apple juice and a plate of bread. “Eat up, young man.”
Lachlan didn’t need to be told twice. He picked up the spoon and tucked into the beef noodle soup as if it were manna from heaven. Hell, maybe it was, and these two women were angels in disguise. “Thank you.” He took a bite of bread, homemade, and damn near groaned. “This is really good.”
“Slow down, hon. There’s more, and no one is going to take it away from you.” Grandma Katie sat in the chair across from him at the scarred farmhouse table. “How long has it been since you’ve eaten?”
“I guess a day.”
Harriet placed a mug in front of Grandma Katie, then sat down herself. “Maybe you’d better tell us what happened.”
Lachlan nodded as he took another bite of soup, the heat warming him as the heartiness filled his belly. “I don’t know where to start.”
“How old are you?” Grandma Katie asked. “Do we need to contact foster care or the state or something?”
“Seventeen. I’ll be eighteen in, like, two weeks. They aren’t going to do anything because as soon as I become an adult, I’ll be too old for the system.”
“Do you go to school?”
Lachlan shrugged. “I did, but not now I guess.” Leaving had changed everything. He continued eating and slowed down after a few minutes as his stomach filled and the ravenous hunger that gnawed at him abated. “My mom and I lived in Ravenna. We moved there a few years ago. Things were good. She worked at the bank there….”
“What happened to her?”
He swallowed, his throat suddenly dry. “She died of cancer and there wasn’t any money. We had a nice apartment above one of the stores, but I couldn’t afford the rent and had to leave. I took what I could with me, but most of our stuff was just….” There was no use getting emotional over all this because there was nothing he could do about it. Everything was gone. Not that they’d had very much to begin with.
“What about your father?” Harriet asked.
Lachlan shrugged again. It had only been him and his mom for as far back as he could remember. He finished his soup and took a bite of bread.
“So is that why you were walking? Where were you trying to get to?”
“I had no place to go. I thought if I could get to the city…. Grand Rapids isn’t that far away, and maybe I could get a job and earn enough money to live. But as you can see, I didn’t think things out very well.” He was about to continue his story when the back door opened and two guys, older than him, walked inside.
“What’s going on?” the bigger of the two asked with an air of authority.
“Foster,” Harriet said, “this is Lachlan….”
“He was walking to GR in this mess,” Grandma Katie said in a tone that brooked no argument. “This is my grandson, Foster.” She turned to the other guy. “Abe, he’s our full-time hand.” She got up from her chair as Lachlan greeted each of them with a smile. “You all done with the milking?”
“Yes,” Foster grumbled. “Bob called. They lowered the price of milk again. It just gets up to the point where we can get ahead and goes right back down.” Foster sat down and extended his hand. “It’s good to meet you.”
A third man came in, carrying bags that he placed on the counter. He came right over to hug Katie and Harriet before putting his arms around Foster’s neck from behind. Noticing Lachlan, he smiled. “Hi. I’m Javi.”
“He’s Foster’s partner,” Grandma Katie explained.
Lachlan wondered if the term “partner” meant what he thought and hoped it did.
Javi sat next to Foster, with Abe next to Harriet. “What were you walking for?” Javi looked him over and then turned to Harriet. “Why is he in Foster’s clothes?” Clearly Javi didn’t miss anything.
Before Harriet could answer, Grandma Katie spoke. “He was soaked from the rain and ended up going ass over teakettle into the ravine. I wasn’t going to let him freeze.” No one argued with her. “I saw him in church a few weeks ago,” she added for emphasis.
“I was staying with the reverend for a while.” Lachlan saw Abe staring at him and he shifted nervously in his chair.
“I’ve seen you there too,” Abe said gently, shaking his head.
Lachlan wanted to crawl under the table and die of embarrassment. If Abe had been in church, then he’d probably seen the most miserable, embarrassing, gut-punching day of Lachlan’s life, and Lachlan wanted nothing more than to put that behind him. But his humiliation would live on.
Abe didn’t look away, and Lachlan wished he had somewhere else to be. His stomach fluttered and his skin warmed under the watchful gaze of Abe’s intense, sky-blue eyes.
“Here. Go ahead and eat.” Grandma Katie placed bowls of soup in front of Foster and Abe. Then she took Lachlan’s bowl and returned with one for Javi, as well as a second helping for him.
Lachlan thanked her. There was no way he was going to turn down an extra-big meal. Once he left, he had no idea how long it would be before he got a chance to eat again.
“How is the garden planning coming?” Foster asked Javi.
“Well, I think we have it drawn up and finished. Now that the tiller is fixed, I can turn up everything, and I thought we might add to the strawberry patch. I can till the adjacent area this year, and the plants will pretty much grow in on their own for next year. I’d like to do more, but we’re running out of space.”
“Unless we want to go into vegetables in an even bigger way, I think we’re nearing our size limit.” Foster ate his soup, and Lachlan did the same, listening but not saying anything. He shot quick glances at Abe, who looked back sometimes.
Gosh, Abe was…. It was hard for Lachlan to explain. He had a nice smile, even if there was a slight gap between his front teeth. His brownish-blond hair was long and hung a little in his eyes. He kept brushing the locks away, though they fell right back, but the motion gave Lachlan a nice view of Abe’s thick arms, especially where his shirt gripped the muscle. Lachlan tried to think of how he could describe Abe and decided on ruggedly handsome. As soon as the words entered his mind, he began to blush and turned away. He shouldn’t be thinking of other guys that way. That had been made abundantly clear.
Lachlan finished his soup and looked out the window. The rain beat down, and the thought of going back out in that left him chilled to the bone, but he had no other choice. These people had been nice to him, given him a chance to get warm, and fed him. That was more than he had a right to expect from anyone. He sighed. “I should be going.”
“Nonsense,” Grandma Katie said as she turned to peer out the window. “It’s still raining and way too cold.” She turned to Foster. “He hurt his feet and they were bleeding when he took off his shoes.”
“I don’t want to be a burden to anyone,” Lachlan said quietly.
Abe turned to Foster, biting his lower lip.
“We have more work than we can finish, and Foster, you were just saying that we needed to find some help for a week or two in order to make sure we’re ready for planting.” Javi looked Lachlan up and down. “Have you done farm work before?”
“Like milking cows?” Lachlan shook his head. “I’ve cut grass and weeded flower beds. I took care of both our neighbors’ yards before my mom and I moved here. I can do just about anything.” A seed of hope sprang to life inside him. “What sort of work do you need done?”
“There are some fences that need to be repaired, and I need someone to clean out the equipment sheds and clear out the vegetable stand by the street. Grandma Katie could use some help in the basement, reorganizing what’s down there.” Foster continued rattling off a list as Lachlan tried to keep it all straight. Then he turned to Javi, smiled, and swung back to him. “Are those things you think you can do?”
“Yes.” At least he’d have a roof over his head and food to eat.
“Good. In exchange, we’ll give you a place to stay and feed you. We start tomorrow. The rain is supposed to be over, and if it’s sunny, the ground will dry out and we can finish the spring cleanup chores and get on to the preparations for planting.” Foster pushed his empty bowl away. “I also want to clear that area between the barn and the equipment shed.”
“You mean the graveyard?” Abe asked.
“Yeah. We need to get everything out of there. We’ll strip what we can for parts, and then I’m going to call a hauling company to get rid of it all. It has some scrap value.”
“What are you going to do there?” Harriet asked.
“I’ve been toying with the idea for a while. Grandma and Javi have been making cheese to sell at the markets, and we have a following. So I was thinking that we should build there and open our own creamery to make ice cream and cheeses and a few other artisan products from our own milk. If prices stay low, we can still make money by adding value to our products. For ice cream, I’d have to figure out a way to bring a freezer to the market, but we have time to work that out. We do have power.”
“That’s a lot of work,” Harriet commented.
“Maybe.” Javi took Foster’s hand, and any sort of doubt about the kind of relationship they had was made instantly clear. For the first time in weeks, Lachlan relaxed. Foster and Javi were like him, and no one else seemed to care or get mad about it. “But we need another year-round business.”
“Javi will be in charge of the creamery once it’s built and up and running. I’ve been doing some research, and it’s surprisingly easy to get started. We will need to build a separate building to house it, get proper equipment, and be inspected. But that’s not a problem since the inspectors are the same ones we have already.”
“How much will this cost?” Harriet asked.
“It will take about half our savings, but we’ve been putting that money aside so we could expand the farm. I had originally thought it would be more land and additional milking stock. But we can use some of it for this, as well as some additional acreage and milkers to support the creamery operation. The good thing is that we can grow over time. Start simple and see what happens from there. If it doesn’t work out, we can use the additional space to develop the milking operation.”
“You’ve given this some thought, then?” Harriet asked, not quite sold on the idea if Lachlan was reading her right.
“Clearly,” Grandma Katie said. “We’ve all been working to get the operation on a sound footing for the last two years, and Foster has done that. Vegetables are only going to get us so far, and I think as long as we use only quality, natural ingredients, this creamery could be a real winner.” She turned to Foster. “My mother used to make the most amazing peach ice cream. I remember how she did it. If you really want to do this, then Javi and I could work up some recipes that will knock their socks off. Ice creams the way they used to be, instead of all this fake stuff they put in them now.”
“Let’s talk about it some more a little later,” Harriet said, and the others let the topic drop.
Lachlan’s foot ached under the table, and he stood once the others were done but wasn’t sure where he should go.
“Come with me,” Grandma Katie said, leading him into the living room. She sat in the recliner and motioned Lachlan to the sofa while she turned on the television. “Go ahead and put your feet up. It isn’t often we get a rest day here.” She picked up some knitting beside the chair and went to work, her fingers moving and the needles clicking slightly.
Lachlan sat still, trying to remain as invisible and out of the way as possible. It had been made pretty apparent that he wasn’t worth having around. After all, he was homeless, without a family, and seventeen. Basically, no use to anyone, as was clearly demonstrated last week at church. Lachlan appreciated what Grandma Katie and Harriet had done for him, and he intended to pay them back.
“Lachlan,” Harriet said as she came in and sat beside him. “Try on these shoes and see if they fit. I bought them for Foster, but he says they’re a little too small.”
She handed him the tennis shoes, and Lachlan gingerly put them on. He sighed. They actually fit and felt good. His feet still hurt pretty badly, but when he stood, they didn’t rub and hurt him further. “Thank you.” Lachlan sat back down, but he felt strange not doing anything.
Foster stuck his head in the room. “Mom, I’m going out to the barn. Call me if you need anything.”
“All right. Is Javi going with you?”
“Do you need help?” Lachlan asked.
“He’s sitting right here, keeping me company,” Grandma Katie said. She turned to Lachlan. “You need to stay off those feet. They were bleeding, and if they don’t heal, they’ll get infected.”
“Grandma’s right, as usual. Rest. There will be plenty of work to do tomorrow when it isn’t raining cats and dogs.” To his mom, he said, “When you get a chance, take Lachlan upstairs and show him the guest room.”
“I’ll take care of it,” Grandma Katie said without stopping her knitting.
Foster left the room, and so did Harriet. Lachlan heard her working in the kitchen over the sound of the television. After a while, Grandma Katie’s needles stilled and soft snores came from her chair. He sat back and closed his eyes, not meaning to doze off. But he was warm and full and had a place to stay for the night, and that was enough to lull him to sleep.