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Tethered Birds

Predictive dreams have plagued McKinley Granville for years, but knowing things will happen in advance hasn't made her life any easier. If anything, the dreams cause a myriad of complications.

Shortly after her mother’s accidental death, McKinley dreams her brother Charlie is planning to run away from the family farm. Unable to stop him, Charlie, stoic about his reasons for leaving, abandons his current life, never looking back.

McKinley, heartbroken and confused by her brother’s absence and silence, searches for elusive answers to questions shadowed in her dreams. How can someone exit a life as if they'd never existed? How can they turn their back on their family? What secrets are buried on Granville Farm?

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Kim Talon

Kim Talon is a writer, poet, professional photographer, and long-time blogger, residing in Ontario, Canada. When not at the computer creating, she is found roaming the countryside, camera in hand, with her trusty Labradoodle, Charlie, at her side.

Coming Soon...
Excerpt

Chapter One

Old Man Winter

The dream started…ravens collected on the bare branches of the grand old sugar maple in the mist-filled east pasture. Squabbling and squawking, intermittent caws caught in the obscure landscape, they eventually roosted, bits of black tissue clutched by supplicating limbs— tree offering solace to the sullen sky.

McKinley stepped out the front door onto the porch, loyal mutt Finnegan at her side, and looked across the hazy pasture as a man…tall…rangy…strode around the sturdy trunk of the sugar maple, a camera in his hand. He paused to take several shots up into the complicated branches.

Finnegan, spying the stranger, barked madly, lunging for the porch steps, but McKinley grabbed his collar and held him back.

“Hey!” McKinley shouted at the man. “What are you doing?”

But he took no notice, continuing to snap shot after shot.

A sudden north wind whipped across the pasture, racing up to the porch, clutching McKinley and Finnegan in an ice-grip. The ravens took wing en masse—sooty specks growing ever smaller until they melded with sky.

The wind, stronger now, pushed against McKinley and she crouched, holding tight to Finnegan as a sudden snow flurry assaulted them. Flakes swirled in the harsh wind, battering them. The snow was so thick, it was impossible to know if the strange man was still there taking pictures. She could only feel cold, only see white…endless white.

****

McKinley Granville looked out the living room window across the white landscape, watching the ravens settling in the ancient maple in the east pasture. Squawking and squabbling, the birds eventually roosted, wings tucked close, bodies puffed against the snappy northwest wind. They came often to the sugar maple. When she was little, McKinley fancied them as guardians sent by her deceased mother, Helene, to watch over her. Helene had been fascinated by the ravens, her worn sketchbooks full of drawings of the handsome birds. McKinley kept the sketchbooks in a box under her bed. On nights when the wind howled and memories of her mother felt distant, she pulled out the box and lost herself in her mother’s detailed drawings of all things nature. Sketches of bird nests with clutches of speckled eggs in palest shades of blue and green. Sketches of the cows grazing in the fields or one of the horses poised, alert, waiting…for food? Or the return of someone they loved? McKinley wasn’t certain.

She never told her father or grandfather what the ravens meant to her. She’d tried once to tell her father how they were tangled together with memories of her mother. But her father, Jon, the least mystical man she knew, said the ravens roosted there because they were close to the fields. Fields meant food. It was pretty basic. Yes, he knew Helene had drawn them a lot. But that was because they were ready and handy subjects for her sketchpad. McKinley didn’t mention the birds as guardians. Her father would have given her a worried and perplexed look. And the dreams—especially the one of her mother just days before Helene drowned? No…she would not share the dreams. She would not add more heartache to her father, who had become distant since his wife’s accidental and shocking death.

McKinley, feeling claustrophobic, couldn’t wait until road crews finished clearing the county lanes. It was nearly a week since anyone had left the farm. The vista of undulating fields which normally brought her peace was suffocated under the undulating white shroud. Audacious crocus were valiant in their attempts to breach the white blanket, purple noses poking through less heavy drifts where the wind had made gentle shapes in the flower beds. A dazzling sun cast shadows across the white—purple smudges like bruises. Even the horses, exuberant after being barn-bound for the last three days, dashing across the white fields, snow clouds glittering in their wake like diamonds, failed to lift her gloom. The cows, less impressed by the return of winter, mooed pathetically, crowding the barn entrance.

The early spring snowstorm had caught most everyone off guard. No surprise, given the storm’s voracity, that there were casualties. Reena Keaton ran off the road in the worst of the blizzard. She was found barely conscious after two days, thankful for the three snack-size chocolate bars and a de-fizzed bottle of root beer one of her children had stashed under the car seat. Mike Bridges had abandoned his cranky pickup truck in a ditch. He ended up with frostbite on his fingers and toes. He lost his baby toe and everyone said that wasn’t the worst that could happen. Old Man Winter, as Ray Winter was nicknamed, had a fatal heart attack trying to clear a path to his driveway. The irony was lost on no one. He wasn’t a pleasant man and only a handful of Wicklee County residents mourned his passing.

McKinley’s grandfather, Robert, known affectionately by all as Gramps, had complained only a few days before the blizzard that his knees were acting up something terrible and he’d seen a huge mist around the near-full moon. Mark his words, there was going to be a storm. A bad ‘un. He insisted they stock up on batteries for flashlights and the battered, near ancient, transistor radio they kept on a shelf in the barn for times when Mother Nature took out their electricity. He said they should stable the horses at night, and this after the weather had turned mild enough to leave them out feeding on tender Spring grasses for the last couple of weeks. Her father humored his father and they dutifully stocked up. Gramps wasn’t the sort to gloat or say “I told you so” when the storm hit with ferocity, but he did say that the skies never lied and nature had a way of giving you a heads up when a big change was coming if you looked around and paid attention. If McKinley had shared her dream, she could have confirmed what Gramps had felt in his bones, but she didn’t. She didn’t want them to worry, and worry they would if she started spouting about prophetic dreams.

She called one of the neighbors and was overjoyed when they confirmed the ploughs had finished clearing County Road 55. Freedom beckoned.

McKinley raced down the hallway to the back of the house to the mudroom where she tugged on her boots and jacket, grabbed her purse off the row of hooks near the back door and headed out into the day. She whistled up Finnegan, her loyal dog. He came flying from around the back of the barn, speckled and black ears flying. He skidded to a halt in front of her, sitting on his haunches, pink tongue hanging out of his grinning mouth.

“Hey, boy! Whatcha been doing all morning?” She patted his silky head and he fell into step beside her.

Her grandfather had cleared a neat pathway with the huge snow blower from the back door to the barn. Her boots crunching down the path, she stopped to look up into the intense blue sky. Mother Nature had wiped the existence of what had been a beautifully unfolding March clean away. It was like being plunged right back into January. She continued down the pathway, her breath catching in the chill, frosting the air briefly.

She slid open the heavy wood doors and entered the shadowed, warm barn, Finnegan at her heels. “Dad?” she called out.

“In the office,” her father answered, and Finnegan took off down the aisle, following the voice.

McKinley entered the crowded office. Her father was perched precariously on a stack of farm journals on the edge of the desk, cell phone pressed to his ear. He squinted in concentration at whatever the person on the other end of the phone was saying and gave her a brief smile, waving her to take a seat.

McKinley settled in one of the worn wood chairs. Maple, her grandfather had told her once. Hard wood. Nearly indestructible.

Finnegan settled in front of her chair, dropping to the floor, laying his speckled head on his paws with a sigh, and instantly fell into a doggie nap.

“I don’t know, Donald,” her father was saying. Catching McKinley’s eye, he rolled his own. “Yeah…of course…when I get the chance…things aren’t back to normal yet. Soon. I’ll call you.” He pressed the end button on his phone and tossed it onto the cluttered desk. “That was Donald Wheeler. He wants some help fixing a whole line of fencing he lost in the storm. Sounds like a lot of people have a lot of damage. I still have a couple of spots to mend, but the drifts will keep them secure for now.”

“Poor Donald. Things haven’t been easy since Chad left for school.”

“I told him to hire someone. He’s not only cheap, but stubborn.”

“Yeah. That about sums him up. So I’m heading into town. The crews finally got the 55 cleared. We need some food. If Mrs. Hunt comes tomorrow and the cupboards are bare, she’ll have a fit.” Mrs. Hunt was their housekeeper. “You need anything?”

“Could you pick up some Epsom salts for Blossom? I’d love you to make up a poultice for her leg.”

“I’ve been checking it. There’s no heat there or any swelling.” Blossom, her mother’s paint mare, was cosseted by her father.

“She’s been favoring it. I’ve seen her.”

There would be no arguing about Blossom’s ailments or lack thereof. “Okay. Anything else?”

“Gramps is out of peppermints. You know how nasty he gets when he’s out of candy. Here.” He dug his wallet out of the breast pocket of his worn blue-checked jacket and extracted five twenties. “Here’s a hundred.”

“Thanks, Dad.” She took the money and tucked it in the side pocket of her purse. “Anything you need?”

“I’m good. Thanks.” Jon stood up and stretched his arms over his head, wincing.

“It’s your shoulder, isn’t it? I told you to take it easy.”

“I’ll have time for that later. Maybe you could make one of your poultices for me later?”

“I will. But no more lugging the bales, Dad. Let Drew do it.” Drew was their hired hand.

“I promise. No more lifting hay bales.” He looked suitably contrite, but she could see the twinkle in his deep blue eyes.

“Don’t placate me, Dad. Not only bales, but anything heavy. Don’t lift!”

He grinned. “When you were little and your cousin George tried to get you to do something, you’d stomp your feet and say, ‘You’re not the boss of me!’ Should I do the same thing?” Jon laughed and it struck McKinley she hadn’t heard his deep laugh for ages.

“If lifting makes your shoulder feel better, you just go ahead and lift away,” she said with a stern look. But she couldn’t help laughing, too. She did remember George being incredibly annoying when they were little. He thought because he was fifteen months older, he could make her do whatever he wanted. “George was always bossy.”

“Takes after his mother. Can’t blame an apple for being an apple.”

“True. I’m just glad we’re no longer Aunt Kaye’s special projects. Remember those months when she stuck to this place like a burr?”

“I guess we can’t blame her for caring, and I think it helped her through her grief,” Jon said. “But, God, that woman is aggravating. She couldn’t be less like her sister if she tried.”

“I doubt you’d have married Mom if she was like Aunt Kaye.”

“Damn right I wouldn’t. I guess I’d better get back to it. Your grandfather will be frozen by now.”

“What is he doing?”

“He’s mending a line of fence on the north side. We managed to clear the downed tree yesterday. Took out a huge section of fence. I promised to help him ages ago.”

“Better get then.”

“Drive carefully. The roads will be icy.” He picked up a set of keys off the stack of journals. “Here’s the keys.”

“Thanks. I’ll be careful.” McKinley followed her father out of the office to the front entrance of the barn. Finnegan’s nap disturbed, he followed them both with hopeful eyes.

“See you later. Don’t forget Gramps’ peppermints.”

“I won’t. See you, Dad.” She climbed into the pickup and her father went over to the farm’s flatbed truck.

Finnegan, ever hopeful, bounded toward the pickup, but Jon called him to his truck and opened the passenger door. Finnegan leapt agilely onto the bench seat.

McKinley started down the long, curved, ice-rutted driveway. The sun was working a little on patches and McKinley slowed to accommodate the ruts. As she passed the sugar maple, the ravens ruffled their feathers, grumbled, and resettled on the knobby branches. The cedar-lined drive was like a winter fantasy, every needle wrapped in white.

The county roads were a bit better. Earlier traffic had cleared tire tracks, revealing the asphalt, and she put on her sunglasses against the glare of wet pavement. Her cell phone buzzed and she ignored it. Her father would kill her if she touched it while she was driving. It was probably Ria, her best friend, texting between classes.

Wicklee was humming with traffic. People who’d been snowbound were busy replenishing their cupboards. She decided to stop at the Wick Café for one of their killer muffins before hitting the grocery store.

The restaurant was packed. She managed to find a seat at the long polished counter and the waitress, harried and tired, handed her a menu without even looking up.

“Great customer service,” said McKinley, taking off her sunglasses and shoving them into her purse.

“I’m sorry,” the waitress said automatically then looked up from her order pad. “Oh, McKinley! I’m so sorry. How are you, hun?”

“I’m great, Lucy. No need to ask how you are!”

“Run ragged since that new hire quit without any notice. Honestly! I don’t think I can take much more.”

“That’s too bad. I bet they get a replacement fast.”

“Who you foolin’? Everyone likes to eat here, but no one in their right mind wants to work here. What you want, hun?”

“A blueberry bran muffin and a coffee.”

“Coming right up.”

McKinley shrugged out of her jacket and laid it across the empty stool to her left. She swivelled around to look across the crowded café to the street outside. The sun continued to work its magic, and fat drops plopped on the pavement and unsuspecting pedestrians from overhanging signs and awnings as snow and icicles returned to their liquid state. She dug her cell phone out of her purse and checked messages. Ria had texted she was bored out of her mind and why had she decided to go to university while McKinley got to sleep in late and goof off? McKinley laughed and texted she was having an awesome break at The Wick. Ria sent back a long line of expletives topped off with a smiley face and added she would call McKinley that night. It had taken a lot of pleading for McKinley to get this year off between high school and college, and she intended to enjoy every moment.

“McKinley! You escaped!” Marissa Appleton, known as Rissa by everyone, got up from a nearby table, walking over, arms wide open for a hug.

“Rissa!” McKinley tucked her phone in her purse and stood up to return Rissa’s hug. “It’s been ages!”

“Ages!” Rissa agreed. “How are you? Come and sit with us. I’m here with Angela and Suzie. You remember them?”

“Of course I do. Thanks.”

McKinley greeted Rissa’s friends and took the empty chair at the four top. “How are you all?”

“Bored. I can’t remember a worse storm. We didn’t have power for four days.” Angela shuddered. “If you could see the mess that was once my freezer! It will cost a few hundred just to restock.”

“Not to mention having three kids tear up the joint. I was never so happy to see a school bus in my life,” said Suzie. “Seriously. Deliriously happy.” Suzie was the mother of twins and a singleton. All boys.

“It must have been even worse out in the country, McKinley. How did you guys get on?” asked Rissa.

“We survived. We have generators, thankfully. And you? The Gnome suffer any damage?”

Rissa owned and operated a garden center on the outskirts of town. After her divorce several years before, she’d moved from the luxurious condominium in Toronto back to Emma’s and put all her resources into creating The Garden Gnome, Wicklee County’s favorite garden center. Two years ago she’d incorporated a tea shop, The Loving Spoonful, and had plans to add an art gallery featuring local artists in the near future.

“The tea shop suffered some water damage. An ice dam on the roof, but it’s all fixed now. We’ll be set for the opening next week. Other than trying to save some saplings, it’s been okay. I take it you heard about Old Man Winter?”

“I did. So sad.”

“He was an awful old man. He used to chase us off his property when I was a kid. It became a sort of tradition to try to sneak some of his apples. They were definitely the sweetest in the county,” said Suzie. “He guarded those two old fruit trees like they were the Holy Grail or something.”

“He had his good points,” protested Rissa.

The other three looked at her in surprise and burst into laughter.

“Okay. Okay. He was a son of a bitch.” Rissa held up her hands. “I give up.”

“You’re too kind, Rissa. I’ve always said so.” Angela took a sip of her cappuccino and made a face. “I can’t get used to no sugar. Why does sugar have to make you fat?”

“It does?” McKinley could see Lucy heading to the counter with her muffin and coffee. “Lucy! I’m over here now.”

“Ah, you switched on me. Here you go.” Lucy put down the huge muffin and the steaming mug of coffee. “You ladies need anything else?”

“We’re fine for now, Lucy. Thanks!” Rissa smiled up at Lucy who patted her shoulder. “I can see you’re run off your feet this morning.”

“It’s insane. It’s like everyone in Wicklee has been in here. Enjoy, ladies.”

“She’s a sweetie,” said McKinley, adding two teaspoons of sugar and a huge dollop of cream to her coffee.

“Oh, to be young again,” sighed Angela. “To have cream and sugar and not even give it a thought.”

“Why would she have to when you’re giving it so much?” teased Suzie. “Honestly! Just put some sugar in your cappuccino, Angie, so we don’t have to suffer through your withdrawal.”

“Watch who you’re calling old,” added Rissa.

“Spoken like someone who hasn’t had their thirtieth birthday yet.” Angela laughed.

“It’s coming up soon and I don’t think thirty is old.”

“It’s not young.” said Angela. “Anyone under twenty-five is young. Once you get to thirty, you’re not young anymore.”

“These are rules?” Suzie took another small nibble of her half-eaten muffin. “I mean, I think if you’re sixty, yes, you’re old. Deal with it. But we’re just half that.”

“McKinley is young. What are you, McKinley? Like sixteen?”

“Seventeen. I’ll be eighteen next month.”

“Wow. Eighteen. Remember eighteen? It was such a great time.”

“You sound like you should be applying for a room at the Wicklee Retirement Home for heaven’s sake!” Rissa reached over and grabbed the sugar dispenser, holding it out to Angela. “You’re seriously losing it. Have some sugar. You need it.”

“The white death? No way!”

“How long have you given up sugar?” asked McKinley, breaking off a piece of the tender muffin and slathering it with butter.

“About a month now. No refined sugars. At all. You have no idea how much stuff has sugar in it. Even stuff that doesn’t need it.”

“Fruit has sugar in it,” said Suzie.

“That’s not refined. That’s nature.”

Rissa held up the sugar dispenser. “This came from nature, too.”

“In its original form, yes. Once it’s been through a process, no.”

“I give up. Be cranky.” Rissa turned to McKinley. “Are you planning on stopping in at the house? I know Mom would love to see you.”

“I wasn’t planning on it. I just don’t have that much time. I have to scoop some groceries and get back. There’s a lot of work to do.”

“But soon, right? We miss you!”

“That’s sweet of you to say, Rissa.”

“It’s true.”

“Please give Emma my love. I miss you both.”

“Of course I will. But come soon.”

“I will.” McKinley enjoyed her muffin and the women’s by-play as they discussed the pros and cons of eating all natural. She’d known them all for most of her life. Rissa’s mother, Emma, had been a great friend and inspiration to McKinley’s mother. A mentor, actually. Emma had never let Helene give up her art, no matter how busy she was as a wife and mother and horse trainer. Emma had insisted that Helene come to her house twice a week for some quiet time to create, up in Emma’s studio in the attic of the pretty house on Magpie Lane.

Sometimes Helene had brought McKinley along. McKinley would spend the time with Emma, usually brewing a big pot of tea under Emma’s strict instructions. Emma was very particular about how tea was served. She would only drink it from the dainty bone china cups that enthralled McKinley. They were so fanciful and delicate. The tea had to be loose. A tea bag never crossed the threshold into Emma’s house. It used to hurt McKinley’s heart to watch Emma inelegantly clutching the fragile cups with her twisted arthritic hands. Her fingers would never fit through the swirled handles, but Emma said tea wasn’t tea if it wasn’t properly sipped.

Emma’s housekeeper, Mary, would always be in the background. She would have a vacuum in tow or a dust cloth in hand and be shaking her head at what she called Emma’s nonsense. “It’s the same drink whether you have a cup or a mug, Emma!”

“You be quiet, Mary. I’m trying to teach the child some manners. You should learn to mind yours.”

The interaction between Emma and Mary never failed to amuse and intrigue McKinley. As a young girl, she could sense tension. As she grew up, she had also noticed the deep connection the two women shared. A strange sort of friendship, but as Emma always said, “It takes a saint to put up with a crank like me, and Mary’s a saint.”

Emma, once a celebrated artist, regaled McKinley with stories of her “before life.” That’s what she called the period before she lost two of the most important things in her life — the love of her life, her beloved husband Henry, and the free use of healthy hands. She said she didn’t care that the arthritis had made her knees creaky, painful joints, but she hated that it robbed her of the ability to hold a paint brush.

Henry Appleton had been resting quietly up on the west hill of the Wicklee Cemetery beneath the thick branches of a black walnut for nearly fifteen years. McKinley had no memory of him at all, being only a toddler when he passed, but knew from Emma and Rissa’s remembrances, and so many other people’s in Wicklee, he had been a kind, sweet man who had owned and operated the Wicklee Pharmacy for over 30 years.

The story of Emma and Henry’s romance was McKinley’s favorite. Emma had such a gift for storytelling, McKinley always felt she was right inside Emma’s tales…watching it all unfold like a play on a stage. Emma said when she met Henry she hadn’t been looking for a relationship, never mind a love, but what a person wants and what a person gets is often contested between heart and soul.

“You’re miles away, McKinley,” Rissa said, tapping McKinley’s hand gently. “Everything okay?”

“I was just thinking about your mom. I promise I’ll stop by later in the week.”

“Good. She misses you.”

The women all parted ways and McKinley headed to the grocery store.

Once on the road back home, she cranked the radio and let the Moody Blues take her to a different Tuesday afternoon.

About a mile from home, McKinley glanced out the rearview mirror and caught sight of a tall man with a camera, straddling the ditch to shoot across a pristine field. He must have emerged from the woods, because she hadn’t seen him when she drove past that spot. She braked gently and the truck slid to a halt.

She undid her seatbelt, swiveling around to watch him out the back cab window. He continued to photograph the field before lithely hopping over the crusted snow bank, trekking through heavy snow to the barbed wire fence to recommence shooting. McKinley couldn’t see a single fascinating thing in the snow-white field. Nothing that warranted such intense photography. He continued to shoot, oblivious to her scrutiny.

She put the truck in gear and continued down the snow-packed road. She kept glancing in the rearview mirror to see him still shooting away. When she signaled left and turned into the driveway, he was long out of view. But she knew she’d see him again, this man with the camera. The one in her dream.

****

McKinley spent the rest of the day in the barn, mucking out stalls, filling the feed buckets and hanging them in the stalls with Finnegan as her loyal companion.

She went to the north pasture to retrieve Blossom. Blossom had been McKinley’s mother’s horse. She was a pretty paint horse with a distinct daisy shape on her left withers that had given Helene inspiration for her name. Blossom, Colt (her father’s unimaginative name for his sturdy black horse), and Ink, McKinley’s rangy black gelding, were the only horses they owned. The others were boarders. McKinley was no horse trainer like her mother, so with all her mother’s clients leaving after her mother’s passing, Jon had suggested taking on boarders. It was McKinley’s job to look after the horses. She had Drew’s help when she needed it, but Drew mostly handled all the fix-it jobs a large farm required.

McKinley liked the horses. You could easily read animals. They didn’t hide their emotions. They told you up front what you were dealing with—no gray areas.

The horses, eager for an early dinner, headed over to the gate. Ink pushed past them all, tossing his handsome head. McKinley rubbed his forehead and he whickered.

“Not yet, Ink. Later. Right now I need Blossom. Dad says she’s coming up lame, but I think it’s a sham. She likes all the attention, doesn’t she?”

As if agreeing, Ink whinnied.

McKinley moved through the throng, greeting and patting them all. Blossom stood at the back of the herd, favoring her right foreleg.

“What’s this, Blossom?” McKinley hunched down and blew on her hands to warm them up before running them down the mare’s sleek leg. “No heat there. You must have pulled something. That’s what you get for running around like a fool this morning.” McKinley straightened and took hold of Blossom’s halter. “Come on, girl. We’ll get you fixed up.”

She led the mare into the barn and cross-tied her in the aisle outside her stall. As McKinley passed by, Blossom nipped at her jacket.

“Oh! You’re in a mood, aren’t you? You’ll feel better when I get that poultice on you.” McKinley cuffed the horse playfully on the head and Blossom ducked her head as if ashamed. McKinley grabbed one of the velvety black ears and rubbed it gently. “I know you miss her, girl. I do, too.”

McKinley went into the back area to make up the poultice for Blossom’s sore leg. She liked mixing up the bran with the hot water. It smelled earthy and rich. She added some Epsom salts and smeared it on a soft cloth, grabbing a soft bandage and heading back to Blossom, who had fallen asleep, one leg cocked.

McKinley applied the soft cloth with the poultice and wrapped the bandage on the spotted right front leg. “This will help you, sweetie.”

Blossom didn’t even stir, and McKinley left her to nap while she tidied up. Finnegan followed her every move, neatly side-stepping when she side-stepped. Her father called Finnegan McKinley’s shadow and that was accurate. Finnegan had been a Christmas gift from her grandfather the first Christmas without her mother. Seeing the wriggly, speckled puppy—like a dog version of Blossom—sitting beneath the lopsided tree with an equally lopsided red bow around his neck, it was a case of instant adoration on both sides.

“Why Finnegan?” her grandfather asked after McKinley announced over Christmas dinner that would be the freckled dog’s name.

“I don’t know. It suits him.” McKinley didn’t tell them about her dream of a speckled puppy sitting under the maple tree while the ravens cawed raucously overhead. The name Finnegan had been whispered by the wind, over and over again.

If Emma described her life in a before/after fashion, McKinley could do the same—life before her mother’s death and after it. Life before had included restful sleep. Four days before her mother’s accident, McKinley had the first raven dream. Horrified and helpless, she’d watched it unfold as she’d stepped out the front door of the house onto the porch. The sugar maple, the ravens in flight, crossing the east pasture coming to land on the sugar maple’s bare branches, and her mother, Helene, in her pale green jacket and sturdy hiking shoes, sketchbook and shabby plaid pencil case tucked under her arm, leaning against the wide trunk of the tree. Then a heron, looking like a prehistoric creature with tucked head and stretched wings, alighted on a low branch, below the squawking ravens, peering down at Helene with wise yellow eyes. “Mom!” McKinley called out to her mother, walking down the porch steps. “Mom!” But her mother ignored McKinley, opening her sketchpad to begin drawing the beautiful blue bird. Just as McKinley reached the bottom step of the porch, the pasture flooded with water. The ravens, on the highest branches of the tree, cawed long and loudly. McKinley covered her ears against the painful, tragic sound. Helene was no longer standing under the sugar maple. The heron took flight, heading straight up into the sky as the ravens continued their lament. The water surged and McKinley saw her mother sitting with the shrieking ravens on one of the high limbs of the tree. Her mother smiled and waved. “Mom!” cried McKinley as the water continued to rise. “Mom!” Her mother tumbled from the tree into the rising water as the ravens screeched. McKinley woke, sweaty, shaken, disoriented.

McKinley never told her mother about the dream. It was just a dream. It wasn’t real. But the dream caused something to shift. McKinley, always an outgoing and upbeat eleven-year-old, became withdrawn. She didn’t want to go to school. She didn’t want to discuss plans for her upcoming twelfth birthday party. She didn’t want a party. She wanted to stay with her mother. Watch over her. Keep her from going out on one of her sketching jaunts, keep her away from the pond. But she only told her mother she had a sore throat and a sore stomach, which bought her one day off school. Then the weekend came and she could shadow her mother the way Finnegan shadowed her now. Helene, annoyed when every time she turned around McKinley was hovering, asked her to saddle the horses. They would go for a ride out by the pond, see what wildlife was stirring now that the long winter was over. That day shone like a beacon in McKinley’s memories of her mother. Blossom sure-stepping around rocky outcroppings in the fields, her mother’s hair a black cape flying in the chilly wind, laughing at the antics of a startled chipmunk who dashed helter-skelter through the tender grasses. Ink, who hated being behind any horse, fought for his head, but McKinley reined him in and allowed her mother to pick their trail through the spring-kissed fields into the forest at the north end of the property.

Helene noticed every single thing. She pointed out the bright green leaves of the soon-to-unfurl trilliums. Their white faces were barely discernible, but Helene noticed. She stopped to admire the gnarled fungus growing on an elderly maple, exclaiming over the different hues of browns and rusts. Every branch and twig seemed enchanted to her and McKinley enjoyed the impromptu nature lessons. The trail led them past the pond and McKinley still remembered the fierce chill ripping up her spine as they walked along the pond’s edge. She was relieved when they went through the woods and emerged at the edge of a pasture where Helene pulled up Blossom when she spied the ravens flying low across the field, black wings beating lazy tattoos.

McKinley reined in Ink beside Blossom, following her mother’s rapt gaze.

“Look at them, Kin. Aren’t they beautiful?” Her mother always called her Kin. No one else had or would dare to now that her mother had left this place for another.

McKinley remembered, sharply, oh so terribly painfully, the sweet smile on her mother’s pretty face as she watched the birds. When McKinley thought of her mother, this is how she thought of her—sitting on Blossom, watching the ravens take wing against a soft blue sky.

Her mother had passed away at the edge of the pond. The coroner said Helene must have tripped and fallen, striking her head on one of the rocks at the pond’s edge, falling into the shallow water, never regaining consciousness. Helene passed away under the tender April sky, just a quarter of a mile from home.

The only person McKinley had ever told of the dreams was gone, too. Her older brother, Charlie, had run hard and fast away from the family farm only two years after her mother had been taken. The minute he graduated high school, Charlie had stuffed two duffle bags with what he told McKinley were necessities and left on a scowling June morning, thunderheads clustered in the western sky, striding down the long drive, never looking back. McKinley, clutching Finnegan’s collar as the dog strained to follow, stood on the porch in the murky dawn light. Nothing McKinley had said—pleaded, begged—would stop Charlie from leaving.

“There is more to this world than this rotten farm,” he had told her. “Don’t worry. I’ll be fine.”

“What about me? I won’t be fine without you! What about Dad? Gramps? You can’t leave, Charlie!”

But there he was, walking out of their lives as thunder growled and Finnegan whined, jerking on his collar, desperate to follow.

Her father and grandfather never mentioned Charlie. Not once. It was like he’d been wiped clean from their memory. No amount of cajoling worked—neither her father nor grandfather told her what had caused Charlie to abandon them. Charlie’s brooding moods, the heated and muffled arguments between her father and Charlie that pierced McKinley’s sleep the weeks before Charlie’s departure, were waved off…neither offered the reason for Charlie’s abandonment.

She had dreamt Charlie left two nights before he actually did. The ravens, the sugar maple, the snarling sky and Charlie, carrying two duffle bags, wandering around the tree, muttering and cursing. She didn’t tell Charlie about the dream. She didn’t want to give him ideas. Too late—he’d already made his plans.

Pushing the past back, McKinley raced down the barn aisle to Blossom, Finnegan at her heels. She wrapped her arms around the horse’s silky neck and let the tears flow. The horse, as if understanding, nudged her back gently. Finnegan bumped against her leg, whining softly.

****

McKinley’s grandfather was taking off his work boots in the mud room when McKinley came in from the barn. Finnegan bounded past her to the kitchen for a long cold drink from his battered bowl.

“Gramps! I haven’t seen you all day. Where have you been hiding?”

“Your father had me fixing some fence way the hell out on the North Road.”

“All day?”

“Was supposed to be a small job. He came out this morning and we discovered a whole other section was ruined. The wind’s gonna shift and we’ll have a mess when this snow gets moving along.” He tossed his boots onto a tray and sighed. “I don’t think I can move, child. You’ll have to help me up.”

“Gramps! You shouldn’t have been out there all this time.” McKinley helped him to his feet. “You go and get in a hot shower right now. No arguing!” She took off her jacket and hung it up, digging through one of the pockets to take out a small bottle.

“No argument from me, child. I’m bone-cold.”

“I’ll put the kettle on and make some of that ginger tea you like. Oh, I picked you up two huge bagS of those scotch mints you like.”

“You spoil me.” He gave her a weary grin, heading for the back staircase. “I’ll be grateful for the tea.”

“Off you go. Shower and get warm.” McKinley went into the kitchen, put the bottle on the table, then filled the dented whistling kettle and set it on the stove. She turned on the burner and thought about dinner. There was leftover stew, but she didn’t feel like stew.

In the fridge she found a package of thick sliced bacon, a slab of lightly smoked ham, and a dozen farm fresh eggs. Her father must have stopped at the Hildegard farm where they got all their pork and eggs. Inspired, she decided on quiche and turned the oven to pre-warm. She set about making a short buttery crust enjoying the feel of it in her hands.

Finnegan, snoring and twitching in a sudden deep dog-nap, was between her and the sink, but she stepped over him lithely, lost in the cooking dance. Cooking was something she found therapeutic and rewarding. Every year she asked for cookbooks for Christmas and birthday presents and her favorite recipes were imbedded in her brain.

She rolled out the crust for two pie plates and got the pie weight jar out of the cupboard and a roll of parchment paper. In minutes, the crusts were in the oven just in time for the kettle to start singing.

The ginger tea smelled so good, she made herself a cup while keeping an eye on the baking pie crusts.

By the time Gramps returned, glowing red with renewed warmth and in his most comfortable jeans and soft flannel shirt, she was busily dicing the ham and the pie crusts were cooling on wire racks on the counter.

“Whatcha makin’?” he asked.

“Quiche. Oh, could you check and see if we have any of that sharp cheddar in the fridge? And cream? God, I should have checked if we had cream before I started the crusts.”

“Finnegan, do you have to take up the whole floor?” groused Gramps, goose-stepping over the dog who opened his eyes and looked momentarily ashamed before slipping back to sleep. Gramps opened the fridge and poked his nose in. “We’ve got cream. Not the real heavy stuff. You need the heavy stuff?” He held up a carton. “And we have a block of the extra sharp.”

“No. That’s fine.” She reheated the kettle and poured the boiling water over the ginger teabag. “Here’s your tea, Gramps. You want a couple of cookies?”

“And spoil my dinner?” Gramps chuckled. “Nah, the tea is enough. Thank you.” He took the steaming mug to the kitchen table and watched her grate the cheese, whisk the eggs, assemble the quiches and put them carefully into the oven. “How long till we devour them?”

“Just over an hour. What’s keeping Dad?”

“Don’t have a clue. You make that poultice for his shoulder? He’s been favoring it all day.”

“I made up some liniment.” She pointed to the bottle on the table. Collecting the dishes, she started loading the dishwasher.

“One of those recipes where your father ends up smelling better than dinner?”

“It does have some great smelling stuff in it. It will help the pain.”

“And Blossom? How’s she doing?”

“I put on a poultice. I’ll go out and check her again after dinner. There’s no heat, but she was definitely favoring it. She shouldn’t have been running around. All the horses were racing around like idiots this morning.”

“They get cabin fever same as you ’n me.” Gramps stretched out his legs and groaned. “These knees of mine are complaining something fierce.”

“Put some of that liniment on before you go to bed. It will help.”

“I might just do that.”

She joined him at the table. “I ran into Rissa today.”

“How is she? Did they get any damage at The Gnome?”

“Some roof leaking. Otherwise okay. I really need to go and see Emma.”

“She’ll be missing you.” Gramps drained his cup. “You want some more tea?”

“No thanks.”

 He put the kettle on and peered into the oven door. “Thank the good Lord above that you can cook, child, else we’d all be nothing but skin and bones.”

It was starting to get dark. McKinley closed the kitchen window blinds. Ever since she was little, she’d always hated seeing her reflections against the dark of night in an un-dressed window. Flipping on the overhead light and the under-cabinet lighting, the kitchen was washed in brightness. McKinley walked down the hallway past the dining room into the living room to draw the drapes. Turning on the stereo to a soft rock station, she switched on the table lamps and straightened the pile of newspapers on the coffee table. Thankfully Mrs. Hunt, their housekeeper who came three mornings a week, would be in tomorrow and the place would be left shipshape in her wake. Doris Hunt had been taking care of the house ever since Helene died. McKinley’s father often said the only good thing that Kaye had done during that dark period was hiring Mrs. Hunt. They’d never called her by her given name—would have to guess what it was now. Something about Mrs. Hunt’s brisk but kind manner kept them from ever getting over familiar. After her mother’s death, Mrs. Hunt came every day to do cooking as well as cleaning, but as McKinley grew up, she slowly started taking over the cooking detail and really enjoyed it.

McKinley liked Mrs. Hunt. She wasn’t much of a talker, but she was an awesome cook and a patient teacher. Once she realized how much McKinley enjoyed cooking, Mrs. Hunt was quick to take McKinley under her robust wing and show her the ropes. She was the first person to give McKinley a cookbook as a birthday present. McKinley pored over cookbooks the same way her best friend, Ria, pored over the liner notes of her favorite albums. Ria mourned the loss of vinyl and was an avid collector.

McKinley returned to the kitchen to check on the quiche. Just a few more minutes. She dug her cell phone out of her pocket and texted her dad. He replied “be right there” almost instantly, which meant he was probably heading up from the barn. A moment later she heard the back door open and Finnegan woke up and padded down the hallway to greet Jon.

“Something smells amazing. What you got cooking, sweetie?” Jon asked, entering the kitchen.

“Quiche.”

“Oh, boy. Smells good.”

“And some asparagus.”

“With your famous bread crumb sauce?” asked Gramps. He was sipping his tea at the table, flipping through the paper, black plastic reading glasses riding the end of his nose.

“If you’re good,” said McKinley, rinsing the asparagus, snapping them quickly, and setting them out on a baking tray. She sprinkled them lightly with olive oil and salt and pepper. Nothing tasted better than roasted asparagus. Her tummy rumbled in anticipation.

“How’d you make out, Jon? You get the rid of that tree off the east end?” Gramps peered at his son over his eyeglasses.

“Yeah. Thank God Drew was with me or I’d still be out there.”

“Can’t do much in the dark. Glad he helped you. McKinley was kind enough to make you up some liniment.” Gramps held up the bottle. “If it helps your shoulder, I might use some for my knees.”

“Thanks, McKinley. That will be great. Do I have time for a shower before dinner?”

“Just. A short one.” She was mock stern and he saluted her before leaving the kitchen.

He returned just as McKinley was taking the asparagus out of the oven, tossing them in the delicate butter sauce and putting them into one of the pretty floral bowls her mother had avidly collected.

They sat down to dinner, little conversation flowing as they concentrated on eating. All were tired, wrapped in their own thoughts.

After they finished, Jon cleared the table and loaded the dishwasher. It was an unwritten rule in the house that whoever cooked didn’t have to clean up.

Gramps relocated to the living room and was comfortably snoring in his old rocker within minutes.

“He’s out for the count,” said McKinley. “We won’t be able to shift him.”

Jon, busily building up a fire in the old stone fireplace, looked over at his father and grinned. “You’re right. He’s a goner.” He took the box of wooden matches from the mantel and struck it. Soon the fire was snapping and crackling behind the delicate black dragon-fly metal guard. McKinley had been with her mother when Helene had spied the grate, rusty and neglected, at a flea market. McKinley recalled her mother’s excitement over the dragonfly design. In a few days the guard had been primed, painted and in pride of place across the fireplace. Her mother told her you had to look past dirt and grime and find the pretty. She said it was almost always there.

McKinley got the soft blue afghan off the back of the sofa and laid it over her grandfather, leaning down to kiss his wrinkled forehead. “He works too hard, Dad.”

“We all do. I wish I could afford more help.”

“We could see about extending the barn maybe? Take on more boarders?” McKinley flopped onto the sofa, stretching her arms above her head, swallowing a yawn.

“I think you have enough to handle and when you’re off to college, well, I’d have no choice but to hire a groom.” Jon settled in one of the deep armchairs next to the fireplace and rested his stocking feet on the stone hearth.

“I wish I was a trainer like mom was. We’d be raking in the bucks.”

“We make enough with the boarding. We’ll be fine. I do worry about Dad, though. He’s not getting any younger.”

“Gramps wouldn’t like just sitting around, Dad.” McKinley reluctantly got to her feet. “I guess I’d better go and check the horses and see how Blossom’s leg is.”

“Was I right? She’s favoring it, isn’t she?”

“A little. She was running around this morning. All the horses were giddy. She’s too old for that.”

“Can’t make a horse stop being a horse.” Jon yawned, covering his mouth. “God, but I’m tired.”

“Go to bed, Dad.”

“I could come with you if you like.”

“I’ll be fine.” She walked over to perch on the arm of his chair. “We’ll be okay, Dad, won’t we?”

“Of course we will.” He summoned a tired smile. “Don’t you be stressing. We’ll be fine.” He squeezed her hand. “Thanks for making that liniment. I think I’ll put some on and head to bed.”

“Goodnight, Dad.” She leaned down and gave him a kiss on his grizzled cheek. “You need to shave, Dad.”

“I will—in the morning. Goodnight, sweetie.”

“Goodnight.” She walked across the room and paused in the doorway. “Dad? Can I ask you something?”

“Anything.”

“Would things be different if…if Charlie was still here? I mean, you know how great he was with the horses. He could have stepped right into Mom’s shoes.”

If Jon was shocked by the mention of his estranged son’s name, he gave no sign of it. “Your brother made his choices, McKinley. It didn’t include staying on the family farm.” He got out of his chair and went over to the fire, removing the grate and taking one of the fire pokers to stir the wood so it collapsed with a hiss and a sigh.

“Have you ever…you know…heard from him?” McKinley spoke quietly, hesitantly. Even saying Charlie’s name was difficult.

Jon carefully put the poker back on the brass stand, replaced the grate, and straightened up, turning to look across the room at McKinley hovering in the doorway. “I’ve never heard from him,” he finally said.

Even across the room, McKinley could see the pain in her father’s eyes. A pain she hadn’t seen since the day her mother died.

“Sorry, Dad. It’s just…after he left you and Gramps never talked about him again. I was thinking about him this afternoon…and Mom…when I was putting the poultice on Blossom.”

Jon held out his arms and McKinley rushed across the room to be enfolded in a tight hug. Her father, not demonstrative by nature, held her too tight. But she said nothing, letting him hold her.

“I miss them,” Jon murmured, kissing the top of her head. “I do, McKinley. I miss them. I might not talk about them, but it doesn’t mean I don’t miss them.”

“I miss them, too,” whispered McKinley.

“I know, sweetheart.” Jon kissed the top of her head again and released her.

She took a steadying breath, trying to stop the tears from falling. She couldn’t recall a weepier day in years. Ria would say McKinley was PMSing, but she’d be wrong. “Can you tell me why, Dad? Why did he leave?”

“Another time, McKinley.”

“Dad—please!” She looked into his tired eyes. She felt bad for pressing, but knew if she didn’t continue pushing the door open into this dark space, it would shut and lock again and she’d never have another chance.

With a sigh, Jon sank back into the chair. “He was devastated by your mom’s passing.”

McKinley perched on the arm of the chair. “We all were.”

“Yes, but he was really hurt. He couldn’t understand how something like that could happen. How she could be healthy and vibrant and full of life and then…” his voice broke.

 McKinley felt a scalding pain in her chest and leaned over to take his hand. Her own hands were like ice. The dream…the dream…her mother…the water… She could have stopped it. She should have stopped it. She broke into sobs, covering her face with her hands, gasping for breath. “I should have been with her. I should have saved her!” she cried.

“McKinley! Shhh…it’s okay, child.” He stood up, pulling her into his arms, smoothing her hair with his work-rough hands. “It was an accident. No more. No less. No one’s fault.”

McKinley fought for breath. How could she tell him about the dream? How could she make him believe she could have saved her mother?

“Bad things happen. Terrible things happen. It’s not our fault, McKinley.”

“It’s my fault,” she managed to choke out and he leaned back to look into her tear-stained face.

“What are you talking about?” His brow was furrowed, eyes shadowed and troubled.

McKinley took several deep breaths, willing her heartbeat to slow, wanting to gather courage like she gathered the McIntosh apples from the neighbor’s orchard in the autumn.

It came out in a rush. “I had a dream. About Mom. Her accident…” she couldn’t say any more.

“A dream. Sweetie, we all have dreams.”

“No. I had the dream before she—before the accident. I saw it all, Dad. Just like I dreamed about Finnegan days before Gramps gave him to me for Christmas. And I saw Charlie leaving, too, in a dream.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“I saw it all before…in my dreams.”

He ran his hands through his dark hair. There was more gray at the temples now. McKinley hadn’t noticed it before. But there was definitely more. He swallowed hard and looked up at the ceiling then back at her.

She shivered. “It’s true, Dad. I dreamt it before it happened.”

 Her grandfather stirred in the chair before resuming his gentle snoring. The fire flamed briefly then continued its life as glowing embers.

“Dreams, McKinley. Just dreams.” Jon sat down, leaning back in the chair.

“They’re not the only ones, Dad.”

“What do you mean?” He looked at her with worried eyes.

“I’ve had others. They’ve all come true.”

“McKinley—”

“Like the snowstorm last week. I saw it happening. I knew it would be a bad one.”

He shook his head. “You’re sounding like a crazy person, McKinley.”

“I’m telling you the truth, Dad. Honest.” She wanted him to comfort her, but he was looking at the embers in the fireplace, his face orange in the glow, unfathomable.

“I don’t know what to think,” he finally said. “McKinley…this is…hard to understand. You’re trying to tell me that you have dreams that are…what? Prophecies?” He looked up at her and shook his head again. “It sounds a bit…strange.”

“I should have told Mom. About the dream. But that was the first time I had a dream like that and I didn’t know it would come true. I tried everything to be with her…to stop her from going out by the pond.”

“McKinley, you’re driving yourself crazy. Don’t do this. Don’t. It was just a dream.”

“I shouldn’t have told you.” McKinley rubbed her chilly arms. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

She left the living room, heading down the hallway to the mudroom, snapping the overhead light switch with more force than necessary. She tugged on her boots and her barn coat with jerky motions. Finnegan, whining softly, joined her, standing by the back door, anxious to get outside and sniff the night air.

Hitting the switch for the floodlights, McKinley opened the door and Finnegan bounded out, barking joyfully, racing around the yard. McKinley headed for the barn in harsh pools of light, her breath an icy halo as she walked.