Summer Grove, Pennsylvania
Gnarled fingers of smoke seeped under the closed door of the old house. Fear threatened to steal Lovina’s ability to obey her husband’s departing words to stay put. She eyed a door in the bedroom that led outside. Could she get to it on her own?
Her husband and the midwife had left her about ten minutes ago. Isaac was trying to put out the kitchen fire, and Rachel was going to the phone shanty to call the fire department. Maybe Rachel never made it to the shanty. Perhaps she was down the hallway of the birthing center, delivering the other woman’s baby.
Lovina’s head swam from exhaustion and the muddled thoughts of a woman who’d taken something for pain—although she couldn’t recall what. This was her sixth baby, and each birth had been easier than the one before…until this time. She didn’t understand.
Another hard contraction engulfed her. She grabbed the rails of the birthing bed, panting and trembling as she squeezed the warm metal mercilessly. When the pain eased, she drew a breath. “Rachel?” Her usually strong voice came out as a mere whisper. Even the sharp ears of a midwife wouldn’t have heard that, especially not over the commotion of a kitchen fire.
The last time Rachel had checked Lovina’s progress, she’d barely dilated to five centimeters. But she had an overwhelming urge to start pushing. Could she walk to the hallway door in this state?
Like storm clouds gathering, dark thoughts of what might be ahead filled her mind. Were Isaac and Rachel so busy putting out the fire that she would give birth by herself? Had her husband and her friend been overcome with smoke? What had begun as a kitchen fire could easily spread throughout this old house, like setting a box of matches on fire, she imagined.
Squelching her sense of panic, she tried to scoot to the edge of the bed. Her round belly and aching body had no agility, and with the rails latched in place, she couldn’t shift to get around them. Breathing hard, she lay back on her pillow, drenched in sweat.
The oppressive heat made trying to move even harder. It did little good to have the windows open when there wasn’t even a slight breeze stirring the sticky air.
Smoke billowed under the door now, and a gray mass of it passed by the window like rolling fog. Her husband’s horse was tethered to a hitching post not more than twenty feet away. While Lovina had been at the clinic last night, Isaac had stayed with their other children. Then he’d ridden here bareback. The horse stomped and reared, trying to break free, probably afraid of the swelling smoke.
As the seconds ticked by and the muscles throughout her torso worked together to force the child from her, nothing else seemed to exist. She pushed with all she had. “Rachel!” The groaning that often came with this phase of labor caused her voice to return, and she intended to use it. “Isaac! The baby’s coming!”
She heard muffled voices as heavy footsteps grew louder. The door banged open, letting in a swirl of smoke. Rachel hurried inside, cradling in her arms a newborn swaddled in a pink blanket. Lovina’s husband barreled in behind her, pushing a disheveled, sleepy woman in a wheelchair. “Lovina!” He slammed shut the door to the hallway with his foot and pointed to the door that led outside. “Kumm! Mach’s schnell!”
Come, and make it quick? She could hardly move. “Ich kannscht. Bobbeli iss glei do.”
He stopped short, eyes wide. “The baby’s almost here?”
“I’ll check her.” Rachel rushed to the bassinet beside Lovina’s bed and put the other woman’s baby in it. “Take Brandi outside. Get her clear of the smoke, and carefully place her on a blanket. Be easy with her. She’s lost a lot of blood. Then hurry back for her baby. A newborn doesn’t need to breathe this smoke.”
“Wait a minute, Rach!” He waved his arms with exasperation. These two, Lovina’s husband and her closest friend, had experienced their share of disagreements over the years, but Isaac had never looked truly upset during any of their rounds. “You just saw how the fire jumped from a slow burn to engulf the front birthing rooms and half the hallway. I’m not leaving without my wife, if I have to carry her myself.”
“Okay. You carry her.” Rachel nodded. “But Brandi is in no shape to hold her baby while I wheel her out. I’ll have to take one and return for the other.”
Lovina groaned, giving in to the need to push.
“For land’s sake, Lovina, don’t push!” Rachel said.
Lovina held her breath, trying to obey. “I…I can’t stop!”
Rachel pulled Lovina’s knees apart, and terror filled her eyes.
“What?” Lovina panted. “Iss mei Bobbeli allrecht?”
“Ya, I’m sure the baby’s fine, but it isn’t going to wait for us to get out of the house. Its head is crowning. If we move you now, we could paralyze the baby.” Rachel turned to Isaac. He seemed unwilling to budge. Rachel put a hand on one hip and waved a finger in his face. “Isaac Brenneman, do as I said! Get Brandi out of here and hurry back with the wheelchair.”
He nodded and sprinted toward the door. The Englisch woman’s silky, white-blond hair dangled about, and Lovina thought it odd the little things a person noticed while in the middle of such chaos. As he opened the door, the wheelchair thudded against it.
Rachel looked up. “Be easy with the woman, Isaac. I packed her insides best I could to stop the bleeding until the ambulance arrives, but she can’t afford to be jostled.”
Isaac nodded. “Sorry.” He disappeared outside, leaving the door open.
Rachel drew a breath. “We’re safe…for now. But let’s get this child born and get out of here.” Rachel put on gloves and wheeled a metal table next to the bed. The table had a sterile tray with several instruments and two folded blankets, a blue one and a pink one. During the long night of labor, Lovina had done some mending on her children’s clothes. When those were done, she’d used white thread to embroider a tiny pair of baby feet on the corner of each blanket. Which color would Rachel wrap her newborn in this time?
Rachel wiped her forehead with the back of her wrist. “Could today be worse?”
“First fire and first Englisch woman to give birth here. Coincidence?” Lovina teased her weary friend.
Rachel chuckled. “Or did she bring bad luck?” she whispered, peering out the door as if the woman could hear her. “Why is she alone in an unfamiliar place?” Rachel ripped the sterile wrapping off the scissors and umbilical clamp. “I hope family arrives to support and help her once she’s at the hospital.” Rachel glanced into the bassinet. “She isn’t doing great. She had all sorts of complications during delivery, and I doubt she’ll be able to have another child, but her girl seems to be in perfect health.”
Lovina’s heart went out to the woman. It was telling enough that she was in a strange place by herself. It yanked at Lovina’s soul to know she would likely be told she couldn’t have any other children. “We need to remember to pray for…”
Rachel unfolded a towel, seeming lost in concentration as she studied the items on the tray. “Brandi Nash.”
Lovina nodded, bracing as another wave of pain engulfed her. She knew they would talk about this night for years to come—wonder about Brandi Nash, laugh at their panic over the fire, cry with relief. But right now all Lovina could manage were moans while trying not to push until Rachel was in place to catch the baby.
Rachel moved into her spot. “Let’s do this.” Despite her friend’s earlier efforts at idle chitchat, Lovina recognized the weariness and concern in Rachel’s voice. “Kumm on little one.” Rachel looked up. “Will you have an Ariana or an Abram?” She grinned. “Take a deep breath. That’s right. Now push hard…two, three, four, five…push, push, push.”
Soon Lovina heard the wailing of her newborn. Relief washed over her, a joy unlike ever before. The child had arrived, and they could get out of here.
“You have a third daughter!” Rachel moved quickly, tying off and cutting the umbilical cord. “Welcome, little Ariana,” Rachel cooed as she wiped off the baby. “Your two big sisters have been waiting for you.” She wrapped her in a pink blanket.
“And her three older brothers will be bitterly disappointed,” Lovina added.
Rachel chuckled. “Don’t know why. They’re bound to have a younger brother soon enough.”
Isaac ran back inside, pushing the wheelchair. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to take so long. I ran into numerous complications.”
Rachel placed Ariana in her arms while looking at Isaac. “How’s Brandi?”
“In and out of consciousness and pretty panicked when awake, but I heard sirens, so help will arrive soon.”
Lovina clutched her daughter close. “Isaac, she’s beautiful.” She turned to her husband. “Look, isn’t she a pretty little thing?”
Isaac barely glanced. “She sure is.” He pushed the wheelchair to the bed. “Kumm.” He shook the railing, trying to lower it.
“She has all ten fingers and toes.” Rachel pulled off her gloves. “Now let’s get you and these babies out of here.” She pushed a button and lowered the rail before taking the baby from Lovina. “I’ll hold Ariana while Isaac helps you get in the wheelchair. It’s best not to chance a very shaky Mamm dropping her newborn.”
Isaac held out his hand to Lovina. “Kumm.”
When Lovina put her legs over the side of the bed, a gush of fluid left her body. “Rachel, what just happened?”
Rachel glanced at the wet sheets, and she seemed to understand. She passed Ariana to Isaac and then pressed on Lovina’s stomach from several angles. “There’s another one.”
“Twins?” Lovina hadn’t been that large, had she?
Rachel pushed the bassinet toward Isaac. “Get the babies out of here.”
“Nee! Rachel, look!” He pointed to the door that led to the hallway. “The shellac is bubbling and peeling from the heat on the opposite side. The fire could explode into this room.” He put Ariana in the bassinet.
Rachel hesitated as she stared at the melted shellac running down the door. Was she frozen in place?
Isaac put one arm under Lovina’s knees and one around her back, lifting her into the wheelchair. “Rachel! Get the bassinet and let’s get out. Now!”
Twenty years later…
The mid-August air trilled with the sound of insects, and the clammy breeze played with the tattered beige sheers hanging from the lone window. Ariana glanced at the faded numbers on the clock that had hung on the bedroom wall as far back as she could remember. The clock and sheers matched most of what was inside her home—useful but having seen better days. Singing softly, she ran a comb through her hair and pinned it up anew.
Date night. For almost three years she’d been going out with various young men. It used to be little more than a pleasant distraction from thoughts of Quill, but lately dating held new feelings and hopes. The cause for that was Rudy Herschberger, a kind and handsome twenty-one-year-old who had moved to this area a year ago.
Maybe he could make her forget the heartache…the confusion…
“Ariana?” Mamm tapped on the bedroom door.
“Kumm.” Ariana put on her prayer Kapp and secured it with two white bobby pins.
“So”—Mamm closed the gap between them—“let me check on my handiwork.” She ran her fingers across the shoulders of Ariana’s pale-green dress. “I managed to hide the worst of the threadbare seams, but it gives you less room to move your shoulders.”
“It’s fine, Mamm.” Ariana turned to face the dresser mirror. Streaks and spots of discoloration on the old glass made her face look as tattered and worn as her dress. “If Rudy’s head is turned by a girl wearing better clothes, I need to know that now rather than later.”
What money she earned was earmarked. All of it, because from her earliest memories, she’d had a strange, determined hope to get her and her family free from poverty. When she was sixteen, God had changed her dreams to a set plan to purchase a café. The place was as old as historic Summer Grove, and it sat on Main Street, sharing walls with the buildings on each side of it. She loved the two-hundred-year-old interior brick walls, maple hardwood floors, and huge staircase that led to an upstairs storage room with endearing character in every nook and cranny.
But she had only forty-seven more days to finish earning the needed money. With a lot of help from Abram, she had managed to save $16,257. All of that would go toward the mandatory down payment at closing. She needed $6,843 more.
To reach that goal, she and Abram would have to save nearly $1,000 a week between now and then. She barely made $200 a week. After Abram met his financial obligations, he had between $150 and $250 a week, depending on whether he could get any overtime. Their combined money was a far cry from the needed $1,000 per week. How were they going to make up the difference? There had to be a way. God simply hadn’t revealed it yet.
Mamm adjusted the back of Ariana’s black apron, redoing two of the straight pins. “After what the last ten days have been like for you with the responsibility of Berta and helping even more than usual with Salome’s children, I hate to ask, but I need you to be home by ten tonight.”
Disappointment pricked her heart. “Why?”
She’d worked really hard this week, doing extra cooking and laundry preparation so she could have a free evening, one that lasted until midnight or after.
Mamm peered around Ariana, looking at her in the mirror. “Salome is showing signs of early labor.”
Ariana loved her siblings dearly, and her four sisters were her best friends. She couldn’t imagine a day without any of them. Sometimes their lives were as interwoven as threads on a loom, and sometimes they competed with each other. But for the last year, Salome had consistently needed more than her sisters or Mamm were able to give. Because Berta was now in the hospital and Ariana had promised to be the one to tend to her horse twice each day until she returned home, it would give Ariana and Rudy even less time to while away their evening. Still… “I’ll be home by ten.”