December 20, 8:00 am
“Anna!” The Christmas bells that hung on the door of her childhood home, the Brenneman Bed and Breakfast, tinkled as Katie Lundy worked to shut the heavy wooden door behind her. As she gazed at the pair of candles adorned with red ribbons on the front table, a familiar warmth settled over her. “Anna? Are you here?” she called out.
Before she could completely shut the heavy door behind her, parents started fussing.
“Katie, whyever are you creating such a ruckus in the house?” Her mother’s form suddenly appeared in the doorway leading to the kitchen. Wiping her hands on her apron, she chided, “You could have woken up all of our guests.”
From the other side of the foyer, her father came into sight. “Yes, Katie, that yelling would be a problem…if we did have a houseful, which we do not, thankfully.” As he looked her over, his frown contrasted with the twinkle in his eyes. “But you are loud enough to wake the dead, child.”
No matter how old she got, receiving criticism from her parents never failed to make her cheeks bloom like roses in July. “I’m sorry.” Making sure to keep her voice down, she craned her neck to look beyond her mother into the cozy kitchen. “I’m looking for Anna. Is she here?”
“I am,” Anna announced from the landing at the top of the stairs. Looking down at Katie from the well polished spindles, her best friend and sister-in-law smirked. “I think someone is excited to go shopping today.”
There was no reason to lie. She was eager about their planned outing for the day. “I can’t help it. It’s been a long time since we’ve played hooky.”
Her mother grinned. “If you’re this wound up about a shopping trip, I’m thinking you should plan more outings.”
“It’s only because they are so rare that I’m excited. If it was a usual occurrence, it wouldn’t matter so much.” As Anna walked down the steps, Katie continued. “Jonathan got an unexpected day off at the lumber yard, so he’s with the girls and Eli.”
Her mother clucked. “You should have brought the bobbeli here. I would have happily taken care of him.”
“Jonathan didn’t mind watching the baby. Besides, I wasn’t sure if you had houseguests.”
“It’s December twentieth. Of course we don’t have houseguests,” her mother said. “All I’m doing is getting the house readied for our family holiday.”
Though they never formally closed the inn for the celebration of the Lord’s birth, Katie couldn’t remember a time when they ever had hosted guests at the inn.
Once the calendar marked December fifteenth, visitors suddenly stopped arriving. Their absence allowed the large, rambling house to become a home once again.
This year, in honor of young Eli’s birth and Anna and Henry’s marriage, everyone decided to spend a whole week together. Katie and her family, Anna and Henry, Rebekeh and her family, and this year-at Anna’s and Katie’s request-Winnie-who was Jonathan’s sister, and Winnie’s husband Samuel, were going to stay the week of Christmas as well.
Yes, the house was going to be mighty full, but joyous and merry too. It would be the perfect time for Katie to take a breath and rejuvenate. Lately, she’d been so tired, it was all she could do to keep her eyes open at night. Once or twice, she’d even fallen asleep during Eli’s nap.
Jonathan thought she was doing too much, and she probably was. She had many responsibilities now, with a home, a three month old baby, and two busy stepdaughters.
But all of it was a joy. And nothing that couldn’t be resolved with a little bit of comfort from her parents.
Speaking again, her mother worried her bottom lip. “I went shopping yesterday, but I feel sure I didn’t buy enough flour and sugar. Rebekeh plans to do a lot of baking.”
“Just give me a list, Mamm,” Katie said. “I’ll pick up whatever I can.” Katie was just about to motion for Anna to hurry and put on her boots and cloak when Henry walked down the stairs waving a sheet of paper.
“I’m afraid our plans are about to change,” he murmured.
When he stopped by his bride’s side, Anna pulled the paper out of his hand. Moments later, she frowned. “Oh no.”
Katie strode closer, her mother right behind her. “What on earth is wrong?” she asked. “You both look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“This is a mailed-in reservation,” Anna murmured.
“So? What’s special about that? We get them all the time.”
Henry showed them the envelope he still held in his hands. “Our zip code was either written wrong or the mail carrier couldn’t read it. So, from the postdate, it looks like it’s been on a trip around Ohio.”
Katie tapped her foot. “And? Come on, Henry. I want to go look at fabric.”
“Well, the fact of the matter is, Mr. Levi Bender is planning to arrive here today.” He pointed to a sentence at the bottom of the page. “We were supposed to have contacted him if we were full up by the eighteenth.”
Katie’s mother leaned her hand on the banister with a sigh. “And here it is December twentieth. How long is he plannin’ to stay, Henry?”
“Through the holiday,” he said grimly. “He says here he plans to stay until December 28.”
Although she knew it wasn’t a Christian response, Katie felt a swarm of irritation buzz through her as all her plans began to evaporate. She’d been really looking forward to only being surrounded by family for the next week or so. It had been such a crazy year and a half, with Anna and her brother marrying, she marrying Jonathan…his barn burning down, Winnie in the hospital.
And Eli being born in October. All Katie wanted to do was enjoy peace and quiet and her family. She didn’t want to have to cook and clean for a guest. She didn’t want to have to keep reminding her girls to keep their voices down, either.
“This man is going to ruin our Christmas! Can’t we turn him away?”
Her father glared. “Of course not.”
Her mother walked to her daed’s side. “Well, we’re just going to have to be grateful for a Christmas guest. That’s all there is to it.”
“But now how are we all going to stay here together?”
“One man’s arrival won’t change things.” A line appeared between her mother’s brows. “Not too much, anyway.”
Katie reached for Anna’s hand. “Anna, let’s get going now, then. With a guest arriving, chances are gut that we won’t have another chance to get away.”
With a look of regret, Anna shook her head. “I’m sorry, Katie, but I won’t be able to go. If we have a guest coming, I’ll need to prepare a room.”
With a sense of dismay, Katie felt all her anticipated plans fall to the wayside. “But-“
Anna turned away from her. “Irene, which room would you like to put him in?”
“In the room up at the top of the stairs, I suppose. It’s our best room.”
She was talking about the attic room, of course. The room Katie had planned to occupy with Jonathan. It was lovely, and claimed its own private bathroom-something that Katie had been looking forward to since she still got up often with Eli.
As everyone looked upstairs rather mournfully, her mother sighed. “I have to say that having a guest here for Christmas has put me in a dither. What in the world are we going to do with Mr. Levi Bender here the next eight days?”
One by one, everyone scattered. Soon, only Katie stood alone in the foyer. A strong sense of loss filled her. And though she knew it was not their guest’s fault, she couldn’t help feel resentful. No matter how pleasant the man was, his presence was going to spoil their relaxed holiday plans. “Levi Bender, how in the world are we going to be able to get rid of you?” she murmured…just before she finally unhooked her cloak and joined her mother in the kitchen.
December 20, 2:00 pm
It had taken him all day to get there. First, Levi had had to rise with the roosters at dawn and tend to his small menagerie of animals. Then, after checking and double-checking that all was in order for the two teenaged boys who would be staying at his home for the week, he’d waited for the Englischer to pick him up and drive him to the bus station in Columbus.
Because snow was still falling, the bus was running an hour late. Levi had sat in his chair and sipped too-expensive coffee out of a Styrofoam cup that a vender had been selling right there in the lobby. He’d kept to himself and tried not to notice the looks of interest passing his way. Those same looks that he always felt whenever he was out in the outside world.
After claiming a seat on the bus, he’d ridden for two hours, switched busses, then rode for another hour and half to Peebles. Now he was in an Englischer’s car again. On his way to the Brenneman Bed and Breakfast.
“So, have you been to this area before?”
“Oh. You got family out here?”
In spite of the generic question, Levi felt a shudder rustle through him. “No,” he said again, this time with more force.
In the rearview mirror, the taxi driver raised his eyebrows. “Sorry, buddy. Didn’t know that was a sore subject.” His tone and the slight inflection at the end of his reply led Levi to believe that the driver was waiting for more explanation.
Levi merely looked out the window. In his experience, that was how most Englischers were-too nosy about things that didn’t concern them at all.
Because he certainly wasn’t going to tell anyone why he’d left his community to travel by himself for Christmas. Why he’d rather stay in the company of strangers than in the midst of people who’d known him for all of his life. Why he was willing to sleep in a small guest room with only a bathroom down the hall than spend another night in his own bed. In a house that he and Rosanna had designed and help build.
Even just thinking her name brought a fresh wave of sorrow. Like a toothache he couldn’t help probing, bringing more pain to the surface. Since he was already hurting, Levi pushed himself to recall another person who had once meant so much to him…Ruth.
As the taxi traveled the winding roads toward the inn, Levi closed his eyes and let the agony fill his body for one last time before he went about pretending that the two most important women in his life had never existed.
Of course, that was the crux of it all…wasn’t it? Rosanna and Ruth weren’t around, and they never would be again. Ever.
Because he’d killed them.
December 20, 3:30 pm
“Miss? Do you need any help, Miss?” the Englischer asked with a concerned expression. “You look like you’ve kind of got your hands full there.”
Melody wasn’t used to speaking with strangers. But as the moment passed between them, and he kept rudely staring at her, awaiting a response, she shook her head. “No.” Hurt flashed into his eyes. “I mean, Dank-thank you. But no. I’m fine.”
After treating her to another long look of doubt at the quilt bag on her lap and the worn suitcase under her feet, he shrugged and walked away.
“Don’t you mind the driver, Miss,” the elderly lady sitting across the aisle from her on the bus said. “I’ve ridden with Graham before and he’s a worrier. Always has been. And, well, pardon my sayin’ so, but you do look like you’re about to deliver at any moment.”
Shamed, Melody turned to the window and hugged her quilt bag more tightly.
It had been a long journey to Cincinnati, Ohio from Sonora, Kentucky. It had taken almost as long for her to find the correct bus to take her to Adams County. Now she was in a hired van to the Brenneman Bed and Breakfast to spend the next week, if she was lucky.
Her employer, Mrs. Sheridan had given her some money and a gift certificate when Melody had come to work in the coffee shop looking even worse than usual. “I really think you need to take some time off, dear.”
“I’m fine,” she’d murmured, mainly because she had no choice. This was her job.
As if Mrs. Sheridan had read her mind, she murmured, “No, dear, I don’t think you are. Hold on a moment, I’ll be right back.”
Moments later, she handed Melody an envelope with a hundred dollar bill and a gift certificate inside. Melody had held it like it was on fire. “What is this?”
“It’s an early Christmas gift. It’s a certificate to the loveliest little inn north of Cincinnati. In Ohio.”
“What would I do there?”
“Relax for a bit.” Mrs. Sheridan’s eyes softened as she recalled the place. “It’s a real beauty of a place, I’ll tell you that. The Brenneman Bed and Breakfast has a wide wooden porch in the front. It runs the whole front of the building. The house just shines, it does. It’s all white-washed, and has shiny black shutters. In the spring, glorious flowers decorate every available inch of land around the house.”
In spite of herself, Melody was mesmerized. “And in the winter?”
Her boss sighed. “In the winter, they decorate a bit with greenery. Nature provides holly bushes in the woods. Mrs. Brenneman clips some sprigs and places them in glass bowls. A few of the windows have candles and garland. And they polish everything with the most heavenly scented orange oil. At night, when the snow is glistening outside and the rooms smell of hot spiced cider, wood from the fire and orange oil, why I have to say there’s nothing else in the world like it. You should go, dear.”
For a moment, Melody, too, had been taken away. But even the thought of traveling by herself was disconcerting. As was the cost. “Thank you for the idea, but I’m afraid I can’t accept such a gift. It’s too much.”
“Oh, it’s not so much, really.” All smiles, she explained. “Mr. Sheridan and I won this in a charity auction about six months ago. It’s good for a week’s stay.”
In spite of her will not to, Melody found herself gripping the envelope. It took everything she had to weakly refuse one more time. “I couldn’t.”
“Yes, you could, Melody…if you dare. I think you need some time off.” Her voice lowered. “I know that things haven’t been too good for you here. Sometimes, if you can’t find a comforting place in your own hometown, it’s time to venture somewhere else. Go there, Melody. Go to the Brenneman’s and relax and learn to smile again. It will do you and the baby a world of good.”
A world of good.
The kind words had rung in her ears the rest of the day. They were so different than everything else she was used to hearing. Most folks barely looked at her.
None directly spoke of her circumstances.
Yet, did she really imagine that people would speak of her-to her frankly?
Plain and simply, she’d been raped by an Englischer, abandoned by her family, and now was looking forward to forever being a symbol of foolish behavior for everyone in their community. As in, “Don’t go walking alone like Melody did. Look what happened to her.”
As in, “Look what happened to Melody. Now she’s going to have to carry that burden for the rest of her life.”
As in, “Melody, you’ve shamed us.”
Consequently, she’d retreated into herself. If others wouldn’t have a care for her feelings, she would.
That night, Melody had clumsily knelt by her bed and prayed. “What should I do?” she’d whispered.
Tightly, she’d closed her eyes. With bated breath, she’d strained to hear words of guidance. And then, like a gift that it was…she heard the Lord’s voice.
Just as clearly as if he’d been standing at her shoulder. Go, Melody. Go and learn to smile again.
“Miss? You going to get up anytime soon?” the driver asked. “We’re here.”
She stood up with a start. To her right was the Brenneman Bed and Breakfast, looking just as lovely as Mrs. Sheridan described.
“Oh! I’m…I’m sorry. I’ll get my things and hurry out.”
To her surprise, a woman sitting in front of her picked up the suitcase and carried it out of the van. The driver helped her down the step and took her payment easily, not even counting it before slipping it into his black wool coat.
“Merry Christmas,” he murmured before closing his door and pulling out of the driveway.
Leaving her alone. Staring at the wide front steps. At the garland that was roped around the porch railing. Suddenly, everything seemed to be too much. The trip, the traveling, the stress. The cold. A wave of dizziness fell over her.
The front door opened. A pretty woman just about her age stepped out and stared. “May I help you?”
The world was tilting. Threatening to go black. “I’m Melody Gingerich.”
Blue eyes narrowed. “And?”
“I…I came to stay for Christmas,” she murmured. In a haze, she did her best to concentrate, but the woman’s reaction was truly puzzling.
“You came to do what?” the girl asked, her voice sounding high pitched. Almost angry.
“I have a certificate.”
As the girl’s eyes continued to stare her down, Melody fumbled for a better explanation. But truly, all ideas fled her mind. She didn’t know what to say. How to explain about everything she’d been through. Everything she’d done.
Then, it didn’t matter. Because her knees gave away, her world spun and her suitcase fell to the ground with a thud.
Seconds later, she felt the cold icy snow cradle her cheek…as her world went black.