Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
“Don’t you think you’re being a bit hasty?” said my father, reaching for the platter in the center of the kitchen table.
I watched as the fingers of his prosthetic hand deftly plucked a waffle from the pile and transferred it to his plate. My father had come a long way in the year since he’d lost his right arm to the war in Afghanistan. None of us gave his expertise with his titanium fingers a second thought now, including him.
“Hasty?” Aunt True frowned. “I’ve known Rusty since kindergarten!”
My father snorted. “I’m not talking about the wedding, True—I’m talking about the old Farnsworth place! What do you two know about farming?”
“Living on a farm has always been one of my fondest dreams,” my aunt told him loftily. “Rusty’s, too.”
My father gave her a dubious look. “Since when?”
“Since I spent six weeks on a sheep farm in New Zealand,” my aunt replied.
The titanium fingers, which had now latched onto the pitcher of maple syrup, froze. “That was two decades ago! You were on a high school exchange program!”
My aunt was silent, but only for a moment. “There was also my trip to Tibet.”
“What happened in Tibet?” I asked, hoping for a story. Aunt True was a world traveler, and her adventures in remote corners of the world often sparked epic tales.
“I worked with yak herders” was all she said this time, though.
“What’s a yak?” asked Pippa, my youngest sister.
“It’s like a big, ugly, hairy cow,” my middle sister, Lauren, told her.
Pippa scrunched her nose. “Maybe they should call it a yuck.”
“Good one, Pipster!” My brother Hatcher slapped her a high five.
“Spending a few weeks with sheep, or with yak herders, or whatever other experience you think you’ve had, is a whole lot different from running a farm of your own,” my father persisted. “And what about Rusty? He’s spent most of his life shut up in a library!”
My dad had a point. Aunt True was always insisting that Erastus Peckinpaugh, her history-professor fiancé, had what she called “hidden depths.” But he didn’t exactly strike me—or anyone else in town, for that matter, judging from the talk I’d overheard at the general store—as farmer material. He must have kept that side of himself really well hidden.
“Libraries are fine places to learn a great many things,” my aunt said stiffly.
My father snorted again, and this time, my mother stepped in.
“Perhaps it’s time to mind your own business, J. T.,” she told him. “Everyone’s entitled to their dreams.”
My father speared a piece of syrup-drenched waffle with his fork. “Fine. But everyone knows that place is a wreck. It was a wreck even back when we were kids!”
“I’ll admit it needs work,” allowed Aunt True. “That’s why we can afford it.”
“What it needs,” my father declared, shoving the bite of waffle into his mouth, “is a bulldozer.”
“Daddy’s talking with his mouth full,” Pippa observed, and my mother shushed her.
My father and his older sister had been going around and around like this ever since Aunt True had announced that she and Professor Rusty—soon to be Uncle Rusty after their wedding next weekend—had bought the old farm on the outskirts of town.
It was Ella Bellow, our town’s retired postmistress turned knitting store owner, who broke the news that it was going up for sale. Ella considered herself in charge of gossip in Pumpkin Falls. I’d known something was up when I glanced out the window of our bookshop and saw her burst from the front door of A Stitch in Time and make a beeline across the street. Either her entire yarn supply was on fire, or Ella had news to share.
“True!” she’d called, barging in through the bookshop door. The bells attached to the top of it jangled vigorously, apparently as excited as she was. Miss Marple, my grandparents’ golden retriever, who had been napping in her dog bed by the counter, lifted her head and woofed.
“My aunt’s in the back office, Mrs. Bellow,” I told her. I was killing time before my piano lesson, trying to come up with a concept for a special window display for the leaf peepers. “Leaf peepers” were what the locals called the hordes of tourists who descended on little towns all over New England every autumn, eager for a glimpse of our famous colorful fall foliage.
“True!” Ella called again, louder this time. “Have you heard?”
We were having a quiet afternoon, fortunately. There were only two customers in the store at the moment, neither of whom were local. If Ella had something embarrassing to share, at least they wouldn’t know who she was talking about.
My aunt emerged from the back. “What’s up, Ella? Is everything okay?”
Ella drew herself up to her full height, which was considerable. She was almost as tall as my aunt and me, and we both stood six feet in our socks. After a dramatic pause, she blurted, “The Farnsworths are selling up!”
Aunt True gave her a puzzled look. “What do you mean?”
“I just got off the phone with Thelma Farnsworth. She finally managed to talk Elmer into retirement. They’re moving into town to live with Ethel and Ike.”
Ethel was Thelma Farnsworth’s sister. She was married to Elmer Farnsworth’s brother, Ike. Ike and Ethel owned Pumpkin Falls’s general store.
My aunt looked thoughtful. “Is that right?”
Thelma’s been wanting to do this for a while now,” Ella barreled on, “but you know how Elmer is when he digs his heels in.”
Sadly, I did. Part of living in a small town was knowing exactly this kind of detail about, well, pretty much everybody. Elmer Farnsworth was famously stubborn.
“It was the mix-up with the pumpkin trophy that pushed Thelma over the edge,” Ella continued. “She gave Elmer an ultimatum—he could move into town with her, or she’d go alone.”
That mix-up had been a big part of my summer. The whole town had been in an uproar when the silver pumpkin trophy disappeared after the Fourth of July road race, and while everyone was relieved when it turned up safe and sound again, no one was happy with Elmer, who had inadvertently caused the commotion in the first place.
“They may already have a buyer, in fact. Apparently some developer has been sniffing around.”
Aunt True snapped to attention. “What do you mean, developer?”
“Real estate,” Ella replied, clearly pleased to have delivered such an item of interest. “He’s looking for land to build a strip mall. That’s prime property, right on the road into town.”
“A strip mall?” My aunt stared at her, aghast. “But that would be a crime! That dairy farm has been in the Farnsworth family for generations! It’s a local landmark!”
Ella nodded, trying unsuccessfully to arrange her face into a mournful expression. But she couldn’t hide her smile. My aunt’s gratifying reaction to her exclusive tidbit had clearly made her day. News delivered, Ella swiftly bid us goodbye. I watched as she trotted away down Main Street. Ella was more efficient than the Internet when it came to spreading gossip, and I gave it less than fifteen minutes before all of Pumpkin Falls knew about the Farnsworths’ farm.
She was barely out of sight before Aunt True grabbed her jacket. “Truly, can you watch the store for me for a few minutes? I have an errand to run—I won’t be long, I promise.”
If Elmer Farnsworth was famously stubborn, my aunt was famously determined. The real estate developer didn’t stand a chance once she’d made up her mind. There’d been a flurry of interest from other buyers as well, including Luke and Laura Mahoney of Mahoney’s Antiques, the business next door to ours. The Mahoneys thought the property would be the perfect spot for expanding their business, and had hoped to turn the barn into a larger retail area for their store. And there was also a retired couple from New York City looking for a weekend home. But in the end, Aunt True and Professor Rusty convinced the Farnsworths to sell the farm to them instead, and now it was theirs.
Truth be told, I kind of agreed with my father. Aunt True had never mentioned anything to me before about wanting to own a farm. I gave her a sidelong glance. She was dressed in her usual part hippie, part parrot fashion: a shapeless, fuzzy lime-green sweater pulled haphazardly over camouflage leggings. Bright yellow clogs completed the outfit. Her hair was pulled up in a messy bun skewered with what looked like, and probably were, chopsticks. Chopsticks brought back from a trip to some obscure country I’d never heard of on the other side of the world, no doubt.
Was she farmer material? I took a bite of waffle and pondered this question.
My pondering was cut short by a loud honking outside as a rattletrap truck pulled into the driveway. Professor Rusty emerged from the driver’s side, wearing overalls and a huge grin. Spotting my aunt through the kitchen window, he held up a set of keys and dangled them triumphantly.
Aunt True’s face lit up. “Rusty got the keys to the farm!” Darting out the back door, she launched herself at her fiancé. We were all right behind her.
“Congratulations, homeowners!” said my mother.
“Who wants a tour?” asked Professor Rusty.
Aunt True looked over at my parents. “Do we have time?”
“No,” said my father, at the same time that my mother said, “Yes.”
Gramps and Lola were flying in for the wedding from Africa, where they were stationed in the Peace Corps. We were skipping church to drive down to Logan Airport in Boston to meet their flight from Namibia. Lauren and Pippa had been busy for days with colored pens and glitter decorating welcome signs for us to hold up to greet them when they arrived.
“Oh, come on, J. T.,” said my mother. “Stop being such a stick-in-the-mud. We can manage a quick tour and still make it to Boston in time.”
We didn’t even wait for my father to reply. Without another thought for our unfinished breakfast, my brothers and sisters and I all piled into our family’s minivan. My mother slid into the driver’s seat, then leaned out the window and smiled at my father. “Coming?”
“Do I have a choice?” he grumbled, but he gave her a reluctant smile in return. “Although I can’t say I’m not curious to see what kind of a mess True’s gotten herself into this time.”
And with that we followed my aunt and almost-uncle’s truck out of the driveway.