"Can I tell you a secret?" The small child's chubby hands clutch a crate with a shiny official cover and chocolate stains it. Smothering a laugh I reply, "What did you do now, Lizzy?"
Elizabeth hands me the official looking package and showcases her missing teeth in a wide smile, "I took it for you but you can't tell anyone or mommy will be mad. Mommy's always mad." She sniffles before continuing, "I saw it in the bakery when the sheriff left his table to get another doughnut. It was so pretty I wanted you to have it. It's a present!"
As Elizabeth shifts her feet to awkwardly plant the large box in my arms. My smile drops and I attempt to hide the panic in my eyes.
"Elizabeth! Where are you? We have more errands to run and you have no time to play!" Mrs. Anderson calls for her child and Lizzy dutifully shuffles back to her mother while clutching her frilly pink smock.
* * *
The contents of the sheriff's stolen package was now scattered across the wooden table. Looking up at me were the faces of my husband and my neighbor taken when they were conferencing discretely around the town square, bakery, butchery, and postal office. Journals and paperwork were piled in messily. There were papers dotted with frantic writing scrawled across them that caught my eye.
"Honey, I'm home!" A deep voice calls before the front door swings open. Frantically, I shove the writing up my long sleeve and gather the rest of the contents of the box before pushing them into the dumbwaiter.
"You're home early! I just started cooking some of that bison I preserved a while ago. Wash up for supper and I'll get the baby ready." I scurried out of the kitchen trying to clear the fog of suspicion looming in my mind.
I loomed over the baby's wooden cradle and read the lines by candlelight. "August 3, 1913. Our suspects in the thievery have been meeting in secret and neither of their spouses nor any other villagers have begun to notice anything amiss. We don't have enough evidence to confront them but I fear there may be another theft upon us soon."
I breath a sigh of relief before feeding the pages into the fireplace and picking up Mary. The papers were from months ago, surely if there was any truth behind them there would have been a theft since then.
* * *
"How was your day, Ethel?" My husband dabs his mouth.
"I paid a visit to the village to pick up new wool for Mary's new winter blanket."
He looks up sharply, "I thought I told you not to go into town today."
"Mary won't make it through her first winter if I don't begin preparing winter blankets and clothing for her."
Samuel strikes the table with his fist, "You could have been injured today. There was an armed robbery at the blacksmith's and I am just trying to keep you safe, Ethel."
My eyes widened in shock, "How did you know, Samuel?" I struggled to keep eye contact, "How did you know I shouldn't go into town?"
He pushed his plate back and pulled on his coat, "You will not question me, woman. I provide for this family and you will not doubt my intentions."
* * *
The clomping of hooves pulling up to the door forewarns me of someone's approach and I open the wooden door expecting to see Samuel. He had been gone for hours and the sun had already set.
"How do you do, Ma'am? I'm sorry to say that I have some bad news for you." The sheriff towered over me in the doorway.
Once seated at the table, he began to speak again, "Your husband has been arrested for multiple thefts and assisting an armed robbery. I need to ask you a few questions."
After receiving my shaky nod he continued, "Have you noticed any suspicious behavior from your husband or your neighbor? Both of them stopped at their homes for a short amount of time today. Was either of them carrying a large box? Have you seen it?"
I swallowed the lump in my throat, "I can't say that I have seen any boxes today. My husband has been as pleasant as usual and I have not noticed anything amiss next door."
* * *
After my husband had been imprisoned for three days,the court ruled that he would remain locked up for 5 years. I tried to find it in me to be upset but I was numb. Samuel may have made bad choices but I had to believe he cared for us He wanted to provide for our family, even though he went about it the wrong way. Mary wouldn't remember her dad by the time he was released and who knew how I would provide for us or find a husband before we went hungry.
Samuel died of pneumonia the next winter. I sewed a new black dress for Mary and we visited his grave often. We didn't visit the graveyard alone, however. Once his wife had been killed for witchcraft in the aftermath of the robbery, Mr. Anderson next door had begun to provide for us. In exchange, I would watch Elizabeth until he got home from work and ate dinner with us.
Eventually, he proposed to me. Partially due to our codependency on each other and partially due to our growing bond. I knew Samuel would want me to move on and that Mary needed a father as much as Elizabeth was lacking a mother figure. The girls were young and although I hadn't spent much time next door, I had always looked forward to seeing Lizzy and providing a needed rest from her strict mother.
* * *
5 Years Later
"Come on, Mama. You'll miss all the excitement!" Liz flew by me to reach the picnic blanket in the dimming sky. Mary sat staring up at the stars with her head resting on Nathan's shoulder. I hobbled over to see Liz grab her jar and both of the girls scamper off to catch some of the fireflies that glowed through the night.
Lowering myself slowly to the blanket, I took Mary's spot at Nathan's shoulder. Resting a hand on my pregnant stomach and watching our girls play together was enough to make me reflect on how much my life had changed. It had been a hard couple of years for our small family as we struggled with providing for ourselves, the townspeople accusing us of being thieves and constantly gossiping, as well as getting through the first of many long winters. Looking back, I was at peace with how everything had turned out.
I had taken Lizzie's stolen box out of the dumbwaiter and thrown it in the back of a closet after Samuel was imprisoned. Once Lizzy became family, I decided to decorate the box, fill it with her favorite things, and give it to her when she got older. It lies with her favorite possessions now and reminds us all of the crazy scheme that brought us together.
When Elizabeth gave me that present that day many years ago, she had given me the key to so much more than either of us had realized. As I reflected upon my late husband and my family's past Nathan stretched his arm around my shoulder and smiled at me, "What are you thinking about?"
"Our future." I look away from the constellations and glance at Nathan before smiling at the girls antics. The past was over and the real adventure lay ahead. "Mama, can we stay out here all night." Liz bounded over to me and I laugh, "Of course we can, darling. We can stay here forever in this perfect moment."