Honeybee

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Children Stories  |  House: Booksie Classic
It is June 1958, and a motherless Catholic schoolgirl faces a long, lonely summer.

Submitted: February 25, 2017

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Submitted: February 25, 2017

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Honeybee

By:  M. C. Pehrson

 

Chapter 1

There was nothing quite so exciting as the last day of school, with summer vacation waiting just beyond the final bell. The year was 1958. In St. Germaine’s fourth grade classroom, a delicate looking girl kept glancing at the big round clock on the wall. Emma Winberry had timid blue eyes and a dark cap of perfectly straight hair. At nine years of age, she was among the youngest students and perhaps the only one who felt some sadness over school ending, for it meant that she would lose her best and truest friend until September. In fact, Franny Brocado was her only friend, always quick to share a smile or a secret.

The class was noisier than usual as they handed in textbooks and washed their desks with rags dipped in soapy water. When everything was in order, Sister Teresa called for silence and began handing out the final report cards. Emma knew she would pass. She was a conscientious student, but dreadfully shy, and the thought of walking up to the teacher’s desk in front of everyone made her pulse race. Since the students were called in alphabetical order, Franny did not have long to wait, but as always, Emma was dead last. She sat nervously cracking her knuckles until her turn came. Scarcely breathing, she stood in her blue uniform dress and made her way to Sister Teresa.

“Good work,” Sister said, smiling as she handed over the card in its yellow sleeve.

“Thank-you, Sister,” whispered Emma. Then she was safely back in her seat, opening the card, rejoicing in the neat column of A’s penned in black ink.

At exactly noon, the dismissal bell rang. Emma gathered her belongings and met Franny out in the warm June sun. Together they walked to the street where Franny’s mother sat waiting in a shiny new Pontiac.

A lump formed in Emma’s throat. “I wish you weren’t going so far away.”

Franny hugged her. “Me, too. I’ll write and tell you all about my relatives in Portugal.”

Tears shimmered behind Franny’s glasses, and she jumped into the car. She waved out the window as it left the curb and disappeared around the corner.

For a long moment Emma just stood on the sidewalk, while happy children rushed by. Here she was, living among millions of people in the heart of California’s San Fernando Valley, yet as lonely as could be. Clutching her used workbooks and old pencil case, she wandered over to the church, donned a round chapel veil, and went inside. The cool sanctuary soothed her as she knelt in a back pew and folded her hands in prayer. With her eyes focused on the tabernacle, the distant sounds from the playground were not quite so painful. She thought of St. Germaine Cousin, for whom the parish was named. Like Emma, Germaine had lost her mother and felt friendless, too.

Deep in her heart, Emma said, “Dear Germaine, please send me a summer friend — someone nice I can play with, so I won’t feel so alone.

Afterward, she did not have far to walk home. On the church corner, she crossed a quiet side road and continued up Arbor Street, which fronted a public high school. Graceful pepper trees grew along the curb and shaded the sidewalk all the way to her house. Pausing at the gate, she turned toward the high school and scanned the windows of the second floor where Papa worked as an instructor. Robert Winberry did more than teach science; it was his life’s all-consuming passion. Ever since Mama died, he had devoted every spare minute to the projects cluttering their converted garage.

Wishing he were home, Emma sighed and jiggled the latch so the saggy wooden gate would swing open. She entered the yard. At one time there had been a beautiful green lawn, but it had withered away from neglect, leaving scruffy weed patches that harbored interesting bugs. The house was set deep on the lot, drenched in the shade of five towering trees. Its formerly white stucco looked dingy and the red paint on its trim was starting to flake, but Emma’s eyes passed over the imperfections, to the ivy framing the entryway. Mama had planted it long ago, and the creamy green and white runners were still thriving. Emma walked over to the ivy, and as she fingered a smooth leaf, her cat rose from the porch and stretched his fluffy gray body.

“Hi, Puff,” she said, bending down to scratch behind his ears. Purring happily, he followed her into the house.

Emma went straight to her bedroom, where she shed her uniform for the last time and donned pedal pushers and a blouse. No more dresses for her, if she could help it. Maybe this would be the summer of her dreams. She would climb trees, hunt for snails in the ivy, and collect the little butterflies that settled on the orange lantana bush in a sunny corner of the backyard. She would spend her allowance on model airplanes, smoke bombs, and shrunken heads from the novelty store. There would be kites and candy bars and armloads of books from the public library. She would keep herself so busy, she would hardly ever think of Franny…or Mama.

Emma’s gaze settled on the framed picture of her parents atop her maple dresser. She went over and picked it up. The background of the studio portrait looked misty, like the fog that had pressed in on the car as Papa drove them downtown for Mama’s cancer treatments. It had been the winter of Emma’s fifth year, and now the memories seemed dreamlike, all jumbled together. Zooming along freeways, elevator rides tickling her stomach, marble halls that smelled of disinfectant. Mama’s pallid face and the terrible sadness in Papa’s eyes — a sadness that had never completely gone away.

In the photograph, Papa still had lots of dark wavy hair on top of his head. Mama looked healthy and happy. Her rich blue eyes were exactly like Emma’s, and so was her funny nose. Papa said it was a “sweet” nose, and he called Emma his “Honeybee”. He had called Mama just plain “Honey”, in a gentle loving voice.

They did not get to be husband and wife very long. During the war, Papa served as a naval officer. That was when Mama met him, “as handsome as could be” in one of the uniforms that still hung in the back of his closet. Just after the war ended, they got married and moved into this same house. It was the only world Emma had ever known.

The afternoon passed quickly. Emma had everything ready for Papa’s return, but he was late getting home. Though his more serious students often delayed him, he never seemed to mind. He enjoyed talking science, and sometimes teenagers even joined him in his garage laboratory after dinner. During the summer, Papa worked on his projects all day long.

Suddenly Emma heard the front door open. She called out a greeting from the kitchen, where she was mixing tuna and cream soup for dinner — one of her specialties, served over buttered toast. Looking dapper in his suit and bow tie, Papa came in and hugged her. Emma loved the rough feel of tweed against her cheek. Though Papa was not a very tall man, his slim build and straight posture made him seem tall to Emma. It did not matter to her that he had only a fringe of hair. She thought his piercing dark eyes and chiseled lips were very handsome. When at rest, his face wore a naturally stern expression that he used to good effect in his classroom, but at heart he was gentle and loving.

“How’s my Honeybee?” he asked, sniffing the open pot. “And what’s this marvelous aroma?” As if he didn’t know, for she made the same concoction at least three times a week. On most other nights, they ate frozen potpies or bargain day cheeseburgers served by carhops.

Smiling, she pulled her report card out of her apron pocket and handed it over.

Papa’s face brightened as he read the grades. “Remarkable! Just remarkable! Great job, Honeybee!”

Emma glowed with pride.

oooo

By Saturday, the high school classes were at an end. So far, Papa had not mentioned anything about Emma’s usual summer babysitter, and she kept the fingers of her left hand crossed as they finished breakfast at the kitchen dinette table. Surely she was old enough to be on her own while Papa was in his lab, but his troubled glances did not bode well. She could tell that he was working up to an unpleasant announcement.

As Emma swallowed the last bite of her cereal and banana, Papa put down his coffee cup and said, “Your Great-Aunt Daisy is coming today.”

Emma’s heart sank. Aunt Daisy had the same single-minded nature as Papa, and each summer Emma became her special project. It meant frilly dresses and hair ribbons and pink fingernail polish. Last year, Daisy had even permed Emma’s hair — made her sit as still as can be in a beauty parlor, choking on the terrible fumes while her head ached and her eyes burned. Afterward, Emma’s hair had looked silly for weeks.

“But Papa,” she protested, “we don’t need her. We can manage fine, just the two of us!”

“School’s out,” he said gently. “I’ll be busy with my research. It’s not good for you to be alone so much. And besides…she loves you.”

That, Emma doubted. If you loved a person, why would you always be trying to change them? Close to tears, she argued, “But Daisy’s allergic to cats. She won’t let Puff inside…or my jar of butterflies, either. And she’s always threatening to pour salt on the snails and kill them.”

Papa encouraged her with a little smile. “It’s only for a couple of months. Come on, be a good Honeybee.”

“A couple of months? It’s closer to three, Papa!” Emma wanted to prove that she was too grown-up for a babysitter, but a sob escaped her and she ran from the room.

All the tears in the world could not keep Aunt Daisy from arriving. By Sunday afternoon, she had settled in and started fussing over Emma’s short “limp” hair. Emma knew what was coming next, and hurried out to the laboratory where her father was pecking away at his typewriter.

“Papa, she’s thinking about perms again! Don’t let her touch my hair!”

He chuckled. “Tell her your papa says ‘no perm’.”

When Emma relayed the message, Aunt Daisy pursed her lips together and little crinkles appeared around her eyes. She was thin and energetic, like all the Winberrys, with her gray hair stylishly curled. Wiping her busy hands on her apron, she said, “Well, we’ll see about that.”

This time, Daisy had brought along a portable sewing machine, and now she refocused her efforts in that direction. She did not believe that females of any age should wear pants. Dress patterns took over the dinette table, and pinking shears cut bolts of flowered cloth. All week there were fittings while Emma stood motionless, dreading the poke of a stray pin. When she complained to Papa, he reminded her of the pot roast dinners and frosted layer cakes. True, Aunt Daisy was a good cook. They were eating high on the hog, but Emma would rather eat out of cans than wear dresses every single day of the week. She had to be careful of dirt and rips and even a spot of glue. Skirts made it hard to climb trees, and when her roller skates caught in a sidewalk crack, her knees paid a bloody price. Daisy and her silly dresses were spoiling all of Emma’s summer fun.

 

Chapter 2

One blistering June day, Emma wandered into her father’s lab and watched him tinker in the draft of a swamp cooler. For once, he was alone. The lure of the beach must have won over even the most loyal of his teenage protégés.

Drawing a deep breath, she said, “Papa, you promised we’d go out and get ice cream sodas when the weather got really hot.”

He did not look up. Bending over a strange instrument, he answered, “Sure we will, Honeybee. Maybe tomorrow…” That’s how it was when Papa was working. Tomorrow, always tomorrow.

Emma was feeling disappointed when he straightened up and pointed out the nearest window.

“See that brown haze?” he asked.

She nodded. There was enough smog to burn her eyes.

“It’s bad today and unless something’s done, it’s only going to get worse. More and more families are moving into the Valley. More people are driving cars.” It was one of Papa’s favorite subjects, and he was slipping into his teacher’s voice. “What we need is cheap, clean-burning fuel, without all the harmful byproducts of gasoline. Hydrogen is the answer. Why, if…”

Emma yawned, like she always did when he started in on the virtues of hydrogen. Lately, he had set aside all of his other projects to concentrate on his dream of hydrogen-powered engines. Aunt Daisy did not like it one bit. She would say, “One day, you’re going to blow us all to kingdom come.” But Papa insisted there was no danger from his experiments, not like the threat of bombs that sent Emma and her classmates scurrying under their school desks during the monthly air raid drills. Though Emma believed him, she still wanted her ice cream soda and it must have shown on her face.

Reaching into his pants pocket, Papa brought out a crumpled dollar bill. “Go up to the store and pick out a nice carton of ice cream — any flavor you like. We’ll have some for dessert.”

He had not said anything about telling Aunt Daisy, so Emma bypassed the house. Through a partially open window, she could hear the sewing machine humming as it added more frills to another sundress. She opened the gate and started down the blazing hot sidewalk. Arbor Street was always quiet this time of year, with no revving cars or motorcycles tearing in and out of the high school. It was a neighborhood of elderly people whose children had grown up and moved away. Some of them liked Emma, but others saw her as a threat to their carefully tended flowers, and did not like her anywhere near the blossoms. On an afternoon like this, most everyone was indoors, out of the heat. Even the squirrels that ran along the power lines were taking their naps, so Emma stopped to admire a few roses along the way.

At the end of Arbor, she came to a busy roadway lined with slender, towering palm trees. There she stopped to ponder the strangest sight in the neighborhood. Directly across the street, a weathered wood fence enclosed an entire city block. From this angle, Emma could see the roof of an old red barn. Summer and winter alike, there was always an intriguing whiff of animal manure. Could it be from a horse? Smack dab in the middle of the city?

Lured by the open knotholes in the fence, she crossed the street. Somewhere beyond the fence, a dog barked and went silent. She cautiously touched the rough surface of a loose plank.  

“Hello there!” spoke a cheery voice, quite near.

Emma jumped back and found a green eye twinkling at her through the very knothole that she had planned to use.

The owner of the eye giggled. “Come on in. It’s like a gate…I’ll show you.”

Emma spoke in a near-whisper, as she always did when she felt shy. “Oh, I can’t…I shouldn’t…”

“What did you say?”

The board swung on a single long nail, creating an opening just large enough to squeeze through. Out stepped a freckled girl in blue denim overalls. Her pretty red hair was parted down the middle and hung in two long braids. She was a couple of inches taller than Emma, with a huskier build.

Smiling broadly, the stranger said, “Won’t you come in? I’m Susan Kester and I live here. What’s your name?”

Emma’s heart was thumping. With one hand in her dress pocket, she gripped Papa’s dollar bill. Buying ice cream — it was the perfect excuse to leave. But red-haired Susan seemed so friendly, so welcoming…and Emma had not gotten a single postcard from Franny Brocado.

Suddenly she found herself saying, “I’m Emma Winberry. I live just down the way…with my father. His name is Robert. He teaches at the high school.” Embarrassed, she glanced down at her pink gingham sundress. “I don’t usually wear this sort of thing. Great-Aunt Daisy is visiting, and she makes me. Her real name is Marguerite.”

Susan laughed. “That’s clever. Marguerites are a kind of daisy.”

Emma had not expected Susan to know that, and she wondered about the girl’s age. To Emma, age was a matter of great importance. Her dearest wish was to be ten, like most of her classmates. She could imagine nothing more wonderful than being ten years old. She would want to stay ten forever — or maybe twelve — certainly no older than that. And Papa would stay just the same, too.

As if Susan was a mind reader, she said, “I’m almost ten.”

“Me, too!” Emma said in surprise, and followed her through the old fence.

Susan chattered nonstop as she led Emma past the big red barn and stopped at the base of a windmill. It seemed that Susan had a little brother named Tommy. Her mother was named Christina, and Uncle Lars came over a lot. Sometimes he even took them to drive-in movies.

Just now, Emma was more interested in a pungent row of eucalyptus trees shedding their stringy bark. Down on the ground, a colorful assortment of chickens fluffed their feathers in dust wallows.

Susan said, “It’s nice in here, away from all the pavement. Mom says the truck garden makes it cooler.”

Confused, Emma glanced around. “Truck garden?”

“Over in the field. We mostly grow tomatoes, corn, and melons. Some we eat, and the rest we sell to markets.”

Emma scuffed at the dirt with her sandal. “We used to buy fruit and vegetables out in the country…back before…” Remembering her mother, she fell silent.

Susan gazed at her steadily. “Back before what?”

Emma swallowed hard, her shyness intensifying. “We’d go for Sunday drives…back before…before Mom got sick and died.”

“Oh…” Susan’s eyes melted with sympathy. “My dad’s been dead for a couple of years. He had heart trouble.”

Emma did not know what to say.

A German Shepherd came ambling up, his pink tongue lolling as he panted in the heat. Suddenly cheerful again, Susan dropped to her knees and petted him. “Hey Buddy, this is Emma. She’s my new friend.”

oooo

 

“Well, Emma Winberry, aren’t you just the cutest thing!”

The old clapboard house was pleasantly cool inside, but Emma’s face burned from Mrs. Kester’s attention. Ducking her head, she mumbled, “Nice to meet you.”

Susan’s mother was a very pretty woman with green eyes just like Susan’s, but her hair was golden and she wore it up off her neck. She seemed kind and motherly in her shirtwaist dress as she offered them fresh-baked cookies.

Since Tommy was napping, Susan took Emma back outside. Emma wanted to see everything, starting with the horses. There were two of them — each with its own stall that opened into a shared corral. Pogo was a black and white Shetland pony. Brownie was a small chestnut mare with lovely, soulful eyes.

Susan said, “Pogo is too little for us, but we can go double on Brownie. Want to ride? She’s real gentle.”

“Can I really?” This was turning out even better than Emma had hoped.

Susan led Brownie into the barn and slipped a bridle over her patient head. After cinching on a saddle, she mounted easily. Then she reached down and helped pull Emma up behind her. Atop the horse, Emma arranged her dress as best as she could. She wrapped her arms around Susan’s sturdy waist and held tight as Brownie walked out of the barn. It was wonderful being up so high, feeling the horse move under her.

Susan set out for the garden, guiding Brownie around the perimeter, so the horse would not trample the plants. Beyond the fence, Emma could hear traffic whizzing by, and it seemed to come from another world…far, far away.

She spied a thick grove of trees and pointed to it. “That’s pretty. Can we go over there?”

“Sure, that’s the orchard.” Susan laughed. “Hang on!”

Suddenly Brownie was racing along at a smooth canter. The sensation of speed made Emma shiver with delight. At the orchard, they dismounted and ate their fill of sweet, juicy apricots. Afterward, they lay on their backs watching the birds peck fruit and twitter among the leaves. Time slipped away until Emma noticed a delicious aroma drifting from Mrs. Kester’s kitchen. It smelled like dinner.

Startled, she jumped to her feet and tried to brush off her dress. “Oh no, it’s later than I thought! I have to go home — right now!”

Susan sighed and got up. “Okay. We’ll ride over to the fence.” Looking hopefully at Emma, she added, “But you’ll come back again, won’t you?”

“I sure will,” Emma promised. One afternoon together, and they were already fast friends.

Emma ran all the way home and burst into her father’s laboratory. Overheated and breathless, she cried, “Papa, I met a girl! She’s nine, like me, only she has green eyes and the prettiest red hair you ever saw!”

Papa glanced up from his worktable and looked relieved. “There you are, Honeybee. Does Aunt Daisy know you’re back?”

“No, but…”

“Better go tell her.” Picking up a tool, he muttered, “…Before she has a nervous breakdown. You gave her quite a fright, disappearing like that.”

“Sorry, Papa.”

“You’d best apologize to her. I’m afraid you’re in for a terrible scolding.”

Papa was right. As Emma crept into the kitchen, Aunt Daisy turned from the stove and pounced on her. “Well, it’s about time! Young lady, where have you been? Just look at you! Your dress is all dirty! Are those foxtails I see?” Her nose twitched in disapproval. “What in the world have you been doing? I declare, you smell like a barnyard!”

Emma hung her head. “Sorry, Aunt Daisy. I was just up around the corner…at the little farm.”

“The farm, you say? Well, for someone as timid as a mouse, you certainly get around. Go wash your hands. It’s time to eat.”

Dinner was uneasy. After devouring so many apricots, Emma could only pick at her food. Aunt Daisy kept questioning her about the Kesters and making it plain that Emma had no business wandering over there without anyone’s permission.

Papa tried to distract Daisy with his research. “Electrolysis,” he said out of the blue. “Daisy, have you ever heard of the process? An electrical current breaks water into hydrogen and oxygen. Imagine using ordinary tap water in your gas tank.”

Daisy made a face. “You and your hydrogen! You won’t be satisfied until you blow us all up.”

“Now Daisy,” Papa said amiably, “I’m not building a bomb. Hydrogen is all around us. The shortening you used in these biscuits was made by adding hydrogen to liquid fat.”

“Do you think I’m a simpleton?” snapped Aunt Daisy. “I was teaching school when you were in diapers. In fact, I changed them a time or two.”

Papa sighed. Pushing aside his plate, he said, “Honeybee, I could sure use some of that ice cream.”

Emma’s breath caught in her throat. The ice cream! Shrinking down in her chair, she felt around in her dress pocket and put the unused dollar on the table. “I forgot.”

Aunt Daisy huffed. “You send her to the store and she hangs out with strangers, stuffing herself silly, instead. I’m surprised she didn’t lose the money. Robert, I do hope you’re going to punish her.”

Emma could hardly bear the sadness on Papa’s face as he said, “Aunt Daisy’s right. No television tonight, Emma. Go straight to bed.”

Emma ached at the thought of missing her favorite TV show, but got up without a word and headed down the hallway.

Aunt Daisy called after her, “Take a bath first!”

Emma took her time washing, and got into her cool seersucker pajamas. She felt terrible — not only for herself, but for Papa. Because of her thoughtless behavior, he had been forced to side with cranky Aunt Daisy.

In her bedroom, she heard a scratching at a window and found her cat begging to come inside. Unlatching the screen, she pushed her hand through the opening and rubbed Puff’s head. Then she picked up a Nancy Drew mystery and settled into bed. The friendly little room soothed her. She loved its hardwood floor and creamy walls and the yellow curtains that matched her bedspread. Over in the corner was a little card table where she put together models and worked jigsaw puzzles. Everything was snug and familiar. Even the closet didn’t scare her like it used to, when she was much younger.

She was getting sleepy when Papa came in.

Sitting beside her on the bed, he kissed her forehead and said, “Goodnight, Honeybee.”

Her heart felt like it would burst with love. “Papa, sorry I made so much trouble.”

His dark eyes smiled. “I’m glad you have a new friend…but next time, let us know where you are, okay? We don’t want to worry our Aunt Daisy.”

Emma hugged him. “I don’t want to worry you either, Papa.”

 

Chapter 3

Deep in the night, Emma awakened. The crickets chirped loudly outside her windows, and as she stretched and opened her eyes, she became aware of a thin ribbon of light beneath her closet door. It had been a long time since she had seen that ominous glow, but suddenly all the old memories revived and fear clutched at her heart. She began to scream.

There was a sound of footsteps in the hallway. Papa opened the door wide, letting in the hall light, and he came over to her bed. She stopped screaming and began to cry.

Hovering over her, Papa said, “Bad dreams?”

“No,” she sobbed, “it was the closet…again. There was a light under the door. I saw it, I really did!”

But they could both see that the closet was dark now. Could it have been a dream? No, it wasn’t a dream; Emma was sure of it. The invisible tunnel had reopened in her closet floor, a damp foggy tunnel leading to a hidden world populated by villains.

Now that Papa was here, the fear began to leave her. With his help she calmed down, but it was a long time before she fell back to sleep.

oooo

The sun was shining when Emma walked into the kitchen. Aunt Daisy was flipping pancakes, and Papa sat at the table drinking coffee.

“Good morning,” Emma said, testing the waters.

Daisy’s sharp gaze settled on her. “That reminds me. What was all the ruckus last night?”

Papa flashed Emma a warning, but she went heedlessly ahead. “I saw a light under my closet door. It comes from an underground tunnel where mean old John McCormack lives.”

Aunt Daisy looked astonished. With her hands on her narrow hips, she turned and glared at Papa. “What’s all this nonsense about an underground tunnel? And who’s John McCormack? Wasn’t that the name of…”

“One moment please,” Papa swiftly interrupted. “Emma, can you go out front and get the newspaper?”

Emma left the kitchen, but stopped and listened just around the corner. Papa was saying, “Yes, John McCormack was Virginia’s doctor. After she died, Emma turned him into a make-believe villain. Of course, there’s no tunnel. It’s all a dream, but it feels very real to her. Just let her be.”

Just let her be.

The firmness in Papa’s voice made Emma smile, and she left to go get his paper. It felt good knowing that he respected her feelings in a way Aunt Daisy never did. Not for the first time, she wondered why he put up with the domineering old woman. For babysitting and wholesome meals? Surely he could find someone better. 

oooo

Mrs. Kester was very different from Aunt Daisy. She was so gentle and sweet that Emma quickly warmed to her. Almost every day Emma left for the Kester farm as soon as her chores were finished. Aunt Daisy showed her disapproval by heaping on additional work, but Emma told Papa and he put his foot down.

One particularly hot evening they quarreled right in front of Emma. Papa had come in from the lab for a glass of lemonade. The television was tuned to a comedy show, but there was nothing funny about what happened.

“Robert.” Aunt Daisy’s voice had a sharp edge that always meant trouble. Sitting as straight as a poker, she said, “I think this business with the Kesters has gone on quite long enough.”

Papa stood with his shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows. “Emma’s made a friend, that’s all.”

Daisy briskly fanned herself with a folded section of the newspaper. “A friend! What do you know about that Kester girl? About any of them?”

“They sound like nice people.”

“Everyone sounds nice to you!” Daisy continued in a wounded voice, “I thought I was here to watch the child. Virginia wouldn’t have let her run wild like this.”

The words pierced Emma’s heart like a knife, but it was the pain on Papa’s face that made her speak up. “I’m not running wild! Mama would have liked Susan, I just know it!”

Aunt Daisy made a sound of disgust. Before she could say anything more, Papa found the perfect way to end the argument. “Emma, I’m sure your friend is a very nice girl. It’s time that you invite her over here, so we can all see for ourselves.”

 

Chapter 4

Emma would have thought it impossible for anyone to dislike Susan Kester, who was so good-natured and outgoing. But after Susan’s visit, Aunt Daisy declared her “far too boyish and forward”. Fortunately, Papa saw things differently. He liked Susan so well that he began calling her “Sue Bee”, much to Susan’s delight. Even so, Emma worried. Aunt Daisy never changed her opinions. She just kept bringing up the same complaints over and over again, hoping to wear Papa down. And sometimes she did.

But as the days went by, it became apparent that Papa would stand firm when it came to Susan. As long as Emma behaved, she could visit the Kesters regularly, groom Brownie and Pogo, gather eggs, and help with other farm chores that seemed more like play. And Susan could visit her.

One windy afternoon, Susan came over to Emma’s house, pulling her pony behind her. Storm clouds piled up in the sky. Thunder began to crackle, and raindrops pattered down. Leaving Pogo in the yard nibbling weeds, they retreated to the back porch and watched lightning streak down. Huddled together, the girls began to talk about their fears. In hushed tones, Emma swore Susan to secrecy. Thunder rattled the old house as she told the story of the underground tunnel that sometimes appeared in her closet.

“And now it’s starting again,” she confided. “McCormack is getting ready. He’s going to make a move, I know it.”

Susan’s eyes were as wide as saucers. “What does he want?”

The answer came so swiftly that Emma wondered why she had never thought of it before. “He wants to steal Papa’s hydrogen experiment. That way, he can make a bomb.”

Susan gasped. “A bomb! We have to call the police!”

“No.” Emma said. “The opening in the closet comes and goes. They’d never believe us.” Feeling very important, she finished, “This is something we have to handle on our own.”

It took Emma a couple of days to devise a thrilling plan. Taking Susan up into the barn’s hayloft, she spoke very softly. “John McCormack has an agent named Ypsa. She does most of his dirty work. That night when I saw the light under the closet door, she came out of the tunnel. She’s living in our world now, not far from here, in an apartment…just waiting for the right moment to strike. I have evidence.”

Susan was breathless. “Evidence?”

Emma had the proof ready. She pulled out a smudged scrap of paper. “Look at this. I found it outside my bedroom, in the ivy.”

The peculiar printing read, “BLVD APT RDY YPSA BE ON AL---“

“Boulevard apartment ready,” Emma said with confidence. “Ypsa be on alert. That’s her name, Ypsa. We need to locate her before she gets her hands on Papa’s experiment. Then we’ll notify the police.” Emma felt tingly with excitement. “You’ll help, won’t you? We can walk up the boulevard and check all the names on the apartment mailboxes. But she might not have her name out where everyone can see it. We’ll need to talk to the apartment managers, too.”

Susan was usually bolder than Emma, but this time she just shook her head. “I don’t know if Mom will let me.”

“Don’t tell her,” Emma said. “Just say you’re going over to my house. We’ll go there later, so it won’t be a lie.”

Susan thought it over. “Can’t you do it by yourself?”

“That would be too dangerous. Besides,” Emma admitted, “I’m awful shy. I could never do all that by myself.”

“You don’t seem the least bit shy anymore…at least around me. But if you really need me…” With an uneasy smile, Susan relented. “Okay, I’ll help.”

“Tomorrow, then.”

oooo

Thinking of the wonderful adventure ahead of her, Emma could hardly sleep. The day dawned clear and warm. After her chores, she packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for “a picnic with Susan”, and set out for the Kester farm. Susan was ready and waiting at the fence with her own brown bag lunch, but she seemed nervous.

“I don’t know about this,” she wavered. “What if Ypsa sees us? We could get hurt.”

“Not as long as we stick together,” Emma assured her. For once, she was braver than Susan and it felt good. “Ypsa won’t dare try anything in broad daylight — not with two against one. Come on.”

Eager to be on her way, she took off at a brisk pace. Susan followed without much enthusiasm. Up at the corner they turned left. For a while the boulevard ran alongside the Kester property, but then there was nothing but city. Traffic rushed by as Emma and Susan walked from one apartment complex to another, searching for the mysterious Ypsa. The day grew hotter and hotter. They sneaked inside the cool lobby of a three-story building and quenched their thirst at a drinking fountain. Then they crossed another busy intersection and ate their sandwiches as they trudged homeward, checking more apartments along the way. No one had ever heard of Ypsa.

The girls were worn out when they reached Emma’s house. Splashing cold water on their overheated faces, they kicked off their sandals and flopped side-by-side on her bed.

As the air from the hallway cooler drifted over them, Emma revived a bit and said, “She must be using an alias — an assumed name. If we only knew what she looked like…”

oooo

At dinnertime, Aunt Daisy fussed over Emma’s sunburned nose. “Heavenly days, child! Don’t you know enough to stay out of the sun?”

Thinking of Susan’s fair skin, Emma shoveled ham and potato casserole in her mouth and kept quiet. The worst of her flush had quickly faded, but Susan was as red as ever when she left for home.

Just before dessert, the phone rang. Papa went into the living room to answer it. From the table, Emma picked out an occasional word of his conversation, and her conscience stirred uneasily. Out of habit, she began to crack her knuckles.

“Stop that!” ordered Aunt Daisy.

Suddenly Papa called out, “Emma Rose, come in here this instant!”

Emma’s stomach cinched tight. Heart pounding, she went into the living room with Aunt Daisy following right on her heels.

Papa was still on the phone. His eyes snapped with disapproval as they settled on his blushing Honeybee. “I’m talking to Mrs. Kester. She has informed me that you and her daughter went traipsing all over town today…searching apartments for a secret agent.” His attention was drawn back to the earpiece, and then he spoke to Susan’s mother. “Ypsa, you say? And how would you spell that?” His chiseled jaw tightened and one eyebrow shot up. “Try spelling it backwards. A-S-P-Y. A spy.”

Aunt Daisy clasped her hands over her bosom and loudly declared, “I knew that Kester girl was a bad influence.”

Papa frowned at Daisy and attempted to cover the mouthpiece with his hand, but apparently Mrs. Kester was speaking. Papa answered, “No, Mrs. Kester. No. My work cannot possibly be used to make a hydrogen bomb. I’m afraid your daughter has been the victim of a prank…yes, a childish prank. I assure you, Emma will be hearing from me.”

He put the phone back on its cradle and sighed. “Well, that was embarrassing,” he muttered. Now that the exchange was over, he seemed more troubled than angry as he turned to his daughter. “Emma…Honeybee…what were you thinking? You had Susan scared out of her wits, and that little jaunt of yours burned her to a crisp.”

Aunt Daisy clicked her tongue in displeasure. “Everyone know that redheads have sensitive skin. What were you thinking, filling her up with your nonsense? I declare!”

Emma ducked her head and swallowed hard. “I’m sorry, Papa. I didn’t mean for Susan to get hurt.” But a rebellious part of her was thinking, It serves her right, blabbing my secrets to everyone.

Papa put his hands on her shoulders and made her look into his eyes. “Emma, listen to me. You can’t go around letting your fantasies take over. You and I are driving over to the Kesters, and you’re going to apologize. Right now.”

 

Chapter 5

It was a short, silent ride to the Kester house. Papa parked in the gravel driveway that fronted the boulevard, and then walked Emma to the door. She felt angry and humiliated as he introduced himself to Mrs. Kester and briefly explained the purpose of the visit.

“Please…call me Christine,” said Mrs. Kester. She smelled of lilacs and wore a pretty green dress that matched her eyes perfectly. With a gracious smile, she added, “It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Winberry.”

“Robert,” said Papa.

They went inside. Susan and little Tommy sat on the living room floor, listening to a radio show. The skin cream coating Susan’s sunburn gave off an unpleasant odor. At her mother’s request, Susan rose and came over. Her eyes settled coldly on Emma, making it clear that she refused any blame.

Emma could not help glaring as she choked out her apology. “I’m sorry I dragged you around town in the sun.”

“Is that all you have to say?” Papa asked, obviously expecting more.

After a bit of thought, Emma added, “I should never have told you all those things.” True enough. She was sorry that she had ever confided in the faithless creature.

With a scathing look, Susan turned and walked down the hallway. Papa and Mrs. Kester went off into a corner and had a private discussion while Emma stood alone.

When they came back to Emma, Mrs. Kester touched her cheek fondly. “You certainly have a big imagination.” She looked over at Papa. “She must get it from you, Robert. Emma says you’re a research scientist?”

It sounded strange, hearing her call Papa by his first name.

Papa must have thought so, too. Looking thoroughly embarrassed, he said, “I teach science over at the high school…but I do have some ongoing projects.”

Mrs. Kester glanced at Emma and smiled. “Well, you have a very nice daughter. We love having her around. She’s a big help, and Sue’s been so lonely since…well, since her father passed on.”

The lady actually seemed to blush as she met Papa’s eyes. It was a very awkward moment. Then they all said goodbye, and that was the end of it.

oooo

Emma was forbidden to play with Susan for a week. It meant she would miss Susan’s birthday, but that was just fine with her, because she did not intend to ever set foot on the Kester property again. Several times each day, she stared into her open closet, willing the invisible tunnel to appear. She would show Papa and Aunt Daisy that evil John McCormack was lurking in the foggy regions below ground, and most of all she would show big-mouthed Susan Kester.

The week ended with no sign of a tunnel. Nothing seemed like much fun to Emma anymore. The sunburn on her nose was peeling as she wandered into Papa’s lab and found him alone at his worktable. Slumping into a chair, she watched him scribble notes on a pad of paper. Now and then she let out a deep sigh.

Finally Papa looked up and said, “You seem mighty unhappy, Honeybee. Why aren’t you out playing with Susan?”

Emma frowned. “She’s not my friend anymore.”

“Is that what she told you?”

“I’m not talking to her. She spilled all our secrets. She got me in trouble.”

Deep creases appeared between his eyebrows as he penciled a few notes. Then out of the blue he said, “I’ve been thinking about those ice cream sodas…”

Emma sat up straight. “Really?”

“Wouldn’t it be nice…if we invited Mrs. Kester and her children along? Just to be neighborly.”

Emma groaned. “Oh, Papa…no.”

But Papa had made up his mind. The very next day, Emma accompanied him as he picked up the Kesters and drove down the boulevard. Though she begged to sit up front with Papa and Mrs. Kester, she found herself banished to the back seat. Tommy sat fidgeting in the middle. Doing her utmost to ignore Susan, Emma stared out the side window, utterly miserable.

The soda shop was crowded, but they managed to find two small tables within sight of each other. Emma tried to cheer herself with the thought of a double chocolate soda, but all the joy went out of it when the grownups decided that she would share a table with Susan. A jukebox was playing an Elvis Presley tune. Emma drummed her fingers in time to the music and studied the ceiling fans until their orders arrived. As she slurped soda through her straw, she aimed a quick frown at Susan. Pink and peeling, Susan glowered back.

Emma’s blood began to boil. “You told!” she hissed. “You swore to keep it secret, and you told!”

“You lied!” Susan shot back. “There is no John McCormack or Ypsa! There’s no underground tunnel, either!”

Emma had no ready answer. Picking up her long spoon, she tasted a sweet dab of ice cream. It seemed a shame to let anger spoil a perfectly good soda. Grudgingly she admitted, “I never thought of it as lying. It was more like a story…but a lot more real.”

Susan’s flaky scowl faded. “I didn’t want to tell. I only did it because I was worried about you…and your father. He’s awful nice, you know.”

That was one point they could agree on. Emma knew how much Susan missed her own father, because Emma missed Mama the very same way. They both knew the pain of losing a parent.

Her heart softening, Emma said, “In that case, I guess it’s okay…”

“Then we’re friends again?” Susan asked hopefully.

Emma still found it amazing that someone who had horses and chickens wanted shy little Emma Winberry as a friend. Right then and there she smiled at Susan, and the summer took on a fresh new glow.

 

Chapter 6

The idea of going to church together came from Susan, but Emma embraced it with enthusiasm. It had not taken them long to discover their shared faith and membership in the parish of St. Germaine. Thinking back to her First Holy Communion, Emma seemed to remember a pretty girl with fiery hair streaming down the back of her white dress — one of the public school children who seemed like such oddities to Emma and her classmates. Why would any child not want to be taught by the good sisters at St. Germaine School? Now Emma knew the answer. At least for Susan, it was a question of money. Emma felt sad that Susan’s mother couldn’t afford the tuition, and told her father about it.

Quickly she added, “But can’t we start attending Sunday Mass together? Susan’s been going at 8:00, and we’re always up by then. We could sit in the same pew.” Full of hope, she pushed on. “Then maybe sometime…you and I could go on an outing afterward, like we used to. Take a drive in the country, have a picnic.”

They were in the backyard, gathering figs from her favorite climbing tree. Papa paused and seemed to look inward. “Go for a drive? Maybe. But I don’t know about church. Christina…Mrs. Kester…might not want us tagging along, sharing a pew with her family.”

Emma didn’t understand. “Why not? We’re all friends, aren’t we? Susan and I can sit in the middle. You can sit next to me. Tommy and Mrs. Kester can go on the other side of Susan.”

Papa gave her an indulgent smile. “I see. You have it all figured out. Well, if Mrs. Kester invites us, I’m willing.”

On Saturday morning the phone rang, and Papa had a pleasant conversation with Mrs. Kester while Emma and Aunt Daisy sat nearby. Emma was thrilled when he hung up the phone and announced that they would all be going to the eight o’clock Mass tomorrow.

Aunt Daisy never went to church, but she sometimes voiced opinions about people who did. She had never pretended to like the Kesters. Sitting stiffly with a lap full of sewing, she warned Papa to “be careful around that widow woman”. When a sharp look from Papa put an end to Daisy’s comments, Emma smiled to herself. It seemed as if he was being unusually protective of Susan’s pretty, sweet-natured mother. Though Emma thought Mrs. Kester was wonderful, it had never occurred to her that Papa might also like “that widow woman”. The notion gave rise to a whole host of marvelous fantasies, but this time Emma kept them strictly between herself and St. Germaine, whose patient ears were always open to confidences.

oooo

Sunday morning dawned warm and clear. In church, Emma and Susan sat side by side in their best dresses, following the prayers of the Mass in their missals. Afterward, everyone chatted as they walked down Arbor Street together. Little Tommy was fascinated with Papa’s fedora hat, and Papa let him wear it. Partway along the street, Papa picked him up and carried him while Tommy reached out to touch the drooping pepper tree branches.

It was the best of days until a sudden new worry struck Emma like a thunderbolt. Susan was talking about her Uncle Lars coming over to the farm later. Emma deliberately slowed down and dropped behind the adults so they could not overhear her softly spoken question.

“Susan, why does your uncle hang around so much? He’s over at your place a lot.”

“Well,” Susan said, “in the spring he runs the tractor and does a lot of the planting. Then all summer, he helps with the garden and picks fruit, too. He uses his truck to drive everything to market. Half the profits go to him.”

“But doesn’t he have a regular job?”

Susan hopped over a crack in the sidewalk. “Sort of. I know he paints houses sometimes, but he’s not married and he doesn’t have any kids, so I guess he wouldn’t need a whole lot of money.”

Not married! Emma thought of big strapping Lars, of how fair and handsome he looked working out in the sun. She had seen him joking back and forth with Susan’s mother, had heard him call her by a pet name, “Tina”. Emma’s scholarly father would not stand a chance against someone like Lars. Unless…

By the time Emma and Papa turned in at their house, she was already hatching a plan. She finished her breakfast quickly, and instead of begging Papa to take her on a drive, she asked to go over to the farm.

When Papa gave his permission, Aunt Daisy frowned in disapproval. “Well then,” she said, “get out of that Sunday dress, or you’ll ruin it for sure.”

“I’ll wear pants,” Emma answered, darting for the bedroom.

“Oh, no you won’t!” declared Daisy.

oooo

In a flowery sundress, Emma squeezed through the Kester fence and deliberately headed away from the house. Keeping an eye out for Uncle Lars, she walked the dirt path that encircled the huge garden. The corn had grown almost as tall as her, but she had only traveled a few yards when she heard the digging of a hoe and glimpsed a straw hat bobbing above the stalks. By the sound of it, Lars was alone.

Her heart pounding with the urgency of her mission, Emma found the row he was hoeing and made her way toward him.

Lars saw her coming. Straightening up, he pushed the hat off his handsome forehead and smiled at her. “Hello there, Emma. Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

“Real beautiful.” Emma did not feel like smiling. Working up her courage, she said, “I bet you think Mrs. Kester is awful pretty, too.”

His blue eyes twinkled with laughter. “Well, now that you mention it, Tina is rather nice-looking, yes.”

Curling a corn leaf around one trembling finger, Emma stared at it and said, “She has a boyfriend, you know. A secret boyfriend.”

Lars was silent. Emma expected him to show some jealousy, but when he finally spoke, his voice was still full of good humor. “A secret boyfriend? Can’t be much of a secret if you’re telling me.”

Emma studied his kindly face. “Well, it’s true. Don’t you care?”

He shrugged and swung the hoe at a couple of weeds. “Not as long as he’s a nice fella.”

Emma was thoroughly confused. “But you like Mrs. Kester, I can tell…and you even call her Tina.”

Lars stopped his work and chuckled. “I’ve been calling her Tina since we were kids…and I should think I would like my own sister.”

It took a moment to sink in. “You mean…you’re her brother?”

“That’s what Mama and Papa told me.”

“Oh!” Relief took the edge off Emma’s embarrassment, but she had to cover her tracks fast. “I…I thought maybe you were related to Susan’s dad. Forget about the boyfriend, okay? Like I said, it’s a secret. Top secret.”

Suddenly serious, he said, “Then maybe you shouldn’t be spreading it around.”

Emma rushed back home and hid in her bedroom, waiting for the telephone to ring. “Hello. Mr. Winberry? Sorry to say, we’ve had another little incident with your daughter…something about a boyfriend…a secret boyfriend of mine…” How Aunt Doris would rant! There would be a week or more without Susan, and Papa might never see Mrs. Kester again.

Alone in her room, Emma anguished. Oh, why couldn’t I keep my nose out of it?

Despite her concern, the day ended quietly. All week she walked on tiptoes, expecting trouble at any moment, but the dreaded complaint never came. As time went on, Sunday mornings began to include outings with the Kesters. There were trips to the seashore, picnics in the mountains, and get-togethers at each other’s homes. Then, one wonderful day at Mass, Papa rearranged the seating and put himself right next to Christina Kester. Emma’s heart sang.

 

Chapter 7

August brought a heat wave. Shortly before Monday’s dinner, Papa appeared in a light summer suit, freshly shaved and smelling of Old Spice. He whistled as he picked up his hat and car keys.

“I’ll be gone all evening,” he told Emma. “Be a good Honeybee for your Aunt Daisy.”

She gaped at him in disbelief. “You’re not working in the lab tonight? Why not? Where are you going?”

Silently smiling, he put on his hat and walked out the door.

An aroma of bell peppers and onion drew Emma into the kitchen. A pan sizzled on the stove. Nearby, Aunt Daisy was beating eggs into a froth, her lips tightly pursed together.

Emma recognized the signs of anger, but curiosity drove her to ask, “Do you know where Papa’s going?”

“Never mind,” Daisy snapped.

Just then, Emma felt a thrilling suspicion. “Can I call Susan?”

“May I.  No, you may not. Wash your hands and set the table. This omelet will be ready in a minute.”

Emma obediently washed. She put two plates and silverware on the dinette table, filled two glasses with ice water, and set out fresh cloth napkins. Then she sidled into the living room and dialed the phone slowly and quietly.

Susan answered on the third ring. She said that her mother had just gone out the door, all dressed up. Uncle Lars was watching her and Tommy.

Emma’s heart raced as she put down the receiver. Her head filled with a dreamy vision of two lonely people together, driving through the night in an old Ford.

“Emma Winberry!”

Her entire body jumped in surprise. Turning, she found Aunt Daisy eyeing her from the kitchen doorway.

“Young lady, I told you no phone calls!”

Emma realized that her hand was still touching the phone, and quickly pulled it away. In her most contrite voice she said, “Oh…that’s right. Sorry.”

It did nothing to soften her aunt, and now Emma knew why. Papa was out with ‘that Kester widow’.”

oooo

Sometime after dark, sharp voices awoke Emma, but they did not come from a tunnel in the closet. They came from just beyond her wall, in the living room. The next morning before breakfast, Aunt Daisy appeared with her suitcases and coldly asked Papa for a ride to the train station. The car smelled of Mrs. Kester’s lilac perfume as Emma got in the back seat. 

At every red light, Aunt Daisy mumbled in angry snippets. “…running around at all hours…taking advantage of an old woman’s kindness…maybe a father should watch his own child once in a while…might find out it’s not so easy…not with that saucy little…”

Papa’s hands gripped the steering wheel tightly. At the station, he loaded Daisy’s sewing machine and suitcases on a curbside cart. Strangers were standing around, looking at their watches and smoking cigarettes.

“Thank-you for all your help,” he said, embracing Daisy’s rigid body. “Have a safe trip.”

She gave one of her famous huffs.

Standing by the car, Emma made herself say, “Goodbye, Aunt Daisy.”

As Daisy stalked into the train station, Emma breathed a big sigh of relief. Papa visibly relaxed, too, but he did not seem very happy as he said, “I was about ready for some creamed tuna, anyway. How about you, Honeybee?”

They got back into the car, and this time Emma sat beside him in the perfumed seat. “Why did you hug her, Papa? She wasn’t nice to us. She didn’t even say goodbye.”

He started the engine, put the car in gear, and worked his way into the morning commuter traffic. With his eyes on the road, he said, “Why do you think I let her come every summer?”

“Let her come.” Emma could scarcely believe it. “I thought you sent for her.”

He shook his head. “No, Honeybee, it was her idea. She’s always been a lonely woman.”

“Maybe because she’s so hard to live with,” Emma said without a speck of sympathy.

Papa nodded. “I’m afraid you’ve hit the nail on the head, but we’re meant to show kindness…even if it’s not returned.”

“Like St. Germaine,” Emma thought aloud. “Her stepmother was terribly mean, but Germaine showed her nothing but love.”

“Now, that’s the spirit.” Swinging the car into a restaurant parking lot, Papa sniffed the air. “Smells like hash brown potatoes. Come on, let’s check it out.”

It was not at all like her father to be so spontaneous, but Emma gladly went along. And the minute they got home, she changed into pedal pushers and went hunting for snails.

Later that same week, she ate an early dinner before Papa drove her to the Kesters. There she stayed with Susan and Tommy and Uncle Lars while Papa went out on another date with Christine Kester. Susan’s mother looked prettier than ever, and anyone could see the lingering looks she shared with Papa.

As the two of them went out the door together, Lars chuckled and winked at Emma. “Looks like the cat’s out of the bag, now.”

It was almost too good to be true when Susan took Emma into her bedroom and confided, “I wish your Papa would marry Mom.”

At last, Emma could share her fondest dream. “Me, too! It’s been all I can think about. You and I would be more than friends. We’d be sisters!”

 

Chapter 8

On the final weekend of summer vacation, Emma and her father went to the Kesters for a barbecue. It was a fine hot September day. Foggers set high in a tree spread cooling mist over the barbecue pit and nearby picnic table. Uncle Lars came to share the chicken, potato salad, and corn on the cob. After dinner, Emma and Susan rode Brownie on long loops around the property while Uncle Lars gave Tommy a pony ride by the barn.

The sun dipped below the horizon and the air began to cool. At dusk, the girls put Brownie in the corral and decided to look for a little rabbit that had been seen nibbling the crops at night. After a few minutes of searching, Emma turned around and discovered she was alone. Even though it was getting dark, she was determined to find the rabbit. Step by step, she followed the edge of the garden until the fruit orchard came into view. A big yellow moon peeked through the leafy branches of the trees.

Emma listened for little paws in the dirt. Suddenly she heard voices. Turning toward the sound, she made out two shapes in the orchard — a man and a woman. They were facing one another, standing quite near, holding hands. Before her astonished eyes, the two figures merged in a tender, romantic kiss.

Emma gaped at Papa and Mrs. Kester, her heart thumping with deep joy. It was true! They were falling in love! Closing her eyes, she offered a prayer of thanks before quietly retracing her steps back to the others.

 

*****


© Copyright 2017 M. C. Pehrson. All rights reserved.

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