Hard Luck Kids

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Children Stories  |  House: Booksie Classic
This story follows "Honeybee" and "Just Wait and See". It is the summer of 1959 when Emma Winberry's new cousins descend on the farm, creating havoc.

Submitted: March 21, 2017

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Submitted: March 21, 2017

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Hard  Luck  Kids

 

Chapter 1

 

It had been six months since Robert Winberry married the widow, Christina Kester. His shy daughter, Emma, was especially looking forward to the summer of 1959. She envisioned long, pleasant days with her pretty new Mom and red-haired stepsiblings, Susan and Tommy. After the chores were done, there would be plenty of time for playing in the fenced-in city block known as the Kester farm. With a truck garden and orchard and horse barn, Emma could imagine that she lived far out in the country instead of the San Fernando Valley, with cars whizzing by.

But now, one brief announcement from Papa shattered Emma’s dream of peace. Mom’s sister, Marta Vanderpool, was driving out from Wisconsin with her four children. Her husband Douglas had “taken on a very demanding summer schedule with the railroad”, so Auntie and her carload of Vanderpool cousins were descending upon the Kester farm for an entire month.

While Susan and Tommy jumped for joy, Emma’s blue eyes grew large with apprehension. Fingering a strand of dark hair, she waited until Papa headed for his basement laboratory, and followed him. Every summer, when he finished teaching high school for the year, he spent many an extra hour developing his scientific projects.

As he sat down to his typewriter, Emma slipped in beside him and said, “Papa...do they have to come?”

Papa glanced up. Though he was not yet old, the top of his head was completely bald. Emma loved his dark fringe of hair and expressive face. The warmth in his deep brown eyes always made her feel special.

“The Vanderpools,” she anguished, “for a whole month! I don’t know any of them!”

“Neither do I,” he said. “But they’re Christina’s family, just like Uncle Lars, and you like him, don’t you?” Hesitantly she nodded and Papa encouraged her with a smile. “Don’t worry, Honeybee. This will be good for you. Before you know it, you’ll all be the best of friends.”

oooo

Why was it, Emma wondered, that the difficult things in life were supposed to be good for her? When it came to the Vanderpools, she did not have long to wait. A flurry of preparations preceded their arrival. Papa mostly stayed out of the way, but Mom had the children scrubbing every corner of the old house. In the kitchen, a card table and folding chairs provided additional dining space, and Mom stocked the pantry with ingredients for inexpensive meals.

“I certainly hope they like casseroles,” she said. With a sigh, she pushed a wayward lock of golden hair into the loose bun at the nape of her neck.

We have to eat that stuff, don’t we?” said little Tommy. “Just tell ‘em to shut their yaps and clean their plates.”

“Thomas!” Mom wilted him with a disapproving look. “Shame on you. Where would you ever get such an idea? In this family, we treat others with kindness.”

But the twinkle of humor in Mom’s green eyes made it hard for Emma to keep a straight face. She went off to help Susan move. It had been decided that Susan would share Emma’s attic room and sleep double, while Aunt Marta and her daughters occupied Susan’s bedroom. The two Vanderpool boys would bunk with Tommy. It seemed as if the work would never be done, but all was ready on the day Aunt Marta pulled up to the farmhouse, honking the horn of her Studebaker.

Awakened from his dog nap, Buddy leaped up, barking madly at the intrusion. Emma’s cat ran for cover and the chickens scattered. Car doors popped open. As the blond-haired Vanderpools emerged, a plump woman found Christina’s welcoming arms and the two of them wept tears of joy.

Down in the basement, Papa heard the ruckus and came outside. Emma was tempted to run and hide in the fruit orchard, but knowing that Papa expected more of her, she pressed in close to him and gripped his hand tightly. Drawing on his strength, she made it through the introductions.

Sixteen-year-old Peter was the eldest Vanderpool cousin. He was almost as tall as Papa. He wore blue jeans and a white T-shirt, with his hair slicked back. Emma had seen boys just like him at Papa’s high school. Peter swaggered a bit as Aunt Marta proudly revealed that he had shared fully in all the driving. Maybe so, but the sly look in his eyes gave Emma the creeps.

Sturdy Mark had a pleasant smile, but he seemed a little too sure of himself for a boy of thirteen.

Louise, whom they called “Lulu”, was the chubby one. She was ten years old—the same age as Emma and Susan—with a long, silky ponytail down her back.

At six, little Patsy was just a year older than Tommy. “Better keep a close eye on that one,” laughed Aunt Marta, though even she did not notice her pigtailed darling sneaking off into the cornfield a moment later.

It was Tommy who tugged on Mom’s dress and said, “Hey, look—there she goes!”

Once Patsy was retrieved and put into Peter’s care, the adults went into the house for cookies and lemonade. The children got their lemonade in aluminum tumblers, out on the porch. As bashful as ever, Emma stood off to one side while the Vanderpools crowded around Tommy. It was a hot day and the little boy wore shorts, like all of them—except Peter.

Mark leaned down and admired Tommy’s prosthetic limb. “Hey, you really do have a fake leg! Ma told us not to say anything about it—but golly, there it is! Got smashed by a car, right?”

Emma shifted uneasily. Would Tommy tell them about her part in the accident? How she had yelled mean things at him because he was tagging along after her? How he had gotten angry and thrown his ball at her and missed...and then chased it into the street?

But Tommy only nodded.

“Wow,” said Lulu, “you look just like a pirate.”

The idea took hold. Suddenly the Vanderpools and their Kester cousins were off and running, leaving Emma all alone on the porch. With a sigh, she settled onto the shady steps and listened to the happy sounds of play far out in the cornfield.

At dinnertime, Papa put two fingers to his lips and whistled the children in. The dirty, sweat-streaked herd elbowed their way through the door and headed for the bathroom to wash up.

 “Emma, where were you?” asked Susan, bright-eyed and out of breath from all her fun.

The question irked Emma, for she had come to depend on Susan’s help in awkward social situations. “You just ran off. You didn’t even ask me to come along.”

Susan rolled her eyes. “Oh, Emma, for heaven’s sake. Why would I need to ask you? This is your house, too. Aren’t we sisters now?” She just did not understand Emma’s shyness.

In the kitchen there was much debate over the seating. Finally the Vanderpool children went to the card table. All was quiet as Papa said grace, but soon after the spaghetti was served, a loud belch arose from one of their young guests.

Amidst much tittering, Aunt Marta chided, “Now children, remember your manners.”

By all appearances she was a sweet-natured woman, and her offspring pressed their advantage with a whole series of rude noises. Marta shook her head in silent apology, but daughter Patsy was not so meek.

Shoving her plate aside, Patsy loudly declared, “Ma, this makes me sick!”

Not missing a bite, Chubby Lulu pulled her sister’s plate toward her. “I’ll eat it.”

Aunt Marta gave an exasperated shrug. “That Patsy! Such a delicate appetite, she about drives me crazy. Peanut butter and jelly—it’s all she ever wants.”

To Emma’s astonishment, Aunt Marta rose and began preparing a special sandwich, carefully slicing off every bit of crust.

Tommy took notice and put down his fork. “Hey Mom, can I have a sandwich, too?”

Papa arched an eyebrow at him. “Hay is for horses. And since when do you consider yourself ‘delicate’?”

Tommy bristled at such an unmanly suggestion. “Delicate? Heck no—“  But in Papa’s home, even a minced oath was not permitted. Blushing as red as his fiery hair, Tommy mumbled, “Sorry, Papa. It just...just slipped out.”

“And you will just eat the good food your mother has prepared,” Papa informed him.

At least for the moment, normalcy was restored.

 

Chapter 2

That night, Emma had Susan all to herself. It was very warm in the attic room, where cricket song drifted through the open windows. Lying side by side in their summer pajamas, they discussed the lively, willful Vanderpools. Lulu had thrown up, and no wonder, after polishing off her sister’s dinner, plus a sizable serving of apricot crisp. But Aunt Marta had blamed it on “too much excitement”. At bedtime, all the young cousins had bitterly complained—especially Peter. The teenager had felt very strongly that he should be able to drive out on his own and just roam around the city.

Sadly, Emma observed, “They seem to argue with their mother about everything…and she lets them get away with it.”

Susan’s voice dropped to a whisper. “You won’t believe what they did out in the cornfield!”

“What? Tell me!”

It was true, Emma did have a hard time believing Susan’s tale. Had the cousins really uprooted cornstalks to use as swords?

“I told them not to,” Susan insisted, “but it didn’t make any difference. They ran around like crazy, trampling everything in sight.”

Now Emma was glad she had stayed on the porch. As soon as the grownups discovered the damage, there would be trouble. Big trouble.

But the very next morning, a new problem took Emma’s mind off the ruined corn. It was Sunday, and when it came time to leave for church, Peter Vanderpool had not emerged from the boys’ bedroom.

Tommy told Papa, “He’s still asleep on his cot. I tried to wake him up, but he told me to ‘get lost’.”

Aunt Marta had been adjusting her hat. Suddenly she stopped. Looking a bit nervous, she said, “Peter no longer goes to Mass. He’s sixteen, after all. I suppose it’s his decision, now.”

Papa visibly stiffened. He was a man of deep religious convictions and he took his role as the family’s spiritual leader very seriously. “I beg your pardon,” he told Marta, “but in this house, we all attend Mass together.”

Though Marta’s brow furrowed, she held her tongue when Papa went down the hallway. Not ten minutes later he returned with Peter in tow. The glowering teenager wore one of Papa’s carefully pressed, button-down shirts, and his hair was neatly combed. He sulked all through Mass.

Back home, there was a breakfast of pancakes and eggs for everyone but Patsy, whose “delicate” stomach required more peanut butter and jelly. The table was scarcely cleared when Emma heard the rumble of Uncle Lars’ truck. It had recently lost its muffler, and now she could hear him coming all the way down the boulevard. With Susan and Tommy, she rushed out the door. By the time the truck drove in, everybody was on the porch. Uncle Lars had brought Grandma and Grandpa Norquist. The elderly couple made a fuss over their fair-haired Wisconsin grandchildren before settling in for a visit with Marta, Christina and Lars. It was not often that all the family came together.

Before long, the young Vanderpools grew restless and Emma found herself sent outside with the others. The day was heating up fast. Mark turned on a hose and began squirting his sisters. Peter grabbed the hose away from Mark and used it to chase his brother. Lulu, who had eaten even more pancakes than Peter, began complaining of hunger.

“Papa and Uncle Lars are going to barbecue later,” Emma told her.

Using water from the hose, Peter flattened the top of his hair and launched into a rude mockery of Papa. Calling himself “Mister Wimpberry”, he shamelessly stirred up the children’s laughter. But Emma did not think it was the least bit funny. Furious, she stalked off toward the barn. As she neared the corral, the family’s chestnut mare and pinto pony twitched their ears and walked toward her. Brownie and Pogo were hoping for some attention. Just as Emma reached them, the other children came running up.

Naturally, the Vanderpools wanted to go riding. Though Emma did not think any of them deserved it, she helped Susan with the saddles. The two of them took turns riding double with a Vanderpool on Brownie, while Pogo trailed behind them, carrying Patsy or Tommy. Finally Peter got his chance. Since he had some experience with horses, he insisted on riding alone. Putting his heels to Brownie, he galloped out of sight.

The sun beat down and the air was getting hazy from smog. While the little ones rode Pogo around the corral, Emma and Susan plopped down in the shade of the eucalyptus trees. High overhead a squirrel chattered and scolded as Mark tried to climb the steep, shedding trunks. When his efforts failed, he worked at stripping off the bark while Lulu chased sleepy chickens from their dust wallows.

“I’m so hungry,” Lulu complained yet again.

It seemed like Peter had been gone a long time. Suddenly Emma heard hoof beats, and Peter came galloping up on Brownie. “Guess what I found?” he said. “A funny little tipi!”

“It’s ours,” Susan told him. “Uncle Lars made it.”

Peter tossed a ripe plum to Lulu. “Come on, Lou, there’s a whole orchard full of them.” Though his turn was over, he was not about to give up the horse. Reaching down, he helped Lulu climb into the saddle behind him.

“Hey, get off!” Mark shouted angrily. But Peter ignored his brother and rode off.

“Come on, let’s get him,” growled Mark.

Since Tommy’s leg was getting sore, he rode Pogo while Emma and the other children jogged beside him to the orchard. Mark was still fuming over Peter’s selfishness, and the heat did not improve his mood. At the orchard, they found Peter and Lulu stuffing themselves with fruit. Mark grabbed a rotten plum from the ground and hurled it at his smug older brother. Peter retaliated with a half-eaten apricot. Plums and apricots began flying from every direction. Emma watched helplessly as the cousins plucked good fruit right from the trees and used it as ammunition. Even Susan and Tommy joined in the wasteful battle.

“Stop it, we sell those!” yelled Emma, but Peter only laughed. His ripe, mushy apricot struck her forehead. She fled into the tipi and tried to fasten the door flap behind her. Peter yanked at the flap so hard that the tipi tumbled onto its side and collapsed.

At that precise moment Emma heard Uncle Lars shout, “Hey, you kids! What do you think you’re doing?”

The ruckus promptly ended. Relieved, Emma crawled out from under the burlap tipi and got to her feet. There stood big Uncle Lars, clutching a handful of broken cornstalks. His green Norquist eyes flashed with such anger that Emma feared he might thrash them on the spot.

Now that he had everyone’s attention, he repeated his words with even greater emphasis. “Just what in tarnation do you think you’re doing?”

Silence answered.

Lars gave the wilted cornstalks a shake. “Just look at these! Now you’re out to ruin the fruit crop, too?” His fierce gaze settled on Susan, then Tommy, and finally on Emma. “The three of you know better. You all know better.” Taking a step toward them he, said, “Get in the house.”

Everyone but Emma ran. Even Tommy seemed to forget the pain in his leg as he scampered down the trail.

Wiping apricot pulp from her face, Emma said, “But Uncle Lars—I didn’t do anything!”

It was no use. When Lars reached the farmhouse, Emma had to stand with the true culprits while he revealed their sins to everyone.

Mom reached for Papa’s hand and they shared a troubled look.

With a sigh Aunt Marta said, “Oh, you children...” To Papa she added, “Don’t worry, Robert. I’ll pay for every bit of the damage.” And that seemed to end the matter for her.

The Vanderpools smirked as Papa escorted his own three children down into the basement for further discussion. On the laboratory wall there hung an old-fashioned paddle. Though Emma had never known Papa to use it, on those rare occasions when he took it down from its hook, the effect was always quite sobering.

Now, Papa went straight for the paddle and set it beside him on his worktable. With one hand resting on it, he peered sternly at each child. “Well? What do you have to say for yourselves?”

With her freckles covered in fruit pulp, Susan declared, “Mark started it! And I didn’t do anything to the corn yesterday.”

Tommy quickly agreed. “Yeah, it was Mark, and the first thing you know, everybody was doin’ it.”

Papa’s face darkened like a thundercloud. “I am not interested in Mark. I am not interested in everybody. Only you three.” And his piercing gaze traveled from Tommy, to Susan, to Emma.

Emma’s insides were quivering. “Papa...I...I swear, I didn’t do any of it!” But she could tell that he did not believe a word. And why should he?  After all, she had been caught right along with the others, sticky with pulp. Desperate to escape the paddle, she stammered, “And...and Susan and Tommy are telling the truth. It...it really wasn’t their idea.”

“Oh?” said Papa. “That didn’t stop any of you from participating in foolish, wasteful behavior, did it? And the three of you knew better, didn’t you?”

Susan and Tommy bowed their heads. “Yes, Papa,” they intoned.

Papa turned to Emma and she swallowed hard. His eyes tore at her. Clearly he was expecting a confession, but that would mean telling a lie. Though it was a wrenching dilemma, she could not imagine lying to Papa, even to escape an unjust punishment.

With a pained look, Papa reached for the paddle.

Susan broke down and sobbed. “I’m sorry, Papa! I won’t ever do it again!”

Tommy’s head bobbed in agreement. Fighting tears, he said, “Emma tried to make us quit, but no one would listen. She didn’t have nothing to do with it—not the fruit, not even the corn. Honest, Papa.” He crossed his heart with a dirty finger.

Relieved, Emma watched the tension leave Papa’s face.

“Well,” he said in a much gentler tone, “it appears that you’ve been honest...and I can see that you are sorry for what happened. Under the circumstances, I don’t see any reason to wear this old paddle out.”

As he set it down, three happy children hugged him with all their might.

 

Chapter 3

A new week began. Once each day, Papa gathered everyone in the living room where lifelike statues of Mary, St. Joseph, and the Sacred Heart of Jesus held a place of honor on a side table. The family altar was decorated with a hand-embroidered cloth. Sometimes a votive candle flickered, but Mom always kept a few flowers in a little vase at the feet of Our Lady.

Over the years, Papa had developed a deep devotion to the Blessed Mother. The black beads of his rosary were polished from much use, but as soon as he brought them out, Aunt Marta found reasons to excuse herself. Of course Papa could not prevent her from leaving, but even Marta insisted that her children join in the family prayer. Though it only took about five minutes to pray a decade, the young Vanderpools fidgeted and sighed with boredom. Papa patiently explained the beauty of the day’s meditation, but he might as well have saved his breath. Emma could see that the show of irreverence upset him.

After Tuesday’s prayer time, she told Lulu, “The rosary helps us draw closer to Jesus and Mary. Don’t you want that?”

Lulu rolled her eyes. They looked as small as marbles in her pudgy face. “Oh, for Pete’s sake, Emma! You’re such a…”

“A what?” Emma demanded to know.

“A goody-two-shoes, that’s what!”

The taunt left Emma hurt and confused. It was true, she did try to be good—but weren’t people supposed to? She always admired goodness when she saw it in others, but these Vanderpool children only mocked it. Papa would call their attitude “unhealthy”, and Emma worried about the cousins’ influence on Tommy. She did not want him to face the paddle again, if she could help it. In the weeks ahead, she would do her best to keep an eye on him.

oooo

The cousins were an active bunch. Aside from Peter, who dearly loved to lounge, there was no end to their energy, except when it came to work. Summer was a busy time at the Kester Farm, with much weeding and harvesting added to the usual chores, but the Vanderpool children seldom lifted a hand. Uncle Lars arrived early for each day’s produce, and at the rumble of his truck, the cousins scattered. Aunt Marta excused them—“after all, they are on vacation”—and Papa did not seem inclined to fight that battle. For a time, Lars tried getting his lazy nieces and nephews into the field, but it soon became apparent that all the moping and complaining only slowed the work. And Lars had to move quickly or he would be late for his regular job, painting houses.

Left to themselves, all the Vanderpools were skilled at mischief, but Mark’s fearless nature caused one calamity after another. His mother had brought his bicycle all the way from Wisconsin, tied securely to the roof of her car. When Mark was not sneaking it out on the busy boulevard, he tore along the pathways, endangering the dog and the cat and Mom’s flock of sleepy chickens.

After Mark ran over a good laying hen, Papa inserted playing cards in the bicycle spokes so the animals could hear him coming. Mom had been raised in the ways of farming, so that evening the family ate chicken and dumplings. Emma was helping wash the dishes when a howl arose out on the porch. The front door banged and in ran Patsy, holding a bloodied finger.

“Mark did it!” she sobbed. “He drilled my pinky!”

Everyone was crowding around Patsy when Mark skulked in. “I didn’t do anything,” he insisted, “least not on purpose. She was holding the license plate for me—the one I got for my bike—and the drill slipped on the metal, that’s all.”

Papa made a phone call, then drove Patsy and her mother over to Doctor Pratt’s house. Emma got to go along. The doctor had converted his front bedroom into an office. When things got busy, all sorts of people sat in his living room, waiting to be seen. Sometimes his wife handed out cookies and other treats to the children, but it was late in the day and Doctor Pratt wasted no time. After cleaning Patsy’s wound, he wrapped it in sterile gauze. A tetanus shot started Patsy crying all over again. She went home with a cherry sucker and instructions to soak her pinky in Epsom salt three times a day.

Not long after that, Mark hammered some old roller skate wheels onto a couple of cast-off boards. Emma had never seen anything like it. “Skateboards”, he called them. All the kids walked over to Emma’s old neighborhood. There on Arbor Street, her Great-Aunt Daisy rented the little stucco house where Emma used to live. Daisy was a fastidious, sensible woman. Since the Vanderpools came to town, she had been doing her best to stay clear of the chaos. Now Emma saw her peeking through the curtains as the kids loudly cheered Mark on. Balancing carefully on one foot, Mark managed to scoot along the sidewalk. It looked like fun to Emma. Soon everyone was trying the skateboards and everyone was falling down. Emma scraped her right knee, her right elbow, and skinned the palms of both hands.

“I have an idea,” said Mark. Placing one foot on each skateboard, he told Lulu to push him. “Watch this!” he yelled.

For a moment, it worked nicely. Then the skateboards began to veer in separate directions, taking his legs along. His hands waved wildly and he fell hard on the pavement. This time it was Mark holding a finger, and he cried just as loudly as Patsy. Alerted by the uproar, Aunt Daisy came out to the sidewalk, assessed the damage, and sent the children home. By the time they reached the farmhouse, Mark’s middle finger had swollen up like a garlic sausage.

The cast Doctor Pratt made for Mark’s fracture hardly slowed the boy down. One afternoon, though Emma pleaded with him to stop, he shimmied all the way to the top of a towering palm tree that grew along a side street. He was on his way down when a black and white car pulled up to the curb. The kindly police officer insisted on driving the children home, where he had a talk with Aunt Marta.

Afterward, Marta wrung her hands and said, “I’ve never seen such a bunch of hard luck kids.”

At her words, Papa’s lips pursed into such a taut line that Emma held her breath. But the Vanderpools were not his to discipline. On more than one occasion, he had tried firm but gentle reasoning. He had attempted to interest his new nieces and nephews in his scientific projects downstairs, but they had yawned in boredom. And now, as Papa retreated back into the basement, Emma heard him mutter, “No wonder their father keeps himself busy on the railroad...”

 

Chapter 4

One Sunday evening, the parish of St. Germaine planned a rigatoni and meatball supper. Aunt Marta decided that she would treat Mom and Papa to a nice meal, without the children. After all, Peter was sixteen—quite old enough to watch over a few youngsters in front of a television set. While Mom and her sister made sandwiches and popcorn, Papa went over the rules. At all times, the children were to remain either inside the house, or within sight of it. There was to be no snooping around or fighting or mess of any kind.

Emma nodded along with the others, but she had a wary feeling when the door closed behind the adults. It did not take long to eat the sandwiches.

“We’ll save the popcorn for later,” Peter declared, leading the way outdoors. “I have an idea.”

Out by the windmill, there was a long wooden pole. When the wind blew too hard, a safety switch stopped the blades from turning. Using the pole, Mom could easily reach the switch and reset it.

Peter grabbed the pole and took it behind the house to the clothesline, where an array of garments fluttered in the warm breeze.

“Get a load of this,” he said, and took off running.

Just this side of the clothesline he angled the pole to the ground, and clinging to the end, launched himself feet-first over the laundry. He landed in a heap on the other side and jumped up, uninjured.

“Pole vaulting!” cried Mark. Off he went, making a successful jump.

Emma smelled something burning and turned around. Peter liked to roll an empty pack of cigarettes in the sleeve of his T-shirt. But the pack in his hand was not empty, and a smoking cigarette dangled from his lips. Emma stared in disbelief, but the cheering of the children drew her attention back to the game. Flushed with victory, Susan had just cleared the clothesline.

Ever since the cousins arrived, Emma had often feared that they would incur some serious injury, but for once she had to admire their ingenuity. Pole vaulting appealed to her, and when Lulu failed to raise herself, Emma stepped forward.

“I want to try!” she said.

Mark put the pole into her hands. Concentrating on her goal, Emma ran hard and plunged the pole into the dirt. Using all her strength, she swung her feet upward, but the pole swayed to the right. She crashed just short of the clothesline, got up, and dusted herself off.

Emma waited impatiently for another turn. Once more, the boys succeeded. Susan, who was taller and sturdier than Emma, had no trouble sailing over. Lulu did not even make an attempt.

As Mark handed Emma the pole, he said, “I’ll get you over.”

Emma started running and heard Mark coming behind her. Planting the pole, she aimed her legs skyward and Mark pushed her like a volleyball. Emma felt herself rising higher. The thrill of flight ended with a loud snap and a sudden downward plunge. She hit the clothesline and for an instant the lines stretched before giving way. Emma landed in a tangle of laundry. Clutching the broken pole, she gazed up into a circle of astonished faces.

“Wow!” exclaimed Lulu.

Emma caught her breath and stood up, doing her best not to trample the clean clothes. With a pang, she realized there would be no quick fix. Not only were Papa’s shirts dirtied, but one old crossbeam had been torn completely off its post. The wood was splintered beyond repair.

Mark began bellowing, “Hey, I didn’t do it! Don’t ya go blaming it on me!”

A distant shriek of pain broke into Mark’s protest. Abruptly Emma remembered the younger children. Where were Tommy and Patsy? Emma had been trying so hard to keep Tommy out of trouble, and here she was, off making trouble of her own.

They found Patsy in a tearful heap near the picnic table, clutching her ankle. Tommy stood over her, safe and sound.

Peter tossed his cigarette into the dirt and confronted Tommy. “You little creep! What the heck did you do to her?”

“Nothin’!” Tommy insisted. “She was just tryin’ to fly, like Superman.”

It made perfect sense to Emma. In her younger days on Arbor Street, she used to run along, flapping her arms like wings, hoping to gain lift from the breeze. When that failed to achieve flight, she had used the porch steps as a launching pad. Apparently Patsy had come up with a similar idea, resulting in injury. Already, her ankle was swelling.

“Oh, quit blubbering,” Peter grumbled as he gathered her into his arms. “We’ll put some ice on it and you’ll be fine.”

The ice did seem to relieve the worst of Patsy’s pain. As she lay on the couch, Peter fetched a couple of records from his suitcase and put them on Mom’s hi-fi. The music was nothing like Papa’s classical albums or Mom’s romantic ballads from the war era. No, this was the sort of music Emma had heard blaring from car radios by the high school. It had a heavy, intoxicating beat, and Peter turned up the volume until the walls of the old house shook. As Peter gyrated and the children jumped gleefully, Emma thought, no wonder they call it rock and roll. But the specter of the clothesline made it impossible for her to enjoy it.

In any case, the party did not last long. A loud popping sound was followed by a squawk that made Emma cover her ears. Then there was nothing but a hum.

“Oh, great,” moaned Mark. “You busted the dang speakers, just like Pop’s!”

“So?” snapped Peter as he fiddled with the hi-fi controls. “What’s old Wimpberry gonna do?”

It soon became apparent that Mark was right. The delicate speakers had broken under the strain, and despite all his bluster, Peter did seem worried. He gave each and every child a chilling glare. “Keep quiet about this, do ya hear? Nobody says a word—not one single word!”

Emma heard, alright, and the not-so-subtle threat riled her almost as much as Peter’s disrespect for Papa. Did he really think he was going to get away with it?

They were sitting in front of the television, eating popcorn, when the grownups returned. Aunt Marta took in the quiet scene and smiled in relief. “Well, Peter...how was everything?”

“Fine,” Peter said innocently, and glanced up. “Oh Ma, Patsy twisted her ankle playing Superman.”

Marta and Papa went to the couch. As they took stock of the injury, Mom headed for the kitchen and said, “I’m going to get those clothes off the line.”

Emma’s heart seized.

In a couple of seconds Mom was calling to Papa from the back door. “Robert! Robert, come quick!”

Emma dared not look at the other children. Papa’s footsteps sounded heavy as he came back into the house. Walking straight to the television, he switched it off.

“Get up, all of you,” he ordered. Wearing his sternest teaching face, he glanced from one child to the next, paying particular attention to Marta’s “hard luck kids”. Then he said, “I want to know what happened to that clothesline, and I want the truth. Now.”

No one stirred. No one spoke.

Emma’s heart beat wildly in her chest. Swallowing hard, she said, “I broke it, Papa.” As Papa’s startled eyes settled on her, more words spilled out. “I was trying to pole vault like Mark and Peter; all the big kids were doing it.” Now the Vanderpools were staring at her, along with Susan and Tommy. Emma looked straight at Peter and took a deep breath. “And that’s not all, Papa. Peter’s been making fun of you. He wrecked the hi-fi and smoked cigarettes, too!”

Aunt Marta’s hand went to her mouth. “Oh, Peter...not the hi-fi. Did you really?”

Raking Emma with his eyes, Peter sullenly replied, “I was just playing a record and it gave out.”

“Oh dear,” Marta said. She turned to Papa. “Well, it’s probably just one of those things, but don’t worry, I’ll have it fixed.”

Emma could see the muscles working in Papa’s jaw. Still gazing at Marta, he said, “Everyone but Emma, get to bed.”

Lulu wailed, “But Ma, we didn’t finish the popcorn!”

“Now,” said Papa.

Susan and Tommy scurried from the living room while the Vanderpools sent up more complaints. “Hey, Ma!” “No fair!” “I don’t want to!”

Aunt Marta squared her shoulders. “Really, Robert. The damage is already done. What’s the point? My children never go to bed this early.” But seeing the resolve in Papa’s eyes, she wavered. “Well...I suppose it won’t hurt them, just this once...”

As the cousins slumped toward the hallway, Emma heard them hissing at her. “Snitch!” Squealer!” “Tattle-tale!”

When the hall cleared, Papa told Emma to wait for him in the basement. Sick at heart, she ran, flung open the basement door, and hurried down the steep cement stairs to Papa’s laboratory. There she hunched miserably in an old easy chair and awaited her fate. It seemed like a long time before Papa came down the steps. He gave Emma a troubled glance. Then he put on his lab coat and began toying with a delicate-looking piece of equipment.

Emma nervously cracked her knuckles.

“Don’t do that,” Papa said, nothing more. What was he waiting for? And why wasn’t Susan down here, too? She had pole-vaulted along with everyone else. It was just luck that kept her from bringing down the clothesline.

Then suddenly Emma thought of something else—something important that she had failed to say. “Papa,” she said barely above a whisper.

With his eyes on his work he replied, “Yes, Emma.”

Timidly she left the chair and approached him. “I didn’t tell you about Tommy.”

Papa’s expression hardened as he worked a tiny screw. “Really? Haven’t you already told on everyone?

Emma went hot with indignation. “But they...they...it wasn’t right, what they did, either!”

Setting down his work, Papa turned to her. “No, it wasn’t.  But you didn’t like being the only one in trouble, did you? So you decided to spread the trouble around.”

Emma thought of Susan all snug in bed while she had to face Papa alone. “I didn’t mean to break the clothesline. But Susan was jumping, too—we all were. I came down wrong, that’s all.”

Papa shook his head in exasperation. “Jumping the clothesline was a bad idea, but that is not why you are standing here.” His frown deepened and she seemed to shrink under his gaze. “No one likes a tattler. You should never point a finger at anyone but yourself…unless it involves serious danger.”

“But Papa---”

“No, Emma. Tattling is mean-spirited.”

Emma hung her head in shame. Deep inside, she knew it was true. A part of her had wanted to see the other children punished. And now that she had told on them, they were all mad at her.

Papa said, “I’ve already informed Susan that the two of you will be giving up your allowance to pay for the clothesline. Now go up to bed.”

Weighed down by her disgrace, Emma turned to leave when suddenly she remembered, once again. “Papa...about Tommy. I wasn’t going to tell on him. He didn’t get into any trouble—that’s what I wanted to say. But you sent him to bed...”

Papa’s expression softened and he nodded. “Thanks for telling me that, Emma. Tommy didn’t say a word. I guess he wanted to stick by the other children...and maybe it’s for the best. I’ll have a talk with him tomorrow.”

 

Chapter 5

Susan was angry with Emma for telling on her. But fortunately it did not last long, for Emma was receiving a full share of scorn from the Vanderpool cousins. It was hard enough running herself ragged, trying to keep Tommy out of harm’s way, but at least he and Susan were on Emma’s side. Certainly both of them could be trusted, or so Emma thought until the evening of Susan’s birthday. Papa was outside barbecuing hamburgers while Mom and Aunt Marta and the other adults sat at the picnic table, chatting. Foggers hung high in a shade tree, and the children chased one another in the cooling mist.

Emma went inside to get the macaroni salad. Passing through the kitchen, she glanced into the living room, and there stood Susan with her hand in the Penny Pot. The green Chinese vase held bits of extra money, and no child ever touched it without permission.

Strange, thought Emma. She had not heard anyone tell Susan to get money. They had everything they needed for the party—even ice cream.

Curious, she asked, “What are you doing?”

At the sound of Emma’s voice, Susan whirled and nearly upset the vase. Her freckles stood out in sharp relief and her eyes were as big as saucers. Then all at once her eyelids narrowed. “It’s just a couple of nickels and dimes! Are you going to tell on me for that?”

Emma gasped in disbelief. “You’re...you’re stealing!”

“What’s the big deal?” Susan huffed. “Lulu does it. She uses it to buy candy…and now that I’m getting gypped out of my allowance...”

Outraged, Emma said, “That money’s not yours, and you know it. You better put it back right now and promise never to do it again, or...or…”

With flashing eyes, Susan tossed a handful of coins back into the pot and banged the fragile lid down. “Alright, tattletale! Are you happy now? I won’t do it again, but Lulu will.”

“Sounds like you’re tattling,” countered Emma. She walked over and picked up the little round vase, carefully holding its domed lid in place. It had belonged to her mother, Virginia Dolan. The Penny Pot was pretty and delicate, just like Mama. Fiercely determined, Emma said, “Lulu won’t get her hands on it again. No one but Papa’s going to touch it…and I’m not going to tell on you. I never said I would.”

With the distraction of Susan’s party, no one—except perhaps Lulu—noticed the Penny Pot was missing from the living room shelf. All day Emma watched and waited for an opportunity to get Papa alone. The sun was setting when she saw her chance. Taking him by the hand, she led him into the bedroom he shared with Mom. Without a word, she retrieved the Penny Pot from the drawer where she had hidden it.

“What’s this?” Papa asked with a frown.

How badly Emma wanted to explain, but remembering Papa’s warning, she chose her words carefully. “I think...just for now...you better keep this in a safe place.”

Papa’s expression was very sober as he studied her face. “Do you have something more to tell me?”

Emma met his gaze head-on and swallowed hard. “No, Papa. Only what I said, that’s all.”

Taking the Penny Pot, Papa sank into a chair. His eyes grew distant and discouraged. “For years and years,” he said, “I’ve mentored all sorts of teenagers at the high school, but these Vanderpools...my own step-nieces and nephews...” And he slowly shook his head.

Emma felt terribly sad for him.  What would be his reaction if he knew about Susan?

That night, it was hot up in the attic bedroom, with scarcely a breeze to stir the air, but Emma shivered as she lay next to Susan. Before the cousins arrived, Papa had said that they would all be the best of friends. Well, he was wrong, and now even Susan was not speaking to her. Though the room was dark, Emma could tell by her stepsister’s fidgeting that she was awake.

“Susan,” she said softly, yet again.

Susan sighed and turned her back toward her. “Leave me alone! I’m tired.”

Emma reached out and touched her arm. Susan snatched it away. “Susan, why are you so mad at me? You know taking the money was wrong.”

“Aren’t I lucky,” Susan muttered, “having you to remind me.”

Emma’s throat ached with unshed tears. “I didn’t tell Papa. I won’t ever tell him…I promise. He’d be so disappointed.”

There was a long silence. Then quietly Susan said, “I guess he would...wouldn’t he? You know, I really do love your Papa...and I’m glad he’s mine now, too.”

A nice warm feeling rose from Emma’s heart and spread all the way through her body. Relaxing into her pillow, she whispered, “G’night, Susan.”

 

Chapter 6

It was another bright, sunny day. Mom and Aunt Marta packed a big picnic basket and the family drove in two cars to the beach. Emma loved the restless ocean. Carefully staying out of Peter’s way, she splashed in the saltwater and chased sandpipers along the shore. She dug in the sand, poked at ribbons of seaweed, and gathered pretty shells. When Papa went into the water, she swam beside him until something brushed her leg. Then she hurried back to shore and played beach ball.

Patsy and Tommy were allowed to go knee-deep in the surf, but that was not good enough for Patsy. Suddenly her head was bobbing above the waves, but Papa (who had been a Naval officer) easily swam out and retrieved her. From that point on, she whimpered and begged to go home. Little by little the sun dipped closer to the water. The last of the food had been eaten and the suntan lotion was running low. Lulu began complaining of hunger, and even Emma was hungry, too.

The adults were shaking out the towels and getting ready to leave when Peter said, “Hey Ma, I have a great idea. Why don’t I drive the kids home in our car. That way, you guys can have a nice quiet trip.”

Emma’s heart did a flip and she looked at Papa, who considered “you guys” a disrespectful way of addressing grownups. It was not often that she saw him in swimming trunks and a Dodgers baseball cap. But even with his hairy chest showing through his unbuttoned shirt, it was still Papa, right down to the creases of worry between his eyebrows.

Emma shook her head “no”. She did not want to ride with Peter, but no one was paying any attention to her.

Aunt Marta beamed. “Oh Peter, that’s so thoughtful.” Her joyous gaze took in Mom and Papa. “Isn’t he such a thoughtful young man?”

Mom looked uneasy. In a quiet aside, she spoke to Papa. “Robert, what do you think?”

“Oh, not to worry,” gushed Marta. “Peter drives so safely, I slept half the way from Wisconsin.”

“Please, sir?” Peter asked with unusual courtesy. “May I, Uncle Robert?”

There was tension in the air as Papa studied the teenager. Then, to Emma’s dismay, he nodded. “Very well, Peter. But follow us closely. I’ll sketch a map for you, in case we get separated in the traffic.”

Peter’s ingratiating smile sent a chill through Emma. No way was she riding with him. As they headed for the cars, she ran up to her father.

“Papa…” she began.

But Patsy’s loud voice beat her to it. “Ma! I wanna go with you, not Peter!”

No doubt looking forward to a little peace and quiet, Marta for once put her foot down. “Nonsense. All the children are riding together—no exceptions. Isn’t that right, Christina?”

When Mom nodded, Emma knew there was no use asking.

The drive began quietly enough. Mark, by reason of his age and status as a Vanderpool, sat up front with Peter. Packed like a sardine in the Studebaker’s back seat, Emma looked longingly at Papa’s car directly ahead of them. For a time, it was stop and go traffic. Just before the freeway, Peter was caught by a red light. With a helpless feeling, Emma saw her family’s Ford disappear into the distance.

Peter laughed. “Now that’s more like it!”

He had put his T-shirt on, and now from his sleeve he drew out a cigarette and set it aglow with the car’s lighter. Then he switched the radio to a rock and roll station and turned the volume up high.

Emma cast an apprehensive glance at Susan, squished right beside her, but Susan’s damp red braids were bobbing to the music. Plain to see, she was having great time.

The light went green and Peter zoomed onto the freeway. He shifted lanes quickly, all the way to the left. Emma saw him glancing around at the traffic, and then his devilish eyes found her in the rear-view mirror.

“Hey blabbermouth,” he said casually, “ever gone over eighty?”

His foot hit the accelerator and Emma’s stomach flipped. All the girls began screaming, but Peter just laughed.

“Yeah, faster!” cried Mark, leaning forward, holding onto the dash. “Faster, faster!”

The engine roared and the car began to shudder. Emma was thrown from side to side as Peter weaved crazily through the traffic, taking his revenge on her. No doubt about it, she was going to die—they all were—in one great big fiery crash. Closing her eyes, she began to pray.

“Go, go!” cried Mark. Then his voice turned panicky. “No, watch it—watch it, Peter—there’s a cop!”

Abruptly the car slowed. Emma began breathing again. The rest of the way, Peter drove under the speed limit, but he still beat Papa home. Of course, that would have seemed suspicious, so he drove around the block a few times, doling out threats along the way.

“Emma, keep your big mouth shut, do ya hear me? And not just her—all of you pipsqueaks! Not a word!”

The adults were getting out of the Ford when Peter coolly pulled in, turned off the engine, and swaggered over to hand his mother the keys.

“We were right behind you,” he lied.

Emma scooted out of the back seat and stood on shaky legs. With all her heart she wanted to contradict Peter. After all, he had put them in serious danger—but the danger was over, now. Would it be “mean-spirited” to tell on him?  She was still sorting through her confusion when Tommy walked up to Papa.

“He was not right behind you,” Tommy declared. “He was driving like a maniac—eighty miles an hour. All the girls were screamin’. We coulda been killed!”

Aunt Marta gasped. “Oh, now Tommy. Peter would never do such a thing.”

The young Vanderpools all sided at once with their brother. “It never happened, Ma.” “Tommy’s just making it up.” “He’s mad ‘cause Peter wouldn’t let him sit up front with Mark.”

“It did so happen, and you know it!” insisted Tommy. “You’re all just scared ‘cause he threatened you.”

Emma’s heart pounded. She glanced at Susan and saw fear in her eyes. She looked at Papa, but his pained expression was hard to read. Should she speak up?

Suddenly Papa turned to them and said, “Emma, Susan. Is Tommy right about this?”

Susan blinked and stared at the ground. But with a sense of relief Emma cried, “Oh Papa, it’s true what he said, every word!”

Papa’s face darkened as he turned to Peter. “Get in the house! I want you sitting in that living room with your mouth zipped shut. All the rest of you, wait on the porch.”

Emma followed the others to the porch steps and sat in her damp swimsuit between Susan and Tommy. For once, the sullen mouths of all the Vanderpools stayed shut, but there were plenty of dirty looks.

Over by the cars, Papa and Mom and Aunt Marta carried on an animated discussion that left Marta dabbing her eyes on her handkerchief. Then Papa came over and brought all the children into the house with him. Alone on the couch, Peter stood up. The furious look in his eyes made it clear that he did not like Papa nor appreciate being singled out.

“If ever there was a time for the truth,” Papa told him, “this is it. I have no reason to doubt Tommy and Emma. I placed my trust in you, Peter, but your reckless behavior endangered the lives of everyone in your car, as well as the cars around you. Have you ever seen a body mangled by a traffic accident?”

As Peter glowered, Emma thought of Tommy and the day a car struck him.

Papa said, “Peter, aren’t you man enough to admit the truth?” When the silence had stretched too long, Papa shook his head in disgust. Turning to include the other children, he said, “Are any of you brave enough to admit the truth? What about you, Mark? Aren’t you at least as brave as a five-year-old?”

Mark shifted uneasily. To Emma’s astonishment, he raised a hand, as if responding to a teacher in school. Then he said, “Tommy and Emma are right. Peter took the car up to 82 miles per hour; I was there in the front seat, I saw the speedometer.”

Susan and Patsy agreed. Then even Lulu nodded and said, “It’s true, Uncle Robert. He scared us half to death.”

Peter sneered at his accusers and said, “Liars!”

It was then that Emma noticed Mom and Aunt Marta listening quietly from the kitchen. They must have come in the back door. Marta’s face had such a pinched, unhappy look that Emma felt sorry for her. She wondered what would become of Peter. After Papa left the room, no one spoke of the matter again, but it lay heavily on Emma’s mind. For the remainder of the visit, Mom and Papa moved Tommy’s cot into their bedroom and tried to keep him near at hand. Even so, Peter exacted fresh revenge on all the children with “accidental” shoves and cruel pinches that left ugly bruise marks. One day, he broke the spokes in Mark’s bicycle. Another day, he buried Patsy’s favorite doll and crushed Tommy’s new balsa-wood glider. When confronted he denied everything, and his mother always seemed to believe him.

 

Chapter 7

At last the long-awaited morning of departure arrived. All the packing had been done and a hearty breakfast eaten. Even Patsy had polished off two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, minus the crusts. In the kitchen, Emma washed dishes and Susan dried them while Mom and Aunt Marta put together a lunch for the trip. The young cousins were edgy with excitement and kept chasing through the house no matter how many times their mother corrected them. Emma drained the sink and followed Marta as the poor woman darted into the living room yet again. Peter was chasing Mark past the couch and cornered him at Papa’s altar. Under the watchful eyes of the Holy Family, Peter shoved his brother, throwing Mark back against the table. The statues teetered ominously, but regained their balance---all but the Blessed Mother, who fell flat on her plaster face.

“Stop it!” shouted Aunt Marta. It was the loudest sound Emma had ever heard from Mrs. Vanderpool. Rushing to the altar, Marta picked up the statue and cried, “Now look what you’ve done!”

It was plain to see that Our Lady’s nose was broken.

“Whoops,” Peter said, smugly choking back a smile. His brothers and sisters burst out laughing.

Sometime during the ruckus, Papa had come into the room. He stared at the disfigured statue in Aunt Marta’s arms.

“Quiet, children!” Marta said before launching into her usual apology. “Oh Robert, I’m so sorry. Don’t worry, I’ll buy you a new one—or have it repaired—whatever you prefer—just let me know.”

Papa ran his fingers through his dark fringe of hair. It was a sure sign of agitation, and Emma was not surprised when he turned and went out on the porch.

Aunt Marta burst into tears. As the children stared wide-eyed, Mom gently placed the statue on the altar and embraced her sister.

“It’s alright,” Mom soothed.

“No it isn’t,” sobbed Marta. “I look at your children...they’re so well-behaved...they’re like...like angels compared to mine.”

“Oh, I don’t see any wings sprouting,” replied Mom, “but Robert and I do try to instill a sense of respect, along with some healthy discipline.”

Aunt Marta sniffed and wiped her reddened eyes. “Maybe Doug’s been right all along. I wouldn’t listen to him. I wouldn’t let him do what he thought was best. It’s gotten so bad, he doesn’t even like to come home.”  Pulling an embroidered handkerchief from her dress pocket, she wiped her nose. “Oh Christina, do you think it’s too late for us?”

“Of course not,” answered Mom. “Trust your husband and you’ll see—everything will turn out fine.”

Emma was stunned. Aunt Marta’s visit never had been about her husband’s schedule, but rather, some sort of conflict between them. How glad she was that her own family life was peaceful and secure. With a sense of relief, she watched Marta start to drive off, taking her disturbing problems along with her. Papa was nowhere to be seen.

Through the car window, Marta called to Mom, “Remember to tell Robert goodbye...and that I really am sorry...”

Then she and the cousins were gone.

Emma sank down on the porch steps and listened to the peaceful twittering of the birds. She was still outside when Papa came out of the melon field, not even wearing a hat. He was pushing a wheelbarrow full of big green honeydews and his head looked a little sunburned. He actually seemed disappointed to find Aunt Marta’s car gone.

“They’ve already left?” he asked. Emma nodded and he said, “When I was out on the porch, I heard Marta crying. I picked these melons for her to take along.”

Emma remembered to relay Aunt Marta’s message. “She said to tell you ‘goodbye’...and that she really is sorry.”

Somberly Papa gazed at the melons. They were the best of the field, unblemished and ripe. In a quiet voice he said, “Honeybee, there’s a lesson in this. I was discourteous to Marta and waited too long to apologize. Now I’ll write her a letter, but she won’t see it until she arrives home. All the way to Wisconsin, she’ll have a heaviness in her heart that I put there.”

That same day Papa shaped a new nose for Our Lady, using putty. While it dried, Emma helped Susan moved her belongings downstairs. For a couple of days, Emma’s bed felt large and the house a little too quiet. Then, one morning she woke up and everything seemed normal again—everything, that is, but Papa.

It was smoggy in the Valley. Each year, the smelly brown haze made Papa work hard at his dream of a hydrogen-fueled car—clean fuel, he called it. But now he was toiling in the fields, instead. Those few times when he ventured into his laboratory, he went alone. Perhaps his student-protégés were away on summer trips, or maybe they thought Papa still had company. For whatever reason, the boys stopped coming around.

Emma wondered if Papa missed them. Or had the Vanderpools soured him on any children but his own? There was a discouraged look in his eyes, like on the day Emma handed him the Penny Pot.

 

Chapter 8

Early in August, Emma awoke to find Mom gently shaking her. Emma blinked sleepily in the pale light.

“We’re going on a long drive,” Mom said. “Hurry up and get dressed—and bring a sweater.”

A sweater? In the summertime?

Mom was heading for the door. Confused, Emma rose up on one elbow. “But the corn needs to be picked. And who’ll feed the animals?”

“Lars is between jobs, he’ll do the picking. And your father already took care of the animals.”

“Papa?” First he was working in the fields. Now he was handling the livestock, too? It gave Emma a strange, uneasy feeling. Papa was a teacher, an inventor, a scientist. Except for the quality of the air, he usually took little notice of his surroundings. At their old house on Arbor Street, the lawn had died for lack of water.

In a matter of minutes they were packed into the Ford and Papa was driving west, toward the ocean. Barely awake, Emma listened to the quiet conversation between her parents. Papa was talking about his old Navy days and how he had grown to love the sea. He mentioned the fishing boats he had seen in some harbors—boats owned and operated by ordinary families. He told Mom how much he admired that simple, independent way of life.

They arrived in the town of San Pedro, where morning fog shrouded the quiet streets. Papa parked in front of a bakery and came out carrying a fragrant bag of goodies. Emma and the other children perked up as he drove over to a dock lined with small ships, each a little different from the other.

“Those,” Papa said, “are fishing boats.”

In her mind, Emma had pictured some sort of oversized rowboats, but these sturdy vessels had pilothouses, masts, and booms for netting big catches of fish. A name was proudly emblazoned on each stern: “Sea Queen” “Black Beauty” “Nora May” “Ebb Tide”.

Snug and warm in the car, the family feasted on hard-boiled eggs, lemon pastries, and hot cocoa. When they finished, the sun was breaking through the fog. Papa put on his brown fedora. Leaving the car, they walked in the clean salt air while sea gulls wheeled and dipped and cried overhead.

Emma noticed the deep interest in Papa’s eyes as he studied each and every boat. They stopped to watch the “Briny” unload a silvery stream of fish into a cannery. Smelly steam rose from inside the plant, but Emma liked it. How nice it would be to sail out on the ocean, following the schools of fish.

Moving up beside Papa, she took his hand and said, “If you had a boat, what would you name it?”

Without hesitation he answered, “Star of the Sea. It’s one of Our Lady’s titles.”

Impulsively Emma said, “Buy one, Papa! I’ll come on the boat with you!”

Mom laughed, but Papa gave Emma an understanding look and returned the pressure of her grip.

Those were golden days, when anything seemed possible to Emma. A fisherman in a fedora—why not? Again and again, Papa returned them to San Pedro and other little ports along the California coast, but eventually September drew near. Papa set aside his dreams of the sea and prepared himself for another year of blackboards and bow ties. Emma could see that his heart was not in it, and she took to hugging her father more often. Each time she said, “I love you, Papa,” his answering smile reassured her. But all too quickly his smile would fade.

Then came the Labor Day weekend. On Saturday, there was a change in the air. A cool, crisp breeze blew clouds across the sky and it felt as if autumn might come early. Mom was putting lunch on the table when Emma went out to fetch the mail. There was a letter from Wisconsin with a colorful stamp.

“Mom, can I have it?” she asked as she handed the letter over.

Mom glanced at the return address and fell silent. Her pretty face showed such concern that Emma decided against repeating the question. Then Mom set the mail beside her plate and they sat down to eat.

After saying grace, Papa asked Mom, “Anything interesting in the mail?”

Her slender eyebrows drew together as she nodded. “A letter from Marta.” Handing it over to him, she said, “Go ahead, you read it.”

Papa hesitated. “But she’s your sister.”

A look passed between them. Papa reached for his table knife. Emma held her breath as he slit open the envelope, but the stamp survived intact. She took a big bite of her toasted cheese sandwich before reaching for a slice of apple. Everyone’s attention was on Papa as he unfolded Marta’s letter and cleared his throat. Would he read it out loud?

Right in front of everybody he said,

“Dear Christina and Robert,

I hope you received my previous letter telling you that we

arrived home safely. Once more, I want to thank you for your

hospitality, your patience, and most of all, your fine example.

Robert, you had no need to apologize. In fact, after I spoke with Doug...”

Papa’s voice trailed off as he studied the remaining lines in silence. Seeing that it was suitable for small ears, he continued.

“…After I spoke with Doug, he rearranged his schedule in order

to spend more time with the family. I want you to know that things

are getting better here. I’m not sure if you’d recognize the

children, they are already so improved. Maybe this note from Peter

will give you some idea. It’s for you, Robert.”

Once again, Papa read to himself. His dark eyes began to glisten and he nibbled on his lower lip. Mom leaned toward him and gently laid her hand on his arm.

“What’d he say?” Tommy scowled, ready to defend his papa. “It’s somethin’ mean, ain’t it!”

Papa had no chance to correct Tommy’s grammar. Suddenly, someone was pounding on the front door.

“Mister Winberry!” came a muffled cry. “Mister Winberry, are you home?”

Dropping the letter, Papa hurried into the living room. Everyone jumped up from the table and stood at the kitchen doorway, expecting some sort of emergency.

Papa opened the front door.

There stood a breathless teenage boy. “Mister Winberry! Is it true? Are you really going to quit teaching? Someone said—!”

“Rubbish,” declared Papa. “Come on inside, Jerry. Are you hungry? We’re just having some sandwiches...”

The gangly boy noticed the family watching him, and blushed a deep shade of red. “Gosh, thanks, Mister Winberry. I just ate...but I’d sure like to hang out with you in your lab...that is, if it’s okay?”

Papa smiled. “Go on down, I’ll be there in just a minute.” As he turned toward the kitchen, Emma saw the old gleam of pleasure back in his eyes. “Christina, do you mind?” he asked Mom.

Mom handed him his sandwich wrapped in a napkin. With a little kiss, she said, “Have fun, darling.”

Though Emma got her postage stamp, she never did find out what Peter Vanderpool put in that letter. According to Mom it was a very nice message, but written “man-to-man”, just for Papa.

Emma remembered the day Papa had challenged Peter to be a man and admit the truth about driving recklessly. She could pretty well guess what Peter had said.

Whether it was the letter or the effect of young Jerry’s visit, Papa spent a lot of time in his laboratory that weekend. On Tuesday, when the schools opened for another year, he seemed almost as excited as Emma and Susan. With his hat on his head and his bow tie straight, he set off at a brisk pace, whistling all the way to the high school.

 


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

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