Bumps in the Road

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Children Stories  |  House: Booksie Classic
In this sequel to "Hard Luck Kids", young Emma Winberry learns from an unexpected change at home, mishaps at school, and a summer adventure.

Submitted: April 08, 2017

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Submitted: April 08, 2017

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Bumps in the Road

By  M. C. Pehrson

Chapter 1

It was the start of a whole new decade. Each time Emma wrote 1960 on her assignments at St. Germaine School, she could not help wondering about the future, but life went on pretty much as usual. Then, in February, her stepmother stopped eating. At first, Emma thought little of it. Everyone felt sick once in a while, but day after day Mom just picked at her food. Her pretty face grew as pale as the bed sheets and her strength faded until she was lying down most of the time.

Occasionally Emma heard sounds of sickness from the bathroom and it frightened her. She wished she could be more like her stepsister Susan, who was also eleven, but had an outlook as bright as the red hair on her head. Susan just shrugged off Mom’s illness, and five-year-old Tommy was more interested in his toys. But the way Papa fussed over Mom made Emma think that the situation was very serious. She could not shake the feeling that something terrible was about to happen—that Mom was slipping away, just like Emma’s birth mother, who had died of cancer when Emma was little.

It seemed like such a short time since Papa first met Susan’s widowed mother and fell in love. Susan Kester had been Emma’s friend, and in a matter of months, they had become sisters, too. Papa and Christina had only recently celebrated their first wedding anniversary. Surely God would not leave Emma and the other children motherless. Surely God would not let Papa’s heart be broken again.

All week, Emma scarcely noticed the early spring flowers bursting into bloom. She spent most of her free time indoors, helping do the chores that Mom usually handled. She even tried ironing Papa’s shirts—the ones he wore when he taught science at the high school, but they were much harder to iron than napkins. But Papa said, “Never mind a few wrinkles”. Since the weather was cool, he would keep his suit jacket on.

Sunday, Mom did not feel well enough to go to Mass. Looking listless, she stayed in bed with her golden hair spread over the pillow. Emma felt like crying as the rest of the family set out for church. Numbly she walked along in her good dress, the beauty of the morning lost on her. Reaching for Papa’s hand, she held tight. If only she could say what was in her heart, but voicing her fears would make them even more real and frightening.

Today, Papa seemed strangely cheerful. There was a spring to his step and as they turned down Arbor Street he began humming to himself. Then he actually started to whistle. They were passing by their old house, right across from the high school where Emma and Papa had lived with Mama before she died. Now their Aunt Daisy rented the place, and she was out front in the sunshine, checking the sprouts on her rose bushes. Hearing Papa’s whistle, Daisy waved and called out a greeting.

Papa stopped at the old saggy gate. “Good morning!” he said pleasantly. He tipped his hat, revealing the bald area above his dark fringe of hair. 

“How’s Christina today?” asked Daisy.

Emma did not understand why Papa’s smile broadened. “Oh, she’s getting along fine,” he said.

Emma stared at him and pulled her hand away. How could he look so happy? How could he say Mom was “getting along” when she was languishing in her bed, maybe even dying as they stood there?

Words burst from her in an angry rush. “She’s not fine! You know she’s not fine! Mom needs to be in the hospital!” 

Everyone turned and looked at Emma. Her face flushed hot with shame. She knew better than to talk to her father that way. As Papa opened his mouth to speak, Emma muttered, “I’m going home to Mom,” and took off running.

“Emma, wait! Come back here!” called Papa, but she only went faster.

Down the street she ran, her toes pinched by her dress shoes, pausing only to wait for a traffic light. All out of breath, she reached the rustic fenced-in city block that she called home. Though Papa had recently adopted Susan and Tommy, and they were all Winberrys now, Emma still thought of this property as the “Kester Farm”. Rushing into the farmhouse, she went straight to her parents’ bedroom and found Mom looking pale but still very much alive. Tears of relief stung Emma’s eyes.

“Emma,” Mom said in a weak voice. “Why aren’t you at Mass?”

Emma could barely get the words out. “I...I was so worried about you that I...I yelled at Papa.”

She expected a scolding, but Mom only smiled wanly and squeezed her hand. Emma replenished the bedside dish of soda crackers and brought tea in Mom’s favorite cup. She was sitting on the bed, holding Mom’s hand when the rest of the family returned from church. She held her breath as Papa walked into the bedroom. He was not smiling now. He set his hat on the dresser and removed his suit jacket before turning his attention to Emma. She expected him to be angry. Well, she was still a little angry with him, too, for whistling and chatting as if everything was just fine.

Dropping her gaze, she said evenly, “I’m sorry I yelled at you.”

“And you missed Mass,” Papa reminded her.

“I’ll go to the 11:00 o’clock Mass,” she offered, “all by myself. I...I just kept thinking about Mom...here all alone...”

“And you’ve been a big help,” Mom told her.

Papa stepped closer. Her heart aching, Emma met his dark eyes. Finding no sign of reproach, she ventured to say, “But shouldn’t Mom be in the hospital? She awful sick.”

Papa glanced over at Mom and asked, “Did you tell her?”

Mom’s pallid lips curved into a smile and she shook her head. “No, Robert. You tell her.”

Once more, Emma held her breath. She was not sure if she wanted to know the bad news.

Reaching out, Papa stroked the deep-brown hair along her temple. Gently he said, “Honeybee.” Just feeling his touch and hearing her pet name made Emma feel a little better. “Honeybee, your mom is alright. A lot of women go through this, at the beginning. I should have explained it to you right away. She isn’t really sick at all; this is just a little bump in the road. You see...she’s going to have a baby.”

Then Papa called Susan and Tommy into the bedroom and told them, too.

A baby! This was something entirely new to Emma, and she was not sure how an infant brother or sister would fit into her life. Before Papa married Christina Norquist Kester, Emma had been an only child. The few babies she had seen were loud and messy. She had never been interested in them or in the dolls Aunt Daisy had given her over the years. Emma had let Susan have the whole collection. It was funny to think that Aunt Daisy had once called Susan “boyish”, when Susan liked dolls almost as much as Daisy herself.

 

Chapter 2

When Mom regained her strength, she began to sew baby items, and Susan sat alongside her making doll clothes from scraps of delicate material. Emma preferred warm living creatures to dolls. Her cat Puff often curled into a gray ball on her bed, and there was also Buddy, the German shepherd that stayed outdoors. Buddy liked to tag along when she worked in the big vegetable garden or gathered chicken eggs. He kept her and Susan company when they rode their horse, Brownie. Sometimes Tommy joined them on his pinto pony, and they pretended that Buddy was Rin-Tin-Tin, the heroic dog on television. No one driving on the city boulevard would have imagined the wonderful world hidden behind the old Kester fence. Emma’s home truly was a little farm, right in the middle of the San Fernando Valley.

The school year ended, and as summer settled into the valley, Uncle Lars stopped by more frequently. While Papa worked on his experiments in the basement, Lars helped tend the endless rows of corn and melon. Lars also picked fruit in the orchard and hauled the produce to market in his truck—all for a nice share of the profits.

Emma enjoyed the visits from Mom’s unmarried brother. He was blond and good-natured like all the Norquists, and as inventive as Papa in his own way. When Emma was ten, he had made an Indian tepee for the children using old burlap bags and bamboo from the property. Now Emma thought of an exciting new project, and Uncle Lars was quite willing to help.

One fine Saturday, Lars gathered scraps of lumber and chicken wire from the barn. Out near the hen house, in the shade of the pungent eucalyptus trees, he cobbled together a neat row of rabbit hutches. Some old crocks in the barn were perfect for holding water and feed. With money saved from gifts and her weekly allowance, Emma bought a big sack of rabbit pellets. Now she was ready to scan Papa’s newspaper, and before long she found exactly what she was looking for. Mom drove her out to a rabbitry, where Emma bought three female Dutch rabbits and a male Checkered Giant.

No one questioned Emma’s ability to raise rabbits. Up in the attic, she had found old instruction booklets and breeding records that once belonged to Susan and Tommy’s father. Carl Kester had raised rabbits to sell for meat, but Emma would sell her bunnies as pets, when they were still little. Thanks to Uncle Lars, she would earn some money and have fun at the same time.

There was no doubt about it, Emma loved Uncle Lars. She was always glad when he ate lunch with the family or stayed for dinner because it meant he would be telling a story or two. All the children enjoyed hearing his adventures over and over, but one evening, after Lars went home, Emma stumbled upon a private conversation between her parents. When Papa told Mom that Lars was “full of hot air”, Emma’s heart gave a painful twist. Why would her kindly father say such a thing? It was the same as calling Lars a liar.

Then, as Emma stood there, Mom agreed that her brother “embellished” many of his tales.

Emma bit down hard on her lip. So it was true? Uncle Lars really did make up things? But she could not think badly of her favorite uncle. Maybe he only stretched the truth a little. Anyone might do that. Emma had her own flights of imagination, and at times they even got her into hot water. Before long she would be 12 years old, yet a part of her still clung stubbornly to her fantasies. Would it be any different when she was grown?

Papa had his own kind of dreams. On a smoggy morning in late August, Emma came to breakfast and found Papa’s chair empty. Through an open window she heard him whistling, and looked out. The hood of their old Ford was up. Papa and a cute teenage boy—one of his students—were bent over the engine compartment, busy as can be.

“Hi, Papa!” Emma called out.

Papa straightened and gave her a big smile. “Honeybee!”

Emma cringed. She had asked Papa not to use her pet name in front of the high school boys. He looked so delighted about something, he must have forgotten.

Papa beckoned to her. “Come outside! Bring everyone!”

He was wiping his greasy hands on an old towel when the family converged. Clearly excited, he pointed under the hood of the car and said, “I’ve emptied the tank of gasoline. Do you see that little unit? You’re looking at the future of automobile travel, the end of dingy skies and unhealthy air.”

To Emma, it looked like a big metal box with hoses and wires attached.

In his teacher’s voice Papa said, “The easiest way to harness hydrogen is through the electrolysis of water. A simple electric current breaks the water into its two elements—hydrogen and oxygen.” He glanced at his young assistant. “Turn on the hose.”

Eagerly the boy ran and brought over the spurting garden hose. Papa unscrewed the car’s gas cap and took the hose from him.

Mom gasped and pressed her hands to her heart. “Robert…no!”

Papa looked utterly unconcerned as water flowed into the tank. “Have a little trust, my dear. You’ll see.”

Mom drew the children near, as if to protect them from Papa’s lunacy.

Tossing the hose aside, Papa got into the car and proudly turned the ignition key. Emma held her breath as the engine cranked over and started. Her heart plummeted when it began to miss and shudder. Papa went back under the hood for a quick adjustment, and soon the car was running smoothly. On water!

“Voila!” Papa said in triumph. “Turn off the hose and get in. Everyone!”

The teenage boy rode up front, by the passenger window, while Mom snuggled close to Papa. Bouncing with excitement, the children crowded in behind. On that tank of ordinary water, they drove down to the donut shop, where Papa pressed the receipt from two dozen jelly donuts against the chugging tailpipe of the idling Ford. It came away damp.

“See?” Papa gave everyone a good look. “Nothing but water vapor. We’ve done it!”

You’ve done it,” said Emma, bursting with pride. “We’re gonna be rich!”

They headed home and as Papa turned into the driveway, the engine quit. Despite Papa’s best efforts, it never started again. Afterward, Emma could never look at a jelly donut without tasting the bitter disappointment of that day.

Mom’s musty-smelling Chevy only needed a little work. Soon it was up and running on the usual diet of gasoline. It would have to do. Emma was well aware of the family’s financial situation. Each month, Papa and Mom sat at the kitchen table and did what they could to stretch Papa’s paycheck. Money from the summer garden helped fatten the budget, and somehow they always squeaked by with a handful of change and a couple of dollar bills left over. This went into the little Chinese vase that they called the “Penny Pot”. Once the bills were paid for another month, Papa always smiled and said, “Thank the Lord,” for he firmly believed in Divine Providence. And it was true, God always did provide for their needs.

 

Chapter 3

In November, when Nathan Robert Winberry joined the family, it became harder to squeeze into the old brown Chevy. To Emma’s relief, she immediately warmed up to her new little brother, even though he was a baby. It did not matter that bottles of infant formula overtook the neat kitchen counters and smelly diapers collected in a pail. Everyone loved Nate. From the start, it was plain to see that he was a Winberry. His thick cap of hair was as black as Papa’s, but only time would tell if those sleepy eyes turned brown or green or even blue like Emma’s, who had the same Dolan eyes as her birth mother. 

 Shortly after Nathan came into the world, he was baptized by a newly ordained priest, fresh from Ireland. Young Father Tandy posed with the family for pictures that went into the photo album. These days, Mom kept her box camera close at hand.

December brought a shivery-cold rain, and snow fell in the mountains. Just in time for Saturday, the storm cleared. Papa had promised a picnic in Frazier Park if the weather cooperated. After breakfast they packed sandwiches, filled a big thermos with cocoa, and piled into the Chevy. From one of the coveted window seats, Emma watched the city drop away as Papa drove into the mountains. The winding road soon made Tommy feel queasy, so she cracked the window for some fresh air and let him sit on her lap. But the first glimpse of snow made Tommy forget all about his stomach. With each switchback, the dusting of white grew thicker and thicker until even the pine trees were liberally coated.

“Stop, Papa, stop!” pleaded the children, bouncing with excitement in the back seat.

High on Mount Frazier, Papa parked near a picnic table. Chubby little Nate had fallen asleep in Mom’s arms, so she decided to make a bed for him on the front seat, where sun shining through the windows would help keep him warm.

The children spilled out of the car and pelted one another with snowballs until their hands ached in their soggy mittens. Papa had kindled a crackling fire, and they paused now and then, holding their fingers over the flames. Freshly thawed, they started to build a snowman, rolling and packing the icy-cold drifts. Emma’s stomach was growling for lunch when a loud cracking sound caught her attention. She glanced up. A huge pine tree creaked and groaned as it began to fall. Papa and Mom were well out of its reach, but for one terrifying instant, Emma thought it would land right on her and the other children. Then the thick trunk swayed and came crashing down on their car, flattening it.

In the stunned silence that followed, Emma remembered that the baby was on the front seat of the Chevy. She screamed in horror, a strange panting sound that ended only when a hand touched her shoulder. Numbly she turned and found Mom right beside her, holding little Nate close.

Emma stared at her baby brother in relief. “I thought…I thought he was...”

Mom smiled at him tenderly. “No, thank God. Something told me to get him out.”

The children crowded around her as Papa circled the wreckage of their car, mouth agape, one hand pressing down hard on his hat. People from neighboring picnic sites came over to offer their sympathy and help. In a matter of minutes a park ranger arrived. After taking the accident report, he used his radio to arrange for their transportation home.

Meanwhile, they sat down to eat meatloaf sandwiches, drink cocoa, and toast marshmallows over the fire. Tommy was in high spirits. To him, it was all a wonderful adventure, but everyone else was subdued. Emma picked at her food. She knew how hard it was to make Papa’s money stretch. First the Ford had been ruined and now the Chevy was gone, too. This was a mighty big bump in the road.

In the midst of their gloomy lunch, Papa’s face brightened and he said, “Well, we’re all safe and sound. I usually walk to the high school and you children walk, too. As soon as the state insurance comes through, we’ll find some other vehicle—something bigger and more comfortable.”

“Insurance?” Emma questioned.

“We’re in a state park,” explained Papa. “The damages are fully covered.”

Suddenly Emma felt hungry again, and as she took a big bite of her sandwich, she began to appreciate the day’s adventure. Who could believe that a tree would fall right on the family car? What a story she and Susan could tell at school on Monday, and Mom had the snapshots to prove it.

 

Chapter 4

Christmas was just around the corner when Emma and Susan took Tommy with them to the dime store and shopped for presents. This year, Papa gave them a little extra money because Nanna and Uncle Vince were coming for a weeklong visit. Emma had not seen them since she was six years old, and the memories were vague. Vincent Winberry was Papa’s unmarried brother, but they did not look very much alike. Vince was shorter than Papa and plump like their mother. Nanna gave lots of hugs and pinched children’s cheeks. It was the Italian in her, said Papa, who had a very expressive face, but was quite slender and comparatively reserved—more of a Winberry, like his Aunt Daisy.

Three days before Christmas, they flew in on a big airliner. The whole family met them at the airport and Emma could not help noticing that Papa seemed nervous. So was she. Emma scanned the crowd for a gray-haired woman in a black hat and dress. Nanna had worn the color of mourning ever since her husband died, so she was easy to find.

Vince spotted Papa and gave him a bear hug. As he let go, one hand swiped the shiny skin atop Papa’s head. He laughed. “Hey…Bobby, want a little of my hair?” He had plenty of dark waves and seemed proud of it.

Nanna squeezed Emma and pinched her cheek and said something in Italian. With a second pinch she exclaimed, “Look at you—what a little darling!”

Nanna moved along to Papa and they embraced, speaking quiet words to one another. Next came the introductions—Mom, Susan, Tommy, and baby Nate. Then they gathered the luggage and drove off in their recently purchased, almost-as-good-as-new station wagon.

“Hard on cars, aren’t you?” teased Vince.

Papa smiled amiably, even when Vince kept calling him “Bobby”, a name Papa disliked even more than “Bob”. But back in the cargo area where Emma and Susan hunkered down with the luggage, Emma recognized the characteristic tilt of Papa’s head that meant he was getting annoyed. She wanted to say, “Papa’s name is Robert!” but shyness stopped her. She was glad when Susan burst out with similar words.

“Papa’s name isn’t Bobby! It’s Robert!”

Hooting sarcastically, Uncle Vince craned his neck and looked back at Susan. “His name is Robert? Gosh, really? I didn’t know! Ha, ha!”

It was a sinful thought, but Emma wished she were a grown-up so she could smack him.

Back home, Papa stayed clear of his laboratory and kept the basement door locked. Loud Uncle Vince made a mockery of Papa’s scientific projects, but Emma soon realized there was a much deeper problem in the Winberry family. By Christmas Eve, she had figured it out. Vince was Nanna’s favorite son. The tone of her voice, the look in her eyes, and even her mannerisms let it be known. Nothing Papa did was quite good enough for her.

When Aunt Daisy arrived for Christmas Eve dinner, Emma could tell that she noticed the undercurrent, too. More than once Daisy spoke in Papa’s defense—even on the question of hydrogen, which Daisy herself had always considered unsafe. How Daisy had changed. She hardly resembled the cold, unbending woman who used to descend on Arbor Street and plague Emma’s summers.

Emma stayed clear of the kitchen while Nanna made “authentic Italian pizza”. When the pizzas were in the oven, Emma put on a sweater and went out into the chilly evening to gather diapers from the clothesline. It felt good to get away from Nanna and Uncle Vince. After dinner, they would be opening the colorful heap of presents under the Christmas tree, but this year Emma’s heart was not in it.

The back door swung open and Aunt Daisy stepped out into the porch light.

Daisy came up beside Emma and began working the clothespins. “My, it’s nice out,” she sighed.

The row of diapers fluttered in the breeze like white flags. With a shiver Emma said, “My Nanna—was she...was she always like that...with Papa?”

Aunt Daisy turned and looked into Emma’s tearful eyes. “Your Nanna and Uncle Vince probably don’t even realize how they seem. For your Papa’s sake, try and be patient with them. It’s all you can do.”

How strange it sounded, coming from someone who had been such a trial to Emma. Love had helped turn Aunt Daisy into a much nicer person. Then and there, Emma resolved to be a comfort to Papa and do her best to love everyone, even rude Uncle Vince and his doting mother.

A delicious aroma filled the house. Wearing one of Mom’s aprons, Nanna sliced the oven-hot pizzas while Mom served salad and Uncle Vince poured wine for the adults. Uncle Lars arrived just in time. Depositing an armload of gifts under the Christmas tree, he sat down to dinner. The kitchen table had been made longer by inserting all its leaves, and it was decorated with a candlelit Advent wreath. At the head of the table, Papa made the sign of the cross and said his customary grace over the meal.

As soon as they began to eat, Nanna criticized her “creaking old chair”, telling Papa that Vincent could show him how to get a “decent piece of furniture, wholesale”. Then Uncle Vince reminded Nanna and everyone else that “Bobby” was “too strapped, even for wholesale…ha, ha.”

Before the two of them could get in another word, quick-thinking Uncle Lars began telling one of Emma’s favorite stories, a hilarious one about falling through the ceiling of a discount store, right into the ladies’ restroom. The laughter helped her relax, and she ate two big slices of pizza and a serving of salad while Lars regaled the family with one funny tale after another.

And for once, even Papa seemed to enjoy Uncle Lars’ stories.

 

Chapter 5

Back before Papa married Christina, Emma had thought Susan’s little brother was a pest. But in one terrible moment, an accident that took Tommy’s left leg had changed her outlook forever. One minute Emma was shouting cruel words at Tommy, and the next thing she knew, he was bleeding in the street. She would never forget the screech of car tires or the shrieking sirens that followed.

It was hard for Emma to understand. God kept a tree from falling on baby Nate. Why then, couldn’t He have kept Tommy from running into the traffic? Papa said there would always be a certain amount of suffering in this world. Sometimes what seems bad ultimately resulted in something good. Well, Tommy’s accident did change Emma’s feelings about him, and that was certainly a good thing. But no matter what Papa said, she could not help feeling some responsibility for Tommy’s loss, and it made her rather protective. She did what could to keep him out of trouble, and at times went a bit too far. Once, when Tommy carved his initials on the freshly painted porch rail, Emma had tried to take the blame. She could not bear seeing him punished, but Tommy had spoken right up. With fire in his eyes, he had insisted, “I’m the one, not her! They’re my initials, ain’t they?” And he had taken his punishment like a man.

Tough, red-haired Tommy always wanted to do things all on his own. It was no different at school. In September he had started first grade and now, each day, he walked to St. Germaine School with Emma and Susan. Sometimes Susan grew impatient when Tommy’s steps slowed, but Emma adjusted her pace so Tommy could keep up. She never forgot the artificial leg hidden under his blue uniform pants, or the pain it sometimes caused him.

It had not taken long for Tommy’s classmates to discover that he was different from them. The Sister who taught the first graders gave them many lessons in compassion, and all seemed well until the middle of January. Then, mysterious bruises began to appear on Tommy’s body.

“It’s nothin’,” he would say with a frown. “I just fell down, that’s all.”

But Emma did not quite believe him.

One cold cloudy day, after school let out, she came upon a brawny third-grader tormenting Tommy in a remote corner of the playground. All students of St. Germaine endured a bit of teasing from outsiders. Some public school children called them “Germs”. But this was different; this was personal and cruel and worst of all, it was a fellow student, an older boy who was supposed to set a good example.

“Peg-leg, gimpy, crip!” sneered the bully, cutting off Tommy’s every attempt to escape.

As Emma sprinted toward them, the boy shoved Tommy to the ground.

“Stop it!” she shouted.

Though Emma had turned twelve in September, she was still small for her age and the bully laughed at her as he ran off. She was helping Tommy to his feet when Susan joined them. He had only a little scrape on one elbow, but Emma could see that his pride was badly injured.

“That awful boy!” she fumed, and told Susan all about it as they walked home. Right away, the girls decided to tell Papa, but Tommy did not want anyone to know.

“Why not?” Susan asked in disbelief. “Do you want that kid to keep picking on you?”

“Just leave me alone!” Tommy insisted. “I don’t need anyone’s help!”

Emma’s heart went out to him. A boy like Tommy might find it embarrassing to be rescued by his big sisters. He would feel that he should protect himself. Together with Susan, she promised Tommy to keep quiet for now, but the situation worried her. She began to offer a steady stream of prayers to good St. Germaine, who had suffered so much abuse in her own life. And each day, when the dismissal bell rang, she hurried to find her brother, but she could not always get to him in time. More than once she chased off the bully, but not before he had taunted Tommy and knocked him down again. That terrible boy should be reported, but Tommy just dusted himself off and held the girls to their promise of silence.

Then one bright February afternoon, when the sun was coaxing blossoms from their fruit trees, the ordeal came to an unexpected end. Emma and Susan were delayed in their classroom, and by the time they rushed out (taking care not to run on the stairs or in the hallways), the bully had Tommy pinned to the ground. Before either of them could holler, Emma saw a flash of black. When she realized it was a priest’s cassock, her hopes soared. Swiftly young Father Tandy charged in and caught the bully by surprise. Seizing the culprit by the back of his collar, Father pulled him upright and delivered a sound scolding in his Irish brogue, right there in front of the girls.

Emma’s heart melted at the sight of his handsome blue eyes and thick dark hair. “Oh thank-you, Father!” she breathed. “Tommy’s our brother. We’ve been having the awfullest time keeping that boy away from him.”

Gently Father Tandy helped Tommy up, and seeing that there was no serious damage done, marched off with the bully in hand.

Though Tommy was never bullied again, Emma could not get the playground incident out of her mind. Plain to see, Father Tandy had been the answer to her prayers. All day long she kept musing about his masterful rescue, and at night he even drifted into her dreams. She remembered the photos from Mark’s baptism—the ones where Father Tandy stood smiling with the family—and spent many an hour poring over them in the privacy of her room. But even that was not enough. Hoping to catch sight of the young priest, she began leaving earlier for school. Papa wondered at her sudden interest in weekday Mass, but she did not dare tell him or Mom or even Susan about the sweet tremulous feeling Father Tandy gave her.

There was only one person she could confide in—Franny Brocado. Like Emma, Franny was small for her age. She was dark-haired and cute, with lively brown eyes that twinkled behind her glasses. Franny had long been Emma’s confidante, and as it turned out, Franny also thought Father Tandy was quite dreamy. Seated in the back of their sixth-grade classroom, they whispered and giggled over the clever little bulletins Emma wrote concerning a person code-named “Dandy”. Emma had always been quiet and well behaved in school, but now the teacher was forced to separate her from Franny.

Emma’s embarrassment over being disciplined was short-lived. Each day, she eagerly looked forward to recesses when she and Franny could share their special secret, all the while scanning the playground for the Object of their affection. Sometimes Father Tandy actually made an appearance, and Emma happily took Franny with her as she joined the knot of children crowding around him.

One day at noon, after the church bells had rung the Angelus, Emma dared Franny to come along as she knocked on the back door of the priests’ residence. It was a simple plan. They would offer their help to the housekeeper and see if she would actually admit them to the inner sanctum. But Emma failed to persuade her friend, and she found herself alone at the door while Franny hid behind a nearby tree.

As Emma waited, her heart pounded hard and she nervously cracked her knuckles. Would Father Tandy himself answer the knock? Or would it be Monsignor O’Doole, the old arthritic pastor who always looked cranky? From inside came the sound of shuffling footsteps, and the door swung open. There stood the housekeeper, a woman in her fifties with a drifting eye.

“Yes?” said Mrs. Roth, both her eyes briefly settling on Emma.

Emma swallowed hard. “I...I was wondering if I could come in and help you...that is, if it’s alright...”

The housekeeper smiled and opened the door wide. “How very sweet. Of course, dear. Come right in.”

Though the housekeeper’s kindness pricked Emma’s conscience, she went inside and found herself in the very kitchen where Father Tandy’s food was prepared. Through a doorway she glimpsed a dining table cluttered with lunch dishes and discarded napkins. She had just missed him! 

“And what is your name, dear?” asked Mrs. Roth.

Emma turned to the housekeeper and answered in a soft, shy voice. “Emma. Emma Winberry.” Hopefully she said, “May I clear the table for you?”

Mrs. Roth gave permission. Reverently Emma delivered the dirty dishes to the sink and received a cookie in payment—a homemade chocolate chip rectory cookie like Father Tandy might have enjoyed with his lunch. For an instant she considered saving the cookie as a precious memento of the day. Instead, she devoured every delicious bite and made sure to thank Mrs. Roth before leaving.

“Do come back,” said the smiling housekeeper. “Come back any time at all.”

They were beautiful words to Emma, and she took full advantage of Mrs. Roth’s hospitality. While Franny’s enthusiasm for Father Tandy cooled, Emma became a regular visitor to St. Germaine rectory. Once in a while she caught a glimpse of the young priest or heard snatches of his voice in another room, and it never failed to send her heart racing.

 

Chapter 6

April brought the yearly parish raffle, and the older schoolchildren were expected to sell tickets. There would be a fine cash prize for whoever turned in the most money, but Emma had no hope of winning. Papa and Mom bought a booklet of five tickets from her, while Uncle Lars and Aunt Daisy bought Susan’s. Emma and Susan had little luck selling any to the neighbors.

Then, one weekday morning, Mrs. Roth handed Emma a small paper sack. “Here,” said the housekeeper. “You might as well get credit for these. The parishioners keep dropping them through the mail slot in the door. If you check with me tomorrow, there’ll probably be more.”

Scarcely believing her good fortune, Emma clutched the bag of treasure and proudly handed the money and ticket stubs over to her teacher. In front of the entire class, Sister Mary Patrice lavished Emma with praise for her “remarkable effort”. At a desk across the room, Susan turned and gave Emma a sharp, questioning look. All morning Emma worked at avoiding her sister’s eyes, but at recess Susan pulled her away from Franny for a private talk.

Off by themselves, Susan said, “Emma, where did you get those tickets? I know for a fact you didn’t sell them!”

“Oh, didn’t I?” Emma replied. The smart comeback was not really a lie. And as Emma saw it, she had a right to claim those stubs. Didn’t she do work for Mrs. Roth? Hadn’t the housekeeper told her to take credit?

With an angry toss of her red hair, Susan said, “I’m telling Papa.”

Emma went cold inside. In her heart she knew Papa would not approve. Worse yet, he would want to know why Mrs. Roth had given her the tickets and why Emma was hanging around the rectory. It would just spoil everything.

 “You better keep quiet,” she warned. “If you don’t, I’ll tell Papa about that time I caught you robbing the Penny Pot.”

Susan’s eyes grew wide in alarm.

“You would’ve been in big trouble with Papa,” Emma reminded her, but since you promised never to do it again, I didn’t say anything—not one single word.” In her own defense, she added, “I may not have sold those tickets, but they were given to me. I didn’t steal them.”

Susan slumped in defeat. “Okay, okay. I’ll keep quiet.”

All that week the ticket stubs rolled in, evoking more praise from Sister Mary Patrice. Bright and early the following Monday, Emma went straight from Mass to the rectory, anticipating a big haul of stubs from the weekend. In response to her confident knock, the door swung open. And there stood Father Tandy.

Emma felt her face go red. In her shock, she could barely stammer out a proper greeting. “G...good morning, Father...”

As usual, his hair was parted at the side and combed into a perfect brown wave, but it was his eyes that Emma noticed, scorching her like blue flame. Suddenly there was nothing friendly about him—no, she might as well have been the playground bully.

Biting off each word, he said, “What have ya done with all the ticket money?”

Emma gulped. “I...I turned it in, Father. To my teacher.”

He gave a curt nod. “Well, ya better have! You’ll not be getting any more tickets from Mrs. Roth, do ya understand? It’s not a bit fair to the other children. Now get over to the school, an’ I don’t want to see ya loitering around here anymore.”

Holding back tears, Emma muttered a response and ran all the way to her classroom. Her feelings were crushed. How could Father Tandy be so uncaring? She was only “loitering around” the rectory because of him! How could he be so blind to her love?

All morning Emma kept her tears bottled up. At noon she told the teacher she was going home to eat. Taking her sack lunch, she headed down Arbor Street. Only instead of heading home, she braved the high school’s vast entry hall and made her way upstairs, meeting a wisecracking teenager along the way.

“Hey, watch out!” The tall boy shrank from her and clutched his throat. “It’s a Germ!”

The girl at his side recognized Emma as Mr. Winberry’s daughter, and spoke kindly. “Your dad’s up in his classroom,” she said. Then to her companion, “Oh, isn’t she cute?”

“Yeah,” he snickered, “a cute little germ.”

Emma found Papa at his desk, unwrapping an avocado sandwich. He often ate lunch here, making himself available to any student with a scholastic or personal problem. To Emma’s relief, he was alone.

Papa looked up in surprise and quickly read her sorrowful expression. “Honeybee. What’s the matter?”

If only Emma could tell him the whole miserable story. Breaking down, she cried, “There was someone...someone I liked a whole lot...but he doesn’t like me. He’s mean, Papa...just mean and awful!”

Papa held out his arms and she went to him, but his words were of little comfort. Naturally, he thought she was talking about a schoolboy, not a parish priest. What would he have said if he knew the truth?

The pain and embarrassment of Father Tandy’s rejection lingered in Emma’s heart. So he did not want her “loitering around”. Fine, then. Emma took her confessions elsewhere. It was a trial to her when he said Sunday Mass or came out on the playground at school. Not that he noticed any of it; she was all too aware of his indifference to her misery. And this time, Emma could not even share her pain with Franny. Only St. Germaine understood, and Emma poured out her heart to her old friend, patroness of the unloved.

Gradually the storm passed, and as the days lengthened and grew warmer, Emma decided that she would never again give her heart to any man outside her family. She would learn to depend more and more on the good Lord who never acted unloving or disappointed anyone. And as soon as she grew up, she would enter a convent and become a nun.

In the wake of Father Tandy’s rejection, there had been a couple of Sunday mornings when Emma imagined herself to be sick. While the rest of the family went to Mass, she had lain in bed with a book, fully enjoying the guilty pleasure. By the time the others got home, she had always felt better and had no trouble at all eating breakfast. But now that she had chosen a nobler course for her life, those days were over, and she hopped right out of bed on Sunday.

Nor was there any reason for secrecy now. Emma proudly told her family that she wanted to be a nun. She borrowed inspiring books from the church library. She transformed her dresser top into an altar decorated with the pink geraniums that grew in abundance by the house. Up in her attic bedroom, Tommy donned make-believe vestments and pretended to say Mass while Emma knelt prayerfully like the Sisters at school. Even when she was out riding Brownie or climbing trees or tending her rabbits, her thoughts often turned to heavenly things. Yes, she would enter a convent. She would give her life completely to God, but she had a very long time to wait, and Emma was not known for patience.

One Friday, when the school year was drawing to a close, Franny Brocado brought Emma some exciting news. Franny knew all about Emma’s life-changing decision and was very supportive, as always. In fact, Franny had an aunt who was a Notre Dame nun. Her name was Sister Dolores and she lived at a small convent-school on the rim of the Valley. In July, the nuns at St. Dominic’s Academy would be offering a special two-week session for girls interested in the religious life. This was not ordinary schooling, but a chance to learn about the nuns and participate in their daily life.

Once again, Emma burst into Papa’s classroom and interrupted his lunch, as well as his conversation with a pair of students. Waving Franny’s precious pamphlet, she breathlessly described the wonderful opportunity awaiting her. “...Franny said she’d go, too...and that her parents would even pay half my fee. Oh please, Papa? I’ll never ask you for anything ever again, I swear!”

Silently Papa put down his half-eaten tuna sandwich and looked over the crumpled pamphlet. As his dark eyes settled on the price line, Emma noticed his worry-lines deepening. He did not have to say anything. Suddenly Emma realized what she was asking. The Penny Pot would never hold enough change to pay even half the expense.

Emma felt the high school students staring at her. Her lip trembled as she choked out the words. “It’s okay, Papa. Nevermind.” Then she escaped out the door, leaving Franny’s pamphlet behind.

At dinner that evening, Emma was very quiet. She had told Mom about the summer program and her longing to go. She had even told Susan, thinking that her sister might understand.

But Susan had wrinkled her freckled nose in distaste. “Why would you want to waste two whole weeks of summer vacation? Church on Sunday is enough, and Papa has us saying daily prayers, too.”

Emma had tried to explain that religious life was a life of sacrifice, but the words had felt hollow. Wasn’t she really asking the family to sacrifice so that she could go on an adventure? But how she wanted to go! All week she could think of nothing but convent hallways and walled gardens.

Wednesday before bed, Emma went down into the basement where Papa was still trying to refine his auto hydrogen converter. It was just the two of them, like in the old days, and for a time Emma watched him tinker with the strange equipment on his worktable.

Finally she said, “If you could get that thing working, we really would be rich…wouldn’t we?”

“Mm-hm,” Papa answered absently, “I suppose so.” He did not sound very interested in being rich.

“But if we had lots of money, I could go, couldn’t I? To St. Dominic’s? In July?” Papa looked up and Emma almost said, “Do you think it’ll be working by then?” But somehow she knew the answer. Even if a breakthrough came tonight, it would not be soon enough to help.

Becoming desperate, Emma pleaded, “The Brocados said they’d pay half. Maybe Aunt Daisy would…” As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she knew it was a mistake.

“Emma Rose.” When Papa used her middle name, she was in trouble. His dark eyes bored into her. “You are not to discuss this matter with Daisy. Is that clear?”

Meekly Emma said, “Yes, Papa. I only thought…” But she caught herself and said again, “Yes, Papa.”

On Saturday, a persistent rooster dragged Emma from her dreams. Faint morning light shone through her window and a warm breeze stirred the curtains. Since she was already awake, she decided to tackle her outdoor chores. If she finished them, she could watch cartoons right after breakfast.

 Quietly she dressed and went downstairs. Coming out of the bathroom, she smelled coffee. It seemed early for her parents to be up, but she could hear them talking softly in the kitchen, where a light was on. As she neared the doorway, their words became clear and she stopped in surprise. They were discussing her!

“It’s a lot of money,” Papa was saying.

“But it’s for a good cause,” Mom answered, “and Emma’s heart is set on it. Can’t we dip into our savings?”

“That’s for emergencies,” Papa reminded her.

“I know. But if the Brocados pay half...”

Papa’s voice was firm. “If she goes, we will pay…not the Brocados.”

If she goes!

Emma felt a thrill of excitement. “If” meant that Papa was actually thinking about it. With a prayer on her lips, she tiptoed out of the house and got a hoe from the barn. Swinging away, she moved quickly between the rows of young corn. The blade sliced into weeds and churned the damp soil, but her thoughts were miles and miles away, at a peaceful convent on the rim of the Valley.

“Emma! Emma, where are you? Breakfast is ready!”

With a start Emma heard Mom’s voice calling. The sun was already shining and she had weeded more than her share of the field. 

“Coming!” Emma hollered back.

In the house, she washed up and sat at the table with the rest of the family. Mom had cooked waffles and a big platter of crispy bacon. For a while, Emma’s hunger made her almost forget about her hopes for July.

As she was drinking the last of her milk, Papa pushed his plate aside. He removed a brightly colored paper from his shirt pocket and unfolded it. With a start, Emma recognized Franny’s pamphlet.

Papa looked very serious as he cleared his throat and said, “Emma, your mother and I have reached a decision about St. Dominic’s.”

Emma set down her glass. Suddenly the food felt very heavy in her stomach. “I know, Papa. It’s too expensive.”

Unexpectedly Papa smiled. “Honeybee. If you really want to go, I think we can manage it. There’s a little money set aside in the bank. We’ll borrow from that, and if I teach summer school, I can easily repay it, and then some.”

I think we can manage it. Emma hardly heard a thing after those incredible words. “Really, Papa? I can go?”

Tommy looked stricken. “Go where? Where’s Emma goin’?”

“Up in the hills,” Susan told him, “to live with a bunch of nuns.”

 

Chapter 7

Independence Day fireworks were only a fading memory. Gone were the barbecued hot dogs, the potato salad, and ripe red watermelon. Now, Emma found herself in the austere cubicle of a dormitory, unpacking the clothes Mom had helped her select. There was not even one pair shorts or pedal pushers. For two entire weeks, she would be limited to wearing dresses, skirts or jumpers.

Butterflies swarmed in her stomach as she carefully followed instructions, putting the emptied suitcase in her tiny closet. Then she stole a look at herself in the mirror. Her blue eyes seemed large and apprehensive. Kept in place by a ribbon, her straight dark hair hung well below her shoulders. There would be no one to braid it, here.

With a sigh, Emma crossed over to Franny’s cubicle. Each girl’s space was identical, with its built-in dresser and plain, narrow bed. Instead of doors, there were long green curtains that could be drawn shut for privacy.

Soon all the girls were finished, and kindly Sister Rita Marie led them on a tour of the school, the convent, and its little chapel. Outdoors, they followed her over the paved pathways where bright hibiscus bloomed by velvety lawns. Though a busy highway passed by the main entrance, the rear side of the property nestled into the folds of a mountain range. The school grounds were very beautiful, but Emma’s curious eyes kept straying to the wild, hilly area beyond.

Sister’s introductory tour ended at a “study hall” where she told the girls what to expect, and what would be expected of them in the weeks ahead. The day ended with a tasty meal in the school’s dining room, followed by prayer with the sisters in their chapel. Clearly, Emma and Franny were the youngest girls in attendance, but the teenagers made a pleasant fuss over them. Having Franny at her side made Emma feel secure and happy…until bedtime. But when the cubicle curtains closed and the lights went out, Emma found herself all alone in the strange bed. The thought of her family down in the Valley sent her spiraling into homesickness, and she began to sob in her pillow.

Oh, why had she ever come here? What had she been thinking? She wanted her own little room, back home. She wanted her Papa.

Somehow Emma made it through the long, dark night. In the morning, she thought Franny looked a little pale, but neither of them talked about home. The world seemed brighter in the daytime, and Sister Rita Marie kept them very busy. The girls split into small groups and were assigned to different nuns for a taste of their daily duties. Among the choices were kitchen work, laundry, sewing, and chapel care. Emma and Franny ended up in a classroom setting where Franny’s aunt, Sister Dolores, explained the duties and rewards of teaching. But Emma was much too shy to ever consider becoming a teacher like her father and Aunt Daisy.

During the afternoon, there was time set aside for a dip in the school’s swimming pool or some other restful activity. Emma left Franny and the other girls behind so she could explore the outer edges of the property. It helped take her mind off home, but come evening, when she settled into bed, an ache of loneliness crept over her again.

Suddenly a weird yipping and howling broke the silence of the night.

All over the dorm, girls whispered, “What’s that!”

Emma remembered Sister Rita Marie warning about the wild coyotes. They lived in a nearby canyon and came out hunting jackrabbits after dark. The mournful sound of their cries sent a shiver up Emma’s spine—not of fear, but of excitement. In her imagination, she ran with them, exploring the mysterious countryside until sleep claimed her.

When a new day dawned, Emma could hardly wait for her bit of free time, to go looking for coyote prints. Franny willingly came along, but the ground bordering the nun’s property was too hard and dry to show much of anything. At last Emma found doglike marks on a foot trail that snaked into the canyon.

“Come on,” she urged, “let’s see where it goes!”

Franny’s eyes grew wide behind her glasses. “Emma, we’re not allowed! Sister said to stay on the property.”

Emma saw no reason for such a silly rule when the open country was beckoning to her. She was only tracking coyotes. What harm was there in that? She had a wristwatch. She knew what time she needed to be back.

“Well, I’m going,” Emma said decisively, and headed down the trail. When she looked behind her, Franny was gone.

It was a little scary being all by herself, but the sense of adventure kept Emma moving. An occasional tree offered shade from the sun’s heat as the trail crisscrossed a dry creek bed. Yet again, the path turned and followed the fence line of a ranch. As she neared the ranch house, she came to a green pasture where Arabian horses grazed placidly under some oak trees, their tails flicking at flies. Emma stopped in a shady spot and called to them. A dappled gray beauty ambled over and let her stroke his face.

“Good boy,” she said. “You’re such a good boy and handsome, too.”

She would have liked to get on him and ride bareback, the way she sometimes rode old Brownie at home. Her eyes went to the ranch house. Just then, a door opened and a man walked out. Emma stepped away from the horse and checked her watch. Oh, no! She had better hurry!

Flushed and breathless, Emma slipped into the dining room. Even running her fastest, she had not made it back in time. The other girls were already in their seats, eating Sister Josephine’s enchiladas. Sister Rita Marie was nowhere in sight as Emma filled her plate and poured herself a cold glass of milk. Sitting down beside Franny, she ate hungrily.

“That was close,” Franny whispered into her ear.

Emma nodded and kept chewing.

After dinner, they were scheduled to write a letter home. Pencils and paper awaited them in study hall. Emma settled into a desk and began writing about the daily schedule and hearing the coyotes howl at night. Though she still missed Papa and the rest of the family, she knew she would see them before long. She was already looking forward to another day of exploring.

Emma was putting the finishing touches on her letter when Sister Rita Marie appeared at her side. Fear gripped Emma’s heart at she met the nun’s cool, authoritative eyes.

Quietly Sister said, “Come with me.”

Emma followed the nun upstairs, to an office with a big window that overlooked the study hall. There, Sister Rita Marie turned to her and asked, “Why were you late for dinner?”

It would have been so easy for Emma to lie and save herself embarrassment, but somehow the truth found its way out. “I...I was looking for coyote prints. I guess I lost track of the time.”

Sister’s eyes did not blink. “You left the school grounds, didn’t you?”

Emma cracked her knuckles and wound a lock of hair around her finger. “Umm...” she said at last, barely above a whisper, “maybe...maybe a little bit.”

Sister nodded. “And did you find any tracks?”

Surprised by the question, Emma stammered, “I...I’m not sure, Sister. They might have been from a dog.”

Sister sat down at her desk and jotted a few lines in a folder. Emma saw the name “Winberry” on a tab. With a sinking feeling, she realized it was her file.

Pen in hand, Sister looked up and said, “Emma, you seem like a nice little girl...but this program is for serious-minded, obedient young ladies. If there is another infraction of this sort, I will have to call your parents in and reconsider your suitability. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Sister,” Emma said contritely.

Then she was dismissed.

In a way, Emma truly was sorry for her unauthorized excursion. She wanted the nuns to think well of her, but now she had been singled out as a troublemaker with a black mark in her file. She knew that she should make a greater effort to follow the rules, but the lure of the open country was just too powerful. Who knew what surprises awaited her around each bend in the trail? Before the week was over, she was sneaking off again, making sure that she returned to the dining hall in plenty of time.

At night, Emma’s narrow little bed had begun to feel cozy. Lying awake, she gazed out her window at a nearby hillside. Halfway up the slope, lights twinkled from a mysterious mansion that all the girls talked about. In the daytime, one could see that it was surrounded by a wrought-iron fence and meticulously landscaped. Clearly someone very rich and important lived there…but who might it be? As Emma lay wondering, her mind swirled with strange ideas. 

Her eyes were fixed upon those tantalizing lights when inspiration struck. Goose pimples swept over her skin, and she bolted upright. Tiptoeing to her friend’s cubicle, Emma slipped past the drawn curtain and whispered, “Franny...Franny, are you awake?”

The bedcovers stirred. “Emma?” a sleepy voice answered. “Emma, what are you doing?”

Emma plopped down on the bed and spoke in an excited whisper. “The mansion on the hill! Franny, I know what it is, now. I’m sure I’ve seen it before. At home, we have a picture of it in an old album. My grandfather built that house!”

 In the dark, Franny sat up. “Really?”

“Really!” Though Emma was not entirely sure, the notion was so appealing that a full-blown story just tumbled out. “His name was Henry Winberry and he smoked a pipe, but he’s dead now. He was married to my Nana. I don’t much like her or Uncle Vince. I bet the two of them are up in that mansion right now! They only pretend to live far away so they don’t have to share any of the money with Papa!”

“...Oh,” sighed Franny. “Oh, how mean...”

Emma had to agree. It was mean---terribly mean. Papa had a right to the Winberry money and Emma had a right to see the Winberry mansion. Fiercely determined, she said, “I’m going to hike up there. I’m going to take a look at that house, close-up. Are you coming with me?”

The plan was simple and Emma put it into operation the very next night. After Sister Rita Marie performed the routine bed check and turned out the dorm lights, Emma slipped out from under the covers, fully dressed. Putting on her saddle shoes, she ever so carefully drew her cubicle curtain aside and peeked out. Franny was ready and waiting. Holding hands, they swiftly and silently walked the length of the dorm and entered a darkened hallway. Emma’s heart raced as they sneaked to an exit door. Then she took a deep breath and carefully pushed the bar that opened it. The mechanism was noisy, but they slipped out undetected, leaving a stick in the opening. Emma had read enough mysteries to know that she must keep the door from closing and locking them out.

The July night was typically warm and clear, perfect for their expedition. A full moon shone so brightly that Emma had no difficulty following the footpath.

Franny stayed close, her glasses reflecting the moonlight. Nervously she wondered aloud, “What if we get caught?”

“We won’t,” Emma promised.

“What if we meet some creepy stranger...or run into a pack of hungry coyotes?”

Secretly Emma shared Franny’s concerns, but a bit of danger only added to the fun. High on the hill above them, the lights of the Winberry Mansion beckoned to her. She found a side trail that snaked upward. The two girls climbed the steep grade, stopping now and then to catch their breath. The house never seemed to get any closer, but Emma refused to give up. Gradually, the path narrowed. Still in the lead, Emma pushed her way through the prickly brush until her arms and legs stung from scratches. Then the trail disappeared completely.

“It’s no use,” moaned Franny. “We’d better get back.”

Off in the distance, the glittering mansion lights seemed to mock Emma, but she had to admit Franny was right. Disappointed, she followed her friend down the hillside.

“Oh well,” she said with a sigh, “we had some fun anyway. Maybe we can find a better trail tomorrow.”

“Not me,” Franny said firmly.

Emma was not sure if she could brave the night on her own. Maybe Franny would change her mind. They were reaching level ground when something moved in the bushes. Franny let out a scream and bolted, with Emma close on her heels. By the time they reached St. Dominic’s, they were laughing.

At the door Emma shushed her friend, then burst into fresh laughter. The stick was still there, holding the door open. They had made it! Doing their best to stifle their giggles, they slipped inside and Emma carefully closed the door behind them. They were heading for the dorm when the hall lights came on.

Emma’s laughter died. As she stood blinking, two black-garbed figures came into view. Sister Dolores seemed relieved that her niece was back safe and sound, but Sister Rita Marie’s voice was chilly.

“I’m glad to see you girls in such good humor. We will discuss your little excursion in the morning.”

 

Chapter 8

All night long, Emma nursed her regrets, tossing and turning as sleep eluded her. At last the stars faded from the sky and the morning bell called them to chapel.

During Mass, Emma whispered to Franny, “It was all my fault. Don’t worry, I’ll tell her. She won’t kick you out. I bet she won’t kick out either of us.” But Franny looked very worried.

Breakfast was eaten in silence while Sister Dolores read aloud from the autobiography of St. Therese. Emma’s stomach rebelled against her oatmeal as she sat wondering if Sister Rita Marie had already called home. She pictured Papa answering the phone. He would not be pleased, but since he was teaching summer school, it was Mom who would come, bringing Susan and Tommy and baby Nate with her. Mom never lost her temper. She never even raised her voice. In fact, it went lower when she corrected the children.

Breakfast ended without a word from Sister Rita Marie. Emma left for the day’s assignment with the Sister laundress, but she had hardly begun starching the nun’s wimples when the dreaded summons came.

“Come to the office at once.”

Was Mom on her way? Emma was almost glad the suspense was over. Now she could be finished with it and go on. After all, she had not done anything so very wrong—just a hike in the moonlight. It was not as if she had been out smoking cigarettes or meeting boys like a wild high school girl.

Outside the office, Emma tapped on the door and heard Sister say, “Come in.”

Trembling, Emma entered. What she saw made a shock tingle straight through her. Papa was seated by Sister’s big desk, his hat squarely held in his hands. Wearing a suit and bow tie, he was all dressed for teaching.

Emma wilted under his piercing gaze. “Papa,” she croaked.

“Emma,” he said, nothing more, in a tone that conveyed his displeasure.

The meeting seemed to go on forever. Papa looked on in disapproving silence as Emma answered Sister’s questions, taking full blame for the forbidden jaunt. Then she braced herself for a lecture.

But Sister Rita Marie had little to say. “I have already discussed the situation with your father. Emma, this is your second serious infraction. We have come to the conclusion that you are simply too young to take this program seriously. I’m sorry, but you’ll have to go home.”

As Emma struggled to absorb the words, Papa stood and apologized for her behavior. Then he let Emma know that she also must apologize.

Red-faced with humiliation, Emma rose. “Sister, I’m sorry for leaving the school grounds. I won’t do it again, I promise. Can’t I stay?”

Though Sister looked sympathetic, her reply was firm. “No, Emma.”

Papa opened the door and Emma was startled to find her suitcase all packed and waiting in the hall. Wordlessly Papa reached down and picked it up. Everything was happening so fast. Emma had survived the early days of homesickness, and now she wanted to stay. She had not expected to be sent home in disgrace, but here she was, getting into the station wagon.

As Papa started the engine and drove away, Emma felt choked by shame. She was oh-so-tempted to tattle about the Penny Pot. If Papa knew that Susan had stolen money last summer, maybe he would be less angry over this. But it was a mean-spirited thought, and with an effort Emma pushed it aside.

The terrible silence in the car stretched. Emma could not bear the weight of Papa’s disapproval. Scooting over in the seat, she snuggled close to him and began to cry on his shoulder.

At last Papa spoke. “It seems I overestimated your level of maturity. Winberry Mansion! Where do you get these bizarre notions? Your grandfather had nothing to do with that house on the mountain. He helped build a few like it, but he never owned one. We are simple people, Emma. And as for disobeying the Sisters...” He huffed and shook his head. 

Emma wished she could start the week over and try again. Maybe there was no Winberry Mansion, but she found it hard to think of Papa as “simple”. In her view, a high school teacher was someone grand. And what about all his research? It was marvelous, almost magical, the way he came up with scientific ideas. Someday soon he would create something wonderful in his lab; he was always “just on the verge”.

Back at the Kester farm, Tommy greeted her happily and Susan shook her head as if she would never have behaved so foolishly. Once more, she seemed to have forgotten her own misdeeds.

Mom welcomed Emma with a comforting hug. As Papa drove off to relieve his substitute at the high school, Emma began to realize what a sacrifice he had made for her. Papa had always loved the freedom of the summer months, when he could spend extra hours in his lab. For her sake, he had taken on extra work…and now she had gotten herself kicked out of the program.

Emma gathered the courage to ask Mom, “Since I had to leave St. Dominic’s early...will Papa get his money back?”

Mom was putting a big plum cobbler in the oven. As she straightened, her kind eyes looked at Emma. “No, honey. Not all of it, but the Sisters will refund half.”

Feeling glum, Emma hauled her suitcase up the attic stairs and unpacked. All that day she awaited her sentence of punishment, but Papa came home from the short summer school session at 12:30, dished up some cobbler, and took it downstairs. Emma stayed out of his way.

It was her turn to help Mom prepare dinner. Without complaint, she peeled potatoes and carrots to go with Mom’s pork chops. Then she set the table, taking extra care, so that everything would be perfect. She even picked flowers and arranged them in a vase, but her heart continued to feel heavy.

When the family sat down to eat, nothing was said about Emma’s trouble.

Later, when they were clearing away the dishes, Emma had another moment alone with Mom. This time she had to ask. “Papa hasn’t said anything. What’s going to happen?”

“Happen?” Mom looked puzzled.

“To me,” explained Emma, “because of what I did at St.Dominic’s.”

Mom sighed. “Hasn’t something already happened? You were sent home. Don’t you think that’s punishment enough?”

Emma thought about it as she scraped her plate. Yes, she had been sent home, but Papa would have to keep on working to fulfill his obligation to the high school and pay back all the money he had wasted on her. Somehow her punishment did not seem hard enough.

The next morning, Uncle Lars came by to adjust the foggers on her rabbit hutches. Apparently Mom had not told her brother the reason for Emma’s early return. Lars just assumed that Emma had gotten homesick and talked Papa into bringing her home. Now he seemed rather distant.

Working under the mist, he said to her, “I never thought you were a quitter.”

The words stung. Even when Papa and Mom had cast doubt on Uncle Lars’ stories, Emma had remained loyal to him.

“I didn’t quit,” she insisted. “I...I let my imagination run away and it got me in trouble, that’s all. It happens to grownups, too.”

If Lars realized she was talking about him, he gave no sign of it. Emma tried to forget the unpleasant scene as she settled back into summer vacation. Stirrings of religious fervor continued to come and go, but was she really meant to be a nun? Papa was not a monk or a priest, but his life was given over to God. His dedication showed when he led family prayers and it showed in his kindness to everyone. He never once complained about teaching summer school—about all that time he could have been spending with the family, or at work in his lab.

On Saturday, when Papa handed out the children’s weekly allowance, Emma felt guiltier than ever. Slipping the two shiny quarters in the pocket of her shorts, she went outside. It was another hot day in the Valley. Strong winds had cleared the air of smog, but a wildfire was burning in the foothills. As Emma walked out to her rabbits, she thought of Franny and hoped St. Dominic’s was safe from the flames. At least she knew that her rabbits would not be suffering from the heat. The row of hutches was well shaded by the sycamore trees, and the foggers helped cool the air. Emma enjoyed the dewy mist as she checked on her three litters of bunnies. A few curious, twitching noses peeked out of the nest boxes. The colorful bunnies were old enough to be handled, so she spent a pleasant hour gently playing with them. Soon she could sell all the bunnies for pets and make a fine profit. As Emma returned the last one to its mother, a splendid idea came to her.

 

Chapter 9

Whenever new ideas presented themselves to Emma, the first flush of excitement often swept her into trouble, but this time was different. She took an entire afternoon to think it through carefully. First of all, she examined her finances. Emma kept her savings in an old coin purse, tucked in the back of her sock drawer. She had paid Susan for taking care of the rabbits while Emma was at St. Dominic’s, but there was still money left over. And the sale of the bunnies would bring plenty more.

What if she gave it all to Papa? What if she found jobs and earned all of Papa’s money back?

That evening, when the family was watching television, Emma got permission to phone Aunt Daisy. Since moving into the house on Arbor Street, Daisy had turned the neglected yards into a garden paradise. There was always some work that needed to be done. Talking quietly into the receiver, Emma told Aunt Daisy about her secret plan. The very next morning, Daisy asked Papa to let Emma work for her and a few elderly neighbors. In view of the St. Dominic fiasco, Papa took some convincing. He had to think about the summer harvest, too. On the Kester farm, it was a busy time of year when even Papa helped pick corn and melons for the market.

Finally he told Emma, “Alright then, you’ll have your chance. But you have plenty of chores here at home, and you’d better not neglect them. And if I hear of you wandering off...”

“I won’t!” Emma promised, solemnly crossing her heart with a finger.

Papa looked as if he did not quite believe her, but he said, “Maybe a little extra work will help keep you out of mischief.”

Gratefully Emma threw her arms around Papa and hugged him.

Bright and early Monday morning, Emma jumped out of bed and got started on her chores, but it was almost eleven o’clock before she could leave for Arbor Street. A couple of years ago, she would have squeezed through the fence where a board swung loose. Now, in its place, there was a good solid gate that the whole family used as a shortcut. Carrying her lunch, Emma closed the gate behind her and went straight to Aunt Daisy’s house.

From now on, most of Emma’s afternoons were very busy. There were weeds to pull, floors to scrub, and windows in need of washing. Emma waxed Aunt Daisy’s car, trimmed Mrs. Garcia’s hedge, and painted the white fence that bordered the Hopkins rose garden. Little by little the money rolled in, and together with her savings, Emma placed each precious coin into a wooden codfish box that she kept in Daisy’s kitchen. Back home, when bedtime came, she trudged up to her room and fell into a weary slumber.

At long last, summer began to loosen its grip. The evenings grew cooler. In a corner of Aunt Daisy’s yard, tall pink Amaryllis trumpeted their wonderful fragrance. It was a sure sign to Emma that school was just around the corner. Her workdays were at an end.

Over lemonade and sugar cookies, she emptied the codfish box on Daisy’s table and counted her money one last time.

$17.50  from Arbor Street jobs

$11.00  profit from the sale of bunnies

$ 3.50  coin purse savings

_______

$32.00  total

It was half a dollar short of Emma’s goal, but for now it would have to do. Aunt Daisy traded a thick pile of dollar bills for the boxful of loose change. Carefully Emma folded the money and tucked it deep in her pants pocket. Then she hurried home to give her earnings to Papa.

Right away Emma found him in his lab, but this time he was not alone. One of his science-loving students stayed right up until dinner, and as sometimes happened, the shabby-looking boy sat down to eat with the family before heading home. Mom stretched the meal with lots of corn and melon from their garden.

Dinner had never seemed so long. Emma finished eating, and she was getting impatient. With a twinge of envy, she watched baby Nate happily squish food in his high chair. At 10 months of age, he was still far too young for any childhood worries. He spent his days eating and napping and toddling around the furniture on his sturdy legs. 

Chairs scraped the floor. Emma looked up and found Papa sending his student home with a sack of corn and ripe cantaloupes. She wondered how he was going to balance it on his old bicycle.

As Mom began stacking dirty dishes, Papa came back to his seat and announced, “Tomorrow, we’re all going shopping downtown for school clothes.”

Emma had known it was coming. It happened every year, but this time she would not enjoy the trip. Just thinking about tomorrow brought a stirring of resentment. Oh, she could expect new underwear like the other children, and probably a fresh pair of black and white saddle shoes, but that was about all. Susan was bigger, so this year—for eighth grade—Emma would be wearing her faded hand-me-down uniforms.

Abruptly Emma’s thoughts turned to the wad of cash in her pocket. With all that money, she could buy herself new school uniforms. And why not? She had worked hard for every penny. It was very tempting, but Aunt Daisy knew the selfless reason for Emma’s work and had encouraged her every step of the way. Daisy knew exactly where the money was supposed to go.

Papa was busy wiping Nate’s hands and face with a damp washcloth. The baby laughed, his green eyes sparkling as Papa tousled his dark, wavy hair.

Emma gave a loud sigh. “Papa,” she said, “I have something for you.” And before she could change her mind, the money was on the table.

Papa’s eyebrows climbed at the sight of so many dollar bills. Turning from Nate, he set down the washcloth.

Emma explained, “It’s the money for St. Dominic’s. Thirty-two dollars—I counted it three times. It’s fifty cents short of what you spent on me, but you can take the rest out of my allowance.”

“Wow!” exclaimed Tommy, but Mom and Susan just stared.

Slowly Papa reached for the money. His dark eyes shone as he handled the pile of cash.

“Well,” he said in a husky voice. “So this is what you’ve been up to.”

Emma swallowed against the thickness in her throat. “Now you can put it back in the bank, Papa.”

For a long moment Papa was silent. Then he said, “Maybe...and maybe not.” His gaze traveled around the table to include everyone. “This hard-earned money might be put to better use. You see...there’s a family in the parish...a struggling family with six boys and a lot of medical bills. One of those boys just ate dinner with us. Last year he was in my freshman class, and I helped him find a part time job. He gives every penny to his parents...but it’s not enough.” Suddenly Papa was looking straight at Emma and it gave her a funny feeling inside. “What do you think, Honeybee? Should we donate this money to them?”

Emma could hardly believe her ears. “But...but I did all that work for you!”

Smiling warmly, Papa said, “Of course you did, and I’m so proud. But maybe...just maybe...there’s something more to God’s plan.”

“You mean Divine Providence?” asked Susan, of all people.

Papa was pleased by her question. “That’s right, Sue Bee. Just look at how Emma was inspired to earn this money. Maybe it’s God’s way of providing for that needy family.”

With a little shake of her head, Mom declared, “Emma was inspired to earn the money, and your Papa is inspired to give it away. Robert, we have our own share of medical bills.” But there was no mistaking the love in her eyes.

“Christina.” Papa’s voice pleaded for understanding. “You saw how that boy was dressed today. You’ve seen his little brothers at Mass.”

Emma had seen them, too. The boys were always clean and well-behaved, but their hair was buzzed with home clippers and they wore ill-fitting, threadbare clothes. By comparison, Susan’s hand-me-down uniforms did not seem so terrible. They were just the right size for Emma, and hardly faded at all.

Emma drew a deep breath. “If Papa thinks they should have the money, I guess it’s okay with me.”

Susan and Tommy clapped their hands. Caught up in the excitement, little Nathan banged on the wooden tray of his high chair.

Papa looked so delighted that Emma found herself feeling glad, too.

“Quick, get an envelope,” he said. “I’ll write instructions on the front and seal the money inside. Then we’ll slip it through the mail slot in the rectory door. It’s best if a priest delivers it; that way, the family will never know where the money came from.” Papa’s sparkling eyes found Emma. “How about it? Would you like to drop it in the mail slot?”

“Sure!” Emma said, with scarcely a thought for young Father Dolan.

Who cared if the priest caught her at his door? This time she would not be doing anything wrong. The way Papa was planning it, giving felt like a grand adventure. Everyone, including Mom, wanted to come along. As Emma raced Susan and Tommy to the station wagon, all her recent blunders did not seem to matter much anymore. A simple act of generosity had brought unexpected happiness, and the whole family was sharing in it. With a big smile Emma settled into the station wagon, claiming her usual window seat. Susan and Tommy piled in beside her. Up front, Mom held little Nate on her lap while Papa got behind the steering wheel.

Togetherness. There was no better feeling, this side of heaven.

 

 

 

 


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

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