A Door Just Opened
Thirteen-year-old Anna's passionate dream is to go to high school, the first girl from her tiny farm community back in 1910 to do so. She is determined not to stay at home like her older sister, Mary Ellen, helping their mother and waiting to marry a local farmer. But there is no money to send her to River Heights, seven miles away, and anyway, her mother needs her.
When sixteen-year-old Mary Ellen is sexually assaulted by a local boy, the situation gets worse. No one suspects Mary Ellen is pregnant until she gives birth to the illegitimate baby. The surprise birth threatens to ruin the family's standing in the community and Mary Ellen's reputation.
Anna wrestles with helping her parents and sister while still striving to make her burning desire to go to high school a reality. Meanwhile she becomes involved in solving the mystery of a missing ring, and in stopping another attack by the boy who assaulted her sister. But how will that help her realize her dream?
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My fingers were just inches from the hen’s tail feathers, when I stumbled on a rock and fell. The chicken bobbled away from me, running in zigzags around the yard. I scrambled to my feet and brushed the dust from my long skirt.
“Come on, Mary Ellen, help me,” I cried to my sister. “I can’t catch the silly thing alone!”
“I know, Anna. Just let me rest a minute.” Mary Ellen leaned against a fence post, holding onto her side. “I’m worn out.”
A few minutes before, we had been screaming with laughter the way we always did when Mama asked us to catch a chicken for dinner. But since the spring Mary Ellen had seemed different. She didn’t run as fast as usual, and today she’d gotten tired awfully quickly.
“Well, just stand by the gate, then, and catch that white one when I chase her your way.” Putting on a final burst of speed, I ran after the hen, shouting and waving my arms. My long braid whipped across my face, making it hard to see. Mary Ellen began to laugh again, but she bent over, almost tripping over her own billowing skirt, and grabbed the chicken as it scuttled past her.
I fetched the ax from the woodshed and took the struggling hen from my sister, then pushed it down on the bloodstained stump near the door of the shed.
“Now don’t go all shaky this time,” I said. “Just hold onto the body. I’ve got the head.”
Mary Ellen grasped the chicken with trembling hands, looking as though she might faint, as I swung the ax and chopped off the head. She let go of the chicken and covered her face with her hands. The body fell from the stump, still twitching and pumping red spurts of blood that splattered all over our high-buttoned shoes. Mary Ellen screamed and began to cry.
“Don’t be so squeamish,” I snapped. “A little chicken blood never hurt anybody.” I picked up the carcass and plunged it into the waiting bucket of hot water to loosen the feathers. “What’s the matter with you today, anyway? You’re even worse than usual.”
Mary Ellen shook her head, her face pale, and went to sit in the shade of the maple tree behind the house. I began plucking feathers from the chicken. They soon covered the ground like a rain of summer snow.
Mary Ellen was so pretty. Fair-haired and blue-eyed like Papa, with a thin straight nose that I would have given my eyeteeth for. And no freckles. When I was little, I used to pray to look more like Mary Ellen, but it didn’t help. We’d never even looked like we were related. Papa’s friend, Dr. Simpson, who often came to go duck-hunting with Papa, was always telling me that I was a regular corn-fed country girl, rosy cheeked and healthy as an ox. But beside Mary Ellen, I felt big-nosed and too dark and tall.
Sometimes, though, Mary Ellen was a featherbrain. Like the other day, when she forgot the potatoes and they boiled dry and burned a hole in the pan. Or the time she left the gate to the chicken yard open and let all the hens run loose. Mama said she was flighty. Even though she was three years older than I, she was kind of helpless too. She always hung back and wanted me to take charge. Not that I minded. I liked being in charge and getting things done.
I picked up the de-feathered chicken by its feet and carried it into the house. Mama cooked it for our noontime dinner and made her fluffy light dumplings to go with it, but after one look at the chicken, Mary Ellen wouldn’t eat anything.
“It’s too hot for stewed chicken,” she complained. “And anyway, I’m not hungry.”
Later in the afternoon her friend Lena came by with her father to take Mary Ellen home with them for the night. I was sitting on the back step, reading a book I had discovered several months before, lying forgotten in the attic. It was the first novel I had ever seen, called Vanity Fair, written by a man named William Thackeray. Mama said it had belonged to Grandmother Tilton and that I could have it. No one else wanted it anyway. I had read it over and over, marveling that such books existed, that there were people living unimaginable lives in strange faraway places like England, as remote as the stars from our farm in the New Jersey pines. It had made me hungry to know more, to read books, lots and lots of books.
I closed Vanity Fair and watched Papa come out of the cornfield where he’d been hoeing out weeds. He and Uncle Bert stood by the wagon talking. Uncle Bert took off his hat and mopped the perspiration from his bald head, which looked like a shiny pink gumdrop sticking up from the ruff of gray hair. His face was red from the heat, but he looked as good-humored as ever, nodding and smiling at something Papa was saying. Papa looked hot too. His hat was shoved back on his head, the gray undershirt that he wore under his overalls soaked with sweat. He had rolled up the long sleeves and left the top unbuttoned, exposing a thin line of white around the red, sun-toughened triangle of skin on his neck.
Lena had sprung from the wagon and I followed as she ran into the kitchen, calling impatiently, “Mary Ellen, are you ready? Oh, good afternoon, Aunt Ellen, hello, Anna! Where’s Mary Ellen?”
Mama looked up from the sink, where she was picking over huckleberries for a pie.
“She’s upstairs, packing her valise,” she said, brushing away strands of chestnut hair with the back of her arm. “She was feeling a mite unwell this morning, and I told her she ought to stay home. But she claims she feels better now, and she’s bound to go with you. She’ll be down in a minute.”
Lena reminded me of a cricket, chirpy, small, and energetic, with dark eyes and thin, brittle-looking legs, encased in black stockings, sticking out below her dress. She was always hopping around, always cheerful.
She darted now to the foot of the stairs. “Come on, Mary Ellen. We’re here!”
When Mary Ellen appeared a moment later, Lena gave her a swift kiss on the cheek, then hurried her out the door. I sat down on the back step again and watched as Lena seized Mary Ellen’s small valise and lifted it into the wagon, then they both climbed in.
“You still feelin’ poorly, Mary Ellen?” Papa asked.
Mary Ellen leaned down to kiss Papa’s cheek. “I took a nap after dinner, Papa. I’m all right.” She gave his arm a pat as she sank back down in the wagon, but she looked awfully white.
“I got to go to town in the mornin’, Matt,” Uncle Bert said. “I’ll drop Mary Ellen off on my way.”
Mary Ellen and Lena sat close together in the back of the wagon, waving goodbye as they drove away. Since they turned sixteen in the spring, Mama and Aunt Fanny had allowed them to put their hair up. Mary Ellen had become quite adept at twisting her blond locks into a French knot at the back of her head, but Lena soon tired of trying to manage her straight black hair. Today, as usual, some of it had come loose from the pins and hung in damp strands on her neck and face. I was still wearing a braid down my back, but I didn’t care. It kept the hair out of my face and anyway, I didn’t think I’d want to fuss with fancy hairdos, even when I turned sixteen.
Mary Ellen and Lena had attended our little one-room country schoolhouse in Cedar Crossing until they graduated from the 8th grade. Since then, like all the other girls we knew, they had stayed home, helping out and visiting back and forth with each other, waiting until they found someone to marry. Mary Ellen, and Lena too, seemed content to drift along, never looking beyond the next church social or their next new dress.
I’d graduated only a couple of weeks ago in May, but already I wished I could go back to school. At home there were no books, except the Bible and my Vanity Fair. Papa read his weekly newspaper but I had never seen him or Mama read anything else. I yearned to go to high school in River Heights, where there would be books, and teachers who could teach me the things I longed to know. I could just imagine, though, how Papa and Mama would react if I ever mentioned such an idea.
“I dunno,” Papa would probably say with a tired sigh, leaning back in his Morris chair and closing his eyes against such a far-fetched idea. “River Heights is a good ways off...”
Mama would bristle, and her thoughts would fly off in all directions like birds scattering on the wind. “Such a notion! No girl from Cedar Crossing’s ever gone to high school! What’s got into you, Anna? How would you get there? You’d have to board in town, and where would the money come from, I’d like to know? Besides, I need you here.” And that would be the end of that.
Still, the dream refused to go away.
I got up from the step and picked up a ripe red tomato from the pyramid piled beside the kitchen door, then walked across the grass to the swing. I let myself down on the splintery wood seat, gave a little shove with my feet, and drifted lazily back and forth, listening to the rhythmic creak of the rope against the bough of the maple tree. Leaning forward, I bit into the tomato and let the sun-warmed juice run down my chin and drip into the grass.
Papa and Uncle George Clayton came up the path from the barn and went into the woodshed. I could hear their voices rising and falling in that rough, rumbly way that men have. Mama wouldn’t allow liquor in the house, but Papa kept a bottle of whiskey in the woodshed. Sometimes he and a neighboring farmer like Uncle George—who, like Uncle Bert, wasn’t really an uncle at all, but owned the farm next to ours—would sit on overturned barrels among the rakes and shovels and sacks of grain and have what Papa called a “little nip.” Their conversations usually centered around farming, how the corn was doing, or whether it was going to rain, but often it got around to politics and then the voices got heated. Papa was the only Democrat in Cedar Crossing, and he loved to tease Uncle George by criticizing President Teddy Roosevelt and watching him get red in the face and start to shout. I still remembered the little ditty Papa had taught me during the presidential election campaign back in 1900, when I was only four years old.
“Bryan rides a white horse, McKinley rides a mule. Bryan is a wise man, McKinley is a fool.”
After I memorized it, Papa had sent me over to the Clayton farm to recite it to Uncle George. That time he’d chuckled instead of getting mad.
A burst of laughter erupted from the woodshed. I stopped swinging and listened, glad that Papa was having a little fun. He always worked so hard, up before five every morning to do the milking and feed the animals, and out in the fields all day, sometimes till long after sunset. I once asked him why he planted so much, when even after Mama canned most of the extra fruits and vegetables, we still had to give some away to the neighbors. “Can’t seem to help it,” Papa had said. He squinted across the fields. “I just love to watch things grow.”
Papa had been farming for most of his life. When he was only sixteen—Mary Ellen’s age now—his father had died. As the eldest of five children, Papa had had to drop out of the fancy private school he attended and come home to look after the family and farm. There was little trace now of the handsome young dandy he must have been, sitting high on the seat of an elegant carriage and driving a team of matched horses past the dazzled eyes of young girls like Mama. Years spent on the farm had roughened his manners and speech, but I knew he set great store by coming of “good stock.” He had no use for no-account folks like the Irons family down the road, whom he called “the rakings and scrapings of hell,” with their raft of kids and a father who occasionally ended up in jail, usually for drunk and disorderly conduct.