My Stepmother, the Horse

An older childrens' book by:
"Jane Falabella" (George Willard)
Rt. 1, Box 134-B
Carl Junction, MO 64834

Chapter One

Hi. My name's Diane Williams, and I'm confused. I'm confused about life, boys, and the world in general. But maybe I'd better explain:

I'm twelve years old, with blonde hair and blue eyes, a bit tall for my age, very smart, and I like horses, birds, drawing, and writing. My Dad says I'll be a Great Writer someday. Mostly I like to write about horses, birds, and drawing. It figures, I guess. I live on the edge of a small town in Missouri with my little brother, Doug, my Aunt Ellen, and Dad--when he's home, which is not very often.
You see, Dad does some kind of government work which makes him be gone a lot, which I don't really like, but when he comes home he always brings us nice presents from the places he's been, and tells us lots of stories about interesting people, so it could be worse. I used to think maybe Dad was a secret agent, since he always went to these strange spots, but he says he works for the Agriculture Department, the government agency dealing with farms, and just goes around the world helping poor people set up better farms so they can have enough to eat. I guess I believe him, but a secret agent would be much more fun, and I could also get lots of spy stories from him to write about! Oh, well.
Aunt Ellen is Dad's sister who never married. She moved in with us when I was two, and my brother, Doug, was just a little baby. At first, Aunt Ellen and Dad would tell us that our mother "went away" and couldn't come back. Grownups are sometimes like that, not telling kids the whole truth since they don't think we'll understand. That isn't always the best thing to do, though.
When I was in first grade, a nasty boy named Christopher told me that meant our mother didn't like us, and that's why she ran off. I hit him in the nose and cried. The teacher asked me what was wrong. When I told her, she rocked me a little and dried my tears, then made me sit in the corner for a while, since she said it was still wrong to punch someone in the nose just for saying mean things. But she made Christopher sit in a corner all afternoon. When school was over, the teacher, Mrs. Marples, gave me a note in an envelope for my Aunt Ellen, and told me to be sure she read it, and bring it back the next day, signed.
I was a little scared, wondering if the note would get me in more trouble about fighting, but it didn't.
What the note said was: "Miss Williams, your niece was very upset in school today about her mother. Perhaps now she needs to know more. She seems very bright to me, and I'm sure she will understand what happened."

* * *

Aunt Ellen sat down with me after supper and told me the story: "When you were very young, Diane, your mother was a busy woman. You know how pretty she was, from looking at her pictures. Well, she was always on the run, involved in lots of things-- quilting, painting, square-dancing, charity work, and helping out at the hospital over at the county seat
"One night, when your father was home for a while, they had planned to go square-dancing, but just as they were about to leave, the phone rang. It was the hospital. A lot of folks had come down sick with the flu that week, and the hospital didn't have enough people to take care of them.
"Your dad didn't really want her to leave since he was only going to be home for a few days, but your mother couldn't turn away from people who needed help. Your father understood. He cares about people, too."
I nodded, but kept quiet. I wanted to hear the rest. "Well, she worked hard all night, comforting the sick people, and finally some of the other workers came in.
"It happened on the way home... the roads were a little foggy, and the driver of the other car had been drinking too much . . . ."
Aunt Ellen's face got tight, and I started to get tears in my eyes because I knew something bad was coming.
"You mean . . . ?"
"Yes, dear," Aunt Ellen said, hugging me closer, "your mother was killed in the wreck. The doctors said it happened fast, that she didn't suffer."
After a moment of silence, I broke free from Aunt Ellen, ran to my room and cried under my blanket for a long, long time.
When I came back out, Aunt Ellen was still sitting in her chair. I walked up to her.
"So, when you and Dad said that Momma couldn't come back, you meant she was dead?"
"Yes, dear. When it happened, you were so young that you couldn't understand what that meant. Do you understand, now?"
Yes, I understood. I had seen squirrels dead in the road, and a kitten I had last year died. It meant they sort of went to sleep, but wouldn't ever wake up again, and they got cold, and you had to bury them quickly so they wouldn't...
I got tears again, but snuffled them up. I looked bravely at Aunt Ellen. "This means that Momma didn't run away from us?" Aunt Ellen nodded.
"She'd still be here if she could?"
Another nod.
"That makes me feel a little better."
We never said much more about it, except it did make me feel better to know. I guess little kids sometimes get the idea that their parents left because they didn't want them when, really, they died and didn't have any choice. I hoped Momma was happy, wherever she was. I hoped people would stop drinking and driving so other little kids wouldn't lose their parents. I still cry sometimes, though.

Chapter Two

Dad says that if I really want to be a Great Writer, I have to include what he calls "pertinent details." I had to look that up, like I do with a lot of words Dad uses. It means that I need to give all the facts that have anything to do with the story I'm telling.
I guess this means that I have to tell you about my brother, Doug. I'd rather not. Most of the time, I'd rather forget I even have a kid brother. But he's in this story, whether I like it or not.
While Dad seems to think I'm going to grow up to be a writer someday, and he just might be right, NOBODY knows what Doug is going to be. He's ten years old, and right now he shows signs of growing up to be an Evil Genius-- if he can figure out how to do it...
Doug has gone through all the irritating stages that I guess it's normal for boys to go through. First, it was comic books and toy race cars. Then Lego (tm) blocks and Erector (tm) sets. Then toy soldiers and combat machines and robots. Then video games, skateboards and bicycles. He takes stages, playing with one thing for a while, then another, then back. But his main interest, the thing he has always done best, is annoying me.
When I'm on the phone talking to Anna, my best friend, he's always finding ways to make noise. If he hears me talking about boys, he makes these rude "smooching" sounds and moons around in front of me. Then afterwards he makes calf-eyes at me and says some boy's name in a simpering voice, clasping his hands in front of his neck like he's praying. I could kill him.
It's so silly. I'm not interested in boys, and I'm not going to be, either! They're all alike.
Besides, if I'm going to be a Great Writer, it means I'll have to spend all my time on that. No time for boys while I'm in college, or afterwards while I spend a little time Suffering for Art. Whatever that means. I read somewhere that all Great Artists have to Live Lives of Suffering to make their Art better. I figure that I'll suffer for just a little while, then write about it. Come to think of it, living with my brother ought to make me the GREATEST Great Writer in History!
What worries me now is that Doug is getting interested in science. The last time Dad was home, he rigged up a little laboratory in one of the sheds on our place. I heard him tell Aunt Ellen that there were no dangerous parts or chemicals in any of the science sets he equipped Doug's lab with, but sometimes I don't think Dad knows Doug the way he thinks he does.
So far, there haven't been any fires or explosions out back, but one day I got out my favorite T-shirt, the one with the picture of the Dead Meat Lice rock group on it, and there were two holes and an awful green stain right in the middle of the back. Doug swears he didn't have anything to do with that, but the shirt was just stuffed into the dresser drawer, instead of neatly folded like Aunt Ellen does it...
I could kill him, sometimes!

Chapter Three

Well, I'm still Diane, and I'm still confused...
Maybe I should tell you why.

It all started about six weeks ago.
This was going to be a great time! School was out, I was going to be in Junior High next year, the summer looked like it would be perfect, and Dad was coming home to stay! He had retired from the Agriculture Department, and was going to write a book about his travels. He already had a publisher lined up to buy the book.
I would get to spend time with him and learn more about being a Great Writer. I just knew that he would be one!
The week before he was due, we got a letter: "Dear family,
"This is to let you know that I will be flying in to Kansas City International Airport on the first. Please don't come up to meet me, as I shall be driving home from there. I should get home about 6:00 if all works out as planned.
"Diane and Doug, I have a very big surprise for you. You too, Ellen. Please clean out the old barn in back before I get home, but don't bother fixing up the fence. We won't need that.
"My love to all,
"Robert (Dad)"

Well! A big surprise? Could it be? No, probably not...

All my life I wanted a horse. I had a bird, I wrote and drew a lot, but I didn't have a horse. So, my first thought on hearing that we were to clean out the barn was that he was bringing us a horse. But, then, why did he say not to fix the fence?
Doug was convinced that Dad was coming back with a Top Secret spy satellite that Dad had captured from the Russians, and we were going to hide it in the barn. Then he thought that maybe it was a giant laser, instead. He ran off to his room where I could hear him making "Zhoop-zhoop" sounds as he imagined blasting Tommy's house down the road. He and Tommy didn't get along very well, unless they were teamed up to hassle girls-- like me.
Maybe it was a collection of rare old books, books that contained the secrets of being a Great Writer. I really couldn't guess.
Aunt Ellen probably had it right. She said that Dad was probably going to buy a new car or something that would be the big surprise, and that it had nothing to do with the barn. He probably wanted the barn cleaned out so he could make it into a study where he would write his book. (Uh-oh. That's three "probably's" in one paragraph. My teacher, Mrs. British, says I shouldn't repeat myself like that if I want to be a Great Writer. I can't think of anything else, so I'll settle for being a Good Writer for right now.)
Anyway, the next morning, Aunt Ellen and Doug and I put on work clothes and went out to start on the old barn.
The barn was a solid building, where we stored lots of old junk. It had big double doors in front, a workbench along one side, and three stalls along the other. There was a ladder into a hayloft, and sometimes I would come out there and read, sitting in the loft, looking out through the little door in the end that people used to pitch hay up through.
We stood just inside, looking at the piles of old lawn mowers, broken shovels, boxes of canning jars, gardening tools we never used (my mother had been the gardener), toys, bicycle parts, even an old buggy with the top all torn and the seats rotting. Horseshoes and pieces of harness hung from nails. Piles of scrap lumber stood in one corner. Cobwebs dangled all around.
Aunt Ellen shook her head. "I don't know HOW we're ever going to haul all this stuff away!"
After staring a little more, she just shrugged her shoulders and said, "If you can't see bottom, start digging at the top," and began to haul things outside. I guess that means if you have a big job to do, you do it in little pieces.
I picked up a bicycle frame with training wheels and started outside with it.
"Hey, wait a minute!" It was Doug.
"That's my first bike! We can't get rid of it!" I decided to reason with him. I cocked my fist and aimed it at his nose. Aunt Ellen stepped in then, and explained that the bike was far too small for him, it was broken, and we HAD to get the barn cleaned out.
I was nodding, feeling very responsible with my no-nonsense attitude when I spotted my old rocking-horse.
Suddenly, a clean-sweep attitude didn't sound like such a great idea. Aunt Ellen saw my look. "Okay, kids. Everyone should be able to keep some things to remind them of their past. But too many people hold onto so much of their past that they don't have room for the future."
My aunt sometimes talks in riddles. What it meant this time was that we could each select three things of reasonable size that we found in the barn, and keep them, but we'd have to clean them up and take care of them, or store them carefully away.
Cleaning the barn was a real job, and I suspected that Doug wouldn't be much help.
Aunt Ellen got that idea, too, the first time Doug found an old axe and started chopping away at one of the main support timbers.
Aunt Ellen put a quick stop to that, and so Doug had the job of carrying out all the old scrap lumber and carefully stacking it against the outside of his laboratory shed.
It took us two days to get all the stuff out of the barn. Aunt Ellen and I then started sweeping and mopping the concrete floor, hosing down the walls. I thought that was maybe going a bit far, but she didn't really know when to stop when she started cleaning. I got nervous when I saw her eying some old buckets of paint, and decided it was time to distract her.
"Well, what are we going to do with this stuff out front?" Aunt Ellen's face fell a bit. I guessed that she had been trying to forget about that, hoping it might go away.
"Oh, dear. I guess we could call Barney and his boy and see how much they'd charge to haul it off."
I liked that idea. Barney's son, Brian, was older than me, good looking, and he even got to run his father's heavy digging machines, sometimes. He'd be a nice boyfriend-- assuming, of course, that I ever wanted to have a boyfriend. Silly idea!
Just then, Doug surprised us! He had tired of the "clean the barn" game the day before, and had at least stayed out of our hair. But we were shocked to see him walking into the yard carrying a shotgun!
Aunt Ellen immediately ran up and took it away. "What are you doing with that!" she fairly shrieked. "A boy your age has no business with such a thing!"
"Oh, don't worry," Doug said, trying to reach for it, "It won't work or anything. See? The barrel's broken. I'm going to make a floor lamp from it!"
Aunt Ellen looked. Sure enough, the shotgun would never fire again, a large tear near the back of the barrel showing where it had burst open.
"Hmmph! Well, I"ll keep it put away until you are able to make the lamp. I won't have you running around swinging that thing and pointing it at people and scaring them to death!"
The crestfallen look on Doug's face showed that Aunt Ellen had figured out exactly what he had in mind. She understands Doug better than Dad does most of the time.
"Where did you get this, anyway?" asked Aunt Ellen. "Over near Curt's house," answered a disappointed Doug. "His neighbor's having a yard sale, and he gave it to me."
"Yard sale?" mused Aunt Ellen.
She and I looked at each other. Suddenly, two women communicated without

Chapter Four

The yard sale was a great success! We put a classified ad in the paper. We made signs on cardboard with markers, and tacked them up around town, with a couple of larger ones on the highway. They said, "Big Yard Sale! Antiques!" and had arrows pointing the way to our house.
People swarmed our yard, starting at sunup. I was surprised at what would sell. Folks bought broken kitchen chairs, broken lawnmowers, broken bicycles, old jars, old magazines covered with dust, and all sorts of stuff. I sold most of my dolls (I never really liked dolls, anyway), and Doug even parted with his broken shotgun, getting eight dollars from a man who said he was a gunsmith, and could use the parts.
The buggy brought $600.00. The man who bought it chuckled with glee, and gave Aunt Ellen another $50.00 for the old harness pieces.
When it was over almost all the junk was gone, even, to my great relief, the old buckets of paint.
Aunt Ellen had spent the day with her head in the clouds, counting money in and change out, watching stuff she would have dumped become someone else's treasure.
That night, she pulled me aside. "Diane, I was going to paint the barn, but we sold the old paint."
I nodded, giving a quiet sigh.
"However, we made so much money from the yard sale that I hired Barney and his son to do the job. They'll be here in the morning."
Barney. And Brian!
I went to bed that night a very happy girl.
The remaining three days until Dad was due home passed like minutes. I spent my time dreaming of the big surprise, carrying lemonade or cookies to the two men working on the barn, and reading. It just happened that I did most of my reading outdoors. Right where I could watch Brian handling the big spray gun or a paintbrush, wearing his overalls with no shirt, muscles moving under his skin. I don't know how it worked out that way; I surely didn't plan it. But he is okay I guess, for a

End of Part One

Part Two <> Part Three <> Part Four

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