Chapter 2 - 1914: Helen
“What are they?” Helen stared at the box of strange cookies on the table.
“I found them when I went into town to get some groceries. They’re called animal crackers.” Helen’s mother kissed her daughter’s cheek.
Helen picked up the box and frowned. She opened it and nibbled on one. “They don’t taste like crackers, more like cookies.”
Her mother shrugged, her back to her daughter as she washed potatoes. “You’d best put them in your room before your father gets home. He won’t take kindly to you eating sweets before dinner.”
A shiver shot up Helen’s spine. At twelve, she thought herself too old to be treated like a little girl. But it’s more than that. “Isn’t he supposed to be visiting old Mr. Hopper?”
“Mr. Hopper passed away last night, dear. Your father is busy meeting with the family to go over the funeral details. The whole town is expected to turn out for it on Saturday. He was mayor back in his prime, a name Hurston was built on.”
Helen made a face. “I don’t want to attend some stupid funeral for a man I don’t know. Who cares about some backwater town like Hurston? Cleveland is less than fifty miles east, a city where things are happening. All that ever happens here is people dying from old age or boredom.”
“That’ll be quite enough, young lady. To your room with your treats.”
Helen sighed as she stood. She pushed in the chair, the legs scraping over the wooden floor. Her mother cringed at the sound but kept working at the sink. The girl left the kitchen and took the stairs like a mouse stealing away into the night.
When she arrived in her room, she knelt beside her bed, as if to pray, but reached underneath and pulled away a loose floorboard. She hid the box of animal crackers in the secret spot and replaced the board.
She avoided the bed and sat at her desk, staring out the window at the branches on the large oak. A couple of robins flitted around each other as if in a dance. She longed to be free, to fly like in her dreams. She kept her eyes on the world outside, anywhere but the bed.
There are other dreams, too. She smiled. She sometimes imagined she walked around in someone else’s body, usually as other children in town. While she had no control over where her dreams took her, her favorites were when she was someone rich like Matilda Forkins. Matilda had all the best dresses and had two porcelain dolls, not just one.
But they end, like all dreams. They’re so quick, like a blink. “In the end, I still have to wake up and return here.” She whisked her gaze from the window.
The haze of the summer rested heavy on Helen as she sat, waiting for her father to return. He would walk in the back door and comment on how wonderful dinner smelled, kiss his wife, and straighten his clerical collar. Her mother would make a remark about how proud she was of him for doing God’s work. And Helen would sit there, her mouth shut until he spoke to her.
Helen rested her elbows on the desk’s surface and cradled her face in her hands as her eyes returned to the window. Her eyelids grew heavy and she drifted to sleep.
She strolled through the unused field on Mr. Bender’s farm just outside town. Wildflowers grew as high as her waist as she made a path through them, skimming her hands over the tops. Her hands were a woman’s: long-fingered and graceful. Helen grinned as she took in the rest of her body. The curves under the blouse and skirt were a rare treasure. She imagined keeping this gift.
What if I didn’t have to wait to be grown? I could run away and not look back.
She skipped, then ran through the field, laughing. She felt her hat blow off but didn’t mind. Let the wind claim it.
In the distance, a young man leaned against a tree on the edge of the field. He smiled when he saw her and stood, opening his arms. “Susan!”
Helen’s heart thudded. Blood pumped through her body. She was meeting her lover, maybe in secret. She pranced through the flowers, wondering if she might take flight. She giggled and called back his name, unsure how she knew it, except that it felt right. “Matthew!”
She woke, withdrawing her face from her crossed arms. Sweat covered her skin, drool on her cheek. She sat up and wiped at her face, frowning.
“Helen! Your father is home. It’s time for dinner.”
“Just...just a minute!” she called, blinking several times.
The birds were long gone, the sun closer to the horizon.
She sighed as she stood. A dizzy spell passed as she smoothed down her hair and rumpled clothes. She went downstairs, hoping the heat on her cheeks didn’t show.
“It’s about time, young lady,” her mother said. “We’ve been waiting.”
“I apologize, Mother.” Helen took her seat, staring at her lap.
“Good of you to join us, Helen,” her father said.
Helen glanced up to look at her father. His smile didn’t reach his eyes. In them, a coldness stared back, challenging her, daring her to lie, to explain her reason for being late.
“Let’s pray, shall we?” he asked.
Helen averted her eyes.
“Dear Heavenly Father, we thank You for this food that has been prepared and placed before us and for the hands that made it. Thank You for blessing dear Jasper Hopper with eighty-five years of good life, and may his eternal soul be in Your loving arms as he is laid to rest. We ask Your blessings upon Hurston and upon our little family. In Your precious Son’s name we pray. Amen.”
“Amen,” Helen and her mother murmured.
The dishes were passed. Helen filled her plate, but her stomach churned as she took a bite of her roll.
“Has she been helping out around the house?” her father asked.
“She did the laundry and the mending, although the clothes came out wrinkled and stiff.”
I’m not invisible. I’m right here. Helen glanced between her parents, one on either side of her at the small square table.
Her father finished chewing a bite of potato and swallowed. “Is that so, Helen?”
“I’m sorry. I’ll do better next time.”
“Hmm, I should hope so. One day, you will have a husband and a family of your own to care for. You’re of an age now where you must take your chores seriously. And have you been reading your Bible?”
“You know I have, Father.”
“I don’t like your tone, young lady.”
Helen breathed out slowly through her nose and forced herself to chew the tasteless food.
“Another son would have been nice,” her father said.
“William, I agree with you,” her mother said, blinking rapidly, “but it doesn’t seem to be in God’s plan.”
“Do not presume to know what God’s plan is for us, Mary.”
Helen swallowed, her mouth dry as the bit of potato scraped down her throat. Her eyes landed on her father. He glared at his wife, his knuckles white as he gripped his fork and knife.
“I apologize. That isn’t what I meant,” her mother said, her lips a firm line.
Helen shifted her gaze to her mother, hating her for shrinking whenever her father admonished her. A few times every week, he made a similar remark about wanting a son to train in his ways, but Helen was their only child--their only living child. She’d had a younger brother who had died in infancy, but Helen had only been six years old and didn’t remember much about him.
The silence in the room lingered. A cat yowled outside. A horse nickered in the distance.
“Very well,” Helen’s father said at long last, his utensils dropping to the table. Helen thought he would pick them up and resume eating, but he turned his gaze to her. “What are you looking at?”
“Finish your dinner, clean up, and get to bed. You will be up an hour earlier tomorrow to help your mother. It’s not good for a young woman to be idle, and a young woman is what you’re becoming, Helen.” Her father’s dark eyes took her in, the gleam in them force enough to cause Helen to look away.
* * *
In Mr. Bender’s unused field, Susan Wild blinked up at Matthew as she rested her head in his lap. He leaned against the ancient oak, its branches waving in the summer breeze. He ran his hand through her thick hair.
“Maybe it was nothing,” he said. “You’re sure?”
“It was so strange. I was walking through the field one moment, and then it was like I was sleeping the next. Everything was black. Then I was back in the field, only you were within reach. Like I’d skipped ahead thirty seconds. Like that piece of my life went missing. I’ve been over this several times now.”
He leaned down and kissed her. “I wouldn’t worry about it. You’re with me now.”
Susan smiled at him, her worries dying. “I can’t think about much else when I’m with you. Let’s do it. Let’s run away.”
“Your birthday is next week, darling. We can legally marry then, regardless of what our parents think.”
She laughed. “You always were the patient one. All right. I’ll wait.” She sat up and leaned into him, wrapping her arms around his neck as her lips claimed his.