Special for Redheads
By Hazel K. Todd
Synopsis: Marian, a young stepmother, is deeply in love with her husband, Bob, and has succeeded in winning the hearts of Patty, the thirteen-year-old daughter, and Robbie, the youngest child. Rusty, the nine-year-old, however, is so antagonistic that Marian doubts if she will ever find a way to let him feel her love.
A clang of buckets being thrown together brought her back from her reverie, back over the weeks to the present. She stood up and walked to the window. The clash of arms had ceased now. A pile of bucket helmets lay at the foot of the clothes pole, and she could see the knights preparing to leave. She watched with envy their goodbyes.
One boy, with numerous brown freckles and a pug nose, slapped Rusty on the back. “See you tomorrow, pal,” he said with perfect confidence at tomorrow’s welcome.
“Sure,” Rusty answered, with a grin that reminded her of his father, “you can be that Green Knight the teacher read us about if you remember what I told you.”
She saw them take leave of Rusty, their leader, who was as free and easy as though he never would shut himself away from anyone. But, she reminded herself, these were boys he had grown up with, while she was regarded as a fulfillment of all the horrible creatures stepmothers had ever been made out to be, someone you must never speak to unless it was absolutely necessary.
Rusty perched himself on an overturned bucket. Marian watched him with a heavy heart, knowing that he would stay there, or somewhere else away from the house, as long as he could. She noticed that Patty was coming down the walk from the corner grocery, where she had sent her on an errand. Her heart went out to the slim girl with the bag of groceries. It had been so easy to win her confidence. Like Robbie, she had come to her with open arms. She looked again at Rusty, and suddenly she was seized with new determination to win him, as she had done the others.
She opened the door and started toward the buckets, her mind grasping frantically for something she could say or do that would bring results. Her eyes traveled rapidly over anything that might give her a hint. They suddenly came to halt on the grinning features of a bucket head, lying at the edge of the pile. She grasped at the suggestion it offered.
“This one looks like Lancelot,” she said, picking it up. “Did you make it?”
Her newborn hopes were smashed as quickly as they were born. He stood up angrily and snatched the helmet from her hands, almost taking the skin with it. “Leave it alone!” he said with fiery eyes.
He turned and faced Patty who had come around the house and was watching. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Rusty,” Patty said. “What makes you act so mean?”
“Mind your own business,” Rusty said and went defiantly on his way.
Patty turned to Marian, and the look of apology and shame on her face almost made up to Marian for Rusty’s antagonism. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I don’t know why he acts like that,” the girl said, almost at the point of tears. “It just isn’t like him. He can be so much fun when he wants to be.”
“Yes, I am sure he can,” Marian said, taking some of Patty’s bundles, and wondering if he would ever want to change. “But you mustn’t worry, Patty, I’m sure we’ll get acquainted after a while.” she put her free arm around the girl’s shoulders and they walked to the house.
Suddenly the girl stopped. “I know! I know!” she cried, with excitement. “Next week’s Rusty’s birthday. Let’s have a party for him. Then he’ll know you’re not the kind of person he thinks you are. He’ll …”
Marian stopped. She was looking into the child’s sweet face, beaming with excitement, and winking back the tears in her own eyes. She tightened her arm on the girl’s shoulder, and leaning over, kissed her cheek over the bag of groceries.
“Oh, Patty,” she said, “what a wonderful idea! Hurry, let’s put down these things and do our planning.”
Marian awoke early on the day of the party. It was as if she were a little girl again, she thought, as she lay awake planning over for the hundredth time each game, just what she’d do, the prizes. She could hardly wait for daylight so she could begin the cake. A dozen times she frosted it in her mind. Surely this day she would succeed.
“Oh, Bob,” she whispered to him, as he kissed her goodbye that morning, “I’m sure I can win Rusty this time.”
Bob was looking at her with his boyish grin and his eyes that were as full as his heart. “How could you help it?” he whispered with his arm tightening around her waist. “He has more resistance than any man I know, or he couldn’t help loving you.”
After he was gone Marian brushed the tears lightly from her eyes. It was wonderful to be wanted by the ones you loved. And today she would win her other man.
All day she worked with a growing excitement. Robbie followed close at her heels, with Blinky, chanting, “I’ll help you, Moth-er, me and Blinky will help you.”
“Of course you will,” Marian stopped to assure him more than once, as she kissed his cheek while she thought of some little errand.
Then she remembered a little task that was just right for Robbie. “Robbie,” she said, “I need a nice smooth board for a scoreboard. Do you know where one is?”
Robbie was all excitement. “Oh, yes,” he chirped with glowing eyes. “In the garage!”
“Good,” said Marian. “Let’s go see.”
Robbie led the way excitedly into the far corner of the garage to a glass jar covered with a smooth board. It was exactly right and she lifted it with words of praise for Robbie.
But as she raised the board, she was startled at what it covered, a jar of water with round wiggling things swimming about with long waving tails.
“What are they?” she asked in wonderment of the small boy at her side.
Robbie was holding Blinky, whose eyes were bulging at the sight. The cat struggled to free himself from his master’s arms.
But Robbie held the cat tightly. “No, Blinky, you mustn’t have Rusty’s polliwogs. He would spank you.”
“Polliwogs!” Marian gasped, “what in the world are they?” She watched with curiosity, the peculiar little wiggling marbles with their goggly eyes.
“They’re just polliwogs, Mother,” Robbie explained very carefully. “They’re Rusty’s polliwogs. He caught ‘em in the swamp.”
Marian placed the board back carefully on the jar. “Oh,” she said, “I don’t think we’d better take this board. Rusty probably needs it to cover up his … polliwogs. We’ll find another.”
* * *
At last the time for the party arrived. Robbie had traveled around and around the table with the lovely lace cover and the handsome cake with its ten candles. He had touched each little bucket of nuts with loving fingers, and Marian had kissed his fingers impulsively, for, with her own heart so full, she could have followed him round the table and fondled each bucket of nuts, too.
Patty arrived early, with starry eyes, and when the boys, with wide grins, began sneaking in the back way as they had planned, Marian noticed that her hand was shaking when she laid their hats on the table. Now that everything was ready, and they were crouched together in the hall, with Robbie and Blinky squeezed against her legs, she suddenly felt weak. It was as though she were on the witness stand awaiting a verdict, and now that it was about to be given dark fears gnawed at her.
One of the boys giggled, and she was seized with fear as though he had upset the whole thing. But the door was opening now, and she knew in a moment Rusty’s red head would appear in the hall. She shut her eyes and said a quick little prayer. There was a loud shout of “Surprise!”
She felt Robbie clutch the frightened Blinky. She opened her eyes and saw Rusty standing there. He was grinning at Beany, at Joe, and the others, and then Marian stood up. “Happy birthday, Rusty,” she said, her eyes clinging to the happiness she had seen in his face.
But he was looking at her now, with a quick, sullen scowl. For a moment he wavered as though undecided what to do, and then he turned without a word and went out the door he had just entered.
“Aw, gee, what’s the matter with you?” tow-headed Beany asked disgustedly, and Patty ran after him, but he only shook her arm off roughly and went on.
Her first impulse was to go after him, but recollections of all recent experiences checked her. She looked into the sea of swimming faces about her and urged a smile through the mist. “Robbie,” she said, “bring the scoreboard we made, perhaps Rusty will join us later.”
But Rusty did not join them later. He sat on the ground and leaned against the rabbit pen. She watched him through the corner of her eye from the lawn where they played. She saw him scrape his foot on the ground and felt his eyes watching when he thought she was not looking. Once Beany put his thumbs in his ears and waved his hands like a rabbit at him. But he only pretended not to see. And Marian whispered to him to pay no attention to Rusty.
He was still sitting there when Bob came into the party, his bronzed head gleaming in the late sunshine. She accepted his smile with her heart, and then she saw that he was looking around the group for Rusty.
Robbie was at his legs, with Blinky close behind. “Rusty won’t play, Daddy. He’s sitting by the rabbit pen.”
She saw Bob start for the rabbit pen and she went quickly to him, giving Patty the rope she was holding for the relay. She slipped her fingers into his big hand. “No, please, Bob, don’t say anything to him. Just leave him alone. He’ll be all right.”
Bob hesitated. He closed his fingers tightly over her small ones. “But it’s no use, Marian, your psychology doesn’t work. It’s about time something else did. He can’t go on treating you like this.”
He untwined her fingers and started decidedly for the rabbit pen. But Marian caught at him again. It would be the wrong way. There would never be a chance if he tried to force Rusty. It was she, herself, who was the trouble. It must be she who would find the way.
She thought desperately and made a desperate promise on the spur of the emergency. “Please, Bob, wait one more day. I promise if I cannot win by then you can try your way.”
There was no time to be frightened at the rash promise she had made.
Bob stopped and looked into her eyes. They lighted with his familiar smile. “All right.” He glanced at the rabbit pen. “Until day after tomorrow he can sulk with the rabbits, and then I’ll try my way.”
Robbie was at her side, with big, somber eyes. “Moth-er, can I blow out Rusty’s candles?”
Marian caught her breath. This was indeed a disappointment. She had pictured a dozen times Rusty blowing out the candles, while they sang “Happy Birthday.” She had even sneaked in a little picture of a smile he would give to her, a boyish grin with imps in his eyes like her other red-headed man.
“Can I, Moth-er?”
The picture quickly fled. She picked up Robbie’s cat and stroked its black fur. “Why, I don’t see why not,” she said. “If Rusty doesn’t want to, you might just as well.”