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. Among other efforts, Marian prepares a birthday party for Rusty, but he refuses to take any part in it. Finally, Marian’s husband tells her that he will not allow Rusty to treat her disrespectfully any longer, and that if Rusty’s attitude doesn’t improve in two days, he will supervise Rusty’s conduct.
Marian wakened next morning with an ominous sense of calamity. The promise she had made so suddenly hung like a heavy cloud over her. There was a note on her pillow. This was the morning Bob was to leave early. There were words on the note that sent happiness thrilling through her, and at the end it said, “Good luck today.”
Marian folded the note thoughtfully. She sat down on the bed and ran her fingers through her hair. For the hundredth time she went over in her mind all the boys she knew.
The patter of little feet and a cat’s meow brought her back to present surroundings. She smiled at the pair standing together in the doorway. And the trust and happiness in Robbie’s eyes brought joy to her heart.
“Shall we cook breakfast?” she asked, taking Robbie’s hand.
“But Rusty says he won’t eat any breakfast. He’s out in the garage playing with the polliwogs.”
Marian said nothing. It was a good start, she reflected, wryly, for the day on which she had promised to succeed.
Indeed, success seemed to slip farther and farther away. Rusty not only refused to eat his breakfast, but at dinner he refused to come in until she had gone upstairs. Then she saw him slip into the kitchen, where she had left his dinner waiting.
For the first time she was really and truly afraid. With staggering force the thought came to her that perhaps she would never win Rusty. Perhaps things would get worse and worse. Suddenly a new fear seized her. If this were true, then she should go away. What right had she to spoil his home, to take away his security?
The thought grew on her. A dozen plans quickly formed themselves in her mind. But one after the other, they were chased away by thoughts of what the result would mean. She pictured herself pinning a note on Bob’s pillow. The picture was quickly blotted out by a flood of tender emotion. She found herself telling Patty very straightforwardly that it was best that she go, but a picture of the little girl’s face filled with sudden need for a mother chased that picture away.
She imagined talking to Robbie and his cat, but the fear and insecurity in the little boy’s face ended that idea. She dropped on the window seat with a feeling of fatigue. It was no use. She couldn’t leave what had in a few short months become an integral part of her. She knew no answer to her problem, but she knew she must still find one. Perhaps, after all, Bob’s way would be the answer. But remembrance of the angry flush on his face frightened her. He probably had a red-headed temper. It would only bring some resentment from Rusty. Surely, there must be another way.
Then the way came. it began with a cry from Robbie. It came from the direction of the garage. Her already tense nerves gave her added speed, and she quickly found herself in the doorway of the garage.
But it was Rusty’s face, red with anger, and not Robbie’s that met her eyes first. He was standing near the tipped-over jar where the polliwogs had been, and he had the smooth board in his hand. In an instant the situation cleared itself in Marian’s mind. Blinky, the cat, was crouching behind a nail keg in the corner, and Robbie, with eyes dilated in fear was crying hysterically. At sight of Marian he ran to her for protection.
“Don’t let him hurt Blinky. He didn’t mean to eat the polliwogs. Please, Moth-er, don’t let him hurt Blinky!”
Quickly she put one arm protectingly around Robbie’s neck, while with the other she reached instinctively for the board in Rusty’s hand. “Please, just a moment, Rusty.”
Rusty was angry. His freckles seemed darker than ever. This time he did not sulk. Instead, the words came tumbling from him. “That cat – it ate my polliwogs. It deserves to be hit! It …” He suddenly stopped.
She felt the board tighten in his hand. He pursed his lips tightly together. He was shutting himself up again, and there was nothing she could do to break the shell.
But Robbie could break it. ‘Honestly, Rusty, Blinky didn’t know it would hurt to eat the polliwogs. And I’ll catch you some more. Honest, Rusty, I can catch some. I watched you. I know how.”
The little boy was all serious, and in his earnestness he looked at his older brother with big, somber eyes.
Rusty snorted. “Imagine you catching polliwogs! You’d fall in the mud and the polliwogs would run down your neck!”
Marian caught her breath. Maybe here was something she could do. She swallowed to stop the fast beating of her heart. “I could catch them for Robbie. I will be glad to.”
Rusty stared at her in amazement. But, before there was time to know what he would do, Robbie was clapping his hands in glee.
“Come on, Moth-er, I will show you the swamp.” And he picked up the old bucket.
Before Marian hardly knew what she was doing, she was hurrying down the garden path with Robbie tugging at her hand to go faster. She suddenly became aware of the bucket bumping his tiny legs with each hurried step. She paused and took it from him.
“Now we can go faster, Moth-er,” he chirped and tugged harder at her hand.
They had reached the swamp before Marian had time to think of what she was supposed to do. She paused to catch her breath and at the same time looked into the dirty water of the pond before her.
“In there,” Robbie was saying, “the polliwogs are in there. There’s dozens of ‘em. You get ‘em with your hands and put ‘em in the bucket.”
An involuntary shudder went through her as she looked at the murky water. But the shudder was checked at once when her side glance caught something. It was Rusty, half hidden behind a tree on the trail they had come over. He was watching! He was watching to see what she would do. She was on trial. Suddenly, through some intuition, she knew this was her supreme trial. She was on trial for Rusty’s heart! She gave a quick glance at the sluggish water and swallowed the throbbing in her throat. Then she looked at her feet. Robbie was watching her, impatient at her delay.
“You have to take off yer shoes,” he instructed. “Rusty always takes off his shoes. He takes off his shoes and rolls up his overalls, ‘cause sometimes he sinks way down deep in the mud. It’s awful muddy,” Robbie was babbling on.
“Oh, I see,” she said, unlacing her Oxfords. “But I haven’t any overalls. I’ll just have to hope it doesn’t come over my dress.”
“Hurry, Moth-er, I’ll hold the bucket, and you catch the polliwogs. Catch a whole big bunch of ‘em, won’t you, then Rusty won’t be mad at Blinky any more, ‘cause I don’t want him to hurt Blinky. ‘Cause Blinky’s the best cat in this whole world, and he can sing so pur-ty.”
Marian stuffed her second stocking into her shoe and stepped gingerly into the edge of the mud. It oozed up between her toes, and she gritted her teeth to stifle a shudder. Then she would have jumped had her feet not been securely planted in the mud, for there was a splash and a ripple through the water.
“It’s a polliwog, Moth-er, get it ‘fore it goes away! Hurry, Moth-er.”
And so began the strange game of chasing polliwogs to catch a heart. The first time she felt a polliwog in her hands she wanted to scream and throw it away, but Robbie was dancing up and down and fairly rattling the old bucket in his excitement.
“You’ve got one, Moth-er, you’ve got one! don’t let it get away! Don’t let it get away!” And he nearly waded into the mud with the bucket to make sure she didn’t let it get away.
So, one by one, she grasped the wiggling, goggly-eyed prisoners in her trembling hands and dumped them into Robbie’s bucket, while he shouted and jumped about like a jumping jack.
She didn’t exactly know when she first became aware of Rusty’s presence in the pool, but after a while she knew he was there catching polliwogs and dumping them into the bucket, too. He kept his distance and remained silent, but he was there, and her heart sang in her ears with the rapture of it.
And then she saw it, the prize polliwog. It was a beauty, as beauty in polliwogs goes.
Afterward, Rusty told her why it was so big and seemed to have three tails. It was because it was already taking on its future shape, that of a big green frog. It was resting languidly in the water, its goggly eyes sticking out like beads.
Marian saw it, and determined to have it. The game was becoming fascinating. She had almost forgotten its first unpleasantness. Right now her whole attention was fastened intently on that particular polliwog with a firm resolve to catch it. How was she to know that Rusty was sharing the same identical thought!
Marian didn’t know just how it happened, but, suddenly, she and Rusty came together with a thud, and before she knew it they were down in the mud and water together, and she was choking on a mouthful of it. She heard Robbie clapping his hands. He was enjoying immensely the rigorousness of the chase. She floundered about to free herself from the murk, and then Rusty had hold of her hand and was pulling her up.
“I’m sorry,” he was saying, as he held onto her while she pulled one foot and then the other from one mud hole and put them into another. “I didn’t know you were after the same one that I was.”
Marian wondered if she were hearing right. Rusty, proud, aloof, Rusty with his sullen eyes and eternal silence for her, was speaking to her, actually saying things, nice things to her.
Then a quick warning fear squeezed at the gladness inside her. She must say something, the right thing, to keep him talking. The right thing, what was it? Her eyes ran down her muddy arm to his hand holding onto her, and then they went to his face. His face! She had never seen his face like that before. One side of it was completely plastered with mud, and it kept running down and dripping off his chin. And then she forgot that she was hunting for the right words to say, and laughed, a rippling, merry, contagious laugh, because it was funny.
Rusty’s eyes went quickly to her, one through a ruddy complexion, and one through an opaque plaster. They twinkled with hilarity, and then he laughed – laughed as Marian had heard him when he was with his “gang.”
“Your hair-r!” he said, pointing at her head through bursts of laughter. “You look like a mud hen!”
Marian’s hand went instinctively to her head and came away with a handful of mud and leaves. She laughed again, while her heart whispered, “The happiest mud hen that ever could be!”
“You could pass for a mud turtle yourself!” she said merrily, and they laughed together.
Then they held onto each other through the mud and sat on a fallen tree while they scooped off the thickest.
“Four, five, six, nine, ten, fourteen.” It was Robbie sitting on the ground with his legs around the old bucket. He was counting polliwogs. She had forgotten him in the excitement. But, evidently, when the chase became duller, he had given his attention to the more exciting thing of the moment, the polliwogs. “Twenty-eight, forty-one …” And then, suddenly looking up and catching her eye, he shouted, perfectly oblivious to her bedraggled appearance, “Oh, Moth-er, we caught forty-one polliwogs!”
“Wonderful, Robbie!” Marian said with a laugh, “forty-one most precious polliwogs in the whole world!”
And then Bob came. She saw him marching up the path with long strides, the sun glistening on his red hair. New warmth flooded her already burning heart. She forgot the mud in her hair and her bare feet. She remembered only that she was in love, in love with life, and her family, and her family was all hers.
He stopped suddenly before her, a queer, puzzled expression on his face, and then he threw back his head and laughed, a strong, hearty laugh, containing all the satisfaction of a life that is full.
“What in the world have you two been doing?” he asked, “having a mud fight?”
“Why, certainly not,” Marian said primly, while she made a place on the tree beside them, “we’ve just been catching a few polliwogs.”
Robbie, having caught sight of his daddy, came jamming the bucket against his father’s legs. “Look, Daddy,” he babbled, “we caught eighty-two polliwogs. Aren’t they pretty?”
Marian gave Bob a wink, and they all looked admiringly into the bucket.
Rusty was standing up now. “Well,” he said, “well … well, I guess I’ll help Robbie take the polliwogs to the house.”
“All right, Rusty,” Marian said, “all right.”
But he didn’t go just then. He half started, and then hesitated a moment. Marian looked up at him with a smile. “Yes, Rusty?”
He gave a movement to start again, and then, suddenly, stopped and gave her a quick, sharp kiss on the cheek. Then he was gone in an instant, almost dragging Robbie and the bucket in his haste to get away.
Marian sat, not wanting to move and break the spell, while the tears ran down her muddy cheeks and dropped onto her hands.
And then Bob had her head on his shoulder. If her eyes had not been closed she could have seen the brown stain of the mud creep slowly over his light green shirt.