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Chapter 1

I Didn’t Mean To

Troubles always come in threes. So Mother told me; so it was.

I always began to worry when I reached the second trouble and recognized the warning signs; it was too nerve-wracking to have to face the impending disaster, and it drove me nearly to distraction. It was almost a relief when the third trouble actually appeared, and the suspense ended.

Almost.

My latest evil trio had swept over me so quickly, I hadn’t had time to reflect, to recognize, and to fret. It began last night, when I went tripping up the road to Farmer Martens’ place, just to the north of my mother’s property. It was springtime – the bright spring of 1955. Planting season was just around the corner, and I always worked for kind Mr. Martens at planting time. I could drop seed into the rows more quickly and accurately than any man – so he said.

But this year there was a new planter. It was pulled behind a tractor, and was better, even, than I. He showed it to me with a conciliatory air, rubbing his massive hands together as he explained that, with corn prices over a dollar-forty, he couldn’t afford to pasture cattle anymore, and he needed to plant four times the acreage to corn.

It was a handsome piece of equipment – it was progress, of course, and we all wanted progress, for it would put money into Mr. Martens’ pocket. But for me, it was an unmitigated disaster. I trudged homeward through the deepening twilight, with a nasty, deep-seated hatred for John Deere and his “progress.” I’d earned thirty dollars last year at planting time – an extra week’s wages, and Mother couldn’t spare such a prodigious amount without pain.

There were other farmers nearby, of course, who would also be searching for planting help. I knew all the neighbors within two miles, and I would ask every one of them before I gave up in despair. The problem was that I had only a few hours of daylight most evenings, and a longer walk to work meant less time working. It was a heavy blow altogether, and there was no good solution. I was still stewing as I milked the next morning, trying to reorder my days to accommodate more time for fieldwork, when my second trouble struck me, sweeping my planting-time worries away like leaves before the autumn gale.

I’d finished milking; I’d collected my stool, and was just bending to retrieve the brimming milk pail, when it happened: my green cotton blouse tore over my left breast. There was no sound – no rip, no tear, no snag, nothing! Only a sad little sigh, as if the fabric had found itself unwilling to persevere any further, and simply gave up the fight.

It was a dreadfully old blouse – that was certain. It had served me for years already, and had been worn for years before that by a generous neighbor, larger of purse and smaller of bust. It had been laundered countless times; Mother was unruffled.

“Fabric will give out, finally,” she said simply. “It’s no great loss.”

No great loss! The blouse wasn’t any loss at all, of course, from any perspective of value. But the possibility of such an event happening, say, at work! Or worse, at school – I felt my cheeks burning at the thought of it. In the hall – as I walked from one class to another, and bent carelessly to retrieve some little thing, and – there. All eyes were fixed upon me! Laughing, scornful eyes – they’d seen, they’d seen! White underwear, white slip, or – or –! I clutched my books against my breasts, and – what could I do? Oh, it would be better to be dead! All my clothes were old, too – my one good school dress had been worn for two years, and again, for years before that by a generous neighbor.

Such a mortifying fate has a way of sticking in one’s mind – clinging to her greatest interests like pine sap in her hair – echoing with her every step – worming its way into every blithe moment. Every sound made me shudder, every motion made me cringe; and so the day passed away. Algebra came and went; History was done; still that one single trouble ate at my mind.

I had one class remaining. Grammar had just concluded; my favorite subject, Literature, was the final class of the day, and immediately followed Grammar. The ten-minute break between classes could be spent in quiet conversation, for the classes were in the same classroom, taught by the same instructor, Mr. Hoffman.

People were talking around me; a group of boys were discussing the upcoming planting season. Boys were allowed to miss school for planting – a provision that seemed to me vastly unfair. It seemed so to them as well, for they spoke especially loudly beside me, reminding me of my misfortune. I had to attend school or face the consequences.

I heard my friends Eva and Serena discussing a much-anticipated birthday party. Was it tonight? Apparently, for today was Eva’s birthday. And what ought Serena to wear? Eva had a new dress for her birthday; she had at least one new dress every year. I listened enviously, as my own shabby clothing, and my fear for its integrity, burst into my mind in fresh terror. I could only listen and weep inwardly, as the wish, and the fear, and the jealousy swept through my shrinking mind, twisting at my stomach with sickening despair.

It was then – just as Mr. Hoffman was rising to begin the Literature lecture – that my third trouble erupted, sweeping all before it – planting, dress, and all – like a raging avalanche. My name was called – I jerked to rapt attention –

“Miss Anna Anderson,” Mr. Hoffman repeated, “Please see me after class.”

Stunned silence settled like a blanket over the room. I felt as if I were floating in suspended horror. My eye fell upon the boys across the aisle; their looks were distinctly unsympathetic. Helpless anger awakened in my mind at their gloating. But what had I done? Students were only kept after class for one reason, and it wasn’t so they might be congratulated. I couldn’t think – a sick fright began to creep through me, like smoke from an approaching prairie fire. It seeped into my stomach, curled about my lungs, and wrapped, thick and choking, around my windpipe. Icy fingers were clutching at my throat; a lump was growing there, and that warning itch was pressing irresistibly upward in my eyes.

I wasn’t mentally prepared for a spanking. I didn’t know what I’d done! And Mr. Hoffman was doing it on purpose, leaving me in suspense, because he knew it: that I wouldn’t be able to think for the entirety of Literature, or enjoy a single word of the reading; and that I, and all the class with me, would be speculating on my evident guilt and my coming humiliation. At least most students who were kept after class knew immediately what their offense had been!

No, I knew. My heart sank into my shoes. I’d passed a note in class, only the day before. Notes were strictly forbidden during class periods; but they were passed all the more frequently, for detection was difficult, and enforcement sporadic at best. I was certain no one had seen the illicit act when I did it, but of course – of course – someone had seen. Someone had told! Perhaps the real culprits had been smitten with some sudden and uncharacteristic tenderness of conscience, and confessed: I could never know!

The boys were still looking at me. They were smiling to each other – I could see it from the corner of my eye – those awful, mean smiles that mocked my perplexity. And they would stand outside the door after it had been shut, and wait for the echo of pure pain, and the irrepressible cry of anguish. They lived for those sounds – not that they withstood their spankings any better than I did – and they happened all the time! But they loved to watch their friends’ punishment. It was a big joke to them.

It was normally a privilege to have one’s punishment postponed until after class. At least the assembled spectators could only hear – not see – the crimson calamity. For me, it was a disaster either way. I was expected to work three full hours for Mr. Phillips, the proprietor of the General Store in town, before I returned home. If I was late, he would easily guess why; then I would be late coming home, and Mother would no doubt ask for a reason, and I would have to tell her, and then –

Mother was a simple, honest soul, steeped in tradition. She wasn’t my mother at all – that mysterious woman had passed away on the day of my birth. My stepmother had come into my life when I was two years of age, and, though she’d never had children of her own, had tried her utmost to do for me everything that a mother ought to do. That included upholding that time-honored tradition that no one ought to be stricter than the parent: which, in turn, decreed the iron-bound certainty that a spanking at school meant another spanking at home, and harder, and worse – that was most important.

Literature class dragged by me; the time hung frozen. My bottom throbbed beneath me in an exquisite anticipatory distress. The given reading, Poe’s Raven, blurred uselessly before my eyes; the poem was closed against me, lock, portcullis, and drawbridge. Who was this lost Lenore? My mind was in a turmoil, wishing for the woman whom I’d never known – one who could sympathize, perhaps, with a girl who wished to have friends, even if it meant passing their harmless little notes during class. I never wrote notes – I had nothing to say, and no one who wished to hear! But I couldn’t bear the ugly name of “snitch” either, and now look where I was!

The bell rang. A cheery, joyous sound; today it was the tolling of doom. It was followed by the clamor of conversation all about me, as full and as loud as if a switch had been thrown and a machine had roared to life. Students sprang up and strode down toward the door; and, they must all come by my desk, and smile knowingly down at me.

Clarence gave me a knowing smirk. “I’ll be listening outside,” his eyes taunted merrily.

The boys scarcely seemed to care if they were spanked. Perhaps that was why Mr. Hoffman always executed sentence upon them immediately. Clarence had been punished only a few days before for substituting a single paragraph in the place of the three-page composition assigned. I tossed my head, leveling my fiercest glare at him.

Eva was beside me. She placed a note on my books, and patted my shoulder. The irony was too much; I looked away, my eyes clouding.

Students were loitering by the door, still talking. I felt leering eyes boring into my back. I had to distract myself; Eva’s note was before me. I opened it.

“Dearie Anna,” it began gaily. “Come to my house for a piece of birthday cake. Love and kisses, Eva.”

Well, it was the least she could do. It was her note that had caused the trouble, as likely as not. And she was smart – I realized it suddenly. Eva knew that if I had an excuse for being late, I needn’t tell my mother of my misfortune.

Of course I couldn’t do that. I tried to hide from Mother, the last time – it had been years now – that last, awful catastrophe with Mr. Hoffman. I suffocated in unbearable guilt for three miserable days before I slunk to her to confess, pay my remaining debt to society, and receive absolution. And that I could not do.

The room was empty. The door clicked shut with a boom of finality, and silence reigned. It was time.

I rose shakily and stepped forward to the platform at the front of the room. My feet were leaden – they were altogether too heavy to drag to the top of the steps. I stood before Mr. Hoffman’s desk, my face at the level of his, as he sat upon his elevated dais.

He was writing tediously. He was probably filing a report of my crime – yet another permanent stain upon my reputation, to follow me to my final breath! I waited; he was never in a hurry about such things. Neither was I – not at all. But yet I was – I had to be, for I needed to work for Mr. Phillips, and then to go out and – oh no! I had to find work during planting season – I had to! And my first, smallest worry rose to complete my misery.

His pen scratched on – was it so desperately wicked? Had he any idea what it was like to try to make myself a friend to a tight-knit clique of town-girls? There were no other farm girls in the senior class.

He was a great teacher – a scholar, through and through. The students of Belgrade High School, deep in the Nebraska Outback, scarcely deserved such a teacher. But yet he had no plush office – no tenure, no subscriptions. Belgrade was disappearing around us. The Great Depression had begun the gutting of the little town, as farmers fled their fields for the cities. The war had completed its demise, taking a generation of young men away – men who would never return to the dull life of the countryside, but would settle down in the cities to raise their new families, and to start flourishing businesses.

The nation was booming – growth, peace, and tranquility were everywhere. Everywhere but Belgrade – it was melting away like an iceberg in tropical waters, and we, the last desperate denizens of the eroding town – Mr. Hoffman, and Mother, and I – were trapped. Mr. Hoffman, that great student of the humanities, found himself surrounded by fewer and fewer students – I had less work to do every year. Some said that the Belgrade schools would soon be closed, and the students bused to Fullerton, ten miles to the south. Some said that Mr. Phillips’ General Store would close too.

My mother couldn’t move to Fullerton, or anywhere else. There was no money for such an undertaking, for no soldier had returned from the war for Mother and me. Mr. Hoffman probably wouldn’t move either; he would retire to his farm, where he and his quiet little wife raised hogs for their neighbors.

I loved his classes. He had a deep understanding and love for literature, a fact which raised him to the heavens in my estimation. Yet, among all his lofty, admirable traits, there was a fly in the ointment – a single painful peccadillo: he had absolutely no toleration for misbehavior or disorder of any sort. He saw it his duty to instill in his students, not only a broad knowledge of the subjects entrusted to him, but a conscientious, respectful character, and a scrupulous regard for authority. His small stature belied a strong will and a vigorous arm, and transgressors were always reduced to complete contrition long before their painful penance was fulfilled. That was my fate for this evening.

“Miss Anderson.”

He stirred at last – it had been a veritable eternity. He set aside his writing, and opened the desk drawer beside himself. From it he withdrew a document. It was a full-sized page, not the evil note.

“Your story.”

He thrust it down before me. I blew out my breath in a long sigh of new terror.

He’d assigned the class to compose a short fictional story on any topic that we chose; I’d written a battle scene from the recent war, set in the Ardennes. It was my favorite sort of assignment – although, again, there was a fly in the ointment.

He’d specifically forbidden me, after the last story assignment, to allow my characters to die, and I’d scrupulously obeyed him in this effort, compromising, as I thought, my entire scheme, and sacrificing the final flourish of heroism I wished to impart to my fictional soldiers. Now I stood staring at him in dismay, wondering what to say.

“Sir?” I managed.

“Did we, or did we not, discuss this topic after the last assignment?”

“Sir, yes,” I stumbled, “Yes, but, yes, but –”

I couldn’t get beyond that point. No one had died, but then, he knew that.

“No one died!” The words came out at last in a strangled screech. Disobedience was a capital offense, and arguing with Mr. Hoffman’s decision an aggravating factor.

“Did no one?” he replied thoughtfully. “And I wonder how Private Campbell could have possibly survived the gruesome injuries inflicted upon him, and described in such careful detail?”

It was over. There was no hope; no one in her right mind would argue the fine points of literary merit with Mr. Hoffman. Yet, perhaps, abject contrition would get the sentence reduced – at least, until Mother heard of it. And she would hear!

“I’m sorry!” I wept, quite sincerely. “I didn’t mean to be objectionable. It just seemed like it went there – there, in the story!”

“Yes, I understand that,” he sighed, and I felt better.

“With you, it always seems to go in the story,” he continued. I felt worse again.

“I’d intended to display these for exhibition night,” he mused. “But honestly, I can’t display this. What will your mother think?”

I doubted that my mother would notice the story at all, or miss it if it weren’t present on exhibition night. At least, her reaction could hardly be more violent than I would feel tonight.

Then inspiration struck me.

“I’ll write another!” I offered. “I’d be happy to write another, at least, if –”

If it would get me out of the room as anything other than a sobbing, sniffling, humiliated wreck, I’d be happy to do anything.

“Well, yes,” he agreed. “Technically the story was excellent – if only it could be less offensive –”

“Yes, certainly,” I encouraged, sensing an opening. “I’ll give it to you – is Monday soon enough?” I had no time – none at all, to write another story. But all could be thrown on the altar – time, effort, sleep, anything! In the precarious state in which I found myself, all could be sacrificed. And Mr. Hoffman was strangely mellow – almost as if he were wavering. I waited, wondering.

“All right,” he decided. “I’ll expect it Monday.” He looked down at his papers again. Was he allowing me to escape?

“That will be all, Miss Anderson,” he said calmly. “But, oh – I must say –”

“Yes, sir!” My words blew out in an exultant rush, but his jaw was set firmly as he rubbed his stubbly chin thoughtfully. He looked up.

“Your imagination is going to kill you someday.”

 

 

Chapter 2

A Poor Sheep

My father went away so very long ago. He left us to do his part against the Germans – left us alone, for the last time, in the evil winter of 1943. He never returned.

And so it is that I find myself, this final morning, alone once again. I step forward from the last shelter of the trees to survey the lakeshore. The dawn is brightening in the eastern sky, reflecting upon the glassy mirror of the lake, baby blue beneath the rising mist. Tendrils curl eerily above the water, warning me away.

It’s a glorious morning – my last morning, and just as it should be, beautiful beyond description. Birds are floating upward into the blue, exulting joyfully in their lightness, and fluttering away gaily across the lake.

But there’s no joy for me, this mild spring morning; for here I am, facing – not my lonely life anymore, but – the lake. It’s my time, my day, and there’s no helping it, for I have no father to defend me.

No one knows when the monstrous black dragon took up its abode in the lake. Some thought it grew there, deep in the submarine caverns that are said to lie beneath the visible surface of the waters. It’s possible indeed that the beast has risen from deep within the earth, where unspeakable horrors breed and mingle; that it somehow found an upward path through the lightless, water-filled halls, and came at last to our quiet lakeshore to terrorize the people. Whatever the case, it rose one morning and seized an unsuspecting villager who came to draw water; it dragged its helpless prey into the depths, and was gone.

It was a horrible calamity, but no city can endure thirst; and so it was that another person was taken the next morning, never to return; and another, and another. The people began to offer sheep to the beast: two by two they left the dumb creatures on the shore, and two by two they were devoured, morning by morning, purchasing with their lives the day’s supply of water. So the months passed; the tenuous peace with the dragon was preserved, and life went on about us.

But the sheep failed at last; cattle were substituted, and they too were finally exhausted. The dragon was insatiable; he grew, too, so that a pair sheep was scarcely enough. Then it was that the people learned, through unfortunate experience, that a girl could be offered to the dragon in the place of animals. No matter how small, no matter how skinny, she would unfailingly preserve the peace for her day.

Girls were selected by lot, then, from among the city folk. It became the great honor of a girl to be chosen to stand at sunrise in the stead of her city on the lakeshore, and to preserve the right of the people to the indispensable water. It’s generally reported that if she’s truly beautiful, sweet, good, kind, and unselfish, that the dragon will accept her, and that the end will come mercifully quickly.

I knew all this when the lot fell upon me; I, too, wanted to be unselfish, good, and kind to my people. But somehow – as I look down upon the lake in the brightening light of the morning – I can no longer bring myself to such a pitch of altruism.

It seems doubtful, suddenly, that only a girl can suffice for the sacrifice. Why, it was the old men of the city who had decreed the process of appeasement! And had they, for instance, thought of using an old man as a sacrifice, to see if it would serve the purpose? Or, why don’t they, for instance, dig a well within the city gates? Wouldn’t that be extra work for them – much harder than, say, sending out some poor orphan girl to the lakeshore? And the lot always falls upon the poorest girls, for some reason – the despised girls, who have no fathers – and oh! If only my father were here: he would go to the water’s edge in my place, and slay the dragon!

All this is good enough to ponder as I stand there on the hillside above the eerily placid water. But there’s no hope for me; all my hopes are ended, for Father is gone, and the lot has fallen upon me. The dragon can see, too, it’s said – it watches – it knows if a girl hesitates, held back by her secret selfishness. Its wrath mustn’t be aroused for any reason; the entire city will suffer as a result.

It’s highly important that she not be late, as well – when the sun’s first rays peek over the edge of the world, she must be standing ready at the lakeshore for its coming. Already above me, bright rays are shooting over the sky, setting the underside of the clouds afire with a pink glow. The time is very short; there’s nothing to be done. I squeeze a stray tear from my eyes and start determinedly forward, hoping against hope that the errant moment of doubt will be forgiven me.

What’s life for, anyway, if not for this? What can a girl do with her life that I haven’t yet done? Or what will I do if I can live another day, or another year? School is all but ended; there’s nothing, really, for me to accomplish beyond that. And after it, there will be only unending tedium – the little farm on the hilltop outside town; the shabby General Store; the neighbors’ farms, if I’m very fortunate to find work there; that’s all! I feel better, suddenly, about everything; I quicken my pace downward toward the shore.

I stop again; a new horror seizes me. The distant sound of a horse’s hooves falls on my ears, echoing in the forest from which I’ve just come. I turn back in despair – I can’t bear to be seen during this, my final trial. It won’t do! All the city will hear, then, that the dragon judged me ugly and unsatisfactory; or worse, that my courage failed at the last – that I screamed, and turned to flee, and angered the dreadful menace that rose from the water’s depths.

My friends will hear it: those wealthy girls who live in the town, and have whole closets full of clothing, and drive their father’s automobiles, and gather for parties every weekend. They’ll shake their heads sagely, and purse their lips. Anna was always selfish and undisciplined, they’ll say, rolling their eyes contemptuously. She was none too beautiful either, if the plain facts of the matter can be forthrightly spoken!

My heart is sick – I’m risking horrible pain. But I can’t allow it; I turn back toward the forest. Behind me the light grows: the sun is nearing the horizon. Desperately I run forward.

Then the horse appears. I stop in wonder. No shopkeeper’s nag this – no, it’s a majestic war horse, liveried in white, prancing and stamping impatiently as it fights the rein. And upon its back – I gasp. It’s a man – and not just any man. A strong young man, armored for battle, and carrying a long lance. A sword hangs at his side, and a gleaming helmet is cradled in his arm. He sees me, and his face lights with a genuine smile.

“Anna!” he speaks gently as he approaches. He springs down from his noble steed to stand before me. “Anna,” he continues, “Such a piece of fortune! It is to find thee that I’ve come this day!”

I’m momentarily taken aback: to find – me? Oh, no! It was too much, too much! Here I am, and here he is, and it’s too late! I feel tears starting in my eyes; but I have no time to investigate.

“Please sir!” I choke, “Please, thou mustn’t stay here – thou mustn’t! No man is safe, until I’ve –”

“Anna, have no fear,” he encourages anxiously. “I’ve come seeking thee – I’m –”

“But sir, no,” I protest. “No, I cannot stop to speak with thee. Thou must go, sir – go, please, and far, far away, for I’m on my way to the water’s edge, to –”

I burst into tears. It’s too much! He’s come – the very man I’ve wanted to see, and for so very long – my father, reborn! Beautiful brown hair – brown eyes, just like my own – at last he’s come, after all these years, and it’s too late, too late!

“Please sir, please,” I try again. “Thou must go away! Go away, for thou mustn’t see it; I go now to the water to await the coming of the dragon. No one may come near until the daily sacrifice has been completed.”

He looks at me searchingly. In desperation I place my hands on his gauntleted arms, pushing him weakly back toward his horse. He’s immovable.

At that moment I see sunlight touching the tips of the trees far up the slope above us. There’s a mighty stirring of the water behind me; my heart collapses into bitter despair. A heart-stopping growl of anger pierces the morning calm – there’s no one on the lakeshore! It rumbles up, as from deep in the earth; it grows and rages, erupting at last into a thunderous roar.

Understanding at last, the young man springs back to his horse. He mounts in a bound, and claps the helmet over his head. The skittish animal rears and wheels away as he fights the reins.

“Go sir!” I cry. “Thou must go away, go far away.”

“And leave thee here to die?” he demands. “By all the saints, never! Stand thou aside!” And he spurs the horse past me in a rush.

“No! No!” I screech, realizing, too late, what he intends. “No, thou cannot, thou must not! Only a girl can be taken! Thou throwest thy own life away, and brings wrath to all the town beside! Return, return, for I alone must go!”

My feet catch in my long skirts as I run, and I fall to my knees, entreating, but he pays me no mind – doesn’t so much as look back at me! The dragon is uncoiling itself from the boiling water, roaring terribly. Water pours from its glistening black scales as it rises; green drops of venom fall from its teeth as it roars its displeasure. Its yellow eyes kindle to orange flames, and it spreads its black wings threateningly, a canopy of death.

Still the knight doesn’t quail; his great horse sweeps fearlessly onward, full into the face of the beast – he’s a white flame burning before the rising blackness, climbing up upon its forelegs on the shore – he lowers his great lance, and charges.

Aware at last of the challenge, the dragon turns on the advancing steed. It roars again, even more loudly; but it pulls its head away at the last moment from the wild thrust, and raises a great, clawed foreleg to defend itself.

The lance drives home into the dragon’s shoulder. It shatters into a thousand pieces, and its end sticks quivering in the dragon’s impenetrable scales. The knight is lifted from the saddle by the force of the impact. A moment later, the dragon’s great forefoot smashes down, catching the tumbling knight and his horse before they hit the ground. The knight flies sideways, landing with a rattling crash beneath a low, shrub-like orange tree that cowers on the shore. The horse screams and runs for its life.

Now the dragon is advancing upon the prostrated figure upon the shore. Fully out of the water it is; its great tail thrashes the ground as it purposefully advances to put an end to the rash upstart. It rears up above him; I cover my eyes.

But there’s no sound. I peek through my trembling fingers; then I stare in wonder. The dragon is frozen above the knight. It makes no motion – the tree is a magic tree! It’s protecting the heroic man!

He’s gathering his senses; he’s sitting up, shaking his head as he looks about himself. Then he sees the dragon – the fog is clearing from his mind. He grasps his great broadsword, springs to his feet, and plunges straight at the motionless beast.

All at once the monster springs to life, roaring at the sight of the advancing knight. Down comes its head. Drops of venom splatter on the armor, which seems to disintegrate beneath it, clattering in ringing pieces to the ground. Undaunted, the knight rushes between the dragon’s flailing forelegs and buries his sword into its side, beneath an outstretched wing.

Then there’s an awful roar, choking off into a spout of black blood. The dragon rears up on its hind legs, still spurting jets of blood; it’s far away above the knight, who’s calmly stepping away, empty-handed, from its agony upon the grassy shore. It crashes down from on high into the shallow water at the edge of the lake, and lies inert.

And the knight is striding back toward me, shedding his blood-spattered gloves. I come stumbling down as quickly as my skirts will allow me to go; I fall to my knees before him, clutching wildly at him.

“My lord,” I weep, “Oh, my lord, why camest thou here, of all places, and to such a poor sheep as myself? And thou has put aside thy own life for me, and slain this beast so manfully!”

“Nay, my fair lady!” he replies jauntily, taking my hand and drawing me irresistibly to my feet. “Think not the first thing of this worm. For thee it be naught but a trifle! I came for thee in particular, for I heard that thou hadn’t yet been invited to the Graduation Dance.”

“What?” I ask stupidly. But his eyes are flashing with indignation.

“Fear thou not,” he declares forcefully, “for such a girl as thyself ought to be the first invited; such monstrous injustice cannot continue, if thou will but do me the exceeding honor of – Anna? Anna?”

His poetic flourish trails off as he looks curiously at me. The Graduation Dance – yes, I’ve been worrying about that too, somewhere in the back of my mind. All the seniors are to come, and it’s an embarrassment to have no escort to take me to the great occasion. It’s an embarrassment not wholly unexpected, of course, for the girls who live in town work together to influence the available boys toward themselves, and I’m always the last chosen. Is this dashing gentleman inviting me?

“I’m sorry,” I say at last. “Are you – would you –?”

And the lake froze into gleaming wooden floor; the sunrise dimmed, and the knight shrank above me. I was sitting on a bench in the library of the Belgrade High School, looking up in chagrin at Kevin, a classmate. He never spoke to me; or to anyone, really, for that matter. He was looking at me in amazement; I felt my cheeks flaming, for hair was matted into tears on my face, and I was altogether too embarrassed to brush it away. How had I thought myself alone?


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

The great author writes for her own amusement; she lives for months, years even, in the mind of her characters, living, loving, aching, crying, and laughing with them in turn. The writing is only the final step: patiently she tends the flowering garden of imagination: a single sentence, and no more, perhaps, for an entire day, as the story flows across miles and years. The great author is the one who can put any substantial fraction of her own enjoyment on paper for us to enjoy...

Q. Why do you write?
A.
I write to crystallize the experiences of my own imagined characters: to enjoy their personalities. Writing is only the overflow of the real enjoyment, which belongs to the author alone: the world of imagination, where things can be different, and life can offer a different outcome.
Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
I wanted to create a story of a girl growing up alone, in a strictly sheltered environment, who, as a result, turns inward to an active and vivid imagination; then to turn her out into a cold world, and see how she’d grow and change in response to the new reality. Anna certainly didn't disappoint.
Q. Tell us about the cover and the inspiration for it.
A.
The cover shows a phantom raven appearing beside Anna; it draws on Poe's “Raven”, which appears in the opening vignette. The poem deals with loss, which is central to the story as Anna repeatedly tries to come to grips with the loss of her seafaring father, as well as her own maturing mind and body.

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Joe Parker's Dire...
Fun Sci-Fi for the young explorer in us all.