A wedge of pale sunlight slanted through the window to Lanie’s left, touching her auburn hair and bringing out a slight golden tint.
She bent over the Warm Morning cookstove, opened the firebox, then with quick, economical movements removed the gray ashes with a small shovel, dumping them into a five-gallon can. She reached down into an old apple crate filled with what her dad called “rich pine”—fragments of pine knots so soaked with sap that when lit with a match they would burn like a torch.
Piling several knots onto the grate of the firebox, Lanie took a kitchen match from a box that rested on a shelf and struck the match on the rough strip on the side. She leaned down and held the flame against the wood until the rich pine caught. Quickly she pulled small pieces of pine kindling from a box and put them on top of the blaze. She crisscrossed three smaller sticks of white oak firewood, arranging them expertly so that a draft was formed, causing them to burn evenly. She shut the firebox door and opened the draft on the stovepipe, then paused, listening to the crackle of the flames and the rush of air up the chimney. Satisfied, she turned the knob for the damper partway to slow down the fire.
Lanie Belle Freeman paused, listening to the fire. She tucked a rebellious curl from her forehead behind her ear. At fourteen, Lanie had reached that stage when adolescence gives way to young womanhood. She was thoughtful in most things—cautious and sometimes slow to decide, but moved quickly once she made up her mind. Her faded green dress with a white-flower print revealed the curves of an emerging woman.
Her arms suggested a strength unusual for one her age. Sunlight highlighted the curves of her cheeks. Her eyes were large and gray with a hint of green. They were well-shaped, widely spaced, and contemplative, but at times could flash with temper. Her lips were full and expressive, and when she smiled, a dimple appeared on her right cheek.
She moved to a tall wooden kitchen cabinet with a gray-speckled porcelain countertop and pulled open the flour bin. “Plenty of flour,” she murmured. A thought came to her and she picked up a Big Chief notebook on the counter and crossed to a table set against the far wall just beside the icebox. As she picked up a pen and sat down at the table in a cane-bottomed chair, a smile turned up the corners of her mouth.
Opening the book to a blank page, she began to write. Her handwriting was smooth, even, and neatly executed:
April the 12th, 1928
Lanie Belle Freeman
600 Jefferson Davis Avenue
Milky Way Galaxy
Lanie studied what she had put down. A quizzical look touched hereyes and she smiled. “There’s just one more place to go after that, I reckon.” At the bottom of the list she added “Universe,” then studied what she had written. She smiled, then laughed out loud. “Now I reckon I know right where I am.”
Closing the book abruptly, she pushed it to the back of the table and put the pen beside it. Suddenly she took a deep breath. “Ice!” she said. Whirling, she walked to the oak icebox and opened the ice compartment. All that was left was a small lump of ice. She shut the door and bent down to check the drip pan. It was almost full. She dashed out of the kitchen and down the long hall that led to the front porch, then turned right into the living room. She caught a glimpse of her brother Cody working with something in the middle of the floor, but ignored him. Going to the window, she reached up on the wall and pulled down a foot-square card that was marked on different sides in large black numbers: “25,” “50,” “75,” and “100.” She put the card in the window with the “100” upright to let the iceman know the size ice block she needed.
“Cody,” Lanie said, turning to the boy, “go empty the drip pan from under the icebox.”
“Aw, shoot, I’m busy, Lanie. You do it.”
Cody Freeman did not even look up. He had a screwdriver in one hand and was assembling some sort of apparatus. At the age of eleven he spent most of his waking hours inventing things. Few ever worked, but he had unshakable confidence that someday he would be another Edison.
“You heard what I said, Cody. Now leave that thing alone. You can come back after you empty the drip pan.”
Cody grumbled, but got to his feet. He had the same auburn hair and gray-green eyes as Lanie, and there was a liveliness about him. He hurried down the hall, and by the time Lanie got to the kitchen, he had dragged out the drip pan and succeeded in spilling a widening pool of water on the floor.
“You’re making a mess, Cody!”
“Well, dang it, I can’t help it if the dumb ol’ thing’s full!”
“If you’d empty it when you’re supposed to, it wouldn’t get full. Now get it out of here.”
“I’m gonna invent something that’ll drain this dadgummed ol’ icebox so nobody’ll have to carry the dumb water out!”
“Well, until you do, just take it out—and stop calling everything dumb.”
Lanie held the screen door open for Cody, who walked out with the pan, leaving a trail of water behind him. After checking the firebox, Lanie nodded with satisfaction. The rich pine had caught, and the fire was blazing. Straightening, she turned the damper down a little more to lessen the air intake. She had become an expert in building fires in the wood stove and rather liked it.
Glancing at the clock, she saw that it was almost three. She went to her parents’ bedroom, where her mother was sitting in a rocker beside an open window, crocheting.
Elizabeth Ann Freeman was thirty-six. Her body was swollen with the child she was expecting, but she had retained much of her early beauty. Her children received most of their looks from her, especially the auburn hair and gray eyes. She had a beautifully shaped face with a short English nose and a slight cleft in her chin.
“Mama, I need to know how to fix fried pies.”
She looked up at her daughter. “Fried pies? Don’t you know how to do that?”
“I’ve watched you, Mama, but I never learned how.”
“Well, set down here, and I’ll tell you.”
Lanie sat down on the bed and listened intently as her mother explained the process. She did not write anything down, for she had a phenomenal memory. Lanie noticed how tired her mother looked. Having this baby would be difficult, Lanie knew, for her mother had not borne a child for eleven years. There was a strain about her eyes, and Dr. Givens had left medicine for her. He had also left instructions that Elizabeth was to do no physical work, but should stay in bed as much as possible. Lanie had taken over the housework, with her siblings doing what they could.
“Well, that doesn’t sound hard, Mama. I can do it.”
Elizabeth smiled. “I know you can, honey. Now tell me about the contest at school. How are you doing?”
Lanie shrugged and made a face. “Oh, I don’t know. I’m doing the best I can, but it’s gonna be real hard. There are lots of smart kids.”
The William McKinley High School had launched a contest to reward the students with the best grades. There were other criteria, too, but grades would count most heavily. The winner in each class would receive a hundred dollars. The grand prize for the overall school winner was two hundred dollars and a silver cup, just like the athletic teams received.