Catherine’s Castle - The Story
The continuing adventures of the Colorado Girls.

Chapter 6

Catherine’s Castle © Linda Pilkington

Spring Storms

Melinda Emerson’s steps drug along the street. Her sports shoes and the hem of her jeans were wet and cold against her body. She walked slowly through the gray March afternoon with spirits as low as the clouds and as near to overflowing.

“Perfect weather, perfect day. I woke up to rain and sleet, and aching all over- probably with the flu. I had to get through three tests and a stupid meeting about the play- which I don’t have a prayer of acting in.”

She passed a group of younger kids and took shelter behind an expression that was both blank and smooth. But she took up her troubled thoughts as soon as the children were behind her.

“I thought that the misery quota had been reached for the day. But there was more, the last minute of the day, and I have to go through a totally embarrassing encounter with Ansley Putnam and Derek Phillips.”

As she walked along the street her face burned as she replayed the scene.

“It didn’t have to happen…Why didn’t I keep walking when I heard him call, ‘Hey - Girl of my dreams!’ I could have walked on, and he would have thought that I hadn’t heard him. But I stopped, turned around and gave him a big flirty smile- and then I saw him looking beyond me- and there was Ansley…he wasn’t talking to me at all.”

“If I had just looked ahead I would have seen Ansley standing in front of me- grinning with all of her huge, bleached teeth - and shaking that bleached, blond mop of hers. She thinks that she is the beauty queen of the entire school.”

On that cue, Melinda’s new “Teen Years” magazine slipped out of the pocket of her book bag and fell into a puddle. At the splash, she turned, bent over, snatched it up- and shook it, dismayed at the wet, and bedraggled advertisement on the back cover.

To Melinda, this small misfortune seemed a proper end to a wretched day and plunged her spirits further down to despair.

The ad, for acne medication, featured another “teen queen”- the newest -girl star. She had been Melinda’s role model, but in the misery of the moment - Melinda had few kind thoughts for her.

“Serves her right- for false advertising. She probably never had a blemish in her life- if she did her manager would call in a Dermatologist- and he would hospitalize her- there would be some kind of miracle-transplant-then and there. Some people get all the luck.”

Melinda felt spiteful because suddenly the thought occurred that the “Teen Queen” looked a bit like Ansley Putnam.

“Ansley Putnam- her name sounds like a lawn mower.” She thought irritably.

” But it wasn’t her fault. I was the stupid one. Derek Phillips has talked to me - what? - Four times? Everyone says that he has been seeing her for months. Now, what is the most likely scenario when he calls out ‘Girl of my dreams’- Who was he talking to- Me- or the ‘teen queen’?

” Why did I turn around? So much for my mother’s preaching at me about heavenly guidance…What kind of guidance was that?” Melinda thought -jettisoning both her logic and her religion at the same time.

She knew that the incident would seem trivial to others- but it had embarrassed her and the pain of remembrance cut to the heart.

She stopped on the sidewalk and blinked back tears before she turned the corner to Gwynie’s school. She hesitated only a moment, for she was a child of the suburb- and knew that there was always someone watching from behind a curtain. The open street was no place for shedding tears.

Once she had turned the corner she sat down on the bus- stop bench- opened her book bag and looked in the mirror. To her relief, her face looked normal. There wasn’t a sign of a tear, but humiliation and misery were reflected back to her from her mirrored eyes.

“Well, no apparent scars.” She thought. Then she got up, straightened her shoulders and turned into the schoolyard gate.

She was a brave girl, a quality that was rarely mentioned by those who loved her. She seldom cried. She was practical and believed that tears didn’t help solve problems-only action did. Although she wouldn’t have said the words-, she believed that courage was the most admirable quality that a person could have.

On this dark day, that courage was the instinct to keep walking, keep control, get home and put the day and the world behind her.

“Just one more stop- and then home.” She comforted herself as she walked down the hall to the school- room.

Gwynie was in after-school -care for the hour from the end of her school day- until Melinda picked her up. The noise from the schoolroom was deafening and when Melinda opened the door, she saw that there was one lone “After-Care-Assistant” coping with twenty-five children.

The aid was sitting on a child’s chair, holding up flash cards, and fronted by a half circle of children calling out answers to a noisy musical game. She looked up, waved at Melinda and pointed to the sign-out -list that Melinda and other caregivers had to sign in order to pick up the children.

Besides the main group, some children were in other areas of the room playing on computers while a few sat apart- playing with ordinary toys.

Her sister sat alone at a table just inside the door of the room- her back to Melinda. She was confronted by three “after-care-friends” that Melinda knew only by sight.

” You can’t read, Gwynie Emerson.” A dark haired boy accused, his voice loud in order to be heard over the game.

“How do you know I can’t? You aren’t even in my class,” Gwynie said.  She was scowling, looking at each of the kids in turn.

There were three children standing over her, too close for comfort. They  had superior looks on their faces and were gleefully- yelling down at her.

“OK, If you can read then why don’t you play that game?” Another inquisitor-this one a girl- demanded-pointing over her shoulder.

“Cause I don’t want to,” Gwynie said. But she spoke quietly as if this line of questioning had been going on for some time and she was tired of it.

“It’s cause you can’t. You can’t read the cards!” Said a third girl, tall and haughty. “I’m in your class, and you never read a word when the teacher calls on you. You just sit there cause you are stupid.”

“Hi Gwynie, ready to go home?” Melinda said. 

 ”What’s wrong with these kids- don’t they have anything to do? Maybe I better tell their teachers that they need some more homework.”

Gwynie turned quickly at her sister’s voice, relief in her eyes, but with a deep blush of shame on her cheeks. Her tormentors quickly faded away to the other end of the room.

Melinda’s cheeks burned as red as Gwynie’s. She felt anger at the monsters in the world that delighted in picking on others. Anger and compassion for her little sister mixed and forced her own humiliations to the back of her mind.

She wanted to yell at the little beasts, and give them a smack on their bottoms, but she knew that was impossible. She had said all that she could say without causing problems for herself and her family.

She got Gwynie’s coat and handed it to her, ignoring the trembling of her own knees and the tears that were gathering in her sister’s eyes.

She knelt down to button the top coat button, and whispered, “Don’t let them see you cry. You can cry when we get home if you have to, but walk out of here with your head up.”

The sisters had walked quickly and silently home, and to Gwynie’s surprise- in the last block of the walk she felt Melinda’s hand folding over her own.

Without noticing, they both sighed with relief when the door closed on the outside world. Their house seemed safe and welcoming and if there had been a drawbridge to the City Castle- Melinda would have raised it.

But once they had taken off their coats, Melinda was all business.

“Gwynie, let’s do our chores as quick as we can- I bet we can do them in an hour. What do you think? Then let’s get together in the kitchen and do something about this.”

Melinda was vague, but both sisters knew what “this” was.

Gwynie was not able to speak yet, or even listen very well. And, if Melinda had not been so matter of fact-, she would have cried.

Instead, she did just as Melinda said.

Doing the chores was easy- something that she was able to do. She wanted to be so busy that she couldn’t think.  And, she didn’t want to think about the mean kids at school-it would make her stomach ache.

For once, Gwynie was happy that Catherine was away at college. She was glad that it was Melinda rather than Catherine who brought her home from school now.

It would have been awful to know that Catherine had witnessed her embarrassment and felt sorry for her. Sometimes having people feel sorry for you hurt as bad as when people were mean to you.

“Would Catherine have thought that I was stupid?” She wondered.

Catherine did everything right. If Catherine had been in Gwynie’s place-she would have known what to say to Sandra Billings. When she had said -”If you can read, why don’t you play that game? Catherine would have said, “Why aren’t you playing the game-Sandra Billings?” - Just as calm as anything.

But if it had been Catherine instead of Gwynie in the school room-, no one would have picked on her in the first place-”everyone loves Catherine…” Gwynie thought wiping away some escaping tears with the sleeve of her shirt.

She had kept her school troubles as a terrible dark secret. And it would have been awful if Catherine had learned that secret-instead of Melinda. And there was another reason that she was almost glad that it had been Melinda who had seen her shamed.

“Melinda doesn’t tell anybody anything.” - Thought Gwynie, thankfully. Then she ran to pick up the newspapers in the living room.

When all of her chores were finished, Gwynie went into the kitchen to find that it was cleaned of the morning clutter. The table was set, and the casserole for dinner was on the counter-top - the timer ticking off the minutes until it was time to put the meal in the oven.

The place settings were pushed together to leave room for the girls to sit together at the table.

“Gwynie, there’s no use wasting tears on today- instead, let’s do something so that it doesn’t keep happening,” Melinda said. Her strength rose whenever she took action about a problem. 

But a reaction had set in, and Gwynie was aching in both heart and stomach- she wanted to go into the “Queen’s parlor” and snuggle up on the sofa under her mother’s quilt as she had on other terrible days.

She wanted to hold her favorite Snoopy dog, the one that had belonged to Catherine, and look at a picture book. But something about Melinda’s words and the determined look on her face made Gwynie give up thoughts of so babyish an activity.

“Now listen, I don’t know how to do this for sure-so you have to help me.”

“Do what?” Gwynie said. Her face was pale and her green eyes were worried.

“Teach you to read,” Melinda said. Her words were brisk. She sat thumbing through some old flash cards.

“No, I don’t want to. I hate reading! And I’m tired.”

Then in the little sister whine that usually made her sister lose patience she said, “Melinda, don’t be mean! I’m tired. My stomach feels sick. And, I can’t do it! Besides-you’re not my teacher- you can’t teach me.”

Melinda opened her mouth to retort, then swallowed took a breath, and went back to the flash cards.

” You are right about that. I’m not a teacher. But your teacher hasn’t done much of a job of teaching, or you wouldn’t have those kids teasing you. Gwynie, you are nearly eight, and you know that you have to learn to read. There’s no other way to get through school.”

A tear rolled down Gwynie’s cheek. But Melinda forced herself to ignore it.

Then in a quieter voice she said, “Think how proud Catherine will be when she finds out that you can read the story she wrote for you all by yourself.”

She paused for a moment, and when Gwynie stood silent looking down at her sneakers- Melinda went on.

” I remember some things about learning to read and I think that I can teach you- now what are you going to do?” Do you want to spend the rest of the afternoon crying about what happened today- or are you going to try to keep it from happening again?”

Gwynie looked as if she would like to say, ” Crying about it.” But she sat down beside Melinda.

“All that I ask is that you try hard. Ok?” Encouraged by Gwynie’s silence, she went on, “ I know that you know your ABC’s - but let’s start there anyway.”

After Gwynie said the ABC’s and then repeated them when Melinda showed her the flash cards, Melinda sat for a moment making notes in her note book.

She wrote, ” Letters have sounds. An A can sound like -act, bat, cat” and then on another sheet of paper” Or an A can sound like- Ape, cape, way.”

“Gwynie, the best thing to do when you are learning to read is to learn the sound of the letters. Someday, you will learn to see words and know what they are-but if you learn the sounds of letters now- soon you will figure out what the words are. Then, all of your life- when you know the sounds that letters have- you can figure out any new words that you don’t know.”

Gwynie sat before her, biting her lip.

“ The same letter can sound different in different words.”

She couldn’t tell if Gwyn was listening or not- she seemed so tense. If Gwynie couldn’t relax enough to listen- how could she learn?

Melinda held up the first letter.

“What is this letter?”

“A,” Gwynie said. Her voice was barely above a whisper.

“Yes- that’s right. The letter A is used in many different words. It sounds different in different words,” Melinda said.

She paused again to think. Could she remember enough in order to teach? Could she explain it in the right way?

“The letter A can sound like this- aaaa as in act, bat, cat.” Melinda said. She pointed at each word as she said it- and then had Gwynie repeat them after her five times.

“Now I want you to write these words ten times each- you can use this paper. As you write them I want you to say them to yourself- out loud- then we will do it together again.”

Slowly, her hand shaking- Gwynie did as her sister told her. Then Melinda took Gwynie’s paper and held it up before her, pointing at the words that Gwynie had written- she had her repeat them again.

“Good. Gwyn, there are lots of other words that A is in. In some of those words the letter A- will have another sound - like marry, or carry. They are longer words than act, bat, cat. Soon we will study some of those words.”

“For tonight, I want you to learn another sound of A when it is used in words. It is called a long A. It sounds like Ape, Cape, way. Now- say AAA.”

Gwynie said it, and said, ” Ape, Cape, Way- AAA”- several times.

Then the girls repeated the steps they had taken before with Gwynie writing the words, and then reading her own writing. They reviewed this several times, and then Melinda had Gwynie get her homework.

They worked for another half-hour until Gwynie grew restless. Then Melinda stopped.

“You’ve done good for the first lesson.” Melinda said. She marveled that she sounded like her old  kindergarten teacher- but her words were sincere, and Gwynie smiled. It was an uncertain smile- but it was a beginning.

“We will do this again tomorrow night.” Melinda said. And as she said it she wondered how she could do it again- it had taken the entire afternoon- and all of her patience- and she still had her own homework to do.

She faltered for just a moment, and then went on.

“Now remember, if anyone teases you again- and they probably will- or if your teacher says anything that makes you feel bad- well don’t cry. You have a secret. You are learning to read. Learning is hard work, but if you keep at it every day- you will learn. So start being proud of the work you are doing. And since you are working hard, and you are learning to read you can stop worrying about it. Ok?”

When her father arrived home, a few minutes later, he found Melinda at the kitchen table hard at work on her own homework.

“Six fifteen and all is well?” He asked. There was a questioning look on his face as he stood leaning against the doorframe.

“Yes, it’s ok- why?” Melinda asked. 

“Everything is clean and quiet. Gwynie has fallen asleep on the sofa. Tranquility in this house- on a Thursday? The circumstances are suspicious,” he said. He sounded like a detective in a mystery.

Melinda was amused, ” If it will make you feel better, we can stop cleaning up the house when we get home- and I guess that I could buy Gwynie an espresso to keep her awake. But I don’t think that Mother would like it.”

“No, - it’s just that you are usually just finishing up everything. There is…a…certain air of tension. I always get the feeling that if I had walked in five minutes earlier I would find dirty dishes on the counter-top, supper burning on the stove, towels on the bathroom floor, and you and Gwynie in a brawl.”

“That’s about right…” Melinda grinned at her father’s insight.

“How was the day?” Her father asked, as if he needed more reassurance.

“It stunk,” Melinda said. Her honesty caught them both unawares. 

“How stunk?”

“I made a fool of myself,” she said. And then to her disgust she made the admission worse by flushing.

“Disgraced the family?” He asked.

“Popsie, don’t be silly,” she said. She smiled- and felt her troubles shrinking as they usually did when her father’s cooler eye put them into perspective.

“Just a stupid incident at school.”

“Will it appear in the courts or in the papers?”

” It was just a dumb thing- if it had been Catherine she would have handled it fifty times better than I did- but if you want to hear it then…”

And surprising them both- Melinda told about her encounter with Derek and Ansley.

“Now don’t preach at me about how it was no big deal- or get too concerned, that’s what Manna does- and I can’t stand either way- it’s the reason that I don’t tell her anything.”

“Poor mothers they can never please their children.”

“The children don’t have too great a time pleasing their mothers - either.” Melinda replied.

” Well, I’ll try to say the right thing, but have mercy on me, Child. Whenever I try to talk to my kids, I either sound like the wise fathers in the 50’s t.v. shows, or like the stupid ones from the 70’s. I can’t seem to find the right tone.”

“Go ahead,” Melinda said. She wanted some words to make her feel better and felt that if anyone could provide them it was her father.

“Well, first of all- I’ve read that what we tell ourselves about the world and about ourselves goes straight to our subconscious mind.”

“Supposedly, the subconscious part of our mind doesn’t have any judgement. It believes everything that it is told, and tries to make everything it hears come true.”

“l’ll admit that is a foolish way for the subconscious to work, but there it is.”

“So, what does it mean?” She asked.

“That if you beat up on yourself, and tell yourself that you are stupid, not worthy of that boy’s attention, -your subconscious will believe it. And, no matter how interested a boy may be in you- your mind won’t let you believe in that interest, or allow you to act in a way to encourage it.”

“There are some people who think that repeating negative thoughts and feelings about our selves and our lives brings about unhappy results- I don’t know how much I agree with that.”

“You are right…you sound like the 50’s father. Well, is there more?” Melinda asked. She was interested-but determined not to show it.

“Alright, but although you are my daughter-I hope you will try not to interpret what I say as criticism.”

“Well, I hate advice- but if you have to…” She said. A small frown gathered between her eyes.

“I’ll try not to preach.”

Melinda made an impatient gesture that seemed to give permission to speak, and looked down at her book.

“I think you and Gwynie love Catherine so much that you have put her on a pedestal. You act as if she is infallible, and perfect in everything. She’s not you know, -and I love her too- so I can say that.”

“I don’t think that putting a St. in front of Catherine’s name is good for any of you. It puts too much pressure on you, and your sisters. Catherine isn’t some cardboard saint or an ideal- she is human. She is your sister, and is as prone to foolishness, or failure as anyone in this family.”

He looked down at Melinda for a moment, but since she remained silent, he decided to press his luck just a bit more.

” Your mother should withdraw from the world-it is too tough for her you know…but she goes toe to toe with it every day- hoping that someday she can retire to her writing room and write her books.”

He paused, and smiled.

“Catherine goes across country to a college she doesn’t want to attend-in hopes that in another year she will have the money, a major miracle, and the courses she needs to finish her education at the college she has always dreamed of attending. That takes guts.”

“Then there’s you, always pushing ahead, working hard at whatever you do, and helping with Gwynie and the housework, neither high on your list of favorite things to do. That takes love and determination”

“And Gwynie, her whole world changed with Catherine gone, and her parents at work so much. The first child in this family who started school in a public school…and it is too big a world for her. But I think that she will make it because she has courage- like the rest of this family.”

“I’m proud of my wife-because she has struggled along beside me.”

” I’m proud of my daughters because they have ignored a sick world and have tried not to disappoint us.”

He stopped abruptly- knowing that he had gotten off the subject and gone on too long. Melinda sat still looking down at her open book.

“Fifties Father is finished except to say, teenagers- have tough going- their school mates putting them down all the time. The least that you can do for yourself- is to be your own best friend and advocate. Don’t be conceited-just be kind to yourself and be confident.”

“Be Your Own Best Friend and Advocate… it sounds like the title of one of those psychology self-help books,” Melinda said.

He grinned.

 ”The book will soon follow- then we will be rich, I’ll be on the talk show circuit and your mother will be huffy because I beat her to the best seller list. She would love the money, but I don’t think that she would ever forgive me for it.” Then kissing Melinda on the top of her head-, he went to take his shower.

In the living room, Gwynie awoke, a little afraid to find herself alone in the dark stillness. She lay thinking of the story that Catherine had sent to her. In that story, Catherine had made her “Gwynie the Brave-Dragon Hunter”.

“People used to write about dragons as symbols of evil.” Catherine had written. “That means, that they would write about dragons but they were thinking of other things in the world that were bad, things that made them afraid.”

“Those kids at school are scary like dragons.” Gwynie thought. ” I wish I was really a Brave Dragon Hunter- then I wouldn’t be afraid of them.”

“I probably wouldn’t even be afraid of the dragon that lives upstairs in the tower.”

She heard her mother’s car turn into the driveway. Quickly, she turned on the light, rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and went to meet her mother at the door of their castle.