Laura Ingalls Wilder, by Jessica Mannion
The day I met Laura Ingalls Wilder, she wasn’t doing so good. She was crouched in an alley behind a trashcan, clutching her head like it might fly off. Of course, I didn’t know who she was, then. I just saw a young woman crying, wearing a pretty, long flowered dress and matching bonnet. I remember the bonnet for sure. I’d never seen one in real life, and I love that kind of stuff. Anyway. I figured she must have been at a costume party or something; maybe had a fight with a boyfriend? I had never heard such a lonesome, hopeless sound. It broke my heart.
She was lucky I’d even saw her. I was coming home from work and was done in. Finished. Over and out. Eight hours standing behind a register is hard on a body. Your lower back aches, your calves ache, and, well, pretty much everything aches if you do it long enough. You can bet I was in a hurry.
But I stopped that night because I heard a tiny little sob, and I looked before I could even think. She was looking all sad and terrified, and I sighed, because Lord knows I have a soft spot for little lost creatures. If she’d been a cat or a puppy or even an injured squirrel I would have tucked her right down in my jacket and carried her home without a second thought.
So I bent down and asked if she was all right. Her head jerked and she turned her face toward mine; she was kind of a mess. She shook her head: “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?” I said.
Her mouth opened and shut once like a goldfish, her eyes were red. “I mean, I don’t know how I got here! I’m lost! I’m scared. Can you help?”
Now, I’m no pushover. I know people. I know how they are. A girl’s gotta take care of herself, and I do. I always meet first dates in a public spot, for coffee and the like. But usually after even that I don’t want to know them anymore. My momma always said I’d been born in the wrong century. Maybe I am old-fashioned, but I can take care of myself. I’m kind of proud of that. I work really hard at the Shop-n-Save, and then come home and work just as hard – harder – on my own things. I’ll tell you all about that later, but I love making things that are pretty and useful. There’s an honesty in making things yourself, at least I think so.
My first thought was I should mind my business and leave. But there was something about her. I could at least take her home and warm her up with a cup of tea, then call her a cab. She didn’t give me that jittery feeling you get when you’re dealing with a sketchy person. Seems like everyone nowadays is sketchy person, at least, that’s who all I meet.
“Come on, then,” I said, and hauled her up. She was a tiny thing, but her grip was strong, and once she was on her feet she seemed to settle, like having a plan made her feel better, even if she didn’t know me from Adam.
I’ll say this for her, she was a good walker. I was worried she’d be one of those people who cry if they have to walk more than two blocks, but not her. She walked quickly, kept up just fine, her little brown boots making clip-clop sounds as she went. We didn’t talk much. I was too tired, and she was too – something. I don’t know. She was holding my hand, her eyes always moving, like she was drinking up all the sights, and she hadn’t had nothing to drink in a long time.
The cars really seemed to spook her; I’ll explain those later, but any time someone drove past, she would stare and stare, and I had to tug her arm a bit to keep her going in the right direction.
We finally got to my place, and I showed her where she could hang her things. I made her a cup of tea, handed her the remote, and then excused myself for a minute to change out of my work things.
When I came back, she was sitting in the middle of the couch, very still, hands clasped up tight around her mug, looking around like she’d never seen an apartment before. So anyway, that’s when I asked her what was up, and that’s when she told me she was Laura Ingalls Wilder.
“Oh, like the books?” I said. I’d loved those when I was a girl – I don’t know – it just seemed like paradise to me. Beautiful. Quiet. Simple.
She looked confused for a minute, so I explained to her, “You know, Little Town on the Prairie, The Long Winter, Farm Boy? The books! Everyone’s read them, all them books written by a lady with the same name as you. There was a TV show!”
She shook her head and looked confused, said she was new here, so maybe there was someone else with her same name? That’s when I sat down across from her and gave her my first real good look. Her hair was long and brown like mine, done up in a few fancy braided twists. She wasn’t wearing makeup and her dress looked real strange, old-fashioned and worn. The material was thick and rough around the cuffs and hem. It gave me pause.
“So Laura,” I said, “can I call you Laura? Good. Laura, how’d you wind up in that alley at 11 o’clock at night?”
“I – I honestly don’t know,” she said. She looked stricken. I’d never seen a person look stricken until that very moment when I saw her face, then I knew what looking stricken looked like. “I don’t really remember.”
“You don’t remember? You sure didn’t fall out of the sky, now, did you?”
Her eyes met mine. They were very blue. Quietly she said, “I think I might have.”
Well, it took me a minute to take that in, for sure. I wasn’t sure if she was messing with me or if she really thought it, but she did look rumpled and – well – a little like she’d been tossed about by the wind. But that didn’t mean anything.
“You don’t remember nothing? Nothing at all?”
“Well,” she said. “I was outside putting up the laundry when, out of nowhere, a tornado touched down!” she shook her head, “It was so sudden.”
“You didn’t hear the siren?” I said.
“The siren, for tornadoes.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” she said. Her lips thinned, and her eyes flashed.
“Forget it. Go on.”
“Well, I tried to run for the cellar, of course. I could see Almanzo running in from the fields, his hat had blown off and when he reached the cellar doors he held onto them, waving at me to hurry.”
“Yeaaahhh …” this was getting weirder by the second. I thought I was a fan. “So then what?”
“Well, I think I must have tripped,” she said, “and I don’t know, there was a flash of lightning, maybe? And then something caught me, lifted me right up off the ground and spun me around until I lost consciousness. When I awoke, I was in the middle of a field and I didn’t know where I was. I was frightened and not thinking clearly, so I just jumped up and started running. I thought, the storm couldn’t have carried me that far, that I would recognize something. But it all looked so new and strange. I didn’t recognize anything, the buildings, the people! So many people!” She shivered. “I – I didn’t know what to do, so I just kept running until I couldn’t anymore, then I ducked down in that little alley to hide, and that’s when you found me! Thank you, by the way, for your kindness. For welcoming me into your home. I – thank you.”
Well you can imagine how I felt. I just sat there for what felt like a month and looked her up and down. It didn’t seem like she was lying, or at least she seemed to believe her own story. Didn’t make it true, though.
“You know what?” I said, “why don’t we get some sleep? We’ll both feel better in the morning, and then we can see about getting you back to your people.” I went and grabbed some pajamas and some clean sheets and blankets and made her up a little bed on the couch. I had to help her outta that costume, poor thing. It was buttoned up the back and she was cinched in like a sausage. My pajamas were a little snug around her hips, and a little long, but we rolled up the arms and legs and they worked just fine.
“Well, g’night,” I said. “Help yourself to coffee or whatever if you wake up before me.”
I turned to look at her as I closed my bedroom door. She was sitting on the couch on top of the sheets, holding one of the blankets tight to her chest like a baby.
She noticed me staring, and shook her head as if to clear her thoughts. “Good night.”
And I turned off the overhead light and went to bed.
* * * * * *
I woke up to the smell of something wonderful. My guest was already awake and in the kitchen, bustling about like she owned the place. She turned when she heard the door open, and smiled.
“Good morning!” she said. “I thought I’d make breakfast, to thank you.” She turned off the faucet where she had been rinsing her hands and dried them on a towel. “Do you want coffee?” she asked. She was holding a pan she’d just picked up from the stove. I peered in, and it was full of coffee grounds and water and … eggshells?
“Why didn’t you use the coffee maker?” I asked.
“The what?” she said, carefully pouring some into a mug and handing it to me. I took a sip. It was the best coffee I’d ever had.
I suddenly needed to sit down.
When I did, she scooted a plate in front of me. It had eggs and toast and even a little bit of bacon I must have forgotten about in the freezer. Well, of course I wanted to talk to her more, but it would have been rude to let all that food go cold, so I dug in. Everything was delicious, and I told her so.
When we’d finished we cleared the table together and did the dishes. I was starting to like this young woman very much, this so-called Laura Ingalls Wilder. My new friend had a way about her that put me at ease. She felt like home. There were long periods where she didn’t speak at all, though I could tell she was thinking on things deeply. I wanted to ask her about it, but decided it could wait.
When our chores were finished, we sat down on the couch. She was quiet for a minute, seemed to be collecting herself. I saw today’s newspaper open in front of her on the table. Finally, she took a deep breath and asked, “Am I correct in understanding the year is 2018?”
Well, that was the last thing I’d expected. I’d nearly forgotten her strange clothing, as she was still wearing my pajamas.
“Well, yeah! What other year would it be?” I asked.
“Well, last I remember it was August, 1885. My husband and I were just married, and we were settling into our little home … “
“No!” I said, standing up and pushing back from the table. “You stop it right now! You are not the real Laura Ingalls Wilder!” I started rubbing my face and neck, to make sure I was awake. I was feeling a little sick, to be honest.
“I assure you that is my name, but I don’t understand who this other Laura is you keep talking about.”
“Look,” I said. “It’s easier to show you.”
Since I didn’t have the Little House books any more, I got out my laptop and did a quick search. Forty-five minutes later, we were still seated on the couch, and she was scrolling through page after page of text about Laura Ingalls Wilder: her family, the books, her whole life. She scanned each and every picture like it held a thousand secrets. She was a little freaked out, honestly. If I’m honest, so was I. “This is me! This is my family!” she said, over and over and over. Finally she stopped, overwhelmed.
“I don’t understand! I don’t know how this could be! How am I here? I’d just been married! We had our whole lives …” Laura buried her face in her hands and burst into tears.
Well, I didn’t really know what to do, so I patted her on the shoulder a bit until she had pulled herself together. “Do you want to read them?” I asked; what else could I ask? She nodded, so I loaned her one of my dresses, but shook my head at her when she tried to put on her bonnet. We straight to the library and checked out the whole series, then we went straight back home again.
The whole time, I kept trying to figure her out. When she was looking at something, I’d look at her to see if there was even the tiniest crack in her time-traveling act, but if there was I couldn’t see it. The more time we spent, the more I had to admit she was very convincing. She acted like she’d never seen an escalator before, and she did really look just like the old photographs online, but it was all too strange to wrap my head around. I worried she was maybe a little crazy or something, or maybe it was me who was crazy! But, still, she seemed harmless, and it was kind of nice to have someone around. I didn’t have any family to speak of; I lost my mom to a car crash a few years back, and I never knew my father. Also, I kind of really wanted to believe that she was the real Laura Ingalls Wilder.
I had to work that evening, so I set her up with the books and showed her how to use the TV. Work seemed to take forever; all I could think about was getting back to my interesting new friend. I’m pretty sure my manager wanted to fire me, I was so distracted, but by the time my shift was done I’d decided I’d act like her story was true, that she was the real Laura Ingalls Wilder who had somehow traveled forward in time to 2018. I had so many questions to ask about the nineteenth century. It was kind of my obsession. Might as well learn as much as I could, and if she slipped up, well, then I’d know.
I finally made it home, a bag of groceries in tow, and I found her in pretty much the same spot I had left her, slowly working her way through the books.
“Are they accurate?” I asked.
“Some,” she said. “But the order of things isn’t quite right, and some of the details are off. It’s strange reading about my life like this, especially the book about Almanzo. I didn’t know most of those things about him!”
“He must tell you later in your marriage – he must have told you? How does that work, anyway, talking about a past that hasn’t happened yet?” I said.
Laura shook her head.
“So tell me,” I said, “what are the the differences you’ve found so far?”
We talked for a long time, and the more we talked the more I really wanted to believe. I mean, what are the chances, right? Hope is a funny thing.
We made dinner together and cleaned up, then sat down on the couch to watch some TV. She hadn’t watched it earlier; she had been too busy with the books, but she was fascinated. “The technology in this time is incredible!” she said.
I smiled and pulled out a bit of embroidery I was working on, and she was very interested in that, too. I told her all about my designs and what I do, and showed her some of my work. She looked so misty-eyed about the whole thing that I decided to set her up with a hoop and cloth of her own, and I showed her my stash of embroidery thread. She handled that needle like she’d been born with it in her fingers, and we talked.
“So you sell these things you make? Like a market?”
“Yeah, I sell them at craft fairs and the like, and I also have my Etsy shop.”
Of course, she had no idea about Etsy, so I had to open my computer to show her. Laura was amazed, and very interested in all the things I was selling.
“So you can display these items on this ‘web page’ and anyone can see it from anywhere in the world?” She asked.
“Yep! It’s crazy, right?”
“It’s wonderful!” She said. “What else can this computer do?”
“Oh, honey, you ain’t seen nothing yet!”
I opened up a search window. “So, ask me a question: any question at all!”
Her eyes sparkled with curiosity and interest, and she thought for a moment. “When was Almanzo Wilder born?”
“Oh, give me something hard,” I said, as I quickly typed and hit enter.
The screen instantly filled with information, and in each listing was a date: February 13, 1857.
“Is that right?” I asked.
Laura grinned in amazement. “Yes! How wonderful! Can you ask it anything? Let’s see – what does is say about Tennyson?”
I quickly typed his name, and we saw page after page of results, and I read: Alfred, Lord Tennyson – a popular British poet during the rule of Queen Victoria – named Poet Laureate in 1850.
“Amazing!” she exclaimed. “How does it work?”
“Um … if you’re wondering how it actually works, I have no idea, but if you want to know how to make it work, I’ll show you!”
Laura nodded happily, and so I began to give a 150-something year old woman her first computer lesson. Life’s funny.
Finally, I had to go to bed, but I told Laura she was welcome to use the laptop as much as she liked. She loved the name laptop – “It’s like a writing desk,” she said, “but with no pen, ink or paper.” As I shut the door to my bedroom, I saw Laura’s face bathed in the soft blue glow of the screen, her hands moving carefully over the unfamiliar keyboard.
Eventually, we settled into a kind of rhythm, my new roommate and me. Laura – she was amazing – she was so kind, such a good listener, and funny! She was also brilliant, and took to computers like she’d been born in the twenty-first century. She was a huge help in my Etsy business. That first embroidery project was just the beginning. In a matter of weeks my inventory and sales had doubled, with 5-star ratings all the way. She showed me how to make soaps and lotions, we made little dish towels, and she cross-stitched samplers like a pro. She was a little scandalized over some of the sayings we embroidered, but I assured her that cursing wasn’t that big a deal anymore, so I think she finally got used to it.
Laura was kind of a force of nature, you know? She was interested in everything, once she’d settled in, and she really seemed to take to modern life. I got her a few outfits of her own, and she was delighted to not have to roll up her cuffs any more. She adored her new tennis shoes, too. “They’re so comfortable!” she exclaimed, “and quiet!” Laura did have a point. Her old brown boots, while very cute, were pretty clompy.
Laura loved helping me on weekends at the farmer’s markets and craft fairs. She’d wear her dress and bonnet while we sat in the shade, stitching and chatting with the folks who stopped to admire our work. One day, when I came home from the Shop-n-Save, she surprised me with my very own dress and bonnet!
“When did you have time to make this?” I asked.
“While you were at work, of course! I used your clothes to find the right measurements, and, really, the basic pattern for a dress is simple. I purchased the fabric myself using my portion of our crafting sales.” Laura beamed, delighted at my delight.
I was beyond words, so I gave her a big hug, and ran off to my room to try on my new outfit.
We were a hit at the market next weekend. They took a picture of us in our prairie outfits for the paper and we put it on Etsy. Everyone loved our store, and we regularly started making the most popular sellers list.
I learned that my new friend, in spite of the time she had lived, had some very modern ideas. She was thrilled to learn women could vote and live independently, that they could fly planes and pretty much do anything they wanted.
She started reading up on business and sales strategies and whatnot, and wouldn’t you know she took to it right away. Laura was super smart – well, you know that – and she helped me take my handmade craft business to the next level. I was even able to quit my stupid cashier job at the Shop-n-Save.
I didn’t miss that store one single bit. I loved working with my hands and making beautiful, useful things. Every chance I got I would beg Laura to tell me more about life on the frontier: farming, covered wagons, Saturday socials and all.
“I wonder why you are so interested, my friend,” Laura would say. “It was not an easy life, and women didn’t have nearly as many opportunities as they do today.”
I’d nod, I knew she was right, but there’d been a reason I’d read those Little House books over and over when I was a kid. My mom always joked I’d been born in the wrong century. To be honest, I was a little jealous of the experiences Laura had had in her previous life.
Eventually we got a larger apartment, a two-bedroom, so we could each have our own. We’d talk over late dinners, making plans; she was looking into ways to expand our business even more, ideas I hadn’t even imagined. We started offering custom-made prairie dresses, and she was right: once you knew the basic pattern it was easy. Laura found a local woodworker to subcontract a special project, and next thing I knew we were selling butter churning kits, complete with instructions, so folks could make their own fresh butter!
Every so often I’d ask her, “Laura, do you ever miss your old life? If you could go back, would you?”
Laura would be quiet for a bit, thinking. She was always careful with how she spoke. “There are people I miss very much, Ma, Pa, my sisters …”
“What about Almanzo?” I asked. “He seemed like he was really sweet. Romantic, even.”
“Oh, yes, him too,” she said quickly, almost apologetically, “but we’d only just been married when I came here. My memories of him aren’t nearly as strong as those of my family.” She paused, troubled. “That’s a terrible thing to say, isn’t it?” she said.
“No, not if it’s true,” I said. “He sounds like he was a good man from what you’ve told me, and from the books, of course, but if your feelings for him have changed since you’ve been gone, you can’t help that. Besides, it’s not like you can do anything about it.”
Laura looked out the window, the sky had just the tiniest bit of red still on the horizon. “Yes, I suppose you’re right,” she sighed, “Though truthfully, if I’d had the kind of opportunities back then that women have now, I’m not entirely sure I would have even gotten married!”
“Laura!” I gasped. “But he seemed like the perfect frontier husband! You’ve said so yourself!”
She frowned and pressed her lips together into a long, thin line, shaking her head. “He is; he was, that is. Our work, this new life – I find it so rewarding! I never imagined life could be so full of intellectual and creative challenges! If I went back now, I wonder if life as a farmer’s wife would be enough anymore. I’m not sure there’s space for a relationship in my life right now, anyway.” She smiled, “Except for with you, of course. You’ve been such a wonderful friend to me. I do love you.”
“I love you, too, Laura,” I said, and to be honest I felt a little choked up, though I also felt sad. I did love Laura. She was the best friend I’d ever had. She’d taught me so much. I had never met a more brilliant, determined woman. But I felt bad for Almanzo. He’d been a good man, kind and caring, good to her, and truly interested in building a family and a life with her. I thought it was sad he’d never get to know what had happened to her, and I’m sure he mourned her loss. But maybe it was for the best? He deserved someone who wanted to devote herself to him and their life together with a whole heart. Doesn’t everyone?
* * * * * *
A few months later, we were walking home, right around nightfall. We’d spent the day at the park with friends, packed a lunch and made a party of it. We were happy and tired, and looking forward to a relaxing evening at home.
We were nearly there when I noticed that the wind had stopped, and there was a pressure shift that made my head feel like a balloon. I turned to Laura to say something, but by the look on her face she had noticed, too. It was spooky silent, no wind, not even the sounds of birds or insects. She met my eyes and pointed up to the sky, which had gone a dark, sickly green. Suddenly, a marble-sized chunk of hail hit the sidewalk, then another and another. The warning siren in the middle of town sputtered to life, and then wind roared into the vacuum, so loud and fierce it took our breath away. We started to run.
Laura grabbed my hand, “Come on! We can make it!” and she pulled me along behind her like a little French pony. We were almost to our building, when there was suddenly a particularly strong gust of wind, and an electrical pole – I’ll explain that later – crashed down right in front of us, barring our way. The hail turned to sleet, and the wind made those wires dance, sparks were flying everywhere.
“We’ll go around!” yelled Laura, pulling me to the left. Then suddenly, amidst the rain and wind and sparks, there it was. It was oval shaped, like a knot in a tree, and deep. It looked like a tunnel, and pulsed like it had a heartbeat. Laura stopped, stunned, then she looked at me, yelling something.
“What?” I asked, straining to hear.
She leaned in close and yelled, “I think that’s the same kind of thing that brought me here!”
Our eyes locked, and mine grew wide.
“You can go home!” I hollered, smiling. I was so happy for her! She smiled, too, for a brief moment, but then suddenly looked terribly terribly sad.
I misunderstood her look and yelled, “I’ll miss you, too!”
“My dear friend!” She pulled me in for a long hug. Squeezing me until I was nearly breathless. She held me by the shoulders and searched my face, like she was trying to memorize it, then kissed me on the cheek. “I’m sorry. Tell them! I’m sorry, and I love them!” She said, and then she pushed me into the portal.
Before I even had a chance to think, everything went dark, and I must have passed out, but when I woke up I was here.
And, I’m really sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Ingalls, that she decided not to come back. I know how much she loves you; she spoke of you all the time, but she was so happy in the twenty-first century. She loved her life, and she’d made so many friends, and our business was doing fantastic. She’s an amazing person, and she was a good friend to me, and I don’t want you to think poorly of her because she sent me in her place. I think she wanted what she thought was best for me. And the books, I promise I’ll write the books for her, so folks will know her, and I know …
A figure stepped into the doorway behind Ma and Pa Ingalls, a man. He must have been visiting when I started banging on their door like a crazy person, raving about Laura and tornadoes and time travel. His handsome face was tan from working outside, and his hair was a fine, dark blonde. I knew that look. He looked stricken. He steadied himself against the door jamb with one hand, and his eyes searched my face.
My breath caught in my throat, and I whispered.
Author Bio: Jessica Mannion grew up in Alaska, but now lives in Brooklyn, NY with her filmmaker husband, two cats, and lots of books that she really should dust more often. Her work can be seen in The Literary Review, The Write Launch, and Pank magazine. She and her husband Sean’s video short “The Economy” — which Jessica wrote and Sean directed and edited — was the Grand Prize winner of Mythic Picnic’s Tweet Story Contest V6. Jessica has never actually met Laura Ingalls Wilder.