Mary Ingalls stepped carefully from the train onto the bustling platform in Vinton, Iowa. She stood straight and quiet, her hands clasping the handle of her small suitcase. Her pale blue eyes shone with a mix of anxiety and excitement. Mary took a deep breath as the cool November breeze fanned her flushed cheeks and carried the hot smell of engine steam past her nose.
Over the noise of the hissing steam, Mary heard the sound of Pa's voice calling to her. Her Ma gently took her by the elbow, and not for the first time that day, Mary felt relieved that both her parents had made this journey with her. Nothing here felt the same as it had back in her hometown of De Smet. Dakota Territory itself seemed to be a completely different world.
"Iowa College for the Blind!" called a deep voice. "This way for students of Iowa College for the Blind!"
With a start, Mary realized that she was one of the students the man was calling for. She felt pink with embarrassment. Now everyone at the station would know she was a blind girl. She wondered if anyone had stopped to stare at her.
"They've sent a buggy for us," Ma said, leading Mary along. As they walked, Mary could hear the sound of a horse nickering and shifting impatiently from hoof to hoof. Pa called out a pleasant greeting to the driver.
"Do you see any other students, Ma, or am I the only one?" Mary whispered.
There was a pause.
"I don't see anyone who looks . . . who seems to be coming along with us, Mary. We are the only ones who have come to the buggy."
"I'll take that bag, young lady," said the same deep voice that Mary had heard before. The little suitcase was lifted out of her hands. Mary felt self-conscious, smoothing her dress and straightening her bonnet. She realized she ought to thank the man, but she didn't know if he had already walked to the back of the buggy to load the luggage, or if he was still standing nearby. Before she could decide what to do, Ma thanked the man for his help.
Mary hated not knowing what to do. Back home, she knew the sound and smell of every street in De Smet and could make her way around town almost as well as anyone. But everything in Iowa was different. For the first time since the scarlet fever had taken her eyesight almost two years earlier, Mary Ingalls was without her sisters in an unfamiliar place.
She felt for Ma's hand where it still held her elbow, and she squeezed it tightly.
The road from the train station to the school was well traveled, and the buggy's springs helped keep the ride from getting too bumpy. Still, Mary's stomach felt tight and sour, and though the cool air smelled pleasantly of grass and earth, her hands were slick and her face hot. Mary thought about the train journey, and about the fried blackbirds they had eaten for lunch. They were the very same birds that had recently devoured Pa's corn crop. The Ingalls family had gotten their revenge, because Ma had cooked those birds and packed them in a shoebox to bring on the train. They had made a good healthy meal, but now they were making Mary feel ill. She reminded herself how lucky she was that Ma had packed them a filling lunch—how lucky she was that Ma and Pa had both come along on the train with her. But somehow this only reminded Mary of the three sisters she had left behind.
If Laura were here, Mary thought, she would be my eyes for me, just as she always is. She would be talking nonstop, describing the land and all the houses and farms she could see. Mary imagined the sound of Laura's voice counting each fence post as they passed it, so that Mary would know how fast the buggy was going.
When the driver called back to them that they were nearing the school, Mary's heart jumped with nervousness. For some reason, it hadn't seemed quite real until now. There were so many things to think about—so many things that might go wrong. Though students could begin at the college at any time during the year, most of the students had begun classes two months ago, in September. Mary's family had had to wait to be sure they had all of the first year's tuition money. Would the other girls have already made friends? Would they like Mary at all?
There was also the worrisome fact of Mary's entrance examinations, which were scheduled for the next day. The Ingallses' old friend Reverend Alden had all but ensured Mary's acceptance, sending her school records and a glowing letter of recommendation to the college. The exams were really just a formality, but passing them was a requirement for official acceptance. Mary wished she had been able to take them at home in De Smet. Everything was so strange and different here. The tests might be different from those she was used to. How could she expect her brain to work properly? She might do badly on the exams. If she did, would she be sent home in disgrace?
On the seat beside her, Mary could feel Ma sitting up straighter to get a better look at the school. Mary stopped herself from thinking about doing badly on the exams. She took in the smell of the cool country air, and she smiled. She wanted Ma and Pa to know that she was happy to be arriving at college.
"Can you see the school, Ma?" Mary asked.
"Oh yes I can, Mary!" Ma cried. "It's beautiful. Isn't it, Charles?"
"It certainly is," Pa said. "It looks like a castle, Mary. The building is all brick, three stories high, and there is a wing built on either side. No blizzard wind will be getting through those walls!"