Authors: Mary Downing Hahn
I lowered the book. "Why did you tell Emma those stories? She had bad dreams all night. That's why she's still asleep."
"She shouldn't be such a fraidy cat," Sissy said. "I was just kidding around."
"That's what you said when you almost drowned her."
Sissy shrugged. "I guess I'm the only one around here with a sense of humor."
"If you think that kind of stuff is funny, you're sick."
She laughed. "At least I don't read books about bird killers.
pretty sick, if you ask me."
"You are so ignorant," I said in a nasty voice. "To
Kill a Mockingbird
isn't about bird killers."
Sissy sat down at the table across from me. "What
it about, then?"
"I haven't finished reading it yet, have I?" I marked my place and laid the book down. "It's required summer reading for eighth grade. I have to pass a test and write an essay on it when school starts."
"Big deal. I hate school. I'm glad I don't have to go anymore."
"What do you mean? You're too young to quit school."
"I mean for the summer, stupid. I'm on vacation. Like everybody—including you." Sissy tilted her chair back so far I was sure she'd fall on her head any second. Not that I cared. Maybe she'd leave if she hurt herself.
"How's Dulcie this morning?" she asked. "Are her paintings ruined?"
Sissy rocked back and forth on the chair's legs, as if she were trying to figure out how far she could go without tipping over. "I wish I could've seen her face when she found that mess. I would've laughed and laughed."
you!" Sure I was right, I glared at Sissy. "
wrecked the studio, didn't you? And then you made up all that stuff about Teresa!"
"You're crazy," Sissy said. "Why would I do something like that?"
"Because you're a spiteful little brat!"
At that point, Sissy finally overbalanced the chair and crashed to the floor. She made such a loud noise, I jumped up, scared my wish had come true and she'd really hurt herself. 'Are you okay?"
She rubbed the back of her head and threw my own words back at me. "Why should
care?" Without waiting for an answer, she went to the back door. "I'm going for a walk. You can come if you like."
I stared at her in disbelief. "What makes you think I'd go anywhere with you?"
"I want to show you something." Sissy gave me one of her sly smiles. "I guarantee you won't be sorry."
When I hesitated, she added, "You're always asking me questions—where do I live, what's my last name, personal stuff like that. If you really want to know, come with me. Maybe I'll tell you."
Maybe you will,
Probably you won't.
Giving in to curiosity, I glanced at the kitchen clock. Nine o'clock. Emma would sleep for at least another hour. "I can't go far," I said. "Emma will be worried if she wakes up and nobody's home."
"Plus you don't want to get in trouble with your crazy aunt," Sissy added.
With a shrug, I let her lead me outside and into the pine woods. We walked single file along a narrow path that wound around trees, roots, and mossy boulders bearded with ferns. Mosquitoes hummed in my ears, and gnats circled my head. Except for the cries of gulls and crows, it was very quiet.
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"To a place I know."
We came out of the woods on a hill above the lake. Down below, the water lay still and calm, as gray as the sky above it.
Sissy walked to the end of a rocky overhang and dropped to her knees, right on the edge. "What I want to show you is down there." She pointed at the lake.
"You'd better come back. You might fall." I spoke loudly, so she wouldn't guess I was afraid of high places.
A gust of wind swirled through her hair and lifted the hood of her sweatshirt. "Fraidy cat." She leaned farther out, crouched like a gargoyle on the rock. "I'm the only one who knows what's down there."
"Oh, sure." Sick of her grin, sick of her show-off personality, sick of everything about her, even her bathing suit, I backed away from her and the scary place she'd led me.
"I thought you wanted me to tell you my secrets," she taunted in a singsong voice. "Sissy, Sissy, where do you live? What's your mommy like, what's your daddy like? What's your last name? Oh, Sissy, Sissy, tell me your secrets."
I put more distance between us. "I'm going home. Emma's probably awake now. She'll wonder where I am."
"You're as big a baby as she is." Sissy got to her feet and walked toward me. "Are you scared I'm going to push you off the cliff?" She lunged at me as if she really meant to do it. When I jumped backward, she laughed. "Baby, baby, baby."
"Go away!" I yelled at her. "I never want to see you again."
She met my eyes dead on, giving me the full benefit of the cold stare she was so good at. The wind toyed with her hair, whipping pale strands across her tan face. "You can't get rid of me ... even if you try."
High above our heads, the tall pines swayed and murmured. A gull cried. Waves splashed against the lake's rocky shore. Drops of rain began to fall.
With a laugh, Sissy shoved me aside and darted off into the rain. "So long," she called. "Goodbye, ta-ta, adieu."
I watched her for a few moments, and then I followed her. If she wouldn't tell me where she lived, I'd find out myself. I'd go right up to her door and tell her mother that Sissy wasn't welcome at Gull Cottage anymore.
As little and skinny as she was, Sissy was fast. I couldn't keep her in sight, try as hard as I could. Just as I was about to give up, I glimpsed her, far ahead, disappearing into a grove of tall pines. By the time I reached the shelter of the trees, the rain was pouring down and Sissy had disappeared.
I looked around, bewildered. Where had she gone? There was nothing here. Just pines and tall grass and tangles of wild roses and vines growing over outcrops of mossy stones.
When I heard a car whoosh past, I ran through the pines to a road. On the other side, I saw a small yellow house with blue shutters and a curl of smoke coming from its chimney. A rock garden and beds of flowers bloomed around the porch, their colors brightening the gloom.
I ran across and knocked on the door, sure I'd found Sissy's home. She'd be surprised to see me on
doorstep for a change.
Inside, a dog began barking and someone said, "Hush, Chauncy." The door opened, and a woman peered at me. "Yes?"
The dog kept barking. He was large and brown and had a plumy tail, but he didn't look especially fierce. Just noisy.
"Is Sissy home?" I asked.
"Sissy?" The woman shook her head, puzzled. "I don't know anybody by that name." Turning back to the dog, she said, "Be quiet!"
Chauncy regarded her with mournful eyes and lay down, head on his paws, as if he were ashamed of himself. His tail thumped the floor.
"That's better," the woman told him, and his tail thumped harder. "Now," she said to me, "you'd better come in and dry off. You're soaked."
I hesitated a second, but I was cold, drenched, and worn out from chasing Sissy. The woman had a friendly look, and the dog was quite sweet now that he'd stopped barking. The room beyond the open door looked warm and cozy—and dry.
"My name's Kathie Trent," the woman said. "But I don't believe I know you."
"I'm Ali O'Dwyer. I'm staying with my aunt Dulcie at Gull Cottage."
She nodded. "Jeanine Donaldson told me Dulcie was back."
"Do you know my aunt?"
"I haven't seen her since she was about your age, maybe younger." She looked at me closely. "You're shivering. Let's get you dried off before you catch pneumonia."
I followed Ms. Trent to the bathroom. Handing me a towel, she said, "There's a robe on the back of the door. Put that on, and I'll toss your clothes in the dryer. Then you can tell me all about yourself—and Dulcie and Claire, too."
Soon I was bundled up in a fluffy bathrobe, sitting near a small wood stove and sipping hot tea. Chauncy dozed near my feet, and Ms. Trent sat across from me in a rocking chair. She wore her gray hair in a long braid down her back, but her face was unlined and rosy. Her jeans were faded, and her gray sweatshirt was several sizes too big; however, I could tell she was as slim as Dulcie, even though she was older.
She regarded me over the rim of her teacup. "No one here thought Dulcie or Claire would ever come back to the lake."
Here we go again,
I thought. Aloud I said, "I guess Mrs. Donaldson told you she came to see Dulcie."
Ms. Trent nodded and waited for me to go on.
"Dulcie didn't remember her, but she was friendly at first. Then Mrs. Donaldson mentioned Teresa, and Dulcie got upset. She said she didn't remember her, either, and went off in a huff." I tied the robe's belt tighter.
"It was really embarrassing," I went on, "but Mrs. Donaldson was very nice about it—she even apologized for upsetting Dulcie."
"Jeanine's a sweet person," Ms. Trent said.
I added silently. "Mrs. Donaldson knew Teresa. Did you know her, too?" I asked.
"Yes, I did." Ms. Trent took a sip of tea. "I hate to say it, but her older sister, Linda, and I spent a lot of time running away from the poor kid. Teresa wanted to tag along everywhere we went, but she was five or six years younger—a big difference when you're a teenager and your little sister is ten. If we left her out, she'd tattle on Linda just to get her in trouble."
She leaned back in the rocking chair and watched the rain run down the windowpanes. "It's an awful thing to say, but I don't think anyone liked Teresa—kids or adults. She was just too difficult. Always mad about something. From what Jeanine says, she caused so much trouble between Dulcie and Claire that your grandmother used to send her home."
She sighed. "After what happened, I've often wished I'd been nicer to her. She couldn't have been very happy."
For a while we sat quietly. I thought about Caroline Hogan—in third grade everybody hated her, I don't remember why now. Then she got hit by a car. She didn't die or anything, but when I saw her on crutches, I felt terrible. If something bad happened to Sissy, I guessed I'd feel the same way. Maybe I'd try to be nicer the next time I saw her.
As I sipped my tea, I stared at the quilt hanging on the wall across from me. It was done in shades of blues and grays ranging from dark to light, and its patterns swirled like water. The quilt had a melancholy feeling, sad beyond words. It reminded me of Dulcie's lake paintings.
Ms. Trent turned to see what I was looking at. "That's my interpretation of the lake," she said, "its colors, its currents, its depth. One of my best pieces, I think, but no one has ever offered to buy it. Several people say it's too depressing. The blues and the grays..." With a shrug, she tilted back in the rocker and drank her tea.
"Is it true Teresa's body was never found?" I asked.
"Did Jeanine tell you that?"
"No, Sissy did—the girl I was looking for."
Ms. Trent sighed. "The lake often keeps its dead. The water's deep, you know, and dark. The bottom's rocky. Bodies get caught under ledges...." Her voice trailed off. "Well, there's no sense dwelling on the morbid details. It was a sad end to an unhappy child's life."
I tucked the robe around my feet and curled up as small as I could. I wanted to let go of Teresa, but I had more questions.
"Sissy also told me Mom and Dulcie were in the canoe with Teresa the day she drowned. She said it was their fault—that they murdered Teresa."
Ms. Trent set her teacup down with a tiny clink. "There was a lot of talk at the time. Teresa's parents were sure Dulcie and Claire were involved. They even got the police to talk to your mother and aunt, but nothing came of it." She paused. "In case you're wondering, I think Teresa took the canoe out on a whim, and that Dulcie and Claire had nothing to do with it."
I reached down to pet Chauncy. Without raising my head, I asked, "Do people ever say they've seen Teresa's ghost?"
"Of course not." Ms. Trent laughed. "Did Sissy tell you that, too?"
"She scared my cousin, Emma, half to death."
And me, too.
"I wonder who that child is," Ms. Trent mused. "Do you know her last name?"
"She won't tell me. I don't even know where she lives. That's why I followed her today." I frowned. "I want to find her house so Dulcie can talk to her mother. Sissy's a bad influence on Emma. She ought to stay away from us."
A clock struck eleven times like a miniature Big Ben, startling us both. I jumped up, stricken with guilt. I'd walked off two hours ago and left Emma sleeping. Dulcie was probably furious. "Are my clothes dry? I have to go home."
Ms. Trent disappeared into the laundry room and came back with my jeans and T-shirt and underwear, still warm from the dryer.
"It's raining too hard to walk all the way back to Gull Cottage," she said as she handed them to me. "Why don't you call Dulcie? I'd love to see her. I'd drive you myself, but my poor Volvo's in the shop having yet another overhaul."
As soon as I was dressed, I dialed Dulcie's number. Just as I'd feared, she was cross at me for leaving without a word to anyone. But she was also relieved I was safe.
"I'll come right away. Where are you?"
"At Ms. Trent's. It's a yellow house on Sycamore Road. She has flowers everywhere, more even than Mom has. You can't miss it."
"What on earth are you doing there?"
"I tried to follow Sissy home, but I couldn't keep up with her. I thought she must live in Ms. Trent's house, so I knocked on the door and she invited me in, but she doesn't know Sissy."
"Sissy, Sissy, Sissy." Dulcie sighed into the phone. "I wish you'd never met that girl."
After she hung up, I sat down on the sofa. My aunt wasn't the only one who wished I'd never met Sissy. Chauncy nudged my knee with his nose and looked at me hopefully. I petted him, and Ms. Trent laughed.
"He'll expect you to keep that up for hours," she said. "I've never had a dog who needed more love than Mr. Chauncy."