Authors: Mary Downing Hahn
A few minutes later, Dulcie's car pulled into the driveway next to the cottage. I glimpsed Emma in the back seat, her face pressed against the window.
Despite all attempts to silence him, Chauncy ran to the door and barked loudly, just as he had when I'd arrived.
Ms. Trent greeted Dulcie. "Ignore that silly dog. He never bites."
Dulcie carried Emma inside. "Don't put me down," Emma begged. "I'm scared of dogs."
"His name's Chauncy," I told Emma. "He's an old sweetie pie. See?" I petted Chauncy and he leaned against my legs, huffing happily.
"I don't like dogs," Emma said.
In the meantime, Ms. Trent was introducing herself to Dulcie. "I'm Kathie Trent," she said, "but you'd have known me as Kathie Miller. My folks worked at Lake View Cabins, way back when the Abbotts owned the place."
Dulcie ran her fingers through her rain-dampened hair, but nothing she did could tame it. "I'm sorry but—"
"It's been a long time," Ms. Trent said.
"My memory's terrible." Dulcie looked around the cottage, her eyes caught by the quilts. "These are beautiful. Did you make them?"
"Yes, I did." Ms. Trent smiled. "Ali tells me you're a painter. I'd love to see your work someday."
Dulcie shifted Emma so she could reach into her purse for a business card. "I'm in the studio every day, a converted boat-house down on the shore. It's a lovely spot to work."
"That's the lake." Emma pointed at the blue and gray quilt. "All deep and dark and scary."
"What a perceptive child," Ms. Trent said, clearly impressed.
"What's perscective mean?" Emma asked.
"'Perceptive' means you understand stuff," I told her.
"I do understand stuff," Emma agreed. "Lots of stuff."
"We'd better go," Dulcie said. "Thanks for sheltering my errant niece. I hope she wasn't a nuisance."
"Ali's welcome anytime," Ms. Trent said, "as are you and the perceptive Emma."
As soon as we were in the car, Dulcie let me have it. "It was extremely irresponsible to go off and leave Emma alone. If you do anything like that again, I'll find someone else to take care of my daughter. Someone who's more mature than you are."
"I'm sorry," I mumbled. "But Sissy—"
"Stop blaming Sissy for everything," Dulcie cut in. "You're thirteen years old. Act like it."
Stung into silence, I slumped in the front seat and gazed out the rain-streaked window. Dulcie stared straight ahead, her face closed, her hands tight on the wheel.
Strapped in her child seat in the back, Emma was unusually quiet. The only sound was the
of the windshield wipers and the hiss of rain under the tires.
Gradually, Dulcie got over being angry at me, probably because Sissy stayed away. I read to Emma, played games with her, and, when the sun finally came out, took her swimming. We painted pictures and made things with clay—lopsided pots, oddly shaped animals, dishes and cups that Dulcie fired in the kiln. I tried making my shell-and-stone displays, and Dulcie liked them. She said I was an artist, too—it obviously ran in the family.
After more than a week had passed without Sissy, I began hoping she was gone for good. Moved, found someone else to torment—I didn't care where she was or where she'd gone. Just so she didn't come back.
One afternoon, Emma and I were sitting at the picnic table, fooling around with clay. The sun was hot. Perspiration soaked the hair on the back of my neck. Bumblebees buzzed and hummed to themselves in the hollyhocks. A mosquito whined in my ear, and another bit my arm.
Just as I was about to suggest a swim, Emma turned to me, her face thoughtful. "I wonder what Sissy's doing now."
"After the way she acted last time, I don't care what she's doing. Not one bit. Not even a teeny tiny smidgen of a split atom."
I exaggerated to make Emma laugh, but she didn't even smile. Bending her head over her clay pot, she said, "Sissy promised she'd come see me today."
"How could she tell you that? We haven't seen her for over a week."
Ignoring me, Emma concentrated on rolling a coil of clay between her hands, making it long and smooth like a glistening snake.
I lifted her chin and forced her to look at me. "Has Sissy been here?"
Emma jerked away from me. Dropping the coil of clay, she flattened it with her fist. "Squish," she said. "Squash. No more snake."
With a Sissy smirk on her face, she ran into the house. The screen door slammed shut behind her. A squirrel, frightened by the sound, scurried up a tree trunk and disappeared into the leaves. From somewhere in his green hiding place, he chitter-chattered his outrage.
Emma hadn't answered my question, but she didn't have to. The way she acted told me she'd managed to see Sissy without my knowing. But how? I was with her all the time—except when she took her nap and went to bed at night. I doubted Sissy was allowed out after dark, so she must be sneaking into Emma's room in the afternoon.
If that's what was going on, I'd soon put a stop to it. The sneaky little brat wasn't welcome here—and she knew it. Leaving my clay cat baking in the sun, I went inside to talk to Emma.
She was lying on the couch, her face bored and sulky—in a Sissy mood, for sure. "Has Sissy been sneaking in here while you're supposed to be taking a nap?"
"That's for me to know and you to find out." Emma's voice sounded just like Sissy's, mocking and spiteful.
I grabbed her shoulders and gave her a little shake. "I don't want her in this house. And neither does your mother!"
Emma pulled away from me. "Sissy's right. You're jealous because I like her better than I like you."
Disgusted with Emma, I stalked off to the kitchen and poured myself a glass of iced tea. Just as I sat down to drink it, Dulcie came in. She didn't say hello. She didn't smile. In fact, she didn't even look at me. She went straight to the coffeemaker and started a pot brewing.
While she waited, she turned to me. "Where's Emma?"
Annoyed by her tone of voice, I kept my eyes on the
I'd been reading. "She's sulking in the living room."
Dulcie sighed in exasperation. "What's going on between you two? Why can't you get along with each other?"
Like bad weather, I sensed blame coming my way again. "It's not my fault—"
"Oh, no, it's never your fault. It's Sissy's fault or Emma's fault. Maybe it's the weather's fault—it's too hot, too cold, too rainy. But it's not
fault. You aren't to blame for anything."
Hurt by her sarcasm, I started to cry. At the same moment, Dulcie reached into the cupboard for a coffee mug and dropped it. It shattered on the kitchen floor.
The noise brought Emma running. "What was that?" she asked from the doorway.
Dulcie was down on her knees gathering up bits of china. "I broke a cup. That's all."
"Why's Ali crying?"
Dulcie looked at me, her face stricken. Getting to her feet, she gave me a quick hug. "I'm so sorry, sweetie. I shouldn't have snapped at you like that." She looked past me at the lake, darkening now under a parade of clouds drifting across the sky.
"Everything's wrong," she muttered as she dumped the remains of the cup in the garbage. "You and Emma quarrel constantly, I can't sleep, I..." Finishing the sentence with a shrug, she reached for another cup and filled it with coffee.
I felt like saying she probably drank too much coffee, but I bit my tongue. She was already on edge, jumpy and jittery. It wouldn't take much to make her angry again.
"Your mother was right," she went on. "Coming here was a mistake. My paintings are terrible, too bad to show. I do the same thing over and over again—the lake, the fog.... They're hideous, but I can't paint anything else, just the dark water, the dark sky, and the—"
She broke off, sat down at the kitchen table, and covered her face with her hands. Emma patted her mother's shoulder, stroked her hair, and whispered, "Mommy, Mommy, don't cry. Everything will be okay."
Emma sounded like herself again, sweet, comforting, all traces of Sissy gone.
Keeping her face in her hands, Dulcie muttered, "I'm beginning to think we should close up the cottage and go home. Maybe I'll paint better in New York, in my own studio, away from all this water and wind and rain."
Emma drew back. "We can't leave," she cried, her voice suddenly shrill in the quiet kitchen. "We can't, we can't, we can't. Sissy—"
Dulcie seized Emma's shoulders. "Do you know how sick I am of hearing that child's name? Ever since you met her, there's been nothing but trouble between you and Ali. I don't want her coming here. I don't want you playing with her. Do you understand?"
Emma shrank away from Dulcie's angry face. I thought she'd cry, but her lip jutted out and she looked at her mother, defying her. "Sissy's my friend! I won't stop playing with her! You can't make me!"
Dulcie leapt to her feet and drew back her hand. I cringed, sure that she was going to slap Emma. Emma must have thought the same thing because she raised her arm to protect her face. "Don't hit me," she cried. "Don't hit me!"
Dulcie threw herself back down in the chair and began to sob. Emma looked at me, clearly frightened by her mother's behavior. Scared myself, I took Emma's hand. I was used to my mother behaving like this, but not Dulcie.
In a moment or two, Dulcie managed to control herself. Wiping her tears away with the back of her hand, she pulled Emma into her lap. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "Sometimes I don't know what gets into me."
With a sigh, she pushed her hair back from her face. "Why don't we get dinner started? Spaghetti, maybe. How would you two like that?"
In a voice so low that Dulcie didn't hear, Emma muttered, "I'm sick of spaghetti, and I'm sick of Ali, and I'm sick of Mommy."
I looked at her, but she turned away, hiding her face.
Making cheerful noises with pots and pans, Dulcie and I began fixing the meal. I boiled water and dropped in spaghetti. Dulcie whipped up tomato sauce, and Emma got out the bread and butter. My job was tossing spaghetti noodles at the wall. If they stuck, they were ready. Mom would never have let me do something like that.
At dinner, we sat together at the table, laughing and talking as if the earlier scenes had never happened. Emma ate most of her spaghetti. No one mentioned Sissy. Instead, we planned a hike and picnic in the state park, as well as another trip to Pemaquid Point.
But when darkness came, and I lay in bed alone, I found myself thinking about Dulcie. Before we came to Gull Cottage, I'd never seen her angry or upset, never imagined her crying over anything. She was my tough New York City aunt, my artist aunt, my sophisticated, worldly aunt, smart and talented, witty and quick and daring—everything I wanted to be someday.
But now ... well, I didn't know what to think. The longer we stayed here, the more she reminded me of Mom.
Gradually, I drifted into the Teresa dream: rough dark water, gray sky, fog. Three girls huddled in a canoe, quarreling, rocking the canoe. The fog thickened, hiding everything. A splash. A cry—I woke, terrified, clutching the old teddy bear.
Rain blew in the open window by my bed and struck my face. Shivering with cold, I leapt up and closed the window. In the sudden silence, I heard Emma shouting as if she, too, had awakened suddenly from a bad dream.
Wrapping a quilt around my shoulders, I ran to the top of the steps.
Emma stood in the hall below me. "Where's Mommy?"
"Isn't she in her room?"
"No." Emma began to cry. "I had a bad dream and I went to get her and she wasn't there."
I hurried down the stairs and checked Dulcie's room. Emma followed me, clinging to one hand. The empty bed was a mess of kicked-back sheets and blankets, and the window was wide open. I slammed it shut and went to the front door.
"She must be in the studio," I told Emma. "You stay here, and I'll go look."
I tried to pull my hand free, but Emma held tight. "Take me with you."
"But it's dark and rainy. The steps are slippery. You might fall."
"Don't leave me here," she begged. "The bones will get me."
I tried to calm her down, but she was crying too loudly to listen.
"Okay, okay," I said. "You can come, but be careful on the steps."
Still sobbing, Emma let me help her into her slicker. After I pulled mine on, I grabbed a flashlight and led her out into the rain and dark. Above the wind, I heard waves smashing against the shore. Thunder cracked and lightning flashed.
Emma pressed her face into my side. "I hate thunder," she whimpered.
By now, we were at the top of the stairs. Slowly and cautiously, we inched downward, feeling our way from step to step like blind people.
Lights shone from the boathouse windows. Without knocking, I opened the door, and Emma and I stumbled over the threshold.
Dulcie spun around and stared at us, her eyes momentarily wide with fright. "What are you doing here?" she cried. "You scared me bursting in like that!"
"I had a bad dream." Emma began crying harder. "I couldn't find you, you weren't in your bed—you weren't anywhere."
While Dulcie comforted Emma, I studied her paintings. What she'd said about them was true. They leaned against the walls, tall, narrow canvases, maybe three feet by seven feet, stark and ugly. She'd covered all of them with streaks of blue and gray washed on in thin layers. Then she'd added clumsy daubs of black and splashes of reds and dark blues and purples.
What really scared me, though, was the pale blob at the bottom of each painting. A stone, a shell, a skull—too blurry to be sure what it was.
I certainly wouldn't have wanted one of those paintings in my house. Not if I wanted to feel good or sleep well. They looked as if they'd been vandalized again—only this time Dulcie had done the damage herself.
My aunt caught me looking at the paintings. "I couldn't sleep," she said in a flat voice. "The storm kept me awake. I thought I might get some work done, but..." She shrugged. "Just being here depresses me."
"They scare me." Emma hid her face against her mother's side. "Don't let me see them."
Dulcie freed herself from Emma and turned the paintings so they faced the wall. "Let's go to bed," she said in a low, toneless voice.