Authors: Mary Downing Hahn
Silently, Emma and I followed Dulcie out into the storm. As we climbed the stairs to the cottage, I glanced over my shoulder. For a second, I thought I saw someone on the dock watching us. I blinked the rain from my eyes and looked again. No one was there. Waves pounded the shore, and the wind blew in gusts.
"Come on, Ali," Dulcie called from above. "You'll catch your death in this rain."
Catch your death.
I'd never thought about it before, but suddenly the expression made no sense.
Catch your death, Catch your death,
I repeated, as I climbed the steps to the cottage. Wasn't it the other way around? Didn't death catch you?
Shivering with cold and fear, I was tempted to ask Dulcie if I could sleep with her instead of going upstairs to my lonely room. But I was thirteen—surely too old to be scared of the dark. So I went to bed alone and read
To Kill a Mockingbird
until the sky began to lighten behind the clouds.
The next day, the sun shone, but Dulcie's mood didn't lighten. She frittered the morning away drinking coffee and puttering around the cottage. In the afternoon, she took a long walk alone, despite Emma's plea to go with her.
"Sorry," she said. "I need time to myself."
Emma and I watched her stride away up the cliff path. When she was out of sight, Emma said, "I hope Sissy comes over today."
"You heard your mother. She doesn't want you to play with Sissy." I sighed. "Besides, we have more fun together when she's not here."
Emma pulled a rose off a bush by the door and twirled it in her fingers, wincing when a thorn pricked her. "You don't know
She pulled the rose apart and scattered its pink petals on the grass, where they lay like confetti. Then without another word, she ran inside, letting the screen door slam in my face. I yanked it open, and she retreated to the doorway of her room. "You better not hit me," she shouted. "I'll tell Mommy!"
"Why would I hit you?" I stared at her, perplexed.
"Because you're hateful!"
"Emma—" I began, but she closed her door.
"Don't come in here!" she cried from inside. "Go away!"
I retreated to the kitchen, a total failure as a babysitter. I couldn't do anything right. Not for Emma. And not for Dulcie, either. My aunt was in a perpetual bad mood. Irritable, jumpy, tense—all because her paintings weren't going well. As if that was
While I stood at the window, brooding on my miserable vacation, it started raining. Another cold, gray day in Maine. Summer-school algebra would have been more fun than Sycamore Lake.
I looked at the phone hanging on the kitchen wall. Maybe I should call Mom. She'd said I could come home if I was unhappy. I lifted the receiver and pushed 1 for long distance. Just as I was about to dial the area code, I caught sight of Emma crossing the lawn. What was she doing outside in the rain? I hung up quickly and ran to the back door just as she disappeared into the trees.
Instead of calling her to come back, I grabbed my slicker and followed her, sure she planned to meet Sissy. Ducking behind trees, I kept her bright pink jacket in sight.
She stopped in a gloomy grove of pine trees not far from me. Sissy was perched on a boulder, waiting for her. In the dim light, I could see that Sissy was holding something.
"You brought her!" Emma held out her hands, but Sissy thrust whatever she carried behind her back.
"You said I could play with her today," Emma protested.
"I didn't promise," Sissy said. "I said maybe you could. Just
"Please, Sissy." Emma sounded close to tears.
Sissy wrinkled her forehead as if she were thinking hard. "If I let you play with her, will you promise to do everything I say?"
"Yes," Emma said.
"Cross your heart and hope to die?" Sissy asked.
Solemnly, Emma crossed her heart with one finger.
Sissy smiled and brought a doll from behind her back. Its hair was a dull greenish gray, brittle and caked with mud. Its face was discolored, and its ragged clothes were stained. I'd never seen a more hideous thing, but I recognized it.
And so did Emma. "Edith," she crooned, "Edith." She cradled the Lonely Doll in her arms. "Can I really keep her?"
"Just for a little while." Sissy came close and whispered in Emma's ear. Emma nodded, nodded again, and kept on nodding, agreeing to everything Sissy said.
Unable to stand it anymore, I jumped out from my hiding place and startled them both. "Give that ugly doll back to her, and don't do anything she tells you to!" I yelled at Emma.
"Who's your boss, Em?" Sissy asked. "Her or me?"
"You," Emma said. "You're the boss. I do what
say, Sissy, not what Ali says. Not what Mommy says."
I reached for the doll, intending to throw it at Sissy, but Emma was too fast for me. Holding it tightly, she ran to Sissy's side. "Go away, Ali. Sissy and me don't want to play with you."
"I don't want to play with
" I yelled as if I were eight instead of thirteen.
"Ali, are you shouting at Emma?"
I whirled around and saw Dulcie standing a few yards away on the cliff top. Sissy disappeared so fast you'd think the woods had gobbled her up. Emma ran to her mother.
"Ali was mean to me," Emma wailed. "Don't let her stay here. Send her home."
"What now?" Anger edged Dulcie's voice. "Here I am, just getting my head together, and here you are, out in the rain, soaking wet, and quarreling again. Can't you two ever get along? What's wrong with you, anyway?" The rain had curled her hair so tightly, it bushed around her face, making her look like a madwoman—scary, raging with anger, her wet clothes sticking to her skinny body.
Emma held up the doll. "Ali's jealous because Sissy gave me Edith."
Dulcie stared at the doll as if it had come from some dark, secret place. "Where did you get that?" she whispered. "God in heaven, Emma, tell me!"
Emma drew back from her mother, even more scared by her tone of voice than I was. "She belongs to Sissy. She said—"
Dulcie grabbed the doll's arm and pulled so hard she yanked it off. Losing her balance, she staggered backward. For a moment, I froze, sure she was going to fall off the cliff. Instead, she spun around and hurled the doll's arm into the water far below. With her back to us, she stared down at the lake.
"You broke Sissy's doll," Emma screamed. "She'll be mad!"
Dulcie turned to face Emma. "I told you not to play with that girl!"
"And I told you Sissy's my friend and I'll play with her if I want to!" Emma's face flushed with anger.
"You'll do what I tell you!" With one quick move, Dulcie grabbed Edith. Pivoting, she threw the doll off the cliff. "Filthy, horrible thing!"
"I hate you!" Emma screamed.
"That's enough!" Dulcie picked up Emma and headed for the cottage. I ran along behind them, barely able to keep up with Dulcie's long-legged stride.
Ahead of me, Emma yelled and protested and struggled to escape. Dulcie said nothing. Nor did she look back to see where I was.
Letting them get even farther ahead, I stopped and tried to pull myself together. I was shaking, not just from the rain and the wind but from the scene I'd just witnessed. Why had the doll upset Dulcie so much? She'd acted like a crazy woman, throwing the doll off the cliff as though it were a threat, something evil, dangerous. The scene replayed itself in my mind, over and over—Dulcie grabbing the doll from Emma, screaming, her hair flying around her face, hurling it into space. Strange as it seemed, my aunt had clearly been terrified of that filthy, water-stained doll.
At that moment, standing alone in the rain and the wind, I wanted my mother more than I'd ever wanted anyone in my life. I also wanted my father, my house, my room, my friends. Emma's behavior scared me—and so did Dulcie's.
Soaked and shivering, I ran to the cottage. Emma's bedroom door was closed, but I could hear Dulcie saying, "That doll wasn't fit to touch, let alone play with."
"It was Sissy's," Emma wailed. "You threw Sissy's doll away!"
With a sigh, I trudged up to my room. Rain drummed on the roof, and thunder still rumbled in the distance. I thought again about calling Mom and asking to come home. All that stopped me was the thought that she'd say,
I told you you'd hate the lake.
I stayed in my room for at least an hour, hoping Dulcie might come up to see if I was all right. Downstairs, all was silent. Not a sob, not a voice. The only sound was the mournful murmur of the wind in the pines outside.
I tried to read, but my room was cold. Shadows gathered in the corners. I began thinking someone was hiding in the dark place by the closet, breathing slowly in and out, in and out. Every time I looked, I was sure I'd just missed seeing who it was.
Unable to stand it anymore, I ran downstairs. Dulcie huddled under a blanket on the couch, reading an art magazine. When she saw me, she put her finger to her mouth and beckoned me to follow her to the kitchen.
The moment the door closed behind me, Dulcie said, "Why did you let Emma go out in the rain? Don't you have any sense?"
her go anywhere," I said. "She went to her room, and the next thing I knew she was running across the field toward the woods. She must have climbed out her window or something. Sissy was waiting—"
"Leave Sissy out of this," Dulcie broke in. "Emma is
Without answering, I turned my back to hide the tears in my eyes. It wasn't fair to blame me. I was trying hard to take care of my cousin—no easy task with Sissy around. Why couldn't Dulcie see that?
For a few minutes, the only sound was the endless rain and the ticking clock. The kitchen was shadowy, the yellow paint dull and cheerless. At that moment, I hated Gull Cottage and the lake and the bad weather. It was all I could do not to call my mother to come and get me.
Suddenly, my aunt broke the silence. "I'm sorry, Ali. I don't know what's wrong with me. I'm just not myself. I can't do anything right anymore. I can't sleep, can't paint, can't be a good mother—or a good aunt, either."
She sounded close to tears herself, and when I looked at her, I saw my mother in my aunt's face. "It's okay," I mumbled, even though it wasn't. Saying something mean and then claiming you're not yourself doesn't take the hurt away.
"I don't understand why that doll upset me so much," Dulcie said slowly. "I used to buy ugly, dirty old dolls at flea markets and make them into sculptures. Remember? I had dozens of them. Fifty or more."
I'd forgotten those dolls until now. Dulcie had taken them apart and put them back together, creating monsters like Frankenstein—a leg from one, a head from another, mismatched arms. Some were bald, others eyeless. She often replaced their bodies with boxes filled with strange objects—hard little tinfoil hearts, pebbles, shells, beads, tiny scissors from charm bracelets, sheets of paper with cryptic words written on them, bits of broken china, pennies, knives, nails. Many of them had holes in their heads with springs, feathers, twigs, or dead flowers poking out of them. The scariest had no heads at all. As a finishing touch, she often spray-painted them with a thin coat of green paint, giving them the appearance of things exhumed from graves or the depths of the sea.
"I didn't like them," I admitted. "They scared me."
"They weren't pretty," Dulcie said with a small smile. "But, believe it or not, they sold pretty well."
The smile faded. Dulcie twisted a strand of hair around her finger and pulled it tight. "After Emma was born, I stopped making them," she said. "I painted and drew more, sculpted less. I thought I'd outgrown my dark stage. But now..." She shrugged her thin shoulders. "You've seen what I'm doing. Dark. Very dark."
"The people who bought your dolls might like those paintings," I said a little doubtfully.
"Maybe." Dulcie sounded unconvinced. With a sigh, she got up and went to the door. "I'd better check on Emma. Why don't you open a can of soup for supper? Chicken with rice, maybe. We could use something warm and comforting."
She got to her feet, and I watched her walk away. The spring in her step was gone, and her shoulders drooped. She looked more like Mom than ever.
While I fixed the soup, I watched the rain fall, veiling the lake, blurring the line between water and sky. Images ran through my head—the cottage, the lake, the canoe, Teresa, the doll, my dream. And Sissy—frowning, angry, full of hatred. They were all connected, I was sure of it.
The next morning, Emma woke up complaining of a headache. Her face was flushed, and she was coughing. Dulcie touched Emma's forehead and hurried to the bathroom for the thermometer.
Emma's temperature was high enough for Dulcie to call a doctor. "She'll see us at eleven," Dulcie told me. "Do you want to come along?"
I peered out at the rain, still pouring down. The cottage was cozy and dry, and I had no desire to go anywhere. I held up
To Kill a Mockingbird.
"I absolutely have to finish this before school starts."
After Dulcie and Emma left, I made myself comfortable on the sofa and opened my book. I was relieved to see I'd finished at least two thirds of it.
I hadn't read more than a dozen pages when I heard a knock at the door. I looked up and saw it was Sissy. Before I had a chance to tell her to go away, she walked into the house as if she owned it.
I closed my book with an angry snap. "Who invited you in?"
"Me, myself, and I."
"Well, me, myself, and I
you." I hoped to sound even more sarcastic than she did.
Perching on the old wicker armchair across from me, Sissy made it clear she wasn't leaving. "Look what I found floating in the lake." She pulled Edith from under her wet sweatshirt and thrust her at me.
I drew back with distaste. "Get that thing away from me."
Sissy's lips curled up in a foxy grin. "I saw Dulcie yank Edith's arm off and throw her off the cliff. Why do you think she got so riled up?"
"Dulcie didn't want Emma playing with a dirty, disgusting doll." I kept my face as blank as I could so Sissy wouldn't know I'd wondered the same thing.