Authors: Mary Downing Hahn
"Me?" My face flushed. "I'd love to baby-sit Emma at the lake! I've wanted to see it for ages. I found a—"
"Ali," Mom interrupted. "I
you what it's like there. Rain and mosquitoes and cold, gloomy days. Nothing to do. Nowhere to go. You'll hate it."
"Don't believe a word of it," Dulcie told me. "Sure, it's cold and rainy sometimes. It's Maine—what do you expect? But there's plenty of sunshine. The mosquitoes aren't worse than anyplace else. The lake's—"
"The lake's deep ... and dark ... and dangerous," Mom cut in, choosing her words slowly and deliberately. "People drown there every summer."
Dulcie frowned at Mom. "Do you have to be so negative about
To keep Mom from starting a scene, I jumped into the conversation.
"I've taken swimming lessons since I was six years old. I know all about water safety. I'd never do anything stupid."
"Please, Aunt Claire, please, please, please!" Emma begged. "I want Ali to be my babysitter." She hopped back and forth from one foot to the other, staring hopefully at Mom.
I begged silently,
My best friend, Staci, was going away, and a boring summer stretched ahead. I loved Emma, and I loved my aunt. A few months at the lake would be perfect.
Ignoring my pleading look, Mom shook her head. "I can't possibly make a decision until Pete comes home from work. Ali's his daughter, too. We have to agree on what's best for her."
Dulcie dropped onto the sofa beside Mom. "Sorry. I'm used to making my own decisions about Emma." Tossing her hair to the side, she grinned at me. "It's one of the many advantages of being divorced."
"I didn't mean—" Mom said.
"How about some coffee?" Dulcie asked, quickly diverting Mom. "And some fruit juice for Emma?"
"Of course." Mom got up and headed for the kitchen with Dulcie behind her. I trailed after them, but at the doorway, my aunt turned and smiled at me. "Why don't you read to Emma, sweetie? She put some of her favorite books in my bag."
Things they don't want me to know about.
I was tempted to follow them into the kitchen anyway, but it occurred to me that Dulcie might have better luck talking to Mom without my being there listening to every word.
Emma rummaged through her mother's big straw bag and pulled out
The Lonely Doll,
a book I'd enjoyed when I was little.
"I like when Edith meets the bears, and she isn't lonely anymore." Emma climbed into my lap and rested her head against my shoulder.
"I like that part, too."
Emma opened the book to a photo of Edith looking sad and lonely. "Someday I'll have a friend," she said. "And then I won't be lonely anymore."
"Silly," I said. "You must have friends. Everyone has friends."
She shook her head. "Not in New York. Everybody I know there is grown up. And grownups can't be your friends."
"Can I be your friend? Or am I too old?"
Emma gave me a solemn, considering look. "It would be better if you were five or six or even seven," she said, "but I guess you can be sort of a friend."
"Thank you, Princess Emma." I gave her a little tickle in the side. "I'm greatly honored by your majesty's decision."
She giggled. "Will you read now?"
When we were about halfway through the story, we were distracted by rising voices in the kitchen.
"We're adults now," Mom was saying. "I don't have to do everything you say. Ali's my daughter. I'll raise her the way I see fit!"
"It must be nice to own a child," Dulcie replied.
"'Own a child'? What's that supposed to mean?"
"You're so overprotective, you might as well keep her on a leash. Sit, Ali. Heel, Ali. Roll over, Ali."
"How can you say that?" Mom's voice rose. "I love Ali and I want her to be safe. She's not going to spend the summer running wild, swimming, going out in boats—"
"Don't hold on so tight," Dulcie interrupted. "Ali's growing up. She has to start making her own decisions. It might be good for her to get away from you. She—"
"You always took everything away from me when I was little!" Mom shouted. "And now you want my own daughter! Can't I have anything?" She started sobbing.
"Oh, that's right," Dulcie said. "Cry when you can't think of anything else to do." There was an edge of cruelty in her voice I'd never heard before. "Grow up, Claire. You're not a little kid anymore."
Emma put her arms around my neck and pressed her face against my chest. "Make them stop, Ali."
The voices in the kitchen dropped so low that I couldn't hear what Mom or Dulcie was saying.
"I think they stopped all by themselves, Emma." I patted her back, but my mind was racing. Dulcie was right. Mom
over-protect me; even Staci thought so. She never let me do
—not even spend a night at Staci's house or go the mall with my friends. I really did need to get away from her for a while.
But at the same time I was agreeing with Dulcie, I was feeling bad because she'd upset Mom. I was confused, as well. Why did Mom think Dulcie wanted to take me away from her? What else had she taken? It was enough to give
Emma nudged me. "Read, Ali. I want to hear the part where Little Bear and Edith play dress-up, and Edith writes, 'Mr. Bear is just a silly old thing!' on the mirror with lipstick and Mr. Bear gets cross." She giggled. "And then Edith calls him a silly and he spanks her and she's scared Mr. Bear will take Little Bear and go away and she'll be lonely again."
"You sure know this story well."
"Edith is lonely like me, and she has blond hair like me, and she lives in an apartment in New York like me. And she wishes so hard for a friend that Mr. Bear and Little Bear come to her house just to be her friends. And that's what I wish for, too. A friend. Somebody who likes me best of all."
I started reading again, and Emma pressed against me, mouthing the words silently as if she knew the story by heart.
While I read, I kept one ear tuned to the kitchen, but I couldn't hear what Mom and Dulcie were saying. If Emma hadn't been sitting on my lap, I would have tiptoed to the door and listened.
At the end of the story, Mr. Bear promised Edith he'd stay with her forever.
"'Forever and ever!'" Emma shouted along with Little Bear.
We said the book's last three words together: "And they did!'"
"When I was little, I wanted a doll just like Edith," I told Emma.
"I want one, too," Emma said, "but Mommy says they're very, very expensive."
I sighed, thinking about things that cost too much to own—a horse, a mountain bike like Staci's, a swimming pool in the backyard, even a doll....
The front door opened, and Dad stopped at the threshold to grin at Emma, who ran to him.
"What a nice surprise!" Dropping his briefcase, he scooped Emma up and gave her a hug. "Look at you—just as beautiful as your mommy!"
Emma laughed and kissed Dad's nose.
The kitchen door swung open. Mom and Dulcie seemed to have made up after their quarrel, but Mom still looked tense, worried, uneasy.
"It's good to see you, stranger." Dad put Emma down and gave Dulcie a hug and a kiss. It was a long hug, I thought. I glanced at Mom. She was watching the two of them, but I couldn't read her expression—except that I could tell she wasn't happy.
"What brings you here?" Dad asked Dulcie.
"I'm in a group show at a D.C. gallery next fall," Dulcie said. "Emma and I took the train down so I could talk to the owner. Since we were so close, I called Claire, and she picked us up at the station. We're going back to New York tomorrow morning."
Emma grabbed Dad's hand. "Mommy wants Ali to baby-sit me at the lake, but Aunt Claire says she can't."
Dad turned to Dulcie and raised his eyebrows. "Sycamore Lake?"
"I drove to the cottage a couple of weeks ago," Dulcie said. "Considering how long it's been empty, it's in pretty good shape. A couple of broken windows, a few leaks in the roof, and a dozen or more mice nesting in the cupboards."
Dulcie glanced at Mom. "A trap will take care of the mice, and I've hired a contractor to fix everything else. By the time he's done, Gull Cottage will have electricity, indoor plumbing, fresh paint inside and out, a new roof—and the old boathouse will be my studio."
"In other words, it'll be better than new." Dad turned to Mom. "So why can't Ali baby-sit Emma?"
"You know I hate the lake." Mom's voice rose a few notches, tense, anxious. "Ali could drown, she could get Lyme disease from a deer tick, she could get bitten by a snake, she—"
"Oh, for heaven's sake." Ignoring Mom's whimper of protest, Dad looked at me. "How do you feel about the idea, Ali?"
"I want to go," I said. "Staci will be away all summer. I'm sick of the swimming pool and the softball team."
And of Mom watching me all the time,
I wanted to add,
keeping me on a leash, owning me.
Instead, I said, "The lake would be fun—an adventure, something different."
please?" Emma begged. "I'll be so lonely without Ali."
"Let her go, Claire," Dad said. "She loves Dulcie and Emma. And they love her."
"I'll take good care of Ali," Dulcie put in. "I won't let her or Emma run wild. I promise."
"You'll get absorbed in your painting and forget all about them," Mom muttered.
Dulcie exhaled sharply, clearly exasperated. "I've had sole responsibility for Emma since she was a baby. Does she look neglected?"
The argument went on during dinner, which made it hard to enjoy the pasta topped with Dulcie's special marinara sauce, concocted from her ex-husband's Italian grandmother's recipe.
"It's the only good thing I ever got from that man," Dulcie said. "Besides Emma, of course."
Dad laughed and Mom allowed herself to smile, and then they returned to the argument. Round and round they went, saying the same things over and over again. Mom refused to give in: I was too young to leave home for a whole summer, too young to be responsible for Emma.
At the end of the meal, Dad laid his fork and knife on his plate and said, "I've heard enough. Ali's a sensible, responsible girl. There's absolutely no reason why she shouldn't spend the summer at the lake."
Mom put her coffee cup down and stared at him, obviously shocked. "Pete, please—"
Whatever she was about to say was drowned out by Emma's shout of joy. "Hooray! Hooray!" She jumped up from the table and ran to hug Dad. "Thank you, Uncle Pete, thank you!"
I looked at Mom uneasily, taking in the defeated slump of her shoulders. "Say it's okay," I begged. "Say I can go and you won't be mad."
Or hurt. Or betrayed. Or worried.
She wiped her mouth carefully with her napkin. "If it means so much to you, go." Without looking at anyone, she rose from the table and began gathering the dinner plates. The set of her jaw and her jerky movements clearly showed her anger.
"Give me a break, Claire. Don't get in one of your moods." Dulcie picked up a few glasses and followed Mom into the kitchen.
Carrying the serving bowls, I trailed after them, with Emma close behind clasping a fistful of spoons and forks. She handed them to Mom, then ran off to the living room.
Without speaking to anyone, Mom began loading the dishwasher.
"It's the silent treatment," Dulcie whispered to me. "She inherited it from our mother—and perfected it."
I turned away, unwilling to criticize Mom. Dulcie was right, of course—silence and tears were Mom's weapons. But it made me uncomfortable to agree with my aunt. After all, I had no reason to complain. I'd won. I was going to Sycamore Lake.
Leaving Mom to clean up, I followed Dulcie into the living room. Dad was reading
The Lonely Doll
to Emma in a sweet bumbling bear voice.
I perched on the arm of Dulcie's chair. "Can I ask you something?"
"Sure, sweetie." Dulcie pushed her hair back from her face. Her long dangly silver earrings swayed and her bracelets jingled. She smiled, waiting for me to speak.
"Well, a couple of months ago I found an old Nancy Drew book in a box in the attic. While I was leafing through it, a photograph fell out. It was of you and Mom at Sycamore Lake—I could see the water behind you."
Dulcie smiled. "Your grandfather loved taking pictures. Every time you turned around, there he was, pointing a camera at you. They were usually awful. We thought he had a special ugly lens he used for our pictures."
"There was another girl with you," I said, "but all that shows is her shoulder and arm. The rest is torn off."
"Another girl?" Dulcie shook her head, and her soft hair brushed my cheek. "We didn't have any friends at the lake. Gull Cottage sits out on a point, all by itself. There were no other kids around—just your mother and me."
"Grandmother wrote your name and Mom's name on the back," I went on, trying to make her remember. "She wrote the girl's name, too, but only the first letter is still there—'T.'"
"'T'?" An odd look crossed Dulcie's face. "Did you ask your mother about the girl?"
"I told her I didn't remember." Mom stood in the doorway, her hands clasped, staring solemnly at her sister.
"I don't remember, either," Dulcie said quickly.
"What did you do with the picture, Mom? Maybe if Dulcie saw it—"
"I threw it away," she said. "It was old, torn, faded." Without another word, she picked up a gardening book and began to read, her way of saying she was still in a bad mood.
Before I could ask another question, Dulcie scooped up Emma. "Time for bed."
"But Uncle Pete is still reading about Edith and the bears," she said.
"You know that story by heart, sweetheart." Ignoring Emma's further protests, Dulcie carted her off to the guest room.
Dad turned on the TV to watch one of his favorite crime shows. It looked as if no more would be said about "T" that night.
After Dulcie and Emma went back to New York, Mom nursed her bad mood for weeks. She refused to take me shopping for summer clothes, so I tagged along with Staci and her mother. She wouldn't talk about the lake or give me any baby-sitting tips. She spent almost all her time working in the garden, down on her hands and knees, weeding till her knuckles bled, watering and fertilizing, rearranging plants, adding new ones.
Just to avoid me,