Authors: Mary Downing Hahn
Even Dad found it hard to be patient with her, especially after she changed her mind about driving me to the lake.
"If Dulcie wants Ali to baby-sit, she can pick her up and drive her to Maine herself," she told him.
He stared at her. "But, Claire, what about our plans to spend a few days on the coast?"
"I can't leave the flowers. They'll dry up. The weeds will take over." Mom folded her arms tightly across her chest, her face taut with anxiety.
Dad's frown deepened. "You realize that coming all the way down here to get Ali will add hours to Dulcie's trip."
Mom shrugged. "It was Dulcie's idea to take Ali to the lake. Let her figure it out. She can always find another babysitter."
Close to tears, I glared at Mom. "You're still trying to keep me from going, aren't you? Why don't you just put me on a leash and tie me to a tree in the backyard?"
My outburst surprised Dad, but Mom nodded her head angrily. "You should've been Dulcie's daughter—you're more like her every day."
"Good. Maybe I won't grow up scared of everything, afraid to have fun, ruining everybody else's fun."
Too upset to reply, Mom ended the conversation by leaving the room.
Dad grabbed my shoulders and gave me a little shake, more to get my attention than anything else. "Don't talk to your mother like that. Can't you see you're hurting her?"
I wanted to say Mom was hurting
but Dad had already followed her out of the room.
She's not having a nervous breakdown,
I shouted silently.
She's just crying because she can't think of anything else to do.
I sighed and grabbed an apple from the bowl on the counter. Living in this house was good practice for crossing a minefield. If you weren't careful, you could set off explosions with every step you took.
While I ate my apple, I stared out the kitchen window at the neighbor's dog, tied to his tree. He lay in the dirt, his nose on his paws—totally bored, I was sure, but safe.
The day I left, Mom refused to get out of bed, claiming she had a migraine, the worst she'd had in over a year. Dad pulled the blinds to darken the room and sat with her for a while, reading a book as she dozed, another way to avoid talking.
When Dulcie arrived, Mom didn't feel well enough to see her, so we said our goodbyes in her bedroom. "You don't have to stay at the lake if you're unhappy or homesick," she whispered. "If anything scares you or worries you, call us. Your father will come get you."
"Don't worry. Everything will be fine," I assured her.
Mom squeezed my hand. "I know you think I'm too protective," she said, "but I want to keep you safe. You're so young. You don't know the terrible things that can happen, how quickly one's life can change."
"What do you mean?"
She closed her eyes. "My head hurts. I can't talk anymore."
I leaned over and kissed her gently. "I'll be careful in the water," I promised, "and I'll take good care of Emma. Please don't worry. I love you and I'll miss you."
Keeping her eyes closed, Mom said, "I love you, too."
On the way downstairs, I asked Dad if the migraine was my fault.
"Of course not," he said. "It's tension, anxiety..."
my fault. I caused the tension and anxiety, didn't I?
I pushed the guilty thought away. Mom often had migraines. I couldn't be blamed for all of them.
Maybe this one, though.
Moments later, Emma was hugging me, squealing with delight, and Dulcie was assuring Dad she'd drive carefully and keep a close eye on me all summer.
Dad wedged my suitcase and bag of books into the van. I belted myself in the front seat, and Dulcie secured Emma in the back seat.
As I waved goodbye to Dad, I thought I saw a hand raise the blind in my parents' bedroom. Mom must have felt well enough to watch her sister take me away for the summer.
The ride to Maine seemed to last forever—one boring interstate after another, dodging trucks, passing cars and motorcycles, stopping a couple of times at fast-food places for hamburgers and fries. Not what she usually ate, Dulcie assured me, but the quickest way to fill our stomachs.
Late in the afternoon, we left the last interstate and followed a network of roads, each narrower and more winding than the one before.
Emma leaned over the seat. "Are we almost there?"
Dulcie nodded. "See that tree? The one with the long limb like a trunk sticking out over the road? Claire and I called it the elephant tree. We'll be at the cottage soon."
A few minutes later, Dulcie slowed down and pointed out a little white store by the side of the road. Its windows were boarded up and a weather-beaten sign over the door said, olson's. Weeds grew in the parking lot, and a row of seagulls perched on the roof.
"Claire and I used to ride our bikes all this way for home-made ice cream—the best chocolate I ever tasted." Dulcie sighed. "Too bad it's closed."
Soon after, she said, "It's the next left, just past that patch in the asphalt that looks like a bear. See? There's the sign for Gull Cottage." She pointed at a neatly lettered arrow-shaped board nailed to a tree. Below it was a mailbox, its door down, empty.
Dulcie turned onto a one-lane dirt road and we headed into the woods. The setting sun shot golden beams through the trees, but the light was dim and greenish, almost as if we were underwater.
We rounded a curve, and there it was, a small cottage sheltered by tall trees. The clapboards had a fresh coat of blue paint, and the steep roof was newly shingled. The lake itself was down a flight of wooden steps. I could see a dock and a small building beside it. Beyond a curve of sandy beach was the water, dark in the early evening light, stretching out to the horizon.
"It looks almost exactly the same," Dulcie said. "Joe did a great job."
With Emma close behind, I followed Dulcie across a deck and through the back door. I don't know exactly what I'd expected—cobwebs and dust, stale air, maybe a gloomy, spooky atmosphere—but the cottage was bright and airy. Blue checked curtains hung at the kitchen windows, and the cabinets had been painted a sunny yellow, the walls pale blue, the table and chairs bright blue. The stove and refrigerator were a brand-new dazzling white.
"The old ones were antiques," Dulcie said. "Plus they didn't work."
She led us into the living room, which was furnished with a pair of soft armchairs and a matching sofa sagging beneath faded flowered slipcovers. A big stone fireplace took up one whole wall, and windows with a view of the lake took up another wall. Shelves full of books and board games covered the third wall from floor to ceiling.
"The cottage was filthy when I saw it in April," Dulcie said. "Joe hired a cleaning crew to scrub and vacuum. They got rid of spiders, squirrels, mice, and a family of raccoons living under the deck."
"But they didn't hurt them, did they?" Emma asked, her voice full of concern.
"Of course not, sweetie. They caught the mice and squirrels and raccoons in Havahart traps and let them go in a nice part of the woods, and they picked up the spiders very gently in tissue and carried them outside."
"That's good." Emma looked pleased. "If they come back, they can sleep in my room. I won't mind."
Dropping her suitcases at the foot of a narrow flight of steps, Dulcie pointed down the hall. "Two bedrooms—one for Emma and one for me. Plus a brand-new bathroom."
My room was upstairs, tucked snugly under the eaves. A faded patchwork quilt in shades of blue, yellow, and green calico covered the double bed. Its iron frame had been painted white to match an old dresser and a table and chair as well as built-in shelves, already holding books and toys. Fresh muslin curtains hung at the windows, and a rag rug covered most of the floor.
"This was your mom's and my room when we were kids," Dulcie said. "Same wallpaper, same furniture."
She picked up a conch shell lying on the bureau and turned it slowly, studying its shape and colors before putting it back. "Our mother left everything here. I guess she thought we'd come back one summer, but we never did."
Her voice had dropped so low, I barely understood what she'd said.
"Why didn't you come back?" I asked. "Did something happen?"
Dulcie stared at me. "Of course nothing happened. Whatever gave you that idea?"
"Mom, I guess. The way she talks about the lake, like it's a scary place." Suddenly embarrassed, I picked up the shell Dulcie had been looking at. "This is really pretty."
"Let me see." Emma reached for the shell, and I handed it to her. She held it as carefully as if it were made of glass and pressed it to her ear. "I hear the ocean," she whispered.
Dulcie looked at me over Emma's head. "Everything scares Claire," she said. "Deep water. High places, low places. Inside, outside. Upside, downside."
Even though I'd often thought the same thing, Dulcie's tone of voice stung. Mom was lying in bed at home, sick, in pain, while I'd traveled all this way without her. "She can't help it. She worries, that's all."
Dulcie shrugged. "To answer your question, I guess we didn't come back because we got tired of coming here. For kids, there's not a whole lot to do. We spent our summers traveling instead—Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Niagara Falls, the Canadian Rockies." She laughed. "Dad did a lot of driving in those years."
Emma picked up one of a pair of teddy bears sitting in a small rocking chair. "He looks just like Mr. Bear," she said.
"He belonged to Claire," Dulcie said. "And that's just what she called him. Mr. Bear."
"That's the bear's name in
The Lonely Doll.
Mr. Bear and Little Bear, the friends Edith wishes so hard for." Emma hugged the bear. "If I wish hard enough, will a friend come?"
Dulcie leaned down to kiss Emma's cheek. "Just wait till you start kindergarten in the fall. You'll have so many friends, you won't have to wish." She smoothed her daughter's silky hair back from her face, tucking it behind her ears.
"Does Mr. Bear belong to you now?" Emma asked me.
"You can have him," I told her. "I think he likes you best of all."
Emma grinned and hugged the bear. "And you can have the other one."
"He was mine." Dulcie picked up the bear, a sad companion to Mom's. His fur was almost worn off, stuffing leaked from one paw, and he was missing an eye.
"Poor old thing," Dulcie said. "Claire took good care of her toys, but I was rough on everything—toys, clothes, books. Even people."
She sighed and gave the bear a hug. "His name is Rufus M., after the little boy in the Moffat Family books." Dropping the bear on the foot of the bed, she stretched. "I guess it's time to start dinner."
When Dulcie was gone, Emma sat on the bed and watched me put my things into the bureau drawers. "Is Aunt Claire mad at Mommy?" she asked. "Is that why she didn't come down to see us before we left?"
I shook my head. "My mom gets awful headaches," I told Emma. "They're called migraines. When she has a really bad one, she stays in bed and doesn't talk to anyone."
"Poor Aunt Claire." Emma stroked Mr. Bear's fur. "I'll make her a get-well card tomorrow. It'll be from me and Mr. Bear. Would she like that?"
I grinned. "She'd
a card, especially from you."
Emma looked at me thoughtfully. "Aunt Claire doesn't like the lake, does she? She almost didn't let you come with me and Mommy."
I opened the casement window and leaned out to look at the water. The evening star hung low in the sky, kept company by a half-moon, but it was still light enough to make out the horizon, a dark line against the fading pink of the sunset.
"My mom's scared of water," I said. "I've never seen her go swimming. Not once. Even when she took me to the pool for lessons, she sat on the grass and watched me. All the other mothers were in the water with their kids. But not my mother."
Beside me, Emma shuddered. "Maybe she thinks she'll drown. She doesn't want her bones to come out."
I looked at her. "What are you talking about?"
"Bones are inside us, you and me and Mommy and everybody. When we die they come out, and then we're ghosts."
"Where did you get that idea?"
"I saw pictures in Mommy's drawing books. She said they're skeletons. We all have them inside—until we die, and then..." Emma hugged Mr. Bear. "He doesn't have bones, just stuffing. And he's not alive, so he can't die. Or be a ghost."
"There's no such thing as ghosts."
Emma turned her hands this way and that, as if observing the movement of the bones under her skin. "How do you know? Maybe you just haven't seen one."
"Don't be a Silly Billy." I forced myself to laugh. "Of course I haven't seen a ghost. And neither have you."
"I've seen one in my dreams." Emma spoke so softly I had to lean down to hear her. "The ghost is very sad and lonely. She wants to go home, but she's down deep, deep, deep in the water. She's been there so long, she's just bones. No one knows where she is."
Emma's whispery voice made my skin race with goose bumps. I pulled her small body close to mine and hugged her. Mr. Bear's fur tickled my nose. "That's very scary," I told her, "but it's just a bad dream. Everybody has them."
Emma peered into my eyes. "Do you?"
I thought about "T." I hadn't dreamt about her for weeks—until last night. I must have been worried about coming to the lake, leaving Mom, all that. I hoped I wouldn't dream about her now that I was actually here.
"Not very often," I fibbed to keep from alarming Emma.
While we'd been talking, the room had darkened. Shadows gathered in the corners, and a cool breeze fluttered the curtains. Somewhere outside a bird cried once ... twice ... three times.
I took Emma's hand and led her toward the stairs. "Let's go see what your mom's doing."
In the brightly lit kitchen, Emma ran to Dulcie. "Mr. Bear wants dinner," she said, waving him at her mother. "He's hungry."
Dulcie gave her a kiss. "It's almost ready. Why don't you and Ali set the table? The forks and knives and spoons are in that drawer." She pointed to the cabinet by the sink, and Emma began counting out the utensils—four of each.