Authors: Mary Downing Hahn
That night, Emma's screams woke me from my own dream about "T" and the girls in the canoe. I sat straight up in bed, clutching the covers. Downstairs, Dulcie's footsteps hurried to Emma's room. I ran to the top of the stairs just in time to see her open Emma's door.
"Emma, what's wrong?" she asked.
"The bones came out of the lake," Emma cried. "They're going to get me!"
"It's okay, sweetie, it's okay." Dulcie's voice shook as if Emma's dream had frightened her, too. "There aren't any bones in the lake. You were dreaming."
I leaned over the railing. "Is she all right?"
In the hall below, Dulcie hugged Emma tight. "She had a bad dream. A nightmare."
Emma looked up at me, still frightened. "The bones came out," she sobbed. "The bones came out."
For a moment, I had a scary feeling that someone else was in the cottage—unseen, watching, waiting. I looked behind me, into the shadowy corners of my room. No one was there, but I couldn't get rid of the feeling or the goose bumps on my arms.
Dulcie smiled up at me. "Everything's all right, Ali. Go back to bed. You look cold."
As Dulcie carried Emma to her room, I wished I could run down the steps and squeeze into the big double bed with them. But that would have been way too babyish. After Dulcie's door closed, I went to my room and snuggled under Great-Grandmother's quilt, shivering with cold.
In my head, Emma's words repeated themselves like a song you can't get out of your mind. "
The bones came out, the bones came out, the bones came out.
Without wanting to, I pictured skeletons wading out of the dark water and creeping toward the house, their bony arms outstretched. Outside, trees rustled in the breeze, and sticks snapped as if crushed under bony feet. Inside, the floors and steps creaked as if those same bony feet were tiptoeing through the house, upstairs and down, searching the rooms.
Holding Rufus tight, I curled into a ball and willed myself to sleep, but Emma's little voice went on saying, "
The bones came out, the bones came out.
The next morning, the lake was gray under heavy clouds. The pines were blurred by mist, but the rain had stopped, and the air smelled clean and fresh.
It was too chilly for swimming but not too cold for a walk along the shore. Emma and I each put on a sweatshirt and jeans, and strolled by the lake. The sandy beach turned to stones not long after we passed the boathouse. I was glad I'd taken Dulcie's advice and worn sandals. If I'd gone barefoot, I'd have been hobbling along like an old lady.
While Emma ran ahead, I gathered stones. They were smooth and round, in shades of pale green, pink, gray, and black. I had an idea I might do something artistic with them, put them in ceramic bowls, maybe, and add driftwood and seagull feathers. I could make the bowls myself and sell my arrangements in gift shops. I'd learn how to throw clay on Dulcie's pottery wheel, I'd mix glazes, I'd use the kiln behind the studio.
I was thinking so hard, I almost walked right past Emma. To my surprise, she was standing beside a stranger, a girl who appeared to be nine or ten years old but small for her age. Her hair was white blond, her eyes were the same gray as the lake, and her skin was a deep tan. Despite the chilly weather, she wore a faded blue bathing suit.
"This is Sissy," Emma said. "I just met her, but she wants to be friends."
Sissy looked at me slantwise, as if she were sizing me up. Would I be good to know? Was I nice? Was I bossy? I gave her the same look. There was something about her I disliked on sight—a sharpness in her eyes, a mean set to her mouth. She was the type who'd lie and get you in trouble.
"This is Ali," Emma told Sissy. "She's my cousin, and she's staying here with Mommy and me. Mommy's an artist, so Ali takes care of me while Mommy paints. She's not a babysitter because I'm not a baby."
Sissy continued to stare at me. "Where's
mother?" she asked. Her voice was too high pitched to be easy on the ears.
"In Maryland," I told her. "Where we live. She didn't want to come."
"Why not?" Sissy asked.
Something in her voice, a sassiness I didn't like, annoyed me. "I don't know what business it is of yours." It was a huffy thing to say. Rude, even. But somehow it was her fault I'd said it.
Sissy shrugged, and her shoulder blades jutted out like wings. "I was just wondering. Since when is that a crime?"
Emma laughed uncertainly, not sure if Sissy was joking or not. "Aunt Claire doesn't like the lake. That's why she didn't come."
"Is she scared of water or something?" A breeze from the lake blew Sissy's hair in her face, and she smoothed it behind her ears.
Emma glanced at me as if she thought I'd answer. "I think so," she said uncertainly. "But I'm not."
"I'm not, either." Sissy looked at me. "I bet
scared—just like her mother."
I stopped trying to ignore her. "Back home I'm on the swim team. I've won more trophies than anybody in my class."
"Do you think I care?" Sissy turned to Emma. "Let's build castles."
Emma dropped to her knees beside Sissy, and the two of them began heaping up stones, blond heads together as if they'd been friends forever. I hated to admit it, but I felt left out. Emma was my cousin, my friend, and here she was trying to impress a bratty stranger.
"Are your parents renting a cottage around here?" I asked Sissy, hoping she'd say yes, we're leaving tomorrow, you'll never see me again.
Without looking up from her pile of stones, she said, "I live here."
"Where?" Emma asked.
Sissy pointed. "That way."
Emma peered down the shore. "I don't see a house."
"I walked a long way," Sissy said with a shrug.
"Can we come see you and play at your house sometime?"
Sissy shrugged again. "Maybe."
"We have sand at our beach," Emma went on. "We can build good castles there. Want to come home with us?"
"Not today." Sissy stood up and kicked her pile of stones. Down it tumbled.
"Why'd you do that?" Emma asked.
"It wasn't any good." Sissy scooped up a handful of stones and watched them run through her fingers,
"I have to go. See you later."
She turned to leave, but Emma ran in front of her, blocking her way. "Will you be here tomorrow, Sissy?"
"Maybe." Dodging Emma, she walked away, her skinny back arrow straight, her skinny arms swinging, her skinny legs zipping along beside the water. Her silky hair floated around her head, lifted by the breeze. She didn't look back. Not once. Soon the mist swallowed her up.
When Sissy was out of sight, Emma took my hand. "Do you think she likes me?"
"Everybody likes you." I swung Emma's hand as we walked. "Do you like her?"
"Of course. Don't you?"
"I don't know. I guess we aren't, well, very copacetic."
"Copacetic. It means getting along with somebody." I was pleased with myself for remembering one of my favorite vocabulary words.
"Well, Sissy's very copacetic with me." Emma broke away and ran along the edge of the water, singing a
I followed slowly, thinking about the very un-copacetic Sissy. There was something about her I didn't trust. Maybe it was her way of looking past you, not at you. Maybe it was her way of never quite answering questions. The frown on her face didn't help. It wouldn't hurt her to smile once in a while.
"Come on," Emma called. "Catch me!"
I ran after her and picked her up, pretending I was going to toss her into the lake. She shrieked and giggled and broke away from me again. I let her think she'd escaped and then caught her. It was a game Emma never tired of playing.
At lunch, Emma told Dulcie about her new friend. "Her name's Sissy."
"Where does she live?" Dulcie asked.
Emma shrugged. "Around here somewhere."
Dulcie looked puzzled. "I didn't think
lived around here."
"She said her house was that way." I pointed in what I thought was the right direction.
"She walked a long way," Emma put in. "And all she was wearing was a bathing suit."
"On a day like this? Brr." Dulcie wrapped her sweater tighter around her skinny body and sipped her coffee. "Did Sissy tell you her last name?"
Emma and I shook our heads.
"When you see her again, ask her. Maybe I knew her family from when I was a kid. She probably lives up the road in Webster's Cove."
"Can we go there and see her?" Emma asked.
"Without knowing her last name, how would you find her house?" I asked Emma, glad to think of a reason for not seeing Sissy.
"We could walk around and look for her. Maybe she'd be playing in her yard or something."
"Webster's Cove is a small place, but I doubt you'll find Sissy that way." Dulcie gathered up the dishes and carried them to the sink. "I'm going to the studio now. Be sure and take your nap, Emma. Otherwise, you'll be a crab tonight."
Emma held up her hands like little claws. "Watch out, I'll pinch you, Mommy."
Much to Emma's disappointment, we didn't see Sissy the next day or the day after or the day after that. I didn't mind a bit. The clouds had vanished, and the sun shone. It was perfect weather for swimming, but Emma said the water was too cold. While I practiced my backstroke, she sat on the sand and made castles. Like Sissy, she kicked them down before we left the beach. "No good," she said in a good imitation of her so-called friend.
At the end of the week, Emma suggested walking to Webster's Cove. "Mommy said Sissy might live there, remember? Maybe we'll see her and we can ask her to come home with us and have lunch."
"It's a long way," I said. "If you get tired, I'm not carrying you."
"I won't get tired. I'm big now."
It was about a forty-minute walk, but Emma didn't complain once. She trotted along beside me, talking about Sissy, Sissy, Sissy. What was her favorite color? Did she like chocolate or vanilla ice cream? Did she have sisters or brothers? What TV show did she like best—
Mister Rogers' Neighborhood?
Was she afraid of the dark? Did she have bad dreams? Did she like pizza with extra cheese? Did she have a pet—a cat, a dog, a guinea pig? What did she eat for breakfast—Rice Krispies, Cheerios, Cap'n Crunch?
Emma had so many questions, I almost felt sorry for Sissy.
Webster's Cove was bigger than Dulcie remembered. Cars with out-of-state license plates jammed the narrow streets. People mobbed a little boardwalk running along the edge of the sand. Beach umbrellas tipped this way and that, almost hiding the water. The air smelled of popcorn and suntan lotion and French fries. Kids ran in and out of the lake, shouting and splashing, while their parents watched from folding chairs and blankets.
Emma tugged my arm. "I don't see Sissy."
"It would be hard to find anybody under seven feet tall in this crowd."
Taking her hand, I led her down the boardwalk and into Smoochie's Ice Cream Shop. Maybe the chocolate wouldn't be as good as Olson's, but it would be just as cold and sweet.
I pulled a five-dollar bill out of my pocket. "What would you like?" I asked Emma. "A soda? Ice cream? Candy?"
"Can I have a soda
I checked the price board. I had enough for two small cones and two small sodas. "What flavor do you want?"
Emma pressed her nose against the glass and studied the choices. After several changes of mind, she settled for chocolate and a ginger ale. I picked mint chocolate chip and a root beer.
While we were waiting, Emma peered up at the teenage girl scooping the ice cream. A tag on her polo shirt said her name was Erin.
"Do you know a girl named Sissy?" Emma asked.
Without looking up, Erin said, "Can't say I do."
"She's ten going on eleven and she has long blond hair and she's pretty," Emma went on.
Skinny and mean-eyed,
I felt like adding.
Not very nice and not really pretty.
Erin smiled at Emma. "Sorry, but I don't know her. Maybe her family's here on vacation."
"She lives here," Emma persisted. "All year round."
"I live here all year, too, but I don't know anyone named Sissy. Are you sure she lives in the Cove?"
"No," I put in. "It was just a guess."
Erin handed us our cones and drinks. "There are loads of cottages scattered around the lake," she said. "She could live anywhere."
"I think it's near our cottage," Emma said.
Erin rang up the sale and took my money. While she made change, she asked, "Where do you live?"
"Gull Cottage, down on the Point."
She stared at me. "You're kidding! Nobody's lived there for ages. Not since—" She frowned and handed me my change.
"Since what?" I asked.
"You said nobody's lived there 'since.' And then you stopped." I licked my ice cream. "What were you going to say?"
Erin shrugged and brushed a few stray strands of sun-streaked hair behind her ear. Without looking at me, she said, "Since about thirty years ago. The people who owned it came every summer, but then one year they didn't come back. The cottage has just sat there empty all these years."
"Do you mean the Thorntons?" I asked her.
Erin nodded. "I think that was their name."
"Well, they're back now," I told her. "At least my aunt Dulcie is."
"Really?" Erin stared at me as if she didn't believe me. "Dulcie Thornton's here?"
"That's my mommy's name," Emma said. "She's an artist. Do you know her?"
"Of course not. How old do you think I am?" Erin leaned over the counter until she was face to face with Emma. "But my mom knew Dulcie when they were kids. They used to play together all the time. I think she had a little sister, too."
"Yes," I said. "Claire. That's my mother."
Erin studied Emma and me as if she was memorizing every detail of our appearance—our clothes, our hair, our faces, even how many freckles we had. Her scrutiny made me uncomfortable. Did she think we were strange? Was there something weird about us?