Authors: Norma Kassirer
Tags: #Young Adult, #Mystery, #Children
For Karen and Sue
t all began one rainy night
at the end of a summer.
“As if we didn’t have enough troubles!” groaned Mrs. Chipley. “There it goes and rains on us!”
Sally, clinging to Mrs. Chipley’s plump hand, was almost running to keep up with her. The bright feather on Mrs. Chipley’s black hat, which had started out so proudly erect, had gradually wilted, and now drooped sadly down the back of that lady’s stout neck. Sally’s red suitcase, its handle firmly gripped by Mrs. Chipley’s other hand, bumped in a steady rhythm against her right leg. But Mrs. Chipley strode purposefully on, as if she had no time to notice small discomforts.
The two of them had come all the way across the city on the bus, and during the ride the sky had darkened and the street lights had bloomed all at once. High-piling storm clouds snuffed out the light of the round orange moon. As they stepped off the bus, the branches of the tall trees rattled like bones in the wind.
And now it was raining — a nasty, cold, stinging rain, mixed with wet leaves torn from the groaning trees. It splashed and flew about them as they hurried along the gloomy street, as if the faster they went the more they stirred up the fury of the night. Their coattails snapped behind them. Rain flew into Sally’s eyes and even into her mouth, and it dribbled unpleasantly beneath the collar of her coat. Raindrops hitting a large mailbox echoed like drumbeats down the street. Sally’s long red hair, fluttering bannerlike behind her, gave their small procession a brave look. And yet Sally, at least, was not feeling brave at all. Quite the contrary.
“Troubles, troubles,” Mrs. Chipley went on, “but it’s a lucky thing your Aunt Sarah’s come back to town just now when we need her.”
“I don’t remember her at all,” panted Sally. “I was just a baby when she went away to California.”
“Going back again too, pretty soon, your ma tells me,” said Mrs. Chipley. “Only came back here to
sell the house. But never you mind, honey,” she went on, without slackening her furious pace at all, “she’s your own kin, and the only one you have here in town. I’m sure I didn’t know what else to do but call her, what with your mom and dad away on that business trip, and we don’t want to spoil it for them, and it’s not as if you’d have to stay with your aunt forever. A few days, and I’ll have my daughter straightened around and come back. And it was your own ma left her name in case of an emergency.”
“I wonder what she’s like,” Sally said. But Mrs. Chipley did not seem to hear her.
“And if my daughter’s getting sick like that and five kids to take care of and her poor husband working day and night to keep food in their mouths isn’t an emergency, then I’m sure I don’t know what is!” Mrs. Chipley stopped so suddenly that Sally bumped into her. Mrs. Chipley, who was not very much taller than Sally herself, though a good deal bigger around, placed a steadying arm about Sally’s shoulders and then peered up through the blowing rain at a street sign. She shook her head, sighed, and placed the red suitcase on the sidewalk.
“Land sakes, my glasses are all fogged over with wet,” she said. “Can you read that sign, honey?”
Sally shaded her eyes and stood up on tiptoe,
squinting to make out the letters on the sign in the uncertain gleam of a street light. The blowing shadows of tree branches came and went over the words on the sign. The letters wavered, grew taller, then shorter, seemed to disappear entirely.
“It says Forest Road,” she said at last.
“Can’t hear you, dearie, your voice is gone all husky. Hope you don’t go getting a cold now on top of everything else.”
“Forest Road,” said Sally, more strongly this time.
“This is it,” said Mrs. Chipley, nodding vigorously. “Forest Road. Come along, honey.” And picking up the suitcase, she led the way down Aunt Sarah’s street. Sally’s hand crept back into hers. “Now watch the numbers on the houses,” Mrs. Chipley said. “It’s eighty-two we want. Your young eyes are better than mine.”
“But there aren’t any houses,” said Sally, for as far as she could see, all down the street on either side were buildings, tall buildings, the light from their windows streaming out into the blowing street. Like the letters on the street sign, the buildings seemed to waver behind the lashing curtains of rain. A leaf danced in one of the streams of light for a moment, and then vanished into the darkness.
“It’s a funny sort of street for your aunt to live on,
all right,” said Mrs. Chipley. “All these apartment buildings. But if it’s Forest Road it’s got to be your Aunt Sarah’s street. You sure you read that sign right, honey?”
“Yes,” said Sally. The hand which clung to Mrs. Chipley’s grew suddenly very cold. Mrs. Chipley looked down as if she’d noticed it too. She squeezed Sally’s hand gently. “There, honey,” she said, “you’re not scared, are you?”
Sally shook her head. But she
scared. She was scared of the strange dark street with the rain splashing in the gutters, of the wind-blown shadows shivering over the walk, of the tall buildings looming over them and seeming to watch them with the glittering eyes of their windows. And of her aunt, whose street this was and whom she did not know at all.
Mrs. Chipley squeezed her hand again. “Now, don’t you be scared,” she said kindly. “Everything’ll look better tomorrow morning. Just you wait and see. Why, you’re no baby! You’re eight years old, aren’t you?”
“Almost ten,” Sally answered.
“Almost ten! Well now! That’s too old to be scared of your own great-aunt. Why, when I talked to her on the phone, she said — she said — well — ‘You may bring the girl over’ was what she said.
And I’ll tell you, the connection wasn’t good what with this storm coming on, so I couldn’t hear her real good, but I’d say — yes, I’d say she sounded kind. Yes, that’s what she sounded —
It was hard to tell, of course, but if it’d been a better connection she’d have sounded just as kind as could be, I’m sure of that.”
Mrs. Chipley’s words, blown back to Sally by the wind as they continued hurrying along, seemed somehow as cold and unreassuring as the rain which accompanied them.
“Watch for the numbers now, sweetie. Oof! This
rain! We’ll be soaked to the skin for sure, and poor Mrs. Chipley has to run right back to the bus stop to get the train for my daughter’s on time. Can’t even stop for a cup of tea, and I expect your Aunt Sarah’ll want me to. Trouble, trouble.”
“Ninety,” said Sally.
“What’s that, dearie?”
“It says ninety on that building.”
“There we go then. It’ll be on this side of the street, and not so far off at that.” Mrs. Chipley, to Sally’s relief, had slowed down. “You don’t suppose your aunt lives in one of these buildings, do you?” she asked, looking up at one of them. “Can’t be, though. It’s a house she came back to sell. An old house.”
“I’m scared,” thought Sally. “Take me with you, Mrs. Chipley, I won’t be any trouble, I promise.” But she didn’t say any of it. “Eighty-eight,” she said instead. “Eighty-six.”
“Eighty-six! Oh, we’re close, all right! What’s this?” Mrs. Chipley stopped. Sally stood still beside her, staring where Mrs. Chipley was pointing. “What’s this?” she asked again.
“It’s a house,” whispered Sally. She knew now what it meant to feel your heart sink. Hers seemed to be somewhere around her toes.
For the peaked roof of what must be a house
could just be seen above the top of a line of tall scraggly bushes that formed an untidy hedge along the edge of the sidewalk. It was the only house, as far as they could see, on the entire street.
As they stared, they heard a creaking sound and saw, almost hidden by the overgrown bushes, a pretty little wrought-iron gate moving slowly back and forth and back and forth in the wind, screeching quite plaintively as it moved.
It seemed to Sally, at that moment, the saddest sound she had ever heard.
“What’s those numbers on the gate, dearie?”
Sally bent her head to peer at them. She put a hand upon the gate to hold it still. The metal was cold and wet. She shivered. The number on the gate was 82, just as she had feared. She told Mrs. Chipley.
“This is it then, honey. Come along.” And Mrs. Chipley, still holding Sally’s hand, pushed the gate open with the suitcase she held in her other hand and led the way along a path into Aunt Sarah’s garden.
Behind them, the gate began its monotonous complaint again.
“The house is dark,” said Sally, and her voice was trembling.
“Never mind that,” said Mrs. Chipley briskly.
“This is it, all right. I expect she’s somewhere at the back of the house where we can’t see — no doubt in the kitchen hotting up that tea,” she added longingly.
It looked, Sally thought in despair, like a witch’s house. She was suddenly afraid that she might begin to cry. “Don’t you
,” she ordered herself, “don’t you
“A shame to have to refuse that cup of tea,” Mrs. Chipley was murmuring, shaking her head.
he house was dark indeed
, both inside and out, as far as they could see. The mean, peaked roof was faintly illuminated by a street light. Stiff wooden lace edged the lower roof of a large porch, and lacy shadows trembled over the front of the house. A broken chimney pointed toward the sky exactly like a long skinny finger. And the garden — if it could be called a garden — the garden was full of shadows that leaped, darted, appeared and disappeared, and followed one another in shuddering lines along the grass. Besides, there was a shutter on a creaky hinge playing an eerie accompaniment to the unhappy tune of the gate, and there hung, over all, a damp, musty toadstool smell.
Coldness shivered along the back of Sally’s neck as they climbed the porch steps. “You’d think she’d have the porch light on,” complained Mrs. Chipley, stumbling on one of the broken steps. “What with her knowing we’re coming and all. But never mind, maybe something’s gone wrong with the electricity.”
Sally held her breath as Mrs. Chipley raised her hand and pulled the old-fashioned bell beside the door. “Bell works though,” she said. “Funny old thing. Must be an old house, all right.” The wind howled and sighed and rattled the windows of the old house. Sally could not imagine this terrible house under any other conditions, and wondered if perhaps the wind always behaved like this around here. Beyond the moaning of the wind and the thudding of her heart she could hear the faint tinkle of the bell inside. She could hear it echoing through — what? What sort of rooms could there be beyond this door? How different her own house seemed to her at this moment. She could not seem to remember it except as bright and cheerful, with sunlight streaming in at the windows, and her mother singing as she worked in the kitchen or in her little sewing room with the bouquets of violets printed on the curtains. Oh, how she wished that she could turn right now and run as fast as she
could, down the steps, along the path, and out of that shadowy garden, and somehow, somehow, back to her own safe, familiar home.