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She should have known better than to tell her parents about the woman in the cave. But somehow, sitting at the kitchen table shelling peas while her mother ironed and her father read, Audrey had begun to talk. It hadn't been a conscious decision, but it had suddenly seemed absolutely necessary. And once started, there was no way to stop.
"That cave on Wild Oaks Hill? Way up on that steep hillside, in this weather?" Audrey's mother interrupted before she'd barely begun to explain the situation. "How on earth would an old woman manage to get up there?"
Putting down his newspaper, Audrey's father said, "Do you suppose we ought to do something, Hannah? If the poor thing is homeless, she probably could use some help."
Hannah Abbott, Audrey's mother, came to a quick and firm decision. "Of course. She probably needs to be put in an institution. The police should be notified, and the sooner the better."
"The police?" Audrey and her father asked in unison. And then they went on, talking at once. "No. Not the police," Audrey was saying while her father was asking if that wasn't overdoing it a little. "I shouldn't think it would take a squad of Captain Banner's troopers to bring in one old woman." He was grinning. Audrey's father always grinned when Greendale's chief of police was mentioned. When he had been editor of the Greendale Times, he'd gotten to know the spit-and-polish captain only too well. "Just think what a tough decision the captain would have to make," he went on. "He might have to decide whether it was worth getting his shiny boots dirty. Why not notify someone in social services?"
Audrey's mom always used to laugh at her husband's jokes about Old Spit-and-Polish Banner, but this time she didn't even smile. Instead, she said sharply, "And wait two weeks while they complete all the necessary paperwork? I don't think that's a good idea." She was speaking so loudly that Beowulf, the Abbotts' oversized Irish wolfhound, who was sprawled out under the table, raised his head and let out a reproachful bark. Beowulf disapproved of raised voices.
"Well, you do have a point there. Captain Banner it is." Audrey's father was heading toward the telephone when he slowed his wheelchair, his open hand pressed against his chest. "Do you suppose you could make the call, Hannah? I don't feel quite up to dealing with our heroic captain at the moment." Audrey knew what the sarcastic way he said "heroic" meant. But while Captain Banner was easy to joke about, there wasn't anything funny about the pain in John Abbott's chest.
Audrey's mother paused, iron in midair, her famous eyes (Hannah Elgin Abbott had been named the Girl with the Most Beautiful Eyes in her high school yearbook) narrowing with concern. "Yes. Yes, of course, dear," she said. "You go rest until dinner is ready. Don't worry about it. I'll call Captain Banner just as soon as I finish this blouse."
But as soon as her husband disappeared down the hall, Hannah turned back to Audrey. "But first, young lady, I do want to know how you happened to find this woman. You surely remember that when the Mayberry twins were forbidden to go anywhere near that cave, you were too? Of course, you were pretty young at the time, but later, I believe it was after the Mayberrys moved away, you told your father and me that you would never go there again because the cave was -- I think the word you used was 'sinister.'â??"
Hannah Abbott's smile had a softer, reminiscent look to it as she went on. "Yes, I'm sure that was it. I remember your father and I laughed about it being such a grown-up word for a five-year-old to use. Do you remember telling us the cave was a sinister place?"
"I guess so." Audrey shrugged. "It was a long time ago. I might have said that."
She probably had. She'd been using the "sinister" word for a long time. It was an important word for a writer to know -- a mysteriously threatening word that was especially useful when you were writing mysteries or scary fantasies. The game in the cave certainly had been awesomely mysterious and scary. She could still remember how excited she'd been when James and Patricia Mayberry let her play, even though they were so much older.
Of course, the most mysterious and sinister part of the game had been the cave itself. But the whole thing -- the Mayberry twins' habit of playing the role of evil pirates one day and their terrified, helpless victims the next -- had been absolutely thrilling.
But that had all been years ago, and when the Mayberry family moved away, Audrey really had stopped going to the cave. There had been no pirates' cave adventures for Audrey Abbott for at least six or seven years now. Oh, she'd been back briefly once or twice, just to take a quick look around and remember how exciting it had been, but that was all. That was all, that is, until...
"I know," she began trying to explain. "I do remember promising not to go there anymore. And I wouldn't have gone back, only I was following a -- I mean, I was just following the path, taking a walk up there on the hill, and I happened to glance in the cave. That's all I was doing, just glancing in."
"So you glanced in the cave and you saw this old woman?"
Audrey shook her head. "Not very well," she said. "At the back of the cave it's too dark to see much of anything. But I heard her. She talked to me."
Audrey's mother could narrow her large eyes into lash-fringed slits of suspicion. "How do you suppose she managed to get there? How in the world could an old woman climb all the way up that steep hillside?" Hannah Elgin Abbott's smile changed again, and now there was a familiar edge to it. A suspicious edge that had always meant that, while she wasn't exactly going to say so, she really didn't believe a word that Audrey was saying.
Audrey knew what her mother's smile was implying and why -- and suddenly her cheeks were hot and she was clenching her teeth. It was true that when she was younger, she sometimes made up things that didn't really happen and people who didn't really exist, like the friendly ghost who lived in her closet and the baby dragon who liked to hide under her bed. But that had been a long time ago, and the only stories she made up now were the novels she wrote in her secret notebook and never mentioned to anyone, particularly not her mother.
She wanted to argue, to tell her mother how much she resented the implication that even now, when she was twelve years old, she still didn't know the difference between what was real and what wasn't. But it was no time for an argument, not when her parents were about to make such an awful mistake.
In spite of her best effort to cool it, Audrey could feel her voice tightening to an angry squeak as she went on. "Mom, you really don't need to call the police. I mean, I don't think there's anything they can do for -- for someone like her. I only told you because I thought you might let me take her something from the garden and maybe a blanket. I don't want you to -- "
"Woof!" This time Beowulf's bark was an even sharper reprimand.
"Shh!" Hannah told Beowulf, glancing down the hall toward where her husband was trying to rest.
Audrey felt guilty. She should have known better than to let Beowulf know how angry she was -- not when her father might hear the bark and guess that she and her mother were arguing again. Reaching down, she patted Beowulf's huge shaggy head and scratched behind his ears until he sighed and wagged his tail.
"Shh! Good dog," Hannah said, and then to Audrey, "I didn't mean the poor thing should be arrested. It just seems from what you've told us, that she obviously is homeless and probably not able to take care of herself."
Her mother didn't understand. Neither of them did. She should have known they wouldn't. Audrey Abbott should have known she couldn't explain the woman in the cave to her parents. They wouldn't understand even if she started at the very beginning -- especially if she started at the absolutely unbelievable beginning -- and the white duck.Copyright © 2008 by Zilpha Keatley Snyder