101 Bell Whistle
Chapter 4: An Answer of Sorts

Copyright© 2010 by JimWar

After I lifted the cat off the top of the trap door I opened the door and headed back into the tunnel leading to the basement. Since I had blocked the door at the top of the basement stairs I made sure that I first nailed the trap door open so that it couldn't fall closed and trap us. The mysterious girl had obviously cleared the tunnel and was hiding in the basement. I found her hiding under an antique dinning room table among the chairs that had been stacked around it.

I calmly said, "Don't be afraid, I won't hurt you."

She still shook from fear as she crawled out from among the furniture and appeared ready to bolt at the first opportunity. She didn't speak a word to me. When she started to dart off for the tunnel I grabbed her by the wrist. If you had been nearby you would have thought I was killing her the way she started screaming and cursing at me.

I tried to be gentle and was rewarded by her fighting harder and scratching both of my arms. Finally I maneuvered myself behind her and lifted her off the floor by her wrists. I hoped the helplessness of her situation would induce her to surrender. Instead she struggled so violently that I was worried that she might dislocate her shoulders. I lowered her to the floor and as soon as she had leverage she kicked back at my shin with the heel of her shoe. My concern for her safety was quickly overridden by considerations of my own, causing me to again lift her off the floor.

At this point she was screaming an almost incoherent stream of invectives; words spewed with such vehemence that they were nearly incomprehensible. Finally it dawned on me that this wasn't merely a ploy to get away from me but something rooted in a genuine fear of what I might do. I wrapped her in my arms, ignoring her kicking and scratching and uttered calming words; words first drowned out by her own screaming. I was powerless and hoped that she would calm down before doing serious injury to my legs.

I was beginning to think myself a fool for trapping myself like this when her head of steam began to dissipate and her words began to make some sense to me. Then as if some evil genie had been released from her soul she slumped forward in my arms and calmly said, "Please let me go. I won't try to get away. Just don't hurt me any more, please." Her voice sounded so plaintive and compelling that I immediately set her back on her feet and released her. I did this not knowing if I could catch her again if she decided to run so I positioned myself in between her and the entrance to the tunnel.

Her energy drained, she was unsteady on her feet, almost like a boxer in the final round of an exhausting fight. She allowed me to lead her over to the steps where we sat both gasping for air. Finally she asked, "What are you going to do with me now?"

Exhausted from the chase and capture I held up my hands as I tried to gather my wits about me. I had not given any thought as to what I would do with her once I caught her. I was hoping for answers from her after I regained my senses enough to compose the questions. For the moment I decided that what she wanted was reassurance. I wanted to allay any fears she had for her own safety. I answered her question with one of my own. "What would you like me to do with you?"

Her blackened, sweaty brow crinkled as she seemed puzzled by my query; as if she wasn't used to having choices. She shrugged her shoulders and looked defiantly into my eyes, as if she was daring me to do my worst. I tried to make peace between us as I added, "I have no quarrel with you. I admit that I was a bit frightened at first having a stranger in my house. I am puzzled as to how you got here and would like some answers, but you are free to go if that's what you want to do."

She looked at me in obvious doubt. She almost whispered, her voice cracking from the strain of her previous outbursts, "I can go? Just like that, you hunt me down, try to break my arms, squeeze the life out of me and now I can go?" Then she started laughing, a haunted laugh; a laugh you might expect from someone without a firm grip on reality. Then as the discordant laughter died out it muted into a soft plaintive sobbing; a deep throated sobbing that struck such an empathetic chord that it seemed to twist and tear at my gut. Without thinking I slid next to her on the rough wooden step and wrapped an arm around her.

She pulled back momentarily as if she was unsure about my intentions, then after that pause she hugged herself to my chest, accepting my comfort. Her crying gradually subsided but every few seconds she would shudder against me. It was obvious that she was unsuccessfully trying to bring her emotions under control. In between sobs she would push away from me a bit and try to say something only to have it choked off. It was all I could do to keep control of my own feelings.

As things quieted down and we both gained some meager control of our emotions, I said, "I'm Joe. Would you at least tell me your name?"

She lifted up for a moment, wiped her eyes and pulled away from me to sit on the steps. She looked at me and at last said, "Sorry I fell to pieces like that, Joe. I'm Audra."

Those words, though still somewhat emotional, had a certain strength to them, as if the little girl had magically transformed herself into a composed adult woman. Anyone looking at her appearance would think that she was a preteen ragamuffin, at best a late blooming teen. Most of this was due to her small size and thin, waif-like appearance. The accumulated grime was such that the freshly shed tears had tracked across her face like a bizarre mass of tangled spider webs. I was sure that any opinions I based upon her current looks would be upgraded after she cleaned up.

I chose my words carefully, lest I frighten her again. "Audra, I'm sorry I hurt you while I was restraining you. That wasn't my intention at all. More than anything, I was afraid that you would hurt yourself and I would hate for that to have happened. I'm going back through the tunnel and open the basement door. I would like you to come up when I do that so we can talk. Would that be okay?"

Audra nodded. At that moment the cat came bounding across the basement and jumped up into her lap. She hugged the cat as if it was perhaps her only friend in the world. I left the two of them together and went through the tunnel, climbed into the garage and eventually returned to the top of the stairs where I moved the chair from under the door knob. I hoped that when I opened the door that I would find Audra still in the basement.

She was waiting at the top of the stairs and walked into the house with a confident air that must have come from living here, and yet it was evident that she must have felt some measure of apprehension from my being here. She slowly followed me into the kitchen and sat in a chair at the kitchen table. The cat obviously reached the limit of his tolerance of being held and sprightly bounded from her arms to the floor where he meowed loudly waiting to be recognized.

Audra spoke to the cat as if responding to a request. She said, "No, Mr. Whiskers. We don't live here now. There are no treats to be had."

I looked at Audra and said, "Do you think he might accept a saucer of milk?"

Audra gave me the first hint of a smile as she said, "I'm sure he would love to have a saucer of milk. Thank you very much."

As I went to the refrigerator I asked her, "How about a glass of milk for you and a piece of German chocolate cake? Our neighbor, Mrs. Howard, baked the cake as a welcome gift."

Audra raised her eyebrows at me and said, "Our neighbor? Who else is coming to live with you?"

I smiled and said, "No one, I just assumed that you had been living here for a while and that would make Elise, Mrs. Howard, your neighbor as well."

With an unrestrained vehemence she said, "She's not my neighbor. She never liked me. I don't know why but she didn't. She's a mean old busy body..." As she said that she took a large bite of the cake I had set before her. With her mouth so full it was almost spitting cake, she mumbled, " ... but she sure knows how to make good cake."

I almost laughed at the sight of her hungrily demolishing the piece of cake. There is a certain satisfaction watching a really hungry person eat something that they truly enjoy. I ended up refilling her milk, all hope of conversation momentarily gone. After refilling her milk I sat the container on the table and took a seat opposite hers and patiently waited for her to finish. As she was finishing up the last crumbs of cake on her plate she glanced warily at the two-thirds of a cake that was remaining. I quickly cut a smaller piece and put it on her plate. Then I said, "I ate two pieces myself right after Mr. Howard brought it over."

Audra grinned up at me through yellowed teeth spotted with cake crumbs as she started in on the second piece. Mr. Whiskers meowed as he finished his saucer of milk then glided over to my chair and arched his back as he sinuously rubbed his side against my leg. I have always thought of that as the way cats pet their humans. Then, as if that was enough, Mr. Whiskers set off to find a sunny spot to do what cats do best.

Audra fought to finish the last of her second piece of cake. I didn't want her to get sick from eating too much sugar so I said, "the cake isn't going anywhere. If you stay you can have some more later. I certainly can't eat it all myself."

Audra looked surprised and said, "Stay, you mean here with you? I thought you'd want me out of here to make room for your own family."

I hadn't thought about what I meant, the words just came out. I thought over what I had said as I tried to reassure her. "No one is kicking you out. I don't have any close family, at least not living nearby. I'm not sure what you want but you are welcome to stay here until we can locate your family. I'm sure..."

Audra screamed out, "No, you can't send me back to them! I won't go. I don't have to. I can live on my own and make my own way! I'm not some kid, you know."

Trying to calm her, I said, "But they're your parents. I'm sure they're both worried sick about where you are. I'm surprised the police haven't come to search the house before now."

Audra, almost hysterical at this point, stood up, knocking her chair over in the process as she sobbed out, "You don't understand! I'm 19 and no longer their responsibility. You can't make me go back to them. I won't go."

While all this was happening she was backing out of the kitchen as if looking for a place to run. I quickly pleaded, "Wait, please listen..." but made no move to get up out of my chair, afraid that I any movement on my part would cause her to bolt.

Seeing that I was making no move to pursue her she slowed her retreat. She had returned to the emotional, keyed up state I had witnessed on the basement stairs. As calmly as I could, I said, "Please stay. Let's talk. I didn't mean to upset you. I'm not going to do anything other than offer you suggestions."

It felt like we were in a Mexican standoff as Audra stopped backing up and gave me a pensive look. I stayed where I was and tried to act calm but I'm sure my heart was beating as fast as hers. I am known for making rapid fire decisions at my job sites. In addition, I normally know what to say to placate temperamental workers, but here I was at a loss. Finally I decided to put it to her that way, "Audra, help me here. I have no close family so I assumed you would want to be with yours. I know I would if I had any. Please stay and talk."

Audra wiped her sleeve across her eyes, smudging the dirt on her face once more. She looked like she had put a long day in the coal mines. Cautiously she edged back towards the table. Finally she spoke. "You don't understand."

It was a statement that I couldn't refute so I answered, "Help me understand."

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