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       Eight Keys, p.11

           Suzanne LaFleur
 
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  “Has … anything like this … happened before?” Caroline asked.

  I still couldn’t speak, but I nodded. She looked confused as she thought about my answer.

  I left the bathroom ahead of her and went to the school-lunch line. I handed over a five-dollar bill and got a tray of soggy veggies, a small pizza with more dry sauce than cheese, and a chocolate pudding cup. I brought the tray to the table where Franklin was sitting.

  “Elise!” he said. “You’re late. Why do you have school lunch?”

  I still couldn’t talk. I tore off a bit of pizza and put it into my mouth, chewing carefully.

  “What happened?” Franklin asked.

  I didn’t answer. I watched Caroline walk into the cafeteria, head over to the table with Amanda and her friends, and sit down.

  I Wonder Whether Grown-Ups Understand at All

  When I got home, Ava was the only person I wanted to be with. She was the perfect size for holding. She couldn’t ask me what was wrong or whether school had been good. She didn’t react to the fact that I was crying as I held her against me. Babies cry all the time. Crying must not seem like a big deal to them. And she couldn’t offer advice, so I wouldn’t have to explain why the advice wouldn’t work. Or admit that it was good advice and find the courage to go through with it. She just let me feel sad until I was done crying.

  Annie came into the room.

  “Elise?” she asked. “Um, Cricket, honey?”

  I didn’t answer. She left and came back with Uncle Hugh. Annie gently lifted Ava from me. The baby made a noise, but Annie shushed her and pressed a pacifier past her lips.

  “What’s wrong?” Uncle Hugh smoothed the loose hair off my forehead.

  I started crying again. Uncle Hugh held me, just like I had been holding Ava.

  • • •

  “Every day for three months someone at school has tried to ruin your lunch?”

  We were all at the dinner table, with Ava asleep in her carrier seat on the floor. Bow-tie mac-and-cheese, pork chops, peas, applesauce. But no one had touched the food.

  “Yep.”

  “Why didn’t you tell us?” Aunt Bessie said.

  I shrugged.

  “Where does this happen?” Uncle Hugh asked. “In the cafeteria?”

  “In our locker.”

  “Why don’t you just not leave your lunch there? Or get a hard plastic lunch box?”

  “Well, one, there’s just as much chance of it getting squished if I carry it around or keep it in my backpack all day.

  “Two, I have a right to be able to keep things safely in my locker.

  “Three, because I don’t want to have a baby lunch box.

  “And four, if someone really wants to wreck your food, they can just open the lunch box.”

  “That’s true.” Uncle Hugh got a cold cream soda and handed it to me. “You do have a right to use your own locker. You know what to do when someone isn’t treating you well at school, right?”

  Punch? Kick? Bite?

  “Tell a grown-up,” I answered.

  Aunt Bessie nodded. “You can always tell a grown-up.”

  “You can’t,” I said. “Then you get in more trouble with the other kids. It isn’t cool.”

  “There are more important things,” Uncle Hugh said. “Like being able to eat your lunch. Like feeling safe and comfortable at school every day.”

  How do you explain to your uncle that being cool and feeling safe and comfortable at school were really the same thing?

  “Besides, I told a teacher a couple times, and she didn’t really care.”

  “Well, why didn’t you tell us?”

  “I didn’t want to talk about Amanda at home. I try not to think about Amanda at home.”

  “I just don’t understand why you didn’t tell us,” Uncle Hugh said.

  I didn’t say anything. Why would I be expected to talk about something that made me look like such a loser? Why would I want to bring that feeling home?

  “Please eat some dinner.” Aunt Bessie picked up her fork. “You haven’t had enough to eat today. You might feel better.”

  I cut off a tiny bite of pork chop, moved the meat to my mouth, and chewed it.

  The phone rang and Annie answered.

  “Hang on a minute, okay?” She covered the mouthpiece. “Elise, honey, it’s Caroline. Do you want to talk to her?”

  I shook my head. Why did Caroline help me and then go sit with Amanda? How could she be friends with both of us?

  Annie spoke into the phone again. “Elise is at dinner right now. She’ll see you at school tomorrow, okay? … Goodbye.”

  “If you’re not taking phone calls,” Aunt Bessie said, “are you taking mail?”

  “I never get mail.”

  “You did today.” She went to the mail pile, fished out an envelope, and set it in front of me. There was no return name or address, and mine were taped on in newspaper-cutout letters. The postmark said California.

  “Who would send me mail? I don’t even know anyone in California.”

  I slid my fingers under the paper to tear open the flap. No note. I tipped the envelope. A metallic clunk sounded as a key hit the table.

  We all stared at it.

  Aunt Bessie picked up her fork. “Eat everything on your plate, and then try out the key, if you want. Don’t forget your homework. Tomorrow will be easier if you get it done.”

  I nodded and managed to eat my dinner.

  The room behind the door matched the one about me and Dad. There was a book on the floor with a note on top and photos on the wall—of a growing boy, and then of a man—Uncle Hugh.

  The note said, UNDERSTAND THOSE YOU LOVE. I picked up the book.

  I took the book to Mom’s comfy chair and curled up.

  Uncle Hugh had been twelve years older than Dad. That’s a lot older. The first pages of the book were Dad’s earliest memories of Uncle Hugh. Uncle Hugh took good care of his brothers, but in a way that was sort of silly and fun. Like the time Dad learned to swim because Uncle Hugh just threw him in the lake. Dad floundered until Hugh went in to get him. After that, Dad wasn’t afraid of the water anymore, because he had been underneath and nothing bad had happened. When Uncle Hugh found that Dad had been downstairs in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve and unwrapped all the presents, he stayed up for hours rewrapping everything. And when Uncle Hugh took both of his brothers camping, Dad got so afraid that there might be bears that Uncle Hugh let him cuddle up in his own sleeping bag with him for the night.

  The entries started to be more about Hugh on his own.

  Uncle Hugh had grown up with a boy named Joshua who was his best friend. They were in a band together in high school, and were going to enlist in the army together, but then Uncle Hugh decided to go to college instead. Joshua enlisted and ended up being killed. A little piece of Hugh was missing after that.

  When Uncle Hugh first lived alone, he got a dog and named her Sadie. Sadie went just about everywhere with him. She eventually got old and sick with tumors and Uncle Hugh had to put her to sleep.

  I couldn’t read any more about Uncle Hugh then. He was such a nice guy, he shouldn’t have had so many sad things happen. And here he was stuck with mopey old me, the girl nobody liked and who couldn’t do anything right.

  I remembered what Aunt Bessie’d said about homework. If I did at least some of it, maybe tomorrow would be better. And while I worked I could just think about the assignments.

  Uncle Hugh found me sitting on the porch after I said I was leaving for school in the morning. He sat down next to me. “What are you up to, Cricket?”

  “Nothing.”

  “Why aren’t you on your way to the bus?”

  I picked at the frayed end of my shoelace, where the plastic had cracked off. “I’m not ready yet.”

  Uncle Hugh swatted my hand away from the shoelace and retied my sneaker for me like I was a little girl. “There. Ready now?”

  I shook my head.

 
Uncle Hugh released my sneaker. “I know it’s hard to go to school when kids aren’t being nice to you. I do know.”

  “It isn’t just that,” I admitted.

  “Oh? What else?”

  “It’s not like anyone ever asked you if you wanted this. Me, I mean.”

  “How do you know no one asked us?”

  Aunt Bessie stepped out onto the porch and handed me a brown paper bag. “You forgot this.” She had taken extra care in packing my lunch nicely. She had even taken a pink marker and written, Have a happy lunch, sweet, enclosed in a heart, with a smiley face, to boot.

  “Thanks, Aunt Bessie.”

  Uncle Hugh helped me get up.

  “Remember that telling a grown-up at school could help you,” he said. “That’s the best option. We know you’ll do the right thing.”

  I put on a defiant face as I approached the locker. It was my locker. I had a right to use it.

  “Cute,” Amanda declared when she saw my lovey lunch from Aunt Bessie. “Why don’t you put your lunch up top today?”

  Had a teacher spotted what had happened in the hallway yesterday? Had Caroline talked to her? Maybe that was why she went to sit with her.

  “Okay,” I said, willing to see if today would be different.

  Amanda smiled at me as I opened my backpack and took out my math book.

  “Let me put that away for you,” she said. She took the heavy book from me, and set it on the top shelf. Then she slid it all the way back, catching my lunch and mashing it against the wall. She shut the locker door. “Have a good day, Scabular.” She walked away.

  The time had come to take action.

  We Are All in Deep Dog Poo

  There are several ways to retaliate when someone squashes your lunch every day.

  You can steal her lunch; fill your own lunch bag with something vile, so that when she squashes it, her stuff gets ruined; or fill her lunch bag with shaving cream.

  We settled on option three.

  “I don’t know where we’d hide a stolen lunch. And putting something gross in your own lunch bag and letting her smash it could ruin your books,” Franklin reasoned.

  Eventually we had the plan all figured out.

  We would go to our lockers like any other day.

  Then I’d be in class with Amanda all morning. I wouldn’t even be able to go to the bathroom (Amanda needed to have me in her sight at all times, to keep her from suspecting us).

  Franklin would sneak out during second period, when he didn’t have class with Amanda, make sure no one was in the hallway, and take care of everything.

  And Amanda would finally know what it was like to have a ruined lunch.

  • • •

  Aunt Bessie came into my room at bedtime. I had my knees up in front of me with my math book on them, trying to quickly finish up the problems.

  “You and Franklin sure had your heads together up in that library. Working on homework?”

  “Yeah,” I lied.

  “How did it go with your lunch today?”

  “Fine.”

  “So you were able to enjoy your lunch? It didn’t get wrecked?”

  “No, it did.”

  Aunt Bessie sat down. “So then why is that fine? It doesn’t sound fine. Did you tell a teacher?”

  “I already told you teachers don’t care.” I finished the last problem and shut the book. Aunt Bessie took it from me and started stroking my hair.

  “Telling a teacher again won’t be so bad,” she said. “It will make things better. You’ll see. Tomorrow things will be better. There’s my girl.”

  I let her talk and talk but didn’t listen.

  Our plan was not on Uncle Hugh and Aunt Bessie’s List of Helpful Suggestions.

  Luckily, they wouldn’t find out about it.

  Franklin brought the shaving cream. His mother’s. It was pink and smelled like berries.

  “Why didn’t you bring your dad’s?”

  “Dad would notice it was gone. He has just one can he uses every day, but Mom has twenty-seven bottles of stuff in the bathroom. Well, now twenty-six.”

  “What if something goes wrong?” I asked.

  “Nothing will go wrong,” Franklin promised. “And if the authorities interrogate you, just say, ‘Why would I vandalize something in my own locker?’ ”

  “I’m going to be interrogated?”

  Franklin shrugged. “Maybe. You’ll probably be suspect number one. But you’ll have been with Amanda all morning. And they’ve got no reason to suspect me. We should both be safe.”

  The first-period bell rang, so I ran to my locker and dropped off my lunch (which was squished a few seconds later) and half my books and then headed to class with Amanda a few feet behind me.

  “Are you okay?” Caroline asked when I sat down. “You look all red.”

  I ignored her, like I had all day yesterday.

  We listened to Mrs. Wakefield explain our new unit on symbolism. Then she passed out poems for us to read aloud. Language arts finally ended and we split up for math, science, or social studies and headed out into the hall. Franklin gave me a small salute when no one was looking.

  After fourth period we headed to our lockers on the way to the cafeteria. I was a little shaky as I fished my squashed lunch out from the bottom of the locker. Amanda daintily reached up to get hers from the top shelf. I looked up just enough to see that the bag was a bit puffier than usual.

  “Why are you always in the way?” she barked. “Get up.”

  While I got up, I slammed our locker door—before her lunch had entirely cleared the metal frame.

  Plpphpht!

  The bag exploded. Amanda and I both got covered in pink, fragrant shaving cream. The other kids cleared a circle around us and began to clap.

  Amanda shrieked as she wiped shaving cream from her eyes. “I’ll kill you!” She threw herself at me.

  “What did I do?” I hadn’t planned on a shaving-cream explosion. I shoved her to keep her off me, but she grabbed me by the shoulders. Soon we were both spinning around, sliding in the shaving cream and yelling at each other.

  And that was how I landed in the principal’s office.

  When you’re sitting in the principal’s office awaiting your fate, time seems to pass incredibly slowly. I could hear every click of the clock over the desk. The smell of fake berries on my sweatshirt was almost unbearable.

  Ms. Hadley walked in and sat down behind her desk. She contemplated both of us. Finally, she said, “Amanda, why don’t you tell me what happened?”

  “I went to take out my lunch and Elise tried to shut my hand in the locker. She got my lunch instead and shaving cream went everywhere.”

  “Why was there shaving cream in your lunch?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “Why do you think there was shaving cream in your lunch?”

  “Elise put it there.”

  Ms. Hadley didn’t react to that hypothesis, but she put up a hand to keep me from speaking.

  “So then you verbally threatened and attacked her?”

  Amanda couldn’t come up with anything to say.

  Ms. Hadley said, “Elise, why don’t you tell me what happened?”

  “Amanda said I was in the way, so I tried to get up and shut our locker. I didn’t know her lunch was there.”

  “Did you know there was shaving cream in it?”

  “No.”

  I felt my fingers start to tremble against the legs of my jeans. Be cool, be cool, I willed them. Be still.

  “We’ll talk about the shaving cream in a minute,” Ms. Hadley said. “My first concern is the physical fighting. You were seen fighting, both of you. Is that true?”

  I looked at my lap and mumbled, “Yes.” I was surprised to hear an echo from the chair next to me.

  “Did you know that fighting is grounds for suspension?”

  We shook our heads.

  “As is verbally threatening another student, Amanda.” Ms. Hadley paused. “I don’
t think I am going to suspend either of you, though. Neither of you is injured and neither of you has engaged in physical fighting before.”

  Before relief had time to reach all the way to my trembling fingertips, Ms. Hadley added, “However … “I am very curious as to where the shaving cream came from. It seems to me that shaving cream in a lunch is a prank, which is something premeditated with the intent to humiliate another student. That seems a more severe offense than loss of temper, and I won’t tolerate it. Amanda, tell me again how you believe shaving cream got in your lunch.”

  “Elise put it there.”

  “Why do you suspect Elise?”

  “My lunch was in our locker.”

  Crap.

  “Elise, how do you think the shaving cream got there?”

  Be cool. “I don’t know.”

  Ms. Hadley was silent for a minute. Then she said, “I take things like this very seriously. You really don’t know how shaving cream got in Amanda’s lunch?”

  “I don’t. I was in class all morning. Ask my teachers.”

  “Are you two the only students who know the combination to your locker?”

  About a thousand thoughts whirred rapidly through my head.

  Tell her how horrible Amanda’s been all year. Tell her about the prank she played on you just a couple days ago.

  Grown-ups don’t care. She’ll just give you a list of grown-up solutions again.

  Amanda would be even worse from now on if I did that right in front of her.

  There’s a way out.

  But it’s against every kid rule.

  “Elise.” Ms. Hadley halted all the whirring. “You are facing suspension.”

  I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t rat out Franklin. But I looked at Amanda, whose face had twisted into an evil smirk.

  “There is someone else who knows the combination,” Amanda said. “Elise’s boyfriend. He gets her work if she’s out sick.”

  “He’s not my boyfriend,” I mumbled, staring down at my jeans. My heart thundered in panic. What had Franklin planned to do with the empty shaving-cream can? Was it in his backpack? His locker? A trash bin in a classroom? Franklin was thorough, right? He took care of details like that?

 
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