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       Eight Keys, p.12

           Suzanne LaFleur
 
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“Who is this friend?” Ms. Hadley asked.

  “Franklin White.” Amanda was very excited. She knew that this would be the best way to get me back.

  Ms. Hadley paged someone to go get Franklin out of class.

  When Franklin arrived, he seemed to have trembly fingers, too.

  “Do you know why I have called you in here?”

  “No.” Franklin sat down.

  “Do you know why Elise is here?”

  “No.”

  “There was an incident involving Elise, Amanda, and a great deal of shaving cream. Were you aware of that?”

  “No.” I think he made a tiny mistake here. A friend who didn’t know that I was involved in an incident with Amanda and shaving cream would have acted more surprised and concerned.

  “It seems that there are only two people who could have played a prank on Amanda like the one that was performed today, and both of those people are sitting in front of me. If it’s true, Franklin, that you had nothing to do with it, the blame shall fall solely on Elise. Would that be fair? We are talking about suspension.”

  “I confess!” Franklin wailed dramatically. “I confess!” He threw his arms up and then slumped in his chair.

  “You did it?”

  “Yes. I filled Amanda’s lunch with shaving cream as an act of retaliation for the cruelty she has shown my friend Elise from the very first day of school.”

  “I see,” Ms. Hadley said. “No such cruelty has been brought to my attention before. While normally I would suggest that students work out their differences, I feel in this case that I will reassign your locker, Elise, to prevent another scene like today’s.” She wrote something on a slip of paper and handed it to me. “Bring that to the secretaries and they will reassign you.”

  “Now, as for the matter of this prank,” she continued. “Franklin, did you act alone, or did you and Elise act together?”

  “I … I acted alone,” Franklin said.

  “Elise?”

  This was the part when I was supposed to jump in and help Franklin, the friend who had tried to help me. This was the part when I would share the blame.

  I tried not to look at Amanda.

  How bad would things get if I said I was behind it? Even if I didn’t admit to it, Amanda would still assume I’d done it anyway, right? We wouldn’t be sharing a locker anymore, but she could still do awful things.

  What about everyone else, though? Would things go better with them if I didn’t have Franklin to make me look so silly? Hadn’t all the trouble started because people thought we were both little kids, Elise and Franklin, a pair, together all the time, exactly alike? I thought about the playing pretend and my injuries and the Star Wars toys all over the hallway. I could show now that I wasn’t so tied to him, that I wasn’t just a baby like him.

  I looked at Franklin, who would never let me down, and I suddenly felt so angry at him. He trusted me completely, and that hurt. I didn’t deserve that kind of trust.

  My mouth stayed shut.

  “Elise didn’t have anything to do with it?” Ms. Hadley turned to Franklin.

  “No,” Franklin said. “I acted entirely alone.”

  “Elise? Did you help?”

  I said, “No.”

  And Franklin got suspended by himself.

  I Am Garbage

  I curled up in my bed as soon as I got home.

  Aunt Bessie found me there a little while later. “Are you okay?”

  I didn’t answer.

  She tried again. “Lise?”

  She gave me another minute, then she said, “School called. Are you in your bed because you got in a fight? Are you hurt?”

  “I am garbage.”

  “You aren’t garbage.”

  “I am. Garbage.”

  I was garbage for knowing Franklin wouldn’t turn me in and saying nothing. For wanting so much to please Uncle Hugh and Aunt Bessie but not taking their advice.

  “Why didn’t you talk to a grown-up before fighting?” Aunt Bessie asked. It sounded like she was asking herself, not me.

  “When we tried to tell Ms. Hadley what Amanda had been doing, she didn’t really care.”

  “Did you tell her before you were in the fight, or after?”

  I didn’t answer.

  “They made me move lockers.”

  I’d loaded up all my books and gym stuff and carried them to my new locker, in a tucked-away corner beyond the eighth graders whose last names start with Z. A girl with a side pony and a tutu-material black skirt gave me a funny look as I fit the lock on the door and practiced the new combination.

  “How do you feel about that?” Aunt Bessie asked.

  “Kind of … lonely,” I said. “But nobody will smash my lunch.”

  “That’s a good thing, right?” she asked.

  “Amanda was being mean to me. She should have been moved.”

  “Everything changes when you physically fight back,” Aunt Bessie pointed out. “Then you’re equally at fault.”

  I sighed and slumped my face back against my pillow. Aunt Bessie squeezed her hands together.

  “I didn’t realize how bad things were.”

  I wanted to tell her that that wasn’t her fault, it was mine. But again, I kept my mouth shut.

  Later, Uncle Hugh came by.

  “Cricket?”

  “What?”

  “What are you doing?”

  “Staring at the wall.”

  “Good,” he said. “I don’t feel bad interrupting that. Sit up.” Uncle Hugh set a steaming plate on my desk. “Baked ziti tonight.” He paused. “Franklin’s mother called. She says he’s upset and won’t talk about it. She doesn’t think it’s just the suspension, because Franklin said he did the wrong thing and the punishment is fair. So …”

  “It’s me,” I admitted. “I’ve upset everyone. Even Aunt Bessie.”

  “It’s pretty hard to do that.”

  “Are you upset?” I asked.

  “I’m not pleased,” he said. “Why don’t you give Franklin a call?”

  I shook my head. I’d made a decision. I knew I’d lost him. That had been the idea.

  I just hadn’t realized how awful it would feel. I thought I would feel free. Maybe that would come later.

  “You should finish reading this.” Uncle Hugh held out the book from the barn, the one all about him.

  “Did you read it?” I asked, surprised.

  “I did. You should, too.”

  I opened to where I had left off, and read several little stories about how Hugh had been part of my life before Dad died. About how he took me on a trip to the zoo in the rain. About how he let me stand on a table to build a block tower seven feet high. About how he and Bessie came to live in our house to help out when Dad started going to the hospital.

  And then,

  … when Hugh met Bessie, things were just perfect. They got married within two years of meeting each other and talked about the family they would have, but a few years passed and it turned out that Bessie couldn’t have children.

  I thought a long time about who I should appoint as your guardian. I knew that if I left you with my brother Beau and his family, you’d grow up with brothers like I did, and your mother and I had always meant for you to have siblings. But my heart was telling me that you belonged with Hugh and Bessie. They always should have been parents, and, in some light, because Life seems to have a mind of its own, maybe you were destined to be their chance to have a family.

  I found Aunt Bessie in the living room.

  Aunt Bessie never really sits around. She always seems so busy.

  “What are you doing?” I asked.

  “Just reading before I clean up from dinner. The dishes are soaking.”

  “I’ll help.”

  “Okay.” She put her tired red leather bookmark in place and closed the book.

  “Or … I could do all the dishes.”

  I walked over to her, climbed into her lap. I’m much too big for that; hadn’t done it
in years and years, couldn’t even remember doing it, really. But I sat sideways with my legs on the couch. I put my arms around her neck and rested my head on her shoulder.

  She slipped her arms around me and held on.

  “I’m really sorry,” I said.

  “I know.”

  “You’re a good mom.”

  Aunt Bessie nodded, gave me a kiss on the cheek, and held me, just a little tighter than before.

  No More Franklin

  They made me go to school the next morning, even though I said I’d rather stay home. Especially because I said I’d rather stay home, because I said I wanted to pretend I was suspended, too.

  It was torture.

  Franklin wasn’t on the school bus, just like I knew he wouldn’t be. Were his parents mad at him for getting suspended?

  Franklin probably hated me.

  A big, empty table waited for me at lunch.

  I watched the kids coming into the cafeteria. Soon Caroline arrived, heading in Amanda’s direction. But then she passed table after table until she ended up at mine.

  “Can I sit with you?”

  “No. I’m pretty sure in a minute or two this table will be full.”

  “I’ve been trying to talk to you for days.”

  I ignored her and went back to my sandwich. Chew, chew. Chew, chew.

  “Look, you’re not the only person who’s just ditched your oldest friend. I want to talk to you!” Caroline looked mad. That was new. Well, I was super-mad myself.

  But it didn’t look like she was going anywhere. And what did she mean, ditched her oldest friend? I sighed. “It’s a free country.”

  Caroline sat across from me and took out her turkey and cheese, her container of peaches, her Snapple.

  “Why aren’t you sitting with them?”

  “I’ve been trying to tell you. After the other day, what Amanda did to you, we had a big fight.”

  Chew, chew. Chew, chew.

  “I thought I could be friends with everyone I wanted to, that I could go between as long as I didn’t get in anyone’s way. But Amanda … Anyway, I told her I wasn’t going to hang out with her anymore.”

  “So you gave up a lousy friend. Big deal.”

  “It is! We’ve been friends forever. And it also means I lose Kate and Lindsay, and Brennan and his friends, because Amanda’s always with them. It’s a lot.”

  Maybe that was a big deal. Maybe it was a big deal to decide to walk away from your friends, whatever the reason.

  “So anyway, I wanted to say that I’m sorry. I didn’t know that Amanda was being so mean to you. I thought it was just some name-calling. I didn’t know it was every day, and I didn’t know about your lunch. And then it took a while for it to sink in, what was really going on. I couldn’t believe it, how much she’d changed. I didn’t want to.”

  I was listening to her now, but something still seemed wrong. “So you think you can say all that and we’ll be friends, just like that?”

  “Hey. You don’t have the best track record, either. Look at Franklin.”

  My ears felt very hot.

  “But, whatever. You’ve always been nice to me. Even if you’re grumpy today.” Caroline decided to eat her sandwich then, as if she’d finally been invited to lunch. “I think you guys will work it out, though.”

  “No,” I said. “It didn’t make sense anymore, being friends.”

  “Make sense to who?”

  I thought of the raw feeling I’d had in my stomach since I’d left Ms. Hadley’s office. I wondered if Franklin had one, too. If he did, his was probably worse. Did he feel all ripped up? Squished really small? Smashed with the heel of a shoe, like a bug?

  What had really gone wrong with me and Franklin? And when? Why had being his friend gone from feeling just fine to feeling bad? And if it had felt bad to be his friend, why did it feel worse not to be?

  Caroline and I ate in silence. All that time she’d sat with Amanda when Amanda was being mean to me, and now she was willing to sit with me after I’d been horrible to Franklin. Maybe that didn’t make her awful. Maybe she stuck with people, gave them chances. Maybe that was what friends did. Franklin had given me a lot of chances.

  “What about the shaving cream in Amanda’s lunch? Doesn’t that bother you?”

  Caroline shrugged. “It’s not like you started it. She had it coming. Did Franklin really do that all by himself?”

  Well, Franklin really had taken care of everything, but … “He did it for me.”

  “Why can’t you be friends anymore? Are you sure?”

  I didn’t feel sure about anything.

  “Are you worried?” I asked.

  “About …?”

  “What Amanda will do to you.”

  “Oh no.”

  “No?”

  Caroline shook her head. Then she tapped it.

  “I’ve got six years of secrets up here. I don’t think she’ll be trying anything on me.”

  Aunt Bessie picked me up after detention. Amanda and I had earned ourselves a week’s worth. Uncle Hugh was waiting on the porch when I got home.

  “How’d it go?” he asked, patting the blue-painted boards next to him for me to sit down.

  I dropped my backpack and sat. “I had to scrape the gum off the bottom of desks with Amanda. For an hour.”

  “Did you talk? Work things out?”

  “No. She tried to leave gum wads where I could step in them.”

  “Things will get better,” Uncle Hugh said. “You will make them better.”

  “I can’t make anything better.”

  “On the contrary,” said Uncle Hugh. “You’re the only one who can. Start by calling Franklin.”

  “Are you going to make me do that?” I asked.

  “I’m not going to make you do anything. What kind of apology is ‘My uncle said I had to call you’? Anything you do should come from you.”

  Franklin was at school the next day. I left a seat open next to me on the bus, but he didn’t sit there. He passed my table at lunch, too. Those were the hardest tests yet. But I didn’t call after him. I didn’t try to explain. The next couple days after that went pretty much the same way.

  After my last detention I walked to Leonard’s. In front of the hardware store was a familiar car. Mrs. White’s.

  I thought about running away, but I was already too close. She spotted me when she climbed out of the car.

  “Elise!”

  “Uh, hi, Mrs. White. What are you doing here?”

  “I had to find a parking space. Franklin’s at the orthodontist”—she gestured to the dentist’s office next door—“getting fitted for braces. He has to have two teeth pulled. But you probably know all about that already.”

  Actually, I didn’t know anything about Franklin getting braces.

  I thought about the first time Franklin lost a tooth, in kindergarten. I wiggled it out for him. He cried when he saw all the blood, so I reminded him that it was good to lose a tooth. You got a treat at home under your pillow.

  Would Mrs. White give him a treat for having them yanked out at age eleven?

  She was standing next to me now.

  “So, Elise … What exactly happened between you and Franklin?”

  “Nothing.”

  “Really? Nothing?”

  “I have to go inside.”

  I turned, but Mrs. White started up again. “I know he acts like a tough guy, but he’s really hurting.”

  In what universe would Franklin be called a “tough guy”? Well, he hadn’t been acting upset at school. Maybe that was what she meant. What about at home? Maybe he still wasn’t talking about it there, either.

  “Why don’t you come over for dinner?” she offered. “We can all sit down together and talk things out.”

  “I can’t.” Would Franklin really be eating dinner with bloody gauze in his mouth? Would he feel like talking? And what would dinner be? Plain boiled veggies over steamed rice?

  “Maybe another night, th
en? Tomorrow?”

  “I said I can’t.”

  I knew she wanted to help, but it made me angry. This was what was wrong to begin with. Franklin was a baby. She treated him like a baby. Let him take care of his own problems.

  • • •

  I meant to do my homework. I really did. But I went to my bedroom and lay down with my head on the pillow. I reached my hands underneath it to scrunch it properly, and felt something small and metal.

  No way.

  I closed my hand around the key and headed out to the barn.

  Only three doors left.

  The one the key fit opened to a tiny room. The walls were covered with photographs. The name of each place was written on the matting around each picture. Geneva, Switzerland, and Beijing, China, and Johannesburg, South Africa, and about a hundred other places. One frame didn’t have a picture in it, but words: When I grew up, I was going to be an explorer.

  My dad hadn’t been an explorer, though. He’d worked in a bank.

  The room was different from Mom’s and Uncle Hugh’s not just because of the pictures. Their rooms were about what someone else thought was a good idea to know about them, but Dad’s room was what he wanted me to know about himself.

  This time, the note said, TREASURE YOUR LIFE.

  The part of Dad who had been a little boy had left a train set in the middle of the floor. The part who had been a teenager had left three shelves of trophies, certificates, and ribbons—sports awards, science fair medals. The college student left a bookshelf of notebooks and papers.

  There was a small journal explaining about him being sick. I had only heard that it was a kind of cancer that had spread even though they were trying to fight it. He got it about a year after my mom died. When he had started acting tired and sick, everyone had just assumed it was grief. But it wasn’t. It was a relief to know that Dad had died from something that didn’t have to do with me; it wasn’t my fault. It had nothing to do with being sad about Mom.

  There were a few scrapbooks. I really liked the one full of pictures of Dad, Uncle Hugh, and Uncle Beau as kids. They were doing happy things: playing at a lake, playing in the snow, fishing, riding bicycles.… Sometimes there was a fourth boy in the pictures. I’d have to ask Uncle Hugh who that was.

  Another book had wedding photos. Mom’s bridesmaids had been in blue—a younger Aunt Bessie was one—and Uncle Hugh and Uncle Beau were Dad’s groomsmen. The best man looked familiar.

 
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