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       Eight Keys, p.13

           Suzanne LaFleur
 
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  I took the two scrapbooks to Uncle Hugh in his workshop.

  “Yeah, that’s Leonard,” he confirmed.

  “So are all these …?” I flipped through the pictures with the fourth boy.

  “All Leonard. Aw, look at him little. Look at all of us. Where’d you get this?”

  “Upstairs. The next room’s about Dad.”

  “The next room? How’d you get into it?”

  “A key showed up.”

  “Jiminy, Cricket.”

  “Jiminy, Uncle.”

  He was studying the pictures, so I let him hold on to the books and went back upstairs.

  The next book I found was all about Dad and Leonard. The two of them had had such a good time. It made me miss Franklin. And it made me miss Dad a little.

  Which gave me an idea.

  “Hey, Leonard,” I said, surprising him where he was stamping prices on boxes of nails.

  “Hey there, Cricket. Alone again?”

  “Yeah.” I followed him back to the storage room. “I’m here to call in my birthday present: one day-trip to a place of my choice.”

  “Where do you want to go?”

  “The old lake.”

  “You do? When we could go see a 3-D movie and eat a big bucket of popcorn and wear funny glasses?”

  “Yep.”

  “When we could drive into the city to go to the aquarium and watch the sharks get fed?”

  “Yep.”

  “When we could wait until spring and go to the amusement park and eat too much cotton candy and ride on the roller coaster and listen to me complain about how my body’s too old for those things?”

  “Yep.”

  “You know we’ll do all of those things anyway.”

  “Yep.”

  “When do you want to do this?”

  “Next week? We have days off for Thanksgiving. You usually spend time with us then anyway.”

  “We’ll see. I’d need time to get ready for a trip like this.”

  “It’s not far, right?”

  “Not distance-far,” said Leonard. “Another kind of far.”

  Thanksgiving with Leonard

  Uncle Hugh knocked on my door.

  “Are you sick? It’s noon.” He came over, gently tugged on my ponytail, and put his hand on my forehead.

  “No fever,” he announced. “You sure you feel okay?”

  “I feel blaaaahhh.”

  “I didn’t know twelve-year-olds could feel blah on Thanksgiving.”

  “Twelve-year-olds feel whatever they want, whenever they want.”

  Uncle Hugh laughed. “Sit up.”

  I sat up.

  “You have pillow creases all over your face.” Uncle Hugh smoothed away the hair that had fallen out of my ponytail. “Tell me why you’ve spent this wonderful day with your face in a pillow.”

  “I’m tired,” I said, “and so happy not to be at school.”

  Thanksgiving made me want Christmas to come soon, but I wondered if it would feel lonely this year, without Franklin. Who would make his hot cocoa? No milk, he always reminds me. I know! I always say. And what about candy canes? There aren’t good ones at his house. His mom’s had the same candy canes on their Christmas tree for ten years. Nobody’s allowed to eat them; they’re for “decoration.”

  “Get up,” Uncle Hugh said. “Get dressed. Beau, Sally, and your cousins will be here soon and Aunt Bessie needs your help in the kitchen. She wants to make an apple pie while the turkey thaws.”

  “Okay. But I’m not getting dressed up.”

  “Okay. Make sure your sneaks are sloppily tied and your socks don’t match, and for heaven’s sakes, don’t comb your hair.”

  “Deal.”

  I’d never made an apple pie before. It took way longer than applesauce. We peeled the apples, cut the apples, sugared the apples—then there was the crust, which was a whole other story. Aunt Bessie let me take some of the leftover dough to decorate the top of the pie; I made leaves and apples with cookie-cutters.

  Annie mixed the stuffing for the turkey. Ava was in her high chair, in a happy, gurgly mood. After I finished the pie, I took charge of entertaining Ava. I put a metal mixing bowl on my head, tapped it with a wooden spoon, and made a funny face to go along with each tap. She let out bursts of laughing squeals.

  “Hey, Cricket.”

  I turned around. “Hi, Leonard.”

  “Ready to go?” he asked.

  “Right now?”

  “Yes, right now.”

  “Aunt Bessie asked me to help her.… ”

  “You helped,” she said. “We knew he was coming. That’s part of why we needed to get you dressed.”

  They’re all so sneaky.

  The drive to the old lake took an hour. I’d expected a sandy beach, but after parking we had a bit of a hike. The path was covered with brown, crunchy leaves, and the only way you could really see it was because the trees were a little farther apart. But Leonard knew the way.

  “There she is,” Leonard said finally. “We’d walk up here, sit on these rocks, and just talk.”

  “Okay.” We sat, but didn’t start talking. I looked out at the smooth water, dark and far away.

  We must have been thinking about the same person.

  Would the water freeze soon? Did Dad and Leonard go ice-skating here in the winter? Maybe they swam there in the summer, or looked for frogs like me and Franklin liked to do.

  I sighed. “It must be lonely, when your best friend is gone forever.”

  “It can be,” Leonard said.

  “Were you guys friends till the end?”

  “Till the end.”

  “So you were friends for years and years?”

  “Our whole lives. Or, maybe it makes more sense to say, for your dad’s whole life.”

  “Did you fight, ever?”

  “Sure.”

  I was quiet. Leonard said, “Think Franklin’ll be coming by the store with you soon?”

  “No,” I said, in a tiny voice.

  Leonard took a turn being quiet. Then he said, “A good friend is one of the hardest things to keep in this life. Don’t forget that sometimes you have to work at it.”

  But I had forgotten, before I’d even learned.

  “I don’t feel different,” I said finally. “I thought I would feel different. You said you always felt different after you went to the lake. I thought it would help, to do something that worked for Dad.”

  “Just going to the old lake doesn’t fix anything, you know. It’s how you change at the lake. You go away, think about things, and you come back a little bit different. Only you can change what you are.”

  That sounded like things Uncle Hugh had been saying and Dad had written.

  I let Leonard’s last sentence repeat in my head. I let it whir and whirl. I let the wind swirl it around and around me and then carry it away. It carried it out across the smooth water of the lake, making ripples that were not smooth, but became smoothed out again.

  “Do you like what I am?”

  “What?”

  “Do you like what I am?”

  “I always love our Cricket, whatever she is.” He paused. “The better question is, do you like what you are?”

  I waited, then said, “I don’t.”

  “I want to hear the whole thing, from the beginning, up to how we got here right now. Start talking, Cricket.”

  Something to Believe In

  On Sunday morning, I found another key.

  This one was on my dresser next to some clean socks Aunt Bessie had dropped off. Was it from her? I doubted it, for some reason. It could have been there for days.

  After this one there would be just one more key. And maybe then I would learn who the mysterious key-giver was. Who would send a key from California? The person who left all the rest of the keys had to be someone who could get in the house—or somebody already in it. Unless the keys were coming from Somewhere Else … through a time warp or by angel messenger or …

>   I pushed those thoughts out of my mind to deal with later and headed outside.

  This room looked like the library, except smaller, without the desk.

  Why would Dad give me another room full of books? But the room had books from floor to ceiling anyway, with the exception of a mirror sitting on one of the shelves. I scanned some of the titles. Taoism. Native American Myths. The Historical Jesus. Nothing interesting. I pulled one off the shelf. It looked like hard reading.

  The message on the floor said, BELIEVE.

  The books were all things to believe in.

  The mirror was kind of a weird addition. I stared at my reflection.

  And suddenly, that made sense, too.

  I was also supposed to believe in myself.

  At lunch, Franklin walked by our table, looking for a place to sit. Caroline waved at him. He waved back but kept going.

  Caroline turned to me. “What are you working on?” She looked at the loose-leaf paper and mechanical pencil I was hiding under the table.

  “The poetry assignment,” I said. Our usual paragraph assignment had turned into poems for the rest of the unit. “I’m really sick of writing poems. I just don’t get what they should be about.”

  “What have your other ones been about?” Caroline asked.

  “Dumb things. Springtime. Winter.”

  “Do you really care about winter?”

  I shook my head.

  Caroline looked over a few tables, where Franklin was eating a sandwich (probably bologna with yellow mustard) and talking with Diana, who was in an orange sweatshirt with a black cat on it, looking like Halloween.

  Then Caroline started reading, letting me do my homework. I liked having her just sit next to me while the thoughts whirred in my head.

  I decided to finish my homework at home and started to eat. My peanut butter sandwich that was not flattened or smooshed or crushed or hurt in any way. It still stuck to the roof of my mouth and in my throat just as much.

  I looked around for Amanda. She was several tables away, laughing with Kate and Lindsay and a couple boys.

  “What’s Amanda’s deal, anyway?” I asked.

  “I don’t know,” Caroline said. “She wasn’t always like this.”

  “I saw her with her brother once. He and his friends weren’t that nice to her.”

  “No, they aren’t.”

  “But just because someone is mean to her doesn’t give her the right to be mean to other people.”

  Then a funny feeling squirmed inside me. Like I was to Franklin?

  The truth was, it wasn’t just the not-fessing-up in the principal’s office that was wrong between me and Franklin. I hadn’t been nice to him all year. I called him names. I didn’t like to do things with him the way I had before because I was worried about what other people would think. He embarrassed me, even though I should have been happy to have such a good friend. I really hadn’t been a good friend to him for a long, long time.

  • • •

  I took a deep breath and dialed.

  Mrs. White answered. “Hello?”

  “Hi. Is Franklin there?”

  “Oh, hi, Elise. Let me go see if I can find him.”

  I waited. She would know exactly where he was; she meant “Let me see if he wants to talk to you.”

  “I’m sorry,” she said. “He’s doing homework right now and doesn’t want to be interrupted. Maybe try him tomorrow?”

  “Uh, okay, thanks,” I managed to say. “Bye.”

  “Oh, and Elise?”

  “Yeah?”

  “Thank you for calling.”

  I hung up.

  A Lifetime Supply of Questions

  When Mrs. Wakefield said it was time to have someone share her poem, I expected her to call on Caroline. She called on her almost every week.

  “Elise, come up and share with us.”

  I was so surprised I stayed in my seat staring at her until Caroline poked me in the back.

  I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read my poem in front of everyone, but I stood up and took my paper from Mrs. Wakefield. It shook a little in my hands. I cleared my throat.

  Hiding

  The real me is hiding.

  I thought that you were my disguise.

  I thought that you blocked people’s eyes.

  Now you are gone, but I’m the same,

  On my own, trapped in a game.

  I do not like the me I see.

  I wish that you were still with me.

  Why did the real me go to hide?

  Can I find her still inside?

  The real me is hiding.

  “Great job, Elise,” said Mrs. Wakefield.

  “I don’t get it,” said a boy named Greg.

  “Elise, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your poem?”

  I thought. “I guess it’s about things being different than they seem. And about … losing track.”

  “I think this poem is very interesting because it includes so many elements,” Mrs. Wakefield said. “There’s loss, self-reflection. Those are just a couple of them. Great work, Elise.”

  I sat down and glanced at Franklin. He didn’t look up from the rocket ship he was designing on his gridded notebook page. I wondered if he’d even listened.

  I read Mrs. Wakefield’s comment on the paper: I hope you share more of your great thoughts with me!

  Caroline beamed at me. Then she flicked a small piece of paper from the top of her desk to mine. I opened it.

  It said,

  See?

  I smiled back.

  • • •

  Uncle Hugh and Aunt Bessie were happy when I showed them what Mrs. Wakefield had written. And that night it was easier to sit down and do my homework. I kept my math paper smooth and nice, and did all my graphing in sharp colored pencil. When I got it back two days later, there was a big check plus on it.

  And when we had to recite a poem for Mrs. Wakefield, I practiced and practiced and remembered every single word.

  Then a really good thing happened and that was that I studied enough for the next science test to get a ninety-five.

  After that, my work didn’t scare me anymore. I just did it, and things started to go well more often.

  And then one day I came home to the library, and on my desk was the last key.

  This room was probably the strangest of all, besides the room that had had nothing in it, of course.

  There were no books or pictures, no journals or scrapbooks. There was a message. It said QUESTION.

  A million pieces of paper with what looked like single sentences written on them were taped all over the walls.

  I looked closer. They were all questions.

  Some questions had quotations and a name underneath, and some were on their own, as if anyone could have asked them.

  “Where did I leave my keys?”

  —John

  “Where are Elise’s shoes?”

  —Hugh

  “How are you feeling today?”

  —Bessie

  “Please ice cream for dinner?”

  —Elise

  “Did anyone see where I put my book?”

  —Hugh

  “Did you eat your vegetables?”

  —Bessie

  What is the point of this life?

  Why do we have to grow up?

  Does it matter that cheese is actually just really old milk?

  “Why don’t we ever have any beans when I need them?”

  —Hugh

  “What is Hugh talking about?”

  —John

  “Do elephants think really big thoughts?”

  —Alec

  “Well, do giraffes think really tall thoughts?”

  —Jake

  Why is the right thing to do so often the hardest thing to do?

  “Can I color now?”

  —Elise

  There were too many to read all at once. And they made me a little sad, thinking of all those family moments I had forg
otten.

  But mostly I felt confused. I had opened every locked room. I thought all my questions would be answered, but instead I’d found a million more.

  “Elise, come to my desk, please.”

  Oh, super-great. I hadn’t been in trouble at school in a long time.

  But when I got to Mrs. Wakefield’s desk, she handed me a note and said, “Caroline is absent today; her mom called and asked that you bring her homework, if you can. Here’s her address.”

  “I can,” I said. Phew. That was not scary after all.

  When I sat down, nosy Amanda peered at the note.

  “I’ll bring Caroline her homework,” she said. “She’s my friend.”

  Mrs. Wakefield overheard and said, “Caroline’s mother wants Elise to do it. Please don’t worry, Amanda; it doesn’t concern you.”

  See, Amanda, I thought. Caroline is done with you.

  I paid attention to all the assignments that day so I would be a good homework-bringer. I didn’t know who Caroline’s locker partner was, so I couldn’t get her books. But maybe she had some of the right ones at home already anyway, or I could lend her mine.

  After I called Aunt Bessie to ask for a ride home later, I walked to the address on the paper. It was on Main Street, the same as Leonard’s store. I remembered Caroline saying it was over the deli.

  I let myself in the lower door, which was open, walked up the stairs, and knocked.

  Caroline’s mom answered. Her soft-looking clothes made me think of Aunt Bessie. “Oh, hello. You must be Elise.” She gave me a big smile.

  “Yep. I have Caroline’s stuff.”

  “That’s right … she said specifically to ask for you. I don’t know why she couldn’t just call someone, but here you are. She didn’t come out all day, except to make a tuna fish sandwich at lunch. Why you’d eat stinky tuna in your bedroom, I don’t know, but it’s her room.”

  Caroline’s mom seemed like the opposite of Franklin’s mom. If Franklin’s mom didn’t understand having a friend stop by when you were sick or eating tuna fish in your room, then it wouldn’t happen.

  She let me into the apartment. The living room, dining room, and kitchen were all open to each other. Caroline’s sisters played on the living room floor. They were maybe two and four, wearing pajamas in the late afternoon. They looked like mini Carolines.

 
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