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       Eight Keys, p.14

           Suzanne LaFleur
 
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  “Her room’s the last one down the hall. She’s still resting.”

  I went to the end of the hall and knocked on Caroline’s door. “It’s Elise.”

  “Oh, come in!”

  I opened the door. Caroline was dancing around in a white sweatshirt and pajama pants. She hopped over and shut the door behind me.

  “Here’s your homework list.” I felt confused. This Caroline didn’t look sick or resting.

  “Thank you.” She set the list on her desk. Then she looked at me with an expectant face.

  “Okay, well, feel better?”

  “Elise,” Caroline whispered. “I have a secret.”

  “What is it?”

  “It’s asleep on my pillow.”

  I looked over at her bed. There was a tiny gray-striped kitten, curled up.

  “Oh, cute!”

  “Shhh, shhh!” Caroline hissed. “Secret!”

  “Oh, right,” I whispered, suddenly understanding the mystery of tuna-in-bed. “Can I hold him?”

  “Sure.” Caroline scooped up the kitten and handed him to me. We both sat on the bed.

  “He’s sweet and sleepy,” I said. “Where’d he come from?”

  “I rescued him. Found him outside, just dumped by the road. There were other kittens with him, but …”

  I guessed they didn’t make it. The look on Caroline’s face … “Where does he go to the bathroom?”

  “I have a little box for him in the closet.”

  I let the kitten go and he stumbled over to Caroline’s lap. “I wasn’t really sick today. I just wanted to stay with him.”

  “Um … how long can you keep him secret?”

  “That’s the thing. Probably no time at all. I’ve got to get him out of here. No room for extras at our house. Says Dad, anyway.” She looked at me. “You guys have space. You could have a kitten.”

  “Can’t. Uncle Hugh’s allergic.”

  “Oh.” Her face fell.

  “I do know someone … who has never had a cat but is completely obsessed with them. She’d probably take him. Or at least find him a good home.”

  “You sure?”

  I nodded. “Positive.”

  When Franklin saw me standing in front of his locker, he rolled his eyes and put a scowl on. I handed him a note. “You don’t have to talk to me. This is for Diana. Tell her to be there today, after school. You can come, too, if you want.”

  “You want to hang out with Diana?”

  “No, just … you’ll see. Just see if you can get her there … in front of the deli.”

  Franklin shrugged. “Sure, whatever.”

  After school, when Caroline’s mom took her sisters to their swimming lessons, Caroline and I put the kitten in a box and brought it down to the sidewalk. I wrote Diana on the box.

  “Bye, Tommy,” Caroline whispered to the kitten. “I’ll miss you.”

  “Maybe you can go and visit.” She seemed sad, so I slipped my elbow through hers as we walked upstairs.

  We knelt on her couch, watching out the window.

  “There they are!”

  It was Franklin who noticed the box, pointed to it. Diana seemed puzzled, but opened it. Then she looked surprised and excited, and lifted Tommy out. Franklin was peering up and down the street, probably for me. He didn’t look up, though, so he didn’t see me. I giggled. For the first time in ages I thought about Franklin and actually felt happy, like laughing. Even without me, Franklin was out there, being Franklin.

  We watched them walk away.

  “Are you friends with her?” Caroline asked. “Diana?”

  “No, but Franklin is.”

  “Why would you give her a kitten, if she isn’t your friend?”

  “I don’t know.” I paused. “It just seemed like the right thing to do.”

  We both turned back into the room and sat for a minute, in our own thoughts.

  “Hey, Caroline?”

  “Yeah?”

  “Will you come over to my house? Maybe tomorrow? I want to show you something.”

  Caroline came home with me the next day. We went up to the room of questions and she read the walls for a long time. Then we sat on the floor. “What was in the other rooms?”

  “Well”—I counted on my fingers—“there was a room about Mom, a room about Dad, a room about Uncle Hugh, a room about me and Dad together, Dad’s library, a room about believing, an empty room, and this.”

  Caroline thought for a few minutes. “I’ll be right back.”

  She returned with several sheets of paper, a marker, and a roll of masking tape from the library desk. “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

  “What?”

  “I don’t think we’ll solve this. I think we’re supposed to join in. That’s what the message says to do. What do you want to ask?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “Fine, I’ll start.” She knelt and wrote: Why did Elise get a room full of questions? She taped the paper to the wall.

  “Your turn.” She handed me the marker.

  “I don’t know what to write.”

  “Start with something easy.”

  I thought and still didn’t know what to write.

  Caroline took back the marker. She wrote, Why do we have boogers? and taped it up.

  I laughed. “Do you really want to know the answer?” (Franklin probably knew it.)

  “No.” She laughed, too. “But it’s a good question. Oh! I have another.” She wrote and didn’t let me see, then she hung the paper: What would you put in your pocket if people had pockets like kangaroos?

  “Aren’t those pouches?”

  Caroline taped up a fourth paper: What’s the difference between pockets and pouches?

  By this point we were both giggling again.

  Caroline handed me the marker. “Go on.”

  I wrote, Why is the sky blue?

  “Good one,” Caroline said as I added my question to the wall. “Now things we actually want to know.”

  She wrote: Why do I hate getting sand between my toes?

  I thought, then wrote, Why do beets taste so gross?

  Caroline laughed, and then became serious. “Okay. Real ones now. About things that matter.”

  I wrote: Why did I get an empty room?

  And: Where did all the keys come from?

  Then: Will Franklin forgive me?

  Caroline looked at that, crossed it out, and wrote, How can I show Franklin that I still want to be friends? She squeezed my hand for a second, then let go.

  I walked around the room, reading old questions that I hadn’t looked at yet.

  Then I came to this one:

  What will my Elise be?

  “Would you watch Ava for an hour?” Annie found me on the porch, waving to Caroline as she left with her mom.

  “I don’t know how.”

  “Don’t be silly. You play with her all the time. She’s been fed and changed and just needs someone to be with her. I want to run to the store with Bessie and we’ll be in and out quicker without her. I wouldn’t ask you if I didn’t know it would be okay. And just in case, my cell-phone number is on the kitchen counter.”

  “Okay,” I said. She handed Ava to me. She’d grown since she’d come to live with us.

  Maybe Annie could see that in me, too, and not just Ava. Maybe that was why Annie wouldn’t have left me alone in the house with Ava three months ago, but it was okay now.

  Aunt Bessie and Annie left.

  “Hi, Ava,” I said, imitating Annie’s gentle Ava-voice. “How about we go ride in the swing?”

  I carefully pushed her legs through the openings in her swing, sat her down, buckled her in. Then I set the pace of the swing and stepped back. Ava was smiling, so I guess it was a good idea.

  “Why are you here, Ava?”

  Ava burbled.

  “Why are you here, in my house?”

  “Ous.”

  “Anyway, now I think it’s good you’re here.”

  “G
oo?” she asked.

  “Yes, goo.”

  That night, I collected all my messages from Dad.

  There were seven.

  QUESTION.

  BELIEVE.

  CHOOSE TO LIVE, CHOOSE TO LOVE.

  KNOW WHAT YOU COME FROM.

  SEEK TO LEARN.

  UNDERSTAND THOSE YOU LOVE.

  TREASURE YOUR LIFE.

  I spread them out in a circle around me on my bedroom floor. They all seemed to be about deciding what was important in your life.

  But there had been eight keys, and only seven messages, so what was that empty room for?

  I could only imagine.

  And then I realized: that was the point.

  I knew what the eighth room was for.

  It was for me to decide.

  It could be whatever I needed it to be, whatever I wanted it to be.

  And the truth, I suddenly understood, was that so could I.

  Part III

  Settling Up with Friends and Foes

  The next morning I got up really early for a cooking project. Then Uncle Hugh drove me to school. I waited by Franklin’s locker with a thermos of milk-free hot cocoa and an envelope.

  When the bus kids started streaming in, I looked for Franklin. He seemed kind of gloomy.

  “It’s for you.” I held out the thermos. “And this,” I added, handing him an envelope. “You don’t have to read it now. When you want to.”

  He took the envelope and the thermos and put them on the top shelf of his locker. I started to leave, but then I turned back and asked, “Do you hate me?”

  Franklin took a minute to answer. “If I hated you, I would have turned you in.”

  I didn’t know what to say to that, so I said, “We have a puzzle to finish, you know. I can’t do it by myself. Uncle Hugh had to move it for Thanksgiving, but we should finish it before Christmas so Aunt Bessie can use the table for dinner.” Franklin didn’t say anything. “Well, anyway, read the note, if you want to.” Then I managed to walk away.

  Inside the envelope was a list:

  TEN REASONS FRANKLIN IS A GOOD FRIEND

  1. He’s always willing to help, even if he could get in trouble for it.

  2. He’ll always cover for you to keep you from getting in trouble.

  3. He’s trustworthy.

  4. He’s so smart. He uses his ideas to help you, and he wants you to know all the interesting things he knows.

  5. He’s fun to spend time with.

  6. He doesn’t get mad at you if you call him names (though he doesn’t deserve to be called them). He knows that he is none of those yucky things.

  7. He seems at home at my house.

  8. He has always been there, since I was little.

  9. Things aren’t the same without him.

  10. He is forgiving.

  PS I’m really, really sorry. I’m going to try harder to be a good friend from now on.

  Later, I thought I could see the shadow of a hot-chocolate mustache on Franklin’s upper lip.

  I was sitting on the porch in my winter coat, waiting, when Franklin came by. I’d been hoping he would.

  “Hi.”

  “Hi.”

  He sat down next to me.

  We don’t hug, so I knocked a light fist against Franklin’s shoulder. Then we sat there for a few minutes, watching our breath curl and disappear in the cold air.

  “So … you good?”

  “I guess so.”

  “With me?”

  “I don’t know.”

  Why should he be? I took a deep breath. “I have to tell you some hard stuff.”

  “Hard stuff?”

  “Yeah, like what’s been up with me lately.”

  “Oh … go ahead.” Then Franklin waited, in his usual Franklin way, ready to listen.

  “At the beginning of the year, I started to feel embarrassed about some of the things we did together. I didn’t like getting made fun of at school. But even before school started, something felt different, even when we were by ourselves.”

  “I embarrassed you?” Franklin asked.

  I nodded. “I thought that some of the teasing and stuff would go away if I wasn’t so close to you. So I tried to show that I wasn’t. I’m really sorry that I did that.”

  “How sorry?”

  “Really, really sorry. More sorry than I’ve ever been, about anything. I want to be friends still, even if—and I know maybe I blew it—even if it won’t be the same.”

  Franklin thought for a while. I picked up a stick and started tracing the cracks between the wood slats of the porch.

  “I was really mad at you,” Franklin said finally. “You went from being the person who was nicest to me to the person who was meanest. Why didn’t you just tell me what was going on?”

  “I didn’t know that was what was going on. I had to figure it out.”

  “What about Caroline? Are you still going to be friends with her?”

  “Yeah,” I said. “I really like Caroline. And what about the people you’ve been hanging out with? Are you going to hang out with them still?”

  “Probably.”

  “That’s okay,” I said. “I’ve been thinking, because of the things Dad left me … the rooms and the messages. We have plenty of room for people … in our lives, I mean. Especially the ones who make us be the people we want to be. Because I really missed you, but I also missed … who I used to be with you … before. Do you know what I mean?”

  He nodded.

  “Do you remember when we pretended we’d found a cure for cancer?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Do you think we could really find one?”

  “Maybe, if we tried hard enough.”

  “That’s how my dad died.”

  “We’d need a time machine, too, then?”

  I nodded.

  Franklin did some more thinking. He said, “Can I have more cocoa now?”

  “Sure.”

  “No milk,” he reminded me.

  “I know.”

  We went inside and Franklin picked out some cookies and candy canes while I made the cocoa. Then we worked on our puzzle. There was a lot left, but we worked until all the stars were in place.

  In the morning I visited my own, faraway locker and then went back to meet Franklin at his.

  Suddenly, Amanda was there. Amanda, who had left me alone for weeks. She was furious.

  “Listen, Scab-Picker. What you did is not okay with me. You stole my best friend!”

  I stared at her. I knew what she was up to: a big fight in public, with her as the victim, to make me look like the jerk.

  “I didn’t steal anything!” I shouted. “Caroline is sick of you. She’s sick of you because you’re mean and disgusting and horrible. I don’t know why anyone would want to be friends with you. You don’t even care about Caroline. You only care about having people to follow you around so that you look cool. But you are really a big-time loser, and I’m not going to let you make me feel bad anymore.”

  Amanda looked like she’d been punched. It was even more fun to say all that stuff to her than it would have been to punch her.

  I waited for her to yell at me. But she didn’t. She just walked away.

  Maybe that wasn’t the end of it, but even though my heart was racing, I wasn’t scared of her anymore.

  “Nice,” Franklin said.

  “Thanks, Franklin.”

  He spun the dial on his lock, and we headed to class.

  Keeping the Keys

  With Christmas and vacation coming, it was a very busy week.

  On Monday, Caroline and I went Christmas shopping. She helped me pick out something great for Franklin, a model space shuttle for him to build.

  On Tuesday, Franklin and I studied at Caroline’s for our big math test. She got us each a pair of reindeer antlers that blinked red and green lights and played “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Franklin kept taking his off to figure out how they worked. Caroline squeezed mine to st
art the song again whenever I got the right answer. I must have heard it a hundred times!

  On Wednesday, we had our math test and then the school holiday concert at night; I told Uncle Hugh and Aunt Bessie not to come because it was going to sound horrible, particularly the solo by Diana the cat girl, but they came anyway. They always do. Diana’s singing turned out to be not completely horrible.

  On Thursday, Aunt Bessie and I baked five dozen cookies for me to give to my teachers.

  On Friday, we went to Uncle Beau’s for a holiday dinner. Jake and Alec taught me how to play their new game system.

  The next morning, the first of Christmas vacation, I found Uncle Hugh and Aunt Bessie at the kitchen table having breakfast. There was tons of food, so I helped myself to scrambled eggs, bacon, and Danish. I sat down and poured a mug of coffee. I took a swig and spat it back into the cup. “Ew.”

  “Allow me,” Aunt Bessie said, taking the mug and dumping it out in the sink. She then refilled it halfway with coffee and added milk and Ovaltine. “Mocha.” She handed it back.

  I tasted it. “Much, much better. Thanks.”

  Now that school was finally over, I planned to start working on the empty room.

  “Uncle Hugh, can you take me to get a few things?” I asked.

  “Well, this morning I’m heading out to get our Christmas tree—does that interest you?”

  “Yes!” It’s very important that I help pick out our Christmas tree, because Uncle Hugh likes his trees short and fat and Aunt Bessie likes hers tall and skinny. I find the most in-between tree I can: medium height, medium plumpness.

  Because it was vacation, I stayed in my pajama pants and just threw my vest on over my sweatshirt.

  “More than anything else, a tree is what makes it feel like Christmas inside the house. Especially for your Aunt Bessie,” Uncle Hugh said fondly in the car.

  After about half an hour or so of wandering the rows of trees and debating, we had a happy tree strapped to the roof of our car. While Uncle Hugh and one of the boys at the tree lot were getting it ready, Uncle Hugh let me go to the little red and green stand where you pay, and look at the ornaments for sale. I bought a snowsuited baby in a sleigh that said BABY’S FIRST CHRISTMAS for Ava.

 
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