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       Eight Keys, p.15

           Suzanne LaFleur
 
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  It took me, Uncle Hugh, and Leonard to get the tree in the house. Then we had to set it up straight in the stand, but Annie kept saying it was tipping to the right, and then we’d lean it the other way and Aunt Bessie would say it was tipping left. Finally, when the tree was up, I helped Aunt Bessie find the decorations in the attic.

  Then I gave Annie Ava’s little present.

  “How wonderful!” she said. “This is Ava’s first ornament. That was really thoughtful of you, Elise.”

  “I thought it might be nice, because it’s also her first time coming to the family decorating. I thought something should be hers.”

  Then we tested all the strings of lights and fixed the broken ones.

  The day was so busy that I didn’t get a chance to think about working in the empty room. But that, I guess, was part of the point.

  On Sunday morning, Aunt Bessie decorated the rest of the house. I helped her set out candles and put garlands on the mantels and banisters. Then she started on the next round of Christmas baking. I helped her roll out the dough and used the cookie cutters to press out stars, hearts, Christmas trees, angels, wreaths, bells, and snowmen. I mixed colored icing to decorate them with. Somehow I got covered with flour and confectioner’s sugar.

  The doorbell rang in the early afternoon.

  Franklin!

  “Hey! Merry Christmas!”

  “Merry Christmas!”

  “You’re just in time to decorate cookies.”

  “Awesome.”

  I got Franklin an extra apron, and I made a big streak of flour across the front of it for him.

  “Now it’s like you’ve been here the whole time.”

  “Thanks.”

  And we set to work.

  It was my first Christmas morning with someone younger around. Ava made it fun because there were a lot of Santa Claus presents for her and soon there was crumpled wrapping paper thrown everywhere and lots of noisy baby toys to catch her attention. She had recently learned to scoot around on her bum, but Annie was careful not to let her scoot too far in all the debris. Annie held her fingers so that she could stand up and not go anywhere while I showed her all her new toys.

  Christmas dinner was in the dining room. Dresses for all the girls, even Ava, and suits for Uncle Hugh and Leonard. Annie held Ava in her lap, but she got passed around from person to person so everyone could eat. I took a turn with her during dessert. They said I could let her taste the cake and ice cream, so I fed her a little. She seemed to think cake and ice cream were the best foods ever, because she kept opening her mouth again and looking at me, and then she gave up waiting for me and stuck her hand right into my ice cream.

  “Can I ask some questions?” I asked during a lull in the conversation. “Did Dad build those little rooms? When he was sick?”

  Uncle Hugh and Leonard looked at each other.

  “Don’t forget that his brother’s a carpenter and his best friend owns a hardware store,” Aunt Bessie said. “Let’s assume he had help. And there’s the elevator to move stuff upstairs.”

  “So you were all in on it, from the beginning?”

  “More or less,” Leonard said.

  “What do you think of it all, Elise?” Uncle Hugh asked. It made me feel grown-up, him calling me Elise and not Cricket.

  “I think it was a good idea. I wouldn’t have thought about things the way I do now without it. Like all those books would have been just something in the house that I didn’t pay attention to, but now they mean something to me. And Miles the bear. You said I didn’t like Miles when I was little, and he was about to fall apart back then, so it was nice that he was set aside because now he matters to me. And even the pictures. We have loads of pictures in the house, but I don’t really look at them.”

  I paused for a minute, not sure if I was ready to talk about my secret hope.

  “Part of me … wanted to think … that Dad was leaving the keys, that he was still here. But that wouldn’t have made sense. He wouldn’t have been hiding all that time. You had the keys, didn’t you?” I asked Aunt Bessie.

  “Two of them.”

  “And I had two,” Uncle Hugh added.

  And Leonard: “Me too.”

  “Whose was from California?”

  “That was one of mine. Sent to a friend to send to you to keep you wondering,” Leonard confessed.

  “And two of them,” I realized, “were from Dad himself. One left in the barn and one on the shelf in the library. But then why didn’t you just give them to me? Why did you make me wait for years and years?”

  “He told me—I don’t know about anybody else—to wait until I thought you were ready,” Uncle Hugh said. “You started opening the doors yourself, and, to be honest, I wasn’t sure that you were ready. It was Bessie who gave you that next key. She said you must have learned what your dad hoped you would from the first room when you went to visit your mom.”

  “Why do you think he spread them out?” I asked.

  “Well, each of us might have had different ideas of when you were ‘ready,’ ” said Aunt Bessie.

  “Are you all finished, then?” asked Leonard. “Have you gotten all the keys?”

  “Yes, but I still have something left to do.”

  “What’s that?”

  “Take care of the empty room.”

  • • •

  When Christmas was over, it was finally time to focus on my project, and I had the whole rest of break to work on it. I asked Uncle Hugh if he could drive me to a few places and help me pay for a couple things. He took me to a drugstore to have several photos blown up, and then to a craft store to pick out frames and other supplies. Uncle Hugh paid for everything, without even saying anything about what it cost.

  I took everything up to the empty room.

  It wasn’t so empty now.

  On the last day of vacation, my friends came over.

  Caroline got dropped off first.

  “Hi, Elise!” She ran up the steps of the front porch, where I was waiting in my coat and gloves and scarf.

  “Happy New Year!”

  Soon Franklin arrived.

  “Hi, Elise; hi, Caroline.”

  “I have something I want to show you guys,” I said. “Come on.”

  I led them up to the no-longer-empty room.

  On the walls were the pictures Uncle Hugh had helped me blow up and frame. One of him and Aunt Bessie. One of me playing with Ava at Christmas. One of Mom and Dad, and one of me and Dad. Several of me and Franklin growing up—grinning without our front teeth, playing outside the summer we were seven, building a snowman when we were eight—and one of me and Caroline that Aunt Bessie had taken at the school holiday concert.

  “Maybe we can get some more pictures,” I said to Caroline.

  “We will!”

  On the opposite wall I’d taped artwork and school projects; my poem with Mrs. Wakefield’s comment; my terrific science test.

  I’d found a small table that Uncle Hugh said he didn’t need anymore, so I brought that up in the elevator (finally! I got to ride in that elevator!). On the table, I put a composition notebook collaged with magazine cutouts of food called Elise’s Recipes (inside were cooking instructions for things I’d helped Aunt Bessie make) and my sword from Knights.

  Hanging above the table was a large key ring with seven keys. The eighth key was still on the chain around my neck.

  “How did you know this was what you were supposed to do?” Franklin asked.

  “I think Dad was saying, ‘You can make this room whatever you want. You can make you whatever you want,’ ” I explained. “So I picked things that were most important to me.”

  “We’d like to be invited in, too,” said Uncle Hugh from the doorway.

  “Come in!” I said.

  They took a look around. Aunt Bessie folded me into a hug. I could smell something to do with cooking on her clothes, and underneath that, her lavender soap. Her long braid brushed my cheek.

  “Bess,” Un
cle Hugh said. “Come see this.”

  He had found the plastic paper-stand on the table.

  It said:

  TEN REASONS I AM GLAD TO BE ELISE BERTRAND

  1. I have the Best Family in the Whole World (especially Uncle Hugh and Aunt Bessie).

  2. I also have the Greatest Friends (Franklin and Caroline).

  3. I’m learning to be a better friend.

  4. I have all these great thoughts whirring in my head.

  5. I’m doing better at school.

  6. One day I’m going to be a great cook, like Aunt Bessie.

  7. My mother loved me before I was even born.

  8. My dad knew me for only a little while, but I know that he loved me because he took the time to make this puzzle for me, even though he was very sick.

  9. I’m not going to let either of them down.

  10. I’m not going to let myself down.

  It was starting to get dark out.

  “We ought to head in for dinner,” Uncle Hugh said, and led Caroline and Franklin down the stairs.

  Aunt Bessie turned back and called, “Sloppy joes. Don’t miss them.”

  I looked at the room I’d filled. I felt so different than I had at my birthday.

  “It’s nice,” I said, “for certain things to stay the same.”

  “Yes, it is,” Aunt Bessie said. “Come on, my wonderful Elise.”

  I left the door open when I went downstairs.

  About the Author

  When Suzanne LaFleur was growing up, she loved spending time outside, swimming, reading, and writing. These are still her favorite things to do. She divides her time between Natick, Massachusetts, and New York City. Visit her on the Web at suzannelafleur.com.

 


 

  Suzanne LaFleur, Eight Keys

 


 

 
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