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       Eight Keys, p.2

           Suzanne LaFleur
 
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  “Is there anything to finish?”

  “Nope. Actually, I just finished finishing.” Uncle Hugh chuckled to himself, rubbing his hands over the legs of a table. “I have to go out on deliveries.”

  “So there’s nothing we can help with?”

  “Not at the moment. But you’re welcome to play with the scrap pieces.”

  Uncle Hugh puts any extra small pieces in a bin for me and Franklin to build with and leaves out some nails and two hammers. We’ve made plenty of neat things. I looked at Franklin, who was still holding the torn-off piece of yellow paper and the pencil. He shook his head at me. “Not on the list.”

  “List—?” Uncle Hugh started, but then he changed his mind. Whenever he asks about what Franklin and I are up to, he gets a really long explanation that he’d rather not hear. “Well, I’m heading out. You can play with that stuff if you want. You know never to touch anything else in here. Just don’t tell your mother, Franklin, she wouldn’t like you in here on your own.”

  “Aye-aye,” Franklin answered, with a salute. Then he turned to me. “Frogs next, I think.”

  Franklin and I ran out of the barn and across the fields next to my house until they became a few sparse trees, until they became the woods, until we reached the stream.

  When we got there, we stood still, trying to slow our breathing, because it was hard to hear the frogs. Frogs don’t say “ribbit” or “croak” like everyone thinks they do. They sound like rubber bands. A whole concert of plucked rubber bands: bung, bung! After a minute of listening hard and hearing only the gentle movement of the stream, I said, “There are no frogs here.”

  “There have to be some,” Franklin said. “It’s still warm out.” He put the paper and pencil in his back pocket and sat down to pull off his shoes. Franklin’s mom insists on sneakers and socks every day. She doesn’t know that most days, at some point, Franklin leaves his shoes behind. Early in the summer I pulled a splinter out of his foot with tweezers because he didn’t want to have to tell her about it.

  Franklin stepped gently into the ankle-deep water and started looking along the moist rocks.

  “See anything?” I asked.

  “No.”

  “I told you, there are no frogs here. They’re all gone.”

  Franklin searched with his eyes. Then he sighed, giving up.

  “Slides?” I asked.

  “Oh!” Franklin took a small tube out of his pocket, uncapped it, and dipped it into the stream. “I want a sample of the water. We can look and see if there are any organisms in it.”

  “Good idea,” I said. I didn’t care quite as much about that stuff as Franklin, but I did have fun playing scientist with him all summer, pretending that we would discover something big.

  Franklin squished his wet feet back into his socks and shoes and we walked to his house. He’s one of my closest neighbors, but still, he lives pretty far away. You can’t see any other houses from mine.

  Franklin’s big farmhouse is a lot like ours, but it feels nothing like it on the inside. At our house there’s hustle and bustle and very few rules—at his there are plenty of rules and almost nothing going on.

  As soon as we got inside, his mother, tall and thin, swooped upon us.

  “Good morning, Elise. I assume you had a good breakfast?”

  “Good morning, Mrs. White,” I answered. “I—uh—forgot about breakfast.”

  Franklin’s face went expressionless. We both knew what was about to happen.

  “Well, come, come to the kitchen,” Mrs. White said. “We must have breakfast. I will make you eggs and toast. Franklin ate breakfast before he went over to fetch you.”

  Franklin gave me a smug look. We sat down at the kitchen table and he opened Scientific American and started reading. I waited for my fate, which was soon delivered in the form of over-easy eggs and unbuttered wheat toast. I said thank you and started eating. Mrs. White’s eggs seemed slimy compared to Aunt Bessie’s. Even Uncle Hugh’s are better. Even my own attempts at frying eggs are better.

  Franklin’s mother sat down with us and watched me eat as if it made her really happy.

  “There now. You know how important a good start is. Doesn’t anyone make sure you get breakfast?”

  Of course Aunt Bessie and Uncle Hugh make sure I eat, but I’m not a baby. They know I can make my own breakfast. Franklin has probably never made any food for himself.

  “They were both working this morning,” I said. “I’m in charge of my own breakfast.”

  I could tell Mrs. White didn’t think eleven-year-olds in charge of breakfast was a good idea.

  If that’s what natural parents are like, who needs them? I’d take Uncle Hugh and Aunt Bessie any day.

  I don’t really think about Mom or Dad much. They are mostly just an empty space inside me, a forgotten feeling from long ago. I never knew Mom at all, because she died when I was born, and Dad was gone when I was three. After the doctor told Dad he had a year or two to live, he wrote me a bunch of letters for my birthdays, so I hear from him once a year. Uncle Hugh has the letters—somewhere, I don’t know where, I’ve looked.

  I decided, as I finished the last runny bite of egg and abandoned the toast crust, that I would have to be more careful about truthful answers. It wouldn’t be such a harmful lie to say I’d already eaten, would it?

  Mrs. White cleared my empty plate. “What are you up to?”

  Franklin looked up from his magazine. “We’re going to look at my slides. I collected a new sample.”

  “That sounds fun. Be careful with the glass pieces, though.”

  “We will,” I promised. “C’mon.”

  Franklin and I went up to his room, where he cleared a bunch of other science projects off his desk and set up his microscope. He took out a slide and set it flat on his desk. He found the little tube in his pocket and carefully took off the top. He strapped on some safety goggles, closed one eye and concentrated with the other as he slowly dripped a couple drops of stream water onto the glass. Still working with one eye, he got another tiny glass plate and lowered it onto the first.

  “Ah! Help me!” I shrieked in a tiny, high-pitched voice.

  Franklin looked at me with his one open eye.

  “Those are the organisms,” I explained. “Screaming because they are squished.”

  “You should be wearing goggles,” Franklin said. “What if the glass breaks?”

  I got the other pair of safety goggles, the purple-tinted ones, and strapped them on. Wearing them makes the experiment feel more serious, but, at the same time, the fact that they are sized for an eight-year-old also makes the whole thing seem more silly. I felt like a bug, or like my eyes were squished organisms.

  Once the slide was secured under the clasps on the microscope, Franklin permitted our goggles to come off so that we could peer through the lens.

  “I see all kinds of cool things!” Franklin looked and looked, and I let him look, the way he lets me think.

  “I’m going to get to work on my sketch,” he announced finally, finding some graph paper on his bookshelf and setting his colored pencils out in front of him on the desk. It was my turn.

  I could make out green flecks speckling the clear water, but not whether they were moving or breathing or living at all. I don’t think I could see what Franklin saw. I looked for a long time anyway, pretending.

  I glanced at Franklin’s drawing so far. It had lots of little oblong shapes and ovals.

  I started my own drawing, but it was really a copy of Franklin’s. Every few minutes he looked through the lens again to get details right, which was when I would study his graph paper. Being a proper pretend scientist, I also got up to check the microscope every few minutes.

  “What do you think these little green blobbies do?” I asked.

  “Probably they cure cancer,” Franklin said.

  “Really, you think?”

  “Sure. We can bottle stream water and sell it.”

  “If the cure for cancer
was just drinking stream water, why wouldn’t everyone already be doing it?”

  “Well, you see the little purply specks?” Franklin asked.

  “Uh-huh.” Both of our drawings now had tiny purple dots.

  “Those are a terrible bacteria. They eat your innards from the inside out,” Franklin said. “They’d probably kill you faster than the cancer would.”

  “Oh no!” I acted stunned. “Well, it’s obvious what we need to do!”

  “I know!” Franklin said. “Separate the green blobbies out from the purple specks.”

  “But how?”

  “Spinning them really fast.”

  I picked up the tube where the leftover stream water was and started spinning around really fast. Franklin unlatched the slide and started spinning around, too. Soon we were dizzy and laughing. When Franklin started to slow down to catch his breath, I yelled, “No! Don’t stop! Spin faster!”

  We were interrupted by a knock on the door. Three hours had passed, and it was lunchtime. Mrs. White had already set plates on the table with ham sandwiches and five celery and five carrot sticks each. Franklin’s dad ate lunch with us, but he read the Wall Street Journal the whole time.

  After lunch, the thrill of science had worn off. We wandered back to my house.

  “How does the list look?” I asked Franklin.

  “Well …” He took the yellow paper out of his pocket. “No helping Uncle Hugh, no frogs, microscope done. Now for ice cream.”

  Aunt Bessie wasn’t home yet, so we waited on the porch. Franklin lay on his back and counted the boards in the ceiling. I noticed my backpack was still there, full of books and homework, but no way was I working on that. No way was that bag being opened. No way was it going inside, either. School would not enter my house yet.

  The awful girl at school … that was just a first-day thing, right? Maybe she was just being mean because she was nervous about starting school, too. Maybe over the weekend everyone would forget about it.

  Aunt Bessie finally drove up with her truck full of empty trays (we were allowed to carry those), several plastic containers of leftovers, and two big containers of strawberries. Not big, fake, shiny grocery-store ones, but real ones, small, juicy, and deep red. Aunt Bessie saw me put one in my mouth and she swatted my hand. “Aren’t we making ice cream?” But then she ate one, too, and smiled.

  We used the electric ice cream maker. The sugar and soy yogurt whirled and whirled, and then it had to sit. For hours. More hours.

  Uncle Hugh came home and we all made tacos. Tacos are great, but Franklin and I just wanted the ice cream to be ready.

  When it finally, finally was, we took our bowls out onto the porch. I wanted mine to melt, after all that time waiting for it to freeze. I ate slowly, feeling the cold of the spoon as I pulled it back out of my mouth each time. Franklin ate quickly, probably hoping for seconds before he had to go home.

  The sun was starting to set.

  “The day is totally over,” I said. “What did you think?”

  Franklin paused his eating to look at me, surprised. “It was fun.”

  “There was nothing all that special about it,” I said. “It was just a regular day. We only did half the things on our list.”

  “Fifty percent,” Franklin said.

  “Right, fifty percent.” I stirred my ice cream to soften it some more. I noticed my backpack still sitting there, full of work to do: the get-to-know-you survey from the language arts teacher, the chapter to read and the questions to answer on the scientific method, the math review of multiplication and division.…

  “You know what the best thing about the summer was?” I asked.

  “What?”

  “Not having a to-do list.”

  Franklin was quiet for a minute. “We have one more day,” he pointed out.

  So on Sunday we didn’t make a list. We started off with a Star Wars movie, and when it was over we just popped in the next one. After our third Star Wars movie, Uncle Hugh asked if we wanted pizza, so of course we said yes. When the pizza was delivered he let us bring it right into the den. We each ate the way we like to, me layering two slices one on top of the other, cheese on the inside (a pizza sandwich), Franklin pulling off most of the cheese in one big triangle and then picking off every little bit that might have been left behind. Aunt Bessie always tells him we can get something else, but he says he really likes pizza.

  After the pizza and the movies were all done, Aunt Bessie put out ice cream and little dishes of all kinds of toppings on the kitchen counter. The ice cream—sticky-creamy store-bought vanilla (lactose-free, again)—was the perfect base for a sundae of fudge and strawberry sauce and M&M’s and sprinkles.

  And that day was perfect. It was perfect because there was nothing to go right or wrong, it just was.

  I didn’t think of my backpack again, not even once. Not even when I went with Uncle Hugh to give Franklin a ride home in the dark, not even when we came home, not even when I lay in bed feeling the first cool breeze that came in through my windows, telling me that summer was over.

  Things Get Worse

  Monday totally sucked.

  When Franklin and I walked into school together, some boy I didn’t even know said, “Play anything fun this weekend?”

  My cheeks felt hot. Franklin didn’t get that this was teasing. He opened his mouth: “Ye—” and I elbowed him lightly to shut up.

  At my locker, Amanda had a crew with her: three girls in flat shoes, skirts, and fitted shirts. I guess dressing up wasn’t a first-day-of-school thing but an all-the-time thing. I could never go to school like that. How uncomfortable. When I looked down the hallway, there were more girls in nice clothes than last week. Because of Amanda?

  “How’re the scabs, Scabular?”

  Too bad I couldn’t say something strong: They’re great, how are you? All I could think about was how I must look like a boy dressed in my jeans and sneakers and red sweatshirt. The weather had gotten cool enough for long clothes; Amanda couldn’t even see my scabs. But if she was still talking about them, would it matter if they were hidden or went away? Maybe I’d be known as scab-girl forever.

  I’d just been staring at Amanda while the thoughts whirred in my head, not saying anything. I must have looked like an empty-headed ding-dong. She laughed, and a couple of her friends did the same. Then they all walked away.

  If you forgot your homework in elementary school, the teacher just said that you could bring it tomorrow.

  In middle school, the teachers seemed interested in making examples.

  Like the science teacher. Mr. Fleming collected the homework and then noticed that some of us didn’t hand anything in.

  “Who didn’t hand in homework this morning?” he asked.

  Three other kids raised their hands. I snuck mine up slowly, afraid to admit it but more afraid to be caught lying.

  “Maybe you got away with not doing your homework back in elementary school, but that won’t be the case now. You’re starting the year with zeros on your assignments. You’re not making a good impression. You’re not off to a good start.”

  Franklin watched me slouch in my chair. Hadn’t he been with me the whole weekend?

  Mr. Fleming turned to write on the board. “When did you do your homework?” I whispered to Franklin.

  “Friday afternoon when I got home.”

  “Talking during the lesson is not okay, either,” Mr. Fleming announced, back still turned.

  It went pretty much the same way in the other classes.

  I felt like a moron for not having any work done. Once I thought about it, I remembered that there were kids in elementary school who got into trouble for not having their homework done. I never knew how those kids ended up not doing it so much. Back then you only had one teacher, so at the most there were two things to do in one night; now we had seven different teachers and they all gave their own assignments!

  I was so glad when school was over. We didn’t take the bus home. We went to
see Leonard instead.

  Leonard was my dad’s best friend. They grew up together. Dad moved away for college and work for a while, but he moved back here to have his family near his brothers and Leonard. Leonard owns the hardware store in town, and he lets me and Franklin help out and make a little money whenever we want. Leonard’s like my extra uncle.

  I love the hardware store because everybody who works there knows me. And it has that great smell, like paint and cedar chips; that might be my favorite smell in the world. I walk in and I just feel better.

  Franklin went to talk to some of the other guys. He always does that first, to let me say hi to Leonard by myself.

  I headed to the back counter. Leonard’s easy to spot: tall with thinning hair, bright green Town Center Hardware apron.

  “Hey, Cricket. What’s new?”

  “Nothing.”

  “How’s sixth grade going?”

  “Awful.”

  “Why’s that?”

  “Yucky new teachers, yucky new kids, yucky more homework …”

  “Yucky, huh?”

  “Yeah, everything is yucky.”

  “Well, give it a chance. This is only your—what?—second day?”

  I nodded.

  “Are you and Franklin in need of an ice cream?” Leonard placed several quarters on the counter.

  “Should we sweep up? Or inventory the nails? Or stir paint?”

  “Nah, no need.” Leonard smiled. “Ice cream’s on the house today.”

  “Thanks, Leonard,” I said. I slid the quarters off the counter into my other palm.

  “Bye, Cricket.”

  “Bye!” As I left, I called to Franklin, who seemed to be showing a customer what kind of nails would be best for the wood he was planning to use. Franklin knows too many random things.

  We went next door to the ice cream place. Franklin always gets a blue raspberry slushie. I picked M&M ice cream. I don’t like the way frozen M&M’s hurt your teeth, but I love how the colors come off the candies and streak the vanilla ice cream rainbow.

 
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