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       Eight Keys, p.3

           Suzanne LaFleur
 
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  Franklin and I sat at a table with high chairs. I decided not to tease him about his blue mouth, but it was really hard not to. The light stain around his lips made me think of a five-year-old.

  Aunt Bessie came to pick us up at four o’clock. I thought about getting right to my homework. But I’d been at school all day. I needed a break.

  “What do you want to do?” Franklin asked.

  “I don’t know.” I thumped my backpack down on the porch. “Not homework.”

  “Let’s build stuff,” Franklin said. “It looked like Uncle Hugh just put out a whole bunch of pieces for us.”

  “Yeah, okay.” I could make something that I wanted to make, not do something that a teacher said I had to do.

  Uncle Hugh’s truck was gone, so he wasn’t in his workshop. Franklin got the bin of wood pieces and dumped them out on an empty table. I got our hammers and nails.

  “What do you want to make?” I asked.

  “Let’s build a castle.”

  “Don’t you think of castles as more rock than wood?”

  “We can paint it to look like gray rocks. Or maybe we can build with sugar cubes on the outside and paint those. It’ll be great. Here, you make the base and I’ll make a tower.”

  I made a floor and then a four-sided structure. Franklin’s tower took a lot longer because he wanted it to have more than four sides. He was being quiet, so I started to wander around the barn.

  There are different sections of the barn off the main workshop. Uncle Hugh uses them to store equipment, supplies, and projects in progress. Mostly he’s hired to build specific things, but he also makes things just because he feels like it and sells those, too. In one room was a rocking chair that he was staining a beautiful blue, in between light blue and green, the color uneven in a way that made the chair look old and worn. I hoped I could get the chair for my birthday next month. Maybe I could drop the right hints. We don’t usually keep any of the things Uncle Hugh makes, because we already have everything we need and they’re meant to be sold, after all. Maybe he would make an exception if he knew I really, really wanted it.

  The chair looked ready to be sat in—furniture was usually ready to use if he was staining—so I sat in it. I liked the way my arms fit on the armrests, the way my feet just reached the floor, the way the chair tipped gently back and forth.

  While I sat there, rocking, something on the wall caught my eye: a key, hanging by string, with a tag. It said Elise.

  I went over to look closer. I’d never noticed it before, but Uncle Hugh has so much stuff in the barn that it would probably take a lifetime to notice every little thing. How long had the key been there?

  I lifted it off the hook.

  “Look,” I called as I headed back to Franklin. “It has my name on it.”

  “Huh?” He looked up from connecting the sixth and final side of the tower.

  “This key. I’ve never seen it before. My name’s on it. What do you think it goes to?”

  “Your room?”

  “There’s not a lock on my room,” I said.

  “A treasure chest?”

  “A treasure chest? Why would we have a treasure chest?”

  “I don’t know.” Franklin finished nailing the last wall in place. “Come help me attach the tower.”

  I hung the key back up and went to help.

  “I need you to hold the base and the tower together while I nail them, okay?” he asked.

  I held them as he counted: “One, two, three.”

  I watched Franklin hammer. Then suddenly I pictured a tree getting split by lightning. It wasn’t just a picture but a hot, splintery feeling in my thumb. I realized I was screaming.

  “Oh no, oh no, I’m sorry! Oh no, Elise, come on!”

  I was holding my thumb tight with my other hand, so Franklin grabbed my elbow and pulled me out of the barn at a run. In the driveway he started yelling, “Aunt Bessie! Aunt Bessie!”

  She came out onto the porch, drying her hands on a towel.

  “For heaven’s sake,” she said. “Oh Lordy, Cricket. Let me see.” She examined my hand. It was bleeding now. “How did this happen?”

  “We were building, and I hit her,” Franklin said.

  “With what?”

  “A hammer.”

  “Were nails involved?”

  “Yes.”

  “Car. Now,” Aunt Bessie said.

  Franklin and I hurried. Franklin asked, “Where are we going?”

  “The hospital. Elise, if there’s rust in that cut, you’ll need a tetanus shot. And if your thumb is actually broken … see how it’s swelling already? How does it hurt? Dull, sharp?”

  “Sharp.” I was still crying. Franklin buckled my seat belt. While Aunt Bessie started driving, she had Franklin reach into the emergency kit she keeps in the car and get a disposable ice pack. He slammed it on the cup holder until it turned cold and then held it on my hand.

  “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he kept saying. I wanted to tell him it was okay, but the words weren’t coming out. He’s Mr. Super-Careful. What had happened this time?

  We waited in the ER for Aunt Bessie to fill out forms and then for the doctors to call us. I had to go by myself for an X-ray. They had me put my arm in a machine. Then the doctor cleaned the cut while we waited for the pictures. I didn’t need stitches, but he thought a shot would be a good idea, so he jabbed a needle in my arm. “Clean the cut twice a day and change the bandage.”

  Aunt Bessie nodded.

  “Now let’s check out what’s going on inside.” He put the X-rays up on a board that lit up from behind. He used his pen to point out the bones in my thumb and how there was a crack in one of them. Broken. Not too badly, but broken all the same.

  He braced my thumb in a splint, wrapped it in gauze, and put my arm in a soft sling to make sure that I moved my hand as little as possible. I came out looking like I had a fat, bright white thumbs-up strapped to my chest. Awesome.

  The doctor had me take pain medicine and handed Aunt Bessie a slip to get more at the drugstore. Another thing we had to sit around and wait for.

  When we dropped Franklin off on the way home, he said, “I’m sorry!” for the one-hundredth time.

  “Don’t worry,” I said. “It’s okay.”

  But maybe it was just the medicine saying that.

  Uncle Hugh didn’t come home until the baked ziti was ready and cooling on the table. I was sitting there already, my head down, my thumb throbbing.

  “Cricket!” he said. “What happened?”

  “I went to the hospital.”

  “I can see that.” He sat down next to me. “But why?”

  Aunt Bessie made a noise in her throat as she brought the salad to the table. “They were playing in your workshop. Maybe you shouldn’t let them play there.”

  Uncle Hugh turned slightly pink, but he said, “Don’t be silly. They know not to touch anything dangerous. Were you using only the things set aside for you?”

  “Yes. Just a hammer.”

  We were quiet while Aunt Bessie served the ziti. Her face was tight, like she had a million things to say.

  “Bess,” Uncle Hugh said gently. “Accidents can happen anywhere. Playing outside. That happened last week. Walking up and down stairs. Taking a shower. It’s good for her and Franklin to have something constructive to do.”

  “I know.” Aunt Bessie softened. “It’s just always the preventable things …” The part of the conversation where she might be mad at Uncle Hugh was over.

  “How bad is it?” he asked me.

  “Broken,” I said. “In one place. And cut on the outside. And my fingernail looks pretty ugly.”

  “What were you building?”

  “A castle. Franklin was attaching a tower and I was holding the base.”

  “Ah. We’ll make sure you finish it.”

  Then we turned to eating for a few minutes, until Aunt Bessie said, “Elise, we have some family news to talk about.”

 
Family news?” I looked up.

  “Yes. I talked to my sister, Annie, today. You remember Annie.”

  “Of course I do.” Annie was years younger than Aunt Bessie, in her thirties; she was nice and fun. She came to our house for dinner a few times a year. “Annie had a baby.”

  “That’s right, she did.”

  There was a picture of newborn Baby Ava on our family fridge (not Aunt Bessie’s work fridge, we don’t hang anything on that). Ava looked like an alien, all red with her face smushed.

  “Annie and Ava are going to come stay for a while.”

  “Like for a visit?” I asked. That didn’t seem like a reason for the headline “Family News.”

  Aunt Bessie and Uncle Hugh looked at each other, having one of those private conversations with their eyes.

  “To live here for a while.”

  “What for?” I asked.

  “It’s nice to be around family when you have a baby. It helps to have support. We have plenty of room here and plenty of us to help.”

  We do have plenty of room. So much room that my cousins Jake and Alec, Uncle Beau, and Aunt Sally had lived with us for a while when I was little.

  “What about the dad?” I sort of remembered a man who’d lived with Annie, but never came here to dinner with her.

  “He doesn’t live with them.”

  But … “A newborn baby?”

  “She’s not newborn anymore. Babies grow fast. She’s five months old.”

  “Elise … you’re spearing your ziti.”

  I looked at the cold asparagus from the salad that I was poking into my pasta. I looked up at Uncle Hugh, who was laughing silently. “I get it,” I said, finally cracking a smile. “Asparagus spear. It’s just hard to eat with my left hand, is all.”

  “We’ll give you some more medicine after dinner and get you off to bed,” Aunt Bessie promised.

  The nighttime version of the medicine made me sleep and sleep until Aunt Bessie woke me up for school in the morning.

  Things Get Much Worse

  Amanda started laughing the minute I got to our locker. She made a dumb noise and imitated the thumbs-up. “What this time? Playing hospital?”

  “You think it’s funny that I broke my thumb?” I’m not sure where the guts to say something came from, maybe the medicine Aunt Bessie gave me at breakfast.

  Amanda stopped laughing. “Here, let me help you.” She opened my backpack, which I had set down on the floor. She took out my paper lunch bag, which had my usual lunch in it: a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich and a piece of fruit (which happened to be an orange). She put it in the tall main section of the locker. Then she took my books out of my backpack and dropped them on top of my lunch. I felt sick. Sicker than when the hammer had come crashing down on my thumb.

  “There.” She gave me a fake sweet smile and handed me my empty backpack. She hung hers on the hook and picked up her books from the floor. “Aren’t you going to thank me for helping you?”

  I had absolutely nothing to say.

  Franklin came up behind me. “Let me carry your things.” I nodded numbly as he collected my books and pencil case.

  “That’s very sweet,” Amanda said. “Retards.” Then, thank God, she left.

  It didn’t seem to bother Franklin that someone had called him a retard. “What’s her problem?” he asked. But I was thinking, What’s wrong with us?

  I continued to stand there while Franklin gently set my lunch on top of the pile in the locker. Even though he was helping me, I couldn’t help but think: Some of this mess is his fault. Or most of it. It was his fault I always looked like a walking disaster, like a baby, like I couldn’t take care of myself or do things myself.

  Some kids in the hall saw my hand and asked what happened. I told them that I broke my thumb, but left out how. They seemed worried about me. One girl even took markers and carefully drew a paisley design on the sling. Just as many kids seemed to have run into Amanda, because they gave me thumbs-up gestures with goofy noises to go along with them. I hoped Franklin wouldn’t mention that I got hurt playing again. It was making me crazy, listening to him talk about last night, waiting for him to slip up.

  When I got to language arts I remembered I hadn’t done my homework. Again. I decided to talk to the teacher by myself instead of getting in trouble in front of everyone. Things would have been easier if I’d just had Aunt Bessie write me a note. But I’d forgotten, so I would have to explain over and over in each class. While Franklin set our books down on our desks, I went up to talk to Mrs. Wakefield.

  “Elise?” she greeted me, with a question mark, still learning our names.

  I nodded.

  “What happened?”

  “I broke my thumb. I was at the hospital last night and I didn’t get to do my homework.”

  “Well,” she said. “Don’t worry about it today. Just get it done when you can.”

  I didn’t move from her desk.

  “Elise?” Mrs. Wakefield asked. “Are you okay? Are you in pain?”

  I didn’t know if I should tell her. If she would care. Or if Amanda found out what she would do to me.

  “I just—my locker partner—she wrecked my lunch.”

  “I’m sure it was an accident. It can be hard to share a small space like that.”

  It wasn’t an accident, but Mrs. Wakefield said, “Please sit down so I can start class.”

  I sat. Diana poked me with her pencil.

  “Can you help me?” she asked. “I’m doing a class profile for the newspaper.”

  “A what?”

  “An article about the sixth grade. I’m going to interview interesting members of our class.”

  “You want to interview me?” I asked, feeling a little lighter.

  “No,” she said. “I thought I’d get your advice about who to interview.”

  I didn’t answer her as Mrs. Wakefield told us to take out our grammar books.

  • • •

  After school I couldn’t even think about playing with Franklin. I hauled my backpack to the table in the family part of the kitchen. Would it be better to do everything for one subject and then move on—knock off being in trouble with teachers one by one? Or do all the homework for tomorrow, and at least that stuff wouldn’t be late … but it would be hard to answer questions for section three of science before I did the questions for section one … and math would be the same story.

  I picked to start with Mrs. Wakefield’s get-to-know-you survey. Now the problem was having to use my left hand. I had nothing to weigh down the paper and it scootched around when I tried to write. I got so frustrated that I threw my pencil. “Grrr!”

  Aunt Bessie came over. “What’s the matter?”

  “My work looks like it was written by chickens!”

  “What does that mean?”

  “That’s what teachers always say to kids who write messy.”

  Aunt Bessie smiled, as if she couldn’t help it. “You mean chicken scratches.”

  “It’s not funny.”

  “Here.” Aunt Bessie sat down. She slid the paper away from me and found a new pencil. “Your writing hand is injured, and that’s difficult. I’ll be your scribe.”

  “You’ll write for me?”

  “Sure. Whatever you dictate.”

  I hadn’t realized how tight and heavy it had felt inside my chest until the feeling lifted. I answered Mrs. Wakefield’s questions about what my favorite subjects were and who lived in my house with me and what I liked to read, and Aunt Bessie wrote everything down. Then we moved on to math, which was harder, because moving the pencil helps me think. Luckily the beginning-of-the-year review stuff isn’t that hard. When Uncle Hugh came in from the barn, expecting dinner, Aunt Bessie hadn’t made any and we had gotten through only three assignments. So Uncle Hugh made dinner. He always makes beans and rice. But it was warm and yummy, and afterward I took my social studies book to the den to read.

  Aunt Bessie woke me up there later.

 
“Go to bed, Cricket.” She lifted the book from my lap.

  “But I only did four assignments.”

  “How many do you have?”

  “Sixteen.”

  “Sixteen? You can’t expect to do them all tonight. You’re healing. Tomorrow’s another day.”

  She cleaned and rebandaged my thumb, and helped me into pajamas with a button-up shirt—the kind I never wear, really—so that it would be easier with my sling. She gave me pain medicine and I went to bed.

  I never really caught up on the homework. Mostly I just sat in my classes without a clue what was going on.

  Every morning when I got to school, Amanda was waiting. Waiting to make me miserable. She called me and Franklin names, which never seemed to bother him the way it bothered me. She wrecked my lunch, and when I told Mrs. Wakefield about it again, she still didn’t seem to care. She considered it part of learning to share the locker, told me that I couldn’t switch and I needed to learn to get along with my partner.

  It became harder and harder just to get to school.

  One morning, after rushing to wash my face and brush my teeth with one hand, I left with only a few minutes to catch the bus. I had to hurry, but instead, my steps got smaller and smaller, and slower and slower. By the time I got to the bus stop, nobody was there.

  I couldn’t stand at the bus stop all day, so I turned around and went back home.

  When Aunt Bessie heard the front door open, she came from the kitchen to see who it was. She was already dressed in her catering clothes. “What happened?”

  “I missed the bus.”

  “How did that happen?”

  I shrugged. “I didn’t get there in time.”

  “I have a tasting this morning.… ” Aunt Bessie seemed pretty stressed out by my reappearance. She sighed. “Get in the car. I’ll take you.”

  “I’m sorry,” I said. “It was an accident.”

  That first morning, we all thought it was an accident.

  Feeling Stuck

  When you get to the bus stop in the morning and nobody’s there, it means one of three things:

  (1) You missed the bus.

  (2) It’s Saturday, but you forgot.

 
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