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       Eight Keys, p.5

           Suzanne LaFleur
 
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  Kate and Lindsay were careful not to make eye contact with me. Caroline glanced at me, but then looked away.

  The bell rang.

  The four girls started to walk toward class.

  From down the hall, Franklin called, “Elise! Come on!” He was running through kids with his arms full of books. Then he slammed into an eighth grader and toppled over backward.

  Amanda, Kate, and Lindsay laughed hysterically. Caroline caught my eye again. Franklin didn’t notice that a whole bunch of people were laughing at him.

  I had two choices: I could help Franklin up and get teased and laughed at again, or ignore him.

  I left Franklin fumbling for books, trying to keep his balance with his backpack on, and followed Caroline to class.

  Franklin showed up late, pink and out of breath, and slipped into the seat next to me. He always comes right back to me. Like a puppy-dog friend.

  Mrs. Wakefield had corrected our paragraphs from the day before. “Caroline, will you read yours?”

  Caroline walked to the front and read in a clear voice. It was about the ocean. It had full sentences, but it sounded like poetry.

  When Caroline sat back down, Mrs. Wakefield commented on how she really liked her descriptions. How you could feel the wet sand under your toes and hear the waves rolling in. Then she returned everyone else’s papers. My paper wasn’t smooth like Caroline’s. It had jaggy edges because I had ripped it out of a notebook, and there was a tear in the paper where I had erased too hard. Mrs. Wakefield had written only a check on it.

  Amanda, Kate, and Lindsay didn’t seem to like that Caroline got attention for her essay. They didn’t say good job or anything. I peeked sideways; Caroline was looking down at her paper. Her ears were pink underneath her shiny, shoulder-length hair, which was pulled back with a headband.

  “I liked your paragraph,” I whispered. She produced a tiny smile.

  Mrs. Wakefield started talking about nouns and verbs and nothing, and I doodled over the check mark on my paper with a red pen until the check mark was an A. An A+.

  After school we went to Leonard’s, and Franklin let me go talk to Leonard by myself for a few minutes, as usual. I breathed in deeply to soak in that great hardware-store smell before I found him shelving stuff.

  “Hi, Leonard.”

  “Hey, Elise. How’s school? You seem to have barely any time to come by the old shop anymore.”

  I shrugged. “It’s busy.” And awful, I added in my head.

  “What’s that?”

  “What’s what?”

  “The part after busy?”

  “I didn’t say anything.”

  “But you thought something after busy.”

  “It’s awful. That’s what I thought. School is still awful.”

  “Want to tell me about it?”

  “No, I don’t.” It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to tell Leonard, but I saw no reason to bring Amanda into the store.

  “You know what we used to do, your dad and me?”

  “What? Go up to the old lake?”

  “That’s right. Go up to the old lake.” Leonard was always talking about how he and Dad did that. “Get away from life for a while, talk about things. Nothing a trip there couldn’t solve. Everything always seemed a bit better when we came back.”

  I’d heard about the old lake a million gazillion times. Leonard really seemed to like to talk about it, so I always let him. But this time, him mentioning a place where you took your troubles to talk about them—it seemed like he had been reading my mind again.

  “Sounds like a great place.”

  “It was, it was.” Then he changed the subject. “Ready to turn a year older?”

  “So ready. You’re coming, right? To my birthday?”

  “Of course. Would I miss the biggest sloppy-joe fest of the year?”

  “Okay, good.”

  “And don’t forget,” Leonard said, “just because you’re growing up doesn’t mean you don’t have to come by to visit your old friend.”

  “I won’t forget.”

  On Saturday afternoon I headed into the kitchen. Aunt Bessie didn’t have a job, so that made this our time.

  On the counter were a butternut squash, a banana, an avocado, and a bag of apples. I didn’t think they went together.

  “What are we making?”

  “Baby food.”

  “Like, for Ava?”

  “Yes! Isn’t it exciting?”

  “I thought she didn’t eat food, just milk.”

  “Well, the doctor said she still needs all that milk, but that she can be introduced to certain foods now. We’re making her lots of things because we aren’t sure what she likes best. She’s tried most of them before, but the avocado will be new today.”

  “How much can she eat?”

  “A spoonful.”

  “A spoonful? All this for a spoonful?”

  “Well, she doesn’t even know what she likes. So we’ll let her taste things.” She was talking about Ava like she was a person with opinions, not a blob. “Here. Why don’t you peel all the apples? We’ll make some into applesauce. I’ll get to work on the squash.”

  Cooking time with Aunt Bessie was supposed to be about me and her, not about a baby who happened to live in our house. I didn’t talk as I peeled the apple skins into a big container. The applesauce took a long time to make and a lot of arm strength to turn the crank of the strainer over and over and over with my left hand. The avocado and the banana got mushed up at the last minute, because they didn’t need to be cooked.

  Life with Annie and Ava had been pretty peaceful so far. Their room was on the first floor, like mine, but on the opposite side of the house, so I didn’t hear Ava crying too much. And I was at school for most of the day. Ava usually sat on the floor in her baby carrier seat at dinner, and often she just fell asleep, because it must be boring to watch people eat. She might not even have been able to see us from down there. Franklin looked up how far babies can see and told me that most babies don’t develop full visual capabilities until about eight months. Ava had a couple months to go.

  Annie and Ava were sharing my bathroom, and it had a lot of new things in it. Like a little yellow bathtub stored in the big bathtub that I had to move out whenever I wanted to take a shower. And sometimes Ava’s tiny bibs or clothes hung on the towel racks. Luckily the changing table was nowhere near me or my room.

  Mostly I just didn’t pay attention to Ava. Everything she did seemed cute to the others, and every little cry was something to take care of.

  Finally, the food was ready. Annie brought Ava in, sat her up in a high chair, and buttoned a soft bib around her neck.

  “Are you ready?” Annie asked her in a sweet, tiny, just-for-Ava voice. “Are you ready to try some food?”

  Ava smiled a gurgly smile.

  We pulled up three chairs around the high chair. We each had a little container of food and a plastic-coated baby spoon.

  “Want to go first?” Annie invited me.

  “She’s your baby,” I said.

  Aunt Bessie nodded. Annie took a tiny spoonful of mashed squash and pressed it to Ava’s lips.

  Ava looked confused, stuck her tongue out, and pushed the food away.

  We laughed. Which made Ava widen her eyes and smile back, wondering what clever thing she’d done now.

  The story was the same for applesauce, banana … then it was my turn with the avocado.

  A little flutter of nerves ran through my belly when I lifted the spoon for her. I tried to be extra gentle as I pushed the spoon past her lips and set the little plop of avocado there. I realized it was the closest contact I’d had with Ava. We were only as far apart as a mini, made-for-babies spoon.

  The avocado went down better. At least, less of it came back out. She seemed to be thinking about it.

  “Ooh, I think she liked that best so far,” Annie said. “Try it again.”

  I fed Ava another spoon-tip of avocado.

  By th
e end, it seemed that she liked banana best. But who knew, really? She was a baby.

  When the feeding was over, Ava hadn’t eaten more than the spoonful Aunt Bessie had predicted, but she was covered in food.

  “The bib is all wrecked,” I said as Annie wiped Ava’s face with it.

  “We’ll wash it. It may stain, but that’s what it’s for. Then one day, we’ll just toss it away,” Aunt Bessie said.

  “Sometimes I think I’ll become very attached to these baby things and try to keep them all,” Annie admitted.

  “It’s okay to keep some things. I have a lot of Elise’s things upstairs in the attic.”

  It was true. We took them out and looked at them sometimes. Not lately, though. Not since Little Miss Baby-Pants arrived.

  I wondered if Aunt Bessie was going to offer to give my things to Ava, but she didn’t. Maybe old things like that are off-limits, like stuff in museums.

  “Maybe you can show me sometime, Elise,” Annie said, lifting Ava out of the high chair.

  “Yeah, maybe,” I said.

  Annie took Ava to give her a bath. There was avocado stuck in her fluffy hair.

  “Should we make our dinner?” I asked Aunt Bessie. Maybe now would be our time together.

  “It’s already made. I’ve had pork in the oven this whole time. And you made the applesauce.”

  I was setting the table when Annie came back with Ava, squeaky-clean and wearing pajamas. Not that daytime baby clothes and nighttime baby clothes are all that different. The pj’s have feet on them and the daytime clothes don’t. Annie buckled Ava into her carrier on the floor as Uncle Hugh came in.

  “I’ve got a surprise for you, Annie. Cricket, will you come hold the door?”

  I held the screen door wide open while Uncle Hugh carried in a large piece of beautiful blue furniture and set it on its rockers on the tile floor. My mouth dropped open.

  “There,” he said proudly. “I thought it would be nice for you and Ava. It’s good and sturdy. We can put it right in your room.”

  “Oh, thank you!” Annie hugged Uncle Hugh. He laughed as he patted her back.

  I shut the door. Uncle Hugh hadn’t known I’d wanted the chair; I never said anything about it. I knew it wasn’t fair for me to be mad, but I was.

  I Turn Twelve

  My birthday started off okay. I got all my homework into my backpack and made it to the bus on time. Franklin gave me a chocolate cupcake.

  “I made two dozen,” he said. “Only this one looked nice.” The chocolate frosting had big finger dents.

  “Thanks.” I licked some of the frosting off my own finger, to show him that I wasn’t grossed out.

  But really, I think I was.

  Franklin came over in the afternoon, wearing his bicycle helmet.

  “What’s that for?” I asked.

  “Protection.”

  “From what?”

  “Cousins.”

  Once when we were little my cousins Jake and Alec had hit Franklin with mud balls until he went home crying. Another time they hung him from the porch roof by his ankles—and forgot about him.

  “Baby,” I said. “They don’t do stuff like that anymore.” Jake and Alec were seventeen and fifteen now. It would be a surprise if they stayed through dinner, let alone had time to “play.”

  “Still,” Franklin said. “What’s for dinner? Am I allergic to it?”

  “Not unless you’re suddenly allergic to hamburger buns,” I said. “It’s sloppy joes.”

  I always have sloppy joes on my birthday. Franklin should have known that. But he was just being careful, so I added, more nicely, “The cake and frosting are safe, too. Come see.”

  We walked into the kitchen, where Annie was pacing with Ava and talking to Aunt Bessie, who was frosting my cake.

  “Blue again?” asked Franklin.

  “I like blue,” I said. “It looks good and tastes good.” He should talk, after all those blue slushies. I scooped a glob from the frosting bowl.

  Aunt Bessie smacked my wrist, but she wasn’t angry. “Get out of here!”

  Franklin and I went back outside. He chose a perch on a low branch of a tree.

  “Sure it’s safe up there?” I teased him.

  “It’s three feet off the ground,” he said. “If I fell it would be only minor injuries. But if the cousins sneak up on me … the consequences could be disastrous.”

  “They can’t sneak up on you,” I said. “They’re coming in a car.”

  Leonard showed up and gave me a kiss on the forehead. “Where’s your uncle?”

  “Probably his workshop.”

  He headed there.

  “You get your birthday letter tonight,” Franklin reminded me.

  “I know,” I said.

  “Excited?”

  “A little.”

  After a while, my cousins’ car pulled into our long driveway. Aunt Sally jumped out first.

  “Look at you, girl! All grown up!” she shrieked as she gave me a hug. “There’s a baby in the house, right? I’m dying to meet her!” She ran up the porch steps. Whose birthday was it, anyway?

  Uncle Beau hugged me, and Jake rubbed his fist against my head.

  Franklin dropped out of his tree-perch.

  “What’s with the helmet?” Jake asked.

  “I’m protecting my cranium from you,” Franklin said.

  “Great,” said Alec, pounding on the top of the helmet. Franklin held it down tight with both hands.

  I rolled my eyes. “Come on, we can go eat.”

  Because of the sloppy joes, we were going to eat in the kitchen instead of the dining room. Uncle Hugh had already brought in extra chairs, so everything was ready.

  The sloppy joes were awesome, as always. Two silent competitions began between those who wanted to be the sloppiest and those who wanted to be the neatest. All the boys were a total mess. Aunt Bessie and Aunt Sally took tiny bites, but Annie let sauce gush out the back of her hamburger bun and left some on her chin. That made me laugh. Then the messy-competition got loud with laughter. Alec dipped his fingers in the red sauce and made war-paint streaks on his cheeks. Franklin had sauce all over his face and hands, but I don’t think it was on purpose. Ava stayed in her carrier seat on the floor and no one paid any attention to her, for once.

  After we all cleaned up, it was time for cake and presents.

  I got …

  … a fifty-dollar gift certificate to the movie store from Aunt Sally and Uncle Beau.

  … a One Free Day Trip pass from Leonard to anywhere I wanted. What came to mind right away was the amusement park, but it was October, so it was closed until spring. I’d have to think about where I wanted to go.

  … an easy cookbook from Aunt Bessie. She wrote in it: We can learn the recipes and spend more time together in the kitchen!

  … a goal journal from Uncle Hugh. It has pages in it where you can write the goal at the top, how you plan to achieve it, steps you’ve taken, and then the date of achievement on the bottom. He smiled at me when I opened it.

  … a book of knot-tying techniques from Franklin. “You need to improve your skills. Then,” he added in a whisper, “you can hang your lunch from a hook in your locker instead of letting Amanda squish it, and she won’t be able to get it off.” It sounded neat to practice knots, but maybe not in my locker. Amanda might make a big deal of that. Franklin’s bright ideas could get me made fun of again.

  I took the birthday ribbon from Aunt Bessie’s present and looped it through my hair around my ponytail. The table was strewn with plates of half-eaten cake and wrapping paper, but my birthday wasn’t over yet. I would get my letter at bedtime. But first I said goodbye to my guests.

  Franklin was last to go. His mom came to pick him up.

  “You have sloppy-joe sauce on your ear,” I said as we stood on the porch.

  “Oh.” Franklin tried to wipe it, but he didn’t know where it was. I licked my thumb and wiped it off for him. “See you tomorrow,” he said. “Do
n’t forget to start practicing those knots.”

  “I won’t,” I said.

  I carefully washed any last traces of sloppy joe and blue frosting off my face and put on my pajamas. I got in bed, but sat up, waiting.

  Aunt Bessie slipped into my room and handed me an envelope.

  It said: Elise, 12.

  “Elise?” Aunt Bessie said gently, drawing my attention away from the unopened envelope. “It’s the last one. We didn’t tell you. We didn’t want you counting down.”

  It hadn’t occurred to me that the letters would run out. It would be weird without one next year. I thought there would be one every birthday, for my whole life.

  Maybe that would be a lot of letters.

  “That’s okay.”

  “Do you want me to stay?” Aunt Bessie asked.

  “No, you don’t need to.”

  “Good night, Cricket. Happy birthday.” Aunt Bessie kissed me on the forehead, left my room, and shut the door.

  For a few minutes I just held the letter. Then I slid my finger under the flap. After so many years, the glue had mostly disappeared, so it opened easily. I pulled out the plain sheet of paper, unfolded it, and began to read:

  Dear Elise,

  Today you had a lovely time playing outside in the rain. You just got a new pair of bright red boots and a matching raincoat, so it was nearly impossible to keep you inside. There were ducks in the pond who ruffled their feathers a bit when you tried to catch them, but they didn’t fly away, so they must have liked playing with you.

  How grown up you must be now. I wonder if you are wearing your hair long and dark like your mother’s.

  I don’t know what we are to do without each other, but by the time you read this, you will have been managing on your own for quite a while. Have you been looking after my brother? He needs some taking care of from time to time, and now you’re old enough to tell him what’s what. You better be listening to him, too! He has a good heart, your Uncle Hugh.

  This letter will be my last to you, but please don’t be sad. I’m leaving something else for you, to discover and unlock when you are ready. Remember that while others can help, in great part we mold ourselves.

 
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