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       Eight Keys, p.6

           Suzanne LaFleur
 
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  I miss you so much already, thinking of not being there with you on this happy day. But we will find each other again, I promise, even if not in this life, and when we do meet again, I know you will be the best Elise that you can be.

  All my love,

  Daddy

  I ran my fingers through my hair, all the way to its ends. I was glad I hadn’t cut it. I wondered if the dark color of Mom’s hair he mentioned really was the same color as mine—a deep, chocolaty brown.

  I don’t have any memories of Mom, and only a few of Dad—mostly what Uncle Hugh, Aunt Bessie, and Leonard tell me. Which is enough, usually.

  My birthday—my first day, and Mom’s last—would be the only day the three of us were all in this world together. It made sense for Dad to commemorate that day with letters.

  But what had Dad meant, he was “leaving something else” for me? What would it be? And where was it? And how was I supposed to find it?

  The thoughts whirred in my head until they became heavy and dreamlike, and I fell asleep.

  Being Twelve Is (Unfortunately) Just Like Being Eleven

  The curling ribbons from Aunt Bessie’s present were still tangled in my hair. My neck hurt. And my eyes felt funny, because everything seemed all green. The light had been on all night.

  It was morning; my birthday was over.

  I wrapped a sweatshirt blanket around me and stumbled to the kitchen.

  “Morning, cupcake.” Aunt Bessie hugged me hard, pressing my head into her chest. “Your breakfast is ready.” On the table was a plate with an enormous slice of birthday cake and a tall glass of milk.

  “Thanks.” I started to eat. The cake tasted so good for breakfast.

  “Will you be ready to go in twenty minutes?”

  Only then did I realize: “I didn’t do any of my homework.”

  “Why not? You knew you were having a party. You should have done it right after school.”

  “I thought there would be time after everyone left.”

  “You really should have done it before. Do you need some sort of note?”

  I shook my head. “The teachers don’t care if it’s your birthday. That kind of thing is for first graders.”

  Just then, Ava started crying. Aunt Bessie bustled off.

  I pulled the half-flattened ribbons out of my hair and left them on the table.

  Franklin decided to go to an “Interested in Student Government?” meeting during lunch. I was definitely Not Interested, so I headed to the cafeteria on my own for the first time. I wasn’t sure where to sit. The lunchroom is big, crowded with kids from all grades, so it doesn’t seem like the friendliest of places without your trusted buddy.

  One girl was sitting by herself. She looked small enough to be a sixth grader. Maybe she’d be really neat and we could be friends.

  “Hi. Can I sit here?”

  The girl thought for a minute. “Where’s that weird boy you’re always with? Would he have to come, too?”

  “No,” I said, stunned. “And never mind.”

  I continued to wander the tables until I spotted Caroline eating alone. Just knowing her name made her seem comfortingly familiar. I sat diagonal from her, returned her smile, and took out my pulverized PB&J and bruised apple.

  I was just opening my mouth to take a bite when someone announced in my ear, “Move it, Scab-Picker.” Amanda was standing there, surrounded, as usual, by sidekicks.

  I shut my mouth, missing the sandwich. I didn’t want to find out what she’d say next if I stuck around, but didn’t want to give in entirely. I slid my lunch to the last spot at the table and bumped down the seats. When I picked up my sandwich, Amanda hollered, “I said move it, Scabular. We don’t want you at our table.”

  My throat felt like I was choking. I’m not a crier; I could count on one hand the number of times I remembered crying. But it seemed that if I opened my mouth, I might start to cry right there in the lunchroom. That would be even worse than scabby legs or bandaged hands.

  I put my sandwich in my bag and moved three tables over near some kids I didn’t know.

  Maybe they didn’t know I was a loser.

  They didn’t even look at me.

  “I finished my homework,” Franklin announced when he showed up in my room that afternoon.

  “Good for you, dorkus,” I said. “I didn’t even start.” I had been lying in my bed, staring at the ceiling.

  “Want to play Knights?”

  I looked at the smooth white patches of skin on my healed legs. I thought about lunch, and how those scabs were going to stick with me forever now. About how there’d been another silly-looking injury the very next week. Maybe there was a tiny chance that people would forget if I was more careful.

  “No.”

  “Oh, okay,” Franklin said. “What do you want to do? We could play Robbers, or tag, or—”

  “I don’t want to play,” I said. I added, in a whisper, “I don’t want to play ever again.”

  “Why not?”

  “We’re too old.”

  “Since when? I don’t remember any rules about that.”

  “Well, there are. I just don’t want to anymore.”

  “Want to do something else, then?”

  “Not really.”

  Franklin crouched down and started tracing marks with his fingers along the floorboards.

  About ten minutes later, he finally said, “How many floorboards do you think there are?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “We could probably figure it out.… Oh, I know! I totally forgot. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

  He must have gone all the way home, because twenty minutes later he returned with a cardboard box. Its contents made a shifting sound. “A puzzle. A thousand pieces. I haven’t even opened it.”

  Was a puzzle a cool thing to do? Well, I was pretty sure no telltale injuries could happen from working on it. It was nice of Franklin to think of something like that.

  We went to work on the dining room table. The puzzle was of a space shuttle orbiting Earth. Franklin, of course, had a systematic plan.

  “First we’ll separate things into four piles: edges, black space pieces, white shuttle pieces, and blue and green Earth pieces.”

  We dumped the pieces out and started sorting. For some reason, I couldn’t help sliding separated pieces back into the big pile when Franklin wasn’t looking.

  In the morning, I hadn’t touched my homework. I hadn’t studied for the math test or researched for my language arts author’s life report or answered the social studies questions.

  I figured Franklin could help, but I couldn’t listen to more than a minute of his advice for the math test on the bus ride.

  “… then you isolate the variable using inverse operations—”

  “Speak English, dorkwad.”

  “That is English. What’s the matter? You’re half asleep.”

  “I had weird dreams all night.”

  “What did you dream about?”

  “Going to school and no one could see me. Being at home and no one could see me.”

  “I’ve never had dreams like that.”

  When Franklin has bad dreams, they must be about living in a world without things to measure with.

  When we got to school, Amanda squashed my lunch. I got zeros on most of my homework. I was pretty sure I failed the math test.

  The worst thing happened between sixth and seventh periods. I stopped at Franklin’s locker with him, and when he opened it a bunch of Star Wars action figures tumbled all over the floor.

  A boy named Jason picked up Chewbacca and pretended that he was attacking his friend. Then he threw Chewbacca at Franklin, who was kneeling to collect his toys. Jason and other kids laughed. “I didn’t know we had kindergarten in this building.”

  I glared at Jason. He lifted his hands in the air and said, “He’s your friend.”

  Despite all that, Franklin decided to keep Chewbacca sticking out of his pocket. It was impossible to
forget the whole thing, sitting in Spanish with Chewbacca peering out at me.

  On the walk home from the bus I trudged silently next to Franklin. We live in opposite directions, so we started off as if heading to my house, because that was the direction my feet went in automatically.

  “Want to come over?” Franklin asked. “I got new movies about the Apollo space missions.”

  “No thanks.”

  “You’re no fun anymore.”

  “You’re a baby. You don’t understand.” I threw insults at Franklin all the time these days, but this one came out differently. I spoke softly, barely above a whisper, in a voice that said I meant it.

  For the first time, he looked hurt.

  “Fine. I’ll learn about the space program by myself.”

  “I don’t care about the space program!” I yelled. “And you obviously don’t care about me, so go home and watch your stupid movies.”

  Franklin stared at me like I had hit him. Then he held back the water in his eyes, turned around, and headed home.

  I stormed to my own house. This was all Franklin’s fault.

  • • •

  The next day was even worse.

  Because I hadn’t done my homework again, I was in even more trouble. Franklin wasn’t speaking to me. Okay, he was speaking to me, but not like a friend would. He sat with Diana at lunch. I walked by and overheard her talking about how she watched her gerbil push out a bunch of babies last night. Yeck. I picked a different table. Which was fine, really, because even though you aren’t allowed to bring work to lunch, I had snuck in my social studies book and was going to try to finish the questions from yesterday.

  I put my heading on the paper and set the book on my lap under the table so it was pretty hidden. I tapped the eraser of my pencil on the pages as I read. I was never going to finish the reading, let alone get to the questions. It was hopeless. Like me.

  “There’s a better way to do that, you know,” a voice said. The voice wasn’t mean. It sounded kind.

  I looked up to see that Caroline had sat next to me.

  “What?”

  “You’re doing it wrong. There’s a better way.” She gently took the book and turned to the end of the section. “Read the question first so you know what’s important to look for, then skim the text until you find the answer. The answer to the next question will be after it, so go in order. If you sit there and read it, you won’t remember the answers, and you’ll have to look for them all again anyway.”

  “Thanks. You’re really smart, Caroline.”

  She shook her head.

  “You are,” I insisted.

  “No, I’m annoying. No one likes it.”

  She meant her stupid friends didn’t like it. “No, it’s good to be smart.”

  “Sometime I wish I weren’t.” Caroline was quiet, chewing her bologna and cheese sandwich while I wrote down the answer to question one. “Are you okay?” she asked when I was done.

  “What do you mean?”

  “You seem … I don’t know, upset or something. And you aren’t with Franklin.”

  “Yeah … I have a lot going on,” I said.

  “What on earth could you have going on? Playdates?” Amanda was standing across the table from us. Caroline and I just sat. I don’t think Amanda expected us to answer her. She looked at Caroline. “Brennan invited us to sit with his friends. You’re coming?”

  Caroline shrugged. “I’ll see you later, Elise, okay? You need to finish that anyway.”

  “Bye,” I said.

  “Why are you talking to her?” Amanda asked as they walked away. Caroline didn’t respond.

  She was so different from Amanda. How had they become friends in the first place?

  I finished most of the questions, so I’d be able to hand in something. But I didn’t have time to eat. Not that pulverized peanut butter and jelly is that appetizing.

  • • •

  “Cricket?” Uncle Hugh pushed open the door to my room. I had my science book open, but I was staring at my long list of late homework. I would never finish it. “It’s time for another soda.”

  I followed him to the kitchen, where he had drinks ready. I opened mine.

  “One of your teachers called.”

  “Oh goody.” I couldn’t meet his eye.

  “It seems like you haven’t been doing any work lately.”

  “That’s not true. I did some. I’ve been trying.”

  Uncle Hugh twisted the bottle in his hand and started to peel off the label. “I got a call from Franklin’s mother, too. Apparently, Franklin is all upset that you hate him and he doesn’t know why.”

  “The worm,” I said. “He should know why.”

  “You hate him?”

  “No, I don’t hate him. He just made me mad.”

  “So as far as I can tell, you’re getting to school, right?”

  “Yes.”

  “But things don’t really seem to be any better.”

  “Why would they be any better?” I asked quietly. “Nothing’s changed.”

  “Well, sometimes things don’t change on their own. Sometimes we have to change them.”

  “I don’t know what to do.”

  “Try little things, like we talked about before. Homework first. Be patient with Franklin; he’s still the same friend to you he’s always been. What else is going on?”

  “Nothing.”

  “Then start with the homework and Franklin. And spend more time with us, too. You haven’t been in the kitchen with Bessie much lately. Get to know Annie and Ava. We all love you already; you don’t have to prove anything to us.”

  I nodded. I hadn’t been hanging out with Aunt Bessie because I could never get her to myself. I didn’t want to spend extra time with Annie and Ava. Especially not since Annie had been talking with Bessie about working for her catering company. Would I get any time with Aunt Bessie if that happened?

  “Did I see you with a big list of homework before I interrupted you?”

  “Yes.”

  “Go get it. And all your books and stuff, too. We’ll set you up here in the kitchen. It’ll be easier. We’ll be here.”

  That night, I stayed up wondering about what Uncle Hugh had said about how things don’t change on their own. I’d been waiting to be twelve like I would miraculously be different. But I wasn’t.

  Then I thought about Dad’s letter. He’d written something kind of like what Uncle Hugh had said. I got the letter and found the spot again: “in great part we mold ourselves.”

  Then I was stuck on something else: on the words “discover and unlock.”

  Unlock, unlock, unlock, unlock …

  All of a sudden I remembered it—the key in Uncle Hugh’s workshop.

  Was that what Dad meant by unlock? I would literally unlock something?

  But what? What was locked?

  As I got sleepier, I pictured things that were locked with keys. Houses. Old trunks. Cars. Padlocks. Doors.

  I sat up in bed, suddenly awake.

  There were eight locked doors upstairs in the barn. Eight of them!

  Could those be for me?

  But the feeling of excitement disappeared almost as quickly as it had come.

  Those doors were off-limits. They always had been.

  I checked Dad’s letter again: “discover and unlock when you are ready.”

  Maybe I just hadn’t been ready.

  But now I was ready for something to be different. For anything to be different.

  Tomorrow I’d take a chance and see what that key opened up.

  It had my name on it, after all.

  Part II

  The First Little, Secret Room

  After a night of not much sleeping, I woke up, raced through the world’s shortest shower, and found just what I wanted to find: Uncle Hugh and Aunt Bessie having morning coffee in the kitchen.

  “You already have your backpack on, ready to go!” Aunt Bessie seemed very surprised to see me. She and Uncle Hug
h were still in bathrobes. Even on days when neither of them is going to leave the house, they both insist on getting dressed before eight a.m.

  “Yeah,” I said, swinging my wet ponytail over my shoulder as I grabbed a scone from a plateful on the table. “You know … I’m trying not to be late anymore.”

  “Good for you, Cricket,” Uncle Hugh said.

  “Well, bye!”

  “Well, bye,” echoed Uncle Hugh. I headed out the front door.

  I had time to visit the barn without worrying that Uncle Hugh would be working there or that Aunt Bessie would be out loading up the van or watering her flowers.

  I ran across the driveway and into the barn. I didn’t think I’d been spotted. I darted to the little room where I’d seen the key. Still there!

  A shiver of excitement ran through me as I lifted the key.

  I wasn’t going to use the key right away, I decided, slipping it into the pocket of my jeans. I was going to hold on to it, just for the day. For now, the key had infinite possibilities. It would be nice to have a day of infinite possibilities.

  School was okay. There was the usual trouble with Amanda, but most of my homework was done, thanks to Uncle Hugh. Franklin had found some boys to hang out with—the one who shares his locker and his two friends—which hurt less, somehow, than if he’d had lunch with Diana. He and I sat together silently on the bus home. I kind of wanted to tell him about the key, and I even, just a little, wanted him to come with me on a treasure hunt to discover what it unlocked, but something kept me silent. He hadn’t been interested in the key when I’d found it, just in making that castle. Why would he be interested now?

  At our stop, we headed in separate directions.

  Uncle Hugh was out at a customer’s house, and Aunt Bessie was inside baking for an event. Perfect, perfect.

  I snuck into the barn, left my backpack on the ground floor, fished the key out of my pocket, and held it in my hands.

  I slowly walked up the steps. My shoes left prints in the dust. Uncle Hugh really didn’t come up here much. Or maybe he used the elevator.

  At the top of the stairs, I took a deep breath and looked at the row of doors. They stood in a tight line, like soldiers at their stations or trees planted to grow up together, seeming not like simple doors but like living things. The breeze that danced through the drafty hallway made it feel like they might even be breathing.

 
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