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       Eight Keys, p.7

           Suzanne LaFleur
 
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  There was nothing to tell me what might be different about each of them. I decided to start with the closest one.

  The key didn’t fit.

  Next door.

  It fit.

  Already! On the second door. The room was for me!

  I gave the key a twist, and the door unlocked.

  I stood back and pushed it so that it opened wide.

  I could see years of dust on the floor. A lot came up in the air, disturbed by the door opening, fuzzy in the yellow afternoon light passing through a single warpy-glass window. I coughed and covered my face with my arm.

  I took a few steps inside. The walls on the long sides of the narrow room seemed to be shiny, like glass. I crept closer to look.

  The walls were covered in framed pictures, many of the same woman. Some pictures were of a baby, or a girl, or a teenager.

  I knew who the woman was. And the baby and the girl and the teenager.

  We had pictures of her in the house, but not like this. The ones in the house were there all the time, faded into the background, like wallpaper or furniture. These were meant to be looked at, thought about. I walked up to one, pressed my finger to it. “Mom?”

  There were at least a dozen portraits. I stopped and looked at each one carefully.

  In one she perches at the top of a slide as a three-year-old. She wears a huge smile, her face framed with soft dark curls. I stayed at this picture for several minutes.

  In another she looks almost exactly like me. I looked at my own reflection on the glass to compare it. Maybe she’s twelve, too, in the picture.

  Then I found one with me in it. You couldn’t see me, exactly, but I’m there. She’s pregnant. The picture is from the side. She isn’t looking at the camera but down, at the bulge of stomach resting on her linked arms. She’s looking at me—a me she can’t even see—with the same expression that Annie uses to look at Ava.

  She’d never even met me—how could she look at me that way?

  I heard something crunch under my feet. I was stepping on paper. No, a message.

  I picked up the slightly yellowed paper. It said, in typed block letters:

  KNOW WHAT YOU COME FROM.

  I turned to see if there was anything else in the little room, and there was: a big, comfy chair under the window.

  The chair was occupied.

  At first I thought the lump was a pillow, but it was a teddy bear. He was missing an eye, his sewn-on bow tie was crooked, and his fur was worn through to threads in several places. But he was a literate bear, because he was holding a note. Sure, the “Elise” on the outside of the folded paper matched the ones on my birthday letters, but the inside of the note said,

  Hello, Elise,

  It’s nice to see you again. My name is Miles. I belonged to your mother a long time ago. I was her most special toy. When you were a baby, I sat in your nursery and watched over you while you slept. You never quite took to me like she did (you preferred Bunny-Rabbit), but I knew you both.

  Please take care of me.

  Love,

  Miles

  I remembered Bunny-Rabbit. My favorite soft toy, who had been on several trips through the washing machine and had almost fallen apart. She sat on the top shelf of my closet now, safe.

  I picked up Miles, buried my nose in his fur, and breathed in deeply. Miles didn’t smell like a person, just an old stuffed bear. I felt silly for expecting more than that. He made me cough because he was so dusty.

  When a stuffed bear asks you for help, you can … ignore him, check your sanity, or give in.

  “Welcome back, Miles,” I whispered.

  I sat down and held him in my lap while I studied the portraits.

  Eventually, I realized that the sun was starting to slip down below the trees. I had to go or Aunt Bessie would start wondering where I was. I brought the note, KNOW WHAT YOU COME FROM, and Miles with me and squeezed them into my backpack, zipped it up, and swung it over my shoulder. I was careful to shut the barn door just as it had been.

  On the way out, I was spotted. Annie and Ava were on a walk. Or at least, Annie was walking, holding Ava.

  “Hi,” I said. She didn’t seem to think it was weird for me to come out of the barn.

  “Hi, Elise,” Annie said. “I just thought Ava would like to see the trees. They’re so pretty this time of year.”

  Ava probably wasn’t old enough to understand that she was looking at trees. They would just be red and yellow and orange blobs.

  But Annie really wanted her to see those things. That had to count for something, didn’t it?

  And that must be how you learn trees, right? Someone points them out to you and calls them trees?

  I thought about the note from Dad and the pictures and Miles. What exactly was he trying to point out to me?

  “Elise?” Annie asked. I had been quiet for too long, I guess.

  “Don’t you have a stroller?” I asked.

  “It doesn’t work so well on gravel and grass. We keep it in the car for in town, where there are sidewalks.”

  “Oh. That’s smart.”

  “We’re going in now.”

  “Me too.”

  I walked up the porch steps with Annie.

  I managed to keep my secret only until bedtime. I had taken Miles out of my backpack. I held him in bed, wondering, letting my thoughts whir. The unfolded note lay in my lap: KNOW WHAT YOU COME FROM.

  But Uncle Hugh came in my room. “Just saying good night.”

  “Oh. Good night, Uncle Hugh.”

  He sat on my bed. “All your homework done tonight?”

  “Some of it.”

  “Some of it?”

  “Okay, most of it. I have more reading.”

  Uncle Hugh noticed my stuffed friend.

  “Where did you get that?”

  “Do you know who it is?”

  “Of course I do,” he said. He lifted the bear from my arms and gave him a gentle squeeze. “Where has he been all these years? Find him in the attic?”

  I couldn’t decide whether to lie or not. “Not exactly.”

  Uncle Hugh paused, then had a look of realization. He said, not really to me, “Is it time, already?”

  “Time for what?”

  “I’ve been waiting for years, even checking sometimes, waiting for that little key to disappear. Waiting and waiting, but never actually thinking you’d be ready.”

  “It’s been there for years?”

  “Oh yes.”

  “How many?”

  “Nine.”

  “Ever since?”

  “Ever since. And a little before, of course.”

  I nodded.

  “You didn’t tell me.”

  “I wasn’t supposed to.”

  We both sat quiet. Uncle Hugh handed back Miles.

  Aunt Bessie passed in the hall.

  “Bess!” Uncle Hugh called. “Come in here for a minute.”

  She peeked around the door. “It’s late. What’s going on?”

  Uncle Hugh said, “Our Elise found her key today.”

  “Oh,” Aunt Bessie said, looking fairly shocked. She came in and sat in my desk chair. “Did you … use it?”

  I held up Miles.

  “You did. Was that all? Just Milo?”

  “Miles,” I corrected.

  “Right. Miles.”

  “Pictures,” I said, “of Mom. And a pink chair. And this note.” I held the paper out to them. Uncle Hugh took it.

  “Well?” I prompted. “Tell me about her.”

  “Haven’t we before?” Aunt Bessie asked.

  “Well, sure,” I said. “But this is different.”

  Aunt Bessie nodded. “She was very sweet. She had that pretty long, dark hair she would never cut, and big light-brown eyes that sparkled. She was always smiling and laughing, unless someone was making fun of someone else. She never liked that. I remember when I met her, she talked to me like we had been friends for years: handed me a triple-scoop ice cream cone,
sat me down on the porch, and asked me what I really thought of those Bertrand boys.”

  “What did you say?” Uncle Hugh interrupted, with a sly smile.

  “You’ll never know.” Aunt Bessie wore an equally sly smile.

  “Were you kids?” I asked.

  “No, grown-ups. She was already with your father, and I was with Hugh. She was a good friend. We grew to be very close.”

  “What’s with the chair?” I asked.

  “You said it was pink, right? I’d guess it was your mother’s favorite reading chair. She used to like to sit and read in it for hours, even more so when it was nearly time for you to get here. She kept it by the window in her bedroom, where the afternoon light was good for reading. She couldn’t go out much then. The doctor thought it would be better for her to stay in bed as much as possible. High-risk pregnancy, he said.”

  “What about the other rooms?” I asked. “There was only one key, but there are still seven rooms.”

  “I guess you just can’t worry about the other rooms. Maybe you’ll get to open them later,” Uncle Hugh said.

  “But there aren’t any more keys for me.”

  “That doesn’t mean the keys don’t exist. They’re still out there, somewhere.”

  “Are you sure you want them right away?” Aunt Bessie asked. “Wasn’t that enough for now?”

  “For today,” I said. “But now that I know those are for me, I want to know what’s in them.”

  “Just keep your eyes open. Isn’t that how you found this one?”

  I nodded.

  “How did you put two and two together?” Uncle Hugh asked.

  I pointed to the birthday letter on my nightstand.

  “You doing okay?”

  “Yeah, I’m just tired now.”

  Aunt Bessie got up and put her hand on Uncle Hugh’s shoulder.

  “Good night, Cricket,” he said. “Sleep well. Your dad loved games, puzzles, and clues. He asked us to keep this secret.”

  “That’s okay,” I said. “I needed a surprise.”

  At school the next day, I thought about Mom, who was kind, and a good friend, and a reader, and somehow brave.

  If Dad wanted me to know what I came from, did that mean I should have those things inside me somewhere? Was that true? I didn’t seem to be anything like my mother. I was exactly the opposite.

  It was lab day in science. Mr. Fleming gave out instructions and set us loose to find partners. Normally I was partners with Franklin and probably still would have been this time, too, but before I could blink, I heard someone say,

  “Sorry, Elise already asked me.”

  I turned to see Caroline talking to Amanda, who scowled and went to find someone else. Kate and Lindsay already seemed to be together. Ha, ha … Amanda, the odd girl out.

  Caroline whispered, “Can we be lab partners?”

  “Sure.”

  Franklin had heard the whole thing. He found a boy to be his partner.

  I went with Caroline to collect our materials. The lab was about simple machines and work. We took a series of planks, wooden carts, springs, and pulleys out into the hallway to see what was best for moving the load, our science textbook, different distances.

  “What was that about?” I asked.

  “Amanda’s my friend, but she thinks I’ll do all the work.”

  “And you’re still friends with her?”

  “Hanging out and doing work together are different. Like last night I went to her house and it was really fun. She painted my nails—see, Pearlescent Pink—then when she said, ‘Let’s do the language arts homework,’ I said I had to go home. Here, let’s start with the horizontal distances. What do you think will be the best way?”

  “Use the flat cart. We can make a ramp with the planks so the cart can run down and then speed along the distance.”

  Caroline set up the ramp. We ran the cart a couple times and used a stopwatch to time it. When I recorded the information, I noticed that my nails were broken off at different lengths. Amanda would probably have told me how gross they were.

  “Do you think she’s mean?”

  “Amanda?”

  “Yeah.”

  Caroline shrugged. “She’s never been mean to me.”

  “She’s mean to other people. Really mean.”

  Caroline picked up a cart, spun its wheels, and thought. “She was never like that before. It’s like she wants to seem tougher now. I don’t really know what’s going on with her. I’ll ask. Maybe she’ll cut it out.”

  I didn’t mention that Amanda’s seeming “tough” included lunch-smashing, because I didn’t want Caroline to pick Amanda over me if she knew this was a fight. Instead I spun the wheels on one of the other carts and asked, “What are you friends with her for, anyway?”

  “We’ve always been friends, ever since kindergarten.”

  That sounded like me and Franklin. Sometimes you are friends with someone just because you’re used to it, and maybe you forget why it happened in the first place.

  I looked down the hallway to where Franklin was working. He seemed to be having fun. It really was his kind of project. Was he giving all the instructions? Did the other kid mind?

  What were we fighting about, again?

  Trying to figure out why things change is probably even harder than trying to figure out how they started.

  When I got home, Annie and Ava were on the couch in the living room, nursing. I tried to hurry past, but Annie saw me.

  “Sit for a minute, Elise.”

  I sat across from them, tapping my feet.

  “Ava would like to get to know you,” Annie said, “when she’s not busy.”

  It felt like she wanted me to laugh, so I did, a little.

  But I was thinking about the picture of Mom with the pregnant stomach. With me in it.

  “Annie?”

  “Hmm?”

  “How much do you love Ava?”

  “More than the moon and the stars and the sun combined. More than the whole world.”

  “When did you know?”

  “When I first saw her.” Annie changed Ava’s position and looked back up at me.

  “And you will love her always, no matter what?”

  “Yes.”

  “Do you love her enough that, even if it meant you couldn’t live another day, you would want her to live instead?”

  “Yes.”

  “Even if she grew up to be a serial killer?”

  “Are you saying I’m going to raise a serial killer?” Annie laughed.

  “No, I’m just …” I looked down at my lap.

  “Come here, Elise,” Annie said. “Come sit with us.” I moved to the couch. She shifted Ava to her shoulder. “Never, ever doubt how much a mother loves her child. Even before she is born.”

  With that, Ava spit up.

  I headed to the kitchen for a snack. Aunt Bessie said, “Elise! I made cookies this morning. Maybe you could still smell them and that’s why you came by?”

  I smiled. “I just feel like hanging out.”

  “Good. Help yourself. I’m going to get dinner started. Pot roast needs to cook for a long time. Get your homework out and keep me company.”

  The cookies were still a little soft. Mmm, chocolate with melty butterscotch chips. I poured myself a glass of milk and dunked the cookies as I ate.

  Aunt Bessie had gone back to chopping veggies at the counter. But she asked, “You want to talk about something?”

  “No. I mean, yes. I … I think I want to visit Mom.”

  “We can do that,” Aunt Bessie said. “It’s probably been too long, hasn’t it?”

  I nodded.

  “Do you want to plant some flowers? Like we used to?”

  “I wanted to go alone,” I said. “We’d have to go in the car to plant flowers.”

  “Not necessarily,” she said. “There’s just enough room on Hugh’s bike for what you’d need.”

  I abandoned my cookies and we went out to the yard. Aun
t Bessie dug up some mums, repotted them, and put them in the bicycle basket. She added a watering can—“There’ll be somewhere to fill it”—and a trowel. “Ready?”

  I straddled the bike, my feet barely touching the ground as I kept it steady.

  Ready? “Well,” I said, “here I go.”

  The cemetery is out along our school-bus route to town. Usually I pass it without even thinking about who’s in there, because I’m so used to it. It took a long time to pedal there with the full basket.

  At the cemetery, I set the bike against a tree. I walked through the headstones, and eventually I found them, Louisa Celeste and John Peter Bertrand, chiseled into one block. I stood, just looking.

  I didn’t know what to do with my hands. I put them in my jeans pockets, took them out, put them in my sweatshirt pockets, took them out.

  Well, it wasn’t like she was going to talk first.

  I sat on my knees in the grass in front of the marble stone.

  “Hi, uh, Mom,” I started. “Dad—uh—I think Dad wanted me to get to know you. Well, a long time ago he did, but I’m here now. You have a pretty spot.… ”

  I tore up some of the dry grass in my fists. Then I realized it probably wasn’t a very nice thing to do. I let the blades go and brushed my hands on my jeans.

  “Is it my fault you’re here?”

  Cold stone never answered anyone.

  “Well, it probably wasn’t worth it. I’m bad at everything and nobody but our family likes me. I can’t even keep one friend.”

  I wiped my nose on my sleeve.

  “I’m really sorry.”

  I lay down on the grass, a little closer to them.

  “I brought you something,” I said when I eventually remembered. “I’ll go get it.”

  I walked back to the bike and wheeled it over. I did my best digging two holes, one in front of each name. There was a little house nearby for the gardeners’ supplies and I filled up the watering can at a spigot. After I had the flowers in place and watered, the plot looked a lot more cheerful.

  Back home, Aunt Bessie met me on the porch and folded me into her arms. When she finally let go, she held out something. It looked like a necklace.

 
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