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       Eight Keys, p.8

           Suzanne LaFleur
 
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  “It’s the key. I took it out of the door where you left it. You can wear it, if you like.”

  “Thanks.” I slipped it over my head. The key felt light, resting gently below my collarbone, near my heart.

  Another Surprise

  I didn’t dream at all. That was nice. When I woke up, I felt rested. Uncle Hugh hadn’t even knocked on the door yet to tell me it was time for school. I was thinking about Franklin. I felt so much better today, and maybe what had happened really wasn’t his fault. We could try again.

  As I lay in bed, I noticed something that could only mean one thing:

  I was dreaming.

  My daybed is pushed up against a window, so I can see the windowsill through the white-painted bars.

  Sitting on the windowsill was a key.

  I closed my eyes and opened them. Then I closed them again and counted to ten. The key was still there. I reached through the bars and picked it up.

  It felt cool and smooth.

  It had to be a key to another one of the barn rooms, didn’t it?

  Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe I was just being hopeful.

  The possibilities:

  Dream: key won’t open door to a barn room, because you’re always left hanging in dreams.

  Dream: key opens a barn room, but room is empty.

  Dream: key opens a barn room, but room has something scary inside (like a dragon).

  Real life: key isn’t for the barn rooms.

  Real life: key opens door to a barn room (inside, I find …?).

  In dreams, it doesn’t usually matter where things come from. They can just appear for no reason. But in real life, things have to come from somewhere. Someone would have had to have put the key there. Uncle Hugh and Aunt Bessie were the most likely suspects. Had they had the keys all the time? But then why wouldn’t they have given them to me before?

  I could just ask them, but something made me hesitant. What if I had dreamed the key up, and they thought I was crazy?

  I got dressed before I went to have breakfast so I could have more time to think. I slipped the key into the pocket of my jeans; that way, I’d know if it was still there and real, or, if it vaporized later, that would prove I’d imagined the whole thing.

  Aunt Bessie had scrambled eggs waiting. She was already washing the frying pan at the sink.

  “Did you put something in my room?” I asked as I carefully sprinkled salt and pepper over my eggs.

  “Yes,” she said. “Fourteen pairs of socks that I found left all over your room instead of in the hamper, washed, dried, balled up, and returned to you. They’re on your desk. I’m glad you noticed so you can put them away where they belong.”

  “Oh great, thanks,” I said. I hadn’t noticed the socks at all. But I figured the key wasn’t from Aunt Bessie. She seemed all business. “Where’s Uncle Hugh?”

  “He left early for deliveries.”

  I updated my suspect list:

  Aunt Bessie

  Uncle Hugh. Was it a coincidence that he’d left early?

  I didn’t really have anyone else to add to my list.

  Unless the key was coming from someone else entirely. What if Dad …

  I shook the crazy thought out of my head.

  “You need to get going,” Aunt Bessie said. “It’s a little later than usual. I let you sleep.”

  I gulped down my orange juice. I had to get to the barn, but I didn’t want Aunt Bessie to notice, and I didn’t think I could sneak off now. Especially since I had something else to sneak. I opened the fridge and slipped a cold bottle out. Aunt Bessie didn’t turn around from the dishes.

  I hurried to brush my teeth; grabbed my lunch, jacket, and backpack; and rushed out the door. On the way down the porch steps, I put my hand over my pocket. The key was still inside.

  Franklin was waiting at the bus stop, standing with a few other kids. When I showed up, he looked at me. I motioned for him to come over.

  “What?” he asked.

  I pulled the bottle of cream soda out of my jacket. “Here.”

  “Thanks?” he said, with a question mark.

  “Come over later?” I said, also with a question mark. “We have a puzzle to finish.”

  “Yeah, okay,” Franklin said.

  “Okay?”

  “Yeah, okay.”

  Then he tried to take the metal cap off his soda with his bare hand, but he couldn’t. I took the bottle, opened it, and handed it back.

  He stood next to me and slurped quickly; you can’t eat or drink on the bus and Franklin isn’t a rule breaker. He’s also not a litterbug, but he agreed to leave the bottle on the side of the road if I promised to help him remember to pick it up after school.

  On the bus, I filled him in about what had been going on at home. How the key I’d found in the barn had opened that room. How probably all those rooms that had been locked up there forever were for me.

  “Why didn’t you tell me? You had a real-life mystery!” Franklin said. “The Mystery in the Barn. That would be the title.”

  “It’s not done yet.” I touched the key in my pocket. I didn’t tell him I had it. I was still afraid it might disappear. Or that it wouldn’t be a key to The Mystery in the Barn at all.

  Maybe making up with Franklin so easily was part of the dream. Maybe I still hadn’t woken up.

  • • •

  I knew I was awake when Amanda threw my lunch in the bottom of the locker, I reached my hand in to get it, and she slammed the locker shut, right on my fingernails.

  I screamed, pulling my hand back. My fingers were bright red with white streaks under the nails, throbbing.

  No way I could still be asleep.

  This was my real life.

  Franklin appeared as Amanda gave me a nasty grin and walked away.

  “What’s the matter?” he asked.

  “My hand got shut in the door.”

  “You need ice,” he said. “Otherwise, your fingers will get all swollen. You didn’t hit your thumb, right?”

  I imagined sitting in class next to Amanda with ice on my fingers. I had to act like she hadn’t hurt me.

  “No. I’ll be fine.”

  In language arts, Mrs. Wakefield announced that she was going to do reading assessments. We would each have to sit for an oral quiz about our class reading (The Call of the Wild), talk about our independent reading, and set goals in a private conference. It would take two days to get through the whole class, so we had a long list of silent classwork to do.

  Of course I couldn’t start on the list of new assignments until after my conference, because I wasn’t ready. I sat biting the nails on my good hand as I tried to scan the assigned chapters. I’d read them in patches. What if she asked detailed questions about something I hadn’t bothered to read?

  I glanced around. Two people got to work right away: Caroline and Franklin. Other people—like Amanda, Kate, and Lindsay—were whispering to each other.

  Mrs. Wakefield was going alphabetically, so it wasn’t long until my turn. I brought my book and sat across from her. I was glad that so many people were talking. No one would be able to hear my conference. Mrs. Wakefield was ready to take notes on a clipboard.

  “Did you hurt your hand?”

  “What? Oh, no. I mean, yeah … um, I was just being clumsy.”

  She gave me a funny look, but I didn’t mention the locker trouble again. She’d never listened to it before. What would be different now?

  “Well, when we’re done you can get ice if you need to. This will be a lot like answering homework questions, but out loud. You should make a statement and back it up with specific details from the text. We’ve been talking a lot about theme. Can you define that term?”

  “I think it’s …,” I began, “a big idea in a story, but it’s kind of … underneath.”

  “What do you mean by ‘underneath’?”

  “Kind of hidden. The author doesn’t just say it. You have to think about it.”

  “Can you identify
a theme in The Call of the Wild?”

  “Courage.”

  “Can you support that with details?”

  I opened my copy of the book and started flipping through it. The student who’d used it before me had highlighted things. Maybe they would help me.

  “I don’t know.” I couldn’t pretend to be a confident student for that long. Maybe Mrs. Wakefield would feel sorry for me if I acted like I had trouble. “I’m not so good on the spot. I need a while to think about things.”

  “Could you talk about it a little? To help you get started? It might get easier as you go along.”

  I shook my head.

  “Then why don’t you choose an aspect of the book to talk about? Is there something in particular that you like or dislike about the book?”

  “I like the survival stuff.”

  She was probably looking for something deeper. I was bombing.

  “Would you say that the work has a theme of survival?”

  “Sure.”

  Mrs. Wakefield wrote some notes.

  “Let’s move on to your independent reading. You have to hand in your reading journal with ten books logged by Thanksgiving. Are you about halfway?”

  I thought about my reading journal: empty. I nodded that yes, I was about halfway.

  “What are you reading now?” she asked.

  “I’m between books.”

  “So what did you just finish?”

  “The Secret Garden,” I lied. I looked down at my fingernails, which were turning a bit purple.

  “Can you tell me about it?”

  Luckily, I’d seen the movie.

  “Yeah. This girl finds a key that opens a garden that’s been locked for like ten years.… ” I trailed off, suddenly lost in my own thoughts. My hand felt my pocket. The key was still there, even though I was sure I was awake now. I shivered.

  “Would you say that book was too easy, too difficult, or just right for you? … Elise?”

  “What? Oh. Uh … it was fine.”

  “What do you think you will read next?”

  “I’m not sure.”

  “This is for you.” Mrs. Wakefield handed me a printout. “Some book suggestions that are probably on target for you. I’d like at least five of your reading reports in your journal to be on them, okay? Make sure you’re keeping up with your reading.”

  “Thanks,” I said, taking the list, folding it into quarters, and sticking it inside my copy of The Call of the Wild. Like I’d look at that again.

  Finally (finally, finally, finally), the day ended. Franklin picked up the bottle we’d left by the side of the road.

  “Come by later to work on the puzzle?” I asked.

  He nodded and headed home.

  I didn’t want him to come over right away, because I needed to try to unlock the next room, by myself.

  Uncle Hugh’s truck wasn’t in the driveway. I dropped my stuff on the front porch and went out to the barn.

  I reminded myself that maybe the key wouldn’t go to any of the rooms. But the third lock I tried—a room on the end—turned with a satisfying click.

  This room was much bigger, a true room rather than a closet. It was wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling filled with books. There was an old-fashioned wooden desk and chair. I walked over to the desk and found another note on top. This one said, SEEK TO LEARN.

  “What is this?” I asked out loud. “National Get-Elise-to-Read Day?”

  I left the key in the lock and went downstairs.

  Books

  “Your dad collected quite a library. He must have stored it up there,” Uncle Hugh explained at dinner. “He loved books. Your mom, too. Where did the key come from?”

  “It just showed up in my room.”

  Uncle Hugh looked at Aunt Bessie, who shrugged. He went back to stirring the salmon-cream-sauce noodles on his plate. If one of them was leaving the keys, the other didn’t seem to know about it.

  “Did Dad spend a lot of time reading?” I asked.

  “He always had a book, wherever he went.”

  “That was nice, later, when he was sick. He didn’t have to give up his favorite thing,” Aunt Bessie added.

  “And Mom?”

  “She was more of a sit-in-her-pink-chair than a read-on-the-go kind of girl.”

  “What did they like to read?”

  “Hmm … Lots of things, I’d guess. I didn’t ask much. Walking up to someone and saying ‘Whatchya readin’?’ is obnoxious.”

  “No one’s ever asked me that,” I said.

  “You’re not often caught reading.”

  “So … why would Dad leave me a library?”

  “Maybe it was something special to him that he could give you,” Annie chimed in.

  “But why would he lock it up?” I asked. “Why couldn’t the library just have been open all those years?”

  “What’s a three-year-old going to do with all those books?” Uncle Hugh pointed out. “Color in them? Maybe he wanted you to be old enough to appreciate them. It’s not like we don’t have plenty of books already.”

  “Can I finish my homework out there? There’s a big desk.”

  “That’s okay with me,” Aunt Bessie said.

  “We’ll stop by to visit,” Uncle Hugh said.

  “Okay.” Double okay: the barn could be creepy in the dark.

  Uncle Hugh walked up with me, carrying a standing lamp. I had my backpack and all my work, which I spread out on the old desk.

  “It’s nice to know that I’ll never run out of things to read,” Uncle Hugh said. He started looking through the shelves, and suddenly he was laughing!

  “What?” I asked.

  He picked up a battered paperback. “Your dad’s joke book. He used to carry this around all the time, when he was about ten. Could never get him to stop telling them.”

  He handed it to me. It felt very worn, but I liked it. I flipped through, found a whole page of “Why did the chicken cross the road?” Dad had even written in some of his own: “Because on the other side it was Thanksgiving, so only turkeys had to worry.” I wasn’t sure if that was funny, but it made me smile anyway.

  “I’ve been looking for this one.” Uncle Hugh slid a thin book off the shelf. “The town library didn’t have it. Can I borrow it?”

  “Sure. Take whatever you want.”

  Uncle Hugh had already put on his glasses, reading as he walked out.

  I opened all the desk drawers. There were some old ballpoint pens, a couple paper clips, and a yellow lined notepad. Plenty of room for my own things, if I wanted. If I liked working in the library.

  It felt very good and official to open my science book flat on the desk and flip through the pages while I answered the questions using the Caroline Method. After I finished but before I started math, I looked at Dad’s books.

  All the books were for grown-ups. There was no sense to how they were arranged—not by topic or author. Maybe it made sense to Dad.

  “What’s up?” a voice asked.

  I jumped about a mile. Then I realized it was just Franklin. “Jerk. You don’t just sneak up on somebody.”

  “Sorry. How’d you get in here?”

  “I should ask you the same question.”

  “Annie told me you were out here. So—you opened another room.”

  I told him how the key had appeared.

  “There are so many books in here!”

  “Like a thousand,” I agreed.

  “More like three thousand.”

  “Three thousand?”

  “Well, twenty bookcases, each with about six shelves.” He pointed. “Twenty-four books on this shelf, which rounds to about twenty-five books on each. So there are about three thousand books in this room.”

  We stared around at the bookshelves.

  “Feel like reading?” I asked.

  “I feel like having hot cocoa. And doing the space puzzle.”

  “Yeah.” I followed him, leaving my homework. The puzzle seemed more important.


  Caroline was sitting with her usual group at lunch when I spotted her the next day, but the others left eventually. She started reading in the middle of the noisy lunchroom. She really could fall into her own world.

  When Franklin finished eating and left to check on the mold he was growing for extra credit in science, I went to sit with Caroline.

  She looked up from her book without marking the place. I remembered what Aunt Bessie had said about it being annoying to ask someone what she’s reading, so I skipped that question.

  “Would you be interested in a room full of books?” Maybe that was an odd thing to ask.

  “I guess so,” Caroline said. “Where is it?”

  “In my barn.”

  “You have a room full of books in your barn?”

  “Well, I do now. I mean, it’s been there, I just didn’t know about it.”

  “You didn’t?”

  I filled her in on the details. I have to admit, they sounded pretty crazy. But she was curious about the rooms and keys.

  She was busy that afternoon, but the next day she got a pass to come home with me on the bus.

  Which really seemed to annoy Franklin. When we got off the bus, he headed toward his own house.

  “This is a lot of books.” Caroline walked into the room and turned slowly. “Lucky! You have your own library!”

  “That’s one way to look at it. It was my dad’s. All the books are for grown-ups.”

  Caroline walked over to a shelf and picked up a book. She opened it and smelled the pages. When I gave her a funny look, she said, “Books smell really good.”

  “You can borrow some.”

  Caroline ran her fingers along the spines. She seemed to judge books as much by their covers as by the way they smelled and the way the paper felt under her fingertips.

  “They’re not all grown-up books,” she said.

  “I think they are.”

  “Nope.” She pulled one off a shelf. “Winnie-the-Pooh. They’re just disguised. Hardcovers without jackets.”

  She handed me Winnie-the-Pooh. I opened it, flipped through.

  “Someone read this to me,” I said. “I think a teacher.”

  I sniffed the book like Caroline had. I closed my eyes.

  It wasn’t a teacher. It was a man’s voice reading. And I wasn’t sitting in a desk or a circle of other kids … I was in bed, with pillows and Bunny-Rabbit and a sleepy feeling. The memory was so shadowy I could hardly catch it.

 
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