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       Eight Keys, p.9

           Suzanne LaFleur
 
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  “Dad read this to me.”

  “Well, here, this whole section has kids’ books.”

  I pulled several books from their places. Then I heard the smallest noise of metal moving.

  When I looked at the shelf, there was a key!

  “Caroline, look!” I said. “Another key! Just here on the shelf!”

  She took it from me. “It’s dusty. I bet it’s been here the whole time.”

  The dust on the shelf showed the outline of a key. The key probably had been locked in this room the whole time, in plain sight on the shelf.

  “Come on!” I said.

  I ran into the hallway with Caroline behind me. I jammed the key into doorknobs until it fit. When I pushed the door open …

  An empty room. Not even a note!

  I stood there, panting. Caroline peered over my shoulder, just as confused.

  “Why would he lock an empty room?” I asked eventually.

  “Another mystery.”

  “More like a dead end.” We were both quiet for a long time.

  “Maybe I should go,” Caroline said gently.

  “No, stay. You haven’t picked out any books yet. Are you hungry? We’re having sloppy joes tonight. Come on.”

  Caroline followed me outside. “You have so many leaves! I used to love to go to Amanda’s and make a big leaf pile. We’d jump in it for hours. She doesn’t like to do that anymore.”

  “Don’t you have your own trees?”

  Caroline shook her head. “We don’t even have a yard. We live above the deli in town.”

  “We could play in the leaves.”

  “Really?”

  “Yeah. Hang on.” I slipped back into the barn and got two rakes.

  “Here.” Caroline ran and stood under a tree near the driveway with branches that hung low around our shoulders. “We can make the pile here and then jump out of the tree.”

  We scrambled around trying to make the leaf pile as quickly as possible. Caroline made neat sweeps with the rake, but every time I looked over at her, she swung her rake fast and threw the leaves up high in the air with a goofy smile. It made me think of a clown doing something in a hurry. I couldn’t help laughing.

  It took a long time, maybe an hour, to get the pile deep enough for us. We were both sweating even though it was getting kind of cold out. The sun had almost set.

  “You first,” I said. “It was your idea.”

  “Okay.” Caroline climbed onto the lowest branch and flopped backward into the pile. “Ah! That was great! But, ouch …”—she stood up and rubbed her bum—“my tailbone.”

  I had never before seen anyone play in leaves in tights and a skirt. She didn’t seem to mind, though.

  I climbed onto the low branch. I wouldn’t hurt my tailbone.

  “Belly flop!” I yelled, spreading my arms and heading front-first into the leaves.

  “Ha, ha! Good idea!” Caroline scooted back into the tree and echoed my battle cry, not giving me even a second to get out of the way. She landed on top of me and we both howled, laughing so hard.

  “Get up!” I threw a fistful of leaves at her.

  “Oh yeah?” She scooped up a handful of leaves and rubbed them against my head. We gave each other noogies until Caroline tumbled back and spread her arms to make leaf angels.

  Car lights bounced down the driveway.

  “Who’s that?” Caroline sat up.

  “Uncle Hugh.”

  “Come on, let’s hide and surprise him.”

  We scrambled under the leaves, completely hidden.

  “Wait, wait,” I whispered. The car stopped. Uncle Hugh’s feet crunched the gravel, his door slammed. “Now.”

  “Boooo!” We both jumped up and threw as many leaves as we could.

  Uncle Hugh wasn’t scared. He started laughing! Then he wiped the tears out of his eyes. “Cricket, who’s this crazy kid?”

  “Caroline,” I said.

  “Wonderful. Welcome, Caroline.” He turned to go in. “Come on. You’ll have some cleaning up to do. Aunt Bessie won’t let two hoodlums come to her dinner table.” I looked at Caroline: her usually smooth hair was all fuzzy and full of broken bits of leaves. Her skirt was pulled up and twisted and there were leaves stuck all over her clothes, too. I probably looked just as bad.

  We picked up our backpacks and ran to the porch. We tried to get off all the leaves; the ones on our clothes were easy. But there were also leaves in our shirts. We had another fit of laughing when Caroline found some clumped inside her tights.

  “Girls!” Uncle Hugh called from inside.

  “Coming!”

  When we paraded into the kitchen, Aunt Bessie said, “There’s a hairbrush in the bathroom.”

  We giggled some more on our way there. I handed Caroline my hairbrush and she easily brushed her hair out. Mine would be a lot harder: my hair tie had disappeared while we were having noogie fights.

  “Here, let me.” Caroline kept the brush. I sat on the edge of the tub and she combed my hair carefully, starting at the bottom. After she’d gotten out all the leaves, she put my hair in two braids. “Even if my hair were long, I couldn’t have braids. My hair is so slippery they don’t stay in.”

  I stood and admired the braids in the mirror. “You want dinner?”

  “Okay,” Caroline said. “I’ll call my mom.” She got permission to stay.

  “Now that you two are cleaned up,” Aunt Bessie said when we arrived back in the kitchen, “you’re in charge of the sauce.”

  She found an extra apron for Caroline. The sauce splattered everywhere, but that was part of the fun.

  “Who’s this?” Caroline asked when Annie brought Ava to her high chair.

  “Ava. Ava, meet …”

  “Caroline,” Caroline and I answered together.

  “Hi, Caroline. I’m Annie. Want to feed her? I think it’s peas and plums tonight.” Annie got the containers of baby food.

  “Sure!” Caroline said. She talked and sang to Ava while she fed her, and she did a good job. She even used the bib to wipe up Ava’s dribbles. I’d have thought they were too yucky to touch.

  Uncle Hugh came in.

  “You like babies?” he asked Caroline.

  “Yeah. I have two little sisters. They aren’t babies anymore, but I used to help when they were.”

  At dinner, Caroline answered all of Uncle Hugh’s questions and laughed at his jokes and passed the salad and got sloppy-joe sauce on her cheeks, which she neatly wiped away with her napkin without being embarrassed. And she helped me tell everyone about finding the next key and how the room turned out to be empty.

  “Maybe there just wasn’t time to fill it,” Annie suggested.

  “Nah,” Uncle Hugh said. “The way John liked puzzles … if he locked an empty room, there’s a reason.”

  Invisible Things

  Amanda was mad that I was hanging out with Caroline. She was squashing my lunch worse than ever. One morning it was under everything in the locker.

  And she tried to slam the locker door on my hand. Again. But I got my hand out of the way just in time. She looked at me and said, “Oops.”

  I overheard her talking to Caroline and she said, “It’s not like I’m the one hanging out with losers.” I couldn’t hear what Caroline said back.

  Did Caroline think Franklin and I were losers? She still sat with Amanda at lunch, which was what she usually did, so maybe it meant nothing. But in the hallway she asked me what Franklin and I were doing after school. We were heading to Leonard’s and then out for burgers. I told her she could come, if she wanted to.

  At the hardware store, Franklin took Caroline to meet everyone and I went to see Leonard.

  “Hey, Leonard,” I said.

  “Where have you been? You are too busy to visit old Leonard.”

  “No. Ta-da! I’m here.”

  “Yeah, well, long time no see.” Leonard didn’t look up at me as he counted all the twenties in the drawer, then the tens.

  “Yo
u mad?”

  “Nah. It’s just a sign you’re growing up, is all. I’m feeling like an old man.”

  “You aren’t!” I said. “You’re nowhere near as old as Uncle Hugh.”

  He laughed and shut the drawer. “Who’s your new friend?”

  “Caroline.”

  “That’s nice. It’s nice to see you with a friend who’s a girl. You’ll probably be needing some of those.”

  “What’s wrong with Franklin?”

  “Nothing’s wrong with Franklin.” Leonard looked me up and down. “What’s that book you’re carrying around?”

  “Just something of Dad’s,” I said, pulling The Little Prince out from under my arm. I’d found it in the library. It was the pictures that caught me.

  “Really?” Leonard asked.

  “Yeah, he left me a whole bunch of books. I don’t know if you’ve ever been upstairs in the barn, but there’s all these locked rooms up there. Turns out they’re for me, from Dad. So far I’ve opened three of them.”

  “What’d you find?”

  “Some things of Mom’s, a room full of Dad’s books, and then the third room was just empty.”

  “Totally empty?”

  “Yep. Why would Dad lock an empty room?”

  Leonard shook his head. “Knowing him, there was a reason.”

  “That’s what Uncle Hugh said. Do you know the reason?”

  “Nope. But I don’t think I’m supposed to know. I think you’re supposed to know.”

  “Well, I don’t.”

  “Can you put down the book for a few minutes? How about you and your friends sweep up the floors for me, and then I’ll give you a little cash and you can go get some burgers and milk shakes?”

  I smiled. “That was the plan.”

  “Good.”

  Caroline and I dipped fries in our milk shakes. Then we swapped glasses, because she had vanilla and I had chocolate.

  Milk-shake sharing left Franklin out. He tried his fries in his soda.

  “How is it?” Caroline asked.

  Franklin made a face.

  He poured a pool of ketchup into the cardboard condiment holder. When he ate, he got smudges of ketchup on his face.

  I tossed Franklin napkins from the metal dispenser on the table. He wiped his face but just ended up spreading the ketchup around more.

  “Nice work, gross-out,” I told him.

  Franklin set the napkins aside. I threw a French fry at him. He used his sleeve to rub his face where the fry hit him, and his sleeve got streaked with red ketchup. Not a whole lot neater.

  Caroline didn’t seem bothered by Franklin at all. She reached over with a fry to share the ketchup.

  “What would happen if you had a milk shake?” Caroline asked.

  “A bad rash,” Franklin answered. “And severe diarrhea.”

  I couldn’t believe that Franklin would talk about diarrhea when we were eating with Caroline.

  Caroline said, “It might be worth it. Once in a while.”

  Franklin shook his head so quickly that Caroline and I couldn’t help laughing.

  That night I couldn’t sleep, so I got up to get a drink of water and walk around. Aunt Bessie and Uncle Hugh had gone to bed. Annie was asleep on the couch. In Annie and Ava’s room, Ava was awake making pouty noises. I wasn’t sure what to do, but I didn’t want to wake Annie up if she was so tired that she fell asleep on the couch. I could at least try to see what was wrong with Ava.

  “Hey,” I whispered softly. “Hey there, it’s okay.”

  As I peeked into the crib, I saw Ava’s bottom lip curled down, shiny with spit, ready to let out a real cry.

  “I really can’t feed you,” I said. “But I can pat you a little.”

  I rubbed Ava’s small pink-pajamaed tummy. “There, does that feel good?” She looked at me expectantly.

  “I’ll be right back,” I said. I tiptoed to my room, picked up my book, and returned to Ava.

  Babies like the sound of people reading, right?

  I put on the small lamp and sat down in the beautiful blue rocking chair and began to read. The book felt different, out loud in the middle of the night. I tried to keep my voice quiet, but steady. I paused at several lines, feeling them.

  “Ava? What if the third room isn’t empty, but full of invisible things?”

  I closed my eyes and pictured the bare space. I tried to picture it with my heart. But I didn’t see anything. It was still just an empty room.

  Knowing

  Pizza night.

  Once a month, Uncle Hugh and Aunt Bessie go out on a date to a restaurant. Franklin comes over to hang out with me and we get a whole cheese pizza just for us.

  I didn’t bother to get a plate. I smashed two pieces together for my pizza sandwich and bit down on the point. The gush of steaming sauce smothered my tongue. Mmm.

  Franklin took one piece, put it on a plate, and started picking off the cheese.

  I tossed my crusts onto Franklin’s rejected cheese pile and got my next pair of pieces.

  Franklin wasn’t talking much.

  “What’s the matter with you?” I asked.

  “Nothing.” He got up from the table and poured a glass of orange soda. He didn’t ask if I wanted one.

  After dinner, we worked on the puzzle. Franklin silently connected pieces. Now that the spaceship and Earth were put together, there was a lot of boring night sky to do.

  A puzzle-piece fight would be more fun. I threw one at Franklin’s forehead to get things started.

  “Hey!” he cried, too loudly. It couldn’t have hurt.

  “What’s wrong with you?”

  “Nothing.”

  “Liar.”

  Franklin seemed to stew for a minute, and then asked, “Why did you invite me over?”

  “It’s pizza night. You always come over on pizza night.”

  “Why didn’t you invite Caroline?”

  “Caroline?”

  “Yeah, she’s always around now.”

  “She’s not. She doesn’t even eat lunch with us.”

  “Well, you two seem to get along great and I don’t trust her.”

  “Why not?”

  “She’s friends with the enemy.”

  “What?”

  “Yeah, the enemy: Amanda. She’s so mean to you.”

  “Caroline’s nice.”

  “How do you know?”

  “Because she acts nice.”

  “Exactly. It could be an act.” Franklin always gave people the benefit of the doubt. What was his problem? “You don’t really know her.”

  “It feels more like I don’t know you. You aren’t acting like you.” The Franklin I knew liked everybody. Even Diana the cat girl. The Franklin I knew had never been mad at me for making a new friend.

  But actually, I had never really made a new friend before. It had always been just me and Franklin.

  I ran out of things to say, right in the middle of our conversation. I took half of the white-speckled black pieces from Franklin and examined the stars, as if I could learn them by heart.

  “All by yourself today, Cricket?” Leonard asked.

  I nodded.

  “Finish that book?”

  “Yeah. I read it a couple times. And picked out some new ones.”

  I’d stacked them on the desk in the library. I was doing my homework in there almost every night now, and having a lot less trouble getting it done. At least if I forgot to put the homework back in my bag, I knew where it would be. Most nights, Uncle Hugh worked quietly downstairs in his workshop, so I wasn’t out there by myself.

  “You starting to like reading a little more?” Leonard asked.

  “Maybe.” I had even filled out a couple entries in my reading journal for Mrs. Wakefield.

  “Maybe’s a start,” he said. “Interested in earning some snack money?”

  “Sure. Aunt Bessie’s not coming to get me until five.”

  “Everything okay with your friends?”

  “Yeah.
” I hadn’t invited either of them. Franklin had sat through lunch like his soy milk was sour, even though Caroline wasn’t with us. And Caroline seemed to be included in Amanda’s afternoon plans.

  Leonard gave me one of my favorite jobs, mixing the trial-sized-can paint samples that people requested. I liked knowing that even though there are hundreds of colors to pick from on the little sample cards, they’re all just a couple bases with extra color squirts to change them. I got paint on my hands and jeans. But everyone, even Aunt Bessie, knows that jeans look cooler with paint splotches.

  At the burger place I got fries covered in cheese—a treat I never order with Franklin—and a vanilla milk shake. It felt good just to sit there on my own. It was a little lonely—there were other tables of older kids from school—but really, it was okay.

  The next day I didn’t ask anyone to hang out, either, and went right home after school. I visited Aunt Bessie in the kitchen and made myself a peanut-butter dipping plate of sliced apples, carrots, and celery. Then I went out to the library, threw my bag on the floor, and set the snack on the desk. I flopped into the chair, crunching a carrot, and something on the desk caught my eye.…

  A key.

  It hadn’t been there yesterday.

  Uncle Hugh was out on deliveries. I thought of asking Aunt Bessie if anyone had been out here today, get right down to sleuthing.

  But that idea didn’t feel right. It seemed like whoever was leaving the keys didn’t want me to know who he or she was. I left that mystery for later and picked up the key.

  • • •

  Taped to the wall was a message: CHOOSE TO LIVE, CHOOSE TO LOVE.

  There were pictures on the wall in this room, too.

  In one, a man holds a newborn baby. The man is crying, but, underneath that, he has an expression of wonder. He’s in other pictures, smiling and looking happy as he plays with a growing baby and toddler—on park swings … at the beach … with blocks. In one picture, the toddler has become a little girl. Her dark hair is just starting to grow beyond her shoulders. The man stands behind her, brushing it, but his eyes seem sad and faraway. In the last picture, he looks old. His hair is only wisps, his skin pale. He sits in a wheelchair. The girl in his lap holds a book, laughing.

 
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