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Elise and Franklin have always been best friends. Elise has always lived in the big house with her loving Uncle and Aunt, because Elise's parents died when she was too young to remember them. There's always been a barn behind the house with eight locked doors on the second floor.
When Elise and Franklin start middle school, things feel all wrong. Bullying. Not fitting in. Franklin suddenly seems babyish. Then, soon after her 12th birthday, Elise receives a mysterious key left for her by her father. A key that unlocks one of the eight doors upstairs in the bar . . .
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SUZANNE LAFLEUR received her MFA in writing for children from The New School. This is her second novel.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Why My Life Really Stinks
The trouble all started right before the first day of sixth grade, the last time Franklin and I played Knights.
Knights works like this: we get our swords, we head out to the woods, and we go on chivalrous missions to battle ghost knights.
Uncle Hugh made our wooden swords when we were six, which is when we came up with the game. Franklin’s mom wasn’t happy about him making us weapons, but Uncle Hugh assured her that the worst that could happen was we would get splinters--and that’s only happened a couple times.
We never really battle each other.
Or at least, we never had before.
Franklin met me in the woods with his purple bicycle helmet on. Some days he wears his helmet when we play. It’s weird, but I don’t say anything about it. It’s not like it matters, anyway.
Franklin almost always begins the game. He did that day, too.
“Kneel before me,” he announced in his deepest voice. I knelt and bowed my head. “Your quest shall be to find the missing cast of King Alberto.”
“I think it’s a cask,” I interrupted in a regular voice, looking up. “With a k.”
“I’m not sure,” Franklin admitted, also in his regular voice. Then he whispered, as if it were a secret from the game, “What is that, anyway?”
“I don’t know.”
Franklin shrugged, put his serious face back on, and continued in his deep voice. “You are to find the missing cask-t of King Alberto. Rise, Sir Knight, and go forth upon your quest.”
He tapped my shoulders lightly with his sword. I stood and knocked his sword with mine, which was his signal to go forth upon the same quest.
We took off, slowly at first, until Franklin yelled, “Ghost knight, behind you!” I stopped to battle the phantom who aimed to ruin our quest. Franklin let out another scream and ran past me to battle a few more ghosts.
My ghost killed by decapitation, I paused for a minute to watch Franklin. He looked funny, swinging his sword and yelling at things that weren’t really there. I had never thought about what we looked like playing. Was it a silly thing to do, really?
An abandoned cardboard box lay close by.
I summoned my deepest voice.
“Halt, human!” I yelled. “Halt!”
Franklin stopped, breathing hard. “Yes . . . Good Knight?”
“Good Lady,” I corrected in my deep voice.
“Huh?” he asked, in his regular voice.
“I am a lady knight,” I said.
“There are no lady knights,” he said.
“Of course there are. I am a lady ghost knight, possessing the body of the knight you thought you knew. And I have found your sacred casket, and it belongs to me.” I set my foot on the cardboard box like an explorer stepping off his ship onto new land. “You have no choice but to fight me.”
Franklin thought for only a second before falling back into the game.
“You shall never have our sacred casket, demon! And I shall free my fellow knight from your possession!”
He dove at me, sword outstretched, and I met his sword with my own. There was no neat clash of metal, just a dull thunk of wood smacking wood. We both hit hard. After a few strong hits, which sent Franklin darting backward, I turned and ran, scooping up the cardboard box--the cast or cask or casket or whatever-it-was now--looking back to swipe at Franklin every few feet. He was putting up a good fight. This was definitely one of the best games of Knights we had ever played.
But when you’re playing Knights in the woods, you have to be careful of these things all at once: where you swing your sword, that you don’t drop your treasure, and that you look where you’re going.
It’s not hard to guess which one I forgot.
We came to a stretch of the woods where the path ran above a steep hill. I twisted to take another hit at Franklin, but my front foot slipped, and I fell.
After the world had stopped tumbling, I heard “Elise, Elise, Elise, Elise!”--Franklin hurrying after me through all the rocks and leaves and vines and shrubs and prickers that lined the hill.
“Next time,” Franklin panted, when he’d caught up with me where I was lying curled up in a ball, “you should wear kneepads. Kneepads and shin guards.”
The front of my legs, from my knees to my ankles, ended up covered in bloody streaks. Aunt Bessie made me sit for her to clean all the cuts, but they dried in yucky scabs all over me for my first day at my new middle school. Aunt Bessie and Uncle Hugh both vetoed the long jeans I was wearing to hide my wounds.
“It’s too darn hot for that sort of silliness! You’ll pass out!” declared Uncle Hugh.
“The material will rub against those cuts and open them right up,” insisted Aunt Bessie.
I sat on the edge of the bathtub in my shorts with a box of Band-Aids--plain ones, thank goodness--and stuck them all over my legs. When I had a crisscross of at least twenty peach bandages over my tan legs, I realized that trying to hide the scabs was even worse that just letting them show. I rested my head on my knees and then let out a huge “Grrr!” of frustration.
“Elise! The bus will be coming.” Aunt Bessie peeked around the door. “Do you want us to walk you?”
“No,” I said. As I walked out the front door, some of the Band-Aids drooped off my legs, not sticking on one side. I grabbed one to yank it off, but the other side was tightly glued to the hairs on my leg. “Ow!” I yelled as it ripped off. I added “Bye!” before leaving Uncle Hugh and Aunt Bessie standing on the porch, looking kind of worried.
When I made it to the bus stop, the usual kids from our grade were there: Franklin plus Sam, Ben, Stewart, and -Diana. I had never really gotten to know the other boys, and what I knew about Diana was that she wore funny cat sweaters. Because it was hot, she was in a cat T-shirt. Pink, with a black-and-white cat patched on in other materials.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hi,” I answered.
“I went to camp all summer and there was no electricity and no real toilets.”
“Sounds awesome,” I said, not sure if that was awesome. Talking with Diana always made me feel uncomfortable. She was so weird.
The older kids who had gone off to middle school before us were clumped together a few yards away, talking and laughing and ignoring us. No parents had come to the bus stop.
Once we got on the bus, it was totally like usual--just me and Franklin on our own, in our own seat, having our own conversation. That was how the whole school day always used to go. We didn’t really need to get to know the other kids because we had each other.
Franklin, of course, didn’t comment on my yucky legs. It was like he couldn’t see them, even though I couldn’t help but stare at them the whole time, thinking about how messed up they looked. He was suddenly Mr. School Facts, telling me all these things about what can go wrong at middle school. You could be placed in the wrong math class, be picked on by eighth graders, fail to conjugate verbs properly in language class (whatever that means). . . . Then he moved on to all these worries about our middle school, which has three different elementary schools feeding into it. There would be hundreds of kids there we didn’t know. And then he actually calculated how many that would be by taking the average number of kids per grade in our area’s elementary schools and multiplying that by the number of grades in the middle school and multiplying that by the number of feeder schools (minus ours, of course) and by the time he had gotten to the answer I was definitely Not Listening.
It didn’t matter how many new kids there were at school. It took only one to ruin my life.
When I sat down in homeroom, my backpack scraped against my legs.
“Crap,” I muttered, running my hand over my skin, getting blood on my fingers. I hoped no one had noticed and quickly wiped my hand on my shorts. The girl next to me made a disgusted face, rolled her eyes, and shifted away from me.
The teacher handed out sheets of paper with locker -assignments. There are so many middle schoolers at our school that sixth graders have to have partners--which is, apparently, totally okay according to the teachers, because sixth graders’ textbooks aren’t as thick as seventh and eighth graders’ books. So while I can look forward to one day having my own locker, I also get to look forward to having really humongous books and backaches from carrying them around.
The locker assignments seemed to be alphabetical, because across from my name, Elise Bertrand, was Amanda Betterman.
We were given twenty minutes to set up our lockers. In the hall, I followed the numbers until I found 2716, and who should show up at the same time but the girl who’d sat next to me in homeroom. I recognized her long, streaky brown hair, held off her forehead by two clips, and her tiny white skirt.
“Oh, gag. I have to share with the Bloody Queen of Scabs.” Several kids standing around her looked at my legs and laughed. Then Amanda said to me, very seriously, “Please don’t get blood on my things. I don’t want to get any weird diseases.”
“I don’t have any weird diseases.”
To make everything one hundred times better (not), who should show up but Sir Franklin, needing to stick up for me. “It’s no big deal, she just got hurt playing Knights.”
Which was not the right thing to say. At all.
“It’s a pretend game.”
Amanda smirked. “Playing pretend. That sounds really cool.”
But the way she said it meant the opposite: so not cool.
The other kids started laughing at me and Franklin. Kids we didn’t know but also a couple kids we’d known since kindergarten.
Apparently cool sixth graders don’t play. They definitely don’t play Knights. They have streaky hair and short skirts.
But there I was on the first day of school with scabby knees like a kindergartener, and my best friend got me pegged as a baby.
One Last Visit to Summer
The first day of school is always a Thursday or Friday. I like it because we get a little snatch of summer back over the weekend. This year’s Friday start meant I woke up on Saturday completely relieved to have two days off from school. I was in no hurry to go back there.
And it was like having summer back. I lay in bed until my door creaked open.
“Hi, Franklin,” I said.
The clock said it was nine, but it was still very dark in my room. Having a first-floor bedroom with the porch outside means that sunshine never bothers me in the morning.
“Hi.” Franklin came in and sat on my bed. “What do you want to do today?”
I thought for a minute, and Franklin let me think. He would never interrupt when I am thinking.
“I want to figure out the best things we did all summer, and then do them again.”
“Okay. Here, I’ll make a list.” He got a yellow notepad and pencil from my desk and sat back down on my bed. “I really liked the day we found frogs at the stream. We could do that again.”
“I’m not better from the last time we played Knights,” I said, feeling the smooth sheets against my rough, scabby legs. And I wasn’t better from getting made fun of. This was the weekend; I wanted to push school way out of my mind, to forget that yesterday had ever happened.
“What else, then?” He tapped the pencil’s eraser on the paper.
“I liked helping Uncle Hugh finish the furniture.” Uncle Hugh is a craftsman. He makes things out of wood, like rocking chairs and tables and cabinets.
Franklin added it to the list.
“And I liked when Aunt Bessie let us make ice cream.”
“Lactose-free?” Franklin asked.
“Of course,” I said. A glimmer of excitement lit Franklin’s eyes. His mom limits his sugar at home, but we always have plenty for him at my house. Franklin can’t have any real dairy products because of his allergies, but Aunt Bessie’s pretty much a genius about getting around that. She really can make anything. She does catering out of our house, so we have a special up-to-code kitchen with stainless steel counter-tops and lots of fancy appliances.
“I liked looking at the slides on my microscope.” Franklin finished writing everything. “That’s probably enough for today . . . what do you want to do first?”
“Let me see if we can do the stuff with Uncle Hugh and Aunt Bessie today at all.” Aunt Bessie and I cook together on Saturdays if she doesn’t have a catering job, but if she did she’d be busy all day.
I climbed out of bed and decided that the tank top I’d slept in would do for the day, too, so I found my shorts on the floor and pulled them on. I didn’t mind getting dressed with Franklin around, especially since he was always certain to fix his eyes on a point on the wall and stare straight ahead. Which is sort of silly, because I know he still wears cartoon underwear. How can you be embarrassed around someone who knows about your cartoon underwear?
I picked a T-shirt up off the floor and threw it at Franklin’s head to signal him that I was done and it was safe to move his eyes around the room again.
“All ready?” he asked.
“Yup.” I slid into some flip-flops as I headed to find Aunt Bessie.
Aunt Bessie was in her chef’s clothes, which are black even though chef’s clothes are usually white. She and I agree that black looks nicer, cleaner, and more slimming for her plump figure than white. She used to be a redhead; now that she’s in her fifties, her hair is dull orange and pepper gray, but she still wears it pulled back in the same long, thick braid. She was carrying trays to load into her catering van.
“When will you be back?” I asked.
“Can we make end-of-the-summer ice cream?”
“I’ll set aside some fresh strawberries for it. Does that sound good?”
“Yum! I mean, yes!”
Aunt Bessie went to set the trays on the racks in the van. That’s a job that Franklin and I are not allowed to help with. She doesn’t consider us strong or steady enough. It would never be worth the time it might save in the event that a tray was dropped.
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