During my lifetime, if I could have received a dime every time someone made a reference to a "happily ever after" fairy tale ending, I would be rich old man. But our family knows the old, secret truths of the "fairy tales." Once upon a time, I guarded them, to contain their dark nature. That responsibility has obviously passed on, I'm no longer strong enough. Fairy tales are not what we guard; what we guard are tales of fear. They don't end happily; they are not stories of just rewards, or magical morals. Your mother has asked me to write you this letter, as every year she grows older; it becomes closer to the time for you to take the mantle of responsibility. She will give it to you when she believes you are ready, and will help you learn how to control the fear. This key is for your use alone, for your use, for your keeping. I warn you though, use always has consequences. Keeping has temptations, sometimes dangers. We trust in your judgement, Elise, as we trust in you. I hope this reaches you at a good time, that your mother will explain everything to you when it is appropriate. I apologize if you feel this too blunt, but I have never been good at beating around the bush, as you well know. Let your mother explain more, when you are ready. Guard well, granddaughter, love be with you always.
With all my heart,
Elise put the letter down on her desk with a shaking hand. Granddaddy, granddaddy, how could you do this to me? She smoothed a wrinkle down on her new skirt viciously and almost started at the deep color. I hate black. She never wore it; her dad had bought it just in time for the funeral that morning.
She looked up at the tentative voice. "I just wanted to say, I, uh, I'm sorry. And to, you know, see if you, uh, wanted or, uh, needed anything." Camron was always so hesitant, but Elise saw real sympathy in his eyes.
"Stop pitying me!" she yelled, and then, burst into tears.
Camron moved into the room, and hovered around her, with an expression of befuddlement on his otherwise handsome features. He didn't like it when girls cried; not even over silly things, and this was far from silly. Elise wiped her eyes, shook her head, and looked upon at him with the startlingly clear green eyes that attracted him in the first place.
"I'm sorry, I'm just, messed up."
"Look, I just really need to be alone right now. I don't think I'm able to deal with people."
"Okay. I just wanted to say-I love you. Don't cry so much, Elise. She loves you too."
At that, there was a ghost of a smile on Elise's face. Camron moved as if to hug her, but then he stopped at the last minute, and just touched her hand. And then he left.
Elise sat by her desk, and stared at the letter that had come to her, along with certain other possessions. Was her grandfather crazy? Had it been meant as a joke, but no one was around to tell her? The painful mentions of her mother made it too hard to even look at. She shoved the letter underneath the cover of her calculus book, black box into a drawer, and stood. She smoothed out her skirt again, then flung herself onto her bed.
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Elise sat with her head lowered, using her hair to shield her face like a golden curtain. She didn't want anyone to see her crying. Her dad had insisted that she stay downstairs while the neighbors came over for the wake, and she thought she could contain herself. But the tears never seemed to dry up. They didn't really want to talk to her anyway, they wanted to see how her father would manage, or so they said.
Elise thought what really drove them was a kind of morbid curiosity, in this house, someone their own age had died. Not an old grandparent, not an impetuous teenager, but a middle aged woman who was so much like any one of them. Yet, Elise knew she wasn't the same a they, she was different. And Elise hated them, their pity, and their condolences. All I want is for them to leave.
They stayed until almost six, and talked on and on about her mother. Her father just nodded, and looked at Elise as if she should be enjoying all this, talking over fond memories. He didn't understand her at all, the silent plea in her eyes to be released, nor her unwillingness to share her own memories. He looked at her disappointed, and she didn't respond. Elise stared ahead, looking only at the stark white wall. She remembered her mother had wanted to paint this room lavender, just last week. She didn't share.
She wished Camron was there, but thought it was good of him to come at all, especially after the wicked fight they'd had that weekend. Elise didn't remember exactly what it had been over, but she did recall screaming that she hated him and never wanted to talk to him again. But Camron always forgave her.
"Elise. Elise, say good-bye to the Baughmann's." Her father was speaking to her, she saw the Baughmann's behind him, both smiling at her, but at the same time, peering around the room with their peripheral vision. No doubt trying to see if any trace of her mother remained, a print of the past, left over like a ghostly reminder of what had been such a short time ago. Elise had been sure to clean this room especially.
"Good-bye, Baughmann's." She replied in monotone, and didn't move. She saw them exchange a look that seemed to say: Oh, excuse her; after all, she's just lost her mother. We can forgive a little rudeness. Elise felt like snorting. Like her mother was lost, something that she could simply go looking for her and might find her misplaced somewhere, like a lost ring, or watch. Elise longed for them to go home.
As soon as they were gone, the house was silent. Her father looked at her, and then said,
"What should we do for dinner? Maybe we should go out."
Elise stared at him; his rumpled shirt and hair, the lines under his eyes she hadn't really noticed before, the way he looked at her like he was afraid she wouldn't answer. She found she didn't really understand him either. Now that they were alone, they didn't know each other.
"Why don't we stay here? I'm sure moth- we have something to microwave." She wasn't sure; her mother was an excellent cook, but she didn't want to go out. And she also didn't want to let her father go alone.
"Fine with me," he said, looking relieved that the matter of food was out of his hands. 'He doesn't have much practice dealing with it, does he?' Elise though bitterly for a moment, recalling all occasions her mother had made dinner for three and it ended up being only them. More than there had been three of them, that was for sure. But she went to look in cabinet anyway. After all, she wasn't really hungry. She wondered if her father was.
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Elise lay on her bed, wondering how the world was, in fact, continuing, when it felt like her heart had stopped. She wished it was just last week, and her mom was across the hall, getting ready for bed, pulling out her book. Her mother read the same book again and again; once, when Elise had asked her about it, she'd said it compelled one to read it.
Her mother had been reading the book the night before she died. When Elise had gone to school, she'd assumed her mother had simply forgotten to set her alarm, and she didn't want to wake her up on one of her days off. Her mother volunteered in the hospice in their town, four days a week. She had been a surgeon, but one day, out of the blue, she quit.
Elise had at first felt guilty, since she knew she was the reason, her mother always apologized for the limited time they spent together. But she'd stopped when it became obvious her mother loved her new lifestyle better than her job, and it wasn't like they needed the money. Her father's partnership guaranteed their lifestyle, and her mother had all of her money saved. She'd been a very competent brain surgeon.
But, when Elise had returned home, her mother wasn't anywhere to be found. Until Elise had found her upstairs, still in her bed. Elise thought she was sick, and asked if she could do anything, until she touched her mother's hand. She was so cold, and Elise had asked if she should call the doctor. When her mother didn't respond, Elise had leaned over to see what was wrong.
That's when she'd screamed.
Elise told her mind to shut up. She got out of bed; it wasn't like she'd been able to sleep anyway. She heard her father downstairs, walking around. It seemed everyone in their house was an insomniac. She went across the hallway, and before she could stop herself, she opened the door to her mother's room.
She had to stop for a moment, and let the sharp grief pass, for the room even smelled like her mother still. But she averted her eyes from the bed. Everything was the same, nothing had been moved or taken out, she doubted anyone else had even come in since – since last Thursday. Her gaze ran over the bathroom, the closet –all her clothes were still there, with a sweater thrown carelessly over the edge of an armchair-, the bookshelf. The bookshelf. She lowered her gaze to the bottom shelf, and as if her eyes were drawn there, she stared at the space between two volumes, a vacancy big enough to hold only one book. Elise knew which one it had to be, and had a sudden desire to place it back there, a consuming need, as if filling that emptiness would fill the hole inside her.
But she couldn't find it. It wasn't on the table; it wasn't on a chair. Elise felt like tearing the room apart to find it, though she knew how irrational, even crazy, she sounded in her own head. She checked the bathroom, and it wasn't there either. Elise knew it had to be there. She was about to check all the drawers when she tripped.
"Ouch." She rubbed her knee, and sat up. She'd tripped on the corner of something sticking out from under the bed. It was it. It was the book; Elise knew it well. The worn dark green cover, leather, with gilding on the edges, and the title faded off. She picked it up tentatively, now that she'd found it, something within her didn't wish to touch it. But she pushed the feeling aside. Standing up, she walked to the bookcase and held the book out in front of it. What had compelled her mother to read this old thing year after year?
Elise tried to open it, before she put it away forever, just to see what about it was so special, only to find she could not. "What?' She attempted to pry the covers, perhaps it was stuck. But it wouldn't budge. Elise looked at it again, and saw that it had a lock. A lock made for a keyhole. A key. "It can't be." But it looked like it could. It looked as though the keyhole would fit with the key she'd so recently seen. But, that letter. It had to be a joke, didn't it? Maybe I am going crazy. But she took the book away from the shelf, pausing for a moment, and looked back at the vacant space. She had the odd feeling life would be much simpler if she put the book back now. Just left it in the shelf. She also had the feeling that there was only one chance, if she put it back now, it might vanish before her eyes.
She stepped forward. She recalled what her mother had said. Compelled. She wasn't compelled, no, she would take it to check if the key fit, and then put it back. That's what Elise told herself, anyway, as she went back to her own room. She halfway believed it.
She pulled out the box, and opened the lid. Set upon the dark velvet was a tiny key of gold; it sparkled when the light hit it. She picked it up and put it to the lock on the book. It fit, of course it fit. She would just open it for a moment, to see what all the fuss had been about. That couldn't hurt, could it? The letter from her grandfather lay forgotten, and all thoughts of caution fled; there was no recoiling at the fact this was the book which her mother had held while she died. Elise turned the key inside the lock, and opened the book.
When the first page lay blank and harmless, she let out a breath she hadn't known she was holding. It's like I expected a monster to come popping out of this stupid old book. Elise, you're getting really stupid, you know. Great, now I'm starting to talk to myself. Inside my head.
She turned the page, and surprised, found not printed words but handwritten. The writing was in black ink, which had surprisingly not faded, for the book looked extremely old. The ink still had the sheen of a glossy raven's feather, or that of a swan. The writing was small and spidery, and curled about the page like it was dancing upon waves, it twisted and turned around, not following any orderly lines. But, to her shock, Elise found she could read it.
She took the key from the lock and set it on her desk. One second, and then I'll put it back. I don't want to think about what Granddaddy was talking about.
She settled back in her chair, and began to read.