Chapter no 3

The Locked Door

26 Years Earlier

The cake smells really good coming out of the oven. It’s vanilla—my favorite. And my mom made it from scratch, using flour, sugar, baking powder, vanilla, and eggs. She showed me how to mix the wet ingredients and the dry ingredients separately, and then we combined them. I helped her, because she asked me to, but I don’t like baking with my mom. I would’ve been okay using the vanilla cake from the box. Or just something she bought from the grocery store bakery aisle.

Mom lowers the cake tin down onto the kitchen counter and pulls off her pink oven mitts. There are two cake tins, because she’s going to make a layer cake. That’s what I asked for. A vanilla cake with layers and cream cheese frosting.

“Can we put the frosting on now?” I ask.

Mom places one hand on each hip. She is such a mom. Like if you were reading a book about a mom, she’d probably be like my mom. Every night, she cooks dinner for us, makes sure I do all my homework, and cleans the house herself, top to bottom. (I’m technically responsible for my own bedroom, but if I get lazy and don’t do it, she mostly just does it for me.) When our neighbors are sick, she goes to check on them and brings a tub of chicken noodle soup or maybe a casserole.

“Nora,” she says. “You know we have to let the cake cool before we put the frosting on it. Otherwise, it will just melt.”

“Well,” I say thoughtfully, “then we can put on a second layer.”

Mom smiles at that. She smiles a lot. When she smiles, she has dimples and it makes her double chin look bigger. When she and my dad got married, she was skinny—almost bony—but she’s not now. I like her better this way. Who wants to hug a bunch of bones? But my dad keeps telling her she should try to lose some weight. He says it a lot.

“You have to be patient,” she says.

Usually, I’m pretty patient. Even when the other kids are fooling around in class, I always sit quietly and do what the teacher says. But today is my birthday, and the cake smells really good. So I rip the lid off the plastic tub of cream cheese frosting and rake one finger through the creamy white goodness. Mom gives me a look, but she doesn’t stop me. After all, we’re the only ones who are going to be eating the frosting.

Mmm. Cream cheese frosting.

“Are you sure you don’t want to invite any of your friends over tonight?” Mom asks me. “It’s not too late.”

“No, that’s okay.”

“But it’s your birthday, honey.”

She doesn’t have to remind me that it’s my birthday. I know it’s my birthday. Today, I am eleven years old. Next year I’ll be in middle school. I can’t wait.

Mom’s eyebrows knit together. “You have friends, don’t you, Nora?” “Yes.”

It’s not a lie. I do have friends. There are girls I play with at recess every day. But I’ve never had a very close friend. Some of the girls call each other on the phone every night and talk until midnight. I don’t have any friends like that. And I don’t have any friends I want to invite to my eleventh birthday party.

What’s so wrong with that?

I take another scoop of frosting with my finger, and my mom gives me a look. I knew it was only a matter of time before she was going to tell me to quit it. “Go upstairs and change,” she tells me. “By the time you get back down, the cakes will be cool.”

I groan. “Why do I have to change? It’s just us.”

“It’s your birthday. It’s a special occasion. Don’t you want to look nice?”

I lift a shoulder. “When is Dad getting home?”

“He’ll be home in an hour. He’s picking up a present for you on the way back.”

I keep my fingers and toes crossed it’s another hamster, but it probably won’t be, because Mom says we have bad luck with hamsters. But I know it’s going to be something good. My dad gives the best presents.

Mom folds her arms across her chest. “Go, Nora. We’re not frosting the cake until you’re ready.”

Fine. I drop the tub of frosting on the kitchen counter, so I can go upstairs and change. On the way to the stairwell, I pass the door to the basement. Some of my friends at school have basements that are finished, where they play video games or have parties, but our basement is my dad’s workshop.

A few years ago, he got really into woodworking, and he decided to turn the basement into his workshop. So now he goes down there for hours and makes chairs and tables and stuff like that. But he’s not all that good at it. Like last month he came out of the basement with this chair he made, and it was pretty bad. Like, the legs were all different lengths. It wasn’t the kind of chair you want to sit in—it looked like it would just collapse. But Mom said we should be supportive, so I said I liked it.

I thought it would be fun to help Dad in the workshop. Not that I like woodworking that much, but I like hanging out with my dad. But he said that doing woodworking is his alone time, and it helps him relax. I don’t know why he can’t relax with me around, but whatever.

There’s this smell around the basement door. I wasn’t sure what it was at first, but then for Christmas, Dad got me a bottle of this lavender body mist, and I realized that’s what the smell is. Lavender. I get a huge whiff of it every time I pass the basement door, like the whole bottom of our house is drenched in it.

I put my hand on the doorknob to the basement. I’ve never seen his woodshop. He always keeps the door locked because he says it’s dangerous down there. Like there are a lot of drills and saws, and I might get hurt. I told him I would be careful, but he was insistent.

I try to turn the doorknob. It doesn’t turn. Locked. As always.

“Aaron!” My mom’s voice comes from the kitchen. She’s really loud. “You’re home early!”

My heart jumps in my chest and I forget all about changing out of my clothes—which are fine anyway—and I run back to the kitchen. My dad is standing in the middle of the room, wearing his big puffy coat, his hair all messed up from his hat. My dad is the most handsome of all of my friends’ dads. He’s tall and has thick dark brown hair that’s almost black and nice white teeth and all the teachers get giggly around him.

He works as a phlebotomist. I know all about this because I once had to write a paper on what our parents do. My mom is a housewife, so I wrote the paper about my dad. Basically, he has to draw blood from people so that they can run tests on the blood. It’s a very important job. It’s also really hard to spell. PHLEBOTOMIST. You would think there is an F at the beginning, but it’s actually a P-H.

Anyway, he’s really good at it. He said sometimes he has to sweet talk people into letting them draw their blood, but he always gets them to go along with it. But between work and all the time he spends in the stupid basement, I almost never see him.

“Happy birthday, kiddo!” Dad says.

He beams at me but he doesn’t hold out his arms to hug me. Dad isn’t big on hugs. And that’s fine, because I don’t like to hug either. Mom always wants to hug me, and I kind of hate it.

“What did you get me?” I ask eagerly. “Nora!” Mom scolds me.

But Dad just laughs. “It’s her birthday. She’s entitled.” And then he reaches behind him to pull out a cage. There’s a little white mouse inside the cage. “Ta-da!”

I let out a squeal. “A mouse!”

Mom’s face gets very white. “Aaron, I thought we decided…”

“It’s fine.” He plops the cage down on the kitchen table. “She’ll be more careful this time. Won’t you, Nora?”

I bend down, smiling at the mouse scurrying around the little cage. The mouse knocks into the bars of the cage, but there’s nowhere else to go.

Happy birthday to me.

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