Chapter no 6

The Locked Door

26 Years Earlier

Nobody at school likes Marjorie Baker.

I can see why. There’s just something about Marjorie that is so annoying. Like, everything she says, she sounds like she’s whining. Every time she raises her hand and asks a question, you just want to say, “Shut up, Marjorie!”

I wouldn’t say that. But other people do.

She always seems confused in class. Mrs. McGinley will be explaining something that isn’t even that hard, and Marjorie just doesn’t get it. I can see her screwing her face up, trying to understand. And then we all have to wait and can’t move on, because Marjorie doesn’t understand.

Also, Marjorie isn’t pretty. If she were pretty, she could get away with more. But she’s not. First of all, her front teeth are just way too big for her mouth. They need to be shrunk by about thirty percent. Her face is too long and her forehead is gigantic. Also, she’s kind of lumpy. Like a sofa you might find out on somebody’s curb.

“Did you ever notice,” Tiffany Kirk says during recess today, “that when Marjorie walks, she waddles?”

We all look across the playground, to where Marjorie is walking over to sit on the far steps with her book like she does every day. And Tiffany is right. Marjorie does sort of waddle.

“Oh my God,” Kari Smith says. “You’re right! She looks like a duck!”

And then the other girls all start making quacking sounds. Loud enough that Marjorie turns around to look at us, and we all burst into hysterical giggles. Well, I don’t. But the rest of them do.

Marjorie is used to it by now. Her cheeks turn pink, but she doesn’t say anything. Sometimes I wish she would fight back. Marjorie never ever fights back. If Tiffany or Kari tried to do something like that to me… well, they wouldn’t. They know better.

The girls stand around another few minutes, trash-talking Marjorie, but then we move on to other more interesting topics. But weirdly, I’m still thinking about Marjorie. I watch her across the playground, reading her book all by herself because nobody will play with her. I can’t keep my eyes off of her.

I usually walk home alone from school every day. But today, I find myself following Marjorie, even though it’s in the wrong direction. I stay close enough behind her that I can keep her in my sight, but far enough that she does not know I’m behind her. She is totally in her own universe. I’ve never seen anyone so unaware of the world around them. It’s dangerous. Like, somebody could attack her, and she wouldn’t even realize it until they were five inches away from her face. And then it would be too late.

After about five minutes of walking, we come to a little patch of woods where I know some people go hiking. Marjorie walks right past it, but I slow to a stop. I look down the uneven trail, which is completely empty. People don’t hike there much, and definitely not in the middle of a weekday afternoon.

It’s interesting, that’s all.

Another ten minutes later, Marjorie walks into the front door of a little white house with a broken shutter on the second floor. The front lawn is totally overgrown. My parents would never let our lawn look that way— Dad would freak out. Dad is really particular about everything being clean and well groomed. He always says, Cleanliness is next to godliness. But Marjorie’s parents obviously don’t feel the same.

Once she disappears inside, I creep closer and slip around the side of the house. Besides Marjorie, I don’t think there’s anyone else home. There’s no car parked in the driveway.

There are a bunch of dandelions sprouting along the side of the house. My dad once explained to me that even though dandelions are yellow and pretty, they’re actually weeds and will wreck your whole garden. But even so, I’m careful not to trample them as I look through the window. Marjorie is sitting in the middle of the living room, on the sofa. She’s got a bag of potato chips in her hand, and she’s stuffing them into her mouth. She eats almost rhythmically.

Potato chip. Chew chew chew. Potato chip. Chew chew chew.

After watching her for about ten minutes, I’m sure there’s nobody else in the house. Marjorie is coming home to an empty house every afternoon.

I get out of there before anyone can see me. If anyone caught me watching the house, it would be bad. Dad always says that if you’re going to do something wrong, at least be smart enough not to let anybody see you do it. He said that after I stole some cookies from the pantry. You knew we were going to notice them missing and realize you stole them. It was a stupid crime, Nora. Don’t be stupid next time.

I head in the opposite direction back to my house. Unlike at Marjorie’s house, my mother is waiting anxiously by the front door when I come in.

“Nora!” She plants her chubby hands on her hips. “Why are you so late? I was worried!”

“I had a project I was working on with some friends at school.” I know from experience my mother can’t tell when I’m lying. Not anymore.

She lets out an exasperated breath. “Well, next time could you let me know in advance if you’re going to be late?”

“I might be late again later this week,” I tell her. “I’ll let you know.”

“Okay.” She leans in to wrap her arms around me and kisses the top of my head. I squirm out of her grasp. “Do you want a snack, honey? I can cut up some apples for you. With peanut butter.”

My mother always is offering me food. All she seems to think about is cooking and baking and making snacks. It’s like she’s obsessed with it.

“That’s okay. I’m going to go up to my room and do my homework.” “Okay, sweetheart.”

She attempts to kiss the top of my head again, but I manage to duck away. While she goes back to the kitchen, I head down the hallway to the stairwell, but as always, I pass the door to the basement. Dad’s been down there a lot this week. He was away on a fishing trip all weekend, and now this week he’s been in the basement nonstop. I’ve hardly seen him.

I pause at the basement door, inhaling that familiar whiff of lavender.

And then, while I’m standing there, I hear something.

I frown at the door. Dad isn’t home yet, so why is there noise coming from the basement? It sounds like something banging. It’s soft, but I can definitely hear it.

And then something else. Almost like a muffled scream. What’s going on down there?

I place my hand on the doorknob. I give it a good twist, but of course, it doesn’t open. The basement door is always locked.

“Nora, what are you doing?”

My mother’s voice is sharp. I leap away from the door, hiding my right hand behind my back. I try my best not to look guilty.

“I… I thought I heard a sound coming from down there,” I mumble.

She wags a finger at me. “You know that’s your father’s private space to work. I don’t want you trying to get down there.”

“But I heard—”

“Maybe something fell,” she says. We both stand there, listening for a moment. But it’s become silent. “Anyway, it’s none of your concern. I thought you had work to do.”

“I do.”

“Then go upstairs and do it, okay?”

“But…” I stare at the basement door and inhale deeply, the molecules of lavender filling my lungs. “Maybe if something fell, we should check on it. Maybe something is broken.”

“If something is broken, he’ll deal with it when he gets back from work.”

“What’s he even making anyway?” I grumble.

My mother hesitates. “He says he’s building a bookcase. Either way, he doesn’t need your help.”

I stomp my foot and turn away from the basement door, and go up the stairs. I don’t understand why the basement has to be so private. I’m not going to go down there and mess around with Dad’s stuff. Why can’t I at least see what he’s been working on?

And what was that noise? It really sounded like screaming. But it couldn’t be.

When I get up to my room, I plop down on the bed with my backpack next to me. I rifle around inside, searching for my composition book. I also look in the smaller pocket in the front for a pencil. I’ve got like a million pencils and pens in that pocket. I also have one other thing. A penknife— another present from my dad at Christmas last year. He told me I should carry it all the time. For protection. Not that it’s dangerous around here. We basically live in the safest and most boring neighborhood on the planet.

Once I get out my notebook and a pencil, I’ve got to get started. My only homework is I’m supposed to write an essay about a book we were assigned. It shouldn’t take long. I already finished the book a few days ago

—I’m a quick reader.

I look across the room at the cage on top of my bookcase. Up until a week ago, that cage was occupied by the mouse that dad got me for my birthday. And then over the weekend, the mouse died. Very suddenly. Now he’s buried out in the backyard in a shoebox. We had a mouse funeral, and my mom kept talking about how sad it was that the mouse died, although it wasn’t all that sad. I mean, it was a mouse.

I open up the composition book and turn to the first blank page. I’m supposed to be writing about Charlotte’s Web. But I can’t think of anything to say. I mean, it was a good book, I guess. What can you say about a book involving a spider and a pig?

I stare down at the blank page. I press the lead of the pencil against the page. And I write down the name Marjorie Baker.

And I underline it.

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