Authors: Susan Vaught
They were empty.
“No,” I said out loud. I ran to the chair where I'd dropped my pack, grabbed it, unzipped the big pocket and the front pocket and fished around.
I dumped the pack on the bed and examined everything. Grandma's envelope was there, but it held only papers.
I squeezed my eyes shut.
I couldn't have been that stupid. I couldn't have been! I checked my pockets again, and the pack, and my covers, and all around the room, even though I knew the truth.
I didn't have Grandma's key, because in all the confusion, I'd left it on the floor of the library carrel.
Night on Fire
(1969), by Avadelle Richardson, page 420
“Was it worth it, what happened to get James Meredith into Ole Miss?” Leslie asked me the next day at my school, which had been turned into a makeshift hospital for all the Black people hurt in the unrest in town. We had beatings, whippings, knife wounds, and gunshots to deal withâand none of these folks were even on campus when they ran into trouble.
I touched the two stitches over my right eye, feeling each bruise and scrape from the riot as I reached for bandages to work on a man's cut arm.
“It was worth it,” I said, and I tried to sound sure of myself, even as my traitor mind whispered,
Was it? Will it make any difference?
HEN YOU REALLY SCREW SOMETHING
up for someone, it's so hard to face that person. This stays true even if it's the morning after the worst night of your life, and the person has Alzheimer's disease and doesn't even open her eyes when you check her pulse and her breathing, then apologize sixty thousand times for maybe sort of losing her precious key and maybe sort of destroying the only chance for her to find peace about a fight with her best friend before she dies.
It stays true even when you're convincing your skeptical mom and grumpy post-migraine dad that you really, really do need one more day away from Creative Arts Camp to work with an old professor researching history they don't really want you reading about, even if that's just a cover story. Never mind what happens when you call your best friend and have to admit YOU LOST THE FLIPPING KEY TO EVERYTHING IN THE UNIVERSE.
Your exâother best friend, Worm Dung, who really deserves to get his name back now, might surprise you. He might stay calm and tell you he'll meet you on the steps of Ventress Hall, and to stop worrying. He might promise that since his Aunt Naomi is looking after his crazy GG, he'll help you get the key back, because you have to get it back. That's the only allowable outcome. Period.
No matter what happens, no matter what you have to doâYou. Will. Find. That. Key.
“I'm not certain this is the best idea,” Indri said as the three of us crowded toward the library door. She rubbed her
elbows for the umpteenth time like she might be cold, which wasn't even possible, because like
Night on Fire
said about Oxford,
It was hot
“Ms. Donalvan might kill us on sight,” Mac said. He had on jeans and a sleeveless black tank with a white guitar on it, and unlike me, he wasn't sweating. “I mean, she suspended Dr. Harper's library privileges for three days because of us. Left him babbling about bearding the lioness in her own den and stuff.”
“Beardedâwhat?” Indri gave him one of her looks as she shoved up the sleeves on her purple blouse. “What does that even mean?”
“Ms. Donalvan said she was going to clean the carrel herself though,” I reminded them. “She probably found the key.”
“We'll get it back for you,” Mac said, sounding confident.
“What, now you're Dani's big hero?” Indri muttered. “Just a few weeks ago, you were blowing her off forever, remember?”
Mac didn't say a word back to her, but I saw his head droop a little. He wouldn't look at me, and all of a sudden, I couldn't look at him, either.
We got to the front doors of the library, and Mac pulled one open and held it for Indri and me, old-school gentleman-style. I thanked him. Indri just glared.
We found the ninja librarian herself at the main desk. She wore all black again, pants and big shirt. All she needed was a cape, and she would have looked just like an evil wizard
in one my favorite fantasy books. My teeth actually rattled together as we stepped back to give her room.
“What, may I ask, do you three want
?” Her glare fell on Mac first, then Indri, and finally rested on me.
Were her dark eyes glittering like a snake?
I shuddered, then had a sudden, wild thought that she could sense my grandmother's copy of
Night on Fire
in my backpack, and that if I moved or spoke, she'd leap forward and snatch it straight through the fabric.
“Um,” I said.
“Err” was all Indri could manage.
Mac, standing straight and tall with a big, friendly grin, said, “Hello, Ms. Donalvan. We seem to have lost a key in Dr. Harper's carrel yesterday, and we were hoping you found it.”
Indri gaped in his general direction. I pasted a polite smile on my face and tried to ignore the sweat trickling down my back.
Ms. Donalvan shifted the full force of her evil wizardly attention to Mac. “A key.”
“Yes, ma'am,” Mac said, way too bright and happy.
“If I did find such a thing in a professor's workspace,” she said, her tone a cross between a purr and a growl, “why would I give it to you?”
“Because it's mine,” I meant to say forcefully, but in a friendly tone. It ended up sounding like a mouse whisper, but my words were loud enough to bring that glittering gaze back to my face.
Ms. Donalvan studied me so intently I wondered if she might be searching for freckles even though I didn't have any. Slowly, way too slowly, she folded her arms, all the while keeping her stare right on my face. Finally, she said, “Interesting.”
“Excuse me?” Indri's question popped out, then she covered her mouth, turning lemur-eyes above her fingers.
“I said that was interesting, you claiming ownership of the key.” Ms. Donalvan leaned toward me. “That's not what Dr. Harper said when I phoned him this morning.”
Excitement competed with hope in my chest, but dread also made an appearance. “SoÂ .Â .Â . you found the key? And you called Dr. Harper?”
Ms. Donalvan nodded, like she might be dealing with first graders incapable of understanding her complex grammar, or maybe fraudulent delinquents making a bid for jail time. She still scared me to death, but also, she was starting to tick me off.
“The key belongs to Dani,” Indri said, politely, but with just a touch of ice. “Her grandmother gave it to her.”
“We'd just like to get it back,” Mac added, all sweetness and light.
Ms. Donalvan glared at me for another few seconds, then shifted her focus to Mac. “Well, then. I suggest you speak to Dr. Harper, since he picked it up from me about an hour ago.”
Mac and Indri immediately looked at me like I'd have something to say, but I didn't. My brain fogged up and the world got spinny.
Dr. Harper apologized to us at Square Books. Wasn't he a good guy again? Why would a good guy come pick up the key without saying a word to us? I couldn't help thinking about that look he got the first time I talked about the key. What ifâwhat if he still had Grandma's lockbox?
If that whole “she took it back” speech had been full of it, then he might be opening the box right this very second.
“But it's mine,” I whispered again.
Ms. Donalvan seemed to have had enough. “Out you go,” she pointed at the main door. “I don't expect to see you unsupervised until you're old enough to come here aloneâand without peanuts, Mr. Richardson.”
I didn't move, not until Indri got my hand on one side, and Mac on the other. The two of them marched me out the library door.
“It's probably lost forever,” I mumbled as the door closed behind us. “
could I have let this happen? I can't believe Dr. Harper just took my key.”
“We'll go back to Ventress,” Mac said, blinking against the really bright morning sun. “We'll talk to him.”
Indri dusted off her hands, like she was glad to be shed of the library and Ms. Donalvan, and any need to be polite to anybody. “You bet we will. Right now. Come on.”
By the time we got to the old turreted building with the Civil War stained glass, I felt all jumpy. “What if Dr. Harper's really crazy?” I asked. “Psycho or something. If he is, he'll just lie about having the key.”
“We'll make him tell the truth,” Mac said. “Pretty simple. Ms. Donalvan gave the key to him, so he's got it, and he's going to give it to us.”
Indri stopped with her hand on the door to Ventress Hall. “And if he refusesâwhat then? You gonna knock some old guy over the head and search his stuff?”
Mac shrugged, like that wasn't completely out of the range of possibilities.
“Whatever,” Indri snarled, then opened the door and stomped inside. I followed behind her, and Mac brought up the rear.
I held my head perfectly still as we went up the steps, refusing to pay any attention to the stained glass windows and the eerie, dead soldiers watching us.
“Isn't the tower here supposed to be haunted?” Mac asked as we made it to the second floor.
“Yes,” Indri said. “But Dani thinks it's ugly.”
I sighed. “It
ugly. All that graffiti.”
“All that history,” she countered.
The three of us turned toward Dr. Harper's alcove. His office doors were pulled shut, but not completely closed. My steps slowed on the patterned rug even as Indri and Mac clattered along on the hardwood beside me.
“Wait,” I said. They stopped, then glanced at me, and I
swallowed hard. “What are we going to do? I mean, how are we going to bring this up?”
“How about, âGood morning,'â” Indri suggested. “ââGive us the key, right now.'â”
“That might not work,” Mac said. “We should think about bargaining. What do we have that he wants?”
I thought about the papers in my backpack, what my grandmother had written to me. I almost said something about them, then decided against it. Indri didn't say anything either. Dr. Harper knew we had the papers. If he wanted to try to get them, he would.
“It's your key, Dani,” Indri said. “He can't deny it, especially not with all of us right there in his face.”
I eyed the partly closed doors and thought about the hungry look he had gotten when he realized I might have the answers he'd been looking forâthat everyone had been looking forâthe explanation for the Magnolia Feud. That, plus how sincere he had seemed when he apologized to us at Square Books. I didn't really know what he'd be capable of denying, or doing. My breathing got rough and shallow as we started forward again.
Mac reached the doors first, and he knocked on one of them. I decided to hold my breath rather than sound like a wheezing rhinoceros.
Indri knocked next, and said, “Dr. Harper? We need to speak to you.”
Still no answer.
Letting out one gaspy rhinoceros puff, I leaned forward and pushed one of the doors open. Sunlight streamed through his big windows and glared off the hardwood floors. Dust drifted lazily in front of his massive bookcases. The chair at his big wooden desk was empty, and his pipe and magnifying glass lay unattended. The air smelled a bit like pipe smoke.
might not have been following campus no-smoking rules.
“The doctor is not in,” Indri said in her coolest, most controlled voice even though she had lemur eyes happening in a big way. “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”
Mac turned toward us for a few seconds, then pushed the door wide and strode into the office like he had been invited. With no comment at all, he started looking through the things on the table, shifting books and papers, peeking underneath them like the key would suddenly pop out and shout
“Uh, Mac,” I said. “You can't do that.”
“Why not?” Mac kept moving stuff around. “He left the doors open. And he took your key.”
When Indri and I didn't move, he shrugged and kept right on hunting around, as if to say,
Hey, somebody's got to do something.
“Get over yourself, Richardson,” Indri grumbled. She glanced over her shoulder, then eased into the office too. Once inside, she zeroed in on Dr. Harper's desk and started searching around his stacks of books.
This is wrong
, I said in my head, but not out loud, because
truth be told. I was glad they were searching for the key. If I could only breathe and swallow and make my heart beat right, I'd search with them.
My knees got a little wobbly. I finally made myself move forward, putting my hand on one of the doors to steady myself. “Okay,” I said. Then one more time. “Okay.” I pulled the door shut behind me without letting it latch.
Mac grimaced. “He's got way too much stuff in this room. It's like a fire hazard or something.”
Indri scooted a statue sideways on the desk, then lifted it, checking underneath. “The key could be anywhere. I wonder if he has a safe.”
That got me moving, and I scurried over to the edge of the desk, got down on my knees, and started opening drawers. In the biggest bottom drawer, I found hanging files, which turned out to be papers and grades for his current students. I closed that one and went to the next, and found a stack of letters, apparently from his wife before she died. Those, I didn't read, or even touch, except to pick them up and make sure the key wasn't hidden underneath them.