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Authors: Rob Mills

Charlie's key

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Text copyright © 2011 Rob Mills

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted inany form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying,recording or by any information storage and retrieval system now known or to beinvented, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Mills, Rob, 1961-Charlie’s key / Rob Mills.

Issued also in electronic formats.ISBN978-1-55469-872-1

I. Title.PS8626.I4566C43 2011    JC813’.6    C2011-903508-1

First published in the United States, 2011Library of Congress Control Number: 2011907484

Summary: A young orphan struggles to unlock the significance of an old key left by his dying father.

Orca Book Publishers is dedicated to preserving the environment and has printedthis book on paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.®

Orca Book Publishers gratefully acknowledges the support for its publishingprograms provided by the following agencies: the Government of Canada throughthe Canada Book Fund and the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Province ofBritish Columbia through the BC Arts Council and the Book Publishing Tax Credit.

Design by Teresa BubelaCover photography by Michael Richard CrottyAuthor photo by Miranda Studios

ORCA BOOK PUBLISHERS      ORCA BOOK PUBLISHERSPOBOX 5626, Stn. BPOBOX 468Victoria,BCCanadaCuster,WAusaV8R6S498240-0468

www.orcabook.comPrinted and bound in Canada.

14 13 12 11 • 4 3 2 1

For Kelly and Hannah,and for my first reader, Lydia,who looked in the pot each day after school.




























My dad never saw what killed him—leastways, that’s what the cops said. Not that they ever said it to my face. I heard them talking when I was lying in the hospital bed. When they figured I was still knocked out. In fact it’s the first thing I can remember after the accident—those cops talking. One minute I’m in the backseat of the car, my forehead cool against the window, watching the broken yellow lines flash past. The next, there’s those two cops talking in the hallway, yanking me up outta somewhere gray and soft.

“Never seen what he hit,” says one.

“Never do,” says the other. “Not at night. Just come outta the woods andbang—you’re on top of ’em.”

“Come through the windshield—nearly tore him in half— then sailed right over the kid sleeping in the back.”

“Still alive?”

“The kid?”

“No, the dad.”

“Barely. Hasn’t said a word, hasn’t opened his eyes. Nothing.”

“Not good.”

The one cop didn’t say anything to that, so I figured he musta just shook his head.

“Next of kin?” one asked the other.

“Don’t know. Dad can’t tell us, kid is still unconscious, nothing in the car.”


“Nope. No papers, no permit, no insurance.”

“Just moose.”

They laugh at that. Which is when I decide to say something. Or try to say something. Only nothing comes out except a moan—loud enough, though, for them cops to hear. I open my eyes but can’t see much—just shadows. But I can hear plenty.

“Doc,” one of the cops yells. “Doc—kid’s awake.”

The shadows move toward me, hands on my head and my wrist; then it all goes blank, till there’s a new voice calling out, “Son, son.”

It could be my dad, so I work hard to open my eyes. But it’s not my dad. It’s some doctor, all blurry white coat and gold glasses. He’s leaning over me with his face as big and white as the sun up in the summer sky when you lie on the grass looking up. Except you can’t look at the sun for a long time, ’cause it’ll burn the retinas right outta your head in about two seconds. I blink a few times, and slowly my head starts to clear. I can tell the little beep I hear is coming from a machine by my head, and I can smell the nurse’s shampoo when she bends close to me to read something on it. Then I can see the doctor’s got little bumps of black on his chin, like he hasn’t shaved in a couple of days. And I can tell what he’s saying.

“Son,” he says, “you’ve been in an accident. You’ve been unconscious for a couple of hours. Do you understand?”

I start to nod but stop real quick since it makes me feel like I got kicked in the back of my head.

“You’re going to be okay,” he says, “but the other person in the car, the driver…”

“My dad.”

“Your dad. He’s been injured. Badly. Would you like to see him?”

I nod again, even though I know it’ll hurt.

“Okay,” says the doctor. He nods to a nurse and she goes off to the hall, coming back a sec later with a wheelchair.

“Before we go up,” the doctor says, “we’d like to call your mom. Can you tell me her name? Give me her phone number?”

“I don’t got a mom.”

The doctor looks at the cops, then back to me. “A sister or brother or a grandma?”

“It’s just me and my dad.”

One of the cops starts to say something, but the other one gives him a jab. Then it’s just that monitor beeping and the nurse poking at some stuff till the doctor talks again.

“Okay,” he says. “So let’s take you up to see your dad. What’s your name?”

One of the cops pulls a notepad outta his shirt pocket.

“Charlie,” I say. “Charlie Sykes.”

“Sykes?” says the cop. He’s looking at his buddy, then at me. “Sykes?” he says again, his eyebrows halfway up his forehead.

“All right,” the doctor says to them, angry, like he’s breaking up a fight at recess. He turns back to me.

“Okay, Charlie. And what’s your father’s name?”

“Michael,” I say, which gets the cop yapping again, louder this time.

“Jesus,” the cop says. “Mikey Sykes.”

“Enough,” says the doctor, turning round to look at the cops. “You’ll have to be quiet or I’ll ask you to leave.”

One cop—older, fatter—shakes his head. “Ask away, Doc, but we’re staying.”

The doctor gets ready to say something else, but the cop holds up a hand and waves it in his face.

“We,” he says, slow and quiet, still waving his fat fingers. “Are. Staying.”

The doctor lets out a sigh.

“All right,” he says. Then he and the nurse leave the room. A couple a minutes later they’re back, with the nurse bending close to help me into the chair. She’s soft and smells good, and it’s nice, that feeling, when she puts her arms around me to help me into the seat—nice and so warm that I get a bit cold and shivery when she lets go.

“Okay, Charlie,” she says, getting behind me to push the chair. “Let’s go see your dad.”

We head down a hallway to the elevator, the cops right behind us. The doors rattle open and I get pushed in first, a couple of old folks moving back to make room for me. The doctor comes aboard behind the nurse and turns to the cops as soon as he’s in. He holds up his hand and waves his fingers right in the fat cop’s face.

“Get the next one,” he says.

The cop puts his arm between the doors when they start to close—the doors are ugly green and chipped from where stuff has banged into them—but he yanks it out just before they shut, which I don’t blame him for doing, ’cause I’d a pulled my hand outta there too. We go up two floors and the cops are there waiting when the doors open, the fat one bent over, puffing.

“We’re coming with you,” his partner says, while the fat guy’s head bobs up and down, his red chins bouncing off his blue shirt. The doctor doesn’t say anything, just heads through a door marked icu, with me and the nurse and the cops all following along. I thought maybe my dad would be in a quiet room, a dark room, since he was hurt so bad, but this room is all lit up and full of noise and machines. We stop at the end of a bed that’s covered with electric cords and plastic tubes. It stinks in here, like that corner in the boys’ locker room where Randy Simms peed after Mr. Connors yelled at him for doing sit-ups wrong. I guess it must stink like that in here all the time, ’cause no one else wrinkles their nose or anything. Instead, the doctor bends down to talk to me. His knee makes a pop when he squats.

“Charlie,” he says, “you and your dad…your car hit a moose on the highway. It did a lot of damage, and your dad is in a coma. But he might be able to hear. So you could talk to him. Do you want to do that?”

But I’m not listening to the doctor; I’m more just looking at the guy in the bed, thinking there must be a mistake.

“That’s my dad?” I ask after a minute. “’Cause that doesn’t look like my dad.”

It’s true. It doesn’t. My dad has wavy black hair that curls on the sides and the sorta face that a tough guy onTVmight have—where you can see his jaw muscles bulge out when he gets angry. The guy in this bed has got his head shaved, and his face is all soft and puffy. There’s a tube coming out his mouth. He looks like a sick Pillsbury Dough Boy, not like my dad. No way.

“This is your dad,” says the doctor. He’s looking between me and the nurse. Up to her, down to me.

“Charlie,” he says, up to the nurse, down to me, “he’s very sick. And you should try and talk to him. C’mon.”

He holds out his hand and I take it, which even right then I think is funny, ’cause I’ve only ever held my dad’s hand before, and it’s been a long time since I did that—not since I was little and I almost ran out into the street outside the clinic in Edmonton, before my dad grabbed my arm and yanked me back.

“Here,” the doctor says. “Sit beside him, up here on the bed. It’s okay.”

Now I see maybe it is my dad. He’s got that scar on his chin, and his nose has that bump where it got broke. I look for his watch—the one we said could come from me at Christmas—but it’s not there.

“He has a watch,” I say.

“We had to take it off,” says the doctor. “Because of the edema.”

“The swelling,” says the nurse. “That’s making him puffy. You’ll get it back…”

She doesn’t finish what she’s saying, but I guess what it is, and that’s the first time I feel myself getting soft inside, feel stuff coming up to my eyes and that soft sizzling in my nose. And right then the doctor and the nurse and the cops and the noise all kinda disappear and it’s just me and my dad, and it is my dad, I see now. There’s that scar, and the white hair poking straight up in his eyebrow, and a dent where his watch was. I can feel it when I put my hand on his.

“Dad,” I say, leaning down close to whisper to him, even though it hurts my head to bend over. “Dad, it’s me. Charlie.”

He doesn’t say anything. I knew he wouldn’t, but he might have. Maybe. But he doesn’t. Just lays there, still, warm. Then I feel his hand twitch and twitch again. I put both my hands around his. And then, just a tiny bit, it opens. Then a bit more, and I feel something drop out of it, small, hard, hot in my palm. A key. I can tell without even looking.

And as soon as I feel it, all the noise and voices and other people in the room come flooding back—thebeepandswish-schonkof the machine by my dad’s bed. And especially the looks on the faces of those two cops, all pinched and pointy and looking right at me and my dad. Something about how they’re looking at me makes me keep my mouth shut, makes me clamp down on that key and decide, right then, not to say a word about it. I don’t know what it’s for or what it opens, but I know I’m going to keep it. I’m not going to give anybody a chance to take it away, like they took away his watch, and then have to depend on them to give it back. Back to me, a kid without a mom. Or a dad.

Because I know, as soon as it happens. Some buzzer goes off, and the doctor all of a sudden pulls me off the bed and puts me back in the wheelchair, and the nurse pushes me outta the room. But I already know: my dad is gone and I’m alone. I knew it as soon as that key hit my hand.


I sleep a lot the next day, or I think I do—I can’t remember much, except that every time I wake up, that fat cop is sitting in the hallway outside my room. He’s mostly outta sight, but whenever I look that way, I can see the tips of his boots and his gut and his hat.

“Why’s he sitting there?” I ask the nurse, but she just smiles and tells me not to worry—he’s just making sure I’m okay. Which doesn’t make me feel any more okay. Why would I need a cop sitting outside my door? Maybe somebody is out to get me? Maybe my dad didn’t hit a moose—maybe he hit a car, or a kid? Maybe killed somebody? Maybe there’s a family all enraged, with axes and rifles, sitting downstairs in the lobby—or whatever you call the place you sit in a hospital—waiting to come up and get their revenge? Like those crazy old villagers out to chop up the ogre. And one fat cop isn’t going to be much help against a bunch of wild men out to chop up the kid whose dad killed their kid.

It’s all I can think about—that cop and why he’s out there. And my dad. I think about him too. It doesn’t seem real that he’s not here. Truth is, nothing does. Half the time it seems like I’m somebody else, floating up by the ceiling, looking down at some other poor kid lying in a bed in a hospital, who’s thinking about his dad being dead. It’s not me—I’m not even really here.

It’s worst when I wake up at night and don’t know where I am. Am I home? Then I see a railing on the bed. Is that real? I reach out to touch it. It’s steel and cold. The cold feels good on my fingers ’cause it’s so hot under the covers. Then it feels bad because I know this is real. My dad really is dead and won’t come back. And then the cold sorta gets into my chest and gives me an ache so bad it makes me cry, but not loud enough for that cop to hear.

My biggest problem, besides thinking about the cop and my dad and the gang of people out to get me, is what to do with the key. It’s not like any key I ever saw before. It’s long and thin and brass, and it’s got a number stamped at the top:158. Maybe it’s for a locker? I don’t know. What I do know is that I’ve gotta find a place to hide it, because it keeps slipping outta my hand when I fall asleep. But I don’t have any pockets in this crazy gown, and my clothes aren’t anywhere around the room, so where can I put it? Then I remember some old movie I saw.

“Nurse,” I say, “could I have a Bible? Just to have beside me?”

“Sure. There’s one in the table right beside you, my luv,” she says, pulling it out of a drawer. “Do you want it open to any particular passage?”

I panic a bit, not knowing any particular passages. So I just say, “No—any old place,” which isn’t very religious-sounding. The nurse doesn’t mind though, and she gives me a smile when she leaves, like she’s thinking what a sweet kid I am. Soon as her back’s turned, I get the key out and start prying up the thick paper inside the cover. Bit by bit I work the whole key inside, till just a bit of brass shows, which nobody would notice but me. For the rest of my time in the hospital I keep it right beside me—even the next day when the lady from Social Services shows up, with the fat cop right behind her.

He gives a snort when he sees me with the Bible.

“Sykes with a Bible—that’s a first, wha?” he says with a mean kind of a laugh.

“Constable,” the lady says, “if you have to be here, then you’ll have to be quiet.”

She sits down and gets out a big binder. She digs out a pen from a black bag on the floor, then lets out a big sigh and says, “Now, Charlie. My name is Kathleen Puddister, and I work with the provincial Child Services Department. We’ll help look after you, now that your dad’s…gone. To do that we need to know a little more about you.”

“Like what?”

“Like where you live, for a start.”

“Apartment6B,2719West Third Street, Fort McMurray, Alberta, T9H1B0.”

“Very good” she says. “Not many boys as young as you would know their postal codes.”

“I’m not young,” I say. “I’m thirteen.”

“Sorry. You look younger.”

“Because I’m small,” I say, which I know is true—smallest one in my class, every picture, until last year when that new kid moved in from India or somewheres they don’t have enough food to get big. Or that’s what my friend Robert says.

“So,” she says, “you were born in Alberta?”

“Guess so. I’m not sure. I don’t remember.”

“No one remembers being born, Charlie.”

“I mean later, like—I can’t remember my mom or anything.”

“And your dad didn’t talk to you about your mother? What she was like?”

I shake my head.


“He didn’t like to talk about her, because of what happened.”

“And what did happen?”

“I don’t know. He didn’t like to talk about it, only to tell me she died.”

“When you were a baby?”

“When I was a tiny baby, just born.”

“All right,” she says, smiling like she doesn’t want to upset me with questions about my mom dying.

“And what about your dad—where was he born?”

“Out east, I guess. Out here.”

“In Newfoundland?” she asks, which makes me want to ask a question myself.

“Mrs. Puddister,” I say.

“Ms.,” she says.

“Miz,” I say. “Doyouknow where my father was born?”

The cop gives another laugh and gets a mean look from Miz.

“We’re just verifying some things about your dad now, Charlie. We want to be sure just who you and your dad are.”

“And who could we be?” I ask.

“Well,” she says, slow, and seeming a bit confused herself. “It’s just that it’s important that we know exactly who people are when there’s an accident like this. So we know who to contact, and what to tell them.”

I don’t say anything, so she goes on.

“You see, there were no documents in your car—no insurance papers, no registration. Which brings me to a few more questions about this trip you and your father were on. What can you tell me about it?”

Right away the cop gets his notebook out, and a funny thing happens. Everything slows down, like it does when you’re in a fight at school. You see the other kid’s stronger and that he’s gonna smack you hard in the face, and all you can do is wait for the punch. Except I’m not waiting for a punch now. I’m waiting to decide what to say next. Whether I’ll tell the truth.

The cop’s just getting his pen out when I decide.

“Nothing to tell,” I say.

“Was it a holiday, a vacation?” asks Miz.

I nod.

“Did your dad say why he was going to Newfoundland? To meet someone? A friend, maybe, or a relative?”


“Have you ever been here before?”


“So this was just a…a family vacation. No big deal?”

This second lie is easier—like the second time you jump off the high board.

“No big deal,” I say, which is not the truth. The truth is my dad got a phone call just before we started on the trip. Late at night, when I was supposed to be in bed. Which I was, but I wasn’t sleeping. At least not after the phone rang about twenty times. That’s how I came to be listening when my dad talked to whoever was on the other end—just saying a few words, like “Okay” and “When?” and “Where?”

I could have told them about that, I guess. And about how I opened my door a crack to see if my dad was okay, ’cause he shut off theTVsoon as he hung up. I could have told them about how he saw me looking at him and how his hands were shaking. And how he was all white, white like when you gotta stay home from school with the flu. And how he said to me, soon as he saw me, “Jesus, Charlie. We gotta go. We gotta start tomorrow. He’s gettin’ out…”


I first think about running away a couple a nights after they move me to the ward. The worst part of the ward isn’t the noise—there’s a lot of it, including a kid right next to me who pukes his guts up every couple of hours. Or the light out in the hallway, which shines just bright enough to creep in behind my eyelids when I almost fall asleep. The worst part is that my bed doesn’t have a railing. Which is funny, because I never slept in a bed with a railing before. But that railing being there in the other bed, after my dad died, sorta made me feel safer somehow, once I got used to it— specially when I reached out to touch it. At night the moon came in just right to make it shine, and I could see fingerprints on it from where the doctors and nurses touched it. I’d rub ’em all off with my blanket and then see if I could make one perfect fingerprint, all the lines clear and sharp, like on those special maps—the topographic ones my dad used at work. But in the ward those railings were gone, and twice I almost fell outta bed. Or I dreamed I fell outta bed, which feels like the same thing when it wakes you up at some stupid time like3:30AM.

I know it’s3:30because I can see the clock in the hallway, a big old one with black hands—same as the one outside the principal’s office at school. That’s what time it is when I hear them talking about me.

“He can’t stay here,” says one voice. He’s just down the hall, outta sight. Gee, I think, lifting my head off the pillow so I can use both ears, don’t those guys know I can hear them plain as anything? That I can hear the janitor squeeze out his mop two floors away at3:33AM?

“We’ll need the bed on the weekend for sure,” the voice goes on.

“They’re looking,” comes another voice, a nurse. “But it’s not easy.”

“Who’s up on the foster list?”

“It’s full.”

“Well, The Hollow then.”

“He’s a kid, not a criminal.”

A laugh from the man. “Well,” he says, “we don’tknowthat, do we? He’s a Sykes. Anyway, they take overflow out there, don’t they? In an emergency?”

“Used to.”

“Well, leave a note for the day staff. I need the bed.”

And that’s the first time I think about running away. Not real serious, like thinking how I would do it, exactly, but more like realizing it was possible, you know? I mean, I don’t even have a pair of pants. What would I do? Run down the road in a gown with my bum showing? No way. But I could.

Anyways, before I can plan anything out, Miz shows up next day to tell me I’m being moved. The fat cop’s with her when she comes onto the ward, puffing away like he’s just run up a mountain. Tubby would be a good name for him, I think. Constable Tubby.

“Charlie,” says Miz, “we’re moving you.”

“Okay,” I say.

“Don’t you want to know where?” she asks, her eyebrows up.

“No,” I say. “I don’t know a good place from a bad place in Newfoundland.”

“Well, the place we’re sending you is a good place. And it’s just for a bit, until we find you a place to live full-time. Usually we’d place you with a foster family for a few weeks while we found you a more permanent home. But our list of fosters is full, so we’ve got a spot for you at a provincial facility, the White Hills Training School.”

“The Hollow?” I ask.

Miz drops her pen on the floor. I can see her look at Tubby when she bends over to pick it up. He’s already got his notebook out.

“How do you know that name, Charlie?”

“That’s what they call the place you’re taking me, isn’t it?”

She gives a nod. “That’s what some of the children call it. But how do you know that name?”

“I just heard some of the…some of the kids talking about it.”

“Children? In this ward?” Miz sounds like she doesn’t quite believe me.

“Yeah,” I say. “They—we—talk about all kinds of things. Hockey, movies, the place they put bad kids.”

“But this is not a place for bad kids,” says Miz, taking a minute to shoot a look at Tubby, who turns a laugh into a cough when he sees the glare on her face.

“It’s a special school, with teachers trained to help children having…difficulties…getting along.”

I don’t nod or anything, just keep my face blank, like I do when I figure someone is lying to me. It’s a good way to handle someone you think is maybe lying to you. That way they don’t know if you believe them or not. And that makes them keep talking. And when they keep talking, they say the sorta thing that lets you know for sure if they’re lying.

I wait.

“It really is quite a lovely spot,” she says. “Really. I think you’ll like it there.”

See? Now I know. So I can ask a question.

“Miz,” I say, “why do they call it The Hollow?”

“Well,” she says, putting her papers back in the binder, being real busy so she doesn’t have to look at me, “I think it’s because of its setting. It’s tucked away in the White Hills, in a little valley—sort of a hollow.”

The cop lets out that cough again.

“The van will be here tomorrow at noon to pick you up,” she says, heading for the door, Tubby behind her.

“It’s a dark blue van with white writing on the side,” he says before he follows her out. Then, quieter, to me, “It’s got metal screens on the windows. Just so you know what to look for.”


The van pulls up right on time the next morning. I know because I’m wearing my dad’s watch, which they gave to me when I signed out of the hospital. They gave me my clothes back, too, and my backpack. I can get the rest of my dad’s stuff after the funeral, they said. But they say they don’t know when that’ll be, since they’re still trying to talk to people in Fort McMurray. I also got the Bible, without even having to ask for it.

“It’ll be a comfort,” the nurse said when she handed it to me, which is true, since it means I don’t have to find another place to hide the key.

The van is blue, just like Tubby said it would be. And it really does have metal screens on the windows, but there’s no writing on it. Which seems funny to me. I mean, why not put writing on it? I guess they’re trying to make it not stand out so much—make it look more like a bunch of kids out on a field trip. Except having metal screens around all the windows kind of spoils that, so why not write up what everyone can see? Put it in big letters:Bus for Boys So Bad They Gotta Be Kept in a Cage.

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