Enron helped me move the couch. We pushed all four of Grandma’s tables to one side. Enron hoisted the coffee table off the floor with one hand and left it on the couch with all the cushions. Something Mum would definitely not approve of.
‘Last thing,’ Minty said, nodding down at the Persian rug that took up a large chunk of the lounge room floor. Enron took one corner, Minty took the other and I went to the middle and we peeled it back, like the pastry lid of a pie dish.
In the middle of the carpet was a neatly cut square, slotting perfectly into the pattern so you might miss it if you weren’t looking, but easy enough to find if you knew what to search for.
We stepped back from it a moment. Instinctively I looked towards the front windows, even though the shutters were closed.
We lifted the square of carpet, and there it was.
A solid iron trapdoor. With a lock. An ornate, old-fashioned lock that would fit an ornate, old-fashioned iron key perfectly.
I’d seen enough NCIS to know that two missing parents and one locked trapdoor is a combination for great TV but not so great in real life.
I slung a glance at Minty. She was watching me carefully, ready to sweep me up in case I fell to pieces.
And at that moment, we heard another key in the front door. Turning in the lock.
We looked to see who it was. More than anything, I wanted it to be my mum. I wanted it to all be some ridiculous misunderstanding. I didn’t care what was in the basement. I didn’t care that we had a lock in the middle of our lounge room floor. Mum could tell me it didn’t involve me, and I’d be fine with that. Better than fine. Great. I would never peel that Persian rug back again. We could put that ornate old key back on the mantelpiece and forget about it. We’d put the couch back. Take the coffee table off the furniture. Put everything back the way it was.
Including my life.
The front door clicked shut. Not so quietly this time.
Coco walked down the hallway, heading for the kitchen. Eyes down, headphones in, texting as if everything was good with the world. As if everything was fine. No problems here, thanks for asking.
I felt like smacking her.
‘Are you right there?’ I said, feeling furious that she didn’t even care less whether Mum and Dad were okay or not. ‘You right? Texting like everything’s tickety-boo.’
She looked at the furniture all butted up against each other, and peeled her headphones out of her ears.
‘What’s going on?’
‘Mum and Dad still aren’t home.’
She faltered for a moment, looked over at Minty and Jools and Enron, the white cord of her iPod dangling from her hand, and I could see her brain starting to grasp the fact that something was wrong, but struggling with what that could mean. She plunged her iPod into the side pocket of her school dress and zipped the pocket up, an instinctive reaction. I could feel myself getting teary again.
They say you can take the measure of a man by how he deals with stress. Well, here was my measure. I was a basket case.
I couldn’t stop crying. It wasn’t my problem anymore. Coco was going to have to deal with it. It wasn’t fair that just because I was two years older I was supposed to take control. Didn’t mean I was two years better at coping with stuff. In fact, being older made it worse, because I felt more pressure. If something happened, I was expected to deal with it.
I wasn’t up to it.
‘Dodie,’ Coco said, dragging my hands away from my face to look me square in the eye. ‘Have you called Mum and Dad? Have you tried to ring?’
‘There’s something down there,’ I said, and nodded towards the trapdoor. ‘Once we’ve got rid of it, we’re calling the police.’
Coco didn’t say anything. It was as if she didn’t trust her mouth to come up with any kind of response.
‘They were looking after something,’ Enron was saying, his voice soothing and deep. Calm. ‘I’ll get it. You don’t need to come down, and once I’m gone you can call the police.’
I looked across at Coco to see how she was reacting. She was frowning at him, not saying a word.
And then Enron knelt down and put the old key that was still in his hand into the lock in our floor.☼
Publication date: 22 February 2012