Probably Sort-Of Safe

Chapter 4: The Key

Clark produced the key during recess and it was the subject of much discussion within the group.

He found it on his front lawn that morning. He had spotted it, he explained, in a crater in the snow. he giveaway had been the brief flash of gold light that emanated from the crater, catching his eye as he crossed the lawn to the sidewalk.

“The sun musta hit it,” Derek said, sounding not at all convinced of this theory.

The key was passed around their circle, hand to hand. It was scratched and sniffed and, finally, tasted. This last test was undertaken by the boy who was only ever known as: The Grub.

“Ew, Grub!” said Melissa. This statement was a regular one in the group’s meetings. “You don’t know where that’s been!” As was that.

“Sure I do,” said The Grub. “It came from Clark’s lawn.”

“It came from up off the ground.”

“So? The ground was frozen. And everyone knows that ice blocks germs. That’s why it’s important to freeze all your food. And dead bodies. Or just certain dead body parts, like Walt Disney’s head.” A blend of equal parts disgust and reverence came over the group.

“My mom,” offered Clark, “always said that you heat things up to kill germs.” He sounded as convinced of this as Derek had been about the sun-on-key idea.

“Are germs allergic to heat?” asked Chowdah.

“No.”

“But,” the girl, so much smaller than the others, struggled to put the pieces together. “If germs aren’t allergic to heat, what happens to them when you burn them up?”

“They…they burn up.”

“Oh.”

“So, what do you think it opens?” Clark asked, becoming annoyed that the topic was straying from the key. It wasn’t every day that he truly merited being the center of attention, and he intended to milk this.

“Did you check around your house?” Derek asked.

“‘Course,” said Clark. “No go.”

“You don’t think maybe it’s for something your parents keep private, do you?” Melissa suggested. “Maybe it’s for a jewelry box or a special cabinet or something. My parents have a locked box at the foot of their bed and we’re not allowed to go in. I’m not sure what the big deal is, since my brother said he heard them mention that it was where they kept the toys, but for some reason we’re not allowed near it. So maybe it’s something like that.”

The key completed its loop and returned to Clark’s hands. He ran his fingers along the shape of it.

“No,” he said. Usually a suggestion like Melissa’s would’ve prompted at least twenty minutes of riffing as they sorted through various family members with various sealed up closets and boxes, and each would have taken a turn to guess at the contents and the whole conversation would go in a pleasant circle without end until the bell rang to end recess. Instead, Clark had killed the moment dead.

A strange sort of quiet fell over them as they waited for him to say something else. He noticed that they were all looking at him and he quickly added, “That’s too normal. And this is weird, you know? This is something strange, but strange in a really excellent way, you know?” They all nodded. “So,” he went on, finding the logic at the same time as he explained it, “whatever it opens, it’ll have to be something that’s actually good.”

Everyone understood what he meant by ‘good’. In this case, it meant ‘special’. After all, ‘special’ was the only appropriate word for the key. For one thing, it had been carved from some sort of nightshade metal and was the darkest black that any of the group had ever beheld. There were specks of white distributed throughout the key’s surface that, when held at a certain distance, began to sparkle. Whoever had smithed the key had somehow captured starlight and molded it into the metal.

“What sort of box,” Clark wondered, “could need a key like this?”

Not a one of them knew. And so they began to search.

Not in a way that showed organization or planning. Nothing so boring as that. Each member would take the key home on a different day and spend the remainder of their time with it trying it out on every nook and cranny and opening. And each time, the same thought occurred again and again:

Could it be this one? Or this one? What about here. Perhaps…perhaps….

This went on for two weeks. Every school day, the keybearer would be the last one to arrive at class before the morning bell. The others would be barely able to contain their excitement as that first bell approached. Surely this time, the correct opening would be found, the mystery solved, and the next stage of the adventure could finally begin. But every morning the keybearer would enter and the smiles would go slack as they saw the downtrodden expression.

At the end of the day, someone else would request the key, and the whole miserable cycle would begin again.

Could it be this one? Or maybe this one? Here? Perhaps…perhaps…

Not a word about the key was said during school. The business was handled via shrugs, glances, resigned hand motions and various other bits of body language and eye rolls.

The next time someone spoke of the key, it was at another recess, and the mood was much more somber than the first occasion. The meeting had been brightened with the sense of possibility that the key promised.

Two weeks later, the sense of possibility had stopped twitching and was beginning to smell and take on a funny color.

“Maybe we’re doing this wrong,” Derek said.

This concern had been brewing for a few days now. The search was beginning to be noticed. Questions were starting to be asked. Questions that none of them had very good answers for, as the answers would have required the invoking of that ineffable sensation of adventure and possibility that sounds so odd when said out loud.

“Maybe we could ask one of our parents?” Clark offered.

The others snorted.

“Come on, you know what’ll happen then,” Melissa said. “They’ll all do that thing where they say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting’ or ‘I’ll look into it, don’t worry’ and then they’ll stick the key in their pocket and never think about it again.”

“Yeah,” said Chowdah. “Plus, my mommy already said she didn’t know what it went to.”

She seemed surprised by the looks of horror her friends now wore.

“What?”

“Why did you ask your mom?” asked Derek.

“She wanted to know where it came from.”

“How did she know about it in the first place?”

“Because she cleaned it up for me.”

“Why did she clean it up?”

“Because I almost choked on it.”

“What?

“When I almost accidentally swallowed it, Mommy patted me on the back ’til I spit it back out. Then she washed it and then I told her what it was.”

“Chow-”

“And I’m fine, by the way.”

“Great. Chowdah, why did you have it in your mouth?”

“I don’t know. Grub put the idea in my head.”

Melissa smacked The Grub upside the head.

“See what you’ve done?” she demanded.

“What? It’s not my fault that Chowdah is…Chowdah.”

Clark retrieved the key from his pocket. He held it up. The cold winter sun seemed to strengthen as its light hit the small metal item.

The object appeared to waver in his hand. It made Clark remember the science day when they had been allowed to play with the magnets. He thought of the wiggling sensation on his fingers when he had held one magnet back from joining its counter-part.

‘Someone is calling to it,’ he thought. ‘Or some thing.’

He had not yet brought up the dreams which had begun to plague him ever since he found the key. He was determined not to bring it up to his friends. Partly because he would rather be dragged behind a car by his braces than admit to his friends that he was scared of a dream. But there was another reason.

If he acknowledged the dream while in the waking world, it gave the fear a foothold in reality. But perhaps if he denied it, the fear would lose its power over him and he could return to normal life.

But no matter how he denied it, the fear was always there. It was a scent in his nostrils and a taste on his tongue, tainting every sensation in his life. And with every day that passed, Clark became more and more convinced that the key and the dreams were interlinked, and that he must, he must, solve for one to be rid of the other.

He just didn’t know how. He held up the key and wondered:

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…

Neither Clark nor any of the rest of the group noticed Lim a little way down the blacktop, his jaw hanging open as he watched the starlight shimmer in Clark’s hand.

And somewhere else, far away…

He was a quiet man with an open face and kind eyes. His beard was soft, white and neatly trimmed. His clothes were patchwork things, but not altogether untidy or ragged. As he walked, a simple melody played on his lips. The words had been lost since before human lips knew speech.

He walked without hurry and without destination. When he tired, he slept. When he hungered, food became close at hand. Ticket sellers and ticket takers never paid him any mind.

The song had been a lullaby.

At infrequent moments, the wind would tousle the long white hair upon his head. And he would stop in mid-step and close his eyes and rock back and forth on his heels. He seemed to be listening to something, though no one else could ever hear just what it was. Perhaps it was the words to that ancient melody. And then the wind would move along, and he would open up his eyes, smile a sad little smile, and continue on his way.

These moments could happen anywhere. The wind cared nothing for walls or locks. It moved, and could only ever be delayed, never stopped. Not really.

On this particular day, it found him on a train. He had ambled onto the car and taken a seat at the very end. A small smattering of other people, perhaps a few more than ten, shared the car with him. The wind caught up to the train, but the doors were slammed shut. No matter. It hovered around the entryway, waiting for its moment.

A Porter approached the door, his ticket puncher clenched in his fist. Not realizing what he was setting in motion, he opened the door.

The sound of the wind was that of a bride’s wedding dress as it is being caressed by the air on a mid-summer’s eve.

Without realizing that he was saying anything at all, the porter murmured, “He’s buried at the twenty yard line.”

The wind carried on down the car, announcing itself one passenger at a time.

“Deb Tipton is allergic to walnuts,” said a lady.

“Of course it did not die,” said a sleeping man. “It can only ever sleep.”

A napping babe whispered, “Salvation lies within the jars. Break them and be released.”

The man at the back of the car watched. His smile, when it appeared, was so small that it could scarcely be noticed.

The secrets drew closer, passenger by passenger.

“The diamond is nestled beneath the fifth claw.”

“The sparrows lie.”

“The final three will cast off their armor and fly again.”

“The letter D was an accident.”

The rustling step of the wind came to a halt. Sometimes, the man liked to imagine that he could still see her. That if he unfocused his eyes enough he could make out her shape and her dress and her smile. He would imagine outstretching his hand and feeling her take it in her own. Even the coldness of her touch would have been a comfort, for at least then he could know that she was there.

But he knew (in that small part of him that could still remember the feeling of a broken heart, a part of a soul that can never be locked away, no matter how many chains and bars are used in the attempt) not to try and reach out his hand. There would be nothing to feel.

The wind curled around The Man of Locks. She leaned in close and whispered in his ear, whispered the secret words which she alone knew. The change was instantaneous and came without warning.

The warmth died from his eyes.

TO BE CONTINUED