The Key

(written for the [Fiction] Friday “Alice tried to remember who had given her the key” prompt)

 

Alice tried to remember who had given her the key.  There had been many keys given to her over the years but she had never once struggled to remember what each one was meant to unlock.  Somehow, for no reason that was apparent to her, she had become the keeper of the keys amongst her friends and neighbors and as well as some people she didn’t even know.  They’d bring her a set of car keys or a spare key to their front door or perhaps an extra key for their bank deposit box.  Each person would ask her to simply keep the key safe, in a place that they would be able to get to it in the event of an emergency or in the event that they simply lost or misplaced their usual set of keys.  Alice would label each key with a special code and then index that code into her spreadsheet, all in an effort to protect the privacy of those who had turned to her for key watching. 

But this key – it had no label – and she simply could not remember putting it there in her garden, inside an ugly, rock-like hide-a-key, mixed in with the other stones amongst the begonias and peonies. 

She turned the key over in her hand several times, flipped it in the air and watched as it reflected the bright sunlight streaming through the locksmith’s shop’s window.  She dropped it on the counter and listened to its dull, metallic clank.  She picked it up again and stared at it, screwing up her face into a hideous scowl as she tried in vain to decide what the key was for and who the owner of it was.  She was mad at herself for not remembering but even angrier at herself for letting down whomever it was that had entrusted the key to her.

“This should be an easy one for you,” she said.  “I mean, it’s the oddest key I’ve ever seen.”

“You don’t remember where it’s from?” growled the man behind the counter, plainly not interested in helping her.

“No,” said Alice.  “I do not remember what this key is supposed to open. I honestly don’t even remember ever putting a hide-a-key into my garden.  I mean, folks – neighbors – have given me their keys and asked me to put them somewhere in my yard so that there would be an extra one if they were ever locked out of their cars or houses or whatever.  I put the Burkley’s key in a little box that fits just above the molding on my garage door.  The Frelinghaut’s have their spare under my welcome mat.  The Esperantagano children have their spare house key stored in a box at the bottom of the bird bath in the back garden.  But this one… I can’t remember.  So, that’s why I am here.  I figured that if you can unlock a lock for which I’ve lost a key, you should just as easily be able to find a lock which can be opened by a key I haven’t lost.”

“That’s not what we do, lady,” said the locksmith, trying in his New York City sort of way to sound apologetic while wanting to throw the woman out of his store.  “We only unlock things… we are not in the business of matching keys to locks.  I’d say that unless you remember what it is for, that key is nothing more than an odd-looking toy for your kids.”  He walked away from the counter so as to impress upon Alice that the conversation was done.  Alice stared after him for a few moments and then gave up.  She pushed through the door, angry about being dismissed in such an uncaring manner but not terribly shocked.  She looked at the key as she headed out onto the sidewalk along the busy, Manhattan street.  

It looked like a normal house key combined with an old skeleton key.  It was made of a shiny metal, like the most polished silver or stainless steel Alice had ever seen.  It had geometric symbols carved into it on one side and raised dots on the other.  Alice was so busy looking at the key that she didn’t notice the crowd of people gathered outside the entrance to the subway station until she walked directly into the back of a large man wearing a black suit.

“Watch it, lady!” he snarled at her angrily as he shoved her to the side.

“Get your own spot to look!” shrieked the woman in high heals and a pressed, blue pantsuit after Alice bumped into her. 

“My own spot?” wondered Alice.  “For what?”

Alice craned her neck to see around the crowd but all she could see was a large white box sitting in the middle of Broadway.  The crowd was murmuring loudly with the roar of whispering that comes from a few thousand people standing around the side of the road.  In the street, horns were honking and taxi drivers were leaning out their windows, shaking their fists at the box and shouting in various languages.  Alice pushed her way into the crowd, pausing to let children move out of the way on their own but pushing hard against any adults who refused to acknowledge her efforts to get through. 

Upon reaching the front, Alice was stunned to see a woman – no, not quite a woman… more like a cross between a woman , a tarantula and a duck – waddling back and forth in front of the box, waving her hands above her head.  Alice wasn’t sure that what she interpreted as hands were really hands or what she thought was the head was actually a head… and she certainly was not certain of a gender, though she immediately thought “woman” because the – being – was carrying what looked like a pouch that looked an awful lot like a purse.  No one was approaching the poor soul who seemed genuinely distressed and worried.

Alice approached slowly as a mild bit of fear gripped her.  “Are… are y-you okay?” she asked in barely a whisper.  Then, clearing her throat and speaking louder she put on her best New York City tone and said, “Hey! You’d better have a damn good reason for blocking up all the traffic in the middle of rush hour!”

The… being… stopped and looked at Alice and then gestured with its… hands.  It pointed to the ground, to the big white box in the middle of Broadway, to its… head.  It opened up its pouch and rummaged about within it before closing it up and slamming it to the ground and wailing some more.

Alice immediately recognized what the problem was for she had seen the look many times before when her neighbors would come knocking.  Much like the Universal Sign for Choking, the Universal Sign for I Lost My Keys and My Kids Are Locked Inside My Car was quite clear to Alice.  “You’ve locked yourself out of your, um… box…?” she asked.  “And you can’t find your keys?” 

Alice took out her cell phone and called the locksmith who had just been rude to her, explaining that just down the road from him was a lock that was missing a key and wouldn’t he come and help out since that what he, apparently, does.  He agreed and was there in a moment with a box of tools. 

“You’ve gotta be frickin’ kiddin’ me,” he grumbled at her.  “What the heck is this, a joke?”

“Well, sir,” said Alice calmly, “clearly this… woman… has lost her keys and is panicking because his… children… are inside.”

“What?” demanded the locksmith.  “Now you’re not just the keeper of keys for your friends and neighbors but now you work with the…” He paused as he gestured at the spider-duck-woman, then finding the words, continued.  “… freaks… who think it’s cute to mess with the traffic?” 

Alice looked at the spider-duck-woman as she stormed around in a panic.  Alice felt pure sympathy for this poor soul.  She had seen this type of panic a million times on her friend’s faces when they would lock themselves out of their homes or their cars or their lockers at the gym.  It was a desperate and lonely feeling to be unable to get into something because of a missing key. 

“So are you going to unlock this for… her?” asked Alice.

“Hell if I know what to do with it,” said the locksmith dismissively.  “Probably uses some weird technology to open.  Clearly, this is an alien ship and clearly they wouldn’t use any kind of keys or primitive locks like we do.”

“So you won’t even try?” asked Alice, feeling badly for the loudly shrieking beast. 

Alice walked over to the white box and gestured to the spider-duck-woman, beckoning her closer.  The alien came over and touched the box, revealing a small slot with geometric symbols and dots all around it.

“Well look at that!” shouted Alice, startling the creature and causing him to run away from her. 

“No, no!” said Alice, smiling.  “I mean that this looks familiar!”  Alice pulled the hide-a-key from her pocket.  Immediately, the being shrieked another unintelligible sound and came running toward Alice in as unthreatening a way as a spider-duck-woman can run towards you in the middle of New York City.  Alice was not frightened by it at all, as she recognized that the beast was giving the Universal Sign for I Recognize What You Have in Your Hand.  Alice slipped the strange looking key out of the rock.  After two or three tries where she didn’t get the orientation correct, she slid the key into the little slot in the smooth white box (the part that she had thought was the handle was apparently the part that went into the slot).  Immediately, a hatch slid open, revealing the inside of the space ship with several smaller spider-duck beings inside, jumping up and down and shrieking as they held a jangling set of keys.

The spider-duck-woman gestured and shrieked in a way that Alice recognized as the Universal Sign of Gratitude and then it grabbed Alice gently on the sides of her head.  Immediately, she had a vision of floating weightlessly.  She saw eight arms and a … face… that she immediately recognized as the being that was touching her.  The being used a strange tool to dig out the inside of an asteroid and then slid a shiny, metallic key into it.  That done, the being in her vision turned.  As it did so, Alice’s perception changed and she saw the hollowed out rock floating towards the earth and then watched it as it burned its way through the atmosphere before landing in a spot beneath her begonias.

“You sent me this key for safekeeping!” Alice exclaimed.  Her statement was met with an enthusiastic shriek and the waving of eight feathered arms.  The being stepped backwards into the big white box and embraced the smaller ones of its kind.  It took the key out of the hole beside the hatch and handed it to Alice with another look that Alice recognized, this one being the Universal Sign for Keep This Key Safe for Me, Please.

“Don’t worry,” she said.  “I’ll keep this safe for you, right there in my garden.  Next time, though, you should actually hand it to me instead of sending it to my home inside an asteroid.”

The spider-duck family walked inside their now unlocked space box and gave something resembling a friendly wave with the eight, feathered limb-like things attached to their bodies.  The hatch closed and the box quickly rose into the sky, disappearing into the bright daylight before Alice finished hiding the key inside the rock and putting the rock back into her pocket.

Alice looked around and saw that the locksmith was still standing there, staring at her.  She walked over to him and said, sarcastically, “Thanks for your help.”

“I would never have thought that an alien space ship would be reliant upon a small metal key,” he said.

“Well, what, exactly, did you think it would be locked by?” Alice asked him.  “Magic?” 

As he blabbered about having no reason to know what might be used to run or unlock an alien space ship, she laughed and waved him off with the Universal Sign of Get the Hell Away From Me, You Jerk.  She watched the unpleasant little man walk away in the direction of his shop and felt relieved to be rid of him.  Looking around, Alice found that the majority of the crowd had dispersed already, mere moments after the alien ship had disappeared into the sky.  This was what she loved best about New York City; there was absolutely nothing that would be considered odd or surprising or shocking enough to slow people down for more than a few moments.  In fact, most people would probably not even remember that anything out of the ordinary had happened here today.  Alice tried to remember who had given her the key to surviving life in the Big Apple but gave up after just a few seconds.  It didn’t matter who had given it to her; what mattered was that she had learned long ago that a short memory was the key to living in, working in or visiting the big city and it was a key lesson she kept close to her every day.

Alice walked back to her home and placed the asteroid-turned-hide-a-key into its spot amongst the begonias.  Turning around she saw a brown, cigar-shaped vehicle floating above her driveway and a skinny green creature climbing down a ladder from it.  The creature was wearing a clear helmet on its head and was carrying a glowing, electrified device in its hands.  Recognizing the Universal Sign for Keep This Key Safe for Me, Please once again, Alice sighed and said to herself, “Well, I guess I’ll have to find a safe place to store a laser key.  At least I will know who gave this one to me.”

11 Comments

  1. Tiffany
    Oct 10, 2008

    I like the concept of Alice as the keeper of the keys. Great story! Very descriptive.

  2. Lynn
    Oct 10, 2008

    Spider-Duck-Woman – very interesting?

  3. paul
    Oct 10, 2008

    different, takes the phrase universal signal to another level

  4. Annie
    Oct 10, 2008

    Modernising the whole concept.. nice…

  5. jodicleghorn
    Oct 10, 2008

    This is really funny. And like Tiffany and like the concept of Alice as a key keeper. I still get people pulling over to ask me for directions – it’s like I am the Universal OK Person to approach and admit your lost to!

    I also like the little bit about hand guestures – because they really are universal 🙂

  6. Koe Whitton-Williams
    Oct 10, 2008

    Very Nice. Lots of near imagery. Well done.

  7. Koe Whitton-Williams
    Oct 10, 2008

    I meant neat. . . imagery oooooops.

  8. ~willow~
    Oct 10, 2008

    I really enjoyed this. The whole Universal Sign angle was well done.

  9. vanessa
    Oct 11, 2008

    Nice story. I, too, like the idea of a key-keeper 🙂

  10. paul
    Oct 19, 2008

    I had to comment again because last night I was reading “the Autograph Man” by Zadie Smith and I came across a paragraph where she does the “Universal Signal” thing two or three times in a paragraph to humorous effect. Curious if you had read her, because we soak up stuff like that. And if you have not read her then it is a testament to you NOT being such a lousy writer if that is the sort of company you keep in your writing habits!

  11. Rob
    Oct 19, 2008

    Hey Paul — no, I have honestly never read anything by Zadie Smith. It was weird. The whole “Universal Sign of…” thing just kind of wrote itself into this story as I typed. The last one was a concious attempt to tie things back together but the first couple were thoroughly just “heat of the moment” things I put in. Thanks for the follow up!

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