Short fiction: Unhinged

By Jeremy Podolski

Allie tried to remember who had given her the key, but the thought absconded. It felt not faded, as memories are prone, so much as slipped like a magician’s tablecloth from beneath undisturbed place settings. She could find no grave from which to exhume the chain of events that brought her to crouch before a squat metal door embedded in a shoulder of rock that interrupted the slope of a heavily forested ravine.

The key was obviously betrothed to the door. The patina that gave each a stately, if abused, look bore the same shade and sheen. A matched set. The only question remaining was whether or not she would consummate their marriage. Conventional wisdom, she supposed, would suggest action posed a greater risk than abstinence, but Allie tended to greet convention with a shrug or a lowered shoulder.

The air’s stillness lent a sensation of artificiality to the scene Allie only now paused to observe. Neither trilling insects nor deciduous applause infringed on the silence. Even the cadence of her breathing seemed dampened despite her eager inhalations.

The dress she wore, a shimmery silver that hummed blue notes in the passing daylight, didn’t quite sweep the moss-covered path when she walked, but her position now caused the hem to rest in uneven folds across the roots of dehydrated oaks and loose soil that owned this isolated acreage far from any trail.

At this height, Allie could see the individual nicks and scratches surrounding the embellished keyhole, seemingly caused by hasty attempts to secure access to the door and what lie beyond (or, she thought with sudden trepidation, to keep what’s on the other side in its place). The generous opening should have allowed for a clean view of the space behind, but Allie saw only a dance of flashing color against the black, an imitation of the kaleidoscope one produces when squeezing her eyelids tight. As the unknown incited a riot between her curiosity and anxiety, she tried to steady her hand as she raised it.

The key’s weight seemed to double as she aligned it with its counterpart. The concentration required was disproportionate to the task, and when an image of her brother appeared without warning in her mind’s eye, it was as if it had been extruded by the effort.

As his voice ambled into her consciousness, she recognized his words as the few he spoke on the day she left home, more than a year ago.

“You are running out of daylight,” he said.

“That’s why I’m leaving now,” she heard herself say, “so I don’t have time for long goodbyes.”

“I’m not just talking about today.”

“Are you worried for me?”

“I’m afraid of what your leaving will do to this place, to everyone.”

“Does that include you?”

“Home will always include me.”

“I could never stand so still. Don’t you feel the pull? It’s like gravity is out there, beyond us, rather than beneath us.”

“I think you spend too much time looking for new stars to orbit. You don’t need a map or a compass to discover what’s extraordinary.”

A momentary flare of sunlight infiltrating the dense canopy caught Allie’s attention, breaking the daydream spell and awakening her senses to the tightness in her jaw and the cramping in her hand. She relaxed her grip on the key, which the door had swallowed to the bow, and grimly admired the ghostly impression of that forged loop ornamenting her palm.

She reached forward, bracing herself against the door, which moments ago had appeared so formidable but now felt brittle and vulnerable. Just a simple movement of her hand would neutralize the lock, removing the last barrier between the world she knew and the one she imagined. At last, a resolution to her perpetual running.

But Allie had reached this threshold before, only to find the path beyond unremitting upon crossing. How many mirages had she scattered with stumbling steps and flailing arms, passing through their promise like a beggar through the fog? All were ostensible conclusions exposed as well-dressed apparitions. She could judge herself harshly for lacking perception, but from afar, few can differentiate a shadow from a silhouette.

She bowed her head and felt a newborn breeze softly kiss the droplets of perspiration from her nose and nape. As her exhaustion gradually painted over her waning exhilaration, she again saw her brother against the backdrop of her shuttered eyes. His face was close, the dirt of a day’s work spread over his brow and the first hints of erosion at the hands of age gathered beside his temples. Deep, methodical breaths resonated like husky whispers, but Allie heard no voice. She simply read in his eyes the answer to her wandering: “You journey to a place. Not from one.”

Allie let her arm fall limply to her side. It felt detached, as if the key had been its source of life and energy, rather than her body. The pierced lock held her gaze, the key camouflaged now against the pitted steel, and she wondered if anyone wandering through this lonesome landscape would notice that entry was theirs for the taking.

She straightened her back and combed her fingers through a nest of hair that had grown too long for the shape of her face. The strands were coarse and unfamiliar, and they ensnared her fingers in angry snarls.These, she shook loose, twirling her body and losing sight of the door just long enough to grant her the courage to take a step in the other direction. Then another. And another, through the disintegrating brush and into an open space with a clear view of the sky.

The stars wouldn’t be shining to orient her for another hour, perhaps, but she could get a head start. She was pretty sure she knew the way.