A short story by Harriet Young
“We’re just two souls in a fishbowl, bouncing off the side,” he cried, as he leapt and he died.
The silence thrummed, like a drum. A pounding beat, like blood in a skull.
It had been ten days since the key was lost. Then the ground fell away, and our lives took off. It began as nothing, as an inconvenience, a novelty. Then it grew to a beast, something with a mind of its own.
Where to start. With the key, I suppose. I had recurring nightmares that left me thrashing, unable to breathe. Claustrophobia is a terrible thing. They happened night after night, I’d wake in a sweat. I couldn’t comprehend the horror inside. Work fell away – I passed through days in a daze. And night after night, the key came to me.
Keys might mean security, protection or adventure. A key to a safe, to a door, to a new world. But not for me – oh no, not for me. For me they creaked in locks, to trap me in a box. The key in my dream rusted in place, parts fell away and time lurched past. I struggled and screamed and cried, but still in my dark musty box I’d abide. I tried to break free, I did. But the box was strong and the lock was eager, it wouldn’t very well abandon its role. So this was how my nights were spent.
The days were worse. Acrid coffee scorching my tongue, anything to keep the shadows at bay. Eyes bruised with exhaustion and body slumping forwards, I saw my life through a sheen of fog. Everything tasted foul, ash in my mouth, no pleasure in anything. He felt it too – I saw it in his eyes. The key haunted him also, just buried deep inside.
He was gentle and kind, in his way. He covered me in blankets when I gave way to the key. Led me blindly through days and made sure that I ate. He muffled my screams in the dark, late at night. It felt like love, that’s it. It did.
But fog. Fog. Fog is a dangerous thing. It is forceful, in a quiet, disobedient way. It does as it likes, it hides what it likes. And suddenly, or perhaps gradually, you feel less like a normal person anymore. You don’t notice until it has happened, and when it has happened, you’re too far from the shore to row your way back. What is there to do, but float?
So that’s what I was doing. Floating by day, bowing to the key at night. Groundhog Day, they say, don’t they. But that’s not what it was – each day of floating was a little further from land, and each night the key grew, monstrous and grand.
Who can say how much time passed? When you are in the wilderness, time is not your friend. But be it months, or years, or decades – who knows – there was one moment when everything changed. A click, a tap, a crunch, a grind. The sound. I was in my box, in the dark, nowhere to hide. But the key was moving – slowly, so slowly, its grandeur was fading.
Inch by inch, the giant key moved. This was new. What to do? I was statue-still, eyes fixed on the lock. That I could not see, the dark enveloped me. It crunched as it turned. A click and then…ringing clear through the fog, it fell to the ground.
I was desperate and scared so for some time I didn’t move. Then, my courage surged. On all fours I crawled to the door; peered through the keyhole, the key was there no more. Gently, I placed my hand on steel. Held my breath and pushed. Movement, freedom! The fear was enormous, pressing on my lungs. What could be out there? Perhaps, perhaps, the key was my protector after all.
Breathe, breathe. Slow, slow. Breathe, breathe, slow, slow. Breathe. Ok.
I pushed a little harder, froze as the door emitted a skull-splitting creak.
I pushed again. The door was open, I was free. The darkness and fog closed in but, my God, I ran. I ran and I ran, the fresh cold air burning my skin. My bare feet revelled in the sharp stinging pain. My mouth curled into an unfamiliar smile.
That morning, I was brand new. I awoke refreshed to a bright, clear sunrise. The curtains were open, the covers kicked away. He lay beside me, frown flickering. I revelled in a stretch, clawed sleep from my eyes. I showered and smiled. New days. New skies.
So that is how the key was lost. Ah, I look back now and cry. I thought it was the start, the beginning. But what was set free from that box?
He was pleased to see the change, that day. His face relaxed at my wide, easy grin – I kissed him, I twirled, set off on my way. Said no to coffee, laughed through my tasks, filled full with energy, I could do anything at last.
I could dance. I could sing. Have you seen the sky, through the fog? It’s a wonderful thing.
I came home that night, a new spring in my step. But one look at his face and my hope fell away. The key – it had him, deep within, I could tell. His brow was furrowed, the shadows were there. I stared into his eyes, begged the key to leave. Shouted and screamed. I lifted my hands and…
The crash threw us to the floor. The first crash, I should say, for there were many more.
We lurched to the side, I rolled away from a falling mirror. Everything crashed, all we owned.
And as soon as that happened, another crash, we were thrown in the other direction. I screamed and hid my head my hands; a glimpse through my fingers showed me he did the same. We stayed in a foetal position until the ground steadied. Everything around us was gone, thrown asunder. The things we had loved, all crushed and cracked. The carefully positioned belongings damaged, all moved. The sofa’s arm rested through the broken screen of the TV.
We exchanged a glance, arose, like new born lambs. Legs shaking eyes darting we extended our arms – help me, we shouted, help me, I cried.
I leaned from the window, saw what I could see. The earth had quaked, we had risen. Our home was anchorless, blowing away. Ripped from our chains, we left solid ground. The key had gone and we were free, swept up and away into the bright night sky.
First the house swayed gently in the breeze before gaining traction, soaring and spiriting away. We gazed from the windows, helpless as babes. Our town became smaller, streetlights hazing and fading, cars became ants and soon everything was gone. Mist obscured our view – we had reached the clouds – and that’s when the soaring slowed to a floating, steady and gentle, onward and onward.
For days we drifted. We were content to begin with, until we realised. Without the key, there was no fog. Without the fog, there was nowhere to hide.
And with nowhere to hide, our anger grew. We argued about blame, about who it belonged to. We argued about fury, and who should have most. We argued about love, and why it had died.
We were trapped in our gliding prison, two bodies at war. Until, that day, he fell from the side.
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