The Key in My Hand
I awoke with a key clasped in my hand, an intricate, old-fashioned key that had left its imprint on my palm. I could sense motion around my bedroom, whispers and soft rustling and footsteps, but I thought I must still be wavering in the dark, fuzzy world of sleep because I couldn’t make out anything in the room.
“She’s awake!” I turned my head but still saw no one. Bringing my hand to my dysfunctional eyes, I felt bandages over them. Then I felt pain. Fireworks blasted in front of me as if they were a blinding, 3-D movie playing on the inside of my eyelids. I screamed in panic, and my parents rushed to the bed. My mom rubbed my shoulder. My dad said, “Everything’s going to be all right, Jenny. Just take a deep breath.”
Liar! With the pain came the return of my memory, the July 4th celebration and the fireworks. The frenzy of barking as our neighbors’ dog escaped from her imprisonment in the barn just as I lit the fuse, the four-legged, wagging bundle of mischief running towards me, and then the fireworks brighter than any I had ever seen, branding my eyes and vision and mind with their explosion.
Through the throbbing in my temples and the blood pounding in my ears, I heard my brothers calling to each other to come quick. “Now that she’s awake, will her eyes be better? Can she take her Band-Aids off so she can see?” “Can we get you anything, Sweetie? Root beer or graham crackers?” “Now sit up. You don’t want to get bed sores.” “Do you want any boo…?” “Shh! She can’t read!” My stomach flopped, and my head spun, my ears ringing. “Do you want to play Candyland? Nobody will play with me.”
“No!” I cried. Tears welled up in my eyes under the gauze pads, causing a burning worse than shampoo in my eyes. “Just leave me alone!” I screamed to the crowd outside my sphere of blackness. Davy started sniffling.
“But are you sure you’re not hungry?” my mom asked again.
“Yes! Just go!”
And they left, filing out in an uncomfortable silence, leaving me alone in suffocating darkness. In my confused state, I felt around in my sheets for my old friends, Ginger and Snow Bear, for tangible, comforting proof that all was okay. But my stuffed animals were gone. In March, I had stepped across the invisible line between twelve and thirteen and had forbidden my stuffed animals to accompany me, assuming they wouldn’t understand a teenage world. In past years, I could have told them about my pain and terror. Ginger would have placed two of her paws on my eyes to wipe away any tears, Snow Bear would have clasped his arms around my neck, and my fears wouldn’t have seemed so terrible.
That was many months ago, though, and searching in the blankets, all I came up with was the key still warm from the clasp of my hand. Where it had come from, I had no idea. I fingered it, carefully tracing the swirly hole at the top and the little knob at the end, wondering what it unlocked. Maybe a trunk or a magic wardrobe or… My mind began to slip and spiral towards sleep, with a dizzy ringing in my ears that sounded strangely like a far-off tinkling music box.
I woke in response to the smell of pancakes hanging in the air and the animals outside proclaiming the arrival of morning. It struck me as odd somehow that the lilting coo of the doves wasn’t muffled by the woolly blackness that blocked the rays of the rising sun, and that the buttery aroma from the griddle was as successful as always at making my stomach rumble at me to hurry up. I swung out of bed.
“Good morning, Jenny!” Tom, my oldest brother, announced cheerfully, not more than two feet away.
“Ahh!” I gasped. “What are you doing in here?”
“Hey, chill! Mom told me to wait for you to wake up so I could guide you to the kitchen for breakfast.”
“Well, I need to get dressed, and I think I can get there by myself, thank you very much,” I retorted.
Getting dressed took a lot longer than I would have imagined. As I was trying to figure out if my socks were inside out or not, there was a knock at my door.
“Jenny, is everything okay?” my mom asked.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” I grumbled.
I finally opened the door, took my first hesitant step, and tripped over the frame. I sighed at the clatter of people jumping up from the table. They rushed into the living room to watch me make my first trek across the house as if I were a king in a procession. To say the least, this did not help my nerves. I stumbled down the hall and through the living room, trying to avoid breaking my nose or stubbing my toes, almost positive that a wall loomed just past my outstretched hands. The old farmhouse floor vibrated with Davy’s hopping up and down as I neared the kitchen table.
“You can do it, Jenny! You’re almost there!” he sang out. My face got hot at my little brother’s encouragement. All I was doing was walking to breakfast. A week ago, it would have gone by unnoticed. Now I was the center of attention, deserving praise for accomplishing basic daily functions and considered as helpless as an infant.
“Let me cut your pancakes for you.” “Pancakes are on the left of the plate, and the bacon is on the right.” “Do you need help eating?” “Here is your milk.” “Do want any more pancakes?” “Can I make you an egg?” “Jenny, why don’t you want us to help you?”
It hurt too much to roll my eyes, but I thought I might explode with frustration. They didn’t understand at all. They said they were sorry about the accident, but how could they truly be? What did they know of the uncharted darkness that stretched eternally around me? I reached for the napkin in my lap and felt something hard in my pocket. The key. “Did somebody give me a key while I was asleep?” I asked.
“Huh? What key?” “Are you still loopy?” “Yeah, maybe the fireworks blasted away some brain cells, too.” “Jacob! Be nice! What key, Sweetie?”
“Never mind.” Where on Earth had it come from, then, and what was it for? Such a fancy, mysterious key must unlock something both old and special. Perhaps it was the long-lost key to my great-grandmother’s steamer trunk. All locked up it was basically useless as a trunk, and my mom used it to display the finest specimens of her butter dish collection. My dad said based on the weight of the trunk, it was empty, but I thought maybe if the treasure were small, it would be difficult to detect in such a massive piece of luggage. I longed to start an investigation without a second more of delay, but Davy was assigned “Guide and Entertainment for Jenny Duty,” and he wanted to play Candyland. He grabbed my hand and dragged me to the braided rug by the cold fireplace. “This game will be perfect for you!” Davy proclaimed. “’Cause you can only see colors, right?” If I told him the truth, that I couldn’t even play a game as simple and stupid as Candyland, he would either think I had gone crazy or be scared of his older sister’s incapacity, but he still could never understand the never-ending blackness. I left without a word, pretending I didn’t hear his breath catch in his throat.
I locked the door to my room and plopped on the edge of my bed. I knew that across from me on my wall was the wallpaper with blue, yellow, and pink wildflowers on it, but I would never again fall asleep on a dusky summer night picking out patterns in the flowers. I waved my hand in front of my eyes at varying distances to try to detect some motion at least. I think I did. But only from the air that stirred against my face as my hand fanned back and forth. Even with my hand mere centimeters from my face, there was no fluctuation in the darkness. Like the moths at our porch lamp, I rose and drew towards the window to find brighter light, the late morning flood of sunshine into my room. The world still looked like a moonless night, but the warm sunbeams that radiated through the black curtain in front of my eyes and cascaded onto my face proved otherwise. Unconsciously, my hand slid into my pocket, and I drew out the skeleton key. It had a nice comforting weight in my palm, but the design was intricate as lace. I fingered the groves. My fingers ached to slip it into its hole and give it a satisfying twist.
I crept to the door, eased it open, and listened for my family, who were certain spoilers of any treasure hunt with their “Guide and Buddy” program. There was a regular thump-whack coming from the kitchen as my mom chopped vegetables on the wooden cutting board, my brothers whooped and shrieked outside, and my dad rumbled through the gate in his tractor. If I walked quietly, there would be no hue and cry. This required that I actually pick up my feet and not shuffle over the uneven floorboards, terrifying though that was. I lifted my feet high, looking like a fool, I’m sure, and stepped out into the hallway. Running my hand along the wall, I followed the painted wood-planks to my parents’ room. There lay the chest of my desire. My arms tingled in anticipation. Inside chests are the gold necklaces, long-lost silver heirlooms, and antique dolls, and if you’re lucky, stuff such as Babe Ruth’s bat or Billy the Kid’s six-shooter. Still high-stepping over imaginary obstacles like a tip-toeing cartoon, I crept along the wall.
My parents’ room had a thick rug that softened the creak of my footsteps, and undetected, I knelt down before the wooden trunk as if I were kneeling at a shrine to the butter dish. The lock was cool and broad under my fingers, with an oblong hole bigger than the end of my finger. My heart beat fluttered and beat inside my throat like the wings of a caged bird. With some fiddling I worked the key into the hole and held my breath for the big moment. It twisted, but freely, without catching. The key rattled around inside the large opening and then slipped out. My heart sank back down all the way from my throat to my stomach. I rose in numb disappointment, reoriented myself, and followed the wall back out, one hand skimming it, the other shielding me from looming danger. In the hallway, my fingers brushed across a smooth knob, and my pinky dipped into a keyhole below and halted. The door to the attic. Could this be my key’s harbor? As if guided by an invisible force, I slid the key effortlessly into the keyhole and turned it with a rusty click. I started to shake and paused, unable to face whatever was inside without being able to see, but the door slowly began to open, gently pushed from the inside.
The sweet smell of cedar drifted out, and the tinkling of a music box danced in the air. A soft little paw that I knew well took my hand and led me up the narrow stairs. “Hi Jenny, hi, hi, hi! It’s so good to see you! Come sit down!” a chorus of familiar voices chirped. I beamed. My old stuffed animal friends clambered onto my lap, and I gathered them in a big hug. They were the same as they had been when I had last seen them so long ago.
“What happened to your eyes?” Ginger asked. She patted them with her soft paws. And I told them. I recounted the whole disaster with the fireworks and explained the wall that grew up in front of me and the monster arms that reached out of the darkness to grab me.
“There aren’t any monsters out to get you,” they reassured me. “Remember? We banished them out from under your bed to the far corners of the Sahara Desert long ago.”
“There will be no more reading, no more painting the bluebonnets, no more biking to Bayer’s for root beer, no more watching baseball,” I said.
“Can you still hear the music?” Snow Bear asked. I nodded. It needed to be wound up again, though. It was slowing down.
Ginger stroked my eyes again. “Can you still feel my softness?” I giggled. “Well, that’s good, but I’m really sorry about your eyes,” Ginger said. “I remember when I fell on the stove, and the fur on my face got singed. That was a bummer, but I didn’t mind so much after a while.” I had forgotten about that. Poor Ginger.
“I think you need to go,” Snow Bear said. “Davy is calling you.” The music had almost stopped, and Davy’s voice could be heard, faint and distant.
I stood and tried to gather my old friends in my arms, but they crawled away. “Where are you going?” I said frantically. “I need you to come keep me company.”
“Go to Davy,” Ginger said. “Tell him about the darkness, and he will teach you how to play his xylophone and build castles. Tell Tom and Jacob, and they will play Marco Polo in the pool with you. Tell Mom and Dad. She will teach you to play backgammon, and he will fix Davy’s tandem to fit you.”
“Okay,” I said, “but come with me.” They pattered behind me toward the door.
“Jenny, where are you?” Davy called.
I reached the door, and just as the last notes of the music box sounded, the door shut behind me with Ginger and Snow Bear still behind it. “Wait!” I cried. I reached into my pocket for the key to open the door again, but it was gone.
“Jenny!” Davy’s sing-song voice came around the corner. I glided down the hallway, following Davy’s voice. I was now certain of the way. Nothing crept along behind me. Nothing loomed ahead of me.
“There you are!” Davy said with relief. “I’ve been looking all over for you! I guess you don’t really like Candyland, but I don’t care what we play.”
“Candyland’s okay, but it is hard for me to play.” I placed my hand over his eyes. “This is what it’s like for me. See? No colors.”
“Oh.” He thought for a minute. “Mom has empty tomato cans for a guitar, and I found the mallets for my xylophone when she cleaned up my laundry. We can make a band.”
We held the dress rehearsal in my bedroom. I struck the notes of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” with confidence, laughing inside at Davy plucking his rubber band guitar, and after the last off-pitch twang, I heard the silent sound of furry paws applauding from my bed.