The Key

Thistle Memorial Gardens

Thistle, sunset, Memorial Gardens


The 52 week short story project has been bobbing ineffectually on the sea of daily life ever since I received the court papers informing me that my former tenant is suing me — accusing me of having destroyed or stolen something close to nine thousand dollars worth of his personal possessions.  The claim has, for the past three months, successfully swamped anything I could write.

As we approach the trial date, and with my case prepared, I am again sighting if not a whole continent at least an island on which to stand. Hence the story posted below along with hopes that I am back to a regular schedule.

It was supposed to be a dark, unfortunately it is not.



The Key

On Monday the teacher asks why I ran away. Now, I’m not sure you can call it running away when your mother comes with you, but what I say is “It’s a long story.”

“Tell me ,”  she says.

It started just before dinner. I was doing my homework at the kitchen table. The sun was making everything golden and my mom was standing by the sink holding up a glass in the light. She had to do that because my stepfather didn’t like it if there were spots or fingerprints on them. The week before he got really mad and waved a glass in her face. “What do I let you stay at home all day for?” he yelled.

I have to tell you I didn’t like that one bit.

Anyway, my mom was holding up this glass and it was making rainbows all over the walls. I guess it was a crystal glass because someone told me that crystal makes the best rainbows and my stepfather always says he likes to give himself the very best. I don’t think he likes crystal because it makes the best rainbows, but because it costs a lot of money. He’s like that.

My mom saw me looking at the rainbows. She looked really pretty and her eyes had little sparkles in them and I smiled at her. I don’t know what my mother was thinking while I was smiling at her, but when she heard the key in the front door, she jumped. It was a big old house, with a big old door and a big old lock and you could hear things rattle and creak and hit each other every time someone opened the door. Crash went the glass.

The rainbows did this crazy dance down the wall. They were beautiful.

We knew my stepfather would be coming down the hall to the kitchen to get a glass of wine like he always did before he went to sit in front of the TV to watch the news and he’d be really mad about the broken glass, it being crystal and all, but we just kept looking at the glass on the floor like we were playing Statues or something. It was the first time I was ever glad it was such a big house. Usually I didn’t like it because it has lots of empty rooms and things that never get opened. Once my stepfather told me that when his family bought the house about a hundred years ago, they found a little child’s skeleton in a cupboard. I didn’t know whether to believe him or not because afterwards he laughed.

Just when my stepfather got to the other side of  the kitchen door, my mother bent down and scooped up the pieces of glass with her hands and dumped them in washing machine. No way my stepfather, Brian was his name, was ever going to open the washing machine. She got the pieces in there just as he came through the door.

Smart, but sneaky.

He walked in and kind of brushed my mom’s cheek with his. You could already see whiskers on his cheeks. Close up they look like little black bits like thorns and he always had them by dinner time. When they got engaged I told my mother I would never marry a man who had whiskers like that, but she said she kind of liked them. I don’t think she liked them anymore, because she pulled her cheek away. Just a little. You had to be really looking to notice.

I was so busy hoping my stepfather wouldn’t figure out about the glass, that I didn’t see Stuart come into the room at first. Stuart is Brian’s son. Now I really like Stuart. Most boys my age are pretty bad. My mom says I’ll like them when I get older and anyway they change. Stuart’s different. I think it is because he was born with something wrong with his legs and he wear braces. He says when he first went to school kids teased him because he couldn’t run around and play like everybody else. He says it made him learn to be nice, so they wanted to be his friend anyway. And he is too.

When he changed to my school there were these kids and they started to bully him. They always pick on somebody, but they were worse with him. He told his mum. His mom told him to tell the teacher. We did, but it didn’t do any good. I guess teachers can’t watch everybody all the time. The bullying made him really unhappy and he started to stay in the classroom when everyone else was outside fooling around at breaks. He got even more unhappy being inside, but I think the teachers thought they’d get in trouble if they made him go outside because of him having trouble walking and all. When my mother realized what was going on, she was really good. She had this long talk with Stuart. She told him that she thought bullies were really afraid. “If you show how strong you are, they’ll stop.”

My mom can be really convincing when she wants to be.

Stuart started to go outside again no matter what they said to him. He was getting happier being with the other kids and the bullies were getting madder. One day they grabbed one of his crutches and wouldn’t tell where it was. I wanted to tell the teacher, but Stuart said no. At the end of break time, he used the one he had left and the walls to get back to the classroom. It took him a long time, but when he got there the other kids all smiled and the teacher didn’t even get mad. The bullies stopped after that. Stuart got to be kind of a hero. Molly, my friend who lives across the road, she’s very popular, told me that she had a crush on him.

Way to go Stuart.

Anyway that evening Stuart came into the kitchen and raised an eyebrow at me. He thinks it looks cool. Sometimes I tell him it looks stupid, but this time I was just worried there was a piece of glass on the floor or something. I looked down but I didn’t see anything. Stuart nodded in the direction of the washing machine and I saw that there was a big red mark on the door. My mom must’ve cut herself on the glass. My stepfather didn’t notice because he was holding up another glass before he poured his wine into it. Stuart went over to the washing machine and stood in front of it, casual like. My stepfather poured wine into the glass, grunted down at Stuart that he’d better get his homework done and went out. My mom smiled a thank you smile and wiped off the washing machine.

That was it till we sat down for dinner.

The glasses sparkled and the food smelled really good. My mom looked pretty. The sun caught her hair and made little orange flames in it. But it was the worst dinner we ever had. When they first got married my step father would tell stories at dinner time and make my mother laugh. I thought maybe that’s why she married him.  Because he made her laugh. But when you listened long enough you noticed there was something wrong with everyone in his stories but him. They were funny, but they were mean. My mother must’ve noticed it too, because she stopped laughing so much and when my stepfather noticed that she wasn’t laughing anymore he stopped telling his stories.

He started to complain instead. At first it was just about people who worked for him. But lately it was about us too. My mother didn’t keep the house clean enough; I made too much noise; Stuart thought he was so smart. My stepfather would complain, my mother would try to change the subject and me and Stuart — when he was there — would try to eat fast so we could leave the table. But this evening m stepfather only opened his mouth to put the food in. At first I was relieved. But after a few minutes I got really uncomfortable. It was like there was this thunder cloud over him and we were just waiting for the lightening. I started wishing he would go back to complaining. He put another bottle of wine on the table and didn’t even offer any to my mother. He kept his eyes on his plate except when he put more wine in his glass.

Believe me I was getting worried.

Stuart looked at me hard. I knew he wanted to know if they’d had another fight. Stuart always asks me because he lives with his mom and never sleeps over. I shrugged my shoulders. I hadn’t heard anything, but really, you never know. Stuart raised an eyebrow. I think he was asking me what was wrong then. I didn’t have any idea. So I mouthed “I don’t know.” But my stepfather looked up just then to pour himself some more wine and he saw me. “I won’t have whispering at the table.”

That wasn’t fair. “I wasn’t whispering,” I said.

I thought it would be right to stand up for myself. I knew it was rude to whisper. But that made my stepfather mad. He leaned right across the table and for a minute I thought he was going to hit me, even though he’s never done that before.

I guess my mother thought the same thing because she reached over to try to grab him. I saw her do it and I saw her knock over the bottle of wine. It spilled all over the table and all over my step father. It was a nice shade of red. Well my stepfather jumped back from the table so at least I wasn’t in danger of getting hit. Even if he’d never done it before he still scared me. “You stupid, clumsy git,” he yelled. Only he was looking at Stuart. I don’t know why he thought that Stuart had spilled the wine but he did. “You get down there and wipe that up.”

Now Brian knew and my mother knew and I knew that there was no way Stuart could crawl around on the floor wiping up the wine. Stuart was staring straight ahead. Which meant that he was looking straight at my mother. I guess that’s why he didn’t say anything about who really spilled the wine. My mother looked like she was going to cry.

My stepfather got madder. He was so mad it was almost like he was jumping up and down. And he had this big wet spot on the front of his pants, like he’d wet himself or something, so he looked silly. It would make you laugh if you weren’t worried about what he would do next. And what he did next was grab Stuart by the arm and pull him up from the table and bend over really close to him. “You can’t even say sorry, can you?” Then he let go so that Stuart fell back into the chair.

It must’ve hurt.

My stepfather stepped back. “I’ll teach you.  You come with me. ”

He walked back to the kitchen. Stuart got up on his crutches.  Stuart followed Brian out without saying a word. He was slow. I looked at my mother. I wanted her to tell Stuart not to go. But she wouldn’t look at me. She had put the bottle of wine back up and trying to mop up the spill with napkins. I wanted to yell at her that it didn’t matter, but then I saw that her hand was shaking so hard she couldn’t even get it to the table. I took my napkin and helped my mother wipe up the wine, all the time trying to listen for what was going on in the kitchen. I couldn’t hear anything. I guessed that meant he wasn’t hitting Stuart or anything.

After a few minutes my stepfather came back into the room and sat down at the table. He didn’t say anything but he put this key next to his plate It was one of those big old keys like they had in that house and I recognised it because it had a curly top. It belonged to the cupboard where my stepfather said they had found the child’s skeleton. He was going to keep Stuart in there forever. I reached for the key, but my stepfather slapped his hand over it really fast. “Don’t even think about it,” he said with a kind of a smile, but not a nice one.

He kept his hand on the key and started to eat again. He was shoving food into his mouth. I guess he wanted to show us that he wasn’t bothered, but it looked pretty disgusting, little bits of mashed potato were sticking to his face and he had this look like he was enjoying himself, like the bullies at school.

I looked at my mother. Her hands were on the table, but they weren’t shaking any more. Maybe it was the white bits sticking in his whiskers and the corners of Brian’s mouth made him look stupid.

“Where is he?” she asked. Her voice was really quiet. I knew when she talked like that things were really serious. Maybe you had to know her really, really well to see that; maybe my stepfather didn’t really know her so well after all because he just said, “That’s for me to know and you to find out.”

I wondered if my mom thought he looked like a bully, because she was so good on bullies. She didn’t say anything, just sat there really quiet. To tell you the truth I didn’t know what she was thinking, but I was thinking about that cupboard and worrying about if Stuart could breathe all right and stuff and how Stuart wasn’t even the one that spilled the wine. Now I know you’re not supposed to shout in the house and you’re not supposed to shout at grown-ups. But really she had to do something. So I shouted. “Don’t you see Mom, he’s being a bully.”

My mom looked at me. Not like she was mad at me for shouting or anything, she just looked and then she smiled. She pushed back her chair and got up. She went around the table to where my stepfather was sitting and held out her hand. She didn’t say anything. She just stood there with her hand out. I was scared of what my stepfather might do, but I was proud too. She was standing up to the bully, only my stepfather was a lot bigger than the bullies at school.  My stepfather wouldn’t look at her. So my mother reached down, moved his hand and picked up the key and handed it to me.

I don’t know what I expected when I opened the door. Gasping Stuart, crying Stuart. I don’t know. But he was just sitting there, cool like.   He said “thank you” when I got him his crutches and first thing he did was go over to where my mother kept her purse and take out the car keys. Then he went to the coat rack and got my mom’s coat, and his coat and my coat and handed them to me.

We went back to the dining room. My mother was still standing there looking down at my stepfather. He wasn’t looking at her; he just kept fiddling with the knife and fork on his plate, changing their places over and over again.

Stuart handed my mother her bag and the car keys. I handed her her coat. She smiled at my step father. That surprised me, but there were no sparkles in her eyes. “Good bye.” she said and we left.

Outside the sun was just below the top of the hills and the sky was all orange and pink. We drove toward the hills to take Stuart home, like in some old move, off into the sunset. We didn’t go back.

The teacher is waiting. “It was beautiful,” I tell her.