Prompt Day #41: Write about a holy—or unholy—relic that has fallen into the hands of a person who doesn’t realize what they have
The Gate Keeper
I found the key in an old antique store. You know those stores you drive by everyday but you never notice them, then one day, for some reason you see it and you have that feeling like there is something in there meant for you, so you stop. This shop was called Relics and the grisly old man behind the counter had to be at least 203 years old. I began to suspect that this was actually just his home and he was inviting us all in to look around and make an offer because he had outlived all his next of kin and was about to die.
I collect skeleton keys, been doing it since I was a kid. I never really thought of it as a collection or even a hobby where you would say “Oh, me? I collect skeleton keys” if someone were to ask you at a party. Not that anyone has ever asked me that at a party, but people always say that sort of thing, don’t they? Anyways, I just have always found myself fascinated by odd and unusual keys. I like to pick them up and look at them and then try to imagine what the door looks like that they open. Once I have the door in my mind, I imagine what’s on the other side and so on and so on. I have actually spent hours imagining worlds in my head, fantasy lands that don’t exist (as far as I know, and if they do, no one’s ever going to see them again, because I have the key to get through the door to get to them).
Relics had an entire wall of keys and I must say that I appreciated the presentation. Most shops I have been to throw keys into jars or jumbled up piles on a tray and you have to sit there picking through them all. This man knew what he was doing and from the look of the number of keys, I wondered if he too was a collector of sorts. I took in the entirety of the wall and then began examining each key by itself, looking for unique or unusual markings, patterns, or potentially one that just jumps out and says “Here I am, the one you simply must take home!” That happens more often than not.
I was deeply vested in my search when the old man came up and before I realized he was there, whispered in my ear.
“I have other keys I keep behind the counter if you don’t find the one you’re looking for.” His voice was rough and I imagined it would be the very voice you would here coming out of a bullfrog, if he could talk and was tall enough to whisper in your ear. I, of course, hadn’t even realized he’d come up behind me and so I screamed and jumped and knocked three keys off their hooks on the wall.
“Oh! I, uh, I was just looking. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular.” I said and decided I’d seen enough. “Thanks anyways.”
“Nonsense. I know a key admirer when I see one. You are just the type of customer I save the special keys for. Come, please, let me show you my special keys and then, if you don’t see any you like, you can be on your way.” He smiled. His mouth was about the size of a bullfrog’s too and I swear the corners of his lips bumped into his ear lobes. I nodded and walked to the counter with him. I had to pass the counter on my way out anyways and even if he was creepy and sounded like a fat amphibian, I should not make assumptions based on appearances and vocal tone alone. He seemed nice enough. He pulled a tray out from under the counter and on it were some of the largest and most ornate skeleton keys I had ever seen. One had a skull on the top and the shaft looked like a finger bone, another looked like that doctor symbol with the two snakes wrapped around it. The one that immediately caught my eye, though and screamed “Take me, I’m yours!” was a beautiful bronze and copper filigree. The key looked like a twig and the filigree work had vines wrapping all around it. The top had a small round fruit that looked like a miniature apple (maybe a crab apple? Are those small or just really tart? I can’t remember), it had a gorgeous enamel on it of shiny red with a single green leaf painted on the top. It was in perfect condition and I really didn’t care if it was an antique or not. I wanted it. The man picked it up and held it out to me.
“A gift to a fellow collector.” He said, smiling that fly-eating smile of his.
“Oh, No! I couldn’t. What are you asking for it?” I said. It was in my hand now and it sat there like it had been made for me. Whatever number the man said next, I would pay. I wanted to take my treasure and leave immediately.
“Take it, I insist. Just promise me you’ll come again.” He said pushing me towards the door. So, I thanked him again and left, promising I would come back and tell all my friends too. I got to my car, pocketed my find and went home.
The following morning, I decided to walk to work. The weather was lovely and I could keep my new key in my hand while I walked. The trip to work takes twenty minutes on foot but that day I left an hour early so I could take my time. As I strolled, fingering the smooth enamel topper, I imagined a door to paradise. It too would be covered in vines and carvings of exotic birds and flowers; each one painted by hand. I soon, however, began to get the sensation that I was being followed. I turned around and there, behind me was a man in an ill-fitting suit that sort of just hung from him. It may have been his posture though because he walked with his shoulders slumped and arms dangling limply at his sides. I decided he was drunk even though it was 7:30 in the morning. Why else would a man in a suit be weaving like that, with his mouth hanging open like a dead fish? I picked up the pace and made it to work with plenty of time to spare.
I kept the key on my desk all day and every free moment I had, I touched it. I loved the feel of the lines and curves. It felt so organic. When I finally got out of work there was the man, standing, well really he was kind of weaving back and forth right outside the door. He didn’t come up to me, he didn’t speak. He just stood there, I began to walk passed him and I could see him fall into step behind me at the same distance he’d been that morning. I stopped and turned around.
“Can I help you?” I said, although I admit I really didn’t want him to answer me. But if he didn’t answer, that was just as weird too so the longer I stood there waiting for him to answer or not answer, the more scared I got until I was just about to turn around when another man came shambling up behind the first one. He too was in a suit that kind of just hung on him. He was younger than the first guy though but his head was a little misshapen and his left foot turned in at a strange angle. He drug it behind him. I decided a jog home would be good for the old metabolism. So I ran and my two admirers shambled slightly faster. When I got home, I tried to put my treasure key in the lock. This time, they did not keep their distance, this time, they were right behind me, I could hear their shuffling getting closer and closer. I swore and grabbed my house key out, managed to get it in and turned and let myself in quickly and slammed the door. I locked it and ran the dead bolt. I peeked out the window. They had retreated back to their typical distance which was good, but now there were three, which was bad. The third was a woman. She had on a frumpy blue blouse and pencil skirt. She looked to be the oldest. Her hair was done up in what I like to call a church lady afro and she had the reddest shade of lipstick on. Hideous. I felt better once I had my key in my hand though and soon managed to forget about my strange entourage.
I was reminded the next morning when I walked out and there were now six. All of a sudden I had a flash back to my childhood. The first horror movie my mother had ever let me watch: Night of the Living Dead. That is what this scene reminded me of. These people were zombies! But in every zombie movie I had ever seen, the zombies try to eat the person they follow. They don’t just politely follow them like little baby ducklings and then wait patiently for them to come back outside. Something very strange was happening here. I decided maybe it was time to pay a visit to Relics sooner than I had meant when I promised him I would.
When I got there, the shop was closed, for good. It was empty. Now what? I wondered. I decided to keep driving. I called work to say I would be late and drove on into the next town where I had once gone into their little antique store. The owner of that store was a lady and she seemed very knowledgeable. This place was called Some Things Old and thankfully, it was open. I took my key in, trying to ignore the undead crowd which had gathered behind me. The bell rang when I opened the door.
“Welcome, first customer of the day. You’re out and about early, aren’t you? Well, you know what they say: The early bird catches the worm!” She smiled brightly. But that just made me wonder if there were worms crawling around in the followers right now, as we speak. Ick.
“Hi, I, um, well I bought this key the other day.” I pulled the key out of my pocket but before I could say anything else she interrupted me.
“You didn’t buy that here.” Some of the chipperness was gone
“No. I didn’t, but I was hoping you might know something about it. Maybe where it was made?” I held it out to her but I really didn’t want to let go of it. She didn’t seem to want to take it either. She leaned across the counter and looked at it.
“Well, the first thing that comes to my mind when I see that is the garden of Eden: the apple, the leaves, the snake. You might be better off asking Father Sheppard over at St. Michaels. He might know more about it.” She sat back away from it. “I can’t really help you any more than that, dear. Sorry.” She glanced out the window which as we were talking had stopped beaming the bright morning light in and I wondered if maybe it was going to rain, although I was sure the weather forecast said it was supposed to be sunny that day. So, I looked out the window too, and then I realized, it was the crowd of half-zombies that were now congregated outside waiting for me.
“I’m sorry, dear, but I think you should go. Go see Father Sheppard. Right now.” She said pointing at the door.
I left, I ran past all the zombified people waiting for me to do something. The speed limit in this little village was only 25 so the mass had no trouble keeping up with me. By the time I got to the cathedral, there were more than I could count. I did, however, notice an interesting stat; there were no children zombies and the majority of the crowd was older. There were a few younger adults, some my age, but most were probably in their 50’s or 60’s. They hovered. All of them swaying back and forth, trying to keep balance on their recently dead feet. I say recently dead because well, for one, they didn’t look like they’d been dead for long. They all looked pretty fresh and secondly, I wasn’t even sure they were dead. I was calling them that simply because they looked like zombies from all the movies I’ve seen.
I didn’t rush into the church, I wasn’t all that afraid of them anymore. Not a single one had made any attempt to “get me” and I was starting to think of them as my own zombie posse, which is really gross and weird on my part, I know, but still it was kind of cool in a macabre sort of way. Father Sheppard, I was told by the kind lady sitting at the candles, was in the confessional, so I went on in.
“Forgive me Father, for I know not what to do. I’m not catholic.” I started.
“Then why are you here, my child?” the nice fatherly voice asked me not unkindly.
“Because I bought this weird key and then these zombies started following me all the time and so I went to the store where I got it but he was gone and then I went to another store, Some Things Old and she looked at it and said it looked like the garden of Eden because she saw a snake and an apple, but I never saw the snake and if you ask me, Father, it looks more like a crab apple than the red one that Eve ate. Anyways, she wouldn’t even touch it, she said to leave and come here. The thing is. I love this key but I do not love the zombie people following me around. They don’t really bother me exactly, they’re just there all the time and every time I look, there are more of them, so it is getting disturbing. The lady at the shop said to talk to you. She said maybe you could help.”
“This is not a matter for the confessional. I will meet you outside.” Father Sheppard said. So I met him out of the black two way phone box thingy.
“May I see your key?” He asked me. He was actually a lot younger than I had pictured him. I guess the term Father automatically makes you think of someone your father’s age. But he wasn’t at all. And I am not sure you can say this about a priest but he was real handsome too. So, I handed him the key. His hand brushed mine when he took it from me. I wanted to reach out but I wasn’t sure after the key was gone, what I wanted to reach for; they key or the Father’s hand. He studied the key, rolling it around in his hands. Then he looked up at me.
“Where are the zombies?” He asked. I took his hand, it felt so much better than the key had ever felt; warm and soft. I pointed to the door, the one I had come in. He opened it. There they were the whole lot of them. He looked around and then back at me.
“Where?” He asked again. I looked at him, completely astonished. How could he not see the hoard of half dead?
“Look! They are all over the place! There has to be fifty to a hundred of them!” I said. He shut the door.
“Come with me. I think we should look at something.” This time, he took my hand. Is it a sin to get an instant crush on a priest? I decided I would have to come back in the future and confess, maybe. He led me back behind the alter part of the church to a room that looked like a big office. His office, I guessed. I wondered if it was his alone or if he shared it with other priests. I looked around for some sign of something personal but it was all religious stuff and pictures of saints and the pope. He ran his finger along the books in the shelf. I imagined him running that finger down my spine. It started to get really hot in there.
“Ah, here we go.” He said pulling a book off the shelf. He put on a pair of reading glasses. Wow, he looked even hotter in those glasses. I was a big time sinner all of a sudden. He laid the book on his desk and flipped through it. He found the page he was looking for and tapped on the illustration with his finger. I looked and there was a picture of a huge gate, all covered in vines and just like my key, a snake. On the tallest two posts of the gate sat apples that looked just like the apple on my key.
“This is an illustration of the Gates of Hell by a relatively unknown artist named Dominick Tellegio. I suspect that your key was designed to appear to be able to unlock this gate.” He said.
“Yeah, ok, so my key opens the Gates of Hell?” I asked, not really following but I liked to hear him talk.
“You understand that no one knows what Hell looks like, any picture you see is just a human being’s imaginings. It is likely that someone who saw this picture was inspired by it and created a key to go with it.” He said, smiling as if he had solved my problem.
“Ok, so what do I do with all the zombie people then?” I asked him. Now he didn’t look so cute, now he looked stupid and I was getting angry.
“Why do you call them that? ‘Zombie People.” He asked me.
“Because, that’s what they look like. They look like they crawled out of their coffins just to follow me around. That’s why. And whether you can see them or not, I can and they are bothering me. Just standing there looking at me like they want me to do something.” I said irritated.
“And you say this started when you got the key?” He asked
“Yes. The day I got the key.” I answered
“Then maybe they are waiting for you to open the gate.” He said and shrugged.
“The Gates of Hell?” I asked, raising my eyebrow. “So all those people out there want to go to Hell? That makes no sense.” I said. This guy was stupid
“Souls must go somewhere. Heaven, Hell or for those waiting to be judged: Purgatory. Personally, I believe that for a soul trapped in the in between is worse torture than anything, it’s like being on the cusp of death, the waiting is worse than the fate itself. Maybe your souls think you can help them, let them in through the gate?” He said.
“I don’t want to go to Hell just to let them in. Plus I don’t even know how to get there and if I did, I don’t think my GPS would help me find the gate and then get back. What if it’s just a big trick to get me there and then I am trapped? Why do I have to help them?” I asked.
“Because you have the key.” He said.
“Well, you have it now. You let them in.” I said curtly.
“I don’t think I can do that. You chose the key, or perhaps it chose you. You are the gate keeper.” He said sitting down beside me and handing me the key. “Only you know how to guide these souls to their final destination.”
“But I don’t.” I argued.
“I’m sorry.” He said and kissed me on the forehead. “You have to do something before the key takes you with it.” And then he got up and walked out. I sat there looking at the damned thing. How exactly does one open the gate to hell anyways? I mean, I was always taught that you make the choices that lead you to Hell, and only you can put yourself there. So how can I lead them to Hell? Plus is that the right thing to do? Be some modern day, supernatural Jim Jones? No thanks. I was also taught that God forgives and you don’t have to go to Hell. Any bad choice you make can be undone. Buying that key was a bad choice. I was led into temptation by the old frog man, but now, here Father Sheppard was leading me back out. Suddenly, I knew what I had to do.
I walked back out and up to the confessional. I let myself in.
“Father, it’s me again. I don’t know how this works but I made a bad choice and I think if I don’t get some forgiveness, I’ll be carrying it with me for the rest of my life. So, can you forgive me even though I am not catholic and I don’t know how to say all those bead prayers you guys do, but can you forgive me if I say that I am truly sorry from deep down in my heart and I don’t want this stupid key anymore. It looked so pretty when the man had it and then it was mine and now it’s ruining everything.”
“You are forgiven. Now, unburden yourself of this sin.” He said as if we’d never met and we did not just have a conversation in his study. Ok, weird but I was free. He said so. I walked out and left the church. There they were, all my zombies. I thought they’d be gone when Father Sheppard forgave me. I felt the key, heavy in my pocket. I pulled it out and looked at it. The zombies shuffled closer. In the front of the group, was my very first zombie, the one who was there right from the start. I walked up to him and held the key out to him.
“I can’t open the gates for you, I’m not even going there. Father Sheppard forgave me. I’m afraid it’s too late for you, so here. You take it.” I said to him. He listened to me the way a dog does; cocking his head back and forth. But then, he held out his hand and I gave him the key. He turned around and started to walk away. The rest followed him and one after another, they passed through the unlocked gate.