This is a revised short story from early in this challenge. I am planning to read it out loud at an upcoming writer’s conference. Thought I’d share the new version with you all.
The Gate Keeper
I found the key, or rather it found me in an obscure little shop called The Reliquary. Tucked in between a laundromat and a health food store, it was the kind of place you drive by everyday but never really notice. What finally caught my attention was the fluorescent “Going Out of Business” sign in the window. A bell rang as I entered. A gaunt old man behind the counter looked up from his record keeping and grinned. The smile gave me goosebumps; there was something wrong hiding behind it. I turned around to leave when I saw the key display.
I love skeleton keys; been buying them 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. They hold so much possibility. I like to try to imagine what the door they open looks like. Once I have the door in my mind, I fantasize about the world on the other side of that door. For me, it’s a form of meditation, really and a sense of power too, I suppose. All these places out there that no one can access because only I have the key.
The Reliquary had an entire wall devoted to keys. I must say I appreciated the presentation. Most shops just throw them into jars or jumbled up piles on a tray that you have to pick through. This man knew what he was doing. Examining each one by itself, I looked for unique or unusual markings; something that made it stand out from the rest.
I was deeply vested in my search when the old man whispered in my ear.
“I have others behind the counter if you don’t find the one you’re looking for.” His voice was deep and gravely. It was the voice you would hear coming out of a crocodile, if one could talk and was tall enough to whisper in your ear. I hadn’t realized he’d come up behind me. I screamed and jumped knocking three keys off their hooks.
“Oh! I, uh, I was just looking, I mean, I wasn’t looking for anything in particular.” I said handing him the keys I’d dropped to the floor. “Thanks anyways.” I tried to step around him to leave. He slid into my path.
“Nonsense. I know an admirer when I see one. You are just the type of customer I save the special keys for. Come, please, let me show you and then, if you don’t see any you like, you can be on your way.” He smiled again. I swear the corners of his lips bumped into his ear lobes. God, there were so many teeth. Trance-like, I nodded and followed him to the counter. He pulled a tray out from underneath. On it, were some of the largest and most ornate skeleton keys I had ever seen. The one that immediately caught my eye looked like a twig with a labyrinth of copper and bronze vines wrapping around it. At the top, a tiny red enamel apple with a single green leaf sat in perfect condition. I stroked my thumb over the smooth, cool metal. The man put a gloved hand on top of mine and wrapped the rest of my fingers around the key.
“A gift to a fellow collector.” He said. His skin was cold beneath the white leather.
“Oh, no! I couldn’t. What are you asking for it?” I said. The key warmed in my hand, contrasting the chill of the old man’s. Whatever number he said next, I would pay.
“Take it, I insist.” He said “I’ll just need you to sign this bill of sale.” He pushed a small document towards me. I picked up the pen and signed without reading. I just wanted to take my treasure and go. “…formality really. They always have to have a piece of you.” The man was still explaining away the paperwork.
I interrupted. “I don’t need a bag. Thanks.” I said and left. The bell sang me out.
That night, sleep did not come easy. I dreamt of the old man with his toothy smile. He was showing me the receipt I’d signed. My signature was written in blood. He started laughing and his mouth opened wide, showing rows of sharp, jagged teeth surrounding a black hole. I awoke panting. The key lay on my nightstand. I held it until I fell back asleep, this time dreaming that I was being chased. I ran through a thick grey fog that worked on my body like water slowing me. Saved by the alarm, I dragged myself out of bed and prepared for the day.
I decided to walk to work. The fresh air would help clear my head. The trip to usually takes twenty minutes on foot but that day I left an hour early so I could take my time. As I strolled, I found myself fingering the enameled fruit on my key. I imagined a door to paradise. It too would be covered in vines. There would be carvings of exotic birds and flowers; each one painted by hand. Marring my fantasy, however, was the sensation that I was being followed. I nonchalantly glanced behind me.
I saw a man in an ill-fitting suit about four feet back. He walked with his shoulders slumped and arms dangling limply at his sides. I thought he must be drunk even though it was only 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? Plus it explained his lack of respect for my personal space. I quickened my steps 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, so alive.
“Hello, and thank you for calling Fourth Circle Enterprises, how can I help you today?” I answered. As the supervisor, calls only came to me when the customer was unhappy. I fiddled with my key as Carol Winston from Wilmington prattled on about a lost order.
“Listen, if you put the wrong zip code on your address, you can hardly fault us for the extended time in shipping, you stupid bitch.” It was out of my mouth before I knew I was going to say it. I disconnected and threw my headset down. I was tired and irritable, not myself at all. I clocked out early.
Stepping out of the employee exit, I almost ran right into the drunk guy from earlier. Only now, he didn’t look drunk, he looked sickly. His eyes were sunken; his jowls hung thin and loose. He didn’t try to grab at me, he just stood there. I made an exaggerated maneuver to walk around him. In my peripheral vision, I could see him fall into step behind me. I stopped and turned around.
“Can I help you?” I asked. Although I was afraid to hear an answer, it would be even more terrifying if he said nothing. He said nothing. My heart was pounding, I wanted to run. “Fuck off you sick bastard.” I said trying to sound tough.
The moment the words left my mouth, another man came limping up behind the first one. He was younger and so much more frightening. His head was caved in on one side. Blood and grey matter had dried in crusty chunks on the side of his face. His left foot turned in at a strange angle forcing him to walk on his ankle. I decided a jog home through a very public park would be good for the old metabolism. So I ran and my two stalkers straggled along behind me, keeping pace somehow. My mind was flashing with images of grisly violence; my emotions ran the gamut from fear to anger to rage. A duck waddled into my path. I kicked it. The soft thud as I made contact, coupled with the pained squawk made me gag.
By the time I got home, I was so upset, I tried to put the skeleton key in the lock. They were still advancing; I could feel the claustrophobia of two bodies closing in on mine. I swore and fumbled with my house key until I was able to open the door, squeeze inside and bolt it. I peeked out the window. They had retreated back to their typical distance which was good, but now there were three, which was not so good. The third was a woman. She had on a frumpy blue top and pencil skirt. I estimated her to be the oldest. Her hair was done up in what I like to call the church lady helmet. Her face was rotten, sinews of flesh stretched taught from cheek bone to jaw. She was wearing a deep red shade of lipstick. It was all too hideous. I dug in my pocket for my key and immediately felt better, calm even. As long as I had it in my hand, I was not afraid.
The following morning, the number had doubled. Six now stood in attendance. As I took in their languid forms, I was reminded of the first horror movie my mother had ever let me watch: Night of the Living Dead. These people looked like zombies! But based on my limited cinematic knowledge, zombies don’t just politely follow their victims around and then wait patiently for them to come back outside. Something very strange was happening here and it started after I got that key. I decided maybe it was time to pay a follow up visit to The Reliquary.
The shop was gone. I sat in my car staring dumbly at the empty building. There wasn’t even a hint of recent activity. I called work to say I would be late and drove on into the next town. They had a small consignment shop where I’d purchased several keys before. The owner of that store was a little old lady who seemed very knowledgeable about her inventory. This place was called Some Things Old and thankfully, it was open. I took my key in, trying to ignore the morbid crowd gathering behind me.
“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.
“Hi, I, um,” I looked over my shoulder to make sure no one was coming in behind me. “Well I bought this key the other day.” I pulled it out of my pocket but before I could say anything more 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. Suddenly, I had an urge to grab her by her wrinkly old throat and squeeze the answer out of her. I shook the thought out of my head and stepped back away snatching my key from under her ogling eyes. I sneered at her.
She didn’t seem to notice my irritation. “Well, the first thing that comes to my mind when I see that is the Garden of Eden: the apple, the leaves, the snake. Some kind of religious reference. You’d be better off asking Father Sheppard over at St. Michaels. He might know more about it.” She started out around the counter as if she had more pressing matters to attend. “I can’t help you any more than that. Go see Father Sheppard.” She walked over to open the door for me. The hoard of the half-dead awaiting me just outside obscured the beam of morning light that had illuminated the shop just minutes before.
The crowd allowed me to push through them without incident. They fell into step behind my car and by the time I got to the cathedral, there were more than I could count.
Father Sheppard, I was told by the lady sitting at the candles, was in the confessional.
“Forgive me Father, for I know not what to do. I’m not catholic.” I began.
“Then why are you here, my child?” the nice fatherly voice asked me not unkindly.
I took a deep breath, I didn’t know where to start. “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, 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 noticed the snake before. 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. And I think the stress is getting to me too because I yelled at a customer and I kicked a duck and I wanted to strangle the lady from the shop who told me to find you.”
“This is not a matter for the confessional. I will meet you outside.” Father Sheppard said.
“May I see your key?” He asked me. I was taken aback by him. He looked like a young Richard Gere and he smelled nice, not fatherly at all. I am not sure you can say this about a priest but he was actually pretty hot. So, I handed him the key. He studied it for a moment and then looked back at me.
“Where are the zombies?” He asked. I took his hand. It was warm and soft. I wanted to feel it caressing my naked body. I shook my head, clearing an image that would surely doom me to hell. Instead, I pulled him to the front door where I’d come in. He opened it. There they were, the whole lot of them. He looked around.
“Where?” He asked again. I stared at him, completely astonished. How could he not see the mass of living cadavers?
“Look! They’re 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. He was pushing his luck if he wanted to remain abstinent. We walked behind the alter to a room that I assumed was his office. Book shelves ran the length of the wall behind his desk. I noticed many of them had to do with the occult. I didn’t think Priests were into that sort of thing. Maybe that’s why the lady at the shop sent me to him. He ran his finger along the books. I imagined him running that finger down my spine. It was getting very hot in that tight space.
“Ah, here we go.” He grabbed a book and flipped through it. Finding the page he was looking for, he tapped on the illustration with his finger. I leaned against him to look at a picture of a huge gate, all covered in vines. A large snake weaved through bars around the lock. On the tallest two posts of the gate sat apples that looked just like the one on my key.
“This is an illustration called The Gates of Hell by a relatively unknown artist named Dominick Tellegio. I suspect that your key was designed with this gate in mind.” He said.
“So, my key opens the Gates of Hell?” I asked bending over as if to get a better look at the picture, resting my breasts on his arm.
“You understand that no one knows what Hell looks like, any picture you see is just a human’s interpretation. It is likely that someone who saw this picture was inspired by it and created a key to go with it.” He smiled and pivoted so that his arm slipped naturally away from my chest.
“Ok, so what do I do with all the zombie people then?” I asked him.
“Why do you call them that? Zombie People?”
Because, that’s what they look like. They look like they crawled out of their coffins just to follow me around. And whether you can see them or not, I can and they freak me out. It’s like they’re waiting for me to do something.” I said irritated.
“And you say this started when you got the key?”
“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. “The one you just said was just a human’s imagination? With a key somebody designed to go with it?” This guy needed to get his shit straight.
“I’m only trying to work this out with you. You can see people no one else can see, you say this started with a key. You think they want something from you. Many would write you off as crazy, you understand.”
“I’m not crazy. Something is happening to me. I’m angry all the time, I yell and curse like a sailor. I can’t sleep. Thoughts pop in my head that have no business there. The only thing that makes me feel better is that key, but everything bad started with the key.”
“There is a quote by Sherlock Holmes” He said “I try to live by it: ‘When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth’. You say you aren’t crazy so that is the impossible in this equation, therefore, it comes down to faith no matter how improbable.”
“So all those people out there want to go to Hell? That makes no sense.” I said.
“Souls must go somewhere. Heaven, Hell or for those waiting to be judged: Purgatory. Personally, I believe in ghosts. I believe that a soul can get lost on its way to a final destination. I imagine that would be torture; like being on the cusp of death, the waiting is worse than the fate itself. Maybe your souls think you can lead them to the gate?” He said.
“Well, I don’t feel like going to Hell today, just to let them in. What did I do to deserve this? Why do I have to help them?” I asked.
“Because you have the key.” He said. But I didn’t. It was still laying on his desk.
“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 handing the key back to me. “Only you can guide the souls to their journey’s end.”
“But I can’t. I don’t know how.” I argued.
“I’m sorry.” He said. “I think you have to do something before the key takes you with it. It’s already having an effect on you. If you don’t do this willingly, it’s going to drag you there kicking and screaming.”
I’d had enough. This was ridiculous. “Fuck this. I don’t believe any of it, and fuck you and this church. Worthless bunch of nonsense.” I was furious. There was a door on the other side of his office that led to the cemetery. I shoved him out of the way and walked out.
Behind the church, it was night. The only light was a fiery orange glow emanating from a pit on the other side of a familiar wrought iron gate. The path on which I stood led straight to it. Echoes of pain and sorrow boiled up out of the hole. Inhuman roars and guttural growls pierced through the monotony of misery. I backed up intending to return and beg sanctuary, but when I turned around, the church was gone, swallowed by a thick grey fog.
Even in the darkness, the crowd of lost souls had managed to find me. They milled about nervously, as if they too could hear the cries of those who’d gone before them. The key grew hot in my hand. I gave in and let it guide me to the lock where it clicked into place. With a vacuous roar, the doors swung inward revealing monstrous tentacles, dripping with an acidic mucus that sizzled when it hit the ground. They seemed to be coming from the center of a swirling vortex that appeared when the gate opened. As they reached out for the damned, I saw a mouth appear, with thousands of teeth like daggers dripping blood.
I let go of the bars to cover my ears. The crunching of bones and the screams of pain and torment were too much. Like a child, I crouched to the ground and closed my eyes. The only sensation I couldn’t block was the rumbling vibrations that came from the behemoth tearing through space to devour the dead.
A rubbery feeler wrapped itself around my arm, burning into my flesh. I gasped and opened my eyes. There were hundreds of fleshy tendrils whipping amongst the masses. Some had thick yellowed claws that punctured flesh, spilling necrotic bowels, others were covered in syringe-like thorns that bit into skin, popping eyes like grapes. From the gaping mouth of the beast came a single black orb that surveyed the carnage before receding back inside. When it was gone I pried the thing off, it wriggled around as I scrambled away.
Even after all the lost souls had been devoured, the creature continued to seek out bodies. I belly crawled along the doors and closed one at a time, trapping the beast behind the bars. The key was white hot and it scalded by hand when I grabbed it. When I jerked my hand away, the key dropped.
“Damn it!” I yelled. The beast’s mouth opened again and the eyeball tongue came rolling out my direction. I turned and ran. Just beyond the blanket of night, the church appeared but I didn’t want to go inside or see Father Sheppard again. Instead, I sprinted around the side and back into the light.
That was two weeks ago. I don’t have the key anymore but I have a scar that matches it perfectly. Now, I just run my fingers along its smooth, shiny curves when I’m nervous. I’m doing it now, in fact, as I sit here thinking the same obsessive thought I’ve had every day since the incident at the church: did I leave the gate unlocked?