"Skeleton Key"

Flash fiction (976 words) in time for Halloween

“Skeleton Key”

William Auten

Copyright ©William Auten – All Rights Reserved

Electrical problems on floors three through five flood my phone when I clock in after sunset. Unit 417 wonders if rats are building nests in our walls after the city demoed the hotels across the street. Poison, not traps, he suggests before closing his door, because the snapping will wake his girlfriend’s newborn.

Mrs. Hix leaves a voicemail while I remove a panel to inspect wires. “I know you’re down there. Please come up. I need help in here.”

I’ve never been inside her place. All the work I’ve done for her has been exterior: paint, burned-out ceiling lights, mud and leaves tracked in her hall, especially during winter rains. I’ve never seen her enter or exit the complex. Any of her interior maintenance started and ended with my predecessor who handed the skeleton key to me on my first day. “All she’s got left are the ravens on her windows.”

Last summer I knocked to let her know I’d repair the HVAC before temps turned up. The previous heatwave hospitalized several residents. Not all of them returned. I trashed the stuff their families never came for. Of those who came back, most of them struggle walking to Social Security. “If it gets too hot, I’ll use my broomstick to get out,” Mrs. Hix told me, smiling through her cracked door. Her voice warbled then but not as much as in her second voicemail in less than ten minutes. “Hurry. Please.” She wheezes like my wife’s tío Jimmy.

I double-check the panel screws and load my tool cart. The elevator moans, screeches, stalls out. I pump the up button several times and pry open the doors. Silence relieves me after I ask if anyone is on there.

While my phone dings, I kill the elevator’s power and tape OUT OF ORDER, and fire sprinklers domino down the hall. Units creak open. Folks bulge their eyes. Some shuffle for the exits. A woman in an end unit thumbs at the stairwell. Three teen girls hide their lighter when I find them. I apologize to the residents for the false alarm, the scare, inconvenience. They tell me to tell the property manager to kiss their butts. I call off the fire department, and the sunset covers us with oranges and yellows spun from the ocean. The teen girls give me the finger after I yell at them. In another message, Mrs. Hix chants.

I lock my cart, cinch my toolbelt, climb the stairs. The door to the sixth floor jams. My boots scuff the wall as I brace myself. The rusty knob loosens, but my next yank snaps it off, and I tumble down the flights. My voicemail buzzes as I stare from my back into the skylight and the last hour of day scattered across bricks and beams. My head aches. My tongue and throat swell, ears ring, legs freeze. Blood warms my wrist and shin and seeps into my pants. The screwdrivers and claw hammer missed my ribs. My fall, not the night, twinkles across my eyes. The silhouettes of palm trees flap but unlike wings don’t go anywhere.

“Anything else I can help you with?” I asked Mrs. Hix another time through her door.

“The annual spikes in rent. They smother us like clockwork.”

“I know. I’m sorry, but that’s out of my hands.”

“Then I’ll give you more. I need a lock of your hair.”

“Ma’am?”

“I can summon you through other dimensions.”

“My wife won’t be too thrilled if you mess that up.”

“I have a grimoire to protect you. Besides, the dead give more than the living ever can.”

The door muffled her chuckle and her shuffling away.

The handrails that I tightened last fall help me off the ground and all the way to the roof where air drifting in from the coast chills me and graffiti spots the complex’s top. Arrows connect hearts. Hands embrace hands. Names and dates scribbled in, struck out. RECYCLE RENEW REUSE. NOT THE FINISH BUT THE CHASE. A sequence spray-paints storms into rainbows.

Past the wood-rot, concrete chunks, spiderwebs, roaches, and crows on powerlines, the far-off observatory sits in the hills like an eyeball. Monique and I stopped on a whim, driving back from our son’s birthday at my parents’ house. We lifted Ben to the telescope until he saw the lights that would reach us but only after they’re long gone.

I climb down the other roof-access ladder and turn the corner for Mrs. Hix’s floor.

“Mrs. Hix?”

No answer from inside when I knock.

“Mrs. Hix!”

Nothing.

I fumble for my skeleton key.

Neighbors step out, whisper, huddle. Spices from their kitchens spill into the hall where noises rise and fall. My head spins. My phone squawks. The sun sets lower into the horizon turning dark blue with the rising moon.

The door unlocks. Black birds scatter from the windows. A breeze chimes small silver stars dangling between curtains. Candles flicker over Mrs. Hix’s outstretched body. Shadows unfold behind me, and those shadows shadow more shadows.

I call 9-1-1 and step across the threshold.

An overturned stool. Rings of water from fallen plants. Trinkets, playing cards with illustrations, photos of maybe her husband, kids, grandkids. Greeting cards and letters stacked alongside a recliner and near the collapsed bookshelf that I would’ve moved for her. A page lies open to two women split down the middle by black-and-white spirals. The young woman lifts wheat from morning to noon and passes it to the old woman who scatters it after it breaks into seeds.

The ambulance wails down the street. At home, Monique reads while Ben sleeps under his drawings of constellations. Here, more doors open and close. More rooms empty. Lips mummer with prayers. Footfalls above and below surround us. The echoes of it all caught between silence coming and going and a baby crying.