Fiction Issue - The Greatest Key Collector in Atlanta

Third Place

The contents of my aunt Nancy's jewelry box: a pearl necklace 11 inches long; a broach in the shape of a spider covered in diamonds, or maybe cubic zirconium; a picture of my cousin Andrew in a frame made of Popsicle sticks; reading glasses with "ARMANI" printed on the side, which is an Italian word I couldn't find in my Italian-English dictionary; pearl earrings that match the necklace; a diamond ring; a silver ring with an amethyst.

The hiding spot for the bronze key to her jewelry box: in a little mirrored box in the second drawer down in her bathroom.

The contents of my cousin Amanda's diary: a poem she wrote about a boy named Matthew Kammerer; a detailed account of the time she fought with her best friend Anna over a boy named Matthew P.; the date and time of her first sip of her mother's margarita when her mother wasn't looking.

The hiding spot for the tiny key to her diary: on a ribbon which she sometimes wears around her neck and sometimes leaves out in the open of her sock drawer.

The contents of the family safe, which my mother keeps in the closet behind a veil of an awful long black dress, which she sometimes wears to business parties: a copy of the divorce papers, which I can tell is a color copy because my mom signed in red ink; some bank statements; the passwords to all of my mom's e-mail and bank accounts, because she has a horrible memory and always forgets.

The hiding spot for the key to the family safe: in the plate that goes under a potted plant, which keeps the water from spilling out of the hole in the bottom and warping the hardwood floors – floors my mom put in her bedroom after my dad moved out.

I collect keys. I guess I also collect secrets, because the whole point of a key is to open a lock and the whole point of a lock is to keep someone, like me, from discovering the secret. My grandma, who is the only person I trust enough to tell about my investigations, calls me a snoop but she does so with one of those half-hugs she does to let me know I am not really in trouble. My grandma lives in a very old house, and it is the same house she grew up in. She moved out when she married my grandpa, who was a very handsome soldier in the United States Army. When he died 12 years ago, she bought the house on a whim and now she lives there all the time, which is nice because it is closer. She made me a copy of that key, and I keep it on a special keychain with my house key and a spare key to my mom's car and the key to my bike lock.

I don't think it is very fair that cars get a key but bicycles don't. So far I have collected 43 keys. Some of them I can't put on my keychain because if I did then whoever owns the key, like my aunt Nancy, would know it was missing and couldn't get her spider broach, which is really hideous but she wears it to every special occasion like the time we went to the ballet as a family. So even though I only have 33 keys on my keychain I really have much more than that.

I am telling you this because maybe you might know a clue. Two and a half weeks ago, my grandma showed me a classified in the newspaper: "I have a white box with no key. Key possibly stolen. Need key. Call Aurelia 404-583-4856."

My grandmother told me that a classified runs in a paper for 55 cents a word. Aurelia spent $8.80 a day to run that ad. I made my mom get the newspaper every day on her way home from work, and every day for a week Aurelia's message was in the second column. It was kind of like finding a message in a bottle. Being a key expert myself, I felt it was my civic duty as a citizen of the United States to call Aurelia myself. When I talked to her on the phone she didn't seem to mind that I was only 11 years old or maybe she couldn't tell because I have the least squeaky voice in the third grade, and I am meeting her today after school.

The bus usually drops me off at my apartment every day between 3 and 3:30, but today I got home late, which meant I would have to meet Aurelia later. I unlocked my bike and carefully put my keys in a pocket on the front of my backpack, which I always take with me when I go on a bike ride in case I find a key, or something to take home like the time I found that bird with the broken wing.

Since Aurelia has to work at her office until 4:30, I rode my bike to her office, which is about a mile from where I live. She works in one of the tallest buildings in the city but her office is on the third floor, so after I locked my bike to a fountain I took the stairs. She told me that her office was the third door on the right but when I got there I got really nervous.

Aurelia was very beautiful, even more beautiful than I thought when I heard her voice over the phone, which I thought was impossible. When I told her that, she turned kind of red, which is something redheads do when they get nervous but Aurelia Bernadino didn't have red hair. Her hair was brown, and wavy like on TV.

"When I talked to you on the phone I didn't expect someone so young." Even though that is what Aurelia said, I am an expert at reading between the lines as well as collecting keys and I knew that what she wanted to say was, "I didn't know someone so young would be such an accomplished key expert."

It took longer than I expected to convince her that I was an expert key collector and a worthy investigator. I think she only told me what she did to test my cognitive abilities, which I know about because I watch Discovery Health and I saw them test the cognitive functioning of the chimpanzees. I know that my cognitive functioning is higher than it should be because I overheard my teacher tell my mom at the parent teacher conference. I say overhear but really I eavesdropped and held up a plastic cup to the door.

By the time I had convinced Aurelia of my cognitive function it was time for her to go home. She was worried about me riding my bike home so she offered to drive me home, but I told her I would only let her take me home in her light blue Prius if we could stop by her house ("Actually, it's an apartment.") and look at her white box. I think she only agreed because she worries about Atlanta traffic like my mom and everyone else in the city.

Her apartment was really close, and I told her that even though her Prius gets really good gas mileage that she should ride her bike since it is so close. I told her this when we were in the elevator, but I shut up once we got to her apartment because it was beautiful, and all white. She kept the white box in her bedroom and went to go get it. I wanted to follow in case there were any clues but I didn't want to be a snoop.

The box was smooth and wooden, and had little daffodils painted on the sides, like the ones in Alice in Wonderland, which I have read three times. I turned it over in my hands to make sure I didn't miss a fingerprint or anything.

"What do you think is inside?"

"I don't know. It isn't mine. It was my mother's, and I inherited it from her when she died. The lawyers said they didn't find a key. I have been wondering about what is inside forever when I just decided one day to ... investigate, you could say."

Obviously she is not an expert key collector. "Did you search the premises yourself? Did you look in the picture frames? Were there any key-sized holes in the carpeting?"

She looked at me funny while I was asking these questions. "No," she said slowly, "I didn't think about the obvious places." Only later did I realize she was being sarcastic.

I inspected the white box carefully. I saved the lock for last as I inspected every side, looking for deformities and chips in the paint, which was more precisely an eggshell color I recognized from the color my mom had painted her bathroom. The lock itself wasn't like other locks I had seen, but I recognized it as a miniature mortise lock. Unlike the lock on lockers in movies and on modern doors it had a stator, which interacts with the grooves in the key to make the rotor turn. A mortise lock is most commonly used on the exterior locks because it means serious business. When I told Aurelia all of this she seemed surprised but really she should be used to my cognitive functioning by now.

"The key will be made of bronze and look kind of like the old skeleton keys I collect," I told her. I reached into my bag and brought out my key-ring, which if I say so myself is very impressive as it has almost all of my keys on it. Aurelia shook her head while I tried all of my bronze skeleton keys, of which I have 13, but she did seem a bit disappointed that none of them worked. I was, at least.

As I was checking the last lock we heard the front door slam and by the time I withdrew the key Aurelia's husband was in the doorway of the kitchen, a newspaper rolled up in his hand like my dad used to pop the dog when he peed inside the house. I could tell he was all worked up for a good rant (just like my dad) but he stopped when he saw me.

"Who the hell is this kid? Why is he here?" He was all red in the face, not like the way redheads get. He was what my mom would call brutish, and I didn't understand why Aurelia would marry a man who wasn't as beautiful as she was.

"His name is Peter and he is helping me find the key." She said this very matter-of-factly, but she was getting a little red, too.

"Not that shit again. How much did you spend for that shit in the newspaper? Did you think I wouldn't ever find out? We can't even afford paper plates and you spend how much?"

I had calculated it in my head on the way to Aurelia's office: $8.80 for seven days equals 8.80 x 7 equals $61.60 but I decided not to tell Mr. Bernadino, because of my cognitive functioning.

Aurelia decided not to say anything, either, which I thought was weird because he was her husband.

"Is my hammer still in the dresser? Why don't you let me go at it? I can do anything this little shit can do."

Aurelia let out a weird strangled sound but she composed herself and said very bravely, "No, Cyrus. That was my mother's. This is none of your business. Don't you dare touch that box." I remembered that Aurelia told me that her mom had died two years ago of a very painful kind of cancer. I wondered how long Aurelia and Mr. Bernadino had been married. I tried to get my brain to concentrate on what was happening, because I also collect experiences.

Cyrus Bernadino wasn't listening to his wife, or maybe he was, but he dashed out of the room as gracefully as a walrus. I guess he found what he was looking for because he walrus-dashed back again with a hammer in his hands. I was trying to figure out why he had a hammer in his bedroom, and Aurelia went from mad to scared and she looked like she was crying without any tears and I didn't know if it was because she was scared of the hammer or scared for the box.

I watched this happen from where I was standing by the window. I watched him storm in, and I watched Aurelia who looked like she was crying but she really wasn't, and I watched as Mr. Bernadino smashed his hammer into the old mortise lock. I remember thinking as I watched this display of brutality that the lock was surprisingly well-kept for its age. With the second blow, which was aimed toward the wooden and vulnerable daffodil-clad walls, I was thinking of all the things that an ancient woman's treasure chest would have held. I tuned out the third and fourth swings, especially when I could sense the splintering wood. I drowned out the sniffles of Aurelia and let my imagination go crazy which is something I try not to do because it interferes with my cognitive functioning. But then I pictured my imagination battling my cognitive functioning all warrior-esque, like in The Lord of the Rings, and decided that my imagination had gone too far. By this time Mr. Bernadino had smashed the box into pieces.

Everything got really quiet as Aurelia and Mr. Bernadino peered into the wreckage to see what was left after Mr. Bernadino's hammer's catastrophe. There was a lot of wood, which looked like if you touched it too hastily that you could get a splinter. But underneath all of the splintery wood all we could see was Aurelia's white and tan comforter. Mr. Bernadino left the room and I moved forward so I could investigate further, and also to keep Aurelia from getting a splinter. She was carefully piling the wooden sides. We both saw it at the same time: a key, which looked like the skeleton keys I have in my collection. She grabbed it and found the mortise lock, which was a little bent after Mr. Bernadino's wrath, and tried the key. I knew it wouldn't fit, because this key looked like stainless steel but I let her try it anyway, because I know that hope is a thing with feathers like in Emily Dickinson's poem.

Before she took me home, she picked up Mr. Bernadino's hammer and hid it in the same spot where the white box was hidden, behind a long black dress like my mom's. I was curious as to why but I decided not to ask because I felt like I was already being snoopy enough. We walked through the house and past Mr. Bernadino, which was kind of scary because the colors of the TV flashing on his face made him look kind of like a demon in movies. By the time we got in Aurelia's car she seemed to have come back to her senses and she was just as talkative as she was before the white box catastrophe. She asked me how I knew so much about locks and I told her about my grandfather, who was a locksmith in New York City for many years after he moved here from Germany. She was listening to pop music turned down low, which I hate, but I didn't tell her that because I sensed she was still thinking about the white box.

When we got to my house she helped me unload my bike from the surprisingly roomy trunk and I took it in the special bike entrance to the parking garage. Once the door shut behind me I watched Aurelia drive away and let my imagination wonder what that key would open. I put that experience in my collection and when my mother got home at 7 and asked me about my day I decided to keep this one to myself. I told her about how Toothpick, who is a kid in my class who is really skinny and has an abnormally long neck, got to go home early because he threw up outside the girls bathroom.

Two weeks later I got a letter from my grandmother, who is my pen-pal because my pen-pal in Alaska never writes back. Actually it is not really a letter but an envelope with a cut-out article inside. It is small, and says, "I have a key with no lock. Need lock. Call Aurelia 404-583-4856. Not you, Peter." I was flattered that she spent that extra $1.65 a day and when I laminated the clipping later at my mother's office I wondered about the hammer, and hoped Aurelia Bernadino would be happy with Mr. Bernadino. I suspected that she wouldn't be, and that made me sad. I pondered what boxes my keys would open, boxes belonging to strangers perhaps, and then I pondered some more about how keys just ask more questions than give answers.

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