A Short Story: Key to the Heart

An Author’s Note: This short story was written for the first time in 2015, then heavily revised in 2018. Since then I’ve struggled to find a home for it in the world of fiction magazines and journals. Its shocking nature, reliance on fast paced action, and lack of real metaphorical weight has made it a difficult sell to the magazine world, which tends to focus on more contemplative fiction. However, it has found a wonderful home with the Author Shoppe, a unique bookshop in Hattiesburg, MS. I have referred to Hattiesburg as my home for most of my life, even though I’ve never lived there but have always instead lived nearby. It is a great honor to have this story chosen as a winner in the Author Shoppe’s 2022 Scary Story competition. I can’t think of a better place for it to be recognized than in the town that birthed this story. So, since the Author Shoppe does not have an avenue for publishing short fiction, I’ve decided to take it upon myself to self-publish this piece so that it can be shared with their patrons. It might not be literary or speculative or contemplative, but as the Author Shoppe has noted it is oh, so scary. Enjoy my piece Key to the Heart.

Nancy fumbled with her keys as she tried to open the door to her townhouse, the scrubs she wore wrinkled and stained with the signs and smells of the sixteen-hour shift that had consumed her day. The soft glow of a lamp peered at her through the window on the door, casting long shadows behind her that flickered through the filter of her movements. After what felt like a lifetime, her searching hand found the keys, lost in the vastness of her bag, and clasped around them with enthusiastic frustration. With a quick turn, the lock clicked and she swung open the door. As she stepped in she flipped the light switch on and turned to walk towards her bedroom at the back of the house, but as she turned her heart dropped.

“Fuck,” she whispered, and her eyes raced through the room, bouncing off the scene like pinballs. Papers were strewn across the floor, every drawer in view ripped open and all the furniture upturned. Nancy collapsed onto the door and slid to the floor, her mind reeling as it worked to reject the scene laid out in front of her. Her pained, tired eyes looked out into the house with dismay, but after a moment, her mind caught up with her body, and she leapt to her feet. 

The key, she thought, conscious of the sound of her voice in her own mind. God fuck I hope they didn’t find the key. They can’t have found the key, they can’t they can’t they can’t. She sprinted to her bedroom so fast that as she rounded the corner in the hallway her right foot slipped just enough for her to come crashing to the ground. She landed hard on her right hip, and her heavy frame drove her into the tile floor with such violence that she screamed out from the shock alone. Her heart pumped with such visceral intensity that the pain did not make its way to her brain, and she came back to her feet at the same speed with which she had fallen. 

In the bedroom she reached to open the top drawer of her dresser, but her hand found air as it grasped at nothing. The drawer laid empty on the floor at her feet. No, she thought, and her mind slammed to a halt. No. No no. No nononononononono. Not the key. God not the key. How, what. Where is the KEY? She screamed at herself now, the throbbing pain of her hip having made its way to her nerves. She shambled back into the hallway and to the room across from her bedroom. She put her hand on the doorknob, and her head began to pound with the all too familiar pain of anxiety. She opened the door. Shit, she thought, a yellow splash of light hitting her feet, the sound proofing material on the inside of the door marked with the imprint of a bare foot. How the fuck did he get out. How did he GET. OUT? What am I supposed to do? Oh Jesus fuck I am done this is it this is the end I am done. This is it. 

Nancy ran down the steps and left the door open behind her. By the time she reached the end, her breath came in shivering gulps. The pain in her hip throbbed at every step. When she saw the state of her basement, she shrieked, unsure of where the breath to do so had come from. The chains she had used to hold him lay on the ground still mounted in their home on the floor. The cuffs were missing, and a hacksaw lay half-propped against the wall. The table that held her tools was upturned,  her whips and ropes were ripped from the walls, and the supplies she kept on shelves along the far wall pillaged and strewn on the ground. For a moment, she thought he had somehow managed to reach the tools, but then a memory came rushing back to her. 

God dammit, she thought. God damn me. She remembered teasing him with the saw, slapping him again and again, and just before she started to cut, she heard her alarm echo down the stairs. As she stopped her play time and started up the stairs, she sat the saw on the table just a little too close to the edge. It fell, she thought. She was in a haze, staring at the mess covering her playroom. She remembered topping the stairs and hearing the sharp ping of clanging metal, thinking he was pulling at his chains. The saw fell.

“IT FUCKING FELL!” she screamed. Her mind flew into a rage, and she kicked at the tools on the ground and screamed into the abyss that her playroom had become, her hip screaming back at her in its still ringing pain. She almost couldn’t see through her anger, and she slammed her right fist into the block wall of her basement. The bones crunched, her knuckles busted open, and she let out a shriek that was half fury, half agony. As she clutched her hand, she surveyed the destroyed room. The hot sting of tears rolled down her face as she grinned at the mess that surrounded her. I’m done, she thought as her mind calmed and her hand was starting to throb harder and harder, a wildness settling in her hazel eyes. I’m done. They’ll catch me now. She sighed, looked at her broken hand, and noticed the way her knuckle bone was visible through the blood. “Short lived hobby,” she said aloud. In a state somewhere between melancholy and despair, she climbed back up the steps, her hip fading as the pain of her hand crescendoed to a bellowing volume. She took almost twice as long to go up them as she did to fly down them just moments before, and as she did her mind worked through the few options she had left. As she walked back to her front door, she saw it. On the ground, half covered by strewn papers and broken belongings, was the key and beside it was the lock box that had once held more than a dozen photographs.

She picked them up and dropped them into the trash can near her front door before she glanced out the window. She listened to the sounds of police sirens begin to crescendo across the city as they headed towards her home. Her mind numb from the failure and implosion of her world, Nancy walked to her kitchen, grabbed a large butcher’s cleaver, and placed it in a glass casserole dish. She looked at it for a minute, to be sure she had considered all her options, and covered it with a lid. As she started out the door with the dish in her left hand, a throb of pain from her right side reminded her of her bleeding fist, the trail of blood around her invisible to her whirling mind and foggy eyes. 

“That won’t do,” she said in a trance-like tone and turned back to the kitchen. She wrapped the hand in paper towels and put an oven mitt on. Her hand panged with pain, and she winced as she pulled the mitt over the broken bones. Out of sight, out of mind she thought, half laughing. She walked out of the door, careful to lock it behind her. 

Outside of the house the strobing red and blue lights started to light up the night sky only a few miles away. She let out an exasperated sigh and straightened her hair with her mitt-covered hand while she ignored the streaks of pain that ran down her arm. She walked down the sidewalk to her neighbor’s house, a small, ranch-style home almost a ticky tacky match to her own. She walked to the front door and adjusted herself to give off her best kind neighbor appearance and knocked. A tall, well-built man opened it and gave an honest grin. 

“Hey Nance,” he said as he leaned his head out of the door. “something going on nearby huh?.” The sound of police sirens was almost breathing down their necks. His eyes scanned over her, and he noticed how tired her eyes seemed, heavy and framed in dark circles. “Long day?”

“Real long,” she answered. “I made this casserole, and I don’t think I could ever get it all eaten by myself.” She held up the dish and gave a faint grin, the multi-angled shadows from the door and the streetlights behind her obscuring the fact that the dish was empty, save a solemn knife. “Hungry?” Her hand throbbed in the oven mitt, but she was careful never to break the smile. 

“You know me Nance,” he said, “always hungry. Come on in.” The man turned and walked back into the house, and Nancy followed behind him. She shut the door just as the police rounded the corner, and the light filled the windows of the house.