“The Golden Key” – Fiction by Carlea Holl-Jensen

illustration by Aubrey Beardsley, circa 1895

For a hint of all the fantastic treasures you can find in our Spring 2018 issue (coming March 20), here’s Carlea Holl-Jensen‘s mysterious & alluring flash fiction “The Golden Key.”

{ X }

IT’S LATE WINTER WHEN HE FINDS THE BOX, winter right on the cusp of spring, that restless stretch when the woods are no longer dark by midday but the frost hasn’t given up its grip on the air.

Of course, it isn’t the box he sees first. That’s still buried under a foot or more of snow.

What he sees, instead, is a crop of new crocuses growing in amongst the trees. He isn’t looking for flowers, doesn’t much care for them. He isn’t sentimental; in fact, he’s about as unsentimental as they come. He once fought in a war and refuses to remember the last time he cried, but it was certainly not while remembering the death of an animal in a movie he watched often as a child. In short, he’s not the type to notice flowers, and he wouldn’t have noticed these flowers at all if the snow weren’t so deep. He’s surprised to see them, these flowers—after all, even late winter isn’t quite spring. The buds haven’t opened yet, and they look to him like the bulbous nipples of tiny baby bottles.

He crouches down to look at the flowers more closely and wonders how they aren’t frozen. He’s pretty cold himself, even though he has on an expensive jacket designed for extreme weather conditions. The flowers don’t seem to feel the cold at all.

Something must be warming them from below, he reasons. He’s extremely logical, this man. He appreciates marching orders and ranks and maps with little pins stuck in them. He keeps schedules, wears a watch set by a satellite, leaves no room for uncertainty or doubt. Faced with this improbable inflorescence, he thinks of hot springs and geothermal vents.

He brushes aside the snow that surrounds these little yellow nubs, and then brushes away some more. Not too deeply buried is a key, the kind that opens coin op lockers in bus stations and public swimming pools.

The flowers have grown up to mark the spot, he thinks, and his having had this thought surprises him even more than the flowers growing there. He feels queasy at the mere idea. He’s not, as I’ve said, a man over given to fancy.

More likely, he tells himself, this key fell from someone’s pocket as they walked along the trail. He feels better once he’s explained this to himself in plain terms.

But the man’s mind, now that it’s started rationalizing, has no intention of stopping. If there is a key, the man finds himself thinking, quite against his will, there must also be a lock.

So he digs around a little more in the snow, looking for the lock that matches his key. The key’s plastic cap is a garish canary yellow, with a black cord threaded through it to form a wrist strap. He feels sure, just for a second, that the color of the key is the seed of the crocuses, that they sprang forth from its ugly yellowness.

He feels suddenly, unaccountably sorry for the key, which has been separated from familiar things—the lock it opens and the wrist it wraps around—perhaps for a very long time. The little key, he thinks, must miss the dip of that wrist with its fine dark hair. It must miss the lock’s pins settling down snug against it. He wants badly to return it to where it belongs.

If he had to keep looking for much longer, he would soon have begun to feel foolish, but as chance would have it, at this very moment, his searching fingers come across the flat top of a box.

This is no ornamental box, no mysterious chest. It’s the kind of flame retardant case used to guard important papers in home offices. This makes the man feel somehow more at ease, despite the strangeness of stumbling across such a thing in the middle of the winter woods. Even though the circumstances are an affront to his stolid sense of reason, the box itself is familiar to him, and this familiarity reassures him. He has seen just this sort of safe box in office supply stores many times.

He’s fairly certain that, despite its plainness, this box holds something of great import. He feels sure that it isn’t just papers or cash or legal documents inside, though he can’t conceive of what else the box might contain.

It will be, he thinks, his breath swelling in his chest, but he can go no further. In all his store of experiences—the magnesium smell of field rations heating up, the worn-soft sheets of the bed he shared with the woman who was briefly his wife, the clear gold light in the cab of his father’s pickup truck as they drove into the mountains in winter with the windows rolled down—none has prepared him to imagine what wonderful things might be contained within this implausible box.

It will be, he thinks as he fits the key in the lock and turns it. It will be—

{ X }

CARLEA HOLL-JENSEN was born on a Wednesday. Since then, her fiction has appeared in Black Warrior ReviewQueers Destroy Fantasy!, and Fairy Tale Review, among others. She is also co-editor of The Golden Key, an online journal of speculative writing, and you can hear her talking about feminism and fairytales every week on the Feminist Folklore podcast.

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