Hey everybody, kicking off week 2 of the blog launch party with the first short story. (Yayy!) I have one more story and one other mystery post (oooh intrigue) planned for this week. Also, don’t forget the contest ends this Thursday! Not a lot of entrants at the moment so your chances of winning a prize pack are real good. Hint hint, nudge nudge.
Okay. Moving on. Short story. Enjoy!
* * *
The forest leaves shush and crunch underfoot as the flashlight catches bare branches in the act of fingering the moon. The lantern makes a muted squeal as it swings from my hand.
“Leslie, what are we doing here?” I hiss in the dark. My socks are thick with the wet grime of leaves and mulch.
Leslie pauses, flashing her light this way, that. “I’m here because there’s a door that needs to be locked. And you’re here because I’m too scared to do this alone. ”
“A door you need to lock on a Wednesday. At midnight.”
“Well actually, it’s more like one thirty.”
“Les.” I lower my voice. “What are we doing here?”
Silver light bleeds through the forest and glints off the key hanging down Leslie’s collarbone. Her breath makes clouds that come quick, faster than mine.
“You can go back, Aimee. Don’t come if you don’t want to.”
“It’s pretty creepy out here alone.”
“I’ll be fine,” Leslie snaps.
“I meant me.”
Leslie looks over, incredulous, and then bursts out laughing. “Oh, Aimes. I really am sorry I dragged you into this. I just thought…” she flicks her light back out into the deep forest. I try to see past the night, past the restless hush of wind in distant treetops. “I thought I could do this,” Leslie says.
I shiver and rub the goosebumps out of my arms. “Why are we looking for a door?”
Leslie sighs and begins walking forward again. Together we share the guiding hotspot of her light.
Leslie says, “Did I ever tell you why my dad left us? He was really rich, from this big family in Connecticut, and I guess he couldn’t give it all up to live with a backwoods gypsy like my mom. So he left. I got birthday cards from him sometimes. Really generic, with a hundred dollar bill stuffed inside.”
“Holy crap.” I think of the times Leslie and I would walk up and down the concrete sidewalks looking for the glint of loose change, just so we could buy fifteen cents-worth of sour gummies from the penny candy store. “Could you imagine slapping a hundred dollar bill in front of Mr. Deeks and asking for its worth in candy?”
Lelise laughs again, jittery through her chattering teeth. “No such luck. Mom always made me put it in a college fund.”
All of the sudden my jeans catch on something sharp and branchy in the darkness, and I trip. The lantern goes clattering.
“Aimee, you okay?” Leslie scurries over.
I rise painfully, and hiss cusswords at my skinned palms. They’re caked with mud. “Ugh.”
Leslie inspects my hands with the flashlight, and then wipes dirt off using wet leaves. I rub the slime on my jeans and go retrieve the lantern. We walk on, me poking a foot out before each reluctant step.
“So anyway,” Leslie says. “My dad. A few years ago the cards stopped coming. Then mom started getting these phone calls. She’d be furious, go out for a smoke, come back and dig out the ice cream or a bag of stale York Mints. That’s when she started asking about the key.”
I don’t think Leslie knows she does this, but when she’s talking, she often drops a hand down to touch the key and rub its odd edges between her fingers. Even in the dark I can tell she’s doing it.
“Why did your mom give you that key, anyway?”
“I don’t know.” Leslie drops the key and walks with renewed vigor. “She always said it was so I could have something from both her and dad, close to my heart. I needed that.”
Leslie stops again. The landscape is about to fork. On one side, rocks cling to deep shadows, and on the other, the trees thicken. Mist weaves between the trunks.
Leslie mutters. “Dang it Aimee. I know we came the right way.”
“You’ve been here before?” We’re standing close. Both hesitant, both too aware of the little shuffling sounds and faint cries that could be animals, or wood bending, or childhood monsters avenging us for their banishment.
“I followed my mom once.” Leslie’s breath puffs. “Like, last month. I’d heard her talk about this little shack in the woods that she used to go to as a teen, kind of a gypsy hangout where everyone smoked pot except for her because, you know, I’m her daughter and you can’t tell your daughter that you smoked pot.”
“Your mom is hilarious.”
Leslie snorts. “Yeah. Right. She’s been worse than usual since the phone calls started. She keeps asking for the key. Tells me not to lose it. And I’m like, something’s wrong you know? Something’s happened.” We take a few shuffling steps forward, not committing to either trail in our uncertainty.
I shiver all over. It’s cold. I’m cold, thinking of bad things happening in a shack in the woods.
“So,” Leslie says. Her voice sounds strained. “So my dad is dead.”
I stop for a moment. I can feel Leslie’s shoulders bending and tightening under me, and she’s crying, Leslie who never cries.
“Oh Les. Come here.” The flashlight does a crazy dance as Les turns and I hug her, stroking her warm hair and chilly ears. “I’m so sorry.”
She leans into me for a minute and lets it out as I hold her. Then she sighs.
“Yeah. Well.” She snuffles and tries to smudge the tears away. “That’s not even the worst part. Now they’re trying to say I’m not actually his kid.”
“Wouldn’t a DNA test take care of that?”
Leslie takes a few steps toward the rocky patch. “My mom is refusing to let them take one. She doesn’t believe in the system. Doesn’t want there to be records floating around of my DNA.”
I stomp up the slope toward Les, rubbing my hands, stuffing them in my pockets. They still smell of dead leaves and loam. “Okay. But I don’t get what the big deal is. Why are they so set on proving you’re not his daughter?”
Leslie doesn’t look at me. As if summoned, she turns and walks away from the rocks, toward a slender path that opened up now that we’re close enough to see it.
I stare after her a moment. Then, hurry to catch up. “Wait. Leslie. You’re not telling me you’re like, his heir or something. Are you? Les?”
Her voice is clipped. “He was too rich and important to marry anyone.”
“If they can prove I’m not his, then the money goes to the rest of his family, all split up into twenty seven different directions so everyone gets their share. Mom was telling Grams this. I’m not even supposed to know.”
“You could be a millionaire. You could go to Stanford. Buy an island on the lake. You’re rich, Les!”
“Not,” Leslie points out, “if we can’t prove I’m really his.” Then she inhales fast. “Look.”
In the distant, wavering beam of her flashlight, an old shack slumps against the base of a rocky rise. The door is open and the roof caving in. Beams splay out of the mess, and the whole building has the look of a grasping hand.
Leslie walks with new purpose. I hurry to keep up with her.
“So that’s why we’re here? You’ve got proof of your legitimacy or something?”
Leslie sounds grim. “My mom might sing to our flowers and wear dead butterflies in her hair, but she’s not an idiot. When she found out she was pregnant, she literally went to Connecticut and got my dad to sign this paper. They made a deal that my mom would never ask him for money and we would never bother him during his lifetime. In return, he legalized me as his successor. Mom knew he wouldn’t care about what happened to the money after his death. Probably thought he would outlive her, and I would never know. It was an easy way to get rid of us.”
We reach the shack. The slumping part must have been a porch, once, and the rest of the building still stands behind it. Leslie takes a breath and looks at me.
“Got the lantern?”
I swing it.
“Okay, come on.” Leslie does an about-face and ducks under the sinking beams of the porch, her flashlight glow thickening as it hits thatch, and then cutting away as Leslie steps up, disappearing into the shack.
For one brief second I’m alone. The wind is high off, sighing. The moon moves in and out a bank of clouds. It’s almost peaceful.
“You coming, Aimes?”
I bend and scramble in after Leslie.
It’s hard to tell what it looks like, in here; the flashlight shines all crazy off the enclosed space. Leslie and I grope together.
“Here,” Leslie says, fumbling with a match. There’s a sharp snick and a hot gust as the flame gasps into existence. Leslie brings her match to the lantern’s wick. The light grows, expands. And suddenly I can see.
We’re in a small room, with an old heap of blankets and mattresses in one corner, shoes and papers scattered around the others. Dusty windows stare balefully in on us. Up in wooden beams, dead spiders cling to their empty webs.
“Some shack.” I lift the lantern higher and see that the walls in here are made of crumbling brick. “More like a cabin.”
“For your info, a shack is a ‘roughly built hut or cabin.’ They’re synonymous.”
Leslie is digging around the base of an enormous wooden chest. “Help me Aimes. Look for a keyhole. It might be under this thing.”
“Here, I’ll push.” I set the lantern up on a warped windowsill. Together, Leslie and I heave at the chest, inching it with a high-pitched screech across the floor. I gasp in effort and rub sweat from my eyes.
“Wait,” Leslie pants. “Look!”
I squat back and catch my breath. We’ve uncovered a niche in the wall, and tucked up in it, covered in mortar and brick dust, is an old cast iron safe. Leslie brushes her thumb across the front. There are two keyholes.
“Wow.” I lean my head back and inhale the musty air. “I have to admit Les, this is one of the coolest things I’ve done in the history of summers.”
Leslie isn’t listening. She’s on her knees in the dust, digging her fingertips into cracks between the safe and the brick. She coaxes it out with tugs right, tugs left.
“That looks heavy.”
The thing drops with a thunk on the floor.
Leslie raises an eyebrow at me. “Profound, Aimes.” She sticks her key in one of the holes and turns it. There’s an emphatic click.
I open my mouth to give a smart comeback, when Leslie does something that makes no sense to me. She shoves the safe into its niche. Nudging me out of the way, she leans her body weight against the trunk, and pushes it back into place. The trunk stops with a groan.
Leslie smacks the dust off her hands. “Okay. Grab the lantern.”
“What? Les—what about the safe?”
“Grab the lantern, Aimee. We’re going.”
She ducks out of the shack.
“But the safe,” I whisper, staring after her. Had I missed something? Why would we come all this way just to lock a safe that was already locked?
I grab the lantern and batter my way out into the fresh air, cold and crisp, still filled with night. Leslie is already tramping away.
“Hey. Wait, I’m coming!” She pauses a brief moment while I catch up. “Les, I don’t understand what’s going on. I thought you wanted that paper. Wasn’t it in the safe?”
“Yeah. It was in the safe.” She’s looking down, not at me.
“So what?” For the first time this whole night, I feel myself actually getting angry. I grab Leslie’s shoulder. “So we came all this way for nothing. Just to look at a stupid safe. What did we come for? You can tell me. What?”
Leslie is silent a long moment. A wet trail glistens on her cheek in the glow of my lantern. She’s crying. She started crying again, and I didn’t even notice.
I feel bad. Shuffle my feet in the leaves.
“Don’t even you want the money?”
Leslie rubs a shoulder across her nose. “No.”
“You don’t want your dad’s money.”
She whispers, “No.”
I lean back. “And there were two keys. One for your dad, one for your mom. Except now your dad is dead and you have the other key…”
Leslie sighs, a cloud of breath rising to be tattered by the breeze.
“Mom never locked her side of the safe. So I had to.”
We stand there for another long moment. The wind swings my lantern, and I blow out the wick, not wanting to fall again and spill burning oil. The cold seems to revel around us in the sudden dark.
Leslie fingers her necklace, flashlight pointing at the ground, eyes up at the high branches and moon far beyond.
“I think it’s true. That I’m not actually his daughter. There’s a reason my mom tricked him into signing the paper, why she won’t let them test my DNA. I don’t want to know that reason. I like my life. I don’t want to know, one way or the other.”
I shiver, and put an arm around my friend. “You know…they could just cut it open.”
“It’s a thick safe, Aimee, and a very thin piece of paper.”
It seems to take a much shorter time to get back out of the woods then it did going in. When we finally stumble out onto the far end of our street, caught in the full light of the moon, Leslie hugs me. Her fingers are burning with cold.
“Thanks Aimee. You’re a good friend.”
“If I’m dead at work tomorrow, I blame you.”
She laughs and lets me go. We split and head to our own backyards, then stop at our fences, and pause to wave across the street. Leslie is lit up in raspberry blue moonlight. It’s then that I see. Her collarbone, shimmering bare and white.
The key is gone.
* * *
© Amanda Smith, 2013. All Rights Reserved.
Please do not copy or reproduce without permission.