Alice tried to remember who had given her the key. It had an odd shape, like one of those old fashioned ones always seen in horror movies where a pale white hand led to a door with a round knob, and obscene, unknown noises were heard behind it. She noted with interest that the tip of the key was shaped into a heart. If only she could remember who had given it to her, then she might remember what it was for.
Life at her age was no longer fun; her bones creaked almost as badly as her bed did. Her once luxurious mane of hair, while still silky, no longer held its opulent brown, finally yielding to the silver that sprouted like weeds in a well-tended rose garden over the years. She had given up on writing letters, her fingers curled and crooked when she gripped the pen, causing her too much pain.
Her son had given her some new age contraption and every so often, usually at the very moment she got up the nerve to talk to Henry three doors down (the most eligible divorcee in the home since he still had all his hair), it would chime. She would dig in the antique nightstand for her glasses (she only wore them to read anymore) and smile softly as she read:
“Hi Mom. Love you much. Priscilla and Peter send their love too. We will come see you soon. Take care of yourself.”
She never responded. He would call her tomorrow or the next day to make sure she got it. The nurses always told her when he called. They refused to call him by his name, referring to him instead as “Mr. Hotshot” in the same manner they referred to her constantly, despite her protests, as “Honeybunch.” They were like that with everyone in the home, though they were usually better about calling the residents regular visitors by name. She wondered briefly if they would remember who had given her the key. She felt its cool metal through the thin material of her hospice gown as it settled down for a nap in her pocket. She dismissed its mystery temporarily for the afternoon snack.
“Snickerdoodles. Soft ones at that!” Beverly, her next door neighbor, exclaimed. “Not everyone still has their teeth, ya know.” She barked this in the direction of the kitchen, as if the cooks had done it on purpose to spite her. “Say, Alice. What’s that thing you been tinkering with for the past week? Did ol’ Johnny give it to you afore he kicked the bucket?”
Ol’ Johnny. Alice smiled. Henry might have been the most sought after man around here, but Johnny was definitely the nicest. Her heart lurched as his face passed through her mind, his visage already starting to fade. Did you give me that key, Ol’ Man?
Her arm reached out and brushed against the coarse polyester of the uniform within her reach. She was in luck. It was Annabelle, the kindest nurse on the block, freshly married and already expecting her first child.
“Annabelle? Do we still have Ol’ Johnny’s things here?”
“I reckon so, Miss Alice. I’ve never seen no one come and pick ‘em up. Not on my shift anyway.”
“Might we have a look later?”
“I don’t know, Miss Alice. I can’t see how they’d look too kindly on that, seein’ as how y’all weren’t related and all.”
Alice’s hand disappeared inside her pocket. As it emerged, the key cast prisms of light through the air as it danced with the scattered rays of the sun. Her hand opened and the key lay in her palm. Annabelle’s eyes smiled, a slight twinkle hidden in their brown depths.
“Where did you get that, now, Miss Alice?”
“I don’t know. I don’t remember.”
Annabelle’s eyes gleamed as brightly as the key in Alice’s hand, almost as if in competition. She leaned down closer to Alice, pretended to clean her smock off, and whispered.
“I reckon I could take a look see at Ol’ Johnny’s things on my break. If there be anything requirin’ a key like that, well, I’ll just shimmy on down to your room quick as a jack rabbit and give it to you.”
Alice grabbed her wrist, her faded blue eyes misted over. “I’d be up for taking a walk later. Doctor’s orders, you know. I really need to start exercising more.” Annabelle nodded conspiratorially, and Alice sat back relaxed, and finally enjoyed her snack.
A brisk knocking at the frame surrounding her room door woke Alice from the light sleep she had fallen into. Her brain laden with once forgotten moments with Johnny, she startled at the intrusion.
“I’m sorry to disturb, Miss Alice. Din’t you say you wanted to try walkin’ today? I can help you now, if you’re still up for it.”
Annabelle was a welcomed intrusion, and she hoped that the pain she would suffer as a result of this walk would be well rewarded later. She nodded slowly, then faster as the last cobwebs of her dreams drifted from her mind. She removed the thin housecoat she tended to walk the halls in, preferring the soft white knee-length cardigan instead. It was the last gift Johnny had given her, an impromptu gift that had sealed her status as his girl in the minds of every single resident there. Her feet shuffled into her slippers, hard soled for non-slip walking, a Christmas gift from the grandchildren she had never met. Her laugh lines lifted as her lips parted happily.
The walking trail was well tended, Alice noted, as her legs complained with every step she took. It had been too long since she had ventured outside the home. The fresh air was uplifting, the scent of sweet honeysuckle lending its perfume just for her. Though the storage shed was not far, she was glad to see it just the same, for more reasons than one.
Annabelle pulled a key from her pocket. It slid with familiarity into the lock. One twist, and the shed opened. Medium sized chocolate brown boxes with their matching lids were labeled simply with masking tape and marker. Annabelle helped Alice in behind her and closed the door before turning on the single light. They both scanned rows of names, some of whom Alice knew, but most of whom she didn’t. Johnny’s was at the top of the shortest tower, an easy reach for Annabelle with her height, as long as the box wasn’t too heavy. She harrumphed as she brought the box down.
“What does Ol’ Johnny have in this thing?” Her breath came out as a long sigh that Alice couldn’t quite catch. “Boy, that was a might heavier than I expected.”
The box fit easily on the table, and the lid was removed. The few clothes he had were on top; his favorite novels, a western and a mystery, tattered and dog-eared underneath. At the very bottom of the box was something Alice had never seen before. She recognized his messy scrawl on the top page, and suddenly wished she wasn’t so vain and had brought her glasses with her. Annabelle lifted it gently from the box.
“Here is the lock, where is the key,” she read aloud. Her eyes grew as Alice pulled the key from her pocket. It fit smoothly in the large heart shaped padlock of burnished gold. They both jumped as the lock snapped open in the quiet evening air. A single line was scrawled on the top page:
The Job of the Century by John H. Dillinger, Jr.
Underneath the title there was a map of an area marked as Morgan County, Indiana. A small x stood out, scarring the page with scarlet. Beneath the x, written in painstakingly careful print was an address.
Alice sat quietly in her room. In her hand was a small device. She patiently tapped the keys. Remember Ol’ Johnny? Turns out he wasn’t so nice after all. Love, Mom. She turned the key over in her hands, back and forth, as if she were memorizing its shape and weight. Her eyes followed the rainbows it cast on her wall. Her chest heaved, her breath caught, as she leaned over the vent and felt the emptiness in her hand as the key disappeared through a slat. Her heart lurched once more as her ears caught the ding of metal tapping metal, and Johnny’s face faded from her mind forever.
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