Paul Forrester’s eyes opened. With a single jolt of adrenaline, he was wide awake and breathing hard although his body still felt heavy and numb. The light was dim, but even without consulting his wristwatch, he knew the sun was up, and he didn’t have much time. He felt for the key in his right hand, running his thumb over the curved surface and then the smooth jutting foot at the end. Paul smiled, the urgency to move now tempered by anticipation. He stretched his legs and arms and wriggled his shoulders before rising to a sitting position on the lumpy, mildewed sofa in the basement of his parents’ house. Or what used to be his parents’ house. They were both dead and he doubted anyone had been inside the place for over a year—until he broke in two days ago, that is, and started searching for the key to his father’s desk.
He hadn’t really had to break in. He could have asked his brother for a key to the house. Henry Forrester knew nothing about their father’s unfinished manuscript and wouldn’t have given a rat’s ass about it if he had known. But Paul didn’t like having to explain himself to his stolid, practical, and completely unimaginative older brother. According to Henry, Paul was willfully refusing to live up to his potential just to spite the rest of the family.
He couldn’t deny the whole thing had been impulsive: taking time off from work without notice, driving across the state, and living on junk food for three days while he hunted through the detritus of his parents’ 25 years together. It was hard not to think of them lying a few feet apart in their graves in the cemetery he’d passed on his way into town.
But now he had the key. It seemed like a fluke. He’d gone through every room in the house three or four times and given the basement a couple of cursory searches, too, not really expecting to find the key down here. He had been tired, sore, frustrated, and ready to give up. Just as he was about to call his wife, Brenda, and tell her she’d been right about this being a wild goose chase, the image popped into his head, clear and bright as if it had happened last month and not over 20 years ago.
The summer when Paul was seven years old, his father was already middle-aged, his hair thinning and his waist thickening. Paul had become fascinated with the night sky and was amazed when his father came up from the basement one evening carrying a telescope. It wasn’t very powerful, but Paul didn’t realize that then. To him it was magical—almost as magical as the fact that it belonged to his father. The two of them spent many hours in the backyard that summer, identifying constellations or just admiring the moon and the bright spots of light. They shared an interest no one else in the family had. For a few months, Paul had felt close to his father, as though they had a secret bond. It hadn’t lasted, of course. With the shorter days, his father grew distant again, closing himself off in his study for weeks at a time.
So on a hunch an hour or so before dawn, Paul went into the basement one more time to try to find the battered and scratched brown leather telescope case. As soon as he saw it it, he knew that’s where the key was. And he was right. Once he found it, he only had enough energy left to stumble to the couch, clutching the thing tightly in his fist. He was out within seconds.
He stood up and headed for the stairs. Henry had sold the property and all its contents for what was to Paul an unbelievably large sum of money, considering the owner intended to raze the place and build a new house on the site. If Paul didn’t get a move on, he would get bulldozed along with the house. Sunlight flooded the first floor. He had to hurry. He went directly to the old-fashioned roll top desk, now covered in dust, in his father’s study. The day before, Paul had considered trying to have the desk removed from the house, but he had no way of hauling it back home. Besides, Brenda would have really flipped out if he brought this monstrosity back with him.
He stared at the tarnished lock, took a deep breath, inserted the key, and twisted it to the right. Then he grabbed the round knob and pulled. The drawer slid open smoothly, revealing a small leather-bound journal and a stack of typed pages that had once been held together by a rubber band that was nothing but crumbled remnants.
A note was paper clipped to the top page. “Paul,” it began. He was so startled, he nearly dropped the piece of paper. “You and I are more alike, I think, than we’ve ever acknowledged to each other. If you’re reading this, then maybe you’ve realized it, too. I hope so. I put more of myself into these pages than into anything else I’ve written. It’s more ambitious, riskier, than anything else I’ve ever done. Maybe that’s why I haven’t been able to complete it. But I have a feeling that if you’ve found it, you’ll know how to finish it. Write the end of the story, son. Make it yours. Love, Dad.”
Paul felt a surge of longing for the father who had been absent in spirit, if not in fact, for most of his life. At the same time, he felt more connected with him than he ever had before. But the rumble of the bulldozer making its approach up the driveway brought him back to the present. He scooped up the manuscript and journal and headed for the back door. After a few steps, he turned around—on impulse again—and went back for the key. He slipped it into the back pocket of his jeans before departing from his father’s house for the last time.
~ ~ ~
Note: This story resulted from a writing exercise. Imagine that you wake up in the morning with a key clutched in your hand. What does it unlock?