Writer’s Weekly Winter 2017 Flash Fiction Contest Entry
It was hot. She had decided that after 110 degrees, it didn’t matter what the thermometer read. It was just hot. The wind kicked up the dust and dirt, biting into the skin at her neck and cheeks from seemingly every direction at once.
This was, without a doubt, the worst base in the Marine Corps. Alright, maybe not the worst. There were definitely some combat outposts with hip-deep mud and bags of kitty litter that served as toilets.
The sling of her M4 dug at her shoulder, but after four years in the Marines, it was a familiar weight. Perhaps it hurt more today because she was so tired. Lyla had spent hours tossing seabags and heavy packs from flatbed trucks onto a conveyor belt that fed into the cargo hold of the gigantic Air Force plane that would be her ride to the next place the Marine Corps decided she should be.
A barked order called the Marines to stop standing around and form into a line at the open ramp of the plane. Secret cigarettes were snuffed out and stuffed into pockets – no trash or smoking on the flight line. Groups meandered, some joking and laughing, but mostly silent and pensive, until they assembled into a long line of warriors in myriad shapes and sizes, but all in matching digital tan camouflage.
There were no family members here. The goodbye’s were long said.
Maybe that’s why Lyla was so tired; she’d spent the previous evening saying goodbye to Jim.
The pack shuffled forward to take their seats. As Lyla took a large step up the ramp, the muzzle of her weapon knocked painfully against her shin. Marines crowed about the ease of carrying the M4; it was so much shorter than the M16. At Lyla’s height, the rifle still hung from her collarbone clear past her knees. Her nose wrinkled in pain and annoyance. The Marine behind her bumped into her backpack, sending her just off-balance enough to brush against the backpack in front of her. Why was everything with Marines so crowded?
She wanted to run off the back of the plane, back to Jim, but they’d already said goodbye. They had spent six months together, talking, laughing, fighting and crashing together, without ever mentioning the looming deadline that would send them in opposite directions. The urge to go to him scratched at her skin like the windblown dirt.
They could keep going just as they had. Everything could stay as it was. Lyla had found a steady rhythm to her days and a purpose she felt sure she was about to fly away from.
“You know, Randell, Star Trek was Roddenberry’s vision of a Communist utopia,” she’d said without looking up from her computer, a sly smile pulling her lips up.
Her staff sergeant groaned and rolled her eyes. The lieutenant didn’t look up, but he was listening. The subject of her teasing let out an audible scoff and pushed back from his desk.
“That is not…did you even see Deep Space Nine?” Corporal Randell was aghast.
Lyla’s mouth twitched at the memory. When the plane landed, would the Marines she worked with still have that rapport?
No, they wouldn’t. The war brought change, just as it was tearing her away from Jim.
Jim, her heart sank and her stomach clenched.
“I’ll see you,” he spoke, his voice impossibly low, his hands impossibly large on her waist, and already too far away. “Let me know when you get there.”
She wouldn’t, and they both knew it.
Lyla craned her neck to look up at him – he was so damn tall – and swallowed the hard lump in her throat. “Take care of yourself.”
Jim didn’t speak again. He pressed his lips to her forehead, let his hands linger for a moment longer, and then turned away, taking long strides away from her room. Lyla watched him go. Her jaw clenched and her heart thundered. The Marine Corps had brought them together, and now it was sending her away. They both knew they would never have each other again. They’d been in the military long enough to know that much.
The plane seats were crowded. It smelled of hydraulic fluid and sweat, and maybe a bit of chewing tobacco. Marines on either side of her brushed against her arms every time they moved. Lyla’s head hurt. Her eyes ached from staying open for so long.
She missed Jim, and it had been less than 24 hours. She missed the Marines in her small office. She recounted her steps and wondered what else she could have done before leaving. Could she have gone on one more flight? Taken one more photo? Written one more story? Volunteered for one more convoy? Gone to Jim’s room in the dead of night one more time?
She was leaving behind too much. It opened a gaping hole in her chest she couldn’t imagine ever filling again.
Their next stop was Kyrgyzstan. She’d get a beer with her friends, use the wifi to update her social media.
After that she’d be on her way back to San Diego.
There was something she was leaving behind that she couldn’t put a name to, all she knew was that home was in the other direction.
The Cabin Key
“Just fill out the inspection sheet when you get a chance and drop it by the office by Friday, k?” Leigh Ann Thurston looked exactly like she did in her headshot, which was in the upper left corner of every piece of paper she distributed, from business cards to flyers. Honey gold blonde hair formed a rock-solid helmet shaped by White Rain. A neat loop of possibly real pearls adorned her neck – matching earrings, of course – and a red blazer popped over a crisp white blouse. “Don’t worry about the minor stuff like nail holes in the walls, just the big issues; any appliances not working, water damage, that sort of thing. We did a full walkthrough and had the maid service come by last week, but you know how they are about these inspections.”
In person, Leigh Ann Thurston had a few more lines around her eyes and mouth than she did in her picture.
Leigh Ann held out a ring of two shiny silver keys dangling with a bright, too-white smile. Piper took them with just enough reticence for both women to notice. They felt cold and heavier than they looked in her small hand. She tried to return the agent’s chipper, if a little fake, smile, but what came across probably looked more like a worried grimace.
Piper had never lived on her own before. From her parent’s house to dorms, she’d always lived under someone else’s roof, surrounded by people. Her new job for the Parks Service had her renting a cabin in a remote mountain village, hundreds of miles from anyone she even knew. This particular property sat well removed from the tiny community, deep in the woods and far from the lakeside shops and homes. It was all she could afford, though.
Piper’s mother had cautioned her about renting such an old house. “They come with a whole history of problems,” she’d said over dinner. A breeze blew against the house, eliciting a low groan from the walls and wooden floors. “And they talk, too,” her mother had added with a meaningful fork gesture. “You’ll never get any sleep because of all the noises.”
In the bright light of day, with a task to keep busy, the creaks and groans didn’t sound particularly overwhelming. She had a hard drive full of movies and TV shows to fill the house with something familiar until the cable company set up her internet. Repeated inspections of her phone revealed little if any reception. This was as close to roughing it as she’d experienced since the Girl Scouts.
Her stomach rumbled, reminding her that the pantry was bare. A Little Caesar’s in town would do the trick. Her eyes and limbs were growing too heavy to warrant a full grocery excursion.
Purse and phone in hand, she snatched her keys off the door and left the house. It was only when she turned to lock the door that she noticed it.
It was small and brass, like a mailbox or locker key. It was on the cheap silver ring with the two cabin keys. Had it been there the whole time? She turned from the door and frowned around the property. When she spied the old shed, she rolled her eyes. It must be the key to that, she mentally shook herself. If this is what living alone reduced her to, Piper was going to have to buck up fast. She certainly couldn’t be this spacey and forgetful at her new job.
Later that evening, Piper mindlessly chewed on a slice of pizza. The light from the movie on her laptop was the only illumination she’d left on in the house. Wrapped in a blanket even with the furnace on, she was already chilled. The black night pressed against the windows. Every few minutes, a breeze had the walls around her groaning in protest. She was only dimly aware of whatever movie she’d chosen to watch.
Her eyes kept flickering the ring of keys hanging by the front door.
“Hey, it’s Piper, I rented the cabin on Redwood. I have a question about one of the keys you gave me. If you could give me a call back, I’d appreciate it.”
The call disconnected with a beep and Piper was left with just the soft rustling of the wind and birds outside. She slid her phone into her pocket rather than returning it to its charger. It seemed like it might be too far away on her nightstand, even in the tiny cabin.
As it turned out, the old shed didn’t have a lock – it barely had a standing door. She hadn’t seen anything else that would warrant the extra key.
She paced to the kitchen, opening the refrigerator and staring at the take out boxes, before pacing to the living room window. It was another beautifully sunny day, with a cool bite on the wind. She thought a walk might be in order, but remembered how unreliable the cell service was.
Piper flopped onto the couch, pulled her laptop into her lap, but winced at the reflected glare on the screen. She shifted to the other side of the couch, only to catch the bright ray of sunlight glinting off her keys hanging on the front door. Piper’s jaw ground together. She pushed the laptop aside and marched toward the offending keys. All she could see was the metal shimmering and cutting through the air in the cabin.
Her phone rang and buzzed in her pocket simultaneously, sending Piper jumping nearly out of her skin. Piper closed her eyes against the hammering in her heart and pulled her phone back out of her pocket with a touch more force than necessary.
The screen read Leigh Ann Thurston, so Piper swiped as quickly as she could and snapped the phone to her ear. “Hello, Leigh Ann?”
“Piper, you had a question for me about keys?” Leigh Ann’s voice was pleasant enough, but the note of incredulity bled through the phone.
“Um, yeah.” Piper felt some of the wind leave her sails. She finished her journey to the front door and took the keys in hand, thumbing the offending intruder. “The little brass one, do you know what it goes to?”
Leigh Ann hummed absently. “I’m not sure about a brass key. If I remember correctly, I only signed out the two house keys. It should be documented on your lease,” she added. “You do still have a copy of your lease, right?”
Piper felt her jaw clenching again. She put the keys back on their hook. “Yes, I do. But I didn’t see anything about this key…”
“So, it must be one of yours,” Leigh Ann finished for her in a singsong voice. “Anything else I can do for ya, doll?”
“I…” Piper straightened her spine. “If you could just ask the owners if they know what this key is for, I’d appreciate it.”
Leigh Ann remained silent before giving Piper a suspiciously chipper and clipped, “Sure thing!”
The conversation over, Piper found herself alone again. Her blood thrummed in agitation from the phone call and her limbs were too itchy to sit still. Her mind turned the conversation over and over in her head, and her eyes wandered back to the keys no matter where she tried to look.
She stalked into the kitchen and snapped her attention between the cabinet doors; none had locks. She opened the pantry and squinted into the dim closet, but saw only sparsely-stocked shelves and dust.
Piper moved down the hall, dragging her fingertips along the walls, but nothing stood out. At the hall closet she found, again, no lock. She dumped the spare blankets and linens into a messy pile at her feet, but saw only empty shelves and more dust inside the closet.
Piper’s blood ran faster and faster, her heart pumping against the growing cacophony of dead tree branches scraping the glass windows and shingle roof, the structure of the house groaning in the fight against the whistling and howling wind. Feathered wings whumped all around the house, punctuated by screeches and chirps. Somewhere in the woods, coyotes howled and yapped, and neighborhood dogs barked in response.
Every step down the hall got louder and louder until she reached the bedroom. It looked the same as it had since she moved in: sparse, lit by the sun through paper-thin white curtains, bed made neat with linens that weren’t hers, a single picture on the nightstand propped next to an old alarm clock.
Piper dropped to the wooden floor on her knees and stuck her head under the bed, searching as her eyes adjusted to the sudden light change. Nothing. She popped back to her feet, breathing harder out of her mouth. The noise droned in her ears.
She jerked the closet door open and shoved clothes and heavy jackets aside, running her hands up and down the back wall. Nothing. No seams or anything to indicate there might be another locking door.
Then she caught sight of the small pile of flannel blankets on a rotting cardboard box in the deepest corner of the closet. She hadn’t noticed that before. Piper snatched the blankets and tossed them aside, then pulled the box and pushed it into the other corner of the closet.
There it was. The door was small and had no handle, but a brass lock gleamed at her through the darkness. Piper straightened out of the small space with a tiny gasp. The dissonant sound around the cabin went silent. Not even the wind blew anymore.
She returned to the keyring at almost a run and hurried back to the hidden door, as if it might vanish if she didn’t get it open quickly enough. Piper knelt, slower this time, and took the brass key between her fingers.
Her tongue felt dry and heavy in her mouth. Her palm grew sweaty on the object. She extended her arm and tried to slip the key into its lock, but her hand shook so badly she had to steady herself.
The key slid in. Piper’s sandpaper tongue darted out in a futile effort to wet her lips. She turned the key and the lock responded with a thunk that echoed through the empty cabin. She pulled back and the door struggled against decades of moldering, then popped open in a puff of old house dust.
Piper winced, waving a hand across her face to clear away the smoky particles and the smell. It wasn’t like anything she’d ever smelled before. It was birch trees and a fire and something distinctly rotten.
As the dust settled, Piper leaned back toward the door, but saw only blackness. She fished her phone out of her pocket and turned the flashlight into the space. The cubby was small, just large enough for someone Piper’s size to squeeze into. It had the same wooden floor as the rest of the cabin, but untouched by anything. It was coated in a heavy layer of dust and debris, and cobwebs clogged every corner.
But there was nothing else.
Disappointed, Piper sat back on her haunches. She saw the old cardboard box and blankets that had been stacked next to the door. She wondered if the space had been intended for storage, but someone had misplaced the key.
She pushed the door shut without locking it, and slid the items back into their place. It seemed too dirty, even for material that appeared long since abandoned in the bottom of the closet.
Piper’s pulse returned to normal and worry folded across her brow. The cacophony of noise had fallen into silence. The sun was setting, casting her cabin in a warm, golden glow. Her drive to find the answer to the key seemed so silly. It was a storage closet key, for a closet.
Hours later, Piper had found a relative calm. She sipped a cup of hot cocoa from behind the glow of her laptop screen. Night fell peacefully. Wrapped in a warm sweater, Piper resolved to make sure she got out of the cabin every day for as long as she rented the place. There was simply no reason for an obsessive meltdown over a key no one had kept track of.
Her phone buzzed with a number she didn’t recognize.
“Is this Piper? The girl renting my cabin?” an elderly voice croaked.
Piper sat up and silenced her laptop. “Yes, is this the owner?” She winced. It was nearly 10 p.m. and this poor person was calling her over nothing.
“It was mine,” the distinctly female voice replied, “but my grandson manages my estate. I told him not to rent that place.” The woman’s voice broke. She sounded close to tears. Piper started to pace the floor, her heart sinking with the knowledge that she’d upset this woman. Something flashed in her window. It was small and quick, like cat eyes catching a reflection. Piper froze.
“What do you mean you told him not to rent this place?”
The woman let out a small sound, almost like a sob of frustration. “The key? She said you found the key?”
Another quick, small flash blinked in one of the windows, just too quick for Piper’s eyes to comprehend what she was seeing. Her skin prickled despite the warmth of the furnace.
“Yes,” she said quietly. “I found the key to that closet.”
“Get rid of it!” The woman snapped with more force than her quavering voice seemed capable.
The little sparks of light in the windows blinked and flashed, only just bright enough to be seen in the night. They were growing in number. Piper slowly realized she hadn’t heard a thing from the forest. Not a breeze, not a bird chirp, the dogs had been silent for hours.
“But that closet was empty,” Piper whispered. The flashes appeared in pairs, watching her through the windows. The voice at the other end of the phone gasped, a low intake of breath that she held in a silence that stretched across the walls of the cabin. The flashes blinked at her. The only sounds she could hear were her own heartbeat and the elderly woman’s struggled breath.
The old woman let out her breath to respond.
“It wasn’t empty. You let them out.”