When I discovered the old skeleton key, I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. It was something my family had been hiding from me all along. The key’s cold metal almost burned my palm. The sensation was all in my imagination, but I’d always thought objects could talk. This key could tell me its history in dark, cryptic susurrations and divulge the annals of time that would reveal what I’d always suspected: I was not alone in the house.
It had been months since my parents died. When I attended the funeral, my extended family kept their distance but offered me condolences, their eyes narrowing in suspicion, their hands cold as the grave.
My parents’ will was simple, summed up like this: Bury us in the town cemetery, and you get everything. Please do not cremate us.
When I inherited my parents’ old place, my reality felt perverse. They’d never loved me, so why would they leave their home to me? I thought my parents had disowned me, recalling our drag-out arguments, the way we ignored each other by pinching our lips together tightly, refusing to say a word, our thoughts locked up as tight as Fort Knox. Even so, Mom and Dad’s beloved colonial property—its rolling, verdant acres, horse pastures, and lush back garden full of fruit trees—was mine, but how? They could’ve given it to my aunts, uncles, or cousins; anyone but me. If they had given it to someone else, I imagined Aunt Mina or June would greedily take an inventory of the family heirlooms, tallying up the projected profits for auction, while my cousins engaged in horseplay through the halls, heckling each other about ghosts of fallen soldiers.
I knew my parents wouldn’t have cared for anyone else in the family to have the place, but it couldn’t be mine. But it was, despite my obdurate skepticism. And here was this antique key, calling my name, ready to unfurl a childhood mystery like an ancient tapestry spread out before me. I knew what the key would open: the door on the top floor. The attic room.
“Babe, what are you doing up there?” My boyfriend Zach yelled up at me from the floor below.
“I’m coming down,” I told him, uncertain if I should reveal what I’d found in my parents’ old bedroom.
As I descended the stairs, I tried to figure out why I’d asked Zach to come to live with me. I thought about the property and its eerie silence, its creaky floorboards. The sense that no matter what you did, you were not alone, and there was always a presence hanging over you somewhere, picking you apart with watchful eyes. All of those things were too much to bear. I tried to get used to the solitude when I first moved in, but I peeked around each corner, saw shadows in every room, and heard my parents’ voices as though they were still alive, the sounds gruff and shrill like vultures. I began to feel edgy. I jumped at the sound of the doorbell, the ticking of a clock, and the ding of the oven. But although Zach was here now, I was even more agitated. I wanted to run away, to leave the past behind me and never look back, but I couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. My parents had amassed a considerable debt which left me with few options for my living situation, and repairs on the house would take months.
Before making it to the first floor, I put the key in my jacket pocket. I wouldn’t tell Zach about it. The key wasn’t any of his business. Later, I’d climb to the top floor and explore the attic myself, content to search its dark corners and hidden secrets alone. The room was my lifelong curiosity, forbidden by my messed-up family.
“I ordered a pizza,” Zach was picking at the newel post with his fingers, scraping off the top layer of the varnish.
“Great,” I told him as I reached the bottom of the staircase.
He kissed me and wrapped his arms around me before asking what was wrong.
“Nothing,” I rubbed my brow and looked at the floor.
The whole dinner, the key was burning a hole in my pocket. I envisioned it turning into a red-hot poker, becoming a supernatural weapon that would injure me before I could discover the truth. Meanwhile, I was so distracted that my food tasted like cardboard. I guzzled a couple of glasses of wine to wash it down and calm my nerves.
“Hey, slow down. Last time you did that, you passed out.” Zach was scarfing his pizza like a starving pup, so anything he said lost credibility as he slurped, chomped, and swallowed.
Here he was again with the high and mighty attitude—Zach, the king of the castle. The man who was living in my home and telling me what to do. As he sat back on his haunches, bingeing the latest Netflix show, I was working to make the place livable. I was sacrificing my time to get this house ready to sell—even if I decided the best course of action was to stay here. He had no idea what this place did to me. Had no conception of how stressed I’d been living under my deceased parents’ roof. Every day, I had to walk past my old childhood bedroom with its sickly pink walls and decrepit stuffed animals. Every day I confronted gauche and excessive wealth, staring at antiques that needed restoration, collectibles that might fetch an outrageous price on eBay, gilded ends of furniture and baseboards, and dusty crystal chandeliers. And all the while, I wondered what was up in the attic and whose eyes were boring into me, why I felt a tumultuous fire burning my back, creeping up my neck and strangling me, stealing the air from the room until I gasped like a fish out of water.
“Yeah. Okay,” I murmured to Zach, letting my frustration show only slightly.
“You okay? You’ve been weird all night.” Zach was genuinely concerned, but he reminded me of my father, the way his lips turned up in a half-sneer. I hated that.
“I don’t believe you,” he croaked.
I sat staring into the distance until he gave me the reaction I wanted. He clutched a fist and released it, burrowing deeper into his solitude, realizing I would not meet him where he was. I’d figured out how to manipulate him, how to make Zach read my mind without saying anything. How to make him feel small.
“Okay. I’m going to bed then. Don’t stay up too late.” There was a tinge of disappointment in his voice, as though someone had sucked all of the helium out of a balloon.
I watched him walk away. He climbed the stairs two at a time, his long legs stretching across the steps. I needed to wait a few more minutes until I was sure Zach was in our room drifting off, so I poured another glass of wine.
My body was buzzing. I swore the key was vibrating, asking to be let out. I retrieved it from my coat pocket and squeezed a fist around it. Then, I went into the foyer.
The staircase loomed over me, a giant beast, some unconquerable being with huge teeth and a tiny face staring at me in contempt.
Steeling myself against whatever I might find, I ascended the stairs, my knees shaking. But, unlike Zach, I took them one at a time, careful not to make too much noise.
When I reached the third floor, I paused. One more flight and I’d arrive at the top—the fourth level where the attic was. I took a moment to catch my breath and resumed my quest.
The attic door, with its swirled carvings and large keyhole, stared back at me as though it was alive. As a child, the door was what I feared and revered most. I wanted to know what was inside. I thirsted for it like a parched desert does for rain.
My parents always told me to stay out of the attic. They’d also told me they’d lost the key long ago. It was a blatant lie since I found it nestled in a small hole inside my mother’s dresser, a place she must have chipped out to hide it.
I inserted the key into the keyhole. The turning of the latch was a metallic dirge, a sickening twist of a mechanism that made my stomach lurch. After a beat, I opened the door, its solid wood frame pushing back against me in protest.
The attic was pitch-black. As I crept inside, the chain for the light grazed my forehead. I pulled it, and the clicking sound unnerved me, but I felt much worse once my eyes adjusted to the lighted room.
Along the walls, taking up residency on all the shelves, were urns with swirling designs that curled like retreating smoke. There were fifteen of them, all with plaques of ancestral names. I calmly inspected them. One of them contained the ashes of my dead sister. The one I’d never met, who’d died before I was born. The dates jumped out at me like commandments. She had been the favorite. The reason my parents hadn’t loved me. Stacking up to her was an impossible feat, especially after her death.
I stood there, frozen in shock, my hands trembling. Zach rushed quickly up the stairs behind me, the noise grating in my ears. His mouth hung open in horror at the sight of the attic mausoleum. Only inches from me, I felt his body stiffen. When I turned to him, his eyes were glassy and wide.
Then, I screamed, finally realizing why I’d never felt alone in the house. All of those eyes on me, my relatives, scrutinizing me from above.
Cianna Garrison is a freelance writer who resides in Southern California. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Whatever Keeps The Lights On and Welter. She loves to act, read, and craft. You can visit her website at www.ciannagarrison.com.