WVU Press has granted The Other Stories podcast permission to reprint Gwen Goodkin’s story, “The Key,” which appears in her new collection A Place Remote.
I have a couple friends in school who are latchkey kids like me. We all know—better than the kids who spend their afternoons with someone—what it’s like to be scared of our own houses. A creak, a sudden knock, the snap of an icicle will send us running. Where to, we aren’t sure. We just sprint. The big difference between me and those friends is that all of their parents are alive. I’m the only one whose dad is dead.
My friends and I get on separate busses at the end of the day. We wave goodbye as we ride away from each other. I’m on the bus headed home and just caught sight of the crooked pine at corner of my street. Every time I see that tree, my body starts a countdown for the exact number of seconds I need to get to the bathroom. I move to the empty seat behind the driver so I’m ready. I stick my hand inside my coat to unfasten the key from the safety pin and—I can tell by how quickly the pin moves, how thin it feels—the key isn’t there.
I hurry down the steps of the bus and cross the street. The cold makes the bones in my hands hurt. Fresh snow covers this morning’s dull snow. It looks stiff and tricks me into thinking I can step on it, that, sure, I can take the shortcut across the yard—but I drop through. The skin of my ankle is wet. The wind is a burn.
I check under the rock and—no spare.
I’m on my front porch and I have to go so bad that I can’t hold it anymore. I grab a handful of pants and underwear and force it up my front so I can walk. I reach for the door and try the knob, even though I’m sure it’s locked. The knob turns. I pull my hand away, like it’s been stung.
Did I forget to lock the door this morning? I’m not completely sure because this morning seems like any other. But then I remember—Jimmy, the push-ups. I was in a rush. The urge to get to the bathroom is so strong I feel like I might throw up.
I open the door a crack, then a little wider. I search the dim for movement or a noise, but the house is quiet and still.
Before school today my brother and I were in the kitchen and his muscles were out. Even though it’s winter and Mom calls herself the heat miser, Jimmy refuses to wear a shirt. He says he’s hot. I say he’s showing off the muscles lined up on his stomach like straight teeth.
“Dawn,” he said. “Watch.”
He put an arm behind his back and did some quick push-ups against the table. Then he switched.
I looked at him like I couldn’t have been more bored. “Big gym test today?”
He stood up and flexed, smiling huge, pleased with himself. He pulled a box of cereal from the cupboard and poured in a mouthful. He went to the fridge, got the milk and opened his lips just wide enough to add some. I checked the clock. Six minutes ’til the bus. Jimmy ate and smiled, milk running down the side of his chin.
“Who needs a bowl?” A piece of cereal flew from his mouth and landed in front of my orange juice.
“Gross,” I said. “I have to leave now or I’ll miss the bus.”
I washed my glass in the sink and set it on the dish towel.
He was blocking me. I could’ve gone around, but if I did, he’d get annoyed and tease me and then I’d really be late.
“Whatever you do”—he chewed and chewed until he finally finished, then jabbed his finger at the front door—“do not open that fucking door when you’re here alone.” He wiped his chin. “Got it?”
He jiggled the window to make sure it was locked. “And don’t forget the key.”
About a month ago when Mom found me rinsing the hem of my pants in the laundry sink, she said, “Can’t you wait ’til you’re inside to go?”
“I do wait.” I sprayed stain remover on the hems and rubbed. “Sometimes I forget the key and I hold it for as long as I can, then I just can’t anymore. That’s when I go behind the bush.”
“What if someone sees you?”
“No one sees me.”
Then she said, “It isn’t that difficult, Dawn—to remember the key.”
She didn’t care about the key really. She only cared that her boyfriend, Mitch, and the neighbors knew her kids did dirty things like pee outside.
When Mitch moved in, Jimmy gave him a chance. They watched hockey together and talked about football. But little by little, Mitch started to act like he owned the place, like we were living in his house, instead of how it really was. First we couldn’t eat macaroni and cheese for dinner because Mitch didn’t like cheese, and pretty soon the only thing on TV was the news. Then what I think really set Jimmy off was that he took Jimmy’s parking spot and Jimmy had to start parking off the alley in the back.
I complained to my brother that I didn’t like Mitch being there. Jimmy only shrugged and said he wasn’t home much and he’d be gone soon enough so what’d he care? But I knew my brother. Jimmy and Mitch pretended not to notice each other, but really they were like a pair of wrestlers circling, waiting for the first one to make a move.
One night after dinner, I passed Mitch reading the paper at the kitchen table and went in the bathroom. Just as I was pulling up my pants, he opened the door. I dropped and crossed my arms over my lap.
“Sorry,” he said, shutting the door. “I didn’t realize you were in here.”
When I came out, he was back at the table reading the paper like nothing happened. Jimmy was at the sink washing a casserole dish. He glanced up at me. He knew same as me it was no accident. He went back to scrubbing and I made my way to the family room. Soon Mitch wandered in, sat in his chair, and turned on the news. Then Jimmy came in with his jaw twitching, went straight for the remote, and changed the channel.
It seemed like Mitch was going to let it pass, but then he said, “It’s time for the news. Switch it back.”
“What’s so important that you have to know?” said Jimmy. “Isn’t there anything else on TV? Dawn doesn’t need to see this junk all the time. Murders and gas station robberies.”
“Do you pay any of the bills in this house? Because I do,” said Mitch. “I pay the cable bill and that means I will watch whatever I want. Turn on. The news.”
“Oh, you pay one bill and think you run the place?”
Mitch leaned over and snatched the remote from Jimmy, who stood next to Mitch, arms crossed, smiling down at him. Then Mitch opened his can of pop.
“Diet pop is for pussies,” said Jimmy.
Mitch jumped up from the chair, grabbed Jimmy by the T-shirt and slammed him against the wall.
“Do not call me that,” Mitch said.
I saw in Jimmy’s eyes he was going to beat Mitch to hamburger.
“Do it, Jimmy,” I said.
They both looked at me.
Jimmy saw his chance and got an arm around Mitch’s shoulders, kicked his legs out from under him, and slammed him on the ground so hard I heard the breath leave. Jimmy put Mitch in a headlock and started choking him, and Mitch bucked backwards in quick jerks, like a dog trying to escape its collar.
Mom rushed in from the kitchen and smacked Jimmy’s head over and over, coming at him from both sides until he had to let go to defend himself.
If she weren’t our mom, Jimmy would have punched her. He had his fist cocked like he was going to, but the thinking side of him snapped together and he realized it was his mom he was about to knock out.
I watched them, held tight, and a whisper came out of me that I couldn’t stop. “Do it.”
None of them heard me—the three of them were all shouting and arguing. Jimmy said if Mitch ever touched him again, he’d kill him.
“What kind of kids are you raising here? Threatening to kill me?”
Jimmy turned to Mom. “He walked in on Dawn in the bathroom. Tried to pretend it was an accident.”
“It was an accident.”
“No it wasn’t,” I said. I was enjoying this. Revenge. Finally.
“You’re lucky Mom stopped me,” said Jimmy. They were moving closer to each other, like the fight was about to start all over again. Mom got between them.
“You know what? I don’t need this shit in my life.”
“But you do need a house and you sure found yourself a good, free one here,” said Mom.
“Free,” said Mitch with a sneer. “You should pay me to put up with these kids.”
“We’re done,” said Mom.
“Yes, we are,” said Mitch. “He needs to leave. Why don’t you go to one of your buddies’ houses for the night? Get out and see what it’s like on your own.”
“I think we all know who’s leaving,” said Jimmy. “And it isn’t me.”
Mitch bent down, grabbed the remote, switched the TV back to the news, and sat down in his chair.
Jimmy and me looked at Mom, waiting for her to do something. She just threw up her hands and shrugged.
“Oh, no,” said Jimmy. “Nope. You got two choices, Mitch. Leave on your own or wait ’til the cops get here.” Jimmy grabbed the phone and started dialing. “Hi, yes,” he said. “There’s a guy in my house who beat me up and he’s—”
Mitch rushed Jimmy. “Hang up that phone.”
Jimmy sprinted across the room, away from Mitch. “He’s trying to do it again.” He gave them our address and ran outside.
Mitch yelled at Mom, “I can’t believe you let him get away with that! If I was his dad, he’d’ve had his skull cracked a long time ago.”
“The cops are going to be here soon,” said Mom.
Mitch could see where things were headed. He grabbed his keys and slammed the front door so hard he shook the house.
A couple nights later I woke up to Mom and Jimmy whispering in the hall.
“What kind of noise was it?” said Jimmy.
“Like . . . ,” said Mom.
I got out of bed and peeked through my door. Jimmy’s bedroom light was on. Mom was wearing her thin, blue nightgown, the one that shows too much. I wished she would give the nightgown away or throw it in the trash.
“Like a pop can opening,” she said.
Jimmy and Mom stared at each other. Mitch. Every night after dinner, the TV then, sss-snap.
Jimmy held a knife. The handle was the color of my ugly garnet birthstone. The blade was curved and speckled with rust, which told me it was Dad’s, pulled from the deep of the basement.
Jimmy started toward the steps.
Mom caught him by the arm. “No. Don’t.”
He twisted free and moved slowly downstairs. Mom followed. I looked behind me at my dark room and suddenly it seemed like the best place for a bad person to hide, so I got out of there.
The pop can was on the kitchen counter. Mom’s back was against the wall with the phone in her hand. “I’m calling the cops.”
“No.” Jimmy checked behind the couch. “Not yet.”
“The can isn’t open,” I said. Someone could have set it there and forgot. I picked up the can. “And it’s warm.”
Jimmy came toward me. His eyes were mean, like when I open his door without knocking. I backed away. He grabbed the can from my hand. “It’s diet,” he said. “Who drinks diet?”
I wanted to say Mom drinks diet, but I kept my mouth shut.
He pointed with the knife. “Next to Mom. Go.”
The reason Jimmy acted so tough this morning was because of yesterday. Yesterday I went in the house and started homework right after school. I do that when I have the key. Soon as I got up to make a snack, the phone rang.
“Guess who this is,” said a man.
“I don’t know,” I said.
I thought hard. “I can’t.”
“I have a sore throat. My voice is different. That’s why you don’t know who it is.”
I kept quiet.
“Now do you know who it is?”
He turned his face from the phone like he was talking to someone else. “Mitch?” he said. “No . . . not Mitch.”
“I’m hanging up,” I said.
“No. No, I’m just joking with you,” he said. “It’s Mitch.”
“You don’t sound like Mitch.”
“Like I said, I have a sore throat.” He laughed for no good reason, and then asked, “Do you ever get sick?”
I didn’t answer. It was a stupid question.
“Because when I get sick I want to feel better.” His breath was loud in my ear. “Can you do that for me, Dawn? Make me feel better?” His voice changed. He wasn’t joking anymore. “I know how you can make me feel better, Dawn.” He sucked in air through his teeth.
How did he know my name? He wasn’t Mitch and he knew my name. I made tight fists and tried hard as I could not to cry. I hung up the phone and backed into the corner and looked around the room.
The front blinds were open. I dropped to the floor and crawled. I tried not to cry, but everything was coming out when I breathed. I reached for the cord and pulled the blinds closed. What if he was outside watching me? He saw me close the blinds and knew where I was. I tried to stop crying and I tried not to scream, but I screamed and screamed.
“What’s going on?” The stairs shook as Jimmy ran down.
“You’re here?” I screamed.
“I came in the back,” he yelled.
“He’s coming to get me!” I screamed.
“Who?” he shouted.
I screamed and screamed. “The man on the phone is coming to get me.” I didn’t want to cry in front of Jimmy. He needed to know I was tough. “He said he was Mitch, but he wasn’t.” I took a breath. “He said my name.” A sob caught in my throat. “He knew my name.”
Jimmy’s face relaxed and I saw he wanted to hug me like when he was young. Then his eyes got mean. “It was him.”
“No,” I said. “It wasn’t.”
“He had something to do with this. Trust me.” He pulled up the blinds and stared out the window and said, “I’m going to make him pay.”
I wiped my eyes. “How?” My voice was flimsy. I hated the sound of it.
“Beat him senseless.”
“Sure,” I said.
He looked straight at me. “You don’t think I could?”
“I was the enforcer in hockey,” he said, quiet now. “You know what that means, right? It was my job to beat guys up. My only job.”
I pushed a hand against the wall and stood. “Then go do your job.”
I’m standing at my front door, searching the dim, waiting for Jimmy to answer from his room upstairs.
“Jimmy?” I say again, louder.
If he’s home, he’s in his room. After Dad died, Jimmy shut himself up in there, like if he stayed inside, he could make life stop. He could close the door and everything would stay like it was and never change and the bad stuff couldn’t get in. But now I know—better than Jimmy, even—the bad stuff always finds a way.
Jimmy doesn’t answer and now my body recognizes that a bathroom is close.
I step through the door, out of the cold. The heater starts, and a breeze of air flows through the vents. I climb the stairs still holding my pants and barely make it to the bathroom, but I do and the relief is like coming up for air after a long swim. Just before I walk into the hall, I stop myself and listen. I wait a few seconds, then move toward Jimmy’s room. His door is almost shut, but not latched. I push it open, holding my breath.
He isn’t here and I’m sure I’m alone, so I go to his closet and sit on the floor with my knees pulled in high. All I can think is that tomorrow I’ll have to come in by myself again, wondering. Even if I have the key.
Directly in front of me is Jimmy’s hockey stick. He stopped playing a couple years ago, right after Dad died. Just put his stick in the closet and never got it out again. I reach for it. It’s bottom-heavy and weird to hold because the stick is square, not round, and all corners.
I step out of the closet and swing it, hitting an imaginary puck. The stick clips Jimmy’s lamp and a chunk of ceramic lands on the nightstand with dust crumbles around it.
The stick rights itself in my hands, the toe always wants to point down. I stare at the gap in the lamp—and then I swing. I’m smashing the lamp to pieces and I can’t stop. The lightbulb, the shade, the metal ring at the top. I’m breathing heavy, realizing what I’ve done and adding up how mad Jimmy’s going to be at me, for being in his room alone, for breaking his lamp, for daring to pick up the stick, for being alive, because, really, that’s what he’s mad about, that we’re all alive, especially him—when the door creaks open.
The blood pulses in my cheeks and suddenly my head feels like it might pull away from my body and float. I cannot pass out.
I push my back into the corner and hold the stick as tight as I can. I check the window and calculate how fast I can get it open and jump out.
“Dawn,” he says. “I want . . .” He’s searching for the right words. “I’m here to apologize.” He moves a step toward me. His face is a mess of bruises and cuts.
“Don’t come any closer.” I lift the stick so I can swing it like a bat.
“A buddy of mine—not even a good buddy, just a guy I know really—thought it’d be funny to call and mess with you,” says Mitch. “Last night he told me what he did and I . . .” He lifts his hand. It’s taped and two fingers are puffy and purple.
Yesterday after the phone call, after Jimmy and I had stopped yelling at each other, he left the front room and I followed him. He grabbed his keys.
“You’re not leaving me here alone,” I said.
He looked at me, picked up the phone, and dialed. “Hey. Is your sister home?” He listened. “I’ll be over in a few minutes with Dawn. You gotta help me with something.”
He took me over to his friend Pete’s house and left me with Pete’s sister, Molly. We watched TV on their couch without talking ’til Jimmy and Pete came home, energy popping off them. Jimmy’s knuckles were scraped up and bloody. Pete kept sniffing his nose, like he’d suddenly developed a cold, but I saw dried blood in one of the nostrils. On the drive home, I asked Jimmy where he went.
“None of your business,” he said.
“How did you get in?” I ask Mitch.
“The door was open,” he says. “I knocked, but no one answered.”
We stare at each other. I haven’t moved an inch.
He lifts his hands and says, “That’s all I wanted to say.” One hand is bandaged and the other is holding something with the last three fingers. He takes a step back like he’s surrendering or something and Jimmy comes up behind him and gets him in a chokehold. He grabs for Jimmy’s arm, but Jimmy isn’t going to let go this time and he’s pulling Mitch backwards towards the ground. Mitch’s eyes close and he slumps. Jimmy lets him drop.
“Is he dead?” I ask, panicked.
“No, just passed out.”
Jimmy looks like he used to before Dad and everything else—boy eyes and a standstill jaw that’s quit the constant flexing. I’m sure he’s going to hug me, and it makes me happy that my brother is back, the one who used to play games with me, the one I used to watch cartoons with on Saturday mornings, just the two of us, quiet, eating cereal. I’m proud that I know my brother better than anyone else.
“Give me the stick,” he says.
“Why?” My breath is coming fast. I’m scared of what he’s going to do. “He said he didn’t do it. He said he beat up his friend, that’s why his hand is like that.”
“Don’t be stupid, Dawn,” he says. “Give me the stick.”
“No,” I say. “Just drag him down the steps and leave him outside. Or throw him out the window.”
Jimmy bends down and picks up something from the carpet next to Mitch’s hand. He comes toward me holding it straight out in front of him until it’s practically on my nose.
I remember now. Yesterday. I put the spare back under the rock before I went inside.
“He’s a liar, Dawn,” says Jimmy. “I beat the shit out of him last night. And he came back here for revenge—on me—by messing with you.”
Outside the snow is falling big, like the ground is pulling it down faster than it wants to drop. The night Dad died, the night of the car accident with Jimmy, it was snowing. Slower, though. Icy. Mom and I left Dad to wait for Jimmy after his game. How many times have I wished we’d switched cars? If Dad had taken me home instead of Jimmy, he’d still be alive. Or maybe I should have stayed at the rink with Jimmy. Of course, it never would have happened like that. Mom and me, Jimmy and Dad. There wasn’t any other way.
I blink and Jimmy comes into focus. “Maybe you shouldn’t do this,” I say. But we both know it can’t be stopped.
“You should go,” he says.
I expect Jimmy to snatch the stick out of my hands, let his anger burn red on my skin, but he lifts it so easy and light, like we’re on the moon and nothing has any weight.
Gwen Goodkin is the author of the short story collection, A Place Remote, published by West Virginia University Press. She has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has won the Folio Editor’s Prize for Fiction as well as the John Steinbeck Award for Fiction. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia.
Music by Catlofe
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