G. L. Eikenberry
A cane, an umbrella, a box, a key: All unlock the secret of one man's life.
Charlie Fendick enters his study. The mound on the floor in the center of the room continues to grow, imparting an increasing sense of chaos to the room, to his life. Cards and letters from friends, former students and associates, or even mere acquaintances from all over the world feed the mound. He hasn't opened the more recent ones and has no plans to do so. It isn't necessary. Not one of his recent rash of correspondents has had the guts to come right out and say it: "Dear Charlie, heard you were dying and knew I'd feel guilty if I didn't make the cut-off, so I thought I'd write while there's still time," but they all hover around that theme.
The real chaos, the ornately carved box under the mound of paper, will also remain unopened.
He takes up the cane -- once an affectation, but as the pain weakens the leg, more of a necessity. He'll need the umbrella against the rain. He fits the key into the door that leads directly to the lane-way. Clutching the umbrella in the same hand with the key and leaning on the cane with the other, he turns the key awkwardly.
As usual, Mr. Branch's old Volvo obstructs the lane-way. Branch never washes his car. Its paint is dull and chalky. Little flowerettes of rust blossom through its film. It could be a good car with a little proper care. It's a pity an old fart like him --
He snaps out of it and pulls back. His face has come within a mere breath of the fender. Lost. Falling into a deviously placed rust mandala.
Professor Charles A. Fendick has got to get a firm grip on himself. He has things to do today. The car will be there another time.
Back around at the street, Charlie pauses to take stock. In an effort to touch base with reality, he exhales forcefully through pursed lips. He steels himself and strides up the walk towards the bus stop. His heart stops.
The ornate box under the mound in the study stirs. The man approaching him is dark-skinned, short, broad, flat, chiseled face Charlie has come to think of as Mayan.
"One hook up, one hook down." The stranger traces a long, thin finger (surprisingly long for so short a man) along the hook of the cane and then down the shaft of the umbrella to the hook of its handle. "The old folks say hooks like that are supposed to make good luck. What do you think, Charlie Fendick?" The accent is not exactly Indian, not exactly Hispanic -- not exactly anything. The hand attached to the tracing finger opens to reveal a key that is pressed into Charlie's hand, the one holding the umbrella.
Charlie already knows the key will fit the back door to his study; the one that leads directly into the lane-way where Old Man Branch parks his abused old Volvo; the door that hasn't been used for nearly two years -- since he lost his key case on a trip. The room will contain the box. The box will contain...
"How did it go?"
"Charlie, tell me how it went. What did he say?"
"June, it's not digitally timed. There is no countdown, dammit. What? Every time I see the doctor do you think he's going to say, `Well, Charlie, you're down to two weeks, six hours and forty seven minutes -- don't bother making an appointment for next month, you'll be dead'?"
"I'm sorry, Charlie. Really, I'm sorry -- I'm so sorry--" The tears are gathering in her eyes again. She gives his arm a compassionate squeeze. She's been getting a lot of practice at compassionate squeezing. She's getting much too good at it.
"Hey, come on, look at it this way, everybody dies eventually, I just face less uncertainty about when it's going to happen than most people. I, uh, bought a new lamp for the upstairs hall."
"I wish you hadn't."
"Charlie--" She cuts herself short and then sighs and drops her head, shaking it slowly from side to side. "Are you going into that room again?" She forces the words around the lump in her throat.
"My study? Yes."
"What do you keep in there?"
"You'll find out when I'm dead."
"Dammit, Charlie!" She is beginning to cry in earnest -- the angry tears, not the sorrowful ones, not the frustrated ones. The angry tears are smaller, their crying silent.
There is no way he can not do this. He takes up the cane as the pain returns to the leg. He fumbles with the ridiculous old skeleton key in the lock. He makes a lunging grab for the umbrella as he leaves. He can't forget the umbrella. He makes his way down the lane-way, taking care not to rub against Branch's filthy old rust bucket. The paint almost sighs, resigned to neglect, dull and chalky. Little flowerettes of rust blossom through the grimy film....
"That's good, those hooks like that -- they say they're supposed to mean good luck..."
"I'm sorry, Charlie. Really, I'm sorry--" the tears were forming in her eyes, pooling at the lower lids, waiting to spill over and run down her cheeks. She gave his arm a compassionate squeeze.
"Everybody dies eventually..."
"I wish you hadn't."
"Hadn't what? Oh, the lamp. Shit, I forgot the lamp..."
"Charlie -- I know--"
The pain forced its way into his chest. "What? What do you know?"
"I know about your job, about the doctor, about the man with the keys. I don't understand any of it, Charlie, but I know."
"It's not raining today."
"Charlie, don't change the subject."
"You don't understand. It won't work. There's no point in taking the umbrella. It wouldn't make sense."
"Where do you go? I know you don't go to the university. I know they eliminated your grant. And I know you don't go to Dr. Vernon's -- so where?"
"I don't know." His head drops. He has to get into the study. It's not raining. He has to figure this out.
"The cancer? Is that a lie too? Why, Charlie?"
"It's not cancer. I never said it was cancer. But I am dying -- June -- try to understand -- I have to go in -- I--"
"I'm going to move back to my own place, Charlie. This just isn't working out. I know I'll feel guilty as hell about abandoning you if it turns out you really are dying, but it just isn't working -- besides, I'm not doing you any good here even if you really are--"
"I don't think it's a good idea to change anything -- I -- I have to get into the study -- I can't--"
"Damn you, Charlie Fendick!"
The pain is calling him. He has to go in. The week's mail, added to the mound, caused an avalanche, exposing the box. This is wrong -- all wrong. He takes up the cane as the pain gathers force and moves down into his leg. It isn't raining....
"Only one hook today. Turned down. That's not good -- turned down -- all the luck runs out, Charlie Fendick--" "That's not the right key -- that key won't fit--"
"You think I don't know my own keys? You take the key I give you and don't complain. You take that one. Now go."
The growth along the trail is closing in. It's too thick. He can hardly find the way. This is all wrong -- the air is hot and dry. His lungs are sore from the effort -- drawing breath after searing breath. The clearing is visible now -- only a little farther. And in the clearing is the mound. And in the mound the door. And behind the door will be June and another door and, of course the box. But she isn't there. There isn't another door. Only a box. A rough but beautifully carved box.
"She was right. This isn't working out."
He looks at the key in his knotted palm. The box should be locked. The key should open it.
Charlie Fendick answers the door. He half expects it to be June. He's been planning to call her anyway--"You didn't come today. The pain must be getting pretty bad by now."
"No. I can stand -- the pain -- yes, the pain I can stand.... How did you get here without me?"
"I've got your key."
"No. No keys. I'm through. I don't understand what's happening here, but it has got to stop. I don't care anymore. I'd rather just get it over with and die. If I could just have a couple of days to straighten out a few things. Just two days. Hell, I'll settle for one--"
"Come now, Charlie Fendick, you have to go to the forest now. Not in two days, Charlie, now."
The growth along the trail closes in -- too thick -- very nearly impassable. His lungs are constricted -- burning from the effort of drawing breath after searing breath. The clearing is only a little farther. And in the clearing, the mound. Or -- it's a pyramid. No box. At the top, not inside, is an ornately carved -- altar.
"She was right. This isn't working out." He is stretched out on the altar, not bound, but held nonetheless. The man -- priest? -- short, dark, broad, chiseled face -- uses the knife to open Charlie's shirt. He draws the blade lightly across Charlie's chest, seeking out his heart.
"This is not an easy thing, Charlie Fendick." He runs the index finger of his left hand over the first, glistening incision as he raises his right hand, the one with the beautifully gilded knife, high over his head.
As the blood seeps out, releasing the pain, Charlie rolls out of the knife's arc. In the same fluid motion, his fist is thrust, by a force he doesn't control, into the priest's solar plexus. He lurches down off the altar. He feels heat. He feels the muscle tissue in his thigh part. He feels the pain as it flies free. A hand pressed to the thigh comes away red, wet, hot. This, of course, cannot be happening.
Somewhere in the distance he is caught up in a struggle for the knife. He shudders as he feels it slide so easily between the ribs of the smaller man.
He runs, drawing hot, wet, heavy breath after heavy, sodden breath. His lungs ache, throb. He runs until he can run no longer, collapsing -- the door just beyond his reach.
The pain in his leg is severe as he fumbles with the lock. It is raining. The pain is forcing its way up into his chest. He goes back inside for the umbrella. The box is already under his arm. The -- priest -- is waiting, weak, bleeding propped up against Branch's Volvo. "Here, take your damn box."
"The key. Take the key. Open it--"
"Open it yourself. I'm through with this--"
"Open the box."
Charlie's leg is throbbing -- the vise tightening around his chest. The pain is literally killing him. "Open the box, Charlie Fendick. Take the heart into your hands." But it is too late.
He is gone.
He sits down heavily at his desk and rubs his hands along the arms of his chair, his desk -- the comforting coolness of the telephone receiver.
He dials June's number.
"Hi, June? This is Charlie. No, the leg's not feeling too bad. Yeah, I guess the ticker might even make it. Look, June, I know this is kind of short notice, but I'm sort of setting up an office here in my study. Yeah, screw the dean and the faculty senate too. Well, I might not be able to pay you much for a while, but I was wondering if you might -- this afternoon would be great. You should see the stack of mail here."
G. L. Eikenberry (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a frequent InterText contributor who works as a freelance information systems and communications consultant in Canada. He's been writing fiction for more than twenty years. His work has been published in a wide (often obscure and mostly Canadian) variety of hard-copy publications as well as in electronic media.
InterText stories written by G. L. Eikenberry: "Eddie's Blues" (v3n5), "Reality Error" (v4n2), "The Loneliness of the Late-Night Donut Shop" (v4n4), "River" (v5n1), "Oak, Ax and Raven" (v6n2), "Schrödinger's Keys" (v7n1).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 7, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1997 G. L. Eikenberry.