The cedar box with its faint charcoal film filled Alice’s wrinkled palm. Drawing a ragged breath, she lifted the lid. Ruby and emerald stained light streamed through the stained glass shade of the mantle’s lamp and glittered on the copper key resting within the box’s grooved velvet.
A church bell rang in Alice’s memory, the peal clean and crisp. Clattering hooves on cobblestone resonated in her sunken chest and the smell of burnt ash wafted into her nose. A cool knob filled her hand and a swift gust crossed her face as the mahogany door opened—
Marjorie’s voice drifted across the remembered threshold, through the recollected sounds, and across the potpourri-filled living room. The concern in her granddaughter’s tone tugged at Alice’s ear. Instead of turning, however, she lifted her hand and lowered her finger against the key. Hammered copper kissed her dry skin and then the world vanished in a flash of sunlight.
As the blast faded, a gentle haze filled Alice’s vision. Sometime later a downy softness cradled her head and wrapped around her withered body. With every rise and fall of her breath, she bobbed within the mist, a buoy upon an endless sea.
Alice almost recognized the voice echoing across the expanse of her mind. The caller repeated her name, the young woman’s shout drifting like a slow moving cloud beneath a summer sky.
Pressure against her shoulder and a prick at her hand sent Alice in a downward plunge. The mist began to clear and the haze consolidated into concentrated bars etched upon her closed eyelids. Bleats and the hum of machinery broke through the stillness. She sensed someone moving around her and the world gained a rumbling sway.
Slowly, Alice opened her eyes.
“You’re back!” Marjorie beamed. Her granddaughter’s raven hair framed her blanched face like night around a full moon and her bright blue eyes glistened.
Alice glanced at the red-suited medic at her other side. The gray haired man monitored a tube racing up from her hand before offering an encouraging smile.
“How are you feeling?” He clicked on a tiny flashlight and Alice blinked when he dashed the beam across her eyes.
“I’d be better without the light in my face,” said Alice.
“Granny,” said Marjorie, her tone a gentle scolding. “He’s trying to help.”
“Why do I need help?”
“Don’t you remember?” Alice felt the warmth of her granddaughter’s hand on hers, and returned the girl’s tight clasp. “You disappeared on me.”
“Where did I go?”
“You tell me,” said Marjorie.
“I…I don’t know….” Alice brought her hand to her throat and traced the chain lacing her neck. Trailing toward her collar, she palmed the ring threaded by the links. “What happened?”
“I came by to pick you up for lunch,” said Marjorie. “You’d invited me—”
“I remember that,” said Alice. “I was going to take you to the Sweet Pea, you always like that place.”
“I do,” said Marjorie. “But you said you had to go back for something. I waited in the car, but when you didn’t come back out I came into the house and found you….. You were on the living room floor in front of the fireplace.”
Choking up, Marjorie covered her mouth with her free hand and her eyes gained a fresh sheen.
“It’s all right dear,” said Alice. She tried to brush away the tears falling on Marjorie’s cheek but the needle injected into her hand and its tube kept her from cross the distance. She squeezed Marjorie’s fingers instead. “I’m all right.”
Marjorie sniffed and dabbed the drops away. With a rattling exhalation she dropped her hand and began a vigorous rub of her thigh.
“Tell me,” said Alice, “what did I go back for?”
“This I think.” Marjorie bent to the side and returned with a cedar box the size of a baby’s fist. “I’ve never seen it before.”
Taking the box, Alice rested it on the wooly blanket covering her belly. She arched her neck, and the medic fetched another pillow, tucking it beneath her raised head.
“Thank you,” said Alice.
He patted her shoulder and claimed his seat by the foot of her gurney where he turned his back slightly, offering as much privacy as the ambulance’s confines could provide. His presence, however, disappeared as Alice stared at the box. The monitors, the bleats, the plastic drip of whatever filled the sack above her head, joined him until only the cedar remained.
Marjorie’s voice drifted in from the ether. Alice tore her gaze from the box, sought her granddaughter’s face and then returned to the angular lump.
“I’m supposed to give you this,” she whispered.
“What is it?”
“I…I don’t remember.” Alice lifted the lid and the key saturated her sights. Bells clanged and wagon wheels clattered. Steam and smoke swirled. The door swung ajar—
Marjorie’s touch on her shoulder pulled Alice away from the scents and smells, and the doorways illuminated gap. She found her granddaughter’s face, her smooth features twisted in worry.
“You drifted off again.”
Glancing around Alice spied the ambulance’s interior and the gray haired medic watching on from the back doors, his face passive in its evaluation. He gave her a lean smile, and then scribbled notes on to a clipboard.
With care, Alice closed the box’s lid. “I’m sorry, Marjorie. I didn’t mean to worry you.”
“I know, Granny. I just want you to be all right.”
Claiming Marjorie’s hand Alice squeezed her granddaughter’s fingers one last time. “I am, dear, I am.” She tapped the box with her needled hand. “And I’d feel better if you would take this.”
Marjorie took the box as if it were made of glass. “You remember what it is?”
“It’s a key.”
Lifting the lid, Marjorie squinted. “A key to what?”
“That’s for you to find out.”
Marjorie rolled her eyes. “Granny, come on. What does it open?”
“It opens a different door for everyone.”
Alice gave Marjorie’s flat stare a weak smile. Her granddaughter huffed and shifted her glare to the copper key.
“What did it open for you?”
Sighing, Alice stared up at the fluorescents ribbing the ceiling. “A door that doesn’t exist anymore.”
“Oh,” said Marjorie. She balanced the box on her knee after the ambulance jolted over a pot hole. “What about mom? Did she use it?”
“I think so, but I don’t know what she found.”
“But she took it?”
“She did. It was with the rest of her possessions they recovered after the fire.”
“Oh,” said Marjorie again. She laid her hand over the box, covering it like an oyster around a pearl. “How am I supposed to find out where it goes?”
Alice shut her eyes, her lids suddenly heavy. “It’ll show you, when it’s ready. It’ll sing….”
“Listen for it, Marjorie,” she whispered.
The ambulance’s rumble, the equipment’s bleats, and even the shuffle of Marjorie and the medic vanished under the bells’ peals. Alice reached out for the door, the knob filling her palm. A turn later the golden haze poured over her, the warm glow of sunlight washing for a final time upon her face.