Posted by: Kathryn Hulick | August 28, 2012

The Travel Key

Quabbin Reservoir, April 15, 2012

Time has no meaning any more. A moment and a year may as well be two identically sized stone blocks laid end to end, stacked up, closing the traveler in his prison.

A traveler who can’t move more than one stride in each direction. What irony. Once, he covered vast miles. He rode horseback and elephant-back. He took trains and buses and jumbo jets. He crossed rivers and continents and centuries.

Yes, centuries.

And he always knew where he was. But now, both the where and the when shrink smaller every day. He knows of the lake outside the windows. He can see the trees change from green to red to brown each year. But how many times has that happened? And what lies beyond the lake, beyond the trees?

He can no longer remember. Even his own name slips from his grasp every so often. Was it Clay? Kent? Cal? He settles on Clay for now. Like the mortar holding the stone walls together.

Clay opens the trap door in the floor of the prison and stares at the empty plastic jugs of water. He has plenty of food left, but water… just half a plastic jugs remains. He’s been drinking as little as possible for as long as he can remember, all the while staring at the lake outside the windows.

The strangest thing about his prison: there is no door. And the windows are too small to fit through (he’s tried). Did they build this thing over him? How? When?

The trees are fading from vermillion to rust when he drains the last drop from the water jug. He will die as the leaves fall. It seems fitting.

He is wondering how long it will take, if it might be better to speed things up with the rough edge of one of the tin can lids, when he hears a voice. Singing.

“Oh here I go a-wandering among the leaves so green! Valde-ri, valder-ra, valder-a-ha ha ha

This is it, Clay thinks. I’m hallucinating. I’ll slip into dreams, and then into death, and it won’t hurt at all.

But the voice comes closer, and out the window, Clay sees a spot of a color whose name he can’t remember. It’s a color that he’s only seen sometimes in the sky during a vibrant sunset. Like blue but stronger, deeper.

The color becomes a jacket wrapped around the smiling face of a girl, no more than ten years old.

“I love to wander by the lake that sparkles in the sun!”

She stops and stares through the window. Clay stares back, mesmerized. Her eyes are the same color as her jacket. Why can’t he remember what it’s called?

“You… hey!” Clay’s voice cracks and splits like a mud flat begging for rain. Every word burns, but he has to get her attention.

“Traveler,” she smiles. “I brought this for you.” She holds up a small thing, round and curved slightly on one end.

A travel key.

“Please!” He lunges forward, banging his forehead against the side of the window. His fingers reach through the tight iron mesh. The key will fit through. It has to.

“Ah, ah!” She comes just close enough to tease him. “Tell me your name.”

Clay’s hand falls to his side. His vision blurs and darkens, but he manages to ask. “Tell me the color you’re wearing, and I’ll tell you my name.”

“Purple,” she says.

It’s like a key turning in his memory, unlocking rainbows and flowers and dark, rich wines. Purple. Along with the colors, faces spill out. Voices. Names. One of them must be his own.

“Kristoff,” he says, hearing the woman’s voice in his memory. Dark curls, hands smelling like coffee and dish soap. His mother. “But I prefer Clay.”

“Well, Clay. Here is the key. Use it wisely.” She slips it through the window, and for a moment her small, smooth fingers touch his.

“Travel well.” She smiles, and walks off singing.

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