"This key can unlock the door to your heart's desire."
The voodoo woman's words echoed in Michael's mind like the tune of a bad song. He couldn't get rid of them.
Now that he was sober, he wondered what had possessed him to waste fifty bucks and a perfectly good hour of Mardi Gras on some dingy wanna-be psychic. The closest he could come to an answer was that it had sounded good at the time.
He looked at the small key the woman had given him, idly turning it over in his hands. It was old-fashioned, and made of tarnished silver. The handle was eerie -- it looked like a heart one way, but disturbingly like a grimace of pain when you turned it over. Or anguish. That was a good word for it, a word only used by weirdoes and writers. A word that had no place in real life. Just like the woman and her key.
But the thing that got him most was that he had half-believed her. He had even worn it on a ribbon around his neck for the duration of his stay in New Orleans. Now that he was back in Houston, surrounded by straight-lined buildings and comforting modern architecture, it all seemed like a weird and incredible dream.
But deep in the heart of New Orleans during the wild abandon of Mardi Gras it had been different. He had fought his way through the crowds, trying to find a quiet place to pee, until he was far away from the main roads and in some narrow cobblestone alley. He'd passed out for a moment, even though the ground was wet -- and not with water, from the smell of it. But when he came to he had lost all sense of direction and ended up following the dank cobblestone path into another era, until the street widened and he was walking beneath shadowed balconies ringed with ornate cast-iron railings hung with bougainvillea. Delicate pink petals were crushed against the stone beneath his feet and tendrils of the flowered vines gently brushed the top of his head.
The road ended in a small courtyard overgrown with climbing roses. In the center was a cracked, dry fountain. Darkened doors to every side, except one, which was lit and slightly open. It had seemed to beckon him, and he approached it. There was a hand-painted sign hanging beside it that read:
Consultant on Matters
He had stumbled in, near empty bottle of rum in his hand, and demanded of the small Creole woman a fortune-telling. She looked like one of those annoying phone psychics that were always advertising on late-night TV. She had the turban and beads and everything. There was incense and scented candles burning everywhere he looked. Coupled with the thick, muggy New Orleans air, the room was a bath of fragrant steam.
Everything got a little hazy after that. She had given him the key, but for the life of him he couldn't remember anything she had said, aside from the phrase playing like a broken record in his brain.
"This key can unlock the door to your heart's desire."
And there had been something else... A warning. Something about there being two sides to every coin... Mystical mumbo-jumbo. It didn't matter. If it weren't for the key, he would have thought it was all a drunken dream. It probably had just been a dream. He clearly remembered roses and bougainvillea, but flowers like that didn't bloom in February, not even in New Orleans…did they? He looked at the key again. He'd probably picked it up in an alley somewhere and dreamed up the rest. But it was actually sort of pretty. Antique-looking. Maybe he could give it to Meghan as a souvenir...
His train of thought stopped there. Meghan. Not his girlfriend. Not anymore. She had actually been the reason he was at Mardi Gras. He hadn't been in years, but his friends had insisted, had wanted him to cheer up, maybe find company. It hadn't worked, really. All he had done was drink himself into a stupor, and the entire three days were nothing but a huge messy blur. And the key. He had come back with a fifty-dollar key that was useless, even as a gift, because his girlfriend was pushing up daisies, courtesy of that damned drunk driver who walked away with a broken arm and a few bruises.
That was his heart's desire, he thought as he walked up his front steps. To be with Meghan again, forever. The man who killed her was rightfully in prison, so he didn't even have revenge to look forward to. He just wanted Meghan.
He studied the key a final time, then looked at the lock on his front door. It was a skeleton key, and small, but he doubted it would work on a modern lock. It was stupid anyway. But then again...
"What the hell," he murmured to himself as he pushed the key into the lock and turned it. He heard the lock click, much to his surprise. He opened the door and stepped through...
There was a flash of light, then darkness and the foulest stench...He felt around. He was lying on something bumpy and irregular. Above him was something hard, but lined with smooth satin. He felt below him and his hand closed around something cold. He brought it up and recoiled in horror as his hands recognized what he was holding. A locket.
Meghan's locket. The locket he had given her as an anniversary present.
The locket he had turned over and over in his hands during her funeral.
The locket he had laid in her casket just before the lid was closed.
Too late, he remembered the voodoo woman's warning.
"There are two sides to every coin. There is nothing all good or all bad. Use this key and flip the coin. There is the chance that you will live happily ever after with your heart's desire, but it is weighed against an equal chance of gaining your heart's desire through great anguish and suffering. The risk is there. It is your choice to decide whether it is worth it."
© 2006 by Saki Channing
Bio: Until recently, Saki Channing was a PoliSci/Asian Studies major in her last year of university in post-apocalyptic New Orleans. A typical college student, she subsisted on ramen and spent most of her time procrastinating. Now she is (presumably) a recent PoliSci/Asian Studies graduate ... Her novella Dreams of Starlight appeared in the December 2005 Aphelion.
E-mail: Saki Channing
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