The Key

By Cristina Hartmann

Bridget knew it would be a bad night when Steve turned to her, his black eyes clear and intense as he muttered, “Turn the television back on.”

It was his favorite show, “The Garden of Friends,” which had gone off the air fifteen years ago. This episode, “Preparing for Winter,” was Steve’s favorite. Mr. Carrot and Ms. Onion had peacefully resolved their dispute over the garden’s sunniest spot. It was only a few moments before their closing song ended. ”Oh, it is a beautiful day! Won’t you come back and visit us in the garden?” they all sang at the top of their lungs.

She pressed the button and the television clicked back on, Mr. Carrot’s mouth open mid-song. “I’m sorry, Steve. I turned it back on. See?”

His face slackened and his eyes dimmed as a silly smile appeared. “Thank you, Bree. I love the song so much.”

It had been a blip, nothing more. 

She relaxed and watched men and women in giant felt vegetable costumes dance around as they sang the final stanza. Their song had long since been distorted and degraded by age and repeated playbacks, turning their melodious voices into staticky screeches. 

He didn’t seem to mind, bouncing up and down in his seat, moving with the song’s rhythm.

When the crescendo finally ended, he turned to her and smiled. “Isn’t the garden beautiful? I wish I could live there.”

“Me, too, Steve,” she said as she crouched by the VCR. It would be a wonderful life, with every conflict resolved by the episode’s end. 

The tape wouldn’t last much longer. The vegetables’ faces had turned white and misshapen as the static consumed their faces. They watched most of the show in their memories rather on the static-laden television screen, recalling Ms. Onion’s bright blue eyes and Mr. Celery’s deep baritone solos. Videotapes weren’t meant to withstand fifteen years of hard use. Soon, the tapes—and the show—would decay into ruined spools of film.

She had tried to get Steve to watch other shows, like “Blue’s Clues” or “Barney,” but he remained steadfastly loyal to the now-defunct show. “The Garden of Friends” had been a pitiful failure of a children’s show, getting dropped after five episodes. She had searched in vain for copies of the extinct show. None of that mattered to Steve. To him, the show was the best in the whole world.

 She prayed that the tape would last a little longer. 

“Bedtime, Stevie,” she said as she got to her feet.

His face sagged, but he followed her into his bedroom without a word. As he did every night, he undressed slowly and methodically, folding each article of clothing and returning them to their proper places. It was a habit bred into them by their mother, who couldn’t abide untidiness. “Cluttered room means a cluttered mind,” she had said in her smoker’s burr. 

She helped him into his pajamas, an enormous powder-blue onesie with padded feet. She had to put in a special order to get one in extra-large to accommodate Steve’s hefty six-foot-four frame and his growing gut. 

In his pajamas, surrounded by trains, she almost forgot that he was her older brother by a minute. 

“You’d never know you two were kin, let alone twins,” their mother had chuckled. “As opposite as day and night, like that Chinese thingamajig.”

It was only because he had held on her leg as they slipped down the birth canal that she was still alive today. The doctors said that if she had stayed in her mother’s womb any longer, she would have suffocated and left her brother as a twin without his counterpart. That was something she never forgot. He was a good big brother.

Looking up at her big brother, she felt even smaller and more delicate. In his prime, her brother would’ve made a fine linebacker with his muscle and agility if it wasn’t for his inability to remember directions. She, on the other hand, had always been a slight and sickly child, never able to grow past four-feet-eleven.

What she lacked In strength and height, she made up in grades, always getting good marks for her diligence and cooperativeness. One teacher had written “Bridget is a good student who turns in her work neatly done and on time. I wish her brother was more like her.” Steve had been held back several times until they finally had to let him go at twenty-one with a special diploma. 

Before climbing into bed, he hugged her as gentle as could be, enveloping her in warmth. She snuggled in his arms, knowing he would never crush her even though he could.

Once in bed, he asked her the same question he asked every night: “Will you leave the door unlocked tonight? I promise I’ll be good, Bree.”

She gave him her customary response and hated it as she always did. “You know I can’t. It’s not safe.”

His eyes sharpened. “Frank’s gone now.”

Hearing the name made her flinch. He never mentioned Frank, preferring to leave all memories of him in the past, just like she did. Frank was long gone now.

Unnerved, she gave him a hasty kiss on the forehead. “Good night.”

The usual blurry, dull look returned to his eyes as he smiled at her. “Night, Bree. I’ll dream about Choo-Choo and Vroom,” he said, pointing at the two red trains on the wallpaper that he had christened as such. He closed his eyes, his face relaxing into the smooth, innocent face of a child’s. He always fell asleep with the quickness of a toddler, something that she envied.

“I love you,” she whispered before she closed the door behind her.

The key in her hand was an old-fashioned skeleton key, the kind that you never saw anymore. It was made of heavy iron with a molded handle shaped in the elegant lines of a fleur-de-lis, entirely too beautiful for its job.

It isn’t fair. Steve hadn’t had an episode in years, not since the day Frank left. The blips were growing milder and less frequent. 

Perhaps Frank had taken Steve’s episodes with him when he had walked out on them.

She hated waking up to the sounds of her brother’s plaintive cries and the doorknob rattling. “Please let me out. I didn’t do anything wrong! I was a good boy!” he always cried. When she opened the door, his cheeks were always wet with tears as he clung to her, murmuring about how he was a good brother.

He has earned one night of freedom.

She slipped the key back into her pocket and walked to the kitchen. Red and white checkers covered the kitchen walls, a leftover of her mother’s taste and the seventies. The crimson reminded her of blood and fists, but she didn’t have the money or the heart to strip the walls. The boiler needed fixing first.

After retrieving a beer from the refrigerator, she closed her eyes and savored the smooth and heavy taste of the stout. 

An appreciation of good beer was the only gift that Frank had left her. He had spent years perfecting his palate for craft beer. “Don’t ever drink one of those big names,” he warned. “They’re all just canned piss water marketed to lustful idiots.” She had learned the difference between ales and lagers, and that IPAs were extra-hoppy to preserve them during the long sea voyage between England and India. 

Beer was Frank’s one and only love. He had been saving up so he could move to Boulder, Colorado—with or without her, she never knew—and open a microbrew. Too bad that he had never been good with money, always draining the coffers for a new television or expensive meals out. So he stayed here in rural Pennsylvania. 

She raised her bottle to a picture of her mother on the mantle. Mrs. Voorhees had a square chin and muscular forearms that would’ve been the envy of any construction worker. “I’m all right, Mama.” she whispered. “Don’t worry about me.”

Eleanor Voorhees was a stolid woman of Pennsylvania Dutch stock who knew nothing but hard work and grit. When her husband had died while she was pregnant, she had just kept working at the factory and raised her children as if nothing had happened. After her a-pack-a-day habit gave her lung cancer, she had outlived the doctor’s predictions by a year and worked until a month before the end, quitting only when she began to cough up too much blood. 

She had always been perplexed that such a fragile creature such as Bridget had emerged from her body. One day, when Bridget was thirteen, her mother walked into her bedroom and gave her the only maternal lecture she would ever give. 

“Listen, both you and me know you ain’t exactly the toughest girl around. There’ll be people picking on you. It’s just the way of the world. The strong squash the weak.

“God gave Steve beans for brains, but he can lift a tractor. You got some sense in you, but you wouldn’t scare a mouse. You two better stick together, or both of you’ll get in trouble, one way or another.”

Frank hadn’t understood that. After one of Steve’s episodes, Frank would scream about what a wacko ‘tard Steve was and how he should be shipped off to the loony bin. “He’s a goddamned menace. One day he’s gonna up and kill someone and we’ll be on the hook. He’s a lawsuit waiting to happen,” he had screamed.

She smiled as she swallowed the last of her beer. It was still a point of pride that she had withstood five years of Frank’s yelled demands that she abandon Steve. She never had. She had been a good little sister. 

It didn’t matter anymore. Frank was long gone, having disappeared one night after Steve had returned from his nightly walk with scratches and teeth marks—human teeth marks—all over him with no memory of how he had gotten them. 

Frank had taken one look at Steve and shouted about how he was calling the cops. When she had pleaded for him not to, Frank had knocked her down to the floor and walked out, the door slamming behind him. That was the last she had seen of him.

She had cowered all week, waiting for her husband, reeking of beer, to return with the police. Weeks, and then months, passed without word of him or the police. Each day, she relaxed a little more and stopped looking over her shoulder every time she gardened. Two years later, she filed for divorce on the grounds of desertion. It had been the happiest day of her life.

“Good riddance to bad rubbish,” she said, but her insult had little force behind it.  

Her head jerked up when she heard a thump, her eyes darting to Steve’s bedroom door. It didn’t open, nor did she hear anything from inside other than his usual deep snore. 

After several minutes of silence, she decided it was the creaky old house feeding her imagination.

A shadow darted across the yard outside, drawing her attention. The sound of a feline hiss and rustling leaves made her run to the window. “Mr. Tigglesworth, no!” she cried.

The shadow crouched in the back of her small yard before leaping onto the raised garden.

She ran outside, her slippers flapping on the wet grass, waving her arms. “Get away from my tulips!” she shouted.

The feline shape turned toward her, its tail raised and its diamond-studded (all of them made of paste) collar glinting under the moonlight. As she approached, Mr. Tigglesworth arched his back.

She stopped in her tracks, wheezing and gasping. “Please don’t,” she said.

Mr. Tigglesworth bared his fangs, his teeth nearly as bright as the fake diamonds. She shied away as the hissed and spat in her direction. 

Once she had backed away, Mr. Tigglesworth squatted right on top of three of her tulips, his yellow slitted eyes fixed on hers. The sharp ammonia scent of cat urine filled the air, intermingling with the smell of wet soil.

She stood still, paralyzed as the cat continued urinating, then defecated, and then covered up his waste with the flower bed’s carefully tended soil. Once the job was done, Mr. Tigglesworth trashed his tail at the trembling Bridget and scurried away, slipping under the fence. When he was in his owners’ backyard, the cat’s tail bounced up and down with feline joy.

She watched Mr. Tigglesworth’s shadow disappear into the Packards’ large house in the distance, her tremors subsiding. “What’s wrong with you? He’s just a cat,” she whispered, her words swallowed up by the night’s silence. 

She was a pathetic creature, cowed by a cat with a nasty streak. Her mother had been right to worry.

She inspected her prized tulips. Mr. Tigglesworth’s hind claws had shredded the reddish-yellow petals into strips of tender plant-flesh. The stems, as sturdy as they were, were now ruined. Mr. Tigglesworth had managed to crush every single one of her flowers. She would have to wait for another year before seeing another one of her favorite flowers again.

Cradling an urine-soaked petal, she started to weep. She wept silently as she rocked back and forth.

Tulips were her favorite flowers. Most of her garden was filled with practical plants: vegetables and herbs. Tulips were her one flight of fancy. The hardy flowers withstood the harsh winters and blossomed with vivid color during the balmy springs. Her tulips had flourished so much that she was considering showing them at the county fair, so others could admire the beauty she had fostered. If she did well there, she dreamed of displaying them at a big show, like the tulip festival up in Ottawa. 

That county fair wouldn’t happen, at least not this year. Maybe next year, she thought, unless Mr. Tigglesworth does it again

She stared at the hole under the fence, silently cursing the surveyor who had marked the land wrong fifty years ago. The fence had ended up entirely on the Packards’ land. When she had gone to Walton and Janice’s to explain what Mr. Tigglesworth was doing to her garden, Janice had protested, “You must be wrong,” the heavily perfumed woman told her. “Our lovely boy would never do such a thing. It must be a rabbit or something.” When Bridget had requested the hole to be covered, Walton had said it was too expensive, and if she as much as thought about filling it herself, he would slap her with a trespassing charge. “It’s America, damn it. The hell if anyone’s gonna step on my property and screw with me.”

She stood up, letting the ruined petal fall onto the dirt. Only if I were stronger, like Steve, she thought.

As soon as the thought appeared, she knew it was useless. Bridget Voorhees was who she was, meek and weak. 

With one last look at her ruined tulips, she returned to the house to finish her nightly chores. Once she had cleaned the kitchen, taken out the trash, and sorted the mail, she slipped between her sheets. Her hand reached out to feel Yonkers’ ragged fur before she remembered that the dog had died years ago. 

Yonkers had been an anxious and fearful mess of a dog, a mutt gone wrong with his Greyhound head and Dachshund legs. She had found him wandering the streets, shivering and cut up. He ran up to her, hid between her legs, and never left. That night, Yonkers slept next to her, whimpering and shaking so hard his teeth rattled. He howled whenever she wasn’t in sight, so she kept him with her always, even in the bathroom. Whenever Yonkers went outside to do his business, the neighborhood dogs smelled his fear and came with their jaws snapping. Yonkers would dart inside, leaving a Hansel and Gretel trail of urine and feces. She usually had to accompany him to make sure he did his business at all.

That had all changed the night that she had the flu and Steve took Yonkers out. She had heard a storm of yips and yowls, which she thought were fever-induced hallucinations. When her brother returned with a happy Yonkers and battle wounds so deep that they went to the emergency room. The next morning, he woke up and screamed when he saw the stitches all over his body. Their mother had taken a drag of her cigarette and decided to use the key every night. “Steve gotta be protected from himself, even if those dogs deserved whatever they got,” she had said.

No dog ever bothered Yonkers again. He died of old age five years later, never losing his tremulous nature. 

With memories of Yonkers’ wet snout under her hand, she drifted off to the blurry line separating consciousness and unconsciousness. A loud thump and a squelching noise came from downstairs. 

Her eyes flew open, a small squeak escaping from her.

Images of a brutish burglar immediately came to mind, making her cower under her blanket. After several minutes passed, she told herself to be brave and put her feet on the floor. 

By the time she reached the stairs, she was dizzy from hyperventilating. She imagined a hundred ways that she could defend herself, each one more implausible than the last. She descended the steps one at a time, clutching the railing. The living room was pitch-black and silent, no burglar to be found.

Without warning, light flooded the room, blinding her. As her vision adjusted, she recognized the familiar sight of her brother in his powder-blue onesie. Except it now had green and brown smears over the shoulder and down the arm.

He turned and smiled. This smile was knowing and malevolent, the furthest thing from his usual dippy grin. “Oh, how lovely of you to join us, dear sister,” he said, his voice crisp and clear.

“Us?” 

The smell hit her as soon as she spoke. The coppery rotting smell of torn innards filled her nostrils, making her retch. Her gaze dropped to the floor and she screamed.

At Steve’s cloth-covered foot, now red, lay a bloody pulp of flesh and fur. Thick crimson liquid pooled under the mass, turning the brown wool rug black.

“I see that you’re looking at poor Mr. Tigglesworth. He isn’t going to be bothering your flowers no more, little sister.”

She let out a strangled cry as she recognized pieces of Mr. Tigglesworth. Janice had always cooed about how beautiful Mr. Tigglesworth had been with his black-and-white tuxedo-patterned fur, always formally attired. The sight, smells, and the horror all converged to make her stomach lurch.

“Oh, God!” she cried as she ran into the bathroom. Her dinner and more came up and went into the toilet. Once her retching had turned into dry heaves, she sat back with her eyes squeezed shut. 

Her brother leaned on the doorframe. “I thought you would have a stronger stomach, Bridget. He was your … archenemy, wasn’t he?”

She blinked up at him. “You’re not my brother. You’re…”

“Sure, I am.” He grinned. “I’m so brotherly that I got rid of that asshole cat that kept ruining your nice tulips. Red’s my favorite color, you know.”

“He was just a cat!”

“Mr. Tigglesworth wasn’t just a cat. Just like Frank wasn’t just a man.”

“Frank?” she squeaked. “Wha—What does he have to do with this?”

He scoffed. “I thought you were supposed to be the smart one. I’m a good big brother, remember? I take care of my little sister.”

The foul smells and sights forgotten, she pressed a quavering hand to her mouth. “He … he left.”

“He left, alright. I couldn’t tolerate hearing him slap you around no more. After he said he’d separate us … well, that made matters urgent.”

She stared at him open-mouthed. “I left the door unlocked that night.”

She had been so dazed and disoriented after hitting her head on the floor that she hat forgotten to clean Steve up and lock up. The next morning, when she awoke to him next to her, weeping and covered with grime, she had thought it was from the earlier episode. Not a second one.

“You … you … Frank?” She couldn’t quite say the words.

“Yes. I did.” He answered her unspoken question.

“Where … Where did you put him?”

“Out back under the flower bed. That’s why the flowers got so pretty…” He rocked back on his heels. “Good fertilizer.” 

She let her head drop into her hands, feeling unbalanced and overturned even sitting down. 

When it had become clear that Frank was gone and staying gone, she imagined that he had trekked thousands of miles away and opened that dream brewery of his. Perhaps he even found another woman, one without a wacko brother and a house with astronomical heating bills. She imagined him happy. Not dead, but alive and happy.

“I … I’m going to call…”

“No, you’re not,” he snapped. “I’m a good boy. We’re in this together.”

She stood up on wobbly legs, her hand reaching out to the phone in the living room. The stink from the toilet fed her dizziness, so she pushed down the flush handle.

Steve’s whole body stiffened at the sound. His eyes unfocused and then again focused on her, but the sharpness, the malevolence, was gone now.

“Bree?” he said, his voice thick and slow. “Why—Why are my jammies wet?”

She reached for her brother, but she was too late. He turned to the living room where Mr. Tigglesworth’s corpse still lay. He started screaming. He didn’t stop until he fainted with a loud thump.

She crouched by her fallen brother, checking for his breath. He was just unconscious with a large bump on his head. His face smooth and placid in its stillness, he was once again an innocent child sleeping. 

The phone was in the living room, which had miraculously remained free of any blood splatters or dirt marks. I should call, she thought.

As she dialed 9, the words of Frank’s final benediction returned to her in their full wrath and bitterness. “You’re just as much a retard as your brother. Fucking waste of air, both of you. Thank God I hit that baby out of you.”

She placed the phone back on its cradle, ending the call that had never began. “Good riddance to bad rubbish,” she said firmly.

It took her an hour to drag Steve back into his bedroom and clean him up so he wouldn’t wake in a panic. Before she locked the door, she whispered, “You’re a good boy, Steve. It’s my turn to protect you.”

She did what she did every night: cleaned up. She collected and disposed of Mr. Tigglesworth’s remains deep under her flower bed, working until dawn. After taking a shower, she cut up the rug and watched the wool disintegrate as it burned in the fireplace. To remove the stench from the living room and the bathroom, she scrubbed both rooms with bleach and detergent.

When Janice Packard appeared at her door asking after her beloved cat, she told her, “Haven’t seen him. I’m sure he’s where he belongs,” before closing the door in Jancie’s face.

Her best tulips to date sprouted in the spring, with gorgeously deep red petals and robust stems. They won second place at the county fair, earning her a seventy-five-dollar gift certificate to the Bumblebee Diners, Steve’s favorite restaurant. She began entering her tulips into competitions after that, winning a medal here and there. 

She left her brother’s bedroom door unlocked again when she discovered her temperamental manager embezzling money from the elderly shop owners. That night she cleaned up, like always.

© 2014 Cristina Hartmann