01 Feb We buried the only key with my sister
I hadn’t meant to kill my sister. It had been a joke. In life, she never used to listened to me anyway, though as her older brother I felt I had the authority. But after she’d died and in my childish misery and guilt I’d invited her to come back home…well, she did.
There were only two of us. Our parents thought we were everything they’d wanted in a family: a boy and a girl. She came out a bit shyer than they wanted, quiet and a bit odd—at least to me at that age—but we were perfect side by side in family portraits. Now there is only one of us, we don’t take family portraits anymore.
It started when I’d found the key to her room. Our bedrooms were across the hall from each other on the second floor of the house. The doors had old-fashioned doorknobs that locked with a key, which we didn’t have and which I hadn’t seen before. Then one day I found a ring of unmarked keys in a junk drawer in the foyer’s side table. I went around trying them in everything until I’d matched every key to a door in the house, including our bedrooms. Nearly every key on the ring had a spare, but not all did. The key to my sister’s room was one of them that had only one master key. That was when I’d gotten the idea. I pocketed the key to her room and left the rest in the drawer where I’d found them.
I waited for the perfect opportunity that evening, when she was in the living room with my parents staring at the TV, as she always did after dinner. I went upstairs on pretense to use the bathroom and quietly locked her bedroom door from the outside.
Back downstairs, I acted innocent as we watched TV together. I loitered until my sister yawned, kissed our parents goodnight, and went upstairs. I waited on the couch, grinning with suspense. It was a good long moment before we heard her shriek. Then the sound of wood banging. She streaked downstairs, in tears, asking for help with her door.
Father went up with her to see what was the matter. They both came downstairs again, her still in tears, and he in confusion. “It’s locked,” he said. Mother got up and retrieved the keys from the side table in the hall. All three of them went upstairs; I waited until they were gone to fall over myself laughing, pretending to find something funny on TV.
By the time I got sleepy and went upstairs, they were still there in a huddle trying and retrying every key. Of course, none of them fit. Mother suggested my sister sleep in my room until they can call a locksmith in the morning. I was annoyed at this and produced the key from my pocket, too tired to care about the trouble I’d get into.
“It was just a joke!” I said in my defense. After we’d gotten her door unlocked, Mother made me return the key to the drawer, saying the first chance she got, she’d get it duplicated to avoid this situation again.
Naturally, she’d forgotten.
That weekend when our parents were out on an errand, leaving us alone at home, I’d gotten bored and done it again. My sister knew immediately who had done it. It was a Saturday afternoon, and it was the last time I would see her alive.
She flew into the kitchen, chasing me, demanding I open her door. I pretended to have swallowed the key. By this time she was in hysterics and fled the house in tears, as if she could run all the way to Mommy and Daddy in town.
This wasn’t the first time she’d done that. She always came right back home before she got to the end of the street. I waited for her to give it up and return, but as the hour turned to two, and then three, I began to worry.
I waited by the chair closest the front door, and then the window. At some point I’d gone out and walked around our yard and then the neighborhood, but saw no sign of her. I came home with my heart in my throat. I decided to keep waiting instead of call my parents from the kitchen phone—ten minutes more, I told myself, then I would.
At some point I must have fallen asleep. The next thing I knew, it was later than late; my parents were home, shaking me by the shoulders as if they wanted to kill me. The first thing I noticed was that they, too, were in tears.
My sister had run out into the road and gotten hit by a car. Our parents had just turned the corner on their way home when they saw the ring of people and the flashing lights. She had been found on the road two blocks away from home—farther than I’d dared go on my own. When the ambulance took her away, the sirens were silent: there was no rush; she was dead. My parents had come home to find out whether I was dead too, and I think at that point they wished I was.
The first chance I got, I left them crying and hugging each other in the living room. I went upstairs to her room and unlocked the door, and then just stood there staring at her empty bed. Her ballerina music box threw a weird shadow on the pillowcase from the moonlight outside her window.
* * *
I carried the key in my pocket during her funeral. My parents barely looked at me, and I wouldn’t blame them. They had hardly spoken to me in the days since her death except in harsh little commands to hurry up, get dressed, fix your tie, get in the car. I behaved like the perfect son they’d always wanted, but that did nothing to warm them up to me.
Because of their avoidance of me, I managed to find myself alone at some point in the ceremony looking into the open casket of my dead sister, cold and pale and dressed up in her ballerina costume.
I felt the key burning in my pocket where I kept my hands pocketed and clenched. I brought out the key and went to pat her cold, marble hands, as if to say goodbye, I’m sorry. As I did, I tucked the key under her fingers folded together over her chest.
“Please come home,” I whispered.
I didn’t cry then, or after.
* * *
Mother kept making her promises. She was too grieved to go through my sister’s room and put things in order after the funeral. She promised to do it someday, just not now, not now. She only went as far as to stand in the open doorway and glance in, the way I’d done the night my sister had died, but invariably Mother would break down into tears and leave, closing the door behind her. Sometimes she stood there until Father took her away. I didn’t dare go near her. She repeated this pitiful ritual almost every day, and then every week. She stopped after a couple of months of this.
Things edged into a semblance of normalcy. My parents softened up toward me just enough to allow me to have friends over. I needed someone to talk to. My friend Kief came over after school one day, and I told him about how, the previous night, I’d woken in bed hearing the faint sound of my sister’s ballerina music box playing in her room across the hall. It stopped as soon as I’d fully opened my eyes and sat up. I decided it was a dream. But the melody would not leave my mind all day at school.
I hummed the tune for Kief, who had the inane idea that he knew the composer of the song. We fell into a debate about that, and to refresh his memory of the song and prove my point, we went up to her room to retrieve the music box.
The door was locked. We peered into the keyhole and found that it was too dark for that time of day. Then I realized why: there was a key blocking the hole. It had been locked from the inside.
Kief saw no significance to this, since I’d been too struck dumb to say anything else to him. I’d been in no mood to entertain him after that, so he went home. I stayed downstairs in the living room, staring wide awake at the TV without watching it, waiting for my parents to come home. I could hardly restrain from calling my mother to hurry home from the grocery store, or my father from work.
But when they did finally get home, I found I could hardly mention anything to them. I stayed quiet all through dinner until it was time for me to go upstairs to bed. I didn’t want to go, but I didn’t want to upset my parents further. I stopped outside my door and glanced at hers across the hall. Silent. I didn’t dare try the knob again.
* * *
It was a Saturday the next day and I was off school, but I was woken early by my mother battering the door to my room—(I’d gotten my own key from the drawer and locked my door the previous night; something I rarely did before then). When she’d gotten in, she demanded that I unlock my sister’s door that instant, that I had no right to—
I interrupted and told her I had nothing to do with the door this time.
“Lies,” she shrieked. “You and your friend were fooling around in the house yesterday when I was not here.”
I told her that was true, but we never did a thing to my sister’s door, and that was the truth. She wouldn’t believe me when I said I didn’t have the key. I was forced to tell her that I’d left it in my sister’s coffin. She’d gone silent at that, not because of the implications of what this meant, but because she was transported back to the funeral in her mind. Her eyes filled up, but the tears would not fall. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that I thought the key was in the house now, on the other side of the door.
All she was thinking about, now that she shook herself into reality, was that we couldn’t duplicate a key we didn’t have. What’s more, she decided the door wasn’t locked but merely jammed by humidity or something else; apt punishment for her for not having opened the door in a while. She decided we would have to call a locksmith that very day.
Once she flew this idea by my father, however, he would have none of it. He left his breakfast half-eaten at the kitchen table and roared out to the garage to retrieve his toolkit and roared back in and straight up the stairs, followed by my mother rolling her eyes behind his back as he spewed forth his wounded pride. Gingerly I hung back in the hall as my father began to play locksmith at my sister’s door.
With me and Mother watching over his shoulder, he tried the door this way and that, pulled and pushed, banged it with precision here and there, and finally knelt at the doorknob and probed a penlight into the hole. I saw his eyebrows shoot up. “There’s something blocking the keyhole,” he said, confirming what I had seen the other day. It was midmorning by then; my sister’s room had a window facing East; the light should have shown through the doorknob as it did from the gap under the door, but it was dark as night.
Through this gap, my father slid a sheet of old newspaper along the floor, a good deal of a centerfold to cover as much ground as possible. Then with a thin metal instrument from the screwdriver kit, he prodded into the hole until we all heard a thin, distinct thud of metal on the paper on the other side. A dot of light was cleared in the doorknob.
My father pulled at the paper carefully from under the door, and we could see the slight weight of the key keeping the paper from flapping, but then before it was halfway out, the weight was gone, and the paper came clean away on our side of the door, very suddenly unburdened from its weight. The key was gone.
Father had that puzzled look on his face, and he turned to glance through the doorknob. Then he got on all fours to peer under the door to see if the key had gotten caught on something or had somehow fallen off the paper. But of course he saw nothing, no movement of shadow across the light, no telltale form of a key on the floor for any distance. I knew what had happened, of course; it had been plucked out from under our very noses.
Mother asked Father if he was quite finished playing locksmith so we could call a professional. He wasn’t quite ready to give in, and as they continued to bicker, I left them and went downstairs, out the back door. I circled around the yard to look up at my sister’s window from the outside.
They had picked her room very carefully. Not only had she gotten the best view but the window was the most secure from any break-ins from the outside. You couldn’t get to its ledge from the roof or any outdoor piping; there were no tree branches close enough for a foothold; this side of the house was smooth and unscalable.
And as I stared up at her open shutters and drawn curtains—the way they had been the last day of her life—I saw that the window panes were intact. Nobody had gotten in from there. Looking carefully and for as long as I could stand, I detected no movement or light from the dimness behind the curtains.
* * *
When I went back in, my parents were in the kitchen now, taking a break, it seemed, from trying to break the door open, but not a break from their bickering. They shut up at once almost as soon as I entered, and when I heard it I shut up too. A great silence descended on us three as from the top of the stairs we could hear my sister’s ballerina music box playing the way it did when the lid was opened.
I was frozen, but barely a second later my father dashed up the stairs, eyes wild. My mother called after him in a fright but then followed him after barely a moment of hesitation. I was drawn upward as well as though by magnetism, though I wanted to be nowhere near that room.
I found my father at the door, one hand on the still tightly locked doorknob, and the other rapping sharply on the wood, calling who’s there? No response. My mother had her mouth covered in both hands, suspended between shock and grief. No matter how much they’d demanded answer from an assumed stranger (as my father did), or changed tack and called my dead sister’s name (as my mother did), nothing stirred from the other side of the door. The music had stopped by the time I’d gotten to the top of the stairs.
It seemed we stood there holding our breaths for a good half minute or so, before my father stepped back from the door and took my mother’s elbow, leading her downstairs. He gestured with his head at me to do the same.
Downstairs, they spoke in hushed funereal voices, wondering at what was going on. I couldn’t bring myself to say much, and for once my mother showed real concern toward me. She had me sit down at the kitchen table while she got me a glass of apple juice to revive my energy, afraid I’d faint. I noticed my reflection in the chrome body of the toaster oven: pale as a… I didn’t dare say the word even in my mind.
We stayed downstairs for the most part. At some point, my father went out to look at the window the same way I’d done, and had come back to report to my mother the same things I had observed. My mother asked again whether we should call a locksmith, but I could see her resolve had dissolved, and so had my father’s. He didn’t seem all that keen to be the locksmith either.
At dinner, my mother asked me—as if she had just remembered—whether I had really left the only key to my sister’s room in her coffin. I nodded my head, just once. I was sure I had, but I didn’t want to be sure anymore. Mother asked nothing else.
Father wondered if calling a priest was more appropriate, and my mother gave him a dirty look. Everyone knew that priests always failed in the movies, and besides, neither of my parents were believers—not in God, not in ghosts, not in anything. I wasn’t sure they even believed in me when I said the key was buried with my sister. But that lack of belief kept us all suspended in a swirling and tortuous meaninglessness where the only meaning that now presented itself was a dangerous one.
They let me sleep in their room that night. This helped my nerves somewhat, though their bedroom was technically right next door to my sister’s, with a wall in between, while mine was directly across the hall from hers. I didn’t mind as long as I wasn’t alone. I don’t know how they managed to get to sleep, or if they were pretending as I was, but at some point during the night, I was lured out of my drifting at the sound of the music box playing, softly, as if to itself, down the hall and just on the other side of the wall.
* * *
The next day, we all gave the room a wide berth, and tried not to speak of it. We tried to get on as normally as possible, but there was something very odd about the house now, like we had an evil secret we had to keep even from each other.
Every now and then, the music box would start playing from the top of the stairs—usually when we were downstairs—and never a few bars at a time before it stopped again. Whenever it did that, we would all go quiet instantaneously. Mother would go white and rigid, her eyes filling up, and Father would reach for her hand and hold it tight. I would go over to sit beside them, and Father would put an arm around my shoulder.
I almost thought this was a good thing, to have that room occupied once more, but I couldn’t bring myself to be grateful. It was I who had asked her back after all—but I dared not confess that part.
As soon as silence returned, we would take a few seconds, and then carry on as if nothing had happened, but we could not fool each other. We were shaken.
My parents refused to talk outright about how they felt, but I thought I understood since I felt the same way. Instead of feeling any warmth for my sister’s memory, there was only a cold dread, and around her door there was a sense of bitterness that chilled anyone who wandered too close even in the humid warmth of the day.
We kept this up for the next few days, and no matter how late I tried to dally after school instead of coming straight home, I would always be the first one in; my parents were trying to stay away as long as they could, too. But by the middle of the second week of this, my mother decided what it was they had to call: a real estate agent.
We were going to sell the house and move out.
* * *
But things had to get worse first. I’d found myself in my pent-up distress mentioning something about the door to my friends at school, and Kief invited himself home with me to check it out. I knew my parents would be away from home, and I didn’t want to go back alone, so I agreed. I hung back a good few steps when Kief climbed the stairs to the bedrooms. He walked right up to my sister’s door as if he hadn’t felt the miasma that (at least to my parents and I) had grown stronger every day.
Kief tried the door, as I knew he would, and found it locked, as I knew he would. Then he bent at the waist and peered through the keyhole, his other eye squeezed shut for focus, and his whole body shuffling him side to side a few inches at a time to get a better look.
I stood across the hall shifting uneasily from foot to foot. Then I heard a reassuring sound of the front door opening and my mother coming in, calling my name. Before I could answer her, though, Kief jolted back from the door, gagging and clutching at his throat. His face was pale and strangled, his eyes wide and unseeing. He couldn’t scream, but I screamed for him, and my mother was upstairs in an instant, just in time to see Kief collapse on the floor, writhing and twitching.
As my mother rushed to tend to him, I threw a glance at the doorknob. Nothing but a point of light and utter silence.
* * *
We had taken Kief to the ER, left him there with his family, and gotten back home in time to tell my father what had happened. Kief had swallowed his tongue and would have choked himself to death if my mother hadn’t acted so quickly. The overseeing physician had assumed it had been some sort of accident caused by surprise or an unfortunate posture—something; I hadn’t really been listening. My mind was torturing itself trying to imagine what he must have seen that made his body recoil so violently as to strangle itself.
I wanted to ask Kief myself, desperately, but his parents wouldn’t let me near him anymore. Meanwhile, my parents were throwing themselves into the search for a new place to live. We knew now that we were in a dangerous situation.
Over the next few weeks, we had terrible luck selling the house. The agents we got kept asking about the room and why we wouldn’t unlock it, and the few people who showed up to the open house had a bad feeling about that room. They assumed we had something to hide, and they were right. No matter how beautifully we had presented the rest of the house, that room poisoned the atmosphere, even though from a photograph of the second floor you couldn’t quite tell there was anything off about it at all. The house was listed as a three-bedroom space, and people expected three bedrooms. My father thought we should just promise to get the door fixed before they moved in, and then just let them do what they would with whatever they found behind it, but my mother argued with him over the “ethics” of it all.
By this point, my parents were willing to just abandon the house and leave it to some in-laws they were not fond of. They had planned to move into what was supposedly a summer home, but with the idea that we would settle there. It was smaller, less comfortable, and farther from my school and my father’s workplace, but it didn’t matter by then. We only had one goal between us: get out.
The music had started to drive us half-mad at night. Sometime during the last week, the music box had broken, and the tinny mechanism began to play just one note over and over again.
One key. One key, over and over.
And then it went quiet again so suddenly that the silence was just as loud as anything before or after.
To call it music was to call whatever it was on the other side my sister. It might have been music at some point, but now it was a mere sliver of what it had been in life. Now it was a hideously shrunken fragment of the whole, distorted and sharpened so it was no longer recognizable as a part of the original.
And it was getting louder and louder, and, it appeared to be moving along the walls. My parents’ bed, which I still slept in with them, was positioned so that our feet were pointing to the wall that divided the master bedroom from my sister’s. That used to comfort me somewhat, knowing that this was the farthest we could get from it and from…well, her.
But it had gotten so that it seemed the music was seeping into the walls like a pipe had burst and bled into the paper. The paint on the wall seemed to shift in my mind’s eye in the half-light. We were all unable to fall asleep until dawn, and our daylight lives were thrown out of rhythm. We stumbled home exhausted and stayed on guard all day, hearing that one key play on and off throughout the afternoon and evening, and then we stayed keyed up all night, to repeat again the next day. We were fairly at the end of our rope.
My mother insisted we move within the week, and drove us like slaves to finish packing up while she saw to the logistics of getting boxes and furniture shipped off. We were even more strung out and exhausted by then, and thanks to that, I must have drifted off that last night before we were to move, right there on the bare mattress in the master bedroom with nearly all its contents in cardboard boxes.
* * *
I woke up to hear the music over my head and right beside my ear. I snatched myself away immediately, and saw that my parents had done the same. The “music”—that one demonic key—was throbbing louder than usual through the wall opposite from my sister’s bedroom, where our headboard was. The broken note played again and again, traveling and swelling and surrounding us.
(Till today that one key played in isolation on a piano can trigger a horrible case of nerves in me—an F sharp, I think it was.)
My parents were up in an instant, scrambling to get dressed and yelling at me to get moving as I sat there frozen—they had to yell because the music was so loud now it was impossible the neighbors would remain undisturbed by it.
The moving company we hired was scheduled to come by and help us the next morning, but we had to get out right then, at half three in the morning. My father said we would return later to help the movers if they showed up, but for now we were going to a nearby motel with nothing but an overnight bag hastily thrown together.
We rushed out and piled into the car, noting as we left that the music had been thrumming throughout the house, even downstairs, but it could not follow us out the front door. As soon as I cleared the doorway, the air came easier to my lungs; I hadn’t known we had been literally suffocating in that house all this time.
From the yard and then the garage, pulling out from our driveway, our house was as silent as anything should be at three in the morning. While my father backed the car down the driveway, my mother nervously scolded him all the way to watch the mailbox, and I twisted around in my seat to look back at the house one more time.
We were pulling down East, and I had a clear view of my sister’s window from the back of the car. The shutters were still left open, and there was no light from the depths of the room, which I could clearly see, now that the curtains were thrown open. And standing there in the gap of the curtains, I saw a pale ballerina at the window, watching us go.