She was seven and I was eleven. At the annual neighborhood Fourth of July picnic, she pressed a key ring with two keys on it into my hand and leaned toward my ear. “These are the keys to my heart,” she whispered in one of those annoying girl whispers that any nearby listeners can’t help but hear. “Keep them safe!” She gave me a grin that was slightly diminished by her lack of front teeth and scampered off.
I sighed and put them in my pocket. Mattie Jenkins had given the “keys to her heart” to every fifth grade boy that summer. Last week she had been clinging to my best friend, and he hadn’t been very nice to her about it. My mother assured me that Mattie just admired our maturity, and that sometimes older men were very attractive. I had rolled my eyes at her. I didn’t roll my eyes at Mattie at the Fourth of July picnic, because I knew there were plenty of boys left in my class who didn’t possess a set of keys and that she was bound to forget me soon and go chasing after one of them.
Sitting on my front porch that evening while my sister and dad set off fireworks in the end of our driveway, I pulled the key ring out of my pocket to inspect it. One of the keys was meant to fit into a lock, but Mattie must have taken the other from her father’s hardware store, because it was a blank. I shook my head and shoved the keys back in my pocket. I was sure Mattie would get over me soon.
And she did. Before school started, three more boys from my class had received the means to unlock Mattie Jenkins’ heart. I overheard some of them talking about it once; they were swapping stories of what they had done when the gift had been bestowed and what they’d done with it afterward. “I threw them away,” said one. “Who needs junk like that laying around?”
Privately, I agreed, but for some reason, I didn’t feel like throwing them away. I guess maybe I was flattered that Mattie’s wandering fancy had fixed on me, for however short a period of time, and didn’t want to hurt her romantic feelings by tossing them away like that.
In fact, they were one of the only personal items I had left when the war was over. I had the watch I’d been given for my high school graduation, a wallet sized photo of my family from when I had a stupid haircut in eighth grade, and the keys to Mattie Jenkins’ heart.
The state of my neighborhood when I returned to it would have shocked me if I had seen it with eleven-year old eyes. As it was, my war-exposed twenty-six year old eyes didn’t see anything they didn’t expect to see. I’d seen worse. My mother and sisters, safe as I could make them on an island in the Caribbean, had begged me not to go home. I had promised my mother that I would join them after I took a look at the place I had risked my life defending for eight years.
I picked my way down the cracked streets, whistling the Star Spangled Banner while dodging yawning holes and the occasional festoon of razor wire. Not many buildings were left standing. I could see part of one wall left over from the workshop our next door neighbor had been so proud of, and a few overgrown bushes here and there, but nothing was left of my own house except the foundation.
Post-apocalyptic suburbs are pretty eerie, but it wasn’t the familiarity of the place or the solitude that bothered me, it was that soon it would be dark and I’d be stuck sleeping all alone, possibly without any cover. I shuffled down the sidewalk that used to lead from our front porch to the street and nudged some fallen bricks aside. I smiled at a sudden memory of my father, who had died four years before: his red face, yelling at my sisters to get outside to help him while he mixed concrete. It had been a family project to protect our mailbox from onslaughts by teenage hooligans, and it had worked; nobody had ever bothered our sturdy brick mailbox. Well, no one with a baseball bat, anyway.
I decided to head toward the elementary school to see if there were still any trees out by the soccer field that I could use for cover for the night.
I was stepping under some razor wire when something caught my eye: a key ring hanging from one of the barbs with two keys on it, one of them a blank. I stopped and stared at it, and rummaged around in my pockets until I found my own set. They weren’t exactly the same, but it was impossible not to see that these keys had once belonged to Mattie Jenkins. I turned and looked into the middle of the street. I had been standing on that spot so many Julys ago, next to a table full of chips and potato salad, when an innocent girl had confessed her love for me.
|Writing Prompt #120|
With Mattie Jenkins’ keys clasped tightly in my fist, I walked away from my childhood home.
At the top of the hill, I spotted what I was looking for: there were still trees near the old elementary school, and parts of the building were even still standing. But what I didn’t expect to see was a much nearer building, fortified with sand bags and a wall made of concrete blocks. It was in the same place as the hardware store had been, and a light shone through the sliver of a window in the thick front door. The silent streets let me hear the rumble of a generator. Someone was inside.
I made my way carefully to the gate in the wall, but it was locked with an old fashioned pre-war tumble lock. I glanced up at the building and then down at the keys in my hand. It couldn’t hurt to try.
The keys to Mattie Jenkins’ heart opened the gate in the wall.
I stepped up to the door and banged on it, then tried the knob. To my surprise, it opened, and I stepped inside to find a shotgun pointed at my head.
“Hands up,” a voice ordered. “How did you get in here?”
I complied without argument, Mattie Jenkins’ keys dangling from my index finger.
The shotgun lowered a bit, and the voice wavered when it asked, “Where did you get those?”
“Someone gave them to me,” I replied, “when I was eleven. I didn’t expect them to open the gate; I’m sorry for scaring you.”
She set aside the shotgun and let me see her face. It was white, as though she had seen a ghost. And maybe that’s what I was.
“Stephen?” she breathed. “Stephen Webster?”
With a cry, she darted across the room and threw her arms around my neck.
“It’s nice to see you too, Mattie.”
It had been a while since I’d had a real grilled cheese sandwich. Mattie made me one on her gas stove while we caught up. She told me about her base of operations, how she provided food and supplies to people who still lived in the surrounding area, and I talked a little about being on the front. When I was finished enjoying the ambrosia of warm, real food, she offered to put me up for the night.
“Thanks,” I said with a smile. “I was planning to set camp in the timber behind the school, but sleeping indoors sounds much nicer.”
“Oh, God,” Mattie replied with a grimace. “I’m glad you didn’t; the whole thing is mined. We used the school as a shelter for the first couple of years, before it got really bad. Then the State Militia used it as an armory for a while. They were the ones who felt the need to protect it that way.” She munched on the crust of her sandwich. “Didn’t help much.”
I pulled the keys she had given me out of my pocket again and looked at them. “Are you saying that I’d be dead right now if I hadn’t kept these?” I asked.
She blushed and smiled. “It was sweet of you not to throw them away,” she said. “But that lock is universal; pretty much any key will open it.”
I shook my head. “Nobody carries stuff like this around anymore,” I told her.
“Except my customers and suppliers,” she corrected me.
“Even so…” I said. “Mattie Jenkins, I’m pretty sure the keys to your heart just saved my life.”