The Key Trilogy: Book I
Thousands of years ago the Gods and Goddesses of Mount Olympus created the first woman and named her Pandora. Each God gave Pandora a magical gift. Aphrodite, Goddess of Love and Beauty, bestowed beauty. Poseidon, God of the Sea, bequeathed black pearls so Pandora would never drown.
Haephestus, God of Fire and Metalworking, gave Pandora the ability to create reality from imagination. Apollo, God of the Sun and the Arts, granted her musical prowess. Athena, the warrior Goddess, contributed the ability to kill, and Demeter, Goddess of the Harvest, tempered that attribute with healing powers. The Messenger God, Hermes, gave Pandora the trait of cunning.
Not to be outdone, Zeus, King of the Gods, gave Pandora two gifts. First, he endowed her with curiosity. And, second, he gave her an intricately carved gold box that emanated a soft rose-colored glow as a gift for mankind designed to punish them for accepting stolen fire from Mount Olympus. The box was filled with five Furies: Plagues, Natural Disasters, Hatred, Jealousy, and the most horrific fifth Fury, Annihilation. Zeus reasoned that curious Pandora would open the box and the Furies would be released to torment mankind for eternity. He allowed his wife, Hera, Goddess of Women and Marriage, to add Hope to the box before he closed it, because men would need a reason to live once the Furies had been released.
At the last moment, Hades, God of the Underworld, placed a delicate chain around innocent Pandora's neck. Dangling from it was a small key fashioned from iridescent onyx. If curious Pandora was cunning enough to close the box before the most devastating fifth Fury escaped, she could use the key to keep it locked away. The Gods added a few more twists and turns to ensure their amusement and then sent their lovely creation and her poisonous gift down to earth.
Over the ensuing tens-of-centuries, the onyx key was preserved, but all memory of its history and of the box faded until only a handful of people knew the truth. Some of those people were innocents, as Pandora had been. Some were devious and lethal when crossed. And some were evil or simply insane.
It was a cold May in the Pacific Northwest, but in one backyard bulbs had already pushed through untended soil and opened their petals, revealing cheerful yellow daffodils and snow-white tulips. In adjacent yards, spring flowers had yet to peek out of soil tilled and fertilized by professional gardening services.
Perhaps the early blooms were what made this particular backyard feel bewitched. Or maybe it was the hummingbirds, which would not be seen anywhere else in Oregon for several months, hovering over honeysuckle that shouldn't be blooming until July. But the other-worldly effect could simply have been the result of the shadows and weak gleam of moonlight casting a silver net over the premises.
Two men slipped through the backyard's white picket gate. They were dressed in black and wore woolen ski masks that revealed only the drooping hooked nose of the taller one and the almond-shaped eyes of the second, much shorter, but broader, man. The men moved soundlessly to the pale-yellow house, the taller man inserting a thin rod into the seam of the sliding glass door. There was a clicking sound as the lock opened.
The second man slid a compact gun from his side and released the safety. With his free hand he eased the slider open, then hesitated and looked down at his chest where a red flower suddenly bloomed. His knees buckled and the taller man whirled around to help...but it was already too late. The arc of a curved blade caught his neck just below the ski mask and sliced it cleanly, sending up a spray of fine blood. Hands caught both men before they hit the ground. Silently, they were dragged away.
The only witness to the bloody scene was an orange and white tabby who sat unblinking in the picture window.
Evangeline climbed a rickety wooden ladder into the hayloft. She wore a cotton nightgown she'd never seen before—ivory-colored with tiny pink roses, long enough to brush the tops of her bare feet...except they weren't her feet, because they were too small and delicate and the nails were painted cherry-red.
When she reached the loft, she found a lantern on the floor. Raising the glass top, she lit the wick with a match she hadn't known she carried, and then turned the brass knob. The lantern glowed, illumining lazy dust motes, bales of yellowed hay, and a thick rope coiled in the corner.
Evangeline tossed the free end of the rope over a rafter. She braced herself, leaned out from the ladder, and grabbed the dangling rope. Slowly her hands, which were not her hands because there was a pear-shaped diamond ring on the left ring finger, fashioned the end of the rope into a noose. I don't know how to make a noose, Evangeline thought as she slid it over her head and tightened it around her neck.
Evangeline watched her pale feet shuffle along the uneven, slatted floor toward the edge of the hayloft. Her pulse raced. This isn't happening. But she could smell the thick, cloying sweetness of the hay. This can't be real. But she felt a splinter from the rough wood bite into her heel. Stop! And then she stepped into space, stomach hurtling into her mouth—terror numbing her body—rope tightening—legs kicking...
* * *
Evangeline struggled to consciousness. Her heart thudded painfully and a thin film of sweat coated her face. She looked down—blue flannel PJ's. No diamond ring. Size ten feet—no nail polish—poking from beneath her down comforter. Her fingers slid along the smooth skin of her neck, feeling for rope burns—none.
"It was only a nightmare," Evangeline whispered. But it had felt incredibly real and it took some time to slow her pulse and banish the strange dream from her mind. And that's all it was, she told herself, sitting up and wiping her face—just a stupid dream.
Rolling out of bed, she shuffled down the hall. She walked through her mom's bedroom with its queen-sized bed covered with the hand-made quilt of yellow and orange squares that her mother's agent, Samantha, had given her. She sidestepped the rocking chair and her mom's beat-up guitar, and passed an antique bureau topped by an oval mirror whose gold border framed glass hazy with age.
Stepping through the open door of the bathroom, Evangeline watched her mom brushing her teeth. Olivia Theopolis, dressed in a paint-splattered T-shirt and worn Levis, had probably already been working for hours on the new painting she'd refused to show her daughter. Evangeline couldn't help noticing that her white-blonde hair was perfectly smooth and straight compared to her own shoulder-length locks that always curled out of control. Self-conscious, she tried to press her hair down and her mom noticed her rumpled reflection in the mirror.
"H-phy-b-fdy," she said, before spitting out a mouthful of toothpaste. "Evangel—" Suddenly, her mom's knees buckled and she grabbed the edge of the pedestal sink to keep from falling. She leaned forward, peering into the porcelain bowl.
"Blood," she whispered, confused. And then she looked into the mirror, mouth open wide, shaking fingers running over her teeth. "My teeth—"
The back of Evangeline's neck prickled. "Mom?"
Her mother turned—her flawless skin pale. "I don't understand. My teeth are falling out and there's blood in the sink."
A chill slithered down Evangeline's spine as she walked to the sink and peered nervously into it. The porcelain was pure white with a few rivulets of the aqua-colored toothpaste her mom had spit out moments ago. No blood—no blood anywhere. What is she talking about?
Evangeline released the breath she'd been holding. "Mom, I don't understand—there's nothing in the sink but toothpaste." She looked at her mom's frightened face and suddenly she was scared. "Your teeth are all there," Evangeline said and gently turned her mother around to look.
Slowly the color came back to the woman's cheeks and she was again Evangeline's beautiful, young mother. The mom all the boys in her class stared at when she picked up E from school. The one who made them all whisper about how the apple had fallen so far from the tree. And it had. Olivia had bowed pink lips, stunning sky-blue eyes, the body of a gazelle. Evangeline was a giraffe—long neck, gangly limbs, eerie blue-black eyes, and an impossibly wide mouth.
"E, I'm sorry," her mom said. "I must've still been half-asleep."
Evangeline tried to shake off the sticky residue of fear. "It's okay, but I think—I mean, I don't want to bum you out, but it's not the first—"
"I'm fine," her mom interrupted. "Really, I just need more sleep." She smiled and took her daughter's hand, leading her out of the bathroom.
"Where are we going?"
"Your room." Her mom flashed a secretive smile. "Check under your pillow."
Evangeline ran down the hallway. She raced to her bed and tossed one of her pillows onto the floor—nothing. Beneath the second pillow, which was still indented from her head, was a gift-wrapped box.
"Happy sixteenth birthday, Evangeline, my not-so-little-girl."
Grinning, Evangeline picked up the package, which was wrapped in hand-painted purple-flowered paper that must've taken her mom hours to make. For a moment, as she ripped open the paper, she thought she smelled floral perfume, but neither of them wore perfume, preferring the fresh scent of soap. Evangeline hoped that this gift was the iPad she'd been wanting so badly. Inside the box was a second box, also wrapped in hand-crafted paper decorated with small white and yellow daisies. The cloying sweetness of torn stems seemed to fill the air as Evangeline tore open the paper. Maybe, she thought, your sense of imagination gets better with age. Or maybe mom and I are both losing it.
Not that her mom was crazy or anything. It was just that, for the past month some weird stuff had been happening. As far as Evangeline could recall, her mom had never had a cold, let alone a headache. But lately she'd been having migraines that made her too nauseated to eat. And then there were the dreams that punctuated some nights with screams so loud Evangeline had to rush to her mom's bed to wake her. Her mom never remembered the nightmares, which seemed weird considering how violently she reacted to them. Two nights ago Evangeline had found her mom sitting on the bedroom floor holding her hairbrush.
"What're you doing, mom?"
"I can't brush my hair. It keeps falling out." Olivia had stared up at her daughter like a little kid, eyes brimming with tears. And then she'd pointed to what she'd said were bare spots on her scalp.
Evangeline had helped her mom to her feet and led her to the mirror where they'd examined her mom's hair together. It still fell in a perfect sheet of platinum to the edge of her square jaw. Her mom had smiled and said she must've fallen asleep getting ready for bed and had a bad dream. "At least this time I remembered it," Olivia said with a brittle laugh.
"Yeah, that's something," Evangeline had replied, but what she'd really wanted to say was: Please stop freaking me out. This woman who'd never been sick couldn't imagine that something might be wrong with her. Evangeline didn't think it was anything serious, but the idea of her mother losing it in any way made her feel off-balance, like the world was threatening to start spinning in the wrong direction.
Evangeline tossed the daisy wrapping paper only to find a still smaller box covered in paper dotted with hand-painted orange, yellow, and red trees. For a brief moment, their leaves fluttered in an invisible breeze. Evangeline quickly looked away and tore off the wrapping, opening the box. Inside was a violet-colored silk bag. The bag gave Evangeline a strange sense of déjà vu even though she'd never seen it before. Easing open the drawstring, she spilled the contents onto her palm. It was a necklace. The delicate silver chain gave off a soft glow. Dangling from it was a small black key carved from some luminous stone. Evangeline again felt a sense of déjà vu.
"Mom?" she asked, glancing at her mother's bare neck and then meeting her eyes.
"It's a tradition in our family, E. I don't know who started it, but my mother, and her mother before her and on and on gave this necklace to each of their daughters on their sixteenth birthday—or so the story goes."
"I've never seen you take it off." Evangeline traced the outline of the key in her palm.
"I never have."
"But you love this necklace."
Her mom smiled. "That's why I want you to have it." She took the necklace from Evangeline, undid the clasp, and placed it around her neck.
"Do you know what the key was made to unlock?"
"I asked my mother the same thing, but she had no idea. Maybe it was just meant to be pretty."
Evangeline looked down at the key resting between her collarbones. Heat seemed to emanate from it and the feeling washed over her skin like warm water, along with a tingling sensation and a strange shift—a feeling of total comfort that she could only describe as her body finally fitting into its own skin. Stop imagining things. But there was no question that the key somehow belonged around her neck, along with the accompanying sense of warmth.
Evangeline looked into the mirror above her dresser. When she was younger, she'd dress in her mom's clothes, blur her eyes, and pretend she was the glamorous Olivia. And suddenly now with the key her mother had always worn resting around her own neck, it somehow made her feel like she looked different, better—well, less like Big Bird. At least her eyes didn't seem quite so enormous and she could differentiate the gloomy-blue of her irises from her black pupils, which looked iridescent. Is this possible? The smooth black key appeared almost liquid against her pale skin—fluid and incandescent.
"Thanks so much mom—I really, really love it."
Her mother pulled Evangeline into a hug, holding on for a few seconds too long. "Good. You deserve it."
Pulling free from the embrace, Evangeline headed toward the hall. "How about I make us waffles," she offered, because when they'd hugged, she'd felt her mother's sharp shoulder blades and couldn't help but notice that her mom's jeans hung off jutting hipbones. When did she lose so much weight?
They made breakfast together in the cozy kitchen of the bungalow they shared with their orange and white cat, Jasmine. They moved through their tasks, making coffee, pouring OJ, cutting grapefruit—in the seamless rhythm of two people who had forever shared their lives.
"Yuck," Evangeline said, pointing to the sliding glass door that led out into their backyard. It was splattered with what looked like dried blood.
"Must've been a bird," her mother said, frowning, because she was a freak about loving animals, even mice. She pulled the slider open and looked down in the grass. No bird. "Well, either Jasmine got the poor thing or it flew away." She turned to the tabby, scratching behind her ears. "Which is it, Jas?"
Jasmine looked over at Evangeline without blinking. "If she knows, she's not telling," Evangeline said. She gave her mother the first waffle, poured batter on the griddle to make another, and then bent down to look at the bottom of her foot because it was stinging. "Huh."
Evangeline peered closer. "I just have something in my heel...got it." She pulled out a rough, wood splinter—which was weird because the floors in their house were polished bamboo.
© Nancy Richardson Fischer