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Melinda Janes flopped down on the couch as soon as she reached home once more, only to find that she was sitting on something quite hard, something quite sharp at that. So sharp, in fact, that she could feel its angles through the many skirts that made her dress. She groped around in vain for some time before deciding that the only way to succeed in extricating the object would be to actually get up. She grabbed the corner of her chair and hoisted her small self of the seat.
As she did so, her stomach let out a roar, reminding her that all she had eaten for supper was the harsh liquor that surrounded her job. She had worked faithfully and endlessly attending to those at the bar, those gentlemen did have quite the burning thirst for alcohol. A thirst that burned so deep that it watered their veins and tinted their eyes, glinted with flames in their eyes as they talked endlessly of politics, and how long it had taken them to care to their bank affairs. As the night progressed, the glint became more dull, but still a spark nonetheless, and the thirst flowed on, commanding them back to her. When business slowed down, she would be able to sort of turn away and raise an almost empty bottle to her lips to fill her dry, cavernous insides with a drip, drip. And fill it did, not only did it fill, but it intoxicated and poisoned the blood. It filled it with a yearning and a hunger and a ravaging animal that was not to be tamed. It filled with a caramel, molasses, which slowed the brain and the tripped the speech. For these reasons, Melinda never drank more than a few sips of the hard liquor, the job was an easy one and she was determined to keep it.
As she looked down at the deep tan upholstery of the chair, she saw nothing and sat down again, only to feel sharp corners biting at her leg. She stood a second time, stared back, and again all that met her eyes was the upholstery, intent on staring back. She again sat a second time and once again the rat bit her leg. Perhaps she was more drunk than she had known, so she went to retire for the night. Up she journeyed, climbing the stairs leading to her chamber and removed her endless petticoats, layer after layer as if peeling back the many skins of an onion. As she took off one after another, she heard a metallic clattering and saw a glint in the corner of her eyes. Lying on the floor next to her bed was the rat, though it was not a rodent at all. It was a skeleton key that must have been caught up in her skirts at work.
She picked it up and examined its smooth, round sides. It was warm in her hands from being removed from its nest in her outfit, and the handle was worn smooth as if held by generations of hands. The gray metal was dull and dirty, with many little nicks and knacks embedded in its body. She then decided it was a mystery to be figured out tomorrow, and attempted to sleep.
Yet, as midnight approached, something forced Melinda to wake. Her eyes flitted open, her pupils dilated, reaching out to grasp every ounce of light from the tight hold of the evening. She slowly and painfully sat herself up on the bed, joints creaking, screaming out like an unoiled door, how her bones would always tire from the hours of endless work. She sweeped open the curtains and moonlight streamed into the room, and she lifted her face to embrace it as one, closing her eyes. It filled her with youth, energy, made her long to be a child and sneak out into the night. She felt safe inside, within the fingers of sanity that clenched and struggled against it, but in the end prevailed, and she believed that she would always feel this control within the borders of her own asylum.
Beyond her gossamer window, a forest stretched its knowing limbs out in all directions; it was an animal crouched in the night. Far in front of the portal she gazed out of, the forests trees stretched on, long fingers reaching, ever reaching to grasp hold of something which would always be just outside of its reach, something that shone with the light of a different tree, a tree that would never meet with that poisoned, expired one of before. Such a warm tree that was filled to the brim with fire and steam and boiling water that was all too regular in that space it inhabited, surrounded by trees all alike, this one radiated with a pulsating aura. It need not reach out, for all come and gather around it, for there is nothing which embodies the spirit and longevity more than such a tree has. Yet still, the dark, sad, earthen tree stood, a lonely black silhouette against the cloud grey sky, ever-changing, morphing to a new creature. A single bird lifted off the branch and flew on a path pointed to her window.
What if the delicate raven stopped? Melinda thought to herself. She heaved her slight body from the bed, muscles screeching and groaning in protest, an old machine turned on for the first time in many, many years. Her arthritis was always a million kinds of worse in the evening. Nevertheless, she made her way to the window. Melinda reached out to the dresser and grabbed a candle, and then she rubbed a match until it sparked and proceeded to light the stub. She stared at it for quite some time as the flames began to take shape. They showed her things. Beautiful scenes of her dancing in a castle like the one in which she worked, but this time she wouldn’t be the one behind the bar. She herself twirling around and around, gracefully led by a handsome young man, a marquis or maybe even a prince.
Something faint caught her attention, and she blinked. The spell was broken. Her eyes were seared and groggy in the way that eyes are when they stare to long at a flame, so she blinked some more to clear her vision and her mind as well. Again a glint caught her eye and she plucked up the skeleton key, twirling it in her hands. Look, they’re doing the tango. She approached the window and drew her arm back, as if to the key. What if I did? she wondered.
Tempting, but this mystery was entangled with her thread now, she doubted that it would make any difference. The decision was a part of her: growing, thinking, being. She decided she would have to just live with it. Take it hand in hand for a walk in the park, all the while treating it with kindness, like a child. And like a mother she would care for it and nurture it, until in time the young one will reveal all its secrets, hold nothing back. That would be her moment; her time of pride and rejoicefullness, for something with a glorious key must have a glorious inside. Whether she liked it or not, it would not be going anywhere for a long time indeed.
As Melinda pondered the enigma of the key, she made her way down the stairs. With each step a low moan arose, the stairs complaining as well. The red carpet draped down the center was worn and ragged in the middle, the fibers seemed to grab to the bottom of her feet in protest. The soft wooden banister was worn smooth by many hands, little and big. She crossed the foyer, into the hallway. Then she kept on, through the kitchen with its ticking clock. Melinda always hated that clock, and now more than ever the ticking seemed to be mocking her, egging her on. If clocks had brains, Melinda thought wryly to herself. She set the candle on the floor, as she reached the back door, and slid out the wood that held it locked, bolts were much too expensive. The door slid smoothly like a knife in butter. Sweet summer air glided into the house. As it swooped by, it gave Melinda kisses on her cheeks and she smiled in response.
She slipped one foot out, resting it on the soft, spongy grass. It crinkled happily beneath her toes. Out danced the other foot to join its mate on the earth. Melinda then walked to the edge of the forest, still smiling, enjoying her grand adventure. She twirled the key still in one hand, and let the other run mindlessly on the tree trunks, feeling their fingerprints, shaking their hands, and sharing in their grit. The back of her head warned her of thieves or worse, but she paid it no mind. The forest was illuminated by the moonlight, it bathed in the starlight. She plucked a leaf off of the nearest shriveled black maple and rubbed it between her own calloused and scared fingers. Fingers not quite unlike the knotted bark of Mr. Tree sitting next to her, sharing in her company. Her eyes traced the veins, running across its thin paper body. Well now, leaf, you seem to be just as wrinkly as I, Melinda thought to herself. She snapped the leaf in two and the thin bit of liquid it had left in it wandered slowly down her fingers, staining them as if with blood. She rubbed her hands together to rid herself of the sticky substance, and then wiped her face to clean it of the acquired grime.
After awhile, Melinda wandered back to her house. She twirled through the doorway and pranced to her room, not even bothering to lock the back door again. She leaped up the stairs and bounded into bed. How young she felt, how alive and free as a bird. Free enough to break the chains hat held her close to her everyday routine. She thought of maybe taking a vacation in the country, going somewhere where she could do as she pleased and eat and drink as much as she wanted; grow to be a nice and fat woman and live to be a hundred and one! Her head sunk against the pillow, as if rose to caress her head. She lay there still awake, and wondered if she would arise and begin tomorrow with no recollection. Nothing but a shade lingering in the back of her eyes.
As she slept, the dirt and grime of the forest enveloped her softly in a cocoon of misunderstanding, for soon the high would run down and all that would be left is the broken leaf dreams that stayed hanging in a standstill reality. For years from now, the forest will be the same, hiding behind its mask. All it seeks is to be young again, to feel its ecosystem palpitate with life and purpose, like the tree that radiates with a pulsating aura. Some things just aren’t meant to change.
Tonight, though, the forest is clean and almost alive, though still stuck in immobility, like the burned out embers of a once terrible fire. When a flame extinguishes, the warmth lives on for a while and has a way of reverberating, clattering bones and shattering minds. The wavelengths seep out of the soul of the forest to the brain of Melinda, and fills her with a strange warmth. All heat must die down though, and the woods once again slide back down into the ditch, stuck farther in the mud than before.
. . .
Melinda awoke the next day with a headache that clung to her like the filth in which she lived. She felt faint, and her stomach chaffed in against itself, ever gurgling in repute so that it permeated her mind and drew her eyes wide and deep and slightly deranged at that. As she got up and began to put back on her endless petticoats, she saw a strange thing on her dresser. Some odd sort of skeleton key, she figured, but there was no way of knowing for sure. Again her muscles were drawn tight as elastic, moving them sent pain in gusts down her frame and all she wished was to sleep and never wake again. The sun began to stream into the room as it rose, and Melinda’s translucent skin projected shadows of light against the wall. She bent her head down, her neck creaking all while with her petticoats askew, to stare at the key. Whatever it was she grabbed it on her way out and threw it in the trash on her way to work. As she was walking she saw the same old forest filled with demented black fingers raised high to the air by their trunks stuck in their place, forever reaching. The last thing she needed was another problem.