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Julia Biller

Grade: 12

Westlake High School

Instructor: Mathew Krupa

The Red Key

Flash Fiction

The Red Key

The air tastes like freezer burn right inside the doors of the store; like most days, I have the morning shift. Produce doesn't smell better but different, like an asthma inhaler or a stale air freshener. I scratch the bottom of my ugly paisley shoulder bag for my key ring, pulling out a small red key for the customer service desk. The door only goes up to my waist, but I unlock it anyway instead of swinging my legs over. The red key goes back on the ring next to the green one, where it belongs. Makes me feel safe, slightly more important than the high school cashiers with their lives in front of them.

I try not to dwell on the years I've spent here, the years I've wasted scanning white bread and boxed wine. But every time I see a clear-eyed 16 year old girl smile at a customer and scan their store card, it feels like a blade cutting through the weaving tubes in my lungs. My breath stops and shivers; I cry for myself, but I cry more at the brightness behind the muscles in her face, behind her light eyes. Knowing this town, it will fade like billboards on the highway, baking under the sun for far too long.

Sunday morning means sorting through the papers, placing the special insert in the Times, and opening boxes. Margot comes in at 6:15; her kid got kicked out of daycare for biting a girl on the face, a detail I did not want to hear but heard nonetheless.

"Now I gotta drive all the way to Salem to my mom's house, all the way back here. Jeff's Ford only has a few years left on it, and all this extra driving certainly isn't gonna help anything. God knows the last thing we need is for that car to break."

I nod, slipping my box cutter under the thick tape of a large box labeled Auglaize Times. My hands look pretty sliding back and forth. The fluorescent light shining on my stacked rings is pleasant, sending small rays onto the dim walls. I like making rings; I used to sit with Charlie and wrap wire around stones and markers, back when my ring finger still held a wedding band. Stephen sold it to a pawn shop one night, taking the Pontiac and all my bedside jewelry down to Cedar Street. Blew it all on rolled cigarettes and bottom shelf liquor.

Margot stopped and stared at me for a second, a smirk creeping across her mouth like a secret. Her head tilts; her face is expressive, with thick wrinkles wrapped around her eyes and forehead.

"Before that box, I have a question," she says, "if you don't mind, I mean."

"What's up?" I respond, not really wanting to answer questions but hating the sound of the AC buzzing.

Margot looks as though she's about to speak, but something's stopping by her lips. Her mouth quivers and she laughs. "I guess it's nothing important, really, just wanted to know how you're doing. With the whole Stephen thing, or—". She stops suddenly, biting back her tongue like a rat trap, eyes winced behind her crow's feet.

"It's okay, I just- I don't really want to talk about it. Not yet, I don't think." She nods softly and a dull pain forms in my torso. I can feel the familiar grip of guilt wrap around my temples like a snake, its tail rattling in my ears and making them ring. "Charlie's got a scholarship. For OU, not a huge one but it's something," I blurted out, trying to cut off the fog forming in the air between us. The next box cuts easy.

"That's lovely! He's always been a smart one, Charlie. You used to bring him into work and that boy would talk all of our ears off, about dinosaurs and world maps. He was always like that."

"I'm just proud he's even thinking of going to college; he deserves better than I have."

"Well, Jeff's oldest son went to community college and he loved it. Absolutely loved it, didn't cost much either. He took a Spanish class," Margo said, voice strained a bit as she pulled a box from the stack. "He put that on his resume, helped him get that office job. The one in Parma, by the outlet mall."

Stephen liked numbers. When we first met, he was an accountant. Being 22 and an accountant sounded stable enough to me, especially being a grocery store cashier with a baby and no place to stay. He was great at talking smart, too; Stephen used "logic" to convince everyone that he knew what he was talking about, that he knew what was right. The dates for when he paid the bills didn't line up, the time he left work didn't add up, the money missing from our bank account didn't equal any food in my kid's stomach. But he'd tell me I was wrong, I didn't know anything about the tax fund he had saved or the equity he was building or the checks coming in for his investments.

"Take the papers out, there's a pile of inserts right there. Open 'em up from the bottom and put one by the crease, then close it back up."

My hands stain as I unfold, the soft flesh of my fingertips turning deep purple. I slip my thumb underneath the first half of the paper, using my other hand to slip in the extra material and tapping it against the table. I watch Margot's hands move, the same ink staining her palms as she stacks the papers back on the rack. The regular paper goes on the first shelf , the thicker Special Edition goes on the second. The comfort of monotony cools on the back of my neck like pool water. Not the pools around here, stuck inside Motel 6 establishments and swimming with bugs and dead chipmunks.

Stephen took me to New York City once. I told him about a Broadway show I saw in a magazine, and when I came home the next day, he had tickets laid out next to my afternoon coffee. It was my first, maybe last taste of what my life could have been. The pool in the hotel smelled like chlorine, in a good, clean sort of way.

7 came pretty quick that morning, other faces walking through the metal doors to the time clock. There were no more papers left by then; Margot asked to wash her hands, I said yes. Staring down, my knuckles look bruised. It made my mouth taste funny, memories of hurt seeping into my brain like tea in hot water.

Stephen's face was dark red, his cheek pressed against the concrete when they found him. I hated that stupid motorcycle, another impulse buy to drain our savings account before the papers went through. It was always before the papers went through, giving him my money, my hard earned god damn money that shouldn't go towards motorcycles or lottery tickets or an apartment for him to sleep in. But none of it mattered, and it still doesn't matter because Stephen never learned how to really ride a motorcycle. With his elbows bent all bloody on the ground of the parking lot, I knew that for sure.

I could tell Margot. I could tell her all the gritty details she couldn't read in the local newspaper. I could pour every rotten piece of memory in my mind into hers, and then she would know. But instead I check the change inside Register 1. Customer service gets locked up until Barbara gets there, and the red key goes back on the key ring. Makes me feel safe, a little more important.