Eliza sits on a damp stair in the corpse of a genteel Victorian seaside villa. In the distance the sea sounds as if it is taking great gasping breaths of the air, which stinks of mud and fish. Jackdaws squawk and clatter in the broken roof above; a litter of nest material and the tiny bones of dead chicks are scattered across the stairs around her. She is looking at the oak door in front of her which must be the only untainted thing in this town with its brass door knob, still shiny as if it’s regularly used, and a keyhole with an ivory inlaid surround.
She stands up, steps towards the door and strokes the pale wooden panels. It smells of clean wood but that passes and the old stench of the town returns. The door is between floors at the turn in the stair and Eliza turns her back on it to descend.
In the kitchen the brown light leeches through the glassless window, staining the remains of a lace curtain with a tobacco tinge. Eliza pulls at a drawer and, with a crash, it disintegrates into the cupboard below. She sorts through a litter of cutlery and rotten wood hoping to see a key but there is none. The other drawers are empty but for faded lining paper.
The living room only holds a piano which gives out a plunk as she looks in, so she turns to the last doorway off the hall. The door is of a similar type to the locked door except that it is weather stained and rotting like everything else in the town. It lies drunkenly against the wall and Eliza carefully steps around it into the room. Above a writing desk hangs an old sepia photo of a regal looking woman in a high necked blouse. Eliza reaches out with a dirty hand to touch the glass which somehow remains in the frame.
The walls are lined with bookcases and, thinking a key might be hidden in a book, Eliza attempts to pull one from the shelf only to find that they are a sodden mass glued together by mould and damp. The smell of rotting paper and leather catches in her throat and she gags. Abandoning the books she finds the desk drawers are locked but remembers metal skewers in the kitchen and fetches the narrowest she can. She shoves the point into the first lock and wrenches it, grimacing as she feels the delicate mechanism snap. Hurriedly she destroys the other two locks, avoiding the disapproving glare of the woman in the photograph.
In the left hand drawer she finds some coins and a small congealed envelope of paper money. Useless. She rubs her thumb over the faces and letters of the coins. The copper pennies have a tangy scent to them and she puts the coins in her pocket to look at later. The right hand drawer has a packet of letters held together with a ribbon that crumbles when she moves them. They are dry, miraculously. A glance shows her that they are love letters and she shoves them into the drawer and slams it shut.
Pulling open the centre drawer she finds a pad of letter paper, three good pens neatly lined up, and a white key. She picks up the key and examines it closely. Ivory. Or bone maybe. Its surface is smooth as if it has been handled repeatedly.
She goes out to the hall and reverentially steps up the stairs, slowly, one by one. She is holding her breath. The key slips neatly into the lock, turns with a gentle click and the door sways inwards. Eliza steps inside.
The room is so bright that she squeezes her eyes shut before opening them slowly so that they can adjust. This must have been a bathroom; clean white tiles line both the floor and walls. Clear glass in the window lets in clear light through a white lace curtain. Two mirrors on opposite walls reflect each other, and each other, and each other and bones. Neat heaps of bright bleached bones piled against the walls; small delicate bird skulls, thick leg bones of large mammals, nests of rib-cages of all sizes.
The dusty smell catches in Eliza’s throat, she feels as though the moisture and life is being dragged out of her by the desiccated air. She gasps. A sense of disappointment and fear wells up inside her and she cries out and she turns to leave.
The door is smooth and polished and firmly shut. There is no brass door handle on this side and Eliza cries out again, beating on the door with her rough hands. She falls to her knees and puts her eye to the keyhole.
On the stair outside a jackdaw gleefully tears open a fish and eats.
Copyright © 2013 Elizabeth Cutts
This is written in response to Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge. The idea is to roll dice against lists of genres and story elements and then combine them. I rolled:
Genre 1. Southern Gothic. I interpreted ‘southern’ as the English South coast because I’m not American and there is something gothic about our delapidated coastal towns.
Genre 2. Dying Earth.
Story elements: a locked door, a key made of bone. To get the door and the key was very lucky!
If it wasn’t for the fact there’s a deadline I would put this aside for a couple of days before making another run through it, and maybe finding a beta reader but there’s no time for that so here it is.