The Key – by Tamara K. Walker

Sunlight blinked brightly off the swing set chain as Akari pushed Tami-chan progressively higher, shouting “One, two, three!  One, two, three!” punctuated by sparkling peals of laughter.

Akari brought her daughter to the park to get the introverted child socially acclimated before she started school.  Despite her gentle and non-invasive prodding, getting the little girl to make friends had proven to be challenging.  Bubbly and talkative at home and a veritable lioness when she didn’t get her way, Tami was quiet and withdrawn around other children and retreated when encouraged to approach them, usually giving her mother pouty, apprehensive glances before plodding back.  Akari usually relented despite the collective consensus of parenting magazines.  There would be a lifetime for socializing later.  Now was the time of lengthy afternoons spent under the clouds, pointing out their shapes, of reading stories and soaring ever higher on the swings.

Reluctant as she was to admit as much, Akari’s lack of insistence on Tami interacting with her peers was mostly rooted in empathy.  A social recluse herself walking the thin line between invisibility and the conspicuous eccentricity of excessive reservation, Akari dreaded having to meet their parents and exchange even the most perfunctory of small talk.  Relaxed and unobtrusive, she had very little in common with those helicopter types who ruled their roosts with acute precision.  Her husband was loving and didn’t seem to expect much, an attitude Akari affirmably reciprocated.  She stayed mostly out of his hair, and took Tami to the park even on weekends to allow him time to relax.

Around mid-June Akari noticed a new character in their daily park routine.  An old man—maybe in his 70s—began showing up and sat by himself under the large shade tree.  His mottled skin showed every wrinkle of his age, his snowy eyebrows were unkempt and his face was scrunched up in a permanent frown.  He hobbled over to the tree, rested his cane on the trunk, sat and stared at the ground for a while, then left.  Some days, Akari noted, he would methodically walk over to the crosswalk at the edge of the park and stand under the pedestrian sign as if to cross, look up at the sign, shake his head sadly, and return to his spot under the oak.

One Tuesday Akari observed him watching them out of the corner of her eye, trying his best to be subtle. She looked up abruptly, and for a moment their pupils were conjoined, taciturn obsidian disks reflecting each other.  She would swear that his lashes were dripping with diamonds.

“Why is that man crying?” Tami asked a little too loudly.

“He probably has allergies,” Akari muttered in a low voice.  While she delighted in her daughter’s developmentally healthy fascination with the world, Tami’s insatiable curiosity and perceptiveness occasionally concerned her.  Akari was all too aware that with every new answer, she was fueling an expanding mind that might one day think to question why mommy had that strange lump in her throat, the one that never went away and stuck out prominently whenever she swallowed. One day, she’d wonder who the young, clean-cut, business-suited man with the gelled hair and downturned eyes was in those old photos and driver’s licenses that read “M”.  Akari couldn’t explain why she kept them.  They were the only tangible reminders of an all-but-erased past, she supposed.  Tami had found them once in a cardboard box, and Akari had wept upon seeing her little girl handling the faded pictures and IDs, overcome by the powerful contrast between a muted, false past and the present she dreamed hopelessly of when they were taken.

After the visual exchange, the old man stopped coming to the park and never sat under the oak tree again.  One particularly scorching afternoon, Akari and Tami rested in the oasis of shadow that was his former sitting place.  Tami explored around a little on the other side of the tree, returning excitedly a few moments later with a miniature plastic box in her tiny, outstretched hand.

“Mommy, look what I found!” she exclaimed.  Akari opened the box to reveal a small silver key, the kind that might have been made for a cheap locket or diary.

“Oh, look at that!”  Akari mustered enthusiasm for Tami’s discovery.  “You found the key to my heart…” As Tami giggled and playfully mimed twisting the key into her breastbone, Akari thought of the impressions left on paper when you wiped pencil marks from a page, of the many biographies that would never be written and the stories that, like her own, would never be told.

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Tamara K Walker has had two earlier stories published on our site: “Sushi: A Vignette”, and “Garlic at 3 am”. These stories have been removed at the request of the author.

Tamara K. Walker is a habitual reconceptualizer of things, a playfully pugnacious perceiver of the irreal-ish, and an amateur semiotician of sorts.  Her writing has previously appeared or is forthcoming inApocrypha and AbstractionsLYNX: A Journal for Linking Poetsnin: a journal of erotic poeticsGay Flash Fiction, and Scifaikuest. She may be found online at her Blog.

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