Keeper of the Keys

Torn clouds scuttled across the sky with the beginnings of the moon’s light dancing behind them as they chased their own broken shadows. The yellow glow and low hum of the city street lamps fluttered and shook, not quite sure if it was their time to shine in the waning daylight. The air had turned cool in the evenings, keeping the large crowds of lookie loos inside the bars or coffee shops up the street from the bridge, only giving them reason to venture out for necessity instead of pleasure walks. The faint sound of moving water purred underneath him, as he sat on a bench near the end of the bridge, waiting and watching out of the corner of his eye. Without fail, he always managed to find one.

Alister watched out of the side of his eye as they moved swiftly in and out of his field of vision; a man on a bike rumbling over the uneven planks, an older woman with groceries on either arm, a group of teenagers expressing their annoyance with the world far louder than needed. Then he saw her. She was hard to miss. He doubted many people missed her.

Her blonde hair was almost white, glinting in the yellow glare of the street lamps she walked beneath. It matched her pale skin, the color of mother’s milk in the morning. Her red lips stood out from the white outline of her face. They parted as she yelped, the sound filling the gray-blue sky cast around them. She turned and slapped a man’s hand away from her ass and chastised him loudly for sneaking up on her before embracing him in a lusty kiss. Alister watched as they drifted toward the edge of the bridge, like they always did.

She was out of his league, he noted, as he spotted the frayed hem on his over-worn sports jacket and the scuffs on his cheap shoes trying desperately to impersonate a much more expensive brand. He wondered if she knew; if any of them knew. He rarely saw a perfectly matched couple on the bridge, despite all the proclamations of true love epitomized in ordinary hardware store metal locks slug through the railings and keys lost to the running water below. As if writing your name in permanent marker on metal and throwing the key away meant that love would last forever. His heart ached for the stupidity of this generation and wondered if they’d be the end of civilization, unable to find and keep suitable mates. They were so easily fooled into thinking that love existed on the surface for everyone to see, when really, the heart of love lay at the bottom of the river with the discarded keys.

She was already too much for him to handle, he could see, as she led him down the length of the bridge to the place she’d most likely picked out in her mind months previous. He’d give it six more months tops, before the idiot realized this fact and broke her heart as a defense mechanism to compensate for the staggering realization of his inadequacy. He was a buffoon, and he’d let her slip through his fingers and regret it for the rest of his life; pining after memories of her, calling her the one that got away. Alister was determined to escape the same fate and not let this one slip through his fingers.

He watched quietly, sitting as still as possible so he blended in with the drab backdrop he sat against. It was almost too cold for sitting on benches. His doing so might be questioned and make them uncomfortable, hastening their reason for being on the bridge. He sat motionless, trying to hold his breath so that when it escaped his lungs, the plume it created as its warmth hit the air would not give him away. He waited patiently, thankful that he was not within earshot of their love’s exchange, uninterested in the empty promises whispered on their whisky lips and the kind of flustered heavy petting you felt dirtied just by watching. He wanted to look away but couldn’t.

Lips locked with the momentary passion visible in new lust, the man in the tattered jacket pressed his date’s back against the railing of the bridge, hands grabbing for skin that was buried under cable nit and leggings. Alister knew the show wouldn’t last. The buffoon would complain about the cold creeping down the collar of his half-tucked polo shirt and interrupt the image of romance that most assuredly lived in her overactive imagination and the moment would be lost.

As if on cue, the man pulled away from their embrace, making some senseless motion with his hands as if to shoo away the palpable emotions languishing between them. With a half-cocked smile she took the opportunity to fish in her bag for the object that had brought them to the bridge in the first place. Alister inched to the edge of the bench, knowing that they’d be on the move soon. His skin began to tingle with anticipation and the muscles in his legs tightened knowing he’d be on the move soon too.

Its metallic sheen glinted in the beckoning moon light while she spun it in her hand, almost taunting him with it. Her ruby red lips parted into a wide smile and the look of panic pulsed in the men’s eyes when they saw the lock. Alister wondered how long this particular courtship had lasted. It never seemed long enough for any of the men when they found themselves in the same precarious situation, acting like they didn’t know the tradition of the bridge or its location once they were on it. He wondered how many he’d missed because they fled prematurely or diverted their course in some way so as to avoid it. How many opportunities had he missed?

They held hands, his on top of hers, as they slid the lock through an opening on the railing, joining it to the thousands of others that had come before them. When the lock was secured, Alister watched as she raised her arm into the air, her stormy eyes closed and red lips whispering as if making a wish. Her wrist pitched forward, releasing a tiny key into the air. He was on his feet and at the railing, watching the key twirl through the waking moonlight before it disappeared into the cold water. His eyes fixated on the ripples it created, making a mental note of its location on the stones below so he’d know where to look for it when he dredged the stream later. In the meantime, his couple was already moving down the bridge toward the hustle of downtown. He moved quickly to identify the newest lock to the collection, reading their names she’d written in black marker with a lopsided heart encircling both. Even their names didn’t match, he laughed, as he ran up the incline to the main street, following briskly behind Annora and Jim.

In the crowds of the busy evening streets, Alister was easily lost as just another face in a faceless crowd. Some of the restaurants and bars had yet to pack in their al fresco dining rooms and others had hired heaters to keep guests warm and drinking. The streets were loud with their amalgamated voices, all tinted with the sound of too much alcohol. Alister moved swiftly through the crowd, following the sheen of Annora’s blonde-white hair. Two bars and a dash through a makeshift art gallery later, the tiny residential row houses began leading the way home.

Alister watched as the couple pawed at one another on the doorstep of a small brick-fronted duplex; a good indication that Jim would not be invited inside. He stood in the shadow of a large elm tree tucked behind a rod iron fence across the quiet street from them, waiting for Jim to leave. Finally, she pulled away and reached for the door handle signifying the end of their front stoop peep show. Jim turned and bounced down the front stairs with a skip in his step as if he’d won something. As he passed the elm tree tucked behind the rod iron fence, he waved to the woman whose heart Alister knew he would eventually break and disappeared into the night as just another face in a faceless crowd.

Hidden by the rustling branches of the elm tree, Alister watched the lights inside Annora’s duplex come to life. He reveled in the ability to follow her through the house as the lights illuminated the windows in the individual rooms; the living room, the kitchen and finally her bedroom in the back of the house. He noticed the rustling of the sheer white curtains inside the window frame just after the light came on. The gentle breeze that pulled at his skin would also be pulling at hers. He shivered, from the chill in the air or despite it, he was not sure.

The street was quiet. The hour was late and even the noise from the bars a few streets over had calmed. He watched as the white curtains danced in the breeze, exposing a glimpse of her as she moved about the bedroom, undressing and redressing. He watched as she exposed her milky white skin to the world, smooth and clean, ripe for the picking. The question of what she saw in Jim burned a hole in his want as he watched her through the window. It was always Jim, and never him.

He saw his opportunity to escape the sanctity of the courtyard where he’d been hiding, no longer wanting to be lying in wait. As his would-be shadow peeked out from under the cover of the elm tree’s canopy, he froze. Hurried footsteps clapped against the pavement behind him. There was movement in his peripheral, to the right. It was a man running down the street in his direction. Alister debated in his mind if he was in fact doing anything that would need to be explained away to the intruder of his exploits, should he be questioned. He was, just like the intruder, just a man on the street.

Still frozen, he watched as the man ran past him, unaware of his unseen company. As the intruder bounded up the stairs to the brick-front duplex, Alister recognized the tattered sports coat and smudged loafers as belonging to the buffoon who’d only left moments prior. He knocked on the door and Alister watched as Annora quickly grabbed a silken robe to cover her bare skin and moved to the front of the house to answer the call. There was a quick exchange at the door before she disappeared inside, only to reappear with some small object in her hand. Alister wondered if the forgotten token had been intentional, a deliberate excuse prompting him to return to her house after waiting just long enough to suspect that she’d undressed for the evening. After a few minutes’ worth of exchanges, he watched as the two strangers disappeared behind closed doors. Had Alister been wearing a hat, he would have tipped it to the man. He disappeared down the lazy street, back towards the bridge. He had the key to retrieve anyway, he reminded himself. He looked back over his shoulder before retreating around the corner to make sure he had her address correct in his head.

Patience was a virtue, his mother had always told him. Patient is what you should always be, he reminded himself, as he rested against the railing of the bridge looking at the frozen water below. No one ever professed their love during the cold of winter; that was something for the warmth of summer. Hearts were always broken in winter, maybe because the cold made them shatter effortlessly. He was not privy to such things, never having had someone’s heart to break, but as he watched lonely women cross the bridge cursing their unreturned love as they did – the hanging locks thwarting their attempts of letting go of the pain and mocking their stupidity for thinking it was love in the first place, he knew that his assumption was true. He waited patiently, never having forgotten her skin, the color of the snow that now fell, and her red lips, the color of her heart that was most likely broken by now.

When she hadn’t returned to the bridge by the time the birds started calling to each other again early in the morning, Alister wondered if maybe he’d misjudged the buffoon. Maybe he’d found the courage to love her, putting aside his own feelings of inadequacy he had to see as he stood in her shadow. Maybe she’d let him love her still, after she realized that he would only ever stand in her shadow. The patience his mother had beaten into him as a child was almost gone and still she had not returned.

A gray fog rolled across the small stream, resting on top of it like the foam on someone’s half-drunk discarded coffee. He could see the rain clouds in the distance and knew they would be overhead in an hour or so. There’d be no visitors to the bridge in the rain, he knew, and jumped up from his seat on the bench to make the trek to his apartment several blocks away. He took one last hopeful look before he turned to leave, but he was alone on the bridge. Tomorrow, he thought, she’ll come tomorrow.

Alister rounded the corner at the top of the paved walkway, colliding with exuberant force into another body coming from the opposite direction. Her purse spilled onto the pavement below them, sending several lipstick tubes, a hair brush and a pair of sunglasses rolling down the modest incline of the pathway. Alister took off after them, being the gentleman that he was, while the woman yelled her apologies and professed that he not worry about her junk. Having retrieved all the items from the ground, he stood upright looking in the direction from which he’d come. In the confusion of their collision, he’d not noticed the woman, but now, she was all he could see; her milky white skin, blonde-white hair pulled up, resting in a knot on top of her head, and her rousing rep lips. The only thing missing from the last time he’d seen her was her smile, and the buffoon.

“I’m so sorry,” Alister professed, once he reached the top of the path, holding out his hand encircling her misplaced belongings. “I didn’t see you.”

“No, I’m sorry,” she yelled. “Thank you for grabbing my stuff. There’s so much junk in this bag. I should really clean it out.” She held out her hand to retrieve her things, the skin on their fingers delicately brushing against each other as she did. His body shivered at her touch and this time there was no question as to its reason.

“Are you ok?” he asked, noticing that she seemed distressed as she stuffed the items back into her oversized shoulder bag. “I didn’t hurt you when I ran into you, did I?”

“Yes,” she huffed. “I mean no. I’m fine.” She took both her hands and covered her face for a moment, wiping them across her skin as if she was washing her face in the evening’s mist, when really it seemed like she was trying to wipe away whatever problem had her distressed.

“Are you sure?” Alister persisted. “You look upset.”

“Really, I’m fine,” she insisted as she started moving out of Alister’s shadow and toward the bridge. “Sorry for bumping into you but thanks for helping.” She was already halfway down the path when she called back to him. He stood and watched as she went, walking away from him. They always walked away from him, he thought. But it didn’t matter. He knew where to find her.

Alister ducked behind a hired heater on the corner pub’s patio as he watched her go. He could no longer see the redness that was infecting the whites of her eyes, no doubt from crying. She looked like a ghost standing on the bridge amid the fog that was enveloping both her and the structure itself. She stopped and stood motionless for a few moments before moving toward the railing, obviously looking for the lock she’d placed there months prior. Alister knew exactly where it was and wanted to call out to help her find it, but he remained hidden in the shadows, waiting.

Her delicate hand reached out and dragged her fingers across the slew of locks that acted like jewelry for the bridge. Finally, her fingers found the one with her name written across it in black marker. At first, she tugged at the lock gently, as if to say hello. The longer she stood in front of it, the more frantic her arm’s motions became until it appeared as if she was actually trying to remove the lock with a brute force she did not possess. Defeated by both Jim’s lack of love for her and the rigidness of the unforgiving lock, she gave up and scurried off the bridge in the opposite direction, vanishing into the fog like a ghost in the night. Alister hoped he had time to make it to her duplex before she returned.

The elm tree tucked behind the rod iron fence in front of the place Annora called home found company again as he stood behind them both, hiding from the soft yellow glow of the street lamps. The rain he’d seen in the distance early on was overhead and gently danced on the top of his head as he waited. He thought of his mother again and her demand for patience throughout his life. Maybe it had all not been in vain.

Walking down the alleyway to the left came a figure, but in the rain and darkness it was unclear if it was her or not. Alister’s body tensed, hopeful that it would be her. He’d waited long enough for her, he thought, his hands gripping the iron rail of the fence that separated him from her. He felt the immediacy of the night bubbling in his blood; now or never he felt his soul crying inside. Now or never.

The figure shrouded in an oversized raincoat skipped up the stairs to the duplex and stood on the stoop fishing for keys in an oversized bag. Before she slid the key into its rightful place, she stopped short and looked over her shoulder to the empty street behind her. Finding herself to be alone, in more ways than one, she stooped down and picked up a small envelope resting against the kick plate of her front door. Had he not been the author of the note scribbled on its face, Alister would not have been able to read the message from his hiding spot. He watched as her ruby red lips mouthed the words as she read them to herself; the key to your heart belongs with you. Alister tensed again, the iron of the fence eating into the palms of his sweaty hands as her hands gripped the lock and key she’d franticly tried to liberate from the bridge just hours before. She spun around and peered through the rain and darkness searching for whomever had freed her heart, but Alister was already gone. He’d returned the key to her heart. His job was done.

About the Author

Jessica Simpkiss

Jessica Simpkiss lives and works in Virginia Beach, Virginia with her husband and daughter. She is a graduate of George Mason University where she received a degree in Art History. Her work has most recently been published or is forthcoming in the Hartskill Review, Zimbell House Publishing Anthologies and the Virginia Literary Journal, amongst others.