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Emily Laubham

Eat the Key

Eight years old and shrinking, she woke each morning to find a little less of herself. To distract her mind from the hunger pangs, that ever-tightening cord between bellybutton and spine, Lilly sought a friend to talk to until her mother came home with peanuts, chips, or dinner rolls. Something snatched off a bar.

She found her friend while she rinsed off in the bathtub. He hid beneath a yellowish bar of soap. She walled him in with her hand, an un-capped razor, drain-hair, and soap sludge, then counted to three, getting louder with each number. But when she lifted the soap, her friend scuttled over the razor and toward the drain.

She yelped, “Don’t you dare,” and leapt from the curtain-less shower.

Dripping on the carpet, she ran naked through the hall, adding temporary stains to permanent ones. She slipped into the kitchen, caught herself against the counter and took a glass bottle from the sink. Then she skidded back to the bathroom and covered the drain.

Perched on the ledge of the tub, she watched him look for an escape that didn’t exist, crawling up the sides to slip back down. She nudged him with her toe and sang, “Spidey, spidey, bo-bitey, banana-fana, fo-fighty, me-my-mo-mighty. Spidey!” Then she named him. “It smells pretty sour in there, Mr. Mighty, but so does the drain.” Coaxing him into her hand, she slipped him into the bottle.

Lilly placed Mighty on the counter and stared at herself in the mirror. She arched her spine and pushed back narrow hips. Ribs poked through her skin like chicken bones in a trash bag. She tipped the bottle to her mouth. “Mighty, guess who I am.” Mighty crawled away from her chapped lips.

“You don’t talk much, huh?” She pushed a strand of her strange white hair behind an ear and slipped on a pair of pink underwear, looping a thumb through a hole under the elastic.

Someone knocked at the door.

She gasped and crouched with the tip of her nose resting on the sink ledge, little fingers gripping, eyes darting back and forth, putting on a show for the mirror and for Mighty.

They knocked again. “You can’t keep doing this, Maureen.”

“It’s him,” she shouted. She wrapped a towel around her shoulders, tying it at her throat so it hung like a cape. “The evil Greedyman.” Lilly grabbed the bottle and pointed to herself in the mirror. “We’ll save the day! Mighty and me.” She tip-toed back through the kitchen and put an ear to the front door. The man knocked again. Lilly brandished the bottle like a dagger when he began to shout.

“Open the door. You can’t ignore me forever.”

“State your busy-ness,” said Lilly into the keyhole.

The man stopped knocking. “Maureen?” he asked, though it wasn’t her voice. “Is that you?”

“Mommy is away from the castle. And no one gets in without a password. If you try, Mr. Mighty will eat you whole.”

The knocker exhaled and Lilly heard his head thump against the door. “Listen. I’m sure you’re a real angel, but your mother owes me rent. You sure she isn’t home?”

Lilly yanked a wooden chair to the door and climbed up. She looked out the peep-hole, and examined the enemy. “You don’t look so scary.”

The man was short and somewhat triangular, from his skinny face to his imposing bottom half. He wrung his hands and moved his weight back and forth between feet. Like people sometimes do, he tried to look back in through the peep-hole and said, “Cut me a break. Open the door,” and more quietly, “for chrissake.”

Lilly looked into the bottle like a spyglass. “Any ideas?” Mighty twitched, and she whispered to him, “Did anyone ever tell you how smart you are?” Placing the bottle a few steps back into the apartment, she moved the chair, unlocked the door, and said in a deep voice, “Enter… if you dare.”

The man turned the knob and paused, pushed the door open a crack and paused again. Finally, he took a step inside, and bent to look at Mighty in the empty liquor bottle.

Lilly slammed the door behind him. The man, who was wide but not deep, missed the strike but fell out of surprise and shook the apartment.

“Christ,” he shouted, clutching his chest with one hand, rubbing his backside with the other. He looked up to see Lilly standing with her chin held high, naked except for pink underwear and the towel at her throat.

“I de-feeted you, Greedyman,” said Lilly. “Now I’ll lock you up and eat the key.” Her stomach growled.

The man’s face turned red and seemed to swell. “Put some clothes on,” he stammered. “If anyone walks in here…”

“I will de-feet them too,” she interrupted, dancing in victory, patting her belly and hoping on one leg.

The man, desperate to look anywhere else, took in his surroundings. Brown, black, and beige – not its original color – the apartment resembled a stain beneath the dumpster. Bottles littered corners and what looked like wax had been poured on the carpet in the shape of a smiling face.

He wrapped the towel across her chest like a matador, then pulled back his hand like he’d been bit. “Where is your mother?”

She narrowed her eyes. “I won’t tell.”

He sighed. “Do you have any food? You look…”

She looked like an abandoned cat.

The man walked into the joint kitchen. Someone had taped a postcard from the beach on the refrigerator. Jersey, he suspected. Nothing written on the back. He opened the fridge. It was empty but it stank. He didn’t feel anything but a mild apprehension. If he called Social Services, there would be a report in the paper, maybe on the news. Who wants to be the tenant in a building of abuse?

“Mighty says you might as well play with us.”

He flinched. Lilly had snuck up behind him without making a noise.

“I have somewhere to be.” He was still undecided on his next move. “Somewhere important.”

She swayed. “No.”

The man inched around Lilly, and her eyes followed him. She looked hungry.

He lunged toward the door, and she dove. Though the man’s hips were immense, she could fit her short arms around his shin, clasp her hands, and sit on his shoe.

The man tried to shake her off, but she screeched. “Stay and play.” Finally, he reached into his pocket for a half-empty tin of breath mints and threw them.

“Have some candy!”

She loosened her grip enough for him to kick his leg into the wall and send her somersaulting. He ran out the door.

She frowned. “Mommy was right about him. He thinks he’s too good.”

Remembering the candy, she giggled, popped a mint into her mouth, and puckered. She ate six more so the first wouldn’t feel lonely in her stomach, hid another between the couch cushions, and dropped the last one into the bottle for Mighty. It started to dissolve when it hit the damp bottom. He investigated, then left it alone.

She shivered. Mid-afternoon rain had broken the heat of the city, but it would feel hotter tonight. Lilly grabbed another towel to use as a blanket and settled into the couch. She held the bottle close and hummed the same three notes, again and again.

Humidity woke her much later. She wiped the sweat from under her eyes and flipped a light switch. Nothing happened, so she lit a few candles. Her shoulder throbbed from how the man had shaken her off. “Did you sleep well, Mighty?” He sat still, legs limp. “Oh, hush,” she told herself. “Mighty is sleeping.”

She chewed the edge of her towel, then on the inside of her cheek. She wasn’t afraid of the dark unless she was alone. She didn’t hear noises from the apartment above and imagine monsters in chains, or the sound of sirens and fear some wailing ghost. Lilly didn’t hear anything. The world outside the apartment no longer existed and the halls inside were growing. The heat and dark clogged her ears, and without Mighty she had no distractions.

The scent of the candles – Beach Flower, Walk on the Beach and Beautiful Day made her stomach turn. She heaved, and for a moment the space below her ribs disappeared as if someone carved out what little meat remained between her chest and hips. Gripping the bottle, she coughed up saliva filled with blue, crystalline, breath-freshening chips.

She wiped her mouth and walked to her room, dragging a hand along the wall to keep her balance. She took lipstick from a box by the mattress she shared with her mother, and drew a red face on the wall. It had hair like Medusa, but it smiled.

She waited, barely awake, and after the bedroom had steeped in darkness, she felt a hand on the back of her neck.

“Lilly?” The voice was like crumpled paper.

She grabbed the hand and nuzzled rough skin and sharp nails. “You’re home.”

Lilly’s mother carried her to the mattress, eyes well-adjusted to the night. She squeezed the skin of her daughter’s arms to see what was left, then they tangled like skeletons, no softness to either body.

“Did you bring food?”

“No, sweet one.” She was shaking. “I spent what I made on the bus back to you.”

Lilly stroked her mother’s hair and kissed her shoulder. “I hid a candy in the couch for you. If you’re hungry.”

But her mother was falling asleep, always more tired than hungry. “Someday,” she said, drifting. “We’ll go to the shore and sit in the sand like other people do. I’ll take us somewhere new.” But she couldn’t give what she never had.

The next morning, after knocking brought all the neighbors to their doors, Lilly opened her eyes. Her mother trembled in the doorframe. The knocking reached its peak and she heard the Greedyman say, “This will go more smoothly if you open up.”

Lilly shot up and the room spun. She put her hands on her knees. Her mother urged her to stay but she wanted something she didn’t recognize, and that was revenge. She ran to the door in four tottering leaps, grabbed the bottle and called Mighty to arms. But the corpse of her friend, a common house spider, just bounced against the glass and settled in a heap. She continued to shake him, trying to wake him while she opened the door.

The Greedyman stood center. Behind him, two policemen and a man in a suit, eyes all wide at the sight of her – naked, sweating, and starved.

The landlord whispered, “See?”

The policemen strode in and the suited man sheltered her against the wall. She screamed for her friend. She screamed for her mother as they steered her past. They looked so similar, mother and daughter – these skeleton girls with matching boomerang collarbones. And her mother said between shouts, “Somewhere new. Somewhere new.”

The Greedyman watched her mother pass, hands on his hips, saying, “I won’t allow it. No, ma’am, I won’t allow it in my apartments.” The neighbors held polite hands over their mouths.

Kneeling, the man in the suit took Lilly by her arms, avoiding the bruise on her shoulder. “You’re safe,” he said. His eyes were wet, but warm like a spot in the sun. She hoped he would be a friend.

Before he took her somewhere safe, somewhere new, she hid away a piece of her soul between the couch cushions with her mother’s uneaten mint, and locked the apartment door behind her in her mind. She turned the key, stepped away, and swallowed it.

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