I’m excited to share the first chapter of A HALL OF KEYS AND NO DOORS with you this week to celebrate being just about a month out from release day!
A HALL OF KEYS AND NO DOORS
At 2:03 PM on Wednesday, December the seventh, Ella Keyes decided that everyone on the planet was picking their nose. The thought came to her as she fixated on a small brass elephant with eyes of lapis lazuli. It wasn’t picking its nose or doing much of anything. But, Ella thought as she read an obsequious argument in favor of Thor as the Norse Jupiter, the writer of the term paper certainly was.
She would remember that imagery on occasional moments throughout the rest of her life, because precisely three seconds later, Easton Gellerman, her rather pimply graduate assistant and adjunct professor, knocked on her office door with a telegram between his fingers and a bemused expression on his face.
Ella took the telegram in her hand, holding it between two long fingers and a thumb with a nail in desperate need of clipping.
“Grandmother expelled. Stop. Come to house. Full stop.”
Expelled what? Ella wondered about that for a moment before correctly deducing that the telegram ought to have read expired. Neither word, Ella decided, should ever be applied to the death of a human being.
There was only one person in Ella’s life who might send a telegram in the twenty-first century. Grammy Helen’s twin sister Eunice was ninety-three years old with a mind like Swiss cheese. The holes were where abilities like word choice and refraining from public flatulence had once made their homes.
“Better out than in,” Auntie Eunice would say on such occasions.
Grammy Helen was dead.
Easton made his continued presence known with a small cough. “Everything okay?”
Grammy Helen wasn’t, apparently.
Ella gathered the stack of term papers she’d been grading into a tidy pile and tucked it into a folder labeled, “Fall Semester NORMYTH203” and slid the folder into her hanging file next to “Fall Semester NATAMERMYTH301” and “Fall Semester EARNORFOLKLORE402SEM,” which had a name altogether too long for the tab on the file. That bothered her.
She looked up from the file at Easton, who stood in the doorway awaiting an answer. “My grandmother passed away,” she told him.
Easton frowned, opened his mouth, closed it, and opened it again in that way people do when they’re not sure what to say about death. “I’m sorry?” His voice took an upturn at the end, which made his condoling sentence into an odd question.
“Thank you.” Ella straightened the three pens by her keyboard, keeping them parallel to the edge of the plastic. Red, blue, black. “I’ll be out for the rest of the day. Can you finish up grading the intro course’s assignments?”
“Of course.” Easton backed out of the office and shut the door.
Ella picked up her desk phone and held the weight in her hand for a moment. She looked down at the edge of her desk, her hair falling in her face. Grammy Helen. Ella hadn’t known there was anything wrong with her, aside from the occasional battiness. Her free hand went to the single blue lock among the loose brown waves and gave it a tug. Ella had had tea with Grammy the week before. She’d seemed fine. Grammy had cooked cottage pie at her old farmhouse and served it to Ella with mint tea and a Jell-O parfait for dessert. The entire kitchen had smelled of beef and mint and artificial cherry, and in that space Ella and Grammy Helen both had known there was a presence missing. Ella felt hollow, the strange telegram’s news ricocheting off insides that seemed polished and smooth like marble buttresses. Not releasing the blue lock, Ella punched the plastic buttons for Aunt Eunice’s number with the middle finger of her phone-holding hand. After seven rings, a quavering voice answered.
“Ahoy.” Auntie Eunice heard long ago that when the telephone was invented, Alexander Graham Bell had wanted the salutation to be ahoy instead of hello. Because it was his original intention, she refused to say anything else when answering.
“Aunt Eunice, it’s Ella. I got your…telegram.”
“Oh. That. Funeral’s Sunday. Have you got anything nice to wear?”
“I’ll find something.”
“And bring something to the wake. Maybe a newt plate.”
“That’s what I said, dear.”
Ella hung up the phone, swiveling in her chair. The window behind her desk wore a veil of frost that cast a muted glow over the office. She clicked on the antique lamp, flashing gold against the silvery winter light. After a moment, she turned it off again. Grammy Helen. Something nice to wear.
And then Ella would have to see about that newt plate and the prickle behind her eyes that seemed to echo.
Ella tugged her cerulean blue scarf tighter around the lower half of her face and tucked the ends into the folds of her jacket. Snow buffeted her exposed bits, and she already wished she had stayed in her office with the little brass elephant for company, freshman term papers notwithstanding.
An icy blast chilled her wrists. She’d have to get a coat with longer sleeves one of these days. Ella’s boots crunched the snow on the footpath. At least it wasn’t getting dark yet.
Getting the tiny silver key into the bike lock in a Buffalo winter was a skill akin to magic. Ella did it twice a day. In went the key. Pop went the lock. The cable, so used to the carefully wound coil it lived in, almost circled itself up immediately. Ella’s gloved hands packaged it into a tidy round and tucked it into the outside pocket of her briefcase along with the lock and pulled out a small towel.
She brushed snow off the bike’s seat, drying it enough to sit on for the ride back to her loft.
One of the anthropology professors hurried past her, barely nodding in greeting. He didn’t mention the bike. No one did anymore.
Ella mounted the bicycle and started pedaling down the salt-crusted path toward the road.
A person could get used to anything.
The snow had mostly stopped by the time Ella rounded the corner to her building. She pressed the button on her garage door opener — she shared with the neighbor — and chained her bike to an exposed girder next to her six-year-old green Subaru. The garage door rumbled closed behind her. Stomping her feet, Ella headed into the building.
Her loft was on the top floor of what was meant to be a duplex and wound up being a makeshift art studio. Ella rented the nicer of the two apartments; the more unfortunate one never got built past efficiency status, like a stunted growth or a half-finished Lego creation.
Poof the cat came running toward her when she opened the door with a loud prrrrow? He rubbed against her ankles, his cream-colored fur turning beige with the melted snow.
“You’re going to be very unhappy in a minute if you keep that up, Poof. Just wait until it soaks through to your skin.”
Sure enough, Poof rubbed once more as Ella took a step — almost sending her pitching face first into the wall — and bolted up into his cat tree to lick away the cold water.
“I told you so.”
Ella moved her drying rack closer to the heating vent. Coat over one end, scarf on the top, gloves stuck on each of the bars on the ends. Boots over the floor vent in the foyer. Just like every day. Getting home had its own rituals. Heater up to seventy-three, teapot on.
Poof came back down from his perch when the sound of kibble hitting his bowl reached his ears. Ella scratched him once under the chin. His purr sounded like an old Corvette revving its engine. She could always hear him from the opposite side of the loft.
Prince, on the other hand, she almost never heard. He was very quiet for a frog. Ella tapped once on the glass of Prince’s aquarium. Prince hopped out from inside his log and sat in the glow of his heat lamp, throat pulsing. Behind him, the soft purple LED glowed with the trickles of water that filled Prince’s water fountain.
“Hungry? I’m still not going to kiss you.”
Prince turned his back. Ella dropped in his three crickets.
“Don’t take it so hard. You’ve given me no proof you deserve a kiss. If you ever want to eat anything besides crickets, you might want to work on that.”
The teapot began to whistle with a shrill squeal. Ella snapped the lid on the aquarium back into place. She thought she might regret feeding them early today when five in the morning rolled around. She pulled the teapot from the burner and dropped a bag of chamomile into her favorite hand-thrown mug.
Something nice to wear for Grammy Helen.
Ella brought her tea up the stairs with her to her bedroom and set it on a coaster atop the nightstand. She opened the closet. Her clothes were all organized by color. Red through violet, just like a rainbow, followed by white, black, gray, and brown. Above the hanging clothes, all her shoes fit into cubby holes by color. Shouldn’t be hard to find something. Except Grammy Helen hated when people wore black to funerals. She’d want Ella in something colorful. Something alive.
Ella decided on a bright green sweater and dark gray slacks. She had a pair of matching green pumps she could wear with it. She reached up to get the pumps, and something hard fell out of one of the shoes and hit her on the head.
Ella didn’t think to say ow. She already knew what it was.
This one was gray swirled with milky white. Pretty. They were always unique. She held it in her hand until it warmed to the temperature of her skin, ignoring the light throb at the top of her head where the rock had hit. Her heart did a slow turn inside her chest as if to say, “Ah, yes. Just making sure.”
Ella backed out of the closet and placed the pair of green heels on the foot of her bed, stepping around the corner to the large plastic jug she kept just out of sight. She dropped the rock in with the others. It was almost two-thirds full now. Ella never thought it would get this full. Not now, when the person who had left them scattered around her home had been dead for three years.
A twang plucked in her chest, as it always did at the thought of her twin brother. The hole wasn’t gone, just covered over in brush and vulnerable to rocks like the one that had just fallen on her head. Ella rubbed the part of her skull the small stone had struck, unable to allow herself to think about Stuart, unable to do anything else, as usual.
She laid the rest of the outfit out next to the shoes. She’d have to press it before Sunday.
Sunday Grammy Helen would be buried near her brother, and the wrongness of it made the tips of her fingers feel cold.
Grammy Helen’s death made that hole feel stripped bare again, and bigger. Ella wanted to cry and found she couldn’t. Instead she felt as though the rock had bounced round inside her where that hole made her hollow.
She ought to call her parents. Was it midnight in Johannesburg or was it noon? Ella should be able to remember the time difference by now. It’d been five years since her parents moved to South Africa. Midnight or noon, Grammy Helen was Dad’s mother. He ought to know. Auntie Eunice might well have forgotten to send him a telegram, and even if she didn’t, Dad was never very good at figuring out what words went where when it came to her.
The phone rang seven times before going to voice mail. Ella didn’t think it was appropriate to let her father know about his mother’s death in a recording, so she simply told him to call her back and hung up.
When was the last time they’d spoken? Ella couldn’t recall. With the time difference, it was never easy to get a hold of her parents. She’d try again tomorrow.
Ella flopped down on her bed, thinking of Grammy Helen’s worn, wrinkled face and the bright green eyes that never aged with the rest of her. Ella’s hand sought out the tiny gold key at her throat that Grammy had given her ten years before. She didn’t want to watch Grammy get put into the ground. A tiny part of her mind tried to pipe up and remind her that she didn’t get any say in that, but she squashed it down, punching a deep well in her pillow in the process.
She never touched her tea.
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