Story Hour: For the Love of Johnny

Alice tried to remember who had given her the key. The skeleton key reminded her of a horror flick she’d once watched. With interest, she noted the top of the key had the shape of a heart. If only she could remember who had given it to her, then she might remember what it was for.

She no longer found life fun; at her age, her bones creaked almost as badly as her bed did. Her hair, while still silky, no longer held its opulent brown and had yielded to the overpowering silver over the years. She had given up on letter writing, as arthritis curled and crippled her fingers when she gripped the pen, causing her too much pain.

Her son gave her a cellphone, and, every so often—usually at the very moment she got up the nerve to talk to Henry three doors down—it would chime. She dug the glasses she only wore for reading out of the antique nightstand and smiled as the text lit up the screen:

“Hi Mom. Love you much. Priscilla and Peter send their love too. See you soon. Take care of yourself.”

She never bothered to respond. He would check tomorrow or the next day to make sure she got it. The nurses always told her when he called. They refused to call him by his name; however, referring to him as “Mr. Hotshot” in the same manner they referred to her, despite her protests, as “Honeybunch.” Everyone that lived in the home had a nickname, though their visitors usually did not. She wondered briefly if the nurses would remember who had given her the key. Its cool metal chilled her skin through the thin material of her hospice gown as it settled in her pocket. She dismissed its mystery temporarily for the afternoon snack.

“Snickerdoodles. Soft ones at that!” Beverly, her next door neighbor, exclaimed. “Not everyone still has their teeth, ya know.” She barked this in the direction of the kitchen. She always thought the cooks had it out for her. “Say, Alice. What’s that thing you been tinkering with for the past week? Did ol’ Johnny give it to you afore he kicked the bucket?”

Ol’ Johnny. Alice grinned. Henry might be the most sought after man around here, but Johnny had been the nicest. Her heart lurched as his face passed through her mind, his visage already starting to fade. Did you give me that key, Ol’ Man?

Her arm reached out and brushed against the coarse polyester of the uniform in front of her. Lucky for her, it was Annabelle, the only one who did not call her “Honeybunch.”

“Annabelle? Do we still have Ol’ Johnny’s things here?”

“I reckon so, Miss Alice. I’ve never seen no one come and pick ‘em up. Not on my shift anyway.” Annabelle bustled around Alice as she always did.

“Might we have a look later?”

“I don’t know, Miss Alice.” She stopped what she was doing to look Alice in the eye. “I can’t see how his kin’d look too kindly on that, seein’ as how y’all weren’t related to each other and all.”

Alice’s hand disappeared inside her pocket. She pulled it out, and the key lay in her opened palm. It danced in the sunlight, casting prisms of light around the room. Annabelle’s eyes smiled, a slight twinkle hidden in their brown depths.

“Where did you get that, now, Miss Alice?”

“I don’t know. I don’t remember.”

Annabelle’s bright eyes gleamed. She leaned down closer to Alice, pretended to clean her smock off, and whispered.

“I reckon I could take a look see at Ol’ Johnny’s things on my break. If there be anything requirin’ a key like that, well, I’ll just shimmy on down to your room quick as a jack rabbit and give it to you.”

Alice grabbed her wrist, her faded blue eyes misted over. “I’d be up for taking a walk later. Doctor’s orders, you know. I really need to start exercising more.”

Annabelle nodded conspiratorially, and Alice sat back against her pillow and enjoyed her snack.

A brisk knock at her door jarred Alice from the light sleep she had fallen into. Johnny filled her dreams, and she startled at the intrusion.

“I’m sorry to disturb, Miss Alice. Din’t you say you wanted to try walkin’ today? I can help you now, if you’re still up for it.”

She nodded slowly, then faster as the last cobwebs of her dreams drifted from her mind. Annabelle was a welcomed intrusion, and Alice hoped that the pain she would suffer as a result of this walk would be well rewarded later. She exchanged the thin housecoat she lived in for a soft white knee-length cardigan instead. Johnny had given it to her, his last impromptu gift. It had been his way of claiming her as his girl, and she wanted to honor that now. Her feet shuffled into her slippers, hard soled for non-slip walking, a Christmas gift from the grandchildren she had never met. Her laugh lines lifted as her lips parted.

The groundskeeper tended the walking trail well, Alice noted, as her legs complained with every step. It had been too long since she had ventured outside. The fresh honeysuckle perfumed air lifted her spirits, and, though the storage shed was not far, she was glad to see it.

Annabelle pulled a keyring from her pocket. She picked a small silver one, and it slid with familiarity into the lock. One twist, and the shed opened, revealing medium sized chocolate brown boxes with matching lids. Someone had labeled them with masking tape and marker. Annabelle helped Alice in and closed the door before flipping the light switch by the door. Soft white lighting filtered through the small space. They both scanned rows of names, some Alice recognized, but most of whom she didn’t. At the top of the shortest tower sat Johnny’s box, an easy reach for Annabelle with her height. She harrumphed as she pulled the box down.

“What does Ol’ Johnny have in this thing?” Her breath came out as a long sigh that Alice couldn’t quite catch. “Boy, that was a might heavier than I expected.”

The box fit easily on the table, and Annabelle removed the lid. His clothing topped the box; his favorite novels, a western and a mystery, tattered and dog-eared underneath. Alice found something at the very bottom of the box she had never seen before. She recognized his messy scrawl on the top page, and suddenly wished she had brought her glasses with her. Annabelle lifted it gently from the box.

“Here is the lock, where is the key,” she read aloud.

Her eyes rounded as Alice pulled the key from her pocket. It fit smoothly in the large heart-shaped padlock of burnished gold. They both jumped as the lock snapped open in the quiet evening air. A single line scrawled on the top page read:

The Job of the Century by John H. Dillinger, Jr.

Underneath the title, someone had drawn a map of an area marked as Morgan County, Indiana. A large x stood out, scarring the page with scarlet.  Beneath the x, written in painstakingly careful print was an address.


The Darkroom picture prompt image by Tara Roberts

Alice sat quietly in her room. She held a cellphone in her hand and patiently tapped on the small keyboard.

Remember Ol’ Johnny? Turns out he wasn’t so nice after all. Love, Mom.

She rotated the key in her other hand, flipping it back and forth. Her eyes followed the rainbows it cast on her wall. She knew what she had to do. Her chest heaved and her breath caught as she leaned over the vent and dropped the key through a slat. The emptiness of her hand made her heart lurch, as her ears caught the ding of metal against metal, the heart glittering once before it disappeared. Johnny’s face faded from her mind forever.

Join in The Darkroom picture prompt here.

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