by Wesley Jacques

Mother had gone to work. And the clank of the locks on the aluminum door with the peeling paint meant her nine-year-old son was locked in their one bedroom apartment alone. He wasn't allowed to open the door when she was out—even answering the phone was prohibited without explicit permission beforehand. Mother however hadn't known that the newly installed dead-bolt lock, positioned above the door chain and two other locks, would be a few inches out of her son's reach. In spite of Mother's constant assertion that her little man was far more mature than his age, he was very much the size of a scrawny little nine-year-old.

It was two hours after she kissed him on the forehead and told him to finish his homework before he went to sleep, when he realized this new lock thwarted any possibility of escape in case of emergency. He felt constricted, shut in by the door that he had once stood before and picked at to reveal stripes of the burnished brown metal underneath the murky white paint. He appreciated the abstract, jagged shapes he'd created much more than his mother did. Maybe he was being punished in some way by the door itself.

He was young enough to immediately find a rebellious longing to escape, loathing the meagerness of his home and comparing it to imprisonment. He was also sharp enough to understand that a man's freedom was inherently valuable despite anything. He assessed the situation as a test of his budding manhood.

The lock shone with a metallic luster that stood out against the tarnished backdrop of the off-white and brown door. He could see the lock from several feet away and it looked unsettlingly new. In his few years on this planet, he'd already acquired an uncanny distrust for the new, from new temporary homes to new men that feigned interest in him only to hurt Mother. So even though the smart young boy understood the lock to work in the same fashion as any other—a small locking bar lying horizontal at the face of it and a steel rod thrust into a hole in the wall—he suspected something sinister afoot.

What if Mother forgets her key again and knocks and bangs and yells at the door all in vain while he desperately attempts to stretch his four feet two inch frame on the other side? What if the lock just refuses to work even with the key in and keeps this tin partition between Mother and son forever!?

Dreary hypotheticals raced through the young mind of a boy that found it difficult to even say hypothetical. He continued to stand barefoot a few feet away from the door, right where the wall to the left of him turned into the entrance to the living/dining room (a cramped combination that was plugged as "quaint and convenient"), glaring at the shiny piece of metal like they were to duel each other at dawn. It was in fact dusk, six-fifteen, and this was weary work for a young man who hadn't eaten his afternoon snack yet. So he backed up slowly, making an effort to keep eye contact, then ran through the living/dining room, leaping over plastic-covered furniture the way children often do, like gymnasts or stunt-devils, reaching the kitchen with a crash.

Luckily for him, hard plastic dishes and old iron pots don't break so easily. He returned them back to their shelves and cabinets, carefully balancing on a chair to place the dishes where they belonged and nowhere else, meticulously. An imagination fueled by both Tom and Jerry conjured a light bulb above his head almost instantly and, with a skillet in one hand and a mug in the other, he had an idea. Mother would go on for hours on the phone with her friends about how clever he was. He smiled in proud agreement as he dragged the chair from the kitchen to the hallway where a sentinel of brass and steel awaited at an imposing height.

The chair provided the necessary lift. He stood tall with new-found conviction upon a chair that sat securely under his bare feet despite the negligible wobble. What was not accounted for however was the physical stubbornness of this lock. The small bar that needed to turn to release the rod from penetrating the wall was stuck, fixed in the way that hard metal gets when its cold and new. His small clumsy fingers grappled with the lock relentlessly. Frustration moistened his fingertips and made the struggle even more ineffective and unbearable. Defeated, the boy dismounted the kitchen chair with a thud onto the cold floor of the hallway and retreated past the worn dining room furniture and dingy mismatched living room set.

In the kitchen, he decided to treat himself to a bowl of Lucky Charms. A third of the milk and the marshmallow treats landed on the ground, while the rest found its way into the bowl, a personal best. The mess was sopped up with a cloth from the counter-top and thrown into the sink. He usually made a greater effort to clean the apartment, partly because he believed no one else would (Mother surely wasn't the type), but he felt drained by forces he couldn't describe. On the couch across from the old television set, he slouched, spoon in hand, as the pots of gold and rainbows grew soggy. The spoon's surface was cloudy when compared to the sheen of the lock. For the moment, that observation kept him from soiling his spoon with the milk and cereal. He just looked at it.

Predictably, the spoon soon found itself adhered to the tip of his nose. Mother was known to halfheartedly scold him for such hijinks while unsuccessfully fighting a smile that encouraged his playfulness. It had been three and a half hours since she walked out that door and left her only child in the care of a door. Loneliness, being common to the boy, did nothing to lessen its sting. He sighed when he fully realized that no matter how hard he frowned no one would ask, What's wrong little man?

This was the point in his day when he'd reassure himself, like Mother often did, that she had no other choice, she worked for him, and he could take care of himself for a little while. You understand little man? He believed that he did. Any doubt or resentment he had about his Mother's decisions vanished as soon as she kissed him on the forehead. All would be obeyed after her kiss. He would even play nice to the male visitors that irked him the most because of her kiss. He wondered then what effect could this kiss have on them. Promptly he dismissed the idea, knowing it would lead his thoughts down an unpleasant or even yucky path.

Homework would have to be his distraction now. He seemed to love homework almost as much as he loved the hours he spent at school. An incredibly bright young man was a phrase so often used by his teachers to describe him it began to sound more like an inquisition on Mother's skill as a parent than a compliment. But it was true. He excelled in school despite the loneliness. And with that in mind he easily solved for a and x a couple of times in his advanced math workbook to stay preoccupied—until his pencil broke.

Surely another pencil existed somewhere in their apartment but the lock haunted him. It was now stopping him from going across the hall to Henry's and borrowing a replacement pencil to finish his assignment. Conquering the lock would have to be his primary concern. He needed no excuse to revert his attention back to the door, but this gave him the noble purpose that even a child could appreciate. It was now about homework. Things were personal.

He returned to the hallway with a chair from the dining room set this time. The chair wobbled a little less but the scene was identical. The lock wouldn't budge. He unlocked each of the other locks just to confirm his technique. Clink. Clank. The doorknob even turned. Nonetheless, the door wouldn't open without the full cooperation of all its parts, even the shiny ones. Once again, he stood and inspected the humble security system with its brass finish. It appeared more gold from up close, more ostentatious. It was like a trophy he hadn't won or some jewelry he couldn't afford. He sat down and hugged his knees, becoming as small as he felt just then. It was getting colder as it was getting later and his yawn didn't sound very promising.

It was then, as he somberly pulled the chair down the hall, that the phone rang. He looked up at the lock as if it could now be mocking him by phone and noticed the word ‘Master' branded in the metal. He smirked—perhaps an early appreciation of irony.

The phone continued to blare. He knew the protocol and didn't dare reach for the receiver, instead he continued to place the chair where it belonged and went back to his studies. (He had another pencil all along.) The answering machine eventually picked up the call. He hadn't heard his mother's voice since she said goodbye five hours ago, but he jumped when she called for him. Pick up the phone little man. Pick up. It was a command. He hurried to the phone—flying over the couch, almost losing teeth on the bumpy landing, bouncing off a table, and then slamming into a wall. He maintained a hopeful smile the whole way. When the receiver touched his ear, he faded into frown. He was too late. He hung up. At this point in the evening, he'd been half expecting disappointment. Suddenly, a moment later, the phone rang again and he didn't hesitate to pick it up. But it wasn't Mother this time. The voice was automated and male and requested a payment for some debt. He'd been exposed to the villainous face of telemarketing at the ripe age of nine. On that note, he was ready for bed.

Tucked snugly into the bed he and his mother shared, he slept alone. Only a digital clock on a nightstand and the street lamp outside his window dared to challenge the darkness. Likewise, only the peaceful exhales of a child and the banter of a late night talk show host penetrated the silence. Even the air of this cool autumn night stood still so as not to disturb the young man's well deserved rest.

As he lay on his left shoulder in the left-most region of the bed, leaving ample space for Mother to join him, he refused to allow the door to torment him any longer. He dreamt of sports aspirations and superheroes. He dreamt of being places he'd never seen and people he'd known only briefly. He dreamt of school tomorrow and expected praise from his teachers. He dreamt of basketball scholarships to I.B. League schools (he'd heard a teacher mention the phrase once. He imagined it to be an amazing sports league, like the NFL but with smart kids.) He dreamt of a home without laminated furniture, one with new paint on the walls. Throughout and most importantly, he dreamt of his mother's approving smile, supportive laughs, and loving kisses on his forehead. He smiled with his eyes and mouth as he slept.

Mother raced home in response to the no-answer. Unlocking sounds ascended from the bottom two more compliant locks to the formidable top. Even she, key-in-hand, struggled with the new brass lock for a moment, but eventually the telltale clink sounded and the door opened.

She opened the door slowly to minimize the squeak of the rusty hinges and shut it as quietly as she could. She removed her shoes and tiptoed into the living room in her socks. There she went over her son's homework with a smile and finished his warm Lucky Charms soup in a hurry. She was famished. She continued to the kitchen and felt the stickiness on the linoleum floor. She laughed at the obvious attempt at cleaning a milky catastrophe. She swept up stale bits of oats and marshmallow hid under the refrigerator and counter. It didn't take long. There was little space to get too messy. She tidied up the living room and continued to the telephone. Carson told jokes and the television audience laughed as she sat on a chair with curious little footprints and made a call:

Hey, I just got home.
I'm fine.
He's asleep.
The lock works great, thank you.
No. I figured it out. I just had to turn it the opposite way.
No. He probably didn't even notice it. You know kids. I just needed something to keep him safe.
I know but still. Another lock couldn't hurt. I get scared leaving him here all alone.
Yeah. He is my little man.
I think I'm going to head to bed too. Thanks again.

She placed the phone gently on the hook, turned the television off and walked towards the bedroom. In the hallway, she headed towards the door to make sure it was locked and slid the door chain into its enclave for added security. She sighed realizing that if her life was a bit different her door would look different, but shadows and streetlight danced across the doors surface and in the brown and white tears towards the base of the door she saw an image of her son. At that moment she wouldn't have given up this tattered door and peeling paint for anything in the world.

Mommy is that you? He rubbed his eyes as he softly spoke, standing there behind her in the hallway. The vision was dreamlike as she stood exactly where he'd stood most of this afternoon and evening.

She walked towards him, no need to tiptoe now, lifted him up and brought him into the bedroom. She laid her son on the bed and re-tucked him in. She changed into her nightgown and soon joined him, filling in that space he'd left free. Face to face she kissed him on the forehead, as he'd been not so secretly wanting her to since her exit almost ten hours ago, and then they both turned over, as customary in their bed.

A few moments passed and Mother was still up. Are you happy little man? She asked in a whisper. No response. He was fast asleep. She went to sleep soon afterwards.

Latchkey by Wesley Jacques

© Copyright 2013. All rights reserved. No portion of this work may be duplicated or copied without the expressed written consent of the author.

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