Key snapped awake to the sound of someone pounding on his door. He could only guess that it was just after dawn due to the muted light leaking through the tiny crack in the wall, he had blocked the windows up a lifetime ago.
The drone of wind hit him next, a sandstorm must have made it’s triumphant return to Kallas, the vast city on the edge of the world. They weren’t frequent, maybe several a year, but like all others, it would pass. The slamming of a fist against the old steel door became insistent, he’d get no more sleep today.
‘Coming!’ he shouted, hoping his visitor could hear him over the roar of wind and sand, trying its hardest to enter every orifice of their body at once. He pulled on his pants and shuffled to the door, shirtless and about as awake as he could be. As he reached for the door, the banging started again, it was clear that he hadn’t been heard.
On the outside, it was hell. Key opened the small slider on the door to get an idea of who was out there but saw nothing but a head wrapped in a heavy, brown scarf, or terfit as the people of the desert called it. No colour could be see other than vermilion dust and grime, thick and sharp like a million needles. He winced a moment, his eyes adjusting to the glare and against his usual judgement, unlocked the door and invited the stranger in. Slamming the door heavily behind them.
‘I’m sorry’ he began, ‘please, take a seat, I was asleep’. He quickly went about straightening the place up, stoking the fire and adding a pot of water on. He was about to offer coffee but remembered that he was all out, instead he offered the next best thing, water. The guest nodded and began unraveling his terfit.
Beneath the wrap was a young man, unlikely to be much older than twenty, he had the wide-eyed look of a man from the inner world to the west, not having developed the trademarked squint of a Kallasite yet. He thanked Key in his clear common tongue, and sipped the boiled water, clear of all impurities.
Key sat in silence, drinking his water, allowing his visitor to finish before finding out what his story was, already aware of what the stranger needed.
Key was named by the last man named Key, and he provided access to thousands of doors in Kallas for people from across the world. Sometimes, it was a big door, sometimes it was a small door. Not all were locked, but all had a key, and he kept all of them.
‘I need a key’ the young man said.
‘You have the request?’ Key replied, one of the few questions he was permitted to ask. The boy reached into a leather pouch strapped across his shoulder and yanked out a small piece of plastic with a number written on it and a stamp of approval from the Directorate of Waterstone. Key held it up to the light to check for any forgery and after a moment he determined it was genuine. People didn’t often travel this far to fake their way into a door.
Before he handed the card back to the stranger he paused, noticing the number again 2416. A puzzled expression crossed his face, he had seen almost every door in Kallas, most on multiple occasion, but never had he seen or opened 2416.
‘What is it?’ the boy asked.
‘Nothing’ Key replied, ‘what’s your name, boy?’
‘David’ he said, Key nodded in reply.
‘David, we’ll have to wait a while here while this storm passes’ Key said after a few moments of awkward silence, ‘are you hungry?’ David nodded.
Key prepared some flat bread, a local staple, with some cactus jam and sat in silence as David ate like a starved dog. Key nibbled.
‘What’s behind this door?’ David asked with a mouthful of bread.
‘I don’t know’ Key said, ‘I don’t know what’s behind most of them, I don’t need to know’.
‘You’re never curious?’
‘I’m always curious, but it’s not my business. I open doors, I don’t ask questions’. David pondered this a moment.
‘You said most, so you know what’s behind some?’ he asked.
‘Sure’ Key replied, ‘sometimes people tell me, sometimes I can just tell by their reaction. I don’t wait for them to leave though, I open the door, let them in and close it behind them’.
‘Aren’t they trapped inside?’
‘Nah, all doors open from the inside’ he said, ‘I’ve just never seen your door before, and as you could guess, I’ve seen a lot of them’.
‘How long have you been opening the doors?’
‘Forty-seven years now’
‘And you lived alone all that time?’ David asked.
‘Not really’ Key said, ‘I had a wife once, but she died a long time ago’. A brief flash of her last moments returned to him, her swollen lips foaming from the stroke she suffered. He remembered crying while holding her, desperately wanting nothing than to kiss her one last time. He shook his head and pushed that back deep into the dark corners of his mind.
‘Yes, a long time ago’ he said, steel returning to his nerves. He didn’t let people in to his house, let alone into his life. David seemed like a good enough kid and it wasn’t something he was afraid to hide. Everyone has lost someone close to them.
‘Feel free to sleep a while, the desert can take a lot out of you even if you live here’.
David napped while Key dug through his boxes, looking for the key he never seen in his life.
By the time David woke an hour or two later, the storm had died down about as suddenly as it had appeared. Key was ready to go, a long key with the number 2416 stamped on it hanging from a key-chain on his waist and a terfit wrapped around his neck just in case the storm planned to return. He said little more than ‘ready?’ to which David nodded and was lead out of the small tin shed that he had made his home for almost half of a century.
They weaved through the almost empty streets of Kallas. Those few that passed the two paid no attention to Key and his client, not many associated with him, they all knew better.
Key wasn’t dangerous, but his job required association with dangerous types, some doors were granting access to stores of weapons and wealth and underworldly types were always attracted to that. He had been offered millions in compensation for “losing” keys for these kinds of people who knew what lay on the other sides of the locks. He had always refused, and would continue until he died, he was stubborn like that.
Many understood and left it at that, some had made it their job to make his life more difficult after his refusal. He could honestly plead ignorance, and his reputation had become that of a stubborn old bastard who couldn’t be bought. He liked that.
But it never stopped the entrepreneurs from trying, then following it up by trying to make his life a living hell as a result.
As the continued through the streets, littered with debris after the storm, David sparked conversation. He talked of what he thought was behind the door, excitement had set in.
‘Y’see, I’m an agent’ he said proudly, ‘the Directorate hire me for special missions, collecting certain things and delivering them to even more important people’. Key decided it was time to stop. He grabbed David by the shoulder and pressed him hard against a wall.
‘Do not talk openly about your career here’ he warned in a hushed voice, ‘it will serve you no good among these people. If the wrong person overheard that you were a big deal in the capital, you would find yourself kidnapped the second you walk out of that door. If you’re lucky, they’ll ransom you off along with whatever it is you’re collecting, do you understand?’ David nodded, his eyes wide with fear.
‘Good’ Key said, ‘we’re almost there, let’s go’.
The continued in silence, David asking the occasional question about Kallas and the rugged people who inhabited the region. Key managed his best to answer them all, not particularly happy to speak to him now. He had dealt with plenty of talkative clients in the past but he lost his patience after David had gotten too chatty about his occupation. After a while he stopped replying and made some excuse about him needing to keep an ear out.
The door, just like most doors was unassuming. It was light blue at one point, a few flecks of colour remain but most had been burned away by the winds and sun over the centuries. He had heard stories about the Old People leaving powerful artifacts behind some of these doors but he’d never seen anything that convinced him of this. He usually feigned interest at these tales, reminding himself that curiousity wasn’t a part of the job.
‘Here we are’ he said, standing in front of a door with a very worn 2416 on it. He wondered how long it would be until it wasn’t able to be read and whether he’d be able to locate the doors without legible numbers. A few of the common doors had been re-written by himself or one of his clients over the years but he wasn’t really interested in the upkeep of the doors, only the access.
He pulled the key off the chain and pushed it into the lock. Much like every other door here, the lock was jammed and he wiggled the key a few times to loosen it before finally feeling movement. The lock clicked as the key turned and he held a hand out to David and shook it, wishing him luck with what lay on the other side.
The boy nervously turned the handle and opened it as Key turned away, he shot an anxious glance back to the strange old man and stepped through. Key continued walking, hearing the heavy clunk of the door closing over and made his way back to his home alone.
By nightfall, he had reached his own door and reached for the key. There was none, only the key to 2416. He cursed and felt all of his pockets, finding nothing in sheer panic. He was locked out of his home, he was trapped outside in a darkening world. All he had left was a key to another door. Sadness and defeat sunk in as he realised everything was inside the door labelled 12, the door to his home, the door to every key in Kallas. He burst into tears and fell to his knees, wailing long into the night.
At some point in predawn he had cried himself dry, no longer able to make a noise, his throat raw. He resigned, knowing he’d never be able to open another door. Except one.
The chipped blue door opened again, this time without as much effort as previous and he entered. The room was sparse, a box with nothing more than another door on the far side. He walked over and not having a key, knocked, and waited. Then he knocked again. There was no answer, David must have moved on.
Without any warning, the door opened again. David stood on the other side but he had aged much. ‘Yes?’ he said, ‘can I help you?’
Desperation overcame him and he blurted ‘I need a key!’
‘Which key, traveller?’ the much older David replied, not recognising the man from the day prior.
‘The key to door twelve’ he pleaded. David hesitated for a moment, confused at the request.
‘But this is door twelve’ he replied, ‘come inside, let me make you some coffee’. He held out his hand, ‘the name’s Key, by the way, what’s yours?’