Lisa De Young
The Key of Curiosity
An old coffee can full of cigarette butts propped open the door to 1265 Bluegill Street. I raised my fist to knock when a red bulging nose forced its way through the opening. A pair of beady black eyes quickly looked me up and down as the door swung open revealing the most hideous man I had ever seen. Attached to the bulbous nose was a greasy and bloated face peppered with scars and liver spots. A long thin cut graced the man's right cheek. His enormous body filled the entire doorway. A single bare light bulb swayed methodically over his swollen and balding head in time with his crackling and labored breaths. The black pin-striped suit he wore was old and exhausted. Tarnished cufflinks hugged his shirt sleeves and a thin layer of dust covered his black loafers. The disgusting man nodded at me in acknowledgement and beckoned me through the decrepit and rotting doorway with a thick tobacco stained finger. The smell of cat and nicotine instantly permeated my nostrils as I stepped into the apartment. The fat man flashed me a stained and partially toothless grin as he ushered me in.
The air was thick and clung to my lungs with each breath. I felt dizzy. Piles of decomposing newspapers were stacked along the walls of the small hallway, rendering it nearly impassable. The man was at least three times my size yet effortlessly pressed his huge body in between the maze of disheveled papers. The white ivory cane at his side kept him balanced as he turned the corner and emerged into the living room. I followed him, careful not to disturb the heaping stacks of paper. The man hobbled over to an old couch in the corner of the room and motioned to the empty chair across from him. He fell back loudly into the worn leather and stirred a plump white cat that had been sleeping nearby. I hated cats. I attempted to hide my disgust as I watched it lazily open its eyes, lick its paw and go back to sleep. The man picked up a cigarette, left smoldering in an ashtray on the coffee table in front of him, and asked for a list of my references, which I quickly produced. Smoke curled up from the cigarette and encircled his balding head like a halo. The entire apartment was blanketed in a thin layer of ashes and cat hair. Mountains of newspapers covered the floor, tables and chairs. Boxes were stacked on top of one another and nearly reached the ceiling. The pink and white floral wallpaper hidden behind the stacks of boxes and newspapers was yellowing and beginning to curl at the seams. There was a single glass table in the connecting dining room, also teeming with old newspapers. Several boxes were haphazardly shoved underneath. A small Buddha statue sat in the corner curtained in cobwebs and ashes. I stared at the man confidently as he finished reading, and hungrily awaited the familiar feeling of success in my hand. He looked up from the paper one last time, smiled the same repulsive grin and reached out to shake my hand. A few minutes later I was outside filling my lungs with fresh air and holding the key to 1265 Bluegill Street in my left hand. I smiled the whole way home.
The front door was locked when I returned the following Tuesday. I used the key to let myself in, as instructed. When I opened the front door I was immediately reminded how unbelievable the smell was in the apartment. I choked back a few breaths and left the mop and bucket I had brought in the kitchen. I navigated through the stacks of boxes and papers in the living room and made my way to the back of the apartment. The first room I came to was unmistakably where the fat man slept. The bed in the corner of the room sagged heavily in the center. Propped up by an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts on a nightstand next to the bed was a small picture of the white cat. Yellowing sheets and pillowcases had been stripped off the tired mattress and lay in the corner of the room on top of the same stacks of boxes and newspapers that filled the rest of the apartment. I opened a worn wooden jewelry box on top of the man's dresser and instantly set a tiny ballerina in motion. She haphazardly swiveled and jerked around in her faded pink tutu to the tinny and warped melody of Swan Lake. There were several pieces of jewelry in the box, hidden underneath some old pictures of the white cat. I pocketed the jewelry and shuddered as I replaced the photos of the cat. I breathed a small sigh of relief and satisfaction as I closed the jewelry box and made my way to the next room.
The door to the bedroom across the hall creaked noisily as I opened it. I spun around, only to be reminded I was alone. I paused for a moment as I entered the room, it was completely empty. There were no newspapers or boxes in this room; there was nothing. The only thing in the room was a very small closet in the corner. I slowly approached the closet and opened the door to find it full of women's clothes. Long flowing dresses hung in the back of the closet along with a couple full length fur coats. An array of silk blouses and wool sweaters filled the front. The floor of the closet was covered in piles of women's dresses, shirts, slacks and shoes. I gasped as the pile of clothes began to move. Before I could close the closet door the white cat emerged from the mound of clothes. It stood in front of me, unmoving, staring at me. It felt as though its yellow eyes penetrated the depths of my soul. Goosebumps pricked my skin and the hair on the back of my neck stood up and burned. A low rumbling growl emitted from the cat's belly. It arched its back and its fur stood on end. It bared its teeth and hissed. Panicked, I took a step backward and stumbled over the edge of the partially opened door. I fell into the hallway and slammed the door with my foot. My stomach turned as I wiped the sweat from my forehead. I sat slumped in the corner for a few minutes. After a few deep breaths I moved on to the last room, the basement.
The door to the basement was exceptionally large and heavy. The rusted knob was loose and the hinges whined loudly as I wrenched the door open. A horrible odor of rotting wood and metal nearly overwhelmed me as I felt for the first step. I choked back the urge to vomit and tried to focus on the stairs. My right hand desperately searched the brick wall for a light switch as I clutched the cold and damp metal railing with my left. The wooden stairs were rotten and unstable. I descended the shaky stairway carefully, testing and balancing my weight on each step before continuing to the next. I held my breath as the putrid smell intensified. I nearly fell off the last step when the string to the lone light bulb in the basement brushed my cheek and startled me. I reached up to find it and tugged on it. The basement was gradually bathed in a soft yellow glow. I briefly looked around the basement with disappointment. More of the same stacks of rotting newspapers and boxes lined the walls of the basement. I let out a sigh of defeat and turned around to begin my ascent up the crumbling stairway when three boxes in the corner of the room caught my eye. They looked different from the boxes in the rest of the house; they were not overflowing with newspapers and they appeared to be relatively new. I quickly glanced over my left shoulder and approached the first box. I took a deep breath and my lungs burned. I removed the lid from the first box and instantly fell to my knees. I exhaled loudly as I stared at the contents of the box. I felt as though I had been kicked in the chest. My heart was racing. I could barely breathe. I laughed in disbelief and immediately dug into the box with greedy, shaking hands. There was more money in the box than I had ever seen. I coughed as I stifled back both my excitement and the tenacious smell of the basement. My heart raced faster and I began to sweat in anticipation of what the other two boxes might hold. Once all three boxes were open revealing the same contents I proudly stood up and admired my discovery.
Distracted by my windfall I had failed to really look at the rest of the basement. As I set the boxes up on the workbench in front of me I realized the walls of the basement were sparkling in the soft glow from the bare light bulb. Knives, scalpels, handsaws, hatchets and an array of other strange looking tools hung on the walls forming several macabre spider webs of metal. Dried blood was caked on the edges of some of the blades, others looked newly sharpened. Fastened to the edge of the workbench were two large meat grinders. A large steel tub sat on the floor underneath them. I stared at the ominous and gruesome sight in astonishment. I saw my reflection in the newly sharpened blade of a large cleaver that had been left on the workbench; a worn face creased with worry and regret stared back at me.
I never heard the fat man come home. Nor did I hear the whine of the basement door as he opened it and arduously maneuvered his enormous body down the precarious stairway. It wasn't until he was right behind me and I smelled the sickening combination of cat and tobacco that I knew I had been caught. Before I could turn around to face the man, before I could think of a lie to tell, before I could even panic, I saw the cleaver was missing from its spot on the workbench. My heart sank into my stomach as I felt the cold steel against the back of my neck and heard the meaty thump of my own head hit the workbench. The white cat circled the tub below the meat grinders licking its lips hungrily in anticipation.
Lisa De Young lives in a small town in Northwest Indiana with her husband and three daughters where she manages a dental office. She enjoys writing fiction in her spare time and her work has recently appeared in The Bleeding Lion, Theme of Absence and The Sirens Call. She also has work forthcoming in Ricochet Review and The Voices Project.