The Broken Key Part 1

Mikaela turned the corner and began to run down the hall, away from the skittering coming fast behind her. She turned around and still could not see…that thing, whatever it was chasing her. She turned back around and realized the hall was stretching away from her. Her breathing grew ragged with exhaustion, and yet the door at the end of the hallway simply grew further and further away, but the skittering, the sound of metal on tile, and then wood, it kept getting closer. She turned back around…

She gasped as she felt wet warmth across her face.

Mikaela woke up to the feeling of her secret stray licking her face. 

“Christ in heaven, Checkov, nearly threw you across the room.” She lifted the cat, easily, despite the pain in her hand, and although Mikaela was still quite young and small, Checkov was even smaller, the best kind of cat to train to hide in a bag under her bed. The next trick was getting him to stay still for even a minute.

Checkov wiggled out of Mikaela’s hands and fell on her chest, mewing once, and licking her face. Mikaela pulled him closer. “Shush boy, don’t want dad to know!” she mumbled with intensity. Intensity undercut by another disarming lick.

“Ugh.” Mikaela set the affectionate boy down on the hardwood of her bedroom floor and gently rolled out of bed. She sneaked towards a large bag next to her dresser. It was just out of sight from the door to her room, and fortunately she was just at the age where her mom didn’t find her sudden interest in privacy strange. 

Nights before this she tested the dresser doors, but opening them slowly only made them squeak longer, not quieter. So preparing the running sack had to be done ahead of time.

From the running sack she pulled out a large winter coat, a pair of snow boats, and the quietest sneakers she could find at the store. She shoved the snow boots back into the bag, careful not to disturb the tightly packed and padded collection of maybe a weeks’ worth of food. She threw on her coat and tied her shoes.

Checkov looked towards her with a tilt of his head. She told him, but mostly herself, “I know, it’s cold out there, but my pajama pants are just going to have to do for now. When I’m safe I can unwrap my winter pants from the…the…damnit, the cans of peas and carrots.” She took a deep breath and then kissed Checkov on the forehead. “It’s going to be fine.”

The top of her running sack had just enough room for a very quiet and well behaved boy, but Mikaela didn’t have that, so she picked up Checkov and placed him inside. “We trained for this, okay, please be as quiet as you can possibly be.”

Mikaela was well into the woods before she could no longer see her house. She slipped a small treat from her winter coat to Checkov as a thank you for not waking up her dad. “He wouldn’t understand.” Checkov tilted his head.

Through the thicket of leafless trees, Mikaela was able to see the flicker of the lights of her destination, and then was met by the wrought iron fence surrounding the property. She pulled Checkov out of the bag and tied his leash to one of the vertical bars. She then threw her bag over the fence, placed Checkov through the bars, and looked for her route up. Along every yard or so, the even bars were intersected with an ornate pattern of Art Nouveau whiplash, creating a chaotic tableau of vertical lines and wild flourishes. 

She began to climb up the malformed lattice, gripping the bars firmly. She stopped halfway up the fence. “Fuck.” 

Holding on tightly to the fence with her right hand, she looked at the bandages wrapped around her left. The stubs of her ring and little fingers were warm and wet, and surely, under a good light, dark red. “That’s what I get for wearing boots in the Butcher’s house.” She took a deep breath. “But Arya can’t wait, right boy?” She continued up the fence after her brief respite, careful to cross where a flourish raised above the spikes at the tops of the bars. She dropped down next to her bag with a firm thud and turned to Checkov. “But we live and we learn, right? Hopefully.”

She took a fresh, clean roll of bandages from her bag and reapplied them in the dark at the edge of the property, careful to make sure she was still behind one of the larger trees. In the darkness, she lost track of her old rags. 

“Screw it, no time to waste!” She bent down near Checkov and put him back in her bag before picking it up and heading towards the house.

She’d never seen the house in the daytime, so she wasn’t quite sure how to describe its details. But up close she could tell it was mostly wood, at least three stories tall, and reminded her of pictures she saw of houses in San Francisco. She doubted the Butcher’s House was as colorful though, having never seen it in the light. But right now, what struck her as odd was that she couldn’t hear any scratching or skittering. So, with new determination, she began to climb a drainage pipe on the wall closest to the woods.

She pulled through the pain in her hand, climbing as quickly as possible, unsure of how long the silence would remain. On what must have been the second floor, or maybe the third, was a window with a broken latch. Mikaela rubbed the mark carved by Arya on the outer sill before forcing the window open. She climbed in through the window, careful to avoid the board closest to the wall, and took a deep breath before turning around and closing the window.

Down the hall, towards the door she came for, the door waiting just around a corner deep in the Butcher’s House, this was the hall she dreaded. But she didn’t have time for this. Arya didn’t have time for this. So she continued to sneak down the hall, despite the lack of scratching. 

There, finally, at the end, was the door, just past a turn, that should, by all rights, mean the door would open back to an empty section of wall earlier in the hall. In the lock of the door was a smooth piece of metal sticking out, a broken key. Mikaela pulled out a small thin piece of metal with a hook at the end and began to snake it into the lock. Checkov interrupted her concentration with a meow. “I know, boy, would be quicker with all my fingers.” She took a second to reach down and pet her faithful companion. 

As she refocused on her work she heard the sound of a latch downstairs, and then gentle slow scratches of metal on tile. She began to hurry, focusing more on speed than quiet at this point.

The metal began to scratch into the wood, getting closer, the stairs creaking under the weight of…that thing.

Then, the lock gave a decisive click and the key fell out. 

Mikaela tried to catch the key, but it clattered onto the wood under her. 

The scratching stopped at first, but then picked up speed.

Mikaela opened the door, tied a string around Checkov’s collar. The skittering closed in, tighter, but she refused to look behind her. She kissed Checkov on the forehead. “Alright, show me where she went.” And then she followed him into the door.

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