photo of frozen pond

This Is the Key by Joshua Jones

The following story received Third Place in our Scary Short Story Contest.

This is the key, the key to the house, the key to the house that Jack built. The house in the wood by the frozen pond, its ice unbroken like long ago. This is the house in the small of the wood, no smoke from its chimney, no lights in its eyes, only the figure of Jack in the window. His breath plumes the air; his hands shake with age. This is the window overlooking the pond, the pond that they dredged so long ago. No body was found, no scrap of dress, nothing but sedges waving like hair. This is the hair, translucent as ice, as clear as the pond where Jack said she fell. Traces of rosehip, of woodbine and lavender: each strand of hair makes Jack tremble and sigh. These are the strands, pale cotton threads, that once bound the button to a calico dress. The calico dress now but a memory, no more than ashes, a whisper of breath. This is the button Jack keeps in his pocket, his waistcoat pocket beneath his heart. A wooden button, the size of Jack’s thumb, still smelling of coal dust and copper and ash. These are the ashes that drift from the furnace, for years unlit, its iron mouth shut. They float through the house on a whisper of breath, coating the floorboards in velvet footprints. These are the floor joists that creak like ice thawing, like a night long ago beneath the stairs: Jack’s hand on her mouth, the girl not moving, the steps growing louder, Jack dared not breathe. This is the stair that descends to the larder, to shelves of jars all rimed in dust, and at the end, the door to the furnace, just tall enough for a child to pass through. This is the door, the door to the furnace, the door with the lock of iron and brass. The light from beneath like flickering flames, casting weird shadows that spill on the floor. This is the key, the key to the door, the key in the pocket beneath Jack’s heart. It taps at the button, an iron-wood clink; it sings this song when the shadows come. This is the key that sings to the shadows. It sings its song in the burnt half-light. The shadows, they writhe and pool at Jack’s feet, climb up his legs and twine ‘round his waist. These are the shadows that claw for the key and whisper let us out, let us out, let us out.

Joshua Jones lives in Maryland where he works as an animator. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Best Small Fictions 2019, Paper Darts, matchbook, CRAFT, The Cincinnati Review, Split Lip Magazine, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter.

Lead image: “Frozen pond” (via Flickr user Karri Huhtanen)