Stranger presented his own humerus to Locksmith with his remaining hand.
“Please. Will you make me a key?”
If the amputation had been intended, then Stranger—or the surgeon hired—had performed dismally. Black blood pooled and congealed at the bulbous remains of his shoulder, in the shape of a snake’s forked tongue. What poisonous memories lay in that wound? Locksmith looked at the bone instead—the reason Stranger had sought him out. Stranger’s humerus was the sort of bone one might casually toss a drooling stray dog. Scraps of rotting tissue hung at either end where it had once united with shoulder and elbow. Some attempt had been made to clean it, but stubborn blood stains dragged veiny grooves along its length. Stranger held only his humerus—where were the radius, ulna, and the countless bones in the hand and wrist? Trapezium. Capitate. Scaphoid. Lunate. Did these relics of Stranger breadcrumb his path to Locksmith, or were they stashed safe somewhere? Didn’t he want to take them through the door?
Locksmith, hunched upon his windowsill, the shutter looming above him, shushed his stomach as it mewled like a hungry newborn. He might eat again, if this man could pay. Locksmith’s gaze trailed slowly from the bone, up Stranger’s skeleton-shrunk body, to his eyes. Peppercorn gray, they slouched with the kind of exhaustion which clung permanently to a person, the sort which gathered in un-washable layers like the sand. Locksmith had seen many heads bow in defeat after too many harsh decades. Maybe Stranger viewed the impending transaction as finally giving in. If Locksmith could heal his worries, make him see that the door might not be the best option…but no. As a rule, he didn’t interfere.
“Please come in.”
Locksmith swung his legs off the windowsill and cursed the pain in his foot as it took his weight for the first time in hours. When business was quiet—and it always was these days—there was nothing else to do but sit in that window frame, his perch overlooking it all. The town. The dunes. The door, obscured by the dunes, waiting with a sickly, impure, sort of hope. Locksmith had tracked Stranger’s meandering path over the sand, had imagined someone above, perhaps whatever god cursed them all to this existence, playing with Stranger like a marionette, invisible strings garrotted around his three limbs. The midday sun loved to taunt one’s sense of distance and balance. He’d wanted to help, but Locksmith also struggled on the sand, so he only watched, fancying himself some sort of guardian of the desert’s lost souls. All the while, the shutter crouched above Locksmith, threatening, like a guillotine. It had never yet fallen of its own accord, but each night when he released it, it smacked down with such eagerness that he knew it must ache for that moment all day.
Locksmith lived near a lonesome village which every year sank a little further into sand. His workshop—once painted a powdery blue, now bleached by the desert—was the closest building to the bone door. Before he brought the shutter down, he gathered up all his empty teacups and transferred them to a table. Each one was broken in a different place, hairline cracks into which the sand still managed to bury. Locksmith always soaked his hunger with tea imbued with a squeeze of lemon, a swish of cinnamon, a sprig of mint, or a pod of cardamom. He liked to pretend these flavors counted as meals.
Stranger watched with little obvious emotion and clutched his humerus awkwardly. Dust clouded angrily when the shutter hit. He limped to his door, allowed the man, and more sand, inside. Was the sand so invasive on the other side of the bone door?
Chairs screeched backwards. Locksmith brushed off most of the sand, which slumped to the floor with a lazy sigh. He offered tea and bread, but Stranger shook his head, softly, as if even this was too much effort. Perhaps Locksmith should offer him a bed, but Stranger was the first human he’d seen in a while. He needed this to last a little longer. And maybe, if Stranger liked it here with Locksmith, he’d abandon his plan to go through the door. Locksmith snapped the thickest finger of his aloe vera plant and gave it to Stranger, who squeezed it between his thumb and forefinger and applied the juice to his wound as best he could with his right hand. Locksmith’s thoughts barbed—he should have offered to do it for him. He ought to have offered boiled water first to cleanse it, then the aloe, then a bandage. But he had no bandages, and nothing he could do would be a miracle cure. Did miracle cures lie beyond the bone door?
There were no introductions. Locksmith no longer asked his customers their names. It made it more painful when they left him. Many volunteered the information anyway, but not Stranger. Locksmith threw a handful of common local names around in his head, holding them up against Stranger’s dull complexion, and his unexpectedly kind eyes. Nothing fit him well. Locksmith shook himself—he’d been staring silently for too long.
“Rumors about you stretch throughout the desert…some of them are rather unkind.” They were the first words Stranger had spoken since his request for a key. His voice was quiet and hoarse. Locksmith knew all too well how grains of sand could become lodged in the throat and erode away the delicate skin. Tea with honey would help him, and Locksmith regretted that he had used the last of his honey on his own selfish throat a fortnight ago.
“Why do you do it?”
“Make keys? My mother taught me.”
“My mother did not teach me that,” Locksmith conceded. Stranger sipped his tea. He was a little younger than Locksmith himself, perhaps in his early forties, with a splattering of receding hair. Certainly old enough to have children and perhaps young enough to have parents. There must be people who would miss him. His skin was a little lighter than Locksmith’s own, and a little greyer, shrouded with the same tired ache of his eyes. Perhaps he was ill. Was that why he wanted to go through the door? A dying man risking everything would be a compelling, if far from novel, motive for Stranger. Locksmith wasn’t sure it fit this man. He wanted to open him up, dissect him.
“You aren’t from this town,” Locksmith observed. “Where are you from?”
“Far,” Stranger said. “Nowhere’s the same as it was.” A shiver pushed his wounded shoulder, and Locksmith hoped it wasn’t shock or trauma from loss of limb. He was no doctor, and Stranger would not be the first to die before they reached the door.
“Why do you wish to go through the door?” Locksmith asked it too early, the question he always wanted them to answer.
Stranger shook his head and passed a hand over his dirt-strewn forehead. Locksmith waited, but no explanation came. Many people went through because they were convinced death lay on the other side. They were suicidal, or dying anyway, and wanted some control over the matter. Others followed loved ones, whether that be into death or not. Some bore a curiosity so strong they would pay whatever price necessary. Locksmith decided not to press Stranger for his reason, but there was something he felt he needed to say.
“I don’t necessarily know if it’s a good thing, going through the door. I don’t know if what I do saves lives, ruins them, or ends them. I don’t know if you are my victim or my patient.”
Locksmith desperately needed the money. A few bone keys a year just about kept his belly lined with food, even if nobody wanted his normal keys. But he was never comfortable playing with lives like this. The door was the best and worst thing that had ever happened to him.
“You’re not the one making the decision, just providing a service,” Stranger said quietly. He ran a finger absently along the humerus in his lap. The statement didn’t sit right with Locksmith. Stranger’s arm twisted awkwardly to pull a coin pouch from his trouser pocket. “They told me what you charge. Tell me if it isn’t right.”
Locksmith hated asking for money. He’d count it later, when Stranger wasn’t watching. He held the pouch tight to his chest. He could live a little longer. Stranger’s expression towards the bone shifted to repulsion, as if he was just noticing the rotting fragments of flesh. He offered it to Locksmith again, and Locksmith took it.
“What happens now?” Stranger asked.
“You don’t need to do anything else, just relax here. I shall get started now, if you like.” He stood, already regretting how the one conversation he’d had in weeks had stayed at surface level, how he could have said and done more to make Stranger more comfortable in what could be his final hours. Candlelight glinted in Stranger’s gray eyes. “Stay a while,” he murmured.
Locksmith sat back down far too fast, trying to control the smile that ached to stretch his face. He repeated his earlier offer of tea and bread, and this time Stranger accepted. It was Locksmith’s last loaf, but he could buy more with the money from the key. He added lemon to the tea, hoping this might help soothe Stranger’s throat, and then perhaps he’d be more talkative. He wanted to ask more questions, but he’d never been good at starting an interesting conversation. Both men finished their tea, then another cup, this time with clove, and sat in silence. It was Stranger who spoke first this time, much to Locksmith’s delight.
“You know the door better than anyone. What do you think lies behind it?”
“Nobody knows.” Locksmith’s heart skipped. His customers always asked this, and Locksmith could never think of anything insightful or wise to tell them.
“You’ve watched others go through. What do you see when it opens?”
“Nothing. I’ve tried, but my eyes are blind to everything beyond the threshold.”
“Because you have no key of your own?”
Locksmith hesitated. “Perhaps.”
“But don’t the people tell you what they see?”
Locksmith furrowed his brow. “They say they cannot. Eventually I stopped asking. These days, I leave the customer to go through on their own. It’s their experience, not mine.”
“Customer,” Stranger repeated, his voice hollow. Locksmith balled up his tongue. What else could he call them?
“You can watch when I go through, if you like,” Stranger said. “To satiate your curiosity.”
Locksmith paused, then shook his head. The silence threatened a return, just for a second, before Stranger continued.
“You asked why I want to go through the door.” Locksmith sat up so quickly his tea sloshed over the side and onto his trousers. He pinched his nose and glanced at the ceiling. Locksmith hoped it was dark enough that Stranger wouldn’t notice the coven of cobwebs. He set his cup down on the sand-strewn floor and dabbed at his trousers with the scrunched corner of his shirt.
“I don’t have to tell you, do I? It won’t affect the key?”
Locksmith’s heart sank. “Of course not. Everyone is entitled to their secrets.”
He stared at Stranger, trying to imagine what sort of life he might have lived that led him here. The dying light outside shone on the hairs of his beard, revealing a blend of subtly different browns and grays where before Locksmith had believed there to be a monochrome. Stranger’s eyes began to flicker closed, quickly at first, then sinking into a lethargic rhythm of open for four seconds, then closed for eight, over and over again. It dawned on Locksmith quite some time into his daydreaming that he was being rude in his staring. He flinched backwards and snatched up his half-spilled teacup. Stranger stirred at the sudden movement and Locksmith took a long gulp to hide his flushed cheeks.
“You should sleep,” Locksmith said gently. “And I will craft your key.”
It was Locksmith’s own bed, but he didn’t tell Stranger that. Locksmith brought him a fresh blanket and yet another cup of tea. Stranger sat on the bed and leaned back against the wall. A zig-zagging crack jutted into his head like a lightning strike. From this angle Stranger looked older, greyer, smaller, weaker. The finity of his time with Stranger struck Locksmith harder now the man was almost asleep. Tomorrow, he’d pass through the door, and he would always be a mere acquaintance to Locksmith. Stranger opened one eye and smiled up at him.
“I’ll tell you my story, if you like,” Locksmith said. It was the smile that made him do it. He cursed himself—Stranger wanted to sleep.
“About the door?” Stranger asked. Locksmith coughed, clearing the sand from his throat.
“Yes.” He wrung his hands, and perched on the edge of the bed. He was reminded of his mother, tucking Locksmith and his sister to sleep with a story. “You see, I used to co-own this locksmithing business with my sister. And when the sand got more aggressive, and when the door appeared, everything changed.”
Locksmith remembered the fear in everyone’s eyes, the gossip which danced on everyone’s lips, the flush of color in their cheeks as the world burned calmly. The door was either the cause of their misfortune or a beacon of hope—a way out. The people couldn’t quite decide which.
“My sister became obsessed with the door. So did others, at first. But they lost curiosity when they realized the door could not be opened, and it became a generally ignored anomaly in the landscape. People turned their attention to the greater issue of the sand as it spread like a plague. But my sister, she convinced herself the door was meant for us, a puzzle to solve.”
Stranger had closed his eyes again, but at Locksmith’s mention of the sand, he brushed grains from his arms. Locksmith paused to do the same. Mere thought or mention of sand made his skin itch.
“She realized that the lock was made of bone, which propelled my sister to experiment. At first she tried animal bones: chickens and cows and donkeys. When they didn’t work she would try a different animal, a different bone, a different method of shaping the key. Eventually she turned to humans—she’d visit hospitals and beg to purchase amputated limbs or bones from the newly-dead. Her keys flooded this workshop, hung on the walls, miniature dunes on every surface. She’d study them, comparing her iterations. Then one day I woke to find she’d worked through the night to fashion a key out of one of her own bones. The bone from her great toe: Hallux.”
Stranger’s eyes snapped open. He leaned towards Locksmith, baited by his tale.
“And that key worked?”
Locksmith bit his lip, remembering how he’d screamed at her when he saw what she’d done, his terror at the blood soaking through her clumsy knot of bandages. How calm but firm she was, telling him she needed to make a working key, that he didn’t understand. That he wasn’t a true locksmith if he didn’t think this mystery was somehow theirs, if he didn’t need answers.
Locksmith blinked. “No. But she knew she was close to figuring it out. Over the next day she hacked off more and more of her own body. I feared the process would kill her. I think it would have, if she hadn’t cycled through her attempts in such a fierce frenzy that no infection had time to take hold.”
“She got it right in the end?”
Locksmith nodded his chin at Stranger’s bloody shoulder socket. “Humerus. After she cut her arm off, she told me I had to help her. Together we made the key, and I had to carry her to the door, she was so injured by that point. It worked, and she was gone.”
Locksmith did not meet Stranger’s eyes. There wasn’t a day—no, a second—when he didn’t regret helping her make that key.
“And then you made a business out of it.”
Stranger said it without judgment, but Locksmith’s stomach twisted anyway. “I didn’t intend to, but people began to come to me, having heard about my sister. They wanted to know how she had done it, and whether I could help them too. I shouldn’t have charged, but things got tough and, well, I have to eat.”
He searched Stranger’s face for the forgiveness he craved.
Stranger nodded. “The sand is killing everyone. I’m sorry about your sister.”
Locksmith smiled, and waited, shifting the majority of his weight onto his good foot. Stranger’s eyes flickered closed again.
“That’s the end of my story,” he said, just in case it wasn’t clear. If Stranger wanted to share his story, Locksmith wanted him to know he could. But Stranger didn’t reply. A snore tore from his nose, even though he was still sitting upright.
“Sweet dreams,” Locksmith whispered, and backed out of the room.
The sky outside shrank into the earth, growing a dense orange. Locksmith’s workbench faced out the window, and sunset was his favorite time to work. One day, he believed, the sky would grow so heavy it would fall around the little globe and suffocate it. His mother’s favorite story for sunsets, the three of them huddled on the sill. Locksmith longed for the kinds of stories his mother might invent about the desert, had she lived to see it. She’d reveled in fear, often saying it was the very reason she was alive.
Whittling delicate, brittle bone was far different to iron. Locksmith often wondered how these porous structures could support a human. It made him feel weak. He used simple tools: chisel, knife, flame. The key blackened where he burned it, and summoned a stench akin to that of singed hair. Still, there was a sickly, tingling excitement to crafting a bone key. Stranger was present while Locksmith worked, even if he himself did not know it. Locksmith needed a story to focus his mind on, to help his hands while they worked. He used the feeling he got from their interactions, brief as they may have been. But he wanted more, ached for Stranger’s story. And so he invented a story for this man in his house. A tale of a lost man who’d lost his sister, and wanted to meet up with her so badly he had sacrificed his arm, and was willing to risk sacrificing much more. Were those who went through the door the pessimists or the optimists?
At the end, he scraped delicately, fine-tuning. The fledgling key hummed as he shaped it. Secrets divulged in a foreign language, told but not heard. When he was finished, Locksmith placed the unused portion of the humerus with the others, in a wooden box with seals to fight the sand. He kept them all together, hoping they might give one another comfort. He packed the morose, broken pieces with expensive velvet and Himalayan salt. The box contained bones from all over the human skeleton. It was curious to him which bones different people chose to sacrifice. Some wished to retain their ability to walk, while others viewed their arms as indispensable. More rare in his collection were a hip bone, and from one particularly bright-eyed teenage girl he kept the tiny remains of her ear bones, an ear she had sliced off and dissected herself. Locksmith remembered her fondly. He’d been unsure whether he could combine little bones to make a larger key, but she had insisted he try, and it had worked. Her final key contained some of the smallest, most delicate bones in the human body. Malleus. Incus. Stapes.
It was important to remember them. He rested the remains of Stranger’s humerus among the others, in the almost-center position. Every new bone took the almost-center, his love for the recent always strongest, with one exception. At the center of the box, his sister’s vast collection of discarded bones cradled together in their velvet wrappings. Locksmith brought her humerus to his lips and kissed it. Were those on the other side of the bone door safe?
A new cup of tea for his guest steamed in Locksmith’s hand, this one containing a sprinkle of nutmeg. Stranger stirred at the sound of the door, but it was clear he’d managed to rest, and Locksmith’s heart swelled at how peaceful he looked, how warm, and how his eyebrows twitched in bleary confusion. Locksmith hated how easily he loved each of his bone clients, a fleeting kind of adoration which fought the sand away for as long as it lasted, for as long as it took him to make their key and aid them through the door, and then for a little while after. The key in his other hand thrummed. Locksmith closed his fist around it and let the beat soak through his blood. He always felt melancholy on these mornings. It chased away the blasted, ever-present hunger. He would walk to the village that afternoon and buy some food with Stranger’s coins and distract himself from the goodbye. Stranger looked up and his eyes were a little brighter.
“Did you make it?”
Locksmith unwrapped his fingers. The key was a little shorter than the span of his hand, skinny and intricate, with blackened edges along the cuts. Beyond the shoulder, the bow swept round into an oval, with an asymmetric star cut out its middle. Stranger set his teacup on the sand-strewn floor to accept the key. He looked as if he might be sick as he traced with his finger the shape of the grooves. Then, he slowly curled his hand around it, one finger at a time.
“I want to go now.”
Locksmith panicked. “But you haven’t finished your tea,” he said, more forcefully than his guest deserved.
Stranger laughed, the first time Locksmith had ever heard the sound. It surprised him pleasantly, a soft and gentle chuckle, splashed with a hint of pity.
“If I wait, I may never go.”
The door was close, just over a dune. Stranger walked a little ahead even though it was Locksmith who knew the way. Stranger’s body seemed to thrum, fuelled with anxiety or excitement, while Locksmith’s own body ached as he limped up the dune. But when he caught sight of the door he sped up, his gait uncontrollable. The door presented itself at least twice the width and triple the height of any grand, man-made door. It looked lonely and incomplete, a door in a frame, standing without walls in the middle of a desert. It was made of brass, with a peacock frame which seemed to bleed into the metal, little blue grooves swirling into intricate patterns, the color draining moments before they reached the center. The lock that had drawn so much attention was a plain, humble thing compared to the rest of the door.
Stranger encircled the door twice, his mouth hanging open and wondering, Locksmith was sure, as he had often wondered himself, how such a door could lead somewhere else entirely, and not the patch of sand behind it. Locksmith did not follow him. He had circled it hundreds of times. Thousands. Instead, he pressed a hand against it, splaying his fingers, letting his pulse map the tiny grooves, which were always ice-cool in contrast to the sunlit brass. The door always emitted a sound—a sweet susurration, like the hiss of cool water through a pipe. His other palm joined, then Locksmith pressed his forehead against the brass too, in silent prayer until Stranger joined his side once more and he straightened.
“The sand hasn’t eroded it,” Stranger observed.
“I polish it myself.” Locksmith’s chest swelled at Stranger’s noticing. Even if nobody else thought it important to maintain, it was. He dusted the sand from his arms again, but even this subtle breeze, too weak to ripple his clothing, returned it to his skin. Stranger copied, but watched Locksmith as he did so. He looked deep in thought.
“Do you ever wish you had a key of your own?” he asked. Locksmith met his eyes, his heart fluttering. He had never shown anyone before. But Stranger was different, he told himself, even though he knew it likely wasn’t true, even though they all seemed different at the time. His hand dived into the depths of his pocket before he could stop himself, and pulled out a black velvet cloth. He shook it free of sand and uncovered the key that he polished every day while he drank tea on his windowsill. He’d carved it from a bone he’d sliced off his foot, the day after his sister left. Hallux. A shocked smile curled Stranger’s lips.
“Then why do you hesitate?”
Locksmith trickled his fingers down the icy grooves. The door’s humming thrummed deep within his veins. He wrapped and pocketed the key. If he ever left, who would craft bone keys for people like Stranger?
“If you’re so curious,” Stranger pressed, “why don’t you come?”
Stranger did not hold out his hand, but Locksmith imagined that he did, and his own palm sweated its eagerness to curl around Stranger’s fingers.
“Come back to the workshop and I’ll tell you.” The words shot out of him at rapid speed, and he looked down guiltily at the rippling sand.
“Just…consider it a little longer. You have your key ready. I’ll give you a refund if you don’t use it.” His heart raced, heat waves rippling before his eyes. He couldn’t think properly, he just wanted Stranger to stay.
“Refund?” Stranger’s brow creased. “You don’t know how many years of sleepless nights I’ve spent deliberating this. I’m going today. Besides, you need the money, my friend.”
Friend. Locksmith curled a hand around Stranger’s wounded shoulder. He meant it to be reassuring, but Stranger flinched backwards.
“It’s a mistake.” Locksmith croaked out a grain of sand which had been lodged in his throat, and found himself hurling a mismatch of arguments at Stranger. His mouth mixed together truths and lies which his tongue twisted sourly around. “The sandstorms only sweep in one direction—towards the door. Call it geography, prevailing winds influenced by a complex network of factors—the moon and tides and the battles that occur when hot air smashes into cold air high above our heads. I don’t care. It isn’t the truth of this sand. It arrived with the door, and I believe it will stay as long as there are people on this side. It ushers us all towards it. Perhaps with noble intentions, but the sand is not renowned for its helpfulness, is it? Listen, I’ve seen the faces on those that leave. I’ve seen regret when they open the door. Don’t let that be you,” he panted, his mind jumping from thought to thought, trying to cohere more panicked words to offer Stranger.
Stanger stared at Locksmith, and the door held its breath. It was wrong, Locksmith knew. The decision belonged to them, like the key. If they were the last things that would ever belong to them, they ought to be truly, undeniably, theirs. But how many people could Locksmith bear to lose?
“I have to go,” Stranger said, somehow firmer this time. “Thank you for my key.” There was a chill to his words, as if he had already vanished from the desert. He turned away.
Locksmith nodded, and left. It was all he could do, now the damage was done. Locksmith didn’t want to watch Stranger leave. He wanted to return home, drink tea on his windowsill, polish all the bones, and wait for a new customer so he might forget about Stranger. He did not say goodbye, for he hoped that it was not. Besides, his voice would betray his emotions. He gave Stranger a small nod and wave, then climbed the dune, his foot aching but the rest of his body persevering. Quickly was the only way to travel these days. Quickly, or the sand burned you, perhaps lashing out in anger after years of being burned itself by the sun. He dizzied in the heat, as if everything in the world swiveled in those moments and left Locksmith where he was, a tiny observer in a great desert.
But at the top of the dune, Locksmith stopped and turned. Stranger had not yet passed through the door—instead, he was watching Locksmith. When he saw Locksmith look, he darted his gaze back to the door, as if suddenly remembering why he was there, missing an arm, holding what was probably the most expensive item he’d ever bought. He slotted the key into the door, and Locksmith imagined the satisfying click of bone against bone. With his back to Locksmith, Stranger’s expression was hidden when he opened the door. Locksmith imagined he smiled. He hoped he smiled. Then, a second later, he stepped through.
Did Stranger and the others remember Locksmith on the other side of the bone door?