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Key, Painted Red

Brin Williams

Joseph Henry Scott kept a key 'round his neck all the time. I asked him what it is was for one day when we were little. He said it was his mama's 'fore she died. He said there was a box that it opened. A red box.


"What's in the red box?" I asked him.


"I got no idea," he said. "I'm not so sure I wanna find out yet. But I will one day. I hope it’s something of hers. I got nothing of hers. I don't even know what she looked like."


"You don't know what your own mama looked like?"


"Nope, my daddy burned all the pictures and the dresses and everything. Got nothin' left. I just wanna see her. That's all I wanna do…but not yet."


"When then?"


"I guess when I'm ready."


He tucked the key back in his shirt and never talked about it again, not while we were friends, and Joseph Henry Scott was my best friend for a long time. 'Til the day he died.


We spent almost every second together before that. We were neighbors, so we snuck into each other's houses every night after school when homework was done. My parents knew, but they didn't mind, not with Joey anyway. And his dad was always too drunk to notice when I was there.


We got stared at a lot when we were in public. He was tall, white, red haired, skinny, and loud. I'm tiny, Black, cornrowed, and quiet. People called me his slave girl or his whore. He yelled at them to shut the hell up 'cause I was his friend not his slave and Joey wasn't interested in girls anyway. That's what got him killed.


I don't know how they found out. They probably saw him kissing Samuel Thomas behind the diner. Sammy Thomas was good and rich, and rich folks can do as they please. No one'd kill a rich boy around here. But Joey was never rich. His father was bitter 'cause even the Black folks 'round here was richer than the Scotts.


So some other poor white folks with nothing better to do went and killed Joey 'cause he liked boys instead of girls. Thought hate crimes like this were reserved for us Blacks, but guess not.


They found Joey, well his body, in the stream at the back of the town. It only took 'em a day to find him; apparently those bastards who'd killed him didn't do so good a job getting rid of him.  Nobody was even looking for him. A policeman stumbled on him on accident.


Good thing Joey was white, they might'a left him in the river otherwise. They only had his father to tell. He was Joey's only family. I got to him first though. Heard from some other Black kids that a white boy been found in the river. I ran to the river fast as I could. I couldn't have really known who the body belonged to, but I was gettin' a real bad feeling and Mama taught me to trust my feelings.


When I got there, there were police 'round the river makin' a fence with their bodies. I could see through the fence though, and I screamed. They asked me could I tell them who it was, but I was already repeating his name over and over again. Then I threw up.


They brought his dad over and he threw up too, but probably cause he was real drunk. He said it was his son, and they should get rid of the body, he ain't got no money for a funeral. Then he walked off. Probably to get drunker.


"Please." I whispered to the policeman close enough to hear. "Please, let me have the key."


He thought I was just some poor stupid nigger, but guess he felt sorry for me so he asked me about the key.


I tried to explain through my tears, "He's got a key, its round his neck. He always has it."


The policeman reached down and tugged the string round Joey's neck.


"Lookie here," he said.


"Please let me have it," I begged. "I got to open the box."


"What box?" asked the officer.


"The red box. He never opened it and now . . . now he's dead and he can't. I wanna open the box for him." I realize now I wasn't making no sense, but the pain of Joey dying was too much for me. I couldn't think right, but I knew that I needed the key. I had to open the box.


"What's in the box?" he asked.


"I don't know, but neither did he. He said he was scared to see inside, but that when he wasn't scared no more he'd open it. I wanna open it. Please."


The police man looked back at the others. They were paying no attention. He pulled the key, painted red with blood from 'round Joey's neck. He handed it to me before turning back to the others.


I ran back to Joey's house. My tears were blinding me and I tripped over rocks and roots that I normally got through easily. By the time I made it to his house my knees and hands were bloody like the key.


His father wasn't home. I figured he'd be at the bar. I climbed through his window and dropped into his room. I couldn't stop more tears from coming outta my eyes and a horrible sound from coming outta my mouth.


I was just here two nights ago with him. Up late reading the Funnies out of a month old newspaper. Laughing hard, then trying hard to smother it, lest his father hear us. He must've found another newspaper yesterday 'cause there was a week old one sitting on the nightstand. We would've read it tonight. He should be here right now bragging about being able to get such a recent one, telling me his latest jokes and pacing around the room, unable to sit still. Alive.


He was alive, more alive than anyone I ever knew or would know. Alive and then dead. 'Cause he didn't like girls like that. He loved me though, and I loved him and now he's gone.


I crawled over to the bed and reached underneath, pulling out the red box. The key matched it now.


Now, I'm sitting here, the box in my lap, the key in my hand and I'm ready to open it. I put the key in the lock now, twisting it. His blood on the key mixes with my blood on my hands. The box opens.


Inside a red-haired women is looking at me, a smile playing behind her eyes. Her smile is telling me it's ok, because he wasn't ready before, but now he must be because I’m sure he'll be seeing her in heaven.

Brin Williams is a Los Angeles native and San Francisco State University graduate navigating the intersections of their identity as a non-binary person of color in an ever-evolving world. They studied Creative Writing and Cinema in San Francisco before moving back to their childhood home in Los Angeles. Now they're looking forward to branching out and into the greater literary world.

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