Beauty’s Tiny Copper Key

         Through the window, I see the boy and my hand does exactly what I don’t want it to do. It slips into my pocket and searches through my keys – security gate,

building door, apartment lock, deadbolt – until it locates the tiny copper key to my cedar keepsake box. My fingers pick at the groove in the shaft, the edges of the teeth, the point of the tip. When I realize what I’m doing, I yank my hand out and slam it on the bar.

         “Another King of Beers, Princess,” I say. Katrina goes on reading Strange But True while pouring me a Budweiser. In this dim light she’s going to destroy those eyes. But I don’t say anything. Not my concern. Lot of things about Katrina aren’t my concern. We’re the only ones in the Stallion, my favorite watering hole.

         “Fuckhead,” I mutter, looking out the window at the kid, “you made me touch the key.” Dust spins in the afternoon sun. Blond, skinny, about twelve, the boy meanders along the side street, hands in pockets, head hanging like it’s full of rocks. He kicks a pair of tattered jeans out of a dandelion patch.

         With a mock delicately, Katrina sets the beer at my elbow. “Consider it on your tab, Beauty.” She puts air quotes around “tab,” and then with a corner-of-the-eye leer, around “beauty.” I’m not insulted.

         I don’t know if all trannies are so into air quotes, but Katrina sure is. She’s my favorite bartender. And considering she’s not really a she, she’s not too bad to look at either -- sinewy, porcelain skin, dyed black hair with bangs. She’s got these wide green eyes she’s always playing with, darting side-to-side, rolling them, stuff like that.

         “Princess,” I say, “I haven’t touched that key in months.” Lost in her magazine, Katrina snorts a response.

         “I hate touching it,” I go on, mumbling into the beer. “Hate carrying it around. Hate what it makes me do when I touch it.”

         Katrina drops the magazine on the bar, an exasperated twist in her face, an exaggerated roll of the eyes. “Consider this solution.” Air quotes around “solution.” “Throw it away.”

         “If I could’ve, doncha think I would’ve a long fucking time ago?” I swig down the beer, bang the mug on the formica and slide off the stool. “That kid’s gotta pay.”

         “Because you touched a key?”

         “Because of what I’m gonna have to go through now,” I say, limping around a pool table, feeling a wiggle in my left big toe, even though it was lopped off when I was fourteen.

         “Just stay here. Keep me company.” Katrina flashes a pout, brushes hair off her shoulders, bony things, translucent white, blue veins in the skin. “Ten minutes, shift’s done.”

         “He’s got to pay.”

* * * *

         Outside, I squint in the sunlight. Why would a well-dressed kid his age wander alone in this part of Hollywood? Doesn’t he have any sense? Any idea some deformed miscreant could pull a knife on him just to inflict some suffering? He brushes a hand over a graffiti scrawl, kicks a Coors bottle into a moldy sleeping bag. Definitely a moody one. Probably angry at Mom.

         I’m on the opposite sidewalk. Pulling even, I look him over. Blond hair hangs over the ear lobes. Full lips. Sharp features. He wears a white knit shirt, brown Dickies, green All Stars. I bet he plays soccer. Not an ounce of fat on him. Cheeks as silky as Katrina’s. I will classify him under “beautiful.” I can picture his house – two stories, sunken living room, plush carpet, sparkling water in the fridge, a chubby tabby nibbling organic Science Diet, rows of marigolds in the backyard. And in the garden, weeding, in a wide-brimmed straw hat, there’s a mom.

         The keys knead my thigh, the tiny copper lock-opener jabbing the skin, bewitched, appealing for my attentions.

         “Hey, assface,” I shout. The kid turns. The shock flares his eyes. They’re blue, expressive, long-lashed, a combination that churns my stomach. Still, I can’t help but put myself in his shoes. I know what he’s seeing -- a scar-tissue monstrosity limping after him. He’s recoiling at my lipless snarl, lashless eyes, bald discolored scalp, a purple and pink graft of skin. In his eyes, the skin’s still melting off my skull. Wonder why Katrina calls me “Beauty?” The same reason I call her “Princess.” She has no crown, no riches and no female parts, while I’ve been avoiding mirrors for seven years.

         “Your wallet. Over here. Toss it.” He hesitates, confused, brow knotted. “Don’t even think of running. ”

         Out comes my knife, a switchblade, a nifty device I had to go to Tijuana to procure. There’s a nasty word, “procure.” They use it in the burn unit when they mean getting skin to stitch onto your face. The blade snaps open with a click, a terror of a noise to his sheltered, sunken-living room ears. I imagine the click echoing in his skull, telling him that the ghastly creature you hope to never become, intends to harm you in ways you’ve never imagined.

         “Got it,” I yell, limping toward him, swiping the blade, the sun glinting off the stainless steal.

         “Throw it at him,” someone shouts. Then there’s a laugh. Throw it at him? Where did that voice come from? Katrina? My eyes flick about. There she is, standing at the corner at the opposite end of the street, her face a huge grin. Must have run around the block. Maybe seeing me in action worked up the imp in her. “Come on, throw it.”

         I’m game. My imp’s eager to play. I don’t want to hurt the kid, but the more I can mangle his nerves, the better. He’s going to feel now the way I’m going to feel soon enough. I aim at the kid’s feet. He jumps, jerking his knees up to his chest. Total panic in his face. The knife hits the sidewalk, skidders through some dandelions and rebounds off a brick wall. When would the kid ever have imagined something like this? It must be like waking up in bed with flames raging around you. High heels in her hand, the straps dangling from her fingers, Katrina scampers to the knife, grabs it and tells the kid to keep jumping.

         She times her toss so the knife slides under his Allstars just before he lands. Tears are washing down his cheeks. I scoop up the knife and flip it at his hips, watching it arc end-over-end, its path a somersaulting sparkle. Look at that adroit twist the kid makes, hips and knees in a fluent continuum, the knife flopping on the cement. I can’t help but smile. It is a pleasure to see -- on one level athlete grace, on another that I’m making him suffer for what he did, and yet on a deeper, shittier level the elegant movement that should have been mine.

         Katrina’s shouting instructions. “Hop,” she yells. “On one foot, dumbshit.” She puts her hands on her hips and rolls her eyes like she’s confounded. “A ‘hop’ is one foot.” Fingers curl into air quotes. “A ‘jump’ two feet.”

         The kid’s hopping frantically. “That’s it,” Katrina shouts. “Keep it up.” She’s poised to throw, arm above her head, thumb and forefinger on the knife tip like she’s some circus showman. She lets go, the knife cartwheeling at the space between the sidewalk and the kid’s knee. A perfect toss, but something happens. The kid wobbles, totters, reaches out for some magic hand that’s going to keep him from tumbling backwards. How many times have I groped for that same invisible set of fingers? Just as the knife arrives, his leg drops and the blade jabs into the calf.

         We’re all stunned. The boy’s frozen, blood soaking his pant leg, filling up his shoe, eyes glazed over. Katrina has this perplexed look like she’s wondering why the kid would do something as silly as let his leg fall. I must look like a twitching psycho, my body jerking around, glancing down the street and up, behind me, at the rooftops. The second story windows smolder with sunlight. What am I looking for? Some good samaritan with special- forces training leaping off a balcony?

         “You weren’t supposed to hit him,” I shout. With that, the spell shatters. The kid collapses into a ball, whimpering and sniveling. Katrina runs over, yanks out the blade and throws it up on a roof. The kid shrieks. Blood gushes between his fingers as he presses them to the wound. Katrina puts a hand over the boy’s mouth and says, “Hush, hush. Or . . . or . . . or I’ll put it back in.”

         Skip-limping over, I spit a hissing whisper at a Katrina, “You don’t just yank it out.” Elbowing her out of the way, I lean over the kid. The blood oozes like smoke flowing out of a window.

         “I’m trying to help, okay? Okay?” Katrina’s eyes water, lips quiver.

         “Jesus-fucking-Christ,” I mutter, awed by the sight. The blood’s pooling under his leg, flowing along a sidewalk crack, spreading around weeds like it thinks it’s some river delta. How much blood does a body hold? My teeth grind. It sounds like boulders rolling around in my mouth.

         “What’d we do?” Katrina chews on a knuckle, shoving the thing deep in her mouth, working it with her molars. You’re the fuck who stabbed him. You figure the shit out. That’s what I almost say. But I bite my tongue. Don’t need the commotion. The last thing we want is some hero peeking out the back door of one of these bars or auto body shops. One look at the little quivering trannie and the twitching, scar-tissued beast standing over a bloody kid and our hero, probably some swarthy automobile technician, will know his moment in the spotlight has come.

         So I stare at my feet, my slip-on Vans with the skull pattern, and think it through. There’s the Stallion, but the bartender on duty now? Too skittish, always closes on time, never serves after hours. He’d freak out. There’s Katrina’s place, but that means crossing Sunset. Too many cars. Too many eyes. There’s only one place to go, much as I hate the idea of it.

         “My place,” I tell Katrina. I live two short blocks away. “But he can’t see where I live.”

         Katrina has the idea of knotting the kid’s shirt over the wound, which helps slow the blood. I take off my socks, knot them together and wrap them around the kid’s eyes.

         “That’s what I consider the motherfuckingest stinkiest blindfold ever,” Katrina says. She cracks a smile. It’s weird how her smile makes me grin, even as the poor kid bits his lip and his blood dribbles under his shoes. Pulling him up, we each drape an arm over a shoulder and drag, the kid sniffling, mumbling about not wanting to die. “We’re not going to hurt you,” Katrina reassures.

         A car winds by. The driver does a double take. Is that a cell he whips out? “Hurry,” I hiss at Katrina. Luckily, the heat’s keeping people off the sidewalks. The sun pounds the side of my face. We pause at a corner, adjust arms and shoulders. Then we scramble across the street to my building -- my water-stained yellow stucco chateau, beautified with a sash of rusted chain-link, festooned with a lace of razor wire.

         The security gate rattles open. The kid’s legs bump up the stairs, leaving a bloody track. We’ve got to mop that up pronto. There’s a hose near the dead Bird of Paradise. I’ll spray down the whole street. My teeshirt’s soaked. When was the last time I sweated like this? Katrina’s a trooper, taking the brunt of the kid’s weight, whispering reassurances, saying something about being a natural healer, about herbs, the restorative power of magnets, about seeing herself in a rescue when she cut the Tarot deck this morning. I lean on the front door, stick in the key, hear the latch click, feel the click vibrate through the particleboard.

* * * *

         Inside, a sweaty-sock stench haunts my place – a bachelor with a little kitchen-bathroom combo. My eyes fall on the coo-coo clock Katrina gave me for my birthday, a flimsy plastic thing that periodically erupts with chirping. It was a joke gift, but I was touched and fastened it to the wall. Katrina drapes the kid on the couch while I sweep off the wads of clothes and Social Security check stubs.

         Now that we’re inside and out of danger, Princess takes charge, morphs into some sexy emergency room doctor in mini-skirt and heels. “First thing, stop the bleeding,” she commands, striding into the kitchen and grabbing a hand towel. Should I tell her it’s never been washed? Back at the couch, she slips the bloody shirt off the wound and tightens the towel around it. “Pressure,” she asserts. “Next, sanitize. Get a disinfecting agent and dressing.” Disinfecting agent? Dressing? She’s even got the lingo. It’s kind of exciting to see her take the bull by the horns.

         It gets me into the doctoring mood, too. In the kitchen I hunt down a bar of Dial, and I’m running a pot of hot water when the coo-coo clock goes off and all I hear is “open-the-box-open-the-box-open-the-box.” I reach into my pocket. The copper key bites my hand.

         It’s like the kid and Katrina vanish. I leave the water running, steam fogging the window, and hobble to my bed, a sagging twin on a bent aluminum frame, the pillows yellowed, the sheets splotched. It’s in the corner opposite the couch. I reach underneath, pushing aside magazines, crusty tissues, dog-eared John Le Carre novels. There in the far corner, blanketed in dust and partly hidden by a wadded up Hustler, rests the box – a beige rectangle the size of my hand, the hinges and latch a rusty brass.

         Cradling it in my lap, I slump on the edge of my bed and brush off the dust. The lid’s engraved with a cathedral and the words “Oaxaca, Soul of Mexico.” I bought it at a yard sale. I guess I liked the idea of a soul in a rundown place. My hand quivers, the key jerking. I can’t steady the key long enough to jab it into the keyhole. Several attempts fail. I feel like ripping the top off. My heart slams at my chest. Patience. I take deep breaths. Opening the box demands something ritualistic, stipules I use the key. When it finally penetrates and the lid opens, I peer inside at a photo of myself -- wallet-sized, thin white border, the color slightly faded.

         “Oh my god,” Katrina whispers. She’s standing over me, looking down into the box.

         In the photo, I look not unlike the boy on the couch. Blond hair hangs over my ears, expressive blue eyes, long lashes, creamy cheeks, a full-lipped, mischievous smile.

         “You?” Katrina asks, sitting next to me on the bed, right next to me, our thighs pressed together.

         I remember why I’m smiling. My mom was standing behind the camera, red nails on the shutter button. My two younger brothers, Timmy and Logan, were sticking out their tongues. I was holding back laughter because this was a serious photo for an ID card that would identify me if I was knocked out or unable to talk or lost my memory.

         On the couch, the kid’s moaning. I look over, see him biting his lip, eyes wet, pulse in his neck pumping away like it’s some panicked rodent. “He’s okay for now, considering,” Katrina says. “Bleeding stopped.”

         If everything had remained the way it is in the photo, my life would have been like the boy’s. I would have the mother, the sunken living room, the refrigerator with bubbly water, unravaged skin tissue.

         If you ask psychiatrists, and I’ve talked to no less than seven, if you include burn trauma therapists, they’ll go on and on about how my mom experienced a “dissociative episode.” But I’ve stopped pestering those quacks. They all say there must have been “prior indicators” that she had entered this “dissociative state,” implying I should have seen it coming, that I’m somehow responsible.

         She tied us to the bed, my Mom did, at the Airport Radisson in Ontario, and told us it was a game. When she poured the gasoline on the floor, despite the odor and eye-stinging vapor, I refused to believe what it was. She was smiling -- a warm smile, cozy, snug. I laughed. I was giddy. So were my brothers. What kind of surprise were we in for? But then we quieted down as she told us how she was going away and our dad would take care of us. As she talked, in this amazingly tender voice, she swallowed pills and took sips from a wine bottle – green glass, the cork bobbing inside the neck. Our dad had died five years ago. When the pills were gone, she took out a box of wooden matches, lit one and tossed it on the floor.

         I’m alive today because I kept struggling, kept tugging, biting at the rope around my wrist, while Timmy and Logan whimpered and coiled into themselves. And I’m alive because after I finally got Timmy and Logan off the bed, they just happened to have enough unburned skin that the surgeons could graft some onto my skull and face and neck and chest. But they couldn’t save my left big toe – though I can feel it itching right now.

         “Oh, my God,” Katrina whispers. “That’s the most . . . horrific story I’ve ever heard. Horrific.” Her arms snake around me, her chin on my shoulder, hand going up and down my spine. “Put your arms around me,” she says. “All the way. There you go. That’s what you need.”

         She squeezes and I feel the body heat, the arms on my ribs, the stickiness of her cheek against mine.

         “The thing is,” I whisper in her ear. It’s so wonderful to whisper in someone’s ear who actually wants to hear me, who’s not on the clock. “I’ve got to get things together. Because I’m not doing what I’ve got to do. The whole purpose of my life is to figure out what happened to my mom. I owe it to Timmy and Logan. Sometimes I hear them. Four in the morning, lying in bed, and they’re asking me what happened. And I’ve got nothing to say. Know how it feels to have nothing to say? I get so heavy I can’t get out of bed. Like there’s millions of Timmies and Logans squirming on top of me.”

         “Keep holding me. This is what you need.”

         “And the other thing is, I’m so fucking scared to start figuring it out. Because what happens if I can’t? How can I live with Timmy and Logan asking me what happened and know I’ll never have shit to tell them?”

         We topple sideways onto the bed. Her forehead is against mine. “Oh my god,” she mutters. “It’s, it’s . . . I mean considering. . . .” Our noses scrape. “No wonder you’re such a weird fuck. That key you blabber about.”

         She smells musky and sweet. This is the closest I’ve been to anyone I haven’t paid for, and it’s way more intimacy than I ever remember feeling. There’s layers in an intimacy like this – compassion, gratitude, tenderness and then, slowly bubbling up the way my eyes would fight to open through anesthesia, desire.

         Katrina keeps whispering that this is what I need and I feel lost in some fever-dream. And somehow we’re kissing, a brush of lips, then tongue and saliva. Being with someone who wants to be with me is so delirious, so wonderful and confusing that when Katrina slips off her blouse, it doesn’t bother me that she has a flat chest and gold hoops in her nipples. And when she slips off her skirt and presses her panties against me and reaches under my jeans, it doesn’t even occur to me that I wouldn’t want this. But as I scramble to yank off my shirt, I glance across the room. I forgot all about the kid. I expect him to be staring at us wide-eyed, mouth in the shape of a scream. But that’s not what I see. The couch is empty. The door’s cracked open.

         “Princess.” I jab Katrina with an elbow. “The kid!”

Tom Burkett's fiction has been published in Skive Magazine, Small Doggies Magazine, as well as the websites Verb Sap and Word Riot. He lives in Los Angeles.

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