Chapter 16: Two weeks A.K.

I didn't do much with the contents of the manilla envelope; didn't do anything, in fact. Just took the thing, numb, shoved it into my top desk drawer, where things go to be forgotten. That was my intention, in a way. To watch passively as everything that tied me to him dissolved. I guess that's what we do with legacies of which we disapprove. Disassociate.

I guess Harold wasn't the worst guy, necessarily. He was just a stranger to me, I guess. I realize that that was my fault, not his. I never forgave him for abandoning my mother, for letting her die. I never forgave him for finding a substitute in a new woman, one with whom I have nothing in common. Maybe those were my problems, not his. People die. He's not god. What could he do? And as far as she's concerned, isn't he entitled to a little happiness? Do I expect him to mourn for the rest of his life?

The answer, of course, is yes, and I feel sort of tricked that he got out of it so effectively, by dying, I mean. Now I'm stuck with the responsibility of mourning them both, mourning two people I never really knew, two people that I am only now beginning to know. This realization, that it was on me, now, I mean, was sort of a pain, but at least it provided some kind of resolution. I started with my mother.

She was easy, once I found her journals, her life became, quite literally, an open book. Except there were parts I couldn't quite make out. Like she was using some kind of code or something. I tinkered with it for a while, but I was never good at that sort of thing. After a while, I decided to come back to it later. I had learned, I thought, enough-- that she loved us, that she wasn't angry about her sufferings, that she had a lot more inner peace than I've been able to muster. On to my father, then. I didn't start with the envelope, but I ended up there.

Chapter 15 - Four years after the key is found

I walked toward the subway station across the ragged brick paths of a Beijing alley. Three men were working on my favorite dumpling shop, cutting in to the plaster of the facade, laying new plywood over the bared concrete. I made a man understand what I wanted from a hot pot cart and ate tofu burning hot in every way from a plate wrapped in a plastic bag. The old man who always stands near the cart offered me one of the tiny folding stools about, but I did not take it.

I boarded the 13 going south to Wudaokou. The flat-screen in the car showed soldiers marching, men drilling in front of those trucks that pull around huge missles. They had an interview with keyman. She might have been chinese. Like all of them she spoke perfectly: no hesitation, no accent.

I listened to an audiobook, I didn't pay attention to the screen. Jack Aubrey staged a midnight raid to retrieve Stephen from the clutches of the French. When they get there, Stephen's alive but his hands are cracked and broken on the rack.

The ticket-gate beeped as I stepped out and saw that it was raining. I bout an umbrella from an old fat woman selling them from a cardboard box, undid the zipper on an impossibly flimsy plastic cover, and walked the three blocks to my school.

I bought a little tube of nescafe from the korean grocery and sweated seven flights of stairs to my floor. I made coffee from the water bubbler in my little enameled mug, and sat down in the classroom. There was a big table in the middle of the room with an inlay made of wicker down the middle. There was no projector, just a TV and a whiteboard.

I spent two hours trying to express how far it was from our vast apartment to the bank.

Chapter # - # weeks after the key is found

The little plastic alarm buzzed on my dresser, I stood up and turned it off, rubbed one foot on top of the other and gathered my things. 

I picked my pants, fumbled around on the table for my glasses, picked up the shirt from yesterday and left the room.

The shag carpet downstairs was dirty and disgusting to walk on in bare feet but I padded to the bathroom and scrubbed my back and shoulders with a loofah under the hot shower.

I turned off the water and dried with a towel vaguely crusted. I dressed, smelling my armpits, applied deoderant under my shirt, and went looking for my key.

From its manila envelope, It slid into my hand with a tiny screeching sound. I took a ballchain necklace from around a liqour bottle on top of the fridge, removed the spent miniature glowstick, and hooked on the key. I hung it around my neck. I left my bike key in my back pocket, though I knew I wouldn't need it again.

The light over the stairs didn't work, but I hit the switch anyway in memory of the time a year ago when it had. Human grease had left a brown line along the drywall all the way down.

At the second floor I walked down the hall, the vynil making sticking sounds. 

I let the ball chain run through my fingers as I approached the door.

The sobbing was still going, and I drew my key as I approached 214.

Chapter 13 - the day the key is found

She handed me an envelope like any other.

A manila envelope with a few coins, a liberty dollar, six hundred dollars in cash, a wallet with some photos of me at thirteen and him and his wife, mainly on a boat I'd never seen.

And a key on a rabbit's foot keyring, a strange straight key like the one for my bike lock.

Chapter 11 - # months after the key is found

China is easier than anyplace else. Do you have any idea how they treat you in the states if you try to buy an international ticket with cash? Australia is worse and Tokyo impossible.

But China is easy for that, and then there's the fact that a good meal can be had for 20 yuan and it's hard to resist.

Anton and I spent our first few weeks just getting our feet. once we left the immense vault of Terminal 3 we never again met a chinese person with fluent english. We pointed to a random spot on a map, and walked for half an hour 'til we saw something that looked like a hotel. It was impossible to identifiy one with our frame of reference, neon was everywhere and little convenience shops had marble facades. The first place where I tried to get a room turned out to be a dry cleaners, the second some kind of day spa that I would later realize must have been korean themed.

Finally our passports were photo-copied and we had our "deluxe fashion room." The concierge, even the concierge, spoke little or no english, and Anton had yet to pull his bloody trick with my key, and so we had to point at the room list, point at our eyes, then mime walking up to it.

I don't remember that room too clearly, we muddled our way to an english language bookstore about a week later and realized that the prices printed on the official list, actually a brass plaque the size of a pizza box affixed to the wall next to the counter, always listed prices at least twice of their real cost. I remember the girl seeming blushing as we paid, I thought it was because she'd studied english at one point and was embarrassed at being able to say littloe more than "hello" and "now you can pay."

The constants remained, for my china years. So many buildings were new in Beijing, but even a year later it seemed they all still smelled of new paint, and no ever seemed to engineer the showers just right. Plumbers or whoever it is who glues showers together it is must have been in short supply that decade. they always made a big puddle, which when Anton took his lingering showers in that endless hot water of natural gas fired flash heaters rolled outward till a patch of the carpet by the door was soaked.

Chapter 10 - many years after the key is found

Summer is coming to an end, and I am keeping busy. It is hard to decide what to do around this time of year: the food is plentiful and the animals bold, stuck with the same problem as I have, getting fat for three months of lean times. I'm drying blackberries and piling up cabbages in a hollow trunk with an alder-bough roof, tomorrow I may try for fish or just bundle and hang greens upside down from my roof for dry salad additions.

At this time of year at least herbs are hard to find, but I worry I can no longer taste rosemary, a sprig in every pot and a few leaves tucked between meat and bone with every roast.

Thankfully this is Oregon and even at this elevation it won't snow for more than a day, and it won't stick.

That was the excitement, so many years ago, that was what you'd call your friends over: go and look outside, it's snowing like crazy and it's sticking.

Often, 'sticking' was loosley defined: if it frosted the grass then it was sticking, even if the sidewalk was just dark and wet.

I had hopes of making arrows this winter for my compound bow, but it proved a bust even with the aluminum-shaft shots from the sporting goods store.

It was a mistake: several years ago the deer grew impossibly numerous, mowing down all greenery in their path and I nearly took down one with my skinning knife, so reluctant was it to run from my blueberry bush.

In that time I neglected the gathering of kale, cabbage, and the blackberries to dry to take the deer down full time. I shot carefully but still spent nearly a box of bullets, and in the end I didn't cure the meat poperly and much of the meat went bad.

Even so I ran out of my vegetable food quickly, and was reduced to nothing but acorns and deer for the first month of spring. I ended up stuffing down mouthfulls of grass just to be able to shit.

Now the arrows do not pierce the deer's hide from more than 25 yards, and they have grown skittish and less numerous.

If humans, other humans, walk through this part of the world still it is clear they have lost their old prejudices. Bedtime stories do not trouble these new men, and wolves are not trapped and killed indiscriminately.

I have seen them, stalking beneath my treetop home. My breath was a cloud before me when last I saw a pile of their bloody leavings.

Wolves have no interest in people but they will strip the hills of deer within a few years, and with them my only source of meat will be gone. If I were dying I could eat wolf, but I am not dying yet.

The time of innocence is gone, the time of bullets is ending.

The air is getting colder every day and the time of the wolf is creeping over my woods.

Chapter 9 continued - three days after the key is found

Anton, long a lover of technology that can acually improve a life, had with him this little thing that makes your ipod plays through powered speakers, and we took it to a park a few blocks from us. For some reason I got stuck with the job of lugging the bocce set which despite being the cheapest one at the store where I'd bought it the day before was encased in a wooden crate.

Bocce balls of course are all a standard weight.

The last time I took LSD, my brother said, we went out to this restaurant? this hamburger place? And what occured to me is that restaurants are really weird. We're all sitting very very close to each other, but we're not eating together, we're all supposed to ignore each other, even though if I were looking at his mouth, we could be having a conversation at a party.

Yeah, Anton said, if you go with a big group of people you're probably sitting further from your grandma than you are from some stranger, and you're yelling so that she can here you, but that guy can go ahead and talk about his sexual pecadillos and you're just ignoring him.

It's called disattending, I said, where you're all agreeing that someone is ignoring you, it's like in a taxi, you can talk about whatever you want, that guy is always not listening, it's called being a professional disattender, like elevator operators used to be

Cambridge has these mean curbs, granite with sharp angles, high, the kind of thing that'd snap your rim if you tried to bike down it. It's true all over, even in the run-down parts of town, or over in Jamaica Plain, the curbs are sharp and proud. As the four of us tried to move in a group down the brick sidewalk to narrow for even two to walk abreast, I thought about the time I was out here, with Dad, and saw some men fixing a sunken spot in the sidewalk.

I thought it was mad, they were pulling up the bricks with a shovel and revealing that underneath was nothing but a bed of sand. Their solution to the sinking bricks was to pour more sand in underneath until the sidewalk swelled up a little there.

I must have been 20, but still I relied on my father to know the answer, he said that anything else would just freeze during the winter, and that they only had to do it every 10 years or so. The stranges thing was how they weren't treating the whole street or even the whole block, just pulling up the most sunken spot at this moment.

Chapter 9 - three days after the key is found

We melted one sugar cube in a plastic cup and diviied it up between the four of us. The sunlight poured over dad's linoleum and for a while we just chatted.
I think we were just excited for the first hour, Saul scratched his elbows and started talking about transhumanism. He had a few days' beard and hadn't really gotten clean from the bus ride, he kept feeling his stubble.
Anton was more careful at the outset, making sure he knew where a clean pair of socks were, and brushing and shaving before the experience began. He squeaked his sneakers on the floor and nodded in time.
My brother and I were quiet for the first while, just sort of smiling and talking.
Where did he get the windows for this place?
They're double paned but running in droplets, rippling, is that even possible?
Knowing him it was probably some custom thing.
'The whole thing's custom!'
yeah, you remember that fucking van?
how many movies do you think we managed to watch in it?
Like, one, I think, I think we watched Willow.
Willow and The Neverending Story, on that trip to Atlantic city to see Dylan.
Yeaaaaaah. And then a while later, after we'd tuned in for a spell to Anton relating a recent anecdote about the AK, did we see the show?
I think mom and dad did, but we stayed in the car? But how is that possible, who would leave their kids in a car in a parking lot in atlantic city for half the night?
Yeah, that can't be.... you'd get on Dateline.

Chapter 8 - The day the key is found

"We were going to visit molokai this winter"

"He loved it there," I know for a fact that she had never been, that the shared experience was something he and I would have alone.

"yeah, everywhere else we went he complained, said it was too touristy."

"he would"

"for him it wasn't a beach if other people knew about it. He took me down to northern california, when was it?" I can see even from behind that she is crying in that slow leak way some old women have.

"Two years? you visited. Two years ago on January."

"he tells me of this lovely beach, way off 101, and then we park still in the forest, just a trailhead, and we're lugging a cooler and blankets and all that up and down these hills, really schlepping, and then we get there, the wind is like fire it's so cold, and he can't enjoy it."

"he can't-"

"he can't enjoy it because there's footprints all over the dry sand, not even people! Footprints!"

I want to feel superior now, that she couldn't enjoy what must have been an endlessly calm and expansive day on the frozen coast, but it wasn't until a year or two ago that I learned any enjoyment of hiking. before that I just whined, if he made me go, and, cruelest sting, when he came out west I often made up excuses to stay away from him if it ment speending the day tramping up and down behind his untiring hams. All the while lugging a 40 year old cooler.

My father was the most practical man in the world, and there was never a better example than his kitchen. The floor was linoleum. A lot of people hear linoleum, and they think vynil, but the two have nothing to do with each other. Vynil is cheap, comes in rolls so that it goes down in one huge sheet, generally has a texture, and is soft enough to ding with a pair of high heels. Linoleum is expensive, comes in tiles, is perfectly smooth, can look only one way: those smooshed out droplets you remember from elementary school, and is nearly invincible. Cheap apartments have vynil, my father's million dollar condo just north of davis square had linoleum. stove had only two burners, for holidays he would put a pair of electric hotplates on the counter, perfect for stock and cream sauces, the rest of the time he just had those two burners and a tiny oven, enough for one loaf of bread. you should have seen his utility bills, it was a time-warp.

He listened to WBUR, public radio, morning noon and night. He had these little radios, three that plugged in and one that wound up with a big mainspring to turn the dynamo. He used that one to listen to This American Life in the tub on Sunday afternon. He put one of the plugins in the kitchen, listening to Americans all day and brits into the evening drone on about carbombs and colorful local restaurants.

There were so few ingredients in his kitchens: he never even used dry spices. But when he started whisking flour into eggs and milk I knew we'd be eating silvery crepes loaded with fresh cheese and whatever fruit was in season. He had one knife.

Now it's blaring classic rock, and my dad's wife is mixing up meatloaf for the wake with ketchup and a whole jar of garlic powder.

Chapter 7 - One week before the key is found

Anton wore a tattoo of a Kalashnikov over his heart. I know for a fact that he'd never fired one, never even seen one outside of a military history museum. I figure that's probably most of the people with an automatic weapon tattoo, but his was different. It was just the silhouette, done in black, like on the flag of Mozambique, and it was small, just a bit bigger than a playing card.

He talked about it a lot, the AK, what it meant. How the soviets built them so cheap they could give them away for free to any communist-friendly army. How during the Vietnam war guerrillas could hide them under water in rice paddies and pull them out weeks later still ready to fire. How they represented a design so simple, powerful, and effective that they killed more people every year than all three atom bombs.

At my height, as he came to me first thing the morning, up before me as always, it was right at eye level as I mashed my nose against his chest.
Morning sprout.
Good morning!
You sleep okay?
I woke up for a while and read.
That bed is awful he said.
Yeah. Even though it wasn't the bed but feeling sad and strung out and adjusting to east coast time and watching my dad's wife pull her hair out and emote all over the place over a man she met four years ago.
You wanna go out and find some real coffee? I used the last of the unflavored yesterday, and I don't wanna get the stinkeye for monopolizing the machine.
Oh you know what actually hazelnut caramel sounds great, let's have that with a little titanium dioxide laced french vanilla fat free half and half creamer product.
I google mapped the starbuck's.
Good ant.
He held me against his chest again, squeezing tighter and tighter, from the sides just like I like.
Get dressed, she'll be up anytime and it'll be weirder to run out just as she's getting up.

Chapter 6 - Two years, six months after the key is found

In the movies, masks are only on for so long. I guess not Batman's. When Batman's doing his thing right he never takes his mask off or puts it on, he just changes, off screen, from one thing to something else.
The first time I saw Saul wearing his mask it wasn't like he had changed, it was more like seeing your uncle wearing a hairpiece for the first time. The first moment I opened my hotel door I ended up spitting tea out my nose from laughing, it was just too ridiculous.
The carpet in the hallway was red, the lush, prosperous look favored by the middling hotels of Beijing.
Hey we're gonna get breakfast, they do a buffet thing down here for like-
What is that?
He tried it on for just a moment, not knowing what I was talking about, but somehow he couldn't bring himself to say 'oh this?' or any other coy bullshit
Yeah, the mask? What do you think of it?
Can you see out of it?
yeah it's molded down close to the orbital so we don't lose our peripheral vision and there's make-
Makeup, I can see that, like Batman.
In the new movies.
He was chuffed about the Batman comparison, but it's impossible to let someone you've known for ten years off the hook so easily.
So you're gonna wear that down to breakfast?
Yeah they do western food it turns out, so no baozi for us today, even coffee?
I dunno it seems like they've got the stuff to make drip.
Is it crazy expensive?
No it's like twenty kuai.
Did anton make you wear that? I pointed one finger towards my cheek.
No. he said, his brow knitting up.
For a moment we were quiet, me sitting on my too-hard bed, him standing in the middle of the little room, his boots pressing deep into my grey carpet.
We're all going to be wearing them.
All of us, the key men.
And Anton's not making you? You just decided to all wear masks.
It was his idea, but we all decided.
And you're gonna wear it all the time?
We'll take it off to sleep if we want to, I slept in it last night to get the fit right. he said
The mouth is so important when ever you talk to one of the key men. They get in the habit, after a while, of showing everything with lips and little pulls around the chin. At this early date, though, anton showed me only a little half smile as he fiddled with my electric kettle.
I figure I'll probably wear mine all the time, just taking it off to get clean, and I'll have it on forever, from now on.

Even after everything went bad, he kept his on, and wore it until I took it from his body. I still have it around somewhere.

Chapter 5-- Two Weeks Before the Key is Found

I hadn't wanted anything, really, it's just...this weakness of mine. I get anxious when I'm alone, sometimes, panicky, which is probably why I'm living with Saul in the first place, come to think of it. He hardly gives me a minute to myself. Which is how I like it. Saul's not loud or annoying, well, not usually. He's just this constant presence, drinking Pabst and smoking cigarettes and noodling around on the guitar. He plays well. He sings out of tune, but it's pleasant enough, in a Bob Dylany sort of way. Mostly he's background noise to me, and I try not to think about why he would possibly while away the hours with me, when he could be out there living, playing gigs, meeting girls. Actually I know why he spends so much time with me, and it makes me feel guilty, which I don't like, so I try not to think about it at all. Poor Saul. I wish Anton would try a little harder to make him feel included. But I shouldn't blame Anton. If anybody's inconsiderate, it's me, and if anything's wrong here, it's my fault. I just hate to be alone.

That wasn't the only reason I called him, of course. I did have an excuse. I'd have preferred it to have been Anton.
"She's crying again," I told him, feeling lame as I said it. I expected him to scowl at me, but his only expression was one of furrowed concern.
"Look, we can't keep doing this. I think I should talk to the landlord."
"And get them thrown out? That would hardly be a solution!"
"It would stop this. This is a problem. You can't even be comfortable in your own house!"
"And what about her problems?"
He walked across the room, which only took him a couple of steps. He fished out a pack of smokes, tapped one out (I have never understood why he does that) placed it loosely between his lips, and lit it. As he inhaled, he squinted out of the dingy window. He ran a hair through his hair, which was not brown, not blonde, and already greying. It fell back immediately into a heavy shelf, shiny with grease. Saul's hair was impossible. He never had taken much stock in appearances, and I had long ago given up trying to convince him of the social benefits good grooming had to offer. Shit, I was one to talk, anyway. The only body hair I really concerned myself with was that on my eyebrows, and about this, I was obsessive. I mused on this, sucking on my pipe. I often look as if I'm pondering the universes' riddles when I am in fact concerned soley with the mundane.
He sighed. I snapped back to attention.
"Does the crying bother you?"
"It bothers me." This was true. I found it impossible to do anything when I heard it. And I heard it all too frequently. Lately, it felt like any time I was alone in the apartment, it would begin, a dull wail followed by choking sobs. Sometimes they were muffled, sometimes not. Sometimes I would wake to it, and the sound would fill me with such dread that I would wonder, for the thousandth time, if the author of such profound grief could be human.
I used to think it was a child, until one rainy afternoon when I was carrying groceries up the narrow, putrid hallway, trying unsuccessfully not to touch the walls, as I was convinced that they would give me a disease. What was I afraid of catching? Poverty? Despair? Whatever it was, I was completely resigned to it now, and neither walls nor carpet nor kitchen bothered me. Or, they continued to bother me, but I had successfully squelched most feelings of fear and revulsion. I wasn't ahppy with it, but I'd accepted it. There's a lot to be said for acceptance. It makes everything easier, when you lead a miserable existence. I saw her in the stairwell. She wasn't shouting then, or pleading, as I'd heard her so often through the walls. She was just standing there, in the doorway, crying, and wearing a nightgown. Her face was unmade and her hair uncombed, and I felt somehow that it was obscene, so I turned away and continued up the stairs. A man brushed past me on his way down, so average I barely remember him. He was wearing blue jeans and a brown leather jacket, neither particularly new, and he was of average height, definitely under six feet, probably brown, thinning hair, probably medium build. I say probably because I am guessing, because I wasn't paying much attention. I didn't realize until I got into the apartment and put the grocery bag on the counter that she was crying for him, that the unassuming man on the stairwell was the reason I was up so many nights. He hadn't looked like anything. I couldntve picked him out of a lineup.
I wished I'd known in that moment in the stairwell, wish I'd looked closer, into his face, into his eyes. If I had, I would have something to picture all of those late nights, something besides her face, raw, pathetic, and streaked with tears.
"We could call the cops," Saul was saying.
I shook my head.
"They won't do anything unless she stands up for herself, and I don't think that's very likely."
"Well, what do you want to do? Find a new apartment?" He said this out of frustration, I knew, but it wasn't a real question. Neither of us could afford anything more that what we were paying for already, not unless it we got something even further out, in an even rougher neighborhood. My busride was already an hour. No way.
"I don't know," I admitted, "I don't have a solution. It's just driving me nuts."
He looked at me with frustration, but his expression immediately melted into sympathy when he saw the tears in my eyes. He hugged me again, a bit closer this time, and again, I allowed myself to enjoy it.
"Don't worry," he told me, "we'll think of something." His phone rang, and, with a sigh, he pulled away. He has a habit of screening his calls, so that I could read the name before he answered it, even if it was upside down.
"Anton," he said, sounding a bit more cheerful than I guessed he was, "hello."

Chapter 4 - two weeks before the key is found

Anton was the first person I called, but Saul was the first one to show up. I don't blame Anton, or I didn't then, for failing to climb down out of his bucket truck to answer the cell phone in the cab, or abandoning his post out on the lines as soon as he got the message, but Saul answered emails for a living so he was less concerned about ditching out at a moments notice.
I was in that ugly ugly apartment, the one we had together, with him in the second bedroom, carpetting everywhere that we were sure they had never pulled up but just added another layer every few years. The floor felt soupy in every room but the kitchen where the vynil was scared and pitted and the pits filled with blackened grease no matter how you scrub.
Dark grease or no the kitchen has always been the most comfortable room in any house I've been in so that's where was, having an out-of-character smoke when Saul ran up the stairs.
"Oh man," he said, "oh man,"and rushed me, half stooping, his arms outstretched like he was rushing a pass.
I let him hold me, then. his touch was light and didn't press on any part of me. I liked it, liked that he didn't talk or say he was sorry, or whatever. The trouble with a dog would have been that it didn't understand. I let him hold me until my eye couldn't stop following a fruit fly in the sunbeam from the kitchen's lone window.
Pipe tobacco has a way of going out if you're not puffing away at it, the little cherry bowl in my left seemed to be petering out, I slipped back and put it back in my mouth.
"What do you want?" he said, grabbing both my forearms, still crunched down on the floor to face me while I sat in the chair.
It's the purest thing, a question like that. It wasn't the ideal moment for wish fulfullment, but it was the best thing that anyone could have said.
"Could you light this again for me?"

Chapter 3 - two weeks before the key is found

Pulling drinks at Starbucks isn't anyone's dream, but after seven weeks sleeping on a kind-of friend's couch, looking for jobs all over the city under creepy, edgy managers and guys who interview you in shorts, it can feel like a rope. Save up and you can pay for the doctor, and they pay for dental cleanings.
It messes up your feet. They give you these short little shifts, if they've got enough people working, but still after four hours the little drips from the steam nozzles get down through the vents in your shoes and the skin swells and gets soft.
There's this guy working there, his name's dean. He's got no plans for college and I figure he's 19 at the oldest, but he's got this thick, fine hair and these big white teeth. It's unfortunate, thinking about a guy you'd like to have sucking your toes while you know that your feet at this moment are covered in skin like the inside of tangarine peels.
The rule is that your not supposed to keep a cell phone in your pocket at work. I guess most of the people here just graduated from high school, and people like that tend to have a lot friends around their hometown. I guess, from the scene right outside the door when they get off shift, the teenage girls I work with get hundreds of messages a day and their phone would be ringing all the time after twelve. But once in a while Anton calls me at work about picking me up, or maybe Erin calls on a friday to see if I want to play squash on Saturday, and that's about it. My boss, or supervisor, or whatever, lets me keep my phone while I'm on shift. I don't know if the fact that she's two years younger than me and that supervisors are allowed to keep their phones has any weight, but I get to keep my phone.
That meant there were no tearful voicemails, no guilt about not checking my messages sooner, no timezoned waiting till next morning to return my dad's wife's call.
No, I got the call with water dripping on my feet, and some solicitous asshole wearing a fleece vest smiling over the pastry case at me preparing his lame flirtatious comment while his wife gets their two kids settled.

Chapter 2 - six months after the key is found

Do you even know what this thing does?
I know that it unlocks every lock we've ever tried it in.
It unlocks padlocks, kryptonite locks, if you shove it in the edge it'll pop a combination lock, it lets you draw money out of any ATM, and it made a counterfeit passport scan at the Sydney airport.
Yeah, everything we tried.
That doesn't make any sense, Ez.
I hate it when he talks to me like this. For two weeks he'd been asking to use the key, ever since the Sydney airport, and finally last night I let him use it to go get some cash on Wangfujing. Now he's talking to me like this. He's got scorn for me, not knowing what the key does, or how it works, or how the things that it unlocks work. I can tell he thinks it's something unique, and that he's got scorn for me for letting him use it, for not being as distrustful and armored up as he is.
Think about it, is there anyway that Frank could have gotten into that bunker without the key?
Probably not, no.
And we know he went in....
The seventies
yeah in '78
Okay? It's not like they had RFID in the seventies.
That's the chips in my passport.
Yeah that's the chip in your passport. Now he thinks I'm stupid for repeating what I've heard. That's what I didn't have in mine that should have gotten me flagged and searched.
Okay so the key worked on the reader.
Ez that doesn't make any sense.
Why not? It worked fine, it's not like they'd let us leave again if it hadn't worked.
Yeah it worked but it shouldn't have worked. How can a key made before 1972 work on an RFID reader released in late 2006?
It's just radio, right? And it doesn't need a power supply, because there's no battery in my passport. I started to reach for the document pouch I'd had slung around my neck for the last week.
Anton waved his hand with his arm stretched straight in front of him. Okay so Nikolai Tesla had the original designs decades earlier but modern chips transmit a number back to the reader and that number back to a database or, or whatever and only then does it let you through. How could someone predict that? The ATM is the same way, it's not like we're popping open the cash cartridge, that key lets us draw out money as if the system thinks we're loaded, it even spits out receipts for huge remaining balances in five different countries. Ez this is not the key your father had in 1973. Either he traded it in for a newer model, or improved it, and even he'd done that I still don't see how anything could do what its doing.
Looking at it there, the chain slack in his palm with a little loop running down to just graze the cheap polyester bedspread, the key itself a matte black mark in his palm, I thought how much I'd like to take it back. It's not that I wanted it for myself, It's not that I wanted to be away from Anton, it was just that I wanted it away from him. I didn't want him thinking about it, bending every thought to the key's potential uses. Even more, I didn't like how he saw me while he had it in is hand: like I was just carrying it around, waiting to find someone who could unlock its full potential.
All I'd wanted was a few extra bucks and some answers.

Chapter 1 - many years after after the key is found

I still carry the chain around my neck. It's thin, light, a three-foot length of ball chain slapping lightly against my chest as I hop stones across the river. It would be valuable to me if I took it off. I thought I prepared well when I left the city: dynamo-powered flashlights instead of the far less reliable solar battery models, parabolic fire starters, ammunition and a little field loader rig, a pistol and a rifle that use the same caliber, tarps and blankets, but it's incredible how you can never have enough string. Some time, maybe next summer or the summer after that, I intend to head back in to Portland and come back with a shopping cart full of stuff. If I can find it I swear I'll bring back a hundred miles of string.

So the ball chain would come in handy. I couldn't lash anything with it but I could use it for fishing line, or to pull a trap, or maybe it'd even bind up one of the bark bundles I use for torches. Does ball chain burn? Does it melt?

Anton would know, but I don't, and it's one of those things that's not in any book, at least not in any book that's not fiction.