top of page

"Key Ring" by M.E. Proctor


The monstrous key ring hanging from Jack Oliver’s belt fascinated us. The top large hoop held smaller ones, in a complicated interlinked puzzle. We had theories about the keys, none of them satisfactory. Jack Oliver didn’t run one of the storage facilities in town, he didn’t own the wreckers salvage dump or the RV park, and he didn’t sell golf carts or other recreational vehicles, all occupations that generated a significant number of keys. He lived alone with his dog, a border collie named Peggy, on the old farm that had been in his family forever, where he took care of a bunch of horses rescued from various ranches and overgrazed public lands. We often spotted him riding in fallow fields or rights-of-way, with Peggy tagging along. The animals looked happy with Jack. In my book, that made him a good guy.

“How many keys does your mom have, Cassie?” Ethan said.

“Two,” I said. “The house and the car.”

“My dad has four,” Lucas said. “The house, the car, the garage, and the ATV.”

“What, not the boat?” Ethan smirked.

Lucas was the rich kid in our trio. Rich being relative. The Summervilles weren’t millionaires. They just had more stuff. Ethan Maher, my best friend, wasn’t as well off. He lived with his grandparents in a sagging old pile that needed a new coat of paint, on top of the peeling multi-colored previous ones. Not poor, but he took good care of his bicycle because there wouldn’t be another set of wheels under the Christmas tree for a long while. My circumstances were slightly better. I lived with my mom in a bungalow, midway between Lucas and Ethan. The closer to the lake, the more expensive the houses. The Summervilles were on the water.

“He must have a tractor,” Lucas said. “Maybe a baler or a loader, and a wagon.”

“Okay, so maybe six or seven keys,” Ethan said. “It’s more than a regular person, but it doesn’t explain the clanging pile.”

“Padlocks,” I said. “Anything that isn’t locked down tends to grow wings in this place.”

My two buddies agreed. Jack Oliver must carry a large number of padlock keys.

“Why doesn’t he keep them at home?” Lucas said. “That ring is so heavy I’m amazed he’s not listing. You know, like a boat.”

“We know what listing means, Lucas, you dolt,” I said. “He must want to keep his stuff with him. Can’t blame him. What’s the point of locking things up if somebody can break into your house when you’re out, and steal everything.”

We were hanging around the feed store, one of our favorite spots, especially when the mobile vet was in town. We watched the cats and dogs being dropped off and picked up. There were always puppies. Caitlin, the assistant, drafted us to register the animals when she was swamped. Lucas was good with the paperwork, and Ethan and I bonded with the animals, sometimes with the owners, although there were grumpy ones among them that looked at all teenagers as if they were juvenile delinquents. Jack Oliver wasn’t a cranky type. He was taciturn but not sour, and Peggy was a sweet dog.

We’d seen him walk into the feed store, tall and lanky with that battered cowboy hat of his, a distinctive silhouette recognizable from a quarter mile away.

“I think we should ask him,” Lucas said.

“What? Walk up to him and say: Pardon, Mr. Oliver, sir, but what the hell are all these keys for?” Ethan laughed. “That’d be something to see.”

“We can’t do that,” I said. “It’s very rude.”

“Why not? Either he’ll say it’s none of our business or he’ll tell us. What’s the harm?”

Lucas’s suggestion was common sense, but I couldn’t picture myself doing it and judging from Ethan’s face, neither could he.

“Well, you go ask him then,” Ethan said.

The gauntlet was thrown.

Lucas pondered, weighed pros and cons. “What do I get if I do it?”

“Bragging rights,” Ethan said.

“Uh-huh, not enough. The largest pizza with all the trimmings, at Napoli.”

“You know how much that’ll set us back?” I said. I had twelve crumpled dollars in my pocket, what was left from babysitting an ornery toddler last week.

Ethan, who was even more cash-strapped than me, shrugged. “He’s blowing hot air through his ass. He won’t do it and Jack won’t tell him anyway. We’re safe.”

That led to a lengthy discussion of the fine points of the challenge. Was the pizza for the ask only, or was an answer from Jack Oliver required? We haggled worse than horse traders. After we’d dissected the arguments, we agreed that the ask was worth a small pizza with two toppings. An answer would earn the big pie. And we had to witness the conversation. Lucas was devious. He might walk up to the guy and ask him what time it was. I could tell the thought had crossed his mind because he winced when Ethan said we would go with him.

We hovered around the mobile vet truck, waiting for Jack to exit the store.

He was really tall when you stood close to him and his boot heels added a good two inches to his frame. He was old, but not like Ethan’s grandparents. He was strong and brown from working outside. I felt heat flush my face, thinking he must have been a handsome man when he was younger, with these gray eyes and a nose like a hawk. I stepped back a few steps. Mom said nothing intimidated me, but that wasn’t true.

Ethan gave Lucas a light push between the shoulder blades. “Time to shine, bud,” he whispered.

To his credit, Lucas followed through.

“Hi, Mr. Oliver,” he said. “Beautiful day, ain’t it? Is Peggy at the vet, is she okay?”

Ethan glanced at me and winked. Smart way to start the conversation.

Jack leaned forward and down. Lucas stood his ground and looked into these knowing gray eyes.

“The old girl was sleepy this morning. She’s fine. Thanks for asking.”

“Now it comes,” Ethan mumbled and Jack turned to look at him.

I couldn’t put words on what passed between them in these few seconds, but it gave me goosebumps. I moved closer to Ethan, so close our elbows touched, and the clean smell of his freshly laundered shirt tickled my nose. He leaned on me a bit as if Jack’s stare had unbalanced him.

Lucas swallowed so hard I thought he would dislodge his tonsils. “Uh, Mr. Oliver, why do you have all these keys?” His voice dipped on the last syllable.

Jack released Ethan–that’s what it felt like–and smiled. “Well, well, Master Summerville, how long has that question been burning you? For quite a while, I believe. You wonder, like most people around here. They’re just too polite to ask.”

I felt myself turn beet red.

“Ah, fair Cassandra had misgivings, didn’t she?”

That didn’t help my crimson complexion. I wished I was five miles away. And nobody calls me Cassandra, ever.

“Was it a challenge, Ethan? They’re big on challenges and dares in the Maher family. It sends them crashing down more often than not, poor suckers. At least you hide behind your friend.”

Ethan jumped as if he’d been poked with a cattle prod. “I don’t fucking hide behind anybody!”

Jack laughed. It crinkled a riot of wrinkles around his eyes. I noticed he had a silver tooth. The sun put a sparkle on it. “I recognize that trademark spunk. It’s caused so much damage among your relatives.” He jangled the humongous key ring. “You know the expression: Curiosity killed the cat. Are you dying to know?”

“I’m not,” I said, when that cat he was talking about gave me back my tongue.

“Sensible. Females are so much more sensible than the males of the species.”

“Sir,” Ethan said. His fists were bunched in his jeans pockets. “We apologize for bothering you. Goodbye and have a good day.” And he turned on his heel.

“Wait,” Jack said and Ethan cringed. His shoulders slumped, and his head went down to his chest.

I knew how hard it was for Ethan to back down on anything. If Jack Oliver insisted on a more formal apology, he wouldn’t get it, no matter the consequences. Humiliation set fire to Ethan’s tinder-dry temper. I wanted to comfort him, but he would explode if I reached for him.

“I shouldn’t have implied you lacked in courtesy,” Jack said. “That was wrong of me. Your friend asked an honest question, and he asked it straight, which is more than I can say about the entire population of this benighted place.”

He held out his hand to Ethan who stared at it, hesitant. He wiped a hand on his jeans and shook Jack Oliver’s hard-callused big paw.

“Thank you, sir.” He stood straighter and seemed to grow before my eyes.

Ethan wasn’t used to being given much respect by adults. At best they ignored him. It was grossly unfair. He was no more responsible for the misdeeds of his boneheaded family members than I was for the absence of my deadbeat father. It didn’t matter, we got daubed with the same dirty brush. Small-town gossip is relentless and unforgiving. According to the local babblers, Ethan was destined for jail, sooner or later, like the rest of the Maher clan, and not much good could be expected from me either, being raised by a woman whose husband must have had good reasons to leave her. Some days, the whispers were hard to ignore.

Jack smiled. “Tell you what, youngsters. If you come by the farm this afternoon, I might–just might–tell you a thing or two about my keys.”

I didn’t like the icy feeling at the base of my neck. “It is not necessary, sir,” I said.

He tilted his head and studied me from under that slouchy hat. I forced myself not to blink. “Concerned about secrets revealed, Cassie-the-sprite? Your two knight servants don’t have the same qualms.”

I wanted to say: They’re boys, of course, they don’t. They’d jump off a bridge to prove they aren’t chicken.

“We shouldn’t impose on you, sir,” I said. “It isn’t proper.”

That made him laugh so hard he shook all over. He pointed a big knuckled finger at me. “It is my fancy to unlock a few boxes for your benefit, kids. I insist you come.” And he turned away. It was the same cheeky move as Ethan’s, with more years and more inches added to it.

“Oh man, oh man,” Lucas muttered. “What have we gotten ourselves into?”

I wasn’t the only one feeling prickles of dread.

“Can’t bow out now,” Ethan said. “It would be like I slapped his hand away.” He rolled his shoulders. “What can happen anyway? There’s three of us and he’s alone with an old dog. And it’ll be daylight.”

“I won’t drink or eat anything unless I see him eat and drink it first,” Lucas said.

“Good luck when he pours himself a big glass of whiskey,” I said.

“That too,” Lucas said. “I’ve taken a nip before. Have no fear.”

We all needed a big laugh to feel like ourselves again.

#

The farm was well-kept, without the rusted tools, machinery, or carcasses of discarded vehicles that littered a lot of neighboring properties. Bales of hay were neatly stacked in a barn and the horse paddock was clean.

We pushed our bicycles to the top of the hill where the house stood, a long log cabin with a wide wrap-around porch that was newer than the main structure. It wasn’t screened and the ceiling fans buzzed at high speed.

Peggy came bounding down the steps, black ears flopping. She wasn’t young anymore but like her master, she was in terrific shape. She ran circles around us and came to a stop in front of Ethan. He extended a tentative hand and she bumped it with the top of her head. We were cleared to proceed.

Jack Oliver pushed the screen door open. He was wiping his hands on a checkered kitchen towel. “Good timing,” he said. “The pie is out of the oven. Needs to cool.” He pointed at the cane chairs, one of them a rocker. “Sit.”

The border collie, used to the command, flopped down.

“Does she work with the horses?” Ethan said. He took the middle chair. There was no need to discuss seating arrangements. We were as well-trained as Peggy.

Jack’s smile was a thin amused line. “You all must be what, fourteen? Barwin Middle School?”

Lucas nodded. Ethan sighed. School talk bored him. It was the go-to topic for adults that didn’t know what to say to kids. As if school was the only thing in our lives. It sure took up a lot of our time, but less than what work sucked out of grownups. I thought Ethan’s reaction was funny because of the three of us, he was the best student, straight As, and he didn’t give a shit. Or pretended not to, rather. He told me once that he planned to go to college. He said it with a determination that gave me the shivers.

I felt Jack’s keen eyes on me. “What kind of pie did you bake, Mr. Oliver?” I said.

“Blueberry. Made the crust from scratch.”

“I love blueberry pie,” Lucas said. His vow not to eat anything before Jack test-proofed it was forgotten. Resolutions couldn’t resist the wafts of freshly-baked pastry that came from the kitchen.

Ethan was fidgety. The dog put her head on his sneaker and he got the message. Settle down, you’re a good boy.

“How many horses do you have, sir?” Ethan said.

“Twenty-two. That’s as many as I can handle. A lady from Lufkin is taking one off my hands, so there’ll be a spot for a new adoptee.” He tapped a booted heel on the planks. “I wished I could take more, but I don’t have the room.”

“You can’t ride them all,” Ethan said.

“They’re on a rotation, but yeah, I can’t give them the time they need.” He leaned forward with his hands clasped between his knees. The rocking chair creaked. “I could use a bit of help. You like horses?”

“I don’t know them well,” Ethan said. “Not been around them much.”

Jack extracted his long body from the chair. “Let’s go take a look.”

We spent the next hour in the stables. They were as ordered as the rest of the property. The man must work his butt off to keep them that way.

“Do you have any help, sir?” I said.

“Sometimes, but I’m tough to please and it’s mucky work. You have to love the animals and not be afraid to get dirty.” He smiled. “Interested?”

Lucas groaned. He pinched his nose and his mouth against the smells. Ethan stroked the silky muzzle of a chestnut mare. He was lost in her long-lashed caramel eyes, smiling, falling in love. I suspected this was why Jack Oliver invited us to come over. The keys were bait. He needed stable hands.

“That’s Carmen,” Jack said. “She was a wreck when she got here. Skin and bones. Her legs are good and she’s fast, but you wouldn’t have known.” He swiped her forelock to the side, tender. “She loves a good headlong run.”

“I don’t know how to ride,” Ethan said.

I sighed. That was it, slam dunk, seduction complete.

Lucas revived as soon as we exited the stables. He didn’t care for horse and manure talk. He was a reasonable boy. A true Summerville. Destined for solidity in banking, or insurance, or nuclear physics, anything with logic at its core. Having a crush on a four-legged animal–even one named Carmen, that fiery lady–was outside acceptable parameters. I was, as always, between them, one foot in step with Lucas’s common sense, the other one kicking at the clouds with Ethan.

We had blueberry pie with lemonade. Jack had double helpings of both. I elbowed Lucas. See, he’s eating and drinking with us! Even Peggy had a small bite. We were sated when Jack put his massive keyring on the table.

“There used to be forty keys on this ring,” he said. “There are many more now. Jesus spent forty days in the desert. It rained for forty days in the great Flood. Lent is forty days long. It’s a good number, but I couldn’t stick to it. Too many things happening.”

“You only have twenty-two horses,” Ethan said.

Jack grinned. “Don’t be a smartass. I’m making a point here.” He started slipping the keys off the ring. “These are the usual ones. The house, the barn, the stables, my truck.” He listed them. Machinery. Padlocks. It still left a bunch of unexplained ones. Jack gathered them in a pile. “I could tell you they are the flotsam of life. Accumulated things that I have no use for anymore, that I don’t know what to do with. That I’ve forgotten what they were for. That I keep them because I’m not sure what to do with them and maybe one day they’ll come handy because I’ll find out what they open.” He picked up one shiny and intricate silver key. “This one is for you, Lucas Summerville. I remember when I took it from your aunt Clarissa at the county fair. It opened her jewelry box. She said she kept a lock of my hair in there. It wasn’t gray then, it was as dark as yours. I like this key. I like it more now than I liked Clarissa then. She went to marry that used car salesman in Huntsville. How is she doing?”

Lucas was surprised to be called upon that way. “Uh, I saw her at Thanksgiving dinner. She’s okay I suppose.”

“Well, at least she’s still alive.” Jack picked up a sturdy rusty key from the stack. “This one has a story that could get people in trouble, me among them. It touches you like the brush of a heron feather, Cassie. Do you want to know what it is?”

I didn’t. I felt the eyes of my friends on me, inquisitive. I was trapped, like Ethan with the horse named Carmen, but in a much less pleasurable way.

“Will it hurt, Mr. Oliver?” I said.

“Hurt you, sweetie? Maybe a little. The people you love? It could complicate their lives.”

“Then put the key away, sir.”

He nodded and pushed the key aside. He didn’t put it back on the ring. He pulled another one from the pile, a long, flat piece of metal unlike any key I had ever seen.

“It opens a cash box. You know what that is, Ethan?”

“I’ve seen movies. That’s where people keep their jewelry, fake passports, and running away money.”

Jack walked the key across his fingers. We watched, rapt. He was good. “There was nothing glamorous in that box, Ethan. Only pain and heartbreak. Connor had the other key. Your father, my best friend.”

Ethan pushed his chair away from the table. “My dad is dead.” He stood up. “What does he have to do with all this?”

“You don’t remember him, do you? He was charming and quick to light up, like you. He had a gift for friendship.” Jack shot a glance my way. “He passed that down to you, looks like. With a few other things.” He put the key on the table, among the pie crumbs and the sticky silverware. His head was down and his clear eyes were as glossy as the silver tooth had been. He blinked.

“You say you were his friend,” Ethan said. “I know what people say about my dad. They say it to my face. He was a drunk. He got into fights. He couldn’t hold a job.” His voice broke. “He was a gambler and a thief. He should have been locked up. Connor Maher. Wild, dangerous. We all are. The entire family is garbage.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “We don’t have friends.”

I hated when Ethan was like that, stiff from the anger he worked hard to keep inside. It was exhausting. For both of us.

Jack shook his head. “That isn’t true. There is so much being said around you that isn’t true. Your father upset people that he should have stayed away from. He also loved where he shouldn’t have. I warned him, and he didn’t listen. Will you listen to me, Ethan?”

“You’re nothing to me.”

I reached for him and pulled him close. He resisted at first, then leaned over my chair, with my arm around his waist.

“Listen to him,” I said. “He made Carmen healthy again.”

Ethan was tense as a bow string. “I’m no fucking horse.”

My eyes locked with Jack’s. “It isn’t the same,” I said, although it kinda was. “His keys are history, memory, something like that.”

Ethan seethed. “And why is he telling us? People don’t do things out of the kindness of their hearts. That’s Bible bullshit!” He tried to pull away from me and I held tight.

Jack Oliver swiped his loose keys and strung them back on the rings. “Good point.”

Ethan unhooked my arm, gently, and walked to the window. He spoke with his back to us. “I don’t need more bad memories.”

“What about truth?” Jack said. “Lucas, would you mind taking Peggy for a walk? She likes the barn. There’s always a mouse or two that she can go after.”

Lucas sniffled. “I’m no dummy, Mr. Oliver. You want me out of here. You don’t want me to hear what you’re going to say to Ethan. I get it. What about Cassie?”

“She has a stake in the story. She can stay or go with you. It’s her choice.”

“I’ll stay,” I said.

We waited in silence until Lucas was off the porch with Peggy at his side. I was sorry for him. It stung to be excluded.

#

“There were family papers and a bracelet that belonged to your mom in that cash box, son,” Jack said. “I didn’t touch any of that, but I took the letters. I burned them. Connor was dead and there was vicious talk all around town. There was no need for more.”

Ethan snickered. “You didn’t burn enough. Dad’s been dead ten years and people are still jabbering.”

His head dropped. I was hurting for him. I wanted to get him out of there.

“We’re cheap entertainment,” Ethan said.

“For a few years after your mom passed, Connor couldn’t find his bearings,” Jack said. “He loved her like he did everything, no brakes, never. He wasn’t bad, Ethan, but he was damn unlucky, and people took advantage of him. When they didn’t blame him for all the nasty stuff his brothers and cousins did. I told him to pack the truck, take you, and get out of here. He was going to when he met Mina, and I knew there would be no happy ending.”

Mina.

My heart did a jump and raced. I heard its beat in my ears and I couldn’t find my breath.

“Cassie?”

I heard Ethan’s voice through the wad of cotton that stoppered my ears. Jack’s rough hand grabbed mine so hard it was painful.

“Pour her a glass of lemonade, son,” Jack said. He pressed the cold glass against my lips, pushing my head back. I drank a little and it made me feel better.

“What happened?” Ethan said.

“She asked if it would hurt, when I pulled out her key,” Jack said. “I’m an idiot. Wanting to show off to you kids. Show you how cool I am, with my collection of secrets hanging from my belt.”

I drank the rest of the lemonade. Jack had said the story touched me like a heron feather, it was more like the swipe of a vulture’s wing. “My mom’s name is Mina,” I said.

Ethan slid a chair close to mine, and took my hand. “My dad knew your mom?” He was in awe, a smile in his eyes.

Jack leaned on the table. “I saw it happen. They were both in pain, and they helped each other. Connor stopped drinking himself stupid. Mina smiled again. That was good. I could see the good they were doing to each other.”

I wiped the dew off the lemonade glass. The darkness of the bird wings was still on me. Jack said it would hurt. Ethan’s smile hurt. Something was coming, I didn’t know what, but I didn’t want him to hear it.

It was too late to stop, however. Jack had already said too much.

“I warned them to be careful,” Jack said. “Your father was a hard man, Cassie. Jealous, vindictive. He wanted his wife at his feet and he used his fists to keep her there.”

It knocked the breath out of me again. Words that hit like my father’s fists.

“He beat Cassie’s mom?” Ethan said. He had turned pale under the tan.

Jack looked away. “There are others like him. Too many.”

“Tell me, please,” I said.

Jack’s voice was low. “One night, he dragged Mina to the toolshed to teach her how to behave. From what I gathered, he didn’t want the noise to wake you up. You were little. Connor learned about it the next day. He was enraged. He went to take Mina and you away. There was a fight in the shed. Connor shot your dad, Cassie. He said it was self-defense and maybe I believe him. I helped Connor that night. We made up a story, that your parents fought and your dad got in the car and left.”

Nobody talked for the longest time.

“I’m sorry,” Ethan said.

I bristled. My nerves were raw. “It has nothing to do with you. Would Ethan’s dad have married my mom, Mr. Oliver?”

“Except for the little complication that your father is supposed to be still alive. They would have managed, I suppose.”

“It didn’t happen,” Ethan said. “Is that why you said my dad was unlucky?”

Jack nodded. “One piece of bad luck among many others. Bad decisions too. He wanted to get out from under his gambling debt. He went to pay what he could and try to negotiate the rest. The guys got rough and knocked him around. He should have called me and I’d have come get him. I suppose he didn’t want to show these goons they’d gotten to him. He managed to get to his truck and drive away. He must have passed out from the beating. He slammed into a telephone pole.”

Ethan put an arm around my shoulders. I wanted to cry and I couldn’t. I thought of Mom, and how much heartbreak she went through. An echo of Ethan’s anger rang inside me. I understood him. Oh how I understood …

“The key you showed me,” I said. “Was it for the toolshed?”

“Your mom tore the thing down and burned the boards. That must have felt good.”

Jack portioned off the rest of the blueberry pie. “I’d give it to you to take home but your folks would ask where you got it.” He stood up and went to the door. “Your friend must be bored solid by now.” He blew a long and loud whistle.

A few seconds later, Peggy came running, with Lucas trying to keep up.

“How much do you pay for the stable work, sir?” Ethan said.

He gave my shoulder a little squeeze. I was so wound up I could scream.

“How about eight dollars an hour, and I throw in the riding lessons? Now, once you know how to handle yourself on a horse, you can help with the customers. That’s extra pay and there are tips. What about you, Cassie, wanna give it a try?”

His voice was soothing as a summer rain. “I’ll think about it. I wouldn’t mind the lessons. Once Ethan is good enough, I mean.”

“Smart girlfriend you got there, son. She’s roped you in, all right.” Jack fiddled with the key ring again and extracted the flat cash box key. “Take it.”

Ethan reached for it and then pulled his hand away. “You keep it, sir. They’re your memories. I’ll make my own.”




M.E. Proctor is currently working on a series of contemporary detective novels. The first book in the series will come from TouchPoint Press in 2023. Her short stories have been published in Mystery Tribune, Shotgun Honey, Pulp Modern, Bristol Noir, Vautrin and others. She lives in Livingston, Texas.


bottom of page