Turnkey’s House

Spec the Halls Contest Entry

This story is a part of the Spec the Halls contest for speculative winter holiday-themed fiction, artwork, and poetry. You may find guidelines and links to other entries at http://www.specthehalls.com. Also check out http://alliterationink.com.

 

 

 

Turnkey’s House

By Jon C. Forisha

 

“Okay,” Shane said as he flipped the switch on the kids’ XBOX, “time for reality.”

“But in reality I can’t beat them as badly as I just was,” Kyle protested, looking as flustered as every other time that his father had turned off his console mid-game.

“You’ll live to race another day,” Shane said with a sardonic smile.

“It wasn’t even a race,” Peter muttered.

“Hey,” Paul said from the doorway. “I think we all need to savor some of the holiday goodness that we have right here in the real world. Especially you,” he added, raising his eyebrows at his only son Peter, who rolled his eyes in response.

“When’s the last time we were all gathered here like this?” Shane said. “It’s been quite a while since Uncle Paul could make it down.”

Shane and Paul were only three years apart but Shane had managed to reproduce at thrice the rate of his elder brother. Paul’s mutual divorce years earlier had made getting together for the holidays an almost impossible feat.

“Has your dad ever told you about the time that he saw Santa Claus?” Paul asked Shane’s three red-headed children. They shook their heads in unison. “Oh, he didn’t?”

“That was a long time ago, we don’t need to get into that,” Shane said.

“I think they need to hear this. They’re at the right age now,” Paul said with a grin.

“Can we hear it, please?” Kyle said in his shrill voice.

“Without games, at least entertain us somehow,” Shane’s youngest, Kathryn, said.

Shane looked to Charlie, his middle kid, who wore his usual expression – a look of complete patience that would have looked natural on the countenance of a very old man. Shane had thought over the details of his story many times in the years since it had happened, but he’d never imagined telling his children when they were all still so young.

“Okay, okay.” Shane moved to the ottoman and sat down, rubbing his hands together in front of him. He looked good for forty-five and wore the gray in his stubble with pride. He ran a hand through his hair and, just as Peter started to protest, he began his story.

*

When we were growing up, Paul and I, there was this old man that lived down the street. No one ever saw him much but he was religious about putting up decorations for every holiday. His name was Martin Turnkey, but we all just called him Turnkey on account of we never knew anyone else with the name.

No matter what holiday it was – Veteran’s Day or Valentine’s Day or the Fourth of July or Easter – he would decorate his house. And it wasn’t just throwing up a turkey flag for Thanksgiving or putting a pumpkin on the doorstep for Halloween – he would go all out. He had the first fully-synchronized light and music show that I ever saw, and it was just for Columbus Day.

His house was a sight to see. Paul and I would always stand across the street and watch Turnkey pull all of his decorations out – we never knew where he stored them when they weren’t out – and then he’d spend whole days setting them up and getting the arrangement just right. And even then they never seemed to please him. He would change the layout almost every day, deciding that the turkey looked better on that side of the pilgrim, or that the ghosts would logically be coming from the attic window and not from the side yard.

But the holiday he went the absolute craziest for was Christmas.

His love of decorating was so infectious that everyone on our block seemed to step it up when they saw old man Turnkey out there. He always looked like he was about to keel over, but he would keep at it for longer than anyone else, probably on account of his being retired. Even mom went out and bought a bunch of Christmas decorations to compete with him, but she was never even in the same league. He was just too fanatic to be outdone.

One year, I was just shy of getting my driver’s permit and the holidays were approaching. Paul, if you can believe it, didn’t bother to get his own permit until he was nearly eighteen, so neither of us could drive yet. We needed a way to get around, and that was how I met Chloe Thomas.

*

“Oh how you were in love with that girl,” Paul interrupted, drawing an exasperated sigh from his brother.

“You loved someone before mom?” Kyle said. He sat upright, completely at attention. All of the children loved Shane’s stories almost as much as Shane loved telling them, and as the cold wind sent the naked branches to rattle against the window outside, Shane couldn’t have asked for a better storytelling setting.

“I didn’t actually love her,” Shane said with an accusatory glance at Paul, “but she’s a different story. Anyway, let me continue.”

*

Chloe Thomas was a year older than me, a fact that intimidated me to no end. She was sweet, though, and, more importantly, could drive Paul and I around. I’d met her on Halloween and we’d gradually gotten closer after that, to the point that I would hang outside of her house; boys, don’t do that; it’s creepy and no girl likes it unless you’re John Cusack and you have a boombox. I look forward to the day you understand that reference.

Anyway, Chloe never brushed me off or showed any signs of being annoyed with me – though, looking back, I’m not so sure she ever liked me much either. Point being, Chloe drove us around and she became a really close friend. She was a bit of a daredevil, and whenever she and Paul were together, bad things tended to happen. I’m not going to tell precisely what kinds of things, but some day, when I’m wheezing on my death bed, I may divulge those secrets.

Thanksgiving flew by and Turnkey’s decorations weren’t quite up to snuff. He still had the most elaborately-decorated house on the block, and, probably, in the city, but something seemed different. He was only out there every three or four days to change around his arrangement, and each time he seemed to move slower, as if his love for decorating was waning.

Since we lived so close to him, we would check on his house constantly, and as the weeks leading up to Christmas fell away, we started to get worried. Our father had put out Christmas lights on the 15th of December and even Mrs. Dorris three streets over had bothered to hang an angel on her chimney.

But Turnkey had nothing.

His house, sprawling and extravagant, just sat there unadorned on the days leading up to Christmas. It had this great brick fence that stretched all around the property and Turnkey used to love to prop things all over it, skeletons and such, and it was always a delight for us to pass by and see what he’d done to the place. There was only so much you could see from afar.

The day before Christmas Eve, Chloe and I went to walk my dog, Cabal. I still remember what we were wearing. She had this white skirt on, a kind of green ruffled top, and I had these torn jeans I think I spent half my childhood in. Without even speaking it aloud, we both headed for Turnkey’s place, Cabal tromping along ahead of us as if he knew exactly what we were up to. We stopped in front of the house and just stared.

It was dark and very cold, and we were both shivering, but neither of us wanted to move from that spot. Turnkey’s house had always had a certain magic to it, and I’m sure some of it came from the fact that none of us had ever seen the inside of it. When any of the kids came by selling Girl Scout cookies or Boy Scout popcorn, Turnkey would open the door every so slightly, and if he was interested in buying, he would walk all the way around, coming out the side yard.

We all imagined the house was just like the decorations – a sort of portal into a land in which Halloween didn’t stop with the costume you wore and Thanksgiving wasn’t just about eating food. We’d all pictured the inside of Turnkey’s to be the ultimate in seasonal decorations – so decorative, we posited, that the house itself became the reason to celebrate. It was a common topic amongst us growing up. We would always discuss how we imagined his living room to look, or what it was we thought he did for fun.

Chloe and I stood there with Cabal, peering into every window in the hopes that we might catch a glimpse of the old man inside. If he didn’t want to decorate for Christmas that year, that was fine; but to quit decorating altogether would remove a certain festivity that we felt we couldn’t live without.

I don’t know how long we stood there, but I do remember that Turnkey never showed up, and once Cabal peed for the third time and gave us a pleading look to get the walk on its way, Chloe surprised me. She turned to face me, a beaming smile lighting up her face. She was a pretty girl but I was way too terrified of our age difference to ever admit it to her.

“Let’s go inside,” she said.

She looked completely serious and her smile made it evident just how great an adventure she expected the proposed excursion to be. She’d never participated as thoroughly as the rest of us whenever we hypothesized what Turnkey’s interiors looked like, but in that moment I realized she was every bit as curious as I was. The difference was that there was no way I was going to sneak into the old man’s house.

When we returned to my house after a short walk with a thoroughly discontented Cabal, Chloe immediately ran inside to retrieve Paul. She knew that their combined mischievous inclinations would overcome my general timidity, and she was always right. Thirty minutes later the three of us were standing on Turnkey’s doorstep peering in the windows of the darkened house. It was so dark, in fact, that I half-believed the old man had covered the windows with some kind of paper. It didn’t seem such an uncharacteristic thing for him to do.

After a few fruitless attempts to try to catch a glimpse of the living room, Paul moved around the side of the house, to that mysterious side yard. The side yard was the only place Turnkey was ever seen exiting or entering, and so naturally we all began to assume that his yard was where he kept his plethora of decorations. The possibility of stumbling upon the storage place of Turnkey’s iconic collection was too exciting a prospect even for me to resist, and it wasn’t long before all three of us were at the gate, pulling on it to no avail.

“I’ll hop the fence,” Chloe said.

“No way,” I said on instinct. “You could hurt yourself.”

“Well, I’ll look before jumping down.”

“I know, but still. What if he’s got a dog back there or something?”

“No one’s ever seen Turnkey with a dog. Plus do you hear one now?” Paul asked.

I finally caved. It took Chloe only a few short seconds to bound over that fence. Paul and I waited, holding our breath, with our ears up against the fence in the hope of hearing her almost-assured gasp of pleased surprise. Instead we heard the click of the latch on the gate being lifted up, and it was with wide eyes that we pulled back the gate and stepped for the first time into Turnkey’s yard.

“Nothing’s here,” Chloe said, and she was right. The entire yard was empty. The shrubs against the back fence were dead and the grass was splotchy, and there was no sign of a single decoration, not even one for Labor Day.

Paul didn’t seem phased and immediately made his way to the back door. I tried to stop him, shouting things like, “What if he’s in there?” and “This is so illegal!” but there was no dissuading him. It was almost funny how easily the door opened once he touched the handle, unlatching itself and falling inward to allow the three of us entrance to Turnkey’s fabled house.

“See?” Paul said to me, as if he’d just proven me wrong.

I didn’t care, though, because even though we could only see a portion of Turnkey’s kitchen through the sliver of opened door, that portion revealed that the inside of that home had a very different climate than the yard.

It was a warm winter that year, probably around 40 degrees on that particular day, but inside that house it was snowing.

Once we all noticed, we gravitated towards the door as if caught on a lure. We nudged the door open, and as it fell back, squealing in protest, the entire snowy kitchen was revealed. Flakes were falling from the ceiling, just appearing from nowhere and tumbling down, carefree as could be. There must have been a foot of snow all over that house.

The three of us waded from room to room, mouths agape, trying to figure out how it was possible. We weren’t dressed for that weather but somehow it didn’t bother us. The spectacle of the snowy house was enough to keep us from thinking about our own discomfort. We must have been inside for fifteen minutes before Paul threw the first snowball.

It hit me in the eye, but the snow was the perfect consistency – pure powder – and it exploded harmlessly over my face, a somewhat pleasant splash of cold, in addition to being a formal declaration of war.

The rest of that day was spent rolling around in that snow, throwing snowballs at one another and taking turns tackling and being tackled. We were rough in there, and we were loud, but Turnkey never showed up. We played in there all day, and the snow just kept falling down at the same speed and consistency that it had when we came in. It was our own Winter Wonderland, a perfectly white Christmas contained in a home.

It was pretty late when we heard our mom yelling for us out in the street. She couldn’t see inside Turnkey’s place and of course that would be the last place to look for us, but it was in that moment that I realized such was our surprise and elation at gaining entrance to the Cathedral of Decorations that we hadn’t even shut the gate behind us.

“We have to go,” I said, suddenly urgent.

“Oh, relax,” Chloe said, halfheartedly tossing a snowball at me.

“The gate. Mom can see the gate!”

Paul jumped into motion and the three of us scurried through the snow, around the table we’d knocked over and right past the bowls that had become our snowball holders. We tried to open the garage door but it was frozen shut. Really, just completely frozen. So then Paul started running to the back yard, and we both followed because we were all terrified of my mother not only learning we’d broken into Turnkey’s home but that it was somehow, inexplicably, snowing inside. It was as if her knowing about its impossibly arctic climate would somehow make it less magical, less fun. We feared the adult tendency to put an answer to the question.

The three of us jumped over the fence and landed in the alley right behind Turnkey’s place, on the other side of his house from where our mother was shouting for us. We ran down the street a bit and wove through two houses, thinking to pop out and say we had just been gallivanting around the neighborhood – which was, more or less, true. Just before coming out into the open I grabbed Paul’s arm.

“Wait,” I said, “you’ve still got some snow on you.”

The three of us stood there and brushed ourselves off, creating tiny snowpiles at our feet – piles that quickly began to melt away, powerless when removed from their magical biome. A little bit of snow fell into my shoe but I left it as we ran out to meet our hysterical mother. We calmed her down and Chloe hurried home. When we all went back inside, Paul and I had had enough time to formulate our alibis and we laid it out so beautifully that she bought it all.

As a side note, you kids aren’t allowed to ever do that, and if you do you’ll be caught, because Paul and I have very acute senses of smell and can sniff out lies better than most dogs can find cookies.

Finally placated, our mother went to bed and Paul and I returned to our shared bedroom. We talked about Turnkey’s place for hours, just discussing how it was that a thing like that could even happen, and then we both fell silent and escaped into our own fantastical explanations for all of it. Turnkey was a magician – that much was clear – and we felt that he had finally expired, had finally done what would have led to death were he a mere human. He wasn’t, though, and that’s why when he died, his magic was spread throughout his house. It was a spotty explanation at best, but dreaming is what you do when you’re young and it put a smile on my face as I drifted away into sleep that night.

That and the fact that I had reached into my discarded shoes and found that a small piece of snow had managed to survive the walk back home. I clutched the melting thing to my chest as I fell asleep, not even minding that it was drenching me and my bed, because it symbolized things greater than comfort and warmth. To me that melting piece of snow represented all the mysteries in the world and all of the magical and unlikely events that I would ever be lucky enough to come across.

In that moment that little bit of condensation was the proof I needed that not only could ceilings snow but that believing in something hard enough, as Turnkey had believed in his decorations, could be  literally and physically transformative.

And that, my children, is the Tale of Turnkey.

*

The kids stared at Shane as he spoke the final words of his story, their eyes having been widened to their greatest possible diameter since he first told of entering Turnkey’s yard. The spell he had put on them wore off very gradually, with each of them looking around as if they’d just been awoken from a deep sleep. No one spoke for a few moments, and when Shane looked to Paul, he noticed his brother looked a bit disappointed.

“Okay, little ones,” Paul said, clapping his hands together. “I think with that it’s time for bed.”

“But what happened next?” Kyle blurted.

“They, uh, tore down the place,” Paul said. “And no, they never found anything inside.”

Peter frowned and said, “You made it up.”

“Why would I have done that?” Shane asked.

“Because it was a good story!” Peter said.

“If it is made up, does it make it any less of a good story?” Paul asked.

“I don’t know,” Peter mumbled.

“No,” Charlie said enthusiastically. He had sat and absorbed the story during its whole duration, his face betraying not a single emotion.

“Well there you go,” Paul said. “Now, Katy and your grandparents will be here first thing in the morning and you kids need some good sleep so you can be well-behaved for them.”

“I wish it would snow in here,” Kyle said, looking up at the ceiling.

“Me too, buddy,” Shane said, ushering his children to their beds.

Once they were all tucked in, Shane did his best to quickly answer the questions that had inevitably risen as a result of his story. He should have known better than to try and let the magic of the narrative stand on its own; his children demanded answers in a way that he was all too familiar with.

Everyone else asleep or on their way to sleep, Shane joined his brother again in the living room.

“I get why you didn’t tell the real ending,” Paul said, “but it would have given a sense of closure to the whole thing.”

“It opens up too many other questions,” Shane said. “Plus can you imagine what Kathryn would have thought? I probably terrified her already, thinking about her dad and uncle breaking into old mens’ homes.”

“Some day when they’re all older they’ll ask about that story again,” Paul said.

“And then I might tell them the ending. If they promise not to call me a liar.”

“They might,” Paul said with a shrug. “But it was hard for all of us to believe it the first time.” He stood up and clapped a hand on Shane’s shoulder. “See you in the morning.”

As Paul walked to his bedroom and shut the door, Shane was left alone in the lamp-lit living room. He still remembered the feeling of that snow on his chest, drifting to sleep on that strangest of nights.

*

What he remembered even more vividly, however, was how he and Paul had met up with Chloe the next day, on that lethargic afternoon of Christmas Eve, and how they’d gone right back to Turnkey’s house as if there was no other option. Thinking back, Shane felt fairly certain that there hadn’t been.

The snow was still drifting down from the ceiling and their footprints from the day before had long since been covered. Each of the three of them had independently had the same question the previous night: why had they not gone upstairs?

There was a set of stairs attached to the kitchen and another one closer to the front door. Neither was too snowy to climb and it seemed odd that they would play for hours in another man’s home without ever bothering to scope out all of the rooms. Turnkey could have been in his bedroom upstairs the entire time they were there, or he could have been terrified of intruders, clutching his phone, ready to call the police. The real reason they hadn’t gone up there, though, was because they feared what they would find.

And so their fears were confirmed when the three of them climbed those creaky steps, each footfall sending little flurries fluttering to the steps below, and walked to the bedroom of old Turnkey, where they found the man himself lying on top of the immaculately-folded sheets of his bed, hands peacefully folded on his lap and his eyes completely open, staring straight up at the ceiling.

The three of them stood there staring at the pale corpse for so long that Shane began to wonder if they would witness its decomposition, but once their bodies caught up with their minds, they each took off in a different direction, screaming and slipping on snow and hitting their elbows and chins on the banisters and walls.

They’d bolted from the house so quickly that a bystander would have thought one of them was on fire, or maybe covered in ants, and once out of the house they never spoke of going back. They did, however, talk about what they’d seen. It had still been snowing upstairs, but in Turnkey’s room it was not. It was as dry in that room as it was in his yard, and even though the rest of the house appeared to be intent on creating its own avalanche, Turnkey’s resting place remained solely his.

The next day, on Christmas Day, Shane couldn’t stop thinking about what he’d seen. In a move so unlike him that it almost made sense during that rebellious era of his youth, he went back to Turnkey’s house. He stood in the backyard alone, just staring up at the house, trying to figure out which window was the bedroom. What he saw sent chills down his spine even though he’d been wearing the thick coat his father had given him just that morning.

A figure stood in the window, facing away from Shane – presumably facing the bed and Turnkey – and it wore a red velvet coat. White fur adorned the figure’s coat, and as Shane watched in confusion, the figure seemed to sense that he was there. Shane stood, transfixed, and watched as the only person more mythical around Christmastime than Turnkey turned to look him dead in the eye. And then the figure took off in quite a hurry.

Looking back, Shane found it almost impossible to make sense of his next actions. He bolted for the door to the house, was relieved to find it still unlocked, and ran inside so quickly that he slipped on the snow and fell flat on his back. As he scurried to get back up, he heard other sets of feet also scurrying through the snow. They were coming from the living room, and he audibly heard someone with a deep booming voice say, “Hurry now, he’s close!”

“Hey!” Shane yelled, kicking snow up as he walked toward the voice. “What are you doing in here?”

He came around the corner just as a great thump sounded from the opposite wall. Standing there staring at him were two short men wearing greens and reds, their looks of confusion almost as thorough as Shane’s own. The man from the window stood in the fireplace, only his great boots and red velvet pants visible.

“I’m off!” the man shouted in his booming voice.

With that his boots ascended the fireplace and quickly vanished from view. Contrary to gravity though it was, the act didn’t seem all that strange when considered in the midst of the snowy house. The two short men stopped staring at Shane and jumped into the fireplace at the same time, waving nervously as they too ascended. Shane ran towards them but they were gone by the time he reached them.

Not really believing that any of the strange events had just happened, he was even more awestruck when the snowflakes suddenly grew smaller and then stopped altogether. He had to look upstairs just to confirm what he already knew was true: Turnkey was gone. Only the impression of his corpse on the bed remained.

Shane had told the story in several variations and in varying degrees of excitement and sobriety to various friends over the years, but the only ones that ever truly believed him were Paul and Chloe. Shane figured it would still be quite some time before he told his children about it, mostly because he himself hadn’t yet been able to make sense of the events of that Christmas Day.

He’d always thought it very appropriate that his run-in with the denizens of the North Pole should have occurred at the impressionable age of 15, when practically all of his peers were long past the believing stage. It made the event all the more impactful to him, and as he lay awake in his cold bed some thirty years later, he still found it hard to forget the inexplicable comfort that the event had instilled in him.

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~ by Jon C. Forisha on December 17, 2011.

One Response to “Turnkey’s House”

  1. […] hotel room writing a story for a contest. The story was posted on this very blog, and can be found here. The winners will be announced soon and since there only appear to be 8 entries, I’m keeping […]

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