The boy sat on the hood of an old Chrysler, his legs dangling, swinging back and forth without making a sound. He was five, maybe six, with long hair, that uncertain blond that some kids wear until their hair changes into whatever color nature really had in mind. Around his neck he wore a necklace of keys – car keys, strung on a piece of string as dirty as his lip where the snot and grime clung to it. At first, I thought he was one of Carl’s nephews, or a grandson, perhaps, come to play among the rusted out cars. Then again, no. He may be a just as dirty, but there the resemblance ended.
“Should you be here?” I asked.
The boy shook his head, not with guilt or rebellion, but a kind of scared resignation.
“What are you doing here?”
He slipped a finger inside the string and shook the necklace. The keys had an odd sound, clicked and knocked against each other like old bones. I could imagine him on his treasure hunt, flipping down visors or peering up under rusting fenders to look for those little magnetic boxes where people keep their spare keys. An odd hobby, but no odder than mine
I haunt the salvage yards like Maggie haunts retirement homes, and for the same reason, I guess — some vain hope of keeping the past alive. I restore old cars, she collects stories of times and ways almost forgotten. So many things change as we get older. Whether it’s the world or us, I’m not really sure, but the changes pile up and sometimes we have to dig down, find something we recognize, before we drown. Maybe this kid and I had something in common after all – both of us scavengers.
“Why keys?” I asked.
“You need keys to get out.” He said, in a voice so faint I couldn’t tell if it was real or not.
“If you get locked in, or something.” He added, almost as if I hadn’t understood what he meant.
“Are you afraid of being locked in somewhere?”
“It’s happened before,” he said, and was gone before I could ask what he meant.
I shrugged and continued on my own search for the ’78 Mustang Carl swore was sitting in the back of the lot ‘somewhere’.
“Couldn’t bring myself to crush it,” he said. “Hardly a scratch on it when it came in here. Damned if I know why they junked it.”
“And you just let it sit there?” I asked, scarcely believing he’d let a classic sit there all these years. It wasn’t like he didn’t know how much the parts were worth.
“Tell the truth,” he said, “By the time it was worth anything I’d forgotten I had it.” He grinned, a missing eye tooth drawing my eye like a magnet. “Besides, I don’t like to go back there much.”
Something in his voice told me there was no point in asking him to show me the way.
Now I was beginning to wish I’d at least asked. The heat buzzed like the cicadas in the grass, reflected off the piles of rusting car bodies with a palpable pressure. I pulled off my baseball cap and ran my fingers through my hair. They came away wet with sweat. Hard to tell which way to go in this labyrinth. In the end I picked a direction that looked like it headed toward a small clump of trees. If nothing else, I could sit in the shade for a while. I never reached the trees.
The rutted path I was following veered away, taking me deeper into the heat, and before long I realized I was pretty much lost. I was about to turn around and try to retrace my steps when I heard something jingle.
“You’re pretty far back.” He said. “Most folks don’t come this far.”
“I’m looking for an old Mustang.” I said. “Carl said it was back here somewhere. You know what a Mustang looks like?”
“Yeah.” He said, his voice suddenly harder than a kid his age had any right to.
“I’ll give you five bucks to help me find it.”
He said nothing, which was kind of spooky. You hardly ever met a kid these days that isn’t on the lookout for money.
“Maybe the keys are still in it,” I said, hopefully.
“Nope, they ain’t.”
Well, progress, at least. He knew where it was, anyway, probably had the keys to it dangling around his neck.
“Can you at least tell me how to get to it?” I asked.
A grin broke out on his face. “Keep going straight, past the old red dump truck, then turn left.” And then he was gone again.
I almost missed it, but it was right where he said it was, and I could see how Carl had forgotten about it. Bittersweet had grown up around and over it, the bright red berries scattered about like a shower of sparks.
It wasn’t easy, but I pulled some of the vines back and managed to get the passenger side door open enough to peer inside. I was after the steering wheel, and this one was perfect, even the leather wrapping seemed in good shape. As I wormed my way into the dark, musty interior, cool air washed against my skin.
I don’t think I fell asleep, but I guess I was more tired than I thought. I was lying across the seats, trying to catch my breath now that I had some relief from the heat, and the next thing I knew it was dark.
My watch told me it was only about five, so it wasn’t night yet and it was then that I realized the door was closed. I kicked at it, but it wouldn’t budge. There was a dull thump of my foot followed by the soft jingling of keys.
I knew he was in there with me, even before I managed to get my Zippo out and light it. He stared at me from the back seat, the dirt on his face blending with the shadows. I wouldn’t have been sure he was there at all if it wasn’t for the fact that he kept swinging that necklace of keys back and forth, an oddly shy expression on his face, as if he’d gotten something he wanted.
I was stuck half way between anger and fear. I was sure he’d locked us in here, but I didn’t yell, just kept kicking at the door in frustration.
“How do we get out of here?” I asked, finally.
“You gotta have keys.” He said, an undertone of fear creeping into his voice.
“Not if you’re inside,” I said and turning around in the seat, trying to get at the door locks. “You just have to pull on the little button that sticks up.”
“No, you have to have keys!”, he insisted.
I managed to get my fingers around one of the locks, but it wouldn’t budge. Ten minutes later I’d managed to twist around and try the others, but they were stuck fast too, almost as if they were rusted in place.
“Did you shut the door?” I asked. “I promise I won’t get angry.”
He just shook his head.
“How did you get in?” I asked.
“Been in here all the time,” he said and faded away.
When the impossible happens, there is a moment of sanity supported by disbelief, but it fades. When all the rational explanations are gone, only the impossible thing is left and, as Sherlock Holmes put it, it has to be true.
I twisted around, hoping I could see some other way out of the car. A rust hole, a broken window, anything. But there was only the back seat and a small bundle wrapped in a blanket on the floor. I reached out to pull the blanket away, but the lighter was running out of fluid. It guttered a moment, then went out leaving me in the dark again.
It doesn’t matter, though. I know what’s under the blanket.