The Secret Key
I lift the lid of the coffin, which is not much more than a bare wooden crate, and retch. The smell of decomposition is horrific.
For my task, the timing is perfect. Dawn’s twilight provides light, while in my hole, lingering darkness spares me from viewing the details. I’d rather remember Uncle Patricio as a living man.
Bunching my shirt front up in my fist and jamming it against my nose, I lean forward and reach for my uncle’s neck area. I touch something that gives way and retract my arm with such force my back slams into the wet earth behind me.
I try again. Tense and cringing, I work the shirt collar and get inside. I can’t find it!
Wait. There. The thick chain. I curl my fingers around it, slide it around, find the clasp, and ease it out. Yes. I have everything—the chain and the kite-shaped box. I dangle them before my face, not looking too closely at what coats them.
I drop the coffin lid and climb out, panting from excitement, sucking clean, morning-sweet air. The day is brightening rapidly and I cannot leave the grave exposed, even for a day. This took longer than I had intended.
But I have one option. It’s Saturday—no school. Saturday is my roaming day. So let’s say I started kind of early today—before Mamá woke up. Plausible enough. This should buy me a bunch of hours before I have to show up at home. And I’ll take the licking for messing up my clothes and only shoes if I can’t get them clean enough in the stream.
Feeling much calmer now that I have a new plan, I lay my uncle’s chain out in the grass and set to work filling in the hole I dug. Thankfully, it is much easier shoving the dirt back than excavating it.
When the job is done, I smooth out the ground and try to clean up around the site. This grave is on the far side of the cemetery from town and secluded among the trees, making it less likely someone would get close enough to see anything amiss. But I’d best leave quickly before I’m spotted.
“Rest in peace, mi tío,” I say aloud, as if this will absolve me of the act I’d just perpetrated.
I drink the last of my water, but it is nowhere near enough. I am also famished and eat some of my stowed food, but I know better than to consume it all. Depending on what I discover in the iron box, there may be more outings.
I hide everything, wrap the chain in cloth, and take the back route out of the area, through the trees that line the outer rim of the cemetery. Once in the woods, I can clean up in the stream and wash the chain. I can’t wait to open this box, but I fear it will take some doing. I haven’t discovered how to do it yet.
I’m sunning myself on a rock by the stream, drying out my clothes and shoes, shivering a little in the fall chill. I’m far enough out for the other village boys not to find me. This is something I must do alone.
The kite-shaped box is clean, and I see what looks like a lid on a hinge, but there is no clasp and I can’t pop it open. It’s heavy. When I shake it, there is barely perceptible movement inside. I am certain some loose object lies within.
I reach into my pants for my pocket knife and pull out the blade. The sharp edge is just thin enough to wedge between the lid of the box and the bottom casing. Knowing I’ll damage my knife, I twist and pry . . . twist and pry . . . turn the blade, shove the point deeper . . . wrench it and . . .
The lid pops and an object sails over my knee in an arc, landing in the grass.
I blink, reach for it with my right hand, bring it close to my face.
The black iron box lies open in my left hand—empty. I examine the inside to be certain, then place it beside me on the rock.
I look back to the key. An old-fashioned silver key, oxidized to nearly black, with a cylindrical shaft. I bring it close to my face. A word is written along its shaft: MINE.
Mine? As in, not yours?
I polish the shaft with my shirt. Wait. There’s more. MINE4.
I tilt my head, examining it from different angles. I stare out at the ripples glistening on the water’s surface, the rocks, the trees. I take in the bubbling of the stream, the swishing of the breeze in the grasses.
What is so oddly familiar about MINE4?
Mine . . . four. Mine number four. Mineshaft Four.
The abandoned mine. Could it be?
It’s a long way out. Closed for years. Dangerous. Haunted even, according to some accounts.
What could possibly be of interest in Mineshaft Four?
Better question: How do I get there?