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The Key to Life [Original Story]


Hey everyone! I recently wrote a story for my Creative Writing course and it was met with pretty positive feedback. It got me excited to write again, and that's why I want to start posting in this subforum again. I hope this story leads to many more. Looking forward to reading and writing with all of you!

The Key to Life

The dim ceiling lights came with the hall, rather than the chandeliers she had dreamt of, and the furniture store offered the gold tablecloths instead of the lilac, but otherwise, Cassidy’s wedding was all she could ever want. What nearly cost a fortune for Dennis succeeded in bringing the town together to celebrate a new union. After all, it was not every day for a Pennytown girl to match with a titanium wearer. The ceremony itself carried on like any other, the bride escorted up the dais by her father, in her favorite dress (for Cassidy, a bold, yet stunning red number which complimented her large bosom and blossom red lipstick), then citing her bride’s words, “For he who chances to open this lock, I offer to you my love as firm and rigid as rock,” before raising the lock she was born with above her chin as a gesture of humility. Cassidy inherited her father’s copper, a cheap metal, soon to rust before her thirtieth birthday. The star of this show was Mathis in his black suit which barely covered his long and slender arms. He awoke this morning with an extra oily forehead, it seems, and his teeth were as crooked as in the day they met. But Dennis figured most onlookers stared below his neck, at the shimmering titanium key adorning his chest. In his refined accent, he meekly recited the groom’s words, “No pain nor sickness, nor a towering mountain nor a treacherous sea, can keep me from my betrothed whose love I open with this key.” It is then that the groom extends his key he was born with and forcefully points it downward to symbolize strength. Dennis felt the boy did his best, and concluded the formalities with his words, as all unions are to end, “So shall you promise, so shall it be.” After all, it would be foolish for a copper man to deny a titanium wearer. Now came the moment of truth, where the space between lock and key slowly compressed, not a sound could be heard until… click! The match was made! The key fit into the lock, a new bond forged by foreign metals, sealed with a kiss between the bridegroom, celebrated by cheers and applause. Such is the way all unions are made.

Dennis Harlow knew the reception would be the harder part, especially with all the attention on his family. He tucked his dingy copper key in his tuxedo, a world apart from the checkered bleach-stained shirts that keep him clothed on most Saturday afternoons. The Worthingtons insisted the ceremony be held on a Saturday so that both families could spend brunch with the bridegroom the next morning before they go off to honeymoon. Dennis’ only bargaining chip was to at least keep everything here in Pennytown where Cassidy felt more at home, but truthfully he wanted to minimize the price, which would have served a difficult task if the ceremony were held in the Worthington’s lavish community. He felt powerless in every other decision, but he could not express his contempt, even with Mary’s urging. The Worthingtons were a gift to Pennytown whether the Worthingtons liked it or not. It was with their permission, after all, that young Mathis took a road trip around the country. Surely his family did not expect him to find the lock for his key from some summer tryst with a girl in the rural middle of nowhere. And even though it had been months since the boy’s family had accused Cassidy of tricking the naïve lad with her “warped copper”, Dennis could still feel the sting of it like it was yesterday.

Dennis entered the reception hall well after the other guests. His immediate task following the ceremony was to pick up the cake, since Maggy decided to work past the deadline. It saved everyone a few dollars via the old woman’s “apology discount”, but it also postponed the father-daughter dance until after dessert.

Thankfully, the first to greet him was his dearest Mary, her sandy brown curls packed neatly around her plump, rosy face. She stared worriedly at her husband with those milky brown eyes that enchanted him long ago. “Don’t eat the shrimp,” she warned with that rough inflection she could never shake from her barnyard upbringing. “I can’t tell if they’re undercooked or the caterers just dropped them in the trays straight out of the ocean.”

“Will you be alright?” Dennis muffled under his coarse gray mustache.

“I came to this wedding with two daughters and I’m leaving with just one. Was I ever going to be alright?” Mary cracked a smile. “Can you bring the cake out when it’s time?” Dennis nodded, then Mary sighed. “I think Martha is ‘having words’ with the driver. So I gotta make sure words are the only thing flying around out there. Oh, and please check on Dylan. He’s still blue over the mismatch. I warned that boy it was too soon, but he wanted to tempt fate either way, like a dumb dog chasing a bone over a cliff.” Mary clutched her bulky, jade lock, as she always did when she felt tense. “Try to get along with everyone, Dennis.” She left before he could say a word.

But not without leaving behind the scent of apricot perfume. Was it the same one she wore that night? It was the only thought occupying Dennis’ mind on his way to the table of hors d’oeuvres, but his path may as well have been thirty years into the past. A sweeping auburn mop once covered what is now a naked, itchy scalp. His dull green eyes had once glistened a tempered emerald. And the years had not yet worn out his enthusiasm for living. The son of a smith, the grandson of a smith, and a future rock star: that was what a young Dennis once sought. And in between jobs Dennis would spend his leisure time wooing girls with ballads and card tricks. He had his fair share of women, but none ‘worthy’ to match—that is, until the night a woman from a neighboring town wandered into the local bar, her sandy curls carrying an apricot scent. Dennis was immediately enamored. For the first time, he felt paralyzed by nerves. It was few minutes before he asked her, “You wanna see a card trick?”

“Have you tried the shrimp? It’s delicious!”

Dennis snapped out of his trance when he heard Old Marty Westerling’s question. He did not respond. Instead he reached for the pigs in a blanket, but was met with the adversity of a crowd gathered around his desired appetizer. Gossiping, he was sure of it, and Dennis would rather keep out of it. But his growling stomach overcame his good senses. He pulled his body into the circle of familiar faces, and they welcomed him in. There were the Wangs, who moved to Pennytown from the city when it became clear the housing prices would not hit a ceiling anytime soon. A showy couple, their arms were interlocked, their laughs as radiant as their amethyst lock and key. Both Norton brothers came with their respective wives, one of whom was clearly expecting. Danielle dressed her enormous bump today with a cow print garb as a not so subtle joke, in a wedding of all places, and everyone had just finished expressing their insincere compliments about it.

“And here’s the hero of our town,” said Donnie Fields with a wide grin, a piece of lettuce stuck to his front tooth. “We were talking earlier about the best way to use the Worthingtons’ ‘generous’ donation. I’d like me a nice swimming pool for the kids, but the old missus thinks it should be invested in education, like she’s some aspiring politician.” Maggy Fields chuckled as if on cue. Maybe she is a politician.

“I’m no hero, Donnie,” Dennis replied. “I don’t decide who matches with whom.”

Eddie Wang chimed in, “But you made and raised the daughter who gifted us with this opportunity. I bet the universe had this in mind when they matched you with Mary. Her new fortune would be a great service to the small businesses in this town.”

“And he’s not so bad on the eyes, either,” said Beth Buchanan, then joked, “I wish I were that lucky with my match.” That won her a chorused laughter. The funniest jokes always rang with a hint of truth, and all of Pennytown was aware of her affairs with the mailman and the butcher. And rumor had it Beth now had eyes for the sheriff. Billy Buchanan, as usual, was none the wiser.

“I’m just happy I’ve got my someone for the Unity Dance this time,” said Justin Norton, the younger of the brothers. His wife was on the dance floor with his 6-year-old nephew.

“And I wish the best for you two,” said Ron Kelly. Last Dennis had seen him, he was rushed to the county hospital for alcohol poisoning. And judging by his glass, he fell off the wagon again, assuming he was ever on it. “Some of us older folks can tell you that some matches are less fruitful than others.” Awkward chuckles consumed the group. He could have easily been talking about himself. Poor Sally was easily dealt the worst hand in Pennytown, if you asked anyone, when they had initially thought she was lucky to match with an esteemed lawyer. It wasn’t until Ron’s firing that the town had learned of the drugs and women and stealing. But as Ron had ironically pointed out, some folks are less fortunate than others in this matter. Dennis knew this most of all.

The constant chatter had stolen Dennis’ appetite and he moved back towards the shrimp, which admittedly looked quite appetizing. But he knew better than to fill up completely on finger food now that the main course was provided on the opposite end of the hall. He was not looking when he bumped into, of all people, the alluring Molly D’Angelo.

“Dennis,” she uttered, her warm voice trailing off in the last syllable. A deep purple cocktail dress lined her tight figure. She brushed the exotic, black locks from her face, which looked like it was sculpted by an artist, Dennis imagined. He studied her hazel eyes, shimmering like Dennis’ once had, her small nose he used to nibble in chilly motel rooms under the blankets, and her luscious lips, from which he could still taste the blackberries, all the way down to her bosom, which kept him warm after many an intimate night. Up until the last night, when they almost ran away together.

“Molly, I wasn’t expecting---”

“I was invited by my date,” she nervously explained. “He knows about our history, Den, I told him. But he said he was fine with it. The groom’s family invited him.” She surveyed the grounds of the hall. “It really is a beautiful arrangement. The food is good, too. The shrimp in particular, have you tried it?” She stopped herself, like she always did when she felt she was talking too much. Dennis had always found that adorable. “I’m happy for Cassidy.”

“You said you told him our history.” Dennis was stuck on that thought. He inched closer to Molly and whispered, “How much does he know?”

Her eyes narrowed. “That we have a history, and nothing more. He’s a good man, Den. From a city. A cardiologist like me. We met at a function. He’s good to me.”

“I’m happy for you, Molly. You deserve the best.”

Molly snorted derisively, setting down her drink next to the shrimp, “Do I? Then tell me, Dennis. How long do you think this one will last? He’s already talking about the future. You know, the older I get, the quicker my suitors want to get serious. It’s only a matter of time before he---”

“I know, I know. But like I said, my mind is made up.” Dennis was stern when he told her so the first time, at the villa, far away from Pennytown, when they almost ran away together.

“And you know that I can never stop trying.” She held her lock at the palm of her hand. It was sapphire, a rarity in these parts. “Fate has made that message clear.”

Before Dennis could offer some comfort, he was interrupted by a drunk guest. “DENNIS!” Ron Kelly swung his massive arm around Dennis’ shoulder, who tried to keep the distance between them. “I finally caught up to you. You’re a squirrely one, you know that? Maybe you should quit the hammer work and become a professional thief. They’d never catch you.” He finally noticed Molly in her cocktail dress, and his eyes slowly widened. “Well, well. Who’s this number? The name is Ron Kelly, and it’s your pleasure.” He tried to offer a handshake but then remembered his arm was still grappling Dennis’ neck.

Molly humorlessly grinned. “I should be getting back to my date.”

Even Dennis had a limit to his patience, and so he ultimately told Ron, “Get off me, please.” He tugged the drunkard’s arm until the signal reached his thick skull.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said. “Did you want a piece of that first? I won’t get in your way.” He leaned in, keeping his scotch at a distance. “But let me tell you, Dennis, I bet that girl is the hard-to-get type. Probably not the best choice for your first.”

“My first?”

“You know, your first…” he leaned in closer, “side piece. Second serving. Romantic affair. Hello! Anyone there?” he rubbed his sweaty knuckles on Dennis’ dome until he pulled away, annoyed. “You’re way overdue, Dennis.”

“I love my wife,” Dennis affirmed. “The last thing I want is to hurt her.” Again, he could have said, but, unlike most extramarital tales, Dennis’ remained a tight-lipped secret, and he meant to keep it that way.

Ron sighed heavily, like an apathetic teenager. “Look, Denny—can I call you Denny? —I know you don’t get out much. But I want you to look around. Look at all these hypocrites and leeches who came today, pretending like they care about your insignificant family. Look at the Nortons. I saw one of them at a brothel a few miles from here. Look at Beth, cozying her foot next to Zack McGraw. Look at the Wangs, who act like they’re the best people who ever walked on this dirt-poor town. You think I’ve never fooled around with his missus? Maybe Eddie knows about it; maybe he doesn’t. I don’t care. I’d kiss her right in from of him, right here, and nothing would change. Because, you see this? You see this, Denny?” He pulled his stainless-steel key up to Dennis’ face. “This thing says I can. Because the best thing that can happen to you—to anyone, anywhere—is to find your match. Because what does that mean? It means you’ll never be alone again. It means you have stability. You have a home, with another person. For life. And here’s the thing people don’t get. But I think you will. You’re a smart cookie. Smarter than most smiths I’ve met, I’m betting. When you’ve got everything you ever need, what’s the harm in chasing anything you could ever want? Ever tried cocaine? It’s great. Ever had a threesome? It’s good, even better with cocaine. Now, sure you’ll get hollered at every now and then. But there’s always a solution, if you’re wise enough. You know, Sally’s talking about a third kid, so if I just pop a bun in her oven, I—”

Sally Kelly yanked his arm yards away from Dennis before he could complete that thought. She was visibly fuming, her pimpled face boiling red. Her twin boys cowered behind her, their faces a sickly green. “Do you remember what I told you when I left?”

“Sweetie,” Ron started, swaying like a tree in a storm. “I don’t even remember you leaving.” He tried to take another sip from his scotch, but his betrothed smacked the glass away, letting it shatter on the floor and attracting the party’s attention. “Well, that wasn’t very nice, Sal.”

“Oh, shove it, Ron!” Sally exploded. “I asked you to do one thing! Watch the damn kids. Only until I got back after checking on Mom. You didn’t even have to talk to them. You just had to make sure they weren’t poisoning themselves.”

“Sally, they’re eight years old. The twins can watch each other. You gotta let them be independent or they’re not gonna do anything when they grow up.”

“Yeah, I’d hate for them to end up like their dad. But you’re right, they’re eight—which is why they stuffed themselves with expired candy and now they’re puking nonstop.”

“Well I knew better than that at eight. You’re the one who stares at them every second of the day. You coddle them too much, so they don’t know any better.”

“Someone has to be there for them. Someone has to be the grownup.”

“Well it sure ain’t you, hollerin’ like a damn banshee.”

Sally smacked him so hard, he collapsed like folded paper on the ground. She would not have stopped there if her sister Lucy hadn’t pulled her back. Poor Sally, drowning in her tears, had to be taken aside. They were “dealing” with her, and in the opposite side, they were trying to calm a mad Ron.

Dennis tried to flee the scene when he bumped into Dylan, donning a moth-eaten hoodie over his tux, and holding a vanilla cake over his hands. “You were supposed to take the cake out.”

It took a moment for Dennis to collect his thoughts. “I was caught up in something. Is your mother mad?”

“I don’t know,” he replied with a stone face. Dylan was still in school. Blessed with his mother’s sandy hair, and his father’s green eyes, he attracted many potential mates. But like an impetuous teen, he thought last week was the time to attempt a match with Carla, his first love. Ever since his key could not slip into her lock, a failed insert, Dylan’s innocent, infectious smile had not been seen. “Are you okay? You look kind of off.”

“I’m fine.”

“You didn’t eat the shrimp, did you? Mom said not to.”

“No. I’ve been good today.” Dennis furrowed his brow. “Take off that jacket. It’s your sister’s big day.”

“Lucky her,” he said curtly. “Do you want to set the cake, or should I?”

“You can do it.” They were about to part when Dennis said, “Son, a mismatch is not the end of the world.”

“Dad, I don’t wanna—”

“We’ll talk about it at home.”

“Talk about what?” The scent of apricot stimulated Dennis’ nose once again. He turned around, and found Mary behind him.

“Dylan is still upset about the mismatch.”

“I told you to handle that,” Mary said coldly. “I also told you to handle the cake.”

Dennis was annoyed. “Nothing is ever good enough.”

“Oh, don’t start with that. As long as we’re married, I expect to rely on my husband for things. You think I’m having a picnic? Martha fired the driver and now we’re trying to get a replacement before the reception ends. So are you with me or not?”

Dennis sighed. “You know, Molly is here.”

Mary froze momentarily. “Good for her. Is she with anyone?”

“Some doctor from the city.” Dennis paused. “She said she liked the shrimp.”

“And I said it wasn’t good.”

“I know.”

“So, then, who do you believe?”

“I suppose you,” he leaned in, “as long as we’re still married.”

Mary frowned. “I don’t feel good. And it’s probably the shrimp, like I said.” She started to walk out the door.

“The Bonding Ritual is starting soon,” Dennis told her, but his words fell on deaf ears. The Bonding Ritual was a moment dedicated in every wedding, where everyone lucky to have a match would move to the center of the room, and, for a whole minute, their respective keys and locks would join in union. The crowd already began to gather: the Wangs, the Nortons, the Buchanans, the Fieldses, the Grahams, the McGraws, every couple who was blessed to have found their counterpart, a fate chosen by lock and key, a fate which they obliged to follow unflinchingly…

Everyone except for Sally Kelly. A couple of the girls had to drag her to the center. Her sister had Lucy had taken the kids home early, because she had not found her match yet, and this ritual was too important for anyone to miss. Half the couples were ready to insert. Cassidy and Mathis were on stage, completely in love with each other, giggling over the whole affair. Dennis wondered who between the two of them would wrong the other first. It was Mary who found an affair before Dennis ever did, some silly thing with a banker, quickly forgiven. But when he told her he was willing to give up the kids for Molly, Dennis knew it truly hurt Mary, more than anything in their thirty-year relationship.

Molly was snuggled under her date’s arm. Dennis looked at her until she noticed him, and she stared right back. Tears began to form under her hazel eyes. Her hands trembled, flittering in the air until one of them managed to take hold of her sapphire lock. “Please,” she mouthed at Dennis. She was practically begging. Every other match had already gathered. Dennis was not sure what to do. Thirty years of defying his destiny, of bearing this massive weight, this lie, on his shoulders. What was it all for?

NO!” a cry was heard from the center. Dennis could not make it out at first, but that shrill tone could only belong to Sally Kelly. “I’m not doing this! Not anymore!” Some of the women moved from their husbands and flocked to her, stroking her like a doll, assuring her like a little girl.

And then she said it. “I’m done, Ron! We’re done! I’m taking the kids to my mother’s! You and I are through!”

Only three sounds could be heard: the collective gasp of every man, woman, and child; the furious stomps of Sally’s heels on her way out the door; and the inflammatory exclamations from Ron Kelly following her. The room fell into a panic. First, over the outrageous scene that just occurred. But then, they looked at their spouses. And they thought what this meant. And what this would mean later on. And then they turned to Cassidy, who was crying on Mathis’ shoulder, her wedding ruined. And Martha Worthington stood in the corner, a crooked smile formed on her wicked face.

And suddenly, an epiphany dawned on Dennis Harlow. He left the hall unnoticed, first walking, then sprinting out the building, searching for his car—was it on the far-left row or the one before it? He found it eventually, and Mary in it, sobbing, like she did at every union. Dennis got in the car. He stroked her chin until she looked up, tears collected under her milky brown eyes, the same eyes that stole his love, the same eyes that cried when they first tried to insert.

“Mary, give me your lock.”

“What?” a started Mary asked. “Why?”

Dennis did not answer, but Mary did as what was asked. Now came the moment of truth, where the space between lock and key slowly compressed, not a sound could be heard until… nothing. No click. A mismatch. Just like their first attempt. And the night before they eloped. And the day Cassidy was born. And when Dennis broke it off with Molly.

Only this time, Dennis was ready for it. He opened the compartment and took out his welding hammer, the Harlow family heirloom. And he mashed at the key until it bent and warped and twisted. Until it no longer resembled its former shape. And then he gripped it and squeezed it into the lock until… click!

“What do you think?” Dennis asked his wife with a light, boyish grin.

Mary sniffled. “Works for me.”
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Well this is interesting.

For a start, I love the concept of having a lock or key with you from birth to decide your partner. There are just so many intriguing concepts that can emerge from that - what if you're a man with a lock or a girl with a key? What if someone loses their lock or key? So yeah, I really like that.

Next, I love all the major characters. Dennis and Mary's relationship is fleshed out and flawed, and Ron and Sally's relationship is visibly stormy and thus really interesting. I'm not usually one for more reality-focused fics such as this, but I did find all of these relationships really neat!

I also need to note that your writing style is pretty cool. Yep, that's all I've got to say on that.

Overall, this is a short but sweet original story, and I like it!


Lost but Seeking
Long time, right? Not sure whether you'll return to see this at some point, but hopefully there's a chance.

Had you maybe been reading some dystopian YA fiction before writing this one? ;) This is a neat twist on the traditional "soulmates" setup, focusing not on the start of a relationship between bonded people, but instead on how those relationships can break down, or even be restored, long after the initial meeting happens.

I like the diversity of the characters you have here. Although we see all of them for a brief time, you do a good job of establishing what they're all about in a relatively short amount of time. In particular I think you do a good job with Ron. You do well not only in getting across the "obnoxious drunk" he was at the time, as well as the core of his personality when he isn't intoxicated. And make great use of him as a mouthpiece for exposition about your world without making it seem like an infodump--everything he's saying is infused with his cynicism and self-centered outlook on life.

While I think you do a good job with the characters here, I think there might be a few too many for a story of this length. At the end I was having a little trouble keeping track of all the names, Sally vs Mary vs Molly and so on. There are really four characters that matter a lot here, those being Dennis, Mary, Molly, and Ron, and even that many is kind of a lot for such a short story. Unfortunately I don't have a lot of ideas for streamlining it; there's a lot going on here. Like, I would suggest cutting Dylan and his little sub-plot, but I can see how his disappointment with the mismatch ties in with Dennis' own mismatch and the reassurance Mary presumably wants him to give to his son. Most of the other characters do add something to the story, so... all I've got for you is it was hard for me to follow who was who at some points.

I really liked the ending! I had kind of picked up on the idea that Dennis and Mary weren't actually soulmates, but I hadn't expected that resolution. A nice "aww" moment, and also a cool little message about commitment and choosing your own destiny in the face of what's "supposed" to be right for you.

Anyway, I think this is quite a nice little story. Good character dynamics, good incorporation of exposition with narrative, nicely done on the theme and character arc. And I hope it netted you a good grade, too. ;)