This story is by Ashlyn McKayla Ohm and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
There was no reason to be awake. So I kept my eyes shut.
I didn’t need to open them to picture the cramped room, anyway. The ceiling was low; the tiny windows were crisscrossed with bars; the walls were lined with boxes of junk. But the most important feature—the one that kept me agonizing between hope and despair—was the door. It was a massive wooden one, strangely archaic, draped in heavy chains with a glistening padlock.
I had been in the prison so long that I couldn’t even remember how I’d come to dwell there. But I did know this: that padlock was all that mattered.
Every morning when I awoke, it was the first object that met my gaze. Every evening when I collapsed, exhausted, it was the last image that swam before my bleary eyes. And in the hours between, my single mission was to find the key.
Someone in here? Shock zapped me like an electric current. I scrambled to a sitting position…and saw a girl with dark hair crowned by a flowered bandana sitting cross-legged on the floor.
“What—wait—who are you—?” The questions skated about my mind like hockey pucks on ice. “How did you get in?”
She simply pointed to the nearest window. I stared at her suspiciously. Squeezing through there wasn’t possible; I’d tried. True, she was smaller than me, but still… “Why are you here?”
“I came to see you.” She brushed her hands along her skirt casually. As if this were a normal conversation. “I thought you might be lonely.”
Lonely? I was always lonely now. The same chains that held me in kept everyone else out. “Well—yes. I am—lonely.” I suddenly decided against interrogating the girl any further. She was company, at least—however temporary.
She nodded. “Don’t you have family? Friends?”
I stood and paced the room, avoiding the corner where the shards of my dreams were piled—the razor-like fragments could slice me to shreds. I didn’t want to talk about it, but somehow the words came anyway. “No friends anymore. At first, some of them would come by, try to talk to me through the windows. But after awhile, this—” I gestured around the room—“was too weird for them.”
The girl pressed her lips together. “Sometimes we avoid what we wish we could fix.”
“Yeah, maybe so.”
“And your family?”
“My family”—my throat caught. How could I describe my love for them? How could I explain that it was the desire to rejoin their lives that kept me searching for that key? “They visit every day. My dad—he tries to help.” I envisioned his worried face. “He thinks I can just—just walk out of here. It makes him angry sometimes that I won’t.” It wasn’t his fault that his love and concern sometimes translated as frustration. “And my mom…”
A scene from yesterday’s visit drifted into my mind. My mom had stood at the window with tears streaking her cheeks. “Taylor—I love you so much. Please…try to escape, ok? You can do it. I’m praying for you.”
Her words had meant to comfort, but they’d loaded me with grief, and guilt, and shame, and a longing so strong I’d thought I might go insane. I struggled with the flood of emotion and glared at the girl. “Tell me something. My mom prays for me every day. She has for years. But I’m still in here!” It wasn’t until I heard the echoes of my voice in the small room that I realized I’d been shouting. “Tell me why.”
She cocked her head. “Why what?”
How dare she play games? “Why prayer is no good!”
The girl frowned. “Well, I think you might be confused. Just because you don’t see proof doesn’t mean God is not working. Please, don’t assume He’s not going to honor your mother’s faith—and yours.”
I narrowed my eyes at her. “I have no faith. Not anymore.”
She smiled. “Oh, you do. It’s taken a beating, but it’s still with you.”
I accidentally backed into a stack of guilt; the top crate tipped, pelting me with rocks. I winced. “Well, it will be the key that gets me out of here, not faith!”
“So that’s what you’re looking for.”
“Yep.” I wasn’t wasting any more time on her. She had no answers, only false comfort and a way of making me consider things I’d rather forget. I slid my hand into the crevice underneath the window. Nothing there except the powdery dust of despair—the same stuff that coated every surface here.
“I think you’re wasting your time.” Her tone was still gentle.
“Why would you—” An idea winged like an arrow to my mind. I wheeled to face her. “Do you—do you know where the key is?”
Her sigh was foggy with sadness. “Well—yes.”
“Where?” I tensed with adrenaline.
“It’s not in here.”
Nausea slammed into my gut. “No. It has to be here.”
“I’m sorry. It’s not.”
“But—then—then I’ll—never get out. Oh, God—” The panic of the realization overwhelmed me. My terror bubbled up in a hysterical laugh that choked away in a moaning wail.
Her voice rose over my sobs. “I didn’t say that. I just said the key wasn’t here.”
“Go away.” The words were a feral hiss, anger sizzling. “I—I don’t believe you! You’re lying to me! The key is here, and I will find it, and I will walk out that door with—”
The girl held up one hand. “Taylor, I promise you…the key is not here.”
Even in the dim light, her eyes, intensely blue, seemed to almost glow. And when I met her gaze, I knew she wasn’t deceiving me. “How—do you know?”
She stood and crossed the room until we stood eye-to-eye. She smelled, somehow, of that world I longed to reach—wildflowers, summertime, peace. “Taylor, the key doesn’t exist.”
All my days spent searching—in vain?
All my anguish was just going to go on—forever?
A sharp pain ripped the breath from my lungs. “What?”
“Oh, Taylor.” She took my hands in hers, held my fingers tightly. Her eyes flooded with a compassion that seemed to drown my shallow self-pity. “Taylor, this is a trap. You could spend your lifetime searching for that key and still die here—alone. Because it’s just a cruel game.”
I sank onto a dusty box of defeat.
“How did I end up here?” My whisper was contorted with torment.
“Our minds are full of many paths. I think you simply wandered down the wrong one.” Her touch on my shoulder was as gentle as a butterfly. “It’s not your fault.”
“But I’ll never get out.” My voice was weak, unsteady. I could feel all the days of tension uncoiling as everything in me quietly surrendered to the inevitable.
Wait—was the girl laughing? A gentle laugh, melodic as a birdsong. “Oh…I wouldn’t say that.”
I looked up quickly. I had thought all traces of hope had crumbled into ashes long ago. Yet here it was, bird wings fluttering against my heart.
She must have seen the question I didn’t dare ask. A smile hovered at the corners of her lips. “Taylor, not every escape involves a key.”
I scrambled to my feet. “But how—?”
“The door.” Her smile was now as radiant as a summer sunrise. “It was never as it seemed.”
The door? Impossible. “I can’t—the lock—”
“Have you ever tried to open it?”
Understanding flashed into my soul like lightning. In three steps, I crossed that room and faced the door, the chains I’d always been too afraid even to brush with a finger. One touch from my trembling hands, and they tumbled to the floor, the false padlock cracking open as it struck the cement.
The girl was standing beside me. “Go on. Your freedom awaits you.”
A tidal wave of emotion was building in my chest. “Thank you.” The whisper trembled with the surge of gratitude. I had so many questions, but only one stood out. “What—what is your name?”
Joy sparkled in her eyes. “Call me Faith.”
Even in isolation, I’d never truly been alone.
I threw my weight against the door. It flung open like a gateway for a conqueror, and the brightness of the outside world flooded every inch of my soul. The heaviness of all the torturous days seemed to float away.
I didn’t realize until Faith squeezed my shoulders that I was crying, tears of release and grace and fresh starts. Her smile reflected my joy. “You still have a journey. But I’ll be with you, every step of the way.”
“I’m ready.” I lifted my face to the sky and marveled at how blue it was. I knew the very hardest journey was the one I’d already taken. Now all that remained was following Faith home.