(HS Insider)

Fictional short story: The key to lost worlds

“Juno, 10 more minutes okay, sweetheart? You can watch the stars another night. It’s getting cold.”

Juno’s mother wrapped her furry pink robe tighter, sandwiching her shivering hands under the warmth of each armpit. In her mouth, she balanced an almost-exhausted cigarette, the type that tastes slightly metallic. She began to close the roof door behind her, carefully balancing the rusted metal slab against a brick on the floor, so it would not lock. 

Juno nodded. His eyes followed her carefully while his fingers wrapped tighter around the secret he held in his left pocket. When she was out of sight and he could no longer hear the pounding of her heavy footsteps, Juno lay back down. He was glad she was gone. He loved his mother but perhaps even more, he loved being alone. His parents said he was just quiet, not quite out of his shell yet. His classmates called him strange. Juno did not mind.

As his back hit the cold, rough concrete roof top, Juno slowly wiggled the object out of his stiff jeans. Whatever it was, it was wrapped in a shaggy, half-damp scroll. The lettering was barely legible, some foreign or outdated language — nonsense to the untrained eye. Not to Juno, though. His young hands unwrapped the object, perfectly unfolding each crease, as if he had done so a thousand times. By now, he probably had.

Finally, it was revealed: a small, unassuming matchbox. The type of thing you might pick up when leaving a hotel, or find hidden beneath loads of take-out menus in your kitchen drawer. But on closer inspection, this object was anything but ordinary. The front of the box, in the same strange language as the scroll, read, “The key to the lost worlds.” Underneath, it said, “To light the way of the worthy.” There was more fine-print on the sides: “Spark a match, and let the wind take you.” Juno followed these directions. All of the sudden, a burst of cold air whipped around him and everything went quiet. Then, he was gone. 

Juno opened his eyes, though he could not see. His feet felt strange below him, desperately searching for something solid to grip, and his arms began to float upwards, away from his sides. Juno remembered the matchstick in his hand and swiftly broke it in two. It transformed into a bulb of light that floated just above his shoulder, illuminating the path before him. But as Juno’s eyes adjusted, he realized it was not a path at all, instead an endless expanse of murky water in all directions. Miraculously, he could still breathe. All of the sudden, Juno became aware of the weight of peering eyes watching him. He began to turn carefully and a slimy tail grazed his ankle. Must be mermaids this time, Juno thought. With a swift kick to propel himself through the water, Juno continued on into the darkness.