Nergal Malham

Updated: Jan 29

Nora’s Key


When Nora was ten, her older sister disappeared.

Assyrians didn’t camp. When their parents said they were using Nora’s fifth grade summer break to go camping, Ninweh had rejected the idea. “We’re not white people,” she declared, slapping her hand on the kitchen table for emphasis. She was fourteen at the time and endlessly cool to Nora. Their father pinched Ninweh’s forearm in a playful manner, asking her what color her skin was.

Ninweh ended up loving it. Nora hated it. The sleeping bags, the persisting stench of body odor despite showering every morning, the dirt, the rocks, the absolute stillness at night, so unlike home, and, worst of all, she hated the door.

Ninweh would wander off on hiking trails. Their parents chalked it up teenage angst, happy so long as she took a flashlight and flare gun. Ninweh insisted on going alone until the fifth day when she showed Nora the door. Nora had thought her sister was finally revealing a cool teenager secret. Her memory was fickle here. Off the trail or along a rarely used path, Ninweh led her to a clearing where a single door with its frame stood. Nora hated it. Where did it come from? The white paint was pristine and clear from dirt and greenery.

“What is it?” Nora asked.

“It’s a door, dumbass,” Ninweh stuck out her tongue and opened the door with a key. Nora flinched. “What’s your deal?”

“It’s dumb.”

“Check out this key,” Ninweh showed off the old, heavy iron key in her hand. “I just found it lying around.”

“You’re gonna get tetanus,” Nora stomped out of the clearing.

Ninweh disappeared the next day.

Her parents were hysteric, restrained by paramedics. Nora numbly led the police down the hiking trail. Along the way, she spotted a key on the side of the path, shiny and antique. She took it.

Her parents divorced three years later. Nora’s eyes always glazed over the shrines dedicated to Ninweh in their homes. She hated seeing Ninweh stuck at fourteen.

Nora kept the key, fashioning a necklace out of it. When the anniversary came, she’d spend her day inspecting it, staring at the nicks and scratches. She’d trick herself into thinking she could see the imprints of her sister’s fingers in the metal.

Her girlfriend, Piper, unknowingly spawned a new fixation, a teasing comment uttered while she played with the chain.

“Have you opened any doors with it?”


///


Her mother was in the kitchen, preparing tea. Nora sat in the unfamiliar living room of her mother’s new apartment on a familiar couch. It still had the stain from where Ninweh had gotten her first period and bled through. Nora smiled.

“How is your job going?” Her mother asked from the kitchen.

“It’s alright.”

“Your uncle is coming over for dinner next week. Can you come? Maybe bring a boyfriend?”

Nora imagined Piper, all butched up for an Assyrian dinner.

“Just me,” Nora replied and burned her tongue on the tea.


///


In the middle of the night, Nora awoke. There was a light on behind her bedroom door. Nora remembered that she lived alone. She jolted out of bed. Did she leave something on before going to bed? That was a bad habit she was working on. On trembling legs, she stood. Her hand reached for her desk, for a weapon. Her fingers found a candle jar. Close enough. Glass hurt. She opened her door slowly, peeking into the illuminated hallway. Her apartment was small, the bedroom ten feet down from the bathroom, but this was the hallway of her old family home, hardwood floors glistening. At the end of the corridor was the turn, leading off to Ninweh’s bedroom. Ninweh stood at the turn, glass of water in hand, staring curiously at her. “You okay?” She asked. Nora bit back a sob. She wanted it to be real. Even the air smelled like home, that unique Assyrian scent. Ninweh stepped forward. Nora shuddered. How many times had she seen her sister? How many times did she ignore the shrines to her in her parents’ homes, only to stare when no one else was around? Nora knew her older sister’s face. That’s why she knew that Ninweh’s mole was on the wrong side of her face. Nora slammed the door shut and pressed her body against it. Her eyes wrenched shut, breath coming out in sharp gasps. The wooden floor creaked as footsteps approached. She let go of the candle jar, dropping it on her toes. She hissed in pain and grabbed her foot. Remembering herself, she turned to the door. The light was gone. Carefully, she opened it. In front of her, a mere ten feet away, was her bathroom. Sighing, Nora closed her door again and returned to bed. She fell asleep with the thought that her pillow smelled a little bit like Ninweh’s favorite perfume.


///


Piper texted her the next day. ‘I found a door.

It was an accident. On the usual train ride home from class, she sat on the righthand side. That night, she chose the left. Between the final two stops, the train passed a reservoir. Normally, Piper didn’t see it from her preferred side. Underneath the streetlights, there was a door on the cement just before the single dock.

“And you’re sure?” Nora asked. They opted to walk rather than wait for a bus. The street was devoid of people and they took advantage of the privacy to hold hands. They found the door along the cement landing near the dock. A shabby rusted fence blocked their path, but Piper grabbed the chain link and shook it, popping it free. She pulled it back for Nora. “Piper, I can’t believe you. A delinquent.” Nora teased as she bent down to pass. “You know me, a real career criminal.” Nora froze. Now that there was nothing between them, she was having second thoughts. Her mind raced with endless questions, each one making her feel more foolish. What was she expecting to get out of this? Who cares about a creepy door? Weird things happened all the time. Like teenage girls disappearing in forests. With Piper at her back, Nora approached the door. Her hand, trembling, pulled itself out of her pocket, key held tight. The door wasn’t anything special. It was likely once a deep green, but now had faded and flaked away. In a few places, the wood was splintered, small pockets the size of knuckles. She traced her fingers over them. Maybe it was the door to some old apartment. Nora wondered what replaced it. She placed the key in the hole. Piper exhaled. The knob turned, and the door moved slightly against the wind.

She thought of Ninweh, walking into a door in the forest and disappearing. She thought of her mother and of awkward dinners. Of the warmth of Piper’s hand in hers.

“I can’t,” she gasped.

“Okay,” Piper came beside her, a gentle voice, “I’m sorry—I pushed—”

“No, it’s fine.”

“We don’t have to tell anyone.”

“I know,” Nora closed her eyes against the tears, “I know.”

One of them pulled out the key. Nora closed the door.

Nergal Malham is a tiny Assyrian born and raised in Chicago. She received her MFA from Roosevelt University. Her work has previously appeared in Cleaning Up Glitter, Seeds Literary Magazine, The Thought Catalog, and Hemingway's Playpen. She dreams of one day being a pug.

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