The Key to the Door

The key to the locked door lay on the table next to him. It had been there for eight hundred and twenty-three days. That’s when his creator had walked out the door, just as he had every other day, calling over his shoulder as he stepped into the sunlight, “I need to work on your beta version.” And so he was alone with a table, a sink, a broom, a cot, the key to the door, and eventually ninety-two dead flies as he waited anxiously for the creator to return. Now, he still waited. He had used only the broom and cot. Sleep was for real humans, but resting on it cut the irritated compression that built up in his legs after days of standing.

A feeling had grown in his head, or was it his stomach? An empty feeling like the time seven years ago when the creator first told him, “I’m working on a new machine, based on your prototype, but more human. It has latex instead of steel. Nylon hair, too.” The creator had run a hand over the smooth top of his head. “Most importantly, it’ll have feelings. It’ll be able to think for itself. So I won’t be coming here as much anymore.” The tubing in his head, or his stomach, seemed to stop transmitting for a moment. Maybe they did. What was it like to have feelings? Maybe if the beta was more human, it wouldn’t feel alone.

Yet there lay the key, small, silver, shiny against the metal table that had grayed with dust. He took a step toward it. His creator had said, “Wait here until I come back. I wouldn’t want you going out and people thinking you were more than you were.” Then he’d locked the door to assure it. He surely didn’t let the beta go outside, either. They were both his creations. The creator must think the same about both. But why did he leave the key?

Light pierced through the crack in the curtains. Outside, occasionally, a shadow passed as a human walked down the sidewalk toward the lake where the cherry trees bloomed. Was today a good or bad time to go out--if he took the key? Of course he wouldn’t, but if he let himself touch the key, that wasn’t disobeying. The cherry blossoms looked so soft.

He reached for it, his fingers clinking against the cool metal. Touching it always reminded him of the first time he had reached for the metal table and fallen. His creator had stood motionless, watching him struggle to stand from the tile floor. Jerking back before touching the key, he pulled his fingers into a fist. It must be wrong to think of things he hadn’t been told to think. 

He stared at the key. Had his creator intended this to make him learn his lessons? The jagged edge reminded him of the cracks he’d made in the window from when his creator had gestured and said, “Open it. Since you can’t leave, you should see and hear what’s outside.” In his hurry to look, how was he to know about the handles? 

Waiting for the burning sensation of touching something forbidden to fade, he turned his back to the door. Not seeing the door cut the burning time by just over half. Why had the creator programmed that? When the burning had faded, he looked back around the room, thirteen steps to the door. He picked the key up again, just to prove he could. It wouldn’t burn the second time. Only the first. He wished he could have asked the creator why, but when he’d asked, “Why do you leave instead of staying here with me?” and “Why did you create me?” and “Why did you create the beta instead of improving me?” the creator had always laughed and answered, “Because I can.” Surely this question would have confused him too.

Circling the room, he experimented, playing at putting the key into the hole where the screws held the bed or turning it against the window handle which had no hole at all. The door was still three steps away. 

But none of the experiments ever felt right. That’s not what keys were for. Three steps was not so far, and his creator hadn’t said he couldn’t try the key in the door.

Slowly, cautiously, he retraced lines of footprints to the metal frame of the dust-covered door. The handle gleamed at him and he tried to hold it, but jerked his hand back when his fingers scraped against the metal. If he went outside, he could walk to the cherry trees. Surely it was okay to think like this, if he wasn’t actually going to go outside.

He paused with the key against the hole for thirty-two seconds before finally shoving it in. It scratched as it slid, but it fit easily. He could turn it, also, couldn’t he? Without opening the door? His hands started to flex, to bend it in just the right way. It grated to the left, and the lock clicked. The door cracked open. 

He twisted and yanked the key back out. There was no burning, but the tubing in his head, or his stomach, stopped transmitting again. The light from the crack where the door had opened made a path across the floor, again, just like it always did. It still wasn’t right. There shouldn’t be a path. On trembling legs he lurched toward the door again and slammed it shut before bolting to the cot, just as he had done every day for the last eight hundred and twenty-three days. Maybe tomorrow his creator would come.

* * *

The man stepped away from the videoscreen with a sigh, muttering to himself. “Maybe tomorrow he’ll use the key.”

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