Project Unfamiliar Key – Charlie Chitty
March 8, 2022
The minute I realised I’d chosen the wrong key and turned, my heart sank. The door opened. A blazing inferno inside of my apartment churned as I watched all of my possessions becoming ash.
And I saw her looking back at me. She smiled as she burned.
I should probably tell you about this wrong key.
I work for a tech start up over in Bristol. A pretty small outfit by all accounts, it’s just myself and three other friends I went to university with. Harrison, PhD in Quantum Mechanics. Bob, Masters in Chemistry. Tim, Masters in Computer Science. And me, who dropped out in my second year because I didn’t really feel as if I was going anywhere with it. The others call me ‘dropout’ but it’s affectionate, you know?
LiminalPlaces® is still 33% mine and we still have the Government contracts I can’t talk about.
No, really. Classified. I’m in breach of three NDA’s if I so much as mention another project we’re working on. I can only mention Project Unfamiliar Key because it’s my house key and my personal property. Do you want to know if some of the government deal with private property? The answer is black Tippex, tape over your phone camera and unmarked cars outside your house for weeks at a time for even trying to find those answers, so just don’t. Oh, and none of the names are real. Obviously.
I spent about six months trying to get clearance to tell this story. And hey, sorry if it sounds a bit clinical. I do science. This whole emotional and storytelling thingy isn’t really my thing. So apologies if I skip over my feelings. But I’ll take the time to mention that it’s been a nervous breakdown and three episodes of sobbing hysteria because of that damn key.
So I can explain, sort of, what we do at LiminalPlaces® because people are more or less familiar with the idea of thin places. They just feel ‘off’ in some way. A silent and empty school corridor in the heat of summer. A shopping centre at five in the morning with no cars and no houses to be seen. A hallway in the block of flats where one door doesn’t quite reach the floor.
Something in your primitive brain tells you that school never had students.That the shopping centre is empty and the forest behind it never ends. That the door in the hallway doesn’t open. In fact, none of them do.
We have pictures, which have unfortunately leaked. It’s fortunate that if you ever went to the police with them you’d just seem like a madman with a normal photograph.
We’re able to access these places you can see in the leaked photographs.
In a way that scientists have found other planets, we have found other parallels. That’s our word for them. The Parallels. I think we agreed on that when Tim said that ‘Multiverse’ sounded too Matrix-y and Bob said ‘Dimensions’ reminded him too much of cheesy 80’s B-Movies.
Constructing a particle of anti-matter in a non-Newtonian fluid causes the antiprotons to detach from the positrons via Covalent Parabonding, which none of us expected. (In fact, Covalent Parabonding wasn’t even a thing until we invented it through this process.) After this, the entire mass becomes unstable due to the inefficiencies within the anti-hydrogen, the antimatter struggling to approximate its surround and the whole thing becomes a functioning white hole about three inches across.
Or for those less interested in the nitty-gritty of particle physics:
Me and my three friends made a portal.
Bob was the first one to mess around with it. Or as I should say, just in case, Bob was the first one to experiment fully.
The first three times we were too enamoured with what we’d done. We repeated it three times.
Open, schwish. Close, schlomp. Open, schwish, Close, schlomp. Open, schwish. Close, schlomp.
(Those are approximate noises. Again, dropout scientist guy. Not Dan Brown or John Grisham.)
He loads a GoPro onto a tripod and lowers it through before we can say anything. He’d recently come back from BMX’ing during his vacation time and had left the camera in his office bag.
Harrison screamed. And I mean, screamed. Apparently if Bob had touched the edges, there was the possibility for all reality to fold in itself or something. Again, he’s the one with the PhD in the subject where the entry-level textbooks could be fairly decent assault weapons. So he probably knew what he was talking about.
Bob took it out, all sullen and stuff, but we did eventually lower the camera back in a week later, after Harrison had constructed a defence shield to stop ionising particles close to the white hole from touching the tripod.
Three sandwich bags and an elastic band.
Tim was in charge of mostly scanning through the photos but they were always odd. Flooded subways. Times Square without any people or cars or advertisements. Just monolithic buildings with no features and no glass in the windows. We think.
It was sometimes hard to tell. The photos were never perfect, even though Bob’s GoPro was top of the line. Some came out grainy and unfocused, some came out with their colour stripped and others were simply a black square. We’d stare into the dark screen and see our own faces staring back at us, unnerved.
I don’t think any of it was terror or horror or what-have-you, but things definitely changed around the lab afterwards. Harrison became kinda obsessed. Whilst we encouraged him to clock out and leave, he’d stay on, documenting the hole after it opened and before it closed. He was intent on using it, whilst the rest of us saw it as a random hole in time to a sad area off the coast of reality where everything feels a little haunted. I think the big thing is that we always thought of it as ‘other.’ Out there, an outsider.
I used to have a 25% share in the company.
Harrison’s spiral led to Project Unfamiliar Key. Which was weird because he was originally the one who was always careful around the lab. So meticulous we’d always give him shit for it.
And then, one day, he got a fish hook.
He took my door key.
He lowered it into the white hole.
The camera and tripod had always been covered by the sandwich bag and tied up tightly with the band. He’d been smart enough to think to cover the fish hook, but the key was exposed.
I think he wanted to know what would happen and didn’t really care if he hurt anyone. But that was him at the end. He’d recently lost his mother, was regularly deep in his cups and turned up to work steaming and kept arguing with his wife, Sheryl. (Nope, also a false name. NDA’s, remember?)
Before that he was a good man. Bought me dinner on my birthday, always came down hard on the guys if they made fun of me for not having a stupid title attached to my name.
No, that was a different Harrison at the end.
We didn’t even realise what he’d done until after it was done. The bagged fish hook stuck on the white hole, snagged on the very air itself, and the hole tried to close.
He pulled the key through as the hole pulsed over it and then he fell to the floor, sweating.
I remember Tim shouted at him, pretty sternly. Computer whiz, perhaps he’d done some reading up on whatever it was we were doing. Bob was just pale and looking at my house key on the floor.
Only it wasn’t my house key.
It was every house key.
My original house key had a little pale blue plastic key topper. Only as I looked at it, and could see with my eyes that it was still there, I seemed to recognise every colour, and a few I did not, and different shapes of keytoppers and some without. The notches and teeth seemed to oscillate through seemingly infinite variations of ridges, the shoulder and head bulged and shrank. Sometimes it was ornate, other times it was plain. But all the time, it remained the same house key.
I pocketed it, which was probably my first mistake.
And of course, I went home and I used it. And walked into an empty home, with nothing inside it. No TV, no furniture, and no wife. Lauren was nowhere to be seen.
I full-on freaked out and ran back outside, slamming the door. I looked down. I found myself trying to will my house key to be my house key, and not an off-purple metal key with a spindling middle and no keytopper. I stood outside my apartment for some time. The windows are slightly high up so I couldn’t see into my house. I tried knocking. Ringing the doorbell. Calling her phone. No response.
I tried twice more, the first time I got a house similar to my own but with wooden pillars and rotting sickly yellow wallpaper covered in strange butterfly creatures. And then I got my house. My wife was in the bath. Wearing headphones and listening to music on her phone. I cried for thirty minutes.
These days I can rationalise a bit more, but there are still incidents like the fire-one. I always figure eventually she’ll come back out. We tried moving, didn’t work. The key fits any lock.
We briefly even considered a house without a door. Right now we’re working on getting a Maglock installed.
Really, that’s the long and short of Project Unfamiliar Key.
But I’ve sort of left out what happened to Harrison. Why my share of the company is 33% and not 25%, although you’ve probably already made guesses.
He took time off.
Tim, Bob and I agreed it sort of needed to happen and made the executive decision. He fought us every step of the way, of course.
And he did take time off, but he’d just been staring into that stupid white hole so long something had happened there. Something had fallen off of him and he couldn’t put it back on.
He took to the time off quite well to begin with. Cut down on the drink, spent more time with Cheryl and occasionally texted us pictures he’d found online of cute cats or just pictures he thought were cool. We honestly thought he was getting better. All the signs were there.
It happened a week before he was supposed to come back off of his sabbatical. Cheryl called us in hysterics, saying that Harrison had just walked off in the middle of the night. We didn’t know he’d been sleeping in another room, locking himself away each night.
From our texts we thought he’d patched things up, not torn them further apart.
We agreed as soon as we heard. I go round, Bob and Tim head out with the Bristol boys in blue to find him and bring him home.
I went straight round, parked outside Harrison’s home, easily pushing the speed limit as my car drove through the evening. I remember it being dark, rainy. Sombre.
As soon as I entered I stomped up the door to his study. Which, according to Cheryl, was always kept locked. Harrison had the only key, which he wore round his neck on a wicker string.
It took me a second before I realised I could still get in.
It’s funny how life works sometimes.
I focused on the key and pushed it into the lock when I could sense it being similar to the one that would fit the locked door and entered Harrison’s room. It was indeed his room, the key had worked as intended.
Scattered across the room were etchings, thousands of them. He was trying to sketch the photos from memory. He ‘d sketched images I couldn’t even remember and then the penny dropped. He’d been hoarding pictures from beyond the white hole. Desolate bungalows in vast deserts, empty fields dotted with roadsigns caked in green verdigris, crumbling lichen-crusted cement buildings in the middle of jungles covered in rotting vines. Places that I wish I could unsee. He’d kept charts of them, trying to monitor how close they were to one another, and how far.
Bob and Tim found him in the park. Hanging from a tree. It was about 3am.
At his feet there was a notebook. A basic wide ruled A4 notebook from WHSmith.
Every page was filled with the same phrase, repeated over and over. Hundreds of times.
“Consider why there’s nobody there.”
I can’t make out the stuff he wrote in his room, there’s too many quadratic equations and mad gibberish. But that sentence hollowed me. It still does.
I wish I could bin the key. But it’s all I really have of him.
And I think of him whenever I go home.
When I walk up to my apartment door,
and step into everything.