"The Key - Short Story"

"The Key"

© R. L. Brown 2005

"Feather?" James' voice came from behind her just as she was stretching up to pin a length of cerise chiffon to the top of the window display, "Can you please come and see me when you're finished?"

Startled by his unexpected entrance into her daydreams about him, Feather jumped involuntarily, her heart lurching as the step stool wobbled beneath her feet. I didn't hear him, she thought, her arms flying up as she tried to keep her balance, he must have come in the back way.

Strong hands reached up and caught her around the waist, steadying her.

"I'm so sorry - I didn't mean to frighten you."

The feel of his firm touch made her head more wobbly than ever and she quickly climbed down the step ladder on shaky legs and then turned towards him, her little pixie face uplifted to his.

He released his hands quickly, a faint blush colouring his cheeks.

"That's okay, you don't have to come right away," he explained, smoothing his tie with a characteristic gesture, "just when you're finished is fine."

She looked up into his clear brown eyes, the love she felt for him welling up and making it hard for her to swallow. James was slightly built and not particularly tall, his hair was an indifferent mid brown and his face was more nondescript than handsome - but Feather thought he was the sweetest, most beautiful man in the world. The last few months of working with him had been a mixture of joy and agony, as she came to accept that her crush on him was as hopeless as it was unknown.

"That's okay - I'll come now," she replied, hastily slipping her tiny feet back into her shoes and following him to his office at the back of the store front. When she'd first asked about it, James had explained that window dressing wasn't really that important since the bulk of the orders to the Christian bookstore were by internet and mail order, but that it was okay if she wanted to put something up occasionally when all her work was up to date.

And it very nearly is, she said to herself a little guiltily as she sat down in the office chair beside his desk, tucking a strand of short, dark hair behind her elfin ear. Since they'd received a carton of leather-bound Puritan Classics, Feather had been dreaming up a really majestic display for them, and when James had gone out to the bank the temptation had been too strong to resist.

"The display is looking really nice," he told her as he took his seat behind the tidy desk, answering her thoughts as he so often did. "You have a real flair for that kind of thing, and I'm just sorry that there isn't always enough time for it."

Feather had to bite her lip to keep from grinning with pleasure at his compliment and quickly crossed her legs to hide her nervousness at sitting so close beside him. Glancing down at her skirt she noticed how it rode much higher up her bare legs when she sat down and tried pulling it down lower, belatedly realising that the ladies in their church would probably never wear anything as short.

"You know how my Dad was going to come and look after the bookstore while I'm away at the Publisher's Expo for the next few days?" James began, seemingly unaware of her discomfort, "Well, Mum rang me on the mobile while I was out, he's come down with a bad 'flu and won't be getting out of bed for a day or two. I was wondering how you would feel about running things on your own for the time I'm away?"

He looked closely into her green eyes as he explained, "We probably won't have many cash sales and any cheques can wait until I'm back so you won't need to worry about the banking. I'm sure you could manage all the usual phone and email enquiries, and just take messages for me about anything you don't understand - and you can always ring my Dad if there is an emergency. What do you think?"

Feather's heart was pounding with excitement when she realised that James was saying that he would trust her alone with the bookshop. The thought made her feel quite giddy. Ever since her half-brother, River, had taken her along to James' church and she'd become a Christian, she'd felt horribly inadequate amongst the older and much more mature Christians there. It was as though she was always getting into trouble and doing things that she hadn't even realised were wrong - and she had been sure that no-one in the church would ever trust her with any kind of responsibility.

In fact it was straight after getting expelled from her technical college along with her group of friends that the minister had suggested giving her a trial period working in the bookshop. Although James was always very encouraging about her efforts to learn the work and quietly fixed up all of her mistakes himself, Feather was continually on tenterhooks, sure that it was only a matter of time until she blew it and they found some reason to sack her.

People always seemed to expect her to make mistakes, she thought, looking down at her feet and wincing as she saw the dolphin tattoo on her ankle, and hurriedly crossed her legs the other way to hide it. The tattoo had seemed like such a good idea at the time, but now it just seemed like another indication of the kind of person she really was. Like her name. How could anyone ever take her seriously with a name like Feather?

She bit on her nail thoughtfully, wondering whether people at church would take her a lot more seriously if she had a normal name. River had laughed when she mentioned it to him, saying that he thought it was only fair that her name give people some kind of warning of what was about to hit them. But she was sure her life would be completely different if her name were Margaret or Francine or Evelyn.

"What are you thinking about just now?" James' gentle voice cut into her thoughts.

"I was just wondering what I have to do to get my name changed," she answered, his original question about the bookshop forgotten. "Do you just fill in a form or something?"

His eyes were smiling but his tone was perfectly serious as he replied, "Why do you want to change your name?"

"I just want a normal name like everyone else."

"But Feather is such a special name - isn't it so much nicer to be a little bit more special than everyone else?" he asked, before turning their conversation back to it's original course and asking again whether she felt comfortable about being on her own in the shop while he was away.

Feather took a deep breath, fear about the possibility of somehow messing everything up squeezing like a hand around her heart. She let out her breath slowly, deciding that if James thought she could do it, she would go ahead and try her best. And maybe it would be the chance to prove to everyone one that she wasn't as ditzy as they all thought.

"Yes," she answered bravely, "that will be okay as long as you just tell me everything I have to do again and I write it all down so I can't forget."

When it was finally time for James to leave, he paused in the doorway and fished out a key ring from his trouser pocket.

"You'd better keep this," he said, handing it to her. "There shouldn't be any reason to go through to my place, but you'd better have my key just in case of an emergency."

Feather waved him goodbye, her other hand tightly around key he had handed her, the metal still warm from his body. She held on to it until she was no longer sure whether the warmth was still his or was just from her own hand, and then, since she didn't have a pocket, slipped it into her bra to keep it safe.

It was nice feeling the key there against her skin while she worked conscientiously away at her tasks, nice having that constant reminder that James had trusted her, that he'd put her in charge of the bookshop and was even letting her look after his own flat key. Feather chewed on the end of the pencil as she wondered what James' flat looked like inside. Like everyone else in their church he was very careful about keeping what they called the proprieties, and while they worked together every day in the adjoining bookshop he had never asked her into the part where he lived.

As the afternoon grew later, Feather's curiosity about the flat continued to grow as well. He was such a lovely young man that she couldn't help wondering about everything about him - what his home looked like, where he ate his dinner, where he sat to read . . .

Feather sighed, she would probably never know. There was no way someone like James would ever consider marrying a girl like her, and every Sunday she watched him come into church with a sense of dread, just waiting for the day when he'd arrive with some lovely young lady on his arm. Even though Feather knew that as a believer in Jesus she was just as saved as every other Christian, she was painfully aware of her weak faith and many failings. Even she wouldn't want James to have a wife like her.

It was when she was locking up the shop that the idea of using the key and having a tiny little peek inside became absolutely irresistible. Just looking around surely couldn't do any harm, she thought, and no-one would ever even know.

She paused at the door to his flat, her heart beating fast. There was still nearly ten minutes until her bus was due, what if she just opened the door and popped her head inside . . . what harm could that possibly do?

From the doorway, the inside of James' flat was almost exactly what she'd imagined - tidy and quietly dignified with gently worn furniture that looked like it had lasted a few generations and would most likely last out a few more. Even the thick curtains were comfortably old-fashioned, glowing in the late afternoon sun.

A feeling of warmth spread like sunshine through Feather's heart even though she couldn't immediately identify why the room had seemed so instantly welcoming. She was simply aware of an instinctive sense of belonging that only really made sense when she had crossed the floor and gone into the dining area and recognized the faint smell of lavender room spray just like her Grandma once used.

She sighed happily, transported in her mind back to the hours she'd spent in her Grandma's old home before she'd died while Feather had still been very young. There was the same sense of order and care, and she saw as she wandered over to the wide bookshelf, the same little touches like framed family photos and small knick-knacks.

She could just imagine being married to James, and living here happily ever after with him - in the calmness and serenity which seemed so much a part of James. Her eyes ran along the titles on the shelf, her heart thrilling to see the very same books which he had lent her and she'd taken home and kept on her own bedside table until she'd finished reading them. Here they were, the books she'd held in her own hands, back on the shelves and nestled in amongst the rest of his collection, just as though a part of her belonged there too.

Forgetting the time and her intention to only peek from the door, Feather wandered slowly around the flat - humming her own little song of contentment as she let herself pretend that she lived there with him. Here was the kitchen where she would bake his Sunday roast, and here was the sweet wooden table where they would sit down, just the two of them, and he would reach across the table and take her hand, telling her how much he loved her . . .

It was warm in the still, close air and Feather slipped off her pink fluffy cardigan and draped it over the back of her dining chair - just as she would if she were married to him - and curled up on the faded couch, imagining sitting with him and listening to him read aloud from his treasured books. So many of the books he loved made little sense to Feather, but the enthusiasm with which he explained them made them dear to her none-the-less.

She had just picked up a framed photo of James and his parents when an unexpected noise just outside the back door sent her scuttling to her feet. Someone is coming, she thought in sudden panic, and quickly thrust on her shoes and dashed back through the door into the bookshop, pulling it shut behind her.

It was only when she realised that the sound she'd heard was just the neighbour next door that her heart began to slow down and she became aware that she was still clutching the photo frame. Letting out a slow breath, Feather tried to re-open the door but found it had locked itself when she'd pulled it closed.

Just as she was about to reach into her top for the key she heard the sound of her bus starting up the hill and realising there was no time to go back in, she ran to the front door of the shop, managing to get it locked behind her just in time to signal the bus before it went past.

Flopping down onto her seat as the bus lurched off again, Feather put the frame on her knee and gazed down at the photo of James and his parents. She was glad now she'd been too busy rushing out to the bus to think of leaving it behind - she could look at him all night before returning it to his flat first thing in the morning.

Climbing the outside stairs to their flat, Feather could see her brother's silhouette through the thin curtains as he sat on the couch in front of the television. Usually he was the last to get home - their mum got home from the crystal shop where she worked first of all, then Feather, but River didn't normally get home until after six.

She frowned - he must have had to come home early again - which wasn't good at all. She let herself in and dumped her handbag on top of a pile of letters and magazines on the coffee table behind him and called out hello as she went through to the kitchen.

"Isn't Lisa home?" she asked him as she returned to the living area a moment later with a glass of cranberry juice in one hand, and James' photo still clutched in the other.

"Yeah, Mum's just gone to get dressed," he answered without looking up, "she's got to go back into the shop for some kind of party thing."

Ever since their mum had gone to a personal growth seminar a couple of years ago she'd decided she didn't want her identity to be "Mum" anymore . . . but River had stubbornly refused to change.

"Oh, yeah. I forgot that was on. How come you're home? Are you sick again?"

"Uh-huh. Only lasted until eleven today."

"I'm so sorry, River - are you going to get in trouble about all the time off?" Feather asked, curling up on a bean bag and looking up at him in concern. Since being diagnosed with Lupus several months ago, River had struggled to keep working and most of the time he had managed to do it without many of the people he worked with even knowing he often wasn't well. The last couple of weeks had been tough for him though and Feather wondered what would happen if he didn't pick up again soon.

"No - my boss is really good about it - it's no trouble taking the time off when I need it," he looked across at her and smiled briefly, "which is definitely God's providence because you don't find employers like that very often."

"If it really were providence, you shouldn't be sick at all, should you?" Lisa challenged as she came into the room, smiling at Feather and saying, "Hello, Pixie Girl," before returning to her theme.

"I don't know why you won't try going to a Reiki Healer, River . . . it honestly works. You know how my migraines have gone, and what about Ginny's daughter who's got Lupus? Ever since she's been having Reiki she's felt like a new person - it can hardly hurt to give it go."

Feather felt herself tensing, even though she knew her mum meant the best for River. This was not a new suggestion and in her own way, petite and fragile as she looked, Lisa could be just as stubborn as her son.

River sighed, "I'm a Christian now, Mum, I keep telling you I'm not going anywhere near all this new-age stuff."

"Why not? It's just as much for Christians too. Reiki is just a particular way of channelling the healing energy of the universal life force. It doesn't matter whether you call it God or something else, it's all the same thing," Lisa persisted, finding her sandals from under the couch and sitting on the floor to put them on.

"No, it isn't the same thing at all - the God of the Bible is not some impersonal universal power. The only way to the true God is through a personal relationship with Jesus, not by any other kind of spiritual belief or technique. If there is really a spiritual power in this Reiki healing it certainly doesn't come from God and that cannot be a good thing -"

"Despite the fact it only ever does good? You're hardly in position to be so negative when you don't really know anything about it. Besides, it's not like what you are doing is working - I think all those drugs the doctor's given you are only making you worse. I'll even pay for the Reiki for you if you'll only give it a go. It just seems wrong not to make use of this help when it's there for everyone."

Feather glanced from one to the other, hating it when they argued like this. This kind of unpleasantness was the one thing she hadn't liked since River had first started going along to church. Even though what he said usually seemed right, Feather could see Lisa's side as well and wished he wasn't so uncompromising.

River was frowning heavily now, "Mum, this stuff is not harmless or neutral, it's totally opposed to the God of the Bible -"

"Oh, well, it's your choice if you don't want to get better!" Lisa stood up abruptly and began hunting for her bag, obviously finished with the subject. "Oh, and Feather - Shelley rang for you a little while ago, she said she hasn't heard from you in ages. I told her you'd ring her back. You should make more of an effort to keep in touch with her even though you're working now - she's a lovely girl."

"Uh-huh," Feather replied vaguely, not feeling equal to explaining why she'd been trying not to keep up contact with her old friends since they'd all been expelled from the technical college. They were nice, and she did miss them, but River and some of the other people at church had been encouraging her to be spending more time with Christian people instead.

"Okay, I've got to go," Lisa announced when she finally unearthed her bag from a pile of catalogues, but paused when she saw the frame in Feather's hand and asked what it was.

"That's James, who I work with, and his parents," Feather said, proudly holding it up to her. "You haven't seen him before, have you? Isn't he lovely?"

"Certainly is a sweetie," her mum agreed before rushing out through the door.

"Did James give that to you?" River asked as soon as the door had slammed shut.

Feather shook her head, and explained how she'd accidentally brought it home.

River stared at her in disbelief. "What on earth were you doing in his flat?"

His expression made Feather swallow uneasily. "Um, just having a little look - I always wondered what his flat was like, and it seemed the perfect chance -"

"What? To barge in and poke about? I can't believe you sometimes, Featherbrain!" Her brother shook his head at her dismissively, "How do you think James would feel if he knew you'd betrayed his trust like that? Don't you have any respect for a person's privacy?"

Feather twisted her hands together, "I didn't do anything, just looked. I didn't think there was anything wrong with it."

"If you didn't think there was anything wrong with it, why didn't you just ask James straight out if you could have a look?" he challenged, and Feather's face began to burn with shame.

"I didn't want him to know that I wanted to look . . . " she said pathetically, tears starting to prick her eyes, "And I never thought of it as invading his privacy until you just said it. I can just put the picture back and pretend it never happened, can't I?"

Her lower lip began to tremble and she sniffed hard. "I don't know why I keep doing things like this, River, it always seems okay at the time . . . it's only afterwards that it turns out to be something awful. I'd hate James to find out . . . I don't have to tell him do I?"

"No, it's not a big deal - just put the picture back and forget about it," River said much more gently, "I'm sorry, Kiddo, I know you didn't mean any harm - you never do. I'm just snappy because I'm feeling rotten, but I didn't mean to make you feel bad. Look, I'm not going to be good company tonight anyway, I think I'll just go through to my room."

"Okay," Feather said miserably, as he slowly got to his feet, and handed her the TV remote, "have you had tea?"

"No, don't feel like anything," he replied heading for the hall, "and there's not much in the fridge anyway. Was meant to be Mum's turn to shop this week."

Feather breathed out slowly as the door closed behind him, her chest still tight as she headed into the kitchen. She felt miserable about getting herself into such scrapes . . . when would she ever know what was the right thing to do and stop making mistakes all the time?

Her own investigation of the fridge and pantry confirmed River's warning, and Feather took a handful of biscuits back through to the living room and curled up on the couch feeling thoroughly despondent and lonely. Everything would be okay as soon as she put that picture back in James' flat in the morning . . . and she would never, ever go in there again. Feather wished she could stop thinking about it all, as it was making her feel quite sick.

She was just flicking disconsolately through the television channels when there was a light tapping on the front door.

"Yoo-hoo, Feather? It's Shelley!" her friend's voice called, and Feather leapt to her feet and opened the door.

"We're heading out for Mexican - you weren't in when I rang, but thought you might want to come," her blonde girlfriend explained as she burst in and enveloped Feather in a warm hug. Feather hugged her back ecstatically, saying that there was nothing she'd like better and excused herself only to grab her handbag and call through River's door to tell him she was going out.

This is just what I need, thought Feather happily, as she clattered down the flight of stairs beside Shelley, contentedly listening to her bubbly chatter, no point in sitting home feeling miserable . . .

She squealed in delight to see Mel waving to her from the passenger seat of the tiny hatchback, but it wasn't until Feather was climbing into the back that she became aware of the other person in the car. Her heart sank and she felt her face burning as she looked straight into the eyes of the one young man she'd been carefully avoiding for the last few months.

Feather hesitated, feeling panicked, but Shelley was already starting the car and it seemed impossible to back out now.

"Hello, Shane," she said quietly, her heart pounding unpleasantly as his hand brushed against hers as she tried to do up her seat belt.

"Hello, Feather - this has all turned out wonderfully, hasn't it? I was wondering when I'd see you again . . ."

Feather tightened her grip on the calico bag on her lap as the bus took a sharp bend before beginning its climb up the hill toward the bookshop. When she'd crawled out of bed with an aching head and an even more painful sense of dread that morning, she put James' photo straight inside the carry bag, unable to bear even looking at it.

What a mess I make of everything she thought miserably, forcing herself to acknowledge how foolishly she'd behaved while she was out with her friends. No-one looking on last night could possibly have guessed that she now believed in the living God and that she'd promised to live her life in a way that would please Him . . .

After feeling so low about going uninvited into James' flat, being out with her old friends again had been like basking in warm sunshine. It had only taken a little while in their company for her reserve to thaw completely - it felt so good to be with people who thought she was fine just how she was and that everything she said was clever and funny.

It wasn't even as though she'd had very much to drink, but then again it didn't really take very much for her to start being a little silly . . . and by the time they'd moved on from the restaurant to the nightclub she could barely hear the quiet voice in her conscience telling her that she shouldn't be there . . .

Feather remembered her narrow escape from Shane's place afterwards, and shuddered. The interest he'd had in her before she'd become a Christian hadn't lessened any and her girlfriends didn't make it easy for her to leave when his intentions became obvious. When she'd agreed to tea with her old friends it had all seemed so innocent and harmless, yet the spiritual danger she'd put herself in was clear to her now.

She sighed deeply. Nothing in her life worked out anymore - she didn't feel right about going along to Church when she was still getting into so much trouble with her old life, but then she knew she didn't want to keep heading down that path away from God anymore either.

What am I meant to do, Lord, she prayed helplessly, James showed me that verse about the burden you give us being light and easy . . . but it all feels way too hard for me.

The bus stopped to pick up a passenger carrying a surfboard, and as it lurched off again Feather remembered what had happened to her at the beach last summer when she'd been swept out to sea by a strong rip.

She'd been happily floating on her back not far from the shore, and when she'd finally become aware that she'd been caught in the dangerous current, it had been impossible to swim against it. By the time a lifeguard had pulled her into his surfboat she'd been exhausted and beginning to go under. Later he'd explained that if she ever got caught in a rip again she shouldn't fight against it while she was still in it; but must change direction completely and swim across the rip until she'd broken free of its pull, and then make her way back to land.

Feather frowned as she made her way down the aisle, preparing for the bus to pull up at her stop next. It was kind of like her life at the moment, when she was involved with her friends it felt fun, until she realised how far from God she was being pulled by their influence. And for the first time she understood that just like River and several other people at her church had been trying to tell her for months, she needed to break free from that current or be swept away again - away from God and His love.

The bus stopped, and Feather climbed down the steps - a great sense relief flooding her as she saw clearly the direction she needed to take.

It's not even as though I can rescue my friends if I'm still being dragged along by the same current as them, she realised, deciding to make a whole new fresh start that morning. The moment I get inside, I'll lock the main door behind me and go straight in and return James' photo, and from now on I won't see any of those friends anymore.

Clutching the guilty burden to her chest, Feather waited impatiently for the traffic to clear and then darted across the road. It wasn't until she stepped up onto the footpath on the other side that she looked up and saw Mrs Brent, the church secretary, waiting for her on the bookshop steps.

It was nearly lunch-time and Mrs Brent still hadn't left. Feather glared at the older woman as she stood with her back to her at the photocopier in James' office, painstakingly copying page after page of next term's Sunday School program.

Feather felt as though she was going to explode with frustration. After opening up the shop while Mrs Brent explained that the church's photocopier was in for repairs, Feather knew she wouldn't have any other chance to slip into James' flat before closing the shop for lunch, but she'd never anticipated Mrs Brent would still be there then . . .

She let out a long breath and stalked across to the front door to put up the closed for lunch sign. Huddled at her desk eating her sandwiches, Feather felt more wretched than ever. Although it was hidden under the desk, James' photo continued to reproach her and her head ached with tension and tiredness.

Usually she looked forward to her half hour break at lunch, when James would take the phone off the hook, make a cup of tea for them both and then invite Feather to join him in his office. It was the highlight of her day, when they would enjoy a nice chat or quietly listen to a CD of beautiful Christian music.

Feather missed him terribly today, her raw feelings making her long especially for his soothing presence. She deeply resented Mrs Brent's intrusion into the bookshop and her occasional comments and continual glances in Feather's direction made her self-conscious about everything she did. Surely Mrs Brent hadn't been sent in to keep an eye on her?

Feather shivered, and reached around for the fluffy cardigan she kept on the back of her chair - confused when she saw that it wasn't there. She stared blankly at the empty chair back for several seconds before she remembered the last time she had taken it off.

Heat rushed into her face, and then ebbed away leaving her feeling cold and faint. Her cardigan was draped over the back of the chair in James' flat, and if anyone went inside it would be the first thing they saw! If only Mrs Brent would leave soon . . .

It was only after Feather had opened up the shop again for the afternoon that Mrs Brent finally gathered up her things to leave and Feather knew she'd now have to wait until closing time for her chance to restore the photo. The clock hands seemed to move more slowly than they had ever done before, and Feather was nearly beside herself with tension by the time the afternoon was over.

The relief when she finally locked up the shop made Feather feel dizzy, but when she reached into her pocket for James' key she nearly fainted with horror - the key wasn't there!

She leant back against his door, her heart pounding as she tried to think clearly. She hadn't worn these trousers the day before, she'd worn that stupid short skirt - and now she remembered she'd had no pocket for the key. She'd tucked it into her bra, and she couldn't remember ever taking it out again.

It certainly wasn't there when she'd undressed after getting home late last night . . . but it could have fallen out at any of several places they'd been to last night. In Shelly's car, at Jessica's place where they'd met up with more friends, at the restaurant, the night club . . . or even back at Shane's.

As Feather walked numbly toward the bus-stop, she was unable to believe the trouble she was in. It was like a nightmare that just kept getting worse, and she had no idea what to do now.

"What's up, Pixie Girl?" Lisa asked when Feather slumped down into her chair at the dinner table. She'd spent every moment since getting home turning her room upside down in a fruitless search for a key and was on the verge of tears.

River joined them, placing on the table a bag of take-away chicken and chips that he'd picked up on the way home. He ruffled Feather's hair. "I've been worrying about you all day. You were home very late last night, and you hadn't got up when I left this morning. Did something happen?"

"Yes!" Feather replied and burst into tears, "I've lost the key!"

"What key?" Lisa asked.

"The key! The key to James' flat!"

"But honey, it's not that bad is it?" Lisa soothed, beginning to share out the chicken and chips, "Surely he's got a spare?"

Feather was blowing her nose and River answered for her, "She doesn't want him to know she's been in the flat - she'd borrowed his photo remember?"

"Oh, I see."

Lisa had begun eating, but when Feather saw River close his eyes and silently say grace, she remembered to give thanks too, and then with a little hiccup tried to explain why she was so upset.

"No - it's worse than just the picture . . . I've left my cardigan in there too! I have to get it out and put the photo back before he comes home the day after tomorrow - and now I've lost the key."

"When did you have it last?" River asked with a resigned sigh. Feather glanced up at him, and noticed that although he'd managed to work all day he was looking very worn.

"When I went in there yesterday afternoon. But I didn't have a pocket, and I just put it inside my bra," she sniffed miserably, "and then I forgot all about it. I'm sure it wasn't in there when I got home last night - and I could have lost it anywhere last night."

"Why don't you ring Vera?" Lisa suggested.

Feather looked up quickly. Vera was the physic who did readings over lunchtime at the crystal shop where Lisa worked. She was a lovely lady, and a few years ago when Feather had lost the brooch her Grandma had given her, Vera had told her exactly where to find it.

"Or you could check the obvious places yourself, Feather," River cut into her thoughts, and Feather did not miss the challenge in his tone, or the inference of his raised eyebrows. Obviously River did not approve of her ringing a clairvoyant.

Relieved that Lisa had not picked up on River's disapproval, Feather gave her a non-committal answer, saying that she'd keep that in mind. Lisa nodded, preoccupied by jotting down the specials from the supermarket catalogues as she ate. As soon as they'd finished eating, Lisa asked if there was anything else either of them wanted from the shops, then gathered up the wrappings from the meal and headed out.

River leaned back in his chair, and Feather's heart sunk as she saw the serious expression in his eyes as he looked at her.

"You're not really considering consulting a fortune-teller, are you?" he asked.

"But Vera could probably tell me right away where the key is, and I could put everything right again," she replied nervously, not wanting to discount such an easy solution, "and you remember how spot-on she was about Granny's brooch."

"Oh, Feather! God has given us his Word to guide us, the Bible tells us not to have anything to do with fortune-tellers or spiritualists. We're to trust him."

"I do trust God about the future, but this isn't anything like that. I only want to know where I lost the key - and that's already happened."

"Have you ever stopped to think where psychics are getting their messages from?" River asked her, "They're not getting them from God."

Feather shrugged, feeling uncomfortable. She knew he meant they must be getting their information from Satan but that made it sound so awful that she didn't want to put it into words. She chewed on her fingernail in silence as he continued.

"And why would the Devil be doing that, Feather? For our good? Or to deceive us and drag us away from trusting in the true God?"

"You don't understand how important this is!" she cried, feeling cornered by his argument. "I would do anything for James to have a good opinion of me - if I can't find the key before he gets home I might as well never go back!"

"I think I do understand," River replied quietly, refilling his glass from the jug of water on the table. "You know how Mum keeps trying to push me into Reiki - do you think that I've never been tempted to just give in and try it? That I don't want to miss out on something that's apparently making other people feel better?"

Feather glanced up at him in surprise. River was always so black and white and immovable about everything that it was hard to imagine him struggling with stuff like she did.

"But is it really that bad? Lisa was telling me how it is just like the healing that Jesus did in the Bible."

River shook his head. "No matter what biblical terms they might use, Reiki and other practices which claim to channel or unblock life-energy or life-force are based on spiritual beliefs which don't point to the God of the Bible, or glorify him as Saviour or the forgiver of sins. When Jesus healed people he wasn't tapping into a 'universal power' because he had some kind of special training or attunements. He worked those miracles to demonstrate that he came with God's power and with authority not only to heal, but to forgive sin."

"Okay, but what about Jesus' disciples?" Feather asked, "They healed people sometimes too."

"Yes. Jesus specifically commissioned those particular men - and he gave them the ability to heal and work other miracles to show that their teaching came with God's authority. But there have always been people who are claiming to work miracles who haven't been commissioned by God. I think it is in Matthew Chapter 7 that Jesus said that not everyone who said to him, 'Lord, Lord,' would enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who did his Father's will, and when they would protest that they had even done miracles in his name he would tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!' Without a right relationship with Jesus, neither healing or miracles or anything else can do anyone spiritual good."

Feather mused on what he said for a few minutes before asking, "But what about all the other Christians who think that Reiki's okay? What if they just only think of it as the healing coming from God?"

"I don't know. I do know a lot of people, even Christians, try these things without having ever looked into where they come from or what they represent. And some people reason along the lines that they think if Reiki does good and all good comes from God . . . Reiki must be from God." River put his elbows on the table, and propped his head up on his hands, "But I know enough about where it comes from and what it involves - how can I go behind God's back and try to take what he hasn't chosen to give me? I know he has the power to heal me, and I pray every day that he will - but I need to be content to wait on his plans and timing for my life."

"How do you know this isn't the way that God wants to use to heal you?"

"Because this reverence of a "universal power" is a kind of pantheism that goes against what we're taught in the Bible," he explained patiently, "Reiki is not medical or scientific, it is based on spiritual beliefs. This is where it's like you wanting to use a psychic to solve your problems, instead of relying on God. You know how the Bible says that when we become Christians it is like we are committing ourselves as if in marriage to Jesus?"

"Uh-huh," Feather nodded.

"Well, when we aren't satisfied with what Jesus gives us and go somewhere else for spiritual things as well, it is just like a wife being unfaithful to her husband. Not only is it an awful thing to do to Jesus, who bought us for his bride with his own blood, but our God is a jealous God and if we are unfaithful we provoke him to anger."

Feather grimaced, "You make it sound so awful."

"I think it is awful. But I'm sure we can find a much better solution anyway." River smiled bracingly, and reached for the notepad and pen which Lisa had left on the table. "How about you start telling me everywhere you went last night, and every one you were with? Then we'll pray about it together and you can start making some phone calls."

"Well, I don't mind ringing the restaurant and the club . . . but I really don't want to go round ringing all my friends up," Feather explained a little awkwardly, "I . . .um . . . got a bit carried away being out with them all last night, so I thought I'd do better at following God if I don't have any more to do with them . . . I really don't want to ring them again or anything."

"You were just planning to drop them cold?"

She nodded, thinking he would have been impressed, but River was frowning again.

"Don't you think it would be better to explain to them how your life has changed, and why you want to live differently now? You're right that it's not a good thing to keep going around with them in the same way you have been, but why not tell them they're still your friends and they're welcome to come along to church with you or maybe to the Bible Study -"

"I don't think so!" Feather cut him off with a snort, "Can you imagine any of my crowd in church?"

River smiled at her mistily and reached across the table to take her hand, "You know, just over a year ago I wouldn't have been able to imagine seeing you in church either - but I thank God every day for what he has done for you."

Quite unexpectedly, Feather felt her eyes fill with tears and quickly blinked them away. It wasn't often that River went all soft on her like this and she felt a little guilty for all the times she thought him so hard and demanding for picking her up on every little thing she got wrong. He was just trying to help her in his own way, and Feather really hoped he could help her sort out all her problems.

She took a deep breath, "Okay, River - I'll give it a go your way."

Feather watched her bus disappear up the road without her while she locked up the bookshop the following afternoon and thought it a fitting end to what felt like the worst day of her life. She began trudging after it, hoping the next bus would come before it got completely dark.

Unfortunately Feather was halfway between stops when that next bus passed an hour later and by the time she hauled herself up the stairs to the flat she was as weary in body as she was in spirit. Inside her had grown a cold core of miserable dejection that felt as though it had even numbed her heart.

She had prayed about everything with River last night, but after trying the restaurant and nightclub without success she'd been unable to get onto any of her friends and had to wait until getting to work to try them again. And so she'd gathered up her courage and rung them, one by one, but it had been an even greater ordeal than she'd dreaded - and all for nothing.

They had all seemed to have taken everything she'd tried to explain the wrong way, taking her desire to live to please God as a personal attack against them and while Feather saw that her honesty had made pulling away from her old social life much easier, she felt no satisfaction in that at the moment.

Without the key she couldn't put things right in James' flat before he returned tomorrow evening. Without the key she couldn't finally earn his approval. And without the key she couldn't make the fresh start in the eyes of the people in her church . . .

Feather sighed despondently - she'd closed the doors on her old life, but had lost the key to her new one.

Opening her front door, Feather noticed that the living room was in darkness, but as she went inside she could hear Lisa singing in the kitchen, and made her way though to the brightly lit room.

Lisa looked up from the chicken breast she was slicing, "Oh, Sweetie - did you miss your bus?"

Feather nodded and slumped down onto a bar stool at the counter opposite, leaning her chin in her hands as Lisa scooped up the chicken and dumped it into a wok on the stove.

"I'm so sorry. How did you go - did any of your friends find the key?" she asked as steam sizzled up from the pan.

"No, and there's nowhere left to try," Feather sighed. "Is River home? Is he in his room?"

"Uh-uh. He rang to say he's working back tonight to catch up while he's feeling up to it. When does James come back?"

"Tomorrow night. I guess he's got another key to let himself in with . . . but when he gets in and sees my cardigan and his missing photo and knows that I've been in there -" she broke off with a sniff, and blew her nose quickly, "There's not much point in going back to work once he knows. Maybe I'll leave a note on his desk for him to find on Friday morning explaining why I won't be back in."

Lisa emptied a jar of sauce into the wok and stirred it round before pulling up a stool opposite Feather.

"Nope - we're not giving up that easy, Pixie Girl, there's still nearly twenty four hours left for you and me to get this all fixed up. After tea I'll go around and see Vera, she's been inviting me over for a while and this is as good a reason as any. If she can't tell me where the key is, she'll know the best thing to do next anyway."

Feather's stomach tightened uncomfortably, but she didn't say anything. As she sat and thought through Lisa's offer her heart began to speed up with new hope. Feather had understood what River had said about psychics and everything last night, but Lisa wasn't trying to live as a Biblical Christian and she often got advice from Vera on different things, so it couldn't do her any more harm . . . and it wasn't like Feather was even asking Lisa to do it for her.

She bit her lip, excited by the thought that things might work out after all. A disquieting feeling of guilt nagged at her conscience, but Feather tried to silence it. It would all be worthwhile if she could make a fresh start with James and her Christian life . . . after this she'd be careful never to get into such a mess again. And it wasn't like she hadn't tried every other way
first . . .

The kitchen began to fill with the tangy aroma of the chicken stir-fry and Feather realised she had quite an appetite.

"Thanks, Lisa," she smiled, and began setting the table.

The voice of Feather's conscience which had begun like a quiet whisper before dinner the previous night had developed overnight into an ominous rumble, and by lunch time her guilt was so loud in her own ears she was nearly convinced it must be audible to the whole world. But she'd made her choice and now she'd have to see it through . . .

She took a deep breath and walked slowly over to the front door of the book shop and locked it, then took the phone off the hook. For half an hour at least she wouldn't have to be waiting on the edge of her seat for Lisa's inevitable phone call.

She'd gone to bed before Lisa had returned from Vera's, and had left the house before either Lisa or River were out of bed that morning. Despite trying to put it out of her mind and get on with her work, Feather couldn't help wondering what Vera might have said . . .

Grabbing her lunch bag, Feather went into James' office and turned on his CD player, hoping that in there at least she could somehow find a little peace. She sat down in her usual seat, but when she pulled out the fruit and cereal bars she'd hastily packed that morning she discovered she had no appetite for anything.

Feather's gaze roved over James desk, fixing on the Bible he kept with a couple of reference books between the two agate bookends she'd given him for Christmas. Perhaps if she read something it would distract her mind a little?

She turned by habit to her favourite book in the New Testament, the Book of James, and began reading from the first chapter. By the second verse, "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds," Feather was already frowning. She'd been facing trials of many kinds this past week, but there was no way she would consider it pure joy.

She read on, "because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything" but came to a snag at the next verse.

"If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him." But I asked! Feather thought indignantly, all week I've been praying for wisdom to get through this mess, and things have just gotten worse and worse.

In growing frustration she continued, "But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does "

For the first time, the words struck home. She remembered their pastor preaching on double-minded men a few weeks ago - like the Israelites who wanted to follow God but to also keep the foreign idols as well. Instead of having a single-minded commitment and trust in God no matter what the circumstances, a double-minded man wanted backup plans as well.

Feather swallowed hard, seeing herself reflected in those verses. She wanted to follow God, but had baulked when the cost had seemed too high. This is what River had been referring to last night as a Christian being unfaithful to God, not having their whole trust in God no matter what . . .

She supported her head on her hands and stared hard at the words in front of her, rereading the verses again slowly, word by word. Oh, God, she prayed silently, remembering the words someone else had prayed in one of the gospels, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!"

The CD was softly playing acappella hymns in the background and as she sat looking intently at the Bible, Feather was lost in her thoughts, oblivious to the constant sounds of traffic from the busy road out front.

"I see you've found other company while I've been away," James' voice came from the doorway behind her, "though good company, I see."

Feather nearly shot out of her chair with fright and shock.

"James! But . . . I thought you weren't back until tonight."

He smiled, putting down his briefcase just inside the door. "Yes - but by this morning I just didn't want to be away from . . . um . . . away any longer so I decided to start driving home. How have you been going?"

Feather stared at him in great distress, what would she do now?

"What is it, Feather?" James asked gently, "Surely it can't be that bad?"

"But it is," she wailed and burst into tears, "I lost your key!"

James knelt down in front of her and took her hands in his. "That's okay - it was only the spare. It's not worth getting so upset about."

Feather shook her head, "No, but what I've done is much, much worse than that, James - and I'm so ashamed."

He looked up at her, his brown eyes clouded with concern. "Tell me all about it, Feather."

She sniffed and gratefully took the large folded hanky he'd held out to her and dabbed her streaming eyes. The hanky smelt so fresh and clean - just like everything to do with James. I could never, never be good enough for him . . . she thought disconsolately, and burst into renewed sobs, dreading what he would think of her after he heard everything she'd done.

James reached up and grasped her upper arms firmly, his smooth fingers warm against her skin. Feather knew he was only trying to comfort her, but it felt almost like an embrace and made her feel incredibly secure.

She wiped her eyes again and decided that she would tell him everything right now, no matter what the consequences would be. It was suddenly very important to her that James knew exactly what she was like . . .

Looking down on her hands she began to relate the whole story of the past few days, starting with how she'd wanted to see what his flat looked like and then taking his photo and leaving her cardigan behind, her misery after River had explained what she'd done wrong and then getting caught up with her old friends again and losing the key.

James listened quietly while she went on to tell him all about her discussion with River about consulting Vera, and the wretched day she'd had ringing all her friends and trying to tell them about her faith, but his grip tightened when she told him about her arrangement for Lisa to go and see Vera on her behalf the night before.

"I assume since you're telling me all this, Vera couldn't help?"

Feather shook her head, feeling sick at the disappointment in his voice.

"I don't know. After Lisa went out last night I began to feel really bad about it, but didn't want to have to tell you what I'd done either. I didn't know what to do so I just went to bed and when Lisa got home I pretended to be asleep so I wouldn't have to talk to her. But all night I couldn't sleep thinking about how wrong it was."

She took a shuddering breath, not daring to look up into James' eyes. "I started praying about it all and asked God to forgive me, and then I got up really early and left before anyone else was up. It was too late to stop Lisa asking Vera, but I thought that if I didn't find out her answer I'd still be trusting in God instead . . ."

Feather twisted the hanky in her hands, "I left a note for Lisa saying that I didn't want to know what Vera said after all, but she's already rung here three times this morning. I'm not very good at disagreeing with Lisa, so when I've seen her number come up on the phone I've just let it go through to the message bank without answering it." She swallowed hard, "And that's the whole story, James. I can't tell you how sorry I am about it all."

She dared to glance up at him, unprepared for the warmth she met in his shining eyes.

"You've done well, Feather, you really have," he said, smiling in a way she'd never seen before. His hands were still holding her, his thumbs stroking her arms almost like a caress. "You have no idea how -"

James seemed to catch himself, and straightened up quickly.

"You're as cold as ice. Let's go through and get your cardigan before anything else."

He put the phone back on the hook and Feather followed him to the door of his flat, finding it hard to understand why he didn't seem angry at her. He retrieved a set of keys from his pocket and unlocked the door, but as he pushed it open it scraped against something on the floor. James laughed, and bent down to pick up the missing key.

"Would you believe it? It's been here all along. You must have left it in the lock when you went inside, and knocked it out as you were coming through," he said, grinning, "If you'd have known you could have poked it back out with a piece of wire or something."

Feather felt like bursting into tears all over again.

"So this has all been for nothing!"

"No, it hasn't all been for nothing, Feather, what you've just told me has meant everything to me." James took hold of her arms again and drew her closer, "Ever since you began coming to church and became a Christian I've been thinking seriously about you - about us. But even though I was sure you felt the same way, I needed to wait until we both knew you were firmly established in your faith in God before I could even talk to you about it."

Feeling as though she was going hot and cold all at once, Feather stared at him. Surely she was misunderstanding what he was saying? He couldn't be possibly be meaning what she thought he was - not after everything she'd just told him.

"But James - you know what I'm really like. How could you possibly even like me?" she asked, blinking back the tears that were stinging her eyes.

"Because I do know what you're really like - with your warm, tender heart and your brightness and joy in everything you do. The way you've worked so hard to try to please God and to keep learning more about him."

"But I keep failing, James!" she protested, "What about everything I did this week?"

He reached up and gently brushed a tear away from her cheek. "It's like that verse in James 1, 'the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.' You've struggled this week but in the end you've held on to God, just like he's held on to you. That's how we grow as Christians, by learning to trust in God through the trials and temptations."

"But I make more mistakes than anyone else! You don't really want someone like that."

"You're not going to talk me out of it, you know," he said, his smile making her knees go rather weak. "I meant what I said about thinking seriously about us for a very long time. And have you ever thought you might find the Christian life a little easier to live if you and I were together and we could pray and talk through everything that ever came up?"

All Feather's breath seemed to leave her body in one deep sigh of longing. Could James possibly imagine how desperately she'd yearned for just that, to always be with him and share his sweet and peaceful life, learning more about God together?

He seemed to understand her thoughts without her even saying anything, and he let out a relieved breath. "So you are willing to think about it?"

Feather nodded, then jerked her head around as the phone rang.

"I'll get that," James said, releasing her arms, "You go and grab your cardigan."

She ran quickly into his flat and was just coming back into the office when she heard James' speaking to the caller.

"Yes, I am back early, Lisa . . . No, no problem . . . No, not long - I've only just arrived really."

Feather covered her mouth in dismay as she realised who caller was, and knew in a moment Lisa would be asking to speak to her. How could she possibly explain to Lisa why she'd changed her mind without really upsetting her?

James met her eyes and smiled reassuringly.

"Sorry, Lisa - I'll just have to take a message for Feather at the moment," he was saying into the phone, "Yes, I'll write it down exactly and make sure she gets it straight away."

He picked up a pen from the desk and wrote a few lines on the notepad, Feather's stomach churning with dread at the thought of what Lisa might be telling him.

"Okay, I'll read it back to you: 'Vera says it is not lost at all. It is where it belongs.' Sure, I'll pass that on." A faint blush seemed to be creeping up his neck as he turned slightly away, "Oh, and Lisa? I was hoping to take Feather out to dinner tonight, so she might be home late, if that's okay? I'll bring her right back to the door though . . . Thanks."

Feather stared at him, unable to take in how easily he'd just dealt with Lisa and her message from the psychic and the fact he'd just said he was taking her out to dinner . . .

James replaced the phone and gave a silent whistle.

"That's quite unnerving, isn't it, Vera's message being so accurate."

Feather agreed vehemently, "And I'm so glad I didn't get the message before you got here."

"So am I!" James grinned, his pensive expression gone. "So, may I take you out to dinner tonight?"

When she nodded, biting her lip in happiness, James glanced at his watch. "You know, I'm all for closing up the shop now. Why don't we call it a day, and go and see how my Mum and Dad are getting along. Dad should be over the worst of the flu by now - and I'd really like to take you to see my family's home."

Feather stiffened. It was one thing for James to say that he could accept her as she was, but surely his parents would not be at all happy about it. She might be trying hard now to do things right with God's help, but there was so much she'd already done that she couldn't ever undo. Not only was she stuck with this stupid name, but there were other things they would surely notice . . .

"What is it?" James asked.

"It's the dolphin."

"The dolphin?"

"Uh-huh." Feather explained, "I don't know if you've ever noticed, but I've got actually got a dolphin tattooed on my ankle."

"Yes, I have noticed. It is a very cute little dolphin." James looked as though he were trying not to smile, "What is up with the dolphin?"

"Your Mum and Dad will see it," she said miserably.

"Oh, I see," he answered, and from the understanding in his deep brown eyes, Feather was sure that he really did see.

"Well then," James continued, taking her hand in his and bearing her firmly towards the door. "Isn't it great that my Mum and Dad like dolphins just as much as I do."


© R Brown 2005

A note from the author: "I did not originally write this story with the intention of putting it up on TulipFiction.com - but felt led to write it for a Christian friend of mine who made a light-hearted suggestion about asking a phone-a-psychic about the location of a missing possession . . .

Around the same time the question of whether Reiki healing was "okay" for Christians was raised in an online chronic illness support group of which I am part. I hadn't really heard much about it before and as I researched it I began to feel that it also was very much a part of this new story in which I aimed to explore the concept of Christian spiritual fidelity in a fictional, yet realistic situation.

Despite "The Key" being originally created for one particular reader, after much prayer I felt that by adding it to the TulipFiction site others might also find enjoyment and encouragement in reading it.

I am aware that other Christians may hold different views on the appropriateness of Reiki and other "spiritual" practices for Christians, and in no way do I hold myself up as any kind of authority or expert on the subject. My personal views are based on what I have read about Reiki in the light of my own understanding of the Bible and I have no wish to create any kind of controversy with those who may have come to a different conclusion.

I hope merely to raise the awareness of the spiritual aspect of practices such as Reiki, and encourage all Christians (and indeed all who are searching for spiritual truth) to search the Scriptures for themselves to find the Biblical approach to these things and to take personal responsibility for looking into any practices that may contain spiritual elements before making any assumptions or decisions regarding them.

One website that I found particularly helpful regarding Reiki is
www.cana.userworld.com/cana_reiki1.html This article discusses the topic in some depth and may be a useful starting point for anyone wanting to look into the issue for themself.

Yours humbly in God's service,

Eos Development