Jeremiah’s soulful lament was delivered to a room devoid of human company. An overfed cat with a sleek black coat and a nasty looking scar above its right eye sat on the table, purring contentedly. Oscar could not talk but Jeremiah knew his cat always listened.
Open on the table between Oscar and Jeremiah was a small wooden chest about thirty centimetres square. Inside it were hundreds of keys; bronze, silver and gold, large and small, conventional and electronic, old and new. This was Jeremiah’s favourite collection as none of his other collections aroused in him the same strong emotions. Each key was unique, each with its own story to tell of secrets and hidden treasures. A collection through which a fertile imagination such as Jeremiah’s could roam for hours.
Jeremiah owned other keys besides those in the chest, but they were for daily use so he carried them with him on a couple of interesting key rings. One from Australia, a mock road sign warning of probable shark attacks in all waterways, the other a Maple leaf emblem set inside a clear polished stone.
Every door in Jeremiah’s house had a different lock, as did the windows and the cupboards. Everything important to him, everything he held dear and precious was held securely under lock and key.
Rummaging through the dense mass of keys, he selected one which shone like a diamond among all the other age-dulled keys. This was the last key he had ever bought. In fact, it was the last key ever sold by the last locksmith in Toronto. Jeremiah remembered the auspicious day. Entering just before closing time, he had planned to buy more but was convinced by the locksmith, with whom he had struck up quite a friendship over the years, that purchasing a single key would be much more propitious.
Keyless remote and voice recognition systems, fingerprinting, face and retina matching had all combined to kill the ordinary key. Sad and nostalgic every time he touched his collection of keys, Jeremiah knew he would mourn the death of the humble device until his own demise.
At precisely five pm, the wall mounted VDU in Jeremiah’s living room came to life. Carefully placing his favourite key on top of the pile of keys in the chest, Jeremiah then pushed it into the sea of metal and plastic with his thumb. After closing the lid he reached for a set of keys half buried under Oscar’s generously proportioned stomach, selected the correct key and inserted it into the lock. Slowly turning the key, he listened for the familiar click. What a beautiful sound.
Leaving his key chest on the table, Jeremiah went into the living room and sat down in one of two armchairs he owned which were shaped like birds in flight. The plastic compound cover crinkled, gratefully receiving the weight and warmth of his body.
In the lower left hand corner of the VDU screen a light bulb icon flashed intermittently, advising of an incoming e-mail.
‘Jennifer Ashton. Aged 35. Tall, size 10 brunette. Works as a librarian. Enjoys reading, quiet dinners, cooking and collecting unusual things. Tel. 8886 1532. After 4pm weekdays. Not before 10 am weekends.’
‘Well Oscar,’ said Jeremiah, ‘here we go again. Another alleged perfect match from the Selection Committee.’
Formed by the government in the early 20’s to end the disastrous reign of dating agencies, Future Bliss Selection Committee, held the names of all single people in a database together with all their personal details. Singleness was considered an inefficient use of resources and undesirable for the future success of the species, so the Selection Committee’s role was to know the business of all singles and attempt to match them together in perfect couples. Marriage and children would follow naturally.
It was an offense not to inform the Committee of changes in your marital status and although there were no laws forcing people to accept the suggested couplings, a subtle continuous pressure was nonetheless applied.
Jeremiah had spent the past three years-since his former partner, Amanda, left him for someone recommended to her by the Selection Committee-rejecting proposed contacts. For one thing he couldn’t be bothered, and for another he could not face the risks involved in forming a new relationship.
‘A collector of interesting things, eh?’ said Jeremiah to Oscar, ‘This might finally be worth a first contact.’
Two weeks later, after their first face to face meeting, Jennifer and Jeremiah were getting on so well they were forced to agree that the Selection Committee had done an outstanding job this time.
That night, back at Jennifer’s place after dinner, as they sat on her wave shaped divan and sipped coffee, Jeremiah felt safe enough to share his keys. More specifically one key he wanted to give to Jennifer as a token of trust and the great affection he already felt for her. It was the key he had not even thought of giving to anyone else since Amanda left him. The key he promised himself, as he watched her pack her bags, walk out the door and climb into the passenger seat of the new love of her life’s Porsche, he would never give away again. It hurt too much.
‘I still use keys for everything around my place,’ said Jeremiah. Putting his cup of coffee down on the table, he fumbled in his pocket for the set of keys which contained the key he wanted to give to Jennifer. Finally pulling the Maple leaf key ring out of his pocket he looked at Jennifer and smiled, a little nervously.
‘I use all the keys on my two key rings almost every day. Except…’
Jennifer sat still and smiled warmly at him.
Her dark almond shaped eyes momentarily robbed him of the power of speech. He imagined this was one of those times when people who had real hearts may have experienced the excitement of it thumping in their chests. Jeremiah’s heart always kept a steady rate of seventy two beats a minute.
A light touch of Jennifer’s hand on his brought him back to her.
‘Except,’ she said, ‘which one?’
Courage rediscovered, Jeremiah continued. He held up one of the keys and said, ‘This one.’
Jennifer took the key in her hand and studied it carefully. Made from hard plastic, it was the size and shape of a baby’s fork except it had six tines. Each tine was a slightly different length.
‘What does this open?’
Jeremiah removed his sweater, noticing as he finished, Jennifer’s raised eyebrows. ‘Please don’t get the wrong idea,’ he said.
‘All right,’ she replied with another smile.
‘I need to show you something.
Pleased with how well it was going, Jeremiah next undid the top three buttons of his shirt.
‘Are you sure?’ teased Jennifer, ‘that I shouldn’t be getting the wrong idea.’
Jeremiah held out his hand and Jennifer placed the key in it.
‘This key,’ said Jeremiah holding the key up in front of his face, ‘is the key to my heart.’
When Jennifer laughed, he took it as a nervous laugh of possible misunderstanding, so was not offended but when she began to speak he interrupted.
‘Please Jennifer, let me finish. Don’t say anything. When I’m done talking, I’ll show you my heart and I hope you won’t get too much of a shock.
‘I was born with a condition called HTDD. Heart Tissue Decomposition Disease. One in five thousand children born to women who were infected during a chemical weapons attack on North America in 2009, were born with this fatal condition. The long term results of the infection could not be foreseen. Most of the women recovered their health eventually only to deliver children who were diagnosed with this disease which destroyed heart tissue. There was no treatment and no way to flush the infecting agent out of the blood stream so that neither transplants or massive transfusions were even moderately successfully in combating the disease. A diagnosis of HTDD was a death sentence.
‘An artificial heart was developed as a last resort. Totally synthetic, it was immune to the workings of the biological infectant, but perfectly able to reproduce normal heart function. It had the added advantage of being computer controlled so that the recipient of one of these new artificial hearts could literally and easily control their own heart rate.
‘On September 20, 2011, I was dying on a hospital bed when they rushed me to the operating theatre, removed my rotten heart and installed a new one.’
Jennifer seemed unmoved by the story, but not in a bad way. Jeremiah was not at all discouraged. Knowing her to be an intelligent and well read woman, he realised she would probably have heard of HTDD, its victims and the radical use of technology to save them. This technology was later used to help people whose hearts were also diseased or just worn out. The success of heart replication encouraged scientists to manufacture other replacement organs. By 2022, a whole range of cancers and diseases which attacked internal organs became totally treatable.
‘This is literally,’ said Jeremiah, ‘the key to my heart. It allows me to adjust my heart rate either up or down depending on my needs.’
Jennifer leaned forward allowing the dizzying sweetness of her perfume to wash over him. She kissed him softly on the cheek and stood up. ‘Excuse me please for just a moment.’
‘Are you all right?’ he said to her back as his eyes followed her shapely bottom down the hall, watching her hips swing slightly as she walked.
Had he told her too much? He had not even shown her his heart yet. Maybe this was all a bit much for her. That smile had to be forced politeness, and she has rushed off to the bathroom to throw up or at least figure out some way she can escape this nightmare. What have I done?
Jeremiah’s fears were still tugging at his sleeves when Jennifer returned looking refreshed. She carried her sweater under her arm. As she sat down, she removed it and laid it on the divan beside her.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said.
They looked at each other without talking. Smiles simultaneously broke upon their faces.
‘Can I talk now?’ she said.
Dumbly, Jeremiah nodded as he felt the moisture in his throat evaporate.
The shocked look on his face when she began to undo the buttons of her blouse, made Jennifer laugh. ‘I hope you don’t get the wrong idea.’
The undoing of the second button revealed eye catching cleavage which captured his gaze like a pin to a magnet, and although her eyes never left him, his eyes never left her breasts.
With her blouse open to the waist, Jennifer reached for her handbag on the coffee table and fumbled around inside for a moment. She produced an identical key ring and had Jeremiah not been hypnotized he would have noticed it and the distinctive key attached to it.
Finally Jeremiah saw the key.
‘Would you like to swap keys?’ asked Jennifer.
D.A. Cairns is married with two teenagers and lives on the south coast of New South Wales where he works part time as an English language teacher and writes stories in his very limited spare time. He has had 17 short stories published (but who’s counting right?) Devolution was his first novel and novel no.2 is currently seeking an agent or a publisher. Anyone interested?