A college student shows her dorm mate a mysterious cabin in the woods that changes its inside based on what key is inserted.
“Behold! The House of Keys! At least, that’s my working title.”
Jamie waved her hands, parodying an infomercial host, as she revealed the log cabin to Rhonda. They had to hike for about 30 minutes to get there as there was no path for cars, but they did have cell service as Jamie led the way with her phone’s GPS. The cabin was not old, but it was not new either. From the outside, Rhonda assumed the simple wooden structure housed a single room and perhaps a bathroom. The front door’s red-painted background with roses of various colors invoked feelings of love and romance, while the blacked-out windows invoked mystery. The more Rhonda studied the windows, the more she suspected the owner simply painted them black on the inside.
For the past hour, Rhonda had been trying to get her dorm mate to tell her what she found during her hike, but Jamie was silent. Jamie claimed Rhonda would only believe it if she saw it for herself. Rhonda disagreed and brought up the fact that they were both journalism majors and would trust each other. Jamie replied that “this is some sci-fi shit” and asked her to “bring any kind of key she could, even keys that weren’t technically keys.” Intrigued, Rhonda dropped the book about the history of zines she was reading and gathered anything key-like.
“Now that we’re here, are you going to tell me what the big deal is?” Rhonda asked, being mindful of watching her snark. “This is just an ordinary cabin in the woods. Wait. Did you find a dead body?”
“No,” Jamie replied, enjoying the secret she held. “Weirder.”
“What’s weirder than a dead body?”
Jamie took a deep breath. She reached into her hoodie’s pocket, pulled out her dorm room key, and put it in the keyhole under the white doorknob but stopped before going any further. “Okay, so whatever key you put in here, the inside takes you to a place inspired by that key.”
Jamie pushed open the door, revealing a room with a striking resemblance to their dorm room. Rhonda stepped inside, seeing duplicates of their bed sets, posters, and personal belongings. The place even had the same scent of lavender and coconut oil from their beauty care products.
“How in the world,” Rhonda whispered. “How did you do this?”
“I just used my key on this door. Notice the dimensions inside and outside. They don’t match. Look at the windows. They match like our place, but not with the windows on the cabin.”
Rhonda picked up a duplicate of the book she was reading, which was in the same spot she had left it in her dorm back at the college. “I still don’t believe this.”
“This was just one room,” Jamie informed her. She grabbed Rhonda’s hand and took her back outside, closing the door behind. “Put one of your keys in there. Any key.”
Rhonda noticed a golden metal sign next to the door that welcomed, “Any key will unlock me. Come inside!” The sign explained why Jamie would’ve tried to get inside.
She picked the gate key to the pool she worked at as a lifeguard during the weekends. The lock absorbed the key, making a satisfying click with its magically perfect fit. She turned the knob, revealing an indoor pool. The natatorium room was much bigger than the outside of the cabin.
“No freaking way,” Rhonda said with her jaw dropped.
“Pretty, cool, huh?”
“Yeah. I think I forgive you for wanting to show me this place instead of telling me about it. Does anyone else know about this?”
“You’re the only soul I’ve told,” Jamie answered.
Rhonda surveyed the forest, looking for any signs of people. “I wonder if anyone else has found this place.”
“I do get cell service here,” Jamie announced as she pulled out her phone. “I’ll check and see if there are any geotagged photos or videos.”
Rhonda hovered over Jamie’s shoulder as Jamie pulled up a video of a guy doing a walkthrough of the cabin about 30 minutes ago. In his video, the inside looked like his bedroom. While the tour was still happening, the screen went blank. Jamie tapped on her phone, reloading the social media post, but it was gone.
“That’s weird,” Jamie muttered as she tried to reload the post again.
“You don’t think someone else deleted it,” Rhonda teased.
“Jamie and Rhonda,” an authoritative voice shouted from the woods. “Please exit the cabin.”
Outside the cabin was a team of three people in white and yellow uniforms with design elements from police officers, firefighters, and paramedics. They wore utility belts with an assortment of medical supplies and mechanical tools. Rhonda found their uniforms comforting but a bit odd that they were all wearing silver bracelets.
In front, taking command, was a short black woman with a buzz-cut hairstyle. Behind her was a heavyset man reviewing information on a black tablet device and a tall man with a thick beard holding a white rifle to his side.
“My name is Mists,” the woman introduced with a smile and a wave. “Are you either of you hurt?”
Both Jamie and Rhonda shook their heads and separately answered no.
“Captain, I’m not reading any other humans in the perimeter,” said the heavyset man as he looked at his tablet.
Mists nodded at him and turned back to the college students. “This building is dangerous. Please, come with us.”
“Not so fast,” a seven-foot-tall, golden skin woman interrupted as she charged out from behind the cabin. “I’m tired of you erasing everyone’s memory that finds my key-changed door, especially when I’m trying to spark love and friendship in those that discover it.”
The tall man with a thick beard pointed his rifle at the unknown woman. Mists raised her fist, singling not to fire yet. Jamie and Rhonda remained silent, not sure what was going on or how to react.
“They’re not reading as human,” the heavyset man whispered to Mists. “Not showing up as anything.”
“Stun them,” Mists ordered as she lowered her fist.
The tall man fired a blue electric beam at the stranger, but it did not phase the woman. He fired a second shot with no results. She laughed as she brushed aside her long, luxurious red hair.
Mists chucked back. “The stories are true. You must be one of the rumored end-timers.”
“My name is Pulse,” the woman shared like she was on camera. “But you won’t remember that because you’ll be the ones forgetting this event, this time.”
Pulse pulled a black device that resembled a garage door opener from a pocket in her white and red skirt. She pressed the red button, and the silver bracelets the officers wore flashed blue, rendering them unconscious.
“This was not the adventure I had in mind for you two,” Pulse said as she walked up to them. “But I’m sure you won’t forget about this either.”
“I have so many questions,” Jamie blurted out.
“Me too,” Rhonda added. “Like, who are you and who were they, and what is this place?”
Pulse did not respond. She instead knocked four times on the cabin door. The building folded onto itself, leaving only the red door and a frame around it. She opened the door, revealing a purple forest unlike anything on Earth.
“It wouldn’t be an adventure if I told you the answers,” Pulse said as she stepped through the doors. “I will tell you that you should get home before they wake up.”
The moment the door clicked shut, it disappeared in a blink with no fanfare.
I hope you all enjoyed July’s short story! I’m in Chickasha, Oklahoma working with the Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute, but I wrote this story in advance.
This story introduces another end-timer, Pulse. Getting close to having all 12 end-timers revealed and featured in stories. I was inspired by the following writing prompt: “There’s a door with a single keyhole – it will open regardless of what key is used. All keys open this door, but what’s on the other side, however, entirely depends on the key.”
Thank you to Janine De Guzman for bringing the confirmation scene to life.
May your next hike be safe!