Like so many times before, there once was a young girl who lived in a small village, in a small country, very far away from where you are reading this story.

This girl was very smart, very beautiful, but very lonely.

She made her living selling dirt to stupid people. She promised her customers that the dirt was very fertile and would return its cost tenfold through many bountiful harvests. This was not true, so she sold her dirt dirt cheap. But since there was no shortage of fools (no doubt due to the shortage of varied family trees in the area), she made a respectable living.

But selling dirt did not make for a very fulfilling life. Or much of one at all. The girl dreamed of something more, but knew, deep down, that she would never get it.

Then a strange man came to the village. He carried a small black camera that fit in the palm of his hand. It hardly made a sound as he snapped pictures of all the women in the village. Snap. Snap. Snap.

After taking their picture, he asked each woman to fill out some paper work. The form was over twenty pages long and had questions like:

Date of birth?

Shoe size?

How would you rate your culinary skills on a scale from 1-10?

Which side of the bed do you prefer?

How large of an age gap is acceptable in a relationship?

Are you comfortable dating someone classified as overweight?

Are you comfortable dating someone who is no longer ambulatory due to weight related issues?

Do you like having your hair braided?

The man told the women that one day, someone may see their photo and want to meet them. To take them away from all of this. When he said this, he waved his arms, indicating that he meant the entire village or maybe the entire country.

The girl thought it was all very strange, but since she had already finished the day’s dirt harvesting, she let the man take her picture and filled out the funny survey. After getting photos of every unwed or unhappily wed woman in the village, the man left without a word.

The girl knew that it would be too good to be true, to be taken away from all of this, so she promptly forgot about the whole thing and went back to her dirt trafficking.

That is until, one year later, when the strange man returned. He told the girl that he had found a man that wanted to meet her. This man lived in a big city, in a big country, not too far from where you are reading this story. The girl would be this man’s bride.

#

His name was Art.

He was much taller than the girl, and looked like he had always had more than enough to eat at every meal. Art had the pale skin of one who doesn’t have to toil in the fields and the small, intelligent eyes of a bird that has an extensive vocabulary. His most prominent feature, however, was the luxuriant beard that began just beneath his first chin.

Art lived in a very large house in the middle of nowhere. He assured the girl that the place got excellent Wi-Fi, which was important for his work.

Art was something called a Let’s Player. He recorded himself talking while playing video games and posted the videos online for people to watch. The girl did not understand why people would do this instead of just playing the games for themselves, but considering her last job was selling dirt, she didn’t press the issue.

Also, it paid surprisingly well. He owned the house, the many acres it sat on, and a silver car that went very fast along the winding country roads.

They were wed. If the girl was not happy, she was at least happier than she used to be. Which, in her opinion, was more than enough.

Art’s days were spent in front of the television, playing video games, talking into a headset to an empty room. His nights were spent in front of the computer, editing the day’s work and uploading it. The girl would try to sit with him when he recorded, but he told her that it distracted him. He told her to go entertain herself. That she had the whole rest of the house and grounds all to herself.

“Go nuts,” Art said. “But stay away from the spare room on the third floor.”

So she planted a garden. And she read the picture books in Art’s graphic novel library. And she used one of the many computers in the house to go online and watch her husband’s videos. It was nice hearing his voice, even if it was mostly just angry yelling.

And she stayed away from the spare room on the third floor. She often wondered what he might be keeping in the room, but thought better than to ask. Whenever Art mentioned the room, his eyes would grow distant and cold. The girl never saw her husband enter or leave the room. The door, locked with seven locks, stayed locked. Art wore the seven keys on a string around his neck, hidden behind his beard.

Time passed. With her new garden, the girl finally harvested something other than dirt. She used the vegetables in recipes she learned online. The girl forced her husband to sit down and eat dinner with her each night. Art liked her cooking, telling her it was almost as good as having something delivered.

#

One day, Art told his wife that he had to go away on a business trip to a big video game convention.

“I’d love to take you with me, but I bought my pass in advance and now they’re all sold out,” he said. “You’ll have more fun here than in a cramped motel room, anyway. Here, you’ll have the whole house and grounds to yourself.

“Go nuts,” Art said. “But stay away from the spare room on the third floor.”

And she did. The first day.

#

That night, she video chatted with Art. He told her the trip was going great, but he missed her terribly and couldn’t wait to return home. She told him that she’d have a big dinner prepared for him when he arrived. The last thing he said before signing off was to stay away from the spare room on the third floor.

While preparing for bed, the girl found the necklace of keys. Art had left them on his side of the bed. They lay coiled like a snake on his pillow, the silver keys glinting in the moonlight. She put them in the pocket of her pajamas and went to sleep.

She awoke early the next day. The keys felt like a bomb waiting to go off. She wore them around her neck and could almost hear them ticking. She tried to keep herself busy, working in the garden, looking for new recipes for Art’s homecoming dinner, but as the day wore on, the ticking grew harder and harder to ignore.

“Even if I don’t look in the room,” she thought, “when I give him back the keys, he’ll think I looked. So perhaps I should hide the necklace, and pretend I never found it.”

The girl ran her fingers across the seven cold keys hanging from her neck. “But if I look before I hide them, he’ll never know.”

She climbed the stairs.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

Each step she took towards the door, the louder the ticking became. Until, finally, standing outside the locked door of the spare room on the third floor, the keys seemed to vibrate with the sound.

TICK. TICK. TICK.

With shaking hands she took the keys from around her neck and unlocked the first lock. Then the second. The third. Until, finally, the seventh lock clicked open. The ticking stopped.

The late afternoon sun had faded, leaving the quiet house in shadows. All at once the girl felt very small and very lost. She opened the door.

In the room lay six long pillows with women drawn on them. Women with large eyes, and larger breasts. None of them wore much in the way of clothing. One had the ears of a cat.

All the pillows had been stabbed several times. Ripped open. The women on the pillows were all drawn to look like they were blushing. As if they were embarrassed to have their stuffing leaking out onto the floor.

“You found my necklace.”

The girl jumped at the sound of her husband’s voice, dropping the keys. Art stood behind her in the doorway.

“I’m sorry I had to lie about being away on business, but it was the only way I could test you. I really thought you were going to be different. Different than them. Better.”

He stepped into the room, his fedora almost brushing the top of the door frame.

“I’m a nice guy,” Art said, taking a long, curved blade from his pocket. “But I guess you’re not a very nice girl. Neither were any of them. Maybe my next wife will be.”

CJ Stringfield

CJ Stringfield lives in Colorado. As a child he avoided falling into any abandoned wells. So far, that has been his greatest accomplishment.

CJ Stringfield

CJ Stringfield lives in Colorado. As a child he avoided falling into any abandoned wells. So far, that has been his greatest accomplishment.