Days passed. Matt still couldn't speak. Reluctantly he let Tess spin lies for him, and he borrowed her voice to say things where he couldn't. Lying was difficult, though, when he had so many things to say, so many things he wanted to believe but couldn't.
Matt knew everything had happened, and he knew the key was his. The man had been lying about the key, and Matt did not like to lie anymore. The ragged edges of copper were the same as always, and the cold tense of metal crouching on his skin was the same - always the same. It had opened his door, slid in silkily and smoothly without the usual gnawing and wiggling it took to slide it back out again. He did not know why, but he found himself liking this seemingly new, improved key, and he found himself doubting the man who had taken his voice and claimed the key as his own.
Now Matt stood at the threshold of his house with Tess's hand on his shoulder, glimpsing the gliding clouds and seeping sun that ebbed farther and farther away into space. It reminded him of the day he had encountered the man and his awful voice, and he shrugged off Tess's hand in a blind attempt to shrug off the man.
Tess frowned. "What's wrong, Matt?"
Matt shrugged once more, this time a careless, lazy shrug, and made to open the door with his key.
Tess's eyes widened. "Right," she said. "I forgot you couldn't speak." She cleared out of his way, and Matt stepped forward to insert the key into the lock.
The key gnashed its metal teeth through the strictures with ease. Matt could feel himself grinning, could feel himself shivering with anticipation once the key ran its course - but it felt wrong to admire something the man had touched, so he shoved everything back. He ignored the heaviness in his arms as he turned it.
The key wouldn't budge.
Matt tried to twist it the other way, and then the other way again, and still it wouldn't move from its place. He attempted to yank it out, but the only response he got was a rumble from the sky. Anxiously, he pulled backward and backward, the key grinding and crunching backward also, until the key plopped out and fell toward the concrete blade-first.
Matt watched as the key sank into the ground, melding in fluidly and rapidly as it cut in with knife-like precision. For a second there was nothing; then almost instantaneously the land shook and spat dirt from its earthen maw, gathering pressure and stamping down with elephantine strength. The world grew bleary and spun; Matt and Tess scrabbled out of the shelter created by the swooping roof of the house. They crawled painstakingly on their elbows onto the street, which was already flowing with people.
The quaking lengthened and the cacophony burgeoned to a great wave of terror that surged through the crowd in nanoseconds. All Matt could hear was the buzz of voices screaming, shouting, and immediately the grief for his lost voice buzzed louder.
Then the earthquake started to quaver and slow and audible sighs of relief replaced fear-struck shrieks. Not a moment later the first person was swallowed, and the screaming resumed as the ground gorged upon human flesh and bones.
Matt clawed frantically at the ground, unable to aid anyone, unable to know if anyone he knew was hurt or scared or wanted him. He thought of his mother's smooth face; his father's sunburned skin; his sister's tiny fingers; Tess's tall frame, drowning in a pit of stone and dirt. He thought of his neighbors, returning a misplaced envelope. He thought of the dog, yapping in his yard. He thought of the old woman across the street, weary and frail and who needed help to even get out of her home.
And Matt couldn't sense anything - didn't want to. The humming of his heart was a drum, pounding in his ears to block out sounds; the crumbs of soil flying into his face were a veil, shielding his eyes from carnage; and his mouth was open - open! - trying to scream but failing, the only thing a slight resonance in his chest that he loathed as much as the man.
The ground was still shaking when someone helped Matt up. He and the person stood unsteadily, gaining distance as they wobbled to the end of the now barren road. Gradually his vision cleared, and he saw it was Tess leading him toward a shadow of a man - a shadow of the man.
He jerked his arm away from Tess's sturdy hold, a million thoughts and dreads ricocheting in his skull. Was Tess a traitor? Did she work for the man; had she known his voice would be taken away? Had she lied to him?
Matt looked up at her face and tried to read her emotions; he was startled to see his own fright reflected back. The anger simmering within him dissipated surely, and he quietly released a sigh.
As if in response, the man crooned, "The girl is not with me. She is coming here because I told her to."
Matt held back a bitter laugh as they approached the man. The man appeared the same, hair still sullied and skin still sallow. But his voice was a crumbling bass that fired sharply in tender ears, and this time the glint of copper emanated from his enclosed fist.
"I told you it was mine, boy," he said. "You should've given it back."
Matt parted his lips, then sealed them. He clenched and unclenched his hands, eyeing the key that peeked out from the man's fingers.
The man nodded towards Matt's resolute expression. "You still want it?" he asked. "After all the trouble you've caused?"
Matt said nothing. He was calculating the seconds it would take to steal the key away from the man. He was calculating what to do, what to think, what to -
"He's right." Tess's scratchy voice broke in, and the man tilted his head in fascination, because of her voice or because of what she had to say, Matt didn't know. "If you had given him the key in the first place, Matt, then none of this would've happened." She swallowed, then said, "But he's also wrong. You didn't know it was his key because it looked so much like yours, and he didn't think it through before he punished you."
She gazed at the man, setting her jaw. "So how do we make it up?"
Matt heard her say "we," and a burst of gratitude exploded inside him.
He wasn't alone . . .
The man slaughtered the mood when he replied, "You can't. What's done is done."
And he threw the key high into the air, so high that the only thing they could make of it was a speck in the sky that could've been a bird or a faraway airplane. Then the sky began to topple, vibrating and heaving as the blanket of clouds delved downward and wind bore on them like pistons.
Matt couldn't exactly yell, but he could see Tess's teeth clamp shut on her bottom lip, drawing blood.
The man laughed, the key snug in his hand again. He surveyed them with his glossy brown eyes and beamed. "There are those who believe that, when you're awake at night and cannot sleep," he said, "it's because you're in someone else's dream.
"You're in my dream now, children. The key opens the door to everything."
The realization slammed into Matt like an axe felling a sapling. If the key opened the door to everything . . .
Tess seemed to realize the same thing at the same instant, and she shrilled, "It's you, Matt! It's you!"
In a blur, Matt sprinted toward the man and snatched the key out of his tight fist without warning, circling back as the man gave chase. Matt's palms sweated; his legs tensed. If the lock was where he thought it was, and the key was able to open it, everything would be undone.
So as the man neared, Matt stopped and held up the key.
He gritted his teeth and plunged the key into his chest.
The key bit into the lock, and he turned.
Matt could finally hear his scream as the whole world fell beneath him.