Samuel eyed his rear-view mirror and touched his fingers upon the indicator. His periphery was pierced. His eyes darted back to the road. The opposing truck’s lights blinded him in the crimson dawn, but he could see the shredded tire. He took a breath that lasted a lifetime before slamming his foot on the break. It was too late. His partner in this twisted dance of death had pirouetted out in front of him. At once Samuel moved to spin the wheel. But he hesitated. He took one last moment to think. Reclaiming his breath, he reached into his coat pocket and braced.
The meeting of metal was over in an instant. Samuel was greeted by the silence as he returned to his life. Out here, the road overlooking the town was peaceful, especially on the weekend morning. What had seemed a desecrating explosion of such force made barely an impact on the calm of these hills. It was an inconsequential colliding of unfortunate atoms, though one can hardly call such molecular encounters 'unfortunate'.
Samuel, arisen and unhurt, stepped out of the car and pulled his hand from his jacket. He was clasping a ring of weathered keys. He steadied his hand and gazed upon the two remaining pristine lifelines. He felt a pang deep within, as he always did, when he observed one of the golden keys starting to degrade, the gold turning to chipped paint and rust. 'One key left'. His mind was filled with only this. Even as he looked upon the limp body of his companion in death, a boundless expanse of thoughts and emotions now subdued into eternity, he could focus on nothing else.
He wandered away from the wreck. The road led far into the countryside and he would accompany the Sun on its duty. He thumbed the one remaining key, clutching it tight, feeling its fleeting security. He’d used the first one back when he discovered them. He had been playing in the river near his childhood house. He and his brother often retreated there on the summer days, building dens and play-fighting under the watchful shade of the oak trees. He had dived down as to touch the bottom by the dare from his brother and became caught in the reeds. As his brain overcame his will and took in a breath of depths he had spotted the keys glinting on the bed. He grabbed for them as his life faded. Moments later, he had awoken, his life restored and his lungs thirst for air quenched. Racing for the top he saw one of the keys deteriorate, just as it had done only a few minutes ago. When he finally broke the surface, he felt the hot Sun bathing his face in its warming glow.
Samuel noticed it was getting hotter now and was just as thankful for the heat chasing away the morning cool. Lost in his musings he had only now started to take notice of his surroundings. The cars were out of sight and he was ambling down a gravel track. There was a brook beside him, flowing gently to its own soundtrack and he set down on its bank. He took shade under an oak tree. He always felt most secure around them. Again he eyed the keys. ‘What will be my purpose when all my keys have lost theirs?’. The third key retold its story about how it transformed him into a better man, turning him to life of helping others. The fourth, the most recently used, was quick to remind him that he had long since abandoned that for self-absorption. The tormenting thoughts were soon interrupted by slowing steps on gravel.
“Hello... Are you okay?” The stranger hesitated before taking a few more steps towards Samuel. “I noticed the blood on your sleeve, are you hurt?”
Nature rang out in the few moments of silence that followed, finally Samuel turned to the man.
“Yes. Yes I’m fine. I… I was in accident a mile or so up the road and I wandered here.”
The man now quickened his pace towards Samuel and kneeled down beside him. He looked him up and down and saw no scratches or wounds. He touched a hand upon Samuel’s shoulder.
“You’re a lucky one then; looks like you got off scot-free!"
The man smiled, and sat down with Samuel. It was a warming smile, one that filled him with content. But suddenly his joy faded.
“There wasn’t anyone else involved was there?”
“Yes,” Samuel took a breath and closed his eyes. “There was one other man. He’s dead.”
The man stared beyond Samuel for a while, running his hand down his face.
“It must have been quite a wreck then. It’s quite amazing that you’re okay, my friend.”
Samuel was sure he heard a little suspicion in the man’s voice. He looked a similar age to him but something seemed off. He noticed his eyes, the melded maze of blue and grey playing around the entrance to his soul. An empty entrance. Something listless in the man’s gaze.
“Wishing you were somewhere else?” The man chuckled. He had noticed Samuel clutching the keys. “I’m Adam, by the way.”
“Wishing I was someone else, Adam.” Samuel replied
“Now now, let’s not be talking like that,” Adam’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Wait! This other man, the poor soul, did you just leave him there?”
Samuel sunk his head in his hands and tried to forget. The screeching metal and emptiness of the dead man plagued his mind. Back in school, his favourite teacher once made a speech on life. On how they all had this one time on Earth to make their mark. Not to discover himself, but instead create the life he was gifted. But the keys had created nothing but stagnation. The last time he’d truly felt alive had been that day in class.
“You should go back to the accident, my friend.”
Adam had stood up and offered him his hand. With a groan Samuel accepted and they started the journey back to the wreck. Nearing the bend before the cars, Samuel turned to Adam.
“I want you to have this golden key, I have no use for it anymore”
“Well, thank you. Though I do not know what use it is to me either?” Adam looked perplexed but gracious.
“Make of it what you will, Adam”
As they turned the bend, Samuel’s face dropped.
“He was right there, I swear!” Samuel ran up to the mangled truck. “He was lifeless and covered in blood!” He inspected the remains and saw no signs of the victim. No blood or body. “Adam! Come here will you?”
As he rummaged around in the truck his eyes were caught by something familiar. Shrouded by a coat were a set of keys of chipped golden paint and rust. Five keys, just like his, except all these were deteriorated.
He turned around, but Adam had gone. Along with his last key.