The taste is like cobwebs on my tongue, and it starts the moment I cross the threshold and enter the shed. The light is dim, the window small and coated in a layer of dust and grime, and it becomes more dark when I let go of the door and it closes gently shut behind me. A quiet but insistent sound hovers at the edge of my hearing, like the hum of a distant waterfall.
The key in my hand is no longer hot to the touch. I put it in my pocket and turn in a slow circle, looking carefully at the interior of the shed. Gardening tools are gathered in one corner, a shovel and rake leaning against the wall. A water hose hangs coiled like a tree snake on a nail by the window, and a workbench with an assortment of tools and a can of nails on it sits by the door. There is a bare bulb set into the ceiling, and I pull the string hanging there to turn it on, but nothing happens when I do.
Rum and molasses. Penelope. Nothing in the shed shines any light on those mysteries. There must be something here, however. Why else would the key unlock this door? It’s hardly a coincidence.
I look under the workbench, and find some paint cans and a few brushes. There is an old calendar from 2007 beneath one of the cans, a treed landscape covered in circle of splattered white paint. Beneath a tarp in one corner, there are two boat oars and a pair of muddied men’s boots.
There is nothing else in the shed. No clues and no answers.
This can’t be a dead end, I think. I look out the dirty window at the well-tended backyard. It can’t. What am I missing?
“You’re so very close now, Miss Flynn.”
I jump and cry out, spinning away from the window and banging my hip into the workbench, knocking the can of nails across the tabletop with a clatter. There is a man standing in front of the wall opposite me, not three feet away. He did not come through the shed’s door. He was not there a moment ago.
“Be careful, Miss Flynn,” he says. His voice is thick and low, like syrup mixed with opium. “Now isn’t the time to let your mind slip away.”
“Who are you?” I ask. The tremble in my voice heightens my fear, and I feel behind me with a shaking hand, seeking a hammer or screwdriver on the workbench to use as a weapon. “How did you get in here?”
“I am Mr. Middlemost,” he says, “and I have always been here.”
I grip the handle of something, and bring it around in front of me: a long flathead screwdriver. The tip is covered in white paint. “You weren’t here,” I say. “I would have seen you.”
“No,” he says. “You wouldn’t have.” He makes no move to approach me, and has his hands in his pockets. I see now that he is dressed in a fine brown suit, handkerchief stuffed artfully in his breast pocket, a tie around his neck. He looks as though he has stepped out of a Savile Row tailor’s shop, arranged and handsome, perfection in cut and line. “The strings weren’t knotted yet.”
“I don’t know what that means,” I say.
“Of course you don’t,” Middlemost says. “Obviously you are meant to, however. The coin led you here, which it doesn’t often do, and the key is even more obstinate, but it still unlocked the door for you. So there’s a reason for you to be here, Miss Flynn, even if neither of us knows what it is.”
“You know about those?” I ask. “The coin. The key.”
“Certainly. I was instrumental in their manufacture, after all. Well, not only me, but I had a hand in things.”
“Who are you?” I ask again. “What’s happening to me?”
Middlemost takes his hand from his pocket and holds it out to me, palm up. “May I have the key please, Miss Flynn?” I hesitate a moment, then take out the key and drop it into his hand. “You may put the screwdriver down. There’s nothing to fear here.”
“I’ll keep it for now,” I say. “I don’t know who you are.”
“I’m Mr. Middlemost. I’ve already told you.” He picks the key up from his palm using the middle finger and thumb of his other hand. “You’re going to think this is magic,” he says to me, and then he casually tosses the key up into the air above him. The key doesn’t come back down. It has vanished somewhere between his hand and the ceiling.
“It’s not magic,” I say. “It’s just a trick.”
“Oh my no. It’s neither magic nor a trick,” he says. “It’s the design of the Everwhere.” He puts his hands back into his pockets. “I know, I know. At this point you think I’m a lunatic. I can’t blame you for that.”
“A magician and a mind reader,” I say.
“I’m afraid it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” he says. “I’m going to say something now which is only going to frighten you more, and I’m sorry for that. We’ll get past it eventually, I promise.”
I edge toward the door, screwdriver held higher in front of me. “I’m going to…”
“You’re going to do nothing,” he says. “You’ve come too far to go back now, Miss Flynn. In is the only way out now.”
I feel behind me without taking my eyes from him, trying to find the handle to the door. When I can’t feel anything but wood beneath my fingers, I steal a quick glance over my shoulder, and that is when I see that the door is gone. Where it had been is now only a wooden wall, the same as the rest of the shed. I turn back to look at Middlemost, and that’s when I see that my screwdriver is also gone, and my hand is empty in front of me.
Middlemost is still against the far wall, hands again in his pockets. “What I was going to say, Miss Flynn, is that I have seen the dead girl inside you. I have seen her death, and I have seen the coin in her hand with which she must pay for passage to the Everwhere.” There is a thin whisper of sadness in his voice as he adds, “You see? I told you that would frighten you.”
“I’m not afraid,” I say, but I am. I very much am.
“Keep your coin, Miss Flynn,” he says. “You’re most definitely going to be needing it.”