The Key

The rooftop terrace is really the best place. You can see so far from there, and it has showers, too. It’s like being at the beach. We like to play there most of all. There are three apartments, and sometimes we peek through the windows when no one is home.

You can reach the terrace from all four entrances. Through the locked door on the top floor. The elevator only goes up to the fifth floor, and you have to go to the sixth by foot, and from there it’s only a few steps to the terrace.

There is a small window by the door. You can open it wide. If the door is locked. The parents all have keys. But they do not like us playing on the terrace. That’s why we crawl through the window. If you are small, you can get through it. We are: Alen, Jolanda, Branka, and me.

One day, we want to play doctor on the terrace. Jolanda has cotton balls and shots, Branka has bandages from the first aid kit, Alen has little bandaids, and I’ve got glass slides. “What are you going to do with those slides?” asks Jolanda.

“You know, it’s for when they look through the microscope at a lab, when they take your blood,” I say.

“But we don’t have a lab, and we don’t have a microscope. And who’s going to take blood when we don’t have a real needle?”

Jolanda has a point. But today I have nothing but slides. I know how to imagine that I also have a microscope and can see all the things that swim through our blood, those things called cells.

The terrace door is locked. It’s usually like that. But the key is in the lock. We glance at each other.

“Somebody forgot!” says Alen.

“We must return it,” I say.

“But to whom, if we don’t know who forgot it?” says Jolanda.

“Ana, you take it,” Branka says to me.

I unlock the door and we go onto the terrace, and I lock it behind me, putting the key into the pocket of my jeans. We play. They laugh at my slides. I’m not mad. I bandage wounds when I’m the doctor, and I lay down and moan when I’m the patient. Then we get tired.

I unlock the door and lock it again. I put the key back in my jeans pocket. Then I go to the yard, and at the top of the stairs leading to the school I dig a hole and drop in the key, covering it with one of the little collectible pictures that come in bubble gum wrappers. On top of that, I add a glass slide. Then I bury it all. This is a memento. Only I know where it’s buried.

The next day, Mr. Kovac looks for us around the yard.

“Did you, perchance, find our key to the terrace?” he asks, as we play Stealing Countries, drawing a grid of the world in the dirt.

“No, we didn’t,” we all say at once.

“Well,” says Mr. Kovac, “I don’t know where I put it. I thought…”

My cheeks flush. They burn so much that I steal half of Africa from Jolanda. Then I rush home.

After lunch, when there’s nobody in the yard, I go find my memento. You can’t see anything where I buried it yesterday, at least not much. I think it over. Should I dig up the key and put it in Mr. Kovac’s mailbox? I think about whether to ask Jolanda to do it. In the end, I leave it there.

It’s been many years since then. Now when I get to that yard, it seems very small. They paved the path at the top of the steps leading to the school. I know I’ll never go to the terrace again, that I’m too big to fit through the window. Anyway, I don’t have the key. Only the memory of the memento remains with me. I just still wish I’d thrown the key into the Kovac’s mailbox.

By Lili Potpara
translated, from the Slovene, by Kristina Zdravič Reardon

Kristina Zdravič Reardon is a PhD candidate in Literatures, Cultures, and Languages at the University of Connecticut. After earning an MFA in creative writing from the University of New Hampshire in 2010, she was awarded a Fulbright grant and spent a year in Ljubljana translating fiction. Her work has been published in World Literature Today, Words Without Borders, and Slovene Studies.

Lili Potpara is a Slovenian writer and translator. In 2002, her collection of short stories, Zgodbe na dušek (Bottoms up stories), won the Prize for Best Literary Debut from the Professional Association of Publishers and Booksellers of Slovenia.