Past the dry cornfields and cobblestone roads, surrounded by forests barren of leaves, lay the sleepy village of Lumbrow where rats scurried down the streets. A rumor about a mysterious key swirled in the village square and tangled in crooked branches. Supposedly, the key was buried in the dark woods, but no one in Lumbrow knew anything about it. The key was believed to unlock the magic of the past and the memories of the villagers—but despite numerous attempts, the key was never found. It remained embedded in the woods with only the wiggling worms to keep it company.
It was a foggy Sunday morning. The pattering rainfall had just stopped, and many villagers began to prepare for the weekly market. The bakery was the only place where they could grab delectable treats to stave off their hunger until supper. It belonged to Nate Onirikin and his twin sister, Georgia.
The two had been diligently working since dawn, creating delicious, flaky croissants, abundant fruit tarts, and decadent souffles. Nate paused and wiped the speckles of flour from his forehead. He looked out the window, watching newcomers arrive at the market, the crisp autumn air cooling his skin splattered with sweat.
Nate took a deep breath and turned to his sister, “It happened again.”
Georgia dusted her hands on her apron and sighed, “Your dreams? What was this one about?”
“It was the same. I’m walking down a narrow path in the forest. I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m searching for something,” Nate replied.
“Did you take your pills last night? I thought Dr. Monroe gave you a new prescription to help with the stress.”
“Yes, I took them, but they’re not working. This dream was the most vivid one yet.”
“Nate, I think it’s the stress from this business that’s eating at you. When we return home, I’ll make you a calming tea. That should work.”
Nate nodded and returned to his croissants.
The bell at the door chimed, and a customer walked in. Nate put the croissants in the oven and went to the counter. Standing before him was an old man with wrinkles drooping below his eyes, a salt and pepper beard, and eyes pooled with honey.
“Good day,” said the old man.
“Hello. What can I get for you?” replied Nate.
“Two blueberry scones, please.”
Nate grabbed the pastries and placed them in a handbasket.
“That will be three dollars, sir.”
The man studied him for a few moments. “You look just like him.”
“Like whom?” Nate asked, taking the cash from the man’s fingertips.
“Your grandfather,” the man answered.
Nate froze. “I don’t think I heard you correctly, sir. I don’t have a grandfather.”
The man laughed. “If that’s what you believe, so be it. Good day to you.”
Nate watched the man leave and walk towards the market. He went back into the kitchen where Georgia was slicing almonds.
“Something strange just happened,” Nate said.
“What now?” asked Georgia.
“A customer said I look just like our grandfather,” replied Nate.
“What?” Georgia put her knife down. “But we don’t have a grandfather.”
“It probably doesn’t mean anything,” Georgia continued chopping the nuts.
Nate ran his hand through his hair. “Alright.” He went back to check on his croissants.
The entire day while he worked, Nate replayed the conversation with the man in his head. Who was this man? How does he know me? Nate wondered. He thought about his dreams from the previous nights. The slow footsteps into an unknown path consumed his mind as he mixed the batter, poured the composition into rusted pans and placed them in the oven. Maybe he knows something about me, Nate thought, washing the dishes.
Fumbling with his apron, Nate approached Georgia, who was decorating the last lemon cake of the day. “Can you close up the bakery tonight? I need to grab something from the market for tomorrow’s recipes.”
Georgia bobbed her head. “Sure. Don’t be late for supper, though. I’m making zucchini stew.”
Nate closed the door of the bakery and dashed towards the market, hoping to find the old man again.
As he approached the town square, Nate noticed how empty it was. The villagers were packing up their stands and returning to their homes, while merchants counted the money they made. Dried sunflower seeds coated the sidewalks and rats nibbled on bits of garbage.
Nate walked towards an old woman placing mineral gems into wooden boxes. “Excuse me, is the market over?”
“Pah,” the woman spat as she trudged her luggage away.
As he made his way past the square, Nate heard someone laugh loudly in the distance. He turned around and saw the old man talking with another merchant. Nate picked up his pace and went to greet them.
Nate cleared his throat and made eye contact with the old man. The man clapped his friend on the shoulder, then strided towards Nate. “Hello again,” he said.
Nate fidgeted. “Hello. I’d like to speak with you about what you said to me this morning. I didn’t know the market would close so soon.”
“Nonsense. Come, I’m supposed to meet some friends at the pub. We’ll talk there,” replied the old man.
Nate followed the old man towards a brick building covered in moss. The name of the tavern was washed out and the windows were broken, shards spilling into the street. Nate walked inside with the man and sat down on a stiff bench next to two other people, a younger man who looked a few years older than Nate and a middle-aged woman. More merchants, he thought.
The old man took off his coat and sat down next to Nate. “So, what would you like to discuss?”
“Everything. How do you know my grandfather? I don’t know who you are, or who these people are. I’m so confused,” Nate said exasperated.
The old man chuckled. “That’s my fault, I apologize. I forgot that everyone in this town has no recollection of their past.”
“What?” asked Nate.
The younger man took a sip of his drink. “Martin, you can’t just say these things without explaining. This poor young man is clueless.”
The old man sighed. “My name is Martin, and these two folks are James and Sielga. We’re merchants from the neighboring town, Kirksdale. We’ve always enjoyed visiting Lumbrow’s weekly market. But a few years ago, we noticed that Lumbrow has changed.”
“What do you mean by changed?” asked Nate.
“Well, you see, Lumbrow hasn’t been the same since the key has been buried,” Martin replied.
“Yes. I’m speaking about the key that unlocks the door to the hidden library. This library holds books filled with the villagers’ history, including their ancestry,” said Martin.
“The key allowed Lumbrow’s citizens to hold onto memories of the past,” added James.
“However, a giant flood destroyed the village and the key vanished,” said Martin.
“It’s believed that the key was carried by the flood waters into the forest. Only the blue jays know where it’s buried,” Sielga added.
“And now, since this key is gone, the folks from Lumbrow cannot remember anything,” concluded Martin.
Nate was too shocked to speak.
“And that’s why it’s so important to find the key. I mean, can you imagine living without memories for the rest of your life?” James said.
“So you three have been trying to find this key?” asked Nate.
“Yes, but it’s nearly impossible to find it,” replied Sielga.
“The library is even harder to find. Legend has it that one must sacrifice something they love in order to find the place,” said James.
“I know this is a lot to process right now, Nate,” Martin said sympathetically.
“How do you know my name?” Nate asked.
“Your grandfather Lawrence and I used to be very close. He was a famous writer inspired by history, romance, and science. The whole country knew about him. When he wasn’t writing, your grandfather would tell me stories about you and your sister, and how he raised you two after the loss of your parents,” Martin explained.
“Zera and Tobias. They were the most skilled chemists I knew,” Martin said.
Nate massaged his head. “I can’t believe it. I don’t know any of this.”
“This is why the key needs to be found. All of this beautiful history will be lost forever,” replied Martin, stroking his beard.
Nate drank from his glass. “Thank you for telling me everything. I’m going to speak with my sister about the key. Maybe she might know where we could start looking for it.”
Martin nodded. “Yes, the more people that are aware of this knowledge, the closer we get to finding the key.”
Nate took a deep breath. “I’m going home. I hope to see you all again soon. Enjoy your travels.” He waved at his new acquaintances, then hurried out of the pub into the chilly streets.
By the time he returned home, Nate saw all the lights turned off in the small cottage. Georgia must be already asleep, he thought. Nate creaked open the door and quietly tiptoed to his room, trying not to make a sound to wake his sister. He slipped off his shoes and crawled into bed, thinking about the key. As his eyelids fluttered closed, Nate imagined seeing the key, dangling in front of him, just slightly out of reach.
He could only hear the sounds of his shoes crunching the dry leaves. He was in the forest again, following a narrow path through the brittle trees, the wind biting his cheeks. Where is it? He wondered. He saw a flash of blue feathers in front of him on the path. A blue jay! He could see it now, hovering over a small metallic object, glistening, calling for him, saying, You have found me. I’m here, I’m here, I’m here. He was running now, sprinting, chasing the blue jay, his hand reached out—
Nate woke in a cold sweat, his heart pounding. It was still dark out. He rubbed his eyes and removed the sheets clinging to his body. He climbed out of the bed and went downstairs, where he was surprised to find Georgia leaning against the kitchen counter, holding a steaming cup of tea in her hands.
“Where were you last night?” Georgia asked.
“I was at the pub,” replied Nate.
“Since when do you drink?” remarked Georgia.
“It wasn’t about drinking… I met with the old man from yesterday–Martin.”
“That’s his name?”
“Yes. And he told me about a key.”
Georgia took a sip of her tea.
“This key unlocks the door to a library which holds all the memories from the village. There are books written about our ancestors and our history. The key can make us remember everything from our past. We can remember our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents!”
Georgia remained silent.
“But this key is buried and no one can find it. After a devastating storm, the key disappeared. That’s why we can’t remember anything from our past. Do you recall when the old man told me I looked like our grandfather, and I said I don’t know him–that’s because the key is missing! If we could find this key, then we could remember him. We could remember our parents and what happened to them,” Nate continued.
Georgia’s hand tapped the kitchen counter, listening to her brother.
“Last night, I saw the key in my dreams. If I had been asleep for a few more seconds, I could have figured out where it was,” Nate said.
“Nate, did you forget to take your medication last night?” Georgia said at last.
“This doesn’t have anything to do with my medication, Georgia. Listen to me. We’re living in a repetitive life with no recollection of our past. We need to find the key,” Nate breathed.
Georgia pinched the bridge of her nose. “You’re being ridiculous.”
“Don’t you believe me?” asked Nate.
“It sounds too absurd to be true. That Martin man might have spiked your drink with something,” said Georgia.
“I’m being completely honest! Aren’t you curious about this key?”
“No. If it does exist, someone else will find it. We must get to the bakery. Are you ready?” Georgia said, dismissing the subject.
Nate grinded his teeth. He laced up his shoes and headed out the door with his sister, making their way towards the bakery.
The siblings prepared for another long day. Nate immediately began to whisk eggs for peach custard, and Georgia shaped the crusts of the tarts while waiting for the butter to melt on the stove. Nate set the bowl of whipped egg whites aside and heard his sister call, “We have to get blackberries for my tarts!”
Sighing, Nate removed his apron, grabbed a bucket from a small cabinet, and followed his sister into the forest to collect the wild berries.
“A customer asked me yesterday to make a special batch for her family, since it is her nephew’s birthday today. I was planning on getting the berries yesterday, but I was too busy making my blueberry scones,” Georgia told Nate as they walked through the skeletal trees.
Georgia made her way towards the bushes filled with violet blackberries. She plucked the sweet berries and plopped them into the bucket, her fingers stained purple. Georgia continued to tell Nate about the customer’s nephew, babbling about their love for toy horses. The leaves crunched beneath their feet as they filled the bucket with berries.
Nate could barely hear his sister, her words fading from his ears, as the path began to look oddly familiar. He recognized the branches, the way the path winded in a particular direction, and the crunch of the dry leaves.
“Georgia…” began Nate.
“Hmm?” she asked, twirling around.
“I’ve seen this before.”
“Seen what before?”
“This path…it’s from my dreams.”
“Nate, I’m sorry about what I said earlier. I didn’t mean to sound rude. But honestly, if those medications are not working, then we need to consult Dr. Monroe again.”
“No! Georgia! I think I know where to find the key. We have to keep walking down this path.”
“But we have to make it back to the bakery, we’re opening in an hour. I’m not sure if I even turned off the stove before we left…” replied Georgia.
“This is more important! Come on!” Nate lunged for his sister’s hand, then rushed down the twisted path, the thorns from the branches scraping their elbows. The two siblings descended into the heart of the forest, the light from dawn barely enough to see. Nate and Georgia raced through the woods until they passed the last skeletal tree and rushed into an open clearing.
Panting, Georgia set the bucket to the side, and sat down on the grass, its blades slick with morning dew, “Where is it?”
“I don’t know,” replied Nate. He sat down next to her, catching his breath.
Georgia closed her eyes and leaned back.
The sun began to bloom over the forest, its golden petals stretching outward into the blue jay sky. Nate admired the sun’s rays glimmering on the jeweled grass. He noticed a flash of blue feathers on the other side of the clearing. He got up and followed the blue jay that seemed to wait for him in one spot. Could this be where the key is located? He thought. Nate’s eyes widened as he approached. The blue jay was gone. Nate sank to his knees and started to dig with his bare hands, caked with dirt. He dug until his hand felt a small, metallic object. He pulled it out and held the key in his calloused palms.
“Georgia!!” he screamed.
His sister ran towards him, the bucket of berries in her hand. “You found it?”
Nate nodded, too excited to speak. He held the key in a tight grip. There was no time to talk. The sun was up above the forest and the blue jay let out a cry when they rushed back to the bakery.
From the end of the street, Nate and Georgia noticed a large group of people gathered in front of the bakery. The two siblings started to run. Nate smelled the rough smoke and his heart dropped. The bakery was on fire. The flames engulfed the building from all sides before they got close. Deep crimson flared in a livid light, devouring the roof, windows, and doors. Billowing plumes darkened as the bakery was consumed, the flames licking the walls and sweeping across the ceilings, chewing the wooden banisters. The timbers creaked and groaned as they turned to charcoal. The crowd was passing buckets of water to splash on the ruins, but it wasn’t enough to stop the inferno.
Georgia weeped when she saw the roof collapse. The two siblings could only watch the disaster unfold in front of their eyes. Later, when the fire dwindled, the few villagers that remained returned to their homes, leaving the two siblings alone with the ashes of their bakery.
Georgia wiped her eyes, staring at the embers, “I loved our bakery.”
“Me too,” Nate said quietly.
“It was our home,” Georgia whispered.
Nate wrapped his arms around his sister, feeling a knot in his throat. She sobbed on his shoulder.
Georgia laid the bucket of berries down between them and took a handful of fruit. They ate the berries in silence, watching the remains of their bakery disintegrate into cinders.
“What now?” Georgia peeked at her brother.
“Let’s see if we can salvage anything,” Nate replied.
Nodding, Georgia stood up and walked through the ashes of the bakery, the scent of smoke prickling her nose. Nate stepped through what used to be the kitchen, gazing at the melted pots and pans used for making delicious treats. Georgia sniffled when she found her favorite recipe book carbonized.
“There’s nothing left,” said Nate. “I thought we could find something–Ow” his foot hit something on the floor.
“What is it?” Georgia said.
“I think…” Nate dropped to the ground to feel the thick object. His hands gripped the metallic handle, feeling the edges on the ground. He wiped the ashes around it.
“Georgia, this is a door.”
“There was a door underneath the bakery. There’s a lock on it… do you think—”
“That the key might fit in?” Georgia finished.
Nate quickly fished out the key from his back pocket and held it between his index finger and thumb. He slowly placed it in the lock and turned it. He pressed the handle, revealing a flight of stairs underground.
The two siblings descended the stairs. When they reached the bottom, an enormous room opened to their wide eyes. The ornate beams were carved with engravings of leaves, autumn berries and mockingbirds singing on branches. The shelves were filled with books that expanded across the walls, as if they had been planted as seeds and grown by the virtue of many literary craftsmen. Thousands of volumes crammed the shelves, all sizes and colors, covered in scripted gold lettering, faint as breath shimmering along the spines. Nate stared at the beautiful library, his mouth agape at the wondrous treasure hidden beneath the earth. He slowly picked up a book, delicately flipping through its pages. To his amazement, the pages began quickly filling with words, describing the history of the village.
“Georgia! I think the books are coming to life,” Nate said, his eyes following the rapid growth of the sentences.
“This place is incredible. Nate, you were right. The library does exist,” said Georgia.
Nate flicked his fingers to the front of the book, and gasped. “Georgia, look who wrote this book!”
The two siblings looked at the thick volume and saw the name: Lawrence Onirikin.
“Our grandfather was the most famous author of our country, he wrote Lumbrow’s history!” Georgia exclaimed.
“You remember,” Nate said, astonished.
Georgia smiled at her brother, “Of course I remember, I’ve always known.”
Nate shook his head and laughed.
“Come on, let’s go back up,” said Georgia.
When they reached the top of the stairs, the fog lifted and the two siblings saw the village of Lumbrow bursting with life. The once desolate street was lined with full trees, their fall foliage glowing scarlet and orange in the afternoon sun. Children were laughing, racing down the clean cobblestone, holding candied apples in their hands. The houses were no longer in shambles. Their new walls glimmered in hues of emerald and amber, their windowsills filled with purple begonias. The old woman Nate recognized from the market passed by with a basket of gems, waving at them.
Georgia grinned at her brother, “The village is alive.”
Nate ruffled her hair and pulled her in a tight embrace.
The two siblings stood on the smoldering ruins of their bakery and looked at each other.
“Now that we know the past, it’s easy to rebuild,” Nate said.
Dana Serea is a freshman at Princeton University who loves writing, photography, and competitive swimming. Her work has been published in Poets Without Borders, Lunch Ticket, The Louisville Review, The Red Wheelbarrow, Totem, Ice Lolly Review, Canvas Literary Journal, Bluefire, Teen Ink, Pulp, The Weight Journal, and in the Poetry Society of Virginia 2020 and 2022 anthologies. She is the winner of a Scholastic Art & Writing National Gold Medal for personal essay, as well as a multiple Gold Key winner for the state of New Jersey for the last 4 years. She won the 1st place in the 2022 Poetry Society of Virginia High School Student Contest for poetry, 1st place in the 2020 Renee Duke Youth Award Poetry Contest for Human Rights for poetry, and the 1st place in the 2020 Ringling College for Art and Design “Storytellers of Tomorrow” Writing Contest for a short story.