My friend Patrick emailed me on a Sunday a few weeks ago and said he’d just come across an NPR writing contest, and that the deadline was midnight, Eastern Time. The assignment was to write no more than 600 words about a person who finds something and doesn’t want to return it.

I was headed out to dinner with some friends as I got the email. At dinner, I asked my friends for ideas, which made for some fun conversation. When dinner ended, I stayed late to think through a new idea that was forming. Once home, I typed exactly 600 words as fast as I could and sent them off to the contest–submitting about 30 minutes before the deadline. I didn’t win, unless NPR is still trying to organize the parade for my victory party in advance of calling me. I’m sure it’s something like that. Anyway, below is what I wrote. Let me know what you think.

John Baker

“John Baker, Property of Amarkisus Museum” is written on the newest shipment from Cairo. John himself checks in the crates and thoroughly inspects the contents of each container against its travel log, down to the linen roll stuffed inside Crate 6. He unwraps the layers of linen to find a tiny clef in his gloved hands. At this, he nearly faints.crate

But he has worked for twenty-two years as the Amarkisus curator, and he manages to control his demeanor. It couldn’t possibly be the same piece. Its fabled existence made him sure he’d never hear much more of it, nor ever see it in his hand.

Before his assistant Sarah can see what he’s found, he quickly re-wraps it in half of its linen and he tucks it under his jacket.

“We’ll finish up here in the morning,” he tells Sarah, and they secure the room for the night. Not so curiously, he finds only one record of the object in the paperwork, assigned directly to him, and he is careful to stuff that log in his jacket, too.

He doesn’t stop at his usual watering hole for dinner or drinks (this has been his favorite spot to come since his divorce). This night, he and the object and its record go straight back to his tiny, cluttered apartment.

He quickly locks the door behind him, turns on the lights, and checks even the bathroom for intruders before he goes to work. He shakes his head at his caution; of course there’s no one who followed the object.

John opens the wooden cabinet in his study, which for anyone else would be a bedroom/living room. This is the wood cabinet where he keeps the brandy and stacks of dusty research papers. Grabbing the leftmost stack and also the brandy, he slumps into his desk chair. Once plopped, he furiously combs through the stack and finds the article he’s looking for, published in 1954 about a curious tiny object known as the Devil’s Clef. The Clef—there’s an artist rendition, and it looks identical to the tiny object he re-unwraps from the linen—is exactly what it proclaims to be. The Devil himself is said to have cursed the object, making it impossible to melt, forge, or destroy. Anyone who comes in contact with it has but two choices: to keep the object and let it destroy life as they know it, or to give it away, in which case, it destroys the life of the new recipient while granting riches to the giver.

John isn’t sure that he believes this. But then, this object is fabled not to exist, and yet there it lies on his brandy desk. And Cairo was in an ultimate hurry to get rid of it.

John spends a brandy-filled, sleepless night debating what to do. He wants to send the damn thing to his ex-wife. But he thinks of his children, and of all things, sunshine after a rainstorm and his mother telling him not to look directly into the sun.

He can’t stop thinking of these old memories.

In the morning, he goes straight to the bank and opens a safety deposit box. He bequeaths the box to be opened upon his death, which he figures is soon, to a deceased person, thus making the item given by him to no one. He signs the papers, locks the linen-wrapped object away, and walks out of the bank, renewed in the knowledge that he just saved mankind, worthy or not—though, he’ll never believe not. As for himself, he’ll take his chances with whatever comes.


Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, available on Amazon.