The Lacquered Locket
By Nathanael John Highben
Ezra did not mind the way the world had turned out. It had been 7 years since life ended and something strange, beautiful, and wild had begun. Earth was behind it all in the end. First of the catastrophes was the satellites falling from the sky. When everything that was floating above finally came down, Mother Earth stopped providing in other ways. There was no more oil, coal, or crops to be had. The world suffered a 5-year draught, and that was about how long it took for supplies of oil and gas to run dry too.
Now if someone found oil or struck the once-prized vein of Mother Earth, it would be meaningless and messy. Of course, the way life used to be there was plenty of imagined apocalypses, and a lot of theories as to when and how it all might end. But of all the things that survived, nostalgia was something people did not care about. They did not remember what they lost. Ezra often thought that was the final thing that Mother Earth had done in reprimand for how we behaved. Something he thought that was not proven and may never could be. But as people first saw rain again, and as the land slowly began to give again, no one wanted to go back and rebuild. There was a planetary forgetfulness of what life was like before. Next door neighbors began meeting their neighbors all over again. For some, that never stopped.
Ezra liked to visualize how it all ended sometimes. He would picture cute little Mother Earth, getting angry and tired of these little ants always poking her and making her sick. Then she would close her eyes and concentrate, and from inside her core there would be a rumble. The first wave of her anger would be invisible, but it would bring down all those little flies the ants fling up into the air at night. The second wave would be pure, vibrant color. It would explode as it touched the surface. The third wave would be blinding white light, that scorches everything to embers that it was near. That was just a dream, though. Ezra knew that despite what he saw around him or thought – what had happened had still wiped-out millions.
Most of the town Ezra grew up in was in pieces thanks to three United States Government satellites. Fire and nature reclaimed what the government had left as quickly as it could. What Ezra saw now as he walked down the hill from his house was a world of browns and greens, purples and blues, yellows, oranges, and reds. The straight lines of mankind were being broken up by nature.
Ezra continued to walk down the hill, carefully stepping over the uneven rubble of what was once a bridge. Its form had changed from a stately span of wide road and sidewalk to a forlorn narrow path of asphalt and concrete. Roots and vegetation had stampeded over the path too, making it even trickier to cross. Black-eyed Susan’s and Bee Balm’s tangled themselves around his feet. Their yellow and purple flowers opened triumphantly to the sun. He knew the safest route by heart. He learned this through trial and error. He also learned that you could fall into the river below and survive. That was something he never really wanted to know, but he was glad he did now.
He liked walking over the old bridge, despite its dangers. There was something magical about walking over a bridge, something otherworldly. There was an exhilaration to it, a wild feeling that peaked in concert with him as he climbed to the crest.
When he came to the other side of the bridge, he tried to speak some sense to the butterflies dancing around in his belly. There was no luck. They knew it was a special day. For today was the day he met in secret with Francis. Francis was a smart, odd-ball, quiet girl. She worked at The Lacquered Locket, a local bookstore.
To use the term bookstore is not quite right though, thought Ezra. The Lacquered Locket is more of an emporium of past escapes. It was one of the few things that functioned similarly to the way it had before. The bazaar used to be the town’s public library. It had strutted out from among the surrounding buildings proudly, with its white stone pillars supporting the massive overhang roof. There was a bright metal emblem of a shield adorned with ribbons in the center. The top of the stately building was crowned with a beautiful green-glass, two-tiered dome.
What stood now in place was a strange bridge between the two worlds to Ezra. As he made his way across the empty ruins of the town’s local theater, he saw the tip of the domes green crater. The right side of the building had been pulverized by pieces of a satellite. It had left half the dome standing and crushed the right side of the building. The left side was irreparably damage by the wreckage too but had been rebuilt with wood and nails. Most of the books, watches, video games, and jewelry were in the skeleton of the satellite, on the right side. That had been renovated to make more space for merchants. That was where The Lacquered Locket resided.
The entire area of the old library was occupied at any time with 10 to 25 merchants, from all over the area. The way it had earned the named the Lacquered Locket was two pronged. Firstly, it was because that was the last name of the wealthiest merchant to have a stall there. He was so wealthy that he was allowed to keep his stall there permanently. No one really knew how he could do that. No one really knew how he had become so wealthy, when wealth was still such a new idea again. Secondly, because his unfortunate addiction to embalming fluid, his skin looked like it was mad of wax. No one really knew how he was not already six feet under, either.
His name was Corbin Locket, and his countenance was constantly at odds between his shocks of red hair and his shaky, pale jowls. To Ezra, he and Mr. Locket’s path would never have crossed if fate had not gotten involved. Fate always hands out its blessing with a curse hiding behind it, though. For it was fate that allowed him to meet Francis, a stunningly beautiful girl who worked at Mr. Locket’s shop. So as fate gifted him this angel, she also revealed to him a fiend. Mr. Locket was an arrogant, bossy, lying pig. But he was rich enough that it did not matter.
Ezra had gotten to know him passively as he tried to understand Francis. She was complex, and strong. Ezra was fascinated by her, and entirely unimpressed with her boss, even with all his wealth. Ezra could recall the exact moment he first spoke to Francis, what she wore, the way her hair curled behind her ear. He remembered her heart shaped locket the most from that meeting.
It was a small silver heart, with a slight silver chain. That little necklace was the tool he used to finally speak to her. She always wore it, and it always suited her. On the front of it there was a little engraving, that just said ADVICE. Ezra chuckled as he thought about the necklace now. When he first asked about it, he had questioned if that was really Cobain’s magic advice amulet. She giggled and opened the small latch on the locket, to reveal a picture of Kurt Cobain. He almost ruined her shirt with the soda that had come out of his nose after seeing that. His laughter made her chuckling become howls. When their hysterics had settled down, he offered to help her clean up the mess, and then asked her for coffee. He had said he needed to replace his drink anyways, since it is all over her shirt. Ezra knew from that point on, wherever he went, he was not alone. Because someone understood him. And that was Francis. The lovely, delightful, astounding Francis.
Ezra always had phases of reading books. Sometimes he would read two or three books a week, when they were so easily available. If he looked back on it now, he could kick himself for all the chances he could have read before the end. In today’s world books still existed, and they were not all some mythical tome, either. Most were just ordinary books, and even though they were rare, they were enough for a family to afford one or two.
Mostly it was just a matter of where he was, not many people in town really needed (or wanted) to read. Naturally then, not many merchants would come that sold books. The Lacquered Locket was the only shop that sold “literary devices” as Mr. Locket called them. That is the initial reason Ezra wandered in that place to begin with. He lent that whim to turn the corner of the street and head into The Lacquered Locket that day to fate.
He had walked into the dimly lit store, hoping to find some old comic books. Shops will usually let you handle the merchandise for a time. That was not so with Mr. Lockets’ wares. Even though everyone knew he only cared for his jewelry market, he never let anyone touch a product before it was purchased. Ezra was surprised at how quick that girthy man was when he spotted him making for a comic. The callous fool almost hurdled over a stand of dead Nintendo’s to stop him from touching a page.
When all the commotion had settled, Mr. Locket assigned Francis to “escort” Ezra around to make sure he did not touch anything else. Ezra learned that she believed in the strangeness of the world as he did. That day at the book shop turned in to nights of long, deep talks. Questions about why it all happened, and how. Do ghosts exist? Probably. What about aliens? Definitely.
Ezra cut his thoughts short and reminded himself what he is about to do. He agreed to meet with Francis tonight, in Mr. Locket’s shop, after it had closed. All those long discussions led her to ask him if he was comfortable with seeing something crazy. And she made sure to mention afterward that the circumstances were not the crazy part.
He turned the corner and crouched down. The lanterns and torches that lit the roadway cast deep shadows into the bushes and fencing that hung to the side of the road. Ezra carefully looked around to make sure no one was nearby. Confident he was alone, he crept to the locked door of Mr. Locket’s shop. He had picked a locked in preparation for this, but he could not remember his hands shaking this bad.
After dropping his lockpick once and almost cursing out loud, he finally managed to enter the building. The silence of the place amplified every sound. The deep black of the dark space sank into all corners. At the far end of the room there was a soft yellow glow. Ezra carefully made his way through the shop; anxious he would alarm some phantom guard. As he got near the end of the hall, he saw that the light was coming from a tiny opening in the wall. The slit of light was hidden behind a large painting of Saturn Devouring His Son. The disturbing image Goya painted brought ghastly thoughts to Ezra’s head as he slid behind it.
As he entered the hidden room, his breath rushed out of him. The room was swirling in wind, papers and books flying everywhere. Francis was gripping the edge of a wooden table cursing the air. Her hair was a hurricane around her. In the center of the table was a golden music box. The storm inside the room seemed to be emanating from that box. Ezra lunged forward to grab it but was knocked off balance by a flying book. The wind started to grow louder, and pieces of tile began coming off the ceiling above them. Francis struggled to point to the music box as Ezra was getting back up. He moaned and caught eye contact with her, then looked at the music box.
Ezra pushed through the wind and took hold of Francis’ left hand. Together they reached out to close the box. As soon as both of their fingers touched time stopped. All around Ezra saw nothing but black. His felt body become weightless, then realize its mass instantly, over, and over. He could barely keep consciousness, yet he was aware he was still holding her hand, and that wind was howling past them. This torment seemed to last an eternity to Ezra.
Finally, they landed with a soft thud, and bounced away from each other. When they both recovered, Ezra realized they were not home anymore.
“Where are we, Francis?!” he said frantically. He crawled up from his knees to where Francis had rolled to and shook her shoulder.
“Ezra, I’m…I’m not sure. But I think it is called Esidara!” She exclaimed looking around excitedly.
TO BE CONTINUED