Not Locks but Keys by Michael Walker

He stumbled along, at the tail end of the herd, one of his beat-up Nikes threatening to fall off with each lurch forward. Ahead of him, a very young girl—about seven or eight—shambled on in the same fashion. So close he could have reached out and touched her if he had control of his arms. (Er, arm.) The girl was dressed up, oddly enough, like a ballerina. Like something out of Swan Lake. Pink tutu, pink leotards, pink wrap top. A study in pink. Or what had once been a study in pink. Now the fay garment was smeared all over with dirt and brown blood. The wrap top had (almost) been ripped off her body and it hung from one of her thin shoulders like a matador’s cape. Her exposed back was covered in deep black lacerations.

Ordinarily, an emergency like that would have had him fumbling in pockets for his cell-phone, frantic to dial 911. But today that was not a possibility. No more dialing cell-phones, or even glancing at them, ever. It was just one more thing in the new ‘normal.’ As was the girl and her condition. She was just one more desecrated landmark, one more moving landmark, impressing itself upon his fixed field of vision.

For a while…

Besides, he had the villanelle to consider. He was one stanza away from the final four-line stanza. The rest did not matter anymore.

He played the poem over in his mind. In the small, floating part of his mind that still belonged to him. That still thought about villanelles. And Beethoven. And two plus two adding up to be four. The small (or maybe large) part of him that was not moving with this herd. It really was good so far:


Not locks but keys
Let the old and mystic forms be friend here
When the night comes in wildly


And this hoarder’s shack of memories
Let them come and build a bier
Not locks but keys


And my boat lost at sea
Bring me a compass by which to steer
When the night comes in wildly

      

The power of Arabic symmetry
Can be a balm for things you fear
Not locks but keys…


That was it so far. Just the penultimate and final stanzas to think up. He was pleased with it, really—the way it seemed to move forward. It seemed to be a perfect accompaniment to each of his blind, ragged footsteps. Marching music. He had read somewhere that the villanelle had started out as a song that peasants sang as they went about bringing in the harvest. Scything grain. Wasn’t that what he was doing now, in a kind of perverse way?

There was some kind of disturbance up ahead. Some new event that was telegraphing waves of agitation through the herd, eliciting the usual moan/groan response. The ballerina in front of him picked up the call in her tinny voice. And then, about two seconds after, he contributed his own sputtering tenor plaint. Or his body did—his larynx being fired up once again by the same sickness or demon that made him follow this terrible herd. That made him…

“Awww ooow eeeh,” the girl sang, raising her gray arms and moving them slowly up and down. As if she were a puppeteer instead of an erstwhile dancer, manipulating the strings of two marionettes.

“Mmm oooh arggh…” he replied, his arms (er, arm) also moving automatically, the remaining right appendage coming up now into his field of vision. And yes, the index finger on that hand was still mostly gone. Just a nub of the proximal phalanx to grasp a pen with. (If, by some miracle, THAT ever became a possibility again.) That loss, like so many other things, was no longer traumatic. He felt now, in his separate consciousness, only a slight twinge of sorrow and horror.

The new ‘normal.’

He really wished he could concentrate on the poem. But, once again, reality was rearing its zombie head. Making that an impossibility.

The herd, like one long black organism, was clamoring forward, contracting, trying to clamp its collective teeth on this something new.

And bring it down, of course…

And his old body was right there with it. No use fighting. He had long ago given up on that.

What was happening up ahead, then? Though he no longer controlled the movements of his eyes, he strained to see. And all he could really make out were more bodies. Some intact, some compromised. Some clothed. Some partially so or naked. All agitated. All pushing to gain more ground. All pushing to…

He realized that his one good arm was now slung up over the ballerina’s naked shoulder. That his own body was now pressed up against her scarred back. And, of course, she was oblivious. Not screaming for her parents or running away from his awkward touch. There was only one thing on her mind. Or limbic system. Or whatever awful force was in the driver’s seat.

The same for him. The same for the herd.

The essence of that little girl was probably still trapped inside that small clamoring body, still picturing lovely things. Plies and releves. Sautes and pirouettes. Or maybe she was mourning the loss of some pink bedroom in some suburban cul-de-sac: the bed crowded with stuffed animals and Disney princesses, the walls covered in Degas prints.

While her gray arms continued to stretch toward the new ‘normal.’


The power of Arabic symmetry
Can be a balm for things you fear
Not locks but keys
Not locks but keys
Not locks…


And still, the herd swarmed…

Finally, after what seemed centuries, the frenzy that had been whipped up over whatever had been far ahead died and the usual leisurely pace of the herd resumed. He still did not know what it had all been about. He assumed the usual. Moving landmarks intent on bringing down other landmarks. Feeding. At one point he had heard a sharp crash above the herd’s pointed wails and moans. And then a few pops, probably pistol fire. And then…

A single scream. Quickly, mercifully silenced…

Now, all was as before. All except for two things. Somehow in the melee, the press forward, he was fairly certain that his running shoe had given up the ghost and slipped off of his right foot. He could not look down to see but there seemed to be a more regular, less erratic, rhythm to his stride now. He wasn’t sure how that would match up with the cadence of his still unfinished villanelle, but it was probably a good thing. Sometimes the shoe snagged on some errant stone or inconvenient pothole, and he wondered, from the lofty tower of his consciousness, if his former body would topple over. Now, with the shoe behind him, that was probably less of an issue.

The other thing was that he now had lost sight of his ballerina friend. She had managed, during the scuffle, to slip between jostling arms and torsos. To move forward and be swallowed up by the crowd. That was actually a small sorrow for him. He was going to miss the sight of her, of her gauzy pink tutu, like something out of a Hans Christian Anderson dream.

Now, directly ahead of him, was a burly man. Clad in a brown and orange starter jacket—the colors those of one of the state’s two professional football franchises. For a second, he felt a buzz of deja vu pass over his consciousness. It was like being back in high school, where he had spent years slinking behind similarly clad leviathans, trying to avoid their withering notice. Trying hard to just get to the next class without being taunted. Or worse.

He had been writing poems in his head even then…

The poem. The villanelle…

And so, with the vinyl of that starter jacket going back and forth, up and down, scouring his frozen eyeballs, he tried to concentrate on figuring the next stanza of his poem. Once again, as he probably had a thousand times on this forced life-in-death march, he went over the intricate rules of villanelle. He wanted to get it exactly right.

But for whom, he was not sure…

Five stanzas of three lines each. Followed by a last stanza of four lines. The first line of the first stanza serves as the last line of the second and fourth stanzas. The third line of the first stanza serves as the last line of the third and fifth stanzas. And these two refrain lines reappear as the last two lines of the closing quatrain as…

What the HELL was he doing?

He came up from the prison of his mental monkey bars once again, to stare at broad shoulders in brown and orange vinyl. Going back and forth, back and forth, back…

Just what the HELL was he doing? He was no writer. He was a zombie. At the tail end of a gruesome parade of similarly affected souls. Probably, with a few exceptions, the whole world was conducting such parades. Marching and moaning. Just looking for…

Looking for human flesh to eat.

And he was whiling away his own Apocalypse Day Tournament twiddling his metaphysical thumbs. Just trying to finish some worthless poem.

Brown and orange vinyl going back and forth, back and forth. Maybe this new companion of his was running stats in whatever remained of his own consciousness. Who led the league in rushing? What was the longest successful field goal? Etc…Etc… Or maybe he was thinking about some sweet wife who gave him long shoulder rubs after a killer day killing people at the office. Or…

He had nothing like that to grieve over. Thankfully and sorrowfully. No, back at his small apartment there was nothing but a few folding chairs and an air mattress. And a laptop computer glutted with stories and poems, of course. Words he had tried to sell, unsuccessfully, for five years. If he had known all of this was coming, maybe he would have tried a little harder.

In a way, he was the best suited for this, probably. The new ‘normal.’ Out of this whole hellish herd. He had always been pretty much in his head since high school. A frightened turtle deep in its carapace. The things that most people did and took for granted, things that required some modicum of physical dexterity, had always seemed extra hard for him. Sports. Driving. Dancing. The list went on and on. His own brother Stephen had once remarked that he would probably have had more luck as a brain in a jar, and that was true. Soft nervous tissue just floating in a rich vat of nutrients. Thinking… Dreaming…

Coming up with more poems.

Wrote a poem about it. Wanna hear it? Here it goes…

He even tied the laces of his running shoes in little bunny ears. Like some five-year-old…

Well, that was no longer an issue either.

The villanelle… Finish. The. Villanelle.

But he couldn’t. He was thinking about Stephen now. His younger brother by three years. A successful trial lawyer who lived in a quiet, lush town two hours north of his city. And Stephen’s wife Tracy, a pretty blonde who always drove down to fetch him for rare family gatherings. (Very rare—usually Christmas.) He would have given anything, at that moment, to have been able to slide his one arm into his jean pocket, retrieve that damn cell and call Stephen. Make sure they were okay. Make sure they had been spared one of these pervasive grisly parades.

Well, it was impossible. And even if he had control of his arm and could fish it out, either the battery would be dead now or there would be no signal to fix on. That was pretty much a given. A small item in the new ‘normal.’

A comfort to him was that if anyone had survived, his brother was definitely a quality candidate. A partner in a law firm now, but fifteen years before he had served two tours of military duty with the Marines: one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. And he still kept active: running five miles or so every couple of days. Getting out of town as much as possible to hunt and fish…

No turtle in a carapace he…

“Hard to believe you two sprang from the same loins,” Tracy used to tease when they were all together. Usually after he had proved to be completely clueless at finishing some mundane task in their Georgian townhouse. Like slipping a pod of dark roast into some high-tech coffee maker.

And yet he knew how to put a villanelle together. And a siesta. And a sonnet…

Yes, they had sprung from the same loins. But if Stephen were alive and standing right in front of him, shouldering the Remington M7 he used to bring down deer in Wayne Forest, would that be an issue any more?

No. Probably no, he thought, another twinge of horror and sorrow stirring his consciousness as he continued the inexorable march. It wouldn’t matter that this small/large part of him that still knew how to create still knew Stephen’s favorite movie as well. (Planet of the Apes.) His favorite dessert. (Key lime pie.) His favorite thing to say. (Life is too short to dance with ugly chicks.) And a million other things…

That was all just useless neural activity in this large lethal vat he inhabited. This monster that used to BE him. A monster that would just see his younger brother as just one more moving landmark. Just one more…

Another twinge of horror hit him. He just wanted to be able to call his brother on his cell phone. Or hug him and tell him he loved him.

Wrote a poem about it. Wanna hear it? Here it goes…

He just wanted to turn around. Go back and find his shoe. Slip it on his foot. Tie it up in little bunny ears with two good hands.

And go back to his little apartment…

But his body marched on behind Mr. Starter Jacket. No longer under even his nominal control. Powered only by its grisly quest.

Five stanzas of three lines each. Followed by a last stanza of four lines. The first line of the first stanza serves as the last line of the second and fourth stanzas. The third line of the first stanza…

He was able to see now what had set the herd off earlier. Had set him off as well. He and Starter Jacket and the rest of his motley companions were now closing in (slowly, oh so slowly) on a four-way intersection. High and 5th it was. He could see the crumbling sandstone buildings that commanded the two western-most corners of that intersection. (The one to the left had housed a coffee shop he used to frequent.) And there, upon the pavement, was a blue SUV, its front crumpled up against the edge of the old building, its hood open. The whole vehicle was enveloped in a cumulus cloud of gray/black smoke, like some magician’s cheap illusion.

Dial 911… Dial 911… Dial…

Was there a danger it would explode? Was there a danger he would just catch fire and…

Just keep on walking…

Oh, sing a villanelle. Sing a scything song.

Sing out, Louise…

He missed his little ballerina friend. He missed his brother. He missed his fear-ridden existence in the old world.

The old normal.

Down on the pavement, dead center in the intersection, about ten feet or so to the right of the burning SUV, a small enclave of zombies were crouched down on the macadam, like some weird football huddle or something. (He half expected Mr. Starter Jacket to go join them, but he did not.) They were all still jostling and fighting there, as the whole herd had been only minutes before. Like snapping, bipedal hyenas.

His own body just stumbled past this enclave, still at the tail end of the herd. A mind still trying to sing…

For whatever unfathomable reason.


Michael Walker is a writer living in Columbus, Ohio. He is the author of two published novels: 7-22, a YA fantasy book, and The Vampire Henry, a “literary” horror novel. He has seen his fiction and poetry published in Weirdbook, Dark Lane Anthology, and Adelaide Literary Magazine.