Lauren Bell’s New Short Story – Under Lock and Key

UNDER LOCK AND KEY

by

Lauren Bell

typewriter love

We have waited years for this. Decades. Quarter of a century. For this. Just this.

We can’t believe it’s happened. Not in our lifetime, anyway. We never thought we’d get a chance. But luck has favoured us. It has smiled on our creased foreheads and puckered mouths, the wrinkles deep as fissures, and given us what we have always wanted.

Entry.

What strikes us most is that the lock-keeper is not here, not anymore, no longer fulfilling his duty. He is somewhere far away, watching his former duty dissolve as the setting sun disappears beneath the horizon. Or perhaps he is still here, living in one of these brick boxes we call a home; a belt of locks reminding him of the power he once had, the keys fastened on to another belt on another man known simply as the key-keeper.

No matter. Today we do not require a key-keeper.

There have been many lock-keepers over the years. We have watched them come and go like ships in the night concealed by the cloak of midnight. Sometimes I wish we were like pieces of paper, discreet, attracting nothing, no-one, able to fold ourselves up and pass neatly between the wire mesh, where, once inside, we would unfold and commence our journey.

Except Neo has always been there, barring the way, preventing our entry. Neo the lock. Neo the filthy lock and his filthy forefathers who have barred the way before him. Neo. Three simple letters. Three cruel letters. Three letters which never change. They burn with brazen intent, brandishing themselves on our retinas, taunting us with the same old phrases: come closer. come near. dare to enter?

And sometimes I nearly have. I’ve nearly given in. But I know that if I do, I’m out of the picture; completely and utterly helpless. The lock won’t suddenly spring open by mere touch alone; it needs the right key, the right hand, the right amount of force.

Luckily for me, I have my right-hand man, and even though his name’s a secret, I’m comfortable with not knowing it, if it means he’ll stay with me like my shadow.

He has the key in his hand now. He produces it from an inside pocket with a swift flick of the wrist. The key is an ugly rusty thing like a rotten tooth, scarred with verdigris blotches on what should be a perfect stainless steel key. I cannot believe that a key such as this fits Neo, fits him so well, so completely, that it unlockshim.

My right-hand man slips the key into the lock faster than blinking, and my chest grows numb, my eyes temporarily blind with anticipation. For a moment nothing happens despite several shakes of the lock, the rattling of the key reminding me of false teeth. I grab his hand and shake my head. Stop that, silly. Can’t you see it’s not doing anything?  He curses and continues to tug at the lock, a slim fire smouldering in his eyes.

And just when I’m about to give up and walk away, I hear the click.

The gate opens easily enough, too easily if I’m being honest, onto a sand-coloured gravel track. We make our way over to the large sugar cube of a building, bits of gravel striking our feet like matchsticks, and discover rows upon rows upon rows of tinted windows. We grab hands and survey the area. No-one has followed us through the gate. No-one has discovered our unexpected arrival. Hopefully. There are no sirens tearing the air, no whistles forcing their shrill screams into our eardrums, no rabid dogs scavenging for human flesh.

We breathe easy.

It seems to take an age to reach one of the ground floor windows, a mirror of obsidian reflecting our ravaged features. I swallow a mounting cry and re-focus my gaze.  This time the window appears to be losing its opacity, much like a stubborn early morning fog, which lifts once the day is truly underway. I can see clearly now, and immediately I can tell it’s a laboratory. There are about fifteen people divided into three lines watching a trim lady as she paces up and down. There are jars, pipettes, siphons and scalpels. Especially scalpels. There must be a hundred of them. Two are close to the window, too close for comfort, and my chest tightens, my heart beating like a snare drum. They are rusted, tarnished with blood.

I scour the passive faces staring at the trim lady, their eyes following her every move, and realise that something is wrong. Very wrong. They have cuts to their faces – on their cheeks, across their foreheads, down their necks; some of them huge gashes like an operation gone wrong. I also notice that no-one looks at the person sitting next to them, as though they are the only subject in the room.

‘Why, they’re all zombies,’ I say. ‘Look at them. Vegetables. The whole lot of them. Quick, we’ve got to get out of here before someone sees us.’

I tug at my right-hand man’s jacket but he just stares at the hollow bodies; the fire in his eyes now brittle shards of coal. It feels wrong to be here, standing on the outside looking in. It seems dangerous standing here in the open like this with nothing for cover.

‘Come on. Let’s go. Right Now. Whatever it is they’re doing in there, I don’t want to know.’

But my right-hand man is transfixed, drawn to a single point, unable to tear his eyes away. A quarter of a century is a long time to wait, I understand that, but I expected something rewarding, something wonderful, not monstrous and creepy like this.

I turn away, a bitter, fierce wind splintering my face. My eyes sting with twenty-five years worth of unshed tears. I look at my right-hand man whose nose is practically stuck to the glass. He points to someone in the room; his finger a fixed flesh dart.

I don’t want to look, don’t want to know what he’s pointing at, but my eyes are moving, following his direction. At first it’s just my crone-like face staring back, then the opacity disappears, and I can see a frail old lady slumped in a corner; her eyes thin slits, her mouth agape like a perfect hole.

And she seems familiar.

Her features are familiar, things I recognise.

Then a face comes flooding out of the gathering darkness towards me – my right-hand man’s and they are his features, exactly the same…like mother and son.

ink blotch

 

Photo by Tomek Dzido