On the day he left the hospital Lock decided that it was Sunday. When there is nobody else around—nobody else anywhere—you can make the days of the week and a lot of other things besides. Lock made it Sunday because he stopped by the hospital chapel on his way out and remembered that he had read somewhere that people used to go to church on Sundays. All the seats were facing the man on the cross at the front. Lock didn’t know the man’s name, or what words he was supposed to say or when, so he just brushed some dust off the altar, straightened everything that was crooked, and saluted the man on the cross. Did he grant wishes? Lock wished silently for a new eyepiece for his mask, or maybe a whole new mask, since his left eyepiece had been cracked for a while so it was sometimes hard to see. “Please, thank you,” he croaked. Then he left, making sure not to look too hard at any of the empty seats.
Lock went down all the stairs and left the hospital and crossed all the cracked and mossy streets and left the whole town. It had been a big town, but it had only lasted Lock a few weeks because almost everything was gone already, or had been empty in the first place. The last few cans of food in his backpack were all that was now left of this town, the only legacy it would ever leave. Nobody would ever scuff a shoe on its sidewalks anymore, not ever again. All the doors that were closed would remain closed forever and all the doors that were open would be open forever, until they all fell off the hinges and rotted away on the ground together. That was a little sad, but a boy has to eat.
At the river outside the town, Lock stopped to wash the filters of his mask one last time before leaving. The river was small and cold and grey and everything about it was dead; it was only rushing because of gravity. But secretly Lock imagined that the river was still alive and hoped that it would wind along through the forest just out of sight and follow him faithfully—do you remember dogs?—and he’d arrive at the next town and find the river there too. If that happened, Lock decided, he’d wash his mask every day, and decide if it was a river or a creek, and maybe even give it a name.
It was late morning now so Lock set out on the railroad tracks heading out of town. The sky was the color of rust and spent charcoal and irregular shapes shot soundlessly back and forth just above the clouds. They never came down and Lock never bothered anymore to look up and croak at them, even when they were directly overhead.
Around midday Lock stopped and sat down on the tracks and ate grapes from a can. There were no trains, of course, so he wasn’t afraid to do this. He had read a book about trains and would have liked to see a real one. Sometimes he would have dreams where a train went past without any tracks and made no sound. Then he would get on the train and the wind would whip his face because he didn’t have his mask on and he would breathe and fly and breathe and be sad when he woke up.
After he had eaten, Lock unzipped his backpack and took out something he had been saving. It was a yellow plastic whistle he had found and he had never heard a whistle before. He knew what it was though, and how to use it. He just had decided not to use it for a while because he worried that the anticipation of the sound might be better than the sound itself. But now was a good time. Here goes.
The whistle scared him half to death. It was so loud and he hated it and he threw it away in the forest and walked away quickly, his eyes stinging and his chest hurting. He hated it, why had he done it? The things beyond the clouds swirled faster for a while, and Lock was nearly pressed to the ground with terror because he thought maybe finally they would come down and he didn’t want them to. Were there people watching him from the trees? He could feel them. He was being watched from everywhere. He cried quietly and kept walking.
By the time it got dark he had calmed down, mostly. He took some crumpled paper from his pack and cautiously gathered some wood from the edge of the forest—that was scary—and then he started the fire with a silver and red cigarette lighter. All through the dark he slept on the tracks next to the fire, and there was no sound to wake him, not a single sound.
He woke as the sun was rising and ate more grapes, watching the corona of rose and amber and fiery orange spread like a bloodstain and then disappear into gray. It was Monday, he recalled. Then he got up and walked. He walked along the tracks for two more days and slept for two more nights. After that it was Thursday.
On Thursday morning he found the next town. He saw it as he was emerging from the concrete arch of a mountain tunnel though and there it was, rimmed in red and gold against the base of the hills. It was absolutely stunning, and he stopped in his tracks as he looked at it. Laid out before him was a vista of rust and lichen and smokestacks that climbed, steaming with dew, towards the clouds, and it was all bathed in this incredible sunrise aura that stirred soul and memory, and Lock felt his heart ache as he looked at this beautiful painterly image. A breeze rose gently and at the back of his mind Lock felt distant memories and sensations rise, three heart-wrenching notes and the shore of the world and vague sunlit people who were gone forever except in his head. He almost sat down to just stare out at it for a while, but he wanted to get settled and start looking around as soon as possible, since his food and water were almost gone.
The new town was more distant than it looked and it was early afternoon by the time he actually set foot on one of its deserted streets. By then he had realized that there was no river, and the cold grey snake to which he had bid goodbye had not followed him but stayed behind, forever retreading its archaic course. He found that he didn’t miss it. He ate the very last can of grapes and drank the very last of his water and that was it, he was starting over in a new town.
After half an hour he decided on an old brick firehouse as his new home while he scavenged. The building was warm and compact, and though the fire engines were gone, there was at least a pole to slide down, which Lock did twenty times or so until he got tired of it. Then he spent some time gathering dead plant material from the papery brown trees along the avenues so that he could have a fire later when it was dark and cold.
Mid-afternoon he was delighted to find a library, not only because the trees out front yielded plentiful fuel. The windows were cracked and black, which led him to fear that perhaps all the books would be incinerated, but after he broke his way through the glass he saw shelves of literature thrown intact onto the floor. Jackpot! He took a minute to quiet his excited heartbeat and decided he would only take one book; otherwise he would fill up space in his backpack that should be saved for the essentials. He chose The Little House, a book with a colorful and promising cover, and reluctantly left.
The last few hours before nightfall were fruitless with the exception of a decrepit supermarket. All the shelves were empty (inexplicably, even the Brussels sprouts and broccoli had been taken), but when Lock went down on hands and knees he found a plastic canister of gummy multivitamins that had rolled under a display. By then the horizon was watery with dusk, so he hurried to return to the firehouse before his mind had time to construct phantoms in the darkness. There were enough real ones there already.
He lit the fire and ate five gummies while he warmed his feet, then he spent the night in the corner reading The Little House by firelight. It was hard to read by firelight but he didn’t mind since it was a short book and the dim light made it last longer. He read the book over and over, stopping only to poke at the fire, and thus passed the night until the horizon broke to the east.
Today—Friday—he had a whole town to explore. From the windows of the firehouse he could see a whole sprawling section of buildings to which he had not yet ventured. He ate four more gummies then slid down the pole and headed out.
Something incredible happened.
It happened in the library after he had carefully replaced The Little House in its spot in the overturned shelf. He was still on his knees, skimming the books with the most vivid covers, when he thought he heard the softest of sounds behind him, and he turned, and there it was.
It was a butterfly. A real, living creature, framed perfectly in rays of light streaming through a clouded window. It was real. It was alive. Lock’s heart almost burst as he saw it give a gentle twitch of its brilliant blue wings. It was real.
Slowly, he stood to walk towards the butterfly, to take in the glory of its existence, but the moment he moved the bashful creature fluttered from its perch and drifted out the door. Abandoning all care, treading on forgotten books, Lock sprang after it.
He spotted it immediately as soon as he stood outside—it was bright blue and it was the only thing moving in the whole town—and so began a merry chase, a miniature odyssey playing out against the ruins of the world. All across the town flew the butterfly, that glorious, living wisp, weaving in and out of shattered buildings and ruptured streets. Lock pursued with quick dashes, save for when the butterfly would perch on a windowsill or overturned car, and then he would freeze and creep towards it as stealthily as he knew, but his quarry would always take wing again before he could reach it.
Finally, when Lock had been led to a strange part of town, the butterfly crossed what had been the town’s main thoroughfare and alighted on a fencepost. Out of nowhere a bell-like note rang out, and Lock felt his pulse quicken; somehow he knew that the butterfly had reached its final destination, and would not flee if he approached. Mysteriously it flicked its wings, as if beckoning him forward. Lock stepped into the street.
Instantly the street turned white and sang like glass as it rushed past him in a furious flow. Desperately, Lock tried to move his feet, but too late—something terrible rose up around him—
GOLDEN, CO— The statewide search for a mentally ill boy who escaped from a Denver hospital on Tuesday—
“It’s not true,” Lock croaked desperately to the butterfly, and with a supreme effort wrenched his feet free and took a step—
…ended tragically Sunday when the boy was struck and killed by a vehicle while crossing a street—
“It’s not true!” he choked—another step—the butterfly waited serenely—
…an eyewitness reports that the boy was chasing a butterfly—
Lock gasped—almost stumbled—leaned forward so far that his fingers could almost brush the curb—
...chasing a butterfly when he wandered onto 2nd street and was struck—
“I DON’T BELIEVE YOU!” shouted Lock in a voice he didn’t know he had, tears streaming down his face, and with a final step he reached the other side of that great divide, and with a hiss the noise and light died away, and Lock stood silently and wept.
He didn’t weep for long, however, because the butterfly was already changing, growing and brightening into something beautiful, indescribably beautiful, and he turned up his face towards It, and there was the purest sort of light as It took him up in its folds, and the rust fell off the buildings and the ashes off the streets and the dead things came to life again as all around him the world was made anew.