wasn’t the dead body that bothered him. He’d seen hundreds of dead bodies over the last six months and had long ago stopped feeling any kind of way about it. Ever since the “Liberation” of America, dead bodies had become another part of the scenery, same as abandoned homes and busted-out windows, and they all carried the same emotional weight to him. So, this dead body was nothing special. Until he noticed the locket. It was the little heart-shaped locket that bothered him, and he didn’t know why.
He came across the body lying in a ditch by the side of some random country road in middle-of-nowhere Oklahoma. If it was even still called Oklahoma, of course. He had no idea if those whackos in charge had changed the name. For all he knew, he could be walking through Sector 17 or Freedom Point Tango. The new government had a hard-on for changing the names of places. He’d laughed himself silly the first time he’d heard that he no longer lived in the United States of America but was instead now a proud citizen of the Free States of New America. Of course, that was back when the power had still worked and news could get through. It didn’t seem as funny to him now. The coup claimed to be operating to free the people but, last he’d checked, freedom didn’t include millions of people starving to death or getting murdered for a package of crackers or a gallon of gas. Then again, what did he know? Maybe this was true freedom. Yay, freedom…
The dead person was uncomfortably skinny and seemed young, but he couldn’t tell if they’d been a man or a woman. The insects and crows had already had their taste of the body, and most of the face had long since run through the digestive tracks of creatures who were surely loving the new normal in the Free States of New America. No shortage of food for them, at least.
Even with the face gone, the little bullet hole in the middle of the dead person’s forehead was unmistakable. And, as he suspected, anything of value had been long since been stripped away from the body. There was no food, no weapons, and not even any shoes. He wondered about the shoes. There were still plenty of stores packed full of nice shoes everywhere, so why take some off a dead person? He didn’t understand it, but he didn’t really try hard to. Nothing made sense anymore.
He was about to move on when a little silver object lying in the grass next to the dead person’s hand caught his attention. Hopefully, it was a watch. He needed a new watch and kept forgetting to grab one. Instead, it was just a little silver heart-shaped locket with a cheap chain attached to it. He almost left it—and he’d soon wished that he had—but curiosity got the better of him.
He took a seat next to the dead body like they were two buddies at a baseball game out enjoying a lovely spring day. All sense of time disappeared as he sat there, loitering in a ditch in the middle of nowhere in a place that may or may not still be called Oklahoma, staring at the picture inside the heart-shaped locket. He sat as silent and motionless as a monk as insects buzzed around him and the birds sang to each other in the spattering of nearby trees.
The picture was of a young woman, probably close to his own age. Surely no older than twenty at best. And she was beautiful. She had a small sideways grin on her face like she’d just heard a particularly good pun and was trying not to smile at it. Her auburn hair was long and wavy and flowed behind her like there was a slight breeze in the picture. She looked like the kind of girl who knew she was pretty but wasn’t cocky about it. The kind of girl who volunteered at animal shelters and sat around on Saturdays drinking beer and watching football with her friends. He liked his idea of her, and it didn’t really matter to him if it was true or not.
As pretty as she was, though, it wasn’t her picture that kept him frozen there staring at this strange little locket. It was the words on the picture that mesmerized him. Just two words, written in small, neat letters. Just two words, but they seemed to carry more weight than any other combination of two words he’d ever seen.
“Find Hannah,” was all it said. Find Hannah…
But who the hell was Hannah? Was it the girl in the picture? Or was the girl in the picture the one who wrote those words, begging her lover to find her missing sister or daughter? Was the dead person next to him the girl in the picture? Probably not. The patches of remaining hair didn’t match. It could be, though. Haircuts were a thing that still existed in the world, even if people had to do it themselves these days. Yay, freedom…
“Doesn’t matter,” he mumbled to himself, trying to dismiss the tsunami of questions the locket brought up in him. He talked to himself a lot these days. “Not your problem. Just move on.”
But he didn’t. He couldn’t. He sat there and stared and wondered about the girl and those two mysterious words. Had the person those words been meant for ever found Hannah? Was she safe? Was she alive? He found himself hoping that she was, that Hannah had been found and was with the girl in the picture and they were both safe in one of the refugee camps or hidden in some preppers bomb shelter. It was unlikely, of course, considering the fact that the body beside him had been carrying the locket and was themself very much dead. Still…
“Drop it,” he said, a little louder and more forceful now. Much to his surprise, his hand listened. He dropped the locket. He stood up and immediately started walking away, knowing that if he stuck around any longer he’d end up staring at the girl and those words the rest of the day. And hanging out in a ditch on the side of a dusty road wasn’t exactly the best survival plan these days. Yay, freedom…
He’d walked almost a mile before he turned around.
He lied to himself all the way to the dead body. Saying that he was just doubling back to make sure nobody was following him. That he hadn’t really searched the body that well and he might have missed something. That maybe he’d overlooked something useful along the way because he’d been so distracted thinking about that stupid locket. Any and every lie he could think of he tried on for size, seeing if any of it made him feel better. Deep down, of course, he knew the truth.
“Just gonna hold onto it for a little bit,” he said to himself as he slipped the little trinket into his pocket. Just one more little lie. But who was counting?
Over the next four days, he spent half his time thinking about the girl and those two little words, and the other half looking at them. Hours at a time would pass by unnoticed as he stared intently at the picture like he could make it give up all its secrets by sheer force of will. There had to be some way to figure it out. Some way to understand why this locket had been lying in that ditch next to a dead person. Maybe the dead person had found Hannah, but then Hannah was the one who killed them? Maybe Hannah was just the pet dog? Maybe the locket didn’t even belong to the dead person at all? Maybe they’d just found it somewhere and took it much like he himself had. Maybe he was just another entry in a long list of owners of the mysteriously infuriating thing? Maybe… Maybe… Maybe…
On the fifth day after finding the locket, he stumbled across a little abandoned farmhouse just off the dusty country road he’d been drunkenly staggering down. He hadn’t eaten in a little over two days, but his hunger was much less of a pressing issue to him than solving the mystery of the locket. The screen door on the front of the paint-chipped house was swinging noisily back and forth in the breeze, and the big front window was smashed out. Maybe this had been Hannah’s home? Maybe this was the girl in the picture’s home? Had the girl lived in the little farmhouse with the squeaky screen door and busted out window? Was she still in there? But why would she knock out the window? Why did people always smash out all the damn windows? They’d been one of the first things to go. Yay, freedom…
He shrugged off his backpack and collapsed onto the dusty couch with a floral pattern straight out of the 80s in the litter-strewn living room. He pulled out the locket, running his fingers over the heart shape he now knew so well. He opened it with reverential care and stared at the picture inside. As the sun slowly dipped below the horizon and the light in the farmhouse faded, he pulled his little solar-powered flashlight out of his pack and kept gazing at the picture, reading the words over and over again.
“Find Hannah,” he chanted mindlessly through cracked lips. Where was she? And where was he? He had no clue. He might still be in what may or may not be Oklahoma, but it wasn’t important anymore. Nothing mattered but finding Hannah. Finding out who she was, who the girl in the picture was, and what had happened to both of them. It was all that had ever mattered in life. He just hadn’t realized it till now.
With his flashlight still on, its beams doing everything they could to push back the darkness, he slowly fell into the first deep and peaceful sleep he’d had since he’d found the strange little heart-shaped locket.
“Hey, look at this,” Phil said. He’d just picked up whatever had been in the dead boy’s hand and was holding it out to Bryce. Bryce snuck a glance, hoping it was a watch. He needed a new watch. But it was just some crappy little locket with a cheap chain attached to it.
“It’s junk,” Bryce said, going back to digging through the dead boy’s backpack. “Leave it.” The smell of gunpowder and death still hung heavy in the room, but Bryce didn’t care. He’d killed enough people since things had all gone to hell that he’d long ago stopped feeling any kind of way about it. The boy was just one more person who’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time. This idiot, though, had fallen asleep with his damn flashlight blazing away like a spotlight on a foggy night. It was, as far as Bryce was concerned, an act akin to suicide in this new world and he hadn’t hesitated to take advantage of that mistake. Yay, freedom!
“I know,” Phil said, a little defensively. “But, I mean, look at her. She’s super hot, man. Look.”
Bryce knew his little brother wouldn’t give it up till he looked, so he gave the locket another glance. She actually was kinda pretty. It didn’t matter, though. “Yeah, smokin’ hot,” he said, tossing the backpack on the ground and pointing towards the dead boy on the couch. “Now will you help me out here?”
“Yeah,” Phil said with a small nod, his eyes still glued to the locket and glazed over like he was staring into another universe instead of just a cheap little heart-shaped locket. “Yeah… But, like… who’s Hannah?”