Originally published in Darkscapes anthology (Curiosity Quills Press, 2017).
The guitar case sat on the top shelf inside her grandfather’s closet for as long as Lena could remember. She was probably five or six when she noticed it for the first time, its cracked, black leather hide peeking out from beneath a folded blanket. When she asked him about it, he brushed her questions aside.
No, it was nothing special.
No, he hadn’t taken it out of the case in years.
No, he didn’t know how much it was worth.
And no, under no circumstances could she see it.
Lena would sneak off to stare at the dried-out case every time she visited. When she was nine, she started taking guitar lessons through her school. While she liked music and enjoyed playing, there was a part of her that only did it in the hope that maybe, someday, if she knew how to play, her grandfather would pull the case out of the closet and let her see it or even touch it.
But it never happened.
She told him about how much she’d learned about playing any time she saw him. It didn’t matter if he seemed indifferent, annoyed even, by her interest in music. Proving her skill to him became an obsession. She kept hoping that one day he might deem her worthy of opening that ancient, crackled case.
Even raising the subject put him in a foul mood. It didn’t matter how well she played, he would tell her, because in the end, nobody really listens.
They devour, leaving nothing but the gnarled bones of something that was once beautiful behind.
He died when she was seventeen.
When Marcus stepped out of the monorail car, the messages rained down on him like hailstones. Names and abbreviated symbols flashed across his field of vision as he walked across the loading platform, his retinal displays siphoning a torrent of correspondence out of the aether and carefully organizing it into predetermined categories. There were messages from his supervisors telling him about their agenda for tomorrow, personal notes from clients to offer thanks for services rendered or bring future opportunities to his attention, and the seemingly endless stream of enthused comments from his friends.
The display filtered his friends into the neat categories he’d spent a great deal of time designating. He ignored most of them, the ones that didn’t require a response; the others got an automated reply from the Fastchatter program, which he’d also spent a lot of time tweaking to best emulate his personality in its responses.
There was nothing there that warranted his direct attention. It was likely that the messages hadn’t demanded the attention of their senders either.
Marcus usually stopped at the bar on his way home from the office. It was less than a block from his flat, its tables thrusting out into the street in an eager attempt to distract him from getting anywhere. As he drew closer to it, more alerts flashed in his display.
Jared was already inside. Elise, too. They were drinking the same things they drank every night after work; a scotch on the rocks for Jared because it made him feel like a “grown-up” and something fruity and colorful for Elise so she could pretend she was a decade younger.
Their networks noticed him before he walked past the door.
Jared’s message passed through his filters, receiving the preferential treatment that he accorded to people he actually associated with on occasion.
Better come catch up, Elise added, her message pushing to the top of the alert queue.
Of course, neither Jared nor Elise were actually talking to him. They were too busy making conversation inside to be bothered with the trouble. Their quick, patronizing replies were personable, but preprogrammed- canned, context sensitive greetings triggered by his network’s proximity to theirs.
Marcus returned the favor, allowing his Fastchatter to field their messages as he strode past the bar. He spent his days sitting in on tedious meetings and virtual conferences. Banal barroom conversation wasn’t much better. The routine of unwinding after work was almost as insufferable as the work itself.
Not tonight. Got plans.
Lena stepped out of the van and looked over the venue’s exterior. It was a decrepit, brick building that seemed ready to collapse in the face of a stiff wind. Metal bars were riveted over the windows on the first three floors; the windows above that were boarded up completely. Loose bricks had fallen away from sections of the upper stories and the salt-laden air had left behind ugly, white streaks that gashed unevenly across the building’s surface.
The theater marquee had torn free of the rusted wall moorings at some point, but an electronic billboard about the size of a car had been crudely affixed in its place. A thick layer of dirt and grime had piled up in the corners of the screen, which was itself marred by clusters of spiderweb-like cracks. It wasn’t clear if the screen still worked.
“Are you sure this is it, Chris?” she asked.
Chris slid out of the driver’s seat to join her.
“Yeah,” he said. “Sure is.”
“It looks like it should be condemned,” she said.
“It’s a historic landmark, Lena! You can’t just knock places like this down. There’s, like, laws and stuff.”
Trevor leaned out the passenger window.
“Yeah, this place used to be the shit,” he said. “Did you know Worldwide Fire Drill played here back in the day?”
“Yes, Trev, you haven’t shut up about it for three days.”
Before Trevor could reply, the door below the screen swung open. A muscular man in a black jacket stood in the doorway glowering at them, his ugly face a scrapyard of piercings, scars, and tattoos.
“The fuck you doing out here?”
Chris offered a limp-wristed wave. Lena noticed he was shaking.
“Hey, man, we’re just checking the place out before-”
“Shut up and pull that piece of shit around back. The show’s inside, not in the middle of the fucking street.”
He slammed the door shut without further instruction.
“Chris, are you sure about these people?” Lena asked.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said, climbing back into the van. “It’ll be fine.”
The engine sputtered to life after a few cranks.
“Come on, Lena,” Chris said.
Lena shook her head as she got back in the van. Her right hand fell to the guitar case on the seat next to her, tracing the contours of the cracks that scarred its leathery surface.
It didn’t make her feel any better.
The Pasadena gate was busy at all hours of the day as workers who lived outside the corporate enclave cycled through the security checkpoint. Hundreds of armed security personnel were stationed there, some manning the automated passport scanners that identified every car and pedestrian passing through the gate, some performing random searches, and others watching over the commuters from fortified positions built into the polycrete enclave wall. The security check process was mercifully efficient; although the lines were long, they moved quickly, cycling a steady stream of workers into the enclave to replace those that were leaving.
Of course, as a resident enclave citizen, Marcus didn’t have to bother waiting. He stepped around the lines and past the exhausted workers without a word. They avoided direct eye contact with him, but Marcus caught a few of the unpleasant glares directed his way. He noticed familiar uniforms as he walked between the orderly lines, each one marking the wearers as restaurant servers, sales clerks, maintenance personnel, and the like.
Cheap and disposable service labor.
The guards hardly took note of him as he passed through the checkpoints.
Outside the enclave, the world functioned according to a different, older set of technological rules. A hodgepodge of wireless signals competed to interface with several dozen generations worth of computing equipment. Once he was through the wall, Marcus’s signal went cold, cut off from the enclave network by protective scrambler fields that shielded the enclave’s system from external hackers. His network tried to interface with the antiquated systems around it, but it lacked the necessary software.
Marcus switched it off, leaving him at the mercy of his natural senses.
There were blocks and blocks worth of parking facilities surrounding the enclave wall. A single rail line station stood just outside the gate, but its service was notoriously unreliable. Most of the workers that passed through the enclave’s border checkpoints either commuted in their own vehicle or walked there from one of the less heavily used public transit stations that were within a few miles of the gate.
Marcus headed directly for a parking lot just off the main street that led through the gate. It was specifically designated for taxi services and filled with dozens of drivers competing for potential fares. The drivers called out to passersby in a cacophonous fusion of half a dozen languages. Most of them were reasonably fluent in some combination of Spanish and English, but a good number supplemented that base with a hefty smattering of Chinese, Russian, Arabic, Vietnamese, Filipino, Armenian, Turkish, and several other languages that had taken root throughout the vast sprawl of old Houston.
It took Marcus less than five minutes to leverage their offers against each other and secure the cheapest fare to his destination.
The club’s greenroom stunk of mold, sweat, and cigarettes. A single vent positioned on the ceiling kept the air moving, but its mildew-laden pipes and tubing also seemed to be the source of much of the room’s unsettling odor, a trade-off that provided little in the way of comfort.
Lena sat by herself on the tattered leather couch while Chris did his best to negotiate an even smaller portion of the door for them. He was a big believer in “paying dues,” which he took to mean doing favors for people when you’re a nobody so that they’ll be willing to go out of their way to help you get your big break. In this case, it meant taking less money so the club’s owners would do more to promote their next show. He insisted that this was the way the “business” worked.
Of course, Chris was also a naïve idiot. That was what the rest of band told him when he negotiated them out of getting any money at their last show. It was also the reason why Trevor and Lena were the only two members left. Trevor had never done anything that wasn’t Chris’s idea to begin with and was too dumb to get upset about the situation anyway. Lena didn’t know what her excuse was for sticking around.
Maybe it was because, despite all his stupid ideas and crazy expectations, Chris realized that he needed her.
She was the one that could take his disparate, half-finished thoughts and turn them into something musically coherent. More often than not, she simply cut away the unmanageable parts of his ideas and attached what little was left of them to her own. Whenever he eventually heard the result, he seemed not to notice that most of it was her invention rather than his. Maybe he did realize it and decided not to mention it, but Lena thought it more likely that he only had ears for the faint remnants of his ideas hidden amidst her own.
Still, he was at least astute enough to recognize that without her, he would never be able to write a song that was bearable to listen to. He may not have been as smart or as talented as he thought he was, but he respected her, which was more than she could say for anyone else that she’d played with previously.
Respect only went so far, though.
By the time Chris was done with his “negotiations,” it was nearly time for them to get ready for the show.
“Do you want to go over the set again?” she asked when he sat down on the couch beside her.
“No, no,” Chris replied, tapping a finger against his forehead. “It’s all up here.”
He laughed a little more nervously than usual.
Lena glared at him.
Chris took a deep breath started rubbing his sorry excuse for a beard.
“There’s been a change of plans.”
She’d almost quit the band at least three times over the last month over unexpected ‘changes.’
“Well don’t keep me stewing in suspense for fuck’s sake.”
He sat up straighter and turned towards her as he ran a hand through his tangled mop of hair.
“Okay, so it turns out that this place is doing things differently than when I was here a few years back.”
“What do you mean?”
“They don’t do regular live shows anymore. The whole place is set up for firestreaming.”
Lena would have jumped off the couch if every muscle in her body hadn’t seized up.
“What?!? Are you fucking kidding me? How could you not know this?”
Chris threw his hands up and leaned away from her.
“I’m sorry! How the hell could I have known? It’s not like they fucking advertise it outside!”
Lena tried to catch her breath, wondering if she was breaking the law just be being there.
“Chris, we have to cancel! There’s no way we can do this show now.”
He grabbed her arm tightly to pull her closer to him as he glanced at the greenroom door.
“Keep your voice down,” he said through clenched teeth. “Maybe you haven’t been paying attention, but these aren’t the kind of people that you just up and cancel on.”
Lena thought of the troll of a man that greeted them outside. Angry as she was, she had to agree that he didn’t look like the sort to take “no” for an answer.
“Chris, I… ” The rest of the words died in her throat and she buried her face in her hands. “God, you’re such a fucking idiot.”
A long silence passed between them. For a moment, she felt the couch cushions move as he shifted his weight and she prepared herself for some half-assed, reassuring pat on the back. It never came, though, which was just as well. She might have punched him if he touched her.
When she finally looked up, he was still sitting there, staring at her like a moron with no idea of how much trouble he was dragging them into.
“Look,” he said, “maybe this isn’t such a disaster in the grand scheme of things.”
Lena was too shocked to stop him from going on. He had that look in his eye that he got whenever he had an idea too big for his brain.
“There’s a lot of people saying that firestreaming is the next big thing. I’ve heard that it might even be legal soon! Just think, if we nail this show, we could get in on the ground floor, be the standard bearers, you know? Haven’t you always wanted to do something that no one else has done yet? Isn’t that the whole reason for why we’re doing this?”
For an instant, just an instant, some part of her imagined what that would be like. There was nothing noteworthy in her life other than music; she was just another faceless girl destined to work shit jobs for shit money for shit people until she stopped showing up on account of her unnoticed death. Maybe if there was even the slightest chance that what he was suggesting could be true…
The thought was gone before it could fully take root, but by then it was already too late. Something in her eyes must have given her away because she saw Chris smile.
He knew he had her.
The theater’s main room reeked of melting solder and paint fumes. With so many bodies crammed onto the theater floor, there was a faint tinge of static in the stale, stuffy air.
Most of the seats had been torn out long ago, but the rows and rows of computer servers had been installed much more recently. They weren’t so much servers as piles of mismatched spare parts held together with zip ties, stretch cords, and electrical tape. Thick vines of bundled cabling hung down from the ceiling to connect each unit to the main control terminal that was bolted onto the mixing board at the back of the room.
A spindly, tattooed woman with hair like an oil slick greeted Marcus just inside the door.
“Got a few spots left,” she said.
“I want the best unit you have. Nothing that’s going to short out in the middle of the show.”
She shook her head.
“You want the best spot? Get here before they’re taken.”
He thrust what remained of his cash at her.
She took the money and counted it, her plastic expression unchanged. When she finished, she snapped her fingers at one of the nearby bouncers.
“Unit seven. Put whoever’s there now in nineteen. If he won’t go, throw him out.”
The woman looked back to him. Her eyes were almost black under the theater’s dim lighting.
“Best input signal we’ve got,” she said. “Try not to overdo it.”
“I can handle myself.”
That brought out the hint of a smile.
“Of course you can. Enjoy the show.”
Unit seven stood in the front row of servers in the dead center of the room. It looked newer than the units around it, with many components that seemed almost purpose-built for the device rather than cobbled together from spare parts.
Loose wires still poked out from the casing seams and the neural uplink control box had clearly been stolen from some half-decent research lab. The control panel at least had a virtual input sensor, but the metal brackets holding it in place were poorly welded to the main server unit’s housing and several extra holes had been drilled into the sensor’s casing to accommodate extra input feeds.
Even so, it seemed far more sophisticated than its patchwork, almost primitive neighbors. Most of the units looked like they couldn’t handle transmitting a video message. Unit seven at least looked capable of slightly heavier lifting. It didn’t reassure him simply to know that any one of the other jury-rigged servers was probably capable of handling a larger datastreams than all of the workstations in his office combined. With so much repurposed hardware and tangled, mismatched wiring, he was never fully free of the fear that something would short out and leave him a drooling idiot waiting to be dumped into the closest pond of waste runoff.
The man occupying unit seven didn’t appreciate being told to relocate, but he thought better of lodging too much of a protest with the burly bouncer, who outweighed him by a substantial margin. Marcus slid into place next to the control panel as the bouncer led him away. The unit was already powered up and ready to engage, but he took a moment to recalibrate some of the neural feed settings based on his personal characteristics. He also turned up the sensitivity to the highest level.
Once everything was adjusted to his liking, he reached for the winding spool that held the neural input cable. It was a solid cable of very high quality, much better than the kinked, twisted things that dangled from most of the other units. The metal plug at the end still looked new, baring no scratches or worn edges from overuse.
Marcus pulled the small plug of synthetic skin away from his cranial jack and inserted the cable. It slid in smoothly and fastened into place with a scarcely audible click that set his teeth on edge. He felt the warm, tingling sensation at the base of his brain as the empty, white noise of the firestream signal fed into his nervous system.
Three of the latches opened easily with a flick of her wrist. The fourth one, speckled with rust and slightly crooked, took more pressure to open. She took extra care with the final latch, which dangled loosely against the case without a working spring to hold it in place. As she pulled the case open, the familiar scent of mildew and lemon oil drifted up to fill her nostrils.
The guitar was nestled snuggly in the case’s velvet-covered foam interior, its flat finish soaking up every last particle of light that fell upon its scored, dented surface. A greasy, black fusion of dirt and oil covered most of the smoke-stained fretboard and a good portion of the faded, steel hardware. The selector switch head was snapped off, replaced by a small strip of electrical tape wound around the remaining screw.
Lena pulled the instrument out of the case and affixed her leather strap to the locking posts on either end of its body. Hanging down to her waist, the guitar pulled at her neck and left shoulder like a sack of wet cement. She gripped the neck and strummed the open strings, listening to each one sound out in turn.
E, A, D, G, B, E.
Even after a day and night inside its case and buffeted about the van by Chris’s reckless driving, the guitar held its tune perfectly.
It had probably never been a good-looking instrument. After waiting for most of her life to open the case and see the treasure left to her after her grandfather’s death, she was almost shocked to find that it was even uglier than the case that held it. The muted, black finish washed out the subtle curves of the maple cap that topped the guitar’s heavy mahogany body and revealed every tiny nick and scratch etched into the well-worn surface. Although she’d never seen a pickguard for it, the gaping screw holes on the side of the body and next to the neck pickup made it clear that it had one at some point. Some of the plastic, pearloid fret markers running down the neck were either cracked or crooked and two of the tuners on the bottom of the headstock did not match those on the top.
But Lena didn’t really care what it looked like. All that mattered to her was that it sounded as pristine as it had probably sounded the day it rolled out of the factory in Memphis. Based on what little she knew about its history, it was one of the last models to be made before the manufacturer was bought out and shuttered. That had been decades before she was born, possibly even when her grandfather was younger than she was now.
Of course, she wasn’t sure if it even mattered how the thing sounded now. Her audience wasn’t very likely to be listening.
“You’re sure this thing will even work with their setup?”
Chris was helping Trevor set up the last of their gear and paused just long enough to wave at her dismissively.
“Yeah, sure it’ll work,” he said. “The firestream modules interface with the preamps, not the instrument.”
Lena played a scale almost mindlessly as she glanced over at the ugly pile of computer equipment that her amp was plugged into.
“Why do they even need us for this?” she asked. “Can’t they just pipe a recording into the system?”
Chris sighed and didn’t look up from the array of switches, sliders, and knobs on his synthesizer.
“Sure, you could, but that would be, I don’t know, kind of like jacking off to porn instead of actually having sex. It still feels good and all, but your brain still knows the difference, you know?”
Lena rolled her eyes.
“Sure,” she said. “Whatever.”
“Besides,” Chris went on, “having recordings of music never made people not want to see a band play the same stuff live, right? Something about having a unique experience, I guess.”
“Yeah, only this is like seeing the band WHILE you’re fucking!”
Lena felt a headache taking root behind her eyes.
“Can you stop being such a fucking dumbass, Trevor?”
When she looked up to find both of them staring at her, she knew that she’s snapped at him a bit too harshly.
“Look, I’m sorry,” she said. “I just think that this is a bad idea.”
Chris made an expression that he probably thought was reassuring. It had the opposite effect.
“It’ll be fine, Lena,” he said. “Trust me, this is going to be a good thing for us. They’ve never firestreamed anything like us before. Hell, the guy setting up the system says they’ve never even run an old guitar like yours through the system; most everyone is using digital imitations. Those people out there will fucking worship you after they hear you play.”
Lena started running scales again, bending every third or fourth note a half-step sharp. She told herself that everything would be okay once she was on stage. Every worry she’d had at previous shows always burned away whenever the stage lights hit her with their blinding glare, reducing her world to a tiny, serene sanctuary at the heart of a storm of sonic fury.
She hit the final note of the scale and bent it upwards a full tone before sliding her finger down the length of the old guitar’s neck.
“Let’s just do this and get the hell out of here.”
Marcus held his finger against the firestream feed’s killswitch as stage lights came up to reveal the band. A few of the audience members around him jerked their heads awkwardly as random input signals lanced through their neural pathways. The technician at the mixing panel in the back of the theater was supposed to keep everyone’s feeds clean until the music actually started, but Marcus knew better than to trust that task to anyone other than himself. There was always a significant power spike whenever the performers plugged into the system and the feedback sometimes spilled out from the panel to the firestream units.
He’d heard about people getting fried by unexpected feedback. Even though he’d never actually seen it happen, he always took care to block his unit’s feed before a show started.
The group was smaller than he expected and he wondered if they would be able to put out enough sound to make it worth the hassle of getting to the theater. His gaze lingered on the skinny, mouse-haired girl cradling an ancient black guitar that looked like it weighed more than she did. She looked down at the floor, her feet fiddling nervously with her homemade pedalboard.
After a brief introduction that most of the crowd ignored, the drummer clicked off the tempo for the first song.
Marcus took his finger off the killswitch.
The percussion hit him first, rattling his skull while the shimmering synthesizer notes pelted his face like silver raindrops. A slow, thick bassline slithered up his leg and coiled around his torso, throbbing with a warm, expectant sense of urgency. His vision blurred as the synth tones fell harder. Cool liquid trickled through his nostrils and down the back of his throat.
Time fell away as the firestream signal coursed through every end of his nervous system. The distinction between his senses dissolved, leaving the taste of colors upon his tongue and the sight of music burned into his retinas. His eardrums registered the sound of a voice singing somewhere nearby, but the meager, physical signal had no chance of overcoming the hard stream of data pumping directly into his brain. There was no voice to be heard, only the gentle, soothing caress of fingers massaging his tired muscles. His body drifted, held aloft by countless hands, swirling water, and a soft cloud of sweet-smelling air.
Then he slammed into a wall.
The impact knocked the wind from his lungs and fire scorched his throat when he took his next breath. Every millimeter of his skin screamed, the sound blinding him as the undertow pulled him into a writhing pit of gnawing, shocking hands.
Her fingers dug hard into the fretboard as Lena powered her way through to the end of the first verse, her snarling rhythms crushing Chris’s simpering vocals underfoot like a herd of stampeding mammoths.
By the time they reached the chorus, Trevor had already picked up the tempo in response to her intensity. Chris shot her an agitated glare when he missed his mark, dropping the first few words of the chorus line in a panicked attempt to keep up with the rushing rhythm section. She might have tried to back off a bit, give him enough space for his voice to be heard above her guitar. She could have turned to Trevor and worked on backing the tempo down to where it was supposed to be.
But she was too angry now to make any such concessions. She was convinced that he’d been lying to her about the show all along, knowing she would never have gone along with it if she’d known they would be playing to a crowd of firestreaming zombies.
When they reached the end of the chorus, she looked down on the theater floor again in the hopes of finding an interested gaze. But there was nothing there but a sea of slackened, white-eyed faces swaying uneasily where they stood. A black cable connected each bobbing head to one of the ugly, patchwork piles of computer equipment positioned all around the room.
The vacant attendees made no sound and seemed completely unaware of their surroundings.
Lena found herself hating them. It had taken her years of practice to become as good a player as she was, but not a single one of the gaping things packed into the theater even realized she was there.
She stomped down on her distortion pedal halfway through the second verse, drowning out Chris’s synth and vocals as the guitar roared like some monstrous, primordial beast.
One way or another, she would MAKE them hear her.
At some dim, animalistic level of consciousness, Marcus knew something was very wrong.
After a few moments of relief that left his body aching with a dull, sweet pain, something lashed out of the aether and yanked his body taut. He smelled his skin burning and heard ligaments tearing free of bone like rubber cords stretched beyond their limit and snapping cleanly in half.
An instant later and he was spinning, bound to a wheel that rolled through an amorphous fog of voices that smelled of youth and desperation. A black weight smashed against his spiraling limbs, the pain injecting into the base of his brainpan and creeping down his spine like frozen acid.
The chorus flashed by in what felt like a single breath, the drums and synth whipped onward by Lena’s ruthless guitar. She choked off her final chord as the song skidded to a halt, a single, ringing synth note holding it back from tumbling over the edge of a cliff.
Lena exhaled as she scanned the crowd once again, hoping to find one trace of genuine, human emotion standing out among so many blank stares.
At first, she saw nothing. She could have been a thousand miles away from them and they wouldn’t have cared less.
But then movement caught her attention.
One of the zombies in the front row was swaying more than the rest, his lips jerking grotesquely as his eyelids quivered.
Lena locked in on him as the first, sensuous note of her solo catapulted the song over the cliff.
The pain seeped out through his pores and turned to dust in the air as a dozen hands of warm honey slid over his quivering skin. Marcus gasped, his mind struggling to process the manifold signals pouring through the firestream feed. His heart began to flutter and his tastebuds erupted with such intensity that his tongue immediately went numb.
Sweet liquid ran slowly down his throat, sending warm shudders through his bowls. His dick hardened as he floated in the thick, tingling substance. Muscle, skin, and bone became one, lapping up every saccharine taste of the dreamstuff that held him aloft.
It was everything he’d ever wanted; a confirmation that he was, in fact, alive.
Lena watched the man swaying uneasily as she reached the halfway mark of her solo. His mouth had pulled into something resembling a grin as he hands rubbed over his body.
But his eyes were still rolled back in the sockets, his face turned more towards the ceiling than the stage. Caught up in the firestream signal, his mind was far from the theater in a manufactured netherworld of false sensations and cross-wired emotions.
Her right hand flicked the guitar’s selector switch before she launched into the second half of the solo, her lip curling to form a determined sneer.
The next shrieking note nearly blew out her amplifier’s speaker.
Dangling somewhere along the precipice of serenity and orgasm, Marcus’s body convulsed as a million serrated hooks ripped it apart molecule by molecule. The liquid surrounding him roiled into the gaps between his cells and ignited, searing him from the inside out.
It was too much.
Primitive survival instincts pushed back against the torrent of information cascading through his neural implant, but his brain was already melting.
The signal was much too strong, too much for his fragile neurons to withstand.
The portion of his conscious mind that was still functioning tried to reach for the killswitch, but the rest of his rapidly liquefying nervous system went on insisting that his limbs were still being flayed and burned.
Marcus tried to scream, but the sound came out as a smile.
As Lena bore down on the final measures of her solo, the man’s eyes snapped open. For an instant, their gazes met, his wild eyes focusing on her with a panicked intensity.
She knew she had him.
Nobody talked on the ride back from the theater, not even Trevor.
Lena had gone straight to the van while the others packed up their gear. Chris told her that somebody loaded the body into a car and went to dump it somewhere far from the theater. They’d had plenty of people scorch themselves before, but no one had ever seen anything like this.
He was explaining how much blood had gushed out of the guy’s head when Lena told him to shut up.
When they reached her apartment building, she hopped out of the van without a word, her old guitar case in tow.
She turned more out of dumb, practiced habit rather than any desire to hear what Chris had to say.
“Listen,” he said, “it wasn’t your fault, okay? They said he was plugged into a more efficient unit and had the sensitivity up too high. And the system wasn’t ready to handle a signal as strong as your guitar’s anyway. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
Lena remembered the man’s body jerking wildly, his neck snapping backwards so fiercely that his spine nearly broke in half. She remembered him crashing into the entranced golems surrounding him, bouncing off each one as the blood started to run down from his nose and ears. She remembered him sprawling across his firestream unit and twitching until one of the bouncers finally unplugged him.
But most of all, she remembered how she felt the moment his eyes had opened, the rush of adrenaline that came from knowing that she’d reached down from the stage to make a connection with another human being, a stranger with whom she likely had nothing in common.
In that moment, she’d felt more alive than ever before.
“Good night, Chris,” she said.
When she got to her bedroom, she laid the guitar case on her bed and opened it. The black thing inside leered at her, taunting her to pick it up and play the same notes that had taken her to such heights.
She reached out to touch it, but then drew her hand back when she thought of the quivering, bloody body draped over the firestream unit.
The tears came before she could stop them. A few drops fell onto the guitar’s body, leaving dark splotches that made her think of the man’s dark blood under the theater lights.
She wasn’t sure who she was cursing as she jerked the instrument out of the case and took it to the window.
A gust of air swept into the room when she pried the window open. The air made the guitar strings vibrate slightly. Lena paused, allowing the faint, tuneless drone to fill her ears. She thought back to the mindless, swaying things in the club and wondered if that was all they usually heard.
Her grandfather was right. They didn’t really listen.
But someone had. She’d made him listen, even if it killed him in the end.
For a few moments, at least, she’d proved the bitter old man wrong.
She pulled the guitar strap over her head and strummed a minor chord. Even unplugged, the old guitar cut through the low din of the crumbling world outside her window.
Not everyone turned to music for the same reasons. For most people, it was just one more brick in the wall of discordant, meaningless noise that formed the background of their lives.
But some people were looking for something else.
They wanted deliverance from that ceaseless monotony.
Lena could give it to them. Whether or not they could handle it, that was their problem.
She took out her phone and called Trevor. He answered before the first ring ended.
“Lena? You okay?”
She looked down at the guitar. The splattered teardrops had run across the body, forming an irregular cluster of wet streaks that reflected the light pouring through her window.
Once, the guitar belonged to her grandfather, but not anymore. It had been baptized and reborn.
The guitar belonged to Lena now, and it would play her song.
“When’s our next gig?”