‘Phantom Hearts’, David Gallay

Illustrations © 2014 L.E. Badillo



 [ Music, © 2014 L.E. Badillo ] Boredom spasms across the skin of my hands, shooting my fingers up to my naked temples, where they wiggle around like baby octopi. Sophie warned me this would happen when I ditched my Looks, digits moving on their own, little zombie creeps. She already lost a dare with Ella last quarter, going only three weeks without her Looks before succumbing to the inevitable, reasoning that she simply couldn’t keep up with her school work without the alarms and schedules and that most of the assignments didn’t have printing rights. She spent all weekend catching up, taking breaks to shotgun hearts for all the stuff she missed, like my birthday.

Ella hadn’t forgotten, of course. Awkward, showing up at the door with flowers, daisies. Itchy squelched from the kitchen, ooh, she likes you, are you dating? Shut up, I’m not dating anyone, what does that even mean? Itchy watches too many old movies with milkshakes and roller skates. Anyways, that’s when Ella offered me the same dare and now I’m into my second week without Looks, and it’s concert night so, yeah, probably bad planning on my part. I can see them right now, a curve of translucent plastic hiding under a pile of orange-foil candy wrappers and dead flower petals. Hardest part is waking up, actually taking it out of the drawer and then forcing myself to drop it. Sophie thinks Ella will always win, rumor is she grew up in some deadzone with crap signal, like the Ozarks or Alaska. She tells me this in person in the school parking lot, while we’re waiting for our parents to collect themselves, and I carefully hide my surprise because we’ve barely spoken in the past few months.

“By the end of the month, I felt like I was floating,” Sophie says, squinting at some invisible digital horizon over my head. Her Looks pulse a slow, passive blue. “I swear, Cara, my feet weren’t touching the ground. I forgot who I was, I didn’t exist. I may have actually turned into a cloud.”

“Come on, it’s not that bad,” I say. I don’t mention how I tend to slip into daydreams. A few days ago I was in Calc staring at the worksheet and just kind of fell into it, and by the time I pulled myself out the classroom was empty.

“Only Day Nine,” she reminds me.

Inside the car, Mom keeps adjusting the antennae bead on her drone. Dad’s already taken Itchy inside to give her plenty of time to tune her cello so she can knock the pegs an octave flat again. I’ve only heard her practice a few times, but I guess at this age it doesn’t matter—the teacher will turn on the melody backfill on their pads so you’d really have to be listening carefully to hear when they start to squeal their bows and bludgeon the notes. For fourth graders it’s not really about the music, it’s about being on stage and letting your parents grab that perfect clip for their rolls so that friends and grandparents throw them a few hearts before slipping onto the next Russian car crash or some stranger’s kitten tripping over a spoon.

I rap my knuckles on the window.

“Mom, come on, you can do this inside. It’s getting late.”

“No, it’ll be too dark. Damn it, I think I smudged the lens again. Hold on.”

It feels like an hour has passed before she manages to clean the drone’s lenses to her satisfaction. Sophie’s already gone in. I don’t know what time it is, but the sun has gone from white to honey, spinning out thick, long shadows. I blink to take a picture before I remember and the lack of fake camera clicks makes me a little nauseous. We wind our way between the rows of purring electric minivans, my violin case only hitting metal a few times, never hard enough to leave a ding. Mom cradles the new drone in the crook of her arm like a baby.

The auditorium lights have already dimmed half-way, the screen above the stage proudly announcing the Franklin Heights Autumn Concert, Only Class C Drones Please, sensors and bandwidth provided by Verizon. Mom pings Dad out of the crowd. He waves to us and points to the empty seats on either side of him. I scan the balconies for Sophie but it’s Ella’s face that jumps out at me.

“I’m heading up there. I’ll see you afterwards.”

Mom glances towards Dad and then up to the balcony, and I get a terrible notion that she might want to join me. I think Dad’s been rubbing her nerves a bit weird lately since he postponed our annual Nha Trang pilgrimage for a full body screening. Fine with me, I’m getting too old to play in the sand with Itchy and I’m really not in the mood to expose my pale New Englander stomach to legions of bronzed Vietnamese surfer demigods. Mom does international triathlons to relax, so she’s never been quite as keen on Dad’s sudden bursts of hypochondria. Things were getting weird so I hoped Ella’s dare would be the distraction I need.

“Sure,” she says, unable to find a suitable excuse to leave Dad all alone. “Can’t wait to hear you play!”

Then she’s gone and I’m untethered and clomping up the stairs. Ella already has her violin out. It’s made of real wood, chipped along the edges, fingernail scratches up and down the neck. She bought it from some guy on Craigslist before her parents could go and print the model recommended by the school. Saved thirty dollars, so, big deal. I can’t tell the difference. She says she can. I asked her if it was like playing a tree she said you would know and I didn’t know but I laughed it off anyways.

Ella carefully sets her instrument down and tries to smooth spiderweb creases from a sheet of paper. I peek over her shoulder and see it’s a handwritten copy of Symphonie fantastique, each line and note transposed in pencil. I wonder how long it took her to do that and feel a warm flush of admiration and jealousy.

“You know there’ll be pads on the stands, right? It’s not using a Look, so by your own rules it technically doesn’t count.”

“Still counts to me. I made another copy if you want it.”

The paper she hands me has only one crease, perfectly even down the center. Each quarter note is a solid black oval; each half note is an unblemished circle, not a single stem askew. A sarcastic joke about her printing it out rolls to the edge of my lips and I swallow it back, trying really hard not to be that type of person anymore.

“Thanks,” I say. “It’s amazing. Seriously. I wish I had the patience.”

She blushes and goes back to tuning her violin, plucking each string up to her ear.

The auditorium lights pulse, once, twice. A bandwidth padlock blinks on the screen. Everyone has whatever they will get, everything else will be held back by the school, budget cuts, thank you for your patience. A few grumbles in the crowd, people too late to sign in or with hacked Looks or phones that are too old and stupid to crowdshare. The lights dim to warning indigo and I involuntarily grab the armrests. Even though I’ve seen it a hundred times I still get vertigo as all of the drones simultaneously rise up from the audience, schools of spooky quiet squids and orbs and trapezoids, matte black shadows like floaters in your eye fluid. They dart around, searching for the best viewing angles, jockeying for position in their few yards of allocated airspace. They politely nudge and loop around each other, gel into synchronized orbits over the conductor’s podium. Somewhere out there is Mom’s pet spy, a budget dual-rotor tossball she found in a Costco end cap. Imagine it’s attempting to center Itchy’s mop of teased hair and unfocused emerald eyes softened by two generations of Pennsylvanian dads. Most people couldn’t guess that me and her are related. I look more like Mom, a retrograde Japanese ink drawing, all sharp corners.

“You all right?” Ella asks.

“Sure,” I lie. If I had my Looks, they’d automatically mask the drones, edit them out of the room. I try not to focus at them, steer my attention to the sheet music instead. I recite the notes in my head as the screen announces that ambient noise is finally at an acceptable level and the lights dim again, spotlights swing over to the podium. Mr. Eckerd has run elementary strings since before I was born, he knows that this performance isn’t about the music or latent talent, but about the kids being on stage and their parents being forced to actually observe them, even if it has to be mediated through radio signals and sapphire lenses. He makes sure that the only outside net access allowed is for emergency protocols and the regular license pings the music pads have to make back to their publisher. No browsing, no chatter, no heart checks. That’s probably why the parents keep squirming in their seats, giving the auditorium an even more underwater feel, kelp and crabs.

Mr. Eckerd raises his baton. The tablets on the music stands obey and flicker to the first piece, Seranade. Bows go up, poke their stand mates. Baton goes down, the notes on the pads start to bounce and the air shimmers with that first, tooth-grinding squeal of too much pressure, too little rosin, zero rhythm.

“Yikes,” Ella says.

“You try listening to it while you’re running through logic drills. Didn’t you say you have a brother something?”

“Older bro,” she says. “At college.”

“Cool.” I’m trying to imagine a beefier, male version of Ella, maybe playing basketball, no, he’s tossing a Frisbee across the quad of an anonymous pastoral campus, smiling, teeth big and white. Then it’s Ella I picture, sitting in the grass, hunched over to draw a perfect treble clef, her skirt drawn up to her hips… shit. Stupid indiscriminate hormones, stop it.

The night before I gave up my Looks, I went private and googled “platonic infatuation.” I opened two tabs and then turned it all off.

A drone buzzes over my head. I check to see if it’s Mom checking up on me, but it’s an expensive iPod, the kind with carbon struts and ceramic scaling. I could hit it with a hockey stick and it wouldn’t even flinch. It hovers above me, then over to Ella. I poke her and point it out.

“Know it?” I ask.

She does a quick glance up and shrugs. “Nope.”

Seranade finishes with a stray pluck and the parents applaud. The drone dips down, almost touching Ella’s hair, before rejoining the others. My stomach goes squishy and I’m glad my Looks are on my dresser otherwise I’d be pinging that drone over and over again trying to find out the owner. Now it’s Yankee Doodle, cue for another warbling Patriotic medley.

Just beyond the music, I hear a thumping sound. Sneaker against metal.

“Did you hear that?”

Ella looks over at me. “What?”

“I don’t know. Something knocking.”

She smiles. “Knocking on your chamber door?”

“What?”

“Never mind.”

My skin tingles. I think my Dad takes anti-anxiety meds. I wonder if that would be cheating? I could probably blow past a month, two months with the right chemical assistance. Give them up all together. Move out to a farm, raise chickens, paint in oils. Mom would send me chatter and I would never know it. How awesome would that be?

Ella grabs my elbow.

“I’m going to sneak out for some popcorn. Want to come with?”

Does she even know my sister is playing now? Did I tell her?

“No, I’m good.”

Before I have the chance to reconsider and regret, she’s gone, taking two steps at a time until she hits the ground and slides out of the theater in a slice of light. I’m try to focus on the music in my hands but the notes keep moving, dark tadpoles wiggling away from my grasp. And every time I think I have it, another thud vibrates through the floor and up into my calves. I whip around to throw a glare at whatever kid, whatever boy, keeps kicking the seats, but they’re all a few rows above me and won’t see me through their Looks. Just like the squeals of the kids on stage and the drones swirling overhead, I’ve been edited out and replaced with something that I’d rather not think about. One of them sticks out his tongue and pretends to lick something. The others laugh.

That’s a hint if there ever was one.

I follow Ella’s path to the doors, scanning for my parents one more time as I escape. All I see are hairy knuckles lingering on Mom’s back, tapping to the janked rhythm of a couple dozen uncoordinated nine year olds.

The heavy doors slam closed behind me and it’s as if the auditorium doesn’t even exist. Guilt spins me around and I start to turn around, but I push it down and get it under control. I remember being Itchy’s age, desperately trying to keep up. I assumed everyone in the audience could pick out every awful squawk I made. Of course now I realize it’s all just a mash of sound and your lucky if your own parents can even get clear shot in their Looks, let alone filter a single instrument out from the chaos. It really doesn’t matter if I’m there or not.

My nose leads me towards the smell of fresh popcorn, totally expecting to run into Ella coming back the other way, her fingers coated in salt and butter. No, they would be clean. Not sure how, but they would be; pink and scrubbed. She would buy too much to eat and offer me the rest and we would dance around it and then I would surrender and scarf them down. The familiarity of the prediction feels good, like running a simulation, like actually being in control. Except Ella’s not out here. The hallways are empty, and the rented popcorn machine sits on a fold-out table, unused. A deep red heat lamp warms the kernels as if they were incubating eggs. The touchscreen flashes simple icons for salt and butter. Paper bags are haphazardly scattered to the side, some fluttered to the floor. No one further down the hall and or back the way I came.

“Ella?”

My voice echoes off the empty bulletin boards, the black glass of powered down monitors, the steel honeycombs of sophomore lockers. The tail syllable of her name returns to me, distant and confused. La? La? The constant encouragement to pile extracurriculars onto my résumé has given me plenty of opportunities to be stuck at school after hours, the difference being that I always have my Looks and these bare walls should be shimmering with life, every square inch filled with motivational posters and behavior reminders and the countless Photoshopped close-ups of eyes and flowers by first year art students, each one with a note begging for hearts and only the prettiest kids getting them.

In the naked real, the school is actually a furiously banal structure, hollow and unfinished, and it seems weird that I even recognize it at all. If someone kidnapped and blindfolded me, could I guess where I am? Maybe, by the hints of it in the fundamentals, in the bones. But probably not.

Behind me, a thud, a scrape. Something dense, like a jammed machine in the walls.

I give into my weaknesses and reach for the popcorn machine, when a vicious crash jolts my hand away. I stumble backwards and it happens again, worse this time, a terrible, rending sound, erupting from every direction at once. It goes on forever; it feels like the building is being torn apart from the inside. As I press my thumbs to my ears and close my eyes, it stops.

Out of habit, I broadcast a confused “what the heck!” subvocal to my friends, and my ears chirp as someone instantly tosses a heart back. It takes me a few seconds to realize that no received my exclamation—it lived and died in my throat, unheard. Sophie tried to explain it to me once, phantom hearts when people forget they aren’t wearing their Looks. I can feel my cheeks flush with embarrassment.

Around the corner, a door slams.

I’m such an idiot. Of course, Ella went to the bathroom. You’d think I knew the codes by now. I break into a sprint, thanking god I didn’t actually grab any popcorn. We’ll get back in plenty of time.

Oh. What? This isn’t right. Think. Should there be a bathroom here? No. I’m thinking of the other side of the school. The only doors here are the ones leading outside to the teacher’s parking lot. It could still make sense, if Ella went outside. She’s from the country, maybe some sort of claustrophobia hit and she needed some air. I lean on the handle to check, but it doesn’t budge. Are these doors always locked? I don’t know if I’ve ever used them. I look around for a release button, a scanner, anything. I push the handle again, put all of my body into it in case it’s not used to being manhandled. Nothing. Through the security glass, I see the empty lot, and beyond that, the edge of the woods that backs up against the school. It’s grown dark and I can only make out the trees by the slashes of coppery illumination from the nearby streetlights, the trembling shadows of their branches spilled across the pavement.

Ella couldn’t be out there. She’d be locked out. That’s something I’d do. She’s smarter than that.

Heat throbbing in my face, I run back the way I came, past the popcorn machine, hesitating for only a moment at the auditorium doors. I shoulder them open a crack and immediately assaulted by a lilting, out-of-tune arrangement of Ode to Joy. My eyes first find the empty seats where Ella and I should be, then drift over to the other empty seat next to my parents, where I kind of wish I was. They aren’t even looking at the stage now, just whispering to each other. Dad has his Looks on his lap. Are they upset?

 [ Balcony, © 2014 L.E. Badillo ]

Someone in the audience spins around to see who is letting the light in and I let the doors swing shut before anyone sees me.

Chirp. Another delusional heart. Thanks, brain.

Since I’m over here anyways, I duck into each bathroom. They are freshly scrubbed, thick with chemicals. Over the sink there’s a faded sticker reminding to Always Wash Your Hands, one of the few capitulations to the Look deprived. I peek under the stalls. All of them empty. I even venture into the boys room, tiptoeing past the urinals. Catch myself in the mirror, a stranger in black and white. I could be a boy, there’s barely a difference in a glance. I turn and face the urinal and my feet bounce off the tiles as the building shudders, the walls groan and it feels like they are going to collapse, as if the framework holding them up is being crushed under a giant hand. They don’t have earthquakes in Pennsylvania, do they? I lurch out of the bathroom even as the noise grows louder, turning from something mechanical into something organic, almost human, a cry of pain, of tortured agony and then I realize I’m the one doing it, whimpering like a struck puppy.

Stop it. I bite down until the shaking stops. I look up, expecting the see cracks in the monitors, dust falling from the ceiling. But there’s nothing but silence.

And this is only Day Nine. Except Sophie’s wrong, it doesn’t feel like a cloud. Not at all. I don’t know what the hell she’s talking about.

The green EXIT sign hanging over the main doors beckons me towards them. Outside I can see the entire lot, there’s our car, maybe we forgot the lock the doors and I can crawl inside and turn on some music, good music. Collect my thoughts and return in time for my performance, no one would even know. Yes. This is a good plan. I push against the door expecting to be greeted by a rush of cool autumn breeze, the smell of fallen leaves, constellations peeking through the smog, and instead receive the hard slap of security glass against my nose accompanied by a dizzying cartilage crunch. Warm salt trickles down the back of my throat.

“What?”

I frantically push the doors. Just like the other exits, they don’t budge. Why would they be locked? Isn’t that a fire hazard or something? I try the others, I push and pull and bash my shoulders into them. I stick out my tongue and stare at the dot of blood pooled at the tip.

Chirp.

“Screw this. Screw Ella.”

Outside, someone screams.

Chirp.

I press my eye to the glass. I can feel the wind howling on the other side. Is something moving among the cars? It’s too dark, I can’t quite make it out. A pair of headlights sweep across the lot, flashing off of the metal and dancing through the tinted windows, and for a moment I see the thing moving. Squint and I think it’s another compact white drone, an identical twin to the iPod that buzzed us in the auditorium. It careens drunkenly among the cars, bouncing off a few of their roofs, before vanishing into the night.

Someone grabs my wrist and I cough out a half-swallowed yelp.

“Are you all right?” Ella asks. “Hello, are you bleeding?”

I wipe my nose with my sleeve.

“Accident prone. Where have you been? I couldn’t find you.”

She shrugs and stares off at some point behind and below me. I’ve seen her like this before, but always from a distance. Wandering by the fence that separates the school from the wood, picking at dandelions by the road, cupping a dragonfly in her hands. It’s like she’s on the other side of a painting, two-dimensional, expressionistic; an interpretation of herself.

“Around. Waiting for you.”

“Did you hear that? Did you see that drone outside?”

“What drone?”

“Never mind.”

She’s still holding me my wrist, tightly. I can feel my pulse or her pulse fluttering against my carpal tendons. There’s some sort of oil or grease streaked across the back of her arm, darkening the fine hairs. “Did you want to go outside?”

“Can’t,” I say. “All the doors are locked.”

“Not all of them. Come with me.”

I look for a clock on the wall, but they’ve all been taken down. Soon, Itchy’s class will be done playing. Then the collective middle school, maybe three or four pieces, and then us. It’s not a lot of time. Being late means another ding on my grade, and then watch your step to unknown consequences. I’m sure Sophie is backstage, watching for me while practicing her fingering to a virtual metronome.

Still.

I don’t say no.

Ella leads me down one hallway, then another, past the cafeteria and the gyms. I can feel their vast empty spaces as we dash by them, the tension held within them, massive lungs holding their breath. The whole building feels wild, like something startled, unused to outsiders.

Chirp. Another imaginary heart scrapes against my sinuses.

“Here we go,” Ella says and waves her hands over the doors leading to the school courtyard until their locks submit, clunking red to green. I’ve never actually been out here before. Not like I’ve been trying to avoid it, just never saw a reason to shortcut through a patch of unkempt weeds and graffiti-scribbled benches. Even with Ella pulling me, I resist, flinching at the gust of cool air, the smell of crushed leaves, the lonely song of crickets.

A month ago, I’m in my bedroom. Homework done, face washed. A wash of text and images and sounds flood into me from my Looks until everything converges into this slurry white noise, and I am too, just a conductor of electricity, photons and electrons, dead as a wire. Almost throw up, drop the Looks and thrust my head out the window. The pane pushes at my neck like a guillotine. I listen to the crickets until I return to some semblance of myself.

Ella tugs my fingertips.

Even without my Looks, I can feel the time running out.

Again, I don’t say no.

I hug myself for warmth as Ella releases me and strolls to the center of the courtyard, where a single, diseased silver maple tree heaves up from the ground, whispering through the last few leaves clinging to its branches. Ella brushes her knuckles against the bark and that screech of metal against metal reverberates all around us, except now we’re caught inside the machine, about to be ground up in the gears.

I shout over the noise. “What is that?”

She kneels down next to the tree and brushes away a small mound of leaves, uncovering a mess of wires and circuit boards, broken padlocks, cracked security camera lenses. I recall a school posting warning about the consequences of vandalism. Even that received a few hearts. People pretending to care.

As she arranges the debris, the silence returns, almost louder than the noise was.

“When I first got my Looks, for Christmas, I never took them off,” she says. “Santa brought me a cheap set, came free with the contract. Crashed all of the time, ran through charge in a few hours. Kind of a headache, so I stopped wearing them.”

“Okay. I mean, that’s pretty normal. Maybe we should go in—”

Something flickers in my peripheral vision. I assume it’s a bat and instinctively cower down, covering my hair. Then I hear the telltale whir of tiny plastic rotors and realize it’s a drone, not any drone, but that same white iPod. It floats into the courtyard like an apparition, one of those will-o’-the-wisps they talk about in the old stories before they knew about swamp gas and the properties of strangely reflected light. The drone weaves through the branches of the tree before dropping at Ella’s feet. She reaches down and gingerly lifts it up.

“No one notices anymore,” she says. “There are things happening all round us, all the time, and no one knows. The world desperately desires to be seen, to be acknowledged. You know what I mean, right? Don’t you, Cara?”

I lean further out my bedroom window. My toes are barely touching the floor. In the starlight, the lawn below is dark as iron. The crickets get louder. All of our neighbor’s empty windows flash in time with their televisions. Blue. Yellow. White. If I slipped, if I fell, who would see?

Of course I know what you mean.

Chirp. Chirp.

I join Ella under the tree. The clouds scroll overhead, hands underwater. Part of me really wants to dig my fingers into the soil, to reach down into the cold earth. I feel rocks being pried up under my fingernails, the crawl of worms between the webbing of my hands. When she was alive, my grandmother used to tell me and Itchy stories about when she was younger than both of us, back in the old country. The friendly neighbor with his mouth shot off. The children curled up in the streets, dying. And later, the offerings of clothes and money they left in the old forest, hoping to appease the spirits of American soldiers restlessly walking the same footpaths over and over again.

Itchy asked one of her stupid questions.

What does a ghost need with money?

That’s not the point, grandmother said.

As far as I know, nothing terrible has happened at my school. But, as Dad is overly fond of saying, we can never know everything. And it’s a very, very old building.

I don’t know who shatters the drone first, me or Ella, putting a heel through its single, premium lens. Pretty sure I’m the one who yanks out the rechargeable battery, definitively breaking the warranty. There’s a trick they showed us in science class, a demonstration of the deadly flaws hiding inside even the best-designed objects, easily revealed by the briefest contact of the wrong wires. It was meant to be a cautionary lesson, as in, never, ever do this.

So, of course.

The dry bark of the tree catches easily, sparking with white flames, peeling away from the trunk in charred strips. Hand over hand, the fire crawls up into the branches, spreading out to the trembling leaves, consuming them in a single, hushed breath. The whole courtyard comes alive with firelight, shadows wriggling free from every stick and weed. The old bench warbles and pitches like a living thing, a chained dog.

I wish I had my Looks. This would get so many hearts.

Ella grins with soot-stained eyes and a version of myself considers the options.

Chirp.

The smoke begins to sting and I retreat back into the school, leaving that other person with Ella, mesmerized by the thing we have created, the permanent mark we made on the actual world. As soon as the courtyard is out of sight, a clenching panic grips my chest. I run back to the auditorium, blood and mucus dripping down my chin. I need to get my family, we need to go. Everyone needs to go. I look for the fire drill and realize I have no idea without the fat, stupid icons I have no idea what I’m looking for. I glance into the auditorium and the camera drones are all frozen in place. Overhead, the screen reads: Please wait, Wi-Fi Down, Service Required. I look for my parents, but their seats are empty. Did they leave already? No, Itchy is still on stage.

I run to the main doors and yes, my parents are out in the car. My father is clenching his Looks with shaking hands. There are tears rolling down my mother’s face, hanging onto her chiseled cheekbones before falling. I doors still won’t open for me, so I bang on the glass, smearing my own bloody fingerprints. They don’t notice me. Behind them, the black trees whip back and forth in the wind.

I’ll get Itchy out. She has her Looks, the doors will listen to her. Then we’ll go, and I can go home and stuff my mouth with candy corn and slide my Looks back on and catch up on all of my messages and fill my head with colors and light and a million layers of artificiality.

Inside the auditorium, the crowd senses something is wrong, but isn’t sure what to do. The building hasn’t set off any alarms, real or virtual. They tap their Looks, trying to reconnect with their drones. The ones without drones or Looks wave their phones and tablets in the air, as if a better signal were a fish just out of reach.

“You have to get out!” I cry out as I run towards the stage. “The building, it’s on fire!”

No one moves. They can’t hear me. They can only see their own children fumbling with their pads, swiping at unresponsive screens, trying to clear away the DRM warning that the license server could not be found, tap OK to try again.

Mr. Eckerd turns to face the murmuring audience.

“Ah. Fortunately, we’ve prepared for these sorts of technical difficulties,” he announces. “Students, on my count…”

He taps the baton and the orchestra creaks into a hesitant rendition of Cannon in D Minor. They are out of sync, out of tune. They sound terrible, but the parents don’t seem to mind. They clap at the ingenuity. So impressive! We had no idea what our children were capable of!

I climb onto the stage, slamming my head into low-flying drones.

The orchestra keeps playing.

I crouch-run over to Itchy. She’s pissed.

“Stop it!”

I snatch the cello away from her and a shuddering sigh floats up from deep under the stage, under the floorboards and the concrete and the steel, a signal from the buried places that haven’t seen the light since before even my grandmother was born. Everything has a breaking point.

The stage lights flicker and go out. With the dim glow of the music tablets as their only illumination, the music trails off as the orchestra turns towards the audience. They don’t understand what they are seeing. I pull at Itchy to come with me, but she’s frozen in place, unable to look away from the drones silently crashing to the ground and beyond them, the sea of red LEDs shining out from their parent’s Looks, a hundred inquisitive eyes staring at us from the wild darkness, waiting for the next thing to happen.


© 2014, David Gallay

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