by J.D. Carelli
His hand went reflexively to his back, checking to make sure his most important possession – his only real possession – was still there. His violin was indeed slung across his back, still stored away in the splintered case he’d had since he was eight. It once had stickers of his favorite manga characters plastered all over it, but he’d peeled them off one by one while on the road.
He turned to face the only structure for miles. It was large, rectangular, and had a big, yellow shell on the side. It had once been used for fueling cars, but no longer. The awnings were still there, now used for storing wagons.
Walking towards the entrance, he knew full well that buried beneath the ash was what had once been pavement for a massive parking lot. But none of that remained now, as it had all been eaten away by the blight. The putrid stuff was heavy in this area and the coastal winds made it unpredictable. The greenish air whirled in the sky to the west, mocking him from a distance. As long as he didn’t stay too long, he’d be fine. His mother would never have allowed him this close to it.
But she wasn’t here.
Shrugging to feel his violin on his back, Kyle approached the counter-turned-bar. He didn’t like what he had to do but he’d done it many times before and knew it was necessary. He made eye contact with the bartender, who raised a hand for him to wait.
“You did not see a guy walk through a patch of blight,” the bartender said emphatically to a man on a stool.
The man with monster-sized sideburns nodded furiously. “I did. His skin was crackled –and he glowed red.”
The bartender blew out his cheeks. “And then what happened?”
“He just walked off.”
“He just walked off,” the bartender echoed with a chuckle.
“It’s true,” sideburns shot back. “And my friend Mark saw a chick break a man’s arm.”
The bartender shrugged. “That’s hardly a superpower.”
The man leaned across the bar, his eyes intense. “Without touching him.”
The bartender leaned away from the man. He picked up a glass and started rubbing it clean with a rag he kept tucked inside his shirt pocket. “I’d keep that to myself, if I was you.”
Sideburns sighed and took a long drink from his glass. “The blight has changed people. Just you see.”
The bartender nodded, putting the glass away. “I don’t doubt that one bit.”
The man put his face into the glass for good now and the bartender made his way to where Kyle was standing at the edge of the bar. The bartender was tall and burly, and the deep scars up and down his forearms spoke of past hardships. Things had got real bad for a time after everything changed and the only way most people survived was to take what they needed.
“Where’s your folks, kid?”
Kyle pulled a ratty old picture out of his coat pocket. “Seen her?”
The bartender glanced at it before looking back to Kyle. “That your mom?” It wasn’t a hard deduction to make. They both had the jet-black hair and distinct eyes people easily remembered.
The man shrugged. “We get a lot of folks pass through here. Can’t say for sure either way.”
Kyle's heart sank a little at the words but he had long since become accustomed to hearing them. What that meant for him this night was that he would have to once again do that which he hated doing. As always, he rushed through it. “Just a room and dinner then.”
The bartender narrowed his eyes at Kyle. “That’s fine. But looking for your mom or not, room and board are going to cost you. Gold, silver, or some other precious metal is best but we’ve been known to take other valuables as payment.” His eyes were distant, not giving away what, exactly, he meant by that.
Kyle turned, letting the bartender see the case at his back. “I’ll play for the house.”
The bartender eyed the violin, pursing his lips in thought. After a moment, he shook his head. “Nah.”
Like a well-rehearsed script, Kyle gave his spiel. “A happy customer drinks more.”
The man laughed. “Nothing makes a man drink more than when he’s trying to forget his troubles. And since the blight – business has been good.”
Kyle shrugged, forcing a smile onto his face. “What’s a meal and a space on the floor for a little lively music?”
The bartender sighed heavily. Looking around at the people sitting at the bar, he leaned in toward the boy. “Look, kid. If I let you peddle your shit here, everyone’s gonna start doing it.”
There it is. Every place he came to, one way or another, the conversation ended up here. The bottom line. If the bartender did a favor for one person, was a human being to another human being, it would start an avalanche of despair. Of all the changes the blight had brought on, it had changed the human element most of all.
Of course, things had always been like this – the blight had simply brought it to the surface.
Having asked nicely, he felt a bit better about what he had to do. “How about I play one song for the house? Free of charge. If they don’t care for it, I go on my way. But if they find themselves suddenly thirsty, you put a roof over my head and food in my belly.”
The bartender thought about it for a moment. Like folks did every night, he was running through the possibilities of how this could go wrong. But, seeing it was just a tween standing before a man, what did he have to worry about?
“Fine,” he said with a nod. “Just one song though.” He wagged his finger in the boy’s face. “But don’t think I won’t throw you out on your ear.”
Kyle cleared his throat. “Where do you want me?”
The man shrugged, looking around the room. His eyes stopped at a space catty-corner from where they were. “There’s an old counter over there. Too small to use for anything. You can play over there.”
Kyle left the man without saying another word, zigzagging through tables. Most people sat by themselves, minding their own, but a few were engaged in idle conversation. Everyone had a story – where they were when things went sideways, the horrors they heard or saw while running goods up and down the coast, or even the way in which people were beginning to change. A few liked to go on about their stories, something to pass the time, but most chose to keep it to themselves.
The counter was indeed small. There were a few ripped decals remaining, showing ice cream. Those things were a distant memory to Kyle. The only time he could recall eating dessert was after the blight came, oddly. The refugee camp he and his mom were staying at passed them out. They had shared a chunk of watered-down lemon ice on a stick.
He put the memory away and took the case from his back. Tattered as it was, the case still did its job. He set it on the counter and undid the one working latch. The violin within was in pristine condition, as was anything one loved. Pulling it out with one hand, he used the other to feel the dark red maple that had gone into making it. The way the wood had been cut gave it a look of flames. As he turned it in the light, the dark flames turned light and the light flames turned dark. Such an instrument, near impossible to make since the blight, was quite rare.
It made him think of lost things.
He pulled out the bow and a memory along with it. He was back in the refugee camp, in a small room with boarded-up windows with his mother. They had very little to do every day and she would often tell him to play a particular song. It was her favorite song. “Just play,” she would say from her chair.
But that song was just for her. He would never play her song for another soul.
Kyle shook the thought from his mind and put the case off to the side. Turning towards his audience for the night, he took a deep breath. A few people were looking at him, waiting to see what he was going to do, but most folks were uninterested. They were here to forget, not listen to some kid on a violin.
Needing the most visibility possible, he climbed the counter. That got a few more people’s attention. Conversations began to stutter and eyes turned toward the spectacle that was unfolding before them. Kyle cleared his throat and thought about what song he would play.
He needed them happy and willing to spend hard-earned currency. Melancholic Masterpiece, he though with a nod. It had just the right amount of nostalgia mixed with thoughts of inspiration.
Kyle put the violin to his chin and played a few notes. Traveling north as he was, the cold always wrecked the tuning. Using the perfect pitch he’d developed by age nine, he nimbly turned the pegs of his instrument until the note he struck matched the one stored in his mind. Ready to go, he slipped into the song.
His fingers walked the fingerboard deftly, relying on muscle memory alone. He stretched the notes out in all the right places, drawing his audience in like a man wooing his lover out to the dance floor. He had always had the best teachers his mother could find and she was insistent that he be a skilled, passionate player. More eyes were on him than not by this point. People had even forgotten about the glasses in front of them. Slowly, completely, their focus turned to him.
The exact science of what he did to people was lost on him. The kind of song he played, its tone, affected the way people thought and felt. A few minutes of listening to his music and they would be open to suggestion. His suggestion.
In the hands of another, this power might be disastrous. But Kyle wasn’t looking to steal from anyone or take over the world. He simply wanted compensation for his services. That was the only way he could be out on the road, the only way he could find…her.
The song finished and the crowd looked up at him expectantly. Some were gleeful, others were tearing up, but everyone wanted more. They were ready.
He lowered the violin reverently to his side. “If you like the song you just heard, thank the proprietor.” Kyle gestured to the bartender, hoping he guessed right.
Half the people at tables continued to stare up at Kyle, unwavering. The other half turned slowly towards the bar, eyes searching. Some places were harder sales than others. Along a shipping route such as this, finances were tight. There was the occasional night when the house was packed full of the most willing people who had nothing to offer. Kyle hoped tonight wasn’t one of those nights.
It was getting too cold for that.
“Ron, you old bastard,” a scruffy man in the center of the room called out. “Finally loosening the ol’ purse strings, huh?”
A laugh rolled through the room. Everyone turned to Ron the bartender, who was leaning heavily on the bar. He looked to Kyle and nodded. “Brought him up from Frisco. Be nice and he might stick around.”
People laughed again. “What the hell,” the same man said, gesturing to his table. “Another round for us.”
“Screw the blight,” another said. “You only live once.”
Several more tables called out for drinks, while others headed to the bar themselves. Ron gestured for Kyle to continue with a wide grin. It seemed he would have a place to lay his head after all. Occasionally, people reneged on their deal but Kyle knew to stop half way through his set to eat, just to make sure. At the end of the day, a plate of leftovers and a spot on the floor were little compared to a night’s worth of entertainment.
Kyle nodded to the calls for him to continue and broke into a lively song.
Later that night, Kyle lay on the bunk he’d been given in the storeroom. It was one of the better accommodations he’d had in a while. With his coat over him for warmth, he stared up at the ceiling. The candle beside him flickered, casting ominous shadows on the meat hanging all around him. He didn’t want to see it or smell it, but he had to breathe and he couldn’t sleep. A memory came unbidden.
He and his mother were on the road. After the refugee camp in San Diego fell apart, they decided to travel north. Most folks had just realized what they needed to do to stay alive and his mother kept them off the main roads to be safe. They subsisted on small animals, many of which had succumbed to the roving blight.
Meat hadn’t been quite as pleasing to eat after that.
His mother cried a lot at first. He would play her song as she went to sleep, tired from a day of scavenging. It was the least he could do for her for keeping him alive. But as the days turned into weeks, he found himself playing the song more and more.
“Just play,” he could still hear her say. Kyle heard her voice more than ever recently. And, as much as he loved hearing her sweet voice, it hurt too much. It kept him going, looking, but it was a distraction, too. He couldn’t do what he needed to do to find her with her voice in his head.
He pushed his coat away and sat up. Grabbing his violin, he put it to his chin. He played her song, the meat his captivated audience. He hoped his mother would forgive him. He needed it now.
The next morning found Kyle under the awning beside a row of wagons, violin at his waist. He plucked a simple melody from the strings as the sun rose behind a cloud of blight. The lime-green hue it pushed across the sky would have been beautiful were it not a constant reminder of death.
Drivers began to shuffle out of the bar while Kyle searched for just the right person to take him on the next leg of his journey. As they passed him, some tipped their ball caps, while others told him how great he played. He nodded and let them pass. He was looking for a very specific person.
A frumpy middle-aged man stopped beside him. “That was some nice playing last night, kid.”
Kyle smiled weakly. “A spot in your cab and you can hear it all day, too.”
The man narrowed his eyes at him, gesturing up the highway. “You’re not moving on, are you?”
The man looked to his wagon and winced. “I’d love to, kid, really. But I don’t have an inch to spare. The boss has me packed in tight.” He shook his head feverishly. “He’s even got me riding with a carton of canned goods between my legs.”
This was nothing new. There were no laws any more dictating how a worker should be treated, so many employers did whatever they could get away with. Playing his violin, as he was, Kyle could have given him a suggestion. But what good would that do him when the man snapped out of it a mile down the road and realized he’d unloaded several boxes to make room for a vagrant?
He couldn’t let that happen. Not again. A memory pushed its way out. Running, using suggestions to make people do things they didn’t want to do. Pushing them, forcing them. The pain of it all made him seize.
“Are you alright?” the man asked.
Kyle rubbed his forehead. “Fine, thanks. Maybe some other time, then.”
The man nodded, “Yeah, kid. Sure.” He zipped up his coat and climbed into his wagon.
Kyle sat down on a cement block and laid the violin on his lap. If he couldn’t find someone to take him, he’d lose a whole day. He’d been working on the hope that his mom was just one town ahead of him, each moving north towards Seattle. If she arrived before him, she might think he’d already left. He had to get there soon. It was his only chance of finding her.
“Got a spot in my wagon if you want it,” a voice said.
Kyle looked up. A pear of a man was staring down at him, the deep sweat stains around his arms causing Kyle to recoil. His cap was on backwards and he had the aloof look of a man still a bit drunk.
“Heading north?” Kyle asked.
He nodded. “All the way to Seattle.”
Kyle straightened himself. In one swift move, he could see himself all the way to his destination. And, if he was lucky, he might even get there before his mother. That’s where they had been heading before they got split up and that’s where she’d think to look for him.
But why was this man offering?
“You don’t mind?” Kyle prodded.
The man shrugged and adjusted his ill-fitting pants. “I’ve been making deliveries all the way up the freeway, so I got the space. And god knows I could use the company.” He laughed, wiping his brow. “After last night, I owe you.”
Kyle thought it through. People rarely did things out of the kindness of their heart. That got you hurt; or worse, killed. So what would the driver get out of it? There were those who would do things to you when you were out in the middle of nowhere. He had jumped out of a moving wagon on more than one occasion. But what other option did he have?
Stay here and wait another day.
Kyle grabbed his violin case. “Which one’s yours?”
The freeway after the blight looked just about the same anywhere as it did this morning. Weeds and all manner of foliage grew up between the cracks of the cement as cars lay abandoned here and there. No one liked the prospect of losing their shipment – and possibly their life – to highwaymen, so most obstacles were kept far from the worn, two-way path in the center.
The sweaty man sitting next to Kyle called himself Jim and hadn’t stopped talking since they'd left Tacoma. He had started off with how much he had liked the previous night’s performance before segueing into the quality and nature of every person present that night. Kyle had little interest in discussing such things. They were all people he’d likely never see again.
Then he said something interesting.
“You know what I just can’t believe?” Jim asked between belches. “How much of that swill folks drank last night.”
The words started a knot in Kyle’s stomach. “How do you mean?”
“Well, it’s just that people kept goin’ on about how vile the beer was.” He rubbed his belly with a foul look upon his face. “I usually never drink more than a glass myself.”
Kyle tightened his grip on the violin in his lap. “There’s nothing wrong with enjoying yourself once in a while.”
“Yeah, I suppose,” Jim said with a harrumph. “It’s just weird, is all.”
The man went silent for the first time in several hours. It was not uncommon for people to feel strange about something they had done while under Kyle’s suggestion. That’s why it was best to keep the suggestion close to a person’s norm. He had found that out the hard way.
“You know,” Jim continued. “It all began right around the time you started playing your little violin.” Whether it was an accusation or idle words, Kyle didn’t know. “Wouldn’t you agree?” Jim asked, looking to the boy.
He shrugged. “I had just arrived. I don’t know.”
“No, no. I think you do know.” His voice snapped like a whip.
He knows. Kyle clutched his violin. How does he know?
Perhaps seeing the concern on Kyle’s face, the man lifted a hand from the reigns. “Take it easy. I’m not going to hurt you.”
Kyle, feeling the overwhelming urge to escape the man, peered around the freeway. Jim had waited a few hours before saying anything, meaning he wanted to get out into the middle of nowhere before doing so. He didn’t want Kyle escaping. But what did he want?
“I just played the violin for a room and some food,” Kyle said. His hands were shaking and he knew he had given himself away.
“Cut the horseshit,” the man said. “I’ve seen this before. The blight’s done something to you.”
Kyle knew that, but still hoped that playing dumb would get him somewhere. “The blight?”
Jim nodded. “I’ve seen it before. Down in Sacramento, I saw a chick break a man arm with her mind.”
Kyle remembered that story. Sideburns had told it to the bartender last night. But ‘Jim’ hadn’t been the friend’s name. What did Jim, or whatever his name was, want with him?
“I’m just trying to get to Seattle,” Kyle said.
The man bellowed a laugh, his belly jiggling with incredulity at the words. “What’s in Seattle?” he said mockingly. “There’s nothing in Seattle.”
Kyle began scooching away from the man. If he had to make a break for it, he didn’t want the man to be able to grab him. But where would he go? There was nothing but trees, forests of trees, in this area. He’d be stuck out in the middle of nowhere, susceptible to roving blight. Could he stay with Jim, then? Maybe he could lose the man at the next stop.
“I’m telling you, kid, you could make so much money doing what you do. You and me, that is. I’d help you.” The words send a chill through Kyle. He knew exactly what the man intended to do. Jim spoke as if they’d be business partners – and that might be how it started. But Kyle had seen too much to believe it would last. He’d be a slave before long.
“I know just the place,” Jim said. “Spokane has tons of suckers, I hear, just ripe for this kind of work. We could start you off –”
“Spokane,” Kyle cut in. “But I thought you were heading toward Seattle?”
“Oh, well...” He shrugged. “Spokane is much better for what we’re going to be doing. Like I said, we could start...”
Jim blathered on about his plan, but Kyle wanted no part of it. The only thing he cared about now was getting off this wagon. Looking around at the tree line, he found a thick patch he could hide in. Assuming he could successfully get off the wagon, the man would never be able to find him in the forest. Kyle would still have to worry about getting safely to Seattle. Noting that the sun had already passed its zenith, that was looking more difficult by the second, but he had to try.
Clutching his violin case for dear life, Kyle jerked his body toward the wagon’s door. The space was narrow and his coat snagged on the way out. He cursed the thing and struggled to free himself but it was too late. Jim had a hand on him much quicker than Kyle would have guessed and dragged him back inside. The man pulled him back down to the seat and patted him on the leg.
“Sorry, kid. After I saw that chick, I swore to myself I’d never let one of you go again.”
Wretched memories snapped back into focus. Kyle was back in the narrow street where he had lost his mother. He could still taste the blood on his mouth. Who had hit him? His mother lay on the ground, begging. Begging to whom?
Nobody would do that to Kyle again.
Bringing his violin to bear, he slammed the case into the man’s nose. Jim grunted and clutched his bloodied snout. Kyle went for the exit again and once more, the man grabbed him. But Kyle wasn’t going to stay. Not alive, anyways. He kicked at the man with his boot, repeatedly pounding him in the gut. Finally, with a grunt and a curse, Jim let go.
Kyle’s sudden freedom sent him flying through the door. He hit the asphalt hard, landing on his case. It knocked the wind out of him as he rolled to a stop. A deep-seated desire to survive tugged at his mind. Kyle dragged himself up just as the wagon was coming to a stop. He retrieved his violin and bolted into the forest.
Once inside a thick patch of shrubbery, Kyle threw himself to the ground. He was shaking and wheezing and prayed to a god he didn’t know for both to stop. The branches and thistles poked at him with every terrifying breath but he kept his eyes on the parts of the highway he could see.
As his breathing began to calm, the sound of birds chirping met his ear. There was no sound of the wagon, however. Jim had not left. He was still on the freeway, searching for Kyle. But where? Kyle craned his neck slowly, trying to gain a better vantage of the road.
He could hear breathing.
Kyle flinched, sure the breathing came from somewhere close. But as he listened, he realized the breaths were belabored. He pushed some branches slowly to the side, spotting the man on the road.
Jim stood hunched over, blood dripping from his face. It covered his shirt, as did his spittle and sweat. The sun beat down on him and Kyle hoped that he would just go. But he stood there, hands on his knees, panting.
“Come on, kid,” he wheezed. “Where you gonna go?”
He was absolutely right but Kyle wasn’t about to get back into the wagon with him. That would be the end of his life as he knew it.
Jim stood up straight, wincing. “Goddammit. I’m gonna rip your throat out when I find you.”
Kyle’s heart jumped and he found himself shaking more than ever. He believed the man would do it.
Jim shuffled toward the tree line with a hand on his ribs. He walked off the shoulder and stopped at where the gravel turned to overgrown grass. Kyle expected him to make some more threats but he didn’t. He just listened.
Lying about thirty feet from his attacker, the thought of having to keep quiet made Kyle want to scream. His body quivered and his breathing was uncontrollable. He tried holding it but his lungs felt like they’d burst after only a few seconds. This wasn’t what he should be doing, he thought. He should be amongst people, playing his violin.
Jim turned in Kyle’s direction.
I should run, he thought. But run where? Assuming he could get his legs to stop shaking, where would he go? Leaving the freeway was a death sentence for sure. I could give him a suggestion. The idea was foolish. Jim would find him and kill him long before he could give any kind of suggestion. There was only one thing he could do.
Wait and hope he went away.
Jim took a step into the forest, shrubs and branches cracking under his boots. He went slowly, stopping to listen. Kyle begged his body to be quiet but the closer the man got, the less control he had over it. I have to run. Jim’s animalistic grunts pounded in his ear. It’s my only chance. The man stomped through the foliage. Closer. Closer.
Kyle lurched to his feet.
The squeak of turning wheels echoed from the freeway. Jim, now a mere fifteen feet away, turned to regard the noise.
It was another wagon rolling up the freeway. It slowed and stopped behind Jim’s. A voice came from within. “Who’s there?”
Jim lumbered out of the wooded area, murder upon his face. But when the man in the wagon slid to the edge of the wagon’s bench, Kyle could see a shotgun slung over his lap. Jim’s disposition changed immediately but he didn’t say a word.
The man in the wagon looked familiar but Kyle couldn’t place him. His face was round and scrunched up. “Hm. I don’t believe I’ve seen you on this route before.”
Jim sidled up next to the man’s wagon. “This is my first go at it. Been workin’ the Sacramento-Bakersfield route mostly.”
The man nodded slowly. “Looks like you had a bit of a mishap.”
Jim looked down at his shirt, then wiped some excess blood from his nose. “It’s the damned weather up here. Gets me every time.”
“Nosebleed, huh?” the man said with a vague tone of mockery.
“Yeah, well…” He looked back into the forest, searching for his prey. “I best be going.” Jim shuffled back to his wagon and climbed in. From inside, he looked out into the forest one last time. His eyes drifted back and forth. If he could see Kyle standing there in the shrubbery, Kyle never knew. Jim finally cracked the reins and the wagon started forward. Kyle and the man in the second wagon watched him until he crested the ridge a quarter mile to the north.
“Alright, kid,” the man in the wagon said. “It’s safe to come out now.”
Kyle, standing now, edged away from the thick shrubs he’d been hiding behind. He wanted to get a better look at the man. Coming out from behind a thick tree, he peered at the familiar face. He still couldn’t place it.
“I saw you get into his wagon this morning,” the man said into the forest. “You seemed like a nice enough kid last night, so I’m assuming he tried some funny business with you.”
Kyle recognized him now. It was the man who first bought a round after his playing last night.
“Can take you north, if you like.”
How can I trust you? Kyle thought.
The man paused a moment before shrugging. “Alright, I’m tired of talking to myself, so I’m going to go. But if you don’t want to spend the night in the blight, you’ll come with me.”
The man waited a few moments, then unceremoniously snapped the reins.
Kyle cursed himself and ran out of the woods, waving his hands. The wagon stopped.
The man looked down at him, his eyes lingering over the tear in Kyle's coat. “Well…what are you waiting for?”
Kyle, in no mood to repeat the events of the day, decided to be smarter the second time around. “On one condition,” he said, raising the violin for the man to see. “I get to play this first.”
The man Kyle came to know as “Bud” held the reins of the wagon with both hands, keeping the shotgun laid over his lap. Fairly confident the weapon wouldn’t be used against him, Kyle felt safer that the man had it. And like any good wheelman, Bud’s eyes were constantly scanning the distant tree line and the occasional car.
Kyle had played several songs followed by some protective suggestions. “Let’s keep north” and “focus on the road” were innocuous enough suggestions as to carry no risk while safeguarding oneself. Bud didn’t pay much attention to them and seemed to genuinely enjoy the music. If only Kyle had started the day in this wagon.
“Where you coming from?” Bud asked into the silence.
More than ever, Kyle didn’t want to give away too much. “San Francisco.”
He winced. “That’s a tough place, these days. I’ve been doing the San Diego-Seattle route for twenty years. I always get through San Fran as fast as I can.”
Kyle gave him a sidelong glare. “Before the change?”
He nodded. “In a truck, of course. You remember trucks?”
Kyle did. He recalled pumping his arm to get them to honk their horn. “Must have been easy for you, then?”
“Adapting?” A feverish look came over him. “It was rough for everyone there for a while, I reckon.”
He has no idea.
“But, yeah. It made a lot of sense for me to stick to what I know.”
Kyle couldn’t remember the last time he met a person this generally agreeable. The new him, the changed Kyle, had learned to be the most distrustful of those who wore a smile. He held his violin case, ready to escape another predator.
“What about you?” Bud asked. “You’ve had to cross some bad bits of blight to get as far as you have, not to mention the people. Why Seattle?”
“I’ve heard the north is better,” Kyle said, eyeing the shotgun. It still lay silent on the driver’s lap.
Bud chuckled. “Blight is blight. Everywhere has got it. But if you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine.”
Kyle tensed at the misspoken words. “I’ve just learned to keep me to me.”
“Fair enough,” Bud said. “It’s gotta be hard to be so young and on your own.”
Again, he has no idea.
“It’s my mom,” he chanced.
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
He shook his head. “No. It’s just…we got separated.”
Bud looked over to him, eyes full of compassion. “Really? That’s rough, kid. And you think she’s in Seattle?”
“Yeah. We were headed there when we got separated.”
The driver blew out his cheeks. “That’s brutal. How’d that happen?”
Reflexively, the memory came to the surface of Kyle’s mind. There was a throng of people, pushing. Darkness and blood. Blight no one saw coming. He held his mother’s hand tight, the other arm wrapped desperately around his violin case. “Just play,” she said. Why? Why should he play? The threat was too much.
Kyle rubbed the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. “I don’t know.”
Bud kept silent a moment, clearing his throat. “Things have been crazy. It could’ve happened to anyone. You’ll find her yet.” He spoke the words haltingly. It was clear what he really thought.
Kyle brushed the worn case with his hand. The remaining latch looked like it had about had it, but was still holding on for the moment. He unlatched it slowly before opening the lid. “Do you mind?”
“Are you kidding? Play all the way to Seattle and I’ll give you an ounce of gold.”
The violin went to the nook of Kyle’s neck and his fingers found their position in a haste. He played the song which came unbidden to his mind. It sprung forth from his fingers, which danced the finger board. It was his mother’s song. He hoped she would forgive him but it was the only thing which helped.
When the song was done, he slumped back against the wooden bench. Bud looked to him several times, eyes misty, but said nothing. Kyle wouldn’t get that ounce after all.
The rest of the journey was, thankfully, uneventful. By dusk, Bud and Kyle had arrived at the final stop before Seattle. Night and ash shrouded the old supermarket which lay on the city’s outskirts. It was one of the few buildings in the area which hadn’t completely decayed from the blight. Most of it had been converted to space for sleeping but the fast-food restaurant at its entrance served as a common area.
Looking around the parking lot, Kyle couldn’t see Jim’s wagon. He wasn’t convinced that meant that he wasn’t here but he secretly hoped the man had simply gone to Spokane.
It turned out Bud was something of a known figure along this route. Having spoken Kyle’s praises, he secured him a room and food for the night in exchange for four hours of violin.
Having no need to convince anyone of anything, Kyle didn’t work his magic on the crowd. It was odd, not needing to influence people to do things for him. There was a safety to it and a sense of pleasure. As he worked his instrument, the audience naturally came to adore him. They were thirsty for it. This was the way life was supposed to be, he thought. It incensed him and he played all the more passionately.
Two hours passed and he took his customary dinner break. They had specially made potatoes and eggs for him. That might as well have been a feast for a king. Bud had paid for that himself, saying that he wanted to pay Kyle back somehow for all the music. The driver owed him nothing, actually, as he had done so much to help Kyle already.
Kyle finished his meal and returned to his makeshift stage. He stood on a bench next to what remained of a porcelain clown. The worn and decaying figure gave him the creeps. He couldn’t understand how any child could have felt happy at the sight of that monster.
As he often did, he asked the audience for a request.
“'Amazing Grace',” a rotund man in a cowboy hat called out. He had asked for the song twice already.
Such songs were requested every night. He was as tired of playing them as the leftovers he normally had to eat. Kyle gave the man a feigned look of pleading. “Let’s give someone else a chance, shall we? A lady perhaps?”
There weren’t many women here this night. Few women drove wagons. Occasionally, however, families rode together. Kyle swept his bow out through the crowd, looking for the rare sight.
His bow stopped on a woman who was sitting with her back facing him. She had jet black hair and wore it up in a bun. Kyle’s heart skipped and his bow arm went limp. Could it be possible? His mouth suddenly dry, he spoke. “Does the lady have a request?”
She turned around slowly. “Me?” Her face was round in the same way his mother’s was and even her voice lifted like the melody of her song. They could have been sisters. But it wasn’t his mother. “Uh…how about 'Ode to Joy'?”
Kyle felt his face fall and his spirit along with it. Again, like demons sent to torture him, memories surfaced unbidden. The last, painful recollections of a mother being ripped from her son. There was no stopping them. All he could do was hold on and survive.
The blight was everywhere.
“I’m sorry,” the woman said distantly. “Do you not know that one?”
Kyle fell from the bench, hitting the ground hard. Instantly, two people were by his side, helping him up. The world flipped and flopped around him and the contents of his stomach sprang forth. A hand was at his back, rubbing it, but he shook it away. He clutched his violin and pulled away from the growing crowd.
As he stumbled towards the door, the proprietor caught him by the arm. “Are you alright, son?”
Kyle screamed something but he knew not what or if it was even intelligible. He tore his arm free and flew out of the building.
Outside, the crunch of new snow on ash ripped at his soul. Scraps of memories, now realized as false, fell from him. He reeled about and headed past the wagons, far away from prying eyes and closer to his demons. He fell to the snow, fresh flakes falling on his bare face. They stung but were the cleansing he needed.
Caught in the narrow streets of Frisco. The blight was everywhere.
Kyle felt wetness on his face, snow or tears he didn’t know. He wanted to pull himself up and run, run until he died in the lonely night. But there was something within him that wanted to know the truth. How could he continue without knowing the truth? He let the memories come freely.
Nowhere left to go. No escape. Blight everywhere.
Kyle could see it clearly now. They had gotten stuck in an alleyway, a sudden cloud of blight descending upon them. His mother had tried to shield him but it was too much. She was too weak. After it passed, he shook her where she had fallen on the ground.
Why had it taken her and not me?
“Just play,” she said. “Play and forget.”
He had. With tears streaming down his face, he had played her song. And for the first of many times, he forgot. There, in the street of another city, he had worked his music on himself. He had given himself a suggestion that would carry him more than a thousand miles away. What had he done?
Kyle pulled himself from the snow and looked at the violin and bow still in his hand. What was he to do with the truth now that he had it? Dim light flickered in the distance. He could play and forget, and continue his journey to no one. Or die here in the snow.
The violin and bow dropped from his weak hands. Pulling himself to his feet, he started into the darkness.
“Play and forget,” his mother’s voice came to him.
“How can I?” he shouted for only the blackness to hear. “Without you…I’ll die.” He cried out the words, desperate for his mother’s response.
A feeling, clear as if it had been a voice, came to Kyle. “Turn around. See how far you have come.”
He twisted around, facing the lights again. There was some good left. It hadn’t all been stamped out by the blight. But how could he ever trust it to be real? The world was full of the bodies of those who had trusted the wrong people.
“That’s life now,” the feeling came again. “And it’s still worth living!”
Kyle stumbled back to retrieve his violin and bow. Looking toward the building of people who had helped him without being compelled, he felt a pang of hope. In time, they could be counted as friends. He had to believe that.
He brought the violin to the nook of his neck and placed the bow on the string. He started to play her song – our song. The notes cut into him like they had never before. He heard the melody in a new way. It was no longer a song to dispel the pain but a song to bring hope. If he, and others, could survive the blight and be happy and good, others could as well.
“Play and be happy,” he cried. “And never forget.”
His hands shook from the cold and the emotion but for the first time in a long time, he felt his mother there with him. He would never let her go ever again. He would never push her away, out of his heart and mind. She would live on in his music. The only suggestion he would ever work over an audience would be a suggestion of hope and love. The rest would take care of itself.
“Play and be happy,” he cried out, louder this time. “And never forget.”
On he played the song, again and again. His fingers had long since gone numb but on he pressed. By the second time through, his tears had stopped. On the third go, the sadness in his heart faded to a bearable amount. After the fourth and fifth he felt a well of happiness spring forth. The memory was still there, piercing his heart, but it was endurable. It would be a never-ending inspiration to him.
He started back to the building, toward the light, playing along the way. He lit the room with music for the rest of the night and on through morning. The place was full of laughter and cries of happiness. The world was still covered in ash and blight but his world was full of hope.
And he never forgot again.
"Her Song" is excerpted from Chamber of Music ed. Charlotte Ashley, available from most ebook retailers!
You can buy it from Amazon here or Smashwords here!
These thirteen stories will take you to distant lands of faerie lords, lovelorn angels, plucky skyship pilots and plague-ravaged scavengers. They will guide you through our dark histories, our heartbreaks, our losses and revenges; our triumphs, escapes, recoveries and redemptions. No matter where, when, or whose story is being told, this collection will inspire and thrill you with the transformative power of music.
The second annual short story collection from PSG Publishing contains the work of thirteen authors from seven countries writing in a variety of genres and styles. Proceeds from sales of the Chamber of Music will be donated to Musicians Without Borders, a global network organization using the power of music for healing and reconciliation in areas torn by war and conflict. For more information, visit