Aphelion Issue 244, Volume 23
October 2019
 
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Sweet Strings and the 2:55 a.m. Train

by Matt Spencer


Betty's midway through the field, and she still has no clue where she means to walk or how far. She still feels the bruises on her shins and ribs and shoulders, but it's no longer the agony that almost made it impossible to take a walk. Walking it off: that's what Daddy calls it when he wants rid of a thick buzz early, like he needs to go to work... when he has work. She's heard people say it about smarting injuries, too. So yeah, she's walking off one of Daddy's more-than-buzzes. Daddy didn't seem interested in walking it off when she crept out, more interested in passing out, which is good because it means he won't come after her.

The wheat spreads for quite the country mile in any direction, all sandy-brown dead. The late noon sky looks dull golden like it's casting the reflection of cloudy water. The pines are still green, except right now it's like they've absorbed the same late fall death as the sky. It should be redder up there. At least it's warm out for late fall, and Betty doesn't even have a coat on, just a ragged sweater over her T-shirt. Sharp brush has already scratched up her chilly ankles and knees through her thin socks and the holes in her jeans, though.

A big black rat zips out in front of her, at a spot where the wheat thins, its blurred movement familiar enough. When she was little, Daddy took her on tractor rides when he mowed, and she'd look down and see scattering rodent shapes zipping away through the brush -- dark silky eel-like blurs running for their lives from the big rumbling mechanical monster. Daddy seemed nicer then, like he didn't get drunk and hit her or Sister or Brother as often. She's stopped believing the good times ever meant shit. Sister doesn't seem to have figured it out, even though she's a year older. She still yells indignantly, almost sobs at Betty for being away from home as often as possible, not doing as much as she should for Momma, not doing as much to pick up the slack Daddy can't manage, like it's not Daddy's own damn fault. Brother really must have gotten wise, and that's why he's not around at all anymore.

Maybe Betty should run off like Brother, but where would she run? She doesn't think Brother had anywhere specific in mind. He was never the type who would. She's that type, though, and she's read about all kinds of other places, listens to people talk about them. Everything here sucks, but it's what she has. If she ran off, she'd find nothing waiting that was hers, and she doesn't know where she'd start making it hers. If she has to drift as a ghost, it might as well be through a haunting ground that's already part of her, no matter how little she feels like part of it.

Momma's never been a drinker. She's just mean and snappy 'cause she's miserable and wants to share the love. Then again, she never beat any of her kids the way Daddy will, just struck them hard across the mouth occasionally when she really didn't like something they did or said. Momma stopped doing that once they reached a certain age, and she's been too laid up sick in bed lately to do anything but snap and snarl at everyone who has to take care of her, like a dying dog under the porch who won't let anyone near it.

Maybe Momma should crawl under the porch. She'd fit under there fine, especially with all the weight that's melted off her bones.

But Betty's not thinking about Daddy or Momma or Sister or Brother anymore, because the rat has stopped right in front of her. It's looking right at her, has definitely stopped for her, like it was headed for a destination and she's it. No rat's ever done that before, and it's the biggest blackest rat she's ever seen. It stands on its hind legs, its scrawny front paws drawn up and hanging limp like a flaming gay guy's. Betty thinks flaming gay rat. She'd laugh if the day had left her the energy for it. The rat's fur looks slime-slick and the pupils of those beady eyes look flooded with bright blood. A chilly queasiness touches Betty's stomach.

The rat looks at her stomach for a second, like it can see inside her, sees whatever chemical process creates the queasiness and it takes offense at it, and it mutters, "Son of a bitch..."

Betty wrinkles her face. "What's your problem?"

"Fuck," the rat grumbles, "guess that seals it."

Part of her just wants to keep walking by this creepy dirty rat. But she's curious, plus she's bored. "Seals what?"

Talking animals don't phase Betty. She's been able to hear them since she knew how to talk herself. When she was little, she told people she could talk to animals, and they laughed. Of course she was smart enough to know they thought she was just a kid playing make-believe. She was eight or nine when she stopped telling people about talking animals. It was actually a dog who mentioned she'd better stop being so open about it. She was getting old enough for people to call her crazy, after all. And God knows, enough people already thought she was nuts.

The rat sighs and rolls its bright blood eyes. "I was supposed to go get the first lone human I ran into and lead it back with me. And it's you. Heh. Figures..."

"What do you know about me?"

"You're the girl who lives in that house at the other end of the field, right? That dumb jerk farmer's daughter, right? And I bet you think you're such hot shit 'cause you've managed to carry on some halfway decent conversations with critters outside your own species. Yeah, think you're some golden girl, but you still used to sit up on that big rattling metal hog that drove through and tore everything up every fucking year. Yeah, that's right. Rats can look up."

"Yeah, so what do you want?"

"I just told you, little bitch! I was supposed to go out, get the first human I found, bring 'em back! So come on."

"Fuck you if you think I'm just gonna follow you, then! What makes you think I'm gonna follow you to whoever or whatever sent you? Hell, why am I even still standing here talking to you? It's getting dark and cold, and I went on this walk to clear my head, not stand around yacking with a nasty greasy rat who's probably carrying one of the four plagues of the apocalypse."

"Well for your information, missy, I have all four for sale, but that's frankly none of your business. And we both know damn well, you're not just clearing your head. But that's none of my business, and I don't give a shit about your nasty redneck family or what you do or don't do to get away from their shit anyway. But to answer your chirping, yes, missy, you are coming."

"So tell me who sent you and why I'm supposed to follow you, and I might."

"I don't know why, again it's none of my business and I really don't give a shit, and you'll find out when we get there."

"Yeah? What makes you think I'll follow?"

The rat cocks one beady bloody eye, then cocks its pointy snout to point over Betty's shoulder. She looks. There's the distant house light, half a mile back. Everything between here and there has turned into a sea of impenetrable murk, even though the sky isn't nearly that dark yet. And the murk has drawn close around her, so she barely sees the field... But she can hear that wheat rustling, hear whatever's making the rustling spreading thicker and closing in on all sides but ahead... rustling just like this rat made right before it appeared, only now it comes from many, many sources. She can't see all those little beady bloody eyes -- they aren't glowing or anything, like you always hear of rat eyes doing in fairy tales or wherever -- but she knows those are the kinds of eyes watching her now, drawing near by the dozens, maybe the hundreds.

The rat says, "It was just me who was sent out to find you -- you, or whoever. But my brothers and sisters are always on standby. You won't see any of them but me, if you follow me now. They won't all swarm out onto you and gnaw the flesh right off your kicking screaming bones within seconds."

The rustling gets thicker and closer, and maybe all that chattering isn't dry brush under rustling feet, but long sharp teeth... Or maybe not so little in a lot of cases... maybe bigger than the rat she sees. Either way, it sounds like there are plenty more than enough to pick her bones clean. And that's exactly what'll happen if she does what her shaking legs tell her to do, which is bolt back the way she came. So she looks at the rat again, tries not to shiver too visibly, not to cry, scream, piss her pants or otherwise panic, and she walks towards it. The rat whips around, goes back down on all fours, hops back into the brush, and heads on its way. He moves much slower than rats normally go, so she can keep up, and it's obvious he's making an effort.

The way ahead is clearer than the way back last she checked, or maybe her eyes have adjusted. They reach the end of the wheat but not the field. Now some of it's rocky, some grassy, some weed-choked. If she looks back, she'll see all those scuttling rats as they follow her into the open. Her terror has burned down almost to a trance, something detached and resigned so she can get through this without falling apart. But she still doesn't look back, just follows the head rat through the thickening dusk, to a broad forest trail she's walked plenty of times in the summer. She's rarely walked it this late in the fall, and she keeps wishing the rat would slow down so she could watch more carefully for spider webs, even though it's too late in the year for spiders.

A guitar plays far away. At first it's like background noise, then it gets closer. It's a pretty sound, something to think about besides the scurrying oily-slick shape on the ground leading her, or the scuttling at her back. Then again, the scuttling seems closer than ever, to where she can almost feel tiny rat breaths huffing against her ankles from little wet pointy snouts...

Atop a low ridge, she steps over the fallen rusted remnants of a barbed wire fence, onto the neighboring property. From there, the trail broadens and broadens and broadens, past a rotted string of shacks that housed horses and chickens for some bygone generation. Soon the trail breaks into another field, this one rolling and rocky and barren, rising into a big lump trying to be a hill. There's a big old Colonial house atop that lump. It's a house that's visible from the road, but she's always avoided going this far towards it through the woods because she didn't want to trespass. But no one's lived there for a while, and besides, she's being herded along by a horde of rats ready to eat her alive.

The lead rat stops, gets back up on its hind legs, dangling its flaming gay rat paws again. Its head twists around, nods to her, then gets back down and zips away across the barren lumpy earth. Betty freezes, then realizes she doesn't hear the scuttling army anymore, that the night and the field and the forest have all gone dead quiet. And a light burns in a window of the house on the hill. The guitar plays on. As the one clear noise, coming from the faint glowing center of a night like this, its an absurdly innocent, laid back sound. Betty shakes all over, not from cold, but because her neck and shoulders have gotten bunched and hunched with terror throughout the walk. She notices the cold night air, but her body's been warmed by the fast walk and by horrific adrenaline. Except the horror's not lingering. Instead there's dreamy disorientation, like maybe the rats were never there. It's like just a second ago she was walking through the wheat field, paused 'cause she saw something scuttling, and everything since was an eye blink's daydream, and she's not even sure how she got here.

She turns back to the forest trail. Daddy's probably passed out, and it's getting late and dark and cold, and now she feels stupid. But when she looks at the blackness of that trail, the memory feels real again, so she starts across the barren field towards the road. Instead of dreaminess, there's now a cold thumping afterglow of fear, like the shock's wearing off. It's a wild, almost giddy feeling, making her hyper-aware, like the time she was out with some girlfriends and some rednecks had been harassing them, circling them in a Dunkin' Doughnuts parking lot. She wanted to just slink away, but another two girls in the bunch just kept egging the rednecks on, and she was sure they'd all get beaten and gang raped. She's not sure how they finally slipped out of that pinch, just that one minute everything had felt like a snap away from exploding into the worst-case scenario, then it passed, and everyone started having fun again like nothing had happened. All the other girls seemed to catch the carefree vibe again fine. Betty played along well enough. Except there's no one to play along with now, just a long cold walk home, trying to stay far enough off the road's narrow shoulder that she doesn't get splattered by some speeding drunken pickup.

Except the rats brought her here for some purpose. And she doesn't think she's fulfilled that purpose, and whoever wanted to see her hasn't shown. But she's making ground across the field, and the rats haven't come back to eat her, just like the rednecks didn't come back to rape her and her friends. So maybe she's dodged another bullet. She walks a little faster.

She keeps glancing back at the house, keeps hearing the guitar... A sweet song, a well tuned acoustic playing a melody that's slow and sad, but not soft... No, not soft at all, razor-sharp in fact, full of longing, but also maybe a threat or two. It's an old Tom Petty song she hears on the radio all the time. Whoever's playing now doesn't make her think of the radio, or Tom Petty. They work those strings in strange ways, creating sound combinations that shouldn't be possible from a guitar, sounds you'd expect more from an accordion or an organ or a violin or a harmonica or even a flute... like there's a whole damn Salvation Army symphony jamming in there. Yet she's still somehow sure, all those sounds come from nothing but a single acoustic guitar. Except the more she listens, the further out and around the sound seems to echo, the less it seems to come from any one place at all... Something organic out here as a thousand other night noises, like the countryside itself is putting it out, smooth stones for guitar picks plucking at power lines and wire fences. The air feels different, smells different, tastes different, like something Betty recognizes but can't remember from where.

Childhood... That's not quite it, but it's the first thing that comes to mind. Not just knowing you're alive, but feeling the whole world alive with you, feeling the magic of that world in all the right ways. Life always used to feel like that once, and she didn't drift through this dead world like a ghost, but as a living energetic girl, through nothing but green and gold. The hatred and violence was still there, of home and all of Hammenville, something she was born feeling, something she breathed in from Momma's womb like every child born of families who haven't been out of the county for generations. But that wasn't all there was, and she realized that because she hadn't resigned herself to the ugliness like she has since. Now she doesn't feel like she ever resigned herself to it, and the more she listens, the further away all that feels, just like the rats feel as far away as those rednecks in the Dunkin' Doughnuts parking lot.

There's still just that one weak light burning through a couple windows that all face into the same room. Next she knows, she's already walking towards it, keeping low and quiet as she can... She doesn't know whether she means to knock or just peek through the window, just get a look at whoever's making that magic sound... She doesn't want them to stop, not for her, so she peeks in the window. There's a bare room with a small lamp in the center, the cord running like a limp starved snake to the nearest outlet. Behind the cord sits a slight young man, long-bodied and ragged, leaning against the wall close to the corner. He must be only a couple years older than she is, but it's hard to tell. He has a boy's soft eyes, surrounded by a narrow face that's been punched too often, sucked dry by too many booze or drugs, frozen by too many nights out in the cold. His body lulls, lazily cradling his instrument the way she's normally seen guitar players just picking chords 'cause they're bored. But there's no boredom or laziness in the way his fingers work those strings. Watching those fingers dance and slide and caress the strings, she almost understands how he's making sounds no guitar should be able to make. She peers harder, hoping to spot the deeper intricacies. His lips move slowly, twisted with cruel defiance. The window's cracked slightly so now she hears his voice.

"...Can't back down... Nah, won't back down..." There's a drawl in that voice, deeper southern than around here. It's not the nasal twang she hears on shitty country stations, but a strong smooth tenor with just a hint of broken glass roughness.

He looks abruptly at the window, eyes curious, but not alarmed or surprised. He gets up, sets the guitar aside and walks to the window. Betty darts back and tries to decide what to do. Something's changed in the atmosphere, something more jarring than after the rats disappeared, because the guitar's stopped playing. She wishes he'd keep playing, but more, she wants him to not be some psycho vagrant who'll try to rape and murder her. She can fight pretty good when she has to, but...

The rats jump back to mind, and maybe that was a spark of gratified anticipation in the guy's eyes just now.

The front door opens, and he steps out. He looks at her, doesn't speak at first, but peers hard like he's trying to figure something out. Finally he says, "Hey, what's up?"

"Uh, sorry, I just heard your guitar, so I went to look. You play good."

He smiles brightly, a little shy, a little guilty maybe. "Thanks. Come up onto the porch if you like." His speaking voice is like his singing voice, but rougher. His tone is apologetic, maybe because she's been steadily inching backwards. "Were you just out on a walk?"

"Yeah."

"Uh... this'll sound weird, but you didn't see a big black rat, did you?"

"Yeah, actually I did."

"Did the rat say anything to you?"

"Yeah, actually. He's kind of an asshole."

"Really? I'm sorry. He seemed OK to me."

"Yeah, well... Why are you sorry?"

He hangs his head and mutters, "Ah, fuck..."

"What?"

"Could you... Sorry, it's just been weeks since I talked to another human. This is sort of weird and awkward."

She'd press the issue, except... Damn, that guitar sound won't get out of her head. "You're telling me. How long have you been staying here?"

"A few days. It's almost completely bare, but the electricity hasn't been cut off, so I guess it hasn't been vacant too long. I got to town, hung around a while, made good money playing on the streets and in a few bars, but I don't like most people in this town, so I found this place and I've been staying here."

"Did the rat show you this place?"

"No. I found it on my own, then I played my guitar, and the rat showed up."

She climbs onto the porch, which reminds her of her bruised legs and sides and shoulders. Hopefully he doesn't see her wince. "Will you play your guitar some more?"

He peers thoughtfully. "No. You wanna sit down?"

She takes a deep breath, already figuring she must be crazy. "Could we go inside? It's cold out here."

"It's a little warmer inside. Sure."

It's still chilly inside, but not as bad. He sits in his original spot. She takes the corner to his left. Sitting down pulls at her bruises.

"How'd you get hurt?" he asks.

"Huh? Oh. I got in a fight at school."

"What's your name?"

"Betty."

"I... I'm Allan."

"How have you been eating?"

"Sometimes I hunt in the woods. Sometimes the rats bring me food."

"Do you always talk the local wildlife into doing your chores for you?"

He shrugs. "I do what I can for myself. Then I play, and whoever hears it comes, and, well..."

"Can't blame them for that. You've played in the bars? You don't look twenty-one."

He shrugs. "I'm eighteen. They say I can go in and play as long as I don't try to get served, but if I'm there at the end of the night, the bartenders always slip me drinks."

"You sound annoyed by that."

"Nah, it's cool. They give me food, too, which is even better. Why'd you think I sounded annoyed?"

"I don't know, it's just... Well, I hang with musicians, and the ones who play places when they're not twenty-one and still get drinks always brag about it, like it makes 'em badass or something, and half the time they're lying or exaggerating anyway."

"You hang out with musicians in Hammenville?"

"Yeah, some. A lot of my guy friends at school are in bands, or trying to be."

"You do any music?"

"Some..."

"You ever play with 'em, these musician friends of yours, I mean?"

"A little... I play some guitar, but mainly I sing. I'm not into most of the music they do, except for the classic rock stuff. I mean, it's good enough to listen to, but I can't really get into it enough to get serious."

"What do you like to sing?"

"Like I said, lots of classic rock and some blues... I really like Joni Mitchell and Janis Joplin. I'm also big into classical music, but most folks around here don't know shit about that."

"I believe that," and he sounds like he would. Maybe he grew up in a town this shitty or worse.

"Yeah. I sing in the church choir, which is good, even though I'd never go to church otherwise."

He smiles. "Yeah. Sometimes I wander into churches, just to listen to the music. Then I do my best to zone out the preaching, unless I'm feeling morbidly curious."

"Heh. There's nothing left in churches I'm curious about, except the music. I listened to all the preaching I'll ever need, when Momma used to drag me there."

"So you don't let your mom drag you there anymore, or she just doesn't have to 'cause you go there to sing?"

"Momma doesn't go 'cause she can barely get out of bed to use the bathroom. I'm really glad for her, not that she's suffering, but that she probably won't be much longer."

He looks awkward, fighting the impulse to give condolences he can tell she's sick of hearing. "Would you sing me something?"

She smiles bashfully. "Ah, not right now... I'm too tired and sore to sing."

"You want me to walk you home?"

"That's OK. I don't wanna be home yet." She thinks she sees him look her over with concern. "So who are some of the guys you've played with?"

"Well, it's not like I've done regular gigs with 'em. Mainly just been playing on the street. Lots of times I make better money on the street than in places. And I'll meet up with other dudes playing, and we'll start jamming, and they'll say they can use another guitar player, so I get in on a gig. Mainly it's this couple of guys... Joe Torn and Aaron Buckley."

Her face lights up. "You know Joe and Aaron?"

"Yeah. Haven't seen 'em in a while, though, not since I came out here."

"Why are you hiding out? You have a beautiful gift! People should hear it."

"Yeah, but I get tired of people. I'm glad you're here, though."

They talk for what feels like only a little while. Then Betty glances at her watch and it's been a few hours. She should hurry home. The conversation hasn't lulled or anything, but intrusive thoughts break the rhythm. She almost says she needs to go, then his guitar catches her eye. There's that magic melody again, in her head, the one that took over her world when he played. And a song stuck in the head is never satisfying if you can't hear and feel the real, living sound flowing over you. So she asks again "Will you play some more of your guitar for me?"

"Not now," he sighs, eyes trailing down.

"Why not?" A pause. "Sorry... I shouldn't be so pushy."

"It's OK. It's just... I like talking to you. I can't just talk to many people."

"Why not? You talk fine. You're more interesting than anyone around here."

He smiles, then something dawns on his face. "I'll play guitar if you sing along."

"I don't know... You're so amazing, and I'd probably disappoint you."

He grins. "You wouldn't disappoint me, trust me!" He lifts the guitar, looks it over, then moves his fingers slowly towards the strings.

"So what should we play?"

He thinks it over. "Tell you what... I'll start something I think you might know, let it flow into whatever it is, and you can join in when you're ready."

She nods and takes a deep breath. Then he makes the first strum. The sound fills the tiny room. It's perfect in here, slow and sad like before, only softer, not sharpened on the rocks of the barren field. When she draws a breath, she breathes in that sound like she did outside. It electrifies her, and the only way to keep it from overwhelming her is to let it out slow, hoping she's serving it well. "Hear that lonesome whippoorwill, he sounds too blue to fly..."

She tries to keep her voice in sync with the guitar, to let her voice live in the sound, to let herself live in it. But it's the guitar that falls into a blending rhythm with her voice. She feels like she's part of this sound she loves, like the night forest when she first heard him. Finally she breaths out the final verse, then their eyes lock as he cuts off with a single reverberating climactic strum. The echo fades, and there's silence.

"You look sad," she says.

"No... You just... That soothed me like you wouldn't believe. You're amazing!"

She's glad it's dim enough that he won't see her blush. "Whatever. Thanks."

"We're amazing! Did you feel that happening?"

"Of course I did!"

"Wanna sing something else?"

"Give me a few minutes! I gotta get used to that, you know what I mean?"

He laughs nervously. "Yeah!"

"Could I... see your guitar?"

That jolts him, then his eyes narrow curiously like the idea really appeals to him but he's still not sure. Then he lifts it by the neck and holds it out. "Here."

When she touches it, the first thing she feels, the first thing she thinks, is History... This instrument is older than me, older than Allan, and it's absorbed something of every place it's ever been. Any time someone has played a song on this guitar, it's absorbed something of everyone in the audience, everything they've brought with them to that room or street, and everything that was going on around them at the time. It's absorbing this moment here, and Allan and I are becoming part of it together. What are we becoming part of? What am I becoming part of, here with him?

She plucks a chord, plucks a few more, stumbles. But she can tell Allan doesn't mind, so she plucks a few more notes. She opens her mouth and sings the opening lines of Bobby McGee, and that leads her right on into the rest of the song, and she keeps strumming. She doesn't even know if she's playing the right notes, but it sounds good with what's coming out of her mouth. And of course it's all one, this beauty she's creating. Her eyes stay wide the whole time, not even blinking, and she keeps them locked with Allan's 'til she sings the final note. Then she cuts off with a single sharp strum, just like he did, and the reverberation feels like it'll knock her against the wall.

Allan has slumped against the wall, his eyes wistful slits that linger on her. "That was great."

She blushes. "I should really walk home. I have school tomorrow, y'know."

"Can I walk you home?" he asks, though he barely looks conscious enough to stand.

"Sure."

"Would you play the guitar just a little more first?"

"I guess."

"You know, I've never let anyone else touch that guitar, not since it was given to me."

"Who gave it to you?"

"One of my teachers, actually. I knew how to play before him, but not really play... not how to make real music like I do now. He didn't so much show me as lead me into it..."

"So who was this guy?"

"Damn girl, that's a story!"

"It's OK if you don't wanna tell me."

"I'll tell you sometime," he says like they both already know there's a world of future between them, and they'll have time to tell each other a thousand endless stories.

And yes, she's sure they will. It jolts her worse than anything, worse than the deeply suppressed surety that he's the one who sent the rats. "Why don't I play just once more? And you sing this time?"

This time he's the one who blushes, and she sees it just fine. "So what should we play?"

"How 'bout we just jam?" She strums a chord that gives birth to an improvisation.

"From the caverns on the white trash outskirts of the Silver City, darlin' I have come for you... And you took me in the arms of your sweet, sweet song, but do you know what I have to do... You don't know where I've been, but I don't know where I'm goin', and it's nothin' but madness anyway... You don't know what I've been through, but you've come to me and given ... a place to stay... Anyway... Lover, I'm at the doors of the cavern, and who else could have drawn me here... But the queen of an endless world unborn... You've reshaped me with your voice, my dear... So here we are on the outskirts of the Silver City, a city nowhere in sight... But you've found me and you know me, better than you think you do... Lead me to the city, the source of my mite... We don't know it but we're children of city, Silver City take me home... The countryside's on fire with the sounds we hear, we're making that sound here tonight, with the sound that echoes from the caves 'neath the Silver City, and you can't tell me that ain't right..."

He sings, and she plays 'til her hands fall limp at her sides, unable to keep up with the music they've made between them. A while later, he walks her home along the quiet weed lined road. She tries not to think of rat eyes filled with blood watching them from the trees. All the way, he keeps one hand in hers and the other clamped tight to the handle of his guitar case.

Her house is dark when they get there. She sees him hesitate to kiss her goodnight, so she leans in and plants a fast kiss on his cheek. She can barely see his features in the cloudy moonlight, but something in his face suddenly glows bright enough to light up the night. Not much later, she goes to sleep to the sound of his guitar, and she's not sure if he's really out there in the brush beyond her window, or if the sound just lingers that strongly in her head. By the time she fades out, she's not sure there's a difference that means anything.

#

The concave walls seem to go up forever before reaching the zigzagging line of sunlight. Allan's strumming and singing float up and blend with that light, so it glows twice as bright, the pure white glare breaking into all the colors of the spectrum so they dance with each other. Betty looks down along the cave walls. Quartz and diamond shimmer in the rock, so smooth you'd think it had all been melted down and swirled together, into a wall that couldn't possibly be natural. Except it is natural. Everything here is natural as magic, holding Allan at its center as he plays for it. And all these people around Betty, listening enraptured, they're as much a part of the nature here as Allan is, as Betty has become. They're all Allan's age, or Betty's age, or younger. Except their souls are so much older than their bodies, just like Betty's and Allan's, and it's his music that reminds them. They've all come to listen where the sound was born, where there'll begin the journey of figuring out what knowing amounts to. While he plays, she's just one more body in the crowd. If she stepped out of the crowd to his side, he'd let her. He probably wishes she would, wishes she'd join in the song with him. But he's up there at the center, in his moment, this perfection he's created for himself and everyone else here, and she won't spoil it. Instead she'll let herself be one more living girl, in this crowd of boys and girls who were walking ghosts 'til they heard Allan's song and followed it here. She doesn't feel her bruises from home anymore. How many of the others still do?

Allan's music is the only sound, except it's not just his voice and his guitar anymore. The ground drops off into a short cliff, yards to the crowd's left, and there's a winding path somewhere leading down the cliffside. The cavern floor spreads out farther 'til it meets with two twin cave mouths, many yards apart. A crew of short gnarled scurrying workers drag and clink railroad beams, lay them down, nail them in place with spikes, forming two strips of track, one so something can roll in through the right cave mouth, the other so something can roll out through the left. Both mouths are big enough for trains to come through. Outside, miles of rock wall spread between the two sets of track, and no one knew the left mouth was there when they came in by foot through the right. They didn't even see the entrance as Allan led them down the narrow split through the mountain, not 'til they were right in front of it, 'til Allan walked right on through and gestured for them to follow.

Betty looks again at the crowd. Not all of them came in with her and Allan, and their clothes and features are of many places, many races and eras. But they all came through the same cave mouth, into this brief space of time they've shared here. Does the left mouth lead back out there, for Allan to journey and gather more old spirits in young bodies, spirits needing to grow young again, to live again? Or does it lead somewhere none of them have seen yet, not even Allan?

We don't know it but we're children of city, Silver City take me home...

So what did they leave behind, before making the final trek through the mountain gorge?

The countryside's on fire with the sounds we hear, we're making that sound here tonight...

Betty fights the flicker of alarm, drowns it in music, in magic.

The workers weren't with the group who followed Allan into the cave, and Betty can't remember where they came from. She knows they all wear overalls and no shoes or socks or shirts -- their feet are too thick and leathery to even need work boots -- and their hair is long, black and slick, and they move in swift darting blurs, faster than humans move, fast like rodents. When they slow down enough so you can look at them, they have long narrow faces and beady eyes with pupils full of bright blood. Their leathery feet have clicking sickle-curved claws, and so do the hands that swing those giant hammers. When the hammers chime on the spike heads, it floats up the cliffside, into the gathering around Allan, and the rhythm of the work flows perfectly like a backbeat into the rhythm of Allan's guitar, the rhythm of Allan's voice.

Betty wakes up cold on her hard narrow mattress and curls into a fetal position, tightening the blanket around her. The backbeat of hammers is gone with the cavern, but Allan's voice and guitar are the last to fade. Then the cold bedroom chases that away too, chases wakefulness into her. It's dark in here, still dark outside. Except outside there are stars. The walls surrounding her are as cold and dull and dead as the stale air she breaths. Food has stopped disappearing from the pantry, and Daddy and Sister have stopped bitching about rat droppings all over the place.

Betty went to see Allan three more times at the abandoned house. She wondered what she'd say when her folks noticed the increased frequency of her forest walks. Would they think she was the one stealing food? That's how Daddy thinks when he's drunk.

On the fourth day she took the road to the barren field, and got halfway across before the giant black blur darted out and materialized into the rat when it stopped. "Best turn back, sister."

"I'm not the sister to a plague-carrier."

"Really? Seems like you're thinking of dropping your panties for one. Well, if you were thinking of doing that tonight, you can turn right on back."

"I'm not turning back. So what, you aren't his favorite now that he's got a human, female friend to talk to, so you think you can scare me away? Well, save it, 'cause you don't scare me. You or your little bloody-eyed horde. You're just a miserable old rat full of plagues and hot air."

"Call it what you want. Hell, I really thought he liked what I brought him. Maybe he did. But not enough, I guess."

A flutter started in her stomach and spread through the rest of her. "What are you talking about?"

"That house? Well I guess whoever lived there before finally cut the power, 'cause the lights and the heat stopped. He woke up shivering and decided to -- how's it go? -- seek warmer pastures."

"How do you know?"

"I woke up to the call of those strings he plucks... I don't even like human music, usually can't stand it in fact. Sometimes I'll get close enough to your house while that stupid fucking radio's on, and I'll have to scurry quick as I can the other way before I puke. But there's no saying no when he starts plucking those strings at you. The strings told me to come see him, just like they told me to bring you. Anyway, he told me he was leaving."

Cold replaced the flutter. "So he did make you bring me, that first time."

"He never said shit to me that night! The strings did all the talking. I thought you'd figured that out."

"I pretty much had."

"Human stupidity, I guess. His, not yours, in this case. And before you ask, yeah, he felt bad about it, me scaring you like that... and he made sure I felt bad about it, too." 'Til right then, Betty hadn't imagined that a rat could shudder.

"How?"

"How what?"

"How'd he make you... feel bad about it?"

"Those strings he plucks? He only plucks them for you in ways that make you feel good. You haven't heard him pluck them to make a creature feel bad. Trust me, you don't want to."

Betty took a deep pissed-off breath, then walked past the rat.

It scampered alongside her. "Hey, what are you doing?"

"Going to see Allan."

"I just told you, he's not --"

"I don't believe you. I think you're a miserable, malicious, jealous plague rat, and you don't understand me or him, and you think you can talk me out of going."

"Have it your way, bitch." The rat sounded like his feelings were really hurt. He scuttled to a stop. Betty continued on and heard the rat mutter behind her, "Human stupidity, I guess. Just like the stupid human who gave him... Aw, hell..."

Betty halted and turned back. "Hey!"

But the rat reacted like any small feral critter would, to any ol' human's sharp movements and noises, which was to vanish in that oily black eel-like blur. Betty stood still for a long moment, the world floating and tilting around her. Not like she was floating or tilting... No, she was the only solid thing left beyond the patch of earth and trampled brush beneath her. It was the field, the trees, the road, the air that no longer felt or looked real, like floating mirages with something else lurking just behind them. Except she could catch no feeling of what that might be. Allan's fabled Silver City maybe? Allan himself, the real Allan, the one the rat had hinted at?

She caught herself turning mechanically... back towards Allan's house -- because what else should she call it? No one else was getting any use out of it. Why shouldn't someone stay there if they needed shelter? But did she still want to go there? Of course she did! Why not? She'd let that plague-infested rat rattle her, twist her head around by talking shit. But she couldn't shake the feeling, because the world still felt like one big mirage, one that only solidified wherever her feet went next, just far enough to keep her fooled. She had to reach the house. The house was real, and Allan was real, and so was everything they created between them, something real to stand against the mirage.

Was it? He'd gotten her there by having wild animals chase her his way, and since then he'd been having those animals steal food from her family. She'd known it, but had built herself a wall of denial on the sweet music, built her own mirages because they made her feel safe from what was real. She should get home. Momma needed looking after. If Momma got worse, Daddy would blame Betty. And she still moved towards the house, the mirage solidifying under her feet step by rocky brambly step, dissolving just as quickly behind her. She had to confront Allan about this. But how? There was having the old You haven't been completely honest with me spat with your boyfriend, and then there was this. While she was at it, there were boyfriends, the callow fumbling guys at school she'd gone with, who always tried to come off so strong and hip and cool, and then there was Allan.

Human stupidity, I guess. Just like the stupid human who gave him...

What had Allan told her about how he'd gotten the guitar? The one who taught me to play, actually. Well, I knew how to play before him, but not really play... not how to make real music like I do now. Did she mean to confront him with that, too, the story of his strange mentor who'd somehow been stupid to pass the gift along? Maybe she'd better take things a step at a time.

Betty found the front door unlocked. The little lamp was still in the room where Allan had sat and played. But when she clicked the knob, the bulb stayed dark. So yeah, the electricity was off, but she still ran through every room looking for him. After that, she went through the place twice more, looking for signs that he'd ever been there. The lamp was still the only one. The real owners could have left the lamp. After that she spent hours wandering the woods. Part of her wanted to find Allan, but mainly she needed a place for her thoughts to stop racing and swirling, so the world around her could be something real and solid that made sense. Then again, that was about the same thing. What could have calmed her brain better than Allan strumming and singing?

Those strings he plucks? He only plucks them for you in ways that make you feel good. You haven't heard him pluck them in ways that make a creature feel bad. And trust me, you don't want to.

When she finally went home, she found Daddy drunk as a monkey, and she managed to stay out of his way. She fixed what bland watery food Momma could keep down, and of course Manna grumbled and bitched 'til Betty left the tray on the nightstand. Momma could eat it when she was coherent and hungry enough to notice it there and realize what it was. Betty reminded herself that Momma hadn't always been like that. Betty would still have made Momma breakfast in bed if something had given her the idea, before she'd gotten bad enough that she needed someone to bring her meals like this. And Momma would hug her, call her the best daughter ever, for that and a million other even less useful kindnesses.

Sometimes Betty still sees that woman in Momma's eyes behind all the impotent bitterness, pleading for her daughter not to abandon her, not to listen to the snarling bitch, that the snarling bitch is the mirage and Momma's still the reality somewhere behind it. Every day, though, it gets harder to find Momma in the bitch's eyes. And if she still cares so damn much, why can't she push through the mirage, just to tell her daughter she still loves her, appreciates everything her daughter puts up with for her?

The next night, Betty didn't manage to stay out of Daddy's way. She felt too sore afterwards to retreat into the woods. There was damn sure nothing illusory about that.

Her next day at school, she asked Joe Torn and Aaron Buckley about that guy Allan. Yeah, they remembered him. He was pretty strange, but he could play a guitar like they'd never heard. He could party like crazy, too. It was scary how well he held his liquor. No, they hadn't seen him lately. Where was he staying these days, anyway?

By now Betty's gone on with home, with school, with friends, with thinking about boys from school who might ask her out and aren't such dickheads that she'd rather chew broken glass. Today Joe asked her if she'd seen any more of Allan.

"No, I don't hang with him anymore." Then without thinking, as though to snap the last knotted guitar string linking them, she added, "He's kind of a creep."

No, she doesn't think Allan's a creep, but he's started to feel like a dream she's just come out of to half consciousness. She's just now realizing that she won't find her way back to that dream even if she can get back to sleep.

Except she just did dream about Allan and now she's completely awake in the darkness.

And you took me in the arms of your sweet, sweet song, but do you know what I have to do...

No, Allan, you never told me. You just played and sang. It really could have be that easy, you know, to just fucking tell me.

You don't know where I've been, but I don't know where I'm goin', and it's nothin' but madness anyway...

You got that right.

Lover, I'm at the doors of the cavern, and who else could have drawn me here...

Lover, huh? And weren't you the one who drew me in?

...Queen of an endless world unborn...

What world is that, Allan? Don't guess that's such a fair question if the place hasn't been born yet. You seemed like you'd been so many places, learned so much, grown so sad and wise with it. After all that, could you really see me as queen of anything? Maybe you weren't even talking about me.

But you've found me and you know me, better than you think you do...

We don't know it but we're children of the city, Silver City take me home...

The countryside's on fire with the sounds we hear, we're making that sound here tonight, with the sound that echoes from the caves 'neath the Silver City, and you can't tell me that ain't right...

No, and no one could tell Betty so either, not after that dream -- echoing from the caves 'neath the Silver City. She has to find Allan somehow. Tomorrow she'll be able to think more clearly about where to start. Maybe she just has to listen.

Right now all she can hear is Daddy yelling somewhere in the house. That's an early start for him. She zones it out and starts falling back asleep. Next thing she knows, red and blue's flashing across the black screen of her closed eyelids, and there are sirens blaring. When she opens her eyes, the red and blue lights bounce off her walls like a strobe through the blinds. What the hell? Maybe Daddy started beating on Sister because Betty wasn't up yet, and Sister finally called the cops on his drunk ass.

Betty finds her way out of her room. The house is filling with strangers. It feels like there's a lot more of them than there actually are when she counts. Only one's a cop. The others are paramedics.

Sister's sobbing. "Momma's dead." Betty's shocked numb, then the numbness starts to clear and the first feeling to slip through is relief. She guesses grief -- if there's any left in her -- will come later. But Sister's not done yet. "And Daddy's had a heart attack."

#

Allan says Joe and Aaron might follow later, to the train station. Allan keeps mentioning the train station, to Betty and to others. She didn't hear him mention it to Joe and Aaron. Betty told Allan she'd stay in town 'til after her mother's funeral. When he was out of sight, she didn't worry anymore that she wouldn't find him again. He'd be waiting whenever she wanted to find him. She found him at the edge of the graveyard and they took off together. She didn't even say goodbye to Sister.

"You know," she told him before they left Hammenville, "there's a train station in the next town over. It ain't like we need to cross the Saranghetti to catch a train."

"No, not that one. The train we need doesn't stop just anywhere." The station they need is a small, run-down stop next to a crossroads in the dead space between two towns. "Most trains don't stop there. The one we need stops there once a night, five minutes before three in the morning. It's not the only train that stops there, but the others only come after dark, too. It's the 2:55 a.m. train we need. The station won't look like much from the road, especially by night. Even if night travelers spot a little light burning, they'll probably think it's just a roadside shack, unless they pass by while a train stopped there. The trains never stay long."

Betty saw that roadside shack in her mind, even heard the distant ghostly whistle. Allan's voice was full of night winds blowing through tall weeds around the station. Even if no trains come, if all they find is a rotting shack or nothing at all, she knows she'll never go back to her family's house in the cornfield. Because everywhere they go, the air feels and smells and tastes like magic, like adventure, like life... like whatever lives behind the mirage, and it won't be long 'til she'll be able to see it, be part of it. It only gets sweeter the further they go. But sweetness isn't all she's tasted since leaving, and she starts to remember that not all the nastiness comes from the dead world she woke up from to the guitar sound.

People have asked, where does the train go? Allan doesn't know... not exactly. Betty's not sure she believes him, or maybe he has as much of an idea as she does. Maybe he's dreamed of the same cave she did. What else does he dream about?

The paramedics took Momma to the morgue and Daddy to the hospital. The cop asked Betty and Sister all sorts of questions that he said up front were perfunctory. He had the sweetest look on his face, the gentlest tone, like you never see or hear from cops on the street, kept saying over and over how it was standard to bring a policeman in when someone died, even when there was no suspicion whatsoever.

"Someone was playing a guitar somewhere," Sister whispered. She was in her bathrobe, staring at the tabletop. "Sweetest, saddest sound you ever heard... I thought at first Betty was up early, playing one of her CDs, then Daddy was yelling. I figured he was pissed 'cause Betty woke him up. Then I heard him yelling that Momma wasn't breathing. He yelled for us to get our asses out there or he'd wail us." The cop frowned but must've decided to let that sleeping dog lie, at least while it was lying in ICU. Sister went on with "But Betty wouldn't wake up. I'd just got off the phone with 9-1-1, then Daddy grabbed his shoulder, got the worst look you ever saw on his face, then fell over. Then I started shouting for Betty, but she still wouldn't wake up."

And Sister's eyes left the tabletop long enough to jab into Betty's. Betty looked away and saw the cop shrug. The cop asked Betty her side of it. Betty told it as she'd seen it.

"Did you hear the guitar playing?" Sister muttered at the tabletop.

Betty and the cop both looked at Sister, then the cop looked at Betty expectantly, on the far off chance it meant Jack Shit.

"No," was all Betty said.

Betty didn't feel much more responsive when she walked towards the bus stop later. She wondered if she'd remember a thing her teachers said today. Daddy had been stable last Betty had checked with the hospital. She glanced into a ditch, and there lay the corpse of the biggest blackest rat she'd ever seen, twisted and stiff. The thing looked like it had gnawed its belly open and pulled its own guts out, and a thin drying strand of intestine was still hooked to a tooth.

The rat had tried to talk her out of looking for Allan. She'd called it a miserable, malicious, jealous plague rat. Then she remembered waking from the dream of Allan's playing, how the sound stayed behind just a little longer than unconsciousness...

People at school asked over and over how she was holding up. Hanging in there, she said. Actually, she hadn't come out of the numb relief, not into grief anyway. Guitar music filled her head, along with the image of a big black rat that had torn out its own guts. The one reminded her why she had to find Allan while the other tried to talk her out of it. Either image on its own would have made it impossible to concentrate on schoolwork.

In the end, though, a dead rat rots, while the song of love keeps echoing and echoing, louder and clearer. What else was there? The only surprise about Daddy's heart attack was that he'd lived through it, and it would be a bigger shock if he lasted much longer. Sister was no help at all emotionally, and Brother might as well have been dead as Momma or the rat, wherever he was.

Someone playing a guitar somewhere... Sweetest, saddest sound you ever heard...

Betty got wilder and wilder notions of how that sweet sad sound might've been involved, so her memories of it scared her worse and worse... and she still couldn't stop needing to hear it again! So at the end of the day, when she found him waiting at the edge of the school grounds, she approached him slowly. Before the dream, she'd have taken the long way around to avoid him, if nothing else for abandoning her without a word, then showing back up out of nowhere, doubtlessly expecting her to fall right back in with him without question.

"Where've have you been?" she asked urgently.

"I'm sorry. I didn't have time to tell you before I left. I couldn't... I wanted to know more before I said anything." He studied her. "Are you OK?"

That's when she lost it and threw her arms around him. "I feel like my world's dying around me!"

He only threw one arm around her -- the one that wasn't holding the guitar case by the handle -- but he held her tighter than anyone ever had, unless they meant to hurt or restrain her. "Shhh, shhhhh... What's wrong? C'mere, sit down."

They sat on the curb at the end of the parking lot and she told him everything, leaving out her suspicions for now.

"Damn, Betty... I'm so sorry... I'm so sorry you're feeling like this."

Why should you be sorry? Why wouldn't I feel like this right now?

He continued "You should go home, relax, collect yourself."

Oh no you don't. I'm not letting you off that easy. I'm not letting either of us off. And she still hugged him tighter and meant it, still loved the way he cradled her closer. "No. I feel safer with you."

He hesitated then said "Good. Well, your mom... I mean, you said she wouldn't live much longer, that it'd be nicer for her after... Yeah."

"You said you wanted to know more, before you told me anything. About what?"

He livened with excitement. "I've been out searching, Betty, like I was always searching since I learned to play this guitar. The guy who gave me the guitar, he told me about the train station, but he wouldn't tell me how to look for it, the bastard. I had to learn that from others, wandering around 'til I found others who've seen and felt and heard things... the real things. I found them all over in different places, listened to them, pieced it together so I knew how to look. I've been looking for so long, I thought I was doing it wrong, almost gave up. Then you sang while I played, and I sang while you played, and... I didn't realize it at the time, but it made something click in my head. I realized I hadn't found it because I wasn't ready to find it. I hadn't wanted to find it yet. If I'd just stumbled across it, I'd've pissed myself scared and run. But something's come together in my mind. You made me truly want to find it. I've been searching harder than ever, and I... I'm pretty sure I have."

His rambling made her nervous. "Found what?"

"The train station."

She remembered railroad tracks, nailed to a cavern floor by the bloody-eyed, claw-toed workers. "Play me a song."

He fidgeted like a scared little boy. "I don't know if now's... I mean..."

She fixed him with a hard stare. "Please. I feel everything rotting around me." Because of you. "Make it go away." You owe me.

So he played, and everything else looked and felt like a mirage again. And that was fine with her. Except he wasn't playing just for her anymore. She could tell by the way he sat, how he held the guitar, how he stared off into the space of the sound. But this only made her listen harder, get caught up deeper in every note, everything that wasn't her and wasn't him in a world so big and so small all at once. Finally she lay her head on his knee, breathed the scent of his ragged jeans, gazed off across the parking lot, and absorbed the sound, feeling like they could dissolve into all those bigger things together.

Two distant shapes crossed the parking lot and stopped at a battered gray-blue car plastered with bumper stickers that might as well have been written invitations for the cops to pull them over. They almost climbed in, then paused and perked up, then closed their doors and kept coming. Betty sat up, blinking the trance from her eyes. Allan kept playing 'til Joe and Aaron weren't five feet away, then he set the guitar to his right and said hi.

Joe looked confused, probably remembering Betty calling Allan a creep last time they'd spoken of him. He shrugged it off. "Don't let us interrupt, dude. That was damn good! You'll have to teach me how to make sounds like that on a guitar."

Allan gave a wry smile. "Sorry, man. I've only ever managed to make those kinds of sounds on this guitar. And no one else touches it."

Betty smiled.

Maybe Joe looked offended, but Aaron said, "Hey man, I hear that. How you been?"

"OK."

"How you holding up, Betty?"

She smiled, her eyes went dreamy again, and she leaned her head on Allan's shoulder. "Been worse."

They all went from there to Joe's place, which was where they hung out for the rest of the evening. That's where Allan told Betty what he knew about his plans, where he asked her to go with him. She said she would.

After Joe and Aaron passed out, she said, "You came to my house the night before last... You played for me outside."

"No. I just got back to town last night, but I didn't make it out your way."

"But you played your guitar, wherever you were."

"Yeah."

"I heard you."

"I'm glad. I like making your dreams nice."

"Did you play for the rats? I think the rats heard you too."

He looked down, looked strange and sullen suddenly. "I hope they did. I hope they heard to stay away from you."

She was glad he wasn't looking at her right then. "I guess they did."

"Anyway, they won't follow where we're going. There'll be pleasanter critters to talk to."

"Can we go out onto the porch? I... I'd like to hear you play more." She had a feeling he'd say no, but she was testing something.

"We can play in here. They won't wake up. Actually... I was hoping you might play more." He held out the guitar. Her breath caught in her throat, but she took it anyway.

Why so shy about playing for me, Allan, for just me? No one you play for says no to you. I know you know it. Wouldn't you like it if I couldn't say no to you? She plucked the strings. It came out as a song she'd heard somewhere, but the melody was just a tide, to carry in what she felt, wanting to drown him in it like he'd drowned her. She couldn't tell if that's what he heard. He knew the song, though, and sang softly along. She sounded like shit compared to what he could do, at least to herself. By the look in his eyes, he would disagree. Or do you not want to be able to say no to me, Allan?

When they finished, she asked, "Now will you play something for me?"

He looked her in the eyes and asked, "Will you kiss me instead?"

She heard no presumption there, no assertion, just the simplest request, the purest longing, something from within he'd never released in front of anyone, except maybe through his playing. Without thinking, she leaned over and pecked him quickly on the edge of the mouth. When he leaned over to her for a longer, deeper kiss, she didn't draw away.

Since then, she's noticed more and more how rarely he'll play just for her. Whenever he plays, someone's there with something they need. They never say no. There's hardly a dime between Betty and Allan, and they haven't spent a single night hungry or cold. And it's getting colder. Soon there'll be snow. This parking garage is warm, though she doesn't think the other couple there with them have a couch or a bed or anything to offer. They have a portable battery-powered stereo, though. Allan has already played his guitar for them, and now they all listen to an old Cole Porter CD. They hitchhiked here, like they have everywhere, which is why it's taking so long. Their driver parked in this garage, and that car is probably still here somewhere, but the driver is long gone to wherever he needed to be in this town. They wandered out of the garage, hooked up with the other roving dispossessed couple, and somehow they've ended up back in this same garage. The other couple's stopped dancing and lean together against a column. Allan spins Betty, twirls her and dips her, and it's a very distant thought, wondering where the security cameras are in here, if there'll be a night cop along any second. Allan's music still drowns such thoughts, as though he's still playing, giving Cole fresh background accompaniment.

"You know," she's told him a few times, "even if we can't just catch the train at any old station, we could probably catch a bus, get us close enough, save us a lot of travel time."

He always smiles and says, "What's the rush? Might as well see whatever we can see, meet whatever interesting folks we meet."

#

For once they haven't shacked up with someone they've met on the road, just rented a cheap motel room, and she cuts right to the chase. "Can I see your guitar? I'd like to practice."

He looks up in surprise, then springs up elated. "Yeah!" He gets the guitar out and practically thrusts it into her arms.

Wow. Now she's put herself on the spot, feels a lot less cocky. Then she strums the first chord and the power vibrates up her arms into her swimming head. The sound rises around her like a bonfire and spreads across the mattress to engulf him. He stretches sideways and props his head on his elbow, relaxing in the flames.

Relaxing in the flames... That's a way to describe it, getting used to love like this, getting comfortable with it like you never thought you could, like she never thought she'd get so comfortable playing this magic guitar. And that's what has to be, something that makes all its own sounds and she's a puppet on its strings. Does Allan feel like this when he plays it? Yet she also feels herself puppeteering it, knows that yes, she is the one creating this magic. By now it feels natural as walking. Or singing. She holds Allan's gaze as she strums, knows that's the same dreamy look he sees in her eyes when he plays for her. Lord, they're on the road together, cut loose from everything but each other, like older folks always say they used to dream of doing, and it's working out! She's even stopped being scared. And she can tell he's not scared anymore either. The mad joy speeds up her playing.

"Sing along, why don't you."

"No way, I'm too beat."

But I thought you couldn't say no to me when I play this, Allan. "So talk while I play."

"What do you want me to talk about?"

"Why don't you tell me how you got this guitar. How you learned to play it." Yeah, that'll be the real test, seeing if he can dodge that one this time.

He looks scared for a second, then takes a deep breath and the words flow out of him. And it's almost like singing, the way he talks slow to the guitar rhythm. Sometimes he speaks in rhymes, probably not realizing it. The walls melt away, and what's behind them is the town Allan grew up in. It looks a lot like Hammenville, but Betty knows it's not Hammenville. Allan's as a little boy who can talk to animals like she can, and of course he doesn't take those critters' advice soon enough and stop trying to convince people it's true, so by the time he's ten everyone in town does think he's crazy. And he gives them plenty more reasons, always wandering around with a dreamy look on his face, poking around for something no one else would even think might be there. Because none of this around him feels real... like it's all a mirage.

If he turns the right corner into the right alley, looks behind the right dumpster or into the right deserted store space, he'll find his doorway out of the mirage, like a magic wardrobe to Narnia or the rabbit hole to Wonderland. The other kids pass the crazy boy, and they stop to shove and taunt and bully him. He fights back, but not as hard as he could. Because he knows if he really hurt one of the bullies like he could, the adults would have their final excuse to lock him away. Then he wouldn't be free to search for the doorway out of here.

What would he find on the other side? He has an idea... He's dreamed it. Often it's clear as the summer sky... He's the only thing in it that's not clear, like he's the mirage there. Because he's missing something, something that would make him real, make him whole, so it could all be pulled together to perfection around him.

There's the old black man with ice white hair, who sits every morning on the corner next to the drugstore, right under the ragged, time-stained American flag hanging there, and he plays his guitar for change he'll spend on cheap wine later. He's been beaten crooked by too much of everything over too many years, but he's still thick and tough as an oak. He must hear people coming in and out of the store talk about the crazy kid, and he must know that's who Allan is when Allan comes and sits enthralled listening to him. But the old guy doesn't mind, just smiles and nods to the boy as he strums and growls out the next bluesy yarn, probably glad there's still young blood around that appreciates the song, a young person who still appreciates anything.

One day the old feller sets his guitar aside and fixes Allan in the eye. "You sure do come 'round and listen a lot, huh, boy, like you ain't got nothin' else in the world to fill your time."

"I don't really, sir. I just like listening to you play."

The old man throws his head back and hacks out a big long laugh. "Sir! First time in a long while any young person had the respect to call an old fella like me sir. Any older person neither, for that matter."

Allan shrugs.

"But you like to listen, that's the thing... Not much an old drunk nigger like me has to say folks'll listen to no more. But they stop and catch a bit of my song, ain't in too big a hurry, they sure do listen then."

Allan nods.

"You don't talk much, huh, boy? Bet you feel like no one listens to you neither."

"No, sir. And I don't like what happens when they do listen."

"'Cause they don't like what you gotta say. Yeah, I know that one. I bet with you it's that they see you're smarter than a little boy oughta be, smarter than they are. Yeah, I get that when I tell folks what I think of things, like they don't like that a beaten down old drunk nigger might be smarter than them." The old feller leans closer and talks quieter. "...Like maybe you figured out something they ain't, something they can't figure out, and they're scared what you could do with it if you ever managed to make it do you any good."

Allan can't answer, can't even nod. Because he's realized, Here's someone who knows what I'm looking for. And he doesn't think I'm crazy, because he knows more about it than I do. And in just this moment, the whole world's opened up, gotten bigger and brighter. And he's sure if he talks, or even moves, he'll go spinning off through it, never get his feet on the ground again.

The old feller laughs again. "Boy, I seen you every morning out walkin', sniffin' around like a lost puppy been kicked in the head, and every morning for the last half year must'a been, you come to me, you sat and listened to me play. In all that time, this is the most words we ever spoke. What's your name, boy?"

"Allan."

"Well Allan, I'm Ronnie." Allan shakes Ronnie's tough big leathery greasy hand. "Listen, Allan... You ever thought about playing your own music?"

"No, sir," Allan finally manages. "I don't know how."

"Well, Allan, I'll play you another song here, and this time you watch how I work these strings, get as much of it in your head as you can. Then I'm gonna hand you this here guitar, and you gonna pluck at these strings a bit yourself, and I'll watch you pluck 'em, and I'll give you some advice on how to do it right. You can watch and listen to an old fella, can't you, boy? Take your time, get it right?"

Allan nods eagerly.

"You learn to play that guitar right, learn to sing what's inside you, sing them words just right, and you'll find the right people who'll listen to what you gotta say."

So Betty watches old Ronnie give little Allan his first guitar lesson. She sees the guitar, but it's not the one she's holding now, playing now. She listens to grown up Allan -- her Allan -- talk while she watches the boy work odd jobs around town 'til he can buy his own first guitar. He practices around home, making nothing but noise at first so his parents tell him to cut that racket out. So he slinks away into the woods a lot and plays for the bullfrogs. The bullfrogs don't give him notes, don't have anything to say to him, not like some critters. He goes to town and finds Ronnie when Ronnie's not playing for change, and they jam. He asks if Ronnie can talk to animals too.

Ronnie laughs. "Boy, you think it's some magic power to know the language of beasts you got?"

Allan shrugs like he's still a little kid. He still always feels much younger than he is around Ronnie.

"It ain't knowin' the language of beasts. Every kind of beast's got its own language, and there's as many different languages between any one kinda critter as there are different languages between people. But there's a common language between all critters, people included, who're born with a sense of somethin' else beyond the humdrum shit folks see and touch every day."

Ronnie's got a son who's grown and looks after him some, but that son's got enough trouble feeding his own kids, and Ronnie's too proud and mean to accept but so much help. Besides, he'd rather stay out and drink and play music. And now he's got a young feller to pass the music onto, and something brightens in him. Ronnie's son starts thinking his daddy might have more years in him than anyone thought.

Allan gets older, but not old enough to get into any of the places around town where he could play. He's pretty good, though. People hear him and tell him so. He's still that strange crazy kid, but fewer people bother him about it now, because he doesn't show it as much. Because now he has a place to put all the things in himself they used to call crazy so it doesn't hang out and thrash all over the place. But he doesn't have anything to do with it once he puts it there, not like he knows he could. He can't swallow everyone who hears it like he wants to, so it gets them like it gets him. Then again, why would he want all these people in it with him, these small-minded hicks who still treat Ronnie like a broken down drunk nigger, even though Ronnie's better than him, better than any of them?

When they hear Allan play, he can tell, all they think, Well that's swell. The crazy kid plays a nice tune.

He knows there's more in him... a lot more. Ronnie tells him to just stick at it, get through his young life here, finish school and all that, don't get crazy ideas like running off to Nashville just yet. They've never talked much about the deeper knowledge they share. Sometimes Allan opens his mouth to bring it up, and he doesn't know if it's his own reluctance to put words to it, or if he's sensing Ronnie's.

So one evening Allan's sitting around outside the tavern, plucking his strings. It's a school night and it's getting cold, so he should get home. But an old man has just gone in and started playing, and the sound floats out to Allan, and this guy's good! Better than good...

Betty hears the guy's sound, too... It's a lot like the sound she's making now, opening up the universe and letting in these visions of Allan's story. Allan's still talking, but he's suddenly staring at Betty as though dumbstruck. She stares back and knows why. He hasn't mentioned any of the tunes the old man played that night, but she hears them anyway. They're the ones she's playing. She's still singing, but it's not her own voice she hears.

Allan looks through the bar's window. The tavern doesn't have a stage, just a bare stretch at the back where the old man sits on a stool in the floating blanket of smoke. He doesn't use a microphone, doesn't need one. It's like his sound's a bubble that's spread out and swallowed the world so you can't help but swim in every note. Those twanging notes are made of every tree and tractor, every shack and government building, every soul of beast or man within the town limits, and so much more beyond... far beyond. There's heaven and hell in that voice deep as a train engine, and he lets it all loose on the bar without seeming to try. When he sings of the city, everyone figures he means one of those big ol' places like New Orleans or New York or Nashville. Allan knows better, though... He's seen that city in his dreams. He gets lost in the sound and doesn't even remember he's sitting on the sidewalk outside the tavern 'til the old man finishes a set and steps out for a smoke.

The guy's tall and stout with a granite face and thick messy black hair. His deep severe eyes don't look at this town like someone of the same world, and they don't look at Allan like anyone's ever looked at him before, not even Ronnie.

Ronnie should meet this guy, hear him play! They'd have a lot to talk about...

He gets up to go find Ronnie, but the old man catches his shoulder and turns him around with a smarting iron grip. Allan looks right into those deep severe otherworldly eyes.

"That's some guitar you got there, boy." His speaking voice is like his singing voice, with a steady slow rhythm that makes you feel like he's always singing. "How well you play on it?"

"I'm OK."

"C'mon inside. It's too cold out here."

"They won't let me. I'm not old enough."

The old man grins and his severe eyes liven. "Oh, they'll let you now." And he claps Allan on the shoulder and guides him in.

Allan's never been inside the tavern before, and the naughty thrill of stepping in alongside this musical colossus heightens his senses to every little detail, every wrinkle in the bartender's uncertain brow as he sits at the counter next to the old man.

The old man slumps a bit in his stool. "Kid, I'm tired. I can still sing one more set... but my guitar's taken a lot out of me. I play what it tells my fingers to play, and I sing from where the notes carry me. I don't have the energy no more to direct it myself."

"Sorry... I really liked what you was doin'! I've got this friend who plays great. He taught me everything I know. If you let me go find him, he could play while you..."

"No, not him... No, kid... I want you to play while I sing my next set."

"Me? But I... No, the crowd wouldn't go for that... Not after..."

"What you mean, kid, is you're too nervous. Well I know just how to help with that."

The old man orders a round for his young pal. The bartender doesn't question it. No one could say no to the old man after hearing him play that guitar. But the old man slumps lower, looks older, like every undeniable request he makes takes a little more out of him. Allan's too busy thinking things like, Shit, I'm in a bar for the first time in my life, and I'm gonna be on stage in front of everyone, and it's gonna be my playing they here to this guy's singing. And they're serving me beer, and my dad's gonna kick my ass if he finds out. And What if the beer goes right to my head and I play like shit 'cause I'm drunk? Then he gets the beer, tries to drink it slow and look cool and comfortable with it. Hell, I've been drunk before. I can play with a buzz, hell yeah! Ronnie never has any problem with it. And Ronnie should really be here.

But if Ronnie were here, this guy would have Ronnie play with him, not me. This is my night. This old guy's probably famous, someone Ronnie knows all about. I'm probably the only one in this shitty little town who didn't know he was coming around. Now look at me. He tries washing down the guilt. Before he finishes the first beer, the old man's bought him another.

"Aren't you gonna have a drink before the set?" Allan asks, trying to say the set like it's an old routine for him.

"Nah, I don't drink no more. Don't have the stomach for it. There's a lot I don't have the stomach for no more..." The severe eyes stare off, haunted by whatever's darkened them, maybe by whatever's behind the mirage. The old man must be looking through it now. Allan wants to see through it too, now more than ever. "You're young. You got the stomach for it. You've got a taste for all this, and that's good. Hold onto that. Enjoy feeling reckless like this is breaking all the rules and it's the biggest thrill you'd ever think of. See the beauty that's all around you. You'll be less likely to get a taste for other things, other kinds of beauty. Because pretty as that... other stuff... is, it's too big, too powerful to let loose on all this humbler beauty. All this is what's fed and nurtured whatever gifts you got, much as you think now it's what's tried to hammer 'em down and snuff 'em out, and that's the gift you should give back to 'em with your song. That's what you should think of when we play up there. Think of the woods 'round here. I've seen 'em, ain't never seen countryside more gorgeous. Think of your family. Think of your friends. Think of girls at school you like. Think of that buddy of yours you wanted me to meet. Remind these folks of all that stuff in their lives, with all its sadness and joys."

Allan's already halfway through his second beer, and the whole orange-lit room seems filled up with beer and everyone's swimming through it, all their hoots and laughs and lumbering around echoing through it on the bubbles. "Yeah, that sounds great. What else would I play about?"

The old man fixes him with a stare. "You know damn well, like I know damn well you've explored it and you'll go on exploring it after tonight. Just don't get lost... Don't try to get lost in it, 'cause that's the big temptation. Don't be in such a hurry to reach the train station..."

"The train station?"

"You hadn't learned that much yet, huh. Shit. Never mind. You ready to play a set, kid?"

Allan bolts up and feels the beer swim in his brain. "Yeah!"

The old man claps him on the shoulder. "Great! Let's go then." Allan hafts his guitar, but the old man presses it down. "Not that one, kid. Here. This is a special night for you. You need the right instrument for it."

The old man hands his own guitar to Allan. Allan can only take it mechanically while he stares in disbelief. As they head on up, Allan whispers urgently "What songs we gonna sing?"

"You just play the first thing comes to mind, and I'll jump in singing at the right spot."

"What if you don't know what I play?"

"Hah! I'll know it. Trust me, son, I'll know whatever you do. I know more songs than you'd guess have ever been written. Grab a stool."

Allan darts back long enough to grab a stray stool, and even that doesn't slow the feeling those words cause... the feeling of stepping into something enormous. They reach the cleared space, and it's like setting foot at the center of that enormity. He starts strumming without knowing what he's playing... and that's when the instrument's power fuses with him for the first time. The people out in the darkness of the tavern are vague inert lumps, far away, like sleeping cattle across a field on a starless night. He wants to wake them up...

The old man starts singing. Louisiana Man. Yeah, Allan realizes, that's what he's playing. It's a slow, ambling tune, and that's how the old man sings it... not like he wants to wake these people up, but like he wants them to stay asleep and dream... dream of their own lives, with all those sorrows and joys. Except it'll be magnified in those dreams, laid bare, angels and demons lounging together in the tavern, clinking their glasses to the beat while everyone else floats down a spectral river on Papa's Big Ol' Boat. Allan feels it and the most he can think consciously is Yeah, that works too. Yeah, that's an even better idea! Except he still wants to wake up, wants them to all wake up and find the dream still happening, light a fire with it that'll never go out under this whole town's ass.

He speeds up a little, then a little more, and he can't slow down. It feels too good, too natural. The old man's singing speeds up with it, natural as can be, then he slows down again, guiding Allan's speed down with him.

But it already has hold of the crowd. Allan feels it buzzing through them, like he's always wanted to feel. They want to get up and jump around, but most of them are too riveted to their chairs. A few of the men pull their women up and dance, even though this isn't really a dancing song, but they make it work just fine. Allan doesn't speed back up, but plays harder, so every note seems to chime on the nails in the boards, giving them a drumbeat. Allan wants it to echo out and touch the whole town, and he keeps playing once the final note is sung, keeps going 'til he feels it happen. Then he ends in a cyclone crescendo, leaving everyone too galvanized to even applaud.

They play five more songs like that, then the old man doesn't sing, just lets Allan play. Allan finally stops and looks over. The old man looks more tired than ever, elbow on his knee, big rough fingers rubbing his forehead.

"You OK?"

"Yeah, kid. Just tired. You played even better than I knew you would."

"Why'd you stop singing?"

"It was your moment. I gave it to you, knew I would from the moment I saw you. You've done with it what it's your nature to do. You've set your song loose, now you'll follow it where you will."

The old man goes back to the bar and orders another beer. Allan hurries over, figures it's for him again. After becoming one with so much magic, he's worn out and could use it. But the old man starts drinking.

Allan smiles. "Decided you could handle it after all, huh?"

"Yeah, figure I can this once. One more for the road, like they say... for all the good memories. Dream your dreams and sing your songs, kid. Try to steer 'em right."

The old man gets Allan another beer, and they sit and drink together. Then the old man gets up. Allan figures he's headed for the bathroom, then he sees him nearing the door. Allan jumps up and hurries after they old man.

"Hey Mister, wait up! You forgot your..." ...Guitar.

But the old man's gone, even though there are no corners he could have reached and turned that quick. Allan looks back into the bar. People are up and milling around, still in the daze he's left them in.

Come on, Mister, there are so many more songs we could play... So much you didn't tell me. About the train station and where it leads.

Allan wanders home. Everyone he passes seems to be in the same daze as folks in the bar. When he gets home, his parents don't scold him for being late. They're in the same daze. It's then he realizes he's still holding the old man's guitar by the neck.

That night, Allan dreams of the train station for the first time... and he dreams of where the 2:55 a.m. train will one day take him. It's clearer than ever, and he feels clear and solid like he did in the bar, only better, waking everything up.

The next day he goes to tell Ronnie. He wants to play for Ronnie with his new guitar, let Ronnie hear the amazing sound he can make now! Ronnie's not on the corner by the drug store. Allan finds Ronnie's son. Ronnie's dead. He had a heart attack last night. The strangest thing... He was visiting his son's house, and suddenly he was in a better mood than he'd been in years. He wanted to turn on the radio, wanted the family to listen to music together, and they all thought that was a fine idea. And they were having a blast with it, too, felt more together than since Ronnie's son was a kid. Then Ronnie just keeled over. Allan shakes worse and worse as he listens, searching Ronnie's son's face for signs that the bastard's playing a nasty joke. But the poor guy obviously doesn't want to believe his own words any better than Allan.

Allan heads into the woods and just sits holding his new guitar silently for a long time.

I should play Ronnie one last song... He'd like that. He'd want that.

No he wouldn't! What are you thinking? What were you thinking? The old man warned you, and now look what you've done! You should never play another song again, never sing another note. You should smash this fucking thing to splinters on this rock you're sitting on.

But how could he do that? He couldn't, not after what he felt last night, finally doing what he's spent his whole life trying to do, knowing it's only the start. Even now it feels like the instrument's tugging gently on his arm, trying to guide him off along the road to wherever he's headed... to that great tavern between heaven and hell where angels and demons clink their glasses to the beat of his song. He just has to learn to make it do what he wants. It'll just take practice, like everything else about music.

Allan doesn't play again 'til Ronnie's funeral. Not many folks show up. Allan's the only white boy there. Not even Ronnie's son can think of much to say about his old man, and neither can the preacher. Like they all thought he was nothing but a useless old bum. So Allan takes out his new guitar and sings a song about his old friend, spinning the words on the spot. By the end of it, everyone trembles with tears, and you couldn't convince a one of them that Ronnie was anything less than the King of Camelot. Allan stays by Ronnie's grave while it's being filled, playing to the beat of the dirt hitting the coffin. By the end of it, the birds and the bugs and the powerlines are humming the song with him. They're still humming it as he walks out of town with nothing but the clothes he wears and the guitar case in his hand.

Betty stops playing, lets the guitar slip into her lap, tasting the same tears Allan tasted when Ronnie's son gave the news, the same tears everyone in the graveyard tasted when Allan played Ronnie's eulogy. Then she falls back on the bed, shaking with every year, every experience in the story she's just lived. If she's any more scared of Allan, with all the dark possibilities the tale implied, it's only as Allan's ever been scared of himself... as he isn't anymore, most of the time. It shakes her whole body, and she can't move 'til she feels him brushing the hair from her eyes, easing the guitar off to the side.

"Betty? Betty, you OK?"

He's panicked, all that fear revived, scared he's killed her by sharing so much, like he's sure to this day he killed Ronnie. She slips her arms around his neck and presses him close so they lie there shivering against each other. Finally their bodies are calm and he kisses her neck in reverent relief. She grabs him desperately by both cheeks and presses her mouth to his.

#

And just how long have they been making love? Or more accurately, how long have they been in this room having sex? They started making love when he first handed her his guitar in the abandoned house. It's the second thought she's had in the last minute or so, the second in... well, how long has it been?

The first was realizing the dudes who live in this latest crash pad are back, and maybe she and Allan should stop. Long before that, her eyes rolled back to the wall behind her head on the pillow, and she remembered briefly that this is the dingy backroom of a grimy flat above the outskirts of some dying town, more miles than she's counted from Hammenville. And she thought This is crazy. Absolutely insane. But he keeps going, igniting her body like he plays his guitar, and the raised voices in the next room don't sound important. Still, Betty has to bite her lip to keep quiet.

Allan says, "I love you," and kisses her again, and she can't think of anything but both their bodies burning, melting into one glowing fusion of energy about to explode.

It was crazy enough, just making out back here before the clothes started coming off, and maybe the craziness was why this was the only way they could let out their excitement before exploding from it. Because Allan told her they'll reach the train station tomorrow.

He's seen it, has watched the 2:55 a.m. train come and go.

"When was this?" she asked.

"It was before I came back to Hammenville. I would have climbed aboard, except you weren't there with me."

"I'd have found my way there eventually," she said.

"But it's a journey I have to make with you. Hell, I'll bet they wouldn't even let me on without you."

"Yeah they would. You'd just play them a song, and they'd give you a free ride."

He looked haunted and sad. "Nothing's free, especially with the guitar... not for me."

She thinks that's when she kissed him, because she didn't want him to feel haunted or sad. Or maybe because she didn't want to let the implications sink in. Either way, it led to this, and she's never been more scared or joyous or so full of something so good it hurts, so unable to stop even if she wanted to.

Earlier she asked if the train would take them to the cave.

"I don't know," he said. "In my dreams, the destination always looks different. Sometimes, yeah, it's like a crystal cave, and sometimes it's like a city built from those crystals."

"The Silver City," she breathed.

"Yeah... Silver City, take us home."

The guys living here are letting them crash for the night because Allan played for them. Just like he played for Joe Torn and Aaron Buckly and everyone else who's given them a bed or a couch or a floor. And it's not even the first time here. Allan passed through here months back, before Hammenville, before Betty. They heard him on the street, got to talking, let him stay for a few days. They seemed thrilled to see him again, even though they haven't exactly struck Betty as big music appreciators. In fact, when she first saw them, they didn't look at all like the people Allan usually draws... rough and hairy and dirty like most of the others, but round and oafish, gnarled limbs made for chaotic destruction and sterile daily grind misery. They aren't supposed to let folks stay over, both living here on parole, on arrangement with some public housing program that gets a percentage of their paychecks.

The guys and Allan have both told Betty, it was pretty exciting before, making sure Allan didn't get caught here every morning when the parole officer came by. But Betty and Allan won't stay long. They'll be on their way to the train station early tomorrow, before the officer makes the rounds. Betty only feels safe here tonight because Allan's with her, and she still won't stay here any longer than they have to.

Allan says don't worry. He's not telling these guys about the train station.

Except now the argument in the next room sounds closer to violent, harder to ignore, 'til there's a crash that jars some sense into her. She gives his chest a dazed push. His face contorts, he thrusts a couple more times, then he eases back and there's a shared pang as he slips out of her. The guys in the next room have been arguing about some kind of deal gone bad, and the ones who live here are trying to muscle money from their new visitor. The crash turns into more crashes, no longer on inanimate objects, accompanied by grunts and cries. Betty rushes for her clothes. Allan slips on his shorts and pants, seeming calm.

"Stay quiet." He puts his arms firmly around her. "Stay still."

"But they --"

"I know. They're killing the guy who fucked them over on a deal. When they're done, they'll remember us back here, and that we've heard it all."

"Then they'll..." But she doesn't need him to cut her off, doesn't even need to finish, just meets his eyes in the gloom and knows he's realized the same thing. She feels panic, but also a cold sweaty calm, the same morbid calm he must be speaking with... Except no, she sees in his eyes, it's something completely different for him.

He rubs her back gently. It feels absurdly reassuring, like there's room left for reassurance. "Finish dressing," he whispers, "then sit and stay quiet for the next few minutes."

"That won't matter! They left us back here, they'll come find us, and --"

He crosses the room and unsnaps the case and hafts the guitar. What the hell is he doing? Still playing their make-believe game, one he can still pretend is real, because obviously that's the only way he can find to deal with this, expecting his magic guitar to save the day. Betty's world feels like ice, like the field back home frozen rocky in the middle of winter, the poison ice of everything she thought she'd left behind, all the ugliness like rotgut whiskey in the life veins of Hammenville. She and her girlfriends just thought they got away from those rednecks in the Dunkin' Doughnuts parking lot, and now they're back, and every day between now and then was a moment's sweet delusion. Those rednecks -- or two guys who might as well be the same ones -- are in the next room killing a man, and she and Allan are next.

Allan plucks soft enough that the thugs in the next room won't hear it over their own commotion. Then the sound comes together in Betty's ears, and she knows they're meant to hear it. It flows out through the flat and echoes out of every stick of battered, ratty furniture, every strand of the moldering carpets, every bit of dirty silverware, bringing to life and magnifying all the pain and fear and hate and violence the walls have ever seen. Looking in Allan's eyes, she sees he wishes she didn't have to hear it, didn't have to feel it. But that doesn't make it any better.

So she gets dressed while he plays, trying to pretend she has no idea what'll happen next. Before she knows it, it's gotten so Allan's playing is the only sound... beautiful as ever been, even in its new horror. Betty's only heard this and that about Allan's life between his hometown and Hammenville, and it wasn't much better than what she's run away from, in fact a lot worse. Most of the time when you hear it in his music, it comes as sadness laced with bitterness and toughness... Now it's not sadness dancing out across the sound waves, but the raw, hammering, hurting essence of everything Allan's ever absorbed and rolled with, mingling and fueling what he's stirred up here.

"Holy shit, Russ, I think we killed him..."

"Yeah, of course we killed him. Goddamn, look at his neck!"

"We gonna have to get rid of this?"

"Of course we gotta -- shit! You hear that?"

"Yeah... Shit, it's that Allan guy! He's still back there with his girl... You think they...?"

"'Course they heard! Quit babblin'... Shit yeah, they heard, and he's in there playin'! He is a crazy sonofabitch! Shit... What the fuck's he playin'?" Russ's voice is getting muddled, like someone inhaling toxic fumes.

"It don't matter. They heard us... We can't let 'em..." The other guy's feet tromp closer. His shadow falls across the vertical light beam of the cracked doorway, then he stops. "Well, fuck, Russ, c'mon!"

"I'm comin', I just... Shit! We gotta go in there?"

"Hell yeah! We can't let 'em -- Russ, what you goin' that way for? Russ, you're... Man, that's the fuckin' front door!"

The raging ugliness in their voices has fallen into a rhythm with the guitar, the perfect backbeat like the night sounds of the field or the hammering in the cave, sickeningly indivisible... It's in them like pestilence, ripping them apart from the inside out, only snaring and ripping deeper the more they fight it. Betty's thrown herself across the mattress, is trying to shut it all out, but it feels as loud in her head as everywhere else, and she wonders why it isn't destroying her like it is them. One of them slams against a wall, maybe trying to walk through the front door but forgetting to open it, maybe trying to run through a door that isn't there, thumping on the floor and rolling around, knocking things over.

"Russ, get up! Get up, you sonofabitch! Them in there... the sonofabitch... the bitch... we gotta kill 'em, Russ... They're doin' it... They heard us... doin' this... gotta make it stop, gotta make it stop..."

"I'm comin', Billy, I..." More stumbling and shambling, more falling and crashing. "Holly shit, Billy, help!"

"Goddamnit, Russ, make it stop, make it stop..."

The song doesn't stop. The song never stops.

"RUSS, MAKE IT STOP, MAKE IT STOP, MAKE IT STOP!"

#

Betty climbs onto the bus and thinks I don't have to get on. He's still back there. I could get back before he wakes up.

Except this is school, not the bus station of some far off town. She blinks, shakes her head, finds a seat like she did nearly a month ago. Those moments keep happening, blending with each other. Because it's all one song, the notes and harmonies flowing over and through each other. And the song never, ever stops.

The school bus is a lot emptier than it used to be, just like everything is these days where she used to find a lot more friends and acquaintances. She doesn't get off at the driveway to her family's place, but on Crutch Street, a block from Joe Torn's house. Joe was kicked out by his parents last year, and he's the only friend in town with his own place who Betty trusts that much, and he's been letting her crash on his couch. She only told him she wasn't going to stay with her family anymore, which was true. He said everyone thought she'd run away with Allan. She told him yes, that was true, then she made clear she didn't want to talk about it. She told Aaron the same thing. They were both respectful enough not to push it. For a while, it seemed they didn't think about Allan anymore, then she started walking into the room and catching them talking quietly about the train station, or the city... Then they'd notice her and shift subjects.

That was after she bought her own battered guitar from the pawnshop. She had to tune and polish it herself. She's gotten damn good, damn fast. Joe and Aaron and some other folks told her without her needing to ask, and guys like Joe and Aaron don't fuck around when it comes to that stuff.

She asked them, so was the search out on her? Any word of Daddy raising a stink since she'd gone missing? No, not really.

There was a flicker through the news of three drug dealers in another county who killed each other over business gone bad. Betty read up on it. There was no mention of any fourth or fifth party. Betty still held her breath for a week, thinking the cops would come around, just like she worried that social services or someone would come to drag her back to Daddy. She guesses the changes would feel more important if she felt more connected to this daily routine passing for reality. In one direction from her mind, there's the sweat and violence ever bubbling beneath the surface of Hammenville, giving the town its lifeblood. In the other, the magic songs of her dreams still play. It all feels less and less real 'til she starts plucking at strings, and nothing feels truly real or alive around her unless she works her way into a full blown song and the floating notes fill out the space with their energy. Then the world feels and smells and tastes like magic, but she knows it's not the whole world. It's only around her and whoever happens to listen.

For a while, Aaron was sleeping over at Joe's a lot too. Except Aaron isn't around anymore, and neither is Joe. Joe slipped Betty a copy of the front door key, but no mailbox key, so she doesn't know when the power will be cut off because Joe hasn't been around to pay the bill. One more reason to be glad she'll be gone soon. She reaches the place, empties her backpack of school supplies for the last time, and she fills it with clothes and supplies. Her academic standing's already fucked, thanks to the first time she split. All she keeps from school is a short stack of research she's recently printed and photocopied in the library... local history, specifically strange rural lore, and the location of all old train stations in the surrounding countryside. Her search radius has been pretty well narrowed down by now. By 2:55 a.m. tomorrow morning, she hopes to be at the right spot... the spot all her friends have been finding their way to, by whatever unconscious road signs Allan left.

Before shoving the research papers back into her bag, Betty goes through them, finds the address she's headed for now, jots it just in case on a piece of scrap paper she can stuff in her pocket. Then she slings the pack over her shoulder, takes her guitar in its case, locks the apartment out of habit and heads off. On her way, she takes a detour into the ghetto, where there's a gas station that isn't too big on carding minors. She buys a case of cheap beer, then heads towards the outskirts. She passes the barren field and sees the big house sitting out in the middle of it. The place still looks deserted. She passes the cornfield, passes the long driveway to her family's place, and wonders how badly Daddy would have hurt her if she'd gone home after running away with Allan, assuming Daddy hasn't keeled over by now. Would she even be healed enough by now to make this walk? Her fist tightens around the guitar case handle. Yes, one way or the other, she'd have found it in her.

Wow... She told herself she'd never go back to that house, and it looks like she'll make it out of town with a promise kept!

The dead rat still lies at the edge of the driveway, the black fur almost completely gone, skin dried and tight around the skeleton. She remembers how it stank, but she can't smell it at all now, anymore than she remembers the stink from the three corpses in the apartment.

When she woke up that morning, she thought at first that there were four corpses, because Allan had fallen backwards in his chair and sprawled on the floor, gripping his guitar near the breaking point, body and face in the strained contortion of painful death... Painful like the rat, painful like the three other bodies she knew she'd see when she left the bedroom. Then his chest rose and fell and her heart jumped with relief. She almost shook him awake, to tell him they needed to get out of there quick. Then the stink hit her, and it was twenty minutes before she could get herself together and go face what she had to face. Allan still wasn't conscious. The first body she saw was the one the two guys had beaten to death. A corpse beaten to death by fists is somehow a nastier sight than one cut or torn apart. That's because of the more personalized effort it takes, Betty guesses. Then she got an eyeful of two guys who'd gone out thrashing and beating themselves against the wall, before finally grabbing kitchen knives and exploring in their own viscera, obsessed with cutting out whatever had gotten inside them. She remembered the sounds that had gotten inside them, still felt them inside herself, and she had to get out of that building that was still stained through and through with the sounds. When she went back for her things, she saw Allan stir towards consciousness. She didn't let herself look at him again, and ran out of there.

It wasn't because she hated him. Her feelings hadn't even changed, which was the worst part, and she couldn't even say she'd learned anything knew. But now she'd seen and felt that other side of his ability, the same things that made him so fearful and distrustful of himself. But she couldn't shake it out of her system or ignore it like he could. And she knew she couldn't stay with him, couldn't keep looking at him, knowing what was in him, still feeling it in her. So she found her way to the bus station. She was sore inside from Allan, found it a little hard to walk that far, thinking all the way that she'd hear his guitar behind her any second. But he didn't come, and she caught the next bus back to Hammenville.

The sound from that apartment stayed in her head, but so did the other sounds, the good sounds, the songs Allan had played for her that woke her up and got her going... and having the good ones in her head wasn't enough to drown out the bad sounds. So she wanted more than anything to actually hear the good music again, the good magic. But Allan wasn't there to play for her anymore. He was off to wherever he'd been headed with her, obviously wasn't coming back this time. She figures that's why she felt compelled to get her own guitar, to start with what she knew and teach herself better and better, to learn to play the good music in her own head... to wake up all life's magic, with all its sorrows and joys. So maybe eventually, she could make the world around her come alive again with the pale shadow of what she needed. But she got better quicker than she thought possible, and now it's more than a shadow of magic she brings to life. There's no one left to listen, though, not here.

And no matter how much magic she illuminates in this place that's shaped her, it's not the real world to her anymore. The real world is the shimmering place she dreams about, a place where a young man plays his guitar in harmony with her. All around them, she sees the people she's stopped seeing in her waking life, good people who made the town of her waking life remotely worthwhile. He sings for her to come play with him in person again, to help build his unborn kingdom.

Betty knows they're just dreams, but dreams can be a flicker of what's real somewhere. If you peer just right, you'll see all you need to see of it. She doesn't even know if Allan will be there. He said he saw the train station, but he wouldn't climb on the train without her, was afraid they wouldn't let him on board without her. So maybe he's off wandering elsewhere, or maybe she'll find him waiting for her on the platform.

Either way, when the train comes, she'll get on if they let her. If Allan's at the end of the rails, she'll play for the people with him if he'll let her. If he's not, she'll play for them anyway, and they'll explore the kingdom unborn together, to the tune of her song. Or maybe she'll just explore for herself, build her own kingdom, in this world or whatever else waits.

She passes a house, looks at the number on the mailbox and digs the address out of her pocket. She's close now. An old woman comes out of the house, recognizes Betty and waves to her. Betty smiles and waves back. The woman is one of the old timers Betty went around talking to for research... It was an old train station, Allan told her, one most people wouldn't remember. So Betty went looking for the people who might remember, might have noticed it falling into obscurity, might have noticed bits of hidden local lore pop up and scurry around here and there. It wasn't the old woman who told Betty about the old man she's going to see now, but she might have been the one who directed Betty to the old couple on the other side of town. And the old couple told Betty about their barfly friend who doesn't go to the bars anymore. Back when he did, he'd sometimes mention the job he worked as a young man, at a train station by the crossroads. And if his words or tone got weird enough, someone would ask, and he'd talk about the haunted station, the one that closed down not long after he got back from the second big war. Except it hasn't really closed down. He'd take people there at night and prove it, except there was no way he'd ever go near the place again after what he's seen, what he's felt.

Betty'll have a talk with the man, and he'll tell her everything about the train station. If he won't talk about it sober, she has the beer. After that, there'll be plenty of time for him to sober up before the long drive to his former workplace, in time for 2:55 a.m. Word goes, he'll refuse to take her there. She can talk him into it, though. She'll play him a sweet, sweet song on her guitar... a song about where she's been, a song about where she's going, a song about a boy named Allan and a girl named Betty. It'll be the sweetest song she's played yet.

THE END


© 2008 Matt Spencer

Bio: Matt Spencer is the author of the well-selling novel THE DRIFTING SOUL, illustrated by award-winning artist Stephen R. Bissette. His short fiction has appeared in Aphelion (most recently Formal Dinner and Demon Dreams, December 2007), Back Roads, Demon Minds, Gallery of Snuff, InfinityPlus, Lilith's Lair, and Hardluck Storis. Mr. Spencer has worked as a film critic, film script editor, adult film star, factory worker, and professional chef. He now lives in Kansas, where he functions as the caring voice of reason and council - and occasionally "enforcer" - for family and friends. Visit him on line at The Official Matt Spencer Space.

E-mail: Matt Spencer

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