He watched the bird swoop down, black thing, black wings, backwatering in the air until it dropped to hop in the square. Raven or crow? Chuff or raven? Oh. Oh, he could find out: wander to the library, the last great, hulking repository of books. But half of them were charred, words turned into flakes of ashy moth that floated away on the breeze taking their philosophy with them. He briefly regretted that he couldn’t hear the bird’s wings, fluttering like book-cinders, but then the music that kept them at bay finished. A weird twining, twisting howl took its place, crawling up his spine to nestle in his motor cortex, propelling his feet east.
He turned the cassette over and pressed play again, chanting loud, “La, la, la, can’t hear you,” in the mechanical embarrassment between sides. He looked down at his finger on the chunky play button. The first knuckle had turned white with pressure. He forced himself to relax. The Cure was becoming his silence again. The tape was old and stretched; Robert Smith’s lovesong was becoming a howling lovecat.
The warped music soon faded into the background of familiarity and he looked around the square again. The sun had sunk behind the gutted carcase of the town hall, the skyscrapers that were now just parodies of a lightning-blasted stump. In the sheltered light it was growing cold and quickly too. Time to cook the rook. He began to float toward the glossy black promise of a meal, but his feet had taken a little involuntary jog-trot from the song. It regarded him suspiciously with its gold coin eye, hopping a little further away. He halted his approach and pretended unconcern to wait until the bird was calm again. It took off suddenly, forcing him to duck and backpedal. He cursed himself. He should have grasped at it, but it exceeded his reach. A frustrated breath: hibiscus… Perfume…
The ground swayed as he jerked his head around and she was there. The first thing he noticed was that she was monochrome. Her hair long, unctuous dark waves and her body pale in the shade of the city buildings. She was naked and he started back. Apart from her feet, which were black with the gritty muck hereabouts, she was clean. He took in her nipples, dark and puckered with cold against her small breasts and her shadowy crotch. Then he saw her eyes. They were solicitous, friendly. From her eyes he took it that she must have been about his age, twenty-something. She crossed her arms ineffectually and he took the hint, passing her his jacket. She pegged it together with two fingers at her throat. Her modesty was not at all contained, but she looked grateful. Her lips formed words.
No, he mouthed and pointed to his headphones. She began to speak again, seemingly unaware of what he was saying. He made a kind of whirling motion with his fingers towards the sky as if that could communicate the dangerous, longing sounds that stole your feet and your mind and made you walk until…
She looked puzzled and pointed to her own ears. Her lips were making shapes, cheeks tightening, lips making a moue then lower jaw jutting out, but he couldn’t lip-read it. He shook his head. She looked frustrated. He tried something else. He cast around for something to write with. There was nothing good to hand, they would have to leave the square. He tapped his chest and said “Lincoln”. She nodded, but did not proffer a name in return. He wondered if she thought he had meant something else. Or maybe she was as at sea as he.
They made careful perambulations around the ambulances, and lo! stepped with frugal economy though the diamond fields of shattered glass. At one point, he had to lift her onto his back. The dirt that had splashed its way up her Achilles tendon smeared the sides of his chinos as he tried desperately not to think about her nakedness on his back while Gary Numan sang about cars.
Back at the flat, a courtyarded haven that was only now revealing its mess as an acute embarrassment, he excavated another space on the couch next to his semi-circular nest. She sat without the least look of distaste. He looked for something to write with for her auto-hagiography. He tapped a few screens into flickering contempt before they died, sighing. He had collected many but their battery life was a memory and they couldn’t be plugged into the wall anymore. Piece of paper. Pencil. He handed them over. Stop looking at the space between the coat when she leans forward and takes the pen.
She wrote… some kind of pictogram. He looked at it in vain for some time. Is it Asian? Middle Eastern? He bit his lip and shook his head. Terence Trent D’Arby began the final scat on his big hit and his fingers reached autonomically for his pocket in the coda to fade. He hummed loud and nasal as he swapped “Hits of the 80s” with “Hits of the 90s”. The twining sound slams in and she looked like she was going to say something but he shut her up by humming louder until Natalie Imbruglia tore her way into the world. The girl looked slapped down.
The paper with its folding, half alive glyph. Squares and straights, little legs and bars. No. Could be anything. Perhaps if he drew something more literal? He tried to draw a long, flopped out mermaid-type thing on a rock with sound-waves coming out of her mouth. She looked up at him, hopeless. Were they mermaids or just ordinarily leggy women with their Greek Myth singing that drew the sailors to their deaths? This was going to be the most frustrating game of Pictionary ever. He sighed, and began again.
Hours passed. Tape sides changed, and changed again. “No,” he was saying – effectively to himself – as he stabbed the drawing, and then his headphones, “it’s because it’s not digital that I have to use them! They can’t get into it, can’t you see?” He bounced the pencil, a chewed-stump, off the table and it rolled under the couch. He went to get it, suitably embarrassed. She was suitable too, feet washed and wearing his childhood pyjamas now, from a charity shop bundle his mother had never delivered. They were a little stained and threadbare, but she didn’t seem to mind. A checked flannel leg brushed his cheek as he got down onto the floor to stare into the scary world beneath the couch. He smelled her hibiscus scent, even through the reek of storage on the clothes.
He sat back on his knees. “How did you get here?” he asked her mute smile. She shook her head for the thousandth time. She didn’t understand him. “Are you deaf? Why aren’t you following the noises?” Just black pearl eyes with a half-squint of pity. She didn’t seem to understand about them. Two years ago and they had come. From somewhere. The internet had been functioning at the start and wild rumours and counter-rumours spread around. They had come from space, another dimension, the future. They were a government conspiracy. But after a while, even the ‘wake up sheeple’ people fell silent. But not before he learned what to do to protect himself. Music disrupted the patterns, blocked them out. So while his family dismissed his warnings as so much rot, claiming the government would not stand for it, he stockpiled and planned. When his family had walked out of the flat one night, following the strange and compelling sounds without any thought, he had been tucked up in bed listening to Fleetwood Mac’s greatest hits on an infinite loop. He hadn’t found out until the sun woke him up and he found their front door open. He was alone. Surrounded by a silence that he couldn’t hear over the music.
Sun was setting and Pearl Jam reminded him that they were still alive. He began to look for light in the dinginess of the boxes and cupboards that teetered about and lay where they may. He brought out the battery-powered lamp and hoped she was impressed. He probably should have learned how to set up a petrol-driven generator by now, but scrounging batteries had always seemed easier, especially when you were the only person living in the city. Until now.
She rubbed her tummy, swirling the cookie monster’s t-shirt face. Her mouth opened, her lips flexed, making her toothless, dimpled. She pointed into the lip cave rendered chasm by the lamp’s blue-white light. He nodded and went outside to the safety of the courtyard to set up his fire. He pulled dry wood from beneath the tarpaulin and eyed his vegetable beds proprietarily as he went. As he grilled corn and boiled a potato in a pan precarious above the sooty grill, the Fugees talked and sang about killing someone softly but he didn’t hear it. Sometimes he strained to hear the songs, like a narcoleptic’s eyelid fluttering towards the coveted wakefulness and he would last seconds before his conscious mind would take him away and the sound would braid back into just being another part of the mind beneath. When he slept, he hooked up the big stereo, with its auto-reverse with all the fades between songs taken out for security. Times were when he could only hear the music clearly in his dreams and he danced and sang to audiences of thousands, or with his family and friends. And for that short moment on resurfacing to wakefulness, he no longer missed or craved music. He was full.
The sun had set by the time he handed over the food, supplemented with some dry stores. She ate and then shivered, looking at the black-black outside the window. There was never a dark like this before. No skyglow from the streetlights casting orange on the suspended clouds, no tacky club spot elbowing its way around, no security lights flicking on and off at passers-by… no passers-by. No cars, no torches, no cat’s eyes, no smart-phone camera’s flash. No aeroplane’s bipolar blink, no late-night office drone, no museum’s classical columns lit in sodium and halide. She looked at the black oblong of window like she’d never seen anything like it before: afraid, awed.
He pointed at her, shadows from the battery-lantern making his arm a dark axis of accusation. You, he pointed, then raised his hands in a questioning gesture. They still hadn’t got anywhere. She pointed at herself, me, then she pointed at him. You. He could feel the tickle of what? screwing up his face and raising an Elvis lip. She pointed at him again. Then at herself once more. You. Me. What was she driving at? She was the same as him? For him? His eyes widened. For him? A half-shock went down his spine to dance in his toes. He found he’d taken a crouch and was seizing the side of the banana crate coffee table, but she looked so apologetic and upset he released his iron grip. She waved her hands, I didn’t mean it, never mind and a tear made itself known in the flattened light when it depended from her jaw.
He felt guilty and went to the couch, to perch, clumsy hesitation, took her hand. She fell, all Hindenburg like, into his arms and he felt her sobs and the wetness on his shirt as Shaggy denied his involvement.
OutKast called Hey ya after her as she scampered and span through the streets. Laughing over her shoulder at him to keep up, dressed in some disparu neighbour girl’s clothes. He had raided all their other useful stuff, but hadn’t really required coltish leggy girl clothes before. It was tight here, baggy there, but overall an improvement on the neighbour girl. The city’s places of business stretched above them, grey staining its way down the concrete and limestone. Busts and gargoyles would occasionally rot out from the buildings and smash their faces open on the pavement below as punctuation. Roadworks, dried up floods from burst mains never fixed and hopelessly improvised barricades all merely provided her opportunity to leap and show off her athleticism. She tiptoed on the edge of trenches, teetered below check-point booms and ran free. And god help him, he ran with her, hearing only his own laugh, but imagining hers as a joyful yelp. Shattered colours of songs followed her feet.
He had tested his theory that she was deaf a few days ago by dropping a paint tin full of nails behind her and watching her jump out of her skin while he only felt the thud vibrate the floorboards. Every time he dared change sides of his tapes, she would attempt to speak to him. And his batteries were running out. He pawed through the buckets of double-As that he had carefully graded and had found the top grades weren’t lasting as long as they should and some of the lower ones had nearly caused him a crisis. If he hadn’t taught himself from the start, from the internet when things started kicking off over in Russia, he would never have made it so long; he was always triple-prepared and now he was dredging up leaky white-crusted AAs from his ‘good as new’ bucket?
But she was warm and soft in bed, even when Kanye West singing about golddiggers caused him some cognitive dissonance. He saw her smile every day, smelled her smell, tasted and touched. She pulled his hair and sucked his lower lip and ground herself onto him. A plan to eliminate the variables in the equation was forming.
They had embarked on his expedition to find untapped reserves of batteries. He’d long ago emptied the obvious shops, walked right in their unlocked doors and taken rucksacks-full at a time but now he was having to travel further, out to the suburban newsagent and the supermarket with its rotting food stink. It began to rain and Linkin Park sang about how in the end it doesn’t really matter.
They paused outside a big blue and yellow shrine to capitalism, its hoardings faded and glass fronts smeared in god-knows-what. He gestured that she go in – leaving her outside was probably as good as murder – and they sidled by the sliding doors that were jimmied open. The stench was like a landfill, strangely familiar and repellent at the same time. Once they were past the fruit and veg section with its piles of compost and mold spores, it was a little better. They headed back towards the dry goods and household section.
The Killers were going on about all the things they had done when his feet froze while walking past the end of an aisle. She bumped to a stop beside him. He looked at her shoes. They were Converse. Rubber soles on the still squeaky floor of a supermarket. He saw no sudden movement out of the corner of his eye and dared to turn his head. A man shaped figure, dirty and scruffy, was looking hard at a packet of hair dye and hadn’t looked up, even though the Converses had probably squeaked and they hadn’t exactly been creeping along, holding hands like this.
He could see no headphones in this stranger’s ears but from here they could have been in-ear buds nestling under that wiry brown mop. How to get him to notice them without him freaking out and trying to attack them? He might attack them anyway, survivor instinct going crazy. Or perhaps they were in his territory. As he was calculating the risks, the stranger looked up and dropped his box of hair dye, pressing his hand to his chest in shock.
Lincoln raised his hands slowly and the stranger did the same. He willed his frozen feet to walk down the aisle, feeling the girl’s reluctant tread trailing behind but for once, he wasn’t too concerned. The man’s fingers flickered at him, face expectant. He just shrugged in response. Well, that explained something. Profoundly deaf with no cochlear implants. He had heard there was a group of them about. Had survived remarkably well, used to a world that shut them out of its noise. The stranger nodded, chewing his lip and beckoned them to come to the stationery section. He grabbed up a big children’s drawing pad and a couple of pens, pocketing a few crayons in the meantime. Candles, thought Lincoln admiringly. The stranger’s whole kit spoke of someone who knew what they were doing: heavy boots to prevent standing on nails and getting tetanus, jacket with many pockets, rucksack, water bladder tube slithering over his shoulder.
They walked to the front of the store and crouched pow-wow in front of the plate-glass for light. He flipped open the pad, feeling the fresh new page for a moment and savouring the sharp smell of the uncapped pen. “Lincoln,” he wrote in the childish scrawl that all people who didn’t use a marker daily had. He pushed the pad over and the stranger wrote “Burton,” and pushed it back.
Burton just pointed at ‘yes’ again and Lincoln got a Ouija board feeling. Burton pushed the pad towards the girl, but she just made some kind of X with her hands and Lincoln took it back. “No English,” he wrote, regretting it as soon as he wrote it. It made him look like he couldn’t speak it either. Burton just smiled and shrugged.
Burton hesitated and wrote, “Can you hear them when you turn it off?”
Lincoln nodded slowly. He thought he knew where it was going. He could feel the gaping danger opening up at his feet. Burton pointed at the girl then tapped “Deaf?” with the butt of the marker pen. Lincoln pursed his lips and considered his strategy. Burton apparently took this as a no because he wrote again.
“One of them?”
Lincoln shook his head, emphatically. He wrote “NO.” And underlined it a few times just to make the point. It wasn’t something he hadn’t already thought, but still.
‘Dangerous’ was underlined with just as much emphasis.
Burton glared at her threateningly and he put a hand flat on the ground as if to push himself up and that was the catalyst. Lincoln found himself on top of the man, pounding with his fists. It hurt, like hitting a bag of spanners, but he kept on until there was no more protest from the man. He got to his feet and stepped back abruptly a few paces. The adrenaline was making him feel sick and tearful. And the sight of his face. No man should look like that. He looked at her, wide-eyed and knees drawn up protective. She’d scooched away back a few yards. He held out his hand. His knuckles were killing him but he didn’t wince when she let him pull her up.
Every day he was closer to running out of batteries. Every day he would feel his feet begin to get that itch in rhythm with the change of side. And he couldn’t hear the music any more. He didn’t want to either. One day, in the vegetable patch, looking at her, shaft of sunlight making her wisps of black hair look red, he made a decision. He strode into the flat.
She stared at him like an indignant owl. But he couldn’t keep it up. Was she upset because he would hurt himself? Or was she upset because he would be forever beyond their reach? He looked down at his right fist, two blunt, surgical grey knitting needles from his mother’s gear clutched there. His left hand went down to the personal stereo on his waist.
He pressed stop.