Jordan Leigh gasped into consciousness. Her sheets had been kicked to the foot of the bed, and the cheap cotton beneath her was soaked with sweat. She groaned and rolled onto her stomach. Her arm fell off the side of the thirdhand mattress, her knuckles grazing the ground, and something with a billion legs scrambled over her fingers.
“Jesus FUCK!” J.L. yelled, jerking upwards. She wiped her hand on the bed, disgusted, and a bolt of pain arced between her retinas. Whimpering, she pulled her knees inwards, then hunched over them, nursing the consequences of the nearly empty liquor bottle atop a nearby stack of DVD cases.
It was barely ten in the morning and the apartment was boiling. The plug on the air conditioner had finally broken two days before, and there was no way J.L. was going to ask her parents for the money to buy a new one. That preppy guy in her Dutch Cinema class had offered to fix it, but she knew he was probably going to expect sex in return. So faced with the choice to beg ’em or spread ’em, she had decided to suffer through the heat instead.
The first night was miserable. On the second, J.L. had drank herself unconscious. And now, on the morning of the third day without AC, J.L. was trying to convince herself that the preppy Dutch-Cinema-class-guy wasn’t that bad looking after all. Her stomach, however, knew better than her brain, and she barely made it to the bathroom before vomiting up half a vegan cheeseburger and a coconut-milk milkshake.
For once, J.L. was glad that there was no hot water. The freezing droplets of the shower were the only things protecting her from her burning hell of an apartment and the hangover she had earned trying to escape it. For almost twenty minutes she stood motionless, her mouth half-open as she stared at the mildewed tiles, afraid to move and send another shriek of pain through her head. Finally, free of last night’s sweat and this morning’s bile, she reached out and twisted the valve closed, emerging from behind the yellowed curtain slightly less grungy and slightly more functional.
The scent of J.L.’s deodorant sent her stomach rolling, but she laid it on thick anyway. The makeup was a no-go – it was too hot, she was too hungover, and running too late – but the heavy-framed, non-prescription glasses were, as always, a must. Back in her single room, J.L. set about rummaging through the growing pile of clothes that was threatening to swallow her stereo. A pair of jean shorts and a cheap t-shirt cut to show off her midriff and bra seemed like the best bet for the heat. Glancing at herself in the mirror, she decided to add a pair of suspenders to pull the look together.
Bzzzzt. Bzzzzt. Somewhere in the tangle of her sheets, her phone’s vibration announced the arrival of a text message. J.L. turned, stepped down on the heel of an upturned pump, cursed, and caught herself on the edge of her shitty little nightstand, nearly toppling the thing along with a stack of half-finished books. She fished the phone out of the pile of still-damp fabric and unlocked it.
wr r u
“Where am I?” she said, pulling on a pair of ankle boots and slinging the strap of her camera bag over her shoulder. “I’m in fucking hell, that’s where I am.” She winced and bent her shoulder blades backwards as a fat drop of sweat rolled all the way down her spine.
“Jesus,” she said, then walked out the door, her fingers flying over the face of her phone.
J.L. looked at her reflection in the window of the subway car and sighed, pulling at her hair. Her classmates had been surprised to discover that she was a blonde, and she couldn’t help but feel like they thought less of her once the black dye grew out. She wanted to color again, but she couldn’t afford to have it done in a salon, wasn’t going to do it herself, and didn’t trust anyone she knew not to screw it up.
The rattling of the subway car’s air conditioner finally ground to a halt, and J.L. sighed again, louder this time. The underground station had been a heat stroke waiting to happen, and now she didn’t even have the temporary relief of the ride. She put her head against the window, which was at least a few degrees cooler than the inside of the car, and tried to figure out what to do about her broken AC.
It would be easier to just take her parents up on their offer to pay for a nicer apartment closer to school, but she couldn’t do that. J.L.’s classmates already made fun of her for being the “rich girl”. She didn’t want to give them more of a reason to push her out of the group. It was completely unfair anyway, because she knew that none of them were paying the fifteen thousand dollars of tuition per semester, and although they loved rocking that pre-worn look, the labels on their clothes suggested a premium off-the-shelf price.
Whatever. It did feel good to write that rent check from her bank account, even if she sometimes had to miss a meal or two in order to keep it from bouncing. And if she did a great job with her final project for this semester, maybe she wouldn’t feel as guilty about letting her parents pay for a better place. It’d be like a reward.
Of course, she really did want to make something worth watching whether or not she got a new apartment out of it. Something that captured the things she never felt she could say at her parents’ country club or in the string of prep schools they sent her to. Something powerful, like the documentaries she spent all her time watching in high school, the ones she could only buy from non-English websites that were usually overrun with viruses. How many times had her parents’ credit card number been stolen? Four? Five? It didn’t really matter – the bank always put a stop to it before the digital thief spent too much, and those weird, poorly subtitled films had introduced J.L. to the art that she was meant to pursue.
J.L. pulled her video camera out of the bag and flipped open the digital screen on the side. She always felt a little bit guilty at how nice her camera was, especially after Mako had said that it was “wasted” on her. But if nothing else, the comment had driven her to experiment with the billion and one functions the device came with, and she was getting much better at handling it.
She switched the camera to RECORD and slowly scanned the people in the subway car. Her professors were always lecturing them about filming others without their permission, but their opinions were split down the middle. Half constantly stressed the need to get everyone’s approval for everything, while the other half said that the pursuit of art was more important than their subjects’ consent. To be honest, J.L. was a little surprised that they were allowed to advocate that position, but as she had quickly found out, the people in Babel weren’t like people elsewhere. Nobody ever seemed to pay attention when she brought out her camera, and as far as she knew, nobody in her program had ever gotten in trouble for filming people without their permission.
J.L. didn’t know what it was about the people of Babel that made them so disinterested in their surroundings. She herself had grown up in a smallish town where even jaywalking was met with a polite lecture from whatever adult was nearby. If she were to break out her camera back home and start filming, she’d have a lot of people smiling politely while they asked her to “shut that thing off”. But in Babel, nobody seemed to notice. She had asked her classmates why that was, but they only ever seemed to shrug and move on to another topic. Most of them had grown up in or near the city, so nothing that happened here seemed strange to them. But even after almost a full year of being here, J.L. was still finding the Babel way of being difficult to adjust to.
The air conditioner in the car kicked back to life again, providing some minor, but much-needed relief. Tired of filming the bored commuters, J.L. turned her attention to the rushing of the tunnels outside the opposite window, focusing on the street names as they pulled into each station. You can never have too much subway footage, Luisa once said, and J.L. took the opportunity to play around with more of the camera’s recording modes.
The doors of the car were like those of a furnace, and she flinched every time they opened and allowed the rush of hot air to wash over her. But after a while, she became so engrossed in her experimenting that she almost missed her stop. She realized they were at 19th Street just as the car beeped and a garbled voice came over the loudspeaker to warn the passengers to keep away from the closing doors. J.L. was able to get her arm in between the sliding aluminum plates just in time to keep the train from leaving. But for one terrifying split second, the doors continued to squeeze – hard – and J.L. had a vision of them cutting her arm off at the elbow, of her falling backwards with blood gushing from the stump…
Then the doors released her, and she was able to step out into the burning air of the subway station.
“Jesus,” she said, bending her arm a few times and rubbing it. Behind her, the train pulled away, leaving her alone in the underground. J.L. turned, camera up, catching the rear of the subway car as it disappeared into the tunnel, the rails sparking as it screeched along, the rear lights a series of red eyes that made her think of a spider retreating into its den. She blinked a few times. She could have sworn she saw a few dark shapes darting over the tracks behind the train, and she rewound her tape to take another look. J.L. squinted at the digital screen of the camera, but it was too small and too dim to provide the level of detail she needed, so she shrugged, turned it off, and put it back in her bag.
The stairs leading to the street above made J.L. feel like she was escaping from a gigantic mouth, and the hot breeze from below only reinforced the idea. She threw a hand over her eyes to shade them from the blazing sun, and merged with the human traffic crossing at the corner of 19th and 9th. The smell of sweat and the offerings of street vendors sent bile climbing up her throat, but she squeezed it back down and started breathing through her mouth instead of her nose. Ahead of her and to the left, a hunched babushka lady stumbled, putting her hand on the back of the man in front of her to steady herself. He didn’t even notice, but J.L. flinched when she caught a glimpse of the woman’s face – red, raw, and scabbed over, half-covered in a scarf despite the heat, with one flaccid eyelid drooping over an empty socket.
The woman’s gloved hand remained on the man’s back for a few more shuffling steps, and as J.L. watched, the babushka lady started caressing him, almost like a lover. Then she was gone, swallowed up by the crowd, and the man continued forward as if nothing had happened.
“Ugh,” J.L. murmured to herself. She almost bumped into the person in front of her as the crowd slowed, and she rolled both her head and her eyes to the side, tired of the congestion and the heat.
She had ignored the song until then, her brain editing it out as just another background noise, lumping it in with the music from the restaurants and cheap electronics shops lining the corners at 19th and 9th. But a split-second after she heard, really heard the voice, she found the source.
He was standing on the curb in front of her, a head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd, ignoring and ignored by those pushing past him. His age was impossible to tell, but he was not young. His skin was overly tanned, and a patchy black beard clung to his cheeks and his chin. His eyes had once been a piercing blue, but were now cloudy, glazed over with a milky film as they stared unblinkingly at the sun above. His long, lanky arms ran straight down his sides, his fingers almost hyperextended, hands shaking slightly with the exertion of his song. A pair of bony legs that were yellow with sores ran up to an ancient pair of red shorts, followed by a ratty black hoodie that was ten sizes too big for the emaciated frame underneath. Twin trails of tears had cut lines in his cheeks, and twin columns of snot connected his nostrils to his upper lip.
The man was difficult to look at, but beautiful to listen to. He sang in a high tenor, in a language that J.L. didn’t understand, but that sounded a lot like the two years of Latin she had taken back in high school. Despite the heat and humidity, she could feel the hairs on the back of her arms and neck rising in response to the absurdly sweet voice ringing out over the sounds of the crowd.
“The fuck you doing, lady.”
A very short man in an expensive suit looked over his shoulder at her as he elbowed his way past. J.L. realized that she had stopped in the middle of the street to listen. An orange hand flashed above the crosswalk, and J.L. joined the last members of the crowd in the rush to the opposite curb.
She was now only a few feet away from the singer, and she could see how much he strained to produce every perfect tone. His entire body was trembling, the cords on his neck flexing violently as he continued onwards in the pseudo-Latin verses. Although, J.L. realized, there weren’t really any verses to speak of – the melodies and the phrases seemed to be non-repeating. No chorus. No bridge. No verses. Just the most beautiful and chilling sounds that a man could make. All from someone who looked like he had walked through hell to get to this street corner.
Instinctively, J.L. reached for her camera. This was it. This was the story that she had been searching this city for. She flicked on the camera’s directional microphone and stepped back, trying to get a full shot of the singer. A crowd of people waiting to cross soon formed between them. J.L. panned over them, noticing how nobody seemed to pay any attention to the angelic voice in their midst.
“How are you not hearing this,” she murmured. The light changed, and the exodus off the curb began. J.L. stood for a bit, her camera trained on the singer, her eyes watching the crossing crowd.
“Screw it,” she said, and merged with the pedestrians. When she reached the middle of the crosswalk she stopped, turned, and refocused on her target. Wordlessly, people passed by, adjusting their paths seemingly without even noticing her. One or two glanced her way, then looked towards the singer, but their interest was shortlived, and they quickly returned to barreling onwards to their destination.
A taxi blasted its horn. It barely registered with J.L. She was alone on the street now, save for the cars, her attention completely locked on the singer.
The horn went off again.
“Are ya fucking kidding me?” yelled the driver, a chubby elbow and a fat face hanging out the side of the car. J.L. smoothly raised her middle finger, a common expression she had picked up from her classmates, but she did get out of the way. The taxi zoomed past, a jumble of foul language trailing behind it.
As J.L. continued to film, she realized that there was at least some sort of pattern in the song, a constant rising and falling, like a boat on the ocean. She couldn’t tell if it was the volume, the speed, or the phrasing, but her breathing somehow slipped into unison with the wavelike form of the music. The song alternated between sending chills down her spine and warm, fuzzy tendrils through her chest. J.L. wasn’t a big music person – especially when compared to some of her classmates – but she had never heard anything like this in her entire life. She was standing in the bike lane, close enough for the impossibly long arms of the singer to grab her if he wished. But he continued to ignore her and everything else, his face turned up to the sun, his song intense and sweet. His tears were constant, though they didn’t creep into his voice at all, and as J.L. watched, a different sort of liquid began trickling out of his ragged red shorts and down his thighs. “Jesus,” J.L. said, the spell temporarily broken. She pulled the camera away from her eye and took a step back. A car flew past, the driver leaning on his horn, and J.L. jumped, her heart pounding. Through it all, the song of the man on the curb rang out over the intersection at 19th and 9th, and for J.L., something began to feel very, very wrong.
J.L. jumped again, took a deep breath, and slid her phone out of her pocket.
“What the hell?” The text message itself was innocuous, just a jumble of letters asking where she was. But the clock on the phone told her that an hour and a half had passed since she stepped off the subway. There was no way she could have spent that much time taping. She checked the recording time on the camera, but it only confirmed what her phone had already told her.
J.L. looked up at the singer, and that feeling of wrongness blossomed into full-on fear. She turned to flee, but immediately froze and gave out a small shriek, instinctively drawing her hands up towards her shoulders as a bicycle and its rider barreled towards her. The cyclist, a costumed cartoon character with a stack of pizzas strapped to its handlebars, looked away from the singer just in time to swerve around J.L.
“Sorry!” came the muffled apology, but J.L. was already on the move, rushing up the street with the song chasing after her.
“Here she is!” J.L.’s classmates were lounging in the shaded overhang of the Film Studies building as she rounded the corner, her eyes locked over her shoulder. At the sound of Luisa’s voice, J.L. turned to face them, giving up a weak smile and a half wave.
Luisa jumped up and rushed over to J.L., pulling her into a dainty hug.
“Hey girl, where you been?”
“Slept in,” J.L. mumbled. She pulled back, maintaining her strained smile. Luisa always seemed happy to see her, but J.L. could never bring herself to fully believe it. She knew Luisa liked to gossip, and after a few minor blowups earlier in the year, J.L. had learned to be careful with what she said around the bouncy little Latina.
“Beachy sends his best, by the way,” Luisa said, linking her arm through J.L.’s and turning back to the group.
“Ugh.” Beachy was Markos Beacher, their rapidly aging professor who still thought he could charm his students into bed with him. Early on he had set his sights on J.L., and although he had never formally propositioned her, his jokes, comments, and general presence always made her squirm in the wrong way.
“Hey! Are we going or what?” Luisa said. Mako, Nida, Marna, and Tom mumbled in response, but they turned off their nearly identical looking cameras and slid them into their respective bags.
“Where are we going?”
“Graver’s is showing a Fiotsky film,” said Mako. He fit the image of the film student – tall, dark, lanky, and contemptuous. He eyed J.L. up and down the way he always did, with a look that said that he was superior to her, but not so superior that he wouldn’t fuck her if he had the opportunity.
“One of his early ones,” he continued. “I know you don’t like Fiotsky, so don’t feel like you have to come-“
“Fiotsky’s fine,” said J.L., but Mako was right. Fiotsky was terrible, the type of “artiste” whose symbolism was so over the top that for J.L. it seemed more like a satire of what film students were supposed to enjoy. At the same time, she was glad to hear that they were going to Graver’s – the old movie theater was always overly air-conditioned, and today it had the added bonus of being even further away from the singer she had just spent ninety minutes filming.
J.L. forced herself to smile at Mako. “He’s better than Smithson at least.” She had been forced to listen to Mako rant about how much he hated Jake Smithson’s work at least a dozen times now. She was hoping the comment would get at least a smirk out of the guy, but all it earned her was another contemptuous glance.
“You’re such a suck-up.”
“Oh ignore him,” Luisa said, leading J.L. away. “Beachy shit all over his film today.”
Mako started to protest, but Luisa stopped him with a single palm.
“Do not even start,” she said, whisking J.L. along. Luisa and Mako had some strange on-again, off-again type-thing that J.L. didn’t understand, but she was betting that she was about to hear all the most recent drama.
And she was right. Luisa kept the two of them almost half-a-block ahead of the rest of the group, leaning in towards J.L. and talking so quickly and quietly that J.L. could only catch about every other word. But after almost a full year of hanging out with Luisa, J.L. knew what emotions to show and when, and even though she had no idea what that “big-dick bastard” had done this time, Luisa seemed satisfied with her reaction to it.
As J.L. anticipated, the movie was garbage. Within five minutes of the film starting, she found herself thinking about the homeless singer at 19th and 9th, regretting that she had allowed herself to get spooked so suddenly. After all, wasn’t that the experience she was looking for? To get so deeply involved in a subject that the hours passed by like seconds? And on top of that, the fact that the man was able to sing so sweetly for so long without stopping was incredible, not frightening. And all those people passing by without paying him a second glance…wasn’t it J.L.’s job as an aspiring filmmaker to force others to see the things that they too often overlooked?
J.L. sat, bathed in black and white bullshit, cursing herself as she fought the urge to leave the theater and head back to the singer’s intersection. He was probably already gone, scared off by the hard-eyed dicks of the Babel PD, or sitting and counting change in a fast-food restaurant, wondering if he could convince someone to lend him a nickel so he could get some fries with his burger. Every now and then, during the quiet moments of the shitshow that Fiotsky had cobbled together into a film, J.L. could hear the pseudo-Latin of the singer, rising and falling in that hypnotic wavelike pattern that had kept her filming for over an hour…
Thinking about the singer made the movie go by faster, and before J.L. knew it the lights were coming up and her classmates were slowly shuffling out of their row.
“You asleep?” Luisa asked.
“No, no. Just…thinking,” J.L. replied. She stood, and a whiff of mildewed air crawled up her nostrils, making her wrinkle her nose.
Graver’s was a very old theater. Decades of dust had stained the once-red curtains on the walls, and many of the velvety seat covers had worn away to reveal the yellow foam cushions beneath. J.L. was glad that she didn’t have to pretend to find the crumbling architecture and threadbare decoration “quaint” or “authentic” – her group knew that Graver’s was run-down, but it was one of the few places in the city that regularly showed the “real cinema” that the Film Studies students of the City University of Babel enjoyed.
The group headed out, each of them giving a nod to Joe Graver at the rear of the theater, who was busy trying to tie his long gray hair into a messy ponytail. Graver was seventy-one. He wore rose-lensed glasses down on the tip of his nose, his favorite color was tie-dye, and he had changed his name to that of the theater when he bought it almost fifty years ago. Nobody really understood Graver. He talked fast, he was easily excitable, and he had somehow convinced himself that not only did aliens regularly abduct humans for experimentation, but that everybody should be told about it as often as possible. Mako figured that he had done too much LSD back in the sixties, and even J.L. found it hard to disagree with the idea.
A bit of a gloom fell over the group as they made their way towards Death Sprout, the heavy metal vegan place where they ate at least three times per week. Even Mako hadn’t enjoyed the movie, but he laid the blame on the editing of the “American cut” instead of the actual content. The others weren’t as interested in discussing it with him, so they just nodded and yeah’ed and totally’ed until Mako finally had nothing else to say. It was still hot, even though it was already early evening, and J.L. dreaded the return to her sweat lodge of an apartment and the busted AC.
The conversation picked back up once they were seated in their usual booth, and as always J.L. tended to withdraw from the group, occasionally chatting with Luisa, but more often just listening to the constant arguments over film genres, film types, filmmakers, and…just…film. She picked at her food. Her appetite still hadn’t returned after throwing up that burger earlier, and although she usually enjoyed the Death Sprout tofu salad sandwich, she just couldn’t bring herself to eat much of it. J.L. pushed her plate away, then realized that almost a half-dozen pairs of eyes were turned towards her.
“What,” she said, more of a statement than a question.
“We wanna know what you’ve been working on,” Luisa replied. “You haven’t been around to show your stuff off in class. You been shooting anything new?”
“Well…” For a moment, J.L. didn’t want to tell them about the singer. The city of Babel always seemed to her like it was full of secrets, and for once it was nice to have discovered one of them on her own. She wrestled with the desire to keep the song all to herself, but the greater desire to show off something incredible she had found won over, and she reached for her camera bag.
“I need to find a way to borrow a better mic,” she said, unraveling her headphones and plugging them into the port on the camera before flicking it on. “The song on its own is just…I can’t describe it, you have to listen.” The camera and headphones were passed around the table, starting with Luisa and ending with Tom.
“Well?” J.L. asked, excited, hopeful. “Isn’t that the most incredible voice you’ve ever heard? I’ve got to track him back down. I need to tell his story!”
“That’s pretty crazy,” said Luisa, but she sounded unenthusiastic. She and Nida shared a look that J.L. really, really didn’t like.
“Did he just piss himself?” asked Tom.
“I didn’t know you were into that, J.L,” said Mako, wearing that annoying smirk of his. J.L. looked at her classmates one by one. Frustrated and hurt by what she saw in their faces, she snatched back her camera, ripping the headphone buds out of Tom’s ears.
“You know what? Fuck you guys,” J.L. said. She stood, dumping the camera back in its bag and fishing for her wallet.
“J.L., come on. Sit back down, girl.” Luisa reached for J.L.’s arm, but J.L. backed away, bumping into a tattooed waitress.
“Um, excuse me.” J.L. tossed a few dollars on the table, barely enough to cover her tofu salad sandwich, then stomped out of the restaurant.
Cursing under her breath, J.L. hurried along the dusky streets of Babel, ready to catch the subway back home for another night in the sauna.
“Bunch of fucking tools,” she said. She was done hanging out with them. They could keep their Fiotsky and their crappy music and their vegan restaurants. Fucking assholes. She wondered if it was too late to switch her major to journalism.
After a few blocks, J.L.’s pace slowed a bit. She had to track the singer back down. She had to tell his story, no matter what. But how would she find him? In a city of over eight million people, most of whom wouldn’t glance twice at a burning school bus filled with orphans, kittens, and strippers, how the hell was she supposed to find one man who – and she winced at the cheesy comparison – sang like an angel?
J.L. was so lost in thought that she almost didn’t recognize the figure standing at the corner of 19th and 9th. But then she spotted the red shorts and the skinny legs in the waning light. Her heart started pounding, and she began to hurry up the street, stopping herself when she realized just how crazy she probably looked running towards a man who regularly soiled himself without any sort of shame.
“Okay, calm down,” she said. “Take a few breaths.” She resumed her regular walking speed, trying to coach herself through the next few minutes. She had never started a conversation with a stranger before – let alone with someone like the singer at 19th and 9th – and she was incredibly, overwhelmingly nervous.
“Just be polite,” she said. “Keep it short and simple. Explain what you…you’re looking for, try to arrange a second meeting, then make a quick exit.”
“And if he’s crazy? If he…tries to grab you or hurt you or…”
She stopped again and closed her eyes, taking in a deep breath. “It’ll be okay. You’ll have to…put yourself in situations like this all the time if…if you want to tell great stories.” She was less than half a block away from the singer now. He was looking in the opposite direction, and as far as J.L. could tell, he was no longer singing. The people passing by still paid him no attention, and he didn’t give them any in return.
“Alright,” said J.L. “Let’s do this.” She walked purposefully towards him, but as she closed the final distance she began to lose steam. Her last few steps were practically tiptoes, and finally she stood timidly a few feet off, trying to work up the courage to talk to him. She could smell him from where she was – a mixture of piss, sickness, and a few other strong odors – and she had to swallow hard in order to speak.
“Excuse me,” she said, so quietly that there was no way he could hear her. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Excuse me.”
The man’s head was turned sharply, looking all the way up 19th. His thin chest rose and fell in quick, weak breaths beneath the hoodie holding him together. J.L. reached out a slightly shaking hand and tapped him on the shoulder.
There was no response. His body felt like a rock beneath her touch, and she quickly drew back. Gingerly, she walked around to his other side, trying to catch his attention.
“Sir? Hello?” It was entirely possible that he was blind, she realized. It looked like he had been staring right at the sun earlier, and his eyes, although trained on the far end of 19th, seemed clouded and far away. But there was no way he was deaf as well. How could he possibly sing the way he did if he couldn’t hear the words coming out of his mouth?
“I was wondering if I could…buy you some dinner,” J.L. said. “I’m a student, and…I was walking by earlier, and I heard you singing and you were just incredible. I hope you don’t mind, but I shot some film of it, just so that I had proof you existed. You might have noticed me, I was hanging around for a while.” J.L. laughed nervously.
The singer didn’t respond. His mouth hung open, drool collecting on the rim of his bottom lip. That feeling of unease that had sent J.L. running away earlier that afternoon started creeping up on her again.
“I just…think you’re very talented. And it looks like you’ve been through some tough times, and I just want to share your story with other people.”
Nothing. J.L. waved her hand in front of the silent singer’s face. “Hello? Sir?”
“Shit,” J.L. said. She remembered seeing popular movies and documentaries about idiot savants, people with incredible skill in one area of their life to the detriment of all others. It seemed like her singer was in the same camp.
She looked around. So how did he eat? And drink? Did he have any self-preservation instincts at all? Did he wander away from a facility, or from a home where he was either loved or hated? She racked her brain. Had she seen him on this street corner before? Was she guilty of the same sort of willful ignorance that the rest of this city was so good at?
J.L. sighed. Part of her wanted to call the police, or a hospital, or some sort of authority to bring him in and take care of him. But something inside stopped her, some block of cowardice or an unwillingness to interfere. She pulled a scrap of paper and a few dollars out of her bag and scribbled down her phone number, then slipped everything into his pocket.
“In case you get hungry,” she said. “And if you have some change left over and can find a payphone, please give me call.” He probably didn’t even know how to work a phone, but J.L. hoped that if he did get picked up by the police or a caretaker, maybe whoever found her number would try to contact her.
J.L. turned and headed towards the subway station, and the silence that followed made her wish she could hear that afternoon’s song instead.
Without more alcohol to put her to sleep, J.L. spent the first few hours of the night naked, sweating, and cursing as she rolled back and forth on the mattress. Her mind refused to stay still, shifting at a breakneck speed between the heat, her frustrations with her classmates, and the singer at 19th and 9th. Finally, she got up, grabbed her camera from its bag, and started charging it with the wall adapter. She flipped open the screen on the side and plugged in her headphones, then sat at the edge of the bed, watching and listening to the song that had so deeply captivated her. Despite the poor quality of the cheap earbuds, the sound was still really good – and before J.L. knew it, she was waking up with the morning light streaming in through the open window.
She winced, throwing an arm up in front of her face. There was a coppery taste in her mouth, and the song was still playing in her ears.
“Weird,” she mumbled. She must have turned on some sort of loop or repeat function on the camera. J.L. shut the thing down, then trudged over to the shower.
The ice cold and utterly refreshing water made her gasp, and brought her around the corner into full consciousness. What day was it? Was she already supposed to be at work? Or was that tomorrow? She washed her hair slowly, trying to piece together the events of the day before. Luisa had already sent her a half-dozen apologetic texts, but J.L. hadn’t answered a single one. Now that she had finally found something worth filming, she had no intention of hanging around those assholes any more than she had to.
And honestly…now that she did have something worthwhile, maybe she’d take her parents up on their offer to get her a nicer place. After all, if this thing panned out the way she thought it might, she deserved-
“Augh!” She had been brushing her teeth while these thoughts were running through her head, and there was a sudden pain as she ran the bristles over her rear molars on the left side. She spit. The foam of the toothpaste was bright red as it swirled around the shower drain. J.L. felt around the back of her mouth with her finger, then hissed as she touched the problem area. She must have cut one of her gums somehow.
J.L. stuck her finger back there again, this time a bit more gently, and tried to ignore the pain as she poked around. Was…was she missing a tooth? That back molar? She tried counting, but couldn’t remember how many she was supposed to have. Her wisdom teeth had never come in…or had they? Did one of them fall out? Did wisdom teeth even do that, like baby teeth?
She stepped out of the shower, confused, but already moving on. At the sink, she rinsed until the water she spat out was clear instead of pink, and set about getting ready for a day of filming the singer at 19th and 9th. As she returned to the room, her phone went off – Luisa, calling to apologize again – but J.L. silenced the ringtone and moved on. She was less picky about her clothes today, since she didn’t have to try to impress anyone – she doubted the singer cared if she had the look of a film student or not. Shorts, t-shirt, sneakers, done. She was ready.
Armed with camera and tripod, and disregarding text messages from her boss in addition to Luisa, J.L. headed out the door.
For the next week, J.L. lived to tell the story of the song. She discovered that the singer started at dawn, following the path of the sun with his burnt face and glazed eyes until it set on the other end of 19th Street, when his mouth would close for the evening and his head would slowly turn until it faced east once again. And although most of the city continued to ignore him, J.L. remembered the few who at least looked his way before continuing onwards with their pathetic, songless lives. One of them was the costumed deliveryman who had almost biked over her on that first day. A few times he had dared to stop and talk to her, trying to interrupt her from the music, to distract her from her purpose. But she was good. She ignored him, focusing wholly on the song, and he quickly learned to just ride by without trying to start up a conversation.
J.L. ate little, and she slept even less. On two nights, she had stayed out until sunrise so she could capture the start of the song. During those times, the times of silence, she tried everything she could think of to get the singer to respond to her. She talked to him, snapped her fingers in front of his face, yelled, sang to him (a mixture of various pop music along with her own imitation of the song), held fast food under his nose (she never once saw him eat or drink – a terrifying fact that she somehow pushed to the back of her mind), and a dozen other things to try and shake the man out of his stupor. The only thing she didn’t do was touch him. She had thought to, but something was very wrong about making physical contact with the singer. Babel didn’t want her to touch him. She could capture and share the song, she could try to talk to the singer or otherwise get his attention, but if she even dared to put her hand on his shoulder like she did on that first day…the few times the idea came into her head, a black chill filled her and she started shuddering until she could think about something else.
On the nights she was at home, J.L. would plug in the camera, then sit on her mattress with her back to the wall, her knees drawn in, and her headphones wedged in her ears, fighting sleep as best she could. She didn’t trust her apartment any more. Things had started appearing in the corners of her eyes, dark, scuttling things that made no sound and left no proof of their presence when she turned her head towards them. And on her first night back after a full day of filming the singer, she had woken up with the feeling that something was perched on the edge of her chin, reaching a pair of hairlike feelers into her open mouth. She had screamed, and practically started slapping herself to get whatever it was off her. No, she couldn’t prove anything was there, but they were there, and the only way to protect herself was by listening to the song and staying awake as long as she could.
But it was worth it. She was learning so much about this song, the song of Babel itself. She could even understand certain parts of it now – not in a way that she could define the words or translate for someone else, but in a way she just got. It resonated with her. Sometimes, she could even feel the words just sitting on the other edge of her perception, and she’d open her mouth to sing along – but the syllables couldn’t quite make their way to her tongue yet. But they would soon. She knew they would.
At the end of a week of filming, exhausted, hungry, sunburned, and sore, J.L. found her shoulders seizing up when she stepped out of the subway and spotted another figure with a camera standing in front of the singer at 19th and 9th. J.L. stopped where she was, her hand gripping the railing so hard that her knuckles ached. What the hell was Mako doing filming her song?
Anger set J.L.’s mind on fire. This was her secret. It was her job to bring it to the rest of the world, when she was ready. But Mako was trying to steal it from her. He was stealing the song, he was stealing it, stealing it, STEALING IT.
J.L. stomped over to him, ignoring the people on the sidewalk and running in front of an ice cream truck with a horn that sounded like the sprinkles on a soft-serve cone. She stood next to Mako for several seconds before speaking, her fury preventing her from finding the right words, watching him adjust and then overadjust the focus just like the little douche he was.
“What are you doing,” she said finally.
Mako didn’t even take his eye away from the viewfinder. “Oh. I was wondering if I’d find you here.” He continued to twist the lens of the camera.
J.L. waited for him to answer her question. When he didn’t, she asked it again.
“I recognized this corner in your little video last week. You were right – this guy is incredible, and someone does need to tell his story. But I just don't think that someone is you.”
So it was true. He was trying to steal the song. J.L.’s anger overrode the rest of her thoughts. The bastard. The bastard. The song was hers! She had found it, she was filming it, she had the right to say when and where it was shared!
A dump truck sped towards the intersection at 19th and 9th, trying to get to the light before it turned yellow. J.L. reached out towards Mako, ready to push him into the road, ready to laugh as several tons of steel and rubber turned him into a smear on the asphalt, but she stopped. Once again, she understood the words of the song, words she couldn’t define, and instead of shoving Mako to his death she put a gentle hand on his shoulder.
“Maybe…” she swallowed hard, “…maybe, we could work together.”
“Mm, no. I’m not the collaborative type.”
J.L. slid her hand down his side. When she hit denim, she navigated around his hips to his front.
“You sure?” she said into his ear. Mako paused, and finally pulled away from his camera, wearing a look that said he had expected this.
“What do you have in mind?” God, she fucking hated him, but her eyes lied to him. He was buying it. Fucking idiot.
“Let’s go to your place,” J.L. said. She took his hand and started to walk in the vague direction of Mako’s apartment, but he stopped her.
“No,” he said. “Luisa’s there.” He nodded at the nearby stairs to the subway. “Let’s go to yours.”
Up in front of the door of her apartment, she took her time finding the right key in her bag. She had teased Mako for the entire length of the subway ride, making him squirm in the hard plastic seat and shoot embarrassed grins at the few riders who paid them any attention.
“Hurry up,” he said in her ear, putting a hand on her ass and squeezing hard.
“Mmm,” J.L. said. “That feels goooooood...”
“Could you just find the fucking key?”
“Here it is!” J.L. said, holding up the little brass object. She slid it into the lock, jiggled it, then opened the door and gave Mako a gentle push into the apartment.
“Nice place,” Mako said drily, looking around at the clothing, books, and DVDs covering the floor.
“Thanks,” said J.L., grabbing something off her desk. Mako turned and she was on him, kissing him with her mouth open, her tongue swirling around his. Her hand trailed down his chest, stopping at his belt buckle. Without ending the kiss, he helped her out, unbuttoning and unzipping his pants. She reached down further, yanking on the elastic waistband of his underwear and taking him into her hand.
“Mm,” J.L. said. “Luisa was right. You are a big-dick bastard.”
Mako smirked. “Well, I-“
Sckht. The whisper of a pair of sharp scissors silenced him. Warmth gushed over J.L.’s hands, and there was a soft thump on the hardwood floor. Mako’s eyes bugged out of his head. His mouth stretched open, a canyon of pain, mocking her, trying to sing the song – her song – so she slammed the twin blades into the back of his throat. He stumbled backwards against the wall, the handles of the scissors sprouting from his face, his hands weakly clawing at his chin as if he had forgotten where his mouth was. He was still singing as he sank to his knees, so J.L. reached out and took back her scissors, then plunged them into the soft meat of his neck again and again and again…
J.L. sat in the bike lane at 19th and 9th, one of Mako’s cigarettes trembling on her lower lip. It had been three days since she had left his dead and dismembered body strewn about her apartment. She hadn’t bathed. She hadn’t slept. She hadn’t had anything to eat or drink. All she had done was open her heart up to the song and allow it to fill her with its sweet promises.
The cigarette tumbled from her mouth. It was time. J.L. stood, her joints complaining, her shorts stuck to the sweat, dirt, blood, and other bodily fluids that caked her thighs. How many times had she soiled herself over the past few days? Three? Four? It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter because it was the end, and the beginning.
She had come through so much to get here. The heat. The fear. That boy who had wanted to steal the song for himself. She had been through so much, but now she knew what lay beyond Babel – what lay beyond this city where nobody could see any of its open-faced horrors or hidden beauties. The singer had shown J.L. everything. He told her that she was ready – ready to join the beautiful beyond, to become one with the sweet song of the Babel beyond this one. J.L. was ready. He had told her so. She was ready. It was time.
She walked into the oncoming traffic, arms outstretched, and met the Number 17 bus head-on. The song rose to a crescendo inside her heart as she twirled through the air, bouncing between a pair of taxis before hitting the asphalt. From the ground, J.L. could see the bare feet of the singer, his toes curled over the curb, his nails yellow, thick, and cracked. They were the last things she saw before the doubled wheels of the Number 17 crushed her head against the pavement.
J.L. turned away from the twitching body that had once been hers, ready to look upon the paradise that the song had promised her. Instead, she saw something else. Something red. Something pulsing and burning. She tried to scream, but blood exploded from her mouth. She tried to flee, but her legs pulled her forward to join the rest of them.
And just like the rest of them, Jordan Leigh began to sing.
Copyright © 2013, William R. Spear. All rights reserved.