Enjoyed this piece? Buy the book!
Print and eBook formats available.
AFTER THE ENTIRE wait staff of the 99 Bar and Grill sang “Happy Birthday” and brought out a chocolate cake with vanilla frosting and “April-girl” scrawled in blue across the top, and after April and Mona made a go for it and ate nearly half and finished their second round of strawberry margaritas; after all that, Mona pulled a trim white envelope out of her purse, slapped it down and slid it across the table. April bit her lip and dug one eggshell blue nail up under the flap, drew it across, and pulled out two crisp white tickets: Moldova National Orchestra, conducted by Michael Broubone. Friday. Doors at seven o’clock. Boston Symphony Hall.
Dread like fingers of a clumsy pickpocket worked into her heart. “Mona, you really shouldn’t have.”
Mona clapped her hands, louder than April would have liked. Most things were louder than April would have liked. “April-girl, you thought I wasn’t going to get you something? Look, I was just thinking how we’ve known each other seventeen years now, and we’ve never been to the symphony. I mean, the two of us up in the nose-bleed seats and a real symphony and everything.”
“Seventeen years,” April repeated. Since the second week of high school. Mona was the one who kept count, always invoked the longevity of their friendship. “I had no idea you liked classical music.”
“You know, it was Kevin turned me on to classical. I’ve been listening to it when I go to the gym. And ya know what? It works.” Mona laughed, throwing her head back and slapping her thigh. April saw a pair of pale guys at the bar behind her turn their heads at the sound. “At first I said, ‘Honey, that is white people music.’ Kevin was rippin mad. How you like it?”
April shrugged. “It’s music.”
“I like ‘Pachabel’.” Mona shivered like she was on intimate terms with the guy. “Anyway, I guess you’ll be hearing more of it if Kevin moves in.”
April smiled. “Thank you so much, Mona.” She remembered the first time she saw the monsters, like bruises coming out of the ceiling. It had been at another birthday party. She was six, an age when you can still scream and scream and your young elastic vocal chords won’t get tired.
She glanced at the ceiling. The waitresses’ half-hearted “Happy Birthday” had drawn only one of the creatures. Sleek and black and eel-like, twisting above them. Almost playfully. April bit her lip and looked down at the tickets and felt no relief.
They got the cake boxed up to go and went home. A second-floor apartment off Main Street. April had to shuffle around Mona’s Indian leftovers to make room for the cake. They both had work the next day, went to bed early. But first Mona nearly crushed April’s windpipe, both arms around her neck. “Happy twenty-nine, April-girl. You know what? You’re still my bestie.”
April went to her room and shut the door and cried quietly for a time. Checked her phone: three messages, all from her mother, which she deleted with quick, precise motions of her thumbs, like she was angrily squashing intrusive bugs.
She opened up her laptop—nearly three years old, almost beyond its warranty—and went online to look up Michael Broubone. She knew the name, actually; he wasn’t just a conductor but a cello player and composer. Frequently collaborated with pop musicians. An international treasure. One of those modern-day do-it-alls. Like Yanni, only older and Moldavian. You heard him in elevators and yoga classes. Did the score for a blockbuster drama last year starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
April didn’t mind music in and of itself; she could listen to recordings, she owned an iPod. As a child she’d learned the monsters only came out for live performances. She could enjoy music at home, and she did now, falling down the YouTube rabbit hole, jumping between clips of Broubone as a young man playing cello on the street, more recently looking like a grey-haired statesman in a double-breasted suit gesticulating before other rich white people. He used his whole body, shaking and jiving and whirling around. April wondered how he could summon that kind of emotion after so many years with music—much of it probably the same. She wondered if he was faking it. She sometimes wondered if Mona was faking her enthusiasm for their friendship after so long. But that was ridiculous; between the two of them it was April who faked—not her love of Mona exactly, but her poise, her calm. She even fooled herself, sometimes, into forgetting how she envied Mona. Her best friend, her roommate, her constant. April envied Mona her smile, her apparent uncompromised simplicity, her ignorance of monsters.
April envied Broubone too; if he wasn’t faking it, then he was more moved by his music than April had ever been moved in her life. It was like he could hear more than was there, like the symphonies’ fabric sprang up from the musicians and painted a vast mosaic in the air above…
The thought came to her suddenly, clearly, cutting through the pre-sleep funk that settled over April when she surfed the net before bed: He sees them too.
It was a thought she had not had in a long time, and a dangerous one. She had searched for someone else like her when she was younger. It had taken nearly a decade of on-and-off therapy to train her out of it, a few years more to learn to avoid rock shows and open mic nights and not to date musicians—though, of course, there are other good reasons not to date musicians. She’d wanted to find someone else; it was so lonely, being the one who saw the world’s invisible monsters.
Lonely. Mona was talking more and more often about her boy Kevin moving in. Unprecedented commitment for her, even Mona was quick to admit, but she might have found a man she could keep around for a spell. April and Mona’s lease was up at the end of August, two months away. April had started looking at studio apartments, could afford to live alone, avoided the topic, not sure why she would abandon Mona if it meant escaping life with a couple. Mona imagined the three of them all living together in another two-bedroom. April couldn’t fathom it.
Gently closing her laptop, April made a decision. It was not a decision to go looking for others like herself; she had sworn that off long ago. She had slunk through message boards and conspiracy websites, actually met with several people during college, and all of them were truly crazy. They had been abducted by aliens or encountered Bigfoot or their parents were shape-shifters. And they all wanted April’s help—overthrowing the government or starting a ’zine that was really going to shake things up—when all she wanted was someone who understood. But the decision to seek out Michael Broubone was easy to make, because when she watched videos of him conducting, eyes scanning the seemingly empty ceiling above, she was certain she had already found someone else, completely by accident. At last, at last.
April put the tickets on her nightstand and flopped into bed, and for the second time on her twenty-ninth birthday she sobbed quietly and hoped Mona could not hear.
April had friends who weren’t Mona, once. She did not think about them, avoided them when possible.
At work she was the token black girl, fundraising for Clark University. She was in charge of “planned giving”; she talked old alums into writing Clark into their wills, helped organize class reunions for people who graduated before she was ever born. It made up a surprising amount of Clark’s income, but you wouldn’t know it from the way they spoke to her in the office. Lisa, a short Korean woman who organized the arts council, suffered from the delusion that entrance fees from student events added up over time. Then again, Lisa also assumed that black girls from Worcester, Massachusetts were from Main South, two blocks in the wrong direction from the university—April grew up beyond 290, the top floor of a triple-decker in view of Saint Vincent’s Hospital; the smell of baking pizza blew in through her window every night; as an adult, she couldn’t eat the stuff, it tasted so much like terrified childhood. Lunchtime they got burritos from Sam’s and walked around “Dead Hooker Pond” no matter how many times April pointed out that it had a real name, and there was no telling whether the poor woman who got knifed there last year was, in fact, a working girl.
The first full day of her twenty-ninth year on the planet was much like the last day of her twenty-eighth. A quick shower. Mona was up early, reading her blogs before she left for the pharmacy, a fresh pot of coffee on the table next to her. April drank half a mug on her way out the door; she thought coffee at work was giving her the jitters, had to cut down. Less than a mile away, but a twenty-minute commute. Saw herself in the glass as she closed the door, grimaced at her hair. This heat. Down at the desk, checked the calendar. Class of ’63 was having their reunion soon. She had to call around to make sure the Gladwell Hall was open, had to make sure there would be enough booze to keep the old folks happy. April imagined ’63 was going to go through a whole lot of booze, a lot of cocktails, accepted that this idea probably came from nostalgic advertisements in magazines and rolled with it.
For lunch, April was supposed to meet Mr. Leonard Claremont at Leo’s Restaurant, one of several upscale Italian places behind St. Anna’s Chapel downtown. On her way from the office to her car, she passed a young white girl with gnarled dreadlocks, barefoot and picking a banjo in the center of campus, singing in a voice much deeper than you’d expect from a kid her size. Probably a break between summer classes. Practically yodeling. Something about missing her baby, who had gone west to work on the railroads. Honey, how much does a little thing like you with parents paying her way through college know about the blues? About loneliness? About the freaking railroad?
These bitter thoughts helped April ignore the girl, ignore her music, ignore the things shuffling around the trees above her. One the shape of a manta ray—a common type April recognized. A few more, like egg-plant colored lobsters scuttling backwards through the air. Most of the music-appreciation society—as April sometimes thought of the monsters—looked like this, like stretched-out sea creatures. But they moved with a disturbingly avian quality April recognized from red-tailed hawks; they took a joy in their purposelessness, like hawks riding the thermals just for the hell of it. It made her skin crawl.
In her car, April tuned the radio to NPR and cranked the volume all the way up. Listened to the talk without hearing any of the words, basking in the casual atonal monotony of it. White people crap.
Leonard Claremont was already in a booth at Leo’s, drinking a highball and picking his nose. He was one of those old guys you could tell sprouted hair out his ears and asscrack and paid to have it removed. Owned several baseball teams out west, according to April’s notes on him; April wondered who he rooted for when they went up against each other. Picked Leo’s either because he and the restaurant had the same name or because they kept the lights low in the daytime and groped their girls during the hiring process to make sure they knew how to make tips.
“You’re not how I pictured you on the phone.” First words out of the guy’s mouth.
April sat down. Planted her purse, crossed her legs. “How do you do, Mister Claremont?”
“I just thought… well, you understand.” She did. He showed his teeth and his eroded gums. “I’m swell, honey. I’m swell.”
They talked about nothing for a while, April knowing not to rush the subject of his mortality and the several million dollars he might leave to Clark, if he so chose. If she could convince him it would do some good in this world, send him off to the grave with a slightly lighter conscience, and not just provide a supposedly vapid, entitled generation an even greater sense of entitlement. Entitled. It was a word that came up more and more often in April’s phone calls, and she was getting sick of it.
Claremont at least gave April a good segue into business by bringing up Clark first, over the salads. He said he was disappointed Clark’s men’s basketball team had failed to win a championship since he’d been forward guard. “Which is surprising, since the school’s a lot more inclusive since my time. Some people have natural gifts. You understand.” Yes, she did.
Before she could mention that the sports program in particular was looking for additional funding and could really benefit local kids from Main South, still a large part of the student body—especially from underprivileged groups, if you wanted to get all white savior about it, Mr. Claremont—the piano started up. She had missed it, tucked away in the corner with a bunch of unlit candles camped along the top. Mopey-looking white kid in a white shirt with a black tie half-tied beneath his sweat-stained collar tinkling out some syrupy jazz standard, something April recognized but couldn’t put a name to. If she had to name it herself she’d call it “Unearned Sympathy,” something like that.
She watched the corner of the ceiling as the kid played. It turned black, seemed to sink and deepen. April felt the back of her neck grow cool. She learned early on that other people couldn’t see the creatures, but it amazed her that no one at least felt the sense of displacement when they came into a room, like opening a door on an airplane.
One slipped through, a small shadowy catfish, big whiskers trailing off its front. Several more. Then another, then a dozen. The mopey jazz guy was laying it on gentle, but then it wasn’t always volume that drew them in. It helped, though. She forced herself to go see Aerosmith in high school because it was a boyfriend’s favorite band and he seemed like a good bet. Outdoors at Foxboro stadium. They’d blocked out the sky. Here in the restaurant, they poured through the dark corner. One that looked like no creature April recognized, something like a dozen tubes all tied together in a knot, skimmed along the floor, beneath the piano, and came up revolving in the air directly above the pianist.
Illustration by Paul Pederson
“April? April?” Mr. Claremont was calling her name. She always gave them her first name; she hated giving them her first name.
“Yes. Sorry. Distracted for a moment.”
He grinned without warmth and flicked one withered hand in a meaningless gesture. “I hope I’m not boring you. I find that an investment—well, a donation; I’m more used to investments—but a sum of money like we were discussing usually does a better job holding people’s attention.”
“I’m very sorry,” said April.
“Especially your sorts of people. You understand.”
“My kind of people,” she said. “Fundraisers?”
He blinked, displeased.
She wanted to tell him that she saw nightmare creatures that came through little tears in the universe and danced perversely, gaily around instruments and people and she suspected they could kill you easy as anything. She had only ever touched them once or twice, had gone numb all over, felt like she was going to have a heart attack though half her diet was Kashi breakfast cereal. She wondered what would happen if she walked to the piano, snatched the big tube creature out of the air, and put it on Mr. Claremont’s head. Because she had lost this one, knew she’d failed to win over this old man who had more money than he could ever spend even if he didn’t have the imagination of a small, self-satisfied man who made his fortune in the eighties for Chrissakes, when anybody could do it—which is to say, no imagination at all.
At least Claremont picked up the lunch. April couldn’t help herself, she peeked at the check and almost laughed to see he had tipped two dollars and fifty cents. She tried to do the math, came up with something like .03%. She felt so alone. She hoped Michael Broubone, Moldova’s gift to the musical world, was not a cheapskate; she hoped he was real people. She hoped he felt lonely too.
April could keep on living with Mona, maybe all their lives. And she imagined she could get on with Kevin; she liked Kevin, he was quiet. But April couldn’t live with Mona and Kevin in much the same way she didn’t see live chamber music or go swing dancing to a live band, a hobby Mona herself enjoyed for about two years. Not that she saw monsters when Mona and Kevin were canoodling on the couch and eating French toast for supper watching his boxed set of The West Wing, but it gave her a similarly upsetting feeling. It made her think of all the time she wasted. When she was younger.
She and Mona sort-of-shared a bulky Puerto Rican kid named Joseph. His parents called him Joe, but only his parents. He sang and played the ukulele like it was a real instrument, and he pulled it off. This was junior year of high school, during a five-year phase April internalized as her “denial period.” She had lied her way out of therapy and returned to life, never turning down an invitation to a basement concert or somebody’s backyard barbecue where older brothers and cousins dragged out fat-bodied guitars and played their father’s mamba music mostly in tune. She was getting straight As, except in Trig where she managed only a B-minus; Joseph failed everything but American History. She liked that. They always did it at his place, and he would hold her to him after like he was afraid she’d float away. They would lay in bed and she would try not to think of homework, draped over him, watching the ceiling to see if one of his hummed tunes drew a monster through. She convinced herself she was no longer going to fear them.
“You two real tight,” Mona observed one day. Backstage in the auditorium. April had done tech for the school’s production of Fiddler on the Roof; Mona was part of the chorus. Tevye was hollering “If I Were A Rich Man” for the thousandth time on stage.
“He’s good to me,” April said. “Aside from you, not a lot of people are.” One of their friends, Francis, had actually told her that guys like pretty girls not to be too talkative, but not to be quite so quiet, either. She figured out later he’d thought he was flirting.
“Yeah,” Mona said slowly. She wasn’t herself: hands normally like startled moths gone quiet by her sides. “Joseph’s a good guy. He’s good to me, too.”
April couldn’t explain now why she had not felt angrier with her friend, more betrayed. Why she was willing to share the boy. Maybe it was because she thought he was on to her; he’d caught her staring into corners, hugging herself during school recitals, said she looked “distracted” when he sang to her. Already on borrowed time.
Sometimes all three hung out together, talked rarely if at all about sex, and only broke it off when Joseph worked up the courage to actually propose a threesome. They were half-stoned in his parents living room. Mona drew off a blunt and arced an eye at April. April called Joseph a pig and got ready to leave. Mona hesitated just a second, then took her friend’s cue, repeated the pig part, and left with April. Mona was loyal in her own way, probably never saw it as stealing.
April did not date particularly nice guys after that. College saw the occasional lay with some semi-intellectual white guy who pretended to read Proust and Nietzsche and enjoy it, the kind who clearly congratulated themselves on sleeping with someone they assumed was from the ’hood; or else a blitzed-out member of the failing Clark basketball team, a guy who wouldn’t remember her and wouldn’t get recruited and wouldn’t move out of Worcester. Not that she was likely to move out of Worcester herself now.
College was when April stopped calling her mom, too. Happened while she was writing her thesis. The slow deterioration of her circle of friends was slower but just as certain. Cindi moved to Boston and got a job bartending; Mona visited her once, said she was doing good, and April didn’t care. Carlos tried to make a go being a mechanic, got caught stealing an Audi and went to one of New England’s only maximum security prisons, down in Connecticut. Most of them April didn’t know what happened to. Emails at the very bottom of her inbox over four years old, no little purple arrow showing she had replied.
This didn’t have anything to do with the monsters. April had that under control. Background music to her life. A roiling black mass over the outdoor concert series at Elm Park; Mona loved to go listen to the local boys, and April brought a book.
The thing that still got April down was the way Mona knew her better than anyone and thought she was all better, had been for years. Believed April’s lies. Fooled like everybody else when April said she knew they were hallucinations, the medications were working, she wanted to move on. Was comfortable giving April tickets to a concert for her birthday, because all of that therapy crap was ancient history. She never even asked if April was okay that Friday night, just started talking wardrobe as soon as April was in the door.
“April-girl,” said Mona, “we haven’t been shopping in ages. “That’s what I should have got you for your birthday, a gift certificate or something. Gonna drag you down to the Greendale. Get some club clothes.”
April did smile at that. “I’m not sure we should be perusing Forever 21 for something to wear to the symphony.”
Mona rolled her eyes. “Look, this girl’s taken and all, but that don’t mean I can’t strut it. Turn some heads. Probably make those old fiddlers pass out, they ain’t seen nothing like this. You and me, show them what’s what.”
Mona drove. Coming off Storrow Drive, past Boston University. Lost downtown for a minute, fat grey clouds overhead. Traffic was hellish, the distant wail of a four-alarm fire someplace and the more immediate call-and-response of discordant horns. Massachusetts Avenue, they lucked out and found a parking meter. “Strutted,” as Mona said, to Boston Symphony Hall, stoic and German in its brick, steel, and plaster.
Inside, only a few glances their way. Bar service outside the auditorium. A tall old white woman with hair in a coil above her head asked Mona for help finding her seat and Mona told her she better ask somebody who works here, bitch. After that, they both needed a drink.
“You have red wine?” Mona asked a pimply girl in a black men’s vest.
“I’ll take two larges.” Mona held up two fingers and smiled.
“They only come in one size, ma’am.”
“Don’t ma’am me, baby. And I know they only come in one size. Just thought I’d try and save myself the trouble buying seconds in a minute or two.” Mona showed her teeth; April loved her and wished she didn’t.
April glanced around. A tall man in a tux who looked like he was auditioning for the next James Bond was frowning at them, a skinny blonde on his arm whispering in his ear. “Mona,” April whispered. “C’mon, people are staring.”
“Can’t say I blame ’em,” she said.
All the same, April matched her, and they returned to the bar for seconds before the musicians were even done tuning up.
They rented those little opera glasses, feeling like explorers, bird watchers, voyeurs. From their balcony seats, April scanned their section, turning her entire self from the waist up to gauge their surroundings. A man with a grizzled mountaineer’s beard and an immaculate gray suit eyed her nervously from the seat next to her, but the crowd at large seemed at ease in a self-satisfied, geriatric sort of way. Seas of ticket-holders and regulars, members, and some students from Berklee. The mountain-man next to her kept twitching in his seat.
She could sympathize. Shivers ran up and down her arms, and not the pleasant kind. April gradually felt a weight form in her throat, a hard metallic feeling just beneath the surface of her skin begging her to scratch at it, as if she were wearing jewelry which had somehow wound its way into her neck and was now leeching her life, a parasitic entity slowly constricting her windpipe.
Mona looked at her once, smiled, went back to the program.
April gripped the soft, smooth arm of her chair. It was warm like flesh in her hand.
Michael Broubone took to the stage. The low scratch and moan of tuning instruments fell abruptly silent.
Even from a distance, April could see Broubone’s shock of salt-and-pepper hair brushed straight back and frozen that way, a sloping cascade that touched his shoulder blades. His face was perfectly clean-shaven, immaculate, nearly prepubescent were it not for the harsh Old World rigidity of the chin. She held her breath and studied him through the glasses.
“I’m so excited,” Mona whispered.
April studied the foreign face, dark but untanned, the rigid chin, the wide though not unpleasant expanse of forehead, the lionlike tidal wave of hair. When Broubone turned to look at the audience, April could see the brown intensity of the conductor’s eyes gleaming out from stately eyebrows, heavy and full as rain clouds. He raised his hands in welcome to the hall, palms up, like a dissenting prophet comforting his unquiet crowd while the authorities battered down the doors.
“They can’t hurt us now,” he seemed to say to April. “Not with God on our side.”
The bows swept up and hovered patiently over every violin, viola and cello—all else aside, April loved the cello best. The look and feel of the full-bodied instrument was like a warm blanket, full of something slumbering heavy and powerful. It was old and stately, it looked utterly unlike youth. It did not remind her of backyard picnics or prescription meds or Joseph trying to explain that he loved them both. She pictured cellos all with rosy pink insides, the proper wooden polish simply a cover to mask the blushing pride within.
Broubone moved his arms. The music began. At once, the monsters came.
April saw the first of the things—what they were exactly, it ceased to matter long ago—and was gripped with a burning terror in her chest like she used to know, like she had believed she had outgrown, the painful necklace inside herself expanding and contracting with sudden rapidity, the wild curve of the instruments and the slope of the floor below, the hundreds of murmuring people in their suits and dresses arranged for some unspeakable sacrifice slowly dropping away into an abysmal otherworld.
She saw the strange flying monsters that came out to dance above the music. She saw their awful writhing, their enjoyment. That was the worst part: despite their appearance, even the ones that were completely alien were enjoying the music. April thought someone better might have felt reassured that there is life people neither see nor understand but with which we share music, like a universal language; she was merely unsettled, like when serial killers find hidden meaning in pop music. Charles Manson and The Beatles.
Tonight they looked something like stingrays April had seen in magazines, yet they were more elastic, less defined; one would seem to have no mouth on its underside in one moment and a gaping hole lined with independently waving feelers and cruel, curving teeth the next. They stretched as they moved, flying above the stage the way snakes move across the sand, apparently elongating in one direction, then curving back on themselves, returning to the form of a skate. Some swooped near the walls, hugging them with undulating fins or wings and tearing away to sail independently above the oblivious orchestra’s heads.
There must have been at least a hundred of them, more than she had ever seen in one place. She found it hard to blink, even when her eyes began to water and sting.
How can they miss it? she wondered for the thousandth-thousandth time. How can they fail to see?
But not everyone onstage was unaware of the things’ exotic dance above them. Calm and ceremonious, Broubone was straight-backed and commanding on his podium, forcefully steering the orchestra through the piece—April had been too nervous to check the program, and frankly didn’t care—with powerful slashes, sweeps, and stabs of his baton. But April could see that his cascade of silvery-black hair had fallen further down his back. She could see the tip of his nose, and even the shine of his forehead’s crest when he bent back just a touch too far.
He sees them, she reminded herself. He sees them, too.
The more April watched the conductor, the more she was certain of this. Occasionally, his entire frame would seem to follow one of the larger creatures, his head swiveling around to catch a glimpse of a car-sized, manta-like beast as it somersaulted over the stage and across the barely-visible audience. And though his back was to April, she was sure Broubone was smiling. She was taken by a sudden sense of kinship with the conductor—growing up was difficult in its own right without second-guessing her own sanity and, once sure of that, feeling isolated in the belief that she alone could see… those things. She imagined him leading her by the elbow into his favorite café—he was the kind of man who had a favorite café in every city. Two espresso, please. One for myself and one for my young friend here. Thank you, Jacqueline.
Finally, she tore her eyes away from the stage, feeling the thin layer of salty sweat that had collected on her neck and arms ripple and shimmer, much like the aerial monsters themselves. She had to remember to breathe.
Mona stage-whispered, “We should have done this earlier.”
April nodded. I should have done this, she thought. I should have done this long ago.
No one clapped louder than Mona. She was the kind of person who applauded street musicians, who yelled in agreement when somebody gave a good wedding speech. After Broubone and the orchestra took their bows and started drinking water and began drifting from the stage, Mona was animated, but in no hurry to leave. Downstairs, back in the foyer, she turned in a circle and said, “Wonderful! That was wonderful. April-girl, you had a good time?”
April smiled; she didn’t have to fake it. “It was definitely something else.”
“Ya know what? Let’s get a drink some place.”
April thought of Joseph’s big arms around her while she watched the monster on his ceiling. She thought of Leonard Claremont’s million dollars lost. She looked at her best friend and wondered how she could tell Mona she didn’t want to live with her and her loud white boyfriend Kevin.
“Sure,” said April. “I need to go to the bathroom first. I might be a minute.”
“Ah.” Mona smiled. “Know what? I’m not going anywhere.”
April pushed through the line outside the ladies’ room. She flung open the heavy double doors to the lower seating and strode up the aisle. She ignored the red-vested young man who asked if she needed help finding anything. Mona had talked her into borrowing some of her heels, inch-and-a-half and red. She took these off when she got to the front of the auditorium and hopped into the musician’s pit and scrambled onto the stage. A pair of rosy-cheeked, paunchy violinists, possibly brothers, smiled and approached her with their hands out; she ignored them too, turned to a young woman zipping cymbals into a canvas carry case and said, “I would like to speak with Michael Broubone.”
The woman looked at April’s bare feet. “Michael is on his way back to the hotel …”
“Which way, please?”
The young woman raised an arm, pointing to stage left.
The red-cheeked brothers were almost on her, asking if she was feeling okay, if she needed help. April knew from personal experience that people ask if you need help when they think you’re crazy. She was already walking quickly—not running, that could set them off—away. She found an unmarked metal door and passed into a stairwell utterly at odds with the grandeur of the hall. Cold concrete and sickly green walls. She went down two flights of stairs, passed a man in a ball cap carrying a big blue light, exited into a parking garage. Dead ahead, she could go up a ramp where all the cars were. To her right a sign: EASTERN PICK UP / DROP OFF.
A bruise-colored shape flashed in front of her. She ducked, arms over her head, and looked up. One of the manta-shaped monsters, but smaller. Big bugged-out eyes, just darker tennis ball orbs on top of its flat body. It made a sound—the first sound she’d ever heard from the creatures. Like a kitten’s mewl heard through a long metal tube. Then it turned in the air and went to the Pick Up / Drop Off.
Now April ran.
She followed the creature’s lashing black tail under several arches, past an attendant’s kiosk, and onto a pale concrete platform the shape of a crescent moon, still beneath the second level of the parking garage. Between where the overhang ended and the brick apartments across the street, rain and the warm glow of streetlamps trickled down in equal measure.
Michael Broubone was standing on the edge of the platform. One hand in his pocket, one holding a little black cigarette to the side of his face. The monster performed a tight loop-the-loop, did a circuit around the conductor’s ankles, and disappeared through a shadowy disturbance in the floor. Water down the drain.
April felt suddenly breathless, though she had not run far. The first thing you need to get rid of when convincing yourself you’re sane, she had found, is your curiosity. To wonder about a thing is to give it power, letting it lease space in your mind. Now she could wonder, because there were answers in her reach. What did this man know?
“Mr. Broubone?” she said. “Sir?”
He turned around, gave her the up-and-down, and smiled. Not lasciviously, but not exactly neutral either. Broubone was poised like an old lion but there was nothing grandfatherly in his manner; this was a lion who still believed his best meals ahead of him. “How can I help you, miz?”
“I, ah, I loved the show.”
“Thank you.” He made a little circular gesture with his cigarette and performed a self-deprecatory half-bow. “It is good to see that beautiful young women still enjoy Hector Berlioz. Sometimes I think it is only the, ah, the matrons that like such music. Matrons?” He smiled, unsure of himself. “I’m trying to be polite. I’m sorry, it doesn’t suit me. Your name was?”
“April.” He took his free hand out of his pocket and extended it to her. They shook. His hand was cool and dry. “Would you like my autograph?”
“I … I don’t have my program.” April felt cold all over. Maybe it was because she wasn’t wearing her shoes, and the temperature outside had certainly dropped. Cool for August. Gentle rains, autumn rains.
“It’s okay, I have an extra or two. I like to send them to my nieces, so they know all the places I’ve been and all the trouble I’m getting into.” He made a great show of flicking his cigarette on the ground and stamping it, then fishing around in his black sports jacket. When had he found time to change? “Drives my sister batty. They’re always asking to come on my ‘adventures.’ I tell her, let them stay with me for a while. She says they have school. School! Like I can’t get them a tutor. Education.”
“Well, some people think it’s important for children to be around other kids their own age.” April was sure why she was saying it when all she wanted was to shout that she saw the monsters, too. But he hadn’t responded to the little one at his feet. Had he missed it? “Social learning,” she whispered.
Broubone smiled and shrugged, like he’d made a lewd joke and realized too late it was inappropriate. “I was very lonely as a boy. Maybe I turned out all right, you think?” He grinned.
“Me, too.” She’d been keeping her cool, but now desperation like a falling chandelier threatened to crush her. “As a child, I … my friends …”
“Here!” Broubone drew out a glossy program from inside his jacket, followed by a thick black marker. Both looked very new. “Who am I making it out to? Here. To my good friend, April.” He squinted at the program as though every letter took him great effort.
April opened her mouth, but something broke in her then, and the words came out neither desperate nor hopeful but in a mad rush. “I see monsters, dark monsters that dance above the music. I always have. They tried to tell me I was crazy, but I know I’m not and I know you see them, too. When you’re performing. It’s only live music, it draws them out from some other world, I don’t know how. But maybe you do. Maybe …” She had a Mona-like moment where she could only speak with her hands, fingers spread and shaking.
Broubone had become very still, his playful mouth gone hard. “Do you play, April?”
A second before she realized he meant an instrument. “No.”
“Maybe you sing.”
“No, I don’t. I never wanted to … I see these things …”
Michael Broubone nodded solemnly. He lifted one of her hands and pressed the program between her fingers, closed them around it. “We live in a very strange, very lonely world. Yes? And it is hard to be alone, yes. And sometimes we become stressed and we reach out for any help we can get. We do not always choose who we reach out to, and sometimes we are hurt. Do you believe me? Yes?”
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” said April. The way he was talking, she half expected the man to kill her. A crazy thought, dismissed as soon as it appeared—maybe he’s one of them.
Broubone nodded like she had just agreed with whatever he was getting at. A long black limousine passed through a curtain of rain on its way into the parking lot, speeding so fast April thought it was going to run over both her and the conductor, ruin them. The driver squeeled to a stop behind Bourbone, however. He didn’t get out to open the door for him, just sat there and let the long black car growl at them.
April, again desperate, last ditch: “I need to know if you can see them. Please. Mister, I got a load of questions for you, but just gimme a straight answer for this one, okay? Can you see the monsters that come to the music?”
For the first time Broubone’s roguish smile faltered. “I wish I could do something for you. For all of you, yes? But you will always feel lonely. Even I, with my great big family and hundreds of people all around. I can’t listen to the rain and smoke my cigarillo without somebody asking for a piece of my time, and still I feel it.” He curled his fingers in like he was tweaking someone’s nose, then dug his fingers into the space above his heart, opening his mouth in a phony grimace. “Yes? Yes.”
Michael Broubone smiled again and winked at her, almost sadly, and opened the door to his car and got inside; and as he drew the door shut in his wake April glimpsed that the smile had fallen again he seemed very tired, his lustrous grey hair stiff and fake-looking. Then the door was closed and the car sped into the rain, around the corner, and out of view.
April would have stood there listening to the rain herself, if Mona hadn’t been waiting for her. As much as she did not want to return to her best and only friend, it would be somehow worse to have Mona come searching for her; April would need to invent a reason she was out here, a reason Mona would not believe but pretend that she did out of pity. April could pity herself on her own, thank you. As she turned to go, April realized she was still holding her heels.
As bad as traffic had been coming into the city, it was even worse on the way out. Friday night and in the rain. From what little they could gather from the static-spewing radio, one of the tunnels had sprung a leak. Again. Bumper to bumper from the river to Mass Ave. The pattering music of rain had given way to the continuous hammer of fat drops assaulting the windshield, thunder pealing directly overhead.
Mona took it as a good time to have Real Talk. “April-girl, I gotta ask you straight: are you cool with me and Kevin?”
April was exhausted, half-asleep already. She managed, “You’re good for each other.”
“Oh, he’s good to me. And I’m too good to him, girl.” Mona shook her head. “I’m talking about moving in with the two of us. You keep dodging the question.”
April hadn’t realized she had been evasive; she hadn’t tried to be, not consciously. Now that the issue was forced, she wanted desperately to be alone, opened her mouth to tell Mona this very thing. She was sick to death of living with another woman, almost thirty, who wanted her to go clubbing at Club Universe every Friday and still, still summoned the energy to look disappointed when April said she was too tired. And the truth was, she expected Broubone had been telling her the truth when he said she would always feel alone. He could see them, and, musical genius though he might be, he had been able to escape the awful solicitude brought on by the special sight they shared. He had been her last hope at a true friend, the only other person she’d met who saw the world as it was—full of terrible, dancing monsters. Watching Broubone drive away, delicate hope balanced precariously in the branches of her soul had been shaken, lost its balance, shattered.
“Because I know you independent,” Mona continued. April must have paused too long. “And I know you don’t like seeing couples together. I think sometimes you want to try living alone, and if that’s what you think is best for you, April-girl, I won’t be offended. I want you to know that.”
The thing was, April didn’t want Broubone to be right. She did not want to go through life alone. Hadn’t it meant something that, for the first time in so long, she was willing to put forth some effort into meeting someone? Hadn’t it meant there was another need—neither good nor bad but fundamental to existence, like sleep and eating—that had not been met in April? One that had nothing to do with the terrors she saw dancing in a terrifying whirlwind around every busker she passed?
The bigger question: If anyone else had given April those tickets for her birthday, would she have bothered to come to the symphony? To brave the monsters she knew she would see?
“I don’t know,” April said slowly, “but I think you’re good to me, too. I think we’re good for each other. I need some time to think about it.”
Mona beamed. “That’s fine then.”
They were inching steadily towards an intersection. To get back towards the river, Mona would have to take a quick U-turn and cut away from Boston University, which was a nightmare of traffic and pedestrian-crossings. Just as the light turned green, a classic limousine hopped the curb behind them, horn blaring, and squealed ahead of the pack, eliciting even more angry honks. It was cacophonous.
April caught a glimpse, just a glimpse, but she was sure Michael Broubone was in the backseat. He was holding a very small coffee cup between the forefinger and thumb of one hand, while the other stroked a bruise-shaped creature hovering just over his left shoulder, wriggling limply and with obvious pleasure at the conductor’s touch. April did not have time to wonder if Broubone felt the same cold sensation she did when she touched the creatures, or why he had been so cryptic with her. She wondered instead if the old man knew that particular beast by name, if he was friends with the creature, if they wanted to be seen as badly as April wished she could not see them.
Enjoyed this selection from Volume IV? Read more now, or go buy the book, or become a sponsor!
About the Author
PETER MEDEIROS is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Emerson College, where he also teaches composition. His short fiction has previously appeared in Gargoyle and MidApril magazines and the horror anthology Dark Things II. His fantasy novella “Deeply Gravely Quite Anxiously Concerned” was published by Torquere Press in 2011.
Hi! I got the chance to read this story as a thank you for submitting to “Contest Six.” Of the three offered us, though, I only read all the way through Peter Medeiros (2014)’s “Silence Like a Falling Chandelier.” Of course, once I saw the question “Enjoyed this excerpt?,” I’m no longer certain if the writer meant to end ambiguously. For those interested, these are the strengths that made it work for me: It reads well (I think the third person POV helps with this, as the other two were first person), while the supernatural storyline makes a great contrast with the realism of the setting and dialogue (I like that she isn’t crazy – or if she is, I didn’t accept it). My thoughts, anyway! 🙂
To clarify: this is an excerpt from the anthology, not an excerpt of the work; “Silence Like a Falling Chandelier” is presented here in its entirety. I may change the wording on the web site to remove the confusion, since a couple of people have wondered the same thing.
Thanks for your comments, though! I’m glad you liked this one; I’m a fan of third-person storytelling, too, so first-person narration has to be really compelling for me to pick it. I’ll be posting more 3rd-person pieces from Volume IV in the coming weeks.
For details on my choice to include one of the first-person pieces (“Scarlet, Crimson, Red”), see this entry in “Behind the Spark.”
This story presented a lot of the things other editors have rejected stories of mine for: Too much telling instead of showing; sentence fragments and run-ons; beginning sentences with conjunctions; and borrowing credence by citing or referring to other works (Leonardo di Caprio, Hector Berliosz). It was verbose. I was relieved after slogging through to the end. That relief was quelled when I saw it was merely an excerpt. I wasn’t surprised to read the author is in an MFA program. I find such students are invariably the types of student Kurt Vonnegut taught in Iowa, the ones who didn’t learn what he was teaching. The title was amazing. I found the story neither brilliant nor excellent. Perhaps my perception is tainted from listening to those other editors.
To clarify: this is an excerpt from the anthology, not an excerpt of the work; “Silence Like a Falling Chandelier” is presented here in its entirety.
Curtis, that was rude and completely off base. Peter’s story exposes his talent; he has a strong command of language and knows when to break the rules. I say well done.
I’m not sure since when one is only allowed to leave positive feedback online anymore, but I felt much the same -though less sarcastic- as Curtis. While overall, I thought there was a lot of excellent stuff in the story, it read like a writing exercise and might have benefitted from some editing. One thing I wish American authors would start doing is investing a bit more time into basic research when inventing European characters. No self-respecting, world-travelling Moldavian would ever order “two espressos” (and nobody with a college education should, either). Nitpicky? Yes. But as writers, we are expected to pay more attention to detail and nuance.
As far as the ambiguous ending goes, it fits the story. In fact, it is rather de rigueur these days to stick to ambiguous endings, but that’s not really a negative, merely an observation. I did find myself wondering why, after all these many years, April continues to freak out at the ceiling monsters, who have apparently never done anything worse than show up. Any theories?
Vyvienn, I wanted to offer a comment why I think April continues to freak out at the ceiling monsters. Human nature. We tend to harbor unreasonable fear, and it feeds and grows on itself, we forget that we can even consider anything else. We have “pre-judged” it and don’t open it back up to reason until something or someone causes us to finally question it.
April’s still young; I am not, I am old. There are still multitudes of things I am uncovering in myself in this category of “pre-judged,” and have tended to “freak out” for no real cause. I like that the creatures are not only harmless, but require interaction with the music and the creator of the music, and April is now open to that rather than shutting herself off. I found his device brilliant and believable!
But then I am by nature naïve, and may be way off course. (Just thought I’d pop this in.)
Pingback: New Artwork Category for Contest Seven | Spark: A Creative Anthology
I read as far as the third simile, then gave up. Just not the quality of writing i expected. To me, this reads more like a first draft than finished work and i think the author would benefit from learning to create more vivid imagery with fewer words.
Pingback: A First Attempt | Journal Of Poems
I got really into reading your piece. There’s a flow of anxiousness and hopelessness and hopefulness that is heartbreaking. I could taste her bitterness and fear. I felt the tiny flicker of light you gave us at the end and appreciated it. It would have been a good piece if you’d left us with her alone, but it wouldn’t have possessed the heartwarming sensation that really made this piece enjoyable. I was so into it that when my phone rang beside me it nearly gave me a heart attack. That’s good writing.
Thank you so much for your kind works, Trave!
Thoroughly enjoyed this! I was drawn into April’s world and wanted to read more about her, the creatures, etc. The piece definitely set a mood, a tone, and created a level of anxiety (similar to that of April) as I read it. Suspenseful, melancholy, and thoughtfully written. The beginnings of a great novel—if the author was so inclined. The artwork by Peterson is exquisite as well.