Episode 236: Beats by Brent C. Smith

Show Notes

 


February is Women in Horror Month, an international, grassroots initiative, which encourages supporters to learn about and showcase the underrepresented work of women in the horror industries. Whether they are on the screen, behind the scenes, or contributing in their other various artistic ways, it is clear that women love, appreciate, and contribute to the horror genre. Check out the hashtag WiHM8 for plenty of suggestions. Or if you have the stomach for stronger fair, our sister show Pseudopod.

You can find all our own Women in Horror episodes here!


Theme music “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


Beats

by Brent Smith

 

“Both his parents got killed in a fire when we were in junior high. He’s been a freak ever since.” Missy Jenkins paused, and I waited, letting her build the drama. Finally she grabbed my shoulder and pulled me so close I could smell her strawberry lip gloss. “I heard he started it.”

David McKee, or “Beats” as he was called in the high school hallways, slouched at a table in the farthest corner of the lunchroom. I’d only been at Ridgefield High for a year and had never talked to him, but I knew his reputation. Everyone did. No one sat near him. That would be social suicide. Even the math whizzes and band geeks hung out one step above the level of high school outcast hell Beats had claimed.

“Now he lives with his grandparents. They’re like a hundred years old. Can you imagine? No wonder he’s so weird.”

I nodded to placate Missy as I studied the target of her gossip, slumped in his plastic cafeteria chair and staring out the wire meshed window. My knuckles whitened on the table’s edge and my teeth ground against one another, but quietly so Missy wouldn’t notice. I understood being embarrassed about where you lived and who you lived with. I’d grown up in that hell, and only a new town and new school had provided the opportunity to escape it. I pulled in a deep breath and forced my muscles to relax. Beats was weak. He needed to develop defenses. He needed to learn to adapt and blend in. Like I had.

Beats leaned his shoulder against cream-painted cinderblocks and surveyed the noisy cafeteria. For a moment our eyes met before he flinched and looked away as if I’d yelled at him. It only reaffirmed my opinion of him–weak.

His gaze dropped to his hands where they splayed on the wooden table. Hesitantly, as if he knew it deepened the gap between him and the other students, but was helpless to prevent it, he started tapping against the wood, slowly at first and then with more vigor. I couldn’t hear the sound from where I sat, but his head tilted to the side as if he were dissecting the rhythms his hands created, as if he too was trying to find meaning in his actions.

This was how he had earned his nickname–Beats. His hands constantly tapped a random beat onto the nearest surface–a table, his legs, or the lockers as he walked down the hallway–his head tilted and his eyes far away as if he struggled to understand what his hands were doing.

I knew I should feel some sympathy for this outsider, this high school pariah, but I didn’t. He earned his outcast status with his odd behavior. You never gave the other kids a reason to separate you from the herd. They’d do that in an instant. I took care never to make any mistake that would cause people like Missy to turn on me, to consider me different. To talk about me and point at me across a crowded lunchroom.

I’d spent my entire childhood hearing people whisper. As my mother lumbered down the grocery store aisle, my small hand engulfed by her sweaty one, I couldn’t help but notice the shaking heads, the snickers, the hushed conversations that always included the word ‘whale,’ or ‘blimp,’ or ‘fat.’ Embarrassment became a constant in my life. I vowed never to be the one people whispered about. I learned to be a chameleon, to blend into my surroundings.

Thinking about my mother filled me with the familiar dark shadow of guilt and depression. I wondered where Beats went to escape all the looks and jeers and wished I had a place where I could disappear. But that’s not how a chameleon worked. It hid in plain sight, not lurking in the shadows, outcast and alone.

I turned to Missy. She’d forgotten Beats and had turned a calculating gaze on Andy Thomas, star defensive lineman of our otherwise mediocre football team. He sat two tables over, his black and yellow letter jacket stretched across his broad shoulders.

“I’m going to come up with a plan to get Andy back,” Missy informed me. I nodded. Andy didn’t stand a chance. Missy was too smart and too determined to have things her way.

I lifted my tray and stood. “I gotta run. I have a presentation in Mrs. Sterling’s class and I need to go over my notes one more time.”

“New Deal.”

“Huh?”

Missy turned her gaze to mine and grinned. “Mention the ‘New Deal.’ Sterling gets all excited if you mention Roosevelt, or the Social Security Act, or the Tennessee Valley Authority. It’s all she’ll remember. Automatic ‘A’.”

“Oh, okay.” I had no idea what she was talking about.

Missy turned her gaze back to Andy Thomas. “We’re gonna be hanging out at Jumbo’s after school. Be there.”

It wasn’t a suggestion, it was a command. I nodded, a chameleon through and through.

 


 

My presentation in Mrs. Sterling’s class bombed. I stammered and stuttered until the class started to giggle and I became painfully aware of the attention I was drawing to myself. I hurriedly wrapped it up earning a scowl from Mrs. Sterling, and scurried back to my seat.

Mrs. Sterling’s voice followed. “What about Roosevelt? I was hoping to hear you tell us a little bit about his accomplishments.” She tsk’ed and wrote something in her notebook as I slumped in my seat, doing my best to give the impression that I didn’t care, trying to fade out of sight. I’m not stupid; I just don’t like having a spotlight on me. Grades were important–my ticket out of this backwater town and dead-end life, but I had to work under the radar. Seeming smarter than the other kids was another way to get dragged down and devoured.

At the last bell, I stuffed my backpack with the books I’d need and joined a group of girls walking the two blocks to Jumbo’s. The local hangout was a rundown one-room burger joint with a worn out juke box and sticky plastic-covered chairs. But it was ours. The only adult I ever saw there, Jumbo I supposed, flipped burgers on the grill behind the counter, taking orders and calling out numbers with the same, annoyed scowl.

The group of us claimed the largest booth by the front window, looking out onto the street, and discussed the hot topics of the day: boys, which teachers sucked the most, the upcoming game and the new routines the cheerleaders were working on.

I picked at my fries and added just enough laughter and conversation to not get noticed. Missy sat next to me, her shoulder to the giant window with a three-foot-high hamburger painted on it. The girls were laughing at Olivia Hart’s impression of Mr. Gambol when Missy nudged me in the side with her elbow. She pointed out the window and nodded once.

Outside, Beats walked by, his hands tapping against his thighs. He seemed completely unaware that we were staring at him from only a few feet away. He didn’t seem to notice anything except the ground just in front of his feet.

“Find out where he goes.”

“Huh?” I raised an eyebrow at Missy.

“His house is back that way.” She pointed in the direction he’d come from. “I want to know where he’s going. What does that freak do when he’s not in school or at home? Maybe he’s got a secret.”

“Why me? I don’t know him.”

“Exactly! He would know something is up if I followed him. But you’re kinda quiet. He probably doesn’t have any idea who you are. Just follow him and find out where he’s going. I’ve got a plan and this might help.” She glanced across the room where Andy Thomas stood at the lone pinball machine.

“I don’t know.”

She leaned over to whisper in my ear. “I see how hard you try to fit in. Do this for me and I’ll help you out. The girls listen to me. If I tell them you’re popular, you’ll be popular.” She paused–Missy was a virtuoso of the dramatic pause–and then she smiled. Not a friendly let’s-have-fun smile, but a predator’s grin, the smile of the biggest shark in the tank. “Just like if I told them not to talk to you, they’d do that too.”

I didn’t want to be popular. Having everyone watching you made it impossible to blend in. But being outcast was worse. I’d underestimated Missy, she knew exactly how to push my buttons. I still felt her threat, hanging in the air between us.

I did my best to not look unhappy. This was my price, certainly better than the one Beats paid. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll follow him and see where he goes.”

I stood and slung my backpack over my shoulder. The other girls ignored me until Missy flashed her most dazzling smile at me and said loud enough to be heard across the table, “Okay, see you tomorrow. Maybe you and I can hang out this weekend.” A down payment. Missy was in complete control of what they thought, and as much as I didn’t want to admit it, I realized she had a hold over me too.

Stepping out the door, I saw Beats turn left a block up the street onto the mountain road. There were two mountains that boxed Ridgefield in against the river like jailers. The road Beats chose moved up the taller of the two, switching back and forth through the pines before it slipped over the side and descended into the next valley and town. There wasn’t much up there. As put out as I felt that I had been given this ‘errand’ by Missy, I was also curious. I followed without getting any closer.

A quarter mile up the road, he turned into the woods. I assumed he probably had some secret clearing or tucked-away spot where he hung out. I reached the path and stepped into the cool shadows beneath the branches. Beats was nowhere in sight, but a narrow trail wound up the mountainside, hidden from the road by the drooping boughs of the pines.

I moved along it, gaining confidence as my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom. No way would I ever find Beats in these woods. I decided to follow it for a ways and promised myself that I would turn around if it petered out. Surely Missy would understand.

I walked for twenty minutes along the slowly ascending trail until it abruptly ended at a heavy-duty chain-link fence. An ominous black and red ‘No Trespassing’ sign hung from the fence at an angle, it’s edges rusted and bent. I’d lost Beats. He must’ve turned off the path at some point. Maybe he’d even watched me walk by and wondered what I was doing out here just like I wondered about him.

I grabbed the fence and peered through. Ahead, the trees ended. I could see open sky beyond. I couldn’t believe it was the edge of the woods–they went on forever in these mountains. I pressed myself against the barrier, trying to get a better look. My foot turned on the edge of a furrow running beneath the fence’s base. The ground there was scuffed as if things had been dragged along it, and the depression just deep enough that someone my size could slither underneath. Or someone Beats’ size.

I shoved my backpack through and belly-crawled after it, climbing to my feet on the other side and brushing off my jeans. Backpack in hand, I stepped into the open space beyond the trees.

Twenty feet in front of me the ground simply ended. I could see, far in the distance, a matching cliff on the other side, as if some giant had taken a bite out of the world.

On a large, flat boulder about five feet from the edge and to the side where I couldn’t see it before, Beats sat cross-legged, facing the cliff, his back to me. His hands smacked against the rock without any rhythm, just random slaps–fast for a while and then slow, frantic before stopping for the space of two breaths and then starting again. Alternating, one on each side of his knees, and then only the right or the left, and then in unison.

I considered backing away and leaving the way I’d come before he noticed me, but this was an opportunity to find out more about Beats. If Missy wanted to know where he went, maybe she’d be even more interested in what he did there, and more importantly why.

I watched him for a few minutes. The hand slapping continued. His head didn’t bob like he imagined music, nor did he ever hum or make any other noise than the slapping.

I began to get bored. I could see him do this in the school cafeteria. It was time to act on my updated plan of finding out what made the school outcast tick, or go home. After all, I’d done what Missy asked. I knew where he went.

I walked as close to the edge of the cliff as I dared and looked down. Far below, dead gray water stagnated in shadow without even a ripple. I realized that this must be an old quarry. Sure enough, now that I knew what to look for, I noticed steep roadways hugging the cliff on the other side, descending until they disappeared into the still lake at the bottom.

Behind me, the tapping stopped.

“What are you doing here?”

I turned. Beats stared at me from his seat on the rock. His dark hair hung limply almost to his eyes and his faded jeans were etched with lines of dirt. His red Radiohead t-shirt hung loosely from his slender shoulders and his eyes were wide with surprise. Or maybe panic. I thought he might get up and run. He glanced over his shoulder as if expecting more people to emerge from the woods.

I lied. “I come here sometimes.”

“I’ve never seen you here.”

“Yeah, well, I’ve never seen you here either. Besides, I don’t come that often. It’s too far.”

He shrugged and stared down into his lap. I found another boulder, farther from the edge, safer, to sit on. I pulled my English book from my backpack and opened it to a random page, pretending to study. I let my hair fall down around my face so that I could watch Beats through the strands. He still sat with his back to me, but no longer tapping his hands. He kept glancing to his right as if looking at something along the cliff edge, but I knew that he was trying to watch me from the corner of his eye.

After a while, his hands moved again. First a single finger thumping against his knee, then two fingers, and then his palm. Pretty soon his other hand joined in.

“Why do you do that?” My question brought an immediate halt to his movements. He didn’t answer, only shrugged his shoulders so slightly that I couldn’t be sure it was a response. After a few minutes of silence, he unfolded his legs and stood.

“You don’t have to leave on my account,” I told him. “I don’t care if you do that thing you do. It doesn’t make any difference to me.”

He turned and stared down at me with his eyebrows furrowed as if he were trying to make a decision.

Finally, I laughed. “Okay, that’s worse than the tapping thing. If you’re just going to stare at me, then yeah, maybe you should go.”

“Sorry,” he muttered. “It’s just that nobody’s ever asked me about it before. I’ve seen you with those other girls, Missy Jenkins and the rest. I figured you’re just trying to mess with me like they do.”

I rolled my eyes. “I’m not them. I don’t know anything about you, and if all you want to do is judge me, then never mind.”

“Sorry,” he mumbled again. Another long pause. “Anyways, you wouldn’t understand.”

“Can’t know if you don’t try.” I flipped my hair back and tried to project an I-don’t-care attitude. “Besides, it’s not like I’m going to advertise the fact that I was hanging out at the end of the world with the infamous Beats.”

He flinched at his nickname, but he folded his legs back into a sitting position, facing me this time. “I know things about you.”

I laughed. “You don’t know anything about me. No one does.”

“I know your mother is dead.”

“Who told you that?” Even as I asked, I reasoned that he only knew she was dead, not how she died.

“You wouldn’t understand.”

My teeth were clenched and I badly wanted to reach over and punch Beats in his freckled face. I blurted the first thing that came into my head. “I know your mom is dead too. Burned.”

His face paled. I had an instant of realization that I was seeing the same reaction that he had just seen in me. It occurred to me that I might’ve made him as angry as he’d made me. I looked out over the cliff, trying not to think about how far down the dead, gray water was, or how empty these woods were. I glanced back at Beats, but he still stood there, his mouth gaping as if he’d forgotten how to breathe.

I drew in a deep breath of my own. “Missy told me. Sorry. You just upset me talking about my mother.”

He didn’t say anything, but slowly his face regained its color.

“What happened?” I finally asked, concern creeping into my voice unsought.

He pulled a weed out of the ground and rolled it between his fingers. “I was smoking.” He kept his head down, studying the stalk in his hands. “A cigarette that someone gave me at school. It was late because I waited until my parents were asleep before I lit it.” The words tumbled from him faster and faster. “I was sitting on my desk by my bedroom window, you know, so they wouldn’t smell the smoke, and I fell asleep.” He looked up at me and I saw that he struggled to hold back tears. “I must’ve dropped it in my trashcan. When I woke up, there was smoke everywhere and lots of fire. I crawled out the window onto the roof to jump down to the ground, but I slipped and hit my head on the front walk. When I woke up, the whole house was on fire.”

“Your parents couldn’t get out?”

He shook his head. “The firemen said that they died from the smoke. They never even got out of bed.”

I said, “Wow, that sucks.” But I thought, at least you didn’t do it on purpose. The familiar wash of guilt surged through me at the thought of my mother. I saw her, convulsing on the kitchen floor, eyes bulging, one hand clawing at her throat, the other reaching out to me, half an apple turnover crushed in her sausage fingers, as if she were trying to give it to me. Or begging for my help. I’d sat there, in the kitchen corner, knees hugged to my chest, hating her, hating myself, while she thrashed on the linoleum of the kitchen, her face turning red and then purple and blue, and finally gray.

“So why do you do the tapping thing?” I asked, desperate to change the subject. “Are you playing music in your head? That happens to me too, but I usually hum.”

He shook his head.

I put my hand on my hip the way Missy did when she delivered a scolding. “Well, that’s why no one likes you, you know. Everyone thinks that you’re . . . odd because you always do that. That’s why you’re always alone.”

He smiled at that. “You’re more alone than I am, trying to fit into that crowd. Besides, I’m never alone.”

“What do you mean? No one ever hangs out with you.”

“Maybe I can show you.” He seemed eager now, like a kid who wanted to show off a cool trick. His eyes locked onto mine without flinching for the first time and he leaned slightly forward.

“Show me what?”

“Why I tap my hands.”

“Yeah, I definitely want to see this.”

He closed his eyes and slapped his hands on his legs with a random beat. Finally, he opened his eyes and moved over to sit beside me on my rock. “They . . . I don’t know if this will work or not.”

“Go for it.” What was he planning? If it had been any normal boy, I would have assumed it was a lame attempt to make a move on me. But Beats? I nearly giggled at the idea.

He reached out and hesitantly laid his fingers on my arm. My first impulse urged me to jerk away, but my curiosity quashed it and I endured his touch.

“Be quiet,” he said and tapped with his other hand. “Listen.”

I sat, keenly aware of his fingers against my skin, and listened to his drumming as he stared into the distance, eyes unfocused. What did he expect to happen out on the edge of an abandoned quarry? Listen for what? Voices? Ghosts? Aliens? His tapping and the breeze ruffling the pages of my book were the only sounds intruding on the silence of the quarry.

The urge to remove my arm from Beats’ touch began to muscle out the curiosity. “I don’t hear–“

“Shhh!” He gripped my arm harder, a physical exclamation point.

His tapping grew more insistent, and as I focused on the sound and the warmth of his fingers on my arm, I heard booming noises in counterpoint to his rhythm, as if from explosions far away. But the moment I tried to focus on them, they disappeared. Still, the sunlight seemed to dim slightly and I felt as if I were being watched. Several times I sensed movement from the corner of my eye, but when I turned my head, I saw nothing. The hairs on my arms and neck rose, goosebumps pimpled my skin. I flinched as if expecting a blow.

I took a deep breath and silently chided myself. My imagination. I’d let Beats get to me. I’d wanted to hear something.

I jerked my arm away from him. “This is stupid. I don’t hear anything.”

He stopped tapping. “Yeah, I didn’t figure it would work.” A flash of desperation crossed his face. “You didn’t see anything strange?”

I thought of the movement out of the corners of my eyes and the sense of being watched. “No. Was I supposed to?”

“Guess not.” He stood and stretched and turned toward the trees.

“What do you see?” I asked before he could walk away.

He turned back to me and stood silently for a moment, squinting into the afternoon sun on the opposite side of the quarry.

“I hear beating. Booming, like a big drum. And I see lights.”

The hair on the back of my neck rose again at his description. But I hadn’t seen any lights. “Like sparkles or something?”

“No, like giant fireflies, only in red and green and blue. And bigger. At first they stayed off to the sides where I could hardly see them, but now they float all around me.”

I sat there silently for a few moments thinking about what I’d sensed. Was it real? For a moment, all thoughts of Missy and my errand fell away, and I was simply curious if there was something more to Beats, something hidden beneath the surface. I thought about my own secrets and how much effort I took to hide them. “What’s with the drumming?”

His lips tightened and paled in counterpoint to his reddening face. He’d forgotten, for a moment, and let his guard down, but now he raised it again. I could sense it like a door slamming shut.

“I’m not making fun of you, I’m curious.” And I was, I realized, curious to know how Beats coped with his guilt.

He stood there a moment longer, his lips a thin line, his eyes searching me as if he could see the truth behind my act. Finally, his shoulders dropped and he looked away. “It’s how I talk to them.”

“What? Wait a second. You communicate with them?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know how it works. They hear what I’m thinking when I’m drumming and sometimes I hear them too. Like someone whispering in my head.”

“What do they say?”

He sat back down on the rock beside me. “Mostly I just talk to two of them.”

“Why’s that?”

“They’re my parents.”

I couldn’t help the surprised laugh that escaped, but he didn’t seem to notice. “What?”

“Two of them are my parents. I think they’re like souls, or energy, or something.”

I decided to humor him–to see how deeply his insanity ran. “What do they say?”

“They want me to come to them.”

“Come to them? You mean, like kill yourself?”

“No, I don’t think so. I think if I concentrated hard enough, and they helped me, I could cross over to wherever they are.”

My thoughts flew back to Missy, to the glee she would take at hearing this confession. To the damage she could do. I decided to tell her that I’d lost him in the woods.

“Do you think about doing it?” I asked him, wondering if this were the type of thing I should report to a school counselor or teacher. But, he wasn’t suicidal, I was sure of that. This was something else.

“I don’t know. Sometimes. But I’m scared I guess.”

“Yeah, I would be too. Seems a little crazy.” I almost slapped my hand over my mouth at the word ‘crazy.’

He smiled though, the first I’d ever seen on him. A tentative grin, as if he didn’t quite remember how, but it brightened his face and made him seem almost normal. “Yeah, it does to me too. Maybe I am.”

I laughed. He’d taken my slip well, or maybe he was truly convinced he was crazy. With what had happened to his parents, his part in it, who could blame him? I’d done my mother a favor. But that single thought, as it often did, conjured the image of her hand stretched across the kitchen floor, reaching for me, begging for my help. Suddenly, I wanted to be alone.

I stood. “I gotta get home. My dad gets pissed if I’m too late.”

“Okay.” He paused, but before I could move away, he grabbed my arm. “Look, could you not tell anyone about this? They already think I’m crazy. They don’t need another reason to pick on me.”

“Sure, no problem.” I wasn’t about to tell anyone that I’d just spent an hour alone with Beats. He wouldn’t be the only one they were picking on in that case.

He let go of my arm. “Alright. Talk to you later.”

I doubted it.

 


 

I told Missy the next day that I’d lost Beats in the woods. She rolled her eyes, but all she said was, “Fine. I’ll have to think of something else.” I hoped that would be the end of it, or at least my part in it.

By Friday, I’d almost convinced myself that Missy had forgotten the whole thing. I rushed to my biology class on the far side of the school, trying to beat the fifth-hour bell, keeping my head down. I couldn’t mess around talking in the hallways or I wouldn’t get there in time. Mr. Hooks handed out detention like candy to anyone who walked into his class late.

I turned into the science hallway, a dead-end corridor with diagrams of animal organs and the smell of formaldehyde, and raised my face to get my bearings. Ahead of me, Missy walked shoulder-to-shoulder with Andy Thomas, one hand lightly touching his arm, her face upturned to his. They walked in the same direction as I did, their backs to me, intent on each other. I gauged the distance to Mr. Hooks’ door, hoping I could get there before Missy noticed me. Just as it seemed I might make it, Beats emerged from the same door and turned toward me, fingers tapping on the biology book he held. His eyes met mine and he stood straighter, the slightest hint of a smile in his eyes.

His mouth opened and I cringed, sure that it could only be a greeting aimed at me. Before he could say anything, Missy noticed him, and a sly smile lit her face for just a moment before it disappeared. She thrust out her hip as she walked by him, just a bump, and fell backwards as if she had been pushed. She let out a small scream as she fell. Beats stopped and stared at Missy lying on the floor, his mouth still half-open.

“Watch where you’re going, freak!” Andy Thomas’ hand pistoned out and caught Beats squarely in the chest, knocking him backwards to land, butt-first, on the hallway tiles. His science book slid across the hallway with a hiss.

Andy reached out and helped Missy to her feet, putting a protective arm around her shoulders. They stood over Beats, who looked up at them, mouth gaping as if he didn’t understand what had happened. He probably didn’t, but I’d seen the smile on Missy’s face, and I knew–her new plan. Andy pointed a thick finger at Beats, “I oughta kick your sorry ass!” The sly grin reappeared on Missy’s face, but I was the only one looking at her.

Everyone else in the hallway had focused on Andy and Beats, forming a semi-circle around them. Beats’ gaze shifted and he found me. His shoulders relaxed slightly as if he imagined I could somehow protect him. His hand fluttered to the floor and I saw that he would start tapping. I gave the barest shake of my head–don’t do it, it’s only going to make things worse.

Beats didn’t understand my message though, or he chose to ignore it. His hand tapped against the white tile of the hallway floor. Andy Thomas’ face grew red. His muscles bunched and he yelled, “Freak!” His foot shot out with athletic quickness and buried itself in the center of Beats’ stomach.

“Leave him alone!” I shouted before I realized shouting was a possibility. Beats had curled on his side, his hands no longer tapping but held to his stomach as he gasped for breath. He reached one hand out in an attempt to forestall another kick and for a moment he was my mother, lying helpless on the kitchen floor. I shook the image from my mind. At least he’s stopped the stupid tapping.

“What’s it to you?” Missy turned to face me, her hands on her hips.

Every eye in the crowd turned to me, and the magnitude of the sin I had committed became clear. Social suicide. I had finally made the mistake that I had worked so hard to avoid and all for an outcast who believed he could talk to ghosts. It crossed my mind that I’d soon be sitting at a lunchroom table with the chess club and a desperate giggle stirred in my chest. So much for being a chameleon.

Missy stood there, her lips tight and bloodless. I could almost see the wheels turning in her head–what would be a suitable punishment for my defiance? Desperation struck. I pointed at Beats, still clutching his stomach but now staring up at me. “He’s crazy! He thinks he can see ghosts. He thinks he’s talking to his dead parents. That’s why he’s always tapping on things. He thinks he’s talking to them in code or something.”

The snickers started slowly and then blossomed into full-out laughter, the mean kind that high school kids excel at. Some of the boys made ghostly, “Wooo . . . Wooo . . .” sounds, stoking the laughter to new heights like a bonfire at the edge of control. But this tension differed from the menace that had come before it, less immediately threatening. Andy Thomas had joined in the laughter. I knew that Beats would walk away now with his face unbloodied.

He looked at me then, and his eyes welled up until they reflected the fluorescent lights. That only heightened the laughter. Forgotten for the moment, I shouldered through the crowd before Missy could think to ask why I hadn’t told her Beats’ secret before. I ran away from Beats just like I’d run from my mother.

 


 

I didn’t see Beats again after that. A couple of days later, I returned to the quarry. I’m not sure if I wanted to apologize, or to simply explain how I’d saved him from something worse than a little humiliation. Missy had been basking in the attentions of her new boyfriend, and had never asked me why I’d withheld the information about Beats. Maybe she never would, but I doubted it. She’d fire that bullet when she needed it.

I slithered underneath the fence and moved to the rock where I’d sat before, unslinging my pack as I walked. A pile of cloth lay, neatly stacked, next to it. I prodded it with my toe. A pair of sneakers lay at the bottom, socks hanging out. A pair of jeans, boxers tucked inside, covered the shoes, and a red Radiohead shirt puddled on the top.

I edged up to the cliff and stared down into the cold gray water. Its dark surface showed no reflections, no clues to its secrets.

For a moment, I considered taking Beats’ clothes and telling someone where I had found them. In the end, I decided not to. How could I explain it? Better, to remain a chameleon.

Anyways, I told myself, they’ll find him. They’ll be looking for him soon.

 


 

The news of his disappearance started that same night. Notices scrolled across the bottom of the local news, search parties were organized, and the police came to the school asking questions. I said nothing.

It was another week before anyone discovered his clothes. The two searchers who found them were interviewed on TV, a view of the quarry, and the clearing where we’d sat, shown from an ‘On the Scene’ helicopter. The news painted Beats as a ‘loner’ and ‘quiet’ but made no mention of the particular habit that had given him his nickname. His nickname wasn’t mentioned at all.

By then, local opinion deemed Beats’ disappearance the suicide of an odd and disturbed child. There were no vigils or memorials. Divers searched the water in the quarry pit, but it ran deep and dark and they found nothing. The police continued to half-heartedly explore the possibility that Beats had been kidnapped or had run away, but as far as public opinion went, the story had ended.

 


 

It’s almost summer now and the furor over Beats’ disappearance is forgotten. Everything has returned to normal.

Except for me. I sometimes think I hear booming, like the pounding of the ocean, or the roar of my own blood through my veins. Sometimes, I see things from the corners of my eyes. Butterflies. They flit just outside of my vision. Their voices buzz in my head like flies in an adjacent room.

I think the brightest of them is my mother. She’s reaching out to me.

I think she’s angry.

About the Author

Brent C. Smith

Brent C. Smith is a transplant to the frigid north of Portland, Maine where he lives with his girlfriend (and Cast of Wonders alum, Jen Welch) and his faithful hound. When he’s not trying to keep warm, he writes industrial automation software by day, and made-up stories at night. Brent’s fiction has appeared previously at Daily Science Fiction, New Myths, and the Unidentified Funny Objects 4 anthology. You can follow him online or on Twitter.

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About the Narrator

Rachael K. Jones

Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, and acquired several degrees in the arts and sciences. Now she writes speculative fiction in Portland, Oregon. Contrary to the rumors, she is probably not a secret android. Rachael is a World Fantasy Award nominee, Tiptree Award honoree, and winner of Writers of the Future. Her fiction has appeared in dozens of venues worldwide, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and all four Escape Artist podcasts. Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones.

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