“YOU HAVE MUSIC in you, Dossam. Never forget that.”
My mother’s name was Lyric, our family name Harper, and I was born in the wrong time.
When I was small, she took me to a concert hall in the old city. It was remarkably well preserved, though the odor of age and decay hung over it, and the faded red chairs were molded and falling apart.
I drew away from her, farther down the aisle and quiet so my boots didn’t make a sound on the hardwood floor. Arched balconies rose up along the walls, their curtains long ago deteriorated into echoes. Gold paint flaked off the railings, and the marble facades were pockmarked and water-stained, but there were memories in this place, memories of music and longing and emotions that stirred my soul.
“Look on the stage,” Mother said.
The stage stood directly ahead, pitted with age, but strong enough to hold an immense glass curtain, shining iridescent in the light that shot through the colored skylights. And before that, a large black instrument on legs, with a bench that stood empty before the row of keys. Faded gold lettering shimmered on the side of the instrument, too worn for me to read.
“What is that?” I breathed, though I knew. I knew. My heart knew.
I scrambled up the stage, too impatient to bother with the stairs, ignoring Mother’s tiny cry—“Careful!”—and when I stood at last before the piano, chills swept over my body. I couldn’t wait to touch it. I couldn’t bear to risk damaging it, though. Everything here was so old and fragile.
“It’s all right.” Mother stood in the middle of the theater, rows of chairs around her. Light from the ceiling shone on her, making her curly black hair gleam. “Play something,” she said. “You won’t hurt it.”
My heart felt too big for my chest as I reached out and caressed a white key. Though it should have been filthy with grit and age, the key was smooth and clean. The bench was, too, and the rest of the piano wood had been rubbed to a shine, as though someone had prepared it for this moment.
I glanced at Mother, who just smiled mysteriously.
“Play something,” she said again.
A weightless sort of reverence filled me as I slipped onto the bench and let my fingers breeze along the smooth keys. How many people had sat here before me?
“Please never end,” I whispered to the moment, and played a solid, clear note that resounded off the high walls and ceiling. The glass curtain at the back of the stage caught the sound, bounced it back, and my heart felt so wild and free and fulfilled. Music filled me like food or water never would. It filled my soul.
I lost myself, letting my hands explore the keys in search of different notes and patterns and chords, things I only half understood by instinct and by the way they felt right or wrong. I learned my heart there, my hands on the piano, and music flowing all around me, so big and sacred and everything I’d ever wanted.
And when I fell out of the trance, Mother took me in her arms and squeezed. “You have music in your heart, Dossam. I wish this world appreciated that more.”
While I’d sat at the piano, caught in the silver chains of sound, I’d forgotten the outside world. But as we left the domed concert hall, that palace of music, I once again beheld the ruined city, the twisted heaps of metal and memories of another age.
There was music in me, but in this post-Cataclysm world, that didn’t matter very much.
Instinct urged me to duck or run as the belt flew toward my head, but I hardened myself and took the blow; I wasn’t a child anymore, and acting like one would make everything worse.
Thunder snapped in my ears as bright pain flared over my cheek, making my vision white-hot. The world swam around me, but I held myself upright, pushed my shoulders back. I clenched my jaw as Father’s belt retreated.
I swallowed away the hint of bile in the back of my throat. I wouldn’t speak. Wouldn’t show the way my face stung from the leather strap. Speaking would only make it worse, as I’d discovered years ago. Instead, I gave a shallow nod and kept my eyes down. His grunt indicated I’d done the right thing.
“Do you know what you did this time?”
I glanced at breakfast burning on the wood stove. Fat sizzled in the pan, and the faint scent of smoke lifted through the small kitchen.
“That’s right.” His voice was a growl. A rumble in the earth. “You know how hard I work. You know how the drought is killing everything. And that other people in the Community are starving. And still you have the nerve to burn our breakfast, which I paid for.”
I wanted to apologize, or beg for forgiveness, but I didn’t dare speak. The belt still hung in his grip, like a snake just waiting to strike.
“I work. Your brother works. But what do you do all day?”
Not that it made a difference to him, but I was trying to find a job. It was difficult, though, with the drought and plague and never-ending hunger. No one had anything to spare to hire untrained help, and I couldn’t get training without a job.
“There’s a call for warriors.” Father slipped his belt through the loops of his trousers once more, and I released a held breath. “I want you to go.”
To become a warrior? He didn’t know me at all.
“Janan is calling for the best warriors, which means you won’t be chosen to follow him on his quest, but I want you to volunteer anyway. If you’re not going to work with me, or scavenge like your brother, you need to do something useful.”
I wasn’t suited for repair work—a fact painfully obvious after I’d put a dozen new holes in a wall, trying to keep from hammering my fingers—and my brother never allowed me to go scavenging with him, saying it was too dangerous for me.
But of course, those facts meant nothing to Father.
All this was an excuse, anyway. My jobless state—and the still-burning breakfast—weren’t the real reasons he’d taken his belt to my face this morning.
Until a couple of weeks ago, Mother had kept the house spotless. Today there were dirt smears and handprints on the walls. After Father’s search for his ancient leather flask, cupboards hung open, revealing chipped plates, too few jars of canned vegetables and fruits, and a moldy hunk of cheese. The crooked table held piles of old books and scavenged parts, evidence of my brother’s presence somewhere near the house.
“Janan has done everything for this Community, right?” His tone left no room for argument. “He’s the one trying to feed people and stop attacks. If he says he has a plan, I want you to be part of that. Or at least try to be part of that. There’s no chance he’d pick you, but showing up might make you appear less lazy and selfish.”
“Yes, sir.” I twisted my hands behind my back, digging my fingernails into my skin to distract from the throbbing in my cheek.
“Noon, okay? That’s when he’s choosing warriors. If you don’t go and somehow make yourself useful, you’ll be sleeping on the streets tonight. People in this house work for the privilege of sleeping under a roof.”
“Yes, sir.” Sometimes, those felt like the only words I was allowed to say to him.
“Get this place cleaned up. No more cooking. You’re terrible at it and it’s too hot anyway.” Father yanked the frying pan off the stove and doused the fire. “Then go to the Center and volunteer. Maybe Janan can get you to do something besides hum to yourself all day. Or maybe we’ll get lucky and you’ll gut yourself with your own knife.” He stormed from the kitchen and slammed the front door.
The house rattled with his exit, and the quiet rang shrilly in my ears as I sank into a chair and touched my swollen cheek. It was tender and would bruise, but he hadn’t split the skin this time.
Maybe I’d gut myself with my own knife.
He’d never have dared say anything like that with Mother around, though the sentiment had always been there, hovering just beneath every word he spoke to me. The useless second son. Not strong like him, nor hardy enough to spend days at a time in the old city. Not coordinated enough to be a fighter. Not smart enough to be a scholar.
A year ago, I’d overheard him tell Mother, “If he’d been a girl, he’d at least have been useful for making children, but he hasn’t even got that.”
“No one will ever understand what Dossam has to offer,” Mother had replied, but her defense went unacknowledged. After all, what was music when there was food to grow, or water to collect, or fields to defend? What was music when humanity’s survival was a desperate hope, not a guarantee?
What was music in the face of imminent annihilation by trolls or chimeras or worse?
Footfalls thumped on the floorboards, and I tensed, but it was just my brother, Fayden, clomping into the kitchen. He eyed my slumped posture and the blackened bacon smoking on the counter. “What happened this time?” His voice was deep with a note of uncertainty, like my new bruise might truly be my fault.
“He thought I hid the flask.” I heaved myself out of the creaking chair and began closing cupboard doors. “Thanks for warning me you’d done that.”
“You were asleep when I got in.” Fayden picked a slice of bacon from the pan and inspected it with disdain before he took a bite. “Sorry he blamed you.”
He wasn’t sorry. Not really. But I didn’t contradict him as I worked to straighten the kitchen. “He wants me to volunteer for Janan’s quest. If I don’t, he’s kicking me out.”
“What quest?” Fayden grabbed a plate off the counter and swept all the bacon onto it. Grease dripped onto the floor.
“I’m not sure. I didn’t hear the announcement. Father just said Janan wants warriors.”
Fayden barked a laugh. “And he thought you should volunteer? A skinny fifteen-year-old who can barely stand to see raw meat?”
It was laughable, so I didn’t say anything, just began scrubbing the handprints off the wall.
“Well, maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea. Janan would never accept you, of course, but it would get Father off your back for a while.”
My rag fell to the floor with a wet plop as I glared at him. “Do you think so? Do you think that he wouldn’t punish me for being rejected for something he already knows I’m not suited to do?”
“Well, what are you suited for?” Fayden gestured around the kitchen. “Not cooking. Not cleaning. You refuse to go tend plague victims.”
“I don’t want to get the plague!” I scooped up my rag and threw it onto the counter.
“You’re not strong enough to haul water. Scavenging is too dangerous for you.” He slammed the filthy plate onto the counter. “And you couldn’t even—”
He shoved away from the counter, rattling the plate, and marched from the kitchen. “You know what you couldn’t do, Dossam.”
I wanted to snarl back at him, but he was gone, his boots pounding through the house.
Anyway, he was right.
Death claimed entire civilizations, leaving wastelands and ruins, forever stretches of destruction and darkness.
Death claimed memories, the knowledge of what had come before, and promises of futures dreamt.
It was that loss that cut the deepest, that loss that would never heal. If Father or Fayden recognized the sucking grief inside of me, that consuming hollow that pulled me ever further from them, they never said. If I vanished from the world, would they even notice? Would they care?
They’d been able to continue with their lives, sadder, but no different. But for me, her absence meant I had nothing. She’d been the only person who’d seen the worth of my music, and now she was gone.