Dale dug through the closet in his old bedroom. He pushed aside creased and dusty boxes of books. He shifted all the hanging clothes he hadn’t brought with him when he left to one side of the closet. An earthy smell wafted from somewhere inside and took him back to his childhood. He expected to be nauseated, but instead he felt something entirely different. A strange serenity settled over him. He took a deep breath of the scent, and for the first time in a long time, he remembered his father in another light. When Dale was young, his father hadn’t been all bad. They played a lot together: music, video games, basketball. It wasn’t until Dale got a little older that his father started harping on him about choosing a career path. All that stuff Dale had enjoyed was just play, and playtime was over. It hadn’t been a gradual shift either. It had happened seemingly overnight. But before, during childhood, things had been pretty great.
“What are you looking for?” Melissa said.
He smiled at her over his shoulder. “I’ll let you know when I find it.”
“Oh, you tease.” She stuck out her tongue. It was a nice tongue. One he thought about often and one he’d tasted many times.
He turned and peered back into the closet and spotted the black guitar case leaning in the corner. Cobwebs hung between it and the wall. He brushed them off and lifted out the long-buried treasure. He stood it on the bedroom floor and leaned on it, grinning. Melissa frowned.
“I didn’t know you played.”
“I haven’t played in a really long time.” He felt himself darken. “My dad made me stop.”
“Surprised you let him make you do anything.” Her mouth went tight. She cocked an eyebrow. She was pure defiance, the type of bad girl he’d always wanted.
“Different time. Different me. Besides, it’s hard to bite the hand that feeds you.”
“Could’ve just run away like me.”
“If only I were so courageous.”
She shrugged, leaned back on the bed. “You gonna play me a song?”
“Not sure I’m ready for that. Besides, this probably needs to be tuned, maybe even restrung.”
“That’s fine. Was hoping to do some reading anyway. Still not feeling great.”
He felt a pang of concern. “Can I get you anything?”
She held up the glass of water on the nightstand. “I’ll be fine.”
“All right, well, I guess I’ll mess with this guitar in another room. Maybe even outside.”
She nodded, rested her head on the pillow. “Okay.”
Dale left the room, brought the guitar and his MP3 player with him. He had burned his father’s songs onto the device as soon as they got back from the storage facility. He was itching to listen to them again, after playing the CD in his car, and felt a crazy urge to learn them. Though he would never completely know this other side of his father, he thought learning the songs, hearing the words would at least get him close. At least enough to see there had been more to the man than the stuffy banker who seemed to love work and money more than anything else. Even family. Sure, as a child, Dale had seen those glimpses of the old man, but nothing like the passion in these songs. He didn’t understand it. They seemed to have been written and performed by another person entirely. The voice that sung over the bluesy chords didn’t sound anything like his father, at least not at first. Dale couldn’t even imagine his father expressing himself with such raw honesty, such energy, such vulnerability.
He went out to the back deck and sat on the edge of one of the loungers. He laid the guitar case across his lap and opened it. A thin layer of dust covered the frets and body, but otherwise, the instrument looked okay. He balanced the guitar on his knee and used the fifth fret harmonic to tune. Once the guitar was tuned, he put his earbuds in and started listening to his father’s album.
He leaned forward, closed his eyes, and let the music drift over him, let it carry him away. He skipped back to the first song, played it on repeat, until he felt comfortable strumming along. Nothing sounded right. He tried various chords until he realized the song was in a different tuning. He tinkered with the knobs until he thought he found the right pitch and tried strumming again. The song started to make sense.
When Katie got home, she went to her bed and opened The Cosmic Heart, but exhaustion weighed down her eyelids and she was asleep in less than ten minutes. The comforter embraced her. She sunk into the mattress. With each beat of her heart, she slipped deeper into oblivion. A woman whispered somewhere in the room. All around the room. Right in Katie’s ear.
“At the center of the universe one heart beats…now its blood is diseased.”
The voice spoke the words in sync with Katie’s heartbeat. It reminded her of some kind of weird experimental song. The voice was at times soft, and other times sharp, threatening. Katie’s eyes snapped open. The room around her was dark.
“At the center of the universe…”
“…one heart beats…”
“…now it’s blood…”
The voice harmonized itself, speaking the same words, but in different tones, creating a wall of oppressive sound. Katie’s heart slammed. She couldn’t move. She tried to scream, but her breath caught. She felt like she was choking.
“…now it’s blood…”
She turned to her book case. All the tomes were bound in old leather. Titles printed in old English, some in languages she couldn’t understand. Other titles were glyphs, symbols she had never seen before, but resonated within her. She felt lost, but like she should know where she is and what is happening. Sparks ignited at the base of the shelf and the first row of books caught fire.