“A Serenade of Strings”
by K.L. Townsend
They say all it takes is a moment, an instant where time and space intersect in just the right way and at just the right angle, where a person might see the threads that bind the universe together.
Bullshit. All of it. Eric had seen what the world had to offer, and it wasn’t pretty. Not here in the subway. Not at his grandfather’s soulless funeral. Certainly not in the clinical, stale trap that was college. If there was something special interwoven between the random people of the world–the semblance of human connection–it had long frayed and snapped.
Old Gramps’ ukulele rested heavy in his arms, and he paused, waiting for the next train. He stood at the back of the subway platform, dead eyes searching through the buzz of people as they came and went, hoping for definitive proof to unravel his dissertation on life.
The train doors opened and spewed out the next wave of people. Some stopped and smiled. Most walked on, cloistered in insulated worlds of their own making, willing subjects to the all-powerful web of lies. Eric watched, distant, as if trapped behind invisible glass. If he reached out, would he be ensnared? Or if he held back, would the blank walls be his prison.There was a time when he used to grin, a stupid naïve grin, with the occasional wave, positive that a kindred soul would forge the connection.
They blurred and moved on. Always moved on.
More people piled in, and the train rushed off to its next destination.
Repeat: once, twice, three times.
He closed his eyes and played.
He’d thought of giving it up. Why bother? What was he even trying to accomplish? Just another failure in this experiment called life.
He knew the routine well. The crowd thinned, the crowd swelled. People marched along their own roads, their own paths with purpose and determination. The mass scattered like fractals in an eternal spin.
So this was it. The last train would arrive in less than fifteen minutes. No more fractured dreams, just muted peace, held on by the quiet longing of Gramps’ old songs. He let his hand strum over the chords one last time before he opened his eyes. He glanced at the edge of the platform and, with a sigh, bent to place the ukulele in the case.
“Please, don’t stop.”
He hesitated, arching his eyebrows at the lone woman standing in front of him. She was older, maybe mid-fifties, wearing modest clothing that screamed banker or accountant or some other stuffy job. Not her bag. The bright floral sack spoke of rebellion and new opportunities.
“Packing up for the night,” he managed to say. His voice sounded thin even to his own ears.
“Just one more, please. It’s such a lovely tune.”
He stole a glance at his watch and then to the end of the platform. He sighed. “I suppose I have time for one more.”
She nodded and offered a pleasant smile.
Eric repositioned the ukulele, closed his eyes, and began to pluck at the strings. The tunes danced through his mind, chasing away the stray thoughts that haunted him. As he lost himself to the music, he pictured the platform, the music as it echoed through the near empty station, ricocheting off the cement and stone. The vibrations rumbled through him, and he became a tuning fork, centered and calm, his reverberations rippling out to a thousand atoms. For a split second, the station hummed into two, three, four iterations.
Always at this time, it never failed. The small comfort he had in this chaotic life.
“My small request,” the woman said, he voice low and even. “Can you play with your eyes open?”
He frowned at the request, almost losing the mental image, but figured what did it matter anyway? Just ride the wave of music. Hold onto its beauty this final time.
When he opened his eyes, the multiple images remained, overlapping and entangled. With every breath, there was a new echo, a new vibration, carried along his trembling hands.
He swallowed down the bubble of panic that threatened to pop into madness. That…never happened before. Had it? Shit. What if he had paid closer attention all the other times?
“I see them, too,” she said quietly, breaking through his daze. “The different roads, the possibilities, riding on each chord. I don’t know how you do it, but what a gift. If only everyone could see.”
The woman was insane. So was he. He’d finally been caught in the web.
“Don’t doubt yourself. I doubted myself so long.” She slumped her shoulders and looked to the floor. There was heaviness there, and when she shrugged, it only deepened. “I’ve watched you play before, but I never knew what to say. Then I said, Mellie, life is just passing you by. Go see the nice young man. Tell him. He needs to wake up and see.”
Eric held his hand to his forehead. As the music died, so did the reverberations. “This is nuts.”
Craziness. Insanity. Is this how Gramps felt before the end?
“I’m losing my mind.”
“Does it matter? Who cares, is what I say. Doesn’t the world need a little bit of madness, of magic?” She smiled. “I decided, know what? I make my own path. No one can take that from me.” She paused and searched him with hopeful eyes. “Crazy or no, I would love to hear how it ends.”
He nodded soundlessly, steadying his hand. He couldn’t believe he was humoring the woman, but was she right, and it didn’t matter? He’d been here countless nights, lost in the images in his mind, only to be shackled by the chains of despair when the music died. He thought of Gramps–of home–and the bliss of listening to the music late at night by the bonfires.
He thought of the possibilities and Gramps crinkled face smiling down at him.
As he brushed the strings, the different stations reappeared, overlapping each other, bound together by the faintest of threads. If he squinted and concentrated, the threads morphed into an interlocking web. They bounced and blurred, trembling with hope and despair, multifaceted like a prism. It was both beautiful and terrifying.
When he finished, he noticed the last train had slowed to a stop. He’d missed his chance.
She moved toward the train. Which train from which vibration, he couldn’t be certain.
“Which will you follow?” he asked.
“I don’t know. All of them? None of them? So many choices. Where will you send me?”
He didn’t know. Each string a winding road, a new journey. Maybe not all the threads had frayed. Maybe chains existed, unbroken and hidden, revealing themselves and all their power at the right moment, at those intersections and crossroads where life meets its anchors.
He picked up the ukulele again and played as she entered the train. She stopped just inside the door and gazed back, her face eager and expectant. There was a wonder in her eyes, giddy and alive, as if she had the spark of new life dwelling inside her.
“You’ll be there to bring me back?” Mellie asked.
He smiled. Eric didn’t need to say anything more. He watched her and the train disappear as he plucked the last chord.
K.L. Townsend is a spec fic writer who enjoys contemporary fantasy and steampunk. Her stories can be found in Ruins Metropolis Anthology, the Absolute Write Speculative Fiction Anthology, and Gears and Levers 1: A Steampunk Anthology, as well as a historical novella with Hadley Rille Books.