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Inside My Aching Heart

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The pavement was thirsty, sucking soul and color from the sky through hungry, cracked cement jaws. It was desolate, as always, the buildings slouching tired and weary in two lines. Jagged black-and-green lines, painted edges dripping hurriedly down concrete walls. A lone storefront, window cracked and taped over, had a single dilapidated pumpkin sitting on the doorstep and a Brady’s Music Shop sign hanging crooked on rusted bolts over the door. Fall in Obsidian wasn’t so much a season to enjoy as a time to get through, as the precursor to the too-cold winter with the too-harsh winds, the steam from the tunnels the source of heat for the Lost.

Nevertheless, Strat loved it, grinning ear to ear as he waltzed down the street. Emotions be damned, it was nearly Halloween, and though something inside burned with the frostbite of loss, with the absence of her, it was fall. He remembered the falls before the smog choked the sky, before the sunsets drowned in a sea of neon. Before the horizon hung heavy with concrete.

In the years before, the radios—God, he remembered the radios, in every car and with more channels than he could count—played music all hours of the day. Then, of course, with Falco, the radios played nothing but advertisements, and the only place the songs lived on was in the voices of those who remembered. He sang, and the Lost sang, and they wrote out the words to the tunes they remembered best on the walls of the tunnels.

Once, several years ago, long enough it had fallen from the memory of most of the Lost, maybe all but him, they’d stumbled onto a record shop, closed for the day but the door still ajar, with three record players and more vinyls than they could count. Strat, in a moment of enlightenment, had jury-rigged the record player to turn on and spin, and then turned his attention to finding music. Zahara passed him a stack of dust-laden sleeves, the edges frayed and torn and the colors time-worn, and he rifled through. Beethoven seemed interesting, a man with massive white curls of hair rendered on the cover, but upon placing it down under the needle and hearing soft piano emanate he changed his mind. He transferred any album with “classical” or “orchestra” from his arms to a stack in the corner, and continued.

The memory cast violet shadows through his mind, the same as the streetlights standing sentry around him. Obsidian’s beauty shone at night, darkened windows glinting the light back into the streets, flowers of starlight glimmering in the upper floors. It glowed, to Strat, white-lined lights glowing the ethereal purple of pure argon. Home. The lights in the Deep End were never this color, always blinding green or soul-searching red. He liked these lights, in the inner city, far from his tunnels and far from the industrial steel of Falco Tower.

She’d liked the lights like this, too. They’d talked about it, sitting on top of one of her father’s properties, watching the lights flicker on as the sun set. Her mother had explained the lights to her once. Chemicals, apparently, not dangerous like those that froze the Lost, but the ones in the air already.

Maybe if they’d looked at the lights longer, stared into the violet-tinged abyss a few minutes more, she’d want him to stay.

A pang of regret sank into his chest. He could see the tower off in the distance, top floor gleaming with lights, and half his soul was pulling him back. No. His mind turned back to the music shop, back to the records in his hands. The feel of the paper under his hands, a worn, black casing catching on his thumb. American Idiot, he remembered the cover reading, red and white lettering stenciled on.

He clung to the words he’d heard, words he’d painted onto the wall of a tunnel in deep, midnight purple as soon as he got back.

And now he sang them to the empty streets of Obsidian as he walked further away from where he began, voice cracked and broken from disuse, throat raw from screaming, lungs aching still from where the motorcycle had crushed him.

The street echoed back a ghost of his words, tinged purple by the twilight.

“I walk a lonely road, the only road that I have ever known,” the concrete called back to him. His heart constricted. The window of the storefront to his left, glass miraculously unbroken still, threw his reflection back at him. He looked wild, untamed, shattered to the core. The lights in the distance mocked him, streaks of bright against the black of his silhouette.

His feet stood stationary in the reflection, the only trustworthy place to look anymore, surrounded by lavender pools of light falling from above. He’d walked here a thousand times, footsteps passing over footsteps half-remembered. This was his road, he realized, the cracked pavement of Obsidian the only place his feet had ever fallen. The only place she’d ever walked, too.

And suddenly, alone was no longer an option, the solitude of months suffocating and soul-crushing. The lights blurred around him, the purples bleeding into the oranges bleeding into the “Happy Halloween” banner hanging from a lone storefront as he sprinted down the street. Fall in Obsidian wasn’t a season, no, it was the time for reconciliation, for absences to fade and broken bones to heal back up. She’d been missing from his life for too long, the rosy-red force for something in his life that was missing before, and lost once again.

Falco Tower refracted the darkness, split it into a million shards and spit them back out onto the city. Strat turned a corner. The barely-familiar shop was indeed on the corner, windows still cracked and a jaunty jack o’ lantern still on the doorstep. He slowed, approaching, body aching after the run.

The door hung open, ever so slightly, and a grin stretched across his face. Manic. He didn’t think twice about slipping inside, but the walls cut off the autumn chill and he shivered, the dust and dark of the shop altogether more unsettling than an icy wind. The records he’d found last time were still stacked on the shelf, even all these months later. He snatched them up, taking a handful off the top and pressing them to his chest, soothing his pounding heartbeat with the cool indifference of paper and plastic.

He made to leave. It felt wrong, somehow, to be the only one alone in a store such as this. Ghosts of songs half-sung, lyrics half-written, buzzed in his ears. On an impulse, he unplugged a record player from the wall, hefting it into his arms. A final glance around the store, and he scooped up a statuette of a sparkling black crow and then ran out, slamming the door behind him and balancing his load carefully.

He sang as he moved, awkwardly unfolding the packet inside the top record to read out lyrics to fit into the melody in his head. They were beautiful, he decided, like she was. Glowing in the night. Maybe she’d like them too, songs of beautiful anarchy and never fitting in quite right.

The city seemed to agree, singing back at him, lending the depth of thousands of tons of concrete and steel to his voice’s echo.

Climbing the fire escape was much harder with shaking hands, much harder on the nerves with an armful of music. But her room at the top, the place he’d stolen her from before ever too many times, was a lighthouse and he climbed on.

The lights were flipped off, the room entombed in inky darkness, but she did not lay sleeping in her bed. He cast foreign eyes around, searching out her shape, searching out her heartbeat in the silence.

The door opposite creaked open, and on silent cat’s feet she crept in. He leaned against the windowpane, staring in, awaiting her notice and yet heart pounding should he catch her eye. She flitted through the room, form impermanent in the worst way, in the way that reminded him that he was to blame for her missing from his life, and came to open the window. Her eyes still did not glint with the recognition he hoped for.

“You know, they say the neon lights will go to your head,” he whispered, watching his words get carried away by the breeze. She jumped. “Did you forget me already?”

Flashes of electricity crossed his vision, shooting stars of fear and the pain of seconds waiting for her to respond.

She shook her head, and he stepped back to give her space to climb out the window.

Once more, after too long, they were back atop the tower. The stolen record player—not stolen really, is it stolen if he’s bringing it back in the morning?—crooned songs of rebellion, rendered in lavender and lilac against the sunset. Gone were the hours of chasing blood-red music from his ears, searching for a voice in his memory to match hers, begging the night to return their words to his heart. The wind was colder now, sweeping off the old downtown, bringing the sharp scent of frosted metal and forgotten memories.

Fall in Obsidian wasn’t a time to savor, no, nor was it a time to enjoy and relish, but it was a time for second chances. And the girl to his side, bathed in the glow of a sunset brighter than any he’d seen, nodding her head to the music playing softly, Strat remembered why fall was his favorite.

“Happy Halloween,” he whispered in her ear, and the shiver he watched cascade down her spine made their separation almost worth it.