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ghosts in the static

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I. 

THE VOICE ON THE RADIO

 

It is nighttime on the Zero. Actually, she isn't so certain if it's nighttime. Her time circuit places the hour around three in the morning, but time is a strange and difficult thing to grasp, and there is no sun.

She is not so very certain if she likes the Zero. She's used to the rush of natural wind, to the trees rushing by.

But it's not so different. 

Johnny is in the sidecar. His eyes are closed behind his shades. He is wearing a suit jacket, and a pretty scarf. 

"Too quiet," he says.

They are musicians, in some ways they are music: ever changing, always on the road. They live in sound, and breathe in the airwaves. 

"You think so, cricket?" she says. The nickname tastes warm and familiar on her tongue. She's not really asking; it's just something to say.

"Yes, ma'am," he says.

Junebug likes it when he calls her that; she can't quite remember when it started. Maybe it was built into his circuits, or maybe it was something he picked up along the road, like everything else. 

"Go ahead and turn on the radio," she tells him, and he reaches out to do so. 

See, the radio's funny when you're on the Zero. Music, sometimes. Or the sound of breathing. The crash of waves. The murmur of a lullaby that you faintly remember from years long since past.

See, sometimes, Junebug likes the Zero. Even if it means she can't see the moon.

There is a voice on the radio.

It is not a familiar voice. Junebug listens anyway.

"... are reminded to please ignore the shadowy figures in the corner of your eye when your light flickers out. They are not really real. Of course, that depends on what we mean by real. Are we real, listeners? Maybe not."

"What do you think, cricket?" she says, glancing down with a twitch of her lips. "Are we real?"

"Real as it gets, ma'am," he answers.

"Good enough for me."

"And now, a message from our sponsors," the voice continues. "You are somewhere dank and cold. A strange scent fills your lungs. You wander in the dark."

"What station is this?" Junebug says suddenly.

Johnny blinks. "Don't know, I didn't tune it. It says, uhh..."

"You think you know where you are," says the voice. "You do not. You see a fire in the distance."

Johnny switches the station. A faint flicker, and then:

"The fire smells of smoke, and burning electronics, and something you do not recognize," says the same voice, uninterrupted. "You begin to feel sleepy. You begin to feel as though you are remembering something you should have left forgotten. You are in the tunnels, and you are lost."

"Huh," says Junebug, faintly interested.

"Where are you now?" says the voice on the radio. "Where are you going? And why is there so much mold?"

A pause.

"This message has been brought to you by Hard Times Whiskey."

The bike takes a sharp left. It might be a sharp right. There are shapes in the dark, skeletal and white.

Junebug reconsiders her brief appreciation of the Zero.

"Two strangers are coming into town today," the voice adds, all of the sudden. "They call themselves musicians."

"You think she means us, cricket?" says Junebug, glancing down.

Johnny shrugs.

"They are made of the road, and the things they have seen," says the voice, lowering in pitch. "One of them is driving their bike. I wonder if it has a name. Why her perfect and beautiful hair? Why her perfect and beautiful mathematical metafunction? I wonder what they want from us, and if they know themselves."

Junebug laughs. The sound is torn from her mouth, and whistles somewhere far behind her, or somewhere far ahead.

"Perfect and beautiful, maybe not," she says. 

"I'd say so, ma'am."

"Of course you would." She squints into the dark. "How do you think she knows all this?"

"I couldn't say," he answers. "But she's got a nice voice. Magnetic. Maybe I'll try recording a segment."

"I'm sure you will, cricket," she tells him. "I'm sure you will."

It's strange, of course, she thinks, as she drives. Strange that someone knows so much about them, and voices it with so little words. They are made of the road, and the things they have seen, indeed.

Just another adventure, she thinks.

"In other news, Old Man Donald has yet again come into contact with what he describes as 'the strangers,'" says the radio voice. "He says they are tall and off-putting, and want something from him. One of them looks familiar. He takes a drag from his pipe, and exhales a plume of smoke. He is tired, and there is too little mold left in his pipe to dwell on what could have been."

Junebug listens without really hearing the words. Johnny is the one with a mind for sound. He collects it, or tries to. She plays it back out.

"The newcomers are arriving now," says the voice. "And if they are listening, which of course they are, I ask them what we surely are all thinking."

Her brows shoot up. She inclines her head.

The voice says, "Did you happen to see an owl?"

"... I didn't see any owl, ma'am," says Johnny. "Only a feather, and a crystal, and I think I saw a barn."

"Me neither," she says, "no owls. Wonder why she asked."

"Wonder if it's a metaphor."

"Could be, cricket," says Junebug, "could be."

"And now," says the crackling voice, "the weather."

The sound fades into a strange, eerie humming. When Junebug closes her eyes, she pictures an old TV, and a pipe full of sleep-scented mold.

 

II. 

WEIRD PLACES

 

They have come into town. They are lying side by side near the bike, and Johnny is fiddling with his tape recorder, trying to capture the sound of insect drones and animal howls somewhere far out in the night.

Johnny and his animals, she thinks with drowsy affection. They'll be the death of them both. 

"What do you think of Xanadu, ma'am?" he says, absentmindedly. 

She rolls over. The dusty ground kisses her cheek, and her skirt is smudged with sand and bones. "A strange place for the Zero to lead to," she says.

"You think it leads here?"

"One way or another." Junebug shrugs. "The people sure are something."

"That's one way to say it," he replies. As soon as people had realized they were  from out of town—Interlopers! yelled one man, and So you're Weaver's musicians, mused another—they'd been given a good radius of space, and more than one wary look.

"Not the kind of folk who get too many visitors," she agrees.

"Still, you think they'd appreciate a song or two?"

"Of course they would."

The name runs through her head again. Weaver. Weaver's musicians. The woman on the radio.

Junebug wants to tell her that her cricket thinks her voice is very nice, but they didn't see any owl.

"Will we be staying, ma'am?" asks Johnny.

"For as long as we ever do," she replies.

He scoots closer, and she lays her head on his thigh. A splay of brightest blue, synthetic hair tossed wild across the patterned corduroy of his pant leg.

"Not the weirdest place we've been," she adds.

He looks like he disagrees.

 

III.

THE SPOTLIGHT

 

They get a gig at a local bar, The Lower Depths, which apparently is government-mandated to visit once a week (she doesn't mind, it's little and dingy and the bartender looks like a sack of bones about to spill apart, but it's got its charms). People seem to like it. 

Junebug listens a lot to the radio.

Everyone listens to the radio here. She's not actually sure how not to listen to the radio. She's not actually sure how many days in a row she's listened to the radio. Or ... how many days in a row they've been here.

They get another gig. 

Weaver's voice becomes familiar, just another thing tucked among her wires, soldered between her plates. Another addition to a growing collection of what Junebug sees and what Junebug becomes.

She itches to get on the road. 

They don't.

They drive around town a few times, and it's nice. Exhilarating. Desert sky above, desert roads below. Johnny doesn't ask if she's getting restless, but she knows he can tell.

Restless, or maybe—curious?

So they stay in one place. In Xanadu. It's new, it's unfamiliar, she doesn't know why she's doing it. She thinks it maybe has something to do with how she can't quite remember where the on-ramp to the Zero is. Or maybe it has something to do with Weaver, the voice on the radio.

In her head it's Weaver-the-voice-on-the-radio.

And as for the other way around, to Weaver, she is Junebug-the-Musician—she isn't sure how the woman learned her name—and Johnny is Johnny-the-Musician, except it's almost all Junebug.

They are used to that—she is the spotlight, he is the keys and the recordings and the adding up.

But Weaver talks about her ... a lot.

"Junebug the Musician will be playing at the Lower Depths tonight."

"Junebug the Musician has changed her eye color again."

"Junebug the Musician was spotted taking a spin around town on her bike the other day. I wonder what she calls it? Does it have a name?" (It does.)

She interests Weaver.

Weaver interests her.

Now, if only she could actually meet the woman.

 

IV.

GHOSTS

 

Junebug lays flat on the sand, hair a messy halo around her skull. Her tongue pokes out in concentration; she fiddles with metal gears, shifting things around. Johnny is somewhere a few roads out, making friends with the local dogs. (Johnny and his animals.) 

She is listening to the radio.

"The works of local sculptor Lula Chamberlain will be available at the upcoming art display, entitled Limits & Demonstrations. Citizens are warned not to look too closely at her sculptures, lest you find yourself seeing something more than you were supposed to. Listen closely to the ones that have sound. Pay attention. Most of you won't, but you should. You never pay attention properly."

The edge of a grin pulls at her mouth.

"In other news, Conway—you know, the truck driver—reports that the market for antiques, old valuables, and possibly haunted items has gone down 45%. That won't do. I'm disappointed in you all. Don't you all know there's a storm coming? You might need those antiques."

She wrenches a rusted gear free. A faint breeze gusts over her cheeks.

"Yes, there's going to be a storm," Weaver continues, her voice now hushed. "Not the kind you're imagining, though. It doesn't rain here in Xanadu."

Footsteps make her look up.

"People will die, I imagine. Lots and lots of people. You might even call it a reckoning."

"Do you believe in ghosts?" says the woman standing in front of her.

At first she turns over the idea that this is Weaver. But the radio is still on, and there's something not quite off enough about this lady for her to be ... well, Weaver enough.

"Anything's a ghost if you leave it alone long enough," says Junebug, by way of answer.

The woman frowns. 

"Funny thing to ask a stranger," Junebug adds.

She blinks, as though the thought hadn't even occurred to her. "I'm Shannon."

"Junebug," says Junebug. She slides out from under the bike and pops to her feet, hands braced on her hips. "Now we aren't strangers anymore."

"Sorry," says Shannon. "I've just been thinking lately."

"About ghosts?"

"About family. I didn't mean to weird you out."

In comparison, not weird in the slightest, she thinks with a smile. "Do you like music?" she says instead.

"Well—"

"Of course you do." She brushes sand off her palms and surveys the bike. Good enough; she'll run a little smoother than before. Not much, but a little.

"You're Weaver's musician," says Shannon.

"Of course I am." Junebug grins. "Not sure what I've done to earn the title, though. We've never met."

Shannon winces a little, but not like she's offended. "Weaver's ... like that," she offers. "Strange. She doesn't mean to be rude."

"You know her?"

"We're cousins."

Junebug wonders if Weaver looks like Shannon—same shade of brown skin, same halo of dark hair—and then dismisses the thought. It doesn't fit. Feels too mundane. "You're the one who fixes TVs? She talks about you almost as much as me."

"That's me." Shannon offers a ghost of a grin. It's tinged with something that should not be in a grin. "We used to be really close."

"Used to be?"

A shrug. "When we were kids. Then we grew up, and ... she left home. She's whip-smart, you know—she could be a scientist. Or a mathematician. She's got a mind for numbers. But she's always been . . . on a different wavelength. Even when we were little I'm not surprised she ended up doing the radio."

She turns that over in her head. On the radio, Weaver says, ". . . and that concludes traffic. Now, I will be listing a series of sounds."

Junebug cocks her head.

"A forest sighing.

An electric toothbrush.

A whisper. A nod. The crack of joints.

A motorcycle revving.

A bloodcurdling scream.

Water crashing through an abandoned mine.

A window opening.

A window closing.

Your mother's last breath.

A canary."

"You enjoying this, cricket?" says Junebug, before she remembers that it is Shannon beside her, and not Johnny.

When she turns, Shannon's not there, either.

 

 

V. 

JUNEBUG CUTS HER HAIR

 

Junebug is made of the road. Junebug is made of change.

They're flighty creatures, her and Johnny, all a-travel with the wind in their hair, and a song in their hearts. Every road stop they make flakes a little bit off onto them. Always changing, never staying the same.

She remembers an old mine, and endless gray, and a tape recorder.

She remembers being shorter than this, and then a little taller, and then a little shorter again. She remembers a rainbow of colors, an extra finger at some point, a wardrobe change every couple miles. 

It's no surprise that she changes her hair.

Apparently it is to Weaver.

"Junebug's perfect and beautiful hair—cut!" she laments, and Junebug's brows quirk up. She's leaning against the bike, the sound of the radio catching in the desert wind. "Its perfect and beautiful blueness. Its perfect and beautiful length."

She snorts. Johnny, crouched near a little bug beside her, looks up. 

"I liked its color before,"  Weaver says. "It made me think of the sky. Now it makes me think of the radio. Radio waves. Television glitches. These things have no color. These are things that cannot be confined to color."

A pause.

"Maybe it's not so bad," Weaver concedes.

"I like it very much, ma'am," says Johnny.

She reaches down to pat his head. "Of course you do."

"Perfect, beautiful Junebug, with her new, short, short hair, will be performing again tonight with Johnny the Musician. You'd better catch the performance!"  Weaver's voice shifts, a subtle but foreboding change. "No, really. You'd better."

Junebug throws back her head and laughs.

When she walks through town the next day, nobody mentions her hair, except for the kid named Ezra who goes to all their gigs. He tells her it looks like a little white bird with its feathers spiked out. 

She catches her reflection in windows, and tilts her head to scrutinize.

It made me think of the sky. Now it makes me think of the radio.

Radio waves. Television glitches.

These things have no color. These are things that cannot be confined to color.

Johnny's the poetic one. Johnny and Weaver, who, true to her name, weaves her strange and disjointed words in a way that somehow makes sense entirely, but also makes no sense at all.

Junebug's no poet. She's just a musician.

She thinks, as she cleans up from her gig, she wouldn't mind trying her hand out at poetry, if this is what it feels like on the receiving end. 

 

 

VI.

THE FARMHOUSE

 

She meets Weaver Márquez for the first time in an old farmhouse, with a broken TV in her arms.

Conway—you know, the truck driver—flags her down while they're taking their evening spin around town.

"Sorry to bother you, miss, but would you mind delivering this?" He shifts the old TV he's holding. It's got cracks across its screen, but the problem seems to be inside; she can pick up the reek of mold from here. "My truck broke down, and my legs aren't what they used to be."

Junebug glances at Johnny. He's only got eyes for the dog curled up next to a truck tire, so she says, "Sure thing. Where to?"

He hands her an address. "Thanks, Junebug."

"No problem. Come on, cricket," she calls behind her. "We've got a quest to fulfill."

He gives the old dog one last scratch behind its ears. "Yes, ma'am."

Conway hands him the TV, and he holds it gingerly between his legs in the sidecar, as though it's something precious. Maybe it is.

Junebug the Musician, Junebug the Delivery Girl, she thinks to herself, with a grin.

They drive on.

The farmhouse is old, she might even say abandoned, at the top of a twilit hill. Johnny pauses to inspect the peculiar graveyard.

"No epitaphs," he says. "I'd like to have an epitaph, not just a name. If it were me."

She gives the gravestones a quick once-over. One of the names jumps out: Márquez. "You think this is Shannon's place, cricket?"

"It doesn't really seem like her style."

"Uh-huh."

Junebug hoists the TV in her arms and leaves Johnny by the graves, testing the sounds of his fingernails scraping against the stone. Sounds and sounds and sounds is what they are, she thinks.

She climbs the stairs. The door is unlocked. 

There's a dusty sink, and a stove that looks like it hasn't been touched in a while. The only thing that seems used is the cables strewn about the room, the blinking devices hung up on the walls. A recording system, all leading to the center of the room, where there's a glowing purple light and a microphone.

There is also a woman.

She's sitting by the mic, but it's off. Her hair is dark and she wears spectacles. She is frowning, but not as though she is sad.

"Did you happen to see an owl?" she says.

"You know," says Junebug, "I think I did. Just in the tree out back."

The woman turns to look at her. The intensity of her gaze might have been overwhelming. "What's this?" she says, glancing at the TV—"oh, that's mine, isn't it? Yes, that's from Joseph. Thank you for delivering it."

She stands up and takes the TV. "I'm more of a books person," she says over her shoulder, as she places it carefully on an empty table. Junebug is uncertain if it was empty a moment ago. "My cousin's the mechanical one. But this is still mine."

"Not much of an electronics person myself," Junebug agrees. "That's all my cricket."

They stand, for a moment, in silence.

"Do you like music?" says Junebug, at the same time she says, "Does your bike have a name?"

"Of course you like music." Junebug shakes out her hair. "We call it the Weird Vector."

"I do like music, most of the time," she says. "Why do you call it that?"

"It's got a wobbly wheel. Nice farmhouse."

"I used to live here. My parents payed to tear down the place that was here before, and then built this one." No glaze of nostalgia; it's matter of fact. "But no one lives here anymore. I just come here to work."

She thinks about wobbly wheels. She thinks about speeding through the night, hopping off at the next stop; she thinks about the road and all it entails; she thinks about Johnny leaning against the bike.

She thinks about the radio.

She leaves.

Later, when they've stopped for the night at one of the two inns they like, and the sound of the evening radio broadcast bounces around their little room, Johnny asks, "Do you think we'll stay here long?"

They have already stayed here long. They have only just arrived.

The radio says, "Junebug the Musician stopped by today."

"Do you want to stay?" she asks, in return.

"She brought me a broken TV."

"The gigs are nice. Good pay." Johnny shrugs.

"I told her thank you."

"Good pay," Junebug agrees. She looks out the window. There is a steadily rising moon.

"She said she saw an owl, and that her bike is called the Weird Vector."

Somewhere outside, an owl hoots. It might be the same owl, Junebug thinks. Maybe it is. And if it is the same owl, is it somehow different, for having existed a few hours longer than the owl of before? 

"She asked me if I like music. I said yes. I'm very into music lately—but I don't know if she knew it was me."

Junebug smiles, and says to the ceiling, "Sure, I knew."

"I think she must have," says Weaver. "I smiled at her when she walked out. I don't know if she saw, but she smiled at me too—and everything about her was perfect and beautiful, and I fell in love instantly."

"Sure, cricket." Junebug looks up at the moon. The Zero is gone for now anyway, and music is better with an audience.

"We can stay."

(End.)