Dahlia traced the melody on her tablet and her song poured from speakers hidden around the subway station. It burrowed into Jonah’s ear and asked a question only she could answer. It dug into his brain and found his memories of her. The melody scraped and scratched until the scars gave way and some trace of what he once felt for her leaked out. At least, she hoped it did.
He cocked his head. In the darkness underneath the hooded sweatshirt she wore, a smile warmed what passed for her lips; he would love her again. Even if he was the only one.
He brushed his dark hair to the side and paused on the subway platform, searching as he strained to hear the next musical thought. Good. She’d worried the synthesized tones would be a poor substitute for the voice that once captured his heart.
“It’s the edges that make it special, the raw parts,” he’d said. “It gives it depth, makes it, I don’t know, more real.” That was back when she had a voice, before the cancer and the surgeries took it away.
Her fingers danced across the glassy tablet screen while the Monday morning commuter crowd bustled around him on the subway platform. Jonah waited for the 3 train that would take him to Manhattan. He looked around, searching for the melody. Dahlia pulled the hood up further; she couldn’t let him recognize her yet. Not until she had him hooked with the circle progression that drove her song from chord to chord.
She hoped her choice of key would be prophetic; F-sharp major rang of final victory over painful struggle. The particular circle progression she’d chosen created a sense of inevitable return to its root, the F-sharp. That chord would be the one in her one-four-five-one progression, where she’d begin and where she’d return.
She longed for a return to her days as a performer, singing to packed venues, seeing the echoes of her voice on the enchanted faces of her audience. Her subway audience reflected no such joy, but she reminded herself that Jonah’s reaction was all that mattered.
With the F-sharp chord as the one, her song went to the four, a B-major. It sang of adversity, including the F-sharp note for a vague sense of familiarity, but otherwise complicating the expression. Dahlia felt a particular fondness for this chord; she heard the same disfigured familiarity that she saw in her bathroom mirror.
Jonah winced at the discord, and Dahlia let her fingers dance on the piano keys displayed on her tablet, driving the discordant notes deeper into his ear. It hurt to hurt him, but not as much as it hurt to want him. She let him feel the pain she lived every day.
Dahlia’s haunting melody sang from both above and below the audible range of sound. The lower sounds came from the infrasound generator hidden in the darkness below the subway platform, a black box she’d mounted down by the tracks that siphoned power from the same third rail that powered the subway cars. The sound played so low that Jonah (and everyone on the platform) would feel it instead of hearing it. They’d feel awestruck, afraid, even cold. All without knowing why.
She sent other notes to the dummy security camera she’d mounted high overhead. It looked like all the other cameras mounted on the dirty yellow platform columns in Grand Army Plaza subway station. Except hers had a focused parametric array inside. It rotated to follow Jonah, aiming the tight beam of sound directly at his ear; that note played only for him.
Finally, the rest of her song played from a street performer’s small amp twenty feet down the platform. As he did every day, Uriah played ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s pop on an electric guitar for tips. She had the sense that he was capable of more, but knew from watching him that nostalgia was what put money in his guitar case.
She practiced when the station was deserted and she knew Jonah wouldn’t pass through, mid-day and late at night. She’d begun with her own small amp, playing for tips whenever the station wasn’t deserted. But during rush hour, when Jonah would be there, so was Uriah. Rather than try to overpower his guitar, Dahlia chose to make his performance part of hers.
Earlier that morning she’d given him a wad of cash and a note asking if she could play through his amplifier during his smoke breaks. When he agreed, she had him plug a remote-controlled MIDI device into that amp.
However, as it now did for Jonah, her device could also change the music Uriah played to include notes Dahlia wanted performed, shifting key as necessary so that his song became hers. He squinted at her, obviously not appreciating her musical addition. But since the song wasn’t for him and her extra cash made up for any lost tips, she ignored his glare. This concert had an audience of one.
She had ten seconds before the train arrived to move to the C-sharp five chord, where the climax of the progression would happen, capturing Jonah’s imagination and setting her hook. The chord would create an insatiable need, planting an earworm deep in his brain that he’d ache to resolve. She’d set his body vibrating all the way down to his core. And then she’d send him off into the world.
He’d leave her again, like he’d left her before. Only this time he’d come back. He’d have to. Her song would guarantee it.
She let the song breathe, pause for a moment. Dahlia watched commuters cross between where she sat on the wooden bench and where Jonah stood on the platform. Tension spooled in her lungs. It tightened around her chest, reminding her of the empty ache inside.
She held her breath and counted beats in her head, teasing him with the melody, waiting to play the next chord in the progression. This was the pause she’d always adored. This was how she’d captivated her audiences, back when people lined up to see her instead of turning away from her deformed face.
When she couldn’t stand it, when she absolutely couldn’t wait any longer, she shifted to the C-sharp five. She added a complicating note and inverted the chord, intensifying the need to resolve back to the one.
Dahlia wanted him to need that resolution, to crave it, even beg for it. She wanted him to want it as much as she wanted him, to feel the same kind of need that gnawed at her insides day in and day out.
Jonah would know the kind of need that came from craving something you once had, the most familiar ache. That hook would bring him back. Only, instead of setting the hook, the chord unraveled.
A tall man passed between Jonah and overhead camera, interrupting the focused sound beam. At the same moment, a nearby phone rang, discordant tones slicing through her chord and cutting it in half. Dahlia cursed, her fingers flying across the tablet. She had only seconds to re-start the progression, only moments to re-cast the hook.
She moved back to the first chord and began again. Dahlia glanced up to check Jonah’s position just in time to see him step into the subway car and out of her grasp. The doors closed behind him and the train accelerated into the tunnel, leaving her song behind.
She let the tablet fall into her lap. Failure settled onto Dahlia’s shoulders and she let herself slump under its foul weight.
Taking a deep breath, she shrugged it off. This wasn’t her only chance; he’d be on this platform again tomorrow morning. Truthfully, if she really wanted to, she could wait here all day. He’d take the 3 train home again and walk back through this station shortly after six. No, she decided. She’d waited this long, and she could wait another day.
Dahlia lifted her scarf to her mouth, arranging it about her neck before pushing back her hood. She put her tablet into her bag, and then stood and walked down to where Uriah played. She watched and waited for him to finish “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
He ended with a bright riff, resolved to the final note, and held it. He said, “You’re the only person I know that pays to hear songs that don’t sound right, you know that?”
She shrugged, smiled with her eyes, and pointed to the MIDI controller patched into his amp.
Uriah rolled his thumb across the volume knob, fading the note out. “Go on.”
Dahlia bent and unplugged the device. She stood and put it in her bag. Uriah inhaled and her stomach dropped; she knew that sound too well.
“Wait, are you Dahlia?” he asked.
Her hand flew to her scarf, which had slipped down as she’d stood, revealing her surgically reconstructed lower jaw. She hurried to rearrange it, covering her disfigurement. Recognition brightened Uriah’s face. He smiled.
He said, “You are Dahlia.”
The expression on his face was something she hadn’t seen in so long she didn’t recognize it. Most people looked away, and the ones who didn’t struggled to hide their revulsion. He looked genuinely happy to see her; his eyes wrinkled at the corners.
Unsure how to react, Dahlia chose to retreat. Scarf in place, she turned and hurried off down the platform, through the crowd and up onto the waiting New York City streets.
The next morning Dahlia feigned confidence as she approached Uriah, forcing a nonchalance she was sure fooled no one. He was warming up with a series of scales and fingerings when she stopped in front of his amp holding two cups of coffee. He glanced up, finished his scale and rested one hand on the strings, silencing the guitar.
He said, “Listen. Yesterday, I didn’t mean to”—he stopped and scratched his head—”I mean, I wasn’t trying to be rude. You know?”
She held out one of the cups of coffee and he took it. She held up a finger, signaling him to wait. Dahlia produced cream, sugar, and a stirrer from her pocket. She handed him those as well.
“Thanks,” he said. “We’re cool?”
She nodded. His reaction had actually been relatively tame. Before she started consistently covering the lower half of her face with a scarf, she’d endured much worse.
He smiled and held out a hand. “I’m Uriah.” She shook it and he said, “And you’re Dahlia.” It wasn’t a question. “Wow,” he said. “Just, wow.”
She cocked her head.
He said, “I didn’t recognize you with the scarf, but I was…no. I am a big fan. Got all your albums. Even saw your last concert at Beacon Theatre.” He mixed the sugar and cream into his coffee, took a sip and continued, “That’s good. Cleary not,”—he motioned to the coffee machine by the escalators—”subway coffee.”
She nodded, took the MIDI controller from her bag, and set it on the amplifier.
He sipped his coffee. “Where’d you get it?”
Dahlia took several tightly folded bills from her pocket and set them beside the MIDI controller.
He glanced at the money. “The coffee,” said Uriah. “Where’d you get the coffee?”
She tilted her head and pointed to the name on the coffee cup. “Black Mountain Coffee,” it read.
“Oh, yeah.” He shook his head. “Listen, I feel bad about yesterday. And since you brought me coffee?” He bent and plugged the controller into the amp, scooped the money up and handed it back. “No charge.”
Dahlia eyed Uriah.
“One condition,” he said.
She lifted her eyebrows, expectantly.
“Play with me.”
“I heard you yesterday with that tablet, and I know what you’re capable of. You controlled my song, twisted it to play what you played. Instead of playing over me, why not play with me?” He pointed at the controller. “I hooked you into an auxiliary port instead of directly in line.”
She looked away, considering the request.
“Or I can play with you. You were in F-sharp major yesterday, right?”
Uriah smiled. He strummed the one, an F-sharp major seventh. “I heard that one, then what, the four?” He played a B major.
She smiled under her scarf, flushed with the joy of sharing a common tongue. The feeling surprised her. She shook her head, and forgetting herself, took the tablet from her bag. She played the ninth of the chord, a C-sharp note, through the infrasound generator below the platform, leaning the B-major chord forward towards what came next.
Uriah looked around, momentarily confused. “I know it’s there, but I don’t hear it. It’s more like I…I feel it?”
Dahlia nodded. She used her tablet to type out the words, “C-sharp. Infrasound generator. Too low to hear.” She tapped her chest with an open palm.
“Woah. Yeah. I do feel it. What’s next?”
She held up five fingers.
She nodded and started to play the C-sharp five chord.
She stopped, her hand just above the tablet. What was she doing? Jonah would be here any minute. If he recognized her too soon, he’d never listen.
Uriah strummed the chord. He looked up just as she slipped the tablet into her bag and put the folded bills back on the amp. She hurried down the platform to take a seat on her bench.
Dahlia pulled her hood up over her head and set the tablet on her lap. The opening strains of Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” floated down from Uriah’s amplifier. She couldn’t help but smile. His taste in pop songs ranged from recognized classics to guilty pleasures. This definitely qualified as the latter. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d heard Def Leppard. She started to chase that thought but caught herself. Enough. She needed to focus on her own song.
Checking first to ensure none of the other people standing nearby were looking her way, she pulled her scarf down and sipped her coffee. Watching the crowd for Jonah’s face, she rehearsed her song in her head.
When he arrived moments later, she began to play. He perked up, searching for the now almost familiar tune. He swung his head towards Uriah just as the musician played a note that should have gone to the tight beam array in the camera overhead. He’d played a note for the entire subway platform that Jonah should have been the only one to hear.
Damn. She’d forgotten Uriah had patched her controller in so he could play along. He leaned on the note, letting it rip through the air before starting his own dance along the scale.
With no other choice, she moved on to the next chord, building the momentum. Uriah surprised her, following her lead without overpowering the sound. They made eye contact right before she moved to the five, the C-sharp seventh.
His song moved with hers, not following but keeping pace and building on her notes, layering on harmonies she’d never imagined. When she couldn’t stand it anymore, when the need to resolve the tension grew so great she thought she might burst, she led him back to the one.
Except he didn’t follow. He repeated the melody he’d created. The conflict grated on her ears, ruining the resolution that should have felt sublime. She cursed Uriah. She cursed herself; she’d been stupid to trust him. She didn’t even know him. So what if he’d seen her in concert and bought her albums?
She suddenly remembered Jonah. Where was he?
The subway doors closed and the car started to pull away. She stood and looked up and down the platform, checking each of the subway cars. This was his train though, he’d be onboard. After a few seconds she spotted him inside the departing car. She watched the train pull away, taking him with it.
Her head spun. She hadn’t meant it to go this way. She felt nausea grip her stomach, followed by the hot flash of rage. Uriah had ruined it. Instead of a haunting melody, they’d played a clumsy, discordant duet. Jonah might remember the song, but certainly not with any fondness, and certainly not with the aching desire she’d intended.
Dahlia grabbed her bag and stuffed her tablet inside as she stormed down the platform. She glared at Uriah while pointing at the MIDI controller with one hand and holding her other out, palm up.
Uriah held up his hands and shook his head. “Sorry about that, I missed the change.” He unplugged the controller and held it out. She snatched it from his hand and stuffed it into her bag.
“Whoa,” he said. “It was an honest mistake.”
She glared back at him. She took her tablet out and typed out, “You ruined it.”
He said, “You never missed a change?”
She thought about it and typed, “You didn’t follow.”
He grimaced. “We were going to play together, remember?” He stared at her, letting the question hang in the air. He glanced down the darkened subway tunnel. “So you were playing for who, somebody on that train?”
She considered the question, not wanting to answer. She wanted to leave, to just go. She couldn’t though; she needed that amp, she needed Uriah to cooperate. Even if she found another amp or another set of speakers, his playing would interfere with her song. Finally, she nodded.
“But you don’t want him to see you?”
She hesitated. She nodded again.
Uriah squinted at her. “Why?”
Dahlia sighed. She typed out “We were together.”
She tilted her head. She typed, “We’re not.”
Uriah barked out a laugh and smiled. “Yeah. I got that. Can I ask why?”
Why, indeed? She paused, considering her answer.
In short, because he’d left her. At first, facing the horror of her cancer had brought them together. It offered something to overcome, something to fight against. They’d only been together for a few months when she was diagnosed, but he’d sworn he’d stick by her.
He stayed by her side through the chemo, the surgeries, and her recovery. He’d stayed long enough to see her through it all, to make sure she’d survive. She often wondered how much of that was out of obligation.
Regardless of why, he’d stayed until her prognosis had improved, until he knew she’d live. And as she’d realized she was going to live the rest of her life looking like a monster, hating her own reflection and struggling to come to terms with the loss of her voice, he’d drifted away.
Really, she couldn’t blame him. He’d fallen in love with a beautiful siren. How could he be expected to love the disfigured, silent thing she’d become?
She typed out, “He left.” Those two words said the only thing she knew with any certainty. He hadn’t returned her messages, so she didn’t know exactly why. She could guess, though.
They stood there a moment, the commuters moving around them. Uriah strummed at his guitar. She could see he wanted to ask more. Finally he said, “And your song, it’s going to bring him back?”
She typed, “I hope.”
He gave her a half smile. “Let me ask you something.”
She raised her eyebrows.
“I know what that progression should sound like, a one-four-five-one. And I know there are parts I should feel, not hear. But there are some I don’t feel or hear. Where are they?”
She considered the question for a second. She’d told him this much, why not the rest? She glanced up at the security camera overhead. His eyes followed hers and she typed out, “Ultrasonic array. Focused beam of sound.”
“That you point at him?”
“Huh,” said Uriah. “Why?”
Dahlia wondered again why she was explaining any of this to Uriah. She probed the tiny warm spot in her chest and realized that something about sharing the song felt good.
She’d written it alone. She’d practiced it alone, or for people in too much of a rush to listen. She’d set up everything she needed to play it alone. After all that, and months of preparation, her audience of one had yet to appreciate it. Would Uriah?
She took the tablet and MIDI controller from her bag and plugged the device back in. She set the volume low enough that only they would hear, and set her tablet to play all the parts through Uriah’s amp. She played, from the root to the fourth, on to the fifth, and then finally returned back to the root.
“Yeah, that’s nice,” he said.
She held up a finger and repeated the melody again. He listened.
“Huh. Catchy,” he said.
She smiled and played it a third time, stopping just before the resolution.
He nodded. “I know that itch. It’s an earworm. Can’t forget that song. And I really want that next chord.”
She typed out, “Subsonic and ultrasonic sound intensify the itch.”
Uriah shook his head. “That’s amazing.”
She nodded. Then, she typed out, “Have to play the right notes, though.” His face fell as he read it. She felt instant guilt and smiled with her eyes, trying to dull the sharp barb of truth buried in the words.
“Guess so.” He glanced back down the tunnel where the train had disappeared and then back at her. “So why tell me?”
Why indeed? Then she realized why she had. She typed out, “So you can help.”
“Play with me,” she typed. Her solo could be a duet.
They spent the next few hours rehearsing, working through the chord progression, harmonizing and improving the melody. Dahlia had known Uriah had talent, but she’d had no idea how much. Not only did he keep up, he improved the song, adding his own touches in places she hadn’t known could be improved.
He twisted her song around the neck of his guitar, bending it under his fingers, making it his. The core stayed the same, but as he moved from one chord to the next, he filled the spaces with half steps and feints completely different from what she expected, and a world away from how she would have played. Dahlia felt a tickle of happiness; finding novelty in something so familiar felt amazing.
Uriah had improved what she’d created, changing the inflection of her sentence, somehow warming the message. It felt less like the sharp snap of bone, and more like a soft still-pink scar.
By the time the subway started to fill with people coming home, the song was better than it had ever been. Familiar faces that usually passed without turning their heads gathered around them, reflecting a joy back to Dahlia that she barely recognized.
The next morning, Dahlia set two cups of coffee and her MIDI controller on Uriah’s amp. She eyed the folding chair he’d set up next to it.
He smiled. “Yours if you want it.”
She considered the offer. While she hadn’t planned for Jonah’s first two experiences with her song to go so poorly, her earworm had been planted. Today was the day she’d resolve the song and reveal herself, so instead of walking further down the platform to her usual spot, she set her bag down and sat in the folding chair.
As the morning crowd started to trickle in, she sipped her coffee and powered up her remote sound generators, both above and below the platform. Once they were ready, she sat still, watching Uriah until he noticed.
He said, “You ready?”
“Cool. I’m going to make a few bucks while we’re waiting. You good with that?”
She nodded again.
He said, “You move your coffee cup from on top of my amp to down by your feet when he shows up, and I’ll follow your lead.”
She gave him a thumbs up, marveling over the spreading warmth inside her. Creating music again felt better than she ever imagined; seeing fresh joy on a listener’s face validated her like nothing else could. Maybe she’d never sing again. Maybe that didn’t mean she had to be silent forever.
Uriah played and she waited as the morning commuters rushed by in a blur, all buzz and grumble. After a while, she spotted Jonah making his way down the platform. She lifted her tablet, moved her coffee cup to the floor, and started to play.
She saw Jonah’s shoulders lift as soon as he heard the first note. The music crawled into his brain, reminding him of the unanswered question she’d asked him yesterday and the day before.
As Jonah walked closer, she picked up her tempo. Uriah followed, his notes sharp and ragged as they sliced through the smooth even tones she played. She felt a lump in the back of her throat, a tightness in her chest.
Jonah was just ten steps away when they moved to the climax. Infrasound thrummed in her chest. She could see the tension on Jonah’s face, almost feel the ache she’d created. She had him. He stood balanced on a pin, his face begging for release.
She held the chord, drawing it out as Uriah’s guitar wailed, plaintive, begging to move on.
Still, she held it.
Jonah was almost to them when, finally, she let go and led Uriah back to the beginning note, resolving the insatiable need she’d created. Jonah’s shoulders fell; he’d been holding his breath. She gasped, realizing that she had too.
She’d planned this moment for months. They’d make eye contact and rather than turning away she’d stare back, she’d let him see her. He’d stop, he’d listen, and he’d be hers again.
He did his part; he looked right at her. Her hood hid her face in shadow, she only had to look up. Except something tugged at her to play on, to dip back into the song.
That song that should have bored into his ear instead wrapped itself around her. It dug for the Dahlia she used to be.
Her breath caught in her throat. The tension sat heavy on her chest, pressing down hard. She felt the weight of a thousand stares, heard the inhalation of a million breaths. She remembered what it was to sing.
Jonah hesitated in front of her, cocking his head to one side. “Dahlia?” he said.
She swallowed the lump. With a tap on the tablet, she powered down the sound generators, releasing their hold on Jonah. She felt the tension fall away, felt the subway spring back to life. Uriah glanced back and forth between her and Jonah, watching carefully.
She lifted her head and made eye contact, her scarf still covering the lower half of her face. He faked a smile that she returned with her eyes.
“Hi,” said Jonah.
She lifted one hand and waved.
He stood before her, obviously unsure what to say next. Her song no longer bound him. Yet, he remained.
She felt something inside her chest she barely recognized, but didn’t see it reflected on his face. Dahlia felt the echoes of her song wrap her in an embrace. It had slipped through her self-loathing and breathed a gasp of life back into the lungs that once enchanted the world.
She typed out, “Good to see you,” then tilted the tablet so he could read it.
“You too,” he said.
Dahlia looked at him, not used to seeing him up close. She could reach out and touch him, if she wanted to. Except, she didn’t. But she didn’t want to run from him either. And that surprised her.
She typed, “Take care.”
He smiled and said, “I will.” He turned to go, but stopped. He looked back and said, “I like it. Your new song.” Then he turned and left.
She watched him head down the platform. After a few seconds she looked back to Uriah. She typed out “Thank you” on her tablet.
He nodded, smiled, and then she sat back down.
They played on together, Dahlia’s newfound voice rising in triumph above the subway noise. A small crowd gathered as Uriah joined in, magnifying her song into something more than she ever could have created alone.
I really enjoyed that. I didn’t have a lot of time but I couldn’t put it down. I wanted to see where you were going with it.
I plan to read more of your work.