Sturm und Clang – Sara Kate Ellis

Sturm und Clang – Sara Kate Ellis

April 2022

“Just use your homespun innocence, Sam. Those townies will trust you.”

“Homespun, Barry? Really?” Sam says. “It’s more like Pottersville from It’s a Wonderful Life. Only without the fun.”

Barry’s her editor at Pitch Magazine, the West Coast’s foremost—which means surviving—music magazine, but for an editor, he’s surprisingly averse to details. She stares out the Lyft window at the dry, sunlit malaise of Felder’s Pike, sees a nail salon and a boarded-up tax office, probably once a thriving brick-and-mortar. On the corner, a payday loan shop hides the thinly painted-over logo of a Starbucks that must have ducked in and out of the town within a season, and Hoagie’s Diner, where her favorite band The Waffle Irons used to hang out after shows. Now it’s a tavern with tinted windows and an entrance scattered with cigarette butts.

“Well, then, push the dying Americana angle,” Barry says. “Get a feel for what was there. The sweetness. A look back at an America when it was okay to be aspirational.”

He says it like it never was okay to be aspirational, but now that the danger’s passed, he’s willing to indulge the idea a little. Sam reaches into her handbag, brushing her fingers against her Tic Tac container of edibles for reassurance. Barry’s never liked The Waffle Irons, just like most people don’t like The Waffle Irons, but with the death of Mapes Higgins, the band’s last living member, his hand has been forced. And Sam, much to her surprise, has just touched down to write a three-thousand-word feature, her biggest for the magazine yet.

She glances at the file she’s brought with her, printed out so she doesn’t have to squint at her phone. A photocopy of the old liner notes to a reissue of their album sneers up from the page.

‘Wherefore art My Roameo’ evinces the loneliness and confusion experienced by those average girls, unwillingly thrust into the music business and their strange brand of stardom. They were an amalgam of the everygirl. Not too pretty, but not homely either. Plump in that charming way of girls in farming communities, with the unambitious dreams of homemaking and boys.

Ugh.

“A nice memorial,” Barry says. “We’ll throw in some copy about Niles Deep.”

There it is. The real reason Sam’s here. Niles Deep, an algorithm in the guise of a soulfully bland white boy, just namedropped the song in his latest hit, ‘Cool Run Deep’.

Wherefore art my Roameo

I’m here yo! I’m here yo!

Sam’s not thrilled her chance to write about her favorite band has been generated by a bot-thario, but she’ll take it. She’s twenty-eight, still paying off loans in a rent-controlled apartment, and her mother is telling her to take up teaching. Poor man’s Pottersville or not, she’s come to find redemption or a recharge. Or something.

“A nice hometown memorial,” Barry says. “Have it to me by Monday.”

The first time Sam heard the Irons, she laughed like everyone else, played the LP once more out of disbelief, and then—telling herself it was for kicks—listened repeatedly until each song became an earworm. Either the girls—Mapes, Amy, and Edith — were geniuses, or they were the worst band in the world. Most critics bent toward the latter, describing their sound as “a nasal cacophony whose key changed like the Dow during a meltdown… a nonsensical mishmash of teenage melodrama mixed with plain Jane reserve.” They were the garage band that never quite made it out of the garage, so bad they were brilliant. This was why Gen X women loved them. This is why Sam, a Millennial or a Zennial—that window keeps changing—loves them, too.

Her first stop is Felder’s Pike High, the girls’ erstwhile, not-quite alma mater. Ingrid Bevan, former Mapes classmate now school counselor, is giving her the grand tour.

“Not a lot of folks around here care for their music much, to be honest,” she says. She leads her to a display case in the double-load corridor, her expression somewhat apologetic. “But we’re proud of them all the same.”

A few ribbons and photographs are pinned haphazardly to a felt board. There’s an old black and white of The Waffle Irons jammed in between one of a winning golf team and someone taking a second-place award in a national speech contest.

“What was it like?” Sam asks. “On their last day?”

The story goes that their father Ward, a government contractor, cracked after tanking his portfolio. His solution? A get-rich-quick scheme involving a truckload of cheap instruments and pulling Mapes, Edith, and Amy out of school. From then until his death in the Bechlan asylum three years later, the girls spent their days isolated, practicing instruments and holding concerts at birthday parties and the Runyon Community Center. Preparing for a big break that never happened. The girls released one album with a print run of two thousand copies. It got little to no airplay and they never released a second, although they were working on it. Sam’s got a few pages of the sheet music copied from the U.C.L.A. archive, scrawled by hand in a million different colors, and despite Barry’s trivialization of the assignment, she harbors a secret hope she may unearth the rest.

Bevan shrugs. “They were pretty circumspect, but that was how those girls were. Honestly, I think Mapes was happy about it. She didn’t get along with the teachers here.”

“Really?” Sam’s eyes drift over the photo: the girls hunched up on the stage, their instruments surrounding them like oversized luggage. They don’t look much like rebels. Ward even boasted something to that effect in the liner notes, how they were ‘counter to the counter culture’.

“Mapes was too smart.” Bevan says. She glares at a pair of boys as they scurry past her down the corridor, late for class. “All three of them were. Mapes and Edith were already taking classes at the local college.”

“College?” Sam turns back to her, blinking in surprise. “And Ward allowed it?”

Bevan waves her off like it’s obvious. “Of course. He talked the college into letting them attend.”

Sam takes this in as Bevan directs her to a set of carpeted stairs at the end of the hall.

“Do you know what they were studying?”

She expects to hear something like Intro to Accounting or Home Management, but Bevan smiles a little wryly, as if Sam’s response was predictable.

“Advanced calculus, linear algebra, that kind of stuff. Mapes used to really tick off our math teacher, Mr. Dredley. She was way ahead of him.” She stops before a set of heavy doors. “Here we are.”

Sam shakes off her confusion. Nearly everything she’s read about the band alludes to their averageness. Their being torn from school itself was never treated as a squelching of their potential, but the deprivation of what middling observers might refer to as a ‘normal life’. She reminds herself to ask Bevin more questions later, but right now she’s got to focus. The shop class is part of Irons lore. It’s where the girls played their last show, unbeknownst to their father, returning on the day that, had they stayed enrolled, would have been Amy’s last as a senior. Sam’s got a lone, grainy black-and-white from the event. In it, the girls stand next to a boxy metal sculpture adorned with vacuum tubes and wires. Their instruments and amplifiers flank the trio like lumpish rooks.

“I wasn’t there,” Bevan sighs. “But the girls came in during the final class period, locked the room, set up, and started playing. Principal Mosier chewed them out and kept their equipment impounded for a couple of weeks, but not much else. Didn’t tell their Dad on them.”

“Nice of him,” Sam says.

Bevan shrugs, a mix of sour and sad puckering her features. “He knew what they were dealing with at home.”

The concert was just a few days before Ward checked into the asylum. Did the sisters sense a weakness and act on it?

She takes in a breath, readying herself for her Abbey Road moment, but the room Bevan opens up on lies strictly in the present. Bright halogen spills over row upon row of kids with anime hairstyles, all clacking away at their laptops. A clash of midis and dub beats and vocoder outbursts pings around the room like cannon fire. It’s music, or a semblance of it, but it scrapes against Sam’s eardrums like a saw blade. She’s been on her share of music pilgrimages, The Motown Museum, Hendrix’s grave, and the old Satyricon club in Portland, but she doesn’t think she’s ever been more disappointed. It’s as if Niles Deep and his algorithms have usurped this part of the Irons’ story too.

“Kind of like stepping onto the Tardis, I imagine,” Bevan says, a hint of pride in her voice. “It’s a computer lab now.”

Sam’s about to press her hands to her ears, but she stops herself as she takes in the equally confused gaze of the instructor, a dark-haired, bespectacled woman who slaps her laptop shut as if they’ve caught her running a search on homemade explosives.

“What is this, Ingrid?” She’s clearly not happy about the intrusion.

Bevan plants a palm across her forehead. “Oh, my word, I forgot to tell you. Florence, this is—”

Sam crosses between them, offering her hand. “Sam Taber from Pitch magazine.”

The woman bends over her desk to take it, her grip hard and a mild scowl tugging at her lips. She’s buttoned-up yet effortless, in a denim shirt and dockers, a cross between a schoolmarm and a Silicon Valley hopeful. Sam suspects she must have seven exact copies of that outfit in her closet.

“Flo Nagourney.” Her eyes drop to Sam’s Tee with its bright orange logo reading Gabba Gabba Hey!

“This is where The Waffle Irons used to hang out,” Bevan says. She’s already backing toward the door. “I thought I’d—”

“Them?” Flo says. She trains her gaze at some kids in the back of the classroom. “I hear Fortnite, Georgi!” She glares. “And Davis! Update your fic later. I want those loops coded before the bell.” She rolls her shoulders back and turns to face Sam. “That’s fine, but my kids are up to their ears in Sonic Pi, so it would be great if you could make this quick.”

“Not a problem,” Sam says.

In fact, she’s more than happy to oblige.

Bevan coughs out a quick excuse, ducking out as the din starts up again. Flo doesn’t move, however. She’s still staring at Sam like an object that doesn’t sit right on the mantel.

“Guess this isn’t what you came for,” she says.

“Not… really,” Sam says, a little disconcerted by the sudden awkwardness between them.

“Well…” Flo gestures to a pair of large sockets in the corner. “It’s still got the wiring from the old days. I’ll give it that. You could power an ENIAC in here.”

“A what?”

Flo smiles, as if she shouldn’t have expected Sam to get it. “An old mainframe.” She looks back, somewhat ruffled. “So the Irons, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“And someone’s paying you for this?”

Flo eyes Sam’s shirt again, and Sam can practically hear the calculations in her head. T-shirt plus age plus cheap sneakers equals eking out a freelancer’s income at thirty.

“Take all the time you need,” Flo says. “Got to get back to the real work.”

She turns and leaves Sam in the corner with her face on fire.

Real Work.

She’s still fuming in the Lyft to her next stop. Those are the same words her mother used, still uses to freeze her insides, dragging her back from that stubborn insistence—very lonely, very stubborn—that she has as much right to pursue a passion as the more privileged kids do. But she does get where this Flo person is coming from. In fact, what stuns her most about Ward’s plan is less its ludicrousness than its relative viability. That in the late 1960s-early 1970s, the idea of getting rich off music was only moderately bonkers as opposed to downright delusional.

Imagine having a parent push you to be a musician. An artist, of any kind.

Just imagine.

Dave Blankenship, a former neighbor, still lives next door to the Higgins’ old Victorian. It stands fenced in on the lot, sagging and condemned, but he’s agreed to let Sam view it from his adjacent backyard.

There’s been little upkeep. New battens and sarking boards have been patched in to keep out rain. The gabled roofs and spiny turrets have been dulled to nubs by time and neglect. But she can almost hear the clash of guitars against basement acoustics—Amy’s drumbeats and the atonal chorus of ‘Wherefore Art My Roameo’. He’s one of the most enduring mysteries of the sisters’ non-stardom. Roameo suspects have ranged anywhere from innocent crushes to older paramours and even a stray cat. The girls denied every theory.

“We already had a cat,” Edith said. “And did you think we had time for boys?”

Blankenship has the look of an astronaut gone-to-seed, blotchy skin once pink with health, a belly pushing out the bright orange frond on the front of a Hawaiian shirt. He points through an opening in the fence between their properties where the boards have split off. “Mapes held on to the old place,” he says. “Now she’s gone, some upstart’s gonna flip it.”

Sam guesses that the properties in this town aren’t that flippable, but she keeps that to herself. Ward Higgins was admitted to the Bechlan Asylum in the summer of 1969, and died there a year later. Edith and Amy went to live with an aunt on the other side of the country, while Mapes hitchhiked to the East Coast. She reappeared Heathcliff-like in the mid-1980s, rich off some investment, and moved a few things into the house, but didn’t stay. It makes sense and no sense at the same time, Sam thinks, like some sad secret Mapes couldn’t quite let go of.

“I used to sneak cigarettes to Mapes,” Blankenship says. “She’d stand on a footstool and smoke them by the window and blame me when Ward asked about the smell.” He chuckles at the memory. Sam’s eyes follow the uneven concrete around the yard, now cracked with age and dandelions.

“Were you close?”

“Good friends,” Blankenship says.

“Must have been friction, with all the noise.”

He shrugs. “Most of the neighbors weren’t so wound up about the music. There were lots of kids trying to be The Beatles back then. It was the other stuff.”

“Other stuff?”

He squints up at the sky, frowns as if he senses rain. “Lots of banging around in the basement.”

“Drums?” Sam’s almost checked out on this guy, but there’s a note in his voice that transcends bloviating.

“Nah.” He shakes his head, almost bitterly, like the kid who was never asked to play. “They were working on something.”

She squints at him, then stoops to peer through the fence again. “New material?” She knows this is not what he means.

He pauses and then leans in a little. “If you ask me, nothing good or the Feds wouldn’t have taken Ward away. Searched the house too.”

Sam steps back, a clipped bark of laughter escaping her. “Really?”

Blankenship could have spouted this story to any of the other journos who’ve come to cover the Irons, journos, who from their previous coverage would no doubt have added some condescending marginalia to their lore. But he’s kept this one, waited until Mapes’ death.

“Never saw what it was,” Blankenship says. “Ward wouldn’t let any of their friends get past the front door, but I will say this,” he pauses, his Coke bottle lenses glinting with a kooky certainty. “The funny farm doesn’t usually show up in suits and sedans.”

Blankenship’s likely just an attention seeker or a sincere oddball, but she does another search for Ward Higgins. The Bechlan Asylum shut its doors in the early ‘80s and was demolished in ‘87. But there’s a name in an old article in a now defunct local paper, Shepley Labs. It was the last company Ward contracted with before he threw everything into the girls’ music career, notable for a series of domestic computing flops, including a cooking computer and an early home playmate called My Buddy. She pulls up a page on dead technology, double-taking on an ad featuring a boxy thing with lightbulb eyes and a grille for a mouth.

A companion more faithful than Rover.

He stays here, while you go there.

The ad copy is close enough to the Irons’ lyrics to give her pause.

Not one sold, the website says, but she wonders if it wasn’t one of Ward’s designs, a preview of failures to come. Or maybe he brought home a prototype. She looks at her watch, regrets not having asked Blankenship more questions. But it’s late now, and her mind is churning and there’s another place she needs to visit.

Hoagie’s is what she expected from the outside, dim and grimy and reeking of snuck cigarettes, but after the weirdness with Blankenship, she’s more than pleased with the obscurity. She takes a seat at the far end of the counter and orders a beer. Niles Deep’s ‘Cool Run Deep’ dribbles from a candied-up retro jukebox in the corner, the Irons’ lyrics followed by his dumbshit rejoinder.

While you Roam
I’m at home
I stay here, You go there
No car, no bike, no feet, no wind
Wherefore art my Roameo
I’m here-yo!
I’m here-yo!

Thief.

The bartender brings her a Pabst. It’s flat, but she downs half of it, her shoulders loosening with the buzz. She’s about to order a shot when she hears a throat clear and turns to see Flo watching her from a darkened booth nestled behind her.

What’s next? she wonders. Her mother walking through the door with a circled ad for entry-level daycare?

They stare at each other for a cold minute. Then Sam lets out a breath and tries, if not a smile, then a conciliatory nod. “Didn’t seem like the type for this kind of place.” She gestures to the stack of neglected worksheets next to Flo’s beer glass. “I mean, with all that real work and all.”

Flo shoots her a ‘you got me’ look and shrugs. “Here’s to ladies loitering in ice cream parlors.” She lifts her glass and gestures for Sam to join her.

Sam regards her suspiciously for another second. This has a strong whiff of all those times she ran into the cool kids outside of high school and they were inexplicably nice until Monday rolled around. But she grabs her bag and her beer and the gratis basket of popcorn and sits down with Flo in the booth.

“Bad day?”

Flo snorts. “You get warned about a lot of things before you become a teacher, but not that people have mistaken acronyms for algorithms. They really think that kids memorizing their ESLERS and IPFs means they’ll automatically know how to conjugate French verbs or enter a Python value.” She takes another long pull of her beer. “Even algorithms need content to work with.”

“Even that?” Sam nods up at the speakers. Niles Deep’s voice is oozing out of them like soft cream.

Flo shrugs, takes another sip of her beer. “Especially that. The formula’s been built on thousands of previous successes.”

Her tone is more philosophical than argumentative, but Sam’s had enough of numbers and success metrics. “Not everything needs a formula.”

“The Irons could have used one.”

Sam doesn’t deign to answer that. She senses Flo’s eyes on her, feels her deciding in that minute to dial things down.

Flo leans forward, her weight on her elbows. “Honest question, and I don’t mean reply guy honest. How can you stand them? The noise? Those listless voices?”

When people ask, Sam usually goes on the defensive. She’ll talk about their lack of hipster disaffection, argue that they’ve got a genuine it-is-what-it-is quality that outshines the grandiose white dude pronouncements of songs like ‘Let it Be’ or ‘Do You Realize’—the latter being the most cloying demand to smile she’s ever heard. But from the beginning, their music tugged at something else inside her, an assurance that it was okay to be bad. That it was okay to make the wrong moves, because if you kept going, you might just land on the right ones. And if you didn’t? At least they were yours.

“They…” she wraps her fingers around her glass. “I guess they’re proof it’s not too late, that you can suck by other people’s standards and still stumble onto something beautiful.”

Flo gives a half-smile, thoughtful but unconvinced. “Sounds like flailing.”

“Flailing, huh?” Sam reaches for her backpack, pulls out that file she’s been carrying around with her like a complex. “How about I show you something?”

She rifles through the mess until she finds what she’s looking for: the photocopies of Mapes’ sheet music. They’re hand-written and color-coded, with so many looping scrawls across the page, you can barely see where the music starts and stops. “One of the greatest misconceptions about the Irons…” She wipes the condensation from the table before resting the pages on its surface. “… is that they were clueless kids banging out random notes. But Mapes and Edith wrote all the music out first. They wrote and rewrote it until it was just the way they wanted it. They weren’t flailing. But they weren’t imitating or running on some soulless program either. That’s the difference.”

She nudges the pages in front of her, a chaos of slashes and looping notations, and watches as Flo goes quiet. Her expression is humoring at first, and then that smile disappears.

“You sure?” she says, not dismissively this time, but like she’s working out a problem.

“About what?” Sam says.

Flo runs her finger down to a series of slashes and numbers at the bottom of the page. She’s staring at it with a mix of bemusement and fascination. “This kind of looks like score.”

“That’s what I mean,” Sam says. “They compos—”

“No, I mean SCORE,” Flo says. “A musical notation program. The first.” She pushes up her glasses, and lifts the page for a closer look. “It started in ‘67, but it sure as hell wasn’t this far along then. When did they write this?”

Sam hesitates, not ready for this sudden show of interest. “Late ‘69 or ‘70. Why?”

Flo doesn’t answer and Sam doesn’t press her. She’s experiencing that vertigo when you realize you’ve gotten someone wrong. Flo’s looking at her with the same expression.

“Mind if I copy these?” Flo asks.

“Sure,” Sam says. “What for?”

Flo takes a long slug from a tepid water glass she’s been ignoring.

“I’m not sure yet,” she says.

Sam wants to think she’s impressed her, that some part of Florence Nagourney caught a glimpse of the Irons’ genius. In her room, she runs a search for SCORE and finds Flo isn’t far off at all. SCORE got its start at Stanford in ‘67, two years before Ward pulled the girls out of school. Sam doesn’t get coding, but the notations from the early incarnations seem rudimentary compared to the ornate chaos of Mapes’ sheet music. Was the music part of a program? Was Ward teaching them programming language in addition to the music? Sam paces in the cramped space between the bed and the radiator. Wishes she’d gone right past Blankenship into the house.

Her phone buzzes, loud. She picks it up, her heart stalling as she hears Barry on the other end. He rarely bothers her during a story unless it’s bad news.

He gets right to the point, too. “We’re going to have to cut your piece down.” He sounds exhausted, like this is the last among hundreds of similar calls.

“How much?”

“A thousand words. I’ll throw in an extra ten cents per word. I didn’t want to do this, Sam. Niles Deep has an album about to drop with ‘Cool Run Deep’. Nothing confirmed yet, but I’ve got to be ready for it.”

She doesn’t protest. No buts. There’s no arguing with Barry. She just asks another question.

“Did you know the girls were smart?”

“Ha. Funny.”

“I mean like brilliant smart. Ward wasn’t homeschooling them. Not really. They were going to college and—”

He laughs again, as if this time, she’s gotten him. “Who’ve you been talking to? Look, we’re not looking for Jim Morrison here. Just a nice, sweet story about some girls with stars in their eyes, okay? I’ll see you Monday.”

The next question dies in her throat.

The Runyon Community Center is one of the only Irons performance venues still standing. She’s got more than enough material to cover the meager word count Barry’s affording her—she’s much more worried about affording rent—but she’ll be damned if she misses this, for if there’s anything remaining of the Irons’ dissonant spirit, it’s here. The stage is rickety, the floorboards sunken and listing toward the exit. For a few minutes, she thumbs in her earbuds and revels in the lopsidedness of it all.

Who you are, where you come from
Who really can care
When you’ve got
The family that’s there?

For a few minutes, the Caligari angles fulfill their promise. She’s back amid the jeers and the sweat, the tossed soda cans and doomed-to-fail expectations of nearly every teenage rite of passage. Maybe it’s the old school smell of wood and scuffed sneakers, or the growing darkness blurring the edges of past and present, but she catches that ineffability, the flicker not so much of promise, but of the possibility that comes from the decision just to try.

Sam still wants to try. She’s close to finding something that’s hers; it’s the world that keeps giving up on her. This time when her phone rings, she doesn’t answer.

She only notices Flo’s message after she’s played the album all the way through.

[Mind coming by the school? I’d like you to hear something].

It’s a long weekend with no kids around, and when the security guard leads her to the lab, it feels portentous, not at all like the dry disappointment of the other day. She can already hear a clip of ‘My Confidant’ playing on a loop, Amy’s stroppy drumbeats warring with Mapes’ and Edith’s oscillating chord progressions.

On the stairs,
Under the chair,
You’re there
Even in my hair

Flo turns down the volume and gestures for her to come in. “Sorry for calling you out of the blue like that,” she says. “I worried you’d leave town.”

There’s an agitation in her movements that wasn’t there yesterday, like a movie where an old curmudgeon switches bodies with a hip teen. She puts a hand on the back of her chair, swivels it absently back and forth, like she’s deliberating. “Their music. It’s interesting.”

Sam coughs out a laugh. “Is that so?”

“I didn’t say ‘good’,” Flo says, pulling into herself again. “But…” She turns up the volume, lets the rest of ‘My Confidant’ blare, messy and discordant. “Beginners make predictable music. Same three chords. Same harmonies. But hear that? That quick rise over the dominant chord as it slides up again and then back down for no apparent reason?”

“Ah,” Sam says. “So you’ve got scientific proof that they suck?”

Flo waves off her remark, winces at feedback screech. “No. I mean, maybe. Ever hear of a Markov chain?”

“Not really,” Sam says.

“It’s a process that lays out a sequence of possibilities, with the probabilities always based on the event before it. They use it for weather, traffic flow, and to replicate the style of a composer. I input the Irons music to a program I’ve been tweaking. You’d better sit down for this.”

What comes next is a revelation. It’s a version of their music: the chaos, those wildly fluctuating sequences are still there, but each variation mingles perfect harmony with perfect discord, a balance where none should be. Sam’s always heard this in their music and struggled to explain it, but here that euphony jumps out, a clear pattern running through the drumbeats and the melody, steady and endless and unforeseeable.

“I expected something roughshod,” Flo says, lowering the volume. “Simple and predictable, but with this… every deviation evokes a myriad of other departures.” She draws back, face drawn; her dark eyes are brimming with excitement. “I didn’t mean to make things sound so soulless the other night. I was feeling pretty soulless myself, to be honest, but this is something special, Sam.”

Sam feels a flutter of something roll through her, a faint reverberation of the music.

“Do you…” she says. “Do you maybe want to break into a house?”

At night, the Higgins’ Victorian looks a little more forbidding; the paint is faded and chipping, blending into the overcast sky as if a shift in the clouds might cause it to flicker from view. They creep through Blankenship’s driveway, squeezing safely through the hole in the fence without incident. Sam starts for the front of the house, but Flo gestures toward the same basement window through which Blankenship passed his contraband soda and cigarettes. If they keep it quiet, they should be able to carry this off.

Flo fishes a flathead screwdriver from the pocket of her denim jacket. “I jump motherboards with these all the time,” she whispers, slipping the tip under the window beading. Rot has set in the wood, leaving only a thin line like black mold on caulk that gives easily. She slips the screwdriver beneath the glass and nudges it from the weather-damaged frame.

“You want to go first?” she says.

Sam doesn’t mind if she does.

The basement is a showroom of her expectations: a time capsule of wood paneling, low-ceilings, and yellow carpet muted into blood orange by the darkness. This is where it happened, where Ward exiled his daughters, and where they practiced their instruments until their fingers bled.

Flo tracks the flashlight along the walls, across the pencil marks marking their heights in a doorframe, that long series of befores. The paneling’s been stripped from the back wall along with a large block of carpet, revealing an expanse of pocked concrete and exposed wiring.

“They were powering something bigger than a few guitars,” Flo says, nodding at a series of cupholder-sized outlets, their mouths worn and blackened from use. In the corner, obscured by a tangle of hippy beads, is a large, blocky shadow.

Sam freezes, afraid this will be nothing, another grandiose overture that flops into a limping coda, but Flo’s fingers find hers, tugging her forward as she casts her beam over a surface of dark chrome. It’s a cabinet, the interior a hybrid from a mad scientist movie and some old timey player piano. Row upon row of bulbs and buttons peer from inside like some primordial, eye-studded creature. Vacuum tubes sag from its sides like limp appendages. She flashes back to that shop class photo, that strange, cumbersome thing near the amplifiers. There’s a resemblance to the My Buddy model, but this is a bigger, far more complicated beast.

Bevan’s and Blankenship’s words come back to her.

Mosier kept their equipment impounded for a couple of weeks…didn’t tell their Dad on them. Mapes was too smart.

They were building something.

“While you roam, I’m at home,” she whispers. “They must have known those men were coming for Ward. They hid it at the school because they knew Mosier wouldn’t contact him. And what self-respecting G-Man would suspect a trio of dopey girls capable of creating—” The words stop in her throat. She doesn’t have them. Not yet.

Flo lets out a low whistle in accompaniment as she reaches over, her fingers trailing under a dusty cylinder of paper marked up in Mapes’ chaotic hand.

No car, no bike, no feet, no wind.

“It was them,” Sam says.

“Who?” Flo’s gaze follows hers down to a faint scrawl at the bottom of the page.

Your Roameos,
Mapes, Edith, and Amy.

It’s not a My Buddy, but a much larger version of it, more eyes, a larger grille for a mouth regarding them without judgment. Like it’s been waiting for them all along.

On the drive back, they park the car at the edge of Goddard Lake.

The moon’s out and the air has just enough chill to add a bite to their exuberance. They stay close to the car, not daring to risk the moldering treasure in the trunk; the books and papers, and the old and very heavy Disc Pack Flo jimmied out with her screwdriver. It’s what they could carry away safely, but already Flo is talking about going back, even about putting down an offer on the house if she can scrape together the money. She’s pacing back and forth as she talks.

“Hear of Alan Turing?” Flo turns to her, her voice shaky. They could both use a drink.

“Saw the movie.”

“The good one with Derek Jacobi?”

“The lousy one with Benedict Cumberbatch.”

She laughs, but something unspoken passes between them, an acknowledgement of what already feels steady, a routine. Flo is rigid and methodical, and much more in control of her life, but to Sam, she’s a much-needed constraint in her algorithm.

“He built this monstrosity called the Aural Artefact,” she says. “Programmed in the British National Anthem and Glenn Miller and…” She leans back against the hood of the car. “It was the first recording of computer-generated music, and it sounded awful, like a pipe blowing a raspberry.” She slips her hands into her pockets. “But it reminded me of the Irons… There’s a lassitude there, like the machine just wasn’t in the mood.” She takes in a breath, her dark eyes now deep with possibility.

“Look,” Flo says. “I am not even close to understanding this, only that there’s a lot more to this than a trio of girls and a failed music career, and…” She raises her hand, her smile flat as if she’s growing impatient with herself. “I don’t mean it that way. It’s just that if you want someone to help you uncover the rest… I mean, I—I’d like to. Very much.”

Sam feels the warmth travel to her cheeks. “Like maybe uncovering the shocking revelation that Roameo wasn’t a boy?”

“Or a cat,” Flo says.

“You’ve done your homework.”

“I’m a teacher,” Flo says. “I lead by example.”

They grin at each other, bodies loosening as they meet in the middle. Sam doesn’t worry about her mother or the thousand words she’s got to plunk out by Monday. Barry will get what he wants: a phoned-in cutesy retrospective on three hapless, dopey girl musicians. And sure, Sam might even have to work in retail for a spell, but failure’s just another disguise when they don’t know what’s coming.

She’s got a real story now, about three girls in isolation; three lonely geniuses who built a friend and a collaborator, creating music into which the four of them could pour their loneliness. Art out of circumstances. It’s a much better story than the one even the Irons’ well-intentioned champions assigned to them; much better than the one she’s assigned to herself.

And on the drive back, when Niles Deep’s ‘Cool Run Deep’ drips from the radio, she finds herself singing along.

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