Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The Rest is Noise

When Andrew opened his eyes, he was surprised to find himself lying on the worn Oriental rug in the living room of his cramped Manhattan apartment. He tried to pick himself up off the floor, but his arms and legs barely contained the strength to move. Inside his ears, something wet and sticky sloshed. The faint smell of copper came to him.

On the rug beside his hand, his smartphone was still on, still talking to him. The outgoing message of the number he’d called—had he dialed a number?—was malfunctioning, stuck in a warped, maddening loop.

I can’t answer your call right now. Please leave a message . . . I can’t answer your call right now. Please leave a message . . . This is Justin Valentine . . . I can’t . . . leave . . .”

Finally, the call disconnected and the phone’s display screen went dark.

He didn’t remember what had happened. How had he wound up on the floor with his phone dialed? The delirium he felt was a familiar sensation, like coming out of a high, but he hadn’t done drugs in twenty years, not since undergrad at NYU. He looked at the phone again, inches from his hand. Why had he called Justin Valentine? They hadn’t spoken in years outside of the occasional rushed greeting at industry events, Justin being a label exec and Andrew a journalist for Bebop, one of the few remaining jazz magazines in the nation. Their estrangement pained him at times, but it was the way of the world. It didn’t matter how close you were once, college friends grew apart over the years—a slow, tectonic drift that seemed to start the moment you threw your caps in the air.

The stark white cord of Andrew’s headset had been ripped from the jack in the top of his smartphone. Red droplets dotted the earbuds. Blood, he realized. The wetness in his ears, the coppery smell, it was blood.

What was happening to him?

It came back to him then: the mysterious email from Justin Valentine, blank but for a single attachment: an MP3 file. An advance review copy of an album, Andrew had guessed, but then he’d seen the name of the artist. This was what he’d been listening to, had been listening to for days now, unable to stop, each note so perfectly honed, it sliced through him and plucked his soul like a harp.

He had to hear it again. It was like an itch, a compulsion. Each moment without it felt squandered.

He reached for his smartphone, surprised to find he had the strength to move after all, but the overwhelming need to hear that amazing music again gave life to his limbs. He plugged in the headset cord and slipped the earbuds into his blood-slicked ears. His fingers slid across the touch screen desperately until he found the MP3 file again.

Through the Gates of Hamelin by Indigo Mantooth.

Christ, he could hardly believe it. He hadn’t heard that name in so long. It’d been a decade since the last Indigo Mantooth album. A decade since anyone had seen him alive, including Andrew.

A memory came to him then, Indigo smiling that grin that always put Andrew at ease, no matter what mischief they were about to get into, and saying, “If this shit doesn’t make you see the face of God, you’re doing it wrong.” In one hand he held a record, Duke Ellington at Newport, and in the other a plastic baggie filled with hashish. Even now, some twenty years later, Andrew still couldn’t be entirely sure which one Indigo was referring to.

His finger paused above the glowing Play icon. This feeling was familiar too. It was the moment before you lit the pipe, or licked the tab, or snorted the line; it was the delicious anticipation before the high. This music was unlike anything he’d heard before. It was a drug, more powerful than any he’d ever tried.

He tapped the Play icon and closed his eyes.

As Indigo’s trumpet began to blare in his ears and he drifted away, some renegade part of him wondered how many times he’d listened to the album now. He’d lost count.

He wondered what day of the week it was. He’d lost track.

But most of all, he wondered what those things were that had begun growing out of his back.

• • • •

Andrew’s memories of college consisted of a four-year haze of drugs and music. Hash, angel dust, ecstasy, magic mushrooms, acid; whatever he, Justin, and Indigo could get their hands on cheaply. It was the late 1980s, and their classmates were tossing back Buds at parties and playing the latest from R.E.M. or U2 on their CD players, but not them. Instead, the three of them would sit in Indigo’s dorm room on West 10th Street, so high their heads felt like balloons no longer attached to their bodies, and as they tripped they spun vinyl on Indigo’s authentic 1972 Bang & Olufsen Beogram 4000 turntable. What came roaring out of his top-of-the-line Bose speakers was Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Davis’ Kind of Blue, Monk’s Misterioso. The music took them to places far, far away.

They were inseparable throughout their time at NYU. Some professors called them the Three Musketeers, others the Three Stooges, but always it was the three of them. Yet as the years rolled on, Andrew would sometimes walk in to find Justin and Indigo already high, a record already spinning on the stereo, having started without him. He would find them talking in conspiratorial tones, and they would stop when he came in and refuse to tell him what they’d been discussing. In those moments, Andrew’s world constricted on itself. The Three Musketeers reduced itself to the Two Musketeers and Andrew, the outsider.

During winter break of his junior year, he flew to Louisiana to visit Indigo at home, a desperate and poorly masked effort to strengthen their friendship so he’d never be left out again. Indigo lived in an old, ramshackle house in a humid backwoods bayou, its wooden walls rotting from the wet and leaning at odd angles, as if the house were in a constant state of collapse. Andrew wondered how someone who lived in such a setting could afford a first-rate stereo system like Indigo’s, but he didn’t pry. He did, however, voice his concerns about the house falling on their heads while they slept.

“Didn’t you hear? This house is magic,” Indigo teased him. “These old walls ain’t never gonna come down.”

He was only half joking. Indigo often claimed his parents were mediums who communed with the spirits, though the only evidence Andrew saw of anything unusual was the five-pointed stained glass star that hung in the front window. That, and the rats.

At night, the rats came from all over the bayou and congregated like parishioners on the front porch of the house. Andrew saw them the first night he was there, hundreds of little hairy bodies so tightly packed together that they seemed to undulate like water, their long, wormy pink tails thrashing.

He sank lower in the window, keeping his eye on the rats. “What are they doing?”

Indigo shrugged nonchalantly. He was clearly used to them. “God only knows. My folks say they’re drawn here because this house is on the border.”

Andrew scowled at him. “What border? You’re miles from Texas.”

Indigo grinned and wiggled his eyebrows. “The border between our world and the spirit world.” He laughed and pulled out a joint. “Now smoke up, and maybe we’ll see some more weird shit.”

Indigo didn’t talk to the spirits like his parents, but as they sat on the couch that night, stoned and watching the smoke curl along the ceiling, he told Andrew that he thought growing up in this house had given him a spiritual appreciation of music that few others shared, one more in tune with what he called the cosmic jam. He didn’t want to just study music, he said as he stubbed out the joint, he wanted to create it.

When winter break was over, Indigo returned to school with an old, battered trumpet he bought at a garage sale. It was the same horn he would play throughout his career.

• • • •

It was, in fact, a trumpet that had ignited Andrew’s fascination with the intangible power of music.

He’d been ten years old when his parents dragged him to Italy for a family vacation. There, in the Medici Chapels in Florence, he’d stood beneath Panizetti’s massive painting L’Ascensione di Gabriel and marveled. One look at the archangel Gabriel’s titanic form, his head amid the clouds, his wings all but blotting out a sky that roiled red with wrath and awe as he blew his trumpet to call mankind to worship, and Andrew had been overcome with the idea that music was, at its heart, an unknowable mystery.

What reason was there that a seemingly random assortment of sounds should make the listener feel something? The honking of a car horn didn’t stir your soul, and yet the exact same note blasted from Indigo’s trumpet at just the right moment could make your spirit soar. That was music’s power. It was what drew Andrew to its study. It was why he and Justin had tried to start a band with Indigo after he brought the trumpet to school, though they quickly gave up upon discovering they didn’t have an eighth of Indigo’s talent.

Yet the question continued to itch at him throughout his adult life: How could simple sounds touch you so deeply? The first humans who’d picked up a rock, or stick, or hollow bone and tapped out a beat had to have been moved by something. What had made them do it?

All Andrew knew for sure about music was that it was unknowable.

What he suspected was that it came from God.

• • • •

The growths on his back had started as six small, red, perfectly circular bumps. He noticed them in the mirror the morning after his first listen to Through the Gates of Hamelin. They’d grown bigger since, forming stiff protuberances like small cones of flesh with tiny puckered blowholes at their ends. He had no idea what they were or where they’d come from, only that he refused to take a moment away from listening to the album to see a doctor about them.

He hadn’t shaved in days. The unrecognizable, hairy-jawed thing that stared back at him from the mirror had hollow eyes and a crust of dried blood in its ears. His clothes were filthy. When was the last time he’d changed them? When was the last time he’d eaten anything? Had he checked in with his editor at Bebop? Called Mary from the coffee shop for a second date? He couldn’t remember. All he wanted to do was listen to the music, over and over again.

And oh, what beautiful music it was! The ten-year wait since Indigo’s last release had been worth it, he thought. More than worth it. Through the Gates of Hamelin was divided into two twenty-minute-long tracks, and he could imagine how it would have played as a traditional vinyl record, a single track on either side like Mingus’ Town Hall Concert or Albert Ayler’s At Slug’s Saloon. The first track, “Rider on the Tides,” was a blast of freeform improvisational jazz, a cacophony of sound as jarring as it was smooth, as much sandpaper as velvet. The second track, titled “Answer the Call,” was a soundscape so riveting, he couldn’t tell if there were other trumpets involved or if Indigo had somehow managed to clone himself into four, five, six separate trumpeters, each one weaving notes around the other to form an aural web, its final sustained note like a knife tearing through the membrane-thin barrier between the Earth and the heavens. In a word, the album was sublime.

The music took him to places far, far away. Often, he fell asleep listening to it and dreamt he was in a desert, surrounded by the ruins of an enormous marble building. Half-broken columns protruded from the sand at odd angles like grasping finger bones. What remained of the building’s domed roof lay half buried in a nearby dune. Above, the sky was as red as a rose petal, with no sun or stars, though somehow he could see. There weren’t even any clouds, just an unbroken plane of crimson from horizon to horizon. In the dream, something shifted underfoot. A bulge appeared under the sand and started toward him, six long, spiky protuberances breaking through the sand like sharks’ fins.

He would wake then, always at that same moment, with something unseen racing toward him beneath the sand.

• • • •

The three of them took different paths after college, though each was still guided by his love of music. Justin went the corporate route, earning an MBA and venturing into music distribution and promotion. Andrew attended Columbia to study journalism and landed magazine gigs that eventually led him to Bebop magazine.

Indigo went on to play the meanest horn this side of the guy who blew down the walls of Jericho.

Album after album topped the jazz charts and won Grammy nods. For a decade, Indigo Mantooth was the face of American jazz. Then, in 2001, he had his first flop, an album titled The Call. Considered a failure by fans and critics alike, it lasted a week on the charts, then plummeted, dragging Indigo down with it.

Shortly after, he disappeared. Rumors of his death spread quickly through the smoky jazz clubs of Manhattan, though Andrew stubbornly refused to believe it, despite the fact that by then he and Indigo had lost touch. But there was no obituary, no public death certificate or record of burial. Still, Indigo never resurfaced to put the rumors to rest, never returned Andrew’s phone calls or responded to his emails and letters. It was as if, in failure, Indigo Mantooth had been erased from the world.

• • • •

Andrew woke from a dream of the strange desert to find himself standing in a dark, empty hallway. The smell of dust and stale air stung his nose.

Startled, he nearly fell over, and grabbed the wall for support. It took a moment for him to get his bearings, and for his jackhammering heart to calm. The wall was dusty under his palm, its plaster crumbling from neglect. Cobwebs hung in the corners and a row of empty light sockets lined the ceiling. Spray-painted graffiti marred the walls and ceiling. The window at the end of the hallway was boarded up; the only light source the sunlight that squeezed through between the planks of wood.

How long had he been here? How had he gotten here?

As his mind cleared, the hallway became eerily familiar. He’d been here before, he realized suddenly, been here many times, in fact. He looked at the door directly in front of him and knew, even before he saw the faded ghost of the room number in its chipped paint, that it was Indigo’s dorm room.

He’d heard that the old NYU dormitory on West 10th Street had been closed and scheduled for demolition in favor a new facility, but the recession had put the plan on hiatus, the job only half done.

Why had he come back here?

More to the point, how had he come here? The last thing he remembered was falling asleep at home listening to Through the Gates of Hamelin. Was he sleepwalking now, on top of everything else?

The floor was carpeted with a thick layer of dust that showed two pairs of footprints. One was fresh, his own, ending where he stood before the door. The other was older, the prints salted with a light coating of new dust. They were flat, treadless, like the soles of dress shoes, and they continued into the room. Someone else had been here.

Terrified, he turned and ran, fleeing down two flights of stairs to where he remembered the exit was. He burst through the plywood-boarded door, the padlock jangling uselessly on its broken chain, and out onto West 10th Street. The pedestrians walking by didn’t give him a second look. Greenwich Village was already filled with men in filthy clothes and scraggly beards; what was one more?

It was only then that he realized Indigo’s trumpet was still blaring in his ear. He was still wearing the earbuds. He’d grown so used to them he didn’t feel them anymore. But how could that be? It’d been early morning when he’d tapped the Play icon for the umpteenth time and let the music carry him away, but judging from the position of the sun in the sky and the fact that the sidewalks were crowded with people heading home from work, it was now late afternoon. Christ, how many times had he tapped Play in his sleep?

He looked back at the old dorm, its shuttered windows like dead eyes. He hadn’t been back since graduation. Why now? West 10th Street was more than twenty city blocks from his apartment. Something had drawn him there, compelled him to walk a full mile on foot in his sleep.

He took the subway home. There, he took the earbuds out of his ears for the first time in . . . he couldn’t remember how long. Since he’d charged the phone last night? No, he’d continued listening even then, with the phone connected to the outlet. The earbuds were so coated with blood they looked as if they’d been painted red. It was jolting to see, but even more jolting was being cut off from the music so suddenly. Over the past days—weeks?—every note had become such a part of him that its absence felt like a yawning pit.

The dorm. Why had he gone back to the dorm?

He was losing it. That was the only answer. Something inside him was broken, and all that was left were disjointed fragments spinning off in every direction.

He dropped onto the couch, and the outgrowths on his back ached when they hit the upholstery. They’d grown bigger, stretching his dirty, sweat-soaked shirt away from his back. If they kept growing like this, one day soon he wouldn’t be able to fit a shirt over them anymore. Then what? How big would they get?

What were they?

What was happening to him?

• • • •

One day at NYU, their music history professor asked the class, “Who is the greatest musician of all time?”

The students responded with a variety of names—Beethoven, Thelonius Monk, Jimmy Page, Rush (that one earned a titter from the class)—but the professor only shook his head dismissively.

“Wrong,” he proclaimed. “The greatest musician of all time is the Pied Piper.”

The class erupted with noise, some laughing to pretend they were in on the joke, others harrumphing indignantly like grand dames who’d found a spot on the silver. Andrew was one of the laughers, and he turned to Indigo beside him, expecting to see him laughing too, but Indigo sat listening intently. From Indigo’s other side, Justin glanced over at Andrew, ran a finger around his ear, and whispered cuckoo noises.

“The thing about the Pied Piper,” the professor said, “the thing most people don’t know, is that the earliest versions of the folktale tell of a mysterious piper who shows up in a village one day and, without reason or explanation, leads all the children away with a song, never to return. Imagine that. Hearing his music was all it took for every child in the village to fall under his spell and leave their homes forever. Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, even Thelonius Monk at the height of his game couldn’t do that.”

The room fell silent. Indigo picked up his pen and started writing feverishly in his notebook.

“It was only centuries later that the story was changed,” the professor continued. “The piper became a rat catcher hired by a village to lure plague-carrying rats away with his magic pipe. This is the story you all know, this bastardized version where the villagers refused to pay him afterward and he retaliated by turning his magic pipe on their children to lead them away just as he had the rats. But it’s bullshit.” Another titter ran through the class, a nervous one this time. “The new version was an attempt to fix a tidy and understandable moral on the original, far darker tale. The Pied Piper was never a rat catcher. He didn’t catch rats to save villages from the plague. He was the plague. He was catastrophe, tragedy. He was death, and his motives were unknowable. But this much I do know. This much I can tell you with certainty, and if you take nothing else away from this class or your time at this university, this is what you should remember.”

Indigo looked expectantly at the professor, as if the man possessed secret knowledge.

“It wasn’t the pipe that was magic,” the professor said. “It was the music that came out of it.”

• • • •

After graduation, while Andrew was studying journalism at Columbia and Indigo was playing the jazz clubs and getting noticed, Justin Valentine was rising quickly through the corporate ranks. Eventually he worked his way up to CEO of the Verve Music Group, ushering in the label’s most profitable years ever, until it all came crashing down.

Unlike Andrew, Justin had never stopped doing drugs. The tabloids printed pictures of him raging half-dressed through the streets of South Hampton, or at a Grammys after-party with traces of white powder ringing his nostrils. A video surfaced of him smoking crack with one of the label’s artists, and that was the end of his career at Verve. Since then, there had been five arrests for drug possession, various hospitalizations, multiple stays in rehab, and rumors about him starting his own label.

Andrew had lost track of him somewhere in the cycle of abuse and detox, until Justin’s email came out of the blue with the new album from Indigo Mantooth attached. It opened an old wound. Indigo had never responded to Andrew’s attempts at contacting him, not even to let him know he was still alive. Yet he had clearly been in contact with Justin, possibly even working with him on the new album, and neither of them had thought to let Andrew know until now.

It was like opening that dorm room door and finding Justin and Indigo doing their thing without him all over again. The Two Musketeers and the outsider.

• • • •

This is Justin Valentine. I can’t answer your call right now. Please leave a message.”

“Goddamn it, pick up!” Andrew shouted, gripping his phone with shaking fingers. The lumps on his back burned as they rubbed against the fabric of his shirt. They were still growing, stretching his skin like taffy. “Please, Justin, I’ve got to talk to you.”

. . . can’t answer your call right now. Please leave a message.”

Justin’s voicemail was still malfunctioning, caught in an endless loop. Andrew winced, squeezing his eyelids tight. The pain was excruciating. His whole back felt like it was going to split open.

“What did you do to me, you son of a bitch?” he yelled into the phone, though he knew it would do no good.

The outgoing message only warped and stuttered in reply. “This is Justin Valentine . . . please . . . I can’t leave . . .”

Andrew’s body began to spasm. He dropped the phone and fell onto the floor.

The voice on the phone said, “Please . . . help me . . . where am I? Why can’t I leave?” And then the line went dead.

Andrew spat great sobs of laughter into the rug. He was going crazy, that was all. Loony tunes. The men in white coats were coming to take him away, ha ha.

The room spun and grew dark. His eyelids fluttered, his eyes rolled back in his head, and then he was in the desert again. It was just as he remembered, hot sand and red sky, but this time the domed building stood tall and proud, whole and untouched by the ravages of time, not yet reduced to the ruins he’d seen before. It was a temple, he realized, a shrine devoted to something unknowable that dwelt within it.

Music, the most beautiful he’d ever heard, floated out from the darkness at the heart of the temple, winding its way between the mighty columns and filling the desert with its sound. He recognized it immediately. He’d heard it enough times to know innately which note followed which. It was Indigo’s Through the Gates of Hamelin coming from inside the temple, but instead of confusing him, it put him at ease. He didn’t belong anywhere else but here.

He saw then that he wasn’t alone. Shapes surrounded the temple, walking on two legs like men, but they were taller, bonier, and their joints bent at wrong angles. Their hides were a matted, mangy gray. The eyes in their terrible, rodent-like faces were rolled back, just like his, blank and empty in religious ecstasy. They swayed and writhed to the music, and their pointed ears bled. Six long, fleshy extrusions sprouted on each creature’s back, identical to the ones on Andrew’s.

From behind him, a voice spoke suddenly, making him jump. “He remakes us in His own image so that we may better serve Him.”

Andrew knew that voice, and hearing it here in the desert, in his dream, filled him with horror. He turned around slowly and woke up on the floor of his apartment. His heart still pounding, he pushed himself up into a sitting position. The lights were out, though he didn’t remember turning them off. Had he been sleepwalking again?

The tumorous swellings on his back ached. They twitched with each breath he took, as though their roots had dug so deep inside him, they’d latched onto his lungs. He could feel the small holes at their ends puckering with each exhalation.

A murky shadow moved among the other shadows in the corner of the room. Andrew gasped and scrambled backward along the floor until his back hit the couch, sending a sharp pain through the growths there. The figure stayed in the shadows, resolving into the silhouette of a man in a long coat, but his identity remained as hidden as his face.

“Hello, Andrew,” the figure said.

Andrew started at the unexpectedly familiar voice. The same voice he’d known so well in his youth. The same voice from his dream.

“Justin?” Andrew reached for the lamp on the table beside the couch.

“No, leave it off,” Justin said. “The light hurts. I’m not used to it anymore.”

Andrew let his arm drop, leaving the room in darkness. “How did you get in here?” He looked down the short hallway that led to the front door, but the corridor only ended in darkness.

“I’ve missed you, Andrew. We both have,” Justin said.

Andrew got to his feet. “What’s happening to me?”

“You are being lifted,” Justin said. “He is lifting you. I was like you, confused and frightened when He first came to me. But oh, the things He showed me, Andrew. The ecstasy of it all. I understand His need now. His role for you and me.”

“Damn it, Justin, just tell me what’s happening to me! What are these things on my back?”

“The price of admission,” he said.

A sharp pain shot through Andrew, and he doubled over, gripping his stomach. “It’s the music, isn’t it? It’s changing me. Putting these things on my back. Making me sleepwalk. Giving me those insane dreams.”

“Not dreams,” Justin said. “Glimpses into another world. He can show you more, Andrew. He can take you there.”

Andrew sat down on the couch, still hugging himself. “You’re out of your mind. You’ve done so many drugs, you’ve lost touch with reality.”

“I regret nothing,” Justin said. “The drugs opened my mind, expanded my consciousness enough to receive Him when He came to me. He played His music for me, His incredible music, and at last I understood.”

“Bullshit,” Andrew said. “Why would Indigo reach out to you and not me? I was his friend too.”

“So little has changed. Are you really the same insecure college kid who thought his friends were going to leave him behind?”

“It looks like you did. How long were you working together? Why didn’t either of you tell me he was recording a new album?”

“He created that album just for you, Andrew. There was no recording session, He willed it into being, out of thin air. That’s how powerful He is.”

Andrew shook his head. “You’re fucking high.”

“He had to make sure you’d hear. This was the best way,” Justin said. “Through the Gates of Hamelin. I thought you would appreciate the reference.”

“This is crazy,” Andrew insisted. “This is just some drug-fueled psychotic break. What did you do, slip me something?”

Justin laughed. “What He offers goes beyond drugs, Andrew. Way beyond them.” He stepped forward, into a slash of light from a streetlamp outside the window. Andrew had seen plenty of junkies in his time; it came with the territory when you wrote about musicians, and Justin certainly looked like he was still using. His face was pale, his cheeks scruffy, unshaved, and sunken beneath sharp cheekbones. Dark circles shadowed his eyes. A white cord drooped from his ears into his coat pocket. He was bleeding around the earbuds, dark, dried blood painting the sides of his face.

It was like looking in a mirror. If Justin was still using, then so was Andrew, only their drug of choice had changed.

“His music is a higher art form. Transcendent. Transformative,” Justin said. “It’s a beacon, a summoning, and the call has already been answered. He chose me, Andrew. And now He’s chosen you too. It’ll be just like old times. The three of us, remember? We’re getting the band back together.”

Justin was wearing dress shoes, Andrew saw. Flat soled. He wondered if he inspected them closely if he would find dust on their soles. He closed his eyes, wishing that would make everything go away. The growths on his back twitched.

“There are so few of us, Andrew, the ones who truly understand what music is. Where it comes from. Why it moves the soul the way it does. He knows.”

Andrew opened his eyes. “You said Indigo came to you, but where had he been? He was gone for ten years.”

Justin grinned. It made his gaunt, pale face look like a skull. “Find out for yourself. He wants to see you.”

Andrew leapt off the couch. “Indigo is in New York? Where?”

“You know where.” With that, Justin turned and walked to the door. From beneath the back of his coat, six large, tubular shapes bulged against the fabric.

• • • •

The last time Andrew had seen Indigo was during an interview for Bebop magazine. As they’d sat across from each other at a table in the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria, the miniature voice recorder blinking silently between them, Andrew almost hadn’t recognized his old friend. Indigo looked gaunt, like he hadn’t eaten for weeks. His eyes had sunk deep in his head, and his skin, once the color of smooth mahogany, now looked ashy and pale. Andrew asked if he was all right, and Indigo just nodded and said, “Let’s do this.” So they did.

“In several of your interviews, you’ve called music ‘the celestial language,’“ Andrew said.

“That’s what I believe, yeah. If music can bridge the gap between human beings, black, white, yellow, and brown, and bring them together with a kind of universal language, why can’t it bring all life together everywhere?” Indigo seemed to come alive as he spoke, the color returning to his face. “The universe is a big place, man. You really think we’re the only ones making music? Earth’s kind of a primitive planet. What about the more advanced civilizations out there?”

A half-smile grew on Andrew’s face. “Are you talking about aliens?”

“Aliens, spirits, angels, gods, whatever you want to call them. Radio and TV waves are floating out there from our little blue ball, so why not music? Music lifts the soul. It joins everything together. I know they’re out there, listening. Riding the tides of the universe and just grooving on the beat.”

Andrew chuckled. Now this was the Indigo he’d known in college. He decided to play along. “Have you ever heard any of their music? Are they communicating with you?”

Indigo laughed too. “Oh yeah, I’ve heard it. We play together sometimes, me and that rider on the tides. A cosmic jam session that lasts for days at a time. Ain’t like nothing you’ve heard before. It would blow your mind. I can’t even listen to regular music after that. Compared to this, man, the rest is noise.”

Still grinning, Indigo looked at him expectantly, ready to keep going. Andrew took a deep breath. He knew what he had to ask next, and he was dreading it, but his editors at Bebop would never forgive him if he didn’t. So he steeled himself, checked his notes, and said, “Let’s come back down to Earth for a moment. Your latest album, The Call, didn’t connect with your fans the way your previous albums did. Sales numbers were pretty low. Reviews labeled it too experimental, too out there to catch on. The New York Times called it, and I’m quoting here, ‘a cacophony of seemingly random trumpet notes that should never have been recorded, let alone packaged for sale—’”

“I know what they called it,” Indigo interrupted. The grin was gone, and it was like he’d been shut down. His face grew closed, drawn, like a gate falling over his features.

Andrew felt like he’d stabbed his old friend in the gut. Hoping he sounded more sympathetic than mercenary, he said, “That’s got to sting.”

Indigo glared at him for a long time. Andrew wondered if he’d insulted him, if Indigo would get up and walk out, but finally he just shrugged and said, “I don’t care what they say. I didn’t record The Call for any of them, not the fans, and definitely not the critics. It’s something different, something special, you know what I mean?”

Andrew frowned. “Then who did you record it for?”

Indigo didn’t answer. His expression was unreadable.

“Indigo, seriously, if not your fans or the critics, who did you think would be listening to it?”

To Andrew’s surprise, a smile grew on Indigo’s face. He winked.

The next day, Indigo Mantooth disappeared.

• • • •

He was alive. Alive and in New York City. Andrew almost couldn’t believe it. It was too good to be true.

Yet as much as he wanted to see his old friend, he was terrified. The things he’d seen (another world, Justin said; was that even possible?) and the things that were happening to him (the blackouts, the sleepwalking, the things growing out of his back—“He remakes us in His own image”) it all scared the hell out of him. And if Justin was right, somehow Indigo was at the center of it.

He needed something to calm him down. Out of habit, he picked up his smartphone and flipped to the MP3 of Through the Gates of Hamelin, but the file was gone. It had vanished from his phone as surely as if Justin had walked out of the apartment with it.

Oh, no. Shit, shit shit, he needed that music. He’d dropped everything, ignored everything, his personal hygiene, his job, his life for that music—and now it was gone.

No, not gone, he realized, not entirely. Indigo still had it. He was the source of it.

For a while, he fought his need for it with the same ferocity a junkie does when he’s been away from the needle long enough to muster his strength, but the compulsion was undeniable. That music was the strongest drug he’d ever been addicted to. And if Andrew knew anything about drug addiction from his own history, it was that sometimes it’s stronger than you are.

When it finally got to be too much and he gave in, he at least had enough presence of mind to grab a steak knife from the kitchen drawer and slip it into his boot before leaving the apartment.

You know where,” Justin had said.

Yes, he did. Of course he did. It was where he’d always gone to see Indigo.

Andrew returned to the old, shuttered dorm on West 10th Street, slipping inside the unlocked front door and following the two sets of footprints—his own, and Justin’s—up two flights to Indigo’s dorm room. He stood in front of the door and reached for the doorknob. Suddenly frightened again, he pulled his hand back.

His gut told him to run, and that seemed like a pretty good idea until he heard the music playing softly from inside. It invaded him, overwhelmed his senses, and silenced his instincts. Lured by the music, he twisted the doorknob and as the door opened, he stepped through.

Beyond the door, the room was completely black. The air was hot and thick with humidity. He heard the buzz of insects and the croaking of frogs. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, lit only by sudden starlight overhead, he realized he was standing not on the wooden floor of a dorm room, but on grass and mud. Before him was an old house, its slowly collapsing walls leaning at dangerous angles. A five-pointed stained glass star hung in the front window.

Indigo’s family home, the house on the border. Seeing it again now put a bolt of terror in his chest, but he couldn’t turn away. Though the windows were dark, the music was coming from somewhere inside it, calling to him like a needle dangled in front of a junkie.

Andrew walked up the steps onto the porch. A furry carpet of rats squealed and ran from his boots, jumping off the sides. He turned the knob on the front door. It was unlocked and opened easily. He stepped inside.

The music stopped abruptly. Andrew’s mind reeled. He thought, not for the first time, that he was going mad.

He stood in a vast desert. Above him, the sky was the color of fire, of lava and blood. The ruins of a great domed building dotted the landscape, and in the middle of it all, sitting on a plain high-backed wooden chair on the sand, was Indigo Mantooth. His ears were bleeding and he clutched a battered old trumpet in his hand.

“Indigo?” Andrew said.

Indigo looked up. His fingers played with the piston valves along the spine of the trumpet, pressing and releasing them like a nervous tic. “There is a silence that hangs between the stars,” he said. “A silence that yearns to be filled.”

“Jesus, Indigo,” Andrew said, starting toward him. “Are you all right? What happened to you?”

“The void must be filled with music.” Indigo’s fingers clacked along the piston valves again. “Music isn’t just sound, you see, it’s transformation. Evolution. It is the key, and it is the doorway.”

In mid-step, Andrew’s knees gave out and he fell on all fours, gasping. The air was so hot and thick, it felt like soup. He was choking, losing oxygen, and then the growths on his back twitched to life. They opened their little holes, filtering the air they pulled into him, and suddenly he wasn’t so lightheaded anymore and could stand. It felt as natural as breathing, and it disgusted him as there was nothing natural about it.

The sand shifted under his weight, sliding away to reveal a stark white skull near his foot. It was human-sized, but elongated, with obscenely large incisors at the front of its jaws. It reminded Andrew of the rodent-like creatures he’d seen in his dream, swaying and writhing around the temple, and he gasped and scrambled back from it. “Fuck, what is this place?”

“Once, long ago, He was worshipped as a god here,” Indigo said.

“He? Who is he?” Andrew demanded, still on edge, every nerve in a heightened state of alarm.

“Eventually His followers went the way of all things mortal, lost to the inevitable decay of death,” Indigo continued, ignoring Andrew’s question. “For millennia, He sang His songs alone, unheard, driven nearly to the brink of madness with no one to worship Him. His song reached out to fill the space between the stars, a summons that none answered.”

Andrew realized his mistake then. He’d assumed Justin had been talking about Indigo back at the apartment. He hadn’t been. His pulse quickening, he looked around quickly, remembering what he’d seen in his dreams. There was something else here, something under the sand. He wished he could pull his feet up like a kid scared of monsters under the bed, but there was no place to put them. The sand was everywhere.

“Then, at last, He heard another lonely soul call out from far, far away, call out with music, and in that music He heard an echo of His own. He is so powerful, Andrew, so awe-inspiring that His consciousness was able to cross millions of miles of darkness just to answer that call.”

“It was your music it heard,” Andrew said breathlessly. “That’s who The Call was for. You were communicating with it!”

“His consciousness followed the notes like a trail of breadcrumbs, and we became one. God and prophet. Musician and instrument. For years, we played together here in his domain, but He needs more followers, Andrew. One could never be enough for Him.”

“So you—you told it about us?”

“There was no need. He’d already seen inside my mind. Justin came willingly. He had nothing left to lose, and the drugs had turned his mind to putty. You have been harder to summon. But now that you’re here, will you stay? Stay, Andrew, and hear His music like you’ve never heard it before.”

Indigo smiled, but there was no mirth in it, none of the warmth Andrew remembered from their days together at NYU. His eyes were hollow and glassy, and a chill crept up Andrew’s back as he realized the man in the chair wasn’t Indigo Mantooth. Not anymore. He was completely under the control of the thing beneath the sand, a drone to its queen bee. There was nothing of his old friend left, only a mindless disciple speaking on behalf of his mad, lonely god.

“No,” Andrew said, backing away in horror.

“Through His music, He transforms us, puts us in tune with His will,” Indigo said. “Through His music, we worship Him anew. And He needs worshippers, Andrew. He needs us to look after Him, to rebuild His great temple. A god without worshippers is like a tuneless song, empty and without purpose. Join us, Andrew. Worship Him.”

“No,” he repeated. He stumbled on the loose sand and quickly righted himself.

“His music has already transformed you, made you ready to serve Him. He has given you but a taste of the music to come. Why refuse His gift?”

Andrew spun around, ready to run out through the door he came through, but it was gone. He’d been a fool to think it would still be there. In its place was Justin.

The protrusions on Justin’s back had grown, thickened, and torn through his coat to extend like tree branches. The white wires of his headset hung from his bleeding ears and the sharp, tinny sound of a trumpet seeped from the earphones. Through the Gates of Hamelin.

“Worship Him,” Justin said. His eyes were rolled back into his head in religious ecstasy. The growths on his back moved in time with his breath. Andrew remembered the strange things he’d heard on Justin’s voicemail, his confusion at being trapped somewhere, his cry for help—a side effect of the unearthly music, perhaps, or a warning from Justin somehow, one last gift from an old friend he’d thought had deserted him—and he realized there was nothing left of Justin either in this drone that stood before him. There was only one Musketeer left.

A loud, sustained trumpet note blared through the silent desert. Andrew turned and saw Indigo rise out of his chair. The growths on Indigo’s back unfurled, thick as organ pipes, to extend over his shoulders and out to the sides like bony wings. Andrew put his hands over his ears to keep the music out, but it was no good. It grew louder, sneaking in around his palms, between his fingers, through his skin. Blood oozed out of his ears. He looked at Indigo and saw to his horror that he was holding the trumpet at his side. The sound wasn’t coming from his horn. It wasn’t coming from Indigo at all.

Andrew’s gorge rose, and he understood now that it wasn’t Indigo he’d been listening to on the album. It was Indigo’s god, the thing under the sand, playing the same siren song that had turned Indigo and Justin into its followers. And now it wanted him.

He felt his mind slipping, felt a sudden desire to stay in this strange and lonely desert and fulfill his destiny. It took every ounce of his strength to push the thought away. He started running, but his boots couldn’t get any traction in the sand and Justin grabbed him easily. Andrew pulled the steak knife out of his boot and slashed at him. One wild swing caught Justin in the face, and he turned away with a ribbon of red on his cheek. Andrew slashed again, catching the side of one of Justin’s growths. It trickled blood, and Justin howled in pain and finally let go, backing away.

Andrew put his hands over his ears again and ran. He knew there was nowhere to go, no way to get back home unless the doorway opened again, but he ran anyway, his frail, weakened body clumsy on the sand. He risked a glance behind him and saw that Indigo and Justin hadn’t moved. They just stood there watching as they grew smaller in the distance.

The sand shifted under his feet, and he nearly fell again. Instinctively, he yanked his hands away from his ears to balance himself and the deafening trumpet blasts drew more blood from his ears. Ahead of him, an enormous shape bulged in the sand. Six long, spiky protuberances broke through, like the conning tower of a surfacing submarine.

And then the rest of it rose up, so huge that the sand fell from its body in great pouring sheets like water from a fall. The titanic shape kept rising up and up, casting him in shadow. Massive protuberances spread wing-like to all but blot out the roiling red sky, and the trumpeting that emanated from them called them to worship. The sound swept into him like an inexorable series of waves and took root there.

Andrew dropped the knife and stared up at Him in all His revealed glory. As the ecstasy came over him and his eyes rolled up into his head, he thought of how wonderful it would be to join his friends again, the Three Musketeers reunited, and to listen to music all day every day, just like they’d always wanted to, until their time was up and the sand blanketed their bones. How foolish he’d been to fight it. Why had he ever wanted to resist something that made such beautiful music? There was nothing to fear.

Music had always taken him to places far, far away.

It was no longer an unknowable mystery, not now, and what he’d always suspected about music had at last been proven true.

It came from God.

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Nicholas Kaufmann

Nicholas Kaufmann

Nicholas Kaufmann is the Bram Stoker Award-nominated, Thriller Award-nominated, and Shirley Jackson Award-nominated author of General Slocum’s Gold, Chasing the Dragon, Dying is My Business, and Die and Stay Dead. In addition to his own original work, he has also written for such properties as Zombies Vs. Robots and The Rocketeer. He wrote the monthly horror and dark fantasy columns for Fear Zone and The Internet Review of Science Fiction before both websites went the way of the dodo. He and his wife live in Brooklyn, NY, but you can visit him online at www.nicholaskaufmann.com.