Jan/Feb 2024  •   Fiction


by Perry Genovesi

Rock art by Tim Christensen

Rock art by Tim Christensen


Band students in the higher risers waited for the lower rows to shuffle over the brass section's spit-dotted ones. Music stands clattered, backpacks and gig bags zipped, and hard-shell instrument cases snapped shut. Concert Band, with their young faces, patchy facial hair, razor nicks, and acne, was anxious to leave the Bandroom. I turned from my students to my blotter, on which sat two music scores for Guitar Quintet (5:30 PM rehearsal) and three for Jazz Ensemble (6:00 PM).

"Ms. Tucker?"

Rob, Conner, Sasha, Hunter, and Andre—Guitar Quintet—stood before me. All five were lanky with mussed hair. Their uniform sweaters, though the same dress-code issue as everyone's, somehow swallowed them. The newest student, Andre, a young man allegedly from Senegal, played upright bass quite well; I'd selected Mack the Knife solely for its 16 bass octave runs. He offered me a clipboard, clamped to which was a single paper with a block paragraph and seven signatures underneath.

Sasha said, "We wanted to give you this. It's a petition."

Whatshisname said, "We want more say. For the songs we're doing. Less jazz versions of that aught's garage-rock revival stuff."

I eyed Andre. Then the rest. Conner faked a British accent to say, "Yeah that stuff's shite, mate. Please no more cooool jazz. No more Strokes or White Stripes."

I winced. "Just so I'm hearing you. You're all unhappy with my program, and you all signed off on this petition asking for more say?"

Whatshisname said, "Basically, mate, yeah."

That's when I started to hand Andre back the clipboard. But, still holding it, I turned it in one unbroken half-revolution. On his wrist and forearm lay a faded Jamaica bracelet; black and yellow beads fell across his wrist tendon. I rolled his Oxford sleeve to his forearm. No creases, no costume. It was real, marvelous skin.


2. (Twenty Years Earlier)

I peered down at the lower seating level in the dim auditorium and fumed. About 40 Concert Band members, half of whom also played in the Jazz Ensemble, stippled the audience. Parents would fill the seats in two weeks for Christmas Concert. Dinah finished singing and stepped from the mic. That's when the new girl, Marta, started her solo.

"Watch her now," said the Band Director, Barben, sitting next to me. "You could all learn something." Marta's guitar solo danced down four octaves of notes to echo Dinah's singing. It was a smoky, dusky workout. She whipped up more notes Dinah had used, but with slides and bends modulating. Marta's icy notes flurried in the same vocal toll. She wore a washed-black hoodie and gothy eyeliner; she wasn't white, her complexion darker than mine—I'm white but slightly ruddy because of my Italian heritage. Marta played near the bridge, her thin forearm pulling back. "She's... good," was all I managed to Barben. I'd spent months persuading him to take up the song. It was my song, the one that would beat his schtick of jazzed-up carols and Star Wars themes. Then Marta had creamed me in auditions. Her hands slipped back down the neck to the lower octaves. Then it appeared something was happening to her left wrist. Claps and snaps rang from the auditorium.

"See? She's one of them," said Barben.

"You said she was from Akron?"

"Brassica," Barben smiled. "They're such a talented people, musically. That's the problem. Bands will be, what, 80- to 100-percent Brassican in the next decade?" He leaned forward, forearms on the first riser row. "Mark my words."

I said nothing.

"It's a costume, Tucker. Look at her wrist!"

"I don't know. It looks like a... condition." It was a dumb thing to say. Her arm was peeling heavily. I knew then I was glimpsing Marta's skin seam.

"Sure. That's why I let you guys have the song. You think I just happen to love the White Stripes?" He thrust his left hand out, bent his wrist, and cupped his fingers. "Their costumes can't handle the octaves. They wear them down. All the stretches."

I exhaled. "She's so good. I feel like the ant trying to look at God." My Dad had spent all that money for lessons, and here I was not even playing lead.

Barben chuckled. "Better worry about getting squished. They're a very sonically apt race."

The ensemble finished, and Marta set her guitar on the stage. The amp popped as Marta clicked it off. She hurried off, gripping her wrist.



I moped back to the Bandroom to grab my guitar for Jazz Ensemble rehearsal. No White Stripes, no Mooney Suzuki, just Frosty Jazz Christmas, Little Saint Nick, and a corny arrangement of Empire Strikes Back. Everything looked shitty. Whispy had encrusted a layer of fur on my gig bag. Not only Marta, but my friend Jeffrey could whup me, too. During rehearsal, whenever Barben would point at me to solo, mine would fumble like someone falling down stairs. Barben's finger would rocket to the next student.

Darkness bathed the Bandroom now. That's when Marta loomed into the room compressing a saturated towel to her wrist. I waved my arms at the motion sensor, but it stayed dark, moonlight gleaming on the whiteboard, the TV tower, and riser's steel frame. My guitar bag thumped against my legs. I backed against the whiteboard and flailed my arms like a demented snow angel. Finally the sensor light activated. And in one horrible moment, I saw the lump on Marta's wrist. It was transparent and glossy like plastic wrap. Inside, green tendrils oozed off onto the carpet. A round sprout on Marta's arm fell off her wrist—Earthies call them brussels. It plopped onto the floor, then strung back into her arm. The Bandroom fire alarm by the whiteboard shone. "Go away!" I shouted. Then I pulled the alarm.



On Saturday afternoons, Barben and I fixed up a public library's basement in Dunbar, an African-American, low-income suburb. Barben was building a community recording studio. Jeffrey and two other student musicians had started to help with the odd lite work every other Saturday. But one by one they left with lives to attend to, allegedly. So Barben started paying me and even trusted me with the key. When I asked what he thought about how it might look, this male teacher inviting his girl student to a basement—Barben said he'd just been trying to help me out. "I know your Dad got caught up in those layoffs." Most of my work involved cleaning the new installations. Barben supplied infinite paper towel rolls and Windex. Occasionally, I'd boot up new recording software onto one of the six new studio computers, or jimmy him back into his Sam Ash account when he got locked out.

"That sounds... harrowing," said Barben. "I'm sorry." He'd stopped spackling to listen. "I'm not surprised. The assault rates are gonna skyrocket as more of them immigrate."

Two male contractors stood on ladders and twirled screwdrivers methodically; installing exit signs and fire alarms. The rest of the walls were a sleek, silver-gray plaster. On happier days I'd imagine new mixers and mics there gleaming.

"How many are coming?"

"Oof, hundreds. Especially now. You and I, we're gonna see a lot of them. They tend to gravitate towards music and bands."

"I don't want to see them! Why can't they have their own schools?"

Barben nodded. "I mean, that's the thing. They'll be stiff competish for you and I. Earthies in music. In the industry. Do you... want to take a break from Band?"


"Didn't mean it like that." He paused. "I—people used to call those of us who have the passion for music, used to call us loafers."


"Even back in Renaissance times. You remember Music 201. Think of how they still look down on us today. I told you how the School Board doesn't support the arts." He rubbed two fingers together. "It don't make no money."

I gestured across the studio. "But this won't make money."

"You're right. But we do it for the love of the craft. To share it with people."

"You've said that before."

"Well, what I'm saying now is," he sat on a paint bucket with a blue lid, "and I'll be long gone by the time this happens, but your generation will have to deal with them pounding at the gates." He took his sandwich from his blue LL Bean lunchbag with the white zipper. He unwrinkled aluminum foil and marbled rye peeked. I sat on the steps. "Wait—before we eat, I need your help with one thing."

"What? We just sat down!"

"It'll be quick."

He walked upstairs to the shuttered library level. Navy blue dropcloths were draped over all the bookshelves and computer tables. "Come on up—what's wrong, Lori?" he asked when he saw my face.

"I'm sorry! I'm hungry."

"I mean, they're not gonna eat you. Might just—outperform you." He stared toward the parking lot. In front of a muddy blue van the contractors smoked cigarettes. I knew he'd scrutinized the men with over-the-top background checks to make sure they were Earthies. In school he had to begrudgingly accept the quotas—he had access to the records, which would be outlawed by the time I'd started my path. But then he called out the window, "Earthname Dwight! Earthname Robert! Break's over."

Of course he was willing to take advantage of cheap labor.

The library level smelled like old books and antiseptic. Dust filaments swirled when Barben tugged a blanket off the desk computer. After I helped him back into his Sam Ash account, he prodded a few words into the address bar. A line-drawing eagle wrapping wings around Earth flashed up: Department of Brassican Affairs (DBA).

The Department was an American office started under the last administration. Human rights orgs criticized this office for its forceful deportations and breaking up of families. He clicked a black button with white letters reading Victims of Brassican Violence, drew his knuckles to his lip, and offered me the chair. The mouse felt warm after Barben had controlled it. "Say what you want about the President. But he's been making strides addressing their crime. This is how you can report your—"

"What is it?" I scrolled down the page.

"A government form. You write-in what happened to you. And it goes to a national clearinghouse."

I paused. "Okay—but won't that screw the Band? Remove one of your players?"

"My aim's for humans to play music."

"What's a clearinghouse?"

"They'll follow up on the issue. Take it to Brassican Immigration Affairs. Look, I want to offer you a next step. Something to do with your feelings."

I wrote what was in my heart as best I could. Barben used his address and phone number, and signed off as my witness since I was under eighteen.



In Mr. Dane's Study Hall the next week, I was skimming a magazine article about the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast; even though, at the outset, its creators announced it to be fiction, it threw listeners into panic. Mr. Dane sat at his desk in a wrinkled, grass-green button down. He peered into the hallway once the door creaked open, the neck cord from his glasses drooping from his shoulder. "Sure," he muttered out the door, "seat her next to Tucker." And who should walk in but Marta, clasping three textbooks to her sweater, her eyes trained on the aisle between desks. She took the long route, clambering over the steel bar into her seat instead of walking down my aisle. Marta wore one of those hipster '70s striped sweatband bracelets over her skin seam. Under her books sat a vinyl LP of the White Stripes's Elephant. I scowled at the red translucent pressing.

My silent treatment continued for another day. On the second, after three minutes of silence, Marta blurted, "That night in the Bandroom. I wanted to tell you. I loved your solo in Frosty. It was hooky. You just surprised me when you screamed, is all."

I let one more minute of silence crawl by.

"What were you doing, augmented fourths? Was it Mixolydian?"

I said, "I hate all those Christmas songs. Everyone thinks we're nothing but Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Cool Yule. No need to confirm that."

"You can change that you know... " Marta stared at me now, but I kept my eyes fixed on my desk. Marta sighed. "I know you don't like me."

"I don't not like you."

Mr. Dane was one of those teachers who doled out demerits with gusto. He grumbled.

"Can I give you something?" she whispered. She set it on my desk, over my Spanish workbook, of which the pamphlet was about half the size. The title read, The United States, Imperialism, and Brassica. The cover featured a green, night vision square of US Army soldiers from the news. I knew it had to do with the Brassican Civil War. The paper smelled like bananas.

I said, "Couldn't you just, like, wave your hand in front of my forehead and make the story appear?"

"I know you Earthies appreciate paper."



I drove home after school humming Marta's Cold, Cold Night solo. After dinner, I stretched out in bed and read her pamphlet. Afterwards, my mind swam. My eyes adjusted to my Strokes and Bowie posters. The garage light lit up the basketball backboard. I'd asked my Dad to play h-o-r-s-e, but he'd only woken up a few hours ago; he was starting a new part-time job at Costco at 9:00 PM. The basketball made my fingers smell. That my country had slaughtered and imprisoned thousands of Brassicans funneled guilt into me. My teachers never taught this. That and I'd bought into some of the stereotypes: that all Brassicans were lazy, aloof nymphomaniacs. I slapped the basketball. The pamphlet had employed a strange, collective voice. A passage, "The Brassicans had thought, maybe we can unite with the Earthies," lingered.

That night, I combed through Marta's Livejournal and her "Interests." I wrote in my assignment book every artist of which I'd never heard. Bikini Kill, Brassican indigenous music—which seemed to me like a synthesizer progressing from first to seventh position ad infinitum—Sleater-Kinney, The Selector. I drove to the mall after Dad left, and I took the escalator to Sam Goody. In front of the clerk with the cool eyeliner, I could only mumble. (If I'd asked for Sleater-Kinney out loud, I'm sure I would've fucked up their name.) But the clerk said I had good taste when she saw my other CDs, and I gushed.



The next time I saw Marta was at Concert Band practice on Wednesday night. We were plodding through Barben's own feeble arrangement of Little Saint Nick. I knew Barben loved hamming it up, and he squatted to prepare for the song's low chant solo, "He don't miss no one."

Marta smirked at me through the window in the Bandroom door. She winked.

Laughter and my Ibanez tooted over his spotlight.

Barben glared at me, then Marta in the window, before the song dawdled back in. "I don't know what's going on with you," he growled after practice, "but I'm tempted to talk to your father about it." They got beers together almost once a month now, at least when Dad had worked in the AV Dept.



While Jazz Ensemble practiced later that evening, Jeffrey and I jammed in the practice room outside the Bandroom. Jeffrey had one of those infectious laughs, and he was tolerable, unlike the other Sophomore boys. We were pushing through Hate To Say I Told You So when Marta appeared in the half window. "That sounded good!" she said, and Jeffrey smiled at her through the wedge. I eyed my fretboard.

"Wanna jam?" Jeffrey said.

Marta puffed her cheeks. "What I actually want to talk about is the Christmas program. You don't have to take Barben setting the whole thing. There's five of y'all. Just one of him. If you guys wanted, you could say, 'No more Star Wars. We're not stereotypes of Band kids,' and all that. You'd be convincing. If we wrote a petition together, 'More... White Stripes, less Harry Potter,' do you think the other guys would sign it?"

"A petition?" I said. It was one of the nonviolent social change tactics the Brassicans used in the '70s. But the thought of exchanging more than rote words with the other Band kids... I wiped my palms on my skirt.

But then Jeffrey said, "Sure."

"Great! Can I have your screen name? Do you have a cell phone? Could I get your number?" she smiled at me. "Yours, too?"

After Marta left, Jeffrey said, "She likes you."

We drafted the petition in the breaks between practice, then over three-way phone calls and AIM. Marta and I would approach our fellow Band members together with the petition on a dark red clipboard. In the corner by the amps, or near the gongs and timbales if Barben was in earshot, Marta would talk about the need to "unite in solidarity." Sometimes we'd have to shuttle our conversations to the parking lot. While Marta spoke, I resisted an urge to cower. She could speak and play better than me. She reminded me of the Brassican independence leader from the early '90s. The pamphlet had raised the leader's ability to incite followers into voting booths and American main streets. Though I didn't remember hearing anything at school when the CIA shot him in the throat. The petition reached beyond Guitar Quintet. It had most of the entire Band's signatures now.



In the break between Concert Band and Jazz Ensemble, I drove Jeffrey and Marta to the plaza with the GrocerRoster. Jeffrey wanted cigarettes, and there was a willing cashier. I wondered if I'd still have friends if I didn't have a car. We'd collected three signatures from the woodwinds section that day. Marta even had the gall to ask Ms. Bets, our curmudgeon piano accompanist, but when Marta had slipped her the petition, Bets complained it'd only hurt her relationship with Barben—she was hoping for a promotion next November. (Even Marta confronting a rejection made me feel less than.)

My car pulled into a loading zone, and I clicked on my hazards. Jeffrey navigated around a column of shopping carts and disappeared inside. Then a white Ford Impala squealed in front of my car and nearly slammed us. On its rear window, Department of Brassican Affairs was stenciled in black. Its red, white, and blue lights flashed. I smelled exhaust. Marta turned off the cd. Then she gripped my hand—her skin was ice. Bubbles like whiteheads appeared on her neck and chin. Two uniformed DBA officers hurried into the GrocerRoster. "Shit," said Marta.

The seconds crawled. I remembered the time I flew to Chicago with Concert Band—my first flight. Barben had sat in the aisle across from me. I was so nervous about takeoff, I'd asked if he'd hold my hand. So we clasped together. He'd explained the likelihood of death by plane crash versus lightning strikes—he'd comforted me, gripping my wrist, even if afterwards it made me fearful of lightning. We'd let go only when a steward had to pass.

The officers reappeared, stalking behind a young guy with a shaggy haircut—he was a boy I'd had Intro Spanish with last semester. His uniform shirt was open to reveal a yellow shirt of the band Excuse 17. I watched him groan and yell, skittering around the shopping carts. He half-turned, screaming. They'd handcuffed him. His skin seam was glistening. Marta's hand squeezed mine. Spit broke from the boy's mouth. Then the male officer pushed him. The Brassican sailed forward. Against my driver's window his stomach crunched. The metal clasp on his belt clacked the glass. Marta and I screamed. A patch of moisture remained as the DBA officers pulled him from my window. They pushed him into the Impala, a flash and crackle resounded, and the Brassican was gone. All we saw in the backseat was smoke. An acrid musk scented the air. Then one officer walked over to inspect my window. He stared at Marta, whose nails dug into my knuckles. Then they sped off.

"Fuck," said Marta, "the DBA's here." She peeled her sweaty hand off mine—blue circles remained—and rubbed her own knee. "Sorry."

"No, it's cool. I used to have Spanish with that guy. I recognized him."

"Someone must've made a report."

"What did they... do to him?"

Then the backseat door opened. "Did you blast the heat?" Jeffrey said, bouncing a cigarette in his mouth.



That Saturday, Barben had told me to give the windows a once over. "So the librarians won't bitch." A bad mood hung over him lately. I could avoid talking with him at Band. But we'd still have to talk while I helped here. The dust from the studio construction had risen to the library level, creating more work for everyone.

"I can't believe you talked me into submitting that," I said.

"Hey, I was trying to help. You remember how you had to leave Band that night? I was under the impression you were devastated."

"That was before. Marta just wanted to help me understand. She gave me a pamphlet. On her culture. She could tell I was freaked out."

"Those pamphlets! Don't tell me she's hooked you on that propaganda? Your father know?"

"Well I had no idea we were arming right-wing death squads."

The glare he burned into me, I started rehearsing what I'd tell my Dad about how I'd lost my weekend job. But Barben threw up his arms and turned. "I'm amazed you're listening to that terrorist crap. You and I are on different sides of this. Don't talk about them again."



Jeffrey, Marta, and I jammed in my bedroom. Marta and I both plugged into Marta's Fender Frontman. Jeffrey brought his practice amp. I chugged through minor pentatonics while she and Jeffrey exchanged solos. Playing with Marta helped me realize that I was growing as a musician, too. "Where'd you learn to solo like that?" Jeffrey said.

"Took lessons at this place in downtown Akron for five years. TeeTee's Music. And—I played in El Salvador, too. My Dad played Spanish guitar. He was actually a music professor at the University of El Salvador before we came here. I was ten. Then he had to take a job as a janitor at the Bellevue."

"Is that a hotel?" said Jeffrey.

"Yeah. He's a maintenance supervisor now or something."

"What brought you to America?" Jeffrey asked.

"Oh. There were... drugs and gangs—violent crackdowns. In El Salvador." Marta stared at the carpet.

"That's heavy, I'm sorry," said Jeffrey. "Could we take five?"

I said, "Sure, but please no—"

"I promise I'll do it out the window"

Now Marta and I sat on the bed alone. "You don't want to tell Jeffrey about yourself?" I said.

"I'm comfortable being honest with you about who I am," she said. Her guitar leaned against my amp. She touched my knee, then drew her fingers to my waist. I unslung my guitar and she touched my face. I thought about how badly I wanted her talents to transfer through this kiss. (I regretted holding my guitar at a crucial moment like this, too—what was my hand supposed to do anyway?) "I... like you a lot. Do you like me, too?"

I said, "Can you... ask me in Brassican?"

Marta's words sounded close to the first day of Spanish 1. But then, Spanish 1 words were familiar now since we'd started restaurant conversation. Besides the TV sound bytes of raids, I'd never heard spoken Brassican in-person. Then I thought about Barben.

"What's wrong?" she said. "Why... are you sad?"

I laid my guitar in my lap. "I'm feeling guilt right now, okay?" I dropped it against the bedframe.

"Earthie guilt's real. Most have no idea about the role this planet, or this country played." She took my other hand to kiss my knuckles but I pulled away.

"No, I need to say something." I pushed courage from deep down.

Then Jeffrey waltzed back in, reeking of ashtray.

I drove Marta and then Jeffrey home. Marta lived in Dunbar, seven blocks from the Library. Listening to the Bikini Kill CD I bought at the mall on the ride home alone, I recognized the one, four, five progressions from Theory: that was something. I was learning.



A week passed. It was Thursday, the next-to-last practice before Christmas Concert. At Guitar Quintet's start, Barben carried out a plastic tub full of short sleeve tunics. They were garish green with sequins. "Give this to your friend," he said. I thumbed one of the sequin's hard disc edges.

"Xenophobe!" I shouted. "Why're you making her wear this?"

Barben's face pinkened. "You're all gonna wear it!" he shouted. "And, no bracelets. I want clean arms Friday night," he laughed. "Clean elf arms." He leaned in closer, filling my space with his woodsy cologne. "I'm doing this for us. Keep in mind—you want to be a Band Director someday? You want some Earthies in your orchestra? In 20 years you'll have nothing but Brassi."

He let a tunic drape over his knuckles and counted on his fingers. "They learn fast. Barely need practice. Band Director's dream, right? So life would be easier for me if I kicked back and let it happen. I'm not telling you how to live. Or how to forecast your career anymore."



It was Marta's idea to make a collective delivery. Maybe we should've guessed that prepping for Friday would have Barben on edge. He was brooding on the piano bench in the break before the final Jazz Ensemble practice. I was conscious I stood at the group's head, in front of Marta, Jeffrey, Ben, and Harris.

"Barben?" I said, spacing out on the splayed gaff tape angles on stage which held down patch cords. Barben squinted in the stage light. "Guitar Quintet wanted to give you this. It's a petition signed by 100% of us, 90% of Jazz Ensemble, and 76% Concert Band. We have demands."

Barben two-finger beckoned for the clipboard. His forehead furrowed as he read. "Who're all these signatures?"

"Concert Band. Jazz Band. Some teachers. There's a lot of us."

Barben stared at the petition like a pink slip. "Can you and I talk about this, Tucker?"

"Anything you say to me you can say in front of all of us." I said. Beyond the stage, a horn flitted a high scale. "So... will you agree to let us have more input?"

"And even after I let you have that one song. Take an inch, take a mile. Look, if you're all here telling me you want this change... I guess you must feel it's important." He slung his leg over the piano bench. His brown socks and khakis were shaking. "I wish one of you would've approached me separately before making this scene." He took the paper off the clipboard, folded it, and snapped it against his knee.

Jeffrey said, "We've definitely raised it before."

I said, "You know now. And we'll look forward to your cooperation."

Barben's nostrils flared. "Tucker," he said, "can you and I talk?"

"If this is about the petition, then there's nothing to talk about."

"I'd hoped this would've been more confidential," he said. "There's no longer any work for you at the studio."

My eyes heated. "If that's how you feel..."

"No, that's not...!"

Marta grasped my hand. "This isn't a dictatorship. When we speak as a collective, you have to listen."

"Don't talk to me like that, you corrupter," he said.



Marta and I cuddled in my bed. I remember Jeffrey had stayed home sick that day. She traced the lines in my shoulder, wearing only her skirt and a cherry-red bra from Forever 21. She wore a regular adult bra, not even a training bra like I wore; at that point I knew I couldn't undress in front of her. I also worried she could sense it was the furthest I'd gone with anyone. Being attracted to a Brassi gave me a pulse of justice. My memory of the night pulling the fire alarm was guilt biting my stomach now. My hand caressed Marta's knee. We'd cinched the petition. Ridiculous thoughts came to me—and how would I even tell my Dad about my job? Then Marta laid her head in my lap and opened her eyes.

"Are you... crying?" Clear tears welled above my cheeks. Marta must've assumed they were happy tears and kissed again. But my frown remained.

I stared through her. "Nothing's wrong, no. It's just, you."

Marta leaned over and kissed the tear tracks, and then my lips. "I told you, we're all learning. It's hard to liberate the mind."

"No, Marta..." I inhaled. "That first night in the Bandroom. I thought you were threatening me. I told Barben."

Four white bumps like bug bites again bubbled in a track from her chin. "Threatening you?" she said.

"He convinced me to submit... a VOBV report."

She shot up from bed. The lumps had moved to her chin now. The covers slipped off her leg. "Wait... what? Because you thought I was—"

"He said it was important."

"You're making excuses for him?"

She stalked to the room's edges under the Bush poster. Marta glared into my mirror, then slammed her palms onto my desk blotter, shaking my computer speakers. "This—you have to take it back. You need to. Why'd you do that?"

"I didn't know! I'm sorry."

Marta ripped her shirt from the floor and pulled it on like she was pushing her face through a plastic bag.

"I'm so sorry. Do... I understand you're mad. Can I drive you home?"

Marta threw her guitar in the gig bag. It thumped the bottom. "This is just like Akron. I thought you were different. I had patience with you. But you're all stupid fucking racists."

"You can't walk all the way home!" I scrambled off the bed.

"I can't imagine being anywhere with you right now!" She stopped packing to stare at me. "I could break something. I could." Marta glanced at the white lamp by her hip. "But then I'd have to clean it up." Then she glared at my Ibanez, resting against my dresser. She hauled it up by the neck.

"No!" I said.

She smacked the guitar into the wooden bedframe. The strings scalloped like a broken toy. The body snapped from the neck and the bedframe boomed. Marta sobbed child's sobs, maybe I did, too.



I had dressed in all black as Barben demanded—itchy black socks, black shoes, black dress shirt, black pants. "Not washed black pants—black pants!" he'd yelled.

I parked in a constellation of head and taillights. Was that a DBA cruiser idling next to the tennis courts? No—just a taxi. Some parents and seniors smoked cigarettes outside the doors. I navigated around more people crowded in the lobby. I passed the wooden easels of underclass artwork.

Concert Band, Jazz Ensemble, and Guitar Quintet gathered in the Bandroom. I sat with Jeffrey, who'd brought his extra electric after I'd said mine needed soldering. Our feet tapped on the risers. More Band members trickled in. Horns ran scales, strings tuned up. I usually had a special attachment to the sound of the instruments right before a concert. But, as I wiped down Jeffrey's Squier under the pickups and knobs, I hated the cacophony now. Then I saw Dinah, the senior who'd, in the parking lot when we'd ask for her signature, knocked our clipboard onto the curb. She wore a black satin dress with a pearl necklace and a dainty diamond bracelet. She would've looked like Audrey Hepburn but her face was pale and blotchy. Next to her stood Barben in a too-tight Christmas tux. He checked his watch. Then he called out, "Attention folks: we got a no-show. Can any of you pinch hit Marta's parts and chords? On "Cold, Cold Night"?" He peered at me. "Tucker?"

If this had been a movie about my life, the camera would zoom on my face. Next, a flashback: me working up the courage to talk to Barben in the Director's office that rainy Tuesday. Then Marta's face would fill the screen.

The lights dimmed and the concert started. Guitar Quintet walked on stage. In the end, Jeffrey piloted Marta's solo. It was gymnastic, magnetic, and I was proud, even while he wore that buffoonish, green-sequin shirt. I didn't feel jealous anymore: I could be proud of my friend's accomplishments and not twist it as a reason for me to feel less-than. I watched backstage as they performed, the musty stage curtains close to my face. Dad was cheesing in the second row—he'd had trouble giving his shift away. Was Marta's Dad here? Or what if Barben had invited DBA agents to infiltrate the audience?

Parents and teachers idled in the lobby and congratulated us all once we trickled out. Bouquet floral wrappers crinkled. I lingered near a table of cups, soda cans, and an ice bowl that was once holly red but over the span of many Christmas Concerts had dulled to salmon. The roses smelled saccharine. I let the ice remaining from a plastic cup of coke slide and kick me in the teeth. Barben was nowhere. I smiled with my dad and Jeffrey's folks, with teachers, with Mr. Dane, and Evans, and even Ms. Bets. I smiled until my lips hurt. Then I hurled the cup in the trash and hurried to my car.



A lightning and rainstorm had erupted. I focused on the radio underneath the booms and crackles; the DBA was under fire today for planning a sting inside a Brooklyn acoustic guitar meetup. I clipped it off while rain and thunder rumbled. I sped past the library. On Marta's block, two cars flashed red, white, and blue. Barben stood on Marta's porch. He drew his fists to his knees like a fighter warming up. The DBA lights pulsed off Marta's storm door.

"Come out, Earthname Marta!" He pounded on the glass. Barben was soaked, the right flap of his tuxedo jacket cleft awkwardly. Two white DBA agents, man and woman, held umbrellas and watched from their cars. Why was Barben being the openly aggressive one here? His oval girth emerged and subsided in the oscillating light. The DBA car exhaust puffed.

"Barben!" I shouted. "Call off the dogs!" Rain pattered on my cheeks and forehead. My visible breath poured and rain needled through it. I whirled to the agents. "He tricked me into making a report. Nothing happened."

Barben spun to me. "There's my little Judas."

"I'm not your little anything." Lightning cracked. The entry door and then the storm door opened. Marta stood in the doorframe. The open, thick gashes on her wrist were now dark green.

Barben set on her, tackling one arm around her waist, one on her shoulder. He heaved her up. "Get your hands off her!" I shouted. Marta hung limp. I saw she was struggling, baring her teeth. A thick vein throbbed in her forehead. The brussel appeared and swung onto his shoulder. He snapped it off her wrist, dropped it onto the porch step and stomped. It crunched.

"Do something!" I shouted to the officers.

What the male officer did was open his car door. He brushed off the backseat before Barben dropped Marta inside. The men slammed the door.

Barben turned to me. "Don't ever speak to me again." Then a man cast an obtuse shadow on the porch steps. Her dad. He had short black hair and a sweat-browned office shirt. "You," the man growled at Barben, raising his hand as if to strike him from that distance. "I don't know why you've targeted us." He snapped off his watch. Now I saw that where his left hand should've been, a thick, segmented tentacle writhed. Three green spores dotted down it. Barben shouted, "Hold on! There's a way to come here. Not like this. Not taking everything I love."

"What the hell are you talking about?" the man said.

Barben marched toward Marta's father. Then it sounded as if Barben had turned the treble down on his own voice: he'd switched over to Brassican, American-accented. I felt a warmth rising in my chest; it sounded as though Barben was trying to reason with him. Then slabs of Marta's dad's face fell away, shriveling in triangular, rubbery shards. A smaller, bulbous, red cabbage skull remained. He swung a tentacle around Barben's neck. The cabbage split open, and he yanked Barben's head into its purple void. Jugular blood splashed the doorbell. Marta screamed from the car. Barben's body slumped over. Then the door to Marta's house slammed. The male DBA agent lunged inside the house with his gun drawn. Shots popped and echoed. Lightning crashed, crackled. I stumbled. Then I was in my own car, crying against the steering wheel and shielding my face. I was driving to the library. In the rear view, I saw light flashes. I don't know why I drove back to the studio. I don't know why I got my key out and ran inside. Maybe I wanted to imagine the day the mics and mixers would be there, gleaming, for whoever wanted them.