Aphelion Issue 257, Volume 24
December 2020 / January 2021
 
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The Black Melody Journal

by Travis Walsh




Katie saw her face on another billboard. Her eyes painted with a perfect gradient of purple, glittered and shining. Teeth several shades whiter than any dentist could realistically provide. Every stray blonde hair missing in action.

She smiled in the quiet seat behind the quieter driver. The billboard passed and the rhythm of soft white streetlights stroked her toward sleep. Thirty cities in eighty days. Close to one million screaming souls, all worshipping the giant, perfect head on the billboard. The weight of it still felt unreal.

The streetlights shifted to an ambient orange as the car curved off the highway and into the embrace of the dark wooded town of Allswell, Massachusetts.

The black car rolled through the gate and into the curved lot of the old Colonial home that Katie had bought when she first signed with a Label at nineteen years old. Restored meticulously then painted over with modern love, it was home. Five years later and she loved this place more than any other. An old, perfect house. Even with the seemingly perpetual houseguests. Even with the high price of it all.

The empty house sheltered only silence and dim light now. Katie climbed the spiraling entry staircase toward her room, passing the shining records on the wall, a gallery of moons for the night. The driver dropped luggage about below, leaving it as a to-do item for someone else tomorrow. The chime of the alarm setting, and soft rumble of the iron door closing heralded the solitude that Katie had longed for. The only strength left in her body, she applied to the power button of her phone, dropping it on the soft carpet of the stairs.

She shuffled along the smooth hall floor into her bedroom, collapsing on the bed. Her travel clothes served perfectly as pajamas. Rolling around to gather the blankets in a soft shell she let sleep take her.

“Come now. That’s enough rest.” A creaking, yet proper voice sounded.

Katie squinted through grime and sleep to see the time on the soft blue bedside clock.

2:14.

AM.

“It’s not enough.” She said to the voice from behind her fortress of blankets.

“It is and you know it. No provisions were given for exact rest times.”

“I’m amending.”

“You have no power to do so.” The voice said with no consideration for the hours.

Katie sighed and sat up. No one stood by the bed. He never did. He simply summoned and waited. Rubbing the months of exhaustion from her eyes Katie stood, still wrapped in her enormous blanket. It was soft and lavish. She had no idea how much she paid for it. She simply pointed to it in a magazine last year and the mechanisms of fame laid the blanket across her bed that very night.

Every light in the house was on. They tended to be dramatic on nights like this. In the kitchen, her luggage formed a small leather and vacuum formed mountain. Katie felt a pang of guilt for the driver who hauled it all into a dark and unfamiliar house. It was arranged so neatly. She hoped he was tipped well.

Her messenger bag sat neatly at the forefront of the pile. Inside she shoved aside her laptop, a bramble of chargers and dongles and headphones. At the bottom of the bag sat her treasure. A small black leather notebook. Not unlike one that could be bought at any store by anyone wanting to seem refined and old fashioned. A strip of black leather wrapped around the cover and in the bottom corner, Katie ran her thumb across the imprint. A hand holding a large coin.

Beyond the sliding glass doors that framed the living room, a pavilion sat. Meant for hosting parties for all her numerous friends and colleagues, Katie had come to dread the site. The space had been designed to perfectly capture the golden hour during dinner parties and frame the morning mist in the forests at the edge of the property while she held a warm mug of coffee. Now it had become a sort of gallows for Katie.

Tonight, like every night that she returned from her travels, the patio was illuminated. Fairy lights dotted the shallow sky with no strings between. The golden glow lit the perfectly selected wood of the deck and furniture. It really was a gorgeous spot. If not for the family of ghosts sitting round the table.

“Welcome, Katie. I trust the tour was enjoyable?” asked Robert. The patriarch sat at the head of the table with the ease of a man who sat on this land for centuries.

“It was. Thank you.” She responded with grace and every ounce of manners that had been driven into her from birth.

“Did you have a particular favorite stop?” Robert asked, taking a drag from a cigarillo. He exhaled into the night. No smoke rose from his thin mustached lips.

Katie closed her eyes for a moment of respite. The small talk with the creatures was always cumbersome. Politely avoiding the malice that sat just beneath the pleasantries.

“Oakland was nice.” She finally responded.

“Oakland? Where is that exactly?” Fiona chimed. Her voice was pulled tight by the corset beneath her dress. The whole family sat straight and proper. The highest fashion of the year eighteen sixty something. When the house had been ransacked and the family murdered. Or at least that is what they had told Katie.

“Oakland is near San Francisco. In California, Ma’am.” Katie offered.

“Did you find any gold?” asked Robert Junior, the boy, no older than ten stood elated on his patio chair. The cushion remained perfectly flat.

“Sit down, boy. And don’t be stupid. Gold isn’t the ticket out there any longer. Its Silicon, right Katie?” Robert asked. They had spoken of the status of California gold before, after performing live at an award show in Los Angeles. Robert had assumed the descriptor ‘Silicon Valley’ meant that some new metal was mined in the area. Katie hadn’t bothered to correct him. It seemed best to let him stay stuck his ways. She wasn’t even sure he could learn about life outside of the property. She nodded to the family, keeping her side of the conversation as vague and light as possible. The August night air felt frigid around her.

“Did you meet anyone?” Fiona asked. She sipped a teacup that wasn’t there a moment ago. Robert rolled his eyes and sat forward. Katie pulled the knit blanket around her tighter. She pressed her nails into the leather notebook hidden in the soft folds.

“Yes Ma’am. Of course.”

“Well? Please. Sit. Do tell.” Robert gestured for Katie to take a seat at the table she had purchased. His tone was impatient, and he gave a glare to his wife. Katie knew that Robert found the urgency demeaning. He had always hated the arrangement. Even in the beginning, when Katie sat hunched over the black leather journal wanting to scream at the blank page. Her first album had been well received. A critical success that promised a bright future. The label wanted something more extravagant for the follow up. Her father wanted something more conservative. And Katie was out of ideas. Every drop in the tank burnt in the relentless drive toward the first album.

“Lacking inspiration?” a voice had asked. Haughty, but not enough to hide a Boston workman’s accent. Perhaps it was the wine that she was too young to drink but snuck anyway. Or the fever pitch of emotions that her failures had honed to the thickness of an atom. But the appearance of Robert Bancroft failed to set off the appropriate alarms in her mind.

Katie regretted the nonchalant bravery. It failed her now, on the porch. Facing the four ghosts as she had for years. Expectant and hungry they eyed her with only the thinnest veil of patience. Stepping forward, she pulled a seat from the patio table and faced the cold audience. From beneath her protective cocoon, the black leather notebook emerged. A flash of pride shined on Robert Bancroft’s face. He smiled at the imprint he had left all those years ago. A symbol of a sacred transaction. ‘The lifeblood of any good society’ he had called it.

The stories within. Katie said a silent prayer for the people she had met. The price they would pay for this. Mrs. Bancroft’s eyebrows raised in anticipation as Katie thumbed to the most recent entries in the book.

“Ok. Here is the first one. In Memphis. Emily Hawkins is twelve years old. She has a crush on the boy in her class who paints pictures of trees. He sells them at the flea market to help is family out. Emily begs her mom to buy them every weekend. The boy doesn’t know but Emily’s room is covered in paintings of trees.” Katie read the story, written in her own curling handwriting. Her lip quivered as she thought of Emily Hawkins.

Mrs. Bancroft let out a soft moan and ran her cold fingers down a slender neck. “Delicious.” She whispered. Mr. Bancroft’s eyes were closed. A content smile on his face, as if he were listening to the smoothest of melodies. Katie knew what would happen next, or at least the outline of it.

Somewhere in the mountains of Tennessee, young Emily Hawkins would work up the courage to show the boy her collection of paintings. He would be embarrassed at first but flattered. He would take her with him to the woods, to find trees that would become paintings that would become another in her collection of love. They would do this for years. Each trek through the woods bringing their hands closer together. Each stumble on a root or ditch bringing their bodies in contact for balance at first, then more. Eventually their lips would find each other beneath the sycamores and ash trees of the Appalachian Mountains. They would burn with bright, young love for all of Tennessee. But then a shadow would fall over their trees. The boy would resent her for her pity, she would go bored with the paintings. The love would wear away into a spiteful rotting thing as the Bancrofts fed on every drop. Lonely and ruined Emily Hawkins and the boy who paints would wander through life, never feeling the timid joy they felt as the universe brushed against them in those woods. They would join the horde of lost and empty souls that roamed the fields behind the old Victorian house. Maybe in five years, maybe in fifty. The Bancrofts didn’t mind the time, just the collection.

And even as the heartbreaking tale unfolded in her thoughts and the Bancrofts feast upon the sorrow, the melody rose through her mind. The beat tapped out of her fingers onto the thigh hidden in the blanket. She would write the song of young lovers with pure hearts. The romance would permeate the airwaves and flood into millions of homes. It would inspire countless nervous little girls and artistic little boys. But Emily Hawkins and the painting boy were forfeit.

“What else?” Robert Bancroft Jr demanded, standing again in his seat.

“Oh, do learn some manners, boy.” Mr. Bancroft barked. The chill on the patio deepened further. “Finding these meals for us is tiring work for the young lady. You should show gratitude.” He said with a more consoling tone.

“She is paid well for it.” Mrs. Bancroft added, not looking up from the cup of tea.

Mr. Bancroft smiled at his wife, stretching his mustache wide and baring what seemed to be far too many teeth. “She is indeed. But that doesn’t make her ‘The Help.’ This is a mutually beneficial contract, isn’t it?”

“Yessir.” Katie nodded quietly. The night he had appeared, the arrangement seemed simple. Collect stories, be famous. The consequences seemed so insignificant. Even as she listened intently to the first little girl who loved her father so much for buying her the VIP pass, he was a truck driver and always away. The Bancrofts had grinned their way through the meal. The little girl’s father died on I-95 a few months later and the song about a daughter who missed her father won a Grammy. Katie ran her fingers along the edges of the page before her. Dreading the consequences of flipping it. The catchy tune of the tree painting boy rattled in her head, smashing away guilt and sadness. It was going to be another hit. In the field beyond the patio she could see the faint outline of a man with a thick workers jacket and tall trucker’s hat. He only stared in silence.

“But, please. Do go on.” Mr. Bancroft said, pulling Katie from her memories and the sight of the lonesome father.

“Ok. Next.” Katie flipped the page and swallowed hard. “Tara Morrison. She has a… um, a rare form of cancer in her blood.”

“No cancer!” shouted a decrepit voice.

“Mother, I was afraid you’d sleep through the meal!” Mr. Bancroft said, slapping his knee with delight. Katie held her chest from the fright. Esther Bancroft rarely spoke, and when she did it was a shriek capable of peeling the skin from a man’s bones. She sat at the far end of the table, wrapped in furs and hatred.

“No cancer.” She repeated. “Never lasts long, always turns to ash in my mouth. Give me something sweet.”

“She does have a point.” Mrs. Bancroft said.

“Quick, burnt things those stories are. Never filling.” Mr. Bancroft added. Katie shed a tear of relief. Tara Morrison had been through enough. In the field several small children, barely visible in the moon’s faint glow stood silent. Only their hospital gowns and smooth heads betrayed their stories.

She would call the song ‘Sycamore Paint.’ Poetic and nonsensical enough to sell well. There was no need to write down the lyrics etching across her mind, she would remember them all, word for word. Beat for beat. The page of the journal flipped without request. Katie knew what the Bancrofts wanted. Staring at the story she remembered the awe in the eyes of the girl. That she would have a story precious enough for Katie’s legendary journal. Of tales she used to inspire her works and people she prayed for each night.

“Ok. The next one.” She started. The Bancrofts shifted and settled in the patio seats that showed no sign of their presence. “Lady Adams.”

“Oh, what a lovely name.” Ms. Bancroft exclaimed, holding a hand to her chest in adoration.

“Lady Adam’s brother called the radio station every hour, every day for three weeks to get tickets. He didn’t do his homework and started failing his classes. But it was ok. The class found out why he was doing it and they helped him study. Especially when they found out he had won. I signed a poster for every one of them.” Katie sniffed through the thought. The consequences of Lady Adam’s brother’s actions, rippling out and touching every child in his fourth-grade class. The Bancroft’s chuckled and closed their eyes in ecstasy. She knew their reach was long, and their hunger deep.

Naomi Parsons had tried to kill herself during her freshman year in college. It didn’t work, and Katie’s music decorated the road to her recovery. The Bancrofts fed on the story and two months later Naomi succeeded in her second attempt. Months after that her mother and sister followed the new path that Katie had set for them. The three women, all raven haired stared from the field. The sad song became an anthem for suicide prevention. Thousands upon thousands found strength and hope in her words and melodies.

“Wonderful.” Esther Bancroft said. She was smacking her toothless lips around the story. Savoring the idea of twenty children working together in a selfless cause.

“I agree. Thank you. Thank you so much Katie.” Mr. Bancroft said. “I daresay you have enough to keep you busy in the…” he twirled his hand in search of the word. “…studio!”

“Yes. Thank you.” Katie said, knowing the dinner was coming to an end, she spoke with an ounce more confidence.

“We know you’ll do us proud.” Mr. Bancroft smiled.

The golden lights around the porch faded. The table sat empty and cold and the August heat took claim of the air.

Katie stared upward and the moon and stars, fighting back tears. The guilt pulled down her lips and tightened the muscles in her neck as she let out a full and powerful sob. She already knew the love that would grow from the words that danced in her mind. She knew the hope and dreams that would pivot on her music. She knew and she hated it. She knew and she loved it. And she kept it to herself. A secret between her and the hundreds of silver silhouettes staring at her from the field behind the old, perfect house.



THE END


2020 Travis Walsh

Bio: My name is Travis Walsh, I am a first time author who, like many, has found the need for a hobby these weird days. I spend most of my days as a data scientist for a Fortune 500 company, plotting away at massive amounts of data. At nights I care for and entertain two children and a loving wife. The moments in-between are filled with stories.

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