From the author: In a world you can only find through sleepless exhaustion, everything you ever dreamed of is yours. For a price.
Unlike the sax, the trombone blasts its way onto the scene, sliding like a triumphant runner into third base, giving the rest of the band a neener-neener as it brushes itself off and accepts the accolades of the crowd. You needed a certain kind of arrogance to pick up a trombone, and you needed even more to keep playing until you got the hang of it.
Dax had been playing since he was eleven, his battered second-hand horn squeaking and slipping until it finally bowed to his will. He’d worked so many nightclubs and offsite shows, he’d forgotten more than he’d ever remember, one gig sliding until another until he couldn’t remember sleeping, either.
He’d done all the classics: booze, sex, pills, then shooting it straight into his veins, but it hadn’t been until he wandered down the wrong alley one night, half out of his mind with exhaustion and speed, that he’d figured it out.
Now, it was all he could remember. Him, and the horn, and the bitch-goddess of the tune, walking that razor balance.
Thirteenth hour was coming; the Bazaar was getting too thick, shadow-eyed Wakies crowding in alongside locals, poking into stands and fingering wares, clotted and cloudy and hot to deal. Dax slung his horn over his shoulder and headed for elsewhere.
Since the figure was standing in front of him, looking at him with dead eyes, Dax didn’t bother trying to ignore or avoid it.
Suddenly there was space around him, where you’d sworn there wasn’t any to be found. Nobody wanted to be summoned, in Mad City, and nobody wanted to be near anyone who’d been summoned.
“This official?” He didn’t recognize the golem in front of him; it wasn’t a Clockwork, so he wasn’t being hauled in under warrant, and Dax didn’t have anything the Tacks Man would go after.
“You resisting?” The golem opened its mouth and showed a dark chasm within, the suggestion of infinite width and depth that could swallow a man whole.
“Nowhere else to go,” he shrugged, which was truth enough. If he wasn’t chasing down the thin line, he wasn’t doing anything at all.
They didn’t go to the District, and they didn’t go underground. That should have eased a worry, except the golem led him up.
Dax looked at the ladder, and balked. “I don’t do roofs.”
“You do now.”
The golem lifted a hand as though to indicate ‘you first,’ and thick grey claws curled over the edges of its fingers, wickedly sharp.
Dax went up. The handrails were wet, not the clean damp of rain, but something slick and sticky.
Like blood. Or something worse.
Dax didn’t go to the Bazaar when most other folk did, when things got hectic, after thirteen o’clock. Too crowded then, with all the buyers and the sellers shouting out their deals, no room left in the air for music to breathe. But the before and the after, when folk and not-folk lingered around the edges, waiting and hoping, scraping by… that was the time for someone like him.
He’d been there that morning, what passed for dawn when you never saw the sun, just looming brick wreathed in gloom. His horn smooth in his hands, the bitter coffee sour in his gut, waiting for the moment to come, tap tapping on his bones.
“Once more, dear friends…” he muttered, resting his aching shoulders against the wall and limbering up his fingers. The wall seemed to shift and mutter against his bones, but Dax didn’t pay that no mind no more. Things happened here; especially here.
“Play us a song, Daxman. Play us a song.”
The usual whisper, opening his session. They had their requests, all the shadows drifting past, the lost souls and the haunted ones. Locals mostly, folk who’d wandered here and gotten stuck, most of the life faded from them. For a while, they’d listen to him play, and something like color would return to their existence.
Even the paperboys –frantic little bastards that they were – paused when he put music in the air.
But Dax had his rules, and first and foremost was you pay before he’d play.
Ready now, h took off his cap, worn and patched, and put it on the ground. No sign, no patter, no need. They knew who he was.
The first came up out of the drifting crowd, crawling where its knees once had been. Tacks Man had been at this one. Dax blew a low and soulful note, and the local shivered as though in pain.
“You got nothing to offer me.”
Locals, mostly, were useless. But this one held out one hand, unfolded skeletal-thin fingers, and displayed its prize in its palm. Wafer thin, translucent blue, it would disappear if you looked too hard at it. Dax averted his gaze, watching sideways, and blew another note, so low, drawn from deep down in the quiet still sadness of the soul.
The blue fluttered, wings lifting, the glistening dampness evaporating, scenting the dry, dusty air with the faintest hint of something bitter and clean.
Dax blew another note, lighter and sweeter, and the blue flexed its wings, lifted off the wretched thing’s palm, and flew towards him, dizzy and darting.
The first true notes of the song emerged, and the blue scrap – drawn as though by honey, slid into the battered, tarnished bell of the trombone, and disappeared.
Dax felt it slide into him, and on the next exhale, he heard it, smooth and sweet. First love, ages before, the last scrap of anything the poor wretch had saved. His now.
And music poured out, filling the alley, drawing the crowd nearer, vendors emerging from heir stalls, halting mid-haggle; even the awful shadow of a nightmare, distracted from its tormenting. Dax didn’t notice any of them.
That night, he holed up in a café where the lights were low and the coffee black and bitter-strong. He shut out the noise and clatter around him, and polished his horn, as though a cloth and gloss could rid it of the nicks and tarnish of a decade’s hard use.
Most left him be. Most, but not all.
“You’re a nightmare yourself.”
Dax didn’t stop polishing, didn’t look up. “You kiss your momma with that mouth?”
“No, but I ate yours.”
Jingleman carried his piece with him, a matte black clarinet, but the reed was splintered, and Dax had never heard him play. It took some folk like that: there was too much here, for them. They listened too hard to the doubts that crawled in, drowned everything they had in the fear, kept their instruments with ‘em like they might be the key out of Mad City, out of the mad night, the mad haze, the mad sharp stillness of the streets, back to what was real
Dax didn’t care about out. Real didn’t matter to him no more. The more they paid, the more he played, the closer he got to The Moment. The note in the music that said “you here, boy. You arrived.”
“You got a point?” he asked now.
“I been watching you. Everyone has.”
Everyone could mean no one. Or it could mean everyone. There were always eyes on you, in Mad City. Some were even still human.
“You take the last things they got left,” Jingleman said, hugging his coat around him like it was cold. “You take the only things as hold ‘em together.”
“I don’t take nothing. They give. They pay me to play the music, and they go away no worse off than before.”
“Pay.” Jingleman snorted. “Feed, more like.”
Dax held his horn out to Jingleman. “You wanna try it?”
The other turned ashy-pale and scampered back, clutching his clarinet.
“Yeah. Thought not.”
“Nightmare,” Jingleman muttered, and fled into the shadows.
The café sometimes let him doss down, off-hours. Most nights, he walked the street. The need for sleep was an ever-lingering hunger, but starvation got familiar, else you wouldn’t have gotten to the City anyway. That’s what they all were, sleeplesswalkers, only some eyes were sleep-stuck closed, and others stuck open.
“Watch yourself! Comin’ through!” A pack of newsboys, elbows tucked, heads down, skating through the streets like the hounds of hell on little boys’ feet. Dax moved, same as everyone else, knocking into a washerwoman with eyes empty as burnt-out coal who hissed like a cat, pulling away.
“Little bastards” he muttered, but kept it in his mouth. Dax had no friends here, and newsboys were quick to take offense. He tugged his jacket closer, hitched his pants, and walked on.
Not every day brought him closer. Sometimes there wasn’t nobody in the Bazaar needed to escape, even for a bit, or the things they offered didn’t interest him none. Then he played for free, letting the notes screech and scamper like those newsboys on a tear, hot flash fading to slow cool, coaxing sounds he hadn’t known existed out of the battered metal, setting them free and returning for more.
His own memories were a melancholy wail, shiver-quick and tattered, stutter-stop and jagged.
His first day here, the wax almost got him. Disorientated and not sure where’n hell he was, he’d bunked down in the tunnels, thinking they’d be safer, and woke with his left leg smothered. He didn’t know about the King Underneath, then. Hadn’t known to be wary of anything too smooth. He scraped most off, but the leg was never the same. He’d gotten street-side somehow, memory blurred, knees shaking. He’d drawn breath and looked around, looked hard then, and seen what was what.
This place didn’t just eat its young, it ate everyone. It took whatever you got. The locals here, they were scraps, tattered remnants of whatever they’d been, all of them. Nightmares ruled, insanity made sense. Mad City ate you up, bite by bite.
Not him. He bit back.
The same thing that’d driven him here, saved him. Jazz lived in these streets, in the alleys and the weird-slicked rooftops, the swagger-sweet smell of the air like a thousand nightclubs , the guilt and the horror and the despair improvising around the single core of hope. Survive another day, find the way home, keep the fires burning. He ate that up, one dream, one memory at a time, wallowing in it, his e-ticket riding the heated edge of insomnia between madness and genius.
Bite back. Eat up. Never sleep. Every night, every note, might be the one.
That was the secret. You could go dog-mad, or give over to the nightmares, make a mistake and be dragged down and smothered, or torn to shreds, or simply fade away. Or you could embrace the hell, dig deep into it.
Dax – exhausted, aching, confused – staggered into the Bazaar pure by chance, the coldcast dawn after that first endless night. Found a bit of wall and put his back against it, and did the only thing he knew how. He played his soul into his horn, and what came out was like nothing he’d ever played before. Every ache, every moan, every delight he’d ever felt, every secret he’d ever kept or told, every burst of jism or bitter tear, raged out of his lungs and into the dry, dirty air. Ragged scales and wild flights, no notes ever marked on a staff, neither ending nor beginning but looping endlessly into itself, until he’d fallen forward, gasping for breath and burning up inside.
“Welcome, my man.” A junkie leaned across the alleyway, teeth rotted, breath foul. “Welcome to madness, my man.”
You could only go so long without sleep, before madness claimed you. Everyone knew that. But everyone knew, deep and low, that along the thread before madness, the toehold before disaster, that was where genius grew
Dax had never been a genius. Had never felt it, within him. Until then.
Dax was sweating now, bad. You didn’t go on the roofs. Bad as it was in the streets, bad as it was in the tunnels, and it was hell bad down there, with the wax always looking for you, the King downbelow claiming his tithe, the sky was worse.
He made it to the top of the ladder, his horn slung across his front to protect it, and swung his good leg cautiously over the edge. His shoe crunched against gravel, the rooftop flat and dry. Dax put more weight down, pretty maybe sure now he wouldn’t slip-side right off the rooftop, at least. He looked around, quick-like: a square of gravel glimmering faint and gray, and a figure waiting at the far end, the presence making Dax want to back down the stairs twice as fast as he’d come up, except the golem was climbing behind him, so that wasn’t no real option. He turned, looked the other way at the backdrop a thousand more rooftops, some flat, some peaked, some covered in shadows, while others shimmered with lights that made Dax queasy to look at.
So he looked up, instead.
Downbelow, it was all smooth and grey. Streetside, it was all electric lights that didn’t show worth a damn, and shadows that did far worse.
Dax had a vague memory of stars, a moon cool white bright, but it didn’t particularly surprise him no cool white bright hung over Mad Town. Thick and grey above as it was below, the fairylights on other roofs making it worse instead of better.
The golem hauled itself over the ladder-top, its skin worse for the climb. A long, bloodless tear crossed its square face, and another scored its bare arm. It showed no sign of noticing, as it turned to face Dax again.
A muscle in Dax’s cheek jumped, and the fingers of his left hand twitched, but the golem was right.
They walked across the rooftop, toward the waiting figure. Dax waited for something to flicker in the corner of his eye, some swooping nightmare or pack of paperboys running the night news. But this corner of Mad City stayed cool and quiet.
Quiet, when it should be chaos? Rooftop didn’t even pretend to lawfulness. Things that were out of tune were things to be wary of.
The figure was seated – slumped – in a throne-like chair, darkly-glinting metal in turns and spokes shoved into a shape you could almost sit comfortable in. But the figure in the chair was not comfortable. He shifted, and Dax took a step back, seeing what the shadows had obscured:
The figure was impaled in the chair, spokes through both thighs, and another in his chest.
“I don’t know you,” Dax said.
The major Nightmares came clear pretty soon after you landed, the ones with real power, the ones who could make hell seem like a better option. You learned and you walked low, and you doffed your cap and kept your tongue still when one of them was around. Lesser nightmares, the paperboys and the waxing-boys, and the pinheads and such, you walked careful ‘round but you didn’t afear them quite the same.
“Don’t you?” Its voice was rough, first guess male but then maybe not, sliding like tuning flute up and down the scale.
Dax put his hands on his horn, and looked this stranger up and down. “No.”
It grinned, teeth white as bone shining in the gloaming. “No. No, you don’t. You walk right by and you don’t see, you glide on by and think you’re free. But you’re mine. You’re mine mine mine.”
The voice slid up and down, and despite the disturbing claims – he wasn’t nobody’s but his own - Dax’s fingers itched, the urge to mimic that scale, to improvise on the theme, dig out its joys and fears and turn them into sounds…. Such pain in that voice, and loss, and love and hot-cold orgasmic rhythm.
Wasted, in that withered, crucified frame.
Unable to help himself, Dax touched his horn, fingers curving around the cool metal, bringing it forward and up. Mouth went from dry to soft just thinking about it, and he paused, mouthpiece an inch from his lips. Waiting. Feeling the tension in his bones, the exhaustion of his thoughts, all gather like a cat about to leap.
Here, now. His eyes were too gritty, his mouth too loose. His elbows twinged and his knees shook, his cock standing to attention the first time since he didn’t remember when.
“Talk to me,” he said. That voice, that voice was the key. “Why am I here?”
Behind them, the golem shifted, stilled.
“Where else would you be? Where else could you be? Alone, only yourself to challenge you to duel, no-one to push your shove”
The voice taunted him, enticed him. Desolation and hope, the push come to shove, the worst anything could be when the only thing that holds you back is nothing at all, the siren song of the unstoppable ego, the thing that got you up on the stage, and Dax, never a fool, no not him, put the horn to his lips and let the voice sink into him, and come back out again.
High notes, shivering down to low, dadadaaaaa…dayum. Dadadaaaaaa..dayum. His body swung, his fingers flew. All the sleepless nights, chasing after that moment, that note, and it had been waiting above him, on the rooftops where nobody went, under a moonless sky…
He no longer played; the horn played him, fingers working the keys, elbows and shoulders moving, his thoughts frozen in the note. The figure leaned forward, the spokes shifting, the entire chair moving as though it were a single entity, and the bone-white teeth flashed again as the fingers settled in Dax’s arms, and drew him forward.
Jazz lived in Mad City, in the restless energy, the constant change, the way the Awake flowed through the locals, the nightmares flowed through the Awake, the entire thing sliding around the struts and braces of the Slumbering, improvising its notes out of what it could take from them.
Jazz lived in Mad City, the sleepless vigor, the tight-wound wire, and it rose from the streets and gathered under the clouds and simmered and danced like fairy-lights, waiting. Waiting for a player, a puppet, a bell through which to sound.
This story originally appeared in DON'T READ THIS BOOK.
Alien landscapes. Run-down pool halls. Modern kitchens. Ghost-ridden memorials. There are shadows everywhere, housing the dark things that make us human. Love. Hate. Fear. Hope. Darkly Human collects eighteen stories by Laura Anne Gilman, some never-before-published, featuring work reviewers have called “marvelously poetic,” and containing “a high note of cleverness, craft, and sympathy.”
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