Amplifier

Amplifier

Wind Alley. Nowheresville. Off the Cliff. It was the outskirts of the outskirts, a place where the wind blew so hard and so relentlessly that the trees grew twisted and blown sidewise. Rock outcroppings and boulders were carved by the wind into strange, smoothly rippled shapes like modern sculpture; when the sun set they took on the form of large eerie, faceless animals, hunched and waiting. Watching.

It was a place where people went to disappear. The ex-cons, the missing persons, the hard-luck cases. No one kept up their houses, because the wind would only rip the exteriors apart again. If you held something in your hand, all you had to do was loosen your fingers and it would fly away, swift and silent, as though it never were there in the first place. Utter a word to have it torn away on the wind—your name, your past, your whole identity swept away, until you, too, were as nameless as the place.

Climate change, the young people whispered among themselves.
Bad luck, said the older folk who had lived there forever. This was a nice place to live until these types moved in. Trash begets trash.

And the gale wind howled on, indifferent.

The only ones who had no opinion on the matter were the children and teenagers. They roamed the place, untended in packs like feral animals. They didn’t seem to mind the wind, or even notice it, because it was all they had ever known. It seemed not to matter to them that their hair was whipped wildly around, and their cheeks were permanently red and wind-burned. The place was their home, and full of the small mysteries that make young life feel wild and rich.

Kaylia was sixteen, and though she had known the other children since babyhood, she most liked to roam the endless meadows and heath barren alone, among the huckleberry and rhodendron. She liked to clear the brush of debris that had blown in from other places: deflated Mylar balloons that said Happy Birthday. Bright clanging soda cans. A tattered scarf of fringed silk. Once, a travel brochure of the Virgin Islands, its photos of bright turquoise beaches faded by the elements.

“I worry about you, buddy,” her father said one day at the dinner table, punching her on the arm playfully. “You spend too much time out there by yourself! You have to look out. There’s a meth lab five minutes away. Lots of no-goods in this town.” He sipped from his beer, regarding her with sadly anxious eyes. Though only in his mid-thirties, the relentless weather had worn down him down and roughened his face. “I don’t know why you didn’t want to spend the summer with your mother. Don’t you ever want to get away for a while?”

“I told you, daddy. I like it here.” She had spent the previous summer with her mother, who had not said much to her, often laying on the couch chain-smoking and listening to loud rap music. Kaylia mostly babysat her half-brothers as they splashed in a plastic pool in a yard of scorched crabgrass. Some days, she could watch a single slow-drifting cloud for an entire afternoon as the children’s voices piped shrilly in the background.

“But Kaylia, I want you to know there are other things out there, you know?”

The family had moved to Wind Alley when she was a baby. It was supposed to have been temporary, until her father could start his own construction business. But things hadn’t gone well, and the marriage fell apart. He’d been working when he could as an electrician. He smiled these days only for his daughter. Sometimes, when there was nothing else to do, they took long walks. Past the boarded-up mill, past the old water tower, all the way to the train tracks. They would joke and tell stories. No secrets ever came between them.

“And another thing,” he looked at Kaylia sternly. “I don’t like the feeling in the air right now. It sounds like that highway project is going to go through. People are angry. Jittery. They could lose their houses. When people feel desperate, you don’t know what they’ll do…” He trailed off. He didn’t want to remind her, we could lose our house.

“Some kids from school were spying on the scientists. A couple of them threw rocks,” she said nonchalantly, not mentioning that she, too, had thrown a rock. For the past several weeks, a mysterious trailer had been parked far back in a small scrub of woods. It seemed to have appeared out of nowhere one day, and it retained an aura of alien strangeness about it. People around town said it belonged to scientists, there to do studies of the land. Some said it was one man, some said more, but everyone agreed that whoever it was, they used strange devices that no one knew the purpose of. Mysterious plans seemed to be moving forward. And if they did build the highway extension, the bypass would run straight through the center of Wind Alley, and there was nothing anyone could do.

Her father sighed. “Well. Maybe it will all fall through. The people don’t want it. There are some crazy rednecks around here. I think there will be big trouble. Too many people around here with guns and no hope, anyway.” His eyes swiveled to Kaylia. A fierce gaze, puckered with worry around the edges. “But don’t you give up hope. You’re different. You aren’t like the others in this town.” And you still sleep with stuffed animals, he thought, but didn’t say. He only tapped his box of cigarettes against the table in a frantic staccato, as he did when he was anxious.

***

Kaylia did have one secret from her dad.

In all of Wind Alley, she had a favorite place: the ruins of the old stone church, up on the hill. The walls still remained, covered in graffiti, though the inside was gutted, empty and silent. The church bells had been sold off and melted down long ago, when the area first fell on hard times.

Solace could be found in the hush of the place. The pews had been sold off, too, but she could sit on the floor and let the deep peace resonate through her, the peace of damp, echoing stone and the vibration of past souls who came there to worship. It was a place where time buckled in on itself. Past and present were inextricable.

Mostly, though, she went there to visit Samuel.

The church’s tiny graveyard was studded with headstones so old that most were wafer-thin and rubbed clean. The town’s original founders lay there. One particular stone was her favorite; it was an ancient, tilted thing, with an engraving of a winged skull at the top that both thrilled and frightened Kaylia.

The engraving read:
Samuel Brown 1779-1796
Man cometh forth like a flower and is cut down.
Job 14.2

On that day especially, she longed to lie down on Samuel’s grave and rest her head on the dirt as she wanted to rest her head, someday, on a boy’s chest. Slipping out the back door as her father dozed on the couch, she was ablaze with everything she wanted to tell Samuel.

The pricklers and the wild cranberry scratched her ankles, and her lungs ached from running, but she didn’t care. Only Samuel would understand the things her heart was full of. Like the sameness of her days that seemed to bleed one into another until she wanted to scream aloud for release. Like how her own mother seemed a stranger, in her tract house with her cigarettes and her dry, bleached hair and the unsatisfied way she pursed her lips and looked into space. She never wanted to be like that. Or like her father, either. But when she tried to imagine a windless life on her own somewhere else in the future, she could envision nothing, and it frightened her.

Samuel knew it all, and didn’t judge. Since she had never known him in real life, she was free to create who he was in her imagination. In her mind, he wasn’t like the local teenaged boys who listened to thrash metal and smoked weed and huddled to watch hardcore porn on their phones. Samuel was like every kind and gentle boy she had ever read about in books. His eyes were shy and fawn-like and his heart was pure. She could feel his life force like a deep underground well, still and deep and mysterious: He was the real reason she did not want to leave this town.

She was so tired and overwhelmed by her own swirling thoughts that when she got there she practically threw herself onto the plot, breathing in the smell of dirt and grass, pressing her cheek against it until her breathing slowed.
But when at last she sat up, to stroke the mossy stone and read its familiar words to herself like a lullaby, she started with a jolt: Something here was different. Something was wrong.

There was an object attached to Samuel’s stone, small, black, and oval shaped, like an odd bug. She touched it, and it was smooth plastic. She worked her fingers under it and pulled the adhesive backing off of the stone. There was a serial number stamped on the bottom. As she read the meaningless string of numbers, she felt dread wash over her, making her feel hot and cold at the same time.

But then that hot/cold feeling swelled into a wave of angry energy that compelled Kaylia to drop the thing to the ground and stomp on it: the plastic cracked, and little pieces came out, coppery gold bits and a tiny green circuit board. These were blown away from the palm of her hand, into the wind, one-by-one. Kaylia stood, stunned and still, looking blankly at her empty hand, then at the crooked rows of gravestones, which seemed to silently watch her back.

Then she ran.

Off, across the heath barren and through the brambles, she ran to her favorite boulder, the one that the wind had carved to resemble a smooth-haunched panther about to pounce. The boulder had been her friend for as long as she could remember. This, too, had been tagged with an alien device, the small black beetle of circuitry. She peeled it off in fury. Who was invading her private spaces? She could kill them if she knew who!

In the crook of a little sideways tree. On the cracked foundation of what was the old bandstand, in what was once the town square. She collected all of the little black things she could find in the pocket of her shorts. Then, thinking of her sad little house, her father’s tired, ruined face, she gripped and squeezed one as tight as she could. She knew where the things had come from: the trailer. The scientists who wanted to destroy her town.

It was unremarkable looking, an old, rusted trailer with orange and brown zig zags down the sides. The windows were covered with yellowed, broken blinds, so none could see inside. The kids had watched it from afar, something scarily blank and formidable about it preventing them from actually approaching.
But now, propelled forward by fear and helpless anger, Kaylia approached it and banged on the flimsy metal door. Her hands began to tremble. Who would answer? A government agent in a uniform, a laminated ID pinned to their chest? Would they detain and question her? Fingerprint her, put her name in a secret data bank?

But the person who opened the door was nothing like she had expected. It was a man, not much older looking than a teenager, wearing jeans and a plaid shirt. His close cut hair and beard were a flaming, orangey red. His eyebrows or eyelashes were so pale as to seem invisible, which made his eyes seem sunken and slightly alien-like. He looked down at her with open, innocent curiosity.

From behind him, within the trailer, came a mysterious sound. A sound like static.

Her mind gone blank, Kaylia dug in her pocket and pulled out one of the black beetles. She held it up before him for a long silent moment. Then not knowing what to say, smiled a tight, trembling smile of triumph.

The man frowned and reached to take it from her. Then he looked at her again, this time with a new alertness. He motioned her to come into the trailer, out of the wind.

The inside was as cluttered and grungy as she had imagined, and very cramped. Her attention was instantly caught by the things spread on the small café table and windowsill and tiny counter: A laptop, showing sets of brightly moving, squiggling graphs in bright colors. Various instrument panels full of knobs and lights. And, most mysterious of all, something the size of a shoebox, solid matte black, with vents on the top, that was emitting the sound. Like nothing she had ever heard before. It sounded like the inside of a seashell, or a thousand hushed voices singing in a choir. Infinitely loud, and yet also silent and ringing as deep black space.

For a moment Kaylia felt adrift in that echoing blackness, and she couldn’t tell down from up, left from right. She couldn’t move or speak.

They said nothing for a few moments, until the young man said, “You took my microphone.” He said this not in anger, but as a calm statement of fact.
Kaylia’s anger had melted away to shyness, and she could think of no reply. She took the rest of the black beetles out of her pocket and dumped them on the table with a clatter, but kept her head down.

“Why?” the young man asked.

“Because.” Her eyes jumped around the room convulsively. “I knew they were yours. I don’t like what you’re doing. It’s like, you’re invading us. Doing some kind of tests…”

“Do you know what I do?”

She turned red and refused to answer.

He gestured at the machinery. “I work in acoustics. Sound. I measure the way noise travels over long distances.” He sat down at the table and picked up one of the beetles. “That’s what I was using these for. Nothing nefarious, I swear.”
Kaylia felt confused, and suddenly foolish. Which translated into a wave of defensiveness. “Well,” she asked, “What are you even doing here?”
The young man looked at her steadily and openly as a young child would. “Environmental impact study. For a proposed highway project.” His gaze, though mild, was alight with a complicated intelligence. “Unusual topography here, for sure. I read that the ecology was wrecked by the 1930s from logging. A shame.”

“Well…” She felt protective of her town. It was true, over-logging led to a great ground fire that had turned much of the area into a desert, all bare rock and thin soil. With no trees, the wind from off the lake gathered strength, and it got stronger and stronger as the century barreled on. “That doesn’t mean they should tear down our houses just to build a stupid highway!”

“Perhaps. But it could happen just the same,” he said coolly.
She felt her face flush hotly. “Don’t you even care?”

“It isn’t my decision, and it’s is not for me to judge,” he said drinking from a bottle of beer, then blowing across the mouth thoughtfully. “I don’t ask why. I’m here to do my work. I find this landscape to be really interesting. I like to sit here by myself, listening to the weather.

“Is that what that is for?” Kaylia asked, pointing to the black rectangle on the counter, emitting the sonorous hushing noise. As they spoke she had never lost her unwavering awareness of it. It was small, but so black and inert that it seemed to be draining all the energy from the room. She imagined that the thing would be infinitely heavy if she picked it up.
The man’s face flashed into a brilliant smile as soon as he looked at it. “Now that. That’s something new. It’s part of my job to test out the new technology for the institute. To push the art of the possible, as they say.”

“But what is it?”

“It’s an amplifier. A new type. That’s what the microphones are for.” He walked over to it. “You got some of them, but not all. Listen.”

She came closer, and was silent. “It sounds like echoes. And static.”

“But there’s more. It’s nuanced, you see. Listen.” He closed his eyes, and seemed to go into some kind of ecstatic trance. It was like she wasn’t even in the room with him anymore. “Listen closely,” he said as though to himself, and turned a volume knob up.

There was the echoing hush. But when she listened harder, something else underneath began to surface: Faint chiming human voices that sounded broken and scattered, the way that things sounded under water. And then, something more. A different sound. Something beautiful, clear and sonorous.

“Are those bells?” The more keenly she listened, the more distinct it became.

“Yes. Church bells!”

“But…we have no church bells in Wind Alley. The bells were melted down for scrap metal a long time ago.”

“I know.” The man smiled sidewise as though expecting Kaylia would catch on to something. Some wonderful surprise.

“So where is the sound coming from?”

“The sound is coming from the past.” He patted the amplifier. “This one little box can capture sounds that were made a long time ago. Those are your church bells. Whatta you think of that?”

She looked at him as though he were playing a trick. But there it was, just under the surface of the echo. Luminously distinct.

“I don’t get it.”

“There’s nothing to get. The past lives in sound waves. Simple. And yet not. Like a lot of things in life, right?”

And then he bowed his head for a long time, like a penitent in a church. Kaylia, feeling vertiginous and overwhelmed, stumbled blindly toward the door. It was a moment that was over rich. It held too much. She would jump out of her skin if the moment went on much longer. Out she went, free, into the golden afternoon light and the relief of the howl of the wind.

***

Kaylia told no one of her first visit to the trailer, which had left her shaken for reasons she could not name. “Cat got your tongue? What’s the matter with my buddy, huh?” her father asked at the dinner table, where she ate sparely and silently. But she only shrugged.

In the middle of the next long, hazy afternoon, some nameless urge took hold of her and drew her back to the trailer, where the young engineer opened the door to let her in without a greeting, as though he expected her. He seemed to accept her presence with equanimity, and quietly went back to his work.

Kaylia drew a chair up to the counter and put her head down next to the amplifier, so close that she could feel the vibrations in her very skull. The deep echoing hush that sounded like the steady bloodstream of the earth itself. The silvery church bells she could decipher right away now, by the way they made a chill go through her body.

But it was the human voices that intrigued her most. Men, women, children. Who were they? Sometimes she could make out strange words that made no sense to her. Avast, you! O, Blood and ‘ounds! Straight from Louse-land, he is…

And when she had listened long and hard enough that she no longer knew what was real and what she imagined, she heard a young man’s voice, broken and husky:

Kaylia!
Kay…li?
Ka! Li. Lia?

***

That night she had an unusually vivid dream.

It was Wind Alley, but it wasn’t.

It looked completely different, because the place was full of trees that shut out the sun. She walked down what she knew was the main road, which at the same time wasn’t the main road. It was dirt and had the imprint of wagon wheels. It was quiet and dark, but for the whisper of the wind in the leaves and the far off whinny of a horse. Her own feet (which weren’t her own, they were much too large and clad in strangely gnarled leather boots) made no sound. Though no one else was there, she felt an odd sensation in the pit of her stomach, an overarching sense of anticipation.

She awoke with a start, sitting upright in her bed, sweaty, her mouth dry.

***

The otherworldly feeling stayed with her through the week. The sense of being her, but not her. She could look at a scene—as when she saw her schoolmates by the supermarket dumpsters: poor scruffy kids who smoked cigarettes, wore t-shirts with action heroes on them, uttered filthy words, and were as gray and depressing as the landscape that beget them—and attempt to find the beauty in it all. She tried to look at her town as through a magic telescope. Tried to see it all as a scene from the past, distinct and dear as a daguerreotype.

But she couldn’t. The harsh sounds and colors of reality hurt her now. She found herself more and more craving the benign comfort of the amplifier. Sometimes she felt she was the amplifier. It was a connection with herself that she needed.

She was now going to the trailer every day. That deep seashell hush felt like an addiction. She was desperate to hear Sam’s voice, which was always there, down at the center of things.

Kay-lia!

Sam, where are you?

Under hatches, I’m afraid. The other one got me with a popper. T’is bad.

What does that mean?

Nothing, my load of mischief. My dear girl. Don’t let the varmint touch you or I’ll knock em’.

What?

Kaylia. Kaylia. Kaylia…

Then he faded out, and she was staring into the black box, dizzy with love, reeling. Sam was inside her now. She was no longer even aware of the young engineer as he kept working with his data and charts, oblivious in his own corner.

***

Amazing, the new feeling was. A different way of being. When she walked down the street, she didn’t walk as a small, delicate girl. She felt broader, stronger. There was a new center of gravity. It felt good to take up more space, so heedlessly, walking with her head and upper body thrust forward, barreling forward. Ready for anything.

She was eating more, too. Insatiably. There was so much wiry energy in her body that she didn’t know what to do with it. Sometimes she wanted to smash her fist into a wall. Or find someone on the street to fight. If she couldn’t find an outlet, she feared she would explode.

At night, as she lay in bed listening to music (relentless, thrusting thrash metal, something she had never listened to before) her father paused in her doorway, looking at her sadly.

“I feel like I’m losing my little girl, sometimes,” he said. “We don’t talk as much, like we used to. Is it a boy, honey?”

“It’s…complicated.”

“Well,” he swung his arms helplessly, “Um. Are you okay?”

“Yes, Daddy.” She was more than okay. She was exhilarated, more alive than she had ever been before. Because two lives were living through her one pulse and heartbeat. She had always wanted a boyfriend, but never had one. Now she didn’t have to be lonely anymore. That terrific, thrumming male energy was hers, through her own transmission. The vibration of it was overwhelming, and she never wanted it to end. She could have Sam, and be him, it was the same thing, really. But how could she begin to describe this to her father? The fact that she was the amplifier?

Less pleasant, though, was the dream. Every night she lay awake, exhausted, because she knew when she fell asleep, the dream would be there: she is in her male body, in the strange gnarled boots. Dirt road, wagon wheels, whinny of the horse. She hears hard breathing, footsteps behind her, and then the pop! of a what she knows is a large pistol. She is shot in the back, she collapses to her knees, and knows that this is the end. The scene plays endlessly, like a tape loop, but it always comes down to this: the bright explosion in her body. And then nothing.

***

Summer was ending. The afternoon sun seemed lower in the sky and shined a dusky gold through the grimy little window of the trailer. Kaylia watched dust motes float, lost in the diaphanous whisper of the amplifier murmuring reassuringly next to her ear.

“I’m just about done, you know,” the engineer said in a low but distinct voice. The engineer hardly ever said anything when she was there. The sound of his voice was foreign and startling.

“Done with what?” She asked lazily, without raising her head. Her recent lack of sleep left her life in a dreamlike fog.

“Done with this assignment. Time to wrap up!”

Kaylia started, and looked over at him wildly. “So what does that mean?”

“It means I’ll be leaving soon.”

She went cold and still, her lips parted. Her mind reeled, but her voice was deadly calm. “When are you leaving?”

“In a few days, I figure. “ He stretched, then leaned back with his arms behind his head. When the sunlight hit his eyes, they looked pale and transparent. A washed-out blue, unreadable. “I’m thinking of Denver, Colorado. Got some friends out there. I could work for parks and wildlife. Save the wolverines, you know?” His eyes unexpectedly shifted to hers. He had never looked her in the eye before. “Aawooo!” he howled softly.

***

Not fair not fair not fair. She felt there was no place she could go, no place that she belonged. She didn’t know who she was anymore. She could not go back to her dull simple life that she lived before, when she lived only as herself. Ever since the amplifier, her existence had become so wonderful, so terrible, so everything.

She ran blindly through the meadow, tripping and falling. When the thorns and pricklers drew blood, she did not care. The pain was her only release.

And release, at that moment, was all she wanted. There was no going back. Ever. Kaylia cried like a girl in exile.

***

Hiding in the dark woods, wind whipping her hair and stinging her face, she waited. Intently watching the garish orange and brown trailer, which always looked as though it had beamed there from another dimension. Blue pickup truck with NASA stickers on the back, for sure he was never one of them, the locals. She appreciated that about him. She would miss him when he left. But nothing was enough to stop her from what she planned to do. There was no choice. I won’t let him take it from me. I won’t be robbed again.

At nine o’clock, he came out and went into town to visit the dive bar, where he drank beer and played foosball. She knew his habits well. Like clockwork, he lumbered out the door, looking serene and pleasantly absent-minded, humming a tune under his breath. He got into the truck and drove off into the night, unaware that he was being watched.

As soon as the sound of tires faded down the gravel road, she came from the cover of the woods and let herself in through the unlocked door. It was dark inside. There was only the sedate, green and red flicker of electronic eyes. And the sound of a seashell, of angels whispering. She reached out for the thing she had come for, and ripped its plug out of the power strip.

The amplifier was much lighter than she imagined it would be, as though it contained only air. But it was hot to the touch. It burned as she clutched it desperately to her chest, running into the night. Love, my love!

***

When she slipped into her house, she saw her father asleep on the couch. The circle of light from the table lamp gave a rosy color to his cheeks and made his lashes look long and fringed. He looked like a sleeping boy. He must have been waiting for her to come in. She watched him for a long moment, and kissed him on the forehead.

Then she went to her room and firmly, quietly, shut the door.

She turned on the light. For the first time, she looked at her bedroom and saw it for what it was: a child’s room. Full of pink, and ruffles, and china figurines of fairy princesses. But there was no time to reflect. She pushed the jumble of glassy-eyed stuffed animals from her bed, and put the amplifier there. She rummaged, hands trembling, for the bedside outlet, and then greedily shoved in the plug.

The little green light came on, and her heart quickened. It was thrilling to have the thing, alone, for the first time ever. She sank to her knees, just like she used to do as a child saying her prayers. But she was stroking the vents of the amplifier, dreaming things she had never dreamed of before. And she never wanted it to stop.

First there was nothing. Then, the slow rise of static hush, like that a multitude of human voices speaking all at once. The sound was soft, so deep and nuanced that she could be lost in it forever.

But there was only one voice that she truly needed to hear.

“Sam?” she asked quietly.

He did not answer.

“Sam? Where are you? It’s Kaylia. Please speak.” The others were so loud. Shouting and laughing. It sounded like the din of a rowdy pub. Shut up! she thought.

She strained her ears, until at last she thought she could hear him. Thin, far-off voice, barely audible. Almost subliminal.

Kay. Lia? Kay. Ka. Kaylia.

“Sam!” At last. There was an electric surge through her body, and it seemed to move up her spine, through her young heart, to spring right out from her lips:
“I love you!” she blurted, the first she had ever said those words. Her face burned red. The house around her was still as a crypt, the entire world felt so dark and still. Alive only with the whisper of the amplifier, and the heat that flowed through her.

“I stole it for you, Sam, for you, so we can be together all the time! I love you, I love you….”

She could not stop the words, they kept coming. She was sixteen and on fire.

She listened hard to hear his voice again. She thought she heard, Kaylia I—

And then the little green light flared hotly, and then fluttered and went out. The amplifier was dead.

No! She held it. She shook it. When it at last started to go cold she yanked the plug, hard, and threw the thing across the room.

But it was too late, the connection was gone. She could feel him, the masculine beating heart of him, slipping away from her. His spirit was leaving her. She was no longer him, just Kaylia.

She fell back onto her bed, completely enervated. Sweating, exhausted. It was as though her own soul had been turned inside out. It was more than she could bear.

When at last she caught her breath and came again to her senses, she felt as though she had been dropped, hurtling through time and space, to land on a strange young girl’s bed. Love had ripped her very molecules apart, then slammed them together again. A brand new person. She hardly knew who she was.

Her eyelids fluttered, and she smiled in dawning wonder.

She couldn’t wait to do it again.

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