As the Cold War stalls and the threat of nuclear warfare dominates the news, small-town misfits Laurie and Fell bond over a shared love of music and the mystery of the erratic radio messages that hint at the existence of a future worth reaching out for.
for David Bowie
and David Mitchell
Radio was where we met. Our bodies first occupied the same space on a Friday afternoon, but our minds had already connected Thursday night. Coming up on twelve o’clock, awake when we shouldn’t be, both of us in our separate narrow beds, miles and miles apart, tuning in to Ms. Jackson’s Graveyard Shift, spirits linked up in the gruff cigarette-damaged sound of her voice.
She’d played “The Passenger,” by Iggy Pop. I’d never heard it before, and it changed my life.
Understand: there was no internet then. No way to look up the lyrics online. No way to snap my fingers and find the song on YouTube or iTunes. I was crying by the time it was over, knowing it might be months or years before I found it again. Maybe I never would. Strawberries, Hudson’s only record store, almost certainly wouldn’t have it. Those four guitar chords were seared indelibly into my mind, the lonesome sound of Iggy’s voice certain to linger there for as long as I lived, but the song itself was already out of my reach as it faded down to nothing.
And then: a squall of distortion interrupted, stuttering into staticky words, saying what might have been “Are you out there?” before vanishing again.
Eerie, but no more eerie than the tingly feeling I still had from Iggy Pop’s voice. And the sadness of losing the song forever.
But then, the next day, at the Salvation Army, thumbing through hundreds of dresses I hated, what did I hear but—
“I am the passenger…and I ride and I ride—”
Not from the shitty in-store speakers, which blasted Fly-92 pop drivel all the time. Someone was singing. Someone magnificent. Like pawn-shop royalty, in an indigo velvet blazer with three handkerchiefs tied around one forearm, and brown corduroy bell-bottoms.
“I see things from under glass—”
The singer must have sensed me staring, because they turned to look in my direction. Shorter than me, hair buzzed to the scalp except for a spiked stripe down the center.
“The Graveyard Shift,” I said, trembling. “You were listening last night?”
“Yeah,” they said, and their smile was summer, was weekends, was Ms. Jackson’s raspy-sweet voice. The whole place smelled like mothballs, and the scent had never been so wonderful. “You too?”
My mind had no need for pronouns. Or words at all for that matter. This person filled me up from the very first moment.
I said: “What a great song, right? I never heard it before. Do you have it?”
“No,” they said, “but I was gonna drive down to Woodstock this weekend to see if I could find it there. Wanna come?”
Just like that. Wanna come? Everything I did was a long and agonizing decision, and every human on the planet terrified me, and this person had invited me on a private day trip on a moment’s impulse. What epic intimacy to offer a total stranger—hours in a car together, a journey to a strange and distant town. What if I was a psychopath, or a die-hard Christian evangelist bent on saving their soul? The only thing more surprising to me than this easy offer was how swiftly and happily my mouth made the words: That sounds amazing.
“Great! I’m Fell.”
“Laurie,” I said. We shook. Fell’s hand was smaller than mine, and a thousand times stronger.
Only then did I realize: I didn’t know what gender they were. And, just like that, with the silent effortless clarity of every life-changing epiphany, I saw that gender was just a set of clothes we put on when we went out into the world.
And even though I hated myself for it, I couldn’t help but look around. To see if anybody else had seen. If word might spread, about me and this magnificently unsettling oddball.
Numbers were exchanged. Addresses. A pick-up time was set. Everything was so easy. Fell’s smile held a whole world inside it, a way of life I never thought I could live. A world where I wasn’t afraid.
I wanted to believe in it. I really did. But I didn’t.
“What did you think that was?” Fell asked, in the parking lot, parting. “That weird voice, at the end of the song?”
I shrugged. I hadn’t thought much about it.
“At first I thought it was part of the song,” Fell said. “But then the DJ was freaked out.”
“Figured it was just…interference, like from another station.”
“It’s a big deal,” Fell said. “To interrupt a commercial radio broadcast like that. You need some crazy hardware.”
“Must be the Russians,” I said solemnly, and Fell laughed, and I felt the world lighten.
And that night, tuning in to Ms. Jackson, “This song goes out to Fell, my number one fan. Wouldn’t be a weeknight if Fell didn’t call asking for some Bowie. So here’s ‘Life on Mars?’ which goes out to Laurie, the girl with the mousy hair.”
More evidence of Fell’s miraculous gift. A thousand times I’d wanted to call Ms. Jackson, and each time I’d been too intimidated to pick up the phone. What if she was mean to me? What if I had to speak to a station producer first, who decided I wasn’t worthy of talking to their resident empress? And who was I to ask for a song?
Also, I loved “Life on Mars?” I wondered if Fell knew it, had read it on my face or smelled it on my clothes with another of their superhuman abilities, or if they had just been hoping.
I shut my eyes. I had never been so conscious of my body before. David Bowie’s voice rippled through it, making me shiver, sounding like Fell’s fingertips must feel.
I wondered how many times I’d been touched by Fell, listening late at night, trembling at the songs they requested.
I remembered Fell’s smile, and stars bloomed in the darkness.
But before the song was over, a sound like something sizzling rose up in my headphones, and the music faded, and a kind of high distortion bubbled up, and then began to stutter—and then become words. Unintelligible at first, like they’d been sped up, and then:
“…mission is so unclear. I could warn about that plane crash, try to stop the spiderwebbing epidemic. But how much difference would those things make? I’m only here for a short—”
Then the mechanical voice was gone. David Bowie came back. And just as swiftly was switched out.
“Sorry about that, children,” Ms. Jackson said, chuckling. An old sound. How long had she been doing this show? She always called her listeners children, like she was older than absolutely everyone in earshot. I heard a cigarette snuffed out in the background. “Getting some interference, sounds like. Maybe from the Air Force base. They’re forever messing with my signals. Some lost pilot, maybe, circling up in the clouds. Looking for the light. Good time to cut to a commercial, I’d say.”
Someone sang Friendly Honda, we’re not on Route Nine, the inane omnipresent jingle that seemed to support every television and radio program in the Hudson Valley. I thought of Fell, somewhere in the dark. Our bodies separate. Our minds united.
“Welcome back to the Graveyard Shift,” she said. “This is Ms. Jackson, playing music for freaks and oddballs, redheaded stepchildren and ugly ducklings—songs by us and for us, suicide queens and flaming fireflies—”
Fell’s car smelled like apples. Like spilled cider, and cinnamon. Twine held one rear headlight in place. When we went past fifty miles an hour, it shook so hard my teeth chattered together. Tractor trailers screamed past like missiles. It was autumn, 1991. We were sixteen. We could die at any moment.
The way to Woodstock was long and complicated. Taking the thruway would have been faster, but that meant paying the toll, and Fell knew there had to be another way.
“No way in hell that was a lost pilot,” Fell said. “That interruption last night. That was someone with some insane machinery.”
“How do you know so much about radio signals?”
“I like machines,” Fell said. “They make so much sense. Does your school have a computer? Mine doesn’t. We’re too poor.” Fell went to Catskill High, across the river. “It sucks, because I really want to be learning how they work. They can do computations a million times faster than people can, and they’re getting faster all the time. Can you imagine? How many problems we’ll be able to solve? How quickly we’ll get the right answer, once we can make a billion mistakes in an instant? All the things that seem impossible now, we’ll figure out how to do eventually.”
I lay there, basking in the warmth of Fell’s excitement. After a while, I said: “I still think it was the Soviets. Planning an invasion.”
“No Russian accent,” Fell said. “And anyway I’m pretty sure the Cold War is over. Didn’t that wall come down?”
I shrugged, and then said, “Thanks for the song, by the way.”
Instead of answering, Fell held out one hand. I took it instantly, fearlessly, like a fraction of Fell’s courage could already have rubbed off on me.
In that car I felt invincible. I could let Fell’s lack of fear take me over.
But later, in Woodstock, a weird crooked little town that smelled like burning leaves and peppermint soap, Fell reached for my hand again, and I was too frightened to take it. What if someone saw? In my mind I could hear the whole town stopping with a sound like a record scratching. Everyone turning, pointing. Shouting. Pitchforks produced from nowhere. Torches. Nooses.
Space grew between us, without my wanting it to. Fell taking a tiny step away from me.
We went to Cutler’s Record Shop. We found a battered old Iggy Pop cassette, which contained “The Passenger.” Fell bought it. We went to Taco Juan’s and then had ice cream. Rocky Road was both of our favorite.
Twilight when we left. Thin blue light filled the streets. I dreamed of grabbing Fell’s hand and never letting go. I dreamed of being someone better than who I was.
As soon as the doors slammed, we switched on the radio.
“Responding to this morning’s tragic crash of Continental Express Flight 2574, transport officials are stating that it’s impossible to rule out an act of terrorism at this—”
“No shit,” Fell said, switching it off.
“The voice. They said I could warn about the plane crash.”
I laughed. “What, you think the voice in the night is part of a terrorist cell?”
“No,” Fell said. “I think they’re from the future.”
Just like Fell to make the impossible sound easy, obvious. I laughed some more. And then I stopped laughing.
“Could be a coincidence,” I said.
Fell pushed the tape in, pressed play. After our third trip through “The Passenger,” rewinding the tape yet again, they looked over and saw the tears streaming down my face.
“It’s such a sad song,” I said. “So lonesome.”
“Sort of,” Fell said. “But it’s also about finding someone who shares your loneliness. Who negates it. Cancels it out. Listen: Get into the car. We’ll be the passenger. Two people, one thing. Plural singular.”
“Plural singular,” I said.
I’m sorry, I started to say, a hundred times, and told myself I would, soon, in just a second, until Fell looked over and said: “Hey. Can I come over? I don’t feel like mixing it up with my mother tonight.”
And that was the first time I ever saw fear on Fell’s face.
My parents were almost certainly baffled by my new friend, but their inability to identify whether Fell was a boy or a girl meant they couldn’t decide for sure if they were a sexual menace, so they couldn’t object to Fell coming upstairs with me.
Three songs into the Graveyard Shift, Fell asked, “Can I spend the night?”
“Your mom wouldn’t mind?”
“Probably she’d barely notice,” Fell said. “And even if she did, it’d be like number nine on the list of things she’d want to scream at me about the next time she saw me.”
“Fine by me,” I said, and went downstairs to ask Mom and Dad.
Big smile. Confident posture. Think this through. “Cool if Fell spends the night here?” And then, without thinking about it, because if I’d spent a single nanosecond on it I would have known better, stopped myself, I added: “She already called her mom, and she said it was okay.”
They smiled, relieved. They’d both been sitting there stewing, wondering whether what was happening upstairs needed to be policed. Whether a sex-crazed-menace male was upstairs seducing their daughter. But no. I’d said she. This was just some harmless, tomboyish girl.
“Yes of course,” Mom said, but I couldn’t hear her, just went by the smile, the nod, and I thanked her and turned to go, nausea making the room spin and the blood pound in my ears.
I felt sick. Somehow naming Fell like that was worse than a lie. Worse than an insult. It was a negation of who Fell was.
Cowardice. Betrayal. What was it, in me, that made me so afraid? That had stopped me from taking Fell’s hand? That made me frightened of other people seeing what they were, what we were? Something so small that could somehow make me so miserable.
I was afraid that Fell might have heard, but Ms. Jackson was playing when I got back to my room, and Fell was on the floor beside the speaker, so that our hero’s raspy voice drowned out every shred of weakness and horror that the world held in store for us.
We lay on the bare wooden floor like that for the next two hours. The window was open. Freezing wind made every song sweeter. Wood smoke seeped into our clothes. Our hands held tight.
Six minutes before midnight, approaching the end of the Graveyard Shift, it came again. The sizzle; the static; the chugging machine noise that slowly took the shape of a human voice. We caught it mid-sentence, like the intervening twenty-four hours hadn’t happened, like it blinked and was now carrying on the same conversation.
“—out there. I don’t know if this is the right…place. Time. If you’re out there. If it’s too late. If it’s too early.”
“Definitely definitely from the future,” Fell whispered.
“You’re so stupid,” I said, giggling, so drunk on Fell that what they said no longer seemed so absurd.
“Or what you need to hear. What I should say. What I shouldn’t.”
The voice flanged on the final sentence, dropping several octaves, sounding demonic, mechanical. Slowing down. The t sound on the last word went on and on. The static in the background slowed down too, so that I could hear that it wasn’t static at all, but rather many separate sounds resolving into sonic chaos. An endless line of melodic sequences playing simultaneously.
The voice flanged back, and said one word before subsiding into the ether again:
Control of the radio waves was relinquished. The final chords of “Blue Moon” resurfaced.
“There’s our star man again,” Ms. Jackson said with a chuckle. Evidently she’d had time to rethink her Air Force pilot theory. “Still lost, still lonely. I wonder—who do you think he’s looking for? Call me with your wildest outer space invader theories.”
“Want to call?” Fell whispered.
“No,” I said, too fast, too frightened. “My parents are right across the hall. We’d wake them.”
Fell shrugged. The gesture was such strange perfection. Their whole being was expressed in it. The confidence and the charm and the fearlessness and the power to roll with absolutely anything that came along.
I grabbed Fell’s hand. Prayed that some of what they were would seep into me.
Fell touched my mousy hair. Sang softly: “Is there life on Mars?”
“We’ll find out,” I said. “Right? Machines will solve all our problems?”
At school, two days later, during lunch, I marched myself to the library and enrolled in computer classes.
“Shit,” Fell said, pointing out the window, driving us home through snowy blue twilight.
Massive green Air Force trucks lined a long stretch of Route 9. Flatbeds where giant satellite dishes stood. Racks of cylindrical transformers. Men pacing back and forth with machines in their hands. None of it had been there the day before.
“What the hell?” I said.
“They’re hunting for the voice in the night too,” Fell said.
“Because it’s part of a terrorist cell and knew about a plane crash before it happened.”
“Or because it’s using bafflingly complex technology that could only have come from the future,” Fell said.
Then they switched on the radio, shrieked at what they found there. Sang-screamed: “Maybe I’m just like my mother, she’s never satisfied.”
“Why do we scream at each other?” I said, and then we launched into the chorus with one wobbly crooked magnificent voice.
My first view of Fell’s house was also my first view of Fell’s mother. She sat on the front porch wearing several scarves, smoking.
“Fuck,” Fell said. “Fuck me, times ten thousand. I thought for sure she’d still be at work.”
“We can go,” I said. I’d been excited to see the house, for that insight into who Fell was and what had helped make them, but now panic was pulling hard at my hair. Fell’s fear of the woman was contagious.
“No,” Fell said. “If I act like she can’t hurt me, sooner or later she really won’t be able to.”
She laughed when she saw me. “Of course it’s a girl.”
“Mrs. Tanzillo, I’m Laurie,” I said, holding out my hand. “I’m pleased to meet you.”
My good manners threw her off. She shook my hand with a raised eyebrow, like she was waiting to see what kind of trick I was trying to pull. I smelled alcohol. Old, baked-in alcohol, the kind that seeps from the pores of aging drunks. Which I guess she was.
“Don’t you two turn my home into a den of obscenity,” she called after us, as we headed in.
Fell let the door slam, and then exhaled: “God, she is such an asshole.”
The house was sadder than I’d been expecting. Smaller; smellier; heaped with strange piles. Newspapers, flattened plastic bags, ancient water-stained unopened envelopes. A litter box, badly in need of emptying, and then probably burning. My parents were poor, but not poor like this.
“You’re shaking,” I said, and pulled Fell into a hug.
They stiffened. Wriggled free. “Not here.”
“Of course,” I said. “Sorry.”
The TV was on. Squabbling among the former Soviet states. A bad divorce, except with sixteen partners instead of two, and with thermonuclear warheads instead of children. I watched it, because looking around the room—or looking at Fell looking at me—made me nauseous. A talking head grinned, said: “It’s naïve to think our children will get to grow up without the threat of nuclear war. There’s no putting this genie back in the bottle.”
Fell talked fast, the shaking audible in every word. “This was a terrible idea. I felt good about us, like, it wouldn’t matter what this place looked like or what you thought of it, because you know I’m not this, it’s just the place where I am until I can be somewhere else, but now, I’m not so sure, I think I should probably take you home.”
So Fell wasn’t fearless. Wasn’t superhuman.
So it was in Fell too. Whatever was in me. Something so small, that could chain down someone so magnificent.
Of course I should have put up more of a fight. Said how it didn’t matter. But I hated seeing Fell like this. If Fell was afraid, what hope was there for me? Fell, who welcomed every awful thing the world had to show us. Fell was my only hope, but not this Fell. So I shrugged and said, “whatever you want,” feeling awful about it already, and we turned around and went right back outside, and Mrs. Tanzillo thought that was the funniest thing she’d ever seen, and we didn’t talk the whole ride home.
“That is what it sounds like when doves cry,” Ms. Jackson said, as the spiraling keyboard riff faded out, as the drum machine loop wound down.
I’d called the song in. I wondered if Fell was listening, if they knew what it meant. How hard it had been for me to dial that number. How bare the floor beside me was. How cold. How much my chest hurt.
“This extended block of uninterrupted songs is brought to you by Friendly Honda,” she said. “They’re not on Route Nine. Let’s stick with Prince, shall we? Dig a little deeper. A B-side. ‘Erotic City.’” Her laugh here was raw and throaty, barely a laugh at all, closer to a grumble of remembered pleasure. Some erotic city she’d taken someone to, ages ago.
The song started. A keyboard and a bass doing dirty, dirty things together. Strutting, strolling. Becoming one thing, one lewd gorgeous sound that made me shiver.
I imagined Fell listening. Our minds entwined inside the song. An intimacy unencumbered by flawed bodies, troubled minds, or the fear of what could go wrong when we put them together. Small voices inside our heads that made us miserable.
What a magnificent thing we would be. If Fell ever spoke to me again. If we could make whatever our weird thing was work.
Just when things were getting good, as Prince was shifting to the chorus, the static sizzle:
“There are a million ways I could have done this. But anything else, something more straightforward, well, I thought it might just blow your minds. Cause panic. Do the opposite thing, from what I wanted to accomplish.”
Prince and the star man struggled for dominance, dirty talk giving way to flanged static only to steal back center stage. I only heard one more intelligible phrase before the intruder cut out altogether, even though I stayed up until three in the morning to see if they’d return:
“—know it’s all worthwhile—”
“I want to find her,” Fell said, the next day, when I walked out the front door and there they were, sitting on my front steps.
I hid my shock, my happiness. My shame. My guilt. “Find who?”
“The voice in the night. The one Ms. Jackson keeps calling the star man.”
I sat down. “You think it’s a she?”
Fell shrugged. I had been imagining the voice belonged to a male, but now that I thought about it I heard how sexless it was, how mechanical. Could be anything, in the ear of the beholder.
Cold wind swung tree branches against the side of my house, sounding like someone awful knocking at the door. I could not unhunch my shoulders. The magnitude of my awfulness was such that I didn’t know where to start. What to apologize for first.
“How would we even begin to do something like that?” I asked instead.
Fell picked up something I hadn’t seen before. The size of three record album sleeves laid out in a row. Four horizontal lines of thin metal, with a single vertical line down the middle.
“A directional antenna,” they said. “It picks up radio signals, but it’s sensitive to the direction of the origin signal. Point it directly at the source and you get a strong signal; point it away and you’ll get a faint one. Plug it into this receiver”—Fell held up a hefty army-green box—“and we can take measurements in multiple directions until we find the right one.”
They talked like everything was fine, but their face was so tight that I knew nothing was.
“Where did you get that?” I asked, making my voice laugh. “And how do you know how to use it?”
“I told you, machines are kind of my thing.”
“So, wait, we just turn it around until we find the signal, and then go in that direction?”
“Not necessarily,” Fell said. “It tells direction, but not distance. So the signal could be three miles away, or three thousand, depending on how strong it is. With just one measurement, we could be driving into the wilderness for days.” Fell produced a map from the inner workings of the complex blazer they wore. “So the best way to do it is to take a measurement from one place, draw a line on the map that corresponds precisely to the signal, and then go to another location and take another measurement, and draw another precise line on the map—”
“And the point where they meet is the probable location!” I said, excited.
“It’s called triangulation,” Fell said.
“Amazing. But for real. How do you know all this?”
“My uncle, he learned this from my grandfather, who did it in the war. Transmitter hunting is kind of a nerd game, for amateur radio operators. They call it foxtailing.”
“Your uncle as in your mother’s brother?”
Fell nodded. And there it was, the subject I’d been trying to avoid.
“He was the closest thing to a dad that I had,” Fell said. “We used to have so much fun together. Didn’t give a shit about sports or any of that standard dude shit. He was into weird shit like directional antennas and science fiction. Then he met this girl, and moved to Omaha with her. Fucking Omaha. I’m sorry about the other day, at my mom’s. I acted like an idiot.”
“You acted like an idiot? Don’t be dumb, Fell—that was all me. I’m the one who should be apologizing. I didn’t know how to react when I saw how upset you were. I should have stayed. I wanted to stay.”
Fell grabbed my hand. I had so much more to say, and I imagine so did Fell, but we did not need a word of it.
Mom might be watching out the window, I thought, but did not let go of Fell’s hand.
“What if the source of the signal is moving?”
Fell nodded. “I thought about that. I don’t have a good solution. We just have to hope that’s not the case, or we’ll be triangulating bullshit.”
“It’s not the end of the world, if we end up standing in some empty field together.”
We drove to the top of Mount Merino, to take our first measurement. And then we waited. Kept the car running, blasting the Graveyard Shift from shitty speakers. Across the street was a guardrail, and then a sheer drop to the river beneath us. The train tracks alongside it. We lay on the hood and looked at stars.
“You won’t run out of gas like this?”
“The average car can idle for ninety-two hours—that’s just under four days—on a full tank of gas, which is what we have,” Fell said. “The battery will die long before we run out of gas.”
I marveled at the intricacies of Fell’s mechanical knowledge, but I had some knowledge of my own to share. I told Fell about my computer classes, and how, yeah, computers were incredible, they could do anything. Fell was as impressed as I’d hoped they’d be, but they kept asking me questions about the hardware that I couldn’t answer. All I knew was software. Fell looked at programming the way I looked at machines: probably fascinating, but way over my head.
Fell told me about transistors, and how processing power was increasing exponentially; had been for decades. How eventually computers would be able to store as much information and process as many simultaneous operations as swiftly as a human brain. Then Fell showed me how to work the antenna, read the receiver, detect signal strength. We practiced on other radio stations, penciled lines on the map.
Then three hours passed. We were way past my curfew, and the star man hadn’t shown.
“Fuck it,” Fell said, at the end of Ms. Jackson’s program. “Star person stood us up. We should go for a long drive. Charge the battery backup.”
“Okay,” I said, just assuming Fell was right and that was how those worked.
“Your parents won’t mind?”
“Nah,” I said, although they absolutely would, if they caught me sneaking back in, and there was a very good chance that they would because I am extremely clumsy, but that was the future and I didn’t care about that, I only cared about the here and the now with Fell in Fell’s car on this freezing night on this weird planet in this mediocre galaxy.
The radio show after Graveyard Shift was significantly less awesome, but we had to stick with it. Who knew whether star person would stumble onto any other stations. I had my portable radio and my headphones, so that I could periodically coast back and forth across the radio dial in search of our elusive visitor, but somehow I knew that this would be fruitless. For whatever reason, the signal was pegged to this specific station.
The new DJ talked too much between songs, and he had the voice of a gym teacher. The opening notes of “Where Is My Mind” came on and we both started screaming, but this asshole kept rambling on about a concert in Albany coming up next weekend, and he only stopped when the singer started singing.
“Goddamn him,” Fell said, and then—static—then—
“—that’s why I’m doing this, I guess. To tell you the future can be more magnificent, and more terrifying, than what you have in your head right now. And the one you embrace will be the one you end up with.”
As soon as the voice began, Fell raised the antenna, held it out like a pistol. Turned slowly. We watched the receiver respond to the signal’s varying strength, and hastily drew a bold thick line on the map when we found it. Cheered. Watched our breath billow.
“Told you he or she was a time traveler!” Fell said.
“That’s not what that means.”
“What does it mean, then?”
“We’re picking up lines of dialogue from a movie, maybe. Or love letters from a lunatic. We should keep driving, wait for another one.”
“It’s late,” Fell said. “My mom’s not doing so well, lately.”
The temperature dropped twenty degrees. The final notes of “Where Is My Mind” faded away.
“You can talk to me about it,” I said, gulping down air as the ground opened up beneath me. “Whatever you’re going through, I have your back. You know I love you, right?”
“I love you too, Laurie,” but I could hear the unspoken rest of the sentence—like our minds had linked up already—like Fell knew, in a way I never would, how little love mattered.
“We’ll go hunting tomorrow night,” I said.
At school the next day, alone with the computer, I saw why Fell loved machines so much. Not because they were simple, but because the rules were clear. And when something went wrong, there was a way to fix it.
And the next night, hands clasped on the hood of Fell’s car again, listening to Ms. Jackson with the directional antenna balanced across our thighs, I thought—if only we were machines. The sturdiness of hardware; the clarity of software. Not these awful meat puppets, in this awful world. Heads full of awful voices holding us back.
“I feel so good, when it’s just us,” Fell said, tapping into my thoughts with that eerie precision. “Our minds linked up inside the music. I want to stay there, forever.”
“Maybe someday,” I said, nonsensically, and Fell had the kindness not to point out that it was nonsense. We were what we were. Damaged minds alone in dying bodies.
Ms. Jackson exhaled smoke. “This one goes out to our friend the star man. Hope you get where you’re going, buddy.”
I groaned at the opening chords. “Starman,” by David Bowie. “This song always makes me cry,” I whispered, the lump already emerging in my throat.
Fell said, “I knew you were a Bowie girl.”
We listened. The chorus hurt.
Fell heard me sniffle. “Hear the way his voice rises, between ‘star’ and ‘man’?” they asked. “That’s the same octave jump as in the chorus of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’ You hear it? Star-man; Some-where?”
Fell was right. I’d listened to the song a million times before, and never noticed. And now for as long as I lived I’d never hear it without noticing. And now I was crying. Because the song was so beautiful; because Fell was so incredible; because the world was too awful for love like ours to last.
The final chorus wound down:
Let the children lose it
Let the children use it
Let all the children boogie
And the guitar cranked up, and the background singers crooned, and we were doomed, Fell and me, I felt it as heavy as the skin on my bones, how impossible we were, how soon we’d be shattered, and then—there the voice was again:
“The future is written, you might say. What will be will be. What’s the point of this? But so many futures are written. An infinite number, in fact. A billion trillion ways your story could end. I want to make sure you end up with the right future.”
Fill raised the antenna. Turned slowly, searching for the signal. Found it. We drew a line on the map. We circled the spot where our two lines met.
Both of us were crying, but Fell’s tears were happy ones.
Fell didn’t call me the next day, the way they say they would. Nor did they come by the house. And there was no answering machine at the Tanzillo household, and no one picked up, no matter how many times I called.
I told myself this was something sacred, something practically supernatural, to go to the spot on the map where our lines crossed, where the star person’s signal came from. So of course Fell was scared.
I told myself that’s all it was.
I told myself that, the whole long bike ride to Fell’s front door, where I knocked three times. The pounding echoed. How had I found the courage to come at all? What was I becoming?
“Quit calling my house,” said Fell’s mom when she opened the door. I’d only seen her sitting down before. She was taller than I’d imagined. Her long loose gray hair would have been glamorous on anyone else. “Christ, I feel like I spend half my time watching the phone ring, waiting for you to give the hell up.”
“You could pick it up, actually talk to me.”
She shrugged. The gesture was the same as Fell’s, heavier on the left shoulder than the right, but this version oozed with cynicism and inertia instead of energy and exuberance. The news was on in the background, turned up too loud, more talking heads talking nuclear annihilation. On the way in, I’d passed more military trucks. Trailers getting set up along the Hudson River. Satellite dishes blooming like steel flowers.
“Do you know where?”
“Sometimes they go to sleep at their grandpa’s place.” Except Mrs. Tanzillo used the wrong gender pronouns, and clearly took great pleasure in doing so. “Old trailer, been abandoned since the man died ten years ago. Full of raccoon shit, and wasps in summer. I’ll tell Fell you dropped by though.” Her sweet smile made it clear she’d do no such thing, and then she shut the door in my face.
I got on my bike.
This pain, it was Fell’s. It wasn’t mine, and I couldn’t do anything to diminish it. I could ride away and never feel it again.
I said that, but I didn’t believe it. I remembered what the star person had said. About how we could have a future that was magnificent or one that was terrifying, depending on which one we embraced.
I got off the bike.
Fell couldn’t see it, what a sad little creature their mother was. How absurd it was, that someone as magnificent as Fell could be made miserable by someone so weak.
Someone so small.
I knocked again.
She said nothing when she opened the door. Just smiled, like, come on, little girl, hit me with your best shot. And I had nothing. No practiced witty wise one-liners. Fell would have, for anyone but her.
“You’re only hurting yourself, you know.”
Her eyebrows rose. Her smile deepened.
“You might have the power to hurt Fell now, but that power won’t last long. As soon as Fell realizes what a useless angry pitiful person you are, you’ll lose that power.” I wanted my words to be better. But I was done letting wishing I was better stop me from being what I was. “And Fell will leave you here, drowning in cat shit and bills, while they go conquer the world.”
She said something. I didn’t hear what it was.
That night I heard the star man again. Somehow I knew it was just me this time. Like our minds were already beginning to overlap, and I could see Fell lying in silence in that dirty trailer, shivering under a blanket, no radio, listening to pine trees shush overhead, while I heard the star man whisper:
“…Two soldiers trapped behind enemy lines…”
I stayed late after school, in the computer lab. In the library. Reading the science and the science fiction Fell had rhapsodized about. All the impossible things that could save us from ourselves. Solar power; a post-petroleum future; superfoods. Cold fusion. Brain uploading. Digital immortality. Transcending the limits of the human.
Each time I shut a book, it was the pain of waking up from blissful dream to wretched reality.
But then, blissful dream: Fell was on my front steps when I got home. Alone in the deep black-blue of late twilight. Snow fell in half-hearted flurries.
“Sorry,” they said when I ran straight at them. My hug took all the air out of them.
“Never disappear again,” I whispered.
Fell nodded. A crumpled map in one raised fist. “Are we gonna do this?”
A cassette blasted when Fell started up the car. David Bowie. We drove, heading for where our lines crossed. The gulf between us was still so wide. Maybe I believed, now—that we could work, that what we added up to could survive in this world—but Fell did not. Fell still believed what Mrs. Tanzillo believed: that Fell was hell-bound, disgusting, deserving of nothing good. The miles inched past my window, closing in on the X on the map, and I had no words, no weapons to breach the wall between us.
And then: Fell did.
“Whatever you said to my mom? It really pissed her the fuck off.”
“I am so sorry,” I said. “It was selfish. I didn’t think it through. What it might mean for you.”
“No,” Fell said, and turned onto Route 9. “I never saw her like that before. I went home and she didn’t say a word to me. Like, at all. Except to say you stopped by. That never, ever happens. I don’t know how, but what you said messed her up really bad.”
“No fucking way,” Fell said, turning off the main road. “This can’t be it.”
We’d reached the spot on the map. We were stopped outside the Salvation Army. Where we’d met, a mere two weeks before.
“Nobody’s broadcasting from here,” they said.
We rolled down our windows. Snow fell harder now. Science fiction scenarios blurred in my brain. Time travel. Brain uploading.
“They’d need so much equipment,” Fell said. “If we heard it on the other side of the river? They’d need a massive antenna, but there’s nothing. And—”
Fell trailed off.
I looked up at the sky. Snow tap-tap-tapped at my forehead. I remembered what the star man said, the night before, to me and me alone. Two soldiers trapped behind enemy lines.
It was talking to me and Fell.
“The equipment’s not here,” I said. “Or, it’s here, but it’s not now.”
Fell got out of the car. I turned up the radio and got out after them.
“I get it,” I said, laughing, crying, comprehending. One wobbly crooked magnificent voice. “You were right, Fell. It’s coming from the future.”
We stood. Snow slowly outlined us.
“It’s us,” I said. Fell had finally infected me. The audacious, the impossible, was not only easy—it was our only way forward. “That machine voice? That’s…you and me. Our two voices together, somehow. A consciousness made up of both of our minds.”
Fell turned their head, hard, like they weren’t listening, or were listening and not understanding, or understanding and not believing.
“Plural singular,” I said. “We are the passenger.”
“Plural singular,” Fell said, snow falling into their perfect face, while David Bowie told us let all the children boogie.
They still didn’t see, but that was okay. There would be time to tell Fell all of it. To say that there was so much to be afraid of—nuclear winter, ecological devastation, the death spasms of patriarchy. That the next fifty years would see unspeakable suffering. But we could survive it. Overcome it. Surmount the limits of our flesh and our mortality and our separateness. Combine into some new kind of thing, some wobbly magnificent machine who could crack the very fabric of time and space. We could send a signal back, into the past, a lonely sad staticky voice in the night, to tell the beautiful damaged kids we had been that the future would be as good as they had the courage to be.
“Let All the Children Boogie” copyright © 2021 by Sam J. Miller
Art copyright © 2021 by J Yang