The Bet: 2018: Audible Magic (a short story for YOU)
It’s that time of year again…The Bet. Wherein some writers get together and make a wager (no money involved, only words) on the Kentucky Derby. I once again lost, though I think this is the first year that the horses we picked (myself, Brian Farrey and Catherine Ryan Hyde this year) came in first, second and third. So we’re getting better. Usually I’m somewhere around dead last…or at least it feels that way.
Catherine gave me my title this year: Audible Magic.
I’ve been working on some middle grade fantasy books so I thought, hey, maybe I’ll do something different and do a real-world story. And I really like what happened. I hope you’ll like it too. A bit romantic this time, which was fun to play with. I wound up really liking the characters.
So, without any further ado, here it is.
I’ve known Becky since I was seven. She’s been talking me into things for fifteen years. Things like moving to the city without finding a job first, dying my hair purple, and that very ill-advised tattoo of a twerking penguin that I will never, ever let my dad see.
She knew me back when I played tuba in our middle school band, back when I thought I was the coolest girl on the block for being able to dah dah dah dum da da dum da da dum out a recognizable version of the Imperial Death March. Back when you couldn’t find me without my Beats on. A lifetime ago.
We’d gone to our first concert together when we were thirteen. All the other girls were mad over One Direction but not us—we were above that. No big box stadium shows for us. No boy bands. No, we snuck into some dive of a bar to listen to a band so bad that they wound up splitting up on stage because the guitar player was falling down drunk and was, apparently, sleeping with both the lead singer and the drummer. I can still remember the smell of the beer and the sweat of the crowd. The smell of doing something you weren’t supposed to.
Yeah, Bec can talk me into anything. She can even talk me into things like going to a concert I have no desire to go to.
But she was right. I had promised. And the tequila had definitely had something to do with it, but also the twinkle in her eye whenever she talked about Tom. Bec had incredibly bad taste in men and the jury was still out on him, at least as far as I was concerned. Sure, she’d met him at the grocery store instead of on Tinder, but he wore his baseball cap backwards and he worked in finance. It wasn’t promising. He’d been there buying avocados and granary bread.
Bec was only fifteen minutes late picking me up, which didn’t leave her any time to make me change out of my most comfortable pair of jeans and a plain t-shirt. She was club-ready, wearing a little black dress and some thigh-high boots and lipstick you could see a mile away. She eye-rolled hard at me in my normal clothes, swiped some heavy black eyeliner along my eyes, and twenty minutes later she was pushing me to the front of the line at some club I’d never heard of. Clubs weren’t my thing anymore. Too dark to see who you’re with. Too many people. Too much.
The bouncer was huge, with a nose like a potato. He held up a hand to stop Bec’s full frontal assault and pointed at first us and then somewhere in the vicinity of the back of the line. It snaked down the block. I couldn’t even see the end of it.
Bec just smiled at him and pulled two lanyards with passes out of her bag. She threw one around my neck and put one on her own. No telling how she’d managed to pull those. It was nearly always better not to ask. I wasn’t the only one that Bec could talk into things.
The guy that had been first in line didn’t look very happy with us. I smiled at him and gave the universal shrug of sorry dude, what can you do, amiright?
The bouncer poked me in the shoulder and I jumped.
“Hey, man,” said Bec, signing to me at the same time, “don’t get handsy. She didn’t hear you. She’s deaf.” She turned to me and signed I.D. show.
I nodded and pulled my driver’s license out of my pocket and held it out to him. He tilted his head to the side as he looked at it, then said something to Bec that I couldn’t catch any of.
She pursed her lips at him, signing her answer at the same time. “Yeah, she can drive. She’s deaf, not blind.” I hoped she hadn’t also said the idiot she’d added onto what she’d signed to me. He was way too large to insult.
He bent over to peer at me like I was a bug under microscope. “Can you read my lips?” he asked.
That phrase right there is one of the only ones I can consistently lip read from a stranger, but only because I’ve been asked so many times.
“No,” I said. I can lip read Bec a good deal of the time, since I know her so well, though I don’t have to since she’s been signing with me for years. She learned it along with me. Half the time I know what she’s going to say before she says it. But other people? Not so much. Especially since the hipster trend took over and every other guy out there had a porcupine growing on his chin or a handlebar mustache that belonged back in the Wild West.
He stared at me, processing that. I got the feeling his job didn’t normally require him to do much thinking. And he probably didn’t get a lot of deaf people coming to shows, not at a club like this. The chance of a place this size having an interpreter was slim to none. He finally spoke. “_____ how ___ ___ know what __ ___ _____?” That was all I got from his lips, but I could guess what the rest of it was.
“Because everyone asks me that,” I said. Seriously. If I had a dollar…
I could even guess what he was going to say next, but this time he turned his attention back to Bec like I wasn’t even there.
Now she was starting to look pissed and I was starting to regret that she’d talked me into coming. “And what exactly are deaf people supposed to sound like?” she told him. Yeah, he’d asked what I thought he would. I wasn’t sure why she was getting so wound up about it though. I’d had this conversation about a million times before and she’d been there for many of them. It was annoying, but it was normal.
“Bec,” I said sweetly, “Tom’s already in there waiting, right? Can we go in now?” I smiled up at the bouncer. Full charm. Lots of teeth. I wasn’t going to go into the full story for his benefit. How I’d lost my hearing when I was a teenager. How I could still remember what the sound of my voice was like. I remembered how it felt to speak, the feel of my tongue against my teeth, the breath in my lungs, the movement of my lips. How I practiced enunciating every word now. How people told me I sounded more like a news announcer than like I’d used to.
I’d gone deaf, not stupid. I could do anything the big dumb bohunk could do, other than hear. And throw people across a room. I wasn’t really sized for that. Pity, sometimes.
Some of what I was thinking must have come through, because he shuffled uncomfortably out of our way and waved us in. I grabbed Bec and pulled her through the door and into Hell.
At least, that’s what it felt like. The cool night air, gone, replaced by a stagnant, almost antiseptic smell layered over with perfume and alcohol. It was dimly lit, tiny puddles of reddish light from uselessly artsy light fixtures around the outside edge, while the center of the large room pulsed with flashing strobe lights. There was a bar at one end of the space and a stage at the other. Clusters of tables and booths on one side, but not nearly enough for the number of people that were already inside. How were they going to fit the rest of the people in line? How were we going to find Tom? Why had I let her talk me into coming? She knew I hated crowded spaces filled with strangers.
One of my questions was answered almost immediately. Bec made a beeline across the room, dragging me with her. Her guy-dar was on full throttle. She’d spotted Tom all the way across the room standing near one side of the stage. At least he wasn’t wearing the cap today.
He was two-handed with drinks, sipping something whiskey-brown out of a glass in one hand and holding a blue martini with a plethora of fruit sticking out of it in the other. It looked like a Bec kind of drink. She was surprisingly frou-frou. The more things poking out of it, the better. He handed the concoction to her with a smile as we came up to him.
“You remember Molly?” she said to him and gave him a very unsubtle elbow in the side. He smiled and waved at me and managed to sign a passable how are you to me. Okay, he had potential. More than Bec’s normal picks, anyway. The last guy she’d dated wouldn’t even make eye contact with me.
Good I signed back, saying it out loud at the same time. I didn’t want to make him work too hard.
“Great spot,” Bec said, nodding at the stage. “Right, Molly?”
“Perfect.” Whatever. I pointedly spent some time looking at the instruments on the stage as she got down to greeting him in a more personal manner. There was a well-loved bass guitar on a stand right in front of us, a couple of faded stickers decorating it. Drum kit, center stage towards the back. A red guitar on the other side. A single microphone down front, another guitar next to it. Huge black speakers on either side on stands. No fancy set dressing. Just the instruments. Well, you couldn’t say we’d changed much since we were young, though this club was both better and worse than that dive bar we’d gone to for our first foray into live music. I’d bet the drinks were a lot more expensive here, that was for sure.
The house lights flashed. I looked around and saw that the room had filled up even more. It was a wall of people behind us, undulating like a beast, like they were one body with many arms and legs and mouths. It was even hotter now, like a wave of heat washing over me. Hell. Seventh level.
I looked at Bec, ready to make a face at her but she was smiling at me, so happy. I couldn’t do it. “Showtime!” she said. Love you she signed to me. Ready? Dance you me. She pointed to the stage and then flung an arm around Tom’s waist, hips already ready to go. No one loved to dance as much as Bec.
I turned back to the stage, putting the crowd at my back, trying to pretend they weren’t there. The band was coming out. All guys. But there was no way they were a boy band; not unless boy bands had gone sexy and dangerous since I’d paid any attention to them. Harry Styles eat your heart out.
The bass player was dressed like me, t-shirt and jeans, though somehow they managed to not look basic on him. Maybe it was the hair. It was long-ish and tied back in a ponytail. No facial hair, unlike the lead singer, who was sporting a full-on hipster beard. I wouldn’t be lip-reading him. The drummer was tattooed and shirtless. The guitar player had on tight leather pants and some shiny silver shirt. Silk? God, he had to be melting in the heat.
I could feel the crowd behind me now as they clapped and shouted and stomped. Like a heartbeat. A drum beat. No, that was the drum beat. The drummer had started playing. And the bassist too. A line, a thread…it vibrated inside me, a drawn out thrumming I could feel in my chest. In my bones. Boom. Boom. Boom. The speakers were quivering. So was I.
Boom. Bah Bah Boom. Like a race car had suddenly let loose inside my veins, gone screaming through the bends of my heart and come out the other side. I could feel the music. It was there. Like I could reach out and touch it. Cradle it. Take it inside me, but I didn’t need to. It was already there.
I put my hands on the stage in front of me, near one of the speakers and closed my eyes. Yes. There it was, the pulse of the song. I stayed that way, nodding my head in time to the music, feeling it all the way down to my toes, like I was inside the song. A minute, forever, too long, not enough, I wasn’t sure and then the song was over. I opened my eyes as the thrumming left me. The singer was talking. I didn’t know about what. I didn’t care. He should shut up and sing.
I tapped Bec on the arm. “I was in the song,” I said but she shook her head and cupped her hand to her ear. The crowd was too loud. She couldn’t hear me. Song I signed. Music I am. Was I making sense? Beautiful! I didn’t care. Feel music inside. Boom. Boom. My hand to my chest. She smiled at me and laughed. Good good she signed. Did she get it? Did she understand?
We could talk about it later. Another song was starting.
I closed my eyes and this time I leaned into the stage, wishing I could take my shoes off and feel it even more, from the soles of my feet up. I didn’t know what the song was, but I did at the same time. It felt like I remembered. It felt like music and freedom and doing something you shouldn’t but you oh-so-should.
I kept trying to explain it to Bec between songs, but I wasn’t sure she could understand. I feel too she signed. Band good. Song good.
It wasn’t good. It was amazing. It was magic.
Bec touched my arm. Last song. Too soon. I wasn’t ready for it to be over. Next band half hour she continued. I felt like I could stand here all night, so long as the music kept going. A half hour felt like forever away. Drink?
Okay, I signed. Bar you me drinks. But not yet. Not until after the last song. Shut up. Feel-me-need. I pointed to the stage. Words weren’t enough. She laughed and nodded and went back to Tom. He was doing the white man dance and I didn’t even care.
The last song began and this time I kept my eyes open, wanting to take it all in. The drummer, sweat shining on him, making his tattoos glisten in the lights. The guitar player, down on his knees, head thrown back. The lead singer, cradling the microphone like a lover. I wished I knew what the words were. Man, I didn’t even know what kind of music this was. It felt like rock. It could be punk. It could be anything. It didn’t matter. It was music. I’d ask Bec later.
And the bassist—I looked up at him to find him staring down at me with his dark eyes like he’d been waiting for me to notice him. He smiled as our eyes caught. He took a step or two toward me and then knelt down right in front of me, still playing. He nodded at me. Nodded at my hands pressed to the stage. What? What did he want? Was I in the way? Crap. I lifted my hands and would have pulled them back, but without missing a beat he grabbed one of my hands with one of his and put it flat against the bass. Then he went on playing, nodding his head in time with the music, his eyes still on mine.
Oh. My fingers thrummed. Buzzed. Hummed. I felt like it was in time with my heart or maybe it was the other way around. I smiled up at him. He had no idea. He was making magic and I—I was feeling it. Buh buh buh bum ba bum
He stayed on his knees in front of me until the end of the song, watching me, like he was playing just for me. I knew I was smiling like a loon, like an idiot, but I couldn’t help it. I’d never thought I could feel the music again. It wasn’t the same, of course, but it was in all the right ways. It was the feeling of it, that bubble that builds up inside you as the music takes you and grows and grows until you overflow.
And then it was over. I didn’t take my hand off the bass until it was gone. Done. No more hum, no more vibrations, no more music. “Thank you,” I said to him, not sure if he could hear me over the crowd or not. I would have said more, had more words on the tip of my tongue, but Bec pounced and wrapped me up in a hug. She let me go, signing fast and furious. Amazing! How feel? Good? Love? Fingers out in horns, smile on her face. You rock!
Tom, behind her back, smiled at me too. He mimed drinking something and pointed at the bar. I nodded. I needed something. I felt drained. Alive, maybe more alive than I had felt in years, but like I’d run a race.
He pushed through the crowd, making a path. Bec took my hand and pulled me after her. I looked back toward the stage but the bassist was gone already. I let her pull me along through the crowd. I should have said more to him. Something. Anything. Thank you wasn’t enough.
Tom was a paragon. He found us a spot right at the corner of the bar. Definite talents. I was liking him more and more for Bec, especially without the baseball cap. They were a matched pair, working in tandem. She insinuated herself into the line up at the bar with a sneaky hip and pulled me in next to her.
Usual? she signed.
Please, I signed back.
She held up a hand to get the bartender’s attention when someone tapped both of us on the shoulder. I turned around, ready to be annoyed, but it was the bassist. He was tall and lean and some bits of dark hair had escaped his ponytail to curl around his ears.
“May I?” it looked like he said, looking first at me and then at Bec.
“Yeah!” she said, with a huge grin. “Gin and tonic for my girl here,” she told him. “I’ll just be…over there…” She signed an added Go, girl at me. Then she grabbed Tom by the collar and disappeared, swallowed up by the crowd before I could even get my thoughts together.
Ah. And I hadn’t brought my notepad. I usually carried a small one, just in case, but I hadn’t bothered tonight. Hadn’t thought I’d need to talk to someone I didn’t know. Hadn’t thought I’d want to.
He’d managed to order some drinks before I got myself together enough to realize I should say something.
“Um, hi,” I said. “I’m Deaf.” I didn’t usually blurt it out like that. Jesus. I’d even pointed at my ears, like he wouldn’t know what deaf meant.
He nodded. Opened his mouth to say something, then shut it again. Then looked frantically around.
I pulled out my iPhone and opened the Notes app. It would do in a pinch. I wasn’t sure how loud the club was, but I didn’t want to shout, so I leaned over to him. “I’m Molly,” I said. “What’s your name?” I held out my phone to him and mimed typing on it.
He took my phone.
My name is Jack. Did you enjoy the show?
“I loved it!” I said and then I started babbling about the music, all the things I’d been trying to tell Bec in between songs, how I’d felt it, how it had run through my body, through my veins, how I hadn’t known that it would be like that. That it could be like that. All the while, my hands were talking too. I couldn’t have stopped them if I’d tried.
The drinks arrived and he handed me mine with a smile. God, what a smile. I took a sip if only to stop myself from spewing words. What was I doing with this verbal diarrhea?
“Sorry,” I said. “That was a little much, wasn’t it?”
He shook his head no and typed something out on my phone. He held it up for me to read while I sipped, hoping the glass was hiding my face. I was pretty sure I’d gone red. Though the gin probably wasn’t going to help with that.
I’m happy you liked it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone enjoy our songs that much before.
Yeah, embarrassing. I tried not to imagine what I’d looked like, my hands on the stage, my head nodding in time, my eyes closed. Inside, I was still that dork playing the Imperial Death March.
“I’ve missed music,” I said.
I’m glad you’ve found it again.
“Thanks,” I said. Now was my chance. “I mean, really, thank you. Thank you for the music. For helping me find it.”
Awkward. So awkward. He was probably thinking I was an idiot. But I hoped he understood what I was saying because I did mean it. Every word.
I took another sip, trying to think of what to say next that wouldn’t sound scatter-brained. I didn’t even know what the name of his band was. Or any of their songs. I certainly couldn’t ask, not now. I mean, hello, thanks for the show, enjoyed it, loved it, who are you guys again? I couldn’t even ask him what kind of music he liked. I didn’t know what kind he played!
I just knew how it made me feel.
He handed me back my phone, held up a single finger and smiled. One? One minute? One moment? One what? Then he disappeared into the crowd, into the dimness of the club, the mad heat. I’d lost track of the crush while we were talking, but now I felt it again. People pressing against me on every side. An elbow in my back as someone walked by, pushing me into the bar.
Oh, I’d done it. I’d sounded like some kind of crackpot groupie. Where was Bec? I texted her but she didn’t answer. She was probably off in a corner with Tom. I looked around, but all I saw were nameless faces. A blur. Should I wait? Stay? I finished my drink, debated ordering another. The high I’d felt from the music was nearly gone now.
There was a soft tap on my shoulder. He was back. Jack. His smile had gone a bit crooked. He squared his shoulders and raised his hands and—signed. Date, two-of-us, go-to you want you?
I was so surprised that I didn’t respond. Just gaped at him. Then I saw Bec over his shoulder, beaming at me. He must have gone to find her. Asked her to show him the words. My language.
He lightly touched my forearm to bring my attention back to him, his head ducked down a bit, staring me right in the eyes. Not looking away. Looking right at me. Me. You I like, he signed slowly. Together music?
Together music, I signed back.
With much thanks to a couple of people on the Reddit /deaf/ sub for their advice, especially on American Sign Language (ASL) syntax. And to the Deaf community on YouTube for the many great videos that I watched while researching ASL and deafness for this story. Any mistakes are my own.
Jack is named after Jack Bruce, a legendary bass player, though he definitely doesn’t look exactly like him.