It was just spring when they first heard the music. They were at the very back of the schoolyard behind the screen of trees, sitting against the brick wall sharing a cigarette. Jimmy was hacking at the mud with the heel of his sneaker. He’d been crying. Hassled and hustled and bullied and troubled since he arrived in Orangeville from the city two years ago. He was still the new kid, the outsider, the perfect victim. All he had was Trevor.
They called Jimmy “Ragamuffin,” to make sure he always remembered he was from the scrap heap. He didn’t belong to their happiness, to their thoughtless suburban safety, he should have died with his family and friends like he was supposed to, in the riots and the disease and the despair.
“Here,” said Trevor and passed Jimmy the smoke.
That was when they heard it, as their fingers touched: A bright, warbling trill that ran up their spines and down again. At first Trevor thought it was a bird, something bright and brassy, something cheerful, an exotic thing plumed with cascading colors, an escapee from a zoo, or from a gilded cage in some mansion. But then it sounded again, and there was a melody tripping and laughing and running along and around them that no bird could ever have sung. Jimmy dropped the cigarette and was up a tree in a flash to peer through the razor-wire crown of the wall. Trevor didn’t follow. He was too clumsy, too slow, and too scared. He stood at the bottom looking up at his friend.
“What is it?” he called. “Can you see it?”
“It’s a man,” said Jimmy, “walking down the lane. He’s playing a flute or something.”
“That’s impossible,” wheezed Trevor and he dug out his inhaler. “There’s no one alive out there.”
And the school bell rang.
That night Trevor heard the song in his dreams, in all of them, slipping with him from one to the next, and he woke up exhausted. At recess they met at the wall. Jimmy looked as tired as Trevor felt. They waited, uncertain why they expected to hear it again, but certain they would.
It was the same looping melody, going around and around in circles, but this time Jimmy stopped on the lowest branch and lowered a hand.
“Come on,” he said. “You have to try. Come on.”
Trevor grasped Jimmy’s hand and scrabbled up the tree. By the time he caught his breath Jimmy had skittered even further up.
“There he is,” Jimmy hissed. “Hurry up! He’s coming!”
Trevor hauled himself upright to see.
A wood beyond was a sea of whispering leaves, broken occasionally by a peaked roof shedding its shingles, or an apartment block with broken windows like gouged out eyes. At the horizon was the spine of ruined skyscrapers. Below them a grassy lane ran between the wall and the row of derelict houses holding back the surge of the forest. A ragged little man in ragged clothes was playing a pennywhistle as he limped down the lane past the school.
The following day Chris Marshall and his boys found them waiting for the man up in the tree.
“Going to fly back to the city, Ragamuffin?” Marshall asked. “With your useless friend?”
“Shut up, Marshall,” said Jimmy and the boys said “Ooooh!”
“Do I have to come up there, Ragamuffin?” began Marshall but Jimmy said: “Shhh! Listen!”
And they all heard it.
On Friday it was not just Trevor, Jimmy, and Marshall’s gang at the wall, but a whole crowd of kids. Jimmy had to fight for his perch and Trevor’s too. This time when the music drifted down the lane and over the wall, instead of watching for the man, Trevor looked around him. Jimmy was up near the top, out on a branch that hung precariously into the lane. Marshall was just below him and then clustered about the trunk on the thicker limbs were boys from the upper grades, and a few girls, and even some of the braver little kids. The next tree over was full as well, and the one after that, and the next one too, and down below was the shuffling, milling mob. When they heard the music the chatter and the confusion ceased, faces lit up with delight, and everyone stood at rapt, wide-eyed attention, until the ragged man had wandered past, out of sight and earshot, around the bend that led to the great, brown river. And then they all remained in their reverie until they heard a commotion back at the school.
“Uh oh,” said Marshall. “The teachers.”
Trevor looked back across the playing fields. The principal was out in front, tie trailing over his shoulder, and behind him the gym teacher, behind her his homeroom teacher, and after that the dull, anonymous lot of them, faces contorted with anger and exertion. A kid screamed and there was panic. Children were pushing and shoving each other out of the way, jumping out of trees, running in all directions. All that was left by the time the adults arrived were a couple of little ones too terrified to move, and Trevor – who hadn’t bothered with the laborious climb down, and Jimmy – who wouldn’t leave his friend.
Trevor’s parents were furious. His mother blamed Jimmy in particular, and his father the refugees and the runaways and the roustabouts in general. Trevor spent all of Saturday in the house, just like every other Saturday, just like every Sunday, just like every holiday and every weekday evening. He watched TV, called Jimmy, played around on the computer, did some homework. In the evening he watched the sun set from up in his room. The police cruisers prowled by as they always did, at the edge of Orangeville, the search lights on the guard towers snapped on, and Trevor could hear the drones buzzing overhead.
He woke to a pitch black room. At first he thought the faint melody was the echo of his dreams, but it did not fade. He hopped out of bed and padded to the window. Down on the street the ragged man was standing in a pool of light and playing his pennywhistle. Trevor pulled some jeans over his pajama bottoms and hurried downstairs. He opened the front door just a crack and peered out. He could see the man limping away, still playing, and as he disappeared into darkness, Trevor saw the small figures trailing after him in the shadows.
“Trevor,” someone whispered and he jumped.
It was Jimmy peering up at him from the porch steps.
“I was coming to get you,” Jimmy said. “He’s taking us with him. He’s taking us out.”
“That’s impossible,” said Trevor. “They’ll stop us. We’ll never get past them.”
“The cops are all asleep in their cars,” laughed Jimmy. “And in the towers too, I bet. And the drones have all crashed in the backyards and the pools and the streets.”
Trevor stared at him.
“Come on, Jimmy” called someone from down the street. It sounded like Marshall.
And then from farther away: “Jimmy! Jimmy! Come on!”
“Please, Trevor,” said Jimmy. “We have to go. They’ll leave without us.”
The search party found Trevor the next afternoon, about a mile from the wall, where the lane was almost overgrown. He was sitting on the front steps of a house that should have toppled over years ago. Roots had knuckled up under the foundation. Branches had crashed through all the windows and burst out from the roof. His hair was a terrible mess and his cheeks stained with mud and tears.
“I couldn’t keep up,” Trevor said to one of the policeman. “I forgot my inhaler. I had to stop. I couldn’t keep up.”
He blinked up at the officer, past the automatic weapon and the body armor and the moustache, and into the mirrors of his sunglasses.
“Even Jimmy,” said Trevor and started to cry again. “Even Jimmy wouldn’t wait.”
He felt even worse days later, when on a sleepless night he crept to the top of the stairs and heard his parents whispering to each other; whispering about the children vanishing into the relentless spring wash of the river; whispering about how lucky Trevor was; about how lucky they were. He imagined small bodies by the dozen pin-wheeling downstream towards the city, some getting caught up by submerged tree trunks, some drifting into the muddy shores, arms and legs tangled with driftwood and rubbish, but Jimmy, Jimmy he imagined far ahead of them all, untouched, unhindered, carried along by the sparkling water, blank face staring up at the glorious blue of the spring sky, dead eyes weeping muddy tears, he imagined Jimmy all alone, Jimmy going home.
William Squirrell lives and works in western Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in Monkeybicycle, The Drabblecast, Daily Science Fiction, and other venues. More information can be found at blindsquirrell.com and on twitter @billsquirrell.
Lead image: “pennywhistle” (via Flickr user fo.ol)