by Narrelle M Harris
Yuka paused in the foyer of the hostel to check her reflection. Well, ‘foyer’ was probably putting it grandly. The shabby sofas, chairs and tables were filled with a scattering of shabby travellers, and the battered reception desk, jammed to overflowing with brochures and notices, boasted a perky and chaotic receptionist festooned with piercings and bold tattoos.
Yuka wasn’t tattooed – she’d happily left the inking to Kurt all these years. Only her earlobes were pierced at the moment, and they remained unadorned. She had the slightly misshapen ear to prove that wearing too much embedded jewellery while battling an armed and armoured mermaid, for example, could be a very bad idea.
What Yuka did have were her wrist cuffs and now the necklace. Mementos of the dead.
Her leather wrist cuffs were decorated with the parts of smashed drum, keyboard and guitars she had retrieved a decade ago, all that was left of her band after they’d accidentally summoned a demon. Yuka was the only survivor of that mistake.
It was the first Yuka had ever learned of music magic, and had set her on this path – once she’d found a way to banish the demon again, of course. She had made the wrist braces to remind herself of what they’d called down upon themselves, what it had cost them, who she had lost, and that she had won that battle, alone and untrained. Then she had gone looking for others like herself, because there had to be others, or her life would be too lonely and dangerous to bear.
She’d found Alex Torni; or rather Steve Borman, Alex’s bass player, had found her, and here she was, still fighting monsters. Still trying to get even with them.
She fingered the necklace briefly; her new memento mori, made of the strings of Alex’s guitar and keys from Kurt’s keyboard. Chunky and heavy, the weight of it around her neck was like the weight of them in her heart. Yuka could have told anyone that grief was heavy, and that anger helped to hold you up. Her rage had been helping her to carry grief for ten long years now.
Well, enough of that. Yuka scowled at her reflection and stepped out into the fading early evening light. Food now. Rehearsal later. They would take their respite while they could by simply playing music that was music and not a weapon, and decide how next to move. They were no longer Rome Burning. Alex had forged that band when he’d become its leader nine years ago. Alex was gone and they needed a new leader, and with that leader would come a new name. That’s how this worked, and had worked, for hundreds of years.
The drummer’s short, fast stride took her away from the hostel and to the dying activity of the markets, in the final phases of closing up for the day. The plan had never been to do any actual shopping. For that sort of thing, they needed actual money. They had some, of course, but they’d become adept over the years at not spending it unless absolutely necessary.
Yuka walked through the undercover section of the markets that traditionally housed the fruit and vegetable stalls. Abandoned boxes not yet collected for disposal held discarded produce, still more or less edible but not strictly saleable. Yuka found some plastic bags and, keeping her movements swift but unobtrusive, filled them with salvageable refuse. Overripe, split tomatoes would make a good base. A couple of broken carrots; a chunk of cauliflower; a bruised eggplant: a beggar’s feast right there. A half-smashed watermelon would pass for dessert.
Down the road apace was a little supermarket. She’d be able to find rice there, oil, some spice. There’d be enough for dinner, at least.
Yuka carried the bags out into the street, wondering if she might splurge a little on a chicken, or a few fillets at any rate, and then she felt it.
The movement, under her feet.
Like pins and needles, but on a string, wound around her feet and wriggling. It felt a little like the pins-and-needles-string was tugging her to the east.
Yuka’s toes curled inside her shoes, but the feeling didn’t go away. She closed her eyes and breathed shallow, and her toes tingled and ached. Her arches, too. Everything still felt like it was pulling, mildly, but pulling, to one side. Even the weight of her necklace seemed to have a magnetic drag to the east.
She opened her eyes again and the first thing she saw was the grey granite marker on the corner of the street.
Yuka took a deeper breath and followed the tug in her aching feet to look at the marker.
The marker told her that these markets were built on top of an old cemetery, and that 914 bodies had been exhumed and reinterred elsewhere by 1922. Only 914, out of what must have been many, many more dead buried here in the eighty years of the cemetery’s use.
The tingle-pull in her feet was stronger here. Not malevolent or dangerous, Yuka could tell that much, but restless.
The dead underneath the carpark over the road were certainly restless.
Yuka’s sigh was in part long-suffering resignation, in part annoyance, and another part determination. She crossed the mostly empty street to the even emptier car park and began to walk it, feeling the tingle in her feet become a more distinct feeling of lengths of string, or maybe now coils of thin rope, moving along and over her arches, heels, the balls of her feet.
These dead are long decayed, she reminded herself. They are not going to burst out of the earth in a zombie parade. There will not be enough tissue to hold the bones together. There are no minds under the tar. The bones are just remembering they used to be alive. That’s all. They have probably been rolling over in their sleep for a hundred years and no-one’s ever noticed before.
Yuka was reluctant to put the scavenged meal on the ground – the restless dead had been known to rot food before – so she tied the plastic bags together and draped them around her neck. Watermelon to the left; vegetables to the right. A balanced diet. Ha. The strong odour of overripe plant life rose around her face. Hers, Yuka reflected, was not a dignified life.
She crouched and put one hand on the asphalt, letting the ropey tingle move over her fingertips and palm. The sensation remained essentially harmless. There was no malice in it. The dead weren’t angry, and she sensed nothing angry attempting to use the dead as a channel. A frisson of longing, perhaps, but again, that might just be the component parts of the dead remembering what it was to be whole and alive.
Yuka crouched and patted the ground. Patpat. Patpat. Patpat. A little hushing rhythm. The restless tingle hesitated then resumed.
It was for times like these that Yuka always carried drumsticks. Living the life the band did, there was never knowing when they might be necessary. She pulled this pair from her belt and held them firmly in her two hands, feeling the power of them hum. The asphalt was not going to do the sticks one bit of good. Well, that’s why she had lots of drumsticks, she reminded herself, and why she went to the effort of singing every new set strong. For emergencies, like this. Besides, although she was on her own, Yuka didn’t think the whole band was needed. Her drumsticks and her voice should be enough. Bartos, of revered memory, had achieved more with just a rusty horseshoe, a tent peg and his own baritone.
Balanced on the balls of her feet, Yuka began to drum a tattoo on the ground. Taptap, taptap. Taptap, taptap. The rhythm of a heartbeat. It wasn’t an ancient piece, but it had been over fifty years in the repertoire, so it had a proven record. And these bones under her feet were old and not really a threat. All she had to do was send them back to sleep.
She knew the words in Japanese as well, of course, but sometimes the magic was stronger when sung in the original musician’s original words.
The heartbeat rhythm had the attention of the dust and bones. The taptap, taptap brought all that restlessness into focus. Yuka could feel it, almost like the dust had eyes, still, focusing on her.
Almost imperceptibly at first, Yuka slowed the heartbeat. Taptap, taptap. Tap-tap. Tap-tap.
And she could feel the things under her feet grow sluggish. She could feel them remembering not only the heartbeat, but how the heartbeat fades. Yuka could feel the dust and bones calming, settling. Tap-tap. Tap-tap. Tap tap. Tap tap.
She could feel them going back to sleep, forgetting they had ever once been alive.
Yuka held the silence after the last note, breathing as silent as a tree, and listened with her ears and heart and feet and hands.
There. Quiet. All silent in the graveyard. Much, much better.
The spike when it came was so quick that Yuka almost didn’t feel it coming. A sharp jab, like an electric shock, jolting out from the earth. Sticks resting on the ground, breathing easy, Yuka felt the stab of it just before it hit. Not something from the restless dead but a burst of rage and fire from something deeper, something she hadn’t felt. It burned up from the ground, across her feet, into the tips of her drumsticks on the tarmac.
But Yuka was an old hand at this, and she and the band had sung those sticks to might and potency over days. Her voice was in the wood, but so was Steve’s, so was Sal’s, so were Alex and Kurt’s voices, binding that wood and making it, if not impervious, then at least powerful.
As the burn of that old rage arched between the ground and her skin, Yuka felt it, raised her sticks and then punched them down, tips first, not beating but stabbing into the shell of tar and, through it to the soil below. The jolt of power pierced the sticks, but with the magic in her body and in her tools, she met it, blocked it, threw it back.
There was an explosion that was not an explosion: more like two concussion waves meeting and rebounding. The force of it threw Yuka onto her back and she laid there for a moment, gasping for air, feeling the ground with her whole body.
The whole quiet ground. Whatever had attacked her, it was gone now.
Yuka got to her knees, her joints creaking a little. She half crawled to where her sticks were buried in the tarmac and, with some effort, she pulled them free. The wood was split and frayed. No use for much now; certainly not for the drum kit. Fortunately, she had several sets still with her kit. None she had sung as strong, and they were all getting a bit worn. She’d lost her strongest set staking vampires in Budapest, and now these were ruined. New sticks it would have to be, and they’d just have to spare the cash.
She adjusted the bags across her suddenly aching neck with her numb fingers and went to finish her shopping at the little supermarket.
Yuka decided to buy the chicken anyway. The restless dead happened all the time. Actual meat protein for dinner was much less common.
(Please feel free to post your responses to the story here: thoughts, speculation, whatever strikes you, good or bad.)