ERASE AND REWIND

--

hey what did you hear me say
you know the difference it makes
what did you hear me say

--

"I'm here", Christine said gently.

It was so dark Birkoff couldn't see her. Which might be a good thing, since the last time he had seen her, half her head had been missing.

"Sis?" he croaked out between swollen lips.

No one had heard the shot. The basement had been sound-proofed for Christine to play her cello in. When she had failed to show up for dinner, the family had assumed she was practising, and started eating anyway. Fish sticks. To this day, Birkoff couldn't look at a fish stick, without seeing blood and grey matter spattering the walls.

"I'm here. What day is it?"

Her voice was deep, reaching into the counter alto register. His own was a unusually high tenor. When they overlapped, the effect was eerie. The frequencies interfered with each other, alternately damping out and enhancing each other. He tried to picture the sound waves in his head. A routine exercise, for him. Except that he couldn't do it.

"What day is it?"

Christine seemed impatient at having to repeat herself.

"Um. The twenty-fifth?"

It was a wild guess. He had no idea. Once upon a time a young man named Birkoff had worked for a place called Section One. He had known such things as what date it was, which day of the week it was, who the President of the United States was and much more.

"You were brought in the twenty-third of June. That was three days ago. What date is it today?"

It seemed like a trick question. Surely it must have been more than seventy-two hours since he had first woken up in this hole.

"The twenty-sixth, I guess."

"That's right."

They had sprayed him all over with something that itched and burned. Christine had told him not to scratch himself, but eventually the chemical ate through his skin anyway and he had bled and bled, until they had patched him up with synthetic skin. Then the tall woman had entered, carrying a box of needles and vials. She had injected him with a relaxant, while asking him what his name was and who he worked for. Later, she'd changed to a mixture of neurotoxins that made him spasm and convulse in pain without escape. After administering the proper antidotes, she gave him the relaxant and started over again.

Christine's favourite piece of music was Dvorak's cello concerto in B minor. Against all rules, she had played twice it at the annual concert at the conservatory. Birkoff had recited it, note by note, during the first interrogation session. During the second, he had recited it backwards. The injections had messed with his memory, though; when the third session began, there were gaps in the second movement, the adagio non troppo, and by the fourth session he could no longer remember it at all. Some injections later, Christine had appeared. Of course, he'd always known she was there.

"Can you stand another round of Dvorak?" she asked him now, her voice full of tenderness.

She had seemed fine at the first concert. A little nervous, but fine. Her performance had been typical of a first-year student; her technique was better than her expression, but all her teachers agreed that she had potential. She had been pretty, too, the dark glossy hair put up in an elaborate pile, setting off her dress in burgundy velvet nicely. The second one had been worse. She had almost upset herself and her instrument as she entered the stage. Her hair had been hacked off in uneven lumps and her scalp had gleamed whitely through the remaining tufts. She had looked ill. Worse, demented. Yet she had gotten through the first movement without incident and started on the other, when the bow suddenly had fallen out of her hand. She had made no move to pick it up. Her left hand had kept playing, inaudibly, until someone had led her off-stage. The ride home had been a very quiet one. Still, nothing Birkoff had ever heard had been so exquisite and sonorous as that first movement.

"Please," he whispered.

And she began to play.

--

yes i said it's fine before
but i don't think so no more
i said it's fine before

--

He woke up. His hands and feet were restrained. A blonde woman stood staring at him behind a glass wall. Her face was all twisted up. He didn't know why she was looking at him like that. He didn't like it. Actually, he disliked it so much that when he saw that the straps restraining him was Velcro, he tore himself free and charged. She backed up, dismay and pity in her eyes. He liked that even less. So he put his fist through the glass.

The wall shattered with the impact. It was completely unprecedented. He forgot about the woman and lifted up his hands to examine them. Although he had cut himself, he felt no pain. He brought his wrists down again and again on the jagged edges of the glass, but it still didn't hurt. That was certainly interesting. But someone screamed. It was a few moments before he recognised the voice as Christine's.

"No!" she screamed. "Let me go, let me go!"

He had never heard her sound like that. She had been as soft-spoken as he, letting her music speak for her. Whenever she had been upset, she had gone down to the basement to play, slow sad notes that were not part of a tune, just notes. She had tolerated his presence if he was quiet and didn't fidget, and he'd sat there, listening and straining to hear more than the music.

He had known she wasn't happy. He hadn't known how to fix it. He'd picked up a large part of her brain off the floor and looked at it, stupidly, because somewhere in there was the answer to why she had done it. His father had slapped him, perhaps to counter the shock, perhaps out of anger and disgust at what he was doing. The slap was the last significant thing he remembered his father doing. Two weeks later his father would go out to buy cigarettes and never come back.

The medical staff took him back to bed. Christine was yelling at them, using words that he hadn't thought she knew. They didn't use the Velcro restraints this time, but the real ones with big metal clasps and they drew them really tight and before he knew it, his wrists were bandaged, which worried him, because he couldn't remember it happening, but then he saw the needle coming for him and a pair of brown eyes above a surgical mask, and soothing sounds tried to penetrate his ears, but he wouldn't let them, and the needle came closer and closer...

--

i've changed my mind
i take it back

erase and rewind
'cause i've been changing my mind
i've changed my mind

--

He woke up again, in the same bed in the same room, like it all had happened before. He thought the blonde would be there again, so they could replay the scene with him and see him slash his wrists over and over, but she wasn't. Instead, there was this old man sitting by the bed. One wrinkled hand rested on his arm, and he wondered why he didn't feel the weight of it, but of course, it was Christine's arm now.

"How are you doing, kid?"

So they were asking questions, starting with the simple ones and trying to squeeze him dry. It wouldn't work. He wouldn't tell them anything. As soon as he did, he knew they'd kill him.

"I'm Walter. Walter, okay? You're safe."

Sounds made echoes in his head, and words were only sounds following each other. Not like music, that flowed seamlessly, like water, like light. He stared at the ceiling and tuned out the sounds the old man made.

--

so where did you see me go
it's not the right way you know
where did you see me go
no, it's not that i don't know
i just don't want it to grow

--

They fed him, because he wouldn't eat. The food only made him sick. It was full of poison. He couldn't keep it down. They brought him a packet of small cookies, but he knew better than to open it. That trap was very obvious. They also brought him a computer and the old guy sat beside his bed for almost an hour and tried to make him play with it. He wouldn't touch it, of course. The brown-eyed woman came by a great deal, which unnerved him, because she brought the needles. Occasionally, after an injection, he couldn't stop himself from talking, even though Christine told him to shut up. Mostly it was about harmless subjects, like fish sticks or candy, but the crack in his defenses worried him. He had to be more careful, or they'd break him.

He wasn't stupid. He learnt things, their names, for example. They thought he was a basket case, but he knew their names. Now and then, he mixed them up, because Christine had played really loudly lately, and he found it difficult to focus on anything but her music. He learnt other stuff too, like how many steps a certain person needed to walk around the bed and how to distinguish smells from the different cleaning fluids. He told Christine the things he knew and why, and he could tell it amused her. He wished he had done more for her when she was alive.

One thing he was terribly sorry about was how he had hid in the car, when it was Christine's night to drive. She hadn't spotted him until after maybe fifteen miles and a couple of wrong turns. When she had, she had pulled over. He had thought she would be angry, but except for the way she looked at him at first, she hadn't been. She had driven back to the mall and they had gone to the computer store together. It had been a really nice evening. Only ten years later had he understood that the wrong turns she had taken had been intentional.

He closed his eyes. Christine was five minutes and forty-three seconds into the third movement, the Allegro moderato. He liked to fall asleep while listening to her. He had six minutes and fifteen seconds sto do it, before she would have finished the concerto.

--

i've changed my mind
i take it back

erase and rewind
'cause i've been changing my mind
i've changed my mind--

When he opened his eyes, he was back in the small dark room. It was dangerous to be overconfident, but he couldn't help feeling smug. The interrogation strategy had failed and they had put him back here while they thought of a new one. He had beaten them. He would beat them again. He would survive.

"Christine?" he whispered into the dark.

The answer came back instantly, as if she had been waiting for him to speak.

"I'm here, little brother. What day is it?"

He didn't know.

"Um. The twenty-sixth?" he tried.

Christine was silent, for what seemed like a long time.

"I'm not sure", she said at last, her voice breaking just a little. "Does it matter?"

"No," he replied. "We'll just say it's the twenty-sixth."

"Is tomorrow the twenty-sixth, too?"

In all their years together, he had never seen her cry. From the way she sounded, he thought she might be crying now.

"Yes," he told her gently. "And the day after tomorrow and every day after that. As long as you play to me."

FIN