Crackling and fuzz reverberated against her ear drum. The murmur of a soft voice sliced through each fracture of sound. Harper didn’t understand the words and codes — if they even were words — and noises that crashed into her, stealing the rhythm from her breath. As the treble flooded through the ear canal, visions of bright watercolour splotches flashed before her eyes. The sound grew distant.
She played the audio file over and over. After a while, she placed her phone on the bedside table. She didn’t question who the message was from. Her phone just buzzed as it always did and a notification popped up on screen. An audio message. Unusual, but not unheard of.
Her phone rattled against the table once again.
Meet you in ten.
She pocketed her phone before grabbing her bag from the floor. The sky was coated purple and navy above her. Breathing deeply, the sea salt filled her nostrils. They called where she lived The Brine. But she didn’t always like it here.
Of course, everything was different before the Raid. She was too young to know what the difference was, but occasionally she’d find an elder who remembered. They’d say the Raid changed everything. They — always the mysterious they — took children from this planet. Many never made it to where they were taken, and those that did were assumed dead after they arrived.
And what of this place? — she’d ask them.
The elders laughed at her. Their boisterous chuckles formed grey undulating wisps like smoke from a cigarette near its end. She breathed them in, sucking in their powers and knowledge, before fanning them away.
They’d tell her to look around and to see for herself.
Harper clutched her backpack closer as she walked along the waterfront. Silver waves crashed against concrete barriers, protecting the deep below. The ocean spray burst into golden sparkling dots. Harper remembered the first time she knew sounds became colours to her.
Cool sea air drifted through the window as Vivian tucked her into bed.
Harper shivered. Vivian’s soft, whispered tones floated above her as she told her favourite bedtime story.
They gathered by the shore.
With their arms outstretched, their bodies rose.
They floated higher and higher.
Their captors’ screeching voices fading into the distance as they soared above, returning to the night sky, where they belonged all along.
Sometimes, on the darkest nights, in the thick of the densest forests, you can see them, twinkling, shining. Embroidered into the sky.
Bursts of colour undulating in front of her face. Flashes of crimson. Indigo. Cobalt. Her tiny fingers pointing, popping each colour bubble. Vivian watched Harper, her eyes stirring.
It was not a new phenomenon — her Guardian, Vivian, knew a word for it. When the ships showed up to the shores of Calypso, they took them, hordes of children, ripping them from the shoreline and their families. Vivian found her swaddled and tucked under a bundle of trash. Vivian told Harper that she didn’t even cry when she picked her up. That’s how they both knew Harper was different.
The door chimes jingled, as the door closed behind her. She walked through clear beaded curtains. The store was dark and filled with lush textures. Red velvet and violet crepe fabric covered each tabletop adorned with crystals and candles glued on by melted wax. The concrete floors were covered with patterned rugs Vivian had collected throughout the years.
Vivian once told her that only they needed to know about the shop’s shabby past. Harper remembered the first time she walked into this place. Vivian’s hands were warm but dry, then already weathered by shuffling magical cards, her palm scratched against Harper’s baby soft skin. Over time, the shop became filled with trinkets and gifts from patrons, local art with chromatic brushstrokes, etched in a feverous fashion, and anything that she found in the winding alleyways of The Brine.
Vivian didn’t have much to give when she passed a month ago, but she did have this shop. People from all over Calypso and even farther came to get a reading from her. Her apartment was still filled with shrivelled petals from bouquets from all who knew her, but Harper just couldn’t get rid of them yet.
As a little girl, Harper watched from the shop’s back room — the shuffle of Vivian’s magical cards created an aura around Vivian. Gradients of hibiscus and crimson surrounded her as she gave her clients their fate. When Vivian died, this shop and all her treasures went to Harper, but none of Vivian’s knowledge came with it.
Her pocket buzzed. Harper stopped mid-stride before sitting on one of the couches. Her hand trembled as she raised her phone to her ear. The same soft voice ricocheted against her ear, and the melody of crackling and fuzz with the gentle tones entranced her. Her vision rippled, translucent, as if white organza had been pulled over her eyes. Melodies on white wings floated into the room.
Chimes clanged against each other, pulling her out of her reverie. Her guest had arrived.
“How are you doing, child?”
Harper sighed. “I’m good. I miss her.”
He nodded, removed his jacket and sat beside her on the couch. His eyes were dark brown and pin-sized dots were scattered along his cheeks, black against his dark skin.
“I miss her too,” he said. “Has anyone been by?”
Harper looked around. Everything was in the same place, but a small film of dust coated every surface. It suddenly felt real that Vivian was gone.
“It’s been slow, but I’m going to put flyers up and stuff.”
“Why am I here, Harper?”
She stared at him.
Could she really trust him? Harper knew Griffith as a “friend” of Vivian’s — her non-committal way of saying she had a boyfriend — since she was a little girl.
A woman’s screeches filled the room.
Harper blinked through the story, a shower of cascading water droplets that burst into petals from marigolds.
We have to leave her here!
Griffith, we can’t!
Someone will find her.
Harper jumped, the hollow screech of wooden legs against the concrete as Griffith shifted in his chair.
Harper shook her head, looked up at Griffith.
“I need your help.”
“Anything. You are like a daughter to us,” he said. His eyes darted away from her gaze.
“I know,” said Harper, reaching over and squeezing his hand. She placed her phone on the table and tapped the screen. Music notes that swayed and undulated filled the room. She closed her eyes as the sound played, until the room grew silent, the music fading into dust.
“Do you know what it means?” Harper asked.
Griffith furrowed his eyebrows. “It seems familiar but I can’t place it. I wonder if — but, that’s impossible.”
Harper leaned in and bit her lip. “You were around for the Raid. Vivian told me. It was fifteen years ago. It has to be something to do with that.”
He waved his hands in front of his chest. “No. Everyone is gone.”
“We don’t know that for sure. Maybe it’s from Earth — maybe it’s a message from one of the ones they took.”
“No!” he shouted. “You’re stirring up too much trouble. I have to go. I can’t help you.”
He stood and snatched his coat from the couch before looking at her again. Then he left.
The chimes jingled in the background.
Harper sank further into her couch and rubbed her temples.
Harper stepped right into a puddle. The sky was blue-grey and clouds were building above. The stars twinkled, illuminating the dark sky. She wondered if it was the people from the story, watching over her.
She raced along the waterfront, splashing with each step as water seeped into her sneakers.
The Brine was like a maze.
Since the Raid, no young people would walk through the centre of town. No one knew they were coming, and they certainly didn’t know when they would be back. Before the Raid, children played near the water’s edge. Now, the youth had to bob and weave through dark, cobbled alleys littered with scrap metal and trash.
The streets were clear, lined with palm trees. It was safe, then, anyway. Harper climbed the steps up to her apartment. Her tights fully soaked through, finally she made it home.
Dropping her backpack on the floor of her bedroom, she started to undress. She was alone now, and her robe became her uniform. On nights like these, she’d pepper Vivian with questions. Like, what happened to her birth parents? And, how did they make sure she was safe? Vivian was like Griffith — too scared to talk about it, or she didn’t see the point. Could bringing up the past really make the present different? Sometimes Harper had to remind herself that Vivian may not have known what to do.
Harper pulled a square box from under her bed and placed it in her lap. Vivian’s cards and a picture of them lay inside. Vivian looked so young, standing teary-eyed as flames raged behind her, clutching baby Harper. Harper flipped the back of the photograph. The date of the Raid was scribbled on the back.
There were no books and few photos of the Raid, but Harper wanted to preserve the sound of that day. Sometimes she would sit at the waterfront’s edge, legs dangling above water, listening. She wanted to hear what happened that day in a deep backed chair with headphones, blocking out all other distractions. To know, to focus on what they said to convince the children to come with them, and what they told them would happen to the parents who flung themselves into danger, giving up their lives to keep them in Calypso. Some of the children were barely old enough to have any memories, would never smell the stench of The Brine or learn the wonders of Calypso and its peoples. They’d never know because there was no one there to tell them, and they were never given a chance to discover it themselves.
Harper moved from her bed and slipped into a chair facing her vanity, towel in hand. She wrung out her locks, flattened by the earlier torrential rain. She wished she knew what they looked like. Vivian and Griffith did their best and she’d always love them for it. But she wished she knew what the invaders looked like, what brought them to Calypso, and why they took the children away. What had happened to them? What had happened to Earth?
Her phone rattled on her nightstand.
A new message.
Her hands trembling, Harper listened again. The message was the same as before: a woman’s voice reverberating through the sounds of static. The voice wavered and the pitch dropped towards the end. Her breath was labored, like she’d been running. But, this time, it sounded like the woman was in danger. Harper pulled a notepad from her desk drawer and played it again. Each sound was accompanied by a different shape and colour.
She wrote them all down. She flipped through the pages of her notes.
What did it all mean?
Her phone buzzed again.
Harper pressed play but put her phone on speaker. The sounds bounced off of all surfaces. The voice was speaking in a sibilant and Harper could barely make out the sounds or shapes through the static. Faint ripples of colour suspended in the air. She ripped the pages out of her notebook and taped each sheet on the wall.
She stood back to stare at each sheet before circling the room multiple times. Her back against the wall, she slid down to the floor, the carpet digging into her skin, as she drifted off to sleep.
Sunlight flooded the room. Harper sat up, groaning. There was a sharp pain in her back, quick, incisive, and she rubbed it. The sheets of paper lay on the carpet around her. Harper was no closer to decoding the messages. She crumpled the papers into a ball and threw them at the garbage bin, frustrated. Harper swore under her breath.
She replayed the messages again, and again. She wanted to ask the elders even though she knew they were too scared to give her answers. She tried to figure out the pattern, but it was over.
Then, the table vibrated.
Harper scrambled up from the floor to her bedside table.
She tapped at the screen with her thumbs half raised.
Are you from Earth? Are you safe?
She sat, her head buried into her knees, sunlight beaming down on her.
Her phone buzzed.
A new message.
Nailah King is a Canadian writer now living in Scotland whose work explores racism, discrimination, identity and her Caribbean heritage. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Feels Zine, GUTS Magazine, The Humber Literary Review, Transition Magazine and This Magazine.