Some people see things that others cannot. Tales of Mystery and Imagination. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (H.P. Lovecraft).

Poppy Z. Brite: Optional Music For Voice And Piano

Poppy Z. Brite

When the hand snaked out and dragged him into the alley, the boy’s only emotion was a sick sense of I-told-you-so. He’d known he couldn’t make it home safely.

There had been a new book about magic at the library. Reading it, he’d lost track of time, not knowing how late it was until Mrs. Cooper reminded him that she had to close up in fifteen minutes. His parents would be furious. He’d rushed out of the reading room and down the stone steps that led to the sidewalk, having taken only the time to close the book reverently and slide it back into its own space on the shelf.

Even in a hurry, he had loved the newness of the red leather against the older, more faded cloth covers.

He had never been out by himself so late at night. Somehow the night allowed familiar things to change their forms. Bats swooped around streetlights; they seemed too low, almost brushing the top of his head with their skittery wings. Two bristling, pointy-eared things darted across his path, and he jumped back and made an involuntary little sound in his throat. That was when the hand closed around his neck.

It dragged him into the alley and held him tightly against itself. His face was buried in the folds of a dress or cloak. A pungent, musty smell squirmed up his nostrils. He was unable to cough the dust away. He began to choke. Then the hand was at his mouth. The fingers, hard, dry, and impossibly sharp, scrabbled at his mouth. It was trying to force his lips apart.

He twisted his face away, clamping his lips tighter than he had thought possible. The fingers dug into his face, wrenching his head back into the folds of the cloak. Something tiny and delicate snapped in his neck. A soft cry escaped him—the pain was sickening.

There were two hands then; one pinched his nose, drawing blood. Finally, unable to hold his breath any longer, he opened his mouth and gulped great gasps of mercifully cool air. The other hand slapped down over his mouth. Something soft and slimy slid past his lips and spread over his tongue. He felt as if a salted slug had dissolved in his mouth. The stuff tasted the way the cloak had smelled, tangy and bitter.

He wanted to spit, but the hand was still clamped painfully across his face. The glob warmed his throat as it slid down. That part almost felt good. The warmth began to spread through him. He went wonderfully limp. His toes and fingers tingled. The hands let him go and he slithered to the ground.

The cool bricks felt good against his cheek. His neck was twisted at an awkward angle, but he no longer noticed the pain. Between the tops of the buildings that soared up on either side of him, he could see a sliver of darkness sprinkled with pinpoint stars. A night breeze brushed over his face and ruffled his hair as he stared up. The sky was incredibly beautiful. He wanted to sing to it.


The piano keys were bone-smooth and cold under his fingers. He loved the starkness of them, black on white against the deeper black lacquer of the piano. The room was stark too, purposely so. The piano and its bench were the only objects in the room. The floor was of dark polished wood with a honey-golden undertone that made it seem to glow.

He sat with his back to the long window which nearly filled the rear wall of the room. His house sat on a cliff overlooking the sea. When he stood at the window, he could look down at waves crashing and disintegrating on jagged rocks. But he sat on the far side of the room. If he had turned to face the window, he would have seen only a long expanse of gray-blue sky broken by the three heavy crossbars of the window.

It might have been an early morning sky or an early evening sky or a sky about to storm; he neither knew nor cared. He slept whenever he was tired and spent most of his waking hours at the piano. His face, bent over the keys, was serene and nearly expressionless. At thirty, he was almost as boyish as he had been at ten: his body was slim and compact, his unlined pale face overhung by a soft mop of dark hair, eyes like limpid black pools, a serious, sad mouth.

He let his hands wander across the piano keys. The notes rose, clustered, broke away from each other and drifted back down to melt into the golden floor. As they touched his ears, he smiled faintly. It had taken him so long to realize he could make this kind of music.


His neck wasn’t broken. Having it wrenched so sharply had pulled a muscle, and while he was in the hospital he had to lie flat on his back, as nearly motionless as possible, with a thick metal-and-foam collar holding his neck immobile. He learned the position of every crack and speck on the ceiling. At times the boredom was almost tangible.

He learned not to cry because the tears would trickle down the sides of his head and make the hair behind his ears unpleasantly damp; he couldn’t lift his hands high enough to wipe the tears away.

After the first two days he discovered that singing relieved his boredom. Even better, it made him forget his pain and his experience in the alley.

One night a nurse heard him. He stopped when she came into the room, but she asked him to go on, and after a bit of coaxing he sang her a song. He had composed the words and the tune himself, while lying in the hospital bed. He could see trees and a piece of sky through his window, and he longed to be outside. He had rhymed “trees” with “breeze.” It was the work of a ten-year-old, although the poetry showed promise.

What mattered, though, was his voice. His neck was strained and padded; by all rights his voice should have sounded stifled, weak. Instead, it was glorious. He sang high and hoarse and sweet, the voice of a child, but hidden in his song were hints of darkness, intimations of fear and pain.

As the nurse held his hand and listened to him, tears started in her eyes. She had remembered a night nearly forty years ago, when her parents had gone on a shopping trip to the city and forgotten to leave the front door unlocked for her. They were three miles away from their nearest neighbors, and she had huddled in a corner of the front porch, tiny and sick with terror, until the familiar car had finally turned into the driveway. Nothing in the boy’s pretty little song had suggested this, yet she recalled it so vividly that her stomach twisted with childish dread.

The memory hurt her, but the boy’s voice was so beautiful that she called the other nurses in to hear him sing. They held their breaths until he had finished. One of them, a girl barely twenty-one, ran out of the room sobbing. She explained later that she didn’t know what had come over her; she supposed she just felt sorry for the poor child, lying there so pale and thin.

The boy listened to the nurses whispering outside the door, and tears pooled in his eyes too. He blinked them away, remembering that he couldn’t cry. Instead he began to sing softly to himself.


He stood with his forehead pressed against the cool glass of the small window that wouldn’t open. Behind him, in the dressing room of the club, the other members of the band were milling about; tuning guitars, running nervous fingers through their ratty hair, getting ready to do a show. He could see faint reflections of their movements in the glass.

He looked past the phantom images at the sky. Evening was stealing over the city. The sky was a gradually intensifying blue, deeper than eggshell but not yet azure; swirled through the blue were pale pink clouds as fluffy and ethereal as cotton candy. He couldn’t look away from it until PJ came over and clapped a hand onto his shoulder. “How are you doing, man? All set?”

He turned to face PJ. The drummer blinked, then grinned. “I love it,” he said. “You look great.”

He was dressed entirely in black: leotard, tights, a long scarf tied around his head. His face was painted white, and around his eyes and eyebrows he had smudged black kohl, making them look sunken and veiled. His face was framed by his dark hair, which fell nearly to his shoulders. He looked ghoulish; he looked beautiful.

“I love it,” PJ said again.

“Thanks.” He turned away from the window.

“It’s pretty crowded out there. I looked.” PJ grinned again, nervous. This was the band’s first real performance, the first time they were to be paid for making music.

“Great,” he said with an effort. He didn’t want to talk; he could feel the anticipation building up inside him. Right now he didn’t want to use his voice for anything but singing.

The dressing room door opened and a head popped in. “Guys? You about set?” The other three grimaced at each other. He closed his eyes, feeling a shiver begin in the pit of his stomach and go through him in two directions; it slid down his legs, making his knees lock; it tingled up through his chest into his throat, trying to push his voice out. He was ready.

At the first thrill of his voice, the crowd’s conversations dwindled. By the time he had sung the opening lines of the first song, everyone in the club was staring at him, some pushing forward to get closer to the stage, some breathing the smoke-swirled air a little more shallowly.

Their set was not long, but time stopped for him; the show might have gone on a moment or an aeon.

At the highest notes his voice hoarsened and seemed as if it must break; the sound brought tears to a few listeners’ eyes.

By the last song, some of the crowd sang along with the chorus. Others sat absolutely still, eyes fixed on his face. Several were crying openly as they sang or listened.

In the back of the club, a heavy man in a business suit shuddered and put his hand over his eyes. He scouted for a record label, and he had come to ferret out marketable talent, not to have his emotions ravaged by the music. But the singer’s voice had brought to his mind a soft, sweet lullaby his mother had sung to him years ago. His mother had died swiftly and messily in a highway accident when he was fifteen. The memory was nearly unbearable.

The man shuddered again, then froze and pressed his hand to his chest. He felt his heart miss a beat. He started to get up with the vague idea of finding a phone, finding a doctor, asking someone, anyone, for help. The pain slammed him back into his chair. He wanted to loosen his collar, but when he raised his arm, a bolt stabbed at his heart.

The last thing he saw was the singer staring confusedly toward the back of the club, then, as people realized what was happening and moved to help, bowing his head as if in shame.


She was a pretty girl, though wan and fair-cheeked, with shiny black hair in two ponytails and a battered metal boom box in her arms. An earplug cord ran from the box up to her shoulder and disappeared beneath her right ponytail.

The girl stood on the roof of a gray stone office building and stared down at the cars roaring through the grubby streets, the people milling eleven stories below. She imagined being in the middle of that crowd, smelling the people’s bodies, their hot stale breath. She hoped she would land on one of them.

This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. In cartoons or on TV shows a crowd of people always gathered below, half of them trying to save the person, the other half yelling, “Jump!” No one had even noticed her on the edge of the roof. No one would see her go off.

A gust of wind startled her, and she stumbled for her balance. She wasn’t even sure whether she had the nerve to jump yet; she certainly didn’t want to be pushed off. She pressed a button on her cassette player. The tape began, hissing its silence into her ear; then the voice filled her head. Her band, her singer, her love—the only person she loved. None of her poems expressed the agony of her life as well as the darkness and pain in his voice. He had known the same pain, she thought—not worse pain, nothing could be worse than her pain, but he knew. He understood. The excruciating beauty of his singing told her so. Yes, he understood. If she died, she would die for him. She was glad she had written him that note.

The music controlled her entire body now. It would lift her off the edge of the roof. If she was meant to live, it would carry her away; she would fly. If not, she would fall.

Now his voice filled the world. “In the fire—in the center of the fire—I am pure,” he wailed. His voice crested on the word “pure.”

She leaped. His voice followed her down. The boom box shattered when she hit the sidewalk.


“I don’t want to,” he said. It was a half-hearted protest.

“Yes you do. You say you don’t, but I can hear what you really mean. You mean you want to,” Killner told him. Killner was the band’s manager. He hated Killner’s voice. Unpleasantly dry and papery, it got into his ear and skittered around until he lost track of his thoughts and ended up agreeing to whatever it was Killner wanted him to do.

Killner kept talking. He took the phone away from his ear and stared at it, half-smiling at the buzz of unintelligible words. Eventually he put the phone back to his ear.

“Besides, you’re not the only member of this band,” Killner was saying. “I already talked to PJ and Toby and Mack. They all want to do it. You’re crazy to pass this up. You haven’t done anything in six months—no recording, no gigs. Do you want everybody to forget about you?”


“Well, that’s great. You know this band is nothing without your voice. Do you want to let everybody down? Those fans? PJ and Toby and Mack?”

“Look,” he told Killner“Singing is my life. I sing to myself every day; there’s no way I could stop. I love it more than anything else in the world. But I told you before, I don’t want to do any more records and I especially don’t want to do any more live shows. Something always happens. I don’t know why it is, but something always happens. Remember the guy who died at our first gig?”

“That guy had a history of heart trouble.”

“Right. What about the people who’ve died in car wrecks when they just happened to be heading home after one of our concerts? What about that girl who tried to stab her lover in the parking lot after a show? What about the guy who started screaming during the last concert? Guys came to get him, Killner. Guys in white coats.

“I thought that only happened in the funny papers. They took him to the hospital. I heard later that all he would say for three days was, ”His eyes.“ His eyes. They thought he was talking about my eyes, Killner. That was the night I wore the black robes and the green Day-Glo paint around my eyes. My eyes looked like they were glowing. What about that?”

“It was your costume, not—”

“I’m not finished. What about that suicide note, Killner? What about the note? Remember the fifteen-year-old girl who sent me her suicide note and threw herself off a building? Remember ‘I love only you and I’m doing what your voice tells me to do? What about that, Killner?”

“Do you hold yourself accountable for all the crazy people in the world?”

“Only—when—they’re—crazy—because—of-—my— voice.”

“Look…” Killner’s voice turned oily, seductive. “This is an incredible opportunity. It’s amazing that they even want you to play there. Rock bands never play there.”

“We’re not a rock band.”

“What’s wrong with being a goddamn rock band? Never mind—don’t start. They know you’re an artist. You know what they want you to do? They want you to do the flying bit.”

He closed his eyes, remembering the glinting Peter Pan wire, the stomach-dropping sensation of soaring.

“Like in ‘72. Remember how you loved that? The first time you did it, you told me it was the most glorious performance you’d ever given—soaring above the stage, singing your everloving heart out in midair. You want to miss that?”

He kept his eyes closed. He had always imagined that flying would be nearly as incredible as singing. Doing both at once had been almost too much to bear.

“So what do you say?”

“No,” he whispered. “I told you no and I still say no. I can’t hurt any more people.”

Killner gave up then and said goodbye in aggrieved tones. Ten minutes later the phone rang. That would be PJ. When Killner couldn’t convince him to do something, he always enlisted PJ to give it another try. PJ had a way of making things sound so simple and appealing that one felt like a fool for ever having refused them. He wanted this so much; he wouldn’t be able to say no again. He wasn’t going to answer the phone.

It rang again.

If he picked it up, he was lost.

The phone screamed at him.

He had to answer it.

He mustn’t.

He had to.

He snatched the receiver off its cradle. “All right,” he yelled into the phone. “All right, all right, I’ll do it, all right, only leave me alone.”

“What?” said PJ’s voice as he choked back a sob.

He was wearing his oldest costume: black, pure black, with white face and dark, hollow eyes. It had always been his favorite, the simplest yet the most powerful, and the black flying harness blended well with it. He thought about flying. It had been so long— PJ’s hand was on his shoulder. “I realize this is rough for you,” PJ told him. “You know we really wanted to do this show. Thanks for agreeing to it.” He nodded at PJ, didn’t speak. The others were used to his pre-concert silence; it no longer fazed them. They thought he was saving his voice for the show. They didn’t understand that when he was going to sing, speaking just wasn’t worthwhile.

It hardly seemed to matter now.

He pushed aside the window curtain and looked out at the sky. No cotton candy clouds this time; tonight he saw only a small cold moon floating high in the sky, haloed and partially obscured by clouds.

One of the stage technicians came up behind him. “Listen, I wanted to remind you about the harness wires once more. Be careful. Make sure the wires are well away from your neck before you give the signal that you’re ready to go up, because I can’t see what you’re doing. That wire’s sharp. If I pull you up while one of them’s looped around your neck, it could cut your head half off. Just take your time and give me the signal when you’re ready.”

The tech patted him on the back, between the straps of his harness. He smiled madly and waved the guy away, wanting nothing more than to end the stream of chatter. He didn’t need a briefing on those wires. He knew everything about them.

There were ten minutes to go, then five, then none. They were onstage before he really knew what was happening. PJ and Toby and Mack pranced a bit, happy to be performing again. He stood still at center stage, staring out at the crowd.

He could see faces in the first few rows; they were watching him, wanting him, wanting the deepest part of him. Who would he hurt tonight? Who would go home and put a gun to his forehead—who would hurt a person she loved—who would lose his mind?

No one.

No one at all, if he knew what he was doing.

He sang the first song. He threw himself into it so hard that by the end of the song he was on his knees, clutching the microphone with both hands, pushing every bit of air in his body into the notes. His glory had reached its crescendo. If anyone noticed the wetness on his cheeks, they thought it was sweat. He held the last note of the song for a full minute.

The crowd went wild.

It was time to fly.

He eased himself up, trembling, and went to the rear of the stage where the wires dangled. They glinted gold and silver and all the colors of the stage lights, thin as hairs but strong enough, together, to support a hundred and thirty-five pounds of him. He began attaching them to the hooks on his harness. When he came to the last wire, the one that supported the largest part of his weight, he glanced into the wings. The tech nodded, ready to pull him up.

He looped the wire around his neck and gave the signal.


He got up and walked away from the piano to the window. Fine mist from the crashing of the waves on the rocks was hitting the glass—there would be a storm soon. He might sit by the long window and watch its glorious fury.

He returned to the piano and played a little more, a sprinkling, dancing tune that skipped across the polished floor. He rested his cheek on the top of the piano, loving its sleek coolness against his skin. His hand strayed to his throat and stroked the tight, shiny scar that stretched nearly from ear to ear. His fingers traced the jagged line of it. He remembered the relief he’d felt, waking after the hours of impossibly delicate surgery, when the doctor told him his vocal cords had been severed and he would never talk—let alone sing—again.

He sat at his piano for a while. Then, when the long, sweet sound of serenity had completely filled him, he went to the window to watch the storm.

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