"Good morning, San Antonio."
It was like no voice Sandie had ever heard before, bizarrely tonal, as though the speaker could not decide whether he was talking or singing. The sounds came slowly, laboriously, elongated by effort and intense concentration.
She rolled over to find the creature standing in the doorway. The voices of morning newscasters drifted up the stairs and down the hall, but those voices were generic and familiar, drained of dialect and character, just like the voice of every other newscaster in America. The one that had woken her was different.
"Lane closures down San Pedro between the Anderson Loop and Sandau Road will continue today. Commuters can expect delays of up to half an hour, so leave early."
"Holy shit!" Sandie sat bolt-upright in bed, tugging absently at her oversized nightshirt. "John, you're doing it!"
The black eyes closed in a slow blink. The bald head canted to one side.
"You have no idea what you're saying, though, do you?"
"Two children went missing from Hollywood Park overnight. Adrianna and Ricardo Hernandez, ages twelve and seven, were last seen camping out in a tent in their back yard around eight PM yesterday evening, but were gone when their father, Mario, went to check on them again around ten. Police are not yet treating the disappearances as a kidnapping."
"That's okay. One thing at a time, huh?"
John blinked again and headed back downstairs, to all appearances unaware of Sandie's excitement. She hastily belted on a bath robe and followed him.
"Were you up all night?"
"I mean, you never went to sleep? Do you sleep?"
practice. always practice get the hang of make muscles for working communication.
"Well, that's good. I mean, this is a huge leap. That was half the problem, right there. Now, if we can just get you to understand it..."
practice makes perfect.
"True. That's true. So... I have work today, but you can keep practicing while I'm gone. Watch the television and repeat after them. Is that how you picked it up?"
imitate small imitate only approximate.
"Yeah, it'll only be close. I mean, everyone's got a different voice. Nobody's is the same as someone else's. Glad you found yours, though. You using mine was creepy."
Sandie poured herself a bowl of corn flakes and filled the coffee maker for the first time in weeks. The smell of it nearly made her gag, after working at the JoeHaus, but late nights demanded caffeine.
John left the kitchen and came back holding his guitar. He touched the strings, but did not strum. As ever, his expression betrayed no feeling, but Sandie received the impression that he was thinking very hard. Of course, she reflected, it was entirely possible that he wanted her to know he was thinking hard.
"Okay," she said, "I'll bite. What's up?"
tone voice order orderly cohesive coherent understand frequency talk?
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
He touched the strings of the guitar, drawing forth a cheerful chord, then echoed the chord in that strange, humming way he had. Then a tiny line appeared between his eyebrows as he visibly decided to do things the hard way.
"Happy birthday to you," he sang slowly, with a glance toward the television in the living room. "Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, dear Elliot, happy birthday to you."
Sandie wondered for a moment who Elliot might be before realizing that he must have heard it during his television-binge. "You mean singing," she said around a mouthful of corn flakes. "Music?"
music. He sent her a sound-filled impression of the bluegrass bar, with emphasis on the instruments. Guitar, bass, mandolin, fiddle, double-bass, banjo. tone talk?
"Yeah, people can make music, too. It's called singing. I mean, you've heard it before. Like, at work. They're always playing songs at the coffee shop, not just instrumentals."
He hummed softly, mimicking the jingle from a local commercial, and wandered back into the living room to plant himself in front of the television.
"Oh, Ignacio," Sandie heard from the other room, "how could I have been so blind for so long? Forgive me, my angel!"
Good enough, she supposed. She finished her cereal, threw on a white tee shirt and black jeans, and pulled her hair back into a ponytail for work.
"Chica," Connie told her when she arrived, "you are in desperate need of some under-eye concealer."
"Late night," Sandie said. "He wandered off and I had to go get him back."
"Couldn't just leave him, huh?"
"Nah. Something would eat him. Or run over him, or something."
Connie popped her gum and flipped her mohawk. There were more rings in her ears than usual. "You're a better woman than me, hermana."
Sandie grinned. "Maybe, but you have more fun."
Mike met them for lunch. It was too hot to eat barbecue in the back of his minivan, so they piled into the back room of the JoeHaus instead. Mike had the presence of mind to bring a roll of paper towels, and they each dropped fifty cents into the jar by the refrigerator, in payment for three stolen cans of soda.
"He's sort of figured out talking. Can't make his own sentences, but if he had, like, a repertoire or something of phrases, maybe. Doesn't quite sound normal, though. I can't put my finger on it. It's like he's still doing the humming thing, only he's not."
"Hey, progress is progress," said Mike, whose creased forehead betrayed his real thoughts on the matter. "Next thing you know, he'll be virtually human."
"Pfff," said Connie. "Yeah, when pigs fly. Virtually human, my tight brown ass. No, see," – she leaned forward with a knowing nod – "you need to get him into show biz. That would be one frigging awesome gimmick, you know? It would be like, woooo, space alien who plays guitar but never talks. And he'd be famous just for being freaky, 'cause everybody's into that jazz."
"Yeah, sure. Maybe once he can play guitar."
Mike bought a latte and hung around in the corner for the rest of the day, his pager and a memo book laid out neatly beside his mug. "I'm following you home," he told Sandie. "I'm going to be teaching this divinity course online, and I want to run my first lecture by you before I film it. And maybe you could show me how to work a webcam." He grinned and wiggled his eyebrows. "You know."
Sandie hung up her apron at five o'clock, handed Brandon the keys to the espresso machine, and crawled into her car. She spared a moment to worry about John alone at the house, but he had not blown anything up yet, and it seemed unlikely that he would wander away again, and even if he did, she knew she could probably find him. She drove home with Mike close on her tail.
The house was still there when she arrived, and she could see John sitting on the couch through the open blinds. She pulled into the garage, leaving the door open so Mike could follow her in.
Something stopped her, though, just before she put her hand on the doorknob that would take her into the rest of the house. There was sound from inside, something she did not think should be coming from a television. The hair on her arms lifted.
"John?" she asked quietly. No one else in the world could have heard her through the door, over whatever that sound was, but she knew that he would. Sound was his domain, after all. She pushed the door open, and the vibrations washed over her, settled into a lump in her throat, brought tears to her eyes. Something inside her broke free and soared.
"Oh, God," she choked.