May 9, 2017

Stevens heard about the performance just after lunchtime and couldn’t manage to continue working afterwards. His head swam with daydreams, clouding his senses and wrapping his mind in webs of curiosity. He had never seen a real performance before, certainly not by a traveling orchestra. (He hadn’t ever heard of orchestras traveling before, but that didn’t seem important at the time.)
Rumors of the performance slithered through the entire factory, pulling hardworking hands to a halt. Fingers twitched with curiosity and brows furrowed with envy for those who had time to make it with such short notice. Many of the men near Stevens caught wind of the few workers who planned to go and scoffed, saying that of course those men could afford to go, it wasn’t like they had any important business to attend to like the real men did.
Whispers circulated the stations and Stevens only caught snatches of the murmurs but he heard them wondering what kind of performance it would be. Must be Bach, one said with a solemn nod. Only kind of music fit for an orchestra of that size. Other shook their heads. No, it’ll be something modern, y’know? another claimed. ‘Else why would they be traveling without funds? Yet a third rumor fell to Steven’s ears:
I bet it’s something like nothing else.
Stevens bit his lip as he dropped his screwdriver when he heard that one. He glanced around, checking to see if anyone had noticed. Everyone was too caught up in their own thoughts, their own jobs and ideas and plans, to bother paying attention to the worker at the last station whose only job was to add the finishing touch to everyone else’s projects. Which also meant that any flaws were brought to him first, that it was his fault first, that no matter who else was working or gossiping or sitting doing nothing that day, it was always Stevens that got the punishment.
When he fumbled his screwdriver for the third time, they noticed. The manager came and stood in front of his station and Stevens tried to focus, he promises he did, but he got yelled at anyways and sent home early with no pay. He stood outside the factory and looked towards the lantern-rimmed field where the orchestra was going to play Bach or something modern or something like nothing else and then he was walking towards it before he could think otherwise.
Others gathered with him, standing at the border of the field in complete silence. A row of shoe tips ran along the edge of the grass. Motionless, shiny black shoes gleamed in the dusk light. Muddy, worn shoes tapped and scuffled in the dirt. Leather grown-up sandals nudged the muddy ones, telling them to hold still, stop fidgeting, it’s almost time.
The lanterns lit all at once (though no one seemed to have set them aflame) and Stevens could see the orchestra. A perfect arch sat in seamless formation, instruments raised in attention. A single figure stood in front of them, arms suspended without a single tremble. The lights had been arranged around the back of the orchestra, leaving the players and their maestro in shadows. Though the golden light created a spotlight for the orchestra, the audience was only able to see the sharp silhouettes of the group.
When the downbeat came, it came with no warning and drew a collective gasp from the audience as the concert began. Dark tones held the spotlight, layers of cello, oboe, and bass drums carrying the focus of the melody. The moment they subsided, violas and clarinets flew in, a gentle harmony bridging the lower sections to the high. Violins, flutes, and trombones crescendoed through the fading middle notes and seemed to draw the music into the very air, filling the fading dusk with untouchable beauty.
Stevens had never heard anything like it. He forgot every piece of music he’d ever listened to the instant that the orchestra began to play. (In that moment, Stevens couldn’t have even remembered his own mother’s lullabies.) The audience swayed with the music, eyes closed as the melodies and chords captivated every sense. The orchestra seemed to have moved closer for a moment before Stevens realized that the audience had actually drawn themselves nearer to the instruments during the song. It was like magnetism.
As the audience drew closer, the orchestra began shifting back, slowly leaving the circle of lights and edging towards the forest at the border of the town. The crowd followed all the same, an almost brainless mass stumbling after the haunting music. Stevens thought that the melody seemed to be picking up pace, that the sharp bowings of the violins were almost mocking of the hurried footsteps of the crowd. Piccolos chimed in with a shrill riff, drums and basses following the increased tempo. Flutes whistled a light scale, drawing the mass closer in anticipation.
Stevens was close enough to almost touch the shadows, to see the glint of moonlight on metal. They seemed to have more weight now and he could hear their thick footsteps crushing branches. Heavy breaths and gasps of the crowd echoed around him, but the music drowned them out. It drowned everything out.
When the crowd reached the clearing, they stopped. People stumbled to a halt, still leaning to hear the music. But it was quiet. Stevens could suddenly hear the rushing in his veins, the wheeze of his lungs. His neck snapped back and forth, trying to find the missing orchestra. It was still quiet.
A single high note rang out.
A circle of shadows had formed around the crowd.
And then there was movement.
The figures lunged forward, swarming towards the crowd. Stevens stumbled backwards and tripped over something large, landing hard on the ground. He looked back to what he had fallen over and saw an abandoned double bass, carved from dark mahogany. But the strings… the strings were strips of hardened tendons, gleaming rich red in the darkness. Stevens gasped and scrambled away, only to fall into a pile of flutes and piccolos. He lifted one close to his face and saw that the smooth white metal was actually sanded bone, yellowing with age. The keys of the piccolos were jagged and sharp: baby’s teeth, ground down to fit the needs of the instruments.
Screams filled the clearing and Stevens tried to force his eyes to focus but the shadows were moving fast and there were just too many of them and there was so much screaming. A heavy weight, a man, fell next to Stevens and he scrambled out of the way. The man turned to him, one eye socket reduced to a gaping hole in his skull, and opened his mouth, whether to scream or to beg, Stevens didn’t know. A dark shape crawled over the hunch of the man’s back, spindly fingers looping around his wrists and pinning them to the ground. Stevens lurched to his feet and staggered away before he could see what happened next.
Once on his feet, Stevens could see the abandoned instruments that had been scattered by the creatures in favor of their hunt. A clarinet crafted from pearly fingernails rather than wood. A saxophone with a pair of lower jaws circling the bell. A violin with a chin rest carved from the curve of a skull.
Bile rose in his throat as Stevens stumbled away, torn between bolting and moving slowly to avoid detection. Before he could decide, his eyes locked with one of the creatures hunched over a woman’s corpse, thick red drool seeping from its mouth. Its lips peeled back to reveal grinning, tinted fangs. The creature stood, arching back into a humanoid shape. Impossibly long arms hung at its sides, fingers grazing just past backward-bent knees. Perfectly circular white eyes shone from behind greasy strips of what might have been hair.
Stevens didn’t try to run. The creature’s claws dug into his shoulders, slamming him to the ground. It hunched over him, blank eyes leering in the moonlight.
Stevens wondered what sort of music he would be used to make.
The next day, the seat at the end of the assembly line was empty. A few heads tilted in curiosity, but no one bothered asking who was missing that day. He would be replaced within the week, they were sure. After all, he was just adding a final touch. Unnecessary, really.
But for some reason, someone had left a toy sitting at the desk. A flute.
With rather odd looking keys.

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