Lost My Signal
My headphones haven’t played music since I was ten, not since the last of Dad’s diesel had burned and the truck couldn’t charge my MP3 player anymore. But I don’t need the music.
“Evan’s doing it again,” Toby, my elder brother, said to our Mom. “He’s blank, staring out the window with his stupid broken headphones on.”
I pretended not to hear him. I ignored Mom glaring at me, too. I didn’t want another fight.
When I set them just right over my ears, it looks like I’m wearing the headphones but my ear canal remains exposed so I can spy. Lately, I don’t often care to.
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I sealed the worn, comfortable, over-sized clamshell pillows around my ears. It’s not like a security blanket. It’s like a sanity bandage holding in my brain, sleek and black and professional. I fingered the rubbery audio cable, twisting down to the 3.5mm jack plugged into just my pocket. No point carrying a player when you don’t have the charge. But the headphones still make sounds when I rub the pad of my finger over the outsides, scratching chords silent to everyone but me.
They were a gift from Dad for my tenth birthday, the most expensive toy I’ve ever owned. “But they’re not a toy,” Dad had chastised me. “These are the real deal, real Klipsch. Same as the professionals use.”
I’d known they weren’t a toy since I first put them on and heard the world around me vanish. The music flowed directly into me. I heard harmonies I’d never noticed and felt Skrillex’s drops deep inside my skull. In that golden age of my life when the headphones worked and before the world died—that glorious year before I turned eleven—the headphones were a part of me.
“Sometimes he even wears them to bed now!” Toby said, loud enough for me to hear despite the headphones covering my ears. I pushed them askew to listen. “They don’t work. He’s just holding onto them. Holding onto Dad. Holding us back.”
“I know, honey…” Mom said.
Toby closed his eyes and exhaled deeply. “The only food we got is what I hunt, and the shotgun shells are running low. Evan’s completely checked out. We can barely eat the two of us, and Evan’s only getting hungrier—he’s at that age.”
Mom sighed. She didn’t disagree with my brother, I knew. “Maybe he’ll listen to reason today.”
They’ll never take my headphones away. Never. Dad had always understood me. When the music ended, when the beautiful melodies that brought sense to the world could no longer be found, only Dad had understood why I cried so long.
“Evan, honey, can you come here a minute?” Mom asked. I ignored her.
On my twelfth birthday Dad risked a daring jog into town. He refused to take our only shotgun, saying it was just a scouting mission to learn how bad the disease still was. But we knew better, or at least I did. He was doing it for me, to retrieve precious batteries I might ration for another month or two of music. I begged him to go with wide, eager eyes.
Mom had all the ingredients for my cake set out, stale as they were, but Dad didn’t return that night. Toby glared at me, and Mom sobbed. It was after that they first tried to take my headphones away.
“They don’t work, honey,” Mom had said. “They’ll only remind you of the past.”
How could I have argued? They blamed me for Dad. I’m almost fourteen now, but was barely twelve then. So I bawled and kicked and screamed whenever they touched my headphones.
They talk about me, now. Not to me. Not even at me.
“He’ll never be like you,” Mom said to Toby, her body sinking into the couch, exhausted. Toby cursed under his breath. I re-sealed the headphones around my ears and stared out the window at pine trees melting snow under Montana’s late-arrived spring sun.
I don’t remember dubstep well enough to hear it in my head, but I can still hear Beethoven and Liszt. I don’t need to hear anything at all, though.
I don’t need the music.
Mom said something to Toby but I couldn’t hear. Then he approached me, grinning with sadistic glee that only an older brother could know. I looked up at him.
“Give me the stupid headphones,” he said.
I looked down. Toby reached out for me. I slapped his hand away and yelled at him to stop. Mom didn’t watch.
Toby balled his right fist and punched me in the cheek, hard enough to set me off-balance even though I was sitting cross-legged, sending me sprawling out onto the floor. I twisted my head to impact face-first out of habit to protect the headphones. My nose squished, but didn’t break.
“Give me the headphones, you little brat!”
“Give the headphones to your brother, Evan,” Mom said. She stood. “If you ever want to eat again, give them to Toby now.”
“You won’t let me starve,” I said. Would they?
“What use are you?” Toby said. “Staring out the window all the time?” He grabbed me by my shirt and slapped me, then growled and punched me in the chest.
They were deadly serious this time. Was our food situation really so dire?
“I do my chores and earn my keep,” I muttered, trying to twist away from Toby.
“You need to be a part of the family,” Mom said. “You can’t hold onto the past like this. Give your brother the headphones.”
Mom was right, I suddenly realized. I shouldn’t hold onto the past. The safe house I grew up in was no longer safe.
“Fine,” I said, savoring the finality of my decision. The infected can’t live forever. Someday it will be safe to travel again. Maybe even now, if I’m careful. I could find an abandoned home to live in, hide from the infected. Find a gun and hunt for myself.
“Fine,” I repeated, peeling off my headphones. Mom and Toby smiled with their whole faces, so pleased in their belief I was submitting. But then I clenched my teeth, swung my arm over my head and hurled my precious Klipschs onto the hardwood floor. They shattered into a myriad of black plastic shards.
I looked up at Mom, past Toby’s agape jaw. “Happy?” I asked. “Now I can’t stay.”
I left home with only my coat and backpack—but that pretty much summed up my worldly possessions, anyway. Away from Mom and Toby I won’t need the headphones.
I don’t need the music.
I need the silence.