By Irina Slav
The 8:05 was Nina’s usual bus. The bus stop was right outside her house and still she sometimes had trouble getting there in time and had to wait for the 8:15. Nina was an office manager at a boutique—that is, small and insignificant—advertising agency downtown. She liked to be the first one in the office, when everything was quiet and all the rooms were empty. That’s why she took the 8:05 and not the 8:15 although in the last couple of months there was also another reason.
This morning Nina was proud of herself – she resisted the Just five more minutes temptation, got up immediately after she heard the alarm, and reached the bus stop at 8. She felt so fresh and full of energy as if she’d had a really good night’s sleep. Which she hadn’t.
Nina’s nights were regularly haunted by nightmares and when they weren’t she tossed and turned for hours before she dozed off. That’s why she so often missed her usual bus. This Friday she didn’t and the fact that it was Friday coupled with her punctuality made her feel even happier. Two more Fridays till Christmas and a well-deserved vacation. And maybe she’d see him today.
He was part of the reason Nina hated missing her usual bus so much. She didn’t know his name but she saw him on the bus every day she made the 8:05. Like her, he always had earphones in his ears and she couldn’t help but wonder what he listened to. Was it music, like her, or audiobooks, or something else? She itched to ask but never dared, of course.
Nina disliked people invading her personal space and extended the same courtesy to all. But the itch was there. She lived on music, listened to it all day and all night, and she always wondered what other people around her were listening to, always in search for some new melody, some new voice that would make her feel good or bad, cheerful or miserable. It didn’t matter, as long as the feeling was there.
The bus arrived exactly on time and yes, he was there. Nina saw him as soon as the door opened. She only gave him the quickest glance and went and sat in the back of the bus. She could look at him from that vantage point without worrying he would notice.
Today, Nina had a jazz mix on her player, jazz and swing. It was cold, cloudy and gray outside, so she needed something to make her feel warm. Blues would have done it too but she felt like jazz today. She felt like swing. She was already feeling nice and warm inside. And still the itch came, in spite of Nina’s attempt to listen to her music without thinking about anything.
What was he listening to, this pale, slender, dark-haired man, who was staring through the window opposite him without blinking? He wasn’t tapping his foot to any rhythm but did that mean he wasn’t listening to music? Of course not. Nina didn’t tap. A feeling of exasperation began creeping into her. What was the point of wondering what someone else was listening to? She’d never know, so why bother at all?
Because she couldn’t help it, Nina told herself. Because she breathed music, lived music, and ate music. Because she knew, just knew, deep inside, that what he was listening to would definitely be music, and good music. Not some stupid boring audiobook or a magazine or whatever other boring thing people listened to these days. No, it would be music, and good music.
The man suddenly turned to her and smiled. Nina started, realizing she’d been staring at him. She dropped her gaze and felt the blush creep up. His smile had mercilessly thrown her out of the warm, glittery world Big Bad Voodoo Daddy were creating for her and into a dark void of embarrassment. She looked intently at the floor, heart racing, and waited for her stop to come, so she could run away from this weird man who smiled at strangers on the bus.
The next Monday Nina deliberately missed the 8:05 bus. She was up early as she’d slept through the night and had even had a wonderful dream – she’d been on a deserted beach with a weird but beautiful tree growing on it. The tree had the general appearance of an oak but it was blooming. The blooms looked like chrysanthemums. An amazing tree, heartbreakingly beautiful. Nina wanted to stay on this beach for the rest of her life.
She realized she’d slept soundly through the whole weekend, which was a rare occurrence. She’d slept soundly but dreamlessly, which she still considered a mercy, given her usual choice of dreamscapes. Now, Nina chewed on the last bite of her second toast and looked at the clock on the microwave. It was 8:10, so it should be safe to leave. And it was – the bus on the way to work was free of strange men smiling strange smiles to people they didn’t know.
The next day he was standing by the door of the bus. Nina stopped in mid-step when she saw him. In a moment she decided there was nothing to feel embarrassed about and continued up the two steps of the bus. She even found a place to sit, at the back again, and almost ran there. She never thought he’d follow her but he did. The seat she’d found was a double and he sat right next to her.
Nina tried to hide her head in the collar of her coat but it was way too short. Besides, she realized, this was stupid. She should just stare ahead and listen to her music. Today, after the weird dream, it was Florence and the Machine. Florence was a bit disturbing sometimes but Nina loved her nonetheless.
So, she listened hard, to every note and every word, not moving in case she touched the stranger. He was also sitting quietly. He smelled of something unusual, Nina noticed despite herself. Something woody. It was like she was sitting in a forest. She hadn’t seen a forest for years but there it was, this smell. She inhaled deeply and savored the aroma of trees and moss and grass, and sun shining on the ground.
It was then that Nina noticed the song had changed. It was no longer Florence who was singing but another woman. A woman with a clear, sonorous voice not unlike Florence’s but still distinctly different. Nina didn’t have time to freak out because she was immediately engulfed by the song, which was in some language she didn’t understand.
It sounded a bit like the elves in The Lord of the Rings talked, she realized. And she could understand it. She could understand the message, which was about someone who’s been changing shapes. Beautiful, simple poetry. Nina was lost in the music and the words when she felt a tap on her shoulder and looked up, startled.
“Isn’t this your stop?” the stranger asked.
Nina looked around wildly. Yes, the bus was pulling into her stop and she was about to miss it. Nina jumped to her feet, brushed past the stranger and ran to the doors, which were just opening. Once on the street, panting, she realized she’d heard the stranger’s words even though she always, always turned up the volume of her player to the maximum to drown out the sounds of the world around her.
Nina slowly raised her head and looked at the bus, which was now leaving. She saw the stranger look at her through the window. He smiled and gave her a little wave. Nina felt like sitting down on the ground right where she was standing. She needed to think.
Nina shook her head, snapping out of her reverie.
“Sorry, Mike, what were you saying?”
“I was asking if you’re coming to the Christmas party,” the man standing by her desk said.
“Oh.” Nina made an effort to redirect her thoughts from chrysanthemum trees and poems about ancient battles to current affairs such as the firm’s Christmas party, which was taking place on Friday.
“I mean, you never come and I, for one, would be happy to see you there,” Mike elaborated, flushing a bit.
“I don’t really have any plans, so I guess I’ll be there,” Nina said. She wondered briefly why Mike was so insistent on her coming to the party, which would no doubt be boring. Maybe because he was new – he’d come to Perkins and Associates a few months earlier.
Satisfied with her own explanation Nina forgot about him completely. She’d paused her player when she’d got off the bus and then she’d turned it on again only to be disappointed by Florence. She so wanted to hear the rest of that song in the weird language. She wanted to hear many songs in that weird language.
More than that, Nina wanted to find out how the song appeared in her playlist and she was certain the stranger was the only one who could provide the answers. There was something weird about him besides the smell. Or maybe she was just losing her mind and there was no weird-language song on her player. This was always a possibility. For now, she went back to work and to Florence.
Nina couldn’t really sleep that night. The weird music echoed in her head. She craved more of it and nothing helped, though she went all the way and turned to the classics for help. Bach still made her cry and Tchaikovsky still made her melt inside, that much was certain, but she was in no mood for either Bach or Tchaikovsky, or anyone else, for that matter.
Nina stopped the player and listened to the unusual silence in her studio. It was raining, so she heard the rain. Her fridge hummed. The two sounds made a kind of harmony. A drop of water fell from the kitchen faucet, breaking the harmony, and Nina cringed. She lay for hours listening to the rain and the fridge before slipping into a fitful sleep, from which she awoke at 5 in the morning.
When she got to the bus stop, Nina was determined to confront the strange man about the music. She felt she could survive the embarrassment if it meant she’d find out what the music was all about and how it appeared on her playlist. This was actually the less important question but still, Nina wanted to know. Also, she wanted to listen to it again, she wanted to listen to more of it.
The bus came and, as sure as the sun, there he was, by the door, as if waiting for her.
“Good morning,” he said with that smile that this time got on her nerves.
“Morning,” Nina said. She felt naked without the earphones stuck deep into her ears. Naked and embarrassed but no less determined to find out about that song.
The man gestured to a nearby double seat and Nina went and sat down. He followed.
“I need to ask you something,” she began, glancing at him and then dropping her eyes. “Yesterday I heard a song that wasn’t supposed to be on my playlist. I’ve never heard it before. I think it has something to do with you.”
The man listened patiently. Now his smile grew wider and he extended a hand to her.
“I’m Tom. It’s nice to meet you,” he said.
Nina gasped. This was the last thing she expected. Who cared about politeness when there was music to talk about?
“Oh… yeah. Nice to meet you too. I’m Nina,” she said and took the hand gingerly. His skin was soft and cold. She had to look at him now. It was the polite thing to do. The man, Tom, had the prettiest, smoothest forehead she’d ever seen, kind of glowing even, or so her eyes told her.
“So, about this music,” she tried to get things back on track, swallowing nervously.
“Yes,” Tom said and released her hand. “Did it go something like this:
I have been a tear in the air,
I have been in the dullest of stars.
I have been a word among letters,
I have been a book in the origin?”
“Yes!” Nina yelled, not caring in the least bit if she startled anyone on the bus. “What is it? Who wrote it? Is there more?”
Tom chuckled and rubbed that glowing brow of his with the tips of his fingers.
“There must be. The lyrics are something I wrote a long time ago and the music, well, that… that’s a difficult question.”
“You wrote it?” Nina’s eyes widened. “Really?”
Tom nodded, looking a bit embarrassed.
“And the music? And how come I heard it? It wasn’t on my player,” she pressed on.
Tom looked around and then turned his eyes to her. Light blue eyes, almost transparent.
“Don’t take this the wrong way but is there any chance you could miss work today?”
Nina gaped. He cleared his throat and looked around again.
“It might have to be a long conversation,” he said. “You heard a poem as a song. It would take time to explain why this is important.”
Nina closed her mouth.
“I can call in sick, I guess,” she managed.
“Please do,” Tom said.
They got off at the next stop and crossed the street. Tom had suggested they return to her place without going into detail. Nina thought he looked safe enough and she didn’t care if she was wrong. He looked as confused as she felt and Nina didn’t think serial killers looked confused.
“Okay,” Nina said when they entered her studio. She hadn’t made the bed but she didn’t care. “Start explaining. I’ll call the office at 9, there’s nobody there right now.”
Tom took a step towards her.
“Let me try something first,” he said and made to put his hands on her shoulders, stopping an inch from her body and raising an eyebrow questioningly. She nodded. He put his hands on her shoulders. Her head filled with music. The same music. The same words. The same voice. Nina pressed her shoulders against Tom’s hands as if that would make the music louder.
“How is this happening?” she whispered.
He removed his hands and sighed.
“I think you’re the one doing it,” he said.
“Me?” She looked at him shocked, and a second later burst into a laughter that had a sharp hysterical edge.
“Yes,” he said. He wasn’t laughing, Nina saw. Far from it. His face was somber, not a glint of humor in the gray eyes. Nina squinted – there was something wrong with that color. She stopped laughing abruptly and she slowly sat down on a chair by her kitchen table.
“How am I doing it?” Nina asked. His eyes had changed color, she realized with sudden alarm.
Tom sat down next to her and rested his hands on the table.
“Better call your office, it’s 9 o’clock,” he said.
At first Nina looked at him as if he was speaking in a strange language. Just a moment ago it was 8.30, she’d checked the clock on the microwave. Half an hour had gone by without her noticing. She muttered “Oh,” and went to get her phone from her handbag, which she’d thrown on the bed as was her habit. She hoped she could hide her growing alarm from her voice.
“Hello, Mads, is that you? Hi, it’s Nina. I think I’m coming down with something, the flu, I guess,” she said, trying and succeeding in sounding sick. “Yes, I’ve got all I need, which is my bed, basically. Yes, I will, I promise. Bye.”
Nina returned to the table and sat down, not daring to meet his eyes.
“That was my assistant,” she said. “As if it matters. Do you want tea or coffee or something?” she asked. Tom shook his head. “Okay,” Nina sighed. “Tell me how I’m doing all this.”
“I think the music is trying to get out,” Tom said. She looked up and his blue gaze – blue again – pinned her to her spot.
Nina stared at him. He looked away and cleared his throat.
“It’s a bit difficult to explain to a human.”
“To a human?” Nina repeated.
“My name’s not Tom. My name is Taliesin,” he said and looked at her expectantly. Nina continued to stare at him blankly.
“None,” she said, shaking her head. “Is that a god or something?”
“Kind of, yes,” he said. “I’m not all that powerful but I have lived for quite a while and I can… save things. Could you stop staring, please?”
“Oh, sorry,” Nina said, startled. She blinked quickly a few times and smoothed her hair, pulled back in a ponytail. “All this is a bit… I mean a lot to take in. I’m not even sure it’s happening. Or if it is, you’re probably mentally ill and I should call someone. Or you’re joking.”
He put his hand on hers and the music burst in her head again, louder, clearer, overwhelming. She bit her lip and pulled her hand.
“Like I said, I come to your world to save things. Things like music. Your music.”
“Our world,” Nina repeated. She felt wetness on her lower lip and licked it. She tasted blood.
“Why?” The metal taste of her blood sang its own song, distracting her.
“Because I… feel that these things need saving.”
“Saving from what?” Nina made an effort to ignore the song of the blood in her mouth. He didn’t seem to have noticed her sucking on her lower lip.
“Different threats. Right now…” He hesitated, looked at her as if to reassure himself she won’t tell anyone, and continued,” Your world is on the brink of a catastrophe.”
“Oh, great, another one,” Nina said. She’d come to the conclusion she was dreaming all this. A very vivid dream, no doubt, but a dream nonetheless. So she decided to enjoy it and then, when she woke up, she’d google Taliesin. The name sounded vaguely familiar, now she thought about it. She must have heard it somewhere.
“It’s a sickness,” Taliesin said patiently. “A bad sickness.”
“Of course,” Nina nodded as if believed him. She wiped her mouth with her hand. It came up dry. “And if you don’t save me the music will die?”
“Yes,” he said, a spark in his eyes suggesting he was glad he was getting through to her.
“Okay, so what do we do? Do you take me with you or make me immune to this sickness? What is it, by the way? Zombies? Plague? No, wait, it must be the flu, right? The flu?” Nina was blabbering and didn’t care. This was a really good dream, like the ones she used to have when she was little, before her Dad died and her Mom really got down to business disciplining her like she’d been disciplined herself. When music became her only shelter.
Taliesin looked at her reproachfully.
“You think I’m joking.”
“No, I think I’m dreaming,” Nina said matter-of-factly. “I used to have lucid dreams when I was little. I love listening to music, so I dream about music that needs saving. It makes perfect sense.”
“If this works for you, I don’t mind,” he said. “The point is that music is essential for the proper working of the universe. So it needs saving.”
“Sounds good,” said Nina. “So, what do we do to save me?”
Taliesin gave her a hurt look.
“I’m beginning to think this idea with the dream might not be so good, after all.”
“You said it’s fine if it works for me,” Nina said defensively.
“Yes. However, the answer to your question is that you have to, well, die.”
Realization dawned on Nina’s face and she smiled.
“Right, so it is a nightmare, after all,” she said and, seeing his puzzlement, explained, “I have nightmares almost every night. Difficult childhood and all that, I suppose. But please, go on. Do I have to die in a specific way or can I choose the manner?
“There isn’t a specific way,” Taliesin said dryly. “I’m not sure if you are mocking me or yourself but, once again, let me tell you that this is not a dream. You will either die now or in a week, this is the only choice you get to make.”
Something crawled out of a corner in Nina’s mind and urgently pulled on the edge of her consciousness. He isn’t joking, this thing was saying. He isn’t joking. Nina shook her head to make it shut up.
“Okay, tell me about this disease. I want to know,” she said. “I want to make an informed choice.”
“Here?” Nina couldn’t hide the sarcastic edge. “And in, say, Iceland?”
“Yes,” Taliesin said, unmoved.
“There are no mosquitoes in Iceland!” Nina said. “You know how I know? I had an online fling with a guy who lives there. He said their winters were short or something and the mosquitoes couldn’t survive. Ha!”
Taliesin leaned forward, an annoyed look rising in his eyes that made them glow green rather than gray. Nina instinctively pulled back.
“Someone somewhere was working on a new breed of mosquitoes that would kill off the ones that carry malaria. Something went wrong. That was five years ago. Now, there are mosquitoes in Iceland and they can survive the winters. The outbreak has already started. It takes time to notice it but people will start dying in droves and until the medics realize what’s killing them, it will be too late, not that any of the medicines they have now would work on this particular plasmodium. Does that answer your question or would you like me to give you a detailed timeline?”
Nina realized her mouth was agape and shut it. For a while she didn’t say a word, just started at Taliesin and he stared back, the color of his eyes returning from green to gray.
“I apologize,” he said eventually. “It’s not your fault you can’t believe it. I understand.”
“It’s okay,” Nina said, dropping her eyes. “How do you know I’ll die next week?”
“That’s what I do. I know things.”
She waited but he didn’t go on.
“So, if I die, won’t the music you talked about be saved all the same?” Nina asked and looked up again.
“Well,” Taliesin said, looking a bit uncomfortable, “Probably.”
“Then why kill myself now?” she pressed.
He didn’t speak for almost a minute.
“To spare me the trouble of running around harvesting hundreds of gifts within a day, risking losing some of them,” he said finally.
“You want me to kill myself to make your life easier? Really?” she burst out and jumped from her chair. “Well, I’m sorry but it’s not going to happen. I’ll take that extra week.”
Taliesin sighed and rubbed his forehead.
“Okay,” he said. “Suit yourself. I thought I could help but apparently you don’t need help. I understand. It’s hard to believe. Soon, it won’t be so hard but that’s your choice.”
He got up.
“Where can I freshen up? I suddenly feel dirty.”
Nina arched an eyebrow and pointed to the right.
“The door on the left.”
She heard him turn the faucet on in a few seconds and then off a minute later. When he came out of the bathroom his hair was wet and his face glistened. He was quite an attractive man, Nina had to admit now that she actually looked at him purposefully. Too bad he was just a dream. Or if he wasn’t a dream, he wasn’t human, either.
“All fresh?” she asked politely.
“Yes, thank you,” he said. He looked around and up at her. “I suppose I’d better go and leave you to your life.”
“And I suppose I won’t see you again,” Nina said.
“No, not… here” he said. “I have ten more engagements in this part of the world. I can only hope I’ll be more successful with them.”
“Good luck,” she said and started towards the door. Taliesin made an about turn and followed her.
“Goodbye,” he said and opened the door. “Have a nice rest of your life. I’ll see you later, I suppose.”
“Bye,” Nina said and offered him her hand. He took it and shook it curtly. “Can’t wait.”
He smiled before she closed the door after him.
When she went back into her kitchen, Nina sat for a while by the table, gazing through the window. She shook her head, got up and took out her thermometer from a drawer. According to it, she wasn’t running a fever. That was something. What else? Chills? Nausea? She didn’t have any of those. She opened her laptop and googled malaria. After five minutes of reading up on the subject, Nina felt itchy, sweaty and generally unhygienic.
“He was insane,” she told herself. “Stop taking him seriously.”
She stood up again and started taking her clothes off anxiously. She took her towel from where she’d left it last night, on the back of her easy chair, and went into the bathroom. She looked around suspiciously, remembering that Tom or Taliesin or whatever his real name was came in here. Nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary, so she stepped into the tub, took the handheld shower, and turned the water on. The last thing she felt was the jolt of electricity when the current flowed into her body.
A week later, three days after Nina’s mother had had her buried hastily, the local authorities in the town she’d lived in issued an epidemic warning. A new type of flu, they had said. A vaccine was already in the works. Taliesin snorted laughter and turned off the radio. He drove on north, Nina’s music safely tucked in a box next to dozens of others—music, writing, gardening, art, teaching—deep in Taliesin’s mind. The manmade virus raged on.
“Busy, busy, busy,” Taliesin muttered to himself but not without some pleasure.
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