With the first notes he plucked, weird things started happening. As the C note bled out into oblivion, the lamp flickered. The G lifted it from the nightstand. The D minor started it spinning.
Devin didn’t notice. He kept playing. His eyes squeezed into slits; the tip of his tongue sat like a slug on his cracked and drying bottom lip.
The tubes in the amp glowed with the music. The tone knobs on the amp, the pedal board, and the Telecaster turned constantly. The sounds coming from the overdriven speaker were alive and moving. The air in the room was charged with an electricity that brought Devin’s hair standing.
He palm-muted the strings and started the build up. It crept forward, gaining speed slowly, until he strummed in open, gaping triplets.
His mother screamed downstairs as the elements on the stove exploded.
“I just don’t understand it,” she said.
The stove top was covered in foam fire extinguishment. The room was shrouded in a thick blue-grey smoke.
“First the microwave,” she said, fanning the smoke out the small open kitchen window with a dirty dish towel. “Then the fridge. Shit luck.”
“The house is old,” Devin said.
“No chance of getting it rewired. It was hard enough just getting Timmy out to unclog the shitter,” she said. “Damn near to pulling teeth.”
“He’s gonna be pissed about the stove.”
“Nothing I can do about it.”
Devin opened the windows in the living room and turned on the ceiling fan. It rocked noisily but stirred the smoke from the ceiling.
“What were you playing up there?”
“Just messing around.”
“Where’d you get that amp?”
“Borrowed it. From a friend.”
She knew he was lying. He knew that. Devin didn’t have any friends. But she didn’t call him out on it. She had too much else to deal with than a stolen amplifier. So long as the cops didn’t show up.
“Maybe that’s what caused this,” she said, rubbing her arms. They were sore from last nights work.
Devin hadn’t considered that. He felt defensive of the only thing he cared about: his music.
“Nah,” he said. “The thing is pristine. Tubes are all knew.”
“Just cut it out, would you? Timmy’s gonna be pissed as is. If you blow the breaker again, he’ll probably toss us.”
Devin stalked from the kitchen, back up the stairs, to his cramped, little room. Smoke had found its way up there and brought tears stinging to his eyes. He opened the window and plopped onto the mattress on the floor.
“Jesus,” he said.
He reached for the Tele but stopped. He got up and retrieved the battered Martin acoustic from his closet. He sat back on the bed and tuned it.
With the first finger-picked chord the room buzzed into life. The magazines on the floor flipped pages back and forth like cat tails. The strings of the abandoned electric guitar hummed the gentle notes Devin was playing, only an octave higher. The amp had turned itself back on and somehow sank into a chorus of heavily reverbed flange.
“Heavy as mountains,” Devin cooed. “As lidless as death. Moving and moved; life is a moveable feast.”
His mother’s screams from downstairs were drowned in the sound.
The door to his room burst open and everything went still. Devin stopped playing and looked up into the terror widened eyes of Timmy, the landlord.
“Devin, what in the name of God happened?”
Devin tossed the Martin onto the mattress and stood.
“What do you mean?”
Devin pushed by the landlord and nearly fell down the stairs in his haste. He caught himself on the railing and bounded down by twos.
“Mom,” he called.
There was no answer.
Cynthia Thomas was on the kitchen floor. She wasn’t moving.
“Mom,” Devin whispered.
He knelt down on the dirty linoleum beside her and water soaked through his jeans. The floor was covered in it. Slowly he set the calloused-thickened fingers of his left hand onto his mother’s shoulder. He shook her, gently at first, then frantically when she didn’t respond.
“Mom, mom,” Devin screamed.
“Dev,” Timmy said. “Come away from there.”
Strong but shaking arms enveloped Devin and he was hauled away from the kitchen, from his mother.
“No,” Devin cried. “No.”
He saw the exposed wiring from the burnt out microwave just as he was pulled into the living room. The wall was scorched around the electrical socket and his mother’s flower vase had been upended. Water was sprouting from decapitated faucet like a miniature fountain.
He wasn’t in the first foster home long enough to form a real opinion. It smelled like onions. That was all he could remember about the place. The second foster home, the one in which he currently resided, was nice enough. There were only three of them, foster kids–he was a god forsaken foster kid now–in the home and the foster parents weren’t overly religious, which was also nice. They let him bring the Martin but not the Tele. He had to give it away along with the amp. They had noise rules. They had chore rules, bathroom rules, outside rules, school rules, rules on rules on rules. But it was nice enough.
Devin shared a room with Shawn, a fat kid separated from his six brothers. His mom was a crackhead or something.
“You gonna play that thing for me?” Shawn asked, nodding at the Martin.
Devin picked it up and fingered the frets. Chord structures, little runs on the pentatonic scale, minor variations of hundreds of songs ran through his mind’s eye. He saw them as glowing orbs in a darkened forest. Little balls of life in a cold, expanding world.
He settled on a old Hank Williams song: Lost Highway. He played it simply, quietly, deceptively so. The little flourishes were carefully crafted and did not distract, did not detract from the power of the three chord structure.
Shawn’s eyes were riveted. He didn’t see, or acknowledge, the flickering of the two bedside lamps or the overhead light. He didn’t see the Geometry book spinning some three feet above the desk where he’d set it earlier that afternoon. He didn’t notice that his feet no longer touched the cold, scuffed hardwood or that the bed he was sitting on was floating, suspended by nothing visible.
When the last of the D chord faded, the room became static again. The bed was back on the floor, the book back on the desk, the lights steady and yellow.
“Wow,” Shawn breathed.
Devin set the Martin on the little twin bed, stood and stretched.
“I think I’m gonna go for a walk,” he told Shawn.
As the door closed behind Devin, Shawn felt the hot trickle of blood dripping onto his upper lip.
He signed the chart on the clipboard at the backdoor with the time and his destination.
4:55pm: a walk.
Devin wondered what would happen if he forgot or, worse, chose not to follow the rules. He felt like lashing out quite frequently but always controlled himself. He felt alone but strangely intact despite being on his own. His aunt and uncle’s criminal records kept him from living with them but he got to visit once a month. There was no other family. The Thomases were spread far and wide, thin and patchy. Most were incarcerated. Many were dead.
The summer was dying. The leaves on the trees were browning and just beginning their death throes. Toledo was such an ugly city. He liked Columbus better but the homes were few and far between. Toledo did have some nice parks though.
He tripped on the uneven sidewalk but did not fall. Devin regained his balance and cursed under his breath.
Side Cut Metropark was his favorite and only a fifteen minute walk from the foster home, “the home” as he thought of it. Not home but the home. Home was nonexistent. An idea. An abstraction. Not a reality. Not like the crushed Mountain Dew can he kicked off the sidewalk. Not like the van-full of children bustling out of the parking lot onto the Trail. Not like the headache he couldn’t escape, that only eased when he played music.
Devin went left into the forest, where the Chrysler, the family inside packed sardine-like, had gone right. He plucked his harmonica from his pocket and gently began blowing.
The key of C. His cheeks puffed and quivered as he picked up the pace. He walked aimlessly down the gravel path. The leaves of the trees, the branches they precariously clung to, followed Devin as he drifted by, as if carried by an unseen, sustained black wind. As he passed, the leaves dropped and floated to the sun parched ground in forlorn, rambling half circles.
He came out in a small clearing. He dropped onto a bench and kept playing. The song had changed structures and he now followed a purple orb of six notes in an alternating pattern, descending and twisting. The trees at his back reached out their boughs and laid their leaves at his feet.
From the other side of the clearing four deer emerged, transfixed. They walked, numbly, across the clearing and knelt down on the gravel path and watched as if at the glaring of headlights.
The run looped back in a jump that began a rise and fall.
A coyote followed the mixture of song and scent from the woods. He descended on the nearest doe. She did not resist or cry out. It was a slow, painful death.
The song continued and the rest were devoured before it ended.
“What in the name of God?”
Devin looked up from the harmonica. The song had ended some minutes before. He’d been lost somewhere in a daze.
The man wore a jacket indicating that he was a Metroparks volunteer. His face was blanched and Devin saw the terror in his eyes as the man looked up from the carcasses at him.
“What did you do?” the man asked.
Devin looked down at the meat and bones and entrails on the gravel and began to cry. He dropped the harmonica into the congealing mess and hid his face in his hands.
The social worker was sickened by what the police report said. “Slayed and dismembered four deer.” Slayed. This was some teenage Jeffrey Dahmer shit, she’d told her supervisor when assigned the case.
“Devin, would you like to tell me what happened?” she asked.
She desperately hoped he wouldn’t. She wanted to leave this one to the psychiatrist.
“I don’t know,” Devin said.
The plastic chair was uncomfortable and Devin fidgeted around, vainly, trying to find a comfortable position.
“You don’t know or you just don’t want to talk about it?” she asked.
Please, God, don’t talk about it, she thought.
“I remember playing the harmonica and then…” he trailed off.
The police report said the harmonica had been covered in animal blood and had teeth marks etched into the metal, she recalled.
“Then the man was screaming and shaking me,” Devin said.
The social worker vaguely wondered if she could bring herself to so much as pat the kid’s back. She felt bile rise in her throat and had flickering images of the child ripping open Bambi’s throat with his crooked, little teeth. Teeth that probably hadn’t seen the light of a dentist’s office until foster care.
“OK, but we both know that what you did was wrong, Devin,” she said. “There are consequences for our actions and the consequences for what you…did are going to be stiff. Do you understand that?”
Devin looked at his hands. His head beat a steady rhythm in his temples and his stomach turned over hungrily. They’d had salisbury steak for lunch and he couldn’t touch it. It reminded him of the deer.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Devin said. “I was just playing a song. A song.”
The social worker shook her head and motioned for the teacher to take the murderous little brat back to detention.
Shawn was working on his homework at the small desk when Devin came into the room. Devin had had in-school detention as well as after-school detention. He’d finished up all the homework for the night early on in the day and had read ahead in nearly every subject. He’d finally been allowed to go to the library and check out a book to sit quietly and read for the remainder of the day. He was told four times to stop humming. He’d picked out a biography on Hank Williams and tried his best to read it but the letters just danced around the page, transforming into the glowing orbs of music. Music. Music.
“Hey,” Shawn said.
“How was detention?”
Devin grunted and plopped onto the bed and reached for the Martin.
“They said you can’t,” Shawn said.
Devin’s hand hovered over the neck of the guitar for just a second but his head hurt too bad not to play. He picked it up, feeling the weight of it in his hands, and his headache eased some.
“Come on, Dev,” Shawn said. “You’ll get me in trouble if you play. I’m supposed to tell Monica or Davie if you do.”
“Piss off,” Devin said but there wasn’t any heat in it. He couldn’t even meet Shawn’s eyes.
His headache swelled and he fingered a D minor.
The door to their shared bedroom opened and Devin’s foster mother, Monica, strode in.
“Devin,” she said.
He held the chord in his fingers but did not strum or pick it.
“Devin, you’re grounded,” she said. “You know that.”
Monica reached down and extended her hand. Devin gave her the guitar.
The courtroom was crowded. Mostly women, young and old, milled about with armfuls of children, all crying or generally making a ruckus. Devin sat beside Monica and Davie, both of which had to take off work in order to attend Devin’s hearing.
The judge came and the crowd rose and quieted down for the most part, with a handful of babies wailing like emergency sirens despite frenzied whispers and inserted pacifiers.
“You may be seated,” the judge said.
Devin sat quietly, intently watching the judge and the lawyers and the women and the children. He paid particularly close attention to the judge’s face and what he said to the children and their mothers. Several were reduced to tears and one mother was removed by the bailiffs for howling when she was pronounced unfit to care for her children.
Devin wanted nothing more than to be away from there. He wanted his guitar in his hands and glowing orbs of music lighting up his head. He wanted to be left alone.
The judge called his name. His full name.
“Devin Hammond Thomas,” the voice rang.
His foster parents shuffled to their feet and Monica’s firm hand around his arm brought Devin up too. The courtroom seemed to hush. The walk up the aisle, past the eyes of the staring mothers and their children, seemed to take a century. The judge, sitting up on his throne, watched Devin’s unsteady steps with the eyes of an eagle or some such bird of prey; they seemed so cold and calculating.
Devin couldn’t hear the words the lawyer was saying to his foster parents. He couldn’t hear the words the judge was saying either. His ears felt stuffed full of cotton balls. Every time he turned his head to read the lips of the adults, the cotton crinkled in his ears sending wild shivers down his spine. He tried to swallow but his mouth, too, felt full of cotton.
“Devin,” the voice shouted.
All at once, he could hear. The voice shouting his name sounded tired, irritated.
“Are you listening, boy?” the judge demanded.
Devin nodded his head. His knees started to shake and he couldn’t bring them to be still.
“What did you do to those animals, son?”
Devin shook his head but couldn’t make any words come from his mouth.
Devin licked his lips and opened his mouth. Still the words refused to form.
“Son, do you understand how serious this is? You stand going away to juvenile detention for quite some time if you don’t start explaining what happened to those animals.”
Tiny snatches of the orbs lit across Devin’s mind. He began to stammer.
“Speak up, boy,” the judge demanded.
The colors brightened furiously. The words dissipated into notes.
Devin began to sing.
“What the hell–” the judge’s voice cut off.
Blood began, a trickle at first then flowing freely down the noses of all those in attendance. A hush fell over the audience and all eyes fixed on Devin. Even the babies were quiet.
The notes swirled up and down, side to side. They flashed green, then blue, then red. They blinked and flickered but did not go out. Devin wouldn’t let them. He sang and sang. The words were unintelligible.
The folders and documents on the judge’s bench, as well as those on the long oak tables the lawyers used, began to levitate. The papers spun and the folders opened spilling their insides into the suddenly electrified air of the courtroom.
The judge’s eyes rolled back until only the whites showed.
Devin continued singing, seeing only the dancing orbs of light, feeling only the song of himself. It was a vast, encompassing song. Minor at times, bustlingly chorded at others.
Devin didn’t see his foster parents collapse at his feet. He didn’t see the clerks’ heads drop onto their desks as if suddenly narcoleptic. He didn’t see the blank faced babies slump out of their mother’s unfeeling arms, unconscious already, onto the dingy carpet. He didn’t see the children and teenagers keel over and pile between the pews as if caught by the Holy Ghost, perished suddenly in the Spirit.
As Devin’s song neared its crescendo, all the floating papers and folders in the family courtroom burst into dancing flames and settled calmly back to their places. The people present had long since ceased seeing or hearing. They lay where they’d sat or stood, unmoving. The fires caught quickly and Devin quietly left through the door in which he’d entered, careful not to look at what he’d done.
The air hit him in the face and Devin had to narrow his eyes against the cold. He wasn’t three steps into the small garden outside the courthouse when the fire alarms began to scream their warnings. Devin walked blindly, his eyes closed, head upturned to the sun, and knew he’d never be alone. The colorful orbs would always be with him.
But he also knew the world and his music were not compatible. The world just could not handle some songs. They were too sweeping, too much there. Life and death intertwined, overlapping, the snake eating its own tail. The world would blink back tears of blood and falter. It stuttered when it should sing. It tripped when it should dance. All at once, Devin understood this.
Devin Thomas walked past unfamiliar buildings. Firetrucks and ambulances and police cars raced by. People came out of the buildings but did not see him. He walked until the town had ceased being a town. He walked past the houses and the farms and the fields. The clouds parted somewhere high above his head. Birds fell from the sky. Animals in the fields knelt. Devin kept on walking, humming all the while.