The armory sounds like a metal cathedral. Sometimes you pass out before the meteor shower. Shopping centers die, sound is ephemeral, and people are happy to see you. Hot cocoa never stays hot for long. They kept their promise. You answer the question.
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You are standing behind the guard desk, holding a phone to your ear. The caller asks you a question, but you don’t have an answer. So you say nothing.
The caller waits. The silence stretches on.
You stare at the gated row of entrance doors to the east. Handprints cover the glass, a reminder of the before times. You imagine a normal day at the museum: guards checking bags, school groups in the lobby, staff on their way to lunch. People coming and going as they please.
The caller clears their throat and repeats the question.
Sasha, is that you?
The name means nothing. But there’s something about that voice that makes your head tingle. It’s familiar and comforting. You swear you’ve heard it before.
You probe your subconscious and find nothing. The not-knowing kills you. But it’s exactly this frustration, this yearning for the past, that activates the now familiar transmutation: your eyes swim and your knees go weak. You blink, the museum disappears, and you live out someone else’s memory.
Only this time, it’s one of your own.
You know because you see your face in the sun visor mirror: younger and slimmer, but unmistakably yours. You frown at your reflection. Stubble pokes through your thick foundation, a fresh growth of coarse hair on your upper lip.
You push up the visor and roll down the window.
The golden hour descends on State Route 2. Nikki’s at the wheel of their 1988 Honda Civic, driving the two of you north through the miles-long gauntlet of crumbling shopping centers. You take stock of what’s changed since you were last home. The Sears is gone. Kirkwood Mattress and Furniture got a second location. Yet one more Italian restaurant has closed.
Nikki hits a red light at the turn to your old high school. A homecoming banner hangs from the rusted footbridge. You wonder, who thinks of their old high school as home? Like, maybe whiteboy track stars who get jobs in office parks and go to mass unironically.
Neither you nor Nikki have been back since graduating three years ago. For you, high school was four years of fat-shaming and queer-baiting; of internalized racism; of lashing out; of incel-level desperation; of confusion and self-hatred; of needing love; of deserving better.
Nikki puts on a CD of a shoegaze band you’ve never heard of. You light a cigarette and pretend you’re a Hollywood starlet from the ‘30s, blowing smoke rings and getting lipstick on the filter.
“So what first?” Nikki says. “Food or armory?”
They make a right at the Shell station onto an unlit, two-lane road. On one side are old-growth trees. On the other is an empty field. The expanse of overgrown grass reminds you of a nature reserve you and Nikki went to the summer before college. You snuck in after midnight to watch the Perseids. The bottle of gin in your messenger bag was supposed to last the whole night. But you drank half of it by yourself before the first meteor fell. The aftermath was both swift and unpleasant. After you passed out, Nikki wiped the vomit from your mouth and lay beside you. The sky filled with shooting stars.
In the distance, you see a double-layer chain-link fence crowned with barbed wire. Nikki makes another right up a rough, worn road and stops at the entrance gate. A young man in fatigues about your age emerges from the guard station.
“I’m Captain Healy’s kid,” Nikki says.
“Nicole?” the guard says. “He said you were coming.”
“It’s actually just Nikki,” they say.
The guard nods. You salute him, and he ignores you. Nikki gives you a c’mon, man kind of look as the boom barrier ascends and the gates part. They park on the north side of the armory, and the two of you get out.
You unload the car and soak in the last of the October sun. Nikki opens the armory with their dad’s keycard. Inside, they hit a switch, and the lights come on in a slow cascade. Straight ahead to the west, across a vast emptiness, is a bifold hydraulic door nearly as wide as the building. Along the northern wall is a three-deep row of camouflaged jeeps parked expertly close. There’s room for several dozen more. In the southwest corner are piles of tables and racks of metal folding chairs. A small office juts out from the middle of the southern wall.
“Let’s get set up,” Nikki says.
You and Nikki carry a table toward the office, lock the legs, and prop it upright along the southern wall. Nikki unpacks the contents of a plastic blue suitcase: a power strip and extension cord, two microphones with cables, a Tascam four-track, and a pair of headphones.
You’re ready before long. Nikki walks most of the way to the northern wall and warms up their voice. Their multi-octave glissandi echo through the armory. The notes ring out like plainsong in a metal cathedral.
It’s exactly what Nikki wanted.
“Ready when you are” they say.
You press record on the four-track and give a thumbs up. Nikki sings:
I was a girl too young to know
How close the soldiers came
My mother said we could not stay
We left before the morning
We walked along a forest path
Close to the river’s edge
And when the cliffs came into view
She left me in the valley
Now here I stand among the stones
far from where the city burns
Orphaned so that I might survive
At least until the morning
You’re at the armory for almost two hours. Nikki works on several more songs, stopping only when their voice wears out. The two of you break down the table, coil the mic cables, and load the car. On the drive out, Nikki has some deep, stoner-level thoughts about the ephemeral nature of music. Like how sound is temporal and linear and finite. So that means you have to listen to a song all the way through before you can really make sense of it, right? And at that point, in the silence that follows, you’re responding to the memory of the song, not the song itself. So maybe all knowledge and insight and emotion is just a reflection of how you see yourself.
“Does that make sense?” Nikki says.
To your surprise, it kind of does. You try so hard to be both a participant and observer of the present moment, of the precious banality of right now. You want to fully experience and capture the feeling of the car’s soda-stained seats, of watching State Route 2 fly by while your best friend accidentally discovers solipsism.
In this moment, you’re happy, and happiness is infinitely more ephemeral than sound. So you hoard these memories of contentment and delight. And when your world once more turns gray, you’ll revisit them, over and over, a reminder of all the colors you lost.
You’re back at the footbridge. Nikki looks at you and grins.
“What if we go?” they say.
“Go where?” you say.
“Dinner’s on me.” they say.
Nikki takes the turn to your old high school. You’re at their mercy. But what else were you going to do on a Saturday night in the suburbs, away from your dorm in the city?
Nikki parks in an open faculty spot. It feels good being bad. The two of you get out and walk to the football field. You sneak in under the crowded bleachers, past some marching band kids splitting a cigarette three ways. On the other side, you glance at the scoreboard. It’s the second quarter, and your alma mater is up 26 to 3.
Not that you care or anything.
Nikki drags you to the concession stand. You look over the menu board and see the familiar mix of hot dogs, hamburgers, candy, and potato chips.
You order a pre-made cheeseburger and a styrofoam cup of hot chocolate. Nikki gets M&Ms and Airheads. You scan the bleachers and spot some nosebleed seats by the steps. Nikki leads the way.
You settle in, unwrap your burger, and take a bite. It’s dry but does the job. As you wash it down with your hot chocolate, you see a young woman in boot-cut jeans and a puffy vest, brown hair lightened blonde. It’s Lori Kozalowski, your classmate from K through 12. You’ve never had a meaningful conversation or shared mutual friends. Yet here she is, head straight for you with the biggest smile on her face. She waves, elated to see you and Nikki, the two people least likely to be at homecoming.
She calls out:
Sasha, is that you?
I think so?” you say.
You are standing behind the guard desk, holding a phone to your ear. Your voice echoes against the atrium’s cold, glowing walls. On the other end, Nikki sighs with relief.
“They actually kept their promise.”
“What promise?” you ask. “And who are they?
“I’ll call again soon,” they say. Then they hang up.
You listen to the dial tone ring on forever.
Thank you for listening to Planet Radian. Words and music by me, Sahsa V. Logo and additional vocals by Jess Hamman. Beta tested by Jess Hamman and Christina Larocco. For transcripts, and to learn more about the show, visit planetradiant.love. That’s Planet Radiant dot L-O-V-E.
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