Authors: Leopoldo Gout
Illustrations by the Fates Crew and Leopoldo Gout
To my extraordinary family
âCaitlin, the most beautiful wife a man can have, y mis chiquitos: InÃ©s Celestia and Leopoldo Valerio (you grew up ten years in a week and I love you). To my mother, Andrea Valeria, whose voice is loved by all radio waves, including the astrophysical powers that emit them. To all my big familiaâmy dad, Leon Garcia, Gwendollyn, Christianne, Everardo, Joseph, Robert, Eloise, Roman, Tula, Magaly, Alexis, Guillermo, Jane, Solveig, Jim, James, Sophia, Christina, Norbushka, Hubbabaâeveryone else in this world and the other.
Phantoms are fingerprints of the soul.
âAnonymous, Babylon, 2500
The Magic Band
Call 2344, Thursday, 12:23 A.M.
The Past Encroaches
1990 Metallic Green Ford Taurus
1990 Black Volvo Model 740
A Voice at Thirty Thousand Feet
Dead Kennedys in an Ambulance
St. Michael's Hospital
A Dark Happiness
My Other Girlfriend
Call 1288, 12:22 A.M. Sandy's Music
The Prison of Conventions
Call 2305, Friday, 1:35 A.M. The Soldier
Habit and Change
A Peculiar Exchange
A Night at the Station
Call 3307, Tuesday, 4:02 A.M. The Ghost Bride
The Police Operation
Return to the City of Palaces
Miss Wikipedia and the Urban Legends
Call 2412, Friday, 2:15 A.M. Icy Cliff
Ghost Radio Genesis
Call 1904, Monday, 4:01 A.M. The Translator
Drains and Ladders
Where'd Everybody Go?
Return to the Past
Inside the Cannibal Hospital
The Nonexistent Show
Call 2109, Wednesday, 3:22 A.M. Dollhouse
The Backyard Desert
Call 1288, Monday, 2:13 A.M. Lucy's Apple
Memories of Colett
A Security Hazard
A Ghost in the Machine
When the Plane Landed, Joaquin was Asleep
The Other Side
After the Show
In the darkness,
it moved, searching for something tactile.
Sensing the way, following its instincts. For instinct was almost all it had left.
Somewhere, sometime, some-
it had possessed identity. It had the characteristics and physicality that bound it to a world. But those were gone now. Now it was little more than an urge: a bundled collection of needs with the barest hint of form.
But the void around it possessed even less form.
It knew that somewhere within this void lay the thing it sought, and so it kept moving.
And as it moved, unfamiliar features inside it sprang to life. In a hidden fold of its being arose a thing called “language.” With that came knowledge, and consciousness. Its journey deepened.
It passed through a cloud of something it could now call “sadness” and wept. It passed through “serenity” and its calm returned.
Something inside it prickled. What it sought was near. Moving toward it, pushing with all its might. The prickling increased, rushing through it like a torrent of needles.
It reveled in this sensation, for it signaled that the end of its journey was near.
And even as this thought formed, its journey
end. It had reached its destination. As it basked in this victory, a new word appeared: the name for this thing it had sought so desperately, so diligently, and for so long.
The word wasâ¦
THE MAGIC BAND
Joaquin turned the dial
on his ham radio, letting his fingers rub against the worn edge.
He was trolling the six-meter band.
The magic band.
Not transmitting, just listening. Looking for some conversation, a good “rag chew” as the hams called it, that might distract him, and help him forget his worries about the coming week.
It was called “the magic band” because of its unique ability, under the right circumstances, to transmit and receive messages over very long distances with short antennas and low power. For this reason, the band attracted a wide range of aficionados. From high school students looking to get the most out of a cheap rig, to the kind of techies who casually tossed around phrases like “sporadic E propagation” and “F2 layer refraction.”
Tonight it didn't feel very magical. Pedestrian was more like it. The conversations were limp and surprisingly sparse.
But somewhere around 50.24 megahertz, just past some Morse-code warning of thunderstorms off the Catalina coast, he caught a burst of static that intrigued him.
Years ago, Gabriel had taught him about the majesty of white noise: the monoliths of structure hidden in the chaos.
And this burst was chunky with structure.
He cocked his head toward the speaker, taking it in. It came alive in his mind. He imagined hanging over it, watching it roil beneath him like an angry sea. Then the roiling sea solidified, becoming jagged rocks and mountains. And then it was just sound again. But with a purpose, accreting toward a common goal. Sound seeking personification.
The room receded as he leaned closer to the speaker.
The sound seemed to tease him: its lattices of structure briefly weaving together, only to slide apart seconds later. And what the static became, in those short moments of cohesion, sent shivers down his spine.
It was a voice.
It was very clearly a voice.
He tried to convince himself he was hearing bleed-over from another signal. But this wasn't mixed in with the static. It was a voice constructed
He caught several phonemes, and the click of a consonant or two; but he couldn't stitch them together. He couldn't make out words.
He leaned closer, concentrating.
Slowly, from the rise and fall in intonation, he realized he was hearing the same sentence repeated over and over again. But he still couldn't make out even a single syllable.
He bent even closer, his ear inches from the speaker.
His brow furrowed and his muscles tensed as he searched for the meaning. It was almost there. He felt it roll gradually toward him, like a slow-moving ball.
There was nothing else in the world, just him and these sounds.
Nothing but this struggle.
The first word was on the brink of unveiling itself when he felt a presence in the room with him; something brushed his shoulder. He whipped around ready to strike, only to see the familiar, laughing face of his girlfriend, Alondra.
“I love this: the host of the âscariest show on Mexican radio' is frightened by a tap on the shoulder.”
“Very funny,” Joaquin said, still somewhat shaken.
“You're a bit like a cartoon character when you're frightened.”
“You're in âtease mode' tonight, I see.”
“A furry animal, I think. Cartoon rabbit maybe.”
“And it's not over yet.”
“No, a cartoon mouse! Big eyes, little whiskers twitching.”
Joaquin forced a chuckle, and as his senses returned, he shot Alondra a sly grin.
“Bet you were one of those girls who got a bit weak-kneed over cartoon animals.”
“Maybe,” Alondra said, her eyes going wide and looking very much like a cartoon herself.
“Let's test the theory.”
He pulled her close and looked deep into her big brown eyes.
“But you don't seem like a furry animal anymore.”
“That's the thing about us furry animals. In the daytime we're all hijinks and songs, but at night we get serious. And I mean
“Now, that's a theory
like to test,” Alondra said, pulling him toward the bedroom.
An hour and a half later, Joaquin lay on his side looking at Alondra's lean naked body beside him. It glistened with a thin layer of postcoital sweat. She snuggled close to him, looking into his eyes.
“You worried about the trip?”
“Your big play for âcrossover' appeal?”
“You know it's not about that.”
“I know. Still in âtease mode,' I guess.”
Joaquin smiled and pulled her closer.
“Thinking about Gabriel?”
Joaquin nodded. He hadn't realized it until Alondra asked the question. But Gabriel had been in his thoughts a lot recently. Maybe it was the trip back to Texas; maybe it was just the time of year. Whatever the reason, Gabriel had felt especially close these last few days.
“Thought so. You had that look.”
Joaquin decided not to ask her what she meant by that. He wasn't sure he wanted to know.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
Joaquin shook his head.
Of course, he really did want to talk about it. He wanted to talk about Gabriel and the voice on the radio tonight, and the countless other things that had been coursing through his mind since he first learned he'd be heading stateside. But he couldn't do it right now, maybe not ever.
“You know I'm always here for you. Anytime you want.”
“I'd rather just try to get some sleep; emphasis on âtry.'”
Joaquin leaned over to shut off the light, still holding Alondra against his chest. As he lay back down, Alondra let out a contented sigh. Within minutes, her breathing deepened and he knew she was fast asleep.
Sleep didn't come as easily for Joaquin. His thoughts returned to the voice. He tried to convince himself it was some kind of illusion, brought on by anxiety about the week ahead. But he knew that wasn't the case. He knew this was the first sign that his trip would provide him an answer to the mystery that had plagued him for almost eighteen years.
As he drifted off to sleep, thoughts of the voice and the trip receded, and he found himself remembering a recent caller to his radio show.