On Saturday, Children’s Writers of the Hudson Valley hosted First Impressions: A First Page and Query Event. We had reached max capacity for critiques, but were able to accept a few listening registrations for those that still wanted to learn from the pages of others.
Introducing: The Engine Driver (Dystopian YA short)
Brig has never been allowed to hear a sad song in her entire life. Her personal Playlist Treatment Plan, designed to control her emotions by playing appropriate songs in her head, isn’t working for her. But when her friend Annaby is chosen to go to Musician’s School and is given a Permit to Carry a musical instrument, Brig might have her one chance to hear a sad song, a love song – or a song that matches what her depression feels like, instead of what her feelings should be.
No matter how loud I turn up the music, I am never happy.
I can tell. I have a pain in my stomach that doesn’t want me to dance.
I dance anyway, of course. Because everyone is dancing at Crystaline’s sixteenth birthday party, bouncing around in this large silent room where the only outside noise is the sound of serving dishes clinking and Crystaline’s parents chattering about the 2060 election or how many people have shown up to celebrate their dear daughter. Because if I don’t dance, then they’ll know it’s not working. My songs would need to be reconfigured to fix the feeling in my gut, and the cloud that seems to hang over only me.
Crystaline has probably never felt a heaviness in her life. She’s dancing to the beat in her own head (as is everyone else) and smiling like this is the best night of her entire life.
It’s enough to make you want to vomit.
This mass of people, shaking to different rhythms in a mostly quiet room, as their own personal radio stations buzz and hum in their heads. They’re probably even allowed to listen to dark melodies and minor keys – the sad songs that they can use for proper occasions.
Some of my songs are probably the same as theirs – but all the happy, upbeat songs in the world just aren’t enough to make me smile naturally.
My songs just never strike the right chord, I guess.
Crystaline notices that my feet have stopped moving. “Oh no! Brig, do you need a quick charge? I brought my spare charger, just in case.”
“Oh. Uh, yeah. I guess I forgot to plug in last night.” Instinctively, I hold out my left wrist.
Crystaline gives me a hard stare, as she holds her finger and thumb together to pause her music. “It’s not good to skip charges, Brig.”
I nod and force a smile. Something to make Crystaline feel like I’m overwhelmingly warmed by her concern and will take her advice so that she won’t have to worry – or watch me. “I know, I know. Don’t worry, I’ll plug-in as soon as I get home tonight. I’ll even set an alarm so I’m back on schedule.”
“Okay…,” she says. She hands me her portable charger, taps her thumb and forefinger together twice to resume her music, and rejoins the rest of the party in the center of the floor. I remove the small plastic tab that protects the two circular ports in my wrist, and plug in the black box. I watch as the charger measures my current battery (over 75% full, because I had, of course, charged last night) and beeps a few minutes later, indicating that I’m back to a full charge.
If she’s going to believe that I’m empty though, this should take at least twenty minutes.
I put my hand over the flashing light that says full, and hold the box, waiting for Crystaline to stop watching me.
As soon as the party is over, I head for the parking lot. I pull my driver’s license from my back pocket and swipe it through the reader on my car door, before inserting it into the ignition slot. From the driver’s seat, I can tell that Crystaline and Evan are listening to the same song as they walk out, because they’re mouthing the words in sync. Evan puts his arm around Crystaline, and they fall into step with each other.
It must be a love song. Gross.
Evan is disgusting. He still picks his nose, he refuses to let the shower wash his hair and he never replaced the broken cap on his port, leaving his wrist to fill with dead bugs and other random particles. I wouldn’t be surprised if his signal was starting to get fuzzy.
Change the song, Crystaline! Change the song!
I know she won’t though. If I had a love song in my playlist, I probably wouldn’t either.
I turned towards the tapping on my window, and unlocked the door. Annaby plopped herself into my passenger seat.
“Did you see Evan and Crystaline? Please, please remind me to pause the music if I happen to be standing next to anybody with a roach-infested port. Then push me towards Adamas or something.” Annaby laughed as she threw her bag in my backseat.
“Hey Bridget,” she said, suddenly very serious. “I have something important to tell you when we get to my house.”
“Bridget? This must be pretty bad.” I let the car back out of the parking spot, as I scanned Annaby’s face for a hint of what was coming next.
Did she already hear a love song next to Adamas?
No big deal. So my best-friend is falling in love. Happens to everyone, right?
“What was the song?” I asked, even though I wouldn’t recognize it if she told me.
I put my hands on the wheel and drove out of the parking lot. “The love song. For you and Adamas… or whoever.”
Annaby sighed. “I didn’t hear a love song. But I think it’d be better if I could show you at my house.”
If it’s not a love song, what could possibly have happened at Crystaline’s party?
“Annaby, what is so important that you can’t just tell me now?” I raised my voice a bit, knowing it would automatically lower the volume of the music in Annaby’s head.
“What song is playing in your head?” she asked me.
I stopped to really listen to the music in my head. It was an upbeat pop song. Something with a lot of bass and a girl talking about how much fun she was going to have on Friday.
“Does it really matter?” You know that it doesn’t always work for me.
Annaby turned towards the window and sat up taller in her seat. “I’m moving. I won’t be at Cantwell General Academy anymore.”
My heart sunk. Two more years of high school without the one person who didn’t force me to be unnaturally cheery during lunch.
The music in my head automatically changed, to try to stabilize my emotional distress. I held my thumb and finger together to pause it. I have two minutes until the song will start again, and during that time, I hear an electronic metronome.
“Where are you going?” I asked. Beep. “You’ll still come and visit, right?” Beep.
Annaby started tapping her wrist. “I’ve been chosen to be a Musician, Brig. I won’t be back.”