I handled the device with care, flipping it over to determine whether the charging port showed any sign of damage. Vintage music players rarely came in such pristine condition. The hardest thing to check tended to be whether or not it could take power. Would the cord make a good connection?
Meeting someone behind the gym well away from a plug made it difficult to know.
The screen didn’t have a single scratch and it cranked on fine. I tested the circular control and navigated through a couple of songs, clicking the play button. My earbuds worked with it and the music came out with perfect digital clarity. I preferred vinyl but government sanctions restricted the sale of anything but classical pieces in such formats.
Doran looked over his shoulder, shifting from foot to foot. I’d only bought one other thing from him before and he’d been just as twitchy then. His short brown hair seemed to quiver. No one came behind the gymnasium. The groundskeeper did a terrible job of keeping it up, overgrown trees and animal crap.
We both wore our spring uniforms, sleeveless black tunics, gray slacks, and black boots. They fit comfortably, working for both physical exercise and our rigorous practice schedules. Doran’s fit a bit snug about his chest. He’d gone through a growth spurt recently and hadn’t changed out his attire yet.
“Come on, Samuel,” Doran muttered. “Do you want it or not? I’m taking a huge risk even showing that to you.”
“Can you settle down?” I shook my head. “I want to make sure it gets through a whole song before I pay for it. It’s not like you’ve got a guarantee or something. And if it happens to be broken, who can I take it up with? You won’t even tell me where you got it.”
“No, I won’t.” Doran scowled. “And why do you think I’d sell you a broken music player?”
“What have you got to lose?”
“You won’t buy anything else from me!”
“That’ll happen regardless if you don’t let me finish looking it over.” I turned up the volume, losing myself in a song I’d never heard before by the band Led Zeppelin. It was called Ten Years Gone. The tune really moved and I tried to imagine the era that spawned such a composition.
I wished I’d been there, back when anyone could express themselves, for good or ill. Their music always struck with its passion, its vibrancy. I hoped I put as much spirit into my own playing but I had to be careful to remain within the confines of our regulations. Precision meant more than feeling.
I hated the distinction.
“Come on!” Doran tapped the player, pausing the song. “You know preloaded players rarely have more than ten albums. That one has thirty-seven, man! You’d be crazy to turn it down.”
I laughed. “You’re insane. I’m the only one here at Saint Duke’s that will buy this. I’ll give you twenty-five.”
“That’s not even half!”
“You won’t let me finish testing it.”
Doran sighed. “Fifty.”
“You’re killing me! That thing would fetch a ton over at the Aldin Forbes community!”
“You want to brave a trip over to the mines?” I asked. “Because I’m thinking you’d rather have forty than risk it.”
“I can’t believe I’m accepting this.” Doran shook his head. “You’re a crook, Samuel!”
“Says the guy selling an illegally loaded music player.” I handed him the cash. “Thanks, by the way. This is going to be great.”
“Whatever. If you get caught with it—”
“I know, tell them immediately where I got it so you can make another sale.”
“Would you relax?” I pointed in both directions. “Look around. No one’s going to bother us. And I haven’t been caught with any of the stuff I’ve bought so far. They know we’ve got contraband here. They don’t care as long as we keep it to ourselves. So just take a deep breath.”
“That’s easy for you to say. Getting caught with contraband isn’t as bad as being busted for selling it.”
“No one’s going to know you did it.” I clapped his shoulder. “So go take a nap…spend some money…do something to calm down before you collapse.”
“Yeah, I don’t need advice from a stringer.” Doran stuffed the money in his satchel, spun on his heel and rushed off.
“Not very nice, perk!” I called after him. We often used designations for the different parts of an orchestra at one another. Stringers tended to be obvious, covering all stringed instruments. Perks played percussion instruments. Blasters played horns and reeds made up the woodwind section. Those who focused specifically on piano or keyboards were loners.
The different groups fostered a gentle rivalry, one that started long before I moved into the community.
I headed back to my room in the opposite direction as Doran. On the rare chance one of us ran into a maestro, I didn’t want to explain what we were doing together. Everyone knew our two sections rarely spent time together outside of practice. It would’ve raised enough suspicion to put my new toy in jeopardy.
Saint Duke’s Community housed a renowned conservatory, the best in the world. We trained hard with the hope of joining some group in one of the other communities, playing at hosted events by the governments or the wealthy. Sanctions restricted our performances to a narrow field but that still included thousands of pieces throughout history.
Even ones the government proved too stupid to know had been written in protest of tyranny. Beethoven changed the name of his third symphony from Bonaparte to Eroica after he learned Napoleon called himself Emperor. Modern community heads thought it sounded pretty so it stayed on the approved list.
Anything with easily understood lyrics tended to be sanctioned right away. That pretty much sullied every English song from the nineteen-fifties on. Some of the big band stuff survived but not the saucy titles. Even Christian Rock took a heavy blow when a couple of the censors found some suggestive similes.
Music wasn’t the only art form to receive a major lockdown. Film received the harshest criticism, likely because of the people who initially made them. They’d earned the name sensationalists, which essentially came down to a fancy way of calling them all liars. Instructional films survived for the most part, providing they didn’t contain opinions.
Apparently, stating a point of view threatened the natural order of things.
Saint Duke’s Community consisted of the conservatory and a small village with a few businesses to support it. We had a grocery store, a place to buy clothes, a restaurant, and theater set up specifically to get experience leaving the comfort of home to perform. The people who ran the shops lived in houses nearby.
The conservatory sprawled over ten acres of land, overlooking a dense forest while being situated half a mile from the main road. The campus provided boarding facilities as well as dozens of practice rooms, auditoriums, theaters, and offices for the faculty. Regular classrooms occupied quads outside the primary structure.
A brick wall surrounded the property with a cast iron gate in the front and two smaller ones in the back, leading into the woods. They tended to be locked after nightfall but everyone knew how to get out if they wanted to. The main building had been a mansion in the eighteen-hundreds. The dormitories and quads were added to make it a functional school.
I cranked up the volume on the music player as I walked. The next song on the playlist must’ve also been from the seventies. It featured distorted guitar accompanied by a slow, grooving drum beat. Bass kicked in, accenting the kicks. I closed my eyes when the vocals started, a higher voice droning out the first lines.
Then tripped on some rocks and nearly took a spill. My heart raced as I caught my balance. The quick reintroduction to reality made my cheeks burn though I was lucky. I hadn’t quite cleared the gym yet so no one saw me stumble around like a moron in broad daylight. The music moved into a crescendo, a bridge leading to the chorus.
I clicked it off, stuffing it into my satchel as I reached the corner of the gym. A quick glance revealed no faculty so I slipped out, hustling the first dozen yards until it looked like I came from some other part of campus. Other students basked outside in the late afternoon sun, doing homework, playing an instrument, or working out.
I kept my head down, making straight for the dormitories. It seemed likely I’d make it without incident, especially since I left my earbuds in. I heard the pounding of feet behind me too late and earned a slap on the back of the head as a result. The attack brought a scowl though I knew exactly who was responsible.
Raul Parch spun as he passed, walking backward to face me. He was a good inch taller, long brown hair usually messy and unwashed. His small brown eyes always looked like he was squinting, probably because he needed glasses but refused to wear them. He was lanky but hit hard.
“What?” I kept walking. “Sorry, it’s hard talking to a Reed. I get tired pretending I can hear you.”
“Take that back.” Raul clenched his fist.
“Why?” I tried to walk around him but he stayed in my way. We both stopped moving and I glared into his squinty face. “You hit me on the head, I made fun of you and what…I hurt your feelings? Get out of here, man. You’re pathetic.”
“I said you take that back!” Raul shouted. “People don’t pretend to hear us!”
“You’re right.” I held up my hands. “You’re absolutely right. They just don’t hear you at all.”
Raul grabbed me by the shirt. I steeled myself for a fight. A shout froze my opponent in place, a deep baritone I recognized immediately. Professor Warren Haverly dual studied vocals and cello though most people knew him for his powerful voice. Those of his register were called Rumbles and when they shouted, people listened.
“What exactly is going on here?” Professor Haverly came beside us, hands on his hips. He wore a thick beard, his long black hair tied back from dark features. I’d always considered him especially intimidating, especially since he taught one of the advanced martial arts classes. “Mister Parch, unhand Mister Alton this instant.”
Raul let me go and took two steps back.
“I doubt the two of you were planning on hugging,” Haverly said. “Explain. Now.”
“We were practicing,” Raul replied. “You know…escape and release.”
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah. That.”
“Mister Alton,” Haverly glared at me. “Lying is beneath you.”
“No really, Raul definitely had a lesson to teach, sir.” I smiled. “He just got a little carried away.”
“I’ll be keeping an eye on both of you.” Haverly stepped back. “Break it up. Go about your day. If you want to practice that kind of thing, do it in the gym with some pads. If I see this again, you’ll both receive a demerit.”
“Of course.” I called, turning to look at Raul. “So? What’s it going to be? You want to push Haverly or are we done here?”
Raul scowled. “We’ll pick this up later.”
“I’m looking forward to it, really.” I started moving again, this time picking up the pace. I had an hour and a half before rehearsal with the orchestra. I wanted to use it with my new purchase.
The sweet scent of recently trimmed grass filled my nose, making my skin itch. Pollen didn’t bother me too much but I occasionally got hives in the earlier parts of spring. Some of my peers suffered real allergies, the kind that made their noses stuff up and their eyes turn red and puffy. I felt thankful I never experienced anything like that.
I burst into the dormitory, blasted in the face by a cool breeze from the air conditioner. The common room was empty, which seemed odd. People always hung around in there, playing board games or doing homework together. Maybe the sunlight pulled them all outside or down to the village.
“Hey! Samuel!” I was halfway down the hall when a familiar voice called my name. “Wait up!”
“What’s going on, Bertram?” I glanced over my shoulder at him, offering a wave. We were the same age but he stood half a foot shorter. He also dual majored, in vocals and viola. His voice was incredible, one of the best tenors in the school. “You look concerned.”
“The maestro’s pulling an inspection!”
“Damn it!” That was why no one had been hanging out in the common room. They didn’t want to be there during the faculty visit. “How long?”
“About ten minutes,” Bertram replied. “He just left the offices.”
“I’m out of here.” I hustled down to my room, bursting through the door. If I went, I needed my violin or I’d have to come back before rehearsal. “What’s he looking for?”
“I don’t know,” Bertram called from the door. “Probably out of place socks or something.”
I built a decent collection of music players, each with different sets of contraband albums. They represented the majority of my belongings and I kept them locked up and hidden in a chest under the floorboards beneath my dresser. The only other item of any interest came from my mother, a flat metal rectangle that easily fit in a pocket.
I left it on my bedside table, propped up against the lamp. I didn’t have any photos and I had no idea specifically what it was but I refused to let it go. Maybe at some point I’d learn its purpose. Until then, it represented my mother, a reminder I came from somewhere. Conservatory orphans took what they could when it came to the past.
“My room’s clean and all my personal stuff’s locked up and hidden.” I grabbed my instrument case, wondering if I should grab the metal card. I decided not to risk losing it. “I’m not sticking around though. The last time someone was here during an inspection, they had to clean the bathrooms and I really don’t have time for that.”
“No one does. Where’re you going?”
“Oh, I don’t like nature enough for that.” Bertram scratched the back of his head. “Library, I think.”
“Of course.” I smirked. “You can always come with me.”
“No way, I know how you get out there.” Bertram headed for the front door. “If I’m going to hang out by myself, I want to be comfortable. Not around a bunch of nasty trees and bugs.”
“Suit yourself!” I waved before running toward the back. The emergency exit led to the rear of the building and from there, it was a straight shot to the smaller gates. I’d be in the forest in the next ten minutes, well away from the maestro, Raul, and any other challenge the school wanted to throw my way.
Maybe then, I’d finally be able to get through a whole song without interruption.