Late one afternoon, I was fooling around on the harpsichord with a couple of scales and exercises and waiting for Chad to come out of the shower. Between the crisp, grand notes, I heard him yell something unintelligible.
“What is it?” I shouted back, not interrupting the tricky set of left-hand fingering exercises I was working on.
“The hot water’s cut off!”
I stopped playing. “Fuck!” The hot water only cut off when the Pile, our home, shifted dimensions. I would not be meeting the cute freckled girl with only slightly crooked teeth in the meadow near her father’s farm in two hours.
I heard Chad turn off the water. It would be a good ten minutes before the Pile settled firmly enough in the new dimension to collect and heat water again. He poked his head out of the bathroom door, shampoo still in his hair. “Sorry about your girl, Joey. But maybe we’ll end up somewhere with more interesting food this time. Somewhere high tech.”
“I guess so,” I said.
Few of us were born here in the Pile, this huge jumbled labyrinth of halls and bedrooms and studies and indoor gardens, and none of us know quite what it is. We live here now, though most of us are likely to never leave. After we walked through the door the first time, we were stuck; except on rare, apparently random occasions when it seems to forget somebody, we always shift dimensions with the Pile. This can be awkward if, for example, you happen to be swimming, and suddenly you find yourself dripping wet in a room full of executives working out a secret strategy, or on the women’s side of the house in a gender-segregated culture. But if we’re thrown into the local version of a lockup, it’s nice to know we’ll pop into the next dimension within a couple of days. And in a third-floor closet near Bet’s room, we found a ton of gadgets that act like digital compasses. They always point to the Pile, and they shift with the Pile even if you lose them. Even if you shift somewhere completely bizarre, like a swamp where all the leaves are red and yellow, you can follow the signal a couple of miles, and when you come upon ten shacks clustered together, you learn to recognize which of them has a door that leads to your home.
There are only fifty-seven of us. We are all scavengers and thieves; it’s not like we ever show up in a new dimension with the local version of currency. Everybody speaks English, because some kind of English is often the primary language at our various stops. We do get exceptions, though. We have one poor guy, Ha’ran, who spoke no English at all when he first came here. This mysterious tendency for the Pile to stop in English-speaking places has given rise to all kinds of theories about its origins and nature. The current popular one, I think, is that the Pile was built as a last-ditch evacuation from some kind of apocalypse in some dimension with technology beyond anything we’ve seen. I think the idea is ridiculous, but none of us really knows. Gina, who has lived here since she was twenty-two, decided when her first grey hairs began to come in that she wanted to leave something for posterity. She’s collecting all of the information she can about the Pile. She’s confirmed the way days and years are the same length everywhere we shift to, for example. She checks how often the places we visit have similar geography, local and global; she looks for patterns in the way unused rooms and items sometimes seem to mysteriously change during a shift; she searches the big library on the second floor for any accounts that were written by people who lived here, and looks through those accounts for references to the Pile itself and its movement patternsthings like that. She’s convinced that all the places we go to are the same place, with different histories.
I don’t care, one way or the other, maybe because the Pile’s the only home I can remember. I’ve been told that a lady named Maeve was whisked away from her toddler son by walking through the Pile’s door once, looking for a restaurant, and that a couple of dimensions later, mad with grief, she stole toddling me from my cradle and brought me to the Pile, as a kind of replacement. In the same dimension, eight-year-old Chad, on vacation with his family, wandered into a mysterious-looking shed behind a strip mall and found that he, too, was a new resident of the Pile, with nothing of his old life except memories and some paper money and coins that he had in his pockets. Maeve didn’t last long; killed herself within the week. Chad had just been forever parted from a little brother when I became a screaming, red-faced problem, and, apparently, I took to him immediately. It was Chad who made sure I got fed, who taught me to read and to pick pockets, who comforted me when I would get nightmaresjust like a real brother. We even live in the same cramped suite together, although we’ve long since outgrown it.
Anyway, I thought I’d wait for Chad before I checked out the new dimension, so I pulled out another music book from the compartment inside the music bench and began to work on the next few lines of a song. The bench and the music do not match the harpsichord. When I first sat down to mess around on the instrument six years ago, I didn’t realize that the “piano” referred to in the instruction books and music inside the bench was not the instrument I’d dragged into our sitting room. There were pictures on the covers of some of the instruction books, and they looked like what I had. Inside the books, the diagrams of white and black keys had looked the same as the keyboard of the harpsichord I’d mistaken for a piano. The exercises and songs I began to haltingly pick out on the keyboard sounded fine to mebut Chad had set me straight. His older sister had played the piano, and, apparently, it sounded different. It was one of the very few things he’d ever told me about his family from . . . before. We’d gone to Gina, and she’d helped us find a book that identified the instrument as a harpsichord. The harpsichord is similar enough to the piano that I slowly taught myself the basics from the piano instruction books, though some sections and notations refer only to the piano, like loud-soft dynamics and “pedal use.” I could imagine playing the instrument louder or softer, but I never read a clear explanation about what “pedals” did.
I was pretty frustrated by the time Chad was ready to go outside. I was having real trouble with the song I’d chosen. And I’d really liked the last dimension we’d stopped in, whatever Chad had thought about the food. A cute little low-tech town at harvest time, supported by a network of nearby villages and lots and lots of thriving farms. We’d only been there three days. The Pile usually waited six or even ten days to shift.
We emerged outside wearing some boring pants and shirts (we didn’t know what the standard dress was like, yet). We found that the Pile had settled into a little shack among trees, with a wide sliding door and a metal roof. The place seemed all right; it was autumn, and half the trees blazed scarlet and amber, set off by dry brown leaves and brown and grey trunks. Leaves rustled pleasantly underfoot. But there was some noisean irregular humming and growling that sounded like motorscoming from somewhere ahead of us. Chad walked in that direction, and I hurried to follow him. We’d only been walking two minutes when something came into view, and Chad stopped short. His face was white, expressionless.
I frowned and walked past him a little before I stopped, to better see what had shocked him. It was a big road, paved, with the motor vehicles I’d expected, and we’d come out of the trees into a parking lot. Next to the parking lot was a long, low building that looked like it housed six or seven different stores, all with entrances facing the parking lot.
I turned back to Chad. “Well, looks like the high tech you wanted.” I frowned. “Is there something wrong?”
He said nothing for a moment. “I think . . .” His voice trailed off.
“What is it?”
He looked at me mutely, then headed for one of the doors of the building.
“Hey” I followed him, of course. He entered a store that looked like it sold clothing. Right on his heels, I watched him walk in and pick up a shirt off of a display table, then check the tag. He stared at the tag for a full minute before a girl broke in on his reverie.
“Sir? Can I help you find something?”
I watched Chad jerk back to the present. “Nono thanks,” he said. “I’m just looking.”
I frowned again. Politeness wasn’t one of Chad’s strong points, and neither was neatness, but I watched him carefully, gently fold the shirt and replace it exactly where it had been. Then he turned and walked right past me, out the door.
Outside, I caught up with him just as he was picking something up. “What are you doing?” I asked, more than a little irritated.
He lifted his eyes from his hand. I couldn’t figure out his expression. “Here, read this,” he said, handing me the object.
It turned out to be a coin, just a little smaller than my thumbnail. It felt light and looked mysteriously familiar. “Liberty,” I read. “In God we trust.”
“The other side.”
“United States of America, One Dime. Look, will you just tell me what this is all about?”
His voice increased in pitch and volume and he began to look upset. “Don’t you understand? I told youdon’t you remember? The United States of America. The U.S.” His voice dropped. “Where I’m fromwhere we’re from.”
He had told me. And he’d showed me the coins that he’d had in his pockets, the day he’d walked into the Pileno wonder this one looked familiar. I didn’t know what to think. “Wait, it’s the same place? Exactly the same?”
“I remember this strip mall. We were driving, on our way home from vacation, and we stopped” His face was now flushed. He pointed at the far corner of the lot. “We parked right there. I wasn’t hungry, I just wanted” He stopped talking.
“Hey,” I said. Hesitantly, I laid a hand on his shoulder.
After a minute, he spoke. “Don’t follow me,” he said, and walked off, along the road.
I looked back at the strip mall. A sandwich shop, the clothing store, an electronics storeand then I saw it. One of the signs said, “Piano.”
I was inside the store before I could think about it, and keyboard instruments stood all around me. Some had two keyboards, one above the other; some were tall, with vertical backs; some of them were shaped almost exactly like my harpsichord, with a curve-edged top propped at an angle. Were these all pianos? They were all so much larger than my harpsichord, so much more solid and heavy-looking.
I sat down at one of the more familiar-looking instruments. The keys were made of some kind of plastic or ivory. My harpsichord had wooden keys. And these keys were larger than the ones I was used to. I put my finger on one key, and depressed it.
The sound was clear and sweet, and it lingered in the air. I lifted my finger off the key and the sound stopped. I laid my fingers out in a simple major chord, and pressed again. A minor chord. Then I tried a simple, two-octave minor scale.
I’d never imagined that the piano could sound so different from the harpsichord. This new instrument had a plaintive, open voice. I suddenly thought the harpsichord had always had a kind of grand, self-important, standoffish sound. My fingers came down hard in another chord on the smooth, slick keys, and the piano sounded dizzyingly loud and open, almost unreal, synthetic.
What kinds of acoustics were at work here? Was it some kind of electronic technology that amplified the sound and caused it to linger? There was no “catch” when I depressed the keys, no distinct feeling of the note being “hit” the way there was on my harpsichord; it felt like my fingers just pressed softly into the keyboard, a gentle kind of sinking. Without thinking about it, I began to play a song I knew well. It was in a minor key. It had always sounded a little sad in a pinched, choked kind of a way, but on this new instrument it was truly expressive of grief, with its sorrowing lingering notes and its gorgeous, sad clarity. It sounded so smooth, as if the notes were sliding into each other.
This was why the books had told me to hold keys down for multiple measures, or to play staccato with sharp, short keystrokes. I stopped suddenly, in the middle of the song. I couldn’t finish it. I found myself leaving, running out of the store, running back to the Pile.
Of course Chad was in the back of my mind. He had had a family here, onceif not physically nearby, at least in this dimension. I had, too, but I didn’t even know what my name had been, let alone remember my family. Who knows, maybe Maeve had picked me up at one of those homes for orphaned children? But Chad remembered a lot. After his first couple of dimension shifts, when he’d realized with perfect eight-year-old clarity that he’d never be going “home,” he’d begun to keep track of the date with the calendar he was familiar with, and to write things down about his home and familythings he wouldn’t let me read.
I went up to his room and pulled open the drawer that contained his local currencyartifacts of this dimension. One of the coins was almost exactly the same as the one he’d picked up. The coin from his drawer, though, was less tarnished; it occurred to me that he must take it out and rub it fairly often, or else he’d actually cleaned it.
Eventually, I went up to the big library, looking for Gina. She wasn’t there. Neither was she in the next biggest library. I gave up; there were too many small studies and smoking rooms to search. I knew of at least three on the eighth floor, and above that who knew how many hideaways Gina might have? And some rooms are only accessible by hidden elevators that don’t work unless you know a special trick.
It was nearly sundown, and I was getting hungry, so I went down to the main kitchenand found Gina there. She was cooking something on the stovetop, chatting with Mai.
Gina saw me come in. “I think I can actually render this palatable,” she said, stirring the pot. “Would you like a bite?”
“Thanks,” I said, sitting down at the table in the kitchen’s center. This, the biggest kitchen in the Pile, was practically industrial, four times the size of my bedroom. The wide, pale table had probably been intended for preparing ingredients, rolling out dough, and the like, but no one cooked in the kinds of quantities the kitchen was designed for, so we usually just ate there. Not many of us liked to sit in the windowless, high-ceilinged dining room anyway. Ratty, dusty, moldy tapestries hung high on the walls. There was no one to light the chandelier. The room was always dark. And no one wanted to cook in the little oven next to the dining hall, or walk all the way from the main kitchen juggling dishes.
Watching Gina, I was struck by suspicion. “Is that the chewy grain you’re cooking? From that last place?”
Mai snorted. “Why, you have complaints?” She turned to Gina. “You spoil the kids. Especially the boys, they do not need to come to the kitchen and expect to find a woman cooking food.” She sent a dark, pointed glance my way. “Why don’t you cook some food for her, for a change?”
“I’m not a kid. I’m eighteen,” I said. This was probably not true, but I didn’t know for sure what age I’d been when I’d come. My best guess was that I was seventeen. “Maybe nineteen.”
“Only a kid would think a year or two was important,” she said, sniffing. Her dark eyes met mine. She’d come to us three years ago from a culture in which women were expected to be silent, obedient, and supportive of men in every way. Simon, at the time our resident romanticone of two who refused to cheat or steal for a livinghad met her and fallen in love at first sight with her quiet ways, her downcast eyes, her beautiful long hair, her swishing skirts. He’d proposed within days of having met her, and said he’d “take her away from all of this.” She’d agreed, eyes down, and come with him to the Pile. Then she’d cut her hair within a couple of inches of her head, begun to wear pants, developed an abrasive tongue and a contemptuous air, and forbiden anyone from using her original name, Matheildra. Simon only loved her all the more, the poor sap. The strange thing was, she seemed to love him, too. They had a child, a two-year-old daughter named Nell. The only person Mai seemed to respect was Gina. And probably Simon.
The point was, Mai scared me a little. I broke away from her gaze and suppressed the desire to argue with her about my age. She couldn’t be more than six or seven years older than I was, I thought resentfully. “Anyway, Gina, I was looking for you.”
“Yes?” She put the lid on the pot she’d been stirring and opened up another one, sniffing it.
I realized I wasn’t sure what I’d wanted from her. “Iwellhas the Pile ever visited the same place more than once?”
“I’ve read a couple of accounts that claim that,” she said. She turned down the gas under the open pot, and picked up a different spoon to stir it with. “None within living memory. It’s hard to know because we might not recognize the surroundings even if we did stay in precisely the same place more than once, especially if we returned in a different season. And you know a lot of the places we end up have some shockingly similar details despite other crucial differences. That’s an interesting question, though. I try to keep a reliable log of the places we go, but I can’t figure out what types of descriptions or details accurately identify each place. Maybe if we leave some kind of marker everywhere we go . . . but how to make them permanent . . .?” She seemed to realize her spoon was still, and began to stir again. “Why do you ask?”
“Well, Chadhe says” I didn’t know how to put it. “This might be the dimension me and Chad come from,” I blurted out. “The currency’s the same, and Chad remembers some things about where things were, like the parking lot. . . .”
“Ah!” Gina turned from the stove and ran a hand through her hair. As always, her fingers snagged in the tight coarse curls pulled halfway back. “Really! Are you sure? This could be important! We have to find some way to verify it . . . .” She began to pace back and forth, gesturing with the spoon in the air. “If we could find confirmation, like missing children notices from how many years ago. . . ? Or if we could find your family, prove some kind of relationship. . . . Do you rememberno, you were too young, but Chad . . . oh!” She stopped right in front of me and put her hand on mine, on the table. “Oh, I’m sorry, Joey. I didn’t think to be more sensitive”
“It’s all right,” I said, uncomfortable. Was Chad looking for his familyhis real familyright now? “Hey, I don’t really care. I mean, I don’t remember anything.”
“Oh, hon,” Gina said. “How is Chad?”
“I don’t know,” I mumbled. “Don’t call me that.” I looked over at Mai, who had taken over tending the pots. She was watching us, appraising the situation. I wanted to change the subject. “You know my harpsichord?”
Gina blinked. “Yes.” There was a bit of an awkward silence. “I haven’t heard you play in a while. Are you still learning a lot?” she asked, finally.
“Well, yesbut you know I have all that piano musicthere’s a store with pianos here.”
“How nice,” she said, looking confused.
I wanted to try to explain the strange elation the new instrument had given me, the way I’d run out in despair, but I realized that it was Chad I wanted to tell, not Gina. And with Mai looking on from the stove, I felt paralyzed for speech. I realized Mai must be watching the emotions on my face, and my cheeks began to burn. “Yes. It was nice,” I said.
Gina must have seen my discomfiture. “Well, it’s too late in the day to do anything,” she said. “Let’s wait for Chad to return. For all we know, this place is only similar to what he remembers. It was such a long time ago, after all. I will certainly look into it, though. I hope the locals keep public records. Are you interested in helping?”
“I don’t know,” I said, looking down. “I think so. Yes, probably. We won’t get another chance to look, after all.” Perversely, I was thinking, I won’t get another chance to go back and play on those pianos. Maybe there would be pianos in other dimensions. Of course there could be. I’d never looked. I’d never known how they would be; I’d never realized I should look or what to look for.
“This is done,” said Mai, indicating the pots. “You said you wanted to eat some?”
“Yes,” I said. I stood up. Gina was still looking at me, her face a transparent mix of excitement and concern. I patted her hand. “Thanks,” I said. “You’re right, let’s wait for Chad. We can all look tomorrow.” Though look for what, exactly, I didn’t know.
After dinner I went up to my room to find Chad’s adjacent door locked. He must have come in while I was eating. I didn’t knock on his door; I didn’t have anything I could say to him. But I pushed a note under his door explaining that Gina and I would be going to look around for public records and such tomorrow and that he could meet us at breakfast if he wanted to help. What I didn’t write was if you don’t help, we won’t have anywhere to start looking.
I got up early the next morning and went out to find food to bring back for breakfast. Mai’s comments had stung. I walked down the road a ways, stood at a bus stop and stole a wallet there from a heavyset guy. In case of tracking technology, I extracted the paper money and ditched the rest of the wallet. I found a food store within a block. Chad had been right about the food, lately; in the last few shifts, which had all been low-tech, there had been hardly any interesting grub. Bread, grain, chicken, pig, and bread, with a few rare vegetables thrown in.
I bought some pastries, some orange juice and tomatoes, assorted sliced meats. Then I headed back to the Pile.
There were seven people in the kitchen, but my eyes and ears went immediately to Chad and Gina: they were having a row. It should have looked ridiculous, big solid Chad with his hairy arms and his red face yelling at slender narrow Gina, her hands lifting halfway to her chest and dropping back to waist level as I watched. But Gina was composed. She looked like an adult indulging a child in a temper tantrum. Chad seemed to know this, too, and to be further enraged by it.
“lied to me, but then you couldn’t even keep it to yourself, I didn’t fucking ask you” Chad saw me and cut himself off.
“I brought some orange juice,” I said, into the sudden silence.
Mai was there with Simon and their daughter, Nell, and she gave me a look that somehow belittled my efforts to bring food home.
Chad slumped a little, sent one last glower in Gina’s direction, then came to look through my spoils. Gina picked up an apple someone had left on the table, and the three of us headed a couple rooms over to eat breakfast in privacy.
“So,” I said, after a long silence. “I guess you’re coming with us today?”
He swallowed a mouthful of salty tomato. “Damned well looks that way, doesn’t it?”
The room was silent again. I began to shoot glares at Gina, too. Didn’t she usually make small talk, break the tension? “We were thinking there might be a place with public records. We could ask the locals,” I said, finally.
“I don’t usually have to ask myself things,” said Chad.
“You know where we might look?”
“Missing children would be in the newspaper,” he said. “They keep archives at the library, and I know the date we . . .”
“Oh,” I said. “Do you know where it is?”
“Of course not,” he said, acidly. “I didn’t go to the library on my fucking vacation, at eight years old, although I appreciate that you think I’m a genius.”
I looked to Gina for help. She was not looking up. “Well, so we can ask one of the locals. . . .” I began.
“Will you stop calling them locals!” Chad yelled. “As if they’re another species!”
“They live locally! What do you want me to call them, the people who actually live here rather than those who just wish they did?”
Chad squeezed tomato juice all over his hand, and it began to drip down his arm.
I let out a little half-hysterical laugh, partially in horror at what I’d said, but it was too late. So I continued. “It’s obvious what you’re thinking. ‘Maybe I’ll get left behind. Maybe I can stay in this dimension, where I like the calendar so much I still use it even though everyone else in the Pile uses another one. I can spend my relic currency here.’ ”
“I have family here!” The words rang out in the small room, thick with I wasn’t sure what. He said, more quietly, “I had a home here.”
“Funny,” I said. “I have a home, too. It’s called the Pile. I guess I don’t know about family.”
I looked up and Mai was standing in the door, her lighter-haired daughter on her hip. I hated her for watching. “Gina,” I said. “I know I said I wanted to help. But on second thought, I’m not really in the mood for research into things that are fucking unimportant and past.” I pushed my chair back and began to stand up.
Nell giggled, and then Chad noticed Mai. “Oh, and Joey, thank you,” he said, “for spreading my problems around. It’s good to know that if I’m upset about something, half the Pile will know about it by breakfast.” He stood up more abruptly than I had, nearly knocking his chair over. “I don’t need anyone’s fucking help.”
“How fortunate, as I don’t feel like helping,” I said as he stalked out, pushing past Mai more rudely than I would have dared.
“Mai was waiting for him at the door when he came home,” said Gina. “She didn’t realize he’d be so angry about being questioned. I’m sorry, Joey. He said something to her last nighthe wasinebriated, and he saidabout staying in this dimension”
“It’s fucking fine,” I said, and immediately regretted it. But Gina was Gina; she’d forgive me. “I’ll be overjoyed if the Pile leaves him behind.”
“It won’t,” said Gina.
“I know it’s unlikely,” I said. “But it’s happened before”
“No, it hasn’t,” Gina said. “I know. I’ve looked through all of the records. There isn’t a single verified account.”
“What are you talking about? What about Anna? Six years ago, she just”
“Anna was killed. She was . . . murdered, by one of the locals.”
“What?” The word came out like mere friction of air against the inside of my mouth.
“You were too young,” Gina said. “We all agreed not to tell the kids. You werewhat, ten?”
“At least eleven,” I said, letting my world reconfigure itself around the new knowledge of Anna’s murder. Anna, with her wide smile and her way with card games. How? I stopped that thought. “Does Chad know?”
“He didn’t know last night,” she said.
Mai broke in. “When he said something about the Pile leaving him here, I told him he was drunk and that what he suggested was impossible. He told me it had happened before. I thought he was lying. I asked Gina, and she explained to me about Anne.”
I looked at Gina. “And you told him this morning.”
“Yes, I told him this morning.”
“Okay,” I said. Silence stretched out, punctuated by the baby’s rustling and burping. Finally, I said, “LookI’ll see you later.”
I left for the piano store. Mai followed me out of the Pile, and when I reached the parking lot I whirled on her. “Don’t!” Nell began to laugh on her shoulder. I lowered my voice. “Don’t follow me.”
She never blinked. “Gina, she told me to keep an eye on you.”
I gritted my teeth. “Well, that’s very thoughtful of her, but I’m sure she didn’t mean for you to fu” The baby drew my eyes. “To follow me around. I can find my way back,” I said, pulling my compass gadget out of my pocket and waving it at her. Then I spun on my heel and walked into the store.
The shop was more crowded this time; there was a pleasant kind of cacophony, with customers trying out various pianos all over the place. I sat down at the same one I’d played the day before. Over the top of the instrument, I could see Mai watching me through the window. I played a few notes and she turned away, walking off. What the hell was her problem?
I tried to concentrate on the sound of the piano I was playing to the exclusion of the ones around me, tried to fix it in my mind. I had trouble playing any of the songs I knew all the way through, because I was so distracted by the unfamiliar distances between the keys, and the way the keys had a strange constant upward pressure, not at all like the snapping of harpsichord keys under my fingers. Trills were more difficult to play; in fact, it was a little difficult to keep any notes distinct when I wanted them to be. They tended to bleed sweetly into each other. The humming sweetness was like a human voice.
After about half an hour, most of the customers had departed the store, and one of the salesmen noticed me. “Hey, kid, weren’t you in here yesterday?”
Apparently I didn’t look like someone who could afford to buy a piano. I was kicked out.
To my vast frustration, Mai was playing with her daughter in the trees just next to the building. I walked over and opened my mouth to speak, but I ended up just standing there.
“Why don’t you get that piano?” she said, lifting little Nell into the air. “Buy it or steal it.”
I opened my mouth, then closed it. “How would I get it to the Pile?” But my mind was already racing.
“How do they usually move pianos? I’m sure that store has a service. Once they get it to the door, you’ll find someone to help you move it inside.”
I suddenly loved Mai. “But it’s so expensive! I looked at the prices of the shirts next door. The piano costs five hundred times as much! And it would be impossible to steal”
“Then get to work,” she said. She settled her baby on her hip and walked away.
I wandered down the road in a daze. It was possible. I’d have to start nowwhen would the next shift be? I’d have to hurrymaybe if Chad helpedor he might think of a way to steal it
I found a big building stuffed with stores and shoppers, a mall, and I set to work. It would be easier to steal money, then buy the piano; in order to steal the piano I’d need helplots of helpand I didn’t even have Chad. First I stole an unattended bag next to a table. I then began to walk through the mall, lifting wallets and money clips, and put them in the bag. I tried to be selective about my targets, picked mostly women with expensive clothing and men with suits and busy, harried looks. After a couple of hours, I left and found another place to trawl: what looked like the downtown part of the city, a tourist trap.
At the end of the day, I counted my money. I needed ten thousand of the local currency, dollars, and I’d ended up with some two and a half thousand. If the Pile would only hold off for a couple of days more! I’d been lucky in that the area was a tourist destination: one wallet had contained nearly six hundred dollars, and several more had each held at least two hundred. Few had contained less than sixty. I’d been reckless, picking pockets too often for my own comfort, but it had been worth it. The next day I planned to go back to the same mall, and then to a pawn shop. I had a jewelry cache, stuff I’d collected from various dimensions and from attics of the Pile itself, because jewelry could be exchanged for currency almost anywhere. In the mall’s jewelry stores I’d looked at prices. I thought I could pawn my cache for quite a bit.
That night I grabbed some cheese and bread that someone had left in the kitchen, along with the sliced meat and tomatoes I had bought that morning, for a cold and mostly unsatisfying dinner. I sat down at the harpsichord afterward, but it was hard to play this ordinary instrument after having experienced the bliss of the piano. I dutifully worked through a few more lines of my current song-in-progress. It had a lot of arpeggios; they would be difficult to adjust to the piano, with its wide keys.
Chad came in drunk while I was still sitting at the instrument. I didn’t acknowledge him, but he sat down in a chair behind me.
“Thought you should know,” he said. “I’m taking a bus tomorrow, going to the place I used to live. It’s three states over. I prob’ly won’t see you until next shift.” He paused. “My old phone number didn’t work.”
I started in on the beginning of the new piece I was learning, hitting the notes painfully slowly.
“Found a newspaper article about you. At the library. Turns out your name’s not Joey after all. Wild, huh? Wanna know your real name?”
I stood up, still not facing him. “Why the hell does it matter?”
He laughed. “It’s your real name, Joey. This place is real. Not like the Pile. Fake place, fake brother…”
I turned and said, very clearly, “And what will you do if you find your real brother? Will you drag him into the Pile? Consign him to this hell you seem to live in?” I started to speak faster. “Nothing here is good enough for you, it can’t be good enough for your real brother, let alone your sisterand if you find Mommy, will you drag her here, too”
Chad launched himself across the room at me. In a moment that lasted forever, we both crashed into the harpsichord and it broke open, strings snapping and gouging the flesh of my cheek, my arm
Chad stood up and stumbled backward. The harpsichord lay on its side, broken open, smashed against the wall. Such a light, delicate instrumentI knelt among the splintered pieces of wood. The stringsso many of them had snapped. The strings I’d taught myself to tuneI’d spent countless hours
“Joey,” Chad said, and his voice was still blurred from the alcoholor else from tears. “Joey, I’m so”
“Shut the fuck up!” I screamed.
After that was a blur. I left the Pile, and ended up walking downtown. I tried to order a drink and was refused. “You’re over twenty-one?” the bartender had said. “Got an ID?”
I ended up paying some bum to buy me alcohol at the same store where I’d bought the pastries and orange juice and tomatoes and sliced meat, a lifetime ago. I wandered downtown, a beer bottle in my pocket and one in my hand. And then the police picked me up.
I had no ID. I was clearly under the legal age for drinking in this place. And, as my fabulous luck had it, one of the cops recognized me from a “security tape” at the mall where I’d been picking pockets earlier.
They asked me where I lived. They asked me how old I was. “I don’t really know,” I said, feeling delirious, detached. “Chad probably knows now. After reading the newspaper.”
I lay on a bed in a jail cell for two days. Sometimes I would think about the shattered harpsichord in my sitting room as if it were a dead person. I thought about the way I’d taken to the piano so quickly, scorning my longtime friend the harpsichord in its final days, the way it had leaned against the wall, and lastly the way my view of Chad had changed forever, and tears would leak out of my eyes.
The third day after being thrown in jail I woke up in some bright field on the side of a hill, my head and back aching. My compass gadget was making a high-pitched whine in some bushes nearby. The police apparently hadn’t taken it very far. The noise shut off when I picked it up.
I began to walk. After a while I came to a walled town. I walked around the wall until I found a door that looked like it led to a guard room or something. I picked the lock and walked into the entrance hall of the Pile.
I saw the piano as soon as I entered. It wasn’t the one I’d been playing in the store; it was one of the models that had its strings arranged vertically, behind the keyboard. Except for the keys, it looked almost nothing like my harpsichord. Gina was sitting on the bench, watching me. No one else was in the room.
I walked over to the piano. I depressed one key, held it down, and the sound came clear and lingering into the room.
I had almost expected a piano to be here. I felt more relieved than grateful. I looked at Gina. “I assume this was Chad?”
“Actually, it was Mai who told us what you were doing,” Gina said, softly. “Chad was so upset, and then you didn’t come backwhat happened?”
“Police.” I sat down on the bench next to Gina and put both hands on the keys, laying my fingers out in a minor seventh chord, but not pressing them down.
“We were worried it was something worseanyway, Chad spent the last two days, ah, collecting money for this. He had some help. Even Simonoh, Joey,” she said. “You know Chad didn’t mean”
My words were short, clipped. “I know.”
Over the next couple of days I didn’t speak to Chad or play the piano at all. The piano had wheels, but there was no way I was going to get it up a flight of stairs, or squeeze it into one of the tiny elevators, so I got Simon and Mai to help me roll it to a vacant room on the first floor. I moved all of my clothing and books and knives and all of the weird tools and puzzles I’d collected and the jewelry cache and everything else I cared about into a room adjoining the piano room. I cooked a meal for Mai and her family as a thank-you. It tasted awfulthe meat and the grain both seemed to have had grit cooked into them for texture. Simon complained, good-naturedly; Mai said nothing, but smiled. Baby Nell grew on me and Mai and Simon began to leave her with me sometimes, the way they did with Gina, when they wanted to be alone.
Eleven days later I still hadn’t spoken to Chad. He’d come by my new room twice, and knocked, but I hadn’t answered. That day I waited for him to leave the Pile, then went to his room and fetched a set of papers clipped together from the back right corner of his bottom dresser drawer.
I think Ill never go home agan, I read in the childish handwriting. I bet Mom thinks I m dead or kidnapped like in Long Jon Silver. I flipped a few more pages. I cant forget my phone number 5554638. There is a phone here but it doesnt work. Later, I miss Spot. Mom let me nam him even though Ellen said it was dum. I hope they dont chanj his name now. There were tear marks on that page.
I flipped back near the beginning and my name caught my eye. Ther is a boy here. I think his nam is Jon but he looks like Joey. Mom was so mad becus I hit Joey. I wish I hadnt. I wont hurt Jon. Jon doesnt care if I call him Joey.
I put the papers back and returned to my new room.
That night I approached the piano, haltingly. I’d brought down the harpsichord’s old bench and the music in it; now I pulled out the music and began to play. I played just one song: the sad song that had sounded so choked and pinched on the harpsichord, the one I’d played in the store. I played it over and over, learning its new sounds, learning the volume and depth I could express on the new instrument that had sounded plaintive to me from the beginning. I don’t know how long I played.
At some point, someone came into the room. I knew it was Chad. I heard him walk up behind me and I stopped playing. After a minute of stillness and silence, I heard him turn to leave.
“Wait,” I said, my voice cracking. His footsteps stopped.
I twisted around on the bench. He dropped his eyes; my eyes burned. I didn’t know what to say. I forgave him? No. Was I ready to go back to the way things were? No. I cleared my throat. “Look, I cooked a really bad dinner for Simon and Mai the other night. To thank them forfor helping me. It was so bad that I stillstill owe them dinner.” My voice was steadier now. “I was going to try again tonight. You can have some if you want.”
His eyes met mine briefly. “Thank you.”
I looked away. He left.
I’m sorry about your family, I wanted to say. I’m sorry you didn’t get to look for them. But I didn’t know how; the person I could talk to was an infallible older brother. Chad and I would have to start anew.