As a personal project, I did a few illustrations for one of my short stories, "Susannah Don't You Cry." Mixed media, both digital and traditional, March 2013.
"Susannah Don't You Cry" originally appeared in Issue 3 of Line Zero.
I've been humming my way through Oh, Susannah for almost a week without stopping to think about why, so when Dee asks, all I can do is shrug and duck the what-a-weirdo look she gives me.
Then that night when I'm lying in bed, trying to fall asleep, I discover the answer: a rude answer that jars me out of bed and send me looking for my sister.
"Dee?" I call her name quietly, stumbling downstairs, hoping maybe she will be up watching TV and that is why her room is empty. The lights are on in the kitchen and Aunt Christine is standing by the counter, using her reflection in the microwave to check her lipstick. When she sees me, she jumps.
"Jeez! What are you doing out of bed?" she clucks her tongue. She's dressed for work at the Raindancing Bar, zipped up tight in her sequined leotard. "Didja have a nightmare or something?"
"Where's my sister?" Christine's costume and the fluorescent kitchen lights hurt my eyes. I rub at them with my fingers and squint.
"She's sleeping over at Malila's. Told her she could. I thought you'd be okay here alone for a night, big boy like yourself." Christine sticks her head in the refrigerator and grabs the Tupperware with her lunch (or whatever you'd call the meal she eats when her first shift ends at midnight) in it. I guess she's surprised I haven't moved when when she pulls her head out, cause she makes a face, sucking her bottom lip under her front teeth "Jason...is something wrong? Something you wanted to tell me?"
I know that Dee's the one to talk to about stuff like this, but she's not here and I'm a little desperate. I take a deep breath, trying to find the best way to explain this one.
"There's a song that keeps playing in my head," I say, "and I can't make it go away."
Christine actually laughs. "What song?"
"Um. Oh, Susannah."
"Now why would you have that song stuck in your head?"
"It's not stuck in my head," I try to explain, "I keep hearing it. It keeps playing, over and over. Just the first verse." Now Christine's looking at me like I'm nuts, so I rush to get out the rest: "And then, then it's followed by this woman's voice reading a series of words like, Echo, X-Ray, Foxtrot."
"You've gotta be dreaming," she tells me. "That's crazy. Just put on the radio and go back to sleep. Try that station that plays all that dance, hip-hop crap. Susannah will be gone in no time." She puts her hands on her hips and looks supremely proud of herself. "Okay, Jason?"
Like that's all there is to it.
So I say, "Thanks," miserably, knowing that will never help. "I guess I'll try that."
When Oh, Susannah starts playing, all I can get on the radio is static.
"Then night night, sweetie pie," says Christine, blowing a kiss. "I'll be back in the A.M."
I don't go back to sleep. How could I? I finish my all my weekend homework instead, then copy it over in my neatest handwriting. Whenever my eyes start to close or my head starts to fall forward I hear I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee or that woman saying Echo, Echo, Foxtrot so I shake myself awake until it stops.
* * *
Somehow between five and six am, I must have given up and gone to bed, because I wake up around eleven the next day to Dee kicking my mattress
"Long night, sleepy head?" she asks, when I manage to open my eyes. "Did you watch TV' til the test patterns came on?"
My first instinct is to hide under a pillow or maybe hurl one at her head, but then I'm awake enough to remember last night so with my croaky morning voice, I rush straight into, "Hey, Dee, I have a problem."
She stops kicking the bed and looks at me. "Okay. What is it?"
I tell her like I told Christine, more or less: Oh Susannah, all those weird words. I mention the static on the radio for good measure. Dee sits down on my bed and nods, her eyes growing wide with each thing I say.
"I'm hearing it in my head," I reiterate, just in case, "In my ears, like I'm wearing headphones."
Dee's mouth is open; she's silent. Finally she frowns and, under her breath, asks, "Do you think maybe...ghosts?"
"No!" I try not to sound annoyed; she always brings that up. Dad thinks he can talk to them and it's like she's waiting for me to inherit that 'gift.' "No, it's more like the radio."
"Well I don't know, Jason." Now she sounds annoyed. "You wanted to know what I thought, right? I don't have a better explanation. Do you want me to say you dreamed it?"
"That's what Christine said. I think she thought I was making it up."
"Yeah, well, she doesn't know anything. I know you wouldn't just make something like that up." Dee picks some lint off my blankets. "Sorry I wasn't here last night. Were you scared?"
"Maybe at first," I admit. "Now I'm just annoyed. It's like it won't let me sleep!"
Dee looks thoughtful. "It could be something to do with this room."
"Why don't we both go sleep over at Malila's tonight? You can bring your old Ninja Turtles sleeping bag and we'll all sleep on the floor together and see if it happens again."
I shrug a second time.
"It'll be fun," says Dee, "Like when we were kids, sleeping in the camper."
"What's so great about Malila's anyway?" I say, realizing too late how whiny that sounds.
Playfully, Dee slaps at my feet. "Well, Short-stack, when you have friends, you'll understand! Now get up, we're making grilled cheese with tomatoes, and if you're late, I'm gonna eat yours!"
* * *
Maybe there's nothing special about Malila's house, but Malila herself-—it's easy to see why Dee likes her. I let my eyes closed as Malila's hands encircle my face, cool and smooth across my forehead and throat.
"What are you doing?" Dee asks, from above me.
"Checking him for a fever," says Malila.
"What? Stop that!"
"I just wanted to rule out hallucinations is all!" Malila snaps back. She pushes her hair back behind her ears and half-smiles at me. "Sorry, Jason."
I shrug, trying to look cool. "Whatever you have to do," I say.
"You perv," says Dee, but she doesn't mean it. She sits down on the floor beside us. "So, aside from 'fever,' do you have any other ideas?"
Malila shakes her head. "Not really. It's really weird. I guess like, he could be hearing something from one of the neighbors if his window was open."
"But it wasn't coming from the window," I say.
"Anyway, that's so boring, 'Lila," says Dee, "Why are you such a realist?"
"I'm a skeptic," Malila corrects her. "It's healthy. I'm not gonna start saying ghosts or aliens until we've ruled out the mundane stuff."
"Aliens?" Dee repeats like, of course! Like, why didn't I think of that!
"You are sooo weird," says Malila. She jumps to her feet, adjusts her tiny pajama shorts. "I'm gonna go get us some Kool-Aid."
After Malila is out of earshot, Dee and I have a brief argument about who (if anyone) was staring at her ass, then we roll out of sleeping bags and lie on our backs. Malila has glow-in-the-dark star stickers on her ceiling that are almost invisible when the lights are on. I've always kind of wanted those.
"Hey," says Dee, "Christine wouldn't want you sleeping over here, so don't tell her, okay? I mean, this is special circumstances and all, but she wouldn't understand."
"Okay," I say. But I wasn't planning on telling her anyway.
Malila's only gone a couple of minutes before she comes back in with our glasses of Kool-Aid, the kind that looks green until you add water but then turns blue. Like magic.
"So I was thinking," Malila says, "You mentioned that after the Oh, Susannah part, you hear a string of words, right? What are the words?"
"I don't remember the exact order," I say, "but the words were, like, Echo, Hotel, November. And, um...Foxtrot."
Malila stops drinking her Kool-Aid and looks at me. And then at my sister.
"Um... that's military code."
Dee's mouth falls open. "What?"
"Yeah, it's the NATO phonetic alphabet," Malila explains, "Echo is E, Hotel is H, and so on."
"I don't know if that makes me feel worse or better," I admit. I'm still staring at her stars; it seems like the best thing to do. "First that stupid song, then military codes?"
"Oh my God!" Malila slams her glass down hard enough to make me jump. "Oh my God, I know what you're hearing! Hang on a second!" She hops to her feet, yelling as she leaves the room, "Mosi! Hey, Mosi, have you seen my secret agent book?"
"What?" I call after her, "Malila, what?"
"Don't be rude," Dee says, "She's going to tell you." The expression on Dee's face tells me that she's the skeptical one now, that she doesn't believe Malila has the answer to something better explained by ghosts or aliens. But I believe Malila, I do.
"Sorry," says Malila when she comes back. She holds out a red, hard-bound book. "My sister was borrowing this."
"Spy Secrets of the Secret Agent Underground," Dee reads, sounding skeptical.
"I got it during my spy phase, okay? Doesn't every kid have one?"
"Can you tell me what I'm hearing?" I beg. "You said you knew."
"Okay," she says, leafing through the book, "what you're hearing is called a Numbers Station. They're these low-frequency radio stations. No one knows what they're really for, but people think they're used by Intelligence agencies to broadcast secret messages to spies." She points to a page in the book and turns it around for me. I'm too stunned to read it.
"So that's what it is?" My mouth feels dry, I reach for my Kool-Aid. "I'm hearing some secret government messages every night?"
"But that doesn't make any sense," Dee cuts in. "If they're low-frequency radio stations, why are they broadcasting through Jason's head?"
Malila turns to me again. "You don't have braces, do you?"
I shake my head. "I have a couple of fillings."
"Well there you go," says Malila.
"It's broadcasting through my fillings?"
"It happened to Lucille Ball."
"Maybe it won't work when I'm here then," I suggest. "Maybe my bedroom's just in a bad location or something."
"Or maybe you're hearing it for a reason," Dee says. She's been sitting there quietly with her thinking-face on. "Maybe you're supposed to crack the code."
I press my hands to my forehead. "But Malila said it was just a random signal, right? Basically bad luck?"
Malila is chewing her lip. "I didn't say it was random. It's pretty weird, anyway. But"—she looks at Dee—"the code is probably uncrackable. Numbers stations are thought to use a one time pad, so the message only reaches the people who're supposed to hear it."
"Then maybe," Dee says, unfazed, "he's supposed to pass it on to someone who knows the code."
Malila shakes her head. "None of this makes any sense. Let's just go to bed, and if he hears it he'll let us know. Right, Jason?"
"Right," I say. Malila pulls her comforter down from the bed and spreads it on the floor to the other side of Dee. "Night, guys," she says, then she reaches for the lamp.
* * *
It's right when I start falling asleep that I hear it, starting out like a weak whisper and then loud enough that I can make out the words, the guitar.
Don't you cry for me
For I come from Alabama with...
"Dee!" I hiss, rolling over to poke my sister, "It's happening, I hear it!"
"Oh, yeah?" she whispers back. Obviously, she hasn't been sleeping. "Now?"
I start to sit up and the song grows immediately fainter, so I lie back down and shut my eyes again.
"Hey, Lila," Dee whispers, "He's hearing it."
"Tell him..." Malila sounds groggy, "Tell him to remember the letters so we can write it down."
"You got that?" Dee says, right by my ear. I nod tightly, afraid answering will make me lose it again. I feign sleep, breathe in and out slowly, and after Susannah finishes, the military letters come to me, like the words to a song I haven't heard in a long time, but never really forgot. When Susannah starts again I sit up, fast, hoping to escape the phantom female voice. It works.
"Okay!" Dee sits up too and reached for the light switch. "Okay, now we need a pen and paper."
I recite them easily, "Echo, echo, foxtrot, x-ray" all the way to the end, "Hotel, Papa, November."
"Papa," Dee repeats as she writes on the back of one of Malila's notebooks. "Now that's just goofy." She finishes writing the last N and tosses the notebook to Malila. "There! All done!"
"So what now?" I ask Malila, who is still curled up in her comforter. "Why did we write it down?"
"Heck if I know," she says, letting her eyes close again. "It just seemed like the thing to do."
* * *
The next morning we have a bunch of nonsense letters scrawled almost illegibly on the back of a cardboard notebook, and I find, to my surprise, that I've managed to sleep through most of the night.
"So it stopped bothering you?" Dee asks. "Do you think you just got used to it?"
"Maybe," I say. I figure it helped that I had Dee and Malila to share it with, that I'm not alone with it anymore. It was still weird, but not scary-weird anymore. Maybe it's even kind of cool, that I'm intercepting mysterious spy-code through my teeth. Who else can say that, right?
"Is that a D or a P?" Malila asks, squinting at the notebook.
"Papa," Dee remembers, with a snicker. "So what should we do with it?"
"Well, like I said, it probably can't be cracked." Malila looks very business-like, sitting there at her desk with her notebooks. Even in her goofy pajamas. "You can't read it unless you have the key."
"Maybe the key is like, one of those decoder rings you get in cereal boxes," Dee says. For a second, I think she's serious before she adds, "Hey, Jason, maybe the government wants you to drink your Ovaltine!"
I make a face.
"Really though," Dee says, "Let's send a copy to Dad. Maybe he'll know something."
Malila looks at her strangely; I feel embarrassed that Dee even mentioned Dad. Dee wants to include him in everything, even if he's three states and a river away from us, even if she sends him e-mails every day and he sends her one a week.
"I didn't know your dad was a spy," Malila says, in a way that says, yeah, cause he's obviously not.
"Oh, he isn't. He just knows things." Dee puffs out her chest. "I'm sure he'll have some ideas about getting it to stop at least."
"But ummm." I fumble, walking the tight-rope between hurting Dee's feelings and letting Malila think we're a family of weirdos (even if we are). "We don't need to send him the actual letters."
"Well we wrote them down for a reason, right? And we don't know what that reason is yet, so..."
"I guess it can't hurt," Malila concedes. She passes Dee the notebook, "Here, you can keep that then."
"We'll e-mail Dad from school tomorrow," Dee says, "Okay, Jason?"
I stretch and yawn. "Sure, whatever. Can we go get some food now or something?"
It's Sleepy-Head Sunday at the Waffle Corner down the street, so we go in our pajamas and get half-off on our Blueberry Cream waffle combos. I start humming Oh, Susannah again after I'm done eating and am playing with my orange peel garnish and Dee says, "Stop it!" Malila just laughs.
Once I have some food in my stomach, I decide it's okay if Dee wants to ask Dad about it; it can't hurt, really, and it would be best for all of us if this whole thing just went away.
* * *
What's worse than having Oh, Susannah running through my head, I decide, is having that meaningless string of military phonetic letters piling up in there instead. Cause when I'm humming Oh, Susannah I'm just kind of weird, but mumbling a bunch of Echos and Foxtrots makes me sound like I belong in a straight jacket.
"I just said, pass the salt," I lie, cause Christine is looking at me like there is something seriously amiss.
"I heard we're going to get another heat wave," Dee cuts in. I nod her a quick thank you.
"Seems likely," Christine says. She hands me the salt, only looking a little leery.
I swallow the last big bite of my breakfast. "Thanks Christine. For the grits. The school bus is almost here, so we gotta..."
"Oh yeah, of course," Christine stands up and tosses her paper plate in the trash. "It's about time I get to bed then," she says. "Can't stay up too late on a work night."
Dee says keeping a sleep schedule like that isn't natural, that you can't get a proper night's sleep without the night part and that's why Christine is often grumpy. If Dee's right about the first part, then I understand the second; I haven't been sleeping well either since the number station started playing in my head and if we can't figure out how to stop it, I might go nuts for real.
* * *
Dee's in the computer lab after school, or what passes for 'the computer lab' around here. It's really only a corner of the library with a bunch of old clunky PCs with their dusty monitors and sticky keyboards.
"Are you e-mailing Dad?" I ask, tossing my backpack on the floor. The chair next to hers has a wad of pink gum stuck to the seat, so I crouch down beside her instead.
She's staring at the screen intently. "I was, but then I just started looking at all these letters...it's weird, you know? They don't make any sense to me but...:
She clicks the mouse and the letters grow large enough to take up most of the screen.
"They really do seem random, don't they?" She looks at me.
"I guess it's kind of creepy," I say, "that this message has been broadcasting through my head and we'll never know what it means."
"We're not supposed to know, Jason," she says, with that distant, spacey look in her eyes that's usually reserved for things like ghosts. "It's not for us."
"Okay." I'm not sure what to say to that.
She clicks the mouse again and the lab's sole laser printer comes to life. We both jump a little at the sound, stark against the silence of the library.
"You're printing it?"
"I don't know." Her eyes go wide as she glances between the screen and the printer. "Yeah. I guess I am. It seemed like a good idea."
It comes out of the printer like a nonsense flier, our secret-code letters big and bold for the world to see like we're advertising a band with an unpronounceable name. And then the printer spits out another page. And another. They're all identical, the same impossible letter sequence, and they're piling up in the paper tray.
Dee and I look at each other.
"How many times did you press print?" I hiss.
"Once, I thought!"
The printer's so noisy that soon the librarian is looking over our way. Dee gives the librarian a quick, sheepish grin. Then twists in her chair to block the screen with her body, then ducks her head like she's about to tell me something confidential and important.
What she actually says is, "Shit!"
Then the librarian is walking towards us, and I sure as heck don't want to explain this one, so when Dee grabs a thick stack of paper's out of the still churning printer, and then grabs my elbow, we run. We're out of there before the librarian has a chance to reach us.
Rushing into the hall, Dee holds the stack of paper against her chest like a baby. The stack's as thick as a thumb, as thick as the books you read in fourth grade.
"What are we doing?" I ask her, trotting behind her. She pauses long enough to slap one of the print-outs onto a bulletin board. Our "flier" looks decidedly out of place between Rock and Mineral Club sign-ups and an advertisement for Christian Music in the Desert.
"Hang on," says Dee, then she grabs my wrist and drags me out the door into the heat, but instead of heading down the front steps to the street she steers me around the building, into Desert Alley.
Our school sits with its back to the desert and there are no doors on that side of the building. There's a fence off to one side where the younger kids have their recess and an undersized sports field on the other. It's the sports field's chain-links we squeeze past; that and the school's south wall create a narrow alley way just big enough for a person, named so thoughtfully by the older kids who sometimes go there to smoke or make out, according to Dee. Dee says she only uses it as a short cut to the desert, when she wants to go out there to meditate or commune with nature, Dad's wacky Shaman stuff.
But today, following her, I feel the pull of the desert too. The winds are blowing strong behind the school, kicking sand up over our sneakers. The papers flap around in her hands as she stomps over a decrepit wire fence and out into the open expanse of sand and sun. Hardy little desert plants crunch under our feet as we make our way farther and farther from the school. Then Dee stops. She's wearing a bandanna around her hair and the tip blows up, points up straight at the sky. Her shadow is unreal, rippled by the uneven sand.
"Yeah," she says, like I've asked her something, "I think this is far enough." Smoothing her bandanna back down, she turns to me and hands me the stack of papers.
I look the crisp, laser-printed letters. "What do I...?"
"Remember when I said that maybe you were hearing the code because you were supposed to pass it on?" She gestures to the paper, "Maybe it wants to get out, Jason. Maybe it needs to be heard."
"So if we make it heard…" I try not to frown. "That'll make it stop?"
"It was worse before you told me and Malila the code, right?" Dee rests a hand on my arm. "Don't you think it's worth a try?"
I look at the paper again. The code's opaque as it ever was. "Okay," I say. "I'll try."
Dee licks a finger then holds it up to the wind. "It's blowing away from town, straight into the desert."
I plant my feet and turn with my back to the wind. When I loosen my grip on the papers, the top two sheets peel off and are carried away—lazily at first and then, as if with a purpose, they sail into the desert. Up, up, and away. I hold up the papers, let more of them go. The wind carries them impossibly high, like helium balloons, and Dee and I watch silently as they travel farther and farther away from us, until we can no longer see them.
At first, I think I'm hearing the station again, hearing Oh, Susannah, then I realize I'm humming again. I look at Dee, but she doesn't stop me this time, and soon we're both singing it, that stupid song, the one I never want to hear again.
Don't you cry for me
I come from Alabama
With a banjo on my knee
The last paper slip from my hands and takes off like a kite.
EEFXGRKIULAHPN, flying through the air.
Someone out there will understand.