The whole thing started about eight months earlier, when Marcus handed Vinnie an ordinary-looking pair of headphones.
“Test them out for me,” he said.
Vinnie turned the headphones over in her hands. She preferred earbuds. But if this is what he had for her, she would help out.
He showed her the original headphones, and then blueprints of the modifications he had made.
“Can you check my math?” he asked.
“I thought your computer already did.”
“Yeah…but I don’t trust it. You check it.”
Vinnie sighed. “All right, but you owe me an extra game night for this.”
“Sure, once I’m done with this project.”
“Then I’ll be waiting till we’re thirty.”
“Read all those books you keep talking about reading in the meantime.”
“Actually, I would do that,” Vinnie said. “But I’m tired of special-requesting all the stuff I want from the library. I can’t afford to buy anything, after all the senior year stuff we have to pay for.”
“Well, if you help me test out stuff for this project, and if it works the way I expect it to, then I’ll sell my patents for millions and share some of the profits with you.”
Vinnie smiled. If anyone could get their first patent before the age of twenty, it was Marcus.
But if he did end up making millions, he’d probably spend it all on exotic parts, tools, and machines, and real blueprint paper.
She scanned his blueprints. She understood the math equations he had neatly written in his notebook, and some of the code he’d drafted. But she didn’t really get how it all came together.
“What is it supposed to do?” she asked.
Vinnie raised her brows. “Listen in on them before they listen in on us?”
Marcus shrugged. “Something like that.
“I thought we figured out that I was the most paranoid one.”
“It’s not new tech. I’m exploring signal and noise…anyway, it’s supposed to pick up cell phone signals, audio only.”
“Gross, so I can hear people’s private conversations? Can I pass?”
“You don’t have to actually listen. Just tell me if it works. You can turn it off as soon as you pick something up.”
“And the people I’m eavesdropping on. Will they know?”
Vinnie picked up the headphones. “Okay, I owed you one. This is the one.”
Marcus was a real inventor, so his inventions were hit or miss. Mostly miss.
After testing the headphones for a couple of weeks, Vinnie concluded that they were a miss. At least, the current version was. She would take down notes of her observations so she could help her friend figure out how to make improvements on the next version.
Vinnie had worn the headphones instead of her usual earbuds while listening to stuff at home, and on her way to errands or the library, the usual. She tried to scoot towards people when she saw they were talking on their phones. But the only eavesdropping she managed to do was the old-fashioned kind, where she knew what was being said because she’d gotten close enough to hear with her own ears. They were great headphones. Marcus had tweaked the hardware. But she hadn’t picked up any phone call signals.
She was walking to the library after school one day when she put the headphones on. She was set to give them back to Marcus that weekend.
She was streaming a classical music station, getting herself in the mood to start writing that mid-term paper for English class, when she heard something.
It wasn’t an interruption. The music continued playing.
And then, “Hello?”
Vinnie frowned. She wasn’t sure she had heard it. She glanced around, wondering if someone was calling to her.
“Hello? Can you hear me?”
Vinnie stopped walking.
That had definitely come from the headphones. Vinnie listened.
“If you can hear me,” the voice said, a woman’s voice, “I need your help.”
Vinnie froze. She held her breath. She pulled her phone from her pocket and glanced at the screen. There was no active call. She wanted to look around, to find out if she could see whose call her headphones had tapped into. But she was scared to. The music continued playing. No other sound came out of the headphones for a minute or two. Vinnie exhaled and dared to glance around.
A few other students passed her on their way to the library. She kept walking and came within sight of it. She waved to a few people who were sitting on the steps comparing nail art.
“Can you hear me?”
Vinnie stopped walking again. She paused the music.
“I need your help.”
This time, Vinnie glanced around. She looked at the kids on the steps, at the librarian talking to the driver of a van that was making some kind of furniture delivery, at the cars that were stopping at the stop sign just behind her.
She couldn’t see anyone speaking on a phone. She glanced around at the nearby houses. Marcus said the eavesdropping function didn’t have that great of a range, maybe ten feet.
“I think you can hear me,” the voice said.
Vinnie closed her eyes. The headphones had a microphone built in. Maybe it was active. Maybe she’d picked up a call and the person on the other end could hear her…somehow. She checked her phone again. The headphones were connected, but there was no active call on her phone.
Marcus’s invention, it seemed, was working.
Vinnie expected to maybe hear some stuff she didn’t want to hear. And she had already taken a personal vow to not reveal it, even to Marcus. He’d agreed. He just wanted to know if the headphones worked. She hoped she wouldn’t hear something criminal. But when she had imagined that, she imagined people calling to arrange payoffs or drop-offs or deals or no deals. She hadn’t thought she’d tap into someone who sounded like they might be a victim.
She closed her eyes.
“Yes,” she said. “I hear you.”
The voice made a sound, like halfway between a laugh and a gasp. “I thought so. Oh goodness, I thought so.” She sounded short of breath.
Vinnie opened her eyes. The world around her was still the same. And yet it had changed. Because she had just made the decision to get involved. She kept her eye on the librarian, Ms. Forrest. She was someone Vinnie could go to. But first, Vinnie had to find out what was going on with this lady whose signal her headphones had caught. She had to find out where the lady was, and what was happening around her, and how long she could talk.
Vinnie took a breath to ask her first question, but before she could, the lady spoke again.
“I need your help. I’m trapped.” She paused. “I’ve been trapped for a long, long time. You wouldn’t believe it. And no one has heard me. No one.”
“I hear you,” Vinnie said in a low voice. “Can you tell me where you are?”
“Yes…” The woman had almost coughed out the word. She inhaled now and she sounded as if she were crying.
Vinnie felt a cold lump forming in her gut. She kept her gaze fixed on Ms. Forrest.
“You won’t believe me,” the woman said.
“It’s okay. You can tell me.”
“I’m inside.” The voice breathed out short, shallow breaths.
Vinnie took a deep, silent breath. She had to stay calm, so she could help. She unlocked her phone and brought up her notes app. “Inside where?”
“Inside. I’m inside.”
I’m losing her, Vinnie thought. “Hey…what’s your name?”
There was a pause. Vinnie watched Ms. Forrest finish with the delivery and turn toward her. The librarian smiled and waved. Vinnie returned the wave.
Vinnie blinked. “Ida. That’s pretty.”
“Ida, can you tell me where you are?”
The voice, the woman, Ida, took a breath.
“It’s okay,” Vinnie said, fully aware that she had no way to guarantee that anything would be okay.
“No, I’m afraid…if I tell you, you won’t help me.”
Vinnie frowned. She wanted to ask “why.” Or she wanted to say “that’s weird.”
“I think…Ida, I think I need to know where you are so I can help you.”
Ida cough-laughed again. “I know. You do. So I’m stuck, you see. Oh, but it’s good just to speak to someone, to speak to you.”
Vinnie didn’t know why, but she felt a chill run down her spine. She wondered, but was afraid to ask, just how long Ida had been trapped.
“Are you…are you in any immediate danger?” Vinnie asked.
“No,” the voice, fading a bit, said. “No, that time has long passed. I’m not in danger.”
Vinnie felt slightly relieved. She’d been imagining the woman had been abducted and found her way to a phone. But it was sounding more like the woman had gotten trapped in some accident. Maybe she was embarrassed for some reason. Maybe that’s why she didn’t want to say where she was.
“Well, wherever you are” Vinnie said, “you’ll run out of food and water at some point, right? I need to know, so I can send people to come get you.”
Vinnie waited for a response. She watched the kids sitting on the steps get up and walk into the library. For just a moment, there was no one on the street. She started walking again, up the steps. She hovered just outside the door, looking inside through the windows. It was just after school. The library was bustling inside.
While she waited, the street filled up again, cars driving by, cars pulling up to pick kids up. People walking in, people leaving.
Vinnie leaned beside a brick pillar.
“That’s not the kind of help I need,” the voice said at last. “I hope you will help me.”
Vinnie tried not to, but she couldn’t help sighing in frustration. “I’m trying. But you won’t tell me where you are.”
Vinnie wasn’t the kind of person who banged on doors, but she banged on Marcus’s door now. He wasn’t in their shed, where he always was when she went over. As she banged on his front door, she prayed that this was not the one day of the month that he was actually out with other friends.
The door opened and Marcus’s mother stood there, her brows creased and her eyes wide in a “what in the world” expression.
“Is he home?” Vinnie asked as she rushed through the open door and up the steps.
She barged into Marcus’s room and threw the headphones onto his bed. They were off. She’d turned them off just after that voice told Vinnie where she was. She turned to Marcus, just as he swiveled toward her in his chair.
“Are you crazy?” he said. “What if I was naked?”
Vinnie pointed to the headphones. “I picked something up.” She shook her head. She had almost walked into the library, to speak with Ms. Forrest. But then her mind hooked onto one of the scattered thoughts that were spilling into it.
“I think someone hacked into your headphones,” she said. “And she pranked me good.”
Marcus stood up. He frowned at her. He waved his hand to the bed to offer her a seat. “Are you okay?” he asked. “You look…” He glanced away from Vinnie, to the headphones. He picked them up.
And she told him what happened.
A few hours of talking it out with Marcus was enough to calm her down and then some. After a lasagna dinner, Marcus and Vinnie went out to the shed, where he ran tests on the headphones.
Vinnie paced. “Who is the lady in my headphones? Can we track her down and get back at her?”
Marcus frowned at her. “Who are you right now?”
Vinnie glared at the headphones. “Marcus, I thought a woman was in trouble, like really bad trouble. I was getting ready to have Ms. Forrest help me call the police, and thinking I’d have to be a witness or something, and you’d have to explain about the headphones. But it didn’t matter how much trouble we got into if we could save her.” I shook my head. “The whole time it wasn’t real. She was just…it’s just disgusting.”
Vinnie was now convinced that some woman had hacked into the headphones. She’d been so scared when she first turned them off, that she wanted nothing more to do with them. That was part of the deciding factor for whether she went into the library or went to Marcus’s house. She wanted the headphones out of her hands.
“If she connects to the headphones again, could you track her?” Vinnie asked. “She would have had to be close, right? Or…right?”
“I don’t know. I’ll see.”
“Or would she like bounce her signal around the world to confuse any trackers?”
Marcus raised an eyebrow. “Have you been binge-watching procedurals again?”
“Do you think she was making a comment, like on society?”
“What do you mean?”
“Like about privacy. Because she said she’s inside me, like you know, because I let her in, I guess.” Vinnie sighed. “I was trying to eavesdrop on people. So someone eavesdropped on me. Maybe she was trying to make a point. Teach me a lesson.”
Marcus gazed at the readouts from the headphones. “Mmm…maybe.” He was focused on his work now.
“I mean that’s fine. But she needs to change her methods. At least I can tell her off about that.” I glanced at the headphones. “If I speak to her again.”
Vinnie realized that she did want to speak to the voice again. But she wanted a witness around this time.
After Marcus was done with his diagnostics, they turned on the headphones. He mounted it on a stand and routed it through his speakers so that he could hear whatever came through. And he connected it through a mic that they could mute.
“Hello?” Vinnie said.
They waited for an hour or so. Even with the mic on mute, Vinnie forbade Marcus from making any noise, so the woman would think Vinnie was alone.
So she and Marcus conversed through texts. She asked him again if he was sure that the headphones were working, that the routing was set up right, that the mic was on, and whatever else came to mind. Marcus assured her that everything was working properly. But nothing happened.
They packed up just as Vinnie’s mom called to summon her back home.
Vinnie picked up the headphones and turned to her friend.
“Let me take them home,” she said.
It was late. Vinnie’s eyes already stung a bit from staying up too late the previous two nights, working on a paper. But it was a Friday night.
She sat at her desk in her room. She turned off her phone. And she turned on the spying headphones. She slipped them over her head.
She took a breath.
“Hello,” Vinnie said.
In the silence, she opened her desk drawer, and pulled out a notebook and pen. She waited, taking sips from the bottle of cold water she’d brought up.
She closed her eyes to rest them.
“I didn’t think I would hear from you again.”
Vinnie’s eyelids flew open. She sat up. She frowned. She didn’t answer.
“Are you there?” the voice asked.
“You heard from me a few hours ago,” Vinnie said.
“I…I didn’t hear you.”
“I figured out who you are.”
There was a pause. “You did?”
“Yeah, and there are people in the world who really are in the situation you said you were in, and who really do need help. So next time you want to teach some teenage kid a lesson about respecting people’s privacy, don’t fake being kidnapped and locked in a dungeon.”
The voice paused again. “I never said I was kidnapped and locked in a dungeon.”
Vinnie leaned over her desk. “No, you said you were inside me. Like, inside my head, right? So, are you supposed to be my conscience?”
“No, it’s more likely that you are mine.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Who do you think I am?”
“How did you hack into my headphones?”
“You don’t know who I am.”
Vinnie tried to think of how she might get the woman to give her more information without giving the woman any. If this was just some citizen like her, maybe she could do it. If it was some federal agent or something…
“If you’ll listen,” the voice said. “I’ll tell you who I am.”
And the voice spoke.
“It’s a doozy of a story,” she started. “To you it will seem like a fairy tale. It seems that way to me too sometimes. But if you will indulge me, just listen to the end. I know you will have questions, objections, suspicions.” She paused.
“Yeah, I’m listening.” Vinnie poised her pen above her notebook.
“What binds us, what binds me to you, traps me inside you, is a curse. One that has been carried through your family for generations. I was trapped, and though I was given the means to free myself, I could not do so without the help of another, and I could not enlist the help of another, because I was cursed to remain silent. If no one could hear me, no one could free me. I lived a long, long time ago, and loved one of your ancestors. But that love, like so many kinds of love, was forbidden by our society. My father found out, and he employed a warlock to curse me. ‘May you be, as you wish, together forever. And may you be, as I wish, forever apart.’ Those were the words of the curse. And he sacrificed my earthly life to give power to the curse, casting my soul into the body of my lover, who thereafter forgot me. I screamed at him to notice that something was wrong. And I watched him love and marry another, and have children, and grow old.”
The voice paused and Vinnie shifted in her seat as she scribbled down the story.
“When his first child was born, I felt myself pass into the child. And when that child’s first child was born, I was passed on again, always to the firstborn.”
Vinnie stopped writing and leaned back. She gulped again. She was born first.
She shook her head. It was just another story. Another trick. But maybe there was some clue that she could use.
After a moment of silence, Vinnie judged that the voice was done with her story, and was probably awaiting her response.
“There’s no such thing as magic or curses,” Vinnie said. “You didn’t speak when Marcus was there. So, I’m thinking, maybe you’re not real after all. You’re a figment of my imagination.”
“I rather think that magic has simply changed its form. My perceptions have been limited—moreso with some carriers than with others. But I have perceived enough to witness the decline of magic, even as I witnessed the advent and rise of technology. It has not yet surpassed what the old magic was capable of, but it is coming closer and closer. I know how to break this curse. How to free myself—and my soul—and how to free you of my presence. You’ll see, if you agree to help me. Once you break the curse, you will stop hearing my voice. Then you will know that you are not hallucinating or imagining.”
“And what exactly do you need me to do, because if it involves the sacrifice of any living thing, then we are done here. I’ll set these headphones aside. That’s another way to never hear your voice again.”
“That’s not quite true. As technology advances, so advances your perception, far beyond what you can sense with your natural-born senses. Just as it once was with magic. Soon you may have no choice but to hear me. My voice may come through without the aid of you device.”
Vinnie immediately thought about the smart speaker in their living room. She sat back and crossed her arms. “Okay, say that I buy the basic story that our family was cursed a long time ago, and that your soul was linked to our bloodline. What if the reason this happened is not some romantic tale of forbidden love, but something…criminal? What if you were a murderer, and my ancestor was maybe some accomplice, and you were punished to be imprisoned in our bodies, and we…I don’t know. We were cursed to carry you. Maybe you’ve been corrupting our souls, or maybe you’ve been trying, but you couldn’t, because we couldn’t hear you.”
“And now you can.”
“Yeah, that’s right. Maybe you were a bad influence on my ancestor, so your curse was to be trapped inside someone you couldn’t manipulate.”
“I have no way to prove to you that what I say is true, and the tale you’ve spun is untrue. Records were lost, and I cannot always see through the eyes of the carrier.”
“Then again, maybe I was right the first time. Maybe you’re just some lady sitting in a basement somewhere, surrounded by twelve monitors, and a river of cables leading to all kinds of tech, hacking into my headphones just to mess with me.”
“To what end?”
“Maybe you’re a hermit who hates people, regular people who are living their lives.”
“Why would I hate such people?”
“Because you’ve got some phobia or some disorder—oh, I remember—agoraphobia. That’s when you’re afraid to go outside. You resent us. Because it’s no big deal for us to go outside, go to the store, go to school, go to work.”
“Perhaps you should make a list of all the possible things I could be.”
“You could be an artificial intelligence. Maybe someone is running that one test. The one that’s supposed to figure out if an AI can fool real people into thinking it’s a real person.”
Vinnie wondered if Marcus would dare such a thing. Sometimes he didn’t think things through when it came to people. But she didn’t think he would do something like that to her.
“You have quite an imagination.”
“It’s not my imagination. It’s…like, everyone together. All of humanity.”
“Yeah, and one person inspires the next, and that one inspires the next, and on and on.”
“Was it not your intention to get into some mischief with these headphones?”
“Just fighting fire with fire. They’re spying on us. We spy on them.”
“The governments. Big business. Shadow organizations.”
“Oh, darling. This is not new. It has always been so.”
Vinnie shrugged her brows. “I guess you’re right.”
“The difference is the scale perhaps.”
Vinnie cleared her throat and pulled the conversation back from its digression. “So these headphones that were supposed to be picking up a signal from outside, they’re actually picking up a signal inside me. And that signal is your soul.”
“It would seem so.”
“What about my soul?”
“Your soul is a part of you. It speaks to you every day, and has done so since you were born.”
“But according to your story, you’ve also been with me since I was born.”
“So you know all about me.”
“No, not all. I…I am not always, active, conscious. If I stay so, why I might go mad. I think I might have once or twice.” The voice seemed to be fading.
Vinnie twisted her mouth. “And then you…got sane again?”
“I don’t know.” It sounded dim and distant.
Vinnie shook her head again, as if to snap herself back to reality. Maybe if this was just a voice in her head, it was less dangerous. She could tell her mom to take her to therapy or something. But if this was the voice of some woman out there in the world, who had actually found a way to connect to Vinnie’s headphones, then that was dangerous.
Vinnie went to the backpack and pulled out the device Marcus had given her. It looked like a thick slightly bulging coaster. It was supposed to block all external signals to and from the headphones if she turned it on and kept it close.
She turned on the blocker device.
“Your name…I know it,” the voice said, growing louder. “Give me a moment.”
Vinnie frowned. She pulled out her phone and tried to connect it to the headphones. It couldn’t connect.
Vinnie winced. “I don’t go by that.”
She shuddered. She turned her computer on.
“What am I supposed to do…to break that curse?” Vinnie asked, trying to keep the voice talking. “Kiss a frog? Or a magic stone? Chant some words?”
“Be pure of purpose.”
“What is that supposed to mean? Because if it means I have to focus on just one thought, that’s definitely not going to work.” Vinnie tried to connect her computer to the headphones. It wouldn’t connect.
“It’s a simple process,” the voice said. “There is some celestial alignment involved, but nothing spectacular. Just the night of a full moon. And the drawing of some symbols—which I’m certain you can look up at your library or on one of your communication devices.”
Vinnie rose from her chair and stepped away from her computer and the signal-blocking device. “Right, so I can confirm that you’re not tricking me into summoning a demon.”
Vinnie stepped out of the blocker’s range. “Where am I drawing these symbols? Don’t say ‘graveyard.’”
A robotic female voice announced, “Device connected.” Vinnie flinched. She shook her head at herself. The headphones were connected to her computer now. She frowned. That meant…the signal-blocking device was working. She’d just moved out of its range.
“Not a graveyard, unless you choose that as one of the locations,” the voice said.
“Choose?” Vinnie had been speaking to the voice the whole time, even when signals coming to the headphones were blocked. Vinnie glanced out of her window. It didn’t prove anything really. There were probably plenty of signals that could cut through whatever Marcus had built.
“You must choose five locations in the shape of a pentagram of a certain size. One point must face directly north. I will give you the dimensions. Paint the symbols in those locations. Stay in the center on the night of the full moon. For the whole night.”
“That is all.”
“And what’s really going to happen? Some demon will possess me, right?”
The voice, Ida, sighed. Vinnie moved herself and the headphones back into the range of the signal-blocking device.
“Are you a witch, Ida? Is that why you were cursed?” The computer lost its connection with the headphones.
“I was accused of enchanting him,” Ida said. Her voice sounded soft and dreamy. “The truth is, we enchanted each other. But I knew I was reaching beyond my station. I thought he would lose interest ,
and then I would drag my bag full of broken heart away and fade into darkness. But he didn’t lose interest. Your ancestor, he was an honorable man. Not all of them have been, after him. But he was. And he did the unthinkable. He proposed marriage to me.”
“Station? Are saying that you were denied because you were too poor?”
“Among other things, yes. Too poor.”
“That’s messed up.”
“Those were the times.”
“No, I know. They are still the times now.”
“Do you speak from experience?”
“Not really. I have…nothing to complain about actually. But I am tired of having feelings for people who don’t have feelings for me.”
“Yes, that is difficult.”
“Don’t tell me I’ll find someone.”
“Whyever would I say a thing like that?”
“That’s what people say. ‘You’ll find someone.’ But that means I have to be looking, right? What if I don’t go looking?”
“Then you will be alone forever.”
Vinnie paused, not sure she had heard right. “What?”
The voice started laughing.
Is she…clowning me? Vinnie thought.
The next full moon, as it turned out, was three weeks away.
In that time, Vinnie continued trying to solve the mystery of the voice in her headphones. She asked her family about anyone named “Ida” from their distant past. She asked Ida for a last name, but the woman either didn’t remember or didn’t want to give her last name.
Vinnie did make a list of all the possible explanations, from the plausible to the ludicrous, for who or what Ida could be if she was not who she claimed to be.
Her list included the already suspected psychotic antisocial hacker lady (to which Marcus objected) and the artificial intelligence. And then it veered off into demon possession, or the voice of a twin that she might have absorbed in utero, or a part of her own psyche that broke off and became its own thing. After all, she was the only one who had heard Ida’s voice. But if Ida was trapped inside Vinnie, then it stood to reason that Vinnie would be the only one who could hear her—with the aid of the headphones, somehow.
And Vinnie did hear her. And she spoke to her.
And she continued to challenge Ida.
“So…what a coincidence that I happened to be cursed by inheriting a whole extra soul when I was born, and then just happening to come across a technology that allows me to connect with that soul. Weird, huh?” Vinnie asked as she flipped through a book of alchemical symbols at the library.
“I wouldn’t say so. It’s not that much of a coincidence, considering the number of people in the world who carry similar curses. And sometimes, it’s not a curse, but an ancestor clinging to life. ‘A ghost of a ghost.’”
Vinnie paused mid-page-turn. “What does that even mean?”
“Well, I was trying to be poetic. But I suppose it means…a spirit that clings instinctively to life, without actually remembering what life was.”
“Huh, that sounds more like ‘zombie ghost’ than ‘ghost of a ghost.'”
“What do you think ‘ghost of a ghost’ would be then?”
And that’s how it went. Vinnie often starting with suspicion, or attempting to catch Ida in a “gotcha,” only to end up meandering into some other conversation.
Vinnie used her own bedroom as the center of the pentagram, figuring it would be easy enough to stay there for the night. She could sleep, but she planned on bringing up some snacks and staying up that night.
Based on that center point, she mapped out the five locations where she would draw the symbols that Ida had described. Vinnie had confirmed they weren’t satanic or evil. The symbols represented the ancient elements.
“I knew it,” Vinnie said as she choose the locations. “You’re leading me into criminal activity. I’ll have to vandalize some of these places to draw the symbols.”
“Perhaps you can draw them in the dirt. Or with chalk.”
“No, someone might wipe it away. I mean we can always try again next month, but…” Vinnie trailed off, unsure of the plan, and of herself.
“Let me see,” Ida said.
“Let me see, through your eyes.”
“What does that mean? What will happen to me if I let you do that?”
“Nothing. I…oh, I see. This is akin to your unreasonable fear of demon possession. You’re worried I’ll take over your body, is that it? I can’t do that. All I can do is see.”
Vinnie gripped the headphones. “Well, if you were trying to possess my body, you would say something like that, wouldn’t you?”
Ida sighed. It was a sharp sigh. As if she were frustrated.
“I’m already paranoid about cameras being everywhere,” Vinnie said, “or some dumb neighbor’s drone peeking through our windows. I’m not going to let you see through my eyes. So you can see me going to the bathroom? Or showering?”
Ida made a noise. Like a gasp. A shocked gasp.
“I wouldn’t do that. And if it gives you comfort, I couldn’t do that. You can rescind your permission at any time, like closing a door. And locking it.”
Vinnie didn’t say anything for a while. “I’ll think about it,” she said at last.
“That gives me an idea though.”
“Asking permission. I’ll ask permission from whoever owns the building or lot or whatever property I’ll be tagging to free your soul from bondage. I’ll tell them it’s for a project.”
Vinnie succeeded in securing four of the locations for the pentagram. A couple of days before the full moon, they were headed to the fifth.
“May I see?”
Vinnie adjusted her headphones as she squeezed past two mothers pushing strollers. “Still thinking about it.”
Ida was especially persistent that day. Maybe she was growing anxious now that the day was approaching when she would get what she’d been wanting for about seven generations—assuming she was telling the truth. Vinnie remained skeptical, even as she spoke to and worked to help the voice in her head.
Vinnie narrated as she walked, describing her surroundings and anything interesting she glimpsed, like the movies playing at the matinee across the street. She immediately regretted noting that. Ida claimed to have never seen a movie. She had impressions of what it was like. But it was one of the things she was most curious about.
Vinnie stopped and glanced down at the map on her phone. She was close to the final location, the fifth and topmost point of the pentagram. A text from Marcus popped up, asking her if she wanted to get together later to study. Vinnie answered with a quick “sure ” before continuing on to her destination.
Vinnie’s destination was an old apartment building. It was four stories tall. And painted with some darker color that had faded to a light tan—a crusty, speckled, peeling light tan.
“Do I have to do it on the roof?” Vinnie asked. She tipped her head back and shaded her eyes with her right hand.
“No, it should be on the same level as the others.”
Vinnie frowned. “Oh, maybe I should check elevation on the map, then.”
“The rest are probably fine. But yes, that would be wise.”
Vinnie pulled off her headphones, and with that, silenced the voice, while she searched for someone who could give her permission to graffiti on the side of the apartment.
Vinnie lay in her bed on the night of the full moon. All the preparations were made.
“Thank you, Vinnie,” Ida said. “I will miss you.”
“Probably not. You’ll forget this life once you cross over into the afterlife.”
“All the more reason to thank you now.”
Vinnie shifted in her bed. “What if it doesn’t work?”
“As you’ve said, we can try again next month.”
“I mean, what if we did it right, but it just doesn’t work? And we can’t find anything that does work?”
Ida was silent for a moment. “Then I will leave you be. As you said, you can set aside the headphones. And I will try to…sleep.”
“I don’t plan on having any kids,” Vinnie said, voicing a notion she’d been thinking about during the past few weeks. “What would happen to you if I died without passing you on to my firstborn?”
“I suppose I would die with you.”
“But would you pass on? Or would your soul be destroyed? I wonder if that’s the way to free you. For your carrier to die without passing you on.”
“But that would require a great sacrifice. The end of your particular family line.”
“What if I adopted? That kid would be safe, right? You’re passed on through the bloodline?”
“Yes, there must be a physical connection.”
“And without that…”
“We would be stuck with each other, for the duration of your life.”
“Yup. Live together. Die together.” Vinnie sat up. “But if this is the last time I speak with you, we should make it worthwhile.”
“What do you have in mind?”
Vinnie got out of bed and went to her desk. She woke her computer and pulled her notebook close.
“Tell me your story,” Vinnie said. “And tell me as much as you remember about my family’s story. The good stuff. The ugly stuff. And I’ll write it down.”
Vinnie waited for Ida’s response.
“All right, yes,” Ida said. “I owe you that much.”
Vinnie woke up on her bed. She was lying on top of her sheets. She shifted and her hand knocked against her pen and notebook. She still had the headphones on her head. She pressed the power button. There was no beep. They had stayed on all night. The battery had drained.
She blinked her eyes against the light that now filled the room. It was a school day, but she had signed up to help out with an all-day volunteer thing. That meant she could get to school two hours later than usual.
She groaned and plugged the headphones in. She tried to turn them on, but she would have to wait a bit. Her head felt heavy. She definitely hadn’t gotten enough sleep. She planned to take a catnap during lunch.
She showered and got ready, and by that time, the headphones had enough of a charge to turn on.
Vinnie breathed in slowly and breathed out as she put them on. “Hello?”
There was no answer.
She had to go. She brought the headphones with her. She charged them at school, while she helped hammer, paint, fold, carry cases of water bottles, and whatever else was required. She didn’t get a chance to check the headphones again until she got home.
Vinnie was beat as she slung her backpack onto her chair and slung herself onto her bed. She fell asleep with her shoes on.
When she woke again, it was early evening. Vinnie was groggy, but she was clear-headed. She washed her face and saw a few messages from Marcus asking her “did it work?”
Vinnie reached for the headphones. “Let’s see,” she said.
She put them on and turned them on.
She closed her eyes. And she waited a while. But there was no answer to her first greeting. Or her second. Or her third.
She tried to feel within herself. Did she feel any different? Lighter?
But she couldn’t tell.
Vinnie listened to music through the headphones, as she’d done the first time she’d heard the voice, and she waited for the better part of an hour.
But then she took the headphones off. She’d been wearing them excessively and she wanted to give her ears a rest.
She responded to Marcus and invited him over for dinner as she caught a whiff of something garlicky from downstairs. She flipped through her notebook. She’d written dozens of pages. And she’d typed up some stuff on her computer too. She remembered some of it. She would show Marcus when he came over.
Vinnie walked over to her window and gazed up at the bright moon above.
“Goodbye,” she said.
She drew the curtains, and on her way downstairs, she grabbed the headphones, so she could return them.
Copyright © 2018 Nila L. Patel