My little sister had a music box. She kept her scraps of plastic jewelry in it, a ceramic ballerina in a tulle tutu popped every time she pulled back the lid. Then there was the noise. Scrappy, too much like metal grinding together, a classical ballad of some kind but played too fast and too shrill, a techno Beethoven.
I hated that box. She’d open it constantly, letting the ballerina spin and spin and spin while the music ground out louder and faster and more and more. It pulled my attention every time until I couldn’t focus, couldn’t read, couldn’t even play video games. Just noise.
The ballerina would pirouette, spin and glide, faster and faster through my head, into all the dark corners. She would collide with the edges of my mind, bruises blooming, a delicate rush of blood under porcelain skin. She break, crash, collide and spin through every black space inside. The music got louder, trilling. My sister would shut the box and the ballerina would collapse, only to spring into place again when the box opened once more.
So I took it.
My sister didn’t see me, didn’t even realize it was gone at first. And when she finally did notice it was missing, no one thought to look in my sock drawer. I was twelve and I was dumb. I should have realized that wouldn’t stop the noise.
“Hey, Pat, what’d ya got there?”
My teeth grind together and I turn away, putting my belonging safely back in my bag. The girls don’t stop though. They want to see. They want old Pat’s toy.
They don’t know it isn’t a toy.
It started late at night, the music muffled but softly drifting from the bottom of my drawer. I jumped out of bed, my fingers pushing aside the scratchy socks until it felt the cool wood of the pink music box.
The lid was on. I thought it must be broken.
I left the house, sneaking out the back through the kitchen. I carried the thing under my arm, trying to muffle the notes. It was a clear night and the moon shone brightly. The box was silver and shimmery as I lay it on the grass. I flipped the lid and the music got faster, the ballerina spinning in slow motion through the shadows.
I snapped her off her spring, broke her to pieces and let them fall in clumps to the bottom of the box. But the music didn’t stop. I tore off the felted bottom, reached for the small metal machinery that churned out the tinny notes. I yanked it out with my fingers. It chimed and dinged.
I went to my mother’s flower bed and took out a large stone, held it high, and smashed the metal box. I brought it down again, again, again until it lay in scraped and bent pieces on the lawn.
I remember staring. The big rock still held in two hands, the bottoms of my pajama pants getting soaked with dew, my mouth agape, staring at the music box that shouldn’t be able to play get louder and louder and louder.
“Pat, is that a girl’s toy?”
“No, leave me alone.”
“But it’s pink. Should we call you Patricia?”
“Patricia! Patricia! Patricia!”
I couldn’t take the box back to the house, not with the music. So I hid it on a tall shelf in the garden shed. I was terrified my mom would find it. She wouldn’t like that I broke my sister’s toy. She’d punish me for it. I went back to bed. Even from there, I could hear the faint chimes. It sang me to sleep.
No one else heard it.
My mom yanked the hose from the shed the next morning, the box practically vibrating with song, but she didn’t even look up at it.
“What’s the matter with you?” she asked. I shook my head. I knew then.
I was special.
But it was hard to live with. It distracted me often. I couldn’t tell anyone, so they didn’t understand. I wasn’t stupid. It was the music box, the loud, fast chiming annoyed me, drew my mind to the ballerina I had crushed, still in pieces in the bottom of that box. I pictured her still spinning, madly out of control in my brain, bloody and bruised from collisions.
“Come on, Patty! Let us see it!”
My bag is bulky as I hug it to my chest. I shake my head and the stupid girls on bikes pout. They are small, maybe only twelve, but they are mean. They call me names all the time, throw rocks when their mothers aren’t looking.
Their mothers are never looking.
I never show anyone my music box. It is mine now, not my sister’s. It has been for years. I hear it. I’m the only one who ever has. It chose me.
I did, I chose you.
I remember the first time I made the music stop.
There was this bird. It was dead on the side of the road.
No, not dead.
That’s right, not dead. Not yet. It was hurt, it’s wing flapping in a pathetic little movements. I remember thinking how pretty the wings were, how shiny the feathers. Black and glossy, they shone in the sunlight.
I remember wanting one of those shiny feathers. I brought my sneaker down on the bird’s head, felt a little pop under my sole. The wing stopped moving and I stroked the feathers, finding the softest one. I plucked it from the wing, just a quick twist of my fingers.
The box had been loud that day. It had woke me from sleep, singing and trilling from the garden shed. The noise had followed me all morning, the beat getting faster and faster until it was close to a shrill whistle. Beethoven would not have approved.
I waited until dark. I ran to the shed, flung open the door. I had to reach for the box, it trembled when my fingers touched it.
“What?” I had hissed into the night.
It sung back to me, metallic and terrible and piercing. Over and over and never stopping.
“Stop, just stop!” I had begged in my own whiny voice, whispering over the open box. My hands came to my ears, pressing them down flat against my skull, trying to force the music into non-existence.
The feather fluttered from my fingertips. It fell, landing over the broken bits of ballerina at the bottom of the box. I shut the lid.
The music stopped.
“Patty, if you don’t show us your toy, we’ll tell our Mamas you tried to touch us.”
“Go away,” I hiss. One sticks her tongue out.
“It’s a free country,” she quips, her hand on her hip. “We’re allowed to walk on this old bike path if we want to.”
“Leave me alone.”
“Free country, Patty!”
The box didn’t stay quiet for long. It never did. But now when it sang, it started sweeter, low. It was content, a drowsy sound, reminding me of food comas after Thanksgiving turkeys. Low, satiated murmurs.
Until it wasn’t low anymore. Until it sang and sang and screamed.
But I knew, I thought I did, how to shut the box up. Though no one else seemed to hear it, still, it consumed me. The ballerina relentlessly spinning, crashing, banging into the dark walls of my head. Her skin was roughened, barely any porcelain left. Her lips were cracked and they bled, staining everything they touched. The music came from the box, but really, it seemed to come from her, too. Her mouth stretched in an obscene smile in my head, yelling and singing and screeching.
I fed her.
But the bits of string I found, the button I stole from my mother’s sweater, the hair I yanked from my sister’s skull. None of it appeased her. She yelled and carried on, a musical screeching that bit right through me.
All night and all day and no matter how far I got away from her, she’d find me and scream, bloody lips emitting terrible things until the music would blend, sound out as a long continuous note and then shift, the beginning of words. I remember her first word, low and indistinct, almost completely blended with the music but just different enough for me to pick it out.
Faster, she hissed.
I cut the ear off a cat. It was a stray cat, a beat up orange old thing that no one would notice was missing an ear. It’d be written off as feral, a fight with a raccoon, not me. The blood smeared on my fingertip as I held it, still warm in my fingers.
And still the box sung.
The cat wasn’t hard to find again, it never strayed far and was still bleeding. It was harder to catch, though the tuna can I held did help.
What I remember most was the relief. I did it, less hoping that it would work and more because I was annoyed, frustrated that I couldn’t figure it out. The feather had worked so nicely, calmed her and soothed the music to a lullaby. The high echoing notes that changed to words wouldn’t leave me now, a constant siren in the back of my skull.
The cat’s fur wasn’t soft. I recall that feeling strange. I thought it should be soft. But it wasn’t. It was matted and rough, dirty. My hands tightened around it’s neck. I had to adjust my hold a few times, the animal squirming under my palms but unable to even squeak. It’s claws raked over my skin but that was nothing, nothing at all. As it stilled, as I felt the shift of the trachea against the vertebrae, I could sense it.
The ballerina sighed. She danced in jerky movements that stilled in a daze, her movements slowing and her screams fading.
The cat hung limp in my fingers, it’s ear already stuck to the bottom of my music box, glued with dried blood.
The music stopped.
“Stop it,” I whisper, smacking my head lightly with one closed fist. The girls laugh at me, pointing, pointing. The ballerina hisses, a feral whisper in the middle of her music. She’s grown with me, older and broken. Her skin is no longer porcelain, she’s spent too many years colliding in my head, chasing the dark corners and smashing her tender body against them. She’s a lump now, a formless bloody heap, resembling more a pile of raw hamburger than a shapely figurine. The easiest way to find her form was to seek her mouth, it yawned open with the screams and songs, her lips lost in the carnage that was her face.
You can stop it, she crooned. The melody was laced through her words, just faint notes that were the soundtrack to my existence.
“Too soon, too soon,” I said. I had fed her just a few days before. But she seemed so hungry these days.
The girls whimper and moan, beating at their heads with mocking hands. I hate them. Hate. And my ballerina wants them. And I want the song to dull, to recede again to the background of my crowded mind, a slow melody she could dance to, pretty dancing, like she used to. Not the chaotic mess that was now spinning.
I knew the pattern. I got it, after that cat. Still, I like to tease. I like to play.
She didn’t stop after the fly. It made me wonder, watching as bruises bloomed on her stiff body, memorizing the patterns of the blood spreading throughout her smooth skin. The dance was almost pleasant to watch. It was the music that I couldn’t take. I hated that loud, distracting music.
“Please,” I’d murmured, holding my box close to my chest, curling in around it, “just not so loud.”
But she never listened. Never.
She didn’t stop careening and screaming when I killed bugs, but the mouse softened it. She liked cats better. And dogs.
But it was people that bought me the greatest relief, the longest silence.
The flesh of the girl was soft under my hands. I only needed the one. But the other had to stay as well. I couldn’t have her running off. She lay in the mud beside us, face down. I didn’t think it would kill her. I didn’t think the blow to the head would either. Though maybe I would. If she wanted me to.
I wasn’t surprised that the girl’s flesh was soft and warm. I knew it would be. She fought. I knew she would do that, too. But she couldn’t fight for long. Her throat was soft and tender and the trachea collapsed, just folded in under the pressure of my thumbs, just like a cat’s would.
But it wasn’t until I plucked the eyelash, placing it carefully in my box, that my ballerina let the music dull. The roaring in the back of my skull calmed, my arms felt dead at my side. I shut the lid and sat back in the grass, humming with the soft cadence of my lullaby.
“It can be as simple as that,” I purred to my box. “You are so easy to please.”
Bio:E. M. Fitch is an author who dabbles primarily in Young Adult fiction but just can’t resist playing in a world full of zombies.