Danny slouched like a question mark over his desk, writing what he was sure were the last notes of his life. He’d finished the bass and piano parts for Track 8 in Chemistry and needed Mr. Keo to leave him alone so he could write a guitar line for the outro: something with the no-gloss cool of Arcade Fire and the face-melting wattage of Arctic Monkeys. Something epic and true enough to make Jake proud.
For most of high school, Danny hadn’t thought about the album that he and his brother had dreamed up back when they still slept with flashlights and thought they had super powers. But when the episodes began, in the winter of junior year, he’d remembered their nights at the piano, arguing over chords, filling their notebooks with cover art and lyrics, and he’d wondered what would be left of their opus, if anything, when he was gone.
He’d looked everywhere in the apartment for their notebooks but couldn’t find them. He’d dug in his mental hard drive, but strangely, especially for something he’d spent half his life obsessing over, he couldn’t remember a note. Hoping it would jog his memory, he bought a notebook and began writing The Astronaut Ice Cream Project from scratch. He wrote on the bus, at the library, and through most his classes—which was how he came to be finishing Track 8 that Tuesday in Geometry when the first twinge of pain shot through his chest.
Mr. Keo called on Keira Silva to come to the board and find the area of a trapezoid. A moment earlier, jocks had been tossing protractors at Danny’s head, calling him Beethoven, but when Keira stood and walked to the front of the room, they went silent.
“Hey, Keira,” said Danny, looking over his shoulder as she came down the aisle. He felt another twinge, then something deeper, a stab.
Keira squinted at the mad scrawls across Danny’s page and shook her head. “Freak.”
That’s when it happened. Quick as a dream, the melody for the outro came to him, and as Danny jotted it down, he knew it was all over. This would be the last song, not just because he and Jake had agreed, citing Born to Run, that eight tunes was primo, but because a thrill of pain spidered his chest, hurting worse than it ever had before.
Ignoring Mr. Keo’s questions, he stood and lumbered out of class, bursts of whisper chasing him down the corridor, to the boys’ room, where he collapsed in a stall, hugging the notebook to his beating chest.
Of all the tags in the stall, SAYAN was the most impressive. Danny studied it over Nurse McCreedy’s shoulder as she listened to his heart—balloon letters etched in the paint, somehow weightless and soft, as if they could float through the tangles of graffiti and drift away.
“I didn’t die,” he told her.
She looped the stethoscope around her neck. “So it seems.”
He followed her through the halls, feeling that hazy distance from the world he often felt after an episode. They walked through the Plexiglas tunnel, across the canal full of snow, to the New Building and her office.
She pulled a cardigan over her shoulders and sat behind her desk. “How do you feel?”
“Fine.” He slumped into a swivel chair and studied her shelves full of photos, the McCreedy girls posing with Santa and soccer teams. “Tired.”
“Stress can be very bad for your heart, Danny, if you—”
“Just tired.” He turned in his chair and looked through the glass wall to the waiting room. For a moment, he thought he saw Jake. A leather coat over a shoulder, Timberlands capped with snow. “I’d like to go home.”
She came around her desk, tearing the Velcro of a blood-pressure cuff. In the waiting room, the guy who wasn’t Jake rubbed his eyes. He had ice taped to his knuckles, the way Thunder Joe would after a fight. Danny felt the cuff tighten around his arm, pulling him back into the now. He was aware of the smell of hand sanitizer and the buzz of fluorescent lights. And, like finally noticing the time on a clock he’d been gazing at, he realized that the guy who wasn’t Jake was staring back at him.
“How did you find the SAT?” asked Nurse McCreedy, deflating the cuff.
“I didn’t take it. What’s my blood pressure?”
“One-twenty over eighty.” She bit her lower lip, straightening the wrinkles of her chin. “You’ll take it in the fall then.”
Danny said nothing.
“Your mom says you’re at Lowell General now.”
“Cardiologist number four.” He nibbled his thumbnail. “I preferred the food court at Saints Memorial.”
The nurse took off her glasses. “Your father’s new insurance doesn’t cover Saints?”
Danny shrugged. According to his mom, his dad had a new job at a printing factory. It was the first thing she’d said about him in weeks. It meant they had insurance to cover the surgery that cardiologist #4 wanted but that cardiologists 1, 2, and 3 didn’t think would help.
“And you have another echocardiogram this Friday,” Nurse McCreedy said.
“It’s a formality. Part of the pre-op.”
“Just to be certain.”
She closed her eyes. “We’ve been over this, Danny. Kids are misdiagnosed—”
“Well, I wasn’t.”
“Echocardiograms are meant for adults. A young person’s heart—”
“Has less exposure across the aortic annuls.” He leaned back with a squeak, crossing his arms.
“I should never have given you a copy of your medical records.”
“Because now I know the truth?”
“Because you’re not a doctor.”
He gazed at the McCreedy girls buried at the beach, sand sculpted into busty mermaid bodies. “Can I go home?”
“Your mom says they’ve scheduled the surgery for your birthday. That’s six weeks away, Danny. You need to take care of yourself.”
“Please, can I go home?”
She frowned and opened the drawer where he hoped she kept dismissal slips. “Did I tell you about the new psychologist?”
“You still think there’s something wrong with my head?”
“I think you’ve had one trauma after another and—”
“Talking won’t change a defect.” He turned to the window and stared back at the guy who wasn’t Jake. What was he looking at?
“You could at least meet the man,” said Nurse McCreedy.
“Why would he be different than the others?”
“Because he isn’t one of the others.” She shut the drawer, and the walls began to close in around Danny.
He sighed. “When are his walk-in hours?”
“First period tomorrow.” Again she opened the drawer, and this time she took out a pink slip and signed it, then glanced at the waiting room, tapped her nose, and signed two more.
Back in January, when Danny had decided to write The Project, he needed to know how much time he had—something his doctors didn’t agree on. He googled and averaged, factored in the frequency and intensity of his episodes, along with his family history, and calculated that he had about thirteen weeks to live. Which was the same amount of time he thought it would take to write the album.
Why he had ended up finishing The Project six weeks early was obvious now. And as he waited in C-House to get dismissed, he wondered how he’d been so dumb. First, he’d allowed for time to write lyrics, but the album had ended up being instrumental. And second, he’d assumed the school day would be useless, when it turned out, if he avoided eye contact with teachers, that he could write all day.
But it didn’t matter; he could get through six weeks without The Project. Six weeks of putting up with kids he had nothing in common with anymore and a psychologist who wouldn’t understand anything. Six weeks of afternoons with Adventure Time and Mama Celeste pizzas. What mattered was that The Project was badass.
Danny opened his notebook and turned to Track 1, so intensely proud of himself that he didn’t hear the scrape of a chair until it had been pulled right behind him.
“How many she give you?” The guy who wasn’t Jake slipped into the seat behind him, bringing a punch of citrus aftershave.
“Oh, no, I—” Danny tried again. “I have a condition.”
“A what?” The guy jerked his neck, flicking back some hair, dark like Jake’s and cut like Jake’s too, short on the sides, long on top. “McCreedy must’ve given you three. Come on, I gotta bump.”
C-House, apart from being a way station for kids getting dismissed, was also in-house detention. Taking in the guy’s busted hand, Danny guessed he wasn’t there for a dismissal. “A slip won’t get you out of in-house,” said Danny.
“No, but it’ll get me past the guards.”
At that moment Mr. Underhill, the arthritic lizard who oversaw C-House, looked up from his newspaper and with rheumy eyes surveyed the room. C-House looked like any Old Building classroom, with peach and white checkerboard tiles and eraser boards, except that this one was full of non-school activity. Jake had told Danny, years earlier, about the lizard. Hard of hearing and half-blind, he supposedly had only a three-row radius, which was why the back rows were full of card games, arguments, and a couple making out. The old man cleared his throat and, to no one in particular, announced, “I don’t care what you do as long you stay in your seats and keep your clothes on.” He coughed, hacked up something, and swallowed. “Begins with G… Subtle skill. Five letters.” He pointed a pencil at Danny. “You.”
“Why’d you sit in the front row?” whispered the guy who wasn’t Jake, keeping his head down. “He can actually see you.”
“Am I supposed to answer?” said Danny.
“Nah, he just wants to mess with you. Now give me a—”
“Guile,” said Danny.
“What?” said the guy who wasn’t Jake and the lizard, both at once.
“No, five letters,” said the lizard. “Oh. Right.” He scribbled.
The guy who wasn’t Jake glanced at an iPhone the color of grape soda. “Look, I’ll owe you, all right?” He extended a left-handed shake, keeping his head low. “Butch Owens,” he said, eyebrows rising as if to say, you may have heard of me.
Danny replied the way he would to a receptionist at a doctor’s office. “I’m Danny Kelly.” He shook Butch’s small, callused hand. “I’d really like to help but—”
“Fuck’s that?” Butch’s eyes had dropped to Danny’s desk.
“What’s it, like, a symphony?”
Danny cringed. “It’s a rock album.”
“No one gives a shit about rock.” Butch grabbed the notebook, a Rolex peeking from his sleeve. “What’s the bass doing?”
“It’s…” Danny watched Butch, his finger moving over the bass line, his lips pursed in concentration. “You can read that?”
“A Jamerson-type of thing?”
“No. Kind of. You know Jim Jamerson?”
“Dude used to play all fucked up,” Butch said admiringly. “Milkshake plays shit like that.”
“That’s a person?”
“That’s my bass player.”
“Oh,” said Danny, trying not to sound interested. He reached for his notebook, but Butch pulled it away.
“Got a power trio that’s gonna record soon,” said Butch. “Need a road CD for our tour. We’ll do overdubs, compressed vocals, the whole shebang.”
Danny dug in his pocket and held out one of the nurse’s slips. “Can I have my notebook?”
Butch grabbed the slip but kept reading. “Well, this is a mess.”
“What’s a mess?” Danny half-stood to see. “What wrong with Track 5?”
“It’s got no hook. It’s got, like, six sections. What do you play anyway?”
“I used to play piano. Track 5 is supposed to have a complicated structure.”
“What do you mean used to?”
“I mean I don’t play anymore. Can I have my notebook?”
“There’s a piano in the band room. I play it sometimes.” Butch skimmed to Track 6. “Ghost town fourth period. Really I’m more of a guitar guy, lead singer, entrepreneur.”
“Well, like I said, I don’t play—”
“Two things.” Butch slapped his knee. “You gotta record this. Get some players. Press a disc.”
“Thanks. But it’s finished.”
“Finished? You’re not gonna record it?”
“No, I… I had the tunes in my head, and I—”
“Didn’t want to forget them. I get that. But no one gives a shit about a notebook.”
“Well…” A sad nausea pooled in Danny’s belly. “What’s the second thing?”
“Any of these got lyrics?”
“What are you, one of those prog rock guys?”
The lizard coughed. “Last one. G… Four letters. Biting insect.”
“Gnat,” said Danny.
“No, beginning with…” The lizard scratched some skin off his nose. “Right.”
“Listen, kid,” said Butch, raising his voice for the first time. “If you ain’t putting it in wax and it ain’t got words”—he dropped the notebook on Danny’s lap—“it ain’t a rock album. Thanks for the slip.”
“Wait a second!”
For most of Danny’s life, words and music had been born of the same thought—the motion of an arm and the release of a ball. Why these particular notes had arrived without syllables on their backs, then refused all lyrics, he didn’t know, but he was desperate to explain that this was a rock album.
“Mr. Owens.” The lizard sneered. He’d put on his glasses and was pointing a crooked finger at Butch. “Shall I call security?”
“Nah, I can walk myself out.” Butch stood up with his hands raised. “Just needed to jam with my boy.” He smiled at Danny. “Leave yourself a voicemail.”
Butch was backing toward the door. “Before I had a fancy phone, if I had a tune dogging me, I’d sing it into my voicemail.”
“And you.” The lizard pointed at Danny. “You’re Thunder Joe’s kid.”
“Yes…” Danny watched Butch leave. “Yes, sir.”
“Heard he ain’t a cop no more?”
“Retired,” the lizard said, his tone saying, That’s one word for it. “You still fighting?”
“You’re retired too. How’s your dad doing?”
He could be okay, for all Danny knew; he could be staying with Keith or in the stash house of an informant or on the moon. “He’s great.” Danny stared out the door where Butch had left. “I’ll tell him you say hi.”
The first thing Jake had done when he’d gotten his driver’s license was take the kitchen phone into the bathroom and call Amanda Powers. He’d been boasting for weeks that he’d ask her out, so as soon as the bathroom door shut, Danny ran to the kitchen and pressed his ear to the heating grate to eavesdrop. He could hear the ten beeps of the phone number, the tremble in his brother’s voice. As Jake stammered his way to the question, Danny fantasized about his own bathroom call. Although he’d never called Keira Silva and had only talked to her three times—three and a half if you counted the time when she copied his lab report—he had memorized her number. He was going to drive her to Heritage Farm and get ice cream on the river, just like Jake was going to do with Amanda.
Now, as he left C-House, Danny thought back on that fantasy—embarrassing as it was—and told himself it was for the best that he’d never gotten his license. You could get better thinking done on a bus, and on this gloomy afternoon in March Danny had a lot to think about. He took the 3 to South Lowell, passing the boxing gym where he and Jake used to go after school, then rode the 7 along the river to Pawtuckville. It was dark by the time he caught the 5 to the Highlands.
It hadn’t been snowing long when he got off the bus, but the neighborhood was already being patrolled by men with shovels hoping to clear steps or sidewalks for cash. He’d just made it to Armory Park when he heard gunshots—or thought he heard them. They didn’t have the echo of a cherry bomb or the bass-pop of backfire. Women in stockings atop a bench inclined their heads toward Royal Street and then curtsied to Danny, who, blushing, walked on.
In Little Cambodia the snow thickened, and as he walked, grandfathers came out on their stoops to watch the storm, their pipe smoke braiding with the garlic and ginger of their kitchens. None of them looked up when more shots were fired. Dry, compact bangs. A whir-scream of siren.
Danny stopped, snow weighing down his hoodie and mass of curls, and felt the sense of abandonment a siren always brought. Then, for the first time since he’d quit boxing, he started to run.
He ran past the pawn shop, laundromat, and package store, toward the neon and yelling of Captain John’s, its sidewalk paved with scratch tickets. Then he sprinted across the Square and down Hastings to his building.
He blessed himself, out of habit, at the Blessed Virgin above the sink, and with the cordless phone in hand tiptoed passed his mom’s room. In the bathroom he warmed his hands over the heating grate. He was about to dial when he heard footsteps in the hall.
“I’m fine,” he said.
He heard her walk into the kitchen. “You left your cell phone again.” Her voice came clear through the grate. She was squatting next to the refrigerator, speaking into the heating duct.
“What? Oh…yeah.” After the first episode, his mom had been able to overrule his dad’s prohibition on cell phones. But in spite of the fact that Danny had always begged for one, he hated the one they gave him. This was partially because he knew they were only giving it to him to have in the event of crippling—and eventually fatal—chest pain, and partially because he’d stopped talking to the few friends he could’ve called. So every day, including today, he left it in his sock drawer. “Sorry.”
“Nurse McCreedy said you had an episode.”
“I said I’m fine.”
There was a voicemail when he turned on the phone—the echo tech at Lowell General reminding him about his pre-op in two days, her Haitian accent making two syllables of “heart.” He deleted the message, dialed his home number, and hummed a new melody, a ninth and pointless tune. He didn’t even know why he was bothering. When he was done, he slouched against the tub with the phone to his ear and, listening to his voice sing back to him, wondered if Butch Owens was right.
He was still humming the melody the next morning as he got out of the shower, lightheaded and exhausted. All night he’d argued with Butch in his mind, telling him that of course an album could exist in a notebook. Didn’t he know about the immortality of paper? The poetry of ancient Mesopotamia? The Dead Sea Scrolls? As for missing lyrics, couldn’t music by itself move people? Had Butch heard a Nils Lofgren guitar track, or anything by Kaki King?
The trouble came at about 3 a.m. when, with unexpected sincerity, Butch conceded. He started saying things like “I see your point” and “I didn’t know about that Mesopo-whatever place. I hear you. That notebook—that’s what you’re leaving behind.”
“Right,” said Danny, feeling a piercing, dreadful sadness. “Exactly.”
In the bathroom, he dragged his hand down the center of the foggy mirror. With his pale skin, mass of curls, and red nose from a cold that never went away, he thought he had the face of a circus clown. Plus his ribs looked like an instrument you could play with mallets. This was what he was leaving behind.
Naked and dripping, he sat on the tub and hummed the ninth song. He worked on it in his head, adding a bass line and expensive chords. He was thinking of an outro when he noticed, contrapuntal to the piano lick in his mind, a repetitive tolling. Which, snapping out of it, he realized was the door bell.
Danny put his bathrobe on and went to answer the door. He found his mom outside on the landing, clutching The Lowell Sun, her flustered eyes raw from crying.
“Good morning,” she said, trying to act cheery.
“Yeah.” The Project was a lyricless disaster that he had no hope of recording. “Great morning.”
“Thanks for the rescue.” She sat down to her no longer steaming tea and shivered. She was wearing only a powder-blue nightgown under Thunder Joe’s old Vice hoodie. A year ago she’d have said, “How ’bout a hug for your mom?” Now she bunched up her sleeves and held her mug.
The apartment’s phone rang. Danny poured himself some Cheerios and sat across from her. “Are we answering that?”
“It’s your Aunt Maimie,” she said, and unrolled the morning edition of The Sun. “Nurse McCreedy said you got an appointment with a, um…”
He took a spoonful of cereal and tried to chew. The phone stopped ringing.
She played with the neckline of her nightgown under the collar of the sweatshirt. “Well, do you?”
“Isn’t that a HIPAA violation?”
“I don’t know what that means. Are you—” From the pocket of her nightgown, her cell played “Dancing Queen.” “Are you gonna see this man?”
“Yeah,” Danny said, though he’d decided to skip. He’d tell the nurse there’d been a test first period he’d forgotten about.
“Good.” ABBA stopped playing, and she snapped the newspaper back in front of her face.
Danny tried to recall an NME article he’d once read, about a songwriter who’d hypnotized himself. Supposedly, when he came out of the trance, he’d found new lyrics on his tape recorder, mostly about lost memories from his childhood. He could google the article at the library.
“Dearest Christ.” His mom lowered the paper, mouth gaping. “You know this child?”
Danny took the paper. On the front page, below the fold, was a picture of a toothy boy in Buddy Holly glasses. Julio “Sleepy” Ramirez. The article said he’d been in Asian Boyz and had been shot on a stoop, yesterday, behind Armory Park. A sixteen-year-old member of TRG was in custody.
“No.” Danny passed her the paper and walked to the sink, remembering that Paul McCartney had dreamed “Yesterday,” but only the music, so that was no help. “I think I heard the shots.”
“Loving Jesus. Is it weird he’s not Asian?”
“Anyone can get jumped in.” Danny dumped his cereal in the sink. “That’s what Dad used to say.”
Neither spoke for a moment. “Well…” She wiped her nose with her wrist. “Nurse McCreedy mentioned this college fair—”
Danny ran the garbage disposal, setting Our Lady vibrating across the sill. In all the versions he’d ever seen, she looked like this one, tranquil—never middle-aged and grieving, locking herself out. He wished he could pray to her the way his mom did, ask for lyrics, a band, a studio.
When he turned off the disposal she was still talking.
“…if you get above a 1600 on the SAT.”
“I didn’t take it.”
“You didn’t…” She set down her tea. “Danny?”
He turned and walked down the hall.
“Danny, if you—”
“Oh.” He turned and faced her. “I might try to hypnotize myself later. So don’t freak out if I look all spacey. I’m just trying something.”
For years, I thought about writing a novel where a kid writes a rock album to deal with grief and the hard realities of his neighborhood. Like Danny, I grew up afraid of gangs and suffered the unexpected loss of a loved one. And, also like Danny, I wrote music. But I was dyslexic and felt sure I couldn’t write a novel. It was years later, after I’d become a prosecutor, that the story came back to me. Though I was still certain I could never write a book, I did the next best thing: I started a band and wrote Danny’s album myself.
Over the next few years, my band played these songs around Boston, prompting questions about the lyrics and the story they seemed to tell. I was surprised that people cared and wondered if maybe I could write the novel after all. By then, however, I’d been working in the DA’s Office for five years and my understanding of what kids were exposed to had changed. My childhood seemed impossibly safe compared with the horrors that many kids see every day. I wanted to show how guns and drugs enter their lives, how kids end up as prostitutes, drug-runners, and the victims of violence. And I wanted Danny’s story to be my entry point. We’d follow him on his drops and meet gang kids and single, teenage moms. It would be their humor, kindness, and courage that would help Danny let go of his grief and prepare him for the decision I knew he’d have to make. So I wrote a novel with many heroes, and I hope I’ve done a good job—because these kids are my heroes too.
Sean Griffith grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, and currently lives in Cambridge, MA. When he’s not writing music or fiction, he’s working as a lawyer, practicing child-welfare law.
Embark, Issue 1, July 2017