Another crackle danced across her headphones. The foil wrapper sound had always been her favorite; it signaled the onset of deliciousness. Lately, she could hear it anywhere. At school, on the bus, at home; it was starting to get to her.
By now, she had taken to wearing her headphones without plugging them into anything. She had come to find that doing this made the sounds more clear. She also noticed that the crinkling was stronger in certain places. Today she decided to try to figure it out. Octavia backed up against the wall and waited. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. The moments passed like minutes. Waiting like this was harder than she thought it would be. She found herself absent-mindedly fiddling with her hair and remembered her grandmother’s scolds. “No Nena, I don’t want to go bald.” She said to the busy street.
Octavia combed her hair with her fingers and let it hang for a moment before deciding to work in a braid. She fished a hairband out of her pocket and set it around her wrist, fluidly separating and weaving back together her long black hair. As she finished a sharp, clear crinkle spiked to her right. She wound a couple more passes around the end of he braid and stepped away from the wall.
The crinkle grew stronger as she walked. She was slow to start, listening hard to the sound as it shifted. It suddenly hushed and she planted herself at a corner waiting for it to pick up again.
She hopped forward, bumping into a pair rounding the corner.
“S-Sorry!” she spat as she wheeled around, trying to keep the sound in earshot.
As she darted around her fellow pedestrians, she lost track of where she was. She was locked in on the sound. She had to find the source. It had to be coming from somewhere!
Sweat dripped into her eye and cold drops splattered on her neck. The cushioning on her headphones helped block out noise but kept all the hot air in. She pulled them off, slowing as she wiped them off on her shirt. The sound was so loud and clear she could almost pinpoint it. Her gaze settled on a well-dressed, pudgy man. He paused, pulled something out of his pocket and disappeared.
Octavia’s brow furrowed. “How-”
She kept walking, shaking her head. She chuckled at herself when she realized the man had just turned down an alley. He was about halfway down and was opening a bright yellow door.
Her fingertips buzzed as she moved to press her ear against the door. She exhaled and continued. Through the door she could hear a low humming and the sound of two voices, one high and one low. With a soft thud, they became muffled but the humming continued.
Octavia hesitated for a moment before opening the door. Wondering why she was doing this.
I’ll just peek, she thought.
Inside, the humming persisted.
“Why turn back now?”
She followed the humming past the door where the two voices continued. Amid an array of boxes, one glowed with a soft light. The hum pulsed in time with the light. It dimmed and flickered as a whisper hissed to her.
Before she could react, a voice called out from behind her. “Who sent you?” the well-dressed man asked. A grey-haired woman stood a few feet away.
“I heard something, so I followed it.” Octavia quietly responded.
“Do you always stalk strange men?” the grey haired woman asked.
“Strange?” the man muttered and reached into his breast pocket.
“No.” She said. Her eyes darting to the floor.
He produced a handkerchief which crinkled as he unfolded it.
“That’s what I heard!” she exclaimed pointing to the handkerchief.
The woman raised an eyebrow. Her gaze fixed on Octavia for a few tense moments. She turned and walked back towards the other room.
“Go home.” the woman ordered.
Octavia nodded. The man put his kerchief away and ushered her toward the door.
As they reached the yellow door, he paused and said, “You got to be more careful kid. If I was someone else, if she was someone else, you could be in huge trouble!”
The door darkened. He stepped in front of her, removing his hat. From it, he pulled multicolored lengths of ribbon. Swiftly he pulled the ribbon in crisscrossing patterns that seemed to push away the dull mustard where they stuck to door.
“Run!” he shouted, nearly knocking her down as he bolted away from the door.
“Here!” the woman called.
They stood next to her at the table. She was untying a package wrapped in twine. The glowing parcel in one hand, she put out her other and waited a moment. She snapped her fingers and her pudgy partner handed her the handkerchief from his pocket. She fanned out a set of cards in her right hand, swung her arm and they became a floating stairway!
Overwhelmed by everything, Octavia stood in a stupor. The gray-haired woman took her by the hand and guided her up the floating stair made of cards. Safely on the mezzanine the woman swung her arm again and the cards shrunk and stacked into a deck in the palm of her hand. With a flourish the handkerchief grew to an unbelievable size. She draped it over Octavia and lead her to a space between some wooden crates. The old woman took her hand and pressed the deck of cards into it. She finished covering her with the huge handkerchief and gently squeezed her shoulders.
The woman took a deep breath and calmly said, “They won’t see you under there, but be still or they might sense you. If you survive, I advise you to refrain from getting into other people’s business again.”
Octavia watched the woman turn around and step off of the mezzanine. The girl inched forward as the old woman gracefully drifted down from the upper level. She joined her associate, who passed something to her. Three hooded men, shrouded in shadow, emerged from the hallway. She winced as the five shouted and bright flashing lights erupted in the space between them. The men charged and surrounded the two, who moved with unexpected speed and grace.
A dark ring formed in between the three men and began to close on the well-dressed man and the gray-haired woman. As it tightened and the hooded men drew closer, the pair desperately struck and knocked down two of them. The third man seized the ring with both hands. He pulled and twisted it.
The two were gone. The other hooded men got to their feet. The third man reeled the dark ring to himself and it contracted until Octavia could no longer see it. The men looked through the boxes on the table and left.
She waited until she was sure they were gone and then she waited some more. It had turned dark. She rushed home, her hand over the cards in her pocket the entire time. She didn’t know what she would say to her grandmother. She hoped she would arrive before her mother.
Nobody was home when she got there. It was mostly dark, but the kitchen light was on. There was a note on the kitchen table. It read:
RAN OUT TO HELP A FRIEND. FOOD IS IN THE OVEN. DON’T EAT IT ALL!
Octavia wasn’t hungry. She somehow felt hollow and heavy. Where were they? She didn’t want to be yelled at. She didn’t want to see them. She didn’t want to be alone.
Exhausted, she retreated to her bedroom. She laid out her things and changed into fresh, comfortable clothes. The cards sat atop her dresser, bound in the handkerchief, She untied them and looked them over. They looked old, not like something you could get from the store. The fronts were blank, all white where there should have been numbers and suit symbols. What were they for? What was any of it for?
She flipped through the cards, lost in the blank faces. She thought about the hooded men, the well-dressed man and the grey-haired woman. Her chest felt tight and her eyes burned with tears. She thought about how it could have gone differently, how they could have beaten the men in hoods. Through the blur of tears, she saw a glimmer across the cards. She stopped and drew the card up from the deck. She dried her eyes and felt warm as she beheld a hooded queen, in gold and white. She looked triumphant.
“I bet you could have saved them.” Octavia said wistfully to the card queen.
“Perhaps we still can.” answered the queen in a whisper.