Music is truly a marvel of human invention.
In essence, it’s nothing more the configuration of sounds in a set pattern, sometimes produced through our vocal cords, or often times through contraptions consisting of nothing more than strings and pieces of metal and wood.
But the beauty of music is not in how it’s created, but in the inevitable result. It is a deliberate pattern of sounds that can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways, loved by people all over the world, if not throughout the known universe.
Michael Kay is one of those people.
In fact, he is more than that. He doesn’t know it yet, but he is one of the audio generation: those select few who call themselves Music Masters.
This is his story, his white knuckle ride; in all its long playing glory.
It was in all likelihood very frustrating to be the neighbor of Colleen Kay.
As a relatively hard-working twenty-something, Colleen peacefully came and went from her Washington Heights apartment when work demanded her to do so. She waved at the neighbors when if they waved first, usually acknowledged the postman, and put long and stressful hours at her nursing job.
So one could only assume that in the hours she wasn’t home, there should be nothing but peace and quiet.
If not for her afro-headed brother, of course.
It was just another typical afternoon for Michael Jason Kay, the spotlights in his room practically high-beams, and his music so loud that it seemed to warp the walls of his room with each loud bass strum.
Taller than most boys his age, Michael Kay flowed like water, his red sneakers burning up the dance floor with each step. As the pumping disco beat pulsed around him, he bounced back and forth in near perfect sync.
Though his room was small, it was big enough to fit the configuration of colored spot lights he had bought to better emulate the heart of a disco dance floor. The room lit up with a turquoise glint, reflecting off his tan skin as his large orb of hair bobbed and his record player continued to play its soulful melody in the corner.
Eyes closed, lost in the music, Michael could feel words just beginning to escape his lips as he descended into boogie wonderland.
“Got canned heat in my heels ton-“
Unfortunately for him, those next words never came. Instead, a voice seemed to pierce the wall of noise. A very familiar voice; one that he hated to hear on days like this.
“Michael! Can you please turn it down just a decibel?”
Michael’s eyes snapped open, and he felt his hips sway out of his control. They bounced against his dresser, nearly knocking over his prized lava lamp. Michael reached for it like a clumsy ape, catching it just in time and then proceeding to groan audibly as he pulled the needle off his vinyl copy of Synkronized.
Switching off his strobe lights, his face soured. Thanks to his always wonderful sister, the moment was gone.
Michael stepped out of his room, hands buried in his pockets as he whined.
“Oh come on, Colleen! That was my jam! I was in the moment, you know? The moment!”
His sister’s tone of voice was nothing short of uninterested. She was clearly far more concerned with fixing her curly black hair in the mirror.
“Well that’s too bad.”, she began, as Michael plopped down on the couch nearby. “Because until you have enough money to go ahead and soundproof your room, there’s only so many of your moments I can take. And let’s not even get started on the other tenants.”
Michael grinned to himself as he plopped down onto the couch. “Oh come on. I don’t play it that loud.”
As always, his toothy smile had close to no effect on his older sister. She simply picked up her work notepad from her desk before dropping it right on Michael’s stomach.
“I’m not here to argue with you, little brother. I’m here to tell you that I need an errand done. Go down to store and pick a couple things up. And please, only what’s on the list. ” she stated, as she poured herself a glass of water from the tap. The heat still permeated in their cramped apartment in these final days of summer.
“What!? Why can’t you just do it? You’re supposed to be off today, and I have a dance routine to perfect.” Michael protested.
Colleen simply put her hands up as she shook her head with frustration. “I had off. But Christy decided to get sick yet again, and we need the cash for next month. The least you can do for me is this one tiny task.”
His sister reached for her beige coat, checking her baby blue scrubs in the mirror for stray stains. Colleen had a funny feeling she’d be getting blood on them soon enouch, but this remained to be her meticulous habit.
“I’m sure it’ll only take you ten minutes, tops.”
Michael let out a long sigh. He stuffed the note in his pocket, grumbling to himself as he headed for the front door.
“Yeah. Ten minutes I could be using practicing some killer moves…”
If there was but one solace of having to walk the six blocks out to the grocery store, it was that Michael’s music could always come with him. As a listener of the classics, having been bought a vinyl player by his Uncle Rob on his seventh birthday, Michael still nevertheless understood the convenience of modern music players. He grinned to himself as he shuffled through his various disco and funk songs, the mental play list already forming in his mind.
It was only two days away from the end of summer vacation, but the seasonal colors still prevailed over the New York City skyline. Michael was never one to control his urges, his feet shuffling slightly and his shoulders popping as he walked along the sidewalk to his destination. Even in the busy street, not a taxi cab driver cursing nor a dog barking would interrupt him from his self-imposed sound zone.
As Michael walked, he was far too engrossed to pay attention to the Dust Bowl; an old skate park in the neighborhood always populated by teenagers, local or otherwise. His headphones offered privacy away from the city’s ambiance, and thus he continued to grin to himself as he went along.
Naturally, he couldn’t hear the sound of skateboard wheels grinding against asphalt, even as this one particular set skidded off the rail and to a halt as he passed by the fence separating the Dust Bowl from the sidewalk.
A set of dark green eyes watched him from beneath a tangled mess of brown hair as he remained oblivious. She scanned him up and down; noting his huge black afro, his red sneakers, navy blue jeans and the piercing colors of his tie dye shirt, which was embedded with the design of a pitch black vinyl record.
Then all of sudden, she winced under her breath, instinctively holding her hands up to her ears as a jolt of sound broke her from her train of thought.
It wasn’t his appearance that bothered her. He looked like a moron for sure, but she could ignore that.
No, it was the infernal noise going through his ears. A high-pitched singer was like a wailing ghost invading her eardrums.
For most people, the music coming from someone’s headphones over sixty feet away wouldn’t be a bother.
Because even at the loudest volume in a much closer proximity, Michael Kay’s music would still come off as an unintelligible mix of squeals and whistles.
And on top of that, the heavy, dark blue headphones guarding this girl’s ears would have guaranteed she wouldn’t hear anything but hard guitar strums and bleating punk rock beats.
Except that this girl wasn’t like most people. She grimaced through her green lipstick as she propped up her skateboard, the sound of his music grating at her ears painfully. It was like a stereo in the other room; she couldn’t hear it perfectly, but she could still hear it.
She watched him like a hawk as he passed by, his music thankfully getting further and further away. After another few seconds, he was out of sight, and his disco strings now out of mind.
But the girl still spit out venom, as a few other skaters passed behind her, unaware of her plight.
“Oh great. The disco circus is in town.”
Michael Kay surveyed the covers in front of him, a gleam in his eyes as he grinned. Looped around his right wrist were Colleen’s groceries. However, as she had done time and time again before, Colleen forgot how much the groceries actually cost.
And so with all the essentials covered, Michael decided that a little reward was in order. And thus, here he was, patrolling the aisles of Audio Empire, the most prolific music store in his immediate Washington Heights neighborhood.
Though he owned a great many albums on vinyl, Michael always had room in his tiny closet for one more. As he flipped through everything from The Whispers to Barry White to The Bee Gees, he wondered what particular artist tickled his fancy today.
It didn’t take him long to spot something of interest; a rare special edition cut of Parliament Gold. Michael grinned at his luck, inadvertently talking to himself as he hurried towards the cashier.
“Oh man, Rob would love this. I bet he memorized every single bass line.”
The words were low, but yet they were still enough to make the boy’s expression slowly sink.
If there was one thing that made him more unhappy than being forced on grocery runs and being forced away from practicing his dance routine, it was remembering Rob.
Michael looked back at the aisles of Audio Empire as he stood in line, his mind visualizing his first trip here. It all coalesced into a vivid memory, the image of his uncle with his pulled down cap and large bass guitar case on his back thrust into Michael’s mind.
This was back when his hair was of normal length, and he still remembered the warmth of Rob’s hand on his shoulder. There were few feelings comparable to that joy that came when Rob had bought him his cherished copy of The Jacksons’ Destiny.
This album had been Michael’s very first vinyl record, and it was this purchase that ignited in him a love of disco music that would follow him for the rest of his life.
Though all these memories were happy, there still remained the painful fact of the present.
Michael Kay hadn’t seen his uncle Rob since he was seven years old. Rob, and these memories of him, seemed like a world away.
“…Howdy, and welcome to Audio Empire! How can I help you today?”
Michael’s mind was practically glazed over. He nearly jumped out of skin when the girl repeated herself.
The afro-headed boy blinked. In front of him, a blond cashier with distinctly lightning-shaped earrings and a blue checkered blazer smiled as politely as she could while she waited for him to respond. He laughed awkwardly, placing his chosen album on the counter.
“Oh! I’m just picking this up.” he replied. The girl ringed in his purchase as he shook his mind out of past thoughts.
“That’ll be a dollar fifty!” she exclaimed, her tone clearly excitable now. Michael handed over a crumpled dollar and change. For however rare this vinyl was, most of these old funk vinyls still remained to be surprisingly cheap.
“Thanks.” Michael said, his attention already elsewhere.
She waved as her register dinged. “Of course! Come back real soon!”
Michael largely ignored her upbeat attitude, but that didn’t seem to affect her much, as she seemed just as eager when the next customer approached the counter behind him.
Michael stepped out of the automatic doors as he popped his headphones in. As the music overtook him, he felt the overwhelming need to move his body again. Canned Heat was calling to him, and he switched to the song.
“No interruptions this time.” he said to himself, a dumb smile forming on his face as the song lit up his soul.
The walk back was relatively short, but it gave Michael enough time to loop Canned Heat more than once. Though it was getting pretty windy, Michael didn’t mind one bit. He was distracted again, moving to his own tune as he practically danced along the route back to the apartment.
Michael always thought that if John Travolta could make walking look funky, he could too. Of course, most of his fellow pedestrians probably wouldn’t agree.
Luckily, the streets were mostly empty this afternoon.
It had been a good half hour, but that was nowhere near enough time to make the girl at the Dust Bowl forgot about Michael’s music. As he absentmindedly passed by the fence, the messy-haired skater girl was once again assaulted by a piercing interruption of foreign music. It was like another channel in her head, spilling into her punk rock song like a pool of sludge into clear water.
She sat up from the stone bench, ignoring the other skaters in the bowl below as her gaze focused on the afro-headed idiot from before.
“Not this junk again.” she groaned. Nearby, a boy clad in shoulder length dreadlocks responded mockingly.
“What junk? You talking about your board, girl?” he chortled, too busy laughing to himself to notice her approaching in his direction.
He barely had time to react as she stepped hard on his skateboard, forcing its center of gravity upward and tossing him off it completely. He tumbled down into the skate bowl, scratching himself a bit in the process, but it didn’t seem to phase the girl one bit.
“…maaan! It was a joke!” he exclaimed, pulling himself up and rubbing his now scratched arm as a few other skaters chuckled at his plight.
“You new here?” one of them said, being kind enough to help the boy up. “My advice to you: don’t joke with Kim. I’m pretty sure her sense of humor is MIA.”
The boy simply replied with a nervous smile, wondering what crawled up her spine to make her so irritable.
Meanwhile, Kim was now much closer to the fence separating the Dust Bowl from the sidewalk, watching the afro-headed boy twirl around a lamppost like a moron to the sound of his music.
Reaching into the trash nearby, she was able to find a serviceable soda can, and her expression softened with confidence. Focusing her eyes under her brown bangs, she waited for the perfect moment.
And it was just as Michael began belting out lyrics that she found it. With a strong swing, the can went catapulting over the fence.
“I used to worry about the fut-“
Once again, fate would not allow Michael to finish singing as the can made impact with the left side of his face. He yelped like a dog as he almost fell off balance, twirling awkwardly as he just barely regained his footing.
Kim laughed under her breath at the sight.
Finally aware of the pain, Michael simply nursed his eye as he looked downward, picking up the stray red can and wondering what exactly had happened.
“Hey, what gives!?” he exclaimed, looking around but not immediately finding a culprit to blame. He was speaking loudly over his music, his eyes now focusing on the can in his hand as the pain in his eye started to subside.
“Going around throwing that…canned heat?”
The words sort of slipped out of his mouth. For a moment, he focused away from the pain, and from the can in his hand. When he really looked at, it reminded him of the same red-orange on the cover of the single version of Canned Heat. The album itself was pushed up against others back in his room closet.
But for some reason, the image really spoke to him this time. It coursed through his mind, enveloping his senses to the point where the imagery began to associate with sensation. In a way, it connected directly with the music playing in his ears.
And so, like he had done many times in the past, Michael focused on the music. He let his mind drift into another self-imposed sound zone. He could hear the strings, the vocals, the soft clanging of the drums. He listened to the bass, closing his eyes and imagining every strum going through every fiber of his being.
He then saw heat. Or at least, a visual representation of heat. It manifested in his mind as the shimmering mirage one might seen in a desert, though it glowed with red-orange intensity like the art on the Canned Heat single.
Strangely though, it soon felt real. The shimmering heat became less like a dream and more like a sensation. Seconds later, and his right hand began to noticeably rise in temperature.
The chorus blared with intensity. Michael opened his eyes as they echoed through his eardrums.
Amazingly, the heat was now all too real.
Michael’s expression went wide, as what was left of the can dripped down his palm like it had been melted by a death ray. His right hand was now sheathed in the same shimmering red-orange aura, which burned bright enough to make him squint. He wondered what he was seeing in front of him, or perhaps it was just that the can had just given him one hell of a concussion.
When he blinked, and the heat was still there, it was obvious that this wasn’t a hallucination.
And so, Michael reacted naturally.
“Oh man!” he cried out like a small child, shaking his hand wildly as if to remove the fiery aura, but to no avail. “Get it off! Get it off, get if off, get it off!”
The heat seemed stuck to him though, and grabbing onto the fence yielded nothing more than a loud sizzling as it began to melt away at the old metal. The remains of the can had been vaporized at this point.
Almost by instinct, Michael reached for his headphones with his non-burning hand, pulling one off and then the other as he continued to stare in disbelief. And in the instant the music was not playing in his ears, the shimmering heat aura seemed to fade away. Like someone pulling the plug on an amp, it was simply gone.
Michael did a double take, looking around. A few pedestrians stared at his general oddness, but it appeared that no one else noticed the shimmering red-orange heat that enveloped his hand just moments before. And if they had noticed, neither people walking nor skaters nearby seemed to care. Michael felt beyond confused, but it was at this point that he finally noticed the girl through the fence, who glared at him in some sort of disbelief.
She was only somewhat surprised at this sudden display of power, oddly enough.
Their gazes met, and Michael took in her appearance. She had very messy, shoulder length brown hair. Her ensemble consisted of heavy green lipstick, a purple tank top, toxic green pants held up by a dull orange belt, and bulky combat boots. Despite her intimidating appearance, she was still a girl, that much was certain.
Spotting the curiosity in his eyes, Kim was quick to turn aside. She wanted nothing to do with him now that his detestable music was off for the time being.
And though she was some twenty feet away now, Michael could have sworn that he heard the few words she mumbled under her breath as she walked away.
“Another Music Master. Wonderful. Because that’s exactly what this crummy neighborhood needed…”
Michael pressed himself up against the bars of the fence, but now Kim was clearly out of reach. The words echoed in his head. Had his hearing always been this good?
That had to be exactly what she said. Michael mouthed the same words, his mind beginning to fantasize a possible meaning. Did it have something to do with what had just happened?
He debated calling out to the girl, but judging by her attitude, it didn’t seem worth it.
Michael turned away, now looking at his once prized music player with creeping apprehension.
There was a connection between what had happened and the song that had been playing in his ears, that much was for sure. Was it safe to even try listening to Canned Heat again? And if Michael did even dare to try it, what if something worse happened? He imagined bursting into flame.
Michael then gulped at a grim thought. One that was far worse than the prospect of his afro being lit up like an effigy.
Was it ever safe to listen to any of his music again?