Jukebox in a Nameless Bar
by Julian Lee
This fic was originally written for the Soundfic challenge, http://sound.gatefiction.com/. Check it out.
I'd bet all the money I don't have anymore that this is the most used door in town, but it squeals like a hundred years of disuse when Scully shoves her palms against it and squeezes into the bar.
A rush of warmth hits my face, a sticky-sweet heat of too many bodies crammed into too small a space for too long a time. The confusion of two dozen different conversations bubbles up to us: shrill laughs; barbed arguments; the growl of short fuses. And then we're inside.
Like they're all controlled by a single switch, the conversations fall dead. That low drone is the generator. The fwump fwump fwump is the whirring blades of the ceiling fan. If I listen hard enough, I can pretend to hear the plunk of a drop of sweat hitting a tabletop. What I don't have to pretend, as Scully apologizes our way through the crowd towards the empty table in the dead center of the room, is about fifty pairs of eyes watching us like we're the last traveling freak show in the land.
Which, come to that, we just may be.
Scully's flush intensifies with every step; John's hands furl and unfurl at his sides; I can feel my clenched jaw all the way to the top of my head. Only Mulder seems oblivious to the whole thing, his tuneless, off-key whistling about to send me into a murderous frenzy. Scully's chair scrapes hideously along the wood floor when she pulls it away from the table, and everyone flinches as the noise grates along their nerves like a bad memory. She grimaces and glances around. God, when did this formidable woman become our designated groveler? Probably when we realized that she's the only one anybody trusts these days. The rest of us aren't looking too reputable anymore.
For the record - if there is such a thing now - they're all still watching us. We're strangers, obviously traveling. These days, only bandits and governmentals travel - and in a lot of people's eyes there's precious little difference between the two.
Time was, a server in a bar like this would be a college student trying to pick up a little extra pocket change. The woman who comes to our table looks even older than me - though these things have gotten hard to judge - a woman worn down by all the shit our poor world's been through. Well, there's no more colleges to need pocket change for, and far too few kids who should be going there. The woman plunks an ashtray onto the table; it spins and rattles its way to stillness. We're too exhausted to tell her we don't need it, though Mulder's eyes narrow as they still always do when they fall on anything smoking-related.
"Good evening," the server greets us. Manners. This was a lady of sorts, once.
"Good evening," John and I reply automatically. Scully nods respectfully. Mulder's already rooting in his bag for his gear, the papers rustling against each other. One day soon, Scully's going to have to set that boy down and have a talk about etiquette.
"Mulder," Scully sighs.
He looks up. "Huh?"
She shakes her head. "Never mind."
For the first time, the server seems to notice that Scully is one woman traveling with three kind of suspicious-looking men, and she doesn't like it. Of course, if she knew Scully, she'd be more worried for the three of us traveling with her. Scully raises her hand to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear, and the dim, cheap, humming light bulb hits off her ring. The server seems relieved, but I know she's going to be doing hand checks all night until she finds the mate. All I can do is put my hands on the table so she sees I don't have it. She looks at me, and I shrug. "What can I get you?" she asks.
"Whisky, please," I say. I don't think John's going to fuss, but I don't look at him, just in case.
The woman nods and turns to John. "For you?"
"The strongest coffee you've got, please."
She looks him over. I don't know why it is, but it's a plain fact: nobody makes weak coffee anymore. "The strongest coffee I've got can clean out an engine. You got an engine needs cleaning out?"
He grins winningly at her. "Yes, ma'am. Mine."
She smiles back and looks at Scully, who also asks for coffee, and then on to Mulder, who's so engrossed in his charts that he doesn't even know we're here anymore.
"Mulder!" Scully hisses.
He looks up again. "Huh?"
"Order something," I bark. "Now."
"Coffee," he says automatically. "And whiskey. But not together." And he's lost in his charts again. The woman harrumphs and walks away. "Are we doing this or what?"
I roll my eyes. "All right, Mulder. Let's get it over with." I would've been happier finding a place to crash for the night and doing this there, but after listening to a subsurface buzz building in Mulder all day, I knew that John and I would get an ear-piercing dressing down from Scully if we dispatched them without giving Mulder a chance to work out his extra nervous energy. "Okay. Vasquez. What do you have?"
He rustles some papers. "Found in Vancouver." We hold our breath, but we know what comes next. "Stripped."
John deflates at my side; Scully looks like she's fighting tears. I wonder that she has any left. I flip ahead in my roster. "Zeaman, then." Mulder notes it in his book, and I turn to an empty page in the black log. "Vasquez, Honoria. Found-" I frown and consult my watch. "August 17, 2015, C.H.D.; Vancouver, Old Canada (FWM). -WSS." For a minute I stare at the notation, marveling that it all means something to me. 'Stripped' - a nifty trick of the aliens', using the hands, eyes, and internal organs of healthy humans to fix up damaged super soldiers. 'C.H.D.' - Commonly Held Date, our constant reminder that we no longer have any idea what day it really is, how much time has passed since the invasion began. 'Old Canada,' because when your entire planet is suddenly under attack from an extraterrestrial force, old distinctions like nations and ethnicities no longer seem relevant.
The aliens didn't win. Then again, neither did we.
"Vrieland." I look at Scully.
She shakes her head. "I had the rumor of a lead, but both the rumor and the lead turned up dead ends."
"That's day four, Agent."
The server comes back with our drinks, clinking glass on wood with a disapproving counterpoint of clicking tongue. "Trackers. Shoulda guessed." She sticks her tongue between teeth and lip and pulls it away with a faintly obscene slurp. "I don't approve, but Matthias says governmentals drink free, so you'd better enjoy it."
"Thank you," John says, trying not to let us see how her hostility wounds him. He reaches for his drink with his left hand, so now she knows it's not him, either. That leaves only Mulder, and the server's eyes go really narrow. He does not pass.
Scully and I (though not, unsurprisingly, Mulder) thank the woman, and she retreats. I sip my whisky, thankful for its slow, tumbling burn, and look at John. "Whitley."
John looks damned dejected. "Nothing."
I sigh and pull out the blue log. "That's day ten." John is silent. "Zwicke." No response. "Agent, did you hear me? That's ten days for Whitley. Move on to Zwicke."
He glowers at me, eyes snapping. "Yes, sir. I heard you."
"Good." I turn away, unwilling to surrender to the pain in those blue eyes. John is loathe to give anyone up, and as I flip to Betty Whitley's page, I have to pass the reason why.
"Reyes, Monica. Killed in the war." I wish we could've written more, but during the battles we didn't have time to do more than write down the names of those who fell around us before we went back to fight some more. Monica was one of the lucky ones, really. Her memories hadn't been wiped; she wasn't used as a breeder or a slave; her organs weren't scavenged while she was still alive. She was just shot, a single percussive bang in the back of the head while the rest of us stood by helplessly. Nothing John or I or anyone else could've done could've changed it. Still, he blames himself, most days. On the other days, he blames me.
So. "Whitley, Betty. Second search (JJD) unsuccessful. August 17, 2015, C.H.D. -WSS."
"I have a lead for Warmeier," I tell them. "I'll be heading to Tampa in the morning."
John's eyes snap back to me. "Then I'll be heading with you."
"Not this time, John." I'm going to lose this fight, but still I have to fight it.
"We don't split up the team, Walter."
"On this occasion-"
It's like I'm not even here. "And we sure as hell don't split up us."
I have to smile at him. Technically, there are protocols, and, inasmuch as there is any hierarchy anymore, John and I are fairly high up in it and ought to be following those protocols. But if we're separated, odds are good we'll never find each other again. And those are odds I am not willing to risk. So I squeeze his hand quickly and say, "We will be heading to Tampa in the morning." Looking at Mulder and Scully, I add, "Whether you join us or not is up to you." I've said that every time John or I have pulled the team in a new direction.
The conversations around us have started up again, whirling around us in twisted fragments. Glasses clink against tables and each other; the raucous laughter of the newly drunk shrills in our ears. Finished putting away his charts, John is nursing the coffee that's probably stronger than my whisky and looking around the bar. Suddenly he puts his mug on the table and grabs my arm. "Walter! Walter, is that-"
I look where he's looking. "Sure looks that way."
His voice is low, reverent. "Think it works?"
"I don't know." I find our server pouring beers behind the bar. "But she would."
He scrapes his chair across the wood floor in a flash, and I wonder why he's so worked up over this. "Ma'am?" John calls breathlessly, rushing up to the bar. "Ma'am, your jukebox - is it just for decoration, or will it play?"
The woman looks offended. "For show? Boy, if it was just for show, we'd've melted it down the first day of the War. Course it plays."
With a whoop that passes for thank-you, John races back across the room - now under the watchful eye of the crowd - to the jukebox.
Panic setting into his eyes, he turns back to the bar. "How's it run?" Because jukeboxes ran on coins, and there are no more coins. They were all melted down - along with everything else metal - to build guns. That many guns were what we needed, in the end, to defeat the aliens.
Chuckling - a rusty, gravelly sound that clearly doesn't get used much - the woman comes around the bar with something in her hand. She gives the thing to John. "Wooden nickels. It'll only play one song at a time. But I warn you-" He's spinning the nickel in his fingers and barely listening. "It don't always work right. Sometimes it'll just cut out mid-song and won't play again for a week."
"Thank you, ma'am," he says distractedly and turns to me. "Walter! Help me pick my song."
I can't figure out what's gotten into him. As I rise to join him, Mulder, finally back in the world of the living and fully sarcastic, says, "I'd better not hear any Patsy Cline come out of that thing, Skinner."
"It's a functioning jukebox, Mulder," I tell him. "You'll take whatever it's got." I fight my way across the room to John's side. He's flipping back and forth among the four pages of available songs. I put my hands on his shoulders. "John?"
"This is amazing, Walter. Man, when I was in high school, my sister and I used to sneak out of the house on Saturday nights when Daddy was playing poker with his buddies and Ma was doing her baking for Sunday. We'd go down to Cutter's with quarters falling out of every pocket, and we'd plug that jukebox all night." His fingers curl around the cool, rounded metal. "I was seeing a girl named Merri Blake - on the sly, of course; Ma would never've approved. And the thing I loved best about Merri Blake was her cousin Riley, who lived with them that year. And, hell, I was a confused fifteen-year-old kid who couldn't understand why I liked Merri but liked watching Riley's ass even more. But I knew I liked the music coming out of that jukebox, and I knew I could dance."
Instantly, I see it. John at fifteen, not yet grown into his arms and feet and ears, confused by the lure of a girl and her cousin, driven by the relentless beat of a music Ma Doggett didn't allow in her upright, God-fearing home. And now I imagine why he's so fixated by the jukebox. Ma Doggett, wiped. Merri Blake, stripped. Cousin Riley, killed in the war. Cutter's and its jukebox, flattened, a tumbled heap of rubble somewhere in what was once the South.
They didn't win. This is the price we're paying for their loss.
"Don't go to Tampa," he whispers.
Part of me thinks I should try to hold him. I don't move. "How can I stay? I have this lead-"
"And you'll find her wiped. That far south they're always wiped."
"I have to go anyway," I tell him. "That's what trackers do."
"Maybe it's time we stopped being trackers." He practically spits the words. "We're almost to the end of the alphabet again. When my ten days on Zwicke are over, we'll go back to 'A.' It'll never be over, and I'm not sure I can do it anymore."
"You don't have to come-"
"The hell I don't." He shakes his head vehemently. "I won't lose you."
"Then we'll go. Because we have to."
"Nothing works anymore, Walter."
"Then we'll fix it." It's a platitude. It's a goddamned fucking platitude that I am nowhere close to believing anymore, but I've run out of anything else to say. I see the rough edge of the wooden coin he's still clinging to and try to smile at him. "Your song?"
No Patsy Cline, but there's Nancy Sinatra, and John says to pick it for Mulder. "Are you sure?" I ask. "It's the only one you get." He nods insistently, and I shrug. "Anything you want, John."
He pushes the buttons to start the music. "I want you to dance with me, Walter."
"These Boots" isn't exactly dancing music, but as the scratch and hiss of the jukebox warming up surrenders to the thump of righteously indignant drums, I see that fifteen-year old kid and know I can't possibly turn him down.
And so we dance. Ignoring the stares, ignoring Mulder's whine of "Nancy Sinatra!", John and I dance. It's a bizarre, cramped hop-shuffle, because the music's all wrong and the space is too small and we're a little too old and exhausted for this, but I feel the echo of John's younger self, and I'm grateful for whatever Merri Blake and Cousin Riley taught him.
I hold onto John, and he holds onto me, hopelessly. We'll never be able to stop running; we'll never fix a damned thing.
The jukebox cackles and pops. The trumpets waver; the voice warbles. The hiss of static and the click of the record bumping across the turntable wars with the wavering trumpet and the warbling voice. The scraping of the chairs on the wooden floor and the thunking of glasses on the wooden tables runs beneath the clicking turntable and hissing static and the wavering trumpet and the warbling voice.
The hiss and crackle increase, drowning the music. The clicks and bumps grow more frequent. The wavering and warbling are all over the map.
"These boots are made f--
These boots are made f--
These boots are maaaaaa--"
"What's happening?" John breaks away from me, stares at the jukebox, runs to the bar. "What's happening?"
The server keeps wiping the bar, doesn't look at him. "I told you, it happens sometimes. It's an old, busted-up jukebox. Sometimes it falls apart, just like everything else."
The aliens didn't win. Neither did we.
John races back to the jukebox, gripping the cold metal sides. The music has degraded to no more than a shrill of white noise and furious hisses. It crescendos to a level so deafening I have to take two steps backwards and cover my ears. John doesn't move.
And then it's gone. The silence is so absolute I can't hear the clinking glasses and scraping chairs. I can't hear fan blades and generators.
"No," John whispers. He shakes the jukebox, rattles it, slams it against the wall. "NO!"
I take his hands and try to pry him away. "Leave it, John." He clings; I pull harder. "Come on, John. Come away from it." He relents, falling away from the silent, hulking metal. He shakes as I steer him back to the table.
Scully and Mulder have settled the bill and stand by the table, waiting for us. As soon as we reach them, I give Scully a nod, and she squares her shoulders and begins apologizing our way out, beneath the silent, reproachful gaze of the bar's patrons.
The door squeals open, and we pour out into the muggy night air. The door squeals behind us and shuts with a dull but definitive thud. We are Outside again. The jukebox will not play again. Between our silent selves and the silence of the bar, there is only more silence.
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