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That old heartbeat again

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It's late afternoon, and the heat is sticky, almost friendly, as it dances with the lights and the shadows and the setting sun.

And maybe it's the summer that does it. And maybe it's the shadow. And maybe it's the light. Yes, maybe it's the light in this old town. Whatever it is, something really does it—something catches his eye.

(Something catches his soul.)

And he stops.

And he turns around.

Through the dirty windowpane of the little pawn shop he's just passing by, he sees it—an old guitar. Not striking or luxurious or expensive-looking, to be sure, but it might have been handsome enough once, long ago. And, as it stands proudly outside its case, its nice, dark wood still catches the light—it catches him.

And oh, he never heard it coming.

He steps inside the shop. The place is small and crowded, all curiosities and memories and half-priced dreams. There's a fiddle, carrying prize-winning dance steps and tears. There's a tambourine, softly shaking with all its bells and its laughter and its sparks. There's an accordion, with old rum-laced secrets and sandpaper sorrows trapped inside. There's a box drum, with the rhythm of a heartbeat within, and he feels it. He feels them, yes, all of them, and maybe in another life...

But still, he is drawn to the guitar. There is something about it, he thinks, something that reminds him of old, intriguing things, and years gone by, and that simple, lost feeling of childhood, of potential discoveries, of youth and defiance, of days and nights and small adventures and dreams waiting to happen...

It is as if he has seen it before, in a dream, or in a haze. And he can't even play guitar—but does that matter? There it is now, all strange warmth and dark wood and sharp strings, somehow shaping itself into his hands, into his soul—as if it had always belonged there.

And maybe it has.

And he wants it.

And what's that worth?

Priceless, he thinks.

So he walks out, holding the guitar—his name on the case already, somehow, the chords almost wrapped tightly around his heart.

*

And there are the strings, entangled in the wind. And there are the chords—they are sharp, like the strife of living, and they tell a story. They say that silence tastes like emptiness, and loneliness burns like a candle. They say that the old, dusty abyss that looks at him laughs—it knows that he loves too many ghosts. Yes, it knows that his heart is all clutter and scraps—a sad bundle of whiskey and smoke, an empty hand, a bottle of pain.

And it knows him. He is a shadow, a blueprint—a man made of gutters and dark taverns and endless nights, of sweet oblivion, of cards and alcohol and willing, open arms. He is a man made of music, music long gone. And his soul is a caged, untamed thing, all quick steps and fire and pain, all undone by the years.

Yes, he is a shadow. And he's lost all track of time. And he's lost all sense of self.

It's early now (he thinks), but the day is grey and tired already, the sky is stabbed by the factories and the smoke.

And he is grey and tired too. But he can bear it.

There it is, he thinks. There it is again.

He hasn't lost it.

He hears it, and all is well—all is well now. Yes, he hears it—waiting for him at the station, the guitar like an old friend, all wrapped up in its dusty, familiar case—all wrapped up in the arms of a stranger.

And he knows how it will go. He knows his heart, like a bird, like a whisper, like a small weapon that keeps the world away, like an old chord, finally found...

Let's go, he thinks. Let's just see what haunts it.

(Let's just see what he says.)

And he licks his lips. And he licks his fingertips, to grasp the music, to keep it close. And the morning is cold, but his fingers move up and down the neck of the guitar, slowly, slowly—almost tenderly, almost home.

It was like I always knew it, he says. I just don't know where I learned it.

He speaks, and he remembers the feeling of a dream he once had—faint like a whisper, sweet like spring rain.

(If you still remember a dream when you wake up, it means something, he thinks.)

And he licks his fingertips again. And he waits.

I've been waiting all these years, the stranger next to him says, without words. No, he hasn't spoken, but there is something in his voice—something soft and low, like a secret. And he's got black hair, and he's got gentle hands. And there is something in his eyes as he looks at him.

He sees him—the shadow man.

He knows him.

Good luck, he says.

And his shadow hands shake. And his shadow heart stumbles. His shadow soul unravels, caught in the chords.

That's my name on the case, he thinks.

But he is a shadow. He can't forget. And he knows that he will leave it all behind, again—like his soul, caught in the eyes of this stranger, on this train that keeps going and going and going, far and away, always looking for something he can't find... yes, sharp, like the strife of being.

*

There's that guitar again.

Through the years, over and over, it keeps finding him.

And who could blame it?

And who could possibly blame him?

After all, there is something, strange and easy and comfortable, growing between them. Something, deep down, something never lost.

And he knows how it goes. He will turn it up, and he will play a song.

And there it is—that's the kiss of music, like a long lost friend. That's his old way of strumming—almost home.

And then, there's the stranger again, and there is still something in his eyes.

(And there is something in his soul.)

And he doesn't say Where have you been? He just sits with him, and he closes his eyes. And he listens.

And he plays the guitar. And the guitar plays him—shadow playing shadow, shadow playing song.

And his fingers turn to lightning. And he tries to catch his breath.

Yes, he knows how it goes. And he could burn it all down. And he could leave it all behind again.

But he doesn't.

The air is thick with smoke and dust—with nighttime and anticipation. In the sky, all the colours bleed out and start to mean something. At last—wild red fire, the world alight with it.

And he doesn't have to look.

There's his name, still on the case. And, inside the soul of the guitar, there's a little shadow, a dark, red shape, like the mark of a bloody thumbprint that somehow points home—there's his heart.

And he hears his heartbeat. And he hears the stranger's heartbeat. And he hears the guitar's heartbeat.

And between the shadow and the light, it is getting hard to tell just who is playing who. Between the shadow and the light, it doesn't matter at all.

And, drunk on the music, he says—he feels—

—all is well—

—all is well now—

—all is sharp, like the strife of loving.

*

His heart, this shadow, this old, fiery thing—maybe it belongs somewhere now. Maybe it belongs to someone.

And, at last, he doesn't walk away. At last.

That night, he falls asleep, with his arms thrown around the guitar—his dreams shaping the chords.

And he dreams about the guitar. He dreams that something catches his soul, never lost. He dreams that someone remembers his words, heals his old wounds, and covers up the pain. He dreams that the light touches him, gentle like a feather, soft like a song.

In the dark, he dreams, and he can almost see the moon—and he can almost touch it, that old sky on fire. And he dreams of a shadow—and, at last, that shadow becomes a man.

I've been waiting all these years, the stranger says.

I've been waiting all these years, the guitar says.

And his shadow heart stumbles, but it is caught—caught by the heartstrings of the stranger, by the heartstrings of the guitar.

(And maybe it's the light that does it. And maybe it's strange, maybe it's funny. But it's the truth, nothing but the truth—never lost, never lost.)

Yes, he dreams, and his fingertips are like the kiss of music, like sparklights upon the strange, familiar wood, holding on to the notes, holding on, holding tight.

And, in the dream, he walks, and his steps mark the way home. And all the colours of the sky rise and fall and play a song, in a sweet way of strumming that is red and gold and black and grey. And there he is again, and there's his name. There's his soul, never lost, all ablaze in the morning light. Yes, there's his heart, caught, in the arms of the stranger, in the arms of the guitar.

And there's that music—there's that old heartbeat again.

No, he never heard it coming.