An excerpt from Soundrise
The streets were wrapped in a slick coat of rain, shining with a dull glow. Derek Nilsson thought the pavement looked bound in shrink-wrap, tidied up and readied for mass-market sales. But Derek knew that under the slick surface lurked grime. Layers of dirt and spit and bird feces lay just below the shimmering glaze. Derek knew not to trust appearances—especially in downtown Chicago.
This part of town, the sparkling Near North Side neighborhood of Streeterville, was built on swampland. Landfill solidified the bogs and wetland marshes to create a newer, firmer, tidier landscape. Yet, Derek wondered, what if the marshes threatened to return, lapping at the concrete and steel pilings that drove straight down to the bedrock? He wondered if the primitive soul of “chee-ka-gou”—an American Indian tribe’s word for “wild onion”— could bring all those towers crashing into the mud.
The bus lurched a bit, nearing Derek’s stop. He inched forward in his seat, preparing to rise, straightening his windbreaker. At nearly 9 a.m., the air was already moist and warm. For the first time in many years, the Great Lakes states were enjoying a real spring. That meant no snow in April, not even bone-chilling rain and ankle-deep mud. Flowers had been blooming since March and now, in mid-April, Chicago looked as postcard pretty as it usually does in June. The day showed promise of comfortable breeziness.
Derek stood up and pushed toward the exit, trying to gauge his balance as the driver rolled and rocked through rush-hour traffic. As he hung on to a metal handrail, trying to keep from bashing into the large woman in front of him, Derek considered taking his lunch outside today. Maybe he’d sit in the plaza two blocks away and watch the women walk by—women who were always too busy to smile or wave, women who had no time for a tech-head like him. Derek let out a small sigh as the bus door opened, the hefty lady moved out of the way and he hopped into the pulsating throng of pedestrian traffic.
He joined the trench-coated brigade, letting the cadence of his steps take over all thoughts, preventing him from remembering something that happened overnight. An event he’d rather not dredge up now, not with a full day’s work on the docket. Something disturbing.
“Lost in space?” asked a soft voice.
Derek looked up and spotted Kyra Van Dyck, the small, spirited redhead from BitJockey.com’s marketing department, fixing him with a quizzical look. She cocked her head to one side as if she had been considering him for some minutes. Derek stumbled and stopped, allowing her to push through the revolving door first. As the sweeping combine expelled them into the lobby, Derek gazed over at Kyra. Some answer was required of him, he was sure of that. But try as he might, Derek could think of nothing to say. He mumbled something incomprehensible and smiled.
Kyra moved toward the elevators, her brow furrowed a bit, juggling her briefcase and shoulder bag to free a hand. Derek reached over to push the call button. Her finger was already there. The two bumped hands, hers graceful and manicured, his sweaty and shaking. She smiled and looked at the ground, seeming to study the floor tiles.
“I’m not really a space out,” Derek heard himself saying, as lighted numbers tracked the elevator’s descent.
“You know, what you said when we were out on the street.”
“Oh yeah. Well, you didn’t see me looking at you.”
“Too little sleep. Occupational hazard.”
“So I’ve heard. Code warriors, we call you guys.”
Kyra started to smile, but her happy glow disappeared in an instant. Derek followed her gaze to the elevator lights. They had stopped flickering. Kyra stretched out an arm, freeing her wrist from the sleeve of her trench coat, and peered at her watch—a plastic sports watch.
“That’s not the image,” Derek said, at once regretting the fact that he had opened his mouth. What made him do that?
“The watch. It’s not Rolex.” Derek silently cursed the elevator for its tardiness and tried to keep his disgust of BitJockey.com’s management under control.
Kyra dropped her head and let out a soft laugh.
“No, and I don’t blare on a cell phone in fine dining rooms, either.”
“Sorry. I don’t know what came over me. You seem like a nice person.”
“We’re not all corporate clones. Is that what you nerd boys think?”
Derek shook his head and reached to touch his hair. Portions of the light brown do-it-yourself coif were sticking up like spikes of fur on a water-soaked puppy. The elevator emitted a muffled bell tone and the doors swept open. Derek hurried in before he could get himself into more trouble. He and Kyra took a few steps inside before a crowd of workers smashed them into the back wall of the car. Pinned next to the paneling and pressed next to Kyra’s arm, Derek felt her wavy, auburn hair, still damp from a morning shower, touch his skin. He inhaled her clean scent and was ready to stand next to her for hours, but the ride was over in seconds.
“Look, I’ll see you later,” Kyra said as she pressed out onto the seventeenth floor. “The prediction is beautiful for today. Maybe we could take our lunches outside?”
Derek froze. He clutched his stomach, but could not master his anxiety.
“No time,” he said with more force than he intended. He grinned a feeble apology as the doors closed on Kyra’s deflated expression—then he caught the door in a frenzy, unsetting other passengers. “Another day, OK?” The door closed on Kyra’s confused look.
Derek stiffened as he felt the elevator ascend to floor eighteen, programming. That was damn stupid. A woman, smart and a real fox, was making an overture and he just nearly shut her down. He thought about how many times his mother explained that shyness can be mistaken for arrogance. Did he just act like another overamped techno boy or a pathetic hack with a total lack of social skills? Kyra might not waste any more time finding out.
Derek’s desk was covered with odd bits of paper, some commanding him to various meetings throughout the day, others cataloging hundreds of software codes. Derek moved enough paper to make room for his coffee cup on a five-by-five-inch patch of bare desktop.
Today was a core crunch day. If Derek finished writing a major part of the Herriges software upgrade, he’d be in fine shape by the end of the week. If he could just keep going with only four hours of sleep a night, he could get this project finished and move that extra-curricular gig off the ground at the same time.
A sudden wave of drowsiness made Derek feel as if he were slipping in mental quicksand, losing footing, feeling solid land turn to mush. A thought lurched forward into his consciousness. This morning, he had heard a dream voice in the back of his mind. It was calm and sharp, interested and curious. It had called itself “Ra-jah.” Or maybe it said “Roger.”
Derek opened his eyes as if he had seen a great, furry spider walk across his computer screen.
Hearing voices. One of the first signs of insanity. Derek seized his computer mouse in a death grip. A voice had lodged in his brain, there was no doubt about that—and it wasn’t his own mind chattering away. Or was it that sound file—that undetectable sound file—playing repeatedly through the early hours of the morning? He did leave the computer on, didn’t he?
“Shitty night, huh?” A hand clapped Derek on the shoulder, and he shuddered with a tense, involuntary jerk. He looked up to see Trevor Chen staring into his eyes.
“Oh God, man. Don’t do that, not first thing in the morning.” Derek laughed and winced at the same time, wiping the drops of coffee that had spilled onto the papers on his desk.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Trevor said, moving back from Derek. He reached behind his head to adjust the elastic band that secured his long ponytail. Derek looked at Trevor’s hair—an obedient sweep of black—artistic and businesslike at the same time. Derek put his hand to his head and fingered his messy tangle of thin fringe, still damp from his earlier, nervous encounter with Kyra.
“Ghost, yeah, maybe I have,” Derek said half to himself. “Weird things happen to you when you don’t sleep.”
“Saw you talking to Kyra down by the elevators,” Trevor said, cocking one eyebrow. “I think she’s got it for you, boy.”
Derek allowed himself to smile as he straightened the myriad memos on his desk.
“Yeah, maybe. I don’t know,” Derek said, thinking of some way to change the subject. Trevor wasn’t about to comply.
“There are women who find hackers irresistible, you know. It’s that pallor, that lack of sunlight and fresh air.”
Derek let out a breathy laugh that sounded almost like a sigh of relief. He thought about his appearance: his long, skinny frame, pale skin, thin hair, bloodshot blue eyes, languid manner. Derek knew he was hardly a ladies’ man. He had no idea what Kyra could see in him.
“Yeah, surrounded as she is by all those suits, those guys with BMWs and platinum credit cards, she would naturally be drawn to a guy with a full set of designer software t-shirts,” Derek said. Trevor fixed his dancing black eyes on Derek.
“Seriously, why don’t you ask her out?” Trevor said, a bit of longing peeking out from beneath the inky surface of his irises.
“She’s awfully pretty … and she’s got brains, too.”
Derek wanted to tell Trevor to try his own advice. Trevor had the image that a public-relations girl would fall for. Trevor, with his Fiat two-seater and his apartment full of Calder prints. Trevor, the graphic designer with a head full of ideas that were simply too avant-garde for BitJockey.com.
“Nah,” Derek said, looking toward his screen, edging his hand toward the mouse. “Still getting over the last one.”
“Don’t get over it too long,” Trevor said as he took steps toward the art department. “Or your only intimate relationship will be with your computer.” Derek repeated the familiar line along with him. By now, it had turned into a joke.
Derek attempted to let that parting shot slip between the pixels on the screen, but it echoed in his throbbing head. Had Trevor pronounced a curse or did he see the future? Derek wondered if his computer really had started talking back.
The phone wouldn’t stop ringing. Although Derek programmed it to “do not disturb” mode, it continued to slice through the air with its chirping interruption. Derek looked over at Patty, the receptionist.
She was the only one who could override the phone codes. She shrugged her padded shoulders.
“Your voice mailbox is full,” Patty said with an apologetic tilt of the head. “And she said it’s important.”
Derek lifted the handset, stated his name, and barely heard his mother’s wispy voice rushing over the static. He breathed deep into his gut and looked at the clock. He’d gotten three solid hours of work done—and now this.
“You remembered tonight, right?” his mom was saying. Derek knew from the perky artificiality of her voice that she had entered the aching, black gloom of depression, again.
“What’s tonight?” he asked, his throat tightening as he anticipated her hurt.
“No! You didn’t forget did you? The Merles are coming into town. They haven’t seen you since you were twelve.”
“Mom, I have an extremely important project on the line here.”
“At eight in the evening?”
“At all hours. I’m working constantly. By Friday, I’ll make one deadline and I can lighten up a little.”
Derek felt a dull blow hit his stomach as silence sat on the telephone line. He waited for his mother to let out that light, heart-breaking exhalation of air that she had used on him ever since he was small. But the cruel sigh didn’t come. White noise crackled on the line. Derek couldn’t stand it any longer.
“Mom, are you still there?”
There was a breath and then a weak “yes.”
Derek felt his eyebrows pinch together. He hated this trap she set, yet he also knew that any argument he tried she would shut down in seconds. Yes, he knew he had promised. Yes, he was neglecting his health. Yes, he was making her worry. Yes, it was only a couple hours out of his busy day.
“Okay, Mom,” Derek said, massaging the bridge of his nose, feeling where the tight muscles jammed into his skull. “I’ll be there at eight. Do you want anything?”
“No,” Mom said, her voice cracking at the edges. “Just you.”