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Once More With Feeling

Carol Scheina writes and edits as a freelancer. In free moments, she dreams up strange stories while trying to keep the cat from jumping on the keyboard and messing everything up. You can find some of her writing at carolscheina.wordpress.com. This is her first publication in Daily Science Fiction.
An empath wasn't Connor's first thought when he saw the woman. Instead, he noticed her hands as they slipped into his view, all stiff muscles and veins, like a Michelangelo carving, trembling as they reached for a drink. Looking up, he saw a young woman with straight slate hair and wide-socket eyes who looked at him with a need.
He must have been lacking, because she moved on without a word.
Connor knew she didn't belong at this crummy bar any more than he did, but he didn't say anything. What could he say? After all, if things had been different, he would have been coaxing melodies from his violin on some international tour that concluded with a standing ovation every night. Instead, he found himself with unexplained hearing loss at age thirty-two and a violin that failed to provide enchantment to his own ears.
He had sipped champagne from crystal glasses. Now he stared into his cloudy beer mug, noticing that the foam formed microscopic crevices like notes on a page. A slight jiggle sent them swirling in a fast, then slow, symphony before stilling into silence. He drank with a deep inhale and wondered if Beethoven saw notes in "his" beer.
For some reason, he looked back to her and saw her trying to wrap a drunken man's arm around her. Good lord, she's trying to pull him up now, Connor realized. Other people were starting to notice. Empaths were known to take drunks and druggies for Release, but to have one do it so brazenly was not something that happened every day.
"She's going to get picked up by Containment," a man two chairs down muttered.
Gulping the last of his beer, the unsung notes of the foam settled in his belly. Connor didn't know what made him stand up. Before he knew it, he was besides the woman, a fake smile on his mouth and his hearing aids on maximum volume.
"Hi," he said. "I think you were supposed to meet me tonight." His eyes implored her to play along.
The woman's eyes widened. She dropped the lifeless arm.
Connor put his arm around her and leaned his head in. "I know you're an empath. You're too obvious," he whispered.
Her eyes cracked with fear. "Please," she whispered. "Please, I don't mean any harm. It just gets to be too much. I have to Release it."
"Let's head back to my place," he said loudly. Then under his breath, "You can use me."
Her step slowed, and she looked at him, a why on her lips. He nodded: yes, he knew what Release meant.
For an empath, absorbed emotions built up inside until the person couldn't take any more. The resulting explosion of rage or sorrow was often too much for a body to take. But an empath could Release much of the emotion into another person with a blast of pent-up feelings. Yet even those numbed by drink and drugs were overwhelmed.
There was a reason most empaths ended up in Containment: either they went insane, or their Release drove others insane.
No wonder the empath hesitated. Why would Connor willingly volunteer for something like that? Connor chuckled, low and bitter. He knew she felt into the dead zone of his soul, where music used to fill him. Hearing aids gave him the notes of the violin again, but the sounds were strange and squealing, then faded to nothingness as he reached the higher pitches. He was a musician who couldn't hear properly. There was nothing left for him, so why not let her use him, keep her out of Containment, away from a life left locked up alone?
She must have felt all that, for she nodded and followed him out. No one in the bar said anything--they returned to their own drinks.
His apartment was darker, grungier than the home from his violinist days. He liked the blur dust put on the pictures that he never bothered to hang. Some things were better left unfocused.
"What's your name?" Connor asked.
"Joanne."
"Okay, Joanne. I don't know how this works, but do what you need to do."
She stepped forward, breathing hard. "Close your eyes. Relax. Do you want to drink some more?"
He shook his head. "Just do it."
Her hands pressed on his shoulders, surprisingly heavy. "Thank you," she whispered. Then the emotions struck him hard enough to nearly knock him into blackness, his heart suddenly beating a staccato pace with a feeling he thought was probably anger, the power blinding him. Just as quick, he slipped into grief, then hysterical laughter, the feelings changing with a rapidness his heart could barely endure. He needed a focus, he couldn't maintain this.
The violin appeared in his hands without his awareness of digging it out from the dust of the closet, but there was the familiar smell of wood and varnish, his fingertips pressing hard against the metal strings, the bow moving with a sudden anger that left him wanting to stab the universe for its fateful, horrible twists. For the loss of his hearing. For the death of his dreams. The bow slowed, suddenly slipping into largo. Pain, loss, agony.
Cycling through the emotions, he had no awareness of what he played or how much time passed, but when he stopped, his fingertips were red and cracked with string indentations. Breathing hard, Connor felt... empty. Even the alcohol he'd drank seemed to have evaporated. Not what he expected after having an empath dump her emotions in him.
And where was the empath? Joanne? He looked around his small apartment and found the note on the countertop.
"The first 15 minutes were me; the rest was you. The music was beautiful. I think you needed as much release as I did."
Connor folded the note. He closed his eyes a moment, then with shaking hands, he turned off his hearing aids. The violin nestled beneath his chin, the strings cut into his fingers, but he didn't care as he began to play again, unheard. It didn't matter what the notes sounded like. For until that moment, he'd forgotten how to play, not with sound, but with feeling.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, January 10th, 2020


Despite losing a huge chunk of hearing at age five, I learned to play the violin in elementary school. I knew that hearing aids distorted the notes, but I kept playing, for it always sounded beautiful to my ears. I wanted to write a story that captured the experience of playing an instrument not for the perfection of sound, but simply for the joy of it.

- Carol Scheina
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