“When do you get the implant?”

Darya stabbed a piece of lettuce with her fork. After seven years at Hearkener school, she had passed the final test, an achievement half of her class hadn’t managed. And all Khali wanted to know was when she would get to work. But that was Khali—all work and no play.

“A week from tomorrow,” she said.


“It’s soon, I know.”

Khali frowned. “What?”

“A week. It’s hardly enough time to determine my entire future.”

Khali’s expression was still blank. Darya felt like she had started speaking another language without meaning to. She raised her eyebrows at her older sister.

It was midday, but the windows were boarded up, so it felt like night in the kitchen. Wood wouldn’t keep the infection at bay if someone set off a bio-bomb nearby, but it was better than nothing. The battery-operated lantern on the table glowed orange, with fake flickers so that it imitated fire.

Khali lived with their mother now, in their childhood home. Darya had stopped coming back during the holidays three years before, and now only saw Khali when they went out to eat, or when she was sure her mother would be asleep.

“I don’t understand,” Khali said. “What decision needs to be made?”

The decision.” Darya scowled. “You know—life songs or death songs? It’s a huge choice. It changes everything.”

“But you’re going to choose death songs,” Khali replied tersely. “Right? Because you want to record Mom’s song before it’s too late. Right?”

Darya pushed the piece of lettuce around her plate.

“She’s only got a few weeks left if she doesn’t get the transplant. At most, Darya.”

Darya did know.

“She won’t get another Hearkener! We don’t have enough money as it is!” Khali was shaking her head. “I can’t believe you wouldn’t do this for her. I can’t believe you.”

Darya looked up, her lips pursed.

“I can’t believe you,” she said. “She’s already controlled my life enough; I’m not going to let her control the rest of it too!”

“What do you mean? She hasn’t controlled you.”

“What little childhood we had she took from us,” said Darya. “Kids aren’t supposed to think, ‘Oh, Mommy’s drunk again, so I’d better stay away from her.’ Kids aren’t supposed to take care of their parents. We’ve done enough for her. I’m not doing this for her.”

Khali’s mouth was open, but she wasn’t saying anything. She just looked stunned.

Then she said, “You’ve only met the real her a few times, Darya. The woman you know is just the alcohol, stifling her.”

“The implant isn’t something you can undo, Khali. You choose death, you choose it forever. You can’t tell me it’s my duty to choose something just because our shitty mom is finally getting what was always coming to her.”

Darya clutched the edge of the table, waiting for Khali to scream at her, or call her names, or something. But Khali’s eyes just filled with tears, and her lower lip started to wobble.

“Then . . .” She gulped. “Don’t do it for her. Do it for me, so I can hear. . . . She’s the only parent I . . . Please, Darya.”

Darya carried her plate to the sink and scraped the remnants of her salad into the garbage disposal. She took a long time to clean her plate, scraping slowly, rinsing slowly. She didn’t want Khali to see the tears in her own eyes.

“I don’t know if I can,” she finally said.

“Black or red?” the nurse asked again.

All her life Darya had been developing a resistance to obligation of any kind. No one had taught her to; maybe the world had taught her to. People who set off bio-bombs did so out of a religious obligation to hasten the apocalypse. The pictures she had seen of them did not reveal any delight in the prospect of the world ending—they tried to stay alive in the aftermath of their attacks only so that they could attack again.

Obligation was dangerous because it muddled the mind. Did she want to choose red to defy her mother or because she really wanted it? Did she want to choose black for her sister’s sake? How could she know what she really wanted with so many competing obligations—to herself, to her mother, to her sister, to her late father?

Darya remembered the Hearkener’s face as she listened to Darya’s father’s death song, distress and warmth competing for dominance, like she protected a secret, and Darya longed to understand it. It was that whisper of longing that made the decision for her.

“Black,” she said.

The nurse put the red cylinder aside and set the black cylinder on a tray next to the hospital bed. She wrapped rubber tubing around Darya’s arm to make the veins stand out. Darya felt her pulse in each one of her fingertips, and a harsh sting as the needle went in. The nurse removed the rubber tubing and, with a small smile, flipped the switch that would start the IV drip.

Darya was supposed to be awake for the procedure, so the doctors would know they hadn’t damaged her brain while inserting the implant. But she wouldn’t remember any of it, thanks to whatever was in the IV bag, and she was grateful. She didn’t want to remember them peeling back her scalp and drilling into her skull and inserting things into her temporal lobe, the part of the brain that processed sound.

A haze of passing images was all she retained to remind her that time had passed. Gradually she became aware of someone sitting in front of her, but it looked like she was hidden behind a white film. Then a face surfaced, and it was Khali’s. Her mouth was moving, but Darya couldn’t hear her. There was something over her ears.

Khali covered her eyes momentarily, as if chastising herself, and then took out a pad of paper and a pen. On it, she wrote, They don’t want you to hear anyone yet. Said it would be too overwhelming. Keep the ear covers on. How do you feel?

Darya’s head throbbed, especially over the right side, where the implant was. Other than that, she just felt heavy, like she could drop right through the mattress.

She didn’t want to try to explain all that to Khali, so she just put her thumb up and tried to smile, though she was sure it looked more like a grimace. Even her cheeks were heavy.

Khali’s eyes were wet. She scribbled another note on the pad:

Thank you.

Darya knew what Khali was thanking her for. If she hadn’t been so tired, she might have tried to say that she had not made her choice for Khali, had not made it for their mother—that she wasn’t even sure she wanted to hear her mother’s song, despite what she had chosen. But soon the weight collected behind her eyes, dragging her back to sleep.

She woke up later to dark skies showing between the blinds and a nurse peering at the incision in her scalp. They had buzzed some of her hair—eight square inches of it, in fact. She had demanded to know the exact amount. Another thing her mother had told her: a woman’s hair is the most beautiful part of her.

Darya’s mother had had beautiful hair when she was younger, a reddish brown that shone like a penny in sunlight. It had come down to the middle of her back, incorrigibly wavy—no matter how hard she tried to straighten it, it refused to stay that way. Darya had often thought that it was a shame that neither she nor Khali had inherited her mother’s hair.

It was a strange thing, but in the moments right before she fully woke, a memory of her mother had come to mind. It had been during one of her mother’s sober streaks. Darya had come home from school for spring break, and her mother had been restored—one month sober, rosy-cheeked, smart, pleasant. She and Khali had been making cake batter in the kitchen as Darya’s neighbor nailed boards on all the windows, and her mother had been singing in a thin soprano.

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