I knew it meant long, thankless hours and coming home smelling like water at the bottom of a three week old forgotten bong. The experience meant a lot to any future prospects of making my career as a producer. Joe asked me to start on the weekend. I don’t recall breathing outside air for the next seventy two hours. After that, my universe became nothing but a blur of distortion, off pitch vocals and the occasional string section complaining about unbalanced headphone mixes.
Most of my friends disappeared over the next three years. The phone slowly stopped ringing with invites to see the new Tarrantino flick, birthday parties or when my buddy had floor tickets to The Pixies. So buried in routing cables, finding the perfect mic placement and making sure everything sounded in phase, I didn’t notice my life drifting out of phase.
It might have been gullibility and need for acceptance more than actual skill, but when the head engineer asked me to run a session with a major new client I just knew I was on my way. All of my sacrificed friendships and missed chances with willing women now seemed all worth while. It made no difference to me that Joe wanted to watch the series finale of Two and a Half Men more than deal with this particular high maintenance teenage diva and her entourage of spoiled paparazzi teasing brats.
Rather than doing any actual recording, Celiste spent the first day glued to her cell phone (lovingly named “Celly”). Her “Momager” berated my assistant Reg and me for a couple hours about the sub par furniture and the necessity to keep the vocal booth temperature at exactly 73.6 degrees. She refused to let her “Star Baby” sing until we’d equipped the room with the correct brand of humidifier.
I put in a call to the home supply store, placed a Crucial Mist Ultrasonic Aroma Ceramosphere Humidifier BTCH3006.4 on hold. Fortunately they had a couple in stock. Reg squealed his tires out of the parking lot to go pick it up.
“Was that really necessary?” She shouted at the the truck’s rear bumper. “Order some sushi. None of that local wannabe crap either. We only eat spicy tuna rolls from Masaguchi in Venice.”
“I’ll see if we have a menu at the front desk.” Before I turned the corner, she pressed the speed dial on her phone and held up a sharp nailed finger to stop me. “Oui Monsieur. We are here for the next week. Come. Please Minister. You are indeed welcome.”
My spine ached with imaginary nails digging between each lumbar space. Her finger twirled in absent minded, ever widening ovals outlined by the bright yellow color of whatever fancy polish she’d paid for at her latest manicure. She obviously dialed the wrong number for sushi.
“The Asem will be here within the hour.” She spoke cleanly to Celeste. Immediately, all four of the girls on the couch stood as one. They turned at stiff, martial angles and marched in unison out of the building. I heard to car doors close, but no engine started.
“Is he coming to listen to me?” Celeste wrung her hands nervously. “Should I change? I need to warm up. Are the tracks loaded in the computer yet? I can’t breathe. Mommy?” She sprinted across the room burying her face into her mother’s chest.
“Calm down Baby Star.” She patted the back of the hyperventilating girl’s head. “Minister will provide a blessing on you. No need to be nervous.”
Recording sessions are notorious for their constant flow of busy work. The engineer and his assistants are constantly barraged with routing cables between devices or making sure the digital effects are running smoothly with the recording software. I had numerous ways to keep myself occupied and out of their way while Celeste sat on the couch with flapping hands attempting to fan more air to her face.
Forty five minutes later my nose hurt. A sneeze crept beside the edge of triggering an explosion. It peered down there unwilling to push any further into the canyon of release. I blew my nose loudly which brought more attention from Celeste and her mother than I wanted.
“Excuse me?” Momager stabbed fists into her sides crooking her head at an angry angle. “Can you please do that somewhere else? We are having a stressful moment in here if you would care to notice.”
I tossed the tissue into the small metal trash can in the hallway. The coffee maker sat empty and waiting for me in the kitchen. Loading the filter, I heard the mellow hum of a fine tuned engine cruise into the lot. The Audi stopped by the front door and a well dressed bodyguard stepped around the front to the rear passenger side door. The seams of his gray sport coat stretched to their limit in what must have been an intentional show of size.
His shaved head bowed reverently as the older gentleman pulled himself from the car. Average height and thin, he appeared shrunken next to the enormous guard. He walked with a slight limp on his left side, but did not use a cane. He moved with casual easiness that might easily have come off as happiness. I couldn’t tell if he smiled since his face turned away from my view when he walked beyond the building’s shadows.
Steaming mug of cheap coffee in hand, what I saw stopped me from going any further into the studio. Celeste and her mother both lay face up on the floor with their arms and legs spread wide. Fingers stretched open turning the small vestigial webs at their base to white. Toes curled inward on their bare feet, ankles raised two inches above the carpet.
“Nothing will raise you higher than song my lovelies.” The Asem reached down tracing the outline of each toe with his middle fingers. Once finished, he licked his fingernails while moaning some unintelligible phrase under his breath. “Breathe deeply of my love for you.” He puffed a burst of breath at each of them while they gulped the air like drowning goldfish tossed from their bowl.
“She should probably stop that.” I said. The Asem turned to me raising an eyebrow high on his forehead. “Swallowing air like that isn’t very good for singing.”
“Ah.” The Asem chuckled. “You must be the engineer?”
“Yes sir.” I raised my mug in a salute of sorts.
“I do not mean to intrude on your work place.” His voice deep and resonant. “Despite what you may have heard, our religion is not as strange as it seems.”
“I haven’t heard anything.”
“Please my lovelies, stand.” Celeste wore a wide eyed smile that looked to me equally full of happiness and fear. The Asem looked in a slow circle around the room. “So much technology to make something so... human.”
“I know right?” I sat in my chair and leaned back. “I have to make a living somehow I guess.”
The Asem chuckled. He pointed from his bodyguard to me. “I like this one.” The guard reached slowly into his coat. For a brief moment my heart choked with panic at the thought of a gun or knife. He handed me a long white envelope with Celeste printed on it in neat, clean black handwriting.
“You will find all of the song files for Celeste on this drive.” The Asem sat on the glass table in front of the couch placing his hands on his knees. “Remember this, there are six songs and six songs only. Each song contains precisely twelve words. Each of the words will be repeated sixteen times. Not necessarily in the same order, but they may not appear on this record more that sixteen times. What that order is I leave to your discretion.”
“Excuse me?” I reached for the numbers bouncing through the insides of my brain. Math was never my strong suit. “What do you mean my discretion… Aren’t the songs written already?”
“I leave the artisans to their craft.” The Asem stood nodding his head swiftly at Celeste. “Far be it for me to tell you how to do your job my son.”
“I’m not sure I understand.” I swiveled my chair to face him as he walked from the room followed closely by the mountain in a gray suit.
“Everything you need is on the flash drive.” His voice retreated down the hall. “Let me know when I can come back for a listen.”
Celeste held her hands palm up with her head turned to the ceiling. Her eyes closed and mouth wide open licking her tongue in sharp swaths at the air above. Her mother making the same coordinated oral movements sent a quiver in the pits of my skull and stomach.
“Here it is.” Reg pushed the dolly carrying the Crucial Mist Ultrasonic Aroma Ceramosphere Humidifier BTCH3006.4. “Open the vocal booth for me will ya?”
I stared at the envelope in my hand. Unable to hear Reg’s voice as more than a mumble from deep under water where I drowned.
“Dude. Hello?” Reg kicked my shin snapping me back to the present. “A little help here?”
“Sorry Reg.” I opened the door for him, holding it as he rolled the humidifier in. I followed closing the door behind us.
“What’s up with the freak twins out there?” He set the machine on the floor pointing over his shoulder with an extended thumb.
“Some weird Asem thing.” I blinked over and over fighting for focus.
“Oh.” Reg plugged in the humidifier and switched it on. It burst to life with a low hum. “Think this thing will quiet down by the time we hit record? Otherwise it’s gonna be a pain in the ass when we mix.”
“It should.” I leaned over the spherical machine examining the lights and vents. “That’s why I ordered this model. It’s supposed to run silent once it warms up.”
“Who was in that nice ride I passed on my way in?”
“The Asem.” The envelope felt warm in my hand.
“No shit?” Reg leaned on the red handled dolly. “The Asem? I’ve heard about The Asems. Some serious witchcraft type crap.”
“They can believe whatever they want.” I stuffed the envelope in my back pocket. The rectangle of the flash drive pressed hot through my jeans against my flesh.
“Creeps me out man. I watched this movie on…”
“Reg, all we need to do is record a few songs with this girl.” The humidifier let out a quiet buzz and fell silent. “They’ll be out of here in a few days.”
“Figures Joe splits out on this one.”
“I’ll take it man.” Momager stared at me through the glass. I opened the door. I didn’t notice until that moment, but the pressure in my sinuses relaxed. My eyes were once again able to focus and the unfamiliar scent of strange meat burning was gone.
“Let me load these files into the system, get them lined up and we should be ready to roll soon.” I opened the envelope and removed the flash drive. Momager’s eyes brightened at the sight of the logo printed on it’s side. In mirrored silver script, MINISTRY MUSIC flickered in the flashing lights of the console.
My fingertips sensed a subtle vibration of the small plastic device. I opened the black cap revealing a matte white USB port. The computer recognized it as “MINISTRY MUSIC: Celeste”. I double clicked the icon and the new window opened on the screen.
A white folder named “Celeste Tracks” sat in the upper left corner. Inside were six audio files. Listed alphabetically they were called:
- Holy Holly
- Thus Sprake Zara and Thustra
- Needles Haystacks Findings
I created six song templates, named them each and started the process of importing the audio files. Reg set up the microphone and baffling in the vocal booth. Momager stood behind him, letting him know in no uncertain terms that he did everything incorrectly for her little girl.
Celeste sat on the couch with bright pink headphones on singing along with music I could not hear. Judging by her screeching caterwaul, I was lucky for that. Double checking that I’d used all of the files on the drive, I notice a document also included in the folder that I didn’t remember seeing before. Other than its .doc extension, it sat unnamed on the screen.
When I opened the file, all of the lights in the studio flickered. We had backup surge protectors on everything, so my heart jumped. Reg looked at me through the window and we both exchanged shrugged shoulders.
The file was formatted as if it were a letter. It had the address area in the top right. The greeting line on the top left sat just above the paragraph shape. At the bottom the signature was centered below what could be considered a “Thank You” or “Sincerely Yours”.
As recognizable as all of this was, I could read none of it. Rather than words and letters, everything on the page was written out in images of audio files. The peaks and valleys of black on the gray page brought to mind seismic distortion more than music.
I stared at the document. My mind fought to make sense of what it meant. After a while the patterns pulsed in place, rippling into three dimensions. Sounds grew from the pixels on the screen forming vowels and consonants. A small throb at the paragraph’s top howled in high falsetto…
“Are we ready yet?” Momager barked from the couch behind me. “We’ve been here all afternoon. I’ve lost all patience. We are leaving.”
In a huff, she grabbed Celeste by the hand dragging her from the studio. My eyes remained fixed on the screen. Reg chuckled at the car driving off under the sound of girls chattering on their cell phones.
When I blinked, the studio surrounded me empty, and silent. The computer’s clock read 3:12 AM. I took in a shuddering breath. An oppressive thickness filled every inch of the studio around me. The silence drove into my ears and I felt every drop of blood flowing from hairline to toenail.
The folder now contained twelve image files. Right clicking on the first, I selected preview. A small picture of a WAV file opened. Looking closely, it was the same pattern as the address line of the letter. I quickly opened images at random finding more of the letter’s “text” selected and cut into individual files.
With no memory of how or when I did this, I felt a powerful urge to insert each one into the song files for Celeste’s record. Normally our audio software is incompatible with image files. Something encoded in these particular files bypassed that issue allowing each picture to load into the new audio tracks I created.
The song files pulsed brighter and dimmer along with the heartbeat pounding my ears in the quiet, soundproofed room. My palms sweaty and shaking dripped over the faders. The sneeze built again in my nose, still refusing to launch a relief to the pressure.
The Asem stood in the vocal booth smiling into the microphone. His pale skin, near transparent. Long hair reached near hairless, naked knees. His eyes black, empty of vein, pupil or life at all, turned to me. A tongue crawled from between his cracked lips and embraced the microphone. Thin tendrils spread from the larger root of the thing sinking in between the holes in the metal grate surrounding the diaphragm.
My shoulders hunched. My mouth dry and aching. Eyes darting in all directions at once I no longer had control over my senses. I wanted to sneeze. I needed to sneeze. “Please let me sneeze.” I heard a voice that might have been mine beg.
I pressed play.