"You wouldn't think it would be hard to diagnose," said the woman whose nametag read Thalia. High skeptical flutes cascaded around her, but she was automatically speaking up so we could hear her over them.
"We live in this old apartment with thin walls, we thought it was the air conditioner or something for the longest time - even after it resolved into melodies we thought it was the neighbor's stereo," my wife told her. And then we'd spent a month where I thought we were having shared hallucinations and Gail thought our daughter was cursed. Awareness campaigns are usually pointless, but we needed one - not that we'd never heard about kids emitting music. It just didn't show up in respectable sources for too long.
"What, you never took her outside?" Thalia asked. Violins? Violas? I should have paid more attention in music appreciation.
"We took her outs-" Gail composed herself. "The park near our place is close to the road. People drive by with their windows open and stereos turned up all the time. There are mockingbirds. We didn't know, but now we do."
"You might want to consider changing her name. People are going to think it's a nasty joke you made about her music, around here," Thalia advised.
"Just write Mel, on her nametag," I suggested. "We usually call her that anyway. Maybe when she's older she'll change it to Melanie or Melinda or something... Do you get jokes about being named after the wrong muse -"
"Constantly," said Thalia sharply, accompanied by growling low organ notes, and she wrote Mel Thomas on a nametag and stuck it to Melody's overalls. Gail had already written one for her and one for me.
"Sorry," I said, picking up Mel. I couldn't quite tell where Thalia's music ended and my daughter's began; they were close enough to cooperate. It was eerie that this stranger - this not particularly friendly stranger - was able to interact with my child on a level that I never would. Even if it was all unconscious drumbeats and chimes.
Mel didn't seem to find it eerie. She was being quiet as a mouse apart from the entwined songs, beaming.
"Well, enjoy the Harmony Convention, here are your earplugs if you need them but that's your own business, never ask a strax to quiet down here, that's an ejection offense if they tell security - the rest of that sort of thing is on this protocol handout, and err on the side of caution, this is our space, not yours, you're only here for Mel's sake - here's a map of the convention center, and here's the events schedule. Oh, and you get a pen."
The pen was green and said I am effortlessly talented! There were other designs in the box - No awkward silences and Automatic lullaby and Play it again, Sam and There's a song in my heart and others I couldn't read without rummaging. I considered rummaging, but instead I tucked the pen into Mel's overalls pocket and said, "Thanks."
"Let me see the protocol handout," said Gail, and I handed it over, scanning the events list.
"Is it anything more than - common sense, we are guests, etcetera?" I asked her, putting Mel down and taking her pen back so I could circle interesting panels. There was a parenting one.
"Lots," Gail frowned. "It might be easier to just - not interact with anyone - how am I supposed to remember that it's impolite to speak while three or more strax are in unison? Why is it impolite to speak when - is there even a reason for - what would we do if we didn't take choir in high school and know what unison means, what then?"
"Is it impolite to ask what unison means?"
"Uh... might fall under don't assume strax know a lot about music theory. But why wouldn't they?"
"They might not be welcome in the classes, considering," I pointed out.
"Zero tolerance policy for advocating strax-exclusive social structure," said Gail. "Trade you."
I gave her the events list. I took the protocol sheet. We were moving into the crowded main hall, now; there were a couple of food stands, and some people with petitions manning booths, and exhibits, and - yep, there was a live band, which was doing a fairly impressive job of keeping the cacophany organized. Everybody was in the same key, at least, snapping to jaunty major chords now and then when the band held a long note only to dissolve into conflicting descants after a second or two.
Melody's music was in there somewhere and I had no idea how to pick it out. I didn't know if anybody could.
Never ask a strax to quiet down. We're all very tired of requests for Freebird and Wonderwall and Happy Birthday. Please do not play any low-definition recorded music, even through headphones, while at the convention, except in your private hotel room. High-def is permissible with headphones, and singing and live instrument playing permissible in the rooms marked "6" on your map -
"Daddy! Mommy!" exclaimed Mel. I could barely hear her. She was pointing at one of the candy stalls. I wondered if we should have waited until she was old enough to, say, start school, before driving five hundred miles to bring her someplace she could meet more strax. There was a meetup in our hometown, but it was very strictly strax only and we didn't have any strax friends to escort Mel; the Harmony Convention might have a laundry list of rules, but at least "no normal people" wasn't one of them.
Non-strax are not 'normal', they're just common, reprimanded the protocol sheet.
Gail bought Mel a candy apple, probably on the hope that at least some of the apple would go down the hatch with the caramel and the chocolate. I couldn't tell in the din if the candy apple salesman was a strax or just an opportunistic vendor.
Gail said something.
"What?" I asked.
"I said, if we're going to the one on strax in public places, we should start looking for the room now!"
"Do you want to go to that one?"
I just nodded.
Gail followed the map; I held Mel's hand and went after her through the crowd. Mel was already sticky.
It was a little bit quieter in the panel room. We found seats halfway back, Mel happy with her snack between us. The live music didn't carry this far - I could still hear the swell of the crowd's music following it through the door, but it was no longer swaying Mel or the handful of people who were also this early to the session. There was music piped in, though, presumably high-def, whispering in through speakers at the front of the room. I didn't really understand how strax cooperative music worked, but whoever had set this up did; everything was, not quiet, but smooth, drifting slowly and slidily from tone to tone such that if someone spoke up and enunciated clearly I'd expect to be able to figure out what they were saying. With any luck they were also going to make use of the projector, though.
"My music is happy," said Mel.
"We need to get one of those stereos," Gail murmured in my ear over her head. "Skip both our birthday presents, maybe ask my mom -"
"We'll talk about it later," I murmured, very much aware that we'd probably sound like some kind of fascists to this crowd if we mentioned that we liked the idea of soothing Mel's music to gentle Enya-like whispers when we wanted to sleep, or if we ever had another baby and the baby needed to sleep -
The seats filled up; the panelists filed in, were introduced, and started taking questions. The projector was indeed turned on, and there was someone at a keyboard in the corner, typing very fast whenever someone said something that didn't match up to a prepared slide. I had the impression that everyone we were privileged to hear speak today was somebody big in the strax community, that everybody in the room recognized their names and could have personally written odes to their great deeds except for me, Gail, and Mel.
It was pretty clear about three questions in that we ought not to have come to this. All the politics and history were way over our four-year-old's head, and it wasn't remotely tailored for me or Gail - I'd been vaguely imagining that this would be, say, "how to politely bring up relevant acts of Congress if turned away from the library" or "which movie theaters will let you in to see the latest Pixar offering", but it was not. I would have needed to read a few more books than I knew existed about this topic to understand anything that went on, and didn't have an excuse to slide out of the row with wife and child to find something else to do. Could the people around us tell that Mel was the only strax in the family? Even if they didn't have a particular sense for it that would probably be the only reason to bring a preschooler, wouldn't it? I stayed put, and listened, and re-read all the panel titles. (I tried to think of a way for the parenting one to be this far off the mark, but even if it was intended for strax parents with non-strax children, or something, it would probably still address the quandary of how to bring the matter to the attention of school principals, if only for the purposes of PTA meetings.)
At least Mel was occupied with the candy apple. Gail, thinking along the same lines as me, took the stick with the apple core on it from her when it was denuded of food, picked Mel up with the other arm, and shot me a look as she made for the trash can near the door. I followed her, she discarded the stick, and we kept going, until we found a nook with water fountains and Gail started rinsing off Mel's sticky fingers.
"We are completely lost," said Gail, putting Mel down again with this task adequately handled. "I can't believe I let you talk me into this. We drove hundreds of miles for that?"
"There's still the - parenting panel," I said. "And Mel seems to like it."
She did. She'd absentmindedly eaten her entire apple when usually she'd have stopped at the point where she realized it wasn't peeled under the candy. She was doing a little dance. She was smiling.
Her music was happy.
"We should have tried harder to get that meetup organizer to let at least one of us sit in," Gail said. "They ought to understand that Mel can't just be dropped off on her own -"
"They didn't expect us to drop her off on her own. They expected us to have strax friends," I sighed. "Who would babysit."
"How are we supposed to make strax friends? Even if we meet someone here, even if we can hear them talking, they'll probably turn out to live hours away. It would have been better to put the gas money towards the fancy special stereo, anyway. And some of that - gentling music. When she's - twelve, thirteen, then we could drop her off at things like the meetups, why does she need all this political junk this young?"
"If the large concentration of people like her without the political junk was on offer I'd have gone for that," I said. "It's probably not all political junk. I don't believe literally every strax carries a soapbox around; they can't, can they? Maybe there's more kids here, let's walk around."
"And then she'll make friends and be miserable when they turn out to live in Alaska and we don't have a high-def microphone to let them play over the phone," muttered Gail, barely audible over ululating orchestral follow-ons to the band. "But sure."
Mel went peaceably - no love lost between her and the panel - and we wandered. I signed a couple of the petitions - bolster the protection of this Act in that State, public subsidy for the fancy audio equipment yes please - banning volume conditioning?
"Uh," I said, trying to figure out how to draw away from that booth without violating any rules on the protocol list. "No thank you."
"Are you volume-conditioning that innocent little girl?" hissed the man with the petition.
"Listen, I don't want to sign your petition, that's all."
Gail scooped up Mel and held her, like she thought the man would take our kid away.
"Are you?" he demanded. "Does she get treats if she can pretend to be like you for a minute, two, three, keep it under forty decibels for an hour and she gets a prize? Time-out if there's brass and drums while you don't want to turn on the closed captions? What are you doing to her?"
"No, you listen, you listen to your child, that girl is a gift and if you're trying to -"
"We don't! But if we were in a more delicate housing situation or if we were light sleepers -"
"If you're not trying to train her out of her music then sign the petition! You owe it to her!"
"No thank you -"
Gail was pulling on my elbow; I let her take me away rather than continue trying to get the guy to allow me to depart. He didn't chase me.
"Just - don't look like the kind of person who signs petitions," Gail said in my ear over harps and harpsichords and a pennywhistle. "It's like giving money to beggars."
"One of them was for equipment subsidy. We'd like that."
"A petition's not going to make it happen. Look, the real point of being here is for Mel's music to come out to play, right? Let's find one of the smaller rooms with instruments and singing and - let her play."
There were four rooms on the map marked 6 - Improvisational Live Music Venues. (Between 5 - Concessions and 7 - Record Points of Sale. Of all the complaints I had about this convention, its crisply organized map was not one of them.) We headed to the nearest room; empty at the moment. The next had an old man with a guitar and some people sitting in a circle of beanbags around him, most of them with their eyes closed, music cooperating. We went into that one and sat Mel on a beanbag and stood in the corner ourselves.
She seemed to know what to do, if there was any matter of knowing instead of it just all happening by itself around her. I still couldn't pick out her own tune when it was blending. It itched at me; it was like looking at a group photo and not being able to find her face. Maybe she'd be more distinctive if we'd brought her up around throat singing and yodeling and birdcalls instead of my pop and classical and Gail's baroque and Cirque du Soleil. And our mutual blues. We hadn't had any music on in the house except Mel's since we'd figured out what was making the baby cry, two years before we knew why. We left Mel with my sister or Gail's mother when we wanted to go to a concert. Because she was four. Because she was a strax. Both.
It seemed impolite - though there was nothing about it on the protocol sheet - to speak in this room, while they were doing what they were doing with the guitar. I found an old receipt in my pocket and Mel's pen and wrote, You okay here if I go look around for ~20min?
I squeezed her hand and patted Mel with her happy music on the head and slipped out the door with the event list.
Strax in the media. Strax history - what, more of it? Separate from what we'd stumbled into in the first panel? (Subtitle: It's short for "soundtracks"!) Strax around the world. Strax community organization.
I headed for that last one. I'd only be a minute late.
I found a seat close to the door, ready to bolt if "community organization" turned out to mean "picketing and writing letters to your representative" rather than "forming smaller gatherings than the Harmony Convention", but the slide up showed happy news. List of cities in the U.S. and Canada with regular strax meetups - the ones whose leaders were present on the panel today were bolded -
And my city was in big black letters.
Yep, I recognized the ginger guy on the left. And he recognized me too.
"I'm going to interrupt you there," he said to the person next to him, who was in the middle of um-ing about a question that had been asked before I came in. "I recognize this fellow and he's relevant to the topic. Mr. Thomas?"
Damn, damn. "Mr. Cole," I acknowledged.
"Right. We were just talking about different meetup groups' choices to include non-strax; if I recall correctly you took it amiss that my policy is not to admit you."
I swallowed. "Our daughter is four," I said, trying not to sound defensive.
"And that's one of the reasons some meetups admit non-strax, so they can escort their young children. There's tradeoffs to be made, obviously -" He didn't seem to be addressing me specifically anymore; just using me as a springboard to talk about his pet topic. "Obviously most strax have non-strax parents, so when they're too young to attend meetups alone they can only participate if non-strax supervision is allowed, or if their parents have at least one strax friend who'll take them. But equally obviously, it's important to strax of any age - particularly ones in the awkward period where they have to live at home but can sometimes go places alone, mid to late teens - to have a retreat from the people who constantly attempt to suppress their talents and consider them annoyances instead of a shared communication tool and plaything -"
He rambled. And rambled. Even the other panelists looked annoyed with him. I looked at my watch; I'd told Gail twenty minutes, I hadn't planned to stay for an entire panel, but Cole had gone and drawn the entire room's attention to me. If I left and the room wasn't actively on fire at the time I'd look like he'd chased me out.
I almost did leave at the twenty-minute mark, but then I found I actually had a question.
Cole called on me. The typist in the corner leaned to hear me better over the cooing high-def music saturating the room with level conversation-compatible croons.
"What should non-strax parents of young strax be doing to let them have their - I don't know what to call it, time with other strax, anyway - if they live where we live, or places with community situations like that?"
"Make strax friends," said Cole.
"But -" there are barely thirty of you in the entire metropolitan area and the only place you concentrate won't let me in.
"I agree," said the woman next to him before I could continue. "Make the effort, put yourselves out there, take the trouble to demonstrate to the child that you don't find people like her intolerable companions."
"We're -" here, aren't we?
"It's not like we're hard to find!" chuckled the guy on the other side of her, winking at the rest of the audience. They laughed; the music burbled.
"The -" protocol sheet says that if you're here for both days and see someone outside listed convention hours outside the center you shouldn't approach them just because they're making music unless their music is inviting you and what does that even mean, does that not apply at home, someone tell me how I can just make my kid's music happy without people looking like they wish our state had laxer gun laws -
"It's going to come down to that," agreed the fourth panelist. "Get to know other strax in the area. If you're here from as far away as Mr. Cole is you're obviously willing to put forth some effort for your child, and some of it's going to be social effort. Maybe bring your child outdoors more often and let people come to you, if you don't know how to close the distance yourself."
"But -" what if everyone who approaches us thinks we're training Mel like she's a puppy to keep her quiet, what if they think we hate our baby, what if they're like that petition guy -
"Next question," said Cole.
It was probably my imagination that the music snarled at me as the door closed.
When I got back to the "6" room that I'd left Gail and Mel in, they were gone, probably looking to see what had kept me or maybe taking Mel to the bathroom. I had the map; they could have gotten lost whichever they were doing. Great. I started making a circuit of the big room. I paused to look in the other "6" rooms in case they'd moved to a different one, but no, they weren't with the a capella (...as much as anybody here could be a capella) choir in the one or the lap-harp-and-an-accordion in the other. The first we'd checked, still empty. Ladies' room: line curving from it to the exit, no sign of Gail or Mel standing and waiting, and I hadn't been that late. I wished for the hundredth time that I could have afforded to replace my phone when Mel put it in the applesauce jar instead of waiting to ask my sister for one come Christmas.
I found Gail near some kind of photojournalism exhibit that I didn't pause to take in. Gail wasn't looking at it either, she was squinting into the crowd.
She didn't have Mel with her.
"Gail," I said, "where's Melody?"
"I thought she -"
"You didn't think she was with me, I told you I was leaving, I left her with you -"
"And we went looking for you and she said Daddy and pulled away from my hand and went tearing off into the crowd, I thought she'd maybe really spotted you, but I couldn't get through -"
"I haven't seen her," I said. "I haven't seen her since I left you in the guitar room."
"Oh, God," breathed Gail. I couldn't even hear her, but I could guess.
"Where exactly were you -"
"Hey, guys," said the photojournalist. "You're blocking my -"
"Not now," I told him. "Gail, where exactly were you when -"
"You can't," said the photojournalist, "you can't be in the way of the exhibit entrance -"
"Shut up!" Gail shrieked at him. "I was just by that pillar and she went that way -"
The photojournalist looked like she'd slapped him.
Every other strax within shriek-detecting radius looked like she'd slapped him.
The security guard in the convention center uniform looked like he wasn't getting paid enough, but he stalked forward and put his hand on Gail's shoulder. "Ma'am, going to have to ask you to leave."
"My daughter -" Gail began.
"Ejection offense, it was on your protocol sheet, come with me right now, ma'am. Sir, don't you start with me," he told me.
"Our daughter's missing!" I exclaimed, but he didn't seem to understand me over the roaring music.
He had his earplugs in.
"Find her," Gail cried over her shoulder as the guard pulled her away. "I'll be in the car, find her and we're leaving."
I nodded. The convention center was big, but not infinitely big, and if she'd gotten far away from it, well -
It's not like strax are hard to track down -
I tried to find another security guard, but apparently they were all placed maximally inconveniently. The photojournalist, when calmed down enough to answer a civil-by-sheer-force-of-will question, said he hadn't seen any four-year-old black girls wearing blue or any other color outfit. The people at the other stationary exhibits nearby said the same thing. She must have been quick as a wink towards whoever she'd misidentified as me.
I went back towards the entrance where Thalia, named for the wrong muse, had been, but she was gone, replaced by somebody else who also hadn't seen Mel.
Back into the center. Through it in a careful, exhaustive grid -
Past the row of petitioners.
The fellow in favor of banning volume-conditioning didn't say a word to me when I walked by.
How much of my gut feeling was about hating him for shouting at me in public about fictitious mistreatment of my daughter and how much of it was about the potentially relevant fact that he'd chosen that specific way to earn my resentment, as opposed to keying my car?
Would someone have taken her? Would he, or maybe someone who'd heard him and believed him?
Mel wasn't a hiding-prone child. We never found her curled up beneath the sink or under her bed or in the washing machine. I didn't think she'd be under somebody's booth table or tucked into the curtain behind the band. And I'd been all over this convention center twice. And if I had to listen to the music obliviously chortling while my child was missing for another hour I was going to start climbing the walls -
Where the hell was another security guard?
Eyes peeled for another one of those convention center uniforms, I stalked out of the petition booth row, only to bump into Mr. Cole.
"Mr. Thomas," he said, politely enough. "You don't look well."
"Mel's gone missing," I said, "Gail got thrown out, and I can't find security and don't know if the one throwing her out will listen to her, he had earplugs in."
"Missing? For how long?"
"At least half an hour, now, I've been looking - you've seen Mel, would you recognize her if you saw her -?"
"I think so. Not a lot of kids around. You take that half of the convention and I take this one and we meet back here?" he suggested.
"Y- wait. I had an - argument with one of the people with the petitions, back there, earlier, he shouted at me about Mel. I haven't got a speck of proof but -"
Cole nodded. "You want me to talk to him?"
"It'd be a stretch to imagine he decided to kidnap her in public, but if he's - talking to her, trying to coach her to tell someone that she needs child protection services - I swear to God, Mr. Cole, we don't volume-condition her, I just didn't want to sign the man's petition."
"No, I know," Cole said. "She doesn't look expectant when there's a lull in her music or anxious when there's a swell - I know you don't. Wait here." And he walked down the row of petitioners, and paused to sign the anti-volume-conditioning one, and I couldn't hear a word of what he said, but I stayed put.
And Mel popped out from behind the booth, and Mr. Cole offered her his hand, and she took it and walked with him right back to me.
Since she'd apparently developed a propensity to run off suddenly into crowds when merely hand-held, I scooped her up off the ground. "Thank you," I said. "What happened -?"
"He spotted her running around lost and gave her a pretzel and asked her some questions but couldn't get her to say anything incriminating," Cole said. "I don't think he'll be a problem again."
"That's good to know, but we're not staying. Gail got booted and I'm not leaving her to sit in the car for another four hours," I told him again. "And to be honest this entire day has been kind of a disaster even apart from the missing child."
"I like guitar," said Mel.
"Except the guitar room part," I amended. "If there was one of those back home I'd stand in the corner being ignored every week. But." Right. Cole was not exactly helpful in his usual territory. He'd just brought a lost kid back to her dad, not championed me in a duel.
"That's most of what the meetups are like," Cole said. "First half, anyway, and most people leave after that part."
"Great. That would do us a lot of good if -" I shook my head, trailed off.
"If you had a strax friend," said Cole.
"Or another relative or a sufficiently harmless next-door-neighbor or something or if you'd let me or Gail stand in the corner. That."
Cole squinted at me, then - fished in his pocket and came up with a business card.
"If you're in the market for a strax friend," he said, and then he moved off into the crowd.
I was rooted to the spot until Mel started pulling on my tie and I had to reassert sufficient presence of mind to not choke.
And then I headed for the door, and peeled off our nametags, and put Mel's pen back in her overalls pocket where it belonged, and met Gail at the car.
Not quite unmitigated disaster, and - something I actually knew how to do for her.
Mel's music played happy bells.