Tone Deaf, a short story by Lowell R Torres

An earlier version of this work in progress appeared in Hoosier Writers 2012 (e-book available for only $3)

There were no certainties in life.  Audra was taught that at a young age.  The lessons were hammered in with ruthless efficiency, so she would never ever forget.  Nothing was guaranteed.  Your next meal, your next full night of sleep or warm bed, your next shower or hug or conversation or connection with another human being.  Even your next breath wasn’t guaranteed.

Because there were no certainties in life.

Her mother’s shrill yell still echoed through her memories.


Like clockwork, the herald came every day at seven sharp.  It was as reliable as the setting sun.


Mother wasn’t as much as a minute late with dinner.  Not ever.  Audra knew, and not because Mother reminded her every day during dinner.  Audra knew because she kept the time, as Mother had taught her when she was “seven-years-seven-months-seven-days-seven-hours-seven-minutes-and-seven-seconds old.”

That litany was as familiar as the dinner call.

Din-din ‘Dra!

Followed by what her mother called her dinner bell: several metal screws in a baby food jar, shaken mercilessly.  Mother knew the sound was like nails on a chalkboard to her, and she knew Audra hated being called ‘Dra.  It was a stupid little baby name and Audra was eleven-years-old now.  Not a baby anymore, but Mother was quick to use either voice or bell if she didn’t hear Audra moving after the second call.

“I’m coming Mother!” she sung, a high soprano this time.  She always sang.  Mother taught lessons and made her practice for hours a day; ever since she was seven-years-seven-months-seven-days-seven-hours-seven-minutes-and-seven-seconds old.

“Good, darling,” her mother’s voice rang back to her in a pitch perfect soprano.  “But you want to hold the E6 through ‘coming Mother,’”

“Yes, Moth. . .” the word tapered off as she entered the dining room.  A place mat lay on the table in front of her chair, and a plate on top of it.  Silverware lay on a cloth napkin next to the plate, but there was no food on the plate.  There was always food on the plate.  It was always there, on the plate, served and ready.

Mother was never late.

“Else you’ll waver and no one will pay to see a waverer,” Mother continued from the kitchen.

Mother swept into the room carrying a single plate.  Mother always did things like that.  She swept or pranced or sashayed, never anything as simple as a walk, or sitting down.  No, she glided into her seat, like a dandelion seed coming to rest after flowing on a gentle breeze, a swan landing elegantly on the water.  Every movement calculated to draw attention to her lithe grace.

The smell wafting from Mother’s plate made Audra’s mouth water, her temporary irritation at Mother’s constant dramatic flair forgotten.  As she approached the table she saw on Mother’s plate was her favorite: grilled chicken with buttered asparagus and baby red potatoes.

But there was just one plate.  One.  There were always two.  One for Mother and one for her.  One for Audra.

Mother saw her standing there with a look of confusion on her face.  She knew what the confusion was about.  Still, she waited for Audra to speak first.

“Mother?” Audra began uncertainly in a low contralto.

“Is there a problem, my dear?” Mother answered in her most innocent soubrette.

“My food, Mother.”

“Are you hungry, dear?”

“Yes, Mother.”

“Well.  Go fix yourself something, dear.”


“Please don’t stutter.  You sound like a constipated hen.”

“But you-”

“I what?  I prepare your plate for you, just as I prepare the food you eat?  And shop for the food.  And work to make the money I use to shop for food.”

Audra maintained that same look of confusion but inside she was suddenly terrified.  There was a set routine for dinner; the same routine they followed rigidly ever since she was seven-years-seven-months-seven-days-seven-hours-seven-minutes-and-seven-seconds old.  Mother was never as much as a second late, every day, day after day for four years.  It was as comfortable and known to her as her ballet slippers or Judy Garland’s E3, Barbara Streisand and Edith Piaf’s D5s, Patti Labelle’s E6 and Sarah Brightman’s whistle register.

Something was horribly wrong.

“From now on you will make your own plate.  You can do that, can’t you?”  Her mother’s plain mezzo-soprano was almost dreadful.  “You’re not a baby.  Are you?”

“N-n-no, Mother.”

“No, you’re not.  Go on then.”

And just like that, a routine she had mistaken for a certainty disappeared from her life.

So Audra knew very well that nothing was ever certain.  Every second of time has the power and potential to change the universe.  An infinite amount of threads could come spilling out of any moment, taking her on an unlimited amount of varying courses through life.  Any moment could change the rest of her life, which meant nothing was certain.

With that said, Audra was quite positive there was a man following her.

Most people would just see a man; a thin man of average height with shaggy blonde hair, wearing a charcoal-grey suit and Italian loafers meant to look more expensive than they actually were.  He looked a little overworked, or like he’d been hitting the bottle too much lately.

Audra saw that and more.  The tailored suit and loafers clashed with the unkempt hair.  This was a man who put effort into his looks, and his looks said the hair was long overdue for a meeting with a barber’s scissors. The suit was expensive but worn out, as forgotten as the hair.  It also hung loose on the man, as if he had recently lost weight.

And of course there was the monster riding on his shoulder.

 The act of making her own plate didn’t bother her, as she quickly grew to prefer dishing out her own helpings.  If Mother was in a foul mood after Audra’s practice sessions – a rigid nonstop four-hour routine sandwiched between chores and whatever home schooling worksheets Mother assigned – she would ladle up extra of a side Audra found unpleasant while skimping on everything else.

It was the shock of chaos, of a brand new experience.  Her entire life since she was seven-years-seven-months-seven-days-seven-hours-seven-minutes-and-seven-seconds old had been one repeating cycle.  She remembered just being a child, as she thought of herself in the time before mother’s lessons began.  She remembered parks and playgrounds, carnivals and birthday parties.  She had memories of playing with other children and adults.  A girl with bright red hair in pigtails; a boy with the bluest eyes, blue like the sky on perfect summer day; a man with a smile and booming laugh; a woman large with child.

The memories had grown hazy but she still had them, and cherished them while feeling guilty all the same.

“You and I, Audra my dear,” her mother would often sing when Audra mentioned Outside.  “We are all the company we need.  We are a cosmos unto ourselves.  Until you are ready.”

She had few memories since her rebirth – as mother liked to call it – where their rigid schedule had not been maintained.  And those had been because of sickness or emergencies and not due to a purposeful action.  Until Mother didn’t make her plate, but that was the only change.  Mother continued on as if nothing were any different after that.  They continued their normal routine.

Wake up, have whole wheat toast with raspberry jam, a banana and a glass of milk.  Chores, which varied from sweeping and weeding the garden to mending their clothes and mother’s work uniforms.  Four hours of singing with only a couple of fifteen second breaks to wet her mouth and throat.

And worksheets, which she loathed.  She didn’t know which she hated more: that the sheets Mother gave her were often for children younger than she was, or that she still struggled to complete them.  She asked Mother for help countless times, but Mother insisted she was teaching her everything she needed to know.

“You’re a star, ‘Dra darling,” Mother replied once when Audra expressed frustration with a particularly tricky math sheet.  “You won’t need any of this nonsense when you’re old enough to Perform, but we can’t go against state wishes, can we?”

She was usually still working on the homework when Mother called her for dinner.  Every night.  At seven o’clock.  Sharp.

And her plate, with food usually still steaming, sat at her place on their table.  But no more.  The shock was great at first, but over time it lessened.  Soon making her own plate grew to be a familiar part of the routine.  For one year, until she came down and there was no dinner.

Every week after that led to a small but significant difference in her day.  The hot water would cut out mid-shower, if not altogether and Mother would ignore her screams.  Mother would let her sleep in or wake her up earlier than the seven sharp that had been her normal time.   Or she would cut practice or homework short with no notice and no explanation.  She usually just set what she was working with or on down, nodded without a word, and walked out the door.  The first time she was gone no more than five minutes, but within three months she would leave for hours at a time.

Every week, some difference to the routine of her day.  Every week for a year after the night there was no dinner.  At the end of the year there was no food with which to make dinner and the changes stopped being so small.  Mother would disappear for days on end with no explanation despite Audra’s pleading.  She would go weeks without grocery shopping, making Audra scrounge for meals out of the dwindling pantry choices.  Or cut the legs off all of Audra’s pants and make Audra work for the thread and needle to sew them back together.  Mother loved making Audra work to regain her lost “privileges”, usually through grueling two to six-hour long opera performances.

The year after that Mother walked out the door and never came back.

This monster was a kind of yellow-fungusy color, short and squat with no legs to speak of, just large claw-like feet and stubby arms with long, skinny fingers.  It’s face looked like it had seen the wrong end of an anvil, flattened with only one eye protruding from the surface.  As big as a goose-egg and red and swollen as a ripe tomato, the eye had several white irises floating around seemingly at random, until they all stopped and joined together to focus on an item of interest.  The thing had no nose or lips, just a gaping maw with little slivers of yellowed teeth pointed in every direction.

She named this one Squashenstein.

It had greedy elongated fingers stemming from stubby, muscular arms plugged into the man’s temple, and it’s horror of a mouth was constantly whispering suggestions.  Never commands.  These little buggers were the most passive of the three different types she’d seen.

They weren’t like the aggressive skinny green ones that looked like miniature versions of those movie monsters from her childhood, before Mother changed.  Gremlers or something.  Little Tyrants, she called them.  They screamed and hissed, stamping their spiky feet as they ripped and scratched at their victim’s head.

Or the nasty brownish blobs that wrapped around their victim’s head like a turban.  These didn’t bother with commands.  They would send a tentacle down the victim’s throat and assume direct control.  They were the Crude, because they looked like large globs of crude oil.

No one else saw the monsters.  Only Audra.  The monsters knew this.  No one else believed Audra.  Audra didn’t even believe Audra for the longest time.  She remembered being outside before Mother changed.  She didn’t remember monsters.  But the first time she ventured outside after Mother left, there they were.  But no one else saw the monsters.

The monsters knew this.

They hunted her.  They wanted her, maybe to kill her or maybe to take her over too.  She saw them all the time now, more and more when she left Home, which meant the already infrequent trips would only grow increasingly so.

The man was about ten feet behind her and getting closer.  This was the closest one had come to her in some time, but she felt no thrill of the chase.  Only a dull knot of familiar dread in her gut, like she wanted to vomit out the memories of her life’s joys.  It was Squashenstein, sending out his mojo to her.  She had let him get too close, too lost in her thoughts.

And too confident in herself.  She was, after all, far from defenseless.

Audra abruptly stopped in mid stride and spun around to face her attacker.  The sight of both man and monsters’ surprised reactions sent a trill of pleasure throughout her body.  Yes, she had slipped up a bit, let it get too close, but she was master here.  Audra was the only one who could see the monsters, and she was the only one who could stop them.  She took a moment, just a small clipping of an instant, to prepare for what she must do next.

She took a deep breath.  Engaged her core.  Shoulders straight.  She stared at Squashenstein, all of its little pupils balled together in the front of the eye, staring at her with venomous hatred.

Audra sang.

© 2013 Lowell R Torres