Each step took him closer to safety, one uncertain foot in front of the other, his biceps straining as he shifted the heavy load in his arms. On either side of the unpaved road he traversed, thick groves of redwoods towered above him and the forest air wrinkled with dust and heat and smoke, causing his useless eyes behind dark glasses to burn. But his legs knew the way, knew the number of steps to the nearest house. If the neighbors weren’t there, he would have to make it all the way to the main road and hope for a passing car to pick him up.
A gust of hot wind rushed through the trees, and he heard the snap of a branch, followed by a thump on the ground. He picked up his pace, his breathing growing heavier, sweat trickling down his sides. He shifted the load again and hugged the equipment to his chest, things he couldn’t leave behind, the tools of his trade, his work, his life.
A few minutes earlier he had been in a groove at the desk in front of the window, headphones on, crafting a set for an upcoming Zoom dance party called Apocalypse. Making a killer set was essential for people unable to go out, afraid of the virus, surrounded by wildfires, and bored with political discourse. They longed to dance, move their bodies, get their sexy on even if it was in a little Zoom window. With outlets of entertainment shut down, people spent excess income on pricey headphones and ear buds. He took that into account as his fingers danced over the knobs and levers, adjusting everything by sound and feel, pumping up the bass to shake their brains, rattle their hearts imprisoned in ribcages of discontent.
His goal was to make them feel something, and he hunted for songs allowing extreme panning, mixes that bounced the sounds back and forth from ear to ear, playing with space and width as the music traveled through their heads. Getting them on their feet and shaking their asses made him happy, gave him a reason to go on when the darkness around him pressed in.
The odor of burning, pungent and slightly sweet, had wafted in the open window, filled his nostrils, and snapped him out of the trance he fell into when manipulating pitch, timbre, texture, volume, and duration, pushing one up, another down. He removed the headphones and through the lingering pulsation in his ears heard the incessant chirp notifications from his phone. Five messages. They all told him the same thing. The fires were getting close. Get out. He unplugged his headphones and the controller from his laptop, gathered everything in his arms, felt his way to the door, and negotiated the steps to the ground.
A car approached, still a couple of hundred yards away, and his panic subsided. As it was the last house on the road, someone had to be coming for him. He breathed easier, and the playlist returned to his head, the order and choice of songs. The gravel crunched under his feet to the beat of the extended dance mix version he had found of the R.E.M. song, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” a trite but obvious choice for the set. The car got closer. He tilted his head. Though his ears recognized most of the cars that came down the road, this one was different, heavier.
The vehicle stopped. Two doors opened, and the sounds of unfriendly steps, the vibration of danger ground toward him. Two men, he guessed. His spine tingled with the all-overs as Granny used to say.
“Stop right there!” a man shouted. “Put your shit on the ground and raise your hands.”
The command brought a brutal end to the tunes in Lamar’s head like a needle scratching across a record. “What? Who are you?” Lamar continued his trudge forward.
The two cops turned to each other with confused expressions. The older officer with a thick mustache that hid his upper lip on a round face and a rookie who looked as if he spent way too much time admiring his blond good looks in front of the mirror at the gym unsnapped their holsters and put their hands on their guns. The senior cop growled, “I said stop. On your knees.”
Lamar’s spirit tumbled into a muddy hole of fear. It had been four years since he had nearly lost his life, attacked by men with guns and robbed of his laptop with all his stored music. This time his files were backed up, but he wasn’t about to lose the couple of thousand dollars’ worth of equipment in his arms without a fight.
“I don’t know who you are.” A murder of crows cawed a bitter song high in the trees above them. They could see what he couldn’t, looking down on the classic scenario of a Black man facing the police with their guns drawn, barking orders that made no sense.
“Stop where you are. Are you deaf?”
The birds cawed panic and flew away.
“No, but he’s blind,” said a voice from behind the officers. The younger one swirled around and pointed his gun at a man walking up the road. Byron’s long hair blew wild in the wind and his beard was thick from not shaving since the beginning of the shutdown. He liked to joke that he now looked like the Unabomber. When Lamar hadn’t responded to his call, he had rushed out of the house in a dirty T-shirt and sweats and jumped in his car, a disheveled cavalry to the rescue.