Jake sat on the hillside next to his older brother Mike, a ring of boulders shielding them from casual view. Mike leaned back against one of the stones, his drum resting against his chest, the drumstick on the ground next to him. The paper their mother made for the camp was in a satchel that lay between them. Both of them held the charcoal pencils old Mister Cotley made for them, carefully wrapped in pieces of scrap cloth so the drummers’ hands wouldn’t get dirty and smudge the paper.
Jake had no drum yet. He’d hoped to borrow Mike’s practice signal drum, but it had already been sent to another drummer-in-training. Until another practice drum showed up in camp, he’d have to work on the little recreational drum he’d made by hand.
He was supposed to be learning everything his brother knew. Once he’d done that, he’d be sent to Central Gathering Camp, where more experienced signalers taught those who had learned all they could in the far-flung camps.
Jake was thirteen, and he’d only known a world where drumming was the main form of communication. His mother remembered the world before the Pulse—and the sicknesses that came after, that killed off three of every five people living at the time. His mother remembered a crowded world where things were easy and communication happened in an instant.
Drum messages could travel a hundred miles an hour. Jake had trouble imagining anything going faster. A man on a horse couldn’t duplicate it. A homing pigeon could come close, but they were risky carriers. Hawks, falcons, and eagles saw them as easy pickings and seemed to know their routes. There was a woman in the village who kept pigeons and her father had raced them before the Pulse—his birds were in high demand right after, and he sent them all over so they could fly back home with the messages, which were then sent out on horseback.
But then someone in Central Gathering made a drum like the old talking drums from some place called Africa. Unlike recreational drums, they were hourglass shaped with a flexible casing that changed the tone if squeezed while being struck. The drum messages carried for long distances; relay positions like the one Jake and Mike were in had been set up throughout the area to keep the messages going. Telegraph by hand, Jake’s mother called it. He wasn’t sure what that meant.
Jake put down his charcoal and began to pound out signal rhythms on the ground. Mike shook his head and smiled in a mean way that probably meant he thought Jake would never get it right. The thing was, Jake loved drumming, but he hated the rigid sequences that signaling required. He liked to…improvise.
Drums had always been part of music; they set the beat, the rhythm of the song, the speed dancers would move. Jake could do a passable beat-box with his voice, and there was his homemade drum, but he preferred the feeling of his hands striking the head of the signal drum. The sound that resulted was more resonant than anything he could create with vocal chords or his half-assed skins. The sound of the signal drum went straight to his soul—to the heart of him.
One time he’d played a signal drum for the joy of hearing his own pattern coming from it and been beaten by his father because signal drums were not for pleasure. His father had never lifted a hand to him before or since. Jake fidgeted on the ground as if his backside still stung from the whaps of his father’s belt. He went back to his ground-drumming because, though real drums might be forbidden to him, this was not. He could use the boring time between signals to beat out a pattern to the music he made up in his head, adding tight claps to replicate the sound of two drumsticks being hit together—the “thwack” that hands could not reproduce, but still he tried.
“Stop that.” Mike looked like he would tell their father Jake was goofing around when he was supposed to be learning, so Jake stopped. Some days Mike indulged him, but this did not appear to be one of them, because Alice Kasper had left camp yesterday to get married. Mike loved her, but Central Gathering made the rules, and they liked to keep blood mixed for the health of the species and to ensure every camp had reasons not to attack another. Jake never looked at the girls in their camp; he didn’t want his heart broken the way Mike’s was.
A signal sounded from the west. Jake grabbed his charcoal and a piece of paper and scribbled down what he heard. This was the first part of learning: memorizing the codes, single letters, and common phrases. So far he’d had only limited success matching what Mike would capture on his piece of paper.
Until he had complete success, they wouldn’t give him a drum. He sometimes thought that he was forgetting what things meant on purpose because once he had a signal drum under his arm, he would never be able to resist tapping out a pattern all his own, causing small chaos once he did it.
It hadn’t been his idea to be a signal drummer. His father had thought this would be a way for Jake to transform his passion for drumming into something useful. To have both his boys turn out to be signalers would add prestige to his house.
Not that they needed it. His mother’s paper was the best of any camp. But their father was a proud man and though he helped Jake’s mother, he offered little to the camp on his own. But he could claim credit for their musical ability. Jake’s grandfather had played drums in a band long before the Pulse. Jake had noted once that this meant he came by his passion naturally, and his grandfather had probably improvised a lot, too. His father had rolled his eyes and changed the subject to how well Jake was doing on the codes. Mike had been only too happy to tell him.
Mike secured the drum under his left arm, picking up his drumstick then hitting the drum with alternating strikes of the stick and his left hand. He occasionally pressed in on the drum and the pitch would bend, the message the same but the emphasis different: routine or urgent. Jake understood those, even if he had yet to master the intricacies of the signalers’ lexicon.
Once Mike was done, Jake grabbed Mike’s paper and laid it next to his own. He had the first sentence right. After that, he only got partial bits. He sighed and turned the sheets so Mike could see.
“Are you even trying?” His brother’s anger from losing Alice rose cold and sharp in his voice.
“I’ve gotta pee.” Mike stood and walked up the path, to a spot they used for their latrine.
While he was gone, Jake drummed on the ground, his hands falling into a rhythm he’d never done, one that seemed to make the breeze stiffen and the birds sing a little louder. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine a world where he could play at any time, in any way he wanted. But then he saw Mike heading back and leaned against the boulder, pretending innocence.
Mike took his place and said, “Okay, we’re gonna go over the codes again.”
Jake picked up his charcoal and turned his paper over. He tried to do his best for his brother, tried to remember the sequence of short and long spaces for the beats.
Mike sighed as he showed him his work. “Why do I bother?”
Jake had no answer for him. As they sat, the breeze seemed to die down and the birds grew quiet.
BIO: Gerri Leen lives in Northern Virginia and originally hails from Seattle. She has stories and poems published by: Daily Science Fiction, Escape Pod, Grimdark, Enchanted Conversation, and others. Her first solo editing gig, the A Quiet Shelter There anthology published by Hadley Rille Books, was released in Fall 2015 and benefits homeless animals. See more at http://www.gerrileen.com.