The bowler hat had its own spot on the sidewalk. It was kicked and nudged so much that it generally stayed in the same position – an arm’s length away from its owner, tipped on its top and begging.
The woman wore the hat at night. The rest of the time it pleaded on the pavement, and the crown of her grey hair was left in the sun to bleach into white.
The homely colours she once wore – grandmother’s colours – had been washed out by the wind that whipped the sidewalk. Every person who walked past her painted her further into the background.
When the people left their buildings with growling stomachs, she watched. They walked the paths they always walked – she knew the route of everyone, save a few outliers – and she listened. They barked into their phones about taxes, and meetings, and Billy getting sent to the principal’s office for hacking into the schools computer system.
Occasionally someone flipped a rusted out-of-circulation coin into her hat. She would snarl at their expensive shoes until they turned a corner and disappeared.
“What the heck does that mean?”
“AH!” Alma jolted in her seat, hitting the dingy desk with her knee.
The computer bobbled where duct tape held the monitor to the base. It was clunky and ancient. The wooden tabletop sunk under its weight. It was the type of computer more likely to kill you by falling on you than by becoming sentient and annihilating the human race.
“Jeez Lilli,” Alma said. She rubbed her knee. Her square glasses skid down her nose, almost falling off the edge. She left them to balance precariously while she checked for bruises.
The screen was blank except for a single pixelated word in neon green type.
“What’s it mean?” Lilli repeated. She shuffled closer to the screen, looking over Alma’s shoulder.
“Get your hair outta my face!” Alma pushed past the tangle of curls. She repositioned her glasses then held tight to the keyboard, nudging Lilli out of the way. Keys C through N were missing. “I don’t know what it means,” she admitted.
Lilli turned to the tattered old bookshelf lining the back of the shed. It had been untouched for months, but each spine that lined the shelves looked freshly cracked. It was like their dad had been idly flipping through paperbacks all along.
Lilli liked to imagine it that way.
It was the thickest book on the shelf, and it was in the same reliable position it had always been. Eyelevel, slightly off centre, and to the left. You could knock the whole shelf down and all the books would tumble, except for the Oxford dictionary. Lilli liked to imagine that too.
She pulled it out of its place. The hardback brought dust motes with it, puffing into the air in a cloud. She flicked the ghost thin pages until she reached the letter E.
“It means…” she followed the sentence with her index finger, “A sound or sounds caused by…the reflection of sound waves…from a surface back to the listener.”
“Then why’s it blinking at me?”
“Us,” Lilli corrected.
“Alright, fine. Why’s it blinking at us?”
A pointed leather shoe knocked the hat over and a clean, young hand rushed to pick it up. His hair was combed and gelled, his suit expertly ironed, probably by his mother.
The woman smiled up at him.
“Got any spare reading material, dear?” she asked. She used the same tone as she had with the rest – her best salesperson inflection, as if she was selling him the idea of empathy.
He swung a slim suitcase as he stood, smiling, trying to understand what the woman had asked.
“Oh!” he declared, delving his hand into his suitcase to search the bottom.
People usually gave her manuals of some kind, belonging to machines they no longer used and with few enough pages that they’d gone unnoticed during yearly suitcase clean-outs. Not so useful to them, but to her…
The young man pulled out a worn paperback and dropped it into the bowler hat. With a wave of his thin hand he slipped past the corner, taking his accomplished grin with him – minus one copy of Pride and Prejudice.
The woman pinched the book out of the hat and flicked through the pages in the afternoon sun, spitting curse words at Elizabeth and Darcy under her breath.
“Echo,” Alma read.
“Echo,” Lilli repeated.
“That’s what I said.”
“That’s what I said.”
“Shut up,” Alma said.
“Shut u – ow! Hey!” Lilli rubbed the spot on her forehead where Alma had thumped her. “C’mon, I’m bored. Try it again.”
“It won’t work,” Alma said. She was watching her reflection in the monitor while a bespeckled girl watched back with tired eyes.
Small hands interrupted her dull expression. Lilli reached over and wrestled the computer. The duct tape loosened as she shook the screen.
“You’re gonna break it!” Alma said, restraining her sister. Lilli pulled away from her grip.
Though the computer sat on an angle and threatened to fall on its head, the word Echo blipped onto the black as quickly as it disappeared into it. It never changed its letters.
“It’s old! It’ll only answer if we hit it.”
Alma pushed her sister back from the screen. “It’ll break if you hit it! We have to be gentle. It doesn’t even have voice activation.”
“Jeez!” Lilli said, splaying onto the desk.
There was an intermission of sighs. Alma started flicking the screen with her bitten nail, watching the green pixels blip in time with the thunk.
“How’d you even get it working?” Lilli asked in a murmur. Her face was still mashed into the desk. Alma shifted, resting her head on her palm.
“Doesn’t matter,” she mumbled. Lilli shot up.
“Does too. Must be why it isn’t working.”
“How’s it supposed to work then?”
Lilli perked up, reaching to poke the spot on Alma’s nose where her glasses connected. She momentarily went cross eyed, before swatting Lilli’s hand away. As her eyes refocused she saw Lilli’s exposed teeth, her lips stretching into a grin.
Lilli dropped to the ground and crawled under the desk, heading towards the twisting wires spurting from the computer and tying in knots on the hard floor.
Titir had a day job. He worked at a desk (with numbers) and he was lucky his job had yet to be taken by robots. He worked the job (with numbers) and sent his pay checks back to his family in Delhi. He didn’t need to – they were well off – but he sensed they didn’t really want him there, so he left under the pretence of rising interest rates and poor job opportunities.
He didn’t need a weekend job either, but he had one. On Saturdays, Sundays, and public holidays, Titir took a crate out of his shared garage, painted himself white, shimmied into a freshly pressed suit of the same shade, and performed on the street.
All he had to do was stand very still and smile at strangers. It was the most rewarding job he had.
He was handing a white rose to a small girl when the woman approached. The child, who had been smiling as wide as her tiny face allowed, looked frightened when she spotted the woman’s frail frame. She let her father herd her away.
“You are scaring my customers,” Titir said before he could see her. “Lucile.” He turned in increments, tipping his white top hat at the same frustrating pace.
“It’s well past lunch hour,” she said, pushing his hat aside. “You’re done for today.” She handed Titir her bowler hat. “Take the bloody coins. They won’t stop giving them to me.”
Titir slumped out of his well-placed posture of grandeur with a pronounced frown. He stepped off his crate as if walking a tightrope, toes first and devoting all his concentration to not falling over.
When both white, shined shoes were on the ground he picked up the crate to reveal a smaller one underneath. He kept it for himself and handed Lucile his own. They both creaked into a sitting position, holding their knees as they went.
“I just need one more thing,” Lucile started. “That’s the problem. It’s too specific.”
The crowd had started to thin out, but there were still a few wanderers left to stare as they walked past. While they gawked at Lucile, Titir delved into the bowler hat. He poked his tongue out as he picked through the lot.
“What’s with the Jane Austen?” he asked, holding the book up for her to see. Lucile shook her head.
Alma launched off her chair just as Lilli slipped under the desk. “Don’t you dare!” she screeched.
“Alma Blue, what the heck are all these?”
Alma poked her head under the desk.
On top of the tangled wires were piles of pamphlets and instruction manuals, all with yellowing pages folding at different angles. Lilli had bunches of them in her hands. If she looked close enough, she would have seen the publication dates. They were older than she was.
“I gotta tell you something,” Alma said.
Titir was good at sitting still. He had his elbow perched on his knee with his hand on his white chin. Specks of dried paint scattered onto his lap. There was sweat over his forehead and it mingled with chalky white hair.
“You’ve got it all working?” he asked.
“Of course I do.”
“Then what else could they possibly need?”
Lucile paused, closing her eyes to sigh at the darkness. “I think I made it too hard.”
“No. You made it hard on purpose.” Titir pinched the bridge of his nose. More paint fell to the cement by his feet. “You don’t need to live your life in riddles Lucile.”
Someone approached Titir’s hat, which he’d placed by the foot of his crate. They had earbuds in and were unaware of the sombre bubble they’d broken as they dropped a coin into it.
“Why not be consistent?” Lucile said, but Titir wasn’t paying attention. He was smiling at the passer-by, doing a theatrical bow where he sat. He was motionless until they were out of sight. When he unfolded himself and looked back at Lucile she was staring at his hat with curled lips.
“What?” Titir said. “Some of us like to have fun with our begging.”
“No, it’s not that.”
Someone else approached the hat – tiny feet at a fumbling jog. The boy teetered over with a coin held between both hands, looking bigger than it should have. Titir spotted him and stood, reaching into his suit jacket for a thornless rose that had been partially crushed by his pocket. He bowed forward, just slow enough to make the boy giggle, and handed him the flower. Instead of placing the coin in the hat, or at Titir’s feet, the boy gave it to him.
He ran back to his applauding mother.
Titir sat back on his crate. “I like to perform,” he said, puffing out his cheeks. He picked up his top hat to drop the coin within. He rattled it and the metal chimed.
“You think you could buy something for me?” Lucile said. It was more an order than a question.
Titir pocketed the loose change and returned the hat to his head. He shrugged. “Depends what it will cost me.”
Lilli and Alma sat under the desk, shaded from the setting sun. Between them was a stack of paper. At a stretch it could have been called a stack of books, but books had spines that held them together.
“So you’re tellin’ me you got these from Grandma?”
“I’m tellin’ you I sorta got them from Grandma,” Alma said.
“What d’you mean ‘sorta’?”
Lilli picked up a cover. A chunk of pages clung to the spine, but the less fortunate sheets swooped out and glided along the cold floor.
“Be careful.” Alma collected the loose papers and shuffled them into a neat stack.
“A Guide to Computer Mechanics,” Lilli read. She looked at the next pamphlet on the stack. “Complete Computer Repairs – yep, Grandma.”
“Sorta. You know the man handing out flowers by the library?”
Lilli stared at Alma with the sort of judgement only sisters can give and receive.
“What?” Alma asked, pushing up her glasses.
“You’re not s’posed to take things from strangers. ‘Specially not books called,” she paused to find another title, “Compu-ta-tion-al Mechanics…Edition Four. And Mum says we can’t to talk to grandma.”
“She just doesn’t want us to. Doesn’t mean we can’t.”
Was that right? Adults never really said what they meant. You had to guess.
She looked down at the paper and wires covering the floor. The computer made chugging sounds in the background. It was as if the wires were feeding the computer. Not just power, but mystery and words. They were veins pulsing into the main operating system, and they were trying to say something.
But they weren’t really saying what they meant either.
“I’m sorry,” Alma said.
“Hey,” Lilli barked. Alma looked up at her. She had that smile again. “When do we ever do what we’re told?”
Lucile was back at her corner in time to see the sun sink into the buildings. She had her bowler hat on early, and it covered the white hair circling the top of her head.
The coins the hat once held clattered in the pockets of Titir’s white suit, next to his final rose of the day. He planned to give it to the woman working behind the counter of the only 24-hour bookstore left in the city.
Lucile eased herself to the pavement, her back creaking as she went. She breathed in deep, filling her lungs with the early sunset air and counting her breaths for good measure.
A scattering of people paraded the street, making their way home for warm roasts and distant smiles from loved ones. Lucile waited for the streets to empty.
Though her hat sat firmly on her head, the occasional coin made its way to her. They hit the pavement like metallic drops of rain.
Titir gave the bookshop clerk his last flower and a spattering of coins, exact to the price of the book. By the time the clerk had finished counting the coins Titir was through the door. He left the occasional speck of white paint on the store floor, like breadcrumbs.
The clerk smelled her flower and smiled, the people perusing the shelves kept his image in their heads to relay back to their friends and family, and Titir wandered down the darkening street towards his one bedroom apartment.
“We’re camping out in the shed tonight!” Lilli shouted from her bedroom. The dying sun peeked through faded pink curtains, casting shadows over the piles of stuffed animals crowding her bed. She wedged a flashlight into her backpack.
“What?” her mum yelled from the kitchen.
“ME AND ALMA ARE CAMPING OUT IN THE SHED TONIGHT!”
Lilli dragged her bag into the living room. Her mum had stopped chopping vegetables, and even with Lilli’s back to her she could tell almost instinctively that her mum had her hands on her hips.
“We’re camping out in dad’s shed.” Lilli emphasized the title, and when she turned she made sure she jutted out her bottom lip. “Alma misses him,” she added.
“Oh darling,” her mum said. “I’ll bring you two dinner – but you’re not sleeping in there.” She pointed at Lilli, looking between her and the backpack. “You’ll come in before bedtime.”
“…And don’t touch anything.”
Her mum went back to her chopping board. The sting of onions followed Lilli on her path to the back door.
“We won’t. Promise,” Lilli said.
Her fingers were crossed.
Titir wore a grey cardigan over a wrinkled white shirt. There were traces of paint in his hair that never seemed to leave, even after shampooing and rinsing twice. He’d started to like having them there.
The air was still warm. Daylight clung to the globe around the edges, framing the buildings and the occasional tree with a burning glow.
He had the thin book in his back pocket. As he walked along the street he felt the paperback shift in his grey work pants.
He slipped into a side street for a few seconds, looking for a familiar face. Lucile was easy to find when she wanted to be found, but she still made Titir look. She said it was good for his heart.
She had been waiting for him. When he turned the corner he saw the lights – blue, red, and flashing, even though they were parked firmly on the sidewalk. A more conspicuous meeting than he was used to. Easier to find, but not at all what he wanted.
Lucile was being wheeled into the ambulance by men and women in uniforms. All of them shook their heads in unison, though they didn’t notice they were doing it until they got into the van and drove away.
They didn’t notice the man standing on the street corner either, or the flakes of white clinging to his dark hair. Or that he was clutching a paperback – The Phonetic Alphabet.
When Titir could no longer hear the tires on gravel, just the hole left in the world by the lack of sirens, he walked further away from his apartment.
The growing darkness of the street parted for him. The old world tore open where his feet touched it. The more he walked, the bigger the wound.
“How do you know?”
“The lights are off,” Alma said, “and she always forgets. You got anything?”
“I can’t read this stuff, you know I can’t.”
They’d encapsulated the desk in falling sheets taped up on all sides to form a tent. It glowed blue with the light of electric lanterns. They both knew blanket forts meant business.
Alma peeled the door open and ducked into the light. Lilli was staring at an open manual with her nose scrunched.
“Maybe if I wear your glasses I’ll get it.” Alma giggled, but Lilli drew out her hand.“Gimme.”
Alma gave Lilli her glasses, and as she did Lilli blurred out of focus, melting into the light that surrounded her. The chugging of the computer seemed to get louder to make up for her lack of sight.
Lilli placed the spectacles on her nose and swiftly flinch away from the page. “Nope.” She yanked them off and tossed them back.
Alma used her shirt to clean the lenses. When she tucked them back behind her ears she saw Lilli staring past her, no longer a blur.
She was making a face that was distinctly Lilli’s Thinking Face. It was a mix between a frown and a smirk. That’s how Lilli thought about things – smack bang in the middle until she’d figured out whether or not her idea was a good one.
“Hey,” she said.
“You know Echo’s a Greek. There’s a myth about her.”
“Does this have anything to do with code?”
Lilli shook out of her in-between state and crawled towards the exit, grabbing the flashlight as she went. She was smirking prematurely.
Titir clicked his door shut and turned to the darkness of his apartment.
He had clunked up the stairs so heavily that when he reached his floor Miss Watts was already waiting for him. She peered through the small crack in her door to tell him to “Tread a little lighter up the stairs, will you please hun?”
He had shut the door on her while she stared at him through ten bolt locks.
The light turned on, feeling his presence. He placed his shopping bag beside the foot of his bed.
All the shops in the city were 24-hour. When he walked into the clothes store he was welcomed by a chirpy customer service worker fighting against the full moon just outside the sliding doors. He could smell the caffeine on their breath.
Titir didn’t own any black. His wardrobe had been rid of the stuff since he was a boy – he fought against it to the point where all he was was a stroke of white paint on a street corner. It was brightness that made him feel neutral, but which lit up other people’s lives.
He didn’t hang it up, didn’t take it out of its bag. He left the black suit on the floor and wondered if dark fabric ever really looked creased anyway.
Lilli scanned the bookshelf top to bottom, left to right. Books that weren’t the Oxford dictionary were difficult to find. Her dad liked to change them around every weekend. He never moved the dictionary, though, further feeding Lilli’s myths.
(It was bound by curse to stay in the same slot no matter the circumstances. If moved and not returned in two days, the world would stop spinning.)
She started again, looking top to bottom for the unfamiliar spine.
(Someone lived behind the wall. They had a small door installed so they could take the dictionary to learn English, like Frankenstein confined to a box.)
Again, bottom to top.
(Her dad did move it, he just happened to put it in the exact same spot by accident every time.)
She found the spine two rows from bottom, and tore Greek Mythology from its shelf.
“Ah-ha!” she said.
“Lilli?” Alma whispered from the blanket fort of light. But Lilli didn’t stop. She cracked the book open and searched. The smell of pressed paper filled the space between page and nose while she tossed and turned to the chapter she needed.
“Got it! Echo was a nymph…cursed by Hera…so she could no longer voice her own words. Instead, Echo could only ever repeat the last words told to her by anoth–“
There was a loud clatter. Alma poked her head out of the fort – the flashlight had fallen to the ground. Lilli scuttled to pick it up.
“Darn thing – Alma?”
“Go to the computer.”
Alma crawled toward the centre of the fort, where the sheets dipped over the computer and accompanying chair. She scooted onto the seat, holding the sheet up so she could see the screen.
“Echo could only repeat.”
“So repeat,” Lilli urged.
Alma nodded. She used her free hand to poke at the keyboard. She tapped the E, but nothing on the screen changed.
“Nothing’s happening,” she said.
“Just keep going.”
The key for C was missing, but she knew where it was without looking. She hovered to the right to find H – still no change. She drifted further right, to the final O. It was so round and perfect. She hit the centre of it.
“Lilli, get in here.”
Lilli clapped the book closed and headed toward the blue tent.
She clambered into their den, book and flashlight in hand. She brought cold air with her – outside their fort of light the world had frozen over. But the ancient computer radiated heat, like a smoking fire starter ready to pop into flame.
Alma was holding up the heap of sheets to stop them collapsing on her head. She was very still, like a marble sculpture. Lilli crept forward, and as she did the screen came into view.
“Yankee.” Alma nodded. “Do I need to get the dictionary?”
“No,” Lilli shook her head, “just repeat it – type it again.”
“Should we be writing this down?” Alma said. She had already started to type, slow and steady with one digit.
There was a small pad of paper wedged among the stacks of manuals. Lilli pulled it out and the stack tipped, before crashing into the side of the tent.
It was like dominoes, only quieter. The sheets yanked one another out of place, floating to the ground with a whoosh.
“Lilli?” Alma pulled a sheet away from her face and turned to see her sister poking through the mess, holding a pad of paper.
“You got a pen?” she asked.
Alma ducked under a blanket and fumbled around the desk blindly.
Her hand came up first, clutching a ballpoint pen. Lilli scrambled over the sheets, pulling them away from the desk as she went. Her sister’s face came into view, beaming at the adventure.
Lilli wrote. She started with Echo then lined the new word behind it.
“Uh-huh,” Lilli answered, sprawling the letters over the page. Each out-of-the-blue phrase formed an orderly queue.
Lilli beat Alma every time, waiting for the next word. She listened to the taps with her pen suspended over the paper, anticipating the gibberish.
“Oscar…and…” Alma retyped the O, the S, the space where C used to be, but when she typed the final two letters nothing changed. “Oscar again?”
“Got it, keep going.”
“No, but – ”
“ – Keep going.”
There were five intermittent taps on the keyboard.
“Uh-huh,” Lilli said, leaning over her notebook while the tip of her tongue poked through her lips. Her tired eyes worked hard to focus in the muffled blue light.
“There’s nothing else. It’s gone blank,” Alma said. She looked away from the screen and sunk back into her chair.
“Does…echo, Yankee, bravo, delta, Oscar, golf mean anything to you?”
“Oscar Oscar,” Alma replied.
“There were two O’s – Oh! Wait,” Alma flinched, “what’s the first letters spell?”
“Eh-bed-oog. Ehbedoog.” Lilli did her best to pronounce the words but the vowels couldn’t be pushed into their place. “Does that mean anything to you?”
Alma shook her head. She slid out of her chair and trudged over the fallen blanket fort, careful to avoid the electric lanterns that lay underneath the sheets, still shining.“Lemme see.”
Lilli handed her the paper.
The computer still chugged away, revving and clicking. All that was left on the screen was a small green line blinking away in front of a background of deep, black pixels. It reappeared and disappeared, waiting for more words.
Why did It take so much noise to keep those tiny squares going?
“She sent it backwards,” Alma said.
“Sent what backwards?”
Alma looked up. Her face had never looked so full – all scrunched, holding pupils the size of the moon.
The two girls had the same tawny-brown skin as their grandmother. The sunlight didn’t burrow into wrinkles or frown lines, but instead circled their cheeks and pulled pink to the surface. Their hair didn’t fray into grey, or bleach from the roots out, but leapt at the opportunity to form itself into a crown. There were glasses perched on one, and on the other there was a dainty, unpractised frown.
They were Lucile split in two – everything good that their grandmother was, without the danger of choice.
Titir sat in the back of the church. Though the sun glittered as it pushed through tinted blue, red, and yellow glass, scattering along the aisle and rows of hardwood seats, it wasn’t the only spectacle. No one missed him.
Alma and Lilli were each given a flower to place on the coffin. They looked out-of-place faced with its shiny surface. Both had to go on tiptoes to reach the bouquet that had collected above their grandma’s head – Alma more so than Lilli.
The final rose – the one that held all the time and patience Lucile had ever asked for – was placed there by Titir. As he walked the aisle in silence, the sounds of shifting collars met him. It was a sound Titir had gotten used to.
The light bled through the church windows and drifted over his body like lucid paint on a moving canvas. Specks of dry, white paint followed him to the altar, where he bowed, before placing his rose on the centre of the coffin.
The two bewildered girls smiled at him from the front row.
The white, thornless rose, somewhat crushed by his suit pocket, was lowered into the ground.