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Phthalo

Chapter Text

Prologue

(before)

If he was very still, he could hear it.

The music was soft tonight, light, almost non-existent. Each note was a whisper. It was the song of a ghost.

It was hard to hear from the basement. If he so much as breathed too hard it was gone, lost in the sound of his small, sharp inhales. His chest hurt. He tried not to move. It made the pain worse, and besides… he liked hearing the ghost song.

Without it, the basement seemed darker.


It definitely wasn’t what he was expecting.

Then again, Malik wasn’t sure what a classroom should look like. He supposed that, had he put more thought into it ahead of time, he would have pictured something a bit more… organized.

The supposed classroom was in an old, brick building on the south side of downtown Bloomington, right next to the railroad tracks. It was in the part of town where many warehouses just like it still stood, either abandoned or recently turned into cheap apartments or offices. It was also right on the border of what one would consider the ‘bad’ side of town, precariously close to where Malik had been told countless times by his aunt not to be caught after dark. He hoped his bike was all right outside. He’d locked it up to a street sign out front, unable to find a bike rack.

Room 210—second floor, third door on the right—was a large space with tall ceilings. It had a… unique smell, for lack of a better word, slightly dusty and something else which Malik could not place. There was an area in the middle of the room which had been cleared out, probably to make space for the stools which now sat there, but it was obvious that this vacant part of Room 210 was not typical. Malik got the distinct impression that lots of stuff had been hastily shoved aside for these stool… and what stuff it was.

The walls were lined with bookcases, cabinets, and shelves that were covered in all sorts of odd items: empty glass bottles in various shapes and sizes, old telephones, building blocks, bouquets of fake flowers, several different sized globes, sewing machines, mason jars in assorted colors, what looked to be a plastic bust of a woman, and more. Then there were the things that were too large to sit on shelves, such as the full-sized mannequin which was perched precariously atop what looked to be an old treasure chest; something which Malik thought might be a butter churn; a Christmas tree covered in a very interesting selection of ornaments and which had a deer skull rather than a star adorning the top; an ornate floor mirror with wooden legs that were intricately carved; and so on.

All of this was illuminated under the glow of florescent lights which lit up the room as well as filled it with a soft, buzzing sound. Malik could see track lighting on the ceiling too, but those lights were currently off. There were no windows. It could have been any time of day in Room 210, and no one would know, because for as much stuff as there was lying around, Malik could not spot a clock anywhere (unless the grandfather clock in the corner counted; Malik did not think it did, as it was missing its hands as well as its pendulum).

It felt a bit like an eclectic antique shop. In fact, the only thing that indicated that this was an art studio at all were the easels—all of which were currently shoved to one side of the room, easily missed beneath the sheet of fabric which hung across half of them.

There was no mistaking that Malik was in the right place though. There had been a sign on the door which read ‘Mr. Crim’s 2-D Art Class for Beginners’, a piece of paper that was ripped on one side and dangling precariously by a single piece of scotch tape. Malik could not have envisioned a less artistic sign if he’d tried, but then again, he knew very little about such things. He was a beginner.

Evidently, so were the three other people currently waiting in the room with him.

Malik could only assume that none of them were ‘Mr. Crim’ as none of them had introduced themselves as such when they’d first arrived. None of them had said anything at all. They had each shuffled into the room, one after another, looking mildly apprehensive as they did before they each claimed a stool. At least they had the advantage of not being the first person here, Malik thought. Malik, nervous for his first day of any class, ever, had been fifteen minutes early. When he’d walked into the strange room there was no one in it, though the buzzing, fluorescent lights had been on and the door with the rather unwelcoming sign taped to it was ajar.

He’d considered leaving right then.

Malik had thought about turning around and bolting back down the stairwell, unlocking his bike and riding straight home—sorry aunt Jane, the class was cancelled—but he knew he couldn’t. His aunt would surely find out that it wasn’t, and he would be in huge trouble. Malik didn’t know exactly how much this class had cost, but he knew that it hadn’t been cheap. Still, she had insisted.

“It will be good for you,” Jane had said firmly, giving him that pained smile that Malik secretly detested. “Get you used to a classroom environment, you know? It will make the transition easier for you in August. You’ll see. Besides, it sounds fun! It’s an art class! You’ll be thanking me soon enough.”

Malik hadn’t believed her then, and he certainly did not believe her now.

He nervously glanced to each of the other three students which were present. He wondered what time it was and if any more people would soon be showing up, though there was only one stool left. Where was the instructor? Surely it was almost nine? The class was supposed to be starting soon. And if this was everyone that had signed up…

Malik seriously doubted that an eight-week art class with three adults who looked like they could be in their sixties would help prepare him for high school. He wondered if maybe his aunt had read the class description wrong. He was obviously too young to be here.

Just when Malik was beginning to become hopeful—perhaps this Mr. Crim wouldn’t show up, and the class really would be cancelled—the door once more swung open. Another man entered the room, and Malik’s heart promptly dropped.

There was no way this was not an art teacher.

He was short, thin, and old. There were tufts of white hair poking out from beneath his gray flat cap, and he had a bushy white mustache to match. His plaid, button-up shirt was off by a button, as well as covered in paint splatters—all of them orange. He had on a pair of thick, black-rimmed glasses that magnified his light blue eyes, making them appear altogether too large for his lined face. He was holding a cup of coffee. Once he taken a few hasty steps into the room, he froze with the mug halfway to his lips. His eyes widened when he saw his small, four-person class sitting there, looking very much like he was surprised that anyone had showed up at all. His gaze landed on Malik last, lingering there. His bushy brows rose. He cleared his throat.

“Right.”

He took a sip of coffee and closed the door behind him. “Right, right,” he repeated, making his way to the center of the room. He dragged the last vacant stool away from the rest of them so that he could sit and face his class from a safe distance. Malik exchanged wary glances with the other students. “My name is Harrison Crim. But don’t call me Harrison, and don’t call me Mr. Crim. It’s Gary.”

He smirked at them over the rim of his mug, where the words ‘World’s Greatest Dad’ were beginning to chip off the surface of the porcelain. Malik was unsure if he was supposed to laugh or not, but he was leaning towards the former. He glanced at the woman to his left, relieved to see that she was smiling too.  

“So.” Mr. Crim—Gary—went to set his coffee down on the nearest available surface. It was a cabinet, and it, like everything else in Room 210, was covered in stuff. He pushed an old, metal lunchbox aside to make room for it. “This is the 2-D art class for beginners. If that’s not the class you signed up for—” he pointed behind him, everyone turned to look— “there’s the door.”

No one moved. Malik considered it, but a chiding voice in the back of his head which sounded suspiciously like his aunt made him remain seated.

“That line was a lot more effective when I used to teach,” Gary said, shrugging. “College, I mean,” he amended, probably realizing that he was supposed to be teaching right now. “Half those kids had no idea where they were, first day of classes… Right. Well, I would take attendance—I know I have that class list printed out somewhere around here—but I only had four students sign up, so… Looks to me like you’ve all managed to find your way here.”

Gary held both his arms out wide on either side of his body, smiling broadly. “Welcome to my studio.”

Everyone looked about the cluttered space. The lights buzzed. No one said anything.

“Some introductions then,” Gary went on, nonplussed. “I’m a practicing artist, and though I dabble in a bit of everything, I usually paint. Oils, mostly. I taught beginning painting, drawing, and 2-D fundamentals at a community college for thirty-two years before I retired four years ago. This is the first time I’ve taught a class outside of that, so… I guess we’ll be doing some learning together. Let’s go around the room and introduce ourselves, shall we?”

Gary picked up his mug and looked pointedly to the student furthest to his right. “How about you go first? What’s your name, what do you do, why did you decide to sign up for a summer art class, and… something interesting about yourself.”

Malik turned to face the only other man in the room. Even sitting on a stool as he was, it was obvious that he was very tall. He had wide shoulders, big ears that stuck out far on either side of his face, sparse, gray hair, and a friendly smile. “Hello,” he said, waving one hand and looking around the room. “My name is Joseph Miller. But don’t call me Joseph or Mr. Miller. Call me Joe.” He grinned playfully at Gary, who chucked good-naturedly and returned his smile. “I’m a retired dentist. I practiced for almost forty years. Decided to take an art class because… why not? Sounded like an interesting thing to do. I’ve never been much of an artist. About the only artistic thing of I’ve ever done is a filling.”

“That sounds like it has some artistic merit,” said Gary, looking very serious. “You have to shape the… the whatever it is you use to fill the cavity, yeah? Sculpt it, almost, to make it look a natural part of the tooth?”

“Composite resin, usually,” Joe answered. “And yeah, I suppose I did do a bit of sculpting, in that sense.” He laughed, and it was a warm and infectious sound. “I take it back. Forget Joe, call me Michelangelo! Can my tooth sculpting count as my ‘something interesting’ part too, Gary?”

“Sure, I’ll allow it,” said Gary. “All right, so we have Joe, the dental reincarnate of Michelangelo… How about you?”

His eyes fell to the next student. She was a tiny woman with long, blonde hair streaked with gray that was woven into a braid. “I’m Martha Foster,” she said in a timid voice, her fingers playing with the sleeve of her shirt. Everything about her, from her big, round eyes to the way she spoke, made Malik think of a mouse. “I’m a Licensed Nutritionist. I decided to sign up for this class because… well, because I want to learn how to paint. Hm… Something interesting, let me think…”

Her voice trailed off, her brows furrowed. “Well. I ride a motorcycle,” she said, looking up and smiling.

“Really?” said Gary. He looked and sounded as surprised as Malik felt—he definitely would not have pegged this shy, fragile-looking woman as someone who rode a motorcycle.

Martha nodded. “Harley, a 2010 fatboy lo,” she answered somewhat slyly. “It gets much better gas mileage than a car.”

“Huh. Well I’ll be damned,” Gary murmured. “How… cool of you, Martha. All right. Next up.”

He lifted his mug towards the third student. She was a black woman who sat atop her stool with perfect posture, her hands folded neatly in her lap. Her hair was cut very short, and she had dark, intelligent eyes. Her dangling earrings shimmered when she moved, smiling as she looked at everyone, but there was something stern about the way her lips curled. Malik could tell at once that she was not the sort of person one would want to be on the bad side of. She had the kind of knowing gaze that was hard to look at very long—when she made eye contact with Malik, he felt like she was seeing straight into his soul. He quickly looked away.

“I’m Charlene Mitchell,” she said. “I’m a registered nurse. I worked in the pediatric department at St. Joseph’s for years, and though I’ve retired from that, I still work part time in home health. I decided to sign up for this class when I saw the ad in the paper. Same reason as Joe, I guess. Why not?”

She and Joe shared a grin. “Something interesting about yourself. Other than being a nurse, of course,” Gary prompted.

“Well. I don’t mean to sound too full of myself, but I make the best Devil’s food cake you’ve ever had.” Her eyes flickered to Martha before she looked back to Gary, putting one hand to her mouth as though to hide her words. “Don’t tell the nutritionist,” she said, her whisper carrying clearly.

They laughed. “Won’t tell a soul,” Gary said, winking.

“All right. We have Joe, Martha, Charlene… and now you.”

Malik squirmed as they all turned to face him, finally acknowledging the elephant in the room. He expected Gary to tell him there must have been a mistake—he shouldn’t have been signed up for this class. There was obviously a miscommunication when his aunt registered him. He could go home now. His refund would come in the mail.

Instead, Gary said, “What’s your name?”

“…Malik,” he answered. Only one word, and his voice broke. Blushing, Malik cleared his throat and tried again. “M-Malik White. I um. I… was signed up for this class. By my aunt. She um. Obviously didn’t realize it was an adult class. So…”

His voice trailed off feebly. “I suppose that was my fault,” said Gary. “I just put an ad in the paper. I didn’t specify an age range. Guess I should have.” His eyes were wide and shining behind his glasses as he tilted his head, looking at Malik as though considering him. “How old are you, Malik?”

“I’m f-fourteen,” he answered.

“And why did your aunt sign you up for an art class? Was it something you wanted to do, or something she wanted you to do?”

“Um.” Malik shifted awkwardly on his stool. Gary was smiling pleasantly, but Malik felt his face growing warmer. He could feel the curious stares of the other students like they had a physical weight to them—particularly Charlene’s, who was closest to him.  “I… Well, she uh. She saw the ad in the paper, and thought it would be good for me, I guess. I think she thought there would be other people my age here… I uh. Start high school in the fall…”

Understanding seemed to wash over Gary’s features before Malik properly explained. “You’re homeschooled, I take it,” he said. Malik nodded. “Gotcha. So, other than hoping to ease your transition into the horrible world that is high school, what do you want to get out of an art class, Malik?”

“Um… To learn to draw?”

“Fair enough. And something interesting about yourself.”

Malik bit his lower lip and thought furiously. What did he want to share with these strangers? “I… I’m really good at writing,” he eventually said. “Like, grammar. And reading. I tested way above my age group in those categories for these tests I had to take before being enrolled in public school; I’ll be in honors lit when I start freshmen year… Um. Yeah.” Malik scratched the back of his head, looking fleetingly to the others before addressing Gary again. “So… Should I go now?”

“Go? Of course not!” Gary said. “Not unless you really want to. I don’t have a problem teaching you how to draw. Hell, I would have killed to be in an art class with just three other people when I was your age.” He took a long drink of his coffee, his eyes never leaving Malik’s face. They twinkled with something like mirth. “Besides, you’re here now. You might as well stay for the first class. Here, I’ll tell you what. New refund policy. If by the end of week two you still want to drop out—and I’ll extend this to the rest of you too, wouldn’t want to be accused of playing favorites already—you can, no problem. No hard feelings. I’ll only keep the deposit to cover the cost of supplies.”

Gary stood before Malik could respond. “All right. So, you’re all here to learn some art. Excellent. Joe the sculptor, Martha the Harley rider, Charlene the Devil’s food cake maker who will maybe bring some in sometime—don’t worry, we won’t tell Martha—and Malik. The grammar king.”

He grinned, took a large sip of coffee, and set his mug back down. “Everybody up! And shove your stools over there, if you wouldn’t mind. I’m going to make us a bit of a set-up. We’re going to jump right in.”

Malik and the others stood and did as they were instructed, and Gary also pushed his stool aside. He then grabbed a table and dragged it to the center of the room, pulled off the sheet of white fabric which had been draped over a few of the easels, and laid it across the surface of the table, shaking off the dust before he did. He then promptly began piling the table with stuff.

For someone as old as he was, Gary moved with a startling agility. He darted around the cluttered room with the air of someone who knew the space well, yet still seemed surprised when he came across certain items. He let out sound of delight when he pulled out a birdhouse from behind a chest of drawers, and at one point laughed, holding up a sheet of paper so that they all could see it. “Found the class list,” he announced happily. He then rolled it up and stuck it in an old coke bottle to join the rest of the random things on the table.

Less than ten minutes later, and Gary had a very interesting assortment of items gathered. He arranged them in a particular way, though what his logic for doing so was, Malik had no idea. He walked around the table several times, adjusting things, moving them closer, occasionally adding boxes so that some things were higher than others. After a few moments of this he stepped back. Gary stared at his creation thoughtfully, running his fingers over his bushy mustache… then smiled and nodded.

“That’ll do,” he said. “All right, everyone grab an easel and pick a spot. Wherever you like, can’t go wrong so long as you can see something interesting. I have pads of paper here, as well as your drawing supplies… Well? Come on, don’t be shy!”

Malik followed the others’ lead once they began to each claim an easel and put them somewhere near the table arrangement. Malik felt ridiculously nervous. They were going to start drawing, just like that? But he had no idea what he was doing!

His nerves only got worse as he looked down at the drawing supplies that were handed to him. It was a box with dividers that was filled with various things, some of which were easy to identify—pencils, okay, he knew how to use those—but some of which he had no idea what to do with at all. There were stubs of tightly rolled paper with pointed ends in several sizes; a thing that he imagined must be an eraser, but which was gray and felt sort of like silly putty; and a piece of random fabric that was yellow and very soft.  

Malik took some small solace in the fact that he was not the only confused one. Martha was holding her bit of cloth like she might wipe her nose with it, and Joe had dragged the pointed end of one of his rolled paper stubs across his sheet of paper as thought he thought it might leave a mark.

“I know you probably don’t know what half that stuff in there is, and that’s okay,” said Gary, noting all this and grinning. “I’ll tell you all about all of your supplies—and it is yours, everything I just handed to you, as well as many things you haven’t gotten yet, it was all covered in your class costs! —but not right now. Now, I’m just gonna let you loose. Play around with everything in there. See what you can use it for. Go nuts. I want to see what you come up with without me telling you or teaching you anything, all on your own.”

Gary retrieved his coffee cup. He went to the far side of the room and flicked a light switch, turning the track lighting on. He then flicked a second switch, and the fluorescents went off. The buzzing stopped. It felt unnervingly quiet without it.

The arrangement in the middle of the room had changed dramatically. Where everything had been uniform and washed out a moment before, there was now depth—bright highlights reflecting off the metal and the glass, deep shadows spilling across the white sheets.

“For the next… oh, forty-five minutes or so, just draw,” Gary instructed vaguely. “You can focus on whatever you like. Afterwards, we’ll look at what you all have done and discuss it.”

Malik’s stomach twisted uncomfortably. Not only were they being told to draw without knowing how to use their tools, they were going to have to share what they’d done. And then talk about it.

Suddenly, Malik was glad that there were only three other people in this class, and that none of them were anywhere close to his age.

Gary checked his watch. “You may… begin,” he said.

Malik stared at his paper. It was a big sheet, much bigger than anything he’d ever drawn on before. He found the vast expanse of blankness intimidating.

Nervously, Malik glanced at the other students to see what they were doing. Charlene was going through the many pencils, trying to decide which one to use. Joe was grinning and playing with the silly putty-like object that might have been an eraser. Martha had already started, a serious expression on her face as she examined whatever it was she had chosen to sketch.

Malik took a deep breath and looked at the objects nearest to him. There was a lot to choose from. He’d placed his easel on the side of the table where Gary had put a lot of shiny things—there were a number of glass bottles, jars, and jugs there, but what drew Malik’s eye most was the tray. There was an old, silver serving tray with elaborate handles, but rather than tea cups or something logical, Gary had covered it in seashells. Their curved and jagged forms were reflected in the polished silver, making it look like there were twice as many shells as there really were. They were… interesting.

Malik picked up a pencil.

He began to draw.


(before)

They were everywhere.

Malik examined his most recent discovery, hurriedly brushing the sand from it. The shell glowed when he held it up to the sun. A fleshy pink on the inside, white with brown stripes on the outside. Its ridges made him think of teeth.

“It’s a monster,” Malik declared, placing it on top of another shell he’d found. It looked like a clam creature with curvy fangs. He opened its off-white jaws, threw his head back, and shouted, “Rawr!”

Malik laughed, taking a moment to appreciate how fearsome his shell monster looked, but then he was distracted by another yet another shell. A dark ridge poking out of the sand, and even from just the small bit that he could see, Malik could tell this one had great potential. He rushed over to it and yanked it out of the sand, expecting it to be huge—and was greatly disappointed when it was hardly more than a shard, just a sliver of shell.

He wasn’t upset about it long. That was what made this so much fun, after all—not knowing what he was going to find. He was constantly surprised at what he unearthed. Sometimes the shells were wide and curved and covered in bright, warm colors. Sometimes they were just little bits, probably once a part of a much more impressive shell that had long since broken apart. Shattered by the waves, probably—or maybe crushed by the cannonball of a pirate ship, Malik liked to think. He’d tried for a while to find the other pieces of the first broken shell he’d found, but soon realized that would be impossible. There was so much sand! It could take him days and days to put one measley shell back together.

Why waste time trying to fix one shell, when there were so many that were still intact, just waiting to be found?

Malik continued his treasure hunt.

That was what his mother had called them when he’d first begun to collect shells—or pieces of shells, as they sometimes were. Nautical treasures. Malik liked those words. Nautical, of the sea. Treasure, something precious and special.

Malik wanted all the nautical treasures.

This was his first time to the beach. To celebrate you starting school soon, his mother had said proudly, ruffling his hair. A real summer vacation before he was officially a kindergartener. Malik had all his school supplies and the special clothes that he needed ready to go: white button-up shirts and navy shorts and pants. A uniform. Malik would be wearing the same things as all the other boys his age, learning the same things…  

But that was for when the summer was over. For now, he was more than content to be here, exploring the beach on the last days of summer.

Malik was infatuated with the seashore.

He loved the salty smell. He loved the feel of the breeze coming off the water, whipping though his hair. He loved the way his feet left tracks in the sand, leaving a trail behind him wherever he went. He loved that the sun made his hair lighter and the freckles on his face and shoulders multiply, no matter how much sunscreen his mom slathered on him.

Malik wished they could live by the sea forever.

Sadly, they were only here for a week, and then they would be leaving. Malik wanted to keep every piece of this magical world that he could get his hands on. When they got home, where there was no ocean, where they were not even near a river or a lake—landlocked, being shut in completely by land—he would still have his treasures. He could make a pretend beach in his bedroom.

But he would need a lot of shells to do that, he’d explained adamantly to his mom. Lots of them. She had smiled and nodded, and she had even bought him a pail to keep them in as he hunted. The bucket was blue, Malik had insisted it be blue. To match the sea!

Yet as Malik looked out at the water now, he could see that his bucket didn’t match the sea very well at all. The water was a bit too green. His treasure holder was much closer in color to the sky.

Which is also fine, Malik thought as he dropped a few more shells into the pail. Sea bucket. Sky bucket.

Dirty bucket, he realized with a grimace. A piece of something dark and slimy had gotten stuck on the side. Malik peeled it off and tossed it towards the water, where it was caught by a lazy, incoming wave and dragged slowly out to sea.

Malik continued his treasure hunt.

The further along he went, the more and more shells he found. They were so frequent in this section of beach that it was difficult to walk without stepping on one. That was probably why there were not many people walking over here, Malik mused, but he was not bothered by this at all. He was delighted. So many nautical treasures! He wished his bucket was bigger; it was already almost full. It was also starting to get heavy. Malik pursed his lips, thinking hard. He definitely did not want to abandon any of his treasures. He should probably go back to where his mom was sunbathing and dump these out. Then he could start anew with an empty pail.

Next time we come to the beach, Malik thought as he finished cleaning the sand from one last shell—medium sized, rust-colored and smooth—I shall have to ask for another bucket so that I have two. A green one. Sky bucket, sea bucket.

It was just as Malik was about to start heading back to where his mom was that he saw it. There, just a bit further along, was the largest and most impressive shell he’d seen all day—and he hadn’t even pulled it out of the sand yet.

Malik abandoned his bucket altogether and ran over to it as quickly as he could. Running on the beach wasn’t easy. The sand slowed him down, making it difficult to sprint. Malik barely managed to dodge the smaller, suddenly unimportant seashells as he went.

Heart racing with excitement, Malik carefully extracted this most amazing of nautical treasures.

It was huge; Malik had to use both hands to hold it comfortably. It was like nothing that he had ever seen before. The shell was cone-like in shape, slightly textured and folded in on itself in a spiral. It tapered off at one side, where it was somewhat pointy, but the other end was wide and covered in rounded, spindly nubs. Malik ran his fingers over them in awe. It made him think of a crown.

Yet the most fascinating part about this shell was the inside. Where it was matte on the exterior, a mottled white and amber color, the inside was glossy—a bright, cheery pink. The sun reflected off the interior, blindingly so. Malik glided his fingers across its surface. The inside was as slick and smooth as glass.

Wow, he thought, smiling radiantly. Now this was a treasure.

“Amazing. Do you know what you’ve found?”

Malik turned at the sound of not his mother’s voice, but a man’s. He was tall and thin, wearing a white t-shirt and shorts, his black hair was tousled in the seaside breeze. He was very pale. Malik wondered if he had needed to slather himself in sunscreen too.

The stranger smiled. He looked friendly.

“…A shell,” Malik answered shyly. “A big one.”

“Yes,” the man answered. He leaned down over his knees so that he was nearly eye-level with Malik. His eyes were the exact same color as the sky and sea, a mixture of blue and green. Malik looked over his shoulder behind him to see if his mom was nearby, back towards his pail full of shells. Strange, he thought, his eyes following the trail of his own footsteps along the beach and then over towards where the stranger must have come from. Unlike Malik, this man had not left any tracks in the sand at all.

“But do you know what kind of shell?” the stranger asked, drawing Malik’s attention back to him. Malik shook his head. “It’s called a conch. And they’re the best and rarest kind. Do you know why they’re so special?”

“Is it because they’re so big?” asked Malik.

The man’s eyes shone playfully in the sunlight: they were the precise same color as the sky. “No, that’s not why. Conch shells aren’t just special for their size or shape. Conch shells are special… because they’re magical.”

Malik’s eyes went wide. “Really?” he gasped, looking down at his incredible, nautical treasure in amazement.

“Really. Put it up to your ear. You’ll hear something beautiful.”

Malik did. He held his breath, listening hard. “I don’t hear anything,” he said after a moment.

“Keep listening. Close your eyes, that will help.”

The man suddenly looked very serious, so Malik decided that he too should take this very seriously. Grown-ups knew what they were talking about, after all. Malik closed his eyes and held his breath. The sun beat against his eyelids, making the world a blur of red and orange. The breeze was loud in his other ear, so he covered it, giving the magical conch all of his attention.

He thought he heard something.

“Keep your eyes closed,” the man said when Malik threatened to peek. “Keep listening.”

He thought he heard… something…

“Keep listening…”