Elise wakes as she has the last few hundred times, with a sort of sigh signifying her reluctant acceptance that she’s still in the same too-big bed in the same too-small, too-white room. She turns her eyes briefly upward in both gratefulness and resignation. For the millionth time, the words “Groundhog Day” and a handful of old song lyrics flash across her mind: “When the world is running down, you make the best of what’s still around.” “Police” and “Sending out an S.O.S.” quickly chase these automatic thoughts into the mental green room where they wait with all the others for their cue to come onstage and greet the audience.
“Jeanie, good morning, and breakfast, please,” she announces at a volume just above the level at which she normally talks to herself.
A soft, feminine, synthesized voice states “As you wish” from everywhere, and the room gradually transitions from near-complete darkness to a simulation of mid-morning sunshine skulking behind heavy curtains. From the kitchen, the vicious war cry of the coffee grinder intrudes as a whispered whir.
The false dawn does actually come from behind the blanket hung on the right wall, thanks to a bit of superfluous tube lighting that Elise had found and cleverly repurposed. She can now make out the forms of big latch-hook lion on the left wall and the cheap cardboard wardrobes full of her folks’ old clothes—well, full of her dad’s old clothes and the few items of Mom’s that aren’t currently lying on the floor or draped over the room’s only chair. The clock-radio on the nightstand displays nothing—unplugged since the realization that both the things it does are now entirely pointless.
“Jeanie, I’m up!” she half-yawns as she stretches and remembers a reason to get out of bed. With another “As you wish,” the ceiling itself brightens enough to bring colors back to everything—everything being the buff-and-brown lion with his amber eyes, green grass and pink rose, and the vintage clothing strewn about the room; all the furniture and even the bedclothes are the same dull white as the walls—and instrumental bossa nova begins to play softly around her.
Elise had tried to teach Jeanie that music with lyrics was okay as long as it was Portuguese or French, but the GenI’s AI just wasn’t sophisticated enough to understand. The GenIII had come out just a few months before—before Elise came here—but Dad didn’t place a pre-order, and the install waiting list on release day was so long it ended up endless. When the GenII came out a few years ago, he didn’t think the few minor improvements over the GenI were worth the upgrade cost, especially when they were still making payments on this place, so Elise was now stuck with a dumb old Jeanie with just one I.
Elise shrugs herself out of bed and strips off her sleepclothes, dropping the big t-shirt on the floor and draping the PJ pants over the nightstand for next time. From the wardrobe she pulls out and on a pair of white hiphugger jeans, and from the sedimentary stack on the vanity chair she removes the red silk blouse with the bell sleeves and the colorful designs that make her smile. After a quick couple of sniffs under the blouse’s arms and her own, she rubs on a little solid perfume and drops the floaty thing down over her head.
She leans over the smothered chair to look in the mirror and pass a brush a few times through her long dark hair; then she ties it loosely back behind her neck. Good enough. Another timeless moment passes while she puzzles over her face, searching for any signs of change over the uncounted days of her residence. With a mentally shouted “STOP!” she rejects that train of thinking. Back to the green room with that useless bullshit! She bypasses the kitchen and heads straight to the studio. May seem sacrilegious, but coffee can wait.
For Elise, having Jeanie for her only companion is like having a much younger sister who is a precocious savant. Tons of basic concepts that she either can’t understand or doesn’t care about, but she is an absolute genius in the things she is good at. Some of this is just due to the nature of expert AI systems and the way computers function; the rest is down to Dad. The thing Jeanie is best at is music. She may never get sarcasm, but ask her to describe the key changes in Giant Steps, and she’ll respond with a virtual thesis paper.
There was no way his family’s shelter would have anything less than a state-of-the-art recording studio and the largest solid-state disc-image collection that money could buy. If the Internet goes down, you’ll lose the news and daily fluff, but you can still pass time pretty well with a media library rivaling the Library of Congress!
Elise occasionally felt guilty that she spent so much time viewing and listening to the same old videos and tunes, but guilt had no place in the world anymore, and her only real obligation was to keep herself sane and occupied with pleasant distractions, nearly all of which were now in this single room. She especially loved playing the LPs because it made her feel close to her parents—and oddly closer to humanity, too, just by virtue of their actual physicality compared to the intangible remoteness of everything digital. Jeanie was like the ghost of a dead civilization, but records were touchable artifacts!
Almost from the beginning, and long before she started seriously playing and recording, Elise came to spend more time in the studio than any other in the compound. First of all, the acoustic paneling meant that this was the only room without institutional white walls! Sure, the panels were dark gray instead, but after the first couple of weeks, ANYTHING BUT WHITE had become her new favorite color. (Dad bought the basic trim with ZERO upgrades so he could save every extra penny for his sweet studio.)
The studio quickly evolved into the most furnished and most decorated room too. Every colorful thing that pleased her eye was gathered and displayed in here. The walls were now cluttered with old band posters, a geometric rug, even a big shower curtain that looked vaguely like an extreme closeup of Hokusai’s Wave. The shelves were stuffed with colorful throw pillows, snares, and soda cans she’d turned into shakers. The overstuffed loveseat and chair she’d dragged in from the lounge probably ruined the room’s acoustics, but she could live with that. The compound was how Elise survived; this room was how she lived!
Elise powers on the systems, meticulously checks the levels for each instrument and mic on the board and her in-ear monitor. Once everything performs to her satisfaction, she sits behind the drum kit, picks up the sticks and calls out, “Jeanie, start loop program Weird Bed version 2.4 in 5 seconds with audible count-in starting … NOW!”
* * *
According to the file details I started writing this July 2 and haven’t touched it again since July 22. I know I wrote most of it in the first sitting. Since July, all but the last two paragraphs have been finished, and now this gets to be one of the very few creative projects I began this year that I’ve actually completed this year.
I first saw one of Elise Trouw‘s videos during one of my late-night, half-drunk, random YouTube music meanders when a video titled “Foo Fighters Meets 70’s Bobby Caldwell – Live Looping Mashup” caught the WTF part of my brain. After watching it, I was able to add wow to my initial reaction, but WTF remained, because I couldn’t figure out how she loops the way she does.
I watched several more studio and live performance videos (partly to figure this out and partly because I just enjoy them). I played them for musician friends. Eventually I found a video that someone else made to explain how she does it: software. There are several programs that allow you to preprogram the recording of a loop and the number, timing, and duration of repeats played for several simultaneous inputs, so—provided you already have musical skill and excellent timing—you can do what she does without messing with pedals or buttons, or having someone else offstage running a computer.
The thing that really stuck with me was the fact that she does it all by herself. Not because that’s impressive, but because I started imagining this lonely, creative person playing music in a band without members. I began thinking of themes from sci-fi stories I’ve absorbed over the years: apocalypse survivor, or solo space-ship occupant. The result of those thoughts is the little day-in-the-life story below, the story of a lonely young woman who lives only to make music.
You can call it a Covid story, if you need to, but that’s never what it was meant to be, regardless of how much influence my own mopey, diminished, get-by existence this year may have had on its tone. I purposely left out the McGuffin, because the specific cause of the character’s solitude doesn’t matter. That’s never what this type of story is about. (Please forgive my poor knowledge of musical equipment and women’s fashion. Finished is better than perfect.)