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The Two Musics


The Two Musics

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Original Fiction Horror

The Two Musics

Simon thought he left his fascination with the infamous “Sunshine Killer” and his cult, the “Sunshine Circle,” behind in childhood, but the past may be closer than he realized…

Illustrated by Natalie Foss

Edited by


Published on May 1, 2024

An abstract illustration of a human head superimposed with the shape of a knife blade.


Simon first became aware of the two musics in no particular moment, although there did come, a little later on, a confirmation of that awareness. His understanding of the two musics crystallized then; although, as a boy of eleven, he didn’t quite recognize the problem they posed at the time, and he never fully did.

When he was ten, he moved with his family to a new home in Southern California. A veiled allusion by a neighbor, in reference to the hill peak above the house, infused it with mystery. A little research revealed to Simon that it had once been a place of worship for a group of ravers who called themselves “Sunshine Circle” and lived together just a quarter of a mile away, on the far side of the ridge. The hilltop—that was where they had all killed themselves.

There had been a string of murders in the mid-1990s, all evidently committed by one man, a member of the Circle. His name was Jeremy Rensselaer, but the media dubbed him “the Sunshine Killer.” Simon read all about him on the internet. He came from Ojai. He’d dropped out of high school and left home. When he was seventeen, under the mistaken impression that a child was trapped inside, he’d run into a burning house, and it wasn’t until about five minutes later that firemen managed to reach him and drag him back out, nearly dead from smoke inhalation. He was taken in by friends who helped him recover, but the fire left him with chronic pain. He worked mainly in groundskeeping-type jobs, and did some work farming produce. He was nineteen when he joined Sunshine Circle. He killed a man named Carl Morning, a man named Rodney Dean, a man named John Mendez, and was thought to be responsible for the disappearance of another man, Dwayne Mittie. After killing Carl Morning, he’d gone up to the top of that hill, that hill right there, and cut his own throat. Six other members of the group, including its two founders, congregated on the hill and committed suicide by heroin overdose a little while later the same day. They were found laid out in a row, facing west, holding hands, about ten feet from Rensselaer’s body.

Carrie Morning, Carl’s sister, had been a member of Sunshine Circle. She wasn’t there when the suicides happened, and neither was her friend, and fellow Circle member, Sharon Letigue. Carrie blamed herself for the events of that day, became very religious and refused to speak to anyone about it, so the details of the story were almost entirely supplied by Sharon. She, in turn, was trying to balance the accounts pushed forward by the widow of Dwayne Mittie and Carl Morning’s two bereaved kids, who blasted the Circle, calling it a cult, comparing it to the Manson family, the Branch Davidians, and Heaven’s Gate.

The Circle was founded by a couple in their thirties, Olam and Nancy Wilson, who owned the house in Glendale that served as their headquarters. They made their living by selling drugs, mainly Ecstasy and mushrooms, at raves, and would take in strays from time to time—kids who’d left home, or who had run away from some kind of juvenile control system, and had nowhere to go. They would all take drugs together, read the Gnostic Gospels and Hermes Trismegistus, and worship the sun. The Wilsons had nebulous spiritual ideas of deliverance through a kind of contagious ecstasy and what they called “breakthrough to psychic.” They wanted to start recording and selling dance music, maybe start putting out their own white-label twelve-inches for DJ sets. None of it came to anything. Olam was best known for roaming around dance floors with a backpack full of water bottles across his chest. Simon learned that taking Ecstasy makes people forget to feel thirsty, and so good Samaritans took to reminding them that they’re still earthly enough to need water. That was how Olam met Jeremy Rensselaer, who loved to dance, loved raves, and apparently often forgot he was thirsty. He also loved Sunshine Circle.

While they might have been sketchy, the Wilsons weren’t abusive people, and they didn’t take advantage of the other members, except insofar as they drew on them to help sell the drugs that paid the bills. Photos of the group showed anywhere up to eight fancifully-dressed people hanging out around the house in Day-Glo colors. Nancy was originally from Mexico and painted the interior rooms in brilliant bands of blue and ochre and green and red; she made her own pottery and painted it so brightly the pots, vases, bowls and mugs all seemed to glow with their own light. There were peace signs, weed stickers, ribbons of incense floating in the air, colored lamps—everybody at a table outside chopping vegetables for the big tofu pot. The doors and cabinets were placarded with band stickers and posters with slogans like “ALWAYS HIGHER,” and “ACID HOUSE.”

Simon could find only three photographs of Jeremy Rensselaer, and none of them conveyed any idea of what he really might have looked like. The first was a baby photo. Squinting in the sun on his mother’s lap. She had a square face, roughly bobbed hair, and deeply-recessed eyes that were barely visible. The second photo showed a group of people working in a field, harvesting tomatoes. One of these persons, circled in the image, was believed to be a teenaged Jeremy Rensselaer. He was shirtless, long-haired, bent low, a short, curved blade in his gloved hand. His face was, at best, a blurry profile, half lost in his dangling hair and his work. The last was a photo of a Sunshine Circle celebration. It was outdoors, with long shadows leaning away from the camera, so the sun was low in the sky at the time. You can see Nancy Wilson frozen in mid-clap, smiling. Carrie Morning is in the foreground, beaming, dancing. Sharon Letigue is right behind her, arms above her head, eyes closed. Off on the right, you can just see Jeremy. He’s shirtless, barefoot, wearing only his flared blue jeans; a heavy, darkly-tanned body floats in midair, hard arms outspread, long blond curls tossing everywhere, his face invisible within them.

The body of John Mendez was found at the bottom of a tall rock face off the Angeles Crest Highway. His neck was broken, but the coroner’s inquest determined that it had been snapped by sudden twisting, and that he had likely been dead before he took his tumble. He’d been briefly associated with Sunshine Circle; a twenty-one-year-old athlete at USC who bought drugs from the Wilsons and developed a fixation on Nancy. He evidently came by the house one day, and she’d been forced to lock herself in her upstairs bedroom and call for help. It’s not clear what happened, there was no one else there, but Nancy later told Sharon she’d heard John Mendez calling out to someone, that she’d heard and felt heavy footsteps that shook the wood-frame house. She thought she might have heard a brief scuffle as well, but couldn’t be too sure. After that, silence. When she finally dared to venture out of her room, the house was empty, everything was in order, the front door, which had been forced by Mendez, was set back in place. When she learned that his body had been found, she didn’t know what to think. Going to the police didn’t seem like a good idea. And what would she have told them?

The Wilsons had a connection that also sold heroin, and they were afraid of him. Everything bad began with him. He brought over a good-sized package of it one day in 1997 and told the Wilsons that he was stashing it in their house for the time being. Sharon Letigue says that the Wilsons wanted to refuse, but were too frightened to say no; they’d had some opium there once, but never anything as “heavy” as heroin.

Dean and Mittie had been working together. They knew the connection; they found out about the heroin. They came by the house with a story about some Mexican heroin they could pick up cheap in a week. The idea was, they would sell the connection’s heroin now, giving the Wilsons a cut of the proceeds, and then replace the missing stash with the Mexican heroin before the connection could come calling for it. He’d never know the difference, and they’d all be a bit richer. The Wilsons weren’t tough characters, but they had enough sense to see through this and refused. Dean and Mittie left, but with the promise to return. They were clearly angry, and not prepared to take no for an answer.

Mittie disappeared that night, and Dean’s girlfriend eventually told police that he’d left home the following morning to go over to Sunshine Circle, and that was the last she ever heard of him. Mittie was never found. Dean’s corpse was—splayed out in the scrub just off the Angeles Crest Highway. He’d been stabbed once in the back with such force that the blade had gone through his chest and perforated his sternum.

That morning, Carrie had called Jeremy, who was staying with a friend in Santa Monica. He didn’t have a phone of his own, so she’d called the friend on his home phone. She spoke with Jeremy, nothing special. But Dean had been taking leave of his girlfriend around the same time, according to her, and the drive over to Sunshine Circle was only about ten minutes from his girlfriend’s house. It was obviously impossible for Jeremy Rensselaer to have intercepted Dean—he was too far away. This fact was taken up by journalists to deepen the mystery, suggesting that more than one killer was involved. Simon saw the impossibility clearly, and likewise the most plausible explanation, namely that Carrie had gotten the time of the phone call wrong. And yet, somehow, he was certain that Jeremy Rensselaer had actually done it at that time. Sharon said that Carrie had told her she’d heard Olam and Nancy talking with Jeremy later, and that he’d said: “I gave him back to the sun.” She said she knew he meant Dean, but, since he’d been on the phone with her, plainly in Santa Monica, she’d assumed that he was not speaking literally, that he meant he had, perhaps, been praying for Dean.

After Dean’s body was found, it wasn’t long before the police came to visit Sunshine Circle. The Wilsons spoke to them on the porch, denying them entry to the house for fear that a search would turn up the heroin, which was still there. The police went away to get their warrant. The Wilsons should have ditched the heroin then, but Carl Morning was present that day, visiting his sister, and, once the police were gone, he insisted that she leave Sunshine Circle that moment, with him. Carrie refused. Carl tried to drag her to his car, and Olam Wilson intervened. Carl struck Olam, knocking him down, and then left, but returned almost right away, with a pistol he’d retrieved from his home, determined to take Carrie.

Carrie Morning was being shut into the back of Sharon Letigue’s car when Carl went around the opposite corner of the house and met Jeremy Rensselaer coming the other way, with a long knife in his hand. Simon could see it happen. Jeremy bending low, and sweeping his heavy arm out straight. The knife sheared through Carl’s carotid artery and his windpipe. Simon watched as Jeremy marvelled at a jet of blood spangling the air between him and the sun, peppering his eyes with a blazing scintillation, and Carl collapsed on the ground, dying. With the last of his dimming vision, Simon knew, Carl Morning would have seen Jeremy Rensselaer dance around him in a circle, pumping his arms at the sky, giving Carl back to the sun.

No one living knows what happened next, except that Jeremy went up the hill and cut his throat, and six of the remaining members of the Circle followed him later and overdosed on that heroin. Simon could imagine Nancy Wilson watching as Jeremy dragged Carl’s body into the backyard, where it would be less visible from the street. In his imagination, he saw her eyes widen as she thought about John Mendez, lying dead with a snapped neck, and of the abrupt disappearance of Mittie and Dean. He saw the expression on her face spread to Olam’s face, and the faces of the others, and he saw Jeremy Rensselaer, standing over Carl’s body, dim in the daylight haze of mid-afternoon, blood splattered on his bare chest and stomach, seeing the horror on their faces, and understanding it, and not being able to handle it.

The police found the house empty. Two members of the Circle were not accounted for, and they never have been. Presumably, they ran, taking what was left of the heroin, which was not found. Carrie wouldn’t talk about what happened. Sharon would: she was adamant that it was Jeremy alone who had killed anyone, and could only really be held accountable for the death of Carl, which was self-defense anyway. Far from being an admission of guilt, his suicide only proved how bitterly he regretted killing Carl, and how much he hated violence. Sharon Letigue was now dead, having been killed in an automobile accident in the 2010s. Carrie Morning had grieved over and buried her brother, then somehow contrived to disappear. People weren’t sure if she was alive or dead now. Simon thought she was alive, somewhere. He wished he could talk to her.

The story of “the Sunshine Killer” took on a life of its own. The Museum of Death claimed to have one of Jeremy Rensselaer’s fluorescent raver necklaces, but they seemed never to put it on display. Sharon Letigue claimed that Jeremy tried to store sunlight in things, not just items that glow in the dark, but in pieces of metal and clothing. He wondered if any of his stuff was still around, exposed to the sun on bare rocks, open patches of ground. A reporter had convinced Sharon Letigue to talk to her, and had published the one researched book on the story, RENSSELAER: The True Story of the “Sunshine Killer,” which had been adapted into an unwatchable film. Simon read the book, learned that Jeremy Rensselaer wore a hearing aid, because he’d fried his own hearing with loud headphones, and that his favorite movie was Lawrence of Arabia. Sharon Letigue said that Jeremy was more pure than any of the rest of them, that she saw him dance in adoration of the sun with tears pouring down his face, and he loved to sit and listen to birds, crickets, and the ocean.

It seemed to Simon as though reporters and writers wanted more victims for Jeremy Rensselaer, to inflate his menace, and consequently to make their own stories and books more important and exciting. More than a dozen additional murders were attributed to him. Simon read over those stories skeptically, trying to decide if he believed them or not. There were two that he believed.

In one case, reporters tied Jeremy Rensselaer to the unsolved murder of a housewife in San Luis Obispo, named Brenda Foglio. She had been seated at her kitchen table in the early afternoon, facing away from the back door of her house, when someone came in through that door and brained her with a cinderblock from behind, killing her instantly. There were no witnesses; nothing was taken. The murderer dragged her body outside and left her there, lying face up in the sun. There was no obvious motive, but several neighbors independently told police that Brenda had recently gotten into a loud, protracted quarrel with a homeless woman who’d parked her van just off her property line. She’d demanded the woman leave, then called the police on her. The woman, who fled rather than face arrest, was found and questioned later, but she’d been picking up her son from school at the time of the murder, with many witnesses who could vouch for her. That, and her physical frailty, due to untreated lymphoma, tended to rule her out as a suspect.

Research showed that Jeremy Rensselaer had lived in San Luis Obispo for about six weeks after he left home, and that the murder happened very near the end of the sixth week. When questioned about him, the homeless woman confirmed that she did remember meeting someone who matched Jeremy Rensselaer’s description, probably at a public concert. She never knew the name of the man she met, and she couldn’t say, one way or another, whether the man in the few existing photographs of Jeremy Rensselaer was the same person. He did seem hard of hearing—she remembered that. She couldn’t recall whether she had or hadn’t mentioned her trouble with Mrs. Foglio during any of her conversations with this man she’d met, but after the murder she hadn’t seen him around anymore. There really was no evidence, but that didn’t stop people from assuming that Jeremy Rensselaer had stalked and killed Brenda Foglio in retaliation for her hostility to the homeless woman.

The other case, which would have happened first, involved an Ojai man named Peter Van Ast, Jr., who was found dead in his backyard. Van Ast notoriously kept a .22 caliber varmint rifle handy around his house and used it to shoot coyotes, possums—anything that came into his yard, including, allegedly, a few stray cats. He was also rumored to have shot and killed a neighbor’s dog, who had gotten loose. The dog’s body was found near a trailhead, with a sizeable wound in its neck. If she had been shot, then someone had rooted around in the injury with a knife, and retrieved the bullet. The dog’s owner accused Van Ast of the killing, but could offer no proof. So he printed up fliers, and posted them around Ojai, showing Van Ast’s face, name, and home address, warning people that he killed animals. It’s not clear how Jeremy Rensselaer heard the story, but those fliers might have been his source. Van Ast was bludgeoned to death with the butt of his varmint rifle, which was found beside his body, so battered and bent out of shape the police said the gun looked like it had been run over by a train. It was still fully loaded. The one telling detail in the story, linking it to Jeremy Rensselaer, was that Van Ast had called 911 that afternoon and said that a “derelict,” a “male Caucasian, approximately twenty years old” he described as wearing only blue jeans, was in his backyard. He “requested backup,” gave his address, and rang off. That was the last anyone ever heard from him. His body had been dragged a short distance from his back door to a spot where the afternoon sun could fall on what was left of his face.

What persuaded Simon was not so much these descriptions, but the consistency of the stories with the idea that Jeremy Rensselaer killed people he considered dangerous, particularly to others. It was the meeting of the two musics. There was the martial, aggressive, violent music; the music that was associated with images of vindication. Then, there was the tranquil, contemplative, compassionate music, that made him hate violence, and shrink from the world’s cruelty. Each music invalidated the other. Each claimed him, exclusively. And when no music was playing, they both were there, waiting. What music today?

Jeremy Rensselaer stood where the two musics meet, in violence on behalf of another. But there were many, many stories of atrocities supposedly committed on behalf of others. The two musics also meet in suicide, at least, in his case. Here, Simon’s thinking grew thick, dense, and finally ground to a halt. The thoughts stopped connecting; nothing could move anymore. He would falter between the two musics, unable even to frame a question to put to his parents, and somehow ashamed to try. The idea of balance haunted him, the evening of things, but he couldn’t make it make sense. If I recognize life for the miracle it is, then, anyone who threatens that miracle is someone who must be crushed utterly out of existence; not just stopped, but obliterated—but then, isn’t that destroying life, too? Does destroying life mean that you renounce its magic, and does that mean it isn’t wrong to destroy you? Does life avenge itself, he wondered, through a kind of angel? It was a circle he couldn’t think his way around. It wasn’t hard at all to condemn Jeremy Rensselaer, and he did. So why didn’t that feel like the end of it? Why did it seem as though there was more to it, that, actually, the entirety of the question—whatever it was—remained untouched?

He’d made his way to the address on his bicycle, but the Sunshine Circle house had been demolished years ago. In fact, the property lines had even been redrawn, and there were now two new houses splitting the original lot. Some internet sleuthing had turned up the true location of the original building, and Simon visited cautiously, trying to give anyone who might be watching the impression that he was only idling by, stopping to tie his shoelace, check his phone. He darted looks in the direction of the site, examined it in hasty glances. People must come here to gawk. The property owners probably dislike the sight of random loiterers out in the street.

Sunshine Circle members used to congregate beneath those gnarled live oaks over there, with their ash-grey  trunks and small, dark leaves. They had to be the same trees; his father had told him you couldn’t cut them down, they were protected. The path leading up to the hill summit must be beyond that chain link fence back there, all but invisible in mounds of shrubbery. Jeremy Rensselaer walked down this street, stepped up over that curb, thinking about the tunic of fire he would wear after death, thinking that human blood came from the sun and returned to it. Thinking it, but also, really believing it.

That was probably the spot where Carl Morning was killed. His blood poured from his gashed throat and into that earth. And then, the sun melted his blood and drank it. That was where Jeremy saw the looks of horror on the faces of the others, where he made up his mind, without a moment’s hesitation, to kill again in order to protect the Circle—this time, he would be the victim, the offering, as well. He was going to go back to the sun.

Simon didn’t need to visit the old location to get closer to the past, though. He would gaze up at the rolling masses of the hills, and feel a presence hover there, soaking into the shadows beneath the brush. He knew that Jeremy Rensselaer must have felt that presence; that he was connected with the mysterious power that was dreaming there in the landscape, that he partook of it. Wide spaces, open to the sky, could disable Simon with sudden fear, as though he were in danger of being abducted right through the sky and out of the world, but he was attracted to large, powerful things, like mountains, storms, the ocean, the desert, anything very old. They made him feel small, but he didn’t mind feeling small. He felt small in the way a clown fish must feel when it nestles itself down among the venomous tendrils of an anemone; safe and small. It was the big and conspicuous thing that got blasted. The little one is hidden in plain sight. Every day, the people who lived in the canyon got up and went about their various ordinary human activities, just like he did, but there was another sort of hum that would still be there even if all that activity were hushed, abruptly, and that you could sort of hear at night. It was the secret activity of the hills, a life vast and furtive, massive, whispering sense without meaning, saturated with unassigned value. It was holiness, basically. Waiting for something to endow. It was the object of Jeremy Rensselaer’s worship. And didn’t it embrace him? How did—how could—Jeremy Rensselaer kill Rodney Dean, when he was in Santa Monica and Dean was already in Glendale? How did he get here so fast? Could Carrie really have gotten the time that wrong?

There was a bright day in June, only a few days into summer vacation, when Simon had been playing alone in the backyard, lighting scraps of paper on fire by focussing the sunlight through a little magnifying glass. The sunlight was a silent, blazing phantom, like the presence of another person beside himself. It stood in the air, vertical, the mute roar of a furnace. He had found a pocket mirror, and experimented to see if the light it reflected could be gathered and focused by a magnifying glass to start a fire even in the shade. Sitting on the crabgrass in the mellow gloom beneath the enormous oak tree that sheltered half the backyard, he directed the beam of light across the ground and along the grey  bricks of the dividing wall that marked the boundary. The breeze had withered away, the air was still. He didn’t know why he did it, but, abruptly taken by an unaccountable impulse, he aimed the reflected beam of light toward that hilltop, looking perhaps to see if the trembling patch of brightness he controlled could travel that far, and remain visible. He was startled by the sudden jet of light that appeared way up there, as if in response. It pivoted, slightly, as it flared into its full brilliance, causing him to blink, flinch and shut his eyes, already swimming with magenta and pale green after-images. Only in hindsight—he was already walking back inside—did it occur to him that the answering flash had come only after he had lowered the mirror, and when, some time later, he finally climbed that hill, he found a few old coffee cans with the dried and scattered remains of roses and other flowers, the untouched remnants of a little memorial, but nothing that could reflect light, certainly nothing that could have flashed at him from four or five feet above the ground. Simon asked his mother what color were fireflies, and she looked bemused and told him green and that there were no fireflies around there, or probably anywhere in California.

“Well,” he told her, “something was glowing green up on the hill. Green and red.”

He forgot all about it, and never remembered it again; but then came that particular day, when he had nearly been hit by a car. Lost in thought, as usual, he was absently crossing the street when a hood, a window, a snarling face suddenly slid past, only inches away, with a blare of horn. The shock of surprise struck him like a physical blow, somehow inside him. He stood in the street, and watched the car vanish. Mercurial, incoherent anger fluttered and struggled inside him. Then he finished crossing the street, spun in place, sat down on the curb, and wrapped his arms around himself. He hated the driver, and his sudden car. He felt almost violated, and impotent, although he was untouched, and he’d brushed up against an immensity of sadness and failure that didn’t make sense, that shouldn’t have been there. It was like nothing about him mattered. He could be plucked out of the world by chance, and nothing would stir to prevent it. Eventually—he knew he had to get home—he decided to cut across the park. He had to avoid the street. He just couldn’t walk there, but more out of resentment than caution, as if the friendly, familiar street had inexplicably betrayed him, and with a depressing idea of futility, his protests not meaning anything. The park curled around the base of the hills with a sort of corridor connecting its two parts, like the handle of a dumbbell. As he made his way along this corridor, he began to notice that there was no one else around. He was alone.

There was a moment of dead silence. Simon watched his trudging feet, then glanced up at the path to see where its margin lay, to make sure he wasn’t walking off track. That was the moment when Jeremy Rensselaer strode past him. He loomed over Simon, took two steps toward the brush at the trail’s margin, showing the blackened soles of his dirty, bare feet, and then the trunk of a big oak tree interrupted the sight of him, and he didn’t come around the other side. He had sort of faded a little as he passed behind the tree. Faded, and sank, a little. As if he were about to throw himself down on the ground, curl up and rest there in the shade, like a dog. Simon had kept walking a step or two further, and only stopped after a few moments.

He stood there a long time, staring at the oak tree until it began to blur and float before his eyes, not unlike what Jeremy Rensselaer had done. He listened. After a while, he did hear something—deep, even breathing. The sound of someone sleeping.

Very quietly, so as not to disturb anyone, Simon began walking home. Eventually, he noticed birds singing, and the ambient roar of the city out there, but it wasn’t until he’d been lying in bed that night, and had wondered if someone dead might still be out there, sleeping behind a tree, that his body jackknifed, and he clasped his head hard between his two hands. He whimpered, and was afraid. Afraid of the world, his parents, the trees, everything, even himself, somehow. Why did the violent music fill him with life, and so much energy he could barely contain it? Shouldn’t it be the compassionate music that filled him with life? Why didn’t the violent music make him sad? With a flash of reflected sunlight, he had called on Jeremy Rensselaer, and set something in motion that he didn’t understand, and that was much, much larger than himself. That idea haunted him all throughout his childhood, his adolescence, and into adulthood. It would visit him whenever it wanted to, and he would see the city rolled out in front of him, blanketed in heavy ochre sunlight, half-smothered under weightless dayshine in a psychedelic urban pastorale that made the frenetic activity all around him seem like rustling leaves, swirling dust, ripening, drinking, basking. Beneath the sun, a dancing figure, throwing his arms up into the air, high as he can, a knife blazing white in one hand, long curls snap as the head, with its face always turned away, toward the sun, nods in exultation and affirmation.

And sometimes at night when he would lie awake, he could hear the coyotes carolling somewhere out in the hills over something they’d killed. It was strange because you never heard the sound begin—you only became suddenly aware that it had been going on. The noise didn’t frighten him. He’d seen coyotes a few times, but they’d never come near him or anyone he knew. Maybe they’d gotten a cat here and there, but then, well, don’t let your cats out. It was a wild sound, that had been heard here on the hills before California was California, and it was kind of a blessing or honor for him, something that not everyone got to hear. On other nights, his heart racing, he would see the vampires, the slashers, the demons from the movies and games coming for him, and then the walls would come down in a cataract of blinding daylight, and dancing there in the heart of the glare would be Jeremy Rensselaer, almost a silhouette welded into the gold. The menace, whatever it was, would shrink from the light, start with fear at the abruptness of its onslaught, and then Jeremy would be on them, the tang of his knife would catch the light as it came down in one pure line, and Simon would feel something better than safe, he would know that justice is the only thing anyone has to fear, that justice and beauty are inseparable, united and invincible, that you have to surrender unconditionally to them together, you have to, you have to have to have to offer yourself, let them become you and become perfect where the two musics meet.


Through the window, Laura can see Simon come up the path, greet Angela and her son, Mark, as he steps onto the lawn and into the shade. There they are all together, framed by the window like an idyllic painting. They form a family together, spontaneously, without her. They smile, and Mark hurries up to tell something he’s been saving just for Simon. No one is thinking of her inside that frame, him least of all. When she brings the lemonade out, then he’ll notice her, turn his kind eyes on her, and she’ll grimace, trying to return the smile, but it’s all been decided, hasn’t it? There’s a center of gravity among them that cannot include her.

He’s cutting slices of bread for sandwiches when she brings the tray out to them, like a servant, but he sets down the knife and hurries up to her, taking the tray and nodding a greeting in his minimal sort of way. Just one nod from Simon conveys a lot of information, and she wishes that it isn’t as warm as it is. It would make things easier, like a confirmation.

The four of them had been thrown together by chance. Angela and Mark were going to move to California. Their house was closed up and they were just spending a few final days in Colorado before they left. Simon had been in Denver for an astrophysics conference, and had been forced to remain a while longer when bad weather led to a spate of flight cancellations and delays. Laura was a systems analyst working for the state, and her boss had told her in a sternly good-natured email that she would lose accumulating vacation time if she didn’t take it soon. She didn’t want to go far from home, but she didn’t want to sit alone in an empty house, either. One way or another, they had all four of them ended up staying at the same motel—a Del Webb’s Hiway House right across I-25 from St. Vrain State Park. The park was a constellation of enormous ponds surrounded by meadows, trees, and campgrounds. The Rocky Mountains—Longs Peak, Ptarmigan Mountain, the Twin Sisters—presided to the west, still spattered with snow in late June. There was something important, and precious, about this opportunity to spend time with other adults away from the usual responsibilities. It was like being a kid again, playing at random with other kids, not caring who they were or what they did.

It was a near miss that introduced them to each other. A shock went through her when she saw the police SUV roll up behind that little boy, whose name turned out to be Mark, and another voice that later on proved to have been hers shouted a warning in unwitting unison with Angela’s, who darted into the street. Simon was faster. He seemed to come out of nowhere. He lunged for Mark and snatched him up in his arms, pivoting just in time to avoid being struck himself. The car passed between Laura and the others; she saw the man driving it, the aviator sunglasses and expressionless face, one beefy arm draped across the top of the steering wheel, guiding the car with the underside of his wrist, a semper fi tattoo dull under the mat of hair and half melted into his tan, the dull gleam of his badge, and she saw Simon momentarily framed in the opposite window, staring indignantly. He was handing Mark to Angela, who gathered him up in her arms, pressed his head into her shoulder, and her face was convulsed with rage, astonishment, and confusion. Korean words burst from her; they didn’t need translating. Mark, for his part, seemed bewildered.

The SUV continued on its way, and Laura registered its unhurried nonchalance, as if killing children were its prerogative. Then she turned her attention back to Angela. Simon was guiding her quietly to the picnic tables, near the motel, and she was still carrying Mark.

“He could have been killed.”
They were the first words Laura heard him say.

“I know!” she answered. She was hurrying to express her concern, to avoid being left out. She could offer Angela a woman’s understanding. Angela set the boy down and examined him, turned him around and then back again.

“You’re fine!” she told him, her voice still harsh.

Simon wasn’t just anyone. He was one in a million. He was a man who could understand her painful isolation. He was already at home in the arctic circle that encompassed her; she saw that at once. They were the same, in the most critical way, standing to one side, observing the world with pain, with contemplation, seeing the world’s reason, and the depressing unreason. They were alike. It was plainly there, in his sad kindness, his mild voice and reserve and his delicate gestures and discretion—just like her. But there they were, the three of them, together in their own ring, not shutting her out, but not allowing her in, either. Somehow, being deliberately shut out would have been less painful. What if something bad—not that bad, but only just bad enough—happened to divide them? It was wrong to wish for that, or even to think about it. It was only human, but it was still wrong. She salved the pain of her casual exclusion with the feeling of righteousness that came with declaring something to be wrong.

He was happy to give them rides in his rental car. Simon was a conscientious driver. Laura imagined that being an astrophysicist must reflect a computer-like knack for processing information, and Simon seemed to attend to every alteration in traffic with effortless concentration, rolling in and out of stops so easily that she barely felt the momentum. There were a few eateries in the vicinity, and then there was the park, its ponds distributed along a curling road like beads on a string. He would guide his car gently around the bends while fresh air wafted in the windows, making her feel light-headed and happy.

I wish we could go on driving like this forever, she would think. Round and round these bends, the mountains swinging, the sun turning golden, air as pure as can be, and just us.

The sunsets here were so spectacular that staying inside while the sun was going down seemed a little sacrilegious. The ritual suggested itself: they would pick up their dinner at Toni’s Diner, Tacos Imposibles, or the Fosters Freeze and then carry it into the park to eat in the open air at one of the picnic tables. Lean and wiry as he was, Simon ate voraciously. He was always done first, and gazing west with a dreamy, cold light in his face. She noticed that he didn’t speak with his mouth full, and he never drank. Laura also finished quickly, but then she was too self-conscious, wiping her mouth after every bite, and barely eating anything, so that, once they had dispersed to their rooms for the night and she was alone, she would fortify herself with some secret snacks from the vending machine by the office.

Now they sit together, eating, while a conflagration transforms the sky above them in silence. The sun welds itself to the earth, daubing the mountain peaks with red while the ground below subsides into blue and purple shadows. The inaudible noise of these sunsets binds the life here together under the sway of a single event, like one answer that could satisfy any riddle. Simon, Angela, and Mark all blazed red in that effulgence. Laura wondered if she did, too. Four golden phantoms dimming, growing ashen, as the light left the sky.

Simon was never at a loss for things to talk about, since he was an astrophysicist. He could give little impromptu lectures at will, seemingly without effort, and with a real zest for the subject.  When Angela politely asked her what she did, she said —

“I’m a bureaucrat,” and smiled ruefully. “Although that implies I have a power that I don’t actually have, at all. I’m a systems analyst.”

“What does a system analyst do?” Mark asked.

“I find and customize computer programs for Colorado State University, to help them keep track of their budget and payroll, and maintain records on employees.”

From the expression on Mark’s face as he disengaged from her, he didn’t really understand what that meant, or find anything about it interesting.

“I wish we’d had a systems analyst,” Angela said. She had already told them about the failure of her family restaurant. That, and her husband’s death, were the reasons she was moving away, to join her family in California. She’d started a law degree some time ago, and hoped to resume her studies there.

She’s turning the conversation back toward herself again, Laura thought. And she’s making it look as though she were thinking of me. Trying to impress him by seeming magnanimous.

“It’s important to keep accounts straight,” Simon said. He had a way of making strict pronouncements like that; it gave him an air of integrity.

Laura was searching for something to say when she caught sight of the police SUV and gave a little jump. The car coasted through the parking lot with its lights off. Like a cruising shark, it rolled from one end to the other, almost colorless in the dusk. It didn’t want anyone to notice it was there until it was too late, and it had caught somebody in an infraction. Was it the same car, with the same evil police man inside? She turned to the others to see if any of them had noticed. Angela was wiping ketchup from Mark’s chin, but Simon’s face was dreamy again; he had seen.

We both noticed, she thought. We’re the same. We belong together. We don’t need to talk. We can understand each other, Simon, just like this.

Simon was particularly good with Mark. Something boyish would rise to the surface whenever Mark looked his way. With adults, he was serious, even a little stern, but still friendly. Laura felt his reserve emanating from him like a magical endowment, and it thrilled her, because she wasn’t the sort of person that other people found readily available, either. They were alike. But would he want someone else like him?

When that boyish look came into Simon’s eyes, there was something so painful there that Laura’s heart went out to him. Mark was a child, and children are vulnerable. Simon seemed to experience Mark’s vulnerability himself, to relive it. He knew it. It hurt. Something had happened to him. Laura was sure of it. A childhood of worry, and boredom, and sometimes even pain, had trained her to recognize it when she saw it. She watched Simon showing Mark the contents of the little red tacklebox he’d bought for him, the gutting knife, the hooks, the line, the collapsible rod. Mark wanted to try the line right away, but Angela insisted he finish eating first, that it was getting dark, that the fish were all asleep, that they could come back tomorrow, and Simon promised he would come along too, to show him what to do.

Laura gazed at Angela miserably. Angela was a widow. The same marks were there on her face—loss, pain, worry. All there. You had something to lose, though, she thinks. I never did. I didn’t get my turn. I’m sorry. But when do I get my turn?

When Simon was talking to Mark, Laura watched as the creases smoothed on Angela’s face, how relief momentarily lifted the weight that normally bent her neck and sloped her shoulders. With Simon, Angela was upright, and even lively. Younger. The more you look at him, the younger you get. And the older I get.

That night, after midnight, Laura finished her furtive snack and idly went to peek through the curtain and into the parking lot. Simon strode by just then. Where was he coming from? He was heading for his room, but where had he been? Not Angela’s room? That was upstairs. Was he heading for the stairs? But then, he’s coming back.

Laura watched as Simon marched back and forth, back and forth, three times, scanning, craning his head. Had he lost something? Should she offer to help? He wasn’t looking on the ground, though. It was more like he was patrolling, as if he were on sentry duty. After a few minutes, she didn’t see him any more. Presumably, he had returned to his room. Could he be crazy?

Laura was the first to catch sight of Mark, stumbling alone into the parking lot. He was in shock, his teeth were chattering even though the waning day was still unusually warm, and sweat trickled in heavy beads down his face. He didn’t answer her questions, and submitted robotically as she guided him by the shoulders up to Angela’s room. At sight of him, Angela swung him up in her arms and dashed inside, setting him on the bed, checking him frantically for injuries that weren’t there. Laura was looking everywhere for Simon.

“Did Simon do something to you? Where is he? … Did something happen to him?”

Mark threw her a look of anguish, but he couldn’t speak.

Laura looked toward St. Vrain. Angela hadn’t been feeling well, had perhaps a migraine, so Simon and Mark had gone to visit the fish ponds alone. How had Mark gotten safely across I-25, she wondered irrelevantly. There was no sign of trouble, only the celestial mayhem of another wild sunset, a flaring tangle of colored ribbons, blazing silver, peach, bronze and green.

And so Laura began to walk toward I-25. With her heart in her mouth, she dashed across and into the park. She had no idea what she was looking for, only that she had to find Simon, and the most likely place to find him would be by the Mallard Pond. With a pang of fear, she looked at the empty path in front of her—what was at the end? The park was nearly deserted. There were only a few stragglers, dithering their way to the exit, and one family, two middle-aged parents and their teenagers, cooking out by Sandpiper Pond. Their music, their laughter, the smell of grilling meat, and all around a feeling of painful unreality, urgency, the ponds all flat and still as mirrors reflecting the sky like vast, cold slabs of pink gold, a light near the ground to match the light high above, and darkness in between.

It was in that darkness she searched, coming upon the parking lot beneath the mountains, the great panoply of the twilight that they seemed to be making and emitting. There was the building with the bathrooms and showers. No people here. And then she was drifting in an arc around the corner of the building, cut loose by the sight of an arm. Just an arm. A forearm, with a semper fi tattoo thatched with coarse hair. She stopped moving when she saw the red, red expanse, that bristled a little as the night wind rose.


A lean, stylish young person passes by, not two feet in front of him, forearms sleeved in retro-tattoos. A globe, eagle, anchor, and a banner inscribed semper fidelis.

Formally speaking, no one ever saw Simon again after that day at St. Vrain. Mark knew no one could ever find him, in the safe place where he was now. He remembers the drawn faces of the police officer’s wife and children in the news stories. He had been asked again and again if he could remember anything, tell them what happened, where the rest of the man’s body had gone. He had only silence to give them in reply. They knew what had happened. A man had been killed. What else was there to say about it? It was something for people to marvel at, not understand. The Dominguez family, who had been having a cookout nearby at Sandpiper Pond at the time, didn’t see anyone enter or leave until—what was her name again? That woman? But anyone could have come in from the other side of the park, or over land, and away again. There was infinite space for appearances and disappearances. Even now, with everything scanned and mapped, it wasn’t impossible that one or both of them were out there beneath the Rockies somewhere, melted into the ground.

They had gone on to say all sort of things about Simon, but there wasn’t any clear reason to believe that he hadn’t been as much a victim as the dead man had been. Neither his mother, nor that other woman, had anything bad to say about Simon, nor should they have. Simon had no relatives. He left behind no clues, except a few interesting bookmarks on his web browser. The Sunshine Killer. Sunshine Circle.

Mark watches the crowd dispassionately through the window of the coffee shop. The tattooed figure rounds the corner and is gone. Mark has exactly fifty-seven minutes and twelve seconds before he has to be back at the shelter, where he lives, and he has to go by the hospital first and check in. It’s possible they will ask him to leave the coffee shop sooner than that. The two employees behind the counter keep throwing him nervous looks. The shop is half-full, and almost everyone is sitting at least a table away from him. Mark is clean enough, neat enough. He knows he should move more than he does, but he can’t bring himself to make unnecessary gestures. So he sits stiffly upright, facing the window, with his hands in his lap, studying the playground across the street. He has removed his watch, and laid it down on the table in front of him, where he can see it. Every time the minute hand strokes 12, he picks up the mug with both hands and raises it carefully to his mouth. He always wears and old-style watch. It belonged to his father. After taking one sip, he replaces the mug, wipes his lips thoroughly, and waits for the next minute to elapse.

He was only dimly aware of the lumbering policeman at first. He had come up toward them at St. Vrain, rolling as he walked, like a bear. His sunglasses seemed to be riveted on Mark. When he was about fifty feet away, Mark felt Simon’s hands slide beneath his arms, lifting him.  He felt his feet part from the earth. Simon carried him around the corner of the bathroom building, and set him down. Simon, he noticed, had thrust his gutting knife into the back pocket of his jeans.

Mark could see the sunset. A golden figure stepped out of it and gambolled like a satyr in the scintillating light of Mallard Pond. Mark saw a gutting knife turn until its broad tang caught the light, made a line. It flashed, and he experienced a violent jolt, like an electric shock. The silhouettes and outlines came loose and bounded and scampered and joined, Simon, a dancing figure with tossing golden curls, a knife brandished in the sun, the heavy dark figure of the police officer. All sway, all leap, all turn, pivot, and sway again. As the light drained from the sky, Mark became alone.

There’s a park across the street from the coffee shop, and a playground in the park, filled with the wan copper of a winter dusk. Mark understood how important it was to protect the innocence of children. What had happened with Simon taught him that. They must be protected. We who are no longer children have to be ready, we have to be guided, we have to have faith. Safety is for children. Children are for safety, and the world is not safe, it is not just, it is not beautiful, not in itself, but only as the sun lights it, justifies it, clothing it in its tunic of fire. Only fire is safe.

Once upon a summer day, when he was a boy visiting St. Vrain park with his friend Simon, he had watched three figures swim and dance away into everything and everywhere, and recalls it again as he sits in the coffee shop, an adult man, keeping careful track of the time, fifty-five minutes, forty-one seconds, keeping vigilant watch over the children playing in the park, their hidden custodian. He can’t be there all the time, though. Those three would have to be everywhere, in order to ensure that he could keep watch over them. A man hurries to pick up a little girl who has collapsed with her legs under her a few feet from the playground gate, and Mark shifts his weight, leaning forward, begins to stand. A woman joins the man. They appear to be a family. The child seems to be calm enough. Mark lowers himself back onto his seat.

Fifty-three minutes, sixteen seconds.

The clouds shift, the effulgence of the dying day breaks through, the daylight brushes the grass, which is somehow still green in places, and, for a moment, he sees the lawn become a little sea of glinting blades. What music today?

Buy the Book

The Two Musics
The Two Musics

The Two Musics

Michael Cisco

About the Author

Michael Cisco


Michael Cisco is an American writer, Deleuzian academic, teacher, and translator currently living in New York City. He is best known for his first novel, The Divinity Student, winner of the International Horror Guild Award for Best First Novel of 1999. His novel The Great Lover was nominated for the 2011 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel of the Year, and declared the Best Weird Novel of 2011 by the Weird Fiction Review. Other fiction includes the short story collections Secret Hours, ANTISOCIETIES, and Visiting Maze. His nonfiction book, Weird Fiction: A Genre Study, was nominated for a HWA Stoker award in 2023. He teaches at CUNY Hostos.
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