Midnight in the Velveteen Sector, Chapter 1.

Midnight struck in the Velveteen Sector as it was always wont to do. The air was a perfect shade of autumn cool, twin red moons cast a pale blue hue from an otherwise featureless sky, and a stifling silence hung between the rows of quietly well-appointed town homes. There were no mid-sized sedans finding their ways home from a late night out, there were no terriers or retrievers making warning at invisible passers-by; in fact the only sound to be heard was a distant cricket. And even he was having his typical difficulties with the smothering darkness. So the night went on its normal way of instilling a vastly concerting sense of security and all-is-well-ness like a blanket across the pond of faded yellow domiciles.

On the other end of Cranville, in the Mission Hills that overlook the Bay, there was a problem. There were several problems in fact, but mainly one that concerns our narrative: a young man had awoken naught but twenty minutes earlier only to discover that he was missing the one thing that he treasured more than anything: a piano key.

This was not your typical young man, nor was this your typical piano key. Actually it was, or at least it started out that way. It once occupied a space on the high end of the ivories on a worn-down upright from his childhood. The piano was an unimpressive beast of a thing, devoid of ornamentation and dilapidated to the point of betraying what wood lay underneath its dull black paint. Whether or not the piano was shiny and dignified in its younger years was anyone’s guess; that ship had long since sailed. The only really remarkable thing about the piano was that it kept its tune astonishingly well for something so long in the tooth. The particular key in question came from a couple octaves above middle C, high enough to be pretty but not high enough to be annoying or childish.

The young man’s name was Benton. He was nineteen years old, and had been for longer than he cared to remember. Moons waxed and waned, tides ebbed and flowed, but Benton was perpetually, ebulliently youthful. There were no occasions to mark the passing of his life, nary a birthday or season to serve as a milestone on the road of his humble existence. He lived alone in a one-bedroom apartment on the top floor of a timeless brick building on the corner of Somna Street and Apathy Avenue. He had one of those faces that reminded everyone of someone else. He was slightly taller than average, slightly thinner than average, with a pale complexion and straight, medium brown hair. He always wore the same outfit of faded blue jeans with a hole in the left knee, olive green long-sleeved t-shirt, and unadorned navy blue stocking cap.

Like I said, Benton woke up from a fitful night’s sleep to find that his treasured piano key was missing. He wasn’t even sure why he noticed its absence—it had been months since he had tucked it away in a bedside drawer and promptly forgotten about it. There was a time (back when he was nineteen) when he used to carry it with him everywhere, a strange combination of affectation, conversation piece, and good luck charm. During really boring moments of his life he would pull out his pocketknife and carve intricate patterns and pictures on its surfaces. There was one carving of a particularly Basque-looking palm tree that he always was fond of, and he thought of this as a cold panic swept over him while he tore his apartment open from end to end.

It wasn’t a very big place where he lived, just large enough to hold what few possessions he refused to part with. Thus, it took him roughly twenty minutes to confirm what he already knew about his misplaced trinket. He dropped himself on the middle of his loveseat precisely at midnight.

There’s a certain sense that exists within most people that indicates, without the person even realizing it, how likely that person is to fall sleep at any given moment. Some might call this feeling awake or feeling tired, but it goes beyond that. A person who has been wake for two and a half days can still know that laying down is no guarantee of restful slumber. Benton’s “sleep sense” was throwing no doubt on the futility of sleep as the seconds crawled by into the early morning hours. Sitting unoccupied on his dilapidated green couch was as good as any psychological torture to him.

One time-tested method of breaking the momentum of a troubled mind is reading. As it just so happened, there was a recent general-interest magazine laying on the arm of the loveseat not two feet away. Benton flipped past a slew of seemingly uninterrupted pages of ads for pills and cars and gadgets and anything else that could possibly serve as a substitute for real, genuine happiness. Happiness, thought Benton. I could buy happiness if they had my key for sale.

His key. How could he have lost it? He was certain he last saw it in his nightstand. Had he moved it? Could it have been stolen? How long was it gone for? Who could’ve taken it? There was a long list of friends and acquaintances that had been in and out of his apartment over the last few months; questioning each of them would be painstaking and most likely fruitless. Faces and hazy memories appeared in front of his eyes as he labored valiantly through an article on the dangers of some common food ingredient. It was no use. Reading had obviously failed—time for plan B.

Another tried and true method for curing insomnia is simply to leave. Placing oneself in new surroundings is a reliable way to break demanding trains of thought and rob one’s bedroom of its ability to stifle mental relaxation. And so, with keys in hand, Benton flung on a lightweight tan canvas jacket as he scrambled down the stairs that ran through the core of his building. The corner store couldn’t possibly be far enough away.

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