You're late for your [[piano recital]]! As you run through the playground on the way to the school auditorium, [[two buttons]] pop off the front of your pants.You remember something from Boy Scouts about how to fix a button, but you don't want to miss your big debut. Do you [[stop and fix the buttons]] or [[keep going]]?You keep running, figuring that it probably isn't a big deal. You arrive in the back wing of the auditorium just before you're scheduled to take the stage. Your rendition of Für Elise is flawless, but as you take a bow, your pants [[fall to your ankles]].The psychiatrist has almost completely given up on you. "You keep having these dreams, Jimmy. They're just not normal for a seven-year-old boy. Why don't you take the medication like your mother tells you to?" "I <i>have</i> been taking my pills," you lie. "The ones that look like this?" he asks, and thrusts his hand into your face. In his palm are two small, button-shaped pills. "You're supposed to take both of these every day. One in the morning, and one at night. Why don't you take a pill now, just to see how you feel? And you can take the other one right before bed." [[Take the button pill]] [[Run out of the room as fast as you can]]As you reach for the needle and thread you always keep in your lunchbox, an old man approaches you. "Nice buttons you got there, kid," he says. "Would you be interested in making a deal with me?" <i>[["Hell no," ]]</i> you think to yourself. But you hear yourself asking: [["What's in it for me?"]] You shake your head vigorously and return to your needle and thread, working as quickly as you can. The man walks away. Running all the way across the playground in your newly-mended pants, you burst through the backstage door breathlessly. "Just in time, Jimmy!" says Mr. Buttons, your piano teacher. "You're up next." As you flawlessly perform Für Elise, you can't help but notice a strange figure in the back of the auditorium. She's wearing a black hat and a white suit and appears to be holding a red binder. Every few seconds or so, she makes a note in her binder, but she exits the auditorium before the song is over. When you head backstage, you see her sitting at the upright piano. "Good job, Jimmy," she says. "I've been trying to learn Für Elise for ten years. Can you tell me which note comes after the E? Is it [[A]], or is it [[C sharp]]?"Swallowing the pill, your head starts to feel lighter than air. Your vision clouds, and soon all you can see is a thin, vertical beam of lavender light becoming ever brighter in a dense mist. Not knowing what else to do, you walk in the direction of the light. The figure of a woman materializes amidst the fog. She's wearing a black hat and a white suit and holds a red binder against her heart. As you catch her gaze, she extends her arm out for you. [["Come here, Jimmy,"]] she says, and you can't help but comply. You got this. You may only be seven years old, but you're a piano prodigy, destined for classical music stardom. "It's A," you tell the woman, and demonstrate with a confident performance. "How wonderful!" she says. She produces a machine that is exceedingly large, but it only has two buttons. "Let's remember this day. Should I make a [[video]] of you, or just an [[audio]] recording?" You got this. You may only be seven years old, but you're a piano prodigy, destined for classical music stardom. "It's C Sharp," you tell the woman, and demonstrate with a confident performance. "How wonderful!" she says. She produces a machine that is exceedingly large, but it only has two buttons. "Let's remember this day. Should I make a [[video]] of you, or just an [[audio]] recording?" This woman is beginning to creep you out. You grab her red binder. [["That sounds awesome!"]] you lie, and run out of the room as fast as you can."You know that song you're about to play? Für Elise?," says the old man. He's right: that <i>is</i> the song you're supposed to perform in front of your entire second-grade class. "Embedded within that song is a secret code. Austrian spies wrote it many years ago to transmit secret information to one another in the music halls of Vienna." You have no idea what he's talking about. "I can share with you the secrets of the code. Only a few people alive know this anymore. If you give me those buttons, I'll give you this red binder." He flips open the binder to a page with a stamped sign: [[CLASSIFIED INFORMATION]]. "The key to the code is in there," he says, winking at you. [["That sounds awesome!"]] you exclaim, and hand over the buttons. The red binder is full of writing, but most of it is in a language you can't identify. You can only make out a few words: <i>"Für,"</i> <i>"Elise,"</i> and <i>"buttons."</i> You furiously flip through the pages, trying to learn more about what's going on. Though most of the text is handwritten, you see a big stamp on one of the pages: [[CLASSIFIED INFORMATION]]. Finally you arrive at the final page of the binder. Nothing. Frustrated, you think about throwing it in the trash. But then you see two small button-shaped bulges in its back pocket. You poke a finger in and discover two coins for the underground train: one for [[Button City]] and another for [[The Button Club]]. "Neat!," you think. You've never been allowed to ride the train by yourself before. The woman removes her hat. A long mane of black hair falls down around her shoulders. She introduces herself as Miss Buttons and motions to her left, where a grand piano has suddenly appeared. It is levitating six inches above the ground. "I'm trying to figure out how to play Für Elise," she says. "Say, which note comes after E? Is it [[A]] or [[C sharp]]?"You've never been filmed before. You feel a little uncomfortable, but the woman puts you at ease: "Just start playing," she says. "I'll let you know when the camera is running." You begin a medley of Bach's lesser-known etudes in a 9/7 time signature, a little something you've been practicing on the side. A few measures in, the woman gives you the signal, and she keeps the camera rolling until you've completed the piece. "You're a star!" she exclaims. "People are amazed by you! Why don't you give them a smile, Jimmy?" "Who? What people?" you ask her. All of a sudden, you feel terrified. "Why, I've been doing a live broadcast of you over on the big screen at [[The Button Club]]!" she exclaims. "You're a little young to go to the Button Club. In fact, I think you're their only feature that's still in grade school." You're utterly confused, but she presses on. "Goddamnit Jimmy, you're the best thing they've seen in <i>years!</i>" Your heart is racing; you just <i>know</i> something is wrong. Her eyes have begun to glow with a weird fire. You close your eyes and [[make a wish]].You've never been taped before. "Just relax," purrs the woman. "I'll let you know when I start recording." You begin a medley of Bach's lesser-known etudes in a 9/7 time signature, a little something you've been practicing on the side. After a few measures, you feel as if your hands are possessed by an unknown force. It's not <i>you</i> playing the song anymore, but whatever is causing your hands to move across the keys is hitting each note perfectly. Meanwhile, the woman's eyes are burning a hole in your back. She never blinks. "Did I tell you my name is Miss Buttons?" she suddenly asks, rudely interrupting you. You stop playing and glare at her, saying nothing. "I want to play the recording back to you!" she shrieks. You sullenly oblige, swiveling on the piano bench to face her. She produces a different machine with two buttons. She hits the play button, and for a few seconds, you're very impressed with yourself. But then a strange voice cuts into the recording. At first, you don't understand what it's saying. It almost sounds like somebody is talking backwards. But then a clear message emerges. "They're waiting for you at [[The Button Club]], Jimmy." The voice is thin, barely audible, but there's an urgency behind it. Now you're really freaked out. "What's that!," you cry. "I didn't say that! How did that get onto the recording?" Miss Buttons doesn't answer your question, but instead strokes her long, thin fingers across your face. "I see an eyelash there, Jimmy," she says. "Would you like to [[make a wish]]?" "They'll never control my mind," you think to yourself, almost collapsing as you burst onto the street. On the sidewalk, you notice two shiny objects that resemble buttons. On closer inspection, you see that they're actually coins for the underground train. "Thank god," you think. You're sick of Boy Scouts. You're sick of school. You want to get out of this small town and make your fortune playing Für Elise for a crowd that can appreciate it. Do you go to [[The Button Club]] or [[Button City]]?"What does <i>classified</i> mean?," you think to yourself. "Maybe I should just go home." You turn to walk away, but as you do, you hear a great whizzing sound. Before you have time to dodge it, a shooting star passes close to your head, almost knicking your left ear. It lands at your feet and starts to smolder. "Darn," you think. "I sure could have used the opportunity to [[make a wish]] right now." Though you're not quite sure why, something compels you to kneel over and [[touch the ashes from the shooting star]]. You've heard of this place before. Your older brother told you about it once, late at night, and kids whisper about it on the playground all the time. But nobody's ever actually <i>been</i> here. At least not as far as you know. "Call me Doctor Buttons," a low voice commands. You turn around. "H- hello?," you cry, but there's no trace of human life at all. The empty streets are borderd by skyscrapers larger than anything you've ever seen, and there's no noise except for the distant cry of a single bird and an ambient hum that emanates from the west. A shooting star streaks across the violet sky. You squint at it and [[make a wish]]. Much to your surprise, it lands at your feet. You peer down to examine the mass of smoldering star-stuff: it appears to be two plastic buttons melted together. In fact, they resemble the buttons on your pants. The disembodied voice cries out again: "Do you dare touch the buttons, Jimmy?" You turn around again. All of a sudden, the building behind you seems to be full of life. There's music, and lights. And <i>people</i>. You wonder if you should make your way to [[The Button Club]] or [[touch the ashes from the shooting star]]. To find the club, you must step through a door leading to a corridoor lit only with blacklights. Your crisp white shirt glows lavender in the musty darkness. At the end is The Button Club's entrance, obscured by a billowing silk curtain. Peering through the fabric, the club appears to be so crowded that you can hardly believe even one more guest will fit inside. As you enter, though, an empty space materalizes in front of you, and you make your way through the throngs of dancers with ease. Everybody's shirt gives off that purplish light, which bounces back at the crowd from the mirrored ceiling. You stare upwards into the mirror to try to fix your rumpled tie. But the figures reflected there don't seem to move the way that they do in the real world at all. "Button, button, who's got the button?" you hear. A young girl is holding a bowl of candy. You suddenly realize how hungry you are. "Would you like some candy, sir?," she asks, and you blush; you've never been called sir before. Her eyes look like two big blue buttons. "I'd love some," you reply. "Just dip your hand into the bowl. You can take two pieces," she replies. Her speaking voice sounds like a giggle. You thrust your hand into the bowl and remove two objects. Slipping the pieces in your pocket, the girl is gone just as quickly as she arrived. Dismayed, you pop the candies in your mouth. Except they're not candies. They're buttons. Suddenly a hand claps over your mouth. [["Don't breathe until you swallow,"]] you hear a voice say. And then another: "you better [[make a wish]], kid." Idiot. Wishes are for wooly-minded dreamers. There are only two places for dreamers here, and neither [[Button City]] nor [[The Button Club]] are nice places to stay for too long. The star is cool to the touch, smooth and soft as moss. You love the way it feels in your palms. You lift the celestial junk to your face to examine it more closely. Suddenly, a rush of energy comes into your hands. You grip begins to feel very powerful, your fingers unusually nimble. When you squeeze the star, it starts to expand like a balloon, becoming so large that you soon have to use both hands to carry it. As it continues to swell, your hands and forearms feel more powerful than a grown man's. "I wonder what it would be like to play piano <i>now</i>," you think. The face of your piano teacher, Mr. Buttons, pops into your head. A voice suddenly cuts through the silence: "Hey, what you got there, kid?" You look up and see an old man. "I- I don't know," you stammer. "I think it's a shooting star. When I picked it up, it made my hands feel really strong." "Oh yeah?," he says, and you nod. He gives you a maniacal grin. "I wonder what it would be like if you <i>ate</i> it!" Before you know what's going on, he's grabbed the star from your hands and shoved it into your mouth. [["Don't breathe until you swallow,"]] he demands, cackling softly to himself. "Feeling lucky?" the man whispers. Your heart is racing; your hands have suddenly grown weak. You've become so numb that you can barely sense your body anymore. Glancing downward, you notice that your hands are trembling. Your pants have fallen to your ankles, but the taste in your mouth is as sweet as candy. You whisper a prayer. "I hear you're good at piano," he laughs. He makes a graceful, sweeping indication to the left. There you see a piano levitating six inches off the ground. "Why don't you [[play a song]] for all of us, Jimmy?" <i>"All of us?,"</i> you think. <i>"Who's all of us?"</i> Then the houselights come on; you've somehow gotten onto a stage. The audience is full of women with white doll faces and eyes that look like shiny black buttons. Your head feels hot. At the back of the audience is a girl whose eyes are blue, not black. You lock your gaze with hers and she holds up an object. Squinting, you notice that it's a red binder. Summoning all of your strength, you estimate your chances of escaping the man. "I can only try," you think, and make a [[run toward the girl]].You decide to play a lullaby, hoping that it will soothe the man's spirit. But what comes out doesn't exactly relax you. The sound is beautiful but strange; though the piano is perfectly in tune, each note you hit is slightly off-key. It makes you uneasy, but the song works on your audience. Glancing at the crowd, you can tell the women are clearly enraptured by the music. Their black button-eyes never blink and each remains motionless throughout your performance. Except for the blue-eyed girl, that is. She's so far in the back that you can barely see her, but you keep your gaze in her direction. You're not quite sure, but she seems to be looking at you, too. <i>"What have I got to lose,"</i> you think, and make a [[run toward the girl]].Dashing through the crowd, you pray that the man isn't following you. You're too afraid to turn around and see. The girl is standing against a mirrored wall. Her face lights up as you approach her, and she breaks into a lovely smile. Your heart softens. Just as you're about to fall into her arms, you catch a view of the man reflected in the mirror. He's just a few yards back, holding the piano bench over his head and running toward you at a breakneck pace. [[Let's get out of here!]], you shout, taking the girl by the hand as you find your way back to the corridoor illuminated with blacklights. You're panting and sweating, but the further you run, the longer the hallway appears. "Where's the exit?" you cry out in desperation. As soon as you do, the girl stops running. A ladder descends from the ceiling, hanging a few feet from the floor. She doesn't appear nearly as alarmed as you. Actually, the whole thing seems <i>funny</i> to her. [["Going up?"]] she says in a giggly voice. It's almost as if she's teasing you. She hoists herself up onto the rungs, and you follow right after. The room you enter is like a medieval mad scientist's laboratory. Stuffed to the corners with enormous machines that whir, bubble and hiss, its ceilings are as tall as a cathedral's. Five amethyst-encrusted chandeliers swing from the rafters with the almost-imperceptible slowness of a corpse on a noose. Each is filled with dark red candles that drip and flicker madly, though the air is perfectly still. Stained-glass windows line the walls, decorated with an intricately-wrought circles. They almost looks like buttons. "Where <i>are</i> we," you whisper, more out of awe than inquisitiveness. The girl has run off to explore the machines, gently fingering the two small buttons that appear on each. She's dropped her red binder on the floor. "Maybe you shouldn't touch those," you suggest, but just as soon as you've said it, she's pressed a big purple button on a cylindrical machine. The doors slide open, and a man and woman walk out in a cloud of violet smoke. "Our name is [[Buttons]]," they recite in unison. "You're our missing ingredient," they say. You feel frozen, incapable of responding. "What do you mean?," says the girl. For the first time, she seems genuinely afraid. Her button eyes have turned have turned from blue to violet, and they're even bigger now. "Allow me to introduce myself in the singular," says the woman. "I'm Button Buttons, but please address me as <i>Miss</i> Buttons. This is my partner. He's also called Button Buttons, but you should refer to him as <i>Doctor</i> Buttons." "Excuse me, Doctor Buttons and Miss Buttons," says the girl. "But what the hell are we doing here? What's going on?" "We're working on a new invention," the man cuts in. "A machine like no other. It's almost complete, but there are just two pieces missing. We haven't gotten the right parts for our buttons." Miss Buttons fixes her eyes on you. "Yes, yes, you'll do," she said. She then turns to the girl. "And your girlfriend here will suffice as well." You become enraged and confused, suddenly full of emotions you can't quite understand. "She's not my girlfriend!," you scream. "I'm only seven years old!". The girl's eyes take on a darker purple hue. You feel a little bad. "Well, whatever," says Miss Buttons. "Now that you two have arrived, our new machine can be completed." "What is it?," asks the girl. "Why, it's a player piano!," exclaims Doctor Buttons. He dashes over to the left side of the room and throws back a silk curtain, revealing a piano that levitates six inches from the ground. This piano is larger than any you've ever seen. It must be ten feet high. At least. "Look closely at the legs," he commands, and you oblige. You feel sick to your stomach. How did all of this happen? You want to ask him more questions about [[Button World]], but you consider trying to escape again. After all, aren't you going to be late for a [[recital]]? In the legs of the piano are two human-shaped carvings. "Our buttons," boasts Doctor Buttons. "The piano won't work without them." "Your-your <i>buttons</i>?," you shout, holding back a sob. "That's right, two of them," he replies. "Now crawl in there so we can seal you up." THE END