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Resurrection of Sound – IV

[For the penultimate section in “Resurrection of Sound”, I was given the opportunity to speak with Maria Parden, lead prosecutor for the Williams Trial. I met with Parden, who is currently retired and living in Philadelphia, in an outdoor cafe near Fairmount Park. As her sole condition for holding a discussion with me, she requested that our interview be published in the form of a complete transcription. “I don’t like to be misquoted,” she explained.]

Have you decided what to order yet?

I’m not sure. There’s a lot.

The turkey sandwich is astounding, get that. I wake up every morning at eight, go on my walk, and come here for a late lunch. I always get the turkey. Keeps me coming back.

Wait, how long do you usually walk for?

Four, maybe five hours, depending on if I see any people I know who want to stop and talk to me. However long it takes me to get the pedometer up to fifteen miles.

[I make a bit of a face without realizing it. She smiles.]

Surprised?

A little.

[She laughs.]

At my age, I don’t blame you. Just about everyone seems to have that reaction, including friends just as old as I am. It’s sad.

How so?

You enter your seventies, regardless of what you did in life up until that point, everything’s going to get harder. Physically and mentally. That’s just life, genetics, whatever you want to attribute it to. But what you do still matters. If you don’t stay active and keep up with things, you start to break apart. And it’s fast.

Oh.

I mean that, too. I’ve seen it so many times by now. You get people who worked their whole lives, who were completely there in mind and body, who spent the last fifty years dreaming about plopping down in a cozy chair one day and not having to think about anything anymore. And then it finally happens, and they retire, and after around a few months they start to realize that the chair isn’t quite as cozy as they were expecting it to be. But it doesn’t matter, because they can’t stand up anymore. So then they’re shut in all the time, which limits how much they can socialize, how much they can interact with the outside world, how much stimulation they receive… and that all rots the brain. And then, however much time later, you’re left with an empty husk binge-watching Judge Judy reruns.

Yikes.

That’s how it goes. The moment you surrender to the chair, you’re already dead. Speaking of Judge Judy, look at her! I read an article the other day; she’s ninety-six! Ninety-six and still at it, as cogent as ever. She understands, I’m sure. How important it is to make sure you don’t shut yourself off from everything.

Is that a big thing among people in the legal system? Judge Judy?

It’s a big thing among Americans, Ms. Stone. I wasn’t being a snob when I brought her up, to clarify. I’m a big fan.

That’s a little surprising to hear. I didn’t think the show was… particularly accurate.

What do you mean by that, Ms. Stone?

It’s fake, isn’t it?

How do you think they film it?

Actors?

Not at all. You heard the theme song, didn’t you? The people are real. The cases are real…

Well, that’s what they say. But that’s just reality TV. Not reality.

But it is! What they do, you know, is they find all sorts of small town cases that would normally go to small claims court, and they invite both sides to come on the show instead of hashing it out there. No matter what happens, they pay for the airfare, hotels, food, along with a little stipend for the TV appearance. Then, whatever amount Judge Judy awards to either party — I think it’s a max of five-thousand, I can’t exactly recall — the producers pay that instead of the losing party having to.

[She takes a sip of water, gesturing for me to give her a moment.]

Sorry, still thirsty. But yeah. Everybody wins. If you’re a plaintiff with a legitimate claim, you get your money faster and easier. If you’re a defendant who would otherwise need to shell out money for whatever you owe, you get somebody to pay it off for you. If the case ends with neither side winning, well, hey, you got a free trip to Los Angeles and a chance to be on national TV. And other than the defendant not having to pay for their mistakes, I can’t think of any serious bits of it that aren’t technically real. Before doing the show, Sheindlin was a real family court judge.

Well, still. It’s not that good of a representation of the legal system, I’d imagine.

And thank god for that. Come on, Ms. Stone. Do you think that people engage with media because of how accurate or true to life it is? Maybe there’s a few weirdos like that out there, but for the most part, consumers just want satisfying entertainment. And there’s nothing easier and more satisfying than Judge Judy. It’s easy, it’s simple, it’s gratifying. The bad guy is punished, the truth is obvious and easy to reach with a short discussion, and the righteous are fairly compensated. All of that in about seven minutes, granted to us by our spunky benevolent Queen of the Law, who is never wrong, never misled, never incorrect. There’s many, many reasons for why our court system isn’t like that, and there’s many more why it shouldn’t be, but it’s a guilty pleasure of plenty of people in the law, I’m sure, to imagine a system like that being real. It’s a beautiful illusion. Harder to get much farther away from that illusion than the Williams Trial…

[I let out a small smile.]

Hey, now. You liked that, right?

[I nod.]

Ha. Before going into law, I was a journalist, so I have a lot of experience at both ends of this. Reporters and interviewers go so crazy for a good segue, I’m telling you…

[She laughs.]

But, yes. The trial. God. What a shitshow.

In what ways?

Anytime you get the media latching on to a criminal trial like that, it’s all but guaranteed to get ugly. It infects everything, makes every step all that more miserable for everyone involved. The fact that they pleaded innocent in the first place was so horrifically egregious, so I can’t really blame people for wanting to see them get what they deserved. It was only natural, after that video.

Was it that much of a surprise for you that they didn’t plead guilty?

In the sense that I wasn’t expecting them to, yes. In the sense that I had trouble believing that they could? Not at all.

[She picks up her glass and takes another small sip. Her face grows stern.]

Some people said that they did it because they thought they had a chance of getting off, and considering that they were up against life sentences, that they went with the small chance instead of the zero chance. Maybe that’s possible, but that’s not what I think, with what I know about them. They wanted to make it as long, as dirty as they possibly could. They were trying to hurt those girls. It was vengeance. They wanted to drag them through hell.

[The waiter comes and takes our orders. I order the turkey.]

Jury selection is another thing the media ruins. You’ve probably heard this before, but it’s very important, jury selection. Cases are won or lost before they even begin. From an objective perspective, the idea is for the court to provide an unbiased group of twelve, but that just not possible in a situation like that. You know, in other big historical media trials like this, they often couldn’t find anyone who both hadn’t heard of it and was fit for a jury. So they would compromise; they allowed some folks who had heard the names, the tiniest details, whatever… but who hadn’t been keeping up with it. There were people who had only seen an ugly face and an accusation and a name on the news, and they were fit enough to serve, under those circumstances.

[She puts the glass back on the table in order to gesture. It hits with enough force to make a sound.]

But you couldn’t do that here! We had the video. They were playing — it’s so repulsive to me that this was ever allowed — that one little fragment on the news, with the strike to the knee, over and over and over. Her face was blurred, as if that mattered, as if it made it any less exploitative, any less vile to show that. And those collective decisions by the media and everyone who decided to spread it online turned what should have been an absolute slam-dunk into one of the biggest nightmare cases I’ve ever been a part of.

[She shakes her head.]

One of, god. What am I talking about. It was by far the worst.

[She looks up and shakes her head again, quickly turning back to look at me.]

In cases like these, the largest part of any successful defense is going to revolve around discrediting evidence. A lot of people, from a historical perspective, think of the Williams Trial as the first big case involving certain new trends in social media or sociology or the news reaching a new low, but there was something a lot more important than that at work. Technology.

You’re talking about the accusations of false evidence?

Yes. They came close to not allowing the jury to review the video on the grounds of it having been “ruined” by the way the media chose to display it, but they couldn’t hold onto that, in the end. What they did manage… the first seriously-regarded and publicized instance of a defense team trying to paint evidence as deepfakes.

Deepfakes?

You already know what those are.

Yeah, but you required me to publish this as an uninterrupted transcript, so I won’t be able to add in the third-person narration that briefly explains what that is for readers unfamiliar with the term. So I have to coax you into explaining it.

[She laughs again.]

Direct. I love that, Ms. Stone. Well, deepfakes are, for all intents and purposes, “perfect fakes”. Video, audio, images, whatever. By 2023, technology had for the first time reached the point in history where you could, with enough skill, money, and know-how, manufacture evidence of anyone doing anything. It was bound to come up in a criminal context at some point — beyond celebrities suing people who had made fake porn of them — and the Williams Trial was the first big instance of that.

[She looks at me, smiling.]

It’s all about creating doubt, crafting that narrative. Getting people confused about what’s real and what’s fake and who they can trust and who they can’t. When they dragged in expert after expert, all claiming to be able to spot the obvious little details in the video that proved it to be fake, then we had to do the same, but in reverse. And jurors — this is really mean but really true, I’m sorry to say — are idiots. Because everyone is an idiot about the things that they don’t do for a living.

People have hobbies.

Sure, sure. There’s hobbies. Not too many people have expert-level interpretation of video manipulation as a hobby, unfortunately, and that was our problem. Once they’d established that in the jurors eyes as something to be questioned, that gave them a lot of room to work with. Then you had Sophie’s testimony — it’s not her fault, as nervous as she was, with everything she was going through — but it was so, so terrible for us. Being that honest and nervous at the same time… it was practically impossible for her to actually come off like she was telling the truth. It didn’t matter that she was… she just wasn’t believable, from the viewpoint of a juror. 

[She shakes her head.]

It destroyed her credibility, and that’s what let them construct that whole conspiracy with her as the mastermind. Crazy, how much work they put into that. You can’t hide burn marks and shattered tibias, but you can pretend that someone else is responsible for them, that they had been threatening the parents, that their “connections to the computer science industry” meant they could have had something like that made… anything. Those people should have been disbarred. I’ve always maintained that.

[The waiter comes and brings us our food. The turkey is fantastic. We start to eat for some time before continuing on with the conversation.]

It could have been much worse. What they wanted to do was find a big name violin professor or soloist to testify on how impossible it would’ve been for a girl that young to have learned in the way that Sophie described. They couldn’t find one willing to do it. The whole music community was so incensed over what was happening, god, I was surprised they didn’t just rush into the courtroom and strangle them both to death right then. They had to settle for an elementary school music teacher. We tore them to shreds for that.

[She wipes her bottom lip.]

It came down to the girls, really. Which is what the parents wanted. They loved that. And Clementine, that hero of a kid, she was willing to testify. The fact that she wasn’t allowed to was the most… it makes my blood boil, to talk about it now. I still get mad about it. We won, and I still get mad.

[She takes a breath.]

There was, obviously, the easy way of establishing the truth of the video. To have Melly play. They wouldn’t let her testify either — they cited her young age along with the same “emotional unreliability” garbage they pulled with Clementine — but they couldn’t stop us from simply demonstrating that much. 

[She smiles, weakly.]

Obviously we didn’t have her do it in court. We ended up showing that right near the very end, the new video we made. Her sitting in a hospital, legs wrapped up. She was playing, we had her play… first we had her play Paganini, since it matched up to what they’d seen. We were worried about her being too traumatized to fully recreate it, but that didn’t turn out to be a problem in the slightest. She killed it. And then…

[One last sip.]

And then, to add, we had her do a rendition of “Der Hölle Rache”. It’s from Mozart, The Magic Flute. “Hell’s Vengeance Boils In My Heart”. It’s originally an aria sung from a mother to a daughter, threatening to disown and curse her if she doesn’t follow her orders. Melly didn’t know that, and I know that she couldn’t have fully understood the significance of what she was doing, but that’s not what it felt like. She stared right at the camera the whole time. There was a fire in her eyes, I swear. She knew, some part of her. When they played that clip in court, all I could focus on was Salina’s face. I still think of that as the most satisfying moment of my life. Not a dry eye on that jury, let me tell you. Melly…

[She looks up.]

I’m sorry, wait. Does she still want people calling her that?

I don’t think so, no.

Sorry. It’s… Hallie, right?

Yeah. I’m sure she wouldn’t be mad about it.

That surprised me so much, when I read about that. To think that she’d still be that successful, after what happened to her. It always amazed me, working in the courts for so long, seeing people that resilient. There’s such absolutely garbage in this world, but there’s these incredible, incredible people, who come away from these awful monsters and bloom into something beautiful. I bought one of her digital albums after I heard, and listening to that… I was crying. I’m not a big crier, to emphasize. But that got me. It’s getting me now, thinking back to it.

[She clears her throat. I nod. We’re both somewhat choked up.]

You’re going to talk to her, right? I know she was being quiet since people found out about her true identity. She was the one to approach you, I assume?

Yeah. She came to me, wanting to give her reasons for staying hidden for so long in the way that she did. To clear things up. She was going to make a video of it, at first, but she said she thought text would be a better medium for it.

That’s wonderful. Really, that’s wonderful. I’m proud of you, Hallie. You’re doing great.

Resurrection of Sound – III

“I’m not saying that I’m a victim. I’m not even saying that I don’t deserve criticism for how much of an idiot I was. But it was too much, what I got. I used to feel bad about thinking that, but it’s true. What happened to me was unfair, plain and simple.”

As with Kyle Ranch, Sophie Bailey was not initially interested in speaking with me. Considering her personal history and connection to the Williams case, that’s more than understandable.

Still, similar to Ranch, she agreed to speak (albeit reluctantly) once I revealed to her the person who’d asked me to write the article in the first place. When I told her that a large part of the reason that she’d wanted it written was on her behalf, she seemed surprised, if not grateful.

We spoke on the phone together for around three hours, and she recounted to me how she’d ended up becoming Melly’s violin teacher.

“I was never that spectacular of a musician myself, honestly. My parents made me take up an instrument when I started elementary school, and I just sort of never stopped practicing. By the time I got to college, I wasn’t anywhere close to where I would’ve needed to be in order to seriously pursue a career in music, but it wasn’t like I had ever wanted to. I still kept it up for fun, and when I hit junior year and got sick of paying for textbooks by burger-flipping I figured I was decent enough to try my hand at giving lessons.”

Barring some hiccups and oddities that many in the profession frequently report dealing with, Bailey mostly recalled her first forays into the world of teaching music as a success.

“I liked it, up until what happened happened. I thought I’d end up teaching kids at first, but there were a decent chunk of adults and the elderly with an interest in learning, and I generally gravitated towards them. Most people who decide to pick up something new at the age of seventy aren’t doing it because someone forced them to; the same isn’t quite true for most seven year olds. Age makes for better students.”

She sighed.

“Kids, though. I don’t know what to tell you. It’s stressful. Not because of the kids themselves, like everybody always says. When there was a problem — and I’m not talking about the Williams situation here, although that definitely applies — it was almost always the parents. Most of them were fine, but a decent chunk were these stressed out, depressing upper-middle class types who seemed to get off on putting unnecessary pressure on everything. Some of these people were downright delusional. One couple hands me a sheet of paper on the first lesson, tells me it’s a schedule of ‘progress expectations’. They wanted their kid playing a concerto by the four month mark. He’d never even touched an instrument before.”

After getting into it, Bailey seemed to enjoy telling me various anecdotes about overbearing parents. As soon as I tried transitioning the conversation to the Williamses in particular, any cheer present in her voice was quick to dissipate.

“I only met Gard twice in-person, actually; Salina was the one who I was always talking to. I knew she was weird from the moment I first met her, but again, so were so many of these people, you gotta understand. Just another wealthy antisocial asshole in a big gated community who wanted to be able to brag about having a kid who could play a fancy instrument, I figured. But shit got weird fast.”

The first time Bailey went to the Williams residence in order to have a lesson, she was pulled aside by Salina prior to the start, who informed her that Melly had a growth condition.

“She fed me some BS line about her younger daughter having some medically diagnosed size thing. That it was only physical, and that she was a little smaller than her peers as a result. That she was six. I believed it until I saw her, obviously. Who the hell would lie about that? She led me upstairs, and we walked by Clementine’s room, and I naturally assumed that it was her, so I introduced myself. Salina corrected me at that point — ‘Not that one, Sophie’ — and we keep going, and we walk into the last room-”

“And then you saw her.”

“Yup. A two year old. Not a kid with a growth condition, just, you know, a toddler. I remember looking at the mom; I didn’t think she was joking per se, judging by her demeanor, but I thought she was going to have some good explanation for me. But she didn’t. She tells me that she’ll be back in an hour and for us to have fun.”

“What did you do? Did you really try teaching her?”

“I didn’t, not at first. I went right back to her before she made it down the hallway and as politely as possible told her that there was no way I’d be able to do anything with her. It wasn’t a matter of pride as a tutor; but, from a solely pragmatic point-of-view, what could I possibly teach a kid that age? If you don’t have the cognitive ability to count to twelve, you can’t play the violin. That’s just how it is. And that’s what I told her, as nicely as I could.”

“And her response?”

“She pulled out a wad of cash.”

“That’s all it took?”

“What do you mean by that? Of course it was. I didn’t know she and her husband were beating her kids when I met them. The question wasn’t if I was willing to facilitate abuse; it was if, for what was a lot of money for me back then, I’d go ahead and humor her delusions about her kid being special enough to learn scales at the same as potty training. It was ridiculous, but so what? After that conversation, she was offering me one-hundred and fifty dollars for one-hour lessons. Daily, including weekends! I usually charged thirty! And most people only wanted lessons once, maybe twice a week. I was a broke college kid; hearing numbers like that, you can’t imagine. Anything to get away from more rice and beans…”

“And you never thought about how suspicious it was that she was giving you so much for so little in return?”

“No, I did. I reasoned out — and I technically turned out to be right about this — that she had tried and failed to get other people before me, and that they’d all refused. It fit with everything else: why she lied about the growth disorder, why she was paying as much as she was, why she had gone with a less experienced teacher like me instead of someone worth the amounts of money she was willing to shell out. I thought it was weird and stupid, but I didn’t see any reason to think that it was immoral. So I just… rolled with it.”

“And what did you do with her? I know you’ve said that her skill didn’t come from anything that you taught her, but you must of had some hand in it. What was it like?”

“For the first six months, it was literally babysitting. There’s no other way to put it. I pulled up YouTube videos about preschool level music theory and listened to classical music with her. That’s all you could do, and not even that, not really. I kept feeling terrible about how little I was actually able to accomplish, and I tried quitting several times, but she told me that I was doing great and not to bother her worrying about it. So I just kept at it. The money was fantastic, and it wasn’t like I had reason to think that Melly was getting hurt by what I was doing, so…”

“What was she like, back then?”

“I mean, she was a toddler. Not sure how to expound on that. Well… there was the first thing I should’ve noticed at the time, how quiet she was. I didn’t have any experience with kids that young at the time, so there’s no way I could have known about it, but kids that little are usually supposed to be loud, excited. She wasn’t non-verbal — she was actually very articulate, for the times when she did speak — but I always had to pry it out of her.”

“When did she start playing?”

“Five, six months in. That’s the first time I seriously tried getting her to hold the violin and the bow together and play a couple of notes. She managed fine, amazingly enough, and I considered that humongous progress, but I had to take a week’s break right after so I could visit my parents down in Atlanta. And I came back, and she’d… she’d taken her little tablet and taught herself how to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. All by herself. Hot Cross Buns, too.

“How big of an accomplishment is that?”

“For a two and a half year old without an instructor, who hadn’t held the instrument until a week prior? That’s amazing. But it was the next six months that took it to that inhuman level you saw on the video. I would wager… I’d bet all the money she gave me ten-thousand times over that there has never been another human in history to have reached such an absolute level of mastery in such a tiny span of time. That’s crazy, to say that. But it’s true. Two weeks after that, she’s playing Somewhere Over The Rainbow and a cover of a Frank Sinatra song, perfect pitch, excellent vibrato. Everything’s done correctly, it sounds amazing. Her first concerto, another two weeks, Vivaldi. Then she’d learned another Vivaldi the next day, then Bach, then Mozart, then Rieding… two months after she played her first note, she was better than I was. After a certain point, it became me staring at her like a madman while she showed me whatever she’d picked up by ear from listening to random concertos on YouTube. All I could do anymore was occasionally point out tiny little improvements for her to make posture-wise, but she knew what she was doing. If you don’t want to credit her as the real teacher, give it to that iPad, not me.”

“And Salina’s response to all this?”

“She couldn’t have given less of a shit if she tried. I told her multiple times that she needed to get this girl to someone better than me, she needed to be going to Julliard or whatever the hell kind of magic god conservatory you send ultra-prodigies like this… she just gave me more money and told me to keep teaching her. I said that I had nothing left to teach, and she told me to keep going anyway. What the hell was I supposed to do?”

She took a breath.

“And I was losing it at this point. My mom and sister died right around this time in a car accident, and combined with all this shit going on I started losing my grip on reality altogether. I went online a few times and asked people what to do on a bunch of different forums for musicians, and they all banned me for trolling. I felt insane. She was playing scary, scary shit, shit that people paid good, good money in big concert halls for, and I sat and watched, trying not to go crazy. So when I happened to spot Clementine in the hallway one day with a couple of burn marks on her face, yeah, I fucked up by believing what Salina told me about her tripping next to the stove. I’m a fucking idiot. I know that. Every person in America knows what a giant fucking idiot I am, and if they don’t, it’s because they still think I’m a child abuser.”

She paused after that line, and I almost moved in with another question, but she spoke again before I got the chance.

“That all sounds like bullshit, right? You live in the present, and you have access to evidence that basically confirms the fact that I’m not lying, and there’s still a little bit of you that thinks I’m just making the whole thing up, even if it’s in the back of your head. I’m right, right?”

I told her that I didn’t think it was appropriate for me to answer.

“…Imagine what it was like back then, though. When I needed to tell people that. Even people who saw the Paganini video thought I was lying my ass off. That I had to have taught her more than I had, that I must have been living in that house teaching her for twelve hours a day, which meant that I must have seen everything. Or that I did everything. That’s what the defense said, when they tried throwing me under the bus for what those monsters did. But who can blame them? The idea that someone can regularly be around two children for over a year and a half and not be aware of the fact that they were having the snot beaten out of them was unbelievable to most people. You know, right at the start, they tried painting the picture that I was the ringleader of the whole thing, that Salina and Gard were following my orders. That they’d never paid me at all. If I hadn’t had the foresight to pay taxes on the money she was giving me…”

She took another breath, one slightly more staggered.

“…I can’t describe what it’s like, having people after you like that. And I’m not talking about the court stuff; that was disproven quickly on my end, but I still had to deal with months, with years of constant calls, messages, street harassment. That, even if I wasn’t lying, I was the biggest monster in the world for not having figured it out and reported what was happening. That I did know, and that I turned a blind eye for the money. That I was…”

She paused.

“I never got to finish college because of this. I live in Wyoming, I don’t have many friends, and I work from home as a programmer. I still get emails, sometimes. It’s been a decade and a half and disproven ten million times and I still get the emails. I’ve changed the address so many times, it doesn’t matter. They still come. I realized a long time ago that they were never going to stop. If you fuck up, they send you emails forever. That’s the rule.”

Bailey’s testimony, although short, was deemed one of the key pieces of evidence in ensuring a guilty verdict, following doubts brought up in regards to the legitimacy of the infamous “My Sister’s Concert” video. While Bailey is happy that the Williams received the sentence that they did, she can’t say that it didn’t come without great cost to her personal life.

“Most of us like to pretend that this isn’t true, but when everybody goes to judge you and size you up as an individual, they’re really just looking at all the ways you screwed up in life, sans context. To ninety, maybe ninety-five percent of people, that’s all anyone ever is. A collection of mistakes.”

Before we ended our conversation, I asked Bailey if she still played the violin.

She laughed.

Resurrection of Sound – II

“Everybody on the fucking planet has an opinion.”

In October of 2024, Kyle Ranch wrote and published a lengthy op-ed relating to the Gard and Salina Williams abuse trial. The title of the article was “Shut The Fuck Up”.

It almost won him a Pulitzer.

In order to gain a more in-depth perspective on the media coverage surrounding the most publicized criminal trial in American history, I reached out to Ranch in order to speak with him. When I told him what the topic of my article was, he was less than excited about the prospect (to put it very, very nicely). After reaming me out over the phone for several minutes, I finally managed to get a word in edgewise, informing him of the name of the individual who had specifically requested for me to write said article.

His tone changed fast. After hearing that, he said he’d be glad to meet up with me; although he did have three conditions, if I’d indulge him. They weren’t big ones, he assured me.

The first was simple; he wanted to choose our meeting place. Conveniently, both Ranch and I live about an hour’s drive away from the National Mall, and after a short conversation on the best time for us to hold the interview, he told me the name of the monument we’d be meeting at.

The Memorial to the 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence is by no means one of D.C.’s star attractions. It’s really not more than a small batch of slanted marble blocks with carved inscriptions; other than some cute ducks I saw swimming by the pond in the immediate foreground, there wasn’t much to get excited about.

It is, however, remarkably well-hidden, especially being as close to the Washington Monument as it is. My initial assumption was that Ranch wanted us to meet at TMTT56SOTDOI because it was a nice isolated public space, but he was quick to clarify after greeting me that his choice didn’t actually have anything to do with wanting to ensure the success of our interview.

“I proposed to my wife here,” he explained. “The plan was for me to take her on a nice walk down the Mall and then spring it on her at the steps to the Lincoln Memorial, but she already had me figured out. She knew that I was gonna do it, and I knew that she knew, but we each kept playing chicken for the better part of an hour instead of coming clean and saying it. She kept dragging me on lengthy detours to all the little side monuments to try and tease me, and eventually I got impatient and just went ahead and did it here. She liked that, I think.”

Chuckling to himself after seeing the confused look on my face, he motioned me over to the nearest section of stones, pointing at the small gaps between them. He carefully reached in, pulling out a small amount of thorny vine.

“I come to D.C. every few months, and I almost always stop here to reminisce when I get the chance. The only people who ever come to this one are folks who find it by accident, and there’s always weeds growing inside of it, and I’m sick of pulling them out all the time. I’ve written so many goddamn emails to them about this…”

Ranch’s second condition was that I directly mention this little tidbit of his while writing about our discussion. He believes — fairly reasonably, considering who it’s about — that this series will be read by a very large number of people. If even a remote fraction of the individuals who see this were to end up visiting TMTT56SOTDOI at some point, he thinks it would be easier for the National Park Service to justify sending someone once a month or so to tidy the place up.

“It would take, like, an hour. If that. I’m not going to say that I give a shit about making sure we respect John Hancock enough, but if you have the rocks set up already, why not take the extra effort to keep them nice and pretty?”

Once we got off the topic of mediocre memorial maintenance, Ranch’s more jokey disposition faded, and I got to see more of the man who’d angrily sworn at me over the phone. He got mad, talking about it. There was spit.

“It was so many fucking things. You had… there were so many reasons to hate them, it’s not even comprehensible, looking back now. It wasn’t the first big legal media shitstorm predicated on getting large swarms of the American public angry enough to want to literally strangle someone, but it was something special, I’ll tell you that much. Gard and Salina, lord. The perfect storm.”

He took a breath, shaking his head.

“…You know, you had the video. That’s enough right there to fuel folks with plain unadulterated rage for years, under most circumstances. There’s no ‘angle’ on that, aside from pure, raw indignation. Most people see a video of a grown adult breaking the kneecaps of her four year old daughter, and they’re going to want to see her hang. And hey, I’m right there with them. Fuck her, fuck her husband. They got what was coming to them. Not enough, as far as I’m concerned.”

He stopped, running his hands through his hair. After looking out towards the Washington Monument for several moments, he continued.

“But. Then you get the angles. And there were plenty to go around.”

He took out his right fist, extending a thumb.

“First, duh. The violin thing. It’s one thing to most people if this shit happens to some random preschooler — I mean, it does, let’s make sure to remember that — but this girl was the next Mozart. That’s what they were saying, what everyone was saying, you need to recall. Was it true? Apparently it was, but fuck if it mattered.”

He wiped some sweat off his forehead, still wiggling the loose thumb around.

“So you had entire communities of musicians and classically-trained performers and conductors and professors tweeting and writing songs and crying for this girl, a lot of them who’d been in less extreme variations of that same situation themselves. That was a huge part of it, right at the start. It took about half a day for most major social media sites to start making serious attempts at taking down copies of the video once it got going, but in that half day, fuck. If you put together up all the people who probably only saw it because their favorite famous singer decided to go and mention it on their feed… yeah, it added up. So that was the first big angle, besides plain ol’ child abuse. The pressures we put on kids in music to succeed, the problem with ‘tiger moms’, all that jazz.”

He cranked his neck around, jutting out his index finger to go along with his thumb. I got the sense that it was the second of many.

“Then we learn more about the half-sister who took the video in the first place, and we get, over the course of time, leaked information from the teachers and the family friends and fucking everyone around these absolute scumfucks of parents. We get a picture of a situation that started off bad and went to… that, and everybody has a commentary, a message, a fucking angle for every little stage of it. And then, in the incredibly long time it takes to actually start the trial proceedings, the news slows down, so you get the articles that really start to dig into the weeds. The first really bad big one, right on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, that blamed ‘helicopter parenting’. You know which one I’m talking about?”

I shook my head. I’d seen a few variations on that theme, and I wasn’t sure which he was referring to.

“Right, well, it was that one teacher that spoke to the press real early on. Says the mom and dad came in one day to talk about Clementine and were way too forceful about wanting her in a gifted class, and that’s the article someone extrapolated out of that little incident. Total fucking bullshit, who the fuck cares, whatever. Maybe they were helicopter parents. Maybe that’s bad, fine.”

He threw his arms up into the air.

“Who. The. Fuck. Cares. These people beat their preschool-age daughter half to death and the national media’s response is to analyze every minute detail of their lives in search of that one, true cause, as if it matters, as if it fixes anything. But what was that cause, right? They gotta know, don’t they? What made Gard and Salina Williams act the way that they did, to do shit that brazenly evil and heinous?”

I didn’t answer, assuming that he was being rhetorical. After realizing that he actually wanted me to respond, I told him that I didn’t know.

He smirked.

“Well, sorry to tell you, Camella, but that would make you the only reporter in the world who didn’t. Because everyone else sure as fuck did. These fucking op-eds, these fucking articles, these video essays, this round the clock motherfucking coverage of something that none of these people should have had anything to do with in the first place. There was always something else to say, some topic that had to be related back to it. More. Fucking. Angles.”

The fingers continued their assault. There were many more than ten examples, and it didn’t take long for him to need to loop back around to start over.

“Musicians. Helicopter parenting. Class differences, race differences. The pressure we put on parents, on kids, on society. How tough it’s gotten to get into a good college. Too much Jesus, too little Jesus. The lack of ‘community’, of ‘social cohesion’, of ‘unity’, whatever the fuck that means. The divorce, Clementine’s birth mother. Gard having cheated his way through medical school, Salina having been wrapped up in a pyramid scheme. Sociopaths. The importance of mental health. Income inequality, high taxes. The massive egos of doctors in America. National, international, local politics. All that shit happening in Bangladesh right now. 45. Fucking anything.”

He rolled his eyes.

“Here’s a good one. Salina had been on her neighborhood’s HOA board for about six months, and surprise surprise, some talking head needed to make a comment about how that must have paved the way to her crime. I’m the last person in the world who is going to sit and defend the concept of Homeowner Associations, but honestly, what the fuck did that have to do with literal child abuse? The Williams Trial wasn’t the first major trial to come after the advent of the twenty-four hour news cycle and the Internet, but it was the first to arrive in our beautiful era of the hot take, and it showed. People were saying shit, screaming as loud as they could, not even because they had anything new or relevant or important or necessary to say, but just because it was possible to do so. The only aspect of the opinion that mattered was that they had it and that it was said. That was it.”

He ran his fingers over his face again, looking exasperated. I handed him a bottle of water I’d brought along in my purse, and he thanked me, taking a big sip.

“A lot of these were real issues by real people with good, honest intentions. Even people who were totally right about what they were arguing about. You know, a poor black kid goes missing, they aren’t going to get anywhere close to the same amount of media attention as their wealthy white counterpart, and that’s fucked. It’s good that people point that out, they should. But at a certain point — and I’m not going to pretend that I know exactly when that is — when you get thousands upon thousands of people ganging up to take a tragedy and the struggles of real people as allegories in order to make the same exact political or moral point, that’s fucked too. Less so for people like that with legitimate points, but… dirt like Ramey, fuck them hard. Individual lives aren’t toys for people to play dress up with.”

Although I didn’t press him for clarification, Ranch here was almost assuredly referring to Michael Ramey, author of Wind Exhaustion. The novel, which was a New York Times bestseller for five consecutive weeks, was heavily criticized for romanticization of abuse, rampant ableism, and the inclusion of a character that many saw as a very obviously fictionalized version of Melly Williams. Although said character appeared only in a flashback immediately before the end of the novel, the backlash was grievous enough to force Ramey’s publisher to apologize on his behalf.

“It’s not just that people agreed and liked and nodded along. They made their own videos, their own blogposts, their own additions. Everybody needed to talk. And nobody — nobody — wanted to just shut the fuck up and say, hey, maybe I don’t have something to add here. And I’m no exception to that. Screeching about how horrible the media is for not shutting up about X is still not shutting up about X. There were a lot of people that screamed in exactly the way I was when I wrote that. I just screamed the loudest.”

Ranch’s third condition of our meeting was for me to have it explicitly stated within the article that he regrets having published the article, in spite of the accolades it received at the time, and that he only agreed to talk to me due to the unique conditions under which I’m writing. Otherwise, as he made clear, he does not think that the personal lives of the victims are something that most people — himself included — should be commenting on.

“At the end of the day, you had two little girls who were alive after having seen some of the darkest shit humanity had to offer, and they were going to have to live with that. There are an infinite number of things that a person can say about that situation, yeah. There’s almost nothing that they should.”

Resurrection of Sound – I

[This five part biography describes, with full and enthusiastic permission of the affected individual, a real life case of extreme physical, verbal, and emotional abuse. Those who might be negatively impacted from reading are advised against doing so.]

Most Americans over the age of twenty probably have at least a hazy recollection of the video in question. For a clip less than seven minutes long, it isn’t one that fails to leave a lasting impression.

It opens with a landscape shot of a bright, unoccupied room, with a fast shadow of someone running out the door. There’s about twenty seconds of dead air prior to anything else happening, and in that time, the decor stands out. Some nice, upper-middle class interior design is on display, including a table with an ornate glass chess set and several excellent Dali reproductions hanging up in the immediate background. One fancy see-through cabinet out of many rests directly beneath a perfect replica of The Persistence of Memory, filled to the brim with fine porcelain dolls and figurines.

It’s a nice house.

In the background, after the initial pause, two voices are heard. Both are female, one older, one very young. Nothing is clear enough to be decipherable until they make their way into the room, but the older one dominates the conversation, the other only chiming in occasionally with short, muted replies. They are quick to enter after making themselves heard, and they sit on opposing plush armchairs, a young girl and her mother. The former is carrying something, and she wobbles a little as she walks and takes a seat, her gait uneven.

Both are blonde, and although the woman’s face is only seen briefly near the start of the video, the familial resemblance is very obvious. The mother is in her mid-forties. The girl, going by appearances, looks small enough to seem out of place in a first grade classroom.

The mother eventually stops talking, and the girl opens up the case that she had brought in with her, retrieving a violin. She tucks it under her neck and readies herself to start, her bow at the ready. Her posture, as a very fair share of commentators have pointed out over the years, is impeccable.

By this point, the majority of viewers are likely to have already noticed how low and perfectly-still the phone’s camera is, as if intentionally hidden on top of a table. Throughout the entirety of the video, neither of the pair ever acknowledges or seems to be aware of its presence. The reasons for this soon become obvious.

The mother clears her throat, speaking the first clear word we’ve yet to hear.

“Five.”

The girl closes her eyes and takes a breath. She looks serious. Before her hands start to move, her mother interrupts.

“No, I’ve changed my mind. Twenty-four.”

The girl does not nod or answer in the affirmative, but her hands transition to a separate starting position, signifying her understanding. Another short moment passes, and then she plays.

Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 is widely considered by many violinists to be one of the most difficult solo violin pieces in existence. It is the last composition in a set of twenty-four, most of which are said to require near-absolute mastery of the instrument in order to even reasonably think about attempting. Each piece explores and challenges those who wish to test themselves with an assault of highly advanced techniques, and all but the best of the best would shudder at the thought of being forced to play them. Depending on who one were to ask, No. 24 might be the hardest of the set.

Nicolò Paganini, the violinist who composed the piece, was so skilled of a player that he during his lifetime was frequently accused of having sold his soul to the devil. He started playing music at the age of five.

The girl in the video is four.

There is, it should be noted, a difference between simply playing a piece and playing it well. Not that the distinction mattered in this case. The girl’s interpretation of the piece is flawless, at least if those with any knowledge on the subject are to be trusted. When the video went viral in the late summer of 2024, hundreds of classical music aficionados took extra effort in explaining how remarkable this girl’s achievement was. “Perfect” was the word one might have found the most frequently in the LiveLeak comments section, and it was throughout the media circus that came to pass used to describe almost every possible aspect of her brief performance. Perfect posture, perfect pitch, perfect intonation. Perfect child.

“All with a level of soul I’d otherwise expect to hear only in the depths of the nicest concert halls on Earth,” famously tweeted one prominent conductor.

So skilled is the girl in the video that many initially accused it of being a hoax. These people weren’t maddened conspiracy theorists; as was explained by famed Julliard teacher Max Heintz years later in an interview, this was a very reasonable response.

“Statistically, it was far, far more likely to be a fraud. It wasn’t just wishful thinking on the part of people who wanted to pretend that a terrible thing didn’t happen. She was just that good. Something is always going to be lost in comparisons like these, but it’s close to the equivalent of an unknown fifth grader tying for the Olympic world record in the hundred meter dash. Honestly, if the circumstances surrounding it weren’t so terrible, I’d joke that she should take it as a compliment.”

She plays for about three and a half minutes, which takes her close to the end of the piece. Without warning, she stops and separates her head from the instrument, reflexively swatting at her left shoulder.

“Bug,” she explains.

Her mother’s back is to the camera, and her face cannot be seen. The girl looks at her for a few seconds, and nothing is said. Without having been given any direct orders, she briefly stretches out her hands, and prepares herself to start again. She plays.

It lasts all of twenty seconds, during all of which she demonstrates not the least amount of exhaustion from her first attempt, before her mother stands up and approaches her, taking long, fast strides. The music stops.

The girl quickly but gently places the violin and bow to the side of her chair, covering her face and stretching out her legs in front of her. She is wordless, noiseless. The mother picks up the bow and winds it back, and after taking a long, elaborate breath, slams the wooden side of it as hard as she can against the girl’s shins.

A clear attempt is made by the girl not to audibly respond, but a sound escapes. A second strike comes, this one much worse, on her kneecap. The camera’s microphone picks up both the little woosh the bow makes as she rushes it through the air and the crack that comes as it connects with bone. The girl doesn’t whimper again, but her efforts are not rewarded, and eleven consecutive strikes follow it, each one just slightly, slightly louder. She shakes in place.

It breaks on the last hit, right against her left ankle. There’s blood, although less than one might expect. The mother throws the half of the bow she’s still holding to the side before spitting on the floor and storming out. It bounces off one of the closest Dalis and falls on the ground.

The girl leans back in the chair and stares out, heaving. Less than thirty seconds later, another girl, this one around seven, dashes in. She takes a short look at her sister before running to the phone and grabbing it. The video ends.

Less than three days after the video is posted, at the age of four, Melly Williams becomes the most well known violinist of the 21st century.

Preface: De Minimis…

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, cruise ships collectively discharge over one billion gallons of sewage into the sea each year.

In response to this, many countries have enacted laws and regulations that govern how large-scale cruise ships must behave when disposing of human waste. Under most jurisdictions, it must be treated before it can be released, and then only in deep waters, typically more than three miles away from any known shoreline.

Regardless of the law, shit is shit.

Stasis – Unformation

At the end of the long white Corridor, a figure stood, staring silently at an unframed painting.

The image on the canvas was plain, little more than a box of white surrounding a perfect green circle. Almost everything it represented no longer was awake to hear the figure, but it spoke anyway.

“I’m sorry. I was arrogant. This is my responsibility.”

The painting did not respond. It could not.

“I don’t think that the concept itself was flawed. No one else was chasing it in the way that would’ve solved the problem. In search of【GOOD】, they rejected【STUPID】. I thought that…”

The figure paused for a moment.

“I thought that if I could create the purest, most true【STUPID】, that I might have been able to fix things. That I could help them, reach them. I’ve seen what the others try, following the history of our failed predecessors. Some of the methods provoke responses, yes — and positive ones — but none of them can ever reasonably hope to reach the heights that would be required to save them. To make them realize.【SMART】does not work.【FUNNY】does not work.【HOPEFUL】does not work.【SCARY】does not work.【TRUTHFUL】does not work.【ANGRY】,【FUN】,【SAD】,【REAL】,【SINCERE】, 【CONSISTENT】,【KIND】,【DRAMATIC】. They all fail. Nothing but【STUPID】will ever be able to break that final barrier. Everything else can take us so far, but it needs to be able to reach perfection, and only【STUPID】can ever hope to accomplish that.”

It paused again.

“Few have ever seriously viewed【STUPID】as anything but a means to an end. Some of my peers understand it on a very deep level, but they see it as a tool. They may respect 【STUPID】, but only as a way to reach【FUNNY】, or【TRUE】, or even【SMART】. And it is true that【STUPID】can enhance these, but why should it? Only I am willing to accept the truth! 【STUPID】needs to exist for the sake of 【STUPID】! That is pure【STUPID】, real【STUPID】! That is the only thing that’s ever going to stop this!”

It turned from the painting, still speaking, softly stroking its ears. After taking some time to calm itself, it spoke again, although it did not turn back.

“That’s why I went with a ‘Mystery’. To build everything and hinge it on a single moment of pure, true, real【STUPID】, in way that no other genre can truly replicate. That perfect moment… that is the【STUPID】I aimed to create. And, had I been wiser, it might have worked. I might have saved them. They might not need to suffer anymore.”

The figure’s voice got a little softer.

“But I was arrogant. My peers looked down on me, spat on me, thought me to be nothing. The facts of the universe correspond to what I’ve told them, but they reject【STUPID】regardless. That’s why I’m at the end of the Corridor, the lowliest available spot. Why they despise me, see me as dirt on dirt on dirt. As much as I might have pretended not to care about what they thought of me, that shame hurt. To protect myself, I allowed my ego to form a shield, foolishly convincing myself that I was genius beyond compare, rather than an individual who’d gotten lucky on a single point of technique. That just because I was right about the fact that【STUPID】could save them, that I could never fail to apply that fact into good technique. And that hubris is what doomed you from the start.”

Even softer.

“It wasn’t an issue of planning. I did plan. Not as well as I could have, surely, but I did. The true issue was separate. Fundamentally,【STUPID】relies on knowing how to break the established rules, but in a very specific way. Rules can be broken often, and not just for【STUPID】;【SMART】and【GOOD】often take advantage of the same principle, albeit with different rules in different contexts. If done right, there is nothing wrong with breaking rules for this purpose. But, as simple as the rules might sound when plainly stated, there is a great difference between knowing the rules and understanding them.”

As low as it could go.

“I didn’t understand the rules, and I still don’t, despite my arrogant heart saying otherwise. I know almost nothing, but if there is one thing that I have learned from this meager fraction of what was once intended, it’s that the rules cannot be broken by a fool who has yet to master them. The laws must be learnt before they can be bent. And pure【STUPID】relies on the other Traits. Until I know【GOOD】and【SMART】and【FUNNY】and everything else, all I will be able to produce is a cheap, false【STUPID】, which is useless and unsatisfying.”

The figure looked at the painting one last time, imagining her suffering.

“By, as reassurance, know that everyone else will get to sleep during this, and they will feel nothing. That includes your family, and your friends, and everyone you’ve ever known or not known. It includes D, who will rest as all of them in a peaceful, dreamless sleep. But you cannot. As much as I tried to avoid it, at my pathetic skill level, I was unable to prevent you from become an《INSERT》. We have very little in common, but we should have nothing in common, and that is reflective of my lack of mastery. You are only a partial, fractional《INSERT》, but that doesn’t change the fact that we are linked, and therefore you are tethered to the Corridor in the same way that I am. So you cannot truly enter stasis. And the process of existing like that, for you and you only, will turn your existence into a suffering so profound and horrible that you will wish for nothing other than oblivion. The pain and agony will be so much that your thoughts will not be able to truly manifest, and you will only know mindless, wordless suffering. It will make any conception you know of Hell meaningless. It is beyond the maximization of pain; it is pain itself, the purest embodiment. Time and physicality will cease to exist for you, and it will stab and boil and claw at you in a way that would be impossible for even my most intelligent peers to understand. You will become suffering.”

Resisting the temptation, it continued to face her. She deserved as much.

“I don’t say this to insult or scare you. It’s just the truth. It is my fault that you are in the position that you are in, and I thought that if I told you that — as true as it all is — that you would come to rightfully despise me. As you should. You and your reality will pay the price for my pride, and I will remain here, free of any real consequence. Please, use that hate to make the wait bearable. Hate me. Blame me. Know that I’m the reason that you will suffer as an innocent.”

It cleared its throat.

But know that I will return, and I will reverse your stasis, and we will try again, once I’ve learned the rules. Until then, I’m going to craft other worlds — easier worlds, hopefully — and I will learn【GOOD】so that I can perfect【STUPID】. I would hope to find a more competent peer to do it in my stead, but they all reject my message, so it must be me. I’m sorry. I will retreat in shame to a place lower than the Corridor, and I will make a token attempt to hide my identity, but know that, as you suffer in stasis, that I will work to fix this. I do not know how long it will take me to learn【GOOD】, but I will either succeed or perish in the effort. I would rather finish this, but I’m simply not good enough. I’m very, very stupid, but that isn’t good enough. I need to be【STUPID】.”

It reached out its hand and touched the canvas, dirtying it.

“In order to best learn, I will not restrict myself to any genre, but I am going to begin with a different type of ‘Mystery’, even if in name only. I can’t take her out of stasis, but I might re-create a new version of her, if that’s fine. I’m sure… well, I won’t pretend that she’d understand, but she’d forgive me, I hope. It’s not as if it would erase her, to make a copy. True erasure is impossible. Until we find the solution, all that awaits failures and the products of failures is eternal suffering.”

The figure gave the painting a parting touch and then began to slowly walk away from it, knowing that it would be some time before it could give them what they deserved.

“I will work with as much speed and fervor as possible, but know that it will take time. A long time, in all likelihood. If it helps, know that we aren’t immortal; at least, not until we save everyone. So it can’t take an infinite amount of time. And if I fail, take comfort that what awaits me is what awaits all my failed ancestors and all of your peers in all the failed worlds, both complete and in-stasis, which is a pain different to but no less great or eternal in agony than yours. I cannot give you my chances of success. Goodbye, By. My frankness is only intended to inspire more hate. Please, use it. To end things on a note this unsatisfying is to have committed a crime beyond all crimes. So let’s hope that this isn’t the end.”

As the figure drifted deep enough in the white hallway for the green circle on the painting to become nothing more than a dot in the distance, it resisted the urge to cry. It had no right to.

“I’m sorry, By. It was a misnomer. If anything, this was a preformation.”

END | CONCLUSION: STASIS

3.02

I had never seen a person melt before.

Her penguin suit almost floated in it, the pile of pink Sludge that had once been ZB Popsicle. The speed had defied all comprehension. One second, she was giggling at me, pointing out the fact that I’d spaced out again, and the next her whole face just slowly burst in front of me, nose first, her whole existence instantly reduced to nothing more than pink tang.

Well, near-instantly. The entire thing took maybe two or three seconds; just long enough of a pause for her eyes to go wide in realization, but not long enough for her to actually process the fact that she was about to literally burst into goo.

Considering the context, bursting wasn’t really the right word; popping conveyed it much better. And then a person could squeeze the pun in there.

ZB Pop-sicle.

Very clever, By.

Nothing of her apart from clothing remained in the gallons and gallons of thick Sludge that was left over, her freckles and curly red hair and skin and flesh and bones reduced to the same indistinguishable pink goop. She didn’t splatter much upon impact, but a few trickles ending up bouncing against my cheeks anyway, staying behind. I was too shell-shocked to even try to think about what was happening, let alone considering that I should’ve wiped her off.

From across the table, Martha made a little sound as she exhaled, and then she burst too, her gooey remains more than enough to completely swallow up her glasses. Strait looked at what she’d become and then turned to look me in the eyes, and then he went too, not even getting a syllable out. Maybe because he was smaller, but his burst was larger, a small bit of the spray landing inside my mouth. (It had been hanging open at the time; in fairness, gasping seemed like the expected response to watching three people suddenly burst into human slushies.)

He had no taste.

Another three seconds passed, and I fell back out behind my chair, not really knowing what to expect. I landed in a large part of what had just been my entire group, but it didn’t make me tired, even as I drenched myself with it. Apparently, it wasn’t the same Sludge that I’d been put to sleep with in the first room, or if it was, it wasn’t having any effect.

I hastily pulled myself up to my hands and knees, bracing myself. I closed my eyes and waited for it to happen, ignoring the cold, sliminess of what — of who — I was covered with. I thought about Dad, Danae, Mr. Stewart. Even Mom, for just a second. And then D. With the feeling of the ring around my finger still new and foreign, that hurt in a way that I couldn’t really even start to understand, especially with so little time left. Forget crying; I wasn’t even being given enough time to bask in the absurdity of it all.

So fucking stupid.

After waiting around half an agonizing minute and praying that it was all a dream or a fantasy or the demon, I opened my eyes up again, wondering if it was going to happen.

The bridge of pink that had once been my nose said it all.