Below is the short story I wrote for the competition referenced in the “Cliff Diving” post. I hope you enjoy it. I had fun writing it.
PS…I couldn’t figure out how to indent the dialog, so I just gave up.
A composer has lost his away along with his music. Two music preparatory students try to help him find his way.At the top of a winding staircase, is a window lined, round room. Dust motes are swirling in time with snow falling outside. A grand piano sits in front of a window on the side of the room furthest from the door. Pictures of a couple in old fashioned clothing start on the left of the music ledge and run into tattered sheet music. The musical score is filled with ink stained notes that end in a fury of scribbled dots and dashes—the music had lost its way.
The composer sits on a stool in front of the piano and his lost music, chin touching chest, iron gray hair flowing over and obscuring his face. His spirit is traveling to a church on a hill, brightly lit where others are gathered. He wants to enter but the doors are locked and he can’t breach them, no matter how hard he bangs on the door.
Back in the round room, the composer gathers his hands into fists and suddenly he is banging on the piano and screaming.
Three floors below the round room, Esme hears the discordant notes and the screams. She looks at her classmates to the left and the right. They are unbothered, staring at the professor in front of the room. He is reading, without animation, a lecture about music theory from his podium. Esme sometimes wonders if he is actually alive, or if he is some sort of automaton that clicks on and begins speaking when brought to artificial life by the sounds of students gathering.
She leans over to the boy on her right, “Chester, did you hear it this time?”
“Shh…I need to hear what the professor is saying. It might be on the test.”
“Just take your phone up after the class and take pictures of his notes.”
“The professor lets us do that?” Chester asked.
“I do it all the time. You just have to be careful. The paper is so old it almost crumbles when you handle it. So, did you hear it?”
“Esme, for the 1,000th time. No, I didn’t hear it.”
“It’s getting worse,” Esme sighed.
“Then why can’t I hear it?”
Esme exhaled. “I don’t know. I think someone is trapped up there or something…he sounds like he’s being tortured.”
“Now it’s a ‘he,’ last time you said it was a cat.”
“I said maybe it was a cat.”
“Esme, God…get a grip. Maybe you need to start eating breakfast. You’re light headed from hunger or something.”
“Those nasty eggs they serve here. No way.”
A bell clanged from the hallway. The professor said, “That’s all for today. We’ll pick up with the Euclid/Pythagorus debate next time.”
“Damn yourself. Give me your phone.”
“Give me your phone,” Esme said emphatically.
Chester pulled his phone out of his pocket. Esme grabbed it, walked down the steps of the lecture hall to the podium, where the professor was standing, frozen in place. She carefully took the sheets containing the lecture from the podium, snapped several pictures, and replaced them. The professor never moved. Esme waved her hand in front of his face, testing a theory.
“Esme, what the hell?”
“I think he’s a robot,” Esme explained.
“First phantom cats and now robot professors. You should visit the health room.”
“Why?” Esme asked.
“Because you’re going crazy. The stress of music prep school has scrambled your brain.”
“This place would make anyone crazy. I’m going up there tonight.”
“Essmeeee….” Chester’s voice rose in warning on the last syllable.
Esme interjected, “I think he, it, whatever, needs help.”
“If you get caught after light’s out, you’ll be expelled,” Chester reminded Esme.
“I don’t care. If I’m not already crazy, I will be by this time next week if I keep having to hear that poor dude scream and crash on the piano keys.”
“Shouldn’t you call an exorcist, Esme?”
“I don’t believe in that baloney.”
“But you believe in ghosts haunting towers in 21st century music prep schools?” Chester asked, incredulous.
Chester had been following behind Esme as they dashed down the hall to their next class. Other students were marching determinedly with them. Esme came to a sudden stop, turned and faced Chester who narrowly escaped bumping into her.
“Yup. Are you coming?” Esme asked.
“To class or your ghost hunt?”
She replied, “Both. Class now, ghost later.”
“I’m incorrigible, not impossible.” Esme clarified.
“Do you know how cliche this is? Ghosts in towers in prep schools?” Chester asked.
“Yes…that’s what makes it fun. Like Madeline L’engle starting A Wrinkle In Time with, ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ I hope it storms tonight.”
“It’s storming now.” Chester said.
“Hot damn!” Esme replied.
“You are incorrigible.”
Esme flashed Chester a grin as they arrived at their classroom door, entered, and took their seats. Floors above them, the composer’s chest heaved, but one hand began picking out notes on the treble side of the piano, like a butterfly chasing a flower in the wind. Something had shifted in the air around him, and it felt like hope.
Later, Esme barged in on Chester’s practice room as he rehearsed his solo for the school’s upcoming concert.
“How did you know I was in here?” Chester asked.
“Why? Are you hiding from me?”
“No,” Chester replied.
Esme glared at Chester.
“Maybe,” He said.
Esme intensified her glare.
“Ok, yes,” Chester replied. “But how did you know I was in here?”
“You’re always in here.”
“Bassoons rarely get solos. I have to practice so it’s perfect in time for the concert.”
“It’s always perfect, Chester. Come on. It’s time to go.”
“Go?” Chester said, pretending he didn’t know that Esme was planning to drag him to the top of the tower on some kind of ghost hunting mission.
“Come on, Chester. It’s getting worse.”
“Let me just pack my bassoon and lock it up.”
“Chester. No one wants your bassoon. How did you end up playing that thing anyway?”
“I’m a musical prodigy. I can play pretty much anything. If you’re a girl it’s the flute or clarinet. If you’re a boy, it’s trumpet or saxophone. Unless you have ADHD, then it’s some percussion or other instrument. I wanted to be different.”
“Chester, I’m a percussionist.”
“That tracks,” Chester replied.
Esme rolled her eyes, “So you chose to play something that sounds like a dying goose?”
Chester looked up at Esme wild eyed. “Maybe I should let you go alone and keep practicing.”
“I’m sorry, Chester. Please come with me.”
“Just let me drop this off in my room. It’s on the way.”
Esme put her hands on her temples, her eyes closed, “Let’s just go.”
They walked through the halls of the school, dropping Chester’s bassoon case in his room on the way. The door leading to the tower was wooden and imposing with a sign that said, “Do Not Enter.”
“Esme, you know it’s probably locked.”
“I doubt it.”
“It says, ‘Do Not Enter.’” Chester said.
“That’s just a suggestion and I don’t see a keyhole anywhere, so how can it be locked?”
Chester whispered to himself, “A suggestion.” Then said to Esme, “But there must be a reason…like, it’s dangerous or something up there.”
“Probably,” Esme said. And then opened the door, jumping as she did so. “You had to hear it that time.”
“Hear what?” Chester replied.
“Loud piano chords. Like someone banging and in pain. It sounds tortured.”
Esme pushed the door open, glanced knowingly at Chester, started up the stairs, and then abruptly stopped.
“Give me your phone,” Esme said to Chester.
“What? Why? Are you going to record this for TikTok?”
“No. I forgot a flashlight. I need your phone so I can use the flashlight app.”
“Oh my God, Esme! Another cliche.”
“Chester, just give me your phone. Or, do you want to go first?”
Chester reluctantly handed over his phone. Esme pulled up the flashlight and lit the stairwell in front of them.
“Damn,” she said, as they stared at the dark and winding staircase, cobwebs stretching from one side to other.
She jumped again. “Can you still not hear it? We have to go up there. I don’t know why, but he needs me to come.”
“Ok, Esme. I want to send a text to let someone know where we are.”
“No. No—I don’t know why, but no.”
“Esme,” Chester’s voice was now a scared whisper.
Esme turned to face Chester. “It will be Ok.” Esme grabbed his hand, gripping it tightly as she pulled him up the stairs.
They stopped abruptly at another door. Esme placed her hand, palm flat on it, and closed her eyes, almost appearing to be at prayer. Another tortured chord came to her ears. She looked back at Chester, then forward, her shoulders squared as she pushed into the room, revealing the piano, dimly lit by the moon peeking through the dying snow storm that had settled across the campus.
“Can you see him?” she whispered, staring across the room at the piano.
“No,” Chester replied.
“Oh, God. He’s so old.” She dropped Chester’s hand and started across the room.
The composer jumped from the stool in front of the piano and started gliding towards Esme. She stood frozen in place as he moved towards her. Chester felt himself almost pulled across the room towards the piano. He still couldn’t see the composer, but the music sheets spilling from the piano called to him.
The composer continued to make his way across the room towards Esme who was now frozen in place. Terror had finally overtaken what compelled her to be in this room.
Chester, now in front of the piano, saw the sheet music, but his eyes were drawn to the photos to the left. He slowly leaned forward, and pulled one closer to examine it, tilting it towards the window so the scant light could illuminate the surface. When he saw the photos, Chester inhaled sharply.
“Esme…there’s a woman in this picture who looks like you. She’s standing next to a man…”
“A man in a dark suit with long hair?” Esme said, voice shaking.
“It’s him then.” Esme said, still rooted to the spot.
The composer was now standing directly in front of her, reaching forward to touch Esme’s face. She shivered as a jolt of cold worked its way through her cheek, down her neck, filling her entire body. Esme stared at the figure in front of her as the composer’s face began to grow younger and the room brighter, illumined by lamps long unlit, the smell of ozone entering the air as they ignited. The composer placed his left hand on Esme’s shoulder and took the other in his right causing her to drop Chester’s phone. She was still shaking lightly until a thought came to her.
“Chester, the music on those score sheets? Could you play it? You’re like some sort of musical prodigy, right?”
“I, I think so.” He was unnerved by the lights beginning to glow. He glanced in the direction of Esme’s voice and sucked in his breath. He could now see the composer, embracing Esme..
“Play it please. I think we need to dance,” Esme said.
Chester glanced back at Esme, and then began to play falteringly.
“Start over,” Esme said, “Relaxed.”
“Esme, this is weird. I’m terrified.”
“I know,” Esme replied. “But we have to do it. He needs us to do it. He’s stuck.”
“Stuck in this plane of existence. I don’t know. It has something to do with the music. Play.”
Chester started playing again with growing confidence. It was a light tune, joyful even, and Chester might have enjoyed playing it under different circumstances.
The composer began leading Esme around the room in an old fashioned contra dance. Esme did her best to keep up, hoping this was the right thing to do. Her curiosity at what might come next was starting to overtake her fear.
“Esme, the music is ending.”
“You have to keep playing, Chester.”
The composer began to hum the next notes, his face growing younger and less tortured as he danced with Esme. Chester, truly a musical prodigy, matched the Composer’s notes on the piano and added a counter melody underneath. They were all on this mission together, bound by music, and perhaps love.
“It’s beautiful,” Esme said to the composer. “She was beautiful too, wasn’t she?”
The composer closed his eyes, dancing, and humming, Chester playing, until the music reached it’s dénouement. As the music ended, the room exploded in light, and then went suddenly dark. The composer was gone.
Unstuck, he was now back at the doors of the church. The composer pushed through them and walked down the aisle to meet a woman waiting for him in a long white dress, her eyes like Esme’s.
“Finally,” the woman said. “You let go.”
“I finished it.” He replied, “Did you send her?”
The woman answered, “She found you. I missed you.”
“I missed you too.”
“Let’s get on with it then,” the woman said.
“With what?” the composer asked.
“The next part of eternity,” the woman answered.
“Do you want to do eternity with someone else?”
“No,” he replied. “Always and only you.”
She smiled at him. They turned toward the front of the church and walked through the other side, hand in hand.
Back in the tower room, Esme shook herself, as if coming out of a trance. She walked back towards the spot where she had originally met the composer to find Chester’s phone.
“Esme, what was that?”
“I think I looked like some sort of lost love of that composer guy. He was stuck here by the music and wouldn’t let go until he finished that piece,” Esme said, as if this observation should be obvious.
Chester shook his head, then his eyes widened as he saw Esme.
“Your hair, Esme. It has a white streak.”
Esme tilted her head, letting her hair fall forward to see it better.
“Oh yeah. Another cliche. They come in threes, you know. Come on, let’s get going before we get caught up here.”
“You did look like her.” Chester brought the picture he had found on the piano to show Esme.
“Yeah, that’s weird.” Esme took the picture and hugged it to her chest.
They started back down the stairs.
Chester asked, “How are you going to explain your hair?”
“I’m not. People already think I’m abnormal and will suspect I did it on purpose.”
“They’d be right on both counts.”
Esme rolled her eyes, “I’m going to pour water on our music theory professor tomorrow.”
“Esme, what the hell?”
“He’s a robot. I want to prove it.”
“A robot?” Chester asked.
“Come on, Chester. I was right about this whole ghost thing. The cliche clock starts now.”
Chester groaned, and followed.