This story is by Hallie Sunbeam and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It was fitting that the thing she ran away from was the one thing she had to stare at while confined to her childhood bed. It sat in the corner, mocking, grand, solid. Unmovable. Little black and white keys splayed out and glistening in the afternoon sun that filtered into the room. The music stand stood empty, torn pages filled with notes scattered at the feet of the piano, collecting dust.
Bright yellow walls with cheery butterflies caged her and made her stomach churn. Leaning over to the side, she threw up into the small plastic bucket that kept her company. It hadn’t strayed from her side the entire hellish night into the brutal morning.
Her body tightened, tensed, spasmed. Again, she tried to throw up and fell into an endless cycle of dry heaving that left her stomach muscles sore and her arms trembling. Pale fingers gripped the bucket as the room spun.
When she was a child she would sprint through the soft grass in the backyard and then spin in circles until she collapsed in a fit of giggles. Maybe the fact that she couldn’t stand the dizziness was some rite of passage into adulthood. Or maybe it’s from the tequila you downed last night. Right. That.
The reminder triggered another round of dry heaves as her mind replayed the night’s events in a highlight reel that she couldn’t shut off. The memories, what she could remember, whipped through her mind in snapshots. Loud music, strobe lights, people’s faces that she didn’t recognize even as she clung to them and jumped up and down to the music. Shots of hard liquor lined up on a beat up bar. Flashing lights from phones that captured the night in all its vivid glory. Her phone’s notifications blew up until she had thrown it at the wall. Its broken body was still littering the floor. The impulse served to sever her connection to the online world, but she was stuck in the real world, trapped in a body that was rioting. Everything has a price.
She could be lying here dead and no one would know. Not once had her mother checked in on her, but at least she had bailed her out of jail. Truth be told, she was surprised she did that much. Sure, she had a right to be pissed. Anyone getting a call like that in the dead of night would be angry, but she didn’t even recall trying to drive or crashing into that tree. At least, she thought it was a tree. Where is my car anyway? Too many questions and not enough answers. Her life was a lie, the truth buried so deep that the pain of digging it back up was not an option. Lies weren’t all bad. She’d had a ton of fun and adventuring with her lies, until she started to believe them. How does one compete with one’s grandest illusion of oneself?
Stretching her right arm out to the nightstand, her fingertips brushed the edge of cool glass and sent it tumbling to the floor. It shattered, the noise aggravating her throbbing head while water coated the hardwood floor. “Shit,” she muttered darkly. She couldn’t do anything right anymore. The mess needed to be cleaned up her mother came to investigate the noise. Her fragile ego couldn’t take one more judgmental look. She knew better than to expect pity or hope for sympathy.
Sliding her feet over the edge of the bed, she carefully found the floor and dipped her toes in the puddle. Once she left the support of the bed, her vision consumed by stars, her knees buckled, and she landed on all fours in the mess she’d made. She watched the blood mix with the water and didn’t have to wait long to feel the sting from the glass shards in her shins and palms. Outside her door the house creaked from familiar footsteps. She kept her gaze on the floor as heels too tall and pointy to be sensible clacked into the room right past her into the bathroom. A large roll of paper towels appeared before her, long pink nails vanishing from sight as the woman who brought her into this world beat a staccato rhythm that vibrated through the foundations of the old house. Staccato…
The entire role was used up, soaking up a tie dye pattern of reddish swirls. The floor could be stained for all she cared. Instead of wasting time, she snatched a handful of the bed sheets and pulled herself up, setting one foot in front of the other until she found herself facing her once friend, sometimes enemy, now just an instrument, grand piano. When her father bought it for her as a child, she had been delighted at the innumerous sounds and songs that could be made. Such creative freedom. While her balance faltered, her hand found the edge of the instrument for support, a loud high pitched whine echoing around the room. A paper sat crumpled on the bench. Unwrapping it with unsteady fingers, she read the words “this year was particularly competitive” before letting it drop through her fingers in disgust. A rejection that shattered her dreams of becoming a musician in a moment, years of practice and discipline swept away like it hadn’t mattered.
The bench was cool beneath her bare legs. How many times had she sat here in an oversized shirt and underwear, losing all sense of time until her parents hollered that she was going to be late for school? At first the memory brought a faint smile to her cracked lips, then her vision wavered. Somehow the world seemed softer through watery eyes.
Tears were not new to her. She’d become used to the cool sensation the tracks left as they trailed down her face to collect at her chin, then drip onto her hands curled in her lap. Like so many times before, her eyes sought the picture on top of the piano of her and her father. Unshakeable smiles and similar faces. Despite the ugly green cap and gown, she loved that picture. She was always such a daddy’s girl, wanting to pursue music just like he had. Underneath the picture frame was the obituary. Her breath caught in her throat while her insides raged. Snatching the paper, she shredded it and screamed. She had lost her dad, her best friend, and her future as a musician all within a single week. She emptied herself into her screams. Screamed until her lungs burned and her throat was raw and nothing came out but a whimper.
The house was not impressed, it had seen this show before. It remained quiet while her tears dried, leaving her face sticky and her eyes even more swollen. Her hands poked at her puffy face while she winced at newfound bruises. She took a deep breath, choking down the sob that threatened to escape. Another deep inhale, then a third and a fourth. By the fifth breath, she closed her eyes and reached out. Her fingers stroked the keys, knew every divot and imperfection, every beautiful tone. Smooth plastic gave way under her gentle touch while she reacquainted herself with every key.
First one key played, loud and strong, fading into nothing. Then another note followed. A few more came as she created the first music she had played in months. It poured out of her as she unleashed her soul and pounded the keys, fingers moving fast and sure. Eventually her feet joined in, finding the pedals and holding the notes. The music drowned out everything else, and she gladly let it consume her. Never again would she allow this much time to pass between playing. She played songs that were upbeat and fast, sweet melancholy melodies, and when the last song winded down, the moon was peeking out behind the clouds. Her eyelashes stuck together and took some convincing to open. The room was cast in blue tones, much more to her taste. Movement at the doorway caught her eye. A shadow. Her mother. Her sensible and stony faced mother stood there with an armful of bloodied paper towels and glass shards and stared right through her. Then she turned on her heel and strode away, but the door was left open just a crack. Whether it was an invitation or a missed step as her mother hurried away, she didn’t know.
Her finger bobbed on a key in a light imitation of those familiar staccato heels. She started loud, pounding the key with force, then tapped it softer and softer and softer still until she could barely hear it. Then she let the single solitary note linger and die as the moon took cover behind a cloud. Maybe her smile wasn’t unshakeable yet, but it was a start.
“I’m going to do better, dad, I promise,” she told the picture. Life after loss wasn’t easy, but she could do better.