Literature » Short Fiction

Short Fiction Contest-winning story #49 — “Will You Play For Me?” by Hannah Draper

 

New Short Fiction Award

Three times a year, we award a writer who submits, in our opinion, the best original, previously unpublished work.

Hannah Draper of Ottawa, Ontario is the winner of the 49th Jerry Jazz Musician New Short Fiction Award, announced and published for the first time on November 7, 2018.

 

 

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Hannah Draper is a 17-year-old high school student in Ottawa, Ontario (Canada). She has been writing reviews of local theatre in the Ottawa Citizen for three years, and has had a short story (“Lord of the Dance”) published by Open Book in their “Write Across Ontario” provincial competition. 

 

 

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Will You Play For Me?

by Hannah Draper

 

 

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     Alone on stage, I sat down on the provided bench before the applause had fully died down.  I took a deep breath, surveying the audience.  The harsh lights blinded me, and I found that I couldn’t see the faces looking up at me.  Good.  Because I had a decision to make, and I knew I wouldn’t want to be able to see some of their faces when I made it.

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     The first time I saw her, she was puffing softly on a cigarette in the girls’ bathroom. She looked all too much the devil incarnate, with tattered jeans and a band shirt that left no doubt at all that their songs would consist of guitar smashing and angsty screaming. She had dyed her hair this brilliant shade of blue that was almost black it was so dark. Upon her exhale, a long strand of smoke twirled from her ruby stained lips and curled around a nose ring that I didn’t know if it was a real one or a fake one. I thought she would be too young to have a real one, but then again, I also thought she was too young to be smoking so I don’t know where that left her.

     We made eye contact and that crooked grin was the last straw before I all but threw myself into the nearest stall and slammed the lock into place quickly. My mom likes to send me articles from the gifted-child parenting magazines she gets. A lot of them are about sleep and success and stress. There’s this one where you’re supposed to breathe in for four seconds, hold it, then breathe out for four seconds and hold that. I tried it in that bathroom stall, but I ended up more like a gaping fish because I couldn’t hold my breath for four seconds after I exhaled. Eventually, I gave up on that and took a second to peek out from the stall to see if she was still there. She wasn’t. I got a funny feeling in my stomach and splashed some water on my face. If it wasn’t for the fact that the room still smelled the tiniest bit like smoke and like spearmint toothpaste, I would’ve thought I was just making her up.

 

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     “I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,” I murmured quietly in my church that Sunday. I shook my head, trying to physically dislodge her from my thoughts. When I prayed after Communion, I looked at the stained glass Maria to my right. It had begun raining sometime after mass had already started and, through the glass, I could see a steady stream of drops soaking the concrete parking lot.

     “Beata Maria,” I sighed, watching as rain fell onto her crystal face and painted tear streaks down her lovely cheeks.

 

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     I sat quietly at the baby grand piano, looking left and right to verify that I was alone. My fingers flexed experimentally, and I cracked them against one another (a bad habit I just couldn’t shake). I chose not to look at my reflection in the lid as I propped it open. Instead of opening one of the numerous books of written music, I fingered some scales. Watching my hands play as though they weren’t my own, I heard a quiet melody begin to fill the room. It was a simple tune that I couldn’t remember if I had once heard or if I had just invented it as a patchwork song from fragments of my memory. I let my back slouch and closed my eyes halfway, content to just let the music perform its therapy and wash over me. At the sound of gravel crunching underneath car tires on the driveway, breaking the spell, I quickly opened a book to a random page with a frown and began playing a Sonata in A minor.

 

 

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     I walked home after school the long way, just like I’m supposed to. I don’t really believe in superstitions, but I don’t not believe in them either. Maybe it’s better to say that I don’t actively encourage them. I don’t walk under ladders, I try not to break mirrors, and I avoid black cats. But anyway, the point is I also try not to step on the cracks of the pavement. I’m not trying to avoid breaking my mum’s back, but I just don’t like the feeling of walking on the cracks. I was so focused that I nearly bumped into the girl from the bathroom the week before, just narrowly avoiding her swinging feet and the loose laces that would whip past her ankles a few seconds later.

     “Want one?” she was sitting lazily on a Jersey barrier beside the sidewalk. The hum of the traffic didn’t seem to bother her, and in her hands was a half-empty box of cigarettes. I could feel my eyes widen, and she must have noticed because her chin tilted heavenward in a tinkling laugh.

     “I’ll take that as a ‘no.’”

     “No, thank you.” I corrected. She inexplicably grinned and hopped down from the small, concrete wall. I felt myself grin back.

     “I’m Gracie.”

     “Ophelia,” I said, returning the courtesy.

     “Ophelia,” she repeated, “will Hamlet’s love prove to be just as deadly this time around?” She gave me a teasing, mock-serious look. Hastily-covered freckles could still be seen under a too light concealer, and her leftover mascara smudges underneath her eyes gave her a relaxed look. The black on the back of her hand suggested it was from rubbing her eyes, and I shrugged.

     “Maybe we’ll find out.” Before I could ask what she meant by that, her ratty Converse were already walking away, cutting across the road without a backward glance. I know she didn’t look back because I watched her until she disappeared around the bend and continued on her way into the urban jungle.

 

 

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     My short nails drummed along white keys as I sat alone in the piano room during our lunch hour. I thought for a moment about what piece I wanted to play but, almost before I had the question, I knew my answer. “Sonata in A minor.” My back straightened involuntarily, as my arms relaxed in front of me. The piece sounded rather lost without the cello accompaniment, but I couldn’t say I entirely minded. I frowned, and my fingers felt heavy as they caressed the keys, coaxing a not quite melancholy but certainly not a happy song from their strings.

     “Not bad,” a voice said. I stopped playing at once, whirling around at the voice and knocking my knee into the leg of the piano in my haste. It was Gracie. The faded shirt had been replaced with a wrinkled button up, but the tattered jeans and messy hair remained. She looked frightfully out of place amongst the sleek, black pianos, but I didn’t mind as much as I had thought I would.

     “Thanks,” I said, and adjusted my pleated skirt as I moved over so that she could sit down on the piano bench with me if she chose to. She did. I continued to play, fingers buzzing and my eyebrows furrowed into a slight frown as I tried not to let my fingers fumble over the notes. Hours of practice soothed my nerves, and I quickly curbed the soft smile that threatened to tug at my cheeks. Ms. Smyth was nowhere near as famous or recognizable as most of the greats, but the tune was fitting and I didn’t regret my choice. I saw her smile at me from the corner of my eye, and I didn’t regret it at all.

     “Do you play?”

     “A little, but nothing like you do.” She bumped my hip lightly, and I took her cue to scooch over more. A low tune I didn’t recognize began to crawl its way out of the piano, as though it was taking the same rapid breaths Gracie was. My eyes were glued to the chords her left hand moved through with ease, and I doubt I could have looked away, even if I wanted to. I didn’t. Listening to the piano being transformed into an instrument no longer of melody, but of rhythm, sounded both incredibly right and sinfully wrong. As if she could read my mind, her right hand joined in, accompanying the chords with a high-energy, almost frantic touch.

     “It’s called comping,” she explained after the impromptu song had closed.

     “It’s beautiful.” She grinned widely, and her chapped lips cracked a little at the effort. We sat there until the bell rang, and she looked back at me with a grin before slipping out of the little music sanctuary in which we had found ourselves.

 

 

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     It was after dark when I fitted two AA batteries into a tiny reading light and wedged myself between the wall of my closet and the ribbed wooden door. A tiny bottle of black nail polish sat precariously on my knee with a paper napkin shielding my pajamas from any spill. I had never worn black nail polish before, not even on Halloween. I reminded myself that my mum had already left for the next three days on her business trip, and my dad wouldn’t care what I did. I know my mom had left out three outfits for me to wear to school, but the black shirt I had found in Rosa’s closet was small enough that it would still fit me. She was my older sister, and she was in university now. The nail polish was hers too. With shaking hands, I carefully did a coat of black polish. It looked much darker in some places than others, and a bunch of it had gotten onto my cuticles when my hands had shaken so badly that I couldn’t keep the brush from straying, but I couldn’t stop looking.

 

 

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     “Come here,” I said, quietly enough that she could ignore the invitation and easily play it off as though she hadn’t heard me. “Play for me. Please.”

     My mom was returning from her trip later tonight, so we were left alone to do as we pleased. Rather, I was left alone. Gracie was an unknown guest but, by the way in which she sat down at the piano like it was her own, you never would have known. I had bumped into her, sitting on the same Jersey barrier as she had been two weeks before, and the invitation had left my mouth before I even had a moment to consider the possible ramifications. I was okay with that. We sat for a while, me studying and her watching me, before moving to the piano. I felt my frown soften as her typical gruffness was replaced by a slightly looser version of herself, body rocking in time with the music, fluid wrist moving along the keys, and eyes focused downward in concentration.

     “What is that?”

     “It’s the twelve-bar blues.”

     “It sounds sort of funny.”

     “Maybe to you. Can’t imagine you’ve ever heard it before.” The comment was light, no intentional offense to be found, but my face grew hot just the same.

     “What’s that supposed to mean?”

     “I’m just saying, it’s not exactly Beethoven. Playing should be about how it feels, not what the papers say.”

     “Maybe you should go. My mom will be home pretty soon.” We both knew that was a blatant lie, but she acquiesced and picked up her bag without a backward glance. I watched her walk away through lace curtains, and could hear a slow whistle, continuing the melody I so desperately didn’t want to hear any more. My fingers harshly played Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’, though I wasn’t sure if I played this out of spite or out of heart. It was funny because I always thought that I could feel clearest when I played. Now I felt nothing. I pressed harder into the keys, fumbling slightly. I dropped the piano lid back down with a harsh crack.

     Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault;’ I thought to myself, mouthing along silently to the prayer.

 

 

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     “Ophelia! In the name of all that is holy, what is on your hands?” my mother hissed when she sat beside me in the church pew that Sunday. She hadn’t seen me when she got home late the night before, and I usually sit in the back seat of the car, which is why she hadn’t noticed the chipped, black polish. With a deep blush and a stammer, I tried to hide my hands before her vice-like grip snaked around my wrist and brought my hand closer for inspection.

     “I want this off the second that we’re home,” she said. After mass, she left me in the car to go buy nail polish remover from the drugstore. After my hands had been scrubbed nearly raw and smelled disgustingly of acetone, she drove me back to church for confession.

     As my bottom lip quivered, my hands moved by muscle memory to acknowledge the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, before the words tumbled from my lips: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I haven’t been to confession for a little while; about a month now, I think. I’m sorry,” I whispered, but to who I was apologizing, I wasn’t certain.

     “What brings you here, my child?” a quiet, unassuming voice asked from the other side of the confessional.

     “I hardly know where to start. I’ve been terribly vain and on more than one occasion. I also haven’t respected my mother,” I began desolately.

     “Child, while I agree that you have sinned, you do not sound as though you expect to be absolved. These sins are not so great that our Lord won’t forgive you.”

     “Father, I’m not finished. I have been plagued with thoughts, for the past few weeks. Terrible thoughts. I never thought myself licentious but Father, I see her every time I close my eyes.” Silence answered my confession.

     “Please continue,” he replied at last.

     “My…friend. I’ve been having unholy thoughts about her and her sinful life, Father.”

     “Her sins are hers alone. Do not condemn yourself for the actions of others.” I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that I wanted everything of hers to become mine, even her sins.

     “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you,” I said, and barely hesitated before continuing, “and I detest all my sins because of your just punishment, but most of all because they offend you, my God, Who are all good and deserving of my love.” I swallowed back tears before finishing.  “I firmly resolve, with the help of your grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasions of sin.” The words came out as barely a whisper, and as I squeezed my lips together even more tightly to prevent the sob that threatened to escape.

     “No penance is necessary for love.” Before I could argue with him, he launched into a prayer to absolve me. My head hurt, and I only caught the lines: “And of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” before I was dismissed from the confessional feeling no less guilty than when I had first entered. Only more confused.

 

 

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     “You have beautiful hands,” she said from behind me. I didn’t hit my leg this time, but I still jumped a little at the intrusion. My frown lessened slightly into an expression of surprise before my brow furrowed once more. We hadn’t spoken much since she had left my house, but she still showed up without fail to the practice room. I did too.

     “I can show you how to play it, if you’d like,” I offered without looking up. I hit a note harder than I should’ve, and in frustration I allowed the heel of my palm to collapse. A grotesque version of a scale forced itself out of the piano before my hands fell limply into my lap.

     “Okay,” she replied after a beat. I started off slowly, going bar by bar but, for some reason, it was wrong seeing her hands play it. After a few minutes, she looked at me hesitantly.

     “Can I show you something?” I nodded and gazed at her expectantly. I expected her to show me another piece like she had played the first time we’d met in the practice room a month ago. We never talked about it or made any plans, but we somehow always found ourselves here, squeezed into room 112, sharing a bench over a Yamaha piano. I expected her to pull out another soul-stealing piece, transporting us to another world for the next quarter of an hour. What I didn’t expect was a pair of cautious lips brushing chastely against my own, noses bumping at the slightly awkward angle the piano bench had left us in. Her hands found my hair with a soft, reverent touch, and I found myself closing my eyes. I pulled away softly, opening my eyes to her searching gaze. ‘Forgive me, Father,’ I thought before resting my forehead against hers and closing my eyes again.

 

 

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     “What has gotten into you?” my mother exclaimed. I whirled around, my face burning at being caught sneaking out.

     “Where do you think you’re going, huh?” Before letting me respond (not that I could, my tongue felt like lead in my mouth) she pulled me along into my father’s study. He looked up at our unexpected entrance, closed the tab with the solitaire game on his laptop and opened his email to give the illusion of work. I allowed myself to tune out their scolding, and a small part of my mind began to whisper a broken version of the twelve-bar blues. In my head, the notes came out almost like an abandoned carnival chorus — delayed and almost lonely as they belted a predictable tune.

     “I swear, it’s like you’re in love or something. You’re going positively mad.” The pauses between notes got fractionally shorter, and I didn’t need to remember so hard to make it come back to me.

 

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     “Whatcha think?” Gracie asked, plopping down beside me with a folded flyer for the school’s talent show.

     “What about it?”

     “Well, do you think we should play in it?” My stomach plummeted at her words. ‘We’. My heart began to beat furiously at the idea of playing a jazz duet in front of my peers, the girls I saw at church, and my parents!

     “I’m already playing,” I confessed, glad to have a valid excuse. I reminisced about how my mother stormed into my room a few nights after I had tried to sneak out to meet Gracie with demands that I play a ‘proper’ piece in the show.

     “Oh, ok.”

 

 

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     Something hit the wall next to my window, waking me. I clutched the sheets closer to my chest, wondering if it was just a figment of my lonely imagination but, when I heard it again, I rolled over. 11:08 p.m. A soft blue lighting was being emitted from my phone screen, and texts from a familiar name indicated that opening my window wouldn’t be the end.

     “Ophelia! Ophelia!” she whisper-shouted up to my bedroom, following up with another pebble hitting the stucco facade.

     “Therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin, all the Angels and Saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God,” I whispered, and opened the window. She waved her phone, and I checked mine in response.

     Gracie: Come down. I’ve got a surprise for you. You’ll like it, don’t worry. 😉

      I gave her a little thumbs-up to show I understood, and, on a whim, pulled on Rosa’s old black shirt before toeing my way down the off-taupe carpet staircase. She pecked my cheek quickly before I had even closed the door. I followed her quietly around the corner. We only walked for another block, before she pointed at a small black car.

     “You can drive?” I asked in surprise.

     “Nah, but my brother can.” As if on cue, a short, black haired teen (who was desperately trying and failing to grow a beard) exited the car.

     “Madame,” he said, sweeping his hand on the ground as he bowed at our arrival.

     “Just get back in, Sinatra.”

      “Your wish is my command.”

     We pulled up to the junkyard, a part of town I had never been to before. I took in the group of musicians humming about, a whirl of saxophones and more trumpets than I’d ever seen. Grinning at my awed expression, she squeezed my hand once before settling down at the piano to play the first song I had ever heard her play. Tears brimmed slightly in my eyes, and I clasped my hands together tightly as her typical rebelliousness was replaced by a looser version of herself, body rocking in time with the music, fluid wrists moving along the keys, and eyes finding mine  in an unbridled mirth.

 

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     I blinked away the memories, and listened to the silence of the auditorium. I was sitting at center stage in this year’s annual talent show, and my hands moved from muscle memory to set up my sheet music. I breathed in slowly once, and I knew. On my exhale, my left hand began the now-familiar chords that had once sounded so strange to me, my right hand joining in to accompany the chords with a high-energy, almost frantic touch. And a smile.

 

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Read “Till’s Piano Lesson” by Don Dewey, winner of the 38th edition of the Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest

 

Click here to read details regarding our 49th Short Fiction Contest