“I want you to play me something,” the old man said with a nod toward the piano. His granddaughter sat stiffly on the window seat. The light from the setting sun streamed in behind her, giving the room a soft glow. She sat with her hands folded in her lap, her feet dangling inches above the floor. She watched the old man with unblinking eyes.
“Play something for me, won’t you?” he urged when she didn’t move, gesturing with the gun in his hand.
The little girl had never seen a gun in person before, but she knew to be terrified. Afraid that she would make him angry if she disobeyed, she pushed down from her seat. Her steps were slow and unsteady. Her legs shook. Her whole body shook. But when she made it to the bench she assumed the precise posture she had been trained in. Long neck, straight back. Like a string was being pulled from the top of her head. She faced away from the old man, her spine tingling under his gaze. She swallowed and lifted her hands.
The phone started ringing before she could place them on the keys. The sound made her jump. She looked at the old man, but he acted as if he didn’t hear the ringing phone. He didn’t even glance at it. He raised his eyebrows, nodding toward the piano again.
She stared at him a moment longer, unable to look away. The deep creases in his skin cast shadows among his grey facial hair. His face looked like it was melting off his bones. She turned back to the piano.
Her hands shook as she placed them on the keys, but her fingers formed their practiced arrangement. She took a nervous breath, exhaling slowly through her mouth. And held the stillness for just a moment. Each of her fingers applied a specific amount of pressure as she struck the first notes of the song. She had chosen to play Bach’s English Suite No. 1 because it was a piece she felt comfortable with. She didn’t want to risk making a mistake.
The keys yielded just as she willed them to, each note in perfect tune. The harmony filled the living room the same as it did every day. Her shaking began to subside. By the time she made it through the Prelude, she had forgotten the old man was standing behind her. She thought only about the music. And the song progressed without the slightest stumble. She felt each nuance and rise and fall in her body. Minutes passed. When she reached Bourree I, her favorite movement in the piece, she leaned into the song.
When he was satisfied that she had settled into the music, the old man stepped back, lowering himself onto the edge of the couch. With his free hand, he rubbed at his arm, trying to ease the stiffness from it. Cursing his old body. He flexed his fingers around the gun, opening and closing his hand.
When the ache had lessened, he closed his eyes, listening to the light sound of the melody. His body relaxed. He allowed his mind to focus only on the song.
When she struck the final note, the little girl sat back on the bench. She listened as the resonation faded. Behind that single sound was absolute silence. She always loved that part. When a song ended, but the last note hadn’t quite disappeared. That note was always her favorite.
The phone began ringing again. The trance of the song broke. Her spine curved into a huddled posture. She turned toward the old man, glancing at the gun as she did so. But he stared at her with a glazed look on his face, deaf to the phone once more.
“That was…beautiful,” he said in a low voice once the ringing had stopped. “You really are…a prodigy.”
She folded her hands on her lap and bowed her head, hiding her eyes behind her long lashes. She twisted her fingers nervously. She became shy when people—adults—praised her piano skills, but she loved hearing the compliments. A smile would spread across her face. But this time it didn’t.
The old man cleared his throat. She braced herself, knowing he was about to speak again. But he was interrupted by a voice from outside, amplified by a megaphone. The voice said a man’s name. The little girl realized that the name belonged to the old man. Her grandfather. She hadn’t wondered about his name until then.
She glanced at the window, toward the voice. The sky was growing dark. The stars were just beginning to come out. The window looked out the side of the house, so the little girl couldn’t see much of what was happening in the street. She only caught glimpses of movement. People moving between cars.
“You like Bach,” the old man said, forcing her attention back into the living room. He was deaf to the voice as well as the phone. “English Suite No. 1. That was one of my favorite pieces to play. When I played.”
She couldn’t bring herself to speak. She was afraid that he would get angry if she didn’t respond, but she couldn’t think of anything to say.
“Of course, you’re much better than I ever was,” he said.
He rubbed at his arm again as the silence between them lengthened. The only sound was of voices shouting outside. The little girl let herself glance back at the window for only a moment. Red and blue lights were now visible as night fell. But the sight of them only made her feel more alone.
She turned back to the old man, afraid to take her eyes off him for more than a second. He had followed her gaze to the window, but he turned away just as she did. Their eyes met.
“There’s nothing to see out there,” he said. “I think you should close the curtain.”
Even though the red and blue lights made her uneasy, she didn’t want to close the curtains. But the old man pointed with his gun once more.
She crossed the room and climbed up on the window seat. She gazed out at the street for several seconds before pulling the curtains together across the window. He was right. There was nothing to see out there.
The old man blinked several times as he watched her. The room had grown even darker with the curtains drawn and his eyes wouldn’t focus in the dim light. He switched on the lamp next to the couch.
The little girl turned around, not moving from the window seat, waiting for the old man to say something. After several moments, he looked down at the gun in his hand, tightening his grip. She whimpered and her hands came up to her chin in tiny fists. With his head still bowed, the old man raised his eyebrows to look at her. Tears formed in her eyes. She wiped at her nose with the back of her wrist.
The tension in his grip hadn’t eased. His finger rested against the trigger. He watched her, seeing the terror in her face. Her body shook as she sobbed.
He looked back down at the gun. His grip loosened and he set it on the couch cushion next to him.
“Play another one,” he said as he looked up at her.
The little girl sniffed. The old man’s face was expressionless, but his voice was gentle.
“Go on,” he said.
She crossed the room once more. Each step was small and careful. She could feel the old man’s eyes on her the whole time. When she slid onto the piano bench, she looked over her shoulder at him. She couldn’t help glancing at the gun. He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it. He rubbed at his arm again, nodding to her to indicate that she should start playing.
She turned back to the piano slowly, keeping her eyes on him until the last possible moment. She rested her fingers on the keys. She had first thought to play another Bach since he had seemed to like the first piece she chose. Partita No. 1 had come to mind. But she paused just as she was about to begin. Several seconds of silence passed. When she pressed her fingers onto the keys, the notes that she played were that of her own composition.
As soon as the piece began, her shoulders relaxed. It flowed just as the first song had. Her fingers did a delicate dance across the keys.
The phone rang again in the midst of the song. It startled her for only a moment, but it didn’t interrupt her playing. The song’s movements and patterns were hers. They were familiar. She ignored the phone.
The old man watched her back as she played. He knew the song was her own. He knew by the way she played it. The work of other composers could be beautiful. Bach could fill any musician with emotion. But he recognized the unique passion that only came from one’s own work.
And he felt it with her. He had always known that passion in the artist effected passion in the audience. But he had rarely experienced it. He leaned forward. Drawn to her.
As the minutes passed, the song’s hold on both of them strengthened. The old man leaned closer without realizing it. The notes grew, occupying every corner of the room. The music found its way into the fabric of their clothing. It clung to each strand of their hair. It consumed. It moved. Swelling and ebbing.
When the song ended and she had listened to the last note fade, the old man stood up, grabbing the gun as he did so. He took a moment to steady himself on the edge of the piano. Then he paced the floor, running a hand over his balding head. He had only made a couple passes when he stopped, his attention drawn to the framed photos on the mantle. There was one that caught his eye. A picture of the little girl with her parents. He stepped toward it, leaning in close.
The mother looked like a future version of her daughter. Petite and strawberry blonde. Same eyes. Same chin. But the old man looked closer at the father. He could see signs of the boy he remembered. His hair was still dark, but clean cut. And there was a line to his jaw instead of a curve. His hand rested on the little girl’s shoulder. He was smiling.
The old man turned around, fixing his stare on his granddaughter. She shrank under the intensity of his gaze, raising her skinny shoulders toward her ears. He didn’t notice. His stare remained steady, but his mouth opened and closed as he tried to form the right words.
“In-” he began, then stopped. The little girl watched him, waiting for him to speak, as he continued to struggle with his words. He squeezed his eyes shut as a wave of dizziness came over him.
“Unbelievable,” he finally said. “You’re unbelievable. So…so talented.”
He watched the little girl for her reaction, but the fear didn’t leave her eyes. He studied her face, searching for any sign of himself. But it wasn’t to be found. She shuddered. He sighed. He looked around the living room. His son’s home was perfect. Not catalogue perfect. Home perfect. Lived in, comfortable perfect.
His arms hung at his sides. The gun was pointed toward the floor, but he tightened his grip on it once more. Aside from the shaking, the little girl hadn’t moved. She waited for him to do something. To say something.
“Go,” he said.
She still didn’t move. Her eyes remained wide, but her brows came together slightly as an uncomprehending look came onto her face.
“I said…go.” A feeling of weakness came over the old man. He took a breath.
Still not taking her eyes off him, the little girl slid off the piano bench. She stood, not moving toward the door, waiting for confirmation.
Feeling the resistance in his joints, the old man lowered himself onto one knee. He looked his granddaughter in the eye.
“Go,” he whispered.
She took the first few steps backward, inching toward the door. It was only when she was halfway across the room that she stopped, her eyes still on him. Using the piano bench for support, he pushed himself back to a standing position. He stepped to the couch. When he sat down, he turned his face toward the drawn curtains, away from the little girl.
He heard her hesitate for only a moment, then she turned and ran toward the door, her footsteps muffled by the carpet. He didn’t turn to watch her go. The door opened, then closed with a bang as she pulled it after her.
Good girl, the old man thought as her running footsteps receded from the house, softening the further away from him she got. The officers would be preparing to enter the house now. No more than a couple minutes.
A wave of dizziness came over him, his vision blurring. He took another breath, trying to steady himself. A tremor shook down the length of his arm. He knew he had to hurry. His head was still spinning as he reached into the front pocket of his shirt, drawing out the single bullet he had brought with him. With shaking hands, he opened the gun’s empty chamber. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to hold onto the gun and the bullet pinched tightly between index finger and thumb. He opened his eyes.
He moved to place the bullet in the chamber. And just as he did, his arm gave one violent jerk. It fell to his side. Numb. The bullet slipped from between his fingers. It fell to the floor. He watched it roll a few inches before his vision blurred in dizziness again.
The old man took deep breaths, trying to regain control of his body, but his vision wouldn’t return to normal. The feeling didn’t return to his arm.
No, he thought as his head tilted back against the couch. Resigned. No.
He felt his face droop. The disjointed sounds that came from his mouth sounded nothing like laughter. But the old man laughed.
The door burst open behind him. Men with drawn guns poured into the house, surrounding the rigid figure sitting on the couch. The old man’s body shook with laughter as the gun slipped out of his other hand. Tears gathered in the corners of his eyes.
Rebecca Johnson has a B.A. in Creative Writing from California State University, Northridge and is currently continuing her writing education at Chapman University. She is a Los Angeles native and self-acknowledged starving artist. Her love of literature began early in life and stirred her over active imagination, inspiring her to become a writer herself. When she’s not writing she’s telling herself she should be. She doesn’t have a backup plan.