A short story by D. Jason Fleming
It’s not important, but I had no business going to university.
Don’t look at me like that. I’m serious.
Yeah, okay, we’ve been sitting here chewing over the problems of the world. And you’re right, I’m not dumb. Got my I.Q. measured in elementary school. No, I don’t want to say just what it was, but it wasn’t low.
Well… listen. It was somewhere north of “genius” level, but that’s all I’ll admit to.
But, see, that doesn’t matter. What I should have done was just go out in the world, make use of the one or two connections I had and just start working, maybe pick up a degree later, once I had my wits about me. I was a kid, mentally, and university didn’t help with that.
Well, okay, where did you go?
Right. Good school. I went to Northern Ohio.
Yeah, it has a good rep. But it wasn’t what I wanted or expected, and I more or less floundered. Except for one thing, which is what I was trying to get to.
Nah, my fault. Talking to me is like channel surfing, I just keep wandering off on all kinds of tangents. If you’re lucky, I eventually wander back to my point. Sometimes.
So, okay, it’s not important that I had no business going to university, but I did, and that much is important. North Ohio U. Got stuck in North Quad my freshman year, the dorm so far north it’s practically in Michigan.
It was a very large building, and unpleasant. One of those eyesores designed in the 1960s or ’70s. Friends of mine who did architecture told me it was done in the “New Brutalist” style, which tells you pretty well what it did to your eyes the first time you saw it. It was oppressive, you know? Not like the old dorms in the middle of campus, the ones with actual dormers, built of red brick, with ivy climbing the walls. Those were downright cozy. North Quad was cold to look at, even on Labor Day weekend.
But I lived there, first year. Fourth floor, east wing. First month or so, I was so overwhelmed by classes and dealing with my roommate and just generally fitting in, I didn’t even get my head above water and live, really. Didn’t do any concerts or parties or anything. Not much of a partier, me.
Heh. Yeah, even though I’m jawing your ear off, you see it. I am not an outgoing guy. Let me tell you, back then, I was worse.
After a month, I started getting insomnia. Not every night, but once or twice a week. Second or third time it happened, I said “hell with it,” grabbed a book that had nothing to do with any of my studies, and went wandering the halls. Just walking for a while, but I planned to stop in the lounge and read after a while.
Except I didn’t walk far, and I didn’t read.
Usually, you walk in the early watches of the morning through a dormitory, and there’s almost no noise. The buzzing of the florescent lights overhead. Maybe a door closing as somebody stumbles to the bathroom while trying not to wake up fully.
This night, though, I had piano accompaniment.
Quiet, though. Whoever was playing wasn’t pounding it out. And it was sad, wrenchingly sad in the gentleness with which the notes were being coaxed out.
It wasn’t the lounge I had been aiming for, but following the music brought me to it soon enough.
The lounges had doorways, but no doors, probably due to some administrative rule created to attempt to stop eighteen year olds from acting like eighteen year olds. I stepped up to this doorway silently, for fear of stopping the music. It was so beautiful.
Look, I don’t know music. I know what I like and what I don’t, but I can’t talk about it. Never studied it, don’t know jack about any of the terminology. I can’t explain what it was that entranced me and drew me to what she was playing. I only knew that it was pain and sweetness and aching loneliness and hope all made into a lovely, delicate sound that I had never heard before.
I stopped near the doorway, but not in it. I was afraid that even my shadow in the doorway might stop the music. But I could see her, midnight black hair, black tee-shirt and jeans, hunched over the keys. Shutting out the world, I later found out, blind to everything.
As I stood and listened, something more than the emotion hit me. The complexity of the notes, it was like her two hands were playing a duet, or fighting a duel, jabbing in on each other as rapidly as possible. Then the battle slowed, but the emotion remained, just washing over me. I risked entering, as quietly and unobtrusively as possible, and took a chair to her side where, if she wanted to look, she would see that she had an audience of one.
Her head did lift once, enough that her hair fell back far enough that I could see the tears falling. I hadn’t realized she was sniffling, I’d been so lost in the music. She didn’t notice me, though, and kept right on playing. I slipped out of the lounge, got out my book, and sat outside the doorway, back against the wall, pretending to read.
If anyone came along, I would keep them out. Whatever she was working through, she needed to, whatever time of night it was, and she was at least being careful to play quietly.
But that night, nobody else came by.
Oop, the band’s about to start their first set, and I know you’re here to see them. I’ll shut up till they take their break.
Yeah, they’re good. Lead singer is a lovely girl, isn’t she?
So, where was I? Right, that first night I heard this gal playing piano in the dorm.
Well, I was going to sneak away when she stopped playing, but she came out the moment the music stopped. I didn’t even have time to stand up, really. And, well, I maybe was a little dopey, lack of sleep, lulled by the music.
“You were listening,” she said. Not asked, said.
I looked up at her, saw there was no escape, so I boldly owned up to what I had done. “Kind of.”
“Why didn’t you come in?”
“You seemed… well, it seemed private,” I said. “I didn’t want to intrude.”
“Then why did you sit out here?”
“I didn’t want anyone else to intrude, either.”
She nodded at that. I stood up, offered her my hand, told her my name. She shook it, and tried to smile.
She said, “I’m Jenny. Um, Genoa Wang, but call me Jenny.”
Oh, you’ve heard of her? Yeah, she’s done pretty well for herself. Not world famous or anything, but she made herself a nice little music career even before she got out of university. But I’m getting to that.
I don’t know how to explain it, but she read me. She knew something I didn’t understand myself until much later.
Every time she practiced, there I was, sitting just outside the doorway. Sometimes, she would tell me it was okay to let people in. Usually, she said nothing, and I kept people out. After a while, she got to have a collection of listeners in that hallway.
And it was a special crowd, too. Everybody understood that what was happening in that lounge was pain, being worked through. Nobody mocked it, nobody seized on her moments of weakness for advantage. They just listened, and let her alone unless she asked for reactions. And when she did, they were honest, but never cruel.
I’ve been on this earth over thirty years, more than half of that time I’ve worked and lived around creative people. Never have I seen anything like that, a spontaneous group collect around someone working toward a breakthrough, and not one person tried to ruin it, change it, claim it for their own, steal the spotlight… none of that drama queening bullshit.
That year and the next, I stood watch for her. We managed to both get the same dorm assignment the second year, too. Which, on a large campus like that, was a fair bit of luck.
By the end of the third trimester that freshman year, she’d begun putting words to her compositions. The tunes she’d played the first few nights, I never heard again. I’ve always thought that they had words, too, but they were too painful to sing out. But she worked on others, less dire, more laced with hope and joy, though often bittersweet. And she began singing. For herself, more than us, but eventually for us more than for that inner need she was serving.
There was still a lot of pain in those first songs. And they weren’t all her pain. She had a roommate who ended up dropping out, and one of her most popular songs was about the pressures that roommate felt.
No, I won’t tell you which song. I’m the only one who knows that. Nothing personal, but it’s not mine to share, you know?
But anyway, she was working through it. I’m not sure what happened that summer, but she not only got through the pain, but managed to get control of her shyness, as well. She started doing open mic nights at the campus cafés, then getting paid gigs.
And every one of them, she asked me to be at. For the paid gigs, she’d make sure I didn’t have to pay. I couldn’t always be there — exams, reports to write, you know — but I made most of them. In fact, I think I made most of her gigs the entire time we were at North O.U., at least the ones on and near campus.
Senior year, she was traveling further and further, playing pubs and cafés near campuses in Michigan and Indiana, at least one gig in Chicago, which was one hell of a drive from the greater Toledo area. But by that point, she was paying her own way through school just from her performances, and before she graduated she had a recording deal with a small label.
Been about twelve years since then, and she’s still doing fine. Not a pop star, but she wouldn’t want that. She’s got a career on her own terms, and doing very nicely at it.
Love her? Hm. I mean, obviously, I was very protective of her. And there were a few nights that could be called “dates” between her and I, I suppose. Truth is, I don’t know. Nothing happened between us. She was wounded, and I didn’t want to make it worse, you know?
After? Well, she was healing, but… I wasn’t.
“Wounded” might not be the right word for me, no. But her and me, that wouldn’t have worked. Not when she was wounded, especially, but not when she found her way out either.
See, I can read people too, like she read me. Nothing psychic about it, I just pick up on all kinds of cues, and I… well, if I made a stage act out of it, it’d be called “cold reading.” On top of that, though, I have a good sense of when two people will get along, when they won’t, if they’re good or bad for each other. And romantically, for her, I would’ve been bad news. So no, that didn’t happen.
What did happen was that she talked to other musicians about me. She mentors a lot of young performers who are trying to make a career out of it, you know. And in those early stages, a lot of them wear their hearts on their sleeves.
That’s where I come in.
Well, you see, if you put your soul out to the world in song, you’re vulnerable. A lot more vulnerable when you’re just starting out than later.
And, well, there are predators. Stalkers, emotional vampires, sociopaths who think that someone who can create, or who becomes successful, has to be punished for being better than them.
Starting to sound familiar?
No, don’t try to stand just yet. You won’t make it. The Rohypnol started kicking in about ten minutes ago, and you’ll stagger into something. You’re still thinking coherently, but that’s going to change for a while. And when you wake up —
Whoa, there, tiger! No, miss, he’s just had a bit much. I’ll take him home, make sure he gets there safely. Sorry about the spill and the mess. Will this cover it? I’d stay and help clean up, but my friend here is a bit rambunctious with this much drink in him. Thanks for understanding.
Now, friend, let’s get us a cab…
Oh yes, you’re quite alive. Going to feel like hell for a day or so, though.
Well, see, if I thought you were a real monster, you wouldn’t be. Mysterious suicide, no note.
But you, you are capable of feeling shame. Not just animal fear, you have a sense of right and wrong. And, talking to you when you were under the influence, it’s my judgement that your moral compass may be a bit weak, but it’s not too warped yet.
So, here’s the deal. You stay away from the band Sisters of Adversity. Especially that cute little lead singer.
She’s a lesbian anyway, not interested in you.
But that doesn’t matter, because you will no longer be interested in her. See, during the past couple of hours, you’ve performed for me. See this smart phone? Shoots video. I’m going to take it home, strip it of all metadata, and just… save it. It’s going to be saved a couple of places, copies are easy to make. But it’s going to stay private. For now.
No, you don’t know what’s on it. You’ll get an email in a couple of days giving you a temporary link to an encrypted server, and you’ll see a “highlight reel” of some of what you and I shot tonight. Some really juicy tidbits. You’re really very moving when you cry, you know.
But as I say, you’ll leave them alone. The whole band, their friends and families. You’ll forget they ever existed, even if they hit it big and become world famous. Or that video goes out to the world immediately, uncut.
And, friend, let me be very, very clear on this last point. If that doesn’t stop you, I will.
Because if you don’t stop, you’re no longer human to me. You’re a monster. And if you’re the kind of monster who is willing to destroy somebody’s life for your own gratification, because she didn’t let you into her life, or for whatever reason, the world will be better off without you in it.
You’re right. I never did tell you my name. You know my face, and my voice. Pray you never see or hear me again.
Because if you do, you won’t be seeing or hearing much else after that.
Jason Fleming has lived in several locales worldwide, and worked at a variety of jobs, from manual labor to keeping the books of a corporation to teaching English as a second language. Fleming blogs irregularly at Doing Slapstick In The Kingdom Of The Blind, and is the author of the horror-urban fantasy novella Spring That Never Came.