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Music in Flames
Piano music meanders down the hallways without purpose there, my alma mater, the institution that gave birth to my adulthood with its childbearing hips. I recall much of those days even now, when my hair is gray with age. Still, my years at the school seem as distant as ancient Egpyt in both time and space. I only journey there now out of necessity: to retrieve my orphaned niece.
The current headmistress walks alongside me, leading me toward the music room where my niece plays. She is stiff with awareness of the cliché we are fulfilling. “It’s just down here. You remember…certainly,” she says woodenly, like a child actor reciting her lines.
“Certainly,” I concede. Here are the alcoves and archways of my youth. Here is the classroom where I so nervously gave an oral presentation on musical theory that I vomited. Here is the classroom where Sarabeth Meyers was caught performing oral sex on John Tate. Here is the water fountain that replaced the one on which Andrew O’Hare smashed Jeremy Greene’s skull. Ah, yes, the music hallway is filled with memories.
“Here we are,” she murmurs, as if my dead sister is lying in that very room. As if my niece is a grief-stricken maniac likely to set upon her with unbridled rage if she speaks above a whisper.
“Thank you, Headmistress.” I don’t remember her name; she swells with pride at hearing her title.”
“I can come in with you, if you like,” she offers helpfully.
“That’s perfectly all right.”
I open the door with a peace-shattering creak. Amy dully looks up from the piano to identify the intruder—me. “Aunt Jane,” she greets me without emotion. “I didn’t…” she trails off. Finishing, or speaking at all, is really unnecessary.
“Hello, Amy,” I respond coolly. It always takes a moment to comprehend Amy’s beauty. It’s like a secret someone once told me, forgotten, but once remembered all the more breathtaking. If there were a brown gemstone, it would be the same color as her eyes. Her hair is wet wood and her skin is sugar, unbleached and unrefined. She’s always taken after my sister.
“Aunt Jane,” she repeats.
“I’m so sorry, Amy.” She lifts her head to look at the high, domed ceiling. She laughs and it spirals up towards the eaves like a free sparrow. Everything is music and poetry, even her grief.
“What are you sorry for? I’m the one with the dead parents,” she scoffs with soft bitterness. There is a pause between us. Outside, the headmistress hops from foot to foot nervously.
“I’ve lost a sister, Amy,” I scold quietly. Margaret was my sister. We, we grew up together.” I choked on my words. How dare she be here, a little piece of my sister, wanting to take Maggie’s memory for herself? How dare she keep playing that yellow-keyed, dusty old piano while I stand here waiting to take her away?
“She was my mother. Not to mention Dad. No, nobody mentions Dad.” For a brief moment, I see Jake in her: his sarcasm, his wit, his round childlike ears. Her hair trickles down to her waist but pauses in her playing and gathers it in her hands to throw it over a shoulder. Then she plays on.
“Your parents…passed in just the same way. They are loved and missed equally.” It is a happy thing that I am neither a grief counselor nor a parent, I think.
“Bulls***.” She finally stops playing and slams the piano shut.
“Amy,” I chide.
“You don’t own me, Aunt Jane. You’re not my mother. You can’t tell me what to do and you can’t take me away. B****.” The headmistress looks in through the window to see whether this lovely family reunion has yet been terminated.
“Unfortunately, whether it is your wish or not, I’ve come to take you away from here.”
“You can’t.” Her calm façade quivers.
“Usually expulsion is cause for one to leave a school. But hey, why don’t you use your obviously superior intelligence to find a loophole in that.”
“I did nothing wrong.”
“Amy. You know what you did.”
She refused to look at me. Instead, she looked out the huge Gothic window at the hilly grounds of the school she was about to leave.
“You set fire to a piano.”