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There was nothing special about Liam. Nothing at all. He was a rather ordinary boy with ordinary brown hair, an ordinary face, and perhaps less-than-ordinary height.
It was his first year attending a boarding school in a city called Wheaton, where he would stay almost year-round, and only return for the summer. It was all very exhilarating; he had never been away from home before, where, above all, he sought sanction in his room.
He loved his room. It was cluttered, not messy, just a tad untidy. He knew where everything was, and where it was was in its exact place. Completed homework assignments were stuffed in his desk drawers, and a few used articles of clothing were draped here and there. He was growing weary of his mother hounding him about how he would survive boarding school on his own and how he had better tidy his room every day.
In one corner, there was a pile of cushions he had accumulated over the years: the blue one embroidered with white from a family friend, given the previous year; the one speckled with brown from when he had spilled tea on it, with that prominently large splotch on the right; and the one with rough edges that he loved to run his finger along. As a whole, they made a perfect reading nook.
Many an hour passed as he curled up there like the Cheshire cat, although lacking the inhuman grin, and opened a new dimension. Liam would lose himself in the pages. It seemed incredible to him that entire worlds could exist beyond his own, and that he could access each and every one of them by picking up a novel from the local bookshop.
“All my pretty ones? Did he say all?” The man buried his head in his hands, shoulders trembling. Quite suddenly he looked at the sky and hurled his words at the clouds, as if he could slice them into bits that would fall down around him and somehow assuage his grief. “Oh, hell-kite! All?”
And then he would open his eyes and he would not be in Scotland, watching as Macduff vowed to avenge his slain family. He would be sitting on the cushions, a half-closed (and, incidentally, half-open) book in hand, his thumb marking that very scene. A deep breath later, the sound of arguing would reach his ears and he would desperately bury his nose in the pages once more, hoping that what his eyes took in what distract his brain from what his traitorous ears perceived.
Exactly what they argued about he did not know.
They always became quickly and suddenly quiet when he stepped into the room, and he would conspicuously walk across their paths to retrieve a glass of water or another book and could feel their eyes scraping at him; he was quite surprised when he reached the safety of his room once more and his clothes were not lacerated.
His mother was a sallow woman with a shallow personality. She had a hooked nose, like the beak of one of the sparrows that chirped outside his window so often, and didn’t seem particularly interested in anything at all. She did, however, agree to buy him copious amounts of books a week.
Liam’s father was like a solid, unyielding block. He refused to be deterred by anything and, although he was an extremely successful lawyer, Liam avoided him in person as well as in conversation.
Reservus would be something new, different. Maybe he would have a chance to discover himself here.
Mr. Prunt was proud to say that he gave absotively, posilutely no leeway when it came to his students, thank you very much. He rather detested children of all sorts, grubby little things which harbored sticky fingers and impudent mouths.
No, children were placed on this earth for one reason, and one reason only: to be disciplined and set right. They were simply bits of dough that needed to be molded. It was his job to turn these into respectable members of society. At least this was what Prunt told himself, even as his mouth twitched with distaste at the eager young faces upturned toward the steps.
“Good morning, sir!” squeaked a little radish that had the misfortune of being at the front of the throng.
“Oh, it isn’t,” said Prunt. “But I will take the sentiments behind your greeting into account.” He looked out over the mass and raised his voice. “Now all of you, listen here! This” – he gestured at the monumental building behind him – “will be your housing quarters for the next nine months, Reservus Academy. I purposely do not say the word ‘home’ because it is not your home; I expect all of you to behave as though staying in the house of a guest. This is not a playground. It is not a park. It is not a picnic, either. You will focus your attention entirely to your studies, and anyone caught doing anything out of the ordinary will be punished severely.
This includes anything even remotely artistic, creative or enjoyable. Report any such activity to me if you come across it, and I will attend to it as I see fit.
I would also prefer that you speak to me as little as possible. If you must” – here he heaved a gusty sigh – “speak with the school dean and he will direct you to me. Is that clear?” Without waiting for an answer, he turned and walked back inside the gates.
“What a peach,” someone in the crowd said.
Despite the unwelcome so clearly emanating from Prunt, as well as the faculty members, Liam’s excitement could not be diminished. So overwhelmed to be on his own, so relieved to be away from his frigid (wasn’t that a perfect word to describe him – frigid) father at last, he could not feel disheartened about the school year.
Apparently the administration felt otherwise – Liam felt as though he had not met less enjoyable people. Indeed, it would have taken remarkable talent to be less enjoyable. Each teacher completed their work with expressions of utter boredom, standing at the front of the classroom and reciting lines, monotonous and mind-gruelingly repetitive, paying no mind to the students struggling to stay awake in front of them.
The days bled together with unnerving ease. Autumn passed in a blur of notes, additional notes, exams, and notes again, with no versatility in the lesson plans. Liam felt his enthusiasm wearing away.
Walking to his English class, he passed the school courtyard. It was a dreary, drab thing, left behind the school and forgotten. There stood one lone planter in the center, with a stalwart figurine, made of what looked like marble, face twisted in a grotesque grimace, perched atop it.
Really, there was nothing interesting about it at all. He passed it every day – twice every day, to be exact.
But one particularly gloomy winter afternoon, Liam was plowing through the snow, in a bit of a rush. The drifts had gotten quite high, and so it was certainly a daunting task. It was rather like wading through knee-high mud that had halfway solidified, and he was having quite the time scraping snow away from his freezing knees.
Then he heard soft, sweet, music. It drifted across the courtyard, entrancing and intriguing, weaving between the bricks of the building columns, around the planter. The notes seemed to be telling stories – of love, life and everything in between. It seemed, Liam noted, to be coming from the third floor. And as he looked upwards, lo and behold, one of the windows sat wide open, oblivious to the chill, from which the wonderful music still poured.
Liam forgot it all; he dismissed the freezing cold and the ticking clock as irrelevant. Simply put, what he wanted was to find the music’s source. He staggered towards the nearest door and listened, hard, setting off down the hallway like a hunting pointer. Classroom doors passed by, but none was the one he was searching for.
He paused near a door to one of the classrooms that was slightly ajar, all the way at the end of the long stone hallway, and squinted into the crevice.
The small, round room resembled a parlor that had been used as a storage unit. It was piled high with objects of all sorts, making the space appear quite cluttered indeed – but not messy. Liam did not, could not, know that the room was filled not with junk, but with what had been the passions of so many. Oddly, it felt familiar.
Various instruments, novels and paintings were scattered throughout the room. Towards the back sat a colossal, gleaming ebony piano. A slender figure sat at the bench, with a straight back, her fingers flying over the keys. Her back was to him, and she was so immersed in the music, body swaying, that Liam doubted she would have turned even if he’d called.
He closed his eyes and saw colors of impossible depth and incredible brilliance, flashing in and out to the beat of the melody. They were mesmerizing.
Liam pulled the door open, slowly, and reached for a sheet of music. “Prelude,” the black letters at the top whispered. By Claude Debussy. Carefully, he withdrew his hand once more.
The music stopped abruptly. Liam felt a vague sense of discomfort, and it occurred to him that he might be discovered, and that the event might not be altogether pleasant. He leapt through an open classroom door across the hall and listened as the mysterious silhouette closed the door and locked it.
Liam peered around the edge of the door to see her shadow vanish at the other end.
The hallways were very crowded, Prunt noted. He would have to put in a rule about that somewhere.
He was nearly pressed up against the wall, trying to avoid the children as they thronged around him. Most avoided him, and scurried off with frightened looks on their faces if they somehow came into contact with him. He liked that.
There were still others, however, who seemed set on greeting him when he passed by. Didn’t they understand that he didn’t need to be acknowledged, that he preferred not to be? Prunt grumbled broodingly.
He walked along the fourth-floor hallway and descended the spiral staircase with slow, long movements. Prunt had legs like lengthy reeds; he could easily cover four feet with one stride.
But wait! Stop the train, hold the horses! What in the world was that?
Prunt tilted his head to one side. Unless his ears were deceiving him, it was music he was hearing. His brows furrowed. Hadn’t he clearly said that music was prohibited? Hadn’t he expressly stated that any creative activity was forbidden?
Well, this would have to be fixed.
He set off down the hallway, his pace quickening as he relished the idea of catching the rule-breaker. Prunt enjoyed punishment.
A few notes seemed to hang in the still air for a moment as he rushed along the dusty floorboards – and then they fell, and none sprang into being to take their place. The music had stopped.
Anxious, Prunt broke into a trot and arrived at the end of the hallway, but found nothing. He looked sideways at the door next to him and placed his hand on the knob to be quite sure.
Yes – definitely locked.
Because that would have been impossible.
The next few days passed with little event. Liam was becoming rapidly obsessed with the music. He spent all the time he could listening at the mysterious door at the end of the third-floor hallway, but with no result; the musician seemed to have disappeared. Liam, although discouraged, was not dissuaded. He frequently dashed up between classes on the slightest hope that he might hear the music again.
When he was not searching for the musician, Liam was in his room, examining the sheet of music he had stol – ahem – borrowed. He had no idea what it meant, but it fascinated him. He would spend hours running his finger over the silent notes, having no idea what they sounded like, but eager to learn.
January faded into February. Classes were becoming more rigorous and Liam was forced to check on the room less and less; he now needed all the free time he could to keep up with the enormous amount of coursework all the students were being set. Not until mid-February did luck favor him at last.
He was heading to the dining hall when he heard it, and dropped his books in excitement. Hurriedly scooping them off the floor, he set off down the hallway and paused outside the mysterious door. The melody had changed; it wasn’t quite as he remembered it, but such was his relief at hearing it again that he paid no mind. Liam was simply content to sit down and listen.
Then a wondrous idea occurred to him: what if he had the pluck to talk to her? He hadn’t heard the music for some time and was not sure when he would hear it again; if he left without doing so, it might be months before the odds were in his favor once more.
Cautiously, he pried the door open. Slowly, quietly, carefully. He imagined he was trying not to wake a great lion.
She sat, as always, her posture pristine and perfect, her deft fingers twisting and turning over the keys. He inched closer. Liam had never been this close to her before. She had brown hair, long but a bit dull, although he didn’t care about that. She was slim, but almost his own height. She played barefoot, her right foot pumping a brass pedal at the bottom of the piano.
Liam stood behind her uncertainly, unsure as of what to do. He saw his reflection in the polished black surface, and apparently so did she; before he realized what was happening, she had stopped playing and had whipped her head around in surprise.
Her eyes were large (they grew even wider at his appearance) and framed by thick lashes, her complexion was flawless and pale, and her lips were a bit too full. Then she seemed to relax a bit, and she leaned back against the keyboard. “So you’re the one who’s been spying on me, are you?” Her voice was lyrical, clear.
He had not anticipated this calm, collected demeanor, but cleared his throat and managed to find words. “I didn’t mean to, honestly. I just… a month ago, I heard you playing.”
“A month ago?” She looked down at the ivory keys and swiftly played a tune. “This song?”
“No, it was different.” Liam adjusted his collar and cleared his throat. “So… you knew? All this time?”
The girl laughed. “Oh, yes. After I realized one of my scores went missing. And you’ve certainly been diligent about checking up on me.”
“So what do you want?” She lifted one hand and examined a fingernail, picked at it.
Liam sat down amidst the junk. “Is this all yours?”
“Some of it, yes. Mr. Prunt confiscated it a few years back, but I managed to find the key. Not the sharpest knife in the drawer, that dean.”
“And all the music?”
“You never answered my question,” she said abruptly.
He was taken aback by the directness of it, but decided it was best to be blunt. “I want you to teach me the piano.”
The girl took the music off the stand and put it away in a folder. She spread out a cloth and placed it over the keys. “Mr. Prunt clearly stated it was against the rules to do this, you know.”
Her calculating eyes passed over him. Liam felt almost as though he were being put through a test.
Apparently, he had passed. “Lesson one,” she began, turning towards the piano. Liam seated himself on the floor and assumed an attentive expression. She smiled slightly. “This is middle C.”
She leaned over, her hair falling over one shoulder, and pressed an ivory key in the center of the keyboard. It resonated through the room with astounding lucidity.
He closed his eyes, committing the note to memory. When he didn’t hear anything more, he opened them again. She was already at the door.
“Wait!” Liam scrambled up from where he sat, cross-legged on the floor. “When will I see you again? What’s your name?”
“Friday afternoon, four o’clock. Don’t be late!” And she closed the door behind her.
They would vanish into the room for hours and wouldn’t be present at mealtimes, finally emerging, bleary-eyed but happy, before curfew. Liam never forgot what he had learned: beginning with the middle C, they had progressed into scales, and then short pieces. She had promised to give him a Debussy book by the next month.
Professors never wondered why they could not stay awake during class - wasn’t that the case with every student? Liam’s knuckles were constantly aching from the form exercises Nathalie pushed on him, his homework illegibly written and his essays a horrendous mess. When he wasn’t with her or working on coursework, he was practicing on the piano in the room that felt so like home.
One lesson, she shook her head as he pulled out his books. “Wait, put those away.”
Bewildered, he did as he was told. Nathalie tugged a sheet of paper free from her folder and placed it in front of him – but it was blank. The bars were empty.
“Composition. Have you ever tried it before?” She glanced up at him and laughed at his expression of trepidation. Her eyes crinkled in the corners when she smiled.
“It’s not that bad.” She picked up a pencil and handed it to him. Their fingers brushed. To Liam, it felt warm and soft and unsettling – all at once. But if she had noticed anything, she didn’t mention it.
Nathalie steered him towards the piano bench and pushed him gently onto it, handed him the paper, and stepped back. “Not forced,” she said. “Never forced. Imagine… it flowing out of you. Naturally.” Then she quietly walked out the door and closed it behind her.
He stared at the page for a solid seven minutes. Then, tapping a few notes on the piano, he imagined he was telling a story. Talking to a friend. And just like that, notes flooded his ears and he couldn’t jot them down quickly enough. He imagined having a plot twist, the characters falling in love, and scribbled furiously, with a kind of rage. The minutes flew by. When at last the tale ended, the story had reached a resolution, he entitled it “Sparrows in Spring” and tucked it into Nathalie’s folder. Then he slipped out of the room.
It had all happened very quickly. One Friday, Nathalie simply was not there, waiting to teach him the art of arpeggios or the nature of dynamics. Nor the Friday after that, nor the Friday after that. And then Liam had raised the question to a professor, who told him that Miss Lewis had been taken off the school record.
When he opened the unlocked door, it should have been his first clue - Nathalie would never have dared leave the door like that.
And the room was bare. No piano, no cluttered mess of things sprawled across the floor. Prunt had taken them all.
“Richton!” The dean bellowed. “Headmaster wants you!”
Liam had been composing melodies that were both haunting and wonderful; he felt as though he were immersed in a story, and was rather irritated at being interrupted. Irascibly he dropped his pencil, shoved the papers into his notebook (where, coincidentally, there was a worn sheet of paper titled “Prelude”), and piled them under his bed, making quite sure that they were completely hidden under his mattress springs.
He pulled a Reservus Academy sweater over his head, contemplated making his hair presentable, decided against it, and hurried out of the room.
The dean looked up as he approached. “Come with me.”
Compliantly he nodded, and so fell step-in-step with the man as they trotted down the hallway together. Liam tried, as inconspicuously as humanly possible, to extract any information regarding the purpose of the surprise summons, but the dean’s ruddy face revealed nothing.
As they arrived outside the unyielding oak doors, the dean knocked sharply, three times, obliging to the rule Prunt has established as the standard. A nasal “enter” followed.
Liam stepped through the door.
He had never once been in Prunt’s office. Oh, he’d heard quite the few rumors about it, but – he glanced around – none of them seemed to be true; the gleaming coffin was missing, as were the stuffed tiger head and the infamous rusted chains. Then his eyes fell on the lanky, dark figure and bitter, corrosive hatred boiled up inside of him.
“Mr. Richton.” Prunt stood. His lips parted in a humorless grin, the yellowing teeth prominent in the pale face. “You know perfectly well why you are here, I’m sure?”
“Have a seat.”
A pause. “If it’s all the same, sir, I’ll stand,” Liam said stiffly.
Prunt raised his eyebrows and gave neither assent nor dissent. He walked around his desk, slowly, ponderingly, as if deciding what to have for supper. “A few… violations were brought to my attention the day before.”
Liam fixed his gaze on the polished wooden floor. “What sort of violations?”
Prunt’s strolling came to a rapid halt.
“Sir,” Liam added quickly.
His pace resumed. “As you would imagine, Mr. Richton, most students are relatively pleased with the, ah, standards I so recently put into place. However, one student reported hearing music on the third floor last week. Music.” He pronounced the word with contempt. “Nothing more than a silly little practice for children who lack drive in life.”
Liam bit his tongue in an effort to keep his mouth shut.
“You know well, I’m sure, the repercussions of committing such a violation?”
He unclenched his teeth. “They would be quite… severe.”
“They would indeed, boy, they would indeed. And you are aware of the events that took place last week?”
The room seemed to swim before him as Liam fought to master his temper. It wasn’t necessary to see his hands to know they were trembling.
Prunt seemed to be hitting his stride; his eyes gleamed. “The punishment that student received was well deserved, Mr. Richton, well deserved. I’m quite sure that wherever she is now, her life is progressing most splendidly, as a result of the punitive measures taken. I can only hope that she realizes what a favor we at Reservus have done for her,” he said with relish.
“Oh, she’s very lucky,” Liam said suddenly. “Lucky to be away from you and have some sort of freedom, sir, thank you, for making that possible.”
And he turned and walked out the door without being dismissed.
He sat in a polished room, sadly lonely without its usual clamor of forgotten objects. The floor had been swept clean and was free of dust. There were no books, or sheets of music, or paintings. Liam could hardly bring himself to look at the vacancy where, so long ago, the great piano sat.
His mouth tightened and he returned his attention to the piece of paper in front of him, quickly sketching a keyboard, the ebony and the ivory together. Then he turned to the boy next to him and tapped the page, hearing the note echo in his mind, remembering the very first lesson of them all.
“This is middle C.”