It was shaping up to be a long night. I had gone to bed two hours ago and all the time spent lying on my mattress had only served to make me more awake than when I had first risen, desperately checking my phone and sighing when the lock screen appeared blank.
My blankets had fallen off the bed, and my hair had gotten hopelessly tangled from all the tossing and turning, but it hadn’t achieved my objective. It hadn’t gotten rid of the ache in my belly, the small sound like mice scurrying in the pitch dark, creeping through my thoughts.
By now, there was only one thing left to do; this fire would not go out, so I must let it burn.
That was the night I found the video. It wasn’t really found, per se, because it had never been lost. I rediscovered it. Breathed a new meaning into the tinny voices coming through my headphones.
I know, I know. Believe me, I do. No man/boy/creature is worth your time/energy/much needed sleep, and clearly you need to get a grip/a hobby/some self respect. But what can I say? He was blonde.
And his blondness shone though even more in this video. It was from before he cut his hair, so it was a giant mass of yellow, hovering around the edges of his pale face.
I was in one of the practice rooms, recording my part in “Dreams of Thee” for my Chorus teacher, my laptop open to capture my face as well as my voice.
In the video, I’m singing, when suddenly, out of the corner of the screen, Ashley appears. The practice room doors are mostly glass, and he’s standing behind the door to my practice room.
The me in the video sees him a few seconds after I do. She stops in the middle of the phrase, furrowing her brow as she takes a second look at the laptop. There’s confusion, but also excitement, and joy. I see myself take a breath, ball my hand into a fist, and then release it, turning around smoothly, my skirt twirling, to open the door.
“Hey,” I say.
“Did I interrupt something? I can leave, or-“
“No, no, I was just- um -it’s a thing for Chorus, you know.”
“Oh yeah,” Ashley says, “I forgot you take Chorus.”
“Yeah,” I say.
“Well, I just had a question about the Spanish homework,” Ashley says, “and you’re actually good at Spanish, so I thought I’d ask you.”
“I’m not really that good,” I say, “but I’ll try.”
Ashley steps inside and I dig around in my backpack for my binder. Rifling through my papers, I pull out the Spanish homework.
“The first one,” I say, “is present tense, not preterito imperfecto.”
I tune out during this part. It’s mostly me talking, explaining the nuances of Spanish grammar, something I can do pretty much any time.
“Thanks,” Ashley said, once I’ve explained it to him.
“Your welcome,” I say.
“Spanish is not my strong suit,” he says, “definitely not my strong suit.”
“That’s ok,” I say, “it may be my strong suit, but singing definitely is not.”
“What do you mean?” Ashley says, “singing is so much easier than Spanish. I mean, as long as you have vocal chords.”
I chuckle, shaking my head as I shove my binder into my backpack.
“You know, one time when I was singing in the children’s choir at church- it was Christmas time, and we were doing ‘O little town of Bethlehem’-“
The video stops there. I don’t know why- maybe I closed my laptop as I was packing up my stuff. I don’t get to hear the rest of Ashley’s story, and I’ve long since forgotten it.
But even though the video has ended, the frequency of his voice still hums in the my mind. It’s a high voice, higher than most guys I know. It’s a voice that can be funny and self deprecating and a little cruel sometimes. But as long as I can hear it, as long as I have that pitch in my head, it’s fine. It’s good. It’s only when it stops that the stars begin to wink out of existence, when the sun begins to drip wax like a melted candle- the hands on my clock stop spinning and I’m stuck back on that day in November, the long symphony that played before the final destruction of the concert hall. The funeral march, you could call it.
When I finally fall asleep, my dreamscape is littered with bodies. Bodies like piles of Legos, what should be used to build, to create, now scattered, useless.
“Oh God,” I mutter.
It’s both a curse and a prayer. God that is here, do you exist in this bitterness? Do you breathe in the foul air I live off of, the smoky remains of memories? Even when I close my eyes, I can still see the bodies, their faces, how they died and when.
I walk softly, carefully, so I don’t awaken them, don’t let them stir in my mind. I pray for them, pray they rest in peace, don’t arise to give me hell, like he did, chasing my sanity, calling my name with haunting precision till their voices encircle me. Straight to the jugular, they didn’t even stop by my heart. Straight to the jugular, at least we’re friends- You have no friends here.
Here. Here is where I always wished to be. The future. The glorious future that I will be carried into.
It seems impossible now, but I was happy then. Happy not because I liked who I was, or where I existed, or the people I associated with. Happy because there was something in the world that could make me happy, or so I thought. Happy because happiness was possible. So close. I guess you could say I was like Dorothy. I believed in the power of yellow and green. I believed in every step I took because I believed Emerald City was the city I had seen in my dreams.
I saw the dream, I climbed the mountain- and all I got was a load of snow and frostbitten lips.
It’s a lonely place to be, a battlefield with no enemy to fight. You’ve won without a cry, because there’s nothing there to win. It’s just me now. Me, my thoughts, the rain on my lips.
And the raven.
I was surprised to see it. No flock, just the lone raven, its black feathers dripping water, its eyes fuzzy through the curtain of water.
“Hello, raven,” I say, not looking at it. I stare at my hands, at the mud and blood and dirt.
“Come to gloat?” I say, “as if you care. As if-“
It comes hard. Pounding like a hailstorm, as I raise my hands to the heavens and shriek. Shriek like thunder, my voice a bolt of lightning, aimed straight at the merciless clouds. They've brought enough down on me, it’s only fair I send some up to them.
“Ash!” I say to the rain, pointing to everything around me, “Can you see? Look at this- this ash, raven. It was something, you know, it was- wasn’t it?”
I’m in tears now, my throat hiccuping, and I cover my face with my hands, getting mud on my cheeks and forehead.
“Wasn’t it something, raven?” I say, “even-even-for a minute? A small minute? Short, like me? Do you remember- do you?”
I can’t do it anymore. I can’t stand, I can’t speak, I can’t think. I am a bottomless pit, a field of flowers that is plucked over and over again, but still it’s never enough.
I lie down in the mud, hoping to hide myself in its squelching surface. My hair is matted across my face, but I let it lie there, let it tangle. The way the raven tangled my head.
But even though I can barely see and my ears are clogged with mud, I still hear the faint flapping of wings, getting closer and closer until I feel the soft weight of feet on my shoulder.
“Raven,” I whisper, “raven. Please don’t leave.”
The raven caws.
“Raven, raven- don’t-“
The raven caws again, cutting me off. The sound grows, cutting through the hard fall of the rain. I know what it is saying. I know, because I know I must be hurt, must be tortured, must be bent out of shape and then twisted back into place. I must sink into the earth with the weight of these shining stars.
The raven begins to hum. A quiet hum. A soft hum. But I know it. I know what he was doing. It is that song- that song that someone had decided to sing. Goodness knows why. The song someone had decided to sing that night. That song, I remember. In the dark, sitting next to Ashley, watching his intent face. I longed to reach out, longed to join the raven’s soft hum, to sing it, to let out all the words-
But I never get the chance. My mother comes in, opening the curtains to my room, letting in what pale moonlight is visible at this hour. Not much. Even for this hour, not much.
It was later that day that I sat down next to Stuart Tarleton. He was one of Ashley’s friends, someone who played the saxophone and loved to talk. There was loud chatter around the room as everyone “worked” on the math problems. The teacher had put on some classical music, and when I glanced at the screen, it said, “Prelude and Fugue in A minor, by Johann Sebastian Bach”.
“This fugue is pretty nasty,” Stuart said, out of the blue.
“Hmm?” I said.
“This fugue is so gross,” Stuart said.
“Oh yes,” I said, “absolutely revolting.”
“I’m serious!” Stuart said.
“I’m sure you are,” I said, and that was when we started talking.
The conversation circled around a variety of topics; how much we both hated math, why school didn’t close for the two inches of snow this morning, and our musical talents. Stuart was in band, and I was in Chorus, but we had both taken AP Music Theory last year. And in AP Music Theory, no matter who you were, you had to sing.
So I said to Stuart, “You were the best bass in Music Theory last year” and he blushed, and denied it.
He was right to deny it. It wasn’t true, really. At the moment it was, and at the moment I felt and breathed the idea that Stuart was the best bass. In fact, the only bass in AP Music Theory. It was a fact that I needed to be true. It was convenient. But I knew it wasn’t true. I was laughing with Stuart, having a wonderful time, but every laugh caught in my throat. Choking, because it should have been Ashley who was making me laugh. Stuart was nothing but a distraction to keep me from looking at Ashley. He was a thin veil over the glaring truth that I was unloved and unlovable.
The fugue changed. Instead of being in C major, it was now in A minor; the same key signature, but so different. It’s funny how little things can change, and yet how different they can be.
All the voices, all the instruments, all the things we heard. The noise that has now faded into inglorious silence. The instruments that have stopped playing. The choir cursed with an eternal rest. My voice hoarse from all the silent words I have never screamed, all the crystal tears I have never shattered.
Maybe all Ashley was, was a sunset. The bright pinks, the laughing oranges. Now, the sun has gone and it’s all dark. Dark and quiet.