“The Keys are Red witih Roses” by Silas Adams
He stands and waits. I know to stay out of sight. The lead pipe in my hands weighs me down. I am careful to keep it and myself against the building. The lightless alley offers some cover and the old brick apartment does the rest. Its overgrown foliage and garden are a mass of flowers and weeds. I remember digging my own hands into the dirt in the hopes of coming up with anything. When there was no one at home I would need to find ways to keep myself busy. Boredom was a dangerous thing for a little boy. It turns into desperation for a man.
I shove aside the clouds of long ago memories. That was then, this is now. I must live in the now.
The want to reveal myself rises with every ticking second but I know I need to wait. I need to stay in the shadows of the alley. There is no one else around him and I can’t miss this chance. A lone street light flickers on and off a few feet away. If I strain I can hear its quiet buzzing, its fight to stay on and its defeated dying tone when it can’t. The night offers nothing with even the moon gone away, keeping its glow hidden from prying eyes.
I don’t know why he has stopped but perhaps it’s better this way. He is a man on the stranger side. He’s younger than I am. The interviewers, broadcasters, social media bastards, they all adore it.
Only just turned twenty and already a star! They love to say it over and over and over and over. It’s an insatiable need to put it on the front covers of magazines or to plaster it on online articles labeled with the top artists of our generation, his slight smiling face on each.
From where I peer out I can already pick apart what I want. His fingers are long and elegant, his wrists slim and waifish. I’ve felt them before, I’ve seen them work. They’re careful and they’re cautious but beyond that, they’re gentle. They don’t match the rest of him, all tall, brooding intimidation.
The wind begins to pick up. He doesn’t notice the way it shifts and forms around him, the way it hits him and moves on, the music that it creates. I can tell he doesn’t care. He’s too distracted by the sensation of its chill. He wraps his coat around himself tighter than before. It’s an ugly, cheap thing. He never was one for style. People quite like that, call it modesty and not what it is, the shame of where he came from.
Once he’s warm and satisfied he extends his hand outward, reaching for a red-colored rose, perhaps to pin to his lapel. He gasps and retracts his hand, letting out a puff of fog as his breath collides with the air.
His finger goes to his lips and his cheeks suck in licking away where the thorn has pricked him. There’s a crunching of leaves in the distance that makes him stop and pull away. I fear he’s seen me. His body grows tense as he watches. He’s looking at me, I know it. His eyes narrow, his shoulders are taut and his legs are coils ready to spring. I wait a moment longer and that’s enough. A cat darts past his feet. He jumps back before laughing to himself and relaxing. It’s been so long since I’ve heard him laugh since I’ve watched as his whole body moves and his laughter comes forth like it is a dolce, sweet and tender and adoring.
He speaks very little and when a yes or no can suffice he will always use it. Much like his hands, his voice is unfitting. It’s soft and shy, always prodding forward to see if it’s alright to keep speaking. I can understand why people want him to keep talking once he starts. The way his words envelop you is intoxicating like they are meant only for you. His sounds knit together into perfect phrases only meant for your ears. Is that why they chose him? If it is, that’s a strange reason. He wouldn’t even be using his voice. It would serve little purpose aside from him announcing himself. I could ruin his voice, scratch out the parts that make it pleasing and soft and he would still be able to perform.
He shifts in place, pulling back his cufflink, and examines the watch that hangs loose off those waifish wrists. He’ll be late if he doesn’t leave now. They chose someone who isn’t even punctual. He will arrive for his grand entrance and then disappear again.
The clouds are dark and thick like fog. The black sky dares to shift in front of the hidden moon. The stars are out but I can’t see them. No one can ever see them here; there is too much light even when there isn’t because a city never sleeps.
Trying again, he plucks a rose and this time he’s more careful. He moves aside the front of his coat and slips it into the outer breast pocket. Leaning forward he looks himself over in the window reflection. He still looks like the same sloppy man I’d first met years ago, no amount of flowers could change that. He is careful when he puts his coat back into place, he doesn’t want to crush the flower. Turning around, he walks towards the streetlight that still buzzes quietly, flickering on and off.
I know I have to move now. If I don’t act he will be gone. I wrap my hand tighter around the lead pipe. It’s slightly rusted over and when I swing it, it cuts through the air creating one quick, escalating note. The feeling of it is wrong and I know why. It shouldn’t be me having to do this. It shouldn’t be me forced into this corner. But, I can’t stand around and wait; I know what that looks like. I know what it is to be cast out and I will not be the outsider in my own story.
My movements are quick and effective. I strike him once in the back of the head and watch as he falls to his knees. He scrambles to look at me but I’m faster. I strike again and again. There is a hollow thud each time I hit it resonates outwards. Three is enough. I abandon the pipe and reach for him but he is still awake. He claws at the sidewalk trying to move away. I can feel my own heart, hear its erratic song as I turn him onto his back. I’ve gotten cocky, I shouldn’t have been so rash, shouldn’t have done this out in the open, anyone could arrive.
“What are you doing?” He tries to say, his words slurring and even then, even then I like the way they sound, the way that they are for me. I keep him under me as I grasp his throat.
He’s so gentle. He doesn’t even put up a fight, not really. His hands grasp at my coat, wrinkling the fine ironing but that’s not enough. The heels of his old dress shoes scratch at the sidewalk. They catch onto each tiny pebble that juts out creating what can only be described as a series of horrid mismatched notes. His eyes are wide, already going distant. He’s looking at me and he’s afraid. His fingers find my hair and I can feel the purposeful tugs caused by those long, perfect hands.
There is something he wants to ask me but he can’t speak. For a second I wonder if I should let him have his say, but the sensible part of me knows better. I press down harder and I watch his arched back, his pained and muffled crying. He’s trying to say something again. I know what it is this time. A simple word.
Please, he tries to say. Those dark eyes are wide and I can see the vivid brown in them. I’d always thought they looked black but I can see the color now. There are a few more desperate tugs and snares and pleas before he can’t move anymore.
His chest rises and falls in slow, heaving motions. It is best this way.
I remember when I first met Hani. Mr. Ainsley had pointed him out to me among the stage crew and right away I knew I would despise him. He was an obnoxious fellow always laughing or snorting at some obscene joke in a manner that made ears bleed at the sound of his bleating. Yet, there was a sweetness, a tender melody to it. It was the way he put his entire body into his laughter. He’d move and shake like he was ready to teeter and fall forward. He took nothing seriously. When I had been chosen by the director and owner of the concert hall to help teach him, I knew it would be impossible.
“He’s eager to learn and I’m sure it would help you to practice with a beginner. Brush up on those basics,” said Ainsley in his overly cheery tune and his strained, forced smile. It was as if someone had pulled back the muscles of his face without his consent and he had little choice but to go along with the expressions that appeared on his person.
Ainsley offered it like it was a choice but I knew it wasn’t. According to those I asked, the old man was fond of Hani, like a son, always had been and so if Hani wanted to learn to play then by God I would have to teach him.
Larue, a former colleague of mine explained, “Mr. Ainsley does this to all the newbies. I think he figures one of us will be able to teach that pest one day.”
Larue’s words were hollow. They were the words of a pathetic man hiding behind his lies. Not because I disagreed with his sentiments, on the contrary, I couldn’t have agreed more but it was because of the way he said it. His words would pitch up whenever talking about Hani like he was performing a piece that had caught him off guard by going into a molto vivace.
It was a strangely subtle shift, unnoticeable to most. He would stand at attention when the young man’s name was uttered, his ears pricked and ready. His need for that insistent hatred of the boy was made clear to me when I had the misfortune of going to the far corners of the concert hall where Hani had made himself a room, a man living off the charity of others. A freeloader.
The door had not been open wide but a sliver, enough for a person to peer in and see the clear image of old furniture that Hani had most likely picked up off the street. The decor was uninteresting to me as ugly as it was. It was Hani who I had come for. He lay splayed on his bed, his shirt open to reveal the dark skin and hair that covered his chest, leading in a trail down. His leg dangled off the side and there was a smile on his lips. It was playful, teasing as he pushed himself up on his elbow. He spoke in movement not in sound with his head lowered and eyes staring above.
For the briefest of moments I thought he had directed those looks at me. I thought he was looking at me.
Larue stepped forward from where he’d been standing near the door and into my view. He was not hesitant in his approach. He embraced Hani with the sort of desperation one sees in a starving man. They came together to create a strange symphony, Hani gentler and quiet while Larue was sforzando, more guttural and apeish with no sense of tempo.
I was frozen in place, staring through the small sliver that the door offered for me.
The sight did not disgust me but angered me. It brought to my vision shades of violent red that I dare not bring back up. I am not the sort of man to get angry on a whim or to allow myself to be controlled by base emotions. I was angered because of Larue’s lies, his inability to face his own shortcomings and Hani’s lack of professionalism. Nothing more.
Regardless, Larue and the rest offered all their sympathies to me and they were appreciated. They knew refusing Ainsley would result in my termination and at the moment I couldn’t afford that. I was a rising star, how would it look if I was suddenly sent off without any explanation. People talk. Yet, despite the circumstance I did my best.
We would sit down before the grand piano, often in my home. I would attempt to show Hani the basics, simple exercises of pentascales and adjusting his fingers to more firm positions to get him comfortable and familiar. I would sometimes press my nails into his skin until there were crescent marks printed on him. It was to make him understand his mistakes. He never complained when I did this, not so much as a peep slipped through his parted lips as he watched me edit his positions.
However, Hani would easily become distracted by a family photo or by the lace on the couch or even by the ant crawling up the side of the wall. His hands would work the keys as I had instructed but there would be no life to it. It would be him going through the motions, offering a passable version of what I had presented him with. His fingers and hands looked the part, they were slender and perfect but they were attached to an idiot. He had no interest in playing and so I had to ask why he did it.
“What?” he asked, the confusion disgustingly palpable.
“You don’t care about this so why are you doing it?”
“I care,” he insisted.
“If you bothered to give a damn you’d be halfway decent by now. I don’t understand why you continue to waste my time and yours.”
He looked down, quiet for a long time, the only sound was that of the crickets in my garden. “I… I get distracted easily but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to be good at… this. Mr. Ainsley likes to say I have a talent and I don’t know how he sees that but he does. I want to be able to prove to him that he’s not wrong. But… more than that I need to prove to myself that I can do it. You’re the best teacher I’ve had and I really am learning from you.” This was the most he’d spoken to me, our lessons were usually silent with my voice cutting in briefly. When I offered no response he continued. “I don’t want to be a screw up, Cain.”
“Then don’t be one.” I shrugged. If he wanted to prove himself so badly he should have done it. “Now leave me be. I’m done wasting my time with you and if you say a word of this to Ainsley you’ll regret it.”
Hani hung his head, his curls fell forward and his voice came out weak. “Yes, of course. I’m sorry. I won’t bother you anymore.”
“Wait,” I called out to him.
He stopped and let me make my way over to him. I took hold of his hands then. It was the first time that I had really held them and it would be the last for a long time. I moved my thumb down over the knuckles and to the nail. He frowned but he made no move to stop me. I studied his fingers carefully before pressing down as I moved through each. I could feel the bone beneath. I pressed harder until I could see the blood cut off, his dark skin going white. He didn’t pull away, only watched me as I pressed harder. Lifting my eyes I made sure they met his. They had gone cloudy in confusion, the rich brown growing distant and unfocused. Even as he looked at me he couldn’t pay attention.
I took hold of the tip of one finger and began to stretch it back in a concave arc bringing it towards his knuckles. I knew it would hurt him. I saw the haze drain from his eyes.
“He says you have talent because you have the hands of an artist. Unfortunately, the rest of you doesn’t match up. You’re wasting what you’ve been given, that’s what he’s probably thinking.”
“Cain, please stop.” He said. He tried to wrench his hand away but I wouldn’t let him. I am smaller than him, leaner, but I am also stronger than him. I kept him in place, pressed him into the wall with my body so that I could feel his shape against mine until I heard a crack and let him go. His gaze finally averted he cried out, cradling his hand to his chest, the tears in his eyes already falling. He rushed past me. I didn’t stop him, instead, I let him run off sobbing.
He was gone. Not just gone from my lessons but from the concert hall. Ainsley had come running after a day of his absence.
“Have you seen him?” Everything about the man was panicked. His usually crisp suit was a mess, his hair flared about, his words were desperate and rising in octave.
“Who do you mean, Mr Ainsley?”
“Hani,” his voice had grown more irritating, pitching and breaking at the name.
“I’m afraid I haven’t.”
“He asked for his paycheck early. That’s normal, of course, but he’s never missed a day. I know something’s happened. He wouldn’t just do this, Cain. What am I going to do? What if he’s hurt or in danger?”
I shrugged, offering sympathies I didn’t feel. “Perhaps he’s just taking the day off.”
“He would have told me beforehand.” His voice went even higher, a prospect I had thought to be quite a feat.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Mr. Ainsley. People can be strange, sometimes you just don’t know someone as well as you think.”
It was quiet after that. Ainsley heard nothing from Hani for a week and then weeks and then a month and then months. It stretched on like that. The rest of us were quick to move on. I was rather pleased he had disappeared and I made it known to the others that I felt that way.
Larue had made a scene leaving. His breakdown was public, the tabloids wrenched every penny they could from it. The way he had called out Hani’s name, his apology, his confessions. It angered Ainsley anew. It’s really something when an old man has to be held back from attacking someone. Of course it ruined Larue for good. His pitiful admittance, however, was in some ways admirable.
I have not heard word of him since. A failed artist is an unfortunate thing to be for sure. I was saddened by his departure, I truly was. Larue had not been terrible and he was a tolerable enough presence. At the time I had thought he’d gone in search of Hani.
No one else felt the need to disagree of course. It was simply that Hani fit in better at a bar where the only music was that of a banshee screeching away on full blast, not a concert hall with musicians that worked to get there. We were the sort of people from good families with proper names and standings. We were raised to be something greater than those that preceded us. We were what Ainsley wished Hani could be but knew he never would.
Even Ainsley moved on in his own way, though it took him a while. He no longer tensed at the boy’s name or became angry when we took a jab at Hani. In fact, he would join in, agreeing that Hani had been a screw up, someone that he shouldn’t have associated with. I did my part to help the poor man grow past his fondness for the street rat and as a result I’d say I was rewarded. My rising skills drew people from all corners of the earth. They would praise me, they would know that I would be someone great, that I was someone great. It wasn’t until a year and a half later that things took a turn for the worst.
A year and a half. That’s how long he’d been away.
We were at my after party for one of the bigger performances, one that brought in celebrities from other fields, some less reputable than others. I remember that clearly. It was at my after party that he arrived at. He came up to us and for the longest time we couldn’t figure out who he was.
It was Ainsley that broke the spell of silence, his words strained and in awe. “Hani?”
The man that stood before us, before me, was not the Hani I had last seen. He was put together for one. His clothing wasn’t expensive but the way he carried himself and the way that his white shirt and dark pants were pressed and stiff made him something else. His dark hair was longer like a woman’s, past his shoulders in curls and waves. The stubble was more prominent and the eyes. They were the same near-black ones I had become so familiar with, but they had a strangeness to them. An otherness that made them shine like he was always near tears.
“I only want you to hear me play. I don’t want a job, I don’t want pity. I only want this and afterwards I will leave you all be.” He stood by the grand piano, dark as himself and polished clean. I wanted him gone. He pressed one of those long fingers to the music shelf. It took everything in me to keep from rushing forwards toward him.
Ainsley had made his face into one of harsh resentment quick to hide the relief he had shown only moments ago. He nodded and gestured with his chin for Hani to take a seat.
Hani’s fingers moved quickly with a purpose, his head bent, and his back straight as a rod. When he began I don’t know but I felt a wrenching inside me when he stopped. The moment his fingers touched the keys was the moment I saw colors and light mix with sound and emotion. I felt the cool touch of pearly blues. I became intoxicated as it grew fervently into a bright, blinding red that burned through me. There was insurmountable passion in each note, in the way that they clicked together. I wanted him to keep going, needed him to continue. He’d done things I didn’t know were possible. He went at an unprecedented speed. He’d been… phenomenal.
A man disappears for a year and comes back an expert. People talk when that happens. People need answers and I’m not the gossiping sort, but the things that were said about him he never denied. I think he had a favorite among the legends:
“He went and made a deal with the devil, no other way.”
I am no monster, nor am I a murderer. Which is why I’ve brought him home with me. He will recognize this place. That’s all right though, he won’t be leaving. I will keep him safe but I need to be cautious with him here.
He sits in the old armchair. The living room is still the same with its white lace on all the couches and their strange swirling patterns. The walls are covered in small flowers that crawl up to the ceiling, the vines burst at the edges and reach out to the light that lands in the middle. The light that casts a brownish hue.
He is sound asleep. His breathing is no longer labored but calm. His head hangs forward with his long hair, his body held up by the restraints. His legs are open wide. Trickles of blood are frozen on his forehead stretching down to his cheeks. There is a shine to it and I know I should clean it. I will clean it once I get back, once I’ve done my work.
Reaching for his phone I send a series of messages to myself. A few simple statements of how he can’t make the concert and has other commitments, how he insists that I take his place at the helm. When that’s done I toss it aside and focus on the man himself.
The rose on his lapel is crushed. It has withered, been scratched and ruined from his struggling. It’s a strange image that fills me with a fear I should not feel. Its spreading buds and pointed thorns look as if they are bursting from his chest. A petal hangs limp from the center, it does not fall, but it remains teetering as if waiting for its moment.
I shake my head, grabbing the rose from his pocket I crush it in my palm and wince as the thorns sink into my skin. They don’t draw blood, they are of no concern to me. Wiping my hand on the leg of my pants I recenter myself. I feel the tempo in me ease, relax, and then begin to steady. Do what must be done.
I spread his fingers out on the edge of the armrest, checking to ensure the restraints are tight. It will take only a moment. I have my tools at the ready, I only need one, a quick hit to the hand. I don’t need to harm the fingers, not really. They’re too beautiful to destroy so wholly, it would be a waste. I bring it down to the back of his hand. The steel face of the hammer connects and he is awake. He’s screaming through the rag, I can see his jaw tense and the tears spill from his too wet eyes.
He pulls against the restraints, his whole being fighting to escape. I let him rest a moment. I am not a cruel man, I am only doing what needs to be done. I am only doing as much as I have to. He only needs a few seconds before I fix the other hand. Again, he pulls against the restraints. His cries are a garbled mess, nonsensical through the rag between his lips. I push back the hairs matted to his forehead. They are soft between the gaps of my fingers. I despise the man but this act doesn’t please me. I don’t enjoy it. I must insist I don’t enjoy his pain.
I move his chair to face the television. It’s situated on a stand that can barely keep its wait. The television is old and only sometimes works, but it will work now. I know it. The lights come on and the screen is white for a moment, then a snowstorm of gray and rainbow. It’s the crackling noise, it’s the build-up for the final note and just like that it settles down, focusing on the hall with its golden chandeliers and velvet curtains. It’s a sign.
Strands of his hair have slipped back down. I brush them aside once more tucking them behind his ear. He says nothing but I can see the pure hate that’s pointed at me. I pluck the rag from his lips, strands of spit connect to his lips as I toss it aside. I hold his face in place and smile at him, “You will see me perform.”
His gaze turns to one of mild amusement as he slowly nods through his labored breaths, leaning into my touch. His soft, cracked lips pressing into my palms so that I feel the words, “I will.”
The spotlight shines on me as I take my seat. Ainsley has accepted my evidence of Hani excusing himself. Though he doesn’t seem happy, he believes me. He has no reason to doubt me. Aside from his precious performer, I’m the one that people come to hear. I am the one that owns the stage.
It is a crescendo of sounds, there is no one else but me and my craft. I am the genius at the helm, I am the one chosen to be a protege of our age. The lights are mine and mine alone.
I shut my eyes, I don’t need to look. The sounds are alive, I don’t need my eyes to see them. They are beautiful in their singular purpose to create. They are vivid greens as the music picks up, speeds through loops before slowing down. Purples with their dancing richness, their grandeur of wealth and power. Then, the cool blues, ominous and foreboding. The piece is coming to a close and I open my eyes. They have seen what I can do.
A wrong note. I see the speck of red on the ivory keys, a small, almost heart-shaped thing that teeters on the edge, that has come from my hands. The show must go on. Faster now, faster to make up for my lapse. The music is no longer cool, it is icy. The keys are cold. Where my fingers touch there is blood. The keys are frozen. My fingers stick to them. The skin detaches with an odd scrape as I force my fingers off keys that have latched onto skin, but the show must go on. They no longer move, they stick to the keys and there are no colors, no sounds.
The show must go on. There is no more skin on my fingertips. It has come off, attached to the keys on various notes, all in heart-shaped little petals spread throughout, all bloody marks on the ivory tips. The show must go on.
I make the mistake of glancing at the crowd. It’s the red rose that catches my eye. Bright in the crowd of faceless nobodies. It’s his hateful, knowing smile I see and recognize. He’s mocking me, he’s causing this. I can no longer feel my fingers, they are numb. He is making his way over to me. My fingers are stuck to the keys, creating a cacophony of noise as I struggle. No amount of pulling or yanking can free them. I am able to cry out once. I stand, the seat is knocked back as I wrench my hand away. I see the muscle and the veins. He is standing before me now. Everyone is pointing at me, they look at me and they know me. They know what I’ve done.
Silas M. Adams is a writer and editor currently working as a book reviewer with the hopes of breaking into publishing. They’re a recent graduate of Rutgers with a major in English and a minor in Creative Writing. Writing has helped Silas to understand the various cultures that overlap within their life.