Finally a long pull across the strings broke the unbearable silence. The violist started out slow, playing with his whole body and face. A powerful release and renewed passion swept out across the audience as they held onto every note that sang from the soloist. The tune gathered in power as it morphed; it began as sultry and mellow, then built in tension and urgency. As the intensity increased, so increased the number of musicians playing: bassists, violinists, flutes, trumpets, a harp.
The spotlight on the violist faded out, and the lights across the stage brightened to show the massive number of musicians. This lit up the first few rows of the audience just in time for the violist to look up from his playing and see a pair of eyes glaring back at him—a gentleman's face set in a grim glower. He stuck out like a sore thumb in the crowd. Everyone around him had faces glazed over in pleasure, almost like they might fall asleep in numbed bliss at any second, completely transfixed by the music. Even the other musicians on stage looked dull and numb, like playing their instruments was merely an unconscious muscle memory. But the one who glowered stood apart glaringly; he had ear plugs firmly in place, and his eyes were alert. The violist, who had but seconds before been bent over his instrument as if in the throws of love, was unnerved by the familiar face. A pang of fear stabbed his heart, his fingers slipped, and the bow shot across the viola violently, throwing off the flow of the music for but a second.
That's all it took. It was as if the entire audience had woken up out of a drugged stupor. People straightened their backs, blinked their eyes, and looked around with mild confusion as if they couldn't remember how they'd gotten to the theater that evening. Some of the other musicians missed a note or two as they too became aware of their confusion. The violist saw the surly man with ear plugs in the front row smile. In a small, simple moment, the violist could feel defeat knocking, threatening to undo his life and career, and the man with ear plugs had done it in a single moment of eye contact.
The violist threw himself back into the notes, closing his eyes in concentration. Just like that, the audience slumped back down into their transfixed state, staring with dulled eyes. The other musicians lost all appearance of zeal. The violist felt the single set of hateful eyes on him, and no matter how hard he played, he could not shake the feeling that someone was going to notice. Someone would know. He'd never play again, and his life would merely fade away like the last note of a song.
When the symphony finished two hours later, the violist found himself slumped in his chair in a private room at the back of the concert hall. His door was locked, and he had guards posted outside. His body may have been rejuvenated and strong from the performance, but he remained pale and shaky. Any moment that man would try to come after him. Or would he let the violist sit in agonizing anticipation, allowing his mind to assume the worst minute after minute?
He jerked violently as the door to his room opened, but instead of seeing the man from the audience, one of the guards stood in the doorway. “Sorry to disturb you, sir. There is a miss Penelope here to see you. Says she's a close friend of yours.” The violist furrowed his brows and the corners of his lips turned down subtly. “She is?” The guard shrugged and the violist sighed, placing two fingers on either side of the bridge of his nose, massaging the area. “Let her in,” said he resignedly.
Hardly a second passed from the moment the words left his lips that a petite bubbly girl with wavy auburn hair, fair skin, hazel eyes, and a wide genuine smile bounced into the room. “Valair!” she exclaimed excitedly, placing her hands on either side of his face and planting a kiss on his lips. “You were wonderful, darling!”
Valair brushed her hands aside and turned his head away, his frown only deepening. “I told you not to come,” he said. The tone of his voice teetered between angry and saddened.
“How can you ask me such things when the town is raving all about you?” she challenged, placing her hands in naive defiance on her hips.
“Do you think it gives me no pleasure to deny you? You must do as I say. Don't come to my performances, Penny. Ever.”
“I want to hear you play, Valair. If not the symphony, won't you at least practice in my company?”
“No!” The shout that came from his lips startled even himself. Guilt clutched at his insides as he saw her eyes widen in hurt. But he could not be soft with her.
“I don't understand,” Penelope said meekly, her demeanor shifting from excitement to subdued and wounded. “Playing the viola is your life, Valair. It's who you are. Why do you try to separate me from it? What is it?”
Valair hesitated as he tried to come up with a way to sooth her. A long time ago, he would have happily played for her, hour after hour. He would have let her try to play his instrument. He would have felt strengthened by her presence at every performance. But that was no longer possible, no matter how much he wished that weren't the case. “I...” he averted his gaze guilty, “am self conscious in front of you. I don't want to mess up.”
She scoffed her delicate little scoff that was hard to take seriously. He liked that about her. She was happy, and not very serious. That happiness lifted his spirits, which he felt in constant and desperate need of lately. “Valair Dufour, that's just a lie!” she yelled at him. Something about the angry expression on her face made him want to write a poem about her. She was cute when she was angry, although he would never say so out loud. “Tell me the real reason you won't let me hear you play. I don't want part of you, I want all of you! I can't be happy with just a piece of you.”
“Isn't my heart enough for you?” Valair pleaded, knowing it was a manipulative thing to say to such a sweet and innocent girl.
He could see Penelope hesitate to think for a moment. She was a sucker for romantic notions. He understood what she was asking of him, and why, and he wanted to give her everything she desired. But he couldn't. “No,” she finally said definitively, a pout forming on her face.
Please don't give me an ultimatum, Valair thought to himself. If she did, it would not go the way she wanted it to. “Penny,” he grabbed her hands, “Please. I don't deny you to hurt you. I'm trying to protect you. Believe me, love.” Scaring her with hints of an unspoken evil was a last ditch effort to get her to drop the matter. He knew what playing the viola did on small audiences. He could only make sense of it by comparing it to rain. If there was a certain amount of water spread over a large surface area, then it would fall like a light drizzle. If the same amount of water fell in a small, concentrated area, then it would pour like a tsunami. Playing for large audiences gave him the energy he needed to keep going without harming anyone significantly, but small audiences... was detrimental. He wouldn't drown her no matter how much she begged.
“Protect me from what?!” Penelope snapped, on the verge of tears. She tore herself away from him, stomping her feet as she walked a couple paces, and whirled around to glare at him. “What are you keeping from me, Valair? Enough secrets!”
“You think I want to keep secrets from you?” Valair cried, exacerbated. How can I tell her it would kill her? he thought. Valair knew he couldn't even play a single eight-count for her; once he started a song, he didn't have the will power to stop until the song was done. She wouldn't be able to keep that kind of information to herself, and he'd never perform again. At least, he told himself that he couldn't trust her. He wouldn't risk getting blacklisted in symphonies across the country. Penelope was so sweet and unsullied by the world. He didn't want to ruin her or burden her in anyway. He couldn't deal with more guilt than he already carried. “This is what I have to offer, Penelope. No more. I'm sorry.”
Valair watched Penelope burst into tears and run out of the room. Everything in him wanted to chase after her and comfort her, apologize, and tell her everything. But this was for the best. He believed that she would come around eventually; he hoped she would come around.
“What's with him?” asked a bassist.
“I heard he hates how he sounds without other instruments,” said a flute player.
“That's ridiculous. Do you know who he is? He's just conceited and can't be bothered to take time out of his day to practice with us lowly, common musicians,” said a violinist.
“How does the symphony justify paying him when he refuses to rehearse with us?” asked the bassist.
“Seriously? Because he's the only person people are coming to see,” said the flute player.
“It's just spooky. He's almost never seen until the night of a show. I don't know what his girlfriend sees in such an arrogant recluse,” said the violinist.
Penelope stood in a hallway of the concert hall, around the corner from the circle of gossiping musicians. She was worried about Valair. It was weird, the way he was so secretive and secluded. He seemed so paranoid as well. She wished he would go out more and socialize. It'd help him be happier, she was sure of it. Those musicians were wrong about his personality, though. He was thoughtful, poetic, sweet, and loving. That was the man she had fallen in love with, and then discovered all of his idiosyncrasies along the way.
A door opened and all the instrumentalists hushed and tried to act natural as Valair walked by. He stared stonily at his fellow musicians, his lips drawn tight, his face clouded. Penelope kept herself pressed against the wall around the corner so she wouldn't have to face him yet. She remained like this until his steps faded out of ear shot.
“Are you lost?” asked a calm, low voice from beside her.
Penelope started and turned towards the voice. The man she saw in front of her had a somewhat unpleasant countenance, although she couldn't place her finger on why. He was a tall man with an intense gaze, and a less than happy expression. “Oh, no sir. Thank you,” she responded, giving him a small, polite smile.
“Are you here to see someone, then?”
“I am. Valair Dufour. The violist from the papers,” she said, trying not to sound boastful.
“Ah,” the man said, a look of recognition and interest coming into his surly face. “I know Mr. Dufour personally. What a lucky man he is to have a friend like you.”
“You know him?” Penelope perked up immediately. The idea of Valair having any friends at all gave her instant excitement. “How?”
“My wife... my late wife, worked backstage at a concert hall a few towns over a couple years ago, when Mr. Dufour was still performing there. They knew each other, having worked together constantly, and so I came to know him.”
“Constantly? He... actually spent time in the concert hall, then?” Penelope was amazed. Curiosity overwhelmed her like an unquenchable thirst, and she eyed the man like a tall pitcher of water.
“All the time. Until one day, there was an accident. I don't know what happened exactly, but there were a few mysterious deaths. It must have scared Mr. Dufour, because he stopped coming around until it was time to perform. Dropped all his friends. Eventually moved away.”
“What... did you say your name was again?” Penelope asked, unsure how to respond to his story until she processed it more.
“Thaddeus Sinclair,” he said, nodding his head slightly.
“Penelope Mayfield,” she responded. “So you came all this way to see him perform, then?”
“That, and so that I might reconnect with my old friend,” Thaddeus replied coolly.
“What's he like when he's practicing, Thaddeus?” she asked with large, curious eyes.
“You mean he's never played for you?” Thaddeus asked, putting on the air of mild shock.
“Why don't you just listen to him practice without telling him you're there?”
Penelope was silent. She'd never considered it before. She did very much want to hear him practice. She knew that he practiced in private, but she'd always dutifully left him alone, like he requested. After a minute, she said, “Would you like to go find him? I'm sure he'd be delighted to see you. I could give you a tour of the concert hall along the way.”
“I would be honored, miss Mayfield.”
“So, your wife was involved in this accident?” Penelope asked as the two of them began their walk through the large hallways.
Valair stood with his eyes closed, breathing in and out slowly. He stretched in physical relief—it had been a while since he played, and his body had stiffened and weakened quickly. The performance had rejuvenated him, despite Thaddeus's appearance and Penelope's fit. There was nothing like the feeling of taking life from his audience and fusing it with his own body. An overwhelming pleasure took control of him and negated any guilt he tried to hold on to. Every time he tried to make sense of it all, it always came out in verse. Poems helped him organize his thoughts and cope. Slowly he opened his contemplative blue eyes and recited to the now empty theater seats:
The legend lives on again
Pass it off or diminish with it
Gratitude painted in bitter defiance”
Heavy footsteps snapped him out of his reverie. He expected that it might be a musician leaving late, or employees doing some last minute cleaning before they went home for the night. Valair got a rude awakening when he saw it was neither of those, but rather the familiar face from the audience he would've given anything to avoid. “Thaddeus.”
The surly gentleman walked slowly through a row of seats, one hand gliding across the tops of the back rests. Thaddeus had aged in the last two years. He was a reasonably handsome fellow, but his frown had become deeply set, and stress wrinkles formed on his forehead and next to his eyes. Before the accident, his height and build made him look masculine and respectable, but now it just made him look intimidating. There was a certain amount of tension in those muscles, like he might snap at any moment.
Valair's eyes had grown to the size of saucers. A few seconds felt like forever as fear coursed through his veins like ice, freezing him in place. He stammered, “What are you doing here?” His fear sounded even clearer in the echos of his shaking voice.
“I just came to catch up with an old friend,” drawled Thaddeus, who was clearly enjoying the dramatic reaction of the quivering artist. He had the same satisfied smile that he wore earlier that evening, when he witnessed Valair make a dangerous mistake. “And...” he paused as he searched for the perfect words, tasting them before picking them, “to finally make you pay for what you did to me, to my wife.”
“Thaddeus, I'm sorry. It was an accident; I didn't know that was going to happen!” Valair could feel sweat beading his forehead. He took small, tentative steps backwards without taking his eyes from Thaddeus.
“Of course you didn't,” the other man responded in mock understanding, “but you didn't stop when you saw them collapse.” There was something sinister about the way Thaddeus's eyes glimmered.
“You don't understand. I would've stopped if I could, but it takes over. The trance works both ways. I would never purposefully hurt your wife.”
“You didn't hurt her. You killed her!” Thaddeus raged, unable to contain the fury that had simmered in him for so long. “And yet you continue to play, knowing what you are now!”
“You don't know the pain I endure, Thaddeus! To not play is torture. I've done everything I can to protect everyone. But this...” Valair motioned to the grandeur of the concert hall enveloping them. “It's all I am. It's all I've ever known.”
“You still don't see it. You're justifying your selfishness. Every time you play, you're killing them. Just because you're killing them slowly doesn't mean you aren't killing them! Maybe they won't notice the effect until years from now, but what happens when everyone starts dying tragically young?”
Valair stood rigid, his eyebrows furrowed. “I don't know,” he finally said at length. “What would you have me do? What would you do if you were me, Thaddeus?”
“I'd leave. I'd never play again. And I would make certain I could never come back.” Thaddeus took a few steps closer to the stage, looking up at Valair with a challenge in his dark eyes.
While Valair comprehended what Thaddeus was suggesting, how could anyone willingly go through with it? Especially when they had someone to live for. Someone like Penelope. His shook his head slowly, “I can't do that, Thaddeus.”
Thaddeus lunged towards the stage, but Valair knew Thaddeus well enough to see it coming. He had just enough time to leap out of the way and take off running. Valair disappeared backstage, threw open a door, and ran as fast as he could through employee only corridors throughout the theater. The pounding of heavy footsteps never remained far behind. With sickening intent, he made his way to his private room. With a burst, he flung himself through the door to his room, grabbed his viola case, and left again. He turned just in time to see Thaddeus charging through the hallway straight for him.
Valair ran with what little strength he had left back towards the stage. As soon as he push through the door to the wings and bounded onto the wooden platform in front of the empty audience, Valair fells to his knees and fumbled with his viola case. When it snapped open he snatched up the viola and bow, and flung them into place on his shoulder. He held his shaking bow above the strings, staring at the door, waiting for Thaddeus to charge through. But nothing happened. There was no sound except for Valair's heavy breathing. What was going on?
“Thaddeus?” the silence that answered was crushing. Valair listened intensely for the slightest noise of footsteps, but heard none for some time. Valair looked at his viola. Could he do it? Purposefully? His eyes turned out towards all those empty seats, which often filled just to see him. This is what he lived for, but in a cruel twist of fate, it had become what he killed for. He tried to numb himself against the guilt. He could drown in the guilt if he let himself really feel the full weight of what he was doing. Part of Valair knew that Thaddeus was right. There was no justification that made what he did okay, but he wanted to keep living. And to live was to play.
With the viola tucked between his shoulder and his chin, Valair closed his eyes, and allowed himself to slowly pull the bow across the strings in a low, melancholy tune. The effect was immediate. Thaddeus was out there watching him somewhere. He felt the trance kick in, felt the life of another being pulled from their body and poured directly into his. A groan escaped his lips, and he played on more violently. The bow caressed and ground against the strings faster and faster. His body was tingling with life, his senses heightened, his mind completely wiped of everything but the pleasure of taking.
It was almost a violent, animalistic pleasure. Valair lost himself completely. He succumbed to the power that coursed through him, gave up to it freely. His body moved with the music as if possessed, swaying and thrashing. Finally, the last note of the viola echoed and died away in theater. The sound of a body hitting the floor came from backstage. Valair was panting and covered in sweat. His body felt electric, but was quickly being replaced by his consciousness catching up with him. Thaddeus. He killed him, he must have. No one could have survived that alone. Already guilt bubbled up inside him and threatened to pour forth. There was nothing else I could do, he reminded himself over and over. He walked tentatively towards the wings, creaked a door open and poked his head through to examine the backstage area where the sound of the body had come from.
“...Penny?” A thousand thoughts and feelings attacked him all at once, and in the chaos he couldn't grasp and hold onto a single one. What happened? This can't be real. “Penny?” He was imagining things. It had to be Thaddeus. Thaddeus was the only one with him in the theater. Where the hell was Thaddeus?! “Penny!” A river overflowed forth from his eyes and he sank to the ground, touching her hand. No, no, no.
Heavy footsteps approached slowly and stopped short of the two.
Valair turned his wet face up to Thaddeus. Thaddeus reached up and plucked earplugs from his ears and pocked them. His face was blank, apathetic.
Valair looked back down at Penelope. He could have prevented this. She loved him, trusted him. If he'd told her, shared with her, respected her enough to let her make her own decisions after he warned her, this wouldn't have happened. She was just curious. She loved him, wanted to know him, share his life. Penny.
“What I did was an accident, Thaddeus. I never meant to hurt her. I would never have done it again. I could keep moving to new towns. But Penny? Why Penny? It wouldn't have lasted between us anyway. Why would you do this? She was innocent. This didn't have to happen!” Valair bumbled, gasping for breathing, trying to convince himself as much as Thaddeus that he wasn't in the wrong.
Thaddeus only sneered in disgust down at Valair. He shook his head, turned, and walked away, leaving Valair calling after him desperately, trying to get an answer, as if making Thaddeus believe him would make himself believe him. “I didn't ask to have power over peoples lives! It's not my fault!” He didn't want to admit that playing was a gamble. He didn't want to face that he would've killed Thaddeus and felt better about it than killing Penny. “I'm sorry, I'm sorry!” Years ago he wouldn't have been able to deal with the death of anyone. But not he was picking and choosing who got to live, and for how long.
Valair listened to Thaddeus's footsteps die away, and was left with only the sound of his own sobs. He stared hopelessly at Penelope. She looked content, like she was sleeping. “Penny,” he choked, grabbing her limp, pale hand in his. “I should've told you.” He gathered up his viola, left out of the theater, and ran. He ran in any direction, with no sense of destination or time in mind. He ran until he couldn't think anymore.