Chapter One: The Crashing of Fingers

Quiet fell in a slow wave as I pulled away from the keys, the final chords fading into silence. Morning sunlight bathed the piano, softening its edges. I slid a hand across the key bed, loving how the worn wood didn’t shine with the threat of reflection.
The threat of monsters.
Mom shuffled across the room, bleary-eyed and yawning. Steam rose from the glossy black mug cradled in her hands. “That didn’t sound like Chopin, Gracie.”
I caught a whiff of her coffee and smiled. “And that doesn’t smell like your decaf.”
She leaned in, the scent of hazelnut heavy on her breath. “Don’t tell your father.”
“Only if you don’t tell Mr. Lee I ditched Chopin today.” I crashed out a few upbeat chords. “I swear, if I practice one more audition piece my brain’s going to leak out my ears.”
Mom laughed and patted my cheek. The heat from her fingers sank into my skin as rare Seattle sunshine poured through our condo’s windows. I tensed when the light hit Mom’s mug, hating how my reflection stared back for only half a second before the monsters replaced it.
Lines of fire traced mesmerizing patterns under the creatures’ translucent flesh, their bones burning beneath the charred dark of their scaly skin. I made myself stare even though the sight of them sent banged-elbow prickles through my gut. They never stopped looking hungry.
Hungry for me.
Just play through it, I told myself.
I let my fingers find their home on the keys again, weaving my fear into the notes till the music carried it away. The monsters should have faded into the background years ago. That’s what childhood imaginings are supposed to do. But every sunny day brought fresh waves of horror, and the hope of getting used to them felt more and more like the punchline of the world’s sickest joke.
Mom pressed a kiss onto the top of my curls, then swayed over to the nearby window in perfect time with the music. Gershwin. One of my happy places. The lyrics tickled at the back of my throat, but I focused on the words of Mr. Lee’s letter instead. The one that landed me the audition for the Leatrice Perkins Memorial Scholarship. The coupon that let me buy a double portion of hope.
Grace Armstrong has what so many teenage pianists lack: Expression. She breathes life into the notes, and they breathe life into her.
“Mr. Lee really thinks I have a shot.”
My voice rose above the melody and warbled. It felt dangerous to want something as normal as a scholarship. Me and normal don’t get along so great.
Mom hesitated about nine seconds too long. Either her coffee hadn’t kicked in or she had as many doubts as I did, and I couldn’t exactly blame her. Chronic Anxiety + The Shiny, Monster-Inviting Piano in Mr. Lee’s Studio = Uncertain Doom?
“Of course have a shot, love. You play beautifully.”
“Will that be enough?” I pounded my uncertainty into the last few notes.
She rubbed tiredly at her face with her free hand, like her fingers were made of sandpaper she could scub the worry lines away with. It worked. Mom’s cheeks were so smooth they lied about her age as often as she did.
You are enough. Always.”
I flinched. It was a line from one of her plays. Mom’s mind was pretty much a patchwork quilt of script pages, and she plagiarized whenever she was too exhausted to be real.
She turned, and her mug came back into view. I resisted the urge to smash it against the hardwood floor, bits of monster spraying everywhere. I’d wasted my whole life on smashing. Other kids splashed in puddles for fun; I splashed to kill the monsters. Graduation loomed, and it was still my favorite coping mechanism.
I hated that I needed one, and wished I was as blind to the creatures as Mom. Ignorance is bliss and all that. The monsters clawed at the window in front of her as if trapped behind the glass, but she ran a fingertip across the image of a snarling snout, oblivious to the horror show playing out in her own living room. Oblivious to the fact that years of meds and therapy hadn’t banished them the way I pretended.
Your anxiety is the chicken, and they’re the egg, I told myself.
But I didn’t have a clue which one came first. Not really. And with only three weeks left till the audition that would determine my financial fate, the need for answers had grown from a flickering flame to a fireball so giant it could eclipse the sun.
The hard, rectangular lump of my phone in my pocket bit at my hip, my brain itching for its daily fix of conspiracy theories and supernatural sightings. The monsters spawned more theories than I had fingers to count, but actual answers were scarce. Scouring forums and social media groups full of recovering alien abductees wasn’t as comforting as it used to be.
And me needing psychiatric help my parents couldn’t afford anymore was still the most viable theory of them all. 
Mom sank into her cheetah-print chaise and sipped at her coffee, her index figure tapping an echo of my music against the side of her mug. Guilt strummed through my chest in perfect rhythm. She didn’t belong in that chair holding that coffee cup. She didn’t belong in her time-worn silk housecoat that made her look like a soap opera star who’d fallen on hard times.
She belonged on stage. And I stole that from her.
My heart did that splintering-in-my-chest thing it did whenever I let self-pity steal the spotlight for too long. I closed the piano with a soft thump and made my way toward the front door.
“I should get going. I’m meeting Cleo and Ann at the Space Needle. Ann hasn’t gone up yet and Cleo decided that’s an absolute travesty.”
“Just Cleo and Ann, right? No boys?” She twitched her eyebrows the way she did when she thought she was being funny.
“Seriously?” I tried not to smile back, but Mom’s smiles are bio-hazard level contagious. “Come on. I’m already in a long term relationship with that guy over there.” I jerked a thumb back at my piano.
“Well, you know what Mr. Lee said.” She waggled her finger at me in a perfect imitation of him. “No boys until after the audition. Too much of a distraction.”
I laughed as I slipped into our condo’s small entryway and propped my foot on our black deacon’s bench to lace up my boots. Going a few more months without boys wouldn’t exactly be a sacrifice. The opposite gender freaked me out almost as much as the monsters did. But that wasn’t what had Mom worried. Not even a little bit. Threads of wariness spooled out of her like silly string, latching onto me wherever they could. If I didn’t escape every now and then, her fear smothered me.
Mom used to suck at being afraid, but I was one hell of a teacher.
“You’ve got to stop mocking Mr. Lee,” I called around the corner, trying to forget, trying to be a normal daughter. Failing, failing, failing.
“What? That’s how he talks. If you don’t like it, don’t laugh.”
I held back an eye roll. I was almost seventeen. My facial expressions needed to grow up with the rest of me. “Just try to be nice, okay? We owe him a lot.”
Mom clucked her tongue super loud. “Owe? The only reason he does so much for you is because it’ll look good on his résumé when you’re famous. You’re special, and he knows it.”
The eye roll escaped. Special. Sure. Assuming special means borderline insane.
I smoothed my jeans over my boots and looked into the hall mirror. I wanted to see the creatures, small and confined, before I faced the gleaming metal and sun-kissed glass of downtown. They didn’t consume every reflection, but they almost always came for my mirror-self—erasing her, devouring her. Plumes of inky black blossomed across my face until all I saw was monster-dark and the distant blaze of their burning bones.
They hadn’t found a way through to the real me. Not yet. But every day felt like another ticking hand on my life’s Doomsday clock. Craving sanity meant craving terror too. If they were real, they could hurt me. I snorted back a laugh. Not that they needed reality to do that.
Advancing toward the glass, their heavily muscled legs hurled them forward in great, leaping bounds. I made up stories about them sometimes, about how they might have been people once, exiled to the dark world inside the mirror like comic book supervillains. Their shape was almost human, and they varied in size the way people do, but instead of faces there was just a formless, fiery smudge pierced by yellow, reptilian eyes. Intsead of mouths, a gaping hole. Instead of fingers, shadowy claws scraping at the inner surface of the glass between us.
I pictured the horror of it—the black scales spreading across their skin, the tearing pain of their muscles twisting and contorting. Worst of all, the relentless burning of their bones, so bright even the dark of their scales couldn’t hide the flames.
One of the beasts threw itself at me with a silent snarl. I closed my eyes and told myself the monsters were just pictures under glass, illustrations in a horror story my brain decided to tell itself. But lying was my superpower, and I’d almost achieved pathological status. I didn’t believe myself for a second.
When I opened my eyes, the monsters were gone.
A boy stood in their place.
An actual, human-looking, teenage boy blinked owlishly at me from behind the glass.
What the actual hell.
He moved forward and I staggered back a couple steps, swallowing a shout that turned into a coughing fit. The boy pressed even closer. The mirror became a camera zoomed in too far, focusing on his dark hair, wide-set blue eyes, and slightly-too-big nose.
“You all right, sweetie?” Mom called.
“Yeah. I’m fine,” I lied, staring at the mirror.
A flurry of shivers skated down my spine. Who are you? I mouthed. The boy leaned back, and gave me a look of stunned incomprehension. Then a smile crinkled the corners of his freakishly blue eyes.
He mouthed something back but lipreading isn’t one of my superpowers. Whatever he said must have been a joke, because he laughed after. Or maybe it was a threat and the guy was just demented like that.
Relief and disappointment corkscrewed through my chest when monster-dark crowded its way into the mirror again, blocking the boy from view. I shook my head. It meant nothing. Just another hallucination for me to pretend away.
Mr. Lee said no boys, so my mind found a convenient loophole. That was all.
I told myself I wanted that to be all.

* * *

A chill spring breeze cut through my red sweater when I stepped off the bus, prickling my skin. I pulled my hands into my sleeves and huddled my way down Broad Street.          
Light washed across the city. Dozens of stories of glass blazed into the blue of the sky. I caught myself looking for glimpses of The Boy—he was totally mind-blowing enough to assign capital letters to—but there was only a dizzying array of monsters reflected in the staggering height of the buildings. Weaving through the tide of human traffic, I focused on the stark gray of the concrete sidewalk and the blur of my boots, distracting myself by avoiding the cracks.
The watching creatures made the air feel solid, pressing against my chest and stripping the oxygen from my lungs. I made up a melody for the singsong childhood rhyme whispering through my thoughts. Step on a crack, break your mother’s back. Step on a line, break your mother’s spine. 
Ironic, but effective.
Seventy-eight beats of silence passed between the end of the song and when I found Cleo by the ticket machines. Her treat, her text had said. Everything had to be her treat these days.
The Space Needle towered above us. So. Much. Glass. So many monsters. Cleo was the only person I’d ever met who was worth going through this for.
Cleo hugged me so hard my spine popped like bubble wrap. She was basically the human equivalent of a sunflower. She needed touch like plants need sunlight, and she got twitchy if she went too long without.
Ann, standing behind her, gave an amused little wave and arched her dark eyebrows.
“Hey,” she said.
We hadn’t known each other long, but we were building a friendship out of amused looks, and a mutual love of Cleo in all her cheerful glory. She was new at school, and Cleo had adopted her the way some people adopt puppies. The same way she adopted me when Mom bullied our elementary school principal into skipping me past second grade—academically the worst thing that ever happened to me, but because of Cleo, the best in every other way.
I managed to gasp out a “Hey!” over Cleo’s shoulder.
“You finally escaped your piano,” Cleo exclaimed, giving me another squeeze. Sunlight glinted off her sleek blonde pixie cut. Not shiny enough to see monsters in, but close.
“You make it sound like a prison,” Ann observed with a hesitant smile.
“I tied my bedsheets together and made a break for it,” I whispered at her. “I’m amazing like that.”
Laughing, we made our way to the broad expanse of the Space Needle’s entry ramp. Cleo bounded up the concrete slope like a city-bred mountain goat, waving our tickets above her head.
“Are you amazing enough to beat me to the top?” she called.
Ann and I exchanged another look. 
“Slow-mo?” I suggested.
Ann grinned.
 We moved in exaggerated slow motion, taking several seconds for each step. Gripping the metal railings, we flailed dramatically as if the wind was trying to carry us away.
Cleo scolded us from higher up the ramp. “You guys. Come on. We’re in a hurry.”
I snapped back into real time. “What’s the rush?”
“A group of cute guys just went thataway.” She pointed over her shoulder. “And this”— she slapped her rear—“looks much better up close, don’t’cha think?”
I snorted, and Ann rolled her eyes, but we raced up the ramp. Ann gave me a light hip-check as we caught up with Cleo.
“How come you never called me back last night?” she asked.
“Grace doesn’t do phones—”
“I don’t do phones—”
Cleo and I spoke over top of each other, then dissolved into a fit of laughter only big enough for the two of us. Ann stood outside it, worrying at her lip with her thumbnail.
Cleo was the first one to catch her breath. “Jinx!”
Ann eyeballed me with an explain-now-or-else expression. I liked her, but the two-against-one vibe of a decade’s worth of inside jokes transformed our trio into an awkwardness factory on a regular basis.
I scratched at my ear and grimaced for two seconds before shaking it off. “I have an ear for voices like I do for music. I can always tell when I’m boring someone to death, and that’s something I’d rather not know, y’know? Answering the phone pretty much sets my self-esteem on fire. So . . . I don’t.”
In-person meetups weren’t much better, but Cleo was the best kind of fire extinguisher.
I sighed. “Just text me next time, okay? Calls freak me out.”
“Sure thing.” Ann gave me an awkward shoulder pat.
When our turn for the elevator came, Ann slouched against the wall and actually listened to the tour guide lady. Cleo poked my arm like it was covered in tiny buttons and she needed to press every single one.
“You’re kind of out of it today. What’s up? Did the monsters come last night?”
I shot a glance at Ann and made my voice lower than Cleo’s, hoping she’d catch the hint. “Yeah. With the audition coming up, the nightmares are taking up a lot of mental real estate.”
“Your anxiety is such a bastard,” she replied with a cheerful ferocity only Cleo could pull off. “Wanna talk it out?”
The elevator slid up the side of the building. My gut swooped. For the kajillionth time I wanted to tell Cleo the monsters weren’t just nightmares, but she already knew about the recurring dreams and last summer’s hideously expensive psych lockdown. Two strikes. I couldn’t risk a third.
All hope of sanity would go out the window if I lost Cleo.
“Later?” I asked.
“I can handle ‘later.’” She smiled a little too brightly.
Cleo never lies, but she’s a smile addict. I could see the cracks at the edges of this one. My life would be so much easier if her smile was a better liar—then I would never know when I was hurting her.
Wind plastered my hair against the side of my face as we took in the panoramic view from the observation deck. I could see everything from here, the whole world beneath my feet. And there wasn’t a single monster in sight. I told myself the next reflection I saw would fill to the brim with them. I told myself The Boy in the mirror was just a mental blip and I’d never see him again. I told myself I didn’t want to.
Liar, pathological level—unlocked.
You need him to be real, I added. If he’s not, you’re one giant step closer to going back to that psych facility. The one that sucked your parents dry. Cost Mom her dream job. Lost you their trust. Either this guy has the answers you’ve been hunting for, or he’s another symptom.
The world spun gently on. Vertigo tickled my ears and I gripped the metal railing to reorient myself. Sunlight licked across the glass pane in front of me. Above it, metal bars held strands of cording in place, caging us in. The cords looked like lines on the page of the sky. My fingers tapped against the rail. Scraps of melody made the view into sheet music.
Cleo bumped shoulders with me. “You writing music on that safety mesh stuff again?”
I smiled. “You know me so well.”
In the rectangular pane of glass below the cording, a face flashed into view. The Boy.
They’ve finally done it, Grace. The monsters have broken your brain.
Cleo pointed through his—rather large—nose at the city below, and she and Ann concocted elaborate backstories for people I couldn’t see half so well as the guy waving at me from the glass like we were old friends. When monster-dark stole him away again, I dug my hands into my pockets and buried them there. One of them found my phone and hugged it between my fingers.
Third time’s the charm, I promised myself. You’ll see him again. You’ll figure out who—or what—he is. And then you’ll know. One way or another, you’ll know.
And I actually believed me.

No comments:

Post a Comment