The day of my high school talent show was the worst day of my life. I had passed through the first two years of high school as a loser, unnoticed by most on a good day, and noticed by the wrong people on a bad one. I saw the talent show as my chance to finally prove I was worth something.
Back then I was naive enough to still believe in the power of grand gestures.
I had practiced on my acoustic guitar until my fingers bled. I had recorded myself singing, listening back to my nasally adolescent voice, changing one thing and then another until the sound was finally passable even if it wasn’t pleasant.
The song was a foregone conclusion. I had chosen to play Creep by Radiohead. It was the song that I thought summed me up, the one that summed up my pain. Looking back now it seems like stereotypical teenage angst, but back then the feelings were powerful, and they were all I knew.
When I got on stage, my hands were shaking, and my stomach was squirming. The room was silent, and the eyes of my classmates were all fixed on me.
I strummed the first few bars, and as soon as I opened my mouth to sing, my voice cracked.
I heard someone snicker in the audience.
I tried again.
There were more snickers now. People tried to stifle them but I could hear. One last time I played the opening bars and opened my mouth to sing, but I couldn’t. The sound just wouldn’t come out.
People were laughing now, and I wanted to run away, but I was paralyzed. My stomach sunk, my cheeks were hot, and tears began to sting my eyes.
“He’s crying!” someone shouted.
The tears ran freely down my face, and I ran off the stage, sprinting down the band hall corridor as the jeers and laughter called after me, unquelled by the half-hearted attempts of the teachers to suppress them.
I ran to the exit, shoved the heavy, metal doors open and burst into the cool night air.
The evening smelled like wet grass and cigarette smoke. I turned to my right, and saw Emily Ross leaning up against the wall with a cigarette.
She was long and thin, with chestnut brown hair and a spray of freckles across her delicate nose and cheeks--she was the prettiest girl I’d ever seen. According to the rules of high school as I understood them, that should have meant that she was popular, but she wasn’t.
Ever since she’d moved from the city a year ago she’d been a target, both for boys and insecure teenage girls. As far as I could tell Emily didn’t want the attention from either one, but that didn’t stop it from coming.
“Hey kid,” she said. “What’s wrong?”
Emily was two years my senior, but it still stung my pride when she called me ‘kid.’
I shook my head, and hurled my guitar into the bushes, where it landed with the discordant scraping of branches across the strings.
“That wasn’t very nice,” she said. “What did that guitar ever do to you?”
“No-othing,” I said, voice cracking again.
I heard Ms. Andrews announcing the next act through the door, and I realized that Emily must have heard me flub the song.
“I came out here to get away from the talent show,” she said. “My ears aren’t too good, so I can’t hear it out here.”
She was lying to make me feel better, and I was happy to pretend I didn’t realize it.
“You want a cigarette, kid?” she said.
I’d never smoked before, but I nodded silently.
She held one out and I took it. She tried lighting the end but the flame guttered out in the wind.
“No, you’ve got to do it like this,” she said. She grabbed my hand and pushed my fingers together, bending them as a shield against the wind. This time the cigarette stayed lit, and I coughed so hard I almost threw up.
She laughed, but it was a different kind of laugh than the ones I’d just endured from my classmates.
“Take it slow, kid,” she said. She took a long draw on the cigarette, and the warm red glow of the cherry lit up her face.
I’d never in my life seen someone look as beautiful as she did right then. She walked over and picked my guitar up out of the bushes.
“Let’s go somewhere,” she said. “I wanna hear that song.”
When you’re a teenager you think that if the right person loves you, all your problems will go away.
As far as I could tell, that person was sitting across from me now.
We sat Indian style on the ugly green carpet of her bedroom, me awkwardly slumped over my too-big guitar and her leaned forward at eager attention.
Her green eyes shone in the dim yellow lamplight as I plucked out the first few chords.
I began to sing. My voice was shaky, but it didn’t crack.
When you were here before,
Couldn’t look you in the eye,
You’re just like an angel,
Your skin makes me cry,
You float like a feather,
In a beautiful world,
You’re so fucking special,
I wish I was special,
I raked my pick across the strings in the pre-chorus riff. I nearly dropped my guitar when Emily’s voice, steady and clear, joined me.
But I’m a creep,
I’m a weirdo,
What the hell am I doing here?
I don’t belong here
I set the guitar down, my hands shaking too violently too continue.
“Why’d you stop?” she asked.
“I just...” I didn’t finish my sentence.
Emily looked at the floor, and then back up at me through strands of hair that had fallen over her face.
“Do you ever feel like...?” she trailed off.
“What?” I said.
She bit her lip, and seemed to decide something. She leaned in, and softly pressed her lips against mine.
Her hair brushed my face. It smelled like lavender shampoo. I closed my eyes, and there was nothing in the world but the softness of her lips and the smell of her hair as the strands gently swept my cheeks.
Our lips broke, and the world dissolved back into the patchy yellow light of Emily’s desklamp.
“Did you hear that?” she whispered.
I could hear footsteps on the gravel outside.
“Is it your parents?” I asked.
“I don’t have parents,” she said. “Just my dad.”
She turned left, then right, eyes flitting all over the room and said,
“You need to hide.”
“Why? We weren’t doing anything bad we just--” Emily kissed me on the lips again and shoved me into the open closet. I fell onto a pile of old coats. I scrambled to get back up, but Emily was already sliding the slotted wood doors closed behind me.
I could hear the front door open and close, and then Emily’s door as it creaked open. Emily’s father stood in the doorway. I couldn’t see his face through the half-inch horizontal slits, but I could hear his voice.
It was deep, and roughened by years of cigarette smoke.
“What did you do?” he asked. His intonation was flat and calm.
“I didn’t do anything,” Emily said. Where Emily’s voice had moments before been steady and clear, now it was trembling.
“Don’t lie to me, girl,” her father replied. “The lies are written all over your face. You look just like your mother. Like a proud slut.”
“I-I’m sorry, Dad, I didn’t mean to--”
The slap rang out loudly against the quiet night, and Emily tumbled to the floor.
I gripped the neck of my guitar tightly.
“Didn’t mean to?” he asked. “Didn’t I tell you not to lie to me?”
“Yes sir, I--oof!”
Her father sent his foot into her stomach, knocking the air out of her. He picked her up by the hair and threw her onto the bed, fumbling open the buckle on his belt and sliding it off.
He lashed it across her thighs, and she yelped in pain.
I could feel my face growing hot.
He lashed her again.
My hands poured sweat, slick against the neck of my guitar.
He lashed her yet again.
My ears rang. My heart jack-hammered in my chest.
“Take off your pants,” he said, fumbling drunkenly with the buttons on his own.
“Daddy please I--” he swung the belt across her back, and this time she screamed, loud and gutteral into the night.
I couldn’t take it anymore. I kicked the doors open and swung the guitar as hard as I could at his head. It connected, and the wood splintered with the twang and vibration of broken strings. One of them snapped out and struck him in the cheek, and red blood began to blossom from the gash.
Mr. Ross stared dumbly at me for a moment, before swinging the belt at my head. It caught me in the ear, and the side of my head exploded with pain and noise. I hugged the carpet, and felt the belt whip down on my back, leaving behind a sash of white hot pain. I rolled over and swung the broken neck of the guitar wildly, slashing him across the belly with the jagged edge.
He roared with pain and fell on me, dropping his knee into my stomach. The air disappeared from my lungs, and Mr. Ross knelt on me, lacing his fingers around my throat.
My face was hot. My eyes felt like they would pop from their sockets at any moment. A black haze drifted over the world, and I began to grow dizzy. Where had Emily gone?
I was faintly aware of a loud noise. Was it a train? An explosion? No, it was Mr. Ross. He was screaming. His hands weren’t around my neck anymore, and cool air rushed into my lungs.
I watched him stumbling, reaching, grasping for something on his back.
It was a thin wooden rectangle. It looked like, no it was a knife handle. Emily was backing away from her father, shrinking into the corner of the room.
He pulled the knife out of his back, and held it in front of himself as he walked towards her. Spit flew to the corners of his mouth as he let out a tangled grunt of pain and rage. I felt something cold in my hand, and I realized I was still holding the broken guitar neck.
I staggered to my feet, and planted the broken wood into the fat of his back. He grunted in surprise and dropped the knife, but he didn’t turn around, instead leaping on Emily like a lion leaps on its prey.
His hands squeezed tight around her neck, and her face went red, then purple.
My heart sank as I looked at the bloody knife, gleaming crimson in the yellow lamplight. I didn’t want to do it, but I had no choice. I picked it up and plunged it into his back. His hands slackened a bit, but still he didn’t turn around.
His eyes bulged out of his head, purple veins stood out against a red neck flushed with blood.
I stabbed him again, and his grip released. He grunted one final time and slumped over to the side. I fell on Emily, rubbing my hands on her face, but it was no use--she wasn’t breathing. I ran to the landline, hands trembling as I punched the numbers in: nine-one-one.
I sat by Emily’s bed in the sterile white quiet of the hospital room. The paramedics had been able to restart her heart, but she’d slipped into a coma, and when she’d wake up--if she woke up--was anyone’s guess.
Her father was dead.
I had been coming every day for two weeks. It was winter break, and I had nowhere else to go, nothing else to do. I was friendless. Alone.
Today was a day I’d both dreaded and looked forward to. I had read about something online that might help. The article said it was good to talk to comatose patients, it said that if they could hear you, it might help to keep them attached to the physical world.
So today was the day I would sing her Radiohead’s Creep. I had decided that if anything could reach her in there, that would be it.
I tried to work up the courage to do it, but every time I opened my mouth, my vocal cords would tie into a knot.
Trying is the scariest thing in the world, because once you’ve failed, you can’t pretend that everything’s going to be alright anymore.
I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and slipped my hand into hers. It was warm.
My guitar was still shattered into pieces, and all I had was the sterile beeps of the heart monitor to keep time.
Slump-shouldered and shaky-voiced, I began to sing.
Whatever makes you happy,
Whatever you want,
I wish I was special,
You're so fucking special,
In my head I could hear the caustic scrapes of the pre-chorus riff, but next to me I heard the heart monitor beeps become a solid line of sound.
Emily was dead.
When I got home from the hospital that day a new guitar was waiting for me with a big red bow tied around the neck. The hospital had called my mother and told her what happened.
I picked the guitar up and turned it over in my hands. It felt clunky, alien. It wasn’t my guitar.
I don’t know why, but my heart began to pound in my head. All I could think about was how it wasn’t my guitar.
I screamed, and tears stung my eyes as I smashed the guitar on the floor, over and over and over again until I couldn’t anymore, and I collapsed on the ground in a pile of tears and broken wood.
My mom swooped over me, and we cried together for hours.
A few days later I came home to another guitar with a bow on it, except it was my old guitar that had been pieced back together. It was covered with splotches of blood and nicks in the wood. Pieces had been replaced, and yellow lines of wood glue seeped out from twisting, ugly scars in the wood, but it was mine.
I thanked my mom and she kissed me on the forehead and when she came away her eyes were wet. I picked the guitar up and took it to my room, laying it gently down on the bed and tossing myself down beside it.
I buried my face in the pillow and my body shook with sobs.
When I was too exhausted to cry any more, I drifted off to sleep, clutching my broken guitar.
I awoke at midnight to a strange feeling not quite like deja vu. As the thick fog of sleep melted away into clarity I realized what had woken me up--it was the guitar. The riff that had woken me was unmistakable--it was the same riff I’d practiced for months until my fingers bled, the same riff I’d played for Emily the night she died.
And it was still playing.
I stared open-mouthed at the guitar as the haunting melody rang forth with no hands to play it.
A draft blew in from the open window, caressing my face like soft strands of hair.
I closed my eyes and felt lips press against mine, leaving a warm tingle behind.
The song stopped, and the wind died down. I felt warm tears gather at the edges of my eyes. I can’t explain why, but somehow I felt that Emily had heard my song in the hospital, and that before she went on to the next life, she wanted to thank me.
I wrote this story as a way of thanking her back, for leaving me a lasting reminder to never be afraid, and to never let the music die.
She’s running out the door
She’s running out,
She runs, runs, runs, runs,