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A few days later, the recital hall is filled with people milling and socialising, drinks in hand. I tug at my collar uncomfortably, slipping in between the smooth talking middle aged parents and reaching the juice stand.
I pour myself a cup of fruit punch and hurriedly finish it before making my way to one of the seats near the front, slouching down in the red cushion. A grand piano sits slightly to my left, illuminated by a spotlight beaming down from above. The hall begins to fill with people as the clock ticks closer to seven.
I clasp my hands in front of me as a hush falls over the crowd, and a tall middle aged man wearing a fancy tux makes his way on stage.
“Welcome to our 5th annual piano competition. For this year, we challenged our contestants to compose a piece that reflects on something from their childhood. We are pleased to announce the two finalists of this year’s competition so far – Peter Shills, with his piece In The Neighbourhood – and Marcus Anand, with his piece Bedtime Stories. First to the stage, please give a huge round of applause to seventeen year old Peter Shills.”
The crowd collectively claps as a small, well dressed boy with slicked back blonde hair walks onto the stage, sitting down in front of the piano.
The piece is friendly and fun, reminding me of two kids kicking a ball down a driveway. I clap politely when it ends and Peter bows solemnly, walking off the stage.
“What a capturing performance from Mr. Shills,” the announcer takes the stage again, smoothing his suit. “Next up, please welcome our second finalist – Marcus Anand.”
My breath catches as Marcus walks calmly onto stage in a pristinely tailored suit, waving with a smile to the crowd then seating himself at the bench. I lean forward, staring at him – no longer in a tattered leather jacket and skinny jeans – just elegant and composed on the spot.
With a single melancholy note, Marcus’ piece rings across the entire hall. Bittersweet and heavy, the music swells in and out of my chest until I can barely breathe, fingers digging into the edges of my chair, unable to take my eyes off of Marcus; his fingers dancing over the keys, a longing look in his expression, the light shining off his finely combed dark hair and black and white suit.
Between the notes there’s Lucas’ smile, the laughter at the beach, the running through the backyard, the embrace of my best friend, the cold air on my cheeks as I stand overlooking the town I know I have to leave. My heartbeat drums in my throat, the melody running through my very breath.
Marcus finishes the performance with a resounding chord five minutes later, the recital hall erupting in applause. The people around me get to their feet and I follow suit, staring up at Marcus with an undeniable feeling in my chest. Marcus turns and spots me in the audience, shooting me a small smile as he waves and bows at the crowd.
That night I lie in bed staring up at the ceiling, my hands crossed on my stomach, as my parents go to bed. Marcus’ performance still plays in my ears; his face and hands and the light making his entire figure glow. I swallow the tightness in my throat and I roll over, staring out the window at the darkened houses across the street and the stars scattered across the night sky. I put in my earphones and I press shuffle, turning up the volume to drown out everything in my head, the piano notes and melodies relentless in my chest.
“There’s somewhere I wanna show you.” Marcus is leaning against the brick wall after school as I show up, putting my earphones away.
“Okay first – did you win?” I ask and Marcus chuckles, looking almost shyly away.
“Yeah. Yeah I won.”
I beam and he can’t fight back his grin as I give him a hug. “It was a great piece,” I say with a cheer. “You deserved it.”
Instead of fighting back this lightness growing in my chest, I take a deep breath, letting myself smile wholeheartedly, without fear. Letting the happiness of the moment fight and win against the fear of losing everything once again.
We had out of the school grounds, at first keeping our distance, but once turning a road, drifting closer together.
“Where’s this place?” I ask curiously.
“There’s a community centre about fifteen minutes away. Gonna go play some more.”
“Play?” I echo, then I nod.
“It feels good, that you know, I think. It’s been my own little secret for so long.”
I mull this over in my head. Somehow, those few words make a delirious warmth spread through me. Lighter on my feet, in my heart. As we continue walking I imagine an envelope surrounding the two of us. Our own world, and the outside world, far away. Just us and this and then everyone else. I’m silent for several moments, studying the feeling, accompanied by a creeping fear that I push away. There are things stronger and more important than fear.
The practice room is small but cool and cosy; a stack of sheet music sits on top of a polished grand piano, a shelf filled with music books sits to the side. Marcus barely looks as he tosses his jacket to the side and it lands perfectly on the shelf and he sits down, lifting the cover off the piano keys.
I stand there for a moment, hesitant. Marcus looks up, eyes crinkling as he smiles. “The bench’s not gonna hurt you. Cmon.”
I sit down next to Marcus, an uncontrollable flush growing on my skin.
Marcus sits so close to me we’re almost touching; I can’t bear to lean closer, but can’t bear to lean away either. Instead, I remain almost completely still as Marcus rearranges some of the sheet music and places them on the stand.
“Help me flip them?” Marcus asks. “I’ll nod when it’s time.”
I nod in agreement, feeling as if something immense is stuck in my throat.
Marcus smiles, pauses for a second, and begins playing. Calmly and slowly at first, then picking up the pace. My heart is in my chest, and the same feelings from the night of Marcus’ piano recital rise to the surface again.
Except this time, I know their name, recognise them, the truth in them. I don’t try to push them away this time. Enough running away.
I relax next to Marcus as he plays, a dance on the keys, as naturally as one would breath, and I finally admit it to myself. I think I love him. I love him and it’s terrifying but if nothing else then, just for today, it’s okay, it’s the best thing there is, and I almost drown in it, in the small room we’re both in.
“What do you think?” Marcus asks as he finishes playing the song five minutes later.
“What do you think I think?” I reply. “That was amazing, and you know it.”
“Don’t flatter me.” Marcus responds with a smirk, but there’s the unmistakable glow of happiness on him from the compliment, and his hand drifts towards mine.
For a few moments, all the joy and excitement in the world is contained in just that tiny practice room.