1. The grasping of hands by two people, as in greeting or leave-taking.
2. An exchange of signals between two devices when communications begin in order to ensure synchronization.
It had been one very curious day for Lucas Beck, a second-year post graduate student of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at Purdue University in West Lafayette Indiana. He never in his wildest fantasies would have thought he’d land a date with Mèlina Dubois, a fellow engineering student, but that is precisely what had just occurred. It wasn’t just because he was a lanky, bald-headed, not-so-eye-catching nerd, and she was a curvaceous, red-headed, drop-dead gorgeous knock-out, but he honestly thought she despised him. After all, it was Lucas, fresh after graduating with his bachelor’s degrees, who was assigned by the corporate sponsor as project lead for their research grant, while Mèlina, who’d already been working on the project for a year, was passed up. The previous project lead happened to be the Dean of the School of Engineering, who’d apparently and suddenly resigned his position.
When Mèlina had offered Lucas a spare ticket and backstage pass for Vincenzo De Rossi, a world-renowned, grandmaster, concert pianist, he was speechless.
“So, Lucas? Would you like to go to the concert?” Mèlina tapped her slender fingers on her shapely hips awaiting his answer. Her fingernails matched her ginger tresses.
“With…with you?” Lucas stuttered.
“Of course with me…so, do you want the ticket or not?”
He finally managed a delayed response, “Yes, but…”
“But what?” she said after his partial acceptance.
“But I thought you hated me.”
“Hated you? Why would I hate you? We’ve only been working together on designing a safe and reliable transmission signal to broadcast power for a year.”
“Well, I guess I thought you resented me for taking the project lead,” he confessed.
“No, Lucas, I don’t hate you. I may have had some bitterness against the company at first, but after working with you, I can see they made the right decision. In just one year, you’ve led us to solve nearly all of the problems with the company’s initial design, and we’re on the brink of success.”
Lucas had spent a year tip-toeing around the subject, but while he was glad it was finally resolved, he carelessly brought up another sensitive topic. “What about Dean Mitchell?”
Mèlina crossed her arms, “What about him?”
“I thought you were dating him?”
Mèlina frowned, “I was…until the cheater took off and left the project, the school, and me.”
“I don’t know for sure, but yeah…nobody really knows what happened to him. He just disappeared, but I have a sneaking suspicion that he disappeared to Las Vegas with another woman.”
“I’m sorry Mèlina, I shouldn’t have brought him up.”
Mèlina’s posture relaxed in acquiescence, “That’s okay, Lucas. I’m over him…in fact I bought these tickets for the two of us before he quit me. They’re hard to come by, and I wouldn’t want them to go to waste…so I asked you.”
Lucas pushed his round glasses up his nose, “Your answer is yes…of course yes. I’ll pick you up at say…?”
“Seven o’clock. I have other plans for dinner; the concert starts at eight.”
“Okay, sure…” Lucas’ disappointment was evident in his eyes. He was hoping for a longer first date.
“Maybe we can get a drink after the show, Lucas. I’ll see you at seven.”
Vincenzo De Rossi was beyond superb. Pianissimo…his fingerings were as precise as a surgeon suturing tiny blood vessels. Grandioso…his hands marched nobly up and down the ranks of ivory and ebony keys. Affettuoso…many of the sensitive women, and men, of the audience wept tears of passion. The artist’s performance was perfecto.
When the concerto was complete, Lucas found himself sipping a complementary glass of champagne while waiting to meet the musical genius. “I could go and get my car, Mèlina. I really don’t need to meet the man,” Lucas said nervously; he was from a reserved Danish family that was very non-tactile, and he could probably count on one hand how many times he actually shook someone’s hand in conversation.
“Oh don’t be silly, Lucas, I’d rather have a kiss than a handshake.” Mèlina pushed him forward and added, “You’re next anyway.”
Lucas found himself standing in front of the great Vincenzo De Rossi who had extended his hand in greeting, “Ciao, amico.”
The timid geek just stared at the artist still holding his champagne and uneasily said, “I enjoyed your show immensely, sir.”
Mèlina poked Lucas in the back and whispered, “Don’t leave him hanging, Lucas.”
Lucas moved the drink to his left hand and apprehensively extended his right hand to make the connection. When the pianist’s slender fingers grasped the engineer’s pale sun-starved hand a tremor went through both of their arms past their elbows.
The musician pulled away, grasping his wrist in pain. “Accidenti che diavolo! What the hell?”
Lucas noticed a brief glowing aura surrounding his hand as he wiggled his numb fingers, and the musician’s handlers hastily took the artist away to his changing room. A large man, probably a bodyguard waved off the line of admirers, “That’s all folks! Shows over! Go home!”
Mèlina drove Lucas’ car back to her apartment while Lucas nursed his torpid hand in the passenger seat. By the time they had arrived, the feeling in his hand had returned, but Mèlina insisted that he come inside until he felt okay to drive.
They walked through her door and she threw her purse and scarf down onto a sofa situated in front of a fireplace. Off to the left was a weighted keyboard plugged into a small Fender guitar amplifier. Lucas moved directly toward the unassuming instrument.
Mèlina passed on through to the kitchen, “Can I fix you a drink? You could probably use it. I always wanted to learn how to play the piano. I bought that thing in hopes of learning, but never really took to it. I can play Van Halen’s Jump and the beginning of Axel F. I’ll play them for you…maybe…after a couple of drinks.”
“Vodka…rocks,” Lucas answered brusquely while sitting down on the small stool in front of the electric piano; he cracked his knuckles in preparation.
Mèlina returned from the kitchen with a drink in each hand; she nearly dropped them both when she saw Lucas begin playing her humble keyboard like a man possessed by the spirits of Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, and Bach. She stood in the narrow doorway and listened to Lucas play for over twenty minutes. The piece started out slow, only on the higher keys, but then quickly moved to encompass the entire eighty-eight; the organ had fifty-two white and thirty-six black keys, and by the end of the impromptu performance, Lucas had played nearly all of them. The finale rose to a chaotic crescendo before Lucas pulled his hands away from the piano and stared at them.
“What was that?” Mèlina set down Lucas’ drink on an end table; the ice was nearly melted.
“Maurice Ravel, an anti-Wagnerian, impressionist and neoclassicist,” Lucas responded mechanically.
“Ravel…he was a French composer; the piece was called Gaspard de la Nuit[ii], and it is said that playing this piece is like having to solve endless quadratic equations in your head.”[iii]
Mèlina seemed too shocked to answer, so Lucas continued, “I guess being an Electrical Engineer and Computer Scientist...I tend to agree with the sentiment.”
Lucas looked at the vodka and stood up, “I‘m going to pass on that drink. I better get home.”
Mèlina didn’t even try to stop him; it had been a very bizarre day for both of them.
Lucas’ doorbell rang; he didn’t move from his uncomfortable position on the living room floor underneath a used grand piano. There was no other furniture in his apartment except a small dining table and two unmatched chairs; sheet music was scattered everywhere, intermixed with empty boxes and bags of fast food.
The doorknob slowly turned and the door opened a crack. “Hello? Lucas?” The voice was Mèlina’s, and when she saw him lying beneath the piano, she shrieked, “Lucas! Are you okay?”
She rushed in and kneeled next to a piano leg, but when she saw him prop himself up on one elbow, she angrily pushed him back down to the floor. “What is going on, Lucas? You haven’t come to school in almost two weeks!”
Lucas propped himself back up, retrieved a crumpled note from a mound of sheet music he’d been using as a pillow, and handed it to her. “It’s an eviction notice. Last night was my last night, and if I’m still here at noon, I’ll likely be arrested.”
“Well, the day after my first concerto at your place, I went out and bought myself a real piano. I guess playing it at all hours of the day and night caused some consternation with my neighbors.”
“You’ve been playing music for two weeks straight? Without sleep?”
“Oh no, I slept from time to time, and occasionally ate…and between melodies, I also did some research.”
“What kind of research?” Mèlina couldn’t be more confused.
“I found out what happened. My whole life is an illusion. I’m cursed.”
“Get up, and explain.” She reached out her hand to help him to his feet, but he recoiled.
“No! I cannot shake your hand! That’s how it works!” Lucas crawled out from under the piano and slumped down on the piano bench. Mèlina stood up and grabbed one of his dining chairs to sit across from him. She adjusted her short skirt, clasped her hands in her lap, and quietly awaited his story.
Lucas cleared his throat to enlighten her, “I’ve never been a touchy-feely person…” He paused, correcting his introduction, “When I say…I…I’m not even sure who I am. One time, when I was a boy, I took up ice skating in an attempt to play hockey. I think I started skating too late, because although I eventually made the junior varsity team, I was never very good. My sophomore year, I ended up getting into a fight in the locker room with one of my teammates…the star center of the B-team. My coach broke it up and forced us to shake hands. Then…I remember that for the remainder of the season, I was the fastest skater on the team and outscored the bully who’d picked the fight. In fact, that kid dropped out of the hockey program all together. My senior year I made the A-team, and was planning to vie for a Notre Dame hockey scholarship. I figured I’d major in business or marketing or something. However, when I accepted my high school diploma at graduation and shook our principal’s hand, I suddenly was no longer interested in hockey, but instead I found myself fascinated by math, and science, and engineering. I applied for Purdue, and although I never excelled in mathematics or the sciences in high school, I got straight A’s in college. You see, our high school principal had been a former astronaut who’d graduated from the university I was now attending. Upon receiving my undergraduate degrees, I was sought after by many top computer and engineering companies…and I was about to accept a direct position with the Golden Global Industrial Group (GGIG) until I was convinced to continue my education by leading GGIG’s broadcast power research at Purdue. Apparently the Dean had resigned…and disappeared…only a short time after I shook his hand at the graduation ceremony. You see, Mèlina? You see? It was my fault Dean Mitchell left you. I stole his talent! And that’s not all I stole. I may have stolen his life!”
Mèlina was trying to absorb what he’d presented. “You can’t blame yourself, Lucas. You have just described to me a truly remarkable gift…and now that you know how it works, you don’t have to use it. That is, if you don’t wish to use it.” She moved from her chair to the bench and sat down next to him.
Lucas squirmed, “Don’t touch me Mèlina!”
She ignored his plea and wrapped her arms around his upper body and gently kissed the back of his neck. “You just said it only happens when you shake someone’s hand.” She was right, nothing significant happened, other than the arousal of some primeval stirrings within the troubled man.
Lucas tucked his hands beneath his legs to ensure he wouldn’t touch her. “Mèlina, I can’t be responsible for another death…I just can’t!”
“Yes! Don’t you see? I told you that I did some research. That kid I played hockey with…I took his talent…and he…and he…died in a car crash. If he hadn’t dropped out of hockey he might not have been there in the first place…or if I hadn’t embezzled his speed, his quick reaction time could very well have saved him. My high school principal died of fast-onset dementia before I graduated from college, and even though we don’t know what happened to…what happened to the Dean…I can make an educated guess. But this…this is the kicker! Vincenzo De Rossi was found dead in his shower yesterday morning. He’d slit his wrists and a bloody suicide note simply read, la musica è finita, the music is over, e devo seguire, and I must follow.”
Mèlina climbed on top of Lucas and straddled his lap. His hands were trapped beneath him, and her bountiful bosom threatened to suffocate him. “You can’t blame yourself for the Dean.” She leaned back to give him air and put her hands on his cheeks.
Lucas was confused, “Why not?”
“Because, when you shook his hand, he was already drained.”
“What are you saying?”
Mèlina rubbed her thumb across his lips while still cradling his head. “You heard me. You didn’t actually think you were the only one with the vampiric power of osmosis, did you? The night of your concerto at my place, I told you that I always wanted to learn to play piano. Now is my chance.” She pressed her lips to his and buried her tongue deep into his pliant mouth. The same electricity shuddered through him as the night of the handshake, and as his energy entered her, she drank it with sheer ecstasy. When she was finished, she climbed off him and his sapped body fell from the bench and collapsed back onto the floor.
Weakly he looked up at her, “What now?”
The vampiress straightened her dress, “What now? Relax, I left you with most of your technical knowledge; I suppose you can return to the project. As for me…” She stood at the piano and effortlessly pranced her blood-red nails across the keys to tap out Liszt’s La Campanella.[iv]
“Liszt is more challenging than Ravel,” she said as she took her leave. Before closing his door, she added, “It was nice meeting you, Lucas. Try not to kill yourself. Maybe after you accept your gift, we’ll meet again, and you can show me some of your new talents. Forgive me if I don’t shake your hand.”