A Tenuous Treaty
The elevator started to close, but that shouldn’t have mattered. People held elevators all the time, especially when they noticed a straggler, red-faced and puffing with the exertion to make it in time.
It shouldn’t have mattered, even though there was only one person within it. It shouldn’t have mattered, since that person saw me. That person smiled, and of course it was malicious. Because it came from Melanie.
She waved with her fingers as the doors shut, as I was more than halfway through the linoleum-floored lobby.
I halted, caught my breath, and calmly walked to the elevator. Pushed the button to call the thing back to me. Pictured Melanie chortle under her breath as she walked through the portal to hell she called an apartment, and pushed again, harder. My frustration burst. I pressed again and again and again.
“Eat my ass!” My shout reverberated back to me, and I turned a glance over my shoulder.
I’d never been so grateful to be alone.
Three months since I’d moved in, and finally my keyboard arrived. My father promised to send it earlier, as I’d had to leave it behind with the rest of my hometown. But he was spiteful, and I knew better than to rush him. Every day that passed without the instrument was another knock to my grip on sanity.
I called in sick to work and cancelled plans with the only friend I had in town. The world had narrowed to my studio apartment and the keyboard. It was a gift from an ex-boyfriend, the single good thing he’d done in the whole of our relationship. It’d been so surprisingly easy, to toss the boy and keep the instrument.
From dawn to dusk I played, and I felt human again.
I held the elevator, because I was an angel. I was kind.
Besides, Melanie was only a teenager. Even if I was hardly more of an adult than her, at twenty years old. Even if the sight of her face made something in my stomach shrivel and die. She was still just a kid.
“Don’t expect me to thank you.” She said.
I scowled at Melanie, but she’d shifted her mousey brown hair to curtain her face. Granted, my hair was brown, too. But mine was glorious, like the mane of a rich chestnut mare.
I couldn’t begin to guess why she hated me. Perhaps there was something about the way I dressed. Maybe she knew I secretly thought polka dancing was an underrated art form, and polka dancing had killed her father. Either way, the result of her immediate dislike was that I, over the past months, had grown to reciprocate it.
“I bet you think you’re some great musician.”
“What?” Sincerely, she’d flummoxed me.
“You heard me, Ana.” She said. “And I hear you, constantly. Every damn day. If I tell you how amazing you are, will you stop trying to get everyone’s attention?”
“Well, you’ve already said it and I’m still gonna play as much as I want.” I muttered. “So, joke’s on you.”
She exhaled a great gust of breath, but this time I refused to look at her. The elevator doors slid open on the floor below mine.
Melanie groused even as she left. “I was being sarcastic, Glasses.”
I sniffed in laughter. Held a smirk even as I pushed the rim of my glasses (complete with lenses thick enough to set things ablaze at the right angle under sunlight) up the bridge of my nose.
It seemed I managed to win this one.
I upheaved my entire life to come to this city. It hadn’t always been my dream, but I began to crave escape with such urgency that I was willing to do that. To grab everything by the roots and pull, no matter the damage to the stem, or the flower atop it all which had already begun to wither.
I cycled through jobs, at first looking for something ideal. In the end, I settled for a place that didn’t make me prefer to be kidnapped and confined from the general public.
No one had any love for retail workers, so the real trick was finding a manager who cared at least a modicum. Who might stand between you and the self-righteous customer. Not the sort who claimed their team was a family – that was the first red-flag I learned to speculate. Just the neutral type. The kind who didn’t grimace at a less-than firm handshake, but also didn’t try to reference pop-culture or feign interest in my hobbies.
I eventually found that at the department store, Chanrillae, but I still came home each night wondering whether this life was any better than the one I’d left. It was quieter, but was that enough?
This evening was no different, but I knew how to forget everything. I’d learned how to shut down all but the feel of keys beneath my fingertips. How to listen to nothing but the melodies that wove through my tiny slot in the city. There were happier notions to be found in music, even if I wasn’t good enough to make up my own, just yet.
The sun had set long ago, as I wound through one of Chopin’s more simple preludes. Though nothing usually diverted me from a piece once I’d begun it, I found myself stunned into perfect stillness before four bars had even finished.
Notes of a violin… clumsy notes, but notes nonetheless, and they seemed to swirl from the floor beneath my feet. I ducked my head to look at the little vent over which I’d positioned the stand of my keyboard. Listened and stared, as though any moment the entire floor might turn translucent and reveal my impromptu duet partner.
The violin played another measure, and half another. Just enough that I could tell the violin played the same song I’d started. Then it faltered, and fell silent.
I lifted my hands back into position over the keys. Hesitated, because of some insane instinct that the violin belonged to the one person who’d dance upon the news of my death.
Still, there seemed no real option but to play. I started the song over.
Again, it took a few measures for the violin to join. Again, the notes were clumsy, the vibrato weak. But the intonation was sound, every note accounted for even if some were sharp or flat.
An hour passed and we played the same piece through it. By the end, the violin followed with a little more confidence. I could have gone for several hours more, but my partner abruptly stopped in the middle of another attempt.
I waited. I even started the song over, but no violin rose to join.
Eventually I settled for an early night. It seemed somehow rude to go on, now. But as I ate my dinner, showered, climbed into bed… Every now and then I realized I’d started to smile.
The next day I saw Melanie as I let myself into the building. We walked in together. We rode the elevator together. We exchanged nary a word, nor did she even look at me.
This was the strongest confirmation she could’ve given, though she probably thought she was hiding it, this way.
The elevator closed as Melanie got off on her floor, and I wondered where she learned to play the violin.
From then on, when I crossed paths with Melanie we kept to the newly sprouted routine of silence.
That said, this fragile peace constructed between us apparently did not extend as far as I would have liked. Melanie still refused to hold the elevator for me if I ran late. Once, she happened to pass as I smacked myself in the face trying to pry open my mail slot with my fingers, and she cackled like a witch.
Still, I imagined she had kinder thoughts about me than she let on. One did not duet with a person they hated. That just wasn’t the way.
While I played music every day, Melanie only joined on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. She always stopped at some point between quarter-till and seven, and it was always sudden.
I didn’t think much about it, as the weeks wore on. There was probably a plain explanation. She had to study, she was tired, what have you. It took over a month for me to learn the truth.
Winter crept in with the prospect of Christmas. I never decorated for the holiday, though it was one I enjoyed for nostalgia’s sake. Melanie seemed to have more free time, probably because her school had let out on break.
Early one Monday, when I had the day off from Chanrillae and was able to start my practice in the morning, Melanie’s violin joined.
It was so unexpected that I laughed, even felt a tad giddy. I could only play simple pieces when she joined but there was something rewarding about our duets. For those spaces in time, she had to admit that she liked me. Even if she didn’t communicate it through words.
I admit, I also gleaned a fair amount of pride from Melanie’s obvious improvement. Her skill was slow to build, and in a strict sense I understood I had little hand in them. Playing alongside – or, above her – was hardly the same thing as instruction or guidance. But she hadn’t played once since I’d moved in, not until I started to play. It was harmless, to take credit as her inspiration.
That morning we were only able to play for a quarter-hour before Melanie stopped. We rarely continued for longer than an hour, but this was by far the shortest session. It was doubtful she had any friends who’d interrupted with spontaneous plans, so I reasoned she must’ve just changed her mind.
Until I heard the shouts.
Melanie’s were defensive, her tone recognized because she’d yelled at me more than once. The other voice was unknown, but they were louder. Full of a vitriol that brought my father’s face to my mind in vivid detail.
The person shouting at Melanie was female, and my heart sank as I realized it was probably her mother.
“How many times? How many goddamn times do I have to tell you? Don’t give me that innocent act, you know I need my sleep!”
That was all I heard until my hands found the keys again. It seemed my fingers pounded out notes of their own volition, though they didn’t bother with any real melody. They played anger, they played abused trust and the desire to flee.
When I finished, so had the shouting match. I sat at the bench for an indeterminate amount of time. My hands shook as I swiped the tear tracks from my cheek. I’d forgotten what it was like, this kind of fury.
Melanie avoided me, and she was far from subtle about it. If I held the elevator for her, she performed an about-face and walked back out of the building. If I lingered at my mail slot, she’d shoot by me with a pace that could rival a harassed server at a packed restaurant.
This continued until I hatched a plan.
I kept an eye out for her outside the front entrance of our building every day. On an afternoon I managed to catch site of her trek down the sidewalk, I went inside and stood in the elevator. A couple came in with me and ventured to the second floor. When they got off, I waited for the lift to be called back to the lobby.
The doors slid open and despite my hopes, when Melanie registered my presence, she turned for the stairs.
I stuck my foot between the doors before they could close, called “Wait!” in a tone that was louder than intended.
She looked at me as though I’d howled like a banshee, but she had at least stopped.
“Just…” I sighed, waved an arm behind me. “Just get on, please.”
She clenched her jaw, and her gaze shifted to the stairwell door, to the left of the elevator.
“Look, I get it, okay?” I said. “I’m not expecting some wholesome heart-to-heart. I only want to say one thing.”
She rolled her eyes and shifted her head so that her hair curtained her face. “Then say it.”
“We’re not friends. You’re too edgy for friends. You’re hellspawn.”
Melanie scoffed and scraped a beaten sneaker across the linoleum. “Is that all, then?”
It was a sign of my indomitable will that I went through with my offer. “You can practice in my apartment, whenever you want.”
Her gaze snapped to mine, surprise and suspicion plain in her hazel eyes.
“Because, I have an obligation to mankind to encourage a healthy outlet for your atrocious attitude.”
Now, her expression was unreadable. The only response she gave was to continue to the stairwell. I stood in the elevator, door stalled, as though she might return. Minutes later, another tenant came into the building, and I backed into the elevator to let them in, defeated.
Literal months passed. Spring came, and nothing changed. Melanie’s violin never joined when I practiced, anymore. She did give up on her avoidance after a while – presumably for the sake of convenience – and that small peace continued as we ignored each other. But she never showed up to my apartment, never mentioned the offer.
Sometimes the brawls between Melanie and her mother would drift through the floor to my ears. It wasn’t often that their arguments became audible, but from experience I knew meanness wasn’t always expressed through screams. There was no telling how bad it got for her, what other things Melanie had given up because the person who was meant to nurture her, decided instead to hinder her.
I wished Melanie would crack, that she would seek solace, and guilt bloomed every time she didn’t. It felt as though I’d let her down. Someone smarter, more insightful, might have realized sooner that Melanie was a scourge to humanity because someone taught her to be that way. They might at least have framed the offer in a way that didn’t include calling her names.
Every time I built the nerve to try again – in a way befitting my angelic nature, this time – I’d see her stoic face and chicken out.
Summer swept in with record highs and sweat-soaked collars.
On a sweltering night midway through July I broke in my resolve to keep my power bill affordable and started up the air-conditioner. It was a decrepit unit that wheezed like an old woman with emphysema and produced a swell of wind that was only tepid at best. I heaved a crimson weave armchair right in front of it, stuck a frozen water bottle in my bra, and prepared to spend the night in that spot.
It was too hot for any occupation. Just the thought of practice at the keyboard made the flow of sweat strengthen at my brow.
I’d just begun to doze when a knock at the door startled away my quasi-comfort.
The clock on my cell phone read nine o’clock, but it felt like an ungodly hour for guests. I expected an emergency as I went to the door.
Instead, as I peered through the peep-hole, it was Melanie’s scowling face on the other side.
I unbolted the door and threw it open. As I hadn’t planned anything to say, I simply stared at her for one beat, then five.
When I finally opened my mouth to stammer a hello, the girl held up a hand, inches from my face.
“Not a word.” She shouldered past me, violin case in her left hand.
And because I truly was an angel, I merely pursed my lips over the dopey smile that threatened to break through my features.
I trailed behind her into the living room, arms swinging, mind alive with the response I held inside: Fair enough, Hellspawn.