The ivory keys of a piano are the farthest they've ever been from each other, strewn across the backroad of June boulevard. Underneath, the cement is cracked and riddled with used needles, potholes, and waste; even the raccoons have decided their looting is better done elsewhere. And despite the name of this street, the neighbourhood holds an inexplicable coldness throughout the seasons as they come and go, leaving the odd passers-by with wicked chills, especially when they walk past 10201, the home with the broken everything.
It's difficult to call it that (A home). When it's known for a bleakness so astounding, those who walk inside start counting down the seconds until they can leave again. But some, the residents, have decided that counting was fruitless and quite depressing. The house stands on a foundation of forced trust between staff and clientele, and it moulds a little further each day, filling the home with the stink of mild mildew that goes unnoticed if a nose breathes the air for too long.
This was Nagata's piano. When he first bought the instrument, it symbolized a passion that is now long forgotten. The C's eventually stopped making happy noises and he didn't have the money for a new piano. Still, the other keys worked fine and it was better not to let them go to waste. So, he lugged the big thing over to 10201 in the hopes that it would bring the same joy to the children as it did for him. And it did, for a while, it seems. But now it lies dirty and broken in the back of an alley. A hole, the size of a child's foot, is smashed into the maple hardwood exterior and Nagata deflates at the sight. This will take him a while to get over, but he can't let the children see how it affects him so deeply.
He steps over the keys and pulls a set of his own from his pocket to unlock the door. There are signs, held together by layers of tape, that tell visitors they are not welcome at the entrance. He plasters on a smile and walks inside.
The steps that lead him upstairs squeak louder than the door had when he pushed it open. Somewhere in the office, a machine beeps, letting the other staff know someone has just entered. He walks through the skinny hallway, stepping over Lydia's body to get to the office. She sobs into the floor, banging her little fists into the tiles. She just turned 17 years old. Mentally, she is a stagnant 4.
The room opens up to reveal the bare living room at the end of the hallway, furnished by a simple brown, faux leather couch. It has one decorative green pillow on it, opening at the sides to reveal the cotton within. It matches nothing else in the room. The green curtains were taken down after Lydia decided they would make a better noose. The walls are an ugly lavender, patches of white where holes have been plastered.
On the couch, Maximus smiles at his iPad, tapping away at it. He's non-verbal, but Nagata thinks he's the easiest one to understand. He walks over to the 10-year-old boy, holding out his fist as a form of greeting. At first, Max doesn't see Nagata standing in front of him. Then, he looks down at Nagata's fist and he places his flat hand onto it softly.
Nagata laughs and ruffles his hair before walking towards the office. Lionel sits in the office chair, swinging his body side to side as he scrolls through his phone. He chuckles at something on the screen, greeting Nagata without looking away. The lighting is especially harsh today and Nagata's head begins to pound. He opens the medicine cabinet with a little key and grabs the bottle of Tylenol labelled staff.
"So...what's going on?" Nagata asks.
"I HATE YOU! FUCK YOU!" Comes a cry. No one responds. From the living room, Maximus hums loudly, covering his ears until the screaming stops.
"Ah you know, the usual," Lionel says, quiet. His accent is thick, like his words group together to leave his mouth as quickly as possible. This is supposed to be a shift exchange. When he leaves this office, he has to know the ups and downs of the entire day; although, it seems more like pulling teeth when Lionel makes his quips.
"Where is everyone?"
Jesus Christ, he thinks. Lydia screams from the depths of her throat. Someone must have told her about the cancellation.
"Did mom cancel the visit again?"
"Who told her?"
"I swear to god he's too old for this shit. Told him a thousand times not to get her hopes up in the first place. Her mom's too flakey."
Lionel doesn't respond to that.
"Did anyone make dinner?" Nagata prods, already knowing what he's about to hear. The older man makes a noise from his throat, clearing away phlegm. Nagata suddenly hates how comfortable Lionel is around him.
"There's only two kids today so we made something simple." And that's probably the most he'll talk today. Nagata takes his leave, rubbing a heavy hand down his face right before exiting the office. He'll figure everything out like he always does, through context clues and slaps on the hand when someone inevitably screws up.
To avoid stepping over Lydia, he walks the long way around to the kitchen. The house makes a loop, so there's always another way to go. There has to be.
He lifts the lid off the pot to peer inside at the plain spaghetti, lifting a piece with his finger and feeling the edges where the pasta has gone back to dry. Trying to keep calm, Nagata opens the pantry and takes out a can of pre-prepared pasta sauce. The sharps are kept in a locked cabinet, and he struggles with the key before managing to open the stupid thing. He grates some cheese and tries to ignore the blood-curdling cries in the hallway. Eventually, they'll die down. And usually, silence happens quicker when he does nothing about the noise. Quickly, the smell of an edible meal fills the home. Shortly after, the screaming stops and all he can hear is sniffling and the brush of Lydia's sweater as she wipes away the tears from her face.
He can tell the difference between a spine and a head when it hits the wall. This rhythmic banging, floating through the house, is the sound of Lydia's spine rocking against the drywall. It is also an attempt to calm herself. Nagata dares not intervene. Maximus sits in the living room, too invested in his electronics to notice the sudden calm.
"Dinner is ready!"
No one responds.
"Maximus, Lydia, come eat!" The boy grunts, fiddling with the bright colours on the touch screen, "Time for dinner, give back the electronics please."
Lydia comes into the kitchen, eyes red around the edges and puffed up from her tears. The hair on her head is tangled like it hasn't been brushed in days. She is smaller than Nagata by a few inches, though she is wider everywhere else, giving her a dangerous weight that she takes advantage of when the mood strikes her. Her skin is brown, but with the warmth leeched out, a side-effect of her daily Abilify.
"Lydia, after dinner we're going to have a shower okay?"
She whines, already refusing. Nagata doesn't speak, letting her fuss. If he asks her to wash her hands right now, it'll be another fight. He pushes the plate of food into her hands instead and gently guides her to the dinner table. Maximus is there too, clapping his hands together while he waits for his plate.
"Can I have ice cream?" She asks. Nagata sighs, preparing himself for another headache.
"Eat your food, Lydia."
"Can I have ice cream?" She asks again, playing with the spaghetti in between her fingers. Nagata grimaces at the messy sight. She drops a bit of it onto her clothes.
"Lydia...we're having dinner right now, not asking about dessert." Ice cream is reserved for Mondays. All the kids know that. The game they're playing right now is a dangerous one.
"I want ice cream." She says. She hasn't taken a bite yet.
"Lydia." There is finality in his tone.
She slams a fist onto the table. Maximus barely flinches. Then, there is spaghetti all over Nagata's clothes and across the floor. Her fork clatters to the ground as Nagata stands and moves away.
"Lydia. Breathe." He says, forgetting his own breath while trying to keep the anger from his voice. Situations like these should be dealt with using patience and composure. Neither of those things are pumping through his blood like how this violent frenzy is. It makes him dizzy. Unsure.
She climbs over the table, crawling towards him like prey, getting sauce on her palms. It looks like blood. He breathes through his mouth and holds his palms up to absorb the hit of her fists into his palms. It sounds like a drum beat, chaotic and loud. Like if he were able to touch the sound of drums, it would feel like this moment.
Lydia screams. All he can hear is the rippling waves of a violin, an undertone of a sultry bassoon. From the corner of his eye, Lionel is moving Maximus away. The boy goes willingly, and now he is alone with this symphony of a girl.
The worst place he could possibly be, and he's in it. Reaping the consequence of backing himself into the nearest wall. Internally, he chides himself over and over, with the beat of Lydia's punches.
He went to school for music; he had plans to make something of his profound relationship with chords and poetic words. But now, he sits fully clothed in his bathtub. The showerhead leaks from the neck, making the stream weak. He hopes, by sitting here long enough, he can drown out the sounds of the day. The morbid song played out at 10201. His eyebrow stings when hot water streams over the cut.
Here, feeling the lowest he's ever felt, Nagata looks upward, clasps his hands in front of him and prays for a sign. Hoping the divine understands him better than he understands himself. When he looks down, water and tears have gathered in his palms. He lets it overflow and fall into his lap.
On the radio, the gentle thrum of a song plays, and Nagata laughs when he recognizes the voice.
Val made it on the radio like she promised she would. And Nagata feels pathetic all over again. If this is the sign he wished for, it's akin to a heavy metal crossroads beating him over the head.
He remembers how Val and he used to play together. At the time, the sounds they made together were beautiful enough to make a songbird cry. They had plans. All three of them. But life got in the way, and music wasn't tangible enough to hold them together. Val has always said she'd die for her passion. Nagata agreed, entranced by the forceful way she said those words like she meant everything she said with certitude.
Jamie had another idea and took the words too literally; ending his own life when things got to be too much. No one could save him. Nagata blamed himself for everything. Val fought every day to live by her words. It seems now she accomplished her dreams. For herself and for Jamie. Nagata is the happiest he can manage to be for her. But it's difficult to be happy for someone else when you can't do it for yourself.
The next morning, the sun shines brightly through his curtains, heating up his body into a sticky sweat. He wakes with a groan, realizing he has work again and must face everything with another smile. The image of his broken piano flickers through his thoughts.
He dreamt about Jamie last night and the last thing Nagata ever remembered him saying.
You've gotta face your reality to achieve your dreams.
He wonders when he finally strings together his own words if he'll live by them, or die for them.