This story was written by Heeba Lazmi Khan, 14, from The ELCHK Yuen Long Lutheran Secondary School.
Each week during the holidays, we will publish a story from one of the finalists of our 2019 Summer Short Story Competition. Our favourite entries will be compiled into a book, which each finalist will receive a copy of. The winning entry will appear in Young Post on August 31.
Mournful piano melodies drift from the music room on the fifth floor. The notes are painfully beautiful – enough to send shivers down the spine.
It has become a daily routine for Payton. She gets up, goes to school, then plays away her sorrows, while everyone else filters out of the school gates in huddled groups.
Same old, same old. Payton used to be like them, before things changed for her, terribly and irrevocably.
She is still struggling to make sense of her thoughts after her mother’s passing. Everything is hazy – except the pain, which she feels acutely. The wound is still fresh, and burns to the touch. Sometimes, Payton wishes she could simply erase her memory – but when has anything ever been simple?
The piano is her only escape. She distances herself from everyone, confiding only in the large block of wood and string, where melodies are created and secrets are told through them.
Payton would like it to stay that way, with no one invading this private world she has created.
Without her mother, she feels numb, as if she has completely lost herself – so much so that no map can help her find her way back.
On a particularly gloomy day, when the clouds seem heavy with worries of their own and uncaring of anyone else, Payton is once again in the low-lit music room, playing a piece her mother taught her. It is a gentle, feathery tune, at discord with the weather that day. She’s alone, like she always is – or so she thinks.
It is by pure coincidence that Augustus is walking down the corridor, with nothing in particular to do and in no particular hurry to go home. Still new to the school, he had decided to take a wander around the buildings – driven, as he often is, by his innate sense of curiosity.
He didn’t expect to bump into anyone after hours – most people rush out the gates the moment the bell rings.
He is surprised and a little startled to hear notes seeping out of the supposedly deserted music room at the end of the corridor.
He can’t help but feel intrigued and captivated by the soothing tones, and before he knows it, he is making a beeline straight to the music room, his curiosity is getting the better of him, as always.
Augustus is astonished to see the mysterious pianist is the girl from his grade, the one who hardly ever speaks. Here she is, pouring her heart out.
He stands in the doorway until the piece is over, his presence unnoticed by Payton, who is lost in her own world.
Once the last key is pressed, Augustus bursts into applause, making Payton jump. She spins around, looking like a deer caught in headlights. She hadn’t been expecting an audience, and now she feels embarrassed, and weirdly exposed.
Though she doesn’t remember his name, Payton recognises Augustus; he’s the new boy in her class, and her polar opposite in every way: confident, friendly, and instantly likeable.
“That was amazing, I didn’t know you played,” says the boy; “Are you classically trained?”
Payton remains lost for words. The boy notices her confusion. “Oh! My bad, I’m Augustus,” he adds.
Slowly the gears begin moving again in Payton’s brain, but she still doesn’t respond. She doesn’t like this sudden unwelcome attention. Augustus seems to sense this, and adds, “I’m sorry if I’ve intruded your personal space, but the music was just so captivating, I couldn’t help it.”
To Augustus’ surprise, Payton gets up and walks right out of the music room. He calls after her.
“Hey! Wait up! Why leave like that?”
Payton stops walking and turns around to face him.
“Sorry for not replying, but it isn’t really any of your business, is it?” she says, emotionlessly, her face stoic. She can’t work out why this boy is bothering to talk to her when everyone else has been doing a fine job of the opposite; her guard is up.
Augustus is taken aback, but he quickly collects himself.
“No, not really but you’ve got some raw talent right there and honestly, it should be known,” he replies.
Payton doesn’t know how to respond, so she carries on walking away. This time, Augustus lets her go, but his mind is troubled by the encounter. Very quickly, he decides two things: he will get to know this girl, and he will make her talent known. And once he has set his mind to something, there is rarely any stopping him.
And so, every day after school, Augustus shows up at the music room to listen to Payton play. It is tremendously irritating; Payton doesn’t like her world being disturbed. But Augustus sits quietly while she plays, careful not to cross the invisible ring Payton has drawn around her and the piano. And he is determined to keep turning up, day after day. In the end, she lets him be.
After each recital, Augustus praises Payton’s playing. Sometimes, he tries to make small talk. Slowly, gradually, the conversations become less one-sided. Payton’s short, stiff responses turn into full sentences. Augustus counts every victory.
Payton can feel herself letting her guard down, but she isn’t sure why. Perhaps she’s starting to feel comfortable with the boy who praises her playing. Or maybe she’s finally emerging from her void. Starting to see faint colours after months of grey. Yes, Augustus can be chatty and annoying, but if she’s honest, she likes the company. In all those moments of unimaginable darkness, she hadn’t realised that what she needed was a friend.
Day by day, they grow closer, until Payton feels sure that they really are friends.
And then the day arrives when Augustus finally asks Payton what inspires her sad melodies.
For Payton, this topic has always been strictly off-limits, and her knee-jerk reaction is to shut Augustus down. But the trust built between the two friends over the past few months makes her reconsider. Bravely, she unlocks the gates into her world, throws open the curtains, and pulls the dust sheets from the furniture. It’s time to confide in something that isn’t an object.
She begins with how close she was to her mother, how much she loved her. The endless hours of playing the piano and bonding over it. Composing melodies together in every genre, from classical to jazz. Those were the happiest moments of her life.
Eventually, she arrives at her mother’s death. The memory she wishes she could erase, that she has desperately tried to bury. But now she holds it under the light so Augustus can see. It’s something that would have seemed impossible a few months ago.
Demolishing her walls one by one, Payton tells Augustus everything she’s been feeling since her mother died. She explains how she has fallen into a void, and can’t seem to get out. How she has isolated herself from everyone around her. Or at least, she had.
Until Augustus came along.
The puzzle pieces slowly come together in Augustus’ head. Payton’s cold, distant behaviour, her sweet, haunting melodies – it all makes sense now.
He is glad – and a little proud, too.
Glad that she is slowly coming out of her shell. Proud that he had a hand in it. Glad that he has been able to help her. Glad because, as he now realises, he has made a friend for life.
After that day, everything feels different. Payton and Augustus quickly become best friends. And Payton is beginning to feel like her old self again.
There is a piano recital coming up in a month, and Augustus wants to sign Payton up for it. He remembers the goals he set the first time he heard her play. He’s achieved one so far; now to make the other happen.
Payton, of course, is dead set against the idea when she finds out about it. She is ready with a list of excuses for why she shouldn’t take part. But Augustus insists.
“Your name is on the list,” he says simply. “There’s no turning back now.”
So Payton begins frantically preparing for the recital. A month passes and the date arrives – much too fast for her liking.
Payton tells herself she’s ready, but she doesn’t quite believe it. Thankfully, Augustus does. He and Payton’s dad are full of cheers and wishes of good luck all the way to the recital hall. But all too soon, it’s time for them to take their seats, and for Payton to walk out on stage.
Tonight is special.
Payton has prepared a piece she had composed with her mother. That alone is making her beyond nervous.
She sits down at the piano, stares at the rows of keys, and begins playing.
This piece is a story. It begins with a joyful, buoyant into, before turning frantic, the notes building to a crescendo. The ending is bittersweet: slow and delicate, but not entirely sombre. It hints at happiness yet to come.
It is beautiful. Enough to get a standing ovation from the audience. And it is at this moment, when Payton gets up to bow, that she realises she has finally found herself.
She has felt so sad, so heartbroken, and so impossibly lost for months, but today, she feels genuinely happy. She is healing.
Losing yourself is one of the scariest things that can happen to you. Finding yourself again is one of the hardest. But now Payton knows she isn’t alone. She has three guardian angels in her life: the piano, who was there for her when she was at her saddest; Augustus, who was there for her when she was at her loneliest; and her mother, who has been there all along, watching over her.