I woke up with a massive headache and the room to myself. The second half of that statement wasn’t incredibly surprising since Hadley had been MIA when I’d gotten back to the room the night before. Her bed had still been made and her running shoes still sat by the bed, a clear sign that she hadn’t come back the night before. A good roommate probably would have worried, even called to check on her, but if we were going by those standards then we were both fairly shitting roommates. I just lay in bed and stared at the ceiling for a few minutes.
There were very few things that I understood about last night, but I did know that something had happened to me. Sleep, a clearer head and a fresh set of eyes was enough to show me that. My eyes were still green. And I understood what that meant, or at least I knew where I’d seen the same phenomenon before. Charlie. His eyes had changed colors when he’d taken Blake’s soul – that much I knew for certain. He’d used his eyes changing color as a sort of proof, trying to show me that he was who he said he was. But my mind couldn’t process what that could mean for me. Maybe it’s contagious.
Charlie hadn’t exactly explained the human-red transition to me. I wasn’t even entirely certain if a regular human could spontaneously become one. Could I have become inhuman in one night? I pushed that thought from my head. There were too many spotty moments. I wanted to call Charlie. I wanted to lie in bed and talk to him, to cry to him, because I believed that he had the answers. He almost always had the answers now days. But I had too much pride to press his name on my phone. I told myself that I could use Hadley as an excuse, tell him I was calling to ask about her. It annoyed me that I believed he would make me feel better.
I forced myself out of bed, determined not to reach out to him for help. I dressed in a pair of black leggings, a grey tank top and a thick-yarned sweater. As I laced my boots, I kept running through the events of the night before. I had gotten sick. I’d thrown up. I’d passed out. Maybe it was just alcohol poisoning. Maybe I’d just had too much to drink and I’d responded differently to it than I normally would have. I avoided a mirror, afraid of my own reflection. I wanted my eyes to be blue again. There was this little hope inside of me, like a weak flame, telling me that I might have been dreaming. If I couldn’t see my eyes, then I could explain it away. Completely sober me didn’t want to have to see the products of the night before.
Once I was dressed and my hair was brushed, I faced my fears. Green. They were still green. Damn. And, in case that wasn’t fun enough, I had a bruise forming near my hairline. I must have hit my head on something at some point. I choked down half a cup of peach yogurt, grabbed my book bag and left my room. I was operating on autopilot; my body making decisions before my brain even comprehended what I was doing. I was stressed and in the past, I had almost instinctually turned to a piano to relieve tension. So as I stepped outside my dorm my feet took me towards the music hall. It had been over a month since I’d last touched a piano and my fingers were itching to fiddle with the keys.
The doors to most of the main buildings on campus stayed open habitually. I wasn’t sure if this was normal for college campuses, but for an art school, it was the norm. We needed access to our supplies, whether that be an instrument or colored pencils, regularly. Today was no exception, and although campus seemed mostly dead, I had no trouble getting inside the music hall and finding my way to a piano. It was a black grand piano; gorgeous – with a freshly shined surface, gold trim and stark white keys that were beautifully tuned. It sounds silly, but I felt underdressed sitting down at its bench. I’d been slacking off on playing. Since coming to Madeline I’d only been in the music hall four times. Two of those times I’d ben practicing with the theater for this show. Now I was just alone in the space and I could really take it in. It was, after all, lovely.
The music hall, built in the early twenties, was one of the oldest buildings on campus. It was a pretty much a large hallway, with the entry of it stretching from one end of the building to another. On both sides of the main entry way were smaller halls, each dedicated to their own function, which housed entire suites that were stocked and ready for anything a music major like myself might like. There were recording booths, sound rooms, computer labs and high-tech equipment for music editing and I was terrified to even look too closely at, as well as suites for music instruments. At the very end of the long corridor was the concert hall itself. This is where I’d taken residence.
The concert hall was smaller than the Theater but larger than any actual performance would probably warrant. It was the capstone of the music hall. The high ceilings were covered in a pattern of intricate molding and plaster that blended its way from the dome up above to the tops of the surrounding walls, the complex patterns winding their way down the walls until they were hidden by thick navy blue curtains. The curtains, which were made from velvet that was easily three times my own age, hung from a little over midway down the wall and all the way to the floor where they were met by the deep stain of the oak floors. The focal point was the stage which had seashell shaped lights along its base. The curtains that surrounded the stage were made of the same velvet as the ones on the walls and they smelt of mildew and old dust, but I didn’t mind. The pianos were houses here. There were five grand pianos and two keyboards, all set up at various parts of the stage. I always preferred the one that was front and center.
I started by playing a few songs I knew by heart. Goldberg Variations by Bach and then half of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. Once I’d finished with those I began playing around with covers of more popular songs. I played one of Crissy’s favorites, a song by a boy band I’d listened to just as many times as it took for me to learn how to copy the sound of it onto keys. I’d learned to play piano the traditional way, learning to read music and tapping my way clumsily through the simplest of nursery rhymes. But since middle school, I’d been fairly good at picking things up by ear. I’d played so much classical music growing up that I knew what notes made what noise and could usually fiddle my way through until I found the sound I was looking for. This was the method I’d used to learn most the Christmas songs that I knew.
I fell into an almost trance state as I flowed from one song to another, some classical, some not. Once my fingers started to fall into rhythms, my mind relaxed and I began to really think. I remembered more than I was willing to admit. I remembered the boy from the party and how he’d had his hands on me. The way he let his mouth get very close to mine. He’s smelt of booze. I remembered that much clearly. He’d been sullen, but still smiling… or perhaps he had called me sullen. It was such a weird word and I knew that I hadn’t just pulled it out of obscurity on my own; someone had said it to me or about me. I think it meant sad, or something along those lines. I tried to go over what we’d said to one another. It had been a lot of yelling since the music had been so terribly loud. I stopped playing suddenly, my hands coming down on the keys hard, the sound reverberating off the walls of the auditorium. A thought had occurred to me.
It was my birthday. Perfect.
If this was what nineteen years old looked like then I personally wanted a refund. I closed my eyes and lifted my fingers from the piano and placed them in my lap. I was so afraid that I’d started shaking. Something had happened to me and I couldn’t understand what it was. It felt like there was a wall separating me from my memories about the night before. I could recall flashes, intense moments with no context and no concrete timeline for when they might have happened. A practical voice inside of me kept whispering could be certainties.
You just got drunk at a party. You danced with a boy you’d never met before. You got sick. That’s it. You probably just passed out from dehydration or maybe you got dizzy and fell. It isn’t scary, Gemma. It’s normal. You’re a normal college student. Should you have had that much to drink? No, probably not. But it was just a lesson learned. You made a mistake. You let your emotions about Crissy and Charlie get the best of you. It won’t happen again. Nothing about this is otherworldly. You aren’t otherworldly. You’re an eighteen – nineteen – year old girl. You were stupid, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Yes, of course. Practical Gemma was probably right. And I wanted to sit up straight and go about my day, placated. But there was still the question of my eyes and the fact that they were no longer mine. That didn’t fit into Practical Gemma’s story. So I argued against that, my mind reeling as I tried and failed to rationalize my life. I shook my head at stupid, Practical Gemma. She didn’t know what she was talking about.
Practicality no longer exists, Gemma. Practicality flew out the window when Charlie showed up and decided to completely gut the world. Things don’t make sense. He doesn’t make sense. His life doesn’t make sense. The fact that you want to kiss him doesn’t make sense. You should hate him. He’s infuriating. He’s terrifying. He’s dangerous. He isn’t even human. So why do you keep pretending that he is? Why do you keep trying to act like he’s like you? Like he’s a normal boy. None of this makes any sense; none of this is real or practical. Why should this one moment in your life be any more rational then the last two months have been? Nothing is practical or realistic anymore – why the hell should this be?
The voice was no more than a whisper, a broken noise that cut through my jumbled thoughts and made every muscle in my body tense. My head snapped up, my eyes scanning the room hastily until I saw him, standing near the doors. Charlie. He was here, his red hair a mess and his green eyes looking absolutely terrified. I stood up; the piano bench scraping the wooden stage was the only sound in the huge space. I took a step towards him, my mind filled with so much that I wanted to tell him that I couldn’t even formulate a sentence. We stood there in silence, separated by over a hundred empty theater seats.
When he spoke again, his voice trembled. “I don’t believe it.” His head was shaking, back and forth. “Please,” the word was soft, no more than a plea.
I opened my mouth, determined to say something to him. To apologize for getting upset with him on the way back from his house. I wanted to tell him he’d been right. To tell him that I’d overacted, that I was sorry. But no words came out.
A look of understanding crossed his features, just the slightest lift in his eyebrows. He swallowed and the action looked as if it pained him. Like he was swallowing some deep sorrow. He looked as if he might be sick, or like he might cry. But in an instance, all of that was gone and he looked blank. His eyes staring start ahead, almost looking through me. He walked towards me and when he did his movements were swift and his body language was business-like. I stood frozen, watching him as he moved towards the stage. He didn’t walk around to the staircase, instead, he walked straight forward. He gripped the edge of the platform, hoisted himself up and landed in a crouched position at the very front of the stage.
I took a step backward as he headed in my direction. My him hit the sharp edge of the piano and I stumbled slightly. There was something in his eyes, a resignation that I’d never seen before. The air got caught in my lungs as I tried to say his name, to ask him what he was doing, if everything was okay.
“C-Charlie?” The sound of my voice was lost as he let out a yell, an anguished sound that made me flinch. I didn’t have time to say anything else or to even recognize what was happening as both of his hands pressed against my shoulders, knocking me backward and into the piano.
My arms flailed behind me and I cried out as my lower back crashed into the sharp edge of the piano. The keys let out a groan under my weight and I clawed at them to try to keep myself from falling to the floor. My legs splayed and my foot knocked over the bench. I screamed, frightened and unsure what was even happening. Charlie had hold of the front of my tank top; the fabric bunched in his fist the only thing really keeping me from falling flat on my back. I tried to kick at him in an attempt to get away, this only made him angry. He hauled me forward and slammed me against the front half of the piano so I was back on my feet. He’d lost his mind. He’s completely lost his mind. His eyes were wild and his expression hateful as he leaned in against me.
I twisted, bring an elbow up to try and catch him in the face. He gritted his teeth and pulled me forward by the front of my shirt only to shove me backward again. My hands splayed at my sides, hitting random piano keys as I tried to steady myself. “L-Let me go.” My breathing was haggard, the urge to cry making my throat clench and unclench as a panic attack worked its way through my system. “W-W-What the h-hell-”
He cut me off, as one of his hands gripped my neck, the other still wound tightly in my shirt. He squeezed, his fingers pressing into my airway until I was choking and sputtering. I didn’t understand what was happening and I didn’t have time to think about it. I was suffocating, unable to breathe as Charlie’s stranglehold on my tightened even further. As his fingers gripped my throat tighter, the hand holding my shirt disappeared and the next thing I knew he had a knife in his hand. My eyes widened and I began kicking and twisting and throwing my elbows, my hands clawing at any exposed piece of skin I could reach; his arms, his hands, his neck, his face.
Fear empowered me, but Charlie was clearly experienced. He dodged my every move, managing to keep a tight hold on me and move out of my grasp at the same time. His expression darkened and I could see him make a decision, he let go of my throat and shoved me against the piano once again. As soon as I’d hit the piano he delivered a sharp punch to my stomach, I cried out in pain and my hands instinctually went to hug my middle. This was obviously what he’d intended as he swiftly caught both of my wrists in one of his and twisted me sharply so that he now had me pressed against him, my back against his chest as he pressed the knife to my throat.
His voice was at my ear, low and menacing. “You made a mistake when you chose her.”
His knife pressed against my throat right against the erratic pulse that hammered there. I closed my eyes, “C-Charlie.” My voice shook as I spoke, the sound less than a whisper. “I-I…” I tried to swallow my flinched as the action caused the knife to bite into my skin, I whimpered and spoke again, “Charlie. Please. Please don’t.”
He froze and I felt his chest heave as his breath hitched. I was an instant, a slight hesitation. A pause no longer than a heartbeat passed and he spoke, “How do you know my name?” I tried to quell the immense terror that filled me and focused on him, on what was happening. Charlie didn’t appreciate my hesitation; he growled under his breath and twisted me in his arms so that he could see my face. “How the hell do you know my name?” He pressed me against the sharp edge of the grand piano, but this time I remained standing. I forced myself to relax, to try to show him that I wasn’t going to fight him. Charlie’s aggressive stance didn’t lessen and he kept one hand around my wrists, holding them pinned against my shoulder, and the other hand wrapped securely around the knife, which he made sure never left my neck.
He shook me hard, startling the words out of my mouth. “We’re friends,” I gasped, “We’re friends -from school. Fr-From here. D-Don’t you remember that?”
He swallowed and his Adam’s apple bobbed, “Don’t lie to me.” He spoke through gritted teeth, almost spitting the words at me.
“It isn’t a lie. I-I promise. Charlie, it’s me.” I whispered, “It’s me, Gemma.”
Something flashed in his eyes, just the hint of hesitation, of uncertainty. Then he shook his head, shaking away any doubt he might have harbored just seconds earlier. “You aren’t her.” The words were dry, lacking any real conviction. I watched as he looked directly past me, his eyes slowly becoming unfocused. When he did look at me again he seemed detached from the situation, his expression blank and his actions more habitual, as if he was just going through the motions.
He leaned in, his lips hovering over mine. He breathed it, once sharply, then again, this time slower and deeper. I felt the familiar tingle, then burn, as something within my chest convulsed. He was taking my soul. I screamed in anger and fear. I’d almost died three times since I’d met him and damn if he’d be the one to deliver the final blow. I refused. I thrashed against him, barely recognizing my own voice as I began spouting any and all details that I knew about him. That I knew about us.
“Your s-sister is my roommate.”
My eyes filled with tears as a pain more acute than anything I’d ever experienced ripped through me.
“You’re my dance p-partn-ner.”
I convulsed as something jerked inside me, it felt like he was trying to pull my heart out of my body. Like things were cracking and snapping within me.
“We g-go t-to school together.”
I understood then. I knew what this was, what had happened.
“I-I’m n-not an echo.”
I wasn’t sure I was even speaking anymore.
I wasn’t sure what was even happening anymore. All I knew was a dizzying agony in my chest. My vision was flickering in and out, even when I could see I couldn’t see clearly. Everything was tinged, the corners of my vision black leaving only a small pocket through which I could sometimes see Charlie’s eyes.
“I’m not an echo.” I didn’t even know if my mouth was moving or if he could even hear me. I might have been screaming. I might have been completely mute. I was past caring. I just wanted to be heard. I wanted him to understand that he’d made a mistake – that we’d made a mistake.
“Charlie. I’m not an echo.”