Beep beep. Beep beep.
The machine echoed in my ears like a drumbeat sounding my doom. The sound of everything I’d worked for scattered to ash.
The sound of my mother slipping away from me.
I leaned back in the hard plastic hospital chair, rubbing my burning eyes. I had no idea what day it was or how long I’d been sitting there. A cramp shot up my leg – a dull ache that had nothing on the searing pain in my heart. I stretched out my leg, gasping as the cramp arced down the muscle.
It’s like they deliberately make hospital rooms as uncomfortable as possible. Because watching someone you love waste away doesn’t suck enough.
My foot brushed the violin case on the floor. Before I knew it, I held my instrument in my hands. The chin rest perfectly fitting my body and the familiar weight of the neck against my fingers gave me comfort. It felt as natural as breathing to run the bow across the strings, to play the familiar trembling notes of Bloch’s Nigun.
The Swiss composer wrote this piece in the memory of his mother, and it’s based on Jewish improvised chants. The idea is that by losing yourself in music, you become closer to God. Right now, I felt like strangling the big bastard in the sky for what he’d done to my mom, but I wasn’t playing for him.
Nigun was one of my mother’s favorite pieces – I learned it to play for her fortieth birthday. She’d hosted her party in her chic warehouse office in the East Village. All her investors and the executive team watched me in awe while she glowed with pride.
Now, I played it beside her hospital bed, to an audience of one.
The doctors say she might be able to hear music inside her coma. This might be my only shot at speaking to her, at drawing her back.
Mournful notes rang out as my bow danced over the strings. The grey hospital room came to life in that moment, the sterile edges washed away under a wave of lament. I fancied I saw the shadows of others who had sat in this same chair to cry over their loved ones. I conjured their pain and made it my own.
Music was magic.
I needed a little magic right now.
As I played, a cloying scent reached my nostrils. Fake floral – like the bowls of potpourri my grandmother used to leave around her house. Old English roses and hyacinths drenched in sticky toffee and covered in mothballs. The scent tugged at a forgotten memory, a ghost of the past.
My pinkie finger slipped on the string, causing a dull note. I winced, forcing myself to ignore the smell, and kept playing. It happened sometimes when I was lost in the music – the melody conjured images, smells, or feelings from deep in my subconscious. They felt real until I set down the bow, and then I’d realize how stupid that was. Obviously, I didn’t conjure scented memories with music.
It’s just the smell of the hospital disinfectant or something. Don’t get distract—
No, it’s not. Deja vu tugged at me, bringing with it an ugly foreboding. I’ve smelled that exact scent before.
I reached the end of the piece and lowered the bow. A familiar ache settled along my arm – pain was another thing I never felt until after I stopped playing. I once smashed my foot while climbing on stage. I played Beethoven’s entire Violin Sonata No. 9 standing on a broken toe, and I didn’t even notice.
What the fuck?
I jumped out of my skin.
My eyes flew to my mother, but she lay in the bed, immobile. The machine beep-beeped behind her. I whirled around.
“Brava.” A woman stood in the corner of the room. I hadn’t noticed her come in. Her Eastern European accent seemed so out-of-place in this ordinary hospital in the shittiest part of NYC. That wasn’t the only thing about her that was odd – an old fashioned floor-length gown in black lace and linen clung to her ample figure, and she clutched a large carpet bag with gold clasps. The fake floral smell rolled off her in waves. “You are still talented.”
I set down the violin, angry she’d intruded. “This is a private room.” The one indulgence I’d made in this entire shitshow, so I could grieve and hope and rage in private. And soon even that would be gone unless I came up with more cash.
“I am aware. I wish to speak to you, Faye de Winter.”
How does this strange woman know my name? Her presence tugged at me, the deja vu growing stronger. That smell and her voice were so familiar. Even that black dress sparked some hint of memory, but I couldn’t think where I’d have occasion to speak with such a woman. She looked like she’d got lost on the way to a Twilight fan convention.
Beep beep. Beep beep.
Tension sang in the air between us. I didn’t want her here, infecting my mom’s space with her scent. But I had to know why she knew my name and why’d she’d sought me out. I sighed. “Yeah?”
“Perhaps you do not recognize me. I am Madame Usher.”
That name pierced my heart like an arrow.
Of course. The perfume. How could I forget the way it made me choke during music classes, or how it clung to my father when he came home from his private lessons?
I hadn’t seen Madame Usher of Manderley Academy since my mother pulled me from her classes when I was nine years old. Alongside her husband on piano, she had been an accomplished violinist in her day but now ran an elite conservatory in the mountains offering expert tutelage for only the most exceptional musicians. She used to come to the city to teach a handful of super-rich students – children and adults, including me and my dad. But ever since Dad’s disappearance, her name had been poison in our house, never uttered.
“I see that you remember now. It has been, what, nine years?”
“Ten.” I would turn twenty this year.
“You were just a tiny wisp of a thing back then, but you mastered your Bach. The only person I heard play the Chaconne from Partita No. 2 better was Donovan.”
“Don’t talk to me about him,” I hissed.
“I see you’ve inherited your mother’s bitterness.”
“Get the fuck out.” I jabbed my finger at the door.
“You don’t come into my mother’s hospital room and accuse her of being bitter. I’d be upset too if I found out the husband who I supported through an expensive music education was fucking his teacher.”
“Such foul language.” Instead of retreating, Madame Usher stepped into the room and closed the door behind her. “You should know that I loved him with a passion I only ever reserved for music. My husband was a convenience – for the sake of our international career, it made sense to marry Victor. But when Donovan and I played, it was as though we made love through our instruments.”
I balled my hands into fists, resisting the childish urge to jam my hands over my ears. “Read my lips – I. Don’t. Want. To. Hear. This.”
The smile on Madame Usher’s lips boiled my blood. “He planned to leave your mother, and I to leave Victor. We were to run away together. But then he disappeared, and I have never known such pain before or since.”
“Get out,” I growled, stepping toward the call button. “Or I’ll have you removed by security.”
Madame Usher continued as though I’d never spoken. “After your mother removed you from my classes, I kept my eye on you, Faye. You might think of me as a guardian angel, hovering in the background, waiting for Donovan’s talent to blossom within you. Your father always believed you would one day surpass him, but I admit, I had my doubts. I do not accept just anyone into my tutelage, and you were never serious about your studies, always running about with Dorien.”
Dorien Valencourt. I closed my eyes, remembering the little boy who’d been my only friend growing up. Dorien took piano lessons from Victor Usher, but we always paired up for ensembles and recitals. Dorien was rich in a way my family could never hope to be – we practically lived in poverty to fund Dad’s career and my tuition – but I was too young to understand the gulf between us or why the other rich kids shunned me so openly. I just knew Dorien’s slate-grey eyes gleamed with joy whenever I showed up in class. We’d been the twin terrors of Madame Usher’s junior city school. The day Dorien placed his pet iguana in the baby grand and it jumped out just as Victor Usher sat down—
No. I couldn’t think about Dorien now, not on top of everything else. That pain still cut too deep.
“Dorien was never serious either, and he’s done well for himself,” I shot back.
“Ah. So you have followed his career?”
Even if I’d never wanted to hear his name again (which I definitely didn’t), I couldn’t help but see Dorien everywhere. Every week there was a new article gushing over Broken Muse, the ensemble Dorien formed with two of his friends. The music press delighted in following the trio –who they’d dubbed the Bad Boys of Baroque – as they tore up the European scene with their antics. They were my age, but their flamboyant playing style, modernized Baroque costumes and strings of exotic lovers were giving the stuffy Classical world a playboy makeover. Early last year they stopped touring and dropped off the face of the earth – no one knew where they were, which only added to their mystique. But I wasn’t going to give Madame Usher the satisfaction of revealing I knew any of that. So I ignored her question. “Tell me what you want, and leave.”
“I’ve come into the city to speak with music teachers and private schools. For months I’ve despaired at finding a student to fill our last open place. Your school’s music teacher put your name forward, and although I initially dismissed it because of the usual dross she tries to send me, the memory of your father’s talent encouraged me to seek you out. I’ve had a devil of a time tracking you down, but eventually, the trail led me here. I’m delighted it did. There is no need for you to audition – I’ve heard enough to offer you a place at Manderley if you want it.”
If I wanted it? The fuck was she kidding? It didn’t matter that I hated her guts. Of course I wanted it. Saliva pooled on my tongue, as if the very thought of stepping inside that hallowed mansion made me hungry.
The machines pulled me back to reality. Mom’s mysterious sickness. The mountains of medical bills. The two jobs I’d been working in an attempt to pay them off. I shook my head. “I can’t.”
“Faye, an offer like this is not extended lightly, and it will not be offered again.”
Don’t use my first name. We’re not, nor will we ever be, close. I gestured to the prone figure on the bed. “She needs me.”
“You do not understand.” Madame Usher moved to the end of the bed, standing over my mother and looking down at her with pursed lips. “I am not merely offering you a place at Manderley, but a chance at a future. I expect every musician who graduates to go on to a stunning international career. You cannot do that tethered to a hospital bed. We have the means to help you.”
“Help me how?”
“Your tuition will be paid by my late husband’s endowment fund. I shall provide your room and board, and an allowance for clothing and necessities. Most importantly, I will pay your mother’s medical debts and move her to a more advanced facility closer to the school, so you can visit her on weekends. In exchange, you will extend your services to the school.”
“You will cook meals, keep the house and rooms clean, make sure the instruments are stored correctly, that sort of thing.”
“What did your last maid die of?” I muttered.
Madame Usher’s mouth tugged at the corner. “A broken neck.”
I sucked in a breath. Is she serious?
Madame Usher nodded to my phone on the nightstand. “I will not dredge up that unfortunate incident by speaking of it aloud. Look it up if you still have your penchant for morbidity.”
She referred to the fact I’d been a strange kid. I was obsessed with horror books and ghost stories. Still was. My favorite thing to do on a Friday night was curling up in bed with Mom and a stack of junk food to watch a spooky film. I knew all the tropes by heart, but I never got tired of hiding under the covers from ghosts and monsters.
I picked up the phone and tapped a line into the search bar. A few moments later, the headline popped up: “MAID DEAD AT ELITE MUSIC ACADEMY.” The maid had been found crumpled at the bottom of the stairs – a nasty fall. A terrible accident. The journalist took a kind of morbid delight in describing the trauma to her skull, suggesting the angle of her body meant that she’d been pushed. Police investigated, but they eventually ruled her death an accident, although the journalist enjoyed speculating otherwise.
Knowing Madame Usher, she probably folded the towels wrong.
Madame Usher frowned at my phone. “As you may be able to guess, it becomes difficult to find new help when the press has made every attempt to suggest your maid died of foul play. Hence, I was inspired to seek you out. We can help each other.”
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