Dark Notes by Pam Godwin

Poverty.

It used to be easier.

Maybe because I don’t remember it much as a child. Because I was happy.

Now all that’s left is grief and yelling and unpaid bills.

At seventeen, I don’t know a lot about the world, but I find that being unwanted and unhappy is harder to endure than having nothing to eat.

The knot in my stomach tightens. Maybe if I puke before I leave the house, it will loosen my nerves and clear my head. Except I can’t afford to lose the calories.

A deep breath confirms the buttons on my nicest shirt are holding together, my considerable cleavage still conservatively hidden. The knee-length skirt fits better this morning than it did in the thrift store, and the ballet flats… Forget it. There’s nothing I can do about the cracked soles and rips in the toes. They’re the only shoes I own.

I step out of the bathroom and tiptoe through the kitchen, combing shaky fingers through my hair. The wet strands fall against my back and soak my shirt. Shit, is my bra showing through the damp fabric? I should’ve worn my hair up or dried it, but I’m out of time, which further hardens my stomach.

Jesus, I shouldn’t be this anxious. It’s only the first day of school. I’ve done this numerous times.

But it’s my senior year.

The year that will determine the rest of my life.

One mistake, a less-than-perfect GPA, a violation of dress code, the tiniest infraction will steer the spotlight away from my talent and shine it on the poor girl from Treme. Every step I take in the judgmental, marble halls of Le Moyne Academy is an endeavor to prove I’m more than just that girl.

Le Moyne is one of the most recognized, elite, and expensive performing arts high schools in the nation. It’s intimidating. Fucking terrifying. Doesn’t matter if I’m the best pianist in New Orleans. Since my freshman year, the academy has been looking for a reason to expel me, to fill my competitive spot with a student who brings talent and financial endowments.

The stench of stale smoke roots me in the reality of my life. I flick the kitchen wall switch, illuminating piles of crushed beer cans and empty pizza boxes. Crusty dishes fill the sink, cigarette butts litter the floor, and what the hell is that? I lean over the counter and squint at the burnt residue in the bowl of a spoon.

Motherfucker. My brother used our best utensils to cook coke? I toss it in the trash with a surge of anger.

Shane claims he can’t pay the bills, but the jobless bastard always has money to party. Not only that, the kitchen was spotless when I fell asleep, notwithstanding the mold blooming on the walls and the laminate flaking away from the countertops. This is our home, goddammit. The only thing we have left. He and Mom have no idea what I’ve endured to keep us current on the mortgage payments. For their sake, I hope they never find out.

Soft fur brushes my ankle, drawing my attention to the floor. Huge golden eyes stare up out of an orange tabby face, and my shoulders loosen instantly.

Schubert tilts his scruffy chin and rubs his whiskers against my leg, his tail twitching in the air. He always knows when I need affection. Sometimes I think he’s the only love left in this house.

“I have to go, sweet boy,” I whisper, stretching down to scratch his ears. “Be a good kitty, okay?”

I remove the last slice of banana bread from its hiding spot in the back of the pantry, relieved Shane hadn’t found it. I wrap it in a paper towel and attempt to make a quiet-as-possible escape to the front door.

Our crumbling house is one room wide and five rooms long. No hallways. With the rooms set up one in front of the other and all the doors lined up, I could stand on the back stoop, shoot a shotgun at the front door, and not hit any walls.

But I could hit Shane. Deliberately. Because he’s a fucking burden and a waste of life. He’s also nine-years older, a hundred-and-fifty-pounds bigger, and the only sibling I have.

The hundred-year-old wood planks groan beneath my feet, and I suck in a breath, waiting for Shane’s drunken roar.

Silence. Thank you, Jesus.

Holding the wrapped bread against my chest, I pass through Mom’s room first. I walked through thirty minutes ago, half-asleep and shuffling for the bathroom in the dark. But with the kitchen light shining through the doorway, the lump in her bed looks unmistakably human.

I stumble with surprise, trying to remember the last time I saw her. Two…three weeks ago?

A flutter stirs behind my breastbone. Maybe she came home to wish me luck on my first day?

Three quiet strides carry me to the bed. The rectangular rooms are cramped and narrow, but the ceilings soar twelve feet or taller. Daddy used to say the pitched roof and long front-to-back layout was a ventilation design to ensure all his love could flow through.

But Daddy’s gone, and all that’s left circulating through the house is the musty, sputtering coughs from the window units.

I bend over the mattress, straining to see Mom’s cropped hair in the shadows. Instead, I’m met with the bitter stink of beer and weed. Of course. Well, at least she’s alone. I have no interest in meeting the man-of-the-month she’s been shacking up with.

Should I wake her? Instinct tells me not to, but dammit, I ache to feel her arms around me.

“Mom?” I whisper.

The lump shifts, and a deep groan rumbles from the blankets. A man’s groan, one I know with horrifying intimacy.

A chill grips my spine as I scramble backward. Why is my brother’s best friend in Mom’s bed?

Lorenzo’s thick arm swings up, and his hand catches the back of my neck, pulling me toward him.

I drop the bread in my attempt to push away, but he’s stronger, meaner, and never responds to No.

“No,” I say anyway, fear amplifying my voice, my pulse roaring past my ears. “Stop it!”

He wrestles me to the bed, shoving me face-down beneath his sweaty body. Hot beer breath smothers me. Then his weight, his hands…oh God, his erection. He jabs my ass with it, rucking up my skirt, his heavy panting scraping my ears.

“Get off me!” I thrash wildly, my fingers clawing at the blankets, taking me nowhere. “I don’t want this. Please, don’t—”

His palm slaps over my mouth, shutting me up as his strength confines my movements.

My body grows cold, numb, collapsing like a dead thing, separating from my headspace. I let myself slip away, my concentration on the safety in what I know, what I love, as I wrap my entire being with dark atmosphere, light strokes of piano keys, atonal rhythm. Scriabin’s Sonata No.9. I see my fingers walking through the piano piece, hear the haunting melody, and feel each quivering note pulling me further into the black mass. Away from the bedroom. Away from my body. Away from Lorenzo.

A hand snakes under my chest, squeezing my breast, pulling on my shirt, but I’m lost in the dissonant notes, recreating them with care, distracting my thoughts. He can’t hurt me. Not here with my music. Never again.

He shifts, shoving his hand between my butt cheeks, inside my panties, probing roughly at the hole in back that he always makes bleed.

The sonata shatters in my mind, and I try to reassemble the chords. But his fingers are relentless, forcing me to endure his touch, his palm muffling my scream. I gasp for air and frantically kick my legs near the bedside table. My foot collides with the lamp and sends it crashing to the floor.

Lorenzo freezes, his hand tightening on my mouth.