Ezra felt like the peeling walls were closing in, the ceiling inching down to his perspiring head and the air in the room being replaced by the discarded notes of Beethoven's fifth sonata. It was hot: The lower, older rooms of the conservatory were basically four thick walls and a roof with no air conditioning or windows.
"Try again," he heard Professor Evans sigh. "Just play the notes sharper."
Ezra placed his hands on the piano, itching to start. He knew what he had to do, could see himself in his mind, playing the piece perfectly, hitting the notes with just the right amount of pressure.
The first chord hit hard, and he felt it resonate in the tiny room, leaving a trail of scattered little notes: a mallet striking ice, the cracks ebbing away. He was submerged in the notes, drowning in them. His fingers were aching: He felt them shake while stretching his pinky and his thumb to reach an interval. He knew Professor Evans was watching for crisp, clear notes, each integrated in the melody yet with its own bite, but in his fog of music everything slurred. All he could do was jab the keys harder and hope for the best.
"Stop, Ezra," Professor Evans said in that controlled voice he used only when he was beyond exasperated.
Ezra kept playing: He was only at the beginning of the piece and if Professor Evans would just listen for a few minutes he would see that Ezra could play it right.
Ezra banged out a series of chords. It sounded like a car crashed.
The student's hands gave out and flopped onto the keys.
Ezra started to protest.
"Just one more time."
"Go home," Professor Evans repeated. "Your focus is shot: We're not going to get any further today."
The cold air hit him hard as Ezra walked home. He turned up the dark street to his apartment, opened the door, and walked across the living room, deftly avoiding the sticking-out corners of his piano and the piles of music theory books stacked at odd intervals. He took off his coat, shoes and tie, flung them on the floor and collapsed onto the bed.
- - -
In the cramped staff room Professor Evans washed the dirt off his hands. His legs ached from standing over Ezra, his head throbbed, his ears rang. He turned off the faucet and leaned against the counter, closing his eyes.
"That boy again?"
"Good evening, Noah," the professor sighed
He cracked open one eye. The Director, Noah Flemming, stood in front of the chair like a smug turtle; his glasses were held together with a chain and his body swathed in a coat and scarf, a razor blade hidden in a marshmallow. Noah loved students with vigor, with spice, with work ethic. But above all, he loved students with true talent.
Noah despised Ezra. When the director first found out that the son of two renowned music teachers would be attending the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, he was so eager to get started and unravel that raw talent that he intercepted Ezra during orientation, dragged him into an empty room and sat him at the piano.
"That's not fair, Noah," Professor Evans remembered chiming in quietly when Flemming, after a week of work with Ezra, stated that the boy had no future in music and should leave the conservatory. Noah stopped mid-sentence, turned with a sneer that morphed into a twisted smile, and the next day Professor Evans wandered into the lower rooms in search for the boy with a program in his hand and a clenched gut.
The boy was draped in a plaid shirt drooping over his palms and fraying at the edges; with eyes the color of steel that took up half his face. They started with something easy, "Gymnopedies," and Professor Evans understood that teaching the word gentle required incredible force. Ezra had frail fingers but the will of an oil rigger. He played with one goal: to reach the end of the last measure with the notes intact. Professor Evans understood why Noah hated the boy so much: He played as if the compositions of geniuses who wove gospel with their hands were the concrete he trod on.
Only after Ezra boldly told Professor Evans that, if they did not move on, he would learn a Rachmaninoff piece and serenade Director Flemming with it, did Professor Evans bring up the pickaxe for the tunnel Ezra had been trying to navigate ever since he laid his hands on the piano: the piano panels at the end of the year. Ezra's mind reeled: The doors that were all off limits to him before, slammed shut by old piano teachers and his parents and Flemming and anyone who had ever given him a pitiful shake of their head, suddenly had a key, dangling above him. He mentally combed over all the pieces he had played in the past year, trying to remember which ones he didn't absolutely butcher, which one he could maybe, with God's blessing, pull off for the panel.
Then he felt in his hands eight smooth Xeroxed pages and found he has holding the first movement of Beethoven's fifth sonata.
- - -
There were always strangers in his house, coming in, playing for an hour with his mom or his dad, leaving, another one coming and taking their place at the piano. He never learned their names: To him, they were just the tall one; the one with the screaming baby brother; the one who made the house sound like Christmas, whom his parents would talk about at the dinner table, whom his mom smiled at and hugged after every lesson while Ezra watched from the bottom of the stairs.
He had started piano at age 7, after Christmas boy had left and his mother had some room in her schedule. They would sit at the piano, Ezra playing C Major scale over and over and his mom next to him on the bench, half listening, half answering emails. After dinner, when he tried to practice, she would yell at him to stop with that racket, please, Ezra, I've had a long day. But the day after Thanksgiving all of them, Ezra and dad and mom, sat at the piano together, until he managed to play his first piece, and his mom smiled a smile that wasn't as bright as the one that she gave to Christmas boy, but close enough to make Ezra want to make her smile like that all the time.
He started studying with one of his mom's friends, who would end each lesson giving Ezra a lollipop and a sad smile. Talk at the dinner table was back to being sprinkled with unknown names. He kept playing, his parents kept filtering through students that weren't him, and ten years later, when it came time to apply to college, Ezra looked through the catalog and applied to the music school that was farthest from his home.
- - -
Sitting at the bench with those eight pages fanned out in front of him for the first time made Ezra's stomach churn. As he started the sonata, trying to make his way through the thickets of notes, then as he picked up speed, then as he played that brutal seven finger chord without pausing for the first time, he felt as if he was 7 years old again and sitting at the piano sandwiched between his parents.
Listening to Ezra play reminded Professor Evans of his early college days, when he was trying to master chunks of dull music theory. Every note sounded the same. And Ezra, after so many times of playing the piece, in his opinion, perfectly, then looking up and seeing Professor Evans' sour expression, felt a gray wall grow between him and the piano. But he kept drilling, forcing out stale notes with metal hands. Fall ended and winter came, the months blurring into a bullet train heading straight to the date of the panels, set for collision, with Ezra on it. His hands hurt constantly, from playing those same four notes that he always missed, from smashing his hand into the keys when, even after two hours of practicing, he couldn't play them right. One by one parts of him flaked off. He lost so much weight he used a kitchen knife to poke an extra hole in his belt. His love of music was replaced with the deep aching feeling to prove them wrong, to prove them all wrong, Director Flemming and Professor Evans and his parents and all of the others who gave him those piteous smiles behind his back while he played. So he played until his fingers throbbed and his back bent over like a question mark. Instead of sweet velvet melodies, his mouth filled with bitterness every time he sat down at the bench.
- - -
The boy seemed smaller, collapsing onto himself. His eyes, crusty and red, swam, and his flannel shirt smelled of sweat and nail varnish. Professor Evans wondered that he hadn't noticed it before. He wondered how long Ezra had been like this.
"Ezra, are you ..."
"I'm fine, Professor," the boy interrupted, his tone rimmed with rusting steel.
"Are you sure? You look ..."
Tired. Skeletal. Undone.
"Just spent a little too much time practicing last night," the boy grimaced.
"I know you're committed, Ezra, and the competition is important to you, but taking care of yourself comes first."
Ezra's mind, already blurry and drunk on notes from the night before, was screaming. He wanted to shake Professor Evans, the stupid fool, to make him understand: This competition was his future. There would be no retakes, no other opportunities. Sleeping? Eating? The professor, who had talent, who was respected, who hadn't almost been turned out by the director of the conservatory, could afford these luxuries. Ezra could not.
"Can we just play? Please?" he added when he saw Professor Evans about to interject. He sat down at the piano, and Professor Evans knew the argument was over.
"Look at the beginning of the measure. Dolce. Sweetly, Ezra, gently. You can't just bulldoze through this part."
Ezra dropped his hand from the keys, turning to glare at Professor Evans.
"What do you want from me? I play the notes perfectly. I follow the dynamics. My trills are crisp. Why do you keep crucifying me? "
"That's not enough, Ezra, you have to express the section. What you don't understand is that music isn't just notes strung together. You need emotion. You need to believe in what you're playing. Playing the notes perfectly, that's the less important part. You need to care about the music, Ezra."
Ezra stood up with his shoulders drawn.
"Really?" he scoffed, voice spiraling up. "The last thing I ate were two slices of bread yesterday. I've slept six hours in two days. I dropped a mug on the floor and cut my foot because my hands were shaking so badly. All of this so I can sit at the piano and get every single note right, and you're telling me I don't care?"
The poor boy, Professor Evans thought. Why is he doing this to himself? What does he want to prove so much?
"Ezra," he whispered. "Did your parents force you? To come here? To play?"
Anger morphed to shock morphed to sadness morphed back to anger, disfiguring the boy's face.
"Is that what everyone thinks? That I'm here to make my parents happy?"
Professor Evans didn't know anymore. All he saw were the cracks on Ezra's skin.
"I can't-Do you really-You, of everyone-I trusted-"
The professor reached out and touched the boy's shoulder, watched him recoil, pulled his hand off. Ezra backed away, a lone tear running down his frozen face, grabbed his music binder and shoved out the door.
- - -
Fifteen minutes before his panel Ezra and Professor Evans met in the lobby of the hotel. The bruises under Ezra's eyes were concealed, his suit pressed and neat: He looked like a regular music student.
"Make sure you are relaxed, take a deep breath before you start and feel the music,"
"I know, Professor."
Silence. What can you say, thought Professor Evans, to a lamb being led to slaughter.
"Ezra Miller?" the hall proctor called out.
"I have to go," Ezra said, flashing the old man a micro smile.
"Good luck, son."
- - -
Professor Evans was standing when Ezra entered. He walked across the room, placed the envelope in his hand and watched as Ezra tore open the heavy stationery and swept his eyes over it. The paper dropped, and Professor Evans saw all the blood ran out of the boy's face. His body started to shake, his eyes went blank.
Professor Evans picked up the paper from the ground and read over the courteous heading, the surgical rejection, carried out with words coated in fake remorse.
- - -
He woke up in the dark of his living room, stretched out on the couch, with a blanket covering him. His limbs were too heavy, and something was nagging, digging into his mind; he had lost something but couldn't remember what.
He spied a sheet of score on the floor. A match clicked, and his brain was on fire.
He screamed, throwing off the blanket. He couldn't think, he didn't know what he was doing: All he felt was the burning in his head. Too much, too much. He clawed at his hair, gasping.
His side hit the sharp edge of the piano. Ezra turned and saw blood on the keys, his blood, left over from his murder, the small pieces of himself he had been killing every time he sat on that bench. The cause of his ruin, standing upright in his apartment, ruthless. He heard faint laughter coming from underneath the cover.
"Shut up," he whispered.
The laughter grew. The piano taunted, cruel, delighting in his pain.
The room grew smaller, pushing Ezra closer to the piano, closer to the demon beneath the hood.
Ezra picked up a bar lying on the floor and smashed it across the top. The piano cracked and splintered, but the laughter grew louder.
"Stop it! Stop laughing! Get away from me!" Ezra kept screaming, hitting the keys, the music rack, the soundboard, trying to kill the evil hiding in the piano, ripping him from the inside out, but the mocking reverberated inside the room, inside his head, and he tried to scream louder, hit harder to make it go away but it was choking him, consuming him, and he was weak, so weak. The bar fell out of his hands and Ezra collapsed, sobbing onto the splinters, his hands over his ears. The laughter kept washing over him in a wave, unyielding and terrible, and all he could do was lay curled on the floor, crying, and wait for the demon to leave.