Sing Us a Story – Challenge #1

This short story was inspired by the following songs provided to me on Facebook. The challenge was to write a story inspired by all of these songs together.

“Aunt Marge’s Waltz” from Harry Potter and Prisoner of Azkaban
“Mama Who Bore Me” from Spring Awakening
“My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink, And I Don’t Love Jesus” by Jimmy Buffet
“Walkaway Joe” by Trisha Yearwood
“Never Let Me Go” by Florence + The Machine
“Silver Springs” by Fleetwood Mac

seashore during nighttime

Photo by Studio 7042 on Pexels.com

Sing Us a Song

The familiar stench of Marlboros filled the bar in a warm haze, the kind that lingered long after the smokers left at the end of the night. It was embedded in the wooden stools, the fabric of the seats, even the dingy paintings on the walls. Miles didn’t mind it. He might as well have been a smoker himself, as much second-hand as he took in when he was here. The Snake Pit was his home away from home these days, with it’s age-old patrons, dingy dark wood paneled walls, and long-standing, unspoken open mic. The latter was the biggest draw of the place. Honestly, it didn’t have much else going for it other than location.

The Snake Pit could easily sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, at minimum. Beachfront properties were hot commodities, but the owner was as cantankerous as she was stubborn. The Pit had been passed down her family line for generations, each and every one of them refused to budge no matter how many offers landed at their door. Miles, for one, was grateful. There wasn’t another place like this anywhere on the Maryland coast.

Miles strummed his guitar up on the little platform The Pit called a stage. It could just about fit three people, if they got creative, but it was just perfect for a stool, an acoustic guitar, and a song for a room full of drunks that weren’t really listening.

His calloused fingers plucked at the strings half-heartedly as he sang a gravelly rendition of “The Piano Man”. Miles would bet money that no one in the joint cared that there wasn’t a piano in sight, they just wanted music to fill the quiet and he just wanted to sing songs he liked. It was a beautifully symbiotic relationship.

Miles’ thoughts drifted as he sang. He knew the songs well enough that he didn’t really have to think much about ‘em, and even if he missed a lyric, who’d notice? Thoughts of Jamie Byers crept into his head as he sang his half-hearted attempt at Billy Joel.

He says, ‘Son, can you play me a memory
I’m not really sure how it goes…”

“I’ll follow you anywhere,” the Jamie in his head whispered. Her imaginary voice was just as soft and just as full of conviction as it had been the day she’d said it. “I mean it, Miles. I’d do anything for you.”

But it’s sad and it’s sweet and I knew it complete
When I wore a younger man’s clothes.’”

Jamie had meant it, too. She’d stuck by him through the better part of two years and never had so much as a second thought, far as Miles could tell.

“We’re gonna make it big, Jay.” He’d told her. “It’ll be just you, and me, and the music forever. Just come with me.” A promise and a serenade had been all it took to convince Jamie. She’d packed herself a bag and thrown it in the back of his pickup, despite the pleading of her mother.

“La la la, di da da,
La la, di da da da dum…”

At first it hadn’t been easy, but it was alright. Sleeping in the truck, traveling from city to city, it was all a big adventure to her. She’d been bright-eyed and eager to please, freshly eighteen to his rugged twenty-two. He was her prince charming, she’d said so herself so many times, her hero who’d saved her from a five-year-plan and a life of boredom. He’d never seen a reason to disagree with her.

“Sing us a song, you’re the piano man,
Sing us a song tonight…”

Most nights, they’d slept in his ‘94 Silverado. Most days, they ate whatever they could get from tips after long hours spent playing tunes on street corners. Jamie was always there, singing along with him or bobbing her head with the tunes as she sat on the curb with his hat. When things got slim, a few convenience stores had wound up on the business end of his Smith & Wesson, but Jamie had been right there behind him holding open a bag for cash.

“Well, we’re all in the mood for a melody
And you’ve got us feelin’ alright.”

Things had gone on like that month after month. Jamie’s bright-eyed glow had dulled, but every time he told her he loved her, a spark would reignite behind those baby blues and she’d be all-in. He couldn’t be sure that he’d ever really meant it, but she was always ready to believe it.

“Now John at the bar is a friend of mine-”

A sharp POPtwaaang brought the song to a complete halt.

For the first time that night, a couple of the beer-flushed bar patrons looked over at Miles. A hushed murmur of half-finished conversations filled the quiet, most of the others hadn’t even noticed.

Miles knew before he’d even looked down at his guitar that he’d broken another string. Sure enough, his low E string had severed at the bridge and the long end now dangled over his knee like a limp spaghetti noodle. With a sigh, he leaned into the mic—was that thing even on?—and waved a hand at the crowd. “Sorry folks. I think that’s as sure a sign as any that I’m done for the night.”

He rubbed his stubbled chin and picked up his guitar by the neck, stepping off the ‘stage’. Miles had left his worn guitar case out in front of it, but he never expected much from it. Tonight was no different than any other night, all he had were a few nickels, a couple quarters from some high-roller, and broken peanut shells. He knelt in front of the case and set his guitar inside, he’d deal with the string tomorrow. Right now, his head ached and his restless limbs tingled with the need to get up and get moving somewhere. Anywhere.

Miles snapped his case closed and grabbed it by the handle, hauling it to the door and out onto the rickety porch. Brisk, salty wind hit him from the east. The sound of crashing waves and the briny smell of the sea pulled him to the shore, and Miles wasn’t about to even try resisting. The frigid surf was hardly welcoming in the chill of September, but Miles wasn’t planning on swimming. His old leather jacket and heavy denim pants kept out the cold just well enough for a night walk on the beach.

He kicked off his shoes, peeled off his stale socks, tossed them haphazardly over his sneakers before setting them on the corner of The Pit’s wooden porch.

Miles curled his toes in the cool sand with a small sigh of tired relief. The distant sound of another song filled the quiet spaces between the crashing waves, giving Miles pause. He hadn’t seen anyone in The Pit that cared to sing, much less anyone skilled enough to sing as well as whoever it was he heard now. Her voice was low and clear, smooth and somehow strong and soft all at once.

Curiosity got the best of him. He stepped back up on the porch and yanked the door open a few inches to see who’d taken the stage in his place.

The stage was empty.

All he heard from inside was the droning buzz of conversation and badly told drunken jokes. He still heard the whispers of the song from behind him and realized he’d

The song was coming from outside.

Miles let the door fall shut and stepped back off the porch onto the sand, listening more intently for the source of the music. The melody was haunting and beautiful, nothing more than vocals with the percussive crashing waves accompanying it. Leaving the beach was the farthest thing from his mind, now. He had to find the singer. Her song pulled him, tugging at invisible strings in his chest that he couldn’t possibly explain. The song wasn’t even in English, he’d never heard a language like this before. It was breathtaking to listen to.

His body seemed to move on it’s own, his feet pushed him toward the source of the song through sand that softened and sank beneath him more and more the further he got from The Snake Pit. He walked along the sand with purpose, his chin stretched high as he searched the moonlit shore for the source of the melody. Pale moonbeams danced across the silvery sands to his left as the tide pushed and pulled over the water-smoothed surface, grassy dunes waved in the chilly wind to his right, but Miles barely saw them. His eyes were focused straight ahead, searching the night for the seemingly invisible singer.

Her song grew stronger the more he walked, he was going in the right direction. He’d known that from the start, though. He’d felt her. He could feel her still. She was close.

Thoughts of Jamie crept into his mind as he trekked through the soft sands, though he couldn’t say why. Jamie hadn’t been a great singer. She was good enough for backup, could hold a simple harmony most days, but her voice was nothing like this woman’s.

Memories of her pushed and pulled at his mind like the tide against the shore. Flickers of their last days together flashed through his thoughts as the music carried on. One moment, it was Miles and Jamie, falling asleep on the motel bed just outside of Boston. She’d been happy that night. So happy.

Another beat and he was in the motel bathroom, staring at himself in the mirror while she slept peacefully in the dark room behind him. He saw his eight-o’clock shadow, his baggy eyes staring back at himself just as clearly as they had been the night that it had happened.

The song continued, each note in the melody seemed to trigger another detail in his memory. The sink with its ‘marbled’ surface that had started peeling and bubbling in seven different places. The scratches on the mirror that made little pale hashmarks all over his reflection. The positive pregnancy test sitting on the edge of the counter.

He didn’t even realize he’d started walking into the surf until he felt a frigid wave spill over his feet. The ocean water pooled around his feet as the water passed him by, then retreated back into the sea with a rush of foam.

Miles looked straight ahead, his eyes locked on a figure only twenty feet ahead. He hadn’t truly even seen her until this moment, his mind lost in memory. She sat upon the rocky breakwater, a huge line of craggy rocks that kept the swells from growing too large. Her silhouette was dark, her face hidden by a wall of stringy black wet hair. She stroked her long hair with both hands in a hypnotic rhythm as she sang, one over the other, over the other.

“Nthy’l sey yaur dimour,
J’sen tey vair kihour…”

Miles still had no idea what she was singing, the words were just as foreign to him as they had been when he’d first heard it. He waded deeper, the waves crashed at his calves, then his thighs. He felt the freezing water chill him to the bone, but the part of his brain that might’ve cared seemed to be shut off entirely. All there was was the music. The beautiful figure ahead of him.

“Vair siil relan’ys dyn,
J’sen tey kavrinaar…”

She was only ten feet away now, her voice strong and clear over the waves. He could see the glint of moonlight reflecting off the waves into her eyes. They seemed impossibly big, impossibly dark. They reminded him of the eyes of a seal, big, black, and bottomless. Her face was soft and fat, cherubic, even if it looked almost blue in the secondhand moonlight.

Miles’ eyes lingered on her hands as they stroked her long hair, one hand over the other, over the other, over the other. Her fingers were long and tapered, her body a hearty pear shape with wide hips that ended in a long, glistening tail. The waves crashed over the rocks around her, coating her tail with salty water with each pass. Had he been thinking straight, Miles might have expected scales, but her tail looked more like that of a whale or a dolphin, smooth and strong. He couldn’t see a fin, and didn’t have the mind to look for one. His eyes were stuck on the singer’s, locked in their depths as she sang.

Another memory flickered through his mind. Jamie, asleep on that motel bed. Her face had been slack, placid in the peaceful embrace of a restful sleep. He hadn’t lingered any longer than it took to pack his single bag and slip out the door.

As he moved closer to the songstress on the breaker, the water swept over him in heavy swells. His shirt was soaked up to his shoulders, the ocean was up to his waist now, higher when the waves crashed against him. Her song gripped his soul in a way he’d never thought music could, it was like magic.

The singer’s voice was no longer alone. Harmonies joined hers from seemingly all directions. Miles heard voices surround him, a lower pitch from his left, a higher one from his right, and another soft alto from behind him. His eyes stayed stuck on the creature on the breaker, though.

As they others sang around him, the singer on the breaker stopped her song and lifted her face to him. She leaned forward and stopped running her hands over her hair, instead reaching a hand out to Miles.

“Come with me.” She spoke to him, her words thick with a strange accent.

It sounded almost French, but it could have been Chinese, maybe even Irish. Every way his mind tried to make sense of it, it confused him further. Her voice pulled him back into his lulled state, it was just as beautiful speaking as it had been singing, and his confusion quickly slipped back into a peaceful bliss.

Miles closed the distance between them, stopping only when his feet found the rocks of the breaker below him. Sharp pain jolted through his foot as it struck the jagged surface and he yelped, taking a step back. Torn from his reverie, Miles hissed and stumbled sluggishly through the frigid water. The cold stung, he could really feel it now. It was a wonder he’d felt the pain in his foot at all, most of his toes were completely numb.

“What… what is this? Who are you?” He asked suddenly, looking around.

The voices singing around him stopped abruptly, their heads just barely above the waves. They bobbed with the water, their hair fanning out and glittering in the clear moonlight.

The figure on the breaker spoke again, drawing his attention back. “Come with me.”

“No, I-”

“Come with me,” she repeated, and then began to sing the words in a repetitive melody.

“Come with me,
Come with me,
Come with me,
Come with me.”

The others sang with her, joining in her song with intricate harmonies that danced and twisted around each other seamlessly.

Little fish began to throw themselves into the air in a strange, whirling dance all around them. One flipped up out of the water and flopped right off of Miles’ chest and back into the waves.

His previous panic faded into a peaceful amusement. He watched the little fish with a chuckle, lifting his hand from the water. Another couple fish jumped out of the water and over his outstretched hand as if they were trained circus animals.

His mind was lost in the music, he’d never heard anything like it. He wanted to burrow into the melodies, be consumed by the harmonies.

“Your music is… It’s beautiful.” Miles managed to say, though his lips felt thick and sluggish.

The lovely creature on the breaker flicked her tail and slid off the rocks, back into the water. She reach out and clasped Miles’ hand, she was cool to the touch. Her skin was silky and rubbery all at once and met his eyes, holding his gaze with her own as the others sang around her.

“Come with me?” She said with a soft smile, her accent still thick and strange.

It only made him want her more.

Another memory flashed through his mind, but it grew foggy as the mysterious singer took both of his hands. She pulled him gently, and he followed without question into deeper and deeper waters.

He saw Jamie through the lens of his memories, her bright eyes staring back up at him. Everything around her was disappearing from focus, but he saw her clearly. He heard the promise he’d given Jamie again as the water reached his neck. “It’ll be just you, and me, and the music forever. Just come with me.”

Come with me.

They sang one last time, and Miles could no longer touch the ocean floor.

Her hands pulled him deeper still, and all that was left was the sound of the waves steadily crashing against the shore.

A Bit of Research

So I’ve been revising Rook, and one of the things I’ve been wanting (and struggling) to do is to get more of the Harlem Renaissance into the story. The struggle is in working it into the plot, since the characters are more or less removed from the world they live in since everyone they meet forgets them the second they look away.

I had planned to go more into Harlem in general in the second book, but I found the perfect opportunity to have Nora experience a taste of the rich culture she’s living in, and found a really awesome person that I think everyone would enjoy reading about.

I’ll paraphrase a few bits, but definitely do check out the full article here!

gladysbentley

This is Gladys Bentley. She performed at a club called the Clam House in the ’20s in Harlem, right off 133rd, and was known for her signature tuxedo, mad piano skills, her habit of flirting with women in the audience during a performance, and of course her back-up dancers, also in drag.

I would love to see a musical about her life, honestly. Can you imagine? That would be beyond fabulous.

I’m not sure if she’ll make an appearance in Rook yet, but I really would love to include her. We’ll see how the cookie crumbles. Stay tuned!