The Score

The Score

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the I am participating in the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge again this year. At the start time for the challenge, we are assigned a genre, a subject, and a character. I was assigned drama, a photo shoot, and a composer. We have eight days to write and submit a 2500 word short story within those parameters.

Last year, I didn’t make it into the top five in my heat, but I did receive an honourable mention for my short horror story, Cat Scratch Fever. My goal this year is to make it into the top five so that I can advance to Round Two. Wish me luck. Here’s my submission:

Sophia sat in a black leather chair, a black nylon cape wrapped around her. She hated modeling, but it paid the bills and enabled her to focus on her dream of composing music for feature films. The years of training and working to achieve her degree in Musical Arts was about to pay off. Despite everyone insisting her dream was impossible to attain, Miles Danforth, one of the hottest movie directors in Hollywood, chose her to compose the score for his latest fantasy film. They were so close to completion after unending hours of composing and syncing the music to the dramatic elements in the film, but the notes to match the emotional impact of the final climatic scene continued to elude her.

As she sat there, she rolled the scene in her head, playing with notes, beats, tempos. She didn’t use software to compose her music, as most composers did these days. She preferred the old fashioned way of writing the music by hand. Her piano usually accompanied her, but she couldn’t bring it with her to Michael’s photo studio, so she settled for envisioning the music mentally.

It came to her right in the middle of her makeup application – the perfect sequence of notes, the perfect beat and tempo for the piece. She repeated it in a continuous loop in her mind, her fingers itching for a pencil and her staff paper. This was the moment that would make or break her career. It was the difference between Ramen noodles and fine dining, studio apartments and penthouses, packed subway cars and stretch limos.

The moment the makeup artist and hair stylist removed her cape, she shot out of the chair, grabbed her worn messenger bag, withdrew several sheets of staff paper and a pencil, and dropped down to write right there on the floor.

She just had to get a few more notes down on paper – the building, building, building to the crescendo where the protagonist finally defeats the invaders, filled with jubilation, triumph, relief. Then she turns, sees her lover sprawled in the red, dusty dirt and everything stops – her heart, the music. One beat, two. Then her heart begins to beat again, picking up speed until it’s racing. Tha-thump, tha-thump, tha-thump. Denial. Fear. Panic. Despair. One foot in front of the other until she’s sprinting across the sand, red dust kicking up behind her in a violent storm. She falls to her knees, her lover’s catatonic eyes staring up at a red sky.

God, it was perfect. Danforth was going to love it. She finished writing the last notes and went back over what she’d written as the music played in her head against the scene. Great jumping Jesus. It was brilliant.

Jules, the red-headed photography assistant, poked her head around the corner. “Soph? Michael’s getting antsy.”

Sophia leapt off the floor, sheets of music gripped in her fist, and hugged Jules, spun her around in a circle. “It’s done. I’ve done it.”

“Wonderful. Can you get your ass out there now?”

“Yes. Yes. I’m coming.” She removed her robe and turned to take a quick glance at herself in the mirror. Her short, black hair shot straight up in a wild frenzy of spikes tipped in neon blue. The makeup was over the top – dark, heavy eyes with tiny sapphire sequins lining the edges of her upper lids and arcing up from the corners of her eyes. Her pouty lips were so dark they resembled her hair, her cheekbones razor sharp with slashes of blueberry blush. The gown was the latest from an up and coming New York designer – a satin and sequined gown in royal blue. God, she felt like the kid from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – the one who ate the blueberry candy.

 “This is the last time you’ll sit in hair and makeup,” she told herself. “You’re going to be a freaking star when this movie hits.”

* * *

“Yes. Beautiful,” Michael said. He’d photographed Sophia numerous times and the photos were always exceptional, but today she had something special, something extra. It was in the energy lasering out of eyes like electric blue flames. Before the first wardrobe change, it stopped being about the gowns for him and all about her. Deep down, he knew these photographs would catapult his career to the highest level in the industry. He just couldn’t get enough of that face, those eyes.

Michael lowered the camera and scanned through the photos.

“Are we done yet?” Sophia asked. She was actually having fun for a change, but she couldn’t wait to get home to her piano and play her piece.

“Yes. Great job, Soph.” The pictures were fabulous. Better than any he’d ever taken and he’d taken some great shots over the years.

“Why, thank you.” Sophia curtsied then hurried off to change out of the gown and wash the gunk from her face and hair.

She said her goodbyes to Michael and Jules and sprinted all the way to the subway station. Taking a seat on the train, she opened her messenger bag, rummaging around for her sheet music, but couldn’t find the staff sheets she’d written the piece on. With her stomach in knots, she pulled everything out of the bag and went through it all. Her heart sank in her chest and her belly roiled. She’d put them in her bag, hadn’t she?

She scattered the contents of her bag over the empty seat next to her, furtively searching for her lifeline to success. Her face paled, visions of surviving on Ramen noodles for the rest of her life playing like a bad sit-com in her head.

She got off the train at the next stop and raced back to Michael’s studio. Her chest hurt as if a sumo wrestler was sitting on it as she ran up the stairs.

“Michael?” she called out, panting. “Jules?”

“Yeah?” Michael sat at his desk with Jules next to him going through the photos on his camera.

“My music. Have you seen my sheet music?” she wheezed.

“The stuff you were writing when you were here?” Jules asked.

“Yes. They’re not in my bag. They have to be here.”

Sophia frantically searched every inch of the studio with Michael and Jules helping. Nothing.

“Is it possible you lost them on the subway?” Jules asked.

“Oh, God.” What if the sheets slipped out of her bag onto the floor or behind the seat? She’d never get them back. Everyone was right. She’d never make it as a film score composer. What if someone found the music and used it themselves? It wasn’t even copyrighted yet. She sank to the floor, her legs shaking and rubbery, beads of sweat breaking out over her lip and across her forehead. “My career is over. That piece was my ticket to success.”

Michael crouched down next to her. “You can rewrite it, Soph.”

Her eyes flew up to meet his, narrowed and frigid. “I can’t just rewrite it,” she shouted, her arms flailing. “It would be like someone deleting the best picture you’ve ever taken from your camera before you had a chance to save a backup copy.”

Michael cringed. The best picture he’d ever taken was on his camera and he hadn’t backed it up yet. “No, it’s not the same. The music came from inside you.” He laid his hand over her heart. “It’s still there. You just need to tune into it again.”

“You don’t understand. It was perfect. Perfect. There’s no way I can rewrite it and get all of the notes just right.” She dropped her head, clutching her tight, aching chest. God, she couldn’t breathe.

“You were in hair and makeup when it came to you, weren’t you?” He took her hand and drew her to her feet then led her to the couch in the corner of the room, sitting next to her. “Take a deep breath.”

Sophia drew in a painful, stuttered breath and slowly exhaled. She continued to breathe with Michael’s coaching until the tension began to drain away.

“Now, close your eyes and take yourself back to when you were sitting in the chair,” Michael said in a calm voice. “Listen to the notes in your head. See the notes the way you saw them in the chair.”

She took another deep breath and closed her eyes. The scene from the movie began to play in her head accompanied by her music. She reached the crescendo, then the pause. One beat, two. It was all there. But, at the point where the protagonist realizes her lover is down, she made some changes. She felt the character’s loss in her very soul, the loss of her music enabling her to empathize with the protagonist. The disbelief, the panic, the gut-wrenching fear. Holy jumping Jesus, she thought. This is even better than the original.

She grabbed her bag, took out fresh staff sheets and her pencil, and scribbled furiously on the pages. When she was done, she placed the pages carefully into her bag and did up the clasp. Then she surged to her feet and darted across the room to where Michael sat at his desk. She flung herself onto his lap and wrapped her arms around his neck. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

“I take it you’re happy with the rewrite.” He laughed and spun his chair around with both of them in it. “I have a bottle of champagne I’ve been saving for a special occasion. We should celebrate.”

She grinned. If she hadn’t lost that music, felt the heart-stopping panic and despair, she never would have gone where she did in rewriting her piece. It was as if losing the music was meant to be.  “I couldn’t agree more.”

* * *

It was nearly two years since she’d last sat in this chair in hair and makeup. She rose and changed into a tuxedo with tails, the cream silk bowtie and cumber-bun sprinkled with treble clefs and music notes. Then she turned to study herself in the mirror. Her short dark hair was done in a messy style. Funky and fun. Her makeup was more than she’d wear on a night on the town, yet not over the top.

Smiling, she walked out to the studio and Michael crossed the room to her, his arms extended, and took her hands in his.

“You look stunning. Success agrees with you, Soph.”

“I could say the same to you. You look great, Michael.”

The photographs he’d taken of Sophia nearly two year before had indeed thrust his career to greater heights. He was able to pick and choose his assignments now. He led Sophia to the white baby grand set up in front of a cityscape of New York City and helped her settle on the bench, adjusting her tails. A tall, gold statue – her Oscar for Best Original Score – was the centerpiece on the piano.

“Tell me something, Soph. You could have had your pick of any photographer in the country. Why me?”

She grinned up at him. “Two reasons. One, I wanted the best. And two, I owe you for what you did for me that day.”

“You don’t owe me a thing, darling. What you did for me that day more than makes up for it.”

Sophia grinned up at him. “So, no more Ramen noodles for either of us?”

“Oh, no. I still eat Ramen noodles now and then.”

“Not me. I’m never eating them again.”

They both laughed as Michael got his camera and began clicking away. He stopped, scanned through the photos, confirming what he’d seen through the lens. The magic was missing. “Do me a favour? Play the score from the movie.”

“The entire thing? It’s over an hour long.”

“Just play the piece you wrote here.”

Sophia flexed her fingers and began to play. It wasn’t long before she lost herself in the emotions of the piece and forgot all about Michael.

“Yes, yes, yes,” Michael shouted when she finished. “Again. Play it again.”

The next time he scanned through the pictures, he grinned. “Okay, we’ve got it.”

“I want to see.” Sophia got up from the piano and peeked over Michael’s shoulder. He was right, the photos were excellent. “I’ll let you pick the best one,” she said and gave him a peck on the cheek. The photo was for the cover of Rolling Stone who were doing a feature article on her.

Sophia changed out of the tux and headed out. On the way down the stairs, she heard a piano playing and stopped, her ears tuned into the music. When she recognized the piece, she sat down on the stairs and closed her eyes to listen, smiling at the building tension. Her eyes flew open when she realized this wasn’t the piece from the movie. It was the missing original.

She stumbled down he hallway, following the music to it source, and wrapped her knuckles on the apartment door. A woman with light brown hair tied back in a ponytail answered.

“That music,” Sophia began before the woman could say anything. “Who’s playing it?”

“My son. Why?”

“Do you know where he got that piece?”

“No. He just started playing it a couple of years ago. It’s his favourite.”

“This is going to sound weird, but I was upstairs in Michael’s studio two years ago and I wrote a piece for a film score. It went missing and we couldn’t find it.”

“Oh, my God. Ben took it. I’m so sorry.”

“No. It’s fine. I was gutted when I realized it was gone. I was able to rewrite it, but this time it was even better because I was able to relate to the deep sense of loss and despair of the character.”

“Still, I’m so very sorry. Ben’s only six. He wouldn’t have known any better back then.”

“Six? And he plays so well?” He had to be some kind of musical savant, Sophia thought. “May I speak with him?”

“I’m sorry, Ben’s autistic. He only communicates through music.”

Sophia laid her hand over her heart. “Then I’m very happy he found my music. I believe everything happens for a reason. I thought I lost the original so I could improve the piece. Maybe the real reason was so your son could express himself with it.”

The woman smiled. “Maybe it was both.”

Grinning, Sophia reached into her messenger bag and withdrew a signed copy of the sheet music from the movie and a CD of the score featuring a full symphony orchestra. “Give these to Ben for me. It will make me happy to know he’s enjoying my music.” She walked away with a smile on her face. When she stepped out onto the sidewalk, she raised her face to the sun and closed her eyes, wondering if that little boy realized he’d made her career.

Hope you enjoyed it. Please feel free to leave any comments below or share this post on social media. I should get the results of Round One at the beginning of April, so I will post my results at that time. Thanks for your support.

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