Warning: Graphic descriptive language ahead.

Prelude: The Locker

Emma had taken everything from Taylor, when she betrayed her. Almost everything, anyway.

She had been her lifelong friend, her partner in crime, her shoulder to cry on if something went wrong. Her family had been there when she lost her mother, even when her own father wasn't. She'd helped Taylor through the worst times, been her rock in a storm of unfairness called life.

That summer, the summer after Annette's death, she betrayed Taylor. She changed. Began to torture her, once school started.

Taylor had no idea why. Maybe it was baseless. Maybe Emma had loved her. Maybe it was Sophia's fault. She didn't know. All she knew was the betrayal, the hurt, the sorrow.

For a year, she withstood it. When the next year started, she began to keep track of it all, even as she slowly broke under the strain. She couldn't fight back; they had all the power. She couldn't use the system; for whatever reason, it never did anything right.

So she took it, even as they tore away at the best parts of her.

One day, as Taylor came home, she saw it, the case, hiding in a corner.

Her mother's flute. Left, forgotten, gathering dust for so long. She remembered the beautiful music it made at her mother's lips, the motion of her dancing to the hauntingly melodic tunes, the joy on Christmas day when she broke it out, when father and daughter sang carols while the mother played.

Taylor hugged that case, and she cried.

She cleaned it up, polished it with care. Played a short tune, then dug out some music. Practiced on into the night, only stopping when her father came home.

She had an idea, a hope, that this would help her cope with the day.

The next day, she brought it to school. Put it in her locker, safe from the Trio.

Except, it wasn't safe. It wasn't there when she returned.

She didn't have to search far; dumpsters were obvious places to find my stuff these days.

It was speared into a pile of rotting slop behind the kitchen. Broken, warped, ravaged. Keys broken off and shoved in the ends, the mouthpiece jagged, a tear where it had been bent into an angle.

Defiled. Its finish ruined by corrosives, shit and rot and blood rubbed into the new scars. It had been used to take a core sample of the dumpster, multiple times, based on the tubes of trash that lay around it.

She had to find something to pick it up with, couldn't throw up until she had it back, the last piece of Annette Rose Hebert left to the world. She tore herself away from the dumpster, ran into the kitchen to grab some gloves.

She returned to find it gone. She broke a little more.

She approached her locker. No sign of the Trio, but they were good at staying out of sight. She'd thought they might let up last semester, and been so very wrong. She wouldn't hope like that again.

There was a smell around her locker. Dammit, they'd probably dumped trash in it. She couldn't go without her books, as stupid as it had been to leave them here over break. She braced herself, and opened the locker.

And just stared.

The locker was full of the vilest concoction she had ever laid eyes upon. Blood dribbled out of the bottom, dead bugs caught up in the liquid. Maggots crawled through the shit and piss and blood and rotted cotton, roaches scattered in the light, while ants soldiered on. Flies buzzed around the locker like a corpse. She barely noticed.

In the middle, there was a flute. Ravaged, defiled, ruined. The last memory she had of the days when everything was nice. She reached for it, dazed, too driven by the need for this last memento to care about the filth.

A shove from behind, a slam, but she had the flute. She had it, and it wouldn't disappear again.

Then she realized what had just happened, she began to fight, to bang on the door, to scream. She could hear the cadence of Emma's laugh, the bell as it rang, the students filing past, uncaring. She screamed more, and choked as a fly hit the back of her throat, gagging as she took a deep breath, vomiting, crying, screaming, banging. For hours, she begged as people passed, blacked out and lost focus, cut herself on the sharp edges inside.

Eventually, Taylor realized nobody would help her. She was alone, alone with nothing but a reminder of her dead mother. She curled around the flute, slowly losing consciousness as the fumes made her lightheaded, as the cuts festered, as the bugs crawled around her in their incessant rhythm of life. She clutched that last memory of her mother, defiled and tarnished, as the blood leaked out from the base of the door.

A janitor found her hours later, near death, and rushed her to the hospital.

The rhythms moved through the building, a slow dance of purpose and duty. Go here, one murmured. Come here, another called. One was talking to me, as I clutched the flute.

It was a He, a familiar he. I tuned him out, keeping my eyes closed, listening to the beeps and whirrs and boops of the music of my life, played by various machines like an orchestra.

B-weep. B-weep. B-weep.

Boop. Boop. Boop.

Whirr-hirr. Whirr-hirr.

B-weep Boop, Whirr-hirr Boop, B-weep Boop…

It reminded me of a song. I moved my empty hand to the tune of it like a conductor, and the man's voice raised in pitch. Annoying, drowning out the music, making it change, making other nearby rhythms move in dischordant ways, made them start shouting too. But I knew that one. He was familiar. He was Danny. My dad.

I opened my eyes with a jolt. A tube was in my throat, needles in my arm, half my body bandaged. Dad took my hand, the left one, the one that wasn't clutching the remains of a flute like a lifeline, and said, "Taylor?", in the most hopeful voice I'd ever heard.

I could only look back at him for a few seconds before I began to cry.