A/N: Like "Moscow", this story started as a very small, roughly outlined scene in my head and grew like Godzilla on steroids. I originally only wanted to explain why Rodney's piano teacher had made such a seemingly cruel comment to the twelve-year-old. In explaining, I just kept building more and more background until...this. The title comes from the following exchange in "Anna and the King". Margaret thought of it and after reading it, I realized also how well it fit.
Anna: (With too much feeling to look at him, looks at music box) I ordered this for the children. (With a forced detachment) A fine example of scientific thinking...because music is mathematical in nature...
King Mongkut: (Interrupting as he touches her wet cheek) Chords constructed from notes in intervals of thirds, et cetera, et cetera...
Anna: (Meeting his unwavering gaze) If science can explain the mystery of something as beautiful as music, why is it unable to posit a solution for a King and a school teacher?
Enjoy the story!
"Wayne!" a voice called through the door, accompanied by pounding. "Wayne!"
I ran to the foyer, wondering what could be so urgent. "What?" I demanded, wrenching open the door. "Gloria! What are you doing here?"
"I need you to take the kid for a couple hours," she said bluntly. The kid stood a half-step behind her, studying the porch. I don't mean staring at his shoes to avoid eye contact; he was actually studying the boards. Freak.
"What? Gloria, I have students --"
"I know; I'm sorry," she apologized. "The jerk went off to some meeting without telling me and I gotta get to work. The girl's at some summer camp thing but the kid...Please, Wayne?" she pleaded.
I was the only one she ever called by name. Her husband was 'the jerk,' her son 'the kid,' and her daughter 'the girl.' I'd never met any of them before (after all, how inappropriate would that be?) and she didn't talk about them much; we were usually busy with other things. The concept of spending a day with the kid was downright frightening. What was I supposed to do with him?
I didn't want to disappoint her, though. "All right," I sighed. "Can he stay out of the way?"
"Oh, yeah," she assured me. "He's weird like that. Won't say a word for hours, then talk non-stop for twenty minutes. Give him something to take apart; he likes that."
I opened the door to admit the boy but he didn't move. Still engrossed in the floorboards, I guess. His mother grabbed his shoulder and shook him to get his attention.
"Hey!" She propelled him forward into the house. "You're gonna stay here today, okay? I'll be back later." And with that, she spun on her heel and walked to her car.
I shut the door slowly and turned to face the kid. Again I wondered what on earth I was supposed to do with him. Well, start with the basics, I decided.
"What's your name, kid?" I asked. He didn't answer; he was staring intently at various points in the room, studying them like he had the porch outside. "Hey! Kid!"
He pointed that gaze at me. It was disconcerting, like he was memorizing my face for later reference. I was about to ask him his name again when he said, loudly, "Rodney."
Progress. Great. "How old are you, Rodney?"
Again, that calculating stare. "Nine years, three months, a week and two days."
It was going to be a long day.
My first student arrived at 10:00 sharp so I set Rodney up with the television in my bedroom. He seemed happy enough watching some cartoon when I left and I quickly forgot about him as I coached a five-year-old through her scales. My 11:00 ran late, so it wasn't until around 12:30 that I remembered the boy in the back and went to go check on him.
"What the hell did you do to my TV?" I yelled as soon as I stepped into the room. The television, which had been glibly playing Roadrunner two hours ago, was strewn all over the floor, the kid sitting in the middle of bits I didn't even know belonged in a TV.
He gave me a look, a kind of smirking I'm-smarter-than-you-and-I-know-it glare, and continued picking at the pieces around him. I lost it. I screamed at him, shouting until my face turned red, gesticulating so vigorously my joints protested, stopping just short of grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him violently. Nothing phased him. He just sat with that same smirk, collecting TV parts and fitting them together. I finally stormed out of the room, incensed, slamming the door behind me with a bang and a rattle.
My 1:00 caught the tail end of my temper, unfortunately, but by the end of the hour I had calmed enough to return to the back bedroom. I opened the door on a completely different scene than the one I had left.
Rodney lay on the bed, feet swinging idly in the air, engrossed in Dr. Who. He held some sort of device in his hands, playing with it absent-mindedly as he stared at the television. The television that had been all over the floor an hour ago. It was impossible...and yet, there it was.
"Did you fix..." I trailed off, unable to even complete the sentence. He turned to me without answering as he held up the device in his hand.
"You know what this is?" he asked in that oddly loud voice of his. I shook my head dumbly. "Neither do I. It's in the TV and taking it out makes the colour better. Why would someone put this in the TV if it makes the colour bad?" I shrugged, but the question appeared to have been rhetorical. "There's things in microwave ovens, too, that stop it from getting too hot. I took one out of ours and it baked a potato in ten seconds."
There was an awkward pause. Awkward for me, anyhow; what on earth could one say in response to that little speech? Rodney didn't seem to think it was unusual and five seconds later, piped up again.
"Do you have any food? I'm hungry."
"Let me see," I replied, glad for something normal to do. "You didn't, uh, mess with my microwave, did you?"
He gave me the first genuine smile I'd seen on him, a crooked little grin that might have been casually rakish on another boy but instead came off as oddly stilted -- as if he wasn't used to it.
He wolfed down a grilled cheese sandwich, two bananas, a peanut butter sandwich and a cup of yogourt almost as fast as I could set them in front of him. Draining his second glass of milk, he looked up expectantly. Great. I had expected lunch to take at least half an hour; now I was stuck, forty-five minutes before my 3:00, with nothing for the kid to do. Maybe he could entertain himself some more.
"I'm bored," he announced simply, quashing that idea in a hurry. Well, so much the better for my small appliances.
"Um," I stalled. What could I do with him? There was only one thing I really knew how to do and he would never... "Do you want to learn how to read music?"
He shrugged, as if to say, "It's better than nothing."
I led him to the piano in the living room and searched for some old beginner's books. I couldn't find any; I must have lent the last one to another student. Oh, well. For sight reading, anything would do. I pulled out a page of Pachelbel that I was preparing to teach a fourth year student and set it in front of him.
"This is middle C," I began, pointing to the note on the page and then striking the key. I continued in the same way through the rest of the octave, pausing between notes to let them sink in. He was staring at the page with the same intensity he had shown earlier, nodding every once in a while to show he understood.
"Is that all?" he asked when I had finished.
"As far as reading goes," I answered. "The next step is playing."
He didn't even ask. He set his hands on the keys, a little awkwardly at first, and began picking out the Canon. He wasn't going for mostly-kinda-sorta right, either; he was clearly aiming for perfection. It didn't move quickly but each note was exactly correct. It took me a moment to notice that he never lifted his gaze from the keys, even once, to glance at the music.
"You memorized it?" I blurted before I could stop myself. He didn't hear me -- or chose to ignore my comment -- and his playing never faltered. I got the feeling that Rodney McKay never did anything halfway; he threw himself into projects one-hundred percent or not at all. Piano, it seemed, was no different.
Rodney's impromptu lesson was interrupted by my scheduled 3:00 student. It was with an odd disappointment that I told Rodney we would have to finish later, a disappointment mirrored on his own young face. He refused to return to my bedroom, preferring instead to stay and watch little Tamber Klein play "Freight Train" and "Alouette". It was with mixed guilt and delight that I paid more attention to the nine-year-old boy watching than the seven-year-old girl actually playing. To my credit, he was far more interesting viewing.
His face was fixed in a determined stare as his eyes flicked back and forth, following Tamber's fingers on the keys. Glancing down, I noticed his own fingers tapping his leg to the music. Each time Tamber hit a key, Rodney tapped his leg -- with the correct finger. He was amazing.
The knocking was far less insistent that afternoon than it had been earlier. I rose from the piano bench, leaving Rodney to his playing, and went to answer the door. It was his mother.
"Wayne," she greeted shortly. "I'm here for the kid."
"Do you want to come in?" I invited. "He's in the living room."
"I gotta get going," she shook her head. "Just get him out here."
I retreated to the living room, realizing by now that calling his name would probably not get Rodney's attention. A hand on his shoulder barely did the trick. He looked up, startled, and I gestured toward the door.
"Your mom's here."
His face carefully rearranged itself from the almost content expression he'd worn most of the afternoon to the stony indifference I'd first seen on him. It was a mixture of pity and selfishness that made me say what I said next.
"Do you want to come back sometime?" I asked. "For real lessons?" The kid obviously had talent and someone would eventually discover him; might as well be me.
"You mean it?" he replied guardedly. I could see the warring emotions in his eyes. He wanted it, badly, but he didn't want to get his hopes up.
"I mean it," I answered. He didn't have to know my reasons.
His mother agreed, shrugging a response of "If it'll keep him out of my hair." I saw Rodney actually bite his lip to keep from smiling and found myself looking forward to our next meeting with great anticipation.
Rodney progressed with all the precocity I had expected of him. The kid had cut his musical teeth on Pachelbel's Canon, after all; it was impossible for him not to excel. We met regularly, every Tuesday afternoon at 4:00, and he always showed up early. His mother drove him the first couple of times but pretty soon he was getting himself to my house on his own.
"How do you get here?" I asked him one day.
He paused in the middle of his flawless Bach, annoyed. "The bus," he snapped, resuming his play on the exact note where he had left off.
"Your parents let you ride a cross-town bus by yourself?" I gawked.
This time he didn't even bother stopping. Without missing a note -- but still concentrating earnestly on the piece -- he shrugged. "They never ask."
I frowned, wondering if I ought to tell Gloria. It wasn't my place, however, and it couldn't be too much of a problem; Rodney got to my house safely and on time every week. If they didn't care, I reasoned, then neither did I.
One day, though, about six months into our lessons, Rodney failed to show up at five to four. I wasn't too worried; the kid couldn't fire on all four cylinders every day. By 4:30, I was starting to have troublesome thoughts. It was the last Tuesday of the month; Rodney would have had my payment with him. It was a fairly hefty hundred dollars and they hadn't yet paid with a cheque. What if he had been robbed?
I was picking up the phone to call his mother when someone knocked at the door. I opened it and found Rodney standing there, wearing a light jacket and the most god-awful tuque I'd ever seen. Relief was my first reaction, but the boy's empty stare and lack of explanation sparked a certain anger in me.
"Where have you been?" I demanded.
He didn't answer, just reached into his coat and pulled out a brown hundred-dollar bill. As he did, another paper floated out of his jacket and drifted to the floor. Curious, I reached for it but the kid snatched it up before I could grab it.
"What is that?" I probed.
Again, no words. Just a dull stare out of eyes washed pale from crying and a weary offer of the form. I took it and found myself gazing at a black-and-white picture of a small Labrador, the word 'LOST' written in precise capital letters across the top. I looked up at Rodney again and found his face devoid of expression, save a vague lost look of his own. This was why he had been late; he'd spent his entire afternoon -- maybe even the whole day -- posting fliers for his lost dog. Pity overwhelmed the brief anger I'd felt.
Only then did I notice him shivering. And with good reason; the poor boy was out in the January elements with nothing but a summer jacket! I hustled him into the house and tried to get him to stand by the heater, but he refused.
"I want to play," he insisted. "I practised."
"You can play," I assured him. "Just warm up first."
"I'm fine," he claimed stubbornly. "I need to play."
It was that strange phrasing that made me give in. He needed to play? I knew the love of piano, of course, the appreciation for fine music and all that; I'd been playing for twenty years. But I'd never felt a physical need to strike the keys, never found myself longing for the opportunity to sit at a bench and simply let go. Rodney, it seemed, had -- except for the 'letting go' part.
I'd noticed the way he threw himself into the music before. When he was playing, it was difficult to get him to notice anything else. And yet, I never saw pleasure in his expression while his fingers flew over the keys. Joy, yes; concentration, definitely; but never that raw release of emotion so apparent in other pianists. I worried briefly that his drive for perfection was repressing his aesthetic interest but soon figured that it didn't matter; he was my little prodigy and if he wanted perfection more than emotional fulfillment, that was fine by me.
After the day the dog ran away, we didn't talk much about his home life. Not that we had before, really, but occasional tidbits would slip out. Now, though, our conversations were restricted to piano only, if that. We started meeting three days a week, at Rodney's request. There were some days -- and they grew more frequent as Rodney grew older -- that he arrived with a determinedly stony expression and made a beeline for the piano. I knew not to bother engaging him when he was in one of those moods.
I still saw Gloria, too, but it wasn't as if we talked about her son's piano lessons when we were together, let alone their home life. I wasn't stupid; obviously Gloria had problems with her husband, 'the jerk', if she was seeing me. But I didn't dwell on it and I certainly didn't treat Rodney any differently because of it. I believed a man was what he made himself, not what his parents made him, and Rodney was well on his way to making himself a great pianist, if an eccentric one.
He was exceedingly intelligent, that much had been obvious from the day I first met him and he rebuilt my television. And yet, in some ways, he was most definitely becoming a normal teenage boy.
One day, when he was about eleven, he showed up with an unbelievably smug look on his face. It was the most blatant emotion I had seen on him for months so, naturally, I asked him about it.
"What'd you do, swallow the canary?"
He grinned. "Better."
There was only one thing I knew of that could make a boy smile like that. I examined him more closely; his lips were slightly swollen and he appeared to be wearing lipstick... "You kissed a girl."
He nodded slowly, grinning, if it was possible, more widely than before. "April Bingham."
I waited but he said nothing more. "Well?" I pressed. "How was it?"
That was a bit of mistake, it turned out. He launched into lengthiest, wordiest, most animated description of a kiss I had ever heard. He barely paused for breath, flinging his arms this way and that so that had his name not been McKay I would have sworn he was of Italian extraction. He talked for so long that he only had fifteen minutes left to play, and play he did! He attacked his Mendelssohn with such energy I feared for the integrity of the poor strings. It was the first time I ever heard him make a mistake, too, which threw him so badly he had to start over.
He showed up early to our next session, and the next, for a month. At first I thought nothing of it but as I watched him plunk at the keys with unusual lethargy, I wonderd how he was making it across town so fast from school.
Apparently I had spoken my thoughts aloud because Rodney answered, tiredly, "I'm not going to school."
"What?" I asked in surprise. Surprise at several things: his actual comment, the fact that I had spoken my thoughts, and the fact that he had even heard me. He never let me distract him from his piano.
"I've been out with mono," he announced proudly.
It took me a moment. "From kissing that girl?" He nodded. "Was it worth it?"
He nodded again, a wan smile spreading across his pale face. "Oh, yeah."
"Are you two..." I hesitated, wondering what the phrase was these days. "Going out?"
He frowned, thinking. "I don't think so," he mused.
"You don't think so?" I asked incredulously.
"Well, how should I know?" he demanded defencively.
"Do you like her?" I began, (I thought) unnecessarily.
"Wait, you guess? Rodney, you got mono kissing her!"
"Fine, I like her," he sulked.
"Does she like you?" I coached, not believing I was having this conversation with Rodney of all people.
He hesitated. "I don't know. How do I make sure?"
I don't know why I took that to mean 'how do I make her like me.' "A gift is always good," I shrugged. "Or doing something nice for her."
He got a faraway look in his eye, staring through me to some idyllic vision only he could see. A slow grin brightened his sallow face and he nodded to himself, satisfied.
The next time he came to my door, he held a box full of...stuff. There was no other word for it. Tubes and wires and metal things and plastic parts stuck out from the mass; it looked like the entrails of some giant robot. Rodney was glowing.
"Can I keep this stuff at your house?" he asked eagerly. "It's for this science project I'm doing. I think April will really like it. My parents don't care much for science stuff, though, so can I keep it here?"
I let him in, suppressing a grin at his enthusiasm. The kid was almost giddy about this girl; it was cute. I suspected there was more to his reluctance to keep the project at home than just his parents 'not caring much' for science but, as with so many things relating to Rodney, it was not my place to say anything.
"So what are you going to do with all that Ukranian Tire junk?" I asked, following him to the spare bedroom.
"It's not junk," he insisted. "These are the highly specialized components of my science project. It's gonna blow them away."
"What exactly is this science project?" I inquired.
"I can't tell you; it's a surprise," he mumbled, shoving the box under the bed. "But I can tell you it's going to be great."
With Rodney McKay on the job, I had no doubt of that.
Rodney's visits became more frequent as he was working on both piano and his science project at my house. He started school again and it seemed to intensify his efforts at both; I assumed April Bingham was the cause. He talked about her constantly, when he wasn't rabidly attacking the piano. In fact, unless he was seated at the instrument, he never shut up. I could hear him while I worked with my other students, loudly muttering to himself in the back bedroom as he worked on...whatever that thing was. Occasionally, a string of curses would burst from the twelve-year-old's mouth and I'd hear a muffled thumping -- what I could only assume with a cringe were my walls being kicked in.
I let him. I let him ruin my drywall, swear like a sailor, scare my younger students into near-paralysis. Why? Because he was my star, and because I'd never seen him release his emotions so freely. The outbursts seemed to stem from his increasing fallibility; he had been making mistakes, in both his piano and his project, more and more often. I had a sneaking suspicion that a certain cute blonde from Algebra Club was distracting him more than he liked to admit.
Rodney did not try to hide the fact that he was building his project as a gift to April. I was pretty sure that she was the reason he was demanding even more of himself than usual. I had seen before how he expected nothing less than perfection in his piano, a quality I was happy to encourage, but with this project he was almost obsessing. That, combined with his increasing tendency to make mistakes, was causing an outburst just about every day.
The day of the science fair finally arrived and I found myself sharing Rodney's excitement. He had worked unbelievably hard on this project -- he still wouldn't tell me what it was, but it looked impressively ominous -- and I wished him the best as he lugged the large box to the bus stop.
Rodney was late that afternoon, for the first time since he'd lost his dog. I wondered if April had taken to the 'gift' better than I had imagined and arranged an after-school rendezvous with Rodney. Well, the kid could do worse. I just hoped he didn't get mono again.
When he finally showed up, it was not with the dazedly pleased expression I had been expecting. I understood now what poets meant when they talked about a stormy countenance; the boy's eyes were a veritable hurricane. He pushed past me, running for the piano. He didn't even bother sitting down before beginning to play, a tempestuous Beethoven that seemed to match his mood. For the first time in a month, his rendition was flawless.
He played for ten minutes solid, concentrating fiercely with his eyes squeezed shut. When he finished, he took a deep breath before collapsing into himself as if the music had been the only thing supporting him. He looked utterly defeated.
"Want to talk about it?" I ventured tentatively.
"No," he answered hollowly, sounding far older than his mere twelve years.
"Did April like the project?" I asked anyway.
He laughed mirthlessly. "I don't know."
This wasn't getting anywhere. I wondered if he'd be more open to a different conversation, one I'd been wanting to have for a long time.
"Rodney," I started. "Why do you play piano?"
He frowned at me, probably trying to figure out where the question had come from. "It's," he began, stumbling over his reason, "it's just so...perfect. Organized. Each note is like a measurement and they all fit together into this great big," he gestured, "machine that works according to certain rules. Each part contributes to the whole. It's...perfect," he finished, dropping his hands to his lap.
I stared at him in awe. No wonder he was constantly striving for perfection. To him, music was perfection. Even after three years, he continued to amaze me.
Just then, the phone rang. I moved slowly towards it, reluctant to leave this newly discovered side of Rodney.
"This is Wayne," I answered absently.
"Did you tell my son to build an atomic bomb?" a voice screeched over the line.
"What?" I replied, dumbfounded. "Gloria? What are you talking about?"
"The kid built an atomic bomb," she explained. "He says you told him to."
"What?" I said again, still trying to process the part about the atomic bomb.
"He says you told him that it would impress a girl."
"I told him to get her a gift," I responded defencively.
"So you did encourage him!"
"No!" I called desperately. "I didn't know what he was making. He made an atomic bomb?" I still couldn't quite believe it.
"Yes," she spat. "The Mounties were up at his school, questioning him. Questioning us! They think he's part of some conspiracy to blow up Toronto. They were working with the CIA."
"The CIA?" I repeated dumbly.
"Yeah, even the Yanks want in on this," she groaned. "They called me and the jerk in, asked about the kid's friends. That one was easy; doesn't have any. Wanted to know where he spends his free time. How the hell should we know? I don't even know where he is right now, which is good for him because once he comes home he is going to get--"
"Gloria," I broke in, fully intending to tell her where Rodney was right now. Apparently she thought I was interrupting her tirade instead.
"Don't you tell me how to raise my son!" she yelled. "He spends more time at your damn house than he does at home! You put these ideas in his head about being a pianist, playing in front of thousands of people. That's never going to happen! Look what he does with those ideas of yours; he builds bombs!"
"Gloria!" I repeated, louder. She was clearly not rational right now.
"No!" she screamed. "I don't want to hear it. It's over! I don't ever want to see your face again, do you hear? If you come near me or my son again, I'll call the police!"
"Gloria," I sighed one more time. There was nothing but dead air. A sudden, inexplicable rage came over me. I threw the phone in the corner with a howl, watching it smash to bits against the wall. I suppose I had loved Gloria, in my own way; losing her was painful.
I stormed back into the living room. Rodney sat at the piano, playing quietly and humming along to drown out my phone conversation. The sight of him sitting there, my prodigy who had probably blown his chance at any sort of professional career today, made me angry. He had had no right to throw away all that I had given him.
"Stop," I said. He did, looking up at me questioningly. "I'm not teaching you any more."
His gaze hardened, shutting me out. "Why?" he asked, quiet but hurt.
"You can play, kid," I started, shaking my head. "God, can you play. But you don't get it. You don't feel it. Music is an art, not a science."
He met my gaze for a moment before spinning violently on his heel and running for the door. He wrenched it open and took off for the bus, never looking back. I had seen the tears in his eyes, though, in that brief instant. I had cut him deeply and I knew it.
I never saw Rodney McKay again. God knows what happened to that little guy.