SPOILERS: "Running Man"
NOTES: This one is dedicated to JoaG & Devra. Two wonderful writers, no matter what fandom they write in.
The Imperfect Cadence of a Bubble
Remember the fermata before the eighth note.
C minor. F major. He never could get the beats right.
Strains of notes, clustering to song in hesitant tempo, floated to the garage like a night breeze. Charlie listened for a moment with his father, who had his eyes closed trying to picture his wife in one of her quiet hours.
Alan could see Margaret sitting on the porch, while the boys were in school, a music notebook tucked inside one of her law journals in case Alan came home early from work. Did she feel guilty when she pulled out her music? Or regret? Sadness? Alan kept his eyes closed, trying to see her face, during a time when pain wasn't always present in her dark eyes. He listened to what could only be Donny in the house, playing with a piano whose sound hadn't filled the room in decades. He didn't even know his eldest son could still play.
Her own world, Charlie referred to her secret as. Like his fishing in Lake Arrowhead every month. Never caught any fish, but Margaret understood, even helped packed up a fishing rod and a book, knowing it didn't necessarily mean any fish was ever going to be caught. She'd kiss him on the cheek, wish him luck with fishing, and wave goodbye from the driveway. Did she guess just like Charlie had? Did she know how much it helped, floating in a tiny rowboat, the water's ripples his background music to his reading? Sometimes he didn't bother sending out a line, letting the rod lay idle by his feet, bait unstrung.
Was it the same for her? Did she write, knowing full well they would never be played?
"Tremolo," Charlie suddenly said and Alan opened his eyes, curious.
"Suddenly remembered," Charlie explained with a wan smile. He looked down at the stringed instrument he was tuning. "Means to play one note again and again." He cleared his throat, never raising his head from the desk. The dark unruly curls fell forward, covering his face. "Mom, she-" He cleared his throat again, more harshly now. "Said I never got that right. Drove Don up the wall when I speed up then slow down every time I came to that part. Mom finally bought one of those metronomes to pace me."
"Until you took it apart," Alan reminded. Charlie had claimed it was off a half beat every few minutes. Even at six, Charlie was precocious enough to wreck havoc—on their clocks, the egg timer in the kitchen, even the hickory wood polished metronome Margaret bought for the boys. Alan could have sworn he seen it—after Charlie took it apart and forgot to put it back together again when another project distracted the child—wrapped tenderly in blue tissue paper and packed away somewhere in Margaret's boxes.
The piano sang louder and louder now. The two men paused, both unconsciously mimicking each other as they tilted their heads towards the house.
A soft scale of notes flirted with a strong chord before petering off to a shy melody. The hesitation was gone now as memory took over doubt and guided hands that haven't played in a while.
"Sounds pretty good," Alan noted. He winced, however, when one note tripped over another. A pause and the melody started up again, surer than before.
"Don did take to the piano better than me," Charlie recalled with a rueful smile. "I kept trying but aside from getting the beats right, I couldn't get the knack of the—" He shrugged.
Alan chose to say nothing. Charlie was willing to try anything once. Still does. At five, he was eager as well to catch up with Don, who was already playing for a few years. The older Eppes took to a new practice partner with a little grumbling, but seemed to take it all in stride, sitting besides Charlie with a wince as the child fervently pounded Etude in B minor with the exuberance of a jackhammer.
Alan smiled to himself. Eventually, Charlie's playing improved thanks to Margaret's extra attention. Not that it mattered. Both his sons gave it up pretty soon after.
His smile faded. Come to think of it. Don pretty much quit after Margaret began to help Charlie. And Charlie, seeing Don had stopped, suddenly no longer wanted to play. Both parents knew why Charlie wasn't interested any more. Don though, never did say why.
A new piece was playing now, stronger than the first, a little bolder. Alan blinked. He'd forgotten how much Don had learned before he quit. Margaret once commented it would have been interesting to see if Don had some innate musical talent. She hoped he would continue. Don scoffed that it was highly unlikely he was any sort of "genius" and refused to play any more, suddenly throwing himself into sports. And neither one of them ever mentioned the piano lessons again.
Alan sighed to himself. Why was remembering the past always bring up fallacies to the present?
Legato, Don thought to himself. Slowly. Slowly, just over to—damn it. He winced as his finger slipped off B minor and squawked at E instead. Don rolled his eyes. He could hear their old piano instructor once more harping in his ear to look at the sheets and not at the keys.
Eyes up front, not down. Don smirked. He'd mastered the art of glancing down at the keys without moving his head that one summer. Charlie on the other hand, never could achieve it, constantly staring at his chubby little hands than the sheets. But somehow, still managing to keep the tempo, straight and true if not rather loudly. Five year olds never can gauge when the music calls for ritardando (soft). Every note for Charlie Eppes was a forte (loud).
"Da capo, da capo," their instructor used to crow at Charlie, frustrated he didn't get one phrase right in the opus, pounding at the keys until the piano practically thumped under his hands. Don remembered sitting on the couch, waiting his turn, smirking as the instructor would make the child do the scales over and over again in different emphasis until he gets it right.
Only to have Charlie do it all over again the next week.
Don chuckled to himself. His fingers did a quick jump over an octave and the song finished on a high note. Don savored the last note fading to a consonance. It was a beautiful piece. Too bad all his mother had to show for it was his clumsy fingers tripping at the keys.
His smile vanished. There was a time when he did enjoy playing. His mother seated in the armchair and listening to him practice. She would have the oddest look on her face, like she was looking at something very far away. Sometimes she would hum along with his playing. Sometimes she would get up and sit besides him when he missed a particular chord.
After Charlie began showing his abilities, everything changed. Don shook his head at himself. He used to play for hours, sometimes deliberately missing a key but she never sat by him again, walking by distractedly chiding that he missed a note. Not that Don could blame them. Charlie was a handful, even more so when they realized the toddler rattling off huge numbers was no longer the charming whimsical rattling of a child, but of a prodigy.
He played pretty much alone after that.
And somewhere, between him listening to their teacher harp at Charlie about minding his fermatas and his tempos to hearing the hushed whispering of his parents worrying over Charlie, the draw to the faux ivory keys no longer held their appeal for Don. Don found it much easier to find friends to hang out with instead. He found it easy to pretend he couldn't find his music book, hid it under the bench, stuff it inside the sofa cushions until his mother one day just stopped asking where his notebook was. One day, Margaret Eppes watched her son walk away from the piano and down the road to play with his friends.
It was easier in a group to forget you were really playing alone.
Don gazed at the notebook, feeling a little unsettled. Where did that thought come from? He shook his head again, rousing himself and focused on the new page. The notes were oddly familiar and if he stared long enough, he could see their designations, letters he used to scrawl next to the notes on his music sheets so he could hit the right one during practice. He would scribble the notations and when their tutor came, he would carefully erase the cheat notes. The old musician believed in identifying notes on sight and used to huff over Charlie's book. The younger Eppes at the time copied Don—nothing new there—except he used a ballpoint instead of a pencil. Oops.
Don touched the pages before turning to the next. He squinted at the page, scanning the lines before beginning. He raised an eyebrow to himself as he recognized the melody. A small smile tugged at his lips as he scanned the next page.
"Your mother used to hum that while she was gardening."
A note skipped. He glanced over his shoulder. To his chagrin, he discovered an audience leaning against the carved threshold between the dining room and the living room. Don pulled his hands away from the piano as if they were burned.
"Don't," Alan said quietly. "It was nice hearing the piano again."
"Needs tuning," Don said awkwardly. He rose to his feet, backing away from the piano with a reluctance that surprised him. "So, did I ah miss dinner?" He could feel Charlie's gaze boring a hole between his shoulders. He ignored it, weaving around them towards the dinner table. "Bought beer," Don added, raising the six-pack up in the air.
"Why don't you play something else?" Alan suggested. "While I get dinner ready?" He nodded towards the kitchen. "Got a few chops in the fridge I can throw in the broiler."
Don glanced over at the piano before averting his eyes. "How about I help you?" Don started rolling up his sleeves. "Speed things up. I'm starving."
Alan, for some reason, looked disappointed. He pursed his lips. "No," he said quietly. "Shouldn't be long." His gaze lingered on Don before he turned away. "Caesar good?" He didn't wait for a reply, already entering the kitchen.
Charlie studied Don from where he stood, not having moved since they were discovered. Don shoved his hands deep into his pockets. Save the sounds of Alan putting away in the kitchen, the house was silent.
"That song," Charlie started. He stopped at Son's stony expression.
"Was just curious to what mom might have composed, that's all," Don said shortly. He plucked one of the beers from the pack. A quick twist and the cap danced on top of the dining table before stilling.
"We…ah, we heard it in the garage," Charlie offered, his gaze tracking Don to the sofa.
"Was wondering where you guys went," Don said absently. He toyed with the label on the bottle. He couldn't stop himself from looking at the piano again.
"Almost forgot it was here," Charlie joked, waving towards the upright instrument. "Surprised it still plays."
"The B's kinda flat," Don murmured. He shook out of his reverie and scowled.
"Nothing," Don said brusquely before taking a long draw from the bottle.
Charlie sighed to himself. Idly, he wandered over to the piano and sat down, the bench still warm from its previous occupant. He gazed at the delicate handwritten notes.
"You were pretty good when you were a kid," Don remembered. He peeled a corner of the beer bottle. He laid back, staring at the ceiling.
"It was pretty much all numbers if you think about it," Charlie mused. He tapped the middle C and smiled at the familiar chord.
"Of course they were," Don drawled. He closed his eyes wearily. It usually all came back to numbers.
"George Polya once theorized it was possible to calculate a combination of n amount of beads with infinite amount of color resources," Charlie reached out towards the notebook then paused. "By determining how many times the reciprocal can be repeated over a summation of the terms over the divisors."
"Am I supposed to understand that?" Don said tiredly. He smiled wearily at the ceiling. "And what's that got to do with beads?"
"It doesn't," Charlie replied, puzzled. "It has everything to do with counting."
Don rolled his eyes. "Of course it does," he said good-naturedly. He could hear it creeping up in Charlie's voice, the little tremor of excitement as he began his 'lecture mode'. Don wondered if Charlie was always like this. A twinge in his gut made him realized though that he wasn't around long enough to really know.
Charlie toyed with two keys now, wincing as the combination made for a very unfriendly noise. "You see, Polya was able to figure out combinations out of unknown quantities by determining the best combinations from favorable conditions. You can almost apply it to music."
"You can?" Don pursed his lips. It explained how Charlie picked up on the lessons much faster than Don.
"Using non-equivalent decompositions of scalar schemes and configuring for—"
"Charlie, Charlie!" Don groaned. He sat up, glaring at his brother. "Fine, so you're telling me I needed to be a mathematician to be a great pianist?"
Charlie poked lightly at a key, letting it ping before he pulled his hand away. "You would think…" He shrugged. "I think I got the mechanics down but nothing ever really sounded …nice." He glanced over his shoulder to Don. "Mom thought you were pretty good."
Don grunted. He sat back down in the slump and listened to his father banging pots around in the kitchen.
A hesitant chord struck. Then another. Don winced when one note came across louder than it really should.
"Grazioso," Don murmured. He raised his head. "A little lighter I think, Charlie."
Charlie attempted the next line then sighed, frustrated. His hands fell to his lap. "Doesn't sound the same as she hummed it," Charlie murmured. "Back in Princeton, I remember her humming this once. She didn't know I came back from class yet and she was standing there in the kitchen, humming." Charlie exhaled, his eyes suspiciously bright. "Thought it was pretty, but I never told her that."
Don looked sadly at the notebook. "It did sounded like it would be nice," he agreed.
"It did just before," Charlie pointed out. He resisted sighing when he saw his brother made no comment.
"Can't believe she hid this from dad," Don murmured. He rolled the beer bottle between his palms.
Charlie shrugged one shoulder. "I was telling him maybe mom wasn't hiding anything." He skimmed his fingers across the keys, then again, trying to get the scale to go evenly. "More like…" He paused. "You know how sometimes Dad goes out fishing by himself?"
Don scrunched up his face, thinking before nodding. "Yeah. To Arrowhead, right?"
"When we were kids, he would escape for a weekend, come back—"
"Never with any fish. Yeah." Don chuckled behind the mouth of the beer bottle. "We used to kid him about that."
"It's the same for mom."
"You mean fishing?" Don joked lightly. He waved his hand at Charlie. "I get it, I do. Dad does it to get away." He studied the notebook on the piano. "You think that's what it was?"
"Dad had his fishing. Mom probably does the same with her music like I do my hiking. And you…" Charlie trailed off. "Um…" He suddenly realized he didn't know what Don did. Charlie tilted his head towards Don.
The older man raised an eyebrow at him. "What? Me?" He snorted and looked away. "Charlie, You gotta have free time to do stuff like that. Not much chance for me to do any of that."
Charlie snorted. "No, you don't have much free time," Charlie gestured towards the house. "Most of the time when you are free, you're her—" He stopped.
Don said nothing, taking another sip of the beer.
Charlie stroked one of the ebony keys, chewing his lower lip.
"Don't make such a big deal out of it," Don said in a low voice, reading Charlie's dawning expression. "Can't really hike if you're on call twenty four seven. And my record is lousy with fish." He set down the beer on the coffee table. He rolled back his shoulders, rocking his head side to side, getting the kinks out.
Nodding, Charlie decided to spare his brother and faced the piano again, trying to suppress the ridiculous smile he knew wanted to form. He cleared his throat and tried to concentrate on the musical notes again. Didn't look too hard. He toyed one particular strand and listened as the notes blended. He winced.
"Not quite the same," Charlie murmured, crestfallen.
"Sounds alright," Don said encouragingly as he walked over. He hovered over Charlie as he tried again, for a full page.
"It sounded different when you did it," Charlie grumbled, giving up. He waved his hands towards the piano. "Be my guest." His face fell when he saw Don back away. "Please?" Charlie said softly.
Don sighed, shaking his head but slid over, next to Charlie. He looked at the piano with a dubious expression.
"It's been a while," Don warned.
"Once you learn how to ride a bike…"
"This doesn't have spokes and wheels, Charlie." Don rested curled fingers onto the white keys. He hesitated. His fingers floated upwards to the notebook.
"So you think mom did this like her way of a fishing trip, huh?" Don murmured, his expression thoughtful. He rubbed his fingers on the upper corner of the book, feeling the powdery surface of the thin paper.
"It would be nice to hear it," Charlie said softly, sliding easily to the left as Don carefully eased his way back to the piano again. "Kind of like knowing what mom was thinking when she wrote this."
"Maybe," Don muttered. He tried one line and winced. Then, taking a deep breath, Don tried another line, his fingers awkwardly spread out over the keys as he sought the right placement.
Charlie rested his left elbow against the side of the piano, listening with his eyes closed as Don's playing solidified. He could almost hear her again, humming over the sink as she made a sandwich for him. Charlie squeezed his eyes tighter.
"I miss her," his voice cracked.
The music paused for only a brief second. "Yeah," Don would only say, a little gruff. The melody return, a little slower and a little softer now.
Charlie watched Don's shoulders rolled back. He hadn't realized the tension sitting across Don's back before until now; the hard stiff posture dropping as Don's focus turned more towards the music, to a point Charlie suspected he'd forgotten they were still here.
"Maybe you can try some of the others?" Charlie asked, holding his breath when Don stopped.
"Yeah?" Don considered the book. "Maybe. Yeah, might like that." Don tapped the keys. "Sure." He arched an eyebrow towards Charlie. "Means I'll be here a hell of a lot more, buddy. Can't fit a piano in my apartment."
"You have an apartment?" Charlie pretended to roll his eyes. He got off the bench, smiling to himself as he went towards the kitchen. He caught his father standing there, leaning against the door, listening as Don continued. The patriarch opened his eyes and winked at Charlie, who grinned back. The two men glanced back towards the living room as they heard Don hum along with the piano.
Perhaps Don had his own bubble after all.