1 | The Brooding Man
This is the rewritten version of The Frailty of Grey. The plot is exactly the same but the writing is (hopefully) improved :).
The brief silence is crisp.
The conductor elevates his baton, tipping his pointed nose, his eyes scouring the musicians seated before him. We hold our breaths, our instruments in playing position, as we wait for him to cue us in. The energy is static, consuming, all of us tense and on edge. But we’re ready to do what we do best: bring music to life.
My cheeks tingle with a sensation that affects me like none other before. It’s irritating, itchy, and I have to prevent myself from breaking posture and scratching at my face. I want to blame the hot lights that are ablaze above us but I know they are not guilty. Sweat beads by my eyebrow, however.
In unison we take a breath as the conductor cues us in. I blow the first puff of air into my flute, eyes scanning the notes on the page in front of me, keeping up with the fast, jazzy tempo. I’m fully immersed now, in my element, comfortable as though I’m playing in a room by myself. I can almost play with my eyes closed. I know these songs like the back of my hand.
But the whole time I play I cannot ignore the incessant tingling in my cheeks.
We play flawlessly without any blemishes. We all celebrate backstage quietly as we dismember our instruments, congratulating one another as though we have fought in a battle and emerged victorious. The tingling in my cheeks has dissipated, the feeling long forgotten as I laugh and share sentimental moments with my fellow musicians.
We’re all close like family, no factions or divides, no sense of competition or pride. Together we are humble, grateful we have achieved success, elated from the standing ovation from the audience. I laugh with a fellow flute player as I slip my jacket on over my long black gown. She tells me I’ve played well as I tell her the same thing.
We all socialize for a while, giving the audience the time to filter and thin out of the auditorium. The fellow flute player, one who has come to be a good friend of mine, offers to give me a ride home which I accept. I ask her if she’d like to come in for a glass of wine as a token of thanks and she agrees enthusiastically.
We all soon begin to make our way out of the auditorium, carrying our instruments with us like trophies. I walk with my friend, making subtle jokes about tripping up the stairs meanwhile trying hard not to. Once we step into the main level I feel that tingling come back to my cheeks. I wince, again resisting the urge to slap at my face, as I fail to hear something that my friend has said. I ask her to repeat herself and, unquestioning, she does.
It’s cold outside, just the cusp of winter, snow predicted to fall in the next few days. The wind blows steady, gusting at us just as we step through the threshold of the doors, weaving its way through the curled ends of our hair.
At the bottom of the wide stairs is a man who stares at my friend and I. He’s tall, brooding, dressed all in black. He stands with no one and no one stands with him. He holds no cigarette to his lips so I assume he’s come alone. I look away as my friend and I descend the stairs. She’s telling me a childhood memory, a silly story, but I’m not fully invested as my eyes fall back onto the brooding man.
I drop my head as we take the last few steps and when my friend starts giggling I follow suit, realizing I’ve missed the punchline but don’t have the heart to tell her. She’s about to finish the rest of her story but presses pause when the brooding man, who she has just become aware of, grabs my bicep. I gasp, nearly dropping my instrument case.
My friend goes to defend me but he speaks before she has the chance to object. “I’m sorry to grab you like this,” he says, his voice deep, masculine. “I know it’s improper.”
My friend retorts something aloof in response although my ears have tuned her out. My cheeks sting like they’ve been rampaged by wasps and my eyes are wide as I stare up at the stranger. I’m starstruck, unable to comprehend anything, mind absolutely blank.
“I just want to know your name.” He admits as people step around us.
Without any hesitations, zero forethought, straight impulse, I tell him my name. “Simone.”
His dark eyes, inky in colour, stare at me for a moment as though he can’t believe I’ve offered my name so willingly. I can hardly believe it myself.
"Nathaniel,” he tells me. “You are beautiful.”
And he lets me go. I’m rooted for a moment, my legs forgetting how to move. I stare at him, taking him in, speechless. My friend links her free arm with mine and begins pulling me away. I stumble, turning to look at her as we walk hastily into the parking lot. I peek over my shoulder once more as we near her car, finding him staring at me, not bothering to look away even as I catch him. He stands still, eerie, unwavering.
My cheeks burn like fire.
My friend has one glass of white wine before sobering up. I have three glasses, preparing for my fourth when she tells me it’s late and she has to go. I walk her to the door, a little dizzy, and give her a hug as we bid each other goodbye. Once she’s gone I close the door and lock it, pressing my head to the wooden frame for a second before stepping away.
I call my mum because I promised I would after the concert. She doesn’t answer as expected. Our time zones are different, her clock being three hours ahead of mine. I leave a voicemail to her in French, our native tongue, and tell her I can’t wait for her and dad to come down in a month. I haven’t seen them in almost a year.
I decide against pouring myself a fourth glass and I place it in the sink, opting for the bottle instead. I grab the neck, pressing the rim to my lips as I step into my room. It turns out I am not alone.
Fabric is thrown over my head as a hand plants itself firmly on my stomach, pulling me back into a male body. I let out a scream that is muted by the fabric as I swing the bottle of wine back and hit my attacker. I feel lukewarm wine drench my skin as a shard of glass pierces the meaty part of my palm.
Still somewhat inebriated, not yet sobered up from my shock, I sloppily attempt to stab my attacker with the jagged neck of the bottle I hold in a death grip. His large calloused hand, the one free of my stomach, grabs my wrist before I can assail him. He digs his thumb into a soft spot and my hand spasms, blooming open as the neck of the bottle falls to the floor.
I start screaming bloody murder, thrashing, jumping up and lifting my knees. I slip through his grip and fall into a heap on the floor. He curses, his voice gruff, vaguely recognizable perhaps, but I don’t bother deliberating as I stumble to my feet. In my panic I do not remove the fabric and, dumbly, run farther into my room.
I crash into my wooden vanity and hear the collectibles on top rattle as I knock the breath out of myself. Arms wrap around my waist, lifting me, and I continue screaming as I thrash wildly. He doesn’t walk adjacent to the doorway but instead walks backwards before dropping himself onto my bed, keeping me on top of him. We bounce.
“No!” I cry as I fight to get away from him. He keeps one arm tight around my waist as the other struggles to collect my wrists. Outsmarting me he manages to entrap them, rendering me inept. I kick at nothing through the fabric of my dress. “Please! Don’t hurt me!”
“I am not here to harm you,” he growls from below me before rolling on top of me. The fabric of my dress tangles around my legs as he straddles my waist. I feel a sharp pain in my palm followed by the sound of something small hitting the floor. Warmth saturates my hand and my fingers clench as I scream and recoil beneath him. “If you stop squirming I will remove the fabric from your head. Do we have a deal, Simone?”
“M–my name,” I wheeze, his weight heavy on top of me. He pins my arms above my head with one hand, dominating me. I’m sobbing. “H-how did you–”
“Stop moving and you will understand,” but I can’t stop moving. ”Simone.”
“You’ll kill me.” I whisper, squirms suffusing into shuddering shoulders.
The man on top of me must’ve figured he traumatized me enough. Even though I’m not stationary he removes the fabric and throws it onto the floor, using his free hand to smooth wisps of hair from my forehead. I meet the inky eyes of the brooding man from earlier. A moment of familiarity strikes me as I try to remember his name.
I pale, fear replaced by a stutter of confusion as I look up at him. My sobs discontinue and I go still like he had wanted me to before. He is delineated from the kitchen light that seeps into my room, contouring a sharp jaw and arched brows. Again I am speechless.
“Surprised?” He asks rhetorically. His grip on my wrists tighten and more blood sleeps through my palm. “I imagine you didn’t think your night would end like this.”
“Y–you,” I breathe, seizing up. “How long–”
“I arrived before you did,” he tells me, staring down at me with an intensity that makes my skin crawl. He looks like he is about to say something and centres himself on my waist, alleviating some of his weight. I breathe easier, faster, my chest heaving as panic floods in again. “Don’t seem so surprised, Simone. Why else would I have grabbed you if not to have something already planned?”
My sobs pick up again. We’re near the foot of the bed, the ends of my hair sweeping the floorboards. I bend my neck back away from him, scraping my feet against the bed through my dress. My stomach roils and a wave of nausea rushes over me but it passes quickly. Still, however, I can play into this hand.
“I–I,” I pretend to gag. ”Sick.”
He buys my act because he releases my wrists and allows me to roll myself over. I scoot more over the edge of the bed and that is all the freedom I’m allowed as he grabs a fistful of my dress. I dangle, feigning another gag as I allow my arms to drape. My finger brushes a broken shard of glass so I pick it up.
I shoot up quickly, making a slash at Nathaniel. Caught off guard he lets go of me to defend himself. I do not land anything but I kick against his chest, propelling myself off of the bed. I tumble onto the ground, dropping the glass shard as I crawl back over to my vanity and pull myself to my feet.
I hear him grunt a sound of frustration as he jumps off of the bed. Impulsively I grab my bottle of hairspray, popping off the cap as I turn around, finding Nathaniel’s behemoth form no more than a foot or two away from me. I spray him in the eyes, sending him a few steps back.
I throw the can at him before sprinting out of my room, preparing to make my way to the front door. But he’s hot on my heels, footfalls intrusive and quick.
He runs past me and jumps in front of me so we’re face to face. I slide to a stop, my pantyhose-clad bottom half making that rather difficult, but it’s even trickier trying to backtrack. A sinister grin tilts his mouth as he slowly stalks towards me. I take refuge on the far side of the island behind me, grabbing my home-phone and dialling nine-one-one.
I’m about to press call when he says, “if you call the police I will kill your friends and your entire family. And if you think I’m bluffing...”
He lists off their addresses.
A sob escapes my lips. My finger reluctantly hovers over the call button and remains in denial. Nathaniel tries sneaking around the side of the island but even in my frazzled state I’m still aware of him, scurrying over to where he had just been. We trade positions.
“Wh–what do you want?” I whisper, heart leaping from my chest. We face each other down; predator and prey, wolf and lamb.
“I just want you, Simone,” he answers. “You’re all I’m here for.”
I begin inching myself sideways to the threshold of the kitchen and Nathaniel mimics my direction. I know this is my only window of opportunity. I hit the end-call button and throw the phone at him, vision becoming clear as I twist my body to run to the front door. My tunnel vision becomes severe.
I don’t even have the chance to take a step as a hand digs into my armpit, yanking me back. The upper half of my body folds back onto the island. I scream as a hand digs into my other armpit, lifting me up and dragging me over the glossed countertop before I’m pressed against Nathaniel’s body. My feet barely hit the ground as he wraps an arm around my waist and backs us into a wall. Hopelessly, I thrash and plead.
He releases his arm from around my waist and instead wraps his leg around me to keep me in place. He places his hand over my mouth, muting my pleas as he reaches into his back pocket for something. I writhe, grabbing onto his forearm as my muffled pleas go ignored.
He pulls out a tiny bottle of something, silver in colour, seemingly homemade. It’s as tiny and unassuming as a perfume sample. My eyes go wide and I try to recede into his body but of course it’s not that easy. I think of my friends and family, of fond memories, and I’m grateful that even in what could be my final moments I find solace. I fear I won’t see another dawn.
“This was my last resort,” he hisses from above me. “You left me no other choice.”
He puts the bottle in front of me and presses down on the nozzle. Cold mist blots my face. I release a whimper as Nathaniel lets me go, the smell of salt burning in my nose. The mist is salty, I note.
I stumble a step or two before my limbs fail and my vision dims. I crumble, about to collapse onto the floor, but arms catch me in the nick of time.
I hear a deep breath in my ears and then I’m no longer perceptive to the world around me.