by Sydnie Howard
It’s four in the morning on Monday, dreary is the humid atmosphere, and nature’s wonders occupy the London streets after one week straight of rain: moss, moonlight, and the occasional fat rat. Plus Charlie, a hasted spirit. And this is his dying wish. So like the moon to its tide, we grant him his movement in this memory.
We watch from a lamppost on the corner of Long Acre, which flickers melodically in dismay. Not to any fault of its bulb, we are merely a contrasting nuisance to the white and bright. As Death, we are accustomed to being rejected by anything human. Just because we know everything, doesn’t mean we’re the most popular. To humans, we are greedy, selfish, and heathen. Constantly questioned and never wished upon.
Charlie is catching the metro, and he’s doing it in a side-hobble speed walk fashion while carrying a violin case and a cardboard box full of endless furies of black-dotted notes and clefs on white paper. Sheet music. Endless tries to create a masterpiece, a loud rapture of symphonies that could yank him into the elite opera house, or out of his bellowing sorrows. Both would be nice. But for once, that is the least of his worries, because he needs to catch a train. And he needs to in less than sixty seconds, or he will miss his chance to make it home before the clock strikes six, the hour his shift begins at the arts center.
January is wicked with its winds, a force pushing against Charlie as he stumbles along the freezing concrete. Here comes Clumsy the Clown trying to catch up with the rest of the circus. But Charlie hasn’t tripped yet, and if he does, he hopes the fat rats might be the only witnesses. The fat rats, and us. He doesn’t know we’re here yet, but we wait for him.
Waiting is all we do. Waiting and remembering, and then taking. Forgetting is the foe for most humans, and in the very end, all they want is comfort. The comfort of memories. And we are made of them.
The bottoms of Charlie’s shoes scuff against the cobblestone, almost as if he might trip four steps away from the metro’s entrance, but he stops instead. He stares up at the lights of Covent Station, the red and white lights dancing around the shadows under his eyes. You have thirty seconds, we think. Come on, Clumsy. But he is tired, chest heaving to match his racing heart. How much time does he have? What is the significance of him being here?
None of that matters. The past becomes the present if you let it. The future, the past’s mortal sister and the present’s predecessor, lie in wait for change. Everybody is defined by one of the three tenses. And we conquer all.
The train vibrates the ground beneath Charlie's feet like a calling to hell, while his Oyster card almost slips from his calloused fingertips. He’s not homeless, despite his crippled appearance. Just the average overworked musician clad in clothes wrinkled from too many nights marooned on the studio floor. He grips his box and aged violin under his arms, jaw clenched as he pushes through the turnstiles.
The clamoring locomotive rears its yellow headlights from the near distance, and Charlie begins to sprint. Slow down, Clumsy, we think. You have time. The old metropolitan slides into the station’s rusted rails, and he is the only passenger waiting. Doors hiss open, and incandescent lights beam down his path.
Charlie steps inside and his knees hit the faded lime-speckled floors, harmonies of relieved curses falling from his lips. He’s sweaty, smells faintly of a rubbish bin, and looks as though he’s about to either throw up or start praying- perhaps both. His eyelids begin opening and closing like a toy doll’s, and we think, for a moment, he will pass out from pure exhaustion, and this mess will end. This was a foolish decision, we start to believe. This was such a waste of-
Time. A voice. It’s soft, full of sun, and liquid smooth. A young man lingers in front of Charlie, no more than four feet away. His rounded shoulders hunch in a classic writer’s posture, with short brown curls framing big, hazel-yellow eyes. The stranger is suddenly beaming.
Charlie is staring up at him as if a prophet, a holy ghost, an angel has graced down from the musty, gray London sky and taken form upon planet Earth. We want to tease Charlie for his idiocy, but we too halt at the fortuity.
“What?” Charlie says.
“Arlo’s Serendipity.” A faint Russian accent highlights the curious inflections of the stranger’s voice. “You composed that, right?”
“Arlo?” Realization sweeps Charlie’s features as he speaks. “Y-Yes, I did compose that. Yes.”
The hazel-eyed stranger is holding a piece of paper; a sheet that had strewn away from Charlie’s box in the midst of his dramatic entrance. “Arlo’s Serendipity in E Minor” read the title in bold. Charlie takes the paper with a wry sigh, mumbling a “thank you” before placing it back atop its ravaged enclosure. Where all his work belongs, in a cardboard prison, never to conquer the eyes or ears of anybody. Until now. And that’s when we practically see electricity shock Charlie awake.
“Wait,” says Charlie.
We’re all waiting, Clumsy.
“You… you know my work?”
The stranger, seemingly holding his breath, lets out a small gasp. “Know your work? I write about your work.” The infectious smile is back and curving up on his lips. The thin-wired glasses on the bridge of the stranger’s nose become more visible, seeming to halo around his exuberant eyes, the color of a forest floor in autumn.
Charlie is now completely stunned, as if he had never heard another human utter any phrase that had to do with himself. “You do what?”
The man nearly shakes the train car with the way he jolts. “You’re Charlie fucking Soman!” We see Charlie flinch, and the stranger bounces forward, collapsing to his knees and seizing Charlie by the shoulders. He stumbles several times to speak, fragments of jumbled Russian syllables leaving his lips, none of which are comprehensible for a moment until he gathers his English. Stutter and Clumsy, we think. What a compelling combination.
“O-Oh goodness! It really is you! I’ve been to your shows! Back row, mostly because I’m always scribbling in this book but, wow! You’re… how do you say? A music prodigy!”
Charlie rubs his dry eyes with the back of his wrinkled dress shirt sleeve, eyebrows furrowed as if solving a riddle. This was the first time somebody has ever recognized him in public. Not just for his music, but for really anything at all. Much less on the Metropolitan at four in the morning, all wrecked and rushed. He asks, “What do you write about? About… about my pieces? My compositions?”
The stranger settles back on his heels, now completely sitting on the floor beside Charlie, eyes lit with a hazel fire. “Oh, I write stories. Stories about songs you play. Well, more of what I see in my mind when I hear you. I remember hearing your piece last year when you played in a slot at Louie's.” The man holds his notebook flat on his palms. “If you would like… I could show you.”
Charlie, infatuated and wondering if he is dreaming, nods once.
The stranger scrambles to flip his notebook open, taking no more than five seconds to find the right page, his eyes focused downward on tiny English lettering. And Charlie can’t help but stare at his face, heart caught in the middle of his throat, pulses pounding to the beat of bass drums. We can hear it. The stranger begins to summarize the plot of his story with a calm quickness.
“Arlo wonders when and how he can ever escape a past full of downfalls and defeat. He doesn’t want to be a slave to the past, or to the future. To time and death. He wants the world to break open, so he can hide inside of it.”
The notebook is passed to Charlie as if it were a newborn. “Arlo’s Finds Serendipity” displays at the top of the page in neat cursive. The stranger continues.
“Arlo goes on a walk one day with nothing but the clothes on his back. He takes this trail into the woods and gets very lost. Night falls, and he stops in a clearing to lie down, wondering if he’d make it through the night. When he looks up at the sky, it’s big and full of stars. He wonders if wanting more than this life somehow made him selfish, or self-obsessed.”
The stranger’s handwriting dances on the page, decorating line after line in harmonious sentences as Charlie begins to read the story. The writer reaches the finale of his summary.
“Arlo doesn’t believe in life. But, he also doesn’t exactly believe in wanting death. He wants more than polar opposites, he wants the silent middle ground where he can watch the world, and free himself of chaining past and persistent present. But that’s when he sees it, the bright fire behind closed eyelids. And when he opens them, the stars are falling, and the world is breaking open. A meteor shower, white against black. Particles that fell into orbit, just for him to see. Serendipitous.”
Words from the stranger have stopped, but Charlie’s red eyes are racing, reading every word, calloused fingers flipping through page after page. The author sits in silence, fingers clasped in his lap, his eyes never once leaving the pale canvas that is Charlie’s face. We don’t need to read the story to know exactly what Charlie is feeling. We could tune all this out and simply not watch. Why is it we always choose to watch? Why did Arlo ever want more than life and death? What could he want more than time?
Seven minutes later, Charlie finishes reading. “Is… is this really what you heard?”
The stranger, who doesn’t seem too strange anymore, locks their gazes into one. “I didn’t just hear it. You made me hear it. People play for fame, for money, but you don’t. You play for people who contradict themselves, for those who don’t think they will ever reach anybody but still manage to reach at least one person who understands. Arlo is you. He’s me.”
We see that Charlie’s eyes are no longer dry and lost.
The stranger continues. “And that’s exactly what serendipity is. Finding something good-”
“Without looking for it,” Charlie finishes.
Both of them meet eyes. Fire in colors, dancing affectionately around their noses and eyebrows, lines their lips and pupils. Then, both people break open. They smile, at the same exact time. We see the wetness on Charlie’s cheeks, glimmering like crystals on his skin.
He asks, “What is your name?”
“Lev.” Charlie mimics. “Lev from…?”
“Lev from Russia.”
Lev snorts. “Charlie from London.”
They both smile again, their teeth catching the light, which flickers once in a bump of the train car. Charlie leans forward, resting his chin on his palm. “Lev from Russia, how did you get here?”
“London has been my home for two years now,” says Lev, chuckling. “Russia may be large, but not when you’re trapped in a small town like Rostov with a big farm and an even bigger family.”
“So you left?”
“Mhm, I sold my favorite horse for a plane ticket. My father never exactly believed I was much of the strong son he predestined my mother to have. He even burned all my storybooks on the stove in front of my eyes. I am so lucky I was taught some English in school because, after that, I swore to never write in Russian again.” Lev releases a laugh mixed with a sigh. “Sure, I keep in touch with family, but the opportunity to be something more than a farmer or a scared little boy afraid to ever write again has always seemed so… promising.”
Lev smiles as he looks at Charlie, whose gaze has never once drifted away from Lev. Dubiety no longer conquers Charlie’s nerves. He is filled, instead, with compassion. And Lev talks like only Charlie is listening.
“Two years in London and you’d think I’d have a different accent or know what a ‘bog roll’ is. But, nope. I am still a small-town Russian boy.” Lev's eyes widen, and he leans close to Charlie as if he’s about to tell a secret. “Do you ever wish you could be everywhere at once without taking your past with you, Charlie?”
Charlie halts, he even stops breathing for a moment. We wonder if he’s going to answer, with that fish-out-of-water look on his face. Yet, he surprises us again.
“Yes. I do, actually. Sometimes, I feel like I’m stuck in time.” He gazes across the car, out at the darkness tumbling by the window. “That I’m just in somebody else’s dream. That whatever I do blends together in a giant blur and is forgotten within seconds.”
Lev raises his eyebrows. “Forgetting is very hard when it comes to what you make, Charlie. And you know something about me? I forget a lot. What I don’t forget, I write in books.”
Charlie holds the brown-leather notebook in his hands, staring down at it, then back up at Lev. “I have never once met anybody like you, Lev.”
It’s Lev’s turn to be slightly overwhelmed, with the flustered smile that overcomes him.
Charlie leans forward as Lev did before. “And bog roll means toilet paper, by the way.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me!”
They’re both laughing now, voices echoing through the empty train car, filling the hollow spaces. They continue for a long while, and when their laughter fades, the room still feels full of it.
“Charlie?” Lev asks.
“Could you play for me?”
Charlie hands the notebook back to its owner, fingers lingering on the pages. “Of course.”
And he does play. Charlie gets out his violin, and he plays for Lev. Note after note, unraveling into the metro’s heart, he plays “Arlo’s Serendipity in E Minor.” The writer sits on the floor among a car of empty seats, staring up as Charlie strikes chords, calluses against fine steel, a bow of fine horsehair sliding along the strings smooth as satin.
Arlo is in the woods, Charlie strikes A Minor, and he is lost. Arlo lies down on the ground, G Sharp, and he prepares to die. Arlo sees the meteors, B Minor, and there are tears in his eyes. We could see the story, the combination of their creations, intermingling with such ease.
There’s always a before, but we are only ever allowed to see the end. Life gets the beginnings and the middle, and we get the conclusions. Yet, here we are watching the birth of something that is beyond any of us. We’re watching where time has truly started for Charlie.
The train begins to slow, and this is Charlie’s stop. He concludes on an E Minor chord, an unfinished ending to his composition, and stows his violin away, getting to his feet. He sticks out his hand, and Lev grabs it, warm brown skin against cold pale. There they both stand, hands hugging one another’s, and we see, again, color. Fire, like meteors.
“Will I see you again?” Lev asks.
Charlie’s lips press together in a smile. “Yes, I promise. Find me at Battersea Arts Center in the daytime, and bring me your stories.” Both their hands are still connected, longing, grasping, and their heads are inclined towards one another, eyes holding back their blinks to make this moment last longer. To remember. The doors will close in ten seconds, but Charlie is no longer in a rush, and we don’t will for him to leave.
“Farewell, for now, Lev.”
Charlie gathers himself and steps out onto the platform. We follow, and Charlie turns around. He sees us, or we think he does. No, he gazes through us towards Lev, and he smiles again, waving goodbye. We are not looking at Lev, but we can feel it this time. The warmth between them. This memory, burning hotter.
Charlie doesn’t move until the metro doors hiss close, a wall passing between their worlds again. The locomotive clamors back down the tracks, whizzing away its incandescent lights into the night.
We move this time, and Charlie does see us, young eyes wide with surprise.
“Are you ready to go, Charlie?” We ask.
He stares at us, eyebrows raised and lips parted as if about to say something before the future interrupts him. Like a musical scale climbing up and up, Charlie ages towards the present and transforms out of his younger body into an old, clumsy man. He is shrunken, wide eyes wrinkled, hair receded and graying at the roots, violinist’s fingers aged with fifty years of discolor. It’s still him, it’s still Charlie.
Before humans take their final breath, we grant a single memory. Just one for them to relive, to navigate freely again. And we get to watch, to notice, to know what exactly it is that makes them so fragile, so flawed, seeking out times unique to them. Usually, we can tell right away why a body wants to return to a certain place. This time, we had to wait till the end to know it all.
A wobbly smile curls on Charlie’s chapped lips. We reach out, offering assistance with one of our many arms. He takes it, and human warmth transmutes to us. The industrial London train station begins to dissolve, flake, crack, and finally break away like leaves in the wind, revealing an infinite amount of colored puzzle pieces playing like movies, over and over. Memories. Thousands of them playing at once, a symphony of his time on planet Earth. We walk through the museum of Charlie’s life, his moments alive, all of them, both sentimental and numbing; his first music internship in college, his mother’s funeral, the day he slipped in the rain and whacked his head on the corner of the curb. Clumsy, clumsy.
We even see Lev dancing in the music studio with Charlie while a record spins on a needle. Their lips meet with every other drunken song lyric while they cling to one another like two magnets in a haze, laughing louder than the music itself. In another memory they’re both in New York City, sitting in a Broadway theater, starry-eyed and bundled close as the lights dimmed. Then on a farm in Rostov, Lev’s hometown, where Charlie is being chased by chickens outside their pen, and Lev is kneeling over in the grass, crying with how hard he’s laughing. At an opera house, Palais Garnier, Lev is sitting in the front row with his notebook, and Charlie is first chair violin, finding Lev’s smiling face just seconds before he begins to play. These were memories Charlie has never forgotten, ones that time stored away in a book.
We advance towards the present. It’s a single pane at the end of the hallway floating in a white space all on its own. Charlie is lying in a hospital bed of sky-blue sheets, a weak hand clasped in somebody else’s. Lev’s. Fading brown curls frame his yellow-wired glasses protecting two watery eyes, that same smile aflame on his lips, his bony shoulders hunched.
Charlie stares ahead, his grip tightening on our arm. The fast drumming heartbeat begins to slow, the finale of a symphony starting to fade out. Lev’s face contorts slightly on the pane, and he gives a saddened laugh, one full of the same sunlight, full of the past, and the present.
We continue to do something we are accustomed to. We wait. But this time, we wait a little longer than usual.
Charlie’s lip quivers and he turns to us, reaching up, and laying a hand on our unidentified face. On the pane, he lays a hand on Lev’s. Charlie’s lips purse to speak.
No grave can bury memories. Like us, they are forever.
Darkness falls, warmth leaves us, and Charlie is beginning to be gone, fragmenting into black dots against white azure, whisking away.
About the Author
Sydnie A. Howard is a first-year Creative Writing major at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. She's been writing, dreaming, and creating worlds on paper since she was eight-years-old, and hopes to one day send several of her future novels and collections out into the world. When she's not reading or writing, she enjoys adventuring through small towns, discussing film, and loving her cat.