A Duel Duet

This story is one that I wrote for a Story Embers competition. My group and I came up with the idea, I wrote out the first draft, and they helped me edit it all out and everything. Enjoy!

~~~~~~~~~~

The door slammed shut with a loud bang, and I felt the table underneath me vibrate. I heard footsteps—hard, firm, determined footfalls on the linoleum floor. The young, auburn-haired musician turned in my direction. She was pretty—an attraction to most boys her age. Right now, however, her shoulders were pulled back tightly and her spine coldly straight. Her normally warm blue eyes had a sharp edge to them.

It must be that boy. Miriam had been talking to him again. I didn’t understand why she didn’t just… ignore him. But then, I’d never know what it’d be like to be a human—let alone a thirteen-year-old girl. I was content to be who I was. My only purpose was to make humans feel emotion.

That was an honourable job, no? Emotions were powerful things.

Miriam interrupted my thoughts by muttering under her breath, “I don’t care, anyway.” She said it just loud enough for me to hear her. Of course, she’d never dream that her violin, the same one her father had bought for her years ago, was listening to her at that moment. And had been, ever since she’d opened the box that had been my home for years.

Miriam came over and lifted me up, resting me in the crook of her shoulder. The bow came up swiftly, and she struck three quick notes before plunging into the long, skillful string of notes that seemed to echo through my entire body.

I had picked up over the years that her way to ‘let out steam’, as some called it, consisted of playing me ten times harder than normal.

As she played the piece, her eyes shut, focusing, I could feel her emotions change like the four seasons. Anger melted into sorrow, then slowly emerged into a fierce determination. I felt her fingers gain strength.

A note wafted through the walls.

Miriam froze and listened, her body stiff in position.

The note turned into a sequence of notes strung together. The exact sequence Miriam had just finished playing not a second ago. Her grasp on the bow was so strong her knuckles whitened.

The song from the adjoining dorm room paused. Someone giggled.

I watched Miriam’s face again transition from fury to resolution. Her arm came to life, swinging back and forth on my strings.

I knew the boy on the other side of the wall—or at least, knew of him.

Polished shoes. Crisp white shirts. Abundant amounts of rosin for his fancy violin.

Miriam’s number one rival.

She kept playing, faster and faster, urging herself to be ahead of him. Somehow, the boy danced past her choppy notes with a grace that ruffled me.

Having fun?

The Stentor Violin.

You think I enjoy battles? I reply.

He laughed. What, this? This isn’t a battle, only a little feud. We will win, you know. A Stentor is more qualified than a Yamaha. You know it.

I bristled. Miriam’s fingers flew over the strings. She must have felt the extra energy I had just found.

Why even try? Your owner doesn’t have half the skill needed. The Stentor’s voice dripped with a mocking pity.

The Stentor and his owner picked up the last bit of speed and ended with a flourish, three notes before Miriam. She huffed and almost slammed me down on the table, but instinct must’ve protected me because she changed her mind and dropped me instead. At least nothing broke—not even my poor bridge that had already been replaced numerous times.

Miriam flicked her straight hair behind her shoulders and marched out of the room. I’d barely ever seen her like this. Only one thing could get under her skin, and his name was Jay.

Even though she’d closed the door to the dorm room, I could still hear the words exchanged in the hallway between Jay and her.

Jay’s voice came first. “Wasn’t that fun?”

He sounded exactly like his Stentor. I could hear the smile in his voice.

I could also hear the frustration in Miriam’s. “Why did you interrupt me? I was practicing.”

“I know. But you’re playing my song. I’m playing Vivaldi’s Storm for the recital.”

“Mr. Cameron told me I am!”

“Well then,” I pictured Jay leaning his hand against the wall with a petty little smirk. “Why don’t we have a little competition before the recital?”

Oh no. This was not good. Miriam had spent two whole semesters memorizing this for the recital at the end of the year.

“This isn’t a game, Jay.”

“Oh come on. You don’t think you can win? Maybe you should get a different kind of violin. A Stentor would do nicely for you, eh?”

“My violin plays well enough!”

“Then I guess it’s the musician who needs to be replaced, hmm?” 

I heard a door open, but before it closed, Miriam said, “What’s the deal?”
“I lose the competition, I give you my Stentor and let you play Vivaldi’s Storm. You lose the competition, and you forfeit playing at the recital altogether.”

I felt sick.

“Done.”

~~~

The notes lifted off my strings, almost like they were floating. Miriam’s fingers were flying across the strings. The muscles in her face were stressed. She was pressing down so hard, her fingers were bound to get calloused all over again.

What had happened to her?

Gone was the pure enjoyment of the music, replaced by… what? Anger? Bitterness? I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It was something I hadn’t seen from her before. Perhaps fear of losing. Again.

~~~

A ring of light shone around her, hair glowing red as a flame. She looked out into the dark audience, her heart slamming inside her chest. I would know. I could hear it as she raised me to her chin.

The bow rested against the strings for an instant, then the music began. Scenes played before the listeners’ eyes, mesmerizing them in the moment. Stories of old. Long, hard-fought battles, forbidden romances, and goodbyes without return. The emotions of the musician—joy, disappointment, longing—guided the emotions of the crowd.

When the song ended, the crowd stood and cheered for the ten-year-old. Miriam bowed, her cheeks flushing pink.

The next violinist to step up was a short, dark-haired boy. His eyes searched the crowd, and he must’ve found what he was looking for because a determined glint flickered in his eyes.

The boy played the song flawlessly, and Miriam watched, knowing. Knowing her chance at the scholarship had vanished, evaporated like water droplets in the blistering sun.

The award was handed over to him.

Miriam clutched me tight around the neckpiece and a tear began to form in the corner of her eye.

~~~

I could feel the hardened emotion in her fingers when she played me. 

Three years ago she had graduated with second place in the entire school. Now she was going for first. First would get her into the top choice academic schools of the state. As she continued to play, I knew there was a slim chance she’d give up getting noticed at the recital. 

Two more days until the recital. But today was the day Jay’s competition would be held. The day they found out who would play Vivaldi’s Storm.

I was propped up in my open case when Miriam slipped quietly into her dorm room. The competition was in ten minutes, leaving us twenty before lights out.

Before coming straight over, Miriam dropped on her bed and lay there, watching me. I wondered if she was thinking a Stentor would be better than a Yamaha. If she won the competition and gained possession of the Stentor, I might never be played again. Dust would collect on my beautiful wood. And I would be ashamed to be called a violin. 

The Stentor would have the time of his life.

Miriam blinked, stood and pulled me out of my case.

“Let’s do this,” she whispered, and began the song she knew so intimately. Was it possible to practice too much? If so, she might have crossed that line.

As she was drawing to the halfway mark, a sound began matching mine, coming from the room next door. A sound, a note, ahead of me.

Miriam’s chin lifted. She picked up the pace, now in line with Jay and the Stentor. Faster, quicker, and she had the lead.

Did Jay and Miriam know there was more to music than speed?

Now Miriam was distracted. The notes warbled and she hesitated. Jay and the Stentor sailed past us with confidence in the sound.

Miriam shoved me back in my case and left the room, out into the hallway. That wasn’t the competition, was it?

That wasn’t so bad, now, right? The Stentor spoke to me through the walls.

What was it with these guys?

I gave him no answer. He laughed.

That was only practicing. Wait until the real one.

That wasn’t the competition? I quipped. Maybe we hadn’t lost yet.

What, the one with the big bet on it? Naw, but it’s coming up in about four minutes. The Stentor replied.

Was he worried? After all, if they lost, he would belong to Miriam. Not that he should be too concerned about having her as owner. She was gentle and kind—when she wasn’t competing, at least.

Miriam’s voice wafted through the door. “It’s time. Where are we having the competition?” Her voice was a harsh whisper.

“Not here.”

“Duh.” Miriam’s voice was laced with sarcasm.

Jay was silent. What was taking place out there? Was his forehead wrinkling in a frown? Was Miriam glaring at him? Was he casually leaned up against the wall?

Finally Jay spoke. “You sure you want to do this?” 

They must be having a staredown.

“Of course.”

“Maybe I should lend you my Stentor. Just in case.”

This time I knew what he was doing. Grinning.

“Just because your family is rich doesn’t mean you’re more skilled than I am! Surely you don’t believe that talent is derived from money?” She spat out the words like they were poisonous, which, come to think of it, they probably were.

“If your family can’t afford a remotely good violin then you shouldn’t play.” 

A rough laugh—one that sounded oddly like a covered-up cry—escaped from Miriam’s throat. “That’s not fair! They can afford it. They just choose to spend it on other things.” Her voice was cracking with tears.

I heard footsteps coming down the hall, and apparently so did Jay, because he cut his comment short. Miriam and Jay were silent.

“Well, hello. Jay. Miriam. What are you doing up after lights out?” It was Mr. Cameron, the music instructor.

I glanced at the clock hanging on the wall. 10:07 pm.

“Miriam, are you crying?” Mr. Cameron asked, his voice deep with concern.

She sniffled. “I’m ok.”

“Why are you still up?”

There was no reply.

“Tell me what’s going on.” His voice picked up a dangerous edge.

Miriam drew is a ragged breath, her cheeks most likely flushed red with tears. “Didn’t you tell me I could play Vivaldi’s Storm? Jay says you told him he could play it! Now he won’t leave me alone when I’m practicing!”

“He did tell me I can play it. I’m not lying!” Jay retorted.

“Of course you are! I heard him say I could!” Miriam shot back.

“Well maybe if you played the violin good enough he’d probably let you—if he felt sorry for you, that is.”
“Jay!” Mr. Cameron scolded.

“You’ve always had things handed to you by your parents,” Miriam snapped back.

“Miriam! Jay! Both of you stop! You’re lucky the people in the dorms beside you are deep sleepers,” Mr. Cameron interrupted. “Now is this all about Vivaldi’s Storm? You both are acting like ten-year-olds. Because of your behaviour, neither of you will be playing Vivaldi’s Storm.”

“What!” Miriam cried. “I have to!” She had spent all her time this semester mastering her favourite piece. Now what would she do?

“And if you don’t watch it you won’t be playing anything at all,” Mr. Cameron added. He was normally a very friendly person, I knew. But I also knew that he could be stern, when he had a mind to. “Now stop being bullies to each other, go back in your dorm and straight to bed, and tomorrow I expect to see an apology. Got it?”

Silence. I bet they were bobbing their heads, now silent in submission.

“I never want to see this kind of behaviour again. Now, to bed.”

The dorm room opened, and a tired and red-eyed Miriam slowly walked in. Tears dribbled down her cheeks.

She wandered to her dresser and slipped into her pajamas, then looked at her neatly made bed. Her eyes turned to me, then back to her bed. 

Straight to bed, remember? I thought. Do you want to get in trouble again?

But despite my best efforts, she came and retrieved me from my case. I felt no strength in her grip. Her anger at Jay must’ve drained the last drops out.

Miriam picked up the bow.

Don’t do it. Don’t do it. If Mr. Cameron found her out, would he expel her from the recital like he’d threatened? If Jay heard them—which he no doubt would—he would also no doubt let Mr. Cameron know she was still up.

Miriam slid the bow gently across my strings, beginning Vivaldi’s Storm. Her fingers moved more slowly now, but more gracefully, too. The notes seemed to dance this time, instead of fly out in a spur of anger.

Then an interrupting violin began to play. Jay and the Stentor danced past her graceful notes with ease.

I worriedly watched Miriam’s face. At any minute she would change the tone of her song to match Jay’s. Any moment…

But her face stayed completely serene. Gone was the fury that transformed her face and her song.

She kept her pace even and firm, ignoring Jay’s hurried and sped up notes. Her music did not have the intense, anxious sound it had had when competing with Jay. This time, it held a warmth—had her joy of playing returned?

The Stentor violin paused, but Miriam continued on, apparently oblivious.

When Jay and his violin began playing again, this time they played in rhythm with us. He played soft and elegantly. 

I had never heard this from him before.

Instead of sounding like a rival, he sounded like a small echo in the background. An accompaniment to her music.

Miriam’s eyes flew open in surprise. Was he playing with her this time? She hesitated and let him play a bar in solo. Then she picked up where he left off, played a bar, and waited. He echoed her motions.

The battle of time and speed had turned into the most beautiful duet.

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