THE BOY WHO KNEW
BY NICHOLAS ARNOLD
She was dying.
That much was clear. The way in which her skin hung loose on her face, thin as tissue paper, left no doubt about it. She wasn't in the literal process of dying—unless, of course, from the moment we become self-aware, we are all simply in the process of passing. It wasn't going to happen right that moment, no. But soon. To any objective observer, there was no denying it any longer.
James Wick knew this, although the lack of emotion he felt suggested he was, indeed, in some form of denial. He wasn't sure how one dealt with that; if they deal with it at all.
I suppose once she passes, that's what therapy is for, he thought.
James had stayed the night at his childhood home where his mother still lived (for now) at 66 Whidmere Avenue. He had convinced himself he had done so in order to be a good son; loyal and attentive to his ailing mother's needs. In actuality, he had an interview in the morning just a few blocks away. The decision had been made out of pure convenience.
He stood at the front door, looking into the living room where his mother lay on the couch, a thin, wool blanket covering her skeletal frame. She was coughing, struggling for air, as a hospice nurse entered from the hall in a brisk but remarkably calm walk. An oxygen tank that stood guard by the couch turned on with a switch. James watched, helpless, as his mother took in air through the mask.
“You're alright, Mrs. Wick,” the nurse reassured her dying patient.
James cleared his throat.
“I have to go,” he said. A wave of guilt immediately overcame him.
“Go do what you have to do,” the nurse responded. She didn't mean it as a slight, he knew that. Yet his mind couldn't help but interpret it as such.
James opened an umbrella as the Vancouver rain fell; misty and oddly pathetic—as though it wanted to rain, but couldn't. He removed a scrap piece of paper from his pocket; an address scribbled faintly across: 33 Spineal Road.
The house in front of him sat on a gorgeous property at the bottom of a gradual slope that was lined with gardens, shrubbery and small ever-greens that eagerly soaked up the falling droplets with their branches. The stone walk-way to a small, two-story home began at the top of the bank. At the bottom, an awning made for a quaint porch at the entrance, where a woman sat in a lone rocker. From the top of the hill, James wondered if she was asleep, perhaps having dozed off watching the rain. As he drew closer, he saw that her eyes were wide but dazed, staring past him. She held something in her hand, massaging it with her thumb.
“Mrs. Avalon,” he said. Her gaze was slow and deliberate as she turned to register, “I'm James Wick from The Herald. I'm the one you talked to on the phone.”
Mrs. Avalon snapped out of her trance, taking note of her surroundings. She swallowed, struggling to find her voice and glanced down at what she was holding; a small, pocket watch.
“What time is it?” her voice hoarse from lack of use.
“I can come back.”
“Don't leave.” The urgency with which she said this made James stiffen. She stood, wrapping the chain of the watch around its face and placing it in the pocket of her dress.
“Thank you for coming,” she turned and entered the house, leaving the door open for James to follow.
“I know I had it in my notes somewhere, but what's the name of the award? The Chris—”
“—The Charles Larson Arts Award,” Mrs. Avalon corrected.
James sat with her at her kitchen table; a mess of papers and old photographs were tossed between them. He scribbled in his notebook.
“How did they—find out—about Nello?” he said, writing as he spoke. She took a calculated breath.
“I wrote to them. He was too young to be nominated.”
“Why do you think he won?”
“He had such an incredible eye. He found a way to speak through his talent,” she fought tears with each passing word. James stopped writing. He forced a smile that reporters often do when interviewing an unreliable subject. From what he could tell thus far, Mrs. Avalon did not seem overly stable.
“Can I see?” he asked.
Mrs. Avalon paused before opening the door and James felt a certain sense of reverence upon entering; as though they were about to explore a tomb that had remained sealed for centuries. In reality, it was simply a ten-year-old's bedroom. A flick of a switch brought light to the preserved room—and preserved it was. Even the bed was still unmade; the sheets piled from the last time it had been occupied.
James stepped forward and in a single breath took in the scope of the young boy's space. As his feet sunk in the carpet, his eyes scanned the walls which served as a canvas for paintings and charcoal sketches that covered nearly every square-inch, ceiling to floor. Most of the drawings were unintelligible, although he was able to make out some imagery—birds flying, a crudely drawn figure in lotus, geometric shapes and patterns. The art resembled the work of a mad-man, save for one piece which hung at the head of the bed; a beautifully rendered self-portrait of the boy himself. The detail and texture applied to the piece showed no sign of the rough, unhinged work that surrounded it. Instead, it carried an almost photographic quality, transcending the confines of the stretched canvas and grinning at James who felt a small tingling in the base of his spine the moment he locked eyes with it.
Pulling his attention away, he noticed a keyboard tucked in the corner. It was hidden under an array of scattered papers which James discovered to be sheet music. He examined the pages covering the yellowed keys. All of them were hand-written.
“When did he start playing?”
“Four,” the mother said. She hadn't moved from the door.
James picked a single page from the pile. A child's writing scrawled across the top spelled out the words: 'my requiem'.
“And this?” James asked, holding the page.
“He started writing when he was six. He stopped for a long time. But then he wrote that.”
James brought the requiem close. He felt strange holding it, as though it were some sort of lost relic.
“Forgive me for saying this,” he cleared his throat and smirked, “It seems a little morbid for a child to write a requiem. Mozart fan?”
Mrs. Avalon didn't smile. James hadn't expected her to. Instead, she walked into the room in a swift motion that made him almost stumble back. Now she was only feet away, gazing at the portrait behind him; a silent connection with her deceased son. She swallowed, fighting tears as she moved towards the dresser beside his bed. The unit rattled as she pulled open its wooden drawer and reached in, removing a leather-bound book and unwrapping the strap. She handed it to James.
He was wary to take it, but he did, slowly turning its cover. It was a journal. Much like the drawings on the wall, the book contained manic scribbles that screamed in their frantic presentation. As he flipped through the pages, the tiny fibres of paper skimming the edges of his fingers, James read the haunting words of ten-year-old Nello Avalon:
It's all an illusion.
The oil burns!
I am no one.
I am everyone.
There is no death.
James's breathing had inadvertently heightened. An ever-urging sense of regret and fear had crept into the back of his mind.
Either the boy was crazy. Or worse—wasn't even real. This could all be her doing.
As his mind raced, he took notice of something he otherwise would have missed, had it not been for the already unusual atmosphere he felt in his surroundings. Every entry on every page was ear-marked with a date. The same date. October 10th.
“Nello died on October 10th,” Mrs. Avalon said, recognizing what James was seeing. She was crying now, the tears falling silently past her cheeks, her eyes puffy and red.
“A few months ago he stopped everything. Writing. Playing. Drawing. He became very withdrawn and quiet. Only coming out to eat. He would meditate from the time he woke to the time he fell asleep. I didn't know it at the time, but he had become sick.”
James tightened his jaw. Now his heart was pounding. He wanted to leave. He had to leave. He shifted in place and tried to hand the journal back to Mrs. Avalon. She grabbed his arm, firm at first, than loosening. James locked eyes with her. Her breathing matched his; shallow but heavy.
“The night my son died,” she said, “Every clock in this house stopped.”
The words slammed into James with a tsunami of dread. It was as though he knew some sort of bomb-shell revelation was coming.
But this? The woman is insane.
Mrs. Avalon gestured to the drawer where she had retrieved the journal. Fighting every urge to do so, James moved to the dresser and bent down, reaching inside. His hand met with a pile of sketches and as he pulled them into the light, the blood drained from his face. Each depicted a time-piece of some sort, crudely sketched with lines scarring the paper. On the face of each clock were hands, spread to 11:11, an exuberant display of jubilation and praise. As his hand sorted through picture after picture, moving at an increasing pace, it stopped at a child's watch lying underneath the prophetic portfolio; the tiny waist-band frayed and worn. James held it in his palm and as the light of the ceiling fan hit its face he saw it.
Frozen in time.
James dropped the watch, standing. He flung his satchel over his shoulder and as he acknowledged Mrs. Avalon's grief, his mind drifted to thoughts of his mother. In a moment, what he thought he knew about death faded away.
“I have to go,” he said, avoiding eye-contact. He moved towards the door. Mrs. Avalon regained her composure.
“He smiled,” she said, stopping him in his tracks. He didn't turn around, but he did listen.
“Before he died, he smiled,” she continued, “He discovered it. What it means to live. What it means to die. We're all afraid of death. But not Nello.”
He felt her move towards him, the hairs on the back of his neck standing.
“Please. Write this story. Others need to know his secrets. His writings must be heard. His music and art must be seen and felt.”
James stiffened as he felt her arm graze against his and he looked down to see her slip the single page of Nello's requiem into his open satchel. He didn't resist. Something inside him simply accepted.
“Please believe me, Mr. Wick.”
“I have to go,” he responded, “Someone else will write your article.”
James walked out of the room. Mrs. Avalon covered her mouth, tears coursing down.
“Don't go! Please!”
Rain patted rhythmically against the bedroom window as thunder clouds rolled by in the distance. All of this was brought to a calm and graceful zen by the sound of Lucy Wick's oxygen tank; her masked breathing providing a gentle pulse that James matched with his own breath as he sat in silent vigil. It was almost midnight; the room illuminated by a single lamp on the bedside table. A rosary and statue of The Pietà provided his mother with the necessary comfort she required.
She was looking at him; her thin hair matted by sweat, her eyes heavy as she took in what air she could. Her hand reached out and slowly uncurled in front of him. He took it, holding tight.
“Mom,” he said, his voice soft.
She held his hand with a strength he was shocked to discover she still had within her. Pulling upon that strength, she leaned forward.
“Love—...You,” she said through rasps and coughs.
James felt his eyes burning as they glossed over. He leaned forward and embraced her. Her hand held his head as her arms wrapped around him. It lasted for nearly a minute in silence. Then, he slowly lowered her back to the bed and all at once recognized the sweet vulnerability of the woman who had raised him.
Minutes later, he was in the living room. The door to her bedroom was slightly ajar; her oxygen tank humming from inside while she slept. As quiet as the house was, there was a great deal of noise if one were to sit in silence and listen.
James held a picture of his mother, amidst an array of photographs scattered across the coffee table. She was in her twenties in the photo; beautiful and charming.
Setting the photo down, his attention gravitated to his satchel, it's mouth open, revealing the contents inside. A piece of hand-written music stuck out, inviting. He took the page, holding it with the tips of his fingers. The unsettling memories of the day rekindled and he marvelled at the souvenir in his hand. It was a child's writing, that much was certain.
He looked to the upright in the corner of the room; the same piano his mother had given him lessons on some thirty years earlier. Moving towards it, he gripped Nello's composition. There was a sudden eagerness to discover the boy's music. He sat, setting the requiem on the stand and lifting the lid, a thin layer of dust dissipating in the air as he did so. He took a moment, gathering his bearings as he stared at the white and black keys. And then he played—slowly at first—then gaining in tempo. He played the notes that Nello had written.
It was a haunting piece; a beautiful melody that elicited memories of loss and love all at once. James felt a chill from the base of his spine to the bottom of his skull as he played; the memories of his mother's teachings returning while the boy's music breathed life once more. And there, sitting at his mother's piano James lost himself in the artistry of a child prodigy, his emotions taking over as tears rolled down his cheeks.
In the stillness of his emotional revelation, the clock that hung above the piano ticked obediently. The second hand followed its rudimentary course with each passing note of the boy's requiem.
The piece reached its climax, painful and mourning. James hit the final chord and it rang out, the sound drifting from the strings. The second hand pulsed in time.
And then, as simply as it had once been moving, it stopped.
All was quiet.