A Secret Chord

by Alexandra Y. Caluen

Janis Vaughn is doing all right as a music teacher, playing here and there at other people’s shows. It takes a friend’s personal troubles to make her say ‘what’s the worst that can happen,’ and go into the studio to record her own album. It takes off, and suddenly she’s touring. She has a smart musician boyfriend (kind of) and an even-smarter tour manager. If only she could roll them into one person.


It was on the third night home, when they were all in the study and Janis was noodling on the piano, that the mask came off. She wasn’t even aware of the exact moment, because he was sitting behind her. She was playing ‘Over the Rainbow,’ a competition piece from two decades before, but putting some new stuff in because she could and why not. She loved playing that song, there was so much scope for improvisation. She never sang it because it always made her cry. She was staring into space, hands creating some kind of ornamented cadenza at the end of the song, and then focused in on her mother’s face, which said HELP.


Janis snapped back into real life and turned around. Niall was bent forward, head on his knees, hands wrapped over the back of his neck, shuddering. She thought Hell, shit, fuck, what have I done, and jerked her head to say ‘out please.’ Her parents both stood up and moved toward the door. Her mother leaned in and spoke very softly by her ear. “What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. Whatever he needs. Can you close the door?”

“Sure, honey.” Her mother patted her shoulder and went out. A second later the door closed.

A second after that Janis was on her knees in front of Niall. “Sweetheart, precious, what? Can I help?” He raised his head; she was shocked by the devastation on his face. Tears were streaming; his whole body was vibrating with pain. “Jesus Christ, Niall.” He’d created enough space that she could worm her way in and get her arms around him. She kissed his face, then pulled his head down onto her shoulder. After a moment he hugged her tight, still weeping silently. “God, Niall, howl if you want to.”

“It doesn’t help.” His voice was shaking too. She was surprised he could speak at all. “It only upsets everyone else.”

“Tell me. If you can. When you’re ready. Take your time.” She kept talking, utter nonsense, reassurance and confusion and helpless love. It felt like a very long time before the tremor in his body subsided, before his breath evened out. Finally he sighed. She didn’t let go of him, and he didn’t try to sit back.

“Your knees will pay for this tomorrow,” he said eventually, sniffing.

“Fuck my knees. Can you tell me?” Still holding him tight. She heard him swallow.

He inhaled, exhaled, inhaled again. “Two years ago tonight the love of my life died. His name was Oliver. He was thirty-eight years old. We were together for ten years.” Another deep breath. Janis was biting her lip, trying not to cry herself. “It was his birthday. We’d had a bit of a party, at a pub in our neighborhood. He had a drink and sort of grimaced, stood up and said ‘what was in that muck, I’ve the head from hell.’ He put a hand to his temple and then he just … went down. Like a marionette if the strings were cut.” More breathing, but no more tears. His voice was steady. “I screamed for help and someone called. His eyes were open, staring at nothing. He breathed for a few minutes more, but he was dead before the ambulance arrived.”

“Niall.” Janis was fully crying now.

“Massive aneurysm, they said. No way to predict it, no way to prevent it. We meant to marry. It was going be legal in three months.” He sighed, loosened his hold, and sat back. Janis wiped her face. “Thank you for bringing me here. I might have thrown myself off the falls.”

“I had that thought.” She sniffled. “What did you do last year? How the hell did you survive?”

“I went to see my parents. Then I went to London and stood on a bridge and thought seriously about stepping off into the Thames. But we had the rest of the tour, and you were such fun that most of the time I could stop seeing his face. Stop hearing myself scream for help that was no help at all, because nothing could have helped.” She cried some more. He stroked back her hair and kissed her forehead. She raised her face and he kissed her mouth, hard and heartfelt though with his own mouth closed. “I came to America three months after he died. We’d been too many places in England. Everywhere I went, I saw him. It wasn’t big enough.” He didn’t have to add ‘for this grief;’ she heard it anyway.

“What do you need, sweetheart? That fucking song, I’m so sorry, what can I do? I’ll do anything.” She waited.

“I still don’t want to shag you,” he said after a while. “But could I sleep with you.”

“You precious idiot. Was there some part of ‘anything’ that was unclear?” He actually laughed, a sort of cough. She clambered stiffly to her feet, cursing her knees and her general gym-avoiding laziness, and gave him her hands. “Do you want anything? A drink?”

“No, pet, thanks.”

“Go wash up then. I’m going to have a word with my mom. You know which one is my room, I’ll be there in a minute.” He stood up, kissed her - again on the mouth - and then went out of the room. She followed him once she was sure her legs would support her, shying away from imagining that experience.


About the Author

A long time ago and three thousand miles away, I wrote my first novel - a historical romance - during graduate school. Twenty years later I finally dusted it off and published it. Since then I have written and published eleven more novels and twenty-nine novellas. My day job is in a law office, I've been married for eighteen years, and I'm inspired by authors like KJ Charles, Laurie R. King, Dick Francis, and Jennifer Crusie.

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