Reading Level- Sixth or Seventh Grade
She pictured the tall trees swaying through the autumn air, as those chilly months showed their full beauty. She thought about the colors of the leaves, the Halloween decorations, and even Thanksgiving. Allison Melot understood the season. In fact, she found autumn to be the one thing about the world she completely understood. In the autumn, she even thought she had a grasp on school. Her first year in middle school was intimidating, but she had made new friends, a clique of kids who made her laugh. She felt surprisingly comfortable, at first.
As autumn turned to winter, however, Alley found days of confusion. She knew this made her odd. She saw how her classmates peaked out the window when the teacher wasn’t looking, hoping to see the first glimpse of snow for hope that tomorrow would be an unexpected holiday. She wasn’t opposed to the idea of missing school, of course, but she didn’t quite understand the excitement about snow. She did once, as recently as last year, but now she saw snow as slippery, depressing, and covered in deer mess.
But it, of course, came, as it always does. Alley sighed as she looked out the window. On the bright side, the DJ informed her of a snow day.
She walked downstairs, careful not to wake up her parents, to the kitchen and made herself a bowl of cereal. Alley liked the quiet because it was in the silence that she could come up with her own songs in her head.
As she was finishing, her phone popped up with a text message. Addy, asking if she wanted to spend the day with her. Alley sighed again and glanced out the window.
Addison McCourt and Alley had been friends since the preschool. Tight as they could come. Told each other everything, went everywhere together, made fun of gross boys until the fourth grade, when they started telling each other their crushes.
But then sixth grade happened, and things just… changed… Alley’s social circle had grown and changed. Addy, on the other hand, was still Addy. Too geeky, too arrogant, too… young… Yet it was worse than this, really. Alley didn’t quite fit in with her new friends, either. While Addy acted too young, still wanting to play “Let’s Pretend” when they were together and obsessing over video games the rest of the time, Alley’s new friends seemed too old. They talked and dressed like older kids, and nice as there were to her, they were mean to Addy. To Alley, they just seemed strange.
A second text came.
“It’ll be fun. :0) :0) !”
Alley paused at the front door. She closed her eyes, took a few breaths, and began to walk.
She wasn’t walking towards Addy’s house. She hadn’t really decided on a location, though her feet clearly had. And within ten minutes, she was at her aunt’s house.
Aunt Agatha opened the door. “Snow day, I suppose?”
“Yes, Aunt Aggy.” Alley responded, softy.
“Well, wipe your feet and come on in.”
Aunt Aggy’s house was large with many rooms, but was also rather ugly. It was a converted elementary school that closed in the late 1940s when they replaced it with a school that was larger and had a gym- although forty years later, that school would also close, and all of its students would be sent to the even bigger Roland Heights Elementary, which remains. In fact, RHE was the school Alley graduated from last summer.
Long before Aunt Aggy’s house was a house, it had initially been turned from a school into offices for a book company. When that moved, the building handed from owner to owner, none of whom knew what to do with it. Eventually, it went into disrepair, and no one thought much about it until the widowed Aggy Meunet bought it with her inheritance. And try as she might, Alley’s mother couldn’t come up with a better idea than anyone else of why her sister would do this. Born in the seventies in another town in another state, Aggy had no real attachment to this ugly old school building.
Aunt Aggy and her kids didn’t even use all the space. For all the room they had in the old school, they lived in what was basically a comfortable apartment: three bedrooms (old classrooms), the kitchen (what Alley assumed was initially a front office), a recreation room (which was admittedly pretty cool, as the converted cafeteria made for a massive rec room), and, of course, two bathrooms (the large size of which seemed less cool and more odd to her, as the old stalls had been removed, making the single use bathrooms and showers seem open and bare to her). The other rooms were blocked off by a big metal door in the hallway and locked. Aunt Aggy said she was planning to rebuild them. Of course, she had been saying that since Alley was three.
Alley hated this house as a little kid. Like the snow, it was dirty and depressing. Worse, she wasn’t even allowed to see most of it. But middle school Alley was drawn to it more and more.
Aunt Aggy informed her that her cousins were at friends’ houses, but she was welcome to hang out in the rec room. She offered this as a recommendation, but as Aggy disappeared into her bedroom, Alley knew this to be an order.
Alley considered this, for a moment. She rarely was alone in the rec room, and her cousins, all much older than her, almost never allowed her to decide what to watch on the projector. She certainly wouldn’t mind getting some Netflix on a big screen all to herself. She texted her mother to let her know where she was and made her way to the rec room.
Aunt Aggy and company had a pretty sweet set up, with two couches, a projector, a pinball machine, and a bunch of old arcade games in their original cabinets. Addy would love this place, Alley thought. It was true, for many, many reasons. She thought, for a second, about the fact that Addy apparently gave up texting her. She wondered why she didn’t feel guilty.
Alley walked to the far corner of the room, where the bookshelf sat, and pulled back the bookshelf a couple of inches, where Aunt Aggy kept the keys she discovered last summer, while her cousins were watching another one of their constant Orange is the New Black marathons.
Alley knew those keys wouldn't get her into all of the forbidden rooms, but that didn’t matter to her. She had no interest in classrooms; most of them were converted into offices when her grandparents were children, and besides, why would she want to go into a classroom? She spent too much time in those already. There were but two rooms she was interested in: the old library and the music room. They were the only rooms that seemed largely untouched from the old school days.
After listening for a moment, and hearing a quiet house, she unlocked the big door at the end of the hallway and turned on the flashlight on her phone. The library was on the end of the hallway, the music room upstairs.
She walked into the library. The tiny library was probably built to be a classroom. The shelves that still lined the walls made the room feel tightly crowded, and the little staircase that lead to the “upstairs,” a risen part of the floor similar to a stage, was made of an entirely different material than the old, tiled floor. It was probably built long after the school opened. She knew it would still hold her, as she had tested it before, although she always felt a little nervous going up the stairs.
The library must’ve been locked before I found it, she thought, not for the first time. The books are still here.
Alley scanned the shelves, as she had done before. Some of the books, like the Secret Garden and The Hobbit, were familiar, while some, like Thimble Summer, she had never heard of. Most of the books were falling apart, although some of the music books were still in decent shape. She grabbed a bunch of them and went upstairs to the music room.
The music room was her grand discovery. A large room with wooden soundproof panels still there, choir risers that she was able, with some effort, to set up, music stands and, her most important discovery, a grand piano. The lovely, brown piano with engravings of people singing looked handmade. Alley couldn’t even begin to imagine why this piece of art was left behind to spend decades collecting dust, but that was everyone else’s loss and her gain. It was now out of key, some keys didn’t play at all anymore, but when Alley sat in front of it, none of this mattered. Keys that were missing would play in her mind, and her ears heard the piano perfectly in tune.
She slipped the music books into her messenger bag. They would come home with her, but she didn’t need them right now.
You see, when they were little, Alley and Addy where constantly talking about starting a band. But it was Addy who was the pianist. She’d been taking piano lessons since she turned five. Alley saw herself as a singer. She had a pretty, high pitched voice, but she had never learned to play an instrument.
Yet when Alley sat at this piano, all the confusion of the winter left her. Her jeans and sweater had turned into a smart black a-line dress, her straight hair was now wavy and tied back, and her hands were decorated with lace gloves. As she played, she heard beautiful tunes, and listened to a choir of children singing along with her songs on the bleachers.
Our day is here
No time for fear
We’ll find a way
We’re strong today
So sing with us together
Uncertain- but not forever
We’ll find a way
Things will be okay
One child came up front played a violin as Alley accompanied her. When the song ended, they listened as the crowd cheered. The children bowed and looked at her, ready for the next song.
She continued playing for who knows how long. Who wanted this concert to end? The children all sang beautifully while Alley accompanied them perfectly. The crowd was elated.
“So you’re not too old to play Let’s Pretend, after all.”
Alley turned around. “Addy? What are you doing here?” For a moment, she was mad. Did that girl really follow me here? Aunt Aggy would already kill me if she knew I was here, let alone her. What would I even tell her?
“No, silly,” the girl replied. “Not Addy, Abby.”
Alley stared at her. Abby looked strikingly like Addy, but she realized Abby was telling the truth. They were different people. Addy, who lived in t-shirts and sweatpants or jeans at all times, had short black hair and lived in sneakers. She wouldn’t be caught dead in Abby’s wide skirt and button down blouse. Abby’s shoulder length, curly hair was tied back in a bow.
“Who are you?”
“I am Abby,” she shrugged. She walked to the empty risers and sat down. “And who are you?”
“Play me another, Alley.”
Alley tried, but now she could only play a clutter of out of tune keys.
Abby nodded. “You’re a brilliant musician when you think you’re alone.”
“Don’t make fun of me.”
“I’m not. Do you really think you’re the only one?” Abby responded. “You’re not the first girl to see winter.”
Red-faced, Alley looked away.
Abby began to sing. “Ba ba black sheep have you any wool?”
“Oh, and you’re not making fun of me?” Alley snapped.
“I am now.” Abby replied. “You abandoned my family because why? Because you are sad? Lonely? Confused? Do you think you’re the only one?”
“Your family? Who on earth are you?”
“I am Abby.”
“Okay, whatever Abby, well how about this. Maybe your ‘family’ doesn’t know. Maybe they’re so blissfully ignorant playing their video games that I can’t tell them. And maybe I miss the heck out of them, but I don’t want them to understand. They’re happier not knowing.”
“Play me another song.”
“You can’t fix loneliness alone, Alley.”
“I have friends.”
“You don’t even like your friends.”
Alley hated Abby for that. Passionately. She hated her for telling the truth.
It wasn’t that she didn’t fit in with her new friends. This was true, but only part of it. The fact was that she didn’t like them. They were kind to her, but mean to everyone else. She considered herself lucky to be their friend, but mostly because it was better than the alternative.
But another truth hit her and broke her heart: she wasn’t sure she liked Addy anymore, either.
As if reading her mind, Abby asked, quietly, gently, “Do you like anyone, Alley?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you like yourself?”
Alley paused for a long moment. “No.”
The room remained silent as that truth hit the air. Finally, Abby replied, “Well, that’s a shame.”
“You don’t like me, either. I abandoned your family.”
“But you’re not the first girl to see winter.”
“I don’t even know what that means.”
“It means that life is tough enough with people who care about you. There’s no reason to go at it alone.”
“What are you, my mother?”
“Didn’t you hear? I’m a relative of your best friend. And your best friend is worried sick about you.”
“Addy doesn’t know. She’s too…”
“Young? Different? Immature to see the winter? Oh, give it up, Alley. I know you have ears. I’ve heard your music when you thought I wasn’t listening.”
“Are you a ghost?”
“I’m a relative of your best friend.”
“Are you alive?”
“I am present.”
“Who are you?”
“I am Abby.”
“People grow apart, Abby.”
“Yes, they do. But that doesn't mean they don’t still care about you.”
Abby left. Alley tried to play the piano again, but to no avail. She stood up and walked into the rec room. She had been watching Netflix for about an hour when she received another text. It was Addy.
“Do you want me to teach you how to play the piano?”