Grace A. Johnson
Featured Story: Heart of Keys by Kaytlin Phillips
Hullo, all! Remember my short story contest back in August? Well, I had SO many AMAZING entries that I couldn't bear not to share them...so here we are! Our first featured story is Heart of Keys by Kaytlin Phillips! I absolutely love the themes and messages, and how sweet and tender it is! I know y'all will enjoy it too!
(Also, I apologize. I meant to have these stories out last month, but September was, suffice to say, crazy. So here we are now! Better late than never, eh?)
Heart of Keys - Kaytlin Phillips
My fingers skipped over the keys, notes gliding into the air with the ease of dancers. Mother and Nancy’s voices carried from the sitting room where they awaited their guest. Who that was, I hadn’t the slightest clue for they wouldn’t tell.
With a flourish, I finished the melody and started another, a great thrum running into a delicate trill. Fingers dashing from one end of the piano to the other like soldiers upon the battlefield. I set my jaw and slammed the keys.
“David, do play quieter,” Mother called as she passed on her way to the door.
I nodded, pasted a pleasant smile on, and continued playing. My emotions bubbled up from my soul, spilling into the music - my voice to the world - and trying to stop it was like trying to stop a flood with a pebble.
When I looked up next, Mother was leading her guest, a dark-haired girl in a tweed skirt and brown long sleeve shirt with a pink sweater vest, through the hall. The girl’s lithe form seemed familiar and then she turned and my fingers fumbled on the keys, eliciting an unearthly groan from the instrument.
Nancy’s dearest friend and the girl I had wished that I had the courage to ask to wait for me. But now…now I was broken. I turned back to the sheet music and tried to still the shaking of my hands. Machine guns roared in my ears, yells of pain filling the smoke-thickened air. Trenches stretching as far as the eye can see and yet no safety anywhere. Imrie had begged me to stay and like I fool I hadn’t listened.
“Good to see you, David.”
Shaken from the memories, I glanced up, and Imrie’s eyes begged me to answer her. Begging me to tell her that what I’d told her more than a year ago was true, that I was back and everything was fine. I rose from the bench and opened my mouth before clamping it shut and clenching my fist. Remembering that I had no voice…not after what had happened. She’d been right to ask me not to join the army. Absently, I ran my fingers over the scar on my neck, the brutal reminder of all I had lost.
Mother took over.
“David lost his voice in the…explosion.” Mother stumbled over the final word, tears threatening.
Imrie placed a hand to her mouth and seemed torn between coming to me or staying with Mother.
I turned back to the piano, dropped to the bench, and released all the things I could not voice onto the keys. Banging out a tune that could hardly be called music, more like the dying groans of the instrument. What had happened, had happened and there was no way to fix it. Might as well get used to the fact that I was a voiceless and broken man.
Mother’s voice carried as she led Imrie away. “He just sits there and plays for hours. Barely writes notes, just plays song after song; things he makes…”
I slammed the keys, drowning out her words, but the images in my head persisted, haunting my every move. Explosions and cries, fire and death. Wounded and dead lying about– me among them. The sights, the smells, the sounds.
Shoving back from the piano, I slammed it shut and wandered to the window. I’d been home for more than three months, surely I should be able to deal with the memories. Move on. But no…they held me in their choking grasps.
I ran a hand through my blonde locks and gazed out at the gray skied day beyond the window seat.
It’d been two years since I’d seen her. Since she’d told me not to go and I’d ignored her, had assured her it would all be fine. Now I was nothing more than a voiceless fool who beat his feelings out on an ancient piano. My fingers found the long scar extending from my neck down my chest. A piece of shrapnel that had almost killed me. Lucky to be alive, they said, God’s not done with you. But I was merely a walking corpse, voiceless and empty.
The floorboards creaked and a firm hand rested on my shoulder, jolting me back from the memories. Memories of Imrie and of things I’d rather not remember.
“You can’t hold it all in, David.” Father’s deep reassuring voice should’ve been just that, but my hands clenched at my sides.
He didn’t understand what I’d seen. What I was feeling inside. I was as good as dead. My soul lost, if I even had one left. War was not pretty, not a game, not what I - in my youthful foolishness - had thought it’d be. Not even God could clear away the filth inside.
Shoving my hands in my pockets and shrugging his hand off, I wandered back to the piano, then opened it and ran my fingers across the smooth, ivory keys–my voice to the world, the place where my confused and spiraling emotions found release.
Father sighed. “Mother and I are going out, Nancy is in the sitting room with her guest…if you need anything.” Father’s brown eyes held only concern as his stooped figure eased from the room.
I slipped onto the bench, resting my fingers on the keys of my tattered soul. Releasing the aching and agony inside into the only thing I knew. Music was my shield, my place to escape, if but for a moment, the demons inside and the memories that haunted my every step.
My fingers glided over the ivory keys, creating something new from the brokenness inside. First the young boy, the joyful teen I’d been as my journey began. My fingers tripping over the keys in joy, skipping from note to note, echoing high in the vaulted room. Then slowly the melody lost its joyful lilt and cascaded into a gloomy sound, eerie echoes of the reality before me, only broken by the pounding of the deeper keys, the guns bellowing in the distances. The trenches before me, memories swarming as the melody grew in volume drowning out my thoughts as I banged upon the keys, the confusion, anger, and despair churning inside.
Mournful and earthly groans eased from the heart of the mighty instrument as I became lost in the memories of battle. The cries and yells, booms and blasts, intertwining with the music gliding from the keys.
The crescendo climbed, like a hiker reaching the mountain's peak with stormy gales all about. The rhythm thrummed and drummed, filling every part of me with the intensity. The horrors I had seen surfacing as the music swelled. Then I stopped, a sudden end to the growing sounds.
Sweat slid from my brow, curving along my scarred cheek before dripping from my chin as I rested my fingers on the keys once more. A solemn note, the bittersweetness of being home bleeding into the keys. Finishing what had been started minutes ago, I bowed my head over the ancient instrument, everything in me wanting to give up.
The phone rang and footsteps drummed the stairs. The melody I had just played, my life story floated through the air, I didn’t want it. I wanted to go back. Back in time…to make the choice all over again and choose to stay. My decision to join the army was the start of all this…the start of my breaking. Imrie had been right.
My head shot up, eyes darting to the doorway where Imrie stood, hand frozen above her heart, tears glistening on her cheeks. “I didn’t know you could play like that…it was…it was...”
I shook my head, closing my eyes. No. She couldn’t understand. That was life, that was voice, that was pain and anger and fear, not music. Not a song or melody to hear, but a cry for help from the broken heart of a shattered man without a soul. A man too broken to be saved.
“...it was as if you laid your heart upon the keys,” she said, her green gaze locking with mine.
She stared into my face, viewing the man behind the veil…the brokenness inside, the cracks that riddled my heart of stone.
I ducked my head, fingers trembling as they rested on the keys. She had seen…she would want nothing to do with me. Nothing to do with the voiceless monster of a man I had become.
Soft footsteps and then her hand landed on my shoulder, gentle and tender. As I glanced up, tears wet her lashes. “Teach me to play something.”
The honest longing in her voice made me rise from the bench and offer it to her. She gazed into my face as she sat. “David…” She bit her lip and shook her head as she placed her hands on the keys.
Reaching around her, I placed my - scarred, broken - hands over hers, knowing full well I was not worthy of her. She was pure and untouched by the darkness lurking just inside me. What if I tainted her? My hands shook as I pressed her soft fingers into the keys and led her through a few simple notes.
Her hair brushed my cheek, smelling of lavender and chamomile. Her fingers fumbling along under my unsteady guidance. I had dreamed of the day I’d come home, come home and ask Imrie to be my wife. But that day was not to be…A dream now out of reach. Broken upon the battlefield just like my heart, my mind, my voice.
Now I was a man who had seen too much. A man who would never live a normal life. Imrie looked back at me. Our hands stilled on the keys, her gaze locking with mine, a connection I could not deny forming between us.
A sad smile spread onto her lips as she studied my eyes. “Oh Davie, what have you seen?”
There was the nickname only she used, the innocent question she asked, one to which I had no answer. Unspeakable things.
My breath came fast as my mind wandered back…back to the trenches and the pain, the smoke in the air, and the screams on the wind. The horrors of the battlefield flashing before my eyes and yet, I had no voice with which to release them. So they found their way into my dreams, tainted the music pouring from my soul, and trailed me like shadows.
Imrie’s hand cupped my cheek, cool against my warm skin. My heart skipped a beat as her green eyes softened, the lamp light flickering in the depth of her large, dark irises. “I’m here for you, Davie. I’ve always been here…waiting for you.”
Everything stilled and a sob caught in my throat. The honesty of the statement was like a punch to the gut. I’d never asked, and yet, she had waited for me. Waited for me to return…and yet nothing but a fragment of the man I had once been stood before her.
Compassion invaded her eyes and her thumb stroked my cheek. “We’re all broken, Davie. But God’s love can fill that void.” A tear slipped from her dark lashes and trailed down her smooth cheek. “He can fix what is broken.”
I leaned into her hand, knowing what she said was true. Knowing that God was able to fix the mess inside, the shrapnel the war had left behind…but, I was afraid to ask. Afraid that somehow, the answer would be no. That I wouldn’t deserve His mercy and grace after what I’d done and seen.
“No one is too far gone for Him.” Imrie’s voice cut through my doubts, the conviction in her tone carrying the words straight to my weary and broken soul.
I dropped my tortured gaze to her eyes, so full of compassion and tenderness. How would she look at me if she knew? What did He think of me?
She’d love you anyway, as I do.
The words echoed in my head. The voice which had spoken them both tender and firm, a voice that resonated in spite of all the doubts and brokenness permeating my being. My knees gave and my elbows rested on the piano bench as sobs shook my shoulders. All the fear, anger, and despair. Everything that had been inside, now flooding out as if a dam had burst.
Fabric rustled and Imrie’s arm settled around my shaking shoulders.
Her voice calm and halting near my ear, “God…I ask you to heal, Davie. You know what he’s…seen, done…felt. Lord, you know what is inside him…You know how he’s hurting…fearing. Lord, you see the wreckage inside…I ask that You move in him. Give him Your peace…and show him the power of Your love. In Jesus' name, Amen.”
The whirling inside slowed, the crushing weight lifting from my weary shoulders, the pinprick of light a little brighter; hope of tomorrow even brighter. Imrie knelt by my side, rubbing gentle circles on my back. I racked in breath after breath, my mind clearing.
Imrie smiled at me, lighting up the darkness even more. “He has a plan for you, Davie Hemmingway. Don’t you ever doubt that.”
I licked my lips and nodded, fighting back the tears that wanted to rise once more as I struggled to my feet. The demons inside reared their heads, but a whispered prayer for peace was all it took for them to silence. I turned to face Imrie.
Her calm and beautiful features. Her eyes studying me with compassion and…could that be love? I reached out a shaking hand and tucked a strand of her silky, dark hair behind her ear, fingertips brushing her smooth skin. I cupped her freckled cheek and she leaned into it, her eyes drifting closed. My heart picked up pace and I leaned forward, daring to lead the charge onto dangerous ground.
Her eyes slid open and she leaned forward, our lips meeting.
My other hand cupped her other cheek, fingers tangling in her silky hair. Her gentle hands resting on my shoulders as the kiss deepened. The years of waiting, the months of thinking this was never to be, chased from my mind in an instant. The voices in my head screamed at me, told me I was unworthy…but the voice of Someone much higher told me all was forgiven.
Imrie pulled away and a blush crept onto her cheeks.
I rubbed circles over their surface as she gazed into my eyes. “I love you, Davie. I’ve always been waiting for you.”
My heart swelled at her words and with nothing with which to voice the emotions inside, I crashed my lips against hers. Pulling her into my arms, groaning as her arms wrapped around my neck and the kiss deepened. The love I had tucked away and tried to bury rising to the surface, molding us together as one. Imrie sighed as her fingers brushed through my hair and I pressed deeper before pulling away and gazing into her sparkling green eyes.
She placed a hand to her heart as I clasped the other in mine and led her to the piano bench. She sat beside me as I rested my hands upon the keys. The emotions inside such a tangle of joy and peace, my soul so flooded it needed a release. So, I channeled it into the music.
Notes gliding from the keys in quick succession, a jolly tune echoing off the walls as the rain drummed the cottage roof. My joy climbing into a crescendo, rising above anything I’d ever known.
Imrie looped her arms around mine and leaned into my shoulder as the melody swelled with the emotions trapped inside. Sure, the memories taunted and haunted, and notes of sadness and my journey filtered into the song. But, the peace of my Savior filled my soul, and the love of my life sat right beside me.
about the writer
Kaytlin Phillips is Middle Grade and Young Adult Fiction and Fantasy author. She’s a homeschool grad who spends her days praising her Savior, reading, writing, blogging, and annoying her sisters with random thoughts. She is the fifth child out of seven and resides in the mountains of Western North Carolina.
Her favorite hobbies include writing, reading, hiking, theology, history, blogging, ASL, crocheting, doodling, and anything she does with her sisters or family.
First off, I absolutely LOVE the name Imrie! Second, wasn't that SO precious? Lemme know what you thought in the comments below!