The Last Encore
A single bright star shone through the window as he waited, exhausted, for the plane to Los Angeles to be boarded and pulled back from the terminal. He had always found red-eye flights productive; most of the passengers sleep, and there’s little of the hustle and bustle one must endure once the plane is in the air at other times of day. Tonight was different, though. Tonight he was ready for it all to be over.
He was thrilled to be going home.
Nevertheless, what is an ending except another beginning? What is the present but yesterday’s future? Could he ever really begin anew? Could anyone?
Still, he knew he was emotionally ready, at long last, in spite of everything that had happened.
In spite of her.
Because of her.
He glanced through his notes and photographs, idly wondering if there were more points to be made, more thoughts to collect, more answers to find. He could never seem to let well enough alone.
But now he couldn’t focus on such things; his eyes were constantly drawn back to that lonely, glowing star outside the window. It dominated the sky and seemed to grow brighter by the moment. Suddenly, he felt a need to communicate, and the star drew closer, almost as if it knew his desire and could tame or inflame it at will.
He set aside his papers and looked deep into the luminous point, his old and most loyal friend, his “love blesser,” his longtime companion. In the stillness and beauty of that amazing moment, all the noise and chaos of the boarding plane melted away.
He stared, mesmerized by the star’s simple beauty. Its longing.
The glow was stunning yet humble, and he felt gratitude for its existence. He was no longer tethered to his seat, to the plane, to the Earth itself. He was flying, free to roam the heavens above.
An electrifying wave of adrenaline shot through his body. His entire being shivered with the sensation, as if reaffirming his determination, and then he was pressed back against his seat, spent, as if the two of them had been together again, making love, the ebb and flow of their bodies as certain as the tide and as unpredictable as the winds.
It was a cleansing moment, a moment of purity. He felt a purpose. He saw a course of action. The future stood before them, waiting to take hold, and he looked forward to its embrace.
His eyelids grew heavy, and he reluctantly closed his eyes, but thoughts and memories raced alongside the glowing star, its light still vivid. He hid his face in his hands, but the light remained with a consuming intensity, as if illuminating all that was gone and all that was yet to come.
The star was everything at that moment, the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega, his past and his future.
As it had always been.
Perhaps it had been meant to be all along.
The eerie strains of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata filled his consciousness, overwhelming his senses. If time were a river, he felt as if eternity had stopped beside him on the bank to rest, sharing every story ever told, every victory ever won, every love ever known.
He realized that the flight attendant was standing over him, pointing at his unbuckled seat belt. In that euphoric moment of revelation it seemed impossible to constrain himself to such a small seat. An airplane. The Earth itself.
The irony of the timing and its humor was not lost on him, however, and he reluctantly buckled up, albeit with the childlike feeling that he had finally grown wings to keep himself from falling.
* * *
At the time he took off, she started awake from her dream, a shiny veneer of perspiration glistening across her breasts, as if painted by desire. She had no way of knowing where he was or what he was doing, and yet she was certain that at this very moment his thoughts were of her.
Breathing heavily, she rolled onto her side, away from the moonlight, pulling the sheet tightly around her naked body. She had never slept in the nude before they met, but she had not confined her body since then. The feel of the satin sheets against her skin reminded her of him, and it was not a feeling she wanted to lose. She was suddenly overcome by memories, as if she’d happened across an old love letter scented with familiar perfume.
He had changed her profoundly, released something deep within her heart, something dormant for a lifetime. And it would forever remain unleashed.
In everything she touched, everything she felt, there would always be the patina of him. The comforter lay bunched at the foot of her bed, kicked away in the night like shackles, and though the air from outside was cool, she left it there. With the sheets alone protecting her, she closed her eyes and thought of the first time they’d laid eyes on each other, so different from the last.
His innocence had moved her first, the innocence of a child, and his fierce allegiance had moved her last, the ardor of a man. So much had passed between them that she had no doubt he had awakened her from the dream, somewhere thinking, as she did, of their time together.
She rolled onto her back, imagining him beside her, inside her, and then she opened her eyes.
She threw off the sheets and sat up, staring out into the night. She had misjudged things before; it was not the moonlight that streamed into her window but the light of a star that sailed between the clouds covering its celestial companion.
She had never seen a star so bright.
It meant everything at that moment, the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega, her past and her future.
As it had always been.
The eerie strains of the Moonlight Sonata suddenly filled her consciousness, overwhelming her senses. She had played it so many times, tormented by its haunting melody.
The music was like a river flowing through her fingers, sharing every story ever told, every victory ever won, every love ever known.
And she had offered it all to him unreservedly.
She closed her eyes.
Her soul smiled with his, every fiber of their being filled with sweetness, and light, and the purest of joy.
She was overcome with the childlike feeling that she’d finally grown wings to keep herself from falling.
Melancholy comes and goes. Guilt, on the other hand, is always there, a hovering shadow consuming our inner light, attacking from within, inescapable. Sadness is fleeting, but guilt is ever present. Regret is the sick combination of both, a toxic brew that can destroy our very soul.
Regret is the worst kind of pain.
Lily closed her eyes. There had been many days when she questioned whether she could endure life a moment longer, and yet here she was, an old woman, still wondering how it had all transpired. When she looked back, it seemed like a dream. Many times she had awaken from fitful sleep believing there was another path, another road leading away from the awful thing she’d done.
“This is her famous encore that everyone raves about,” someone whispered, and Lily opened her eyes. The piano sat in the second-floor gallery, overlooking the grand room below, and suddenly Lily had to see who was playing.
The music appeared even more familiar as Lily walked up the stairs. The pianist began the opening movement.
Extraordinary. The amplitude of sounds penetrated her very soul.
The second movement: sweet. Harmonic. The calm before the storm. The emotional resonance in the music became unbearable. What had started as a wonderful evening was turning into a nightmare.
Maybe I’m wrong. I must be. I have to be mistaken!
Another step. Lily could not stop now. She had to know. She had to see the face of the pianist. Another step. She wanted to get to the top of the stairs, she needed to get to the top of the stairs, but her legs would hardly move.
The final movement: such skill. Emotion. Ferocity.
The composition built to a crescendo: fortissimo. Unbridled passion.
Lily’s face went pale as the music started to wind down. Her breathing slowed with the last notes, as if she might cease to exist when the final sounds were no more.
The music ended, and the crowd applauded, and then they surged up the stairs. The room contained a palpable excitement, as if they had all witnessed something unforgettable. And they had. Lily knew that now.
Another step. She could barely breathe. Her heart felt as if it might burst from her chest. Time and emotion washed over her and lost all meaning. All she knew was that she had to see the face of the artist.
Almost there. Voices drifted down from above. Happy, excited voices. One in particular stood out. Lyrical and sweet in tone.
It was a voice Lily had heard before.
She took the final step, at last making it to the upper level. Her vision blurred, as if the penalty for reaching the mountaintop was to be denied a view of the valley.
What is happening to me?
When she opened her eyes, she was looking into the face of an angel, framed by fire. A beautiful, porcelain doll with red hair.
It was the pianist. The girl from the theater. Except she was a woman now, the woman whose life Lily had destroyed all those years ago.
Katherine Konova. The red-haired angel. The missing piece of the puzzle.