This story was written to and inspired by the following piece of music. Please feel free to listen before, after, or while you read. It may take a moment to load.
“Temple of Sacrifice” – Tom Tykwer (from Cloud Atlas)
“Have you ever felt the music move through you?”
I adjusted my seat, discreetly wiping my sweaty palms on my slacks. I was conscious of every muscle in my face, willing them to obey. I lifted my head and raised my eyebrows, careful not to make eye contact. I removed a pen from my blazer pocket and clicked the tip. “Finally ready to speak, Mr. Barlow?”
“I was waiting for you.”
There was a smirk in his voice. He found my feigned disinterest thrilling. He liked the game. I’d guessed correctly. “Well?”
“I asked you a question.”
“And I didn’t answer it.” I raised my hand to scratch my ear and sighed, slow and deliberate. “Sure, I like music just fine.”
He clucked his tongue. “No, that won’t do. Liking has nothing to do with it. Not ‘music’ in the way most people describe it — not in the way of emotions and longing, but that physical feeling… The undeniable embodiment of song.”
I sat back, shooting a glance to the one-way glass on my right. I’m sure they could sense it too. I relaxed my cheeks and glanced up at him. It took a staggering amount of effort to convince my desperate eyes to look bored. I remained silent.
He closed his eyes with a wistful smile. “I have felt it, you know. Oh, have I felt it… I’ve felt every painful step a song’s taken through my body, all of the indelible footprints that remain from its travels.” His long hands caressed his thighs. “I’ve felt the high notes of a piano twinkle in my spine, expanding the air between the vertebrae with every breath each delicate note takes. I’ve felt the rumble of a bassoon shake the bones in my toes, crawling up my legs and into my hips and all the muscles in between.” His body began to sway ever so slightly. “I’ve felt the chilling whispers of a piccolo in the back of my brain — cold, haunting and cautionary in its high pitch of innocence. I’ve felt the chords of a guitar spider through my veins, like the crisp prick of a pin with each dissonant twang of a string. With each song it is new, but if you pay attention, you notice those feelings.” His eyes opened, wide awake. “You understand the language of music.”
I sighed, partly for his annoyance, and partly to unclench my frightened jaw. “We both know why you’re here, Mr. Barlow. It’s over. There’s no use for the poetry.”
He instantly grew rigid. His head turned to me. The immediate silence chilled my heart to a stop. I quieted my instinct to run to the door, my whole body like an itch I wasn’t allowed to scratch. But this opportunity wasn’t going to come again. I had to be more careful.
A slow tuck of my bangs behind my ear and I was back again, steady and believably calm. “Please, continue.”
His muscles twitched as he straightened in his chair. He glanced around the room before his eyes came to rest on a small blemish on the table. He squinted, brought his thumb to his lips, and gently licked the tip before he brought it down and began to rub small circles over the smudge.
“I tried to show her the songs, at first.” He wiped his hand on his jeans. “I thought, of anyone, she would be the one to understand. It was a world I’d never shown anyone before, but she had to know it. And I couldn’t have hid it from her, not after we’d grown so close.” He pursed his lips. “The tracks the music left within me lingered like bright lights and purpling bruises… She wanted to understand all of me. She was the very first that ever had.” His eyes pierced through me as he whispered. “So I showed her everything.”
I quelled the jagged breath in my lungs. I was five feet away and it still felt too close, like his hot breath had slithered through the air to settle on the back of my neck. “What do you mean?”
His fingers tangled together as his mind drifted away. “I showed her the songs that set fire to my belly as they swirled inside of me, scarring the tissues with devastating horns and war-like drums. I showed her pieces with voices so broken that the tendons in my arms and legs strained to the point of snapping.” He grew louder. I gripped my pen tighter. “I surrounded her with the music that pierced me so deeply. I introduced her to this living thing that found a home inside of me. It kneaded my body to express itself — because the music, not me, had a need to feel. I bared everything to her.”
Anger bubbled at the corners of his lips. A thin sheen of sweat glistened on his forehead under the fluorescent lights. His voice grew shallow, his hair jostling as he shook his head back and forth. “But she didn’t understand. She would listen in rapture, living with the music, but she never let it live in her. She would say a song was “wonderful”, but it never filled her with wonder; she would describe a song as “heartbreaking”, yet I knew…” His lip curled as he turned his head away. He was cracking. I was onto something.
“But it didn’t break her heart,” I offered, my voice quivering a bit more than I’d hoped.
His gaze slid over to mine. It was oily. I felt unclean. He looked satisfied by my contribution, like a teacher pleased I was paying attention. I couldn’t stand the sight of him, the sound of him. I bet that he could reach just below the table and pull me under to him… But they were watching. I was safe here, right?
“I could see it in her eyes. So big, like yours. Every time, she would offer me tormented explanations of everything she thought I wanted to hear… But the music never moved through her. Never once did I see even a fingerprint left inside of her, even after I’d been left so ravaged, over and over.”
There was a small pause before his face crumpled into a wide grin. Boisterous laughter sliced through the room. I flinched, a scream caught in my throat. The sound seemed to echo even as he began to speak. “And I was patient — ohhh, you would have marveled at my patience. Never once did I doubt her, not after all those years. I was so confident in her ability to understand. For sure, one day, I would see it… that recognition within her that she’d been touched by something greater than she’d ever known.”
“Where is she, Mr. Barlow.” I cursed myself inside — I’d let it slip out.
He smirked. He saw. “She used to be patient, too.” His licked his bottom lip, gently raking it back with his teeth. “But over the years, I saw a new something manifest within her. Even though I saw the disbelief before, it had only come in flickers, quickly replaced by her devotion to me. But time wore on, and the disbelief festered… Eventually, she didn’t want to listen anymore. Her faith grew to reside not in me, not in the music, but within her own doubt. Just like the rest of them.”
I crossed my legs to keep the bottom one from shaking the table. The sting of angry, terrified tears flirted with my eyes. He stared directly into them.
“Her emotions became laced with frustration, then anger, then denial, then dismissal…” His hands curled into tight fists. “It crushed me. My patience turned to desperation. She was the only one I had ever let in, and I couldn’t let her leave.” He sat back with a sigh, stretching his neck from side to side. “I would lay awake night after night, examining the lovely scars the music had granted me, and I knew… If we were to stay together, she had to know the whole of me.” He took a deep breath, running a taut hand through his mahogany hair. “Everyone could think I was crazy, every other soul in the world could write me off forever, except for her. She had to understand. She was my only hope.”
My fingernails dug into my palm. “Where is she, Walter?”
He smiled, languid in growing satisfaction. “When the day came…” He stared past me to the tiles on the floor. He was pleasantly lost, like a father reminiscing over his childhood. “She rebelled, at first. But I know her, and I was certain that deep down, she trusted me. So I continued on, reassuring her the whole way that things would be alright. It’s what we always wanted, the both of us, and I could finally give her that clarity of knowing.”
He chuckled to himself, closing his eyes. I shot my eyes towards the glass, begging them to let me out of here. But I could already feel their response. All we need is the confession. You’re so close. Just let it happen.
“I cried tears of joy as we prepared, savoring every second of what I knew we would finally achieve together. I would never have to be patient again, and neither would she — she was finally going to know.”
His gaze fell to me. He raised his eyebrows. My façade was gone — he had the power here. I was out of plays. I swallowed and pushed the words through my lips: “What did you do?”
He smiled. He knew all too well. “I began the first song. I will never forget that feeling of the first note — the electricity that surged through me…” He shuddered, as if a chill had run through the room. “You’ve never known an elation like that. I swept her tears and held her body gently still as, one by one, I played every song I’d ever shown her. And as the music moved through me, I moved through her.”
His body curled in slow, gelatinous waves as the filth fell from his mouth. “I walked my fingers along her pure white bones as the wholesome hum of a choir gently crawled through my body. With my fingertips, I plucked the elastic veins in her throat as the vengeance of a booming quartet asphyxiated me softly. I twisted her stomach as the burst of a cymbal reopened my own wounds, letting me bleed alongside her with each new crash. With each song, I awakened these pieces within her and helped her feel, for the first time, what it was to know the music.” He bit his lip as he watched a tear slide down my cheek. “And it was beautiful — God, it was ethereal in its grace. I wish you could have seen. Together, we understood, a collective vessel for a force much greater than anyone could ever comprehend, especially you.”
My voice rattled through my teeth. “You killed her.”
His eyes widened. “Killed her?” His laugh crawled up my spine. “Killed her! Oh no. You’ve got it all wrong, I’m afraid. I didn’t hurt her — I could never do that. She is… We are more alive than anyone in this shallow world will ever be, and for that, I could never be sorry.”
My hands shook violently. “You son of a bitch.”
His eyes grew wide. “What? You didn’t like my story?” He looked up from behind a thick, exaggerated innocence. “Is that not what you wanted to hear?”
My chair clattered to the floor with a bang. Small water spots dotted the floor. “Where is she?”
“Oh, my dear. You find me so sickening, don’t you?”
“Where are you keeping her?!”
He scoffed. “I’m not asking you to understand — I’m not dumb enough to think that you can.” His hand adjusted the cuff of his button down. That feigned disinterest churned my stomach. “But you’re not dumb either. Hidden underneath all that disgust, there’s a piece of you that knows what it’s like. Everyone’s got something, sweetheart — that passion that burns too deep to describe, the kind that claws at your insides, searching for a way to be known.” He shrugged. “Of course. You wouldn’t be here right now if you didn’t. You’re just like me.”
“I am nothing like you!” My clipboard cracked against the wall before I realized I’d thrown it. His laughter reverberated against the concrete walls as the door to my right flew open.
“Detective, that’s enough.”
“He did it! You sick fuck, you did it! We all know you did! Just say it!”
His eyes never left mine. “It might take months, maybe years, maybe the second until your dying breath, but someday you’ll give in and you’ll realize — that deep down, you’re just the same as this horrifying man, and he wasn’t so crazy after all.”
Officers shoved past me and into the room. He offered his shackled hands as he looked at me. “Throw me to the dogs, dear. Go ahead. Do what you can with whatever you can prove. But don’t deny it — we’re two sides of the same coin. Who else would have agreed to see me? ”
“Detective, you are coming with me. Now.”
I strained against the arms pulling me back, filled with a fury too hot to let go. “You deserve to rot in hell!”
The steel door began swinging shut as his cackling voice wriggled through the crack: “Am I wrong?”