A Note of Hunger (1983)
The distant chimes of Big Ben echoed off the crumbling brick facing of the Shepperton Theatre, located in one of the seedier sections of London on the waterfront. The streets reflected the overall poverty and decay; their cobblestones were uneven and cracked. It had rained earlier, filling many of the holes with murky water. Most were unseen for the fog had set in once again, hanging like a pall over the entire city, muffling the gas lights and erasing the details from the surroundings. The deep chimes faded away, replaced by the echoing sounds of footsteps intermixed with an occasional splash and a curse.
Nathan Grelyak sighed, at last he was done. He carried his life in a trumpet case from performance to performance, earning what he could for his wife and family. The last show had been exhausting, and he trudged through the fog, every footfall a painful experience. The end of his black trumpet case dragged behind him; the corners scuffed from the road surface. Even without the fog, Nathan would have had some trouble seeing. His eyelids were heavy from exhaustion and his body felt numb. Nathan never saw the shadow creep out of the alleyway, never heard the other set of footsteps match his own and was completely taken by surprise when a hand touched his shoulder. His trumpet case fell to the ground; a sharp sound that echoed like a gunshot off the surrounding buildings.
“I’m very sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” the stranger’s accent was cultured and Nathan relaxed slightly. He was medium height and a bit stout. He wore a dark cloak and a tall hat which shadowed his features. The man spoke again.
“You were one of the musicians at the revue…” he glanced at the case at Nathan’s feet. “The trumpeter?” Nathan nodded.
“I enjoyed your performance tonight. I’ve always enjoyed the trumpet.”
Nathan asked, “Do you play yourself?”
The hat and shadows shook no. “Unfortunately I’m not musically inclined. I’m a doctor by profession, I work with the morgue.” Nathan’s fatigue was like lead resting on his shoulders. Tons of lead. He stifled a yawn.
“I’m sorry,” Nathan apologized, backing away politely. “It’s been a long night for me and I must be getting home…” He left his statement open and the hat seemed to understand. They bid their polite farewells and Nathan continued on his way.
Until the knife stabbed deep into his back.
Nathan arched backwards, dropping his case once again. His mouth tore open in silent agony. The knife plunged into his body again, this time deep into his chest. It was both searing and freezing at the same time. It slashed through him twice more then it was over. His assailant took two quick steps and disappeared into the fog.
Nathan was alone, lying in a warm puddle of his own blood. He tried to straighten up, but he couldn’t seem to move his legs. His arms flailed about, groping for some form of support to lift his body. After an eternity, his right hand brushed against something, his trumpet. With all the strength he could muster, Nathan dragged the case to his side. He felt cold. His hands trembled as he worked the latches. The trumpet felt heavier than normal, but it was an old friend. Despite the pain, Nathan smiled a bit and put it to his lips. A cough ripped through his very being; more of his life-blood spewed out in a dark clump from his mouth and spattered the instrument. Nathan inhaled slightly, pursed his lips and blew a hesitant note, then another, then another.
Taps rang out, a slow solemn dirge that echoed on the buildings and cried out over the polluted water of the Thames. Fainter and fainter, the melody finally dissipated completely in the dense fog.
Nathan’s body was found the next morning, the trumpet by his side. One policeman covered the corpse with his coat and another pushed back a few on-lookers.
“Looks like the Ripper, ” remarked one. “Don ‘t touch the body , the inspector’ll want a look at it.” The other nodded, but put the trumpet back into its case without a second thought. The murder was investigated to no avail. Jack the Ripper killed
again and was never caught. Lives were disrupted, changed forever. Nathan’s widow and her family left England, moving to New York and then to Chicago. Nathan’s children aged and died. Their children did likewise. The trumpet sat in its case like a fetus in the womb; lying dormant in an attic between boxes of Christmas ornaments and an antique steamer trunk . A fifth generation was born and still it waited. The case grew gray with dust, the latches tarnished.
A century passed before the case moved again. The dust was blown off, the latches worked then pried open carefully. At long last it was put to the lips and played once more. Something inside awoke within the valves, grown like a cancer in the metal. Something awoke, but it did not react. The time wasn’t right for action yet, but it would be soon . It waited patiently for a hundred years; a few more days wouldn’t matter.
David Grelyak sat at the end of his row, trumpet in ready position, a bored look residing on his face. It wasn’t alone. The entire Helen Keller Junior High School Band was faced with the prospect of playing Lullaby of Broadway ‘just one more time’ The band leader, a man slightly stooped with graying temples, stood by the podium lost in thought. He glanced at the band members, checked through the pages of music, looked up at the band again and made his decision.
“Let’s go through Lullaby of Broadway just one more time.” The band issued a collective groan. David mumbled and grumbled and placed the mouthpiece against his chapped lips. A sharp pain made him wince and he felt a drop of blood slide down his chin. With one finger, he wiped it away, making a red smear on
his face and placed the instrument to his lips once again. His fingers found the valves and he prepared to play.
Blood. It’s warm, salty taste was unmistakable. It was time to arise once more. Hate welled up from the clouded innards and spewed forth like the final cough from its one-time master. It was time to act.
David faltered, his trumpet gave a squawk. For a moment, he couldn’t remember what he was supposed to be playing . The metal of the trumpet seemed to be warming up, becoming almost hot to the touch of his tender lips. Then his vision blurred and David felt himself slip from his chair. The trumpet dropped to the floor, blood dripping out of both ends.
David rose from a gray nightmare into the antiseptic confines of the nurses office. There was a taste of blood and cotton in his mouth and a slight stinging sensation on his lips. David sat up slowly, gripping the edge of the cot with both hands to steady himself. He was slightly dizzy and couldn’t seem to remember how he had been injured. He glanced at the clock; 4:45. Then it all came back to him: the pain, the weakness and his final sight of his trumpet, bleeding. He looked up at the clock again; 4:46. All of this had happened more than an hour ago. David jumped up and ran out of the office. The halls were dim, but he could still see. His trumpet would be a mess, dried blood caked all through the insides. Just the thought of it made David shudder. The door to the band room was unlocked. He turned on the lights and searched the racks for the unique black case. It was wedged in the corner by someone’s French horn. He held his breath, expecting a stench, and opened it up. To his surprise, the trumpet was clean, it even looked polished . David sat in mute surprise for several moments, wondering who liked him enough to do such a thorough job.
“Hey, Dave, the bus is leaving . Come on!” David whirled around and instinctively ran for the door before even recognizing the voice of his best friend Bob . The trumpet was forgotten, lying discarded next to the case. The two boys hurtled down the hall and managed to flag the late activity bus down. They took a seat in the back, panting a bit.
David spoke first, “About my trumpet-” Bob looked down at his sneakers and nodded, cutting him off.
“Sorry about that,” he started. “We should’ve at least put a little water in it so the blood wouldn’t screw up the insides, but it was so… nobody wanted to even touch it.” David looked at him curiously. Bob looked up for a moment then his eyes returned to his feet.
“I’ll bet your case is screwed up too…” David couldn’t think of anything to say.
The door of the band room opened once again. The clock read 5:13. One of the janitors strode in, whistling some vaguely familiar tune, looking for trash. He eyed the trumpet out of its case and smiled, remembering a few lessons he had taken in his youth. He grabbed the trumpet and slid his forefinger down the smooth surface and spiraled into the center of the bell. He gave it a cursory rub on his greasy shirt (with ‘JOE’ embroidered on the front pocket) and pouted his lips. A slightly off-key scale erupted from the band room and echoed down the empty halls. The sound grew a little louder and the notes a little more confident. After a few more scales, the janitor tried a few songs he had learned. And then it happened again.
Joe’s spirits lifted as the lessons came rushing back to him. The music poured out of the instrument as if by magic. Some of the songs he couldn’t even remember ever learning. His hands began to sweat, the trumpet seemed to be getting warm.
It began to burn his lips, but Joe couldn’t seem to make himself stop. Suddenly, he had the urge to play Taps, which was silly because it was played by a bugle not a trumpet, or so he thought. He began to play. The heat has pouring out of the mouthpiece now, he could feel his lips blistering, but still he played. His legs failed him and he fell backwards, but he continued to play Taps without interruption. The music cried throughout the school, loud at first, but growing fainter. Soon the music couldn’t be heard except inside the band room and then it was over.
The clocks all around the school said 5:23 when another man entered the school.
“Joe?” went the echoing cry. “Joe, are you still here?” The man with “JOHN” sewn on his shirt ambled down the halls of Helen Keller Junior High School, pausing every now and then to inspect a room. He noticed the lights on in the band room and an unpleasant smell.
“Joe, are you in there?” John called out . There was no answer . He walked in, breathing shallowly through his mouth. It smelled like something had died in the room and was rotting away. Perhaps a bird had fallen into the ventilation system from outside.
“Damn kids,” he cursed under his breath, “can’t put anything away.” John closed up the trumpet in its case and placed it on the rack with the French horn then went off in search of some air fresheners and his missing companion.
David entered his house as the grandfather’s clock in the foyer was chiming 5:30. He didn’t notice the sound and dropped his books in a corner and sat down at the kitchen table, still wondering about his trumpet and how it had been cleaned. The thoughts dug furrows in his forehead and he buried it in his arms.
“Mom!” screamed his sister, “David got beat up again!” David looked up at her, wishing he hadn’t left his books in the hall. His mother came downstairs, looking concerned. David gave his sister a murderous look (to which she grinned) and shook his head.
“I didn’t get in a fight. I just had a bloody lip and went to the nurse, that’s all.” His mother still retained her concerned look, but began dinner instead of asking more questions. David was left to his own thoughts and suspicions. There was something wrong with the situation, but it wasn’t anything he could put into words, or at least, not into words that would be dismissed by his older brother as a bit from The Twilight Zone. David sighed and quietly went upstairs to bed. The next day, David begged off band practice saying he still didn’t feel well. He got to spend the next hour hiding a grin while the rest of the class suffered through Lullaby of Broadway ‘just one more time’. Eventually, the bell rang. David breezed out of the room while the rest slouched around, putting their instruments away. Now he let his grin emerge. It was going to be a great day -
“David!” The shrill sound raked through his body like nails on a chalkboard. He turned around slowly and saw Phyllis Wylie walking towards him. The possibility of having a great day was rapidly deteriorating. Phyllis was the most talkative person in the entire school (perhaps even the world, thought David).
“Hi, David, I noticed that you didn’t play today. Was there anything wrong? Were you sick?” David said nothing. There was no point in trying to reply, Phyllis would keep on talking right over the answers.
And she continued, “I broke my trumpet, it was a stupid thing. And if you’re sick and you’re not using your trumpet -”
“Take it,” mumbled David quietly.
“Thanks, David!” she smiled and walked away, his trumpet case in her hand already. David quickly turned away, just in case she came back to talk some more. Class was starting in thirty seconds. Phyllis rushed to her locker and jammed the case in with her coat. Forty minutes later, she returned to find her lunch was missing.
“How about that!” she declared to no one in particular. “My locker partner stole my lunch!” She slammed the door on the silent trumpet case and didn’t return until the end of the day. Phyllis dragged the trumpet case from the bus stop all the way home; its frayed exterior suffering more punishment from the glittering concrete sidewalks. It bumped up the front stairs and was thrown unceremoniously into a corner with her books. Phyllis ignored the trumpet for the rest of the afternoon. Dinner started around six. Her dad ‘s coat added to the pile in the foyer. After dinner, she cleaned up the kitchen and was halfway up the stairs when she was stopped by her little brother Joey.
“Phyllis,” he whined. “Show me your magic trick! You promised.” She tried to deny it, but persuasiveness ran in the family. Besides, she had promised to show him the disappearing trick (‘just like on The Brady Bunch’) after school. Then she remembered.
“I can’t right now,” she replied. “I have to practice for school.” Joey nodded, but he was disappointed. He really wanted to see someone vanish, but school was always more important. Phyllis ran down the stairs to get the trumpet and her books to make the illusion complete.
Joey called to her, “Will you show me when you’re done?” Phyllis nodded, unconsciously crossing her fingers behind her back. Joey narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “Promise?”
“Promise,” replied Phyllis solemnly. “And hope to die.”
Closing the door behind her, she threw the trumpet onto her bed. The television beckoned her, but Phyllis knew better than that. Joey was probably listening on the other side of the door. She sat down on the bed and opened up the trumpet case. Joey sat in the hall playing old maid while trumpet music poured out from underneath his sister’s door. Lullaby of Broadway made him wince, but he really wanted to see the disappearing trick. The next song was Mack the Knife, full of squawks and pauses. Phyllis mercifully trailed off in the middle of it. Then Taps rang forth, clearly without imperfections. Joey put down his cards and downstairs, their parents turned down the television so they could hear it through the vents. The last note died gently, professionally. Joey clapped until his hands turned red, this time she deserved applause. Phyllis should’ve come out to take a bow, but the door remained closed. He stood up and reached for the doorknob. It was locked. No problem. Joey ran to the bathroom and got one his mom’s hairpins. He opened the door with the expertise of an accomplished felon. The room was empty. He smiled then laughed out loud.
“This is great, Phyllis!” he cried. Joey clapped again. “Come on back now!” No giggle came from the closet. “Where are you, Phyllis?” Joey checked under the bed, but she wasn’t there either. He stood up and walked back to the door. The entire room was in his view, but Phyllis was nowhere to be seen. Only the trumpet on her bed marked her presence. Joey whistled breezily through the gap in his teeth. It was magic . Really magic. Phyllis had disappeared.
David had a sinking feeling as band practice started the next day . Phyllis was absent . That in itself wasn’t a bad thing, but she still had his trumpet. Maybe one of the other trumpeters was sick as well. David walked towards the racks and stopped , dumbfounded . His trumpet case was sitting complacently on the bottom shelf. He scrutinized it for a moment, a few extra scratches here and there, but it was definitely his trumpet case. David opened it up. His trumpet sat in its black velvet like always. Phyllis’s mother must have brought it in. The band leader stood at his podium, his wand in hand. He raised it over his head and the band shuffled into ready position, all of the instruments held straight. The wand moved again and David put the trumpet to his mouth. He puckered his lips and blew. Nothing happened. No sound came out at all. He blew again, harder . Still nothing. The rest of the band was halfway into Lullaby of Broadway. David looked around and mimicked the finger motions of the other trumpet players. After the song ended, David probed around inside with his finger, but he couldn’t feel anything.
“Maybe one of your valves is stuck,” suggested Steve Lovisa, the saxophone player behind him. David shook his head. The valves popped up after he pushed them in. That wasn’t the problem.
“There must be something stuck way down deep,” said David. He took a deep breath and blew until his ears rang. The pressure built up then let go. A rush of red flew out of the bell and splattered in the aisle.
“Gross!” exclaimed Steve standing up in revulsion. One of the girls playing oboe screamed. The floor was covered with a bloody mixture that looked like raw hamburger at first glance. David sucked in a breath, trying to calm his stomach. The mess looked like a hand, chewed up by a lawnmower. The trumpet dropped from his numbed fingers. Band practice ended abruptly and David went to the nurse for the second time in a week. This time he didn’t return.
Mrs. Grelyak picked up her son at school and immediately put him to bed. For once, he didn’t balk. In fact, David didn’t say much of anything; he almost seemed to be in shock. In his mind, all he could think about was that thing on the floor in the band room. He remembered the conductor, Mr. Gibson, shaking him by the shoulders. David didn’t understand what he was saying. It was the same way in the car all the way home. His mom was worried, he could sense that from her tone, but the individual words were blocked. It was like his ears were filled with cotton. In bed, the fog in his mind began to clear. By 2:30, David wanted to go out with his friends. Instead, his friends came to him.
Bob brought the trumpet in his room. The others seemed a bit afraid to touch the case or even go near it. Bob slid the trumpet underneath David’s desk. Tim had something with him as well.
“What’s the heck is that?” asked David sitting up in bed. Tim handed the flat wooden board over, so he could get a better look. At first, he thought it was some kind of game. The front was covered with letters and numbers.
“It’s a Ouija board,” replied Tim to everyone’ s unasked question. “We can use it to contact the dead.”
“Who are we going to contact?” wondered Steve. They looked at each other. Tim shook his head.
“Everyone I know is alive,” he said simply.
Steve volunteered, “One of my uncles was killed in Vietnam. I don’t really remember too much, but -”
“I’ve got an even better idea,” interrupted David. The others turned to look at him. The low light from the dying autumn sun caught his eyes and made them glow a dull red. “My great great grandfather was killed in London a long time ago.”
Tim and David placed their fingers on the pointer and closed their eyes. Steve stood in the corner by the door and Bob loomed over the Ouija board. He slowly raised his hands and said, “Nathan Grelyak, we seek an audience from the beyond.” Nothing happened. Bob looked at the Ouija board. Steve cracked a quick smile, but erased it just as quickly. Bob glared at Steve then continued. “Who was it that killed you, Nathan? Answer us please.”
“Oh my God!” cried Steve, eyes widening . “It’s moving!” Tim and David opened their eyes and accused each other of cheating. Bob spoke the letters aloud as the pointer moved over them.
“R – E – D – J – A – C – K … that’s it.”
“Red Jack,” mumbled Steve aloud. “What does it mean?”
“Red Jack killed about a hundred years ago. He was never caught,” replied David ominously. “He’s better known as Jack the Ripper…” A sudden gust of wind caught David’s bangs and blew them flat against his forehead. He blinked in surprise. Wind? In his bedroom? “What’s going on?” he inquired in a loud voice. No one was able to answer because all hell broke loose at that particular moment.
The lights flickered and died, but a angry red glow flooded the room. A swirl of papers rushed off David ‘s desk. A deep hum rattled their teeth. Suddenly the closet exploded, junk from ten years in the past flew out at the foursome. That was enough. David jumped off the bed as it rose into the air as the others ran for the door. They collided in the hallway and tumbled down the stairs ending up in a heap of arms and legs in the foyer. Mrs. Grelyak came running out of the kitchen with a saucepan in her hand.
“What’s wrong? What was that crash?” No one could speak. She saw the sweat dripping down their foreheads and the fear in their eyes; her grip on the saucepan tightened.
“Upstairs,” gasped David finally. She followed his gaze upwards. The hall was dark and David’s door was closed. Determined, she marched up the stairs, the boys following two steps behind all the way. They stopped at the door. Mrs. Grelyak closed her eyes and grasped the doorknob. Carefully, she turned it without making a sound. The latch released with a small click. Taking a deep breath, Mrs. Grelyak threw the door open. They gasped.
“Is this you’re idea of a joke?” demanded Mrs. Grelyak. “I really thought you had me worried!” Again, the boys were rendered speechless. David stood dumbfounded, his mouth hanging open in shocked surprise. “I think it’s time for your friends to go home, David,” finished his mother quietly. David wasn’t listening. He walked into his room, still unbelieving. The lamp sat placidly on his nightstand, filling the room with a soft white light. His papers were stacked on his desk exactly as he left them. Tim walked over to the bed and recovered his Ouija board. The pointer was warped and melted, the only proof that something happened. David couldn’t think of anything to say.
Bob did. “Am I going crazy? This room was getting torn apart…” He took the pointer from Tim; passing it from hand to hand. “This is really nuts.”
Steve checked his watch. “Well, we better go. See you later, Dave.” His other friends nodded.
“See you Monday, Dave.”
“Don’t forget the big concert. Though…” Bob turned towards the trumpet under the desk, but only shook his head. “See you, Dave,”
David awoke in the middle of the night. Someone was playing the trumpet. His trumpet. He got up and peeked underneath his desk. Sure enough, it was gone. David opened his door and padded down the hall trailing the music to its source. A light was on in his younger brother’s room. David knocked quietly.
“Todd, are you awake ? ” There was no answer. David opened the door slowly and there on the bed was a trumpet. His trumpet. Blood was pouring out of the bell, staining the blanket. He put a hand to his mouth, stopping the scream that was about to escape. A distorted form rose from behind the bed. Its features were all blended together, but David knew who it was.
“Come on in, David,” Phyllis cackled. “Play us a song.” David didn’t move. His legs were stone coated rubber. She took a step towards him. “David, you know you can’t resist me. I’ll bug you until you play…” Someone else stood up behind the bed and picked up the trumpet. It stepped into the light.
“Todd, no…” David croaked. Todd’s face was melted, digested into a rough sketching of what it used to be. The waxy mouth opened. “Here, David, play us a song,” he said. David felt his hand moving out to take the trumpet. It was bigger now. His fingers coiled around the valves. His lips puckered. The trumpet was burning hot . His fingered shriveled up and turned black. Phyllis and Todd started whistling Taps. Their faces cracked open and blood spewed all over the room. Some hit the trumpet and boiled away instantly. The mouthpiece was almost touching his lips. With a burst of strength, David pulled away and screamed.
“David! Wake up!” David sat straight up in bed and screamed again. His brother shook him. “David! You’re having a nightmare! Wake up!” David’s eyes focused and he stared into Todd’s face. He opened his mouth, closed it. He tried to speak again.
“Todd!” he cried. “You’re alive!” Now it was Todd’s turn to stare open-mouthed. Without giving Todd time to recover, David got out of bed. That had been some nightmare and he realized now that it was a nightmare. Still, David wanted to check something, just to make sure . He peered underneath his desk and breathed a sigh of relief. His trumpet was still there. But something was wrong. David took a closer look. The case was at a slightly different angle and now there were two dark streaks in the shag carpeting leading away from the case.
It had moved.
David watched the ancient instrument well into Saturday afternoon. The case remained passive under his surveillance. By five o’clock, David was getting hungry. He decided that there was nothing to worry about and went downstairs to eat. That night, he dreamed about the girl who lived down the street. By Sunday night, David couldn’t remember why he had been so scared. Monday morning came much too early, but David made it to school, trumpet in hand. The last band practice went well. They only had to play Lullaby of Broadway once. The bell rang and they were finally free.
“The concert starts at seven-thirty,” said Mr. Gibson over the noise of the exodus. “Be there half an hour early !” His last words filled the empty room. It was unbelievable how fast the kids left, almost as if they didn’t like class… He dismissed that thought immediately.
That night, the band sat uncomfortably in the middle of the gym, sweating in their best clothes, nervously watching the clock by the scoreboard. David watched the bleachers fill with people, his hands trembling slightly. Behind him, Steve tapped his foot incessantly. This was their first big show. The clock’s hands moved slower and slower, sometimes taking hours to move a minute. Finally, it was seven thirty. The lights dimmed and the gym grew quiet. Mr. Gibson, dressed in a tuxedo, stepped up to the podium, wand in hand. Ignoring everything else, David fixed his attention on that wand. It moved and the band began Lullaby of Broadway. David wasn’t listening, his attention was still transfixed on the wand’s motion: one… two.., three… four…
David’s mind began to wander, but he still played in time with the rest of the band. He relived the pain when he cut his lip open. He wondered why Phyllis had run away from home. He thought about his nightmare. Time seemed to crawl past as David pondered the questions that filled his subconscious . The most puzzling one of all being, why did he suddenly have an urge to play Taps?
Something was wrong. His vision blurred, the notes on the page seemed to dance on the page. He looked down at his shirt, the starched white had been replaced by blood red. David peered up at the crowd through a long gray tunnel. The tunnel stretched out longer and longer, the people grew farther and farther away until they were a mere pinpoint of light. Then the pinpoint turned red and faded away.
The solemn notes of Taps washed out over the ranks of performing musicians. Mr. Gibson tapped his wand to regain time, but the magic didn’t work anymore. There was a milling in the crowd, gasps and screams . The band deteriorated into an amalgamation of bleats and squawks. A few turned to see where the rogue music was coming from and immediately wished they hadn’t.
Don Grelyak took the trumpet to a smelter the next day, placing it quietly on a frayed belt leading into a blast furnace. There was no emotion in his eyes as he watched it crawl into oblivion . One of the workers picked it out of the junk. He brought it over to David’s father.
“This is a beautiful instrument, ” he said. “And it looks like an antique . Why do you want it melted down ? ” Don stood mute. What could he say? The trumpet was possessed? It had killed his son and probably a few others. What could he say?
“Bad metal,” he finally replied. The man nodded and placed it back onto the belt. Don watched, the furnace’s glare glinting like lightning off of his glasses, until the trumpet was gone. He turned to go.
“You know, there’s something about bad metal,” the man said suddenly. Don stopped. “It can be melted, recycled, diffused and diluted, but it’s still bad and you never get rid of it.” Both men stared into the heat of the blast furnace. There was nothing left to say.