Chapter 17:

winking owl


“Father, you wouldn’t leave me, right?” I ask him with pleading eyes. “You’ll stay with me, and take care of me like you always have, right?”Bookmark here

“Of course, dear. Of course, I’ll take care of you, no matter what. You’re my precious daughter.”Bookmark here

His familiar response brings me some relief, though it’s unavoidably shallow. However, it’s all I can do to accept his words and protection. There’s no way I can survive without it, especially after what happened… Last night? I was blown to bits. I was dying… no, I died, without a doubt. So, how am I here? What's going on in this place?Bookmark here

Suddenly, a soft hooting sound draws my attention to the window, where a white owl hangs amidst the snow-topped cherry trees, winking its right eye while fixing its deep blue left eye on me. Without thinking, I wink back with a dumb smile on my face.Bookmark here

“Mirei? Are you okay?” My father asks in confusion.Bookmark here

“Yes, father,” I reply softly, smiling at him. “It’s just strange, the owl is winking like it’s trying to send a message.”Bookmark here

He shifts his gaze toward the window, and grows more confused. I look back to where I’d seen the snow-white owl, but it’s gone.Bookmark here

“Sorry, father, it’s nothing,” I say, widening my smile. “I’m feeling a bit under the weather, so would you mind letting me rest for a bit?”Bookmark here

“Of course, just call if you need me, dear.” He offers me a loving smile before departing.Bookmark here

Just like before, I sit at the computer and look down at the corner of the screen, confirming my fear— the date hasn’t changed since yesterday. I find Shiburei’s most recent video, ‘Sunscape’. All the comments are the same, except for one.Bookmark here

From the username, JC: Listening to your passionate music repeatedly makes me feel like I’m frozen in time with you…but I wonder, what’s keeping you from singing your next song? While I’m frozen in this trance, I feel your flame is fading out…Bookmark here

Like clockwork I’m drawn into the trance he’s referring to, and once again I’m playing the piano surrounded by candlelight. This time I play flawlessly, having memorized how to avoid the shadows. Instead, the shadows dance behind the candlelight, forming shapes that distort and deconstruct the room. Once broken down, the room reconstructs into a familiar scene.Bookmark here

I’m looking at a younger me with strawberry-blonde hair, playing my second piano recital ever at seven years old. The chords sing from her fingers as flawlessly as my own. The crowd is entranced, in tears, and beaming at her figure. My father is at the front of the crowd, crying silent tears with the most excited expression I’ve ever seen.Bookmark here

However, his expression is wiped abruptly away when the younger me stops moving her fingers. Her arms tremble, and her body quakes before dropping to the floor, convulsing. The audience swarms around the young me as I lose consciousness with her.Bookmark here

I awake within an eight-year-old version of myself, bedridden in a white room, with my father at my bedside. He clasps my hand strongly while fighting back his tears and doing his best to smile.Bookmark here

“The doctor says I only have five years left, like mommy,” I whisper through labored breaths.Bookmark here

“Don’t worry about that, honey… I’ll figure something out.”Bookmark here

“But daddy, my heart…”Bookmark here

“Everything will be okay! I’m here, alright?” he cries, cheeks twitching as the tears roll down them without his permission.Bookmark here

Through sobs I reply. “…okay.”Bookmark here

At age ten, I’m sitting at a brand-new piano, adorned with ten cupcakes stuck with lit candles. My frail figure happily plays the piano for my father and his most trusted men, along with my frail mother, who sits in a wheelchair weeping as I play. My song finishes, and my father approaches me, leading the group in ferocious applause.Bookmark here

“Mirei, there’s no doubt you’re our daughter,” he cries. “Look how strong you’ve become. Tell me, what do you want to do next? You have so much ahead of you, after all!”Bookmark here

Subsequently, I’m filming my own compositions all on my own. My playing hastens even further, equivalent to my love and happiness for the dream I’m living out. Tears of joy stream down my face, uncaptured by the camera that points toward my rapidly maneuvering hands on the keyboard, and the eleven candles burning atop the piano’s surface.Bookmark here

After I finish filming and uploading the video, my father enters. I carelessly prod the keys, winding down from the performance. “Mirei, look at the comments already! Several thousand people have watched, and everyone loves your performance. This one says: please don’t stop playing…your music saved me…and I’m not the only one, signed with a wink.”Bookmark here

He proceeds to read the comments to me while my leisurely play turns into an emphatic serenade, tears silently streaming down my cheeks as I’m choking up with a smile.Bookmark here

Next, there's twelve candles atop the piano, and I’ve become a full-fledged video artist. I’ve posted at least fifty videos, each garnering more views and support than the last. The current video I’m filming is my first true live performance. My nerves had been high, but my fingers breathe life into the keys more than ever before, resulting in my best performance to date. Toward the end, my voice lets loose a melody I wasn’t ever aware it was capable of. The song, and overall piece, proves a resounding success, providing me the high of my life.Bookmark here

As I catch my breath within the silent, stuffy room that had received its fill of my playing, my sweaty face droops over the keys. At that moment, something strikes my heart— a momentous epiphany.Bookmark here

Despite my condition, and my terminality, I can send a message of hope to those like the winking kid who comments on every video. I feel selfish for not realizing it before, but I understand my purpose now, and I realize this kind of performance was what the comments of support had been leading up to.Bookmark here

However, in that moment, my heart, so ecstatic and overcome with self-discovery— fails. My father rushes to my side as I crumble to the floor, clutching my chest.Bookmark here

Only two months later, I sit at the piano to play, camera rolling— but the chords won’t flow like before. My stiff arms and hands hesitate, and end up dragging several keys repetitively, thinking back on my father’s cheerful voice as he read out the comments of support from my fans, and his and my mother’s tear-filled smiling faces.Bookmark here

“Mirei?”Bookmark here

The door opens, but he doesn’t come in. His voice, striving for that same cheerfulness, sounds noticeably worn. “Dear, I know how much you want to continue your work, but between your condition and the loss of your mother, your heart can’t take it right now.” His voice trembles as he struggles to raise his pitch. “Please, just practice at your leisure and let your father handle things. I promise, I’ve figured out how to save you. Are you listening? Mirei, I found a heart for you— I’ll bring it to you soon.”Bookmark here

“Please, father… if you do, I promise I’ll become an even better pianist… for you, mom, and everyone watching me... I’ll play like my heart was made for it.”Bookmark here

Several months later, my condition had worsened again. Yet, I continue to play, and post videos. The most recent was posted yesterday, titled Winking Owl— the fifth upload in as many days. It’s a song I wrote after my mother’s passing, themed on refusal to give up through silent suffering and hard work. As I read down the list of comments, I begin to cry. This time, however, they aren’t tears born of joy, but despair and fear. The comments point out my fading voice, and my less-than passionate keystrokes, concluding I'm struggling with depression or illness.Bookmark here

The top comment, and the one that stands out the most, reads: I’m saddened by the obvious melancholy you’re displaying through your vastly different playing, but even more by how beautiful it sounds despiteor rather, because of the pain it conveys. I hope you find peace in whatever trial you face… Just know that you’ve created such an amazing world from your own heart, and I’m eagerly awaiting your next song, signed with a wink.Bookmark here

My eyes hover over the username, written in plain English— JC. The me still playing the piano for the shadows stops for a moment. The shadows begin to blot the scene out as they materialize, but before they do, I continue playing, something inexplicable urging me.Bookmark here

The image returns, and my father interrupts my review of the comments by barging into the overly pink room. “Mirei, come quick! Everything is okay, now, the problem is fixed. Your new heart… it’s here!”Bookmark here

He pulls me down the hall and several flights of stairs before coming to a secluded room that looks like mine without any décor. There’s nothing in the room, besides an old futon mattress riddled with holes and stained with blood. On top of it, a thin young girl around my age lays curled up, asleep. Her tattered clothes, shoulder-length black hair, and pale flesh stagnate my piano playing, my fingers holding down the same note until my ears are filled with a dull noise. As everything fades to white, a voice blends into the noise.Bookmark here

“Mirei… run.”Bookmark here

I snap back to my room, and rise up from the pink bed. As soon as I do, I’m pushed back down. The older, hot-tempered version of the girl from my dreams stands over me, her eyes burning holes into my own. “You gave me way too much time, today.”Bookmark here

Her hand coils around my throat before I can move. Its grip tightens, and any notion of fighting back seems to vacate me as my body simply freezes with the shock of the sudden attack. The sounds of gunshots and thunder reach my ears immediately, and flames outside the broken window lick my vision’s periphery. As I process the feeling of bloodlust being directed at me, my heart aches to be saved. It aches to live, so that I can continue playing. That might be all that matters to me, even if it’s one more song.Bookmark here

Her hand shines as she rears it forth from her jacket. A small knife reflects the orange flames as it plunges into my chest without warning. Or, it should have. Before the knife pierces my pink pajamas, a thick layer of ice coats my chest and expands itself around the knife. She tries to pull her hand away, but the ice covers it too, spreading up her arm. The ice expands throughout the room rapidly, rendering us both immobile.Bookmark here

Mary, distraught, bares her teeth and attempts to wriggle her knife-hand free. Just as she does, a slab of ice falls from the ceiling of the overly pink room and lands with a thud on her head.Bookmark here

As she falls onto me, teetering in and out of consciousness, the growing ice covers my face and separates us. Her lips struggle to move, smearing the other side of the ice with her scarlet blood.Bookmark here

“No matter how many times… I’ll come for what you stole…”Bookmark here

“I’m sorry, Mary,” I mutter through the thick ice, my vision going white. “I know it’s pitiful and horrible of me, but I want to live. I want to keep playing. I need this heart...”Bookmark here

As a heavy breath escapes her lips and fogs the ice, I’m overcome by the freezing cold of the ice along with the white light.Bookmark here

I awake once more in my overly pink room. Before the door can swing open, I hop out of bed and sit at the computer. As my father drops to his knees, I’ve already brought up the video.Bookmark here

“Mirei, dear… you’re okay now.”Bookmark here

I shoot him a forced smile, avoiding eye contact, before looking out the window. The owl is there, winking silently. I wink back, shift my gaze to the computer screen, and scroll to ‘Sunscape’s comments to find what I’m looking for.Bookmark here

I’m still eagerly awaiting your next song. We all are, signed with a wink.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.