The Black Melody Journal
by Travis Walsh
Katie saw her face on another billboard. Her eyes painted with a
perfect gradient of purple, glittered and shining. Teeth several shades
whiter than any dentist could realistically provide. Every stray blonde
hair missing in action.
She smiled in the quiet seat behind the quieter driver. The billboard
passed and the rhythm of soft white streetlights stroked her toward
sleep. Thirty cities in eighty days. Close to one million screaming
souls, all worshipping the giant, perfect head on the billboard. The
weight of it still felt unreal.
The streetlights shifted to an ambient orange as the car curved off the
highway and into the embrace of the dark wooded town of Allswell,
The black car rolled through the gate and into the curved lot of the
old Colonial home that Katie had bought when she first signed with a
Label at nineteen years old. Restored meticulously then painted over
with modern love, it was home. Five years later and she loved this
place more than any other. An old, perfect house. Even with the
seemingly perpetual houseguests. Even with the high price of it all.
The empty house sheltered only silence and dim light now. Katie climbed
the spiraling entry staircase toward her room, passing the shining
records on the wall, a gallery of moons for the night. The driver
dropped luggage about below, leaving it as a to-do item for someone
else tomorrow. The chime of the alarm setting, and soft rumble of the
iron door closing heralded the solitude that Katie had longed for. The
only strength left in her body, she applied to the power button of her
phone, dropping it on the soft carpet of the stairs.
She shuffled along the smooth hall floor into her bedroom, collapsing
on the bed. Her travel clothes served perfectly as pajamas. Rolling
around to gather the blankets in a soft shell she let sleep take her.
“Come now. That’s enough rest.” A creaking, yet proper voice sounded.
Katie squinted through grime and sleep to see the time on the soft blue bedside clock.
“It’s not enough.” She said to the voice from behind her fortress of blankets.
“It is and you know it. No provisions were given for exact rest times.”
“You have no power to do so.” The voice said with no consideration for the hours.
Katie sighed and sat up. No one stood by the bed. He never did. He
simply summoned and waited. Rubbing the months of exhaustion from her
eyes Katie stood, still wrapped in her enormous blanket. It was soft
and lavish. She had no idea how much she paid for it. She simply
pointed to it in a magazine last year and the mechanisms of fame laid
the blanket across her bed that very night.
Every light in the house was on. They tended to be dramatic on nights
like this. In the kitchen, her luggage formed a small leather and
vacuum formed mountain. Katie felt a pang of guilt for the driver who
hauled it all into a dark and unfamiliar house. It was arranged so
neatly. She hoped he was tipped well.
Her messenger bag sat neatly at the forefront of the pile. Inside she
shoved aside her laptop, a bramble of chargers and dongles and
headphones. At the bottom of the bag sat her treasure. A small black
leather notebook. Not unlike one that could be bought at any store by
anyone wanting to seem refined and old fashioned. A strip of black
leather wrapped around the cover and in the bottom corner, Katie ran
her thumb across the imprint. A hand holding a large coin.
Beyond the sliding glass doors that framed the living room, a pavilion
sat. Meant for hosting parties for all her numerous friends and
colleagues, Katie had come to dread the site. The space had been
designed to perfectly capture the golden hour during dinner parties and
frame the morning mist in the forests at the edge of the property while
she held a warm mug of coffee. Now it had become a sort of gallows for
Tonight, like every night that she returned from her travels, the patio
was illuminated. Fairy lights dotted the shallow sky with no strings
between. The golden glow lit the perfectly selected wood of the deck
and furniture. It really was a gorgeous spot. If not for the family of
ghosts sitting round the table.
“Welcome, Katie. I trust the tour was enjoyable?” asked Robert. The
patriarch sat at the head of the table with the ease of a man who sat
on this land for centuries.
“It was. Thank you.” She responded with grace and every ounce of manners that had been driven into her from birth.
“Did you have a particular favorite stop?” Robert asked, taking a drag
from a cigarillo. He exhaled into the night. No smoke rose from his
thin mustached lips.
Katie closed her eyes for a moment of respite. The small talk with the
creatures was always cumbersome. Politely avoiding the malice that sat
just beneath the pleasantries.
“Oakland was nice.” She finally responded.
“Oakland? Where is that exactly?” Fiona chimed. Her voice was pulled
tight by the corset beneath her dress. The whole family sat straight
and proper. The highest fashion of the year eighteen sixty something.
When the house had been ransacked and the family murdered. Or at least
that is what they had told Katie.
“Oakland is near San Francisco. In California, Ma’am.” Katie offered.
“Did you find any gold?” asked Robert Junior, the boy, no older than
ten stood elated on his patio chair. The cushion remained perfectly
“Sit down, boy. And don’t be stupid. Gold isn’t the ticket out there
any longer. Its Silicon, right Katie?” Robert asked. They had spoken of
the status of California gold before, after performing live at an award
show in Los Angeles. Robert had assumed the descriptor ‘Silicon Valley’
meant that some new metal was mined in the area. Katie hadn’t bothered
to correct him. It seemed best to let him stay stuck his ways. She
wasn’t even sure he could learn about life outside of the property. She
nodded to the family, keeping her side of the conversation as vague and
light as possible. The August night air felt frigid around her.
“Did you meet anyone?” Fiona asked. She sipped a teacup that wasn’t
there a moment ago. Robert rolled his eyes and sat forward. Katie
pulled the knit blanket around her tighter. She pressed her nails into
the leather notebook hidden in the soft folds.
“Yes Ma’am. Of course.”
“Well? Please. Sit. Do tell.” Robert gestured for Katie to take a seat
at the table she had purchased. His tone was impatient, and he gave a
glare to his wife. Katie knew that Robert found the urgency demeaning.
He had always hated the arrangement. Even in the beginning, when Katie
sat hunched over the black leather journal wanting to scream at the
blank page. Her first album had been well received. A critical success
that promised a bright future. The label wanted something more
extravagant for the follow up. Her father wanted something more
conservative. And Katie was out of ideas. Every drop in the tank burnt
in the relentless drive toward the first album.
“Lacking inspiration?” a voice had asked. Haughty, but not enough to
hide a Boston workman’s accent. Perhaps it was the wine that she was
too young to drink but snuck anyway. Or the fever pitch of emotions
that her failures had honed to the thickness of an atom. But the
appearance of Robert Bancroft failed to set off the appropriate alarms
in her mind.
Katie regretted the nonchalant bravery. It failed her now, on the
porch. Facing the four ghosts as she had for years. Expectant and
hungry they eyed her with only the thinnest veil of patience. Stepping
forward, she pulled a seat from the patio table and faced the cold
audience. From beneath her protective cocoon, the black leather
notebook emerged. A flash of pride shined on Robert Bancroft’s face. He
smiled at the imprint he had left all those years ago. A symbol of a
sacred transaction. ‘The lifeblood of any good society’ he had called
The stories within. Katie said a silent prayer for the people she had
met. The price they would pay for this. Mrs. Bancroft’s eyebrows raised
in anticipation as Katie thumbed to the most recent entries in the book.
“Ok. Here is the first one. In Memphis. Emily Hawkins is twelve years
old. She has a crush on the boy in her class who paints pictures of
trees. He sells them at the flea market to help is family out. Emily
begs her mom to buy them every weekend. The boy doesn’t know but
Emily’s room is covered in paintings of trees.” Katie read the story,
written in her own curling handwriting. Her lip quivered as she thought
of Emily Hawkins.
Mrs. Bancroft let out a soft moan and ran her cold fingers down a
slender neck. “Delicious.” She whispered. Mr. Bancroft’s eyes were
closed. A content smile on his face, as if he were listening to the
smoothest of melodies. Katie knew what would happen next, or at least
the outline of it.
Somewhere in the mountains of Tennessee, young Emily Hawkins would work
up the courage to show the boy her collection of paintings. He would be
embarrassed at first but flattered. He would take her with him to the
woods, to find trees that would become paintings that would become
another in her collection of love. They would do this for years. Each
trek through the woods bringing their hands closer together. Each
stumble on a root or ditch bringing their bodies in contact for balance
at first, then more. Eventually their lips would find each other
beneath the sycamores and ash trees of the Appalachian Mountains. They
would burn with bright, young love for all of Tennessee. But then a
shadow would fall over their trees. The boy would resent her for her
pity, she would go bored with the paintings. The love would wear away
into a spiteful rotting thing as the Bancrofts fed on every drop.
Lonely and ruined Emily Hawkins and the boy who paints would wander
through life, never feeling the timid joy they felt as the universe
brushed against them in those woods. They would join the horde of lost
and empty souls that roamed the fields behind the old Victorian house.
Maybe in five years, maybe in fifty. The Bancrofts didn’t mind the
time, just the collection.
And even as the heartbreaking tale unfolded in her thoughts and the
Bancrofts feast upon the sorrow, the melody rose through her mind. The
beat tapped out of her fingers onto the thigh hidden in the blanket.
She would write the song of young lovers with pure hearts. The romance
would permeate the airwaves and flood into millions of homes. It would
inspire countless nervous little girls and artistic little boys. But
Emily Hawkins and the painting boy were forfeit.
“What else?” Robert Bancroft Jr demanded, standing again in his seat.
“Oh, do learn some manners, boy.” Mr. Bancroft barked. The chill on the
patio deepened further. “Finding these meals for us is tiring work for
the young lady. You should show gratitude.” He said with a more
“She is paid well for it.” Mrs. Bancroft added, not looking up from the cup of tea.
Mr. Bancroft smiled at his wife, stretching his mustache wide and
baring what seemed to be far too many teeth. “She is indeed. But that
doesn’t make her ‘The Help.’ This is a mutually beneficial contract,
“Yessir.” Katie nodded quietly. The night he had appeared, the
arrangement seemed simple. Collect stories, be famous. The consequences
seemed so insignificant. Even as she listened intently to the first
little girl who loved her father so much for buying her the VIP pass,
he was a truck driver and always away. The Bancrofts had grinned their
way through the meal. The little girl’s father died on I-95 a few
months later and the song about a daughter who missed her father won a
Grammy. Katie ran her fingers along the edges of the page before her.
Dreading the consequences of flipping it. The catchy tune of the tree
painting boy rattled in her head, smashing away guilt and sadness. It
was going to be another hit. In the field beyond the patio she could
see the faint outline of a man with a thick workers jacket and tall
trucker’s hat. He only stared in silence.
“But, please. Do go on.” Mr. Bancroft said, pulling Katie from her memories and the sight of the lonesome father.
“Ok. Next.” Katie flipped the page and swallowed hard. “Tara Morrison. She has a… um, a rare form of cancer in her blood.”
“No cancer!” shouted a decrepit voice.
“Mother, I was afraid you’d sleep through the meal!” Mr. Bancroft said,
slapping his knee with delight. Katie held her chest from the fright.
Esther Bancroft rarely spoke, and when she did it was a shriek capable
of peeling the skin from a man’s bones. She sat at the far end of the
table, wrapped in furs and hatred.
“No cancer.” She repeated. “Never lasts long, always turns to ash in my mouth. Give me something sweet.”
“She does have a point.” Mrs. Bancroft said.
“Quick, burnt things those stories are. Never filling.” Mr. Bancroft
added. Katie shed a tear of relief. Tara Morrison had been through
enough. In the field several small children, barely visible in the
moon’s faint glow stood silent. Only their hospital gowns and smooth
heads betrayed their stories.
She would call the song ‘Sycamore Paint.’ Poetic and nonsensical enough
to sell well. There was no need to write down the lyrics etching across
her mind, she would remember them all, word for word. Beat for beat.
The page of the journal flipped without request. Katie knew what the
Bancrofts wanted. Staring at the story she remembered the awe in the
eyes of the girl. That she would have a story precious enough for
Katie’s legendary journal. Of tales she used to inspire her works and
people she prayed for each night.
“Ok. The next one.” She started. The Bancrofts shifted and settled in
the patio seats that showed no sign of their presence. “Lady Adams.”
“Oh, what a lovely name.” Ms. Bancroft exclaimed, holding a hand to her chest in adoration.
“Lady Adam’s brother called the radio station every hour, every day for
three weeks to get tickets. He didn’t do his homework and started
failing his classes. But it was ok. The class found out why he was
doing it and they helped him study. Especially when they found out he
had won. I signed a poster for every one of them.” Katie sniffed
through the thought. The consequences of Lady Adam’s brother’s actions,
rippling out and touching every child in his fourth-grade class. The
Bancroft’s chuckled and closed their eyes in ecstasy. She knew their
reach was long, and their hunger deep.
Naomi Parsons had tried to kill herself during her freshman year in
college. It didn’t work, and Katie’s music decorated the road to her
recovery. The Bancrofts fed on the story and two months later Naomi
succeeded in her second attempt. Months after that her mother and
sister followed the new path that Katie had set for them. The three
women, all raven haired stared from the field. The sad song became an
anthem for suicide prevention. Thousands upon thousands found strength
and hope in her words and melodies.
“Wonderful.” Esther Bancroft said. She was smacking her toothless lips
around the story. Savoring the idea of twenty children working together
in a selfless cause.
“I agree. Thank you. Thank you so much Katie.” Mr. Bancroft said. “I
daresay you have enough to keep you busy in the…” he twirled his hand
in search of the word. “…studio!”
“Yes. Thank you.” Katie said, knowing the dinner was coming to an end, she spoke with an ounce more confidence.
“We know you’ll do us proud.” Mr. Bancroft smiled.
The golden lights around the porch faded. The table sat empty and cold and the August heat took claim of the air.
Katie stared upward and the moon and stars, fighting back tears. The
guilt pulled down her lips and tightened the muscles in her neck as she
let out a full and powerful sob. She already knew the love that would
grow from the words that danced in her mind. She knew the hope and
dreams that would pivot on her music. She knew and she hated it. She
knew and she loved it. And she kept it to herself. A secret between her
and the hundreds of silver silhouettes staring at her from the field
behind the old, perfect house.
© 2020 Travis Walsh
Bio: My name is Travis Walsh, I am a first time author who, like
many, has found the need for a hobby these weird days. I spend most of
my days as a data scientist for a Fortune 500 company, plotting away at
massive amounts of data. At nights I care for and entertain two
children and a loving wife. The moments in-between are filled with
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