Dario had known from a young age that music affected him more deeply than others. As soon as a piece caught his attention it seemed as if time stilled for a moment. Deeply held emotions swelled toward the surface, painting the world a new hue. He had no direct talent at instruments or singing, but he was an aficionado at appreciating what he heard. No genre was beyond his interest, and those who knew him came to think of the earphones as an extension of him, like eyeglasses.
It was in Dario’s thirteenth year that he noticed a difference in his relationship to his listening. Everything about him was changing at that point so the shift wasn’t as drastic as his fluctuating voice or other puberty surprises, but it got his attention because of the central role music held in his life. The first hint was a landscape of shifting blue during Claude Debussy’s La mer. It was just for a second, but in that second he smelled salt air. A bright sun gleamed off of ocean waves and his ears were tickled by a gentle breeze. He assumed he had dozed off, but the next time there was no mistaking it.
It happened while he was walking home from school, between one step and the next. He was listening to a podcast on Irish fiddles when suddenly a swirling mass of dancers hopped around him, laughing and spinning arm in arm. Dario tripped and skinned his knee on the sidewalk.
The episodes came more frequently, and began to last longer. A few seconds, half a minute, a few minutes even by the time his fourteenth birthday was in sight. It became part of who he was, and though it was certainly interesting, instinct told him not to share these events with anybody.
He had long ago established that the depth of his connection to music was something that set him apart from others. This, whatever it was, had to be miles past that. A few times he worried that he might have a serious medical condition, but ultimately he decided that if that were the case, he’d rather be surprised by it than go hunting through doctor examinations for a cause that may not have medical explanation.
He began to experiment. First, he determined that listening to the same piece did not bring on the same reaction. Radiohead’s Reckoner showed him a dated living room with a loud grandfather clock on one occasion and some kind of populated lunar landscape on another. Nat King Cole’s Straighten Up and Fly Right brought him to a smoke-filled hall of men and women in conversation one time and to a porch swing creaking on its hinges accompanied by a pitcher of lemonade and two glasses on a small table nearby.
He tried listening to the same tune over and over to see if that would increase his odds of having an episode but it didn’t work that way. Neither was he successful at bringing on episodes by any other technique that he could identify. It wasn’t until she appeared that he suddenly felt that this strange secret side of his life had any purpose.
She was Clara Miller. It was an episode sometime around his fifteenth birthday, and this one was special. A man sat playing one of Frederic Chopin’s Etudes, and if Dario didn’t know better based on images he’d seen, he’d swear it was the man himself. The room was only occupied by the man at the piano, himself, and a teenaged girl in a plain white dress that spoke indistinctly of a time other than this one or his own. Through open doorways he could see several people in conversation in a sitting room and in the yard outside someone painted while others enjoyed a picnic. The girl turned to Dario and waved him through a door. The room they entered was being set up for a supper so they drifted on through a busy kitchen and out into the yard, the Etude still lingering faintly on the sweet spring air.
“Clara Miller,” she introduced, holding out her hand to shake.
“Dario,” Dario mumbled.
“I haven’t seen you here before,” Clara said, studying him.
Dario flushed. He’d never been noticed before in any of his episodes. They had always felt like he was a ghost looking into a sliver of time. He had even come to assume that he was invisible.
“I’m… just visiting,” Dario said.
Clara’s eyes narrowed. “Swan Lake,” she said.
“That’s where I’ve seen you before.”
Swan Lake had taken Dario to several different places but now that she said it, he knew she was right. She had been at a park around dusk, her dress catching the light breeze coming off of the lake water while she smiled at a giant spool of cotton candy in her hand.
“Are you… do you…” Dario wasn’t sure what to ask, but already the scene was fading.
“I’ll see you again,” he could hear her saying as his bedroom solidified around him.
On a hunch, Dario threw himself into classical composers. He revisited Tchaikovsky’ Swan Lake and any other ballet he could get his hands on. He guzzled Chopin day and night. When neither of those bore fruit he moved on to salon pieces, operas, liturgical music, but while he had plenty of episodes Clara was in none of them. He had finally given up hope when a compilation of big band pieces threw him into a gas lamp lit party on a pier and he saw Clara’s sweet smile through the dancers. Their greeting was warm, but the moment they made it past hellos an awkward silence hung between them.
“You could ask me to dance,” Clara suggested.
“I don’t uh, know how,” Dario admitted.
Clara shrugged. “Neither do I,” she said. “How hard could it be?”
Based on the sharp glances they got from the dancing adults every time they banged into a couple, there was apparently more to dancing that just twirling in each other’s arms. Still, it was worth it to watch how she laughed. Clara wasn’t bothered one bit by the disapproving gazes, so on and on they twirled, laughing, until the scene faded and Dario stood huffing for air on the sidewalk, waiting for the world to stop spinning. He couldn’t stop grinning.
From then on they coordinated their next piece as soon as they met, which generally meant that Clara would announce a piece and Dario would devote however long it took to listening to it repeatedly until an episode finally took him to her. They ice skated on frozen lakes, attended parades, rowed small boats around ponds, picnicked on green grassy hills amid towering mountain peaks… every adventure was idyllic, if brief.
“Where do you live?” Clara asked one night under a meteor shower.
“Cleveland, Ohio,” Dario said.
She perked up.
“I do too!” she gasped. “Do you know Miller’s corner store? That’s my daddy’s.”
“What street?” Dario asked.
He didn’t know many corner stores by name, but if it meant finding Clara in real life he’d look them all up and visit each one until he found her. Unfortunately he didn’t hear her response as the scene faded. The next morning he went ahead and looked up Miller’s. He came up with appliance repair, carpet cleaning and the like, but nothing that hinted at a corner store. For good measure over the next week, though, as he tried to get Sousa’s marches to take him to his next rendezvous with Clara, he took buses all over the city hunting down the businesses named Miller’s.
It was another parade, and Clara had a small American flag in her hand when Dario caught up to her. She seemed cool this time, only lifting a half smile toward him and patting his shoulder lightly when he hugged her. She didn’t offer up the next musical piece.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
She watched the parade drift by, and just when he thought he had done something wrong and was receiving some kind of silent treatment, she answered.
“I should have known from your clothes, and the odd references you make,” she said. “When were you born, Dario?”
“Born? 2001,” he said, and the moment he said it he understood why she was upset. “When were you born Clara?”
She let out a humorless laugh. “1922,” she answered. “It’s not fair.”
“No,” Dario agreed. “But wait, you could still be alive. We could set a time and place, and…”
Clara was shaking her head. “I don’t want to wait until my nineties to meet you, if I even live that long. And what would you see? A withered old woman!”
“But you could tell me…” he didn’t know where he was going with that thought but Clara whirled on him, tears in her eyes.
“Don’t you see?” she nearly shouted, “we can’t tell each other anything. What good would it do? We’re a lifetime apart! If I am still alive and we meet and I tell you what happened, what life does that leave you to live? And you, you could tell me the future. All of it. Who are the presidents and are there more Great Depressions coming and… what would that leave me?”
“Clara,” Dario said, raising his voice as he felt the scene fading, “we don’t have to talk about any of that. We have right now. We have each other.”
“Yet we don’t,” he heard her say.
Dario wandered his musical library numbly in the weeks that followed. He had a few episodes but none of them included Clara. Then a letter arrived, addressed to him. The envelope and paper within were yellow with age. There was no return address and the handwriting was neat tilting cursive.
“My dear Dario,” it said, “I’m writing this well in advance of when it will be delivered. There are times when it seems that this world is doing all that it can to self-destruct, but I alone know that you will be born and that there will still, at least, be a Cleveland in the year 2001. For the first time I’m grateful that you aren’t alive yet. You’d be running off to fight and I would be left here to worry even more than I already am. In my instructions I’m timing this to arrive to you shortly after our first row. Please don’t be too cross with me. I was a heartbroken little girl, and as you’ll learn in the years to come, I have a bit of a temper. We’ve just had another argument, in fact, and I already regret my sharp tongue. I’m writing to tell you words that you just spoke to me. It is always worth having hope, even and especially when times look most bleak. Love, friendship, the categories that fit the rest of the world into order are meaningless when held up to measure us. What you and I have is singular, and we must remember to treat it as the treasure that it is.”
“That’s it for now,” she finished. “You never told me about this letter. Perhaps it won’t make it to you. Perhaps it is just one of the many things you’ve had to keep to yourself to preserve what we have. I’m going to assume the latter. Stay well, Clara.” And at the very bottom, “P.S. Louis Armstrong, I’m in the Mood for Love, Decca recording. Wear dancing shoes.”
Dario closed the letter with reverence and went to his computer. He had a recording to track down, and dancing lessons to sign up for.
Written by W. C. McClure. This may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. This is a work of fiction. None of the characters or events depicted are meant to represent anyone or anything this side of dreams. Comments are welcome! Please help support this indie author by telling your friends about this short story blog at http://www.farsideofdreams.com and buying W. C. McClure’s books at http://www.wcmcclure.com. Thanks for reading!