Amber Beck – Fiction

A Sharp Scale

Two thin, bright lines burned her leg as she sat naked on the cold tile floor. The wet red spotted Aria’s knife. She usually found it to be beautiful. Sometimes, she’d let the blood dry on her skin, and in the morning, it would disappear, flakes of dry blood lost among her bedsheets. But now she sat on the hard floor and felt no beauty, just burning.

Pete’s eyes on her made her feel beautiful until they’d made their way down to a scar that was new to him. He knew – he’d seen her, hours after the first time she’d dragged the knife through her shaking body. Aria liked to imagine he’d thought she stopped after they broke up. Now that could be nothing more than a wild and impossible fantasy.  

Aria’s fingers began to tap, tap, tap, the floor with the scale of her old musical instrument. Her mind followed the path of C, D, E, F, G, stopping before she hit the high harsher notes. Slowly her fingers brought her back down to the low notes of C, resting there, fingers not touching the ground.

Don’t blame yourself.

That was stupid. Why had she said that?

Just, stop thinking about it. He wouldn’t.

The silence between them had been worse than the absence of music so her hoarse voice had tried to fill it again, imagining she was using an instrument to speak instead.

It’s all on me.

The look Pete gave her when she said that gave her chills. Aria transferred from the low, open C to the high C, fingers still not touching the ground. It was like a form of torture, not pressing a specific note.

When will you let this all go and forgive yourself? Five years, Aria. How much more will you punish yourself?

Her fingers slammed down on the hard, shriller notes.

Forgive myself? she’d snarled, suddenly just as angry. I have nothing to forgive – I’ve done nothing wrong.Lies, lies, lies. She’d done everything wrong.

It was like being separated from her body, standing in that mall courtyard. The hot sun was bearing down on her, suffocating her, but it was nothing compared to this accidental run-in with Pete. She hadn’t seen him in years since their breakup when he’d lied and said he understood that he played no part in her cut skin. But she’d seen through it just like he’d always seen through her.

Aria scooted away from the wall and laid herself fully out on the floor of her bathroom. The harsh cold burned her back. Did she need to forgive herself for this, too? The blood had already dried.

She just wanted to forget the way he’d looked at her.

            When will you let this all go and forgive yourself?

Aria slowly shut her eyes to her bathroom’s blinding lights. She hadn’t lied – she’d never blamed Pete for the blood that stained her hands. It was a choice she made at her lowest and one that slowly became a crutch for her weakening state. She didn’t deal in absolutes – Aria believed and trusted in a lack of permanence. Things wouldn’t always last – she wouldn’t always have these friends, she wouldn’t always have this home, she wouldn’t always hurt herself. And while the ending existed, Aria could never imagine it. Not the breakups, not the leaving, not the forgiveness.

What did forgiveness look like? She imagined it came in the form of this guy from work – she had been near tears after a family death and working a long shift when he’d grabbed a marker and drawn a smiley face on his arm, using two of his freckles as eyes. He’d smiled at her and Aria didn’t feel like crying anymore. Or maybe forgiveness was a distant city that she’d spend hours driving to, only to realize she’d missed her exit miles back. It didn’t look like a naked girl lying on the floor playing an old scale to empty air.

How did forgiveness start? Aria pictured herself getting off the floor, dressing, and calling up her mom. Maybe holding her hamster and, for once, not using him as a tissue. His fur would probably be soft against her cheek when she kissed him. It might involve a meal – she hadn’t had a full one in so long.

She didn’t get off the floor. She didn’t do any of those things.

Instead, she played the scale with her fingers on the floor and imagined his eyes forgiving her. But they didn’t and she knew they never would because she’d hurt someone he once loved and to him, that was the ultimate crime.

Once, Aria saw a limping duck at a gas station, alone. She’d been struck dumb, unsure of what to do. Leave it, or take it to the vet? Another person, maybe a student, walked out of the gas station, took a photo of the duck, and left.

 If she were injured, she’d have never gone to a gas station. She’d have gone into the woods and nestled under a tree, preferably with some cover, and waited to heal or die.

Aria wouldn’t let someone take a photo of her and then walk away.

Aria opened her eyes slowly and eyed the blade she clutched in her left hand. It was her pride – bought after haggling with a vendor at a flea market, she’d walked away unaware of the detriment it could cause. Aria had been filled with admiration of the way the handle felt in her palm. She considered using it again but the thought of the duck made her too sad to lift her hand.

“Are you the duck, the student, the person who saves the duck, or the one who leaves it?” she whispered to the ceiling.

Aria switched to a different scale in the flat key. Those always made her feel mournful, like she was letting the purity that haunted the natural notes go. She never practiced the sharp keys without an instrument – those felt too alive for her, too bright. It felt wrong.

Once, when she was young, she was playing in the park on the monkey bars with a friend and she’d been too afraid to climb on top of them. Her friend had shouted down from up high, “Will you just be more brave?”, as if Aria were a hero in a book on the verge of something.

Aria climbed atop those monkey bars, shaking the whole while. But the view, once she got there, made her feel like the savior of the world. And now she was too afraid to finger a silent scale on the ground. She couldn’t help the smile that shaped her lips – kids were always braver. It wasn’t from a lack of knowledge about the world, but a lack of caring. Kids knew they had more to learn but they didn’t care – they trusted themselves regardless.

She wondered what her younger self would do if she saw a limping duck.

Her back was starting to ache from the harsh tiles and she began to shiver. Suddenly this felt stupid – lying on the floor naked. What was the point? What did this accomplish? Was she going to lay here until she starved to death? She couldn’t let her hamster starve.

Her hand tightened on the knife and she stared up at the ceiling. This was stupid. But she couldn’t move.

The duck’s eyes had pierced Aria but maybe, worst of all, was that she wasn’t alone. There was one more person next to her, filling his tank, stuck with the same conundrum as her. Torn between ignoring it or helping it. And maybe he’d had a different answer than her. She’d driven away before he had. Did he shoo the duck into the woods? Did he help it? Or did he take a photo? Was he upset she left first, as if placing the responsibility onto him?

Maybe he had a different answer, and she would never find it out because she’d left them behind.

Pete would have probably stayed and helped.

How could he ask her to forgive herself and yet be upset at the same time? He was infuriating. Could she forgive herself and be angry as well? It didn’t make any sense to her.

Slowly, as if dragging it from her bones, Aria began to play a sharp scale. Each tap stung the pads of her fingers, but once she ran through it once, twice, three times, like preparing herself for battle, she decided to get off the cold tiled floor.


Amber Beck