I’m Nathan Thomas. I’m visiting Ottawa because I’m giving a concert here in a few days. I play piano. I’m not the best in the world, but I’m only nine years old, so lots of people want to see me play.
Problem is, since I got to Ottawa, my piano playing has sucked. Maybe not sucked. But not as good. Definitely.
My mother got us a really big hotel room at the Lord Elgin Hotel (Mom made me remember the name in case I got lost). Big enough to have its own piano. I practice on it, which is how I know I’m getting worse. That’s not good, because the concert is sold out. Hundreds of people paid for tickets to see me at the National Arts Centre. It will be the biggest concert of my life, so far.
And I’m going to be terrible.
I don’t know what’s wrong with me. It might sound stupid, but I think this hotel might be haunted. After a day or two in the hotel room, I started waking up exhausted. Not just physically tired, but just not wanting to do anything. My routine is to practice piano for an hour before breakfast (Mom’s idea, not mine.) One day I just really, really didn’t want to do it.
“Get up!” Mom had said again, raising her voice. I forced my feet onto the floor and shuffled in my pajamas out of my bedroom and into the main room. Mom was reading on a chair.
“Why aren’t you dressed?”
“Oh yeah.” I never practice in my PJs. What’s wrong with me?
I put on my pants and had my shirt in my hands for a minute or so before Mom came in to see what the holdup was.
“Nathan! Put on your shirt, for heaven’s sake!” Her jaw worked her gum faster than usual. It was nicotine gum. She didn’t know I knew. She’d quit smoking a few years ago. Now she was trying to quit vaping.
I’d been sitting on my bed, just staring at the wall, thinking about nothing, not really thinking, actually. And I hadn’t even realized I’d been doing it.
I felt tight in the backs of my eyes. Tears coming. But Mom doesn’t react well to tears. I mean, she freaks out when I’m upset, which makes me more upset. It’s bad. I was worried enough about my concert without her stressing me out too. I need to look calm so she stays calm so she doesn’t stress me out. So I just put on my shirt, like a robot, and tried not to think about what was happening to me.
And I had no idea what was happening to me.
I managed to practice the piano that morning. I did a piece I was going to do at the concert, which I know cold. But I kept making mistakes. Mom kept exhaling every time I did. I don’t think she realizes she’s doing it, but I wish she’d stop.
It was a long hour. If I couldn’t play piano, what was I going to do? I already didn’t do sports and other things my friends did, because I couldn’t risk my hands getting hurt.
“Okay, your father’s coming to pick you up,” Mom said, “Go get ready,” I could sense the edge in her voice. Dad lives in Ottawa. Well, he lives outside Ottawa, in the woods. Mom says he went a little crazy and that’s why they got divorced. I don’t get to see him very often, and I couldn’t wait.
In the elevator, Mom was quiet. She gripped my shoulders a little too hard. I put my hand on hers to try to make her feel better. I had the feeling she wanted to say bad things about Dad. I was glad she didn’t.
Dad’s truck was waiting in front of the hotel when we came out into the freezing cold. We were both early. Mom kissed me on the cheek. “See you this evening. I love you.” She didn’t make eye contact with Dad.
“Love you too.” I got into the truck.
Dad looked different. Looked even more like the crazy mountain man Mom said he’d turned into than when he’d left. Big beard. Even his eyebrows looked wild. When Mom and Dad split, he’d said he had to go live in the woods to protect people from monsters from another dimension or something. I want to believe in my own dad, but it does sound crazy, doesn’t it?
“Hi Dad,” I reached over and hugged him tight. He smelled of campfire and gasoline. Not the smell I remembered. But the hug felt good.
“It’s good to see you, son,” he whispered through kisses into my hair. “Let’s go get some breakfast.”
He took me to a diner and I got pancakes. Dad just got coffee. He said he wasn’t hungry, but I think he was really trying to save money. He went from software sales to living in the woods, renting out snowmobiles in the winter and guiding people on hikes in the summer. He didn’t have much money.
As soon as the pancakes were in my mouth I started crying. Jeez, keep it together, Nathan. But I knew Dad could handle this better than Mom, so I guess it just came out.
Dad put down his coffee, and his brow wrinkled a little. “Is everything okay?”
I wiped my eyes on my sleeve and took a drink of water. “I’m worried about this big concert.”
“You’re going to be great! I can’t wait to see it!” I looked at his face, and he was so proud and full of love, his beard and moustache split with his huge grin. I managed to smile back at him.
“My practicing hasn’t been going well.”
“They say a bad dress rehearsal means a good opening performance.” He was trying to keep it light, I guess.
“I wake up tired. I don’t want to play.”
His smile faded. “That doesn’t sound like you.”
I shrugged. “Do you ever have nightmares?”
Dad sipped the coffee and looked out the window. I sensed he didn’t want to talk about his nightmares. What kind of nightmares would a person have, if they believed humanity is in danger from invisible monsters? His eyes turned back to me. “Are you having nightmares?”
He held my hand on the table. I was still holding the fork, dripping with maple syrup, which got on my fingers. He didn’t care.
“I’ve been dreaming of… I’ve been dreaming about…” I didn’t want to tell him the truth. “People… people over me, kind of, I don’t know, draining me.”
No, they weren’t people, but I didn’t want to tell him about the things in my dreams, whatever they were. If he already believed in monsters, I didn’t want to encourage him. He’s crazy. Right?
“Nathan, please tell me. What exactly do these things look like?”
And I told him. About the butterfly wings, the antennae, about how they kissed me. How little they were, and how they felt evil. How they drained me. They looked a little like faeries, but weren’t faeries supposed to be nice? Like Tinker Bell? Come to think of it, Tinker Bell wasn’t all that nice.
Dad wiped his hand on a napkin and rubbed his face with his hands.
“Nathan, we have to get you out of Ottawa.”
But what about my concert? I slumped in my chair and stared at the pancakes, which warped as my eyes filled with tears. Again.
Mom and Dad were going to have another fight.