Top of the Heap
Thomas was not going to give up.
"No, I will not be quiet! It's just wrong! She can't do that!" he blustered, stomping his foot for effect. He was getting red in the face, and looking a bit like a toddler doing it, but he didn't care. He was angry!
"We can't tell her she's wrong," said Janice, trying to calm him down by (from all appearances) detached condescension. "She has just as much a right to be here as the rest of us."
Thomas waved a flailing hand in Carleigh's direction. "But she's brought knives to practice! Knives!"
Carleigh looked up from her box of knives, a slightly worrying look on her face, and grinned at Thomas. She was stroking one of the knives gently. Gently.
Janice was trying to think of how to defuse the situation, but wasn't getting anywhere, obviously, because instead of a well-reasoned argument she said: "Isn't it about lunchtime yet?"
"It's nine-thirty," said Keily.
"Dammit," said Janice.
Thomas was shuddering with fury. He stood up from his chair, nearly knocking over a music stand, and pointed a mancing finger at Carleigh. "Either she goes, or I do!"
Janice was about to answer when Keily cut in: "You can't quit, Thomas. We need you."
"Yes," sighed Janice. "You're our only baritone. Without you, the orchestra is just..."
"High-pitched," said Keily.
Thomas grabbed his coat and headed for the door. He paused there, squinting at them all—and Carleigh and her knives, especially—and said, in the most baritone-y way possible: "I hope you all get what you deserve."
He slammed the door so hard, Keily let out a little burp.
"Save it for the performance," said Janice. "You know how you got in Prague when you—"
"Yes yes, I know, I know," said Keily, slumping into her seat. She gestured toward Carleigh, secretly, and said, under her breath: "What is her deal, anyway?"
Janice watched Carleigh cradle the knife, swaying it side to side like a baby. She was whispering something to it, and it wasn't entirely clear it was English, or necessarily sane.
"I..." Janice said, feeling a cold shiver run through her body. "I don't know. She seemed normal yesterday, didn't she?"
Keily winced. "Define ‘normal'."
"Hey guys, sorry I'm late," said Yara, coming in from the stage door. She set down her music on a stand near the front and cricked her neck. "Where're we at? Warmed up already?"
"Only by accident," said Keily. "Look over there."
Yara followed Keily's gesture, looking over to see Carleigh cradling the knives. Her face dropped immediately. "Whuuuuuut is going on over there?"
"That's what we want to know," said Keily. "I mean, I get wanting to have props around for a performance, but this is just a little... out there, y'know?"
Janice checked her watch like she had someplace very important to be. Which she didn't, obviously, right at the start of rehearsal. Still: "Well that's just great. I'm really sorry, guys, but I need to go, uh, deal with the marketing materials, and... uh... yeah."
She scurried away, leaving Keily and Yara and Carleigh alone onstage. It was decidedly quiet. Ominous, even. Well, except for Carleigh's persistent whispering. That was definitely audible.
"So who's gonna ask her?" asked Keily, and immediately slumped lower in her seat to avoid being chosen, despite being one of two candidates available.
Yara wished she'd worn her thicker, more protective clothes today. Not that she had any meant for deflecting knives. She should really get some of those. Somehow.
"Coin toss?" she asked.
Keily didn't even check her pockets before answering: "Don't have a coin."
Yara winced. "Rock paper scissors?"
Keily held up her hands in really distorted configurations and said: "Arthritis."
Yara sighed, nodded, picked up her thick leather music folio for protection, and made her way across the stage, very very carefully. Carleigh saw her coming and her smile got a little bigger, a little more deranged. She hugged her knife even closer.
"Hey there," said Yara, keeping a safe distance. "You, uh, look real happy there, huh?"
Carleigh giggled to herself. "She talked to me."
Yara was really hoping for a better response, but she would work with what she had. "The knife talks to you? That's neat. Does it have a n—"
"*Shh!" *hissed Carleigh, suddenly angry. Then she said to the knife: "Yes, she is noisy, isn't she?"
Yara wasn't sure what to do. She backed away slowly until she nearly fell off the stage, then made a quick dart back over to Keily, who was practically under her seat, trying to hide.
"How'd it go?" she asked Yara.
"I think she's lost her mind."
"Well I mean she voluntarily signed up for a burp orchestra, so I mean—"
"Yes, but we did, too, and we're not—"
Keily started to laugh. A little at first, then more and more, then she fell onto her side, cackling madly. Yara just frowned and stared, then let out a loud sigh, because yes, she really was the only sane one around.
"Where is everybody?" asked Charlotte, coming in from the back.
"I thought you had today off," said Yara.
"I can't stay away," she said. "What's up with Keily? Did they cut her solo again?"
Keily cackled harder.
Yara shook her head. "She's not crying. She's laughing. And also, yes, they cut her solo."
"What?" asked Keily, sitting up straight very suddenly. "When?"
"After you couldn't hit the f-sharp last night. They said you're not ready."
"I keep saying they were out of Coke! Pepsi just doesn't have the same viscosity! I can't—"
"Guys," said Carleigh, standing up and setting her box of knives down on the seat next to her. "I want a solo."
Keily ducked back down. Yara took a cautious step back. Charlotte, though, didn't know about the knives, so she just smiled and said: "Well, Carleigh, you're new here, so it may be a while before you get a solo. Some of us have been burping professionally for, what, a year now?"
"Heh," said Yara, watching the box carefully.
"And anyway," continued Charlotte, "the running order's set for this season. We can't just switch things around last-minute without all kinds of work being done in the back office. Janice—where is Janice, anyway?—needs lots of lead time to make new posters and programmes and..."
Carleigh was starting to tear up. She sniffled. "But I can burp."
"I know," said Charlotte. "But it's not just a question of—"
"But I can burp!" cried Carleigh, and let out a big, round, rolling belch that covered an entire two octaves of sound in a single breath. It was majestic. Truly majestic.
When she was done, Charlotte's patient smile returned. "That's nice, dear. But—and let me be blunt—if you want to get to the top spot in this orchestra, you're going to need to do something like this..."
And with that, she jumped onto a chair, spread her arms wide and let out a burp that not only stunned and amazed, but also somehow perfectly recreated the entire opening bars of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro—the singing and the orchestra, all in one—in a pitch-perfect delivery.
When she finished, Keily started to applaud. Before remembering the knives, at which point she ducked for cover again.
"But..." sobbed Carleigh. "But I..."
"What Charlotte's trying to say," interjected Yara, trying to keep things calm. "Is that being a professional burpist is a life-long journey that—"
"No, what I'm saying is that she has to try harder," snapped Charlotte.
Yara shook her head, trying to keep things civil. Charlotte had a reputation for exploding at people unexpectedly, and this was not the right time to do that. "I mean we all have to try harder, so—"
"Her especially!" shouted Charlotte. "Did you hear her Dvorak last week? She could barely hit the high notes!"
"I w-w-was reading the wrong line and I—"
"She was reading the wrong line, Charlotte," said Yara. "Happens to all of us."
"Not me!" snapped Charlotte. "That's the difference between a soloist and a—"
"Hey, fun idea!" said Yara. "You can have my solo, Carleigh!"
Carleigh looked over, shocked and a little bit hopeful. "Really?"
"You don't have a solo," said Charlotte.
Yara's smile was sticking to its guns, despite her overwhelming desire to run and hide. "I do."
"No you don't. What solo? What piece?"
"The one with the... notes," said Yara, still smiling. "You know. The one with the burping and the notes and—"
"Listen," said Charlotte, setting her bag down noisily. "She'll get her shot when she's ready. But so long as there are stars in this orchestra like me, or Thomas, or Keily—"
"Don't drag me into this," whimpered Keily.
"—she's going to have to try extra hard. She can't just replace one of us without earning it."
And that's when Carleigh picked up the bigger knife. "Hello, Whimsy," she whispered to it. "Yes, flying is fun, isn't it?"
Charlotte stumbled back. "W-what's going on? Why does she have knives?"
Yara gave her a this is what I was trying to tell you look.
Keily was crawling for the exit.
"Carleigh, listen," said Yara. "You're a great musician. You're really going places. And what Charlotte said is right, too. You've gotta work your way there, right? There are no shortcuts. Even if you think you can, uh, make a shortcut, it's no guarantee that—"
Carleigh looked over at Charlotte, a glint in her eyes. "No shortcuts?" she asked, possibly the knife.
Charlotte was looking for a way to escape without it looking like she was looking for an exit. It was not working out for her.
Carleigh gave the knife a kiss. "I'm sure you'll do your best," she said.
"Carleigh, wait," said Charlotte. "Let's just—"
And then Carleigh threw the knife, quick and fierce—
"Yeep!" whimpered Keily.
—into Yara's stomach!
Yara stumbled back, dropping her music everywhere. She dropped into a seat, looking down at the giant knife sticking out of her, and could only think to mutter: "Perfect."
Carleigh looked a lot more reasonable now. "You're right," she said to Charlotte. "I'm not ready for the top spot. I need to work my way up. Starting with Yara's part!"
She skipped over, pushing Yara off her chair and scooping up her music. Yara, still very much alive but laying on the floor in a pool of her own blood, looked over to Keily and scowled. "Thanks for the help."
"I lost a contact," whispered Keily, and kept crawling for the exit.
Charlotte wasn't sure what to do next. She saw Carleigh setting up for rehearsal, saw Yara bleeding to death, and saw the box of knives unattended, roughly the same distance from her as it was from Carleigh. There was only one thing to do. Only one way out.
"So are we starting with Beethoven or Bach today?" she asked, heading for her own seat.
"Beethoven," said Carleigh.
"Bach," correct Yara.
"Shh," said Carleigh.
Charlotte opened up her folio and settled into her seat, looking ever so subtly to her right, where the box of knives was. Within reach. So easily within reach. She smiled at Carleigh. "Would you like to count us in?" she asked, and sat taller like she was going to start burping as usual.
Carleigh gave a little giggle and adjusted her music. She took a deep breath then said: "One..."
Charlotte reached into the box...
She took hold of a knife handle...
She pulled it free, seeing the glint of light on the blade...
"Psst," said the knife. "You could be conductor, y'know?"
Charlotte paused. "Sorry?" she asked.
"Conductor. Of the orchestra," said the knife, possibly telepathically, straight into her brain. "That guy's a bozo. You should have that job. You're way more talented."
Charlotte set down the knife on her lap and frowned at it. "I am, aren't I?"
"Yeah," said the knife. "Only thing standin' in your way, as I see it, is his continued existence."
Charlotte smiled darkly. "Yes, you make a good point."
"So here's what I'm thinkin'," said the knife. "Let's just go up to the office, knock real nice-like, and—"
WHACK! Charlotte was thrown right off her chair, landing in a heap on the ground. Before Carleigh could react, Yara—who still had the knife sticking out of her, but was wielding her folio as a weapon—spun round and threw her leather-bound block of justice straight into Carleigh's head, knocking her out cold.
Yara wiped the blood from her nose and sneered at the two of them. "No one's getting promoted before me," she growled.
"Damn straight," said her folio, which then turned its attention to Keily. "How you doin'?"
Written for Carleigh, with the topic: "burp orchestra knives." Careful what you wish for.