“Open Tuning” Horror by Harrison Kim

Jay is an imposter.  He knows it but doesn’t know why.  Nothing he does feels real, not even his guitar playing.  He moves his fingers to make the chords, yet are the thumbs totally under his control?  “This is not my body,” he thinks as he comes home at midnight and stares up at the cracked ceiling of his musty room.  He stands up and opens his guitar case.  He goes for the sensual, for the rhythm of the moment.  There’s no depth to that, but there’s a stroking, a fingering that moves him on.  

It’s a note-by-note massage, every sound hits a different pressure point.  He plays the classical guitar five hours a day.  The fast songs bring fluttering down his back, the slow numbers ripple up his arms.  

“Your music has such feeling,” says his girlfriend Lana, her dark, even bangs falling in a straight line.  “I sense the notes all over my skin.”

“I know,” says Jay.  “I watch you as I play, and I see you shiver.”

Lana presents an open, smiling face and gestures with her palms towards her heart.  Her voice is a light wind upon him, but that doesn’t relieve his disconnect.

He rides the bus home, aware of the people, he notices the ragged edges of the riding crowd, the lame and the pushy, the loud and the mentally sick.  He imagines them all as skeletons.

There’s one man he always sees, a stumbler, a night drinker.  Aged and alone, this white-haired shrunken wanderer comes round corners when least expected, as if he’s been called.  Every time, the wanderer stares at Jay as if in shock, as if his presence is recognized but unexpected.  Jay locks into that gaze and the two of them cannot move, they’re joined in a timeless look.  As he stares, Jay imagines a terrible shadow, an event between he and the wanderer that overlaps, and possesses them both.  It’s the thing that wakes him at night when he calls out for his body “please give me back my hands!”  And raising his arms, he sees fingers above him and must admit them as his own. 

That night at the concert hall Jay’s backstage, hit by itching static from the crowd sounds, he has trouble staying still, he’s being pushed around by the cacophony.   He scratches the back of his neck until it’s covered with red lines. 

“You have to go on now,” says Lana.  

Jay peers out at the audience.  He sees all their flaws, ears sticking out, tight mouths, scattered laughter.  He peels back their skin in his mind, imagines them as bones.  Still, he can’t stop perceiving what’s on their outsides, their whispers feel like scratches on his back. He has trouble placing his guitar on his knee.  It doesn’t fit into the right place anymore.  

Then he sees someone familiar in the audience.  The sunken chested wanderer.  The hollow cheeked man’s sitting there in the back, and he’s smiling his stoned smile, rocking back and forth.  How could they let this junkie in?  Jay bites his lip and adjusts another string.  

He thinks of Lana, tries to take his mind off the wanderer.  He tunes all his strings to an open E note.  He looks directly at the audience, and begins to play, only using his right hand.  He makes a drone.  All the strings vibrating in sync, a most basic and deep sound.

Jay chants to this drone, and looks out at the audience, at his skinny white-haired nemesis.  He lets his mind go, begins chanting and vocalizing as the sound sends him into a void.  The guitar drones with him, under the power of his left hand.

All falls away, a floating and a rising. Jay pictures his body.  He drifts away into the audience, above the aura of the wanderer, and looks back. Who he sees performing is not himself, it is a skeleton with different flesh and skin.   He hears his voice call from the stage “that is the body of an imposter.  That is not my flesh covering his bones.”  

Jay hears a cacophony of boos, they become louder as he awakens onstage clutching his guitar, he hears people mocking him by droning out of tune.  Others look stricken and concerned. The entire space between him and the wanderer is filled with sound, the vibration of their two lives thrumming across it.

Lana and the stage manager try to pull the guitar from his hands.

“Jay,” says Lana.  “You have to let go.”  

He stops playing.  “That’s the best I’ve ever done,” he says into the mike.  

The wanderer stands in his seat, turns.  Then he claps, and as he claps, he moves to the exit, the back of his head, his fuzzy white mane, bobbing, the rest of him a shadow near the back stairs.

“Thank God you’ve stopped,” A woman in the crowd yells at Jay.  “I will applaud that.”

Jay puts his guitar on the stand, gets up and shakes his arms and legs.  He feels flutters caressing all up and down his spine.  Lana and the stage manager move back.  Jay walks offstage, rubbing his shoulders.  “No more Segovia, no more Bream,” he tells Lana, and treads home alone, back to his single occupancy room.

He paces in his stinky, littered room and can’t sleep.  He goes out to walk the wee hour streets, watching for shadows, for flaws and fissures, breakdowns in the night. He sidles into the park, listening for prowlers stepping on broken branches, for the whirling bicycle wheels of blood poisoned addicts, and all the time the droning of the guitar drones through his head.

He glimpses a shadow stumble across the grass, towards the river.  He senses who it is, the white hair streaming out under the moon, and as he closes in, he sees the wanderer’s thin shoulders under a torn grey blazer.  Jay doesn’t make a sound, as he feels again that void, that emptiness between his current body and the wanderer’s.  He rushes forward into emptiness as the wanderer slopes his shoulders in the water’s direction.  Before the skeletal figure dives, Jay leaps out and grabs the collar of that blazer and pulls the old man down.

He feels bones beneath the grey cloth covered back, such a thin cover on top. Jay’s thrown down a sack of bones, he jumps up and the sack turns around and shows its face. The little flesh the sack has resembles Jay’s brown skin, especially when it raises its arms and the fingers grab out against the sky, like they’re playing some kind of invisible instrument, and the hairs on the arms are shadowed black under the moonlight.

“Oooooooh,” sings the wanderer inside the sack, and the mouth grins.  “Ooooooh,” Jay hears the drone, in his own voice.

“I’m just like everybody else,” Jay thinks then.  “I am everybody else.”

He lies on top and lets the wanderer sing below him.  He knows that he’s split apart, flesh on top, bones below.   He that perfection of tone.  Now he hears it from the lipless mouth beneath him.  He listens, and pushes down, listens some more, and pushes again.  He stands up, turns away, and leaves behind the calling bones.  The sounds fade as they sink into the earth.  

He meets Lana the next day for a coffee. 

“You seemed kind of possessed last night,” says Lana.  “In some kind of frozen state.”

“Jitters,” he says.

“What was that you said about Segovia?” she asks.

“I want to play my own music,” Jay answers. “And I want to play with you.”

The coffee shop server tells him to go round the side to pick up his drink.

“Give me the coffee right here,” says Jay.  “It’s in your hand.”
“You’re a stubborn guy,” says the server, and passes him the drink.

“Consider yourself lucky to have followed my directions,” Jay calls out.  

He turns to Lana and moves his mouth into a skull like grin.

That night, in their lovemaking, Jay makes rhythm to hear Lana’s perfect moan, to push the inner most sounds from her body.  When he overcomes Lana beneath him, she cries in ecstasy.  His fingers touching her are the same as his spirit, connected and alive.  He raises an arm and looks at it, feels the weight of covered bone, and because he’s fused this flesh to his mind, he’ll claim it as his own.  


Harrison notes: “I live and write in Victoria, Canada.  Many of my stories are inspired by the years I worked as the teacher at a Forensic Psychiatric Hospital.  My blog spot is here: https://harrisonkim1.blogspot.com . “


Leave a Reply