To read previous installments in this series, visit my Adventures in Harmonia page and scroll down.
“Can I help you?” The woman behind the desk asked when I arrived at the main office of Pleasant Oaks Retirement Center. Her name tag proclaimed her to be Tammy.
“Yes. I’m here to see Alexander Haywood. I was wondering if you could tell me where he is.”
“Sure thing, honey. Just give me a second.”
She clacked away on the computer keyboard, smacking her gum loudly. “Haywood…Hay–Ah! Haywood. Found him.” She smiled up at me as if waiting for my congratulations.
“Um…great,” I replied.
“I’m sorry. What did you say your name was, dear?”
“Oh, I don’t think I did. My name’s Stephanie. I’m a…an old friend.”
Tammy smiled still wider. “How sweet! I’m sure he’ll be delighted to see you then. According to my records, he hasn’t had a visitor in a long while. Your company might do him good.”
“I hope so.”
“He’s in room 174. I can get someone to show you the way. Hey, Lydia!” Tammy shouted past me. Startled, I looked around.
A young woman in pink Winnie-the-Pooh scrubs helped an elderly man into a chair near the television, then hurried over to the desk. “You summoned me?” she asked with just a hint of sarcasm.
“Yes. This young lady is here to see Mr. Haywood in 174. Could you show her the way, pretty please?”
Lydia brushed back a few strands of dark hair that had escaped her bun, giving me a curious glance. “Sure.”
“Thank you, sweetie,” Tammy crooned.
“This way, ma’am.” Lydia led me down a nearby hallway, until the loud smacks of Tammy’s gum had faded away. “So, you know Alexander?” she asked.
“Yes, a little.”
“You family, or what?”
I didn’t appreciate Lydia prying into my business just now, but kept my voice civil. “No, just a friend.”
“Oh, okay.” She turned down another hallway. “Just curious. He doesn’t get a lot of visitors, is all. And he doesn’t exactly get along with some of the staff, or the residents for that matter.”
“Really? How come?”
Lydia sighed. “Honestly, I think his mind’s just going. Most days, he’s convinced that he belongs in a different world, and that somehow he’s been trapped in this one. Of course, that means we’re ‘conspirators with the enemy,’ for keeping him here. He’s very uncooperative, and is always trying to rally the other residents into a mass rebellion. Luckily, he hasn’t had much success with that yet.”
“Wow,” I replied, at a loss for words. “Does his family know all this?”
“Sure,” Lydia shrugged. “But, I mean, once the mind starts to go, there’s little you can do about it.”
“I guess that’s true…”
“Anyway, I’m just telling you all this to warn you. Don’t expect him to be altogether friendly. Especially if, heaven forbid, he suspects you to be part of the ‘Vicious Conspiracy’ against him.”
“Eleanor!” Lydia stopped abruptly and stuck her head into a private room whose door was ajar. “What are you doing in here? This isn’t your room.” She led out a little old lady in a bright red blazer and a fabulous matching hat. Apparently, she hadn’t been able to decide which piece of jewelry to wear today, so she wore them all. Yet she somehow managed to pull off the bold look with flair befitting a queen. “Do you remember where you were going?” Lydia prompted.
Eleanor stuck her chin out and snapped, “Of course I know where I was going! Young people today. No respect!”
“I’m sorry, ma’am.” Lydia guided the woman along with a gentle grasp on her frail arm. “But you can’t just wander into other people’s private rooms.”
“Well, I didn’t know it was someone’s room when I went in, obviously,” Eleanor retorted. “You know, you really should have more signs around this ship. It’s so easy to get lost in here if you don’t know your way around. Things need to be clearly marked for guests. For the life of me, I can never seem to find the casino.”
Lydia rolled her eyes. “Eleanor, we’ve been through this several times. We are not on a cruise ship. We are at Pleasant Oaks, in Dallas. Remember?”
Eleanor squinted up at us suspiciously. “Look dear, I’m just trying to find the casino. Believe it or not, this old lady still knows how to have a good time! So, do you know the way or not?”
“We don’t have a casino here. We never have.”
“No casino?,” the old lady demanded, aghast. “What kind of vessel are you sailing here? The entertainment level is absolutely dismal. No shows, no dance class. And no casino!” She mumbled threats of bad reviews under her breath the rest of the way.
“Here you are, ma’am,” Lydia led her into a large room where several residents were playing cards and dominoes. “Why don’t you try the game room? Maybe you’ll find some entertainment here to satisfy you.”
“I’ll be the judge of that, miss.” Eleanor marched into the room and started ordering people around.
“Sorry about that,” Lydia said as we continued down the hallway.
“Don’t worry about it.”
We turned down a hallway to the right, then stopped in front of a door marked “174.”
“This is him,” said Lydia.
In the very center of the door was taped a paper sign which read (in very shaky handwriting):
“NO ADMITTANCE EXCEPT BY INVITATION OF THE KING.”
Confused, I glanced at Lydia who just chuckled. “Oh yeah. He also thinks he’s a king. Just ignore that.”
“Thanks for your help,” I held out my hand, which she shook.
“Anytime. It was nice to meet you. Let me know if you need anything while you’re here.”
Once she disappeared around the corner, I turned back to the door and stared at its odd sign. Part of me began to think this was a bad idea. Did I really expect to get the answers I needed from a crazy old man? Still, I had come this far, so I figured I might as well try.
I knocked softly on the door. No answer.
I tried again a little louder.
A muffled voice shouted from behind the door and made me jump. “I heard you the first time, you ingrates! Who are you? What do you want? State the purpose of your visit immediately!”
Recovering my composer, I yelled back, “My name is Stephanie Florentino. I’ve come to talk to you.”
“Stefan who?” the old man growled.
“No, Stephanie, sir. Stephanie Florentino.” I carefully enunciated each syllable.
“Well, I don’t know a Stephanie Florentine.”
“Florentin-o,” I corrected.
“We met briefly last year, sir. I’m a friend.”
He gave a skeptical “hmph,” but otherwise did not respond.
“May I come in now?”
“Tell me, friend, can you read?” the man asked in turn, either ignoring my question or not hearing it.
“Yes, of course I can read.”
“Then you have your answer, don’t you?” he barked. “‘No admittance except by invitation of the king.’ That’s what the sign says, yes?”
I took in a long, slow breath before responding. “Yes. Perhaps your majesty might consider making an exception, though? I did come all the way from Plano to see you.”
“And others have come all the way from the Diminuendo Vale, with no more success than you. It is not my fault if you do not concern yourself with my laws before making such a trek.”
“Alexander!” I snapped. “I am not leaving until you speak with me. It’s important!”
“You’ve got some cheek, addressing your king so informally!”
“It’s about the music box. The one you gave to me before you moved here.”
He fell silent. Whether he was considering letting me in or just ignoring me now, I had no clue. It occurred to me that the door probably didn’t even have a lock. I decided to give it a try.
To my surprise, the door cracked open before I could touch the knob. A single bright blue eye, magnified by thick glasses, peeked out at me. It looked me up and down, squinted warily, then shot out of sight. The door slammed shut in my face.
“Please, sir,” I began, but before I could even finish the sentence, the door flew open all the way.
Alexander Haywood looked exactly the same–perhaps a little more wild, if that was even possible. His eyes were wider than ever and seemed to blink less than normal human eyes. He had traded his dingy dressing gown in for a pair of maroon lounge pants and an incredibly ugly knit sweater. He had managed to keep his red slippers, though, and the ornate cane. I couldn’t help but find his haphazard appearance rather endearing.
“Well, are you coming in or not?” he grumbled.
I hurried into the room before he could change his mind. He shut the door at once with a loud thud, then spun around and glared at me.
“What do you want?” he asked bluntly.
“I have some questions about the music b–”
“Shh!!” he hissed. “Have you lost your marbles, girly? The enemy has spies everywhere! You can’t go around talking about portals like that. You’ll put us both in danger!”
“I’m sorry,” I replied slowly. “But, honestly, I’ve already been put in danger because of the–that thing, and I want answers. What exactly is it and why did you give it to me?”
The old man shuffled over to an arm chair under the window and slowly lowered himself down, then gestured for me to take the other chair. I sat across from him and waited. Alexander twisted his cane around and around, studying it intensely.
“Shirley has been in my family for many generations, and I did not part with her easily.”
“Shirley?” I repeated, confused.
Alexander leaned in closer and whispered, “That’s the code name for the you-know-what.”
I snorted, then caught sight of his perfectly straight face. “Oh. You’re serious.”
“Yes. Now, back to the point. Shirley is extremely valuable and cannot fall into just anyone’s hands. Have you, eh, opened her up yet?”
“Of course I’ve opened it–uh, her. That’s why I’m here. To find out exactly what that place is.”
He leaned back and smiled in deep satisfaction. “So you got in, then?”
“Yes. Along with a young student of mine. I don’t appreciate the fact that you put not only me, but an innocent child at risk.”
“So you didn’t enjoy Harmonia then?” he asked, looking disappointed.
“I’m sorry,” I retorted sarcastically, “was I supposed to enjoy getting sucked into a–Shirley–against my will and finding myself in the company of talking music notes and unicorns?”
Alexander’s face brightened. “You mean you saw Maestro?”
“Yes. Alyson–my student–enjoyed meeting him and the notes immensely. I, on the other hand, had a little more trouble accepting it all.”
The old man giggled. “Adults usually do.”
“But neither of us,” I continued over him, finding little amusement in it all, “fully understood the danger we were in until we were chased out of the place by a swarm of creepy flying accent things, or whatever they were supposed to be.”
Alexander’s face became suddenly grave. “You saw Accents? Where?”
“In the woods near the Half Rest Inn.”
“They didn’t sting you, did they?” he asked urgently.
“No. Maestro helped us get back to ‘Shirley’ in time, so we were able to escape back to my house. I don’t know if he got away though.”
Alexander shrugged unconcernedly. “Maestro can take care of himself. That’s very disturbing news, though.” He shook his head and muttered, “Accents shouldn’t be anywhere near Shirley. In the past they were only found as far as the Fermata Forest. It seems Lord Tritone’s power has grown substantially in my absence.”
“So, why did you give it to me?” I asked again, trying to redirect the conversation back to the subject at hand.
“Shirley!” I cried. “Why did you give her to me?”
“Well, I couldn’t bring her here with me, could I? Not with all these strangers around and no safe place to hide her. Who knows where their loyalties lie?”
“So why didn’t you just leave her with one of your relatives? Didn’t you say she’s been in your family for generations?”
Alexander gave me an exasperated look. “Have you met my family?”
“Only your granddaughter, briefly.”
“Hmph,” he crossed his arms. “Well, if you really knew my living relatives, you’d understand exactly why I couldn’t entrust Shirley to them.”
“Dolts, every one of them!” Alexander exclaimed, shaking a fist. “Not a single musical soul among them. I’ve tried and tried to get just one of them interested enough take over the family inheritance, but none of them care.”
“Do they know about Harmonia?”
“Of course not!” He cried with an offended tone. “Knowing about Harmonia does little good if one doesn’t believe in Harmonia.”
“No you don’t. Don’t lie, girly. It doesn’t suit you.”
“Fine. Then explain what you mean,” I snapped.
“Only one with a musical soul can pass through the portals. One must first understand and appreciate the fundamental nature of Harmonia.”
“And that is?”
“Music, of course!” he said impatiently, as if explaining the obvious. “Really, it’s a wonder you even made it through.”
“Hey, I didn’t come here to be insulted!” I glared at him, not entirely sure why his comment made me so angry.
“Good!” he nodded knowingly. “If you felt insulted, then that means there may still be hope for you. And I’m guessing you care about music, being a teacher of the subject?”
“Well, sure, but–”
“And you’d want to protect it and help it flourish in our world?”
“Then we’re on the same side. Which is why I chose you. None of my relatives care what happens to music. Besides, they all think I’m a buffoon, just like everyone in this place. Well I’m not!” He proclaimed so vehemently that he sprayed me with saliva, which hardly helped his case.
“But I was a stranger. How did you know you could trust me?”
He squinted long and hard at me. “You may be a stranger, but I know a musical soul when I see one. Still, there was some risk in my choice, I admit.” He slumped back in the chair. “But I was leaving for this dreadful place in a matter of days when I met you. I had to make a choice then and there. Clearly, I made the right one, too. You’ve already discovered Shirley’s secret and transported there. You even established contact on the inside. You have promise, miss, which is more than any of my family can boast. ”
“If you say so,” I muttered. “Honestly, I just couldn’t wait to get out of there though.”
“Understandable. It was your first time there, after all.”
“Yeah, but I don’t know that I want there to be a second time.”
Alexander sat in contemplation, one magnified eye resting on me, the other drifting eerily in a different direction. “Girly,” he finally said. “Believe me, I understand. It can be a lot to take in all at once. I felt the same way once. But I need your help now. All of Harmonia is in danger, and there’s little time to waste. Things are even worse than I feared, from the sound of it.”
“Excuse me?” I didn’t like where this conversation was heading.
“Lord Tritone must be stopped. If we don’t fight, the consequences will be disastrous, for both worlds.”
“Woah there,” I threw up my hands. “I’m not about to fight anyone. If that’s what you want from me, you’ve got the wrong girly.”
Alexander grasped my arm with a trembling, bony hand. “Please, Stephanie. I know you didn’t ask for this, and I didn’t exactly give you a choice. But I have no one else to turn to.”
I desperately racked my brain for excuses. “If it means that much to you, why didn’t you just go back yourself while you still had Shirley? You are king of Harmonia after all, aren’t you?”
The old man’s wrinkled mouth cracked into a grin. “Well, well, you are a perceptive one.”
“So it sounds to me like what Harmonia needs is its king, not a clueless piano teacher.”
He sighed and sank into his chair, appearing more feeble than ever. “If I could return, I would have done so long ago. Alas, I cannot, which is why I need your help.”
“Why can’t you return?” I demanded.
“Lord Tritone,” Alexander growled angrily. “He banished me from Harmonia and sealed the portal somehow. I cannot pass through.”
“I don’t know how he did it. All I know is that I’m stuck here, in permanent exile. My only hope was that someone else could pass through. And I was right!” he waved a hand at me triumphantly.
I sighed and rubbed my eyes, trying to take in all this new information. “What exactly do you want me to do?” I asked hesitantly.
Alexander Haywood broke into a smile as wide and mischievous as the Cheshire cat’s.
“I want you to figure out how to get me back in.”
I groaned into my hands. Talk about the impossible…
“After that, we can worry about Lord Tritone.”
To be continued…
This post is dedicated to Shirley Erickson, my first piano instructor in college and the music box’s namesake. 😉