The Competition

by Margaret Mendel

I put a crime in motion when I heard I wouldn't make it as a runner-up in the piano competition. At first it was only a mental crime.

Losing sucks though and it kept eating at me until I decided to do something about it and a plan came full-blown into my head.

If they hadn't decided to have me turn the pages of sheet music for the remaining contestants I might have just gone off, licked my sorry ass wounds and let it go at that.

But when I got the call from a secretary with what she called the invitation, I knew that it could have only been the brainchild of one person, Philip. This guy has been nothing but a pain in my side since he was admitted into the music program last year.

I saw through him the minute he waltzed into the classroom, expecting everyone to treat him like he was a genius on a keyboard. I couldn't believe how anyone with an ounce of common sense could swallow his line of bullshit. Yet, it didn't take long before all my friends were following him around like they were puppies.

Philip was probably the richest kid in the program. Most of the students were well off with parents who were lawyers, doctors or who worked in the financial world. I was the odd man out. I was the lucky son-of-a-bitch with talent but no money. My status in the program was scholarship student. No one else worked but me and I scrapped together spending money working part time as the I-Phone and app go-to-guy in an electronic store. But Philip not only dressed and acted like an entitled brat, he smelled rich.

Then there was the matter of Philip's fragile health. Diabetes. And after only being in the music program for a couple of weeks, people who I thought had normal intelligence were looking after Philip like he was an invalid, fetching him lunch on rainy days so that he didn't have to go out into the bad weather and running errands for him during his practice sessions.

The biggest joke was that he wore an insulin pump that contained his medication hooked to his belt. It looked like an old time beeper and he got off on showing people the damned thing. He'd lift his shirt and the girls would all go, "Euuuwwww," and then turn away. What made the thing repulsive was that one end of a thin plastic tube was attached to the pump while the other end of the tube was inserted into his belly and secured in place with adhesive tape.

I didn't take any interest in Philip's health issue until I learned that an I-Phone app regulated his insulin pump. Now, that I found fascinating. He said his diabetes, Type 1, was difficult to regulate, and because he needed to take five to seven and some times more shots of insulin a day, that this apparatus attached to his belt delivered the doses of medication that he needed to keep him from going into shock. He called it his artificial pancreas.

He was constantly fiddling with the I Phone app to adjust the insulin pump on his belt, fine-tuning his intake of glucose and insulin, especially when he was eating a candy bar. He'd put the cell phone on the table and let everyone watch the numbers and graphs scroll across the iPhone screen displaying the magical delivery of drugs to his system.

Often he'd leave the I Phone on a table and walk away, not because he trusted that the students wouldn't steal the thing, but he left it there thinking it would be entertaining. Then he'd come back grinning, pick up the I Phone and head off to class.

A miserable darkness hung over me after I'd been eliminated from the competition. I was angry and the only thing I could think about was striking back at someone and the more I thought about it, the more I focused my rage on Philip.

Until Philip came along I was pretty much seen as the wonder kid, rising up from the slums, with a missing dad and a natural musical ability. I knew everyone saw me as a novelty. That didn't bother me. I felt special. But with Philip it was different. Even at lunch the way he said, "Pass the salt," the tone in his voice, the impatient outstretched hand, made me feel like he was destined to always be top dog.

I Googled diabetes and learned that Philip probably ate enough sugar and carbs just while he was in school to make him sick every day of the week. But he defended his candy bar and greasy burger diet by saying that he could eat pretty much anything that he wanted because the I Phone and the insulin pump on his belt regulated the sugar and carbohydrates.

For a guy who claimed to have everything under control, he sure played the drama queen with his daily dizzy spells. And then there were the angry outbursts that he blamed on a sugar imbalance. He'd bang on the table when he made a mistake in class and then storm out of the room, or he'd curse at the person sitting next to him. Everyone forgave him this bad behavior explaining it away as the imbalance of insulin and sugar in his blood.

The biggest joke was when he came to school looking ghostly pale, but I swear his pallor was due to make-up because his skin had an unmistakable pasty theatrical look. I thought that if this guy wasn't a mental case, he sure as hell was a master of manipulation.

I wondered how long Philip could keep up this game. Though after a year it didn't look like anyone was getting tired of playing nursemaid or making excuses for him. Even as the competition drew near, I thought surely everyone would begin spending more time practicing and less time catering to Philip. Fat chance, the closer we got to the competition the more Philip needed looking after and the less time my friends spent rehearsing.

I felt sorry for the students who swallowed Philip's lies and that's what they were; lies, all lies. As the saying goes, know your enemies and though Philip wasn't exactly an enemy he sure as hell wasn't a friend of mine. Philip knew I had his number, too. In the beginning he tried to buy my friendship with special concert tickets. He brought me little gifts, delicacies to eat but when that didn't work he stopped trying. The next thing I knew he maneuvered me out of what used to be my circle of friends, friends who used to text me all the time, people I got deals for at the electronic store.

This competition, a school-sponsored affair, runs for several days and I didn't consider turning sheet music a consolation prize for being one of the first out of the running. The reality is that all the students but one will end up losers.

But, I knew who was going to win. He knew it, too. Had his teeth whitened for the big day and even got a manicure. Not only were Philip's fingers going to sparkle as they romped across the keyboard, now he was going to have a glittering smile to die for.

Yeah, I'd put my money on Philip to make it into first place. He's been pulling all the right strings, kissing up to the instructors, and even in a subtle way he intimidated the stronger competitors. The other day I saw him consoling Gabi, a brilliant pianist but a pretty delicately balanced student who does a lot of crying. I heard him telling her not to worry, that she'd do just fine if she focused more on having fun and not worrying about the outcome. How very Zen of him, I thought.

Gabi and Philip thought they were alone. The chilling look in Philip's eyes unnerved me. He reached a hand out to her, whispered something in Gabi's ear. She put her head on his shoulder. He kissed her gently on the cheek, and when he saw that I was standing in the doorway, his eyes cut a mean triumphant glint in my direction.

The competition is for the graduating class and is part of our final exam. There are no bad musicians in the program but the judge's ears scanning for mistakes will eliminate a contestant for the slightest imperfection, if the rhythm is off, or if there is a slip of a finger, a pinky striking a chord out of sequence. I know where I fouled up. I could have done better but in my excitement I rushed the middle section.

By the time we reached the last day with only six competitors remaining, I was still turning the sheet music. I was expected to stand perfectly still while the musicians took their bows, then follow behind as they headed back stage.

Philip was scheduled to perform next to last after the intermission. And just before he made his appearance I heard a commotion back stage, a loud bang and excited talking.

I stood stone-faced next to the baby grand piano, waiting for Philip to make his entrance. Finally he showed up. He looked as confident as ever though there was something about his body language, stiffness in his neck and I could see from the hard jaw line that he was clamping his teeth tightly together.

The piano bench was too high and he spent more than the normal amount of time adjusting it before he sat down. He slipped the sheet music onto the stand and rather than having the first page of music already for him to play, I had to flip past the introduction pages before he had the beginning of the sonata in front of him.

As usual Philip dressed casually. He wore dark trousers and a loose fitting silver silk shirt that shimmered in the glow of the overhead lights. He took a deep breath, lowered his head and then ever so slowly placed his hands on the keyboard, though he did not strike a chord. It was one of those breathless moments staged by concert pianists to prepare the listener. It's a trick to make the audience think that they are listening before they hear a single note.

Philip played quite beautifully, displaying the same dramatic showmanship that had become his trademark, arching his back periodically and raising his face skyward seeming to seek music from the heavens.

Then half way through the sonata, sweat began to form on his temples. He raised one hand, the fingers trembling slightly, but he executed the next string of chords with perfect timing. He still had more than half of the sonata to finish and the sweat dripped from his temples, running down the sides of his face. Several drops dangled momentarily on his chin before dribbling down his neck and onto the collar of his silk shirt. His fingers raced across the keys hitting every note flawlessly but now instead of sitting with arched back, he slumped over the piano, nearly brushing his nose against the ivory keys.

I kept up with him, turning the pages without him having to say a word or make any indication, and though his body began to tremble as if he were chilled, the music could not have been any more perfect.

And then he leaned forward, and turning his head in my direction, I could see his dark eyes were frighteningly glazed over and feverish. They looked so strangely lifeless that if I did not know better I would have thought he had gone blind.

I wondered if I should do something; perhaps even stop him from playing. He blinked, shook his head furiously, flinging droplets of sweat across the keyboard and onto my hands and shirt. But, he kept playing, playing. His face had gone deathly pale, while his hands flew across the keys with more majesty than I have ever heard.

Then when we reached the final page he looked at me and a frighteningly sardonic smile came onto his face. His newly polished teeth glistened, his face now nearly green with fatigue and ill health, yet he played the last line of notes as beautifully as if he'd been given a gift from the gods.

Mercifully the sonata was finished. For a brief moment he slumped forward and while the last note hung in the air, in one graceful gesture Philip slipped from the piano bench and fell to the floor.

The audience totally dumbfounded clearly did not know what to do. Some people applauded while others gasped. The stage manager, one of the judges and a couple of teachers rushed onto the stage. Lying half under the piano Philip was pulled and dragged out into the middle of the floor, lifeless, soaked in perspiration.

Several large men from the audience helped carry Philip back stage where the nervous energy ran wild. No one knew what to do, though someone had the sense to call 911. The remaining contestant, Ruth, a solidly build German, looked totally bewildered. One of the judges stepped back onto the stage, assured the audience that everything was under control and introduced the final musician.

Ruth walked to the piano, and though I've heard her play many times, I had no idea how she would do after all this excitement. Actually I didn't know how I would make it through this last performance. I could not concentrate, the image of Philip's last minutes at the piano kept flashing across my mind, and I couldn't help but wonder if he was laughing at me.

Thankfully the competition ended, and as I suspected, Philip took first place. Though he remained in a coma for several days, I think the school worried that they might have been awarding the first prize to a dead guy.

But Philip pulled through and it didn't take long before he was back in the practice room pounding away on the piano keys. He and I never talked about that last performance. We passed in the hall, brushed against each other in the auditorium but we never said as much as 'scuse me'.

I secured a teaching position and a seat in the Chicago Philharmonic and made plans to leave New York right after the spring commencement. I heard Philip was heading to the LA area. Several other students were considering going with him. That last week of school, though no one had said anything until then, there was some whispering about what had happened that last day of the competition.

It was just as well that I made plans to leave the area. My dislike for Philip had pushed me to a place I thought I could never go. Now everything reminded me of what I had done.

I don't know if I thought harming Philip would make me a better musician. But, I do remember thinking during the intermission on that last day of the competition, as I watched him eat several hand-rolled truffles from an anonymous admirer, that all my troubles would be fixed if only I could slip his I Phone into my pocket. Then it happened as though it was supposed to be. Philip trotted off to converse with one the judges, leaving the I Phone unattended.

I'm not a natural thief. Any way, I never thought I was until that last day of the competition when I found myself in the bathroom, Philip's I Phone in my hands. At first, I fiddled with the thing, I had to hurry, there wasn't much time, and then I found it, his pancreas app. My hands were sweating like crazy and it was difficult slipping my finger across the I Phone screen, making adjustments, ignoring the warning that kept blinking on the cell phone.

The stage manager called my name. The intermission was over and I had to go on the stage before the next musician. I quickly scrolled across the app and then shut it down. I came out of the bathroom, and bending over the table, pretending to grab a truffle, I let the I Phone casually slip onto the table and then I hurried out onto the stage and waited. Waited for Philip to make his appearance.

BIO: Margaret Mendel is an award-winning author who lives and writes in New York City. Her stories have appeared in various literary journals including the October 2008 issue of Bartleby Snoops where her story "Fish Kicker" was the Story of the Month. She is also an avid photographer and drags not only her laptop, but her Nikon wherever she goes. She has an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Most of her work life was in the mental health field, though for the last 10 years she has devoted herself full time to writing. Learn more about Margaret on her website at: http://www.pushingtime.com/