The Duet
by Erin O'Connell

Amber has never felt so scared in all her life. Looking at the girl lying there, she tries to think of the last time she could feel her heart pounding on her ribs like a fist, her breath fast and shallow in her throat.

She wasn't really scared when Jim kicked in the TV and threw Matt out of the house. Or even the time she came in late from the dance and he was waiting for her in the kitchen with the lights out and called her a whore, low and growly. Even yesterday didn't really shake her up. When she saw him smash the bottle against the wall and step toward Mom, it was like slow motion, like a TV show you keep watching even though you know how it ends. You know you should do something but you don't. You just stand there and watch it play out all over again.

This time, though, Amber is in over her head.


It was a big old house—really old. The ceilings were huge and had fancy plaster curlicues around the tops of the walls. They'd tried to make it funky but it was still old. The wall up the staircase was painted weird. With rags, Amber thought. She'd seen it in a magazine at the crisis centre. She'd read every magazine they had there, waiting for Mom. Then Jane had finally come out of the counselling room with her big fake eyes all smiley and said "Amber, we're going to try something different this time." So now this house in the city was going to be home—just until Mom was ready.

Susan, the youth worker, was being all nice. Amber could tell she was trying to figure her out, like the guidance counsellors when they ask you all the questions except the ones they really want to. Amber pegged her for a sucker right away, and sure enough, "Suzie" gave her a big sappy hug at the end of the "welcome meeting."

No one was home yet, they were all still in school. Susan showed her the room she had to share with one of the other girls. They'd tried to make it cosy but it felt bare. One side of the room was plastered with posters—Avril Lavigne and some bizarre ones with melting watches and stairs that went in circles. The girl—her new roommate—had been here a while: the closet was stuffed with all kinds of clothes. Amber unpacked the vinyl bag they gave her at the shelter: a couple pairs of jeans and some dorky t-shirts. Already she missed her favourite black jeans, still in the laundry pile at home. She didn't think to grab them before the ambulance came—she never remembered. And her new army boots from the Sally Ann. Fuck. At least she had her leather jacket. It was a hand-me-down from Matt and the only thing she had to remind her of him after Jim burned all his stuff in the backyard.

When she came downstairs, a skinny little girl was sitting on the couch watching TV, sucking her thumb. She wondered what this kid was doing here: everyone had to be at least 16 to live in the house. The girl didn't look up when Amber came in and sat in a big chair by an old beat-up piano. The Simpsons was on. Amber looked at the girl sideways, without moving her head. She was incredibly skinny and had dark circles under her eyes that made them look huge, but her skin looked wrinkled. Was this a kid or what?

As if reading Amber's mind, the girl took thumb out of mouth and, without taking her eyes of the screen, said: "I'm Cheryl. I'm sixteen an' I suck my fuckin' thumb. You got a problem with that, you can go fuck yourself." She held her hand in front of her face while she talked, thumb still cocked, and then popped it back in right away.

They sat in silence for a few seconds. Amber never put up with crap from anyone, but for once she couldn't think of a quick come-back. "Come on," she thought to herself, "say something." But Cheryl suddenly pulled her thumb out and held it next to her face as she laughed at the TV. She laughed so hard it was like she was hurling sound at the screen. In profile, Amber could see how her thumb-sucking had given her really bad buck teeth, had actually changed the whole shape of her face. When she laughed, she looked like Homer Simpson when he belched, his tongue waving like a banner. Just like a really, really skinny Homer Simpson.


They were seven for dinner, plus Suzie. The meal was chicken with red and green peppers. Chicken with peppers? Amber thought. She stared at her plate while everyone dug in. She didn't like green peppers, and was relieved when she saw Cheryl put them on the side of her plate. So they were allowed to not like things here.

The food tasted ok—the red peppers weren't like peppers, they were sweet. Between mouthfuls, Amber glanced around the table, trying to size up the rest of the residents while they talked about their day at school. Everyone was about the same age, she guessed, some of them geeks, some really messed up, but a couple of them seemed cool. She wondered what they thought of her oversized, faded jeans and boring white t-shirt. Suzie told her she'd get first pick the next time donations came. For sure there would be some black jeans or shirts then.

Nobody asked her anything directly. Amber figured Suzie had told them not to be nosy, and she was happy not to talk about it. They weren't being bitchy, but they weren't exactly friendly, either. Well, one blonde girl, Mary, smiled at her from the other end of the table. She wasn't one of the cool ones, but Amber gave her a half-smile back anyway.

A girl with smooth dark skin and black hair sat across from her. Her eyes were so dark they looked black, and it looked like she had smoky makeup on but Amber could tell she wasn't wearing any. She didn't say much, but Amber noticed that whenever she started talking everyone stopped to listen. Her name was Janet. Amber heard from Cheryl that she grew up on a reserve near James Bay. It was her art posters and clothes in the room.


After dinner they had to do daily chores. Amber was given the bathrooms for the week, the big one upstairs and the powder room next to the kitchen. Suzie showed her what to do and them came back to check it. She made her re-do the mirror and mop behind the toilet. This needs to get done every day? Amber thought.

After chores everyone disappeared, except Cheryl, who was in the kitchen flipping through Vogue. Amber asked her where they all went.

"Smoking. Around the corner in front of the church. None of them are legal so they can't smoke on the property."

Amber went upstairs to get her jacket. She couldn't smoke because of her asthma, but she didn't want to hang out with Baby Cheryl looking at stupid magazines all night. As she was coming down the stairs she heard the office door slam. Suzie called "Janet!" and then the dark-eyed girl stomped past the stairs into the living-room. She sat at the piano and then lifted her hands high like wings, her black hair hanging in her face. Amber held her breath. But instead of playing, Janet suddenly pitched forward, slamming her forehead onto the keys over and over, bringing her hands down at the same time. The noise was deafening. Amber shrank behind the railing, backing up the stairs so that she could just see what was going on.

Suzie walked into the living-room and said "Have a fit if you want, Janet. Just don't hurt the piano." She caught Amber's eye on her way out and mouthed "She's ok," making the "ok" symbol with her fingers before walking out the front door to check on the smokers. Janet stopped, laying her head to one side on the keys. She looked straight at Amber through the railing. Straight through her.

Janet lifted her head, then her hands, raising them high again. Amber cringed, waiting for a repeat performance. But the girl let her hands drop lightly on the keys, and played a really complicated piece unbelievably fast. It felt like whole house filled up with the sound of this crazy song that Janet played, her hands moving so fast over the keys that Amber couldn't follow them with her eyes. She just sat there, frozen, on the stairs.

The front door swung open and the whole gang poured in, griping at Suzie for not letting them smoke. One of them said:

"Oh, Janet's doing her angry song again."

"I gotta piss like a race horse," said another, kicking off her shoes.

"Me first," said a third, and they thumped down the hall.

Shrieks came from the bathroom.

"That's fuckin' disgusting!"

"Who is it this time?"

"At least ya coulda had better aim," one of them shouted.

Amber was reluctant to leave the sight of Janet but her curiosity got the better of her. She stepped gingerly down the stairs, past the living-room where she was still playing madly, and made her way down hall. Suzie was pushing girls away from bathroom door. Amber peeked in through the arms and torsos. There was vomit all over the toilet and down the side of the bowl, all over the floor she'd just mopped. She recognised the chicken and rice and red peppers from a half-hour before. There were no green peppers.

It was Cheryl's turn to go into the office with Suzie.


Upstairs, Amber got up the courage to ask the others about Janet's performance. "What did you mean by that 'angry song' that Janet was playing?" she asked Sara.

"Oh, it's Fury Lees. Janet always plays it when she's gotten caught or is pissed about something."

"Caught doing what?" Amber was curious.

"Who knows?" said one girl, "she's always mad at the world."

Cheryl looked around the room at the others. "I know why she's pissed," she said in a matter of fact way.

"What? Why?" The rest of the girls whispered, edgy to know the dirt.

"Someone saw her coming out of the alley behind the arcade after school and phoned Suzie." When she said "alley" she raised one eyebrow.

No one said anything. A couple of them breathed in, sucking their teeth.

"So that's where she's been getting her pot money," Sara said.

Amber had no idea what was going on. "What's the big deal about being in an alley?"

"You don't get it. Blow jobs go for $20 a pop in the alley behind the arcade." She turned to the others: "What a whore."

"Easy, Sara!" a couple of the girls protested. No one seemed to want to say anything bad about Janet.


Amber didn't see her roommate until bedtime. When she went into the bedroom, Janet was stretched out on her bed, doodling on a notepad. She looked up at Amber with a bored expression.

Amber went to the bare side of the room, wishing the freaky girl was already asleep. After an awkward minute she said: "I liked your piano playing. I really liked that Lees song."

"Lees?" Janet frowned, thinking. "Oh, you mean Elise. It was my piano teacher's favourite song, but I like to play it a lot faster than he ever did."

No shit, thought Amber, remembering the blur of her hands over the keys.

Janet looked at her, her face as blank as a white wall. "What did you think of my first song? I wrote it myself. I call it Duet for 2 hands and a forehead."

Amber looked at her, stunned. The crazy chick was serious. "Um, I ... " she noticed Janet's eyes twinkling, and then her lips press together and her nostrils start to flare. Janet's neutral mask finally cracked into a big grin, and she started laughing out loud.

Amber couldn't help herself. She laughed too, realizing it was the first time she'd even smiled all day. It felt like she was letting go of a huge breath that she'd been holding, like when you try to see how long you can stay underwater and the bubbles come up hard all around you. Then Janet laughed even harder, and it made Amber laugh harder too. Soon they had tears running down their cheeks.

Janet sat up on her bed, wiping her eyes. Her face went serious and sincere: "That really sucks about your mom," she said quietly.

"Thanks." Amber didn't know what else to say. She wanted to know more about this strong, wild person but didn't know where to start. She didn't want to mention the alley behind the arcade.

"So did you really learn to play piano in James Bay? What's it like living on a reserve?"

Janet's face changed suddenly, like a door swinging shut. "Don't ask me that! It's no different from anywhere else! Don't treat me like some kind of freak!"

Amber was shocked at the Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation. "S-sorry. I didn't mean—I just don't know. I've always lived in Renfrew!"

"Whatever. Don't worry about it." Janet's face switched back to its previous bored expression. "I gotta get to sleep." She jumped under the covers and turned her back to her confused roommate.

Amber changed in the bathroom. Her hands were shaking when she pulled off her jeans. She felt like she had just come through a minefield, surrounded by crazy girls who were ready to explode at any minute. The shower was better than the one at home, and she stayed under the hot water, letting it plaster her hair over her face. When she came out of the bathroom she could hear voices from behind the closed doors. Luckily, Janet was asleep when she came back.


Amber lies awake in the dark room, thinking about that morning at the crisis centre. It feels like another world. She can't even imagine last week, her old school and friends. She wonders if the social workers will try to find Matt to tell him about them finally leaving Jim. It's been almost two years since he left: he'll be eighteen soon.

She turns on her side. On the other bed Janet lies facing her, eyes closed. She has the longest eyelashes Amber has ever seen, dark and thick against her smooth cheek. In the dim light from the window, her face looks soft, calm: no more shadows or frowns. She looks so peaceful that Amber can't imagine this beautiful face angry. Her nose is long and straight and her lips look like they've never been chapped. Looking at this girl, she suddenly has to resist the urge to reach out and touch her cheek or her shiny black hair. She wants to put her arms around her small frame, to hold her, to keep her safe from everyone and everything. The feeling rises in Amber from out of nowhere, and she lays there stunned, her heart pounding, her cheeks flushed, staring at Janet.

Amber has never felt so scared in all her life.

Erin O'Connell lives in Montreal, where she works as a medical writer.