Halloween Ghost Story Contest -- 2017
Adult Winners

First Place

Our first place Adult category winner was written by Keith Downey of Milford, MA. Mr. Downey also won this contest in 2015.

The Unwanted Musician

Keith Downey

The sound swelled and receded, swelled and receded, and Mr. Reedy rode the waves in euphoria.  The trombones joined a long woodwind run, the snares and timpani climbed from near silence to a trembling din, and finally the trumpets blared a bold fanfare marking the climax of the second movement.  And then suddenly the sound was nearly gone, just the undertow of the tuba and bass clarinets chugging ominously as the wave receded.  A lone flute sang mournfully, an oboe answered.  Tears welled in Reedy's eyes at the beauty of the moment, of the balance, of the tone, of the rhythm.  His baton danced along to the beat, encouraging his young musicians but not needing to drag them.  Melody, harmony, power, precision. 

He cued Thomas Wallace, the principal saxophone, and a delicate new voice, nearly human, sang softly above the current.  The boy's feel for music was as golden as his horn.  He nodded towards the French horns, and six - imagine, six French horns in a public school band! - eager eyes met his, six eager pairs of lips pressed against mouthpieces, and a perfect bell tone echoed forth.  His heart fluttered as the call died peacefully and the timpani signaled another swelling wave, another crescendo.  The low brass built the foundation, the clarinets added complexity, and then...

And then Johnny Briggs broke it with an early entrance and cracked note.  Broke the wave like a goddamn barrier wall.  Broke the concentration of everyone in the room, broke the melody, broke the song, broke the magic.  The euphoria of Mr. Reedy crashed to earth and burned in red hot fury. 


Reedy realized he was screaming, could feel the vein in his forehead throbbing, could almost see the blood rushing to his face.  He breathed deeply, tried to control himself, and spoke again at a normal volume.  "Anywhere else and not one person in the audience will probably even hear it, but if you come in early on that fanfare, and if you crack an F like you did, we lose the whole auditorium.  You could play every single other note perfectly, each of you, but all anyone in the crowd would remember would be that one lousy note.  So please, PLEASE, DO NOT come in early at 118."

He stared at Johnny, seething but hoping.  Stupidly hoping.  But Johnny had a podium now, Johnny had all the eyes on him.  That's what Johnny wanted, that's all Johnny wanted.  All of Reedy's young, impressionable musicians looked from Reedy over to Johnny, watching and waiting.  And that boorish, smartass, arrogant little prick did what he always did. 

"No prob Mr. Reedy, last time.  I promise.  No need to lose any more hair over it."

The blood surged again to Reedy's face, his hands curled involuntarily into fists, and a thousand curses danced just behind his clenched jaw as a few of the freshmen sitting next to Johnny guffawed.

"Let's us both hope so, Mr. Briggs, or we will have trouble."

"I'll get it right next time.  Just lost myself in the music is all."  Johnny grinned, boyish good looks not going unnoticed by Michelle Chan in the front row, one of the best sophomore flautists he'd ever had, and a shoe-in for all-state.  Reedy swallowed a scream.

"Moving on.  We'll take it from the double bar at 124.  Watch your key signature everyone, and don't forget the accents on the syncopation.  Here we go..."

It took two false starts to get the band back into rhythm again, to recover from iceberg Johnny.  But his students, his precious students did it.  They did everything he asked of them.  He'd never had a collection of talent like this, never.  The Sheen twins on trombone.  Gloria Rivera on oboe and English horn (he had an English horn player!).  The three J's on first clarinet, John, Jackie and Josephina.  Sue Thomas' little sister Emma was a revelation on flute and piccolo.  Monique and Braden Bonner in percussion.  Eric Garner was the principal trumpet, a bit cocky but the perfect classical voice of his section, complemented wonderfully by Jillian Souza's jazzy and passionate soloing.  Each of them and half a dozen others had made Districts, and most had gotten all-state recommendations to boot. 

The waves had started to swell and recede again, the ocean had begun to move.  Almost in spite of himself Reedy forgot his minor complaints - a slightly flat euphonium, a hint of unintended dissonance in a woodwind duet - because the group was jelling now.  And when this group jelled, when this group really got going it was easy to get lost, completely lost (Johnny Briggs’ sarcasm notwithstanding).  Symbols crashed and trumpets soared, a complex run up an accidental-riddled scale that would have killed lesser flute sections instead swept up to a brilliant apogee, a summit, a heaven.  His eyes watered again as the baton twirled, surfing the waves of sound.

The music dimmed, decrescendoed, fell to a murmur.  Flutes and horns whispered to each other, the bells tolled dimly.  Gloria's perfect oboe announced the arrival of the most poignant moment of the piece, a gentle entrance by a trio of muted trumpets.  But with a clank and a bang, the train ran off the tracks.  Giggles broke out in the middle of the band as one of those metal trumpet mutes banged its way down the risers, its harsh fall out of time and out of place and out of control.


He was losing it, losing himself and losing the band.  And that little turd Johnny soaked it in.

"Sorry Mr. R., I didn't mean to.  It just slipped, you know?"


Most students had gone white in the face and were now looking down at their feet, but far too many still looked at Johnny Briggs, waiting to see what he'd say next.  Michelle Chan was practically swooning.  Johnny grinned and winked at her.

"Hey Michelle, check it out.  I think Reedy's face is the same color as your Nissan!"

"THAT IS IT!  SAY GOODBYE, MR. BRIGGS.  YOU'RE OUTTA HERE!  Head down to the principal's office immediately.  I will not have you interrupting my rehearsals or my concerts again.  Go take your hijinks to study hall."

The room went more silent than a grand pause.  But Johnny grinned and stood up, unafraid.  Reedy wanted very badly to smite that grin.

"Alright, alright.  Exiting stage left.  But it was only an accident, honest.  Catch you guys tomorrow."

"No you will not, Mr. Briggs.  You're out of this band."  Reedy's face was deadly serious, but he already had a bad feeling about how this might play out. 

Seeming to telepathically catch his doubts, Johnny smiled all the more broadly as he walked out the door.  "We'll see Reedy, we'll see."




The craven, rat-faced little man known parochially as Principal Stevens was finally wrapping up his lecture.  He was acting, and he was no Daniel Day Lewis.  The role was one he played from time to time: the morally forthright, the objective mediator of disputes, the paternal figure who knew when to scold and when to defer reprimand.

"You see, Tom, as much as I'd like to help, the punishment here just doesn't fit the crime.  And believe me, I completely agree that Mr. Briggs very likely did all of those things, those, how would you put it?"

"He blatantly disrupted practice twice today with early entrances, wrong notes, and by dropping his mute down the bleachers.  He talked back to me each time.  And this is only what happened today - it's been like this for weeks!  He throws the band off the rails every chance he gets.  He's only there to get a laugh and to get a rise out of me."

Stevens smiled at him with mock sympathy.  His voice was that of a mother consoling a petulant child.  "I know that Johnny can be difficult, Tom.  I get complaints from other teachers as well.  But just because he speaks out of turn doesn't mean that we can kick him out of class, or out of school.  If you read the student handbook..."

Reedy interrupted in protest.  "Band isn't like English or Math!  We are crafting art.  Every time he hinders rehearsal, he infringes on the education, the concentration, the quality, the...

"Be that as it may, Tom, the handbook doesn't differentiate between types of classes.  And what Johnny did, I'm afraid, just isn't a removable offense.  And besides, could you imagine the calls, the threats, hell, the litigation we'd face from Johnny's father if we even tried?"

And that is what the real Principal Stevens, preening sycophant, truly cared about.  Mr. Briggs, Esquire, Johnny's asshole of a father, was a member of the school board and a personal injury attorney.  So Johnny would probably have to come into rehearsal stoned and butt naked, set fire to the classroom, and stab the entire flute section with a mechanical pencil before the cowardly principal would even consider assigning him a detention.  Reedy realized he had stopped paying attention to Stevens' whiny little voice.  The principal was handing him a piece of paper.

"You see, I've gotten Johnny to write you a personal apology, along with a pledge not to interrupt rehearsal again in the future.  He still insists that he didn't miss notes or drop his mute on purpose, of course, but he does sincerely apologize here for the distractions he caused.  You really can't ask for much more than that.  After all, we can't just hand out suspensions every time a student gets a bit too talkative or overeager, now can we?"

Reedy stared dumbly at the principal, his boss.  How was he supposed to react?  The apology that Johnny had written was practically dripping with mockery.  It was a bad joke, a dare, a jab at Reedy, at the band, at the principal, at the damn school.  And yet Stevens wanted him to swallow the pill and smile.

"Mr. Stevens, I really...

"I think you've had your say, Tom.  Now this is the fourth time you've tried to have John Briggs either suspended or removed from your class entirely, and I'm not going to tell you again that you simply can't keep sending the boy to my office for disrupting your practices.  The whole school knows that Johnny's a nuisance, but he isn't a delinquent.  He's actually received very good grades and when properly motivated, he can be a real asset to this school..."

The platitudes and sympathies continued for another five minutes before Stevens finally stood up and walked toward the door.  Reedy, seeing that he'd lost again, nodded and smiled where appropriate.

"Well, I'm glad we were able to hash this out.  I think you'll find Mr. Briggs much more cooperative from now on.  And we all look forward to your concert in a couple weeks.  Let me know if you need any help getting the janitors to set things up."  Stevens extended a petite hand.

Reedy grasped the offered hand, shook, and was somehow able to thank the principal for his help without choking on the words. 

As the door swung shut, the façade of Reedy’s smile crumbled into a glower.  His fingers recoiled from the handshake and folded into a fist by his side.  His face filled with color, the angry red of the oppressed replacing the placid white of the supplicant.  The room seemed to darken around him as blood, fury, and righteousness coursed through his head.  Reedy was not a tall man, but he was broad of shoulder and torso, and had Principal Stevens reentered the small office at that moment he would have been profoundly frightened by the changed man standing behind the desk.  Some minutes passed as Reedy stood there, the statue of a barbaric vigilante ready to make his own justice, before the band director collapsed slowly into his beat-up chair.  The rage subsided, masked temporarily by self-pity, but it did not vanish.




Johnny Briggs was thankfully absent from school the following day, and whatever flu had kept him out on Thursday seemed to tire the rebelliousness from him on Friday.  Rehearsal on those two days sailed smoothly from Sousa to Bach to Holst to Wagner.  The beat of the marches would have made any veteran proud to have served; the tenderness of the chorales would have moved even a hardened criminal to tears; and the delicately balanced power of the symphonies would have caused passers-by on a busy street to stop and reflect on their beauty and majesty. 

In fact several teachers did come up to him after the period let out to tell him just how wonderful the band sounded.  The best in years, the best that they remembered.  Reedy thanked them graciously, but of course he already knew that this group was the best that the school had ever produced.  He was planning on recording the concert and felt that it would be the perfect audition tape to get the band invited to the Northeast Regional band festival at Symphony Hall in April – a project for which he’d need the full support (and funding) of his asinine principal.  The recording would also very likely put him in the running to conduct the All-State festival next year, an honor to which he’d aspired for his entire career.  As he listened to his young musicians, as the music rose and fell from their upraised instruments, he could clearly see the accolades he’d always wanted and deserved, the Director’s Award and the Best in Group award and the applause and the roses and perhaps even the offers to take over a more prestigious program.  This group put everything in his reach, but quite honestly the experience of conducting them and of hearing the sounds that they made was as much a reward as any of the praises that might (and should) follow.

Reedy’s dreams of grandeur and sonic perfection clashed harshly with the reality of a revitalized Johnny Briggs the following week.  On Monday, Johnny announced his return to mischief by drumming slightly off-beat on his trumpet case during the Sousa march, thoroughly confusing and throwing off the entire percussion section.  On Tuesday, he decided to play every fifth note down a half step, creating a horrific dissonance right as the melody of First Suite for Military Band was cresting.  On Thursday he circulated a petition that eventually made it to Reedy’s podium requesting that the band be allowed to wear tuxedo t-shirts to the concert.  And on Friday he belched loudly during one of Michelle’s solos.  The entire band succumbed to a wave of laughter, including Michelle.  In response to Reedy’s furious protestations, Johnny shrugged and said that the cafeteria’s tacos always gave him gas.

Reedy again hoped, foolishly hoped that the excitement and seriousness of the concert the following week – Thursday, 7pm, bring your relatives!  Admission free, suggested donation to the Band Parents Association $5, snacks and raffle tickets available in the lobby! – might bring the recalcitrant trumpet player into line.  His optimism withered at Monday’s rehearsal, as Johnny decided to use a tuba mouthpiece on his trumpet during Stars and Stripes Forever to play along with the piccolo soloists.  The band crashed and burned in giggles and missed notes.  Reedy tried to remain calm as he asked why in God’s name Johnny had done it.  He replied simply: “I wanted to see what it would sound like.”  Johnny brought a kazoo to rehearsal on Tuesday and interrupted Wagner three times before Reedy was able to confiscate the damned thing.

Wednesday was the dress rehearsal for the concert.  Reedy had long since made a strict policy that attendance at dress rehearsal was mandatory if a student was going to play in the concert.  So when five minutes of tuning had passed and Johnny Briggs was a no-show, Reedy’s smile beamed brighter than the stage lights thinking he’d be able to ban the boy from his concert.  But of course, with a crash of the stage door and the knocking over of a stand along the way, Johnny made a belated grand entrance.  He’d worn a baby-blue tuxedo with a puffy, frilled shirt that must have been his dad’s prom tux from the 70s.  The band erupted in laughter.  Reedy’s red face glared beneath the spotlights, sweat dripping from his brow.

“You do realize, Mr. Briggs, that a dress rehearsal just means that we’re running through our program in the auditorium.  And if you show up tomorrow wearing that tuxedo to our concert, you won’t be setting foot anywhere near this stage.”

Johnny grinned.  “It’s all good, Mr. R – I’m just goofing.  I’ll wear my good tux tomorrow, the purple one.  You’ll love it.”




Later that evening, Reedy sat alone in his small office listening to a recording of the band he'd made during the dress rehearsal.  The school day was long over, the sun had set and even the playing fields had emptied of students and teachers.  Reedy often stayed late the night before a concert, noting any last minute adjustments to the pieces that he should make during the final run-through during class tomorrow.  He sipped sullenly at one of the few indulgences he allowed himself; a glass of vodka to settle his nerves.

The drink, however, did nothing to assuage his anger as he listened to the recording.  His notebook, usually full of potential fixes - a missed key change here or a forgotten diminuendo - but the pages were practically blank.  The band sounded as near to perfect as he'd ever heard from a professional group, let alone a public high school ensemble.  He'd put in more work with this group of players than he ever had before, shaping an incredible mass of raw talent into a beautifully sculpted musical tour de force.  And they'd been such eager learners and so gifted that his labor had been rewarded many times over. 

He skin broke out in goose bumps listening to them, and he nearly swooning at how perfectly they'd translated the works of some of history's greatest composers and his expert instructions into the crisp, moving sounds that emerged from his speakers.  And yet, so many moments of Zen were sullied by an infuriating, intentional imperfection.  A blatantly flat note.  A cracked entrance.  An early entrance.  A missed accidental.  A part playing far too loudly.  The squeak of a metal chair being moved, the whack of an instrument against a stand.  Arrogant laughter.

Reedy's sharp ears caught every mistake, but these weren't really mistakes.  These were purposeful, willful acts of sabotage perpetrated by a lone criminal actor.  Playing flat notes were a classic Johnny Briggs move.  Cracked entrance?  Johnny screwed up prominent entrances every day.  Early entrance?  Hadn't Reedy just sent the kid to the principal's office for repeatedly coming in early?  Missed accidental?  Johnny again.  And it wasn't just that Johnny had messed up - in truth, like the principal himself said, Johnny was very talented and could actually play his horn better than most of the section when he felt like it.  But he'd rather screw around and derail a class, a rehearsal, a goddamn concert than be a part of perhaps the best show that this town had ever seen.  The little bastard was a more than a nuisance; he was rotten seed, a disease, a malignancy that desperately wanted to infect everyone around him.

The recorded music had stopped again; this time Johnny had answered his cell phone in the middle of Bach.  Reedy could hear his own voice, tinny through the speakers, yelling in exasperation.  And of course he could then hear the snarky response.

"Sorry Mr. R., it was an important call.  I mean not important enough to interrupt the concert, but this was just the dress rehearsal, right?"

The laughter of the band, and of Johnny Briggs in particular, caused Reedy to involuntarily clench his fist around the tumbler in his right hand.  A few drops of vodka spilled out, but the band director didn't notice.  Because his sharp ears had picked up a new sound. 

Or had they?  For a moment he thought that the laughter on the recording had sounded a bit more real, though muffled.  And he'd heard some sort of rustling, like boxes being moved around in the band room.  He looked quickly into the darkened room through the window of his small office (his door opened into the band's practice room), but didn't see anything in the gloom.  His distance vision wasn't particularly good, so he quickly made sure that the vodka bottle was safely secure in his bottom drawer as usual in case someone had entered the room unseen. 

'At least vodka is clear,' Reedy thought as he took the last swig of liquor from the glass and stood up a bit too quickly, his head spinning.  Then he heard the sound again, low muffled laughter and rustling noises.  The recording had moved on from Johnny's interlude, Bach's melodies resuming their melancholy beauty.  Reedy took a breath to steady himself, and stepped out carefully into the band room.  He kept the lights off.

The noise came again, almost a giggle followed by the metallic sound of latches opening and an instrument case sliding along the carpeted floor or the equipment room.  It wouldn't be the custodian; he'd already come by earlier in the evening.  A thief?  Reedy typically locked the door when he left for the evening,  but it was open now.  The lights were off, but he could see a pale glow emanating from within.  A flashlight or, more likely, a cell phone. 

A curious mix of intuition, rage, and alcohol flooded through Reedy's veins as he crept quietly to the equipment room door.  He somehow knew exactly what he would find sitting there in the dark.  He was the barbaric vigilante once again; his anger and his vodka gave him a righteous strength.

He flipped the switch, and Johnny Briggs looked up at him without the slightest hint of guilt in his eyes.  About him on the floor were several clarinets, flutes, and saxophones, all disassembled.  He was mixing the pieces up and putting them back into the wrong cases.  Principal Stevens would call it just another prank, another thorn in his band director's side.  But Reedy, though his eyes were blurry from lack of sleep and drink, finally saw the diagnosis clearly.

He said it quietly.  "You are a cancer, a tumor diseasing this band, this school, this community.  And I will excise you."

Johnny's hair was perfect, gelled into a permanent muss.  His grin revealed perfectly straight, perfectly white teeth.  Blue eyes shone above chiseled cheeks.  But the healthy color of that perfect face receded at Reedy's words, or perhaps at the director's understated tone.  Johnny, always confident and always calm, blanched.

"Hey Mr. R.  Sorry about the mess.  I just wanted to prank Michelle and Tommy and Emma.  You know, mix up their instruments so they'd freak out a little tomorrow.  It was just a goof."  Johnny's voice came out just a bit faster and higher-pitched than usual.  Reedy walked closer.  Almost absently, he grabbed the handle of a tuba case set high on a nearby shelf.  He now stood towering above Johnny Briggs.

"One simple operation and the patient will be saved."  Reedy's small black eyes looked down at Johnny Briggs with something more than their usual passion or anger; they looked down methodically, clinically.

"Hey now, Mr. R., you're starting to freak me out.  It was just a joke.  I'll put the stuff back."  Johnny moved to a crouching position and looked toward the exit.  Reedy stepped in front of the door, blocking the way.  His hand remained glued to the tuba case handle.  Johnny winced, then sniffed the air.

"You been drinking there, Reedy?  Pretty sure you can get canned for that.  Not that I care - we all need a drink sometimes, right?  How 'bout I pretend I didn't smell nothing, you pretend you didn't see nothing, and we go our merry ways.  Sound good?"

Johnny grinned again, that cocksure grin that Reedy hated.  It was a bad idea.  The tuba case flew off the shelf in Reedy's strong grip, and the director raised the huge black box over his head.  Johnny didn't even raise his arms in his state of disbelief; he just kept staring up with the same arrogant smile plastered to his face.

The tuba case crashed down like an avalanche into Johnny's upturned chin.  The crunch of his nose breaking preceded a surprised shriek of pain, but Reedy heard only the triumphant chorus of Ride of the Valkyries soaring on the speakers in his office.  The second blow broke a now raised wrist and hand, the third brought an explosion of Johnny's perfect teeth and a geyser of blood from his mouth.  Reedy's arms and torso moved in perfect time with the music, the massive tuba case felt as light as his conductor's baton as he went about his operation.  When the song finally ended, Reedy gently put down the tuba case beside the spreading puddle of blood.  What remained of Johnny Briggs wasn't immediately recognizable; his face a distorted pulpy mess, skull lumpy and hanging crookedly from a broken neck, limbs sprawled at unnatural angles.  Michelle Chan probably wouldn't want to hold Johnny's split and splintered right hand anymore.

The euphoria of the moment had passed, but he didn't regret it.  Reedy knew that the school, the community might not understand his gift to them.  He also knew that his greatest gift, the perfect concert, was still to come.  And so he calmly began to clean the equipment room, because now more than ever, the show had to go on.  He stashed Johnny unceremoniously inside the sousaphone locker.




It was the largest audience they'd ever had.  Just about all of the seats were filled with well-dressed parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, faculty, and invited guests, even the balcony seats.  Several of the parents had done a wonderful job of decorating the stage with bunting and flowers, and the Browners had donated their time to produce a very professional-looking program for the show.  The microphones hung down from the rafters, ready to record what promised to be a spectacular performance.  The house lights dimmed and the stage lights bathed his eager musicians in a warm glow.  Their freshly-polished instruments gleamed, offsetting the crisp dark tuxedos and dresses of their concert attire.

The band's eyes looked up in expectation of the first downbeat: eager, confident, and passionate eyes.  Except perhaps for those of Michelle Chan, whose eyes looked tired and worried.  She'd spent all night calling Johnny Briggs, talking with his parents, even driving around town looking for him after he didn't show up to their study session.  She said that Johnny's parents had called the police to report him missing this morning.  Reedy had of course told her not to worry, to stay in the moment and focus on the concert, that Johnny would surely turn up soon.  He told himself not to worry either; the concert was what mattered now.

And it was a marvelous show.  Sousa began confidently and cleanly, the snare kept the beat steady, the trio got the crowd humming, and by the piccolo solo at the end the audience was clapping with the rhythm.  An ovation followed.  Bach was as moving as he'd ever been, somber but melodic, powerful and poignant.  Reedy knew that his weren't the only dry eyes in the house.  Another ovation followed.  Holst mesmerized in three movements; rising and falling and rising again to new heights.  The auditorium didn't seem big enough for this piece, and Reedy's heart nearly burst with pride when even Michelle Chan nailed her solo - it was the only part of the night that he'd worried about.  A third ovation.  Thunderous applause.  And for the grand finale, the momentous Wagnerian epic Ride of the Valkyries.

It was more than a song; Valkyries was a masterpiece of brute force.  And the band threw themselves into it with all the passion, all the fury that it deserved.  The melody struck again and again, attacking each note with the weight of a hammer.  The audience reveled in the violence, in their own victimization.  Whereas Reedy's baton had marched with Sousa, wept with Bach, and danced with Holst, the baton had become an instrument of power under the spell of Wagner.  It sliced through the air like an axe, like a sword, a tuba case.  The vision came suddenly and clearly, the image of a terrified miscreant finally getting what he deserved.  Upon his podium Reedy was all powerful, the arbiter of life and death, the executioner of the wicked.

Amidst the perfection of the band, whole and healthy with its cancer removed, amidst the ecstasy of bloodlust ringing as loudly in his ears as the booming sound rushing forth from his musicians, Reedy didn't hear the other sounds rising behind him.  A high wail, a screaming moan, a screech of tires, the banging of the auditorium door.  But he heard the voice, coming from beyond the grave to destroy his sanity once and for all.  The sound came from the father's mouth, but Reedy of all people knew Johnny Briggs' voice when he heard it.

"That's him, the red-faced maniac who killed my son.  We just found his body in the band room."

Though the band played on unaware, the crowd roared in fright as he charged off of the stage, baton raised now as a true weapon aimed at Johnny incarnate.  Reedy didn't hear the parents or grandparents or siblings as they screamed or the guns of the officers as they fired; but of course he heard the squeak of a dry clarinet reed as it ruined the final note of Valkyries, an indignity that was the only and most fitting epitaph that the mad band master would receive.

[home] [up]
Copyright © 2017 & Keith Downey;
See original rules for an explanation