The Ebony Piano
by Debbie Roome
[red = could be deleted, blue = my comments or additions]
The air was frigid and her breath hung like misty ribbons against the velvet spread of dusk. On the street, lamps [Streetlights] spilled golden puddles of light[This would be better phrased as a question. Where was Ryan?] Probably with a customer. He seemed to work[ed] such long hours these days. Chilly, she pulled her coat around herself, a leather womb of comfort and warmth. [You can skip telling us she’s chilly. The rest of the sentence shows it nicely.] onto soft mounds of snow heaped around their bases. The neighbourhood was quiet, the evening sounds muffled by layers of white. She had expected to find the house welcoming, with warm light overflowing window ledges but it was dark, silent, aloof. She wondered briefly where Ryan was.
Anxious to get inside, she tiptoed carefully across the icy walkway, her movements cautious, feline. [To say her movements were feline sounds odd coming from the inside. That’s something for an outside observer to note. Plus, it sounds conceited.] She hoped Sylvie had laid a fire. It was one of the few pleasures she still enjoyed with Ryan. Relaxing in front of a crackling fire, burnished logs shooting mellow sparks towards the heavens and a mug of creamy coffee at her side. Her mind riffled through the last few weeks. How long had it been since they’d shared an intimate evening? Toasting marshmallows and drinking hot, spicy cider that burned warm pathways through their chests. She couldn’t remember. “Oh Lord,” she whispered, “What's happening to us?”
Light pooled around her as she flipped the switch inside the hall. [Change the order. You have the light appearing before she turns the light on. “She flipped the switch inside the hall and light pooled around her.”] The emptiness took a few moments to process. The lack of all that was familiar. Instead of the rich ambience of copper and brass, she faced stark walls and dull reflections from bare window-panes. Shocked, she stumbled backwards, half falling down the steps, fumbling for her cell phone, clumsy fingers stabbing at the keypad. Come on Ryan. Please answer.
[Redo the last sentence. You’ve got a couple of problems—telling an emotion, plus everything is happening at the same time, which is impossible. She can’t be fumbling for her cell phone at the same time she’s punching numbers on that same cell phone. Try: “She stumbled backwards, half falling down the steps. Her clumsy fingers fumbled for her cell phone, then stabbed at the keypad.” I still don’t like stumbled and fumbled so close together, but that gives you an idea of how to fix it.]
“You’ve reached Ryan Stafford. I’m not available right now.”
Oh, God. What should I do? It looks like a robbery. What else is missing? How did they get in? Where is Ryan? Was Sylvie here when it happened?
She tried to shuffle the thoughts into some kind of order. Scenes from CSI filtered into her mind. If this was a crime scene, there had to be evidence. The hall-light dribbled over the steps and lit the wide pathway that led down to the road. Although fresh snow was falling, she could see signs of recent activity. Dirty heaps of slush, scarred and crushed, trampled by heavy, booted feet. Deep impressions left by laden carriers. Along the road-side, lumps of turf and sod [turf and sod? What’s the difference?] lay scattered where a heavy vehicle had struggled to gain traction. A vehicle that had disappeared with part of her life.
[You’ve got a lot of active description. Now, that’s a good thing, but it can be overdone. So far light alone has puddled, pooled and dribbled. Also, your description is doing a great job of establishing the setting, but you aren’t establishing your character. I feel distanced from your character.]
The emergency services answered promptly. “911, please state your emergency.”
“Uh, my home has been broken into.”
“Is there any sign of activity?”
“I haven’t been inside yet.”
“Is there any sign of forced entry?”
“Not at the front, but all the furniture from the hallway has gone.” [In America, this sounds like the furniture got up and walked away. We’d say the furniture is gone.]
“Alright, Ma’am. Your address is
“And your name?”
“Terri, I’m dispatching officers to the scene as we speak. I want you to stay away from the house. Go over to a neighbour if you can or wait in a safe place. Will you do that for me?”
She clicked the phone off, shivering slightly, more from shock than cold she guessed. Surely it wouldn’t harm if she went into the house? [We’d say it wouldn’t do any harm.] It was obvious the thieves had long since departed.
The hall echoed softy as she padded through to the living room and groped for the switch. Soft peach light illuminated hollows in the carpet where leather furniture had stood that morning. The accessories were gone too. Coffee tables, CDs, television, stereo, lamps and rugs. The only thing undisturbed was her piano, the ebony upright she’d inherited from her grandmother. She walked across to it and ran a finger across the smooth, ivory keys. How many times had she worshiped God from this piano? Memories washed across her heart. Grandma’s tiny cottage, the fragrance of baked apples and cinnamon. Grandma singing Amazing Grace in sweet tones. The clean scent of soap and witch hazel as Grandma leaned over her and helped her pick out the melody. Thank you God. Thank you for sparing my piano. You know how special it is to me.
She pulled a tissue from her pocket and dabbed her eyes as she continued down the passage way, following the trail of splotchy mud. Room by room, she surveyed her loss, the emptiness in her heart growing in proportion to the emptiness in her home. Nearly everything was gone. The dining room was empty, the kitchen stripped of appliances. Only the simple wooden table and chairs remained. She’d left a note for Sylvie. Asked her to prepare a casserole for dinner but there were no savoury aromas in the air, no pungent garlic or spicy curry to stir the appetite. She wondered if Sylvie had come in but then spotted the cookie jar. It was full of thick choc-chip cookies and striped pinwheels in peppermint and pink. I wonder where she went to. I hope nothing happened to her.
[When she stops to think about all these things, dinner aromas, cookies, memories—your scene loses its immediacy. If she feels confident the robbers have gone and she’s not in any danger, she should be rushing from room to room simply taking note of what’s gone.]
She moved on to Ryan’s study. A barren cube of muted beige and khaki. Seeing the phone lying in a dusty patch on the floor she felt a pang of irrational annoyance at Sylvie. [I like the irrational annoyance. It’s one of the only glimpses you give us of Terri’s personality.] When had she last moved the desk and vacuumed under there? Next to the phone lay the framed photos that had been on Ryan’s desk. Crouching on the floor, she picked them up and arranged them like silver soldiers in a neat row. Those had been happier days. [This isn’t the place for more reflection. You established well enough in the beginning that they have marital problems. The fact that almost every belonging is gone is going to take precedence over all else.]
Ryan grinned out at her, fist raised in triumph as he received the award for businessman of the year. His face was relaxed and toffee hair curled rampantly round strong features. The next photo was them as a couple, dancing at their wedding; her slender frame engulfed by his bulk as he whirled her in the air. The last was a studio shot that captured the sheen of her hair, glossy as a raven’s wing against milky skin and blue-sequin eyes.
[My, my. Doesn’t she think a lot of herself? Narration is basically your character’s thoughts. You might as well put it in italics, I’m so beautiful. Okay, you can't hear my teasing tone. I realize you’re only trying to get a description in the reader’s mind, but that can wait until you can do it differently—through another character, ideally, if you have more than one POV.]
She glanced at her watch, wondering how long the police would take. She thought they would have arrived by now. Maybe she should call Ryan’s office. He preferred she use his cell number but it was an emergency. She picked up the receiver and punched in the number. An unfamiliar male voice answered. “Compumate, good evening.”
“Good evening. Could I speak to Ryan Stafford please?”
“I’m afraid he no longer works here.”
She didn’t absorb what he was saying. “Has he left for the evening?”
“No Ma'am.” His voice was toneless, bored. The drone of a gum-smacking youth. “He left the company about two weeks ago. Is there anything I can help you with?”
She hung up and walked over to the naked window, pressing her nose against the frozen glass. It was snowing hard now, feathery flakes drifting through gilded haloes around street lamps. [That’s nice description, but it doesn’t enhance the mood of the scene. She just learned a shocking piece of news. Any description you place in this spot should deepen the tone—or provide stark contrast to it—not be incidental.] What was going on? Ryan had dressed each morning and left as though going to work. Why hadn’t he told her he’d left Compumate? Did he have another job? A thought flitted across her mind. Maybe he was depressed. Didn’t depressed people do crazy things? He hadn’t been himself for weeks. She thought of the silences, the surliness, the reaction when she entered his study without knocking. The way he snapped files shut and shoved them into drawers. The secretive behaviour when he was on the internet, shielding the screen, minimizing his work as she brought offerings of coffee and Danishes.
Lord. I’ve lost my possessions and I feel like I’m losing Ryan as well. Please help me to be calm when I find him. Let me understand what is going on in his life.
She swallowed a sob as she left the study and climbed the thickly-carpeted stairs to the top section of the house. They’d been up here too. She could tell by the knocks on the wall, the muddy smears on the treads. Did she really want to expose herself to any more pain?
The phone rang in the passageway, jarring and shrill, startling her.
“Mrs Stafford. It’s me Sylvie. I’m calling to find out if everything is alright.”
She tried to keep her voice even as she replied. “I just got home and the house has been robbed, Sylvie. And I don’t know where Mr Stafford is.”
“Oh my.” Sylvie drew a quick breath. “Mr Stafford came in at and sent me home. Said he needed to be alone. I didn’t have time to prepare the dinner…” Her voice trailed off. “You say you’ve been robbed.”
“The house is empty. Drapes, furniture, appliances. They’ve all gone.” [They’re all gone.]
There was a pause as Sylvie absorbed the news. “I’m so sorry, Mrs Stafford. Would you like me to come in? Is there anything I can do to help?”
“No. No thank you. The police are on their way. I’ll call you tomorrow and let you know what’s happening.”
Her thoughts were running on a new track as she hung up. Why had Ryan come home at ? Was he having an affair? Maybe he’d taken the stuff and run off with his mistress. She pressed cold fingertips against her temples. Surely not. But why hadn’t he told her about his job. And why had he come home early?
Her cell phone rang and she eagerly checked the display, hoping it would be him.
“Terri? It’s Joan here from Emergency Services. Is everything alright by you?” [Either end the sentence at alright, or say with you.]
“Yes, but the police haven’t arrived yet.”
“That’s why I’m calling. All units had been dispatched to a multiple shooting downtown. That’s under control now and we have a vehicle on its way to you. I’m sorry for the delay.”
“Okay. Thanks for letting me know.”
She tucked the phone away, glad the woman hadn’t asked where she was waiting.
I feel so alone, God. Things seem to be getting worse and worse. I know our stuff is insured, but some of it is irreplaceable. Things I’ve collected over the years. And Ryan. I can’t believe he’s involved in this. Please bring him home safely and help us sort out his work problems.
She paused at the closed door of the nursery. The nursery that had never been used. She started decorating it three years ago, a dream that had bloomed into a passion. She couldn’t bear to find this room empty. I’ll leave it for later, God. I can’t handle much more right now.
The faint wail of a siren rose and fell in the distance as she pushed open the door to the master bedroom. It was a pleasant surprise to find their bed untouched. A solid oak structure, draped in rich emerald and sapphire. The matching drawers and dressing table were gone, however. Clumsy piles of clothing and underwear lined the plush carpet down the left side of the room. She sank onto the bed as her eyes scanned the chaos. She was relieved to see Ryan’s things were there as well. If he was leaving her, surely he would have taken his clothes? She was unable to make sense of any of it. Her life had been shattered in a matter of minutes. Her peace was gone; the accumulated treasures from years of collecting were gone. Even her husband was gone.
The sirens were close now and she felt a small measure of comfort. Give them wisdom, Lord. Help them to find our possessions. Help me to find Ryan. I need him here with me.
“Terri.” A harsh whisper sent adrenaline surging into her blood stream, tensing her muscles, increasing her heart beat, causing a fine sweat to dampen her hands. Downstairs, the police were hammering on the door. “Police officers. We’re coming in.”
What must I do, God? Should I try and get away? [A simple action, such as “She gripped the bedclothes,” would be much more effective than that prayer. Besides, What must I do? sounds entirely too British.] The voice sounded close, maybe in the bathroom. She could hear the police stomping through the rooms beneath her.
Trembling, Terri pulled herself up from the bed and walked slowly towards the bathroom. Ryan was sitting on the toilet lid. [Toilet lid distracts me. I see why you wrote it—you don’t want to give the impression that he’s actually using the toilet. But why not have him perched on the edge of the tub instead?] A broken man in wrinkled pants and crumpled shirt, eyes red-rimmed and hair mussed up. His elbows rested on his knees and he hunched forward like a cripple. From his clasped hands dangled a gun.
[Good hook. At the end, I want to read more.]
I can’t point out each little instance, but overall the tone is too formal. Your character doesn’t have her own voice. And you break in with direct thoughts and prayers a little too often. Instead of pulling the reader deeper into your character, as you’d think, this actually serves to distance the reader further. You’re breaking into the action to show us exactly what Terri is thinking. And it reads like the interruption it is.
Here’s what I would try—simply as an exercise to get deeper into character. Write this scene in first person, which might allow more of her thoughts and emotions to be part of the narration. Once you capture her feelings in the scene, change it back to third person, leaving the deeper characterization.
You have a good premise and I want to know what's going on. You set the scene very well. But as written, I’m not feeling the sympathy for Terri that I should feel, given her situation. It needs more emotion.