Friday, August 4, 2023

“The Perfect Score” • by Jamie Lackey

Shura flipped through one score, then another, then another.
She needed something that wouldn’t be too difficult to learn quickly, but would sound impressive. Something that none of the other pianists in her bracket would be playing, but not something completely unknown. 

Something that would impress her father, and even more importantly, her mother. 

She took a deep breath, fighting down a wave of anxiety. 

She picked up another score and hummed along to the melody, till she noticed the frazzled student two tables down. She wasn’t alone, and this was the library—she couldn’t hum, what kind of monster hummed in the library. 

“Sorry,” Shura said.

The other student, a girl in a green sweater and shark earrings, actually smiled at her. “It’s fine.” 

She glanced up at the clock overhead—she had just over an hour before the library closed. Shura groaned. She had to pick a new piece tonight, had to start practice in earnest tomorrow, or she’d never be ready. 

Shark-earring girl shoved one book about the physics of time travel into a bag and left the rest in an untidy stack on the put-away cart. “I hope you find what you’re looking for,” she said. 

Shura managed a smile. “You too.” 

The girl hesitated, then blurted out, “I heard you play at the last recital. You were amazing.”

Shura blushed. “Thank you. That means a lot. And I’m sorry for the humming.” 

“It’s really okay. But if you want to make it up to me, maybe we can get a coffee sometime, after finals?” 

She was cute, and it would be nice to have something to look forward to, after her performance. No matter how it ended up going. “I’d love that,” Shura said. “Here, let me give you my number.” 

“I’m Dana, by the way.” 


“Cool. I’ll text you!” 

Shura watched Dana walk away, then wrenched her focus back to the task at hand. 

Shura flipped frantically through the scores she hadn’t examined yet, but hope was dying in her heart. 

She flipped open the next score, and a note fell into her lap. It was folded up into a small square, like the notes Shura had passed in middle school. Her name was written on it, in her own handwriting. 

She unfolded the note and found a map of the campus, carefully sketched in green gel pen. The stops were carefully numbered, again in her own handwriting. 

She had never seen this map before. 

She turned the page over. Go on, was scrawled on the back, still eerily in her own hand, you’re not going to have any luck sitting around. You know you’re curious.

Then, just below that, in unfamiliar handwriting, Don’t forget the crayon!

Shura glanced around and spotted a purple crayon tucked into the book that the note had fallen out of. 

The note was right. She was curious. Shura grabbed the crayon and went. 

The first stop on the map was Shura’s freshman dorm, right where her parents had dropped her off for the first time. She remembered how her mother had hugged her so hard she couldn’t breathe, how her father had hidden his tears by faking an allergy attack. 

On the sidewalk, incised right where they’d been standing, was a glowing M. She used the purple crayon to take a rubbing of it on the back of the map. 

When she lifted the paper, the letter was gone. She had no idea what was happening. It felt like magic. 

Her phone buzzed in her pocket. Hey! This is Dana. From the library. Just now.

Shura couldn’t help smiling as she saved Dana’s number. Hi Dana. I’m glad you texted!

The next stop on her magic map was a statue in the middle of the commons. It had been donated decades ago by a successful alumna, and it was one of Shura’s favorite things in the world. It was the first thing that had made campus feel like it could be home. 

It was a bronze tree, its rough bark, delicate flowers, and cascading leaves all oxidized to a chalky green, except for one burnished spot, where students brushed their fingers along its cool surface for luck. 

There was a number right in the middle of that shiny blotch. Shura caressed it, then captured it with her purple crayon. 

Her phone buzzed. Are you free for coffee on Tuesday at 2? 

Dana’s texts felt like a tether to reality, but they didn’t burst the strange bubble of whatever was happening to her. Would 2:30 be okay?

The next stop was by the creek at the edge of campus, where one of Shura’s friends had fallen in during a midnight hike. Shura had jumped in after her. Another number glinted from one of the rocks. 

2:30 is perfect! Ground Zero?

It’s a date. At least Shura hoped it was a date. 

She found the next number on the piano in her favorite practice room, etched into middle C. She’d spent countless hours in this room, maybe more than any of her dorm rooms.

She sat down on the bench and played “Clair de Lune,” because it was her favorite, and just because she could. 

Dana had sent a few texts while she was playing. 


Ah, crap, it’s probably too soon for a heart emoji.


Please don’t cancel, I swear I’m not a total weirdo.

Ugh, I wish I actually had a working time machine so I could stop myself from sending that.

Having a time machine means never having to say “too soon.”

Shura laughed and texted back, feeling daring and invincible. I’m looking forward to learning more about time travel. <3 

The last stop was the stage where the competition would be held, and the last number was etched into an armrest in the front row, between the seats reserved for her parents at her recital. She sat down and looked up at the stage, at the grand piano that dominated the space and seemed to glow with its own soft light. 

She wondered if Dana would be coming.

She wondered what it would be like to watch her own children—or nieces or nephews or students—compete on a stage like this. Wondered what mix of pride and anxiety and love she might feel. 

Maybe her parents would both be proud of her, no matter what song she played. 

Maybe the only one she needed to prove herself to was herself. 

She headed back to the library with a call number embossed in purple crayon on the back of her map.

It led her to a slim green music score. Shura opened the book and blinked away surprised tears. “Clair de Lune.” Too familiar. Overdone. But her favorite. She tucked the map between its pages and nodded. It was perfect. 


Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and their cats. She has had over 170 short stories published in places like Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Apex Magazine, and Escape Pod. Her first appearance in our pages was “Music from the Air” in Stupefying Stories 4. She’s created five successful crowdfunding campaigns to self-publish two novellas, a novelette, two flash fiction collections, and a short story collection. She also has a novella and two short story collections available from Air and Nothingness Press. In addition to writing, she spends her time reading, playing tabletop RPGs, baking, and hiking. You can find her online at

If you enjoyed this story, be sure to check out her story “The Gentlepeople,” now out in Stupefying Stories 24.



Pete Wood said...

Nice! That really sucked me in.
And if Ground Zero isn't the name of a coffee shop, it ought to be.
Keep writing!