The Loser – Aidan Gray ‘18

The two of them were outside, Paul and Beth, and she was throwing away scratch-off tickets in the big dumpster that’s supposed to be for food waste only. She hadn’t won a single dollar, and she had spent almost forty. Paul could feel himself in the anxious grip of money wasted, so he stayed taut-lipped in case he yelled at her. 

“Do you think it’s rigged?” was all she wanted to know.

“I do, I absolutely do, of course I do. It’s how they make their money, I’m sure. What—you think $1 jumbo hotdogs are flying off the shelves? You think they can keep a staff on $1 jumbo hotdogs?”

“They looked nasty.”

“They looked like they had gangrene.”

Beth threw away her last card sadly, like a mother saying goodbye to her children.          “I want to win something. Just once I think I should. I deserve it as much as everyone who’s been on a gameshow, or won powerball, or found a wallet. Don’t I have a

50/50 chance?”

“No.”

“But either I can win or I don’t win. One of two options. So it’s 50/50.”

“No.”

“Well…fine, then. But it’s at least 30/70, don’t you think? One of two options only!”

“No Beth.”

She sighed theatrically. “I’m not any less intelligent than you, you know. Going to college doesn’t count unless you graduate.”

Paul shrugged. He got in the car and drove them home, poured a glass of Jim Bean and killed it, while Beth was in the shower. He hid the bottle and went outside to sit next to the house, until the mosquitoes were clamoring for his blood and even his eyes were itchy.            And then he was driving again, home, from the magnificent C quarter, delirious C quarter, the big clocktower watching over all the dark rows and frantic inlets. Cobblestones and rectangles and furtive neon signs like so many neon suns, shaped into snaky greenish pipes.

Paul was driving pretty smoothly, even though he shouldn’t have been allowed to drive at all. Everything was rainy and slick and no one felt like being on the road, so he was going at it as good as he could, even though his brain felt spongy and out of joint, suspended in a vat of something or other. No need to steer, at least. Straight shot all the way down. Just let it melt, let it melt, just like sleeping but his life is in his hands, but it didn’t feel very precious like crystal just a flat rock made for skipping. He was surprised he remembered the way, but then, it was a straight shot, and very nearly muscle memory.

“Beth?” he said. “Beth I need to live with you again.”

“Is that,- no way-, Paul?” a male voice verb from somewhere. Wasn’t Beth.

“Who’re you?”

“Zander, who’s at the door? Can you tell him who we’re voting for—oh. Paul.”              “Are you related?” Paul asked, hands on the doorframe.

“Well we’re about to be engaged, probably.” Beth said.

“Maybe later, baby.” Zander smiled down at Paul. “I take it you know Beth?”              “From college,” he said diplomatically.

“Oh for fuck’s sake. We dated for two years.”

“Some of that was in college.” Paul was surprised at how bad he sounded.

“What do you do?”

“I, um.”

“Okay, cool. I work at a tech start up, actually.”

“Can I live with you?”

“What?” He wasn’t sure who had said that. High pitched enough to be Beth, maybe Zander if he was really shocked. Paul was looking at the ground.

“Can I…I was living with my friend and he threw me out, Andrew, you remember him.”

“Why did Andrew kick you out?”

“There were some problems with the rent.”

“What sorts of problems?” Zander’s paternal smile was going to get his teeth knocked in.

“A lack of paying it, on my part.” For Christ’s sake, thought Paul. What do I have to do to get myself inside this house?

“You’ve been drinking, haven’t you?” It was a testimony to Beth’s personal sobriety that she’d made it this far in the conversation unaware.

“Sleep deprivation, mostly.”

“Mostly? Bethie I’ll have you know that this man is an absolute goddamn liar.” Zander chuckled good-naturedly.

“Oh I know, bear, I dated him, for some reason.”

“Sorry, but did you just call him bear? On purpose?”

“Term of endearment,” he said, arm on Paul’s shoulder. “It’s ‘cause I’m grouchy and sleep a lot.”

Paul pushed past him and sat on the stairs, feeling vague and hazy, like the character in a dream. “This is my house you know,” he said to no one in particular, even though it wasn’t.             “How long?” Zander opened a soda in the kitchen and floated out towards the stairs, standing (Paul thought) far too close.

“Three weeks? I’ll move in with, uh, a friend when he gets here. Until then, I’m in a big hole, okay?”

Beth looked at him pityingly at him. “Okay. You can sleep on the couch downstairs. Hell, I’d offer you my room, except, you know, Zander. You do have a knack for making my life inconvenient.”

Everything was hitting Paul very suddenly, alcohol and exhaustion and injustice and

Zander. “Well I guess I could always go kill myself.”

“What did you say? Sorry—what did I say? Zander, close your mouth, I didn’t hear.”

“Nothing, it wasn’t anything. I was just being overdramatic.”

“I thought you said you were going to kill someone.”

“Oh, was that I what I said?”

“It was probably me, wasn’t it?” Zander pouted in Paul’s direction. “Oh, you’d love that Beth. You’d love to know a murderer. You’d tell everyone about that, every one of your six insufferable friends.”

She didn’t get angry; she just cocked her head and let a single strand of hair fall on a single bare shoulder. “I don’t know. I guess. I think we’re all tired.”

So Paul fell asleep on the couch and when he woke up he thought he heard the bathroom light on and maybe some water was running but it was hard to tell. He started having another dream, with everyone in it, being friendly like they did when he’d had a job.         And the next morning he spilled out into the moldy hallway and tripped up the stairs to the driveway area and a bored mailman said “good afternoon,” and he grunted and went to look for somewhere to buy a sandwich.

They stayed. He knew it was for him. “You can leave,” he said loudly to his friends. “I’m okay.” the worst had to have passed, he figured. Paul was pitching wildly about, half from sheer tiredness. He was making his way towards the bus stop. 2:42. Which could have meant: Bus at 3. Sleep at 4. Fine. But what if he got a call for his job application—which I wouldn’t he thought.

“I’d just say my phone isn’t working. That’s a good thing isn’t it? Millennial who doesn’t care enough about technology to fix his phone. Makes you sound like an outdoorsman or a retroist or a wholesome family man.” The bus driver said nothing but jerked a finger back towards the seating area.

In August a new color was discovered. A sort of cross between purple and blue, not halfway between them, but both at the same time. Yet, if you asked the experts, it was neither purple nor blue but technically a special type of green. You could hold it up to the light just right, and well, some people swore they could see red. (They banded together, incidentally, and thought they were really special).

It happened like this: On Monday (after she threw Paul out of her house for good), Beth went into work as usual. She checked her email four times by nine, and ate a cupcake for Emily’s birthday. Then she sat in a meeting and designed a new color.

The trick was to go outside the RGB system. It was time for a rebellion, after all. Time to burst out of the old ways and pioneer. Beth had never wanted to be a figurehead or a revolutionary or anything like that, but if it had to fall to her, it goddamn would. She had a draft of the new color done by three, and stayed at work even as late as six thirty to finish it off.

She showed it to her boss and by the next morning, they had launched several new products. Wood paint, ceramic paint, dye, in eggshell, satin, and semi-gloss. The world was created anew.

He was sitting by the bus stop, not on the bench because it was broken, but with his back against an advertisement for something or other, low rates or low fat or super savings written like a halo over his head. He was hungry. Back in C quarter there had been places to buy food, but there was the rub, none of them were free, so here he sat hungry. It did not escape him even in the near-pitch darkness the advertisement background was Coloroco Bblue—one of Beth’s new colors, named for Coloroco Colors and Dyes where she worked. And so, now that he thought about it, was the writing. Coloroco Wwhite, maybe? Or teal. And the road, he thought, which had been newly paved over for potholes had been done up in Coloroco concrete. He stood up, enraptured. A new shop was going up across the street—decorated in Coloroco Ggreen with a Coloroco Ssilver trim. The streetlight poles were extra shiny, partially because they were wet with a new paint job, partially because the county had splurged on Coloroco metallic. Even the new sign, typeset in arial, had been run through a printer with Coloroco Bblack cartridges.

Paul rubbed his eyes, and had a small ecstasy. Like a child in a toystore: beautiful novelties were arranged in front of him. What unending pleasures could he uncover? It was like sight to the blind, water to the thirsty. The world was vibrant and strange, all thanks to the scientific and creative innovation of someone he mildly hated. He was giddy with contradiction. Paul was a loser, solidly through to his core, and he saw his destiny unfold as a side note, an extra, an unnecessary addition to the modern world, superfluous, constantly drunk. A car was coming much too fast and instead of running he tripped up the curb and landed on the sidewalk, breathing quickly, to come safely to rest at last for the night, in a place wherein he had paid as much rent as his home, to look up briefly at a sky whose colors he had known all along.

Goodnight Mel by Holden Lee, GS

 

“You must be the couple inquiring about Old Man Thompson’s house,” said a balding, middle-aged but spritely man who came up to their table at Arkady’s Restaurant and Bar, the one restaurant in Glenntown. It had none of the curtained dividers between booths that they were used to. Everyone heard everyone else’s conversations; a couple kissing at the counter was watched equally by an old man smoking a pipe and a baby in a high chair. Everyone seemed to know the baby, Tom, by name, and greeted him as they walked past.

“Buying the house would be a grave mistake.”

“Don’t worry,” Anna said, “It’s just one of John’s passing fancies.”

John ignored Anna and addressed the man. “But why do you say so? Please, do sit down. You must admit that he is selling it very cheap.”

The man sat down gratefully, and flagged the waitress. “Three pints of apple cider, on me.”

John thanked him, but he waved it off as nothing. He introduced himself as Tyler, the one and only postman of Glenntown, and neighbor to Old Man Thompson.

“There’s a reason it’s so cheap,” he said darkly, “It’s been haunted for forty years. Old Man Tyler’s been lowering the price every year for the past ten years, and still no one’s biting.”

“Not for long,” John said cheerfully. “There’s no such a thing as ghosts, and I know a deal when I see one.”

“How is it haunted?” Anna interjected.

“I used to sleep in the bedroom facing his house,” Tyler said, “so I had a clear sight to what used to be Old Man Thompson’s niece’s bedroom. Most nights I’d see her there, staring out the window. She’s been dead forty years, but there she is, like she hasn’t aged a day.”

John laughed. “What’s so scary about a ghost girl?”

Tyler continued, his face suggesting it was no joking matter. “I used to hear music during the night – before I made a habit of earplugs. The Moonlight Sonata, it always was – but not played in any way it ought to be played.”

“Perhaps Old Man Thompson’s secretly trying to be a pianist.”

Tyler shook his head. “Old Man Thompson is half-deaf, from an ear infection he claims, but I know better. It’s the cursed music. He keeps his house as a bed and breakfast, still – not that he has any customers anymore. The guests would complain about weird noises at night – and one of them heard the music, too. He caught the flu while he was there, and he died. No one dared stay there after that.”

“Not surprising if all the townsfolk are spreading rumors about it being haunted,” Anna said sharply.

“It’s not just a rumor. That’s how they died, Thompson’s brother’s entire family. Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918. Then there was Clara. She was a pianist in the high school orchestra. She heard the music too, and she got very sick – wasn’t ever the same after that, always hearing sounds in her head.”

The apple cider came, and they talked about other things. He asked them what they were doing out here. Glenntown was en route back home; John and Anna had spent a few unsuccessful days hunting for a house in the country. John wanted to move to get away from the stress of city life, though Anna was less convinced. They had stopped at Glenntown for its one and only attraction – apple-picking at Arkady’s Apple Orchards. Tyler mentioned that the Arkady of the Apple Orchards was the older brother of the Arkady of the Restaurant and Bar. He could also name every customer in the restaurant by name.

“Such a shame,” John said as he sipped the last dregs of his cider, “A perfectly good house sits wasted by superstition. But I suppose it’s not our place to worry about it.”

Anna spoke up, “John – do you think – we could take a look at the house again? I would like to see if there’s any truth to Tyler’s claim -”

“Well, it’s still a B and B. I don’t recommend it – but perhaps that’ll get the notion out of your mind – spend a night there and you’ll see what I mean.”

 

***

Old Man Thompson was pleasantly surprised at having customers and offered them a two-person bedroom for the night. Anna insisted that they take the supposedly haunted room, even though it had only one bed.

She had to shout her request in Thompson’s ear until he heard. “The room with the ghost,” she shouted.

Thompson’s pleasant mien quickly turned into a scowl when he learned that the haunted nature of his house was the reason for their interest.

“Never saw a dust speck out of place when I was here. Don’t let those townspeople corrupt you with their superstitions.”

Anna slept on the floor of the haunted room. John had offered the bed to Anna, but Anna insisted that he take it. She didn’t want to take the girl’s bed without her permission, and besides, it was too easy to sleep soundly on soft beds. Sure enough, in two minutes, John was already snoring. Anna was left awake, her eyes wandering between the bedspread, on which a design of vines crawled Gothically, like the pages of illustrated fairy tale books, and the dolls and teddy bears standing in a line on the shelf, covered in dust, holding withered stalks of flowers. The moonlight slowly spilled its light through the window and she still couldn’t sleep.

Just as she was wondering whether she should have taken the bed, she saw that a girl was now standing in front of the window with her back to Anna. A midnight prayer? Anna tried to rise up for a better look, but found she couldn’t move. The girl walked around the bed and knelt down where Anna was. She was a plain little girl in a ponytail and an apron.

She talked, but Anna could hear no sound. She took a rose from her apron and dropped it into Anna’s palm before rising and leaving through the door. When she did, a sudden drowsiness overcame Anna.

When Anna woke up, there was a withered stalk in her left hand. One of the teddy bears on the shelf was missing its flower. It had on a striped apron and round, dark eyes.

“That’s so cute,” John said. He was already up and watching her. “It fell right into your hand.”

Anna told John about the girl.

“You dreamt an explanation for it. Like when you hear a fire alarm going off in your dream, and it’s your alarm clock.”

“I’m sure it wasn’t a dream.”

Anna clutched at the rose like it was proof, but John took it from her fingers and returned it to the teddy bear.

“I wish I had your imagination, Anna.”

 

***

Anna didn’t pay attention to John and Old Man Thompson’s conversation, which mostly involved John shouting into the old man’s ear. John told Thompson that he was interested in buying the house, but that Tyler had voiced his reservations against them doing so, and they wanted to see if the house was in fact haunted.

“Well, you saw there were no ghosts, eh?” Thompson said.

“Anna says it’s haunted, but I didn’t notice a thing.”

Thompson cupped his ears. “What? You want the house or not?”

“If it were up to me, I’d say yes, but Anna says that it’s haunted…”

“Yes? You said yes?”

Anna hated it when John talked like she wasn’t there. She couldn’t stand it anymore.

“YES,” she shouted, which made John jump.

“It’s always been my childhood dream to live in a haunted house,” she explained to John, “When I was small, I wanted to become a psychic. I found these books in our attic about how to communicate with ghosts and learn about your past lives… when father found out he burned all of them. He told me there weren’t any ghosts in our house, just shadows.

But he’s wrong.”

John smiled like he had predicted her reaction, and turned back to Thompson. “Of course, we’ll have to look at the terms and talk it over…”

Thompson was ecstatic. He was eager to sell the house. The house had passed to Thompson after his brother’s entire family had died in the 1918 flu epidemic. It was fortunate for him – he couldn’t keep a job and didn’t have a place of his own. But he’d been stuck in that small town for the past forty years, and wasn’t fond of the place. It had kept him out of trouble, and away from adventure.

 

***

John and Anna returned to New York for a few days, where John transferred ownership of his shop, Ends and Odds, to his bewildered protege, Jeremy, and found a real estate agent to sell their townhouse, which, amazingly, cost more than the house that they were moving into. Anna hosted a good-bye party in their old house, with towers of cardboard boxes for backdrop, where she relished the shocked faces of “acquaintances,” who, she felt, had never seen her and John as more than a curiosity, like a pair of puppets in Ends and Odds. She invited them to their housewarming party with the expectation that they would not, and never would, come visit them. Anna did, however, pay personal visits to all her piano students, because they deserved better, and to make sure that they found another teacher with which to continue their musical instruction.

She didn’t see the ghost girl again the first few days in the house, and wondered whether it was all a ruse. The bedsheet ghost John had made two years ago was fun, but tricking her into moving to the country… was a bit much. What if he had bribed some local girl to dress up in white?

Her worries disappeared on the third night in their new house, when the music awakened them. It sounded like Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, but the notes jarred and tripped over each other. It was a shadow over the moon, a midnight romance turned desperate.

Anna reached over and clasped John’s hand, to make sure he was there. He reached for the switch to the lamp on his side. The switch clicked but there was no light. Anna reached for the switch on her side. The light bulb flashed for a brief moment before it blew.  Anna climbed out of bed, her heart fluttering with excitement, her hand pulling John’s.

“The girl is here, John,” she said.

John squeezed her hand tighter but didn’t move.

“I thought you were brave,” she said, and this time he followed.

Together they walked out the door, side by side, filling the hallway so that nothing could confront one without confronting them both. The music became louder and louder. Anna walked faster down the stairs, and John, pulled along, tried not to trip. She ran ahead towards the piano in the living room.

The music stopped abruptly in a crash of keys. She saw a girl – the same girl – fleeing the room. When John arrived, the girl had gone.

“There was a girl,” she said, “We must’ve frightened her away. Come out. We want to meet you.”

The curtains fluttered but no one answered. John opened the loose headboard of the piano and peered inside.

“It is not a girl,” he said.

He turned on the lights and gestured at the roll of paper, still spinning, with the perforations for notes that let air into the channels that raised the valves that operated the hammers that struck the keys. The roll had been shaken loose, and was now playing nothingness.

“It’s a player piano. The switch must have been flipped.” He turned it off. “We’ve solved the mystery. The switch is loose. And the notes are off because the sheets are loose.

It looks like the paper is torn, too.”

“There was a girl in a white dress,” Anna insisted.

“The moonlight plays tricks,” John said, pointing at the light spilling onto the piano stool.

John was intolerable, but Anna was used to it. If John didn’t believe, that meant she could have the ghost girl all to herself. She sat down in the light of the moon and played. Some of the notes were still off. The piano had not been tuned for years, but through the keys she could feel its potential. After she finished, she closed the piano, and the two of them walked up the stairs again, hand in hand.

 

***

Anna was still childless by middle age, so ten years ago, they had planned to adopt a child. The whole process took several months. A social worker came to their house and interviewed them, looked around their house and called it “on the austere side.” They finally got the okay, and got photos in the mail.

“It’s a very important decision,” Ann said gravely. “We’ll have to meet them individually and learn their life stories.”

John drove them to the orphanages. Who knew there were so many? Anna was all smiles as she greeted the children, dressed up in identical skirts or pants, their hair cut short, their eyes full of fearful hope, their voices answering only what was asked. But back in the car, she told John that they were all the same, all like sad dolls dressed up in fine clothes for a day. They didn’t have any personality.

“Of course not. It gets beat right out of them. That’s what we’re for. To help them become who they want to be.”

“There has to be a spark,” Anna said. “It’s just like in marriage. It doesn’t matter how much you want to love.”

“If we had a child we wouldn’t be able to choose who she was.” “Yes, but then God would have chosen for us and it would be alright.” John pulled to the side of the road before responding.

“Anna, there are thousands of kids who are hungry and sick and beaten every day. We’re going to one more orphanage, and then we will adopt a child. I will choose for you. It doesn’t matter who, just that there is one less suffering kid.”

“It was never for them. It’s for us, John.”

“You can’t decide to adopt a child on a whim. I don’t like it when you think you want something, but you don’t really want it.”

“But I do, John. I just need to find the right one… The one child I can love, not just feed. Just like it was with you. Don’t you ever want a kid, John?”

John was silent for a while. “There’s this organization,” he said finally, “where you can

‘adopt’ a child in another country. You get to look at their biographies and choose who to ‘adopt.’ You send them some money for their family every month, and they’ll write you a letter every month. You can write a letter to them, too. How does that sound?”

She started to say it wasn’t the same, but the feeling that had drove her searching had suddenly left, leaving an emptiness in her head. That was what they did, eventually. They had children at a distance. It wasn’t the same, though.

 

***

The night after Anna got the piano tuned, she had a non-habitual cup of evening coffee. Awake besides John, she slipped down into the living room and sat down in the closet, where she could see and not be seen, like she used to do, staying up to spy on ghosts.

The girl sat down on the piano stool and opened the cover. She blew a kiss to the keys – such a childish gesture – and then stiffened.

“Mel, that’s your name, isn’t it?” Anna said, softly. It had been written on the music book, and in some of the albums that Old Man Thompson had left in his haste to depart.

Mel rose to go.

“Please. Come back. You have so much potential.”

Mel looked at Anna, sitting on the floor of the closet, looking up at her. She stopped, but kept her distance. Anna remembered a line from one of the ghost-hunting books – they are as afraid of you as you of them.

“Do you want to hear how to play Moonlight Sonata?”

She nodded. Anna got up and walked over to the piano. She patted the seat besides her until Mel sat, as well. She put her left hand against Mel’s right. Her hand seemed to sink into Mel’s, as if Mel’s hands were made of snow. She didn’t let it bother her.

“Look, your fingers are longer than mine already. My sister always made fun of me, for having such stubby fingers! And yet I turned out the better pianist. It doesn’t matter how long your fingers are, just how much song is in your heart. Follow after me, Mel. But let us turn on the soft pedal, so we are not heard.”

Mel struggled. Anna took her fingers and explained the proper posture, put a quarter on the back of her hand (more out of curiosity that it would stay – it did – than out of genuine helpfulness). She played the scales in slow-motion, and Mel followed one octave behind. She played through the sonata, measure by measure, and Mel repeated slowly, each note dragging out as her fingers sought the next keys. Anna played the leader again and again, until she felt her head lolling, her hands becoming heavy and wooden.

The music ended. Mel had gotten up. Anna had a sudden urge to reach out and hug her, but she was too tired to move.

“Goodnight, Mel,” she whispered as her eyes closed, as the girl walked up the stairs and into her room, the one that faced the moonrise.

 

***

John found Anna asleep at the piano the next day. He didn’t ask about Mel, and just seemed happy that Anna was adjusting to the pace of small-town life. In the city Anna seemed like a bird who couldn’t decide where to perch, and now she was less harried, and more content with sleepiness. John liked it that way.

Ethel Connor came to visit. Tyler had warned of her visit and suggested that they accede to her demands. Now the omnipresent grandma who was consulted before every decision, Ethel had a distinguished career as a flower girl, simultaneous prom queen and queen of the town pageant, long-time dairy farmer, ten-time actress playing Mary in the annual Nativity play, three-time mayor of Glenntown, organizer of the bridge-playing group, and paranormal hobbyist. She had a plentiful head of white hair, a nose of witchlike proportions, and biceps which attested to her illustrious career.

“You can’t hide from me,” Ethel said as she walked in. “You find this ghost amusing, do you not? When you see her again you must chase her away.”

It had been no secret that the city couple had moved into Old Man Thompson’s house not in spite of, but because it was haunted, and Anna had made no effort to contradict the gossip.

“She’s called Mel,” Anna said, “Why does everyone treat her this way? No wonder she is so distraught.”

Ethel glared at her. “No ghost belongs in this world. They are souls who have refused to move on from this world to heaven or hell. Any kindness we show only increases their attachment to this world, and every moment they stay here, they only bring more calamity upon the living.”

“What do you propose to do?” John asked.

“Give me an afternoon and I’ll exorcise the ghost for you,” she said, “At no charge – consider it my housewarming gift.”

Indeed, she was already sprinkling a line of salt in the doorway. Anna caught a whiff of herbs coming from her purse.

“Absolutely not!” Anna said, “I won’t allow it.”

Ethel looked to John. “Surely you have not also been seduced by the ghost girl, John?”

“I won’t have you performing rituals in our house.”

Ethel let the last grains of salt fall from her palm, and then briskly strode through the rooms. John and Anna hurriedly followed.

“I see you are as stubborn as the last owner. May God help you – I hope that you will come to your senses before it is too late. Your housewarming party is this Saturday? No, it will not do, to have the party while the ghost is still here…”

She looked deep in thought for a moment. John and Anna waited nervously. She stopped as if she had some sudden realization.

“Saturday it is. You will end before sunset, of course, and I will be in charge of the invitations.”

***

Anna often stayed up late to teach Mel. With each repetition of the Moonlight Sonata, Mel’s fingers found more confidence, sped up, tripped and got up right away again; she smiled as she played, the smile of one who found the distance between walking and running was not that large. But when she wasn’t playing, her movements were the careful, slightly trembling movements of a fragile old woman trying to keep herself together. She didn’t come every night and couldn’t tell Anna why, but Anna sensed it was an effort for her.

John kept himself busy. He worked on recreating the shop they had back in the city, full of whatever he fancied to make: greeting cards, snowglobes, wooden puzzles, and even apple desserts – he was undaunted by the steep competition from residents who had been baking for generations. Lacking a storefront, he lost no time by setting up shop in their front yard for the time being.

He also took it upon himself to fix the player piano. The self-playing mechanism was broken in more ways than one, so that it was a wonder that it had played at all.

“No matter,” Anna said, “As long as I can play it, I don’t need the piano to play itself.”

“I’ll have it fixed before your birthday,” John promised, “You just wait and see.”

John called the manufacturer for replacement parts, but the piano was out of production. He asked for a technician, but found that they would be charged extra because they lived in such a remote place. He asked instead for the blueprint so he could do the job himself, and a week later, got the blueprint to a different piano. Most importantly, though, was the roll of perforated paper: without it, there would be nothing to play.

 

***

They danced through the new house – or rather, old house, newly theirs – on the day of the housewarming party. It was also their thirtieth anniversary: John was sixty, and Anna fifty-five. Andrew, a photographer from out of town, took pictures, because Brett, the photographer from town, refused to set foot inside the house.

“I just wish,” she said, out of earshot of their guests, “that the townspeople would give us more of a welcome…”

“We don’t need them,” John said. He raised his glass of champagne. “To thirty more years of marriage.”

“I thought you were more ambitious. You’re not leaving before me – I’ll make sure of

it.”

They drank. There was a crash from the living room. John looked at Anna, and Anna looked at John. Andrew ducked down, as if from an earthquake. John ran over to see what had happened.

The painting on the living room wall had fallen. The glass frame was cracked.

John laughed. “It’s nothing. The nail’s just rusted through.”

“I just wish this house were in better condition. What if the carpenter won’t set foot inside the house, either?”

“We don’t need him,” John said, “I’ll fix it up.”

“Come, let us rejoin the guests. They’re looking to you, John. You have to convince them that there’s nothing dangerous here. They look like deer, about to bolt.”

“I thought you wanted ghosts.”

“Ghosts just for us, John. For everyone else, a perfectly normal couple in a perfectly normal house.”

None of the guests talked about the ghost, but it was on their minds. Elisa and Kenny, Ethel’s grandchildren, took the opportunity to satiate their curiosity about the house’s innards: they hung around the stairs, testing each step for creakiness. Tyler, who had just hung a wreath on their front door as they walked by, laughed uncertainly and sipped at his empty wineglass. Jane kept peering into the piano room, as if afraid that a ghost would materialize there at any moment. Anna had trouble striking up conversations with the guests. Perhaps she was not her usual lively self today – she was feeling out of sorts after staying up too much of the night.

Thankfully, Ethel took charge of the situation. “John and Anna, why don’t you give us a tour of the house? Let’s start with the piano room.”

“Follow me,” John said. “May I introduce our Aeolian pianola, manufactured in 1914. I’m pleased to say that Anna and I have solved the mystery of this piano. I’m sure you’ve heard tales that this piano is haunted, and plays strange music by itself – but that is because it is a player piano.” He flipped the switch, and a familiar, jarring music sounded. “And, as you see, the roll has, unfortunately, been damaged.”

Jane shuddered. “That’s why!” she said. “Turn it off, please! It is a beautiful piano, and a beautiful room, except… Do pardon me for the suggestion – but don’t you think that this patch of wall seems a little empty? Don’t you think this would be a good place to put a mirror?”

She showed them her housewarming gift.

John frowned. “I suppose so.”

“Jane has very good taste in design,” Ethel said, “Why don’t you put it up, Jane, to save our hosts the trouble – you can always move it later, of course.”

As John and Anna led the guests through the house, they revealed and placed various gifts that they had brought – scented candles, potpourris, a Nativity scene, lamps, potted plants – and even suggested various ways to rearrange the furniture. As John and Anna gave their thanks, their guests visibly relaxed. Anna had no doubt that Ethel had orchestrated the whole affair, and was happy that she had dropped her concerns about Mel and decided to give them a warm welcome.

“Could we see the haunted room?” Elisa, the girl who had been inspecting the stairs, asked.

John smiled. It was good that Ethel had rescheduled the party to be earlier – the townspeople were bold now, not afraid of nonexistent ghosts. He led them to the room. Elisa said that the room was quite musty and suggested that they freshen it up with a few sprigs of rosemary and sage that she had brought in her bag. Tricia had coincidentally brought several vases, and went to fill them with water. Allen Arkady presented the last gift to them – four huge apple pies. When the guests finally left, filled with pie, cheese, and wine, John and Anna watched the sunset and felt that this was a place that they belonged.

 

***

Anna meant to wake up at midnight to give Mel her nightly lesson, but she slept until morning.

“Did you have a midnight snack?” John asked when she came downstairs, pointing to a missing chunk of pie.

“No… oh, it must have been Mel. She must have gotten hungry, waiting for me.”

When John looked confused, Anna told him about what really happened the night that she fell asleep at the piano, because although it was fun to have a secret, it was more fun to share it.

“Is she the girl in the photo?”

He showed her the photograph that Andrew had developed. In the one where they were dancing, there was a girl in the corner, dressed in white.

“Yes – you see she’s real! You must meet her sometime. She’s very shy, but I’m sure she’ll love you, too.”

But Mel didn’t appear the next few days. Every night, Anna played the piano for two hours starting at midnight, looked at her reflection in Jane’s mirror, wandered the gardens, left out milk and cookies, sat in Mel’s room and looked at the row of teddy bears and the vases with the sprigs of rosemary and sage, and ate the milk and cookies herself, but Mel still didn’t come.

Having no Mel to teach, she settled back into her profession, telling everyone that she talked to that she was a piano teacher looking for students, first lesson free, no worries if they didn’t have a piano because she had a beautiful vintage player piano in their house, now tuned. The Connor family invited her to teach Elisa and Kenny, but didn’t take up her offer of trying out the piano in their house. Elisa and Kenny were willing pupils, though they didn’t have the same intensity of purpose that Mel had, and Anna would catch Elisa’s thoughts wandering during lessons.

“Is it true that you saw the ghost?” Elisa asked.

Anna told her about seeing Mel playing the piano, though she left off the part about giving Mel piano lessons.

“Have you seen her recently?”

“No. Why do you ask?”

“Just curious! I’d be scared if I saw a ghost,” Elisa said, although she looked like she would be excited, too. “Grandma tells us so many stories…”

“What kind of stories does she tell?”

“There was this girl, Clara, same year as my mother. Clara was the best piano player the town had in years. But when she was playing at their high school graduation, her hands slipped over the keys. She stopped and tried again, but found she just couldn’t play anymore. She broke into tears and they had to close the curtains and take her off stage. That was after she saw the ghost. It did that to her, she said. She was so ashamed she never touched the piano again. She never came back after she graduated, either.”

It wasn’t until the next piano lesson that Anna realized what was going on. She was sitting in the piano room, waiting for Elisa. The room had a wreath of rosemary hanging on the door, stalks of sage in a vase, a mirror facing the doorway… She realized, then what all of the gifts had in common, what she should have remembered from reading the books that her dad had burned: they were there to ward off ghosts.

She nodded for Elisa to continue even when she missed notes; when Elisa finished the song Anna revealed her suspicions, and Elisa spilled the rest of the beans, how Ethel had enlisted the whole town to help banish the ghost, asked Allen Arkady to bake turmeric into his apple pie. She looked guilty for her own role in the operation, but said that it was for Anna’s own good.

“Grandma’s really smart. People don’t do what’s good for them if you just tell them, she always says, so you’ll have to find another way.”

Anna ended the lesson early and rushed home.

 

***

After Anna had removed all the offending herbs, mirrors, and ornaments, a feeble Mel showed up again at the patio door at midnight, and Anna let her in.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry I’ve kept you away,” she said, sweeping her up into a hug.

Mel was ice-cold and almost weightless.

“I know it’s no excuse, but the townspeople, they tricked me. Will you forgive me?”

Mel nodded, and headed towards the piano room, though she had to stop and lean on the doorframe. Despite her frailty, her eyes blazed with determination. Anna took Mel’s hand and walked her to the kitchen instead, where she made a cup of hot chocolate. Mel stared at it as if she didn’t know what to do with it.

“Go ahead,” Anna said, “Drink it.”

She concealed her nervousness. What if it would pass right through her, and leave a puddle on the floor? Or what if it was poison for her, like sunlight for snow?

She didn’t drink it, but she sat there with her hands around it, her face close to it to take in the steam. When Anna took her hand again it was warmer, more substantial.

Mel had improved since last time. No longer did she play with the mechanical precision of someone trying to remember the song, but with fingers that danced across the keys and knew that they would land on the right notes. At the end of the night, Mel played the song perfectly, but not in any way that Anna had heard it played, with an unmistakeable wildness within the moonlight. Mel watched solemnly as Anna wrote the date on the page, to mark the success. She looked at her as if asking, what next?

“You’ll perform the Moonlight Sonata – not just in front of me, but John, too, and the rest of the people of Glenntown. No, don’t be nervous – just play the way you were playing, as if nothing else existed around you. Don’t worry about the townspeople. I’ll be in the piano room with you, and they’ll be in a separate room, so that they’ll think I’m playing until they come to see… Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted?”

Anna had found Mel’s diaries under a loose floorboard in her room, the spot that Mel had stopped when she dropped the flower in Anna’s hand that first night. Mel had always felt eclipsed as the youngest of four siblings; her dream was to go to a music school in a big city like New York after she graduated from high school, but she couldn’t even play as well as her older brother Eric, who seemed to be good at everything without even trying.

“That’s why you tried to possess Clara, isn’t it? So that you could play on stage?”

Anna had checked the veracity of Elisa’s tale about Clara by seeking out Rick, the manager, editor, and reporter of the Glenntown Herald, who enthusiastically gave her the key to the archives, a defunct barnhouse with stacks of newspapers dating back fifty years. Whenever the “ghost girl” appeared, she made the headlines, and when the facts ran out, the reporter interviewed the townspeople to find out their theories what really happened, and speculations about the ghost’s motivations. None of them had guessed the truth, though, because none of them had taken the time to know Mel.

Mel turned away, ashamed.

“Don’t worry about the past. You’ll play for yourself now, not through anyone else. The occasion? My birthday is next week, and I’ll send out the invitations… Don’t worry, I’ll keep an eye on Ethel this time. When your music capture everyone else’s hearts, there’s nothing she can do. This is just the beginning, Mel. We’ll turn this place into a B & B again, and you can play for the guests. And there are countless more songs to learn…”

Mel squeezed Anna’s hand, once, and then got up to leave. She looked tired and sad.

Her steps were heavy, and she clutched at the banisters as she climbed.

“Goodnight, Mel,” Anna called after her. “See you again tomorrow night?”

Mel turned at the top of the stairs and waved and said something that Anna couldn’t hear, and then disappeared into the room that faced the moonrise.

 

***

John found Anna asleep at the piano. The patio door was open, and there was a cup of hot chocolate on the kitchen table, now ice-cold. Her forehead was hot to the touch, and she was mumbling about Mel. He sent for the doctor immediately. Dr. Daniel Jenkins arrived and found that she had a bad case of the flu. She shouldn’t have been staying up so late every day, especially with it so cold downstairs! She was confined to bed the next few days. The townspeople sent their various herbal remedies. Ethel came and chastised John for letting Anna undo all the work she had done in ghost-proofing the house, and John didn’t resist when Ethel re-installed and doubled the wards in the house.

John attended Anna every day. She tried to get out of bed at night to give Mel her lessons, but John finally got her to stay by agreeing to go downstairs and give Mel a cup of hot chocolate. When Anna was asleep he sat in the piano room for a while, but never saw the ghost girl that Anna spoke of.

By Anna’s birthday, the worst of the flu had passed, and her birthday celebration went ahead as planned.

She was seated in an armchair with blankets, nibbling at cake and ice cream, when the

Moonlight Sonata started playing in the piano room. John appeared at the doorway, excited.

“So that’s what you’ve been doing these past few weeks!” he said to Anna, and to everyone else, “Come see!”

Anna flung away her blankets and dashed after John. The music was just the way that Mel played it. She’d feared that Ethel would keep Mel away, but Mel was too headstrong of a girl for that. She’d feared that Mel would be startled by John, or John by Mel, but it seemed that the music had bridged the divide. She would give them a proper introduction.

The piano was playing itself. She stared at the empty piano stool but Mel’s form did not materialize.

“Anna fixed the piano,” John said, peering inside. “Just when I finally wrapped my head around how this thing works, when I thought that I was going to fix it, I find she’s already done it! This was what you were doing all these nights, wasn’t it? It’s beautiful, Anna,

I should have known to leave the piano to you.”

Anna peered into the piano with John. The roll of paper, smooth and unripped, was spinning, with the perforations for notes that let air into the channels that raised the valves that operated the hammers that struck the keys. Every note was struck, perfect as moonlight, yet echoing with Mel’s unmistakeable wildness.

 

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