by Mike Ash
I stumbled up the stairs with the world as a blur. As I stood at the door to my apartment and fumbled for my keys, I dimly realized that I had almost no recollection of the drive home. Which part of my brain was still awake found that vaguely disconcerting. I got my keys out and began to look for the one to the door. When did I get so many of them? I put the key into the lock, turned, and gratefully entered.
I sat down at my piano, began some approximation of Rachmaninoff's Isle of the Dead, and poured out my troubles.
"I swear, I'm going to kill that pig-faced twit in upper management. He wouldn't know a computer from a fucking phone book if he didn't have his flunkies to tell him! I bet a trained monkey could manage a software project--" I struck a sore note. "I really should have you tuned. Of course, I know you don't like that, but it's good for you.
"This thing at work is just so... crazy. Management doesn't know what they're doing, the project is behind schedule, quality is slipping. 'Blam' could be really great, but those idiots just can't handle it.
"I forgot, I told you this before." I laughed. "But today, today...." I dug into the music with quiet fury. "The testers' report came back. They said it sucked. Of course they blame me. I told them it needed at least another month! At least!" The piano responded sympathetically. "But they said it has to be done now! And then they complain when it comes out like crap!"
I played on, smoothing my anger into the notes, my tired fingers flying across the smooth, white keys. "You've always been here for me." I closed my eyes and poured out the notes.
The door creaked. I knew it was Lynn, and instinctively my hands switched over to some Mozart. I took a deep breath and put on a smile. My heart pounded. I pretended to ignore her as I keyed the simple, pretty music.
She came through the door and stood next to the bench. I ignored her for the moment, but she knew I was aware of her. I played a few more bars, then looked at her. She had been playing with her long, blonde hair, but her hand now hung uselessly at her side. She exhaled loudly and shook her head, really just a twitch, and began the ritual. "So, Rick, how was your day?"
"You know. The usual. It was ok."
"All your days are 'ok,' Rick. Why can't you tell me what happened, really?"
She knew, but I couldn't just let her win. "Lynn, honest, today was boring."
Her eyes rolled. She went into the kitchen to start on some dinner. I stood up and paced the room, watching her short, slight form walk away as I wondered how my life had become so messed up. The chords of Isle of the Dead began to roll once more.
I wasn't seated at the piano.
I was ten feet from the piano.
A demon was seated at the piano. A small, bright red man, complete with forked tail and horns. He was, perhaps, three feet tall, and his hands worked wonders at the keys of my ancient piano. It looked up, its red eyes shining frighteningly under the lamp.
I definitely needed to do something about this stress. I absently shuffled toward the bathroom, and quietly fumbled with the medicine cabinet. I picked up a bottle of Tylenol. It was amazing how much writing they crammed onto those little bottles. I heard chopping coming from the kitchen. Lynn yelled my name.
I shuffled back to the living room. "Wha--" I started to say. The demon was still sitting on the piano bench. The demon was still playing the piano.
"You really ought to tell her." It said.
I blinked. I rolled my eyes, and blinked until I saw stars. I shook my head violently. The demon was still there. "She is your wife, you know. She has a right to know about your life. Besides, you haven't been able to give my piano the proper joy it deserves."
My mouth made some sort of croaking sound.
"Sit down, let me show you how to really play one of these things. I'll--oops!" The demon disappeared in a cloud of smoke.
Lynn's head poked around the wall. "Rick, we need milk, can you go get some?"
I managed to close my mouth, and nodded mutely. She made a face at me and went back to cooking. I got my keys, glanced warily at the piano, and bolted out the door.
We ate our chicken and broccoli in silence. The demon had shaken me, but I wouldn't have said much anyway. Our ritual had become far too entrenched for that. Our small kitchen made us feel closer than I was comfortable with, so I got up to leave as soon as I was through.
"Rick, something's wrong, why can't you just tell me what it is?"
I turned toward the kitchen, but didn't know what to say. I couldn't tell her. Why couldn't I tell her? I turned away. I went for the piano and started some Rachmaninoff again. I heard Lynn making soft crying noises. "I wish I didn't own you. It would be a lot easier to talk to Lynn if I didn't talk to you first. Damnit, why can't I just..."
"Now don't say things like that." The demon was seated next to me at the bench. Only inches away. I fought off the urge to leap away screaming. I slowly reached over and touched the demon on the shoulder. It definately felt real; it was warm to the touch. Very warm. "I've always been here for you. Always. Your wife is off at the office or with friends or just plain gone, but I'm always here for you. I do not want to hear you complaining!"
It was just too much; I had developed a raging headache. I got up and walked to the bathroom, leaving the demon to finish up the music. I got the Tylenol out of the medicine cabinet and had the pills in hand before I remembered I was allergic to them. Blah. I downed some Advil and went back to the piano, sitting myself down next to the demon again. "This thing really needs to be tuned," I said, half-seriously.
The demon leapt from the bench, grabbed my collar, and stared me in the face from inches away. "Are you crazy?" It demanded. "You will not have my piano tuned!"
"No!" Its face turned ever more red, if that was possible. "I will hear nothing more of this. Nothing!" It disappeared into a cloud of smoke again.
I nodded softly and backed away. I decided that I really, really needed some sleep. "Lynn," I croaked, "I'm going to turn in early."
She said nothing. She says nothing, I say nothing. Wasn't married life wonderful? I needed to get to bed. Tomorrow, I'd be a new man.
Sleep came only fitfully. I dreamed of work, of bosses, of pig-headed management, and of piano-playing demons. I wished fervently for something pleasant. Maybe that time Lynn and I visited California. Yes, that was good. I conjured the memory of the two of us sitting on a lonely beach, watching the sun set over the crystal ocean. With that picture firmly in my mind, I closed my eyes. A fifty-foot demon picked me up, held me to its face, and yelled "No!" I opened my eyes very quickly.
After an hour or two, Lynn finally came and joined me. We may have been antagonists more than lovers as of late, but her presence was comforting. I drifted off to images of my beautiful, newlywed bride and I watching the sunset from the beach. Soft Vivaldi played in the background.
I awoke to some haunting tune that I couldn't place. Truly this was not an earthly composer. The dirge made my soul feel the fires of Hell itself. I got out of bed. I moved to the living room and turned toward the demon. "Do you mind?" I said. It looked at me, then went back to the piano. I began to speak again, but it quickly switched to something a bit more calm. "Thank you." Twit.
I walked outside, down the stairs to the porch, and sat. The night was windy and warm, and the streetlights shining through the trees cast an eerie flicker. A soft twinkling floated its way down the stairs. I buried my head in my hands and wondered how things had gotten so crazy, how things had gone so wrong. The piano struck some familiar, if out of tune, chords, and my lips twitched upward for a moment. I stood, pacing on the porch, contemplating the darkened city. I banished the music from my mind, and thought. The music refused to leave, its banshee wails echoing off the surrounding houses. I despaired for a few moments, then gathered my wits and pushed the twisted notes from my head. My thoughts drifted, unaware of time.
The chiming of the clock tower broke my thoughts and returned me to reality. The music was still there, mocking me, some horrible mishmash of Beethoven, Mozart, and God knows who else, all of it shockingly out of tune. I let out a scream and dashed up the stairs into my apartment. The demon was, obviously, seated at the piano, the epitome of peace and tranquility. Aside from the horns, forked tail, and red skin. He opened his large eyes, looked at me, and smiled.
I roared and charged after it. It ran, laughing. I chased it, knocking over plants and furniture. The demon fled to the kitchen. Lynn had left a pleasantly large knife out that I knew she kept meticulously sharpened. It still had flecks of broccoli left on it from dinner. I snatched it and swung. The demon danced away and giggled. I lunged, it jumped, I chopped, it sidestepped. I went for its tail, but it was just too fast. I thrust again, but succeeded only in smashing the kitchen window. The pain in my hand redoubled my fury. The demon ran out into the living room and down the steps to the porch. I gave chase, tripping on the stairs. As I lay at the bottom of the stairs, the demon ran back up to the piano. I slipped into unconsciousness with a fearful rendition of The Moonlight Sonata playing in the background.
I came to when the music stopped. No fanfare, no closure, just an abrupt halt in the middle of the notes. Lynn came down the stairs to me. The tears on her face made me feel terrible. "Rick, please," she sobbed, "I want you to leave. I just can't take this anymore."
I opened my mouth, but nothing would come out. I had no idea what to say anyway, but nothing would come out. I nodded and finally whispered "ok." I stood and climbed the stairs slowly, my wife's crying haunting me with every step. How had I let this happen? I bandaged my still-bleeding hand in the bathroom, found my keys, and left.
I had no idea where to go. The lakefront, I decided, would be a decent start. I drove, watching the moonlit surf break on the beach, trying to think of nothing.
"You're an idiot." I was thinking along those lines, but the voice that said it certainly didn't sound like mine. I looked out the window, away from my life. More to the point, away from my passenger seat and what I knew was there. I couldn't do it forever, and when I looked to my right, the demon was patiently waiting. "You let her kick you out. You fool. How do you expect to give my piano the attention it deserves now?!"
"I shouldn't have let things get this far. I should have seen it, and stopped it. I could have done that, I could have at any time, but my foolish pride...." I realized I was almost crying, and couldn't see the road.
I took a deep breath. "I need to fix this. I screwed it up, I'm going to fix it."
"Good. Can't have you not playing my piano."
"I'm going to tell those idiots in management the truth for once. They can either do my project right or I walk. There's a hundred companies out there who would love to have me, I can find another job." I could feel my body begin to relax. The demon looked at me expectantly. "And I'm going to stop pouring my troubles into that damned piano and give Lynn the attention she deserves!" The demon vanished in an angry cloud of smoke. "He doesn't like it, hmm? Well screw him, I know what's important now."
I pulled off the road and turned around. I rushed back to the house, slipped my car into the driveway, and ascended the stairs. I opened the door and walked through. Lynn was sitting on a chair in the living room. She had been crying. She looked up, and we said nothing for a long time. I remembered that I was here to say something. "Lynn... I, I'm sorry. I'm sorry for neglecting you and I'm sorry for letting my job keep us apart."
She smiled, a beautiful white smile that reminded me of all the good days we'd had had. She stood up and hugged me, and we kissed. I looked into her eyes. "I'm going to get that damned piano tuned, and I'm going to let you into all of my life." She sniffled, and mumbled something softly that I didn't hear. I didn't need to, I knew.
A smudge of red caught my eye. I closed my eyes very slowly, then opened them and looked. The demon was standing there, an enormous smile on its face. No, that wasn't a smile, that was the look of a wolf about to strike. I carefully disengaged myself from Lynn and turned to face it. "Go away!" I said. "You're not wanted here!"
Lynn had backed away a little more. "Rick," she said, "who are you talking to?"
The demon charged. It kicked me in the shin, hard, and ran past. I staggered back, and got my head up just in time to see the demon disappear through the back door.
I rubbed my leg and ran to the door, wincing every time my left leg hit the ground. That thing had kicked me hard. In the flickering streetlights I could vaguely make out the demon's form moving at the bottom of the stairs. I stood for a moment before it began to climb the stairs toward me. It was holding the knife that I had left on the porch in its right hand. I backed through the door, looking for a weapon, but all I found was a jar of nails and a broom. I stood ready at the door, and when I saw it on the landing I threw the jar as hard as I could. The demon dodged superhumanly fast. I shifted the broom to both hands. The demon raged and charged. I swung the broom, feeling it connect. I spun, blinking, and looked for the demon. It was at a dead run for my wife. I screamed and gave chase, blood in my eyes, fear in my heart. I was almost in range of the vile creature when it buired the knife to its hilt in Lynn's chest.
I fell to the floor, dumbstruck. I wanted to kill the demon. I wanted it to kill me. I wanted my wife! I stroked her cheeks with my hands and planted our final kiss on her lips and began to cry, really cry. I could hear the sirens of an approaching ambulance. It was too late. The last thing I heard before my exhausted body betrayed me was the haunting music of hell being played on my piano.
For the curious, this is the second public revision of this story. If you are interested, you may read the first one here.
This page is copyright (C) 1999 by Michael Ash