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The Piano Lesson

Play the accompanying video to listen to this story's soundtrack.

By Addison HornerPublished about a year ago Updated about a year ago 6 min read
9
The Piano Lesson
Photo by Sven Brandsma on Unsplash

[Please play the following video while reading The Piano Lesson.]

The mirror showed a reflection that wasn't my own.

Everything else looked the same. Miss Carmen’s walnut brown console piano sat there in its worn, weathered glory. Miss Carmen herself stood behind me, her familiar glare focused on the fingers of my right hand. That hand sat on the keyboard, frozen in the middle of a D major scale, middle finger perched uncertainly on the F natural I’d just played.

“Play it again.”

Miss Carmen’s stern voice shook me from my stupor. I blinked. My reflection had returned to normal. A spindly, acne-faced teenage boy stared back at me, as expected. But for a moment, I could have sworn I’d seen—

“Play. It. Again.”

Like a cobra devouring its prey, she struck. The wooden fan in her grasp rapped against my knuckles. I forced myself to concentrate on the keyboard in front of me. What was I playing again?

The D major scale. Right.

I positioned my hand as I’d been taught, with a level wrist and fingers curved toward the keyboard. My knuckles stung as I began again, starting with D. Then E. Then F sharp, as instructed.

I glanced at the mirror again. A tiny, nearly imperceptible crack sat in the glass.

My thumb crossed under to G. Then A, and B, and…

I shifted without thought, playing C natural instead of C sharp. My finger slipped, accidentally accenting my mistake. Miss Carmen must have frowned again, but I wasn’t watching for her reaction.

Something dark and grotesque stared back from where my face should have been. No words could convey the blackness, the bitter depth of its features. I could only say that it was smiling at me.

At Miss Carmen’s dramatic sigh, the thing vanished. I whipped my head around, grinning like a fool. Judging by her scowl, that was how she saw me.

“You’re better than this,” she said, twirling the fan. It was one of those papery souvenirs, cheap and flimsy, though the hypnotic circles inked and etched into the wood drew my gaze. “Again.”

Fingers trembling, I obeyed. No mistakes this time.

The mirror was old, I could tell that much. Miss Carmen’s house must have been built a hundred years ago, with bare wooden trim and woolen carpet that bore sheepish scuff marks from the piano bench legs. The paneled walls of the piano room were broken only by a single squarish window whose blinds were always shut during my lessons. The air felt dormant, a thing long dead.

Even here, in the place where piano students made their weekly painful pilgrimages, the mirror was an antique. My eyes traveled the length of the frame as I played. A simple, dark wood it was, but some elegant design had been inscribed upon it, swirls and sweeps that had faded over the centuries. The top curved into an elegant tapering headpiece that couldn’t have been real gold. It clashed horribly with the rest of the decor.

I finished the scale. Miss Carmen offered no commendation.

“Cadence,” she snapped.

I knew the cadence. A set of five chords played in symmetrical balance. One, four, one, five-seven, one. She wanted the D major cadence, of course.

What if I played it in D minor?

I did so, stealing a glance at the mirror as I finished. No monsters in the glass. Perhaps it hadn't been the right kind of mistake.

“Major,” Miss Carmen corrected as she fanned herself. Why she wore those prim long sleeves was beyond me. She barely looked thirty, yet she dressed like some dowager from those British period pieces. The only thing in this house that belonged in the twenty-first century was the cell phone in my pocket.

I played the cadence in D major. My right pinky slipped, briefly touching G sharp on its way to A. Like a puppet on strings, my neck twisted to the left, and there it was.

The creature’s smile split its flat, squished head as would a knife wound. Black mottled skin puckered the cheeks like a rotten peach. From the center of its head sprouted strands of shock-white hair, brittle and barbed. Beneath its soft chin lay a hint of neck, a tease of two hunched shoulders. Below that, nothing.

“Stop that,” Miss Carmen hissed.

The mirror was empty once more.

“Sorry,” I said, clearing my throat. “Sorry, Miss.”

Miss Carmen rubbed her creased forehead with manicured fingers. “Not his fault,” she muttered. “Not his fault.”

Not my fault? Couldn’t she see the beast in the mirror? Didn’t she know that I poked and prodded with purpose? I had to know what it was.

The shuffling of sheet music disturbed my thoughts. Miss Carmen had reached into my bag and withdrawn my latest piece.

“Let’s see how you handle Satie this week,” she said, setting the crinkled pages on the music stand.

Gymnopedie no. 1. Erik Satie. Probably written while this house was being built. It also happened to be in the key of D major.

The mirror watched me as I set my hands. It wanted me to make a mistake. It wanted me to want to make mistakes.

I placed my left index finger on G, the starting note. Then I moved it to G sharp. Then back to G natural.

What was I thinking? Some terrifying creature lurked in my piano teacher’s mirror, and I wanted to entertain it? I would not play for this thing’s enjoyment. I would perform my best, finish the half-hour lesson, and beg my mother never to send me back to Miss Carmen’s horrible, haunted house ever again.

I began the piece. G major seven, D major seven. Calm and collected. Smooth and serene.

The creature growled.

My eyes slipped toward the mirror. Nothing showed its face beyond the crack, which had grown a fraction of an inch.

My fingers, however, kept their resolve. No errors were made.

The melody began. Pianissimo, the softest of soft touches, with a gradual crescendo through the first phrase. I plinked out the delicate notes on Miss Carmen’s old, tinny piano, wincing as the desire to err tugged at my thoughts and my tendons.

The first phrase ended. The chords in the left hand continued their lulling pattern. G major seven, D major seven.

I should play that again, shouldn’t I?

I start over. The melody loops back around.

Wouldn’t this sound lovely in minor?

I play an F natural with my right hand. A sharp intake of breath comes from behind me, but I pay Miss Carmen no mind. She needs to hear this too.

The world feels fresh, and present, and delectable.

The one beyond the mirror is watching me. I feel his gaze, like a hand on my shoulder, like a tongue grazing my ear, as I add more accidentals to this anthem. C natural. B flat.

My left pinky pounds on the G sharp. Then again. How pleasant.

Doom, doom, doom. What a sonorous refrain. I dare not watch the mirror as I continue.

An audible crack breaks through the music.

“Stop playing,” Miss Carmen whispers. Her voice has grown softer, deeper. “Please.”

“I don’t think I will,” I say.

Doom, doom.

My right hand travels unbidden to the highest reaches of the keyboard. I play a G sharp minor arpeggio as neutrally as I can. Not well, not poorly. Just an arpeggio.

Beautiful is the clash. Horrendous is the harmony.

Doom.

Glass splinters to my left. Miss Carmen stands to my right, backing away from the bench, one hand reaching weakly for my shoulder. I shrug it off.

The creature emerges. Its smile floats by my nose, tendrils of hair tickling my nostrils as I keep playing. My fingers dance without rhythm, sing without melody, along the old keys.

“Begone!” Miss Carmen shrieks, brandishing her fan. I glance over once. The flimsy wood shines with a pure white light, streaming through the air in powerful swirls of energy, seeking to consume the beast from the mirror. But the light withers and dies upon touching the puckering, carcass shell that sweeps toward Miss Carmen.

In the moment before she is consumed, Miss Carmen’s eyes search mine. Gone is the disdain, the disapproval. All that remains is fear, and a gentle plea.

I do not answer.

More cracks appear, decorating the carpet and trim with chaotic lines, sending puffs of sawdust into the air. The room shakes. The blinds shudder. Daylight itself siphons away, leaving the darkest, dreariest chill to clamor against the lone window.

Smacking its chapped gray lips, the creature settles into Miss Carmen’s seldom-used chair. Its shape and texture defies description, but I can surely say that it smiles at me.

“Play it again.”

fiction
9

About the Creator

Addison Horner

I love fantasy epics, action thrillers, and those blurbs about farmers on boxes of organic mac and cheese. MARROW AND SOUL (YA fantasy) available February 5, 2024.

Reader insights

Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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  1. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  2. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

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    Well-structured & engaging content

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Comments (5)

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  • Alieu Turayabout a year ago

    Stunning

  • Grz Colmabout a year ago

    The inclusion of the music made this piece extra unsettling. I really enjoyed this tale! Thanks for sharing it with us!

  • CJ Millerabout a year ago

    Wow! This is the most innovative piece I've read on Vocal. The music was amazing, rendering the story fully immersive, and it matched up with your words so seamlessly. I hope you win!

  • Yes for the video ❤️😉👍

  • Holly Pheniabout a year ago

    This is fabulous!

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