Speculative Fiction Contemporary

Iris stepped in shoulder-first, a cardboard box digging into her palms and a new silver key hanging from her finger. 

“Let me know if your mail key doesn’t work,” called the landlord, already retreating. “My number’s taped to the fridge.”

“Okay—” called Iris, as the landlord vanished down the stairs. She carried her box through the dusty little entry and turned the corner to greet her empty, new, sunlit, blissfully-hers apartment—and stopped dead at the edge of the living room. 

When the landlord had emailed her two weeks ago to let her know that the previous tenants would be leaving some incidentals behind, Iris had assumed to find, like, curtains. Maybe a rug, or a memo board. 

Not a piano. 

And not a small piano, at that. A baby grand by the looks of it, the top propped open on its sharp angle, and the whole thing a warm, dappled brown. All in all it took up nearly half of the living space. What idiot puts a baby grand in a studio apartment, Iris wasn’t sure. 

She set her cardboard box down on the bench and frowned. 

Her only plan was shot down quick when her movers informed her that no, they couldn’t just take it with them on their way out. Moving a piano, apparently, is a super big deal, and requires equipment and measuring and most importantly forewarning. With that incredibly short-lived idea quashed, Iris quickly resigned herself to her fate. 

Moving took all weekend and a great deal more creative maneuvering than anticipated, as suddenly there was a rather large piece of furniture taking up copious amounts of valuable real estate. With patience and time and more than a little hair-pulling she assembled her living room, ordered a celebratory pizza, and sat down to eat it on the floor amidst her various seating options. 

“Mom,” Iris said, with the phone pinched between her ear and her shoulder and a slice dripping with feta and tomato folded lengthwise in one hand. “There’s a piano.”

“Oh, really?” her mother gushed. “Sweetie, how lucky! You can get back into your music. It’s been years.”

“Well—yeah, I guess—it’s just that stopped playing on purpose.”

“Yes, but you were young. Maybe now—”

“Okay, this isn’t why I called. Mom, how do I get rid of a piano?”

Her mother became considerably less amicable after that. She was an avid pianist herself, and as such had brought up Iris and her sisters each playing their own instrument, with naive hopes of living out some Von Trapp Family Fantasy or something of the sort. Amazingly, it worked out rather well. Everyone but Iris was an absolute natural—practically a virtuoso—and average Iris figured eventually that she was sick of paling in comparison. 

Over the next week, aside from being an incredibly large obstacle and general hindrance, the piano also came something of a ghost in Iris’s apartment. A giant, hulking haunt—the Ghost of Piano Lessons Past. Just looking at it hit Iris with a lightning bolt of resentment and guilt. And sometimes, quietly, regret. 

One night, laying dreadfully awake in her rumpled bed across the room from the uninvited eyesore, now bathed in moonlight, Iris heard the unmistakeable sound of music. 

She choked down a gasp and held very still and tilted her head just enough to peer at the piano—and saw no musical burglar. In fact, the sound had stopped altogether, and she immediately decided that she’d imagined it. 

Which only made it all the more concerning when it started up again, just minutes later. 

It was less so music, she decided, than it was an echo. The piano keys didn’t move, and it felt as though her ears didn’t actually detect the sound, but nonetheless a sweet, sad melody pervaded Iris’s apartment and her mind, and it did not stop for the rest of the night. 

When she blinked blearily awake the next morning, it had stopped, so Iris went about her day as usual and chalked it all up to a weird dream. 

But as night fell again and Iris valiantly tried to sleep, the melody picked back up and wormed its way through even the thickest of pillows pressed up against her tired ears. 

The song quickly became omnipresent, stuck in her head even when Iris was up and about. 

After work one day she barged desperately into a music store and hummed the song, feeling stupid, to one of the employees, until he took her over to the sheet music section and located the right piece. It was by Mendelssohn, who Iris remembered from her old piano lessons, an unpronounceable something-or-other in E minor, andante. 

“Thanks,” Iris said, all but ripping the piece out of the salesman’s hands and shoving her credit card at him. 

She hurried home, sheet music clutched in her trembling hands, and as soon as she’d kicked off her shoes she marched straight to her piano. 

No amount of time away from the piano could erase that deeply-entrenched knowledge, she found. Her fingers were rusty, and her touch all off, but all of the theoretical stuff was still ready in her mind. 

She practiced the piece until her eyes drooped, at which point she retreated to her bed and hoped that the piano would be satisfied. 

For a brief but lovely hour, it seemed it was. But around midnight the song started up again, wafting through Iris’s ears, barely-there but enough to keep her awake. She threw a pillow at the piano and enjoyed the gratifyingly discordant sound it made. 

As soon as she awoke in the morning, she guzzled a gritty mugful of coffee and plopped back down at the instrument. She scribbled all over the sheet music with a dull, rounded pencil—fingerings galore, and circles around the accidentals she kept missing, and reminders not to speed up. She downloaded a metronome app on her phone and left it ticking atop the piano, guiding her as she practiced and practiced and practiced until her hands ached. 

The second night was no better. Still the song drifted on, paying no heed to her exhaustion and frustration. Even listening to other music didn’t work. She jammed her earbuds as far down her ears as she could go without worrying for her eardrums, and queued up a top 40 playlist at full-volume. Even then, the soft tones of Mendelssohn’s song—not even a particularly famous one, not even a particularly beautiful one—came through. It was all Iris could hear. 

Iris called in sick to work. For a third consecutive day she spent her every moment at the blasted piano, practicing and playing and refining until, at around 4 pm, she attempted a run of the piece as a whole and—accidentally, perhaps?—played it perfectly. 

The piano heaved a great sigh. After a quiet moment, so did Iris. 

She slept soundly all that night, revelling in delicious peace and quiet. 

Things seemed returned to normal, and the piano went back to only being a giant physical inconvenience, until Iris faintly heard cheerful tones, gaily scampering about. 

Once she memorized the melody and went back to the music store, the salesman identified the piece as a bright little sonata in B. 


Iris took the sheet music home with her and took up her place on the piano bench once more. She set out the music, and checked that her pencil was on hand. 

She placed her hands on the keys. Much to her surprise, deep in her stomach, she felt a soft little flutter of excitement. 

January 31, 2020 22:32

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