Short story by Gillian Church
Now that Margot had departed this mortal coil, Eddie thought he might finally stand to inherit what was left of his parents’ money. Margot was as calculating as she was evil, though, and had taken pains to ensure he didn’t receive a dime.
He was so dedicated to ignoring Margot’s existence that he was genuinely, albeit briefly, confused when her lawyer called to let him know that she was dead.
Now that Margot had departed this mortal coil, Eddie thought he might finally stand to inherit what was left of his parents’ money. Margot was as calculating as she was evil, though, and had taken pains to ensure he didn’t receive a dime. All of her money had been bequeathed to the Ridgewood Rat Rescue Society. The subtext was not lost on Eddie; she would give her money to literal vermin before her own brother.
She didn’t leave him entirely out of her will, however.
He learned this when the piano movers pulled up in front of his house. Their grandmother had left the enormous instrument to Margot, as Eddie had never played. It was no longer in the pristine shape it had been when they were children. He wasn’t sure if it was even usable. He was sure, however, that it was not going to fit in his small house.
“What the fuck am I going to do with an old piano?” Eddie’s face was red, the vein in his forehead throbbing. The movers looked both annoyed and bewildered at the question. “I don’t want it.”
“We don’t dispose of pianos. You paid to move it here, you deal with it.”
“I didn’t pay a damn—” Eddie rubbed his forehead. “Look, how much to bring this to my business, downtown? It’s about three miles on the main drag.” For fifty dollars and a massive eye roll, the movers agreed.
Eddie moved some high tops near the bar to make space for it. He regretted the placement almost immediately. The piano did function, but it desperately needed a tuning. After a few drinks, everyone thought they could play—especially the inebriated individuals who absolutely could not.
By closing time on that first day, his ears ached and head pounded. Eddie’s ears continued to ring even after the last customer left. His head throbbed, and at times he caught himself imagining the notes of “Chopsticks” along with the rhythm of his pulse.
He was dying to pop some Advil and get some sleep when he finally got home, but once he crawled into bed, sleep eluded him. The air conditioner was broken and the house was sweltering even with all the windows open. It only stoked his anger. He kept having to willfully unclench his teeth and slow his breath. Fuckin’ rats. Only Margot would be so petty, so ruthless, even in death. Even once Eddie’s headache melted away, his heartbeat thundered in his skull as he seethed himself into a fitful, sweaty sleep.
His phone woke him up just after ten. It was Paul, one of his kitchen staff who had gone to the tavern to prepare for its lunchtime opening.
“Eddie, you gotta get down here.” Paul’s normally cool, unbothered voice was frantic. “You gotta call someone…they’re fuckin’ everywhere!” Paul”s footsteps pounded in the background of the call. Chairs scraped along the floor
“Paul what the…what is going on over there?” Eddie struggled to shake the fog lingering after his shitty night’s sleep. “Paul?”
“Fuck, man—rats! There’s gotta be a couple hundred!”
“Rats?” The fog disappeared with a thunderbolt of sickening clarity. “Paul, there’s rats? In the restaurant?”
Paul didn’t answer at first. There was a heavy thud followed by the mashing of many piano keys at once. “Ho-ly fuck.” Paulie drew those words out like he was having trouble believing what he was seeing. “They’re coming from the piano, Eddie! They’re…it’s full of them! Oh my God…”
Eddie’s eyes bulged and his jaw hung open. His restaurant was no fine dining establishment, but he took pride in it and it was clean. There was no way an infestation like the one Paul described could have been brewing without Eddie’s notice.
“Eddie!” Paul sounded like he was about to cry. “What the fuck should I do? I can’t—” More thuds and thumps sounded from the tavern. Eddie thought he could make out some squeaks as well.
Paul had been wrong about the number of rats. When Eddie finally got pest control to come, they estimated nearly a thousand rats, including the several litters of baby rats—pink and sightless—they found in and around the piano.
The price tag for their removal made Eddie feel nauseous and dizzy. He couldn’t afford it but had no choice. The restaurant couldn’t open until the rodents were gone.
“Did they all come from the piano?” he’d asked Chris, one of the exterminators. “It was a bit worse for wear but I…think I would have noticed an army of rats stowed away.”
“There’s no way that many rats came from the piano.” Chris looked at the instrument as three fat rats dropped onto the floor from under the lid and shook his head, clearly sharing Eddie’s disbelief. “But those fuckers sure seem attracted to it.”
“Well, then, where did they get in?” It seemed like a pretty important detail.
“We’re trying to figure that out,” said Chris. “I’ve just never seen anything like this. It’s…impossible. But we’ll get it sorted out. No worries.”
A week and thousands of dollars later, it was sorted out. The rats were gone, and the restaurant scrubbed top to bottom. Eddie fumed about the business lost and discarded food. He couldn’t help but think that, somehow, Margot had caused the infestation.
He had to get rid of the fucking piano. He didn’t care that it was clear of vermin. As his bartender, Jess, said, it had a malicious aura. Eddie scrawled FREE on a piece of paper and propped it up over the keyboard, but then thought about all of his bills, flipped it over, and wrote $500 OBO. He hoped someone would be drunk enough to go for it.
The next few days proceeded without incident, aside from the fact that an intense heat wave was ramping up and he still could not afford to get his air conditioner fixed.
By Thursday, even the nighttime temperature was over one hundred degrees and Eddie decided to crash at the tavern. He laid a sleeping bag out on the floor of the office and tried his best to get comfortable.
Falling asleep was an impossible task. The wall clock, which he never paid any attention to before, ticked so loudly that he couldn’t tune it out. Even worse was that he could swear that every third tick was slightly delayed, and the inconsistency set his teeth on edge.
He tried to let his mind wander, in hopes that his brain would slip into sleep between his disjointed thoughts. He thought about what fun projects he would do around his house after the air conditioner was settled. He thought about taking a vacation, maybe a road trip to California and up the coast. He thought about piano recitals, small fingers picking at the keys, the notes mostly correct but the timing way off. He heard Mary Had a Little Lamb over and over again, then Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Eddie realized it wasn’t his imagination, it was coming from out by the bar. The music was becoming more and more out of time and out of tune, and as he got up and slowly approached the office door it was no longer anything resembling music, but rather the furious mashing of keys.
He opened the door just in time to see the key lid slam shut. He couldn’t make his hand let go of the doorknob; he clung to it like it was a life preserver. It was quiet again in the empty restaurant, the only sounds being the ticking clock, the hum from the refrigerator, and his thunderous heartbeat. He stood in that doorway for what felt like an eternity but was really only about fifteen or twenty minutes until he was able to release his grip on the doorknob and close himself back into the office. This time he locked the door.
It took another hour, but Eddie finally drifted into a sort of half-sleep. There’s no such thing as a haunted piano. Tiny, benign noises startled him awake several times, but he managed to get at least a few hours of rest before the music started again.
This time, the piano did not play children’s tunes. Instead, a complex and haunting melody seeped under the office door and into his ears. An icy sweat crept from his pores as recognition hit him: this had been Margot’s favorite piece. He had never heard it before she began playing it in her teens, and he had never heard it since.
Some tunes can bring a person to tears with their beauty. This one reduced Eddie to devastated sobs as memories of his sister bubbled up to his mind’s surface. Her sharp facial features with an eternal sneer; her shrill and condescending voice; the smell of her powdery perfume, which was more appropriate for an old lady than the young woman she was at the time. All the awful things she had been trickled back across the veil as if summoned by the music.
He needed to make it stop or he would lose his mind.
He unlocked the door, but the knob wouldn’t budge. No amount of fiddling with the knob or locking mechanism accomplished anything. As Eddie rattled the knob, the tempo of the music picked up. The player, whoever or whatever it was, missed notes with the increased speed. It could no longer be considered music—it was a chaotic cacophony of notes, coming faster and faster.
The noise was so loud and all-consuming that Eddie didn’t hear the fire alarm at first. Only when smoke began to fill his nostrils did he recognize its whine above the auditory nightmare coming from the piano.
He pounded and kicked at the door in the futile hope that he might knock it open. There was no window in the office, and no other door. He was trapped. He needed help.
He grabbed his mobile phone from beside his sleeping bag and screamed in frustration. NO SERVICE appeared across the notification bar. When the land line’s handset greeted him with dead air, he hurled the entire phone across the room.
The air grew hot and thick as the fire raged out in the restaurant. What started as a haze in the room quickly became a thick layer of choking smoke. He dropped to the floor, where the clearest air was, and pulled his t-shirt up over his mouth and nose.
Eddie knew that he was going to die.
Eddie had woken up on a stretcher outside the smoldering remains of his tavern, with a paramedic holding an oxygen mask over his mouth and nose. With each breath, Eddie had felt like a wire brush scraped the insides of his lungs. He was lucky to be alive.
A week after the fire, he returned to what was left of the tavern. He was not supposed to enter the rubble, but he had to see if it was gone.
Eddie climbed over the waterlogged, charred ruins of booths and tables towards the bar area. He nearly tripped over an abandoned firefighters’ axe as it came into view.
“Son of a bitch,” he said. He was awestruck and yet he couldn’t imagine anything different from what was before him. Surrounded by soot and blackened wood, the monstrous piano sat utterly untouched. The roof had partially caved in over the bar, and the sun cast a beam of light over it as if to spotlight the monstrosity before him.
A wave of dizziness overtook Eddie for a moment. His knees grew weak and his vision dimmed. When it passed, the stunned feeling was replaced with rage.
If Margot had stood before him right then, he knew he would have killed her without pause. His restaurant— and the decades worth of blood, sweat, tears, and enormous sums of money he had poured into it—was gone.
He would have to settle for the next best thing.
He grabbed the fire axe and charged the piano. The wood splintered and split with each anger-fueled chop. Metal snapped against wood as the axe broke through the piano’s steel wires. A few whipped across his knuckles as they broke, but Eddie didn’t notice the bloody gouges. He continued to slam the axe against the cursed piano until a hidden compartment in the wood above the keyboard popped open. A glass vial no larger than a lighter tumbled out onto the floor in front of him.
The vial had no label or markings, but contained a viscous black fluid. In his fury, Eddie stomped on the tiny container. The glass was thick, but his boot snapped it at the bottleneck. As Eddie returned to destroying the piano, the air filled with a putrid stench as the leaking liquid transformed into a thick cloud.
The cloud swirled around Eddie and into his nose and throat. It irritated his still-healing lungs and coated his mouth and nasal passages with a burning, oily residue. He didn’t notice himself growing weaker. He didn’t notice himself leaving his own body.
Only once Margot had fully evicted him from his own flesh did he realize she had won. He watched his own face curl into a wicked sneer—one that he instantly recognized as his sister’s.
Margot dropped the axe, brushed her bloodied and blistered hands on Eddie’s jeans, and turned to leave the bar.
“Thanks, you little shit.” She paused, turning to look back in the direction of the broken piano. “I knew you couldn’t hold it together. Never could.” She left with her hijacked body, but Eddie remained stuck, tethered forever to the ruined piano.