A Meikle Bay Short Story
with a start, her sheets soaked in sweat. The dream again. It was getting
worse. No matter how well her therapy was going, she just couldn’t shake these
night terrors. It was maddening, and she was beginning to think she’d never
break free. The only thing that had remotely come close was her music...at
least, when she finally relented to Dr. McTavendish’s demands that she start
playing again, anyway.
This, of course, she found very ironic. After all, she could trace the night terrors to the very day her husband Paul had brought home that old Steinway upright piano. He’d been so proud of the find. Having stumbled upon an estate auction, he’d won the thing for a steal. Just a mere two-hundred-and-fifty dollars. Remembering how she’d told him of her childhood love of playing, he’d practically beamed when the delivery men rolled the thing into their home.
At first, Melody had relished the gift. She’d played it until the wee hours of the morning. She’d been surprised at how well-maintained the old thing was. Perfectly tuned. The wires nice and taut. It truly made the most beautiful music. But when she’d finally gone to bed, she’d had the most vivid and terrifying dreams. Visions of blood. Anguished screams. A hodge-podge of violent, insidious images flashing through her mind’s eye. And that was just the beginning. As the dream progressed, her head was filled with visions of a mysterious and ancient city in ruins, while great tidal waves crashed down against its irregularly shaped rocks and structures, which had been erected so close to shore. Corpses lined the weed-infested streets, while strange bat-winged creatures circled above, crying out with hungry voices. She’d awakened at just the moment an enormous shadow loomed high above her, its great tentacles reaching out to snatch her from the Earth, while gigantic black eyes watched her hungrily. And when she awoke, she could swear her ears could hear the strangest, most serene voice singing from somewhere in the distance. Calling her to something she could not quite comprehend.
She’d had the exact same dream every night for the past six months—the exact same singing—since the piano had entered her home.
Melody, of course, knew just how irrational the whole thing sounded. After all, pianos couldn’t invoke nightmares. There were no such things as goblins or ghosts or supernatural monsters. No such thing as curses. But she’d become convinced that, somehow, the Steinway was the source of her nocturnal horrors.
So, to the chagrin of her husband, she’d abandoned playing it. She had adamantly refused to even look at the ivory keys, as they gleamed white and black in the soft light of her home’s parlor. That was, until Dr. McTavendish explained that the only way to overcome this odd, irrational fear would be to face it head on. He’d insisted that whenever she experienced another one of these nightmares, she was to immediately go down and play the thing. ‘Disassociation,’ he’d called it. Disassociating the piano from the dreams. Proving to her subconscious that playing the Steinway in no way contributed to her startling dream world.
The good doctor had been a life saver. Having a practice nearly sixty miles away in the sleepy little fishing village of Meikle Bay, he’d been recommended to her by her second cousin. Old fashioned to the core, Dr. McTavendish had insisted that she need not trouble herself by driving all the way out to his office. Instead, he had made regular house calls to help her cope with her dilemma. Despite his odd appearance—his large bulbous eyes and thick, pouty lips had always reminded Melody of a goldfish she’d had as a child—he had quickly prescribed the peculiar musical therapy, after only two visits. At first, she’d hated to admit it, but the strange little man seemed to be on to something, because every single time she forced herself to sit down on that bench and allowed her nimble fingers to glide over the keys, something nearly magical happened. She’d find herself enraptured by the music she was creating. She’d find herself in a calming place that truly soothed her frazzled soul. The more she played, the more peace she would attain, which always led to a stronger need to play, just a little longer. Most importantly of all, the moment her fingers touched the keys, she would completely forget the gut-wrenching dreams of a few moments before.
Soon after, Melody had easily come to the realization that nothing capable of creating such beauty and invoking such calm could possibly be the source of her nightly visitations. She quickly found herself relishing those moments she could spend with the wonderful old Steinway. It had become one of her most treasured possessions, rendered even sweeter by the fact that it had been an unsolicited gift from her doting husband.
Exhaling deeply and anxiously anticipating the sweet musical bliss that was about to be hers, Melody slid from the bed and wrapped her housecoat around her waist. Then, after ensuring Paul hadn’t been disturbed, she slipped on her houseshoes, tip-toed down the stairs, and stealthily made her way to parlor, where the antique Steinway sat silently against the wall. Upon seeing the old thing, she let out a relieved sigh, as her spirits instantly lifted.
Since acquiring the Steinway, and discovering the strange effect it seemed to have on her, Melody had spent some time digging into its past. What she’d discovered was more unnerving than she could have possibly imagined, and for a while, it lent credence to her previous idea that the piano might have been cursed in some way. Of course, she knew that such things just didn’t happen. Evil, after all, was a state of mind. An attitude of the heart. Inanimate objects were incapable of having such attributes.
But if something could, she had no doubt it would be this piano. Especially considering the grisly murder surrounding its recent past.
Her research had revealed that the Steinway had previously belonged to a sweet old woman, Gertrude Helmsley, who’d lived the next town over. Her sensational murder had made national news because of its horrific nature. The woman’s husband of sixty-seven years had snapped one night. Just completely lost his mind. He’d supposedly taken a chisel and hammer from his wood-working shop, and he turned the tools against the woman he’d professed to love for more than half a century. It had been brutal, and it had shocked the entire country. The last Melody had heard, the old man was still being kept in a hospital for the criminally insane, completely oblivious to what he had done to his wife.
Mrs. Helmsley had played piano in her church for fifty-nine years, and she had used the Steinway to practice in her home. From all accounts, the piano had given the old woman many years of joy, and she had cherished it until the day she died. After learning all this, and once Melody had come to terms with the fact that the piano was not constructed from wood carved in the pits of Hell, Melody committed herself to honoring the old woman, by getting as much use out of the piano as she could and by revering it with equal enthusiasm.
Quietly, she pulled out the piano’s bench and flipped open the lid, rifling through the sheet music hidden inside. When she’d first received the Steinway, she’d poured over every single piece of music that had tagged along with the bench. Some pieces she knew quite well; they were classics—staples of piano culture. There were old-time hymns and even a handful of classical pieces. A few were less familiar to her, and she had been captivated in her painstaking attempts to master such brilliant works of music. So tonight, after her latest ‘episode,’ she needed something exceptionally challenging. Something that would require all her skill—and more importantly, all her concentration—to play. Something that would completely eradicate the horrid sense of dread still lingering from her last nightmare.
Carefully, she scanned each piece of music, playing the song in her head before discarding it to the floor, next to the piano. One by one, she sorted through the sheet music, until she had rejected every single piece with growing frustration. She needed something soothing. A piece that would flow over her like a refreshing shower, washing away the besieging darkness invading her psyche. But none of the music she had would work. She just knew it. She needed something else. She wanted something infinitely more complicated that would ease her growing apprehension over the night terrors.
With a growl of irritation, she slammed the lid down on the stool, instantly cringing at the sudden noise. The last thing she needed to do was wake Paul. He’d had such a stressful week. Not only had his own sleep been restless in recent weeks, but he’d just been told that his firm was about to file for bankruptcy. His future—and by proxy, Melody’s—was in jeopardy, and the stress had been quickly mounting. The dear, sweet man had always been so devoted to her; always putting her needs over his. He deserved his rest. She hated the thought that her outburst might have woken him. Nervously, she glanced up, eyeing the direction of the stairs for any sign of movement. But after a moment, when no sounds came, she exhaled and looked down at the bench again.
A sliver of crisp, yellowing parchment now jutted out from the cushioned lining of the bench seat. It had apparently been hidden there all the time she’d had the piano, but it had slipped through an old gash in the fabric when she’d slammed the lid shut. Reaching out, she picked up the ancient-looking sheet and held it under the light on top of the Steinway. The parchment was old.
It looked to have been made of something akin to lambskin. It was obviously a piece of music, though there was no title or even a composer written on it. The notes had obviously been handwritten. With the thickening and thinning of the lines across the page, Melody got the distinct impression that the music had been written with some sort of quill pen, furthering her assumption that the piece might be very old indeed.
She stood there, transfixed, examining the parchment with potent curiosity. The musical notes weren’t the only scribblings she could make out on the page. There was, upon closer inspection, some faded writing scrawled along the edges of the parchment. Strange writing that reminded her of something almost Arabic. Its jagged lines lashed out harshly in barely visible ink, eliciting an unsettling feeling the in the pit of her stomach. Along with the odd writing, she could also make out the vestiges of what looked like arcane hieroglyphs. Obscure cuneiform scripts. And disturbingly familiar doodles of tentacles and bat wings.
But the music. Oh, the music itself looked most promising. Despite the uneasiness she felt over the cryptic symbols, the musical notes scrawled across the lines were most tantalizing.
Cautiously, almost reverently, Melody placed the sheet on the piano stand, settled herself down onto the bench, and scanned the music. She allowed the piece to play out in her head, imagining each note languidly occurring out in its prescribed four-four time. Though she’d been pining for a bit of a challenge, she wasn’t entirely sure she was ready to tackle the complicated, but obviously masterful composition. In her head, the music would stagger the mind with its beauty. She balked at the idea of marring such splendor with incompetent fingers. Still, the very idea of playing such a lovely piece of music was more than she could resist. She absolutely had to hear the notes become a reality, for better or worse.
Taking a deep breath, Melody drew closer to the Steinway; her quivering palms hovered just inches from the keys. Her night terrors completely forgotten, all that remained was the potential delight of the music on the sheet.
Slowly, her fingers lowered, tentatively finding their places across the ivory. At the sound of the first three notes, her trepidation quickly evaporated. She found her hands moving automatically across the keys with such confidence, it seemed the music had begun to play itself.
And what music it was!
The haunting tune echoed forth from its wood-encased prison, reverberating around the sitting room with quiet abandon. Her pulse quickened as the song’s pitch rose up, like her dream-ocean’s waves against a craggy cliffside. The rhythm increased to match the rising beat of Melody’s heart. Or was it the other way around? She couldn’t be sure.
And as she played, the music swirled around her, penetrating deeply into her soul. Her psyche. Her very being. The minutes came and went, as her deft fingers stroked the keys on through the night. She was completely oblivious to time and unconcerned with the world around her.
Oddly, she was suddenly aware of something else within the music. A presence, if that was even possible. She was, after all, the only one at the piano. And yet… There was an inexplicable new sound. A new addition to the song, for which she was not responsible. At first, she believed her sleep deprivation was catching up with her, creating auditory hallucinations. But the more she played, the more persistent the alien sound became. Even stranger, she began to decipher the sound as a voice—the most hauntingly lovely voice she’d ever heard—singing. The very same one that always accompanied her horrid dreams.
Only this time, there was no sense of dread accompanying it. No sense of danger or foreboding.
So she continued playing.
In reality, the musical exercise had become almost compulsory. In her mind, she simply couldn’t imagine ever stopping such a lovely song. She couldn’t arrest the profound, otherworldly voice that swam in the air all around her, like some invisible siren calling her inexorably toward a realm of idyllic wonders.
She played on still, disquietingly unconcerned with the strange, disembodied voice singing in an alien tongue, just barely at edge of the range of human hearing. Melody found herself enraptured by every note, every nuance…every change in timing. She was so captivated by the music that she only barely perceived the creaking sound from the hardwood floors in their upstairs bedroom. She was only partially concerned that the music might have woken Paul from his well-earned slumber.
Oh, he’ll go back to sleep soon enough, she thought. Probably just getting up to use the bathroom.
And so, the intoxicating music continued to permeate her inner core. The strange chanting voice melted in and out of audible range, accompanying the song with such sweet harmony that—
A searing bolt of fire suddenly shot through Melody’s head, temporarily blinding her and halting the lovely song.
An image flashed across her field of vision. Two enormous black eyes, large enough to drive a truck through. Malevolent eyes. Hate-filled.
This was something new. It was like a waking continuation of her nightly terrors. She was dreaming those ghastly dreams while wide awake. She tried to shake it off, but those evil, enraged eyes continued to glare at her. Melody could feel their wrathful ire, even as the vision faded.
The sight cleared, and she found herself once more in her parlor. Alone and at the piano. Unconsciously, her fingers had resumed playing the music scrawled across the brittle parchment, and within seconds, she was once more lost in its rhythmic womb; the hateful eyes were already a distant memory. The music weaved its way around her. Soothing her frazzled nerves. Wrapping her in a blanket of newborn warmth until…
Once more, she was somewhere else. Seeing someone else.
An elderly woman. An expression of stark tranquility on the woman’s face, as her gnarled, arthritic hands danced over the old Steinway’s keys. Though there was no sound to this new apparition, Melody understood with crystal clarity that the old woman—obviously Mrs. Helmsley—was playing from the same mysterious piece of music. The ecstatic look of pleasure on the woman’s face made it obvious enough, without even having to see the leathery parchment.
Upon that realization, Melody’s point of view suddenly shifted. She was now seeing through Helmsley’s eyes, watching the ancient fingers peck away at the ivory with practiced precision. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the sound of the blissful music returned, and Melody found herself no longer caring whose body she currently inhabited.
All that mattered was the song.
Together, Melody and Helmsley played, savoring the experience in such a way that felt as though both women were aware of the other’s presence. And the sweet, disembodied voice continued its radiant performance.
Another creak, though Melody couldn’t be sure whether the sound had come from the bedroom or the stairs. Couldn’t tell whether it had come from her home or from Mrs. Helmsley’s. Something inside her screamed that she should care…that she should take notice…but the music wrapped its warm embrace around her once more. Thoughts of the outside world evaporated.
The creaking persisted, stoking Melody’s ire at the interruption. She glanced around the foreign den surrounding her, forgetting for a moment that she was seeing the world through Helmsley’s eyes. The room was filled with bookshelves stuffed with gaudy, old knick-knacks. Doilies. Photos of smiling grandchildren at Christmas time. An unmistakable scent of mothballs, mildew, and potpourri permeated the air. The yellow shag carpet was stained by decades of use. An old Hoover vacuum sat unused in one corner of the room.
But despite the astonishing sense of ordinariness about the room, Melody sensed something dark lurking just beyond her field of vision. She could almost feel those black, burning eyes glaring at her once more. A shiver trickled coolly down her spine.
The song ceased. The old woman lifted her hands off the keys and tilted her head to one side.
“Darrell?” the woman asked, though the voice was Melody’s. “Is that you, dear?”
No one answered.
The old woman waited a few beats before turning her attention once more to the piano. Melody could sense the song calling to the old woman, just as strongly as it had called to her. Soon, the evocative tune poured forth from the Steinway again, even more intoxicating than before. It was as if the notes were a drug from which Melody had no desire to be weaned.
The sound of something metal clanging in the next room caught her attention briefly, but within seconds, both she and Mrs. Helmsley were once more focused on the only thing that truly mattered—the Song. Though the nagging thoughts of her subconscious warned her that she needed to remember something, she simply didn’t care. By now, the Song—as she had come to think of it—had become so important and so essential to her that the thought of life without it, or without the lilting voice that accompanied it, was anathema. Her every thought was centered within the music. It was where she took her every breath.
A ragged scream of rage suddenly broke Melody’s concentration. Helmsley whirled around toward the source of the sound, just as an aged, hump-shouldered, old man burst into the room. As though they were one, Melody was acutely aware of the panicked thoughts rapidly firing through Mrs. Helmsley’s mind at the sight.
The old man’s cold black eyes were wide with rage, and though Melody had never met him before, she knew somehow that they were not the eyes of Darrell Helmsley. Although his visage was identical to the man the elder woman had loved dearly for more than half a century, there was something utterly alien in those eyes. Bestial. Hate-filled. Like something from a nightmare.
Like something from one of my nightmares, Melody thought.
“Darrell, what’s wrong with…”
Mrs. Helmsley’s question was brought to an abrupt halt, as the crazed man brought up both hands, revealing a hammer and a chisel clutched tightly in each fist. He cackled maliciously, as those black eyes continued to burn into Helmsley’s soul. The sheer vitriol of that gaze sliced its way savagely into Melody’s very core.
“Honey, what are you do—”
But Darrell was lunging toward her, hammer and chisel slamming down against the old woman’s fragile skull. Instantly, Melody was ripped from the woman’s consciousness, and she found herself once again in her own body. Her own home. Where everything was familiar again. Safe.
Her heart hammered against her chest. Adrenaline pumped through her veins from her wild hallucination. Yet that voice deep inside her still screamed. Warned her that something wasn’t right. The room…the parlor she’d designed as a place of peace and tranquility…had been invaded. Something in her soul told her that. Those huge black eyes had followed her here. Were looking at her even now.
More movement from somewhere in the house.
“Paul?” she asked cautiously, shifting her weight slightly on the piano bench. “Is that you?”
She waited for a response, hoping her pulse would slow down enough for her to hear over it.
She started to stand, just as the man she married three years before ambled into the room. Though the sitting room was dim, lit only by the single light resting on top of the upright piano, she could tell something was wrong with the way he was standing. His silhouette was odd. Weirdly shaped. He was hunched over, as if he was carrying a ton of weight across his shoulders.
He held something in his left hand. Something long and threatening.
“Paul? Are you alright?” she asked. “I’m sorry if I woke you.”
A low growl hissed from the shadows around her husband’s face. Then he took a single loping step forward, into the halo of the light.
They weren’t Paul’s. They were the same eyes she’d seen on Darrell Helmsley. Dark, malevolent eyes. Alien. The same huge black eyes from her nightmares.
With a snarl, the man who was once Melody’s husband raised up the Louisville Slugger baseball bat over his head and lunged at her. Within seconds, all was dark.
The only thing Melody was aware of as she drifted into oblivion was the strange, haunting music, that ethereal voice, and the phantasmic impression of enormous tentacles reaching out to her from the deep.