It had been too long.
Ethan stood at the bottom of the staircase in front of the padlocked door, trying to catch his breath. He just didn't have it in him to get down the stairs like that anymore. In one hand he gripped the handle of his walking cane, the wood worn smooth by use and familiarity, and the other groped beneath the collar of his shirt. He drew out an old key that hung from a thin chain around his neck. His arthritic fingers clutched the brass awkwardly as he unlocked the door, which creaked as it swung open.
The room beyond was concrete and square, with no windows and only the one door. Ethan shuffled cautiously into the room and reached up, finding the splintering thread that activated the bare lightbulb on the ceiling. He squinted as his eyes adjusted to the pale yellow light that filled the room, and it took a minute before he could fully make out the meagre contents of the room.
Against the wall opposite the door stood a small, upright piano. The mahogany was nicked and scratched and covered in a fine layer of grey dust. Enough dust there to grow potatoes in, she would've said and he grimaced. A single page of sheet music rested in the stand, yellowed with age. Above the piano was a square mirror that reflected back a face of lines and creases, foggy eyes and thin hair. Next to the piano was a little bookshelf, standing about hip-high, with a large blue photo album on top of it. He traced his fingers over the textured leather cover before flipping it open.
The pages were filled with photographs, starting with a black and white photo of a young couple on their wedding day. Curling script on the bottom declared them 'Ethan and Moira,' with the date beneath it, some sixty-three years ago. Ethan dragged a fingertip fondly over the woman's beautiful face, smiling and bright as she gazed up at him. That had been so long ago now.
Normally he never waited so long. Normally he'd have sat down at the piano decades ago.
But then he'd never known anyone like her before.
Flipping through decades of memories, Ethan felt his eyes stinging with loss and love. They'd had such a good life together. A whirlwind romance and an extravagant wedding. A honeymoon in Europe. Twelve pages in was the photograph of their first child's birth, little Michael who was now an old man in his own rights, with children and a grandchild of his own.
Six pages later came Jessica, and then Tyler. The entire middle of the book documented the steady growth of their three children, from infancy to college graduations. Then came the grandchildren. Throughout the whole thing was her smiling face, eyes crinkled at the corners and nothing but pure adoration and happiness in her gaze. Gradually her hair turned white and her face became etched with wrinkles, but that same smile was always there.
He turned to the last page in the book and stared at the blank photo sleeve. There was really only one thing left to add now. Ethan reached into his pocket and drew out the folded sheet of newsprint he'd cut from the Sunday morning paper. He smoothed it out in his palm, a more recent photograph of Moira grinning up at him beneath the bolded heading of 'Moira Lynn Anderson.' His eyes slid over key phrases - 'died peacefully,' 'survived by her husband, three children, seven grandchildren, and a great-grandchild,' 'will be sorely missed.'
A tear trembled at the corner of his eye as he slid the obituary into the photo sleeve. After nearly seventy years together, she was really gone. In all his life he'd never felt a pain quite like that moment when he'd watched the light disappear from her eyes, the corner of her mouth still turned up in the ghost of a smile.
Ethan shook his head and rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand. His legs shook as he lowered himself down to sit on the piano bench, leaning his cane against the side. Deep down he didn't want to do this but she had made him promise, and no matter how badly it hurt him to think about, he could never break a promise. Not when it came to her.
The hinges screeched loudly as he opened the lid, revealing the row of ivory keys. He struck one note, the middle C, and listened to the out-of-tune sound. Not that it mattered if it was in tune. It never had before. He stretched his painful fingers and set them on the keys, squinting through his bifocals at the sheet music.
It truly had been too long. He should've done this ages ago but he couldn't bear to leave her. Now that he had nothing to stay for, he wasn't sure if his fingers had the strength to do what they had always done before.
The notes came out coarse and sickly as his fingers stumbled through the first measure of music. He faltered on the pretense of finding his place but when he squinted at the right notes he couldn't compel his fingers to move. He could feel it there, the pleasant, electric fuzziness that settled behind his eyes whenever he did this, but for some reason it wasn't the comfort that it normally was to him. The promise of oblivion, of sweet nothing and fresh beginnings, suddenly seemed like a horrible spectre looming over his shoulder, waiting to devour his soul.
He glanced to his left and, like a ghost from the past, could see Moira sitting on the bench beside him. She was young and glowed ethereal, giggling to herself as she tapped out an awkward child's song on the stained ivory. She looked up at him and smiled, and her voice reached him from the depths of his memory, reminding him of the promise he had made to her that day. "This is wonderful, Ethan," she'd said. "Think of all the adventures you've still left to have! Promise me you'll do it. Promise me you'll come back and do it, when I'm old and no fun to be with anymore."
He had laughed at her, told her that would never happen, but at her insistence he had agreed. Over the years she had reminded him of his word, but he always had an excuse not to do it. Not yet. Tyler's birthday was coming up, he'd do it after that. Michael's oldest was graduating school, he'd go after that. He couldn't rightly miss her seventieth birthday, he'd go after everything had settled down from that.
One excuse after another, until he was sitting at her bedside in the hospital, clutching her thin hand on top of the starched bedsheets while the heart monitor rang through the room like a metronome. A countdown to the end. "No more excuses, Ethan," she'd whispered with a knowing smile. The same smile had still been on her lips hours later when the metronome stopped.
No more excuses. Ethan took a steadying breath and set his fingers back on the keys. Immediately the buzz in his skull flared into life once again, humming with anticipation. He knew exactly how it would work. By the end of the sixth measure the tingling would spread to his extremities and bring with it that pleasant fuzziness in his head. Come the tenth measure, the memories in his head would start to blur and fade. The man who finished the song on the page would be an entirely different man, with a new, younger face and no decades of memories weighing him down.
A man with lifetimes of adventures still ahead of him.
Ethan glanced down to check that his fingers were on the right keys but a glimmer of light made him pause. The ring on his left finger, aged by a half century of wear, had caught the reflection of the dull bulb in the ceiling. In all of the years, in all of the lifetimes that filled the pages of the books on his shelf, there had never been a wedding ring before. There had never been a story of love, commitment, or family.
"I'm sorry, Moira," he breathed into the silent room. "One last excuse. I love you. Once I'm finished with that, then I'll play the song." His lips curled up at the corners as he lowered the lid over the piano keys for the last time. Grabbing his cane, he stood with a groan and took one final look around the room. It had only taken him hundreds of years, dozens of lives, but it seemed he'd finally found what he'd been looking for. He locked up the basement door behind him, slid the key through the gap at the bottom, and turned to face the stairs. No turning back now.
It was time to go back to the simplest and most important adventure of them all: his family.