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Unlike some stories, in which the narrator fumbles around loose memories searching for a place to start, the beginning of my story is easily marked. It began with my aunt's demise, last week. You don't need to know her name, but I will refer to her here as Jane. She was found on the floor of her apartment, lying in a tangle of limbs at the foot of her piano. Her usually neat hair was spread thickly across the carpet, like mayonnaise on a ham sandwich, or blood at a murder scene. "Stroke, and then she fell", the man standing nearby said. Maybe he was a paramedic. I couldn't tell through the film in my eyes and the fog in my head. It wasn't until later that I started questioning.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Standing numbly and uselessly, I watched them take her through the door. Sitting in a hard, cold metal chair, I watched a black box slide into a pit the next day. And, like clockwork, Jane's last will was found, verified, and read. She was never really close to anyone. Only the most tenuous of sisterhoods linked her to my mother, and a superficial love of classical piano was all she had in common with me, her only other family. So although I was surprised to find her antique piano left to me, I suppose it was to be expected.
It is one thing to give me a piano, Aunt Jane, but you left it to me on exceedingly awkward terms. That was what first piqued my curiosity. I supposed that's how you intended it. But the way you left it to me was almost cruel. I would say I wish you hadn't, but it's no use now.
You see, my reader, the piano was to be given to me on the condition that it would stay in my aunt's apartment, that I would only play from the repertoire left in the piano bench, and that it would be dismantled and burned at the end of one month. That deadline forced me to set aside any fears about entering an apartment that had seen death, and visit the doomed piano on its deathbed.
It was not without some apprehension, however, that I stepped into that doorway again. I half-raised a hand to knock, not because I forgot Jane was dead, but almost because I wanted to verify it. Simple sense halted my hand, though, and I lowered it somewhat abashedly. After a quick tussle with the lock, I stood rigidly looking into the series of rooms that had housed my aunt not three days ago.
The piano stood where it had always been, but its habitat had been quite changed. Several pieces of the furniture had been claimed and taken away, and others still stood around, almost nervously, as if awaiting their new home. I turned again to the piano. It was an upright, with dark wood of some indistinguishable kind, the standard 88 keys, and not a few scratches. The only unusual aspect was a clock, of the same dark wood, mounted onto the ledge above the keys, right of the raised board for propping up music. It stood importantly, as if time could fly away on notes and it was the head guard responsible for detaining it.
I opened up the bench. There was a stack of well-used books and single pages of sheet music. Flipping through it, I found that all of it was Chopin. Nocturnes, polonaises, mazurkas, and even tedious etudes galore. I hadn't known that Jane had such a preference for Chopin. She seemed to respect him and his music, of course, but not with any great fervor. Choosing not to ponder over what didn't matter, I sat myself down to play like a careless amateur, picking off whatever looked easiest.
As soon as I struck the first couple chords, my gut seemed to lurch, as if I had been sitting in a racing car that had stopped without warning. And then my eye caught the clock. You can probably already guess what I saw. The hands were creeping backwards, slowly and creakily, as if they had arthritis, but indubitably. I froze; the music stopped. There was another jerk and the hands leaped to their original position. Of course. A piano time-machine? Thanks, Jane.
I paused. I breathed.
I positioned my fingers on the keys again, half-expecting an electric shock or a sphinx to ridicule me with a riddle or something else irrational. No shock. Nothing. I breathed again. And played.
The clock began rewinding again, picking up speed. Somewhere in my consciousness, behind and somehow above the eyes, on a separate plane I didn’t know existed, I watched a tape of time in reverse. Yet at the same time, my eyes were still on the lines and dots of music. Does that make sense?
I saw myself walk into the room and sit down. You would think that I'd see myself walking backwards, but somehow that's not how this VCR worked. You don't see anything definitely, as images over time, but more as flashes and impressions. It doesn't even spin back sequentially. You float and in a strange way you direct which point you dive into. It's like intuition that's not your own. I don't think there's a way to clearly describe something so unclear. I apologize.
You might wonder why I took all this without losing my mind, running to the authorities, or at least indulging in some rigorous screaming. I would attribute it to sleep deprivation, or maybe some hereditary insanity of my own. But, in truth, I think it was because I expected something like this from Jane. She wasn't exactly the sanest soul around. And all of the strangeness of leaving me this piano smelled of peculiarity, I’m sure you’ll agree. Furthermore, I've always believed that there are phenomena in this world that cannot be described. Why, then, should I run from this piano that conveniently also functioned as a DVR, in a way? Wouldn't you be curious?
However, it was enough for one day. I gathered up all the music and tried to stuff it into the bench, predictably dropping papers all over the floor. Picking them up, I found a note. (Didn't you see that coming?)
I hope you enjoy the thrill of flying without the terror of falling.
I walked out of the apartment, a little shaken, but sane. As the days wore on and my visits became more frequent and more extended, I felt myself losing my grip on sense. The piano was possessing me, like it possessed Jane, and it was all the more pitiful because I had been warned. The end of the month drew nearer, and I hoped fervently that I could hang on till then.
Like a fly drawn to rotting meat, I grasped hungrily at memories. Old ones upheld my confidence, and new ones inflamed excitement. I developed a morbid taste for experimenting, seeing how far I could push back and compress time. The clock, as if sympathetic to my efforts, spun back faster and shapes took on more definite outlines. I could even evoke the timeline of places miles away. I would share those flashes I saw, if I thought it mattered. But even colors on a different plane fade. What was really remarkable was the feeling, the feeling of somehow defying the limitations of a natural world, of bending the sky and shaping the air. Somehow, this was an art form, and I wanted to master it as much as I feared to understand it. I don't think I can impress in words the stranglehold I was in. It was like watching concrete walls close in on me while I sat, paralyzed. I felt I understood how Jane died. If days took such a toll on me, I wonder at how Jane survived years.
There's really no need for me to describe how that month--those thirty wrenching, dizzying days--went by. I was both more terrified and more overjoyed than I have ever been. Nothing else I can say can be more extreme than that.
They tell me I'm pale and blank. That's to be expected; it's the last day of the month. And I've decided. Tomorrow that piano is vanishing from this world it doesn't belong in. And today, I have the honor of taking one last trip. I want to see how my aunt died. Closure, a psychologist might call it. I want to trace her graceful tumble off that piano bench, how she lost her life in fascination with the supernatural that haunts us all.