“Sonata” — a short story by Kirk Loftin

October 14th, 2019

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“Sonata,” a story by Kirk Loftin, was a finalist in our recently concluded 51st Short Fiction Contest. It is published with the permission of the author

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Photo by. Rene Asmussen .from. Pexels

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Sonata

by

Kirk Loftin

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…..Jonathan was only eight years old the first time he fell. It was the first winter in the new house, and he wasn’t used to the biting cold yet. It was a large, Gothic structure that scared him at first, but he had grown accustomed to the imposing house on the hill. Everyone who visited commented that it fit his father’s profession, a writer of horror stories and scripts for movies that Jonathan wasn’t allowed to see when they came out. His mother once called his father “the maestro of the macabre,” even though Jonathan didn’t know what either word meant, and was too timid to ask.

…..    Jonathan was a quiet boy. No matter where his family moved, he never seemed able to make friends with the other kids, so he lived a solitary life in his room consuming as many books as he could get his hands on. Mysteries, science fiction, adventures, cowboy novels and spy thrillers, he read them all with the same unbridled enthusiasm. For a child, even the most cliched overdone plot is unexpected and exciting.

…..       He would read for hours as his father wrote in his study or smoked his pipe on the patio, and his mother would tend to the garden or practice the piano. She was elated when they moved in, having found an antique piano in the basement. It wasn’t playable, due to broken strings and missing keys, but his mother looked forward to getting it restored to its former glory. Jonathan’s father had put a hold on the restoration, saying in regards to his work, “the fish haven’t been biting much lately.” This confused Jonathan, because he couldn’t figure out what fishing, an activity he never knew his father to do, had to do with writing scary stories.

…..      In the meantime, Jonathan’s mother played on the same practice piano that had been in their old house. She played lightly, as if not wanting to disturb anyone else in the house, the notes ending quickly as her fingers moved from key to key. She enjoyed her practice piano, but Jonathan could tell that more than anything, she wanted to play the piano in the basement. He could see it in her eyes.

…..        Day after day, a family routine slowly established itself. Most of the time, Jonathan would be tucked away in his room, his nose in a book, as his father typed away on an inherited typewriter, and his mother would play piano, letting the notes float upstairs to her bookish family. Jonathan enjoyed everything about this life, but still found that the carefree joy most children apparently naturally had eluded him.

…..            On the coldest night of that first winter, Jonathan snuggled into his bed-sheets and comforter, wrapping himself as best he could. At a certain point in the night, when everything in the house was still, he gently rocked between consciousness and sleep. He nestled in a little deeper, and he started to fall. His momentary alarm subsided when he realized the gentleness of his sinking. The bed-sheets rose around him, like water does when someone floating on their back loses balance. Eventually, he fell through the bed, and was lowered onto the floorboards, without a pain or sound. At first he laid there, afraid to move. After a few moments with no monsters appearing, he crawled out from underneath the bed. He was about to get back on top when he noticed some kind of furniture across the room. It was a black dresser, and it looked much older than he could guess. It hadn’t been there before, he was sure of it.

…..    Music started to flow up from downstairs. His mother must be playing, although that seemed unusual for this time of night. Did she always play after he had gone to bed? He left his room and headed down the stairs, which were less creaky than he felt they should have been. The song playing sounded sadder than what she normally played, but it was also the most beautiful music Jonathan had ever heard. At the bottom of the stairs, he peeked around the corner into the living room.

…..        His mother (and her practice piano) were nowhere to be found. But, in the place of his mother’s piano was the one from the basement, only it shined with polish and was being played. On the bench sat a young girl, totally white, from her dress to her hair. Jonathan didn’t want to startle her, but he also didn’t want her to stop playing. He hung back in the hallway, listening to that soulful song of sorrow.

…..       The next morning, Jonathan awoke in his bed. He didn’t remember going back up the stairs or returning to bed. He decided it had just been a vivid dream, one that would probably stay in his mind for a few days, but then vanish like the smoke from an extinguished candle. The rest of his day was perfectly normal, full of stories and his mother’s piano practicing. In fact, that must have been where the music in his dream had come from. That night, Jonathan went to bed, and didn’t once think about the night before. He settled in, his mind focused on what book he should start tomorrow, since he finished two books today. As his thoughts became less and less focused, he relaxed more and more. His muscles started to let go, his eyelids rested shut, and he started to slip away into sleep. Except, again, he fell.

…..   Just like the night before, he was enveloped by his bed-sheets until he found himself again on the hardwood of his floor. He crawled out, knowing no monsters would come for him this time. The music floated upstairs again, the same sad song as before. He went downstairs, this time looking around as he traveled. He noticed the pictures on the wall were different, gone were the pictures of the water-park from his birthday that usually hung next to the clock, now, it was pictures of ancient people from a different time. He could tell because of their strange mustaches and big collars and stern, still expressions, like they had to sit still for the picture to be taken. The furniture was different too, the rugs strange and foreign.

…..       Once in the living room, he again saw the girl all in white, playing the piano. It was the same song, slow and sorrowful. He stood there listening to her play for a few moments. She turned towards him, and looked with a face with dark black eyes. Jonathan wasn’t frightened, because it didn’t look like a monster from one of his father’s films, but more like an acceptable difference, like if you see someone with red hair, or a crooked nose. It somehow felt appropriate for her. She looked at him deeply with her dark eyes, and patted the seat next to her on the bench. Jonathan sat next to her and took a deep breath, not knowing what to expect. She turned back towards the keys, and played.

…..        Watching her fingers press the keys, he was struck by how smooth her motions were. His mother played lightly, but with rapid taps, similar to his father at his typewriter. The girl all in white with black eyes played like a painter paints, or a ballerina dances, smooth, moving with some kind of internal understanding more technical people search for but never find. The music surrounded them, and Jonathan cried. He wasn’t sad, but moved. It was as if the song was written specifically for him in this moment, and existed only in the below he fell into.

…..       He awoke the next morning in his bed, again not remembering how he got there. Over the next few days, he tried to fall again, during an afternoon nap, during the night, and he couldn’t seem to repeat his journey. He grew more and more frustrated, eventually attributing it all to his overactive imagination and powerful dreaming. After he had let go of trying to fall, the next night, just as he drifted away, he fell.

…..       He went down the stairs, straight to the living room. The girl with the dark eyes played her song, and Jonathan joined her on the bench. He wanted to ask her name, but found he didn’t know how to speak in this world. Without speaking, he heard her name in his head. Hannah. He didn’t question, because he knew it was true. He didn’t know where she came from, but he knew her name, and that was enough. Hannah.

…..        Hannah played, every note as elegant as the last. After a few moments, she stopped playing. She looked at him with her dark eyes, and picked up his hands. He let her, even though it felt like his bare hands were plunged into a snowbank. She laid his hands gently, as if she might break them, on the keys. Once in position, she placed her hands over his, and started playing. She was playing through him, teaching him her song. Jonathan couldn’t believe that his hands were even capable of such beauty emanating into the world. When his mother had tried to teach him piano, he cried because he just wanted to go back to his books. This time, he cried, not because he wanted to leave, but because he never wanted to leave. He didn’t realize it, but a new phenomena occurred in that moment: books were the last thing on his mind.

…..          Night after night, Jonathan fell. He played the piano with Hannah, her dark eyes dancing when he started to play the song on his own. When he played, it was more clumsy, like the notes were drowsily bumping into furniture on the way to bed. He knew nothing of minor chords or octaves or clefts, but it didn’t matter. This wasn’t music theory, it was music from feeling. The more he played with her, the more he realized to let go of his thoughts, and to let the music flow through him. He wasn’t sure why Hannah shared her song with him, but he knew it was a gift, one he would treasure forever.

…..        During his days, Jonathan started to read about ghosts and other paranormal hauntings. Most of what he found turned out to be silly campfire stories, meant to scare normal kids at sleepovers. Jonathan wasn’t a normal kid, and didn’t have sleepovers. He found these stories to be trivial, silly, unrealistic. When his mother asked why he was suddenly so interested in ghosts, he couldn’t tell her it was because of his falling. He didn’t know how to explain that, or who Hannah was. So he went to her practice piano, and without a word, started playing Hannah’s song.

…..      His mother stood there, startled at his talent, terrified of how he got it without ever touching a piano, and thrilled that her son shared her passion for music. She called his father, who walked in the room annoyed at the interruption, but froze when he entered and saw his son. The music was a song neither had heard, and they both guessed it was Jonathan’s own creation. They didn’t realize it, but as the song played, they reached out and held hands as their only child played a song filled with more sadness than an eight-year-old could possibly understand.

…..       Even as his parents were astonished, Jonathan grew frustrated. The song was wrong. He was playing the keys correctly, his muscle memory was executing each note technically perfect, but it was wrong. Off, somehow, like when you hear someone else explain an event you were present for. He couldn’t finish the song once he realized he wasn’t doing it justice, so he stopped and closed the lid over the keys. He looked up at his parents, and asked for the piano in the basement.

…..        It didn’t work, they told him, which he knew, but they couldn’t afford to restore it to working order, and there’s nothing wrong with this piano, and you played beautifully, and do you want lessons? Jonathan’s shoulders sank, because he knew he could never reproduce the music the way it was meant to be played. He returned to his room, and to his books.

…..       Over the next few years, Jonathan continued to fall almost every night, as long as something wasn’t preoccupying his mind as he tried to sleep. His mother tried to get him to play again, but he wouldn’t touch the practice piano. She once found him in the basement, miming his song on the broken antique piano. She argued with his father occasionally, trying to get him to restore the piano, but the money never materialized. There were always more bills to pay, and it just wasn’t a priority.

…..    On Jonathan’s thirteenth birthday, his birthday gift was a new bed. He had grown significantly, and his feet had been hanging off the bed for over a year. His mother kept suggesting that he needed a new bed, but he was insistent that he didn’t need it. She wasn’t sure why he was reluctant, but figured he would be okay with it once he saw how much more comfortable it would be.

…..    Jonathan’s fear lied in his worry that in the new bed, he wouldn’t be able to fall. The first few nights, he tried. With each night, he tried harder and harder to fall, and it always seemed just out of reach. After a week, he cried himself to sleep, knowing that Hannah and her lovely song were gone forever. After he sobbed, when the emotional numbness after a deep cry set in, he drifted to sleep, and once again, he fell.

…..     He ran down the stairs, and there was Hannah, playing her song as always. She looked at him, and he thought he saw the smallest of smiles. She motioned for him to join her, and he played again. As much as he improved, it still wasn’t as good as when she played. But she encouraged him with her dancing black eyes, keep it up. So he did.

…..     As his teen years went on, he fell less often. It became a nice treat when it happened, but not an everyday occurrence, like catching a cartoon you liked as a child on television. He had started writing, terribly at first, but becoming more confident with each story that passed through his pen. As he aged, he thought more and more about writing, and school, and girls, and less about Hannah and her song. He graduated, left for college, and the falling stopped.

…..        Jonathan met a girl in one of his literature courses, a pretty girl with brown curls that had a troublemaker’s smile and a librarian’s glasses. He was in love, but she took her time to return that love. Eventually, they married, and moved into a small apartment. They had a baby boy, and with all the long nights of crying infancy, Jonathan forgot about Hannah.

…..      Several happy years passed, and Jonathan started to be a successful writer of his own. He wrote books for children and adults, books that were funny, and books that were scary. He wrote whatever came into his head, and he felt fulfilled. He was full of love for his family, and he wouldn’t have changed anything. One day, on his son’s first day of school, the phone rang. It was the police, calling to let him know that his parents had died in a car accident.

…..       Jonathan’s heart ached, like all children’s do when they lose their parents. As he took care of all the responsibilities, the funeral, the plots, the wills, he mourned quietly. They left him the Gothic house, and he discussed with his wife and they thought it would be good to continue their life in his childhood home. As they moved in, they exchanged some of his parents’ furniture with their own, but some they decided to leave. Being back in the house, Jonathan couldn’t pinpoint the reason, but felt that it was the right decision to have come back. He was home.

…..     In the basement, he found the antique piano, still broken and lifeless. He sold the practice piano, and used the money, along with some of his own, to restore the basement piano, just like his mother always wanted. It took a few weeks, but the piano was returned, so he had them place it in the living room just like his mother wanted it.

…..      His son asked if he would play something, but Jonathan admitted he didn’t know how to play. Except for one song, but it’s been so long, how could he remember? He sat at the bench, and lifted the lid off the keys. The ivory and ebony shone, just like it had in his dreams all those years ago. He rested his hands on them, and as if not a moment had passed, he played his one song. The music filled the house with a somber but beautiful sound, befitting its architecture. In that moment, he knew he was right to restore the basement piano, to resurrect it. This was how the song was meant to be played. His wife, surprised at this hidden talent, watched from the hallway, and his son stared wide-eyed, like he just found out his dad was a super hero from one of his comics. When the song stopped, Jonathan looked at his son, and for the first time in years, thought about falling.

…..   His son wanted to learn how to play the song, so Jonathan picked him up, and placed him in his lap. He put his son’s small hands on the keys, just like his had been placed all those years ago, and played through his son. He wondered if one day his son would do this as a father, if this song would become a family heirloom. After they were done, his son asked what the song was called. Jonathan didn’t know its actual name, so he called it the only thing that made sense: Hannah’s Song.

…..      That night, with his wife snoring softly beside him, he thought of Hannah, and falling, and when he started to drift, he fell. He went down the stairs, and there Hannah was, her black eyes and white everything else the same as it always had been. He sat next to her on the bench, surprised at how small she was now. He wanted to ask her if it was okay that he played her song, that it wasn’t wrong of him to try and teach it to his son. He couldn’t speak, and she didn’t, but he understood that it made her happy he was sharing her gift to him. Jonathan looked at her, trying to portray his gratefulness. She just smiled, and put his hands on the piano, and he played for her. This time, she cried thankful tears.

…..     As the years passed, Jonathan’s son grew up, and Jonathan grew old. He never knew how to explain his falling to his wife, so he let it be his little secret. He assumed that one day he would write about it, but every time he tried he was debilitated by writer’s block, an affliction he never had otherwise. So he decided it wasn’t meant to be written about, an experience that was just for him.

…..        Jonathan’s son followed in his footsteps, going to college, finding a wife, becoming a writer. It seemed to run in the family, but each generation wrote their own things, with their own styles and feelings. When he looked at his life, Jonathan knew that he had done well, and he wished his parents had lived to see it. He hoped that they would be proud.

…..   Of course, the day came where Jonathan’s son had an announcement, that they were expecting their first child. Jonathan and his wife were thrust into a happiness they had not known existed, a pure joy of concentrated love and contentment. A few months later, a little girl was born. Jonathan asked what they were going to name her, and his son looked at him.

…..         Hannah.

…..    It had to be Hannah. It was the perfect name for this beautiful girl. His son named her after the one song Jonathan had taught him, but Jonathan knew what his son couldn’t. His granddaughter wasn’t named for a song, but for a girl with dark eyes, dressed all in white. His granddaughter grew to be a smart, sophisticated young woman. She was smarter than her father or grandfather, and that pleased them. She was intelligent, and elegant, and beautiful in a way a master’s painting is, beyond description.

…..      On her eighteenth birthday, Jonathan watched her blow out the candles and open her gifts. He was an old man now, and he was tired. His wife walked him to bed, even though the party continued on below. He laid down as she kissed his forehead, and in the way elders can, drifted to sleep in just a few seconds. Except, he fell.

…..       His fall was slower than it used to be, and the sheets around him seemed to close more forcefully than they had in the past. Jonathan understood that this time, he wouldn’t be waking up in his bed, that this was his final fall. He climbed from underneath the bed, his usually aching joints quiet, and went down the stairs. There at the piano was Hannah, the girl with dark eyes and everything else white. He sat next to her, and they waited. Jonathan wasn’t sure what they were waiting for, but he knew whatever it was would be important, and worth the wait.

…..       A few days later, Jonathan’s family held a wake for him at his Gothic home. It rained, appropriately, and everyone wore black and carried black umbrellas. It was like a scene from one of his stories, or one of his father’s films. The family sat around, talking quietly for a while, letting the solemness of the occasion dictate the volume. Jonathan’s son reached over to his daughter and whispered in her ear. She smiled, and cleared her throat. She said she had something for her grandfather, a final gift for the late dear Jonathan.

…..       Fallen below, Jonathan waited. From above, falling below, notes started to trickle. It was Hannah’s song. Jonathan looked at the Hannah that taught it to him, and she smiled at him. You did well, he understood her to be saying. Behind him, Jonathan’s parents joined, stepping next to Jonathan and Hannah. They smiled at Jonathan, and he knew they were proud.

…..         The song continued to sink down from where his granddaughter played, to where they all listened. The song was slightly different, as beautiful as always, but for the first time ever, in between the somber sadness, rested small glimmers of hope. It was then that Jonathan knew that it was no longer Hannah’s song, with the dark eyes and the everything in white, but his Hannah’s. Openly, without shame, but with lots of love, he wept.

…..        He wept as Hannah played.

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Kirk.Loftin is a writer living in the Houston area. He loves movies and retro video games, and is a self-proclaimed.Simpsons.expert. He can be easily identified by his two Green Day tattoos. He has previously written for .Spectrum South, Lemon Theory,.and his own patreon.

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