Undermind: Nine Stories, page 1
Edward M Wolfe
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, events and locations portrayed in this story are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously.
Undermind: Nine Stories
© 2015 Noetic ePress
All Rights Reserved
Dedicated to my two brothers and to O. Henry, Stephen King, and Rod Serling for all of the joy and inspiration they’ve given me with their short stories.
The Piano Man
I Didn’t Kill Her
When Everything Changed
Devon’s Last Chance
About the Author
Other Books by this Author
The Piano Man
Dave’s bright idea to solve the problem of mounting bills turned him into a super-hero and a basket case. He couldn’t explain it, nor could he prove it, but he was certain that it was a piano that was responsible for his super-powers – what he now referred to as his curse. One stupid little accident and his life took a crazy turn that now had him wondering how he was going to stay alive.
As Dave headed toward the door, his three year old son perceived that he was leaving and ran toward him with his hands raised as high as they could go. This meant he wanted his father to pick him up. Dave did so, tightly but gently hugging his son and telling him he’d be back in just a little while.
“I love you. Be good for mommy,” he said, and lowered his son to the floor.
Several weeks ago, Dave’s piano tuning business was in a slump. There had been slumps before, but this one was going on so long that he had started dipping into his savings to pay his monthly bills. He decided to run an unusual special for his type of business and put out an ad saying, “Buy one, get one free!”
This was clearly silly at first glance because very few people, if any, have two pianos. But Dave figured what would happen is that two people who knew each other would split the cost of a tuning, with the purchaser designating their friend to receive the second free tuning. Or, with no time limit on the deal, someone could get one tuning now, and another one later.
As it turned out, he got only one call from the ad, and after tuning that woman’s piano, she gave her free tuning to her sister. And that’s what ruined Dave’s life, and apparently, there was no turning back.
After Dave gathered up his tools, collected payment and the address of Abigail’s sister’s house, he thanked her for calling to confirm that now would be a good time to head over.
The weather was perfect but Dave didn’t mind working on a beautiful Saturday. He was glad to have the work. Maybe the sisters would tell their friends with pianos what a good job he’d done and he’d get more work soon.
The further Dave drove, the more he noticed the decline of the neighborhoods. When he finally arrived at Gloria’s, he double-checked the address and confirmed he was at the right place.
This house did not resemble those of his usual customers in any way. There was an old beat-up car in the driveway. Old, dirty toys were left out on the lawn and appeared to have been there for some time. The paint was peeling from the siding and one of the bedroom windows was covered with cardboard.
He wouldn’t have expected there to even be a piano inside, but if there was, it made sense for Abigail to give her free tuning to her sister. She probably couldn’t afford it on her own.
Dave grabbed his tool bag from the passenger seat and went up to the front door, telling himself he’d make this as quick as possible. They probably didn’t play much anyway and wouldn’t notice if the pitch was a tiny bit off here and there.
The door swung open and a woman said, “Are you the piano guy?”
“Yes, I am,” Dave answered.
“Come on in,” the woman said, pulling the screen door open. “You’ll have to ignore the mess. I wasn’t expecting anyone today.”
“That’s no problem at all,” Dave said, following Gloria and stepping over a soiled disposable diaper lying on the dirty wooden floor.
He saw the piano against the wall next to the dining room table. Boxes, magazines and miscellaneous junk was piled on top of it. Gloria removed everything, setting it all on the table. It was an upright Weber that he thought might’ve looked very nice if it wasn’t coated with dust and scratches. At least this won’t take long, he thought.
Dave got right to work, lifting the top board and removing the upper front board. He set his tool bag on the bench, opened it and removed several foam wedges and his tuning lever.
“Care for some coffee?” Gloria asked.
“Thank you. But no, I’m fine.” He had glanced in the kitchen when he entered the dining room and seeing the unsanitary condition, he felt it wouldn’t be safe to drink from any dish that came from there.
“Well, if you change your mind....”
“I’ll let you know. Thank you.”
“Do you need the volume on the TV turned down?”
“No. It won’t affect my tuner at all. Do you happen to know how long it’s been since your last tuning?”
“I guess they would’ve tuned it in the store before they delivered it. And that woulda been, what… about six years ago? It was a gift from my dad. He bought both of us one. Abigail and me.”
“Oh. I see. That was very nice of him.”
“I probably coulda got a car with what he spent. Not a real good one, but something better ‘n that piece of shit I got out there. And I don’t even play the damned piano.”
“Does anyone in your family play?”
Gloria stood just inside the kitchen, sipping coffee and watching Dave. He wondered what he was doing here as he took his digital tuner out of his bag and lowered the top board to set his wedges on top of it.
“Does someone plan on starting, or maybe taking lessons or something?
“Not really. Theo— Teddy bangs on it now and then, but no one else.”
“I see,” Dave replied, but without really seeing. He clamped his tuner at the top of the left side board and inserted his thickest wedge between the lowest bass strings.
“Abigail said she paid for the tuning, so I wasn’t gonna turn down somethin’ free. Ya know what I mean?”
“Yep,” he replied and began tapping the lowest key and adjusting the tuning nut as he did so. Maybe the ‘buy one, get one free’ was a pretty bad idea after all, he thought. But now he was even more determined to do a quickie job. No one would even know if the pitch was terribly off.
He tuned the bass strings up to middle C then switched to the other end of the piano. He started tuning the high end with a couple Papp’s treble mutes, quickly working his way back to the center. After a few minutes, he used the Papp’s and wedges together, and that’s when it happened. He was hitting a key with his left hand, tapping on the tuning lever with his right hand for tiny incremental movements and one of the Papp’s mutes fell off the top board and hit a string somewhere inside the piano.
When the plastic mute created a high tone on impact, it blended with the lower tone he had been playing and suddenly he heard a weird harmonic that made his ears itch for a second. He tilted his head as if to shake water out of his ear and felt a little silly doing it. He turned to see if Gloria was still watching him and as soon as he looked at her, images flashed into his mind.
First was the face of man with fat, unshaved cheeks and close-cropped hair with a diagonal scar cutting across a natural
Dave shook his head again, hoping to clear the nasty images that seemed to originate from somewhere outside his own mind. His heart was racing and he felt like he’d just witnessed a terrible car wreck.
“Are you all right, mister?”
Dave heard Gloria’s voice and he snapped back to life. The images stopped. They lingered in his memory, but they stopped coming in fast and furious in vivid 3D.
“Yeah. I’m fine. Thanks.”
“Well, you look like you saw a ghost. A big mean one.”
“I think I’m not feeling all that well actually. I’ll be finished in a few more minutes then I’ll head on home and lie down.”
“Can I get you some water?”
“Thanks, but I’m okay.” He almost laughed, thinking about how people always offered a glass of water no matter the problem. Aliens studying earthlings would conclude that we thought water was a cure-all for dizziness, heartbreak, loss of a loved one, and so on.
Dave quickly tuned the remaining strings and noticed his hands were shaking each time he inserted the mute. He didn’t even try for perfect pitch now. He left some strings a little sharp and others a little flat and he justified it by telling himself that no one here played the piano anyway. He just suddenly felt the need to get out of this house.
He replaced the upper board when he was finished, put his tools in his bag and let Gloria know that he was all done. Teddy should notice a definite improvement. As he walked toward the door, he said, “Thank you, and thank Abigail. Enjoy!”
As he reached for the door, it quickly swung inward, hitting his hand and then his head and knocking him backwards. The back of Dave’s legs hit the side of the couch behind him and he fell backwards onto it, then rolled into a sitting position. He put a hand on his head where the pain was.
“Who the hell are you?” a voice roared.
Dave looked up at a big burly man staring down at him. His heart felt like it jump-started and went into overdrive.
“Just calm down. He’s the piano man. You can call my sister if you don’t believe me.”
“We already have a piano!”
“He ain’t sellin’ ‘em, you dope. He tunes ‘em up!”
“I hope you ain’t you paid him ‘cause we ain’t got no money to be throwin’ away on this nonsense.”
“Abigail paid, so don’t worry about it!”
The man walked toward the kitchen, revealing a small boy who had been standing behind him, completely hidden by his big legs. Dave felt his muscles turn to water, his brain seized and suddenly it was hard to breathe.
The man and the boy, they were the ones. He’d seen them just a few minutes ago when the terrible images flashed into his mind like lightning strikes. The boy had a swollen lip and a black eye.
“Don’t be rude, Teddy. Introduce yourself to the piano man.”
The boy was biting the skin off his upper lip and glanced at Gloria, then looked back at Dave.
“My name is Theodore,” he said, then shifted his eyes toward Gloria as if he expected her to say something.
Dave was glad for something to focus on for a moment as he waited to feel normal enough to stand and walk so he could get out of this strange house.
“Hi Theodore. It’s nice to meet you. My name is Dave.” He put out his hand and Theodore slowly came forward and shook it with his tiny hand.
“His name is Teddy. Don’t listen to him,” Gloria instructed from the kitchen, just out of sight.
Dave saw a barely perceptible shake of Theodore’s head.
“I fixed up your piano, Teddy. It should sound a lot better the next time you play.”
The boy mouthed the name “Theodore” in response.
The brief exchange with the boy did what Dave was hoping and gave him a slight sense of normality. He felt extremely awkward about the fact that he’d been knocked in the head by the man of the house without even a hint of an apology. But he decided it didn’t matter. He would just say goodbye again and get the heck out of there.
He stood up and the boy took a few steps back. One foot landed on the diaper and he lost his footing and fell, landing on his butt. He started to cry and suddenly the big man appeared in the room like a fast moving freight train.
“What are you crying for now? Are you try’na wake up your baby sister?”
He bent down and grabbed one of the boy’s hands and hauled him up and dragged him out of the room and down a hallway. Dave could hear the man yelling and the boy crying. He couldn’t believe these people.
“I’ll see myself out. Thank you, Gloria.”
He didn’t hear what she said in response as he quickly made his way outside. The outside air felt great. He almost wanted to stop and just breathe it in, but he still felt compelled to get away from this house and this family. He felt sorry for the boy, but he could do nothing for him so he tried not to think about him.
Later that night, a few hours after dinner, Dave put his son to bed and read a small book to him. Occasionally, as he read, he’d stop for a moment and look at his son lying there with his eyes closed, content and nearly smiling as he enjoyed the bedtime tale. Dave felt that his child was a blessing and it was his duty to take the best care of him that he possibly could.
He wanted his son to know how loved he was and that his parents were there for him no matter what happened in life. If there were real monsters in the world, they were outside, not in. And fighting them was his parents’ job. He thought, Every child should feel loved and protected like Jake does.
The boy opened his eyes and looked at his father with a smile on his sleepy face.
“Do you like being called Jake, or do you think you’d rather be called Jacob?”
“Jake!” the boy said and giggled.
“Okay. Forget I asked. Now close your eyes and I’ll finish the story.”
Later that night, Dave awoke from a nightmare. Except it couldn’t have been a nightmare because it didn’t stop when he woke up. The screams continued as he got up and went into the kitchen for some water. They finally reduced to sobs as he stood in front of the water cooler drinking an entire glass of cold water in one go.
It started as a dream of being inside the Mackey home. Theodore sat at the table by himself eating a plate of Macaroni & Cheese. Gloria was on the couch, burping a baby that was lying on her chest. The father wasn’t visible, but somehow Dave knew he was in the house; probably in his bedroom.
“Mother, I finished all my dinner. May I play the piano now?”
“I suppose. But only for a few minutes. A show I wanna watch is gonna be comin’ on.”
Theodore hopped off his chair and scrambled over to the piano. He grabbed the sides of the bench with both hands and pulled it back a little. He pushed up the fallboard and climbed up on the bench. Stretching his fingers as far as he could, he played a C major chord with his left hand and immediately smiled at the sound.
He wished he could reach the pedals. Something inside him told him when he’d need to press on them, and for how long. He’d never had a lesson, but he knew. He played the C chord again and then began to gingerly tap out a melody with his right hand. His left strained to reach the keys for a G chord as his right hand continued dancing lightly over the higher keys.
Gloria and Ron did not understand how it was possible for Teddy to play the piano, but rather than thinking of their child as gifted, they thought of him as simply weird. What kind of five year old wants to waste his time playing a piano? And what little kid insists on being called Theodore, for God’s sake? That was no kind of name for a little boy. It was as if they were raising an old man in a child’s body.
As Theodore lost himsel
“How’m I supposed to watch the game with that racket going on?” Ron thundered, then turned and stormed back down the hall. Half way back to his room, he yelled back over his shoulder, “And stop yer damn cryin’ or I’ll give you something to cry for.”
Dave had opened his eyes when Theodore screamed, but the vision didn’t go away like it should have. As he walked to the kitchen, he heard Ron yelling at Theodore. As he filled his glass with ice water, he heard the injured child struggle to stop crying, his breath catching and making every inhale sound like a gasp.
When Dave emptied his glass, he could see Theodore holding his red and swollen fingers to his chest and trying as hard as he could to cry silently so Ron wouldn’t deliver on his promise to give him something to cry for.
Dave set his glass on the counter and wiped tears from his cheeks.
It took Dave a long time to get back to sleep. He wondered what had happened to his mind. Were the images real or just the product of some new and twisted talent he’d developed for imagining terrible situations with incredible clarity? He remembered the first images he’d seen of Theodore and how the wounds on the child in his mind had matched the ones on the real boy when he’d showed up later.
He needed to find out if Theodore’s hands were injured. Partly for Theodore’s sake, and partly for his own sanity. He didn’t know what he’d do either way, but he felt driven to find out what the truth was. He remembered that a Papp’s mute had fallen into the piano. He had a valid reason for returning to the house and possibly getting a look at Theodore. Now if only he could use what seemed to be an unwanted and disturbing telepathy to know when Ron would be out of the house.
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