Maren stepped around to the front of the piano and reached for the dust cover. If she could just play, just one more time….

“Maren, what are you doing?”

She couldn’t quite get her fingers under the latch. She strained against the stuck dust cover. Cal left his side of the piano and cautiously approached her.

“Maren?”

She felt his lips against her neck and she couldn’t resist. “Go away, Cal,” she said.

Cal stood stock still for a moment, and she could feel his gaze burning into her. Then, after long moments, he backed away. The stage became silent, and she fought with the piano’s dust cover. Music swelled in her mind; she had to give it voice. The need was so potent she cried her frustration out softly as she scraped her fingers along the underside of the keyboard, searching for the latch to free the cover.

Something solid slammed into her side, knocking her back. She staggered, then slipped, and the floor came up sharply to meet her. “Sorry, Maren!” came Cal’s muffled voice. She shook her head to clear her vision.

CRACK!

Cal’s form straightened, and Maren saw he had a long implement in his hands. He swung it toward the piano, and the end sank with deadly accuracy into the case with another loud crack. The strings groaned under the impact, the unearthly sound whining in her head. Splinters skittered across the floor with each successive thump. Sledgehammer. The word came to her suddenly, and she felt as if she could breathe.

The ghost appeared at the edge of the curtain. “HOW DARE YOU!!” he thundered, and Maren cringed from the sound.

Cal paused. He spat on the piano. “This is my theatre, not yours,” he said quietly, and heaved the sledge against the case again.

The piano sagged against its supports. The ghost was suddenly at Cal’s side, and they were fighting over the hammer. Maren drug herself forward as the ghost sent Cal sliding across the slick stage floor. The ghost pursued him, his fingernails lengthening into razor-like claws.

“Maren, the lighter!”

She saw it hiding where it had gotten dropped and then kicked under the leg of the piano. The Demon’s gaze landed on her just as her fingers closed on the length of the lighter. Maren clicked the trigger twice and a bright little flame erupted out of the end. The ghost took two steps toward her, his sharpened hand extended as if to beckon her to him, and for a moment, her heart ached for the things he saw in her that she wished she saw in herself.

And she plunged the lighter into the broken wood.

At first, nothing happened. Fear gripped her gut and Maren looked up to see the ghost stalking forward with an evil grin. “You had your chance to come willingly,” he hissed. “Now, it’s time for a little… Persuasion.” His knifed nails clicked and scraped together, and chills ran up Maren’s spine.

Then the dry, old wood crackled into flame with a roar.

Maren hastily shoved herself back from the licking heat and landed on her rear with a thump. The ghost let out a guttural, inarticulate cry as the piano burst into flame. His silver skin rippled and boiled, and his form transformed into something sinister. The silver vaporized away as the piano burned, revealing a twisted, stunted frame with unnatural limbs and far too many teeth. Maren couldn’t scream as the distorted figure lurched toward her on unsteady legs.

Cal’s arms surrounded her from behind and he pulled her farther away. The piano had really gone aflame, the strings and metal groaning within the heat. Sparks floated up to wink out halfway up the cloud of smoke. The ruined ghost — the demon — slumped to the floor with a faint groan, then collapsed completely in a cloud of oily soot. The faint, blackened imprint of a hand remained on the light wood floorboards. The piano continued to burn, and burn.

Maren and Cal held onto each other while they watched the piano burn until it was no more than a heap of ash.

* * *
EPILOGUE:

Cal squeezed her hand, and she smiled up at his face. She’d been staring at the stain on the floorboards left from the piano-Demon’s destruction. They had spent so much time scrubbing it, but the shape of a reaching hand persisted, a faint shadow against the light colored boards… Maren felt mildly nervous and she scooted closer to Cal on the bench. His comforting presence helped keep her anxiety under control. Some day, she hoped to be strong enough to manage it all by herself. For now, however, his company was a welcome asset. She leaned over and placed a light kiss on his cheek. Little steps, she reminded herself.

The curtains opened and the spotlight fell on them to polite, applause. As usual, the Brisby theater was nearly full on the opening night of the Variety Show.

“Shall we?” Cal whispered in her ear.

She smiled, and struck the lighthearted notes of the first of many duets.

* * *
This is part of an ongoing story — catch up via the Serials page!

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