The wooden door creaks loudly; protesting as if the scrawny, young man was intruding on a private soiree dressed like a beggar.
The door was half right.
The one struggling to fully open the ancient doorway was more unfortunate rag than human in appearance. His worn coat was patched two dozen times too many, the ratty blue jeans and once-white shirt beneath were held together mostly by the dried paint that caked into their seams. The most expensive thing on him were the thick work gloves on his hands, and they too nearly tore open as he gave a final, decisive push at the stubborn door. The ancient hinges took pity on their unwelcome guest, or else just wanted the pleasure of his private humiliation. The door gave suddenly, swinging wildly open to bang against the adjacent wall and leaving its surprised opponent to sprawl into darkness of the room’s interior, flailing his arms wildly for balance.
A storm of disturbed dust came up then to try and catch the frantic man, sticking to his forehead and the matted locks of sweaty hair stuck there, filling his nose and mouth, and transforming his potential fall into a hacking flurry of hurried attempts to clear the air. After both regaining his composure and realizing his battle to swat away the irritating cloud was only raising more dust from the moldy air around him, the stranger made his way to the center of the room, spinning to take in his new surroundings.
It was as he’d remembered, though he’d been so young when he’d been here last. Everyone had been discussing his father, and by extension Grandpa. Droves of strangers had milled around the old house, crumbling even back then, but still powerful in its size and majesty. His mother had been busy all week, and she was beset on all sides, thanking each unfamiliar face for coming and shaking countless hands. Back then; the boy he’d been had slipped away from the muttering horde, desperate to escape from the long gazes and incomprehensible remarks meant to encourage him on to some vague future prospects.
The boy had fled into backrooms and parlors, further and further into the un-renovated wing of the colossal house that he had called a second home for much of his then-short life. As he escaped further into the stale rooms, they had started to fill with the white, clothe ghosts of dust-protected furniture. Even today, he could remember the claustrophobic panic that welled up in him as the smell of mothballs and forgotten wood had begun to push down on him from all sides like heavy, winter quilts. A spark of instinct sent him up steps then, trying to get higher than the dust and cloying stink, up above the people who seeped into every pore of his home, and up above the implosion of spiked confusion that flared in his chest whenever someone started yet another barely-heard sentence with an apology.
The now-man slid his hand over the back of the room’s only occupant, a worn armchair, the kind made for one, yet so clearly meant for two. Stumbling upon this place as a boy had lead him to believe it was some form of unfinished addition that his father had used to be alone. He’d imagined the man, with his relaxed, sleepy expression, musing to himself in an artistic stupor as he composed notes for a thousand new songs in his mind, sitting in near total darkness. The thought had brought him small comfort then.
As he’d grown older he’d come to understand the room better and, to make sense of things, he’d changed his understanding of the room and the man he imagined used it. His teenaged self had come to see the room as a prison, his father looking through the manhole of glass into the open sewer of the world. The man had become a grizzled thing in his mind now, grumbling angrily in frayed whispers about the state of humanity. Then his father had waxed poetic for hours as internal bitterness gave birth to musical scores. It was a dramatic view; he knew that now, aggrandizing himself by imagining he was the oh-so-special child of a tortured gargoyle of art. His early paintings had been all emotion and he now found them slightly embarrassing.
The man traced the wood of the cross separation the window’s four panes, thinking about how long ago he’d abandoned the splatter painting and rage-y strokes of his teenage years. Now he was known for portraits, snap shots done in a dozen shades of green that for some reason captivated his audience in a constant rambling of big words and intellectual speculation. Many were convinced that he painted out of loss, out of some collective misery accrued from the now three generations of men who’d ended up like his father. To a few of the more vocal and less polite members of his viewership he was an unbroken heir to a legacy of madness. To his wife and son, the man was just himself. He liked the last interpretation best.
Now he thought of his father the same way. The man could imagine an aging man, who’d given so much of himself for the sake of his art, finally feeling used up. His father hadn’t been sad, or defeated, but was simply finished. The man’s thoughts that had plagued him with feelings of inadequacy or a twisted burden of trust being placed on him had stopped after his own son had been born. He’d closed the book on the half-parent that had come before him, decided that he could make peace with his spirit, forgive him for walking away like he did.
Yet here the man was, gazing out the old window in the little room that he’d only really thought about a handful of times in his entire life. Peering around expectantly as if his newfound insight entitled him to a grand revelation. His inheritance now demanding that the room reveals its hidden heaven that had kept his father here.
The man paced around more and more insistently, confused by his own actions and what he wanted, determined to understand this rooms former occupant really. Seating himself finally, the man probed his mind, knitting his fingers and staring ahead as he had imagined the man who’d abandoned him had. He shouldn’t have come, shouldn’t have sought so fervently for meaning where there wasn’t any. Why couldn’t he just blame the man for what he’d done, why did he keep trying to find some answer to excuse him? He wanted to believe that his father had chosen something over him. The man clenched his fists until his nails made his palms burn, grappling with his own incomprehensible drives. Had his wife been right? Was he so obsessed? Was he failing her and the boy she’d been holding as he’d whirled out of the house without a word of warning or explanation?
He was spiraling.
He knew that.
He was spiraling down and down, deeper and deeper. He was dying to pull up, but the ground seemed so invitingly comfortable.
In the room, there sat a child in the body of an almost-man, who couldn’t remember the last time he’d swallowed the little white pieces of stability that had been prescribed to him. He couldn’t really even remember how many had been in the fistful he remembered swallowing last in an angry act of defiance at his wife’s constant prodding. He couldn’t paint with them, the shapes and contours of eyes and mouths muddied under the weight of peer-reviewed, medically mandated, sanity. It was a poisonous remedy that stole from him everything he treasured about himself for the sake of everything outside himself. The ultimate sacrifice, corrode the mind and gain a whole world.
He tasted bile and felt the tears, really felt them, not like when he took the pills but in the natural way. It was like rain. He hadn’t meant to forget…he’d needed to paint…so his son would have something.
The man felt the tears fall.
They fell for a long time after, for his son, for his father, for everything, and for his choices.
The man sat until the tears stopped and then unlocked the window.
The boy hated the little piano. It was half a toy and incredibly old. An unthinking joke given by a rarely seen relative. His father hadn’t wanted him to play it, he’d been so angry that he and the boy’s mother had shouted for hours longer than they normally did. It had been so bad that the boy had feared the little keys of the toy, thought they might bite him or do whatever they had done to his dad to make him hate the toy piano so much. He had feared the little instrument sitting in the basement, but he always went to watch it, making sure that whatever threat it posed was contained, thinking that maybe if he watched the monster with black and white teeth, that it would never do again what terrible thing it’d done.
When the boy found his mother crying in the kitchen, screaming his father’s name, his real, adult name, the boy knew what had happened and run. He had run into the basement, taking the stairs two at a time in the way that his mother had would’ve yelled at him for. He’d lost. He hadn’t stopped the monster from getting out and now it had hurt his parents. He was going to get the monster back, make the monster cry like it had made his mother cry. His father had been right about the monster, he’d known something about it, and now it had done something to him too.
The basement light was always dim, but there was more than enough glow from the single bulb-hanging overhead to pick out the flashing keys in the dull grey. The monster made no move, it just grinned at him like it always did, still pretending even as the boy leapt forward. The monster would pay, it would give everything back and his mother would hug him and say she was proud of how brave and strong he was. His father would come stumbling home and tell the boy that he was all better and that he wouldn’t get so mad anymore because it was all the monsters fault that he’d been so sick. The boy leapt at the little, toy piano, struck out with his fists and feet, clawing and snapping and banging away. The monster was screaming at him, shrieking out again and again, and the boy wanted the monster to scream more until it said it was sorry, until it was in pieces. The boy attacked again and again pulling out the screams until they matched his own, until they were his own wailing and diving screaming.
The boy played for the very first time.