People often say that listening to music is a way of relaxing. They say it can be an escape from everyday life, but at the same time, music is life for some. Now that’s often said as a metaphor, but for three weeks my life was music, and not in the way that you might think. My name is Matthew Borough, I’m the guy who would take out your trash, take your order at a drive through, and shovel your driveway. You’ve had interactions with me before, but you can’t say that you know me. We exchange names, but the both of us know that we don’t really care about each other. I can’t truly say that I object to this; so far I’ve enjoyed my life, I wouldn’t have changed it if I had the chance. I’ve lived as an only child with my mom and grandmother in a ranch house in the middle of Ohio for all of my life, and for most other people they’d sooner hang themselves than be in my shoes. But it’s the only life I know, and it is an interesting one for the most part.
There were always so many questions that I had, but never bothered asking because they weren’t ever a problem for me. For instance, there was only one bathroom in our house, and whenever you went to it, a window was there, right above the toilet. Nobody could see what you were doing, the vine covered fences and thick pine trees made sure of that, but there was a small break in the trees that you could see through. Placed in the center of this gap was a small concrete building, with iron bars blocking off the four perpendicular entranceways. Nobody ever went near it, and neither did I. I could’ve easily walked to it on any given day, but I simply never chose to. Instead, I elected to stand and wonder at it, but never would I ever find an explanation.
Our ranch isn’t that welcoming either. The rotting wood exterior, combined with the unkempt rock-lawn that was always covered in weeds and other plants made the house look like it was abandoned. Nobody ever visited us, and even the paperboy stopped delivering. We lived in quiet solitude, drifting seamlessly from one day to the next, surviving on the little things, and believe me, only the little things.
The day that my life changed was November 20th, 2011. That date is more burned into my memory than that of my own birth. I was fourteen years old at the time, and it was during what I call the fifth season. Many people consider Winter to be the season of death, where all trees are barren and animals retired to their shelters, but they are so very mistaken. Early December and late November brings a whole new meaning to the word dead. It has the emptiness of Winter, the once beautiful array of Autumn leaves had rotted and withered themselves into a gray and dull mess upon our rock-lawn. The unforgiving cold of the Winter season was starting to kick in, and the near constant veil of clouds above made it even worse. Despite the cold, Winter’s biggest charm never failed to elude us in the dead season. No, not a single flake of snow landed upon our yard until early January. It was the embodiment of the words ‘drab’ and ‘depressing’, but I managed. One way I entertained myself on the ranch was exploring, but the dead season had taken away the thrills of exploring the once lush and beautiful landscape. December 5th, however, was different. Instead of taking a walk down the seemingly endless shoreline of the river to see if I could reach the end; or perhaps taking a hike in the nearby forest, I went over to an area I passed about a million times but never had the drive to explore. Like the concrete gazebo, the old dilapidated church in the field of uncut grass always eluded me. But whether the ominous nature of the church kept me away, or some other reason, I wanted to sate my curiosity once and for all.
While the grass was tall, it had been starved of water for many weeks now. It had grown tough from estivation, and there were no walkways to the church. Thus, it took a bit of time to make it to the small place of worship. The archaic brick-and-mortar architecture, as well as the oxidized copper steeple informed me of the building’s age. The locks on the wooden doors had rusted, and their remnants were present on the floor in a heap. I managed to push open one of the massive doors, and they scraped the bottom of the entrance, barely clinging to their hinges. As I went inside, I immediately recognized it to be a Presbyterian church. But alas, what should have been a beautiful, snow white place of worship had degraded into shambles. The white paint on the walls had yellowed, and much of it had chipped off. I saw cracks in the Virgin Mary’s stained glass representation, one going right through her cheek. In addition, the church itself wasn’t anything impressive, as most of the pews were broken, and the altar had been removed. Judging from the film of dust gathered on the floor, as well as my footprints being visible, anybody could’ve guessed that nobody had been in here in a very long time. It had almost been subject to gentrification, but the protesters didn’t allow it. I remember how they defended this place, Bibles clutched in their sweaty palms like it was a lifeline, fighting for this place to be preserved. And yet here it was; modern ruins among an otherwise well-maintained town. Hypocrites, undoubtedly, and the worst of them as well. I was about to leave when I noticed a small door near the back corner of the church. I figured it couldn’t hurt to take a glance inside, and I approached it. Expecting to find it locked, my heart skipped a beat when I pulled the door clean off the hinges. The following sound of the door slamming against the ground resonated throughout the acoustics of the church like a cannon blast. A plume of dust rose from it’s grave, and eventually settled back onto the floor. Nevertheless, I entered.
The room was shaped like a hexagon, with three stain glass windows covering the far side of the room. The faint light poured into the room through the windows, chromatically divided from the colored glass, and it shone on a piano. But this piano didn’t match the rest of the church, in fact it was quite the opposite. It differed from the normal all-white color scheme, being made of some kind of brown hardwood. The other feature that made it stand out like a sore thumb was its remarkable cleanliness. Not a single speck of dust to be seen, in fact it looked polished. There were no tears in the leather of the seat, no keys out of place, even the foot pedals glimmered. I had never played the piano before, nor had I played anything else, but this beautiful instrument was so alluring. Before I knew it, I was playing. With my incredibly limited knowledge of the instrument, and the fact that I lacked any sort of sheet music, I was completely and utterly stunned at my ability to play. It seemed second nature to me at this point, like I had been playing all of my life; I was prodigal. The tune I played was rather nice, albeit slow. It was in complete contrast to the church I was playing in, and it cheered me up quite a bit. My fingers glided across the keys like they were oiled, and I didn’t miss a single note in my own composition. When I finally ended the piece of my own accord, I saw my own smile reflecting off of the polished wood. As much as I enjoyed the piano, I decided to keep this a secret. I had no idea whether or not being in the church was legal, and I knew for a fact that I would receive some kind of backlash from the community. I went home to my grandmother, who had just got done cooking a ham. It was an amazing dinner, and later in the evening, my mother baked cookies. It was a fantastic end to the day, and I had no doubt in my mind about going back to that piano.
The next day was a Monday, and sadly I had to go to school. My school was very small, with only about two-hundred students, and it was very close to where I lived. Thankfully, this meant I had a lot more time to prepare, or I could sleep in longer. I passed the church every day on the way to school, and if it hadn’t been for that, I would never have noticed it. My grandmother was never awake when I went to school, so my mother insisted on making breakfast. Her schedule was similar to mine, but she had to leave for work much earlier. Because of that, she was always in a rush to get me out the door. I always ended up with a lot of spare time on my hands, and usually I would take the longer, scenic route to school. Now that I had the church, I decided to go the normal route, and I’d get to play for a bit before class started. I walked through the grass, following my own footsteps from the day prior, and went inside. It looked identical to how I left it, and I was glad to know nobody else had gone in. I sat down at the piano, and without much thought beforehand, began playing. I didn’t feel in control of what I was playing, though. I had wanted to replicate the song I was playing the day earlier, but what I ended up producing was a work that was as melancholy and boring as the fifth season itself. The notes I played weren’t bold, or inspired. I never ventured out into a higher range, and worked in the simplest of notes and keystrokes. The day that followed was alright, nothing much happened. Everything went as it was supposed to, and I continued on with my life until I woke up the next morning. This continued for a few days, I went to the church, played a melody that had different notes, but the theme was always more or less the same until the end of that week.
But that Friday morning, the notes that I played were a rather bold and dark, like they had been taken from an old horror movie. The music made me feel uncomfortable in the old, broken down church. Something didn’t feel right, and when the song ended, I quickly left the building in a hurry. The day that followed was less than enjoyable. In my first period class, I ended up forgetting to hand in an assignment, and the teacher told me I had to do it over the weekend for half credit. In another class, I ended up getting blindsided by a test I forgotten about, and I was almost certain I failed it. My lunch fell out of the tray, and the staff refused to replace it or give me a refund. In gym class I smashed my toe with a barbell, and the highlight of the day was the busride home. As soon as I got there, I plopped there on my bed, and fell into a coma-like sleep.
After an uneventful weekend, I was surprised to find that on Monday I was playing a rather joyful tune when I went to the church. It was beautiful, and a pleasure to hear myself play. The symphony was elegant, and I was sad to have to stop playing. On the bright side, it was one of the longest and most enjoyable sessions I had ever done. I was almost late to class because of it, but managed to make it by a just a hair. The rest of the day went perfectly. In my first period class, I handed in the late assignment and the teacher gave me full credit for it, despite being late. The test from Friday was finally graded, and I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I in fact got a 93. After school, a friend invited me over to his house. I ended up having an amazing dinner cooked by his family, and after calling my mother, she brought over my backpack and spare clothes so I could sleep over.
Since the day after was a school day, I wasn’t picked up by my mother. Instead, I walked to school with my friend. Needless to say, I wasn’t able to play the piano that day. Breaking the newly established routine for the first time felt odd, like skipping a meal or missing an appointment. The day itself was bleak, boring, and lifeless. Almost nothing of substance happened. This was a very prominent quality of that day. Even on the most mundane of days, I might’ve ended up eating a different lunch, or learning new material. Today, however, the meals all felt tasteless, and I swear on my grandmother’s life that I learned the exact same things today that I had yesterday. There was no conversation, I couldn’t even bring myself to start one, and I was normally a very sociable person. The world’s color was starting to dim.
The next day, everything seemed to be back to normal. I slept in my own bed that night, and was able to play the piano again on the way to school. However, I was met with a rather unsettling melody. It was unlike anything I had heard before. With the realization setting in that what I had played on the piano influenced my day to day life, this was something that made me sick to my stomach. At first, it started out completely normal, some might compare it to elevator music, and I was relieved that it wasn’t anything terrible. However, halfway through the song my fingers started working against me. I was no longer playing the elevator music, but rather, I began to play an ugly, out-of-place song. The piano seemed much too loud, it began to hurt my ears, and it wasn’t even playing music. All I heard were low, drawn out notes that seemed to change pitch suddenly, with harsh abrupt chords in between. The song finished with me raising my hands up above my head, and slamming them down onto the piano. I pulled my hands away from the instrument, and watched as the keyboard cover slammed shut. If the song truly was a representation of my fate that day, I had to change it before something terrible happened. I tried prying the cover open, but it didn’t budge a single bit. I gave up after I snapped the metal knob clean off.
My teacher got a call in fifth period. I watched as her face changed expressions; at first it was neutral, then she was biting her lip with concern, and by the time she hung up the phone her face was completely deadpan. As was her voice when she told me that I had to go to the main office. A police car was waiting for me, and I was quickly rushed home. I didn’t know what was going on at the time, but when I saw my mother outside, crying into a cop’s arm, I felt like I was going to throw up. I only realized what had happened when I saw the hospital van in the driveway. The body of my grandmother was on a stretcher. It didn’t matter what had caused it, because I knew the real reason why she died.
I killed her. I killed my grandmother, and her blood is on my hands.
From then on, I vowed to never play that goddamn piano ever again. I couldn’t deal with the anxiety of knowing that something bad could happen, and I would never be able to stop it. I’d rather deal with the boredom for the rest of my life than endure something like that again. I stuck to the vow, and every day felt exactly the same. The dead season was beginning to take over everything. The gray skies never went away, in fact, they began to consume things. The world was beginning to lose it’s color. By the first of December, I was colorblind. Things started to become more routine than ever. It seemed as if my mother had completely forgotten the passing of her own, she didn’t react to it. Every day I had the same, tasteless food at lunch. Shared it with the same, unspeaking people. We were all sitting in perfect rows, in perfect columns, and nobody did anything out of line. Could they feel this? Was it all in my head? I couldn’t reach out to anybody, who on Earth would believe me if I told them that a piano controlled everybody in my town? A couple more days pass, and the only way I know I’m not repeating the same day is the dates on the calendar being crossed off with a black pen. Or it could’ve been purple for all I knew. And every single day, I passed by that church. The door was just slightly ajar, as it had always been. Tempting me like a bottle to an alcoholic, but I knew I couldn’t play it again. The most interesting thing to happen to my routine was a new addition to it: Every night, I sat on my bed with my father’s old straight edge razor in my hand. The blade rested on my wrist, but never did I have the strength to use it.
One day, I decided that enough was enough. It took all the mental strength that I had to muster the physical ability to grab a bottle from underneath the kitchen counter. I siphoned gas from the car, and poured it into the bottle. I grabbed a rag from inside, as well as a grill lighter. With the last shred of free will I had, I walked to the church. I clutched the bottle in my hand, and lit the rag on fire. I walked around the building, and came across the three stained-glass windows on the back room where the piano was. I chucked the molotov right at the stained glass window. It shattered upon impact, and a fireball erupted inside the building. I watched it burn, and it was the most beautiful thing in the world. The fire was yellow. Not a light shade, either. It was the most beautiful, vibrant, exciting yellow I had ever seen in my entire goddamn life. I found myself smiling as the grass, even though it still hadn’t rained, began to look greener than anything I had ever seen. I walked away from the burning building, and as the steeple fell, collapsing onto the back room I knew it was over. Finally, I was free.
My grandmother’s funeral was a few weeks later. It was the same day as the first snow of the Winter. The dead season was finally over, and even though I had managed to escape whatever the piano had been doing to me, the damage was already done. There weren’t too many people who knew my grandmother, so our entire family of seven were the only ones who came. A man sat next to the burial site with a grand piano. He played a song that most people would’ve appreciated. It was meant to be a beautiful song, as demonstrated by the half-smile on my mother’s cracked lips. A song of remembrance, most likely. A song that was supposed to remind everybody of the good that the person who passed brought into this world. A good, happy song that would’ve lifted anyone’s spirits.
But all I heard were the low, drawn out notes, with harsh and abrupt chords in between.