Kyle and Danny stood on the sidewalk in front of a yellowed picket fence and the decrepit, two-story house just beyond. Sunset was over an hour away, but shadows had already begun to stretch over the neighborhood. The lawn was overgrown, and an uncomfortable breeze blew through shrubbery that had, in the absence of shears, crawled over and claimed long stretches of the wrap-around porch.
“Okay, now go ring the doorbell.”
Kyle stared at his friend blankly. “What? I thought we were just looking.”
“Nope. Everyone does it when they turn thirteen.” Danny’s answer was smooth, but the hitch in his voice halfway through gave him away. The old Lightfoot house was haunted. No one ever crossed the fence, and no one ever went up to the door. Danny was full of shit.
“Danny, you’re full of shit.”
“Nuh-uh. I’ve done it, and you have to do it, or else I’ll tell Christie that you were scared.”
Kyle gulped. It took him a few moments to decide which was more frightening: ghosts… or middle school?
He jumped the fence and bolted for the doorbell.
Two shadows edged along the wall, scurrying with a curious mix of cautious pauses and smooth familiarity. They had made this journey before, but not in a long, long time. The world had changed so much over the decades. The house had once been animated with all the loud and soft moments of family life, but now, decades later, silence had conquered the place. Dusty light came in through thinning curtains. The feeling of emptiness was nearly breathable.
But the wooden floorboards creaked exactly where they always had. A nail just barely stuck out from the baseboard halfway down the room, just as it had so many years ago. It was still the same place where the two had first met. The first shadow stopped and turned her gaze around the room.
“How long has it been since we were here last?”
The second shadow, taller by a head than the first, also stopped. He took a moment to consider his answer. “Too long. This house hasn’t been a home for anyone, even for the giants, in too long.”
She pondered that for a moment, then nodded briefly. “Should we fix that?” But before he could respond, she took off, leaving the wall for the vast space in the middle of the kitchen. He inhaled sharply but, after a second’s reflection, expelled his tension in long, slow breath. She was safe. They were both safe. No one else had been here for years, and nothing was here that could hurt them. He ignored the long-trusted voice in his head that told him to stay near the wall. He followed her out onto the floor.
It was thrilling, in a way. They had spent their decades hiding in civilization’s crevices. But here, in the abandoned edifice where they’d honed their survival instincts in their youth, they could walk out into the open. But now, older and wiser than they had been when they first fell in love, they could finally explore and climb and play like they never could when they were young.
He followed her across the floor, and they passed underneath a simple, solid wooden table. Its legs stretched upward, casting vague shadows over them in the dim light. They walked quietly, solemnly between the table legs like they were passing through the gates of a temple. They kicked up dust, and the motes danced through the air, disappearing in shadow before swirling back into the sickly sunlight.
They made their pilgrimage, walking deliberately and without haste. The walls were bare. She thought there had used to be framed paintings, or portraits, or… something hanging from them. They would’ve have been too high from the ground to serve as hiding places, and her attention had always been on the hazards immediately before her. She hadn’t had any reason to pay attention to them before. She idly regretted that; it would have been interesting to compare her memories of them to the blank space above her now.
“Do you remember what was up there?” she asked him, pointing at the vacant wall high above their heads.
He paused. It took some effort for him to recall. “I don’t remember everything, but there used to be a mirror somewhere around here.” Traces of a sheepish grin flashed briefly over his face. “I may have broken it. Entirely accidentally,” he added defensively. “I have no idea why it freaked them out so much.”
“Maybe that’s why the giants left.”
He snorted and resumed walking down the hall. “Sure. I spooked them.”
They stopped in the living room. Most of the furniture was gone, taken by the giants when they had left the house vacant. But in the middle of the room, toward an interior wall, stood a baby grand piano. Murky light trickled through the air, but the polished mahogany case had long since been buried in dust and only bare hints of its past gleaming could be made out. Even so, its dignified presence loomed large over the vacant room.
It looked sad and proud, like a monument that had outlived the society that had built it.
The man came up behind his partner. “Shall we?”
She turned to him. Her expression was full with old memories. They had been fighting for her attention, but her partner had won it completely with two words. Her lips wrinkled into an infinitesimal smile overflowing with meaning.
Using the empty bookshelves, they climbed. It was hard work, and it took both of them working together, one on top of the other, and then one pulling the other up, to make it to the next shelf. By the time they reached their intended altitude, they were winded.
“We’re not… as young as… we used to be,” the man panted.
“Speak for… yourself,” the woman replied. “I’m still… in my prime.” Her gentle smirk was punctuated by several more honest gasps.
He returned her joke with sincere appreciation and only the slightest amount of suggestion. “Yes… you are.” Her smirk turned into an out-and-out grin.
They sat together in practiced, comfortable silence while they recovered their breath. Who needs conversation to keep someone company? After a few minutes, he stood up and helped her up. They jumped the small gap from their perch on the shelf to the closed lid of the piano and walked toward the front.
“Do you remember,” she asked as they trekked to the ledge overlooking the keyboard, “our first date here?”
He slowed a bit, the memory of the place distracting him from its present. He looked directly into her eyes. “How could I forget?” And without any warning, he leapt down from the music rack. Somehow, in all the intervening decades, the piano’s fallboard had never fallen shut.
He landed gracefully on the ivories with a gentle middle C.
“Well, I think it started with me jumping onto the keyboard.”
She stared down at him from the music rack. “You fell onto the keyboard, I seem to recall. And then we had to hide when one of the giants came to see who had played that ungodly chord.”
His laugh echoed with genuine mirth. “Oh, right. We don’t have to worry about that now, do we?” He met her gaze before asking, in a mock-posh voice, “May I have this dance?”
She giggled like she was a teenager again. “Oh, I thought you’d never ask.” She jumped down to join him, and she landed so lightly that the impact didn’t sound a note. His arm reached around her waist and pulled her in before he spun her back out. Their arms outstretched and their hands still clasped, she delicately placed a foot down on the key behind her, pressing down just enough for it to sing softly. She gave the smallest tug on his arm, and he spun toward her as she took the lead.
When his back was pressed against her front, he whispered, “Do you remember? It must have been… thirty years ago.”
Her voice was even quieter. “It can’t have been. Wasn’t it just yesterday?”
She couldn’t see his lips twitch upward just a little. “Time certainly flies, doesn’t it?” He spun away from her before letting go completely. He jumped back and landed with utter confidence, sounding an F that seemed just a little smug. “With you, it would take more than a few measly decades before I even noticed.”
“Aren’t you getting a little full of yourself? Just because we have the run of the house now?”
“And because there’s no one to stop us from playing.” A little more quietly, he asked, “Do you remember our song?”
“Of course I do. Do you?
If they hadn’t known each other so perfectly, he might have been offended. “Every note. Shall we?”
They danced a duet. They were out of practice, and it was slow. But as their playing went on, their steps grew steadier and their timing smoother. But the tempo remained serene. There was no need like there had been before to play in the dead of night years ago, when no giant would be awake to catch them. There would be no mad dash to avoid being captured (or worse). Now the notes could simply float through the air, mingling with the specks of dust that swirled through hazy, fading sunbeams.
Kiss me once, then kiss me twice,
Then kiss me once again.
It’s been a long, long time.
Kyle’s finger was an inch away from pressing the doorbell. The sooner he did it, the sooner he could turn around and leave. But boy, his finger had been an inch away from the doorbell for ten seconds now and for some reason it wasn’t getting any closer. It took all of Kyle’s will just to summon the courage to press it. Ghosts probably weren’t real, anyway… right? It was just the push of a button.
A piano note played. He hadn’t pressed the bell yet, but a note had sounded from inside the house. Slowly, without moving his feet from the spot where they now felt anchored with lead, he leaned over to look into the front window. It was grimy from years of neglect, but through it he thought he could see an old-looking piano.
It started playing.
It started playing music.
It was hard to see into the dim room through the dirty glass, but Kyle could see that there wasn’t anyone sitting at the bench. It was playing music by itself.
Danny barely had to time to ask what was going on before Kyle pelted back over the fence. “What…?” Kyle’s face was as white as a sheet. “You look like you saw a –“
Kyle kept running. It took Danny a second to put two and two together, but he did. He started running too.