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A Song for Looking Back, a Song for Looking Forward

Jose Pablo Iriarte is a Cuban-American writer, high school math teacher, and parent of two. This is Jose's third appearance in Daily Science Fiction, after "The Curse of Giants" (March, 2016) and "Heart Stitch" (March 2017). Their fiction can also be found in magazines such as Uncanny, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, and has been nominated for the Nebula Award, longlisted for the Otherwise Award, and reprinted in various Year's Best compilations. Jose currently serves as Director-at-Large for SFWA. Learn more at labrynthrat.com or look for Jose on twitter @labyrinthrat.

Luis hid from the piano for nearly three weeks after Abuela's funeral. It was easy enough, at first. It was in her bedroom, and nobody had any reason to go in there--least of all him. Without her reminders, neither Mami nor Papi would notice if he didn't practice.
But as the days passed, he did sense her voice calling him, telling him to practice his scales, his Twinkle Twinkle, his La Cucaracha. Before long he found himself on the pitted wooden bench in her room, plunking out the notes in his practice book.
Despite the time away, her lessons came back to him quickly. In fact, as his hands traversed the keys, he forgot she was gone. In his ear she whispered her gentle admonishments. Again. No, that one's a G. Better.
He practically knocked the bench over when Mami came up behind him and tousled his hair.
"I'm glad you're practicing, mi vida. Your abuela would be so happy."
For a moment, until Mami spoke, he had thought Abuela herself had caressed him.
He did not return the next day, or the day after.
It took several days, but eventually the pressure to play came back. It took fewer days next time, and fewer the time after, until he was practicing every day. Until it no longer seemed like practice at all, but just something he did.
He didn't play to make Abuela happy. Or Mami, or Papi, who couldn't care less. He played because when he did, he was with her again. Between exercises, he would tell her about his day, about the things that worried him, and she would listen and take him seriously.
Luis carried a box of clothes to the living room and added his contribution to a stack that already teetered at waist-high. "Who's got the Sharpie?"
Dad pointed to the coffee table without glancing away from his laptop.
As he reached across the table, Luis caught a glimpse of the screen: a photo of Abuela's piano, the headline "$600 OBO," the cursor hovering over the word SUBMIT.
"What are you doing?"
"We can't take that thing to the new house, Luis. We'll buy you a nice electric keyboard."
He dropped the marker. "No!"
He looked from his father to his mother and back, and tried to will the words to come out, tried to explain to them that... that... that Abuela was still there. He couldn't. They wouldn't understand. Wouldn't believe.
All he could get out was, "Mami, please."
"Nino bitongo," Dad muttered. Luis's cheeks burned, but he held his ground.
Mom glared. "You know how much he loves that piano, Juan. And it did belong to my mother."
Dad sighed and closed the browser. "I suppose a piano in the living room is classy. Even that old thing. It'll be hell to move, though."
"Come on, sweetie. You play for us all the time. Why not play a song for my friend Eileen?"
Luis rolled his eyes. "Mom!"
She turned toward her guest. "Ever since he became a teenager, he acts like every little thing is torture."
"Fine," he said, dropping onto the bench. To keep from saying or doing something he would regret, he launched into his latest: Mills's "Music Box Dancer."
Abuela didn't say anything to him while he played for them, but he sensed her gaze. Her approval.
"He's terrific," Mom's friend said. "Where do you take him for lessons?"
"Nowhere! He's completely self-taught!"
Luis didn't correct her, but his face heated up. Keeping quiet was lying by omission.
"It runs in the family," she added. "My mother was a music teacher in her day."
"He has potential. He ought to look into a music school or a conservatory."
Mom beamed. "You think? Maybe he will!"
Luis bit his lip. He would do no such thing.
Music school brochures started appearing on the piano's lid after that. Places in Chicago, California, even Manhattan. He didn't want to try to explain that it wasn't him they were all amazed by--it was her. He couldn't tell them he still felt her hands, still heard her guiding him. He hadn't set out to fool people into thinking he had talent. He just wanted to play.
Whatever. He still had over three years of high school. They'd find something else to obsess over.
"Did you enjoy your birthday dinner?"
He staggered from the car. "I'm stuffed, Dad. I won't eat for a week."
"You have one more present," Mom said. "It's waiting inside."
Dad unlocked the door, and Luis followed them in. So much for getting a car for his sixteenth birthday--not if his gift was "waiting inside."
Mom flicked the light switch, and his mouth went dry.
In the middle of the living room, a shiny black baby grand gleamed under the track lights.
His stomach cramped.
"We got you a real piano," Dad said, beaming. "No more playing on that shabby old thing!"
Luis blinked several times. No. He shook his head. Abuela, no. Please. There had to be a mistake.
Mom kissed him. "You've worked so hard, showed so much commitment, you've earned it."
He inhaled deeply, fighting back nausea. "That's... great."
He stared at the piano, pain in his chest. Could they still get the old one back? Maybe if he explained--what? What would he possibly say?
Dad cocked his head. "Something wrong?"
"No! I'm... just speechless, I guess."
Having a meltdown would solve nothing. This was clearly a done deal.
"Go on," said Mom. "Play!"
He sat on the shiny leather stool and stared at the instrument. It would be awful. She wouldn't be there and he'd forget everything without her guidance. How would he explain himself then?
He picked out the opening notes of his new obsession, Joplin's "The Entertainer." The notes were shaky, even at first where the rag was all melody. Barely a minute in, he went off the rails altogether.
He couldn't do this. Not without Abuela.
He sat still, waiting for his parents to say something. Waiting for Mom to ask why he couldn't play anymore, or for Dad to bemoan the money they'd wasted getting him this gift he'd never wanted.
Nobody said anything, though, and the seconds dragged on. He put his fingers back on the keys. Surely Abuela didn't start teaching him so that he would only be able to make music on one piano.
He would have to imagine her, then.
He tried a different piece. The first movement of the Moonlight Sonata seemed more fitting. He positioned his fingers and began to play.
It...vwasn't terrible. Not bad at all. Good, even.
He couldn't hear Abuela, couldn't see her or feel her, but he told himself she heard him. Who knew what the rules were, anyway, and who could say she did not? He played for her, then, not for her to teach him or correct him, but just for her to listen and know he thought of her.
When he finished, his parents kissed him and retreated to their bedroom.
Luis took an old photo from the mantle, him and his grandmother at Disney World when he was six, and placed it on the piano.
"Thanks for teaching me, Abuela."
He took one of the music school brochures and thumbed through it. Still holding the glossy paper, he padded off toward his room, humming a tune as he went.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, March 25th, 2022

Author Comments

This story was written for the Codex Writing Group's annual flash fiction contest, Flash, Saviour of the Universe. I wrote this story and then I promptly put it away and forgot all about it, without submitting it anywhere, because I was going through a bit of a funk at the time and even submitting stories felt like more than I could do. That was three years ago, so I don't have the most vivid memories of what was going through my head when I wrote it, but I remember being specifically intrigued by the idea of a ghost that haunted a musical instrument, rather than a location. Then when I wrote the story, I wrote it in such a way that the reality of Luis's abuela's presence was up in the air, because that's frankly typical of all my spec. I have always gravitated to the fancy that the real world is magical, and we just fool ourselves into not seeing it, convincing ourselves that the magical is mundane. The world seems more magical to me if we don't have undeniable evidence of the fantastic. Anyway, I'm glad I dusted this one off and started sending it out, and I'm pleased to have found a home for my work in Daily Science Fiction once again.

- Jose Pablo Iriarte
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