by Callum Colback 

A lilting piano melody drifts across the blasted ruins of a street once teeming with life. Beneath an orange sky, whole buildings lie slumped in the road, their foundations blown out from below them. Others still stand, narrow houses leaning on each other for support, but all bear grievous war injuries—shell holes, crumbling walls, cremated innards. The road they line is pockmarked with craters, one or two still smoking.

One structure that has kept its feet is a small building with a flat roof and yellow walls. A sign painted with a musical note hangs limply from its exterior, partially covering the blown out front windows. The building’s door lies in the road amidst masses of shattered glass; the tanned, lifeless arm of a body poking out from beneath it.

Inside, tables and chairs are scattered around the room. A deserted bar stands against the far wall, intact bottles of spirits still lining its shelves. A piano, it’s back shredded by shrapnel, holds residence in the centre of the room. Over it, an old man is hunched, playing a melancholy tune at odds with the honky-tonk timbre of the instrument.

A half-drunk bottle of wine rests on the back of the piano and as the fingers of his left hand sweep up the minor pentatonic scale, those of his right hand seize the bottle and raise it to a set of dry, stubbly lips. He drinks deeply, gently tapping out the highest note of the scale, replaces the bottle and begins a sweeping arpeggio of emptiness and sorrow. His lips tremble slightly, moist eyes following the music sheet in front of him. They flick briefly to an assault rifle, resting within arm’s reach, on a table next to him. The lost souls who come to him come looking for many things: money, shelter, a friend, but mostly they come for protection. As if he can provide protection.

He can hear others coming now, those responsible for the destruction of this land; firing their warning shots, shouting their curses, laughing and defiling the dead scattered along the street. He will not run like the others. No need. Besides, his old legs would not permit him to get far. He will remain, his music ringing out across the abandoned streets. They will be drawn to it. They always are. A reinforced door at the side of the room beckons, but not as an escape route. He can smell those huddled behind it, can imagine their whispered prayers—not to be noticed, not to be found, to continue their existence. Women, men, children, it makes no difference; in the end they all pray for one thing. Life.

The scuffle of feet on concrete is audible mere moments before a bullet splinters the piano’s sideboard. The old man’s fingers cease their dreamlike dance across the keys. A dissonant, suspense-filled note hangs in the air. Aasif, clad in ill-fitting combats, a pistol gripped loosely in hairy knuckles, picks his way over the rubble and into the building. Others stand on the street, men and women in matching grey combats, weapons slung casually across their shoulders.

The old man slips his own weapon off the table and lets it hang at his side as he rises to his feet, the stool scraping across the floor.

Aasif waves his pistol at him.

‘Piano Man,’ he says, ‘it is good to see you.’

A smile splits Aasif’s harsh features, a river through rock, but his eyes remain cold. The piano man does not smile back. He hoists his assault rifle and brings it to bear on the intruder’s chest.

‘Really Uncle, is there any need for that? How many times will you threaten your own kin like this? My father would have been ashamed.’

The piano man’s lips peel back in a snarl. His brother would indeed have been ashamed of them both, but far less for their antagonism than all the other deeds preceding it.

A laugh barks out of Aasif.

‘Uncle, you look like an animal when you do that, one day I will help you break your vow of silence, it is the most ridiculous form of repenting.’

The soldiers on the street have begun picking their way into the room behind him, weapons held less casually now. They are all young, and edgy with their youth. Shoulders tensed, trigger fingers itching. The piano man visualizes himself taking down two with a quick, controlled burst. Maybe one more as he is filled with lead himself. It would be satisfying, but no. His hands have taken too many lives already. There is enough blood on his ledger, let someone else fill theirs.

He lets the rifle drop back down, half expecting to be riddled with fire anyway. Eyes on his nephew, the piano man raises a finger, first to his nose, and then to the door at the side of the room.

‘Thank you, Uncle,’ Aasif says, turning and making his way to the door.

He rests the side of his head against it and listens, takes a pace back, then steps forward and puts his heavy boot into it. Muffled cries come from inside, but the door holds fast.

The piano man sits back down on his stool, his back turned to Aasif and his lapdogs. Eyes burn into the back of his head. Silence fills the room. A whimper from behind the locked door. The piano man taps a weathered finger against the rim of a glass perched atop the piano and begins to play. It is the same melancholy, meandering melody that had drawn the soldiers here. Glass and debris crunches underfoot as his nephew circles the piano to face him. He tries for eye contact but the piano man will not grant it.

‘You are a cursed old man, Uncle. A piano man who sells his soul for paper with which to line those bloody hands of yours.’

Aasif snaps his fingers at a young woman carrying a machete, dry blood caking it’s surface, a line of contrasting fresher blood still glistening on the sharp edge. The woman steps forward, free hand rummaging in her jacket pocket. She produces a few crumpled notes and drops them into the glass. The piano man shoots her a look and plays a deliberately off key run of chords. Pushing it maybe, he thinks carelessly, but what does he have to lose? If they get bored and put a bullet in his brain, so be it. His wife is gone, his sons and daughters are gone, his brother is gone. All he has left is the bloodthirsty nephew who took it all from him. That and his piano. The woman reaches forward again and drops a much larger fold of notes into the glass. The painful chords cease and the piano man’s hands play out a far more pleasant string of notes. Aasif laughs again, a flash of white teeth shining out.

That laugh. That jarring laugh, like gravel underfoot, draining what little pleasure the piano man takes from watching Aasif dance to his tune but for a moment.

A door key is placed in the glass, the notes removed and stuffed into his pocket. Aasif retrieves the key himself and marches to the door. As he slides it into the lock, he looks to the piano man.

‘How many more years of silence will this add to your tally, Uncle?’

The piano man cannot bring himself to look up as the people inside the room are pulled out; pushed, kicked, and thrown into the street outside. He cannot look up as they are pressed to the ground with rifle butts, the broken glass on the road lacerating their legs and knees. His assault rifle is within reach, but it seems miles away, its body holding a weight too great to lift. He focuses on his music, lets it absorb him, as it drowns out all other sounds. Nothing else matters, nothing else exists. Nothing can.

Yet as the gunshots ring out, he hears them. His fingers pause, flutter, and tremble, before carrying on the melancholy melody.

Callum Colback is a Scottish writer based in Bedfordshire, UK. He writes across all genres, although sci-fi, fantasy, and horror are closest to his heart. When not writing he can be found sketching, playing guitar, and chipping away at the ever growing to-be-read pile of books stacked around the house.