Jake lifted the piano key and slammed it down. A tiny distorted noise echoed from the piano. He dropped his forehead on the keys with a loud thud. "I hate this piano."
"I thought it sounded great," his mother said.
"It’s hard to recognize Jingle Bells on this piano. You’ve never heard me play at Le Chic. Last night I played O Holy Night and made one lady cry."
"I can’t afford to eat at your work," she reminded him as she draped a popcorn garland over a pathetic little tree.
The women at Le Chic wore tight dresses in shades of red, green, and black. Jake looked over at his mother dressed in old sweats and a worn sweater. She would never fit in with the bright lights and beauty of Le Chic.
Jake stood and pulled a faded felt strip over the piano keys. The last thing the old beast needed was dust in the keys. "I’m going for a walk."
"Don’t be too late. My sister and her kids are coming over for dinner."
Jake lifted the door as he pulled it closed so the latch would shut all the way. He regretted going outside the moment he saw the row of plastic Christmas ornaments decorating the houses that surrounded his. It was like Christmas just upchucked everywhere except his house. Christmas vomit was too expensive.
It was warm, for Christmas Eve. Most of the snow from last week’s storm had melted and the roads were clear. He got on his motorcycle and headed for the mountains. They would be free of Christmas decorations.
A strange melody wrapped in the roar of his engine began to play in his head. He listened to it for a while and tried to identify the tune, but soon gave up. He pulled to the side of the road and cut the engine, expecting the melody to fade, but it grew stronger.
A cold wind caressed his face and pushed him toward a fallen tree. He shoved the branches to the side and found a trail winding its way up the mountain. He hid his bike behind some branches and forced his way past the tree to the trail. The trail widened as he distanced himself from the freeway. As he walked, the melody grew louder and he could make out the distinct tone of a piano.
The trail opened into a small meadow sheltered by snow-covered trees. Jake pushed a low tree branch out of the way and stepped off the path. There, in the center of the meadow, sat a glistening black grand piano. Who would put a valuable piano like that outside in weather like this?
"Hello? Your piano is going to be ruined." How did someone haul it here in the first place?
Wind rustled the evergreen trees and a light dusting of snow blew around the meadow. The melody in his head grew insistent. He had to play that piano. It was a need as unrelenting as hunger.
The snow around the piano showed no footprints. He looked at the rich dark color of the piano and played middle C. The note rang out, clean and pure, unlike the piece of junk piano he had at home. He slid onto the piano bench and ran his fingers over the rest of the keys. They were warm and inviting. The song flowed from his head and into his fingers. Jake let it take over.
As he played a light appeared behind him and reflected on the shiny black piano. At first it bobbed up and down to the beat and then it started to sway. The light grew as the music swelled and took on a human shape, legs splitting from the bottom half, arms extended from the middle and a head formed on the top. Then it danced.
The light leapt and twirled with the music its form solidifying as he danced. His hair spiraled around his head as he floated around the frozen meadow. His face was young and handsome except for the eyes. His eyes were nothing but black voids.
Jake saw him as he danced around the piano but he couldn’t stop playing. The music had him. He couldn’t tear his hands away from the haunting melody and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to. It was too beautiful to stop.
The ghost floated over the piano and stopped, his face inches from Jake’s. Jake’s fingers froze. His heart pounded as he stared into the face.
"What are you?" Jake meant to ask, but his voice didn’t work. He looked around and found himself staring at his own body, still playing the piano. The strange spirit was gone. But why was he looking at himself? What was happening?
Jake’s body stopped playing the piano. It stood and looked around. "Don’t bother complaining. I can’t see or hear you." He stretched. "Man that feels good." He paused for a moment. Jake tried to get back to his body but he didn’t know how to move.
The imposter stood and Jake felt a pull as his body started down the trail. "It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?" He asked as if Jake could reply. He smiled. "I can’t remember the last time I got to smile." His chest expanded as he took a deep breath. "Or smelled the snow. Snow does have a smell, but you don’t realize it until you haven’t smelled it for a while." Water dripped on his head from an overloaded branch and he laughed.
Jake couldn’t remember the last time he’d laughed. It was a nice sound. He wondered why he never did it.
"Wow," the imposter said when they arrived at the spot where Jake’s motorcycle was hidden. "I’ve heard these thing roar down the road but I never imagined I’d get to ride one."
If Jake had been connected with his heart, he was sure it would be pounding. This jerk was going to destroy his bike! It was the only thing he had. But he was powerless to stop the imposter from lifting his bike and climbing on the seat. Jake drifted behind the motorcycle like a kite tied to the handlebars.
"So this is what you call Christmas vomit," the imposter said.
Jake struggled to concentrate. How did they get home so fast?
"That’s funny. It is a strange thing—and very large. But look."
Jake’s attention was forced on a giant blowup Santa. His neighbor’s kid played in the snow at its feet, making a snowman. The kid looked up at the Santa and smiled. "You’ll tell the real Santa that I’ve been good, right? I even built him a snowman."
"Jake, you’re home."
Jake forced his attention to his own house. His mother stood in the doorway wearing an old stained apron over her faded best dress.
"Merry Christmas, Mom," the imposter said. He swept her into his arms and wrapped her into a hug.
Jake waited for his mom to notice something was wrong, that the guy wearing his body wasn’t him, but instead she smiled. "I don’t think you’ve hugged me like that since you were ten."
"The mountain air cleared my head," the imposter said. "And I realized what a jerk I’ve been. So I hurried back to see if you needed any help."
Her smile lit her face like a Christmas tree and Jake realized that she was beautiful—just as beautiful as the wealthy women he played for at Le Chic.
Images blurred past him. Sounds of laughter boomed around and a warm feeling enveloped the evening. Jake found himself watching his body wave goodbye to his cousins and aunt. He couldn’t remember anything that happened that evening but the feeling in the air was almost tangible. He longed for his hands so he could reach out and touch it.
Anger stirred him. That imposter made him miss the entire Christmas Eve celebration. Then he remembered that he’d planned to spend the evening moping in his room.
"I’m so tired," Jake’s mom said around a yawn. "Thanks for all your help tonight." Her face glowed with tired happiness as she hugged the imposter.
Jake longed to feel his mother’s love. He tried to move to his body but once again he was powerless.
"I can feel you fighting me," the imposter said after his mother had gone to bed. "I don’t understand why you want your life back. You hated it. You are poor and you can barely afford to eat. Your piano won’t even play Middle C. You could go back to the meadow and take the next body that comes along. You will be happier."
No, he wouldn’t be happier. He wanted his life back. He loved his mother and the silly popcorn she’d draped over the tree. The piano wasn’t so bad. His mother had saved for years to buy it. It reminded him of her. He longed to feel the worn keys under his fingers.
It was such a familiar feeling it took a moment before he realized that he was sitting at his piano playing the same haunting song that started the whole mess. He yanked his fingers from the keys. A door opened at the top of the stairs and he saw his mother in her white night gown looking down on him like an angel.
"Where did you learn that song?" she asked.
Jake stared at his hands, still unsure if he was really attached to them. "I…umm…"
"It sound like the song your father wrote before you were born. It was supposed to be your first Christmas present, but he died before he could play it for you." She smiled, her eyes staring at something far away. "You reminded me so much of him tonight. I’m so glad you found that song."
Jake felt a chill creep up his spine. "I’m glad too, Mom. Merry Christmas."