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Short Story Contest Winner: Honorable Mention, Ian Tigomain

The Specter Dances by Ian Tigomain

A soft glow came from a distant room, it illuminated the dark hallway. Walls in the corridor faintly echoed music till it faded. Cigarette stench permeated the hall and a dense cloud of smoke welcomed anyone who dared enter the next room.

Passed the fumes and into the light, an elegant ballroom was revealed. Close to empty; still, it was a marvel. White marble floor stretched out the length of the room. Walls as white as the floor broke up by gold trim. There were royal red curtains that denied access to any outside light. Floor to ceiling ornate pillars helped add a touch more majesty to the ballroom. Light radiated from a glittering chandelier, it was gold, like the trim, and it appeared to have thousands of tiered lights. Each tier had crystals that made the chandelier even more awe-inspiring.

Centered between two pillars was a black grand piano. A clean-shaven man in a tuxedo sat on the piano bench. He peered out at the ballroom. Placed on top of the piano was an ashtray, cigarettes, a decanter filled with scotch and a vial that had a picture on the label.

The man pulled a cigarette and matches from the pack; he struggled to light his smoke as his hands trembled. Once lit he discarded the match into the ashtray, it dropped next to a cigarette that still burned. One long drag from the cigarette and then he picked up the vial that had a label which resembled a pirate flag, black with a white skull and crossbones. Tears grew in his eyes. He slammed down the vial and picked up the decanter. He stared at the decanter, swirled the scotch and took a swig.

While fixated on the piano he put the scotch back down and placed the cigarette in the ashtray. He sat up straight, wiped away some tears and then played. The piece started off slow, but that did not take away from how exquisite he performed. When the pace picked up his hands fluttered like hummingbirds across the keys, it was as if he and the piano were one. He had played that piece more than any other, that night alone he was on his tenth performance. Focused on the ballroom floor, he did not even blink. And then it happened.

Through the smoke, something appeared across the room. It started out small but within a second or two it was full size, a vaporous figure that moved gracefully. A woman, his beloved, danced to the music. No longer human, more of a ghost, a luminous mixture of sky blue and white. As the specter danced, he noticed she did not cast a shadow. His beloved twirled around in her beautiful evening gown. It brought a smile to his face. She glanced at him as he came to the end of the piece; he detested that part. Not only had a noose materialized around her neck, but she also waved for him to come over. Yet every time he stopped and stood up, she vanished. He was left alone.

Yesterday was the last time he screamed out in anger. Today was the fifth day, and that could have been the hundredth time he played their song. When she evaporated he consumed more scotch and wept, amazed there were any tears left in him. Could hell be worse, he wondered?

Vial with the skull and crossbones stared at him. In his mind, it taunted him. Contents of the bottle, poison used for rats. Upon purchase they had told him if someone drank it they could perish. He gripped the vial in his hand for a minute and then placed it back on the piano.

A few drags from his cigarette, and then he continued to play. Like before she materialized as he was a few notes into their piece, and like before as he concluded she gestured for him to come over and then vanished. He let out a disturbed laugh. It was now obvious that hell had to be better. In fact, he welcomed hell.

An internal conflict had him argue with himself till he snatched up the poison and drank the entire bottle. The horrid aftertaste of the liquid death made him reach for the decanter. He guzzled a mouthful of scotch. Only seconds had passed, yet he felt nauseous, did the poison work that quick. He clutched what may be his final cigarette and took a drag.

Poisoned and drunk he started his next performance, a smoke dangled from his lips, his play was still brilliant. Like every time before, the specter appeared and danced. His eyes grew heavy, and the room started to go out of focus as he watched her dance. Hands that had been so superb now struggled to play their composition. A moment later he collapsed.

His head snapped up. No longer nauseous, something was strange. He felt airy, like his weight was gone. It took a minute for his eyes to adjust, and there, on the floor, he saw himself, dead. Anxiety overtook him until a familiar hand grabbed his; a sense of calm washed over him as he turned to his love. They embraced, then they kissed, and as they kissed the two specters glowed to the point of blindness. The chandelier lights exploded when the two lovers were at their brightest.

Glow in the room faded, darkness ensued. The only light and sound came from a cigarette. The bright amber glowed as the cigarette cannibalized itself. Within minutes, even that tired.

Steps echoed through the hallway. A light switch got flipped, which brought the chandelier to life. A vast empty room presented itself to the couple that stood in the doorway.

"Honey, I swear I heard a piano playing," the man said, "I also smell cigarettes."

"This is our fifth day here, and it feels like the hundredth time we have gotten up," the woman responded. "We do not own a piano, and I do not smell anything. In a few months I want to get a piano so I can listen to you play the composition you wrote for us. Please, let us go back to bed," she said.

"Okay, maybe I am going mad," he joked.

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