Ruben never knows who he raises from the dead when he plays the first song, and he still doesn’t know when they leave during the second. Raw bones, flayed with rotting skin, half-recognisable faces: an old man who settles in an old sofa with a rattling sigh; the pale girl leaning back against the crumbling wall. People who have been visiting for a year now, with their histories still unknown. Except his mother, who tells him how peaceful he looked as a sleeping baby in her arms.
“How old are you now, darling?” she will ask, as often as four times a day. He tells her he’s eight, and she smiles with dead eyes. Three years’ worth of decomposition, exposing cartilage and paling gums. She will then sigh and tilt her head, as though chasing lost thoughts, and smear blood on the worn piano keys and create a melody, as though chasing her past. “We love waking to the sound of you playing.”
His chest swells with warmth, despite wondering what happened to her, how she died; a death his father refuses to talk about and a memory his mother cannot seem to recall whenever Ruben asks.
Soon the sun will rise and wake everyone. Ruben will resign himself to playing the second song, no matter how bitter the loneliness tastes. And he’ll watch the light cast across their corpses as they return to their graves.
In the foggiest nook of his mind, Ruben sees only one clear memory of his family when they were still whole: his mother sitting at the upright piano, playing something gentle and smooth, pausing to smile down at a five-year-old Ruben or take the hand of his father. A scene Ruben clutches onto, even though his father eventually moved the piano from the living room to the garage, further severing the attachment between mother and son.
“Did,” he starts one morning, pausing to wait for his father to look at him from over his tablet. “Did Mum play a lot?”
His father clears his throat and stands. “Yes, she did,” he says, setting his coffee mug in the sink, then packing his work bag. “Come on. We should get you to school.” As he heads for the door, he stops, and Ruben senses him reaching out to touch his shoulder, before drawing back at the last moment. They don’t talk as they walk to the car, or as they drive down the lone gravelly road that leads out from where they live in the vacant woodland. Ruben feels the heaviness sinking low in his stomach as they near the busy town, a place where he feels the most isolated.
Relief washes over him when he arrives home six hours later, watching as light finally dims into darkness. He only wakes the dead when the living sleep.
He takes his seat at the piano and plays the first song, listening to the feet dragging across the floorboards. The sofa cushions exhale dust as the old man sits, gravel scuffing beneath the little girl’s shoes. A cotton dress brushes against his arm, and then: “How old are you now, darling?”
His mother wears a grin that shows gum and bone. “I turned eight last week,” he says, and tries to remember his other birthdays, ones where she was present. He comes across only distant snapshots, images in his mind that pale like dated photographs: cheese scones cooking, their rich smell pulling him down from upstairs; tasting salt water as blurred figures play in the ocean; a soft laugh that carries on the air and wraps around him.
“We had a street party for my eleventh,” says the old man, scratching at the peeling skin of his arm. “Funny. Think the Queen had something going on that day too.”
Ruben’s mother touches his hand. “We should throw a party for you.”
Ruben shrugs. “Don’t like parties.”
“No, of course not,” she says. She pauses, picking at her thinning scalp. “What would you like?”
He would have asked for gifts that would have no doubt brought painful reminders. More books to collect dust on his shelves, tales about adventures and friends, things he no longer has. Candles to blow out on a cake with only himself to witness it. One day where his father said something to him other than his name. As he looks at his mother, at the old man and the girl, he wants to be wanted. They give that to him. “I want you to stay,” he says, and takes her hand. “Can you stay with me?”
She nods. “We can stay for a little while.”
Ruben drops his head. An answer he was not hoping for. He sighs, and his mother rests her cheek on his shoulder, blood rubbing off against his shirt. When he looks out the window, he notices an old dead woman lingering in the back garden, illuminated by moonlight, covered in mud and grass from where she had dragged herself out of the ground.
Even though Ruben has grown used to raising the dead, each rendition thickens the air with intense longing.
Two weeks after he asked his mother to stay, more people fill out the audience, metal tool shelves clattering with their unbalanced walking. His mother, the old man, and the little girl return as usual. And now the old woman joins them, sitting on the battered sofa too. Twin boys sit against the wall with their knees to their chests, chewing at where their fingernails would be. Ruben finds out little about their lives: the old woman spent hours knitting scarves and gloves for her grandchildren, and the twins were about to sit their mock exams before the car accident. Sometimes the little girl sings under her breath, soft and sweet. Ruben knows he should be worried about the growing crowd, about himself, but their company snuffs out the feeling before it takes hold.
They give him mementoes, from battered watches with cracked glass and withered flowers picked from his own garden, boiled sweets and toys from before he was born. Things he hides under his bed in a box, which he cannot seem to part from.
Each time they visit, the bitterness sweetens, until they leave him with the echoing and hollow second song.
“You should play for your father,” his mother says, leaning into his side, more than before. She has started to lose teeth.
Ruben chews on his lip until the skin becomes raw. “He doesn’t want to talk about it.”
“Your dad doesn’t want a lot of things.” She looks as though she recalls another memory, something bittersweet. “He doesn’t want to because it makes him sad.” Her eroded fingers line up against his, bone clicking against the ivory, pressing down on the low notes. “He’ll warm to the idea when he hears you.”
Early memories of his father are as hazy as those of his mother; little legs pressing against his waist as he gave piggyback rides and pulling Ruben snug against his side as they watched films. Ruben can only hope that he will return to some semblance of who he once was. He stares down at the piano keys, white and black against his pale hands, even as a slither of muscle wetly peels back from his mother’s torso, and air whistles through her ribs. Even as the dead crowd the space with their decomposing bodies.
“It’s time to take a break,” she says the next time. “How old are you, darling?” Her left eye is gone, leaving the socket behind. Sometimes the five dead leave femurs and jawbones too, for Ruben to hide, bloodstains left to clean. She tries to smile at him, but her mouth shakes and the smile falls, drooping down to one side. She stops him playing with a wet and cold hand against his.
Ruben pulls back. “I’m eight.”
“Yes, that’s right,” she says with a flustered shake of her head. “It’s time to take a break now.”
The others study him with the same sympathetic look as he asks, “Why?”
“It’s becoming too much for you; too much for all of us.” As she leans close, Ruben catches the sour smell of rot, stronger, suffocating. “You can see that, can’t you? We don’t want to the dead to overwhelm the living.”
Sweetness sours within him, the bitter taste dripping down his throat. He puts his hands back onto the keys, touching the notes with uncertainty. Notices the shaking in his fingers. His mother lifts his chin, staring at him with her one eye, sinking beneath the blackening skin as it shrivels with decay. She sighs. “You must let them rest, and”—she pauses—“and I’ll stay with you.”
Ruben slumps and curls against her side, absorbing the promise. She holds him, and he runs his fingers over her bones.
The next evening, as Ruben and his father eat pre-made pasta bake in silence, he thinks about what his mother said. How she said it again before she left the night before. You should play for your father. He remembers the way they all sat and listened to her play, basking in the moment; how they could all be together to experience it again. He picks at the wood sliver from the table, and takes a breath. “I’ve been playing,” he says, and swallows. “Like Mum did.” He pauses. “Would you like to hear it?”
Something brews in Ruben when his father looks at him. Hope, starving off the bitterness, until the answer finally comes. “Not today,” he says, sighing. His eyes are hollow. “Just. Not today.”
He heaves himself to his feet. Ruben listens for his heavy footsteps on the stairs, the resounding shut of his bedroom door. He scrapes his chair back, dropping his plate and cutlery into the sink with a clatter. His breath comes heavy and uneven as he reaches the garage, legs unsteady as he drops into the piano seat. Trembling, he plays the first song. His mother arrives a moment later, noticing his distress with a hand to his cheek. Blood smudges across his skin.
“He said no,” he says, scrubbing the tears away with his sleeve. “I asked him, and he said no.”
She curls her arms around him, cold and damp. “We can try again.”
Wood creaks beneath feet as the others come. Ruben focuses on their arrival as he pulls away from his mother and continues to play, harder and faster. The notes, high and echoing, cut through the calm, his own joints aching and lungs burning. He pulls more dead from the ground: the old man makes room for another, the little girl allowing a tailless and maggot-infested dog to sit against her calves. The old woman shuffles across the garden with others behind her, and the twins lead a group of several other children. Sighs turn into groans, wet and clogged. Guts and bones trail behind them in their wake.
Ruben grits his teeth, taking the familiar bitterness and clinging to it as it flourishes, the fuel that feeds into his fingers. He continues to play even as his father’s window glows with sudden light. Even as the ground rumbles and splits beneath him, opening to gaping faces and empty gazes. Pain shudders across his skull and down his spine, but then numbs from the familiar lull of comfort as the dead cluster around him. The piano tilts as the ground shifts again.
Bony fingers wrap around his ankles, while others grab at his shoulders and arms. A swarm bloats around him, until he no longer tastes bitterness but blood, and struggles to breathe.
His mother is lost within them, but he can still hear her voice as she says, “You must stop, darling. Please.” She sounds desperate, but he can’t stop. He can’t let go of something when he has only just found it.
He listens to the music, and loses himself in its song, until it drowns out and sways him into a quiet abyss.