Written for the Paranormal Romance Contest
|Sarah Jean studied the old familiar school room with alarm. Something was different, but what? The desks lay huddled in a mass of broken rubble as they had since the school closed all those years ago. Sarah Jean couldn't remember how long it had been. Old ghosts like her didn't fuss over time.
The blackboard lay broken on the floor, a large mildewy water stain sprawled itself along the ceiling in one corner, and the smell of decomposition welcomed her as always.
But wait. Another smell mingled with the rot of the old school.
Cologne mixed with the sweat of labor, the invigorating scent of sunshine and the outdoors. But where was the man this spicy aroma belonged to?
She strode unafraid about the dilapidated building, knowing from experience that she couldn’t be seen. She knew there were some like her who could manifest themselves to the living, but so far, Sara Jean had not been able to accomplish it.
She’d tried multiple times over the years to scare the kids away that came to vandalize the property, but fortunately for her, the hoodlums bothered the place less and less. That’s why the threat of a newcomer surprised her.
Sarah Jean could see no one, but she drifted outside to the grounds and continued her search. There was no man here, but a half-eaten sandwich sat on a flattened paper sack on the front step beside an assortment of tools. Come to think of it, she had heard some banging around out here. She’d assumed it was the woodpeckers hammering away at the cottonwood tree.
Soon, a cheery whistled tune met her ears from the other side of the schoolhouse. She stilled, cautious, nervous.
The whistling grew louder until she nearly faced him. The tall, muscular brunette breezed by her and resumed his post on the front porch, sandwich in hand.
She sat in the tall weeds and studied him for what seemed like hours. What could have brought such a strong, handsome man all the way out here to this forgotten place?
The man finished his sandwich, crumpled the paper bag in his fist and tossed it in his toolbox. Then he set to work hammering some new boards on a section of the porch that had long ago fallen in. He continued to whistle some unfamiliar song as he worked.
Before Sarah Jean realized it, the sun had begun to sink below the horizon, and the man packed up his things and headed toward a pickup truck parked on the other side of the building. She heard a rumble and then the truck left the little schoolhouse behind.
Would he return? She felt hopeful because it didn’t make sense to repair an old deck and then disappear when the rest of the property was a shambles. What would be the point?
When he did return the next morning, he brought a truckload of new shingles for the roof and spent the day atop the old school with strange music blaring from the cab of his truck. She sat back in the grass and wished she could feel the sun on her skin as she watched him work. She couldn’t ignore the strange feeling ignited inside her.
Sarah Jean didn’t realize how smitten she’d become until the strange man didn’t come back the next day. Or the one after that.
She fell into a depression similar to when she first realized she was dead, and that Benjamin, the school principal, would never know that she loved him. She always wondered what happened to her love, and had finally come to terms with the fact that she would never know.
When the man did come back, he brought something special with him. A piano. Sarah Jean kept close by as he rolled it into the classroom and set it up along the east wall. She nearly wept with joy!
She remembered spending hours at the piano in her childhood home, long before influenza took her life.
She sat herself down on the piano bench and wished she could press the keys to make the familiar sounds of euphoria.
A strange chime echoed through the large room, and Sarah Jean’s attention focused on him. He pulled an object out of his pocket and began to speak into it.
“This is Max.” He walked out of the room, continually speaking to the object held up to his ear.
Max. Her heart fluttered at the new revelation. Her fingers fluttered over the ivory keys. This piano reminded her so much of the one that used to be here, long ago. The one she was sitting at when Benjamin first kissed her on the cheek.
Memories of her teaching days, and the budding romance with the new, young principal, washed over her. She rested her hand on the piano, and a loud jumble of notes rang out through the room.
She jerked and nearly fell off the stool. She’d done that! For years, Sarah Jean had tried to grasp the objects lying around the school; to manipulate anything around her, to no avail. Now, when she least expected it, the piano came alive at her touch.
She tried again, pressing a key all the way down. She laughed as the note sang beautifully. From there, she burst into an old ragtime tune she remembered from childhood. She was amazed at how quickly she remembered, her fingers danced like nimble ballerinas across the ivories.
Something crashed behind her, and she spun around to see Max. He’d dropped his toolbox, his face pale, eyes aimed in her direction. He couldn’t see her, she could tell by the way his eyes weren’t focused directly on her, but he must have heard her playing.
She stopped and studied Max for what felt like hours. He finally stooped, replaced his scattered tools in the box, and left them there. He nodded toward the piano and smiled.
“The old man was right. I’ll be damned.”
Max worked nonstop from then on, fixing up the old school. By the end of the week, he’d lain new flooring, and brought in a crew of men to help with new plumbing and wiring. Furniture came next, and before long the school had been transformed from a broken down learning facility to a cozy home.
Each evening, Sarah Jean sat at the piano and played all the songs she remembered. Old church hymns and spirituals, and tunes she grew up hearing on the radio. Max would sit and listen intently for about a half hour before driving away for the night.
One night, he didn’t sit down to hear her play. He climbed into his truck and drove away just before dinner and he didn’t come back the next day.
“He didn’t even say goodbye,” she mumbled as she moped around the lonely home. The remodel had pleased her with how comfortable and homey it had made the place, but now, even the cheery furnishings couldn’t bring a smile to her face.
Sarah Jean waited a week, and he didn’t appear. She convinced herself that he would never return, and sunk into a deep depression.
When the familiar rumble of his truck engine met her lying on the new bed in what used to be the principal’s office, she didn’t recognize it. It wasn’t until the door slammed shut, that she jerked upright, her heart soared with hope.
Several sets of feet entered, clomping across the new carpet with the gleeful abandon that only children seem to possess. She rose and joined the group, unnoticed.
Max entered last, suitcases in hand. A beautiful woman stood beside him, and two toddlers that appeared to be twins raced about from room to room.
Max wrapped his arms around the beautiful woman and planted a noisy kiss on her cheek. Sarah Jean sunk to the floor and wished she could die, to sink into a big black nothing, like before she was born.
Then she saw him.
The old man stepped through the doorway with the help of a wobbly cane.
“Benjamin,” she breathed in disbelief. Though time had changed his features, she knew him instantly.
The old principal surveyed the room and sighed. “You did real good, Maxie. The place looks great.” His eyes lingered on the piano and he smiled. “That’s Sarah Jean’s piano. “ He wobbled on unsteady feet to the instrument, and sat on the bench, running a gnarled hand along the keys.
Sarah Jean joined him and placed her hand atop his. Hearing him say her name had given her shivers. She loved him all over again.
She turned her attention to the piano and began to play a slow, mournful song that she knew Benjamin would recognize. It was the last tune she played for him before her death.
He closed his eyes and listened to the song play, a tear trailed down his cheek. Max and his wife joined them in the living room.
“She’s been playing ever since I brought the piano in.” Max stirred a cup of coffee and took a sip. “I thought you were crazy, Grandpa when you suggested moving here to meet a ghost.” He set his cup down and took his wife’s hand.
Benjamin wiped his eyes. “She was the only woman I ever loved. If there was even one chance of being with her after I die, I had to take it. I just knew she’d be here. She loved this school more than anything. Maybe even more than me. Your father was her favorite student. That’s why I adopted him after she died. He didn’t have anyone else.”
Sarah Jean began to play something a little more upbeat, and Max and his wife began to dance. Benjamin stayed at the piano bench and leaned toward his love.
“They moved here for me, Sarah Jean.” Benjamin kept his voice low. “Maxie fixed this old place up just for me. I wanted to be here when the time came to join you. I knew if you were here you’d be drawn to this old piano. Thank you, my Dear, for waiting for me.”
Sarah Jean continued playing as the twins joined them and the whole family danced to the ghostly music.
Third Place Winner!