I woke myself with a gasp of “Zachary?” before I remembered the war was over and I was thousands of miles away from the forests of Germany. Shaking, I sat on the edge of the bed and shoved my hands through my hair. The nightmares about my last moments in the war had finally started to taper off, but apparently being in a new place was enough to trigger them.
As I sat there, trying to calm my breathing and shaking hands, I noticed that my breath froze into vapor as if it were January. Goosebumps rose on my arms, my heart pounded — I was so on edge that I whipped around and demanded, “Who’s there?” when I heard a creak at the door.
No answer. Of course. No one was at my door.
I flipped on the lamp at my bedside. The light it gave was dim, patterned on the walls and ceiling from the punched tin of the lampshade, but still enough for me to see that the room was empty and the door was closed. Whatever presence I thought I felt had left as quickly as they had come.
I got out of bed and tested the door. It creaked as it moved — no one could have come into my room without making a noise. I tested the window as well — it was closed, the sash locked, as it had been before I went to bed. The chill I had felt dissipated, and I muttered to myself about drafts and old houses as I got beneath the coverlet again.
I breathed slow and deep as I lay awake, reminding myself that there were no Germans with grenades and rifles in Louisiana. Go back to sleep, I thought, go back to sleep.
Through the stillness of the house, I heard the faint sound of a piano.
It was a ragtime melody I thought I may have heard in a bar during the war, sprightly and playful. It made me smile, and I thought it must be Noel, whiling his sleepless hours away with music.
Meaning to join him, I was pulling on my dressing gown when the music stopped as abruptly as it had begun.
I picked up my cane and left my room. There was no one in the hall. A grandfather clock ticked in a niche, telling me it was nearly three in the morning. I went to the vestibule and listened. All was quiet throughout the house — the music had not woken Caleb or Mrs. Bell, it seemed. There was no sound from Emmanuel’s wing of the house, as well.
My hands were still trembling from the nightmare. I made my way as quietly as I could — which was, I admit, not very — down the stairs, toward the kitchen. If there was one way my family preferred to deal with uncertainty, it was to make something — preferably something good to eat.
I thought Noel would have gone back to bed, now that he was finished playing for the night, but as I passed the music room I saw him at the piano, softly caressing the keys. I paused, thinking he might not appreciate the interuption, but then said, “I liked the song.”
He looked up, startled, and then his face went back into its usual neutral lines. “Did you?”
“I’m very fond of ragtime. Was that Scott Joplin?”
“Mm,” he said in an affirming sort of way. “I’m sorry it woke you.”
I crossed the music room and sat beside him on the bench. The piano was a black grand, at least a hundred years old, with the name of the instrument-maker, Kimball, painted in gold on the fall above the keyboard. The finish and ebony keys were still glossy black; the only sign of age was the yellowing ivory of the white keys.
I placed my hands lightly on the keyboard. Beside me Noel slowly sighed. “Strange beds are always uncomfortable for the first few nights.”
Now I did press the keys, not in any kind of melody. “Yes.”
“I still have them, too,” he said conversationally. “I don’t think they’ll ever really go away.”
“I usually make myself some warm milk to help me get back to sleep.”
“Does that really work?”
“No,” I said. “But it makes me feel better.” I looked at him. “I’ll make you some, if you want.”
His stern face turned gentle. “I’d like that.” We got up from the piano and he closed the cover, giving it a soft caress before we left the music room.