Piper

From Are You Afraid of the Dark

From Are You Afraid of the Dark

The first time Eddie told the piper to fuck off it was about a quarter to ten. We parked the car down the street. Eddie said there was a government conspiracy to wait outside of Mickey’s Bar for drunks, and he needed to throw off the cops. That meant a brisk walk through the biting January air. I didn’t want to carry my coat around all night, so I left it in the car. The north wind tore through me within a half a block. I hate the cold. I’ve been cursing my dad ever since he moved us here from southern California when I was ten. What sort of asshole moves his family from paradise to Kansas? My dad was that sort of asshole.

Loads of panhandlers hung out on the street on Saturday nights. Drunk college kids with money in their pockets were easy marks. Eddie hated beggars even more than he hates people, in general.

“Jesus Christ,” Eddie said. “The city is pulling a shelter out of my ass and these bastards have the nerve to ask for money?”

I didn’t answer. I knew better. I blew warm breath out through my mouth and watched it dissipate. When we first moved here, I pretended to smoke imaginary cigarettes for hours, trying to blow wintery smoke rings. Now, it just proves Kansas is too damn cold. We passed a middle aged woman shaking a single maraca. A rusted Folgers coffee sat in front of her, accepting donations.

“For fuck’s sake, knock that off,” Eddie said. We walked by without stopping. “I expect better quality out of my street urchins.”

I laughed in spite of myself. Then, I heard the piper. I’d been a sucker for the harmonica ever since my ill-advised Blues Traveler phase in the late-nineties. The piper played on the corner in front of Mickey’s Bar. A small crowd gathered around.

People stomped and clapped as the piper played a song I didn’t recognize. He finished his song just before we reached him. After the applause died out, people tossed bills into the black wide-brimmed hat lying in front of the piper and hurried in to Mickey’s to get warm.

I tried not to stare, but curiosity got the better of me. Thinning silver hair fell to piper’s shoulders. A tangled moustache twisted out from the corners of his mouth. He flashed us a grin of crooked, yellow teeth.

“Could you spare some change, gentlemen?” the piper said. His piss-yellow eyes unnerved me almost as much as the tattered black cape draped over his body.

“Fuck off,” Eddie said. “You want money? Get a fucking job.” Eddie walked into the bar.

The piper looked at me. He licked his chapped lips and pulled the cape tighter around his body.

I made sure Eddie wasn’t looking and laid a folded dollar bill into the piper’s hat. The piper gave me a nodding smile. I joined Eddie inside.

Eddie got us kicked out of Mickey’s at about a quarter after one. The bouncer shoved him out the door. I followed, because I always followed Eddie.

“Fuck you, Bruce,” Eddie yelled. “You let those frat pricks get away with everything and throw the real men out? Fuck this place.”

“Did you say rats?” the piper said from behind us. He sat back against the brick façade of the bookstore, his tattered black cape wrapped tightly around him like a dirty cocoon. The wide-brim hat covered his face, thankfully. I couldn’t bear to see those piss-yellow eyes again.

“They might as well be rats. All they do is eat and breed. I would pay a million dollars to get rid of them all.”

“A million dollars?” the piper asked, licking the cracked corner of his mouth. “If I got rid of the rats, you would give me a million dollars?”

“Sure, buddy,” Eddie said, looking at me with a can-you-believe-this-nutcase glance.

“Do you have a million dollars?” the piper asked.

“Of course. I’m the mayor,” Eddie said. “And Bobby here is the fucking King of England.”

“You have a deal,” the piper said.

“Whatever, weirdo,” Eddie laughed. We walked back to the car. Eddie stumbled. I didn’t. Something about the piper sobered me. Eddie didn’t stop talking all the way back to his place. I nodded, not hearing.

Later that night, I sat on my back porch watching ice float down the Kansas River. Eddie and I lived next door to each other in a couple of single-wide trailers parked parallel to the northern bank. The dark of the new moon devoured everything. A haze hung in the air, blocking out the stars. My beer had grown flat a long time ago. I’d given up on smoking after my first Marlboro burned down to the filter without me taking a single drag.

The pounding at Eddie’s trailer shook me free from my lazy daze. I peaked around the corner and saw the piper beating upon the rusted storm door. Eddie opened the door. He held his Dish remote in one hand, and tugged up his worn-out blue jeans with the other. He rubbed his drunken eyes with the corner of the remote.

“What…the…hell?” Eddie said.

“I’ve come to collect payment, Mr. Mayor.”

“What?”

“One million dollars for your rat problem.”

“For fuck’s sake, I don’t have a rat problem. If I did have a rat problem, I’d call an exterminator, not some goddamn homeless wino.”

“I was an exterminator once,” the piper said. “In Germany. A long time ago.”

“Good for you, Adolf. Now, fuck off.”

“Perhaps there is someone else I could talk to.”

“If you aren’t off my doorstep in five seconds, you’ll be talking to Misters Smith and fucking Wesson.” Eddie buckled his pants. I started forward to keep him from beating the Piper’s ass but stopped when the Piper reached into his coat.

Eddie paused. He probably thought the piper had a gun, but it was something much worse. His hand held the harmonica.

“You are kidding me,” Eddie said.

“Just like Germany,” the piper said, placing the harmonica to his lips.

I’d heard music before. Occasionally, I found something that affected me, but nothing like this. The music tapped into my soul. I wondered if the entire night might be a dream. The piper, Eddie, the river, and the frozen haze hanging in the air. None of it seemed concrete. The world liquefied around me.

The piper changed the tune to a marching beat. He turned and danced up the street. Eddie followed, eyes vacant, still carrying his Dish remote. I followed, as well. You might think it was my curiosity. Maybe, you would say I wanted to protect my friend, even though Eddie had never been all that good of one.  But I didn’t want to go. I just didn’t have a choice.

We marched up the street to the bridge that crossed the dam. The piper danced, skipping and spinning. Eddie followed all the way up to the steel railing. As he grasped the icy metal, the music stopped.

I froze in place, a hundred feet from Eddie and the piper. My heavy breath hung frozen around me. My pulse throbbed in my head. I had no greater wish than for the music to continue. I saw objects in the river, caught in the branches along the bank or beached on the small islands within the running current. They wore powder blue polo shirts, just like the fraternity brothers who had been celebrating their organization’s fifty-year anniversary at Mickey’s. I vomited down the front of my shirt.

Where was the music? I needed the music. I needed escape. I needed release. The piper stared at Eddie with his piss-yellow eyes.

“Jump,” the piper said.

Eddie grabbed the rail and hurled himself into the Kansas River. Without a thought, I dove off the shoulder of the street down onto the levy bike path. My elbow snapped on impact with the frozen ground. Eddie’s body floated down the icy river. I passed out.

A jogger found me at dawn, unconscious with vomit frozen to my shirt, my elbow bent the wrong direction. She called an ambulance.

I lost four fingers from frostbite. A surgeon rebuilt my elbow with steel. It seems to freeze to the core during Kansas winters and grows stiff when the cold fronts move in. But sitting there in that hospital, I figured out the identity of the piper. I’d heard of him before. Well all had. My mom read his story to me at bedtime. The Pied Piper of Hamelin.

They’ve never found Eddie. I’ve never found the piper. Some say the whole thing is a delusion brought on by hypothermia, and Eddie probably froze to death, passed-out somewhere along the river. I don’t believe it. The piper is out there, somewhere. Every night, I walk up and down the streets, listening for his harmonica, hoping he will play me one last song.

Jack Campbell, Jr. is a dark fiction writer in Lawrence, KS. His writing has appeared in various venues including Twenty 3 Magazine, Danse Macabre, and Insomnia Press. He writes about reading, writing, and life on his blog at www.jackcampbelljr.com.

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