Now

 

THE WIND hit Seth solid in the chest as he emerged from the back entrance of David Geffen Hall. Oh my God, the Hudson was unmerciful! Temperatures tonight threatened to sink to the thirties, with a healthy dose of sleet to seal the ice in any unwary traveler’s veins. It wasn’t even December yet—not even Thanksgiving.

It was Seth’s first winter in New York, and his heart felt as cold as the wind.

“Hey! Seth! Come on! You said I could crash on your couch!”

Seth looked up and smiled gamely. “Yeah. Sorry. Just not used to the winters, you know?”

“You look sad,” Caleb said perceptively. “You know, the offer still stands. I, uh, don’t have to sleep on the couch.”

Seth’s heart felt too heavy for Caleb’s usual flirting to even elicit a smile. “Definitely the couch,” he said, pulling the solid wool of his coat up to his chin and making sure the violin case he was cradling against his chest under the coat was secure.

“Your performance was good,” Caleb said earnestly, his pale face shining in the light from a nearby streetlamp. Together they were walking toward the 66th Street Subway Station. Seth’s agent had managed to find an apartment on the Lower East Side—tiny, cramped, and stifling, even in April when he’d moved. It still boasted just enough living space for one person.

Of course, in New York that meant Seth had a bunk bed that he shared with his friend Amara, who was alternate flute when they needed one. Caleb could sleep on the couch.

Amara was home in Sacramento, where Seth yearned to be, visiting her boyfriend and her family. But Seth had two more weeks of performances on his contract.

He had tickets to Sacramento in December. You’ve got to try, he told himself. Maybe if he sees you, he’ll remember we’re stronger together. It doesn’t matter if he told you it was done. Then, as he always did, he heard, You’ll never stop trying. The insidious little voice gave him hope, and he warmed up some.

“Thank you,” he said absently to Caleb. “That’s kind.”

Seth was a soloist, which was something he wasn’t supposed to be in his twenties—everybody had said that as he was coming up. You had to be really good to play solo, to be first chair, to get a job in an orchestra, to play in New York at all. Seth had lived his life assuming he wasn’t the guy who got to do those things special. It was always a shock to realize that every other violinist in the world didn’t get the same opportunities he had.

Kelly had always said Seth was meant to walk among the stars… but that had only seemed possible when Kelly was there.

“It’s not kindness,” Caleb argued. “It’s pure envy! My God—it’s like the only part of you engaged is the part that connects with your violin!”

Seth shrugged. Old news. His family all knew what was in his heart, and that had always been good enough for him. Without Kelly there to understand the things Seth didn’t say, it was like the good parts of Seth weren’t there at all.

As though summoned, Seth’s phone buzzed. He stiffened, there on the sidewalk as they approached the stairway to the subway station, because he knew. When it was Kelly texting, he always knew.

He pulled it out and read the message, biting his lip.

He’s got maybe a week. Please, Seth, for Matty. Please come home.

Seth stopped and shuddered, his heart finally converted to ice.

But that didn’t stop him from writing the message. Didn’t stop him from pressing Send.

Not for Matty. For you, Kelly. All you had to do was ask.

“What is it?” Caleb asked, sounding worried. It didn’t take a genius to see Seth was upset.

“I should pack,” he mumbled, trying not to lose his head. “And I have to trade in my ticket for one on standby. I need to go home.”

“Home?” Caleb sounded incredulous. “Seth, I don’t even know where you come from!”

Seth shook his head, trying to keep his breathing even. Always, always, that amorphous threat, the long arm of the law reaching for a moment Seth couldn’t remember—but it had never been enough to keep him away for this long.

“I come from a shitty school in a cow town,” he said, knowing his voice was sharp and not sure how to fix it. There was more to his home than that; there must have been. He’d risked so much to return, time and time again. The last time, though, the time Kelly had frozen his heart, had been the time he’d risked and lost it all.

“I never fucking left.”

 

 

 

Then

 

THE OLD school multipurpose room let in the most terrific draft, and the parents in the audience shivered. Wrapped in coats, mittens, and scarves, the collective assembly of the inner-city school tried to exude as much goodwill as humanly possible, while the babies in the many carriages in the aisles all whimpered or grizzled from cold or tiredness, and the younger children fidgeted, anxious to get their little hands on the free cookies lined up on the folding table in the corner of the cafeteria.

The program had started with the choir and progressed to the band, and the little ones had endured quite enough of hesitant voices and shrieking flutes, thank you very much.

Then Mrs. Joyce, sainted woman that she was, stood up and beamed at the mothers and fathers—some of them young enough to remember when she was their principal—and everything settled down as it should. Mrs. Joyce was a bosomy woman with skin of rich dark teak, who wore her tightly kinked graying hair back in the same bun she’d worn for the last thirty years. Nobody wanted to feel the weight of her disappointment fall upon their heads.

“So our next performance is entirely unexpected,” she said warmly. “Mrs. Sheridan, our retired orchestra teacher, was given a donation of nine violins last year. She asked a friend to restore them, restring them, and tune them as a donation to the school, and then she picked nine volunteers—volunteers, mind you—who wanted to play the fiddle. The first hands that shot up were all young men, and we call them our string boys. Everybody, please give it up for Mrs. Sheridan and our string boys!”

 

 

BEFORE THE introduction, Seth Arnold peeped through the dusty scarlet curtain surrounding the stage and surveyed the crowd with a cynical eye. His best friend, Matty Cruz, shouldered his way underneath Seth’s chin and did the same thing.

“Our mom’s here,” Matty muttered, trying to sound bored. “She had to bring the twins, but still….”

“Dad’s here too,” Matty’s little brother, Kelly, chimed in, making the curtain gap wider. “See? Leaning against the back wall?”

Matty’s shoulders relaxed. Their parents were separated, like a lot of parents, but their father was still trying.

Seth nodded at his best friend soberly. “That’s good,” he said, letting a little smile grace his lips. Matty and Kelly still believed parents could be kind. Seth was relieved his father wasn’t in the crowd. He’d gone to great lengths not to let Craig Arnold know where he’d been after school for the past ten weeks.

When Mrs. Joyce got to the part about the boys being volunteers, everybody behind the curtain let out a silent groan.

Volunteers, Seth’s scrawny ass.

They weren’t volunteers. They were sacrifices, that’s what they were! Mrs. Applegate, the new teacher, fresh and shiny and straight out of teacher school, was having such a heinous time with Seth and Matty’s fourth-grade class—the class with twenty-seven boys and eight girls—that when old Mrs. Sheridan had come piping into the principal’s office about wanting to teach somebody the violin, Mrs. Joyce had grabbed the first boys she could find, to give Mrs. Applegate a break.

Matty’s little brother got stuck on the end because the musicians needed after-school practices as well. Since the boys walked to and from school together, period the end, Kelly got to pick up a violin too, even though he was only in third grade.

The main reason—the only reason, really—they’d all been so eager to keep up with the violin was that it saved them from having to deal with Mrs. Applegate’s sorry attempts to teach long division. Mrs. Joyce had taken the boys into the computer room after their rehearsal and let them participate in online math tutorials. Even though the computers were dinosaurs and the room was freakin’ hot, even in the wintertime, the math tutorials were still better than knowing Castor Durant was beating up three kids a day just because Mrs. Applegate couldn’t keep track of the chaos.

Or it had been the only reason.

Last week, Mrs. Sheridan had dismissed the other boys to math tutorial and kept Seth in the multipurpose room for a moment.

Mrs. Sheridan was an old white lady. She had gray hair in braids around her head, like white ladies in the movies, and wore antique white blouses with ruffles. She might have ended up an unfortunate victim, just like Mrs. Applegate, but she was just so danged… nice. Consistently kind. Not stupid, just… nice.

And she’d politely asked Seth to stay in the room, and asked him to hold the violin under his chin like they’d been practicing for the last ten weeks.

“Now, Seth,” she said gently. “You’ve done everything I’ve asked. Everything. I’m so proud of you. But I want you to do me a favor here—just a small one. Could you pull the bow across for the first note in ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ for me? Just once. Slowly. And I want you to close your eyes and hear the note as you make it.”

She’d asked them to do this many times, and Seth fought off the temptation to roll his eyes before he closed them.

It was such a small request, and she always got so happy when they did what she asked.

How hard would it be to do what she asked now?

He held the bow loosely in his hand, making sure his fingers didn’t brush the string, and kept the violin firmly under his chin. Then he let out his breath, and on the inhale, he dragged the bow slowly and surely across the string.

And almost forgot to breathe entirely.

For the first time since he’d come to the cafeteria, happy to be let loose from the everyday routine, he got to hear the noise he had the potential to make.

And it was lovely. Pure and perfect, beautiful in a way the music his dad played on their boom box at home had never been, the note wavered in the ancient multipurpose room with its cracked linoleum and missing ceiling tiles. And even though his eyes were closed, he suddenly saw his battered surroundings with an air of faded grace.

His bow finished its journey, and he let out his breath again and opened his eyes, stunned and in awe.

Mrs. Sheridan was beaming gently at him. “That was exquisite, Seth. Would you like to practice a little more, to see if you can get that sound again?”

Seth nodded at her, his eyes enormous. What the hell? He already knew how to do long division anyway.

So this night, the night of the winter concert, Seth was not particularly concerned that his father wasn’t in the audience. He just wanted to make that noise—the pure one—the best he could.

“You ready?” Kelly asked, pulling his attention away from the audience for a moment. “You have to do that solo thing.”

At eight, Kelly Cruz was about the cutest thing Seth would ever see. He was missing two teeth and had dimples on his little round clay-tinted cheeks. His mom had combed his loose curls tightly back, and only a few springlike strands sprang across his forehead, making him look impish. Adorable but capable of great mischief, Kelly was the one who spent hours occupying his twin sisters so his mom could talk on the phone, which was her job and helped them make the rent.

Like most of the students at Three Oaks Elementary School, Kelly and Matty weren’t just one thing. Seth had shown up in the second grade with his speech all prepared. His father had gotten a job in California, and they’d moved up from Arizona, where he’d needed to say, “My mom’s dad and mom are mostly black, and my dad’s mom and dad are white. And my mom was mostly black. That’s why I’m pale brown.” Everybody in his old school had asked. But when he’d shown up at Three Oaks, nine out of ten kids had a complexion between his own pale tan and Mrs. Joyce’s dark teak, while the few all-white kids showed up like a freakish neon pink. Nobody had seemed to care, and Seth had been grateful.

Kelly and Matty’s dad was half Mexican and half white, and their mom was half black and half white, but they’d only told him that while they’d been playing cars at their house, because it was something to say. Not because they expected Seth to ask them so they could rank themselves by who was the most white.

And unlike in Arizona, where everyone had expected his dad to leave him with his mom’s parents when his mom died, nobody in California asked about that either.

Seth liked Sacramento.

He could disappear.

Except he wasn’t disappearing on the stage this night. Or if he did, it was the best magic trick ever, where he could play that violin and it would speak for him. Nobody had to see the boy attached.

All they would notice was that sound—that pure string sound, like the violin was crying—that he could make when his body was loose and his soul was dreamy and everything in the world was made of light.

Kelly’s charming smile, his perpetual goodwill, told Seth that was possible.

“Yeah,” Seth told him, smiling back quietly. “I’m ready to make that sound.”