First Violin : Chapter 3

Missed last week’s update? Find chapter 2 here. Find chapter 1 and an explanation about what all this is about under the BOOK tab in the main menu.

***

At the seaside, the sands were cold and hard. They made a frigid sheaf over ankles and the tops of feet. As for your toes, they would feel cold too, and so very, very clean. Even if they were atop gray sand dirty with shells and ocean-muck.

The water came merging with the sand, the lightest sea-glass-blue turquoise, into flat foam. You could look out farther away, darker the longer it got, under a gray-blue sky. It was not warm, it was not balmy. But it was not unpleasant. Strange, but it could be cold and you still have no inclination to leave. There was a breeze, and it blew past you unassumingly as if you might have not existed—but it stroked your bare shoulders just the same. It passed like velvet over your skin and your body, it made you squint your eyes as it picked up your hair, gentle but moving and unchanged, all the same. 

A low, long, navy-blue car trundled unsurely over the rocky and strange curves of the road. The asphalt had no lane lines or helpful paint of any kind, and made the highest point in the vicinity. Vague clumps of wind-trampled ocean-grass dotted the sparse edges in remote collections. Anne, eyes and face as unchanged as if she’d been sitting still, was being jostled along with the car as Elliot went searchingly over another inexplicable bump that rose up only on one side of the thin road.

The classical music station was playing so quietly as to become unnoticeable in the background; Anne’s firmly-built, old-fashioned suitcase slid slowly with the tilting of the vehicle against her leg, then back again. Elliot was curled up tall over the steering wheel, mouth open as his eyes as he scanned the horizon, the car going slowly along. 

Anne turned her gaze back to the scene before them. There was apparently something more to be seen over the edge, but the elevation of the plain, sandy, sea-grassed place the road wound along obscured it. She followed the tilting picture with her eyes, if not her mind. The silent passenger in the backseat behind Elliot was making her anxious. She stole another look at Renata, hoping the girl wouldn’t notice. Whether her daughter did or not, blank brown eyes listlessly gazing, her mother couldn’t tell. This distressed Anne further.

The young violist had questioned her skills as a parent before this. She had doubted them from the moment she knew she was going to take on the role. But there had been bigger things to worry over, something else to think about—this particular strain of anxiety had never encompassed her entirely, had never been unshakable as this before. 

Besides, Renata had always been fine. Anne would come out of the music room into the den to find Emil and the little girl tussling on the ground, laughing. They would pretend to be animals, but the game would mostly be in the noises they’d make, that they’d conjure up through their lips. Anne could remember it, how she would smile begrudgingly, shake her head in fond disapproval. 

She would never have done the things Emil did. 

She would never have laid on her stomach with the child beside her, folding origami. It made her love him. It made her love him so much, so much she couldn’t even say it and hardly understand it. She’d just have to smile and turn away. 

She turned her head  away from Elliot, as if she were looking out the window. She felt her lids burning, her throat withering tightly in sudden pain—she pressed her cheek and the bone against the window, hard. She wasn’t going to cry. She pressed her cheekbone harder into the beige plastic. I don’t know anything, I don’t know how to do what he did, I don’t know anything. They would have come out anguished and wet, nearly a wail. 

Anne never voiced such things. Never.

But that couldn’t help her feeling them.

The car trundled on down the asphalt of survival. 

She was so very good at some things; and they hadn’t come easily, either. She wasn’t some sort of prodigy. She was just a hard worker. And now she was good.

But there was the girl in the back seat; Anne checked the mirror, feverishly, to see if she was still there. She was. Contrasted with the skill of years and hours and forevers, there unbreakably beyond the practice and the rehearsals and muscles sore from too many hours and plane flights and English and playing outside and sweating but playing it out was the girl in the back seat. Anne did not even know how to get her daughter to speak and it made her sick, it made her panic. It made something in her insides spin out of control. How many silent car-rides had it been, since the last one with Emil in the passenger seat? 

Of course Anne wouldn’t ask her. She wouldn’t say, Renata, say something. That would be admitting, acknowledging to the air and to the world. 

Even if it didn’t change reality, it was always better to keep it in. There was something very intrinsic in Anne that knew that saying it out loud would make it unbearable. When it was inside, only you had to bear it, and you had to bear only yourself. She thought of the man sitting next to her, behind her averted face, and she wanted so very much to be alone. 

“Yes! There it is—I told you we weren’t lost, Anne. I know this road by heart, just like I said. See?” Elliot turned to her proudly, and Anne turned her head back towards him with a jerk the moment she realized his words were for her. He pointed a finger—pale, losing the redness rapidly as he ungrasped the steering wheel. The road was going down now, slowly, and she could glimpse a house over the edge of the barren scene. 

It was more of a cottage, Anne thought, as she scanned the place with a gaze practiced in holding firm; it looked old but not dilapidated, old enough to be as much a part of the sea-swept landscape it occupied as the ocean-grass or sand. 

Everything but the house was bare. Large bricks painted white, a red door she could see even from here. Her face didn’t change. She didn’t yet trust it, her skin, her muscles. 

“I didn’t say I didn’t trust your directions,” she remarked, cold, gazing stoically ahead at the place. 

“Alrighty then,” Elliot replied obligingly—like he was humoring her, she thought—with a sort of dubious friendliness. He seemed to be in a very good mood, one that had been steadily improving since she had agreed to his odd scheme. “Hullo back there, missy, wake up!” He called, adjusting his mirror to get a view of the silent Renata, who looked up at him from her blank reverie in surprise. “We’re here,”

Her daughter turned her wide gaze, now sparked with a little excitement (although still without a smile; she did not smile idly), to the window. She leaned upon the glass, peering out to get a view of the house as the road curved.

“Now, you and Renata can get out here if you like and walk on the beach, and I can get all our stuff in.” Elliot offered charitably, and Anne cast him a look of surprise. He was in a very good mood. This sort of attitude was certainly not unheard of from Elliot, but it always took Anne, who associated him most with his airs of snappishness or drama, slightly off guard. 

“No thanks,” she said quickly, turning her gaze from him and back onto the lonely landscape before them, “I don’t mind doing it myself.”

“Alright,” Elliot shrugged, quirking his lips conciliatory as he parked the car. “this is Rosemary House. Lovely name, don’t you think? I always liked it.” He seemed very perky, as he sometimes inexplicably was (Anne had decided long ago that she disapproved of Elliot’s mood-swings), springing out of the car with his long legs like a happy spider.

He was opening the trunk with a thoughtful brevity behind her as she opened her door with a click, sliding out of it awkwardly. Anne had never been able to find away to dismount a car with dignity. Her legs were always too short, or the car too low. She straightened up and the air that flew up her nose, that hit her lips, was immediately different from the stifle of the car. It was indescribably fresh, pure, as if it were filled with water droplets, or air as some sort of celestial fabric. Her nostrils drunk it in, surprised. 

Their clothes blew with their hair in that sparse, sandy place; they narrowed their eyes. Anne lifted her trunk out handily, holding its awkward shape by both arms. Moving now instead of sitting and with her senses engaged, it wasn’t hard to forget about the thoughts that’d chased her doggedly for the car ride. It happened without her thinking about it. 

But she wasn’t really enjoying herself. She didn’t smile. You could drink in beautiful air and be in a sandy place, and still not be happy. Your brain can register things, you skin and your nose and your lips, you eyes, your ears. They can all be working fine, and that does not mean your heart has to leap in joy after it. Undoubtably Elliot’s was. Anne gazed over at him through eyes thinned nearly closed by the wind; he appeared very busy looking for a key to the place. Her heart sank dully, as far as it could, which was not much. Here they were, stranded, and he wouldn’t be able to find a key. She couldn’t believe she’d agreed to this. 

“Renata, don’t forget your bag, please. Come on,” she addressed her daughter curtly but not unkindly, for Anne was not unkind; she felt too tired somewhere on the inside to say anything to Elliot, although she could feel the beginnings of many appropriate remonstrances for coming without a key making their attempts. They died half-heartedly within her. 

Renata stretched back into the car obediently, folding herself over the seat noodle-like, to emerge with her little backpack. It was unmistakable in its glossy pink plastics, a princess stamped ecstatically on the front. Anne didn’t know how her daughter could like such a thing; she had begun to voice her distaste on the couch, lounging back in between an Emil and Renata sandwich, cozily-socked feet crossed where they were propped up on the coffee-table. Emil had had the computer on his lap, a picture of the bag pulled up on the screen; he had stopped the grumble in her throat with something benign and fatherly, something kind and sympathetic to humoring Renata’s feelings. Emil did not get riled up about things.

Ordinarily, Anne thought dully, as the car doors were closed, as she and Renata straggled up behind Elliot to the front of the cottage, she would never have been prevailed upon. She could see it easily in her mind; herself, unswayable by Elliot’s ludicrous suggestions. The scenario had happened many times before.

It is strange how you can envision something, and yet it can be so inexplicably out of reach, Anne reflected. The bright-eyed, bushy-tailed sparkles apparent in Elliot’s manner and being seemed utterly foreign and incomprehensible to her, observe and understand them she could.

In Anne’s mind beaches were bright; sunny. Sand as light as Elliot’s skin. 

Nothing she had ever glimpsed or imagined had been anything like this sort of beach. The sand was more of a gray-white, and she could tell by her eyes alone that it was coarse and wet, sharp and cold. The day was not awful but the sky was laid over calmly by light-gray clouds in thick stripes, thinly over a dormant sun. The water was empty and without many bright reflections; there was a breeze, as she had felt earlier, and it was not warm. It was cool and silky. The sea-grass lay itself against the ground, tangled and voluptuous, before it. 

Anne, a virgin before the seaside, did not think this could be called a beach at all. It was something altogether different. 

There were other houses, too, besides the cottage. Spaced haphazardly but respectfully, the nearest was a one-story of pastel-yellow wood. There was a little boy, freckly and pale, red hair cut short and sharp. In long, baggy shorts he had been mucking about, dipping; now he was watching them curiously from the sandy pools by his quiet yellow den.

“Aha! Aha! I knew it was here; it’s always here—“ Elliot exclaimed suddenly, breaking the breeze-swept, gray-swept quiet—he laughed gladly, reassured. The edges of Anne’s lips tilted up regimentally, mirthlessly, and momentarily into a farce of a smile.

“Now, do you have all your things?” He asked, turning a little tarnished key in the lock, tenderly pushing open the red door. Anne nodded. Elliot seemed to smile in spite of himself, and it was not really for them. The edges of his mouth curled up nearly like a cat in that convulsive gesture, they made his eyes flash excitedly. 

Anne followed him in. She held the clunky, old-fashioned suitcase awkwardly by both hands; he seemed to have forgotten his bags, she noticed. She stepped onto something surprisingly soft and altogether different from the sand, from the stoop. She looked down in muffled surprise at the lavender bathmat masquerading, apparently, as a thing suitable for a front door. The sole of her sturdy high-heeled shoe had met the soft, flattened thing, unsteadying her. She looked up, rather discombobulated, at Elliot’s voice.

“Well,” he breathed, clasping his hands loosely in a brisk movement. He looked around the tiny hallway pleasurably, “welcome to Rosemary House.” 

To the left of them was a staircase up to the second level; straight ahead the rooms of the lower one. Anne’s eyes moved about her numbly, as if her gaze might float away. Elliot had turned to a sizable, open book on an old, antique-looking little bureau of dark wood and curvaceous edges.

“Let’s see—oh, too bad, not too many people here—“ he bent over the large, lined pages, taking up a pen.

“It is the off-season.” The words came out coldly the moment they’d fallen into her head. Anne looked away from what Elliot was doing, taking a step into the main rooms, peering about her. It made her feel uncomfortable that there were other people in this apparently quiet house, the locations and activities of which were currently a mystery. 

“Nope,” Elliot’s apparent disappointment could not be too dampened by his overall excitement—but the disinterested Anne could hear it in his tone. “nobody I know. Hmm.” He seemed to be writing his name down on the log, before straightening up after a moment of pause, regaining himself in a breath. “Alrighty! Come on, I’d better show you your room.” 

Anne withdrew from the opening to the other rooms, following Elliot up the stairs slowly, step by step. Back straight, hips aligned, arm hanging long, taut from the suitcase suspended, appearing weightless at her side. 

“The Animal Room, the Seaman’s Room, and the Lemon Lodge, which is code for the Honeymoon Suite,” at this he laughed appreciatively and for no one in particular, “are all downstairs, but the Lemon Lodge is down as occupied in the log, and there aren’t any other rooms down there with more than one bed.” Elliot had reached the top of the stairs in his side-walking, tour-guide fashion, and was gazing at whatever the second story held. Anne set down the suitcase atop the texture-less carpet, oatmeal-colored. They were in a set of hallways that seemed spacious and light but really had no room for much but walking, as the sides quickly slanted down with the caprices of the roof. Elliot led her past the first door, left half-open, to the second.

“That’s the Blue Room,” he indicated, jerking his head back towards it in explanation. “It has two beds, but it’s reserved. Some family’s coming at the end of the week, I guess. They got the West room too. But this,” he added in a delicious, anticipatory tone that did not get the excited smile in response he seemed to have wanted. Elliot manfully continued. “is The Queen’s room.” Anne really did find the generosity in Elliot’s present attitude strange, at first. She followed him silently with her eyes, considering—but no, she’d seen in before. He had these moments, inexplicably. Yes. Perhaps he was a madman. 

The Queen’s room was small, cubic, and cozy—there was a window to the outside, and a yellow flower print with a white background on the curtains and linens. The walls were white; there was a small, old-fashioned sink in the corner with a mirror, and a large, boxy white dresser. There was a simple wooden chair painted in light green, and the flower print of Italian-stationary yellows and golds had apparently been found on wall-paper as well, for specific flower designs had been cut out proudly and pasted to the walls in places above the bed, and on the white-painted knobby tops of the headboard. All in all the little place, cozy and perfectly sparse, was taken up mostly by the blossom-speckled bed in the center, unassuming and soft. 

It was nice, Anne thought—Elliot certainly seemed to think so—yes, it was—but she did not feel terribly charmed. It was hard to feel charmed by anything. She felt, nearly uncaringly, like the greatest anticlimax in the world as she laid down the heavy suitcase beside the bed, wordlessly. She detested Elliot for his demand of an audience, for reaction. But only mildly. That was all she could muster on those wet shores. 

“Hullo in there—are you two the keepers of this little sand-creature?” The soft, mirthful voice at the door pulled both their gazes—in the doorway was a man in a casual buttoned-up shirt, sleeves rolled up from his arms browned and with scraggly, thin hair; he’d left the top buttons left undone, revealing an equally bronzed chest. The tanned wrinkles of his smiling face were bristly with hairs of light-colored gray; his eyes sparkled with the calm, amused surety Anne thought rather odd for a man coming upon strangers in his house. It was then that she noticed Renata, brown eyes wide beside him. Her brows moved compulsively.

“That is my daughter, thank you.” She spoke quickly and stiffly, veins pulsing to reach out and snatch the girl. She thought afterwards it might have been too harsh; the man raised his eyebrows in mild surprise, barely distracted from the old friend he immediately turned back to with a sure grin.

“Good to see you back, Elliot.” He clapped the smiling violinist on the back in a sort of welcoming hug, and he returned the greeting. “And…” he turned from Elliot, a hand still on his boney shoulder, to Anne, who lacked the smile of the conversation. “…new family?” He put a hand on her shoulder in the beginnings of his welcoming embrace—sparkling, inquisitive eyes still on Elliot. 

“Uh, yes,” the blond replied, collecting himself quickly by shoving his hands into his pockets. Even when surprised, Elliot had a way of making it theatrical, just in the stalling words—they were louder and more drawn out, as if to make sure you heard him. It is funny how that is just some people’s nature. Anne could have never affected such ways. “wife, actually.” She could tell, even in all his stage-presence, the surprising feeling of the word in his mouth. His friend raised his brows.

“My my! Why was I not invited to the wedding? Welcome, you’ve married into a lovely little secret society, my dear.” He exclaimed good-naturedly, giving Anne a paternal kiss on the cheek that seemed as much a part of his stock greeting as the clap on the shoulder. He drew back, looking between the two of them. “And you’ve inherited a child too, my boy, a marvelous little creature it seems, an apparent sea-lover—well, I don’t want to interrupt, but it is nice to meet you, uh—“

“Anne,” she offered in a voice less cold than what she’d used for Elliot; a little dressed up for a stranger, but still entirely lackluster. She couldn’t muster anything more. She had stopped trying, and stopped caring—it had gotten her through the calls and the visitation and the funeral and the visit back home and the airports in between. He smiled, gave Elliot an extra clap on the shoulder, telling them to enjoy themselves heartily; Renata got a sort of uncle-like tap as he left them with the soft steps that had surprised them before. 

The room was silent; a room that small can be silent in an instant, it is its custom—but only an instant. Elliot jumped to fill it.

“That’s Greg, he’s the caretaker.” Anne received his words without a nod. Her eyes on him should be enough. Elliot, after an unsure pause at her non-responsiveness, went on. “He’s a great chap; it must get rather lonely out here, although I don’t think I would mind, it’s too lovely.”

Anne could feel Renata’s body behind hers, hiding. She was beginning to harbor the thought—or perhaps it was a realization, a truth—that life was happening to her and yet at once passing her by. As if she were seeing but not feeling. Something inside her tried to be anxious at the inner perception, but she was too tired and dull, it failed. 

“Well, uh,” Elliot hurriedly filled the pause again. His slick blue eyes, light as glass and oddly round in a face neither full nor angular, hopped restlessly about the room. “make yourself at home.” He walked out busily. Anne’s gaze followed the man, at once unconcerned and yet pinning him. She knew why they were here, she knew and understand clearly and without any considering, that this was another weak move at avoidance. It wouldn’t help anything. She was sure Elliot knew that—how could he not? 

Anne stood for a moment in the soft silence of the room, before turning at the rustling behind her. Renata was picking at the edges of the near-perfectly cut flowers of wallpaper, ends up from their glue on the bedstead. She made sound come out of her lips with enormous effort. 

“Did you have fun in the sand outside, Renata?” She asked lowly, it was her at-home tone. The same alto range, the same Hungarian accent, but without any of the tenseness or sharpness. Still without light in it, but that was how her voice was, it was not on purpose. Renata swiveled her head quickly toward her mother, smooth light-brown skin, the tousled, sleek hair. She whipped it swiftly and like an animal, Anne thought. She herself would have turned slowly and calmly, a human. Renata nodded her response. She went back to the wallpaper. 

***

The downstairs was not carpeted; rather, it was of light-colored floorboards, smooth. Anne gazed at it slowly. Her mind was still half in the bed, in the soft bed, in the bed of white and flowers of the sun. She hadn’t been under the covers, she hadn’t been cozy. Her mind was still half on the mattress, lying on her side, awake, completely awake. She had only been able to get up when she couldn’t bear it anymore, when she’d begun to feel something restless and vaguely carsick within her, only then had she been able to yank herself free from its tentacles. 

Her eyes skirted the living room slowly. It was cozy but did not seem cramped, and populated by large leather chairs. It struck Anne of something of a gentleman’s club—and all the gentlemen were there, quiet and old and dignified and intimate, some were light brown and others dark, some had wide curves, others were less alarming. Some had tarnished metal studs running along their edges, some had backs that went over them like alcoves, a few’s patch-less leather was crumbling. 

They were crowded heavily and solidly around a low rectangle fireplace, empty and dark. Along the edges of the room was a ring of low brick, running from the edges of the fireplace along the wall. A limber, orange cat glanced up at the woman’s dark eyes in guarded surprise from his investigative, thoughtful pose now-frozen on the row of brick. Anne was drawn away by the voices hovering at the edge of her vision; she realized fuzzily that they had been there the whole time, and as it dawned upon her slowly she turned, taking hurried steps towards the kitchen. Saved. 

The smooth floorboards ran into and met white tile, the bottom of Anne’s shoes balanced sturdily on the wooden seam, slightly raised, in the doorway to that room. She stood still, poised, for a moment, taking the scene disinterestedly in, before it noticed her. She had glanced over the cabinetry painted white; she had taken in the large frigidaire (it was of a different generation and could only be called that), the stove and the counters, she had gazed over the man at the telephone, cradling it anxiously, and the people with their wet shoes from their fingers at the loose screen-door. 

Elliot, bent restlessly over the counter with the faded green phone in one hand and its box in the other, corkscrew cords all about him, looked up at her sideways and hunched as he was, eyes wide as if he were suddenly thinking about multiple things at once. The people by the door noticed her silent presence at the same moment.

“Oh, hi honey! You must be Anne!” Anne pulled her eyes away from Elliot, whose transformation to a loose linen button-up and swim trunks she’d been scanning in confusion, turning to the large voice booming suddenly at her side.

Her eyes were met by a pair of people; they looked like a couple, tanned together beneath the same sun. It was the woman who was talking in a voice bombastically and maternally Scotch, her thin, brittle-looking hair, light-colored but not bright, looked odd beside her sun-bronzed skin. Her squarish face was carved and shaped aggressively by smile-lines that seemed to be everywhere around brown eyes a-sparkle, squinted. Her long, sagging arms bare from a revealing coverup were around Anne in an instant, surprisingly. The one small woman en-clenched by the other felt little droplets pressed into her clothes and onto her skin, the salt-licks and kisses thrown by sea-air. The man, face of a proud boy over a huge frame, tanned, hairless only upon his head, came merrily behind her.

“We’re honeymooning—“ the woman explained voluptuously, teeth large in her eye-thinning expressions. “not the first time, though, of course.” At this she laughed somewhat raucously but in the height of friendship, “Thought we’d pop by in the off-season, y’know, a little privacy—more romantic that way.” Anne nodded in something of a daze, staring at this pair of loudness and noise suddenly descended upon the seemingly deserted place.

“We met up with your hubby on our walk—he is a find—“ the woman continued on, unending, her breath came rattlingly as she gulped it between ideas and Anne thought she smoked or was ill; yet her energetic air suggested not a year of age or infirmity at all. 

“It’s a shame you couldn’t find someone to watch your kid—she could sleep in our room if you two wanted a little privacy,” the man broke in with a surprising Southern drawl, throwing the woman in his wife’s grasp into further discombobulation. He was not quite so loud and exaggerated, a sort of quieter breed of his companion’s attitudes, but he still struck Anne as being of the same uninhibited nature. She was being rocked from one surprising sentence to another, enough that she didn’t even have the moment or the bandwidth to feel shocked or offended by these two personas. All she could feel, in a gasping second, was the certain unbelief at the idea of handing her daughter over to this pair—

“Hey, um—“ Elliot called hurriedly from his place on the counter, adding quieter into the phone “—one minute, Dr. Fishback—“, laying it down beside him. “Anne,” he breathed as he said it long, large eyes wandering quickly over the scene before him, trying to catch on something to collect his preoccupied voice, “this is Kimberly and Fred, they’re the ones in the Lemon Lodge, they were on a walk when we came.”

“I’m an old Bambridge knight,” Kimberly broke in proudly, putting a hand on Fred. “he was just lucky enough to be my catch.” 

“Lucky? Oh I’d say.” Fred supplied lustily, putting an arm around her short, thick waist.

Anne couldn’t help looking at Elliot; hedrew his eyes away from the scene to meet hers. Blue, light like the sky; dark. There were no words hidden between their gaze, nothing meaningful or communicating or remembered—it was, rather, a glance of confused camaraderie. She almost felt comforted. She almost felt good to know him, to be able to have the solace, for a moment, of someone who, for a moment, felt exactly the same. 

Then Elliot smiled, quirking his lips and cocking his head apologetically. Amused. Anne did not. That was in the next moment. It seemed to her, in that new expression, so quickly alchemized and obtained, that he was rather fond of the couple—strange—or at least didn’t mind them. She blinked quickly and hard and when her eyes opened, in the next moment, she was glancing distractedly at something else. 

Anne did escape. It was under the auspices of her daughter, under the auguries of telling the little crowd that the girl didn’t know how to swim and thus she must find her. And she did. Renata was a perfect protection, glancing up unsuspectingly from a puddle floating a clump of seaweed. She looked a little speck of color with her small, pink shorts, upon the grays and beneath the grays and between them too. 

It was evident that the Bambridge knight and catch terrified the little girl, who had, since she had come upon the old couple in their walk, been careful to keep out of sight. It was a struggle, it was a wrestle for Anne to keep her daughter between her legs, she could be slippery and tricky as a weasel—out of sight without a word, without a challenge. Anne opened the frigidaire; it was full of lemonade and iced tea, iced coffee. Pitchers and jars and canteens, floating calmly upon the shelves. Plain and reachable her hands hit round, warm-colored glass bottles of amber bourbon. What kind of a place is this—but no, below two shelves of distracting liquids bobbing cold, there were plates of chilled sandwiches with salads in pasta and olives and cheese and potatoes. She shifted them aside to find a covered platter full of the kinds of pinwheels you make from tortillas and ham and cheese. 

The house was quiet and empty, mother and daughter sitting silent and alone at the round kitchen table, eating swirls of hard breaking tortilla with fillings too cold for that weather. Then it would be raucously loud with laughter in the overwhelmed gentleman’s club, the knight and the catch and the caretaker and Elliot and them all. They did not open the windows, as it occurred to Anne they might have. Instead the cottage was like the inside of an underwater cave, the kind where it comes up and is dry and quiet and oxygen, but all around outside is the ocean, biding its time. Or like the inside of a shell, when it cups your ear completely. 

Somewhere in all that Anne was struck quietly by the feeling, quietly by the wondering, if she would ever be happy again. It was simple and more of a statement, it was more something calm, but perhaps that was because she couldn’t plummet much further. She was not in the depths of despair. She had found a plateau, upon which she could stand, upon which she could walk forward but still upon flat.

Sitting on one of the chairs with the little girl missing, the cat curled in her lap. The fire crackling its own songs, could they be songs of love? Or was it a threat? 

Elliot slept somewhere downstairs and that night the second story was her own ghost town, it was her own phantom highway. Renata asleep in the soft little Yellow Room that was once a closet, the mother walked by silently. It can be better to move than to lie still if you cannot sleep. It would be quiet on the inside (only the inside) and then she could hear the sounds down below, in a house that should be sleeping.

Elliot took walks with the old man, the caretaker. As for Anne, she lived another day. She thought vaguely that she should be feeling something alive and happy, she, at the beach; that that was what people felt on the sands. Something. But the knight’s toothy grins were to her something utterly foreign, and when she was walking, aimless, at night, she did cry. The tears broke out silent and like cannonball knives, and she did cry. Soundless. 

***

The water cupped his chafed ankles softly, it allowed him to stay. It would allow him to stay forever, he thought, and that was the disarming thing about the sea, he thought. But he didn’t try to get up, or to leave. He didn’t make the slightest attempt.

It rolled beneath him. Slowly and softly. Completely fully and real, and yet he could have fallen in and been enveloped, he knew; this flotation was a farce, he knew. 

His head hung back from a long neck off the edge, the faded pink seam of the plastic, unsoft, bit into his skin. He squinted his left eye beneath the glare of a golden sun, a golden sun white-hot and streaming, not like rain but streaming, over the waters.

He could hear the subtle sounds, playing, playing through his mind, he could feel them, chimerical, he could feel the slithering, trickling, never-stopping waterfall of a violin. He could hear the seaweed and the sands and the deeps beneath, he could hear them in all their C-stringed glory. It was overwhelming, chilling and beautiful, in its near-sinister quality. 

He hummed his own part, listlessly and with dreamy unskill, over the rest. His voice broke at parts with his head tilted back, it was not objectively beautiful. There they all swooped in a tidal wave, the man prone upon the air-filled plastic bed felt himself rocked up and then down by the gentle current. He thought he might fall off, and he didn’t much care. He waved his hand as a conductor, lazily, but it fell back into the water. 

He began to be overcome with the fancy of a shark, as he thought about the music behind his brain. It was positively sinister, that music, that second violin slithering. His part—he had never thought of this before—he was the unsuspecting swimmer, or floater. Dax was the shark. Anne and Hop the watching sea that held the two of them up. Elliot sat up hastily, jerkily. He was overcome with a sudden feeling of dizziness, he grabbed clumsily at the edges of the floaty. 

He gazed around him, eyes large, and the horizons came in their wideness out from the blur. He felt—he felt—much better. Nearly euphoric. Like that moment, after the concert when you catch your breath, and you all hug and laugh. He had forgotten entirely about the shark.

He beamed. He was, he understood, a wonderful musician. It was true. He was—nobody on earth could be a better violinist—he loved his violin, he adored it—his music, it was perfect—and not only that, he had definitely been wrong before. About not being a hero.

Sitting up heavily had made the floaty sink in the middle, his hands and wrists and waist were submerged, he gazed happily around him. At the sparkling waters, at the open sky, the clouds. At the green sea-cliffs, at the house, barely visible. His earlier feelings seemed so odd to him, so far away. The despair, the sinking. What had he been thinking? He didn’t need his entire Bambridge class here and a bonfire to feel great. He already did feel great! And Anne? Who cared about Anne! He loved Anne! And Renata too—everything was perfect—Elliot reached for the bottle, the supple, round glass—he glanced down in surprise. He had touched the jagged edge of the floaty with a clumsily thrown hand. This was strange. He looked around him, then turned in surprised irritation to scan the waters. Nothing. 

Elliot Roberts wondered, brows creased sharply in confusion, where it had gone off to. His previous exploits flashed through his mind, strange and convoluted. He had to crease his brows farther to catch at them—yes, like Beowulf he had entered the waters. Yes, that had been grand. He had gotten here—he hadn’t lost it then—this was all too confusing, and besides, it was beginning to sap his feelings of glory flashing just moments before. This sad loss. But not too sad. He wouldn’t let it ruin things for him. Besides, he was starting to forget what it was. 

Elliot Roberts lowered himself back down. The floaty jerked inconveniently, he was sloshed with water, it got in his mouth and mingled with the hot, dry tastes coating it of caramel and gasoline. The glory was subsiding fast, he was beginning to feel more tired, tired and content, and, as he lay still and stared at the sunny sky, entirely happy. 

His mouth felt dry now from the salt, although still powerfully consumed by that odd and perfect aftertaste; he half disliked it and yet never wanted it to leave. 

He thought of food. He thought of the cold sandwiches in the frigidaire, he thought of white bread without crusts and light as clouds, of cool creamy pieces of provolone, of rosemary sourdough, he thought of pasta salad with olives and feta.

The sun continued on, the water washed over his bottom half, the upper was washed by the sun. Too tired to move, his limbs felt so heavy. The thought idly occurred to him that he could never get up again and be alright.

“Elliot Frey!” An almost shrill voice, harsh in its accent, broke unexpectedly into his reverie. One of Dracula’s women? She did sound utterly Transylvanian. Elliot cracked open his eyes with untold effort, lifting his head up just the slightest by a strained neck. He beheld, over his body flat before him, foggily a woman, standing in the water. He beheld dark eyes, he beheld dark brown brows, perfectly shaped in their thickness and hardened upon him. 

All around her face there was hair, in curls. Brown, almost cinnamon brown, he thought. Curls and curls, tight curls, thick and frizzy around the edges and the sea-wind had made it messy, crowning her. She was wearing a black one-piece, pleated or something—was it ruched? Elliot didn’t know—it clung to her curves of motherhood. Her thighs were beautifully colored, he thought, the black fabric turning to soft, olive brown skin at the widest point of her waist, where her legs went down from the swimsuit. Her glare could be so gorgeous, he thought. He thought of her viola, her sexy dark brown viola. The finish on it was matte and thick. 

His previous thoughts of unimpress at her figure had vanished. 

This all flashed fuzzily before him in a second, as Anne seemed to be taking the situation in, brusque, black eyes unamused.

“Elliot Frey, what do you think you’re doing?” She exclaimed, one her arms was pulled behind her, he noticed, and Elliot could see, if he craned his head up even more (which still wasn’t much), Renata’s large animals eyes watching the scene in interest. 

Elliot smiled largely at them. This was even better than enjoying such a wonderful day alone.

“I love you, Anne,” he sighed, smiling, “isn’t it such a beautiful day? Everything’s just so—so beautiful—“ he frowned. His words were coming out strangely. “Does my voice sound—“ he began, but he could never get farther, for Anne’s face had been betraying the rapid movement of her thoughts this while, and she bore down upon him, brisk, grumpy, accusing. In a moment she had taken him up a few centimeters with her painful grip on his loose linen shirt. He was acted upon, confused, and it was only after she drew away, face dark from the results of the sniff-test, and uttered the words, “You’re drunk,” that he realized what it had all been about. 

“Anne—“ he started slowly, and his speech did sound strange, it was thick—she cut him off by her rough pinching hands on him, clenching his shirt but getting some skin too, and Elliot was lifted up, roughly and clumsily, head spinning. 

“Oh my God, I can’t believe you—“ her words sounded so hard, so completely foreign to him. “are you trying to drown? Oh my God, I can’t believe this—“ 

Elliot spat in surprise as he was splashed by water, harsh and salty and eye-burning, their legs sloshed in the sea. He practically fell upon it as she heaved him off the edge of the floaty, his arms hit the water but it did not catch him.

Elliot, spluttering, tried to stand, thinking in irritation of Anne’s hands, how they unbalanced him— He was shook and shunted and jerked through the tide back to land, as it gave way to bare sand, wet and hard. It hit the bottoms of his feet in surprise, but she did not stop to let him catch his balance. His clothes felt at once heavy on him, but they were wet enough to cling like skin. He could hardly believe every step—he felt so tired, this was all happening too fast—he caught a glimpse of Anne’s face, it was pinched so angry, too angry for words. Well, there were some words. Mostly “Oh my God, I can’t believe you!”

Elliot was not unaccustomed to feeling as if he would faint. He was also not unaccustomed to feeling as if he would hurl. It suddenly dawned upon him, the sole coherent thought in the dizzy drag across clumps of sand that tripped him up, that he was very likely to promptly do both, perhaps at the same time.

It was something of a miracle that Anne got Elliot through the backdoor, that she got him through the kitchen. He did manage to get in the second of the two expected results, outside. The ceiling painted gray above him spun oddly for the moment his eyes were open when he hit the bed. 

He woke up sick. He woke up so sick. He woke up with a head that weighed 200 pounds and that was in serious danger of falling off if the necessary precautions weren’t taken. He woke up and it could have been a minute later, or a year. He woke up in the midst of the realization that the bottle of bourbon must have sunk, not disappeared. He woke up and groaned when he thought of Anne. He couldn’t do much more than that.

Standing thin in the doorway, behind it. The woman in a knit dress—knee-length, of course—with flowers on it sitting on the couch. Face hard and unreadable, lips pursed. 

Where has your hubby gotten off to, my dear? He is good company, when you can snag ‘im. 

Elliot is ill. She said it so coldly, he watched from behind the edge of the entry. He thought vaguely that he was ill, he thought vaguely that he was doomed.

***

At the age of seven Elliot Roberts was diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. It was a strange name, he’d always thought, not because it wasn’t accurate, but because it was a long-winded medical term that a layperson such as himself could actually understand. 

It was so much a part of his person and his life, and had been for as long as he could remember, that he had never thought to spend any time feeling sorry for himself. 

Besides, it had gotten him exactly what he wanted. 

***

On March the 5th, 2012, Elliot Roberts had removed a bottle of bourbon from the frigidaire and had a glass. It did not occur to him that bourbon was for social drinking and for food. It touched his lips and brought to him memories from the King’s College dormitory, Kerri’s where the walls were draped in blankets and throws and towels. He could remember the plaid fleece throw, large stripes of red and black. He could remember that wall-drape particularly as the smell assaulted his nose of liquor, as he took a cautious sip. 

It also brought to mind, nearly simultaneously, the hours in bed afterward, and with the toilet. Those were more blurry but poignant. Dimitri’s conjured pitcher of beer, a pitcher like iced-tea, had taught him to stay well away from drink. 

It was a lucky thing for him. He would have made a first-rate social drinker, he would have performed perhaps too well. He did make a first-rate social drinker.

He could remember, vividly, being set off kilter for weeks afterward by Alessandra’s stolen scotch, the one that appeared when she was really happy. He’d only found out afterwards about all the dramas in her nearby home, what all the phone-calls with her sisters, with her widowed mother, were about. He had not quite known how to take this, this farce. Although he acknowledged himself as the master, it still struck him as odd to find others. 

His life was full of people like that, people who he knew and remembered, many names and faces and smiles and laughter, yes, his life was a string of such hordes that he had not seen for years and the number of whose telephones he did not now know, where they lived or with whom. 

He could remember his delicate food balance entirely shattered, shifting in his seat in class, hurrying away to the toilets his first opportunity, and sometimes before.

Elliot Roberts had remembered all these things. He had remembered them dully. Sitting, alone, at the kitchen table, a leg propped up long on another chair. Leaning back in his own. He had remembered these things in color and noise and emotion, coming to him in an empty room, a silent room, a calm-colored room. He had been alone and looked around him, and he had not much cared.

He had drank a glass and felt irresistibly warm. He had started by thinking of all the failed heroes. He had never considered them before, never considered the throngs of fallen angels, the pools of nearlys and almosts, the ones who had not been buried overlooking the sea; he imagined all the princes lost in the thorns around the castle and all the young men who’d thought themselves something lying in their own blood, unsung beside the dragon.

He thought of these things calmly in his aspect, and yet incredibly heavy, heavily pulled beneath the warmth. 

He had dreamed of the glory of the military, but today was the first that he had considered, somberly, the always greater majority in history dead from illness and not wounds. Or those killed in accidents. They were real. They had numbers attached to them. Why should Elliot be immune? Why should Elliot be some sort of immune protagonist of glory, while it was unimportant others who were the nearlys? Why shouldn’t it be him?

He wished it, he wished for that immunity of destiny, but who was he kidding? Who gave him any sort of power, of willing things into being? 

It hadn’t taken too long before he’d felt Beowulf in the flesh, before he’d needed to find a cold Scandinavian lake to dive deep within.

***

“You’re so pasty, I will not let you drive Renata and I home.” Anne decided, glaring at Elliot’s offensive cheeks before turning in frustration. “Ah! Where did she get off to now—Renata—“

Elliot had been watching tiredly from the door to the Seaman’s Room, his. The room of the circular window, like a boat. It was his secret favorite (it was a nice fantasy, too—boats made him sick), which of course when anyone was at the cottage he could never get. 

By now it had left him disappointed and empty, despite his earlier zeal at seizing the unusual opportunity. 

Her remark blew up a quick flame within him, and his near-invisible brows hardened sharply. He had intended to angrily protest her insult to his coloring, but the loss of Renata suddenly provided him with even better material. It flashed before him at once and irresistibly, as his head pounded, egging him on. He understood somewhere inside that he couldn’t hold himself back, he could feel the currents rushing hot upon the dam, he rode them strongly.  

“What, lost her again, have you?” He chirped irascibly, and at this Anne turned around, eyes dangerous. Elliot did not back down. He felt something fluttering marvelously and excitedly, and his brows moved rather cruelly up, ears flushed red. “You’re all over me like you know everything, but here’s your kid completely out of control—“ Anne’s face worked at this, lips and brows, she was trying to look fierce but he could tell the words were striking home. Elliot cocked his head like a fighting bird. This was all making him feel rather fine. “—she’s like a wild animal! That’s an issue you should be flipping out about—“ he continued snappily, but Elliot’s snaps were always filled with more power than he knew, they were cathartic, they were unfettered, and combined with the showiness of his person they could come out lethal.

“Don’t you dare” Anne cut him off, voice at once heavy and shrill, coming out in forced spurts of rage. Elliot closed his lips to narrow his eyes, staring back at her appraisingly, challengingly. “tell me how to parent my kid.” She caught her breath, she swallowed. She seemed to be collecting herself, and when she opened her lips against a moment later, breaking the noise of two sets of eyes locked impenetrably in combat, it was lower and quieter, hoarse, solid and very dangerous. “Don’t pretend you know anything about her, or about me.” 

Elliot watched her turn with that narrowed-eyes, challenging gaze he could conjure up, it felt the least vulnerable way to receive something, to receive the hurled words of a combatant. He watched her go out. The adrenaline, the emotional jump was quickly leaving him. It made him remember his weighty head. 

“Hey, Elliot,” he turned to see Greg, the caretaker, standing with a large plastic bucket suspended heavily from his tanned, taut forearms, sleeves rolled up. His eyes were squinted in the curved grasp of overabundant crows’ feet. Elliot could tell that he had seen, that he had heard, but the young man turned with polite and innocent apprehension, facing up his head and raising his eyebrows. Greg glanced unhurriedly at the door, then back at the man before him. “it, uh, it was nice seeing you. Haven’t had a good conversation for ages out here.” He shrugged somewhat apologetically, putting a hand behind his head to scratch the back of his neck. His light-colored hair was turned up in the beginnings of curls around his face, wild from the outside. 

“It was nice for me too, Greg.” Elliot replied sunnily, with a smile to match, taking the caretaker friendlily by the elbow. It was one of those theatrical grins, the overdone friendliness, it was the kind of air that left shy people, or pessimistic people, at a loss. They’d be sure they had him figured out as a faker, before he did it enough to convince them otherwise. The older man clapped a stout hand on Elliot’s upper arm in response. 

“Keep up the music, and bring your violin next time so I can hear you, alright?”

“Yes,” Elliot sighed, remembering. “I will. Anne plays too, you know? And Dax—have you heard him?” 

Greg’s face changed somewhat—it approached a frown before hurrying back up to his grin. It was a neutral grin. “That kid moved on from the fireworks?” He asked, quieter, in an effort still of friendliness. Slight confidentiality. 

Elliot was surprised—at first—but his mind went quickly back, it scooped up earlier feelings and memories of the large man, the second-violinist. Recalling beyond the today. They were mostly second-hand, side-thoughts of curiosity, unsureness, of steering clear without hardly thinking of it. He thought of the large teenager, sports-shorts, tee-shirt. It made him think of kissing Roxanne—what a kiss!—his hands in her silky brown hair, how she’d gasped look, they’d turned away from the shadows they were standing in beside the backend of the shed, they’d looked at the bangs over the water, at the reds and brilliant blues and greens, at the shimmers in the low pattern of the waves. Elliot nodded.

“He always seemed a little, well, you know—I mean, like, what kid just sets off fireworks like that—” Greg spoke timidly, Elliot thought, almost as if he were embarrassed to talk ill of someone behind their back. “a little off to me, you know?”

“Yeah, I know.” Elliot agreed, thinking half of Dax, Dax alone with his headphones on all the time and half of the glorious surprise of the first kiss, the first kiss he’d pretended was just another of many. Half on the betrayal, half fixated on the unforgettable moment, the unforgettable feeling when afterward he found out it hadn’t been for him at all. Yes. It was a secret shame that Elliot Roberts’s first and, until he was twenty years old, only kiss was given on a dare and a bargain between three giggling sixteen-year-old girls who’d been thinking more of purple-beaded anklets than a fragile heart. It had confirmed all his long-nursed suspicions. 

Greg sighed long, taking another glance at the front entrance. They could hear the car doors shutting loudly outside. Elliot knew exactly what he was thinking about. 

“Well, safe drive back.” The caretaker offered, and Elliot nodded. Neither one, of course, said the true words in the air, as the engine outside rumbled into life. 

“Thanks, man.”

Greg clasped his hand, drawing him tight to give him a clap on the shoulder.

“Sorry nobody else was here.”

“It’s fine. It’s the off-season.”

“Nice to catch up.”

“Yeah.” 

Elliot left. Greg was left; to be a caretaker in that house meant to shake the sand out of sheets when you remembered; he carted them in the large Bambridge van once every couple months to a laundromat. It meant taking long walks on the sand, making friends with all the neighbors, being lonely—but at that age, Elliot thought, a person probably didn’t mind so much. It meant overseeing the repairmen when the heater broke, and when the plumbing went. It meant cleaning up fireworks. And bonfires. 

Soles meeting the sand, Elliot left. Even in the car and on the road their things were full, all, with moisture. Salty. The whole thing smelled of petrichor and Elliot opened a window. 

***

NOTE The Snottor’s Press is very disappointed in its current patronee. She had loads of excuses that The Snottor was loathe to hear, about schoolwork and insomnia and doctor’s appointments (never fear, The Snottor adds, the author is alright) to account for the shocking lateness of this update. The Snottor casts doubt and suspicion over all the unfortunate author’s excuses, and wants the reader to know that he will not allow such wayward behavior in the future.

First Violin : Chapter 2

New around here? Find Chapter 1 here. (or just check out the whole BOOK tab in the main menu)

***

Grace boarded the pistachio-colored bike. She had chosen it expressly for the color; that was something she had a great appreciation for. Her stripes were maroon, not red; her blanket was not gray-blue, but rather livid; her bike was not green, as others mistakenly called it—rather, pistachio. 

Grace boarded the pistachio-colored bike. This was not because she was particularly conscious of the environment; she was sympathetic, but lacked the fiery impulse on the subject many seem to have. She much preferred biking, that was all. It was relaxing, and you were in the wind, which she enjoyed. Grace tended to take her life exactly at her pace, which did not require cars. 

She trundled unconcernedly over sidewalks, she crossed intersections, she took bike-lanes. She lived, by choice, very close to her work. It took only ten minutes to reach it. 

Her bike slowed to a stop, and she placed her foot on the curb of a sidewalk bordering a row of storefronts. 

“Morning, Grace.” 

“Good morning.” 

She walked her bike in through the door of Round Wheel Pottery Works, leaning it against the wall. A, older woman with a hefty upper half and long, coarse gray hair was holding the door open for her. 

“Everything good?”

“Yup.”

“Ready to get to work?”

“Yup.”

Grace was exactly twenty-three years old. She had not gone to college because she hadn’t much wanted to. After high-school she’d lived with her parents to work for a year, one half as her father’s field assistant and the other as a waitress. After that she had used the money to start an apprenticeship with Falatrack Handmade Pottery, not far from their house. 

Grace wrote her name and the time on the clock down on the log. The walls, floor and ceiling in that room were all painted blue, but it was a calm shade, one that didn’t distract you. A mix of steel blue and sapphire. 

She put on an apron from the coat-rack on the wall—raw and unfinished. The hardy fabric was gray, dappled with dusty-white clay-stains. She rolled up her sleeves.

The work-room was small but not cramped. Along the walls were shelves of the same unfinished wood as the coat-hooks, loaded with pottery of all variations. There were tables, shelves with red plastic baskets full of tools, all messy and stained. There were plastic bags of soft clay too heavy to lift under work tables, there was the plain clock on the wall. There was a door to another room, full of large buckets for glazes and hundreds of hooks sporting clay samples coated in all the colors. There was another room for the kiln.

Grace was only a worker. The older woman, Kimberly, sat in the front room and did things on the computer. She oversaw her employees, she paid the taxes, she managed the website, she worked with costumers in the shop and online. She drove the truck to different retailers, and did a whole other slew of things Grace did not know about and did not want to. Grace did not have ambitions to get any higher of a station in that shop than she already had, because it suited her perfectly.

She had discovered pottery in high-school, an elective. She had liked it. She had liked it as much as knitting. She had liked it as much as coloring. 

Grace had known for a long time that she could be perfectly happy sitting on the clay-stained stool, hands clasped around a lump of soft clay, pressing her foot on the pedal and feeling its uneven, bumpy smoothness spin against her skin, feeling the sediment scratch her, so softly. Grace had worked at it, serenely she had worked at it, she had skill. She went to work and she made plates and she made bowls, she made vases and she enjoyed it.

She enjoyed sitting on a stool in the work room all day, spinning and shaping. She enjoyed dipping, she enjoyed priming, she enjoyed scoring and slipping. Sometimes, if she was waiting on something in the kiln, she would flip through the dirty (everything in that room was dirty, it was part of the business) magazines of glossy books of inspiration. A book of great archaeological artifacts in museums, a magazine of trendy home decor. She surveyed it all, she took it all in, she created, she created without artistic angst because she was not an artist. No, Grace was not an artist. She was only a calm creator. She worked the clay and it grew in her grasp. 

Grace signed out when Kimberly rapped on the door. 

“Time’s up.”

“Oh, thank you.”

She washed her hands in the large, messy sink. Grace did not mind messes. She had carefully worked at not minding most things. 

She still had a little clay around her nails. This did not bother her.

“Nice work today,” Kimberly was surveying the row of bowls on the rack. “I should get in here and join you. Darn administrative work.” 

Grace smiled in acknowledgement, hanging up the apron.

“But aren’t you supposed to be wearing a mask?”

The girl barely paused, unconcerned, dipping the soles of her shoes in the black cleaning tray.  A coworker looked up, listening. 

“I didn’t today.” 

“As your employer,” Kimberly said, watching Grace as she put away her tools, “I need to ensure that your occupation doesn’t cause you any harm. Seriously.”

Grace shrugged, that same unconcerned little smile. “They’re all ok.” She motioned to her coworkers, a young man with a flannel shirt and bird, a large girl with bright lipstick and hair dyed black. Kimberly narrowed her eyes. She remained unconvinced.

“Just wear it tomorrow.”

Grace did not reply. Neither did she refuse. 

“Bye, guys.” She wheeled out her bike to the sidewalk. 

She was not going home. Well, not to the home she paid more than her half of the rent for—she was instead heading up the ways so familiar they were practically on autopilot, to the house she’d grown up in. Grace had this habit, this inner calendar of filial obedience; she popped in for dinner every 8th and every 22nd of each month. 

She was surprised from this pleasant autopilot by the phone ringing—she looked around—was it hers?—yes—she pedaled to the curb and pulled her bike up over it onto the sidewalk. Grace did not wear a helmet. Her brother had fast cured her of that by his very insistence upon it.

“Hello?” She picked it up, surveying the road of passing cars, houses and buildings with idle interest.

“Hi, Grace.” It was her brother. His voice sounded fast and tense. This was not out of the ordinary. Grace remained unconcerned.

“Hullo.” She sighed, following a runner with her gaze as he moved across the scene. She waited for a second. “Is something the matter?” This was apparently what the tense silence on the other end was wanting her to ask. Growing up with someone, you can become more versed in their cues than you ever wanted to be.

“Well, it’s just—you know Anne Locklear, don’t you?”

Grace did know Anne, by sight. Grace, like the dutiful sister she was, had attended some of her brother’s concerts. Anne, with her intense gaze and skillful playing, had seemed to Grace to hold the whole group together.

“Yes,”

“Well, I told you about how her husband got in a wreck—“

“Mum mentioned it.” Grace interrupted placidly, running her thumb over the white grip on her bike handle.

“Oh.” This seemed to give her brother pause. He managed to recover quickly, however. “You know she’s from Hungary? She came over here for college.” His voice sounded at once imminently focused and anxiously distracted. Grace responded.

“I think you told me that a while ago.”

“So it turns out she was only in the country fine because she was married to an English citizen, and that kept her good after she couldn’t have a student visa. But her parents had her go back to Hungary, and now she’s trying to come back, and I think she was on some visitor’s visa for a while, but it expired and now she’s been asked to leave, and she has a kid that she’s all worried about—she’s completely settled here, I mean, she’s lived in England her entire adult life—and, I mean, the quartet—”

Grace tilted the bike back and forth as she listened, wondering why her brother was telling her all this, wondering where it was going. 

“That really sucks.” She provided helpfully, as a silent pause threatened to swallow their conversation up. The anxious voice on the other end didn’t reply. Grace waited. It seemed to be on the edge of something it wasn’t entirely sure of.

“I—I think I’m going to marry her, Gracie.” breathless. Breathless from the thought and the journey, the numb decision, Grace could hear it all, betrayed in his voice. How he would rise, unexpectedly, to the occasion. 

Grace did not quip, she did not bicker, she did not fight. People who did annoyed her. But she did not acquiesce. There was a sort of quiet rebellion in her, to wearing the irritating masks, to disinfectants, to not lying on the beach in a teeshirt next to the bonfire next to Elliot’s friend. Her rebellions did not require audiences. Their validity lay in the actions themselves. Face expressionless and yet not drifted away, nearly sullen, eyes on the slithering flames. That is how she had looked in the photograph. Above all within her was a circle full of routines and things that she vaguely expected to happen, one time or another. Above that was something critics called passivity. 

She had gotten so good, on the couch with her coloring book, at pretending she didn’t mind Elliot and their mother sparring with each other, that she had nearly come to believe it herself. 

Grace, who had been on the receiving end of many a complaint about Anne, wanted to say, do you even like her? She wanted to say, are you drunk? She wanted to say, are you crazy?

She knew her brother. She knew him in all his drama, all his self-absorbed adventure. 

All she said was, “Hmm.”

***

It had come upon him suddenly.

Heart pounding, breathing strange like adrenaline, gazing straight, straight ahead. Staring. Occurring—how something reworks itself or presents itself, maybe; your ideas about things change but that is really life, isn’t it? That isn’t out of the ordinary, much. Elliot swallowed. 

Half of him had wanted to leave, half had needed to do something and’d realized it had to stay. He’d read her forms, he’d made some calls, Anne had not moved or breathed. So someone had to, or else it wouldn’t be right. Or else instead of life it would have been death. He’d found her laptop but that hadn’t helped either.

He had realized it—that moment, of understanding—one could call it a eureka but that would be an exaggeration—on the phone, actually. He’d been talking to some person in the government, God knew who—“And there’s no way—“ “I’m sorry sir, the individual is no longer married to a British citizen, and her visa situation was questionable from the beginning, never mind the salary issue—she has simply been out of the country too long—“

Elliot sighed. This time it was the kind that went through the phone-line. Running his hands through his hair, tight, filling the gaps between his fingers, thick and twisted and tangled.  

He turned from the bench and walked back up the steps, into his apartment. 

***

Elliot dialed the number of Bambridge School. He did not need to look at the caller-ID. He knew it by heart.

The phone rung idly, forgetfully, and dully. It did not seem to think about its ringing. That was perhaps, Elliot mused, what it did to keep itself sane. It could not worry or even think about what people were like or talking or worrying about on either end of the line, every minute of every day. Elliot understood. 

“Hello, Rolegade Vance, Bambridge School office.”

This was an interesting aspect of the old school. They did not have a regular receptionist. Last time Elliot had gotten Emilia Carnet, the time before that Frea Sala; he had gotten Ronny Rice two times, non-consecutively, to date. 

This gave the entertaining variety that, in an institution where many are overly familiar with you, one still receives a seemingly random stranger on the phone. This made life interesting.

“Elliot Roberts,”

“Aha, hello Mr. Roberts…that would be…class of 2007?”

Elliot could hear thick sheets of paper being ruffled through and turned over on the other end. He sat down and put his hand in his pocket.

“That would be me.”

“Would you like to be forwarded to anyone?”

“I don’t know—I received a phone-call the other day that I missed.”

“Alright, just give me a second here—what day?”

“I believe it was Tuesday.”

“Aha…hmm…well I didn’t make that call…not in my log…I think I’ll forward you to Mr. Blankenship.”

“Alright,”

In many facilities, the phone would have, at this point, gone silent, as Elliot was forwarded to another line. However, he was very familiar with what proceeded. 

First, the phone did not go quiet, although the haphazard receptionist stopped talking. Instead, Elliot’s ears were filled with the muffled sounds of walking—shoe-soles on a thin carpet, ill-regarded work-slacks rubbing loudly together between a pair of legs. Also quite a bit of sound from the phone’s movement through the air, swinging from the receptionists hand, back and forth.

Elliot could hear, albeit somewhat fuzzily, a knock on the wall (the Blankenship office had no door). 

He could hear, again somewhat confusedly, the unknown voice of Rolegade Vance speaking to the unforgettable tones of Mr. Blankenship. Elliot shifted somewhat uncomfortably. Distance and years could never quench the flame of fright in an errant schoolboy of his principal.

The muffled noises became louder and more aggressive, and Elliot fancied perhaps that Mr. Blankenship was situating the phone on his own shoulder.

“Elliot Roberts?” The voice was old, the voice of an advanced thinking man with a salt-and-pepper beard that became round at the ends. It was not sharp, nor accusing. Ever. This is one of the things Elliot found the most imposing.

“Yes, sir.”

“Good to hear from you; I daresay we don’t too often.”

“Yes, sir.” Elliot replied meekly, rising to pet a highly distractible, bug-eyed Rosco. 

“How is your music going?” The calm interrogation, measured interest. 

“Well, sir.”

“I see. Have you gotten a position at a University?”

“I haven’t tried, sir.” 

There was a moment without words on the other, measured end, but not of silence. The principal was making a low, thoughtful, considering sound. It was rather growly, in the most thinking-man sort of way. It was something like a “Hmm,”.

“Hmm,” he mused, in the sort of fashion that meant Elliot was in some sort of trouble. “you know of course that here at Bambridge we represent an intense commitment to giving back education to our community.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Of course we respect whatever direction you want to take your life; however, considering your talent and the time that has been put in, I would advise at least looking at a University position.”

“Sir,” Elliot began, trying not to sound meek. He managed to infuse his voice with what he thought was a respectful firmness. “I do not think they would take me, I’m only 25, sir. I’ve also thought I was giving back by making music. With all due respect, I do not stay in my room practicing all day, sir.”

“Hmm,” it sounded as if he was leaning back in his chair. This was a peculiar habit of Mr. Blankenship’s. “Where do you play?”

“I’m in a chamber group, with Dax Herrman.”

“Interesting. He’s doing well?”

“Yes,”

“Do in an orchestra?”

“Yes.”

“Anything else?”

Elliot was silent. He did not. Blankenship seemed to understand this.

“Private lessons? Do you do that?”

Elliot was again silent.

“I play gigs, and I busk.” He offered, after a moment that was slightly dreadful. 

“Hmm.”

Elliot, feeling defensive, picked up Rosco hurriedly under one arm. The dog’s curly, skinny legs dangled deadweight, and his wild face looked curiously up, attacking the man with a floppy tongue. “But, sir, I was calling to follow up on a missed phone-call. The receptionist said he wasn’t the one who called me.”

Blankenship seemed not to hear him—his grumbly musing had remained uninterrupted, and now he broke back in, as if taking a sip of a delicately foamed cappuccino. 

“While I of course respect however a former student chooses to make a living, I must inquire, how do you have enough with only gigs, street-performing, and a chamber group?”

“And orchestra.”

“And orchestra. Hmm?” 

Elliot was silent for a moment. Blankenship had always made him uncomfortable. He seemed to see right through his skin, like a sheaf of onion under a microscope. The boy had never been able to understand some students’ admiration and even love for the imposing man.

Elliot adjusted Rosco under his arm as the dog began to slip. 

“I—I don’t only do that. Besides, I don’t need a lot of money. I’m a concertmaster—they pay me alright.”

“What else do you do?”

At this, Elliot was again silent. A string of elaborate and exciting lies jumped immediately before him. 

“I—a non-music, part-time job. I’m hoping to get out of it soon.” There. He hadn’t lied. 

Again, silence. Elliot felt his heat fuming around his ears. He narrowed his eyes and placed Rosco back on the floor.

“Our new under-principal Mrs. Venetta was just calling you in for work.”

“Oh. I see.”

“Whenever you want, in whatever form, you know the drill, I trust.” He sighed through his words in an attitude of dismissal, and Elliot nodded as if the man could see him. “We shall depend upon your Bambridge honor and good form. We’d love to see you around the school more, and we wouldn’t object to an inspiring-alum concert.”

“Thank you sir, goodbye.”

Elliot laid the phone down. He put his head in his hands. Rosco hurried over obligingly, inspecting his owner’s lips with his tongue. 

“Rosco—stop it, come on—“ Elliot yanked his face away, pushing the dog down with a hand. He grabbed the phone again with a listless grasp, stared at it and thought who he could contact.

Who would go out for a drink at three in the afternoon? Elliot felt a wave wash over him, a wave of dark thought. And tiredness. And nausea—fatigue. Maybe it was the adrenaline of calling Blankenship. Adrenaline usually felt good. 

The daybed provided itself more than willingly for these moments.

Elliot did not have many friends (he had many acquaintances). He had no close friends. This had been done carefully and on purpose, it had also been thoughtless, in all his actions. However, there were people who knew him well enough to be surprised and concerned when they heard. 

Dax had come over and Elliot had told him off. Hop had called in supportive astonishment. The suddenly-engaged did not doubt that many others he knew were worried, surprised, anything—behind his back. 

Elliot did not dress up for his wedding. At least, he did not at first. Then he reconsidered, and put on his black performance attire, in deference to Anne, who seemed to take life in a fancier, more well-put-together fashion than he. 

He rose at six-thirty a.m. He blinked the cloudiness out of his eyes. It was cloudy outside. He did not think much, when it came down to it. He didn’t think about going through with it, he didn’t think about pulling out. Afterwards he knew that he’d taken a shower, he knew he’d looked at himself in the sink mirror. Pale chest, the branching bones in a wingspan, small shoulders. He had been so proud of how broad they’d gotten (by his standards) at the end of high-school, but now, looking at them, he was only mildly disgusted, mildly disappointed. 

On the white, bony breast of Elliot was a work of art. He often did not think of it, but sometimes he stopped to look, in moments like that, in quiet awe, inspection, or remembrance. 

Drawn in careful, indomitably flat and smooth and sharp ink on his practically smooth ribs, skin of a child, was a moth. It was a beautiful moth, it had beautifully round and perfectly-shaped wings, it had beautiful shadows and texture, it had the most delicate black legs. On the shades of its wings were beautiful spots, beautiful lines. It wore beautifully short antennae. 

Elliot could remember gazing at it, hazily, for a long time. He’d had time to kill, after all. He could recall the beautiful smell of henna, when he looked at that tattoo long enough. He hadn’t smelled it in years, henna, but of course he could remember. Of course he could remember that delicious perfection of the scent of it when you mix it with fragrant oil and sugar, when you place it with messy love into cones. He could remember how it stained your hand. 

He could remember how it looked like brownie batter, but it smelled better than any brownie because it hadn’t smelt like food at all, which sickened him, because instead it smelt like something infinitely delicious yet not edible at all. Instead of melting in your mouth it caressed it, invisible. 

But that was for a life of beauty. 

His life had not been beautiful then, when he had smelled it, although it had sometimes felt like it was. Beautiful memories, yes, but he was glad to be gone. 

This was entirely different; it was kind and yet mercenary; it was real and yet not; he thought you could write poetry about it to seem beautiful, but really that would be a lie to the reality. And that always made him bitter. But he was too distracted, by nothing, really, staring at the mere, fuzzily, to be bitter. 

As has been said, he first, that entirely ordinary and dull morning, put on a plain t-shirt. He put on plain light-brown pants, the kind that clung around his skinny legs, he buttoned them below his stomach, lean but bloated. He then, as has also been said, changed, in deference to Anne.

He combed his hair, his hair that was so, so very light-colored; he took care of it and so it was soft but he wished it wasn’t. It curled delicately at his shoulders. There seemed to be nothing to it, and yet everything with that light gold color that reflected any beam of radiance in glossy white. His skin was pale and smooth, his eyes were light blue like a little girl’s. He wondered how anyone could bear him.

Yes, Elliot could remember his morning, as he walked into the Register Office. Anne had thought they should do it first thing because she was that kind of person. His morning, however, felt as if it could have been years ago and at the same time have gone on forever.

He signed the papers numbly and had the glimpsing thought that away he was signing himself, and any hope. He mostly felt, foggily, that it was a tremendously heroic moment. He was sacrificing his freedom, he was sacrificing his hope, his possibility. Yes, that was very romantic. For Anne, for his friend. It felt, numbly, like that. 

Anne was very businesslike. She signed everything. They did not exchange rings. Grace, in the yellow dress she’d had since high-school, was the first witness. One of her strange friends (was she rooming with her now? Elliot couldn’t keep track.), with an elfish nose and slews of byronic, brown curls, was the other. 

There were some sort of vows said, Elliot answered however it seemed from context he was supposed to. It all felt a little odd to him. Something so monumental should have fireworks, he thought, explosions. Something. Life could feel odd, like that. To Elliot. 

It ended, Anne left without ceremony in her own car. Elliot, at a loss, had gone to work.

He sorted and pricked and arrayed insects. He copied field notes. He felt funny and strange and utterly nothing. When Dr. Fishback came in, Elliot had looked at him, at his busy lab-coated back, he had opened his soft lips. He had wanted, very much, he thought afterward, to say something. What does one say? Dr. Fishback, I have just been married? Dr. Fishback, something large has happened and I do not believe it? Do you?

Elliot remained silent. He sliced off a sliver of a grasshopper’s leg, and placed it strangely on a slide. He remained silent. 

***

It was cold and the air full of invisible water as Elliot pulled up to Anne’s house. There was perfect visibility right before his eyes, but a strangely unreachable, unchasable fog on the edges and horizon-lines of everything. 

Elliot got out of the car, the driver’s door clicked supply shut behind him. He walked up the moist concrete to the door, rubber in his shoes squeaking. 

One can be suddenly unsure of themselves in such situations. The eureka was not a wordy one and hard to fathom. It was more a feeling. More a realization—more processing. The man fumbled. 

Luckily for Elliot, the front door opened, and a rather small woman turned out of it, locking it behind her. 

Her heels—spool and olive-colored—clacked on the steps as she came down, skirt stretching over wide hips and back to come down around her knees. She clacked, in a rather quiet, business-like fashion, down past him. 

She turned back to look at him. Her curls were frizzy around her eyes from the weather.

“Hello, Elliot.”

Elliot nodded awkwardly. 

He followed after her down to his car—it was rather an ugly car. Elliot always found it offensive to his aesthetic sensibilities from this angle—the small roundness of the headlights, the flat shark-like-ness of the smoothly curved hood, the general flatness of the whole vehicle, and, for that matter, the horrible beige color—

He stopped in surprise as Anne opened the driver’s door from a handle once again offensive for its cramped roundness. He blinked. 

“Uh, Anne—“

She turned to him rather dully. Dull, but unyielding.

“I’m not riding in a car that you drive.”

“Oh—well—“

Elliot slid into the passenger side, onto the flat, gray cushions. Anne was busy, eyes cold, pumping up the seat to her height. 

Elliot turned his gaze to the wet, deserted road before them. He was becoming more and more disillusioned with what had at first seemed such a heroic turn for his life to take. It really had, for a moment, been a eureka. 

“Put on you seat-belt.” The order was quiet and firm. Anne barely even looked at him.

Elliot obeyed. This was not because he was passive like Grace. It was because the nonnegotiable tone in Anne’s voice made a person’s fingers jump to the buckle before their mind could even process the command. When his did, Elliot flushed up to his ears with annoyance, but Anne was too engaged in her defensive driving to notice.

The man wanted to be irritated, but he felt mostly disappointed. And he was irritated, at least a little bit. Anne was so selfish—yes, of course he felt bad for her—but could she not even say thank-you? Could she not even appreciate the sacrifice he was making her? Elliot not only might have been the most rapidly disillusioned person in the course of human history, but possibly also the most spurned and unappreciated of its heroes. This was, at least, what he thought, as she took a turn like she was handling an army vehicle.

“Where’s Renata?” He asked strainedly, focusing his energy on trying to keep himself together. His insides had other thoughts. 

“I have friends, you know.” Anne replied sharply and dismissively, apparently offended by his ignorance, eyes trained at the road before her.. “It’s not good they’re making us move in together.”

“It might be,” Elliot offered, following her in.

“No, it’s not. It means they know it’s a fake.” Anne, voice quiet and business-like, was brimming with pessimistic surety. It was amazing, Elliot thought, how he had been with her a full twenty minutes, and she hadn’t looked him in the eyes once. She narrowed her gaze upon the parking spot she was trying to squeeze into. “I told you, no idiot would think I actually want to marry you.” 

This left a surprised Elliot behind a moment, an Elliot whose ears soon flushed again, this time with hurt resentment. He wondered what Beowulf would do if so spurned. Who said he wanted to marry her?, an angry voice inside him exclaimed. He wasn’t doing it for himself, it wasn’t some pleasure-ride—no, in fact, he was the one who’d been frying his brain on calls and research over her problems, he was the one— 

She had already disappeared behind the glass coffeeshop door before the heat in his ears could come to fruition from his mouth. He followed her in a rejected huff.

“What do you think of this one?” Elliot asked, looking over Anne’s shoulder. She was wearing a magenta cardigan. The laptop was on the table in front of them, and her fingers were scrolling thoughtfully through the display.

“No.”

“Why?” Elliot asked tiredly, taking a bite of an apple. She hadn’t even really seemed to consider it.

“Too small.”

“It’s a two-bedroom, Anne. Perfect.”

Anne turned her head back coldly toward him. 

“Has it occurred to you that Renata and I might want a bit of space from you? We’re not college roommates.” She delivered these words curtly and with finality, whipping her head back around before Elliot could respond. She continued to scroll, too slow for anyone’s liking, but too fast to really look at any specific listing.

Elliot blinked at this, feeling rather miffed. Anne had a way of unexpectedly coming on top like this that left him sheepish and rather irritated. He opened his mouth to reply, but she, back still towards him, cut him off.

“What do you think about this? 112, Lakeshore Drive. Pretty.”

“Let me look—“ Elliot leant forward beside her, resting a hand on a table, putting his other one of the mouse pad as he clicked on the listing. The house was a virulent red, the door of a soft white. It was two stories, three bedroom, three bath. Elliot raised his eyebrows. “Anne, you don’t really think we’d live here—“

The Hungarian expatriate turned upon him sharply. 

“Why not? It’s in town like you wanted, isn’t it? And we could probably lay out things so as you could have your house, and I could have mine—look at the floor-plan—“ Anne conquested the mousepad instantly, and Elliot drew his hand back in surprise as she clicked on the picture of the layout. “See? Me and Renata could have the front-door, you the back, and the corresponding sides of the house—“

Elliot’s nostrils flared at this; an affronted heat surged in reaction.

“What, is that the servant’s door or something?” He exclaimed, eyes accusing. 

“No,” Anne replied sharply, and Elliot was nearly taken aback, surprised by her tone. By the thick wetness in the sharpness. She seemed almost a little hurt. He opened his lips and closed them. “I was just meaning that we could divide it into two sides, and leave each other alone.” The words were not quiet but had not an inch of militancy, not an inch of anything that demanded anything in return. She wasn’t looking at him. 

“Oh. Oh, ok.” Elliot tried to back down, awkwardly, in his tone. Anne’s sudden switch from sparring to—well, whatever this was—had taken him off guard. They were silent for a moment, staring at the screen. Anne was sitting, for a moment forgetting posture, on a chair of swirling iron design. Elliot was leaning beside her, tendons stretched and prone on the wrist he had propped against the table. Neither of them were quite thinking anything intelligent about the listings they were numbly staring at. A thought suddenly occurred to him. “Anne,” he straightened up, and she turned to look at him in surprise, as if he’d woken her from a daydream. “how do you expect me to be able to afford this?” 

His tone was matter-of-fact. This was one of Elliot’s ways, the Elliot between performance drama and private brooding. This was, incidentally, the most natural part, the reaction he thought least about. 

Anne scrolled up to the price-tag. She took a moment, seeming to be doing the math quickly in her head, behind the focused eyes. She looked back up at him in an instant, dark eyebrows challenging. It made Elliot more comfortable, instantly, as if he no longer needed to tread lightly; she seemed to have completely recovered herself. 

“You would have to put down 113,378 pounds total.” 

“Exactly.” Elliot hit the table for emphasis. The violist narrowed her eyes. 

“You wouldn’t have to all at once.” Anne could be so obstinate. Elliot sighed, long and testily. He did not spend much time with his personal finances, but he knew them to leave little room for margin.

Anne, I’m a musician, you can’t expect me to be rolling in dough.” Elliot leaned back on the table again (a bad idea, the small glass circle was rickety in its frame). Light eyes piercing. He knew it. 

Anne turned her head up to meet him. Obstinate. 

“I’m a musician too. I could afford it. Some of us spread our nets wide, Elliot. You could be considerably more pragmatic about it. It’s running a business.”

Elliot couldn’t help being testy. Anne made him testy. 

“There are those of us,” he delivered back, face unlined but very intent, “who believe in art for the sake of art.”

“Oh give me a break.” Anne rose in a huff, not meeting his eyes but everything else. She snapped the laptop shut beside his hand, she turned to look at him. “I need to go.” 

Elliot watched, silent, as she put the laptop back into her bag. He watched, face unmoving, as she slung it over her shoulder, as she turned and marched away. She did not look back. He did not look away. It was not because he missed her. It was more that his eyes trained on his leaving opponent. 

Elliot had watched a lot of those movies. He’d been a cowboy one year for Halloween, the year after he’d been Superman, the year before he’d been Robin Hood. His mother had sewn him felt fox-ears for that, he remembered. He could remember standing at the cheap fold-out craft table, glue everywhere as he was struggling to attach the ears to a skinny black headband. He’d been enraged with frustration. Nobody had paid him any attention. He couldn’t remember how he finally got them to stick, in the end.

He had not asked her the question that’d sprung to his lips. You still on for practice? No. That would have been too conciliatory. Of course Anne was on for practice. And if she didn’t show up, they would practice without her. Who needed a viola, anyway, he thought bitterly. Besides, she would come back in. 

He opened the dark door tucked back near the counter, went up the poorly-lit stairs, and into the room above. The Minndish—the rather cryptic name that café had taken to itself— prided itself on being a pillar of the artistic community. It was a revolving door of art exhibits, but also a live music venue (there was outside seating). What mattered to Elliot, however, was their free multi-purpose room upstairs. 

He gazed at the empty space rather tiredly. He did not like empty spaces. They smacked too much of loneliness, when he was the only one standing in them. It might have looked romantic in a photograph, with the right lighting, but at the moment it felt like nothing he wanted at all. He set up the chairs, he set up the stands. The others arrived soon, they were surprised that he’d beat them there. Elliot smiled wryly in acknowledgement, but it was really only for their benefit.

There was something nearly awkward about the group of them today. What could Elliot have expected, anyway, from the moment Anne barreled in, darkly, behind Hop. The second violinist, Dax, glanced strangely between the violist and the first violin on either side of him, both silently adjusting their position in the seats.

“Well,” he ventured, unfolding his music on the stand. “it’s nice to be back, all together again.”

“Yes, it seems like it’s been even longer than it has.” Hop added sanguinely, his skin folding severely around his eyes as he smiled. Elliot nodded. He coughed. Anne was silent. 

They went farther in the Schubert piece. They passed the quagmire of an introduction, they shocked any listening ghosts with surprising group chords, they continued on and on. Elliot played his part rather mindlessly. The tidal wave occurred to him as they reached it, but not to his fingers. He remembered to look at the cello, at the second violin, to meet their eyes. Out of habit. He avoided the viola. He did not think about the viola. He did not look at the viola. It was hardly on purpose.

They went on and on, then they would stop and talk, then play again. Elliot still felt tired, but he tried, he tried every time. The unfulfillment felt maddening. The climax not reached, the depth and the height and the span. Elliot could feel it. Like it was vaguely in his power but out of reach. He played. He ate minutes. 

They would be silent, and then they would breathe together and make more noise. It was nearly surreal to him how it happened.

And so they made sound again, and the viola’s blended with the rest, and it wasn’t too hard to not look at her, it wasn’t too hard to be studiedly apart. She made him crazy. It made him crazy that he had to play with her. He ate minutes. 

“Good practice,” Hop said, zipping up his cello lustily. Like moving his fingers for the notes was all he needed to make art. Elliot stared at him, tired. 

Dax took a moment to respond. His face, large and the lightest sort of brown—the shape of it sometimes reminded Elliot of a monkey—seemed troubled.

“I don’t know—I think we haven’t gotten back into our groove yet. I mean—“ he added hastily, standing back up from where he was bent over his case, “completely understandable!”

Anne silently packed up as if she hadn’t heard. Elliot nodded. He knew it. You have to always rise to the occasion, and Elliot was good at that. He could always rise if it was for someone else. He nodded. You can know something and not anything more.

His numb mind was at once on something else, even while he heard the words. He packed up and left. He felt like he was walking in a fog. 

***

Downstairs the Minndish was dim. Bustling with the quiet noises of talk and the clanking machines behind the counter. The floor was like a cobblestone road except it was glazed flat. Also dim.

Elliot passed the intimate human surroundings of the coffeehouse in something of despair. He came up to the counter and stood waiting behind an old man of a disinterestedly fashionable appearance. He gazed blankly at the intentionally ratty briefcase slung over his shoulder. 

In a moment it was Elliot’s turn at the counter. He took a glance at the wall-clock. Minutes were still there. Elliot turned back to the barista as she greeted him.

“Hullo! Nice day, isn’t it?” Her skin was very white and her lips very pink. Elliot was having a hard time looking her straight in the face, caught between the distracting qualities of her impressive array of piercings and the incredible lowness of her shirt-neck. How could she not understand, know, it was suffocating. She had probably never played music in her life. She probably didn’t have an artistic bone in her body. It made him mental. 

He hurriedly snapped his eyes to the menu.

“Uh—one café au lait, please.” The prospect of asking advice reviled him and so he was not entirely sure what he was ordering. It was much better to pretend one knew things, and suffer the consequences proudly. Elliot was excellent at appearing as if he knew exactly what was going on. He was a good actor. 

Elliot paid, he sat down at a table. He looked as melancholy as he felt—gazing about himself tiredly, at the mint-colored shelves hammered into the wall, at the specialty bags of coffee beans and grinds they sported. He gazed morosely at the interpretive, colorful nudes hanging without frames, he turned his eyes disinterestedly to the vases packed messily with local flowers. At the large glass windows above a long tank system full of giant fish topped with vibrant plant growth. At the seats outside, which nobody wanted today. Elliot followed the fish with his gaze, their pale puckering lips, their eyes at once lazy and intent. 

He noticed the grey condensation of the windows. It was raining. Strange. The woman had asked him what a nice day it was. 

He and Anne would never find a house, he could feel it surely within him. And even if they did, he would never be able to pay for it. And Anne still probably wouldn’t like something about it. And—this was a new thought—the prospect of living with her, it would probably be for the rest of his life. This had not occurred to Elliot. To be in the same house as Anne, forever. He could feel it already, she would critique is every move.

Elliot turned in quiet misery, looking around him. He had somehow landed himself next to the group of teenage girls and the woman presiding just as engagedly in their midst. They all had notebooks and pens. Perhaps they were artists. 

That made him feel a little better, but still in a melancholy way. Elliot had been comforted by the artistic quality of this place, which is why it was a haunt of his, in mind if not often in body. He watched the barista, watched her as she cleaned the machines, as she dripped the coffee or foam or syrup with an intent gaze. It held little allure for him. His mother had wanted him to be a barista, when he’d been looking for work. 

It’s a good, safe, honest job, Elliot! Why not? 

It’s just—mom, you don’t understand

What don’t I understand?

You’re just working and working and working, and people can treat you like dirt, and they just expect you to do things for them, you have no dignity—

Well welcome to the service sector, Elliot!

Exactly! Ugh—

Elliot laid his head back against the brick wall. His thin hair was no protection, the rugged blocks scratched and pained his skin, but he did not move. Elliot could take pain.

Time could have gone on forever. One of the girls started reading something from her notebook, beside him. He turned his head, barely. It seemed like a poem.

Elliot closed his eyes. He thought of the prospect of his life and was filled with wretchedness. He turned his head lazily again where it was propped back against the wall, he watched the barista erasing parts of the blackboard over the coffee machines, standing on a stool, she was drawing in new pasty words in swirls with colored chalk. The word “Waffles” formed with light magic beneath her dusty fingers. Another girl was reading now, and the poetry came into his ears but he didn’t comprehend it.

It was at moments like this, the farther he descended, that he suddenly could not bear to be alone. It would seize him, attack him. 

No. He had to get up. He had to go be among people, he had to be laughing and ruling and performing. Pretending was better than this, he felt with a desperate anxiety, if this is what was real. 

He opened his phone hurriedly—it clicked open to the missed calls. Bambridge. They were old—he deleted the notifications, vexed. Like creepy-crawlies were scuttling up his arm. 

Elliot was annoyed—by the state of the world around him. Restless. The poet group provided no help. Neither did the waffles; nothing, not the koi, not any of it. Bambridge was an annoying institution—it was like selling yourself into slavery—Elliot sneered in frustration, tearing the music sheets from his case, running over them with fiery eyes as if that was something to do.

Down the lines. Of Schubert. Of nothing. Elliot lay back in his seat, gaze floating. 

Bambridge. 

But then it made him think of something else, as he stared above the eager heads of the girls to the rain reflected cloudily outside. Bambridge? It made him think of closets full of linen clothes, it made him think of bonfires, it made him think of laughing all together, sitting on the bed. Johnny and Roxanne—they’d been dating then, he remembered. She was in a swimsuit, sandy ankles. And Clara and Yesun, and he could see them all in his mind laughing, he could remember himself gesticulating, eyes wide as he retold the story, he could feel the solid back of Delfino pressed against him, he could see all their bare feet beneath pulled-up knees. They’d been in the West bedroom, windows open and darkness outside with the biggest moon, he’d been sitting on the edge of the striped bedsheets. That’s what it made him think of. 

He had not felt lonely at all. He had, in fact, been in his element. That’s what the Bambridge house was like. He longed for it, suddenly. Longed and longed, beyond the rain dripping down the Minndish window. Beyond the cold coffee. 

The girls left. They put their notebooks and pens or laptops in different bags, slung them over their shoulders and pushed their chairs in and were gone. The empty table next to him made his corner feel too large, too vacant.

He got up. 

Elliot did not want to be suffocated where he stood. 

He didn’t know how, but that would be his solution. Elliot could feel it irresistibly, and he grasped at it, desperately. 

Elliot took his violin case home but that was where he left it. 

***

Tune in next Friday to read more!

[questions from the author:

Should the Anne/Elliot fighting in the car scene should be cut/condensed? I know we have that sort of thing in the whole house-hunting part right after, but I don’t want the transition/storyline to be too abrupt, and I fear it may be if I take out the whole car scene. Thoughts from fresh eyes? 

Also, please take the Grace intro in the context that in the next draft this will be the first time we meet her—she’ll probably only be mentioned in the scene at his parent’s house.

One final question. What the moth is trying to say about Elliot? As in his tattoo? Should the moth be dropped, or changed? This I think is just a question to think about through the whole story, as you get to know him and his arc better, any themes and motifs, etc. Just throwing that out there.]