The days went by, and the preparations for the Christmas concert were taking on a sense of feverish urgency. The concert was going to be held in the parking lot of our parish, so that anyone and everyone would be able to see the performers and hear the music. This was one of Lolo Teo’s iron-clad rules: that the concert, which was the Andrada family’s thanksgiving offering to the Lord and our Christmas gift to the community, would always be free to anyone. Other performers would do spot numbers, but this was still an Andrada family thing, which meant that any Andrada who had any trace of musical ability within him or her was obligated to contribute something meaningful to the concert.
I often passed by the church whenever I biked around our neighborhood in the afternoons and early evenings—having that much free time was one good thing about my becoming invisible—and so I had a chance to observe the stage’s slow, inexorable rise at one end of the parking lot. A few times, I saw Uncle Gary there along with some of my other relatives, arguing with one another and bossing the workers and parish office staff around. Once or twice, I spotted Uncle Manix standing around and chatting after delivering plywood sheets, cans of paint or whatever materials were needed. Uncle Manix was a huge man with a scruffy goatee and a booming laugh, and I wondered how he managed to hang on to his cheerfulness in the face of Uncle Gary’s temperamental, OCD ways and our other relatives’ indirect snobbery. Maybe not being part of Lolo Teo’s legacy didn’t matter as much to him because he only married into the family? I, on the other hand, was related by blood, and it mattered to me.
It wasn’t just seeing the stage being set up, though. I felt as if I’d been frozen in place while the rest of the world spun further and further away. After class, I’d hear the choir running through their vocalizations in the music room. Out in the park, dance troops from the nearby villages would be practicing their spot numbers. More and more often, I’d come home to find Ray holed up in the music room or out with our cousins rehearsing their rock versions of Christmas songs. Mom and Dad came home later and later—Christmas is always a busy time for musicians—but I knew that Dad was practicing with the chamber orchestra, and Mom could probably sing arias in her sleep anyway. And everywhere I looked, I’d see posters and flyers of the concert hanging amidst Christmas wreaths, trimmings, trees, stockings, fake snowmen, and Santa figurines.
It seemed everyone was busy preparing for the grand Christmas musical event—everyone except me. What a lonely thing it was to watch from the sidelines.
Things came to a head about a week after the black-cap incident. I waited at the bottom of the stairs, counting out the bills Mom had given me to pay for Jess’ dance lessons and other expenses. “Jess, would you hurry up? You’re going to be late again!” I hollered for about the twentieth time.
“I said I’m coming, okay?” my sister yelled back.
“And don’t forget the scores for the songs you’re rehearsing with the choir later.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever.”
Five minutes later, I bellowed again: “Jess, come on!”
“Stop making me shout! I’ll lose my voice!”
“You’ll lose more than that if I get told off by your teacher again when it’s totally your fault.”
“Okay! Leave me alone!”
Ray emerged from the studio looking preoccupied, heedless of the verbal battle going on around him. “Hey, are you going to Eighth Notes?” he inquired, referring to the music store our relatives owned. When I said yes, he continued: “Can you get me some—”
“Dominants, I know,” I said before he could finish. “Mom already gave me the money.”
He nodded. “Okay, thanks.”
Jess stomped down the stairs, her pretty features arranged in a scowl. “I was in the middle of something important when you interrupted,” she said accusingly.
I gave her a skeptical look. “Important? I bet you were just chatting with your friends again.”
“That’s what I said. Ugh, I can’t believe we’re doing this dumb concert thing again. Aren’t people sick and tired of it? Why we can’t just relax and have fun during Christmas like everyone else does? It’s so unfair.”
“It’s our family’s Christmas gift to everyone. It’s tradition. Don’t you know that by now?”
Jess rolled her eyes as she brushed past me. “And if we don’t, are we going to lose our musical abilities, like some kind of curse? If you ask me, Lolo Teo was just a superstitious old goat. I mean, look at you, Ate. You’ve been working forever at these concerts, but you still don’t have any talent. It was about time you quit. Everybody thought you were trying too hard, anyway, but nobody had the guts to tell you to your face.”
My skull suddenly felt as if someone had scooped my brain out and replaced it with a wad of cotton. Oblivious to the effect her words had on me, Jess stopped at the doorway and glanced back at me impatiently. “Well? You’re the one who was in such a rush a while ago.”
Without a word, I picked up my backpack, pulled my cap over my head, and started for the door. Before Jess and I could step outside, Ray spoke up. “Hey, Jess.”
“You’re kind of a moron, aren’t you?”
Jess stuck her tongue at him, but Ray was already retreating into the music room. I was quiet during the taxi ride to the mall downtown, my thoughts all tangled up in the cotton stuffed inside my head. Jess kept her mouth shut for the most part as well, but I should’ve known my little sister would try to make things better, which almost always resulted in things just getting worse.
“I’m sorry, Ate. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” she said as we made our way to her dance studio. “I just thought that since you’d quit the choir and your lessons, you already knew. About what everybody thought, I mean. ”
“Yeah, I knew,” I sighed, pulling my cap lower over my eyes.
“And I didn’t mean what I said about the concert. The truth is, I’m really, really glad I can perform for everyone,” she chirped, her mood swinging a hundred and eighty degrees. “When I sing or dance, people look so thrilled to see me. It’s the best feeling in the world! I totally understand what Lolo Teo meant. I should make people happy with my talents, right? Especially on Christmas. And I can’t ever imagine not being able to do that.”
Then as we pushed the studio doors open, she glanced wide-eyed at me and said: “Oh. I get it. You must feel so awful, Ate. There’s not much you can do to make people happy, huh?”
I gave her a flat look. “Go get changed, Jess.”
I went off to do my errands surrounded by a gray fog. At Eighth Notes, one of my aunts was sitting behind the counter overseeing the staff. She greeted me warmly when I came in; I pinch-hit at the store whenever a member of the staff couldn’t make it, so she had more reason than most to stay on my good side. I bought a pack of violin strings—Dominant, the brand Ray liked—then haltingly offered my help in making the souvenir program.
“No need, dear. Evelyn and our staff will do it. They already have a template.”
“Well, um, do you have a cover design already? Because I can do it,” I said, thinking about what Marni said about my doodles.
“What for? We’ll just use the poster Gary’s students designed.”
Mentally cursing the well-oiled machine that was the Andrada family, I tried one more time: “Isn’t there anything I can help with? Registration, ushering guests, anything?”
She gave me a preoccupied smile. “But dear, what can you do? It’s much too late to—hello, welcome. Can we help you with something?” she called out to a family that had come into the store and were looking over some of the guitars. I turned and left.
Later that day came the moment I dreaded the most, when Jess and I dropped by during choir practice so she could rehearse the songs she was singing with the chorus. The sound of voices singing accompanied by a piano echoed through the hallways of the high school, growing louder as we approached the music room. We arrived late—big surprise—but for once I was glad that my sister had the sense of urgency of a grazing cow. I raised my hand to knock then hesitated, only to have the choice taken from me when the door suddenly swung open, revealing the assistant conductor, who was probably checking to see what was holding us up.
My aunt rose from her place on the piano as her assistant shepherded us in. The choir subsided into murmurs at the sight of us, and even though I didn’t want it to, my gaze still drifted across the rows of people toward the alto section. Somebody else was sitting in my old spot now. I quickly looked away, but not before I noticed Camille raising her eyebrow at me. Flushing, I tugged my cap lower, and when practice resumed, slipped out of the room altogether.
The empty corridors had a melancholy air about them as the pale-gold rays from the setting sun slanted down through the windows, setting dust-motes aglow. My sister’s heartbreaking voice singing a haunting serenade pierced the emptiness, with the solemn humming of the chorus joining in after a while. After a while, I began singing the alto line to myself, and marveled that I still had our part memorized even though remembering and recognizing songs had always been an uphill battle for me.
Then the memory of Camille’s accusations barged into my moment of personal triumph, and I abruptly stopped singing. Earlier in the week, I’d Googled tone-deafness in the hope that I could find a cure or something, only to run headlong into the words “congenital” and “genetic predisposition.” In a family lousy with musicians, it figured I’d end up with the lone recessive gene for tin ear. If Jess was looking for family curses, well, it couldn’t get any better than this.
All of a sudden, I couldn’t stand to hear the music anymore. I began walking quickly away from the music room, then finally broke into a run altogether, trying to get to a place where the music couldn’t reach me.
But the weirdness just kept coming. As I rounded a corner in this supposedly empty building, I collided into something hard that was coming the other way. Something that grabbed my arms to keep me from falling backward on my butt. Something that went, “Oof! Hey, watch it!”
I blinked, an apology automatically spilling from my lips. The guy I’d crashed into, who was currently frowning down at me, looked to be no more than a couple of years older than me, and was dressed in a black T-shirt and faded jeans. His features were nice and even, and his hair was scraped back into a messy ponytail that resembled a firework going off at the back of his head. I stared at him, mouth slightly agape, but I was ready to swear on all the Bibles in town that I had never clapped eyes on him before, despite his presence in my school. He couldn’t possibly be a student here, could he? He was too tall, too lean, and too darned cute to walk around in school unnoticed. Frankly, he would have been perfect, if it wasn’t for one tiny detail.
“What happened to your eyebrow?” I blurted, then blushed crimson.
The guy’s right eyebrow arched higher than the left, which gave him a permanently sardonic expression. It was also bisected by a white scar that curved toward his temple. At my query, the eyebrow arched even higher, edging past sardonic and well into caustic territory. “Whoa there. You’re one rude chick, aren’t you?” he commented, releasing his grip on my arms.
Dusting myself off, I gave him a cool look. “Yeah, well, I’m rude to guys who call me ‘chick’ instead of my name.”
His lips quirked. “Point taken, Ma’am, but I don’t exactly know your name now, do I?”
“Oh.” Well, that more or less settled it. “You’re not from around here, are you?” I asked, peering at him. Most of the locals knew who I was. Or rather, they knew who my family was. Was he a tourist? If he was, the high school building was an odd place for him to go sightseeing.
He hesitated a little before answering. “No. No, I’m not. I’m just visiting some relatives here,” he said. “In fact, I came here to pick up my cousin. She’s at choir practice right now, and she told me to meet her at the music room, but I seem to have gotten lost.”
That explained why he was wandering around the school. “The music room’s that way.” I pointed down the corridor I came from. “Turn left then follow the sound of singing. You can’t miss it.”
“Got it, thanks.”
I became aware that he was looking at me every bit as curiously as I was observing him, and it was starting to make me feel…well, weird. “Your cousin’s a member of the choir? Who is it?” I couldn’t resist asking.
“Camille. She’s a soprano, I think.”
I fought to keep from grimacing. “Really? Camille’s your cousin?”
“Yeah. You know her?”
“Yeah,” I replied, then couldn’t keep from adding: “I’m so sorry for you.”
He stared at me for a moment, long enough for me to realize that he was right, I was being rude. But just as I was about to apologize for maligning his cousin—no matter how richly deserved—he began to laugh. “Yep, I guess you know her pretty well,” he chortled, rubbing the back of his hand against the faint stubble on his chin.
I’m noticing his stubble, I thought. See, Marni? I notice other stuff too besides music. Seeing him laugh was making me feel even weirder. There was a funny tickling in my stomach that reminded me of the way I felt whenever I was about to go onstage and take my place at the piano bench. But it wasn’t the I’m-gonna-barf-from-the-terror kind of tickling. It was more like…
More like jumping in the air and discovering I could fly.
“John,” the guy said. When all I did was look at him in befuddlement, he smiled and offered his hand. “My name. In exchange for yours, so I won’t call you ‘chick’ anymore.”
“Oh. I’m Zoey. Zoey Andra—um, just Zoey.” I shook his hand, then realized I was focusing as much energy on memorizing what that brief physical contact felt like as I did on memorizing my music pieces. Feeling unaccountably flustered, I reached up to tug at my cap, then became aware that it was hanging from my ponytail, having been nearly knocked off in our collision. Yanking it off, I ran my fingers through my ponytail and began to talk really fast. “Since you’re in town, you might want to come and watch the Christmas concert at the St. Cecilia Parish next Wednesday night. It’s kind of a tradition here, and I guarantee, it’s going to be amazing. There’ll be—what? What’s so funny?”
His grin turned into a chuckle. “It’s you,” he said. “You’re the girl on the bike. I should’ve known you’d try to run me over again. Still taking intersections at breakneck speed, I see.”
“What?” I squinted at him until it dawned on me. Oh crap, it’s him. He’s the guy I hit with my bike a week ago. Once again, heat flooded my face as I stared at him in dismay, recalling the rather disastrous circumstances of our first meeting.
Then he surprised me again. “Look, I didn’t get a chance to ask you back then, but are you okay?” he asked gently.
All at once, I felt like crying. He was so unexpectedly kind. And other than Marni, he was the only one who actually cared enough to ask how I was feeling. A stranger I’d just met. Swallowing, I looked down at my feet and willed my eyes to stop stinging.
“What’s wrong? Zoey?”
Oh, this is not good. Straightening, I pasted a bright smile on my face. “Nothing. I’m fine. I’m really sorry for crashing into you twice, and—I have to go.”
I moved past him and ran off without a backward glance. I ended up huddled underneath a tree in the school grounds, fighting back tears and texting Jess to tell her to meet me at the gate. I just couldn’t face any of them—not my aunt, not the assistant conductor, not any of my former choir-mates, and most especially not Camille. And not her cousin either, even though he turned out to be so nice, the nicest person I’d ever met. I couldn’t deal with feeling like a colossal disappointment and a useless bit of baggage anymore…I was just so tired of it.
So when my sister and I got home, I did what I usually did when I was feeling blue: I grabbed my bike and burned some asphalt, letting the darkness, the cold wind and the twinkling lights sweep away the gray fog of loneliness and self-pity.
And ended up stumbling into a miracle along the way.