Outside of Boston’s South Station, I could be the anonymous girl-with-the-guitar again, the person I’d been when the streets of Europe had been mine to fill with music. The rounded wood of my guitar rested on my knee, reminding me of its presence even when I paused to check my battered watch. Two hours.
I flexed my fingers and then set them down again on the guitar’s fretboard. The strings fit perfectly against the calloused grooves in my fingertips, forming chords that reaffirmed my decision to take this day to flee my suburban-Massachusetts exile. Once I got where I was going, no one would want to take my music away.
Oh merde. I misfingered a chord at the sound of my name. My E-string let out a low moan, like it knew we were in trouble. Kyle Baker stood on the other side of the crosswalk. He may have been the only person at the school I’d escaped who didn’t mock me—the incredibly grammatically incorrect nickname Madame le Freak had never passed his lips—but I didn’t plan on sticking around to find out why he’d followed me all the way from Fernsgrove. That place lost it’s charm quick, as Mom used to say before she moved us to a new town after the month or two it took her to construct a chapter of her latest travel book.
As if fate agreed with my assertion, the light turned green before he could cross the street. I dropped to the ground to lay my guitar in its open case and concrete bit into my knees through the holes in my jeans. With the noise of Boston’s heavy downtown traffic buzzing in my ears, I pressed my palm against the bent right clasp on my guitar case until the metal almost broke the skin on my hand. It finally snapped shut, but wouldn’t hold for long. The first thing I’d do in New York would be to buy a new case, since I wouldn’t have to worry anymore about Uncle Rob throwing my guitar against a wall.
I stood, slinging my guitar case over my back. The WALK sign had begun to flash and I could see Kyle approaching, the late-April breeze making his red hair waft out in all directions. Hoping it would blow in his face and slow him down, I grabbed my duffel bag and fled.
Inside the station, I dove for the staircase to the T, Boston’s subway. I’d ride it as far away as possible and double back in an hour, with plenty of time to get on the train to New York. Kyle would have given up, and I could be on my way.
“Meridian, it’s your cousin. She’s hurt!” Kyle’s words rose up above the squeaking of shoes on the sticky floor, and caused me to skid to a halt midway down the stairs. I started to shift to face Kyle, but my abdomen collided with some guy’s over-stuffed suitcase, and the man yanked it to the side, removing my only support. The golden stair-railing sparkled as I failed to grasp it.
“Merde!” I yelled, before I toppled down the stairs. Score one for gravity.
I was met with a sickening crunch when I landed. It wasn’t my spine shattering, at least. My guitar case had broken my fall. Key word: broken. The worn left clasp hadn’t withstood the impact any better than the shattered right one. The case had flown open and my weight had smashed my guitar against the ground. I brushed my blond hair out of my eyes and began piling the shards of guitar into the case so disinterested commuters couldn’t grind them into the dirty concrete.
Kyle knelt next to me, touching my arm lightly. “Are you okay?”
I shook him off. How could I be okay with the battered remains of life were spread out on the ground alongside discarded Starbucks cups? Every fragment I dropped onto the heap of splintered wood represented a European city I’d explored on my own while my mother went about her business with the locals, or a day in Fernsgrove I’d battled through, armed with the promise of the day I’d escape with my guitar. I stared at the finished pile and then squeezed my eyes shut.
“Come on, Meridian. Can you get up?” Kyle urged, but I barely heard him through the darkness. I’d filled my brain with belief that if I just concentrated enough I could give the splintered wood time to meld into a whole instrument.
But when I opened my eyes there was no guitar, and the knowledge came to me like a lyric from an almost-forgotten song. The charm was gone. I had to move on. I fished a single piece of wood out of the case, and then fiddled with the less-broken clasp. It snapped shut, but I had no idea how long it would hold. The smooth mahogany of the piece I’d salvaged felt cold and dead against my fingers
“What happened to Natalie?” I asked. My throat felt choked, and I swallowed hard. I would not break down in front of him.
“She fell at gymnastics. They called the school looking for you. Kyle rested his hand on my arm. For a second I let it stay there, but then I jerked away to use the banister to drag myself upright.
“Did she sprain her ankle, or something?”
Kyle rolled his green eyes up to the ceiling and shook his head like I just wasn’t getting it. His strong grip tightened on my arm. “I think it must be bad. They didn’t send her to Fernsgrove Memorial. She’s here, at Children’s Hospital.”
“Oh,” I breathed, and an image flickered before my eyes; a body in a pool of blood. The only person I loved taken away. My throat tightened and then began burning as I took off for a train a that had just charged in. The wreckage of my guitar bounced uselessly in itscase. I didn’t realize Kyle had followed me until he slid through the closing doors of the Red-Line train. He didn’t matter. Natalie mattered.
Natalie listened to my music when no one else did.
We burrowed as far into the crowded train as possible. I couldn’t reach the handhold, so Kyle looped his arm around me. My heart pounded against my chest so hard that he must have felt it. There was no way he didn’t, since it was going to pop out of my ribcage at any second.
“How’d you find me?” I asked, realizing that focusing on the horrific images in my mind wouldn’t make the train move any faster.
“Well, I was there when you stormed out of out of French.” He smiled and the single muscle in my chest still held taut by the events of the afternoon, and not Natalie’s accident, loosened. “I personally thought your presentation was fabulous. We all know Monsieur Williams is kidding himself when he pretends the equivalent of ‘darn’ is the worst swear he knows. You were doing us a service.”
The muscle tightened again. No one had thought to bring up the fact that they’d been begging me to teach them swears, while Monsieur Williams railed at me for my choice of topic. “Anyway,” I said, changing my focus. That part of the day was long over. “Natalie.”
Kyle’s eyes darkened. “Right. Natalie. The people from the Y called during my shift in the front office. You always said you’d escape one day to land a record deal. I figured you’d made today the day, and you’d be somewhere between Fernsgrove and New York.”