Seventeen Years Ago
ALEX BISHOP huddled under the stairs that led up to the ancient Chicago graystone as snow danced and drifted about the deserted street. Even in good weather, there were never many people around this neighborhood. That’s how he liked it. More people around meant more adults wondering what he was doing by himself, more adults who might ask questions.
He’d been running for weeks, trying to hide from the police who patrolled the streets. He’d done nothing wrong, but he knew that if they found him they’d take him back into protective custody. He wouldn’t go back again. He couldn’t go back—the bruises from the last beating from the older boys at the group home had just begun to fade. He’d always been a strong fighter, with broad shoulders and powerful arms, but he’d been surprised and outnumbered.
“Fag!” one of the kids had called him before the first blow struck him on the chin. Two other kids had grabbed his arms and restrained him as the largest of the gang punched him in the gut. Over and over.
He didn’t care what the other kids called him. He was pretty sure they didn’t know he really was gay. They called all the misfits at the home that. He also didn’t care about the bruises. Bruises healed, given time. But the boys had taken his violin from him, and he’d barely gotten it back in one piece. A small crack now ran from the f-hole on the left side of the instrument toward the fingerboard—a constant reminder of the close call. He wouldn’t let them take it from him again. He’d rather freeze to death than risk it.
It hadn’t been the first time he’d been the subject of other kids’ taunts. He’d been moved from his last foster care placement to the home because he’d been jumped by some of his classmates on his way to school. That particular fight had landed him in the hospital with knife wounds to the chest, and he’d nearly died.
“We’ll find a placement for you,” his social worker, Tori Flynn, told him when he woke up in intensive care a few days later. But he’d seen it in her eyes—she knew it wasn’t going to happen. Nobody was interested in taking in a fifteen-year-old boy, especially one who got into fights as often as he did.
Six months later, he was still in the same group home. So with school out for the Christmas holidays, he’d spent most days at the local public library. Nights, however, were far more challenging and a lot colder.
Just six more months. That’s all he needed before he might be able to qualify to live as an emancipated teen. He could find an apartment, go to school, and nobody would hunt him down.
A strong gust of wind blew, nearly knocking him off-balance. He shivered and looked down at his frozen feet, his threadbare socks visible through the holes in his ancient basketball shoes. Even here, under the relative shelter of the stairs, Alex knew he wouldn’t survive the night. He needed to find somewhere warm to sleep.
He peered out into the blizzard, looking for any sign of movement. The streets were too snow-covered for anyone to venture out in cars, and the neighborhood beat cop was nowhere in sight. Alex stepped out from under the stairs and onto the sidewalk and, slipping and sliding on the icy concrete, ran down the street toward the warehouses that lined the train yard. It would be safe inside one of the vacant warehouses.
Ten minutes later, he was dizzy and frozen to the bone, his torn sweatshirt nearly soaked. Still, he kept going. It wasn’t much farther now. Crates lined the sidewalks near the abandoned storage buildings, and he hopped up onto one of the smaller ones, ignoring his numb feet. He reached for the ledge underneath the cracked window.
I have to get inside, he thought with growing desperation as he pushed on the window. It was frozen shut. His head felt thick. His brain refused to cooperate. I have to get inside.
With renewed determination, he reached once more for the window and set his foot against the edge of the crate. There were no treads left on his soles; his foot slipped. As he fell, he clutched his backpack in an effort to keep it from flying out of his hands. He landed on his side in the snow. Sharp pain lanced his head as he hit the unyielding metal of a fire hydrant.
The world went dark.
“HEY, wake up!”
Alex looked up into a pair of deep blue eyes and blinked. The girl was tiny, but he guessed she was about his own age. Instinct took over, and he reached for his backpack. It was gone.
“Where is it?” he demanded. His head spun and his hands felt clammy as he began to panic. That backpack was everything—the only thing he had left of his mom. He grabbed the girl by the shoulders and shook her in desperation. She pushed him away with surprising strength. Weak from the cold and unprepared, he fell backward onto the hard concrete floor. “What the hell did you do that for?”
Her eyes narrowed. She was pointing a small knife at him. “I don’t like being touched. Besides, you’re the one who grabbed me, remember?” She brushed shoulder-length black hair from her face and he saw something familiar in her expression: fear. He knew only too well what that looked like. She was obviously used to defending herself.
“I… I’m sorry. I don’t want to touch you… I mean, I didn’t mean to. It’s just that….” He saw it now—the ratty backpack sitting just behind her. Thank God. He started to shiver.
She eyed him warily, then, apparently deciding he meant her no harm, set the knife down next to her. “Put this on.” She handed him a ragged sweatshirt and helped him pull off his soaked one. He did as he was told, although he was uncomfortable with her seeing his bare chest. He’d never gotten used to the lack of privacy at the home.
“Thanks.” He hesitated a moment before adding, “Can I have the backpack, please?”
“Sure. No problem.” She reached behind her and retrieved the pack, all the while watching him as if she still worried he might hurt her. He couldn’t blame her. He was at least twice as large as and stronger than she. He did his best not to look threatening.
“How did you get me inside?” he asked as he rummaged through the backpack. Not that he thought she’d taken anything, but he needed the reassurance that nothing was broken.
“Rolled you onto a piece of cardboard. It slides pretty good on the snow.” She looked quite pleased with herself.
“Oh. Thanks. For bringing me in, I mean. I’d probably have frozen out there.”
His stomach growled and his cheeks warmed with embarrassment.
“When’s the last time you ate anything?” She appeared only mildly amused by his reaction, her expression maternal.
He looked away from her—he was damned if he was going to let some girl pretend she was his mother. He’d rather starve.
“Suit yourself,” she said with an offended huff. She pulled a stale piece of bread from a paper bag and began to devour it. “I have more,” she added, her words just barely comprehensible now that her mouth was full of food. “The clerk at the corner grocery lets me have the bread when it’s too old to sell. I have some cheese too. It’s a little hard, but….”
He glanced around, trying to ignore the smell of the bread and the queasy feeling in his belly. Through the single high window above them, he could see that the snow was still falling in heavy flakes. They were inside one of the empty warehouses, in a small room that looked as though it had been used as an office years ago. It was lit by a single bare bulb that hung from the ceiling. In the corner was a small pile of blankets and an old milk crate with a tattered photograph on it. The photograph was of a woman who looked very much like his companion—her mother, perhaps?
“You have electricity?”
“Yep. Connected it myself.” She flashed him a proud grin. “And I found a heater.” She gestured to a battered and rusted space heater in the corner of the room.
His stomach protested once more, louder this time. Without a word, she reached into the bag, pulled out a piece of bread, and offered it to him. This time, he took it and nearly swallowed it whole.
“Hey! Don’t eat it too fast,” she warned, “or you’ll puke your guts all over the floor.” He nodded, then slowed down and began to chew more deliberately. “I’m Rachel, by the way.” Her eyes shone with bright confidence.
“Alex,” he replied, his mouth still full.
“What’s in the backpack?” She handed him another piece of bread.
“Nothing.” Well, nothing of any real value, or at least nothing of value to anyone but him: a baseball, a threadbare sweater, an extra pair of shoes (nearly as worn as the pair on his feet), a photograph of his mother, and his most prized possession—a battered violin that had once been hers.
He took the second piece of bread from her and chewed it slowly this time. It had been days since he’d eaten anything this substantial, and he wanted it to last. She was right—he felt the familiar nausea that came when food found its way to an empty stomach. He ignored it; it would pass. It always did.
“Are you hiding something in it?”
“No. But there’s something important to me in there.”
“What?” Her mouth was once again full of bread.
“Come on. You can tell me. What’s inside?”
He took a deep breath. That she hadn’t already inspected the contents of the backpack impressed him—most of the other kids he’d met on the street hadn’t respected his belongings. It was another thing he hated about living in the home. “A violin,” he said at last. “My mother gave it to me before she died. She was a music teacher.” He didn’t care if she laughed at him.
“A violin? Really? Can you play it?”
“Yeah.” He wiped his mouth on the back of his sleeve. She was surprising, this girl. She didn’t think his violin was stupid or gay. At least, she didn’t seem to.
“Will you play something for me?”
He stared at her, trying to decide if she was serious. Her face was lit with eager interest that seemed genuine. Although it was a little strange that she’d asked him to play his violin when she’d just met him. You’d think she’d want to know more about me first.
“If you play something for me, I promise I won’t tell Family Services you’re here,” she said. He swallowed hard; the last thing he wanted was for the Department of Children and Family Services to catch up with him. “I’m just kidding,” she quickly added, perhaps realizing her mistake. “I won’t tell anyone you’re here. Besides, Family Services will want to take me back too. No way am I going back to foster care.”
His heart still pounding in his chest, he studied her face to see if she was telling the truth. “If I play for you, can I stay here a few days, until the weather is better?”
She smiled. “Deal.”
He breathed a sigh of relief, pulled his backpack onto his lap, and unzipped it. He opened the clasps on the battered violin case, then reached inside and withdrew the bow. An audible sigh escaped his lips as he picked up a tiny amber stone and ran it over the hairs spanning the wood. The hairs had once been thick, but years of playing and no money to have the bow rehaired had taken their toll.
“Rosin,” he explained, feeling once more in control of the situation. This was something he knew about. He put the rosin back into the case. “It makes the horsehair sticky so the strings vibrate better.”
“Real horse hair?” Her eyes were wide.
“That’s what they use?”
Her mouth shaped the word “oh” and she watched him with rapt attention as he picked the violin up and held it in his hands, drumming his fingers on the fingerboard to warm them. After a minute or so, he began to tune the strings, two at a time. Finally, he settled the chinrest under his jaw and put bow to string.
And as the snow continued to fall outside, the sounds of Bach and Mozart echoed through the empty warehouse. That night, and every night for the next three years, he played for her before they went to sleep.