PIECES OF DESTINY
I chewed my scrambled eggs thoughtfully, watching the light rain trickle against the kitchen window, smearing the dawn’s light through the speckled glass. Mrs. Colt noticed the frost between Travis and me, but only gave us a curious glance. Our breakfast went by in near-silence, except for Lem’s occasional chatter. Travis was sullen, but I ignored him. If he wants to play it that way, fine, I thought. I’m the guy who deserves an apology this time.
After we cleared the table, Lem followed me out to the wagon, where I slung my book bag in the back. The drizzle spattered down my neck, and I pulled up my winter coat as I slid the wagon’s canvas sides onto the wooden frame to provide a little bit of a shelter. Lem held the rear section in place for me as I fastened it down. Travis walked up, doing his best to ignore me.
“You guys wanna ride along?” I asked, securing the last strap in place.
Lem seemed taken aback. “Ya mean we don’t have to walk to school no more?”
I shrugged. “Not as long as McBillin lets me borrow the wagon. I’m actually thinking of buying it. With my part-time job, I could pay it off over the next few weeks, but I also gotta give your dad another fifty cents each week for Dandy’s feed.” I did some quick math. “It’ll be a little tight, but I think I can afford it.”
“Think you’re some kinda rich boy,” muttered Travis, as he turned away.
I rolled my eyes. “C’mon, flip the bitch-switch off, already,” I called after him as he trudged through the mud. “You wanna get soaked or ride with us? Your choice.”
As if to answer him, there was a rumble of thunder and the gentle rain began to turn into a steady downpour. I hopped up into the driver’s seat, then pulled a tarp over my legs and steadied the mule. Lem happily scampered in and set his books behind me. We both stared expectantly at the older boy standing in the mud.
Travis turned away and started a few tentative steps, then stopped and shivered in the rain.
“C’mon, Travis!” called his brother. “Walkin’ to school in the rain ain’t gonna get ya nothin’ but soggy clothes for your troubles. Catch your death.”
He frowned. “Reckon so.” Travis turned, gave me a scowl, then stepped up in the back with Lem and we clattered down the long muddy trail that led to the Old Country Road.
Halfway there, I glanced around to see him staring off to the east, his face illuminated in the pale blue light of the early rising sun. His blond hair was partially plastered to his forehead, and he effortlessly shook the bangs out of his eyes.
Damn, I thought, feeling a slight stir as I became hypnotized by the subtle details of his neck and ears. Travis even manages to look good soaking wet. But he’s still an opinionated asshole.
“Look out!” he suddenly cried.
I pulled back on the reins and felt the wagon take a hard lurch to the right, then we dropped about a foot with a crunch. We came to an abrupt stop, and the mule brayed in annoyance.
“Shit,” I muttered, as the three of us jumped out on the road to examine the damage. The back right wheel had slid into a gully. Dandy turned and gave me a disdainful look, rivulets of water trickling down his dark brown mane.
“Saw that one comin’,” Travis said with a sniff. “You got a lot to learn ’bout drivin’ wagons.”
“Might’ve been nice if you had warned me about this pothole, you jerk,” I spat. “I need cruise control on this thing. Or at least a GPS.” I turned to the smaller boy. “C’mon, Lem. Let’s get our shoulders behind this. On the count of three!” Together, we gave the rear backboard a major heave. The wheel slipped out of the hole, Dandy began clopping down the muddy path, and we ran up alongside the wagon and jumped back in.
“Maybe you’ll keep your eye on the road better, next time,” said Travis, shaking the water out of his hair, and still refusing to look at me. “There’s an awful lot you don’t know ’bout farmin’ and takin’ care o’ mules.”
I snorted. “Yeah? Well, I think you got Dandy beat for sheer stubborn orneriness.”
Lem chortled, but Travis shot him an angry glance and he quickly clammed up.
“I know lots of stuff,” I continued, slowing the mule down as we took the wider road to the west, just as the rain turned into a fine mist. “A lot of it’s not valuable at the moment, but trust me, I know how things work. Practical stuff, theoretical... I’ve got a brain, ya know.”
“Stuff? Like what?” he sneered.
I thought for a moment, then pointed in the distance, where the moon lay low in the early morning sky. “Okay... like that. Why is the moon sometimes visible during the morning, but sometimes it isn’t? Riddle me that.”
He shrugged. “Ain’t never thought about it.”
I slowed the wagon to a stop, and grabbed my notebook and a pencil. In seconds, I drew a quick diagram, brushing a few water drops out of the way. “This is why,” I said, showing the relative position of the sun and the moon. “We happen to be in just the right position for the moon to be in the west, and we can see it because the morning sun is rising in the east. The moon is still there in the sky, orbiting the earth, but we can’t always see it because it doesn’t get any light from the sun. Either it’s too low in the horizon, or the earth blocks the sun’s rays.”
Lem traced his fingers on the paper, grasping what I was saying. “But howcum the moon seems to get bigger or smaller?”
“Depends on its orbit,” I said with a shrug, giving the reins a little snap to get Dandy’s attention. “Sometimes it’s a little closer or a little further away. Plus, the angle of the sun is what makes it look like a new moon, half moon, or a full moon. It’s almost 240,000 miles away, but it still causes tides and all kinds of reactions on earth. It’s all about gravity.”
“And seasons?” asked Lem.
“No,” I replied, as I coaxed Dandy and allowed the wagon to come back up to speed. “Those are caused more by the angle of the earth’s axis – how much it tilts in relation to the sun. You wouldn’t think a degree or two would change, since we’re about 93 million miles away, give or take. But it’s the earth’s angle that makes the seasons. Because of that, when it’s winter up here, in Missouri, it’s summer down in Australia and New Zealand, at the bottom of the planet.”
Travis rolled his eyes. “I never heard more malarkey in my life. Why, that ain’t nothin’ but pure useless information. That ain’t gonna help crops grow, put food on your table, or keep clothes on your back.”
I laughed. “My dad loved Jeopardy — it’s kind of a game back where I come from. We’d watch it together, and I learned a lot of useless trivia. For example... why does soap work?”
This time, both boys raised an eyebrow. “Work how?”
“I mean, why does it make dirt fall off your body? I bet neither of you know.”
“Ain’t important neverhow,” muttered Travis, wiping some of the rain off his face as the wagon took a small jolt. “It just does.”
“I’ll play, I’ll play,” said Lem excitedly. “Cause... cause it makes the dirt slip off?”
“Close. Soap works by getting rid of the oil in your skin that holds the dirt. It’s a chemical reaction. Get rid of the oil, the dirt can’t hold on.”
“Good-for-nothin’ nonsense, if’n ya ask me,” Travis snorted. “Ya cain’t make any money knowin’ fool things like that.”
I glared at him. “My father used to say: we’re all ignorant – just about different things. And there’s basic stuff you have to know just to live every day, at least where I come from.”
“Yeah? Well, ya sure don’t know howta get this mule to move. Here,” he said, snatching the reins out of my hand, then clucking and gently snapping the leather against the mule’s backside. Sure enough, in a few seconds, we were moving at twice the pace we were before.
I laughed out loud. “Alright,” I admitted. “So you’re a step ahead of me in mule-driving.”
“But Jason knows lots about science,” piped Lem. “Knows ’bout lightnin’ bugs and everythin’. And the moon and the stars.”
“Book-learnin’,” the older boy scoffed, as we approached the large grassy field that adjoined the high school. Travis handed me back the reins and nodded toward the animal. “Treat him kindly, now. Never a good idea to get on the wrong side of a mule.”
I grinned. “That much I’ve already learned.”
As we rolled up to the front of Jefferson High School, Travis hopped out and jogged up the steps, not pausing to look back. He’s one stubborn mule himself, I thought. But I can still teach him a few things, if he’s willing to learn.
§ § § § §
The rehearsals over the next couple of days were rough. Bobby, Perry, and Gunther were getting a little annoyed with me, and they were trying my patience as well.
“No, no!” I snapped. “You gotta come in on the next measure! C’mon, get with it, guys.”
“Actin’ like some kinda slave driver, he is,” Perry snapped.
“You wanna get this right, or not?” I retorted.
We tried again, and this time, we all hit the downbeat at the same time. That was more like it. I sang along, leaning into the piano as we slowed down the tempo, and it was perfect.
“No, no, no!” cried out a voice.
We looked up as Mrs. Weeks darted in, wringing her hands. “I told you before, Mr. Thomas. We need more songs that celebrate the church and God’s word!”
I thought quickly. “We will, ma’am. Note the part of the song where we’re ‘soaring.’ The songwriter intended for this to be like the flight of, uh... angels. Angels flying in heaven.”
She gave me a doubtful look.
“Trust me,” I said. “When you hear me sing it with Faith, I promise, it’ll be... well, heavenly.”
“We’ll see about that. All right, Mr. Thomas. I’ll give the benefit of the doubt. You have three songs to present to me tomorrow. I trust that each of them will be enriching, ennobling, and uplifting.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said with a nod, and she darted back out of the room. Like that works for Halloween, I thought.
“Ain’t nothin’ holy about this music,” muttered Bobby.
“Everybody’s a critic,” I retorted. “C’mon, let’s move on to the next song. And try to stay in tune, willya?”
§ § § § §
As our Saturday performance approached, I began to get a little nervous. Mrs. Weeks had fought me on a couple of my song selections, but was ecstatic at the way Faith and I harmonized on our duet. I suspect Faith was still intent on harmonizing with me in a more physical way, but she seemed reluctant to make a move with the other musicians around me. I resolved to make sure she wouldn’t get the chance to corner me alone.
“You all set for the Halloween school show tonight, young Mr. Thomas?” Mrs. McBillin asked, as we wheeled a supply cart through one of the general store aisles. “We’re so looking forward to it.”
I grinned. The McBillins had been kind enough to let me put up some show posters on the store’s front window, and were letting me leave an hour early so I could get home and change. “Yeah. I hope the Harper’s barn is big enough for the crowd. Mrs. Weeks tells me we’ll have at least 250 people there — maybe more, if our ad works.”
“You’ll do fine,” she said, carefully emptying a burlap bag of apples into a wooden display barrel. “How many other young people will be performing?”
“About a dozen,” I replied. “Me, Faith, and our little band are closing the show. I figure the whole thing will be a couple of hours.” Sort of the 1864 version of America’s Got Talent, I thought, only with Mrs. Weeks in the Howard Stern role. “I think we’ll be done by 9:30PM. 10 at the latest. About the only thing I’m really worried about is getting the piano over there.”
Just then, the store’s front door crashed open, and a familiar voice called. “Jason? You in here?”
“Back here, Lem,” I answered. “Everything okay?”
He ran up to me breathlessly. “No — the school piano done slid off the wagon they was haulin’, and it’s pretty busted up. I declare, I don’t think they can get another one for tonight.”
“Jesus,” I muttered. “What about Faith’s family?”
He shook his head. “Mrs. Shaw is mighty partic’lar ’bout her things. She ain’t about to loan the school her piano for tonight.”
This screws up everything, I thought. Without a piano, I’d kinda look like a dork, singing in front of the crowd — especially an 1864 audience, and me without a microphone, performing with sheer lung power alone. Unless...
“Rufus?” I called to the back.
“Yassuh, Mas’ Jason?” he said, his dark face peering from the storeroom doorway.
“You think there’s any chance we could borrow your church’s piano? Just for tonight?”
He thought for a moment. “The one you done tuned? I s’pose that’d be alright. Services ain’t gonna start at Gospel Hall until 8AM Sunday mornin’ at the earliest.”
“Mrs. McBillin, would it be alright if...”
“Of course, Jason,” she said with a smile. “Rufus, please take the new wagon and see if you can find someone to help move your church’s piano out to the Harper farm.”
“Yas’m. I kin do that ’fore nightfall.”
“Best leave now. Our Jason has a show to perform.”
I turned to the black man. “And I’ll need at least 15 minutes to tune it up. Let me ride along with you and help... if that’s okay.”
She glanced around and lowered her voice. “I’ll tell Mr. McBillin later. He won’t be back for at least fifteen minutes. I suppose I can handle the store myself until closing time.”
I gave her a quick hug. “Thanks, Mrs. McBillin. Tell him I’ll make up for the lost time on Monday.”
“Oh, he’ll certainly expect that,” she said with a chuckle. “And possibly an extra hour for your trouble. Get on with you!”
§ § § § §
The big barn at the Harpers’ farm was massive: an enormous red and white building, roughly three stories high, easily big enough to hold the Colt’s entire house and main barn together with room to spare. I glanced at my wristwatch. Even though it was only 7:40, a good-sized crowd had already gathered outside the entrance. A large sign was plastered above the main door: “Jefferson High School’s Halloween Singing Celebration – Come One, Come All!”
I shivered. The weather had cleared up and was brisk, and the air smelled of cinnamon and spices. A few tables to the side were festooned with carved-out pumpkins as decorations, along with pumpkin and apple pie that some of the local farmers’ wives had donated as part of the festivities. A few of the smaller kids had discovered a rope fastened to an overhanging corner of the barn roof outside and were careening into a large pile of hay, giggling with excitement.
Inside the barn, Rufus and I positioned the upright piano on the side of the stage area, with the help of two of his church members, and I managed to get it retuned in record time. We were the only act using the piano; the others included some kid reciting some Robert Browning poetry, a couple of boys with banjos (the resemblance to the cast of Deliverance made me wince a little bit), some guy with a clarinet, and a quartet of chubby girls that had voices that sounded like cats being tortured. Plus there were two or three other groups and soloists from one of the rival schools across town.
Piece of cake, I thought, playing a few tentative chords and looking out towards where the audience would be sitting. If this were an American Idol audition, I’d ace it.
“Ya’ll be mindful of this here instrument,” Rufus warned, patting the top of the upright cabinet. “Ain’t much to most people, but we need our pi-ana for the mornin’.”
“I’ll help you load it on the wagon and retune it again myself once we get back to the church. I promise.” I held out my hand and we shook. “You got my word on it.”
He grinned. “I’ll always b’lieve a Thomas when dey give their word. Your Aunt Olivia – we always could trust her. She helped the church out quite a bit. Why, in fact—”
“Can we please rehearse now?” called an irritated voice. It was one of the chubby girls, who resembled an 18th-century version of Kim Kardashian, only with a lot less makeup. “If you’re finished with the nigger, that is.”
Rufus and I froze. I turned to her and gave her an icy grin. “Excuse me, but Mr. Jones here helped us out quite a bit with the piano. And he’s a free man – and a personal friend of mine. So I hope you can—”
She ignored me and abruptly pushed past us, the other girls trailing alongside her, giggling at my reaction.
“— give the man some respect,” I finished, scowling.
“Don’t pay them no nevermind,” Rufus said in a low voice as we walked towards the side exit, where the crowd noise grew louder. “Some folks ain’t quite used to slaves walkin’ free in Missouri.”
“Stupid bitches,” I muttered. “Sorry about that, Rufus. You gonna stay for the show?”
He hesitated. “I don’t think the Harpers want my kind here, not ’till everybody gone, at least. Maybe I’ll poke my head in the back, me and some of the others. Don’t want no trouble.”
I nodded. We were both interlopers: me, a gay kid from the 21st century, and him, a black man from 1864. Neither of us belonged in this racist, sexist world.
“Don’t you worry none,” he said, then stopped abruptly and peered in the Eastern sky, his forehead furrowing. “That’s mighty strange: a demon moon. Ain’t seen one o’ dose in a coon’s age. Mighty strange, indeed.”
I turned, and the full moon looked red and angry. It seemed much larger than normal, and cast an odd orange glow through the trees.
“Don’t tell me that’s some kinda omen.”
He cocked his head. “Prob’ly not. I best be on my way. I’ll be back a’fore ten.” He gripped my shoulder warmly. “You take care now, Jason.”
We made our way out to the side of the barn, and Rufus disappeared into the crowd. I caught up with Perry, Gunther, and Bobby, who held onto their instruments. They looked very nervous.
“You guys ready?” I asked. They nodded glumly.
“I vill need to...” Gunther made a vague gesture... “justieren sie die violine. Ah, tune ze strings.”
“You guys calm down,” I said. “I’ll help you right before we get on stage. The barn temperature will heat up once the doors are closed and everybody’s inside – no use to tune it now, since it’ll drift when the air’s ten degrees warmer.”
He seemed satisfied with that. I glanced at my wristwatch: almost 8PM now. The audience was almost completely seated and murmuring with anticipation. Usually, I didn’t have any stage fright, but this was my first time in months performing before a large audience. Back in my old life, I had managed to slip into the line at an American Idol audition a few months earlier, and I almost made it through the preliminaries until they discovered I was only 15 and sent me home. That was the most terrifying moment I had ever had in Seattle.
But now... this was a different kind of fear, maybe a sense of foreboding. I wasn’t sure why. The most this audience could do to me was boo and throw tomatoes... and that was doubtful. Maybe it’s the demon moon. I peered at the expectant crowd, watching as Mrs. Weeks made her way up to the stage area, which was really just a dozen elevated wooden boards about two feet above the dirt floor. Definitely a full house, with some spillover out the two back doors. I tugged on my bow tie, which made my shirt collar feel tighter and rougher than usual. Mrs. Weeks had insisted on it — red, matching bow ties for all of us (and not clip-ons, but the real thing), and I prayed that the pressure on my neck wouldn’t affect my voice.
The audience applauded as Mrs. Weeks stepped up to the stage area. She thanked the crowd for being there, and the first act began.
“Ya scared?” whispered a familiar voice behind me. It was Travis, with his usual lopsided grin, his long blond bangs hanging in his eyes.
I flinched for a moment, then frowned. “Takes more than a crowd this size to scare me, bucko.”
“Listen, Jason,” he said in a low voice. “I thought about it – what you said the other day and all – and I didn’t mean ta insult you or nothin’.”
“So is this an apology for Tuesday night?” It’d been more than three days since our fight, and we’d barely spoken since.
“Didn’t say that, neither. I just... I didn’t want ya to go out there with me on your mind, is all.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Who says you were on my mind?”
“Well...” He glanced around, then lowered his voice conspiratorially. “Listen, Jason. You’re always on my mind.”
Against my better judgement, I began to smile. “You were always on my mind...” I sang. “Good song. Not exactly my kinda tune, but it’s OK for country.”
He laughed. “Is everything musical to you?”
I shrugged. “Yeah. What can I say? It’s in my blood.”
Travis nodded, then looked out towards the crowd. I stared at the nape of his neck, which was muscular and incredibly sexy, his shaggy blond hair hanging down to his collar. I stared at the soft curls, as they wrapped just so around his skin. It’d been at least four days since we’d had any kind of sex. My mouth felt dry. I longed to reach out and pull him to me... but I had a concert to do. Music first.
He turned back. “I gotta go back to Ma and Mr. Colt. Lem says good luck.”
“What do you say?”
Travis looked down for a moment, then smiled shyly. “Me? I don’t believe much in luck. You got somethin’ better than that, Jason. You love what you do, you’re great at singin’, and ain’t nobody can take that from ya.”
He gave me a quick hug. “Sing your heart out.”
“I will,” I said, my pulse beginning to race. “And... maybe with a little less fancy vocal stuff. Maybe I’ll stick more to the melody — like you said.”
“Don’t change on my account, now,” he said, slipping back into the barn’s side entrance. “You’re the singin’ expert. I’m just the audience.”
You’re a lot more than that, I thought, watching him weave through the rows to get back to his seat. Lem waved when he caught my eye.
§ § § § §
By 9:30PM, Mrs. Weeks had a visible look of relief on her face. “Thanks again to the Jacoby Sisters,” she said as the applause died out. “That was wonderful. And now, we present our final entertainment for the evening. Our newest student at Jefferson, Mr. Jason Thomas, will be singing and playing the piano, along with Mr. Perry Davis on trumpet, Gunther – what is that name? – Mr. Gunther Heinstein on violin...”
“Heinlein,” the boy standing next to me muttered angrily. “Sie ist verrückt.”
“...and Mr. Robert Ellison on drums. Please welcome them with your generous applause!”
With that, we stepped up and took our places, and I gave a quick nod to the audience. Ignoring the butterflies in my stomach, I played the introductory chords and began to speak, standing at the upright piano.
“Thanks, everybody,” I said in a loud voice. “I know I’m a stranger here. I’ve only been in Kansas City for three weeks now, but I thank you all for making me feel at home. My Aunt Olivia loved this song.” I hummed the opening melody, then took a deep breath.
“Day after day...
I must face a world of strangers
Where I don’t belong
I’m not that strong.
It’s nice to know
that there’s someone I can turn to
Who will always care
you’re always there.
When there’s no getting over that rainbow
When my smallest of dreams won’t come true...
I can take all the madness the world has to give...
But I won’t last a day without you.”
My confidence grew as I sang my heart out, making tentative eye-contact with the people in the first few rows, smiling and a little relieved to see most of them smiling back at me. By the second verse, we had hit our stride. Gunther played the counter-melody adroitly, Perry held back with his muted trumpet, just as we’d rehearsed, and I thought Bobby might just make a decent jazz drummer yet. The acoustics of the barn were much better than I had feared, and my voice rang out and filled the room as we hit the final verse, letting my vibrato swell to a natural end.
At last, the song came to an end, and the crowd cheered, with several people actually standing and pounding their hands together.
I waited for the applause to die down. “Thanks very much,” I said. “Our principal, Mrs. Weeks, reminded me that all of us are created by a powerful force that’s full of love and hope.”
“Our lord and saviour!” she added from her seat in the crowd. “Praise Jesus!”
I winced, but caught myself from adding and pass the ammunition. “Thank you,” I said, as I stepped away from the piano and picked up the acoustic guitar and began strumming the opening chords. “But sometimes, it seems like some people get a little extra from a higher power. And if you’re lucky in this world, you might get to know somebody like this, maybe even fall in love with them.” And I took another deep breath and began.
“Can this be true?
Tell me, can this be real?
How can I put into words what I feel?
My life was complete
I thought I was whole...
Why do I feel like I’m losing control?
I never thought that love could feel like this
and you’ve changed my world with just one kiss.
How can it be that right here with me there’s an angel?
It’s a miracle...
Your love is like a river
Peaceful and deep.
Your soul is like a secret
That I never could keep.
When I look into your eyes
I know that it’s true
God must have spent...
a little more time
Perry squawked a slightly flat note on the trumpet but I kept going. Bobby didn’t do badly on the backup harmony vocal; for a drummer, he actually sang okay.
Another quick glance at the audience: several of the girls in the front row seemed to be totally enraptured by our performance. One in particular, a pretty brunette with a scarlet ribbon in her hair, practically swooned with an expression of pure love. I glanced over her shoulder towards the middle row and again spotted Travis: the same expression was on his face, and his eyes glowed with the warm reflection of the kerosene lamps. I grinned and gave him a little nod of recognition.
Again, we hit the final verse and brought the song to a close. As the last chords rang out, half the audience stood up and applauded. Even Mrs. Weeks clapped her hands. Praise Jesus! she mouthed, smiling broadly.
“Thanks! We appreciate it. For our last song, I’d like to invite a special guest to sing with us tonight: Miss Faith Shaw.” I began to clap as Judge Shaw escorted her by the elbow up from the third row, and the crowd applauded politely. I was amused to see she had tied a little lace bow to her cane as she hobbled up the step.
“You look great,” I whispered.
“I could just eat you up,” she whispered back.
She leaned her cane against the piano and held onto my shoulder as I played an extended version of the lead-in chords with a flourish.
I cleared my throat. “This is a song about what people really are, and how some people are even more beautiful on the inside than what you see on the outside. I hope you’ll like it.”
“We’re soarin’, flyin’...
There’s not a star in heaven
That we can’t reach...”
Faith hit her cue perfectly, and her intonation and pitch were as perfect as ever.
“...if we’re trying.
So we’re breaking free.”
Our voices blended together in two-part harmony; she’d cut back on her operatic approach and now had more of a “pop” feel.
You know the world can see us
In a way that’s different than who we are.
Creating space between us
‘Til we’re separate hearts.
But your faith it gives me strength
Strength to believe...
We’re breakin’ free
There’s not a star in heaven that we can’t reach...
If we’re trying.
Yeah, we’re breaking free.”
Perry and Gunther picked up the melody as I jumped up from the piano, and Bobby’s snare provided a perfect staccato beat. As I sang the next line, I spun and slid away in a quick move, then pulled Faith towards me as we started the second verse.
The audience was momentarily stunned. This old High School Musical song was hardly rock and roll, but to an 1864 audience, I think they weren’t quite sure what they were hearing. “Camptown Ladies” it wasn’t. But they seemed to like it.
“C’mon, everybody,” I called. “Clap your hands!”
A few half-heartedly clapped along, and within seconds, at least half the audience got the idea and began clapping. Bobby hit the snare a little harder on the beat, and I turned to him and grinned as we made it to the finale.
“More than hope, more than faith...
This is true, This is fate...
And together we see it comin’...
More than you, More than me,
Not a want, but a need...
Both of us breakin’ free.”
I spun Faith around, and even though we’d rehearsed this move a half-dozen times back at school, her left leg stumbled for a moment. I gracefully caught her, and our faces almost got close enough to kiss. I turned away and belted out the next line.
“To get to the place to be all that we can be...
Now’s the time
So we’re breaking free.”
We finally stood together, my left arm supporting her by the shoulder, and we finished with a perfect a capella duet, slowing down the tempo for maximum effect:
“You know the world can see us...
In a way that’s different than who we are.”
This time, the entire audience rose to their feet and applauded wildly. Faith looked away, her face reddening slightly.
“Take a bow, guys!” I stage-whispered. “On the count of three: one, two, three!”
All of us bowed, Faith swaying slightly to stay balanced on her injured leg. Several whistles broke out, and as I stood up, I saw Travis on his feet, his face beaming with pride as he roared and whistled his approval. Judge Shaw walked over and held his arm out, and Faith took it and hobbled back down to her seat in the audience, blowing me a kiss as she departed.
Within moments, Mrs. Weeks stepped up on the stage, clapping her hands briskly. “My, that was... so very wonderful and energetic! I know it’s getting a little late, but I wonder... Mr. Thomas, would you and your little group perhaps mind doing an encore?” She turned to the crowd. “That is... if the rest of you wouldn’t mind?”
“More!” shouted one of the men from the back. “You have the voice of an angel!” called the cute brunette from the front row, accompanied by more applause.
I held up my hands and the audience settled down. “Thank you,” I said, scanning my brain like an iTunes library. Something mainstream, I thought. Middle of the road classic rock, like what my mom and dad used to listen to back in Seattle. Nothing heavy or too contemporary. “Bobby, Gunther, and Perry and I all really appreciate it,” I said. “We need to wrap things up, and I know the Harpers would like to get their barn back.”
I thought for a moment, and I knew just the song. I sat down, found the right key, and began playing the intro. “This last one is for someone special out there. I didn’t write it, but the person who did wrote it for somebody they cared about very much. This one’s for you.”
The boys on-stage looked at me curiously. “Fake it!” I whispered. “B-flat!” I took a deep breath and began to sing:
“It’s a little bit funny, this feeling inside...
I’m not one of those who can easily hide.
I don’t have much money, but... but if I did
I’d buy a big house where we both could live.
If I was a sculptor, but then again – no...
Or a man... who makes potions in a traveling show
I know it’s not much, but it’s the best I can do
My gift is my song, and this one’s for you.”
My fingers flew over the keys, and Bobby, Gunther, and Perry each fell in, one at a time. This wasn’t one we had rehearsed, but they knew my style well enough to be able to improvise something almost reasonable. Gunther effortlessly drew his bow across the strings, creating a perfect countermelody for the piano. Ja, I mouthed to him with a grin. He smiled back, with the kind of easygoing familiarity only experienced musicians know.
I was really firing on all cylinders now, not just channeling Elton John, but singing in full voice — and I’m sure, much to Travis’ relief — just hitting the notes straight without any embellishment. And I sang with all of my heart, closing my eyes and feeling every word, every line, as if it was a part of my life... which, looking back, I guess it was. And as I came to the end, all I could see in my mind’s eye was Travis’ handsome face.
“So excuse me forgettin’, but these things I do
You see I’ve forgotten if they’re green or they’re blue.
Anyway, the thing is... what I really mean...
Yours are the sweetest eyes I’ve ever seen.
And you can tell everybody this is your song
It may be quite simple, but now that it’s done
I hope you don’t mind,
I hope you don’t mind
that I put down in words...
How wonderful life is while you’re in the world.”
By the end, it was just the piano and the violin gracefully intertwining their chords like a playful dance, with Bobby providing just the right brushwork on the snare and cymbal. Perry glared at me; improvising on the trumpet wasn’t exactly his strong suit.
As we struck the final chords, the crowd jumped to their feet and roared their approval. After a few moments, the audience rushed the stage, and Judge Shaw pounded my back. “That was glorious, son!” he cried. “Masterful!”
“Heavenly!” said Mrs. Weeks, who dabbed her eyes, clearly affected by our performance.
“Where in tarnation did you ever learn how to dance like that?” asked the pretty brunette from the front row, who was suddenly right in my face. Apparently, my earlier Michael Jackson moonwalking move had caught a few people by surprise. She gave me a quick hug. Even though I’m gay, I can still accept a compliment from a hot girl as well as anyone, and I bowed and gave her my best imitation of an Elvis “thank ya, thank ya ver’ much.”
The stage was swamped by our new grateful fans, almost drowning me with their compliments. I looked out in the crowd and saw Travis, who had a small tear trickling down the left side of his face. He quickly brushed it away and continued clapping and smiling.
I smiled back, and gave him a private look that I hoped only he would understand. Just you wait ’till I get you alone in the barn, I thought, feeling a little surge in my groin. That’s when life will really be wonderful.
§ § § § §
“You got it? OK, guys... PUSH!”
With that, we shoved the church piano the rest of the way up the ramp onto the wagon. Even with all four of us, it had taken me and Rufus’ friends a good fifteen minutes to roll the piano out of the barn and slide it up on the makeshift platform.
There was a smell of ozone in the air — the kind you get right before a severe storm — and that uneasy feeling you get from a humid late summer night. Rufus had explained earlier that Halloween in this part of Missouri often had “mighty strange weather,” as he put it. No doubt this warm evening was the harbinger of a bad storm on its way in the days to come. I expected the temperature would drop at least 20 degrees in the next day or two.
A few stragglers stayed behind to wish us well. The parents of Bobby and my other band mates came by and thanked me for the show. I sincerely praised the boys’ work onstage, pointing out that “without a good band behind him, a singer is just a voice in a barn. But with these three and my voice... then it’s music.” The guys seemed happy with that and accepted my compliments.
Reverend Lucius Abrams suddenly loomed up, dressed in a grim black suit, then placed his hand on my shoulder and warmly grasped my hand. “You know, Jason,” he said, “we truly must have you as a soloist at the First Baptist Church. Your voice is magnificent.”
“I’m sorry, Reverend,” I said, shaking my head and looking away. “I honestly appreciate your offer — I’m honored that you’d ask me — but with my schoolwork, and my part-time job at the store, I just don’t have the time. I barely get enough sleep as it is.”
He began to squeeze my hand uncomfortably. “I really can’t take no for an answer,” he said in a low voice. “You really and truly must.”
I wrenched my hand away. “Uh... let me think about it.” I spotted Rufus and one of his helpers on the wagon, giving me a concerned look. “To tell you the truth,” I continued a little icily, “I’m actually thinking of changing churches. I believe the Gospel Hall might be able to use my services.”
Rufus’ mouth fell open. Abrams took a step back and scowled. “So you’re telling me you’d rather be at a nigra church than be with your own kind?”
I looked him right in the eye. “Where I come from, that’s not important. Maybe I’m color-blind.”
“Or very foolish. ‘The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh.’ Ecclesiastes 4:5.”
“Whatever, but I’m more partial to burgers. I’ll let you know if I change my mind.”
He glared and stormed off. I ignored him and helped Rufus secure the rope on the back of the wagon.
“You don’ wanna make an enemy of the Reverend,” he warned in a low voice. “Besides... man’s right. The Colts won’t want you comin’ to our church, either.”
“We’ll see how I feel in the morning. I’ll meet you at the church in ten minutes to tune the piano. Shouldn’t take long.”
He nodded and secured the rest of the piano in place. As I looked around for Travis and my ride home, someone tapped me on the shoulder.
“I’m Martha,” said a voice behind me.
I turned to see the pretty young brunette who’d been in the front row during our performance.
“Martha Young,” she continued breathlessly. “I thought you were ever so wonderful, Jason! You sing... you dance... and your piano performing was...”
“...good enough to get three votes to Hollywood,” I said with a grin. “Thanks. I saw you out in the audience, but we haven’t really met.”
“You’ve met my older sister Jill. She knows Faith at your school.”
I started to interrupt when a voice hollered from close behind me.
“Martha! You stop talkin’ to that idjit. Git outta here!”
I turned just as a hand spun me around and a fist smashed into my nose, momentarily stunning me. A flash of white sent me sprawling down to my knees. Dizzily, I looked up to see a slightly younger porky kid bellowing at the top of his lungs, waving his fists wildly.
“Put up yer dukes! You ain’t got no right to talk to Martha! She’s my gal!”
I wiped a warm trickle of blood from my mouth and raised a hand in protest. “Hold it, hold it,” I said, sounding slightly nasaly. “I swear I don’t even know Martha. Honestly, she’s not my type.” I started to add, “I’m actually more into cock,” but I figured that might be a little much for this crowd.
“Get up!” he hollered again. “As sure as my name is John Truman, you git up and fight like a man!”
One of the boys helped me up to my feet, and I slipped off my jacket and let it drop to the floor. Fine, I thought, a little dizzy. If I have to fight this asshole, I’ll at least make an honest stab at it. I took care of three thugs the last time; this kid doesn’t look that tough.
I shook my head to clear it, then gave my worthy opponent a once-over. The young teen was a few inches taller than me, and probably outweighed me by a good thirty pounds. His face was red and puffy, with a swarm of angry-looking pimples on one side that looked like they were on the verge of eruption.
I took a few steps forward and made a tentative jab, but he effortlessly batted my hand away. Remembering some of the boxing lessons Travis taught me back at the Colt’s farm, I began dancing to the right, then feinted with my left. Young Truman started to react but left his right side wide open, and I rocketed forward, my fist connecting on his jaw with a satisfying crunch. He reeled, then spat out some blood and narrowed his eyes. He shook with fury.
“Now you’re gonna pay.”
I began to panic. Where the hell was Travis? He had been with Mr. and Mrs. Colt only minutes before. The plan was for him to drop me off at the Gospel Hall Baptist Church, and Rufus would give me a lift home. A quick scan of the gathering crowd didn’t reveal any familiar faces.
“Mas’ Jason! You be careful, now!” called Rufus from the wagon. “You wan’, I can go get some help!”
“Figures somebody like you needs a nigger to fight his fights for ’em,” snarled Truman.
I looked over to Rufus. “Don’t worry, I can handle this jerk,” I called. “Go find Travis and tell him we need to get out of here.” I turned back to the hulking boy as I continued circling around him warily. “Listen, John Truman or whatever-the-hell your name is... I swear, I have no interest in your ‘gal,’ and I’m not here to fight with you. Can’t you get that through your thick skull?”
He swung a large fat fist, which missed my head by inches. “All I know is that Martha’s sweet on ya. You were makin’ eyes with her, singin’ her those songs for twenty minutes! You’re just makin’ trouble!”
I started to protest, but he quickly stepped forward and slammed me in the stomach — once, then twice — and gave me a good whack on the side of the head.
Christ, I thought, fighting to stay on my feet. For all I knew, this guy might be a pro boxer. Or just a lucky and highly-skilled amateur.
I staggered back and caught my breath. “Dude! Whoa! Look, I apologize if Martha liked my singing. But I want nothing to do with her! I swear! Can you accept that?”
He took another swing and I jumped backwards.
“You sayin’ she ain’t good enough for ya?” he snarled.
“No!” I said. “She’s just not for me. Date her, marry her, do whatever you want. Just leave me out of it!”
Truman swung again, only this time, I blocked his punch and smacked him good with an uppercut to the jaw. Home run! He flew up in the air a couple of inches and sprawled backwards into the dirt.
The small crowd of teenagers watching us gave me a smattering of applause. Not as good as my last performance, I thought with more than a little pride, but hey, I’ll take adulation where I can get it.
The boy lay still for a moment, then shook his head. The crowd surround us gave a little murmur.
“Truce!” I said, holding out my hand. “Honestly, I apologize if I gave... what’s her name? Martha? If I gave Martha the wrong idea, I’m sorry. I’m not here to fight, okay?”
The angry boy stared at me, then slowly held out his hand. I took it and helped him up to his feet.
“Thanks. Listen, I really have to go, and I’m sorry for the troub—”
And without warning, he suddenly lunged forward and smashed his fist into my throat with incredible force.
I was stunned and staggered backwards, then fell flat on my back. My vision swam and the crowd took a hard tilt to the left. My heart thudded in my ears. My lungs were useless: I gasped but could only make incoherent gagging and wheezing sounds. I heard someone scream to get help. Hands were on my chest, opening up my collar, pulling down my tie. I began to black out.
My vision blurred as I faded in and out of consciousness. As if in a dream, I heard a young girl sobbing hysterically. Mrs. Weeks cried out... something about getting Doc Wells. Strong hands sat me up, but my head lolled to the side. More voices. I thought I heard Travis and Lem call out, but I wasn’t sure. Then blackness.
I was prepared to just lie back and sleep for awhile. I felt very calm. It’d been a long, stressful day, and I honestly could use some rest, since I’d been up since 5:30 in the morning. I probably should’ve taken a nap in the afternoon, but there just wasn’t time. At least now, I had nothing but time... all the time in the world, really. I’d just sleep and sleep and sleep. Maybe I could fall back into the blue light inside Marsen’s Cave. If I had to die, maybe I could at least die in my own time, and not in the insanity of 1864. I began to giggle at the thought of my gravestone: Jason Zachary Thomas, born April 19, 1997 — died October 31, 1864. Try explaining that to the funeral home.
Or maybe all of this was all a dream. My thoughts became more disjointed, more unreal. I began to shiver. Maybe I wasn’t really in the past at all. Maybe I imagined the entire experience. Did it matter if I existed or not? I mean, what was the point? What is reality, anyway? Was Travis real, or was he just an erotic fantasy, like a memory of a half-glimpsed Abercrombie & Fitch model from a magazine ad? Maybe I’d open my eyes and I’d be back inside the cave in St. Louis, crushed by falling rocks. But what’s the point? It was easier just to let go. My muscles went limp and I sank into oblivion, and felt a sense of peace and calm wrap around me like a comfortable blanket.
Suddenly, I felt a sharp piercing pain, as if I was being stabbed. The pain was distant, almost like it was happening to someone else, but I felt a twinge of a rhythmic sawing motion as if someone was trying to carve out a hole. Strong hands pushed my chest, and muffled voices shouted. Seconds later, I gulped a blast of deliciously cold air, and my eyelids fluttered. I saw a vague image of a man with a black hat and mustache, leaning over my face and yelling at me.
“I said BREATHE! Come on, son! Now! I beg of you!”
I began to cough and choke as I hungrily sucked in air. My head was swimming. Several hands reached out and sat me up, and I stared down at the front of my shirt, which was drenched with blood. Had I been shot? Was this my blood? I looked like a member of the cast of True Blood on a bad day.It seemed hilarious that my entire shirt front was now as red as my dangling bow tie, and I started to laugh, only it came out as a choking, gurgling sound.
“That’s it!” a familiar voice cried. “Keep breathing, Jason! You’ll be all right, son. Listen to me: it’s Doctor Wells. I’ve had to give you an emergency tracheotomy, but the worst is over. You weren’t unconscious for more than a couple of minutes. I’m going to stop the bleeding now.”
“Whaaaaa...” I wheezed. My voice was hoarse, an unrecognizable whisper. “I can’t... my voice...”
“I’m sorry, Jason,” he said, wrapping my throat with bandages. “I had to cut into your windpipe, just above the sternum. It was the only way you could breathe.”
My heart froze and my eyes opened wide. “But...” I croaked. “I need to sing...”
“Let’s get you home,” Dr. Wells said, his face coming into focus. “You need rest. And let me get this dressing taken care of. We have to be careful of infection as long as this wound stays open. You’ll have a scar, but at least you’re alive, thank God.”
I was in shock. My neck was throbbing, partly from being punched, partly from this 18th-century hack slashing my throat. And he’s probably damaged my vocal chords. As my chest rose and fell, I heard a low whistling sound, and realized all my air was coming in from my throat, not my mouth or nose. It made a peculiar sound, as the flap of flesh vibrated in time with my breathing.
I slowly began to realize the truth: I’ll never sing again. My voice is shot. No matter what, it’ll never be the way it used to be. My life, my whole career in music, everything I’ve ever worked for, has been taken away in five seconds.
They should’ve just let me die.
Tears began streaming down my face, but not a sound came from my lips, which quivered with sorrow and fear.
“Don’t worry, Jason,” soothed Mrs. Colt, who was cradling my head in her lap, clasping my forehead, choking back tears. “You just sleep now. Please — everything will be all right.”
I hated her. I hated this world and everybody in it. I just wanted to die.
I closed my eyes and let them lift me up and into the back of the Colt’s wagon. We rumbled down the Old Country Road. I swayed with the wheels as they clattered through the mud and just prayed for this horrible nightmare to be over.
excerpt from “I Won’t Last a Day Without You”
by Roger Nichols and Paul Williams
©1973 Almo Music, Inc. (ASCAP)
All rights reserved.
excerpt from “God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You”
by Evan Rogers and Carl Sturken
©1999 Bayjum Beat Music/Universal Music (BMI)
All rights reserved.
excerpt from “Breaking Free”
words and music by James Houston
©2006 Walt Disney Music Company (ASCAP)
All rights reserved.
excerpt from “Your Song”
by Elton John and Bernie Taupin
©1970 Universal Music Publishing Group (PRS)
All rights reserved.
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