Liz Morgan slipped into the orchestra pit at the last minute. Hands and fingers flickered over passages from Magic Flute, and she encouraged a few notes from her own instrument. The random practice stilled, gave way to a single note from the oboist. The strings, followed by the winds, descended into a whirl of tuning. After a few moments, the busy hum coalesced into a second simmering silence. The house lights faded, and the conductor, slim and dapper, came to the podium amid applause. He turned and raised his baton. A third silence, the final phrase of incantation, settled over the hall.
Poised with her flute at her lips, Liz felt the gathering of energy: an indrawn breath, and then, in the charged void, sudden sound. Music. She felt the first isolated chord of the overture under her sternum. Slowly the strings approached the allegro, and then they were off, passing the theme from one section to another, now in the trebles, now in the basses. Her line rose in smooth counterpoint to the orchestra. Notes pulsed in measured perfection, binding together voices of reed and shaft and string.
The curtain opened, and the singers commanded the audience’s attention. By the end of the second act perspiration stained the soprano’s costume, dripped off the tenor’s face. In spite of the heat Liz shivered. Anticipation prickled in her solar plexus as the violins meandered toward her big moment. She wiped the sweat from her lower lip and raised her flute, ready with the passage long ago burned into her muscle memory. She placed her solo deliberately on the restrained brass accompaniment. Her instrument’s primitive voice wove enchantment around the singers.
At the end of the opera, taking her solo bow, it occurred to Liz that perhaps Titus was right about her ego.
The applause over, Liz began her descent to the commonplace. She cleaned her flute and put it to bed in its case. Calling good night to her colleagues, she headed for her car.
The sun had set, but unseasonable heat still shimmered over the city. Liz walked slowly, noting the quivering stars. Stimulating, exhausting, the energy still cycled through her, seeking release. She wouldn’t sleep for hours yet.
She unlocked the passenger door of her green Sirocco, tossed in her book bag, and set the flute case on the floor. As she started around to the driver’s side someone called to her.
“Hey, Lizzie.” Titus ambled up, swinging his trumpet case lightly.
“Hey, Titus. Quit calling me that.” She leaned against the car. “Where were you?”
He settled himself next to her. “Talking to people. You were excellent.”
“If we had to do opera, at least it was Mozart.”
Titus laughed. “You don’t mind. You and your big solo.”
“Why settle for being some no-name second chair?”
“Ha. In five years you’ll be teaching kids in the suburbs.”
“You’re so wrong.” She tugged his white-blond ponytail. “I’m going to play with all the major orchestras, wait and see.”
“Man, ever since that master class with Galway you’ve lost your mind. Didn’t anybody tell you? Wind players don’t get big solo careers.”
“So I’ll be different. You know what he said.”
“You should be a singer. Sure got the ego for it.”
“Have you got a problem with that?” she snapped. He always led her into this trap, his banter gradually penetrating her optimism, even on a satisfying night like this.
“Hey, I’m just keeping your feet on the ground.”
“When I want you to do that I’ll ask.”
He grinned. “Come on, don’t get all huffy on me.”
She glowered at him.
He set his trumpet case on the ground and leaned closer. “Coming over? You’re so sexy, nights like this.”
“Not tonight,” she said. “History final’s tomorrow. Thank God that class is over.”
“You know that stuff cold. Come on, you’ll be in England all summer.”
“Wales,” she corrected automatically. “Maybe. I haven’t even called my aunt yet. And I have to be back in time for Cazadero in July.”
“Thought you weren’t going to teach up there anymore.”
She shrugged. “They need somebody for second session. It’s money. Besides, I like it up there. You can really see the stars.” She leaned back and gazed at the sky again. “You know, what we played tonight won’t reach the stars for years.”
“You’re thinking of light.”
“Sound moves in waves too.”
“Not the same. Doesn’t travel where there’s no atmosphere.”
“I don’t care. I think all the great music is up there somewhere; it never really ends.”
“You’re such a kid.”
She stuck her tongue out, annoyed with him all over again.
He laughed and reached for his trumpet case. “How about tomorrow night?”
“I don’t know. My roommates will be out, so I’ll have a little time to work on the Boccherini.”
“You’re gonna die alone if you don’t get out sometimes.”
“Maybe I’ll come by later, like around nine?”
He pushed his chin out in assent. “There’s my ride. I’m takin’ off. Good show, Liz.”
“You too. G’night.”
They kissed, and she got into her car. From the scrambled cassettes in the backseat she pulled a recent practice tape and poked it into the player. The mercury smoothness of her flute, underlaid with pinpoints of lute music, filled the little car. A favorite passage danced by, faintly punctuated by the squeak of fingers moving along strings, but the tape began to squeal. She punched Eject, but the metallic ribbon stretched and snapped. Sighing, she tossed it on the seat next to her.
As she merged onto the freeway her mind slipped back over the night’s work. Despite her complaint to Titus about opera, she loved every note of the laughing, enigmatic score of Die Zauberflöte. Her LP of the 1959 Covent Garden cast now popped and crackled from age and use; Liz knew every passage, every nuance. It kept her mother’s voice alive.
How on earth could her mother have given it up to get married? She could never do that for Titus.
Titus. She whistled lightly through her teeth, reconsidering. Maybe she would just show up tonight after all and surprise him. She smiled to herself and changed lanes. She made every green light as she cruised down Army Street. As she approached Dolores something caught her eye and sent a little twinge through her gut: A car a block away, silhouetted against the twilight, headlights dark, its trajectory jerky and erratic as it approached.
“Drunk,” Liz muttered. She glanced over her shoulder and signaled, but the car at her right bumper sped up.
The car was almost on her now, lurching into her lane. Panicking, Liz jammed down the accelerator, but as she shot by the car to her right and tried to move into the lane in front of it, her car fishtailed sharply, clipped by the drunk driver weaving past on her left. The Sirocco skidded sideways into the oncoming traffic. The steering wheel snapped out of her hands. Hurled against the door, she couldn’t move, couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t scream. Smoky friction burned in her mouth and nose. The infuriated blast of a horn filled her head. A pair of headlights slammed into the passenger door and drove her into a telephone pole, shattering sound and light.
A pulse of red intruded. Slowly, Liz opened her eyes. The hood of a yellow Mustang was jammed into her passenger seat, one headlight burning holes in her retina. The sickly sweet smell of engine oil slicked the air.
She started to sit up, but her stomach roiled and pain assaulted her left side, and she fell back again. The crushed driver’s door seemed molded to her body. Her left arm was caught fast in a gash in the steel, from her hand almost to her elbow. She didn’t dare try to push herself up. She must be bleeding; there was blood on her sleeve, in her lap, in the shower of safety glass around her. Clutching the dashboard with her right hand, she looked up through the opening where the windshield had been. Two cops, their faces looking like radar blips in the throbbing red lights, raced across the street.
They’ve got to get my flute out before they tow the car. I’m playing tomorrow.
A fuzzy sensation, like blood returning to a limb that has fallen asleep, pressed against her eyes, her throat—the grayness of unconsciousness.