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The Dangling Conversation

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Dear Susan,

Hi, how are you? I’m okay. I hope you are, too. I hope you don’t mind if I write you sometimes. You’re still my mate, even though you don’t live here anymore. Your mum said school has already started for you. She told my mum that you’re taking lots of music classes. I don’t know why – you already play the piano really, really good. Have you learned any new songs yet? Do you think you might learn to play another instrument? I take violin lessons. Maybe when you’re home next, we could play something together.

Your friend,
James

 

When James Hobart is eight years old, he crosses Bradford Court and walks right up to his neighbor’s house, glancing at the front door with uncertainty. Just as he’s about to reach up and ring the bell, the door swings open, revealing a tall, plump figure.

“Oh!” the lady cries, looking down with surprise.

“Hullo,” James replies hesitantly. He swallows hard, clutching the envelope he holds with clammy fingers. “I’m James Hobart, from across the street?” He feels a faint blush spreading across his cheeks, suddenly wondering if this was such a good idea after all.

A flicker of recognition crosses the lady’s face, and her expression warms. “Of course, James,” she says, stepping over the threshold and bringing the door back into its frame behind her. “It’s lovely to see you again! What can I do for you on this fine afternoon?”

She looks like she’s going out to run errands, and James doesn’t want to bother her. “Well, Mrs. Felder, I was wondering if it would be okay…” His words trail off as he averts his eyes, gazing at the envelope he clutches, worrying the corner of it under one of his thumbs. “Do you think I could write to Susan at her new school? Would she like that? I miss her sometimes, and maybe we could be pen friends.”

Mrs. Felder stares at him for a moment, taking in his hopeful expression. “I’m not sure Susan would be able to write back,” she says slowly, as if she’s measuring her words.

“Ever?” James furrows his brow, drawing his lower lip between his teeth as he sinks into thought. “That’s okay,” he continues finally, more to himself than to Susan’s mother. “I’d still like to write to her. I know how hard it is to be the new kid somewhere. My mum said I should ask you first, though, and besides, I need her address.”

Mrs. Felder dabs at her eyes, fumbling in her purse and withdrawing a tissue. “I think that would be fine, James,” she replies. “I think she’d like that very much.”

James is unprepared when she suddenly sweeps him into a hug; her embrace is startling, but at the same time, strangely comforting. “You’re very thoughtful,” she whispers a moment later when she lets him go. “And very sweet, for thinking of Susan.”

I know how hard it is to be lonely, James thinks wistfully, glancing at the envelope once again. All four corners are beginning to curl. He wrote the letter a week ago, and carries it with him every day, trying to muster the courage to send it. He has new friends now, other friends from his class and his neighborhood: Nicky Pike, Myriah Perkins, Charlotte Johansson, Becca Ramsey.

But still, he thinks of Susan, and a little piece of him worries for her.

“I have an idea,” Mrs. Felder announces, still dabbing at the corners of her eyes with her tissue. “Why don’t we mail this letter together? Today.” She reaches into her purse again, this time taking out a pen and an old slip of paper. “I’ll write the address on this letter, and then I’ll give you a copy of it, how’s that?”

“Okay!” James nods, his hesitation gone. He follows her a few paces to one of the wicker chairs on her front porch, and watches thoughtfully as she fills in Susan’s address on the worn and wrinkled envelope. Her handwriting is smooth and easy, in stark contrast to his messy, labored lettering. She then prints the same information on the slip of paper and gives it to him.

They walk together down the sidewalk that runs in front of the Felders’ home, to the corner of Bradford Court, where a shiny blue post office mail box sits beside the newspaper dispensers. James eases open the shoot and Mrs. Felder drops the letter in.

“When do you think she’ll get it?” James wonders, frowning as he stares at the label detailing the pickup and delivery times.

“Next week, probably,” Mrs. Felder predicts.

James turns and smiles, feeling lighter and happier than he has all week. “Good,” he replies firmly. “I don’t want her to think I’ve forgotten about her.”

~*~

Dear Susan,

Hi, how are you? I’m okay. I hope you are, too. Do you remember the play I was telling you about? The one I wrote? It stars Chewbacca, the Perkins’ dog. He’s a lost puppy at the mall, and Myriah is trying to find his owner. It’s a really good play – only Zach doesn’t think so. He’s been mean to me lately, telling me I shouldn’t play with girls. How dumb is that? Myriah and Gabbie are lots of fun. So are Margo and Claire Pike. I wish you could’ve met them before you left. They would’ve been your friends in an instant, unlike dumb old Zach. Sometimes I wonder if I still want to be friends with him.

Do you have any friends at school? I hope so. I also hope you’re getting along with them better than I am with Zach right now.

Oh, well. Everyone else really likes the play, even my older brother Ben! It’s been really exciting. Maybe I can send you a tape of our next performance. I think you’d really enjoy it, even though there isn’t any music.

Talk to you soon,
Your friend always,
James

 

When James Hobart is nine years old, he’s playing in his front yard with his younger brothers, Mathew and Johnny. Both of his parents are at work, and his older brother Ben is studying at the library with Mallory Pike, so they have a baby-sitter.

But that’s okay – James and his brothers like their baby-sitters. Especially Kristy. She’s always full of fun ideas, and she really likes sports. She was also Susan’s steady baby-sitter last year, so James feels a special kinship with her. He wonders, sometimes, if she thinks about Susan as much as he does, but he’s too shy to ask.

They’re all engaged in a rousing game of freeze tag when James notices a car pulling into the Felders’ driveway across the street. He stops and stares, his heart suddenly hammering in his chest. He doesn’t even notice when Mathew tags him, gleefully shouting, “Got you!” but it doesn’t matter anyway – he’s frozen in his spot, game or no game.

“I wonder what’s going on?” Kristy muses aloud, slowing to a stop near where James is standing. She watches, too, as Mr. Felder exits the car and walks around, opening the passenger’s side door. Mrs. Felder steps out, carrying a blanket-wrapped bundle. Her husband quickly closes the car door behind her, and the two of them slowly begin to walk towards the front of the house, their eyes pinned to whatever it is that Mrs. Felder is holding.

James feels a strange sense of disappointment as he eyes their car, realizing there is no one else waiting to get out.

“Mrs. Felder! Mrs. Felder!” Kristy calls out, waving her arms to get their attention. Mathew and Johnny have abandoned the game as well, falling into place near their brother and their baby-sitter, and all of them keenly gaze across the street.

The Felders turn just as they reach their front door. They talk for a minute between themselves, and Mr. Felder opens the door for his wife before turning back and bounding down the front steps. “Kristy!” he booms, waving back. “Great to see you again!”

“What’s going on?” Kristy asks, her voice carrying loud and clear across the street. James glances up at her, admiring her ability to loudly speak her mind.

Mr. Felder is out of breath as he darts across Bradford Court, inhaling and exhaling sharply as he stands on the sidewalk in front of the Hobart house. “We’ve – ” he tries, breaking into a grin as he breathes deeply once more. He pauses, catches his breath, and grins again.

“We’ve had the baby!” he announces, sweeping his arms out in a proud, excited gesture.

Kristy’s face lights up. “Congratulations!” she cries, grabbing up Mathew’s and Johnny’s hands, as if they’ll anchor her to the ground. “That’s wonderful news! Oh, wait until I tell the others!”

“What baby?” Mathew asks, squinting as he gazes up at Mr. Felder.

“Hope,” Mr. Felder replies proudly, resting his hands on his hips. “Hope Grace Felder, our brand new baby girl.” His eyes begin to look teary. “Our miracle,” he says in a softer tone of voice.

James frowns. Their miracle? He’s happy for them, and happy for Susan, too – now she’s a big sister, just like he’s a big brother – but something in Mr. Felder’s words rubs him the wrong way. He glances at Kristy, wondering if she picked up on it, too.

Kristy, however, is absolutely ecstatic. “I can’t wait to see her!” she says. “You know, Mr. Felder, if you ever need a baby-sitter, you can always give the BSC a call. We’ve all had Red Cross child care training, and we took the special infant course they offer as well. There’s no one better prepared to take care of your baby than us!”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Mr. Felder replies with a wry smile. “Right now, though, I think I’d better get back. My wife has had an exhausting few days, and I want to spend time with her and our new daughter before my time away from work is up.”

But what about your old daughter? James wonders, his expression falling into a scowl as he watches Mr. Felder wave goodbye and jog back to his side of the street. Does she even know yet?

“Isn’t this exciting?” Kristy exclaims, gathering James and his brothers and herding them back into the yard. Mathew and Johnny rush forward, keen to pick up their game once more, but James lingers behind, his expression still clouded. Kristy slows her step, waiting for him to catch up with her.

“What’s on your mind, James?” she asks, throwing an arm across his shoulders.

“Susan,” he admits, so lost in thought that he completely misses the surprised look on Kristy’s face. “Do you think the Felders have told her yet? About Hope, I mean?”

Kristy clears her throat. “Of course they have,” she replies, giving him a supportive squeeze. “In fact, I’ll bet they’re going to bring the baby up for a visit really soon, so Susan can meet her.”

James shrugs. He isn’t so sure. He knows how hard it is to have younger siblings, especially at first. He remembers how jealous he felt with Mathew was born, how much he feared that the new baby would take his parents’ attention away from him. Susan would probably feel the same way, and she was all alone at her school. She might even feel neglected, if she knew her parents had a miracle baby to fuss over now.

“Hey,” Kristy says, catching James’s attention once more. “You know what would be a really good idea? Maybe you could write to Susan and tell her what it’s like to have a new baby around.”

James squints up at her. “You think I should?”

Kristy nods. “You’re an old pro at this by now, with two younger brothers.” She ruffles his hair. “I know I wish someone had told me about new siblings when I was a kid – boy, are they a lot of work!”

James looks across the yard at Mathew and Johnny, who’ve given up waiting on the others and are gleefully chasing each other around instead. “Yeah,” he agrees, a smile rising to his lips, “but they’re a lot of fun, too.”

~*~

Dear Susan,

Hi, how are you? I’m okay. I hope you are, too. We’re back home in Australia!!!!!!!!!!! I can hardly believe it. It’s so, so awesome. I’ve missed this place so much. We’ve visited lots of family and friends and my mates and I have been to the beach every day, just like old times. This postcard is from Queensland, see? It has a really cool picture of the Great Barrier Reef on the back. You’d love it here, Susan! Maybe one day you can visit and see it for yourself. Well, I’m running out of room, so I’ll stop here.

Longer Letter Later!! James

 

When James Hobart is eleven years old, he’s invited to a Valentine’s Day party. It’s not just any Valentine’s Day party, with cakes and candies and homemade cards stuffed in makeshift mailboxes. Oh, no – this is a bona fide school dance, where boys are supposed to dress up in their finest clothes, pin flowers to the lapels of their jackets, and bring corsages for their dates.

Or so James thinks.

As he glances around the crowded gymnasium of Stoneybrook Middle School, he realizes just how wrong he is – and he begins to feel foolish.

He sighs as he clutches a paper cup full of punch, slinking into the shadows of the room. He’s obviously overdressed, wearing his best black suit with a bright red polo shirt, a matching carnation attached to his lapel, while everyone else wears slightly nicer versions of school clothes – khaki pants and button-down shirts, denim skirts with pretty blouses. He was too shy to ask a girl to be his date, so he stands alone in the corner now, staring down into his candy red punch, feeling hot and stuffy and miserable – and alone.

If I were back in Cairns right now, he thinks, tugging at the hem of his polo shirt, it’d be eighty-eight degrees outside. I’d be at the beach with my friends, laughing and playing and having a good time in the ocean. He thinks back to his family’s trip back to Australia at the beginning of the year, and a dull, hollow ache spreads across his chest. He misses it more than he realized. Life seems so uncomplicated back home, and right now, he desperately wishes he was still there. He’d give anything to be lying out in the warm, sparkling sand, breathing in the fresh ocean breeze, dances and dates and girls the furthest thing from his mind.

It’s not that he doesn’t like girls – he just doesn’t seem to be as fascinated with them as his friends are. Zach Wolfson likes to brag about going out with a seventh grader at every opportunity. Nicky Pike dissolves into a bumbling mess any time Charlotte Johansson is nearby. Jake Kuhn trails after Lindsey DeWitt like a lost puppy. And Buddy Barrett can’t talk about anything else – or to anyone else, it seems. James glances to his left, where Buddy is holding court, standing in the middle of a circle of giggling girls, telling some wild story with lots of big, expressive gestures.

James’s eyes float over the crowded room. For as big a deal as his friends made about bringing dates to the dance, it sure doesn’t seem that way now. The girls have gathered on one side of the gym, venturing out on the dance floor in packs but otherwise ignoring the boys. The boys, with the exception of Buddy, are doing the same, standing near the refreshments and making disgusting jokes amongst themselves, or daring each other to dance with the girls they brought as dates.

Not for the first time, James wishes Susan was there – not only would having her around take the pressure off about “having a date,” but he’d have someone to actually pass the time with, now that he’s here. It’s one thing for his friends to abandon their dates, too shy to actually dance with the girls they admired so much, but it’s quite another for them to forget that he’s there, too. At least with Susan, he wouldn’t be standing alone in the corner, like a wallflower.

Just as he’s about to give up, head for the lobby and call his mom for an early ride home, someone walks into his field of vision.

“Hi, James,” Carolyn Arnold says shyly, taking a step closer to him. She’s dressed in a trendy outfit, an oversized off-the-shoulder red blouse and matching red skirt. Barrettes in the shapes of hearts tame her short, curly hair. Her cheeks are about as red as her clothes as she gazes up at him, pulling her lower lip between her teeth.

“Hi,” James manages to reply, over his own feelings of surprise. Watching her blush is making him blush as well, though he is slightly bewildered as to why. He notices that her hands are tucked behind her, and suddenly, his heart starts thumping again.

“I, um,” she begins, flushing even harder as she averts her eyes, “I made this for you.” She pulls out a card from behind her back, pressing it into his hands before he realizes what is happening. She takes a step back as he looks down at it. The card is made of heavy pink card stock folded in half, a bright red heart emblazoned on the front with a cute invitation to open it up. He’s momentarily surprised when he does, and another heart jumps out at him, springing forward from a pleated strip of construction paper. He takes a closer look at this heart, which has something printed very neatly on its front:


Roses are red,
Violets are blue
I think you’re sweet,
And pretty cute, too!


James swallows hard as he contemplates the poem, feeling all of the blood in his head flooding his face as he blushes right down to the roots of his reddish gold hair. “Thank you,” he sputters, his voice sounding strange in his own ears, and he wonders for a moment if that’s what he’s supposed to say. He likes the card, but he feels very overwhelmed all the same.

He glances back to Carolyn, relieved to see a huge smile spreading across her face. “You’re welcome,” she returns, sounding far more confident than he feels. She takes another step forward, reaching for one of his hands. “Would you like to dance?”

James can hear his heart pounding in his ears. The skin of his hand prickles with electricity when she touches him, and suddenly it’s very hard to breathe in her presence. His immediate instinct is to run, but instead he finds himself replying, “Yes.” There’s just something about her smile that captivates him, and banishes all other thoughts from his mind as he follows her out onto the dance floor.

That night, his dreams are filled with red and silver, hearts and flowers, and Carolyn Arnold’s happy grin.

~*~

Dear Susan,

Hi. How are you? I’m okay. I hope you are, too. I hope your summer is going better than mine right now. I’m into week six of having this broken leg, and I’m about to go out of my mind with boredom. I can only read so many books and watch so much TV, you know? But one thing has made all of this totally bearable – my friends. They are really cool. Near the end of July, after my second reconstructive surgery, they threw me a ‘Christmas in July’ celebration. Can you believe that?! With a Christmas tree and everything! I got loads of games and books and things to keep me busy – and my parents even splurged and bought me the new PS2. I think my brothers have played it just as much as I have, haha.

If you were here, we’d totally have to have a Dynasty Warriors party. I know you’d enjoy it.

I hope life is treating you well.

Your friend always,
James

 

When James Hobart is fifteen years old, he breaks his leg during a pickup football game. He’s playing with his brother Mathew and his friend Nicky Pike, and all it takes is one wrong-footed step – which turns into a slide, which lands him at the bottom of a pile over the fumbled ball – to ruin his summer for good. He breaks his leg in two places, which requires not one, but two rounds of surgery (to insert pins and screws in his knee and ankle, respectively). He can’t climb stairs with his heavy cast or crutches, which necessitates a semi-permanent move into the family room on the first floor of his house. He spends most of his time during the day being bored and miserable – he’s read all of the books in the house, even the boring ones; daytime TV is full of reruns from the ’50s and inane soap operas; and he’s beaten all of the video games his brothers have rented for his new console.

He’s taken to staring out the window, watching the world go by as the endless summer days pass, and to writing letters to Susan.

He stares down at the letter he’s just finished, twisting his mouth into a grim line. He’s written her on a fairly consistently basis over the course of the last seven years, filling her in on the ups and downs of his life. He’s sent her postcards from his vacations, letters from summer camp, and holiday cards. He’s sent her funny thinking-of-you cards, letters scrawled on lined paper torn from his school notebooks, and even once made her a Valentine, copying the design of the card Carolyn Arnold had given him back in sixth grade. He couldn’t remember the poem he’d written to go along with it, but it doesn’t really matter now.

Mostly, he wonders why he still does it. She’s never once written him back. There’s never been any indication that she even receives his letters, much less reads them. But still, he persists. Now that his days are reduced to little more than letter-writing, he’s starting to question his commitment to this cause.

He still thinks of Susan quite often. It’s hard not to, living across the street from her parents. Her sister, Hope, is six now, and she likes to play in her front yard, usually under the watchful eye of her mother or a baby-sitter. Sometimes they join her, to have a tea party or toss around a baseball, but more often than not, she’s out there by herself, rollerblading in the driveway, or chatting out loud to an imaginary friend. Sometimes, if James ventures out onto his front porch in the afternoon, she’ll call over to him, inviting him to join in one of her all-encompassing imaginary worlds, even from across the street. She likes to pretend she’s a Power Ranger, or She-Ra, or an explorer on an ocean vessel deep under the sea. He’s amazed when he listens to her play, and a little jealous that her imagination is so full and lush that it easily spills out into the world around her.

He thinks of Susan, and how she never connected to her environment, and it saddens him.

James glances at his watch and realizes its lunchtime. He’s not feeling very hungry, but he decides to eat anyway. He stands up, leaning on one of his crutches for support, and slowly hobbles down the hall to the kitchen. His mother keeps fresh sandwiches in the fridge for him, so he pulls one out, along with a bottle of juice, and settles himself at the kitchen table to eat.

He glances out the window as he picks at his food, noting with a smile that Hope Felder is already outside, chattering to herself and her imaginary friend as she builds mud pies from a pit of dirt in her sandbox. She works diligently, scooping the sand into disposable pie tins and mixing it messily with water from a bucket sitting nearby, before lining them down the side of the sandbox. She seems happy and cheerful, completely wrapped up in whatever she’s playing at – being a famous pastry chef, perhaps? – and watching her is entertaining, for the moment, at least.

He’s never accepted one of Hope’s invitations to play. It’s not because he’s fifteen, a mighty teenager too old to play with little kids. It’s not because of his crutches or his cast, or because he’s afraid of being hit by a car before he can hobble to the other side of the street. It’s not even because he feels shy or prefers his own company.

It’s because Hope is the spitting image of Susan. She has the same chestnut brown hair, the same carefully arranged features, the same tall, thin build. It’s as if he’s looking at the child Susan could have been, if she wasn’t sick – the kind of friend he so desperately wanted when he first moved to Stoneybrook, and the friend he’d secretly hoped she could become. She was so special, and yet so closed off from him.

He tries to resent Hope for being everything her sister couldn’t be, but he can’t.

He tries to forget about Susan, to break his nonsensical habit of writing to her…but he can’t.

He wanders back into the family room, lowering himself with a sigh onto the sofa and reaching for the TV remote. He’s just settling in for a long, boring afternoon of TV when the doorbell rings.

He freezes, flipping the TV off and sitting in silence to make sure he didn’t imagine it.

The doorbell rings again.

James maneuvers himself up and onto his crutches, his heart hammering in his chest as he makes his way towards the front door. He can’t imagine who would be there. His friends always call before they come over; no one is expecting any packages, and he’s fairly certain that criminals don’t announce their presence. So it’s with much wariness that he opens the door – and surprise when he realizes who’s there.

“Mrs. Felder!” he cries, blinking rapidly. He glances over her shoulder, only to see Hope still playing happily in the side yard, now accompanied by a baby-sitter. He looks back at his neighbor, registering the distraught expression on her face. “Is everything okay?”

Mrs. Felder searches his features for a long moment, looking stricken. “Yes,” she finally says, her voice heavy with emotion. She gathers herself, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. When she looks at him, however, he’s struck with the same fear that nearly bowled him over when he answered the door.

“I’m sorry to barge over here like this,” she apologizes, “but I just have to ask you something.” She heaves another deep breath before continuing. “This might sound odd, but…are you still writing to my daughter? To Susan?”

Her tone is sharp, but not accusatory. James’s heart is in his throat now, feeling the heat of an embarrassed flush crawling up the back of his neck. Should he confess? Should he deny? Why did it matter anyway – and why was she bringing it up now, of all possible times?

He thinks back to the letter he’s just finished, and decides it’s a little too creepy to be coincidental.

“Yes?” he ventures, hating the way his voice ends in a squeak. “Is that okay?” He braces himself, gripping the bars of his crutches and hoping she’ll take pity on him. He’s never meant to overstep an unseen boundary. He knows the Felders are very protective of Susan, but then, so is he. He still considers her a friend, after all. Besides, no one ever told him to stop, so he didn’t, even if he feels guilty about it now.

Mrs. Felder’s expression melts into a wobbly smile. “It’s okay,” she says, her voice trembling as she unexpectedly throws her arms around him. She catches him off-guard, and he struggles to stay upright and on his crutches. “It’s more than okay.”

“I don’t understand,” James stammers, feeling helpless as Mrs. Felder continues to hug him. When she pulls away, he’s shocked to see tears streaming down her cheeks.

“I think this will explain everything,” she replies, wiping her face with one hand as she pulls an envelope out of her pocket with the other. She offers it up to him as if it’s a precious, holy object. As he reaches for it, she speaks again, almost cryptically: “And James? I just wanted to say – thank you.”

James nods as he takes the envelope, turning it over in his hand. His eyes widen and his chest goes numb when he realizes what he holds. Oh, my God, he thinks to himself, his eyes rising and following Mrs. Felder’s retreating back.

No wonder she’s so emotional. No wonder she rushed straight over to him. No wonder she turns after she crosses the street, sending a little wave and a smile back in his direction.

After years of diligent correspondence – just as he’s reached his breaking point, thinking he should give it up for good –

Susan writes him back.

~*~

Dear James,

Hi. How are you? I’m okay. I hope you are too.

Thank you very much for your letters. I have read each and every one of them. They mean a great deal to me. Thank you for writing to me so often. It is fun hearing about your family and your friends. I liked the postcard you sent me from Australia very much. I also liked the Valentine card. It is very pretty.

I think of you often, too. I am very happy that you are my friend. I hope I see you when I come home to Stoneybrook. That will be in December, at Christmas-time. If not, then I hope you will come here next year. We are having a recital in May at my school. I am playing the piano.

I would very much like to see you. You are a good friend. Nobody else in Stoneybrook writes to me, only my parents and you. It means a lot to me that you still write and tell me about your life. It seems you are great fun.

Your friend always,
Susan

 

When James Hobart is sixteen years old, he is invited to the year-end recital at the Stamford Alternative Academy. He not only receives the ornate invitation from the school in the mail, but he also receives a hand-written note from Susan, telling him about the concert and inviting him backstage beforehand.

He reads her letters over and over again until the pages are worn, still a little bit amazed to be holding them at all. Her handwriting is neat, printed, controlled with a firm hand, as if she puts a lot of thought into each stroke of her pen. Her grasp of grammar and vocabulary is childlike, but Mrs. Felder informs him that is to be expected. She communicates like most language-delayed children; they are happy that she communicates at all.

He spends most of the hour-long ride to Stamford trying to untangle the nervous knot that’s lodged in his stomach. The Felders offer to drive him, but he declines, begging his parents to allow him to drive up there by himself instead. It takes a lot of wheedling and cajoling, but they finally cave, granting him permission.

He arrives early, gliding into the half-empty parking lot behind the school. He checks his watch as he climbs out of his mother’s car. Thirty minutes should be plenty of time to find her, he thinks to himself, lifting his eyes to the imposing stone-walled building. At least, I hope so.

He walks around to the front of the building, his eyes trained skyward as he marvels at this place Susan has called home for half of her life. It’s ornate and imposing, a large, five-story building in Gothic style. It looks more like a cathedral than a school, and James feels goosebumps rising on his skin as he pushes through the heavy oak doors. The inside is just as cavernous as he expects, but luckily, there are discreet little signs posted throughout the hallways, directing visitors to the auditorium.

He nods to the ushers who have appeared in the corridors as he gets closer to his destination, taking a program from one as he walks into the concert space. It’s surprisingly small, given the size of the rest of the building, and it’s filling up rather quickly. Families and guests mill about, a low din of conversation filling the room and echoing against the acoustic tiles.

He continues down one of the aisles to the front of the room, looking both ways as he slips into the wings near the stage. He’s surprised to see so many people hustling about, and for a moment, he thinks he’s going to be dismissed, sent back into the audience like a good concertgoer. He swallows his apprehension, however, clutching his program between clammy fingers as he approaches someone who looks like she’s in charge.

“Can you direct me to Susan Felder, please?” he asks, his voice sounding surprisingly calm in his own ears.

The woman looks at him, her eyes narrowing in assessment before brightening again. “Are you James Hobart?” she inquires, tapping her pen against the clipboard she holds. When he nods, she turns on her heel, pointing down the corridor behind her. “She’s in the far practice room – end of the hall, go to the left.”

He smiles gratefully, hurrying down the hall she indicates. It eases his mind a little bit to know that someone had to approve of his presence backstage – he can relax, knowing he doesn’t have to constantly look over his shoulder or worry about being caught. And, as he walks down the hall, he sees other people hanging around, family members and friends offering last-minute bits of encouragement.

He reaches his destination and stops short, his heart pumping furiously in his chest. He’s imagined this moment ever since receiving her invitation, but he’s nervous all the same, not sure what to expect. Mrs. Felder has already warned him that Susan still doesn’t speak, but now his mind’s eye fills with all of the other things she used to do – running around aimlessly, staring fixedly into space, clicking and rocking and flapping her arms.

This is the moment when his illusions will be shattered, and not for the first time does he wonder if he wants to let go of them and see her, the real her, after all this time.

He closes his eyes. What other choice does he have?

The room is quiet when he pushes open the door. James draws a sharp breath. Susan sits at the piano, her hands poised over the keys. She stares straight ahead, even though there is no music. She is perfectly still, a statue frozen in time, but he doesn’t notice this, at first.

No, what he sees is a beautiful young woman, tall and slim and long-limbed, dressed in a white blouse and black skirt. Her chestnut-colored hair falls in waves over her shoulders, pulled back loosely with a white ribbon, into a ponytail that ends halfway down her back. She sits in profile to him, her complexion smooth and creamy, her lips the color of a peach. His eyes fall to her fingers, long and tapered where they lay against the piano keys, and he swallows hard.

“Susan?” he says softly.

She doesn’t respond. She doesn’t even look in his direction.

He clears his throat. “Susan?” he tries again, taking a step closer, letting the door fall into place behind him. “It’s me.”

Still she sits, staring straight ahead, the only movement that of her chest, rising and falling under her soft, steady breath.

He bites his lip, taking another step, resting his hand hesitantly on the top of the piano. “Susan,” he says again, a bit louder this time, “it’s James. James Hobart, your friend from Stoneybrook.”

His stomach knots up again when she fails to acknowledge him, and suddenly he feels tears welling behind his eyes. How is it that he can connect with her through his letters, but she can’t seem to sense his presence when he’s in the same room? How is it that she can offer an invitation into her world from afar, and yet still be closed off when he’s there, ready to accept it?

He leans close, touching her shoulder with his free hand as he tries, one last time. “Susan,” he says firmly, insistently. “It’s James. Your friend. I’m here – just like you asked me.”

She turns swiftly then, arresting him with her luminous gaze, her eyes locking onto his. Her eyes are beautiful, a deep shade of chocolate brown, wide set and softened by thick, dark lashes. He finds himself waiting with bated breath, wishing and hoping and praying for a flicker of recognition to cross her features.

She nods slowly, averting her eyes from his and training them onto the bench beside her. His brow creases in confusion when she looks at him again. She repeats the slow sweep of her eyes from him to the bench, then reaches out stiffly and touches the hand resting on the piano.

“Oh,” he breathes, understanding dawning across his features. “You want me to sit?”

The grip on his hand tightens and her eyes slide forward, once again resting on the empty place where sheet music would normally rest. He complies with her strangely-drawn request, slipping down to sit beside her at the piano, and her hands resume their places over the keys.

For a moment, they sit in silence.

Then, Susan begins to play.

It’s a haunting melody, low in the register of the keyboard, but with a slightly jazzy feel. Her hands move expertly over the keys, even as she stares straight ahead, not once looking down to check her place.

“The look of love / is in your eyes,” she sings, her voice clear and bold, startling him slightly, drawing his attention away from her hands and onto her face. “The look your smile can’t disguise…”

“The look of love / is saying so much more than/ just words could ever say,” she continues, her voice rising with richness over the high, plaintive notes. “And what my heart has heard / well, it takes my breath away…”

She lifts her face, looking off slightly to the left, away from him, her expression softening slightly as the words continue to pour out of her. “You’ve got that look of love / it’s on your face / a look that time can’t erase…”

James feels heat rising though his body, radiating from his core and flushing over him in a nervous, slightly embarrassed wave. Did he truly wear his emotions so plainly? Could she sense the powerful attraction he feels to her, from just one glance, one long-lingering stare?

“Be mine tonight,” she continues, her voice dipping into the alto range before rising again to sweet soprano. “Let this be just the start of so many nights like this / let’s take a lover’s vow / and then seal it with a kiss…”

James squirms in his seat beside her, dropping his eyes to the floor, feeling himself turn hot, then cold, then hot again. She feels very much alive next to him, strong and unyielding, her body as rigid as her words are soft and magical, cascading over him and through him, all at once.

“I can hardly wait to hold you / feel my arms around you,” she sings plaintively, “how long I have waited / waited just to love you / now that I have found you…”

Her hands slide effortlessly over the keys, building the momentum of the song, drawing his attention once more. He gazes at her, the way her hair frames her face, the softness of her cheek, the line of her jaw. His eyes land on her mouth as she finishes the song, and he watches, fascinated, knowing this is the only time he’ll ever see her speak, or hear her voice.

“Don’t ever go,” she pleads softly, the lyric tumbling over the final notes of the song. “Don’t ever go…I love you so…”

She breathes her final word as her fingers draw to a halt, the last chord echoing through the tiny room. Her mouth closes and her eyes fall, coming to rest at a point straight ahead, and she looks as she did the moment he walked into the room.

James’s heart is hammering in his chest as he stares at her. He becomes aware of the short, shallow way he’s breathing, but he can’t really control it, because the entirety of his attention is directed to her. Does she understand the meaning of the words? he wonders wildly. Or does she simply enjoy the music, the sound of her voice in harmony with the instrument? He knows she has thousands of songs in her personal library, show tunes and pop music and classical alike, so why would she choose this one to play for him?

He remembers her mother’s words, how Susan’s specialist believes that it was her music that was the key to unlocking her spirit. He remembers her letters, how simple and childlike the construction of her sentences, of the sentiments, how she repeats the familiar opening and closing greetings that he’s used for years.

Is it just repetition? Or can she understand – and maybe even feel – emotion far more complex than she could ever express?

The questions swirl around his mind as he watches her unflinching, unchanging expression.

“Susan,” he finally says, managing to find his voice, “that’s a beautiful song.” He hesitates before continuing, wondering if he can live without an answer to his next question. “Did you sing it just for me?”

Her right hand slips away from the piano keys, dropping to where his lay on his lap. His breath constricts for a moment, as his eyes move from her hand to her face, where still, there is no flicker of recognition.

“Do you understand the words?” he asks quietly. “Do you know what you’ve just told me?”

Her hand closes over his, her fingers gripping his with an unexpected force. Her touch is like fire, igniting the heat that burns through him at her nearness. He feels himself flushing, hard enough to stand his reddish gold locks on end, but there’s something else there – a boldness he’s never felt before in the presence of a girl.

He’s so confused to feel it now, but he pushes past the cold, familiar insecurity. He laces his fingers through hers, clasping her hand as tightly as he dares – the hand that writes letters, that plays such beautiful, evocative music. Her music might be the key to opening her world, but this is the gateway, and suddenly he feels very privileged to hold it in his own.

“Susan,” he says carefully, turning slightly where he sits, “can you look at me?”

His heart skips a beat when she shifts, her eyes rising to meet his. He reaches for her before his nerves can fail him, cupping his hand lightly over her cheek, his fingers trailing into her hair. He watches her closely, forcing himself to tame the eagerness that bubbles just below his surface. After a moment, she leans into the light caress, her expression softening as if she’s never been touched this way before, as if she’s unsure of the pleasantness of the sensation.

He smiles slightly, as if to encourage her. “Do you mind – ” he stammers, another flush burnishing his cheeks, “do – can I kiss you?”

Slowly, slowly, her eyes fall closed, and she lifts her chin in invitation. He leans closer, brushing his mouth against hers, as gently and reverently as he can possibly kiss her. The grip on his hand tightens when he pulls away, so he kisses her again, startled but pleased when he feels her respond, the gentle pressure of her lips against his, and suddenly, he understands why he feels so attached to her, why he’s read her letters over and over again, why he thinks of her so often, why he wanted to share his life with her in the first place.

He breaks away again, tracing the edge of her lower lip with this thumb as he does. When he looks into her eyes now, he sees the recognition he’s craved for so long. She knows who he is – and how he feels about her.

Words can’t express it, so he smiles instead.

The corners of her mouth curve up in response, a simple, expressive gesture that make him realize – eight years of one-sided conversations have been oh, so worth it.