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Erlkönig

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The sun was low in the sky when Sarah got the phone call.

"Honey?"

Recognizing the voice, and shrugging the phone closer to her ear as she fumbled with her bag, Sarah hissed: "Quiet – I'm in the library. What's up?"

Karen obligingly whispered. "I wanted to remind you about that concert!"

Sarah rummaged for her planner, flipped it open, and furrowed her brow at the page of the day. There was December 21, covered in what looked like multi-colored hieroglyphics. "Yeah … oh."

"'Oh,' what?"

"I had it for tomorrow night – but it's tonight?"

"Yes it's tonight! Toby has been looking forward to this for ages, and he just called me at home from the auditorium. You do have his ticket?"

Sarah bit her lip at Karen's anxious tone. Her stepmother was a micromanager, which worked fantastically well in the wedding planning business, but not as well in a relationship. Still, they had made their peace years ago ... and this looked to be all her own fault. Toby's face (stricken) shot across her mind, and with a guilty start, she made her voice soothing. "Yes, I have his ticket" – she checked the two in the envelope wedged in her planner – "I'm only two buildings away" – she looked out the west façade into the red glare of the sun at the horizon as she began a fast walk – "I'm heading out of the library right now" – she flashed her ID at the guard, wedged through a turnstile and jogged down the hallway – "and I'll be there in five minutes."

"Thank you, dear. I know you've had a lot on your mind, with exams, but this means the world to Toby – he's been talking about it for the past week, and –"

Karen stopped; Sarah had let out a yelp at the cold air as she shut the library door.

"Is everything all right?"

Trying to wrestle a scarf around her neck while juggling bag, phone, and conversation was no easy task. Sarah gave up and spoke again. "Yeah – it's just frickin' freezing out here."

"Language."

Sarah rolled her eyes. "Movie reference!"

A laugh filtered through the phone. "Well, then I'll have to allow it. Thank you so much again – I hope your father and I will see you for dinner sometime soon."

"I'll count on it." Sarah smiled, still jogging, but now thinking of chicken à l'orange (Karen never did things by halves), and then frowned as a thought struck her. "Wait – how'd Toby get here if you're at home?"

A sigh. "I dropped him off while doing errands. I know it's a lot to ask, but –"

Sarah cut her off. "Nope – no problem. I'll drive him back; in fact, it's my karma for forgetting the date."

"It's all right, with your exams?"

"Well, tomorrow's the last one. I'm as prepared as I'm going to be – there's only so much the brain can take, after a point." Crunching through a snowbank to avoid a patch of ice, Sarah glanced at her watch. Fifteen minutes until the curtain went up; she could take a bit of a breather. She slowed her pace and brought her attention back to Karen's voice.

" – and with the man coming all the way from Chicago just to sing here, it's no wonder that Toby wants to hear him. His choir director takes great pleasure in your brother's interest, of course, but then again he thinks that Toby makes the world go 'round –"

Sarah smiled at the picture of her brother, haloed and holding a high note as angels approvingly twanged their harps. "Yeah – well, you have to admit that the kid is good."

"Yes –" Karen had a smile in her voice, too. "Although I don't know where he gets it. None of us is musical."

Sarah slid around another icy square of pavement, half listening. "OK, well I'm there, so off goes the phone. Can't have Mr. High-and-Mighty German singer get a ringtone one song into the concert."

"Thank you again, dear. Take care."

"Bye." Pressing the power button with her thumb, Sarah waited until she heard the chimes of the phone's shutdown, and then slapped it closed. She leaned over slightly, recovering her breath from the run across campus. There was the concert hall, sitting round, squat and dark in the lengthening shadows of the pine trees. She turned around. And there was the library, its marble worked by the setting sunlight into a fine shade of rose, streaked with orange and gold.

Sarah sighed, and watched her breath as it curled through the air like smoke. She thought she had gone far away for college (St. Paul might as well have been the moon from the terra firma of Westchester) but then a realignment at Dad's work had brought her squabbling, loving, mixed family as close to her as they had ever been before …

Well – not quite as close. She straightened her mouth in what was rapidly becoming her latest "great thoughts" look – honed during discussions of great literature, great philosophy, and great places to eat out. Her stepmother, her father, and Toby were in the same city, yes, but she still had her own life at college – her own choices to make, her own things to think about – her thoughts trailed off, and she exhaled, thinking, and –

- she took in a breath and almost choked as the cold slipped like a knife down through her lungs.

"Shit!" The introspective mood was broken. "Stupid state!" She turned and stomped through the snow to the concert hall's doors. "Stupid winter, stupid snow, and stupid me for moving to the fricking freezer of America –"

The doors loomed large in front of her, an icicle extending down where the janitor had missed knocking it to the ground. A glint to the side caught her eye. Despite herself, Sarah looked at the twisted, ice-glazed carvings in the stone frame, and shivered. Was it the nymphs in their drapery, the crazy-looking satyrs, or the snakes in the trees that freaked her out? Same thing, every time. It's your imagination, is what it is. Snap out of it.

She shook her head, grabbed one tall, wrought-iron handle (feeling it stick to her gloves in the cold), opened the door and stepped inside.

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The warmth was almost oppressive – Sarah felt an instant sheen of sweat form up beneath her sweater and heavy coat. She decided against elbowing through the crowd of people, scooted into a corner at the foot of the tall, ornate staircase and looked for Toby. Come on. Where was he? Surely he hadn't gone out into the cold to look for her – crap, that's probably what happened, and your paths didn't cross, and now he

"Sarah!" A high, excited voice, pitched to carry above the murmurs of the crowd. Sarah looked up, and smiled. There he was – right at the top of the stairs, his curly hair framed by the grandfather clock –

Her vision shimmered. Toby, between the clock and stairs, went in and out of focus –

- What? Sarah blinked hard – once, twice – and then swiped, annoyed, at the snow falling from her hair into her eyes. Mental note – next time, wear a hat.

A body thumped against her hip. As usual, Toby had taken the stairs at double time, and he cannoned into her and started pulling at her pockets.

"Whoa, chill out, kid!" She grinned down at him and pulled out the tickets with a flourish. "I've got what you're looking for, so no need to hold me up."

Toby's face glowed. "You're awesome! I love you!" He grabbed one ticket. "I have to write a report for school and I need a concert report for the next choir level, and Dr. Marcus said that I should go hear Mr. Teufel, and I waited and waited and waited for you and –"

"Slow down …" Sarah took his coat and slung it over her arm with her own. Pulling her scarf away from where it was caught on her necklace, she mentally ran over Toby's words. Dr. Marcus was Toby's choir director – Mr. Teufel (that's the name) was the visiting bass-baritone from Germany – and she was the one unlucky enough to get suckered into this concert when she still had to study –

She cut off that thought before it took root. "You were waiting long, then?" Reaching down, she tucked a protruding tag inside the collar of his dress shirt. "No taking candy from strangers, right?"

Toby rolled his eyes. "You're as bad as Mom."

Sarah herded him into the line, smiling as she did. "Just looking out for you."

"I'm old enough to skateboard, and I bike to school, so it's not like I'm going to go up to some random guy in a limo and say: 'Hey, gimme a ride to school' and he'd say 'Well, young man, would you like some candy first?' and I'd say: 'Give me all your money!' and he'd be like 'Aah!' and then I'd get the limo and I'd be –"

"Geez!" Sarah laughed in spite of herself. "I have no idea where you get these stories."

"Miss Mack says that I have a creative mind." Toby enunciated the words with pride. Then he looked up at her. "But you told me stories all the time, too."

Catching a breath in her throat, Sarah flicked her eyes to him. He was looking oddly intent, his normally laughing features focused in a sort of stillness that she had only ever seen when he listened for the first time to a CD she gave him, or to something new on the radio …

She smiled brightly. "I know I did. So it's all my fault." Toby grinned back, and tugged on her sweater. Looking up, she saw the usher, his officious hand extended for her ticket.

They switched the stubs for programs, edged into the auditorium, looked at the sweep and glow of red plush seats illuminated by glittering chandeliers, found where they were sitting, arranged coats over armrests and behind backs, looked through the program notes ("What's exigent mean?" "Demanding." "And what's veri- verisim –" "Verisimilitude." "Yeah. What's that?" "Um … kind of like realistic. Realistic-ness." " … Is that even a word?" "Quiet, you!") and talked back and forth ("Do you have to go to the bathroom?" "No!" "You sure?" "YES.") until applause swept up their attention, and singer and pianist took the stage, and the concert began.

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A bit more than halfway through, Sarah started rereading the program notes, squinting in the dim glow of the aisle light off the armrest. Winterreise. "Winter Journey." Franz Schubert, one of his last works, 1827. "The singer takes the listener on a lonely walk in winter, thinking of a lost love, and meditating on suicide." Fan-damn-tastic. Sarah sighed. She'd have to keep the program from Karen; someone that overprotective could find something worrisome in even the highest culture. A pause – she looked up – the rolling baritone voice continued with a new song – she looked back down at the notes – moving from "The Grey Head" to "The Crow." Geez. How much more to go? She glanced at her watch, then looked over at Toby.

And looked long at him.

His mouth was slightly open, and his eyes were fixed on the singer. That stillness, again – Sarah sighed to herself. It wasn't normal – it was weird. He was nine years old, for crying out loud. Nine-year-olds didn't sit through an entire concert of classical music without a peep, no matter how beautiful the music sounded.

How beautiful the music sounded. Her mind wandered. She herself had sung in a choir, mandatory, in high school – but music had never been her thing. More like drama. At Toby's age, she had been writing her own extended saga of the beginning of the world, culminating in the princess flying off on a unicorn to a world beyond the stars. And even past his age, she had made up an entire –

Nope. She turned from that thought. Not going to think about it. Instead, she let her mind wander back to high school choir. The Brahms "Requiem." Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen …How lovely is thy dwelling place…

How lovely the music really was. Sarah fingered her necklace. She blinked, and focused again on the singer. Mr. – she glanced at the program – Teufel. Herr Teufel. She smiled, remembering her limited German. Devil name, angel voice. Oodles of awards – even a Grammy. And here he was in St. Paul, looking for all the world like an overgrown penguin, singing away at Schubert, his rich voice sweeping up and down like a seesaw –

And it sounded beautiful.

Sarah shivered. Let that imagination out to play. She could almost see how the notes would sound in a dream – how they would ease through the air, in silvery lines and crystal swoops of sound. A stage light flickered in the corner of her eye, silver-gold. She saw it gild the whirls and eddies of music, and she could almost see them wend their way over the rapt audience, curl around the seat in front of her, reach out and stroke her face, and take her somewhere far away, somewhere so beautiful that nobody could describe it –

She closed her eyes and concentrated on listening. Somewhere beautiful. Lieblich. Lovely and magical and –

A crash made her jump in her seat and half shriek. It was applause.

Toby looked over at her, beaming at her as he beat his hands together. "You fell asleep!" he crowed.

Sarah shook her head and blinked. Magical. I don't think so. Then she let her half-dream slip away, and sat up to clap with the others.

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