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The Poisoned Gift

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I been working here at the conservatory for going on forty years. Started as a teenager, when I still played the guitar and had a hope I might get famous someday. Learned a little bit here and there, about music, but mostly learned about people. Learned I could play good enough to amuse myself but not good enough to get famous. Learned how to spot the kids who couldn't tell a janitor from the furniture and the kids who had good hearts. Learned to guess pretty good which students would go a long way and which ones would wind up frustrated in the end, wondering why they never made it big. And learned that sometimes, the genius types really were crazy, and sometimes there was more than crazy going on.

I worked here when Matthew Frazier-Doyle was just a student. I guess he’s not as famous now as he used to be, but he was a big name. A male alto, a countertenor, sang like a woman. He was a skinny kid, fifteen or sixteen and already taller than me, and I was full grown six foot. He had a Irish accent so thick I could barely understand him. I don't think he understood me any better. He never made friends with me like a lotta kids do. Didn’t make friends with other students, neither. Spent most of his time with his voice teacher, Madame Yevtushenkova, who talked to him in French. He always wore a scarf, and he let his hair grow while he was studying here, till it was down to his shoulders and every inch of it curls. Yeah, he turned heads, even before he opened his mouth to sing.

He graduated, as I recall, and then stayed on here doing graduate study with Yevtushenkova. He did have a powerful voice, like a alto’s but with a different timbre. It always give me the shivers to hear him, like it was a little bit unearthly. Yeah, that’s the word, unearthly.

I never believed the story that went around about the incident. That’s how people talked about it; they called it “the incident”. The story most people told was that Frazier and his teacher were in a studio late, working on a piece he was gonna sing for a big audition, and a guy come in looking for drug money, ready to steal a purse or rob somebody if he had to. He had a gun, some people say, or he had a knife, or both. Anyways, whatever happened, Madame Yevtushenkova wound up dead, with her throat cut, and Frazier was hurt, too, or just real shook, and he was outa school for a whole semester.

When he came back, he seemed okay, just the same person as ever. Only now he was a vocal coach hisself, in between singing all over the world. He got to be big and famous, if you cared about his special thing, Baroque opera. I noticed he always wore a scarf, still.

I remember the first day I met Michael Snowden, too. It was early September and I was outside taking a smoke break. Yeah, I know it's bad for you--worse for the students who smoke than for me. I always tell em not to. Anyway, I see him come up the sidewalk, a little guy in shorts and a polo shirt, with the brightest blond hair I ever did see. He come up to me with a smile and freckles on his face and asked for directions to a particular classroom.

"That's Frazier-Doyle's class, ain't it?"

"Yes! Do you know Professor Frazier?" He looked excited just to be talking to someone who might know Matthew Frazier-Doyle.

"Remember when he was your age. And he don't like people being late."

"Oh!" He scurried up the main steps into the building just like a little rabbit.

I seen him again at the end of the day. He was carrying a bunch of books, and he looked tired. His hair was falling in his eyes, and I wanted to give him money to go the barber shop. (I got three boys and a girl. I worry about things.)

"How was your class, son?"

His head jerked up when I called him. The friendly smile came back, and he stopped to talk to me, outside the first floor men's room. "It was amazing! Professor Frazier was amazing--he's gonna be tough, I can tell--but he knows everything, really--"

"That's what he tells people," I said. "But he don't know how to be polite like you do." As a little test, I held out my hand. "My name's Jeffrey."

He shook my hand, good and firm. "I'm Michael, Mr. Jeffrey. You don't mind if I call you 'mister', do you? My daddy would whap me good if I didn't, back home."

"No problem, son. It's always good to be treated with respect."

I saw Michael pretty regular from then on. He wasn’t the kind who was too proud to talk to a custodian, or a black man. No, he was a polite boy, friendly, the kind of youngster who’s used to talking to older people, relying on them. I heard about his studies and his music, the friends he was making, and then about the boy he was dating, and how he hadn’t come out to his parents yet, and he wasn’t sure what his daddy was going to think, but didn’t they know, after all this time? (Sure I knew, even before he told me. Not like he was the only one in a music school. I didn’t care, got over worrying about that a long time ago.) His daddy was a football coach, but he was a musician like his momma, a church-going boy who sang in the choir while she played the organ. And it turned out he wanted to sing alto, like Professor Frazier.

I guess it shouldn’t have surprised when I saw him the last time before Christmas. He gave me a card and a tin of cookies--homemade cookies, made them himself--and told me that in the spring he’d be studying one on one with Frazier-Doyle.

“You sure about that, son? Seems early for you to be narrowing in on one thing like that.” It wasn’t so early, but I had a funny feeling about this.

“Oh, I’m sure! I hope I can be as good as he is--or was.”

“I bet you will, Mikey.” He didn’t like it when I called him that; I only did it once in a while, to tease, and see him scrunch up his face like a little boy. “You gonna see your boyfriend over Christmas?” He was still going out with the same fella, a big, serious boy named Jack who played the double-bass.

“No, but we’ll talk.” He sounded sad. “Maybe we can spend spring break together, I hope.” He brightened up and gave me his nicest smile. “You have a merry Christmas, Mr. Jeffrey, I’ve gotta get going!” He gave me a good hug, and then I didn’t see him until the new semester started at the end of January.

I didn’t see him until more than a week into the new semester, in fact. At first I didn’t think anything of it; you know, kids get busy, when they have a break, they wanna hang with each other, not some old man. Then I was cleaning on the night shift and I saw him in Frazier-Doyle’s studio.

Not too many of the instructors have their own studios where they can see students, just the ones with tenure, I guess. Frazier had one on the top floor of the old wing, what used to be the ballet school back in the day. I only had to clean up there because of his studio, and a couple practice rooms that still got used, and a bathroom.

I was working my way down the floor when I heard singing from the other end of the hall. It was a pretty voice, but sad, singing a long string of notes that flowed together. I couldn’t make out the words.

I could make out the voice that interrupted, though. “Stop. Stop! Just stop.” That was Professor Frazier.

I stood there a minute with the mop in my hand, listening. Heard the professor haranguing the singer, softer now, but obviously picking on all the things that were wrong. Then there was a bang that made me jump; took a minute to realize it must be a piano lid coming down. Did it slip, or did Frazier slam it down? People said he had a temper.

A minute later, my boy Michael came out of the room, jamming his hat on his head. He came barreling down the hall, not looking around, and almost tripped over my bucket before he noticed me.

“Oh! Mr. Jeffrey!” He looked up, big blue eyes full of tears. “Oh--I’m sorry--I was gonna walk right over your nice clean floor--”

“Don’t worry about that, son, you okay?” I patted him on the shoulder.

“I’m fine.” He rubbed his eyes with the end of his scarf. “I’m fine, I just gotta work some more on that aria--I gotta work harder--”

He stumbled away from me, toward the old elevator, calling back over his shoulder, “See you later, Mr. Jeffrey!” The elevator door opened right up for him, and he was gone.

I turned to look back down the hall. Frazier-Doyle was standing outside his studio, staring at me. I hadn’t seen him in a long while; he looked different than I remembered. His long curly hair was a lot shorter, and slicked back real close to his head. He didn’t have a beard, which he did back when he was a student, just a wisp of a mustache. He was dressed all in black except for a scarf that was red and yellow, like in the Harry Potter movies. (Saw ‘em all with my kids.)
He gave me a sickly kind of look that might have been a smile and turned away, to go down the back stairway I guess. It wasn’t until I finished the hallway floor that it hit me: That red and yellow scarf should have been around Michael’s neck. And the deep blue scarf Michael had wiped his eyes with must have belonged to Frazier-Doyle.

I had two days off before I went back on morning shift. I didn’t know why, but I felt uneasy about Michael and his professor those two whole days, when I wasn’t sleeping. At the end of my first day shift, I was up in the old building cleaning that one bathroom, down the hall from Frazier’s studio. From inside a stall, I could hear the sound of someone singing warmups.

It wasn’t the voice I had heard a few days ago, Michael’s voice. It was an older voice, a mature voice. It was sweet and ripe like a fine peach, but it had a little edge to it, too, like the serrations on a knife. A little buzz, like a sting in the honey. I remembered that voice from vinyl records and from standing in the back of the auditorium, watching the singer walk around the stage. It was Frazier-Doyle singing.

Some people, you know, said he hadn’t been as good of a singer since the incident, even though he’d had a big career after that. That he had damaged his voice, couldn’t sing no more, or shouldn’t sing. But that didn’t sound like a person who couldn’t sing, or was struggling to. His voice still gave me that feeling of the chills.

There were light footsteps and I got up, backed out of the stall. Little Michael blinked at me. “I don’t mean to interrupt--”

“Nah, I’m all done, you can use the bathroom.” I took my bucket and stuff and went out into the hallway, letting the door shut behind me. There was no more singing from the studio, only a little bit from in the bathroom, Michael doing some scales.

I pushed my truck slowly past the studio door, giving myself a chance to look in. Nothing to see but mirrors, lotsa mirrors--like I said, it used to be used for ballet classes. There was a piano in the middle of the room, and on the far side of it, Frazier in his black coat, red and yellow scarf, looking into the mirror.

His back was turned to me, but he could see me in the mirror, and I could see his face. He didn’t turn around, but he looked at me in the mirror. His face was as closed and cold as Michael’s was warm and open.

Michael bolted out of the bathroom and just about ran past me into the studio. “Shut the door,” I heard the professor say. I took my truck down to the elevator to put it away for the night.

I was still feeling uneasy, though. After I changed out of my work shirt and put on my coat, I stood by the locker a minute trying to make up my mind. Then I went back into the old building, to the elevator, and called it. When it opened up, Michael was laying on the floor.

“Oh my God--”

He was literally blue in the face--blue like the scarf that was wound so tight around his neck, and knotted so close, I had to use my pocket knife and cut it off him. As soon as I had it loose, I fumbled till I turned the key on the elevator, opening it up again between floors. Then I knelt by the boy again and pulled him into my arms, patted his face.

“Michael. Michael. Mikey! You wake up! You wake up now! You all right, son?”

He jerked in my grip and took a great big breath, with a terrible noise that sounded like a screech. Then his eyes opened, rolled from side to side, fixed on mine. He looked terrified for just an instant. Then he relaxed a little bit, like he wasn’t scared of me. He raised up a weak hand to his throat. I could see bruises when I pulled away the scarf.

“What happened to you, boy? Somebody jump you?” I thought there might be a couple of kids even at a conservatory who would beat up a gay boy.

“I don’t--” He had to stop and swallow. You could see that it hurt him. “I don’t remember, Mr. Jeffrey. I… I don’t know.”

I would have took him to the hospital, if he’d let me, but he wouldn’t do that. Said he’d text his boyfriend to come over, go to the infirmary tomorrow if he didn’t feel okay. They didn’t have much at the infirmary but condoms and Tylenol, but I let him do as he pleased. I was just worried that whatever happened might have hurt his throat and affected his voice.

When I woke up at two in the morning, having to piss, it occurred to me that maybe Frazier-Doyle had tried to strangle him.

I was working day shift, but I didn’t see Michael for at least a week. I hoped maybe he was taking some time off to heal, hoped he might even not be seeing Frazier-Doyle for lessons. Then I had three days off, then I went to the second shift. I said the hell with my usual schedule and went up to the old building first thing, taking my truck with me but carrying my pen knife in my hand.

I come down the hall real quiet like, and I could hear them singing, both of them, the professor and the boy, doing a duet. Michael’s voice was purer and sweeter, without that edge to it, but not as powerful yet, not quite mature. The two of them together were enough to put a spell on you; I woulda stood there listening for as long as they would sing.

When they were finished, I snuck on down the hall and got pretty close to the door of the studio, close enough to hear their conversation as I started to run my broom. “That was excellent. Well done, lad.” Frazier-Doyle still had some of his old accent. He had a smarmy way of talking, though, that he didn’t use to have back in the day.

“I think you’ll be more than ready for the class recital on Tuesday. But I’d like to give you a little something, just for luck.” I heard some rustling noises.

“That’s beautiful, professor!” Michael sounded so young. And he sounded more like he was saying the professor was beautiful than whatever was really going on.

“It was a gift from my teacher, when I wasn’t much older than you. You can wear it home on your scarf, but then keep it safe until the recital, hmm? And maybe after that, depending on how well you do, you can keep it.”

“Th-thank you, Professor Frazier.” My boy sounded like he was going to cry.

I shoulda gotten away then, skedaddled back to the elevator or gone into the bathroom. But it’s a good thing I didn’t, even though they kinda caught me eavesdropping, when they come out the studio together.

Frazier had his arm around the boy. They both stopped and stared at me. “Jeff, isn’t it?” Frazier said.

I nodded. “Professor Frazier.” I made the effort to smile at Michael. “Mikey.”

He didn’t even wince at the nickname. “Look what the professor gave me, Mr Jeffrey.” He stepped away from Frazier, who watched him with narrowed eyes, and showed me the pin on his scarf. It was a tie-tack, I think, in the shape of a snake, a leaf, and an apple.

“That’s right pretty,” I said, looking at it closely. The snake was done in black enamel, the leaf in green, and the apple in the brightest, shiniest red. The rest of the pin looked like it was made of gold.

“It belonged to his teacher, Madame Yevtushenkova!”

“Yeah, I remember her. Scary little Russian lady that used to talk French all the time.” I looked at Frazier out the corner of my eye.

“She was a wonderful teacher,” Frazier said. He pulled his coat closed and started to walk past us. “Take care of her pin, Michael.”

“I will, sir!”

I noticed Frazier went down the stairs instead of taking the elevator. I still had my bucket, but when Michael went to the elevator, I went with him. I had a mind to see him out the door.

He was chattering away about something. Then he said, “You don’t have to watch over me, Mr. Jeffrey, Jack is going to meet me outside. He’s already here, he texted me.”

“That’s good, son. I got to go down and cover the offices anyway.”

The elevator opened up, and I saw a big dark-haired fellow standing at the other end of the hall, holding a big instrument case over his shoulder like it wasn’t nothing.

“Hey Jack!”

The big fella straightened up and smiled real big. So that was Mikey’s boyfriend Jack. He looked more like a football player than a musician. Michael just about ran down the hall at him. I figured I might as well mop the floor while I was here. Then I heard Jack say, “Babe, are you bleeding?”

I let go the mop and went to the boys. Michael slumped all of a sudden just as I got to him, and Jack half caught him, fell on his knees trying not to drop either his boy or his instrument. I grabbed at the strap of the big black case and pulled it off his back so he could hold onto Michael.

“He’s bleeding, sir, he’s bleeding, what do we do--”

His voice cracked. I knelt beside him and reached for Michael’s scarf. It was soaked with blood, almost dripping, and Michael’s face was white like salt, white like snow.

“Lemme just--lemme just--”

I fumbled, tryna pull off the scarf, or maybe just get at the pin. Jack musta thought I knew what I was doing--he opened up Michael’s denim jacket, pushed up his shirt and then just straight-up ripped it from the collar to the hem and run his hands all over Michael’s chest. His skin was too white everywhere I could see.

The scarf tore and the pin with the snake and the apple and the leaf came off in my hands. Jack shouted something I didn’t understand, sounded like a swear-word, and grabbed my shirt.

“There’s no wound on him. There’s no fucking wound!”

I didn’t see Michael for a few days, but I did see Jack. He had went with Michael in the ambulance, while I tried to make up some story to tell the Dean. Jack took the trouble to look for me and let me know the hospital had kept his boy overnight, but he was okay now, just on academic leave and staying at Jack’s for a few days. He hadn’t seen Frazier-Doyle, though, and as far as I could tell, nobody had seen him since Michael collapsed, and nobody had missed him.

I went to work as usual. A couple times I went up to Frazier’s studio and it was empty. Wasn’t even any music on the piano. Never saw him or anybody else up there on that floor.

Maybe two weeks went by. Then three. I didn’t see Jack but in passing, didn’t see Frazier. I managed to ask some questions here and there, casual like, and find out that the professor was on “personal leave”, which, it being personal, was not something the administrators wanted to talk about. Even Gen Rafferty, the dean’s secretary, who was already working at the conservatory when I started and knew everything about everybody, just shrugged and zipped her fingers across her lips.

I didn’t see or hear anything more until it was close to the end of the spring semester. A lot of the senior students were gone already, and the ones who were left were a lot more interested in laying outside in the park than in studying music theory. There was a flower festival at the beginning of May, took up the whole square by the conservatory. It was a hot day and I was just as eager to get a cold fresh lemonade as any of the kids was.

I was sipping my lemonade and just strolling around when I seen him. Michael, by himself, handing his money over at a candy stall. They had big bags of popcorn, kettle corn, cotton candy, but he wasn’t buying none of that. He held out his hand and got the biggest, shiniest candy apple I ever seen.

It was shiny red like a ruby, like the snake on the pin that Frazier had give him. And all of a sudden my stomach sank cause I knew something was wrong.

“Michael!” I started toward him, tossing my lemonade in the trash. “Michael, Michael, wait--”

He was turning my way, turning to look for me, I think, when he bit into the apple. I kept moving, I was almost close enough to see it going down his throat. I was close enough that I was sure he saw me. He raised his hand to wave and then he went down.

By the time I got there, people were gathering around him. I pushed them back and called 911 and took his hand, took the apple away, called his name. I got nothing. He was limp and pale and I prayed he wasn’t already dead. I kept talking to him, but nothing happened until the ambulance showed up. I got some dirty looks from the EMTs, but a couple people vouched for me and said I was trying to help.

At least once the EMTs worked him over, I knew he was still alive, still breathing. They wouldn’t let me ride along to the hospital, though, so I had to go home and worry about that boy. I worried so much that on Monday, I went to the Dean of Students’ office and begged her to give me Michael’s parents’ phone number, or tell me what hospital he was in, give me some kinda way to find out how he was doing.

The dean acted like maybe I was the one that tried to hurt him, which hurt me a lot. No phone number, no hospital information. I was gonna leave there sure the boy would die and I wouldn’t know it, only Gen caught up with me.

“Listen, Jeff, I have their phone number, but I can’t give it to you. And I have *your* phone number….” She gave me a hard look.

“And you can give it to them.”

“I can, now that I have your permission.” She grinned and punched me in the arm. “Hang in there, Jeffrey.”

I sat with my phone in my hand that evening. It didn’t ring till the next day, when I was making a late breakfast before going to work.

“Is this Mr Jeffrey ___?” It was a white lady’s voice.

“That’s me.”

“This is _____, Michael’s mother. Gen Rafferty from the conservatory tells me you’re a friend of Mikey’s and would like to come see him.”

She called him Mikey. Huh. “Yes, ma’am, I would.”

She gave me the hospital info and said she would be there this evening and I could come by. I took some leave time and left work early so I could spend some time with the boy.

I don’t like seeing people all hooked up to machines and IVs. Michael didn’t have a machine breathing for him, though. He was breathing; he woulda looked like he was sleeping, if it weren’t for the IV and the monitor and all. But teenaged boys don’t usually sleep on their backs, not moving a muscle. After a while he started to look more like a real good job by the undertaker, waiting to be moved into his casket.

His mother was short and blonde-haired and he had her eyes and maybe her smile. His dad, the football coach, couldn’t get away, yet, but she came right away. Sat there on the other side of the bed from me, wringing her hands when she wasn’t holding her son’s hand. Looked at me trying not to cry.

“They’ve done all sorts of tests. No drugs, no poisons, nothing. His heart is fine. Brain scan shows nothing unusual. He should be awake, but he’s not. He won’t wake up. He might be able to hear me, he might know I’m here, or he might be unconscious--they can’t tell. They don’t know what it is, they don’t know why he’s like this. They pumped his stomach right away and it didn’t do any good.”

She might not be asking me for an explanation, but I knew she was hoping I could give her one. I just didn’t see how I could tell her what I thought. If I said I thought her son’s teacher was using some kind of magic on him, maybe because her son was a better singer than his teacher, she’d just take me for a stupid, superstitious old negro. And maybe I was. But I seen him collapse with blood dripping from his scarf. I seen his boyfriend open up his shirt and say he didn’t have no wound to account for the blood. And I saw him in the elevator, before the recital, though nobody else did.

I put all that aside and said, “You, uh, you know he has a boyfriend, right?”

“Oh!” She looked surprised. “Sure, uh, no, he told us about Jack weeks ago. That’s fine. But Jack went on tour with the orchestra, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, before the semester was even over. That’s why he’s not here. I tried calling him, but I couldn’t reach him. Maybe he’s on a flight.”

Her voice shook and she looked at her boy instead of me. She laid her hand over his forehead. “Jack is just on a flight. I’ll reach him later. Mikey’ll be all right till then. He’ll be all right.”

All I could do was go home and pray for Michael. Come back and visit him when I could. At first I came almost every day, and his momma got comfortable with going out to have something to eat and get some fresh air while I was with him. The nurses got to know me and would ask me questions about him sometimes. And while I was at work, I kept an eye on Frazier’s studio, kept an eye out for him anywhere he might be, even though he was still officially on leave.

A couple days turned into almost two weeks. Michael’s daddy the coach came up after the first week, and I met him and shook his hand. With his father there I started coming less, and when I wasn’t there, I didn’t miss the sight of him laid out like that. He didn’t eat and was losing weight. He didn’t move or make a sound.

Next time I went to visit Michael, his momma was crying when I came in. His daddy was red in the face, and he marched out when I came in.

“They’re going to put him on a feeding tube. He’s losing too much weight, and there’s been no change….” I wished her husband hadn’t run out, cause she started crying again. All I could do was sit in the corner and let her be.

That was in the morning, and I stayed there with Michael through the day. His momma and daddy went in and out; the room got warm when the sun came over the building and shined in Michael’s window. I went out for a quick dinner and came out while it was still light.

Nobody was expecting it when Jack come in. He was still carrying his double-bass, a suitcase, and a knapsack, musta come straight from the airport. He dropped his bags, making a terrible choking noise, probably from seeing his boyfriend, all pale and thin and barely breathing. Then he put down his instrument, careful like, and sat down on the edge of the bed and took Michael’s hand.

“Hey, Mike. Hey, sweetheart. It’s me, Jack. Did you miss me? I missed you so much. Mrs Rafferty called and told me you weren’t feeling good, so I had to come back and see you, baby. I’m here.”

Michael didn’t seem to hear him, any more than he did when his parents or the nurses talked to him. Jack bent over and gave him a kiss, just a little kiss you wouldn’t be embarrassed to give in front of somebody’s parents. It was real sweet. And Michael made a noise that was really a big, deep breath, and the lines on his monitor started going crazy and it started screeching, and doctors and nurses started running in and pushing us all out, because he woke up.

I didn’t stay when they let Jack and Michael’s parents back in his room. Something told me not to stay. Something told me where to go. It was night-time, after sunset, in the middle of the summer, but I got in my car and drove right to the conservatory. Nothing coulda held me back.

The whole place was dark and empty, but of course I have keys. I got my flashlight out of my locker and walked through the halls without turning on any lights. A couple places the lights come on automatically, but not everywhere. It was dark and I couldn’t hear nothing but my footsteps and my own breathing.

I went over into the old building and called the elevator. It clanked and it moaned and it took forever, like something in a horror movie. I got in and rode up to the top floor, all the time expecting it to just stop and keep me there, or cut loose and fall. I remembered Michael gasping for breath right here, bleeding all down his front with no wound on his body, collapsing in the street on a sunny day.

As soon as I got off the elevator, I heard him. Frazier-Doyle was in his studio, all right, just as I thought. He was talking, his voice rising and falling. He never got rid of his accent, and it got thicker when he was worked up. He was worked up now, for sure. I took a minute to picture that boy laying in the hospital, looking like he was just about dead, and then I walked down the hall and into the studio.

I saw the back of him because he was talking to the mirror. His hair was loose and frizzy and that blue scarf was around his neck again, the one he almost strangled Mikey with. He was waving his arms like he was conducting a choir.

I cleared my throat. “You did it to him.”

He spun around and stared at me with big round eyes. He took a breath and let his hands fall.

“You tried to choke him with that scarf. Then you tried to kill him somehow with that pin you gave him, some kinda hoodoo on that. And it musta been you that sold him that candy apple, that poisoned him. He been in a coma all this time, but he’s awake now. His boy came back for him and woke him up with a kiss, just like in a fairy tale.” I took a step toward him. “You know what happens in fairy tales, doncha? The good guys win and the evil get punished.”

Frazier took a few steps backward, until his shoulders hit the mirror and he stopped. “You don’t understand.” He put his hands in his pockets. “You don’t understand how hard it is. You don’t--you weren’t there when--you never befriended me like you befriended him! Where were you when my teacher put the scarf around my neck? Where were you when she put the pin on my collar and it bled for three days? And where were you when she tried to cut my throat--”

He pulled the scarf away and I saw the scar there, the pink line all the way across his throat. Madame Yevtushenkova, I remembered, that crazy Russian lady. She was his teacher.

“I was right here,” I said. “I was a custodian here when you first came. And Mikey wasn’t the first kid that ever made a friend of me. But you never did.”

He didn’t say nothing, just rubbed that awful scar with long white fingers.

“Somebody musta helped you. The scarf didn’t strangle you. The pin didn’t make you bleed out. And she hurt you bad, but you could still sing--”

“I can’t.” He turned around, looking at himself in the mirror. Rubbing that scar. “Not without a student. Not unless I take their voices, the way Madame took mine.”

He turned back again and give me an ugly smile. “Their voice for my voice. Tit for tat. The boy gets to sing with my voice, and I get his, until I’m ready to take it back. The scarf, the pin, and the knife. I’d have taken it back already, if it weren’t for you--”

He rushed at me with a knife in his hand, ready to do me in. I reached into my pocket for my own knife, little as it was, but I came out with the pin, golden with a snake, an apple, and a leaf on it.

I’m not sure whether he was thinking of cutting my throat or putting it between my ribs. I just threw out my hand in front of me, holding the pin, and the next thing I knew, he was staggering back with blood pouring from his throat.

The pin was still in my hand and I threw it to the side. Frazier fell down and I went to him. He was clutching at his throat; it didn’t look like I had stuck him, no, it looked like the scar was opening up. It just rolled open like a zipper and the blood gushed out. He made terrible noises like he was being strangled, but I wasn’t touching him. He twisted onto his side, coughing and retching, and something flew out of his mouth that looked like a piece of an apple.

I turned and walked out of the room, then. Whatever was happening here, I hadn’t started it and couldn’t stop it. I walked back to the elevator. All the way through the empty school, I could hear echoes of voices singing. One of them sounded like Matthew Frazier-Doyle. One of them sounded like Michael Snowden.

I had a couple days off. As soon as I went back to work, I started my retirement paperwork. I got a call from Michael’s momma, asking if I would come and visit him one more time. I did, and while he looked like he’d been sick, it didn’t look no worse than if he’d had a case of the flu. He was going home with his parents, taking at least a semester off. “I’d like to apply some place further north,” he said, picking at the hospital mush on his plate. “Jack’s already been accepted at McGill; maybe I can get in there, or Juilliard, or BSMA.”

“I wish you the best of luck, son. You got the talent, if you can just keep going.”

He nodded and managed to smile. I figured he’d do all right; he had good parents and a man that would stand by him.

Nobody asked me what had happened to Frazier-Doyle. I was glad, because I couldn’t have told them. Nobody said a word about finding a dying or dead man in a studio in the old building. I went back there myself, and there was no blood, no stains, no sign of him--except that the pin was still on the floor. I stepped on it and ground it with my heel until it broke. Then I picked up the pieces in a handkerchief, took it home to my kitchen, and set it on fire in the skillet. When it burnt out, I threw it down the sewer outside, to get washed away, and scrubbed the skillet out with salt for a good half hour.

It was poison. It poisoned anything it touched. I had to wonder how many people it had poisoned before Michael and Frazier-Doyle, how many kids Frazier had hurt, how many kids his teacher had hurt before him. No answer to that, only the hope that Frazier hadn’t poisoned the gift of music in Michael. I hoped that one day, I’d hear that boy sing again.