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Two families, generations apart, are forever changed by a heartbreaking injustice in this poignant novel, inspired by a true story, for readers of Orphan Train and The Nightingale.

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“What do you mean?”
“I’m in the room right next door. The practice rooms are too far away, so I’ll probably end up practicing in my room a lot. I’m a music major.”
“That’s really cool. I’d love to hear you play sometime.” I couldn’t believe she was in the room right next to mine.
“Anytime. So, not very many people choose dorm life their senior year. What’s your excuse?”
“Couldn’t afford anything else.” I noticed she was wearing a badge with Greek symbols. “What about you? How come you don’t live in the sorority house?”
She pointed at the badge over her breast. “Oh, this? It’s fake. Well, it’s not fake; I stole it. I live here ’cause I’m too dirt-ass poor to live anywhere else. My parents don’t have any money to contribute for tuition, and it’s hard for me to keep a job since I have to practice so much. I use this to get free meals at the dining hall on Fourteenth Street.” She held her fist up and punched the air. “Pi Beta Phi, mac and cheese for life!”
She was adorable. “I can’t imagine this place will be too boring with you here.”
“Thanks.” I looked up to catch her blushing. “I really don’t have that much school spirit, but my music buddies will come over and liven things up for us once classes start and everyone is back in the city. I lived with a bunch of people in a crappy apartment over the summer and I got used to having a lot a friends around. It’s been really quiet here. So far most of the residents keep to themselves.”
“Why didn’t you go home over the summer?”
“No space. My parents’ house is small and I have three younger sisters and a brother. They all still live at home.” She hopped off the desk and moved to the other side of the room to look through the items I had unpacked and stacked on the floor. “Shut up!” She held up Grace by Jeff Buckley. “He’s practically the reason I came to NYU.”
“He’s a genius. Have you seen him play?” I asked.
“No, I’m dying to, though. I guess he lives in Memphis now. I moved all the way to New York from Arizona and then spent my first three months here searching for him in the East Village. I’m a total groupie. Someone told me he left New York a long time ago. I still listen to Grace everyday. It’s like my music bible. I like to pretend he named the album after me.” She chuckled. “You know what? You kinda look like him.”
“Really?”
“Yeah, you have better hair, but you both have those dark, deep-set eyes. And you both pull off a scruffy jawline pretty well.”
I brushed my knuckles over my chin and felt a tinge of insecurity. “I need to shave.”
“No, I like it. It looks good on you. You have that thin build, too, but I think you’re a bit taller than him. How tall are you?”
“Six one.”
She nodded. “Yeah, I think he’s much shorter.”
I sat down on my bed and lay back, propping my hands behind my head, watching her in amusement. She held up A Portable Beat Reader. “Wow. We’re soul twins for sure. Please tell me I’ll find some Vonnegut in here?”
“You’ll definitely find some Vonnegut. Hand me that CD over there and I’ll put it on,” I said, gesturing toward Ten by Pearl Jam.
“I should go practice in a minute but will you play ‘Release’? That’s my favorite from this album.”
“Sure, as long as I can photograph you.”
“Okay.” She shrugged. “What should I do?”
“Do whatever feels natural.”
I popped the CD into the stereo, reached for my camera, and began snapping away. She moved around the room to the music, twirling and singing.
At one point, she stopped and looked grimly into the lens. “Do I look lame?”
“No,” I said as I continued pressing the shutter. “You look beautiful.”
She flashed me a shy smile and then her tiny frame dropped to the hardwood floor, squatting like a child. She reached down and picked up a button. I continued taking picture after picture.
“Someone lost a button.” Her voice was sing-songy.
She looked up from the floor, right into the lens, and squinted, her piercing green eyes twinkling. I pressed the shutter.
She stood, reached out, and handed me the button. “Here you go.” Pausing, she glanced up to the ceiling. “God, I love this song. I feel inspired now. Thank you, Matt. I better run. It was really nice meeting you. Maybe we can hang out again?”
“Yeah. I’ll see you around.”
“I’ll be hard to miss. I’m right next door, remember?”
She skipped out of the door and then a moment later, just as Eddie Vedder sang the final lyrics, I heard the deep strains of a cello through the thin dorm walls. She was playing “Release.” I moved my bed to the other side of the room so that it would rest against the wall that Grace and I shared.
I fell asleep to the sound of her practicing late into the night.
* * *
MY FIRST MORNING in Senior House consisted of eating a stale granola bar and rearranging three pieces of furniture until I was happy with the tiny space I would call home for the next year. On one pass, I discovered a Post-it note stuck to the bottom of the empty drawer in the desk I had brought from home. It read: Don’t forget to call your mom in my mother’s handwriting. She wouldn’t let me forget, and I loved that about her.
I found the payphone on the first floor. A girl wearing sweats and dark sunglasses sat in the corner, holding the phone receiver to her ear.
“I can’t live without you, Bobbie,” she cried, wiping the tears from her cheeks. She sniffled and then pointed to a box of tissue. “Hey, you! Will you hand that to me?”
I took the tissue box from the end table near a worn-out couch that smelled faintly of Doritos and handed it to her. “Are you gonna be long?”
“Seriously?” She moved the glasses to the end of her nose and peered at me over the top.
“I have to call my mom.” I sound pathetic. More pathetic than this girl.
“Bobbie, I have to go, some dude has to call his mommy. I’ll call you in fifteen minutes, okay? Yeah, some guy.” She looked me up and down. “He’s wearing a Radiohead T-shirt. Yeah, sideburns . . . skinny.”
I threw up my hands as if to say, What’s your problem?
“Okay, Bobbie, wuv you, bye. No, you hang up . . . no, you first.”
“Come on,” I whispered.
She stood and hung up the phone. “It’s all yours.”
“Thanks,” I said. She rolled her eyes. “Wuv you,” I called out to her as she walked away.
I pulled my calling card from my wallet and dialed my mother’s number. “Hello.”
“Hi, Mom.”
“Matthias, how are you, honey?”
“Good. Just got settled in.”
“Have you called your dad?”
I winced. I had transferred to NYU to put a whole country between me and my father’s disappointment. Even after I had won photography awards in college, he still believed I had no future in it.
“No, just you so far.”
“Lucky me,” she said earnestly. “How are the dorms? Have you seen the photo lab yet?” My mom was the only one who supported me. She loved being the subject of my photos. When I was young, she gave me her father’s old Ciro-Flex camera, which started my obsession. By ten, I was taking photos of everything and everyone I could.
“The dorms are fine, and the lab is great.”
“Have you made any friends?”
“A girl. Grace.”
“Ahhh . . .”
“No, it’s not like that, Mom. We’re just friends. I met her and talked to her for a minute yesterday.”
Wuv-you girl was back. She sat on the couch, leaned over the arm dramatically, and stared at me, upside down. Her weird, upside-down face made me uneasy.
“Is she into the arts, like you?”
“Yes, music. She was nice. Friendly.”
“That’s wonderful.” I could hear dishes clinking around. I thought idly t
hat my mom wouldn’t have to do the dishes if she were still married to my dad. My father was a successful entertainment lawyer while my mom taught art at a private school for a meager salary. They divorced when I was fourteen. My dad remarried right away, but my mom remained single. Growing up, I chose to live with my dad and stepmother, even though my mom’s tiny bungalow in Pasadena always felt more like home. There was more space at my dad’s for my older brother and me.
“Well, that’s nice. Did Alexander tell you that he asked Monica to marry him?”
“Really? When?”
“A few days before you left. I thought you would have heard by now.”
My brother and I didn’t talk, especially about Monica, who was once my girlfriend. He was following in my dad’s footsteps and was about to pass the bar in California. He thought I was a loser.
“Good for him,” I said.
“Yeah, they’re well suited for each other.” There were a few beats of silence. “You’ll find someone, Matt.”
I laughed. “Mom, who said I was looking?”
“Just stay away from the bar scene.”
“I went to more bars before I was twenty-one than I do now.” Wuv-you girl rolled her eyes at me. “I’ve gotta go, Mom.”
“Okay, honey. Call me again soon. I want to hear more about Grace.”
“Okay. Wuv you, Mom.” I winked at the girl as she stared me down a foot away.
“Wuv you, too?” She laughed.
5. You Were Like a Light
MATT
I killed time by rearranging my portfolio. At some point I knew I’d have to get out and make friends, but for the time being I was hoping to catch one person in particular, either on her way in or out. I’m not sure how obvious I was being by leaving my door cracked, but I didn’t care, especially when I finally heard Grace’s voice from the hall.
“Knock-knock.” I got up to put on a shirt but she pressed the door open with her index finger before I had time.
“Oh, sorry,” she said.
“No worries.” I opened the door all the way and smiled. “Hey, neighbor.”
She leaned against the doorjamb as her eyes fell from my face and traveled down my chest, to where my jeans hung below my boxers, and then further down to my black boots.
“I like your . . . boots.” She looked back up to my eyes. Her mouth was open very slightly.
“Thanks. Do you want to come in?”
She shook her head. “No, actually I came by to see if you wanted to get lunch. It’s free,” she said quickly, and before I had time to answer she added, “They’ll actually pay you.”
“What is this free-paying lunch place you speak of?” I quirked an eyebrow at her.
She laughed. “You just have to trust me. Come on, grab a shirt. Let’s go.”
I ran a hand through my hair, which was sticking up in every direction at the moment. Her eyes fell to my chest and arms again. It was hard for me to look away from her heart-shaped face, but I glanced down to see her hands fidgeting at her sides. She was wearing a black dress with flowers on it, tights, and little black boots. She rocked back on her heels a couple of times. She reminded me of a hummingbird, one of those people who are always moving, always fidgeting.
“Give me one second,” I said. “I need a belt.” I rummaged through my belongings on the floor but couldn’t find one. My jeans were practically hanging off at that point.
Grace plopped down on my bed and watched me. “No belt?”
“I can’t find it.”
She hopped up and went to a pile of my shoes near the closet. She yanked the laces out of one of my Converses and did the same to one of my Vans and knotted the ends together. “This should do.”
I took the shoelace belt from her and fed it through the loops.
“Thanks.”
“No problem.”
When I threw on my black Ramones T-shirt, she smiled appreciatively. “I like it. Ready?”
“Let’s hit it, G.”
We jogged down the three flights of stairs and Grace shoved opened the glass doors to the building. Walking in front of me, she threw her arms open and looked up at the sky. “What a great fucking day!” She turned around and reached for my hand. “Come on, it’s this way!”
“Should I be worried? How far is it?”
“It’s about six blocks. And no, you shouldn’t be worried. You’re gonna feel good about this. Your heart will feel good, your wallet will feel good, and your tummy will feel good.”
I didn’t know anyone over the age of twelve who still used the word “tummy.” We walked along, shoulder to shoulder, taking in the warmth radiating from the concrete. “I heard you playing last night,” I told her.
She glanced at me nervously. “Was I too loud?”
“Not at all.”
“My friend Tati came over and practiced with me. She plays the violin. I hope it didn’t keep you up.”
“I liked it a lot, Grace,” I said, seriously. “How’d you learn to play?”
“I taught myself. My mom got me a cello from a garage sale when I was nine. We didn’t have much money, as I’m sure you’ve gathered by now. There’re no frets on a cello so it requires a lot of ear training. I just listened to a ton of records and tried to re-create the sounds. I got a guitar after that and then a piano when I was twelve. In high school, my music teacher wrote me an insane letter of recommendation. That’s how I got in here. I struggled last year, though, and wasn’t sure if I’d stay.”
“Why?”
“I had no formal training outside of my high school orchestra, and this place is really competitive. I’m mostly trying to get good enough to be a studio musician.”
“What kind of music do you like to play?”
“I like to play everything. I really like rock and roll, but I like the classical stuff, too. Even though it’s a huge pain to lug around, I love the cello. I love how its texture can be growly or smooth. When I play the strings without a bow, it reminds me of skipping rocks, and I can’t help but picture those flat little pebbles against the still water.” I stopped. She walked a few feet ahead of me and then turned back. “What’s up?”
“That was a really beautiful way to put it, Grace. I’ve never thought about music that way.”
She sighed. “I just wish passion was enough.”
“There’s no right or wrong in art. My mom always said that.”
I detected a slight nod and then she gestured toward the street. “Come on, we have to cross.”
I was completely lost in New York and hadn’t gotten my bearings, or even figured out how to use the subway, so having Grace there lessened the frightening newness of the big city.
“So, do you have a boyfriend?”
She continued looking ahead but didn’t miss a beat. “No, I don’t date.”
“Just casual sex?” I grinned.
She blushed. “A lady never tells. What about you?”
“I had a girlfriend for a couple of years right out of high school but nothing serious since then. She’s engaged to my brother now, so my track record is pretty awesome.”
“You’re kidding?”
“Nope.”
“Isn’t that weird? I mean, what happened?”
“She dumped me the week I declared my major. My dad, too.” I said the last part under my breath.
“Did you guys have a good relationship?”
“Monica’s dad and my dad are partners at the same law firm. We were kind of set up. I liked her at first but never really thought about a future with her. She wanted me to go into law but it wasn’t my thing. We had different interests. It was for the best. We broke up, and then two weeks later she was dating my brother. I never talked to him about it. There are plenty of asshole things I could have said, but I didn’t want to stoop to his level. He can have her.”
“Were you heartbroken?”
“Not at all. I guess that’s pretty telling. The hardest part for me is not laughing at the whole stupid thing when I’m
around them. That’s another reason I had to get out of L.A. My brother just graduated from law school and likes to rub it in my face. It takes everything in me not to remind him that he’s going to have to live the rest of his life knowing I’ve fucked his wife.”
“Oh.” Grace looked shocked for a moment, and her cheeks flushed. I wasn’t sure if I offended her.
We walked in silence as I berated myself for being so blunt until Grace pointed up to a sign. “Here we are.”
“We’re having lunch at the New York Plasma Center?”
“Yep. So here’s the deal. For your first time you can only do plasma. Make sure you eat as many of the free pretzels and granola bars as you can and drink as much of the juice, too. Then you can hang out with me while I get my platelets sucked out.”
“Wait . . . huh?”
“Yeah, it takes, like, an hour to do the platelets, which really gives us time to feast. Then you’ll get twenty-five bucks and I’ll get fifty.”
I tried to process what she had just told me, but when she started laughing, I couldn’t help laughing, too.
“You think I’m crazy, huh?”
“No, I think this a great idea. You’re a genius.”
She elbowed me playfully. “We’re gonna get along.”
Once we were inside the blood bank, everyone behind the counter recognized Grace and smiled or waved at us as we stood in line.
“You come here a lot?”
“That’s such an old pickup line, Matt. I think you need new material.”
“I’m really into girls with big platelets.”
“Much better. Now you have my attention. You’re in luck, because I’m really into guys named Matthew.”
“It’s Matthias, actually.”
“No shit?” She cocked her head to the side. “I’ve never heard that name before. Is it biblical?”
“Yep. It means God-like.”
“Stop.”
“No, I’m serious. It means God-like appendage.” It took her a second to comprehend what I was saying. I tried not to smile.
Her mouth opened in a perfect O. “You are . . .” She shook her head, and then seized my hand and pulled me toward the counter.