This Darkness Mine – Mindy McGinnis

I’m digging splinters out of my gums again. The closest music store carries only cheap reeds, and Mom and Dad won’t pay shipping for something that weighs practically nothing. The end result is me leaning over the girls’ bathroom sink with Brooke’s tweezers, trying to focus on the sliver by my canine rather than on my best friend’s morbid fascination with the process. “Some space?” I ask, pulling back from the mirror. It’s hard enough to do this without her shoulder rubbing against mine. “Sorry, Sasha,” she says. “It’s just so gross.” Which is exactly why she’s leaning in. That’s the kind of girl Brooke is. She’ll pop the zits you can’t reach and offer to skin everyone else’s cat in bio, but the downside of having that for a friend is that she’s also intensely interested in any open wounds you might have. I’m back up against the mirror, my breath fogging exactly where I need to see before she speaks again. “I’ve never even heard of people getting reed splinters in their gums.

” She lets her sentence die out, like I’m supposed to provide a more likely explanation for the slivers of bone-white wood that work their way out of my gums. “Reeds break.” I shrug. “And no one else practices as much as I do.” Brooke nods in the mirror, because there’s no point arguing about that. I arch an eyebrow at her and she shrugs, letting me know she won’t interrupt again. I pull down my lower lip, resting the tweezers on the callus that’s developed on the inside. The latest splinter is barely poking through, a hard white tip in a sea of soft pink. Getting a good grip on them is always the worst part. Each near miss creates a scraping noise I can feel as well as hear, a tiny vibration that passes through the roots of my teeth. But leaving it there isn’t an option. The last time I ignored one I got an infection and couldn’t play for a week, after which Charity Newell challenged me for first chair. I retained my seat, but she looked oddly hopeful afterward—so I hadn’t crushed her.

I pinch down on the tweezers at the right moment, the tip of the splinter flattening under the pressure. Behind me I hear Brooke taking a deep breath as I pull, the end finally coming free, the tiny round hole in my gum filling with a dot of blood. I run my tongue over it, the tang of copper fading quickly. Brooke takes her tweezers back from me, inspecting the tiny fleck of wood still stuck on the end. “Does it hurt?” she asks. I rinse my mouth out with water and do a quick check to see if there are more. “No,” I tell her, which is sort of true. Like a lot of things, it only hurts if you let it. Brooke keeps an eye on me throughout lunch, like she thinks I’m going to cough up a femur or something. We’re at our normal table, tucked into a corner where the band geeks and literal drama queens find a measure of peace.

We can talk about wet versus dry embouchure without any unwanted sexual innuendo from idiots, and the word thespian gets by without giggles. Which is not to say that we don’t have our own brand of shortcomings. If I hear one more joke about Heath’s trombone . “God, take a shower, Harver,” Lilly says, but her eyes show something less than disgust as they follow Isaac Harver across the cafeteria. Brooke’s too. “That’s easily three days no-wash, maybe five,” Brooke says. “You would know,” Lilly says, rubbing the tips of her squeaky-clean blond curls between her fingers. “Two weeks, baby.” Brooke flips double Vs for victory toward the football players’ table. She hasn’t let them live down the eighth-grade bet to see who could go the longest without showering.

They ignore her, so she decides to pester Lilly instead. “Like you’d pass up the chance to shower with Isaac,” she says. Lilly’s narrowed eyes are still on him as he flops into his seat at the table by the window, the one that all the stoners claimed at the beginning of the year and no one had the guts to oust them from. “Is there a prerinse involved?” Lilly asks, and Brooke busts out laughing. “Omigod, you whore.” I smack down my spoon, not caring that chili splatters across Brooke’s sweater. “Do you mind?” “What?” Her eyes are wide and confused, but Brooke can’t quite pull off total innocence. She knows exactly what she did. “You should watch your language,” I tell her. “One day it’s going to bite you in the butt.

” “I think you mean ass,” Brooke says, and Lilly ducks her head so I can’t see her smiling. But I know she is. “Seriously, Brooke. Remember when Miss Upton dropped the f-bomb at band camp?” “That one time?” Brooke adds, and Lilly can’t smother her laugh. That joke needs to die already. “She was almost fired over it,” I remind them. Summer band camp doesn’t exactly bring out the best in people, especially by midweek. Hauling heavy instruments in hundred-degree weather, blowing every breath you’ve got into music you haven’t learned yet, and fresh breakouts around your lips as your mouthpiece jams every drop of sweat right back into your pores makes you cranky. It’s not ideal, but it still wasn’t okay for the flag instructor to toss out the big no-no when a girl lost her pole grip and Miss Upton took one in the face. “I think you’d swear if your nose was broken too,” Lilly says.

She sneaks a glance at me and adds, “Maybe.” “Yeah, and anyway, she didn’t actually say fuck,” Brooke goes on, ignoring my wince. “It was more like—” She dumps some milk into her palm, huffs it up her nose, covers her face with her hands, and makes an inarticulate noise that might or might not be a swear. I can’t tell because I’m already pushing back from the table to avoid the white froth Brooke is spewing everywhere. “What?” she asks. “Too much?” “No wonder you don’t have a boyfriend,” Lilly says. Brooke waves her off as she wipes her face with a napkin. “Who cares? Unlike Sasha, I can survive without a trom . boner.” And there it is.

At least once a week. Why couldn’t I date a drummer? I wad up my own napkin, tossing it into my chili, where it immediately starts to soak up grease and sink. “Seriously. Why are we even friends?” Brooke stops laughing, managing to look dignified even with twin rivers of milk flowing from her nostrils. “I really don’t know,” she says. And somehow, I feel like I didn’t win that one. There is nothing as beautiful as silver against black. My clarinet rests in its case, but not for long. It’s time to practice, time to smell wet cork and my own breath, time for my brain to disconnect and my fingers to move of their own volition, music seeping out from under my bedroom door until Mom calls me down to dinner. And maybe even after that, if I play softly enough that they can’t hear.

Six years ago Mr. Hunter brought us into the high school band room, our little sixth-grade bodies small enough to fit into the instrument cages. He showed us every instrument, played a B flat major scale on each one, sent little slips home to our parents explaining financing options and the pros and cons of new versus used. I knew what I wanted, even then. An unswerving dedication fired in my soul at the sight of the clarinet. I’m not like Lilly, who started out on trumpet, said it hurt her lips too much and tried a sax, flaked out and switched over to the flute, which she’s stayed with for two years—but I’ve seen her casting looks at the oboes lately. I’m not like Brooke either, happy to stand in the back and hit bells, drums, timpani, freshmen, anything that gets close to her mallets. They chose music because we always did things together, from dressing up like triplet bunnies at Halloween to making a pact that our boyfriends always had to get along with one another or it was a deal breaker. Lilly’s talents extended from the orchestra pit to the stage, even if she had yet to snag a lead role, while Brooke had transposed her penchant for hitting things into a decent softball career. Me, I live by one thing.

And I do it well. I snap the joints together and tighten the ligature, ignoring the slight scream in my wrist as I do. My hands have crackled since seventh grade, the tendons forever swollen and stiff. Mom keeps warning me that I’m doing permanent damage. Dad doesn’t comment because he always has earplugs in. It’s together now, resting on my lap, the last rays of the evening sun slipping through my window and bouncing off the keys. I love how it looks so complicated, spikes of silver flaring, empty holes of nothingness, a mass of wood and metal that almost seems vicious until you hear its voice. Low. Melodic. Lulling.

It can convince you of anything if you listen to it long enough. My hands find their place and do their work. They must want Brahms tonight because that’s what my ears get. There’s nothing better than letting your brain go dead. I use it so much, taxing it to the limit with facts, theories, definitions—whatever I need to regurgitate for the next test. Then I push everything I dedicated my mind to for the week out the back door to make room for the next batch, the next test, a red A+ bleeding onto the white of whatever paper I wrote last. It’s my hands that know the clarinet, not my brain. It unclenches, resting lightly in a fluid bed as Brahms rocks it to sleep, the curtains of my eyelids drawing shut to give it peace from the daylight. My phone goes off. I jolt, knocking my teeth against the mouthpiece.

The reed cracks and I suck back a word that I’d yell at Brooke for saying. I settle for growling deep in my throat as I dig through the mass of covers on my bed for the phone. It dings at me again, lighting up enough for me to see it under the pillow where it slipped when I tossed it on the bed. There’s a text from an unfamiliar number, with a monosyllabic message. hey I don’t hesitate with my response. A few years ago Kate Gulland accidentally sexted with her boyfriend’s dad because of a single-digit mix-up. She said it made Christmas dinner incredibly awkward. Who is this? There’s no answer. I stare at the screen until the opening bars of Beethoven’s Eighth that I use as my background begin to blur into each other. I roll onto my belly, phone still in hand but composure shattered.

Full-on practice mode is my favorite place to be, but it’s not an easy one to get to. Recapturing the semiconscious state that I prefer will take a full ten minutes, only to be interrupted again as soon as dinner is ready. The phone vibrates in my hand, light bouncing off my palm. Isaac I roll my eyes. Whatever, B. Give your little bro his phone back. Brooke’s time would be better spent perfecting the new cadence on her quads than screwing with me over text, or next week the woodwinds are going to march right into the brass when we try to pregame. I turn off my phone as Mom’s voice sails up the stairs. Dad likes to say the only things you can count on in life are death and taxes, but I’ll add our seating arrangement at dinner to that. Dad at the head, Mom at the foot, me to his right.

There are scuff marks on the wall behind me where I’ve shoved away from the table too hard, the back of my chair scraping away slivers of wallpaper and digging into the drywall underneath. Seventeen years’ worth of minor arguments and a few dashes for the bathroom are imprinted there, marking my place. I’ve charted the conversation while staring at the empty chair across from me. I know what to expect the moment my butt is in my spot, so I have my answers preloaded, my mouth ready to convince them I’m present and accounted for while my hands work through some fingering, tapping on the dead silence of fork and spoon. “How was school today?” from Mom is a middle E, simple and sweet, a good warm-up for more complicated things to come. “Fine. We played insert current band piece here and Brooke said, ‘fill in with best friend’s witticism of the day.’” One note up, the F, all throat, which is fitting, since this is the most I’ll say in the dinner hour. Mom says, “How was work?” This is my cue to launch into the A flat major scale, because I’m not needed here. Dad will talk about foreign and domestic taxes, 529 payouts and offshore banking, then complain about people who don’t understand these things.

He fills his plate while he talks, making sure none of his food touches. Much like the chairs around the table, safe distance is always assured. He’ll ask how her day was next, and Mom will talk about a long phone call with a friend, reiterating it almost word for word. I once made it through all twelve major scales while she informed us about someone’s spinal fusion. I don’t remember whose. Sometimes I wonder what Mom’s day is like once Dad and I are gone, if she’s relieved to see our backs or if the house feels empty without us. Her coffee cups have permanent rings on the inside, her levels of determination rising as they drop. I imagine her day, starting with getting everyone else moving, ending with turning out bedroom lights. Though she always has something to say at dinner, I’ve noticed that Mom’s stories are never about her. My fingers have stopped moving, a spoonful of mashed potatoes paused halfway to my mouth.

“Sasha?” Mom asks. “Everything okay?” “My day was fine,” I say, and a line of worry forms between her eyebrows. I’ve interrupted the flow of dinner, said a line from the beginning here at the end, where it doesn’t belong. “How are you?” I ask, and the line deepens into confusion. Dad always asks how her day was, which is something else entirely. “I’m . ” Mom shakes her head, not able to improvise an answer to an unscripted question. “I’m fine,” she says. But her voice goes up at the end, turning it into an uncertainty. Dad clears his throat.

“Sasha.” “I’m fine too,” I say. And my chair smacks the wall as I leave. Homework waits for me, reliable as ever. I turn on my phone so that I can have some Pachelbel in the background while I work. Everyone else in the world might prefer the Canon, but his Ciaccona in F minor blows it out of the water. Brooke says I only listen to it to be elitist. I smirk while my phone powers up, thinking about Brooke. I’m sure I’ve got either an apology or a long line of texts from her still trying to convince me she’s Isaac. Instead I get this: WTF you gave me your # U want me to txt you or not? A new one comes in just as I’m about to crack some sass.

Whatever Brooke may be my best friend, but she knows better than to whatever me, over text or otherwise. My phone shakes in my hands as I consider the alternatives. There aren’t many. Either someone who doesn’t like me is screwing with me—and I’ll admit, that list is long—or this actually is Isaac. Which puts me in an odd place because I have nothing to say to him. I settle for I think you have the wrong number Then I mute my phone and fire up the Pachelbel. Brooke says life is easier in the key of F. Of course she always adds “you.” two School is a process, a series of hoops to be jumped through, set at the appropriate heights for whoever the jumper is. Mine are high, and while there are days that I resent the mental acrobatics necessary for me to clear them, I also realize that they’ve been positioned there for a reason.

It has been determined that I am capable of performing at that level. All I have to do is prove it. Senior year has been no more taxing than the others. Assigned novels are longer and the equations more convoluted, but nothing has set me back yet. Colleges have been courting me since I was a junior, but my sights have been set on Oberlin since I picked up a pamphlet from the band director as a sixth grader. I can get a degree in psychology as well as a performance degree from their conservatory, something that Dad thinks is hilarious. He told me if my goal was to drive people crazy with my constant playing, I’d already accomplished it. That’s when Mom bought him the earplugs. Dad tried to steer me toward an economics major, telling me that music might be my passion but I needed to think rationally about employment. He said taxes only sound boring and can provide a reliable income.

I sat through an hour lecture about how there’s a sense of calm to be found in columns of integers, and that numbers never lie. So I found a copy of our cell phone bill and highlighted all the calls from his account to an unfamiliar number that always happened right around the time he got off work. I mailed it to his office with a Post-it attached that said, “You’re right, Dad! Numbers don’t lie. Love, Sasha.” He left me alone after that. Like pretty much all the time. My fingers fly through my locker combination without thought, my mind idly following the junior high band as they murder our fight song, its agonizing death floating down the hallway. They’ve pounded through the first sixteen measures, and I’m bracing myself for the bridge when my locker is slammed shut, my index finger two inches from losing some length. “What the hell?” “That’s what I’m thinking,” Isaac Harver says as he leans against the wall. My heart hits at least a hundred beats per minute as I glance up and down the hall, but there’s hardly anyone here this early.

Just me, the sixth-grade morning class using the shared band room, and the only person in the world I know who actually owns a black leather jacket. And somehow Isaac wears it like it’s any other coat, as if he could take it off and still look like a badass. I glance at the tattoo trailing down his neck into his white T-shirt and the scabs on his knuckles from where—the word is—he punched out Jade McCarren’s dad last week when he shorted him on weed. Intimidating or not he almost took off one of my fingers, and I need all ten if I’m going to Oberlin. “Thinking,” I say. “Not your normal mode of operation is it?” He smiles and I stop breathing for a second, either because he might be about to stab me or because he has dimples. “So, what?” he says. “You came over to the dark side for a minute when you gave me your number?” I yank my locker open for the second time. “I did not give you my number,” I say between clenched teeth, and my anger makes him take a step back. People are always surprised when roses have a few thorns, like the girls who wear khakis and live with our natural hair color aren’t ever going to bite.

“Yeah . ” Isaac’s eyes narrow as he watches me fish a copy of Great Expectations out of my locker, even though I have no idea why I need it, since English isn’t until after lunch. “Except you did.” It’s my turn to slam the locker, and I’m about to say something nasty when there’s a hand on my shoulder, heavy, cool, and calm. “Everything okay?” Heath asks, his voice as steady as his pulse. Isaac doesn’t look at my boyfriend. I can feel his eyes on me even though I’m staring at my locker. “Yeah, man,” Isaac says. “Everything’s peaches.” Then he flicks a strand of my hair over my shoulder as he walks away.

Heath’s grip on me tightens. “What was that?” I turn into him, switching my view from the numbers on my locker to the steady, sensible third buttonhole on Heath’s shirt. It’s Tuesday, so he’s wearing his blue oxford. “Nothing,” I tell him, my eyes slipping slightly upward to the collar of his new tee, crisp and white, barely stretched. I remember that Isaac’s was worn out, with the tiniest drop of rust on the edge that was probably blood. “Just a psycho being a psycho,” I add, because Heath hasn’t let go of my shoulder, and I can feel the tips of his manicured nails through my sweater. I head toward the band room, Heath in my wake as the sixth graders spill out to get to their wing before the rest of the high schoolers fill the halls. I swear I can feel the strand of hair that Isaac touched burning right through my clothes. Which makes no sense because we’ve barely exchanged ten words our entire lives, even in a school this small. The only memory I have of him is from third grade, when he wrote the f-word in red crayon on the bottom of the tube slide, and we all dared each other to go look at it.

He’s at the end of the hall, headed for the back door where smokers sneak one before first period. I watch him take the turn, part of me hoping I never see him again and another part willing him to look back at me. Then he’s gone, and my heart stops. It actually stops. I make the oddest noise, the slightest oooh, as I lose the beat, my hands clamping to my chest as if I can reset the metronome there with my fingers. Heath is at my side, hands tight on both arms now, forcing my arms deeper into their sockets, my collarbone protesting. I can’t speak, can’t tell him to stop. My heart has left me. I felt it go, slipping down the hall to follow Isaac. Like a rubber band stretched too far it comes back to me, slamming into my rib cage just as I crumple to the floor.

One beat. Two. A thread of regularity. “I’m fine,” I say to Heath, who came down to the floor with me. “Not enough to eat this morning, I think.” He digs in his pocket and pulls out a package of granola, which should be some kind of heroism in this moment but instead all I can think is that he’ll be a great dad and somehow that’s unsexy as hell right now. “Just get me off the floor before anybody sees me,” I say, waving away the granola. He’s a gentleman, hand on my elbow, counting to three, saying “careful,” as I come to my feet. Heath holds the door to the band room open for me, and I get to my chair without falling, snapping together my clarinet and trying to reclaim the steps of this day, the ones that need to accumulate to get me through the week, the month, the year. Everything that needs to pass to land me where I deserve to be—the first clarinet chair in a bigger room than this, surrounded by real musicians.

Isaac Harver is not going to distract me from that. And if my heart stops first, I’ll find a way to keep going without it. I monitor my pulse throughout the day, slipping my fingers onto my wrist and counting, well aware that if I collapse again Heath will call 911 and I’ll spend my evening explaining that my heart travels with Isaac Harver now. Which is just as ridiculous as it sounds, even taken symbolically. How he got my number I don’t know, but I definitely didn’t give it to him, I reassure myself as I pull the cuff of my sweater back down over my wrist in sixth period. My pulse is right where it’s supposed to be, my heart behaving instead of traipsing toward certain doom. Lilly flops into the seat next to mine, her hair ballooning up into a mushroom cloud that carries nothing more lethal than an overdose of lavender vanilla. “Hey,” she says. “When you get a chance I need a baby picture for the yearbook.” I’m still counting heartbeats, so she clarifies.

“The senior baby pictures?” she goes on. “Cole Vance gave us one of him in the tub, but you could totally see his dick. I had to photoshop some bubbles in. They were really small bubbles. But I guess he was a baby then, so he gets a waiver on that one. Although, maybe it matters even on babies? Do some boy babies have bigger—” I stop her with my hand in the air. “You need a baby picture of me?” “Yes.” “For the layout of senior baby pictures?” “Yes.” I nod. “Got it.

Stories of Cole Vance’s prepubescent penis not necessary.” “Brooke thought it was funny,” she huffs. “Brooke would,” I shoot back. “Just give me the bare minimums of what I need to know. I’m operating on overload as it is.” And while this is certainly true, I don’t know why it’s suddenly getting to me. Pressure is my environment, like a creature three miles underneath the sea. If you took all the expectations away, the shock would kill me, my lungs flattening and refusing to reinflate. “You okay?” Lilly asks. I’m not used to hearing this question.

I am always okay. That’s when I realize both my hands are to my chest, shielding my heart from an unseen threat. “I’m fine,” I snap, dropping my arms to my side. I love Lilly but Charity Newell is her cousin, and I can’t say for sure that she was entirely happy for me when I defended first chair successfully. She might actually care if I’m okay. She might be checking for cracks in my veneer. “Did you finish?” I ask, waving Great Expectations in the air to change the subject. “You bet,” she says, flashing her phone with highlighted SparkNotes. “Nice,” I say. “Slacker.

” Lilly shrugs. She’s always been this way, smart enough to skate by but not really caring. She’ll be married in five years, have three kids before thirty and call herself happy. Great expectations, indeed. Her eyes are glued on Cole as he walks in the room, and I’m guessing her mind might still be on baby pictures, but probably not mine. I roll my eyes and schedule a reminder in my phone to ding the second I walk in the door. If I don’t grab Mom as soon as I get home, I’ll forget. There are bigger things on my mind, and the last thing I need is Lilly hassling me about it if it slips through the cracks. Heath comes in and gives me a smile, but takes his usual seat at the front. I study the back of his shirt, the precise cut of his hair—always even because he gets it trimmed on schedule.

Next to me, Lilly is teasing Cole about bubbles. Legs crossed, body at an angle, eyes cast upward, fingers twisting in her hair. Everything about her is screaming at him to notice her and it’s working. Meanwhile I’m ramrod straight staring at Heath’s back, well aware that he’d be irritated if he knew his tag was sticking up. I don’t tell him

.

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