Matt builds makeshift bridges across creeks in the woods behind his house. He takes bush axes and handsaws to cut down small trees standing in the way of his new bike paths. Sometimes he brings lighter fluid and gas station cigarette lighters when he needs to kick the demolition up a notch. He can’t stand school, studying, or too much time indoors. He thought about playing football, but he’s not looking for any kind of afterschool prison-yard where a bunch of men his dad’s age bark orders and blow whistles all day, even if he does know a few kids on the team. He’s got a lot to do and can’t be bothered with others’ demands.
At night, Matt’s sister Mallory studies through her tears. She weeps into the wee small hours over her US History AP notes, memorizing details next to names like Henry Clay and Cotton Mather, and phrases like “The Monroe Doctrine” and “Manifest Destiny.” She traces the names and phrases with an orange highlighter, their definitions in yellow. The ones she can’t remember after three tries, she underlines with a purple highlighter. She works at the bar in the kitchen, her books and notebooks spread everywhere, and all the lights on like no one in the house is trying to sleep. Sometimes when Matt wakes in the night, he witnesses this scene on his way to the bathroom. He never says a word to her, but pissing in his half-sleep, he makes a vow never to strive too hard for academic success. Why trade hard classes for even harder classes? She watches him as he silently walks back to his bedroom. Back in bed he notices the thin line of light under his closed bedroom door. He pities her.
One night after dinner, Matt plays Mega Man 2 in the kitchen while his parents watch Columbo in the living room. Mallory’s in her room practicing runs on her flute. Now that the marching band competitions are over, she’s learning a few solos in the hopes of making all-district band—an extracurricular ensemble students from all over the eastern half of the state audition to play in. It’s a classical piece, and the sixteenth-note run she practices is swift and complicated. As he blasts flying buzz saw blades at mechanized birds and gorillas, he shudders at the shrillness of the instrument. For fifteen minutes she’s played the run at a faltering tempo, stumbling over the notes, missing accidentals. In the next ten minutes she learns the fingerings and picks up momentum, hitting each note with clarity, until at last she’s found she can play it perfectly—perfect notes, perfect pitch, perfect timing, over and over, and when a mechanized rooster takes his last man, Matt curses and pounds his fist on the kitchen counter hard enough it resets his Nintendo. The screen blinks and the game’s opening animation begins anew. The game is lost.
He opens her bedroom door. “Can you shut the hell up? You’ve been playing that same piece of shit for hours.”
“I’m practicing for all-district.”
“Well, play something different; you’re making me crazy.” He slams her door and goes back to the kitchen.
“Matt,” he hears his mother say.
“Leave her be,” his father says.
He selects a new first boss, Crash Man, from the screen as his sister starts slowly playing a chromatic scale.
Mallory drives them both to school. Sometimes she puts on her makeup in the rearview mirror while she drives. Matt insists on sitting in the back seat because it gets on her nerves. He likes to pretend she’s his chauffeur. When he does this, he attempts a British accent and pretend-reads an imaginary newspaper. He says things like “Tallyho!” and inquires about the current price of “petrol.” Some days he lies down in the back seat.
Near the end of the school year, Mallory has a bad week. She learns that even though she will be a junior marshal for graduation, her best friend Shannon will be head marshal because her GPA has surpassed Mallory’s by a few hundredths of a point. As head marshal, Shannon will be wearing the coveted red sash over her white dress rather than the standard navy blue. Yesterday the band director informed her that she did not make all-district band this year in spite of a near-flawless audition. To add to these calamities, she still doesn’t have plans for the prom. These all weigh heavily on her mind one morning as she applies eye shadow on the way to school. The roads are wet, and they are running late as usual. Matt is prostrate on the back seat, his face resting on a duck-print pillow he grabbed from the living room couch, when he feels his stomach fall with the screech and skid of tires on wet asphalt, followed by the jolting GHUZZS of the Honda’s front bumper and hood colliding with the back end of an older lady’s Buick LeSabre. The impact rolls Matt and his pillow harmlessly into the foot of the back seat. Everyone’s shaken, but nobody’s hurt. Busted radiator, burnt rubber, engine smoke, fire truck, sirens, strobes, police, license-registration, insurance, telephone numbers, classmates driving by, disappointed father, more tears, and all of it while standing in the rain.
But Matt’s a few years from learning how to console another human being, let alone his sister. He doesn’t even give her a hug there in the rain before the melee arrives, an unfortunate detail from this memory she’ll never forget. Sensitivity is the kind of thing that gets you punched in the arm in the hallways, roughhoused or head-locked outside the locker-rooms, verbally emasculated in the cafeteria, always in front of the prettiest girls, and always at the hands of the most abnormally tall or muscular boys.
Mallory exiles herself to her bedroom nightly. She doesn’t study quite as much. The prom feels less important, and being “good” at anything seems like a dream deferred. She no longer has a car. The world has become a quiet, claustrophobic, suffocating mess.
But time begins to heal her eleventh-grade wounds. Soon music comes from her bedroom again starting with her favorite classical pieces, but also a few jazz standards, ballads mostly. She again pours herself into precision, practicing scales, arpeggios, and new songs. As a result of her proficiency, the summer before her senior year, she’s progressed to section leader in the marching band. Before the start of band camp, the band instructor loans her a piccolo, a new flute half the size of her old one, an octave higher in range. This transition further renews her zeal for music, and she plays twice as much on the shrill new instrument.
Matt loses it.
One Saturday night his sister leaves with friends to go eat by-the-slice pizza at the food court. Matt rummages through her book-bag, through her closet, and under her bed for the piccolo case. He finds the case under a pile of clothes.
Matt hops on his bike, pedaling furiously eight, maybe ten miles. When he finds a road that looks desolate enough—no houses or anything too close, just woods—he stashes his bike in the ditch, walks through the forest a bit, and flings the case into the air as far as he can. He hears it bounce twice in the fallen leaves, and then silence.
There are many kinds of silence to a boy of fourteen: there’s the grim, caustic silence of scribbling sentences and filling of bubbles meant to measure the scope of his future; there’s the anguished silence of ever-smoldering swallowed words when fear of adult authority trumps his sense of justice; there’s the wakeful silence he feels, stirring and restless, groaning in his lengthening bones before he finally sleeps; and there’s the possessing, lonely silence when he first understands his actions are no longer those of the man he envisions himself becoming.
He remembers how pathetic she looked in the rain the day she totaled her car, her frizzy hair, her unfinished makeup streaking down her face. By the time I’m home, she’ll already know, he thinks, and he wonders if she’ll ever forgive him. He begins to walk back to his bicycle, but then, no, he turns in the direction he believes he threw the instrument. It’s a nearly moonless night and his only light, he recalls, is affixed to his bike. He kicks around leaves in the darkness hoping his shoe will land on the small case. Suddenly, one step finds him up to his knee in a hole a dead tree has left behind. It’s hopeless without a light.
He walks, one minute, two in the direction he believes his bike to be. He’s soon aware he’s walked longer now returning than upon arriving, but he can’t yet see the edge of the woods. His breathing quickens. He’s sweating now and close to panic. Get quiet and calm down, he thinks. He stands there in the woods, controlling his breath, trying to remain motionless so that even the leaves under his feet are quiet. Alone he waits, listening through the silence for anything at all. Eventually, he hears the faraway sound of a passing car. With a sigh of relief, he follows the memory of the sound out of the forest. He walks up and down the road a few times until he stumbles over his bicycle.
In his fear he’d momentarily forgotten the flute, but as he begins pumping the pedals homeward, knowing what lies ahead, the enormity of it all takes his wind. His arms tremble at steadying the handlebars.
She’ll forgive me for this, he thinks. Tomorrow’s Sunday. I’ll come back. I’ll find it.
But Matt never finds the flute. His sister is more devastated than angry at first, and privately his parents contemplate corporal punishment before deciding he’s too old for a spanking. “He’s clearly upset,” his mother offers. His father agrees and decides waiting on a sentence is a nice phase-one for his punishment. Matt searches after church and every afternoon that week and the following weekend to no avail. After conferring with Mallory’s band director on the cost of the piccolo, Matt’s father arrives to a solution: Matt’s first job.
Matt makes minimum wage—almost five dollars an hour—at a small shop in town called Computer Connections. He knows little about computers beyond Oregon Trail, Solitaire, and control-alt-delete, but the proprietor finds busy work. At fourteen he can only do a couple hours on school days, and his father finds him unpaid labor in chores at home on the weekends, so by the time Matt’s earned enough to pay for the piccolo, Mallory, through hard work and strategic scheduling, satisfies the academic requirements of the state a semester early, and she moves away to start college in the new year.
On the day of the long-awaited recompense, he hands the money—to the tune of at least twelve decent Nintendo games—over to his father, who writes a check to the band director, who thanks him on behalf of the county school system and promptly deposits the check into his own personal account to help pay for an in-ground pool he plans to have installed in his backyard that summer. All those hours spent dusting and defragging customer computers, stocking recordable CDs, cables, and hardware, manning the register and phone, he felt sure settling his debt would feel better. However, in the coming years, when he recalls the whole business, Matt will always remember how hollow paying the debt felt in Mallory’s absence, how quiet those four months were without her music, and how back then he wondered if his sister kept someone else’s brother or sister up all night, studying and practicing in her dorm room.
“The Hidden Flute,” a companion story to this one, appears in 42.1 of the print Florida Review.
To find out what happens to the piccolo, order a subscription or copy of 42.1.