It was late summer. The air was thick and humid. Elizabeth lay on her bed, even though the sun had been up for hours. Every day she chose a different place to zone out—her beanbag chair, the couch, a chair at the dining room table. It didn’t make much difference. Every night she cried herself to sleep, soaking her pillow, which was already stiff with tears. She didn’t even bother to turn it over to the fresh side. Every day the sun rose, but it couldn’t light her world now that her mother was gone.
Elizabeth stared at the ceiling. When she was little, she and her mom used to lie on their backs, finding shapes in the ceiling plaster and making up stories about them. She picked them out now—the lion, the goat, the spaceship, the otter, the dragon, the wine glass—but they didn’t mean anything anymore. They were just splotches of plaster.
It was hot. Sweltering, actually. The hot air pressed on Elizabeth’s lungs, making it hard to breathe. At last she couldn’t stand it anymore—the shapes on the ceiling, the heat, the awful, muffled stillness of the house, the endless hours, passing unnoticed.
She jumped off her bed and ran down the stairs and out the front door. She paused on the doorstep, listening to the cicadas chirping in the sleepy silence. A mail truck was turning the corner at the end of her street. She ran to the mailbox, not really expecting to find anything interesting but needing something to do.
“Watch out!” Elizabeth screamed.
Back in the house, she flipped through the mail, a lump forming in her throat when she saw that several letters were addressed to Alice Benson, her mother. Most of it was for her dad, but one envelope had her name on it. She almost smiled when she saw the stamp with the queen’s profile on it. The letter was from her brother, James, who was in England for the summer.
Elizabeth tore the letter open and read:
I couldn’t believe it when I heard that Mom had been killed in a car crash. I miss you and Dad like crazy. Hang in there, Liz. I know this must be really hard for you. It is for me. Tell Dad I’m coming home on the eighteenth. See you soon.
The next day, when Elizabeth got up, she thought, Seven days since it happened. She was surprised she’d lasted this long.
After eating breakfast with her dad, who barely acknowledged her presence before shutting himself in his office for the day, Elizabeth decided to take a walk.
The sun hadn’t had time to heat everything up yet, so it was almost cool as she started down her street. Half an hour later, she had walked further than she ever had before, to a part of town she’d only seen from the window of a car.
The road sloped down, and as Elizabeth started down the hill, the door of a yellow house opened and a girl and a dog came out. The girl seemed to be blind—she gripped the dog’s harness and walked cautiously as she started up the hill toward Elizabeth.
Elizabeth was so fascinated that she almost didn’t hear the whir of a bike tire. Almost. When she looked up, she saw a man on a bike coasting swiftly down the hill toward the blind girl. Elizabeth expected him to steer clear of the girl and her dog, but the man was listening to music and didn’t see her.
“Watch out!” Elizabeth screamed.
The girl looked up, confused. Her dog barked and tried to pull her out of the way. The biker looked up but it was too late for him to change course. He was going to crash!
Without thinking, Elizabeth leapt into the bike’s path. She felt it collide with her body, knocking her down on the rough asphalt. Her head slammed against the ground and she blacked out.
* * *
The first thing she noticed when she woke up was the music. It was piano music and at first she thought it was her mom playing. But she had never heard this song before. All the songs her mom used to play were worn into her brain so that she could easily recognize them.
She opened her eyes. She was lying on a cream-colored sofa and it was the blind girl playing the piano, not her mom.
Elizabeth tried to raise herself on her elbows, but her head was throbbing and she fell back on the pillows with a groan.
The girl stopped playing. “Mom, she’s awake!” she called and then hurried over and knelt next to the sofa. She moved so easily through the room that Elizabeth wondered it she was really blind.
Just then, a tall woman with long blond hair like her daughter’s hurried in, holding an ice pack. “How are you feeling?” she asked.
“Lousy,” muttered Elizabeth.
The woman gently laid the ice pack against Elizabeth’s head. “My name is Maria Belmont. This is my daughter, Ramona.”
“What happened?” asked Elizabeth. “I just remember jumping in front of the bike and then…”
Maria smiled. “Yes, the biker said so. He was quite worked up. Didn’t even say sorry. He seemed to think it was your fault you got hit. At least he helped me carry you in here.”
“I had to jump in front of him, otherwise he would have hit her,” Elizabeth explained, gesturing to Ramona.
Ramona laughed. “Are you always this noble? The biker wouldn’t have hurt me any worse than he hurt you.”
Elizabeth giggled. “I guess you’re right,” she admitted. “But I couldn’t just stand there and do nothing,” she added. “It wouldn’t be fair.”
Ramona laughed again. “So what’s your name anyway, Miss Nobleness?”
“Should I call your parents?” asked Maria. “They might be worried…”
“No,” said Elizabeth quickly. “I’m sure they’re not.”
“All right,” said Maria uncertainly. “If you’re sure.”
Just then, Elizabeth noticed the dog which had been lying next to the sofa the whole time.
“What’s your dog’s name?” she asked Ramona, stroking its soft black fur.
“Luz,” said Ramona. “It means ‘light’ in Spanish.”
“Why’d you name her that?”
Ramona looked thoughtful. “I guess because she’s kind of like my light—she’s invisible to me, but I can’t see without her.”
“Are you girls hungry?” Maria called from the other room. “Do you want some food?”
“Sure, thanks, Mom,” Ramona called back.
A few minutes later, Maria came in, carrying a plate of crackers and cheese. Elizabeth and Ramona ate hungrily, feeding Luz a few bits of cheese. When they were finished, Maria came in, holding a phone.
“Do you want to stay here and rest for a few hours?” she asked Elizabeth. “If you do, I need you to call your parents and let them know you’re OK. Otherwise, I can drive you home or you can have them come pick you up.”
Elizabeth sat up, but it made her feel dizzy. “Can I stay here for a while?” she asked.
“Of course,” said Maria. “Just let them know you’re OK.”
She handed Elizabeth the phone, and Elizabeth dialed her home number. As she had expected, no one answered, so she left a message saying she’d be home in a few hours.
Then she lay back down on the fuzzy brown cushions. She ached all over. Ramona went back to the piano, Luz snuffled comfortingly in Elizabeth’s ear. She relaxed and eventually drifted off to sleep.
When she opened her eyes again she felt less achy. Ramona was still at the piano, but the light had changed and she had the feeling she’d been asleep for at least an hour.
Maria poked her head into the room. “Want some lunch?” she asked.
“Sure,” Elizabeth replied.
“Is macaroni OK?”
Elizabeth nodded and sat up. Her head still ached and there were scratches and bruises on her arms and legs, but she felt a little better.
“Do you play piano?” Ramona asked.
“I took lessons for a few years a while back,” Elizabeth answered.
“I know some easy duets we could play,” said Ramona hopefully. “I have the music too, if that’s easier.”
“OK,” said Elizabeth, coming over and sitting next to Ramona.
They played until Maria called them in for lunch. The duets were simple and easy to play but sounded cool with the two parts. Elizabeth enjoyed them as much as the macaroni that followed.
“Can Elizabeth stay a while longer?” Ramona asked her mom. “If you want to,” she added to Elizabeth.
“Sure, if that’s OK,” said Elizabeth.
“It’s fine with me, as long as you’re sure your parents won’t mind,” said Maria.
Elizabeth doubted whether her father had even noticed that she was gone. She followed Ramona back to the piano and spent the afternoon playing. When they ran out of duets, Ramona showed Elizabeth a solo piece. This one was familiar.
“My mom used to play this,” said Elizabeth softly. Then, even more softly, “She died in a car accident a week ago.”
“Oh, that’s awful!” cried Ramona. “You must be so sad.”
Elizabeth nodded. “My dad just wanders around the house all day or shuts himself in his office. And my brother is in England. I got a letter from him yesterday. He’s coming home in a few weeks.”
Ramona took Elizabeth’s hand and squeezed it. “Well, at least you have that to look forward to. You have to remember to look for the good things in your life, not the bad things. If we just think about bad things, we’ll never be happy. I wasn’t always blind. I got sick when I was little and now I can’t see. At first I cried so much. I missed the light and the colors. But then my parents got me Luz, and I learned to play piano, and I feel the colors, even if I can’t see them, in the music.”
Later, Maria drove Elizabeth home. As they pulled up in front of her house, the dark windows stared blankly at her. Their house had become a ghost house, quiet as a graveyard, not the welcoming home it had once been. It wasn’t right.
“Are your parents home?” Maria asked uncertainly.
Elizabeth nodded, her throat tight.
Maria turned around to look at her. “It was very sweet of you to jump in front of that bike. And Ramona loved having someone to play piano with. If you want to come over sometime, you can have your parents call me.”
Elizabeth nodded again and got out of the car. “Thanks for everything,” she managed to say.
She climbed the steps to her front door and pushed it open. It was unlocked, just the way she’d left it. She watched from the window as Maria’s red car drove away. Elizabeth looked around the dreary living room. She was sick of the dark, sick of the silence.
She went up to her bedroom. It was stiflingly hot and stuffy up here, and she opened her window as wide as it would go. Then she grabbed her worn copy of Stargirl and ran outside. She found a shady spot in her backyard and spent the rest of the afternoon reading her favorite parts of the book. When she went back inside, she was feeling almost good.
At dinner—pizza, again—she told her dad about what had happened at Ramona’s house. He seemed shaken by her story.
“I’m so sorry, Elizabeth,” he said. “I’ve been so sad about losing Alice that I haven’t been paying attention to you.”
“It’s OK,” said Elizabeth quickly.
“No, it’s not. Alice is gone and there’s nothing I can do about it. We need to move on.”
“I was wondering,” said Elizabeth, “could you help me find some of Mom’s piano music? I want to try to play it.”
“Sure,” said her dad, almost smiling.
“And—could you call Ramona’s mom and see when I can come over?”
When they finished eating, Elizabeth’s dad showed her where her mom’s music was kept, then left to call Maria, leaving Elizabeth to play. She stumbled through the first few pieces but gradually relaxed into it and played with more confidence.
A few minutes later, her dad came back into the room. He waited for her to finish the song she was playing, then he said, “Want to start taking piano lessons again?”
Elizabeth smiled, watching the sun sink behind the rooftops across the street. Even when it was gone, it wasn’t really dark. Just twilight.
“That would be great,” she said.