Mozart - Horn Concerto No. 3 in E-flat Major. John sighed as he flipped open the slightly crumpled piece of music and set it on the broken music stand. He looked down at his French horn, which was beginning to look a bit tarnished, and lifted it into playing position. E-flat major. Emerald. John took a deep breath and began to play. Warm, majestic colors filled the cramped room, soaring through the air, guided by well-practiced technique. The white walls of his bedroom faded away, and he was surrounded by blinding stage lights, backed by a powerful orchestra. Suddenly, he fumbled a phrase ending; the audience jeered, and the stage disappeared. John rolled his eyes, exasperated. He took another deep breath to try again -- knock, knock.
“John, we have to leave right now! Why are you practicing?” scolded his mother. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten that Lucy’s getting baptized today -- hurry up!”
John grumbled dejectedly, setting the horn on his dark green pillow. Playing horn had become an increasingly depressing task; juggling college auditions with schoolwork was bad enough, but John also knew that his parents wouldn’t let him go to a music conservatory in the end anyway. The result was an overwhelming combination of self-doubt, self-pity, and self-loathing. I wish I could love science. Or business. But here I am, a painfully above-average horn player. No benefit to society.
John swapped his sweatpants for a pair of jeans and made his way to the garage, where his sister, Lucy, and his father were already waiting in the old family van. His mother rolled her eyes as she noted John’s choice of clothing, but said nothing as she followed along into the car.
The church was filled with excited parents and apprehensive children. John took a seat in the back row, ignoring the glares of his parents, who sat in the second row.
John’s phone buzzed. It was a text from Susie: “Lunch?”
“Sure. After church.” Send. John’s brief smile faded as the service began.
“Jeremiah, chapter 29, verse 11: ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” The pastor paused dramatically. “There is no luck in the universe, only God’s will. And we must humbly accept that God knows what’s best for us better than we ourselves can know.”
John tuned out the rest of the sermon. I don’t know what God’s will is, but you’re right about there being no luck in the universe. He grumpily slouched in his chair, mulling over the misfortune that was his life.
John somehow stayed awake to see his sister commit her life to Jesus Christ, but that was mostly because the crowd in his head was causing a ruckus. You’re great, for an amateur. Your potential lies elsewhere. Laughing at his musical mediocrity.
Church ended promptly at noon, and the family van meandered its way home.
A text from Susie appeared on John’s phone. “Need a ride? Roberto can drive us, and Eddie is back, by the way.”
“Yeah, I’ll be home in ten. Tell Eddie I’ll bring Nat.” Send.
“Awesome. Bring your horn so we can go directly to rehearsal afterwards. See you soon!”
The van had barely pulled into the garage before John hopped out and dashed into the house. He grabbed his wallet, stuffed it in his pocket, and ran to his bedroom, where Nat was waiting in a glass fish tank. Nat was Eddie’s pet anaconda. Eddie went on vacation a lot with his mother, and John took care of the gray-green snake in his absence. The anaconda rearranged itself gloomily as John lifted the tank, and John felt the corners of his mouth twinge upwards in a half-smile. Eddie didn’t understand John’s disillusionment with high school, but maybe his anaconda did. John tucked the tank under his arm and lifted his French horn case with his hand.
“I’m going out for lunch with friends.” John brushed past his mother’s disapproving stare and opened the front door as Roberto pulled up in his Toyota Prius.
“John!” Eddie was in the passenger seat. “Thanks for looking after Nat. Just set him in the trunk.”
John complied and joined Susie in the backseat. He sat in the middle so that he could sit next to Susie while also giving his French horn a seat. As the car accelerated out of the neighborhood, John saw that Roberto was wearing sandals, leaving his toes out in the open. Roberto had a rubber toe.
“You okay, John?” Susie tossed her silky brown hair and looked at him, her eyebrows furrowed with concern. “You look stressed.”
“Yeah, just music stuff as usual.” John’s answer was noncommittal, but his eyes betrayed appreciation. “My parents--”
“You’re so silly. Music is fun.” Susie laughed melodiously. “My violin teacher always tells me to practice each day as if it’s my last chance ever.”
Eddie interrupted. “Nerds. Are you guys okay with Chipotle?”
“Yep.” John snuck a glance at Susie before looking out the window, lost in thought. God, she’s so perfect. I don’t deserve her either.
The Prius wound along the grassy lanes of Mooseville, constantly accelerating. “Hey, Roberto, slow down,” said Eddie. “No hurry.”
“Don’t worry,” laughed Roberto. “I’ve got this.” But the car was approaching a red stoplight rapidly, with no signs of slowing down. “Wait, what the heck is happening?”
Roberto frantically tried to hit the brakes, but his rubber toe had somehow become stuck to the accelerator in the hot weather. They flew into the intersection just as a McDonald’s truck was crossing through. I’m lovin’ it. The last thing John heard before he blacked out was the wrenching sound of metal colliding with metal. Black. Metallic black. There is no luck in this world. Nat slithered out of his overturned tank to freedom, unnoticed amid the chaos.
“John. John, are you awake?” John opened his eyes to the concerned face of his mother. He had a mighty strong headache and noticed that his right leg was in a cast, resting on a bland white hospital bed.
“What happened?” he choked out.
“Don’t you remember? There was an accident, and you and your friends were hurt very badly. Actually--” his mother stopped short and looked away.
John’s heart turned to stone. “Mom. Is Susie okay? You have to tell me!”
His mother’s eyes were oceans. “John… Susie died a few days after the crash. You’ve been unconscious for over a week now.”
John began to drift out of consciousness. He didn’t seem to comprehend this bit of information as he dozed off. Purple. Deep, brooding purple.
John was discharged from the hospital just one week later, but he didn’t return to school. He spent the next few weeks at home, staring into the woods in the backyard. He didn’t play his French horn, which had escaped the accident unscathed.
One day, Mr. Jackson, the school band director, came to visit. John resented a lot of the adults at school, but his band teacher was an exception.
“Hey, John. We miss you in band.” Mr. Jackson took a seat on the old red sofa in the living room, causing it to creak. “Miss playing horn?”
John shook his head, avoiding his teacher’s gaze as he took a seat next to Mr. Jackson. “I’m thinking I might quit soon. My parents aren’t letting me go to music school anyway.” He sighed. “Mr. Jackson, I wish I were better. I’ve worked so hard, but no one will ever hear me play horn again after I graduate.” Tears were streaming down John’s face now.
Mr. Jackson gently cleared his throat. “John, look at me.”
John wiped away his tears with a tissue and looked up. “I’m -- I’m sorry, Mr. Jackson.”
“It’s fine, John.” Mr. Jackson’s eyes were a warm chocolatey brown. “You can talk to me.” He hesitated. “But you have to be honest. You love music, John; you would never quit.”
Salty, stinging tears returned to John’s gray-green eyes. “Susie…” His voice trailed off.
“Hey.” Mr. Jackson interjected. “I’m here to listen. You’ll feel better if you talk it out, I promise.”
John sniffled. “I miss playing duets with her. There aren’t really any duets for violin and French horn, so we had to transcribe duets written for other instruments. I was always bothered by that, but she never seemed to care.” John fought the lump in his throat. “She didn’t practice a lot. I hate wrong notes, but there was something special in her playing that made up for it. I felt so free when I played with her -- I could be happy or sad or excited or romantic, and she would always be right there with me. Even when our duets didn’t fit together so well, her smile at the end made up for it. I-- I can’t believe I’m never going to see that smile again”
Mr. Jackson was staring at the ceiling, lost in thought. “Susie’s the girl who performed for Matt’s ceremony, right?” Matt was the principal cellist of the school orchestra when he committed suicide two years ago.
John nodded. “Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise. Everyone was crying at the end.”
“I remember. She really didn’t hold back. You could tell she loved violin, and more importantly, that her performance was truly dedicated to Matt.” Mr. Jackson glanced at his watch. “I wish I could talk to you more, but I have to get home. Get well soon, John. I’ll be waiting for you in band.”
“Thanks for coming to see me,” said John. Mr. Jackson smiled and waved as he left through the front door. John returned to his bedroom, where he plopped his head down on the dark green pillow. His eyelids began to droop -- the conversation had sapped him of his strength. Susie. His heart clenched excruciatingly, but he now knew how to fix it. I’ll play it out on my horn, Susie, and you can help me with your violin. Just like we always do. John’s mind filled with old duets as he fell asleep. Red. Romantic, ruby red.
John was sitting on the park bench with Susie, watching the last rays of sun descend into the suburban skyline.
“Hmm, tough question. I’d have to go with E-flat. What color is that?” Susie looked to John for his response.
“Green. Emerald, really.” John saw colors in his head when he heard musical pitches -- a phenomenon known as synesthesia. Synesthesia was often the subject of their musical discussions.
“Emerald, really? That’s my favorite color, you know.” Susie’s eyes twinkled. “What about composers? Who paints the best?”
John pondered the question for a second before answering. “Mozart. Tchaikovsky is more emotional, and Ravel has more colorful impressions. But Mozart’s music is just so perfect, somehow. I don’t know.”
“I like Mozart, too,” said Susie. “His music is so sweet, even the sad pieces.”
An acorn fell from the oak tree that was sheltering them, landing on Susie’s lap. She tossed it impishly at John, but his mind had drifted elsewhere and his posture did not shift.
“John, you’re doing it again,” Susie chided gently. “Do you even like spending time with me?” She bit her lip playfully.
“Susie, am I a bad boyfriend?” John turned suddenly, ignoring his girlfriend’s question. “I feel like I used to treat you to new things all the time. Now we’re both busier, and besides, we’ve exhausted everything Mooseville has to offer. I’m sorry I can’t be more interesting.”
Susie laughed softly and carefully pushed back John’s bangs, which were beginning to become a little too long. “You’re so silly. I like you because of who you are, not for what you can do for me. Why would I go on a date behind my parents’ back with someone I don’t like?”
John let out a grin. “Really? What do you like about me?” he teased, leaning in to hear the response.
Susie rolled her eyes. “You tell me what you like about me first.”
“Okay. I like your hair, and your beautiful face, and your-- your personality. Yeah, I think that sums it up.” John put his arm around Susie, eyes twinkling humorously.
“Ha-ha, you are so romantic,” said Susie sarcastically. She shifted slightly, gazing off into the distance. “I guess I have to be the mature one as usual. I love how caring you are, John. I love that you go out of your way to make sure I’m okay, and I love how hard you work at keeping our relationship fresh. To be honest, I don’t think you need to worry that much. You could stop trying completely, and that first spark that brought us together would still keep our relationship going, because I love you. And--”
John kissed Susie. She had a tendency to ramble on and on, but that was okay. He thought it was cute. As the last streaks of light faded into the night sky, the park’s sprinkler system went off, spraying the green lawn with fresh droplets of water.
John was standing backstage, nervously fingering his French horn as he awaited his turn to take the stage for the senior concerto concert. This was it: his last-ever solo performance as a high school student. The violinist who had been playing finished his piece -- the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, third movement -- with a flourish, and the audience erupted into applause. Accurate, but devoid of emotion. Susie frowned.
John swallowed the knot that was forming in his throat. He glanced up to see Mr. Jackson standing next to him.
“Hey, buddy. You’ve been tough on yourself,” said Mr. Jackson, “and we can all see the results of your hard work. Just go out there and have fun -- remember, that’s what music is all about! I want to see that spark in your eye.” The band director patted John heartily on the back and gestured out at the stage, where the orchestra was waiting.
That first spark. Don’t need to worry. John was taken back to his first memory of a horn performance. His eight-year-old self had fallen in love with every aspect of the instrument, from the shiny bell to the mellow yet magnificent sounds that came out of it. John walked onto the stage, took a quick bow, and gave the conductor a nod to start the piece. The sweet strings introduced Mozart’s melody, and John closed his eyes for a brief second, letting the waves of sound wash over him. He lifted the horn to his lips and began to play, filling the hall with colorful notes, soaring over the orchestral ocean. John’s gray-green eyes twinkled. E-flat major. Emerald. Exhilaration. Susie.