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[This is the novel about the single mother of Sam, who is 7 years old in this scene. It's already established (or will be once more of those scenes are written) that he's musically gifted. Prior to this scene, he was trying to learn to play violin, but his 7-year-old dexterity couldn't keep up with his perfectionism; he couldn't stand the sound of notes not being exactly in tune, and he also couldn't tolerate the sound being so close to his ear; he wanted the violin to sound like it sounded when he listened to a recording or to a person in front of him on stage. So Larry, his uncle, installed a fairly standard program on the computer that lets Sam play music on a keyboard and have the notes he plays write themselves on a staff, where he can then edit and play back the phrases in the "voices" of whatever instruments he wants.]

-----

She expected him to get tired of the program in a few days; it seemed slow and tedious, and without much reward for the effort. He'd spend 15 or 20 seconds playing a phrase on the keyboard, and then sometimes an hour "tweaking" it (he adopted Larry's word for it) on the computer: point and click and drag and click and play it back and sigh and point and drag and click some more. He listened to the keyboard/computer with headphones, so Meg didn't hear the snippets of music, just his mutterings and sighs and growls of frustration. It wasn't just slow and tedious: it seemed actively unpleasant, and not something he was likely to continue.

But a week went by, and then two, and if anything, he spent more time each day at it. Sometimes he didn't even take off his shoes when he got home from school before sitting down in front of the screen; he would forget to get a snack from the kitchen, and when he did remember, he'd take it to the computer and eat there. Or rather take two bites and then forget about it. She had never had to order him outside to play before, but now — she sounded like the stereotypical mom, and it was unnatural for her.

When she complained to Larry, he just chuckled. "It's totally natural. Remember me and Pac-Man?"

"Okay, (a), you were twelve, not seven, and (b), what I remember most is that you were always angry and not fun to be around, and (c), maybe it's 'natural,' but it's not healthy."

"Okay, (a) and (b), yeah, I was twelve, so being angry and unpleasant was probably not so much due to the game, and (also b), Sam hasn't thrown a temper tantrum and knocked the computer off the desk, so I think his anger/frustration level is not that bad, and (c) … well, honestly, I don't know. Maybe it's not healthy, or maybe it's exactly what he needs. It's hard to tell with Sam; there's no playbook with him. Oh! And (d), remember when you were eight and you were going to write a book? You. Filled. A 250-page notebook. In a month. That's not natural, but you turned out okay."

"That's different: that was —"

"What? Handwritten instead of typed on a computer? You use a computer now, and it hasn't turned you into a psychopath."

"I'm an adult now."

Larry bit his lip, and she braced herself for whatever gentle lecture was coming. He took long enough she had time to feel in her chest that yes, she was being unreasonable, in some way she couldn't identify.

"If Sam were spending all this time trying to write music by playing a violin, would that be less worrying to you?"

She winced. She didn't want to answer, but, "Probably." Larry didn't say anything, so she said what she knew he was thinking. "But he can't. If he could, he would, but he can't, so this is…" She sighed. "I know, I know, it's no different than a pair of glasses, really, or a knee brace, or… it's what he needs. To do what he needs to do. See, though? That's what worries, me, really, isn't it? That he needs to do something this much. He's seven! He should be playing, playing around, trying stuff and getting bored and not…" And here came the tears. "I was not happy, Larry! When I was eight and writing until my hand cramped and then still writing, and probably 200 of those 250 pages were crossed out or ripped out, it wasn't fun, it was frustrating and … and I don't want that for him! I want him to have fun. To enjoy things. To be happy."

Larry was biting his lip again. He didn't meet her gaze for half a minute, and when he looked up, he looked tired. "He may not be." His voice was soft, like a minister in a funeral-home waiting room. "Not often. Not like 'normal' people. But maybe, I don't know, maybe happiness isn't what's important. Maybe what's important is satisfaction. Will this satisfy him? Will it scratch that itch that everyone has inside them that's so hard to reach? Bring him peace? Make him feel like… like himself?" He smiled, a little sheepish, a little sad. "God, I sound like some pompous undergrad philosophy student." He took a step toward her and put an arm around her shoulders, pulled her toward him, let his arm slip up so the hug was more of a gentle headlock.

Her voice sounded more sure than she felt. "You're probably right. I just wish it was easier. I wish 'happy' was all he needed."

"I wish 'happy' was all you needed. It'd make being your brother easier."



***



The next Saturday was rainy, so there was no reason to pester Sam to go outside, and she had an editing job — a socioeconomic Master's thesis, which, in addition to being dense, sometimes slipped into second-person narration for a paragraph or two, which the author's advisor had apparently already dinged him for — so she holed up in her bedroom and left Sam to his obsession. She was deep into a section on research results when Sam's cry seemed to fracture the air in the house. She ran into the living room to find him sitting crosslegged on the floor, hugging one knee, his sobs like barks. She knelt behind him and wrapped her own arms around his arms and knee.

"Body or heart?"

He sucking in a rasping breath and wailed, "Heart!"

"Okay." She sat down, now encircling him with her legs. "It's okay, you'll figure it out."

"Nooo!"

"I know it doesn't feel like it now, but — "

"Nooo! It's — it's figured — it's right, and — just — exactly like — it's — I can't — " He made a noise almost like a wolf's howl, the sound of cold wind and undying grief. "I'm too happy, it won't stop!"

Meg's throat closed around her own sob before she consciously understood what he was trying to say. She kissed the top of his head. "Oh, God, it does feel like that, doesn't it? Like it'll swallow you whole. But it won't. I promise you."

"It hurts!"

"Yes, yes it does. And like every other hurt, it'll eventually stop. Or at least hurt less."

"You don't know!"

"I do know. Oh, Sam, if you knew how many times a terrifying wave of joy has swept me out to sea, especially since you were born…"

"Shut up!"

"Nope. Never. It's true. You do something or say something, and it's just so exactly who you are and I realize how much I love who you are, that it drags me out to sea. But it never pulls me under, even if I'm sure it will, and finally it just… washes me back to land, and you're still there being perfectly you, and yet somehow it's tolerable. Your wave is, right now, I bet, just starting to change direction, to let you come back to shore, and the music will still be here, but you'll be able to bear it. And you'll be able to bear playing it back for me, and I will brace myself so I don't get too happy, but it won't work, because it never does, so I'll probably cry and embarrass you, okay?"

He brought one of his hands out from under hers, laid it over her hand, and gently squeezed. "It's okay, I don't mind."

She wanted to say, "See? This is one of those things you do." But she held onto the hand of his that wasn't holding onto hers, and they both, sat, trying not to fight the currents in their separate but similar oceans of bottomless happiness, trying to wait it out until their tides carried them back.
 


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Violet Wilson

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