Buy a CopyAless watches Patrick slip into the back of the high school auditorium, where he tiptoes behind the last row. He is trying to be silent even though the door booms shut behind him like a cannon shot. The length of the fifty-row hall stretches between him and Aless, but still her heart shudders as if he, her chum, her buddy, were breathing into her hair. This collapsing of distance is just one of the things she hates about being in love with Patrick.

On stage, Aless is coaching Melanie Montrose, who has been cast as Guinevere in Camelot. Every note she sings above D tilts and wheezes and loses its balance, but Melanie’s loose gold curls tumble down her back, and Aless suspects that the girl’s parents have donated handsomely to Our Lady of Mercies for the last four years, longer than Aless has been here.

Patrick lifts his hand in greeting, and Aless waves back, unable to control her happy hand. She works in the same building with the man and can’t keep her heart from bucking every time she sees his red-gold hair. Dragging her gaze back to Melanie, she says, “Think about what you’re singing. Your heart is torn between duty and love. Your heart is torn. Try it again.”

The accompanist gives the note and Melanie launches herself back into the ballad, her pretty features squeezing as she imagines herself remaining nobly silent about her ruinous desire. The song might as well be Aless’s anthem, and Melanie is murdering it. Humming the right note to herself, Aless scoots off the stage to join Patrick and says, “I should make you leave. Friends don’t let friends listen to Melanie Montrose.”

“Why’d you cast her?”

“An audience needs something easy on the eyes. Also, I’m interested in keeping my job. Why are you here to listen?”

“Listening to Melanie beats listening to my own thoughts.” In a flash, his amiable expression starts to droop, and Aless steels herself. Patrick’s sorrow comes like a German train, exactly on schedule. “I was thinking about Eleanora,” he says. “I never knew that sorrow would be so durable.”

Aless nods, pushing the muscles of her face into a look of sympathy. Since his wife died almost a year ago, Patrick has been giving voice to his grief, talking about his emotions in the direct manner the wife encouraged. Aless doesn’t care for it. His old moody detachment put a little space between them, space that she spent her time trying to violate. Now when Patrick says these things he feels too close, intimate in every wrong way. She has to resist the impulse either to draw him to her or shove him back.

“I was going through student files, thinking about where I could recommend Jason Sanders and his 1.3 average apply to college, when the floor opened up beneath me.” Tears shine in his leaf-green eyes. “I miss her so much.”

“I know,” Aless says. She lets Melanie move into the second verse, for which the girl has worked out arm motions. She has spotted Patrick, and beams at him as all the girls do.

“Thank you for listening,” he says to Aless. “Thank you for listening again. You should get some kind of Golden Ear award.”

“What’s a friend for?”

“You’re a better friend than most. Nobody else would put up with me.” As if he is getting a read-out from Aless’s brain, he adds, “It’s been going on too long, this grieving.”

“It’s not like a class. There’s no final exam.”

“I need to do something. And I have an idea.”

From her second-row seat Aless can see Melanie, approaching the half-step interval, tighten her abdomen. This time she comes closer to hitting the note, and she grins through the rest of the measure, confidently enunciating “dark despair.”

“Sustain the energy,” Aless calls to the stage, then says to Patrick, “What?”

“This isn’t the place. Will you come over for dinner on Saturday?”

He has invited her to his house a hundred times, but still he sounds winsome, and she tightens her own abdomen to keep her voice from swaying.

“I have rehearsal that afternoon. It may go late.” She nods toward the stage, where Melanie is hurtling through the last notes a beat ahead of the accompanist, her arms outstretched as if she’s crossing a finish line. “Still a few bugs to work out.”

Patrick produces his crooked smile and taps her wrist. Aless’s bone rings like a tuning fork. “Don’t break my heart. Seven o’clock.”

Her querulous last note still wobbling through the air, Melanie curtsies to Patrick, who looks as if he might just be bullied into applauding. Aless can’t bear it: Signaling the accompanist, she vaults back onto the stage and repeats the last verse about the misery of silent love, actually hitting all the notes. To take over like this is showing off, but Melanie needs to know what real singing sounds like. Patrick, Aless notices with vicious satisfaction, looks rapt, as he always does when she sings.

After she finishes the chorus, Aless looks at Melanie and says, “Next time, count.”

Melanie flings waves of blond hair over her shoulder. “I’m a singer, not a metronome.”

Aless jumps back down to Patrick, who mutters, “For Pete’s sake, Less, don’t encourage her to sing again.” She feels herself turning toward him like a plant to the sun.

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Perhaps the best collection of short stories I’ve read in a long time. Believable, sympathetic characters, real life situations. Gives a sharp view inside the mind of the character, their flaws are what make them likeable and believable.