Part One: Children
~ I listen to the fleeting sparks in history
Souls who sing to those around them – and me
I crave them
I save them
Fruit of the eternal apple tree. ~
Brooklyn Junior High School was a tall, pale-bricked, rectangular building with bars over the windows and a sun-bleached flag hanging from the flagpole out front. On a cold, bright day like today, sunshine gleamed off the windows and made the building stand out against the pale blue sky.
Standing in the middle of the bustling courtyard, Alice Moser squinted up at the building for a few moments. She'd been here last month with her mom for registration, but the school seemed a lot larger now it was packed with students and teachers and parents. A group of older kids barged past and jostled her sideways. The air was loud with shouts and laughter.
Alice looked over her shoulder to where her mom and baby brother had farewelled her at the black gates, but it was impossible to see if they were still there amidst the throng of mothers in their Sunday best and fathers wearing stiff suits and stiff smiles as they waved off their children.
Alice took in a breath, straightened her shoulders, and strode deeper into the pack of bustling students until she found the registration line. A few of the other kids in line glanced her way before losing interest. Alice's gut churned and she smoothed down her uniform: a collared white blouse with a tie, and a long grey skirt over stockings. Her mom had bought the uniform second-hand from an older student whose family they'd met at their new church, and her step-father had managed to darn all the holes and threadbare parts, but she still felt as if she stuck out like a sore thumb.
As the line moved forward, Alice looked around. The noise in the courtyard was only getting louder as the clock ticked closer towards the starting bell, and just with a quick glance around she could see that most kids here already knew each other; she watched them run across the courtyard toward each other and clap each other on the back, talking animatedly and waving their hands. A group of girls waved in Alice's direction, and after a second of panic she realized they were waving to another girl who'd walked up behind her.
She caught a snippet of their conversation as they joined up in a rush of excited voices: "- did you do over your summer break?"
Alice tried not to let her stomach drop, even though she found herself glancing to her left at the large building across the street from Brooklyn Junior High: that was Brooklyn Elementary, where most of these students had graduated from last year.
In the fold of her skirts, she crossed her fingers. Surely I'm not the only new student. She'd only moved from the Bronx, but right now it felt like another universe.
"Who are you, my dear?" Alice glanced up to see she'd reached the end of the line, where a bespectacled woman with feathery hair and a clipboard and pencil was looking down at her.
"Alice Moser," she blurted out. The woman glanced down at her clipboard with a slight frown. "I registered late but the office said it would be okay-" Alice cut off when she noticed the same group of girls from before glancing her way with funny looks on their faces.
"Not to worry," the woman said with a smile. "We've had lots of those this year."
Alice nodded nervously. That didn't surprise her. What with the market crash last year, she supposed her family wasn't the only one that had to move suddenly. Alice felt a pang of longing for her old house, then squashed it. You'll love Brooklyn. That's what her stepfather kept saying. She was still waiting for it to come true.
"Found you!" the woman stated, ticking the paper on her clipboard. "You've got ten minutes to head toward your homeroom before the bell rings. You'll be in… 3B." She started to move away, but then the woman added: "That's an unusual accent you've got there." Alice bit the inside of her cheek. "Are you from Canada?"
Alice shook her head. "No. Austria."
The woman's eyes lit up. "Oh, I've always wanted to see a kangaroo!"
Alice stared at the woman for a second, then sighed and decided it wasn't worth it. She turned away and strode toward the main entrance to the school building. She'd checked the school map before coming, so she knew exactly how to get to 3B.
As she walked away from the registration woman she found the group of girls from before standing directly in her path, chatting and giggling in a huddle. They'd been eavesdropping. Alice's mom's words of encouragement echoed in her mind: just smile, say hello, and you'll make friends in no time.
She flashed a nervous smile at the five girls. "Hello," she said. "I'm Alice, I just moved here from-"
"Sorry," said a tall dark-haired girl with her arm slung around another girl's shoulders. She smiled at Alice, but it didn't feel like a smile. "I don't understand what you're saying."
Alice blinked. "Sorry, I – I was just going to ask if–"
"Nope," said another girl with a smile playing at her mouth, "still nothing. Can't you talk right?"
Oh. Where before Alice had been standing with hunched shoulders, nervously fingering the leather strap around her books, she suddenly straightened. Something about the laughing eyes and smothered smiles of the girls in front of her had washed away her nerves.
She swallowed, and then said in a crystal-clear Brooklyn accent: "I was saying that I just moved here from the Bronx, and I'm looking for some interesting people to be friends with." The girls' eyes widened at the abrupt change in accent. "Don't worry about it though, I'll keep looking."
The girls glanced at each other, wide-eyed. Alice adjusted her book strap and strode forward again, her face calm and her chin high.
As she shouldered past them she switched back into her natural Austrian accent to say: "I can talk however I want to. I just like this better."
The girls erupted into whispers once Alice had walked past them. Alice didn't look back. As she kept walking toward the school doors, she felt the burn of satisfaction soothe the hurt sting of rejection. Things like that didn't hurt so much nowadays, or at least she'd gotten used to hiding the hurt – after five years living in New York, she was accustomed to blending in. It was more when people made fun of her mom's accent that she got really mad. Her mom couldn't switch and change and mimic like Alice could, and adults could be a lot meaner than kids.
Still, she'd promised her mom she wouldn't get into trouble anymore, after her less-than-perfect record at elementary school. Her mom lived very firmly by the 'turn the other cheek' motto.
Alice made it to 3B without further incident (aside from some minor shoving and pushing in the crowded hallways), and sank into her wooden desk with a small sigh. A few kids met her eyes and flashed a smile, but everyone was busy talking with their old elementary school friends or unstrapping their books and pencils.
The classroom was nothing special: a long, clean blackboard at the front behind the teacher's desk, rows of individual desks with creaky wooden chairs, and a ticking clock on the back wall. The dusty windows offered a view of the street beyond, which was near empty now that most students were inside.
Alice propped her chin on her hand and eyed her fellow classmates. They seemed a loud bunch, all packed in to one classroom, a mix of boys and girls. Alice was relieved to see that she wasn't the only one with secondhand clothes. She sat on the left side of the class near the middle, with a red-haired girl to her right and two boys in front and behind.
When the massive brass bell out the front of the school clanged, Alice's head jerked up and her eyes widened as a tall, dark haired man in a crisp charcoal grey suit and wire spectacles strode into the room. He looked young, maybe in his later twenties. He took his place at the front by the blackboard, folded his hands in front of him and looked out at the suddenly-silent class.
"Good morning, everyone," he said in a brusque voice. "Welcome to Brooklyn Junior High. I am Mr Hawthorne, I will be your homeroom teacher this semester. I also teach French, American History, and Physical Education. Now I'll take the register."
With her hands in her lap, Alice's eyebrows rose. It seemed Mr Hawthorne was going to be very different from her enthusiastic elementary school teacher. With a shrug, she settled back to sit patiently as he read through the register. A few names in, the girl to Alice's right leaned back and whispered to the boy behind her: "He must be new in the area, I've never seen him before."
The boy opened his mouth to reply, but Mr Hawthorne called: "Quiet, please!" and they both settled back into their seats.
Alice listened to each name and who answered to it, remembering faces and the way they answered. She was good with names.
"Present," she called, in as neutral an accent as possible. She didn't want a repeat of earlier. Mr Hawthorne looked up, noted her, and looked away again. Phew.
Two more names passed before:
"Pre- present." Alice's attention perked at the distinctive lisp over the s in 'present', and looked over at the boy who'd spoken – he had dark hair and eyes, a complexion that made Alice think he might be Italian, and was larger than most of the other boys in the class. He hunched in on himself despite his size and didn't make eye contact with Mr Hawthorne. He looked like Alice felt – sticking out like a sore thumb. A few students on the other side of the classroom giggled.
Alice eyed Finnigan for a few moments, waiting for Mr Hawthorne to call the next name so she could learn it. But he didn't. After another moment she looked back to the front of the classroom.
Mr Hawthorne's dark eyes were fixed on Finnigan. He looked down at the register, then back up, and called again: "Finnigan Neri?"
Finnigan's cheeks flushed pink. "Present," he called, a little louder. Alice saw his tongue trip over the s this time, turning it into a th.
Her head swiveled back to Mr Hawthorne, whose eyes had narrowed. Alice glanced around. Could he not hear him?
"Please respond to your name with a clear and understandable 'present'," the teacher called, enunciating carefully. He pitched his voice to the whole class, but his eyes were fixed on Finnigan. Alice's stomach dropped. Oh. "Now: Finnigan Neri!"
Finnigan had gone red now. Alice watched him swallow carefully, take a breath, and then call: "Present!" The th sounded even more obvious this time, and his voice had gone up an octave. The boy behind Alice snorted.
"Again," Hawthorne said. His arms folded across his chest.
"Present." That time was clearer, though the lisp was still there. Alice's stomach churned and she glanced back to Hawthorne. Her face was hot, she felt almost sick.
"Speak clearly." Hawthorne called, growing frustrated. Students throughout the classroom were laughing now and hiding their smiles behind their hands.
Finnigan Neri's eyes gleamed. He took a breath. "Present," he lisped in a small voice.
Mr Hawthorne reached behind him and Alice's stomach dropped away when she realized he'd picked up the wooden ruler resting on the edge of the blackboard. He strode forward, a frown darkening his brow. "I can't hear you–"
Alice's fists clenched in her lap and anger scorched through her veins. When it came to herself, her mom had always told her to turn the other cheek. But when it came to other people, she always had this to say: "Du musst dich für andere Menschen einsetzen, Alice." [You must stand up for other people]. Alice chose to take that literally.
She planted her palms on her desk and began to push herself to her feet, anger sharp in her chest–
"Leave him alone!"
The whole room froze. Laughter died, and in the third row Finnigan Neri hid his face.
Halfway out of her chair, Alice blinked and looked around. She hadn't spoken, so who–? her eyes snagged on the source of the shout: a tiny blond kid in the first row who'd shot to his feet a second before she had, and now glowered at Mr Hawthorne. Alice stared at him.
Mr Hawthorne turned slowly, his expression thunderous. "I beg your pardon?"
The whole class stared at the boy. He stood with his fists clenched by his sides and his chest heaving as he stared up into their teacher's face. "I said leave him alone."
It was all Alice could do to keep her mouth closed.
"What is your name?" Hawthorne asked, in a deceptively calm voice.
The boy's jaw clenched. "Steve Rogers," he said mutinously. Staring at his angular face, Alice realized that she recognized him. She'd seen him around the neighborhood since she moved two months ago, and she was pretty sure he and his mom went to the same church as Alice and her mom. He'd never stood out to her until now, though.
"Steve Rogers," Hawthorne repeated slowly. He checked his register with a scowl. "Hold out your hand."
A low mutter went through the classroom. Steve Rogers looked right into Mr Hawthorne's eyes with defiance writ in hard lines on his face. A tense moment passed, and then he held out his small, slender-fingered hand palm up.
Before anyone had a chance to prepare, Hawthorne brought the wooden ruler down on Steve Rogers's open palm with a crack. A collective gasp went up, followed by a few nervous titters. Alice flinched in her seat. Steve Rogers winced but then steeled his expression. Mr. Hawthorne raised the ruler again.
Part of Alice wanted to stand as well, to say give me the strikes too. Her mother's voice rang in her ear: Stay out of trouble, Alice. But she couldn't just sit here. She watched Mr. Hawthorne strike Steve Rogers again, watched the him do his very best to not react, then looked back to where Finnigan Neri was doing his very best to disappear. The boy was half in tears. She looked from him and back to the pink-cheeked, clenched-jawed Steve Rogers flinching as the ruler left red marks on his palm, and an idea occurred to her.
She sat back in her seat and began to think.
They got through the rest of the register once Steve Rogers had received five strikes, and the rest of the day passed in relative peace after the tense first homeroom. Alice didn't have much time to think about Mr Hawthorne in amongst the rush of meeting new teachers and classmates and learning her new schedule, though she did have a French class with him in the afternoon. Finnigan Neri and Steve Rogers were also in the class. Steve Rogers' palm had an ugly bruise laid across it.
Hawthorne seemed irritated to learn that there was a native French speaker in the class, a girl named Edith, but besides some snide remarks cast her way there was no scene comparable to that morning.
Alice and Edith got to chatting, and by the end of class Alice was hopeful that she'd made her first new friend.
That afternoon Alice went home to the tiny apartment over her stepfather's tailor shop, where the water pipes clanged in the night and it was perpetually freezing or sweltering, and let her mother bundle her into a tight hug. Alice's mom asked about her first day of school and about her new classmates. Alice responded with a two-sentence description of every person in her homeroom class including their names, who their friends were, and what she thought of them. She didn't tell her mom about what had happened in homeroom that morning. She was still thinking.
Her mom gave her a weird look, but then kissed her on the head and told her to go play.
"Where's Matthias?" Alice asked as she headed to the door.
"He's performing at Tillie's tonight with the band, he won't be back until late." Her mom brushed her feathery blonde hair out of her eyes and smiled at Alice. "But he wants to hear about your first day tomorrow over breakfast, so keep it fresh in your mind!"
Alice had just flung open the door when a squawk from behind her stopped her in her tracks: "Alice!"
She rolled her eyes and turned around to see Tom, her little brother, waddling toward her over the creaky wooden floor clad in nothing but a cloth diaper. His face was covered in jam.
"I'm coming back," she sighed, but crouched down to kiss the top of his dark-haired head. Tom was only two, but he seemed eternally concerned about where Alice was and where she was going.
She heard a creak behind her and looked over her shoulder to see Mrs Wells, their upstairs neighbor, glancing through the open door at Alice crouched down beside her brother. The white-haired woman's mouth curved down as she looked between the siblings and she turned to walk downstairs. Tom, oblivious, tugged on the collar of Alice's uniform.
"Off you go," Alice's mom said quietly. Turn the other cheek.
Alice kissed Tom's head again, more earnestly this time, then patted his little shoulder and darted out the door.
They'd moved in two months ago, but the neighbors still gave them sideways glances. Still, people had been doing that ever since her mom married Matthias. It wasn't even like they went out all together all that much. But when you were a white woman living with a black man, you may as well be standing on the street corner shouting your business to the world.
Turn the other cheek, mom always said. So Alice did. When she saw the side-eyes, or overheard the comments pitched just a tone too loud to be private, she turned away. When people stared at her playing with her darker-skinned half-brother, she pretended not to notice. Her mom and stepfather had never said it outright, but she knew that they had to go as quiet and unnoticed as possible to stay safe.
Each time she turned away and pretended not to notice, the cold, hard anger growing inside her like hoarfrost grew a little thicker.
But as everyone insisted on reminding her, she was still only twelve – too young to be worrying about things like that. And she had other things to think about. Like how Tom kept waking up two to three times a night and waking her up. It was enough to drive a girl crazy.
Sighing, Alice ran outside into the cooling afternoon air and went to go toss rocks at cans in the alley with the neighborhood kids.
Over the next few days, Alice sat through half a dozen more classes where Mr. Hawthorne found the weakest link and struck. In their Physical Education class he decided that the weakest link was little Steve Rogers, because he was small and wheezed when he ran. But Steve didn't cry when Hawthorne picked on him, he just balled his fists and got this stormy look on his face like David about to stand up to Goliath.
Standing in the middle of a throng of her classmates, Alice was fascinated. It reminded her of the part in an opera where the small, lonely voice suddenly swelled, expanded, until there was nothing else but that single voice in the universe.
Aside from the ever-looming threat of Hawthorne's ire, junior high was shaping up pretty well for Alice. She was getting to know her classmates, finding her feet in her classes, and since no one here knew about her stepfather and brother yet she hadn't experienced a single side-eye.
On Thursday in last period French, Hawthorne got started in on Finnigan again when he stumbled over the pronunciation of sil-vous-plait. It turned out the kid had a stutter on top of a lisp. Most everyone else in the class laughed behind their hands or pretended they didn't notice, but Steve Rogers stood up again and this time got sent to the principal's office with a warning that he'd be caned by the end of the week if he kept this up.
After class Alice cinched her books into their leather strap and then followed after Finnigan to check on him – Mr. Hawthorne had assigned him a tongue twister, the monster. She lost him for a minute in the thick throng of students in the hallways, but caught sight of him outside again as he walked around the side of the school building.
Alice rushed over, drawing in a breath to call his name, but once she rounded the corner of the building she stopped in her tracks.
This side of the grounds housed the teacher's parking lot, filled with a mix of cars from sleek black sedans to dinged-up lemons. Finnigan stood by the nicest car in the whole lot beside a tall mustachioed man in an expensive-looking suit.
Alice blinked. That's the principal.
She stared from the shadow of the school building as the principal clapped Finnigan on the shoulder and ruffled his hair. Finnigan smiled up at the man despite the shadows under his eyes from his harrowing French class.
Alice's eyes widened. Ah.
That evening Alice didn't speak much – not during family dinner, in which her mother described a business meeting she had helped translate for, or later when her stepfather turned on the radio and started dancing a giggling Tom around the tiny living room.
She sat, her chin propped on her fist, with a furrow in her brow.
Finnigan won't say anything, she realized. She was sure he got enough guff from the other kids for being the principal's son that he wasn't about to start being a snitch.
"Allie, what's the matter?" Alice blinked and looked up to see her stepfather peering down at her, Tom propped on his hip and his brow raised. Matthias was a tall man. His dark hair was always cropped close to his forehead and there was an ever present twinkle in his eye. He always dressed well on account of being one of the best tailors in Brooklyn, but allowed himself to relax at home – right now he wore his white undershirt tucked into his neatly-fitted tan pants, and stood on the wooden floorboards with bare feet. He cocked his head at Alice. "You look like you're trying to figure out how the universe got put together."
Alice shook her head at him. "No – not tonight, anyway."
He cracked a grin at her. "That's my girl." He sat down on the couch beside her and shifted Tom slightly. "So what's the matter? That ain't your song-writing face."
"I don't have a song-writing face."
"Sure you do. Is it boy trouble? Anyone at that new school bothering you?"
Yes. "No. Just thinking about some homework."
Matthias's grin softened, and she could see from the look in his eyes that he'd caught her lie. He was one of the very few who could. He tapped her foot just as her mom walked in from the kitchen. "You'll sort them out, Allie. I know you will."
"Sort who out?" Her mom questioned. "Are you in trouble, Alice?"
"No," Alice said, being more careful about the lie this time. Not that it was really a lie.
"She's scheming again," Matthias said with a wink at Alice.
"Himmel, hilf uns," [Heaven help us] her mom sighed.
"Ain't nothing anyone in heaven or on earth can do when Allie gets scheming," Matthias laughed, then gently settled Tom on the couch. "Come now, you want to dance your troubles away?" He stood up lithely and held a hand out toward Alice. He started moving his shoulders in time with the jazz song on the radio – Sing, You Sinners. The song had been playing nonstop since it first appeared in a movie earlier in the year.
Alice smiled, but shook her head. "No thanks, I'm still thinking. About my homework."
"So I guess it's up to you and I to tear up the dancefloor, Marie!" Matthias announced as he whirled to face Alice's mom. Her mom cast him an exasperated look, but burst out laughing when he took her hand and wheeled her into a spin. She fell into step with him in time to the song, spinning and stepping across the threadbare carpet. On the couch, Tom squealed in delight.
Alice sat curled up on the couch, watching her mom and stepfather dance with a smile on her face. And as she smiled, she schemed.
The next day, Alice sneezed in homeroom.
She continued to sneeze through her next two classes, and by third period French she had developed a cough. Mr Hawthorne seemed irritated by the interruptions, but he did not turn his ire her way – his favorite weak link was there after all, struggling through the French pronunciations. Alice sniffled and coughed through the first twenty minutes of the lesson until she sensed Hawthorne's razor-sharp focus on Finnigan reach its peak.
She held up her hand.
Diverted from Finnigan's tripping tongue, Hawthorne strode up the rows of desks toward where Alice sat. The students he passed kept their heads down, all too aware of their teacher's mounting frustration.
"What is it?" Hawthorne asked curtly, his dark brows drawn together.
Alice pointed to a line on her notepad. "I'm sorry, sir, but I don't under-" she broke off in an explosive sneeze which splattered Hawthorne's trousers in moisture and brought a disgusted expression to his face.
"Eugh!" he exclaimed and stepped back. "Moser, are you ill?"
She held a finger under her nose and looked up at him with bleary eyes. "I think so, sir, I" – another sneeze – "I think it's getting worse."
"Then why are you interrupting my class? Go to the nurse."
Alice meekly stood up and made her way out of the classroom. As she left the room she noticed Hawthorne heading back toward Finnigan Neri. In the front row, Steve Rogers looked over his shoulder.
She left the door open.
Alone in the empty corridor, Alice strode briskly toward the nurse's office. She didn't have long to make this work. Her footsteps squeaked on the hallway floor and her eyes darted around. On her way past a trash can she carefully eased her handkerchief out of her skirt pocket and tipped it upside down – a cloud of fine grey pepper fell into the can. Alice scrunched up the kerchief and put it away again.
Once she reached the administration offices she knocked on the nurse's door and darted in.
The nurse, a mid-forties woman named Ms Edna, glanced up from where she'd been filling out paperwork at her desk. Her eyes seemed wide behind her glasses and her white peaked cap made her head look strange and angular. "Oh, Alice. Are you alright?"
Alice smiled. "Mr Hawthorne just gave me permission to leave his class, I wasn't feeling very well." She held up a hand at the concerned look on Ms Edna's face. "But I'm fine now, I think I just needed the fresh air."
Ms Edna sat back in her chair. "Oh. Well that makes my job easy, doesn't it? Here, have a sweet and head back to your class." The nurse turned to her jar of sweets and unscrewed the lid, and Alice smiled. Ms Edna liked her because she'd come to her office after school a couple of times last week to help clean up.
"Thank you," she said earnestly, and accepted the paper-wrapped butterscotch with slightly pepper-dusted fingers. Ms Edna didn't notice. "Bye!"
"Head straight back to class, please!"
"You got it," Alice assured her as she closed the door behind her. Alibi complete, she turned not right, toward the hallway leading to her classroom, but left. Fifteen paces brought her to a sturdy wooden door with a brass name plate on it. Alice straightened her uniform, tucked the candy into her pocket (the non-pepper one), and then knocked.
"Enter," came a man's deep voice.
Alice opened the door but didn't enter. She stood politely in the doorway and waited for the man seated at the desk inside to look up at her. She'd opened the door onto a wide office with windows looking out over the front courtyard of the school, furnished with a mahogany desk, steel filing cabinet and a brown potted plant. Paisley white curtains hung beside the windows. There was even a leather couch for visitors – Alice couldn't begin to imagine how much money that had cost.
"Excuse me, Mr Neri?" she said with a bite of nerves in her voice. The man nodded and looked over, his eyes kind over his thick mustache. "Mr Hawthorne said he needed to see you in his classroom right away…?" Her gut churned. If this went wrong…
"Oh." The principal got to his feet and straightened his tie, glancing around at his office with a frown before heading for the door. "Is that so? Is something the matter?"
"I'm not sure," Alice said. She stepped out of his way and then paced ahead to lead him. She tried to keep her face angled away from him, but not so obviously that he'd grow suspicious.
"Hm. What's your name, dear?"
Alice wiped her sweaty, peppery palm on her skirt. They were thirty seconds away from the classroom. She really didn't want her name involved in this. "You know, we've just been learning to say our names in French today, but it's difficult because there's lots of words that are hard to pronounce-" she rambled for the next twenty five seconds, two steps ahead of Mr Neri as he ahed and mmhmed, suitably bored by her twelve-year-old chatter.
Alice slowed as they approached the open doorway, from which the sounds of Mr Hawthorne's raised voice could be heard. Mr Neri strode past Alice with barely a glance at her and reached the doorway.
Alice crept up behind him and peered in.
Finnigan Neri stood beside his desk, bright red and holding out his shaking hand. Mr Hawthorne loomed over him with his ruler. The entire class stared.
Finnigan swallowed. "C-comment vou-vous appelez… a-appelez-vous?" His lisp, choked by tears, made the words nearly illegible.
"A – a – a – appelez?" Hawthorne mimicked, sticking his tongue between his teeth to enhance the mocking lisp. "Are you attempting to speak French or Yiddish, Neri? I can't tell. Again."
"C- c – comment-"
The ruler made a sound like a cracking whip as it came down on Finnigan's shaking hand. Finnigan yelped and a tear spilled from his eye, and at the front of the classroom Steve Rogers was already half-out of his seat again, but then Mr Neri in the doorway cleared his throat.
The room froze. Alice hid behind the open door, but not before she saw the look on Mr Hawthorne's face when he turned around to see the school principal standing in the doorway to his classroom. It made something inside her sing.
For a few moments, the entire room was silent as Mr Neri strode into the room. Then he started yelling.
Alice waited until Mr Neri was about a minute into his shouting before she slipped into the classroom. She darted up the row to her desk and dropped into her seat, sparing a glance around the classroom of students staring as the principal shouted at their pale-faced teacher. No one had noticed her – actually, that wasn't true. Little Steve Rogers had noticed her because he was sinking back into his own seat at the same time, strangely mollified.
The two of them stared at each other for a few seconds. Alice's gut churned. Would he say something?
Then Mr Neri seemed to yell himself out. "Mr. Hawthorne, you will come with me to my office." He turned to the class. "Class is dismissed. Return to your homerooms." He stormed out of the room and Mr. Hawthorne slinked at his heels with a sick look on his face.
Once the door closed behind them, the entire class shot to their feet and started gossiping amongst themselves. The room filled with a hubbub of noise and Alice let out a sigh.
After a moment to calm her beating heart, Alice got to her feet and walked a few rows over to Finnigan Neri's desk. His face was still bright red and he looked like he wanted to melt through the floor.
"Hello," Alice said.
Finnigan looked up at her with a wary look in his eyes. She pulled the wrapped butterscotch out of her pocket and held it out. Finnigan took it, frowned at it for a moment, then looked back into her face.
She smiled. "Want to come kick a ball around after class?"
Steve didn't know how, but he was sure that that Moser girl had arranged this.
He kept turning it over in his head for the rest of the day as the gossip spread throughout the school. He barely paid attention to his lessons and then walked home with his hands in his pockets and a frown on his brow.
He kind of knew Alice Moser – he'd seen her in church before. She moved here with her mom a few months ago, he thought. He'd recognized her in their first homeroom class, but they didn't sit near each other and Steve didn't really know how to talk to girls, so they hadn't spoken. All he knew about her was her name, and that she sounded like she was from somewhere in Europe.
On Saturday, as Steve spent the morning with his mom solving puzzles in the newspaper, he went back over his memory of that final French class. He vaguely remembered Alice Moser leaving, though he was sure most people hadn't noticed. Then one minute Hawthorne was being his usual bully self, and the next the school principal was there to shout and drag him out. And Alice Moser returned. No one else had questioned the arrival of the principal – he could have just been walking past, after all. But Alice Moser had been there. Steve was sure she'd had something to do with it. Yet how could she have set things up that way?
He puzzled over it in the afternoon as he sat on the apartment's fire escape and watched a group of younger kids on the street below play marbles. His mom stuck her head out and asked if he'd been feeling sick, because he'd been frowning so much, but he just shook his head. He wasn't sick. He was confused.
The next morning, Steve went to church with his mom. Alice Moser was there. But this time, she didn't just sit beside her mom in the pew.
Near the end of the service when the choir came out, Alice slipped out from beside her mom and walked up to the front. She wore a Sunday best sky blue pinafore with a dark collar, darned at the shoulder, and well-shined shoes. Her blonde hair was neatly braided.
The dark-suited priest smiled at her and set a hand on her shoulder. "We've got something special planned today," he said to the congregation. "The young Miss Moser here has been practicing with our church choir these last few weeks, and she's going to give us a performance today. I hear it's her first performance in public, so let's be kind, everyone! I think you'll enjoy this."
The priest nodded to Alice and she went to stand by the piano. Steve watched her with a quirked brow. He couldn't think of anything worse than singing in front of a bunch of strangers, but if Alice was nervous she didn't show it. Her brow was set, her shoulders straight. She looked like she had when he spotted her sneaking back to her desk in French class.
The pianist started up at the plinky piano, introducing the opening notes of a classic choral song. Steve recognized it but couldn't remember the name. They didn't sing it often in church because the lyrics weren't in English.
The piano notes echoed across the congregation. Someone shifted in front of Steve.
Then Alice Moser opened her mouth and sang.
Steve's mom's hand flew to her chest. "Oh my word," she whispered.
Steve had to agree. Alice Moser singing was… he'd expected the usual nice, choral songs belted out by a thin voice, but this was… this was like the stuff they heard on the radio. He swallowed. Her voice rose, lilted, crested notes that Steve didn't know a human voice could hit so clearly. Alice's voice was high but rounded somehow, as if there were an entire universe inside her lungs just waiting to be released through her voice. She didn't sound like a kid.
The congregation sat spellbound.
Alice didn't meet anyone's eye as she sang. The song was slow, reminiscent, and Steve thought she's only my age, how is she doing that? He knew he sure as hell couldn't express such… such… he didn't even know what. Mrs Bodkins three rows ahead wept into her handkerchief.
Halfway through the song, the wind blowing through the open church doors must have kicked up because Alice's hair blew out of her face and the lit candles flared for a second. Alice's head jerked, eyes lifting, but she didn't stop singing and after a second of hesitation she continued on as normal.
Steve's eyes itched. He realized he hadn't blinked once.
Alice finished on a high, impossibly strong note, her mouth seeming kind of small compared to the strength and beauty of her voice. After a moment of silence the entire church burst into applause. Steve joined in.
The priest, clearly loving it, strode toward Alice and said once the applause had died down: "Our little church's choir is blessed to have you Alice, thank you so much. You've got a real gift."
Alice strode back down the aisle to her mom, and Steve saw her let out a shaky breath once she was out of the public eye.
So she does have nerves, after all.
As if sensing his gaze, Alice glanced up and looked at him across the church hall. Steve held her eyes for a moment before he realized what he was doing and glanced away. His ears flamed red.
His mom nudged him. "That girl goes to your school, doesn't she?"
"Yeah," he said, careful not to look back in Alice's direction.
"What do you think of her?"
Steve met his mom's eyes. She seemed genuinely curious, her cheeks still flushed from listening to Alice sing.
He opened his mouth and then closed it. What do you think about Alice Moser?
"I don't know."
~ I see you ~
Excerpt from: 'Controversial Figures of the Twentieth Century' by Brian Jameson (2002), p. 72:
There is little known about Alice Moser's early childhood. We know that she was only seven years old when she moved from Austria to New York City with her mother and father. Her father died only months later, and after working as a single parent for a year her mother Marie remarried in 1927, to an African American tailor and jazz musician, Matthias Johnson. Moser's half brother Thomas was born in 1928.
In 1929 the Great Depression struck, and in 1930 the new family lost their house in the Bronx and moved to the apartment above Johnson's tailor shop in Brooklyn. Fragmented school records from Brooklyn show that Moser was a bright student, with an aptitude for math and languages, and newspaper clippings from the time show that even at an early age she was making her mark as a singer.
Aside from these shreds of evidence, however, Moser's childhood is largely shrouded in mystery; partly due to the deprivations of the Great Depression which extended through her formative years and partly due to the quiet life she lived in Brooklyn. No doubt her mother and step-father, a mixed-race couple in prewar New York City, did not seek out the limelight.
Historians are curious about Alice Moser's childhood, but that curiosity does not hold a candle to what she would become, forged in the fires of world war and devastation: The Siren.
Welcome, lovely readers! If you're one of my Wyvern readers, hello again! I'm back! Welcome to Alice's story.
If this is the first time you've clicked on something of mine, thanks! I hope you come back for more. I'll keep it short and sweet for now, but I'll just say that yes, things might seem a bit weird right now and we haven't had a lot of Steve yet (and no Bucky), but trust me on this – I've got a plan. Or who knows, it could just be a weird failure. Let's find out!
Part One of the Siren will have two timelines running through it:
1. The one you see in this chapter, which covers the first half of the 1930s in Brooklyn.
2. The other timeline, titled 'Letters Across the Ocean', will cover the second half of the 1930s – we'll get a glimpse of that next chapter, which will come soon and be much shorter.
In the meantime I've already got a playlist set up for this story because it's quite musical (see the 2nd song on the playlist for inspiration for the song Alice sings in this chapter). Go to YouTube, look up 'the Siren emmagnetised', and it'll be the first result. There's a description on the playlist if you want more info.
Thanks for reading and see you next chapter!