Etta wasn’t feeling so fond of her at that precise moment either, even as she was terrified for her; her mind was constantly looping back to that photograph, the way she’d been tied up, the kind of men that were holding her.
“Well,” Etta said weakly, “she’s always told me a good challenge builds character.”
“Then we’ll have an excess of it,” he said dryly.
Conditions on the platform were so tight that they sat shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, leg to leg. Etta was glad for the solid presence of him, that she could lean into him, now that her nerves seemed poised to sweep her into a full-blown panic attack. She crossed her legs, letting the cool cement press into the exposed skin. None of Oskar’s breathing tricks seemed to be working, not when all hell was raining down on the street above. The woman to her right quietly prayed.
How many hours would they have to sit down here, hoping? It was the twenty-second of September. That only left them with eight more days to find the astrolabe and get back, and they still had no idea how to decipher the other clues.
Her breath hitched as panic began to creep into her system. How was Nicholas so calm—so steady, like he’d been through this all before?
Maybe he had, in a way. The bombing didn’t sound all that different than the pounding cannonade from the ships, the small explosions of each gun. She wanted to ask him, but she couldn’t speak, afraid that admitting anything might open the floodgates in her. Everyone was holding it together. She could, too.
I wish I could play.
Etta craved the distraction, the absolute focus of playing. If she couldn’t feel the weight of the instrument in her hands, then she could at least imagine; she closed her eyes and called the music to her. The phantom press of strings against her fingers filled her, for the first time since Alice had died, with a sense of familiar joy—not the disgust and humiliation she’d felt when she thought about her performance, or the shattering anger and grief at wondering what had happened to Alice’s body—if she and her mother would even make it in time for the funeral.
For lack of anything better to use, she took her left forearm into her right hand, closing her eyes. She could pretend, just for a few seconds, that her wrist was the neck, her veins the strings. She imagined the bow gliding across her skin, focused on the movement of it.
Bach. Bach demanded her concentration. Bach would take her out of this moment.
“What are you doing?” Nicholas asked.
“Playing,” she said, not caring how ridiculous it must look and sound to him. “Distracting myself.”
A man, stretched out on his stomach in front of them, lifted his face up out of his book and glanced their way curiously.
It was perfectly strange timing that a high, clear note broke the odd spell of calm in the station just then. Down toward the center of the platform, an older man had brought out a violin and was working the instrument in slow, mellow song. She recognized it—it wasn’t a classical composition but something that had come scratching out of Oskar’s old record player.
The sound bloomed around them, like a flower unfurling one petal at a time, carrying across the walls of white tiles with their patterns of black crosses. A passing police officer tilted his hat toward the man. Etta sat up, straining to see him over the heads between them.
She had, however, no trouble seeing the young couple that was dancing in their few feet of allotted space. The man’s arm was locked around her waist, and he took her hand in his. The woman laughed, looking around them nervously, but followed his slow, rocking movements, resting her head against his shoulder.
Nicholas watched them, entranced. Etta thought for sure he’d say something about how scandalous it was for them to be dancing so close together.
“That’s beautiful,” she said.
He turned to her. “Would you like me to go take that violin for you? I’d gladly fight whatever angry mob rises up if it might make you smile.”
Her heart just about burst at that.
Be brave. “I would only want to play for you.”
He turned slowly, as if taking the time to assemble some sort of expression or response. But she didn’t want there to be any mistake, any way for him to dismiss or misunderstand her words. If she was wrong, and he wanted nothing more between them, she would pull back. But now…now she just wanted to be brave. Her hand came to rest on top of his, and despite all of his obvious strength, the shields he threw up to protect the privacy of his mind, she felt his fingers slide through hers.
The lights flickered again, sending her attention, and her heart, shooting upward. The banging was loud, like hands slamming down directly on top of them. A boy started wailing, and the sound moved like a wave through the other kids. The dancers stopped dancing, but the older gentleman didn’t stop playing until the lights blinked out completely, leaving them in pitch black.
Etta couldn’t stop shivering. She bit the inside of her mouth and drew blood. The darkness seemed to shudder and rock around them, and whatever terror she’d managed to bottle up broke free.
I don’t want to die down here.
I don’t want to disappear.
I have to get home.
Mom is going to die, and it’s my fault—
Hot tears rolled down her cheeks, and she hiccupped as she tried to take in air.
“Etta,” Nicholas said, close to her ear. He shifted, drawing her closer. She pressed her face against the slope of skin between his neck and shoulder, and felt a hand weave through her hair, pulling it back from where strands were sticking to her wet cheeks.