Silence hung over the music store at midnight. Emilio slipped past taunt guitar strings and assorted seventies records, then gingerly skirted around a collection of suspended cymbals. In all its glossy brass glory, the trumpet caught moonbeam slivers from the slanted blinds and flung them into every termite-nibbled corner of the room. Edging along a glass display case, Emilio tiptoed closer to the trumpet's mounted shelf on the far wall. He silently cursed Flint and Diablo. Stealing—or, as the greasy teenage gang leaders called it, "borrowing"—something shiny and expensive was a Striker rite of passage. As though taking someone else's hard-earned money or merchandise somehow solidified his manhood. Emilio didn't agree with the Striker initiation ritual, but that didn't mean he had the pluck to confront Flint and Diablo. But why send him to a music store? Of all places, why the one where a single misstep could—
Ting. Emilio whirled to see a flash of silver as a triangle toppled off of the display case. Without thinking, he lunged across the polished glass, grazing the triangle with his fingertips as it tumbled. It landed on the carpet with a dull clatter. On his way over the display case, Emilio's size-eleven sneakers swept maracas, casanettes, and tambourines from the handheld percussion pile. Cringing as each rattle pierced the air, Emilio bolted for the door. His shoulder bumped one of the cymbals, setting off a domino effect that filled the stagnant air with a chorus of reverberating clashes. Emilio's clammy hands grasped the doorknob just as a voice, raspy with exhaustion yet firm, cut through the din: "Wait."
Natalia Hudson flipped on a switch and surveyed the scattered instruments littering the carpet. That dented cymbal in the corner was beyond repair. She sized up the bony Latino boy clutching her doorknob with white knuckles. He couldn't have been more than thirteen years old. His slicked-back hair glistened with cheap product and sweat, and baggy black sweatsuit nearly swallowed him whole. Without a glove or a mask, it was clear this boy had never robbed anyone before. Two wide brown eyes, framed by long eyelashes, shone with terror as the color drained from his face.
"Would you help me clean up?" Natalia asked.
Emilio reluctantly loosened his deathgrip on the doorknob. Flint had warned him about the lady in the upstairs apartment. Even in her pajama shorts and bathrobe, the woman was terrifying. She crossed two meaty cocoa-colored arms over her broad chest and watched him slink closer with her piercing eyes. A pair of gold reading glasses dangled on a chain around her wrinkled neck. These she placed on her sharp nose with a sigh as the pair set to work restoring the shop to its proper order, never exchanging a word. At last, Emilio sourly placed the troublesome triangle back on the display case and faced the woman. He waited for her judgment to snap his neck in half. Judgement took its time.
"What do you play?" Natalia said finally.
Emilio didn't know how to answer. He'd played chicken once, back when he lived in Washington, and totalled his cousin's Jeep. But he couldn't admit that to her. He'd been well below legal driving age at the time. Matter of fact, he was still well below legal driving age.
"Do you play an instrument?" Natalia repeated wearily.
"No, ma'am," Emilio said meekly.
"Then what are you doing in a music store?"
" I came to… to borrow that trumpet."
Natalia cocked a bushy eyebrow. She strode to the far wall and lifted the glistening instrument from its perch. "This trumpet?"
"But you don't know how to play."
The woman in golden glasses sighed again and pointed to a stack of folding chairs under the ukulele wall. "Take a seat."
He brought a chair for each of them while she fetched a rickety metal music stand and expertly assembled it in ten seconds flat. Then she collapsed it again, muttering, "he can't read music."
Perspiration beaded on Emilio's neck. He tugged at the collar of his hoodie, fearing the moment she would snap and report him to the cops. Or pummel him with a bass guitar. Those would be fun bruises to explain to the Strikers.
Natalia plunked into her chair across from the boy, slipping the trumpet into his quavering hands. He cradled the instrument as though it were a fragile newborn. Its gracefully curved bell felt cool against his sweaty palms.
"Here's how you hold a trumpet," she said, curling the Emilio's fingers over its valves and cupping his right hand to support its weight. "Don't put your pinky in the ring. Rest it on top."
"Why would they make a ring it you aren't supposed to put your finger in it?"
"For the same reason there are gangs in this city," Natalia said. "It's a trap." She placed his left pinky on top of the brass ring. "But you're smart enough not to fall into traps."
Emilio's pallid cheeks flamed. "I'm… not smart."
Natalia peered at him over her reading glasses. "Who told you that?"
"No one who makes you doubt yourself is a friend."
"If I was smart I wouldn't have knocked over the triangle and woken you up." Emilio studied the cork grease stains on the carpet.
"Baby, I live in an apartment above a music store. You can hear everything up there. I heard the door open." Emilio glanced up and met her velvet-brown eyes, softer now. "If you were really smart, you wouldn't have tried to break into my shop in the first place."
Emilio opened his mouth. He sat for a minute with his jaw stupidly hanging open before he closed it again. "I'm sorry," he finally managed.
"Apology accepted," Natalia said with a satisfied smile. She rose and took the trumpet. "Now, why don't you and I make a deal. Come back here tomorrow and I'll teach you how to buzz so you can play a few notes. You learn to play well enough, and I'll let you 'borrow' this trumpet as long as you like."
Emilio blinked. He would take the trumpet and become a Striker. Flint, Diablo, and all of the boys would always have his back. He would have power and security and a family… and no one would ever have to know he never actually stole anything!
"Thank you!" he said.
"Don't get here at some ungodly hour, though," Natalia added with a wink. "The shop closes at seven. Try eight, eight thirty."
"I'll be here," Emilio agreed as he headed for the door.
Natalia stood and scooped up the folding chairs. Before the boy with too much hair gel could make his escape, she called after him. "Hey, Stickyfingers!"
"Yes, ma'am?" Emilio asked apprehensively.
"Don't think I caught your name."
"Oh! I'm Emilio."
"Pleasure, Emilio. I'm Mrs. Natalia Hudson. You can call me Natalia."
"Thank you, Ms. Natalia." Natalia returned the trumpet to its mounted shelf and slowly ascended the stairs to her apartment. Outside, Emilio leaned his back against the rough door of the music store and inhaled deeply. The sweet night air filling his lungs smelled faintly of exhaust mingled with cigarette smoke. Silence hung over the city as he slipped into the dark.