The day that changed my life forever was the day I turned twelve. It didn't even start out as a regular day, for as a surprise, my parents had arranged for us to attend a concert of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, playing in Carnegie Hall. My excitement was tangible in the stagnant air of the car. My mother's silvery laugh came from the front of the car, accompanied by my father's lower, heartier chuckle as I bounced eagerly on the back seat.
Despite the emotions filling the car, I soon fell asleep during the long journey to New York City. It was a light slumber, made so by the fact that I had never been to Carnegie Hall. My parents and teacher would often tell me stories, tales that held me rapt with wonder, but even then, I doubt that I fully understood the magic and beauty of Carnegie.
Shaken gently to awareness by my father, I woke to see the impressive buildings that announced, clearer than any spoken words, that we had reached the city. Our car inched through the traffic, our slow pace made more sluggish in my anticipation to view the fabled music hall.
But when I jumped out of the car to look up at the hall, I could feel my confidence melting away. Its ochre-colored walls, aurous in the sheen of the sun, loomed ahead of me, massive and imperious.
My father saw my expression and laughed, drawing my hand in his and pulling me towards the building.
As we entered Carnegie's main hall, I stopped again. Though the outside of the hall intimidated me and captivated me, the main hall was breathtaking.
The high ceiling, painted ivory, was gilded, and the light shimmered off it as if it were lit by millions and millions of tiny fireflies. The crimson seats made the picture complete. As I mounted each stair, my excitement increased tenfold.
I sunk into the plush, luxurious fabric of my seat, intent on the conductor and his baton. The crowd around me laughed and talked, but I could only see the musicians, the light of the stage reflecting off the polished wood and metal. They appeared to be lit with a halo, glittering, magical beings.
Finally silence descended upon everyone. The lights dimmed, and the radiance of the musicians on the stage grew, until I felt that their presence enveloped me. And as the baton dropped, the rest of my world floated away.
The opening notes drifted out. The irony would later strike me, for on this day, on my first visit to Carnegie Hall, a memory I would carry for all my life, I can no longer remember what the orchestra was playing.
Each note was a drop of liquid fire, burning through my veins. The music – it was all I needed. As long as I had music, I had everything.
Each note was perfection, each musician working in unison to create this flawless, sparkling tapestry, woven and interconnected so well it was not apparent where one thread ended and another began.
I felt as if I were floating, borne on the wings of this beautiful angel of music. Bell-like chimes, soft murmurs, and outbursts, cries of exultation and anger, pain and sorrow…
Joy filled me, and it was then that I knew that one day I had to play in Carnegie Hall.
It was to become a desperate desire, burning at the bottom of my heart, and it fueled me when the world around me only contained utter despair. When my world grew dark, its flame only grew stronger.
The music drew me in, perhaps as a black hole draws in space debris and light, though I made no struggle to elude its grasp. I was drinking fire, burning painfully, yet filling my body with addictive heat and powerful emotions.
The roar of applause soon shook me out of my reverie. Watching the others rise to a standing ovation, I followed suit, numbly. The hall, the musicians, the music itself – it blew me away.
With the crushing of the crowd, we walked to our car, where my father pressed an envelope into my hands and left. I folded it into my pocket, wanting to open it later in the presence of my father. He would take the train home, leaving the car for my mother and me, as he had something he wished to pick up at his office, halfway between the city and my hometown.
In the light of the setting sun, my mother suggested a walk before we too left for home. I agreed, happy, for I always looked forward to spending time with my mother.
We found a small, immaculate restaurant where an old woman greeted us with a smile that displayed gaps between her crooked teeth. My mother and I had dinner there, in the company of the friendly woman.
Over bowls of homemade lasagna, wonderfully warm and delicious, our host entertained us with amusing stories of her life as a child.
By the time we had finished our meal, night had fully arrived. As we thanked her and left, I regretted leaving the comfortable, warm room for the cold landscape waiting outside. I turned around to glance at the restaurant, and light spilled from its windows, twinkling merrily in the darkness.
The turns we had taken to reach that wonderful restaurant stretched before us like an impossible maze.
After wandering the streets for a countless period of time, what seemed like days to me, my mother stopped. I could see, though my imagination had taken over fully by then, the terror written on her face, mirroring the terror I could feel deep inside my soul.
We began entering poorer, more rundown neighborhoods, and I knew that we were hopelessly lost. I would wonder, later, why my mother hadn't asked the kindly old lady for directions. Nor had she called my father, or anyone else, for help. Maybe it was arrogance, or an unwillingness to admit defeat. I'll never know, and there's no use unearthing old demons…
The night began to grow colder, and I shivered, though it might have been as much out of fear as it was out of the night air. I started to imagine phantoms, ghosts hidden in the shadows, mocking us. It was then that I first began to see that my mother was truly a person, not some goddess deserving worship and adoration.
I wished my mother would turn back – we could find the woman at the restaurant and have her point us in the direction of Carnegie and our car. But my mother walked on, resolute, and I could only follow.
A cloud passed overhead, veiling the crescent moon and casting the world into shadow. I could feel my body tense, the hairs on my neck prickling.
I knew then that something was truly wrong, and maybe my mother knew it too. For her frame, once striding confidently in front of me, had become hunched over, her shoulders drooping, her body admitting defeat.
And that was the time I should have begged my mother to turn back. She may have listened to me then. But I trusted her to find a way out; I trusted her completely and without hesitation. So still, I followed her, the breezing toying with my hair, gleefully pushing it back into my eyes.
The world around us seemed to grow ever darker, and the air closed in on me from all sides, until I gasped from the feeling of suffocation. My mother turned to me and pulled my hand into hers.
A few minutes later, a shot rang out in the still air. My mother tackled me, and I hit the ground, my head landing with an audible crack. I heard her scream my name, just once – and hundreds of echoes came back at us.
Gabrielle. Gabrielle. Gabrielle. They taunted me until I could no longer bear it, and I added my own scream to the cool night air, the pounding of my head creating an internal rhythm, steady and sure.
I screamed until my voice cracked, screaming, screaming for help – for salvation, a cry nobody answered.
My mother's tight grip around my shoulders loosened, and her weight grew heavy on my small frame, but I dared not move. There were predators lurking in the darkness, waiting for me, watching me. I could almost see them circling, their teeth bared in feral grins…
A pungent smell, sickly, deathly, sweet, fills the air. Its name is elusive, slipping from my fumbling grasp. My shirt sticks against my back, cold and damp, and almost before I know it, I'm running.
Running away from the monsters watching me. I know they can smell it, smell me, a feast ready for the taking. My feet, suddenly bare, stumble on the cement, the skin quickly torn, raw and bloody.
But all I can think of is my pursuers. They still follow, growing ever closer, until I can feel their hot breath against my shoulder. I can't feel any pain, and though the sidewalk is soon littered with bloody footprints, I run on heedlessly. The footprints glisten with an alien, ghostly glow, and soon more join the chase, their eyes shining, a mirror of the light emanating from the sidewalk.
They aren't after my mother, they're after me.
So I continue to run, and they continue to follow.
And one catches me. Its jaws close with an audible snap, and the last thing I can see is its mouth curving in triumph.
And my last lucid thought was that it was my birthday.