"Imagination is what progresses us from the darkness to electricity and from silence to music."

That was what Elias Moody said when he created Tristis Opera Instruments. But although he emphasized the vitality of imagination and innovation throughout her childhood, Melia could never have imagined what it meant to be only just eighteen and have neither parent.

She stared out the attic window at the raindrops that slipped from the lilac and white wisteria, but the sound of the showers became like stereo noise. She gathered her knees closer to her on the window seat when the attic released an eerie creak in the otherwise silent home. All her tears drained months ago and left her parched as a desert. She gripped one of the original teddy bears her father had made against her chest and leaned against the window frame. The ivory rose her father presented to her last year, when she became an adult, was crisp and edged with taupe deadness. She removed her eyes from it and what it seemed to represent and returned them to the sewn creature in her arms.

The bear had a split a seam on the arm. She pulled open the drawer beneath her seat and reached for the small sewing kit, from which she extracted a fine needle and a threat that matched the wheat color of the bear. As she stitched the seam closed again, she was startled by a prick and the bead of blood pooling at her fingertip. Pain sliced across her several-month emotional stagnancy.

She rummaged through the sewing kit until she extracted a pair of scissors. She parted the blades and trailed the palm of her hand against one. Then she trailed it against her upper left arm and winced at the pinch, staring at the blood trickling down from the cut.

The distant melody of the doorbell startled her out of her thoughts. She remained perfectly still and listened as intently as she could. Someone pounded against her door and shouted, "Melia!"

Callum stood at the door and stared up at the open attic window, straining to glimpse his childhood friend. He shielded his eyes as best he could against the rain, but his vision remained distorted.

"Melia! Please come down!"

Eventually, the rain soaked through his coat and chilled him. He rested his forehead against the door until it was drawn open. Melia crossed her arms and dropped her eyes to the ground.

"What is it?" she asked softly.

"I know this birthday isn't a happy one, but…" Callum presented a small glass vase of purple pansies.

She reached to accept the gift, exposing the line of blood that leaked through her lace sweater. Callum caught her arm and swallowed deeply, raising his eyes to hers a moment before they shifted back to the laceration. "What happened to you?"

"Don't worry about that," she jerked her arm from his grasp. She closed her eyes and set the vase aside on the table by the door. "I'm all right."

Rain streamed from his ebony hair into his pale blue eyes. "I refuse to believe that you cut yourself."

"I have to go inside," she started to close the door, but he pressed his hand against it.

"Should you ever cut yourself again," he warned, "you'll be cutting me."

She dissolved into tears against his shoulder, unaware of the rain showering down on the pair of them. He shivered as he wrapped his arms around her shoulders in a vain attempt to shield her from the chill. She tore herself back and started to speak, but he leaned down and kissed her. She gently pushed him back. His eyes were filled with inquiries and pain.

"I love you, but I have nothing left in me. You deserve more than all this."

"No," he rested his forehead against hers, but she pushed him back again.

"I cannot feel anything!" she snapped with one fresh tear slipping down her cheek. "Not the rain, not me birthday, not even you," she reached out to touch his cheek, and he closed his eyes. "And you deserve so much more." With a last mournful glance, she stepped back and closed the door gently.

He pressed his back against it and sank into a sitting position in dismay. Elias Moody trusted him to keep an eye on his daughter, but this seemed impossible when she locked him out of her life. He knew she loved him. Maybe she would have compassion on him and allow him inside if he stayed in the rain no matter what. He snapped closed his navy coat and crossed his arms, staring out at the rain.

After some time, he started shivering. His car was in plain sight from her window, so she knew he was there. He crouched down in the tightest position he could against the house and watched as the sky diminished into a sort of violet as when the sun disappeared behind the horizon.

He closed his eyes and rested as much as his circumstances would allow until the entire property was enclosed in darkness. Not even a lamp illuminated the attic window. Suddenly, he shielded his eyes with one arm when a pair of headlights came toward him to the sound of a rattling engine. He squinted against their brilliance as a van door slammed and the silhouette of a woman in a simple dress came rushing toward him.

"Callum, I was so worried when you never returned," his mother reached down and started to pluck at his arms so she could help him up. He curled them around his sides.

"Ma, I am not leaving until she lets me in."

Abigeál pointed to the night sky. "She is not letting you in! She'll sooner let you freeze, apparently."

He remained silent and stared at the ground ahead of him. She released her breath with agitation and crouched down before him.

"Melia is the closest I have ever had to a daughter, and I love her as well. But darling, if she has not let you in yet, she is not about to. Come inside the heated van. You can do her no good if you stay out here until you're ill and miserable. Get up and come with me, please."

After a moment, he accepted her hands and staggered up to his feet. She wrapped a maternal arm around him and rushed him to the van, whose heater was searing hot when he entered.

"We have soup on the stove when we get home," Abigeál said as she steered the van down a narrow road that eventually passed near their farm.

"I'm not in the mood to eat."

"You haven't eaten today!"

"Tomorrow morning, Adare Moran Stewart is going to show me the status in each company and let me ask the management teams about their progress. Then we will go out to eat, and I will order something," Callum promised her with a gentle assurance in his eyes.

"You promise me that," she emphasized. "And when we get home, stay beside the fire."

"I promise," he managed a smile.

When they arrived home, he received an array of surprised greetings. Abigeál answered the inquiries as to why he was drenched while he strode toward the fire and seated himself close to it. He could hear his own teeth rattling together as he shivered.

"Ma, the porcelain doll is about to crack," Eagan called abruptly somewhere close by. He could hear her shoes clatter across the wood with the shoes of another after her.

"All this stress over a woman," Aunt Darcy said when she entered. "She is a dead weight in his life."

"She is a person," Callum rasped his irritation.

"Gavin, get him some clothes," Abigeál called over her shoulder to the son who happened to pass by the door. He gave a nod and disappeared immediately. "And put them on his bed. Callum, get into those dry clothes as soon as your brother retrieves them and go to sleep."

"It's only seven," Callum managed around the aroma of the spiced wood and cherry that reminded him that Cairbre was savoring his evening pipe within his study.

"Even so," Abigeál answered. He rose and complied without the strength to disagree with her order, moving silently across the cottage and up the attic stairs to the boys' room.

He remained awake and silent the entire night, even as his brothers all clamored into their various bunks, until the sun rose and reached its rays into their window. He rose without causing the others to stir, dressed, and sneaked out of the house to meet his mentor at each company.

By that afternoon when they were seated at a restaurant, Adare Moran Stewart eyed the heir with a stern inquisition.

"You are exhausted," he observed.

"Couldn't sleep," Callum answered as he ran his palms across his eyes.

"I see," the man raised his menu to his eyes and evaluated the pasta section. "What were your impressions when you saw each company this morning? Do you agree with what you have seen, or is there anything you would rather alter?"

"Mr. Stewart," he started, but the man raised one hand.

"If I am to be working for you when you're ready, that has to end. Moran."

"Moran," Callum continued rather tentatively, "The Tristis Opera seems to be a clean, smooth operation. Adrina is also efficient, and I appreciate their family-oriented attitudes with one another. Me only apprehension," he searched out the phrase he wanted to use while staring down at his hands, "is that I am not sure they are prepared to have a man young enough to be a son to some of them running these companies, especially after someone with a legacy like Elias Moody."

"Elias Moody was a good man, but you have a sort of sweetness and gentleness that people mistake for naivety. Keep doing what is right, and after some time, you will have earned their respect and trust."

Callum considered his answer, then shook his head and blew through his lips. "Eli trusted them?"

"Each and every one, including you. The one you have to trust right now is Eli."

"I want to make sure I would not disappoint him."

"Let me tell you something," Moran leaned his elbows on the table and pointed right at his nose. "If you do everything you can to prepare yourself for this task, and you do everything you can to use the wisdom and discernment God gave you to succeed, then Eli would be pleased no matter what your results. Now, do you want to order garlic bread as an appetizer?"

Moran ordered enough to secure each of them enough leftovers to last another day. Callum returned with them to an almost empty house. Each parent acknowledged him with a greeting when he entered, but he continued to the phone and started dialing in an attempt to reach Melia.

"Come on," he murmured after the fifth call.

"What are you doing?" Abigeál entered the kitchen where he was seated with her brows furrowed with concern. "Are you dialing again and again until Melia answers?"

He stared without a reply.

"You have got to stop. She will answer when she is ready."

"Maybe she needs help," he persisted.

"You cannot make her accept your help."

"But I can continue to offer it," he answered as he ended the call and started another. Abigeál watched him and chewed her lip anxiously. Eventually, she opened her mouth to speak, and the words tumbled out unsteadily.

"Callum, you are not allowed to keep pestering her."

He raised his eyes with surprise. "Ma?"

"This is all I can do to help the two of you. She is not ready to answer to you, and your life is getting consumed with trying to reach her. I love you, but you are not to contact her anymore."

"Ma, she may need help. She may not know it yet, not unless I speak to her…"

"You are not allowed to speak to her right now."

"Ma, what am I supposed to do?" he rose abruptly and scraped his chair across the wood. "I have to do what Eli asked in his message to me. I have to make sure she is all right!"

"You have done all you can!" Abigeál persisted. "You can do nothing more!"

Callum stared with widened eyes as a wave of helplessness crashed over him. He gently shouldered past her and started toward the bathroom, where he promptly threw up. After several times, a pair of voices rose above the racket of his misery.

"This is too much for him!" Abigeál shouted desperately.

"He is learning to become a man!" Cairbre returned.

"I am concerned he may be developing an ulcer."

"He is emotional," Cairbre reasoned in a steady tone. "Look at all he has on his shoulders. He is unaccustomed to these burdens, but he will adjust and be a better man as a result."

Abigeál pursed her lips and stormed out of the cottage. She wrenched open the door of her car and slammed it shut, started the engine, and peeled down the dirt road that eventually reached a street. She chewed her lip until she was sure it would bleed until the mansion emerged into view.

When she pulled up to the ivory picket fence, she climbed out and stormed up to the gate. She threw it open and strode toward the mansion until she was beneath the attic window.

"Melia," she slammed her palms against the front door. "Please, come downstairs and speak with me! Callum is so scared about you that he has been ill! I need to let him know that you are all right! He is literally causing himself ulcers!"

Satisfied that she shouted enough that day, she dropped her hands and stared up at the window for any signs of life. But up in the attic, Melia allowed herself to slide from the window seat to the floor with a river of fresh tears. Everyone she loved seemed to be in pain, and now she was the cause! Determined to end that pain, she rose enough to snap shut the window and close the latch. Perhaps severance was the only solution. Perhaps she could save him the concern if all attachments were ended. The idea sent her into another sea of tears, and her breath was shortened.

She seated herself again and reached toward the scissors ahead of her.