Prologue

The pale, handsome young man stared at the program in his hand. Blazoned across the front, just under the name of the symphony, was his name: "Cory Christopherson, clarinet". He had made it. He was about to solo with the New York Philharmonic. He sighed and turned to stare up at the dust motes that flickered through the bright, white light coming from the stage lights he could see from where he waited in the wings. He should be ecstatic. He should at least be happy. Instead, all he could feel was a cold lump in his gut, as if a huge, spectral hand had reached in and was squeezing.

He glanced at his hand – the one that wasn't holding his instrument. It was shaking visibly. Stage fright, the logical part of his mind noted pragmatically. Damn. You'd think someone with as much experience doing this as I have wouldn't –

The principal oboist on stage played the A. As the orchestra began tuning, the ghostly hand squeezed tighter. He felt light-headed and almost lost hold of his clarinet. I can't do this, he thought in shock and panic, clutching the precious instrument to him. I can't play like this! I can't even breathe!

The orchestra quieted. The packed hall was silent, expectant. Andrew McQuality, their conductor, touched him lightly on the shoulder, causing him to jump. The older man chuckled. "Nerves?" he asked kindly. "Don't worry, they'll go away once you start playing." He turned and walked purposefully toward the stage, not even looking back to see if his young soloist was following.

He was not going to be able to play. He wasn't even going to be able to walk onstage. His feet would not move. His stomach heaved. I can't do this, he thought yet again. Suddenly, in his mind's ear, he heard the voice of his high school clarinet teacher – felt her hand on his shoulder, as she had placed it when he had been terrified about soloing with the Youth Symphony nine years ago. "I know you can do this, Cory. You don't want those butterflies in your stomach to go away. You just want them to fly in formation."

Fly in formation. Cory shook his head, a faint smile gracing his pale face, and concentrated on moving first one foot, then the other. Before he knew what was happening, he was walking purposefully onstage into the deafening applause of his audience. His audience. He bowed, and shook hands with Maestro McQuality, and with Megan Chinburg, their concertmistress. Then he turned to face the velvety blackness that began where the stage ended.

Intellectually, he knew there were thousands of people out there, but all he could see was her face. She should be here, he thought, his stomach twisting this time with the familiar feeling of guilt, sorrow and determination. I hope she knows…

Maestro McQuality raised his arms. The familiar, clear opening of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto spilled from the orchestra. He raised the clarinet to his lips. Yes, he could do this. He had to. She had given her life to make it possible. The intro wound around to his entrance – clear notes bubbling forth in perfect time –  Fly in formation…This is for you, Ellen…

Closing his eyes, Cory began to play.