"Oh," I said. The chanting was so loud now it was verging on shrieking. "Where did you get this?"
He reached forward, turning the volume down a little bit. "The library at the university," he said. "I checked it out of their sound-and-culture collection."
"Ah," I said. So Owen Armstrong was spiritual. Who knew? Then again, who would have thought I would be sitting in his car, listening to chants with him? Not me. Not anybody. And yet, here we were.
"So you must really like music," I said, looking back at the stacks of CDs.
"Don't you?" he replied, switching lanes.
"Sure," I said. "I mean, everybody does, right?"
"No," he said flatly.
He shook his head. "Some people think they like music, but they have no idea what it's really all about. They're kidding themselves. Then there are people who feel strongly about music, but just aren't listening to the right stuff. They're misguided. And then there are people like me."
I just sat there for a second, studying him. He still had his elbow out the window and was sitting back in his seat, his head just brushing the ceiling above him. Up close, I was realizing he was still kind of intimidating, but for different reasons. His size, yes, but other things, too—like those dark eyes and wiry forearms, plus his intense gaze, which he now turned on me for a moment before directing his attention back to the road. "People like you," I said. "What kind of people are those?"
He hit his blinker again and began to slow down. Up ahead, I could see my old middle school, a yellow school bus pulling out of the parking lot. "The kind who live for music and are constantly seeking it out, anywhere they can. Who can't imagine a life without it. They're enlightened."
"Ah," I said, like this actually made sense to me.
"I mean, when you really think about it," he continued, "music is the great uniter. An incredible force. Something that people who differ on everything and anything else can have in common."
I nodded, not sure what to say to this.
"Plus there's the fact," he went on, making it clear he didn't need me to reply anyway, "that music is a total constant. That's why we have such a strong visceral connection to it, you know? Because a song can take you back instantly to a moment, or a place, or even a person. No matter what else has changed in you or the world, that one song stays the same, just like that moment. Which is pretty amazing, when you actually think about it."
It was pretty amazing. As was this conversation, so wholly unlike anything I could or would have ever imagined. "Yeah," I said slowly. "It is."
We drove on for a second, in silence. Except for the chanting.
"What I mean to say," he said, "is yes. I like music."
"Got it," I said.
"And now," he said as we turned into the school's lot, "I'll apologize in advance."
"Apologize? For what?"
He slowed, finally stopping at the curb. "My sister."
There were several girls standing around the main entrance to Lakeview Middle, and I quickly scanned their faces, trying to guess which one was related to Owen. The girl with the instrument case and the braid, leaning against the building, an open book in her hands? The tall blonde with the big Nike duffel bag and the field-hockey stick, drinking a Diet Coke? Or the easiest bet, the dark-haired girl with the pixie cut, wearing all black, who was lying on a nearby bench, her arms crossed tightly over her chest, staring up at the sky with a pained expression?
Just then, though, I heard a clank right outside my window. When I turned my head, I saw a small, thin, dark-haired girl dressed head to toe in pink: ponytail tied with a pink ribbon, shiny pink lip gloss, hot-pink T-shirt, jeans, and pink platform flip-flops. When she saw me, she shrieked.
"Oh my God!" she gasped, her voice muffled by the window between us. "It's you!"
I opened my mouth to say something, but before I could, she disappeared from the window, a pink blur. A second later, the back door creaked open, and she scrambled inside. "Owen, oh my God!" she said, still at full, excitable volume. "You didn't tell me you were friends with Annabel Greene!"
Owen glanced at her through the rearview. "Mallory," he said, "take it down a notch."
I started to turn around to say hello, but she was already leaning forward, poking her head between my seat and Owen's, so close to me I could smell bubblegum breath. "This is unbelievable," she said. "I mean, it's you!"
"Hi," I said.
"Hi!" she shrieked, then jumped up and down a little bit in the seat. "Oh my God, I love your work. I really do."
"Work?" Owen said.
"Owen, come on." Mallory sighed. "She's a Lakeview Model, hello? And she's done tons of local ads. And that commercial, you know the one I love, with the girl in the cheer-leading uniform?"
"No," Owen said.
"That's her! I can't believe this. I can't wait to tell Shelley and Courtney, oh my God!" Mallory grabbed her bag and unzipped it, pulling out a cell phone. "Oh! Maybe you can say hello to them, that would be so cool, and—"
Owen turned around in his seat. "Mallory."
"Just a sec," she said, pushing buttons. "I just want to—"
"Mallory." His voice was lower now, more stern.
"Hold on, Owen, okay?"
Owen reached out, taking the phone from her. She watched it leave her hands, eyes wide, then looked up at him. "Come on! I just wanted her to say hello to Courtney."
"No," he said, putting the phone on the console between us.
"Put on your seat belt," Owen told her as he pulled away from the curb. "And take a breath."
After a short pause, Mallory proceeded to do both of these things, audibly. When I glanced back again, she was sitting there, in full pout mode, her arms crossed over her chest. When I looked at her, she brightened up immediately. "Is that a Lanoler sweater?"
She leaned forward, smoothing her fingers over the yellow cardigan I'd thrown on that morning. "This. It's gorgeous. Is it a Lanoler?"
"You know," I said, "I'm not—"
Her hand moved to my collar, pulling it down to check the tag. "It is! I knew it. Oh my God, I want a Lanoler sweater so bad, I have forever—"
"Mallory," Owen said, "don't be a label whore."