Sophia Gallo is celebrated and adored by millions, but in her meteoric rise to fame, it might appear she’s forgotten the One Who gave her the gift that made possible her life of wealth and glory. She hasn’t forgotten. She’s reminded every day as she endeavors to hide a secret that could change everything and expose her as the freak and outcast she always thought herself to be.
Cade Fioretti has never backed down from finding the truth, and he’s not about to start now. It’s his job and his passion. Sophia is beautiful, talented, and the subject of his next book; but she’s hiding something. No matter what it takes, he’s going to dig it up, and in the process learn all there is to know about this woman who’s stolen his heart.
Sophia knew something wasn’t right the instant she opened her mouth to sing and the first note hit the air. Her voice actually sounded good. It was only one word—part of a word really; more of a syllable—but it was good.
Her brows lifted in mild curiosity, and she cleared her throat before trying it again. When the next note came out as clear and pleasant as the first, her hands tightened around the steering wheel.
She glanced down at the chai latte in the cup holder. No, it wasn’t some kind of reaction, and she hadn’t scorched her throat—it remained untouched. But something had happened to change her voice so drastically.
Her gaze darted to the rearview mirror, but her reflection seemed the same, nothing out of the ordinary. She looked back to the road just in time to avoid rear-ending an expensive sedan.
Sophia clamped her mouth shut and glared at the radio. The pop singer seemed unaffected by her present condition. Well good for him. She remained silent for several blocks, time enough to reason it had never happened at all. It was, doubtless, just one of those things, where you drive under a power line and it messes with the radio reception. Yes, that was it.
With her bravery renewed, Sophia changed the station. A new release aired, one she didn’t know the words to, so she jabbed buttons until she heard the familiar strains of an old song. She was being silly. She opened her mouth once more.
The notes came out in a clean, effortless flow that scared her. “Am I losing my mind?” she asked the radio.
Maybe it was her hearing. No, she could still hear the swish of wipers across freshly sprinkled glass, the suck of rubber tire treads on wet pavement, and the singer’s voice, satin smooth as always. Of course, people didn’t always hear themselves the way they really sounded, right? She was probably just as bad as ever, but maybe she had wax buildup in her ears or something.
Then again, she was under more stress than usual, with parent-teacher conferences and Principal O’Malley dogging her about spending too much time playing games with the children and not enough on curriculum. It didn’t seem to matter that Sophia’s class was ranked at the top of the school in reading and comprehension, and in math, second only to the fifth grade Mighty Math Majors. She didn’t feel the sting of that loss; those kids were abnormally attracted to numbers.
She pulled into her space in the school parking lot, turned off the ignition and went over the general things she should know: name, address, phone number, days of the week, mother’s maiden name. Everything seemed to check out. People having breakdowns didn’t know these things off the tops of their heads, did they? Then again, how could she be sure she wasn’t twisting the answers in some way, or—
She forced her mind to a grinding halt before it could carry her over the edge. All of her saliva had dried up, and her heart was racing at a rate she was certain couldn’t be healthy. What she needed was a witness—a second party to deny or confirm that she could sing, or needed psychological treatment.
Sophia flipped open the cup lid, took the cup with both hands and sipped. The liquid was blazing hot, but she sipped steadily.
If she wasn’t already over the edge, she was close. How was she going to pull off a calm facade in a classroom full of first-graders, whose job it seemed, was to notice every minute detail?
Just as Sophia got out of the car, the sporadic drizzle became a steady rain. Though she held her briefcase over her head, she was damp by the time she got inside and not in the mood to keep up with the morning gossip in the teachers’ lounge, so she went directly to her class. In bad weather the students were brought inside to await the first bell, so she figured she had about ten minutes before she would collect her fifteen children from the gym.
She fumbled for her cell phone and had her brother on the line almost before she realized she’d dialed him. If anyone could talk her down, Anthony could.
“What?” Anthony barked into the phone.
“It’s me. Just getting up?”
“Unfortunately. What’s wrong?”
Over the phone, Sophia could hear the scrape of match to striker, the sifting of air through the end of a cigarette. She was still praying he would quit. “Nothing.”
“You didn’t call me first thing in the morning for nothing.”
Sophia twisted a lock of black hair around her finger. “Nothing, exactly.”
“So tell me what’s not exactly wrong,” Anthony said.
Growing up, she had often wished her two brothers didn’t know her so well, but found it an enormous comfort right now.
“I can sing,” she said finally.
“No, you can’t,” Anthony stated as a blunt fact.
“I couldn’t,” she agreed as her hands flailed with excitement in every direction. “But now I can. I don’t know how or why, but I can. At least I think I can.”
“I’m not following.”
“Neither am I.”
She started at the beginning, as best she could pinpoint it. When she finished and he said nothing, she went to the portable stereo in the corner of the room, popped out the sing-along CD, and popped in one of the CDs she listened to during free period.
“Hold on, listen.” She put the phone where he could hear and waited for the singer to complete one of her trademark vocal summersaults before turning down the stereo and following with one of her own.
“Who was that?” Anthony asked when she picked the phone up again.
“You see? That’s what I thought when I first heard it.” He might not believe her yet, but at least he was hearing the same thing. “It sounds like me, but…not. I mean, it sounds like I would sound if I could sing, right?”
“I just woke up, Sophia,” he said impatiently. “I’m not in the mood for games.”
“It’s not, wait. Listen again.”
It was easy enough to silence him when she sang a song they had made up as kids. It was a gruesome ditty about food poisoning, intended as some kind of childish revenge when Uncle Victor had made them sit at the children’s table at Easter. Since they’d never disclosed the lyrics to another soul, Anthony would have no question it was her voice.
Sophia heard his fridge door open and the seal break on a bottle of water. “That was you,” he said, surprised.
“You must be leaving something out. Think. Did you hit your head or get accidentally hypnotized or something?”
She had to laugh. “How do you get accidentally hypnotized?”
“How should I know? I don’t hear you coming up with anything better.”
He was right; she had nothing more rational to offer. Noise in the hall caught her ear, and she looked up to see Mrs. Falk marching by with her third graders.
“I have to run. Thanks for listening. Love you.” She hung up and ran to gather her class, feeling a little lighter now that she had spoken to someone. He was probably right. She must be missing something.
Throughout the day, she rewound and replayed every moment she could remember, working backward from the time she turned on the radio in the car that morning. Before that, there was the coffee shop, dressing for work, the shower…the shower. No, she’d sounded as bad as usual.
There didn’t seem to be much point, but she went back to the night before that. It had been a quiet evening alone at home. Ben had tried to talk her into joining him and another couple for dinner and a movie, but she knew that when they were alone later, he would try to talk her into other things. He was a nice enough guy, but much too preoccupied with pursuing a physical relationship. She didn’t want to dwell on him.
Apart from watching an old black and white movie, she could remember nothing to distinguish that night from any other. Nothing remarkable, nothing disturbing or riveting.
Sophia looked down as small, persistent hands tugged on her sleeve. “What’s the matter, Lily?”
The teary eyed child sniffled and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “I drew a picture for you. Now it’s gone. Bentley ate it last night.”
Sophia had seen Lily’s monster dog on occasion, dragging its owners around the neighborhood, and had no doubt the girl spoke the truth.
She crouched to eye level with Lily and smoothed a hand over her silken hair. “That’s all right, you can draw me another one.”
“I wanted to give it to you today,” she whined, though Sophia imagined she had intended the assertion to sound urgent.
Even after all the schooling and working with children Sophia realized there were some questions that could never be answered. Like why, when asked if they had to use the bathroom, children would refuse, but two minutes later on the way to the bus, would be bursting at the seams. Moreover, why, when school was almost over, would a little girl all at once remember that a ravenous mutt had eaten her drawing the night before? Kids.
“We’ll be singing the goodbye song in a few minutes,” Sophia told her gently. She took a sheet of white paper from her desk and handed it to Lily. “Go back to your seat and you can draw until then.”
Sophia went back to the boom box, and put in the disc of the friends’ goodbye song they sang every afternoon before leaving for the day. When the children gathered in a circle by the door, she took a deep breath and pushed PLAY.
They were her first audience.
Three years later
So much had changed in such a short period of time, Sophia thought, looking down on rain-slicked Fifth Ave. Just a few years ago, April would mean saving pennies and stretching her budget to allow for a spring break vacation. And probably using most of that free time fine tuning her curriculum for when she returned to school.
She dropped her head against the window frame. The children she’d taught were in fourth grade now. In fourth grade there was no more marching around the classroom shaking tambourines fashioned from paper plates and dried navy beans. No more cutting out pictures that started with the letter of the day. All of them had probably forgotten the words to the goodbye song. She wondered if they thought about what had become of Miss Gallo in their minds.
Her winsome smile faded.
Question 1: Why has Sophia felt like a freak?
Answer 1: Growing up, she was never accepted by her mother, taunted by jealous girls, and put on public display when the scandal broke with Erik Marshall.
Question 2: Why does she not want her secret revealed?
Answer 2: Telling the world God gave her this gift will again make her stand out from "normal" people.