Two seconds before Kate’s face smashed into the sidewalk, she closed her eyes and imagined she was flying. Maybe if she’d kept them open, she would’ve seen the pebbles on the path. She would’ve turned her handlebars in time.
Two hours before Kate’s face smashed into the sidewalk, she looked out the window of a restaurant on Broadway to see if her Schwinn and Amanda’s Trek were still chained to a bike stand. They were. Perhaps, after lunch, they should’ve gone Black Friday shopping instead.
Two weeks before Kate’s face smashed into the sidewalk, she and Amanda rehearsed The Nutcracker Suite on the golden stage of Carnegie Hall. She rested her chin on her violin and gazed out, imagined what she would see in a month: all those wine-colored seats filled, row upon row, tier upon tier. Imagined what she would hear: thousands of hands coming together in rattling applause.
The day after Thanksgiving, the weather turned unseasonably warm. Kate neglected to wear a bike helmet and she closed her eyes for two seconds. She couldn’t take any of that back now.
So there she was, her face pressed against craggy concrete, a fountain trickling nearby, lots of voices, a distant siren. It became louder, then cut off just as it was about to reach another crescendo.
A moment later, a man’s voice rose above the others: “Make room.” Kate rolled over and saw furrowed brows and gaping mouths and heard a gasp or two.
“I’m right here, Katie.” Amanda hovered over her right shoulder, a Trek leaning against one hip and a crumpled Schwinn against the other.
With blood gurgling through her lips, Kate said, “My teeth.”
“What about your teeth?”
“Are they still there?”
A paramedic pushed Amanda aside, a hot African American man with dreadlocks and a square jaw. He pointed a small flashlight at her eyes and asked if she knew her name. He had a deep, sexy voice. Kate might have flirted with him if she hadn’t been lying on a sidewalk with a smashed-up face.
Forty-three stories above the sidewalk, the white sky sent millions of snowflakes drifting downward. White sky. White snow. White tape erasing half of Kate’s reflection: her nose, cheeks, and forehead. A white Colonel Sanders beard, and — as if all that weren’t enough — a black mustache sewn above her upper lip. Purple smears encircled her eyes like applications of eyeshadow gone awry.
At least she’d kept all her teeth.
“You’re very lucky,” the attending in the E.R. had told her. “Your face took all the impact. No broken bones, other than your nose.”
“My elbow hurts.”
“It’s just sprained. It’ll feel much better in a day or two.”
“Then I’ll be able to play violin?”
“Sure. I don’t see why not.”
The following morning, while going over her discharge papers, the plastic surgeon had a different opinion. “You’ll need a month or two for that skin graft on your chin to take,” Dr. Klatsky said. “Give your violin a rest for a while. Just until you’re fully healed.”
Right now, Amanda and the rest of the orchestra were rehearsing at Carnegie Hall without her. New Yorkers were stomping through freshly fallen snow, oblivious to a waylaid violinist staring through a window 43 stories above them.
In the background, yet another radio newscaster was reporting on the weather. “… as an early December storm comes on the heels of a late November heatwave …”
Kate didn’t want to think about the late November heatwave that had landed her in this predicament in the first place. She rose to replace inane news coverage with a classical music station, then noticed a face in a window on the other side of Lexington Avenue. A bald child was staring at her.
So many questions, like so many snowflakes, fluttered into her head. Was the child a boy or girl? What devastating illness had taken this child’s hair?
That they were maintaining eye contact felt both wrong and right. Under normal circumstances, it might’ve seemed rude to stare, but these two had both been physically altered. They had that in common.
The child left the window, and Kate slipped into an unexpected and enduring guilt for having compared her temporary pain to that of a child who could very well be terminally ill.
In the morning, her cell phone rang. A recorded message came on: Due to the heavy snowfall, Dr. Klatsky’s office will be closed until Monday. Normally, she would’ve welcomed a canceled appointment, but she had been looking forward to having her stitches removed today.
With the cell phone still pressed to her ear, she went to her window and pushed aside her curtains. The cars parked along Lexington were packed in by snow, enough to cover their wheels. A plow was pushing the gray-and-white mess from the road to the curb, further stranding those who’d been unfortunate enough to park there. A yellow cab crept along in the plow’s tracks.
With a sigh, Kate lowered her phone and raised her gaze. That was when she noticed the bald child waving to her from the window across the avenue.
Kate waved back.
Immediately, a pink poster board filled the window, bearing a 10-digit number followed by TXT ME.
Reflexively, Kate lowered her cell phone to her hip, as if that would conceal its existence. Perhaps the child was waving to someone a floor or two below the 43rd, or a floor or two above, or …
No. The pink sign had been removed and even from the distance separating the two buildings, Kate detected a hopeful expression on the child’s face. She was being rude to someone young and sick and bored. She looked down at her phone, punched in the phone number, and texted:
••• What happened to your face?
For a few seconds, Kate had forgotten all about her face.
••• Wrecked my bike.
She waited. No response. Should she say more about the accident? Or was it her turn to ask a question? And if so, how could she go about doing that? She couldn’t very well text What happened to your hair?
The child did not wait to be asked.
••• I have leukemia.
Trying to suppress tears made Kate’s upper lip and chin throb.
••• Can’t go out.
••• I’m sorry.
••• Thx. Sorry bout your bike.
••• & your face.
A tear landed on Kate’s fingertip. She rubbed it onto her shirt and typed.
•• I’m Kate.
••• I’m Chloe.
She had already come to the conclusion that she was communicating with a girl. Maybe because of the pink poster board.
••• How old are you, Chloe?
••• Hey, do you know where the biggest Xmas tree in the USA is?
A man wearing a surgical mask and cap appeared at Chloe’s side, bringing the exchange to an abrupt end. Kate ducked down, crept backward away from her window. She reread the conversation, saw nothing that could be considered predatory other than the fact that she’d sent the first text. Her heart rate galloped as she grabbed her keys and left her apartment, with no clear plan of where she was going.
For a week, she had hidden in her tiny efficiency; now that no longer provided adequate coverage. Her one venture out — last Friday, to check the mailbox on the first floor — had resulted in a little boy crying at the sight of her hideous face and a small girl burying her eyes against her mother’s skirt.
Kate’s mailbox was probably overflowing by now. She summoned the elevator, hoping not to have to share it with a young child whom she could frighten just by turning her head.
The elevator doors opened to reveal not one but two small children, a boy and a girl, bundled in snowsuits and mittens and colorful boots. The little girl glanced at Kate; the boy stared, but at least did not appear to be on the verge of tears. The mother, while pressing the lobby button, said, “You live on 43G, don’t you?”
“Yes.” Kate wondered how her neighbor knew this.
“I’m on 44G. I live directly above you. I hear you playing your violin sometimes, and I saw you leaving the building with a violin case the other day.”
Well, it couldn’t’ve been “the other day” because Kate hadn’t played her instrument since the day before Thanksgiving, but she confirmed that she was the musician in 43G.
“You play very well. Are you in an orchestra?”
“Well, yes.” No sense in going into all the details.
The doors opened on 39 and a middle-aged couple boarded. They looked at Kate and immediately down at the floor. At the back of the elevator, the little boy and his sister smiled at her, so she smiled back, forgetting that this would inflict pain above her lips. “Are you going out to play in the snow?” Kate said.
Nods from both children.
Maybe Chloe wished she could play in the snow. Maybe that was why she’d been staring out the window.
On the 28th floor, two old women wearing fur-trimmed boots boarded. One of them interrupted a conversation with the other and pointed to her own soft face. “That must’ve hurt quite a bit.”
“Yeah, quite a bit,” Kate said.
“You let us know if there’s anything we can do for you, young lady. I’m Lily. Rose and I, we live in 28E. Right across from the elevators.”
Kate flinched as another attempted smile tugged the stitches that should’ve been coming out this morning. “Thank you for the offer. That’s so nice.”
“We mean it. Don’t we, Rose? Anything at all. We’re just on our way to the market for cocoa. You can’t very well be stuck in a snowstorm without cocoa, can you? You want us to pick some up for you?”
Kate already had four expired boxes of Swiss Miss in her cabinet. She did need fresh milk, but was not about to ask two old women to carry a half gallon jug in the snow. “Thank you. No. I think I have everything I need.”
The middle-aged woman from 39 turned to Kate; her blonde curls mingled with the faux fur trim of her hood. “I broke my nose when I was a teenager. Hurt like the dickens for weeks. I hope you heal quickly.” She looked up at her husband as if he’d said something.
When the elevator reached the lobby, the children ran off with stiff, snowsuit-covered legs. Their mother followed, then the middle-aged couple, smiling at one another as if sharing a fond memory of when their own children were young. The two old women flanked Kate as she walked to the mailboxes, then left her alone with one more reminder that their apartment number was 28E and they would gladly help her any time at all.
As predicted, Kate’s metal mailbox was stuffed with bills and get-well cards. She shouldn’t have waited a week to check her mail. Maybe she wouldn’t have if she’d known she lived in a building with such kind neighbors.
Chloe’s next message appeared that evening, when Kate was eating dinner at her kitchen counter.
••• Well? Did you guess it yet?
Kate looked back at the last few sentences preceding this.
••• You mean the biggest Xmas tree in the USA?
••• Guess I should’ve googled that by now.
•• It’s in AZ, about 1 1/2 X as big as Rock Cntr.
••• And Rockefeller Center is second?
••• 3rd or 4th.
••• Have you seen the one at Rockefeller Center?
••• No but I’ve always wanted to.
Kate reread that sentence, written by a very sick girl confined to her apartment.
••• Back in Finzione, TN, the biggest tree we ever had was < 20 ft. Lame.
••• I can go to Rockefeller Center and take a pic for you.
Kate held her breath as she pressed Send. The last thing she wanted to do was go anywhere in the city with her mangled face. But it would be worth it if it could make a sick child smile.
••• Thx. My dad already did that for me.
••• It was nice of him but not the same as the real thing.
••• But thx.
Another pause. Kate flipped on her living room light and wandered to the window. Yellow light shone from Chloe’s apartment.
•• Have you been in NYC long?
••• Since Sept.
••• My mom’s idea.
••• She’s a doc. Knows the best oncologists here.
Kate stared at her screen for a while before typing:
••• Hope you get well.
She quickly added:
••• Wanna wave?
••• Sure. Already here.
Chloe appeared and waved from her illuminated window, unaware that the window below hers had been trimmed in white chasing lights, and that the one above had been decked out in lights that changed colors every few seconds.
Kate began to wonder if any decorations had been added to the windows of her own building in the two weeks since she’d last been outside.
The idea came to her on Monday, on her way home from the plastic surgeon’s office, as she was slip-sliding across Lexington Avenue. It did not hit her all at once, like the slush that splattered her parka when a bus passed by, but rather, developed over the course of the afternoon.
She’d spent an hour and a quarter on a waiting room chair, looking over some of the texts that Chloe had sent throughout the weekend. On Saturday, Chloe had asked:
••• Know how tall the Emp St Bldng is?
••• Over 100 stories?
••• I mean how tall! How many ft!
••• Then IDK
••• 1454 ft to the tip.
••• My bldg is 650 ft tall
••• You climbed it and measured it?
••• Hahaha. I calc it.
••• So if the building I live in has 50 stories…
•• Then it’s almost 550 ft
••• That was fast!
••• I’m good at math.
On Sunday, Kate had given Chloe a pop quiz, just for fun:
••• Ok. The height of Mt. Everest is…
••• Too easy! > 29000 ft.
••• You are good. I can’t keep up with you.
••• Tallest bldg in Finzione is 108 ft.
••• So my building is 5X bigger than TN.
••• U R good!
The man with the surgeon’s mask appeared by Chloe’s side.
••• Your doctor?
••• LOL my dad.
The woman whom Kate presumed to be Chloe’s mother appeared at the window later that afternoon, also clad in surgeon’s mask and cap. She waved to Kate, looked down at her daughter, and a moment later, Chloe was texting:
At least it seemed that Kate’s communications with a 12-year-old had been sanctioned by her parents.
By the time she returned home from her appointment with Dr. Klatsky on Monday, the sun had already started to set. On the fourth floor of her 50-story apartment building, a candle burned in the window. Not an electric or battery-operated candle, but a real one, its flame shimmying from side to side.
With one boot in a slush puddle in the middle of Lexington, and the other seeking traction, and 12-11-10 seconds remaining to clear the crosswalk, the idea swooped into Kate’s head.
Upstairs, she dumped everything onto her bed — purse, coat, hat, and gloves — grabbed sheets of paper, a ruler, pen, and yellow highlighter, and set to work at the kitchen counter.
She worked through dinner and into the night, plotting on a grid, 15 squares across and 50 squares high. Twice she had to start over. One time she was interrupted by a text from Chloe:
••• Lemme see your face.
••• I still have a mustache.
••• Now it’s made of red scabs instead of black threads.
••• U can hardly tell from here.
••• When does the rest come off?
••• My new nose will be revealed on the 20th.
••• Just in time for Xmas.
Christmas was less than three weeks away. If only Chloe knew the surprise Kate had in store for her. After their text exchange, she started highlighting the squares on her grid. Each represented a window. She highlighted all the squares on the first five floors, all but the squares at either end of floors 6 through 10, all but two squares at either end of 11 through 15, and so forth in five-floor increments, until she had formed a yellow triangle. Or an eight-tiered wedding cake. Or, if she squinted just so, a Christmas tree. Maybe she could figure out a way to create a star above her window.
This might just work.
She spent the night talking herself out of executing the idea, and the following morning coaxing herself back in.
When Amanda heard Kate’s plan, she wanted to be part of it.
“I’m thinking we should do it on the 21st,” Kate told her. “After that, a lot of people’ll be going away.”
“That’s opening night.”
An ache squeezed in behind the metal cast on Kate’s nose. How could she have forgotten?
“You’re coming, right?”
Her cast would be removed on the morning of the 20th; maybe she would look presentable the following evening. Or not. “Of course.” The ache spread to her upper lip. She would be listening to The Nutcracker from a seat, not the stage.
“We can do it on the evening of the 20th,” Amanda said. “I have rehearsal that morning.”
“Good. The 20th.”
“At seven o’clock.”
“This might just work.”
They composed a letter together, instructing residents facing Lexington Avenue to shut their lights off and to center a lit tea candle in their windows at 7 o’clock on the 20th. They printed up enough copies of the letter to deplete Kate’s toner. A handwritten note explained the plan in more detail, that the intention was to create a 50-story Christmas tree for a child with leukemia, and that only designated residents would be asked to light a tea candle. They wrote several copies of this and taped them around the lobby. Those lighting candles would be contacted in person, the note said.
Easier said than done. Some neighbors had two windows facing Lexington Avenue, others three. Kate would need to knock on doors, ask questions. Or maybe she could leave the requisite number of candles outside the elevator on each floor, with a note, and let the residents work it all out.
“All I know is that I need to pick up 320 candles,” Kate told Amanda. “I checked online and found a place that has them for a good price. In SoHo. Guess I’ll just have to subject some more New Yorkers to my face tomorrow.”
“That’s all in your head, Katie.”
“I thought you said your neighbors’ve been so nice whenever you go down to check the mail.”
“Yeah, well …” Amanda hadn’t seen the way half the passengers in her subway car had averted their eyes, before and after her appointment yesterday.
“Don’t worry,” Amanda said. “I’ll pick them up. Right after rehearsal. I’m done at noon. I’ll bring them over, and we’ll figure out a way to start distributing them.”
Amanda’s offer elicited a different sort of pain, this time in the center of Kate’s chest. If she hadn’t closed her eyes for those two seconds, then tomorrow, they would both emerge from Carnegie Hall at noon, a violin case in Kate’s hand and a cello case slung over Amanda’s shoulder, one or both of them humming “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.”
The door to Apartment 4K opened just as Kate thought she would clear the first five floors without having to endure any human contact. She picked up the paper she’d been about to slide beneath the door, and handed it to the woman standing in front of her.
“I saw your note in the lobby,” the woman said. “I want to light candles, but …”
Kate pointed to a bag of 15 candles hanging by the elevator.
“I was about to say, I want to light candles, but I’ll be out of town that week.”
Kate suppressed a sigh. How many other residents would be out of town on the 21st? This Christmas tree could very well bear no resemblance to a tree at all.
“You know what? I’ll just leave a key with my neighbor across the hall, and she’ll light the candles. Problem solved!”
The woman’s idea — for which she credited Kate, although Kate hadn’t opened her mouth once through its inception — solved similar dilemmas for the residents of Apartment 10C and 12G. By the time she’d reached the 15th landing of her building, Kate was done for the day. She felt both exhausted and exhilarated from climbing steps and speaking to neighbors, who unanimously responded with enthusiastic support. The bottom of her chart was quickly filling with smiley faces from those who’d committed to participate.
It was not until Kate had reached the 24th floor, the following day, that she encountered any resistance. A gruff man in 24I did not appreciate the intrusion, and no, he wasn’t sure if he’d be around on December 20, and maybe next time Kate would read his No Solicitors sign before knocking on his door. After he slammed his door, she shrugged and retreated to her apartment, where she opened a bottle of wine and placed a frowny face over the two squares representing his apartment. All that mattered was that many candles would be lit. Enough, it seemed, to provide Chloe with some sort of festive shape, be it tree-like or otherwise.
A handful of neighbors cringed at the sight of Kate’s face, or intentionally turned away while continuing to carry on a conversation; their reactions, in the end, were as inconsequential as that of the gruff man from 24I. In fact, those who were concerned for the sick child and eager to help far outnumbered those with negative reactions. As she ascended her building, Kate had fewer and fewer doors to knock on, but the stakes were rising. More people were depending on her to pull this off.
She was feeling fairly good about her mission — and its chances for success — when she knocked on the door to 28E and accepted an invitation from Rose and Lily to come in for a cup of cocoa.
“How is the child?” Rose said, while Kate swirled melted marshmallow through foamy chocolate.
The truth was that Kate had received few texts from Chloe in the past few days. And Chloe’s health had never entered into any exchanges after their first. Mostly, the pair compared facts and figures, expanded one another’s knowledge of trivia. Admittedly, there were few questions to which Chloe did not know the answer.
“I think she’s okay.” This based on Kate’s observation that, earlier in the week, she’d detected glints of blonde hair. And that even from 75 feet away — the width of Lexington Avenue, Chloe had informed Kate last week — the young girl’s smile radiated light.
Kate sent a text that evening:
••• How are U?
The “U”, she realized, implied casualness. Perhaps she’d been influenced by Chloe’s use of abbreviations.
No reply came for a few days. And even then, it did not answer the question, but instead, asked a new one:
••• Do you know where the world’s biggest nativity scene is?
Kate had no idea. It turned out to be in Manarola, Italy.
At least Chloe had texted. That had to be a good sign.
Kate remained focused on creating the tree and sent Amanda in search of battery-operated flashing lights that could configure a star in the windows of some of the apartments directly above hers.
When Kate returned from her doctor’s appointment on the 20th of December, Amanda was waiting for her in the lobby. “Katie! Your nose looks great!” she said with over-the-top enthusiasm, as if she’d been rehearsing.
The truth was that her nose did not look great at all. It was still swollen and bent in the center. Dr. Klatsky said the swelling would go down, but mentioned nothing about the bend. Kate would just need to get used to it, she supposed, as well as the blue scar on her chin and the way the skin behind her upper lip draped down over her teeth when she smiled. All of that would improve in time, she’d been told. In the end, none of that mattered. She’d been lucky. Her injuries could’ve been far worse.
Upstairs, they talked about the next night’s concert. Kate had pre-performance jitters, but she couldn’t quite understand why. “I’m more nervous about The Nutcracker than I was before the last concert, you know, the one I actually performed in.”
“Meanwhile, I’m almost as nervous about tonight as I am about tomorrow,” Amanda said.
One hour left.
Amanda told Kate to send a text already.
“You think? I was going to wait till the last minute, increase the drama level a little.”
••• Hi Chloe. Come to your window at 7.
Three dots inside a bubble. Chloe was texting. The child might not even be home.
Kate released a suspended breath.
Through the next hour, the pre-performance jitters all but vanished. There was nothing more she could do now but wait, and light one candle. The topmost candle of the Christmas tree. And with any luck, 12 neighbors upstairs would remember to turn on their flashing bulbs, and more than a hundred neighbors below would remember to strike a match.
Like a conductor waving a baton, Amanda pointed to the window, and Kate lit the wick of her tea candle.
There could be no doubt that Chloe had watched. She had texted “Ok.”
The only question was whether or not this coordinated effort looked like a Christmas tree, or a sparkly mess.
She continued to wait.
••• Hi Kate.
All that waiting for two words.
More typing from the other end.
••• This is Patti.
••• Chloe loves your tree.
••• She says to tell you ‘biggest tree in the USA’
••• And that I should add lots of exclamation points.
Amanda stood over Kate’s right shoulder, just as she had on the afternoon of the accident, wearing the same expression: furrowed brows, clenched jaw. Disbelief.
This couldn’t be happening.
••• She said 5 X bigger than AZ.
Kate didn’t know how to phrase the many questions ricocheting through her mind. She started with:
••• How is…
But before she could complete her sentence, another text came from Chloe’s phone.
••• Why don’t you come over? She says you have to see this.
••• Apartment 45B.
The two friends began to speak at once.
Kate: “Do you want to …?”
Amanda: “Go on, Katie.”
“But don’t you want to come with me?”
“I’ll go outside in a little bit. Go on. Chloe is waiting for you.”
Her heart hammered in her chest. The elevator doors opened; six neighbors stood inside. Kate recognized half of them; she had given them flashing lights. But they didn’t recognize her, maybe because she no longer had tape covering half her face.
The elevator continued to stop at several more floors; by the time it reached the lobby, it was at full capacity. And still no one recognized her, or perhaps they hadn’t looked carefully enough. They all seemed determined to get outside, to turn around and see what they had done.
Kate joined a crowd crossing Lexington Avenue, but when she reached the sidewalk on the other side, she did not turn around. She continued to face forward as she climbed two steps at the entrance of Chloe’s building. The temptation to look behind her was great. Overwhelming, in fact. But the need to see the Christmas tree from Chloe’s window — through Chloe’s eyes — far greater.
She opened the door.