Fifteen year-old Payton MacGregor is a musical prodigy. To him, though, his music is merely a way for him to escape from the chaos that surrounds him. All of his life, he’s had to care for his mother, who copes with her bipolar disorder with booze instead of turning to her own musical talents. He refuses to become a statistic. Then he’s thrown a curve ball.
His mother suddenly dies, leaving him to be cared for by his aging grandparents. As much as they love him, they decide to send him halfway across Canada to live with his father, Liam—the man Payton always believed abandoned him and his mother. Payton isn’t making the relocation easy on anyone until he finds out he's going to attend the prestigious School of the Arts for musically gifted youth. Any second thoughts he has about his new life are erased when he meets Lily Joplin. Their connection is instantaneous.
Lily is a talented singer, but her struggles with drugs and bipolar disorder hit too close to home for Payton’s comfort. And when her issues become all-consuming, he wonders if his music will be enough to carry him through.
A train whistle echoed into the frigid night. By three o’clock a.m., most of the passengers had been lulled to sleep by the swaying of the steel wheels slicing through the snow. But not everyone was enticed to sleep as easily.
Fifteen-year old Payton MacGregor stared out his window. He pressed his forehead against the frost-fogged glass then attempted to stretch out his legs—man, it was like trying to get a giraffe comfortable in a station wagon. Designers of passenger train cars must have gone to the same engineering school as airplane designers: all passengers should be able to fold themselves into the two-foot space between rows of seats.
Payton twisted around until he finally settled into sitting with his legs bent up, his shins leaning against the seat in front of him and keeping his head against the window.
Excellent, he thought. By the time the train stops in Edmonton, I’ll be numb from butt to ears.
He squinted out into the darkness then closed his eyes, his head vibrating against the window. John Lennon crooned through his MP3-player headphones about someone named Julia. Who was the song about again? His mother? A girlfriend?
When I cannot sing my heart…I can only speak my mind, Julia…
Payton laughed. Speaking his mind was what got him on the train in the first place. All his life he tried singing his heart but nobody listened. When he finally spoke his mind, he got into trouble. Well…not trouble exactly.
His grandparents had decided last week it was time for him to ship off and meet his father—a man who’d run off to join the army and left Payton with his alcoholic, bipolar mother. Not a phone call or a letter or a “How the heck are ya, son?” Just…gone.
“Yeah…that’s a guy I’d love to get to know,” Payton had said, picking at a hangnail on his thumb.
Grandma’s fork froze at her lips. “There’s no need for sarcasm, young man. Especially not at the dinner table.”
Payton rolled his eyes. “Grandmother, you told me what a jerk Dad was and how he ran out on me and Mom. Why would I want to go and ‘get to know him’ now?”
“Because he’s your father.” Grandpa had said around a mouthful of roast beef. “And mind your temper. You’ll respect your elders.”
“Yes sir.” Payton said, softening his tone. “But why? Where was he when Mom went manic and left me? Where was he when she drank and took off?”
His grandparents had stopped eating and looked at each other. Grandpa reached over his plate and squeezed Payton’s shoulder. “We just think it’s time for you to know both sides of who you are.”
“I have no interest in getting to know yet another person who never wanted me.” Payton had said.
Grandpa fiddled with his knife. “He wanted you, son. But he should be the one to talk to ya about it. Grandma and me think the only way you’ll become who you’re supposed to be is to see where you came from.”
Payton’s eyes rimmed with tears, but he wouldn’t let any fall. “What if I refuse to go?”
Grandpa picked his fork back up and continued eating. “You’re going. We already got your train ticket. We’ll take you to the station on Friday, and your Dad will meet you in Edmonton on Sunday. End of discussion.”
Payton stared into the living room at the glossy black laquered baby grand piano. His grandfather had polished it that morning. It was so shiny, it reflected the morning sunlight into the room. His stomach ached. “What about my music? Does he at least have a piano?”
Grandma gripped Payton’s forearm. “You have to give him a chance, Pay. You need to do this. You shouldn’t be so negative and pessimistic this young.”
So, they’d packed him up and carted him off to the train station where he was hugged and then shoved onto the train. Just like that. Music…the only gift his mother ever gave him…music always helped him…
A train conductor grabbed Payton’s shoulder, startling him out of his daydream. He couldn’t feel his legs anymore.
“S’cuz me, young man. Edmonton’s comin’ up. Best get ready.”
Payton nodded with a weak smile. He rubbed the frozen numbness out of his forehead. He put his MP3 player and his CDs back into his canvas carry-on bag.
He descended the staircase off the train, almost whacking his head on the metal doorframe, then shuffled out onto the platform. There were squeals of excitement as people greeted one another. People hugged, some crying tears of happiness; and he searched, wide-eyed, for a Dad-person whose eyes were the same as his.
His heart pounded. Then somewhere from the crow he heard his name. “Payton! Payton! Over here!”
He turned to see him—“Dad”—waving from the other side of the crowd. Payton guessed his father had to be at least his own height—six foot two—because they both had a full head height advantage over most of the other people on the platform.
His father lowered his arms behind his back and stood in an ‘At Ease’ military stance. Payton squinted at the man’s wire-rimmed glasses—with Coke-bottle lenses—from behind his own. They had the same dark blue eyes, similar pale skin tone, dark hair, buzzed short (only “Dad’s” was salted with gray) and identical, big, red-tinged noses.
How weird to look so much like someone you hardly know, Payton thought, repressing a shiver.
“Dad” rubbed his lips together, his bushy moustache sweeping against his lower lip. Payton froze. His body wouldn’t allow him to move forward. He stood there—with crowds of squealing, hugging, crying people—as his father did the same. How does a person greet someone he hasn’t seen his entire life but oddly, for whom he’s also secretly longed to meet?
His father moved toward him at a slow shuffle, then stood in front of him.
“Let’s start this way,” he said, sticking out his hand. “My name is Liam. I’m your Dad.”
Payton stared at Liam’s hand, chewing the inside of his lip. Then he shoved his hand into the rough, meaty palm and said, “Payton.”
After a firm handshake, he pulled his hand back. Liam picked up the bag containing all of his son’s precious possessions and flipped it over his shoulder.
“Not really.” Payton said. “But I could use a good, strong cuppa coffee.”
Liam smiled. “I didn’t sleep much either. Let’s go to Tim Horton’s on the way back.”
Payton watched as Liam did a casual quick march towards the end of the platform. The people around him still hugged and cried.
“You can tell a lot about a man from his handshake,” Grandpa had said often. Payton pulled the hood of his sweatshirt over his head and stuffed his hands deep inside the kangaroo pocket. He shuffled down the platform at a comfortable distance behind Liam.
Handshakes were a good place to start.