Making the Music
The applause faded. The previous performer bowed and then he was clapped on the back proudly by an announcer. Then the announcer gave the young performer a firm handshake. He had played well with the silver trumpet singing classic jazz. Most the audience was still standing in their appreciation.
“Wasn’t he wonderful? I’d like to thank all of you for coming out again to support our seniors in the Music Program. Aren’t they talented folks?” The announcer smiled and then straightened his tie. “We have one more talented young lady performing tonight,” he said looking out into the expectant faces. A few yawned, the ones that didn’t appreciate the talent and the work that these kids were putting into their final performances.
“Ms. McNeil,” someone said, leaning against the doorframe. “Two minutes. Good luck.” The young woman smiled as she readjusted the headset that all the stage crew was wearing. She disappeared, the long white sash on her dress flipping. Ricky felt her heart pounding against her like an angry fist. She could swear she saw the outline of the pumping muscle pushing the notebook she was gripping tightly to her chest away from the buttons of her jacket. The glittering silver music symbols she had attached to her notebook dug into her arms. She panted trying to draw in her raging nerves and return to a normal breathing pattern. The freckles along her cheeks disappeared under the color of her flush.
‘Come on, Ricky. You can do this. You are ready for this.’ The announcer prepared to introduce their final performer for the senior concert night, as the crowd settled back into their seats. Some were already dispersing, a few snuck off for snacks, and the happy family of a young musician quietly rushed backstage. A young woman in the center took notes. She chewed the pen and then stuck it behind her ear next to a large flower hairpin that glinted because of the spotlights behind her. Then he called, “Ms. Rachel Erin McNeil” Her heart skipped a few beats. She pulled in a shaky breath as she stepped through the curtain cloaking the backstage. She squinted as the spotlight hit her and blinded her.
Ricky bowed, her long dark brown twists falling over her shoulder. Her shiny black suit seemed to soak in the light. She wished she could just sink into the fabric and disappear. She took that first step and the breath that made her lungs burn. The crowd stared at her. There were so many eyes. All of them were looking at her. All of those expectations weighed on her as she took her seat at the beautiful black grand piano.
‘One note at a time’ Her hands felt heavy and stiff as she opened the latch and placed them on the smooth perfectly maintained keys. She could see the dark freckled appendages shaking slightly. The lights dimmed. ‘No need to worry.’ She knew each keystroke. Where each note was and how it should sound. Her jacket felt too sizes too small over her breasts and her shirt felt sticky and clammy as she was announced again over the speakers.
Then there was sound as she let her fingers tease sweet music from the instrument. It rose, high and light, like the wind taking her fears and anxiety away. She played, her body swaying in time with the music like a living metronome. Her eyes slid closed and she just knew where each key was. The fluttery classical piece drew in the audience with soft, light caress of feathers, and then she missed a key. The note skipped and threw off her timing. Then another sour note broke her pattern, making what should have been the smooth entrance into the next movement a stuttering short sequence. It was flat, and she jumped an octave to try to hide it. The song rang out awkwardly. She couldn’t get her rhythm back and was jumping choppily through what should have been a soulful, mildly jazzy original melody. She nearly cried at the piano. But she just kept trying. Then as her piece ended Ricky stood and bowed to awkward stilting applause. Ricky took a few steps to the edge of the stage and gave her final bow. She stared directly at the spotlight. She didn’t want to see the giggles or the look of disappointment on the faces in the audience. But she couldn’t help it. She saw a few of her classmates giggling in the front rows reserved for performers and seniors. Her face burned. She was humiliated. Ricky shivered before she nearly ran from the stage. As soon as she was back in the shadow backstage she broke down. She collapsed like a house of cards into a folding chair, bawling. She slumped down her face buried against her knees. She wiped the tears away, but they still ran down her face to drop onto the music symbols attached to her notebook.
“It… ii…tt… it wasn’t sup..ppp…p…supposed to be like that,” she said while stuttering. She held the precious book to her chest with the dark green of the book fading into her suit. It was official. She wasn’t meant to be a composer. Her teacher had warned her not to play one of her original pieces for her recital. She had played it after weeks of practicing it. She knew every note. She had seen them in her sleep. She had run through it perfectly three times yesterday at home on her keyboard. She had played it perfectly a few times on the practice piano in the school music room. WHY!?
“Ricky!! Ricky, honey,” an older woman said coming up from the side entrance to the backstage. “Honey, what happened?” Mrs. McNeil said. Ricky’s mother enveloped her stricken child in a hug and let her daughter cry on her shoulder. Mrs. McNeil pursed her plump lips and frowned.
“Momma,” the young woman said through chocked sobs. “I worked so hard.”
Abigail McNeil cooed into her daughter’s ear soothingly.
“Oh, I know, baby. Momma knows.” Ricky’s puffy tear reddened hazel eyes were buried into the soft cloth of her mother’s shoulder. She could smell the perfume her mom loved. It made her feel better. Well almost.
“I wanted it to be perfect.”
“Yeah, I know you did, baby.” Mrs. McNeil pulled her daughter up from the metallic chair. The taller girl was still sniffling. Her mother wrapped an arm around her. “What happened, Ricky? I heard you practicing you had this piece down.” Her mother paused. “Didn’t you?”
“I was so scared. I started off fine, and then I skipped a note. It threw off everything,” she said. “I couldn’t get right after that. I was choppy and playing sour notes. It was awful.”
“I…” Her mother paused again. “I wouldn’t say that. You were nervous. I know you’re great. Everyone has bad days.” Then the pair was leaving the auditorium and walking past the lockers in the high school hallway. Her father was there near the door and took up position on her other side. He was where she got her height from… and the freckles that covered her caramel nose and forehead. She came up to just above his shoulder as he grabbed her hand. He gave his baby girl’s hand a reassuring squeeze.
“Come on, Junior. Our reservation is for eight.”
“But… bu…” Ricky said. She didn’t deserve to go to her favorite restaurant. She hadn’t done anything right after the first measure. Richard McNeil shook his head and squeezed his little girl’s hand.
“Junior, if anyone needs a slice of chocolate crème cheesecake it’s you.” Ricky released her father’s hand and slid from under her mother’s arm.
“I’ll meet you at the car,” Ricky said pointing to the bathroom down the hall. “Pit stop.”
Both of her parents nodded moving with the flow of people heading towards the exit. They were an odd couple, a short black woman and a tall redheaded white man. Ricky kept her head down, her eyes glued to her feet. Taking slow, deep breaths she tried to forget the last twenty minutes. The hallway went by in a blur of heads lower than hers and a few above hers. Her heart continued pounding like it had when she had fled the concert stage. Tears stung her eyes and blinded her as she turned, nearly running into the bathroom.
‘Don’t cry. You’re not a baby! DON’T CRY ANYMORE!!’ Distracted by her shame and in such a rush she turned right into someone, and knocked the shorter woman down in the bathroom doorway.
“Oh, I’m so sorry.” Ricky flushed, embarrassed, as the woman picked herself up of the floor. She dusted herself off and pulled her black dress back down. The clingy black material slid over her wide hips. Ricky sputtered burning with shame
“It’s okay.” The older black woman smiled at Ricky, the clumsy girl with the freckles across her face. Ricky leaned down and picked up the black notebook the woman had dropped. Ricky’s slightly freckled hand touched the much darker brown one with the long painted nails as she handed over the notebook. “Watch where you’re going okay,” she told Ricky as she adjusted the big silver flower pin in her shoulder length curly black hair. Soon the pianist was back out and heading to the entrance to find her parents.
“There she is,” Mrs. McNeil said pointing to her daughters head above a few other milling students and parents.
“Come on, Junior, we’re going to Bistro Bella e Dolce.” It made her smile. It was her favorite place. They had delicious Italian food. And the most amazing cheesecake on the planet.
“I don’t understand why you wanted to go there, Richard. You know she doesn’t need cheesecake,” her mother said.
“Oh, hush, Abby,” her father barked as Ricky slid into the back seat of the car. “It would probably make her feel better. She worked hard for tonight and it didn’t go well.”
It was true but it was still stung. And it made the young pianist slump down in the back of the car.
“No it didn’t. But,” her mother said haughtily. “I guess that means that you are planning on buying her a new suit for her next performance. You know she had cookies before we left for the recital.” Ricky flinched. She had thought they hadn’t noticed the cookies she had taken from the pack. Another painful blow. But it didn’t knock the wind out of her like freezing during her recital did. Curled up in the backseat of the car with the notebook pressed to her chest Ricky went back to the stage. She went back to how her fingers had jerked clumsily at the keys. How was she supposed to show her face at school again? In her music class? Anywhere? It had taken her a week of begging to get Mr. Dredger to allow her to play one of her original compositions for the senior recital. She was lost in thought and her misery for the entire ride to the restaurant. It wasn’t until her father honked the horn when the car in front of them stopped short that she was pulled forcefully back into the moment. The motion of the car and the blurring lines had lured her into her memories from a few hours ago. She pouted as she got out of the car.
“Junior, stop looking like you’re going to die.”
“I screwed up,” the freckled young woman said. “I think I’m going to want to be dead for a while. Especially when I go back to school on Monday.” Ricky frowned. She pulled the suit jacket off. It was tight. And this time it wasn’t nervousness making her feel like she was stuffed into it. The material stretched over her breasts and her belly. The shirt was also a bit snug at the chest, one of the buttons threatening to pull if she got any bigger. Her mother was right…she did not need the cheesecake. She did want it though. She wanted to push her embarrassment and humiliation down under the graham cracker crust and whipped cream topping of a chocolate cheesecake. And she believed she would. She was conscious of the way she looked as she climbed out of the car to stand next to her mother. Her mom was much thinner and only came up to her shoulder. Curvy but not heavy. Ricky wasn’t like that.
“Come on, Honey.” Ricky’s mother said.
Ricky tossed the jacket onto the seat of the car before closing the door. The meal at her favorite restaurant did make her feel better. The food almost made her forget how terrible Monday was going to be. Almost. She had shoveled delicious lasagna and parmesan chicken into her mouth and listened as her dad made fun of his coworkers at the hospital. Her mother talked about the lesson plans she was working on at the university. Apparently the curriculum changes were going to really make the school cutting edge. A lot more liberal arts and before she had zoned out there had been something about updating the science building with top grade equipment.
“Hello? Are you in there, Rachel?” The use of her full name made Ricky’s head snap up from the pasta she was swirling around her fork.
“Yes. Just thinking. Sorry, momma.” She had been thinking. She had been thinking about how she could become someone different for Monday. She had been considering running away to avoid the snickering and the jokes. She shoveled a spicy forkful of the pasta and meat into her mouth. Maybe she’d join the circus. She momentarily considered hitchhiking. Like in one of those old books from when she had been a kid.
“You’re awfully spaced out, Junior,” her father said. “Buck up.”
“How, Daddy? I’ll never live this down.”
“Junior,” her father said pushing his empty plate away. “You’re a senior. There’s only about two weeks left in school, right? Three? You’ll graduate and by then you’ll have forgotten all about this.” Ricky sighed. He was right. These last three weeks would be horrible. Hellish, even, but then she would graduate and it would just be part of the past. And after drowning her failure in delicious desserts Ricky dozed in the back seat of the car on the way home.
Magic Made Maiden Chapter 1.
Born of burning sands
“Uh,” the sound was a low rumble that quivered from my unused throat. I sat up, my muscles rippling as I struggled, forcing them to move. All I achieved was an awkward twitch that threw sand into my face. The hot irritating grains rolled off of me as I squirmed. My body refused to coordinate. My arms flailed whichever way they chose. My legs jerked in an uncontrolled spasm sending me skidding across the sand. My mind was a fuzzy sponge taking in color, sound, sight, and smell all at once in a disorienting jumble. Everything was new to me, a small woman in the sand.
“Gah,” I croaked. I shook from the feeling on my skin. I longed for something to ease the ache in my throat and the blazing heat. Then, as in answer to my request, even though I had no idea exactly what I was asking for, the sand cooled. Where my vaguely clawed hand twitched, the sand went from blazing hot to cold as a tiny spring appeared. The water bubbled from somewhere beneath my hand spurting up in gurgling burst. I cocked my head quizzically as the substance ran over my hand. “AHHH!”
I squirmed awkwardly trying to crawl. The water was spreading into a clear, though sandy, puddle. As it spread I slowly learned to make my arms and legs move somewhat together. I kept moving them in sync as the spring spread around me. Soon it was pressing against my ear as I turned my head.
“Ahhhhh,” My full dark lips spread into a smile as I felt it. The expression’s meaning made no sense to me, but it felt right. It felt right to let my lips curve up at the feeling. “GEGEGEGEGE,” I murmured. It felt…., I didn’t know how to describe it. I didn’t even know it was any different than the sand all around me. But, something in me said it was important. My entire being screamed at me that it was saving me from the stinging in my skin. So I waited, moving my arms and legs in it and making noise as it continued to spread. Soon the cool water was wrapping around my muscular, though short, legs. The puddle had become a pool and the pool was becoming a pond and I, was sitting in the center of it as the cold water deepened. Soon I was sputtering and coughing as the water splashed into my mouth. I fell forward, hacking and flailing the cool water sloshing into my long curly black hair.
“HUGHFH!! HUGHF!!” I flailed, terrified. My body protested being buried under water. My mind screamed through its thick fog of confusion for the sloshing cool substance. The water obeyed, and seemed to swirl around me in a miniature whirlpool. Then I was just on top of it a smooth ripple spreading from my coughing, sputtering, and shivering body. I sucked in air, listening to my body’s demand for it. Each breath seemed to blow away the fog covering my thoughts. My eyes scanned the featureless desert, adrenaline running through me speeding my heart. Breathing I could do. So I sat there, on top of the water, breathing as it deepened beneath me. I sat up again, groaning at the deep ache buried in my muscles. I didn’t move. I was afraid to move on the cool substance beneath me. So I was still. I felt it around me shifting with the tiniest twitch of my toe. Be still. Finally the water had stopped spreading. I moved my hand slightly and nothing happened. Then I moved my leg. Slowly one leg at a time I shuffled and scooted. And soon I was back on the sand I looked down at my reflection. It was accidental. I had flopped over as I had tried to move too quickly.
My face was soft and round, almost childish, despite the fact I was obviously an adult. I had a single black stripe across my left cheek. It curved softly to just touch my neck and shoulder. The black markings across my dark skin and swirling down my back glowed softly as I looked into the water. I sat on the hot sand until the feeling of it made me shuffle back into the water. I concentrated and my arm moved towards where I wanted it to go, towards the water. Now every muscle obeyed every minute twitch I wanted. I took in each sensation: the heat of the sun, the cool of the water, the buzz of things hiding in the distance, and the quiet singing of the wind. My fingers hung in the water. And my face scrunched up as I tried to understand. My hand went into the water and the fact amazed me. I wiggled my fingers in a twitching jittery rythm and then I realized how they worked separately and together. The hours passed with me lying on the sand wriggling my hand in the water. And before I knew it my eyes had grown heavy and everything went black as they closed and I fell asleep. When I woke up I moved and my eyes widened and one of the most primal sounds known ripped itself from my throat. A scream. My leg was swollen and I cried with my rough angry voice. I flailed and that only made it worse. I jerked fiercely and that sent the creature that had bit me flying from my leg.
“SHHHHHH!!” It was a pained desperate hiss as I kicked my swollen poisoned leg. The feeling I didn’t understand it. Eventually my flailing and violent thrashing tossed me into the water and I was once again sinking under it and blubbering. Snarling as I struggled to do something, bubbles spurting from my mouth, magic answered me. The water was licking my feet before I knew what happened. I was on the cool sand that bridged the water. Tears stung my eyes and I wailed.
My leg burned and the color was changing. It was swollen and I cried. My mind scrambled and I summoned magic again unknowingly. The striped along the back of my legs glowed and made the sand bright silver. Then the sand swirled, dancing around my injured leg. The swelling began to go down and my loud enraged wailing slowed to weak blubbering sobs. Everything past a few moments ago was fuzzy and hard to see. But as my leg healed I stopped my crying. I just couldn’t comprehend anything. As the big bright sun set I curled up by the water and shivered. The hot sand became something else. It became not like it was. The stinging burn that made me shift every few seconds made me shiver and the water made it worse. It got cold. And as I sat there shivering, curled into a ball magic answered my desperation again. I yelled as it burst near my bundled body. It wavered and licked at the sky in bright color. It stopped my shuddering as I drew closer to it. I cocked my head and considered it. I wisely didn’t touch it. But as I sat there staring and the wavering warm flame the desert came alive around me. A small pale creature with big ears and smoky fur darted up to the water and lapped at it. I mimicked it sticking my tongue out. It made a noise at me and disappeared into the tall dunes. I looked down at the water and mimicked the fox. I stuck my tongue in the water and lapped it into my mouth. I survived the night and watched the desert around me as I shivered in the fetal position.