Melissa timidly hides behind her keyboard and lets the real stars soak up the lime light but she can’t be overlooked for long as she develops a super natural ability that’s beyond her control. Her best friend Ashley, ever adventurous and optimistic, believes Melissa could be a super hero. Melissa doubts she could fight crime, she is too scared to start a conversation much less a fight. All Melissa wants is to keep her ability secret but Ashley isn’t the only one who knows what Melissa can do, and they have their own plans for Melissa…
Pianists are accompaniment, tucked away where you can’t see them. Singers get the spotlight. A pianist is only noticed when they make a mistake. I am a pianist in every way, so I have perfected the art of not being noticed. The limelight is meant for others, like my best friend Ashley, a dainty girl with an angelic voice. She was born to be noticed. She is strikingly beautiful with perfect skin and bouncy brown curls. Not only is she short but also petite in an adorable, girly way. I was born to be accompaniment, a side kick. I have stringy blonde hair and a complexion so pale I look like I am fading away. My figure is so square and manly you can hardly tell I am a girl.
“…and the home of the braaaaaave!” Ashley sang out with bravado and blew kisses to the empty couches in her living room. I played the final notes on the piano. No one at Ashley’s house plays, but her mother thought it was a beautiful piece of furniture. Lucky for us, so we don’t have to share space with my wailing little brothers to practice.
“We should have picked a Broadway song instead, then we could wear costumes like colonial dresses or cat ears!” Ashley babbled excitedly.
“Auditions are tomorrow, we are not changing our song again,” I said.
“I know, the national anthem fits my vocal range and the teachers will love it because it is patriotic. It’s perfect. I just thought costumes would be fun,” Ashley answered.
I wanted to say that no one will be wearing costumes to auditions; that we would have plenty of time to pick an outfit once the teachers announce who will be performing in the school talent show, but I know Ashley too well. To Ashley, everything is an adventure and your clothes should be suited to the part. She would not show her face in an audition without the perfect costume, along with jewelry and makeup to add flare.
“We could wear something patriotic,” I suggested.
“We don’t want to go too over board and look like a flag—that’s only cute if you are like five,” Ashley said. “We should do formal gowns in red and blue!” she said with growing enthusiasm. She practically ran up the stairs to her bedroom.
What fourteen-year-old girl has formal dresses? Well, Ashley does. She goes to formal conventions with her mom’s job at Morris Corp and loves every minute of it. One of the perks of being Ashley’s best friend is unlimited wardrobe access. Her closet could eat my closet for a midnight snack. Ashley insists we are “close enough” to the same size but I am always terrified that I will stretch out, rip, or ruin her clothing.
As I laced up the back of Ashley’s dress I could understand why the upper class used to have servants dress them. It took me several minutes to feed the ribbon in and out of the button holes. Ashley looked stunning in red. The full skirt fell in a very flattering, feminine way. I, on the other hand, looked awkward. The dress hung wrong around my boxy frame, cutting off above the ankle. Ashley insisted that it was supposed to be “tea length” and that it never fit her right. At least no one could see my feet once I was hiding behind the piano.
“Oh, it’s perfect Melissa!” Ashley gushed, “The deep blue complements your eyes and the sequins twinkle like the stars on the field of the flag.”
“Everything sounds more exciting when you say it. It must be a very exciting place in your head,” I said.
“Presentation is everything!” Ashley declared with a swish of her skirt. “The judges are going to love us!”
Ashley was too excited and distractible to practice. We wound up discussing grocery lists for Friday. We had planned a sleep over to celebrate getting in to the talent show or a pity party if we didn’t. Either way caramel brownies were a requirement. Ashley is an amazing chef, something as mundane as brownies becomes gourmet with her special touch—in this case caramel.
“I should go,” I said, “it’s getting late and I need to work on my essay.”
“The persuasive essay for Miss Nielson? That isn’t due until next week!” Ashley scoffed.
“We have to have at least five sources,” I said, “I know you ‘work better under pressure,’ but I need time to process,” I said.
When I changed back to my jeans and t-shirt I realized how heavy the dress had been. The weight of dozens of tiny beads and sequins add up. Ashley smoothed a dry-cleaning bag over each of the dresses and reluctantly walked me to the door. It was starting to sprinkle outside.
“Do you want Mom to drive you?” Ashley asked.
“It’s not that bad,” I replied.
“Okay, I will see you tomorrow,” Ashley said as she hugged me. “Don’t forget your bracelet, I know we are going to change for the actual auditions but we should both wear them all day long to build up the good luck.”
“I won’t forget,” I promised as I ran out into the rain. Matching best friend bracelets are pretty cliché, but my matching morganite bracelet was not only the most beautiful thing I owned but also the most expensive.
The rain picked up with a vengeance. My wispy hair clung to my face like a wet spider web. I started to shiver and between my hair and the storm I could hardly see a thing. I wished with all my heart that I was home.
I panted for air and felt a sudden head rush. I actually grabbed my head and stumbled from the dizziness. When I regained my balance, I blinked in surprise. I was already to my house, it seemed much too fast and I had no recollection of passing any of the usual landmarks. Strange, I guess I got disoriented in the storm. I fumbled with my keys eager to cuddle up with my PJs and fuzzy pink socks.
* * *
I have always thought “saved by the bell” was some sports term, but while I waited for school to end so I could go to auditions, I decided it is more fitting for a freshman in chemistry class. Ashley and I only have one class together this year. It may have been easier if we weren’t sitting side by side the 50 minutes before school let out. She kept glancing at the clock and then back at me nervously biting her lower lip.
When at last that glorious bell rang we practically bolted for the door. We headed to the front office to retrieve our dresses. Mrs. Parkinson, the secretary, had let us keep our dresses on the coat rack in the teacher work room so they wouldn’t get crushed in our shared locker. She wished us luck as we dashed to the bathroom with streamers of red and blue fabric behind us.
Though Ashley was in a hurry running through the halls, she took her time to reapply both of our make-up. She had to tell me to “stop fidgeting.” I hate to be late for anything, especially something like this. I knew it was futile to rush her, she would get flustered and moody and not go one second faster. Ashley doesn’t do as well in a time crunch as she thinks she does.
Finally, make-up on and gowns rustling, we stood at the double doors to the auditorium. I took a deep breath to steady my nerves. Ashley let out an anxious squeak, then she took a deep breath, looked me in the eye and said, “Ready?”
“Ready,” I said with a smile. I imagined us walking in and going directly to the stage, but in reality, we took our seats in the auditorium and watched seventeen other auditions. Most of them were lip syncing, as if that were ever a talent. Ashley would lean over and whisper about our competition after every single performance. “That one was really good, I hope we still get in,” or “Seriously? Ours is so much better.” I just nodded my agreement. I had a lump in my throat that made it too difficult to speak. Lime light is certainly not for me.
It was a relief when at long last we heard, “Melissa Thompson and Ashley Harris.” When I tried to stand, my knees were wobbly. I hoped my skirt would hide my knees even if you could still see my ankles. How had I ever let Ashley talk me into doing this? Performing. On stage. When I sat at the piano bench I felt as though I disappeared into the wood. Accompaniment. Unnoticed. I could handle accompaniment, everyone would be watching Ashley. I knew the notes by heart but kept my eyes focused where the music should be. If I were to glance up and see the audience…well, that would be the end of our audition. When the applause started, I took a deep breath. I hadn’t realized I had been holding my breath. Ashley stood on stage bowing and saying “thank you” as I stumbled down the stairs, knees trembling again. I practically collapsed into my seat to watch the next audition.
Ashley slid into her seat, she had a huge grin. “That was perfect!” she whispered, so excited it was barely a whisper at all. I could count every audition before ours but afterwards I hardly noticed when one ended and the next began. Ashley still had the occasional commentary but she too seemed to tune out from the auditions, relieved and pleased with our own performance.
“Thank you to everyone who auditioned tonight,” Mr. Anderson announced after the last student, “our final selection for the school talent show will be posted at the front entrance tomorrow morning.”
Shuffling toward the door several of the other students commented on our performance and we on theirs. I waited with Ashley at the front of the school even though I was walking home. She was headed directly to her church choir practice. We chatted about our sleep over, potential practice schedules before the talent show and again and again how “beautiful” our audition was. Ashley’s mom was one of the last parents to arrive, Ashley would certainly be late for practice.
“How was the audition, girls?” Lucille asked as Ashley climbed in the car.
“It was spectacular!” “Fine.” Ashley and I answered at the same time.
“I knew you’d be great, see you tomorrow Melissa,” Lucille called as the door closed. Ashley’s mom was the only adult that I called by their first name. She was the only one that it seemed fitting. She thought I was a good influence on her daughter and so she went out of her way to make me feel welcome.
As I approached my house I could hear Lucas, my youngest brother, screaming at Thomas to “Let me have ninja!” I could just imagine our living room—a mine field of Legos and miniature knight figurines with my brothers fighting and crying in the middle of it all. I wished I could just skip over the whole mess and be alone in my room.
I gulped air, suddenly breathless. I tried to steady myself. My vision was clouded over with a red haze. I don’t remember falling but I found myself kneeling on the floor, my hands running through the carpet of my bedroom. I wondered if I had fainted and, if so, how I ended up in my bedroom. I stumbled to my feet, trying to remember. It felt as if no time had passed at all.
“No, it’s my turn to have the ninja!” Thomas yelled from downstairs. I heard my mother’s quieter voice murmuring, presumably telling them to play nice. No time had passed at all, how had I gotten here?
The Cessna 172 jolted with the air currents. The buzz of the engine almost drowns out my instructor’s last minute instructions. The countryside lay before me through the open door, the trees were just tiny puffs of green cotton candy, a river tiptoed through the woods.
I perched on the edge with my arms above my head as if diving into a pool, I took one last deep breath ready to—
“Ashley,” Mom’s voice cut into my daydream. She had sat down next to me at the kitchen table. I realized this was probably not the first time she had said my name.
“Sorry,” I said, shaking my head, “What did you say?”
“What were you thinking about?” Mom asked with a smile. She always asked me where my wild imagination had roamed off to. I think it reminded her of Dad, with his dreamy far off look that won her heart.
“Skydiving,” I said. Mom was not surprised or confused by the answer at all. Next I would have to play connect the dots.
“What made you think of that?” Mom inquired.
“Well, I was making these cards for Melissa,” I said gesturing to the drawings on the table. One was a dog wagging its tail with bubble letters ‘Congratulations.’ The other was a puppy with big sad eyes and the caption ‘Dog-gone it!’
“I started worrying that if we were rejected Melissa would never audition again, so I made her this one but then I thought, what if we do get in and she got freaked out and never wanted to audition again?”
“And then the logical conclusion was that she would jump out of a plane,” Mom said in a teasing tone.
“No, I was thinking that she needed to be braver, you know take the plunge, be adventurous, go skydiving…” I trailed off at the end, my thought process always made more sense in my head then it did out loud. Conversations are like that too. You start out talking about what movie you want to see and end up talking about mashed potatoes.
“Well, these are adorable. You are a good friend for encouraging the little turtle out of her shell,” she said. Mom thought I was a good influence on Melissa, that’s why she was always so accommodating of our plans.
“Pardon me for interrupting your flight plans,” she went on, “but I was asking what time you wanted to be at school tomorrow.”
I usually walk to school with Melissa. It was close enough it was really kind of silly not to walk, but Mom agreed to give us a ride to school early so we could be the first ones to see the results of the talent show auditions. This show was not some dumb open mic night, they actually wanted talent on the stage. I felt like they were calling my name!
“The doors open at 7:30,” I said.
“So you want to be there at 7:25,” Mom replied.
“You totally get me,” I answered, batting my eyelashes.
“Said no teenager ever,” my mom said with a laugh. “It is getting late, you should probably head to bed, especially with an earlier start.”
I promised I would as soon as I finished the cards. It was kind of fun to have two different cards for the same occasion, I felt like a Hallmark commercial. I procrastinated sleep by spending a long time coloring in details and carefully writing out a message on the inside.
When I did climb into bed I had a hard time sleeping. I just kept picturing us on stage. Melissa, the picture of maturity and talent. Her perfect ivory skin was made for makeup commercials. Her silky blonde hair is the envy of every girl in freshmen year. If she weren’t so shy she could go out with any guy in the school.
When I stand next to her it is like an ugly bug perched on a rose. My curls stick out like pipe cleaners shoved into my scalp. I am legally a midget at 4 feet and 11 inches. Mom says I just haven’t hit my growth spurt but the older I get the less I believe her. My mom calls it “baby cheeks,” I just call it fat.
I would look stunning in my red dress through. Red does wonders for my coloring. Melissa doesn’t need the help but blue is a great color on her. We are lucky that the colors of the flag compliment us so well.
When my alarm sounded, I was dreaming that Melissa and I were at the grocery store getting ready to judge a mustache competition. It was one of those dreams that you know what is going on even though there isn’t any evidence. A dream that makes sense while you are asleep for example, why one needs to go to the grocery store to prepare for a mustache competition and what exactly a mustache competition was.
I made Mom eggs benedict with a side of oranges cut into pieces and reassembled to look like a swan. It was more than just a thank you for driving me to school…I always cook when I am anxious or stressed out.
When Mom pulled up to the Thompson’s house, Melissa was already standing out front. I could tell that Melissa’s usual punctuality was punctuated with the excitement for the results.
“Good morning,” Melissa cheered as she climbed into the car, “thank you so much for the ride.” Melissa is so polite, so good with adults.
“Just think, in less than ten minutes we will find out!” I squeaked. I could not have handled the walk today, even in the car it took far too long. Melissa and I jumped out of the car almost before it came to a full stop.
We raced to the door and yanked on the handle—it didn’t budge. Melissa glanced at her watch.
“It’s 7:28,” Melissa said, “the doors unlock at 7:30.”
“Maybe we can see it from outside,” I said, cupping my hands around my face to peer into the front lobby. “There it is, there it is!” I called tapping on the glass to a lime green paper taped to the wall.
“Good luck reading it from here, we only have a minute and…23 seconds,” Melissa said looking at her watch.
“Just remember, either way we had a killer try out and tonight is all about caramel- chocolatey goodness,” I said, trying to reassure us both. It was like the countdown to midnight on New Year’s Eve. Melissa was rubbing her thumb against her ring finger, a nervous tick she developed in sixth grade when she used to wear her birthstone ring.
“Now!” Melissa said as we both pulled on the door. Still locked.
“I thought they were automatic? Your watch says 7:30,” I whined as perplexed as I was frustrated.
“They are automatic maybe the—” Melissa cut off as a heavy click sound of the locks disengaging, “the school clocks are running behind!” She finished as if to yell ‘Happy New Year!’
We tugged the doors open and practically tripped over each other running to the paper. I was so excited I couldn’t read the names at first—it was just an alphabet soup poured out on the page. Then I saw her name.
“Melissa Thompson! There we are! We are in!” I yelled as I grabbed her into a tight hug. She didn’t respond, her shoulders were rigid. I pulled back, “Melissa, we got in.”
“No, there is some kind of mistake, look,” she said, pointing to the page.
I read the whole line carefully for the first time, “On My Own” sung by Claire Clark accompanied by Melissa Thompson. Claire had sung “On My Own” at auditions but she played the song from her I-pod connected to the auditorium sound system. I looked over the sheet again line by line, word by word. My name was not there. Melissa’s was. With Claire.
“They must have switched our names or something,” Melissa said.
“They switched the name of our song, too?” I quipped, eyes stinging, “they obviously didn’t like me if they can’t remember what I sang. I didn’t get in. You did.” There was a lump in my throat that made it painful to swallow. I could accept if we didn’t get in, okay fine I would probably cry then too, but this…this was just mean. Like the teachers were saying ‘the piano was excellent but that singer was just a braying donkey!’
Melissa grabbed me into a hug before I could turn away.
“There is obviously something wrong with this list,” Melissa said. “We will march right over to Mr. Anderson’s class and get this straightened out. Okay?” I nodded, feeling childish. We walked across the school to the band room. I could hear the wretched shriek of an unskilled violinist. I knew Mr. Anderson did private tutoring before school, I didn’t know how badly it was needed.
We stood outside the door while I took some deep breathes to regain my composure.
“Can I help you?” Mr. Anderson called from inside the room. The torture to the violin stopped as the student held the bow still and looked up at us. I didn’t recognize him.
Melissa stepped just inside the door, “Pardon us, we just had a question about the results of the talent show audition.”
“Yes, they are posted in the front lobby,” Mr. Anderson said, turning back to his student.
“We saw them, there seemed to be a typo or something,” Melissa continued. I don’t know how she can be so vocal with adults and just clam up around people our age. I just stood there feeling stupid hoping the hair falling into my face covered the red blotches around my eyes from nearly crying.
“It listed me as accompaniment for Claire Clark singing ‘On My Own,’ but I auditioned with Ashley Harris singing the national anthem,” Melissa explained.
“Oh yes, I do remember that,” Mr. Anderson answered, suddenly giving his full attention. “You see, as the panel of teachers deliberated, we decided not to accept the National Anthem number. However, Miss Clark auditioned without accompaniment, and while I am perfectly willing to play for her, we felt it would be best to display more student work. Would you mind playing the accompaniment?”
Melissa was unreadable standing there. I couldn’t bear to hear her reply. I just turned and left trying my best not to run. Mr. Anderson said exactly as I had feared, ‘Melissa is talented and you are not.’ This was worse than a rejection, it was a pointed insult. How could teachers even do that to a student?
I refused to go to the bathroom—that is the most cliché place to cry in the whole world, besides it echoes awfully and the whole school would know. Well, the few crazy or stupid enough to be here at this ungodly hour. I went to Miss Nielson’s classroom. She had bus duty in the mornings so I was pretty sure I could be alone. I sat in a desk and propped up my book pretending to read while the sobs shook my shoulders.
* * *
I ignored Melissa’s texts all morning and during lunch. At least she stopped texting during class. She would never stoop to under the desk texting in class even in this crises situation. I know I was not being fair to her, it’s not her fault she is more talented than me. It is that jerk Mr. Anderson who was tactless enough to point it out. I was signed up for his performing arts choir class next term I planned to drop that class as soon as possible.
Freshmen aren’t allowed off campus at lunch time, I wished they were today because it would make it easier to be by myself. I walked around the field not hungry in the least. I called my mom. She was horrified that the teachers could be so “insensitive to split an act like that.” She said they should have asked a different pianist who was not auditioning in a pair. I could understand why they had done it though, Melissa is the best. She left all the others in the dust and that hurt because I was one of the ones in the dust.
By our sixth hour chemistry class together I was ready to talk to her, complain about how messed up this was and even muster the guts to congratulate her. I had the congratulations card. I had used white out over the “we” in “we made it” as discreetly as possible. Writing in “you” was one of the biggest slices of humble pie I had ever choked down. I walked to our locker with the card in my hand. I saw her talking to Claire. They were setting up a time to practice together.
“I have plans this weekend but Monday works for me,” Melissa was saying.
Suddenly the green eyed monster reared its ugly head. I marched past her and straight to chemistry. I slammed into my seat determined not to speak at all.
A moment later, Melissa meekly slid into her chair. She put my chemistry book down on my desk. She was always so considerate, it made it really hard to stay mad at her. We sat silently for what seemed like a long time. When at last she spoke, her voice was small, “If it bothers you, I will cancel.”
“Whatever, don’t let me hold you back,” I sneered.
“Ashley, I’m really sorry,” she had genuine sorrow in her voice. It wasn’t her fault. I was being unfair.
“I will cancel if you want, I am sure they can find someone else,” she went on, almost pleading.
“No, don’t,” I said more softly, “everyone would know it is because of me and it would just be embarrassing. Besides, you deserve to perform.”
Melissa knew me well enough to not push it or try to talk to me the rest of class. We walked to our locker in silence after class. Melissa and I signed up as locker buddies. I am sure she regrets agreeing to buddy up with a pig like me, but I would never pair with anyone else. She had her books neatly stacked on the bottom shelf, a purple locker organizer hung from one of the hooks displaying snapshots and sharpened pencils tucked into the pockets. My top shelf was a casserole of books, loose papers, pencil stubs, the letter box I made in shop and who knows what else. I threw my textbook into the mix. Melissa had a water bottle labeled “Lucas.” I thought it was odd she was carrying her brother’s water bottle especially since she usually didn’t carry a water bottle at all. I had bigger things on my mind though. I turned to Melissa, summoning all of my big girl courage and maturity.
“Melissa, I’m sorry I’m so upset about all this, I know it puts you in an awkward spot too, and it just isn’t fair. I promise that I will be back to normal on Monday and I will even come to see you at the show.”
“What about tonight?” she asked.
“It wouldn’t be a pity party or a celebration…we didn’t win or lose, I didn’t even know there was a third option.” I turned to walk home alone. I regretted not giving her the card but I kept thinking about the chunky layer of white out over “we.”
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