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Stacy was frantically pedalling against the heavy rain and flurry of autumn leaves. Already, she was late for her piano lessons, and she was dreading being on the receiving end of Ms. Markov’s temper. Maybe her clock is a few minutes behind, she thought. I can only hope.

She finally arrived at a plain-looking white house on the outskirts of town. Completely drenched, she stopped to catch her breath after parking her bike, then slowly walked up to the front door. She raised her hand to knock, but before she could hit the door, a loud voice rang from inside.

“I don’t care how much money your parents are paying me. If I don’t see any improvement by next week, you’re done!”

Stacy froze. Which unfortunate student is incurring her wrath this time? She saw a streak of blond hair through the window coming towards her, and she instinctively stepped out of the way as he opened the door.

“Hmph, fine,” he muttered angrily. “That’s the last time I bleed my hands out for that harpy. As soon as Mother finds out….”

Stacy noticed his eyes turn towards her. She paused, thinking of what to say.

“Oh, hi, Lucas,” she said, doing her best to restrain any sarcasm in her voice.

He stared angrily at her. “What do you want?” he demanded.

“Um…how have you been?” she asked nervously.

“None of your business,” he pouted. “Enjoy your lessons, loser.”

Whatever, she thought as he stomped away, standing in the rain while waiting for his parents’ car. Nervously, she walked right in to meet her teacher.

“Oh, hi Anastasia,” Ms. Markov said in an exhausted tone, but trying to smile.

Stacy really wished she would stop calling her that, but she didn’t feel like correcting her at the moment.

—-

Twenty minutes into the lesson, Stacy was getting frustrated after messing up her arpeggios yet again. Ms. Markov stared at her disapprovingly.

“Have you been practicing this week?” she demanded.

“Um…I tried to,” she replied, hoping she wouldn’t yell at her.

“What do you mean, tried?”

Stacy was almost ready to cry. “I’m not lying! I really did. It’s just… any time I start playing, he’d yell at me to stop. ‘Keep that garbage down!’ So I barely get any time to myself, all because of his stupid TV shows, and…”

She stopped herself, dreading what her teacher would say. She knew she shouldn’t make excuses, but she couldn’t help it.

After a moment of silence, Ms. Markov asked, “Do you have a piano at your school?”

Stacy was stunned. She expected a far worse reaction from her. “Um, no. Our school couldn’t afford one.”

Ms. Markov paused, thinking of an alternative. “The local college has some rooms available for public use. Would that work for you? I can help set aside some times for you if necessary.”

Stacy was relieved to hear this. “Yes, it would! I’ll try to practice after school whenever I can.”

Ms. Markov smiled, pleased at her enthusiasm. “Good to hear. Now let’s see how your pieces are coming along.”

—-

Oliver was holding his new clarinet as he and his friends sat underneath the maple tree in the Pollock Secondary school yard, relaxing before the start of class. It was a used model that looked worn in several places, but he cherished it all the same. Zelda’s Lullaby filled the air, coming from Stacy’s piccolo. When she finished, the other three applauded her.

“Why’d you pick that instrument, Stace?” Oliver asked.

“Apparently, it was because of Dragon Ball Z,” Cheryl replied, smirking.

Oliver chuckled. “Figures.”

Stacy frowned at the two of them while suppressing a giggle. “Hey, I never saw a piccolo before. But I remember being disappointed when I saw how small it was.”

“Hey, from the sounds of things, it worked out in the end,” Cheryl told her.

Stacy grinned sheepishly. “Yeah, just took some practice, is all.”

A pair of birds on the concrete suddenly bolted away, hiding in the tree. The three of them stared awkwardly at the place they used to stand, and then Stacy continued.

“So, Olly, looking forward to your first day in the Pollock Secondary band?”

“I don’t know. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”

“Don’t worry,” Cheryl reassured him. “So do most of us.”

“Besides, our band’s been in the pits for years,” Stacy added. “Just think, you could be the hero to save us all!”

Oliver frowned. “Sure, maybe. Anyway, you were talking about Lydia’s game the other day?”

Cheryl was curious. “Lydia?”

“Oh, she’s this super-smart gaming chick from the city,” Stacy replied while searching through her phone. She showed everyone a picture of Lydia with pink hair and a floral sundress standing among the cherry trees, feeling the rain on her skin.

“She owned Stacy in Smash Bros., and they’ve been friends ever since,” Oliver explained, with a bit of a smirk.

“Olly!” Stacy protested.

Cheryl chuckled while admiring Lydia’s photo. “Well, I’m glad Smash Bros. could be such a great bonding experience. What’s this game about, anyway?”

Stacy noticed Tori, who was in the process of tracing a giant maple leaf, look up, also eager to hear more.

“She’s really pretty,” she said.

Stacy tried to restrain her nervous blushing. “Um, yeah, she is. Anyway, it’s called Memories of the Sleeping Village. I haven’t got too far into it yet, but this archaeologist named Abd-al Malik has tasked me with learning more about the town’s history. It seems you can choose from a bunch of villagers to stay with after the first day, and who knows how that will change things. Care to find out? Lydie wants me to test out the whole thing, so it’d be nice to have others to play along with me.”

The other three looked at Stacy in awe and intrigue. “I’m game!” Oliver told her. “Could you send me a copy?”

“Me too!” Cheryl said.

“I’d like to try too!” Tori added.

“Sure thing,” Stacy replied. “I’ll send you all the file later tonight.”

“Awesome,” Cheryl told her while the other two nodded excitedly. She turned her attention to Tori’s drawing. “Say, whatcha got there?”

“Oh, just a maple leaf,” Tori explained. “I love how the colours change in fall.”

“Me too,” Cheryl replied. “And they’re so intricate with all those veins.”

“Indeed!”

“Say, why aren’t you in the school band? I thought you liked music.”

“My mom doesn’t.”

The other three gasped.

“Wait, what about your mad DDR skills?” Cheryl asked.

“She doesn’t know about that. And she’d be furious if she found out. Honestly, I don’t know much about music at all. Mom never let me take lessons.”

“Tori,” Stacy interjected. “No offense, but your mom sounds really lame. What kind of loser hates music?”

Oliver and Cheryl were aghast, staring at Stacy disapprovingly, while Tori turned away.

“What?” Stacy exclaimed. “We were all thinking it, weren’t we?”

“Um, no, we weren’t,” Cheryl retorted.

“Yeah, it’s just you,” Oliver added.

Stacy looked around and felt her heart getting heavy. “Sorry about that.”

Tori turned around, looking depressed. “It’s okay. You weren’t trying to be mean or anything. It’s just…she’s not a bad person. Really. But…it’s been hard and…”

She fell silent. The other three gazed at Tori in concern, unsure of what to say.

“…it’s nothing. Have fun at practice.”

—-

Oliver arrived early to the music room, greatly anticipating his first meeting. As it turned out, Stacy and Cheryl were already there among other students getting some early practice in. Hearing what they were talking about, Oliver hesitated, not wanting to interfere.

“C’mon, Stacy,” Cheryl replied, holding her trombone. “You said you’re sorry.”

“Yeah, but I still want to make it up to her.”

“I’m sure it’ll be fine if you two just talk a bit. She doesn’t seem like the type to hold a grudge.”

“I’ll try.”

Cheryl suddenly waved towards the doorway. “Hey, Oliver!”

Oliver grinned as he walked towards them. “Hi, guys.”

Stacy snapped out of her funk, smiling as she saw her friend arrive. “Hey, Olly. You’re here early.”

“Yeah, well, I didn’t want to be late,” Oliver replied.

“It’s fine,” Stacy said. “You’re going to love the piece we’re going to play today.”

“Ooh really? What is it?”

Just then, two other boys entered the room. Lucas had on a pair of sunglasses and a brightly polished saxophone, while Ren followed behind him with his trumpet.

“Look who decided to join us today,” Lucas sneered. “Nice pipe, Olly. Your mom buy it for you?”

Oliver and his friends groaned.

“Yep, that’s Lucas all right,” Stacy whispered to Cheryl.

“Wow, you weren’t kidding,” Cheryl whispered back.

Oliver glared at Lucas while Ren rolled his eyes.

“I bought it myself, actually.”

Lucas laughed. “Really? Well, no wonder you could only get a hand-me-down.”

“And I suppose you tirelessly worked day and night for that sax of yours?” Oliver retorted. “Or did it come from your daddy’s allowance?”

Lucas grimaced. “He’s got a point, you know,” Ren chimed in.

“Nobody asked you, Ren,” Lucas snapped while Ren recoiled. “Anyway, I’ve got a great performance coming up, so you and your loser girlfriends better not cramp my style, understand?”

He shifted his glare towards Stacy, who attempted to avert his gaze, remembering how angry he was the other day at piano practice. When she looked back, Lucas and Ren already took their seats elsewhere, and she breathed a sigh of relief. Cheryl, looking at her friends, chuckled nervously.

“Let’s try not to get distracted.”

Stacy and Oliver, frowning, reluctantly nodded in agreement as their teacher walked in.

“Good day, class,” he announced. “We have a new student joining us today.” He gestured towards Oliver. “Please give a warm welcome to clarinettist, Oliver Palmiero da Silva!”

While most of the class waved hello, the boys surrounding Lucas, except Ren, gazed and snickered at Oliver. Ren, on the other hand, looked at the annoyed Oliver regretfully. The teacher stared in irritation at Lucas’s group.

“Tut, tut. Is this really the way you welcome a new student?”

“Mr. Steiner,” Lucas said. “Is it really a good idea to let in new students this far into the year? Won’t he just drag the rest of us down?”

“That’s enough, Lucas,” Mr. Steiner sternly retorted. “By the way, I’m sure you’ve been practicing really hard, haven’t you?”

The rest of the class, including Oliver and his friends, snickered back at him. Lucas, annoyed by the attention he was receiving, frowned as Mr. Steiner addressed the rest of the class.

“Remember, one person doesn’t make a band. Everyone needs to cooperate to make perfect harmony. And right now…” he said while glaring at Lucas. “It looks like we need to work on that. Everyone, let’s start with a B-Flat.”

He waved his conducting baton and the band followed suit.

“Wait, what are we doing?” Oliver whispered.

“We’re just going through our tuning exercise,” Stacy replied in between notes. “It’s a B-flat major scale. Try to follow along for now.”

Oliver nodded, and blew a B-flat, except everyone had already moved higher along the scale. Frantically, he tried blowing the consecutive notes until he caught up. However, the rest of the band barely noticed, as everyone was climbing the scale at their own pace and the notes were ringing out of sync.

“Can we play Zelda now?” someone asked.

“Really? That’s what we’re doing?” Oliver asked, excitedly.

“Yep,” Cheryl whispered back. “Mr. Steiner took suggestions, and it was the most popular one by far.”

“Awesome.”

Mr. Steiner shook his head. “First, we get the basics down, then we move on. Again!”

The class groaned as they started playing another B-flat.

—-

The class was nearly over, and everyone was exhausted from doing exercises. Mr. Steiner finally relented. “Open up your music sheets. Let’s go over The Legend of Zelda!”

Everyone yelled out in joy and relief, except Oliver, who was shaking nervously while trying to read off another clarinettist’s part. Mr. Steiner raised his baton and held it for a long 30 seconds as everyone gazed at it impatiently. Finally, he lowered it and began conducting while everyone played along.

The resulting sound was cacophonous. Lucas blew loudly into his saxophone, seemingly trying to drown out Stacy’s piccolo. Stacy in turn tried to blow louder to be heard at all, but ended up making a screechy sound as a result. Meanwhile, Oliver frantically tried to keep up with the clarinettist beside him, who in turn was struggling to follow the others, and the end result was completely out of sync. Cheryl, witnessing the commotion, tried to ignore it, focusing solely on Mr. Steiner’s baton. By the time the tune was finished, Mr. Steiner shook his head.

“We’ve still got a long way to go,” he remarked, completely dejected. “Ok, class dismissed.”

The mood in the room was tense. Everyone was tired and glaring at each other. Stacy, Oliver, and Cheryl, not wanting to get further involved, quietly snuck away.

“Well, that wasn’t too bad,” Oliver cheerfully remarked outside.

“Really?” Stacy snapped.

“For me anyway,” Oliver replied sardonically.

“Yeah, what a relief.”

Stacy sighed. “I’m tired of losing every year. Cheryl, how was the band back in Ontario?”

“Honestly, we weren’t much better back,” she replied.

“Aw. I was hoping you’d be able to give us pointers.”

“Well, I barely got to know anyone there. Sorry.”

Stacy’s face lit up. “Hmm…that’s the problem, isn’t it? That’s why we have so much trouble playing even a single note together.” She became increasingly excited. “But if we did our own practice sessions, then we could learn to read each other better, starting with us. Oliver, Cheryl, you in?”

“Sure thing!” Cheryl answered. “Just let me find some time that works for me.”

Oliver sighed. “I don’t know if I can find the hours. In fact, I have to leave for work in a few minutes.”

“Well, just come when you can. Cheryl and I will help you out.”

“Say, Oliver, could you also get Ren and his friends to come too?” Cheryl asked. “The more, the merrier.”

“I’ll try. Wait, do you mean Lucas too?”

“You called?” a sneering voice responded.

Lucas and Ren were just coming out the door. Ren looked flustered by the band’s poor performance, while Lucas was attempting to mask his own frustration.

“I heard you all were planning some practice session,” Lucas sneered. “Yeah, you wimps need all the help you can get.”

Stacy gritted her teeth, but tried to stay calm with a smile on her face. “Would you like to practice together with us some time?”

Lucas laughed. “Me? Practice with you? What a joke.”

“Well, how else are we going to break Pollock’s losing streak?”

“That’s not my problem. I can play just fine. It’s noobs like Oliver dragging me down.”

“Really? If you’re so great, then why did you nearly get kicked out of piano lessons?”

Lucas scowled as he raised his fist and walked threateningly towards Stacy. “Why you little…”

“Lucas!” Ren called out.

Lucas lowered his fist, still staring angrily at Stacy.

“Look, Lucas,” she explained calmly. “You can call us losers all you want, but that won’t change anything. Fact is, it’s your loss too. And you’ve lost for 4 years straight. I don’t know about you, but I’m also sick of it. Wouldn’t you do anything to win, even if it means working with us dweebs?”

Lucas thought about what she said, relaxing his gaze. After a moment of silence, his frown returned.

“Whatever, faker,” he said, immediately walking away.

Stacy gazed at her friends with a nervous smile. “Well, it was worth a try.”

“He’s a stubborn one,” Ren concurred. “But hey, I’d like to join in your practice. When’s it at?”

“We’re still figuring that out,” Oliver replied. “But we’ll e-mail you when we decide on a time.”

“Cool. Well, see ya later, all.”

“Bye!”

As Ren walked off, Oliver started grabbing his bag too. “Well, I got to get to work. I’ll check my schedule and let you know when to practice. See ya!”

“See ya!” Stacy and Cheryl replied.

Cheryl then turned to Stacy. “Anyways, I ought to be off too.”

“Where to?”

“Just skating in the park with my mom. Hopefully, we can catch some woodpeckers there, or maybe some cool bugs. Like dragonflies.”

Stacy recoiled at the thought of the latter. “Well, I’d love to come. Not so much for the bugs, but definitely it’d be cool to see an owl some time. Still, I’ve got piano practice to make up.”

“That’s too bad.”

Cheryl frowned in disappointment, but gave a reassuring smile. “Maybe some other time then.”

“Sure thing. Bye.”

“See ya.”

—-

Now alone, Stacy got her stuff and slowly walked out the front entrance, prepared to head to the bus. On the way, she stopped to admire the maple tree, and saw a familiar face there.

“Tori?”

There she was, sitting down on a bench and making delicate brush strokes in front of the tree. She heard Stacy call out, and turned around.

“Oh, hi Stacy! How was practice?”

Stacy smiled. “Terrible.”

“So I heard. Still, playing Zelda must have been fun, right?”

Stacy walked towards Tori’s bench. They stared awkwardly for a while, then Stacy spoke.

“Look, Tori, I’m really sorry about this morning. I didn’t mean to insult your mother.”

Tori smiled. “It’s fine. I’m not mad. Besides, didn’t you tell me not to apologize so much?”

Stacy blushed in embarrassment. “Oh, right.”

Tori’s expression turned more contemplative. “I know you don’t get along with your dad. So I understand why you said what you did.”

“Yeah, I suppose.”

Stacy paused. “What happened to your mom, anyway?”

Tori looked down, with a sad expression on her face. “My father died years ago, when I was very young. I still remember his smile, and he and my mom seemed really happy together. But after he left, mom’s never been the same. We used to go on vacation together every year, but without dad, she’s barely ever left the house except for work. She used to be really into knitting, but she’s lost the will to create anything. She barely even talks to anyone anymore. It’s like a part of her died with him.”

Stacy fell silent. Tori continued, now in tears. “I’ve tried all I could to cheer her up, but nothing ever worked. I thought if I worked hard and became a great artist, I could maybe, one day, make her feel better, but all she ever told me was to stop obsessing over my silly shoujo manga.”

Stacy cringed. That sounded so familiar to her. Her hand reached out, holding Tori’s back as she sobbed uncontrollably. Finally, comforted by Stacy’s gesture, she carried on.

“And yet, I keep trying to make her happy. I can’t stop trying. Because…I’m the only one she has left.”

Stacy stepped back and stared at Tori. After all that, how could she say such a thing? Tori, wiping back her tears, noticed her puzzled expression.

“What about your mom, Stacy?” Tori asked, interrupting Stacy’s train of thought. “What happened to her?”

“Oh,” Stacy said, trying to recollect her thoughts. “She abandoned me years ago.”

Tori was shocked. “That’s a little harsh, isn’t it?”

“Well, yeah,” Stacy remarked bitterly. “Woke up one morning and she was gone. Didn’t even leave a parting note. She’s the reason I’ve been stuck with that asshole until now. What am I supposed to say about her?”

Tori merely waited as Stacy fought back her own tears.

“Stacy…” she replied quietly. “I don’t think she meant it that way. It must have been, difficult, for her to make that decision. If you were in her position, wouldn’t it be hard for you?”

Stacy stopped, mulling over her question. “I just don’t know what I did. She never seemed mad at me before.”

“Then I don’t think it had anything to do with you. Who knows why she left? But whatever her reason, it’s not your fault, okay? If I were her, I’d be happy to see who you’ve become.”

Stacy smiled, surprised, but touched by her words. “I don’t understand you sometimes.”

“Well, that makes two of us,” Tori giggled.

“I know. But, it’s just, how can you be so forgiving?”

“I guess I just don’t like dwelling on bad things for too long. You’ll never be happy that way, only seeing the worst in people.”

“But sometimes, people are the worst.”

“I know. But not always. Every day, we’re surrounded by acts of kindness. Hard times have a way of bringing people together. Like right now. Aren’t those moments worth living for?”

Stacy sighed. “Yeah, maybe you’re right.”

Tori smiled, happy to see Stacy’s cheerful mood returning. “That reminds me. When I heard you play, all I could think of was how I wanted to be a part of that world. Of expressing my feelings through music. Have you seen Full Moon?”

“Um, no. I haven’t watched much girls’ anime other than, um, Sailor Moon.”

Tori giggled. “You’re missing out on a lot. Well, it’s about a girl who wants to be a singer, but can’t, because she has throat cancer. So she gets help from a pair of Shinigami to change into an older, more beautiful girl to be a pop star and live out her dreams.”

“Wait, she gets magical powers just to sing? Not to fight evil witches?”

“I know it sounds silly, but that manga was where my love of music began. When I read it, I too wondered if I could one day become famous, to inspire people and spread happiness through my art. And I want to know what it feels like to do the same through music. I know you’re busy, but, maybe if you have time, could you, teach me some time?”

Stacy was taken aback by her request. “Um, sure. I’m not all that great myself, but, once I find time, definitely. We are trying to organize a practice session together, so, you want to come then?”

Tori suddenly stood up, her eyes lit up in excitement. “Yes! Thank you so much! I can’t wait!”

—-

Stacy, Oliver, Cheryl, and Ren sounded out the last few notes of the Legend of Zelda theme, which rang through the practice room of Borealis College. Tori, who was intently listening to the performance, cheerfully applauded as the others stopped to catch their breath.

“Good job, team!” Stacy called out. “See Olly, that wasn’t so hard.”

“You know,” Oliver replied. “Yeah, I think I got this.”

“Nice to know you’re in it for the long haul,” Cheryl told him.

“Yeah, Lucas would never let you live it down if you quit,” Ren taunted.

Oliver smiled. “No way am I letting him get the best of me.”

“I sure hope this works out,” Stacy remarked, concerned.

“C’mon, Stacy,” Cheryl said. “It’s only been one session. And I’m sure the rest of the band is practicing hard too. In any case, you really helped me out with getting the counting down.”

Stacy smiled. “Thanks.”

“Well,” Ren interrupted. “I have to get going. Lucas is expecting me at the comics store.”

“Alright, enjoy, I guess,” Stacy responded as the other three also prepared to leave. “See you all later.”

“See ya!” everyone called out to Stacy.

She waved as the others walked out, then closed the door. As usual, Ms. Markov gave her several pages of stuff to work on. She paused, staring at the keys, then took her notebook and cast it aside. For now, she just wanted to play for fun. But what?

Her thoughts turned to Lucas. What a pompous windbag, she thought. He’s not even that good at the sax, he gets yelled at by the teachers, yet he still acts like he’s king of the world. Still, she couldn’t help but be disappointed that he didn’t come, that appealing to his selfishness would have actually worked. So much for that.

He was a lot like her dad, actually. That lazy good-for-nothing. If only she could give him a piece of her mind…

Her fingers hit the keys, and started playing the opening ostinato notes of King of Anything. She smiled, imagining the sassy lyrics in her head. Some day, I ought to try singing along, she thought to herself. Someday.

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