“Dave, too cool for the team jacket this year? Didn’t get your name on the list.”

David jolted forward a little with the affectionate slap that guy planted on his shoulder as he passed. “I’m skippin’ out this year, man.”

“Okay, later, bro.” The guy nodded and kept walking, giving some brotherhood click of his fingers that David copied.

“Are you on the football team?” I asked.

Okay. I looked ahead, weaving through the oncoming traffic, taking his lack of elaboration as a giant ‘None of your business’.

As we passed a few open class doors, the crowds thickened, pushing David slightly closer to me, but not quite close enough to touch. I thought about ‘accidentally’ tripping, so I’d have to catch myself against his arm, but, knowing my luck, I’d miss and end up on the floor with my skirt above my head.

“Turn here,” he said, waking me from that little daydream.

I walked with my nose tilted slightly to the roof, taking in the dim lighting and rich burgundy colour of the walls. “Why is this area so different to the rest of the school?”

“They hold concerts open to the public in that room at the end.” He pointed past the trophy cases to a set of heavy-looking double doors. “Guess they wanted to give the illusion of grandeur.”

“And parade the victories of their student body?” I nodded to the over-stuffed trophy cases.

“Yeah.” He breathed out through a smile. “Um, Mr Grant’s a bit of an exhibitionist. We tour around and enter just about every contest there is.”

“Sounds like my kind of music teacher.”

“Oh, yeah,” he said, pushing on the heavy door. “He’s real loveable.”

“So, we always have music class in the auditorium. Good acoustics. And more space,” he said, and as the door opened, my breath caught in my throat. “It’s much brighter in here when the House Lights are on, though.”

“Are you kidding? This room is great in the dark.” My eyes followed the long columns of steeply inclined seats, stopping on the red velvet curtains framing the stage. It reminded me instantly of ballet—with the smell of latex, chipboard and wool carpet, while the sound of feet on the floorboards over a hollow stage, if I closed my eyes, took me home again. In the aisle before the front row, students had dragged tables and chairs into a small, disorderly cluster, where they all sat, tuning their instruments or laughing and talking.

In the seconds it took to size up the group, my eyes swept past them and stopped on a long forgotten acquaintance of mine. “A piano?”

“Very observant,” David said, and I rolled my eyes at him. He laughed. “Come on, I’ll introduce you to her.”

“Yep,” he said simply, and as he let go of the auditorium door, it thudded loudly behind us, making everyone look up; the shambolic wailing of their instruments stopped abruptly, leaving a dense silence as we started down the aisle. “It’s okay,” he leaned closer to whisper. “They’re not necessarily staring at you, Ara, more the fact that you’re walking with me.”

“Why? What does that matter?”

“Guess I just don’t really ever talk to girls.”

“Oh.” I folded my arms around myself. “Why?”

He grinned and slipped a guiding hand through the strap of my backpack, resting it just under my shoulder blade. “I uh—I don’t like any of them.”

“Oh.” I tried to laugh off the nerves, but nothing came out. All I could focus on was his touch against my cotton dress, so close to my skin.

As we neared the stage, some of the kids stood up, but their eager smiles sent my shoulders to my ears.

“Hey, guys.” David nodded his greeting, keeping his hand safely on my back. “This is Ara.”

I took a deep, shaky breath, and waved, but the forced smile probably made me look more like a troll than a friendly newcomer.

“Ah, a fellow muso.” A vertical palm appeared at my mid-section, ready to shake my hand; I looked up from his thin wrist to his sandy-blonde hair, then back down to his broad, honest grin, warmly inviting friendship.

“Nice to meet you. I’m Ryan.” He shook my hand then inclined his head to a small, dark-haired girl in the corner, quietly playing her violin. “And that’s Alana.”

“Hello.” I smiled at her, but my troll face clearly scared her back into the shadows after a quick nod my way.

“Anyway, that there is Fiona, and that’s Jess, Jay, Dan…” He rattled off names as I nodded and smiled at the faces, forgetting their names instantly. They should’ve all been called Bob—make things so much easier.

I stared at him, trying to figure out what the hell he meant.

“He means what do you play?” David added, barely masking his amusement.

“Oh. Um. Piano?” I said, but it sounded more like a question for some reason.

“Nice.” Ryan nodded then pointed to the old brown upright. “Well, that’s Big Bertha. She’s old and large and always in the way—but she’s in tune.”

“Big Bertha?” I scratched my head, looking at David.

“We have a name for everything around here,” David said.

Before I could laugh, a loud clap resonated around the auditorium. Everyone stopped and looked to the silhouette at the entrance. “I hear we have a new student today.”

“Right here, sir,” Ryan said, and I was pretty sure I just shrunk about two inches.

“Excellent.” His booming voice reached my ears with the presumption that he was a big, tall man, but as he stalked toward us, he became amusingly short and round. I tightened my lips, trapping the laughter, when I caught sight of his blonde ponytail, gathered at the nape of his neck, tugging heavily on the few straining hairs clasping for dear life around the edges of his bald spot. Stylish. But, short as he was, he was also still a centimetre taller than me; just tall enough to be threatening as he towered over me, burrowing into my soul with an accusing glare. “Miss Thompson, I presume?”

Self-amusement turned to fear and dried my throat. I looked at Bertha, considering hiding behind her. “Yes, sir.”

“And what will you be playing for us today, Miss Thompson?”

“We expect a performance from all our students on the first day.” He grinned, cupping his hands as he looked around the class. And at that point, the second head I’d earlier assumed he’d have, showed itself.

Everyone in the class waited for me to respond, or maybe to run away crying. Clearly, this was the reason for David's smirk in the library. I felt like saying, “FYI, David, you being here with me does not make this spotlight on my awkwardness okay. Not even a little bit!” But I bit my tongue instead, my eyes narrowing when David tipped his head in a slight nod. It was so obvious. He knew this was coming. He knew Mr Grant was going to do this. Why didn't he warn me? Then I could have made some lame excuse to run back home for the day.

Mr Grant stood back from his lean toward me, offering the piano stool. “If you please, Miss Thompson. Or do you require sheet music?”

Groaning, I shuffled out of the straps of my backpack and went to dump it on the ground.

“I’ll take this for you.” David grabbed it and placed it by his feet.

“Uh, thanks,” I said, then walked over to Bertha. The weight of two options dragged me to slump a little heavier on the stool; burst into tears and run away, or play a song?

“If you can only play Chopsticks, Miss Thompson, that will be fine,” Mr Grant said, and I just wanted to pull his ponytail. Jerk. But there was no way I’d let this know-it-all music professor make me cry in front of all these kids. I was sure he’d reduced many a student to tears in the past and it was time somebody taught him a lesson. If there was one thing I hated in this world more than anything, it was people using their talents or skills or, worse, knowledge, to make other people feel small. And that’s exactly what Mr Grant was doing to me. And it worked.

Everyone watched. I hesitated only a breath more, then lifted the cover and touched the very tip of one finger to the high C, too afraid to press down.

“Ara?” David rested his elbows on the top of the piano and smiled at me. I did not smile back. “You’ll be okay. Just play.”

My lip quivered a little, tears burning in my eyes. That little bit of control I had over my life was just about to slip away.

Mr Grant, standing uncomfortably close, watched me reposition my stool so I could reach the foot pedals, then held out a stack of papers. “Your sheet music.”

“I’ll be fine without that, thank you, Mr Grant,” I stated calmly and politely. Really, I wanted to take them from his puny little hands and clonk him over the head. Instead, I traced the columns of black and white for a second, drawing a tight breath through my teeth. I didn’t know the weight of the keys or the force it would take to draw a sound from them. This piano was unfamiliar and old, and after two months without so much as hearing a piano, I wasn’t sure I could even play anymore. This could end badly.

David gave me a reassuring nod, leaning a little closer to watch my fingers as they found their way home.

Okay, you can do this, Ara-Rose. Just breathe. I looked around the room and grinned. “Has any one here heard of the band Muse?”

Under the cheers of the class, David nodded and sat back against the table behind him, while everyone else pulled their chairs into a neat circle around me. Even Alana moved from her desolation in the corner and stood beside Ryan, with her violin still in hand.

The world disappeared for a second then. I inhaled and felt the cool of the keys under my fingertips—heavy and solid. Breathe.

The first notes of the song filled the air, and a familiar flood of excitement rushed through my heart, then flowed down my hands. The keys were heavier than the ones back home, but it only took two chords to get used to it. “This is called United States of Eurasia, followed by Collateral Damage,” I said.

As I panned over the notes, feeling the long-forgotten muscles in my hands stretch; I cleared my throat and sung the words. David looked down, keeping a smile hidden behind his eyes as he nodded in time with the music.

On the second verse, a violin came in out of nowhere; I looked over my shoulder and smiled at Alana, who had her eyes closed. But her accompaniment gave me a new kind of confidence, and my voice flowed, unwavering, into the echo of the auditorium. It just felt so damn good to release the air from my lungs this way again, as if this was my first breath in two months.

Everyone else in the room became a part of the performance then—keeping the beat with their hands and feet as I played. It was like a journey; a story with a beginning, middle, and end. And right where I’d have done so, if it were me, the violin cut out, leaving an eerie stillness as I drew the song to an end; the high notes sorrowful, laden with a distant kind of pain that reminded me of home—of my best friend.

With my eyes closed, encasing the memories of my old school and the softly-weighted keys of the baby grand piano in the music room there, my fingers played for me, allowing me to drift away to the shores of days when life was simple. Alone, in that place, I felt the last note leave, and only silence remained—hovering like a breath held.

I opened my eyes to David’s beautiful face. “Oh, crap. Did I faze out?”

“No.” He stood up, and Ryan started clapping like a seal at a marine park.

“Way to go, New Kid,” one of the girls said.

“Thanks.” I smiled sheepishly, steering my eyes away from David's soul-penetrating gaze.

“Well—” Mr Grant peered down his sharp nose, “—I can see I have nothing much to teach you, Miss Thompson.”

“That’s okay, Mr Grant,” Ryan said. “Dan still hasn't gotten past open chords.”

“Right.” Mr Grant turned on his heel and walked back up the aisle. “Carry on, people. We will be working on our performance pieces for the Halloween concert.”

My eyes stayed on the keys until the heavy door to the auditorium closed with an echoed thud behind the two-headed beast. What was that guy’s problem? “Did he expect me to fail?” I asked, looking around the group.

“He does it to everyone new.” Ryan patted my shoulder.

“Well, thanks for the heads-up, David.” I frowned at him.

“I figured you could handle it.” He looked at Ryan then and they both laughed.

There was no way he could’ve known that, unless he’d read my student file—which I highly doubted. This was obviously some cruel practical joke they played on new kids. I folded my arms. “So what gave you that impression? That I could handle it?”

David stopped laughing and folded his arms, too, looking a little smug. “Your fingers, actually.”

Slowly, I pulled them out from the fold and studied them. My nails used to be perfectly rounded atop the long, thin digits, but looked a little worn these days from being munched on so often. But he was right.