The Little Drummer Girl, Part 1

Isn’t it funny how the little things can turn out to be big things? How something small and ordinary, something people normally wouldn’t even notice, can change the future somehow?

Like a cap, for instance.

“Camille said what to Zoey? That she can’t sing?” 

“I’m afraid so, Ma’am. And a few other things besides. Such as how Zoey is a liability to the other altos, and how she’s the reason practice keep breaking down. You know how Camille can be. And Zoey being Zoey, she didn’t take Camille’s criticism sitting down.” 

“Oh my goodness.” 

“After that, things started to get tense, so I ended practice early to give the kids time to cool their heads.” 

“Oh my goodness. I’m not gone for an hour and this happens.” 

“Well, Ma’am, pardon me for saying so, but what Camille said…granted she could have worded it better but, well, it had to be said. It’s just that nobody wanted to say it out of respect for you. Zoey is—well, she’s a good girl, and God knows she works harder than anyone, but the truth is, she may be better suited for something else. She just doesn’t belong in the choir.”

My brother had given me that black Nike cap for my sixteenth birthday, so it wasn’t exactly unimportant. Still, I wonder what would’ve happened if I hadn’t gone back to the high school music room to retrieve it after I’d forgotten it in my rush to leave. I had other caps at home, so it wasn’t like I needed that one. Besides, it was getting late, and I could just as well have come back early Monday morning to get it.

I wasn’t thinking straight, I guess. My ears were still ringing from Camille’s ugly, accusing words, and my chest still burning from the equally ugly things I threw back in her face. In fact, I’d fully intended to jump on my bike and burn some asphalt until I’d outraced my anger and wounded feelings. That would have made more sense, right?

So why had I gone back?

“Sorry, Ma’am. I know she’s your niece, and of course, your family being what it is—” 

“Oh no. No, no, you don’t have to apologize. The truth is the truth. Zoey is my brother’s first child and he loves her dearly. But for years, we in the family have known—oh dear. You’re right, of course. Zoey is undoubtedly a hard worker. She practices the piano every day without fail, do you know? Her mother counts on her to keep her sister in line. She helps out at the store. And of course, she has always been diligent in transcribing her father’s work. Still—” 

“I understand. She has never missed practice, and I often see her studying her scores even in school. But still—” 

“I know. It’s terribly unfortunate, but my niece has—” 

“Zoey has—” 

“No talent at all. None. I swear, there is no trace of music at all in that child’s soul.”

Slowly, I let go of the doorknob and lowered my hand to my side. The voices from inside the room came through the door, muffled but unmistakable, each word sliding home like needles to the heart.

“What must her father think? He must be so disappointed.” 

“Oh, he’s fine. He has Ray and Jess to carry on the legacy after all.” 

“That’s true. Those two are such gifted kids.” 

“As for Zoey, well, neither JC nor Raquel have given up hope that Zoey would one day take her place in the family.” 

“But what about the choir? Camille has a point, Ma’am. If practice keeps breaking down like this, we’ll never be able to finish mastering all the songs in time for the Christmas concert.” 

“Hmm. It’s regrettable, but it’s best to leave her out for now. We’ll tell her to come back next year when there’s less pressure. I’ll explain things to Raquel, and together we’ll talk to her…”

I turned and walked away. In a daze, I moved through the deserted hallways, took my bike from the rack, then pedaled through the darkening streets of our town, weaving mechanically among the cars and jeepneys. Hot exhaust fumes battled against the cold northeast air until I turned a corner and headed down the road leading to our village. The air turned cooler and crisper, and my head felt unaccustomedly bare, strands of hair escaping from my hair-tie and fluttering all over the place without my cap to restrain them. A thousand multicolored lights twinkled past me as the shops, restaurants and houses lining the streets competed with one another for the title of gaudiest Christmas lights display, but their efforts were wasted on me. I was too distracted by the thoughts racing through my mind—as fast as my bike wheels were spinning, as hard as the asphalt road, as cold as the Siberian winds.

I didn’t get my cap. I ought to get it back early on Monday it before somebody—probably Camille—throws it in the trash. 

Oh yeah, I should return my music scores. Maybe somebody else could use them, as long as they don’t mind all the doodles I drew on them. And my costumes. I won’t need those anymore. 

Uh oh, I gotta hurry. It’s my turn to practice. If I don’t, Mom will get on my case again, and if Dad finds out— 

Find out what? That I’ve been kicked out of the choir by our conductor, who also happens to be my own aunt? That I’m talentless and pathetic? That I’m a total disappointment to my family? 

“No, wait, my mistake. They already knew that,” I muttered out loud. The scenery blurred, and I dashed away the tears gathering in my eyes with one hand. Just my luck, a guy stepped right in front of me at that moment from seemingly out of nowhere. I caught a glimpse of a horrified face illuminated by the streetlights before I clamped reflexively on the brake with one hand, sending my bike’s rear wheel skidding drunkenly to the side and me jerking forward to try to head off an oncoming collision. My front wheel hit the curb, my handlebars hit the guy’s ribs, and I ended up doing a slow-motion, sideways topple onto the street.

“Ow, ow, what just happened?” I groaned as I struggled to disentangle myself from my bike.

“That’s my line. Watch where you’re going, you crazy speed demon.”

A hand grabbed my bike and another gripped my upper arm, pulling me upright. But the voice was sharp with anger, and I couldn’t help but flinch away. I’d already been subjected to more than my fair share of such voices that day. “I’m so sorry,” I began.

“Yeah, you should be, rocketing around like that. Don’t you know enough to stop and look both ways at an intersection?”

And now, a total stranger was taking a chunk out of me. “No, obviously, I don’t. Obviously, I’m clumsy and stupid on top of everything else. Didn’t you read the warning sign above my head?” I retorted bitterly, and to my horror, tears flooded my eyes and rolled down my face.

The guy’s expression went from annoyance to shock but I’d already turned away. After choking out “look, I’m sorry, okay?” I mounted my bike and hurriedly pedaled away from the scene of my latest disaster. I managed to reach home without committing any further acts of attempted manslaughter, but by then the adrenaline rush had worn off, and for a few moments, I just stood there in front of our house, nibbling at the ends of the loose strands of hair, and let the recent events wash over me.

Our house was one of several clustered around a cul-de-sac at the end of our street. Along the eaves and around our windows, colorful lights blinked in time with some preprogrammed Christmas music. Fortunately, the whining, electronic carols were drowned out by the sound of a Burgmüller etude playing from the music room, which occupied almost the entirety of the first floor of our house. My pianist-violinist brother, Raymond, encroaching into my practice time again. The melodious strains of piano music interspersed with my little sister Jessamyn’s sweet voice floating through the air from her window on the top floor as she practiced one of the songs she was going to perform solo for the Christmas concert.

Not long ago, I would have considered my situation pretty sweet. Not long ago, I would have congratulated myself on being born into this awesome family, with my awesomely famous parents and awesomely talented siblings, which surely meant that I was awesome myself. Not long ago—was it really just an hour ago?—I would have taken a deep breath and smiled with satisfaction, before going in to engage Ray in another battle of wills over whose turn it was to use the piano while seeing to it that Ate Nora, our live-in house-helper, flavored dinner just so for Jess’ finicky taste buds, and remembering to call our parents to report our progress for the day.

Now, as I wheeled my bike into the garage, all I felt was numb. I let myself into the house, and my gaze immediately fell upon the shelf full of plaques, trophies and certificates my parents and siblings had amassed over the years. The nearby walls were also covered with framed photos of my mom and dad in their performances around the country and abroad.

And there on the shelf, in a wooden frame amid all the parchment, faux-gold objects and blown-up photos of radiant people in evening wear, was a photo of me taken just this summer after my last piano recital. In it, I was beaming hugely after finally conquering Beethoven’s Für Elise, so puffed up with pride that my blue cocktail dress was nearly bursting at the seams.

Für Elise. The very same piece Ray had played much faster and a thousand times better in one of his recitals. When he was seven years old.

With an unsteady hand, I pushed the wooden frame down flat on the shelf.

“Hey, what’re you doing?” My brother peered out from the doorway of the music room.

I looked over at him, and shrugged.

“Listen, I started late, okay?” he said, firing the opening salvo in our battle. “You can wait an hour longer. I’ve got a lot more to work on than you, so it’s only right I get more practice time.”

This was where I was supposed to tell him he was being a conceited ape and to get his butt off the piano bench because it was my turn to practice. Then we’d hurl more arguments and insults at each other until I ended up shoving him out the room. Instead, I just stared. It was true, anyway. He did have a couple of numbers with the chamber orchestra for the Christmas concert, plus the songs he was playing as keyboardist for the band he and our cousins had formed. He had an important role to play in the performances. I, on the other hand…

I had nothing. Nothing worthwhile to give. No place where I was needed. Nothing to offer that anyone wanted.

Why did it take me so long to realize that?

When faint puzzlement replaced the smirk on my brother’s face, I shrugged again. “Sure, whatever,” I replied, before turning to head up to my room. I locked my door, dropped my backpack on my chair, and lay down on my bed. Soon, piano music drifted up again. Sometime later, the floor boards outside my room creaked the way they did when somebody was walking past my door. Probably Jess, on route to the dining room. Still later, phone rang and rang until someone, probably Ate Nora, picked it up. My parents, most likely, calling to say they were on their way home after rehearsals at the cultural center and a recording session at a TV studio.

The hours ticked by as I lay there, just staring out the window at the blue velvet sky tinted with the dancing, glowing colors of Christmas. Funny how for everyone else, it was just another ordinary, early December night.

For me, though, that was the night the music in my soul died. The same music my aunt believed hadn’t existed to begin with.

But what dealt the killing blow wasn’t learning how big a failure I was in the eyes of my family and everybody around me. It was the fact that it hadn’t come as a surprise to me at all.

Read the second part.

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