We ate Chinese food on Tuesday, the night before it all began. The fortune inside my cookie said, "Big changes are coming." Everyone else at the table was talking and slurping noodles or crunching lemon chicken. I don't believe in fortunes printed in a factory somewhere in California by people as ordinary as myself, of course. But I slipped it into my pocket and then set it carefully on my dresser when I got home.
I wanted change so much.
As usual, Wednesday was a really busy day, even though we'd been in school for less than a month. English literature's allergic Miss Jones sniffed every thirty seconds instead of blowing her nose, Walter glued himself to my locker talking about his latest soccer score, and then after school yearbook met right up until it was time for Janie to pick me up. I'd brought a PowerBar to chow down on the way to church. No time for dinner on Wednesdays.
Wednesday evening was youth group. Janie went early, which of course meant I did, too--though today I'd want to anyway. People thought it was great that my older brother and sister could drive me places instead of my parents. In some ways it was better--the music in the car, for example, wasn't that easy listening doo-da. Janie and Justin usually didn't remember me in the backseat, so they'd talk about really interesting stuff. Afterward they'd stand around yakking with their mob, and I pretty much sat there by myself doodling in a notebook, pretending it didn't matter that no one was talking with me.
That was about to change.
Today was The Tryout.
As I waited for Janie, my backpack felt really heavy. It was stuffed with my music notebooks--all the music I'd written my whole life. I didn't know if they'd be interested in hearing any of my music or what. When you attend a big church, people don't know you right away. Since the junior high youth group was for seventh and eighth graders, you'd think they'd have had all of last year to get to know me, but apparently not. So here I was in eighth grade. They'd want to see what I could do. It was okay. I'd prove myself.
Janie's car rattled into the Whitewater Middle School parking lot to pick me up. I mean, there was something totally loose under the hood. Not that I'm complaining. In fact, the car will probably be mine someday. After Justin. Janie was going to college in ten months and two days. She'd told me again that morning. Believe me, I'd told her, we're both counting the days.
Justin would get a ride to church after football practice. I'd noticed he'd been packing gel in his duffel bag. Who was he expecting to see at youth group? He sure wasn't slicking back his hair for Janie and me. Actually, it looked a little goofy, like some of the singers on the doo-da station, but no one asked me.
"Meet me out here right away, okay?" Janie said when we got to church and she headed down the hall to the high school session. "I'm swamped with work and have to get home."
Did I forget to tell her I was trying out for the junior high praise team, or did she just forget to wish me good luck?
I stepped into the room. Ever notice how you can tell how you're ranked by what happens in the room when you step into it? If you're a total popular, everyone stops talking. Then girls call out and come running over to you. They paw your clothes and your hair and say how great you look and then drag you over to where their chairs are circled in a powwow.
That didn't happen.
If you're a nerd, no one will even stop talking. In fact, it's like they know you're in the room by the vibe but don't bother to look at you. You glance around the room like a mouse when the light's flipped on.
That didn't happen, either.
If you're somewhere in between, the talking stops and a couple of people nod at you, then leave you to make your own way. But you still feel unwanted.
I made my way toward the front. The pastor's daughter, Mallory, was in charge of the team. Maybe if you have long blond hair cascading down your back like Rapunzel, you lead worship better. If you're the pastor's daughter you get privileges. Mallory's friend Britt stood guard in front of her. I wanted to feel bad for Britt because she was the anti-Rapunzel in every possible way, but she sure didn't make it easy.
"Hi," I said.
"Yeah?" Britt swung toward me.
"I'm here to try out for the spot on the praise team."
My friend Walter came into the room. The talking stopped in some corners, and there were some nods. Walter looked up at me. He set his guitar case down; he was the lead guitarist for our youth group. I smiled at him, hoping he'd come forward and tell this pack of girls how well I could sing and write music. Instead, he fiddled with his guitar strings in the back of the room. At least he didn't bring up soccer again.
"Have we met?" Mallory asked.
I nodded. "Are the tryouts for the praise team today?" I asked.
"They are," Britt said. "What exactly do you do?"
"I write music," I said. "I sing. I play keyboard."
"Write music? We're not cutting any CDs." She looked around to make sure her group giggled. Obediently, they did. "And we already have a keyboardist. Well, he's here sometimes, and sometimes he's not, but whenever he is here he's in charge," Britt said. "Do you play guitar?"
"Not yet...." My voice trailed off.
"Do you sing lead?" Mallory asked. "I'm spending some time in the high school group, so we could use someone who sings lead." High school? She'd just started eighth grade, same as me.
"Yes." Honesty was the best policy, right? My grandma said it was. "I haven't done it a lot."
Mallory seemed nice in a chilly, princess-wave kind of way. I wanted to like her but didn't think I'd ever get close enough to try.
Mallory and Britt looked at each other. Walter came up to the stage that was set up at the front of the teen annex, and he pretty much nodded me toward the keyboard. My notebooks stayed hidden in my backpack.
"Do you know this one?" Mallory handed a sheet of music to me. Britt and some others talked in the corner of the room. The junior high pastor would be there soon, and I wanted to get going. If Rapunzel was going to kick me out of the tower, it'd go down easier in private.
I played the keyboard alone even though both of us were singing. The keys were comfortingly cool on my fingertips, and I disappeared into the music like I always did. When I resurfaced, the room had kind of quieted. The rest of the team were looking only at Mallory. I got that same creeping moss feeling I got when Janie and Justin forgot about me. Mallory smiled, and Britt came back over and rustled up a twisted grin before rushing Mallory off to the next group of people waiting to curtsy. "We'll call you tonight," she said.
"You sounded great," Walter said. "You're a genius on the keyboard."
"Thanks. Did you tell them?" I nodded hopefully toward the praise team.
"No, but I will, promise. Later, when stuff dies down," he said.
We studied Acts together in small groups. I really don't remember what we said or read or even prayed. I worried instead. I was too busy looking at the new girl sitting next to Mallory in her powwow. She'd tried out, too, after me. She hadn't seemed to play any instrument or sing lead, but maybe I hadn't noticed. I looked back at Mallory and doodled a poodle in my notebook.
Walter left as soon as youth group was over. He hadn't talked with Mallory or anyone. I tugged each of my cropped, low ponytails tighter and went to wait for Janie. She was already in the car. "Justin's riding home with some friends." She turned on the car, starting the rattle.
"I tried out tonight," I said, closing the passenger door. At least I could sit in the front. The soft leather hugged me, and I snuggled deeper into the seat.
"Oh, how'd it go?"
"Paige, you always underestimate yourself. You probably did just fine." She reached into her purse and handed a stick of gum to me, and we drove with the music turned up while the wind jiggled the trees around us, mailing leaves from tree to street, where they landed like scattered letters in red and gold envelopes. I love getting mail. Even grade reports. Now that it was the end of September, I'd be getting the first one soon. I hoped my dad would notice.
When we got home, I went into the kitchen, where my mom was on the phone. She pointed toward the refrigerator and scratched something else into her Day-Timer. She must have learned shorthand in secretarial college or something, because I don't know how she fit it all in those little squares. I opened the fridge. There was a cheese and fruit plate, but it mostly had feta on it. Feta cheese smells like the inside of a belly button. No thanks. No Chinese leftovers. Even though I was starving, I just poured a bowl of cereal and went upstairs to my room.
Is there anything better than puppy love? My little dog, Brie, jumped up and down and rolled over and did tricks as soon as she saw me coming up the stairs.
"Hi, girl! Hi, Brie!" I rubbed her fuzzy tummy. Hey! Would my mom answer the phone if call waiting came through? They'd surely call within the hour. Right?
I went over to check on the other animals in my homemade animal foster home system. The hamster still had a gash on her left ear where another hamster had attacked her at the pet store. The people at the store had called and told me they'd give her to me for free if I could care for her. I took her, of course. They knew who to call. After all, who knows what would have been gashed next? I had a plan to place her in a loving home after she was well again. I sometimes baby-sat for this little girl who was the daughter of a friend of my mom's. After I promised her that hamsters don't stink and it's better if you have only one of them, she said she'd take her when the ear was healed. That little girl was lonely, too. They'd make a good pair. She'd love the hamster up good. She was already saving clothes from her Barbie collection to dress her up.
"Hey! No bullying!" One of my fish tried to keep the others away from the food. "I should flush you." I separated him into a tiny jelly jar instead. "That's how we deal with bullies." For a brief moment an image of Britt trapped in a tiny jelly jar came to mind. By sheer willpower, I banished it. At least I hadn't imagined her flushed.
It was eight-fifteen--was my mom off the phone yet? I ran downstairs to look. Nope. How long could it take them to call? She put her hand over the mouthpiece of the phone and whispered to me, "Hi, honey! Could you go get the mail?" She blew me a kiss, and I slipped on some socks and went to get the mail. I hate shoes but like socks. We buy them at Goodwill so I can wear them out and not hear about it.
The driveway was cold; the chill from the asphalt seeped into my feet.
"Paige!" A voice crackled from the end of the driveway.
"Oh, hello, Mrs. Kellie. How are you?"
"Fine, thank you. Had my garden club today and then a potluck. Never a quiet moment."
I think she kept busy on purpose. Her husband died six months ago, and even though it was hard, she never let it beat her into the ground. She still got up every day and made her coffee and got her breakfast and wore nice grandma clothes like gray or black wool pants and sweater vests. She still did her makeup and went to Bible study. She waved to me as she got her mail and walked, with Kitty in her arms, back to her house. You never saw Mrs. Kellie without Kitty. They clung to each other in a sometimes lonely world.
I riffled through the mail as I walked to the house. Something for me from the pet shelter! Before I could open it, my mom stuck her head into the foyer. "You had a phone call. Someone named Walter."
Grr. She didn't even remember who my friends were. And why was Walter calling? I'd expected Mallory to call. Or Britt! But maybe that was good. Maybe they had a friend call me to share the good news.
I ran upstairs, but Janie was on the telephone. "Get off!" I pounded on her door. So much for her load of homework.
While I waited, I brought up my email, as well as the youth worship site that I'd found after reading a notice stuck on the bulletin board in the lunchroom at my dad's office. Had anyone responded to my request?
Hey! Someone had responded. I could tell, because in the email subject line was "Guitar," and it had been sent only a minute or two ago!
"I'm off." Janie stuck her head into my bedroom. I turned around and grabbed the phone.
I made sure the door was tightly closed and called Walter.
"Hey, it's Paige. You called?"
"Yeah," he said. "Well, I just wanted to let you know that they felt like it would be important for the new girl to have a job in the church, so she's the one they chose."
"The new girl. Who sat with Mallory. Who didn't seem to sing lead or play an instrument," I said quietly. My toes sank into the soft carpet beneath me.
"Mmm-hmm," Walter said. "It'll be okay. They just don't realize how talented you are. I actually think they do, on some level, but just can't admit it. Or won't."
"Thanks. I'll see you tomorrow." I hung up the phone. Since Walter had left early, they must have called him to ask him to tell me. It was pretty cheap not to tell me themselves, even if Walter was a part of the praise team.
I didn't feel like praising. Maybe I shouldn't be on the praise team if I couldn't rustle up a smile and an "all will be well" feeling all the time. Grandma always says you can run to God or run away from Him; just be honest.
"Argh!" I didn't care if Janie or Justin heard me talking out loud to God. "Why do the populars always have to win? Is that very Christian? I can't understand it, Lord." I punched the pillow and let the tears stream down my face.
"Did you give me a gift to sing and write music to praise you, or is that just something I do? When I sing, I feel you. When I write, I feel you. But you won't let me share it anywhere. So what's the point?"
I shredded a piece of paper on my desk. It was to have been a new song. "What's the point of writing anymore? What's the point of taking piano anymore? I'm through with music. It's done nothing for me all these years. Let's face it. I stink. I'm a failure."
In the corner of my room, my ten notebooks were stacked--where I'd dumped them from my backpack when I got home. I scooped them up and headed for the burn barrel. Time to die.
I walked down the hallway, where Justin's sports trophies lined the shelves and where Janie had already tacked up one college acceptance letter. What did I have to show for all these years? The same old certificates that the piano teachers gave everyone who participated in the recitals? No. Enough was enough.
I huffed out to the backyard. When you live out of town a bit like we do, you can burn your paper trash. You just use a really big metal garbage can, a fifty-five-gallon drum, and throw it all in. When it gets full enough, a parent sets it on fire and poof. Cremation.
My mom tried to stop me, but I waved her off, careful not to look her in the eye so we didn't have to have a conversation. She stuck my piece of mail into my hands. I took it and stuffed it in my pocket to read later. Right now I was on a mission to burn every song I'd ever written since I was six years old.
The burn barrel was already lit. Bummer. That meant my dad was there.
"Paige!" Yep, he saw me. No turning back now. I carefully set the journals to the side of the porch and moved forward. I took a deep breath, tucked my hair behind my ears, and tried to look normal. Maybe we'd chat, he'd leave, and I could toss the whole stack of notebooks into the fire. If I brought them out now, we'd just have to talk about why I was burning them and how being a teenager was hard but it would pass. Sigh.
He didn't say much. It was so weird that even I thought I'd better start the conversation. Maybe then he'd go inside. "How is work--busy saving the world, or at least all the crops in Western Idaho and Eastern Washington?" Dad was the operating manager of Rainmaker, a company that made sprinkler systems.
"Yes," he said as he stirred the fire. Little bits of crackling flew out of the barrel like fireflies, dying as they hit the cold air. That's all he said. "Yes." The bitter smoke and ash rose into the sky like a prayer.
He sighed a bit more and stirred the fire again. It seemed like he'd forgotten I was there. He wasn't leaving the burn barrel any time soon. I decided to grab my notebooks and take them back into my room. I'd tiptoe out later when he was done.
Once in my room I opened the letter. "Dear Miss Winsome," it began.
As you know, Christmas is a lonely time for many elderly people who have little or no family to share the joy. This year the shelter is planning to match an elderly resident of Lewiston with an abandoned or unwanted pet. For your contribution of two hundred dollars, a lonely pet and a lonely person will have a Christmas they will always remember. The contribution will help pay for medical expenses and food for the first year--something these folks can't afford on their own. Please return this commitment card by October 15 so we can let our new homes have time to prepare. We will inform the waiting pet hopefuls as soon as we hear from you!
Well, some good was happening in the world. Even in my anger I felt a little corner of gladness. It was just like Mrs. Kellie and Kitty! I thought about how happy they were, how much easier it made her widowhood. And the little hamster and her Barbie home to come. It was a great idea. That's why I work with the shelter. They care.
Helping animals is one of the things I do best. I want to help people, too, because as much as I love pets, I care even more about people. I just don't talk about it all the time. That's why I write and sing--to share my love of music and love of God with other people. But that wasn't working out. "I wish I could do this, God. But I don't have two hundred dollars."
I tapped my keyboard and the screen came back on. I saw the email that I hadn't yet read. Oh yeah, the guitar. I guess I'd email back and say I didn't need one anymore. No need to learn guitar if I was done with music. Fifty dollars was all I had, and I'd need it for pet food and maybe to somehow try to scrape together one hundred fifty dollars more for the shelter's Christmas program. I opened the email.
You don't know me, but I saw your post about wanting to buy a guitar. I have two now and really need to sell one, so you are an answer to prayer! I live in Clarkston, but maybe we can meet sometime--SOON--and I can get it to you. It's in great shape. You'll love it. Please email me ASAP.
Chordially. So cool. Only a music person would think of that. Someone was counting on me to buy this guitar now, and she really needed to sell it for some reason. Did I want to email her back and tell her I couldn't do it? My hands trembled.
Before clicking the computer off, I saw a red note on the Worship Works site: "Singer-Songwriters! Try out!"
I read it further.
Calling all 13- to 16-year-old
who live in the Snake River Valley.
Want to win $400 and sing at
half time at the annual Lewiston v. Clarkston
Thanksgiving Day football game?
That was the game Justin would play in! The game Britt and Mallory and everyone else I knew would be at. Dad would even come!
Since the winner will publicly perform,
preliminary singing auditions will be held
to narrow the field to five, and a
working draft of an original song must be submitted. The final contestants will be
required to submit and perform an original song. Apply today!
But I was quitting. Right? I closed my eyes and prayed. With four hundred dollars I could sponsor two pets with their new owners. Everyone would see that I could sing. I didn't want to be a star. I just wanted to be noticed as a part of the same universe as everyone else. For once I wanted to speak the language everyone else in my family speaks--success, importance, ability.
If I'm not seen, I can't be loved.
I believed this was brought right into my path on the very day I needed it. I felt faith flooding back into my heart again.
Dear Lord, I pleaded in my heart. Just let me win this once. I will give the money away. I will not hog the spotlight. Just show me that you look upon the regular girls as well as the superstars. Let me know and I won't burn my journals. Show me by letting me win. Do you see me, Lord? Do you see me and love me? I want to win.
I was overcome by the strongest sense of warmth and peace I had ever had. Ever! It must be God. He must be saying that He's with me--that I should go ahead!
I shut down my computer. Peace overwhelmed me like I had never felt before. I had faith! I took that faith and put it into action by signing the card to the shelter, committing to sponsor two animals--not one, but two--for elderly owners. I told them to go right ahead and share the good news. I ran down to the mailbox and mailed it before I could lose any bit of my newfound faith.
I stuck my journals back into my closet. "You're safe till Thanksgiving."
There was a lot at stake in this contest. The animals and their owners. My family, whom I needed to see me, to know me, to love me. Most of all, my faith in and relationship with God. If I lost, I could lose them all. But I wouldn't.
I had to win.