“Whoa!” Ashley Webster held her breath as a tall eighth grader sat down in front of the piano and unfolded his legs. Everyone else in the Chiddix Junior High auditorium that July Saturday morning seemed to be holding their breath too.
That came to about 750 other people holding their breath—moms and dads and friends and teachers and news reporters—and that was a lot of breath to hold. Finally, Ashley leaned over and whispered in her Aunt Jessica’s ear.
“He’s really good.”
Jessi nodded her head and let her long blond hair swing to hide her face. “Not as good as you, Ash.”
“Shh.” Ashley wasn’t so sure of that, listening to the way he played and sang “My He a rt Will Go On,” the tearjerker from the Titanic film.
When he reached the part about how safe his true love would be in his heart or wherever, some of the ladies sitting nearby started dabbing their eyes. Even Jessi was looking a little misty eyed. It was no accident that this kid from Peoria was one of the top ten finalists in the annual Greatest Young Vocalist Competition, the final ninety-minute sing-off bet ween kids from all over the state.
After all the tryouts and practices and semifinals, it all came down to this: ninety minutes of do or die. One last chance to prove who was the best junior singer in the state of Illinois. And right here in Ashley’s hometown of Normal, where two of the finalists lived.
Right now the boy on stage had as good a chance as anybody to win the prize: a brand-new Yamaha keyboard and a spot in the televised national Greatest Young Vocalist Competition.
Never mind the national competition, although taking part in that would be pretty cool. But the keyboard! A Yamaha professional stage piano, just like the pros used, with a full eighty-eight keys, a sixteen-track song recorder, and a MIDI computer interface. The one Ashley had been dreaming about eve ry night for the past month. Ashley already had a place picked out for it in the living room of the house she lived in with her dad and mom and brother, Austin, on Fell Avenue.
But if she didn’t win the keyboard, she couldn’t take piano lessons. (Well, maybe she could use a piano at church, but her parents would have to drive her there, and she wouldn’t be able to use it as often.) And if she couldn’t take piano lessons, she’d have no chance at a college music scholarship. No college scholarship… Well, she wasn’t going to think like that. All that was standing between Ashley and her planned future were the nine other finalists, and if all of them were as good as Mr. Peoria here…
She traced her finger down the list in her program, looking for proof she still had a chance, at least on paper.
There she was, performer number ten—dead last on the list, though hopefully that was because her last name started with a W. If they kept to the schedule, she’d be standing up there an hour and fifteen minutes from now, close to 11:25.
Ashley Marie Webster, grade seven, will sing an oldie-butgoodie country pop song by Faith Morgan. Jessi had convinced her it would be exactly the kind of song the judges would like best. Never mind that Ashley didn’t like “Cry Me a Flash Flood.” She just hoped she wouldn’t have to use the cheat sheet that had the words on it.
Speaking of cheat sheets, where is it?
Ashley checked her pockets, wondering, sweating. All she found was a pencil stub from mini golf, which was kind of weird because she never kept junk in her pockets. She checked behind her on the cushy foldup seat, and then under their feet.
“Would you relax?!” Jessi whispered in her ear.
“Easy for you to say,” Ashley whispered back.
Jessi wasn’t the one who would be making a fool of herself up there in front of all these people, blowing her whole future because she couldn’t remember the first line.
Ashley was about to repeat herself when she noticed the tiny earphone in Jessi’s ear that wiggled as Jessi chewed her gum. She should have known. Either her aunt was in the Secret Se rvice or a hidden MP3 player was cranking out the latest contemporary Christian boy-band hit.
“Forget it.” Ashley waved her hand. I’ll just suffer quietly.
They really weren’t making much noise, but Jessi’s father glanced over with a look that said “shh.”
Jessi’s father, Ashley’s grandfather. Aunt Jessica. Ashley had had to explain it plenty of times, since even though Jessi truly was Ashley’s aunt, she was only a few months older than Ashley and not quite thirteen. Weird, but true. Jessi was Ashley’s mom’s way-little sister.
Meanwhile the kid from Peoria finished his song, and the crowd let loose.
“I still say you’re a better singer.” Jessi didn’t sound as convinced as she clapped.
Now it was up to the five judges seated at the VIP table at the front of the auditorium: The mayor of Normal, the Honorable Francine Wurstheim, wearing her permasmile and a businesslike blue suit; Dr. Manny Weaver, a round-faced music professor who combed his three hairs sideways over the top of his head; two music teachers from the Chicago area Ashley had never heard of before; and, rounding out the quintet, Normal’s sort-of celebrity, Nick Francisco, who used to be the drummer for a groovy sixties band named Pink Pigeon Peace.
So far the judges seemed really polite, not at all like the ones on that American Superstar show. They would probably be saying things like “I really admire your effort and enthusiasm” or “That’s a really cheery-looking outfit you’re wearing.”
But right now Ashley couldn’t bear to hear their reviews. She had to find somewhere to relax. Good thing she’d chosen a seat near the back so she could bail without anybody noticing.
With the mayor saying a few words about the competition, now was the perfect time.
“Be right back,” she told Jessi, but Aunt Jessi was already on her heels. That was a good thing, considering who showed up outside the ladies’ room while Ashley was taking a sip from the drinking fountain.
“He was so-so,” came a voice from behind her. “Don’t you think?”
“So-so?” Ashley stood up straight and tried not to cough.
“I thought he was really good.”
Seeing Tucker Campbell right now made Ashley ill. When Tucker flashed her perfect white smile, it wasn’t hard to see how Chiddix Junior High’s most gorgeous girl had won every Little Miss Illinois contest she’d entered since fourth grade.
Looks, poise, talent, a beautiful voice—Tucker knew she had it all.
“That’s nice of you to say”—Tucker kept her I’ve-already-won smile glued to her perfect face—“but you know he really doesn’t have a chance.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure.”
Tucker dabbed at her lips with a tissue she handed off to her friend Amy Templeton.
“Well, I just don’t want you to feel too disappointed when I win. You’re okay with that, aren’t you? At least you can play ball.”
Jessi was right there to stand up to the put-downs, popping in between them like a boxing referee. “Ashley made girls’ all-state last year.”
“She should be sure to tell that to the judges when it’s her turn. If people don’t have enough talent to compete, anything helps, you know.”
“Ashley doesn’t need any help.” Jessi stuck out her chin.
“She’s going to win this thing and the keyboard, all the way to the big show in New York.”
Tucker threw back her perfectly highlighted blond hair and laughed. “My mother is already planning our trip. Lots of luck.”
Ashley felt her face turn red, redder than it did when she wanted to slug Austin for changing the channel in the middle of a program she was watching. She held her tongue but knew what she would have said. Not this time, Little Miss Illinois. That keyboard has my name on it!