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Excerpt of Montana in A Minor

Chapter 1

Subito Forzando
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  Two days, sixteen hours, and forty-six minutes until my flight to London. Followed by my seventeenth birthday in Paris next month. Oh yes, Paris! Meanwhile, I’m surrounded by my nine-year-old cello students who are squeaking their way through French Folkdances for the hundredth time—okay, only the fifth. I nod encouragement as my overloaded brain tumbles down my to-do list:

  • 1. Final lesson with Mrs. Stanislavsky for her notes on Saint-SaŽns score.
  • 2. Pick up extra strings and rosin.
  • 3. Banish Jordon from my thoughts. Sigh.
  • 4. Learn Saint-SaŽns concerto pronto.
  • 5. Forget Jordon exists. Correction—forget ALL boys exist.
  • 6. Buy DVD Yoga for Stress Reduction.
  • 7. Get my students through their performance tomorrow night.
  • 8. Pack for Europe.9. ERASE JORDON FROM MY MEMORY.

         The music ends, and eight expectant faces stare up at me from their chairs in the Lowell Elementary School music room. Jamal wipes his damp forehead on his faded shirtsleeve and leans into his cello.

        “Great job,” I say, pulling my hair back and tying it into a knot. “Jamal, don’t grip the bow so tight. Gianna, watch your fingering. Now, one last time.” For good luck they have to play it six times—two sets of three.

    “Again?” Gerard groans.

         “This time is just for fun. You’ll play the last eight measures subito forzando. That means suddenly big and loud. Give it all you’ve got.” The kids play again, ending with a great blast of notes. “So?” Gerard says, waving his bow in the air. His big brown eyes sparkle with excitement. “How ‘bout that?”

          I can’t contain a grin. “Perfect!” My teacher, Mrs. Stanislavsky, might object to calling it perfect as there were a few unplanned screeches here and there. But they played as close to perfect as eight fourth graders can after seven months of lessons from someone who has never taught before.

        “You guys are awesome!” Cheers break out as I give high-fives all around. “We are so ready for tomorrow night. Your families will be amazed.”

         Late afternoon sunlight casts striped shadows across the linoleum floor from the metal bars over the school windows—bars meant to protect these kids who live in the nearby projects and run-down Victorian flats of San Francisco.

         I pull a box from under a chair. “Surprise! Put away your cellos and grab a cupcake on the way out.”

        “Emily, why can’t you teach us this summer?” Jamal asks for the second time today.

         Gerard shakes his head. “She’s gonna be with her dad. Don’t you remember?”

        “Oh, yeah,” Jamal mumbles, reaching for a cupcake.

        “You can still practice over the summer,” I say. Most of them make a face as if to say that’s not going to happen. “Think of me learning the concerto for my competition. If you think I’m a tough teacher, you should meet my dad. I’ll be practicing day and night.”

         Gerard thrusts his chin out. “I’m gonna practice every day. You’ll see how good I am when you come back.”

“All right!” I give him another high-five.

          A pang of guilt catches in my middle. Teaching these guys has been the best. It started as a way to earn extra credit fall semester, something that would look good on my college applications. I loved it so much I continued on my own for the rest of the school year. The way these kids respond to the music, their joy when they get a piece right, it’s amazing. But I may not be back this fall, and I don’t have the heart to tell them.

         “Don’t forget to be here at seven tomorrow night. You guys rock!” The girls give me quick hugs, and the boys offer fist bumps, as they file out the door.

*

         I listen to the Saint-SaŽns First Cello Concerto on my iPhone as I ride the bus up Van Ness and the cable car down California Street. I refuse to think about Jordon. Really. After all, I have bigger things to worry about. Like getting into Julliard.

         My dad is counting on me starting their Pre-College Program this September. If I get in. And that’s a really huge if. I auditioned last month before a panel of five Julliard faculty members, an experience only marginally less disastrous than the sinking of the Titanic.

         I worked for five months nailing the audition pieces. That day at Julliard, it sounded like I’d never played the pieces before, never even heard them. Naturally, I get a little freaked, actually a lot freaked, performing in front of people. Who doesn’t? This time aliens took control of my body.

         The faculty members stared at me with expressions ranging from deep embarrassment to outright horror. I could practically see cartoon bubbles forming above their heads: How could Rafael Lopez’s daughter possibly be this bad? I barely made it out of there and into the bathroom before losing my lunch.

          I knew Dad would wig out. Somehow, I saved myself, or at least got another shot. I told the judges I had stomach flu. They agreed to look at a DVD of me rehearsing the pieces where I never missed a note. I got an email from the head of the music department last Friday. If I perform the Saint-SaŽns concerto at the Keller Cello Competition in August and place in the top three, they’ll accept me into the program. No pressure of course.

          But if I go to New York, I have to abandon my kids.

*

         It’s already five thirty. I get off the cable car and hurry down the five blocks home. My phone pings a text from my best friend Carrie. She’s stressing about what to wear to Marcie’s party Saturday night. A crushing ache presses on my chest. What if Jordon shows up?

         Exactly three weeks ago today, walking down this very same block, I found Jordon, my supposed boyfriend, with some short, spiky-haired girl—their lips locked, his hands grabbing her butt.

         My heart plummeted to my feet. I hadn’t seen or heard from him since my disastrous audition at Julliard. I’d called him right after, sobbing into the phone. He barely said a word. Catching him with this girl explained everything—why he’d ignored my six texts and four phone messages. Okay, so I’m not proud of that. Desperation is so ugly.

          The spiky girl had given Jordon one last kiss and taken off in the opposite direction. He strutted down the sidewalk with a smirk on his face. He almost ran straight into me then stopped short. He looked as horrified as the faculty members at Julliard.

         “Hey, Emily, what’s up?” He brushed his sandy mop off his forehead and glanced around as if searching for an escape route.

          I glared at him through narrowed eyes and focused on a trace of dark purple lipstick on his polo-shirt. “You tell me.”

         “Yeah, I was going to call you.”

         “Too busy I guess.”

          He lowered his eyes—those incredible, shimmering, aqua-blue eyes, the ones that hypnotized me the first time we met until I could hardly remember to breathe—and dug his hands deeper into his pockets. “Actually, I need to… it’s just…I was going to tell you.” He glanced up with a pinched expression, meaning: pain? pity? disgust? “I can’t deal with all your problems. You know, the anxiety and stuff.”

          I sucked in my breath. “Seriously?”

         He turned his head as if looking at some far-away place for inspiration. “I mean, you’re so weird about your music, playing cello like twenty-four/seven. And the way you freak out when you have to perform.” He ruffled his hair again. “It’s not like you even had time to see me anyway.”

          His words hit like little darts piercing my heart, every one hitting the bulls-eye. I swallowed hard, trying to grasp his point. He was breaking up with me. Well, duh. Obviously he already had without bothering to tell me.

          “I can’t believe you,” I whispered “I’m… sorry.”

         I blinked back tears, too numb to speak or move. Sure, I was busy with lessons, practicing, teaching, and youth orchestra. Being with Jordon meant giving up precious time from my music, leaving me stressed and guilty. He never got it at all.

         “So have a great summer.” His voice perked up as if everything was settled and cool between us, and he hadn’t just completely crushed my whole being.

         “HAVE A GREAT SUMMER?” Subito forzando. “THAT’S ALL YOU CAN SAY?”

         His cheeks glowed red. He crept backward, staring at me as if I had some deadly, contagious disease. “I’ve gotta go.” He bolted. Vanished. Out of my life.

          I stop and close my eyes, trying to block the memory. Nothing is going to bring Jordon back. And really, why would I want him anyway? Except that logic and emotion reside in separate parts of the brain. I know it’s for the best. I can’t afford to be distracted by a stupid, selfish boy. For the next two months I need to focus all my attention on my concerto.

         Luckily, I’ll be spending the next five weeks in Europe with my dad—our most time together since the divorce—so he can teach me the concerto. Dad is the conductor of the Milan Symphony Orchestra, and summers he conducts music festivals around Europe. It’s going to be totally awesome.

         I step into our building’s elevator, push the button, and brace myself against the back wall for the ride to the twelfth floor. As I open the front door of our condo, my Standard Poodle, Gigi, races across the hall and jumps on my shoulders. “Okay, okay, sweetie.” I pet her champagne-colored curls and make her get down. She continues to bounce around me.

         Laughter echoes from the living room. My half-brother Adrian, almost three years old, runs into the hallway bumping into Gigi as he hides behind my legs.

        “Emmy, help,” he gasps between giggles.

          I squat down to give him a hug, and Gigi sticks her wet nose between us. “What’s going on Ade-o?”

        “The dinosaur’s going to get me.”

         My step-dad, Marty, emerges, throws back his head, and gives his best T-Rex roar. He grins at me as he scoops Adrian into his arms.

         I don’t remember ever playing games like this with my dad. We were always too busy playing music.

         Marty writes Western mystery novels in the mornings while Adrian goes to preschool. Afternoons are all about the two of them, going to the park, reading books, and inventing new dinosaur and robot games. Marty is like the perfect dad. He just isn’t my dad.

        “Your mom’s home, and dinner is ready.”

         I join my family in the dining room. I rarely eat with them since I have so much going on. They’re like this happy family unit I get to visit occasionally.

         Mom pushes a stray wisp of strawberry blond hair behind her ear. Tiny lines form around her bright green eyes as she smiles at me. “How was your last rehearsal?”

“Great.”

         Mom pats my arm. “I’m so proud of you for sticking with this.”

         “I can’t wait to hear them play tomorrow,” Marty says. I grin. “You’ll be surprised.”

          Marty turns to Mom. “I got new tires this afternoon. We’re all set for the road trip.”

         My family is leaving next Thursday for Montana to visit Marty’s dad, Jake. Thankfully, I don’t have to go. I can’t imagine anything more boring than driving all that way and being stuck on a cattle ranch in the middle of nowhere for three weeks.

         Marty puts his hand out to Adrian for a high-five. “And what are we going to do at Grandpa’s, pardner?”

          Adrian giggles. “Ride horsies. I’m going to be a cowboy, Emmy.”

        “Pretty cool, Ade-o.”

         Beethoven’s Fur Elise plays on my cell phone. I jump up and head for my room. “Dad.”

        “Emily, how are you?”

        “Great! I’m going to start packing tonight. I guess I should bring a coat for London.”

        “That’s why I’m calling.” He pauses a moment. “My manager called today with another schedule change.”

         The tone of his voice tells me something is coming that I don’t want to hear. “And?”

        “He added two more concerts in Budapest and Majorca. Between traveling and rehearsals, things are complicated.”

         “That’s okay. I’ll be practicing most of the time.”

        “Well, I…I’m afraid you can’t come.”

        “Not to London? Where will I meet you?”

        “The thing is I won’t have any time to be with you or help with the concerto.” He clucks his tongue and lets out a long sigh. “We have to cancel your trip.”

         The words crash over me subito forzando, a blast of clanging cymbals, pounding drums, and blaring trumpets. Then my world goes quiet as Dad’s voice becomes nothing more than a soft hum in the background. I squeeze my eyes shut. He’s done this to me so many times, I’ve lost count. Not again.

        “Emily, are you there?”

         I look in the mirror at my pale face. “Yes.”

         “I’m disappointed too. But you understand my crazy life.”

        “Dad, what will I do? The competition?”

        “You have Mrs. Stanislavsky.” There is another long pause. “I promise to come home for a few days in July for your birthday. We’ll spend time on the concerto.”

          Always promises. I have no answer.

         “I should talk with your mother,” he says at last.

          I walk to the dining room as tears trickle down my cheeks. Mom looks up at me, and her face wrinkles. With a shake of her head—the one that says she already knows what’s coming—she takes the phone from me.

          I sink onto the dining room chair. What am I supposed to do now?