The Girl Next Door

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
March/April 2016

Evelyn Chen

There are friends, and then there are arranged friends who you are friends with because of your parents, simple as that. The girl next door was next on my mom’s arranged friends list, and I wouldn’t have ever agreed to so-called hang out had I not needed a summer job and she needed a piano teacher.

But, there was a minor detail that my mom had forgotten to mention.

*          *          *

“Oh! I didn’t mention it before, Hazel, but Via is blind.

It might cause trouble with reading music, but I’m sure you can work around it,” Mom said, her fingers flying over her keyboard. The piano lesson was tomorrow morning and yet I hadn’t thought about it since the day Mom had finally convinced me to agree.

I jerked up from the couch, tearing out my headphones. “What?”

“Via, the girl next door, is blind. She’s been blind since birth, but her mother says she’s still a grade ahead in school.” Mom kept typing, her eyes scanning her computer. She paused and then kept typing, pursing her lips.

“Mom!” I tossed my phone onto the couch and stood up, glaring at her. “Why don’t you ever tell me this stuff?” She kept typing.

“Mom!” My voice got louder. With a resigned sigh, Mom looked up, raising an eyebrow.

The Girl Next Door talking to mom

“I would have never agreed to this stupid job if you had told me that”

“I know it might hinder your teaching a bit, but I assumed it wasn’t a big deal. Via is perfectly capable of learning the piano.”

“I would have never agreed to this stupid job if you had told me that.” I folded my arms and scowled out the window, irritated words threatening to spill out. Outside, the blindingly bright sunshine blazed down on our front yard, the sky a dull gray despite the uncomfortable heat. I turned away from the window.

“Why not?” Mom frowned. “She’s no different than any other kid.”

It is different, I thought furiously. Completely. It will be awkward and weird and unnatural. On top of it being harder to teach, it will be impossible to talk about normal things.

“Whatever,” I mumbled instead, dropping back onto the couch and glaring up at the ceiling. “It’s fine.”

*          *          *

The next morning I was awoken by a stream of light right on my face. Groaning, I shielded my eyes and sat up. The clock read half-past nine.

In record time, I yanked on fresh clothes, raked a comb through my forever straight and boring dark hair, swished around a toothbrush, and headed upstairs. I sniffed the air, hoping for the scent of toast or pancakes, but it was odorless.

The kitchen was deserted, a trail of crumbs and coffee stains the only hint of Mom and Dad passing through. Opening a box of cereal, I dumped it into a bowl of milk and started on the crispy flakes.

“Hazel? You’re going over to Via’s at ten, right?” Dad poked his head in the kitchen, still in his pajamas and ratty slippers.

“Oh, great. I mean, yes.” I forced a half-hearted smile.

“At least you’re making good money.” He winked. “Don’t worry, it will be fun.”

“If you say so,” I said dubiously, turning back to chasing cornflakes along the edge of the bowl. After another fifteen minutes of anxious stalling, I dumped the bowl in the sink and grabbed two books on basic piano skills before heading out the front door.

Immediately, a wave of heat crashed over me, the muggy air clinging to my skin as I hurried over next door as fast as I could. Within a few moments, sweat beaded on my back and neck as I rang the doorbell.

The door swung open, revealing a tall blond woman who smiled brightly.

“Hazel? Nice to meet you! I’m Mazarine, Via’s mother.” Her rich voice had a slight accent I couldn’t place. Mazarine shook my hand and ushered me in. “Via is in the living room. She is eager to meet you.”

We passed through a small entryway into the living room, which was a large room with bookshelves lining the wall. Light spilled in through large panes of windows, illuminating the piano in the corner. Perched on the bench was a girl. Via.

Via was practically the opposite of her mother, small and slight with brown hair pulled back in a braid. She was wearing sunglasses. I self-consciously tried to smooth down my dark hair and offered an awkward smile. Via stood up, picking up a cane, and slowly walked over. She stopped before us.

“So you’re Hazel?”

I nodded, then stopped abruptly. “Yes. Nice to meet you.” We shook hands.

“All right girls, go ahead and enjoy yourselves. I can bring in snacks if you want, later.” Mazarine patted Via’s shoulder, flashing me yet another smile.

“It’s OK, Mom.” Via shrugged her off. “We’re fine. Thanks.”

“OK, just checking.” Her mom exhaled. “Make yourself at home, Hazel.”

“Thanks,” I murmured, staring down at my feet. Mazarine glanced at us and then walked out into the hallway. Silence descended upon the room.

“OK, so I guess you’re supposed to teach me piano now?” Via headed over to the piano bench and sat down. She scooted over and I hesitantly sat down next to her, setting down the books on piano skills on the floor.

“Yeah, I guess so. Do you know anything about piano or have you ever learned how to play a little bit before?” “No. Well, I know the piano keys are just repeating scales, sort of. I’ve always wanted to play Vivaldi, though.”

“OK, cool. So let’s just start with recognizing the notes.”

*          *          *

Over a good part of the year, I went over to Via’s house every week to teach her piano. She was a good student; she practiced everything I told her to and improved quickly.

Despite it all, we never became friends. Sure, Via was a student, an acquaintance. She was friendly and kind. But I blamed her blindness for keeping me from becoming her friend. Via’s blindness made her alien, different, unapproachable. Everything felt awkward.

I was wrong for believing it was her blindness that kept us separated. It wasn’t. It was my prejudices.

*          *          *

The door swung open and Via waved. “Come on in.” We headed into the living room and I sat down on the chair next to her piano bench, watching as she awkwardly set down the cane and felt around until she could properly sit down.

I averted my eyes, avoiding yet another reminder of our differences.

After half a year of lessons, Via had become fairly good. As usual, she began with her scales, her slender hands running up and down the keys. The notes plinked out one by one, music spilling from within the piano.

“Good job hitting the notes, but try to keep a more even rhythm. One and two and three and four. Remember?” I tapped my foot against the carpet. Via sighed and nodded, studiously beginning the scales again. This time her rhythm improved.

“OK, let’s work on the song you’ve been playing now.”

Via’s hands hovered over the keys. She spun around towards me. “Oh, I forgot! My birthday is coming up in two weeks. I’m going to have a small party. Do you want to come?”

“You’re… you’re inviting me?” I stammered. “I mean, thanks, but…”

“Why not?” Via shrugged and smiled. “We’re friends, after all.”

We’re not even real friends! I barely know you as a person, I thought.

“I’ll have to see if I can make it, I guess,” I mumbled, trying to force enthusiasm into my voice. I forced a hasty smile. “What day?”

“I’ll have my mom email you the details, but you don’t have to go if you don’t want to,” Via said, her voice cool. “No pressure or anything.”

“No, it’s not that…” My words stumbled over each other and stopped. Heat flared in my cheeks and I stared down at my hands, wishing I hadn’t said anything.

At least she can’t see the humiliation spread on my face, I thought. Instantly, I felt guilty for the thought.

“Well, what is it then?” Despite the sunglasses, I could somehow feel her eyes boring into me.

“I just don’t know you well. Nothing. It’s not a big deal.”

“It’s not like you tried to get to know me.” I expected a burst of anger, but the quiet sadness behind her words struck me. Ashamed, I stared out the window, avoiding looking at her.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, “I really am. I just never realized I…”

“It’s just because I’m blind, isn’t it? But that doesn’t make me not a person. I’m ordinary. I’m completely ordinary, but you’re the one who’s blind to that. You can’t see past my eyes.”

The truth, the cold and harsh truth, flooded over me like icy water. I closed my eyes, willing myself not to cry in humiliation. I had brought this upon myself.

“I think you should go. Thank you for teaching me.”

“Via…”

“Thank you for everything, but I think it’s time you go.” Despite everything, despite how I had treated her, her voice was gentle and calm. She smiled, almost wistfully.

I turned and fled.

*          *          *

When I got home, I barricaded myself into my room and cried. Partly from the disgrace of it all, but mostly from complete and utter shame.

I had been so wrong. Yes, Via’s blindness was a part of her. But it did not define Via. She was an ordinary girl, just like any of my other friends. And yet I had been so blind to her true self, blinded by her disability.

*          *          *

The piano gig was over. My parents’ disappointment in me was clear, but they didn’t press it. They gave me a lecture and then knew that my own guilt already surpassed anything they could have forged. Mom contacted Via’s mom and I stopped going over to their house.

The Girl Next Door teaching piano

“I’m completely ordinary, but you’re the one who’s blind to that”

Every time I played the piano, I wondered if Via was practicing. Every time I heard music, I thought of the simple songs I had taught her. Every time I looked at her house, I thought I saw a blur of Via. But it was only the ghost of a lost friendship.

*          *          *

“Hurry, Hazel. We only have fifteen minutes,” Mom said as she checked her watch for the fifth time. “I have to go meet up with Avery, my coworker.”

“I know, I’m sorry.” I scanned the shelves of sheet music, past the instruments in the music shop. I had been wanting to pick up some sheet music for some new pop songs. My eyes fell on a CD of Vivaldi music.

“I’ve always wanted to play Vivaldi, though,” Via said.

Our first lesson. It was one of the few things I did know about Via and the thought saddened me. I checked the time on my phone and did a double take.

“Mom? Mom!” I ran over to her, clutching the CD. Mom looked up from her phone.

“Yes?”

“Isn’t today the day of Via’s party?”

Mom stopped, her lips pursing together. I knew she was thinking of our falling out, so to speak. “Yes, hon, but…”

“I just wanted to give her a CD of Vivaldi. She always wanted to play Vivaldi. I won’t intrude. I’ll just wish her happy birthday and leave.”

“All right, but don’t be surprised if she doesn’t react… positively.”

We headed up to the counter as I anxiously checked the time again and again. Mom bought the CD and we headed to the car.

“Can you drop me at Via’s before you meet up with Avery?”

Mom sighed. “All right. The party’s already over, you know.”

“I know.”

*          *          *

As soon as I hopped out of the car, Mom pulled away, waving. It occurred to me that I had no card and the CD wasn’t even wrapped. Oh well, it was a little late for those thoughts.

I shuffled towards her front door, uncomfortable flutterings of anxiety dancing through my stomach. A list of terrible scenarios that could happen as a result of this ran through my mind.

I wiped my palms on my pants, ringing the doorbell and cringing. This was the worst idea I had ever had.

“H-Hazel?” Mazarine answered the door, gaping at me.

I swallowed hard. “Um, yes.” My voice squeaked. “I have a, er, gift for Via.” My eyes fell to my sneakers.

“Oh, all right. We just weren’t… expecting you. I’ll get Via.”

I waited, forcing myself to breathe evenly. If Via did yell at me or refuse the gift, I deserved it.

Via appeared, wearing a dark blue sweater and leggings. She looked taken aback but smiled as usual. “Hazel! I wasn’t… wasn’t… expecting you.”

“Happy birthday, Via,” I rushed out. “You said you always wanted to learn Vivaldi. I- I saw a CD of Vivaldi music and thought of you. Sorry it’s not wrapped.” I handed it to her as quickly as possible and started away from the house.

“Wait! Where are you going?” Via called out, clutching the CD.

“Home…”

“Come on in. I want to play a song for you.” She smiled encouragingly as I headed back towards her door again. “Thank you so much for the gift.”

We walked into the living room. Via placed the CD on top of the piano and opened it up. She hesitated, turning in my direction, and then started to play.

It was the song we had been learning the past few weeks. While at first it had been choppy and sometimes off tune, the music now spilled naturally from the keys. Via’s hands danced over the piano, beautiful notes laying out the pattern of the simple yet mellifluous song.

When she finished, I clapped.

“It’s excellent. You’ve been practicing.” For a second, I almost wanted to critique her like I had when I had been her teacher, but I stopped. “I’m impressed.”

“Thanks.” Her voice was soft.

“I guess I should head home. Happy birthday.” I started to rise, a lump in my throat.

“You don’t have to leave, Hazel. I’m not angry.”

“But… I thought…” I sat back down. “You have every right to be angry. I was rude towards you.”

“I forgave you a long time ago. We all make mistakes. I just wanted to teach you, to open your eyes, not hurt you. But you never came back to my house…”

I blinked, silenced by her words. “Thank you.” The words were a whisper. “For everything. For opening my eyes, for forgiving me, for being my friend even when I wasn’t yours.”

She simply smiled.

*          *          *

There are friends, and then there are arranged friends who you are friends with because of your parents, simple at that. And the girl next door was a true friend. She always had been, but I had not been able to see it.

She had opened my eyes.

The Girl Next Door Evelyn Chen

Evelyn Chen, 13
Bellevue, Washington

The Girl Next Door Phoebe Wagoner

Phoebe Wagoner, 12
Carlisle, Kentucky

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2 Comments
 
  1. Zellie June 30, 2016 at 3:57 pm Reply

    This is a really incredible story. I loved the plot, and the real-ness of Via and Hazel. The illustrations were also really great. Great job, Phoebe and Evelyn.

  2. Gautam Prakash June 6, 2017 at 4:16 pm Reply

    I loved this story, especially the plot. I enjoyed that Via may not be able to see but the real one who was blind was Hazel. After reading this definitely made me think about the disabled differently.

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