“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
“And that’s exactly why you should try Milky’s chocolate ice cream!” I conclude, bowing as my excited audience showers me in a standing ovation.
It’s Saturday night, and my parents are sitting on our squishy velvet sofa, watching me rehearse for the big advertisement audition coming up in a month-and-a-half’s time.
It’s important that an actress is very prepared because, as they say, the show must go on.
The TV is blaring softly behind me, showering me in a spotlight effect and bathing the living room in a cool glow.
If I look down, I can see the glassy surface of the coffee table covered in a sea of audition papers, a lone clipboard floating at the surface.
You see, when I grow older I want to become a famous actress. I want to go to the Oscars and win incredible awards, go to the Met Gala and wear a spontaneous-but-stunning outfit, pose and give daring looks to the press as they photograph me, live in a massive—
I can suddenly hear the familiar sound of the Candyland theme song. Obviously an ad break.
The actors’ voices start moaning sorrowfully from the TV. I know what they’re going to say. I auditioned for this ad but didn’t get in.
“Oh no!” a woman cries. “My cat ate my pet bird!”
“Come on!” an old man wails. “My walking stick snapped!”
“Whaahhhh!” A stereotypically bratty toddler, wearing one of those caps with propellers on, shrieks like a hawk. “My cart broke!”
“Don’t worry,” a familiarly dainty voice serenely assures. “I’ll take you to Candyland, where all of your dreams will come true.”
In fact, this voice is very familiar. I spin around and stare in utter horror at the TV screen.
A young girl around my age is dressed in a poofy, light-pink fairy costume, a sparkly rainbow belt slapped around her waist. The sleeves of the dress are Cinderella-like, and when you look at her feet, they have been slipped into slim silver high heels. Rainbow ombré fairy wings hide under golden locks of silky hair. She clutches a candy cane wand. But the one thing that stands out to me the most is the rosy, pale complexion of none other than Stella Chichester- Clark.
My mouth hangs open like a door on loose hinges as I gape in envy and anger.
The rest of the ad passes by. The woman adopts a candy bird made out of pink marshmallows. The old man is gifted a candy cane walking stick. Mint-flavored. And the bratty young boy is presented with a candy cart with lollipop wheels. I don’t pay much attention otherwise.
Once it has finished, I slowly turn back around to face my parents. They stare at me with sympathetic grimaces.
I can feel jealousy and hate crackling like fire in the center of my torso. Flames shoot through my veins, heating up my body. My head hurts— it feels like a grand piano has fallen from the sky, landed on top of it, and then exploded. My throat tightens. I can’t breathe normally. Something’s rising up in my throat. What is happening to me? Am I a dragon in disguise?
“AAAAAAAAHHHH!” I scream to whatever deity is listening. Maybe the stupid universe can take yet another hint. “AAAAAAAAAAAHHH!”
Then, without thinking, I slam my right hand down onto the coffee table. A sickening crack from the clipboard startles me, but I continue. I swipe at all my audition papers and they soar into the air, fluttering to the carpeted floor.
“Zendaya Appledoe! Stop right there!” my mother gasps in anger.
I stamp, stamp, stamp at the papers, tearing a few pages into shreds. I don’t care what happens to them. My life is over once again.
I slump to the floor. My breathing is ragged and sharp. It feels like I’m sucking in spears.
Strong arms hold me close. I sob into my dad’s shirt. My mum comes over and joins the hug.
“Don’t worry, sweetie,” my mother’s voice says.
“Listen, you have so many talents that this Stella doesn’t have,” my dad reassures me.
I don’t bother to correct him. Stella is perfect at everything—from appearance and clothes to grades and sports, singing and dancing, acting and making friends. She’s annoyingly amazing.
I once heard a rumor that she said her first word only a few weeks after she was born. Adding onto that, her first word was “honorificabilitudinitatibus,” a word that appears in one of Shakespeare’s plays. It’s probably true because she also won the Year Eight Spelling Bee at the age of three. I didn’t speak until I was four.
My parents guide me upstairs to bed. A sense of calm has somehow overcome me. It was probably my overdramatic tantrum that did it.
The last thing that I see before I drift off to sleep is Stella dressed in a fairy costume, waving a candy cane wand mockingly at my face.
The rest of the weekend passes by in dull form. My mind rages with fury at the ad that Stella appeared in.
Finally, but unfortunately, it is Monday. A school day.
When I arrive at school, I can see at least twenty kids outside the main brick building crowding around someone, probably Stella. A few of them walk away every now and then, clutching notebooks and grinning like crazy.
For every one person that leaves, at least three others eagerly join. I gaze in envy.
Soon enough, the large crowd starts heading up the steps to class chattering away, swarming the building like a plague of locusts.
When I walk into class, the bright morning sun is shining through broad windows. Human-shaped silhouettes contrast with the sun’s gaze. I shift my focus and sigh grumpily.
There are about half as many people as there were outside, but there are still many jabbering in front of the dozens of bright art projects haphazardly stapled onto the maroon carpeted walls, each with sets of uniquely untidy colored words to label the sections.
Desks are set up in beige clusters, a few at the front in a row.
“Excuse me,” I grunt, maneuvering myself through the crowd to my desk. I feel squished.
My desk, as karma would have it, is right next to Stella’s. I don’t know what I did wrong to get on its bad side, but whatever it was, it must’ve been pretty dreadful.
A sporty-looking boy who I think is called Taj leans right on the surface of the tabletop; it nearly topples over. One of the thin, cuboid-like legs scrapes against my left leg as it leans over, leaving a pink mark.
“Hey!” I snap, and he quickly stands up straight, hastily brushing the area that he’d planted himself on.
The crowd eventually subsides, but it’s because Stella’s posse has strutted into class.
“OMG!” Karen, Stella’s copycat, squeals. “I totally saw you last night on TV and you were Ah! May! Zing!”
“I agree,” Brooke, her most loyal friend—and also my archnemesis since Year Four—says casually. “I couldn’t take my eyes off you.”
I can’t help but agree with her, although most definitely for a different reason.
Karen fiddles with her short hair, ironically cut into a bob.
Brooke swishes her long black glossy ponytail, millimeters from my eyeballs as Stella gossips to them about all the behind-the-scenes work.
“Excuse me, but your ponytail nearly went into my eyes.” I regretfully notify her. Oh no.
She turns around, slapping Karen with her silky mane. Karen blinks her eyes, stupefied.
“So? Suck it up.” Her eyes pierce into mine. I shyly glance away.
Don’t get me wrong, I feel super happy for Stella, but just very, very, very deep down. And by deep down, I mean deep down.
“Brooke, you hit Karen by accident,” Stella informs Brooke delicately.
“Oh, sorry,” Brooke says thoughtfully.
Hang on. How is it okay that when I tell Brooke the same thing, she gets mad, but when Stella says the same thing, she’s fine with it?
Just as I begin contemplating it, my teacher, Mrs. Mulberry, breezes into the room.
She’s wearing a black T-shirt tucked into a silky skirt with a wave pattern printed on it. Her hazel-brown hair is tied up into a loose bun, secured by a silver scrunchie. A few wisps of hair rest on the edges of her magenta rectangular glasses, framing her deep green eyes.
“Good morning, everyone!” She claps her hands.
“Good morning, Mrs. Mulberry!” the class replies in a hilarious disunity.
“Now,” she says. “Have any of you heard of Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Aniston, or Kristen Bell?” Of course everyone in class raises their hands, including me. I’m not too sure, but I think I know where this is going.
“Good!” Mrs. Mulberry smiles. “As you will all know, they are great actresses, and makers of change. And I do believe that we have a future Lily James on our hands.” Mrs. Mulberry stares each one of us in the eye, holding an extra-long gaze on Stella.
“As you will know, last night Stella was the star character on the newest Candyland advertisement. I would like everyone to come up and shake her hand. Stella, please come up to the front of the classroom.”
Stella swishes up to the front, her golden hair contrasting against the black chalkboard hung up next to the blank whiteboard.
Mrs. Mulberry calls our names, one by one, marking off the roll. I guess she’s killing two birds with one stone.
Don’t get me wrong, I feel super happy for Stella, but just very, very, very deep down. And by deep down, I mean deep down.
Every ad I’ve tried out for, Stella has always beat me to it. Every A I’ve gotten, Stella has topped with A++++’s. She has been handed trophy after trophy every year; she wins at least half of the school awards each year, including Student of the Year. They can’t give her all of them—but the other half go to the other popular kids anyway.
I don’t know when my jealousy of Stella started, but once she started being perfect, the teachers turned a blind eye to her annoyingness. In their eyes, the rest of the class was barely even there anymore.
When it’s my turn to go shake her hand, I get out of my seat as quickly as possible. Best to get it over and done with.
I go up to her and shake her hand rapidly, staring down at her classy silver shoes, the same ones from the ad last night. I glance quickly into her eyes, channeling as much annoyance as possible. She just smiles like a hyena about to eat its first meal in a week.
I internally shudder and walk back to my seat, slumping so I can barely see Mrs. Mulberry as she spiels about how we should all try tons of new things this year because there are the Student of the Year Awards at the end of it, blah, blah, blah, so we can be just like Stella, and what a great student Stella is and how hard she works and—
Just like Stella?
If I try to be just like Stella, I can be awesome. I can win awards and have loads of friends, do whatever I want and most importantly . . . beat her.
How have I never thought of this before? It’s a genius idea.
If I want to become just like her, I’ll need to start right now. Take small steps to make a big change.
I mean, it can’t be too hard, can it? I can do this.
I know I can.
Stella plays the violin. I know so because she does a solo performance sometimes at the weekly school assemblies.
So at dinner, I ask my parents a question. This is the start of the first stepping-stone.
“Mum, Dad, can I learn to play the violin?” They give each other confused glances.
“Umm, Swifty, remember that one time you wanted to play the tuba? And how that turned out?” My mum smiles uncertainly.
I sigh as I remember what happened. On the night of the school performance, my lips got stuck in the blowhole of the tuba, and as I was trying to get them out with my hands, I nearly severed my pinky finger off. It actually had to be amputated, which is why I have a scarred stump in the place of the tip of that finger.
So . . . I’m accident prone.
But violins are okay. I mean, of course you have to be careful with the strings, but otherwise they should be fine. Right?
“Mum, I’ll be fine with the violin. It doesn’t even have a hole!” I moan.
“Okay . . .” She glances again at my dad.
He shrugs, as if to say, “Don’t look at me.”
“Well, I guess we could sign you up for some classes. How about tomorrow we have a look at places where you can take them?”
“I already know where I want to go!” I reply. “Dux Orchestral Academy!”
I overheard Stella saying that she goes there for classes. The prices are apparently fairly cheap.
“Sure, if you want,” my mum says.
Mr. Cello (yes, that is his actual name) sits uncomfortably close to me on a small stool. He’s guiding my violin bow quite forcefully. I wouldn’t be surprised if the strings snapped. Maybe they could snap him instead of me.
“Now, Swishy—” he mumbles from underneath his tangled Santa Claus beard, which covers his beige tweed suit. It looks like his beard is eating him alive. His beetle-like eyes poke out from underneath thick-rimmed spectacles.
“Swifty,” I correct him, putting extra emphasis on the “fty.”
Mr. Cello gives me a dark stare, his eyes piercing deep into mine.
“Slicky, it’s rude to talk back to an adult. Haven’t your parents taught you that?”
“Yes,” I mutter. It’s obvious I should just agree with whatever he says; me correcting him won’t make a difference.
“Anyway,” he continues. “From what I’ve seen so far, your violin playing is very . . . harsh.” Mr. Cello pauses. I can tell he’s trying to think over carefully what he wants to say. I don’t care how insensitive he sounds as long as I’m better than Stella at this.
“You need to stroke your bow against the strings firmly but gracefully, the way a swan glides through the water. Otherwise you won’t be able to make it to the show.”
My attention snaps into focus.
“What show?” I ask, blinking nervously.
“The annual concerta, of course. It’s only a few weeks away. It is compulsory that all students attend, unless you have appendicitis or something like that.”
“When-when is it?” I stutter. Why am I getting so nervous?
“Three weeks’ time.” Mr. Cello replies.
Barbecued sausages! I have barely any time!
“I don’t normally let my students do this, but the class ends in five minutes. Take the violin home with you and work on this pattern. It’s the foundation for your piece for the night. But for now, play it one more time.”
I grip the bow tight, despite Mr. Cello’s previous advice. Gentle but firm. Gentle but firm. I stroke the bow against the strings, conjuring the feeling of a swan swimming across a shiny, glistening lake. A grating, barbarous sound brings me back to my senses. It sounds like nails on a chalkboard.
I shudder anxiously and close my eyes, slowly lifting one lid only to see Mr. Cello wince. I try again. SHRRRRIIIIEEEKKK.
“Stop!” he yells uproariously, before I can go any further. “Class is dismissed! Now go home and practice. Half an hour every day. I pity your neighbors.”
I feel a burning shame creep into my head, even though I thought earlier that I didn’t care how he delivered his advice. I hurriedly pack up the rented violin, bow, and my new music book and place them into my case, gently slipping that deep into my backpack.
I dolefully open the door, only to be met with the sympathetic face of Stella Chichester-Clark. She’s wearing an ironed white blouse tucked into a knee-length black pencil skirt. Her shoes are the kind a child princess would wear: polished black leather with thin buckles. I spot her mother— who surprisingly looks like an older version of Stella—leaning against a burgundy wall wearing running shorts and a very stylish cream-colored fluffy jumper.
“Hey, Swifty!” Stella grins pityingly. “Sounds like you had a rough first class.”
Okay, Swifty. Just breathe. Make small talk. Very small talk. And then leave. Fast.
“Umm. Hi, Stella. Fancy seeing you here,” I say bashfully.
“I take classes here, silly!” she replies jovially.
Well, yeah. I knew that. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here.
“Anyway, some advice: don’t take what Mr. Cello says too seriously. For example, when I started taking classes here, I sucked. And now look at me!” she smiles, flicking her golden hair, tied up in a ponytail and held up by a navy blue scrunchie. I smile awkwardly. Does she mean that I suck?
Go, go, go, my mind whispers. Now, Swifty. Make the excuse.
“Umm, got to go, my mum’s waiting. Bye,” I mumble shyly.
I tear down the elegant hallway, stripes of gold and red racing through my peripheral vision.
I glance up quickly, only to notice a painting done on the ceiling that looks like it could belong in the Sistine Chapel. Yikes, this place is posh.
My foot catches on some loose carpet, and I faceplant into the soft floor. It still hurts, though. My nose feels like it just got KO’d in a boxing match.
I can faintly hear Stella’s mum calling, “Are you okay, dear?”
I don’t have time to answer. This is so embarrassing. I pick myself up and open the grand wood doors. I can feel something warm and sticky dribbling down my chin.
“Hi, Mum!” I shout as I run out through the grand building. My mum glances up from her phone, then stares in shock.
“Swifty, what have you done to yourself? You’ve got a bloody nose!”
“So, other than the bloody nose, how did your first lesson go?” my dad asks cheekily as we sit around the dinner table eating my favorite food: sushi.
“It was okay, I guess. The teacher kept on getting my name wrong and . . . my violin playing sounded like a constipated train, if that’s even a thing.”
My dad laughs and shakes his head. “Hah! What did the teacher call you?”
“‘Swishy.’” I groan. “Oh, and then ‘Slicky.’”
That does it for my dad. He howls with laughter, even though it isn’t really that funny. “I have to meet this guy,” he wheezes happily.
“Umm, actually, Dad, there’s a concert in three weeks’ time,” I say, stabbing at my food.
“Wow,” he replies. “Are you prepared? How many people will be there?”
“The thing is, I’m not sure,” I nervously say. “And I’m not even that good yet.”
“Hmm,” my dad says thoughtfully. “After dinner, why don’t you play what you learned today for your mum and me, and we can look at what you can work on. I played the violin back in high school, and I still remember some things.”
“But first,” my mum says, “we have some exciting news.” She glances at Dad anxiously and then bursts, “You’re going to have a baby brother!”
I choke on my food.
It feels like my brain has been lifted from my head. I must be watching a movie; this is all too surreal. My parents and I are the actors, and at the same time I’m watching the whole scene play out from my figurative movie cinema.
I attempt to process what has happened. This isn’t real. How is it even possible? I don’t want a baby brother. Sure, maybe when I was four and I didn’t understand the downsides of having a sibling—but now?
This little brother of mine is going to get in my way heaps. I’ve overheard my classmates’ conversations when they complain about their little brothers, and it doesn’t seem fun.
Why would my parents do this to me? Are they bored of me? Do they want to have someone else to hang with when I’m not around? Do family traditions without me?
I only have a few months left with just me and them. That’s not a lot if you think about it. Didn’t they consider me when making this drastic decision? What if—
“Sweetie, you look a bit shocked,” my mum says comfortingly.
“Who wouldn’t be?” I mutter, still in a daze.
I stumble off to my room and gently close the door. My mind is racing with thoughts and questions. Deep breaths, Swifty. Deep breaths.
“But first,” my mum says, “we have some exciting news.” She glances at Dad anxiously and then bursts, “You’re going to have a baby brother!”
Before, it was just about becoming like Stella. Now I also have to impress my parents as well.
I gaze around my lapis-blue room, piles of books and clothing stacked or dumped on any surface I could find, including on the end of my unmade bed. Teddies line my pillow, arms around each other like they’re singing a song.
I need to distract myself. I unlatch my violin case and gently take out my bow and violin. I set my music book up on my desk so I can clearly see the notes. I press my bow against the strings and start playing. I don’t bother to tune; I don’t even know how.
My eardrums feel like they’re about to burst, kind of like a pin is popping the center of each stretched bit of skin.
I grit my teeth and try again. Softer this time. SSSSSSCCRREEEEE.
I pause halfway. This isn’t going to work. How am I ever going to beat Stella?
I hear my dad bounding up the steps to my room before slamming open the door.
“SWIFTY!” he yells. He probably thinks I’m mad at him and mum, which I kind of am, but right now I’m mainly in shock.
I give him an innocent but truthful glance. “Dad, I’m just trying to play the violin. I wasn’t kidding when I said I was terrible at it.”
He softens a bit. “Sorry, Swifty, I thought—never mind. And you’re not terrible at the violin, you’re just—how do I put this?”
“I’m terrible at the violin?”
My dad gives a small nod and bursts out laughing. “Kiddo, let me help. Hand me the violin.”
I pass him the instrument and the bow. He grabs a block with powdery stuff on it that I hadn’t noticed before and rubs it gently against the bow HAIR, then puts it away. In one slow, steady motion, he gracefully pulls the bow across the strings. It’s not too bad.
“You try and copy what I just did,” he says, passing the instrument back over to me. I pull the bow over the strings, sitting my chin on the cool rest. A scratchy, high-pitched sound whines in my ears. I stop playing.
“Ok, so what I can see going wrong is that your fingers are locked against the bow. You need to be flexible with it, like this.”
I hand him the bow and he starts waggling it around crazily. I giggle, brushing away frustrated tears I didn’t even know I had.
He makes his face go all teacher-like and serious. “As you can see here, only my pinky finger and thumb are bent, not all my fingers. What you were doing was bending all of your fingers and pressing on all the strings quite hard, even though you only needed to press on half of them. Try again, but remember to press on only these strings.” He points to a few strings on one side of the violin, then claps his hands in a posh manner. “Now play,” my dad says, jokingly sincere.
I do what he asks, and gently stroke the bow against the violin strings. A soft, feathery sound rings out.
OH. MY. GOSH. I did it!
It sounds amazing! My dad is even better than Mr. Cello!
I hear a rustle, and I can see my mum standing at the doorway holding her phone. She grins gleefully. Now that I know, her tummy does look a bit big.
“Mum, you were filming me?!” I gasp.
She nods approvingly. “You’re sounding so much better than earlier today,” she smiles. “Now show Mr. Cello what you’ve got.”
Three weeks have passed so quickly, I think to myself as I wait backstage, twisting my knee-length skirt into tight circles around my index finger.
My tummy feels as though thousands of fish are thrashing around inside, having just been caught by a boat lost in a chaotic storm, and my hands are icy cold.
I take a small sip of water from my water bottle, rolling the liquid around on my sapped tongue, and join some kids who are peeking through a small slit in the curtains.
I wish I hadn’t. The theater is dim, like backstage, but you can see hundreds of figures moving around in the shadows. I squint my eyes and try to spot my parents, but there are too many people.
I walk away and sit down on an empty crate by some of the amplification gear, clutching the edge of it. I open my violin case and take out my violin, quickly rosining the bow.
I suddenly remember, I need to get it tuned! I glance at the clock hanging on the wall in front of me. The show starts at seven—in only ten minutes.
I still have no idea how to tune a violin for some reason, so I head over to a large crowd of small kids cramming around two of the Dux Orchestral teachers, who are assiduously tuning violins, violas, double basses, and cellos.
I join the edge of the crowd and again glance at the time. Five minutes. “Hurry up!” I breathe.
The crowd isn’t subsiding, so I head over to another group of teachers, who (surprise surprise) are chatting to Stella. I wait anxiously, tapping my foot in fast beats. But it’s too late.
The host, Mr. Cello of course, steps out onto the stage. A bright light shines from under the curtains. The teachers conclude their discussion. One of them spots me.
“Hurry! Go over there so you can line up.”
“But—” I stutter.
“No time!” they hiss. “Go and line up!”
I sigh and head over to where all the strings kids are. Stella is at the front, chatting to some snobby-looking girls.
Another teacher calls out names and points to spots in the line. I end up somewhere in the middle.
Time passes slowly yet quickly. The line gradually thins as the scarily sharp voice of Mr. Cello announces new acts. It feels like ages, but the performances seem to last a few seconds at a time in my mixed-up mind. Each time I have to take a step forward in the queue, my anxiety grows.
More terrible thoughts enter my mind. I try to imagine them quickly floating away on clouds, but it’s no use. I’m too nervous.
Finally, it’s my turn to walk onstage. Mr. Cello announces my name, then walks off. My stomach does a flip. I take small steps to the center of the stage then sit down on a plastic chair. A microphone sits on a stand in front of me.
I stare down at my violin. This is too real.
Way too real.
The sounds I hear from the audience seem to be way louder than normal, and the spotlight shining on the stage is so bright.
Gosh gosh gosh gosh gosh, I think nervously, as pins stab at my core. Just do it.
And then I start to play.
SCRRREEEEEEEEE! the violin shrieks. I hear a gasp from some of the audience members. I stop playing and stare down at my violin. The strings are way too tight, but why? Wouldn’t they be loose if I hadn’t tuned them yet? I glance to the side of the stage, but no one is there.
Fear creeps up my spine, a cold wave of sorrow and terror wrapping itself around my head.
Oh. My. Gosh. If this were a nightmare, it would have to be the worst I’ve experienced. I try to play again, pressing gently on the strings with my bow. Snaps suddenly pierce the air, and I jerk my head back. All of the strings have snapped, leaving harsh pink lines on the back of my hand. I wince. Still, no one comes to help.
I can’t just leave the audience awkwardly sitting there, though. I brush away the tears in my eyes, and stare at the violin. It’s hollow. Maybe I could tap out a drum beat?
I turn the violin over and start tapping, a beat quickly forming out in my head. I am completely and utterly destroying this beautiful instrument. The wood must be so delicate, but right now it doesn’t matter.
I think of the criticizing violin teachers and shudder, but I continue anyway.
The mic amplifies it, giving it an ASMR effect. Hey. This is actually kind of nice. I close my eyes and continue tapping. My beats are loose and free. I like it.
I hear a wolf whistle, and then . . . clapping.
Quiet at first, and then louder. A few more cheers. I keep on improvising for a few more minutes, and then conclude.
An uproarious wave of clapping takes me aback. I smile and wave, and then head offstage. Was all that for me?
All I know is that for the rest of the night, I can’t stop grinning.
After the concerta, my parents find me backstage and wrap me in a big hug.
“You were absolutely stupendous!” my dad beams proudly.
My mum scoops me up into another hug, her bump, my baby brother, squishing me extra. “I love you,” she mumbles underneath tangles of my long hair. I nestle into her soft arms.
“Swifty, someone wants to talk to you,” my dad interrupts.
I stare at a middle-aged man wearing a white ironed shirt and flat black trousers. He has black, rectangular-framed glasses and short, curly brown hair.
“Hello, Swifty. My name is Peter Walker. I am a journalist for the New Zealand Herald, and my son actually takes double bass classes here.” He shakes my hand. “I saw your violin performance, or should I say drum performance, and it was by far the most unique performance of the night. Could I possibly interview you for an article?”
And that was how I ended up in the news.
The Little Drummer Girl
By Peter Walker
Pure talent was unleashed at Dux Orchestral Academy’s annual concerta last week when a beginning violinist improvised after the strings on her violin snapped.
Swifty Appledoe, age 10, said that after being unable to get someone to help her tune her violin, she decided to go with it, despite extreme nerves and little knowledge of the instrument.
She recalls: “When the violin strings snapped, there was this overwhelming wave of shock and confusion that hit me really hard. I was looking around, and no one was there to help me. I thought it would be really awkward if I walked offstage without having played anything, so I decided to see what I could do with the [broken] instrument. Somehow, it came naturally to me to just tap along to a beat in my head. I definitely didn’t expect the reaction I got!”
Every time I look at the article, it feels like a weight has been lifted off my head and a smile is painted on my face. I feel like I can do anything.
There were compliments for Swifty that night from many audience members. Pamela Wong, whose daughter plays the viola, said, “Young Swifty was the star of the show! Such bravery to persist in front of a very large audience. I couldn’t have done it myself.”
Another, Dagsworth Nickleberry, stated, “Completely different from anything that night. I think she was the most talented one there.”
Mr. Darius Cello, Swifty’s violin teacher, had less positive things to say: “Swishy should have known how to tune the violin, and her performance was unacceptable.”
But Swifty has reacted to that comment, saying that Mr. Cello “had never taught [her] how to do so.”
Many other compliments followed, including head teacher and renowned double bassist Martha Charity, who said that Swifty “had displayed courage and musicality in a tricky time.”
Swifty has now quit playing the violin and has decided to take up drumming lessons, which she will start soon.
* * *
Mrs. Mulberry concludes reading the article and grins at the class, especially me. “Well done, Swifty!” she exclaims.
I feel great about appearing in an article. Incredible, in fact. Every time I look at the article, it feels like a weight has been lifted off my head and a smile is painted on my face. I feel like I can do anything.
But it’s time to take the next stepping-stone. I feel like I could do more, especially with my new achievement! Every time I think about it, my mind flaps away happily.
Anyway, I recently found out that Stella does ballet. This is great, firstly because it takes skill and secondly because I need to impress my parents—and what parent doesn’t like their daughter dancing?
But I don’t know where Stella takes her classes, so at lunchtime, I reluctantly head over to her clique and stand awkwardly at the edge of the trio. Brooke spies me and sneers. “What do you want, Swishy?”
I grimace at my new nickname. Ever since Mr. Cello called me Swishy in the news article, people have been nicknaming me that. But I don’t really care. Swifty isn’t even my real name. My real name is Zendaya, but once when I was seven, I ran a race and beat all the fastest boys in my class. Boys being faster than girls is just a stereotype. Still, the name Swifty stuck like superglue.
“I said, what do you want?!” Brooke sneers again.
I snap back to attention. “Just—c-could I t-t-talk to Stella?” I stammer.
“No, you’re not—” Brooke is interrupted by Stella, who says, “Sure!”
She takes me away from her group and says, “Sorry about Brooke. But what do you want?”
Now, Swifty. I stare deep into her ocean-blue eyes and ask, “W-w-where do you t-take ballet c-classes?”
Peak Stone Ballet Academy is located on what is, in my opinion, a very posh country road. It’s a three-story building, which looks similar to the White House, if it were downgraded a fraction, size-wise.
The windows are small and arched like those you would find on a fairytale castle, appearing every meter or so. Wide cobblestone steps lead up to the grand entrance doors, which are painted a soft sky blue. The spherical doorknobs look like they’ve been coated in gold leaf. I clutch my left hand around the cool doorknob, and, with my mother following behind, step inside.
I’m taking a tryout class here, which is free. It’s a good thing, too, because my dad had a look at the prices last night for weekly classes and they’re freaky expensive.
I have no idea how rich Stella is, but she must be pretty wealthy to be able to come here. That’s why I’m aiming for a beginner’s scholarship.
We walk inside the building, which is very classy. The floor is a marble chessboard with faint grey veins running on each tile, and from the ceiling hangs a rather large chandelier.
We make our way to the reception desk, which is also a very white marble, with swirls of gold, grey, and black patterned throughout.
A thin woman, who almost looks like she’s been printed onto some kind of card, stands behind it, her face gaunt and pointed, a hawklike nose protruding from the center of it. Her hair has been pulled into an extremely tight black bun, so tight that you can almost hear it screaming in protest. You can see her skin stretching at her eyes and cheeks because of how suffocating it is.
“Name,” she states. It sounds like she’s got a blocked nose.
“Umm, this is my daughter, Zendaya Appledoe, but she likes to be called Swifty,” my mother replies anxiously.
“We don’t call our students by nicknames,” Hawk Lady sneers as she types into a big computer and scrolls down the screen using a golden mouse. “Ah! Zendaya, it looks like you’re in my class. My name is Anita Poof, with a silent ‘f.’ You may call me Mrs. Poof.”
I almost burst out laughing. Anita Poo? The way she said it, it sounded like “I need to poo.”
“Follow me.” She smiles falsely, and I grab my backpack from my mum, say goodbye to her, and follow Mrs. Poof up a spiral staircase to my first ballet class ever.
She opens a set of polished wooden doors, and we walk into a spacious room.
Large mirrors cover two walls of the room, a barre cutting through one of them. The ground is made of polished wood planks, and at the back of the room are several girls wearing pink-and-black leotards with soft pink tights. They are busily putting on tiny ballet shoes and eagerly chattering away to each other, getting last sips of water and starting to warm up at the same time.
I notice a slim older boy with dark brown hair in thin black clothes sitting in one corner and tapping something into his phone. He looks lonely.
Mrs. Poof grabs a ruler from a stationary tray right by her and raps it against the door. If I look closely, I can see small dents scattered along it.
“Ladies!” She announces sharply. It sounds like she got rid of whatever was stuck up her hawk nose. “And Pablo.” She glances disdainfully at the boy, saying his name like it’s a bad word.
The girls stop what they were doing and race over to the barre, Pablo reluctantly following behind.
Pablo earns a spot at the back.
“Move over, Picasso.”
“I can’t see! Can you go to the back?”
“No! I want to talk to Christina.”
“You’re squashing me!”
Mrs. Poof raps the door again.
“Ladies! And Pablo. We have a new student joining us. Her name is Zendaya, and she is trying out a class today.” Mrs. Poof gestures to me like I’m a doggy dropping. Nice.
At the front of the line, I can see Stella, with Brooke, and Karen right behind her. They glance at me deridingly and then whisper to Stella, who giggles. I feel my face heat up like I’ve stuck it in an oven.
“Zendaya! I would like you to run a few laps of the studio to warm yourself up. Then you may join the other girls, and Pablo, at the back of the line.”
I look down and drop my bag by the others, then proceed to do a lap of humiliation.
All the other girls seem so slim and perfect; I’m not like that. And being singled out isn’t something I like, especially when I’m as visible as the Sky Tower.
Once I’ve done that, I head over to the barre and join in with the exercises the other girls are already doing.
We start off with pliés.
They look easy, but then I try it.
While the other girls and Pablo sink deep down into a grand plié, I can barely do a demi without lifting my heels up and sticking my back out like a frog about to jump.
“Zendaya! Heels down!” cries Mrs. Poof as she scuttles over and kneels on the hardwood floor. She grips her clawlike fingers around my ankles and starts pushing. It feels like nails are being impaled into my feet.
“Sink lower, lower—that’s it!” she exclaims, grunting with exasperation. “Ow” is all I have to say.
It feels like my Achilles tendons are about to snap, and my back is cramping up. Yikes. I can’t even believe I’m this stiff.
Finally, Mrs. Poof lets go of my ankles. I sigh with relief. Next, we work on positions.
It’s a short conversation, but one phrase does stand out to me: “Zendaya simply does not have the ability to continue with ballet.”
The other girls can make a 180-degree line with their feet, but if I try to attempt that I’ll probably fall over. Or strain something. Mrs. Poof, once again, corrects my legs, and I feel an excruciatingly tight stretch on the insides of my feet. We do a couple more exercises, both on the barre and on the floor, and then move on to leaps.
Stella goes first. She is graceful and light. Brooke is strong and powerful. Karen is . . . eager.
The rest of the girls, and Pablo, follow. Now it’s my turn. Why do I have to be last?
“Remember: stretch your legs!” Mrs. Poof cajoles snobbily. I take a deep breath and then go for it.
My leap is kind of like a large, weighted step. Thump.
I land and present.
I smile somewhat confidently, but inside I’m cringing. I think I sounded like an elephant.
The rest of the class continues. We do little routines across the studio floor, pas de deux with Pablo, and some more intricate footwork.
While the other girls go en pointe, Pablo helps me with my technique, and at long last, it’s the end of my first ballet class.
As I’m packing up my things, my mum walks into the studio. Mrs. Poof brings her to a corner of the class. It’s a short conversation, but one phrase does stand out to me: “Zendaya simply does not have the ability to continue with ballet.”
I feel a rush of shame, but I have to agree: ballet is not meant for me. There are so many rules, like how your feet have to sit in different positions, how you can only do things a certain way, and how you have to hold yourself.
I like some rules, but not a lot. Ballet, for me, has a bit too many.
Once my mum has finished talking to Mrs. Poof, I wave to her and we slowly head home.
That night, we are watching the news when a piece on a hip-hop group comes on.
My attention snaps to the TV screen. All of the dancers’ body movements are jagged, but at the same time, flowing. The style is free, and I kind of like it.
So that night I ask my parents, “Can I do hip-hop?”
It’s my first hip-hop class.
After suggesting it to my parents, they reluctantly agreed to send me for a tryout class.
“Swifty, I appreciate you wanting to try new things, but you’ve got to be dedicated. We have to spend our money wisely,” my mom says.
I’m dressed in a thin, white, cotton T-shirt with black leggings. My feet are adorned in running shoes. A backpack sits on my shoulders, stuffed with snacks and bottles of water.
I’m not taking any chances. I rewatched the news piece that inspired me, and the style of dance looks tiring—constantly moving with skilled flips and spins which look impossible. Or that could just be because I’ve never done it before.
After following Google Maps, my dad and I have ended up outside a grey warehouse. A logo’s been sprayed onto one side with vivid purple paint. The words read “Macie’s Dance Studio.” There are two wide doors graffitied with bubble words and wacky illustrations.
“See you in an hour.”
My dad nods. He holds open the door for me, and I walk inside.
There’s a small reception room, an island desk with graffiti on the sides, the table purple.
A woman with a short ponytail and a baggy grey T-shirt notes dates on a small notepad and calls someone’s name. A young boy stands up from a red leather couch on the right side of the room. His mother’s flicking through a gossip magazine, the cover of it bold with provocative sentences featured in highlighted text.
A coffee table with competition advertisements piled in the center stands proud, like it’s won first place at the Olympics. The walls are splattered with model-esque monochrome posters, dancers reaching up to the sky, mid-somersault, collaborating. At the back end of the room, there is a door that looks like it would belong in a school classroom leading to rows of studios lined up behind each other.
Just then, a middle-aged woman storms through the door in sporty wear. She’s got mousey-brown hair loosely tied up into a bun, while her cheeks are flaming red.
“Lyla!” she says irately. “Our best student has quit!”
Lyla smiles. “Masie, I’ve got a class to take right now, and we have a new student we need to take care of, but I’ll help you later. Is Swifty here?”
I shyly raise my hand.
Lyla nods, and we both walk through the doors into the dance studio.
When we make it inside, there are some other girls and a few boys warming up, chatting to each other calmly. Unlike the ballet class, which had very similar-looking people, there’s a mixture of different sizes and ethnicities, which is really cool to see.
To start off, I have to do some stretches and simple moves, which Lyla teaches me.
Next, she talks about the kinds of moves I’ll be doing in class, while the others work on a complicated dance they’ve been learning.
“So, there are four key kinds of movements: up, down, bounce, and drop,” she says, gesturing as she does so.
“First we’ll learn ‘up.’ This is where your body rocks upward, like this.” She shows me a movement. It’s strong but relaxed. I copy her.
We continue to do the move until I’ve got it.
Next, we move on to down, then bounce and drop.
I don’t remember much else. The class is so fun that time passes like a racing car. By the end of it, I’m sweating a gushing river, but I feel great.
“Swifty, you did awesome today!” Lyla exclaims. “With progress, you can be even better!”
I can see my dad staring through the door. He catches my eyes and gives me a thumbs-up.
“How was it?” he asks cheerfully as we walk back to the car. “Awesome,” I reply. “Awesome.”
It’s the day of the Milky’s ad audition. To be honest, I haven’t really thought much about it with all that’s been going on lately.
My dad drives me over to the venue because my mum’s got a test to see how she and my brother are doing.
The venue is a small theater around our neighborhood. The outside is painted a creamy color.
We walk inside and I get a name tag and badge. A staff member guides us to the main theater, and we walk past rows and rows of empty front seats. My dad gives me a hug when we reach the end.
“Good luck,” he whispers, then joins the other parents at the back of the theater. I make my way backstage. My hands are super cold, and my legs feel shaky.
A middle-aged man calls out names and points to spots in the line, just like at the orchestral concerta. I turn out to be one of the first in the line, probably because my last name starts with “A.”
Whenever I hear the words “baby” and “brother” put together, I immediately feel jealous and scared. What will life be like after my brother is born?
Stella’s a bit further down. I can see her talking to someone who must be one of her acting friends. If only I had someone to talk to.
I like being first to perform because you can get it over and done with quickly, but at the same time, you want to be toward the middle so you can see how everything works.
Luckily, one of the judges comes backstage and gives us a quick talk on how the auditions will run.
“It would be best if you memorized the words,” he says, “but we have a teleprompter going just in case.”
Once he leaves, I nervously jump up and down on the spot. Come on, Swifty. You got this, my inner pep talker says.
But I haven’t got this. Last night, I was watching my older audition tapes and . . . I was terrible. I don’t think I have it in me to be an actor. My nervousness suddenly turns into regret.
And with that, I apologize shyly and profusely, walk out of the audition line, and get my dad.
“Let’s go home now,” I say.
He gives me a questioning glance, but he lets the organizer know and then together we quickly walk out of the building.
“So, how was the audition?” my mum says curiously, fiddling with her fork as we sit around the dinner table.
My dad glances at her, sending one of his top-secret parent signals.
She sighs. “Oh, sweetie, I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay, Mum,” I reply sheepishly. “I just don’t think acting is my thing.”
“Hmm . . .” She smiles empathetically. “Well, would you like to hear some news about your baby brother?”
I stare down at my plate. Whenever I hear the words “baby” and “brother” put together, I immediately feel jealous and scared. What will life be like after my brother is born?
“Sure,” I mumble.
“Well.” My mum grins ecstatically. “He seems to be very healthy. And,” she adds, “he’ll be here in a few months’ time!”
“W-W-WHAT?!” I stammer. No no no no no no no. This cannot be happening. I want time to freeze. I want to go back to the day before my mother announced I was having a baby brother. Nothing will be the same again! I don’t want this to happen. Please, no. No no no—
“Swifty, you’ve gone a bit pale,” my mother points out carefully. My teeth start chattering.
“I. Don’t. Want. A. Baby. Brother!” I shriek.
“Zendaya Appledoe, do not yell!” My dad frowns.
“I know you don’t love me anymore,” I cry.
I push my chair away from the table and bolt away from my parents. I swing open the front door like it’s a useless thin curtain and tear down my street, streetlamps glowing against the evening sky, then around the corner.
I am the fastest girl on Earth, my shoeless feet slapping against the pavement. I can feel blunt, hard rocks underneath my feet, punching me repeatedly. I can hear my parents’ voices floating alongside the wind, but I don’t listen. Adrenaline is taking over me once again, and I feel like there’s nothing I can do to stop it.
I make it to the end of the road and stop for a second to check for cars. None.
I’m about to sprint across the road when all of a sudden, headlights appear out of nowhere. A revving sound startles me.
No no no—
All of a sudden, hands grasp around my shoulders and pull me back.
“Dad!” I scream.
He hugs me hard.
“Zendaya Appledoe, don’t you ever do that again,” he mutters, his voice wobbling softly. My mum grabs my hand and squeezes it.
With that, together we walk back home.
* * *
“Now, Swifty,” my mum starts sternly. “Why are you upset about having a sibling?”
“Just because . . .” I gulp. “I’m worried you won’t love me anymore. All the other girls at my school talk about how annoying their brothers are. And I know you’re bored of me.” I sob, tears rolling down my cheeks like rocks down a mountain, dripping off of my chin like it’s a leaky pipe.
My mum stands up and gives me a really nice, soft hug.
“You’re worried that we won’t love you after your brother is born. Jerry, do you want to tell her why we decided that Swifty should have a brother?”
My dad nods.
“Swifty,” he says. “At the very start of the year, your teacher, Mrs. Mulberry, called us in for a meeting.” He continues: “She said that you were having a lot of trouble making friends.” I nod, totally embarrassed. “And we’ve seen this for a while now. We thought if you had a sibling, you wouldn’t be so lonely.”
I nod in acknowledgement. I guess that does make sense. I smile.
Now I feel a little bit better about my baby brother.
After a very dramatic night, today is very relaxed.
“Hey, Swifty, remember a while ago you wanted to learn the drums?” my dad ponders as we play catch in our backyard. It’s small, but it works. None of us like gardening much anyway.
“Mhmm,” I reply, lost in thought.
“Well, do you still want to do it? If you do, though, you’ve got to be committed.”
I pull myself out of my daze and blink. “I still want to do it, Dad, but I don’t want to go on my own.”
I don’t want this to be a repeat of the violin and ballet classes I took, where I was the odd one out. I need to be with others who are in the same boat with me.
“Well, do you know anyone who plays the drums?” Dad asks. I try to remember someone.
Taj. The guy who sat on my desk. The sporty, careless guy.
I remember that he plays the drums in the school band. I don’t really want to talk to him, but if I want to play the drums I’ll need to step out of my comfort zone.
So the next day at lunch, I awkwardly tap him on the shoulder.
He spins around, clutching a soccer ball in his arms, a baggy Real Madrid shirt slouching from his thin shoulders.
“What?” he grumbles, his eyes incinerating mine.
Immediately, my face turns bright red, and an invisible person starts to punch my stomach. This is exactly why I don’t like to talk in front of others.
“U-u-umm.” I stutter yet again. It’s annoying when I do this; it’s almost always about the littlest things. You might not be able to tell, but I express a lot of social awkwardness. I find it hard to say what I want to say at times.
“I’m just c-curious, be-because . . . I WANT TO TAKE DRUM LESSONS,” I blurt boldly before my stuttering can get the best of me.
“Oh.” Taj looks strangely at me, which can’t be a good thing. “And how can I help you with that?”
“Well, where do you take yours?” I blush.
“The school has classes you can take. Reasonable price,” he answers, tossing the soccer ball between his dark brown hands.
“Are there group lessons?” I blurt before I forget.
“Yeah. Well, see ya.” He waves to his friends, who are wandering aimlessly, impatiently waiting for the game to begin.
I watch for a few moments as the ball is effortlessly passed between players before it’s tackled out of sight.
* * *
I squirm in the unfashionably small school seat I’m sitting on. It’s got an ugly stripey pattern going across its cloth—vivid red, green, and bright blue.
We’re in a small soundproof room, blue carpeting running up the walls. Posters of bands and art that past students have done are tacked up above an old, worn-out drum kit opposite the door. Guitars have been balanced to the side, polished surfaces dented.
Three others are sitting next to me: a girl with limp, mousey hair picking at some fabric and a boy who must think he looks like a rock star when he just looks a bit . . . weird. He’s in all black, with long hair mortifyingly styled into a mohawk. I grimace.
A friendly looking man with short brown hair and greyish stubble claps his hands. He’s in a black shirt with some kind of ’80s band logo printed on its front.
“Hi, I’m Dave, and I’ll be your drums teacher for the year.”
We all introduce ourselves, and the lesson begins.
“Who’d like to go first?” he asks gently. He can definitely tell none of us are comfortable.
We’ve just learned a small beat on a kind of drum he’s handed out. I think it’s called a snare. The sound it makes is kind of like a rattly hiss mixed in with a clap, and the drum is about as tall as a chair leg.
I really don’t want to go yet in case I mess something up, but the others seem to annoyingly feel the same way, which means I’m going to have to be the one to step up.
I delicately raise my hand and start to tap the beat out with a pair of dented drumsticks. It’s called a paradiddle because of the way it sounds.
Right left right right, left right left left.
Unconsciously, I bite my lip. Did I mess something up?
“Ka pai, Swifty, firstly for volunteering and secondly for getting it right the first time.” Dave smiles.
I grin shyly and grip my sticks hard. The lesson continues.
The girl and the boy seem to loosen up a bit, but neither looks particularly interested.
The boy, or as I later find out, Jared, sounds like he knows everything, but when Dave asks him to play, he just shrugs and mutters an unheard excuse.
The girl, Linda, seems like she was dragged into the music lesson. She tries, but she looks uncomfortable.
So I decide to combat my social awkwardness and start talking to her. “Hey.”
“Umm . . . hi.”
“How are you finding the class?”
“I mean, it’s okay. I was actually originally meant to do piano, but the teacher got booked out.”
“Well, I think drums are way more fun than piano.”
“I guess you’re right.” She smiles. “My grandad’s into classical music. He wanted me to learn the piano. He worked at Dux Orchestral Academy. Maybe you’ve heard of him?”
Dux Orchestral Academy?
“Umm, what’s his name?”
“Darius Cello. He can be a bit strict at times, but he’s nice.”
Cello. Cello. I rack my brain. No, surely it can’t be. There are thousands of people with the surname Cello.
“As in, the violin teacher?” I mutter nervously.
“Yeah. He doesn’t work there anymore, though. He got a bad reputation because one of his students wasn’t happy with his teaching. She was actually interviewed in the New Zealand Herald. Terrible, isn’t it?”
Stones of guilt weigh down my stomach. “Uhh, yeah,” I mumble.
I nervously twist the drumsticks around as I clutch them in my cold, sweaty hands.
“Okay, guys.” Dave interrupts my remorseful train of thought. “That’s it for today. See you next week?”
As we leave the class, he holds out a cookie tin filled with chocolate chip biscuits. I take one and thank him.
Jared nods at Dave and picks up one before running down the hallway outside, fists pumping in the warm air.
Linda follows after me, hanging close by my side. “So, can we be friends?”
I swallow another wave of guilt and nod, stretching a fake smile across my sweaty face. What if she finds out?
“Cool! This sounds a bit soon, but do you wanna come over this afternoon? We can practice some skills, and I can show you some stuff . . .”
She trails off, blushing profusely. I glance at her.
“Sorry, it’s just I’ve never had any nice friends like you,” she says shyly.
“It’s okay. I’ll come over!” I reply.
As we head off in separate directions to our classrooms, a thought niggles my mind.
* * *
After school, I walk to Linda’s house with her.
The experience is as new for her as it is for me. I’ve never hung out with anyone until now.
We arrive at a cottage-like house completely out of place beside the neighboring houses. The exterior is painted creamy white, which glows below a sea-blue roof. Pink flowers bunch at the windows, and a lusciously green garden lies behind a rickety wooden white gate.
Linda unlatches the gate and beckons me to walk through. A thin gravel path winds toward the front door. We step inside her home.
Like the exterior, it is decorated like a Victorian cottage. Lifelike paintings and greyish photos of stern-looking people adorn the dark wooden walls, hanging above patterned antique furniture. The whole house smells musty, like a museum.
We drop our bags at the door. Linda leads me toward another room next to an aged kitchen where an old man sits on a rocking chair, eyes glued to a small flat-screen TV.
He has a bushy white beard tangled up in his beige tweed suit. The buttons look like they’re about to burst.
The screen in front of him flickers across his thick-rimmed glasses, which shield beetle-like eyes from the vivid light.
The thought that I was having before chatters from the back of my mind. My memory whizzes back to my first violin class.
The man in front of me looks eerily similar to my violin teacher.
“Grandfather.” Linda breaks the silence. Her voice echoes across the small room. The man jolts out of his daydream and twists his head to look at her.
“Linda!” he cries. He reaches over the arms of the chair for a quick hug. “How was school?”
His gaze flickers over to me, eyes scanning carefully.
“Good,” she replies uneasily. “Grandfather, this is Swifty! She’s my new friend.”
Linda’s grandfather seems to be lost for a second, but comes back. “Swishy . . . nice to meet you. You seem familiar.”
I don’t bother to correct him. I don’t want to seem too rude, and besides, it’s only a nickname.
He beckons to me to shake his hand.
I do. His palm is dry and cracked, hard white calluses lining the bottoms of his fingers.
“I’m Darius, Darius Cello. I used to teach violin at the Dux Orchestral Academy.”
Oh no. It can’t be.
But it is. It’s him.
“I used to take violin lessons there,” I blurt before I can stop myself.
“Swifty. I thought you were my friend. How could you have done this to my grandfather?!”
His lips thin, along with his eyes.
“Are you the person who—” he questions, his voice growing louder with every word. I interrupt.
Linda can’t know. She’s my only friend.
“H-hey, look! The nature channel sh-should be on in a few minutes!” I shout. I snatch the remote and change channels.
An old man’s soothing voice slices through the tension like a knife through butter. He has a quiet English accent, which is cut off by the shriek of a hawk.
It raises its talons just as they slide into the innocent flesh of its prey. I hope that’s not going to happen to me.
“You know, I enjoyed working at Dux Orchestral Academy.” Mr. Cello glares at me. His beetle eyes have become ants. “Until you came, I thought I would have a job there for life. But then it was all ruined. Because you had the nerve—”
“To p-play at the c-concerta!” I scream in fear.
Linda cocks her head and stares at the two of us.
“Swifty, did you learn the violin? That is so cool!” she squeals. I grin shakily. That was a close one.
We continue to watch the nature show. Mr. Cello stays quiet, but he looks grumpy. Eventually Linda switches off the TV and offers to make some afternoon tea. She leaves the room.
Mr. Cello glares at me through his glasses.
“Swishy, you are a very rude girl.” He frowns. “I can’t believe you would—”
“I kn-kn-know, right!” I jump in. “That d-documentary was outst-st-stand—”
“NO. I will not be interrupted again. You complained about my incredible teaching methods. You had me fired!” Mr. Cello bursts into tears. A boulder of guilt and remorse smashes me in the stomach.
“M-mr. Cello, I-I’m sorry,” I stutter.
Just then, Linda tears into the room.
“Grandfather!” she cries, wrapping him in a reassuring hug. “What’s wrong?!”
“Your friend SWISHY was the one who got me fired!” he shrieks.
My mouth drops open in shock. I’ve gone cold. Linda gapes at me in horror.
“Swifty. I thought you were my friend. How could you have done this to my grandfather?!” The look on her face is too heart-wrenching to describe.
“I’m sorry!” I cry before I sprint out of the room, tears streaming down my face.
I grab my bag and tumble outside, running down the gravelly path and hurriedly trying to unlatch the gate.
It won’t give.
Why won’t it give?!
It finally does.
I race down the street and run in the direction of where I think the school is.
I can see the sky turning a light pink and suddenly remember that I haven’t told my parents where I’d be.
I see a bus stop.
I run over, slump on the bench, and sob.
“Are you ok, honey?” Through the blurred shield of tears obscuring my red eyes, a vague shape of a plump human takes form. They’re dressed in a large purple coat with a bright, flowery scarf slung around their shoulders.
The person sits down next to me as I rub my tears away, leaving thin, salty tracks across my face. They hand me a crumpled tissue, which I gratefully take and dab at my eyes with.
“N-no, I’m not okay,” I finally answer. “I’ve just lost my f-first friend, and my o-old violin teacher hates me. And m-my parents d-don’t even know where I am.” I blink at the stony ground. I can see a torn muesli bar wrapper, a ten cent coin, and a plastic cup.
I kick the cup between my feet. It has an airy, hollow sound to it.
“Well, firstly, dearie,” the person says, “you obviously never meant to hurt your friend. I mean, looking at you right now, you seem like you really care about them! And I don’t think you should worry about your violin teacher. They don’t sound very nice to me, if you know what I mean. You seem like a lovely person to me.” They pause for a moment. “I’m Connie, by the way, short for Connor. What’s your name?”
“Zendaya.” I sniff. “But everyone calls me Swifty.”
“Is it okay if I call you Swifty?” Connie asks.
“Yes.” I smile.
They check their watch and glance at the bus timetable.
“Well,” Connie remarks. “There’s a bus coming in about five minutes, heading to St. Luke’s Road. Do you live near there?”
“Splendid! In the meantime, why don’t you call your parents? You can use my phone, if you want.” Connie hands me their phone. It’s got a rainbow roughly painted onto the case, with silver sparkles lining the edges.
I tap in the digits of our home phone number, then call.
The ringing sounds vintage, like a fifties phone. My stomach swirls briefly, like a whirlpool, until finally someone picks up.
“Mum?!” Her voice is crackly from the reception, but it makes the sea tornado in my stomach a lot less chaotic.
“Swifty! Where are you? We’ve been looking everywhere! We were going to call the police.”
Connie stands up and leans out of the bus stop box, peering at the street sign. They beckon to me to pass the phone over.
“Hello! This is Connie Evans. Your daughter is with me and safe!” they cheerily exclaim. “We’re currently on Pinewood Road. There is a bus coming very soon though. Would you like me to take your daughter with me on it?”
I can hear a crackle.
“Awesome. Should be there in less than twenty.” Connie hands their phone back over to me.
“See you soon, Mum!” I say.
“See ya, love you,” she crackles.
We hang up just as a large blue bus with tinted windows swings around the corner. The doors puff exhaustedly open, and we both step inside.
Connie hands a folded-up piece of cash to the driver, who scarily looks like he’s about to fall asleep.
I grab a seat at the very back, stretching out on the wide space. The bus is pretty much empty, peak hour having already passed.
Connie skips to the back and smiles at me, planting themself delicately in the corner. The bus jolts forward, then steadily rolls off into the thin stream of traffic that dots the road. I stare out of the tinted window, watching the houses and shops outside whiz past. They are like streamers of bright colors enveloping the bus.
Eventually, we arrive at my house.
I can’t wait to see Mum and Dad.
I step outside into the chilly air. It hits me like a huge gust of wind. Connie follows me to the door as I ring our bell.
I can hear footsteps from inside the house before someone finally opens the door. It’s Dad.
“Zendaya!” he cries.
He scoops me up into a hug.
My mum sprints towards me. “Swifty!”
She hugs me, then Connie. “Thank you so much for taking care of her. Is there anything we can do for you?
Connie shakes their head. “No, it’s okay.”
“Would you like a ride home?” my dad asks. “It’s quite cold at the moment, and dark.”
Connie thinks for a moment.
“If it’s not too much trouble . . .”
My mum walks into our kitchen, painted a creamy yellow, and grabs a spoon. “I’ll make you some hot chocolate, Swifty.”
I follow her and sit down on a chair beneath the marble kitchen bench. The shelves containing multicolor packets and spices are a soft wood brown. Underneath them is a silver stove, then by that, checkerboard tiles blanketing the clean floor.
My mum opens a tin of chocolate powder and scoops out a dark brown mountain of it, emptying it into a large purple mug. Next, she walks over to the fridge and pours a cascading waterfall of milk into it. She sets it in the microwave and hits one minute on the timer, then joins me at the kitchen bench.
“So, tell me what happened.”
I pick at my fingernails, then begin.
I start school reluctantly. It’s likely that I’m going to see Linda at some point during the day. What if she’s told everyone about what happened last night?
As I walk through the school gate, past the office, and toward my class, the worst possible scenario happens. We lock eyes.
She’s sitting on one of the benches outside her classroom.
As she sees me, she shakes her head and seems to project all of her sadness toward me. I nod acceptingly and carry on, remorse dragging me down. I open the classroom door and make my way to my desk.
There seem to be more people crowding around Stella’s desk than usual. Taj is leaning on my desk yet again.
I tap him on the shoulder, just before Mrs. Mulberry walks in, her high heels clicking on the linoleum floor.
“Good morning, class!” she says gleefully. “Good morning, Mrs. Mulberry!” we all reply. Stella’s fan club head out to their own classes.
“Now, class.” She turns all teachery and serious. “Elections for Term Four’s student council are underway. If you’re sitting here thinking, ‘I’m responsible and ready to take a leading role,’ then I suggest you try out. It’s good if you’re aiming for a student award this year. They’re in a week’s time. All you need to do is write a short, one-minute speech on why you should be a part of it, and present it to our class.”
I snap back to Earth.
I can see Stella grinning smugly. She’s the current councilor for our class this term, obviously. Brooke’s somehow been appointed her standby in case Stella’s sick on the day of a meeting, which she never is.
I take a deep breath. If Stella’s going to run for Term Four, then I am too.
* * *
Last night I was working on a speech for the student council, and I have a pretty good first draft. But normally the student councilors all do something cool to show their support for the community, and I have no idea what to do.
A coat drive? Sell lemonade? Have a bake sale? All of these are classic options, but I want to try something different.
So at lunchtime, I head up to the library and type in organizations I could help. One catches my eye.
It’s an organization called Locks of Love. They give wigs made of donated hair to kids who have lost their own hair. I subconsciously finger my long, curly black hair. It’s coming down to my waist. That should be definitely enough. And it’s a pain to brush in the mornings and tie up for school. I’ve always liked the look of short hair anyway . . .
My mind wanders for the rest of the day.
After school, I look up YouTube videos on how to cut your own hair from home.
Hmm. Seems simple enough. There are some videos of fails, but none of them look too bad.
“Dad, where are the kitchen scissors?” I ask as I wander into the living room.
“Hang on.” He rushes off into the kitchen, coming back with a fat pair.
“Here. Are you doing an art project or something?”
“Umm . . . kind of,” I reply slyly.
I tear upstairs to the bathroom sink, grabbing a hair tie on the way up.
I stare at my reflection in the mirror, shower and tub reflected behind me. Pale tiles line the shower stall, in a distorted pattern.
This is “before” me.
Yes. I am. I am going to make someone, somewhere in the world, feel special and awesome. I am going to give them my hair.
Wait. I want to remember this.
I race away to the bedroom and snatch my tablet from its charging station. Okay. I snap a quick picture of myself. Let’s see what “after” looks like.
I lock the bathroom door and tie my curly hair into a tight ponytail, just below the nape of my neck.
Oh my gosh. Am I seriously doing this?
Yes. I am. I am going to make someone, somewhere in the world, feel special and awesome. I am going to give them my hair.
I shakily grab the scissors and start cutting. “Shh, shh,” my hair whispers.
My head starts to feel lighter, my hair moving in a wave as I slice through the fibers. Wow. If this is what a bob looks like, this is great. My hair poofs up a lot more, but in a satisfying way. About three quarters of the way through, though, I hear my name being called. It’s my dad.
“Swifty, are you okay in there?”
“Uhh, yeah, just stomach pains. Owww!” I lie.
“Do you want me to come in? I’m coming in. You’ve been in there for about half an hour.”
I hear the click of a key in the door. Oh no. What can I do? Hide the scissors? But where?
It’s too late.
The door swings open.
My dad gapes at me in utter horror.
His face has gone a shade of—well, lighter than his normal skin color. He clasps his hands to his mouth.
“Oh my gosh,” he whispers. Well, he didn’t actually say that. He said something else which I’m not going to write down. But it was still similar to “oh my gosh.”
“Swifty, what are you doing?!” he half whispers again, half shouts.
“I’m running for the student council,” I reply serenely.
“And do all the people running have to cut nearly all their hair off?” my dad asks waveringly.
“No, of course not!” I laugh. Okay, am I in shock? My dad definitely is. He looks like he’s seen someone jump off a cliff.
“Then why are you cutting your hair?” Oh no. He looks angry. Furious, in fact.
“Well, you see,” I explain. “Pretty much anyone who runs for student council does a good turn. And I was looking up organizations to help today and . . .” I pause. “I’m donating my hair to Locks of Love.”
My dad stares at me in awe. “I’m very angry at you,” he mutters. “But I am also extremely proud. But there will still be consequences, young lady. Now, may I finish cutting your hair?”
I nod shyly, and pass him the scissors. He snips the last few remaining strands.
“Erm, this needs a professional hairdresser,” he points out. “I’m gonna call one of my good friends.
Fifteen minutes later, a man arrives at our doorstep. He’s called McClinty Jones, and he’s wearing a lavish grey-striped tuxedo with pointy mauve leather shoes on his feet. Flashy gold-rimmed sunglasses adorn his nose.
“Hmm,” he mutters, stroking his browny-blond goatee.
He rummages through his hairdressing kit and finds a buzzer and a scrapbook.
“Zis bob is too short to fix. Pick a haystyle and I vill do it for you.” He sounds German.
I flip through the pages and stop on a picture. The model’s hair is shaved at the sides and long at the top.
“I want that one, please.” I point to the picture.
“Good choice,” he replies, and starts shaving and snipping away.
* * *
When I finally get to look at myself in the mirror, I gasp in astonishment. I look amazing!
McClinty’s styled my hair into a mohawk using scented gel, with dyed pink streaks running through.
“Thank you, man.” My dad stares at my reflection in surprise. “How much is it?”
“Nusink.” McClinty replies. “Svifty is dooving a good turn. I shall do von back.”
My dad shakes his hand, and with that, McClinty packs up his gear and sweeps my cut hair into a small pile in the center of the bathroom, which he maneuvers into a bag.
Soon he vanishes, like he was never here. Just in time as well. I can hear my mother’s car pulling into our driveway. My dad and I send a father-daughter glance to each other, kind of like his and mum’s parent one.
My dad grabs a towel hanging from the rack, and my chopped ponytail. “Let’s go down,” he says anxiously. We head downstairs, and as soon as we get to the bottom, he throws the sheet around me. All I can see is a sky blue and faint silhouettes moving around.
“Swifty and I have a surprise for you.”
“Okay—can I see now?”
“Err, sure. But first, let me warn you . . . err, we’ve cut her hair.”
“Oh my gosh! Swifty’s hair!”
“Her beautiful hair!”
“So . . . she decided to cut her hair to donate!”
“What?! Oh gosh, what does she look like now?”
The towel is whipped off. Warm, bright light floods my eyesight.
I hear my mum gasp. I’m not sure if it’s in shock, horror, or surprise. Maybe all three. “Oh, Swifty! Are you sure you don’t regret this?” My mum rubs her eyes, aghast.
“Mum, I’m doing this to help a kid who’s feeling weird or uncomfortable about themselves. I want to make them feel better.”
She sighs in exhaustion and rubs her eyes again.
“It’s going to be hard to get used to. But I’m proud of you.”
The next day, I wave goodbye to my parents as I head off to school. I’m pretty early because I’m walking there, which takes about half an hour. My mum’s having tummy aches, so she’s going to go get a check-up.
When I arrive at class, all eyes are set on me.
I’ve tied my hair up into a ponytail at the end, the pink strands brightening up my hair. The word that comes to me to describe it is crepuscular, although I’m not sure if that’s quite right.
“Wow,” a boy in my class says, his eyes widening in astonishment.
“Swifty, if I do say so myself, you look incredible!” a girl in my class compliments me. My inner self shrinks into a tight ball and starts rolling around.
Then Stella and her posse walk in.
“Interesting haircut, Swifty!” Stella smiles uncertainly. Karen speeds up her pace and hangs beside Stella as she whispers something hastily her ear, eyes darting toward me.
Now it’s Brooke’s turn. Great.
“Honestly, Swifty. I have told you this so many times and you never listen! You just think that the way you look doesn’t matter, but it does. You have terrible style. It’s going to take a long time for it grow back, but you’re still gonna look ugl—”
Oh no. Brooke, you went too far.
“Look, Brooke. You may think the whole world revolves around you, but that’s not the case. I cut my hair for charity, and a very nice guy styled it like this. You have no right to say that to me because I don’t see you lending a hand to anything or anyone.”
“You are a self-obsessed—”
Just as Brooke is about to brutally and theatrically attack, swinging her clawed fist, Mrs. Mulberry saunters into class.
“Good morning cla—GIRLS! Break it up!” she roars.
I jolt, and so does the rest of the class. Mrs. Mulberry never shouts. Well, unless it’s necessary.
“Now, what is going here?” she snaps. “Brooke, you first.”
“I was just walking into class, Mrs. Mulberry, and then SwISHY here tripped me up and called me a name!” Brooke lies, even going as far as to call me Swishy. Ugh. I hate her.
“Actually Mrs. Mulberry, that’s not the case,” Stella explains.
What?! Stella defending me?!
“It was just something that went out of control. Brooke did nothing wrong, but neither did Swifty.”
I wouldn’t agree with that, but Stella defended me! Maybe I don’t hate her as much as I used to. Well, just a teeny bit.
Stella avoids my gaze as I attempt to send her a thankful nod. I guess she’s not allowed to go against Brooke like that.
“Well then, class, we have a Korean lesson in twenty minutes. Room 4 has swapped times with us because they need to get on with something. So why don’t we head outside for a very quick game and—”
Suddenly Principal Fintan barges into the classroom, hidden panic stretched across his normally joyful face. He’s in a suit with a red tie, which looks way too serious for school. He’s young but already starting to bald, a small patch indiscreetly covered up with thin auburn strands.
“Sorry, Kate and Room 3, but I’m afraid we have an emergency. Swifty, could you come with me, please? Pack up all your things.”
I shoot a befuddled glance toward Mrs. Mulberry as I cram my books, drink bottle, and pencil case into my backpack. She shrugs and gives me a small wave.
I wave to my class awkwardly, and they all return the gesture back in a muddled way. I follow Principal Fintan up the hallway, school bags lining the path to his office. He clicks open the door, his name stuck on in 3D black letters, and invites me inside.
My grandma is sitting on one chair opposite his desk. Why is she here? Principal Fintan pulls out a chair for me and I lower myself down slowly.
He sits behind his desk, the cushion attached to his chair faintly hissing like a fart. I want to laugh, but the situation seems too serious so I don’t.
He types something into his laptop, set up to the side of his folder-strewn desk. In fact, there are folders everywhere. On bookshelves, tabletops, office bins, containers, and cubbies. A disorganized rainbow of information.
“G-g-grandma?” I splutter. “W-what’s g-going on?”
“Grace,” she mumbles. Wait. That’s my mother’s name. What’s happening? Is Mum ok?
Principal Fintan takes over. “We have some exciting news. Your brother has just been born, Swifty.”
Adrenaline takes over. I feel like a motorcycle that’s just been kick-started. “W-w-we gotta g-g-go!” I yell powerfully, still stuttering.
“To the hospital!” my grandma yells, suddenly alive with fiery energy.
On the way to the hospital, everything is like a jumble. It kind of feels like sorting through old books, if you know what I mean. There are the ones you love, ones you hate, and ones you can’t even remember reading.
Like now. We’re speeding along the streets, Grandma at the wheel and me yelling, “Go, go, go!”
I hate that it’s uncertain about how Mum and my brother are. I haven’t heard anything about them yet. And I can’t remember what happened at school. It’s like it was one of those dreams you can’t think about after it’s over because you’ve forgotten.
Finally, we arrive at the Auckland Hospital.
“Hurry, Grandma!” I impatiently beg as she unloads bags upon bags of gifts.
She asks me to carry some for her. I do. They probably weigh at least several kilograms, but they feel as light as feathers to me.
We race inside the main building, Grandma briskly walking and me pulling her along crazily. When we get to the reception desk, the lady sitting behind it stares at us boredly. How is she not excited?! This is so weird! Ugh, Swifty. Snap out of it!
“Purpose of visit?” she blandly asks.
“Grace McClean!” My grandma’s dentures nearly fly out of her mouth. She’s really excited.
“Okay. That’s level seven, ward three,” she replies.
We hurry over to the elevator. I jab repeatedly at the button going up, while Grandma smiles at me, stressed but bursting with excitement, her foot tapping on the hard floor. Oh boy!
The elevator finally arrives, and we race inside. I jab at the level-seven button, and slowly but surely, we go up.
“H-hurry, hurry, hurry,” I whisper. “H-hurry, hurry, h-h-hurry.”
Ding! The elevator doors roll open. Grandma wobbles out, a big smile plastered on her face.
“Ward three—there it is!” she shrieks cheerily.
But just as we’re about to go in, I feel a terrible nervous pang in my stomach. My throat squeezes shut in panic. I feel like I can’t breathe. I grip my grandmother’s hand tightly, feeling the map of her life stretched across her wrinkled palm.
“Hey, sweetie. It’s okay to feel nervous,” she says gently. “Why don’t we just go inside. You can hide behind me if you want to!” She grins cheekily. “Now smile!”
I stretch my lips into a fake grin. She nods, and clasping hands, we walk inside. The room is dim and grey.
My mum is on a big hospital bed, cradling a tiny lump. My dad walks over to us and gives me and Grandma a big hug.
“Come on, Swifty,” he whispers. He sounds quite emotional, but I suppose it IS one of those kinds of situations.
I go over and sit on the edge of my mum’s bed. There’s a drip going into her, but nothing is actually that scary.
“Swifty, meet your baby brother,” my mum whispers. And then suddenly my hand is stroking my brother.
O. M. G.
He’s so warm and tiny, wrapped up in cozy pale-blue blankets. He’s silent, but he’s making little tuts as he sleeps. Thin wisps of hair frame his chubby cheeks. And his little pinched face . . . Ughh, soooo cute.
No matter what happens, I’m going to do whatever it takes to protect him. This is the moment I want to last forever.
I lie on the thin air mattress my grandma set up for me. I need to stay with her until tomorrow because my mum needs to rest at the hospital.
Don’t get me wrong: I love my grandma, but I really want to be in my own homey bedroom instead of trying to sleep in the nearly empty, dim spare room in her small house.
I check the time on the digital clock propped beside me. It reads 12:01 a.m. I need to get to sleep. Tomorrow are the student council elections, and I have to be wide awake for that. But I can’t seem to shut my eyes. I’m worried about my brother. What if something happens to him in the night? If he gets sick? If the next day he’s given to the wrong people after a test?
I squeeze my eyelids closed and for the hundredth time try to fall asleep, telling myself that the people at the hospital know what they’re doing, that he was fine when I saw him, and that my mum will keep him safe.
It’s the day of the student council tryouts. I squirm nervously in my seat, just like at the concerta and while in the car on the way to my first (and last) ballet class.
My hands clench sweatily around my cue cards (which are ripped because of my impulsive gripping, just like they clenched the scissors when I cut off nearly all of my hair), and I can’t stop my teeth from chattering like when my baby brother was born.
I can handle this.
Mrs. Mulberry bounces into class.
“Good morning, first of all,” she exclaims, placing her books on her desk. “And secondly, could all of the students trying out for the role of our class councilor please stand up and go outside? Write your names on the board before you go, though,” she adds with a smile.
Mrs. Mulberry loves the student council tryouts. Rumor has it she loves it more than watching Keeping Up With the Kardashians.
I stand up and shuffle over to the door. I can hear my classmates gossiping. Especially about me. Someone holds the door open, and I quietly walk through. I hear it click shut, and then I look up.
Oh . . . kay.
All of the popular kids in my class are pacing around in circles or biting their lips, fiddling with their hair or encouraging each other.
I see Luke O’Connor rehearsing weird flirty glances that make him look like he’s constipated, Tyler Peterson waving to a massive crowd of his imaginary fans, Hamish Clonestar admiring his tiny muscles, Brooke tetchily rolling her judgmental eyes, Amy Ryan looking picture perfect mouthing out her speech, and Stella Chichester-Clark grinning smugly. Again.
Mrs. Mulberry minces out of the room and calls us all over. We nervously crowd around her. I end up at the edge.
“Now, you guys—I just want every one of you to know that you are all winners, no matter what happens.”
I roll my eyes undetectably. It’s the dreaded reassurance of the teacher.
Deep down, I’m pretty sure Mrs. Mulberry knows how bad her pep talks are, but she’s probably signed some kind of teacher contract saying she has to give them.
“So . . .” She presents a piece of paper and a pen. “Who wants to go first?”
Tyler Peterson shoves his hand up into the air like he’s holding a toy airplane and wants to see how high he can reach. Mrs. Mulberry scribbles his name down. Amy Ryan goes second, then Luke, then Hamish, then Brooke, Stella, and finally, me.
I mean, last is okay, but by then everybody’s bored. I lean against the corridor wall and cup my hands around my left ear, but I can only hear the muffled speeches of each contestant.
Most of the girls giggle at Tyler, glare jealously at Amy, blush at Luke, swoon at Hamish, and smile at Stella. Nearly all the boys only pay attention to their friends. Typical.
All the candidates have emerged from the classroom, grinning with satisfaction.
It’s my turn to head in. I slowly open the door a crack, allowing myself to see just a thin line of my class. The air from inside the room cools my face.
I can do this.
“Now let’s give it up for SWIFTY!” Mrs. Mulberry announces as I stand at the center of the class.
I open my mouth wide open, only to hear Brooke mutter, “Fish.” I don’t know how, but I can still hear her through the door. I mentally shut off my ears from the world and begin to speak.
“Hi! As you already know, my name is Swifty. I’d like to run for our class councilor this year because I believe that we need a change. I think that I am honest, responsible, and I work hard. But this isn’t about me. It’s about YOU.
“As you know, we don’t have a lot of school clubs at the moment, yet there are so many things to do online, with coding and more available at our fingertips. I propose that we start up an ICT club for those of you that like coding or games.
“Another thing: there are those of us who . . . who find it hard to make friends, myself included. I think that maybe we could all help each other to make some friends, because no one deserves to be alone. Or hurt in any way.” I stare straight at Brooke through the window in the front door.
She leers right back at me, but I’m imagining her internally blushing.
“Thank you,” I conclude.
A burst of applause shatters my eardrums.
Oh. M.G. This is what it feels like to be accepted.
As I make my way outside the classroom so the votes can be taken, I start to hyperventilate. There just isn’t enough oxygen. I heave and lean against the wall. My throat feels sore, like I’ve just swallowed chips. My legs feel like I’m learning to surf for the first time.
I gather myself together and glance at the other contestants. They seem more relaxed now that they’ve done their speeches, but of course everyone is anticipating the final results. It’s kind of like an eating contest. Once you’ve shoveled down most of the food, you feel satisfied— but when you look at the plate and see all that food still waiting to be eaten, you wonder if you’ll ever accomplish the feat you’ve been aiming for.
As I make my way outside the classroom so the votes can be taken, I start to hyperventilate.
Stella looks pretty chill, which makes me nervous. I think she knows the outcome: she and Brooke.
I bite my lip. Will it be like the last tryouts, where she won yet again?
Just as I start to ponder whether the elections are rigged (I mean, no one even looks that happy when Stella wins), the classroom door creaks open and Mrs. Mulberry’s head peeks out from the doorframe.
“Come on in, guys.” She grins excitedly.
Luke, Hamish, Tyler, and Amy head in first, followed by Stella, Brooke, and me. We’re told to line up at the front of the class.
Great. Standing in front of twenty other people is not my cup of tea, even though my ambition WAS to stand in front of many more.
Is there something on my chin? I wonder. I bow my head down and quickly swipe at my mouth with the sleeve of my jersey. Nope, nothing’s there.
I stare at the ground, and then remember that if I do that it’ll look like I’m unfit for the role. I remember a trick Dad taught me once where instead of staring at the people you’re talking to, you stare just above their heads, basically at the wall. I tilt my eyes upward and take slow, deep breaths. I think I’ve done okay.
“Okay, everyone. So, I’ve counted the votes and now I will announce the results,” Mrs. Mulberry announces. “But first . . .” She pauses, like she’s about to give a really big speech.
“I’ve said this many times before, and I will say it again: you are all winners.” I cringe.
Inner me is literally screaming for the results. Hurry up! I think.
“So the runner up, and also the standby, is Swifty!” Mrs. Mulberry exclaims, like even she can’t believe it.
“And the winner is, of course, Stella.” Mrs. Mulberry gleams.
Stella and I are called up to the front, and we each get a Crunchie Bar.
Brooke stares at me scornfully as I make my way back to my seat.
I tear open the glossy Crunchie Bar wrapping and pop the bar into my mouth.
I did it.
“The first meeting is today at lunchtime in the staff room, girls,” Mrs. Mulberry states. “For this meeting, both of you will be attending, just to get the hang of things and all that.”
Stella shifts her gaze to me and raises her eyebrows. I give her a nod and close my eyes. I just realized that I have to work with her.
As the lunchtime moving bell rings, I hurriedly pack away my lunch so I can make my way up to the staff room.
The staff room is considered gold by the Year Ones and Twos. It’s for the teachers, and only certain students are allowed in it. If you ever get to go there, you know you’re lucky.
I race up the stairs, trying not to make too much of a thumping noise as I rush up. When I finally reach the top, I glance around the spacious room.
At one end is a kitchen for the teachers. There’s an island with a polished white surface, but you can’t see much of it because of the mountains of plates piled on top of it and in the small sink. Behind it is a mini fridge, stove, oven, and microwave. To the left of that are several cubbies with name tags. I glance to my left. There are dozens of chairs set up in a square-like pattern, and in between the chairs are small tables with educational magazines resting on the glassy surfaces. There’s a whiteboard at one end with a few sentences scrawled on it. The principal is standing in front of it.
And there are the student councilors.
A wave of awkwardness, if that’s even a thing, hits me. They all look different, but still the same: ironed outfits, good skin, cleanly cut and gelled hair.
The one word that could describe them all in a hot second would be “perfect.”
I look down at what I’m wearing: baggy khaki shorts and an old pink T-shirt. My jumper’s tied around my waist kind of loosely, like a little kid clinging onto their mother as she says goodbye. Okay, that was a weird example, but still . . .
“Oh, hello Swifty!” Principal Fintan greets me. The councilors’ heads turn. Oh no. I shyly stare down at my shoes.
“Stella unfortunately couldn’t join us today. I think she had a one-off event to attend—but anyway, would you like to come over and join our conversation?”
It’s a rhetorical question. I make my way over to a spare seat and sink deep down into its cushiony depths.
“Now, where was I? Oh, yes. Tom, what were you saying?” They even have ordinary names. No hate to the Toms out there or anything, but . . .
“I just feel like . . . nearly all of us”— he gestures to the student council, noticeably excluding me—“are being left out. I mean, the other students”— he waves a hand at me—just don’t try hard enough.” Right. Thick clouds of heat swirl around my face and my stomach pangs. “Like, we’re in the student council because we’re better. I feel like she”—gestures—“doesn’t deserve to be a part of our council. And . . .” Blah blah blah. I tune out. It’s not worth listening, and what point is Tom even trying to make?
“Err, thank you, Tom.” Principal Fintan winces but hides it with an appreciative nod. “And just a quick tip: make sure what you’re saying doesn’t offend others. If it does, then you can talk about it privately to me or just keep it to yourself.”
“Now Swifty, what do you have to say about this?”
“Erm, I think that what Tom says doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I mean, of course there are students who do try or want to try but who are more introverted or need help with things . . . but why does that even matter?”
“Tom, how would you feel about being teased every day?” I say.
He sighs. “Uhh . . . not that good, I guess.”
“Exactly. A certain someone has been making fun of me, in fact, since Year Four. And because of that I shut down. And I’m also super average. But now what I’m trying to do is become like that person’s friend so I can be better.”
Principal Fintan gives me a strange look.
Another guy whose name I don’t know gives me another look. “But you’re fine just the way you are, I guess. Well, other than not trying enough at school.”
That was blunt.
“Be yourself: everyone else is already taken,” Abigail from Room Four quips.
“That’s Oscar Wilde,” someone whose voice is very, very, very familiar pipes up.
Oh no. Linda? I stare at her in shock. What’s she doing here? She gives me an uncertain smile, then looks away. I can see her hands fiddling, fingers twisting to make weird shapes. But then, a thumbs up. I smile internally. I’ve been forgiven. We may not be friends anymore, but at least now she doesn’t have a lasting grudge.
Others start to throw inspirational quotes my way, and I’m lost for a moment. Then it hits me: All along, I’ve been trying to be like Stella so I could have the same amount of recognition she had and so everyone, or at least nearly everyone, would like me. But throughout all the terms I’ve been doing this, I’ve been discovering my own talents.
From learning the violin, I found out I’m a really good drummer. From attempting ballet, I’ve found out that hip-hop may be more suited to me. Because I cut my hair, I’ve discovered some of my tastes. When my baby brother was born, I recognized that maybe I do need some help with the twisty topic of friends. And through making it into the student council, I’ve discovered myself—after all, I’ve just had an epiphany for the first time.
Is that an achievement?
All I know is that for the rest of the day, I feel a huge sense of relief.
“Hello, sweetheart!” my mum exclaims blissfully.
She’s sitting on the soft, carpeted lounge floor, playing with my brother. He’s lying on his tummy and wriggling around. I giggle and drop my bag by the doorway, carefully heel-and-toeing, then crouching down.
My brother’s face is really chubby, and he’s drooling heaps. His hands look like tiny balloons, fingers curled delicately. I sit down and gently pick him up, placing him on my lap. His eyes stare up at me curiously, like he’s reading my mind and knows more than you’d think. My brother grasps my index finger. His hands are moist and warm. I wrinkle my nose, still smiling, as I think of the reason behind the moisture. A question pops into my head.
“Mum,” I ask as I look up at her. “What’s my brother’s name?”
“To be honest, your dad and I haven’t really decided yet,” she says, brushing strands of hair out of her eyes.
“I’ll go look at some,” I offer.
I get up, placing my brother gently back on the ground, then walk out the door and down the corridor toward the office.
I sit down in front of the computer and type “names for boys.” The first names that come up are
The first thought that comes to mind is that these names would definitely not suit my brother. I click on the website that featured them to see what other names there are and scroll down.
Yet again, none of these names suit my brother. I go out of the site and try a different one.
I stop scrolling down. Zenith. That sounds nice. I leave that site and search the name. The definition is “the highest point.”
My baby brother, in the end, made me happy. And my parents. At our highest point. I hare out of the room and scream, “Zenith! Mum, my brother’s name is Zenith!”
This year, it feels like each day is more significant than the last, each one a day where I tried out for something. So I’m not going to say, “It’s the day of the . . .” I’ve already said that way too many times.
So, I guess I’ll start with this: I slump boredly in an auditorium seat as I wait unenthusiastically for the annual student awards to start.
There’s a stage, black floor matted with small globs of chewing gum from the theater kids who didn’t pay attention to the rules. Rows upon rows of red seats are stacked on top of one another, like an amphitheater. It feels like one. Halfway up, a glass barrier separates them from a differently designed row of seats that look like rugged stairs. The walls are a dark blue, and a large sculpture of the school logo has been hung up on one.
Many of the students and parents are wearing fancy clothes. I’m wearing a mint-green “jumpsuit” (sparkly top and leggings, to be exact) and silver boots because if we have to run for it for some reason, I want to be the first person out of there.
I know it’s going to be the usual people who win the awards. The sporty ones, the smart ones, the perfect ones. Call me a bad sport, but I reckon if you were sitting through the same thing year after year, you would feel the same way too.
I know it’s going to be the usual people who win the awards. The sporty ones, the smart ones, the perfect ones.
The others in my class have similar expressions as mine; the only difference is that they’ve got friends to talk to about it.
Principal Fintan taps the mic, briefly standing center stage. “Quiet, everyone.” His voice echoes throughout the auditorium. The chatter steadily draws to a close.
I spot my parents sitting in the back left corner. They give me a small, tired wave—my brother, Zenith, has been keeping them and me up all night—my dad making Zenith’s hand move in an arc too.
“Good morning, students. And welcome, parents,” Principal Fintan begins. His voice sounds foreign and serious in the microphone, but a beaming smile is plastered across his face.
“The annual Bellmore Primary School Awards are just about to begin; in order for that to happen, parents, could you please turn off any devices you have brought with you.”
There’s a small murmur as reluctant parents bring out their phones and tap some things into them before putting them back into their pockets or bags.
Principal Fintan waits for the noise to die out and then actually begins. My teacher said the awards would probably last about two hours. My stomach grumbles even though I don’t feel hungry. Principal Fintan starts to speak again.
“We have so many talented students at Bellmore. The sheer amount of genius young minds and driven people here is extraordinary. Sadly, we cannot hand out awards to everyone. So, the awards we are handing out today will be going to those in the student body who have excelled at different areas, either in the curriculum or in extracurricular activities.
“We will begin with the class awards, then move on to the extracurriculars and sport, and then to the students who have shown promise in certain subjects, and finally . . . to the Bellmore pupil of the year.
“So, could I please have the Year One teachers come down to the front.”
Click, thump, thump, click. Teachers in flowery skirts and woolen vests hurry down the stairs nimbly. When they reach the bottom, they’re handed a slim pile of beige certificates each.
Room Twenty’s teacher goes first.
“Connor.” Her voice is light and fluffy, like candyfloss clouds.
An arrogant-looking boy gets up from his cramped-looking seat and carefully walks down the steps to the front. He’s dressed in a full-on suit, his hair parted and gelled heavily. When he reaches the stage, he waves to his parents. They smile and wave back. I reckon they might’ve told the boy he was going to win an award beforehand, because his reaction is just a small wry smile.
A small girl wearing a very poofy rainbow dress bounces out of her seat and skips down the steps, her lips stretched to breaking point. Her reaction when she’s handed the certificate is priceless.
Names upon names are called. The line of boys and girls coming down to receive the awards seems endless. It feels like an age before the Year Fours are called down to get theirs.
Next, the extracurricular people are called down to receive their awards. Stella gains her fifth award, which I didn’t even know was possible.
I start to squirm in my seat. My legs and back are cramping up, and my mouth is wet with saliva. I’m starting to feel thirsty.
I notice other people starting to look like they feel the same way too, so it’s amazing when Principal Fintan finally announces that we can all exit the hall for an intermission to stretch our legs and grab a quick drink of water.
As soon as I can, I literally bounce out of my seat and race down the stairs. I. Need. Water.
I’m one of the first ones to the water fountain. I open my mouth and a stream of H2O floods in.
I continue to suck desperately at the water as it runs down my sore throat. By the time I’ve put off nearly everyone from taking a sip, I feel as though I’ve swallowed a grandfather clock. Well, maybe not a grandfather clock. Let’s say a tiny chair.
I return to my seat, satisfactorily plopping down in it just in time for the remaining awards.
Best Sportsman. Best Sportswoman. Most Creative Person. Future in STEM. Dux. Most Potential. On and on the awards go. All handed to perfect-looking people, including Stella. She seems to be getting even more than usual.
Then, finally, it’s the Student of the Year Award.
It’s going to be Stella. Principal Fintan has the same smile on his face, the one he always does. Mrs. Mulberry has that look too.
Principal Fintan is just about to start announcing the Student of the Year (Stella) when all of a sudden, I get a wave of urgency signaling to me from my bladder.
Oh no. I regret drinking so much water.
Actually, take that away:
I doubly regret drinking so much water.
All eyes are trained on the stage, which is exactly where the exit is. If I get up from my seat to answer Mother Nature’s call, everyone will see me.
Do it, do it, do it, my mind whispers eagerly.
I glance at Mrs. Mulberry and make the toilet sign with my hands. She shakes her head and smiles a very strange smile.
“This Student of the Year award goes to someone who has stepped out of their comfort zone,” Principal Fintan says. “They have participated in many extracurricular activities, including ballet and music, as well as becoming a part of the student council. They even made it into the news!”
I tune in. I already know it’s going to be Stella, but I need to distract myself from you know what.
“In the past, they have struggled to try new things and were, I quote, ‘super average.’”
I cringe on the inside. No way can it be Stella. She would never say that about herself. I really pity the person who did say that about themselves, though. They must be super embarrassed right now, especially since they’re being singled out from about 600 others.
“This year, they even tried to be more like one of their peers.” Oh my gosh. Whoever the Student of the Year is, they must be feeling doubly humiliated.
“But because of that, they have grown and become their own person. And I think it’s very fitting that on their last year of primary school they’ll get a milestone award.”
Okay. I’m feeling better about the whole situation. It’s actually not as urgent as I thought it was. Maybe. Just a few more minutes, Swifty, and you’re all done.
“So with that being said, I will now announce the Student of the Year. She likes to go by her nickname, but I think I’ll announce her by her real one. The Student of the Year is . . . drumroll everyone . . .”
I join in with the rest of the school and the parents. For each drumbeat, most people in the school will probably be thinking, Who is it? But instead, I’m thinking, I really need to go. I really need to go.
That poor person. They must really be peeing their pants right now, like I’m about to.
But then why are my classmates patting my back and saying, “Well done!” and, “Good on you. We really needed a change,” And why is Stella smiling her first humble smile in what, in my opinion, seems to be since the day she was born?
Why is my teacher holding my cold, shaky hand as I stumble down the auditorium steps, my legs wobbling like jelly on a cake? And why can I hear my parents screaming and clapping above everyone else, saying encouragingly, “Go for it, Swifty!” Why am I walking toward Principal Fintan on my own? And why is he shaking my hand and handing me a heavy, sparkling bronze trophy?
“Congratulations, Swifty,” he says, handing the microphone over to me. “Would you like to say anything?”
“Umm. . .” I glance at my parents and baby brother. “I’d like to dedicate this to my baby brother, because I want him to grow up proud of who he is. And obviously my parents.”
My tummy feels like it’s doing grand jetés. Is this a dream? And then suddenly, Mother Nature calls yet again.
I whisper something in Principal Fintan’s ear and looks like he’s going to laugh, but he nods.
And then I’m racing out of there, cold surprise curling around my mind.
What just happened?!
My parents snap photos of me on their phones as I hold the gleaming school trophy. Dozens of names have been etched onto its surface, dating back to the 1930s, which is amazing.
I’ve only just realized this, but history is in my hands. Of course, I don’t get to keep it. But that’s okay. I’m still coming to grips with how I even won the trophy in the first place. I mean, how have I been chosen out of over 600 people? Stella should have gotten it. Right?
My tummy feels like it’s doing grand jetés. Is this a dream?
The noisy chatter of parents and teachers deafens me. My parents smile.
“I can’t believe you did it, Swifty!” My dad grins from ear to ear as he gets into another picture with me.
My mum smiles. “Looks like one of your friends is joining us.”
I turn around and see none other than Stella Chichester-Clark clacking toward me, her designer high heels clicking against the ground.
“Hey, Swifty!” she says, flicking her long, golden hair back from her face. She brushes her slightly poofy dress, nails painted a cherry blossom pink. The dress is mint green just like my jumpsuit. Well, leggings and a top.
I paste a small smile onto my face, like I would if I photoshopped a photo on a computer. What is Stella going to say?
“I just wanted to let you know . . . well done on winning Student of the Year.” She congratulates me, now twirling a lock of her hair around one of her clean fingers.
I don’t know what to say. Stella’s nice, but she doesn’t say congratulations very often. A smile spreads across my face before I can control it.
“Umm, thank you. Congrats to you too.” She grins.
“Hey, this’ll sound kinda random, but can we be friends?” Hang on. Stella asked me to be her friend?!
“It’s just that . . . I’ve noticed you’ve been copying me all year, and I thought that maybe . . . you wanted to hang out?”
Uh oh. This is super embarrassing. She knew all along while I was trying to keep it a secret.
“Err, sorry ab-b-bout th-that,” I stutter. I always speak funny when I’m nervous, which is kind of annoying.
“It’s fine. I knew you wanted to be just like me all along.”
I gasp in shock. That was so rude! Stella never—
“It’s a joke, Swifty! Your expression . . . I know you would never do that.” I cringe inside my head. If only you knew, Stella. If only you knew.
“Swifty, we’ve got to go now,” my mum whispers. She and Dad give me a quick hug and kiss before waving goodbye.
Almost a second after that, Brooke appears from the crowd, Karen dragging her along like a child with an oversized doll.
Karen pushes Brooke in front of me. “Brooke,” she snaps. “Say it.”
Karen hasn’t talked like that since dinosaurs ruled the Earth. She’s normally quiet and obliging.
“Mm, sorry,” Brooke mumbles.
“Sorry who?” Karen inquires.
“SWIFTY! Sorry, Swifty!” Brooke yells. She storms off, Karen trailing somewhat tiredly behind and waving to me. “Well done, Swifty!”
I smile anxiously. It feels weird that I’m getting so many compliments. But I brush the feeling off and turn back to Stella.
“Yes. Let’s be friends,” I answer her question confidently.
I feel like a lot of people say similar things to this, but I’m still going to say it too.
If you had asked me a few years ago to hang out with Stella every day, I would have said, “No way, José.” But here I am, sitting on a bench with Stella as we snack on our lunch, watching kids play rugby and hang from monkey bars.
It’s our first year of high school, and so far it’s going pretty well.
My brother, Zenith, has just turned three, which means he’s toddling around the house a lot. But he made up for it by saying his first word, my name: Zendaya.
Speaking of which, I’m not going by the nickname Swifty anymore. It’s like an old T-shirt I’ve grown out of.
I haven’t made any other new friends just yet, but Stella’s forced me to join the writing club at school, so I at least hang out with others. I think I’m actually okay at writing. Maybe.
If you had asked me what I thought of Stella a few years ago, I would’ve said, “Princessy, perfect, annoying.”
But if you look at her now, her blonde hair is slowly turning brown, and she’s actually quite disorganized.
“You can’t be perfect at everything,” she said one day after getting a D+ in art. I giggled and playfully shoved her away.
So I guess the moral of the story that I’m leaving you with is: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” And if you’ve quickly flicked through to the very end of the book you’re holding in your very hands right now, you shouldn’t be either.
But if you are, I still suggest you give this a try. Yes, there’s a cheesy ending, and yes, very clichéd, but yes, you should read it.
And this sounds kinda random, but . . .
People can change. You can change. Your view on books can change. iPhones can change. Towers, parks, and even countries can change.
And that’s what this book is about. Change.