A Different Type of Practice
Zac ran his nimble fingers over the case, feeling the bumps of the wood beneath them. With a mournful expression, he set it carefully down on the dirt to the side of the swing so he wouldn’t hit it while swinging. He stared at it, almost wishing it would disappear.
“Why’d you bring that?” his friend asked. The female blue Lupe eyed it while adjusting herself comfortably into the swing’s seat. “You’ve never brought it to the park before.”
Not replying, Zac started to swing his paws back and forth for momentum. The Lupe started swinging herself, so she could talk to him.
“What’s the matter? It’s your flute, right?” she asked over the rush of air flying past them. Overhead, the sky was bright with fluffy clouds- the perfect day for play.
“Yes, it is,” he said so softly Erika, the Lupe, could barely hear it. “I have a recital at the Art Centre in an hour.”
“And what’s so bad about that?” she asked, confused. “You’re the best flute player around!”
The Xweetok sighed and smoothed his red fur back. “I’m not bad, but the song I’m playing is hard! I’m just not ready for it. My entire family will be there- even my grandparents from Terror Mountain!”
Erika stopped swinging, and after a moment the swing hung limp. Before speaking, she looked around at the other Neopians in the park. There were many of them, it being perfect weather and a weekend. “What do you mean? You didn’t practice?”
“Of course I did!” He stopped the swing as well. Side-by-side with his friend, Zac hung his head. “But you know that feeling when you’re just over your head?”
Erika nodded. “Why? I mean, you’ve been known to get a song one day, and recite it the next! You’re the master of procrastination!”
“Maybe, but this time the song had to be memorized,” he whispered. “I didn’t know that until today!” He twisted his paws together nervously.
Erika shrugged. “Take a stand up with you, then. Put your music on it, and then voila, you’re done. Simple, really.”
Zac bent down and picked up the case by the handle. “I can’t. The others playing are all professional- I’ll look like an amateur if I bring up a stand! I can only do one- play the music well, or memorize it. Not both. How am I supposed to remember notes, melodies, dynamics and such? It’s just so complicated!” He put his head in his paws. “I’m dead meat.”
Neither said anything. Anyway they looked at it, Zac would have to present his musical piece poorly. There just wasn’t enough time to perfect the piece.
“I’ve had the piece for two weeks to work on,” Zac moaned. “I can’t believe I didn’t work harder to memorize it well! I need to practice it many, many more times.”
“So why don’t you?” Erika said absentmindedly. She kicked her paws, swinging slightly. “Just play right now. You can practice.”
Zac raised an eye at her. “Really? Should I? But it’s the park!”
The Lupe shrugged. “You can get some practicing in. Perhaps passersby will have tips for you.”
Zac took a deep breath. “It won’t help me, but I might as well try.”
He opened the case, and on a plush cushion of red velvet sat a flute broken into three pieces. Quickly and professionally he put the flute together. It was silver, and it gleamed wonderfully in the light of the sun. Just looking at it made Zac feel better and slightly more confident in his abilities.
Hopping off the swing, Zac and Erika went over the dirt sidewalk and sat on the edge where the grass and dirt met. It allowed him to sit straight and have his back to the sun so he wouldn’t be blinded by it.
“I don’t know why I’m doing this,” he muttered. Taking a deep breath, Zac brought the flute to his lips. Starting slowly, he played the first note of the piece.
Erika had heard Zac play before, but nothing was quite like this. Yes, it did need work –some notes were off- but overall it was fantastic. It was slow and sad, making her nearly cry.
The song, to Zac’s surprise, caught the attention of the other Neopians in the area. They all slowly encroached on their position, until by the end of the song Zac had gathered a small crowd. They all clapped and smiled when he brought the flute down to his lap.
A Skeith stepped forward. “That was quite good,” he said. “Very, very good. And you’re his sister, I imagine?”
Erika took a step back, shocked at what he was thinking.
“Shame someone like you is without a Neohome. Here, take this.” He flipped a few small coins into the open flute case, and escaped into the crowd before Zac could rebut him. All of a sudden, the others dug into their purses or bags and brought out coins that were rapidly dropped into the case. They all smiled at him and left within a minute. The pair were too shocked to speak, staring at the small pile of coins in the case.
“That... was... incredible...” whispered Erika. “They thought we were poor! And without a Neohome!”
Zac nodded, and dumped out the case. After a minute, he said, “We made fifty Neopoints in five minutes!”
The Lupe whistled. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“Yes, and no, I’m not going to do it.”
“Oh, come on, we could make some serious cash this way! Just pretend you’re poor and keep playing!”
Zac took another deep breath. “But I’m not poor. We’re scamming those people out of hard-earned money!”
Erika had a look of astonishment plastered on her face. “But we’re poor in comparison to the richest Neopians! Think of it that way. And besides, it’s a hard world out there. You’re working honestly for it!”
The Xweetok couldn’t help but see the logic, however small it was. “Fine,” he said. “But we won’t make that much.”
When Zac started the song for the second time, a crowd even larger than the first one gathered to watch. Erika noted that this time, the song was much better than the first time. Zac escaped further into the music than he ever had before- with the crowd watching, the notes seemed to come together with ease that he didn’t know was possible.
Finished, Zac smiled softly and watched in astonishment as the coins piled up in his small case. The crowd all looked at him with pity, sympathy, and wonder at the same time at the young flutist.
After they dispersed, Erika grinned in a fiendish glee at the overflowing case. “Oh, Zac, this is perfect! And look, even more people are coming to the park, now!”
Erika was right. As the sun climbed higher in the sky, making Zac’s back warm uncomfortably, more and more Neopians made their way into the massive area of the park. It was the highlight of the neighborhood. There were fields for sports, playgrounds for anyone, and small forest and ponds.
“Wait a second,” Erika said. She dug her paws into the ground behind them, which was mainly an open field with a forest bordering it. She took a clump of dirt, went back to Zac, and ran it all over in his fur.
“Hey!” he yelled, nearly dropping the flute. “What are you doing?”
“You have to look the part!” she answered, dignified. “This will certainly make them give more money.”
Erika stepped back after putting leaves and twigs in his fur with an admiring look at her work. Zac looked like he was certainly Neohome-less. Guilt was slowly piling up within him, but seeing the coins, it was quickly pushed down.
She did the same to herself, to act like his sister, then sat beside her friend. “I can be your... herald,” she said. “Are you up for playing again?”
Zac nodded, glad that she was worried about his playing and not overly-obsessed about the money. “Yes, I am. Only a few more times, though. I have to get going soon!”
Erika looked a little put-out, but eventually perked up again when she saw Neopians walking along the dirt path towards them. “Start playing!” she whispered.
For the third time that day, Neopians of all colors and species gathered around them. The crowd had nearly doubled in size from the previous one, and the coins were piling up around the case. After the song, Erika said in a weak voice, “Oh, thank you all for your generosity! My brother and I could not survive without it!”
This caused even more outpouring of coins.
Meanwhile, Zac shifted awkwardly under the looks of them all. He felt like he was being scrutinized. As soon as the crowd gathered, it all disappeared except for one, lone Xweetok.
“Oh, no,” he whispered. “It’s my mother.”
Erika barely maintained a gasp. “Oh, no!”
Zac’s mother came up to them with a look of pity plastered across her face. Zac refused to meet her eyes, waiting for the punishment he’d receive for this. He dropped his head, looking ashamed. From the corner of his eye, he saw Erika doing the same.
“You’re a wonderful player,” she said. “My son is nearly as good as you are! Here, you go.”
Shock cascaded onto Zac. He tried to cover his surprise with a cough, which his mom frowned at. Erika looked just as dumbfounded. With the mud, twigs and sticks in his fur, his mother hadn’t recognized him! They were even more shocked as she threw about 100 Neopoints into the case, which was barely visible underneath the coins.
Zac’s mother handed him a card. “That’s the Soup Faerie’s location. If you don’t know about her, you may want to go over there. She may be able to help you. Have a nice day!”
She smiled, and then was gone.
Zac and Erika sat there in the uncomfortable sun, not breathing until Zac finally said, “Now that could have been a disaster. I’m just glad she didn’t recognize the song.”
Erika nodded, and as soon as she saw Zac’s mother round a bend in the path, she started pulling out the twigs in his fur. “You have to go soon,” she reminded him, voice still shocked. “And you look a mess.”
Zac nodded. He took a few handfuls of water and washed the mud from his face, then helped Erika with her own twigs.
“Good luck,” his mother whispered into Zac’s ear. His heart raced uncontrollably. Here he was, at the Art Centre, off at the sidelines of the stage. The crowd of fifty seemed much larger in this massive concert hall. Tall windows and long draperies made Zac feel much, much smaller.
Zac bit his tongue, then stepped onto the stage. He had only his flute. Nothing else. No music, no accompanist at the piano. He had decided to not go with the music, and just do it as best as he could.
He nodded his head in respect to the crowd, then picked up the flute to his mouth.
As he began, he knew there was something different in the way he played. The melody was much sadder than before, and the whole piece was subdued. He couldn’t help but have his eyes drawn to the audience, and he nearly dropped the flute when he realized a few people were crying.
At the very end of the piece, ending in a very difficult series of notes, the audience roared and launched to their feet, cheering him. Zac took a deep breath- he had done it better than perfectly! He nodded his head once again to the audience, and left the stage.
“That was incredible!” his mother nearly tackled him in a massive hug. “Oh, that was amazing.”
Zac grinned wildly. How had he done it?
After his grandparents had congratulated him, he managed to escape from the crowd pressed against all of the performers. Zac’s performance had been the last of the show, and now was the time to talk with family members and eat the snacks lined around the room. He managed to make it to the door, and from there, outside. He knew he only had a few moments.
“Erika?” he called, looking around. He had asked her to wait for him, outside the Centre. He had told her specifically to stay out of view from anyone else.
“Here!” she said, appearing from behind a pillar. “I’ve been waiting forever! Anyways, what did you want? Why did I have to bring the money? Why did I have to hide?”
She held up a bulging shopping bag, filled to the brim with the Neopoints collected from their earlier adventure. He could tell she was nearly about to explode with questions.
“Thanks for waiting,” he said. “We should hurry, before they find I’m missing.”
Erika huffed, realizing he was dodging her question. He set off to the west at a light job down the path, and Erika ran to catch up with him. She nearly tripped over a few, young, playing Neopets but eventually came up to pace with him.
“Zac!” she called. “This is heavy! But where are we going?”
Zac just grinned, loosening the tie around his neck. The sun seemed to burn even harder down on them, and he was even hotter in the dress clothes he was in. “Just hurry!”
After just a minute, Erika caught on. “Zac,” she groaned. “Are you kidding?”
“Nope,” he said, his excitement over the success of his playing not worn off yet. “Can I have the bag?”
She stared down at it, knowing that what they were about to do was the right thing. “Here,” she said, with just a tinge of regret in her voice. She picked up a few dropped coins and placed them back in the bag.
“Thanks.” He took the bag with a grunt, not realizing how heavy it was. Then, he walked the next few paces to the Money Tree and set the bag down.
He clapped his hands together, some leftover dirt falling off, and turned back to Erika. “There,” he said. “Now people who really do need it can have it. We may not have done the right thing in the first place, but at least we can now.”
Erika nodded. “Zac, I’m sorry for dragging you into this. I just wanted to make a few Neopoints.”
Zac just smiled again. “It’s fine. See?”
He waved his hand backward, and as he expecting, the money was already gone. He had played with his soul back in the Centre, and he hoped to share some of that feeling with the lucky Neopians who had received the money. He attributed his playing to pure luck, but that was fine, he eventually decided. He had risked a lot, and learned his lesson.
Erika smiled. “Yeah. I see what you mean.”
The duo linked arms and walked back to the Art Centre, grinning.