The Competition


Twelve-year-old Elizabeth watched Carol’s long fingers glide smoothly over the black and white piano keys.

“Excellent, Carol!” Mrs. Brown exclaimed for the second time in a matter of minutes. “You’ll do beautifully in Saturday’s competition. I’m expecting you to win that trophy again this year.”

Elizabeth squirmed uneasily and rubbed her moist palms together. The grandfather clock against the wall seemed to stare at her. It wasn’t easy following Mrs. Brown’s best student at piano lessons every week. No matter how hard Elizabeth practiced, she always felt a bit inadequate compared to Carol.

“The competition begins promptly at two o’clock Saturday,” Mrs. Brown told Carol.

“I’ll be here,” Carol replied. “I want to add this year’s trophy to my collection. See you Saturday, Mrs. Brown.” Carol walked confidently across the room to the door, ignoring Elizabeth.

“Let’s get started, Elizabeth,” the teacher said, motioning her toward the piano. The bench felt hard and unfriendly as Elizabeth sat down and slid to the center. In a way, Mrs. Brown still frightened her, even after two years of lessons.

“Arch those fingers, and wrists down,” Mrs. Brown began. “And please count out loud.”

Elizabeth began her scales. “One, two, and three and four and one,” she repeated again and again. Her fingers were loose and steady. Those extra hours of practicing were making a difference.

“Sounds good, Elizabeth.” Mrs. Brown’s voice sounded a little surprised. “Now let’s try your piece for the competition Saturday.”

Elizabeth took the teacher’s request as a challenge. Her fingers were like the smoothly moving parts of a machine as they glided almost effortlessly over the keys. The music was soft, then loud; sweet, then proud. She turned the last page and finished the piece boldly.

“Good, Elizabeth!” Mrs. Brown exclaimed. “Very good. In fact, Elizabeth, that performance deserves a bravo!”

Elizabeth smiled, her eyes glistening happily. She knew that she had to be good to receive comments like those from Mrs. Brown.

“Those judges are going to have quite a decision to make on Saturday if you play this well then, Elizabeth,” her teacher praised her at the end of the lesson. “The best of luck to you. Remember, the competition starts at two o’clock.”

Elizabeth walked outside in a daze and waited for her ride. Bravo! she thought, recalling Mrs. Brown’s words. She sat down on the grass and began imagining herself in a large, dark concert hall, bowing to thunderous applause. Hot theater lights made her perspire as she curtsied proudly.

The out-of-tune honk of her mother’s car horn startled Elizabeth and brought her back to reality. “Mother!” Elizabeth cried. She grabbed her books, jumped up, and ran excitedly to the car. “Mrs. Brown liked my playing today. She said I even have a chance for the trophy at the competition on—“

“Slow down, Elizabeth,” her mother interrupted. But there was a pleased look on her face. “Tell me all about it from the beginning.” She pulled the car slowly into the street.

“Oh, Mother,” Elizabeth began, “after I listened to Carol play today, I was really discouraged. She never makes a mistake, and she’s won the trophy the past three years.”

“Carol is a good player,” her mother responded honestly.

“But when I played my piece for Mrs. Brown, she liked it. She said ‘Bravo,’ Mother. And she said that the judges would have a hard time choosing a winner on Saturday.”

“All those hours at the piano are really beginning to pay off,” her mother replied encouragingly. “I always believed that you had a real talent for the piano.”

Elizabeth spent many hours the next three days seated at the upright piano in the corner of the living room. Her fingers worked endlessly. All she could think about was winning the trophy.

Autumn turned annoyingly into winter the Saturday of the competition. Gray black clouds filled the sky, and before noon large snowflakes were falling.

Elizabeth practiced playing her piece for what seemed to be the thousandth time. Nervously she put on her favorite blue dress. Her shining dark brown hair lay clean on her shoulders.

“I’m ready to go,” she told her father. Her little brothers wore their white shirts and dress pants.

“Let’s get started then,” Dad said. “This storm has turned into a blizzard. We’ll need extra time to get to the competition.”

The windshield wipers on the car slapped noisily from side to side, sweeping the snowflakes aside as they accumulated. As the car wound slowly toward the studio, the storm worsened, and cars began sliding on the road.

“What if we’re too late, Dad?” Elizabeth asked anxiously.

“I think we’ll make it, if we’re careful,” her father reassured her.

Elizabeth relaxed momentarily, leaned back in her seat, and closed her eyes. We just have to make it! she thought. I’ve worked too hard to miss the competition.

The monotony of the windshield wipers was interrupted by a slushy, skidding sound. Elizabeth opened her eyes to see a large sedan slide off the road.

“Looks like they’re in trouble,” her father said grimly.

Elizabeth stared out the window at the struggling vehicle as their own car crept slowly by. The sedan seemed to be hopelessly stuck.

Suddenly Elizabeth recognized it. It was the one always parked in front of the piano studio when she arrived for her lesson. Carol was inside that car! Mrs. Brown’s best piano student was agonizing, no doubt, as she listened to the car’s wheels whine desperately.

A triumphant smile spread over Elizabeth’s face as she imagined the trophy on her dresser. After all, it was not her fault that Carol’s car had slipped off the road.

The big sedan was not much more than a spot in the distance now, and Mrs. Brown’s studio was just a few minutes away. But Elizabeth felt uneasy. Her earlier enthusiasm for an easy victory had disappeared. Several times she squinted out the back window at the stalled car. It had not moved.

“We’re going to make it, Elizabeth!” her father said happily. “We’ll be there in no time.”

“Dad, you have to turn back,” Elizabeth declared firmly.

Elizabeth’s mother and brothers stared at her.

“Carol was in that car back there that slid off the road. If we don’t go back and help, she’ll never make it in time to play.”

“I’ll do whatever you want, Elizabeth, but we’re sure to be late.”

“Then stop and turn around, Dad. Now. We can both still make it if we play last.” Elizabeth sounded sure about her decision.

Slowly her father brought the car to a halt. He turned it around carefully and drove back to the car that was stuck.

Later the audience clapped enthusiastically as Carol stood and walked to the judges’ stand. She had performed flawlessly. Her hands grasped the tall trophy.

Behind Carol, out of the bright lights, Elizabeth stood with the other contenders. She had not won the trophy, but she knew that her parents were equally proud of her. A feeling of contentment came over her as she realized that some things were even more important than winning a trophy.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Robyn S. Officer