Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, with a story out of the past—literally. Earlier this month, I received a letter from an old high school friend. She enclosed a short story for children that I wrote in the late 1980s. She had a copy because she and her husband and two kids paid us a visit back then and when I was showing off how easy it was to make changes using my brand new Tandy 1000 personal computer, I used this story as an example. I changed the characters’ names to those of my friend and her children and printed up the result.
This is one of those pieces that grew out of the fact that, even as a child, I had strong opinions about things. At the time I wrote this short story, I was concentrating on writing books and stories for middle-grades readers. A writer much more successful than I in this market, Jane Yolen, had recently been keynote speaker at a “Young Writers Conference” held at the University of Maine at Farmington. One of the things she said impressed me greatly. It was her opinion that someone who wanted to write for children didn’t need to have children, and didn’t even need to like children. It was only necessary to remember what it was like to be a child. I did remember, and what follows is one version of one of the results.
“I want to die!” Nessie wailed. Lisa and Cheryl ignored her. “I just want to curl up and die!”
“Oh, Vanessa, cut it out.” Lisa hoisted herself up to sit on the cement ledge that ran along the outside of the gym and brought out her noon hour supply of candy.
Nessie waved away a gooey chocolate, peanut, and coconut bar. “I mean it! I can’t go through with it. I’d rather die!”
“So tell your parents,” Cheryl suggested. “Tell them you don’t want to be in the recital.”
“I can’t. They won’t understand. They think the recital is the important part. It took me two years to talk them into lessons. If I say I don’t want to be in the recital, they’ll think I don’t want lessons anymore either.”
“Of course I do. I like learning to play. I just don’t want to do it in public.”
“Oo tud bwake a finner,” Lisa mumbled through her peanut butter-toffee-caramel bar.
“I could what?”
“Break a finger,” Lisa repeated slowly. “Remember when I fell off the skateboard right before the ballet recital and broke my toe. I couldn’t dance. If you broke a finger, you wouldn’t have to play the piano.”
Nessie held out long, slender fingers. Her stomach flipped over. She didn’t want to play in the recital. The idea made her nervous enough to throw up. But she couldn’t just break something, either. Besides, then she wouldn’t be able to play piano for herself.
“Maybe you’ll be lucky and get your hand caught in the door,” Cheryl said.
Lisa giggled. “Or the food processor.”
“I wish I’d never brought it up.”
Lisa finished her third candy bar and licked her fingers. “You really mean that, don’t you? You’re scared.”
Nessie felt her face getting red, but she nodded. Lisa and Cheryl were her best friends. If they couldn’t help her, nobody could. “I don’t want to go out there in front of all those people and make a fool of myself, especially since I’m so much older than all the other first-year students.”
“So don’t. Don’t show up.”
“Mom and Dad are going to pick me up right after school and drive me there. I can’t escape.”
“Then you’ll just have to think positively,” Cheryl said. “Convince yourself you’ll be great.”
“There’s no way I can be,” Nessie told her. “My recital piece is awful—all sixteenth notes. It’s a Ukrainian folk dance and it’s harder than anything in my first year piano book.”
“How come what?”
“Why did you pick it if it’s so hard?”
“But I didn’t. Mrs. Glasgow chooses all the tunes for us. This year’s recital theme is folk music from around the world. She’s had me practicing that dumb dance for three months now.”
“Sounds like the recital is to show off Mrs. Glasgow,” Cheryl said, “instead of her students.”
The three friends lapsed into silence, leaning against the warm bricks of the school building. Suddenly Nessie sat up straight and nearly tumbled off the ledge.
“I’ve got it!” she shouted.
“You’ve got a funny look on your face,” Cheryl said suspiciously. “What are you plotting?”
“Come to my recital this afternoon and you’ll see.” She wouldn’t tell them any more than that.
Four hours later, Nessie stood behind the curtain, her hands clenched and beads of sweat standing out on her forehead. The boy at the piano was playing “Turkey in the Straw”—badly. It was worse because everyone knew how it was supposed to sound. Nessie was beginning to wonder if she’d made the right decision after all, but it was too late to back out. The boy played one last jarring chord and stood up. It was her turn to walk onto the stage.
Nessie reached the piano bench, but she didn’t sit down. Instead she took a deep breath and swung toward the audience. She picked out her mother and father sitting in the middle. Mrs. Glasgow was on one side, making fluttery motions at her to get on with it. Lisa and Cheryl were way in the back. Well, Nessie thought, at least they’ll understand.
“My name is Vanessa,” she announced. Her voice broke, but she cleared her throat and went on. “I’m going to play my favorite song from the first year piano book because I like it better than my recital piece, and because I can play it better too.”
She sat down quickly, before she could lose her nerve, and struck the first notes.
The audience seemed to fade away as Nessie concentrated. Soon she was only aware of her piano and the music she was making. She forgot to be scared, forgot to wonder if she would hit the right chord, forgot to worry about whether Mrs. Glasgow was angry with her or not.
Note by note, her excitement grew as she realized she was performing flawlessly. The end of the piece came much too soon. With only a moment’s pause, Nessie started a second tune. Halfway through the Ukrainian folk dance she began to smile.
This is the first time this story has been in print, although the gist of it became part of the backstory for a character in my romance novel, Separated Sisters (ebook published under my original title, Family Lies). There were a lot more magazines for children back in the day, so it racked up a total of eleven rejections in several versions before I stopped submitting it. Here’s a question for readers: what do you think was the number one reason given for rejecting it? I’ll put the answer in the comments section after folks have had a chance to chime in with their thoughts. Hint: it was not the fact that I used way too many exclamation points.
Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of over fifty books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category for “The Blessing Witch.” Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (Kilt at the Highland Games) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries (Murder in a Cornish Alehouse) as Kathy. The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” series and is set in Elizabethan England. New in 2017 is a collection of Kathy’s short stories, Different Times, Different Crimes. Her websites are www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com