One step, three steps, six steps, then turn. Ten minutes and fifteen seconds till time. Two steps, four steps, six steps, then turn again. Ten minutes and nine seconds till time. Three steps, four steps, five steps…

“Alex, stop it. You’re making me edgy. Besides, people are staring.”

“Sorry.” The boy ceased his pacing and leaned against the wall. Tilting his head backwards, he could hear another student playing through the wood, or whatever substance the walls of were made of. He heard the other student make a mistake. Nine minutes and thirty-three seconds till his time.

“They probably don’t want you doing that.”

“Doing what?”

“Leaning against the wall like that. It’s not good for it. You get body oils all over it.”

“Shut up, Mary,” he said, but stood up.

Nine minutes and twenty seconds till his time. He began tapping his fingers on the books he was holding to his chest. Nine minutes and eight seconds till he would use them; or at least, the teacher would.

“Stop that.”

“What?”

That. That tapping.”

“So what, I’m not allowed to do anything? Am I allowed to breath?”

The girl pushed back her hair. “Actually, taking deep, rhythmical breaths helps calm you.”

“Every time I do that I start hyper-ventilating.”

“That’s because you take them too fast. “

Eight minutes and three seconds until he would enter that room. “How come you’re not nervous?” he asked.

Her features arranged themselves into that complacent look he so despised. “Because I’ve practiced. I know my pieces. I wish I could say the same for you.” She sniffed, whether from superiority or the cold of the building he wasn’t sure, so he opted for the former.

“Well, if you wouldn’t hog the piano at home so much…”

She almost snorted. “You know you can’t use that excuse. I practice as soon as we get home from school from three-thirty to four-thirty, and you have plenty of time to practice after that to your heart’s content, but you don’t.”

Six minutes and fifty-nine seconds until all that not practicing paid off. “I’m just…not in the mood.”

This time she did snort. “In the mood?”

“Yeah.” Six minutes and forty-seven seconds until that mood had better come upon him. “I’ve got Chopin. He requires a certain…touch and…mood, unlike your Bach.” Six minutes and thirty-six seconds for his fingers to warm up.

She gave him that look again. “Contrary to your misguided prejudices, Bach does require a certain touch…” She stopped, and he didn’t pursue it. They’d had this discussion millions of times. Neither felt like bringing it up again here, waiting in the hallway for their turn before the judge. Five minutes until he actually saw that judge.

He thought of other Piano Federation-related arguments he could bring up. Why did their piano teacher book them such an early spot? Why was he going first? Was a man or lady judge better? Which had better handwriting? Why did he have to memorize his piece? Why was the building so cold? Would it be a good piano, or would the pedal stick like the one last year? What if they simply forgot their pieces? Four minutes until he would find out.

“That’s the seventh mistake that student has made,” she observed.

“Good for us.”

“It’s not a competition like that,” she reminded him.

He would have snapped back, but the sound of the piano in the other room had suddenly died. A long pause, and then the door opened, and the other student, a girl, walked out. She looked relieved, if flustered. The door banged shut. Three minutes until time. Two minutes…and then the door opened again, and the judge, a woman wearing glasses, said: “Alex Walker?”

He stepped forward, oblivious of the fact that it wasn’t exactly time yet. He walked in the room. He gave the judge his music and sat down at the piano. “Begin when you’re ready,” the judge said.

Begin when you’re ready, and just play, just forget, Don’t remember about the judge, forget about your teacher, your mother, your sister, forget about time. Who cares about time, or moods, or practicing? Ultimately, what you get is what your deserve. Just play, just do your best, and hope that God blesses you.

When it was over, he couldn’t glean anything from the judge’s expression, but then, he didn’t really want to. After all, who cared about such droll things as rhythms or beats or appropriate amounts of softness and loudness? Federation was over and gone, and wouldn’t come back to haunt him until next year.

“You only made two mistakes,” Mary noted as he exited, feeling extremely light.

“Yeah, well, could’ve been worse.” He was smiling, actually smiling. “Good luck.”

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