”Hey Becky, will you be honest?”
”You're coming along cuz you have a crush on me, right?”
”Ah! You little twerp—”
”Get over yourself.”
Up front, the mother poodle just let out a weary sigh, as if longing for a glass of wine.
Rini smiled at Timimy, “Of course I like you Tim, but I've already got a boyfriend.”
The little boy's lower-lip curled up sadly. “What's he got that I don't got?”
”Brains.” His sister muttered. “He's not annoying.” She added. “He's more matu—”
”Kelly.” Her mom stated, quieting her daughter.
”Don't worry, Timimy,” Rini smiled, tousling the little tike's hair. “There's plenty of other fish in the sea. Why not start a crush on someone in your own grade?”
”Ew, gross,” he stuck his tongue out. “All the girls I know act like such sissies and babies.”
”And you don't?”
”Moooom, she's doing it again.”
”Kids, please, we're almost there.”
Rini's head rested back as she quietly chuckled. She wondered if they always acted this way, or if it was just because she was there. Then, her smile faded. She glanced out the window, watching as the houses drifted by. Which one was it? Her finger tapped against her thigh in anticipation.
”Why did you wanna come?” Kelly-Elly asked.
The rat tore her gaze from the outside. “Mm, I dunno. Just felt like doing something different. I haven't gone to one of these since... third grade?”
”I gotten a lot better since then,” Timimy beamed.
”I know,” Rini replied genuinely. “I heard you at school, remember?”
”Yeah, but I've gotten even better since then! Ms. Miskerwitz is giving me bigger and bigger parts.”
”Careful little bro, your ego is about to pop.”
The pup looked himself over; “Where? I don't see anything.”
”Thank goodness,” her mother whispered, then announced; “We're here, kids.”
As soon as Rini hopped out of the car and laid eyes on the house, she remembered it.
It was old, and even a bit gaudy. The driveway was made of white rock, which ended beneath an aluminum and probably self-engineered carport. A canopy in that same fashion was constructed at the front of the house. That area had obviously been converted into a patio-esque porch. The lawn directly butted against the red-colored cement that designated the porch area. A set of three Adirondak chairs were gathered on one side; one of them was drastically newer than the others, with faded paint and chipped edges. At the other end, a series of hanging potted plants idly resisted the force of gravity, vines trickling down like tongues curious of what the ground tasted of. Wind-chimes among them were sent tinkling in the spring-evening breeze. The windows of the house were lit up bright orange, covered by white shades to disallow peepers from seeing inside. Here and there, odds and ends were strewn about the skirt of the home: hoses, gardening tools, PVC pipes and rolled-up chicken-wire.
On the outside, the house did not at all lend one to believe that inside was a flute teacher of any kind of caliber.
But, Rini felt, as Timimy knocked on the front door, that Ms. Miskerwitz would not have been able to do this for so many years without having some kind of talent in it.
The door opened to reveal not Ms. Miskerwitz, but rather a very young mousette. She had fur the color of a ripe peach, and Rini had to immediately assume that the little girl had her fur treated—if it was natural, the rat wouldn't be able to like the girl at all. And tonight, Rini didn't want to have a sour mood.
”Hey, Gabby.” Timimy said.
”Um... hi Timmy... Kelly... and...” The girl trailed as her eyes focused upon the stranger.
”Gabriella?” A stout voice came from inside. “Something wrong? Who is at door?”
The mousette scurried away as Ms. Miskerwitz took frame in the threshold. She opened the door all the way. “Ah! Timothy. You late. Come; we were wait for you.”
The pup led the way into the house. As Rini looked over the interior she began to recall how familiar it was, and yet it had changed so much that she had a feeling of jamais vu.
The walls were painted an apple-yellow color. There was a faint cinnamon smell, still drifting through the air from something baked earlier that day. The front area of the home was invitingly open; this was where the other flutists were already gathered. They sat upon colored bean-bags and gathered around a small circle. There were three thick four-by-four support beams, each adorned with something decorative. On the far wall was a mantle, which boasted trophies and certificates, as well little trinkets and knick-knacks.
Similarly to the tools outside, lining the baseboard of the walls were instruments. Most of them flutes, but there were members of the other musical families represented.
It was more like Rini had walked into an alternate-reality version of music class.
”You,” Ms. Miskerwitz suddenly said, pointing at rat. “Remember you; what is name?”
”Rini,” the rat replied, feeling the gaze of over a dozen eyes on her.
”Here to play flute or listen?”
”Just listen.” She replied, adding, “Quietly.”
Ms. Miskerwitz smiled, her bleach-white teeth showing brightly against her charcoal-black fur. “That answer, I am like. Pull up bag, find spot with Kelly. No loud talk, yes?”
”Yes ma'am,” the girls stated, and went to get bean-bags. They situated themselves near the corner by the buckets of instruments.
Rini surveyed the group.
She recognized a couple of them. There was Daniel, whose name she only knew because he was one of the few boys in the class. A chipmunk, but nothing very distinguishing about him. Sitting to his left was a dalmatian-girl with black, curly hair, and a pair of big glasses with blue frames. Her bean-bag was blue, and Ebony was stitched on it in purple, so Rini figured that was her name. It sounded familiar.
Next to Ebony was Gabriella, the mousette that gave the rat another pang of envy. Next to her was Timimy, and next to him were the only two other boys in the class. One was a badger, the other a red-and-white border-collie. The border-collie waved at Rini as she was caught looking at him, and the badger did what badgers do best—badger.
Ms. Miskerwitz had to interrupt her instructions to the girl next to them. “Hunter. Peter. Stop horseplay; this not how we act with visitors.”
The girl next to the boys Rini also recognized. She had fluffy blond hair and, like other ferrets, she was slim and a little tall despite her age. The girl next to her was the only feline in the room, as opposed to the canine majority. A lynx kitten, Vickie also had her name stitched on her bean-bag.
Last, and not by accident, was the rabbit, that she now knew could spell quite well.
Rini noticed that the rabbit looked... a lot different than when she normally saw her. Sure, her ears were down and that wasn't all that usual. But, it was more than that. She looked... almost uncomfortable.
She was sitting much further forward on her bean-bag than anyone else. Her back was arched and her elbows rested on her knees. Her shoulders were up close to her neck, and she was hunched over like she was trying to hide something graphic on her tee-shirt. In her hands was her special Indian-style flute, which she appeared to clutch stiffly.
Daniel said something to her, and she responded. She looked at him with her eyes, but she did not turn her face all the way. Had she, Rini would have been able to see more than just its profile, and she would have most certainly seen the rat at least in her periphery.
”Okay. We start quartet now. Stephanie,” Ms. Miskerwitz pointed her conductor's wand at the ferret; “Start first and remember pause after four-and-half measure. Timothy and Gabriella start at same time.” She pressed her wand in the air to emphasize her next words. “Must synchronize with each other, ya?” The two kids nodded. “Finally,” she pointed her wand. “Lyza.”
The rabbit seemed not to respond.
”Lyza?” The flute instructor questioned, rapping her wand upon the rabbit's music stand.
”I heard,” the rabbit spoke, just under irritated.
”If you not respond when call, how I knowing you pay attention?”
”I'm paying attention,” the rabbit stated defensively.
”You not look so. Sit up. Posture terrible; you waiting for bus or playing flute?”
With a sigh, Lyza adjusted her seating.
”Ready? A-one, a-two...”
”She sounds really mean,” Rini commented to her friend.
”Yeah, sometimes she does,” Kelly agreed. “She made Vickie over there cry a few months ago. She wasn't trying to be mean, she just comes off that way sometimes.”
Before Rini could whisper her thoughts, Stephanie started playing. It was a very chipper tune, that sounded medieval or something of the like. As she was instructed, she played for four measures, then started the fifth just like all the others, but halfway through she paused.
Timimy carried the next note that Stephanie would have played. He had a different flute, so although the note was the same it sounded entirely different. But shortly after he started, Ms. Miskerwitz stopped waving her wand, and shook her head.
”Oh! Was that when I was supposed to start?” Gabriella questioned. “I'm sorry, I lost count...”
”How many beat in measure?” The feline questioned the class.
”Four!” Peter shouted. He was the youngest kid there, so Ms. Miskerwitz admonished his discipline.
”Peter, raise hand just like school. But correct: four beat in measure. Everyone count. One-two-three-four—”
The rest of the class joined in: “Two-two-three-four—three-two-three-four—four-two-three-four—”
”Five-two—stop. That when Stephanie pause, and you and Timothy start.”
”I know,” Gabriella said, humiliated. “I just lost count cuz it's eighths; not quarters.”
Ms. Miskerwitz nodded. “Good. Show me you count it out. I count to four you go, ready? One-two-three-four—”
The mouse took in a breath. “One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight—two-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight—three-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight—four-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight—five-two-three-four—” and very quickly she put her flute in her mouth and played a note.
”Good. Now we on same page, start from top.”
”You know,” Kelly commented, “You didn't have to count with them.”
”Huh?” Rini asked.
Kelly giggled. “Nothing. You were just counting with them.”
”Oh.” The rat chuckled herself. She quieted as she listened, tapping her finger against her palm to count the beats. But she only got to four-two-three before Stephanie's flute decided it just wanted to let out a huff of air.
”Stephanie,” Ms. Miskerwitz said with a tsk. “Come now, take few breaths. In, out, in, out. Have allergies?”
”Good. Just remember pace breath. Start from beginning; Gabriella, get ready. One, two...”
Rini was starting to not really like Ms. Miskerwitz. She never remembered the teacher sounding so... harsh. Maybe it was just the accent she had, but it sounded like everything she said was spiced with disappointment—even when she might have been encouraging.
This time, Stephanie managed her part just fine. And though she did accidentally play the leading note along with Timothy and Gabriella, either Ms. Miskerwitz didn't catch it or she ignored the mishap in favor of moving on.
Timothy and Gabriella played beautifully.
Rini found herself lidding her eyes, listening to their tune. It was much like Stephanie's little solo, but they played at opposing pitches. When Timothy played a high note, Gabriella played a low.
Rini half-expected them to go out of sync and for Ms. Miskerwitz to stop them and start all over, but they did incredibly well staying in pace. Even their right feet bounced up and down at the same time, which is probably how they kept such good tempo.
Then, Stephanie began to play again—a part that Rini was not expecting. She thought Lyza was supposed to start, but maybe this was just something that didn't need to be said. She came back in with very low and very long-held notes. They played for another measure, and then the final member joined the song.
Rini felt the hairs on the nape of her neck prick up just a bit.
The notes that came from the rabbit's flute held a sense of experience. Compared to the others, which sounded wheezy, hesitant, or just not quite proper, the experienced notes were like being able to hear the individual raindrops amidst a flowing river. They were very crisp, very resonant, very vibrant.
They started and stopped so precisely, that Rini could tell the shape, color, and personality of each one.
But then, suddenly, there was ugliness. The stream flooded its banks, and the sky flashed as thunder echoed: pheeeew-whewh.
The squeak was so perturbing that the entire song stopped dead.
Rini opened her eyes, her somnolent trance interrupted by the dissonant squawk. She felt a shiver run down her back, oddly of fear. Like it had been her that caused the interruption.
”What was that?” Ms. Miskerwitz commented, looking at her players. “H-Flat?”
Peter and Hunter started laughing.
”You think funny?” The teacher scolded them. “You think can play song better?”
Both boys donned sorrowful expressions. “No ma'am,” they replied.
”If someone want to be like bird, can go outside.”
”I'm sorry, okay!?”
Rini gasped, catching Kelly's attention. She didn't expect Lyza's outburst. Not because she wasn't prone to such an outburst like that, although from how Rini knew her she was not, but mostly because Rini thought it was one of the other players that had squeaked.
”Lyza, calm down.” Ms. Miskerwitz instructed. “Was you?” She questioned.
Rini heard shame and bitterness in the rabbit's reply.
The instructor gave her student a quizzical look for a silent second. Then shook her head. “I not expect that from you. Very well, start from beginning. Stephanie, ready; Gabriella, ready. One, two, three...”
Rini watched as Lyza collected herself.
The rabbit started shaking just a little, almost invisibly.
Rini could only tell because she was able to see her ears quiver, and that helped her spot the tremble in her hands.
Gabriella and Timimy started again, right on cue. And to the rat, the song began to make her feel serene. It was a pleasant tune, not quite happy but certainly lively. Yet it brought no vision to her mind. Then, just a measure before she was about to play, Lyza placed the flute against her lips. Her fingers danced as she began to play. If she had felt shame before, none of it emanated from her notes.
The rabbit's eyes looked at her music book. The notes globbed and squished together like little ants trying to cut in line. She didn't need to read the music, but she kept her eyes forward. Just keep forward. Just keep forward and keep playing. Don't flick your eyes left, whatever you do don't. Flick. Your eyes—
Again the song stopped. Ms. Miskerwitz looked at Lyza.
”I'm sorry,” the rabbit apologized again, this time laced with frustration and a bit of cold anger.
The instructor sighed. “You having bad day? Visitors make you nervous?”
”No,” Lyza said curtly.
Somehow... Rini heard the lie in her convincing voice.
”Hope not. I seen you play before bigger crowd. All alone. I know you not scared.”
Rini bit her lip. She could tell the rabbit was lying all over the place. She tried to think, but never knew Lyza to be a liar.
She was always so honest, so genuine. Especially when it came to playing the flute. But, this Lyza was nothing like the one at school.
Maybe this was a bad idea after all.
”From beginning, again. One, two...”
By now, Rini was familiar enough with the song to hum along silently with it. She stopped with the duet started, unable to distinguish which thread of music she wanted to play along with. She closed her eyes before Lyza was to start. Come on, you've got this.
But when the rabbit started, she noticed a drastic change in the quality of the notes. They started off weak and meager, their cadence falling like lead almost as soon as they left her flute. But, they rallied and began to gain back their vigor, and the rat's enthusiasm began to build. She clenched her fist, listening with excitement as the notes were almost back to their former glory.
And then the shrill squeak shattered the quartet once more.
Immediately, almost as if Ms. Miskerwitz expected it, her wand rapped upon Lyza's music stand.
”I'm sorry!” The rabbit apologized again, almost like she was afraid she was going to get hit.
”You not have to be sorry,” the instructor stated. “Not looking for sorry. You not like this, you most experienced player I have. What happening?”
”I don't... I don't know,” the rabbit said, gripping her flute.
”You practicing at home, yes?”
Lyza looked down. “I... haven't been able to as much.”
Ms. Miskerwitz crossed her arms. “Oh? What stopping you?”
”We have these tests,” she explained. “We're taking them next week. It's really important, and I've been studying at home, cuz I'm... really worried about passing them.” Her ears swiveled back.
”Well... maybe if you not can handle your part, I give to someone else.”
”No!” The rabbit growled standing defiantly. “I can play it! After the tests are done I can practice.”
The feline shook her head. “Is not just practicing for part am worried abo—”
”Rini! What the heck are you doing!?”
Everyone glanced over to the visitors as, suddenly, another shrill squeak split the air.
Kelly had her hands clasped over her ears, her face scrunched, looking painfully shocked. A heartbeat after the disturbance, she lowered her hands and snapped: ”Did you come here just to embarrass me and my brother?”
Rini lowered the flute from her lips. “No,” she said. “I just... wanted to play.”
”Oh, so now you want play?” Ms. Miskerwitz asked, folding her arms.
”Yeah,” Rini said. “It... looks fun,” she tried to explain.
At first, Ms. Miskerwitz had a bit of scowl on her face, but then she looked down at Lyza, who had taken her seat once again. A smile crossed her whiskers, and she rapped the music stand again.
The rabbit jumped, her flute nearly slipping from her grasp.
”You. I think I know what problem is. You forgetting basics.” She pointed her wand at Rini, but still talked to Lyza. “Take things. Go in other room. Teach basics. Best way to remember is by teach, force you to know your skill.” She rapped her wand once more. “Go.”
Rini watched as Lyza, for the first time, stared directly at her. The look on the rabbit's face was so cold, so pale, and so blank, that it was almost unsettling. Her eyes were almost quivering back and forth, like she was trying hard to focus on something that was moving right in front of her.
In her left hand, she grabbed her music stand. In her right, along with the flute, she picked up her duffel bag. She made her way to the back, and into the hall where, right at the beginning, there was an open door. Before she went in, she silently glanced back at the rat once more. Then, she disappeared into the room.
”Go on,” Ms. Miskerwitz said to Rini. “She is very good teacher, you learn lots. Want go with, Kelly?”
”No,” the poodle said, glancing at her friend. “I'd rather stay here, and be quiet.” She gave her friend a stink-eye, adding: “Like I said I was gonna be.”
”Suit self.” Ms. Miskerwitz shrugged. “Well, since not can do quartet with three, will have to go back to song finished last week. We make sure we have not birds in also that one, yes?”
Kelly folded her arms, resting back on her bean-bag and glancing at her friend from the side. “Well? You wanted to make a scene.”
”Sorry,” Rini apologized genuinely. “I just...”
”I don't care.” She threw her hand up. “Just don't make another one. I'm not like Bitty and Betty, okay?”
”Sorry,” Rini apologized again, and stood up. While the instructor counted down and the other flutists began to play, she slowly stepped toward the door. It was a simple door, colored white with three panels running down its surface.
Rini stood just outside for a second, before she quickly slipped in backwards. The door closed with a low, rippling creek as she shut it. But even thirty seconds after the latch clicked, her hand was still on the knob.