Adolescent Etude in a Minor Key

By Kimberly Chua

“Waiting to see his friend, 

Hoping he will come again…” 

I sway with the music as I sing. My brother joins me as the music picks up, and I roll over on the plush carpet and swipe the lego bricks from my calf. 

“Wishing and hoping and waiting and dreaming of flying high, Just James and the red balloon.” 

I sing the last line an octave higher because it’s low, and the red hot-air balloon fades to black. From the kitchen, my dad says, “She’s definitely a soprano.” My mom nods. 

Interested, I sit up. “What’s a soprano?” 

They turn to me and smile. “It means you have a high singing voice.” 

For some reason, my chest feels as warm and colourful as the pumpkin soup my mom makes during autumn. A soprano? Yes, I am a soprano, and I have a high voice. 

On Friday, my friend asked if I was going to audition for choir. I think I’m going to. 

“Put your chairs up before you leave!” 

There’s the grinding of plastic on rusted metal, then rising babble as we cram into the foyer to retrieve our school bags. My backpack bounces against my back as I run out of the classroom. I’m early! The transition classroom is still quiet—tranquil—so I sit down to wait. When the heavy-footed, laughing children squeeze out the peeling blue door, I spot my brother’s face instantly, dark because he always refuses to wear sunscreen. I’d recognise that face anywhere because I know him. I’d know him anywhere. I squeeze him into a hug, and in synchrony, we fling our bags to the floor, one pink, one black. Then, as I always do, I lift him onto my back and secure his legs around my waist. When I carry him, I feel strong. 

I’m 10 years old and the most intelligent in my class, so I know many things—a multitude of things. One of them is that my brother will always be my best friend.

My brother has obstinately been playing the same three bars repeatedly for the last half hour, progressively getting louder. Dad is frustrated. Everyone is frustrated. Finally, dad gives up and he storms upstairs, his shouts ringing in the air behind him. 

“So kaypoh,” my mom admonishes as I slip onto the piano bench to join my brother. His piece is easy for me to sight-read, especially with my perfect pitch, so I play the line for him without fumbling at all. 

“Eksi,” I hear my mom say, though I detect a note of pride in her exasperated tone. “Show off.” “It’s not overly demanding,” I patiently explain to my brother. “If you change position here, all the notes will be in reach. See?” 

My brother wipes his tears on my shoulder and plays the line again. He makes the same mistakes, but I beam at him and run to get our sticker collections. Painstakingly, I peel away one of my favourite water-filled stickers from Singapore and give it to him for his own book. This time, when he tries it again, he plays with fewer mistakes. I pretend not to notice him trying to reach the pedal under the piano with his short legs. 

My brother’s cropped hair appears over the top of the stairs, and I rush over to greet him. When I return to the stone half-wall with him in tow, another boy has taken my perch. I shoulder my brother’s school bag and glare at the boy intimidatingly until he climbs down, sheepishly muttering an apology. Sneering at him, I toss my hair over my shoulder and help my brother climb into the prized seat. I join him, and we swing our legs in tandem. 

Every Tuesday is tuck shop day, and I get to buy lunch with my $5 allowance. Sausage rolls are $2 apiece, a pie is $3.50, and nachos cost $4.50. My favourite lunch is mince-and-cheese pie. “Guess what?” I ask, forcing a straight face despite the overwhelming urge to smile. His dark eyes are bright with anticipation as he cocks his head. “What?” 

I shift his school bag off my lap and manoeuvre my own over to replace it. The sausage roll at the bottom of my bag is slightly squashed from my bulky pencil case, but the insulated lunch bag has kept it warm. My brother’s eyes widen into shining saucers. 

He loves sausage rolls.

He eats it as we wait for dad to pick us up, head resting on my shoulder. When we get home, I meticulously polish the one remaining dollar for my coin collection. With their cool, heavy weight and shiny finish, I treasure every single one. 

The two trophies on the TV shelf gleam in the bright afternoon sun. I won one of them in a piano competition, and the other one is my top-of-the-year academic trophy from school prize-giving. I preen under my neighbour’s gaze as she admires the trophies, my dad detailing how I earned them. She wants her daughter to start learning to play, and she’d like me to help them choose a piano from the music store. If I’m willing, she’d also like me to teach her the basics. 

My dad volunteers me to play a piece for her, so I skip over to the piano, brushing lint off my layered pink skirt as I sit on the bench. Because it’s showy and impressive, I choose to play Khachaturian’s “Toccata.” Fortissimo, I play the last chords, bowing my head with their force, and bask in the enthusiastic applause that follows. I am brighter than the sun, beaming brighter still with every “Wow!” and “Amazing!” and “So talented!” 

“Do you want to play too?” 

But my brother has run off upstairs during my performance, and my sister shifts awkwardly, looking in the direction of the stairwell and shaking her head in silence. Still grinning, I play Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat major. 

“Can you help me?” 

My brother holds his math workbook by its paper cover, thin pages flopping around and crumpling. I look up from my book to see his red-rimmed eyes and snotty nose. Uneasily, I shift my blanket so he won’t cry on it or dirty my bed. 

“Why don’t you go ask dad? I’m busy.” 

God, he can be so annoying. As he shuffles away, I shake off my discomfort and annoyance and ignore his pitiful sniffles. The Final Empire, with its magic and balls and quests, awaits. 

“What?” I frown at my sister, who is glancing at me from the corner of her eye. “I helped him yesterday. He knows how to do it.”

She just looks at me a moment longer, then notices the book I’m reading and laughs. “Has he died yet?” 

In choir on Wednesday, we started “The Rainbow Connection.” I’ve sung it for auditions for years, but now I have actual, physical sheet music. I squint at the notes, fingers hesitantly hovering over white-and-black keys while my mother cooks dinner in the kitchen. I’m terrible at sight-reading. 

Finally, I begin to play oh-so-slowly, but it sounds pretty, even without the main melody. Pots continue to clank in the kitchen, but they’re a little quieter. Sneaking a glance at the stairwell, I begin to hum the tune under my breath. It really is a beautiful song. 

There’s no response, so I finish humming the stanza, then tentatively begin to sing. “Who said that ever—” 

From upstairs, my sister’s voice bellows. “Shut up!” I cringe, but resolutely continue singing over my sister, and my brother, too, when he joins in the antagonistic screaming. 

“Who said that every wish 

Would be heard and answered 

When wished on the morning st—” 

This time, I am cut off by my mother. “Stop,” she tells me, her voice frigid. “I don’t want to deal with this today.” 

For a while, I stare at the score in front of me, fingers still pressing noiselessly on the piano keys. They’re all jealous. 

“Spoiler alert! Teenager! Spoiler alert! Teenager!” 

We are drunk on the exhilaration of being up at night, bellies stuffed and cheeks flushed the colour of ripe apples. My birthday was a couple of days ago, and I am now a teenager. 

“Spoiler alert!” 

They are mocking my height–how can someone as short as me be a teenager? I can still get into the children’s rides at carnivals. I like to ride them with my brother, while my sister rides stomach-turning roller coasters.

“Spoiler alert! Spoiler alert! Spoiler alert!” 

Their voices are loud. Too loud. I kind of want them just to stop. 

“Spoiler alert! Teenager!” 

Please stop. 

Finally, the car stops, red lights turning off and plunging us into darkness. I reach for my book, flinching as my brother and sister engage in a screaming contest. 

Various toys are strewn across the floor, and my brother and sister sit cross-legged in the centre. “OT,” my brother scolds, tapping a stuffed ocelot on the nose. “You’re not allowed to steal Oncey’s fish.” “Isn’t that OC?” I ask. I’m pretty sure I know all of the toy names, and I know for certain that the green-eyed, bright yellow ocelot is named OC. 

My sister takes the ocelot, pitching her voice high. “I’m OT,” she replies. “I’m a puma and I have brown eyes!” 

“Yeah.” My brother pushes me out of the way, reaching for a stuffed wolf behind me. “Don’t be stupid.” I raise my eyebrow at him and sneer, but this is their game, so I go upstairs and leave them to their toys. Besides, the stack of books at my bedside awaits. 

I don’t like to play my brother’s games. They’re all inspired by his favourite computer game, CSGO, and are always violent. Nerf bullets and plastic lightsabers hurt, leaving little red marks that fade in seconds. When I trail my fingers over my unblemished arms, a phantom pain deeper than a bruise lingers. He and my sister recently took up karate. When I try to hug him, he moves into defensive stances that hurt more than any foam bullet or styrofoam sword. It tastes bittersweet. 

I love to play my brother’s games. They are exhilarating, even if I always lose. They make my brother smile at me. 

“What is your greatest ambition?”

Today is the first day of our Macbeth unit, and that is the first of the pre-reading questions. There are a couple of raised hands scattered around the classroom; training my eyes carefully on the table in front of me, legs crossed tight, I am not one of them. 

My greatest ambition? How am I supposed to think about the future when everything I want is lost in the past? 

I pause at the top of the staircase, fingers tightening on the bannister. The door to my sister’s room is closed, but I can hear her laughter. She has my mother’s laugh—I remember that, even though I don’t really see her much at all. 

But that’s not what caught my attention. 

There’s a second voice. It’s deep, in the awkward stage where a boy’s voice fluctuates between before-and-after, and it’s slightly distorted through my sister’s computer speaker. My brother. 

I only know it’s his voice because he video-calls every Saturday; without context, I wouldn’t recognise it at all. Apparently, he’s taller than my mother now, and a teenager, so I’m not sure that I’d recognise him, either. He’s laughing too, and they’re exchanging words like “sus” and “imposter” and “report.” They must have come up with another new game. 

My two siblings are very close. They’re six years apart, yet they find the same things funny and understand each other in a way I cannot. I’ve tried. 

I can hear his laughter through two doors and an ocean. It’s an unfamiliar sound. For a second longer, I allow myself to linger, then close the door to my own room and sit at my desk. My sketchbook is open, four hours’ worth of clean, precise pencil lines making up the head and shoulders of Ahri, my brother’s favourite “champion.” I don’t understand League of Legends, the video game source, but my brother loves it—or at least he did, the last time we were in the same country. I’ve barely completed a quarter of what will be a full-colour, multi-medium rendering, so I pull it forward, pencil balanced on my index finger. 

It will be perfect. Gifts have to be.

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