Out of the Fire

Times had been hard since Julia’s father remarried. His new wife, Angelica, had no time and little to no interest in taking care of Julia, and so left her alone and feeling unloved. As an eight-year-old, this was painfully hard. More than anything, Julia yearned to be held in someone’s arms and hear the words, “I love you”. But day after day passed without a single encouraging sound.

Her father traveled a lot for work, so he was seldom home. Recently he flew off to Switzerland, a land that Julia longed to see, leaving instructions for Angelica to take his daughter shopping for new school clothes.

Like all kids, Julia loved new clothes. The first week of school everyone wore new stuff, showing off all the big-name brands that their parents had purchased. Before her father remarried, Julia was just like those kids, standing proud with her Nike shoes and Addidas yoga pants.

Angelica, however, did not take Julia to Macy’s or Nordstrom’s so that Julia could get the best clothes. No. She took her to WalMart and Target and hastily picked out the cheapest clothes she could find. Julia was given no say in what was purchased. In fact, when she complained about a neon orange t-shirt with a dinosaur covered in sparkles, she was told to shut up and be grateful for what she got. So she wore unpopular clothes and for the last two years had been the laughingstock of her class.

While her father was gone this time, without giving prior notice, Angelica moved in her three nieces, bulky teenagers with puffy faces and lumberjack thighs. The girls were haughty, rude and disrespectful to Angelica, openly ridiculing her and making fun of the way their aunt walked and talked, but it didn’t seem to matter as they were never disciplined. Because of this, the teens saw an opportunity to pick on Julia mercilessly, teasing her about her hair, her nibbled-on finger nails, and her dishwater-blue eyes.

One day a flyer appeared in their mailbox advertising a contest in which one singer would earn a full scholarship to Johnson School for the Arts in Denver, a residential school housed in a refurbished mansion.

Because Julia loved music, she dreamt of winning and of the escape it would bring. Every evening after she finished her seemingly endless list of chores, she retreated to her bedroom and sang every song that came to mind. She pictured herself on stage, standing before a panel of judges, hitting every note perfectly, so perfectly that she would be declared the winner right on the spot.

Her stepmother’s nieces also practiced. Not a one of them could sing on tune for more than a few notes and they had no sense of rhythm or timing, and even though they used a karaoke machine, they messed up the words.

Julia loved hearing them fail time after time. She knew that they would embarrass themselves on stage, probably earning a chorus of mocking chants similar to what they dished out to Julia. Julia pictured them turning beat red as the judges critiqued their performances, finding so many faults that there was much more negative than positive.

Finally after weeks of anticipation, the third Saturday in August arrived, the day of the contest. Angelica told her nieces to wear their best clothes and to do up their hair so as to look their best. Julia put on her only dress, even though it was practically see–through, combed out her shoulder-length hair and rubbed lotion on her arms and face.

When it was time to leave, Julia headed for the car. Angelica stood in her way, arms crossed over her chest, glowering. “You can’t go looking like that,” she said. “Go put on one of your new outfits.”

Julia went upstairs and changed as quickly as she could. Because she had no other dress, she wore her new pants, shoes and shirt. But she must have taken too long, for by the time she stepped out the front door, the car was gone.

Tears formed in her eyes. Julia thought about giving up and going inside, but then she remembered her dream. There was a chance that she might make it in time, if she was lucky and her friend Nat was at home. She walked as quickly as she could and when she arrived, Nat’s mom answered the door. Her mom invited Julia inside and offered her a glass of cold water.

After hearing Julia’s sad tale, the mom said, “Take Julia upstairs and have her try on a few of your dresses. When you find one that looks good, get dressed and come downstairs. Please hurry, though, as we have little time to spare.”

In the room Nat pulled out four dresses, and one by one, Julia tried them on. By consensus, they agreed that the pale green dress with a gauzy skirt was the best choice. Nat also loaned Julia a pair of black flats, which fit a little loose, but looked good enough that no one would notice.

“You look wonderful,” Nat’s mom said. “We’d better hurry as it will take us a good twenty minutes to get there.”

When they arrived, Nat’s mom filled out the required paperwork, claiming herself to be Julia’s guardian. It was a little bit of a lie, but not a huge one, because Nat’s mom happened to be a cousin on her mom’s side of the family. Since her mother died, Julia hadn’t seen much of her aunt, but whenever Julia needed something, she always came through for her.

Julia waited backstage for her turn to sing. From where she was seated, she could not see the stage or hear the music, but she could see Angelica’s nieces. They took turns preening before a floor-length mirror and smoothed out each other’s hair, sticking pins in here and there to keep unruly areas flat.

One by one they left. One by one they returned with sour looks on their faces. Angelica hugged each, wiping away tears of humiliation, and then shuffled them out of the mansion.

Because Julia had registered so late, she was the last performer. As she waited, she sang quietly, going over how she would stand, move her arms, and allow her eyes to look out over the audience with a confidence that she felt down to her toes.

After a long, long wait, when no one else was left, Julia’s turn came. She was escorted to the side of the stage and told to wait. She peeked around the curtain and saw that only about fifty people remained. That gave her hope. The other kids must have done so poorly that their parents knew they’d never get accepted to the school and so left in despair.

When told to do so, Julia walked proudly to the center of the stage. She bowed and then stepped to the microphone. “Hi. My name is Julia Smythe. I’m eight years old and I love to sing.”

“Welcome, Julia,” one of the judges said with a smile. “Are you a good student?”

“Yes,” Julia said. “I never get in trouble, do all my work, and get good grades.”

“Excellent. You’re the kind of student that we’re looking for.” The judge picked up a pen and wrote something on a paper in front of him. “What are you going to sing?”

“Beauty and the Beast.”

“Please call up the soundtrack,” the judge said to some unseen person. “Julia, when you’re ready, nod and the music will begin.”

Julia took a deep breath to steady herself, raised her eyes and looked at the back wall of the auditorium. She nodded and when the music began, she gave the best performance she had ever done. She hit every note and followed the beat. When the music ended, she smiled a satisfied smile.

The audience clapped and clapped and then people stood until even the judges were on their feet. Julia blushed and bowed her head. It felt good to have so many people standing just for her. She loved it when they shouted her name over and over.

When the audience quieted, Julia turned to leave. While she was pleased that so many liked her performance, she believed that was because she was only eight. She thought she didn’t stand a chance at getting that cherished spot in the school.

Before she had taken the second step, the judge said, “Where are you going?’

“I thought I’d go home.”

He smiled at her. “Don’t you want to hear our comments? Aren’t you interested in knowing how well you did?”

Julia looked down at the stage floor. “Yes, but I’m just a little girl.”

“You’re a little girl with a powerful voice,” the judge said. “In fact, you have the best voice that we’ve heard all day. How does that make you feel?”

“Fantastic!”

“Well, then, we have some great news for you. Are you interested in knowing what we have to say?”

“Yes,” she whispered.

“Julia Smythe, we are prepared to offer you a complete scholarship to the academy. It will cover your tuition and your room and board for as long as you succeed and wish to stay.”

Julia clasped her hands and bowed. “Thank you. Thank you so much!”

“All we need is for your parent to complete the paperwork and the deal is sealed. Is one of them here with you?”

“My mother id dead and my dad is away, but my aunt brought me here today.”

The judges took Julia, her aunt and Nat into an office. When they gave her aunt the paperwork, they said it had to be signed and returned within two weeks, and then Julia would begin school August 24.

Julia and Nat skipped all the way to the car. They sang “Beauty and the Beast” over and over until Nat’s mom couldn’t take it anymore. When they got to Nat’s house, her aunt sent Julia upstairs to change.

“I contacted your dad,” her aunt said when the girls came down for lunch. “He said to say that he was proud of you. He won’t be back in time to sign the papers, so he asked me to fax them to him. I can do that on my computer, so I’ve already sent him the paperwork. We should get it back later today.”

Julia smiled. In her borrowed clothes she had beaten out her stepmother’s nieces and all the other kids. Within a month she would be out of her miserable home and into a cherished academy. Life was turning out to be good after all.

 

About Terry Connelly

Terry Connelly is a retired high school English teacher. She earned her BA and Single Subject Teaching credential from California State University of the East Bay, in Hayward, California. She taught for 18 years at Newark Memorial High School in Newark, California. She was gifted to work with both College Prep students and those with learning disabilities.
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