Aria stands behind the black velvet curtain, cradling her right hand against her torso. She rubs her bandaged pinky finger between her thumb and forefinger of her left hand. Grimacing, she taps her right foot on the varnished mahogany stage. She gazes at her white stiletto as it keeps a steady beat. Click, two, three, four.
The announcer’s voice blared through the loudspeaker. “And now, please welcome our first contestant, Aria Blanchard!” The curtain drags across the stage, revealing Aria to the audience. She straightens her back. Extending her hand to the crowd, she gives a tight-lipped smile. She tilts her head back slightly as the audience applauds. The lights soften. She turns to face the 1966 Steinway posed center stage and glides towards it.
Her fingers on her left hand scamper across the lid as she strides alongside the piano. Her right arm hangs by her side. Aria heaves the hood up with her left hand. She tries to balance it on her elbow, but the hood slips. She jumps back as it crashes down. The audience gasps. She turns to the crowd, giving a small wave. “It’s okay!” she yells. “I just wanted to see if you guys were awake.” The audience chuckles.
Aria turns back to the piano and sighs. Frowning, she puts both hands on the hood. She whimpers as she pushes the lid upwards. She props it onto the skinny wooden pole, leaving behind her wet fingerprints. Holding her right hand to her chest, she struts towards the pleather-topped piano bench. She lowers herself into the seat, pulling it a fraction of an inch closer to the keyboard. She grounds her left foot on the stage. Flexing her right foot, she balances it above the silver pedal. Her eyes flutter shut as she breathes in and out.
Aria picks up the worn blue book of Rachmaninoff etudes sitting on the corner platform of the piano. She flips it open to Etude 7, Opus 39, and rests it on the music stand. As she scans the fresh fingerings, she balls her left hand into a fist and cracks her knuckles. She balls her right fist, and cracks each knuckle but the pinky.
Relaxing her shoulders, she lets her arms hang loose. She tilts her head to one side, then the other, cracking her neck. She sets her hands on top of the keys, fingers curved and strong. She looks down at her right pinky finger jutting out from the rest. Closing her eyes, she takes a deep breath. As she inhales, she straightens her back. She lifts her hands off of the keys. Slamming the pedal down with her right foot, she plunges her body forward. She channels her weight into her fingers, crashing into the first B flat chord. She hisses as the hammer strikes the string. Picking up her hands, she moves to the next set of keys. Aria slams her hands down into the D flat chord. Crack.