By: Vivian Qi

It’s about everything except my mental well-being. From the moment I open my eyes blearily to the blazing sun’s light to when I finally let myself sink into the darkness of the night sky. Whoever said that a perfect daughter ever needed sleep should- no, needs- to be punched in the face. That someone being my parents.

I stare at my clock, its soft white glow informing me that it’s taking far too long for me to be completing my homework. And that I should be getting ready for the most important thing that will ever happen today. The shuffling of footsteps below my room alerts me to the fact that my parents are up, and should be coming to check on me soon. With that realization, my heart squeezes with fear. I’m not even halfway done.

Footsteps. Tap, tap, tap.

My hands start into a flurry of motion. I stuff my math homework into its folder, turn my calculator off, and race to my closet.

Tap, tap, tap.

My mom’s going to be here any moment now. I quickly grab my black dress and yank it on. My clock beeps suddenly, rapidly, coincidentally mirroring the rate of my heartbeat. The door swings open and standing there is my mother. Right on time, like always. Her face is stern, her eyebrows in a flat line, her red-painted lips turned downwards.

“You’re still not ready? I told you we needed to leave at 7:00. The people running the recital aren’t going to be inconvenienced just because you’re too lazy to wake up at this time.” Her small nose twitches upwards, betraying her cool words with a hint of annoyance. “We’re going now. And bring your math homework, I know you’re still not done.” She coughs, and mutters under her breath, “worthless child.”

A familiar sense of icy cold hurt pierces my heart and cracks it. “I did finish,” I lie pathetically.

“Did you finish the three worksheets your math tutor assigned to you?” she responds without hesitation. Always ready to pounce onto the next thing, always ready to inform me that I can’t take a break because I have expectations to live up to. When I stay silent, she almost cracks a smile. “Exactly,” she says, her voice dripping with triumph. “Then bring that, and let’s get going.”

I trudge after her, my feet heavy and my hopes shattered. The hope that, somehow, my parents (and especially my mother) would maybe just lay off of me a little. Maybe give me one day to take a break. Or maybe just a few minutes. A hope that maybe they’ll say, for once, “Good job, Lilly. You did amazing.” But that hope is as unlikely as it is that pigs will sprout wings and fly.

“In the car,” my mother orders. “And make sure you wear your white sweater over your dress.”

I can hear the implication. My arms aren’t good enough for her now. I risk a glance at my father, who’s at the dining table. He looks up from his work phone when he notices me looking. He nods once and says, “get first place.”

Pressure: plus 100.

Should I be proud to say I’m used to it now? That it doesn’t affect me because I’m so used to it? Still, I’m not too sure of that statement.

I nod, my throat too dry to respond. Then I step into my dress shoes and walk to my mother’s car, still feeling (but trying to ignore) the weight of the world pressing down on my shoulders.

By the time I walk up to the stage and bow to the judges, my hands are dripping with sweat. I clench my fists together, my fingers slipping against each other when the judges applaud politely. I find my mother in the crowd, her eyes digging into my soul. She raises a perfectly drawn eyebrow as if to say, “Go on. Get first place. I’m watching.”

I swallow and walk stiffly to the piano bench. Tuck my dress in, adjust the seat, slide my feet onto the pedals. The spotlights are cold and blinding, and they certainly don’t help with my nerves.

Voices rush into my mind. Are you sure you’re as good as you think you are? How often did you practice? Less than two hours a day on Wednesday, only one and a half hours on Friday, yeah? You’re going to fail. You’re just going to fail. You’ll disappoint your parents and they won’t look at you for the rest of the week. First place, and first place only.

I rest my fingers on the keys, the ivory bars feeling far too smooth under my perspiring fingers.

The voices are back again. They remind me of my successes, and what’s at stake. The voices I’ve had trouble with at every big event I go to, the ones that my parents brought up without a second thought, the ones that tell me I’m just. Not. Good enough.

It’s different this time, though. They’re far more intense than I remember. Words clog up my thinking, sentences wrap around my heart like a noose. My vision is now blurring, mixing the keys with the walls with my hands. I feel like I can’t breathe- I gasp suddenly, willing the oxygen to come back into my lungs. My throat closes up, and I’m barely aware of the fact that I’m on the ground. First place, first place, first place. I can see the words marching back and forth in my vision, dancing like my failure is their success.

First place, slipping away. The perfect daughter, slipping away. The love of my parents… never there.

People are shouting, running towards the stage. They yell and panic and I struggle to make sense of the scene. Black edges now appear in my vision, framing the whole situation in a dark frame. I squint at the people helping me, wondering if my mother is fighting to make her way over to me, her daughter…

I find her in the crowd, but she’s not rushing to me. She’s standing, still as an ice sculpture. Arms crossed. Lips turned down.

My eyes fight to stay open, but then I feel an arm around my shoulder. Pulling me back into reality.

No, I want to beg. My tongue barely comprehends the order. Don’t bring me back to reality. Don’t bring me to where my parents will scream at me when I get home.

“Are you this girl’s mother?” someone shouts. “She’s okay now!”

I think people are watching for my mother’s reaction. I know what she’s about to say before she even says it.

“I am not. I am no mother of hers.”

Silence. Ringing. Fear.

Like I said, it’s about everything but my mental well-being.

Prompt: It’s about ________. Fill in the blank with any word or phrase except “time” and use this sentence in your story.

Written at Power of the Pen District Tournament – Quality Points: 99 – Rank: 1