Once upon a time there lived a little girl named Rita who played the violin like a rockstar. She played like a rockstar because she practiced three hours each day ever since she had been four years old, once in the morning and again after school, for 1.5 hours at a time. Rita was ten now, and she hated practicing. She hated repeating the same scales over and over the way her teacher, Mrs. Toussaint, demanded, keeping her ears peeled for notes that were less than a quarter of a pitch off. She hated the scratchy sound her bow made when it skipped across the strings too quickly during spiccato exercises, and she hated the little notches that the skinny strings made in the pads of her fingers.
But she loved feeling like a rockstar when she performed. From the moments waiting for her turn in the green room backstage, her cheeks flushed, fingers like ice, heart ricocheting off the walls of her lungs. To her first steps into the blinding stage lights, taking a bow towards the pixelated audience, her fingers still cold and her twiggy legs trembling. To the introductory notes of the piano accompaniment leading up to her entrance, her bow drawn in suspense over the strings of her violin, right arm ready to pounce. And finally, the first scratchy note – it never sounded smooth like it did at home but rather tinny, metallic, and small – but she knew she just needed to move through it, and as she continued to play, a fire began to roar and heat her up from within, from her twiggy legs all the way up to her fingertips. By the time she had made it through the first ten or fifteen measures, Rita was a rockstar. Everything uncomfortable melted away and the audience was no longer pixelated but rather a warm, flesh-colored blob which swayed and bobbed its head to the notes which sang and danced directly from her heart.
In between those rockstar moments, Rita stood alone in her unfinished basement and cradled her violin, plucking away at the strings. Her practice room was not only where Rita spent three hours a day but also where her parents stored the things which didn’t belong in any other room of the house: a second refrigerator filled with fruits and vegetables which her mother had preserved during the summer, a variety of hand tools, an old metal-and-wood desk, hang-to-dry laundry, towels and travel-sized shampoo bottles that her parents transported to and from the public pool for their afternoon swims. This laundry-slash-practice room had a cement floor which was partly covered by an imitation Persian rug, and Rita tried her best to remember where the edges lay as she paced around and plucked at her violin, her feet shocked by a cold surprise whenever she accidentally stepped off the rug onto the concrete. Every now and again she glanced at the clock which ticked down the minutes of each 1.5 hour practice.
Meanwhile Rita’s parents went about their day: her father rode the lawn mower outside while her mother puttered about in the kitchen, cleaning up from the previous meal or preparing for the next one. Rita learned how to time her practice so that at least one parent could always hear her playing: she would start her scales and arpeggios before her father went out to tend to his garden, then take a 5 minute break; jump into études as her mother came downstairs to check on the laundry, then take a longer break; and re-start the flashier bits from her performance pieces as she heard the screen door swing open and shut between their dining room and the sunroom which led outside. When her parents weren’t listening, Rita merely plucked at her violin and paced, daydreaming about a different kind of life, one in which she could run around in big infinity loops in the grass, barefoot and carefree and never think about practicing.
It was a game of sorts: Rita maximizing as much idle time as she could, only practicing at the most necessary moments. And she was good at the game, too: occasionally her father would ask why he hadn’t heard any violin in a while, but she could always convince him that she had been playing and he had just not heard it, or that she had been busy with some fingering exercise which prevented her from using her bow. And her father would chuckle, tussle the hair on top of her head and tell her to get on with her practicing. Then he would put on his gardening gloves and head back outside.
One day, Rita peeked out of the laundry-practice room window and saw a little gray field mouse making its way around in the grass. It poked its nose around earnestly and paused every so often to sniff at the air, wiggling its nose furiously. Rita felt a tinge of jealousy as she watched the mouse. How she longed to be outside like he was, without obligations! It was a beautifully warm day in the early Spring, and Rita could feel the sunshine on her cheeks through the window. As she watched the little mouse she heard her mother swing open the sunroom door upstairs, so Rita quickly picked up her bow and played a long, expressive note. Startled by the sound, the mouse jerked its head and sprang half a foot in the air, then scurried away before Rita could react.
Aw, poo, sighed Rita to herself. She decided to name the mouse Ralphie.
Rita eagerly awaited Ralphie each day after that, but his presence was unpredictable. Sometimes he would go for days at a time without re-appearing. Rita worried that he had been captured and eaten by the neighborhood fox – the same one which her father suspected of stealing cabbages from his garden – but she tried not to think about that too much.
It was a typical Wednesday afternoon when a brilliant new game idea occurred to Rita. She was at home alone after school, and her parents had gone for their routine afternoon swim, so there was no reason to play the maximizing game. Instead, she sat in the small playroom next to the laundry-practice room, watching soap operas followed by Oprah Winfrey on the little CRT TV which sat in one corner of the room. Rita had not seen Ralphie since the previous Sunday, and she missed him terribly. That’s when the idea occurred to her.
Why not bring Ralphie inside? Rita asked herself. No, not literally trap him – but rather pretend he was there in the practice room with her, and explore it as a hungry little mouse would, stealing bits and pieces of food and creating mini-havoc? What a fun little prank!
Rita clicked off the TV while Oprah was still mid-sentence and hurried back into the laundry-practice room. And there, on that otherwise nondescript Wednesday afternoon, Rita began channeling her inner mouse. First, she found a stash of flour that her mom had piled onto a shelf near the refrigerator, and gently ripped a hole into the corner of one of the plastic bags, trying her best to imitate a nibbling mouse. Her heart fluttered with excitement as she watched a stream of snow-white flour pour out of the bag and accumulate in a heap on top of the dryer which stood under the shelf.
Next, Rita eyed a collection of vegetable seeds which her father was storing on top of his writing desk, an old, wood-and-metal mammoth which leaned against the concrete wall. Envelopes and re-purposed old prescription bottles were strewn across the surface of the desk, everything labeled in distinct, blocky handwriting. Rita knew that her parents would be suspicious if she opened one of the prescription bottles – what kind of mouse was capable of that? – but paper envelopes could be easily chewed through. She tore into the corners of the first two envelopes she saw.
There! Rita thought to herself. That’s a good start – not too much more, or it might look suspicious. And then she picked up her bow and began to play for the next several minutes, until the garage door opened and closed, and her parents walked into the kitchen. Rita came out of the laundry-practice room and waved, cradling her violin and bow in her left arm.
“Sounding good!” her father called out with a rosy smile and stuck out a thumbs-up.
Later that evening as she was doing her homework, Rita listened expectantly for her parents to make a discovery, but if they did, they didn’t say a word to her about it. Disappointed and restless, she spent the night tossing and turning in bed.
Undeterred, Rita decided to channel Ralphie again a few days later. This time, she spotted a travel-sized bottle of hair conditioner on one of the wooden shelves in the corner where her parents kept their swimming gear. The lid to the bottle was screwed on loose, so she nudged it over with her fingertip and watched as an opaque liquid oozed slowly out, staining the unfinished wood underneath. Next, she noticed that her father’s swim trunks hung unevenly low on the laundry line, so she tugged at them lightly, as she imagined Ralphie might do with his little mouth, until they flopped onto the cold concrete floor. Rita giggled, then turned to glance over at her father’s writing desk.
The two envelopes she had torn through the previous week were still lying exactly as she had left them. Have Mom and Dad really not noticed? she wondered incredulously. Rita picked up a single seed and nibbled at it with her front teeth. She winced; it was very bitter! She picked up another seed and nibbled again, this time just enough so that the bite marks showed on the pointy end. Then she carefully laid both seeds down next to her father’s swim trunks, placing them in plain sight next to the tie string. There’s no turning back now, Rita thought to herself. Mom and Dad will definitely notice this time.
Sure enough, The Mysterious Animal in the Basement was the topic of conversation at dinner that night. Rita’s mother suggested that they set out a trap, and her father agreed. They spent the rest of the time debating what type of animal it could be.
“I think it’s a mouse,” Rita offered, chewing on a mouthful of broccoli.
“Oh no, I really don’t want a mouse in the house!” said her mother, scrunching up her face.
“It could be a mouse,” her father said in between bites, “but I think it could also be something bigger, like a fox. Like the same fox –” Rita’s father started to chew faster as the thought agitated him – “that’s been stealing my cabbages every night!”
Rita giggled. “But Daddy, if it were a fox, don’t you think I would have noticed?”
“Hmm, maybe you’re right. Or maybe the fox only comes out after you’ve finished practicing. Maybe it doesn’t like to disturb you while you’re working so hard,” Rita’s father winked at her.
Rita’s cheeks grew hot.
Over the course of the next few weeks, Rita and her parents slipped into a routine which went something like this: every few days, Rita would watch Ralphie poke around in the grass outside the laundry-practice room window. Inspired, she would then roam around inside as Ralphie, using her fingers and teeth to make little mouse-sized holes and ridges in the corners of things. Occasionally, just to tease her parents a little bit extra, she would sprinkle small crumbs of food or stray packaging around the mouse trap that they had set out. In the evenings, the three of them would sit huddled over the dinner table, mulling over what mischievous animal could be causing such trouble.
Then one day, Rita’s cousin Bobby came over for dinner. Bobby was eleven years older than Rita and very clever. Rita fidgeted in her seat as she listened to her father tell Bobby the story of the mysterious animal which paid recurring visits to their laundry-practice room.
“Hmm,” said Bobby, tapping his fork against his front tooth. “Hmm.”
He looked at Rita for a second, and then back at Rita’s parents. “It’s very strange that the animal keeps dropping crumbs around the trap without getting caught in it. Have you thought about calling an exterminator?”
Her mother looked at her father and nodded. “I think that’s a great idea!”
Rita’s father hesitated. “Aren’t exterminators very expensive?”
Bobby laughed. “I don’t know,” he admitted, “but if you have a mouse in the house that you can’t get rid of, then I think it might be worth it.”
Rita was very nervous on the day that the exterminator arrived. She tried to focus on her scales and études, but her attention kept wandering to the little bald man in gray overalls who was tinkering around in the corner. Rita’s parents had asked if Rita should leave him alone to do his work, but he insisted that she continue playing.
“I’ve never heard such a beautiful sound!” he exclaimed, and Rita glowed with simultaneous embarrassment and pride.
As she paced and played the violin, Rita watched the man crawl on his hands and knees, switching his red flashlight on and off to examine the dark corners hidden behind their house’s air filtration system. From time to time the top of the exterminator’s butt peeked out from underneath his trousers. Rita played louder to mask the sound of herself giggling.
Eventually the exterminator got up to leave, his eyebrows furrowed, scribbling something onto a notepad as he walked. “Very strange,” he muttered to himself.
Rita stopped mid-arpeggio and asked, “Did you find anything?”
The exterminator looked at Rita and smiled. “Don’t think so,” he said. “Hey, by the way, miss – how old are you?”
“I’m ten years old,” answered Rita.
“Ten years old –incredible. My kid Sara’s the same age. She could use a lesson or two from you on the violin. Problem is, she doesn’t have any discipline. She’s started up all kinds of things – karate, clarinet, ballet – you name it. But you can’t get her to sit still for more than a minute, let alone practice the way you do. Incredible!” he gave Rita a wink and a shoulder squeeze, and then he was off to look for her parents.
Rita felt a lump the size of a boulder in her stomach.
That night, at dinner, Rita’s parents discussed the exterminator’s $200 bill and his inconclusive results. Rita tried to tune out the conversation by daydreaming about Ralphie, but nothing could dissolve the lump that seemed to have settled in her tummy, and she barely finished her casserole.
The Ralphie game finally ended a week later. Rita’s parents had gone for their usual swim, and although Rita will never fully understand why, she decided on that day to raise the stakes of the Mysterious Animal game: this time, Ralphie would take something from inside the refrigerator. Rita found a package of pickled cabbage (which she had never particularly liked anyway), tore a little hole in it, and laid out a thin, dripping trail leading from the refrigerator into the middle of the laundry-practice room. She left the refrigerator door ajar, then packed away her violin and went up to her bedroom to do homework. She figured that if she were still downstairs when her parents came home, they would wonder why she hadn’t seen the animal with her own eyes.
Rita felt a pang of regret as soon as she heard her parents pull into the driveway, but it was too late.
“We’re home!” her father sang from the kitchen as they entered the house.
“Hiya!” Rita called back, her voice cracking.
A few minutes later she heard her mother descending the stairs towards the laundry-practice room, and then there was silence.
“Hey, honey?” she heard her mother call out to her father a moment later. “I think you should see this.”
More silence. Too much silence.
Another half an hour must’ve passed, but to Rita it felt like a thousand years. The boulder-sized lump had returned to her stomach, and her hands and feet were ice cold, the way they felt before a performance. Rita tried moving around in her bedroom to distract herself. She paced from her desk to her bed, and back to her desk again. But nothing got rid of the boulder in her belly.
Eventually there came a knock on Rita’s door, and her father opened the door slowly. He had a severe expression on his face.
“Rita,” he said.
“Hi Daddy,” Rita whispered.
Rita’s father stood there for a moment, and then he started to blink rapidly. This only happened when he got very upset.
She watched as he took a deep breath. Gradually his blinking slowed.
“Rita,” he said again. “I’m very angry right now, but I also want to understand. Can you please explain to me why you’ve been pretending to be an animal for the past months, a- and destroying your mother’s and my property? C-Can you explain this?” his voice quivered.
Rita looked down at her feet and didn’t say anything.
“Rita,” her father started again. “We paid hundreds of dollars to an exterminator because we couldn’t figure out the mystery. You knew that this was going to be very expensive for us, but instead of doing the right thing, you let the exterminator come and charge us anyway. Why?”
Rita’s father was now alternating between blinking rapidly and taking deep, slow breaths. Rita might have laughed if she hadn’t been so nervous.
Instead, she looked back down at her feet, trying to avoid eye contact. She shrugged meekly.
Eventually Rita’s father sighed and inched closer to Rita, putting his hand gently on her shoulder. “Come on,” he said, his tone growing softer. “Talk to me.”
Rita looked up, miserable. “Daddy, I – I’m really sorry,” she said, tears inching down her face. “I’m so sorry that I made you and mom worry and waste a lot of money because of me. But I – I hate practicing the violin, I really do. I know I have to practice in order to perform in concerts, but it feels like a prison. Then one day I saw this mouse running around and I just wanted to be outside in the sun like him, but I had to stay inside and practice. And I know you’re going to say that that’s just what it takes, but if that’s what it takes then I don’t know if I want to be good at violin anymore –” Rita paused and wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her hoodie.
“And then – and then I thought it would be funny if the mouse came inside and started causing trouble. So I started pretending to be him –”
When Rita looked back at her father, she saw that his eyes were also filled with tears. Was he mad or disappointed? She wondered.
But Rita’s father didn’t say anything. Instead, he drew her close and gave her a long, tight hug. Rita closed her eyes and thought of Ralphie, running around in the grass outside, and hoped that she could do the same one day soon.
Would she still be a rockstar if she practiced less? she wondered.
Rita sighed and shrugged. She supposed they would figure all of that out later.