Palo Alto Weekly 24th Annual Short Story Contest
First Place Teen

About Sabrina Lui

Short Story ContestTerman Middle School student Sabrina Lui, 13, took first place in the teen category with her story "Encore," which focuses on a teenage piano virtuoso struggling with the pressures placed on her by her family, friends and self. It's a struggle surely familiar to many Palo Alto students.

Thought Lui said she didn't model her characters on anyone in particular, the eighth grader did take inspiration from the high-stress world of local teens, who sometimes seem to be caught up in a whirlwind of expectations and demands.

"Students have gotten so competitive. I see my peers everyday focusing only on winning. Why does life always have to be about being number one?" Lui said.

In "Encore", the main character realizes that finding love, creativity and human connection can mean more than winning competitions, a message Lui was determined to get across.
"I wanted to remind people that in the end, what's most important is listening to your heart," she said.

Like her character, Lui is a high-achiever, participating in piano competitions and practicing with dedication, but she said she doesn't feel the weight of heavy expectations placed on her Julliard-bound character, Starr.

"My parents and piano teacher are very encouraging and I have a lot of fun," she said.

She's also an experienced writer, having won second-place in the Weekly's Short Story Contest in 2007, and indulged an interest in journalism by shadowing a Weekly reporter in the summer of 2009. Lui said the idea to combine her loves of piano and writing into a short story came quite naturally.
"I love both music and writing," she said. "They're both great ways to express my feelings."

--Karla Kane

by Sabrina Lui

Ensconced in her family's living room, Starr Johanssen stared peacefully down at the black and white keys that lay silent on her piano. Hovering above them, her fingers were poised, calm, and introspective.

Then they came to life, flying lithely across the keys like hummingbirds on tulips. She closed her eyes, focusing her entire body on serenity, thinking only of music. But while she would have been content merely to bring life to the piano's cool keys, the reality of piano competitions marred her pleasure.

"You have talent, Starr," her piano teacher would urge at every lesson. "But you must put your heart into these prestigious competitions!"

"Make us proud, honey, okay?" her parents gushed before each performance.

The adults had ironed the image of fame into her mind. They had pictured her at a Steinway grand piano in Juilliard School's elaborate concert hall, performing for musicians from around the world, all astounded by her stellar performance. And after the final chord of the piece, the audience would chant, Encore!

Starr had to renounce her wish for carefree music. She had to embrace the adults' imaginings <0x2014> and their prescriptions: competitions and performances, however nerve-racking, would lead to success. If her fervor for piano was real, she would have to toil indefatigably, whole-heartedly, and without a flaw. Every note she played would have to be for her teacher, her family, and her future.

How else was she going to succeed?

When the school bell rang on Friday afternoon, Starr had been seated at her desk for twenty minutes, moving her fingers on the wood surface, pretending it was her keyboard. Practice was crucial; in exactly a week, the Rachmaninoff Festival Competition would take place.
She was anxiously attempting to work out her B-minor arpeggios when the influx of eleventh-graders made her jump. Moments later, someone smacked her arm.

"Heyyy!" Starr's best friend, the pretty and popular Kayla, squealed and embraced her. "Guess what happened last night! I was at the football game, right? So after they won, Tucker came up and asked me out!"

"Incredible," Starr replied, mustering a grin. She wondered if she should hold the first notes of the arpeggios or press down the pedal.

"I know! We're going to the movies on Sunday. Should I go casual-chic or classy?"


"That's what I was thinking. I've already put together an outfit: that new shrunken blazer I bought, with a purple racerback top, paired with skinny jeans. And the jeans are kinda grayish." Kayla widened her perfect, copper-flecked eyes. "What if Tucker thinks I'm boring because I wear gray pants? Starr, what do you think? Should I just go with blue?"
Starr, fingering her own amber hair, shrugged and wondered if the arpeggios were meant to be played detached.

Searching Starr's eyes, Kayla sighed. "Starr, why don't you come to the party tonight?

Everyone wants you to come. You've been gone from the group lately! It's gonna be great hanging out! It'll be at Tucker's house."

"Tonight's impossible," Starr mumbled. "I have to practice for a competition."

"If you really want to win, you can't be all stressed out about it," Kayla urged. Starr couldn't help listening. "You're, like, the most intense piano player in New York City! Loosen up. I'll drop by at five-thirty...."

Just then, Mrs. Bleers, the English teacher, scurried in, pushed her glasses up, and gushed, "Oh, children, I'm so sorry for being late. Please be seated."

Starr moved her fingers, practicing the arpeggios.

"Today," Mrs. Bleers continued, "we'll be talking about the book you just completed. Do any of you even know the name of the book?"

A smatter of chuckles disseminated through the class, and a girl called, "The Call of the Wild, by Jack London."

"Yes." Mrs. Bleers took off her glasses and set them on her desk. Her fragile voice hovered above the restless class. "London was telling us something through Buck, wasn't he? Buck lives in wonderful, sun-kissed California with no doubts about his destiny until he's sold to mushers. What do you think London means for us to learn when Buck is forced from his comfort zone?"

As other students spoke, Starr's fingers became still. She imagined how uncannily identical her life was to Buck's. Tentatively, she raised her hand.

"Yes, Miss Johanssen?"

"London's saying there's always more than one way to live your life. But sometimes people are so ... insular that they don't think they have choices. Buck had no one to help him escape, help him choose. So sometimes, to see what destiny the world really holds for you, all you need ... is a little push?"

Mrs. Bleer's smile reached the ceiling. "Well said, darling. One often meets her destiny on the path she takes to avoid it."

Leaning back, satisfied, Starr looked at her hands. All you need is a little push, she had said. She knew what she was doing tonight.


"This is gonna be so great!" Kayla gushed while the two of them ambled up Tucker's driveway. "You look amazing."

"Hunh," Starr mumbled, looking down at her olive cardigan. While her daily attire usually consisted of corduroy pants and polo shirts, after hastily burrowing through her dresser, she had assembled a decent outfit, purchased from the days when she hadn't yet yielded to her parents' aspirations.

"I can't believe your mom's only letting you stay for one hour! It's brutal."

Starr snorted. She, too, was upset that her mother was being irrationally stingy about the party; none of Starr's imploring had nudged her decision.

"Honey, you need to be home at seven to practice four hours of piano," her mother had explained in that Mom-voice that conveyed how perfectly reasonable Mrs. Johanssen thought she was being. Hadn't she remembered that Starr hadn't gone to a single party this whole semester?

It didn't matter. Although she wished she could party all night without carrying the weight of her mother's rigid words, Starr knew she had to practice.

Before Kayla's finger touched the bell, the door opened and there stood a familiar brown-haired boy.

"Tucker!" Kayla waltzed to him and wrapped her arms around him.

Starr, standing on the threshold, grinned at tall, handsome Tucker.

"Starr, you're here!" Tucker exclaimed, hugging Kayla back. "C'mon in, everyone's missed you."

After Starr had hugged all seven of her closest friends and fake-smiled until her cheeks were aching, she hovered beside Kayla, listening to everyone's stories, laughing and gasping at the appropriate moments. But as she looked around at these beaming, fashionable people whom she'd known since preschool, she felt like a stranger. There was a polite withdrawal in their smiles when they looked at her, and the inside jokes they cracked made no sense.

And she only had twenty-three minutes left to "relax."

"I'm getting a Sprite from the refrigerator," she announced, interrupting Kayla's tale about a mystery guy who had slipped love poems into her locker for the last five weeks.

Without waiting for their replies, she sauntered into the next room, Tucker's surprisingly
immaculate kitchen.

I'm relaxing, she tried to tell herself as she pulled the silver handle of the refrigerator.

Her fingers gripped the wet exterior of the Sprite can, and she was about to tug the lid open when, suddenly, a musical strumming came from a room to her left, nowhere near Tucker and Kayla. The sound was that of a guitar playing chords, and Starr, always drawn to music, cocked her head. G# major variations, she thought. Very creative. As the guitar continued to play, she set down the Sprite, walked from the kitchen, and stopped at a door in a hallway from which the sound was coming. And when she opened the door, she saw...

A teenage boy. He sat on a tattered beige couch on the far side of the dimly lit room, facing a table covered with a mess of composition sheets.

His relaxed yet deft fingers moved across a beige guitar as if he had found utmost bliss in each vibration of the strings. Starr imagined mimicking their grace with her own fingers, on the piano. Somehow, each flick of his wrist and each nod of his head conveyed more passion than she'd ever been capable of on the piano. Watching his hands intently, she inched closer until she stood at the table.

Suddenly, he stopped.

"Can I help you?" The boy looked up at Starr. His mahogany eyes seemed scrutinizing, as if he were a judge at her prestigious competitions.

"I was just watching you. Wow, you're really good."

His sharp expression softened, and he leaned back, turning his eyes to the guitar in his lap. "Thanks," he mumbled, setting it on the floor.

Starr sat gingerly on the arm of the couch. "I'm Starr."

When the boy turned his eyes to her again, the judge-like glare in his eyes had vanished. "I'm Jonah."

A withering silence followed. Starr wanted to move her fingers, now lying uselessly on her jeans; she wanted to practice her piano <0x2014> but part of her was fascinated by Jonah's beautiful playing and by the magical feeling he had conveyed so easily.
She spoke softly. "Are you writing a song?" Tentatively picking up a piece of composition paper, she inspected the notes scribbled on the page.

"Yeah, I'm writing it for my class."

"Oh, where do you go to school?"

"Um, Juilliard."

To Starr, it seemed like all the oxygen had been sucked out of the room. "Juilliard?" As in the university of Starr's dreams? The prize that Starr had spent her life pursuing? That Juilliard?

"Yeah.... I'm staying with Tucker 'cause he's my cousin and he lives really close to my school." Jonah grinned when he saw Starr's frozen expression after the mention of Juilliard. "You into music?"

"I play the piano some." Starr said modestly, knowing that she played the piano much more than that.

Abruptly, Jonah leaned forward. "Starr Johanssen?"

She cocked her head. "You know me?"

"Oh, do I know you!" he exclaimed. "My professor shows so many videos of you! He loves your playing. He says you'll be famous because of the way you show your love for music."

Starr blushed, her palms feeling prickly. "I'm not famous or anything." She tried to suppress her smile. She'd never been praised so honestly for her piano talent by a stranger, especially this stranger a talented, Juilliard-worthy, and, well, frankly, beautiful stranger.

"Why would you watch my videos? You play guitar," Starr asked suspiciously.

Jonah looked as if he had an answer but couldn't describe it. With dramatic arm gestures, he replied, "It's the way you play. The way your hands move across the keys. It's like water breaking through a dam. It's really intense, really exuberant. Y'know?" He squinted, as if asking her to understand.

She understood so well.

Then he blushed and leaned back into the sofa. For a while, he opened and closed his mouth several times before speaking again. His words seemed tentative. "How would you like to see the hall at Juilliard?"

"Are you serious?" Starr squealed, her heart racing at those words. "You mean, Juilliard's concert hall?"


"You're kidding me! You could do that?"

"Yeah, students get direct access. How's tomorrow, at five? My student pass works till six, and the piano ensemble finishes practice at four." Jonah's voice was eager and his eyes sparkled. Starr was amazed at how enchanting they were, just like his music.

She nodded. Then she remembered her mom, who would've shaved her head before condoning her daughter's meeting with a boy less than a week before the competition.
"Aha! I found you! Starr, it's six-fifty. Let's go," Kayla's bubbly voice sounded in the room. The two swiveled to see Kayla in the doorway.

"You're leaving? Oh," Jonah mumbled, eyes flickering with disappointment. "See you tomorrow. I'll meet you in front of the hall?"

Starr smiled her promise and rushed out to join Kayla.


Starr walked into her mother's study. "Hey, Mom?"

As usual, her mother, clad in matching pajamas, was grading papers from her English students at NYU. "Hmm?"

"If I finish six hours of piano tomorrow, can I meet with a friend?"

Mrs. Johanssen sighed. "Starr, unless this appointment is crucial to the competition, which I'm sure it's not, I can't let you go out."

Starr smiled. Jonah was a Juilliard student showing her around the hall of her dreams.... "There's a guy I met at Tucker's who goes to Juilliard. He's willing to show me around Juilliard's concert hall. I can practice there with the great acoustics."

Halting mid-red-scribble, Mrs. Johanssen peered at Starr steadily, then set down her pen.

She opened her mouth.

Starr leaned forward in anticipation.

"Would you like me to drive you there?"

Y         Y         Y         Y

"Wow. Wow, wow, wow!" Starr murmured to Jonah as she closed the massive oaken door behind her.

Juilliard's concert hall was just as she had seen it in posters and magazines. Wooden slates covered the abstract ceiling, lights radiated from their edges, and rows of gray seats all faced the stage.

"The stage," Starr murmured. She trotted down the wide steps, passing the vast, uniform seats, and stepped carefully onto the glossy floor of the platform. The moment she did so, the warm luminescence of the spotlight and the rush of performance adrenaline she had felt hundreds of times before hit her. In a daze, she walked to the Steinway grand piano positioned in the middle of the stage.

It was all there: the bench, the piano, the spotlight.... Her fingers itched to play.

When Starr had sat down and touched the keys of the piano, her eyes fluttered shut.

And she started to play. With each perfect note that resounded through the hall, the words she'd repeated to herself for years dissolved: Work hard for your dream! Do this for your future! Starr was living her dream right now.

Her brilliant chords washed over the seats and touched the ceiling. When she had played the last cadence, she was breathless, but her heart was ebullient.

Then, Starr realized that it had been the best she'd ever performed her piece, but ... not one world-renowned musician had heard it. Not one Juilliard professor was begging her to accept a scholarship. Not one person was shouting, Encore! The people who would have made this experience mean the world to her weren't there.

But when she stood up to bow, she heard the zealous applause of one person. It was Jonah. This boy, who was as in love with music as she, who was perfect in her eyes, who had expressed to her the truth and beauty of music, was applauding for her.

And it meant so, so much more.

Judge's comment

This story is well told and rings absolutely true. There are no wasted words and yet everything is clear in the reader's mind. The observation that is made about human psychology is important and astute.