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aina hums the national anthem as she makes her way home. “Lietuva, Tevyne musu… Lithuania, our fatherland… the land of heroes. From the past may your sons draw the strength...”

She tries taking in great gulps of air and pushing out her ribcage, like Mr. Mazeika taught them to do, but it’s hard to maintain the correct posture when you’re walking on uneven sidewalks and navigating between potholes.

At least her satchel isn’t as heavy as usual. No math. No geometry. No grammar. Daina nurses a smile. Today was a strictly music day. And if Laima is anything to go by, they’ll be having many more such days over the next few weeks. Having a friend with a mother on the school board has its perks.

Daina enters their front yard and turns before the path to the door. Instead, she settles down in her favorite spot by the shrubs. Where’s the paper? Ah. Here it is. Daina fishes the crumpled blue flyer out of her satchel and irons it with the palm of her hand.

Lietuva Songbirds — National Youth Contest. Sing your school to fame!

Mr. Mazeika’s moustache had bobbed up and down as he’d explained the competition rules. “It’s our school against other schools, you see. Here’s our chance to show what we’re made of and have our school shine!” His eyes shone at the very thought. “If we win the regional contest, you’ll all get to perform in Vilnius before the Minister of Education on prime-time TV!”

The whole class had cheered. Kids stomped their feet and strummed make-believe guitars. But when Mr. Mazeika furrowed his bushy brows and drummed his fingers on the table, the noise died down in a rush. He beckoned with a finger to a boy in the front row and handed him a pile of forms. “Here. Give these out, please.

“Kids,” he then bellowed, “get these signed and back to me by tomorrow! No one will be allowed to participate without parental permission!”

Puckering her lips, Daina stares now at the form. Will Motina sign? She’s been so odd and distant lately. She won’t like me going to Vilnius if we win — not if it means her being left alone. And it will probably cost good money... Daina sighs.

The choir practice was fun. There were parts to her voice she’d never imagined existed. She lets the shiny blue paper drop to her lap. Then she stretches her back and scans the treetops. Where are all the warblers? She can usually listen to their busy tweets for hours. Today they are silent. Slowly, she returns the flyer to her satchel, zips it up, and heads toward the house.

The hallway is empty. The house has a hollow feel. For a moment Daina thinks Vasara must be out, but then she hears a low groan and follows it to the living room. Vasara is on the floor. Daina stops midstride. What’s wrong?

 Her mother’s back is propped up against the makeshift sofa with a tatty shawl scraping her shoulders. A half-empty bottle of vodka sits in her lap, and cigarette stubs scatter the floorboards. Vasara groans again, then half blinks, half winks at Daina.

“You’re back.”

Daina nods, as dazed as a front-line sentinel who’s forgotten his orders.

“I need a smoke. I need… two packets. Three.” Vasara hiccups, wipes some saliva off her lips and fumbles in her back pocket for some coins. “Here. Get yourself some bread in the market.” (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 608)