“Jess!” Carlie calls, chasing after me. I listen to the rat-tat-tat of her high-heeled boots stabbing the poor hallway behind me.
God, if it is another scheme to get me to go along with some crazy-ass plan . . . I’m going to be pissed.
“Jess!” she shouts, and I turn.
It’s impossible to stay mad at Carlie; she is too over-the-top ridiculous for words. My eyes take in her customary look, the perfectly coiffed hair, the skinny jeans jammed into second-skin boots that somehow house thinly knit leg warmers. And don’t even get me started on what she rams her boobs into. It is surely a manacle for tits.
How did she get them to look like that? I shake my head and smile despite myself.
“She smiles! Excellent!” Carlie runs and throws her arms around me, saying in an uncharacteristic whisper, “Look what I have, girlfriend.” She waves a paper around in my face like a flag.
I can’t make anything out, it’s just a grayish blur. “Stop that, ya tool!” I say with false rage.
Carlie gives me the bird and holds it steady in front of my face. The words come together in a collision of—no. “I’m not going,” I say, beginning to walk away.
“You are so going,” Carlie says. Then softly she calls, “Jess.”
I stand with my back to her as other students ram through the hall, jostling and loud, maybe a minute left until class.
“What?” I ask, still not turning.
“It’s ballet,” she says.
“I know,” I whisper. I break out in a light sweat, an automatic response. The opportunity to indulge my passion for dance, my former privileged life’s only oasis, now teases me with its nearness.
“They’re coming here . . . to our school. You could, like . . . audition.”
I could. “No, Carlie.”
She takes me at my word, throwing the paper in the trash and slinging an arm around my neck. Carlie uses me for balance as she totters around on her stilettos. “You have to admit it was a good idea.”
I look up into her face; she’s a damn Amazonian. “Yeah,” I say.
“You can’t run forever, Jess.”
Her words jolt me, but then I realize Carlie is just using an expression. She isn’t being literal.
It seems a little too easy; she’s usually a dog with a bone.
Carlie stops hanging off me like a monkey and we part ways for our respective courses.
I listen to the sound of her heels as they echo down the nearly empty hall.
I take a deep breath and pass through the door for English lit class. Just one of many sophomores in a generic university in the great state of Washington. I like blending in.
My life depends on it.
Ballet was my life—before. I can’t give it up, because it won’t give me up. The music plays in my head night and day. It’s a wonder I ever get anything accomplished. Some of the other students might see a subtle bob of my head and wonder. I smile at the looks and stare off into space during lectures.
I do a similar internal music routine when I work at the coffee shop like a good drone; my partial scholarship at the University of Washington requires a little sideline income. I’m lucky to have it. I had to test out of a bunch of freshman courses, prove proficiency and then cop out as poor. I certainly couldn’t use my former grades and prestigious private school to get the full ride I’d had. That was from before.
It was all worth it. The stress, the work.
Then Carlie wormed her way inside my defenses despite every obstacle I’d thrown up in her way. Declared herself my friend when it went against every promise I’d made to myself. I broke them all with our friendship. What she sees in me I’ll never know.
Carlie knows about the ballet barre I installed in my dorm room, which doesn’t have space for it; it’s pretty tough to hide and it’s my only décor. A huge metal bar driven into studs behind drywall. Yeah, so beautiful. I move my bed every day and go to sleep each night looking at it. Trying to forget. Ballet blanks the pain; it’s the eraser of my memories.
Each day I execute my barre exercises, just as I did every day when I was another girl. Now I am a woman, with woman-sized desires and dreams. My traumatic memories haven’t robbed me of my humanity. No matter what happens there’s a stubborn spark that wants to live.
Carlie has begun something inside me with the whisper of the ballet company visiting the U Dub campus. I ignore that something, beat at it when it appears, reject it, but it refuses to let go and blooms inside me.
It’s all Carlie’s fault. I was just fine when I didn’t have any.
Now it’s here and there is no hiding from it.
I open my mouth as I put the blue contact in, blinking once, hoping the damn thing will sit correctly. I’ll never take having perfect vision my whole life for granted again. At the end of the day I can’t wait to tear the suckers out of my eyes; they dry up like popcorn farts and burn like hell.
I stand away from the mirror, applying the barest hint of colored lip gloss, giving my eyeballs time to rest from the abuse of inserting contacts. I brush my teeth, squirt vanilla body spray on all the high points and cover my deep-ginger lashes with chocolate-colored mascara.
I flutter them and decide they look just right. Next, I plait my hair into two thick braids. Even braided my hair is past my breasts; its former deep auburn is now dark blond. Its length is my only concession to my former life. Despite its length, it is nondescript, nearly invisible.
Just like I want it.
I study my hairline for roots. Finding none, I step away from the mirror, then turn back to it and stick my tongue out.
It’s a glaring blue from the Blow Pop I’ve just ruthlessly sucked on.
I need to grow up.
I saunter off just as the knock comes at my door.
Carlie doesn’t wait for an invitation, she just bursts in.
I put my hands on my hips. “Why bother knocking?” I laugh.
She flicks her hair over a shoulder and puckers her lips, giving a dismissive shrug.
I don’t see her stuff my ballet slippers in her backpack.
“Ready?” she asks innocently.
“Yeah, just . . .” I collect a few things, ramming them into my oversized Guess purse, which I swing over my shoulder.
It’s a rare day off and I am really dragging ass. I’m sore from the barre and twirling in the middle of a dorm room with only the walls watching my perfect performance.
“You wore makeup,” Carlie says, eyeballing my pathetic attempt to look cute.
“Does mascara and lip gloss qualify?” I ask.
“Hell, yeah! Especially for you,” she exclaims vigorously. “Miss au naturel.” She giggles behind her hand.
“Bitch,” I say.
“Sticks and stones and all that happy ho-ho shit,” she replies, completely unperturbed by my shameless name-calling.
“Why did you tell me to wear makeup?” I ask, suspicious as I cross my arms underneath my breasts, my eyes narrowing. I slam my dorm door, rattling the knob to ensure it’s locked. It never closes right.
We move away from the door and I impatiently wait for her response.
Carlie’s brows arch and she pouts at me. “Because: you will look attractive to the opposite sex. If it takes my last breath, you will look cute even while we sweat.”
I look down at my yoga pants, the turned band at the top a muted tie-dye pattern, with a tight deep-blue tee and my braided hair rounding out the hippie-chic thing I’ve got going on.
“I think you’ll have to try harder,” I say.
“If you were just sluttier,” Carlie says mournfully, hiding behind her dark curly hair.
I slug her and she yelps, giving me hurt eyes, then she smiles. “I’ll wear ya down, you’ll see.”
“Never!” I stab the air with my fist as we turn the corner and a wall of noise hits me. Everywhere I look there are students, older adults and an odd assortment of people I’ve never seen. It’s too much to take in. I turn to Carlie; obviously, we totally can’t work out today.
“Hey,” I say, looking into the deep auditorium that doubles as a gym. “What’s going on . . . what are all these people doing?”
But Carlie’s already moving and doesn’t hear my question.
An older woman is seated behind a folding desk and Carlie speeds to the desk, her flats making no sound as they whisper across the floor.
She signs in to some ledger and I start taking it in.
A totally hot guy comes to me with a numbered paper and a safety pin. “Hey,” he says, and I stare numbly at him. I can’t think of a thing to say.
“Hi!” Carlie blurts from beside me, fluttering her sooty eyelashes at La Hunk. “This is my friend Jess Mackey.”
Hunk smiles at me and I sink into his pale gray eyes—drown, more like. “I’m Mitch,” he says.
Carlie elbows me with a traitorous cackle. God, can she be more obvious? “I’m Jess,” I stick out my hand and he swallows it in his own.
“I know.” He smirks and a dimple flashes into place, disappearing just as quickly. He swings back long dark hair that refuses to stay out of his eyes.
“Right,” I say, heat flooding my face.
He steps into my private bubble and my flush deepens; my heart starts to speed when he reaches for my thin T-shirt and I shrink away from him.
“It’s okay,” he murmurs beside my face, his minty breath tickling the sensitive skin there. “I’m attaching your number.”
I look around and see about fifty girls with their hair slicked back in tight buns, some high, some on the nape because they’ve been zapped with the unlucky thick-hair gene like yours truly.
Realization slams into me.
The Seattle Pacific Ballet Company has arrived. This is the audition Carlie tried to bully me into attending a few days ago. Heat suffuses my body in a sickening nauseous wave. I turn to leave and Mitch puts a staying hand gently on my arm. He jerks his jaw toward where a mock stage has been set up. “It’s this way, dancing girl.” He smiles, his teeth very white in his face.
“I can’t do it . . . I’m not signed up,” I say, folding my arms again, the paper with my audition number crinkling underneath the gesture.
His smile widens into a grin as he dips his head to look at a clipboard that just magically appears. Mitch runs a long, tapered finger down the assembled names until he reaches midway. He taps it once and I jump slightly. He lifts his chin, a light dusting of dark stubble sprinkled on the slight cleft that bisects it. “There you are,” he says softly. “Mackey, Jess.”
He sweeps his hand in front of me; I give a death glare to Carlie and my traitor friend winks at me.
I can’t not audition without looking like an ass.
My feet are dragging like lead fills my shoes.
Carlie jogs to my side and hands me my ballet slippers. I seethe at her; she smiles sweetly and whispers, “Break a leg.”
I gaze at the stage like it’s the fabled pirate’s plank. My stomach clenches as I move to take my place in line and watch the girl onstage.
She’s perfect . . . breathtaking.
The music ends softly and she moves off the stage. The judges whisper and I know immediately who they’ll choose.
It won’t be me.
I think of Faith and what she would have wanted. I think of how I love her still. Of how this dream of Faith’s that I reach my full potential, that I escape the madness of a household ruled by indifferent tyranny and jealousy born of privilege and entitlement come to an end . . . and a new beginning. Thad can’t reach me here, and this is my way to honor Faith and, in so doing, myself.
Then an extraordinary thing happens. When it is my turn I float up the steps and onto the temporary stage as they put on Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven.
It’s from before.
The notes breathe through the auditorium, making the fine hairs of my neck stand at attention. The music robs me of thought, forcing my body to execute moves I forgot I knew. My arms sweep, and I pirouette, spinning and snapping my head to find my corner. The soreness from earlier melts away as my body heats with familiarity. As I whip my leg up, my foot is parallel to my head for a fraction of time and then I land softly, only to immediately rise to the balls of my feet as I approach the judges with their riveted stares. The length of the song and its sad ending beg my limbs to undulate in a perfectly timed flutter of classic swan arms. I draw nearer still while keeping my elbows level as my arms float in a wavelike pattern and the balls of my feet propel me forward just as the final piano notes fall.
Then once more their sorrowful notes swell and fill the auditorium in melancholy triumph.
I stop, dipping into a graceful plié, and assume first position.
My hands are cupped slightly and I tilt my head, looking off to the right of my position.
The utter lack of noise causes me to look at the judges as I relax my shoulders and my hands drop gracefully to my sides.
They have stood and every eye is on me. Including the gray gaze of a certain hunk named Mitch.
When the applause breaks out I don’t know whether to cry or run.
In the end, I stay.
My eyes scan the crowd and notice the one person who does not clap.
A man leans against the back of the cavernous gym auditorium, his black eyes seeming to attack me, and I take an involuntary step backward from the burning intensity of his gaze.
Carlie interrupts the moment, throwing herself at me.
“I knew you could,” she whispers, strangling me in an epic hug that cuts off my airway.
I gently push her away and look for that disconcerting male presence. Hostile.