Authors: Kathleen Rovner
OR MY FAMILY.
OPYRIGHT © 2015
LL RIGHTS RESERVED
Chapter 1: A Minor Discovery
weat clung to the little dimple at the end of Julie’s upturned nose. It dripped down her face, stinging her eyes, wetting her lips and leaving a salty taste on her tongue. Her hair loosened from the tight knot at the nape of her neck, and a few auburn strands plastered the side of her face. She wanted to pull it tight again but couldn’t. If she lost her focus now, everything she’d worked so hard for would fall apart.
Julie’s muscles were on fire. Her breathing was controlled and timed with the moves, even if she wanted to gulp in a big deep breath.
She wouldn’t stop. Months of practice, and in a few more steps, she would nail it.
“Julie, what are you still doing here? Everyone else left hours ago.”
Julie ignored Tom’s gruff voice. She smiled blankly at the walls and mirrors as they spun by in the last turns. Her cheeks were so used to this expression, it almost hurt not to smile.
She came to a rest on her toes, arms stretched up fully in a perfect circle, middle fingers touching slightly. She extended back as far back as possible without toppling over, letting her left arm flutter out in a graceful line to help her to keep her balance.
The smile slipped slightly as she held the pose. This was the part that hurt. Julie tugged the practiced smile back into place. She wouldn’t spoil the show.
She could picture it all clearly. On the stage, the rest of the dancers would spin around her as they finished their own sets and came to a rest. The curtain would come down slowly. It would all happen deliberately, as she held herself, back bent as far as she could without collapsing.
This was the hardest part. Holding absolutely, perfectly, effortlessly still. Her left calf muscle twitched. A muscle in her upper arm twinged.
Just a few more seconds…
She would have to massage it, or the cramp would develop into a spasm. Which meant she would limp home—again. Her smile started to slip.
No thoughts, no pain. My mind is just an extension of my body. Quiet.
A warm feeling spread throughout her body, ending in a tingle in her fingers and toes. When this happened, Julie knew she was golden. She could hold any pose now. The weight of her body disappeared. It was exhilarating, as if a million tiny strings were holding her up.
It was like she could fly. Like she could float up into the air and feel no pain.
Her mouth quirked. She could picture Tom’s face if she floated up to the ceiling. The kind old janitor would freak out.
“Julie, Julie how did you get up there? You got to get down.”
She held in a laugh and then gasped. The pain of staying this way came back sharply but faded again.
She was getting better and better at this over the last year. It had to be what the great dancers could do. Mind over matter, and all that. Their bodies trained to perfect condition to withstand poses like this one.
There was one problem. She was always more tired after getting into this groove. Sometimes she had trouble staying awake on her short bus ride home.
Count down time.
One–one thousand, two–one thousand, three—
“Girl, you have to stop. I got to get home, or my wife will be all over me. Again. And I don’t mean the good way.” Tom sighed. “Julie, come on. I waited to sweep and mop this studio last as it is.”
“Ten–one thousand!” Julie shouted the last number of the countdown. Then she let her body go limp and collapse to the floor.
“S–sorry.” Staying in that pose made her heart work hard. Her chest heaved, and she gasped between words. “Had…to…finish…perfect.”
“Yes, yes, fine, fine. I will start over there then—as usual.”
Julie listened to the familiar sound of the mop bucket squeaking across the floor. Water sloshed onto the worn pine planks, and Tom grumbled more. They were the sounds she heard at the end of most practices. She stayed late as much as possible.
“Tom, I nailed it.” She flung her arms out to lie limply on the floor.
“Humm.” The mop squelched. She rolled her eyes. He didn’t get how big a moment this was.
“I just nailed the hardest set of my life. One designed to bring the maximum amount of pain possible to the dancer as it is performed but keep the audiences’ eyes fixed on you. It is perfect. I know that the Academy will take me.”
Her lips broke in to a real smile. This one made her violet eyes sparkle as she stared at the dimpled white ceiling tiles. Tom wasn’t listening to her natter on. He never responded with more than a grunt. Over the years she had learned that he must like her since he always cleaned where she practiced last.
“I doubt there are more than five or ten dancers in the whole world who can do what I did. Just think what I can do if I go to a prestigious school like the Academy. Oh, I wish we lived in New York and not stupid Atlanta.” She slapped her hand on the floor.
All she wanted was to be a professional dancer. Even as a little girl she had pushed and pushed to get from one dance studio to another until she was in the best that Atlanta had to offer.
But now she was stuck. She needed to get to the next level, and it was not in Atlanta. It was the Academy in New York.
“You said the same last week.”
Julie sat up and crossed her legs, watching Tom mop. She had already picked up the trash in the room to help him. Whatever gave her extra time and kept her on his good side. She kneaded her left calf muscles methodically as she rocked back and forth happily.
“I’ve been dancing since I could walk, all so I could get to this point, this dream. My dream.” Her eyes narrowed. “And more importantly—no one else in the company can do this. Not even Rose.”
Tom shook his head. “Wasn’t Rose a friend of yours? Didn’t she used to stay and practice with you?”
She laughed. “Not since I beat her in that audition a few months ago. Ever since then, she hasn’t talked much to me. Didn’t you notice?”
He shrugged and continued to slosh the mop across the floor, swinging it closer and closer to where she sat.
“I’ll stretch over here and get out of your way.” She eyed the mop as the brown water got closer.
“Do what you like, since you will do it anyway.” But he smiled as he said it.
Julie hid her own smile by reaching down to her toes with her palms, willing her muscles to relax. Tom always grumped, but in the end, he came to this room last. She was always nice to him. Her parents were firm believers in being kind to everyone. Maybe firm was too soft a word. More like militant. Sometimes she wondered if one of them was horribly teased in high school or something. No, that wouldn’t make sense. They always did everything perfectly.
Not all of the girls were kind to him though. They ignored him or gave him more work to do, acting like the spoiled brats that take expensive dance classes.
Over the years Julie had come to like him better than her friends at the dance studio, especially once it became clear that she was more talented than the rest of them. They didn’t pick on her, but they didn’t want to hang out with her anymore. She sighed. It would be nice to have a friend to dance with.
She caught Tom as he passed by, grasping his head in her hands and jumping up to give the stooped sixty–something man a quick peck on the cheek. His bronzed and lined face reddened. She loved making him blush.
“Thanks for doing this room last and giving me the extra time.”
“Ahh, s’nothin,” he sputtered. “Be careful on your way home. There was a storm raging the whole time you were practicing. It’s died back now, but you can’t dance if you slip and break your leg.”
Julie wrinkled her nose. “There’s always a storm when I dance well. I think I should plan performances around weather reports.”
“Be careful. I know you don’t like storms.” He patted her on the back.
“I’m not going to let the weather stop my good mood. Besides, it sounds like it’s over now.”
Pulling her hair the rest of the way out of the bun, she shook out the long layers and massaged her skull with her fingertips. No matter how many times she pulled it up, it always felt wonderful to let it down. Even if the part near her scalp was a little sticky with sweat.
It’s not as if she had a date or anything. Boys were a distraction from dancing, and she hadn’t met one that seemed worth time away from it. She glanced around the familiar mirrored room. This was her true love. The place she felt whole.
Reluctantly, Julie twisted her hair back into a knot at the nape of her neck. She pulled out her clothes from her bag and slipped the ratty old Hotlanta shirt and jeans over her leotard and tights. She might like her practice stuff more, but wearing her dance stuff outside around here was a bad idea. With the hoodie pulled down over her eyes and her red wool scarf wrapped around her neck, in the dark she was often mistaken as a young boy. She didn’t mind. In a dancer’s world, less girly shapes equaled a better range of motion.
Pausing at the bottom of the stairs, she sighed. Outside the air would be clingy mist, which made the night seem much later than it was. If she walked quickly, she could reach the bus stop a few blocks up the street before the 8:55 bus.
In the city there was always a buzz of talking, cars, sirens, and the whatever of busy city lives. She liked it that way. It felt like the whole place was one big organism that kept pace with its peoples’ lives.
Tonight Atlanta was quiet, like the city was holding its breath. It was early spring, and the air was too thick. The street lamps’ glow had trouble penetrating more than a few feet beyond the poles. People couldn’t be bothered to leave home to brave wet, dark streets.
The mist penetrated her hoodie after only a few steps on the street. Her shoulders slumped, and she started to shiver.
There was a loud boom, and white light flooded the sky above.
Julie jumped. The air crackled with electricity around her. Then the world was silent again. Just thunder and lightning. Perfectly natural and perfectly normal.
She pulled her hoodie tighter around her and walked faster. She didn’t like thunder. But she hated lightning.
She had good reason. Lightning had it out for her. When she was thirteen years old, lightning had come into her room while she slept, leaving the wall unmarred but killing all the appliances in the house. After that day, it followed her everywhere. It blew out a power box on the road beside her school one day and hit the road behind her when she was in a friend’s car. Electricity went out around her house all the time when storms hit because lightning hit the power lines.
Her friends joked that they should wear rubber suits around her. She didn’t bother telling her parents about any of it. They might tell her she needed a break from dancing, and then she’d feel prickly and tense, like something was building up inside her.
When she turned sixteen last May, the lightning stopped following her. A storm was just a storm again. Except on nights like tonight where the air prickled her from the inside out.
Thunder boomed again.
The lightning illuminated the neat three– and four–story buildings and narrow alleys dotting the street. She walked faster.
There was a clatter off to the left. Julie squinted down the dark alley, but the lightning flash blinded her. A trashcan rolled into view. Her skin prickled, as if she was being watched. Maybe a cat or dog, scared by the lightning.
She hurried by the alleyway. A scrape echoed off the pavement behind her. She whipped her head around, but there was nothing there.
Still, she walked faster. Atlanta was holding its breath and the streets were empty around her. Some people preferred these renovated old buildings as apartments and stores since they had character. At the moment, the old gables and trimmings added to the creepy factor.
Another scrape sounded, closer this time.
A shiver rushed down her spine. She gulped back a bad taste in her mouth. She didn’t want to turn around but had to.
Julie started. A man was right behind her. His lanky brown hair stuck out at odd angles, and his eyes were bloodshot. His jacket and pants were splattered with mud.
He ran at her.
She froze, like a deer in headlights. His hands wrapped around the top of her small arms. She was trapped.
“Give me money, and I let you go home.” The man shook his head. The reek from his rotting teeth took her breath away and made her eyes water.