She ran her fingers over the bristles of the heavy red curtain. It felt like real velvet, not the tablecloth material that hung in high school auditoriums and regional theaters, though it smelled as musty. She gazed out into the space beyond the dimly lit stage, where musicians sat in their enclave tuning their instruments in a sea of discordant notes. Past the light and sound lay more than two thousand seats that slowly filled as the cultural elite of New York City trickled in. Everything was hushed—the sound of the musicians, the voices of the audience, the lights overhead—but together the sounds swirled in unison to make the air feel as thick as a bog.
She backed away from the curtain.
“Break a leg,” the stage manager said in passing, resting his already sweaty fingers on her elbow for a moment. “Just remember to picture the audience in their underwear. It helps with the nerves.”
She opened her mouth to say that she was not nervous—nerves were for understudies—but before she could remind him of her regional tour as Odette this past summer, his headset buzzed with static and stress lines returned to his forehead. “No, Tanya, I said two people, not one. Don’t you—no, stop. I’m coming.” He disappeared deeper backstage.
She started tapping her toes, hopping up on her point shoes and lowering herself back down in fast repetition, the clickety-clack of her toes against wood sounding that familiar echo that shadowed her every thought. She was not an understudy, and would never be again after tonight.
“Good luck!” one of the other ballerinas said, blowing her a kiss as she skipped by.
She smiled at the girl’s taboo words. Luck, as her mother always said, had nothing to do with this business.
She ceased her toe bouncing and instead turned her hips back and forth as her fingers skittered over her white tutu.
“Five minutes!” The stage manager’s voice carried over the thrum of excitement, stirring the noise up a volume as ballerinas glided into place. She heard the click-clack underneath a rustling of taffeta.
She smiled, her feet and hips still.
The lights in the theater darkened. The voices of the audience died away and were replaced with the swelling of stringed instruments. The curtain swayed under its own weight until it slowly rose. People clapped, but inside her head she counted along with the music.
One, two, three, four, five-six-seven-eight. One, two, three, four—
She leapt onto the stage—click-clack. She couldn’t see the audience, but she felt their eyes on her skin like the heat of a New York summer.
The spotlight found her. The other ballerinas swirled around her like a whirlpool of tights and glitter, but she was the epicenter of the cosmos. Like she’d always dreamed of, like her mother wanted, like she knew she would be.
Her heart lifted along with her feet, the stage far below her as she sprang into the air and spun. She arched her long arms overhead, suspended in the air like the ornament of a Russian music box.
Gravity called her back, and she touched her right foot back to the stage—click clack. Her left foot followed—click—but not before she felt her right ankle slip and her body plummet to the ground, the music broken by the sound of splintering bone.
Clare’s own ballet career lasted through only one Nutcracker performance when she was three feet tall. Besides writing, Clare loves colorful lights, Nativity scenes, baking, and putting trees indoors. So basically Christmas. Is it Christmas yet?