Instead, today I'd like to share a short story with you. This story is based off a series of prompts for a short story contest I entered in (I can't for the life of me remember if I placed, or what place it would have been, nor can I find the results for the contest anywhere, so I guess I can't actually tell you).
It's a bit of a rough story, prose-wise, but I really love the concept. In short, we were given a series of images to choose from and we had to write a story under 2,000 words about it. I chose this image:
I won't tell you how the image inspired me, but hopefully you discover that for yourself.
She sat in the dark and waited.
It was always dark behind the curtain, waiting for the show to start. Complete blackness so dark she saw fanciful colors dance across her vision. The only true color she saw was the glow-in-the-dark tape between her feet. It marked her position, although by now she knew exactly where to stand. She could do this in her sleep. Sometimes she did.
Time ticked on and she felt that stirring at the nape of her neck, the little tickle.
At once she knelt, her feet under her, and folded her hands in her lap. Bowed head. Breathe. In and out. Time began to speed up – or so she imagined – until she could hear it ticking away without a clock.
From beyond the curtain came the murmurs of the crowd come to see. They always talked before the curtains opened.
Would he be there again?
She shivered at the thought and hoped not.
The curtain began to open. First a sliver of light so bright it hurt to look at. She closed her eyes and let the light turn the back of her eyelids a dull red. And the music began. Soft and quiet and peaceful. She lifted her head, eyes still closed, and smiled.
Everyone always commented on her smile after the show. They said her smile at the beginning was the catch. If she smiled, they were drawn in. She’d tried not smiling once. Turned out disastrous.
So she smiled, eyes closed. Then the music changed its tone ever so slightly and she raised her hands. The movement pulsed in time with her heart, the music. It raised her, that motion. Up off her knees in a fluid motion. She felt it, but it flashed into time and was gone.
She stood on the stage, feet tucked together and arms out. The music hit the note she always waited for and knew. Her eyes opened.
There, in the front row, he sat. In his usual spot, the center seat. Seeing him no longer surprised her, but it put the rhythm a fraction off. Her glide to the side felt off, to her, although no one else would know it. He sat in his seat and smiled, rested his chin on his steepled fingers.
No way to stop, now. Too late. She danced on, let herself envelop the music. The rhythm returned and she let herself smile again. Simple notes, plain and unadorned.
Someone in the audience coughed and another muttered something.
She kept the frown from her face. People did that at each performance. Cough or mutter. Cough or mutter. Happenstance.
The music began to change. Notes blended sharply and smoothed out into a harsher, faster tone. Her dance changed with it and she closed her eyes. No more smile, now. Breathe. The smile was supposed to be gone. It still felt wrong, though. Smiling and then not.
Eyes watched her: a hundred pairs of eyes staring in wonder. No admiration yet, that came later. Just wonder. Wonder that she could dance to this music. She only felt the one pair of eyes. His pair. Always staring, watching, smiling.
She shivered inside and continued to dance. It flowed out with a mere thought. This step next, then turn. Step, step, glide, step. Spin, stop, wait, step. Over and over and over while the music muttered its way through the dark and heavy notes back to the lighter.
Now came the time for admiration. Again came the small little smile. She liked to call it the mischievous one. It knew it would have to leave soon, but until then… The notes flitted high and fast and her heart began to beat louder and faster to keep in time. Her dance became almost… frantic. A flight from the watching eyes and the pain and the darkness.
Keep… Keep dancing.
The music changed back to slow and dark and she wound her way to the finish: head bowed and arms spread out. As the curtains squeaked back across the stage, the audience applauded. She thought she heard distinctly the clapping of the man in the front row.
Darkness surrounded her and she let her arms drop to her side.
Another dance, this one with more people. Every performance seemed to have more people, crammed together in the rows. People coughed and muttered more than she’d ever seen before. Over and over and over she’d played this part; a simple dance to simple music. Smile, downcast, smile, finish.
Emotions stuffed down below the calm mask of serenity.
And the man sat in the front row, a smile on his face, his chin on his steepled fingers.
The music overwhelmed her thoughts and pushed her on in the music. Faster, faster, slow. Step, step, turn, step, bow. And the curtains closed again. Applause came muffled through the curtain, scattered and dim. As the number of people grew, it seemed the clapping lessened.
She knelt on the glow-in-the-dark tape. Two performances today, close together. Enough time to empty the chairs and fill them up again.
Enough time to catch her breath and let the emotions escape.
Weariness in the form of a long sigh and biting her lower lip. Nervousness in the quaking of her muscles. Sadness kept the smile from her face and determination brought it back.
She sat and listened to the people file into the auditorium and find their seats. A low rumble of voices and chatter. Far off – near the doors, she thought – a child wailed. It sent a shiver down her spine. A child come to see her? Not many parents brought their children: the children always coughed and squirmed.
Everyone coughed, nowadays. She supposed it was cold season, or something. Time passed her by with barely a whisper in her ear. Waiting, waiting. The darkness swirled the false colors and dashed them against the curtains in front of her.
Twenty minutes, by her count of the seconds, and she began again. The same routine: happy music and light steps, dark notes with slow steps. Quick and rapid with a smile, down to sad and back and sad once more.
The child in the back wailed again and the mother took it out. People coughed and muttered, coughed and muttered. Why did they come only to hack and whisper to each other? She gritted her teeth behind the mischievous smile and kept dancing.
Don’t stop dancing.
She could never stop dancing. Light and spin and step and bow. Through the closing curtain she saw the man in the front row begin to clap.
“Why?” she whispered. He came to every performance.
Every. Single. One.
Her last performance. The show closed, today.
Silence echoed loud to her behind the curtain; a small audience. It didn’t surprise her, the last show always had less people.
The glow-in-the-dark tape was dim and faded; it hadn’t got much light today. It mirrored her feelings. Dimmed and frail. She knelt on the tape and waited for the curtains to open. Silence and waiting. Her breaths sounded loud to her ears; thunder in the deathly quiet.
Then the curtains opened. It startled her, their rustling movement. Too early. They were opening too…
She smoothed the frown off her face and bowed her head. Well, if they wanted to start early, then she’d dance. The sooner she started, the soon she’d be finished one last performance here. Then… then she could fly free to some other place to dance. Without an audience, without the judgmental coughing and muttering and crying children.
The music began and she floated through the beginning steps.
When she opened her eyes, she nearly missed a step and the rhythm flew out of her mind. Her heart pounded and the music faded to where she actually mis-stepped. The seats were empty. Despite the darkness she could see them. Rows and rows of empty seats and not a single person.
Except… except for him. He sat in his usual front row seat, chin on steepled fingers. And then he smiled and nodded his head just slightly.
It wasn’t the time, but she closed her eyes. Better to keep her eyes closed and not think about him. The only one who came to her last performance. The rhythm came back slow and she smoothed her way back into the dance. Keep dancing.
Slow and dark.
Fast and light.
Dancing just for him.
Slow, slow, turn, step, turn, stop.
The curtains didn’t close as she bowed her head and the music ended. She swallowed and looked up. He stood at the edge of the stage, smiling… kindly. Sadly.
“Thank you,” he murmured, “that was wonderful.”
She tried to force the words out: the gratitude for his congratulations. Instead, she sat and stared at him in silence. Rude, her mother would say. If she had a mother.
Then she blinked. Where had that come from? Of course she had a mother and…
“I’m sorry,” the man said. He turned away from the stage and bowed his head. “This… this is it. I’m going now and you’ll never see me again. I just… can’t do this anymore.”
What did he mean? Do what?
She knelt and watched him walked up the aisle. At the top he looked back, waved, and left through the double doors.
Time flitted by. So much time she hardly noticed. The seats began to collect dust as she sat there, waiting. Curtains open and lights on, she sat and waited. Her heart pounded in her chest and she felt ready to explode. No performances.
So… much… time.
And she waited as dust settled on everything, including her. She couldn’t move herself to get rid of it. Instead she sat there and waited.
Then the doors opened. A girl – seventeen, maybe – walked in and closed them tight. The girl turned her back to the doors and leaned against them, breathing hard.
“Hello?” the girl said.
The girl was staring at her. She shook herself and bowed her head, closed her eyes. The music began. Slowly, she danced. When she finished, the girl sat in the front row, in the same seat the man had sat in, long, long ago. At the last note of the music, the girl began to clap. She applauded enough for a hundred people.
At once the dust vanished, replaced by a smattered crowd of people. The curtains closed and left her in darkness.
Another audience to dance for.