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Satin ballet slippers scrape softly against the wood floor of the stage. The spotlight's steady beam trains on a single girl. Her feet leave the stage as she pushes herself into the air, and for a frozen second, it looks like she's flying. She lands without a sound. The other dancers onstage surround her, and strong hands grip her waist, lifting her up and putting her down again in a matter of seconds. She pirouettes away from the crowd of dancers and towards a wooden contraption center stage. It's a spindle. The large wheel is threaded with golden thread that leads to a sharp silver point. Her hand reaches out to touch it, and as the first drop of blood falls after she pricks it, she collapses in a heap on the spot.
The comments on the ballet are plentiful. They come by the handfuls and fill every crevice in the main dressing room. They're scribbled on the walls and stuffed into drawers. There are wads of comments mixed in with the wads of tissues on the floor. They are what make a dancer, and they make one girl different from the rest. They are what make Aurélie the star instead of one of the background dancers. She lives on the comments. She dances and breathes for them. She keeps them with her, in her purse, in her pockets, everywhere. She even keeps them in her costume, and when she dances, they spill out of her pores and shape her role in the ballet.
The audience applauds the performance and the performers line up at the very front. They bow in unison before gliding backstage where they quickly undress in the dressing rooms. Aurélie separates from the rest and goes to her own dressing room, the dressing room that only the lead role of the ballet gets. She strips off her make-up and her costume, leaving behind a raw, fragile girl who is easily unsettled. Onstage she is powerful and unforgettable, but behind the curtains, she is breakable.
“Good job, Aurélie,” some of the other performers say. It comes out as a sneer almost, and beneath the kind words and tone lies disdain.
Everywhere she walks she sees the stares they give her. The stares that are meant to break a person’s will with just a glance. Their arms and legs are painfully sharp, and they look like the birds that eat the dead flesh of their comrades. Their faces start to distort into bones, scales, and veins. Their skin stretched so impossibly tight against their skulls that it looks translucent. Just looking at them makes her start to feel as if she’s standing on the edge of a cliff, and she’s about to fall. Their faces and arms push at her until she hangs on only by a piece of their black feathers. Their limbs continue to jab at her even when she drags herself upwards again. They try to pry her fingers from the edge to gain her position, and she feels her grip loosening one finger at a time.
Aurélie pushes past their greasy claws and runs back towards her dressing room. The door slams shut behind her. She grabs the nearest object and throws it on the ground to calm herself down. The vase of lilies shatters and water seeps into her shoes as she stands there breathing heavily. She walks over to the vanity and flips the chair that stands in front of the mirrors over. Her hands tightly grip the tabletop as she slows her breathing. Her legs give out, and she rests her head on the cool wood. Once she's calm enough, her eyes automatically go to the mirror in front of her. A scream almost cuts her throat as she sees her reflection. Her eyes are dark, and her bones jaunt out in weird angles that pierce through her shirt and cause her skin to stretch tight against the fragile glass bones and veins of her arms. A single thought crosses her mind at the sight, but she quickly pushes it away, refusing to believe it. The idea is impossible to her, she is different, special, perfect in her performance, and in no way like the others.
An almost imperceptible knock sounds, and Aurélie turns her head towards the door. With quick, deft movements, she jerks herself off of the vanity and yanks hard on the doorknob, causing the door to slam against the dresser behind it.
“May I help you?” Aurélie asks with a calm that was nonexistent moments before. Her chapped lips chafe against each other as she speaks.
“Aurélie,” the man standing there says warmly. “Congratulations once again on getting the lead part. You danced magnificently.” His eyes stare behind her at the glass on the floor and overturned furniture. For a second his eyes flicker to her face and looks away again. It was no way for a performer who just finished the last ballet of the season to look. “Is there something wrong? You know you can tell me anything.”
Aurélie studies him with doubting eyes. She recognizes him as the man who casts all of the parts for all of the ballets. She faintly remembers his blurred figure sitting in the back of the room as she auditioned for the lead role in Tchaikovsky's ballet.
“Thank you,” she manages to cluck out. Her hands quickly fling to her mouth, pressing hard against her lips trying to force back her tone of voice. It sounds too familiar to her to be comforting.
“Anyways,” the man coughs, “I just wanted to say wonderful performance and that auditions for our next performance will be coming soon.” He coughs again and looks around uncertainly before retreating into the halls.
Eyes look in her direction from doorways, filling her with a doubt that had been building up ever since she joined the ballet troupe. They gaze at her still, long after the man had left, trying to disconcert her as she stands motionless in the doorway of her dressing room. Aurélie forces herself to look at just one of them, and as she lifts her wooden head, all of the eyes disappear behind shut doors and echoing sounds. The finality of it sends her reeling. Her heart stops beating for milliseconds and the world turns into grayscale. The noise is drained into a black hole in the middle of the floor and all is silent. The squawks and hisses from the other dancers can no longer be heard behind their doors. The world is silent and the walls tilt and shift so that they almost plunge into the hole that Aurélie is sinking in.
She stumbles into the hall, almost drunk with panic as she bangs on their doors and yells incoherent words while her nails carve lines into the wood doors. Her jumbled thoughts fight to escape from her mouth, and her body hits each door uselessly with a small thud that can barely be heard. She begs and screams for them to let her in, but her cries fall on deaf ears.
Her fall to the floor is less graceful than her fall onstage. Her legs are pulled quickly to her chest, but the bones of her knees are too sharp to rest her head on. Only when she is silent does she hear the first creak of a door opening. Soon, more follow, and Aurélie can make out the feet of every dancer, still clothed in their ballet slippers. They stand around her, none offering to help her up. Aurélie clenches her eyes shut, sure that if she opens them, she will see their hideous forms. Their jaunty bones and creature-like faces full of resent that mix with the black scales pulsing from their veins and bones. She expects all of that, but when she looks up, all she sees is their grotesque faces pulled back in smiles full of sharp, rotten teeth that leak out satisfaction.
The ceiling is spotted, and lights flicker indistinctly as they glow a bright white that is too unnatural to be anything but fluorescent. Aurélie's left arm is numb, cold, and every movement that she makes sends tingling prickles up her arm. It is impossible to bend, and when she tries, her arm gets more icy. The rest of her body is covered in a sheen of sweat, she can feel it pooling behind her head. Her eyes focus on the needle stuck in the crook of her left elbow that leads to a bag of clear liquid.
Someone to her right coughs and she turns her head to see the man again. For some reason she can't remember his name, and when she tries, she just gets that blurred image of him.
“Are you okay now?” he asks. “You're at the hospital.”
She doesn't reply.
“I found you half-passed out at five in the morning when I was leaving.”
Aurélie refuses to answer, and the man eventually gets up awkwardly and leaves in discomfort. She tries to focus on the metal posts around her bed. They feel real to her, and she clings to their touch. She clings to the fragile reality that is spilling out of her like blood. They wounded her, and no doctors will be able to stitch back up the remnants of her reality. The dream was crashing around her in chunks as she saw the smiles of those that dripped their essence onto her.
She loses sight of time as days pass. The fluorescent lights give no indication to the time of day, and it passes between moments of consciousness and those of drug-induced sleep. Flowers fill her room, more coming each day, but their cloying scent suffocates her because she knows who they're from. The words on each card has no meaning to her because she sees the joy that each letter is scrawled with, the happiness that is poured into each word at the fact that Aurélie is in the hospital. The “Get Well” cards are lies that shout out a greedy joy while softly saying a sympathetic sorry. Even when she is alone, she is surrounded by their claws, reaching up to choke her.
As much as she tries to convince herself that she is different, the mirror says otherwise. Her hollowed out face is reminiscent of the bones that carve out theirs, and her bruised and gray arms lead to clawed hands that are like sticks connected to lumps of flesh. Her frailty shows in every rib that sticks out. Each one marking her not as an individual, but as a part of a group. A group that would gladly shove each other off of the precipice to gain a higher position.
Only Aurélie's eyes are different. Their glassy shine are lackluster and show none of the macabre images that show in the other dancers' eyes. They are marbles in her head that rattle with every shake and nod. Her eyes show no enthusiasm, even when she is released from the hospital.
Aurélie's return to the theatre is not greeted with warmth. The other performers are upset, and malice tinges their words of welcome as they speak to her. Their hugs bruise her skin, each of their bones poke out beneath their flesh to puncture her and hollow her out even more. Every touch they give her fuels the fire that burns up her desire to dance.
Even during their group practices, she feels stiff and and brittle. Her arms and legs no longer have the grace of a dancer. Instead they look beaten and thin, and they refuse to move properly. The others notice with glee, and only after then do they treat her with a kindness that is reserved for their own kind. Their sweetness towards her and towards each other offer a fake comfort that they pull away when she needs it most. They have accepted her, but only because she no longer has the quality that they feared and were jealous of. She no longer has the quality and power of a star. Aurélie's indifference gives them sparks of hope that they might be the next to rise, and they fight each other for it with a wrath that ripples beneath their malformed bodies.
A week before auditions for their next performance, the theatre is full of talk of who will get the lead role. Aurélie's name is not even mentioned once. The others are no longer threatened by her. She is no longer hanging off of the cliff by her fingertips, but plummeting into the abysmal black with no sign of stopping. The others had fallen long ago, and upon reaching the bottom, became creatures that fed off of the people they pushed over the edge.
Every so often, Aurélie would catch one of them watching her, disgust on their faces as they remembered how she was before they filled her with their essence and hate. Their words no longer matter to her, and the comments of others no longer shape her. She was cut into pieces, and as she tried to fix herself, chunks of her emotions floated away.
Aurélie leaves her dressing room the way it was before she went to the hospital. The furniture is still overturned, and her costumes are still disheveled. Soon, her dressing room would belong to someone else. Someone better. Someone who isn't tumbling off the brink of talent. In one week, the dressing room will belong to the new star of the ballet.
The arguments and struggles continue still long after auditions start. The lead role is contemplated by everyone, and no one sees a match for the role. The other performers move their bodies in grotesque twists as they dance onstage, and their arms and legs jerk erratically to each song. Their movements resembles the quiet stalking of a predator, but when they jump, their bones under the gooseflesh look broken and fractured with the weight of their body crashing down upon it. The skin on their faces are stretched even tighter as they try to smile appreciatively after their audition. Each vein on their faces pulse with a want that overcomes every other feature, and the throbbing of it shakes their bodies as they try to contain the hostile urge to rip down the others.
Aurélie's performance is whimsical and freakish. She moves with an unreal weightlessness, but her actions are not unlike the others. Every step is a challenge for her body. Every plié threatens to make her knees give out as she bends them. Every Fouetté en tournant sends her almost spinning offstage. And when she goes in attitude en pointe, her hands reaching towards the lights above her head while her legs are pointed, her left towards the nonexistent audience and her right on the stage, supporting her light weight, she almost crashes with exhaustion. The perfect image of her performance the night she went to the hospital. The fatigue is clearly written in every one of her limbs as she continues on with her audition. The spark and energy she once had is replaced by feeble movements that threaten the destruction of her body.
Auditions go on for longer than expected. The girls get called back to perform again multiple times, and still no one can decide who deserves the lead role. Aurélie auditions another three times, but she is no closer to getting the part and neither are the other girls. Backstage they growl about the slowness and the indecision. Their squawks fill the whole area when the auditions are done for the day. Their impatience boils beneath their skin, heating up the turmoil that is barely under the skin. Only when their complaints reach the ears of the choreographer do the men who cast the parts decide the day auditions will end with a lead role given out.
The last day is no different than the rest. It has been like every day since the beginning. The auditions go about the same way. The other girls huddle up, trying to determine who will get the part. Their hands grab at each other, trying to suck the talent out of the other girls and bring it into their own bodies. The grip they have is hard and bony, a mixture of strength and frailty. Aurélie's arms are grabbed many times, and she feels their need through their angry touch. Their faces betray no emotion, but their grasps are full of want.
Everyone stretches together before they go onstage separately to perform the dance that has been prepared for them. All of their bones crack as they pull their legs up and stretch them. The sound is loud against the quiet of the day. No one speaks for fear of jinxing themselves. Only the occasion painful squeeze is given from one girl to another, a squeeze that is meant to bruise and hurt.
They are all too focused on their stretching, pulling limbs into impossible positions to impress the people who will be judging them. They don't notice anyone except for themselves, and when they do, it is only to give a flinted glare in the direction of another girl.
Aurélie unconsciously pulls her leg up and places it on the dance bar to stretch it. Her eyes stare at her leg for minutes before she numbly moves to be in a different position.
A soft click resonates through the room and everyone turns to face the door. A young girl stands there, cowering, trying to push herself against the wall as she gives a sheepish smile. One of the men holding the audition comes over to her and brings her to the group. Her smile is bright and her eyes glow with a fragile innocence. Her moves have a fluidity that quietly suggest confidence.
Her eyes dart around nervously to the faces that are composed of bones, scales, and veins and she starts to shiver. She moves around everyone to find a place in the corner to stretch. Her body responds to her in a graceful way, and even when stretching she looks beautiful and sculpted to a perfect shape. Her thin body shows no bones and her smiles show a real kindness as she wishes everyone luck. The other girls thank her, hugging her to prick her with their sharp joints. They grab her shoulders and squeeze too hard. Animosity and disdain underlies their tones as they speak to her, and their eyes push at her.
When she's about to go onstage for her audition, everyone crowds around her to give her hugs. They attach themselves to her like leeches as they try to suck the talent and skill out of her body to nourish themselves. They try to send her tumbling over the cliff before she even got a good hold on it. She escapes from them and heads to the main stage to audition. The door is slammed behind her as she runs away.
Aurélie stares after her and moves towards the door, realizing that she too wants the young girl's talent and skill. That she too, wants to push her over the edge so that she could somehow regain the innocence and special perfection that was settled in the young girl's core. The innocence and perfection that had once been Aurélie's.