Spin the Sky
By Jill MacKenzie
My hands reach up to move stars, rearrange space.
I pivot on my left foot and in one perfect circle, I turn, turn, facing all four walls of this studio. Here, I am alone. Here, I can be anyone.
My leg extends. It is one fluid wave. Drawing in, drawing out. Governed by tide.
The music releases its breath, and with it, mine.
My leg comes down, torso folding, until I’m on the ground. Stomach down. Face down. Pulled flat by wicked earth.
My hands rise, taking my heart, legs, soul with them. I run, twist, turn. Fly. Fly. Beat my chest with open hands. Crush my skeletons with my feet, inches from the floor.
I sink. Back rounded. Sink. A semicircle. Sink. A crescent moon.
The tempo speeds. Drums beat fast, fueling my limbs and blood.
In the air, my body coils, never landing. But the gravity betrays me, as always, so I leap again. Fly. Soar. Dance again.
I am invisible. I am invincible.
If only for a second.
George bursts through the studio door like his ass is on fire.
His face is all flushed and his hands are clutching this flyer that is, I guess, the source of his wide, wild eyes. My stomach gets this tight, wobbly feeling. Because I’ve seen this look on him before.
I scurry over to the side of the room and slap the Off button on the stereo before he has the chance to grill me on what, exactly, I’m doing here in Katina’s studio. A whopping thirty minutes before class. Without him. I’ll never tell him that I often come alone. Never, when I know he’d never understand.
He waves the flyer in my face—so close I can’t even read it—and pumps his fist in the air like he’s some kind of rock star. “They’re coming to Portland, Mags. We’ve got to be there.”
“Who’s coming where?”
“See for yourself. Read it and weep, suckers.”
He hurls the page at me, releasing it inches above my face. It sails down in a back-and-forth motion, so I scramble to catch it. George’s mouth breaks into a smile that’s as wide as our Wick Beach. “It’s fate. You know it is.”
I read the last line of the flyer out loud: “If you can dance, don’t miss this dancertunity of a lifetime!” I look up at him. “Seriously?”
“We’re so going.”
“No way. What for?”
“To try out, naturally.” George jetés to the far corner of the room. When the wall in front of him forces him to stop, he spins around. “I’m good, and so are you. I think it’s about time we took our place in the limelight.” He stops short. “Wait. You’re not scared to try out, are you?
“Definitely not scared.” I bite down on my bottom lip. “Scared of what?”
“Then it’s settled.” His grin swallows his whole face.
I can’t even imagine what it’d be like to smile that big. It must feel so freeing, like being able to extend your leg straight up during arabesque, no ligaments or skin to hold you back. “No way,” I say. “You know Rose and I already live under a microscope. Why would I want to make us even more seen?”
“Because. For once, it’d be the good kind of seen.”
I grab my bag and join Abby and Quinn and Mark in the waiting room.
George follows behind me, whispers in my ear. “Working with Gia Gianni, Mags. Can you even imagine what that would be like?”
I take off my flower-studded earrings and slide out the four inches of cut pillowcase I’ve concealed under my bra strap. I poke the posts from my earrings through the cloth and replace the backings. Then I shove it in the pocket of my bag before George can see.
I know exactly what it would be like to work with Gia, to be in the presence of a legendary choreographer like her for any length of time: like the fourteen years I’ve spent getting up early and getting here before school and on weekends and working and sweating, every single day, has all led up to the kind of grand finale that makes every single minute of it worthwhile. Like I really am flying.
Then I think of doing it on TV in front of thousands. In front of every damn person in this damn town. “There’s no way I’m going.”
“Why?” George says.
“You know why.”
“But you’re gorgeous. Totally Live to Dance material.”
“I’d also be like the world’s biggest target if I went on that show.”
“It doesn’t have to be like that.” George rolls his eyes and then, when a group of skater boys passes by the window, he rolls up the front of his T-shirt, exposing abs cut like a New York steak. His gaze zeros in on the boy in the middle—the tallest of the three—the one with blacker hair than my toes after three back-to-back pointe classes. As much as I don’t want them to, my eyes follow George’s every move. Up his smooth, pale chest. Down to the menacing little V peeking out on both sides of his hips from the top of his shorts. My own stomach muscles tighten, but for a very different reason than his. I may be Live to Dance material, but I’ll never be what he wants.
George swivels around and, mercifully, releases his T-shirt just as a redheaded freshman girl and two of her dancer-wannabe friends scoot through the door. She flutters her eyelashes at him in this absurdly cartoonish way that makes me think of Betty. No, Veronica. Which is worse. Way worse.
“Oh. Hey, you.” He smiles that smile back at her, this time showing both rows of his naturally sea-bleached teeth. By the look on her face, it’s like the girl’s going to pee herself right here in the foyer of Katina’s studio.
George turns back to the window, the boys’ backs still slightly in view. While his head is turned, the freshman narrows her eyes at me and mouths all five letters of the word that’s become like a second name to me: T-R-A-S-H. But it could be worse. It could be the other, newer name some folks have taken to calling Rose and me instead. The one that’ll never let us forget what we did. Not like we could forget it if we tried.
It echoes in my head: Murderer.
“See you after class, George,” the freshman says, though she doesn’t take her eyes off me.
George waves over his shoulder but keeps his eyes on that window. The freshman ducks into Studio B, the class next to ours.
When the boys are totally out of sight, George looks over at me. Me, who never left him. Me, who never would.
“Think about it, Mags. Mikhail Baryshnikov. Aimee Bonnet. Michael Jackson. They all got their big breaks somewhere. This could be our somewhere. Just think of it as a chance for us to get out of here.” He mumbles, “Maybe our only chance.”
“Get out of here and go where? We’re good, but Mikhail Baryshnikov good? Fat chance.”
“But think of the recognition we’d get.”
“I’m already too recognizable.” I sink down on the bench and stretch the toes on my right foot, the bones squeezing together till they feel like they’ll crumble. When I try to do the same with the left one, this small pain shoots through my toes and up my ankle. I wiggle my toes a few times and it goes away.
George does a couple of flawless grand battements. His legs kick dangerously close to my face. “But you love performing. You said so last year during spring recital.”
I think about the spring recital and what, exactly, I had said about it. Love? I don’t think so. But I do remember being backstage and hearing the warm purr of the crowd as we waited to go on. I do remember Katina telling us all to dance like we needed it to breathe, love, live. I do remember thinking that dancing was the only place I felt completely, totally myself.
But I also remember that that night, I watched as George threw down an almost perfect solo. When he finished, the whole audience clapped and whistled for him, making so much happy noise actual car alarms went off all over town. He was good, so he deserved it. But also, the cheers were there because he’s George Moutsous, enough said. When I performed my solo just minutes after him, there were only five people in the audience clapping for me: Mr. and Mrs. Moutsous; Katina; George’s archrival and the only other friend I’ve got left in Summerland, Mark McDonald; and, of course, Rose.
But the absence of clapping, replaced by the occasional boo and hiss, had nothing to do with me sucking or not sucking— that much I know. ’Cause when I came off the stage, Katina was there waiting. She cupped my cheeks in her hands and lifted my head so that I had no choice but to let my eyes gather in hers.
“Forget about them. You’re going places. You’re going to be the one that makes it.” Then she turned around and told the rest of the dancers how I had demonstrated what it means to dance like no one’s watching. But it didn’t matter what she said. The Thing That Happened had already happened, two weeks earlier, and was there, hanging over my head like an ax waiting to fall. But I couldn’t forget about those hisses and boos. They came from my people. They were my town. What they thought of me—of us—it mattered. No matter what Katina said, it mattered.
I twist the end of my waist-length ponytail around my index finger. “I said I like being on stage. I didn’t say I liked performing in front of that many people and I sure as shit didn’t say I wanted to do it in front of the whole entire nation.”
George grabs the end of my ponytail away from my fiddling fingertips. He lets my hand linger in his, a nest cradling a robin’s egg, before slowly placing it at my side. “We’ve got to do this, Magnolia. We’ve got a real shot at this.”
“I know. But I’m still not doing it.”
“Why? Because you could actually make your dreams come true? As if you don’t need that cash prize. You could buy a car. Go to college. Think of this as an opportunity.”
“You mean a dancertunity, right?” I try to shake off George and his penchant for dreaming solar-system big, most of the time, without any thoughts of reality bringing him back to earth. Do we actually have a shot at this crazy thing? Yeah, maybe. But what I won’t tell George is that having a shot is actually the one thing that scares me the most. Yet somehow, his words stick me, like pins in a voodoo doll.
Ten thousand dollars.
Not for college, or a new car. But maybe . . .
Maybe once they saw me on the show—the only show Mom and I watched together and loved together for six glorious weeks every fall—they’d see. See that I’m not her, not any of the things they whisper about Rose and me when they think we can’t hear them, and even when they know we can.
And once I won that money, I could give it to Rose so she could step away from the road she’s strolled dangerously close to every single day since last year. Since the day The Thing That Happened happened. And maybe even Mom would see me up there on TV. See us and want to come home and try one last time. Maybe then we could take her to one of those fancy places. Not like the ones here in Summerland. Good ones. Real ones. Ones where no one knows anything about Woodson girls or what it’s like to be one. Like the kind I saw online that swore up and down its glossy site that, with the right amount of money, they could change anybody’s life.
Katina pops her head out of her studio and sighs super loud when she sees us. Her hair is slicked back in her usual tight bun, which stretches her skin like Saran Wrap. George has always said she does it to get rid of the three rows of forehead wrinkles she developed when her former protégé, Mickela Ray, went and got herself pregnant by a guy who pumps gas at the Pic ’N’ Pay and then quit dance to “start a life” with him. I always laugh, but only because it’s so not true. Katina may be pushing sixty, but she’s gorgeous in that Eastern European prima ballerina way. All musk and mystery. Not to mention she’s the best damn teacher on the Oregon Coast.
“George. Magnolia. You two are already late, yes? Quit gabbing and get your lovebird derrieres in here.”
Katina’s words freeze my limbs while I know my face transforms from the perfectly pecan color I’m usually blessed with to hot, hot red.
I stare at her with bulging eyes. Save me here, Katina. She winks at me before disappearing behind the door to her studio. George grins at me and then pulls me into Katina’s studio where Abby, Quinn, and Mark are already warming up at the barre.
In the fourteen years I’ve been dancing here, Katina’s studio hasn’t changed a bit. Not one of the chipping lilac-painted walls has been retouched. Not one square of the cheap laminate floor has been replaced or repolished. And in a few select places, the floor is so worn that little pink pieces of concrete foundation are peeking through. It even smells the same as it did when I was four, when my mom first brought me here. Like a slightly raunchy, slightly enticing combination of vinegar, rotting peaches, and chalk.
Katina walks past us, adjusting our bodies, pressing our backs down down down so that they get an inch closer to the ground.
“Push yourself, Magnolia. I know you can reach further than that.”
I sink lower, lower, trying my best to flatten my back and raise my leg until the muscles underneath feel like they’re tearing in two. I don’t care if they tear in two. I take a deep breath and push once more and I know I’ve never gone lower than this.
“Good, Magnolia.” She lifts my leg a half-inch higher. “Fabulous, George.”
When she’s past us, George pokes my thigh with his pointed foot. “If you won, you could finally quit Deelish.”
“Why would I want to do that? Your mom and dad would kill me. Plus I love Deelish.”
George kicks his other leg over the edge of the barre and rolls his upper body down his leg, his chest becoming one with his thigh. “Whatever. Do you really want to be scooping PB and J-flavored ice cream to summer brats for the rest of your life?”
“It’s not that easy.”
“It’s totally that easy. There’s more to life than Summerland, you know.”
“I know.” It’s not what I meant, but he doesn’t get it. Doesn’t get that me landing another job in Summerland isn’t the same thing as him landing one. Not the same thing at all.
“I mean, you really think everyone would still hate you guys so much if you made this town famous for something other than digging?”
“Okay, my people!” Katina runs her hands over her gelled mane. “Take a small break and we’ll start with our pointe exercises first today. Let’s get the hardest out of the way, and then we’ll learn some new choreography, yes?”
Mark and Abby and Quinn sidle off to the left of the room, arms linked, like the three musketeers they are. Mark gives George this wide-eyed little stare, one I know I’m not meant to see because when he sees me looking, he looks away. It kind of hurts because Mark’s always been nice to me when not many people still are, but I know what Mark’s thinking. And to be perfectly honest, he’s right: George should be hanging out with them instead of always with me.
Even though George and Mark have been competing for the male lead roles in Katina’s productions for as long as I can remember, and even though Mark and I have been dancing together almost as long as George and I have, George has always been more in Mark’s league than mine. And the rest of them, too. They belong together. Them, born into perfect families. Them, raised by mothers who’d never, ever hurt another soul.
Still, George heads left, away from them, like he’s got total blinders on, so I follow.
Mark opens his mouth like he wants to say something, but then shuts it. I know he wouldn’t say it outright. I know he cares way too much about hurting people’s feelings to say anything to my face about why George still hangs out with me when almost no one else does, but he’s got to be thinking it. He may be the sweetest thing in Summerland, but he’s still a Summerland local. And being my friend doesn’t make him immune to the poison this place perpetuates. At least when it comes to me.
And technically, Mark should be used to George forever choosing me over everyone else. Pretty much all of Summerland knows we’re inseparable, like two halves of a razor clam shell, his half shielding me, keeping me safe, making me enough. It’s the way it’s always been. And ever since The Thing That Happened happened, I’ve often wondered if everyone just prefers being away from us. Or me, anyway.
With my back to the wall, I sink down to the floor and then reach for one of my toe shoes. I slip it on my right foot. The cool canvas surrounds my toes, encasing them, protecting them. I hold the smooth ribbons with two hands and cross them in front of my ankle. Then I loop them around the back twice before tying a strong knot—one that won’t come undone during whatever new choreography Katina’s got up her sleeve.
I tuck the knot under the flat piece of ribbon against my ankle and then grab the other shoe to begin the whole process over again. But instead, I rest the shoe in my lap and peer out the window. The sun is starting to fade behind Mount Hood, causing Vine Street and probably the whole darn town to be smothered in the golden glow of twilight. It’s my favorite time of day. And being here, confined in these walls of this studio, is my favorite place on earth.
I’ve done this a million times before, this shoe-tying business. Could do it even before I was six. But as George drones on about “seizing the day” and “grabbing life by the reins,” all I can think of are his other words. Taunting me.
Nobody could hate you if you made Summerland famous, could they?
“Hey George,” Abby calls from across the room. And just like that I’m back here again. “We know you took the sign off the door,” she says. “We saw you stuff it down your pants. You can’t stop everyone from trying out.”
“Yeah.” Quinn eyeballs George’s crotch. “And we’ve got no problem going in there and getting it back if it comes down to that.”
When Abby and Quinn take three seductive little steps toward George and grab Mark’s arm to do the same, Mark shrugs them off. “No way,” he says. “You two are on your own with that one.” But then his eyes lock on me. His eyebrows push together and he studies my freckle-dusted cheeks. My bulbous nose. My forehead, dotted with tiny pimples like some kind of unknown, yet undesirable constellation.
I give him a little smile to remind him of all those other times we had together. Long before The Thing That Happened happened. Like the time when we were nine and his mouse costume got lost so we raced all through the dressing rooms looking for it until we found it—both of us grabbing the giant mouse ears from a trunk of old costumes at the exact same time, which sent us tumbling backward into a giggling heap. Like the time we were freshmen and neither of us could find our classes so both of us ditched and hung out together— huddled behind a bush because we were so afraid of getting caught—instead of going to class at all. I hope my smile will remind him of it all. Remind him that, I swear to God, I’m nothing like her.
He takes a step toward me, his eyes wide and clear like magic windows leading into a warm, warm world. A world where I’m wrong. A world where he won’t look at me in this new way he looks at me these days, all silent and scrutinizing. A world where none of them do.
George plunks himself next to me. He wraps his arm around my waist. I lean my head on his shoulder and close my eyes. When I open them, Mark’s still staring at me.
“What?” I cross my arms.
“Nothing,” Mark says. He spins around and does a series of jeté entrelacé over and over on the far side of the room, even though they were perfect the first time around.
I want to get up and give him a piece of my mind. Tell him to stop staring because I hate it and always have. But George pats my leg. “Leave it alone,” he says, so I do. Instead, I breathe in and out, inhaling George’s scent, the mixture of boy and salt I know so well. At least I’ll always have him. At least I know he’ll never leave me the way the rest of them have, one by one by one.
“So what do you say about the competition?” His voice is soft, threading its way in and then out of me.
“I say it’s a total long shot. You know how many people go to those things, don’t you? Everyone will be there. Everyone thinks they’re good enough to be on that show.” I watch Mark and Quinn and Abby practice a series of ronds de jambe en l’air at the far side of the studio, their legs extending at perfect ninety-degree angles. All of them look good. All of them look strong. “Katina’s entire studio will want to try out.”
“They say they’ll go, but they won’t. No one ever leaves this town. No one ever does anything around here except shun you if you’re different and snub you if you’re not. Unless we do this, we’re going to end up just like them.”
I stare straight into his eyes, and in them I see the reflection of my own soul. It’s all there between him and me and has been since we were four. That was the day our moms met on our beach, Wick Beach, the last day of Season.
We were there, me and Mom and Rose, just doing our thing when up rocked Mrs. Moutsous carrying one very squirmy George wearing a tangerine tutu and a pair of red fire-truck gum boots with little blue wheels painted at the toes and heels. It was thundering and lightning something awful out that day. Flashes thrust into the sand all around us, warning us with every crackle and every ominous boom. I remember thinking that it wasn’t safe for any of us to be so close to the ocean in that kind of weather.
All George says he remembers is that he had peed his pants hours before but didn’t want his mom to know for fear that she’d make them go home.
That’s how George goes through life. Even though we’re as different as Deelish’s flavors—him being Magic Marshmallow and me vanilla—George sees and feels everything I’ve felt, and vice versa. And today is no exception. As usual, he sucks away all that nasty cynicism I’m prone to, leaving me with no choice in the matter but to go with his flow.
He grabs my hands. Eyes on me. Baby blues shimmering. For me. “I’m going to be there. I just want you to be there with me.”
I don’t know why he does this. Maybe it’s because he can’t stand to spend his days with someone who doesn’t overtly believe that people can change—that the world can change— the way he does. Or maybe he only looks at me this way because he feels guilty that he’ll never love me the way I love him. Not because I’m not pretty enough or smart enough or even good enough at dancing to be his girl. But because he couldn’t love me that way even if he tried.
I’d always had my suspicions. When I was eight and ten and twelve, I knew something wasn’t quite right in the story of me and George that was supposed to end with happily ever after. But I never knew for sure that George didn’t play for my team until the day I saw him on the beach with Sammy Baker on the first day of Season, the summer before we started high school.
Still, loving on me or not, George has stuck by my side when not many others have. Even through the hard stuff when my mom first started using and the harder stuff that came later, with The Thing That Happened. I’m the yin to his yang, or at least that’s what he’s always said.
I throw my hands up in the air. “Fine. I’ll go with you.” I flip my head over and gather my mass of hair into a firm bun on top of my head. I secure it with four bobby pins, twisting and sticking, twisting and sticking. “But you know getting Rose to agree won’t be easy.”
George smiles and bends down to tie my left shoe for me, which sends a twinge through my ankle again. “Don’t you worry your pretty little head about your alpha sister. I’ll take care of her. You know I always do.”
I let my eyes meet his and stay inside his for what seems like forever. Because what if he’s right? What have I got to lose by trying out for the show?
What if I actually won?
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Excerpt kit provided by Sky Pony Press.