Abigail Mandlin

It happened first by moonlight, in the garden surrounded by hydrangeas.

Her feet were sodden from an impromptu dip in the pond.  They drew a shadow pattern across the concrete as she practiced her pirouettes, each drop an echo to her steps.

She moved like water: slow, monotonous. The spins were loose with lethargy, the mind weighted down.

She thought of her mother—

And a splash of blue-gray splattered against the night air from her thrown hand.

It faded as soon as it was released—a trick of the light, nearly—dissipating into foam that washed off the beach of her environment before she’d even had the wherewithal to properly marvel at it.

Her mouth parted to call for Mama—

she bit her lip.  Hard.

。・: * :・゚★,。・: * :・゚☆

She was drowning.

Oh, she was drowning, she was drowning, she was drowning.

She pulled at the front of her sweater—a well-loved one, stretched in the sleeves—and felt the bite of her fingernails pierce through the fleece to the other side, pressing angry red marks into the crux of her palm.

“You have come by it honestly,” her father had said.

If that was the case, couldn’t, then, she get rid of it just as easily?

Her grandmother had it; her great-grandmother had it; her great-great-grandmother had it: a decades, centuries-old twist in the DNA that had her gasping for the same oxygen her ancestors had breathed each time someone ventured too close.

She sucked in another flute of air and prayed her synapses had the sense to register it.

It was then she noticed the color:

A nervous, tension-filled blood-orange against her thigh, jittering up and down with each bounce of the ball of her foot.  

She stood up, ramrod straight.

Lifted her arms into starting position.

And began.

。・: * :・゚★,。・: * :・゚☆

The competitions were a natural progression.  

She fell into it as easily as a plie: the placid smiles, the careful platitudes.  When she danced, she became myopic—only aware of the stretch of her muscles, the color that followed—and let the rest bleach into nothing under the burning stage lights.  

Performance became a routine just as predictable as her sequences: an arabesque here, with an accompanying smattering of sunny yellow; an attitude there, in a dusty clay color; and an assemblé to finish, rosy-red like her cheeks as she held her final pose.

Scores were nebulous and of little interest to her.

All that mattered was that she got the color out. 

。・: * :・゚★,。・: * :・゚☆

Hers was watercolor.

Reds and oranges and yellows.  Soft colors—bright colors—but never too stark, too much.  Gentle-like brushstrokes skating across the skin—up her shoulders, down her arms, a splatter against the wrist, dripping from the fingertips—until it manifested beside her, a faithful partner, a comforting presence.

One time she got pink—just once—when she twirled the right way, thought the right thing, and released a smattering of fuchsia from her ankle, pointed at the toe.

“Again,” her instructor had said, directing her leg width wider, tapping at the muscle and sinew where it was pulled taut.  “But higher.  Think roses.”

She did think roses.  And bubblegum.  And big, bright balloons and not-yet-ripe strawberries and fleeting butterfly kisses.

But the pink didn’t happen again.

She coveted purple.  Others had it: deep royal shades to orchids and lilacs and violets.  The closest she could get was a periwinkle blue, flirting with the concept of a bolder hue but never delving too deeply into the spectrum.

Don’t even get her started on green.

But still, she counted herself lucky.

Because his was nothing.

Or no, not nothing.  Blacks and whites and decidedly not watercolor, but instead, ink and marker and hard lines and sharp edges and sad, sad, sad, even when the mere suggestion of an expression dented his cheek.

Whenever she saw it, a strange weight settled on the base of her tongue.

She was to see him at regionals.  She always did, even if he avoided her gaze—becoming suddenly interested, fascinated with the tile underfoot—each time their eyes merely glanced each other.

To be fair, he didn’t seem to be particularly interested in anybody.

But that didn’t mean no one was interested in him.

“He’s over-scored,” her instructor griped, pins held between her teeth as she plaited her student’s hair.  “No color whatsoever, and he’s made it to the senior level!”  She stabbed a pin into the braid against her flower crown.  “It’s insulting to the craft.  The judges just love anything unusual, don’t they?  Stirs up the crowd, they say.”

The student looked at herself in the mirror, pressing freshly painted nails to her temple where the hairs were slipping out of their hold.  “Am I unusual?”

“Yes,” she said, unhesitant.  “But in the good way.  The conventional way.  It’s subtle.  You don’t flaunt it.”

“Aren’t I supposed to?”

The instructor sighed, long-suffering.  “Within reason.”

Her student fingered at the cosmetics before her, drawing a line of cloudy pink across the vanity in a winding, meandering track.

She couldn’t help but think, with her heart in her throat, that she didn’t feel very reasonable at all.

。・: * :・゚★,。・: * :・゚☆

Her name was in lights.

She tried to do that once: write out the arcs and curves of her name in loopy lettering upon a canvas of distant dusk.  At the time, she thought stars—sparkles and shine and shimmer—but all that resulted from it was a streak of turquoise, not even bright enough to be considered neon by the most generous of judges.

And she could hardly have considered them letters either; they came out a tidal wave, draining—dripping—over the horizon before her until they faded to gray.

She didn’t attempt it again.

His was too, the boy’s; his name was on the door next to hers, though it seemed dimmer, somehow.  Washed out.  The sequins from her costume ricocheted off it, creating a glittering pattern on the floor.

She dropped her raised hand.

Licked at her lower lip.

And went through her own door.

。・: * :・゚★,。・: * :・゚☆

Though one of her signature colors was red, she never could achieve that deep burgundy shade that graced the surface of most stage curtains.  It was too rich for her blood, apparently.  Her particular brand of dance was light, delicate.  

She was still lucky, she thought.  She was lucky, she was lucky, she was lucky.

Because his was still nothing.

A summer had not changed him.  He still vaulted with muted grays, dropped down with blacks and whites that stood out starkly against the backdrop of the theater.  She could almost hear the scrape of charcoal, the tearing of copy paper as he pushed himself through the motions, as though fighting his limbs each and every step of the way.

Faceless figures scribbled away in the audience, evidently displeased.

But it was only when he halted like a moon falling out of orbit that she saw it: the tears in the corners of his eyes, held back with clenched teeth.

White roses descended at his feet.

。・: * :・゚★,。・: * :・゚☆

He stood in the doorway, clutching a bouquet in a white-knuckled grip with his jaw slack, looking down upon her.

She lowered her fist.

“I’m about to go on.”  She waited for his attention, made sure it wouldn’t stray.  “I’m going for gold.  So watch me, okay?”

He nodded—slowly, mutely—and followed her with his eyes as he watched her go, steps decidedly ungraceful as she stomped down the corridor.

She shook out her hands in the wings, a fiery sunset set alight between the gaps of her fingers.  The breaths came gently, the collective experience of her mothers upon mothers solid against her back.

They called her name.

She didn’t go.

They called her name.

She didn’t go.

He appeared at stage left, flashing her a crooked thumbs-up.

They called her name.

She stepped on the stage.

And began.

。・: * :・゚★,。・: * :・゚☆

It was gold.

Each movement, each moment. Gold descended from her thrown arms, her tossed legs. It wasn’t sparkly like she’d imagined it; instead, it ran like her other colors, drippy like that of golden honey.  It splashed upon the stage, rained down like heavenly mana.

She had to bite the inside of her cheek at his expression in the corner of her eye.  

Applause buzzed pleasantly in her ears as she leaned down to lift some of the pitched flowers off the stage, gathering a collection of aster and daffodils in assorted colors.

When he at last caught up to her, she tucked one of them behind his ear.

“Let’s talk later, okay?”

“Okay.” His voice was hoarse. “Okay.”

His smile suited him, she thought.

Abigail Mandlin is a published novelist, short story writer, and part-time poet. She has her master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Washington and currently lives in the Pacific Northwest with two cats and an inordinate amount of books.