Reese held the audience in the palm of her hand.
There wasn’t a single movement in the sea of silhouettes.
She didn’t need a mental recitation of the counts because she’d been performing this routine since childhood. “All That Jazz” was engraved on her bones.
Hands up. Stretch. Make every movement of those fingers a meal. No wasted efforts.
She walked all five digits down her thigh like an elegant daddy longlegs spider, popping her left hip twice in quick succession. Bump. Bump.
Slow head roll.
There was a loud voice intruding in the back of her mind, peppered with static, but she ignored it and kept dancing, never breaking the spell she wove.
Toe ball heel, toe ball heel.
Step left. Cross it over. Turn.
She swayed those arms behind her, imaging them as peacock feathers, stopping on a dime to drop her knee, hips ticking like a clock, fingers snapping in time to the music. The grand finale was coming. It rose inside of her like the wings of a phoenix battling the north wind. Her emotions swelled along with it, tightening her throat muscles, excitement making her next few moves even sharper. Two turns were executed flawlessly, the tempo of the music picking up. She threw her head back and watched her hands arc, left then right.
Here it came. The applause. She could sense the audience gearing up to deliver the standing ovation to her home run. They’d walked in off the street, but she’d transported them into her world of glitter and lights and femme fatales.
Inhale. Quick head turn.
Throwing those hands up in the air, she was a puppet for the higher purpose.
A vessel for the arts.
Again, that nasal voice droned somewhere in the distance, saying something about free coffee in the lobby, but nothing could stop Reese from completing the final drop of those jazz fingers. Or from paying homage to that final genius note. And she did, satisfaction coasting from the top of her head all the way down to the sore toes crammed into the vintage oxfords she’d worn to capture Roxy Hart.
Finally, reality trickled in slowly and Reese opened her eyes, her stomach dropping to find her audience was not on their feet. The single elderly lady who’d stayed for the entire performance was perched on the leather seat of her walker, cleaning a pair of readers with the hem of her puff painted sweatshirt.
Reese determinedly swallowed the rust in her throat and waved at the pre-owned cars on the dealership lot. “Thank you!” She swept downward into a bow. “Thank you.”
“Thank you for coming to Cedarburg Chevrolet’s February Sales Event. Once you’re done browsing the lot, please feel free to come inside for a cup of free coffee. One again, the apple crumb cake is now gone. We apologize for any inconvenience this might have caused.” There was a high-pitched whine of feedback, then a muffled, “No, we don’t have any in the back, ma’am,” before the loudspeaker cut out.
Reese gathered her purple, faux-fur collared coat and wrapped it around her shoulders to combat the wintery Wisconsin wind, dropping her iPhone and connected speaker into the deep pocket and stomping her feet to keep the blood flowing.
She looked at the old lady.
The old lady stared back.
“Do you want me to wheel you inside?” Reese asked, blowing warm air into her hands.
“Yes.” The woman huddled into herself with a grumble. “The walkway was icy or I’d have been in there early enough to get the damn crumb cake.”
Reese circled around to the back of the walker and pushed it toward the lobby entrance, weariness settling into her shoulders. It was settling in faster and faster these days. Back in high school, it would take her hours to come down after a performance with her competitive dance team. Or after opening night of a high school musical. It hadn’t mattered where she performed or in front of whom—a real or imagined audience—only that she was performing.
Lately the glow started to fade almost immediately.
At twenty-one, her dreams of performing on Broadway were fading, too.
The people of Cedarburg, Wisconsin had spoken.
And they’d chosen Entenmann’s over Reese Stratton.
Even if she managed to scrape together enough money for a bus ticket to New York City for another audition, what made her think casting coordinators would feel any differently?
Reese used her hip to prop open the lobby door so she could push her unwilling audience of one inside, the warmth of the lobby sweeping around her ankles and thawing out her legs. She wheeled the woman to the coffee bar, which was teeming with more locals than the town pub at happy hour, and swept the showroom for the owner.
“Mister Mulcahey.” Reese plastered on her best smile, praying none of her lipstick had transferred to her teeth during the performance. “I’m all finished.”
Without looking up from his clipboard, he nodded.
Reese shifted in her oxfords. “About my payment…”
“See Cheryl at the front desk.”
“Will do! Thank you.”
Briskly, she turned on a heel, but the owner of the dealership stopped her progress. “Oh, uh, Miss Stratton.” He scratched behind his ear. “We don’t need you tomorrow.”
“Why? Tomorrow is Saturday. Is the sale ending early?”
He hurried to look back down at his clipboard. “No.”
“Oh.” She swallowed a handful of tacks. “Gotcha.”
Minutes later, Reese clutched the envelope containing a twenty-dollar bill to her chest and tried not to slip on the ice on the way to the station wagon she’d borrowed from her mother for the gig this morning. A bumper sticker affixed to the rear window read Dance Mom Taxi. To the right, there was another one that said Sorry, We’re Late for Dance. Directly above that one was Dance, Sleep, Repeat. All three of them were faded.
Reese threw herself into the driver’s side and started the engine. The radio came on full blast and she smacked it off, dropping her forehead to the steering wheel, watching her misty breath curl in front of the speedometers.
“If you stumble,” she whispered, squeezing her eyes closed, “make it part of the dance.”
On the drive home, she passed beneath a sign on Main Street heralding the 2021 Regional Dance Champions and their coach, Lorna Stratton.
Over the course of a decade, Reese’s mother, once a celebrated dancer in her own right, had led Cedarburg’s dance teams to regional victories—and even one state title. She was nothing short of a local legend. And although it riddled Reese with guilt to admit it, even silently to herself, Lorna was the last person she wanted to face right now, fresh from her mortification and holding twenty bucks. Walking proof that their dream for her hadn’t come to fruition.