"Aren’t you dying right now?" Sam whispers, staring at me with raised eyebrows and skeptically narrowed brown eyes. Her cheeks are flushed red and her forehead is sweaty; I imagine I look just the same. It’s 95 degrees out again and the ballet studio, which is on the second floor of an ancient, air condition-less building, is sweltering hot, worse than a sauna.
“I’m fine,” I say, even though I’m itching to pull the sweat-soaked t-shirt from my body and simply dance in my black leotard and pink tights like the other girls. But my leotard has a pretty low back and if I take my t-shirt off, everyone will be able to see the fresh, violently purple bruise stretching from shoulder blade to shoulder blade, the injury I can’t easily explain away. They’ve already asked about the thick Band-Aids on my knee and foot, which I blamed on a tripping and running into the corner of the coffee table at home. They believed me just like they always do, but they’re sure to get suspicious if they see the bruise.
Sam shakes her head and wipes some sweat from her forehead. “I don’t know how you stand it,” she says. “It’s hot enough as it is!”
“Maybe I’m cold-blooded,” I say, trying to make a joke out of it to divert her attention a bit. “Maybe I’m secretly a lizard and I just never told you because I didn’t want you to judge me.”
“Oh my gosh, Allie. You are actually such a dork,” Sam says, rolling her eyes. “You didn’t say anything that ridiculous in front of Niall yesterday, did you?”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
“Allie, I swear, if you say anything like that on your date today, I’m—”
“Allie and Sam! Having a nice conversation back there?” Our ballet teacher’s voice cracks loudly through the studio; everyone’s heads swivel in our direction. I think I blush, but my face is already so red and hot that probably nobody can tell the difference.
“Yeah, until you interrupted it,” Sam mutters, sure to keep her voice low so only I can hear it. I have to bite my bottom lip to keep from laughing aloud.
“What did you say?” snaps Madame Garcia, her eyes narrowing.
“Nothing, Madame Garcia,” Sam says.
“Good. Allie, come back to center. Let’s try your solo one last time before rehearsal ends.”
None of the other girls says anything, but I can already feel their disappointment and boredom as I walk past them to the center of the floor. Madame Garcia cast me as Odette/Odile, the lead, for our production of Swan Lake. I get cast as the lead a lot, so it wasn’t really that big a deal; everyone expected me to sail through rehearsals easily, just as I’ve done in years past. But this year, for the first time in a long time, I’ve been having trouble with one particular bit of choreography—the 32 fouettes in Odile’s solo. A single fouette, on its own, isn’t that hard, but I simply can’t do 32 of them in a row the way the show requires. Madame Garcia knew I couldn’t do it when she cast me, but she thought I’d be able to master it by the time the show came. Well, the show’s only a few weeks away now, and I still can’t do it. I can do 30 pretty consistently, but I haven’t once managed to get to 32. And everyone in the class is tired of watching me spin on one foot and then fall over, tired of watching me try and fail, tired of watching me attempt to do something I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to do. Even Sam is tired of it, though she’d never say that to me outright.
I take my position at the center of the floor with disappointment already heavy in my stomach. Not a particularly good feeling to carry around when you’re trying to turn yourself 32 times as fast as you can.
“Prepare,” Madame Garcia says.
I take a deep breath and glance at the clock hanging on the wall above the door as I place my pointe shoe-clad feet in fifth position I straighten my back as much as I possibly can. 2:50. At least I’ll only have to embarrass myself for ten more minutes.
“On my count. 5, 6, 7, 8, and—”
I tondue to the side, bring my foot back to fourth position, and push off my standing leg onto my toes; suddenly I’m spinning, rotating on my toes using years of acquired arhc strength and the box of the pointe shoe to keep me up, my leg extending out and then pointing in as my head whips rapidly around, spotting the exit sign on the back wall to keep myself from getting dizzy and losing my balance. Madame Garcia’s counting out a fast, even beat and I try to spin in time with the rhythm she’s setting. I keep a running count of the number of turn I’ve done in my head, adding one more each time my eyes spot the exit sign again—twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three—maybe I’ll make it to 32 this time—
On the 30th turn, though, my ankle buckles, and I stumble very clumsily out of the position, falling back down to flat feet. Madame Garcia stops counting.
“Again,” she says.
I take another deep breath, pushing the disappointment down; there’s no time to get down about failing again, not with everyone watching. I force myself to stand up straight, my chin held high, like I don’t feel the disappointment and shame weighing heavily in my gut. I glance at the clock. 2:52. Only eight more minutes of embarrassing myself, and then I’ll be free to get ready for my date.
At six o’clock sharp, a red, rusted pickup truck blasting “Paradise” by Coldplay pulls up by the sidewalk in front of the radio station where I’m standing. I look at the car, amused, for a second before looking away and turning my attention back to watching the road for Allie.
Only a few seconds later, the loud blare of a car horn blasts, far louder than the usual sound of LA traffic rushing down the busy road. People walking by stare at the street, caught off-guard; I jump slightly at the loud, sudden sound and glance around. My eyes land on the red pickup truck again, and this time I noticed a blond-haired girl in the driver seat. She’s got one hand on the center of the steering wheel, like she just pressed the car horn, and is waving frantically at me with the other. When I see her, she rolls down her window, sticks her head out, and yells, “You coming or what?”
I laugh as I run to the car and climb into the passenger’s seat of the truck. Cold air blasts my face from the air conditioner; it feels good after standing outside in the well over ninety degree heat.
“I didn’t realize it was you!” I say, pulling seatbelt across my torso.
“Yeah, I could tell. Did you hear me honk?”
I laugh again. “I think the entire city of Los Angeles heard you honk.”
“Well, that was my intention.”
“Yup.” Allie’s golden blond hair falls in her face as she leans forward a little, peering out the window at the sidewalk. “Where’s your band?” she asks.
“Ah, they ditched me about ten minutes ago.”
“That was polite of them.”
“Yeah, they’re real winners.”
She laughs. “A+ friends.”
I chuckle. “They were just tired, that’s all. They wanted to go to the hotel and sleep.”
“Are you tired too?”
“Nah. Well, kind of. Jet lag does weird things to me.”
Worry creases Allie’s eyebrows. “You don’t want to sleep too, do you?”
I grin. “And miss my date with you? Never.”
Spots of pink appear high in Allie’s cheeks. “Good, because I just spent a small fortune on gas money so this truck wouldn’t stall out in the middle of a busy LA street.”
I laugh. “Let’s get going, then.”
Allie shifts gears and pulls away from the curb, merging smoothly with the oncoming traffic. Drivers stare at us with raised eyebrows as we pass them, annoyed by the loud music still blasting from the car’s stereo.
“Got the music up loud enough?” I ask Allie as we stop at a red light.
“Nah, I can hardly hear it at all,” she says, grabbing the volume dial and turning it so the song plays even louder than before.
The music is so loud that I barely hear myself laugh.
“You’re going to get us arrested or something,” I say.
Allie doesn’t hear me. “What?”
I raise the volume of my voice. “I said you’re going to get us arrested!”
“Since when do you worry about anything?” Allie asks, laughing, but she turns the volume down—slightly.
We drive through the busy downtown LA streets for about ten minutes, until Allie pulls over and parks the truck in front of a small clothing store with a bright red door and golden letters above the door that spells out Double-Take.
“You don’t mind if I pick the store, do you?” Allie asks, peering at me with eyebrows creased with worry. “We never said where we were going, and this is my favorite store, so—”
“Why would I mind?” I ask. “I’m just buying the shirt, I don’t have to wear it.”
Allie smiles. “Just making sure,” she says as she pulls the keys out of the ignition.
We both climb out of the truck; the hot air feels twice as unpleasant after the comfort of the air-conditioned car.
“Does it get hot like this every summer?” I ask, pulling at the collar of my red polo shirt. It was so cool in all the interview rooms today that I didn’t notice the heat much. But now the polo shirt’s collar and my long, skinny khaki pants and black Converse feel suffocatingly hot; I wish I was wearing something cooler, like shorts and sandals and a t-shirt.
“Worse, sometimes,” Allie says.
We get to the store at the same time, but I quickly reach out and pull the door open before she can.
“After you,” I say, gesturing to the open door.
Allie smiles, her cheeks flushing pink again. “Thank you, kind gentleman,” she says, before walking into Double-Take.
I find myself in a tiny, dimly-lit one-room shop. For a clothing store, it’s surprisingly spare, with only a few racks of clothing—eight total, maybe, with four for girls and four for guys. There are two small curtained-off changing stations against the left wall, a wall of shoes on the right wall, and a cashier’s counter in the back corner of the room. A tired-looking, red-haired woman, maybe in her early twenties, is standing behind the counter, chewing bubblegum and flipping idly through a People magazine. I can hear the radio playing quietly through some speakers hanging on the walls.
“Hi Ava,” Allie calls across the store.
“Hey Allie,” says the red-haired girl. She doesn’t even look up from her magazine.
“You know her?” I ask.
Allie shrugs. “Sort of. I come her a lot, so we talk sometimes. She’s cool, she’ll leave us alone.”
Allie walks over to one of the clothing racks and starts flipping through the hangers of brightly-colored shirts. Unsure of what to say or do, I just stand there and watch her look at shirt after shirt, sometimes looking at one longer than the others, but never actually picking one and pulling it off the rack.
“You’re picky, aren’t you?” I ask, grinning at her.
“Shut up,” she says, not even looking up from the rack.
I chuckle and start looking through the shirts, too. I grab the first thing I see—a sequined tank top—and hold it up for Allie to see.
“What about this?”
She makes a face. “Ew. No.”
“C’mon, it would look good on you.”
“Niall, I hate it.”
There’s a strange, swopping, butterfly-like feeling in my stomach when she says my name. “Try it on. Just for fun.”
I stick out my bottom lip. “Pwetty pwease?”
She glares at me for a second, then sighs and takes the shirt. “Fine. But only because that puppy-dog face is too cute to say no to.”
As Allie starts looking through the shirt rack again, I ask, “So, how was your rehearsal today?”
She shrugs. “Good. Long. Hot. Our studio doesn’t have air conditioning.”
“Yup,” she says, the p sound at the end of the word popping.
“What show are you doing?” I ask, realizing I don’t actually know.
Allie laughs. “Not really.”
“What part do you have?”
She doesn’t look at me, just keeps searching through the shirts—but her face suddenly turns pink again. “Odette,” she says.
“Odette?” I repeat. I’ll be honest and say that I know very little—next to nothing, really—about ballets. But I know enough to know that Odette is a pretty big part. “That’s a big deal, isn’t it?”
She laughs awkwardly, her face turning even pinker. “It’s the lead,” she says.
I whistle loudly. “Geez, Allie, you didn’t tell me you were good at ballet!”
“Well, what was I supposed to say? Hi, I’m Allie, I do ballet, and by the way, I’m the lead in our production of Swan Lake, what’s your name?”
I laugh so loudly that Ava the cashier glances up from her magazine just long enough to raise her eyebrows at me and Allie.
“Okay, I see your point,” I say.
Allie picks up a pink-and-white striped shirt off the rack. “This is nice,” she says, draping it over her arm with the sequined tank top.
“So, since you’re such an amazing ballerina,” I say, and Allie’s face turns even redder, “I’m going to guess you’re one of those people who’s been dancing since they were, like, two days old?”
She rolls her eyes. “I started when I was four, actually.”
“Oh, big difference there.”
“Well, my mom was a ballerina when she was a teenager, and she wanted me to dance too. And I bet ninety-five percent of girls take ballet when they’re four.”
“I bet your mom’s proud of you now, getting the lead in Swan Lake and all,” I say.
An odd, blank sort of look passes across Allie’s face. “My mom passed away,” she says.
Heat immediately rushes into my face. My stomach sort of feels like that moment when you think there’s one more step on the staircase then there is, and your foot falls through the air and lands too hard, too abruptly, on the floor.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“It’s okay. It happened a while ago.”
Part of me knows I probably shouldn’t ask, but the words slip involuntarily from my mouth. “How did it happen?”
Allie swallows, her eyes still on the clothing rack as she continues searching through the shirts. “Car accident. I was twelve.”
Twelve. Geez, what a bad age to lose a mom—right before becoming a teenager, right when you start to realize you don’t know as much about the world as you thought you did.
“I’m sorry,” I say again.
“It’s okay. It was a while ago. And you didn’t know.”
Silence falls. I don’t know what to say to erase the sudden awkwardness between us, the awkwardness I brought in.
Allie, though, picks up a plain red shirt from the rack, says, “I think I’ll just try these three on,” and starts walking towards the changing rooms.
“You don’t want to try on anything else?” I ask. When my mom goes shopping, she usually has so much stuff she wants to try on she can’t even fit it all into the dressing room.
“Nah. I’m not a big shopper, to be honest.”
Allie walks into the dressing room and pulls the curtain shut. I lean against the nearest clothing rack and wait for her to come out. As I’m standing there, I catch the opening beats of “Boyfriend,” the new Justin Bieber song. If I were alone, or even just with the boys, I might start singing along with it. But I don’t want to embarrass myself in front of Allie.
To my surprise, though, as soon as the vocals come in, I hear Allie singing along with them, still hidden behind the curtain.
“If I was your boyfriend, I’d never let you go—”
“Allie Clark,” I say, grinning, “do I hear you singing Justin Bieber?”
“Shut up, I know it’s stupid. But he’s kind of my guilty pleasure, okay?”
“Hey, I’m not judging,” I say, laughing. “I like him too.”
“Sure, why not?”
Allie laughs. “Niall, that is probably the greatest thing I have ever heard you say.”
“Swag, swag, swag on you—”
“Ava, turn it up!” Allie calls.
I can’t see Ava from where I’m standing, but a few seconds later, the volume of the music increases rapidly.
“I’d like to be everything you want, hey girl, let me talk to you—”
Before I know it, Allie and I are belting along with the chorus, and I can’t stop smiling.
“If I was your boyfriend, I’d never let you go, keep you on my arm girl, you’d never be alone, I can be a gentleman, anything you want, if I was your boyfriend, I’d never let you go, never let you go.”
“Oh my gosh, Niall.”
“This shirt looks awful.”
“The one you gave me.”
I laugh. “I doubt it looks awful.”
“It does. I’m changing now.”
“Can I at least how it looks on you first?”
“Aw, c’mon, Allie, please?”
She’s quiet for a second. “Fine. But only for two seconds, and then I’m changing.”
The curtain pulls back, and there’s Allie, wearing the sequined tank top and an unhappy, skeptical expression.
“Okay, you’ve seen it, I’m changing now,” she says, starting to pull the curtain closed.
I put my hand on the curtain too, keeping her from closing it. The shirt doesn’t look bad on her at all—it would certainly get her plenty of attention if she were to wear it to a party—but I can tell, even after only knowing her for a day, that it isn’t her style at all.
“It looks good on you,” I say.
Allie raises her eyebrows at me. “I look stupid,” she says.
“Well, I’ll admit that it isn’t very…you.”
“No, it really isn’t.” She starts to pull the curtain closed again, but right before she does so, I catch a glimpse of something strange in the mirror hanging on the wall in the changing room.
“Allie? What’s that?” I ask, pointing to the mirror.
“What’s what?” She turns around, looking to where I’m pointing.
“That,” I say, grabbing her shoulder and spinning her around so her back is to me. It’s there on her shoulder, the thing I saw in the mirror—the edge of something purple and black on her skin, peeking out from beneath the sleeve of tank top. “Is that—is that a bruise?”
“Oh, that? Yeah. I, um, fell during ballet today,” she says. Her voice suddenly has that breathy quality, the same one from when she was on the phone with me last night.
“Must’ve been some fall,” I say.
“Yeah, I’m pretty clumsy,” she says, but she offers no other explanation for the ugly-looking bruise.
“Are you okay? Like, it doesn’t hurt too much, does it?”
“What, that thing? Oh no. It’s fine. Really. I’ve had worse.” She flashes a quick, somewhat forced-looking smile, and then closes the curtain again. “I think I’ll try on the red shirt now, how does that sound?”
“Er, yeah,” I say, very much wrong-footed by the sudden change in subject.
Silence falls between us, except for the continued blaring of “Boyfriend.” A few seconds later, though, Allie laughs.
“It’s just—” She laughs again. “Here, I’ll show you.”
The curtain pulls back again. This time she’s wearing a red polo shirt—one that look remarkably like the one I’m wearing right now.
I feel a grin tug at the corner of my mouth. “I approve,” I say.
Allie smiles, too. “And we’re both wearing khaki pants and Converse, too,” she says.
I laugh. “We’re twins!”
She laughs, too; the pure sound sends a new wave of butterflies rippling through my body. “We should take a picture,” Allie says. “To remember the moment.”
“Now that’s a good idea,” I say, pulling my phone out of my pocket.
Allie moves in closer to me, wrapping her arm around my waist since she’s too short to reach anywhere else. I place my hand on her waist, too, pulling her in closer to me until our sides are touching. Her body is warm and her skin is soft and the butterflies are fluttering more than ever, but even so, as our shoulders touch, I can’t help remembering that dark purple bruise and her breathy voice, wondering if a fall at ballet is really all that’s to blame.