Violet stared at her sunburned arm in horror. This was her stupid sister’s fault, leaving her to wait endlessly in the heat. Tomorrow she was dancing the lead! She’d look like a broiled lobster in her white swan tutu.
Footsteps crunched on the gravel path from the Academy. Annabelle approached with long strides of her elastic legs, her eyes unfocused in the distance. Such a doofus. A country music major.
Annabelle froze in a beam of sunshine that struck her sun-bleached hair like a spotlight. She threw her arms overhead, leaned back, closed her eyes. “Ain’t no way to break MAH HEART,” she roared at the treetops, swiveling her hips, strumming an air guitar, “Alone…another day…love drain, uhm, stain, chain, explain…what’s the rest of it…lala…lalala.”
What in the world was she doing?
Annabelle opened her eyes and bellowed, “Vaahlllllit!”
The way she pronounced her name with that drawl of hers.
“What’s up?” Annabelle said, looking around. “Where is everybody?”
“Gone home, apparently. I’m waiting for my ride. Sister’s late.”
Annabelle threw her lanky body onto the bench. A boney knee jutted through her jeans. The denim was worn to its last thread, held together by crazy-quilt patches from waistband to hem.
“Did you buy them like this?”
“Nope, there’s an authentic pair of Wranglers underneath here somewhere. You know how it goes, a pair of jeans gets broken in and sits on you like a second skin and you just wanna hang on to it forever. Seems like everybody at the Academy’s sewn a patch. Each one a sweet memory.”
She sounded like one of her soppy songs.
“Needs more repairing, I reckon. Hey, you wanna do this one?” She leapt up and unbuckled her belt, tearing at the button fly.
Was she going to strip down on the spot?
“What? No. No. Don’t sew, actually.” Violet held out smooth, unblemished manicured hands, as if proof of her inability to perform manual labor.
“Ah, OK.” She looked disappointed. Or maybe hurt.
Annabelle adjusted her clothing and sat down. Soon she was tapping her foot and humming another bar of the song, trying again to figure out the lyrics. “Of course! Righteous Bluebonnets! I have that album.” Annabelle slung on her backpack, as if suddenly in a hurry to get home.
“I’m going to kill my sister when she shows up.”
“Look, why don’t I drop you off at your place? You can wear the helmet.”
Violet glanced at the dinky motorcycle’s torn seat and rusted tank. She imagined the ratty helmet sitting on her glossy, perfectly styled hair. Gross.
“No, thanks,” Violet said. “I live downtown, you’re in the country. It’s too far apart. Besides, my sister’ll be here any minute.”
Annabelle shrugged and started the engine, glanced back one last time, bore down on the throttle and disappeared in a cloud of stinking exhaust.
A thick silence settled. The hot sun was making Violet groggy. What if her sister did not show up at all? Something might have gone drastically wrong today.
Maybe she could use the office phone to call home. After all, they were the ones who banned cell phones from campus.
Violet rose and kicked her heavy duffle bag, stuffed with sweaty ballet gear and school books, under the hedge. She flicked crumbled leaves from her taffeta skirt and strode determinedly up the gravel path.
The metal handle jiggled uselessly and the door did not budge, even when she shoved hard against it with her full weight. She inched her way around the wide walls, sliding her hand along rough-hewn stones and gazing through the low, wide windows. The classrooms were empty. Her fruitless circumnavigation completed, she scanned the courtyard for the groundskeeper. There was nobody.
Violet walked to the outer fence where foliage grew thick and untamed. Rumor had it this was where the smokers hung out. A thick-leaved bush rustled wildly, a dark shape skulking in its shadows, squirming sluggishly. She froze, peering intently. Wait…a bear? She shook her head. A bear at a ballet school. Ridiculous. But what was that heaving lump? She rose on her toes and took silent steps until she distinguished several arms. Two nude bodies lay intertwined in the dirt. Two pervs breaking every rule. Definitely not students here. She backed away.
Her sister had probably arrived by now and was waiting in the parking lot. Violet rushed back, eagerly scanning the cement expanse. It was deserted.
Time to face facts. She had to get out of here and her sister was not showing up. She’d never tried walking the distance home, but it was probably only about one hour. Do her good, actually! If she didn’t watch out, she’d grow fat from the sweet juices and chocolates she was addicted to. Pineapple-persimmon nectar. Marzipan ganache bonbons. Poison for a prima ballerina.
Violet slung her duffel bag across one shoulder and walked the same route the car normally drove. Her steps were tentative, ears straining to hear the growl of her sister’s muscle car. Finally, she gave up altogether. She straightened her spine, picked up the pace, and stepped briskly away from the Academy.
The sidewalk ended at a highway ramp and forced her to change direction. With each step into unfamiliar neighborhoods, surroundings looked more alien and confusing. Violet turned a corner and stopped at the foot of a steep hill. Crumbled concrete pavement stretched far into the distance. Pedestrians flowed briskly around her. Traffic roared in a cacophony of beeping horns, revving engines, squealing brakes. The steep ascent and sheer distance intimidated her, the bag’s strap cut into her shoulder, and she felt too drained to climb the hill even if she had been certain this was the right direction. Which she wasn’t.
A car stopped and Violet glanced at the two-seater, shimmering candy red with dark tinted windows. The window slid down with a muted electric hum.
“You’re far from school, I believe?” the driver said.
Violet stared. The woman spoke as if she knew her.
She removed one hand from the steering wheel and patted the back of her head, saying, “Hair.”
Of course. Only a ballerina wore her hair coiled in a chignon like this.
“You’re from the Academy. Heading home for the weekend,” the woman said with certainty.
Violet nodded. Heading home, if only. She was lost and out of ideas.
“Hop in. I’ll give you a ride. It’s an awful hot day for a lovely ballerina to be trudging home on foot. And that bag looks far too heavy for you.”
Violet hesitated. She peered at the woman warily, but saw no immediate danger in her wrinkled prune face.
“Oh, come on. Don’t you recognize me? I deliver costumes for performances. Tutus and toe shoes, that’s my business.”
Violet did not recognize her, though that didn’t mean much. The school was huge. Besides, how else was she going to get home?
“Alright,” she said. “Thank you.”
The woman leaned across and popped open the passenger door. Violet sat down. She struggled to wrestle her bag to the floor, but it didn’t fit in the footwell, so she held it on her sweating lap, lumps and hard edges poking her ribs.
The woman watched with an amused twinkle in her ice-blue eyes. She apologized for the lack of space and pressed a button. The roof folded back with a whisper. A gentle breeze stroked Violet’s overheated cheeks and the view opened magically all around. She relaxed against the soft white leather seat.
“Well, young lady,” the woman said. “Where to?”
Violet recited the address and the woman looked surprised, telling her she’d been walking in the altogether opposite direction. She reached across to unlatch the glove compartment and the little door landed on Violet’s legs. The woman patted her knees gently and assured her she would not bruise. She retrieved a bag of M&Ms and a juice box.
Chocolate and juice. Like she’d read her mind. Weird.
“Ready?” the woman asked.
Violet nodded slowly.
The woman tapped the gearshift into first and the car merged into traffic. They darted from lane to lane, sudden bursts of power spurting the car forward, squeezing into the smallest gaps, handily outmaneuvering stolid minivans and dented sedans. Violet sighed with relief. She’d be home in no time.
The car turned into a narrow two-lane road and slowed. Houses stood farther apart until they petered out almost entirely. Corn fields rolled far into the distance. How was this the way to her parents’ downtown apartment? The woman threw an arm around her shoulder and squeezed.
“Relax,” she said. “Relax!”
Panic choked Violet. She was in a tiny sports car with a kidnapper.
Violet forced down her terror. She inched open the zipper of her duffel bag and slipped a hand inside until her fingers found satin ties, and wrapped them around her fist.
With one ferocious motion, Violet yanked her brand-new pointe shoes, toe boxes hard as cement, from the bag. She swung her arm in a wide arc and the shoes swept overhead, gathering momentum. They connected with the woman’s forehead with a nauseating crunch. She howled. Blood spurt from her split scalp and poured into her eyes. She released the steering wheel and the car veered off course.
Violet used her powerful legs to vault over the door and hit the ground running faster than she’d ever run in her life. Metal squealed horrendously as the car crashed into a tree.
She raced down the narrow road, leaped over potholes, dashed around massive roots bursting through the asphalt. A farmhouse appeared in the distance. A tall, thin figure loped aimlessly across the green lawn. Annabelle! Oh my god, is it you? Violet’s breath tore from her lungs in shrieking wails. She pushed her legs harder still and glanced over her shoulder. The woman, her face crimson with wet blood, stumbled into the road.
Violet sprinted, screaming, “Help! Help me! HELP!”
She lurched through a gap in the white picket fence and lost her balance, launching into the garden bent at the waist. Tears of horror gave way to delirious relief.
The girl who yanked the earphones from her ears and whipped around to face her was a stranger.
Violet’s foot sank between the interlocking roots of a grand oak tree. Exhausted muscles struggled to dislodge it, pulling back weakly against unbending wood. Her body continued forward and collapsed on the earth.