You are in the kitchen. You are staring at the coffeepot, at your reflection in the glass carafe, much as you stared yesterday at the door of the microwave, and the dark night before when you fixated on the patio door.
“How many?” you whisper. “How many more could there have been?”
You back away, then turn and leave the kitchen. As you pass through the house, your reflection catches you in the polished silver potbelly of the umbrella stand, in the sun-shot crystals of the chandelier, in the convex face of the hallway clock.
Erin stands in her hallway at the studio door and grips the rubbed-brass doorknob. She rests her forehead against the solid wood and her hair swings down along her cheeks. She watches the tendons draw across her knuckles as she flexes her hand, grasps the knob tightly, then relaxes. She feels that her entire body is as taut and discolored with strain as her thin hand.
She pushes away from the door, flaps her hand to shake out the tension. She chuffs out a breath and her shoulder blades thud against the plaster of the wall opposite the studio door. She slides down to the carpet and sits, her legs outstretched, to gather herself.
Richard had presented her with a studio of sorts, with its too-close mirrored walls and an ugly impediment of a barre. The day of his grand reveal, he had unlocked the door, then pushed it open so she might precede him into the little room. It had been a bedroom before, ideal for children, Richard had once liked to suggest. Inside, he closed the door, and pointed out all the features he’d specified.
“I installed a sound system for your music, and see, up there’s a security camera so I can watch you work. Motion-activated. I’ll never have to miss a step. It feeds to a server so I can watch you from anywhere in the world. Just a one-man audience, I know, but I’m your biggest fan.”
And when Erin said, “Thank you, I love it, it’s perfect,” she, for the first time in far too long, heard her own voice sound familiar and correct, bright with echoes as it crashed her lies back to her from the shining walls.
“One thing,” she’d said. “This door doesn’t lock from the inside.”
“Why would it need to lock from the inside? And besides, what if something were to happen to you? You could fall and break your back and nobody would know it, if you’d locked yourself in.”
“You would know. You’d see through your own personal surveillance system.”
He was watching himself in the mirrors. The expression on his face had been complex, as if he wished to feel pleasure but could not quite reach that threshold, and wasn’t certain why.
Erin had known exactly why he wasn’t satisfied. He’d built his own music box, complete with dancer, and it wasn’t quite right. He’d done it wrong. He’d forgotten to turn the key, and Erin—his gaze in the mirror shifted from his own face to her body—wore slacks, not a tutu and tiara. Erin pressed her molars against each other as her husband failed to conceal a sigh.
She tried a different tack. “The door opens inward, you see? If I can’t lock it behind me, someone could open it while I’m dancing and hit me with it.”
“Someone who? Me, you mean. Who else lives here?” He looked around playfully, hand planked over his eyes as if he sought some newcomer from a distant horizon, but the effect was lost, because the two of them were mirrored to the North, East, and West. Plenty of the two of them lived there.
“The cleaners, maybe. Guests. I don’t know, I’m just planning for the worst-case scenario. Could you have the contractor come back tomorrow and fix the lock?”
He turned and looked directly at Erin’s face, the real flesh face this time, not the mirrored one. He moved to her and held her face in his tender hands. “I am the only plan you need for a worst-case scenario. You don’t ever need to worry, you know.” He kissed her forehead, her lips. “I’ve got you, all right? You’re safe. Nothing will happen to you.”
And she thought, you already happened to me.
Now she presses her hands against the hand-knotted carpet and she thinks, I can do this. She thinks, I am a dancer. She thinks, I am a person, and she is infuriated by this thought, that her life—that her husband—has brought her to the point that she felt she must reaffirm her own personhood.
She shoves herself up from the floor, taking most of her weight on her good foot, and crosses the hall with one step. She cranks the doorknob and pushes open the door to the studio.
The studio itself was an insult. When Erin had first seen the space, a room decorated for the fantasy of a dancer, not for the function of dance, she had thought Richard was just an idiot.
But as she thought it over, she came to understand: Richard had known exactly what he was doing when he had instructed the contractor. He had told Erin one night over salads, “This so-called expert at studio installation and design actually argued with me. Can you believe that? I’m telling him that you need hardwood. This guy had started off trying to upsell a whole second floor laid over that one, a spring floor.”
Erin thought, sprung floor, and was simultaneously wistful and disgusted.
“I say, hardwood, brother, like I told you the first time. So then I guess he’s offended so he goes the other way and tries to suggest some rinky-dink linoleum junk.”
Marley, Erin knew. Not that the flooring even matters, since there’s no room for floor work, thanks to the barre.
Richard continued his tale of victory, gesticulating with his fork. The silver was ruddy with the sweet salad dressing he loved. “Wanted to stick the barre to the mirror with brackets. I told him, how could she even see herself that close to the mirror? You need distance so you can see yourself. And you need to see yourself from all angles. Stuck to the wall, you just get the one. Guy says fine, buy her a freestanding one. I say who’s going to bolt it down, me? Guy acts like I’m crazy, but I hired him to do the work, right. If I wanted to bolt stuff down I’d be the contractor.”
Erin looked down at her own fork, at the identical little incomplete reflections it shone back to her from each of its four sharp tines. She said, “Well, he was probably trying to save you the money.”
“Nobody needs to save me money I’m offering to spend. It’s for you! I want it perfect, come on. And he said you could move a freestanding one around. I said, right, that’s why you need to bolt it down. What a moron. It could tip over on you! I mean, jeez.”
“Well,” Erin said, “lucky for me, it won’t. And if it did, you’d have it all on tape.”
Richard had first met Erin at a cocktail party. He had approached her and asked if she wanted a drink.
“I’m a dancer,” Erin had answered, and Richard had smiled and said, “Isn’t everyone?”
“I danced a shipwreck,” Erin had said, her voice hard. “I danced moss on a tree. I danced deforestation, an oil spill, and censorship.” Her spine was straight. “I dance pain, longing, loss, and trust. And I am good at it.”
Richard had apologized, said he hadn’t meant to imply that she was common. She had accepted his apology and the vodka cranberry he offered to her. He had asked her to tell him more about herself. Erin had explained that she distinguished classical training from exotic dancing, but that all dancers deserved respect, that dance of all forms put serious physical, emotional, and financial strain on the performer, and that dancers of all stripes were athletes and artists both.
Richard had asked her to dinner. Three months later, Erin agreed to marry Richard.
As his fiancée, she was invited to accessorize his persona during formal business functions.
Erin had decoded the words he chose for introductions. “This is my fiancée,” meant that she was to shake hands with a person responsible for paying bigger salaries. “This is my fiancée, Erin. She was a ballerina in New York.” For this she would incline her chin and extend her hand to a man who bragged too much about his own wife’s accomplishments, or, just as likely, her pedigree. “This is Erin, she’s a dancer,” was simultaneously an apology that she was slender and flat-chested, and an intimation that she was sexier than the introductee’s companion.
Tiresome. She was only present to reflect well on Richard, and if certain others saw themselves as lessened through her, that was just a happy side-effect for him, illusive though it may be.
The wedding was more of the same. He had an endless supply of jocular friends for her to meet. Richard’s older sister joked that Erin’s bridesmaid was her understudy, and then looked awkward when Erin confirmed that this was, in fact, the case.
He’d announced soon after the wedding that they were moving to Houston. When he found Erin leaning over the vast granite kitchen island, her laptop open beside three identical sealed bubble mailers, feeding label paper into the tiny travel printer he carried on business trips, he asked what she was doing.
“Copies of everything—my resume, headshots, body shots, measurements, and audition videos,” she said. “I’m just addressing them now. There are some amazing companies in Houston. I know some people there.” This was a lie.
“Who cares about companies or whether you know anyone there?” Richard came up behind her, settled his hands on her hips, turned her toward him, his touch loving. “All I want is to be the center of your universe, as you are mine.”
She blamed him for the injury. Yes, she had elected to wear the stilettos, but only because she had to attend the tacky Houston welcome reception his firm had held for him. The strap broke and the shoe twisted and she stumbled, just a little, and her left ankle gave. Richard had caught her, steadied her, asked quietly if she was all right.
Erin had said that she was. She was used to tolerating and concealing all manner of pains. She knew bloodied feet, toenails torn from their quicks, black and yellow bruises saddling the tops of each foot. She smiled past the constant hunger from eating just enough calories to fuel strenuous work, but not so many as to add any weight. She emoted with a face that itched and burned, the skin suffocated by plastic-based stage makeup, the salt of hours’ worth of sweat irritating the hairline. She knew the ever-present headache from the hard twists of hair she must draw into a tight bun.
The act of concealing all of this was itself a performance: the foundation of the illusion, the true stagecraft underlying the flourish of the actual dance.
When Richard, his arm around her ribs, anxiously asked again if Erin was certain she was all right, she performed her assurance, and he was satisfied.
So she blamed him for that too.
You had, at first, refused to use the studio. Every third day you would come in, dressed in street clothes, and scowl at the barre before leaving again.
There came a day when you entered wearing yoga pants and a tank top. You limped around in sock feet, drew your fingertips along the glowing golden wood of the barre. You settled your feet into a sloppy first position and dropped into a demi plie, rose again. You squared yourself, corrected your feet, lining the ankle thick with bandages alongside your slender, healthy ankle, and sank into a deep grand plie, your long arms extended with the grace borne of muscle memory.
Then you straightened again and walked out.
Within the hour, you were back, your hair smoothed into a high bun. You wore full warm-ups, soft and gray as fog. You carried a bottle of water in one hand and a toolbox in the other. The door fell closed behind you. You set the toolbox down in the corner, went back to the door, and tested the knob before sitting down on the floor with your water close at hand.
As you stretched, you kept your eyes closed, at first. But when you opened them, you focused on the reflections in the glass, and gave a start.
Your face twisted with bitterness. Your movements grew ungraceful, then uncontrolled. You snapped your head this way and that, gaze jerking from mirrored wall to mirrored wall. You looked as if you might come utterly apart, fall into pieces of fog and flesh scattered across the floor. And then you became still, and you watched the glass.
Once, in her specialist’s waiting room, Erin had read a magazine article which posited that every choice a person selects in their lifetime spins another universe free. The act of making the choice propels a person through into the universe that corresponds with that timeline. This, the piece concluded, is why you have those moments when everyone seems a stranger and the entire world feels alien.
Erin suspected you can also just stay in the same universe forever. Decisions never pan out. That’s why it’s called “the path of least resistance,” she thought: there is no threshold of universes to cross.
The article explored lines of thought Erin hadn’t encountered before. She considered that she had chosen to read that magazine. Perhaps if she had chosen the gossip rag instead, she would have been in a universe in which there was no concept of quantum theory, and that by reading it, she had crossed the boundary.
Then the nurse had called her name and Erin had dropped the magazine on the gleaming mahogany end table, gathered her paperwork in one hand and her crutch in the other, and risen for her appointment.
The nurse held the door wide for her, and smiled at her, his beard glossy under the bright office lights. Erin brushed past him, and glimpsed a face reflected in the window over the nurse’s shoulder.
The face had not looked like her own.
Dancing was out of the question. Richard had made sure of that. Even if her foot was healthy enough, the “studio” was just a room where she might play ballerina, a child’s dream.
Her physical therapist had been elated when Erin described the studio’s setup. “You are at a hundred percent,” he had insisted. “You can go to town on that foot. All of the work you do here is nothing compared to what you can do there.” Erin had agreed that he was of no help to her, and fired him, or left his practice, or whatever you do to a moron that can’t recognize a ruin of bones.
Her mental therapist had urged her put in the time at the barre, said it would be like meditation for her, a way to connect with her interior world, and thus better connect with those around her.
She was fully aware of her interior world. That was the reason she had agreed to visit a therapist. Her interior world was the cavity in a geode, glittering with spite, spiked with bitterness.
Erin had declined to make another appointment there, too. “I can dance my feelings in my studio,” she said, her sibilants a hiss. “In my studio. Where I can connect with those around me.”
She never left the house because she needed her privacy. This is what she told herself. She was an artist who devoted her life and limbs to her craft, not some housewife who browses the outlet stores for airy batiste bedding and cunning little reading lamps.
But when Richard suggested she ought to go do something, visit this opening or see that performance, her first thought was: people will see.
She’d crushed that thought with her second: her injury made it difficult to drive, and she feared taxing it too much with long walks on tiled gallery floors.
But the thought would always float back eventually: people will see. People will see that I froze on the stage, that I cannot perform. They will see, and the few kind ones will feel sorry for me, and everyone else will hate me, excoriate me. They will say I have no excuse, that I’m lazy, that I squandered opportunities, that I’m weak, that I insult people who work their whole lives and never even see the door, much less have it open to them.
And how can I explain to each of them that it’s Richard’s fault, that my ankle is damaged, that my husband has me hobbled and caged? I am a bird with clipped wings, I’d scream, and they would never hear me over their own whispers.
So she stayed in the house, too exhausted to argue with hateful strangers.
She spent her days drifting from room to room, her coffee mug cooling between her palms as she moved from the oak kitchen stool to the heirloom bedroom vanity bench to the bergere chair in the den. She read dance blogs, websites, and trade magazines on her tablet. She browsed performing arts storefronts online and sometimes ordered herself a pretty warm-up shrug or a promising new muscle balm.
Erin avoided the studio, and nights, she avoided Richard.
On this night, he found her in the sunroom. She reclined on the chaise in the dark, backwards, her injured foot elevated on the headrest, her head on the azure cashmere lap blanket that she kept folded on the low end. She gazed at the gibbous moon through the glass overhead.
He seated himself in the low-slung director’s chair he loved, and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “You haven’t tried to dance,” he said. “Not been in the mood?”
“I have always been in the mood to dance. I am not in the mood to pretend.”
Richard was quiet. Small blessings, Erin thought. But brief. She knew him. Talker.
She waited. After a few more heartbeats, he couldn’t stand the silence.
“I think,” he said, “all you’ve ever done in your entire life is pretend.”
Erin closed her eyes. “What did you say to me?”
“You danced a shipwreck, you said once, and I thought you were profound.” Erin listened to him pause, listened to him take the measured breaths of a person waiting for the curtain to rise. She held her own breath so she could better hear his.
He inhaled more deeply, gathering his lungful of cruelty, and she clamped her hands on the edge of the chaise and stared up at the twin black craters on the moon.
“Now I think you’re just the wreckage,” he said, and her vision shifted. There was no moon overhead, just her own face, very far away from her, and cold.
She heard the creak of compressed wood as he pushed himself from his chair. She turned away from her reflection and watched his slender back as he headed out of the room.
“How do you know I haven’t danced in the studio yet? Your surveillance system? Because maybe I know how to disable it.”
He stopped, back still to her, and bowed his head. “Please don’t call it that. You know it’s not why I installed the cameras.”
“To watch me. So yes, that is in fact why you installed them.”
“To see you. I’ve never seen you be a dancer.”
Had he phrased it differently, she might not have felt sick. “Whose fault is that?” she asked, and was dismayed when her voice couldn’t carry the challenge she had intended.
He turned abruptly, threw his hands in the air. He was all dark, silhouetted against the light from the den. “How can it be anyone’s fault? Erin, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen you be a person. People tell the truth, or they lie; they’re real, or they fake it to get by. But they do something. You…you don’t. You don’t do anything. You’re a ghost. But even ghosts do something, don’t they? They haunt.”
She thought, I danced the ghosts, but did not say it aloud.
“I just want you to be happy. Or hell, be unhappy. Just be something! Not for me. For yourself. Please. Try the studio. Just do something. You need to.”
“Your wish is my command, master,” she said, and though she could not see his face, she watched his shoulders fall. He turned and left her alone to watch her own face in the glass, a stone in the dark.
Richard’s words to her in the sunroom had driven her into the studio after all. It was the only room in which she was guaranteed to be left alone. He’d never bother her in there, but to be sure, Erin brought the toolbox up from the cellar and reversed the lock.
Despite what she had insinuated to Richard, she did not know how to disable his cameras. But it didn’t matter. He had already seen her clearly, and judged her, and hated her. Her deepest fears of what people in the outside world might see had been validated in Richard himself, within the walls of her home. Only the studio was safe now. His cameras and live feed weren’t scary any more: they could never show Richard any more than he’d already seen.
She took the toolbox and her water into the studio, checked that the door was locked, and settled down to stretch. She closed her eyes and let herself feel her muscles from the inside out as she began to work them. She was tight, out of practice. Her hip and shoulder sockets were stiff and felt dry inside. Her flexibility was shot, but it would come back. She had all the time in the world, with no one to see her fail.
Erin opened her eyes to check her posture and jolted as she saw the woman in the mirror. The woman was not her. Looked the same, was dressed the same, was sitting with the balls of her feet pressed together and her knees butterflied to the floor, but Erin didn’t recognize the person looking back at her at all.
And that meant that there was someone watching after all. Erin started to shake. She looked from mirror to mirror, and there were not-hers in all of them, all watching her, all alarmed and disgusted and a heartbeat away from opening their mouths and telling her she was useless, worthless, a waste, a ruin, a wreck, and that she should just stop.
She did. Erin stopped.
Stared back at the audience member directly before her.
She could not move.
This was worse than being on stage. This was an audience of individuals, fully lit, mere feet away from her. There was a woman behind her, she knew, judging her. There were the ones to either side, slitting their eyes at her. There was the one directly before her, and she could wait as long as Erin herself could.
It was the stage fright that had killed her career, and the arrogance, itself borne of fear. The technique was there, the dedication to foundation, the artistry, the lifetime of training, all there, all in service and search of perfection. The auditions had been easy for her: she found competition compelling, and enjoyed the opportunity to prove herself a better dancer than the contenders around her. She was selected, hired. She was rehearsed, costumed, rehearsed again. And during the donors’ preview matinee, the fear of being imperfect froze her in the wings.
She met Richard for the first time at the cocktail party afterward.
Her understudy, her future bridesmaid, danced the show’s whole run instead.
Later she opted to wear stilettos and may have twisted her ankle, and may not have. It was a good enough excuse, though.
Now you rarely leave the studio. You come every day and lock yourself inside. Now you stand, and stand, and stand. You rest your hands on the barre and stand for hours on end. You never, ever open your eyes.
You wear your slippers and your foggy warm-ups and you sometimes make a metronome with the toes of your shoes on the floor, the frayed pink satin not muffling the tock-tock of wood against wood.
Your teeth are clenched. You release the barre and form your arms into beautiful arcs and direct your fingers to variously curve just so and you take a deep breath and hold it and hold it and then your posture wilts and you exhale, and still you do not dance.
Erin stands at the barre, again.
Suddenly she seizes it tightly, then pushes herself away from it, freeing it from her grip.
I don’t dance, she thinks. I’m not a dancer anymore.
Erin opens her eyes.
She steps across the unmarred floor to the mirror, and raises her hands, presses them to the chilly glass. As she stands palm to palm with her own reflection, she sees that just under the surface, somewhere between her hot palms and the silvering, there is a self she could become, or should have been all along. There is a self that had made different choices and was a version that Erin would prefer to be, were she, as that person, able to recognize that preference in herself.
Erin fogs the glass with her breath, obscuring her features. The shape of her stands as if beyond a veil, and she searches it, willing herself to draw forth and absorb all the confidence, freedom, and strength her other self must contain.
The mist evaporates and Erin stares into a pair of huge, frightened eyes. She steps backwards, embarrassed. Her handprints remain, framing the face that pulls away from her.
Not that one, she’s too fearful, Erin decides, and turns to the mirror opposite the first. Too judgmental, she thinks. Two more walls, two more options: too bored, too frustrated.
Erin unlocks the door, flings it open, and leaves to explore the rest of the house. She knows there are options throughout.
She can identify them now, the other Erins. They change places; there’s not simply the “Erin of the Coffee Carafe” and “Erin of the Still Water in the Birdbath” and “Erin of the Fork, Third Tine from the Left.” She recognizes them, though, wherever they appear.
She greets them in the studio. She wants to try them on for size.
So she dances them.
An Erin who ran cross-country in high school, solitary and free and fast, even across sand. She won sometimes, and did not win the rest of the time. Once she had passed right through the mid-jump flight path of a tree frog, and he landed on her bicep. She had laughed aloud as she looped back on the path, depositing the little frog onto a shaded sapling.
Now her cheeks are freckled from those young years spent sweating off the sunscreen. Her smile is easy and true. She is a woman who orders dessert. She is partial to layer cake, whole slices, weighty with frosting. Her shoulders and hips are round. She enjoys her days, her own company, her dinners with friends, her desserts. Her clothes are soft and unpressed, and she drapes them across the bathroom sink when she undresses for her daily bubble bath. She buys fresh cut flowers for herself when they strike her fancy. She is self-assurance. She is freedom. She is beloved, and she loves.
An Erin who was as disciplined as any dancer, but who had turned her mind to business. Creases between her brows mark a lifetime of intense concentration. She regiments her time and maximizes her efficiency. She enjoys speaking at conferences, and is very good at reading people’s intentions. She does not trust easily. She is wealthy but not indulgent. She has not, as of yet, suffered the interference of a tree frog.
This Erin has a passion for string instruments, no aptitude for playing them, and neither the time nor inclination to learn. She donates to the symphony and enjoys the occasional assignation with a cellist. She appreciates the cellist’s ability to give her a great neck massage. She may appreciate that more than the sex, which is brusque, because she is brusque.
An Erin whose childhood was a parade of lessons. One year of ballet, during which she never mastered the splits. One year of dressage lessons on a rented horse, which made her too keenly feel the impossibility of owning her own horse. One year of diving, which turned her hair green and brittle. One year of fencing, during which all the boys best enjoyed poking her breastplates with their foils. She participated in every extracurricular activity that would have her, founded clubs, abandoned them. She loved to go on dates, and went out with anyone who asked her, and asked her own fair share to go out with her. Her only expectation on each first date was to make a new friend, and this requirement was met without fail.
She has worked for her entire adult life as a temp, and is eager to try any new assignment, be it clerical or janitorial or warehousing.
This Erin has a full complement of pets: one bird, one tank full of fancy goldfish, two cats (one long-haired, one smooth), two dogs (one large purebred, one little rescued mutt.) And she has a husband that she loves above all else. He is her constant, and the fact that she chose him and never second-guessed her choice is a fact of great value to her. Still, her jewelry boxes contain an array of wedding bands to suit her mood, and some days, she stacks three on her finger at once.
Erin dances them all, and they are not enough.
The toolbox is still in the corner of the studio. Erin flies to it, unlatches it, and grasps the hammer in both hands.
She whirls away and swings the hammer against the mirror on the back wall. Cracks craze the glass and each fragment is a new possibility.
She dances the circus aerialist, the accountant, the painter, the blogger, the chef. She dances the brokenhearted, the snide, the industrious, the spiritual, the anxious.
They are all lacking.
She swings the hammer.
She dances the clever, the cruel, the green thumb, the radiant, the cashier.
She swings the hammer, over and over.
She dances the unloved, the furious, the fearful. She dances the glamorous, the shy, the perfect, the imperfect, the searcher.
She dances frenzy, desperation, and exhaustion. She dances a dancer. She dances not-a-person. She dances blood, and weakness, and blood, and blood, and blood.
You burst through the studio door, lock finally thwarted by the crowbar, which you drop as you enter. You are screaming at the cell phone you hold to your ear, come now! She’s dying! and screaming at us, too: Erin, Erin!
Some of us watch you from our fragments still hanging on the walls. Most of us watch you from the floor. We see you clearly, even through the bloody glaze. We see the tears shining on your cheeks and we see your face contorted with fear and horrified sorrow.
We see you stop, look around the floor, turn with confusion to check the closed-circuit camera overhead.
You say, “But I was just watching her. She was here.”
“She was dancing.”
Mehitobel Wilson has been publishing horror fiction since 1998. She has been a Bram Stoker Award nominee, and many of her stories have been granted Honorable Mentions in the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror series. Recent stories appear in Deep Cuts, Necro Files, Zombies: Encounters with the Hungry Dead, Psychos, and Sins of the Sirens. Selected stories have been collected in Dangerous Red. Her next book, Last Night at the Blue Alice, is coming soon from Bedlam Press. Visit her at mehitobel.com.