Fiona Finkelstein could not believe her eyes.
After all, eyes could sometimes play tricks on you. That was a flat-out fact. She had seen that happen to a man on TV once. He got lost in the desert and was awful thirsty. He thought he saw a glass of lemonade by a pool in the distance. So he kept on walking and walking. But there wasn’t any lemonade or any pool. Just sand that went on forever and ever.
That was how tricky eyes could be.
Fiona wasn’t sure her eyes were the trick-playing kind. But you could never be too careful. So she stared at the notice on Madame VallÉe’s Brag Board until her eyes crossed and the words turned to fuzz.
“Do you see what that says?” Cleo asked, pulling on Fiona’s arm. “Now remember, you swore you wouldn’t go all nutty.”
“I know. I know.” Fiona gulped to keep back the mighty storm brewing in her stomach. She couldn’t look away. Not even with Cleo yanking on her arm. If only Fiona hadn’t locked pinkies with her best friend and sworn she wouldn’t go all nutty.
Do not go nutty, do not go nutty, do not go nutty.
Fiona really wanted to be excited like Cleo. And part of her was excited. A small part, deep down inside. Way, way down. Unfortunately, that part was being squashed by the part of her that was ready to throw up.
Because this is what was written on the piece of paper:
But this is how Fiona read it:
“Fiona,” Cleo said, still tugging on her arm.
Cleo sounded far away. Like she was standing on the other side of that desert right beside the glass of lemonade. Like maybe in Australia, which is where Fiona thought she might like to be at that very moment, hiding in a kangaroo’s pouch.
All she could think about was that one recital. The one when her stage fright first showed up. The one when she threw up all over Benevolence Castle’s cancan costume. And what’s worse, Benevolence happened to be wearing it at the time.
Fiona remembered all of those strange people staring at her. The audience. She remembered how the brain suckers had come and vacuumed up all of the dance steps from her memory. And she remembered how she felt when the tornado in her stomach started to twist. And then how the macaroni and cheese and baked beans she had for dinner were suddenly all over the stage. Well . . . over Benevolence, really.
And how Benevolence screamed.
Fiona remembered, all right. It played over and over in her head like a terrible TV commercial. Like the one annoying commercial where the lady has a headache and the baby is crying and the kids are yelling and the alarm clock is going off and all the lady needs is a dip in a bubble bath to make it all stop. It was just like that. But without the bubble bath.
Fiona felt a squeeze on her shoulder, and she was suddenly back in ballet class. She looked up and saw Madame VallÉe smiling down at Cleo and her. Her face looked as smooth as a porcelain doll’s.
“Ladies, time to begin,” said Madame VallÉe sweetly.
After a moment, Fiona turned to follow Cleo into the practice room. Madame VallÉe rested her hand gently on Fiona’s shoulder and walked along beside her.
“Worry gives the small things a big shadow,” Madame VallÉe said. “It’s best to stay in the sun, Fiona dear.”
“Okay,” said Fiona. But she wasn’t sure what she was saying okay to. Madame VallÉe sometimes said the kind of things that didn’t make a lot of sense.
“Ah,” said Madame VallÉe, “You remind me of myself as a little girl. Always running away from the bear in the woods. You must learn to stop running. You have to face the bear and teach it to dance. Yes?” She gave Fiona’s shoulder a squeeze.
Fiona had an inkling of what Madame VallÉe was trying to tell her. Well, at the very least she was sure it didn’t really have to do with dancing bears. Trying to figure out Madame VallÉe’s riddles was like trying to crack open a geode. You had to take several hard whacks at it before you could see the sparkly crystals inside.
Madame VallÉe glided to the front of the practice room. Everything about her was fancy. She wore flowery ribbons on her pointy black shoes and dolphin-blue sparkles above her eyes. She even spelled her name fancy. The letter e was in her name two times, and the first one, the one right after the l, had a fancy spark shooting out of it.
Last summer, Fiona had decided that her own name could be fancied up a bit. But why stop with just one spark from just one e? Fiona wanted to decorate her name like an exploding firecracker on the Fourth of July: FÌÓnÀ. Who wouldn’t like a fancy name like that?
Mr. Bland, Fiona’s fourth-grade teacher, that’s who. He didn’t want to see her name in fireworks at the top of her homework assignments. So she had to go back to writing it the regular old boring way. Without even the tiniest spark.
“Now, ladies, come sit here.” Madame VallÉe pointed to the area on the floor by the CD player.
Cleo grabbed the sleeve of Fiona’s leotard and pulled her down so they were sitting side by side, cross-legged. Fiona could hear Benevolence Castle and her two sisters, Beatrice and Bonnie (the Three Bees), buzzing behind her.
“Move in closer,” said Madame VallÉe, motioning with her arms. “Scoot on your derriÈres. That’s it.”
DerriÈre. Who knew that your rear end could sound so fancy?
Fiona felt a foot in her backside as she scooted in closer. “Move it, Vomitstein.”
Benevolence scowled at her. Fiona scowled right back and then faced the front of the room.
Madame VallÉe was waving one arm dramatically in a circle. It ended in a point. “You have all seen the Brag Board today. Oui?”
Fiona folded her arm over her stomach, trying to keep it calm.
“Yes!” came the squeals from everyone else.
“You saw that our little school, La Petite, has been invited to dance with the Maryland Ballet Company in The Nutcracker,” said Madame VallÉe.
Oohs and ahhs filled the room. The buzz of the Three Bees grew loud with excitement.
But the only noise that came from Fiona was her stomach. It gurgled.
“Yes, yes, yes, this is all very exciting business,” Madame VallÉe continued. “But what you do not know is that this class, your class, will dance the part of the angels.”
“Wow! Angels!” Cleo shouted, elbowing Fiona. “She said angels!”
Fiona gripped her stomach tighter.
“Rehearsals start next week,” said Madame VallÉe. “Please bring your—”
“I don’t remember any angels in The Nutcracker,” interrupted Benevolence. “I’ve seen it three times. There are toys and dolls and rats. I remember those.” She folded her arms across her chest.
“Yeah, rats,” said Beatrice.
“Big ones,” said Bonnie, curling her hands like claws and showing her teeth.
Benevolence elbowed Bonnie and shushed her. “So what kind of angels are we going to be, anyway?”
“The kind that wear haloes?” asked Beatrice.
“The kind that wear wings?” asked Bonnie.
Then Beatrice and Bonnie said together, “The kind that fly?”
Madame VallÉe raised her eyebrows until her dolphin-blue sparkles disappeared behind her bangs. She put her hands on her hips. “The good kind of angels that do not ask so many questions.”
This cracked everybody up. And if Fiona hadn’t been in a really awful, worry-headed, tornado-bellied panic, she would have cracked up too.
That was a flat-out fact.
© 2009 Shawn K. Stout