As noted before, I’ve been toying with writing things out of order lately. Don’t know where it’s going, or if it’s even relevant. But this is what came out when I pressed the keys.
”He’s not coming, you know.”
The voice hissed directly into Michelle’s ear, making her skin crawl. She bunched her shoulders up, trying to cover her ears with them, even though she knew it wouldn’t help. She’d tried before. Just like she’d tried hiding under a blanket, wrapping her pillow around her head, or plugging her fingers in her ears and singing as loud as she could.
All any of those experiments had done was convince both of her mothers that she had an extremely overactive imagination, a rowdy imaginary friend, the beginnings of some alphabet soup disorder that should be watched, or a combination of all of the above. The whispers were not bothered by such tactics.
“That’s not true,” she whispered back. “He’ll come. He pinky promised!”
“Pssssh. He promises things all the time, doesn’t he?”
The voice carried the slick, falsely cheerful note that Michelle associated with the Stranger Danger shows they made her class watch every so often. It was the voice that offered candy or a puppy to play with but was promising things far less pleasant.
Michelle shook her head, as though the voice was a bug she could shake loose. She pushed aside the velvet curtain in front of her, peeing through the gap.
Past the curtain lay the stage, perfectly aligned floorboards polished to a mirror sheen and made even brighter by the spotlights trained on it. A piano, looking glum, weathered and underused, was in the back center, waiting for her arrival; in front of it was a trio of girls with copper skin and raven hair, engaged in a complicated dance that involved two jump ropes and six batons. Past that, the mothers, fathers and hangers-on of the student body of Santos Street School watched with rapt attention or thinly veiled boredom, cellphones and tablets held aloft, a legion of unblinking electronic eyes immortalizing the moment.
Her eyes swept that crowd, looking for familiar figures. There was Mr. Asha, father of the triplets currently performing, a broad smile on his thin face. Ms. Fitzpatrick, in the front row, one hand ticking lazily in the air to mark the rhythm while a worried look kept fighting with pleasure. Michelle knew why; Ms. Fitzpatrick had worked hard to put all this together, coaching each of them carefully, helping them pick costumes and routines and musical pieces. If something went wrong, she probably thought she’d be blamed.
There. Just behind Ms. Fitzpatrick. Three seats, almost at the center. On the left was a tall, slender woman, a pointed face framed by thick brown hair coming down in a straight line to her shoulders. The glimmer in her brown eyes and the pursing of her thin lips didn’t match the boredom or pride of the other children’s parents; the expression on her mother’s face frightened her, and she moved quickly to the person in the middle.
Shorter than the other woman, a bit fuller of figure, the woman in the middle seat still seemed to radiate a sense of place and confidence. The way she held her clasped hands in front of one knee, the regal tilt of her head, the so-tight-it-screams way she had knotted her long blonde hair into a a bun, complete with the lacquered chopsticks Michelle had given her for Christmas. She had always reminded Michelle of a librarian, or someone like the lawyers on TV. Always in charge, always cool, and always beautiful. Aunt Carole, some people called her; Michelle had always called her “mom,” never finding it odd or uncomfortable. Her eyes betrayed that imperial aloofness, though; they kept flicking from Michelle’s mother to the seat beside her, and her tongue kept slicking her glossy lips.
Michelle’s eyes didn’t want to process what the third seat held. It made the voice right, it made the careful coaching from both of her mothers about accidents and disappointments make more sense to her than she wanted. It made her want to run and hide rather than work her way through “Moonlight Sonata” for the thousandth time, to throw mud on the thin and slinky black dress she’d picked, thinking it made her look so grown up, to smear the makeup Carole had helped her put on, to scream and scream and scream until she couldn’t any longer.
The third chair, which should have held the gangly, goofy-looking and yet always beloved shape of her father, was empty.