Was this some type of joke? Arii tried to hold back the bitter laugh, but it pushed through as a snort. It wasn’t funny in a haha way, but she could only laugh at the day’s absurdity.
“Ariiana Daniels and Xavier Miles …”
The scene from earlier played in her head like a loop. With an orange leotard, fairy wings, and ballet slippers, she had sat on the stage of the Winsley auditorium with the rest of the Harvest festival hopefuls, a mixture of kids who passionately tried out and waited with bated breath and nonchalant ones who already knew every kid was guaranteed a part, but still eager. Arii had once believed the worst dancers always got the smallest roles. Her shoulders slumped, and she probably exhaled her hundredth sigh since the announcement.
Besides the sell-your-soul-for-a-mere-whiff pretzels, the Harvest festival youth dance segment was the highlight. The festival coordinators always included performances from the local community center’s dance groups. The 8 to 12-year-old dancers were usually the most popular. Maybe it was because this was the easiest age group to determine which tween would one day become a talented teen dancer or pumpkin #2. But Arii was finally starting in the lower teens, 13 – 14 years old, category.
From the stage, the casting director and choreographer had rattled off a list of groups in twos. Like a sitcom plot, she had gotten long Xavier. Long hair pinned into a top knot. Long graceful arms. Long legs that would surely trip her if they danced together. This was arguably God’s gift to dance packaged as a gangly boy.
Arii shrugged off the straps to her glittery fairy wings and tucked them beneath her arm, feeling her mood darkened. Did the Winsley festival have something against her now? She tried to rummage through her memories for whatever offense she committed to be punished like this. She had been dancing in the festival since she was four years old, heck, back when her dad and mom were still together. If she had done something, why wait almost nine years? Either they wanted to make an example of her, or see her die from embarrassment.
Being paired with Xavier ensured all eyes on her. No more watching the girl in front of her to remember moves. Xavier’s dancing commanded attention and adoration to feed it, and, in return, repaid watchers with its elegance and perfection.
Watching Xavier by himself would’ve been fun, but the added stress of having to perform with him… NOOOO! Arii had to compartmentalize all her energy on stage: don’t fall, don’t forget, and don’t eat too many pretzels before performance time. And try to have fun or something, but that part came from Dad and wasn’t originally a part of her mantra.
Shaking herself out of her thoughts, Arii stopped moping in the auditorium and headed backstage. She moved aside the velvety, burgundy curtain to see the twins, Desha and Dina. They were holding hands and giggling like the most cheerful eight-year-olds she knew. The wooden floor beneath them was covered in glitter from their fairy costumes. Their ballet shoes shimmered, and Arii could hear the faint sounds of the leather stretching.
The backstage area was nearly empty. Props were skittered behind the curtains, pumpkins, fake trees with construction paper, orange leaves, and hay-stuffed scarecrows. Other kids had promptly left after finding out their partners. Why were the twins still there?
“Hey, Desha and Dina,” Arii said softly. Even if their happiness brought feelings of jealousy, she couldn’t take her disappointment out on them.
“Hi Arii,” they said in unison, smiling. The identical twins were dressed in the same gold leotard and tutu with only their hairstyles differentiating them. Desha’s hair was pulled tightly into a bun with ringlets of black curls flowing while Dina’s box braids were pinned under. Traces of glitter trailed up their small, light brown arms. Arii would have commented on their cuteness if a brilliant idea hadn’t bubbled into her headfirst.
“Soooo,” she started, folding her hands as a gesture of importance. “Are you two happy with your partners? Because if you’re not, I don’t mind talking to the director for you.” Arii wondered if the director had dared to split them up. If he had, that would give her a reason to balk at the Xavier-decision. She could play the role of the kind, older teen who switched partners with one of the younger twins, so they could feel more comfortable. If she had to help one of the twins, then she couldn’t be paired with Xavier. Problem solved. Harvest festival Coordinators 0, Arii Daniels 1!
The twins looked at each other knowingly before squealing, “We are!”
So much for that, Arii thought, feeling a pang of jealousy again. She hung her head and pulled at her tutu for a moment, obstructing her disappointed expression. Without one of the twins as an option, she would have to tell the festival dance coordinators why exactly she needed a new partner. Hey, I don’t want to work too hard, and being partnered with the king of dance is making me anxious. I just wanna dance for 5 minutes, then explore the festival booths and stuff myself with pretzels. Okay? She couldn’t be that blunt.
Well, she could try but the festival coordinators were probably the sensitive, artsy type, so they would most def take that as mouthing off. Was it worth potentially being kicked out of the whole festival? Or incurring the wrath of polite, diligent Grandma, who Dad always passed off the role of discipline to.
Lifting her head quickly, she sighed for the hundredth and one time when the twins asked who was her partner.
“Xavier …” she mumbled.
Dina blinked slowly before biting her lip. “Ooh, he’s amazing, so umm… why did they pick y—,” Dina started.
“Stop Dina,” Desha whisper-hissed, pulling her sister’s arm. She gave her a look before cheering on Arii. “You guys are gonna be so good!”
Arii gave a weak smile.
“You’re so sweet, but I won’t be dancing with him,” she said, heading toward the backstage exit.
Their bugged-out eyes made them look like frogs.
“Well, why not?” Dina asked, inquisitive as ever. “You’re tall, and he’s tall.” She pointed at Arii’s head.
“Don’t point, Dina!” Desha chastised.
Ignoring her sister, Dina continued her lecture. “You’re both skinny, you both like orange and yogurt, and you… Never mind, you’re bald and he’s not. But yeah, he’s perfect for you.” Desha gave a dismissive clap before doing a cartwheel.
Arii patted her mostly shaved head, feeling the curls. Little kids never seemed able to tell the difference between a low cut and an actual lack of hair. Not that it mattered too much but Arii had more important things to think about.
Could she get Xavier to agree they needed different partners? The thought of the confrontation created a film of sweat over her hands. What did he think? She had been so shocked that she never tried to see Xavier’s reaction. They hadn’t been sitting anywhere near each other on the stage, but, again, he was so tall all she had to do was turn in his direction to see his... disappointment? Anger? Laughter? Xavier was always so expressive in his dancing. He danced big as their choreographers liked to say, covering the stage with his movements. Would it be the same for non-dancey matters? Arii tried to imagine his face, twisted into a frown.
The loud swing of the auditorium door opening shook Arii out of her thoughts. The short breeze cooled Ari momentarily and kicked up the whiff of vanilla. The festival was a month away, so it should have been too early for food vendors to be around.
“Anyway, good for you two,” Arii said, waving them off, her curiosity for the sweet smell and the potential for food taking her attention. The twins went back to twirling, and she pushed open the auditorium exit. Stepping down the stairs, she shielded her eyes.
Her brown eyes had to readjust to the bright sun after being inside the auditorium for so long. There was a nice, green field across from the auditorium where the food and craft vendors, the sound stage, and however many tightly-packed adults and kids would be placed the day of the festival. She couldn’t find the scent of vanilla anymore, only the smell of freshly cut grass. Her stomach growled. It was after 3 pm, and she was hungry for dinner. Could her mind have been conjuring up the phantom smells of food? If it was, that was super dumb!
Arii walked to the front of the Winsley auditorium building. Adults with clipboards and scratchy beards or ponytails and glasses were rattling off about permits and booth spaces. They were standing around in pockets of groups all around the entrance. One of the festival coordinators was off to the side with a group of what looked like college students, handing out flyers.
Outside, there was a small food truck with two people manning it. There was a short line of dancers and whoever waiting in line for—vanilla pretzels! Found it! Arii cheered in her head before deflating. Why couldn’t tutu’s have pockets? She had a little money in her purse but had left it with her dad.
Dad was still in the parking lot, sitting in the car, reading his detective novel. He was a nurse who worked a strict 12-hour schedule, three days on then three days off. Arii felt grateful though he was her dad. What else was he supposed to do? It was so much better than having to survive a ride with her easily aggy grandma. Dad liked to pretend that the common person didn’t need to take his mama in small doses. Her grandmother could be all dragon lady at times, a blunt, Southern woman, with no room for foolishness or “children’s mess” as she called it.
was going to have to be careful with how she phrased things. First, she didn’t
want to make her dad feel like he wasted her time driving her on one of his
free days when he could’ve been sleeping, just for her to be in a mood.
especially didn’t want to hear it from her grandma, because she would tell her
as always, about how much money they wasted to buy her things. This year the
dance had a serious ballet foundation, so pointe shoes were required. Not that
the choreographer was going to have a bunch of kids potentially breaking their
tippy-toes, but it was more for uniformity.
It sucked she didn’t have any good news for her dad. Arii’s father was like a flexible empath. Somehow, he could turn off sharing feelings and emotions with his patients at the hospital but not with her. He would surely feel her waves of disappointment and confusion before she opened her mouth.
Before Arii made a beeline to the parking lot, she decided to sit on a bench. Give herself time to steel herself. Maybe she could get her dad to intervene with the coordinators. But before that, she was going to talk to Xavier.
“1 calm Arii… 2 calm Arii… 3 calm Ariii,” she breathed out slowly, closing her eyes. “4 calm Arii…” Counting helped to keep bad thoughts away momentarily.
“5 calm Arii... 6 calm Arii,” a voice finished. Her eyes snapped open to Xavier scooting closer to her on the bench. A way too big, white t-shirt hung off his skinny frame followed by black leggings that cut off at the calf. “Does saying your name keep you from freaking out?”
Arii gave an embarrassed yelp. She practically flew to the other side of the bench. His footsteps must have been soft as marshmallows.