Watching Meredith’s ballet, Tess sees no white dresses, no toys that come to life underneath fake snow. Instead, she sees women with spines that move like ribbons of knucklebones beneath their sweat-soaked leotards, and a short, barrel-chested man with a bald head like Daddy Warbucks who yells for them to do it higher! Faster! Better!
Tess sits with her back against the wall, and the floor trembles beneath her as the dancers leap and twirl, their feet pounding again and again. Up close, nothing about it is pretty. The dancers’ faces are splotched with red, the cords of their necks are hard and throbbing, their hair is darkening with sweat as they rise and land, punishing their pink-slippered feet against the dusty floor. When one of the dancers stumbles, Daddy Warbucks shouts that she is a worthless waste of bone and cartilage and would be better off spending her time looking for a husband. The woman’s face cracks as he yells, tears spilling over the rims of her eyes and down her sweaty cheeks. But she doesn’t cover her face or run from the room. She keeps dancing.
Afterward, Tess sits in the locker room, nibbling at the sandwich from her Raggedy Ann lunch box, while Meredith and the other dancers peel off their ballet slippers and leotards. Their feet are cracked and swollen, with open blisters and shiny pink calluses, and they wince as they massage their heels and ankles. Tess’s heart flutters in her throat as she watches. Regular people see only the finished show, with lights and costumes and music so loud that it covers the sounds of feet striking the floor. But Tess has seen the ugly truth: blood and bruises and sweat. She is special.
“What did you think?” Meredith asks in the car. Tess sits on the edge of her seat, electricity coursing through her veins and muscles. Where to begin? “I want to be a dancer.”
Meredith gives her a sideways glance, and for a moment she looks pleased. But then her face screws up, and she turns her eyes back to the road. “You’re a little old,” she says. “Most people start when they’re itty-bitty.”
All of the air seems to suck itself from Tess’s lungs. She will never be a dancer, insect-thin, with bloody, aching feet. She is nine years old. She has wasted her life. But then she thinks of Honest Abe, how he was poor and lonely, how he studied by candlelight. “I would practice really hard,” she says.
Meredith smiles. “I know some people who give classes,” she says. “I could make some calls, if it’s really what you want.”
Tess can feel the thoughts spinning inside Meredith’s head—if Tess takes ballet classes, they will have something in common, something they can talk about while they move their food around their plates at dinnertime. They will speak the same language. Meredith will give Tess tights and toe shoes and fix her hair before school. She will marry Tess’s father. She will stay forever.
“It is,” Tess says. “It’s what I want.”
They pull up to the house and see two police cars in the driveway. The front door is open, and Mrs. Stuart is crying on the porch. Meredith sinks back against the seat as she looks up at the house. “Oh shit,” she whispers. The policemen are running toward the car, Tess’s father behind them. Tess and Meredith get out of the car, and everyone begins yelling.
The phys-ed teacher was out fixing a tetherball when she saw Tess get into a car with a woman. She told the police that Tess seemed to know the woman, that Tess looked like she was crying. One of the policemen is holding Tess’s school picture. The other is holding a picture of her mother.
The police yell at Meredith, and Meredith yells back. Tess’s father walks toward Meredith, and for a second, Tess thinks he might hit her. Instead, he reaches out, pushing Meredith with both hands so that she stumbles and her head snaps back on the string of her neck. Tess’s father stands over Meredith and drops his arms to his sides, balling his hands in fists. His face is white, his mouth wrenching back in the corners when he yells, “What the hell were you thinking? What the hell’s wrong with you?”
Meredith is shaking, her mouth opening and closing in soundless gasps. She looks up at Tess’s father through the narrow slits of her eyes, and the policemen step between them. “You called, right?” Meredith asks Tess. The rain is falling in sheets, flattening Meredith’s hair against her skull and streaking her face so that Tess cannot tell if she is crying. “You explained?”
Everyone looks at Tess, and she stands in the middle, trying to explain. Meredith is breathing hard. Her father’s hair is messy. Mrs. Stuart stands behind Tess with her hands on Tess’s shoulders, leaning forward to cry onto the top of her head. The policemen twitch their mustaches, while Tess explains about Dirk and Deborah, about the forgotten lunch box and the felt puppets and God suddenly caring that she was alive and sending Meredith to save her. When she says this last part, her father closes his eyes, and Meredith stares down at her feet, rotating the toe of one shoe in the soggy grass.
It was all a misunderstanding, this is what the policemen say. No crime has been committed. No harm has been done. They clap Tess’s father on the shoulder and tell him to get a stiff drink and a good night’s sleep. As they leave, one looks seriously at Meredith. “For future reference,” he tells her, “you can’t just take somebody else’s kid out of school.”
“For future reference,” Meredith says, “don’t worry.”
Mrs. Stuart leaves after the policemen, and then just the three of them are left. They stand on the front lawn, the rain pelting down on their heads and shoulders. “Well,” Meredith says after a moment. “I guess I ought to go.”
Tess’s father lifts his head and takes a step toward Meredith, but she steps backward, massaging her neck with the heel of one hand. “We have a cake,” her father says, and Meredith laughs without smiling, then turns toward her car. Tess looks at her father, waiting for him to stop her. But he stares down at the grass and says nothing.
Tess runs across the lawn after Meredith, reaching for the cuff of her sweater. “You could come inside for a minute,” she says. “You could have a slice of birthday cake.” Again, Tess’s father lifts his head to look at Meredith, and again, she looks away.
Tess wants to remind Meredith about the ballet classes, the phone call she has promised to make, the new life that they will all live together. But before Tess can find the words, Meredith takes a breath. “Look,” she says, holding her arms out to her sides. “I’m just a chorus dancer. It’s not like I’m anybody cool.”
Tess stands on the front lawn watching as Meredith climbs into her car and shuts the door. And then she is gone.
The lights are on inside the house, the windows glowing like squares of sunshine. In the kitchen, Tess sees a birthday cake, presents—the good stuff Meredith said Tess’s father got for her. But they do not go inside. Tess’s father sits on the porch steps, and she sits beside him, the rain soaking through the raincoat, dampening the seat of her jeans as the sky darkens above them. The pictures rest on her father’s lap—the one they took of Tess at school, the one of her mother. In the picture, her mother is wearing a pink headband that Tess does not remember. She is smiling. “Where did you find that?” Tess asks.
He reaches one hand toward Tess’s, his fingers hovering over the cuff of the red raincoat. And in that moment, Tess can feel all the answers welling up behind his lips, all the truths she’s been waiting to be told. But then he pulls his arm back, turning the picture over on his lap so that her mother’s smile disappears, and Tess sees only a blank white square. “Look at the rain,” he says, and Tess looks. “You were born on a night just like this one.”
Tomorrow, Tess’s birthday will be over. She will get dressed and go to school. Mrs. Stuart will cook dinner, and Tess and her father will eat it. Today will just be something else that they don’t talk about, something else that probably never happened.