*Muses Note – This week we’re featuring a returning guest writer, J.M. Whitty. She’s a British-Canadian living in Switzerland, who writes post-apocalyptic and speculative fiction. You can find links to her other stories on our ‘About the Writers’ page*
Kristoff stood in the row, nervously waiting. He could feel the sweat dripping down his back, pooling in the space just above his trousers. It was disgusting. But, it was good solid evidence that he’d worked hard. He knew he’d put on the best show he could do. But was it enough?
The tension in the air was really high. Someone coughed nervously and it cracked the air like a lightning bolt.
Every day for the past three years, Kristoff woke up at five AM. He showered, shaved his face smooth, ate a small breakfast, and put on the same dark leggings and sweatshirt to head out for his day. He walked through the park, enjoying the changing seasons and the intensity of the early morning joggers. He did his best to enjoy the freshness of the morning air on his face, as it was always a tiny wisp of calm before an intense day of focus and practice.
The studio was a second home to him. Or, was it his first? Sometimes he couldn’t be sure. As he stretched and massaged his feet, and rolled his shoulders to relieve some of the tension from the day before, he always felt a little bit nervous. This morning he took an extra moment to massage a twinge in his foot. It was worth it, as he experienced a sudden release of tension that made him sigh.
“Morning Kristoff.” Andreas dropped his bag on the floor and gracefully lowered himself into a seated stretch.
“You’re early.” Kristoff smiled over at his friend. “Stretch quickly. I need you to check my routine.”
Andreas leaned forward and wrapped his hands around his feet, feeling the muscles in his back tighten and then relax. Kristoff stood up and rolled his hands and ankles a final time. He faced the mirror and readied himself in first position. Andreas reached in a stretch to the remote on the floor. He looked at Kristoff and nodded. The music began.
The mirror reflected a calculated and light routine, graceful and soft. Kristoff’s feet dusted the ground as he moved from leap to leap. He twisted his strong frame, his arms curving around his torso in a smooth sinewy circle. His body moved in a perfected sequence, sweat forming on his brow as he maintained his concentration. As the song reached its end, Kristoff landed his jump, falling gracefully to a kneeling position. His hands lay across the top of his knee, fingers relaxed, and his head lowered down.
Andreas clapped. He walked around Kristoff slowly as his hands struck together. “Bravo. That was excellent.”
Kristoff listened to the soft padding of Andreas’ shoes as he circled around him. He looked up. A single drop of sweat dripped off his chin onto his tights, leaving a small dark mark on the fabric. “Restart the music. I want to run through it again now that I’m warmed up.”
“Seriously? Dude, that was perfect. You’re sweating like crazy and the audition is tomorrow. You don’t want to overdo it.” Andreas crossed his arms and looked at his friend.
Kristoff walked over to his starting point. “Music please,” he asked. Andreas reluctantly turned it on.
Andreas watched as Kristoff expertly carried out an identical routine. He moved with grace into the invisible footprints of his previous performance. The concentration on his face grew with each move of his feet and gesture of his arms. When the song ended, he raised his head, looking deep into himself in the mirror. More sweat dripped off his chin.
This repeated three more times. Andreas grew more concerned as Kristoff pushed himself to the limit. In between, he offered subtle critiques of Kristoff’s movements, only to fill the silence with something. But he knew that each statement was something for Kristoff to try and improve in the next go. But really, there wasn’t anything left to improve on. It’s just hard to convince a friend of that. They have to believe it themselves.
At the end of his fifth practice, Kristoff swore loudly.
“What’s wrong?” asked Andreas.
“It’s this damn foot, it hurts again.”
“Maybe you should take a break for the rest of the day. You can watch me rehearse, while you ice it.” Kristoff wasn’t listening. He was too absorbed in his own stress. He grabbed a towel and mopped his face.
“I haven’t even done a dress rehearsal.” He swore again and took off his shoe. His foot was red and slightly swollen.
“Kristoff,” said Andreas loudly. “You need to ice your feet. I’m going to put on some music and practice, you better have a bucket of ice before I’m finished.”
“Fine.” Kristoff walked out of the room, one foot bare, leaving sweaty footprints on the floor. The door swung behind him and closed loudly.
Andreas sighed and muttered a few things to himself. He started his music, raised his arms and leapt into the air. Unlike Kristoff, he was not so concentrated and technical. His moves were often lacking the kind of extreme precision of his friend, but he was still very skilled and managed to look like he enjoyed every step and leap.
He completed three routines by the time Kristoff returned, freshly showered and carrying a bucket of ice. He pulled over a chair and plunged his feet into the icy slush. He breathed in sharply.
“Of this? You can’t be serious.” Kristoff was clenching his teeth.
“You know I’m right.”
Kristoff glared at his friend. “You always are.”
For the rest of the morning, the two men took turns observing each other in the studio. Kristoff completed several dress rehearsals, to ensure that the stiff velvet jacket wouldn’t affect him too much. Actually, putting it on gave him a little extra pep that made Andreas smile. He enjoyed seeing his friend gain extra confidence. He reduced the number of criticisms in his commentary and looked in awe at Kristoff’s graceful movements. The jacket added an extra touch that made the routine somehow more real, but also full of fantasy. The Kristoff just had to secure the part.
There were five others auditioning tomorrow. The role was important as it meant an upgrade in the company if Kristoff was selected. His three years of hard work would finally pay off as he would get to do a solo. That was his goal. He maximised his precision to one day have the chance to show it off alone on stage. As he thought about it, the hairs on the back of his neck stood up.
He waited for Andreas to finish his turn and said, “I’m going home. It’s a big day tomorrow and I think I need to bathe in some ice.”
Andreas laughed. “Probably. You work too hard. But most importantly, air out that jacket.” Kristoff suddenly became away of the hot damp fabric sticking to his skin. He peeled himself out of it and returned it to its hanger. He gathered up his things and headed off to shower again.
He looked over his shoulder at Andreas, who had paused to readjust his shoes. “ Thanks for today.” Andreas smiled and waved goodbye.
That evening, Kristoff could barely keep still, let alone sleep when it came time for bed. He couldn’t concentrate on anything except visualising his movements in his head. Lying on his rumpled duvet, he looked over at the jacket hanging on the back of his door. In the gentle light of his bedside lamp, the gold swirls and crimps that decorated it seemed to twinkle. The beauty of it gave him a bit of softness that allowed him to relax enough to turn off his light and drift off.
Like always, his alarm sounded at five AM. For Kristoff, his morning was like any other morning, except today had a call time at eight. He still had time for a shower, shave, and a small breakfast before heading across the park. Today, there was a slight mist of rain, which cooled his face. He took a moment to stop, close his eyes, and let the mist settle on his skin before rushing off into the studio.
He walked inside and the lights were already on. Someone was here. It was unusual. Kristoff peeked through the door and smiled. Andreas had come early and was moving a chair next to a bucket.
“You’re here early.”
Andreas smiled. “I can if I try. And today is an important day.”
Kristoff dropped his things next to the chair and hung up the jacket. Looking at the bucket, he said, “I suppose this is for me?”
“Well, I could torture myself, but I’m not the one auditioning today. So dunk ‘em.” Kristoff sat in the chair and plunged his feet into the ice. It was horrible and gave him a level of alertness coffee companies can only aspire to.
Andreas looked at his friend. “Ten minutes. I’m going to get some breakfast.”
When Andreas returned, he and Kristoff warmed up together, stretching their arms and backs and hips and everywhere they possibly could. Like the day before, Kristoff took special care to release the tension in his feet. Icing them had certainly helped. He wiggled his toes and prepared himself for a trial run.
At 7:45, Andreas wished him luck and Kristoff walked to the main stage. This part of the building was impressive. It overlooked a sea of red velvet chairs and tiny strings of lights hanging beneath the mezzanine, sparkling like tiny fireflies. He peeked through the curtain to see one of the others performing for the company directors. He was good. But, Kristoff knew he was technically better. It gave him a surge of confidence.
At the precise moment that the clock struck eight, Kristoff walked out into the centre of the stage. His shoulders were back, his core strong. He gave the impression that he belonged on the stage. The jacket felt soft on his skin and he wore it as if it gave him power.
He paused and bowed to the directors and introduced himself and his choice of song, and moved to his starting point. He settled into position and the pianist nodded to him. The music began.
After a wait of what seemed like eternity, the directors came out of a side door in an orderly queue and stood on the platform below the stage. The men looked down at them, looking elegant in their identical attire. Kristoff felt like he could hardly breathe. Plus, the pool of sweat was starting to move into uncomfortable places, and he was hyper-aware of every trickle.
The intensity grew as the directors paused and the seconds ticked by. Kristoff was thankful that one of the others coughed, as it made the air seem less thick. He breathed in deeply and looked out at the lights and imagined the room full of people.
He was so lost in that idea that he nearly didn’t hear them call out his name.