Phoenix: Chapter 11
The two months of… boot camp? were not nearly as bad as Liz’s whip-cracking lessons. Liz wasn’t teaching me. I was with some dude called Keegan, who was about five feet tall, had bright red hair, and was flexible enough to be a contortionist.
Which was good. Because he was.
But he was also, apparently, an acrobat. Which was also good, because he was teaching me. Emma and Dakota used a number of spells on me, not all of which I recognized, but I was pretty sure one of them had used one to make me pick up skills quickly, since I did.
Nothing particularly interesting happened until the first dress rehearsal, because that was when we found out where we were performing. The special effects crew, who had been practicing their theatrics on their own in a different building, were present and ready. Key, who had been practicing on whoever was unlucky enough to wander into her when she had makeup on hand (including me a few times), was also eager to get started.
I was standing around in a balcony/hall of the building where we would perform in another month (as Leslie, Mark and I needed to get used to the lights and other distracting stuff). I had been waiting for twenty minutes for Dakota to come out with my costume. I was sweating in my jeans and under my feathers; the lights were extremely bright and very hot. Montgomery, Alabama in late April? Not too great on the heat scale, even for me.
I wanted to see what the costume makers had devised for me. Leslie had swept by twenty minutes ago, donned in a long, brown, hooded coat and lots of beads. I wondered exactly how she thought she was going to keep cool, since our building was basically a giant gym.
Eventually, a very pretty girl came out of a room on the right. She handed me a box and gave me directions to the bathrooms, which were across the hall from the room she’d just exited.
I slipped inside and opened the box. Inside was a white leotard, the back scooped so low that my wings wouldn’t have any problems, and with an elastic strap stretching from the back of one shoulder to the other, so it wouldn’t fall off of me in midair. I put it on.
I had to admit that I’d been worried what the Cirque would decide to dress me in. But the only other things I found were a white satin skirt, which I put on as well, a pair of white leather ballet slippers in my size—I’d tried them on last week—and directions to Key’s station. I was guessing that was a hint.
I had been told what to do with the slippers. I ran them under the sink to get them wet before putting them on. This way, I could wear them until they were dry and allow them to mold to my feet.
So, still making sopping wet footprints on the floor tiles of the big gymnasium/performance building, I found my way to Key’s.
“Oh, hey, Phoebe,” Key said, when I entered. “Ooh, looking good. What’s up with the wet shoes?”
Without waiting for an answer, she beckoned me over and warned, “I’m going to put a lot of makeup on you. It’s going to take a while. It’s going to look a little silly. But it’ll look sillier if you move around, so I need you to be as still as you can.”
I sat there for maybe thirty minutes while Key applied… well, I’m not an expert on makeup, but I think she put on everything in the book—and not just to my face, but to my hands, my neck, my back, even my legs and feet.
“Well?” she said, and handed me a mirror.
I was impressed. I’d never known my origins, but my skin had always been very tan. Key had made me look something like a Chinese porcelain doll: completely white, except for the bright red feathers on my skin, which she’d wet to take the white powder off. She hadn’t blended the blush in my cheeks at all, and my mascara would have otherwise satisfied twelve obsessive fashionistas.
“Now hold very still,” Key instructed. “Dakota whipped up this cream for me. It’s going to make this makeup stay on until we rub it off with her aluminum cream. Don’t ask how it works, because I don’t know, but this way you don’t have to worry about rubbing your face.”
When I finally got up from the chair, I felt a little woozy from sitting so long. But I took a look in the full-length mirror and heard myself say, “Wow, Key. I didn’t know you could do that.”
She smiled. “High school painting classes. You would be surprised.” She waved the eyeshadow brush around, as if painting a picture. “Today, you are Annabelle, the porcelain girl.”
She started putting away the makeup. “I’m serious, you know,” she said. “It helps if you pretend you aren’t yourself. Today, you are someone else. Phoebe might have stage fright, or she might not, but Annabelle certainly doesn’t.”
“Thanks, Key,” I said, and left.
Now I actually did feel like a different person. I looked so unusual and felt so surreal that it was easy to slip into character. If there was something I wanted to do, then this was the person to do it.
Annabelle felt secretive; she wanted to explore herself, her own character, and look around the building with her new eyes. She was free from the person she’d occupied before, the girl who was naïve, lonely, and wouldn’t go out in the rain.
Annabelle found herself to be the unusually graceful acrobat she’d trained for months to become. She glided through hallways, strode through empty rooms. Several people passed her, looking over their shoulders with interest. Annabelle soaked up the attention. This was what she had trained for.
Then she remembered, in a second of mortality, that she had practice in twenty minutes.
Okay, so this was an awesome tool. Key was right. I had found my solution in performing. Annabelle was invincible, even if she only lasted a little while. She was a non-magical hiding spell, in reverse: she brought out the part of me that I was normally afraid to show.
I found Mark sitting in the main performance area, playing Angry Birds on his smartphone. His eyes moved from the dainty white ballet slippers to the white satin skirt to the white leotard to my powdered white face and exaggerated makeup.
“They have a theme, don’t they?” he said.
“Sup,” I said.
“Sup,” Mark said.
Leslie appeared from a hallway, wearing her bard outfit.
“Nice getup,” I told her.
“Look who’s talking,” Leslie replied.
“Mark… why aren’t you in costume?” I asked. I noticed the box at his feet.
“Waiting for the line by the changing rooms to die down,” he muttered.
“They’re empty,” I said.
“Better go, then,” he said, reproachfully. I knew he was wishing he could just perform in the black yoga pants and tank tops that we’d all practiced in before. At least I was used to ballet slippers by now, having worn them for a few months.
I wished that I didn’t have to drag Mark through all this. I felt like it was my fault: I’d contacted Leslie and had taken a risk in trusting her, then told her that she should come with Mark and me, then said that I wanted magic lessons, causing her to switch our train tickets. And Mark was not very wealthy by the time we met up with her, since he was still paying rent for our house. That meant that Mark couldn’t just have both of us hop straight onto another train and go to Maine. And then it seemed like the only real way to get any money was to run off with a circus of Anoki…
Mark didn’t return for an hour. When he did, he was painted mostly green, with this teal eye makeup that can only be described as outré.
Key was close behind him. “I take it that you like your costume,” she said to Mark. “You aren’t complaining about crimes against your dignity yet.”
“Silence isn’t always consent,” Mark said, but he was smiling.
Leslie and I have agreed that we’re never going to talk about, mention, or write about what the two of them did next. Gross.
“Get a room,” Leslie groaned.
“Everyone, practice starts in fifteen mi—Mark! Key!” Dakota had walked in at just the wrong moment, Emma on her heels.
“Ooh, can you two do that after the show, on stage? Drama sells.” Emma, of course.
Mark glared and Key muttered about someone else needing a boyfriend, but when Leslie and I snuck away, it was because we were laughing too hard to stay.
The day of the performance was one of those days where everything is kind of neutral, and you’re anxious to get the night over with even though you don’t really want the event to come. The weather was gray but not rainy, we ate sandwiches for lunch, and Leslie tried to learn what Mark and Key meant when they talked about something they called “OS Leopard,” not because she was interested, but because she was bored. I hated it.
I spent some time flying low in the performance area, above the benches where the audience would sit, but not for very long, because it was a tight space to fly in without hitting stuff. Tried to imagine what it would be like to watch instead of do. Tried to imagine what it would be like to do, in front of an audience. My act wasn’t complicated, but it was difficult; at least I wasn’t afraid of falling, since I had a built-in parachute ready.
I couldn’t forget that we were performing later, because everyone was setting up. Anoki, humans, fairies and Epselans alike were all trying to get everything up and running at once. Cirque du Soleil used a lot of lighting and special effects work, not to mention trying to amplify all their music across a giant space effectively.
Hours, at that moment, meant little to me. Time warped; fifteen minutes seemed more like thirty when I was nervous, and an hour could seem to pass in seconds. I just knew that I ended up putting my costume on, and Phoebe was so nervous that Annabelle naturally took over, even before my makeup was on. I let her.
The show started; the stands were packed with people, and the special effects were a lot more than you could imagine without having been there. Leslie started playing with the rest of the musicians, but I couldn’t really hear her. I didn’t even try to watch the show from backstage until Mark went out, and the clowns started playing with a giant paper airplane and pretending to cry when it crashed.
I smiled. It mattered.
Grateful for the comic relief, I started watching the show more—seeing the contortionists performing the same moves that I’d seen a million times before, in exactly the same way as in our practices. Somehow, this decreased the importance of the show itself. I felt a little better.
Like a little kid on a train, I stared out the “window” and waited for the “conductor” to tell me when to move.
And then my stop came.
Phoebe stopped like a human in the showlights, but Annabelle kept striding along. Fortunately, Annabelle was the one who was in control of my body.
Annabelle grabbed ahold of the wire on which she was supposed to keep in her sweaty palms as she slipped off, bounced back, flipped over the wire, dropped again, came back up again. It was special wire, magically enhanced by the Anoki who’d made it. She allowed the person above her to catch her ankles, just in time, as she began to fly, stretching out her wings as if to glide, but only like a costume. Although she didn’t look like it, she was really gliding—not just allowing the person to hold her ankles and swing while she kept her body forward by pure muscle—her body wasn’t strong enough to do that. But her wings could carry her weight, so she let them.
The person dropped her, an intentional move, and Annabelle caught a second wire by its handhold. She put her wings into a diving position as the wire carried her in a curve downward, below some more acrobats who were doing another act in a separate motion, also circular, like Annabelle’s. Annabelle’s own curve struck a half-moon, not quite letting her touch the net, and brought her back up, almost full circle. She kept her wings out, beating them lightly as if to fly, as the wire carried her back up to her line.
She didn’t let go of the wire, though the audience couldn’t see that. Annabelle kept her handhold on the wire, pirouetted on her own line, and proceeded to walk it as if on a balance beam. It was really the wire she held above her head and the wings outstretched at her back that kept her on the line. Even still, she slipped a few times and had to flap her all-too-real phoenix wings to stay there.
Wow, Phoebe thought, from the shell in Annabelle’s mind, only a spectator. Wow. I’m doing this.
Annabelle shooed her thoughts away.
It was getting hot up here, and Annabelle started to get sweaty.
You have weaknesses too, Phoebe said. You’re not immortal. In fact, you sort of need the bathroom right now…
Shut up, Annabelle said. I’m working.
With Phoebe subdued, Annabelle kept working, dancing across her line in the background as the other performers caught the audience’s attention, but not for long—Annabelle could feel their gaze return to her wings as her red-gold feathers caught the warmth of the light again.
I have fans now, Annabelle thought, mentally preening herself.
Her white skirt fluttered in the back and stuck to her ever-sweatier legs in the front. It was getting hotter and hotter in here…
Annabelle reached the highest curving loop of her act, the one that took her closest to the hot, hot lights, she was almost done… and she fell, losing consciousness, losing awareness.
The audience stared, spellstruck, as the most dazzling acrobat they’d ever seen turned into a red-gold bird, fell almost into the net, and then took off again, somewhat raggedly. Each person turned a hypnotized gaze toward the bird as it made a flying loop around the stands before returning backstage. They didn’t think that there was any magic in it, just substitution and a well-trained bird, but it was an attention-grabber all the same.
I flew backstage as fast as I could, to land on the first thing I could catch. Mark handed me my wand, and I did my spell as fast as I could.
“No more magic now,” I was able to mumble, and passed out.
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