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“Battlegrounds” by Marina Shugrue

The needle pricks my skin and I gasp as I shake out my hand. A little speck of red blood lands on the grey flooring. I take my towel and wipe it off before turning back to my pointe shoes. They’re pink and brand new. Needle in hand, I take a length of silky ribbon and get back to sewing it near the arch of the shoe. I stitch a neat row of tiny X’s, forcing the needle to puncture the satin. Making the shoe a little less perfect than it was five minutes ago. I zone out, thinking of the choreography I’ll be practicing in an hour. I did the same thing before bed last night. Involuntarily, I shiver.

It happened again last night. I can’t seem to make them stop. All I know is that one moment I’m lying in bed, asleep and in a dream, and the next thing I know, I’m awake, but at the same time I’m not. I don’t know. It’s weird. It’s like I’m right between sleeping and waking. Except—no. I know I’m awake when it happens. I know it.

I take a pair of scissors and snip at the satin that covers the tip of the shoe, the part that I’m supposed to stand on. Whoever decided that pointe shoes should have satin on their tips was just dumb. No one can dance when they’re balancing on something so silky. It’s like asking someone to dance on a slip ‘n slide—falling is inevitable. So I snip at the corner, where the silk is bunched up into a crease, and I cut a small circle, revealing the coarse underbelly of the shoe. I toss the shoe to the floor with a thunk before picking up the other one. The sound of the shoe hitting the floor is a hammer against a slab of wood echoing in the empty studio.

It reminds me of the sounds in the dream last night. Or the not-dream. The hallucination. I woke up and heard whispers bouncing off the walls, vibrating in the air. I sensed the voices, like some kind of echolocation. I couldn’t see who was talking, either. I couldn’t move. For the first time in my life, my body felt heavy with its weight. My entire body was frozen and tingling. A bit like having a foot fall asleep, but everywhere. Reaching into every limb. Tugging and digging into every nerve. Like someone puncturing me with millions of sewing needles over and over and over and—

I reach for my X-Acto knife. Taking a shoe in hand, I push the blade of the knife up and dig into the soles. It sinks in, and I score the sole with short lines to give it more traction. Each mark against the shoe is satisfying. It gives in to what I want. It does what I tell it to do. The control is nice.

I couldn’t do anything last night, frozen in my body. I tried to move, fought with everything I could, to wiggle a toe or a finger or blink my eye. Nothing would do what I wanted it to do. My heart beat faster and faster, a slow-building panic as adrenaline seeped into my bloodstream. My brain screamed at my limbs, urging them to move, but my limbs wouldn’t listen. Nothing would listen. I could sense my body receiving the signal to move, felt the limbs get heavier with the commands. Still nothing. Nothing nothing nothing. No movement. Just darkness and awakeness and I tried to scream but not even my voice worked. I wasn’t breathing; air swirled in my throat and went right back out, never touching my lungs. The voices hovered in the air, getting closer to me, getting louder and louder.

I grab my lighter and spark an orange flame. I watch it flicker for a moment before I take the flame to the tip of the shoe. Carefully, I burn away the frayed edges, the ones that unraveled when I cut into the satin. I don’t let the fire get too close for fear that I’ll burn the whole damn shoe and have to start my work all over. The loose bits of pink satin fall away, now black ash. The fire leaves a burnt marking on the shoe, but it’s barely noticeable; no audience member would see it. I blow against the shoe—one quick, powerful puff of air—and the ash that clung to the edges falls off too. A little black pile of burned pointe shoe sits in front of me.

Blackness. Swirling blackness. It was dark in my room but I could still see hooded figures forming at the edges of my vision. They were the ones that were whispering. They were. I could hear them behind me and below me and above me and next to me—everywhere. All over. They were closing in. Conspiring. They were going to get me at my weakest. Burn me. Flay me. Stab me. Roast me over a pit like a lamb. Didn’t matter how they did it. They wanted me dead. They were going to kill me. One of them separated from the group and hovered over me before pressing frigid hands against my chest. I tried to fight back but my muscles still insisted on their betrayal, their mutiny. The hooded creature was pushing out my breath. I wanted to scream for help, but my jaw was stuck and I couldn’t do anything but lay there, immobile. Slowly, the creature laid down on top of me, sliding its hands to my throat, its elbows now digging into my ribs. Its thumbs pressed into the base of my throat, right at the meeting of my clavicle, while the rest of its cold fingers wrapped around the length of my neck. It squeezed, pushing and pressing and I couldn’t breathe; it was killing me, I need air, someone get me air, let me breathe and make it stop, make it stop, make it—

I bang my shoes against the floor, the sound reverberating through the studio. I’m alive and moving and in control. I’m not dead yet. I stand up and walk to the studio’s door. Shoes in hand, I crack open the door. Careful, I place the base of the shoe against the archway and hold it there. I take the door and shut it with all the strength my arms can muster. The shoe flattens with a crack as I break the base. I brace my body, open the door, and hit the shoe with the door again. I slam the door harder, again and again and again, as many times as I wanted to punch the hooded creature last night. The shoe crackles as it bends to a more flexible state. Slowly, the binds loosen, destroying the creature a little bit more each time the door shuts. I slam the door one more time before I collapse against the door handle, my forehead touching the heel of the shoe. I’m crying, releasing all the tears that I refused to let fall last night when I finally snapped out of the hallucination. When I could finally move again. When the creature finally left me alone. Tears drip down my nose and fall onto the floor. I taste salt as they slide between my lips. I keep crying, the shoe clutched in my hand. At this rate, I’ll create my own little pool of tears, just like Alice did in Wonderland.

With a shuddering breath, I wipe my face. I grab my towel and dab my eyes before soaking up the tears on the floor. There’s no crying, not in this studio. Not with this job. I take a deep breath before sliding my shoes onto my feet. I lace them up, tying the ribbons around my ankle. They’re tight, but flexible. I walk to the barre and warm up, grateful that my body responds to my wants—that I’m in control of my own body again, at least for now.

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