Cason Martin had perfect feet.
The arches in her feet were high and curved. Inside the pointe shoes were callouses that were thick and hard-earned from the perfection she demanded of just two simple feet.
Right now her perfect feet were throbbing. She felt a new blister crack and bleed as she landed beautifully from her final jeté.
“Run it again.”
Her deodorant had given up hours ago; her black leotard and ballerina-pink tights now clung to her body in the most uncomfortable and unattractive ways. The energy drink and pain reliever she had for dinner were doing nothing.
“Your fingers look like claws.” Natalie huffed around her, correcting the lines of her body, straightening her posture, and adjusting her fingers so that each one was on a different plane. “Soft hands.”
Cason didn’t say anything; she just flinched as her body was contorted. With each breath she took, fire circulated through her. Instead of counting beats, Cason counted the thump of blood as it passed through her knee. She stole a look at the leg holding her up in an arabesque and winced.
Her whole thigh was swollen.
It’s just a strain.
“Again.” Without waiting for a reply, Natalie started the music. Cason began to dance. Heat blasted up her leg as she pushed and strained. The sparks moved in hard, fast pulses to the igniting beat of Stravinsky. With each turn, each small movement, it spread through muscles and tendons. Cason was able to defy gravity with each leap.
“You might do.” Natalie released a heavy breath and turned off the speakers. “I don’t want you to embarrass the company tomorrow.”
“I was the youngest member of your corps when I was thirteen, Mom.” Irritation moved over Cason like the burning in her knee and thigh.
“And yet, you’re still not my best ballerina.” No compassion, instead a reminder of how she wasn’t living up to her potential. “Run the end combination at home. Soak your feet. Find some facial expressions, you look lifeless.”
Cason walked out of the rehearsal, frustration and pain battling with each other. She pulled her coat tighter around her, warding off the cold.
Stars were invisible in the city most nights. The moonlight was often overshadowed by the street lights and tall buildings. The rehearsal space for the Atlanta Ballet Conservatory was housed in a former cotton mill on the west side of town. The brick was crumbling in parts, but it only added to the old Southern charm.
“Natalie just wants you to be the best.” Her mom’s assistant patted her on the shoulder. “Did you have Doc Anthony look at your leg?”
“Yeah, just a strain.” Cason lied with a smile on her lips. She would most definitely have Doc look at it after her audition tomorrow.
“It’s looking a little swollen around your knee. Maybe ice it tonight.” With that, Emma got into her car, leaving Cason beside her own.
Sitting on the cold leather seat, the moonlight filtering through the windshield, Cason gently prodded the swelling just above her knee.
It’s just a strain.
“How’s your leg?” Natalie pushed down on Cason’s leg as she stretched at the barre. They were back at the Atlanta Ballet Conservatory less than ten hours later. Her audition was in an hour. The adjudicators from the American Ballet Theatre were already in another studio, setting up.
“Fine,” she said with a tight smile on her face, cutting off the conversation.
“Stretch deeper.” Natalie forced Cason’s center closer to the floor. Her thigh was burning, muscles pulling, little bubbles that pulsed with pain clawing under her skin and through the fibers of her connective tissue.
“The American Ballet Theatre is running this audition at ABC because of me.” It was the start of a very familiar lecture. The underlying message was quite simple: Do Not Embarrass Me. “I expect more than your best.”
When did Natalie Martin not expect more than Cason’s best?
“You only made it in the summer program last year,” Natalie reminded her. “You could have spent the last year training under some of the best.”
“I know, Mom.” Cason counted each popping cell in her thigh muscle. This wasn’t pain, this was minor discomfort. This was nothing.
And Cason was just as desperate to get into the Studio Company as her mother was. If she got in, she would move to New York. She would spend her days dancing and dancing and dancing, surrounded by people who understood the release of landing the perfect grand jeté.
“Think about it, Cason.” Natalie’s excitement grew as she pushed Cason’s legs farther, taking the stretch deeper, opening her hips. There were at least one hundred reasons Cason wanted to be invited to join the Studio Company of the American Ballet Theatre.
But number one was being away from Natalie Martin.
She stretched, moved, and marked her solo as she waited. The auditions were running on time and only a couple dancers would go before her.
She would dance and leave. There would be no callbacks. Cuts had been made that morning in the company class. Last year during this same audition, Cason had been unable to stop the nerves that had filled her veins, running over her heart, little electric pulses making her normally graceful movements jerky. She had barely made it through the group audition and into the solos.
This year, while the other girls waited, she watched. Watched the way the girls showed off their flexibility, the hyperextension of their knees and hips. The beautiful lifts to their arabesques.
Cason bit her lip, refusing to acknowledge the pain in her leg. So much worse than the tiny shocks of nerves, doing so much more damage to her body. Pain had to have an audience to be felt, so she ignored it, pretending that the ache in her muscles was from use, not from injury.
She would be the best.
She was the best.
Being one of Natalie Martin’s prima ballerinas meant she had to be the best.
The hallway was filled with other dancers, all of them in their leotards and skirts. Some chatted. Cason did not. She closed her eyes and focused on everything but the pain that slid around her tendons and bone, little burning points that tried to pull her attention away from the task at hand.
It’s just a strain.
“Cason Martin?” There were routine introductions and reminders of how she would find out if she was being asked to join the company or the summer program. She smiled and nodded, not wanting to appear overly confident.
But she knew.
She knew this audition would get her out of Atlanta and away from the expectations of Natalie Martin.
She gave the assistant her music and made her way to the middle of the floor.
“Whenever you’re ready.”
She’d started to go up on her toes when she heard the door open and Natalie Martin slipped in. Cason held in her groan of frustration.
There was no smile of pride on Natalie’s face, just the tight lips of someone judging every move that she made.
Painful fire fought with the anxiety that slid around her stomach and spine.
Cason let her eyes close for a second.
Cason pulled in a breath, tightening each muscle in her body. The music was her partner, guiding her as she flew into the air, her jeté high and perfect.
Pain chased her, refusing to be ignored, demanding that she feel each throb. It started right above her knee and exploded up into the muscles in her thigh. Bubbles of heat pulsed through the tendons around her hip. She spun on her toe in a perfect pirouette and heat radiated with each twist of her leg. More burning, blinding in a way she hadn’t thought possible. She kept dancing. She would move through the flame.
It’s just a strain.
Only six counts until it was over. You can make it.
Three. Tendu effacé.
Her arms stretched beautifully overhead, her right leg supporting her entire body, but her left leg was limp, refusing to point her toe. The crack and Cason’s gasp were covered by the ending crescendo of her music.
She held her final pose.
Only the tears on her cheeks gave away her pain.
Cason felt every breath, every heartbeat, every beat of music move through her body as the blaze consumed her entire leg.
It’s not a strain.
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