Suddenly Brandi didn’t feel like dancing. Or going out. Instead, she imagined what it would have been like if she had just stayed home and counted her blessings. Besides, she was too young to die, she thought, remembering the image of the woman who had tried to pry her hands away from her scorching partner. Not that she had wanted specifically to save Roger, but maybe like her, he still had family. People who were looking forward to seeing him again.
And she didn’t want to perish. No, not in some alternative universe where the people wore ballroom gowns and had their own personal numbers.
“Wait, what number are we?” Brandi asked, breaking out of her reverie, as seven – the number of the other couple – stayed fixed in her mind.
Roger held onto her hand, touched his lips. “We’re fourteen. Why?”
She looked up at him, feeling all of the air being sucked out of the room and grabbed her wrist. “That means we’re next.” He shook his head, not really believing her.
“Next?” The words left his lips slowly. He looked baffled, as she glanced at the clock, wondering how many more minutes they would have before their luck ran out.
She touched the pendant. A memory emerged.
The one where Teresa had slammed the ball into the volleyball player, and caused the cheerleader at the top of the pyramid to fall. She stared at the DJ, eyes more intent as she realized that the girl moved with a slight limp. Brandi scratched her head.
Because back then, Latoya had been the one in the limelight. The one who had enjoyed showing her exuberance at football and basketball games. A smile spread across Brandi’s face because even though Mrs. Redman had not seen it fit to enter her into junior competitions, she had coached them about being graceful and effortless in their movements, since judges were often spiteful and exacting.
Brandi moved closer to the center, no longer concerned that Roger had lost. Or that Lucien had appeared. They could win, she thought, as the DJ – Latoya – moved forward, at a more leisurely pace. Her left leg, just as swollen as Brandi had remembered it, when she had gone to the nurse’s station to collect her irate friend.
Walking and standing was one thing. Dancing would be another, she presumed; bowing graciously as Roger looked around the room.
She glanced at her watch and then looked at the other one on the wall. The difference between the two was seven, which meant that she was right. They were number two. The second couple to be sacrificed for whatever it was that this game entailed.
Latoya opened her hands and looked at her, weaving an almost quizzical expression. “I know you were hoping for the locomotion,” she said, as if reading her mind, “but this is a slow dance.”
Brandi nodded as the sea of people disappeared, leaving only them, Roger and Lucien. Her eyes narrowed, certain that they could do it, whatever it takes.
As if to caution her, a thought rose, like the hand of Nicholas that had stopped her at the cafe before she ran through the side door. Nothing is as it seems, it said, as the pendant reclaimed its place around her neck. Was it trying to tell her something? she asked herself. Warn her perhaps that her current course of action was the wrong one. She looked towards Roger to see if he was the one who was sending her the message. To hint at some disaster. But his face remained impassive until he eyed Lucien. His countenance becoming more firm and determined.
No. Brandi paused, stretched her hands and squatted, as if she needed to become more limber. More capable and confident. She adjusted her bun and allowed Roger to take possession of her arm as she held her breath, and then exhaled.
“I can do this.”
Whether it was fear or that sense of dread you encountered before undertaking a great feat, Roger offered her a different view, as he strained to get a better look at her and shook his head. “You don’t have to do this. Not with her.” And as if on cue, the music started up and Latoya embraced her partner. The smile she gave Brandi, jarring. No, you don’t have to.
So she turned away, wondering if the similarities between the DJ and Latoya were real. Or if they had just been another part of her imagination, that was making her see the people one moment, and then miss them the next. Her grip tightened. She leaned into Roger and whispered. “Have you noticed anything strange about the DJ?” Following her eyes, his gaze shifted.
“Yes.” His face clouded. “Isn’t she a friend of Teresa’s?”
Brandi looked at him, wondering if he was just as delusional. Or crazy. Because Teresa’s friends were nothing like this. That. And besides, she would never let herself get hung up on revenge. She inched forward, the tip of her shoes, grinding into his toes as if she they were a pestle in a mortar.
He grimaced, yanking his leg back, doing his best not to scowl. “Is she Latoya?”
Brandi nodded and bit her bottom lip, hiding from him, the fact that she and the ex-cheerleader had arrived at the party together.
“So, how do you think she knows Lucien?” he asked, seeming somewhat less concerned about the earlier friends angle, as he rubbed an imaginary mustache. Brandi shook her head as a silver bracelet glistened on Latoya’s arm and she felt a slight shiver run down her spine.
“Honestly, I have no idea, but nothing is as it seems.” They watched as Lucien dipped the girl and then the two of them laughed.
Neither one of them moved, until they realized that the judges were going for their numbered cards. Brandi picked up the pace, her eyes going to Roger to alert him about the bracelet, but he seemed more wary, also edging away. So she would have to dance. And make it to the end to ensure that they were safe.
“You’ll have to out dance her before we run out of time,” he said, indicating to the clock.
“I know.” She pushed down on his arm, as if he was giving away everything that they had learned. The charms sparkled as they moved closer. She looked at Latoya, wondering where she had gotten the bracelet, as Roger shook his head. “Roger, move closer.”
He attempted a dip and then a wide twirl. Latoya stood just before them, her arm outstretched as if she was getting ready for a bow. “I hope you lose,” she said, bumping into Brandi with her waist.
She pretended to be seriously hurt, dropping Roger’s arm. “Now,” she said. “Get the bracelet.”
Roger grabbed Latoya’s wrist and yanked it off. “Funny how we both want the same thing. And have the same idea.”
Lucien shrank back as if he had just been hit. While Latoya dropped to her knees and fanned the flames with the edge of her dress.
“You won’t be so lucky next time, son,” Lucien said, tipping his hat and making a quick escape. He glanced at Latoya, showing only regret, as her screams rose and she tried yanking on her braids which seemed to be getting tighter.
“Can we save her?” Brandi asked, her fingers knotting together as she cupped her ears. By her side, Roger’s head shook.
“No, unfortunately, she already made her choice. Now she must live with it.” His arms opened and he collected Brandi, transporting her back to their own time, as a wormhole opened up near her home and they were thrown onto the grass.
She got up and hugged him. “How did you know, how to do that?” she asked, forgetting all the other discord and the night’s events.
Roger dusted off his pants as if it had only been an after thought and she had been the real hero. “You’re getting better at thinking on your feet.” He appraised her. “Now how about me getting you home.”
“Sure,” she said, her face still slightly confused. She hadn’t meant to injure anyone, and now thanks to them, her, Latoya was stuck in some abyss probably thinking about some personal injury that had been done.
Roger placed a hand on her arm, after observing her slow gait. “Remember it wasn’t your fault. No matter what, we do what we have to do.”
She gave him a wary look, wondering if he’d ever tire of the assignments and the tests and whatever it was that he was trying to teach her. Her hand making a slow, lazy trail from the pendant to the scar that she could still feel under the thin fabric of her dress. She squeezed his arm. Around them, the wind picked up and he offered her his sweater. Thankfully, she accepted it and burrowed deeper as if it was some alcove, that could keep her hidden from everything.
But at the corner of the street, she spied a house that resembled hers. Her shoulders became rigid while her backbone remained erect as she spied the faint outside light. Standing there with Roger, she prayed for her mother’s absence, because she had had enough disappointment for one night. And she could do without more scolding.
At her side, Roger smiled broadly and then bowed, like a gallant knight offering his arm to the queen. “Don’t worry yourself, I’ll explain everything.” He promised, as she sighed, already knowing that her mother would be too much for the likes of him.