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In the basement of the Pink Garter Plaza, the day finally arrived as it arrived every yearfor the Nutcracker rehearsals to begin.
Party-scene dancers and clowns crowded into dressing rooms, giggling and jamming on ballet slippers that had grown two sizes tight over the summer. Angels and mice played boisterous tag, weaving in and out among everyone's legs, around the furniture, under the restroom doors. Little girls, with their hair finger-combed into haphazard buns, all wearing tights with knees that hadn't come quite as clean as they ought, running amok the way little girls run in every hallway in every dance studio in every town.
Behind them came their mothers, lugging younger siblings, toting coats and backpacks, handing off crumpled lunch bags that smelled of bologna and greasy potato chips and sharp cheese.
"Angels in studio one."
"Pick up a schedule on your way out."
"Mice over here."
Nobody could hear over the music, shouts, laughter, and voices in every key. Mothers chattered and waved hello to friends. They dodged one another and hugged in the hallway. Several stopped to watch their daughters warm up through the one-way mirror.
"We need volunteers!" Mary Levy, a dance teacher, dangled a tape measure in the air. "This may be the only time we have them together in one place. Can somebody take measurements? We've got to see if the ears are going to fit."
A small group of mothers got the tape and went about measuring heads. They jotted numbers, recounting as they did so the joys and hassles of other dance performances in other years. But after the hoopla had died down, after the confusion had ended and the dancing had begun, only one motherwas left waiting outside the one-way mirror. Only one mother stood alone, savoring her daughter's every glissade, every pirouette and plié, watching as if she couldn't stand to take her eyes away.
It wasn't a difficult dance, this dance of the angels. Theia Harkin McKinnis knew each of the delicate, careful movements by heart. Heidi, her daughter, had danced the role of angel last year. And the year before. And the year before that.
A door opened across the way, and out came Julie Stevens, the Nutcracker director of performance. "Sorry to keep you waiting. I've been on the telephone. You know what it's like when you get stuck talking."
Muted from behind the glass, Tchaikovsky's music swelled to its elegant climax before it ebbed away and began again. "Oh no. I'm not worried about the time." Theia checked the clock above the studio door.
"Come in my office. We'll talk."
Theia took a seat inside. She folded her arms across her chest as if she needed to protect herself from something. She realized at that moment exactly why she'd come. In this one place, she needed to regain control.
"I'm here to talk about Heidi's dancing."
"Her dancing in the Nutcracker? She's been cast in the role of an angel."
"She's danced as an angel for three years."
"Do you see that as a problem?"
In this small town, in another week it would be impossible for anybody not to have heard about Theia's cancer.
"Of course there is time," Dr. Sugden had told her in his office when he'd given them the results of the biopsy. "You have plenty of time to seek out a second opinion, if you'd like. I could even recommend somebody. You have plenty of time to educate yourself. You have plenty of time to develop a survival plan."
Even in the dance studio, Theia had to fight to keep the panic out of her voice, just thinking about it. A survival plan. "Heidi wants to dance something different this year. She wants to do something more difficult, something that shows she's growing up."
The dance director picked up a roll of breath mints and ran her fingernail around one mint, popping it loose before she peeled the foil. "Surely you realize that we can't jostle everyone around once the girls have been cast."
"I know it might be difficult, but"
"We can't give every child the part that she dreams of, Mrs. McKinnis. If we did that, we'd have thirty girls dancing the part oftheSugar Plum Fairy and thirty more dancing the role of Marie. Heidi is perfect as our lead angel. Heidi looks like an angel."
"She's the oldest one, in the easiest dance."
"She knows the part so well that the younger girls can follow her. That's why we always put her in the front the way we do."
"It is small consolation, standing on the front row in a place where you don't want to be."
"Mrs. McKinnis." Julie Stevens crunched up her breath mint and reached for another. "I promise that I will make note of this. I promise that I will cast your daughter in a different role next year."
There isn't any guarantee that I will be here next year.
Heidi didn't even fit into the angel costume anymore. Every year, some volunteer mom let out and lengthened the burgundy dress with its hoop skirt, its tinsel halo, and its gossamer wings.
Theia laced her fingers together, her hands a perfect plait in her lap that belied the anger rising in her midsection. The only problem was, she didn't know exactly who to be angry with. With herself, for letting time slip past without stopping to notice? With Julie Stevens, for holding Heidi back and not letting her blossom?
With God, for letting cancer slip into her life when she least expected it?
Theia stood from the chair and didn't smile. A crazy motto from some deodorant commercial played in her mind: 'Never let them see you sweat.' She clutched her purse in front of her and gave a sad little shake of her head. "Miss Stevens, someday you will realize that a child's heart is more important than the quality of some annual performance."
The teenagers in Jackson Hole, the ones still too young to drive, had gotten their freedom this past summer: a paved bike path that ribboned past meadows and neighborhoods, past the middle school and the new post office, clear up to the northern outskirts of town. Kate McKinnis and her best friend, Jaycee, leaned their Rocket Jazz mountain bikes against the side of the house, hurried inside to get sodas, and tromped upstairs to Kate's room. Jaycee sorted through CDs while Kate put one of her favorites in the disc player.
'N Sync belted out their newest number one hit.
"Turn it up." Jaycee flopped on the bed and buttressed her chin against a plush rabbit that happened to be in her way. "I love that song."
"I can't. Today's Saturday. Dad works on his sermons on Saturdays. I have to keep it quiet."
"On Saturdays, he waits to hear from the Lord. He doesn't want to hear 'N Sync instead." Kate picked a bottle of chartreuse nail polish and handed it to Jaycee. "I'll do your right hand if you'll do my left."
"Only if I can put it on my toes, too."
"I'm kind of worried about my mom. She hasn't been smiling much lately. And neither has Dad."
"My parents do the same thing. Maybe they had a fight. Can I use purple? Do you think it would look stupid if I used both colors?"
"If it does, you can always take it off."
They bent over each other's splayed fingers and toes, accompanied by the constant murmur of the music. Jaycee finished with the purple and screwed on the lid. "Did you hear about Megan Spence? Her parents are letting her drive the car already. She gets her learner's permit now that she's fourteen."
"I want to drive, too. Just imagine what it'll be like, Jaycee. We can go anywhere we want."
"Megan's getting her hardship license or something."
"Not fair." Kate waved her nails in the air to dry them and then pulled her hair back with one hand.
"Let me do that. You'll get smudges." Jaycee grabbed the brush, made a quick ponytail in her friend's hair, and clipped it with a hair claw so it sprang from Kate's head like a rhododendron. "There."
"How do I look?" Kate surveyed both her hair and her upheld green fingernails in the mirror.
"Like a hottie. Same as me." Jaycee surveyed her reflection, too. "I bet your parents will be okay. Just wait a few days."
"Do you think Sam Hastings is cute?"
"He rocks. But he's got a girlfriend."
"Well, you know, I just like him as a friend."
"When I get my license, I'm going to get in the car and just start driving. Just take any road I think looks good." Jaycee started brushing her own hair, too. "Maybe I'll drive all the way to Canada. Or Alaska. Or Mars."
"You can't drive to Mars, silly. There aren't any roads."
"I'll make my own roads. Really, I'll just start out somewhere and take any road I want, without a map or anything. Just to drive forever and see where I'd end up."
"You'd end up lost."
"You can't end up lost, can you, if you don't need to know where you're going?"
It occurred to Joe McKinnis, as he watched the blanket flutter to the grass, that perhaps he hadn't chosen the best spot for a picnic.
Theia stood at the edge of Flat Creek, protective arms crossed over her bosom, counting swallows as they swooped and dipped under the bridge and over the water. Her hair, the same color as the cured autumn grasses in the meadow, had gone webby and golden in the sunlight. As she stood at the water's edge, she belonged to the countryside around her, the standing pines, the weeds, the wind.
I wonder if chemo's going to make her lose her hair?
As soon as he asked himself that question, he wished he could take it back. This isn't what she needs from you, Joe. She needs you to stand beside her. She needs you to tell her to believe in miracles. She needs you to counsel her the way you counsel every parishioner who comes to your office seeking answers.
But this was his own wife he was talking about. For her, he could give no answers.
Joe settled on his knees. "Theia? You ready for lunch?"
"Not quite." She didn't turn when she answered him. "It's such a beautiful place."
"It is pretty, isn't it?"
When she started toward him, her steps rustled like crinoline in the grass. "Thank you. A picnic was a good idea."
"We needed to talk."
Theia stopped beside a little makeshift cross resting against a pile of rocks. Kate and Heidi had made it last year, lashing together sticks with string to mark their dog's grave. Even now he heard the girls' voices, their sad pointed questions:
"Do you think dogs go to heaven when they die, Daddy?"
"Maybe dogs don't have to ask Jesus in their heart because they aren't people."
"This was a good place to bury Maggie," Theia said now. "She loved it here."
"Maybe not such a good place to come today." He began to set out their food. Two sandwiches with ham and mustard. Apples. The clear plastic container of brownies.
Theia knelt beside him, unwrapped a sandwich. "Why? Why wouldn't it be a good place?"
"Because this is where we buried the dog."
She took her first bite, but after a moment her chewing slowed. "I guess we should pray," she said, her mouth full. But they didn't. She kept right on eating. Joe chomped into his apple, as crisp as the air.
For two people who had so much to say to each other, it seemed strangeall the silence between them.
At last when they spoke, they spoke together.
He said, "Kate knows something is wrong."
And she said, "Heidi's going to be an angel again."
"Theodore? What are we going to do?"
His pet name for her. Theodore. Always when he said it, she laughed and poked him in the ribs and said, "Joe, this isn't Alvin and the Chipmunks."
But not today. Today she said, "We're going to do what the doctors tell us to do, I guess."
Joe picked a piece of grass and threaded it between his two thumbs. When he blew to make it whistle, nothing happened.
"Of course, this is your chance, Joe. If you ever wanted a different woman" He looked up, horrified, before he realized what she meant. "I could get big bosoms. Have them remade any size. And I could change my hair."
"I could get a brunette wig or even go platinum; no more of this boring, dishwater blonde. We could put me back together exactly the way you want me to be."
"I don't want you any other way except the way that you are right now."
"Well." Her eyes measured his with great care. "That's one choice that you don't have."
"You know what I meant. I meant it the nice way. That I wouldn't change anything if I didn't have to."
"I know what you meant. I do."
A Saran wrapper scudded away in the breeze. Neither of them made a move to grab it. "We're going to have to tell the girls. And your father."
"I don't think I can tell my dad, Joe. After everything that happened with Mama, this is going to be harder on him than on anybody else." She started to pack picnic items back into the basket. The jar of pickles. What was left of the brownies. "Maybe you could be the one to talk to him. You're so good at saying the right things to people."
"Not about this. It doesn't come so easy when you're talking about your own life."
For all the things he might be afraid of, he feared this worse than he feared cancer or even losing her. He felt like he was losing his faith.
The best way to tell the girls about Theia's cancer, they decided, was to take them someplace they liked, to spend one special family day together, before Theia broke the difficult news. They signed the girls out of school on a Tuesday, the day before Theia's surgery, and drove to Rock Springs for a spree at the mall.
As they traveled the countryside, leaves rattled across the road in front of the car. Fields of ripe barley rippled in the breeze. A herd of antelope grazed beside the roadside. Combines waited to harvest, parked atop the rolling hills like guards against the sky.
After an hour or so, the farmland gave way to subdivisions. Traffic began to pass them at speeds that made Theia dizzy. "Can we go to the pet store first?" Heidi glanced up from the game of hangman she and Kate were playing in the backseat.
"I want the music store first." Kate drew an arm on Heidi's hanging body.
Joe readjusted the rearview mirror so he could see the girls. "Guess you two are going to have to take turns."