He had holes in his shoes.
It took me six weeks of sleepless nights to figure that out. Six weeks of us creeping from our bedroom through the hidden door behind the big screen TV, six weeks of relentless tunes that made my heart trip over itself, six weeks of dancing until the soles of my sneakers wore paper thin and finally straight through.
It took him that long to ask the question that I should’ve asked. His shoulders were hunched up, uncertain, when he asked it. “Why do you dance with me and my brothers?”
We had stopped to catch our breath, sitting on the edge of a stone wall that held in the sea of red flowers edging the dance floor. “My brothers and me,” I corrected, though it was still not right. The other eleven boys of varied height and color and skill were not his brothers any more than the eleven girls that came with me were my sisters. We were siblings for marketing purposes (twelve girls in all different sizes and races! Collect them all!), adopted to emphasize my parents’ sacrificing and giving natures.
“We have to dance,” I said, simply. The music was already calling me towards it again, trying to drag me away from the wall and the conversation.
He nodded at this obvious truth, staring at the floor. He too was fighting the music, his fingers tapping rapidly on his leg with the effort of sitting still. He’d told me once that his name was Gabriel. In between that and his blonde curls, I’d always though of him as angelic. My dad would’ve used him to advertise cell phones. Cute face, pretty hair, beautiful hands.
Gabriel twisted his ankles this way and that, to stretch them, and that was when I saw the holes in the bottoms of his shoes. White socks peeking through dark soles.
His poor, worn shoes made me tell the truth. “I thought you made us. You and your brothers.”
Gabriel’s curly head jerked towards me, and I noticed, for the first time, how deep the circles beneath his eyes had gotten. “I thought it was you. You and your sisters.”
The shock of that made my almost-dancing body still for a second. “No way. I know the fairy tale. It says that the sisters couldn’t help themselves. That’s us. That the faerie lovers made the girls dance with them all night. That’s you, the faeries.”
I just stared at him.
The music screamed at us: move, twist, spin, leap.
Gabriel had to get up, face pained. He held a beautiful hand out towards me, fingers trembling with his desire to dance. “I swear I’m not. Dance with me. Don’t make me dance alone.”
I knew how he felt. Some nights, only eleven of the boys came, and one of us girls would go partnerless. There was nothing more terrifying than being seized by that savage music by yourself. There was no joy in dancing alone, just the overwhelming and undeniable passion to move with the merciless music.
So I danced with him, endless relief in giving into the music, and he held me close enough that I could say into his ear, “So if you’re not and I’m not. . .”
Gabriel didn’t answer for several long minutes – we were both too out of breath to speak anyway, dipping and swaying and spinning. At the end of a spin, he pulled me close, too rough to be romantic, and whispered, “Your shoes. I saw them today. You’ve got holes in them.”
Of course I did. I’d been dancing every night for six weeks. I didn’t realize what he meant until I saw that he was looking past me at the other dancers. I started to watch my sisters and his brothers dance around us. I watched their arms, wrapped around each other, and wondered if Gabriel and I looked like that while we danced, so . . . absorbed. Their heads thrown back, hair flying, cheeks flushed, eyes brilliant as jewels or squeezed shut with the thrill of it. Their perfect shoes, kicked out behind them as they leapt across the floor.
No holes. No holes in any of them.
It was like that turned a little switch in my head, and suddenly I saw other clues. No dark circles beneath their eyes. No shaking limbs. No crippling exhaustion after six weeks of sleepless nights.
Suddenly I didn’t feel like dancing.
It took a lifetime, but the brothers and sisters wheeled to a halt. They looked at us, and the only holes I could see were the dark ones of their eyes.
**engraving by John Faed, “Tam O’Shanter & the Witches”