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Sugar Plum Ghosts
“Are you sure you’re okay here by yourself? It is Christmas Eve, after all.”
Remnants of glitter still dotted Lily’s eyelids and trailed down her cheeks like sparkly tears, even after she’d scrubbed off the rest of her stage makeup. The girl appeared to glow in the dim dressing room, where half the bulbs had blown out during the Nutcracker’s month-long run. Management probably wouldn’t replace them till next year, which was, after all, only a week away.
“I’m sure,” Nell answered, wondering if her own glitter-tinged cheeks made her look as ethereal as Lily. More likely Nell had mascara running down her face, like some vampiric refugee from the wrong holiday, but her appearance would remain a mystery—she didn’t feel like appraising herself in the mirror again tonight. “Danny will be here any minute to meet me,” Nell lied. “I promised to give him a private tour of the theater.”
Lily’s eyes narrowed, highlighting even more silver sparkle. “But he didn’t come to the performance?”
“He had to do some Christmas Eve thing with his family.” Nell looked away from Lily’s gaze, toward the costume rack overflowing with tutus, ruffles threatening to escape like stuffing from a torn teddy bear.
Lily shrugged and hefted her duffle bag over her shoulder. “Well, I wouldn’t stay here by myself. You know the ghost is on the prowl this time of year.” She headed for the door, then gave one last glance back at Nell. “And one of these days, you’ll have to finally introduce me to Danny.”
The door shut behind Nell, and she exhaled with relief. The exhaustion of completing her thirtieth night in a row as a Snowflake and Dewdrop hit her all at once, and she sank right down onto the cold tile floor in her ratty sweatpants. Finally, she was alone in the old historic theater where the Nutcracker had been performed every holiday season since the 1950s. And no one was coming to meet her.
Danny didn’t exist. How could he, when Nell had devoted the last eighteen years of her life—since she was eleven years old, too old to start ballet, and she regularly cursed her mother for not enrolling her in classes a few years earlier—to the dream of dancing? There was no room for a boyfriend in a world of morning rehearsals and late-night performances, bloody feet to bathe in the evenings and restaurant dinners skipped because every gram of sugar and fat had to be counted. And now here she was, twenty-nine years old and still in the corps, her time left to become Odette or Coppelia or the Sugar Plum Fairy quickly running out.
That was why she was here, tonight, after everyone else had left: not in spite of the ghost Lily had warned her about, but because of it. Legend had it that this theater was haunted by the ghost of a dancer who had suffered some terrible accident during a performance of the Nutcracker many years ago. A piece of scenery had fallen from the rafters, it was whispered, and knocked right into the head of a poor girl in the corps de ballet. She had fallen and broken her neck. No matter that there was no official record of such an accident to be found; it had happened, the dancers and choreographers and stagehands all insisted, and what made it a true tragedy was that this dancer herself had somehow arranged for the scenery to fall. She had meant for it to plummet to the stage during the Sugar Plum Fairy’s solo, when the soloist would be pirouetting in the same spot for a good minute or two. It hadn’t been intended to kill her, only to hit an arm or leg, cause her to break or sprain something. Just enough of an injury to sideline the Sugar Plum Fairy for a few days, so that her understudy—the very girl who had perished instead—would have a chance to perform the role.
But somehow, the dancer’s plan had gone awry, the scenery had fallen at the wrong moment, and now her guilty ghost haunted the theater, humming the theme of the Sugar Plum Fairy and making the prop trees and giant lollipops and candy canes tumble over once in a while.
Though this ghostly ballerina had no name, over Nell’s many years performing in this theater, she had invented one for her: Emily. Whenever Nell watched this year’s Sugar Plum Fairy extend her leg in an arabesque Nell could never match, and her heart ached with longing, she felt a cold but comforting little hand rest on her shoulder. She knew the ghost she called Emily had something to tell her, and while she wasn’t sure she was ready to resort to sabotage, Nell was willing to listen.
Now that she was here, though, Nell didn’t know quite what to do. Should she make her way out to the stage, perform her own solo in sweatpants and smeared makeup, for a ghostly audience? Would Emily magically gift her with the talent she’d always lacked, the ability to transform her movements into magic and flight, so that she might finally become a soloist, a true ballerina?
Nell pushed herself back to her feet, groaning at her sore muscles, when—
—all at once, the remaining bulbs in the dressing room sizzled out. The darkness seemed so much deeper than those moments on stage when the curtains were closed, the spotlights were off and the dancers waited, frozen, for the lights and the audience’s eyes to bring them to life. This new darkness felt…final, somehow. Eternal. Nell shivered.
The heat in the building must have turned off too.
Nell fumbled her way to the vanity table where she’d left her phone, skittered her fingers past makeup bag and hairbrush and bobby pins till she found it and tapped the screen.
No illumination followed. She picked it up, tapped it a few more times, harder, pressed all the buttons on the side separately and then at once. For a moment, an empty battery symbol flickered like a warning, then even that extinguished. Nell knew she’d had a full battery just a few minutes ago, and she’d left her charger at home. Maybe someone else had left a charger here, but with the blackness so thick she could barely see the rectangle of the phone before her, searching for one seemed pointless.
What could she do now? Head to the stage as she’d planned, she supposed, though she doubted she could get there without banging into something. She took a few steps in the direction of what she hoped was the door, wished she had bothered to slip shoes over the fuzzy socks she was wearing, and paused when she heard a faint humming from behind her.
That tune seemed familiar… Something she had heard rumors of, but never experienced herself… Yes, she was sure now, a certainty that hit her like a shiver up her spine. It was the theme of the Sugar Plum Fairy, still as bell-like as when it was played by the orchestra, but slow and breathy and sad. The sound came closer, and along with it the image of a Sugar Plum Fairy materialized from the darkness and swam before her eyes—no, not one dancer but many. Some in sparkling white tutus and others in purple or pink, some with wide smiles and others with anxious, exhausted eyes behind the glitter, and finally, one woman with her limbs wilting mid-arabesque, joints snapping like a marionette’s, crying in pain as she crumpled to the ground.
A deep, aching cold rushed into Nell’s body like smoke, hollowing out her limbs, freezing her on the spot. She felt bony hands on her bare shoulder—why hadn’t she pulled a sweatshirt over her tank top?—and this time, there was no comfort to the ghost’s touch.
She had to get out of here. As the vision before her eyes dissolved into darkness again, she broke free from her trance and ran for the front door of the theater, no longer caring about bumping into anything or the duffle bag she was leaving behind. She had her car keys, and the rest could wait till tomorrow.
Nell ran, and behind her the sounds of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s song trailed after her, the notes cracking, turning raspier and raspier, like a broken music box. Cold filled Nell till she was sure her own bones would snap like twigs. She made it through the dressing room door, along the hallway to the stage, then she flung herself down the steps to one side and landed on hands and knees on the carpet. She picked herself up and ran faster, faster down the aisle, till her body collided with the wall and her hand clasped a door handle. The humming was almost against her ear, now, as she flew through the lobby, her sock-covered feet slipping across the old black-and-white tiles, guided by the sight of streetlights and softly falling snow through the exterior door.
She grabbed the door handle and yanked, but it didn’t budge. She tried the opposite door.
Nell’s breath was a heavy animal in her chest, the sound of it so loud she barely registered that the humming had stopped. With the light from outside, she examined the double doors from top to bottom, their modern plexiglass a new addition to the old theater. She searched for any mechanism she could turn, any way to free herself from this prison. There was nothing.
She slumped to the floor again, leaning her head against the cold glass, watching the snowflakes come to rest on the sidewalk outside like a caress she couldn’t quite reach. Why hadn’t she considered they might lock the doors from the inside? Why hadn’t she realized what a supremely terrible idea this all was?
You didn’t want to spend another Christmas Eve alone in your tiny apartment, a voice whispered to her. Not her voice—this one was old-fashioned, high and breathy and girlish, like the voice that had hummed. It might not be Nell’s voice, but Nell knew the words were true.
Nell looked away from the front door, into the lobby’s gloom. “So what do I do now?” she asked. Out of the darkness, a thin, wavering form coalesced: a girl in a white leotard and tutu and pointe shoes, her head tilted a little too far to the left. If she could only have straightened her neck, she would have been beautiful, but instead it seemed to wobble above the sharp line of her clavicle as if her body were about to snap right in two.
“E— Emily?” Nell whispered.
The ghost answered with a voice like an old, worn-out music box: How did you know my name? With each word, her head listed further to the left.
“Can you help me get out of here?” Nell asked desperately. She no longer cared so much about becoming the Sugar Plum Fairy, or the heroine of Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake; she just wanted to go home. Her apartment was empty, but at least it wasn’t haunted.
No, Emily said, you’re exactly where you need to be. She reached one wispy arm toward Nell. Come with me.
Nell wanted to stay right where she was, in the one spot where some illumination cut through the shadows, but she felt herself rising again as if her limbs were no longer her own. At least the stiffness in her muscles had faded, though the cold remained—it was turning her numb.
Nell felt her legs pulling her forward, each step slow and deliberate, leg straightening, toe pointing, foot hitting the ground toe-arch-heel, as if she were on stage before an audience, making her way to her spot before the music kicked in and the choreography began. She tried to pull back a few times, back toward the door and the light, but each time she did so a snap ran through her muscles, from her toes all the way up to her thighs. She didn’t want to end up broken on the floor like the vision she’d seen, so she stopped struggling.
They crossed the lobby tiles, the ghost girl with the tilted head in front and Nell a few feet behind, and as they neared the doors to the theater itself, Nell realized it was lit again—not the full, comforting house lights she so longed for, but a faint glow that seemed to come from the stage. The ghost—Emily—reached the door and instead of pulling it open, she passed right through it, her white-clothed form obscuring itself in the glass and then reappearing on the other side. She turned and beckoned to Nell with one bony hand, her wrists so slender the bones and blue veins protruded, spotlighted in the glow of the stage lights. As though in a trance, Nell reached for the door handle and pulled it open.
Inside, she heard the sounds of an orchestra and, stranger still, laughter. The rows of velvet-lined seats, which had been empty just minutes before, were full of onlookers chuckling at whatever was going on onstage. Women in dresses and stockings and heels, men in suits and little kids squirming in puffy skirts and high-buttoned shirts. Their clothing didn’t look too old-fashioned, though. When she was a kid, Nell remembered, fifteen or twenty years ago, people used to dress up to go to the theater. Tonight, she’d seen far too many sweatshirts and jeans in the audience.
Nell looked over the full house, confused, and then—she gasped. Nell’s mother, her mother who should be in another state right now, preparing to celebrate Christmas with her other children who had settled down and produce the requisite grandkids, was sitting in the audience. Her hair was auburn without a trace of gray, her face unlined, the skin taut rather than sagging with gravity’s inexorable pull, the way it had been the last time Nell went home to visit. Beside her was a small boy kicking his legs and playing with a Nintendo Game Boy with the sound off—
That little asshole! Nell thought automatically, knowing without understanding how it was possible that she was looking at a much younger version of her brother.
A sudden dagger of cold caught Nell’s shoulder, and she cried out—then covered her mouth immediately. Don’t worry, said the slow, raspy voice of Emily beside her, one hand on Nell, they can’t hear you. Look up there. The ghost tried to incline her chin toward the stage, but with her head tilted so far to one side, the gesture came out stunted.
Still, Nell gazed up at the stage, just as she registered what melody the orchestra played: Mother Ginger. And she knew what she would see, before she took it in: the gargantuan figure of Mother Ginger, her monstrously large skirt in shades of garish orange, and the children in little blue dresses emerging from underneath. One of whom was her.
Yes—she could recognize herself immediately by the fact that she was a little taller than the others, too old for this role, and yet her legs were not quite as straight when she leaped, her toes not as pointed, her arm movements jerkier than those of the other, younger children. She could see, even from this distance—or perhaps the painful memories made it clearer—her little face screwed tight with concentration, trying desperately not to forget any of the movements, unable to lose herself in the joy of the choreography the way the other dancers could. They had only given her this part because they felt sorry for her, Nell was sure.
Nell looked up into the face of Mother Ginger, a twenty-something male dancer in drag, with two ruby-red cheeks, crimson lips and a French aristocrat’s towering white wig. Mother Ginger pouted and primped, gazing into her hand mirror and throwing her head back in a long, wild laugh.
Laughing at me, Nell was suddenly certain. The way all the other dancers laughed at her when her inexperience forced her to take classes with students years younger than her, when she turned in the wrong direction, grew dizzy and stumbled out of pirouettes, wobbled on her weak ankles. It had taken years of extra practice to catch up to where she was supposed to be. Maybe, if she was truthful with herself, she never had quite caught up.
The bony hand tightened on Nell’s shoulder. She tried to pull away but found herself, once again, unable to move. The ghost’s other hand pointed to the audience, and Nell’s gaze followed the skeletal fingers back to the sight of her mother, who studied the stage with a satisfied smile on her lips. Was that…pride? It made the cold in Nell’s bones defrost for a moment, just a moment, and she took half a step toward her mom—
And the cold came back, stronger, icing her bones till she couldn’t bend her legs. How foolish could she be? What did it matter if her mother had been proud of her? That misguided pride wouldn’t give Nell the power to soar across the stage, to defy gravity in great leaps and pirouettes, to enrapture the audience like the Sugar Plum Fairy.
Nell turned to the stage, where the children were scurrying back beneath Mother Ginger’s skirts. She remembered how hard it had been to breathe, under there; how dark and disorienting it had felt, beneath the wooden framework holding up Mother Ginger’s skirts like a cage, trapping the children inside. Her own breath grew short and shallow, now, as the last of the children disappeared and Mother Ginger laughed again, a cackle so loud it drowned out the violins’ cheerful song and the audience’s applause. The white-and-red face paint ran down Mother Ginger’s cheeks in big wet smears, her wig began to deflate and almost seemed to melt, and still the monstrous woman laughed. She picked up her pocket mirror, looked at the ruined remnants of her face, opened her big-toothed mouth wide and laughed and laughed and laughed.
I was one of Mother Ginger’s children too, you know, Emily said from beside Nell. Nell could hear her quiet voice because the laughter and applause and music had all stopped. The theater was dark and empty and cold again, the dim bulbs along the edge of the floor providing the only trace of light, and Nell wasn’t sure when it had happened. For three years, Emily went on. Then I was a Snowflake, and a Dewdrop, and a Flower, and I worked and worked and worked, I stayed in the studio late at night to practice after everyone was gone, and still, no one ever looked at me. They only saw Clara leaping into the Prince’s arms, the Sugar Plum Fairy pirouetting like a perfect doll. Emily’s broken head bobbed sideways with every word. At least your mother looked at you.
Nell didn’t know what to say to that.
Emily pivoted and walked toward the darkened stage, and Nell again found herself, against her own volition, following behind. She tried not to look at the girl’s misshapen neck, and instead focused on her white leotard and thin, elegant arms, her tattered white tutu, long legs and—
Oh dear. The ghost’s pointe shoes were unraveling with each step she took, spreading pink ribbon trails along the floor. The left shoe had fallen apart till a toe protruded, and in the faint light Nell saw not skin, but bone.
She decided to look somewhere else.
Back to the stage, where a spotlight had appeared, revealing a scene too intricate to have been created by any ballet production’s props. She could see the outlines of an old, worn-out living room, stuffing escaping from a rip in the sofa and the coffee table marred by stains and rings. Still, it looked cozy, with a fire in the hearth and a little Christmas tree strung with white lights before it. Nell closed her eyes and when she opened them the room was full of people she recognized, her mother—her hair gray and skin lined again—her brother and sister and their spouses, her nieces and nephews under the tree fighting over presents. “You can each open one tonight,” Nell’s mother said, and little Cathy—who was taller than she’d been when Nell saw her last summer, during the ballet company’s sabbatical—held up a sloppily wrapped package. “This one says it’s from Aunt Nell!”
Nell realized with a pang in the pit of her stomach that the curly-haired, beribboned doll she’d sent for Cathy, the one the salesgirl had assured her was their best seller this year, was entirely wrong for this girl wearing a Star Wars T-shirt beneath her punky new pixie cut. She turned away before she could see any more, suddenly furious. “What is this?” she spat at Emily. “Some corny Christmas Carol shit where I learn about all the love I’ve been missing, and discover the error of my ways just in time for a storybook ending on Christmas morning?”
Emily simply widened her eyes at Nell. The ghost’s eyeballs were cataracted, white and milky. She inclined her head awkwardly toward the stage again.
Nell turned back to see the spotlight over her family had dimmed, and a new light was rising on the opposite side of the stage, shining upon a dull, nearly empty living room. No pictures hung on the walls, no rug softened the wooden floor; there was only a sofa even rattier than the one in her mother’s home, a small TV playing It’s a Wonderful Life opposite, and curled onto the couch, a familiar form: Antoinette, the girl who’d danced the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in tonight’s performance. She was beautiful, with long, lithe limbs and delicate features, but her skin was pale and her cheeks mottled as though she had been crying. She hugged her knees into herself, gazing wistfully at the bumbling, unlikely angel on the screen.
“Really?” Nell turned back to Emily, trying to avoid the sight of her listing neck, and looked down too far again to see one pointe shoe had unwound completely, and the tights swathing her legs were peeling off. Beneath the tulle of her tutu was nothing but white, glistening bone.
“What is this supposed to teach me?” Nell asked. “That being prima ballerina won’t make me happy either? Give me a break. Happiness is an illusion—flash back to that other scene right now, and I’m sure there’ll be a screaming, inconsolable child who didn’t get the toy they want, and a parent wondering why they worked hard at a thankless office job all year just to buy something their ungrateful kid throws across the room. Fuck happiness. Give me a moment of beauty—at least Antoinette had that earlier tonight.”
Nell found herself out of breath from her little speech. Ever since Emily had appeared, breathing had been getting harder and harder, as if she were standing outside in the midst of a snowstorm and the air was laced with crystals of ice. Emily shrugged, and her ear drooped against her raised shoulder, and Nell worried the ghost wouldn’t be able to lift her head up again. But she did, if only a few inches. She extended one arm, and Nell saw that the skin was starting to peel off like the tights on her legs had, revealing sinew and bone. The ghost was unraveling before her eyes.
That arm gestured to the stage, and Nell, accustomed now to the inability to direct her own limbs, found herself drifting up the stairs and onto the familiar wood surface. Before tonight, though, she’d never stood on it in sweatpants and fuzzy socks. The spotlight over Antoinette’s apartment had winked out, and another spotlight had spread across the center of the stage, revealing only empty air and a few lost dust motes. Without a single word from Emily, Nell knew this light was for her.
Nell walked slowly, tentatively toward the light, toe-heel, toe-heel, and with each step she felt control over her limbs returning to her. This was her chance, she realized—her chance to show whoever was out there, orchestrating all this, what she was capable of. If she could do this right, right here, right now, then next year she would be performing the same steps in a glittering costume, for an adoring audience. Maybe her family would even make the trip to see her. Christmas Yet-to-Come.
Just as her left foot penetrated inside the light, the first notes of the celesta—that music box-like instrument Tchaikovsky had chosen for his Sugar Plum, his fairy queen—pierced the quiet. The melody tiptoed around her like the pitter-patter of invisible feet. She stepped inside the spotlight so it encompassed all of her, and, though she felt a little silly in her tank top and sweatpants, she began to move.
Nell pranced delicately, elegantly along to the music-box melody, landing only on her toes, lifting one pointed foot after another into possé and arabesque. She knew the choreography by heart, even though she’d never been an understudy in this role—she knew it from all the years spent watching from the sidelines, jealousy growing and raging and hardening in her heart, pumping through her limbs and solidifying them till they felt stiff and heavy. Maybe that was why she had never become the dancer she’d hoped to be, despite all the practice and sacrifice and desperate wishes; maybe the jealousy had been weighing her down. Now, though, all that weight was releasing, until she could almost float away.
The music sped up, faster than Nell had ever heard it before, and she twirled in soutenu after soutenu until the dark world beyond the spotlight blurred before her eyes. She waited for the dizziness to hit, for her legs to betray her and topple to the floor, but instead it seemed she could spin forever. Then came the arabesque, the chaîné turns across the stage, whirling and whirling till her feet no longer touched the floor. She rose higher, higher, her heart racing, the music pulsing quicker and quicker in time with her heartbeat, till she could see the small misshapen form of Emily far below. Nell’s limbs opened up with each inch she climbed, and she added impromptu leaps to the choreography, her legs stretching into perfect splits high above the ground. Finally, finally, she could move with freedom and beauty, and it felt so close to flying that she hardly cared if no one was there to see it.
Below, she heard a clack, and looked down to see Emily was standing center stage now. Her left hand, all bone, had fallen from her body and landed on the floor, but from the heights where she danced, Nell couldn’t seem to muster much concern. Then, clack, Emily’s right hand went, bones clicking against each other as they hit the stage. Her left arm below the elbow. Her right arm all the way to the shoulder socket.
Nell’s body sunk a little mid-pirouette, and she tried to leap herself higher again.
Below, Emily’s left leg broke off below the knee, then the right one. She somehow landed balancing on her kneecaps, the tutu spread wide to conceal the pile of bones growing around her, so that from far enough away, she could be just another elegant kneeling dancer.
Nell’s body sunk a few more inches. A hint of cold crept back into her limbs, and she realized, suddenly: Emily is holding me up here, somehow. If she falls apart, I will plummet.
Nell tried, now, to leap not up but down, to descend by degrees rather than suffer the fall she feared was coming. Her heart still beat to the notes of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s song, which had only grown louder and more frantic, but panic had replaced excitement. She could see the exposed vertebrae of Emily’s neck cracking, separating, and she knew if the head fell it would all be over.
I’m sorry, Emily spoke, in a voice that was half air rushing between bones, the words released from a mouth that was mostly skull. I really am. But I’ve been trapped here for so long, and if I wanted to leave…
I had to find a replacement.
Nell’s heart stopped, then, as she watched Emily’s skull tip entirely off her throat, as she watched the ghost crumble into a pile of bones beneath a cloud of white tulle. Nell was still suspended at least fifteen feet in the air, and she sensed the inexorable pull of gravity returning.
The day after Christmas, all the dancers could talk about was how Nell had disappeared so suddenly, with a week of Nutcracker performances left to go, and absolutely no explanation. Some said she’d had a change of heart about spending Christmas away from her family, that she’d driven all night to surprise her mother on Christmas morning, and then decided to stay and get out of the thankless dance world for good. But others noticed the props falling left and right, the curtain malfunctioning, the almost imperceptible hum of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s song under all the ordinary chatter.
The ghost was on the prowl, and whether her name was Emily or Nell, or whether she even had a name worth remembering at all, no one could tell.
This story previously appeared in Winter Wonders Anthology, Skullgate Media.
Edited by Marie Ginga