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The Last Dance


by jokerhahaazzz

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It was a lovely night out, bright and sparkling and young, with a full harvest moon that hung low over the empty streets. They laughed as they ran down the sidewalk, reveling in this moment where nothing mattered and no one was watching, and none of the usual rules seemed to apply. Years later Marilyn would remember that night, how everything seemed sharper and more real, as though some imperceptible veil had been lifted from the screen of life. Charlie was so handsome, a dapper blue Lutari in his evening suit, and Marilyn shrieked with laughter as she tried to hold her hat on and save her dress from the whipping wind. She felt like a child again, young and fresh and slender and elegant in her green silk. She knew she was looking her best tonight, and her dress was as nice, every bit as nice as when she’d first worn it four years ago; and really her hat wasn’t so shabby after all, though it had once been Mrs. Pendler’s.

     At last their high spirits subsided a little, even if it was simply a containment of outward excitement; the feeling of profound, marvelous elation remained beneath. Marilyn walked at Charlie’s side with her arm in his, savoring every breath of the cold sweet air. “This isn’t the right way at all to go to an evening party,” she told him with her bewitching smile. “Not properly dignified, you know.”

     “Oh, I know,” he agreed. “We should have a carriage and four Whinnies, really, and draw up to the door with liveried servants.”

     “Only this is so much more amusing.”

     It wasn’t at all the right word for it, and he knew it and she knew it, but understanding ran between them like a current of invisible energy and Charlie needed no better term to know exactly what she meant. So he simply said, “Yes.”

     “Not like real life at all,” she continued dreamily. “I almost feel that – that anything might happen. And yet I’ve been to hundreds of these dinner parties – I wonder what makes this one so special?”

     Charlie shook his head and said, “It just is.” And she understood perfectly: there was no sense in trying to answer that question. The whole of the night was far more than its component parts. Picked apart it would be nothing, just another night. All the same ingredients could mix a thousand times, but they might never produce the same result again. She felt a little thrill thinking about this, although at the same time there was an element of fear to the very thrill – she knew that this moment, as all other moments, would soon slip away, and she was afraid that there might never be another one quite like it.

     As they walked up the final street the warm golden windows of the Dawson house seemed to welcome them, and the light strains of music reached their waiting ears. Even through her bliss Marilyn felt a vaguely uneasy sensation – some small part of her demanded wonderingly how she could be so happy, when she knew what she had come here to do; the little envelope in her pocket was like a foreign presence, weighing down on her almost physically as if it were made of lead. But the thought of this was so incongruous with the night itself that she almost forgot about it, and for the moment she was perfectly, utterly content.

     Once she entered the house’s tall-ceilinged hallway among the crush of people, real life began to reassert itself, and she could feel the moment slipping away. She didn’t know whether Charlie felt the same; it was impossible to hear or be heard in the crowd. Marilyn felt suddenly stifled, suffocated, urgently in need of a moment alone. It was dangerous to enter this situation without being in command of herself. She had at least to reflect, to steady her nerves and steel her will. “I’m going to go to the powder room,” she shouted at him over the roar. She couldn’t even be sure that he’d heard her, but at any rate he nodded his acquiescence, and she escaped the main hall.

     In the quiet of the powder room she drew out the envelope from her pocket and looked it over once. Then her eyes met her image in the mirror, and for a moment she was caught, lost in the contemplation of what she was doing and why she was here. A slender, green-eyed brown Zafara gazed back at her like the face of a stranger. It was a pretty face, moderately so; more pleasing than most, with certain latent indications of intelligence and humor in the lines of the eyes and mouth. A face nearing the end of its prime, with the incipient signs of a thirtieth year, an age when its owner should have been settled down and with family. But the dress and the hat, which looked somehow incomparably shabbier here in this dim harsh light than they had under the moon, told the tale. Their wearer’s was a life of ease, but not of luxury; and her face, for all its pleasing qualities, had nothing really memorable about it. Marilyn Hawthorne neither offended nor delighted. Everyone was always glad to see her, and yet she knew that none of them would miss her if she were absent. No one except Charlie, her dearest friend, her confidant, her companion and protector since childhood.

     What was wrong with her, she wondered, that she seemed condemned always to live life on the sidelines? What was it that made a person unmemorable? Perhaps she simply wasn’t meant for drawing rooms and card parties, but what else was there?

     Oh, she thought with sudden anguish, to be brilliant and lovely and unforgettable – to be like Valerie Dawson.

     ***

     When Marilyn rejoined everybody else in the drawing room, she knew exactly where to look for Charlie. But she was sorry to find him there. He was seated in the place of honor by Valerie Dawson, talking and laughing with her over appetizers and glasses of punch. For herself Marilyn could only command a distant corner, like a moth beating furiously at the outside of a window, doomed never to reach the light inside. She looked around the room, and everybody was faded and dull except for the spotlight that centered on Valerie Dawson. And on Charlie.

     Valerie, of course, looked as lovely as ever tonight. She was a soft white Wocky with soft white lines, dressed in a breathtaking silver gown that draped over her shapely round shoulders and cinched in at her tiny waist. Every movement was graceful, every moment poised; and she gazed at Charlie with such beautiful blue eyes that it was impossible to see how he could look anywhere else. Indeed it was clear that he, too, found it impossible.

     With a little maneuvering and a few insincere apologies, Marilyn managed to position herself close enough to hear what the two of them were saying. She could not have said why she wanted to hear. She did not want to hear, she told herself, she would sooner be doing anything else in the world, and yet here she was, sitting between Mrs. Brown and Miss Garth, listening to the conversation of the only two people in the room who really mattered.

     “It’s really such a lovely night, isn’t it?” Valerie was saying in her soft sweet voice.

     “Yes,” Charlie agreed rapturously. “I don’t know why, but it just is.” Somewhere inside of Marilyn, the green monster she had been trying so hard to quell reared its ugly head.

     “I am so glad you could come. I know it’s silly of me, but somehow it just wouldn’t have been the same without you.”

     “Oh, Valerie! How you could think I would miss it!” he exclaimed.

     She would do it, she knew that now. She would go through with it.

     ***

     Marilyn had waited in dull, hopeless anticipation for the first dance. Everybody was dividing into pairs, and there was nothing to look forward to; oh, somebody would ask her, to be sure, but nobody she cared about and nobody anyone else cared about either. Just another blurred face in the crowd, another dim reflection like her. There would be none of that shining brilliance that always surrounded Valerie Dawson – not for her.

     And yet all of this was forgotten in an instant when Charlie appeared before her, holding out his hand and saying, “Shall we?” Never had any vision seemed sweeter to Marilyn as she took the offered hand, smiling in such delight that the radiance spread over all the rest of her features too. How could she have doubted him, after all? Charlie had promised her the first dance; and he had always kept his promises, every single one of them, since they were eight years old. Since the day they’d met, he had been her dearest, truest friend. And he still was.

     She had thought she was happy before, in the crisp night air on the way here, but even that was nothing compared to the exquisite delight she felt just at this moment. What had seemed crowded, suffocating and insignificant only seconds ago now appeared brilliant and warm and beautiful, and somehow Marilyn knew that if she lived to be a hundred she would never have another dance like this one. The two of them spun around, heedless of time, heedless of space as though they were the only two people left in the world. For the first time in her life, Marilyn felt that the light was shining on her, and she wished for nothing more.

     But the dance soon ended, as all dances must, and Charlie took his leave with a smile and a wink. “I suppose I’ll be dancing all night,” he told her, “a fellow just can’t get out of it. I’d go out on the balcony if I could. Do it for me, will you, have a look at the stars?”

     Marilyn watched him dance the next dance with Valerie Dawson, as the bright spark of her happiness faded to dull ashes, and then she took his advice.

     It was cool on the balcony, colder than it had been on the way. The air was no longer invigorating; it cut through her, mocking what strength she’d thought she had. You won’t do it, the wind seemed to say. You’ve never done anything worthwhile in your life. You never ask for anything because you are one of them, one of the Mrs. Browns and Miss Hollys who are too dull to imagine anything better for themselves. One dance, that’s all you’ll ever ask for.

     But no, Marilyn thought desperately, that wasn’t true.

     As if on cue, she realized that she was not alone; Valerie had come quietly through the glass doors and was leaning over the balcony, chin resting on one perfect white little hand. In the cool moonlight it was almost as though she glowed – every graceful, curving line was illuminated, and her blue eyes were oddly opaque, like still water that contained hidden depths. Marilyn wondered why she had come out here – she who was the very life of the place, and who need never be alone if she didn’t wish it.

     Valerie caught her look and smiled, leaving off her reverie to turn toward Marilyn. “I know it’s awful for me to come and hide out here during my own party, but I really couldn’t stand it a moment longer.”

     “Yes,” said Marilyn, listening in fascination as her own voice spoke. “It’s so nice to have a moment to oneself sometimes.”

     “Isn’t it just? So peaceful and nice, overlooking the city like this.” Marilyn hadn’t noticed the view before, but now she saw that it was indeed lovely: a hill sloped down from the house, first a lawn, then wooded, and finally in the distance the lights of the city were visible.

     The silence settled on them like something physical, and Marilyn could not be bothered to shake it off. She knew what she’d intended to say, and she couldn’t have arranged a more perfect opportunity for herself. And yet she still wasn’t sure she wanted to say it. It wasn’t too late, not at all; the words could be left unsaid and she could go back inside, and nobody would ever have any idea what she had meant to do.

     Except that then nothing would have changed.

     After several minutes, Valerie broke the silence. Marilyn wondered what was going on in her mind, what thoughts lay behind that beautiful face. Was she really exactly what she seemed, with no more substance to her than a magnificent burning flame? Or did she, too, have secrets – secret desires and hopes, with the troubling ideas that dogged her through every waking moment. If she did, her words gave no hint of it. “Charlie was telling me about you, you know. He said so many wonderful things I was almost jealous!” Her voice had the utter confidence of one totally without envy. “It must have been wonderful, being such great childhood friends like that.”

     She could hardly have chosen a topic less pleasing to her companion, but Marilyn realized that she had not the faintest suspicion of it. Valerie was genuinely nice, she saw. Nice and kind and polished, as truly and unaffectedly modest as she was beautiful. It was impossible to dislike her, and Marilyn hated her.

     “You know,” she said suddenly, drawing out the envelope with a strange feeling of indifference, “I think I have something that belongs to you.”

     Valerie looked at her in honest puzzlement. “But whatever could you have?”

     This was it – there was no turning back now, not after she said this. But Marilyn had a heady, reckless feeling and somehow she realized she would not be able to stop. “Oh, it’s just an envelope that I picked up by the merest chance, one day after you left Mrs. Brown’s parlor. It had no address, you see, and I had to look at the letter inside to know who it belonged to.” Frightened comprehension was beginning to dawn in Valerie’s poetic blue eyes, and for this instant alone it was worth it. “But it was so strange! It seemed to be some sort of business transaction. Not a very nice one, either.”

     “I see,” the Wocky said slowly, and there was a hint of desperation in her face that made her more beautiful than Marilyn had ever seen her. “Yes, after my poor dear father died we found that – that our financial situation was not – not what we could have wished...”

     “No, indeed. Frankly, I don’t see how you’ll ever pay off these debts. And to such a lender, too!” Marilyn experienced a kind of horror at the malicious pleasure she was getting from this, but she couldn’t help it; finally, at long last, something was going wrong for Valerie Dawson.

     “Oh, I know!” Valerie burst out unhappily, turning away to look over the balcony. “I’m so ashamed that you’ve learned about it. I really don’t know what to do. Oh, Marilyn, you don’t – you don’t blame me, do you? It was wrong of me, I know it was, only...” Those lovely blue eyes were raised in mute appeal, and Marilyn could tell that Valerie had absolute, guileless trust in her. But how could this be? How could it be that somehow, even now, Valerie was in the right and she was about to become the villain? It was almost tempting to give in to the power of Valerie’s innocent charm, to forget the whole thing and pretend to be friends again, and let everything go right for Valerie once more.

     Whatever the consequences might be, she found she could not bear that. “I’m afraid that people may blame you, right or wrong.”

     Valerie stared in dismay, clutching the balcony. “Surely, surely you’re not going to tell anybody about this? Dear Marilyn, I don’t understand! What have I...”

     “Leave,” Marilyn said harshly, almost compulsively. “Just leave here. Go. And I’ll never show anybody this letter.”

     “Go, you mean, leave... this house?” she whispered, shading her expression with her long dark lashes.

     “I mean this town, and everybody in it.”

     The moment of silence stretched between them until Valerie cut it off, straightening abruptly and holding a hand to her trembling mouth. “I don’t understand,” she said helplessly, and because there was nothing else to say she went back inside.

     Marilyn stood there, utterly still and empty. Had she won? Had she lost? She couldn’t tell; only perhaps it was, as she had somehow known from the start, an unwinnable game. She had won, yes, but she had made herself so despicable in the process that it hardly seemed like victory. You couldn’t ever really win, not with someone like Valerie. But once she was gone...! Marilyn’s heart quickened at the thought of a world without Valerie, one where the spotlight shone on her a little too, and she and Charlie would laugh and talk again the way they always had.

     “Marilyn.” The voice was close, though to her ears it sounded infinitely far away.

     She turned to face him. “Charlie – what are you doing out here? Surely the dancing hasn’t finished yet?”

     But Charlie was in no mood to talk about dancing. He was more serious and, she realized, furious than she had ever seen him. “What in the world are you trying to do? I mean what could possibly, possibly have possessed you?”

     He knows, she thought suddenly, with a thrill of terror and despair. Never, in all her imaginings, had it played out like this. It could only mean... that Valerie had told him, that Charlie was in on the secret himself and that everything Marilyn had done had been for nothing. She doesn’t deserve him, her heart cried out, she doesn’t even known him, but the words died on her lips. There was nothing left to be said.

     “I thought I knew you,” he said with a disgust so flat and total that she knew there was no use in arguing. “I really thought, after all these years... I trusted you more than anybody in the world.” Their eyes met for a moment. “I guess I was wrong.”

     ***

     Slowly, mechanically, Marilyn tore up the letter and tossed the little white pieces over the balcony, watching them flutter to the ground far below. Everything was over now; she had ruined it all. She’d never had a hope, not really. But she might have kept his friendship.

     Inside they were dancing the final dance, ball gowns swirling beneath the hundreds and hundreds of candles in the grand chandelier. She saw Charlie in the very center, with Valerie’s delicate little white hand resting in his. She would always remember him like this, she knew – in his dark suit, radiant and smiling, his brown eyes lit with a light that Marilyn knew so well. The first dance had been hers, but this one was Valerie’s.

     There would be many more nights after this one, many more parties and many more balls. There would be hundreds of other dances, but in her heart Marilyn knew this one was the last.

The End

 
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