Zürich, Switzerland – Saturday, the 2nd of June, 2012. 04:35 PM.
Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, Sarina thought as she looked out the car window and saw the throng of people clustered around the Maag Event Hall. There must have been thousands of people there—and they’d all come to see her.
Her heart took a sweeping dive to the bottom of her stomach and she sank down in her rear passenger seat. She wasn’t used to performing on stage, let alone for a crowd larger than the average birthday party guest list.
Holy cow, look at them all.
The street was so congested that it was barely passable. From the driver’s seat, Dani lightly touched the horn and a path cleared for them, then immediately closed in behind them.
As the car made its way past the front of the hall, she could see a few hundred people already lined up near the Maag’s main entrance, waiting to be admitted. Another hundred or so were lined up to try their luck at the ticket window, even though the marquee sign announced that the show was sold out.
She turned her neck to look out the windows on the driver’s side of the car. Many more people were milling around in the open square across the street from the Maag, loitering in the shadow of Switzerland’s tallest skyscraper.
Even with all the windows closed, the van was inundated with the rap and dubstep that boomed from improvised loudspeakers all around the square. As she stared at the unofficial streetdance challenge that was keeping the crowd entertained in the square, Sammy to her left caught her eye and wiggled his eyebrows in anticipation. She could barely manage a weak smile in return.
Sarina had expected an audience of a few hundred, not . . . this. And she definitely wasn’t feeling prepared, mentally or otherwise. She sank even lower into her seat until her forehead was level with the car door handle, wishing that she could disappear.
The sight of her legs contorted and her shins pressed up against the front seat, with her white velcro shoes positioned at odd angles, provoked a laugh from her seatmate.
“Uh oh, guys,” Sammy said to the others with a hint of teasing in his voice. “It seems like our newbie’s already dropping.” He spoke in Swiss German with the distinctive Bernese dialect that most of the dance crew shared.
“I’m not dropping, I’m dying,” Sarina replied, not quite sure she was kidding. Her voice drawled in the telltale way that marked her as the only person in the car who’d grown up largely in Zürich.
“Well, don’t die here. Wait until we’re on stage,” Dani suggested, his voice deadpan. Still, he caught her eye in the rear-view mirror and winked. “That would be a pretty cool move, actually. Sure to draw the judge’s attention.”
“You’re such an ass, Dani,” Kat hissed from the front passenger seat, her rightful position as the troop leader’s girlfriend. Her velvety tone gave away the fact that she didn’t really care if her boyfriend offended their new recruit.
Stefan reached ahead from the very back of the van, where he was lounging across the entire bench seat, and squeezed her shoulder. “Don’t worry. We’ll just dance around you,” he joked.
Kat stifled a laugh.
You’re not helping, homies.
Sarina straightened up in her seat in an attempt to feign confidence. She heard two successive pings coming from her cell phone and turned her attention to checking the new messages. They were from her mom. She still didn’t know when her parents were planning to arrive at the venue, but she hoped it would be soon. Now more than ever she was hoping she’d get a chance to talk to them before her impending death on stage.
Sara Bee, I’m so sorry, but Uncle Ben’s flight was delayed, the first text message said.
Nervous anticipation turned to bitter disappointment in Sarina’s stomach. She’d been really touched when her mom had arranged to fly her brother Ben in from New Zealand in time for Sarina’s performance. But now it looked like that act of kindness might keep her parents from getting to see her show. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to read the next message or not, but she scrolled down anyways.
We might not get out of the airport for a couple of hours. Can you delay the starting time of your dance? Kisses, Mom.
Sarina blinked, trying to suppress the burning sensation in her eyes. As if the event organizers would care enough about her wanting to impress her new adopted family to reschedule the whole gig.
She slipped the cellphone back into her pocket and sucked in a deep breath, then wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her shirt.
Sammy gave her a concerned look from beneath raised eyebrows. Sarina plastered a reassuring smile on her face for as long as she had his attention. When he seemed sufficiently reassured, she turned to stare out the window at the crowd, determined to hide her misery. If she let the others see her like this, they’d think she was a crybaby. Besides, the last thing she needed was to hear them trying to mollify her by saying that there was nothing to worry about. That the gig was no big deal.
The rest of the crew didn’t understand what this day meant to her, or the role that her adoptive parents had played in getting her to this point. They didn’t know where she’d been three years ago, before she’d become part of a real home and family. A family that believed in her. A family that actually wanted to keep her.
They’d paid for her dancing classes as a means of pulling her out of all the crap she’d been entangled in — all the hard drugs, the lousy boyfriends, the dead ends. Today would have been the first day she’d be able to show off her new self to them, the new family that had shown her two and a half years of nothing but effort and encouragement.
She felt a gentle nudge coming from her left. She reluctantly turned her face away from the window.
“Everything okay, Shorty?” Sammy asked, a concerned look on his face.
“All cool,” she lied, then quickly focused her attention once again on the world beyond the glass. The crowd dwindled away as Dani pulled the van onto a less populated side street lined with fashion boutiques and coffee shops. He pulled into a parking spot beside a sign informing that it was for guest parking, then cut the engine.
“It’s go time!” came Stefan’s energized voice from behind her.
Sarina stifled a groan. With her main motivator gone, she almost wished they’d keep driving. She usually loved performing, but suddenly she wasn’t sure what the point was. But she unfurled her legs and made herself step out of the van as Dani held the door for her a few seconds later.
Sarina could identify of one of her favorite dubstep tracks playing in the distance as she watched Dani pull her duffle bag from the back of the van. He slammed the back hatch and locked the vehicle with the key fob.
“You think you can hold off dying till after the performance?” Dani teased Sarina.
Kat answered for her. “Quit bugging the fill-in,” she scolded him in mock seriousness.
Sarina nearly groaned again. The last thing she needed was to be reminded that she’d just joined the D-Style troop four days ago, after one of their dancers came down with an injured Achilles.
The collective sound of the crowd — a combination of musical bass tones, the hum of voices, and the sounds of traffic — amplified as they neared the event hall. Sarina began picking out notes from one of her favorite dubstep songs. Even though she liked Kya’s Japanese electronic dance music best, this track was right up there on her list of favorites. She’d heard it so often that she’d be able to recognize it anywhere. The familiarity filled her with a sense of belonging that mercifully dimmed her stage fright to bearable levels.
“Great vibe,” Sammy noted.
Sarina found herself nodding. It was a great vibe. All those people had gathered to celebrate their lifestyle, taking the opportunity to enjoy an outdoor jam session and mingle with like-minded event goers. It was easy to get caught up in the lively, welcoming atmosphere.
I belong here, Sarina reminded herself as the soundtrack changed to a popular U.K. garage single. She smiled. These people are my people.
It was this relaxed, easygoing spirit that had originally drawn her to the scene. When she lost herself in the music and the community, she could forget the parts of her past that she didn’t want to think about.
Ahead of her, Dani and Kat pranced along to the rhythm of the garage track, occasionally stopping to bump fists and say hello to people they knew from around the scene. Sarina didn’t recognize anyone, even though Zürich used to be her city. She craned her neck, hoping to catch a glimpse of her adopted brother David. He’d bought tickets the moment he’d heard that she’d be performing with D-Style.
At least David will be here to see me dance, even if Mom and Dad miss it, she thought, feeling marginally better.
Sarina came to a halt and stood there awkwardly as Dani and Kat stopped to talk to yet another group of people they were familiar with. She was trying her best to mask her discomfort when a shirtless guy extended a hand to offer her a hand-rolled cigarette that was giving off a distinctively sweet smell.
“Yo, little sister. You going to be on stage?” the bare-chested guy asked, showing off a smile that was just a little too relaxed.
“Yeah,” she said. “With D-Style.”
The rest of the crew started moving forward. She racked her brain for ways to politely end the conversation.
“You new?” he asked her.
“Um, yeah,” she admitted, disappointed that the newbie scent was so obviously clinging to her like an invisible shadow.
“Cool.” He indicated the proffered doobie, extending his hand another few inches. “Want a drag?”
Sarina hesitated. She couldn’t deny that the idea of taking just a couple of pulls from the joint was tempting. She knew only too well how she’d feel afterwards: relaxed and ready to cope with anything.
But it would be cheating. It wouldn’t be her special moment anymore; it wouldn’t be real. It would belong to some other version of herself, a version she didn’t want to identify with anymore. Besides, she knew it would be a slippery slope — one that had the potential to lead her back down to dark places.
“S-sorry,” she stuttered. “I have to go.”
She quickened her pace to catch up with the others before she could change her mind.
Backstage, the atmosphere was tense. The queue for the dressing rooms was filled with dance troops from across Switzerland. However, there was none of the joviality that had been present in spades outside. Instead of solidarity, Sarina felt only hostility. The other dancers, it seemed, were thoroughly occupied with themselves, their appearances and routines. None of them had any positive energy to share.
Not wanting to let their rainclouds influence her own fragile mood, Sarina started to quietly sing to herself. In an attempt to bring back the good vibrations she’d felt just minutes earlier, she chose one of the upbeat tracks she remembered being played outside.
Watch me now, I’m a lady dancer,
I’ve got the swag in my blood.
Hold on tight, I’m the only dancer,
Who’s gonna rock you this good.
From the corner of her eye, Sarina noticed some eyebrows raising as she sang. Normally she would have been devastated by such open disapproval; she hated rocking the boat. But today, the stakes were too high to let her need for acceptance get in the way.
She kept on singing, focusing her effort on ignoring the other dancers’ stares and channeling her inner strength instead. She tried to imagine what one of those martial arts masters in the movies would say to her if she was some anxious novice they had to train. She came up empty, however; she hadn’t spent nearly enough time watching TV to even guess at such lines. The usual fare of after-dinner sitcoms and family movie nights had just never been on her radar; in fact, those normal family activities had been completely alien to her until two and a half years ago.
When it was finally the D-Style crew’s turn to spill into one of the changing rooms, Sarina felt relieved to be free of the judgmental stares. The change room was actually little more than a prop room with lockers along one wall, a full length mirror propped in a corner, and a large-screen television mounted above the door. On the TV, a tabloid press newscast was recycling the latest Evolved gossip.
Even though hero storylines were all the rage these days, Sarina just couldn’t relate. Sure, she did adore Shanti, perhaps because the former Bollywood singer hadn’t been graced with official hero status by the Covenant, which made her much more relatable to Sarina. In her opinion, most of the official ‘heroes’ were overrated; from what she could tell, they never did anything useful beyond motivational speeches at elementary schools. Shanti, on the other hand, was saving starving children in India—and for some reason that didn’t classify her as a hero. Go figure.
The change room was void of conversation as the dancers started to unpack their gear and got their game faces on. Kat wordlessly claimed the mirror and began unpacking her various eye shadows and creams across the small table beside it. The silence was filled with the sensationalized reporting of a British entertainment journalist coming from the television speakers.
“. . . ever since Christina Chung, who now goes by the name Mascot, has become a Warden and the latest addition to the American heroes team. Unfortunately, Mascot’s forcefields aren’t expected to be any antidote for the Sleepwalker’s ability to drive those he encounters to bloodlust. After ten months on the international media’s radar, the Sleepwalker is being held responsible for over six hundred gruesome deaths across Europe. What will it take to wake Europe from this bloody nightmare? And why isn’t the Covenant doing more to stop it? More on that after a word from our sponsors . . .”
Sarina forced herself to stop listening. She’d been creeped out by news of the Sleepwalker for months; just the night before she’d had a nightmare about him — or it, or whatever monstrous thing it was that was making its way towards Switzerland. Her monolithic government was so slow in doing anything to stop it that it had already become old news, and was only rarely featured in the media anymore. It seemed that people didn’t want to be constantly reminded about something that no one could do anything about.
Still, she couldn’t get him out of the back of her mind. Yep, the Sleepwalker was the last thing she needed to be thinking about right now.
She was busy putting her items away in a locker when she sensed movement beside her. Dani had claimed the locker next to hers and was digging his good shoes out of his sports bag.
He caught her glance and paused, meeting her eyes. “How’re you holding up, B-Fly?”
She was glad for the friendly distraction and flashed her best effort at an ‘I’m not about to screw up your routine’ smile. “Still alive.”
He snorted back a chuckle. “That’s a start.”
“I don’t know why I’m being such a basket case,” she divulged.
“Don’t worry about it. Everyone’s nervous their first time,” Dani assured her. “Remember, it’s just six seconds. You’ve got the routine down.”
Sarina managed a smile. “I just don’t want to mess this up for you guys. I mean, what if I throw everything off sync or something?”
Dani laughed. “Worse things have happened, trust me. No one’s even going to notice if you twist the wrong way. Besides, we’ll cover for you if anything goes off script.”
Kat abruptly turned away from the mirror, fake eyelash in one hand and eyelash glue in the other. “It’s just six seconds. Geez, relax already.”
“It’s not just six seconds,” she said, pulling her shoes from her sports bag. Her special treads. “It’s my six seconds, and I’m here to make them count, right?”
“Right,” Dani confirmed firmly, giving his girlfriend a hard lodok before returning his attention to Sarina. “You said your family’s coming to watch?”
Sarina felt her face fall. “Um, I don’t think my parents are going to make it.” Trying to distract herself from the thought, she watched as Sammy and Stefan jostled out the doorway and into the hallway.
Dani noticed her disappointment and touched her arm. “Hey, that’s what cell phone cameras are for. Your brother can film it for them.”
Sarina perked up at the idea.
“He’s still coming, right?” Dani checked.
“Yeah,” Sarina said, feeling a smile begin to spread across her face. “And he’s bringing his soccer club. And his buddies from uni. He bought a ton of tickets online the day he found out I was going to be performing with you guys.” She rolled her eyes. Even though she thought David was awesome, she didn’t want to come across as a braggart.
Dani grinned. “See? You’re popular. I knew you would be.”
A compact clattered down hard on Kat’s makeup table. She mumbled something that Sarina couldn’t make out. In the mirror’s reflection, Sarina could see Kat’s eyes on them.
Dani’s attention didn’t waver from Sarina. “Remember the three words that summarize hip hop?”
“I am here,” she said softly.
“What? I can’t hear you,” Dani told her.
“I am here!” Sarina said with a laugh.
Dani grinned and held up a fist. She met his knuckles with hers.
“It’s all about swag, B-Fly. All those people are rooting for you for a reason — so go out there and show everyone that you deserve to be here.”
Sarina leveled her shoulders and raised her chin, then gave Dani a mock salute. “I’ll try, boss.”
“Good,” he said, slamming his locker closed. “Now all you need to do is get ready.” His glance flickered over her body before he turned away, reminding her it was about time she changed into her gear. The others were already dressed.
Despite her feigned bravado, anxiousness still fluttered inside her stomach like a trapped bird. Sarina struggled to maintain a blank expression. Nobody appreciated an anxious newbie. And Dani had tried so hard to put her at ease; she owed it to him to at least pretend that his efforts at comfort had worked.
She smoothed her reddish-blonde braid while her mind’s eye replayed all the possible scenarios of how she’d screw this up. Throwing up on stage. Bumping into the others. Forgetting the routine and shuffling helplessly in plain sight of thousands of people.
Or, worse, having a total blackout during her six seconds of freestyle.
Dani unbuttoned his stylishly rumpled shirt and pulled the crew’s signature black t-shirt over his muscular, coffee-colored chest. “Remember, everyone’s rooting for you!” he called over his shoulder as he strode into the hallway to join Sammy and Stefan.
Over by the mirror, Kat turned her head in a slow, deliberate way. Her black-rimmed eyes affixed firmly on her boyfriend’s retreating back, then flickered over to Sarina. She held her stare without saying a word, an eyeliner pen gracefully pinned between two fingers.
“Got any cure for the jitters?” Sarina stammered, trying to make small talk.
Kat’s eyes narrowed and she said nothing.
“Right,” Sarina whispered to herself, feeling foolish. She turned her attention to putting on her shoes. They were a few months old, but Sarina took meticulous care of them; they didn’t have a single scuff on them.
The white sneakers had been a special order from Japan for her seventeenth birthday. They were a perfect match to the pair that Kya wore in her “Mesmerize” video clip. They were pure white with a dusting of iridescent glitter. Three adjoined velcro strips of varying lengths stuck out at the sides, giving the shoes the appearance of wings.
Sarina had unwrapped her gift with a squeal of glee that must have been heard by the neighbors. You’ll fly like a dove, her mother had said. Sarina had choked back tears at the metaphor; she was determined to overcome the obstacles of the past in order to make her new family proud.
She channeled her parents’ support as she sat down on the bench and pulled on her shoes. Then she exchanged her yoga pants for black parachute-style capris before pulling off her travel tank top and replacing it with a shirt that matched the crew’s look: black with the word D-Style printed across the front in stylish blue letters. Hers had an asymmetrical cut that left one shoulder bare. She tied the excess fabric into a knot at her lower back to tighten the shirt at her waist.
She’d often been told that she had the kind of face that didn’t need to be plastered with makeup, so she just moisturized and added a bit of Vaseline to her eyelids for sheen.
A quick check in the mirror over Kat’s shoulder let Sarina know she looked okay. She’d braided her hair into an ornamental pattern of convoluted rows on one side, allowing the other half to spill over her shoulder freely. It would probably get into her face, but whatever. With her parents missing from the spectators, the chances of anyone looking at her for more than six seconds ranged somewhere between ‘slim’ and ‘zero’.
Rolling her eyes at Sarina’s intrusion into her mirror space, Kat gathered up her makeup compacts and stepped away from the table. “Here,” she said, holding out a coal-black eyeliner to Sarina. “You need some of this.”
“Thanks,” Sarina said, trying not to be hurt by the abruptness in Kat’s tone.
“It’s an old one. You can keep it.”
As Kat busied herself with something in the lockers, Sarina leaned into the mirror and outlined her almond-shaped green eyes with the heavy black liner. When she was done, she took a step back to gage the effect. She didn’t really like it, but if Kat thought she should wear it, she would.
By twenty past five, everyone was more or less ready. The D-Style crew was in a warm-up space rehearsing their routine, though nobody but Sarina needed the extra minutes of practice. She’d only had a few days to study the routine and learn the moves, which was an awfully short amount of time to memorize four minutes of choreography.
Sarina groaned as she bounced left when she should have krumped right. She ran into Sammy and almost took him out.
“Sorry,” she stammered.
“No problem, Shorty,” he assured her. “You got this. Let’s try it again.”
Sarina nodded. Get your act together, she scolded herself. She checked the clock. It was five-thirty. The competition was scheduled to start at six, and D-Style would be the second crew to go on stage. Sarina couldn’t tell how the others felt about it, but she had no illusions about winning or even making it to the top five. Fortunately, she’d already learned that hip hop culture was more about putting up a good fight than taking home the win — something she could relate to even though she hadn’t always been very successful at it.
They went over the routine three more times without Sarina making a mistake. She was just getting her confidence back when the guys decided to head out for a smoke and let Kat and Sarina go over their fifteen seconds of joint performance.
Kat exhaled deeply, conveying just how little she appreciated being left alone with the newbie. Still, she stepped up next to Sarina and assumed her stance: arms bent, elbows sticking out to the sides.
“Now watch,” Kat ordered, even though Sarina had seen her do the move a hundred times.
Kat cocked one leg, then shifted her weight to build up momentum for a complex body roll. Her limbs unfurled and her hand appeared in front of Sarina’s chest, palm upturned in a gesture of offering. It was a textbook move.
Kat quickly closed her outstretched hand into a fist. “Got it? Just remember to follow my lead. Catch my move, do your thing with it, then pass it back to me. Straightforward.”
Yeah, maybe a little too straightforward, Sarina thought. Borderline boring. She’d been waiting for a chance to get more involved in team decisions, but Kat radiated a certain attitude that made it hard to disagree without coming across as bitchy.
“I had an idea,” Sarina ventured, mustering her courage. “What if we did a two-girl grind at the end? You never see it done with two girls; it’s always a girl and a guy. If we did it, it would surprise everyone.”
Kat returned a skeptical look. “You’re joking, right? That would look gay.”
“So what? It’s not like we’d be smooching.” Sarina took a deep breath and forced herself to go on; if her brother was going to be there — possibly even filming for her parents — she wanted to put on the best possible performance. “I’m just talking about joined body rolls. I think it would totally get everyone’s attention. It would be sexy, in a cool way!”
Kat didn’t respond right away. When she did, her voice had a sharp edge that caught Sarina off guard. “Sara bee, do you have any idea why my boyfriend picked you for the crew?” She contemplated her painted fingernails as she spoke.
Sarina was momentarily stunned by her crewmate’s use of her adoptive mother’s nickname for her, and hurt that one of the best things in her life was being used against her. She must have gone through my phone, Sarina realized.
“Um . . . Dani told me he picked me because I was the best fit for the routine. At least that’s what he said after the tryout, remember? You were there.”
“Oh really?” the older girl cooed. “Because we all thought Valentina was way better than you. Dani must have picked you for” — she looked Sarina’s body up and down with narrowed eyes — “some other reason.”
Sarina wasn’t sure how to respond to the implied accusation. She’d worked her butt off over the past few days to blend in the best she could, at the expense of sleep and schoolwork. Besides, she’d given a great performance at the audition. Maybe even her best ever. As far as she knew, the decision had been made fair and square; she’d earned her spot in the crew. Did Kat really think she didn’t deserve it? And Sammy and Stefan — they’d always been so nice to her. Did they think she’d stolen her place, too?
“But I . . .” she began, but then was abruptly cut off.
“So I wouldn’t try anything sexy during the performance if I was you. I’m pretty sure it might give the wrong impression.” Kat turned her attention back to her nails dismissively. “Especially since you always try so hard to be so cute about everything. Just once I’d like to hear you use the f-word. Hell, I bet you don’t even think it. Was that part of your rehab or something? ”
Sarina was stunned. Why was Kat being so unfair all of a sudden?
There was no time for her to reply even if she was able to find the words. Kat continued driving her offense; it was as if days of suppressed hostility was finally leaking through the cracks of the friendly teammate act.
“So here’s how this is going to go down. You’ve got your six seconds; do what you want with them. No one cares. The body waves you’ve practiced, or some idiotic sexy routine, or whatever. Then you get behind me and stick to the fucking routine. Got it?”
All semblance of courage she’d felt a minute ago evaporated. She just wanted to roll up in a little ball and lick her wounds. “Sure, no problem . . .” she appeased. Her voice was smaller than she would have liked.
Kat stalked off without a response, putting a premature end to the last-minute practice.
Sarina walked over to the corner and slumped down until she was crouching on the floor. As she buried her face in her knees, she could feel the crew spirit break inside of her like a frail twig.
There was no way this could possibly end well, and it was all her fault. She must have accidentally sent out the wrong signals during practice or at one of the meet-ups afterwards. Her parents had been so proud of her dancing, and she was letting everyone down again.
Sarina groaned. She wished there was something she could do about the fact that guys always sort of . . . liked her.
Not that she understood why. Yeah, she got along with people. But she wasn’t the cool, confident type of girl that guys tended to fall for. And she still had that foster kid stigma hanging around her neck, not to mention the rumors of drug addiction that still followed her, none of which did anything to help her social status. So why guys would take a second look was beyond her.
After a minute of contemplation, Sarina began to calm down. She realized that these questions were too big for right now. At the moment, what she really needed was to get back to basics: doing her best to not look like an idiot on stage. If she really knocked it out of the park, then maybe even Kat would realize that she’d earned her spot on the crew.
Sarina’s anxiety made a comeback five minutes before D-Style’s stage entrance, infecting her with a ripple of heat that caused her fingers to flutter against the fabric of her pants. They had just gathered in the antechamber beside the main stage to watch the opening gig, Eleventh Era. They were scheduled to go on next.
The timing was terrible. The heat coursing through Sarina’s body deepened, transforming her legs to absolute pudding. The rest of the crew turned from Eleventh Era’s performance when Sarina’s legs buckled, bringing her down to her knees and causing her to lose any sense of physical connectivity to her surroundings. The worst headache she’d ever experienced shot through her temples with searing intensity, then disappeared.
Stefan’s hands caught her arms, controlling her fall before she collapsed sideways. Looking up at his face, she could see that his eyes were wide with concern. “Shit, Sarina. Are you okay?”
“I think so,” she murmured in a feeble voice. “My legs are just kinda . . . wobbly.”
Suddenly Dani’s concerned face was just inches from hers. “You’ve had lunch, right?”
Sarina nodded weakly.
“Are you nauseous?” Sammy asked, looking down at her with compassion.
From over Dani’s shoulder, Sarina caught a glimpse of Kat rolling her eyes. “No,” Sarina answered Sammy’s question. “My stomach is fine. I think. Yeah, I’m good. I’m fine.” Sarina thought about her adoptive brother David, waiting for her in the crowd. She wouldn’t embarrass him in front of all his biddies. She couldn’t. She had to be fine.
After Dani and Stefan helped Sarina to her feet, she realized she could keep herself upright by leaning against the wall. But once she was standing, one of her knees jerked sideways as suddenly as if someone had pushed a button on a remote control for her body.
“Unbelievable,” Kat muttered, as if Sarina was doing it on purpose.
“Think we have time to get her a bottle of water?” Sammy asked Dani, his eyes flicking back to the main stage.
Just then, the music came to a halt and Eleventh Era wrapped up their performance with a smug group pose. The thundering sound of applause from the audience washed over them, punctuated by a chorus of whoops and whistles.
“I’ll be okay,” Sarina murmured, sounding anything but. She tried to forget the sheer number of people waiting outside. If she dwelled on it for too long, she just might throw up after all. “I’ll be okay,” she repeated as loudly as she could, making an effort to be heard over the announcer’s voice.
Sarina knew her crew would be called up within moments. Her crewmates were all watching her expectantly. She lowered her hand from the wall, showing her ability to stand without support. “I’m much better now. Really,” Sarina assured her crew, doing her best to flash a reassuring smile.
The members of Eleventh Era jostled past them into the antechamber, bouncing around and high-fiving each other as they gloated about their flawless performance.
“You sure you’re alright?” Dani asked her. “Because we don’t have to —”
Sarina didn’t let him finish. What he was proposing wasn’t an option. “Let’s do this!”
The announcer wasted no time in moving the event along. “Up next is a crew based out of Bern. Please welcome D-Style: Daniel Herzog, Katrina Duvnjak, Samuel Hänni, Stefan Gisler, and Sarina Baumann!”
Dani exchanged a glance with Stefan and Sammy, then nodded. “Okay, guys. Let’s show them what we’ve got!”
The crew swept out of the antechamber in choreographed order, with Dani taking the lead and Kat following him seconds later. They came to a stop at the center front of the stage, back to back and leaning against one another.
Now it was the others’ turn to follow. Sammy looked at Sarina for confirmation, and she nodded. It was now or never.
Fortunately, Sarina’s legs decided to cooperate and carried her into the blinding spotlights on cue. She, Sammy, and Stefan swept onto the rear of the stage, taking their positions: Stefan to the left, Sarina at the center, and Sammy to the right. The bright white lights filtered to softer blues and purples before diffusing into bright patterns across the stage as they held their pose for a count of five.
Is David here? What if he couldn’t make it, either?
Sarina craned her neck to scan the crowd, then regretted the move almost immediately. She lowered her eyes to her white sneakers so her head wouldn’t explode with the sheer number of faces looking back at her. Maybe she was going to throw up, after all.
You’ve got your six seconds; do what you want with them. No one cares.
Sarina drew in a deep breath, bracing herself for the pounding intro beats that would start coming from the oversized speakers above her at any second. She was determined to make the most of her opportunity to shine. She owed her new family at least that much.
The music began with a powerful, booming staccato. Dani and Kat separated, prancing sideways to join the others for the group routine. Almost on its own accord, Sarina’s body responded to the beats. Her insecurity melted away with the pulse of the music. Celebration of the moment was the magic of hip hop.
You’ll fly like a dove.
A minute passed, then two. Sarina executed every step perfectly. D-Style was in perfect sync. Then came the freestyle segment; they formed a small half-circle and began clapping their hands in unison to support each team member who’d step forward for their solo. The audience joined in and the entire hall was bursting with the beat of the music.
Sammy stepped forward first, and the robotic speech overlay they’d added to their track introduced him as Synthesize. His specialty was popping, and the crowd roared as his body jerked and flowed, his muscles contracting and relaxing in swift succession. He took his place in the circle, his solo finished. His six seconds seemed to have gone by in an instant.
It was Sarina’s turn next. All inhibition lifted from her shoulders as another voice overlay merged with the track, introducing Sarina as B-Fly. Her six seconds had arrived.
I am here.
Struck by a sudden inspiration for how to make the best of her time, Sarina abandoned the body waves she’d planned. Instead, she dashed forward and dropped to her knees, sliding the last few meters towards the edge of the stage. The group of teenaged hipsters in the front row went wild. Half her time was already up; she decided to pop to her feet and attempt a body roll to finish off her solo.
But the instant her knees lost contact with the stage, her physical feedback changed completely. Her senses expanded with the force of a tidal wave, making her aware of the exact position of every hair, every skin cell, and every drop of blood that made up her body. Each beat of her pounding heart felt like an earthquake inside her veins as it merged with the heavy bass that was booming from the speakers.
Her mind was flooded with confidence and an overwhelming sense of superiority, as if some trap door had suddenly opened and she was falling through another person’s reality. A stronger person’s reality. A better person’s reality. She could have crushed Kat then, if she’d wanted to. She could have windmill kicked her right in her smug face. Heck, she could probably have thrown her halfway across Zürich.
Look who doesn’t care now, bitch.
But then the argument they’d had in the practice space became as insignificant as everything — and everyone — else that had ever bothered her. They were nothing to her now, nothing but dead weight that was holding her down. And she wasn’t going to be held down any longer.
I. Am. Here.
The sensation of control extended outward. Sarina felt herself radiate a sense of power that made contact with every single object and person in the hall. They couldn’t affect her anymore; it was she who could change them. Her mind brimmed with the potential to alter everything it touched.
The sensation expanded with a surge of power that knocked every coherent thought from her mind. Her aura lashed outward, expanding beyond the event hall and out into the streets. She sensed it coursing down the Limmat River and through Josefswiese Park and surging everywhere in between. In her mind’s eye, everything that was alive glowed with a distinctive light, and she felt her perception being drawn towards the familiar appearances of her parents, who were driving south towards Thurgauerstrasse after just leaving the airport.
She was aware of every person, every housecat, every blade of grass in the center of the city. Walls, rooftops, and bicycles . . . she sensed them them as well, though inanimate materials were shades of gray and of diminished interest. Her awareness flared at every molecule, every organism, like they made up an immeasurable sea of reality — and her mind could encapsulate every single, surging drop.
And she’d be damned if it didn’t feel amazing. Even if she’d combined every drug high she’d ever experienced, the feeling still wouldn’t have come close.
I AM HERE.
All this awareness coursed through her body in the fraction of a second it took for her to land on her feet from her kneeling position at the edge of the stage. She jerked her chin up to glare at the loudspeakers above her head. Something wasn’t right about the music. It wasn’t hers.
Then the speakers thundered with synthesizer beats and the opening rhythm of Kya’s “Mesmerize” replaced that shitty crew performance track.
Six seconds? Fuck you, bitch. This one’s three and a half minutes long.
Sarina brought her arms out in perfect symmetry, bending her knees to lower her stance. The fingers of one hand folded inwards, invoking an undulating motion that rippled along the length of her right arm to her shoulder. The shoulder rolled, and the movement traversed throughout her entire body, causing her chest to heave up and down. The motion passed through her hips and then all the way down to her knees.
She bent her neck, fingers of one hand coming up towards her face while the other hand jutted outwards in the opposite direction. Her legs performed a perfect butterfly move, knees turning inward and outward alternately as she swept to the right.
Then she wheeled around and dove downward, partially somersaulting with her momentum. The instant she completed the roll, she pressed one hand flat to the stage floor and lifted her body in a one-armed handstand, feet above her head, her legs spreading out to either side. She did a freeze with a reverse airbaby — a move she nailed, even though she’d never even attempted it before.
In fact, her every past attempt at breakdancing had been amusing at best. But now, despite the fact that she was among the least experienced dancers in this competition, the stage was hers. Her body eased into every shape her imagination could muster with superhuman accuracy. The rest of her crew, frozen in place in their crescent-moon formation, watched her with gaping mouths.
“You stir the music with the beat of your wings,” Kya’s voice sang from the speakers. “Snowy white, a drift of feathers on the wind.”
As the lyrics coursed through her spinning and tumbling body, the nondescript gray wall around the stage began to ripple. Before everyone’s eyes, it transformed into a breathtaking mural of white doves in flight. The audience stood, making ragged, gasping sounds beneath the hands they’d pressed to their mouths.
On stage, she remained lost in the flow of music and motion. Her body dropped and spun and twisted and flipped with an accuracy she had never before imagined. She savored every second while it lasted, relishing in every brush of fabric stirred by her movements.
Watch me now, I’m a lady dancer.
When the last beat of the song died out, Sarina found herself crouched near the edge of the stage, sweat-stained and panting for breath. The massive event hall had gone utterly silent. Her aura contracted back inside her body, and her reality was dwarfed back to normal, leaving her suddenly self-conscious. What had she done?
From nearby, a familiar voice said her name. She looked up. In the front row, which had been totally occupied by hipster teens just minutes ago, was her entire adopted family: Mom, Dad, David, even Uncle Ben.
She felt her knees weaken. How on earth . . . ?
She was positive her family hadn’t been there when the song had started, before her mind had turned into a dazed mess. But now, here they were, wearing the same awestruck looks on their faces as everyone else. Strangely, Sarina had the feeling that she had somehow made them appear at her will.
Desperately needing to hang onto something solid, Sarina outstretched a hand towards her family. The noiseless crowd backed away in unison, moving as a single entity.
“Mom?” Sarina whispered.
But before her mother could react, some woman forced her way to the front of the crowd and held up a child before Sarina’s outstretched hand. She was going on about gods and blessings, not making any sense.
“Mom?” Sarina repeated in a small voice. But suddenly throngs of people were forcing their way towards her, pushing her family aside as they reached up to the stage. At the back of the hall, an even bigger wave of people was jostling its way towards the exits.
Then someone from her crew —Dani? Stefan?— was crouching beside her, rambling on about nothing in a soothing tone while a group of uniformed men made their way up to the stage. Some were talking into their collars as they pressed small receivers closer to their ears.
Sarina knew what the uniforms meant. They’d take her away, just like in the stories she’d read about on the internet. She’d probably never be allowed to dance on stage again. Worse, she’d likely never return home.
She searched the crowd desperately, but she couldn’t see her family anymore. Her vision blurred with tears. Once again, she was alone.