By John Thomas Tuft

The music starts softly, slowly. Mary crouches alone in the middle of the darkened stage. Only the ghost light burns, casting her shadow long and lean from where it is pushed off to one side. The seats are empty, yet she feels like they are staring at her, watching her begin to rise and move to the music. It is her first time back in over six months. Her first time back since her great loss. Maybe he will return to her if she dances for him like she used to dance. Her cell phone is propped on the armrest between two seats in the front row so that she can record herself. This might be her last dance. It is too painful to return to this place, too many memories of his voice, his laughter, him shouting from the back of the theater to keep her chin up, eyes on the audience. Always, always, filled with pride and joy at her graceful, fluid movements, the high leaps that dissolve the soul into an open receptacle.

She met Joshua her first week in the city. She stopped for a quick lunch at a food truck near the dance studio. Joshua helped his parents prepare and sell the authenticate cuisine from their native land south of the border. His kind eyes and open smile got Mary’s attention right away, and she started stopping every day, whether she was hungry or not. Joshua asked her about her dancing and promised to come watch her rehearse. As they got to know each other, Mary learned that Joshua’s parents had entered the country illegally and feared being caught and returned to their country, where grave danger awaited them. Joshua was a man without a country, neither a native nor a dreamer. But that did not appear to bother him as he went about his business of helping his parents and the community of immigrants around them.

Eventually Joshua was able to sneak away from the food truck long enough to watch Mary rehearse on occasion. She felt his eyes upon her as she struggled to learn and keep up with the other dancers who seemed so much better than her, sophisticated and exquisite. Coming from the small town where she grew up, she’d always been the best. But here, she had yet to prove herself. In the evenings, she would seek out Joshua in the humbler quarters of the city, discouraged and filled with self-pity. Joshua always listened patiently, reminding her that it was not what they thought of her, but what she thought of herself that mattered. Dance with her heart. Train her feet and her body and dance with her heart. “Even if the seats of the theater are empty, no one is out there watching and waiting, dance with your heart.”

The time came when Mary was picked to dance in a big production on Broadway. She eagerly told Joshua and invited him to come watch her. He promised to be there, sharing in her joy and fulfillment. The big night arrived, and the theater was filled with very important people, dignitaries, the mayor and members of the city council. An usher brought a note to Mary. It was from Joshua. “I am here for you. I said you could do it and you are.” But when Mary got on stage, she could not see him anywhere in the crowd. When the curtain went down, she searched frantically for him. A burly police officer stopped her outside the theater, saying the mayor had given orders. Mary was stunned to see government agents swarming all over the area of the food trucks, pushing the illegals into buses to take them away. She ran to the humbler quarters of the city, but it was empty.

The next day the news told the final chapter of what happened. The immigrants had been put on a plane to fly them back south of the border. Something went wrong and the plane went down in a canyon south of El Paso. There were no survivors. Mary felt her heart break. Joshua was gone and she never even got to say goodbye. The show must go on, but Mary told them to do it without her. She did not want to dance anymore. All the seats might as well be empty, just like she felt inside her own little world of grief and anger. Time proceeded to move on, slowly, without meaning for her.

Six months later, here she is, alone, performing one last dance of farewell to her dreams and hopes. She dances as best she can, wishing it was different. Then time to pack up and go. She picks up her phone, turns off the recording and sticks it in her pocket. At the door, she turns for one last look. There is movement on the stage, in the shadows of the ghost lamp. Just as she starts to cry out, her phone dings. There is a message, a text from an unknown number. She opens it to read: “I am…I said.” She looks back to the stage, but it is empty…

Have a blessed Easter. Words are magic and writers are wizards.