My daughter Alina’s doll has only four tufts of hair left on its head. She pulled out a few when she was three and didn’t know any better, thinking it would grow back. Recently, a girl in her class yanked out another handful of strands, insisting that six years old was too grown-up for “baby toys.” I stopped letting her take it to school after that.
The doll is a shabby thing: makeup worn off its face, sporting a dress made of tissue paper and tape. Alina still loves it, though. I must’ve slipped it into my bag by accident this morning—when I reached inside for a protein bar, my fingers pulled out the toy instead.
I can tell the cheer team is already setting up by the bleachers from the chatter in the air as I open the gymnasium door. There’s something unnerving about their relationships, their ability to finish each other’s sentences or do something mundane, like grabbing their towels in the changing room, in near-total sync.
When I was a child, a bee’s nest fell from a tree in my neighbour’s yard. Even from the other side of the fence, the hum of the swarm made my breath catch in my throat. Working on the team feels the same; like one wrong move will get me stung.
“Morning Mirelle! You’re late,” teases Katy as she sees me approaching. One of her legs is hinged at the knee behind her, her hand grasping her ankle in a quad stretch.
“It’s 8:50. Practice is at 9,” I mutter as I trudge towards her. Then, a bit louder in a more honeyed voice, “I’ve already warmed up!”
“Y’know, you should really join us in the mornings for coffee. It really helps with the whole team bonding thing.”
I choose not to respond. None of the other cheerleaders in Red Lightning have children, and I’m not eager to let them know the real reason I can’t make their early-morning meetings. I stick out enough in the otherwise-uniform group.
Although Red Lightning cheers in a smaller league, they train as though raring to go pro. Almost all, including Katy, are barely out of their teens. They all take their roles very seriously, like it’s their purpose in life. For me, it’s a quick way to make some much-needed cash, using my experience as a dancer, while looking for a better job. Claudia, a sweet and talented gymnast I used to compete alongside, recommended me to the team.
I glance towards Katy, now seated on the ground reaching towards her toes. This is only temporary, I remind myself. In just a few days, after my interview for another dance program facilitator position, I’ll be able to leave this job. The sharp squeak of sneakers on the gym floor snaps me out of my rumination. Scott strides across the room towards us in the velour tracksuit he always wears, an ill-trimmed salt-and-pepper moustache splayed across his face.
As he nears, the hum of the group dies down. “How’re my girls doing today?” he asks with a wink. I’ve noticed that he’s overly familiar with my teammates, often placing an arm around their waists or leaning in too close
“Great! Red Lightning forever!” the team answers eagerly in unison. I stay silent.
“Alright, get into your formations, little Bolts. Full out, then we’ll break it down. C’mon girls, faster. The show’s next week. We gotta look good!”
With a five-six, seven-eight count in, we’re off into our routine, bouncing on our toes before splitting off into different directions and getting into place.
When I used to dance, I always felt like I was in control of my body. It was exhilarating—there was a little spark with every hip roll, electricity on every pivot. But not here. Here, nothing feels quite right. I’m still in sync with my teammates, but it’s as if I’m on autopilot. When I look at Katy, her eyes are bright. She commits to every high V, every backhand spring, every single step across the gymnasium floor. All of my teammates have that spark in them.
Maybe this job is frustrating because it reminds me of a version of myself I’ve been trying to leave behind, the version that loved the performance, that loved being watched by an audience. It’s like trying on a dress that you used to wear but no longer quite fit into. It’s too tight across the chest but it bags at the shoulders. I can’t stand it
“Stop! Where’s our flyer?” shouts Scott. “Ah, Claudia’s away. Damn it, we need someone to fill in.”
Katy perks up. “What about the newbie?” She gives a nod in my direction.
Scott looks me up and down. “Elle, right?”
“Actually it’s Mir—”
“Okay Elle, you’ve got the right look for it.”
Katy claps excitedly. “We’ll do great together,” she whispers.
“Let’s take it from the top,” Scott announces.
We begin again, and once more, it’s as if I’m sleepwalking. But when the flyer’s routine comes in with all of the aerial stunts’ glory, I’m suddenly wide awake. I cartwheel into my teammates’ arms, tighten my core as I’m lifted up. When I’m up top the choreography feels different, powerful. As the others let go of my left foot I pull it into a scorpion pose, my back arching into it. I place my weight, and my trust, into the hands of my teammates down at the base as I jump into the air for the dismount. They catch me in springy arms, and I land on the gym floor softly.
When I strike my last pose, my chest rises and falls heavily for the first time since starting the job. We run through the routine in full several times more.
After the fourth repetition, Scott’s whistle cuts through the air, making me flinch. “Alright everyone, take five.” As my teammates disperse, he walks toward me. I instinctively take a step back. “Y’know, little miss, we need to make you the permanent flyer.”
I keep a distance. “That’s Claudia’s role.”
“Oh, I’m not asking. I’m telling you: we’re going to make you the flyer. Claudia won’t mind. It’ll just be for this show.”
“No really, I couldn’t—”
“I’ll give you a bonus. It’ll be a cash bonus and nobody will know about it. A little hazard fee for the stunts, y’know?”
I think about the shabby doll. With my current wages, I can barely afford the apartment me, Alina and my mother share, can barely afford the never-quite-hot water, the walls that groan at night. If I get the bonus, I’d be able to pay the bills and have some left over. I pause, considering, and he grins impishly. “If it’s only for one show and I’d get a bonus, then maybe—”
“There’s just one thing. We need you to be more peppy.” I squint at him, folding my arms across my chest. “You’ve got the technique down, but not the right personality, y’know?” He takes a step closer and I grit my teeth. “We could change your vibe a bit more. We’ve already done some improvement with the hair extensions and teeth-whitening. And you’re staying on weight. It would just be a little procedure—”
“That’ll put me out for the show!”
Scott lifts a single finger. “It’s a new procedure. Kinda experimental, but totally safe, and quick. My doctor can do it. Something to do with nanobots, whatever that means—it’ll pep up that Red Lightning spirit. Some of the other girls did it, and they’re fine.”
I consider it. “How much cash are we talking about?”
He smirks. “Let’s talk numbers.”
I keep waiting for something to change. Each day, I wake up and check every inch of my skin. I shake each limb, lifting my arms up and down, kicking each leg out. But nothing’s ever different. Not the cracking sound in my knees when I bend down. Not the height of my jumps or my top sprinting speed. The nanobots don’t seem to be altering anything at all.
When I enter the rec centre, the front desk staff tell me to wait in the entryway. My feet tap incessantly in their pink suede loafers. I can’t stop looking at them. I wanted to have a pop of colour—to make a statement, as my teammates would say—but I’m worrying that it’s less of a statement and more of a squawking, all frills and feathers.
I look up from my shoes at the interviewer. She’s dressed in a casual t-shirt, and my blazer becomes heavier on my shoulders. “Please, just Mirelle is fine. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” I forget to reach out my hand to shake hers, both hands tightly clutching the strap of my purse.
“Thanks for coming in. Right this way.” We enter her office and I sit down in a plastic chair.
When the first question comes, my stomach begins to flip. “Can you tell me what your biggest strength is?”
“My greatest strength is my optimistic attitude! With a can-do attitude, there’s nothing we can’t accomplish together!” My mouth stays open at the end of the sentence in disbelief. The way I’m speaking sounds strange, saccharine. Even the intonations are all wrong, inflections carrying the ends of the sentences higher. I clear my throat. “And my other biggest strength,” I begin, more evenly, “is organization. In my past work as a dance instructor, that was key to putting together the curriculum and executing the programming.”
She smiles politely, jots down a few notes onto a clipboard. “Lovely … some of the youth might come in late, and with varying levels of dance skills. Tell me about a time when you had to adapt programming to make it more accessible.”
“Anyone who sets foot into our dance program better be ready to work!” My throat feels dry and I swallow hard. Where was this coming from? “What I mean is, it’s very important to work hard to meet participants where they’re at. When I was a dance teacher, we had one student who always seemed a little lethargic. And that’s why …” I pause and take a breath. I know the story I’m trying to tell well, but for some reason all the pieces feel out of reach. My hands close into fists atop my legs, my thumbs twitching. “That’s why we emphasize coming to class to do your best! We have to eat a balanced meal to fuel our bodies!”
There’s a heavy pause between us before I get up abruptly, my chair screeching against the floor. “I-I’m so …” I stutter. “Thank you for your time.”
Before she can reply, I rush out. When I get to the car, I do inventory on my body. I roll my wrists and ankles. I focus my eyes, first on the dashboard, then on a tree in the distance. Everything still seems to be in working order.
My stomach rumbles, and I think that I’ll grab a salad for lunch. It is important to have a balanced diet. After all, we have practice tomorrow!
Claudia isn’t happy to have lost her flyer position. It’s hard to tell that she’s miserable because she wears the Red Lightning mask well. Her voice still lilts with excitement at every phrase. But I can see her irritation in small ways, like the way her pinky twitches when she speaks.
I approach her, my voice low. “Hey Claudia, it’s only for one—” but she’s already walked away.
Katy places a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t feel too bad. She’s used to being the star, but we all need to work together! Teamwork makes the dream work!”
Normally I’d scoff at this, but today, the statement stirs me. “Yeah! Teamwork makes the dream work!”
Scott blows his whistle and motions for everyone to line up. “Full out, girls! Let’s go!” There’s an excitement that pulses through every inch of me as I get into position. “And five-six, seven-eight!”
Every movement of choreography feels like a little charge, more sparks than ever before. I’m hyper-awake. I can feel the impact of every step when my sneakers hit the gymnasium floor.
I backflip into Katy and Claudia’s arms, our breaths syncing as they raise me into the first lift.
When I move into scorpion my foot reaches up past my head, my leg arcing behind me in the air in a C-shaped curve that mimics my back. At the sound of a wolf whistle ringing out from the bleachers, a smug smile dances its way across my face. I’m being looked at. I’m being watched.
Moving into the dismount, I fly through the air, spinning on the way down, the euphoria of being weightless rushing through my body until—
My back hits the floor. The air flies from my lungs. I hear rushing around me, quick snippets.
“Claudia, that was on purpose! Why would you—” Katy’s voice, tense.
“Claudia, you’re benched—” Scott’s voice, frantic for once.
Katy leans over me. “Mirelle? Everything’s gonna be alright, don’t worry.” I expect it to hurt, but nothing does. I touch the back of my head, bring back a clean hand where I was expecting blood. I stand up, although Katy tries to stop me. “Wait Mirelle, you can’t—”
“I’ve got somewhere I need to be.” I start to walk off, then turn around. “Don’t worry Katy! We’ll be alright!”
For the first time, I see Katy’s sunny demeanour crack. Her hand begins to reach towards me, her eyebrows knitted. But then her hand flips into a thumbs up. “You’re right, Mirelle!” A smile is painted across her face. The corners of her lips twitch.
“Bye, Katy. Red Lightning forever!”
I’m standing outside a school. I don’t know why I would be here of all places. The bell rings and the children start to filter out.
“Mom! Mom, look!” There’s a young girl who stands below me. She feels familiar, but she must be mistaken. I couldn’t be her mother. None of the cheerleaders on Red Lightning have children.
The child holds up a worn doll as she chatters. “Don’t be mad, but I brought it to school because Grace’s mom made a new dress for her! Look how pretty this one is. The fabric is so shiny!”
The doll has barely any hair, just four small tufts peaking out at the top of its skull. Even with its glittering halter dress, it looks shabby. I can do nothing but stare.
The child begins to tear up, her bottom lip trembling. Before she can open her mouth, I stick both hands out in front of me. “Ah, I’m sorry kid! The doll looks great.” She can’t seem to get words out and wipes her nose with her sleeve. “Hey kiddo, where’s your mom? Are you lost?”
I reach out and grab her hand, then glance around for the mother—just looking, looking, looking. ⁂
Natasha Ramoutar is a Toronto-based writer. Her first collection of poetry, Bittersweet, was published by Mawenzi House in 2020, and she was a co-editor of Feel Ways, an anthology of Scarborough writing. Her most recent project was TYTYTY, a game created as part of Hand Eye Society’s programming.