It was an in-built reflex, something her body needed in order to survive. Her arms and legs knew the rules, knew how to bend and twist and dip and switch. She spun and twirled, hips swaying, moving to a melody only she could hear. The moves came faster, quicker, more elegant and grand. Her feet pounded against the earth, drumming the ground into a clamor that roared through her. Alice’s arms were above her now, bangled arms cheering her on, and she threw her head back, face up to the sky. Faster, faster, elbows unlocking, knees bending, bangles raining music down her neck. She moved like she’d never moved before, soft and slow, sharp and fast, heels hitting and ankles flicking and fingers swimming through the air. Her skirts were a blur of color, her whole body seized by a need to know the elements, and when she was finally done, she fell to the floor.
Hands folded in her lap.
Skirts billowing out around her.
Alice was a fallen flower, and she hoped she looked beautiful.
She slowly lifted her head.
The audience was looking on, only politely engaged, still waiting for her to finish. Still waiting for her talent. Alice got to her feet and felt the sun explode in her cheeks.
“Are you quite finished, dear?” This, from Mr. Lottingale.
“Ah,” he said, his slack jaw quickly firming into a smile. “Of course. Please rejoin the line, Ms. Queensmeadow.”
There was a halted smattering of applause, the guests looking around at one another for a cue on how to react. Alice swallowed hard against the lump in her throat and walked back to her place in line, staring firmly at her feet and hardly daring to breathe.
Eighty-two others performed after she did, and Alice wouldn’t remember any of them. There were a great many talents on display that day, and hers, as it turned out, was the strength to keep from bursting into tears in front of everyone.
Alice could not make herself sit with Mother.
After the ceremony she found a quiet branch in a very tall tree and tried desperately to stay calm. She was inhaling and exhaling in tiny gasps and she scolded herself for it, rationalizing all the reasons why she was being ridiculous. Surely, she considered, she was just being hard on herself. She was intimidated by her peers, this was normal. Besides, she’d not expected such great talent, so she was taken by surprise. And anyway, everyone was probably feeling the same insecurities she was. Most importantly, she hadn’t been paying attention to the other performances; certainly someone else could’ve done worse.
This went on for a while.
Alice pulled her knees up to her chest and hugged them tight. She would not cry, she’d decided. There was no need. So maybe (probably) (well, definitely) she wouldn’t get the best task—that was okay! Perhaps if her hopes hadn’t been so high, her disappointment wouldn’t have been so great, but she would learn from this and be better for it, and whichever task she did get would be just fine. She’d be grateful for it. Maybe it wouldn’t be a coveted task—maybe she wouldn’t even get to leave Ferenwood—but still, it would be a task, and she would be happy to finally have a purpose. It would be the start of something new.
It would be okay.
She’d finally calmed her nerves long enough to make it down the tree. There she stood, half collapsed against the trunk, and promised herself, over and over again, that everything would be okay. She had done her best, and she couldn’t have asked for more of herself.
She had done her best.
Finally, the Elders reappeared. They were all smiling (a good sign!) and this gave Alice great hope. Her shoulders sagged in relief and she managed to peek out from behind the tree.
Mr. Lottingale was the first of the ten Town Elders to speak, and each of them took a moment to say something encouraging and inspiring. They spoke with such sincerity that for a minute Alice felt silly for having reacted as she did. They were looking out at the crowd with great pride; surely she’d done better than she thought.
She inched forward a bit more, no longer hidden from view. But just as Alice was considering joining Mother’s table, the atmosphere changed. A trumpet blared and there was glitter in the air and thick, shimmery, plum-colored envelopes appeared on breakfast plates before her peers. The excitement was palpable. Everyone knew that an envelope contained a card of a specific color; each color represented a different score. There were five categories altogether, and Alice had them memorized for as long as she could count.
Score 5 || Green = Spectacularly Done
Score 4 || Blue = A Very Fine Job
Score 3 || Red = Perfectly Adequate
Score 2 || Yellow = Good Enough
Score 1 || White = Rather Unfortunate
Children were tearing their envelopes open—some with great confidence, others with great trepidation—while Alice was still straining to see if anything had arrived for her at Mother’s table.
It had, indeed.
Alice’s heart would not sit still.
She couldn’t read Mother’s face from here, but she could see Mother holding the envelope in her hand like she wasn’t quite sure what to do with it; and though she looked around the square just once, Mother didn’t seem to mind that Alice wasn’t around to pick it up. Mother often said that she could never be bothered to understand why Alice did the things she did, and now, more than ever, Alice thought never being bothered was a very lazy way to love someone.
Oliver’s back was to her, so Alice couldn’t see his face, but Mother was smiling at him, so he must have been speaking. He was likely using his gift of persuasion to ruin her life. Sure enough, after only a few seconds, Mother handed him her envelope. Just handed it over. Her entire life folded into a piece of paper and Mother just gave it away to a boy Alice wanted to kick in the teeth.
Alice nearly stomped over there and did just that.
But the truth was, Alice was still scared. She wanted to walk back into a crowd of Ferenwood folk knowing she was one of them. It was bad enough she’d been born with hardly any color, that her skin was the color of snow and her hair the color of sugar and her eyelashes the color of milk. She never liked to admit it, but the truth was true enough: By Ferenwood standards she really was the ugliest. Her world thrived on color, and she had none.