Her cell phone woke Meredith from a dead sleep. At first, she thought it was her alarm. But she
rolled over, checked the time against her bedside clock, and realized she’d overslept by several hours.
She leapt out of bed, grabbing the phone and slamming it against her ear. “This is Meredith Li,”
“Yes, hello? This is Katie’s mom,” an older woman’s voice answered. “I wanted to let you know:
Katie will be out sick from ballet class today. She has a-”
“That’s alright,” Meredith interrupted, digging through the top drawer for a clean pair of tights and
the rest of her own dancing gear. “Please tell her to feel better and that I look forward to seeing her next
“Good afternoon, girls! Let’s not waste any time. Get your shoes on and find a place at the bar and
we’ll begin warm-up’s,” Meredith announced, breezing into the little dance studio with her own belongings still
slung over her arms.
She dumped them in the corner, next to her folding chair and the speakers. She tugged her street
shoes off and crammed her feet into her old, worn ballet slippers. While she waited for the other girls to follow
suit and line up out on the dance floor, Meredith snuck a can of soda out of her purse and downed it.
“Still got your nose right up against that grindstone, I see.”
Meredith whirled around, nearly choking. She swallowed quickly and wiped her mouth with the
back of her hand.
“Jiang,” she announced slowly and cautiously. “Mom said you weren’t going to be back until
December. What are you doing here?”
“Got off probation a little early. Giving season and all,” he announced, folding his arms and looking
around her studio with scrutiny.
He shuffled through the CD’s and snorted at all the classical tracks.
“Well, you’ll have to come bother me at some other place. I still don’t want you or your friends
around my students here. No offense,” she sighed. “Besides, I’ve got a class to run and we’re already running
To make her point, she clapped her hands and turned away from her brother.
“Hustle up, girls,” she called. “Find a place at the bar and we’ll begin in first position.”
Meredith squinted at the glowing screen. The colors glared at her, burning her eyes and making
them water. She peeked at the time for the tenth time in the past five minutes. It was late. Her muscles were
sore. She’d run through her own routine after class, blasting one of the tracks from The Nutcracker and
leaping and turning and spinning across the slick dance floor until it was well past dinner time. She could use
a shower; more than use it. She could use some food and a good night’s sleep, too.
But she had a deadline tomorrow: another website design. And she couldn’t afford to miss it. Not
She opened a new tab on her computer and found a playlist of all The Nutcracker music. Then she
plugged in her headphones, conscious of her neighbors on the other side of the wall, and pressed onwards
until the sun had risen and her back had stopped tingling, but only because it’d gone numb from being
hunched over for so long.
She jerked her head up off the desk and looked around the room, in a panic, at first. Then,
yawning, she found the phone from under a pile cords and a half-eaten bag of chips.
“Meredith Li,” she sighed, yawning again.
She knew that voice – and that nickname – anywhere. Without looking at the caller ID, she knew
immediately who it was. She regretted picking up immediately, too.
“Hi, mom,” she grumbled.
“You are never going to guess who showed up on my doorstep yesterday evening!”
“You- why, yes. Jiang,” her mother stuttered, disappointed that her daughter had, in fact, guessed
it. “Did he stop by your place as well?”
“My studio. Speaking of, can’t you tell him to stay out of there? All the parents would have a fit if
they knew a guy with a bad record and a worse sense of humor was slumping around there during business
hours,” Meredith pointed out. “And for good reason. He doesn’t even appreciate dance. I don’t see why he has
to pop up just to bug us.”
Her mother sighed. But she didn’t promise to tell him.
“How exciting that he got off early for the holidays,” she suggested brightly. “It looks like our family
Thanksgiving is back on, after all. Should I set you a place at the table, honey?”
“Every year you call and every year, the answer is the same,” she pointed out impatiently.
“There’s no need to be snappy about it.”
“It’s not snappy. It’s rushed. Don’t call on a weekday if it annoys you,” she proposed, forcing
herself to get up and start the shower. “Sorry. I’m just stretched thin lately. I’ve got dance classes and the
design work. And I’m working on this Nutcracker piece…”
“Oh!” her mother exclaimed. “Now, I ask this every year, too… And I don’t want to be a bother…”
Meredith smiled. “Go ahead.”
“Are you going to do it? Are you going to audition for the show?”
“I don’t know. Probably not, what with my schedule and everything,” she admitted, feeling
disappointed. “But I’ll keep working on my piece. Maybe next year. You know?”
“What in the world?”
She turned her car off and sat quiet for a moment, staring at the front of her studio. The lights were
out and there was a note taped to the door. Meredith pulled her phone out of her purse and held it close as
she got out.
The studio is closed tonight and tomorrow. See you in a couple days! – Meredith
Rolling her eyes, Meredith quickly dialed the number for her studio manager, Stacy.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she snapped, before Stacy could even say ‘hello.’ “Are you the
one who closed the studio? Without my approval? Without even notifying me?”
“But nothing. I’m standing here in my tights and leotard, freezing. Do you know how much work I
could be getting done right now, if I didn’t break to get all the way showered, dressed, and come to teach a
“It’s an early Christmas present.”
“Closing the studio. It was all of our idea,” Stacy blurted.
“I told you guys to stop doing that,” she sighed. “I can take care of my own schedule.”
“We didn’t do it because of that this time. Don’t you remember? The Nutcracker auditions are
today.” Stacy squealed, unable to contain her own enthusiasm. “We knew you wouldn’t go if you had other
obligations. But, look at you: you’re already dressed and ready to go.”
“Mom! You’ll never guess what I just got back from,” Meredith challenged, still short of breath and
pink in the face from the auditions. She tore the white, paper number off the front of her leotard and stuck it
into a drawer on her desk. “The Nutcracker auditions.”
“Oh, honey, that’s fantastic. You decided to really go this time?”
There was an edge in her mother’s voice.
She sighed on the other end.
“It’s your brother. It turns out there will be just three table settings for the holidays again, after all,”
she announced quietly.
Meredith rolled her eyes.
“What did he do this time?”
“It’s not exactly new,” she edged. “It turns out they didn’t let him off… He sort of… just decided to
take the holiday season to himself and jumped bail.”
Meredith dropped the rest of her stuff and wandered to the kitchen for some food, stomping as she
“Sorry, honey.” The call was silent for several moments. “They’re taking him back to jail. Your
father and I talked and we’re not going to post bail. Neither is his old bondsman. So we aren’t exactly sure
when we’ll be getting him back.”
“Well it’s his own fault,” Meredith snapped, sniffing back childish tears.
“I suppose,” her mother whispered. Then, a moment later: “Tell me about these auditions.”
The next day, Meredith woke up to the sound of her alarm, instead of her phone, for once. She
showered and dressed in street clothes, now pleased and relishing in the brilliance that Stacy and the others
had to close the studio for a mini-holiday. She even walked down the street and treated herself to a hot
breakfast at a little café on the corner.
When she returned to her apartment, resigned to the reality that she’d have to get back to
designing web pages for her clients sometime today, her home phone was ringing. She dove for the receiver,
but it was too late: she’d missed the call.
She grabbed it up off the couch and hurried to its wall mount. There were several missed calls,
with no voicemails, left on the machine. Meredith gritted her teeth and clutched the phone, willing the person
to call back again.
She jumped, startled by the sound of her cell phone ringing. It was still stuffed back inside her
purse, near the door. Meredith tossed the receiver to the side and dove for the bag, digging rapidly through all
“Meredith Li!” she announced, too loudly and over enthusiastically.
She held the phone away from her mouth to conceal how heavy she was breathing.
“This is the director from The Nutcracker auditions,” a deep voice announced on the other end.
Meredith’s heart skipped a beat. “We’d like to offer you a position for this season’s production. Welcome to the
SimCity Dance Troupe, Ms. Li.”