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Three Graceful Steps

by Jarrad Thomas Taylor

There is a vacant look in her chestnut colored eyes, as tears stream down her soft cheeks. "Why can't I do anything right?" She questions herself in a sad voice. Her thin lips quiver as she begins to sob again. Her smooth and graceful body rests in a porcelain chamber, as her silky, blond hair lies dormant at her shoulders.

The violent ringing of the phone draws her from her reverie. As she is walking to the phone, her grace is evident, despite the melancholy cloak that shrouds her delicate shoulders. Her tall frame remains fluid, even through her recent trials.

"Hello," she answers shakily.

"Where are you?" a man screams over the phone line.

"It wasn't supposed to be like this," she laments to herself. "I was supposed to be famous," she adds weakly, staring at the mountain of bills on the table. "I'll be down in tem minutes."

"I'm dockin' you one hour's pay, you lazy bitch."

"I can barely pay my bills-"

"Ain't my problem. The customers ain't gonna git their own food, so every minute you're late I'm gonna dock ya for five minutes."

"You can't. It takes me ten minutes just to get to work." The deaf ears of the dial tone never hear her desperate pleas. Gathering up her threadbare varsity jacket, she momentarily reminisces about a time gone by, when she didn't have to worry about having food to eat tomorrow. Crawling through her window, she gently touches the fire escape with her left foot, the lesser of the two evils when it comes to reaching street level. Just the thought of the stairwell makes her cringe, the corridor having long been home to the building's vermin: rats, whores, pimps and junkies. The escape crackles as her foot tests the corroded iron. With the thought of death weighing heavily in her mind, she begins to crawl back into the window. Once again, the sight of her apartment steals the wind from her lungs. A skeleton of a rat ambles across the floor, looking drunk from lack of food. The walls of her mental torture chamber are different colors, painted with remnants from other projects. The only light on this hellish residence is a 60-watt candle, slowly swaying overhead.

"This is all I am; this is all I'm ever going to be," she exclaims in a hoarse whisper. " Why didn't the just tell me the truth my mom, dad, and dance instructor?" Their empty words of encouragement float around her head.

"Honey, we're so proud of you. You're going to be a big star," her mother promised her. "You're the best student I've ever had; you should go to New York," her music teacher suggested. "Why did they have to make me think I'm good when I'm not? I never should have ran away; I should have listened to my boyfriend and finished high school. Why did I have to ruin my life?"

Other more recent, vivid memories assault her. " You had a great audition, but you're just not what we're looking for right now," a grandfatherly director told her. "Maybe you were a little hasty coming to New York," an elderly stage manager explained. "Get out of here, you no talent hack; you're wasting my precious time!" a weasly little man screamed. With a dejected sigh she heads toward the thin barrier between her and the real world.

The mechanisms down the right side of the door seem to urge her to stay inside, as much as keep intruders out. A click, a clank, and a rattling chain later, she enters the blackened hallway. On the landing hangs the burnt remains of a sign reading "13th Floor." With a half-hearted snicker, she begins her descent to the bowels of the street below. The charred ashes that once comprised a handrail now serve as a reminder of the monthly fires occuring in the building.

A large figure melts from the shadows before her on the fifth floor. The blacknes of a weather-beaten cloak pales by comparison to the dark shade of his face. The outer edges of his eyes are as white as ivory, the only other color showing on his body. Smoke lazily rises from a joint hanging on the corner of his mouth.

"Hey honey, bin thinkin bout my offer? Won't git no better one n'wheres else. Who gonna protect you from those no-good slobs better dan me?" his deep voice rumbles.

She tries to duck to the side of the goliath, but he shifts his considerable bulk to block her path.

"Please, I have to go to work."

"If you be workin' fo me, you jus gotta work when you wanna."

"Please, Tor," she whispers shuffling her feet.

"Gonna cost you somethin. Gotta let me plant one on ya." He takes a step toward her, causing both the landing and Cassandra to tremble slightly. His joint falls to the floor at his feet, forgotten. Her lips quiver as he bends over nearly a foot and a half to make their lips meet. His massive hands roam freely about her nearly convulsing body. Rancid breath enters her throat, quickly followed by a massive tongue. He draws away and she shoots around him, his lumbering limbs too heavy to catch her.

"Wit a piece lie dat we could be makin a lotta money." His deep laughter chases her down the stairs and out the alley door. Clear vision lost somewhere around the third floor, she almost trips over the man who guards the door, and unconscious wino. After finally escaping the dungeon, Cassandra collapses between two dumpsters in the alley. Feeling dirtier than the trash around her, she begins to cry again. Voices haunt her as she drifts around in time.

"Honey, you're such a good dancer, you're going to make it big someday."

"It's not worth it, Cassandra, please don't run away. We can get married and settle down after we graduate."

"The 3:00 train for New York will begin boarding in five minutes. Good luck, kid."

"I'm dockin you one hour's pay you lazy bitch."

"Wit a piece like dat we could be makin' a lotta money."

"Hey lady," a man in coveralls yells. You're gonna have to move; we gotta take the trash." Looking up at the blurry form, she begins to sob again. "Hey Mac, get it in gear. I wanna get home before the sun goes down," a man screams from the garbage truck. Mac slowly starts walking toward the sobbing Cassandra.

"Come on, lady," Mac says in a deep voice, as he slowly touches her arm. At first she cringes from his touch, but when he grabs her arm she concedes and lets herself be picked up. He carries her around the corner of the dumpster and drops her roughly to the ground. "Ed, she's out of the way; you can dump the trash now." Mac walks away to deal with his own problems.

Looking for an escape from the pain, Cassandra notices the fire escape rigged as a second stairway. No longer caring about her job, she recklessly ascends the rusty iron frame to her apartment. She can barely see anything, and she almost falls, but she makes it to her window. The mountain of bills dominates her view of the room. She keeps climbing the stairs until she reaches the roof. Once there she looks at the city that has slowly sucked the life from her body. With three graceful steps she launches herself from the roof of the building to the alley fifteen stories below. The wind whips her hair about her face and for the first, and last, time in her life, she feels totally free.

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