Work in progress: sample chapter of 5th book in series

chapter first

“Will you be my Drosselmeyer?” It was the Monday after Thanksgiving. Belle had barely a week until the Nutcracker drops would be hung, three days more to the first show.

She was sure there was a sofa beneath her, under the blankets and drapes, quite a solid one. But as her body sank ever deeper into the soft layers of fabric she thought maybe she was being cocooned, so he could digest her later. t’Harru’s color scheme was saturation, floor to ceiling, riotous in the soft light. She watched him turn her question, over and over, his eyes down, not on her, only his fingers moving, sliding from laced to tented over the expanse of his belly. The room was fragrant, a blend of floral and incense, but not any of the ones that made her eyes water. From the kitchen, down the hall, around a corner, with a just audible simmer of stockpots the odors of cooking food and drying herbs

She heard his breath, heavy and slow. That is good. A no could have snapped out immediately. He was considering. She looked around t’Harru’s living room, his front parlor, his visitation room. They were alone, the usual crowd of supplicants dismissed as she came in. The decor was dense Victorian, a shabby elegance, with a heavily African theme. She could see no corners, nothing was flat, nothing was pale.

t’Harru lifted his dark eyes to hers. “My Belle, beautiful lady, my Belladonna, I know that you know what you are asking. The weight of it. You alone in Roanoke City.” The rumbly bass had become natural for him.

“Thank you, t’Harru, for seeing me.”

“Oh, you know, darling, I will see you anytime.”

“But, a private audience is a signal honor. Did you know what I was going to ask?”

“Yeah, I heard about your guy, Donner; broke his hip, right?”

“Shattered. Fell down a flight of cement steps, weeks of bed rest to come, then wheelchair and hobbling. Probably won’t even be able to stand up until January.”

“It would be simpler for me to decline, with thanks for a signal offer.”

“But, the time has come? It’s been, what, forty years?”

He pressed his feet down against the recliner to snap suddenly upright and leaned towards her. “You could have asked a hundred other guys, or gone long and asked a girl. Any actor in the greater-metro could do it, if you can’t find a dancer.”

“You weren’t one of those irritating late-bloomer boys, were you? Started at sixteen, and only did the big parts? Or did you grow up in Nutcracker?”

He settled back in the chair. “Age six: party boy, then Fritz, nephew, prince, all the variations, cavalier. Checked every box. Except the weird uncle.”

“Obviously not. But you know how pivotal he is for Act One and how useful getting into Act Two. Donner wasn’t a dancer, but he played reasonably large, and he knew his cues. I had no plans to replace him.”


“Modest, not close to scale. I assume you’re lapsed, union-wise?”

“I would have a Clara, some dolls? A grandmother, a nephew?”

“Yes, all that, three dolls this year.”

“Walking or dancing? Lifts?”

“As you please. I’ll choreograph to any level you like, or fold in whatever you care to bring.”

“I had a duet once, as the nephew, with the old man.”

“Bring it.”

“Wacky, scary, creepy, hapless?”

“Anything, Art. Any way you want to play it. I’m desperate and I’m eager to shake up the show. All at your call.” She read his warning. “Sorry: t’Harru. We’ve got a run-through this afternoon.”

“Watch the name, my Belle, seriously.” He straightened in his chair. “I want to do it. I have, all these years. I don’t know if I can. Besides, on the physical level, my confession, superior mother: it has been thirty-four years since my last class, and in those years a thousand thousand sins against the body and the brain.”

“You hear the grand march, you’ll be back on the bicycle.”

“People say that. But do you know, after decades off, how weak your legs are, how much the seat hurts your crotch?”

“Thanks, t’Harru. You’ve saved my ass.”

“I will try, Belle. But I may fold, I may freak. I can’t promise yet. I’ll tell you after the run-through, the watch-through, for me.”

“Bless you, Shady Shaman of the Serengeti. Oh, two friends of yours, I think, Geoff and Ellen Fletcher, are among my party parents.”

“Geoffrey dancing? Oh, sweetheart, I’m in for that alone.”


Ellen pressed her palm against the little window in the pantry. The single pane of glass always told more about the temperature outside than Geoff’s instruments. Chilly, but softening already with the sunshine: a long-sleeved t-shirt would be enough. As she pulled her hand back she saw something blue stretched out on the steps, something big. She pulled the door open. It was a blue wool blanket, tucked around a body. She scanned the yard as she went halfway down the porch steps. Nothing weird in view except the snug-wrapped body, sprawled up the bottom three treads, lower legs tucked, resting on the slab below the stairs. Ellen descended and sat on the second tread.

“Are you alright?” she asked the lumpy shape. A nose was just visible, the head otherwise shrouded. After a second the head lifted and the oval of a face emerged. Female, young adult, slight.

“I’m Mira,” the face said. “This is James.” Her hands parted the blanket to reveal herself even tinier than Ellen had thought as she lifted the infant whom she had tucked herself around: his eyes open, wide awake, and oddly calm.

“Hello, Mira, hi James, I’m Ellen.”

“Yes,” Mira said. “Could we come inside?”

“Of course, you must be freezing.”

“No, we’re fine, we were all wrapped up.” She scooped up her blanket and went inside while Ellen held the door.

A quarter-hour later, Geoff sat across the kitchen table and watched Mira nurse James. Tiny breasts, barely any flesh backing up the swollen nipples; does breast size correlate to milk volume? Mother and son both look healthy, just skinny and famished. She packed away a lumberjack breakfast, while James sucked with lusty abandon. Ellen had thrown the breakfast together while Geoff woke up. Then she’d left for her run, having offered Mira use of the shower and the washer and drier. He sipped the perfect coffee. Ellen always made perfect coffee, she measured; Geoff eyeballed coffee, preferring to err strong, and add some water. You get extra coffee that way, usually not perfect, but pretty good. Mira could not be much over ninety pounds, maybe five feet tall. She had just consumed a four-egg cheese and mushroom omelet, three sausage patties, two muffins with butter and jelly, milk, juice and coffee. Probably made two pounds of milk while she ate. James let go the nipple just as Mira pushed her empty plate a couple inches away. She lifted him gently over her shoulder and patted the center of his back. He responded appropriately, drooling and belching onto the napkin she had shouldered first.

Geoff had expected that she would hand James to him. And that she would not close her shirt. In fact, she took it off as she stood. Back in just a minute, she said, peeling off the rest of her clothes on the way to the shower. Her skin was unmarked, so signs of trauma or abuse. She didn’t close the door, but the shower and toilet were out of his line of sight. James was on the edge of sleep, eyelids sinking a couple millimeters per second. There was a gift: fall asleep in the arms of any stranger who holds you. Pretty features, perfect little fingers and toes, a template for innocence and beauty. Geoff had no idea what to do about the one sour note, the very wet, very smelly diaper pressing into the crook of his left elbow.


“My mom says it’s the stairway to heaven and you can’t miss any of the steps.” Markey pushed up from a deep forth-position demi-plie, en pointe.

“Your mom’s a freak, you know that, right?” Pella straightened her legs at the same instant.

“She says if you don’t get Clara you’ll never get Sugar Plum and you’ll never get a contract and your career is down the toilet before you’re even fourteen.”

“So I’m halfway to heaven, ‘cause I’m doing Clara,” Pella said, “and you should go jump in front of a bus?”

“My mom’s a freak.” They waltzed away from the barrre , then back, pique passe.

“She’s trying to live out her failed dreams through you.”

“I want to be a vet,” Markey said. “I’m really good at science and stuff. Not only is that an achievable dream, it’s my dream. Meanwhile, this way is fun, because I get to do Snow and Spanish and Flowers while you’re stuck sitting next to Little Prince Penis the whole second act.”

“Augie’s okay. He didn’t ask to be a boy. It’s a weird job that somebody’s got to do.”

“Well, maybe he saved one of us from a fate worse than. It would be seriously weird and funky to have to wear one of those little ornaments everywhere you go.”

“I assume he’s used to it. A little upper body muscle would help our Augie right now, when he’s supposed to support me. But if I’m nice to him, later when he’s all pubed up and powerful and hot, maybe he’ll like me.”

“Hey, you two, this is pointe class. Show a little respect.” Megan didn’t try very hard to sound like she meant it. She was subbing for the real teacher, and as the Dew Drop Fairy in the upcoming Nutcracker, she was more peer than boss of Markey and Pella. Also, they hadn’t missed a step, not so true for the rest of the class.

Pella hoped Markey wasn’t too jealous; she was the other obvious pick for Clara this year. Had Miss Belle just flipped a coin? Or had she seen something special in her? It was a scary part, a dozen different little dances to learn, solos and duets and ensemble, plus two hours of acting. She was over halfway, learning the choreography, but there’s not much time left. Was she going to get a new Drosselmeyer now since Mr. Donner broke his leg, or was he going to hobble through it? What about their lifts? She felt sorry for him, of course, but it did kind of mess things up for her. From the beginning, he had reassured her, told her what pieces were important to learn first; plus they’d worked on all the business they had to do together. Scary to start over with somebody new, this late.


“It will be fun,” Virginia State Senator Johnny Montoya said,” that’s the main reason. Plus, it makes me look less like an anti-joy Republican.”

“You are an anti-joy Republican, dearest, who happens to have the hots for your Belle de Jour. She’s a shriveled up old lady, you know, even thought she walks around all lifted.” Tamara Montoya stood up alongside her husband.

“Yesterday you worried I’d turn my gay back on, if I did the Mother Ginger thing, big stuffed bra and all. You’re like that Roman God, looks two ways at once, and worries about both of them.”

“I want to avoid unnecessary surprises and predictable smash ups. It’s never that long to the next election, and you know better than to bewilder your base.”

“Jesus, Tammy! It’s theater, it’s make-believe, it’s for kids.”

“Okay, Johnny, fine. Have you thought about the other side? How your dancer buddies will reconcile your dress-up games with all the votes to kill their funding and keep the sissy boys from marrying each other? Do they still play dodge ball, like we did, where you stand in the middle and everybody tries to hit you? It’s not real hard, for the “it” person, until the circle learns to cooperate.”

“Is this a note of genuine concern for me? Or all about politics and standing, as usual?”

“I do genuinely care, Johnny, you know that. If you’re determined to make an ass of yourself, I won’t stop you. But I want you to know the risks and downsides.”

“Yeah, that why I stay with you, darling, despite all, so I don’t miss any risks and downsides. To think some men have to settle for romance.”

“There are the flowers that bloom in the spring, my darling, and the rocks still there when the snow melts.”

“Love you, too, Tammy-cat. Rehearsal starts in twenty minutes. You could come along with me and Jordan. You could be my partner in the party-scene. Help me keep my hands off any little ballerina girls or boys. Really, please come.” He turned her to face him, hands on her shoulders.

She froze, her head tilted left. She had never considered that. “Okay,” she said, after a minute. “I’ll call your party-scene and raise you a gross of cookies for the bake sale. We’re in this, by god we’re in! You’re my slimy old multi-sexual, Johnny dearest, nobody else gets any. There’s good press here, if we’re careful. But so as you’ll know, I will kill to protect the franchise.”


Ellen watched Mira do laundry, after she had changed James’s diaper. It was rational, being naked while you washed all your clothes. But this particular woman was naked in front of her husband, in his own kitchen. Was Geoff more moved by the turgid nipples and the fantastically tight little butt, or by the near emaciation of mother and child? She knew her mate, so she wasn’t altogether sure. Looking at the skin, both skins, there was no damage, no sign of ill treatment. Less pitiful, more strange. Geoff had noticed that, too.

Okay, she’d try something true, see where that went. “Mira,” she said, “Geoff and I have to be at a rehearsal, for Nutcracker, in twenty minutes. We’re in the show this year.”

“That is so great!” Mira said. “I can help with costumes or backstage.”

What was I expecting, Ellen wondered, or hoping for? Not that. Time for a few questions. “So, Mira, where are you from, why are you here?”

“That’s okay,” Mira said. “I’m really good with costumes, fitting, or from scratch, or just keeping them from falling apart. Do you have a sewing machine that we could bring?”

“There’s a wardrobe supervisor, they call her, Virginia Somebody. I don’t know if she needs help,” Ellen said.

“Of course she does, don’t worry about that,” Mira said.

I’m not in charge here, am I? Ellen looked at Geoff, who lifted one eyebrow, as usual in such circumstances.

“Sure,” Ellen said. “Why not? For today. Will James be okay?”

“He knows being okay is a really good thing. Only four months, but he already knows that. Is the machine packed, or do we need to gather up the parts?”


That’s a taste. Let me know what you think.