This is the eighth finalist in Young Post's 2014 Summer Story competition in which book vouchers and tickets to Ocean Park are up for grabs. The winning entry will appear in Young Post on August 29
Alice was running ... for quite some time now, but she had to keep going.
"It's not too late."
"There's still next year."
"All you need to do is work harder."
"But you have talent!"
Alice begged to differ. Talent would have got her a place three years ago. Talent would have guaranteed a spot straight away without competition, because that's what they specifically say they're looking for, right? Talent. If there ever was a time when Alice believed that she was predisposed with exceptional ability, that time had passed long ago.
Had she given up? No, of course not, if giving up meant she would stop sending applications year after year ... not sending applications was unthinkable. It would be a ritual: mail to be sent every December, to be forgotten about until 12 months later - like running a marathon, when your legs become so tired that you can't feel them and they simply keep pounding the floor because the movement has become part of who you are. And Alice was tired, so very tired of running.
Alice had to keep running.
"There's a letter for you, Alice."
Her mother had lately taken up a tone of what she probably took to be gentle cheeriness, which instead seemed to ooze "My deepest condolences" in every syllable. Alice found this exceedingly frustrating. In her opinion, her intentionally sensitive and understanding undertones were more fitting to a morgue. If she were in good humour, she would've asked who had died. But she wasn't, so she took to sulking and doing her best to hold in a scream.
"I'll read it when I come back."
"Where are you going?"
"Just to get some fresh air."
"Okay, but don't be too long, dinner's at seven."
Alice slammed the door and headed for the stairwell.
Alice paused as she reached the hedge, out of breath. She tried to remember what had brought her from the comfortable spot under the tree. Something much more interesting than the book her sister had been reading, she was sure. She could recall that it had been something ordinary but extremely fascinating all at once ... she just couldn't remember what.
Alice never thought she would resent an invitation to a live audition, but she did. Send her no response at all, as they had done before, why couldn't they? Just tell her she was no good and leave her be. She was used to silent rejections, but why did they need to bring everything back - the butterflies in her stomach, the daydreams of receiving a letter of admission, the fantasy of actually studying at Juilliard, for heaven's sake - by holding her up as someone worth their time?
Alice could cry in earnest now, as she opened the terrace door. Nobody to offer their concern here. Nobody to tell her to keep going. Up here, Alice was alone.
Why was Alice running?
New York frustrated Alice. It made her sick to think about the city. But worst of all, more than anything, it brought her joy. There was no denying the happiness associated with her last trip there. Hell, it would probably be the happiest moment of her entire life. Ironic, how the best day of her life would be the source of such unbearable misery. But it would be the best day of her life, Alice was sure. Because it would remain, through everything, the day when her dreams almost intersected with reality - the day her ambition, her reason for living, came the closest to realisation. What crueller and yet more compassionate act can life commit than convincing her utterly, as she stood waiting her turn in the halls of Juilliard, that she was going to study, spend the next four years of her life, in that very place? This was where she was going to live; this was where she would take her classes; she would probably have trouble finding the mess; and my, it would be a dream to come in to this chandelier every morning!
Alice was convinced that those dazzling glass walls, those majestic pillars, those ethereal lights, and most of all that inexpressible happiness would continue to torture her for the rest of her life. She could have studied there, she could have danced with the very best!
She was not giving up. How dare they even suggest that. Even if she was doomed to failure, born a fluke, she wasn't giving up. Not for all the money in the world. Definitely not for an institute in a pathetic city like Hong Kong.
It suddenly came to Alice's attention that there was a gaping hole before her. A rabbit hole. She had a curious feeling that she was meant to go down it. She had been chasing something, which for some reason must have gone down the hole.
Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. As if the city by itself wasn't humiliating enough, they had the nerve to pretend it was sophisticated. Like hell was she going to decay in the desert that was Hong Kong. She had to leave, had to escape, because she could not endure the complacency, the normality, the mediocrity any longer. These concrete pillars and polluted streets had nothing for Alice.
What was Alice chasing? She just couldn't remember. All she knew was that the hole before her was dark and ugly. It radiated a wholesome air that seemed to suffocate her even as she stared down it. Probably full of worms and grime, she thought to herself.
She knew their plan, the traitors. Put APA in your Jupas application, Alice. Of course you'll be accepted at Juilliard, but just as a backup. Better safe than sorry, right, Alice? They knew she never had a chance at something as prestigious as Juilliard. Plain Alice is better suited to an academy in Hong Kong. How dare they? Top scores in the SATs and Toefl, and she was supposed to stake her life on her DSE results? Her scores would be dismal. Five weeks away, and hardly any studying done. She blamed herself of course, and her foolishly wondrous dream.
She was definitely not going down there.
Not APA. No. She had made up her mind. She would keep sending applications to Juilliard. She had made it to the fourth callbacks this time. Maybe, just maybe, next year ...
But time was running out. In fact, it was all but spent. Sixteen was the optimal age for getting into the School of American Ballet. But she never really had a chance then, not really, so nobody was surprised she wasn't accepted, and after that the school was crossed off the list. At 17, she could've got into Juilliard, but her prescreening CD received no reply. But 18 was when the clock starts ticking. She'd be 21 after university: no decent dance company, and certainly not the American Ballet Theatre, would ever consider accepting anyone over 21.
So. It didn't matter whether or not she'd given up. The world had decided for her.
Alice decided she would rather stay up here, in the sunlight, thank you very much, where everything was clear and certain.
Death was certain. It was the only thing that ever was, really. People could talk all they wanted about the "mystery" of death, worrying about "what lies on the other side", but there is no "moving forward", there is just pain, and ending, and that was that. Alice decided she was not scared of death. The pain maybe, yes, but death itself was simply always there. The end of the line no matter what we do, how hard we dance, and I'm quite tired of dancing, thought Alice. Tired of dancing without music and reason, not knowing whether they'd break your arm next, after they've finished with your leg, all the while telling you to keep going, God knows why. Would they like her pinky first, or would they rather take all five fingers at once? Alice laughed. She thought there would be some fairness in the game, but there wasn't, and she wasn't going to play anymore, not when each uncertainty was paid with pain. Simply a shortcut, this was. Life was a shortcut to the only certainty there was in the world.
Alice heard a voice from the hole.
Music, suddenly. She wasn't sure if it was just inside her head. But it was there. Clearly. The Nutcracker Suite.
A rabbit! Alice remembered now. A curious white rabbit, with a waistcoat and a pocket watch. Alice even remembered that it had been talking. It had seemed to be in a terrible hurry, and she had been chasing after it.
Alice was seven. The family was visiting Uncle Phelps in New York, who had front row seats to a New York City Ballet show. The music bored Alice at first. It was like the countless orchestral recitals her parents had made her watch in Hong Kong. But the song ended, and the curtain was raised as the conductor struck up a new piece, revealing a different world behind.
There was snow, actual snow, falling from the ceiling. Trees, too, standing on a darkened street. And under the falling snow, beneath the thin branches, there was dancing. A new song, and the street was transformed into a ballroom, a Christmas tree in the midst. And children, dressed in white, prancing, spinning, marching ... The raucous yells of the cousins disappeared, and the seat beneath her vanished, as the children danced to the Nutcracker Suite, and continued to prance in perpetual grace whenever Alice closed her eyes in restless sleep.
Alice closed her eyes now, on the edge of the terrace, and took a deep breath.
Without hesitation, Alice jumped.
"Back so soon?"
"Didn't want to keep dinner waiting."
"The letter's on the table, before I take out the food."
Alice opened the envelope and took out the folded paper.
"Dear Ms Lo, The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts Committee are pleased to inform you that you have been offered a conditional offer of admission by the Admissions Board ..."
"What is it?"
Alice didn't answer as she held on to the piece of paper.
"Can you bring out the food, please, Mum? I'm starving."
Down the rabbit hole it was, then.