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Photo by Barry Weatherall on Unsplash

he girl’s hands wrestle nervously in her lap like blind, albino spiders as she watches us from the rear of a crowded audience. Her eyes follow us hungrily.

She’s going to join us after the show. I know it. I’ve learned to spot girls like her almost immediately. It’s not difficult to do, really. I just look for the ones that remind me of myself when I was her age.

She looks sad and afraid, like most kids in dreamless coal towns. She sees a troupe of vibrant young women dancing in a world more beautiful than anything she’s ever imagined, and she sees a potential escape from her bleak destiny.

There’s no way for her to know that it’s all a lie. Every last thread of it.

Pietro’s Shimmering Veil hangs before us like a wispy curtain as we dance. Colors ebb and flow in the deviled material as it visually transforms everything happening upon the stage. To the audience, it makes us dancers look like glowing, angelic ballerinas pirouetting through a world of soft fire and blossoming stars.

The illusion is perfect. The truth it conceals is undetectable.

The audience doesn’t know the reality of our exhausted eyes or emaciated faces, nor the rags that ornament our bones. They can’t see the rats scuttling through the dank darkness around us. And, of course, they cannot see Pietro standing against the wall with his whispery seven-foot-frame, his surgical teeth, his silver medallion eyes gleaming as he gleefully plays at the air like a puppeteer pulling strings.

The poor little coal town girl suspects none of our deprivation. She sees only the dream that Pietro’s Veil creates. Just as I predicted, after our performance ends, she mills around waiting for the other villagers to leave.

Pietro senses her. He waits until the scene is clear and moves out the side door. As soon as he’s gone, we dancers turn to the floorboards.

Three of the girls grab the planks that we’d pulled free over prior months and set back loosely in their places at the fringes of the stage — our secret arsenal. A single nail juts out from the end of each one.

I get to work on the fourth and final board.

The plank remains lodged in place, loose but refusing to come free. I worry that pulling too hard will alert Pietro. I’ve been punished once before, and I don’t know if I can survive that again.

No, that’s not true. I can survive anything. I will. Not only for me, but for the coal town girl and all the other dancers. I take a deep breath, brace my foot on the floor, and pull. This time, the plank gives.

Pietro doesn’t hear. He’s too busy charming the new girl. In the hypnotic gleam of his silver medallion eyes, her dreams are already growing from dancing to being wholly possessed by him, just as mine had.

I look at the nail protruding from the end of my board. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever laid eyes on.

Fear and excitement fight for control of the dancers’ faces as we take our positions. More than either of those emotions, though, is a rage that lights their exhausted eyes like pagan’s bonfires.

Two of the girls pad over to each side of the doorway. Sonjita and I move to stand directly in front it, boards concealed behind our backs. The rest look on anxiously.

It would be easier to run, of course, but then some of us might not get away. Even if we did all manage to escape, Pietro would move on to find other girls. That is not an option. No one will ever be hurt by him again, neither friend nor stranger.

Pietro leads the newcomer by hand towards the stairs. Blood pounds in my ears. Bitter dryness coats my mouth. Through the terror, a grin forces its way onto my face.

For a second, I wonder what Pietro’s corpse will look like wrapped up in his own Shimmering Veil. Can the cloth make even him beautiful?

We crouch in readiness as he nears the doorway. Two nails for the back of his knees. Two more for the silver medallion eyes from which he draws his power. Four nails in all.

Four nails for our beloved Pietro.

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I’m not in the Matrix. I AM the Matrix.

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