Voices buzzed loudly and reverberated all over the dressing room as the singers and dancers prepared their costumes for the upcoming show. The room was full of women chatting and shouting, yanking strings, tying knots, pulling on tights. A row of vanities pushed up against the wall was crowded by women struggling for space to apply make up. It was a chaotic atmosphere, and that was much of the rush of performances.

Royale sat on a stool in front of a mirror on the end. She held up her curtain of brown curls while her friend Veronique laced up her black corset for her. Royale turned her head this way and that, surveying the effect of the bright mirror lights on her face. The lights onstage would be much like that. She winced as her bodice was tightened; a sharp intake of breath accompanied each yank on the laces. A flurry of fingers, then the knot was tied. Veronique’s thin face and white blond hair appeared over Royale’s shoulder. The former blew a strand of hair out of her eyes.

“There you go, love. All set.”

“Thanks so kindly. Remind me to do yours next time.”

As Veronique wandered away, Royale turned on the stool to apply her make up. Dabbing a touch of rouge on her cheeks, she thought about the upcoming show in an hour. She repressed the nerves that lanced through her abdomen as she had learned to do over the years. Memories of her first time onstage rose to her mind. She was ten years old and more nervous than she had ever been in her life, and all she was was a chorus girl stuck in the far back of the chorus line. But still, she had been terrified. It was Sebastian whose reassurances had comforted her and calmed her down. And it was Sebastian whose later praises and congratulations were the most heartfelt.

She paused from applying mascara, holding the brush in midair. Sebastian was really the best friend she had in the world. But over the past few years, she noticed, he had become withdrawn and moody. Deep down, she knew it was because he was lonely. And even deeper down, she knew it was her fault.

When she was younger, Royale loved Sebastian. It was a childhood crush, but she could still remember how his presence made her feel like someone cared for her very much. The second half of her life, the life that was not characterized by poverty and homelessness, was characterized by Sebastian’s presence. His friendship, his care, his encouragement. Somehow, inside, she had ultimately guessed that Sebastian loved her too. But she told herself that hers was the type of girl that he would never be attracted to. To Royale, the thought of him loving her with some actual depth was stunning. She told herself that his was the love of friendship, and she was half-heartedly convinced.

Four years ago, Sebastian had said something to her that had seriously made her think. “Promise me that you will always have room for me in your heart. I want to be there wherever you go,” he said. That day in the graveyard, an uninhibited side of Sebastian had spoken to her. His actions and words said that he cared for Royale more deeply than in friendship. Her heart raced thinking about it today, which was far less dramatic of a reaction than on the day it had happened. She honestly did not know what she would do if he loved her. She supposed that her hesitation had nothing to do with Sebastian. Because subconsciously, unbeknownst to anyone, Royale was afraid of love.

Royale hurried to finish her make up and costume. In daydreaming, she had slowed considerably and lost precious time getting ready. Those kinds of thoughts could wait until after the show.

She finished up with time to spare. The women filed out of their dressing room and met the men backstage. All of the costumes looked exceptionally good tonight. It was going to be a great show.

Twenty minutes later, the deafening dance music decrescendoed, and the commotion of voices hushed. That was the signal that the lights had been dimmed and the real show was about to begin. Everyone took their places behind the immense red velvet curtain. Royale looked to Veronique on her left and gave her a shaky smile.

“Ready for this?” Veronique whispered.

“There’s no way to ever get fully ready for this,” Royale said breathlessly. “That’s why I love it.”