by Jess Barber
Jess Barber grew up in Tennessee, but moved to New England to attend MIT, where she studied physics and electrical engineering. After a brief stint building rocket ships in southern California, she returned to Cambridge, where she now spends her days developing open source electronics, with a focus on tools for neuroscience. Her work has previously appeared in Strange Horizons and Lightspeed Magazine.
The last song and dance number that Izzie Valdes performs in the Elegance Retreat Resort and Spa’s Weekly Michael Jackson Tribute Spectacular is “Thriller,” copyright 1982 MJJ Records.
Usually, this works out well. “Thriller” is Izzie’s favorite Michael Jackson number, and by this point in the show she’s usually pretty cranky and exhausted, so it’s nice to close out with something she enjoys. Plus, the zombie makeup is pretty sweet. It’s possible that, at twenty-eight years old, Izzie should not find zombie makeup quite so exciting, especially after eleven years of doing the same routine. But at twenty-eight years old, Izzie has better things to worry about. Things like patellar-femoral syndrome, resulting in iliotibial band tightness and weakness along the medial quadriceps.
Izzie’s thigh seizes up on a jump early in the routine. It’s been sore the whole night (the past three weeks), but the landing cinches it, and the brutal stinging behind her knee nearly takes her down. Through gritted teeth and sheer force of will she stays upright, but the rest of the routine is a stilted, limping mess.
The dance number ends with Izzie at center stage, feet planted wide apart and arms flung out to the sides. The signature evil laugh plays at the end of the track, and Izzie throws her head back in an expression of lip-synced merriment that’s more than half involuntary grimace. Pyrotechnics flare, and she escapes the stage, hiding her limp amid smoke and showers of sparkles.
George Menson, who plays the second Michael Jackson of the evening, “Bad”-era and onwards, is waiting in the wings for his cue as Izzie stumbles offstage. He eyes her as she fumbles for a bottle of water.
“You okay?” George asks.
Izzie knows that George is a good guy, that he’s asking out of concern. But he’s also a strong-bodied kid in the prime of his career and right now, she just can’t deal with him. She gurgles a response through a swallow of water and doesn’t make eye contact, tries not to show how much she’s favoring her left leg.
The heavy bass line of “Bad” starts and George rushes on stage to join the backup dancers, who melt in unison out of their staggered freeze-frame. Izzie hovers in the wings, sucking down the water, feeling rivulets of sweat cut deep crevasses in her pancake makeup.
One of the stagehand robots floats up to her, blinks its spherical eye-body in consternation. “Come on, honey,” it says. The timbre of its pre-recorded voice and mismatched intonation always makes her think of sucking on pennies. “The backup dancers will be coming through here any minute.”
Izzie nods, hands over the now-empty bottle to the mechanical claw that extends from the stagebot, and stumbles her way through the catacombs of backstage until she reaches the dressing rooms.
A swarm of tiny flying devices descends on her the second she enters, and she has to fight her way through them in order to be able to collapse onto one of the decaying chairs. Once she is immobile, they attack her again, scraping pigment off her face, combing oil from her short curls. This time she sits still and lets them, allowing her muscles to go slack, letting the adrenaline of performance drain from her fingertips.
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