Tiny Dancer
by Dorothy Rice

Linda Wisdom                         

Polly huddled in the bathroom stall. Homogenized music echoed off the beige tile. Something about a tiny dancer. She pictured a music box ballerina released from her trap, stiffly spinning. Polly assumed the discs embedded in the ceiling were cameras. The black button eyes were everywhere. Her pee wouldn’t come. She’d been naive to think Dr. Lockhart would remove her wrist monitor. Stupid not to expect repercussions.

Polly fingered a row of jagged cuts on her wristband. Lockhart hadn’t believed her story about falling and scraping it on the pavement. She’d have to return to have the damaged device removed, a new one clamped on.

"You and your husband signed contracts," Dr. Lockhart had said. He’d reiterated the program’s benefits with the fervor of an evangelist. Free health care, fitness club membership, discounted groceries, their success story on Worldview.

"Does your husband know you’re here?" he’d asked. 

Polly didn’t tell the doctor Brad was gone.

Her husband loved his FitBand2030. He’d dropped seventy-five pounds, ending years of high blood pressure and insomnia. Brad was running marathons, with a shiny new set of friends.

Polly and Brad had signed on to get in shape before trying for a child. Starting a family no longer interested him.

"I’m finally having the time of my life," he’d said.

"Doesn’t it bug you," Polly had asked. "The way it seems to be inside your head."

"I like not having to think about what to eat or drink."

"Or feel."

"Well yeah. Who likes being bummed out?"

It was the opposite for Polly. She twitched, anticipating the beeps, buzzes and mild shocks to the tender underside of her wrist when she didn’t log her caloric intake or move the requisite ten minutes each hour. The insidious messages that scrolled across the device‘s face made her flesh crawl.

Polly closed her eyes, willed her muscles to relax.

The wristband lit up. Words—try a few slow, deep breaths—marched across the screen, followed by a row of grinning emoticons, cheeks puffed with air, then deflating with a sigh of relief. Unconsciously, Polly complied. A grudging stream of urine splashed into the bowl.

She spun the toilet paper roll. Just above the reflective steel dispenser, some anonymous soul had scrawled FREE TO BE and an 800 number. Polly touched the fresh ink, swiped her smudged fingertip on a square of toilet paper.

She’d seen the same words and number on billboards and utility poles. Likely another cult. New ones kept cropping up, promising immortality, emotional rescue, life off the grid. They gathered their acolytes, then dropped from view.

Polly flushed the toilet. As she washed her hands, a mother ushered a child into the restroom, the girl’s legs plump sausages in pink leotard and tights. Polly had looked forward to carting her own kids to lessons, fanning youthful ballerina, gymnast, or soccer star dreams. At forty, with Brad gone, children were unlikely.

Blotting damp eyes with a tissue, Polly exited the building through the pneumatic doors. She eased into her car, set her purse down, cranked up the air and clicked through the stats on her wristband. Time for lunch! scrolled across its lighted face, bookended by smiley-faced apples and carrots. Her stomach rumbled. She reached for a tub of fat-free cottage cheese, spooned the tasteless curds into her mouth.

A drone hovered just above the flat roof of the medical building, metallic eyelids flickering in the sunlight. Lockhart had warned Polly that if she didn’t take to the new FitBand, he’d sign her up for the latest clinical trial—a chip inserted beneath the skin that subverted unhealthful impulses by short-circuiting the thoughts that triggered them.

"It’s within the contract," he’d said.

Polly closed her eyes. Maybe it would be easier that way.

She’d met Brad two years ago, when he walked into the family bakery Polly inherited—one of only a handful that remained—after visiting his father, a cancer patient at the hospital next door. Brad had squinted across the counter, eyes reddened and hollow, belly stretching the buttons of his shirt.

She’d bagged his cream cheese Danish, then added two flaky biscuits. "On the house," she said. "My Mom’s cure-all. Whenever I came home from school with a long face, she’d say, how about scratch biscuits for dinner. We’d make a big mess, flour everywhere like a snowstorm. We’d cut perfect rounds with a jelly jar then eat them hot from the oven, with butter and strawberry jam."

"It was ice cream sundaes at my house," Brad had said, clutching the sack.

Three months later they married.

When enforcement of the 2020 nutrition requirements ratcheted up, she’d closed the shop rather than forsake the family recipes. What were warm biscuits without butter? Cream puffs without cream? Chocolate croissants without chocolate?

A message scrolled across the face of her FitBand2030—food won’t help. A trio of grinning stick figures pumped their right-angle arms.

Polly set her cottage cheese down on the dashboard.

The brochure Dr. Lockhart’s stocky assistant had pressed on Polly after another humiliating weigh-in poked from the top of her bag. Tips for maximizing your weight loss!  She reached for it. A slip of paper that must have been tucked inside drifted to the floorboards.

            FREE TO BE, she read. Polly recalled the aide’s intent expression as she urged the pamphlet on her, which Polly had taken as judgment over her continued failure to lose weight. But maybe it wasn’t that. 

The mother and child from the restroom emerged from the building. The little girl executed a wobbly pirouette on tip toes, one dimpled arm held high. She beamed up at the glittery pink FitBand on her wrist.

The drone drifted out of sight. Polly entered the 800 number into her phone.

"Free to be," said the man who answered, sounding gruff as a caged bear.

"Free to be, um, what?"

"Human," he said. "I’m Todd. Are you ready to join us?"

Stephan Würth                

Dorothy Rice’s fiction and essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Still Point Arts Quarterly, Split Lip and Brain, Child Magazine. Her first book, The Reluctant Artist, a memoir and art book about her father, Joe Rice (1918 - 2011), was published by Shanti Arts in 2015.