12 Tanzen Lane
by H. E. Casson
Tanzen House was Victorian. At the time, I didn’t know what Victorian meant.
Then Duo said, like it was a thing people just knew, “It means this house was built while Queen Victoria was alive.”
Yeah, I guess that made sense.
Our house was Victorian and my room was the smallest. Duo called it the shoe box, so I cut out pictures of shoes and decorated my door. Nikes, Adidas, Manolos – they were all shoes I couldn’t afford. I wore dollar store shoes and hand-me-downs. He thought that was funny.
Tanzen House had twelve residents, but people left all the time. Maybe they got pregnant or broke too many rules. Sometimes they moved back home. A person would disappear and a new person would show up, like a depressing magic trick. Before the newbie came, we would shuffle around, trying to get a better room. My room was a rectangle with a mattress, so I was hoping someone would move out soon (maybe not Duo, but someone).
Duo is a guy, by the way. The church who sponsored us didn’t let Trans kids go to houses that matched their gender, so he was with us. I was sad for him, but glad for me. I wouldn’t have met him otherwise. He had a medium sized room on the second floor, big enough for a dresser and a bookshelf.
Sylvia had the biggest room. She could lie down on her floor and not touch a single wall or piece of furniture, and she was nearly six feet tall. She had a shaved head and stars tattooed right on her face. Sylvia was the resident youth monitor. That meant she was one of us, but also one of them, too.
The first time I hadn’t done my dishes, Sylvia put them in a bucket of water and left them on the back porch to freeze. I had to wait almost all day for a bowl to melt so I could microwave some ramen. I would have said something, but again: six feet tall, face tattoos. Sylvia was the reason Duo and me mostly hid in our rooms.
I knew it was Sylvia.
“Who’s there?” I tried not to sound scared of her.
“Ha ha.” She said it like she knew, like: I get that you’re trying to be funny, but you’re not.
“Ha ha who?”
I was pretty gutsy through a closed door. I scooched up off my mattress and peeked out. She pushed past me and plopped herself down. It was the first time I’d ever seen Sylvia in the shoe box and she made it seem even smaller.
“You take van, right?”
No warm up, no lead in.
“Yeah,” I said. I took Ativan for my anxiety. It didn’t always help. The stuff I was afraid of was bigger than what a little white pill could fix.
“Good. Grab your bottle and come with me,” she said, like my ‘yes’ was a sure thing.
“What do you need it for?”
“I’m going to show you what happens to the shoes.”
That was what got me. The whole house had theories about what happened to the shoes. Mine was ghosts: Victorian ghosts in long dresses who wanted cool shoes. Or maybe one of the kids low-key hated the other eleven and wanted to mess with us so they put holes in all our shoes.
“It’s a conspiracy,” I’d once overheard Jason, one of the actual grown up house monitors, saying on the phone, “some kind of high-end prank.”
He said it again when he found the boxes in the basement room where all the left-behind stuff goes. There were so many shoes — mary-janes, platforms, high-tops, moon-shoes — all worn right through.
My mom used to say I asked too many questions. It never stopped me asking, but eventually, I questioned myself right out of her house, when I asked why I had to sit at the dinner table beside her boyfriend when he wouldn’t keep his hand off my leg. That’s why I followed Sylvia, even though I didn’t want to: she’d promised me an answer.
Sylvia stopped in front of the staff room.
“Give me the van.”
An hour later, Jason was asleep in the office. That many Ativan in a coffee will knock anyone out. I get now that we shouldn’t have done it, but it was so us-and-them at Tanzen. Bad stuff just felt like balancing the scales. That’s when we went knocking on doors. When she had us all collected, Sylvia led the way downstairs.
“We’re not sneaking out?” I stopped two steps down.
She gave me the same look my mom did when I asked questions. It said, if I wanted you to know, I’d tell you.
We went down to the basement room, the one where Jason found the shoes. At the door, Sylvia looked at her watch. I bit my lip against the questions.
“It’s 12:12. Hold hands.”
All twelve of us grabbed the hands of the people next to us. We would have made a circle if the hall had been bigger, but we were stuck between a stairway and a wall. Duo’s hand was warmer than mine and bigger. He was sweating a bit, like he was excited or nervous. I squeezed to tell him it was okay, which was weird because I didn’t know what was going on.
“Here at the time when our spiritual eye is open, I stand at the door. Let it take me to the dance. Let me return when morning comes. So mote it be.”
Sylvia’s voice was like my mom’s TV preachers, solid and sure.
“So mote it be.” Everyone but me knew to echo this part.
Now my hands were sweating too.
Sylvia opened the door and it was like I was going to my favourite place, a place I vacationed every year — or maybe even like going home. There were tall trees, taller than I’ve ever seen. They were thick with leaves, and the leaves were no colour that had ever existed.
“It’s not the trees,” Duo leaned over to me while I stumbled into the forest.
He was lit up like someone had turned on his joy for the first time. He had a dimple!
“Trees are always that amazing. We just can’t see it. It’s like we’re colour blind. Sylvia calls it butterfly sight, because they see way more colours than us.”
He was still holding my hand from the hall. He hadn’t let go.
“Let’s dance!” Sylvia said it in her normal voice, but it shook the forest.
The wind and the branches clacked out a rhythm. The sweet smelling pool that sat to one side let out a coo and howl that was like no music I knew.
I don’t dance. Mom said it was dirty and anyway, her boyfriend was creepy enough when I kept myself still and hidden away. It didn’t matter. The music seemed to set me in motion and I danced. First it felt like a ripping apart. My muscles, usually all bunched up, pulled against me. It was like claws under my skin, yanking out all of my damage and replacing it with bird songs and bug hums. It was the most brilliant pain I’d ever felt.
I can tell you we danced until morning, but I can’t tell you how long we danced. Hours. Days. Years. I danced till my shoes smoked and burned through. I danced away my mother and her boyfriend and my teachers and every kid in every home who hated me or hurt me. I danced hands off my body and knives out of my back. I danced until I was the colour of the trees, a colour I had always been, but just couldn’t see. I danced until Duo and I were one person and neither of us was in pain. Around us, the other ten danced too. Sometimes together, sometimes alone, we vibrated with the forest.
I didn’t see the Sun rise or the trees fade to green. I didn’t see the walls grow up around us or the room fill with boxes of other kids’ crap. Instead I felt the weight hit my chest. My body knew before my brain did that I was back in Tanzen House and I was just Maria again.
That night, I knocked on Sylvia’s door.
“I have more van. Are we going tonight?”
“Only on the full moon, idiot.”
It hit me hard, the not going back. Being me without the dance felt impossible. It hit Duo too. Every night he was in my room until curfew.
“You should do your homework.”
“You should eat something.”
“You should go to your appointment.”
I tried to get him to do anything, but all he seemed to want to do was wait. Not dancing sucked all the colour out of everything. It seemed to sink the whole house. I didn’t even care that my feet stuck out the bottom of my shoes. The holes were a promise that, in just a few weeks, I could go back there again.
I was staring at the wall of the shoe box room when I heard the ambulance. After the music, every noise felt like a punch, but this noise was the worst. All eleven of us were on the porch with Jason when Shonna was loaded into the ambulance. No matter what, she wouldn’t be coming back. Suicides couldn’t stay at Tanzen house. They went somewhere else.
“Why didn’t she just wait for the dance?” Adewume asked, sounding like she might not make it.
I spent the next few days staring at my wall and checking the full moon app on my phone, counting down to the next dance.
“Knock knock.” It was Duo this time.
I opened the door, new shoes already on my feet. They were Doc Martins with bouncing soles that I’d found in the school lost and found.
“Come on,” he took my hand, “you have the pills?”
I passed them over.
I had put up with panic attacks to save them up, which was hard because the panic was worse now. The depression was worse too, but tonight was the dance. He smiled and the dimple popped into his cheek. I hadn’t seen it in almost a month. I smiled back. It felt weird, like my face wasn’t used to it anymore.
We snuck down to the staff room again. I stood guard, looking this way and that, making sure Duo didn’t get caught. He came out and together we waited for Jason to fall asleep, then down we went to the door.
Standing in front of it, feeling the joy around the cracks, my brain started to run. What was the door? How did it work? Where did we go? Why, in a whole month, had I never asked these questions? Or any questions at all? The rest of the girls were waiting. Adewume was crying and Jan was shaking. Sylvia stood a head taller than most of them, looking ready to dropkick the world.
She gave Duo the same look she gave me when I didn’t clean the shared bathroom on my day.
Again she said the words and again she opened the door. It was like the wave pool at the water park, pulling me forward and under at the same time. I wanted to let it take me, but those unasked questions had me scared.
“Fight it,” I heard Duo, felt his breath hit my ear.
He was close and he had his arm across my chest, like a barrier. When the rest had gone to dance, he slammed the door shut.
It burst out of me, relief and sadness mashed together in one sound.
“I didn’t give him the pills. I was hoping…After Shonna…”
“But he’s asleep.”
I could feel the pull of the forest rolling back.
Duo shrugged, “He’s lazy.”
“I wanted to go.”
I started to cry.
He kissed me on my forehead and pulled me close to his chest.
In the morning, Jason found nine girls passed out in the basement room, holes in all their shoes. After that, Monitors had to do bed-checks at night. I don’t know how often the girls managed to sneak back, but the dance called them down and they went down. Then they fell apart. They scattered. Some ran off. Some ended up in other homes. Another ambulance was called.
Duo and I stayed for a year. Soon he had the biggest room. In it, we would put on music and dance. We never wore through our shoes and we never saw colours that shouldn’t be, but we held each other close and became each other’s forest.
We danced. Without magic, we danced.
About the Author
H. E. Casson (they/them), whose name rhymes with “class-in”, is a Toronto area writer who also works in art studio operations. They are old enough to remember at least two eras in which everyone wore plaid. They’ve been writing since their kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Crouch, taught them how to string together words – but have shifted in the last year to submitting and sharing more of their work. What’s out there can be found at hecasson.com. They were happy to see a recent slipstream story, “The Tywndarids,” published in a short story collection, The Twofer Compendium, available on Amazon, and a near future, non-binary love story, “Seeking Same,” published at apparitionlit.com.
About the Narrator
Larissa is an actor and filmmaker living and working in Vancouver, BC (Canada). She’s a big fan of make-believe and will find any excuse possible to dress up in costume. No stranger to independent productions – or being interviewed on video or audio formats – she has a passion for sharing stories she loves with the world.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.