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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Contest Entry · #2218066
The last dance is saved for Herbert.
The Dance of Death

Herbert Manley surveyed the dance floor as he waited. Another week, another town, another dance competition, he thought. How many years had he been at this? He thought back to that first time, when a long forgotten girlfriend, who had insisted that he accompany her to dance classes, entered him as her partner in a dance marathon. That must have been in the sixties, he reckoned. And here he was, still clogging around the boards in search of something he stopped desiring years ago.

Oh, there’d been success on occasion, sometimes even a trophy beyond the inevitable cash prizes. But never had he broken through to the big time. The stardom that allowed you to pick and choose your competitions had never been his lot. Only this endless grind from town to town, dance hall to ballroom, club to dive, remained to him. Even these were few and far between these days, now that dance had become more a matter for young athletes on television than the pastime of millions.

He turned to look at Elsa, his long time partner. Ten years his junior, she had injected new life into a career that flagged as he began his middle years. For a while they had been young again and had set the dance floors alight with their daring routines. But age was lying in wait and, all too soon, the energy drained to be replaced by aches and pains in the mornings. These last few years they had traded on the novelty of old timers still able to cut a rug or two. The future promised even less than that.

Herbert’s thoughts grew dark as he regarded Elsa’s ravaged features. How long ago had she begun to lose the looks that drew an entire audience’s eyes to her alone? Now a pale shadow of those times, it was only self deception that enabled her to continue in this geriatric display, to believe with a defiant determination that the applause was still for her grace and beauty and not for the faintly ridiculous spectacle of two aged dinosaurs mimicking elegance and precision.

The old man shook his head and went back to his consideration of the dance floor. It, too, was clearly past its best, the boards scuffed and scratched, discoloured by the years of abuse by twirling, tripping feet. Out there in the centre, the pair before them were bringing their performance to an end. The music came to a dramatic stop and, with a wild flourish, the dancers swooped to a final embrace, suddenly still in their tableau of triumph.

Herbert stood in readiness for the voice to announce them and, beside him, Elsa took his hand. As the applause died down and the voice boomed their number, the two old dancers took to the boards once more, a partnership beyond its reason for being yet unable to devise another way to survive.

And so they commenced their act, a performance so deeply engrained into their physical forms that thought was no longer part of the process. Old bones strained one more time, sinews stretched like elastic bands to reach their appointed bounds, tired legs plodded obediently through the same old routines.

Although he gave no visible sign of distress, Herbert was already in deep trouble. A searing pain had appeared in his side and, as it spread to encompass his shoulder and began to invade his left arm, he was finding it more and more difficult to keep to the intended timing. Is this it, he wondered. Am I to be taken in the dance that has been my whole life? There’s some irony in that, he thought.

Then the pain screamed suddenly throughout his torso and, no longer able to force obedience in his body, Herbert collapsed to the floor, his legs now useless and twitching in the relief from their work. Elsa fell with him, dragged down by their clasped hands, and she moved immediately to cradle his head in her arms. She cried out for help as she saw the death hovering in his eyes.

But Herbert was no longer conscious of his surroundings. All he saw was the dark, cloaked figure standing over him and holding out a skeletal hand. From the shadowed hood came a voice, deep, echoing and redolent of dread for humanity.

“It is time, Herbert Manley. Today you have performed the dance of death and your reward awaits. Come with me.”

Herbert’s pain was gone and his being flooded with an enormous feeling of relief. At last this dreary round was over and he could rest and relax forever. He welcomed death in the end as he recognised the extent of his weariness with life. Without protest, his soul rose, took the hand proffered and went with the figure, out beyond the world, beyond the dance floor and into the eternal life that lay in waiting.

His vision cleared to reveal another dance floor. Death still stood by his side and raised an arm to indicate the boards. “Your reward as promised,” he intoned, then, in an instant, he was gone.

Drawn inexorably on to the boards, his steps reluctant but forced by some unseen power, Herbert found himself pacing to the centre of the floor. No partner awaited him and no audience craned forward breathlessly for him to begin. No music sounded to give him the cue. He was utterly alone as, deep within his immortal soul, a voice gave him his last instruction.

“Dance, Herbert Manley, dance. Dance as you have always longed to dance, dance as though your death depended on it. Dance forever and in eternity. Dance.”

Without his volition, Herbert’s feet began to move and his body swung into obedient balance above them. Is this up or down? he wondered, in the last independent moments of his being.

Word Count: 973
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