Lyss took her position: right hip thrust out, left leg angled away, right arm limp, left hand clutching the microphone stand, chest out, head nodded to one side, eyes downcast.
The pink Aisha’s muscles obeyed out of instinct, settling into the familiar stance. Her jet black outfit hugged tightly to the contours of her body, forcing the breath out of her every time she inhaled in the darkness.
Lyss could hear voices—below, they were urgent and authoritative; above, they were indistinguishable. As a crack of light opened up above her, the Aisha could hear more clearly. A wave of screaming and shouting washed over her as the platform began to move.
The curved walls that had encapsulated her slid away as the black circle of stage she was standing on rotated upward. Lyss kept her pose, not needing to look up as the stadium came into view; it was the same as every other. A vast mass of Neopets surrounded her on all sides, and the island of stage was already occupied by unmoving dancers with shadowy skin and fur.
The noise was consistent, impersonal, suffocating. Bright lights pierced her eyes, making the reaches of the arena invisible—not that Lyss was looking. She didn’t need to see anything or anyone. She was only here to be seen.
The mechanism continued to rotate, and the Aisha became disoriented for a moment. Flashing lights combined with the overpowering noise, and she swayed slightly, regaining her balance only by tightening her grip on the microphone stand.
It was hot. Lyss felt her heart beating weakly, worn out by the effort of pumping blood all the way up to her head.
She felt detached, weightless—ironic, since Ross had told her that she’d been gaining weight recently. The sleek, cinched costume had barely fit in yesterday’s rehearsal, and Lyss hadn’t eaten all day so she could squeeze into it for tonight’s performance.
The movement below her stopped. She was now fully emerged onstage, and the lights were changing. Lyss’s feeble thoughts drifted away like a puff of smoke, and she acquiesced, allowing her well-trained body to take control.
A pink spotlight focused, trapping her within its rays as the rest of the stage faded to a blue-black. The notes of the first number began, and the Aisha’s lips separated.
She breathed the words of the song, making no sound into the microphone; nevertheless, her crystal clear voice erupted into the stadium, triggering a new wave of noise from the crowd. Lyss’s leg flexed, and her hips swung to the other side as she snapped her head up. She worked her shoulders, flitted her eyelashes, flexed her fingers in their grasp on the microphone.
Around her, the shadowy Neopets followed the beat, moving together like a new heart: pumping as one, flowing like thick water. They framed Lyss, complemented her every action, accentuated each motion, making her seem larger than life. And so she was, projected on three screens high above so that every eye could get its Neopoints’ worth.
It wasn’t long until the song became another, and the lights were different colors, and the dancers shifted to give a new texture to the performance. Through it all, Lyss didn’t miss a beat. She looked like she was having the time of her life, strutting across the stage and belting out sugar-sweet lyrics that had been crafted by the most talented teams of hitmakers in Neopia.
Her heart had been replaced by the beat of the music and rhythm of the dancers. They fueled her to complete each choreographed step—even though her legs were fatigued, and she wasn’t inhaling properly, and her head felt like it had floated off and gotten lost somewhere amidst the thousands of others in the room.
There was no heart, no thoughts, and no energy save what was injected into her system by the power of the performance. Lyss drifted through the ninety minutes of the concert, but didn’t stop there. She passed effortlessly through the brief encore, through the time it took to transport her back beneath the stage and out of the venue, and through the long Eyrie taxi ride to an extravagant hotel, scarcely knowing what was happening or where she was.
It wasn’t until Ross grabbed her wrist and said, “Hurry up, we’re late,” that Lyss realized she was at the launch party of her new candy line, wearing a glittering black evening gown and walking through a room filled with flashing cameras.
Next to her, the blue Lutari was busy muttering something to an assistant. Lyss tried to force a smile for the cameras before realizing that her face had already melted into the expression of its own accord.
Ross led her through the chaos until they reached a long table at the other end of the room. She recognized a few of the Neopets sitting behind it: the president of her record label, the spokesperson of the candy company that was sponsoring her line, Pink & Licorice by Lyss, and a public relations manager. Two seats were empty, and Ross steered her toward them.
The Aisha was starting to lose feeling in her legs. There simply wasn’t enough energy in her body to power them anymore, and she was glad for the opportunity to sit down. Just as she reached for the chair, however, Ross held her upright by the elbow and whispered without looking at her, “Not yet, not yet!”
It felt like she was leaking: the vital life fluid, the energy that pulsed through her veins and kept her going, was running down her skin like water. Lyss felt a cold shiver travel the length of her slender frame. Her limbs felt numb, and she was glad that Ross was still holding her upright, because the Aisha wasn’t sure if she’d be able to stand on her own.
At the table, the other Neopets had all stood up. The room, decorated in popping shades of pink and black, looked impossibly large. Lyss couldn’t spot the doors through the crowd of fans, celebrities, and sponsors. The suffocating grip of claustrophobia latched onto her for an instant, but her thoughts were scattered as the Lenny next to her began to speak.
“We are very happy to have you all here tonight,” she began, adjusting her glasses as the noise died down. “As president of Rainbow’s End Records, I am proud and honored to announce a new partnership between one of our biggest stars, Lyss, and the Neo-Coco Candy Company.”
Flashbulbs lit up around the room, but the pulses of Lyss’s nervous system felt like they’d shorted out. Her mind slowed to a crawl, able only to remember the fact that she would have to speak soon.
Where were the cue cards? Lyss glanced around. The table was covered in a pale pink cloth and decorated with black ribbons. Nametags were perched in front of each of the Neopets’ seats, along with tall glasses of water. Just to her left, a display had been erected to advertise the new candy line. A tangled web of black licorice ropes was dotted with glittering pink candies, which were cut into gemstone shapes. In the center, a candy figure had been crafted in the shape of an Aisha. Lyss realized that it was her, this miniature, sugary creation, whose hourglass shape only reminded her that time was fading fast.
The Lenny had stopped speaking, and Lyss saw that a Mynci was now crouched in front of the table. He held up a wide card with words on it, and Ross was squeezing her again, and Lyss forgot about the candy display as the writing floated across the air, passed through her eyes, and emerged from her mouth.
She wasn’t even aware of what she was saying, but Lyss made sure that her tone of voice was cute, that her face was molded to the right expression, and that her unsteady legs didn’t collapse beneath her.
Moments later, the room was filled with applause, and the Neo-Coco executive was cutting a black ribbon with a big pair of scissors, and Lyss was politely embracing everyone at the table.
Finally, she returned to her place next to the candy display, and Lyss forced herself to concentrate on a single thought: she needed sustenance. She needed something to eat. The Aisha hadn’t eaten all day, and it was very late, and nobody was watching her now anyway. The display was hers to take—this was a launch party for her candies, after all, even though she hadn’t seen their design until tonight.
She felt like a child, a child at her own birthday party, a child who wanted the first slice of cake and didn’t want to wait for it. Even though she had thousands of better reasons to reach out for the piece of Aisha-shaped, hard, pink candy, this was the only one her feeble mind could wrap its thoughts around. It’s mine. I’ve given up everything for this. I can at least eat a piece of candy from my own line.
With weak fingers, she plucked the hourglass figure from its web and drew it toward her lips.
“Lyss, what are you doing?”
Ross took the candy out of her hand. He made a confused face and gave a slight laugh, before turning to drop the pink object into his untouched glass of water. “Come on, I need you to get a picture with this Neo-Coco guy.” He guided her a few steps toward the Neopet, who was engaged with another representative from Rainbow’s End Records. “Don’t worry, we’re almost done here. I’ve already arranged the taxi to take you back to the hotel.” His grip around her waist was the only thing keeping her upright. “You’re doing great, Lyss. Just say some sweet nothings, and we’ll start making our way toward the door after this.” She wanted to search the room for the door again, but her brain couldn’t quite muster the energy to signal her neck to move. “And if you’re that hungry, I’ll call in a late dinner to your room. It’ll be there when you get to the hotel.”
Lyss said nothing in reply, because the candy executive had already seen her and smiled. She exchanged a few words with him, drawing from the reservoir of polite conversation ploys she had accumulated through years of publicity work. Before long, Ross was steering her past the front of the table as he hastily gave instructions to an assistant about Lyss’s fat-free, carb-free dinner.
The Aisha cast her eyes toward Ross’s glass of water, looking to see if the hourglass-shaped candy figure was still counting the seconds into the endless night.
But it wasn’t there. The water had taken on a pale pink tint, but the sugary Aisha had dissolved into nothing.
Lyss’s thoughts had lost their coherence, so she didn’t understand what was happening when a wave of despair washed over her at the sight of the empty glass. All she knew was that the last of her energy had melted away, and not even the strong arms of the Lutari next to her could prevent her slender body from collapsing.
Time passed in the darkness of her closed eyelids. When the lashes parted, for a moment Lyss forgot who she was. She had no concept of time or place other than the white walls of a hospital room and a softly beeping heart monitor. No one else was in sight. She was alone.
For a split second, Lyss felt a shadow of worry press down on her. Surely, there was somewhere she needed to be, something she needed to do, someone she needed to listen to. But as quickly as the fear arrived, it was chased away by an Acara pushing her way through the door.
“Brought some pudding for you,” said the nurse, setting down a cup of chocolate pudding on the tray next to Lyss. “Eat up. You need it.” And then she was gone.
Lyss didn’t move.
She waited for someone to stop her, for someone to hurry into the room and take her away. But no one came. So she reached out with a slender arm and picked up the cup of pudding.
With each mouthful, Lyss felt more and more real, as if her body had been worn so thin that it had faded to nothing and now was finally becoming substance once more.
She ate the pudding, and she was herself again, for the first time in too long to remember.