Hungry for Leo by C.L. Cruz


Chapter One



The music stops and I applaud the six tiny dancers in their pink leotards who hold their final positions with the poise and grace of…well, of seven-year-old girls.

“That was beautiful,” I tell them. “I think you’re ready for your recital. How do you feel?”

I’m answered by a chorus of, “Tired,” and “Good.” Someone says they feel like a nutcracker, and that gets a lot of giggles even if it is fitting for the dance they’re doing.

I laugh along with the girls as the parents pour into the studio to collect their little charges from my afternoon children’s ballet class. As they file out, talking excitedly, I sit on the polished wooden floor beside the mirror and remove my slippers, rubbing my aching feet. After this, I’ll change and spend the next eight hours running back and forth waiting tables at my second job, the one that actually pays the bills (for the most part).

But as busy and as tired as I am, I wouldn’t trade my afternoons at the studio for anything. I’ve been dancing since I was old enough to walk. I don’t have a lot of memories of my mom, who passed away when I was young, but seeing her watch me through the studio window, her face split wide with a smile, is one of them. Dancing is what fuels my soul and gets me through the hard times, no matter how ridiculous other people, like my dad or sisters, might think it is for a thirty-something-year-old to be running around in a tutu.

“Ms. Price?” comes a small voice from beside me.

I look up from my foot massage and see Maddy, a sweet little girl from my class. She’s carrying her scuffed ballet slippers, and her feet are stuffed into untied sneakers. Behind her, I can see her dad in the lobby talking to some of the other parents.

“Yes, honey?”

“My big sister says I’m too fat for ballet.”

I gasp and push up onto my knees so we’re at eye level. As a curvy girl myself, comments like that cut deep, especially when they’re directed at one of my girls.

“Let me tell you something about big sisters,” I say. “They only think they know it all. If I listened to everything my sisters said I couldn’t do, do you know where I’d be?”

She screws up her face thoughtfully. “No.”

“Me neither, but I wouldn’t be here doing what I love.”

“And I bet your hair wouldn’t be so pretty,” she adds.

I tuck an escaped lavender strand behind my ear. “Definitely not. My mom used to say that any body can be a dancer’s body. All you have to do is dance.”

She nods as her dad calls her to leave. “Okay.”

“See you tomorrow?” I ask, giving her a quick hug.

She nods again and runs off, leaving me to lock up the studio and head home to get ready for my real job.

Lion Street Restaurant is in a two-story brick building that overlooks the canal in the edgy East Oakmagne neighborhood. It’s surrounded by tech start-ups, indie stores, and apartments that cost more in one month than I probably make in a year. Since I can’t afford to live anywhere near it and parking is a battle, I take the train in. I usually enjoy the twenty minutes I get to myself, but today, just as I find an empty window seat and settle in for the ride, my phone rings.

I glance at the screen and groan. “Speaking of big sisters,” I mutter, remembering my earlier conversation with Maddy. Then, I accept the call, only because I know my oldest sister, and she won’t stop until she talks to me. I can’t risk her calling the restaurant.

“Hi, Diane,” I say into the receiver.

“Gilly,” she barks. “What’s all that noise?”

“I’m on the train,” I tell her. “Headed to work.”

She hums disapprovingly. “Did your car get repossessed?”

I roll my eyes at my reflection in the window. Beyond it, the sun reflects off the river and the downtown high-rises in the distance. “No,” I tell her, thinking of my old VW Bug—which is completely paid off, thank you very much—parked in my driveway at home. “I like public transportation.”

My sister, who has probably never used public transportation in her life, smacks her teeth and says, “Of course you do.” Then, with a sigh, she says, “I’m calling about Thanksgiving.”

“What about it?” I ask distractedly. The holiday is fast approaching, a fact I’ve been trying to ignore.

“Well, it’s your turn to host.”

I sit up a little straighter in my seat. Ever since I decided to open my dance studio instead of pursuing my accounting degree so that I can join Dad’s firm with my sisters, I’ve been the outcast of the family. The only one without a desk job and a husband and a McMansion in the suburbs. So, when they decided to start rotating Thanksgiving dinners between them, I’d just assumed they would skip me like they usually do.

Diane interprets my surprised silence as reluctance. “Of course, we understand if you aren’t up to it. It is a big responsibility, after all, hosting everyone. And we all know how you feel about responsibilities.”

“I would love to have everyone for Thanksgiving,” I interrupt without thinking.

It’s Diane’s turn for a stunned pause. “Are you sure?”

No, I definitely am not sure. Between work, the ballet recital for the kids, and the fact that I can’t cook worth a damn, this is sure to be a giant disaster. But I can’t say any of that—not to Diane.

“Of course,” I tell her instead. “I can’t wait.”

I end the call quickly before she can get in any more jabs. The train drops me off at the station in East Oakmagne, and I make it to work just in time to clock in for my shift. For the next few hours, I’ll be able to lose myself in the chaos of the dinner rush, but I know that once things slow down, I’m going to have to face the reality of what I just did.

Hosting a Price Family Thanksgiving is no small feat.

Hosting it by myself in my small house with no discernible cooking skills?

Practically impossible.

But I’m resourceful, and no stranger to creative solutions. If anyone can pull it off, I have to believe that it’s me.