The twelve girls, sisters, lived in a penthouse apartment downtown. Their father, Mr. Wygant Stone, loved them very much, as much as his twelve houses around the world, his twelve luxury cars, and his twelve gold and diamond tiepins each with a daughter’s name etched on the back. And like everything he loved and valued, the girls were kept safe from thieves and other unpredictabilities.
Of course, he did not protect the girls from themselves. He paid so much money for locks and guards he didn’t realize their own thoughts were much better made keys and escape routes.
They went out dancing every night. From the oldest, 21, to the youngest, twins, 14, they went out and got into every place they wanted.
Erin, the oldest, the one whose mother was dead, was always hungry after dancing until three in the morning. She got into the habit of stopping at a dingy diner on the way home. Her sisters went with her whether they were hungry or not. They were quite a sight together. Twelve girls, close in age, all with their father’s eyes, and each with her mother’s hair.
The girls never left clubs with boys or young men. That was the rule. They agreed not to risk their nights dancing to step into the night air with a boy. One boy was all it would take for their father to find them out.
Erin ordered a roast beef sandwich, chips, and a chocolate shake.
“You always get that,” the young man behind the counter said.
She put her money on the counter. As the oldest she kept the money for all the girls.
“You always come in here at the same time, too.”
She dropped a couple dollars in the tip jar.
“Enjoy your sandwich,” he said.
He said the same to her every night. She gave him half a smile and went to join her sisters.
At the same time they always did, the girls got up from their tables (the girls took up several tables as did the many young men who followed them in) to leave. This time the boy behind the counter decided to do one thing different.
“What are you doing?” the owner said. “We don’t take out the trash til we close.”
“But it won’t do any harm to take it out now, would it?” the young man asked. He had only a minute before the trash would make no difference.
“I don’t like to change things all willy nilly,” the owner replied. “But all right. This once since you got it all tied shut. But—hey, boy, I’m still talking.”
The young man though was out the back door and in the alley. He pitched the trash into the dumpster and kept running. Losing his job was likely.
He reached the street in time to see the last of the sisters walking by. The oldest was last, keeping an eye out for unwanted followers. The men from the clubs were all unwanted followers. A boy in an apron though was different.
All the sisters had their pretty shoes dangling from their hands. They never thought anything along the sidewalk might hurt their feet. Erin turned to see him come out of the alley, her high heel sandals in one hand, her sparkling clutch bag in the other. The streetlights reflected on her sweaty shoulders.
He could tell she recognized him. “Hi there,” he said.
“Would you dance with me?”
“What?” she asked. Her sisters hadn’t noticed she’d fallen behind. But she was the oldest. She could take care of herself.
“I don’t go to clubs. I don’t, well, I don’t have any money. But I wanted to dance with you. Just once. Like those other guys do.”
Erin looked back to the diner entrance. A few of the guys from the club were lingering there. “It’s not such a big deal to dance with one of us,” she said.
“Easy for you to say. I bet everything is easy for you to say.”
“I need to keep up with my sisters.”
“There’s no music.” This wasn’t completely true. Music from various clubs rolled down the street.
“I can keep a beat.” He offered his hand. “Erin.”
For the first time in her life, Erin felt apart from her sisters. The men in the clubs would dance with any of them.
They rarely even asked their names, but asked, “Which number are you?”
She nodded. He took the shoes from her hand and set them on the pavement. He held her hand and pulled her close. He spun her around under the streetlight.
Erin kissed him on the cheek to say goodbye. When she reached her sisters, they were waiting for her at the next corner, quiet and solemn. She laughed at their frowns and worried looks.
Their father was waiting for them along with a locksmith. “I’ve changed all the locks,” he said to greet them. “Even on the door the cleaning staff use.”
The girls didn’t speak, but the eleven younger ones looked accusingly at the oldest. “But father,” Erin said.
“Go to your rooms,” he said. “But all of you leave your shoes here. They’ll be thrown into the furnace.”
To the center of the floor eleven pairs of shoes went.
“Erin, where are your shoes?”
She looked at her hands first, then her feet.
“Who’s the boy?”
“Father,” she said, “I just left them on the sidewalk.”
“Go find them.”
She glanced at her sisters and back to their father. “Find them?”
“And don’t come home until you do.”
Erin walked out of the building she’d grown up in alone. She’d never in her life left that building without a sister by her side. It was four in the morning and street cleaning trucks rumbled by. The streets looked darker now than they had a short while ago. What was she going to do when she got to where her shoes would certainly no longer be?
She headed back to the diner as resolutely as she could in bare feet and part dress. A few drunks shouted at her. She kept walking. A car honked. The sound echoed between the buildings. Newspaper vendors began stopping in front of shops readying to open. The men, almost always men, driving the trucks, opening the locks on the stores, watched her pass by. She did her best to hide her shock. She hadn’t realized there were so many different kinds of men in the world. Everything looked different without anyone walking along beside her, and she took several wrong streets before she got to the opening of the alley.
The young man was sitting on the curb in his green work apron and her shoes in his hands. She sat down beside him careful where she put her feet.
“I guess you want these back,” he said. He kept his eyes on her silver gleaming shoes. The shoes gave nothing away of her hours and nights of dancing.
“I want you to marry me,” she said.
He turned sharply to look at her. “And live happily ever after?”
“Would you rather just keep the shoes?” she asked.
“I think these are magic shoes,” he said.
“All good dancing shoes are.”