The afternoon of June 27th was hot and muggy. The dressing room was packed and the air conditioning barely worked. The system chugged loudly but only managed a thin sigh of cool air. It smelled like singed hair, burnt by curlers and flatirons, heady perfumes from musky to floral—and the acrid sweat of anxiety and fear. The recital was exclusively for sixteen-year-old girls. They were each allowed one woman to help them out backstage. With few exceptions, they chose their mothers. Liza Worton’s mother had died of cancer that winter, so her grandmother was helping. Em France’s mother was an alcoholic, prone to nervous episodes, so Em’s older sister, Tara, showed up. She’d done recitals on the college level, a mandatory part of her scholarship. Some people thought Tara’s experience gave Em an unfair advantage, but it wasn’t against the rules.
The girls wore matching dresses, chosen mid-April of each year—regulation so no one would get a leg up. Still, the mothers on the Dress Committee angled for colors and styles that favored their own daughters. This year’s dress was sleeveless, floor-length with a fitted skirt, green with black velvet trim at the neckline. There were seams in the bustline—some girls’ dresses puckered and others were snug, their breasts pressing against the velvet trim.
“I swear they want the girls to look sexy out there,” Mrs. Farrell said.
“Would you rather them dressed up like little girls in smock dresses and pigtails?” Ms. Lee said. She hated this whole thing, everyone could tell. She was a feminist with her own real-estate company. But her daughter, Hannah, was locked in like everybody else. Hannah was Ms. Lee’s third daughter to go through it, and she was cockier than her sisters, or maybe toughened.
“They’d probably like girls in pigtails,” Mrs. Farrell’s daughter, Imogene, said. It was caustic—as if it had shot up from a deep well of hatred. Mrs. Farrell caught Imogene’s eye and Imogene laughed—a bright hollow bubble. Mrs. Farrell was so jangled she looked like she might cry. She grabbed the blow dryer and turned it on her daughter’s already straightened hair—as if the sudden burst of air could erase the conversation altogether or drown out what might follow. She didn’t completely trust her daughter. Imogene didn’t completely trust her mother either.
Lily Harrison was watching them in the mirror. She was fascinated by the Farrells. Imogene’s oldest sister, Alexa, had lost the competition four years earlier. The recital was a competition that only had a loser, no winner. And no one wanted to lose. The family of a loser was marked forever. Even in the tight confines backstage, the other mothers and daughters moved around Imogene and her mother as if they were contaminated with bad luck.
Lily’s own luck wasn’t so great these days either. In fact, she was particularly fucked. She’d broken her ankle on a half-pipe at the skate park three days earlier. “She’ll walk it off,” her mother had said. “It’ll be fine by the time of the recital!” But it swelled and turned deep purple. Lily hadn’t been able to walk at all. Mrs. Harrison had to bring her to the doctor or she’d be dinged as an unfit mother, which wouldn’t do anyone any good. Lily would have to galumph onto stage with crutches, a cast on her right foot. She fiddled with her baby bangs; she had a seat in a chair along the row of mirrors, offered out of pity.
The girls texted madly. They uploaded pics to their accounts. All of them smiling brightly. Recitals were going on simultaneously throughout the district, at all of the high schools. Results from other schools could come in before theirs. Some recitals went on and on. It was rumored that, a few generations back, a recital had lasted all night and into the early morning.
Tonya Hill walked into the dressing room and shouted, “The audience is coming! Listen!”
The dressing room fell quiet. They heard the audience talking, coughing, spikes of laughter.
Then Mrs. Mason appeared behind Tonya. “Five minutes until lineup, ladies! Five minutes!” She had a finely spun hairdo and smelled like flavored cigarettes, smoky peaches. She wore a headset and a walkie-talkie attached to a sash on her chiffon dress. She would take a bow at the end and so she had to dress up. “You hear me? Five!” She held out her hand, fingers flared, palm taut—as if flexed, mid-convulsion.
They started buzzing. A last-minute frenzy. The mothers gave final tips and pep talks. Some reveled in the excitement. They mirrored their daughters’ smiles, rubbing Vaseline on the girls’ teeth to help them smile onstage.
Liza Worton’s grandmother, who was very short, reached up and touched Liza’s cheek. “Lord, bless this child.”
Em’s sister Tara pulled her into a corner and said, “You’re a boss bitch. You don’t fucking break, okay? You hear me? Don’t fucking break.”
“You’re not going to that fucking dance,” Tara said. There was a dance after—a dance no one wanted to go to, not even the girls in charge of decorations.
Em smirked. “I’m not going to that fucking dance.”
Lily Harrison’s mother told her, quietly, “Maybe the broken ankle is a blessing. The sympathy vote, right?”
Lily said, “I’m fine.” Something in her had gone cold and dark. She was a good athlete—three-season – and there was a sense that she could win by the sheer force of her competitive will.
Tonya Hill said to her mother, “Don’t. Don’t say a word.”
Mrs. Hill pursed her lips and obliged.
Ms. Lee’s advice was simple. “Mind over matter. Put yourself in your happy place.” They’d been on a mindfulness retreat together.
Meanwhile the Farrells faced each other and held hands, palpable fear and sadness coursing between them. “I can’t hug you,” Mrs. Farrell said. “I don’t want to rumple your dress.”
“I’ll be okay. I will.”
But they weren’t so sure. They stared at each other like they were afraid they’d never see each other again—or they would but not in the same way. Mrs. Farrell had to believe it couldn’t happen again and yet she knew—in a way no one else did—that her daughter could be forever altered by all of this.
Mrs. Mason lined the girls up, confirming the order. Some of the girls started to smile as they were waiting. When Em began to smile, Tara shook her head, meaning: Not yet. Don’t waste it. Pace yourself.
The emcee position rotated, but this year it was the new vice principal, Mr. Mackey. His voice boomed in the auditorium. “Welcome to this year’s Recital!” The audience was rowdy, and Mr. Mackey was using a monster-truck-rally voice to get them even more fired up. “Imagine this! In just a short while we’ll have the result we’ve been waiting for all year!”
The crowd was yelling, clapping, jeering a little, too. A chant broke – was it Lo-ser, Lo-ser, Lo-ser? Or Us-er? Or use-her, use-her? Or hoo-sier, hoo-sier? Hard to say, but the girls felt its deep bass in their ribs. The first section of the auditorium was all-male—a few Rotarians, local police, and firefighters, business owners, religious leaders, dentists, realtors, a few teachers, coaches, the men you saw around town on a given day. Some of the frats from the local university sent representatives, and a number of high school boys who were eighteen or older showed up. It was mandatory, in fact, for boys over eighteen on varsity lacrosse or football.
Mr. Mackey called for quiet and started to introduce the girls. It was like graduation but faster. The girls’ names were said quickly, no pause between them. They filed onto the stage, smiling and waving. Certain names were cheered, making it impossible for the next few names to be heard, but Mackey kept going and the girls kept filing out.
Some mothers moved to the co-ed seating in the back of the auditorium. Some sat in the empty chairs in the dressing rooms, wrung-out. A few stood in the wings. Their daughters couldn’t see them, but it was clear that the mothers had promised to stay close.
The girls’ singing began. They kept smiling while singing and between songs. The orchestra pit was empty. Instead, recorded music was piped in. There was no choral director. It was thought that, if a girl stopped smiling, the director might try to remind her, and that would ruin everything.
The singing wasn’t that good. It wasn’t the point and so the girls hadn’t really practiced much. What they’d practiced was smiling. Everyone was waiting for the girl who stopped smiling because that was how you lost.
Ten years earlier, Yolanda Eldridge walked out smiling and in the hushed moment before the first song started, she scowled. The recital was over. She lost. She then went to the dance. People said that Yolanda Eldridge had the loss coming to her. She was asking for it. Who would do something like that? It was disturbing.
Every few years, girls would try to talk the group into refusing to smile. But it always fell apart. One would smile and then the others—like bulbs on a line of Christmas tree lights—would brighten.
This time, the singing was fairly good. Em France, Liza Worten, three girls from the basketball team, and two cheerleaders had really strong voices and harmonized. The group smiled through patriotic songs, a song from a musical, a pop song. They plowed through a sad Irish song. For a little bit, the audience seemed to treat it like a regular choral concert. The girls knew what it was, though. Their cheeks burned. Their mouths were dry. They were perspiring through their dresses, the black velvet trim soaking up sweat.
But then the country songs. The first one was about bad luck, which could have rattled them, but no. The second country song was about a woman taking revenge. The girls could feel a change—a shaky note here and there, a thinness when it was supposed to be robust. Liza was thinking of her dead mother. She was glad she didn’t have to be here for this. Tonya started glancing side to side, wondering who was responsible for this strange fragility. Hannah was imagining herself in a lake, floating on her back at night, singing up at stars. Em stared straight ahead and smiled like a motherfucker; she would not break.
Lily Harrison. People would assume that her ankle was hurting so badly she lost focus. No. She’d been imagining herself at the skate park, the freedom of sailing back and forth along the bowl. But she shifted to the singer in the country song. Lily started to imagine that woman taking a baseball bat and beating the shit out of a cheating boyfriend’s car. She imagined how good that would feel.
Then she saw her dentist in the third row. He lived on her street. He was a neighbor. He’d known her as a little girl. He’d filled her cavities. He warned her about candy. She wanted to take a baseball bat to his Porsche. The one he washed in the driveway. She wanted to then take the baseball bat and beat him to death. She was imagining the bat against his skull but then she, Lily Harrison, was standing on this stage, smiling at these men and boys, smiling with everything she had.
And she couldn’t smile anymore. It wasn’t a decision. It happened before she could even really consider it. She stopped.
The crowd started clapping, wolf-whistling, shouting. Some of the men stood up and cupped their mouths and hooted. The younger guys bounced back in their seats, covering their mouths, laughing and pointing. Mr. Mackey pulled out a bell with a black handle. He rang it over his head.
The girls stopped singing.
“It looks like we have a loser!” Mr. Mackey said.
The girls twisted around, still smiling. They’d been taught: Do not stop smiling even if they’ve called a loser. One time, when the recital had been going on for hours, they used that tactic to trick girls to stop smiling.
The smiles were strained and some of the girls were crying. Sweat and tears blurred their mascara, pooling under their eyes, running down their cheeks. Rivulets were cutting through their base powders.
“Lily Harrison!” Mr. Mackey shouted out.
Lily was in the first row so she wouldn’t have to clunk her way up the risers. She stepped backward a little, using the crutches to hold herself up.
“It’s not fair!” Mrs. Harrison called out from the back of the auditorium. “She’s injured! She broke her ankle!”
The crowd booed.
“Mrs. Harrison,” Mr. Mackey said into the mic. “You know the rules. Injury and illness are not ways out of the recital. She’s here! She sang. She even stood the whole time!” He nodded backstage to Mrs. Mason and two of the senior boys, Charlie Funk and Marcus Henry.
“She’s in pain!” Mrs. Harrison was shoving herself past the people in her row. “She only stopped smiling because of physical pain!”
The boys walked out with Mrs. Mason. They’d never had a loser on crutches before. Mrs. Mason reached out to take the crutches from Lily, but it was clear that Lily was going to use them as a weapon, to fend off the boys.
The other girls scattered, still smiling painfully, off the risers and away from Lilly.
“She’s thankful to be here!” Mrs. Harrison ran down the aisle toward the stage. “She likes being pleasing! She smiles all the time—at men and boys! She makes them all feel good about themselves!”
Lilly swung the crutch and hit Mrs. Mason on the side of the head, knocking her to the ground. Mrs. Mason’s legs were exposed—pale with varicose veins. She scrambled to cover them with her chiffon gown.
“Mrs. Harrison,” Mr. Mackey said. “Please stop.”
Lilly swung again. Charlie caught the crutch, mid-air. He moved in quickly then. Marcus was muttering, “I’m so sorry, Lily. I’m so sorry.” They’d gone to school together since third grade.
“Don’t,” Lily said. “Don’t do it. Just leave me here.” Her voice was scratchy and tight in her throat.
The other girls whispered to each other.
“Is it over?”
“Is she going to the dance? Are we done?”
“Can we leave?”
“Mrs. Mason? Can we go?”
Mrs. Mason was bleeding, a cut above her eyebrow. “No! Stay to the end!”
There only needed to be one girl at that dance after all. Lily
Charlie had his arms around Lily’s chest. She swung her crutches wildly. “Don’t! No!”
“Shut up,” Charlie said. “You’re making it a thing. Don’t make it a thing.”
“She’s a good girl!” Mrs. Harrison screamed. For some people, the mothers were the best part. Mrs. Harrison was delighting them. “She wants men to know that they’re smart and funny and good looking! She smiles all the time!” She threw her arms at the girls on stage. “Girls! Tell them!”
The girls—including Imogene, Liza, Hannah, Tonya and Em—looked away. They said nothing.
Lily kicked off her high heels, trying to steady herself on bare feet so she could swing the cast at Marcus. She clawed at Charlie’s face. She bucked and arched.
“Get her fucking legs!” Charlie shouted to Marcus.
“Get-her-legs! Get-her-legs! Get-her-legs!” the men chanted.
“Lily!” Mrs. Harrison screamed. “Lily!”
Once Lily’s legs were off the ground, she was easy to carry. The boys hauled her off and she was gone, but Lily’s voice could still be heard, calling for her mother. The crowd held their applause until the very last cry and the silence that followed, broken only by the girls softly crying on stage, their smiles fading. Finally, they erupted into cheers and all of the men headed to the gym, where, soon enough, they would be upon her.
Julianna Baggott is the author of many novels, including Pure and Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders, both New York Times Notable Books of the Year. Her stories, essays, and poems have been published and anthologized widely with appearances in Best American Poetry, Agni, at Tor.com, and on NPR. She teaches screenwriting at the Florida State University Film School and is the creator of Efficient Creativity: The Six-Week Audio Series. Baggott is an admirer of Shirley Jackson and this story is her homage to “The Lottery.” Follow her on Twitter at @jcbaggott.