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Dance For Me (Fenbrook Academy #1)
Author: Helena Newbury

Chapter One

Natasha

I crashed through the main doors and had to stop dead as a gaggle of actors rushed across in front of me. For a second, my back cooked in the New York sunshine while my front froze in the icy chill of the old building. As soon as I could, I snaked past the actors and ran up the stairs.

Second floor, and I was blocked by a musician coaxing a massive, sticker-covered keyboard case through the door of a practice room. I considered climbing over him. I was in that much of a hurry.

I slipped past him and bounded up the next flight of stairs, my bag knocking against my back. I was going fast, but not too fast. The stairs at the academy were concrete, topped with black and white linoleum that was there before man walked on the moon. Every dancer knew the story of Sabrina, who missed her footing and went ass-first down half a flight, breaking her femur and missing an audition. That wasn’t going to happen to me. Not today.

Third floor and a few dancers were already milling around, ready for class. The class I was about to be late for.

My normal routine was to arrive early and get it done before anyone was around, but the bar I worked at hadn’t shut until 2 a.m. and I’d slept straight through my alarm. My choices were clear: get to class on time, but skip the only thing that would calm me; or head to the restroom, do it and face Miss Kay’s wrath.

It wasn’t really a choice. I could already feel the first tendrils of panic winding their way around my chest, tightening and tightening until they could yank me suddenly down.

I ran to the restroom and stuck my head around the door. Every one of the stalls was empty. I sprinted down the room and flung myself into the last stall in the line, ramming down my jeans and sitting all in one movement.

I pulled the vintage cigarette case from my bag, running my fingers over the embossed metal. When I bought it, it had stunk of tobacco so I’d rubbed Ylang-Ylang oil all over the inside. Pretty soon, the smell of Ylang-Ylang was hardwired in my brain to cutting. When I opened the case, the waft of it calmed me a little all on its own.

An alcohol wipe first, freezing and clammy on my inner thigh.

People thought we were suicidal, or at least foolhardy, but I was actually very careful. The last thing I wanted was a trip to the emergency room with some doctor peering at my legs. I took out a razor blade—I always used them fresh from the box—and wiped it down with another alcohol wipe, just to be on the safe side.

High up on my left inner thigh, there were six thin slashes of red, ordered by age from left to right. By the time I ran out of room, the oldest one would have healed. I was methodical like that.

I took a deep breath and started to cut.

People thought it was about the pain. I mean, they didn’t think that about me, because no one except Clarissa knew. But when they read about some poor girl in a magazine article, they shook their heads pityingly and thought that, if she wasn’t suicidal, she must be some sort of pain junkie. Not me.

When I was under stress, I felt myself...sliding. Like the floor under my feet had tilted and my whole life was shifting out of control, too fast for me to do anything about it. The memory of what happened when I was fifteen was there, the guilt waiting with open jaws as I slithered and skittered towards it.

Cutting gave me an anchor. When I cut, I immediately felt like I was latched in place, and the feeling lasted the rest of the day—sometimes into the next one. From that toehold, I could tentatively stretch out and reach other things, like friends and rehearsals and sitting eating lunch around other people, without falling to my doom. My daily dose of punishment—a millionth of what I deserved—offered up as some sort of appeasement, to stop the guilt swallowing me whole.

The day loomed before me—rehearsal followed by a trip across town followed by the biggest audition of my life—and it was like staring down the side of the Hoover Dam. I could already feel myself falling, spinning and screaming towards—

The blade traced a vibrant, scarlet line across my skin, and it was like slamming an ice axe into my slippery life. I panted and dangled there for a second, then cut a little further, just to be sure.

I slapped an alcohol wipe over the red line and clamped my lips together as it burned. Then I peeled a dressing off its backing and slapped it in place. I knew from experience that it wouldn’t show under my tights. I wrapped the blade in each of the used wipes in turn—I didn’t want some poor janitor to lose a finger—and dropped it in the bin. I checked myself in the mirror before I ran for the locker room. I was normal, for another twenty-four hours.

***

I ran into the rehearsal room late enough to get a solid glower from Miss Kay. Another five seconds and it would have been the full rant. I’d only endured that once in all the time I’d been at the academy, my freshman year, and I could still remember it word for word.

“Miss Liss!” She always did that, used “Mr.” and “Miss”. It made you feel like you were about twelve. “Do you believe I roll out of bed each morning with the primary aim of speaking to my goddamn self? Do you believe I exist as an automaton, teaching dance to the walls and you happen to be in the room by happy accident? Do you want to have any hope—whatsoever—of getting a dancing job that doesn’t involve someone poking a dollar bill into your garter?”

Every eye was on me. “No, ma’am.”

“Would you like to switch? Is that what it is? Do you want an easier life? Do you want to go join the musicians downstairs and sit in a dress playing the cello on a goddamn padded stool? Do you want to transfer to acting and stare in the mirror trying to find your f**king motivation?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Then do me the courtesy of showing up to my class on time!”

The glower I got was tame by comparison. I liked to think Miss Kay had warmed to me a little, after two years, but I was probably kidding myself.

I grabbed a tennis ball from my bag and put it between my ankles, then started doing some gentle rises at the barre. A second later, I saw Clarissa’s reflection move in next to mine in the mirror.

Clarissa had been my best friend since I’d arrived at the academy. We’d met at the door on the first day of our first semester. Fresh off the bus from New Hampshire, everything I had in a faded red rucksack as big as I was, I’d stood in front of the doors looking up at the old brick building. Clarissa had stepped out of a cab in a grey Prada dress, long blonde hair laser-straight down her back, and wheeled over her glossy black suitcase. We had nothing in common, but for a second we didn’t even have to speak. We just looked up at where we’d be spending almost every waking moment of the next four years and our shared fear bonded us for life.

Clarissa was from Boston and had as much money as I didn’t. When we’d rented a place together, everyone argued over who was dumber—her for moving into a dive with me or me for moving into somewhere I couldn’t afford. It had actually worked out great. If I hadn’t had the upward pressure from her, I would have wound up in one of those neighborhoods where crime scene tape litters the sidewalks. And if Clarissa minded not living in some fancy Upper West Side loft, she never gave any sign. I had a feeling she quite liked slumming it.

“Nervous?” She looked at me as we rose and sank in time.

I gave her a mournful look. The audition was easily the biggest thing I’d done.

“It’s ballet. You’ll ace it.”

Ballet was easily my strongest style, as well as my favorite. Of course, I was never going to be in a top ballet company—no Fenbrook dancer was. Ballet dancers apprentice with a company when they’re sixteen, when I was still in a foster home. They’re on contract within six months and their careers are over when they’re thirty.

Fenbrook gave us a slightly different path. We went in when we were eighteen and studied dance—or music, or acting, or some mixture of the three—and came out four years later with, in theory, a lot of practical experience and skills that would give us options after our bodies burned out. It was a good plan, but now that I was past the midway point, I was starting to panic. I was twenty-one and if I didn’t kick-start my career soon, I wasn’t going to have one.

***

By the end of the morning, I’d done two hours of ballet and one hour of modern. I was tired, but in that warm, loose way that comes from exercise. I took a shower, put on a fresh outfit under my street clothes—so I could avoid changing at the audition and keep my scars hidden—and hit the streets.

The audition was across town and I could have taken the subway the whole way, but I needed carbs and walking the first few blocks took me past a bagel stand. Two raisin and cinnamon bagels cleared out my loose change. It was going to be tight until I got my pay from the bar, and most of that was going to disappear on rent.

I’d worked my way through one bagel by the time I reached the subway station. As usual, Andy was sitting on a blanket outside, holding his “Veteran” sign and getting the occasional dime from passers-by.

I’d met Andy my first week in New York. He’d helped me figure out the subway map and ever since, he’d been like a good luck charm. He’d told me, over scalding hot coffee from Krispy Kreme, about fighting in Iraq. He’d been barely older than me, when he first returned. I’d tried to keep him fed through the bad times—when he barely recognized me, his eyes wild from missing his meds—and the good times, like now.

“I’m helping out at the soup kitchen,” he told me proudly as he ate the bagel I gave him. “Two nights a week. If I can get a good word from them, I figure I got a shot at something in a restaurant or a bar. Hell, even washing plates. Then maybe move into the kitchen. Get rid of this thing.” He tapped the Veteran sign.

I’d been leaning against the wall of the station, but now I slid down and sat next to him. “Really?” That sign almost seemed like a part of him. I’d watched it go through about seventy iterations, the cardboard more like cloth, it had been folded and unfolded so many times, the front of it festooned with little hand drawn Stars & Stripes and laminated with Saran wrap.

He shrugged. “I’ve seen enough vets wither up and die. You got to hang on to your past, but if you let it own you, it’ll kill you.”

***

After that morning’s crazed rush, I made sure I arrived early for the audition, warming up in the corridor until they opened the doors. I checked out the competition: some younger than me, a few a little older. Sixteen of us in total. The woman from the ad agency told us it was for four parts.

The commercial would be for some anti-anxiety med, and they wanted to show some women prancing their way through their daily lives—at the office, at home, commuting—with “their lives made joyous and free” (she actually said that) thanks to the wonder drug. They’d apparently got some hotshot director to film it, so the whole thing would be high budget and glossy. Exactly the sort of exposure I needed.

There’d be set choreography for the actual ad, but for the audition they were going to just play a couple of pieces and see what we did. I got the impression they wanted to weed out the actors who could dance and keep the dancers who could act. Except I wasn’t either. I was a dancer, plain and simple. For the seventeen thousandth time that semester, I cursed myself for not taking a single acting class. There were only a handful of us “pure” dancers at Fenbrook, and I was beginning to see why.

 

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