by Loretta Chefchaouni (@WriterlySA)

Editor: Kyle V. Hiller (@KyleLiterally)
Young Adult Paranormal Suspense

Query

For fifteen-year-old dyspraxic Annora Genn, life’s a daily battle against her own body.

Bumps, falls, and bruises are par for the course until Annora receives an anonymous gift: a pair of red shoes that transform her from uncoordinated klutz to graceful swan just in time to impress Holmes, a cute parkour enthusiast, at the homecoming dance.

No way would Holmes be into her if he knew how clumsy she really is, so Annora continues to wear the shoes, only to be plagued by eerie dreams and stalked by bloody footprints. Not to mention the dead girl lurking in her bedroom mirror. As Annora investigates the shoes’ haunting origins, she learns the spirits of their previous owners have been trapped at a dance club in limbo by a vengeful ghost. And now she wants to possess Annora.

For all the times she’s considered her body a burden, Annora’s not about to hand it over without a fight. And maybe—just maybe—Holmes could actually like her for herself, blunders and all. But Annora may not get the chance to find out, because if she can’t release the ghosts, she’ll become one.

DANCE, DANCE, DIE! is a 70,000 word YA Paranormal Suspense. A compelling modern take on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes”, it’s perfect for fans of Eileen Cook’s UNRAVELING ISOBEL and Katie Alender’s THE DEAD GIRLS OF HYSTERIA HALL. Both my teen son and I have dyspraxia, a neurological condition that affects movement, coordination, and some cognitive skills, such as planning and processing. DANCE, DANCE, DIE! was selected as a winner in this year’s #Peerpitch, #SunVsSnow, and #Revpit contests.

First Five Pages

Sometimes I wished I were a ghost. Not the stringy-haired, hollow-eyed kind from horror flicks—the ones that turn your dreams into nightmares and leave you sleepless for weeks. Just a little less alive. Less visible.

Less physically here.

Instead, I was stuck in a body that looked normal from the outside but behaved more like a broken toy.

Had I been a ghost, that softball would have sailed right through me, and I wouldn’t have been sitting in the nurse’s office, my head feeling like King-Kong’s doormat. Judging by the first two weeks, I didn’t have a ghost’s chance of surviving freshman year. (See what I did there?)

I stood and flexed my ice-numbed fingers, working feeling back into them. “See you around, Mrs. Murphy.”

“Soon, I’m sure.” The nurse tipped me a glance, smiling tolerantly, and continued browsing Better Homes and Gardens. “And it’s Mrs. Murray.”

Right. Murray, Murray, Murray, I parroted in my head to make it stick. I casually tossed the Ziplock bag of melting cubes toward the wastebasket . . . and . . . totally missed. Unsurprisingly, the bag hit the floor with a mocking little “splat.” I quickly scooped it in. Take that!

Yeah. Real smooth, Annora.

My chest sunk with the ache of panic I always felt leaving my would-be sanctuary, but Mrs. Murray’s hospitality only extended so far. Before I could step into the empty hallway, the class bell sounded, signaling dozens of doors to fling open and an ocean of bodies to pour out. I winced and gripped the doorframe as the stampede set my nerves spinning.

With a sigh of exasperation layered with defeat, topped with a what’s-the-worse-that-can-happen cherry, I inched across the threshold, praying this time I’d make it to my locker intact.

Due to my dyspraxia, Mom had allowed me to take middle school courses online, but we agreed on giving brick and mortar high school a go. And by “agree” I mean Mom encouraging, persuading, and ultimately bribing. And me, standing my ground up until she played the kitten card, when I naturally caved.

Trying to block out the whoops and hollers all around me, I gritted my teeth and fumbled with my combination lock. After four tries, my jaw was getting sore. Why is this so complicated? I held my breath, gave a hard yank, and exhaled profusely when it finally popped open.

I traced my finger over the map taped inside, committing my route to memory. Directions had never been my forte. Everyone had needed a few days to learn their way around this concrete jungle and adjust to a new schedule. It was taking me longer with my brain wired differently.

The GPS function in particular.

I closed my locker, re-opened it for one last peek, testing my memory. Closed and locked it. Heading to class, I concentrated on not bumping anyone, but artificial lights glaring overhead and high-pitched echoes of squeaky sneakers didn’t help. A guy wearing ear-muff-sized headphones roughly shouldered past me, and I called out, “Sorry,” out of habit.

404 E.” I chanted the room number for Honors English under my breath. The classroom was one of the trickier ones, positioned in the middle of a hall rather than near the beginning or end. Only yesterday, I hadn’t realized I was in the wrong room until I found an unfamiliar girl sitting at what I thought to be my desk.

A new school meant a fresh start, but it would only take a few mishaps like that to earn the same old reputation as a scatterbrain.

I stopped near the stairs and gazed at the now familiar paper stapled to the wall. Day after day, no matter how much hurry I was in, the Homecoming poster always captured my attention. A glance at my watch—less than three minutes remained of the ridiculous four we were allotted, but pausing here had quickly become my daily ritual.

Maybe it was the fluid posture of the stock image model. There was something about her. Ballet dancer’s body. Goldish red hair blasted by an off-camera fan. Stark cheekbones to her temples. She was beautiful in a way that was haunting, almost otherworldly. I could imagine her drifting sylph-like through the world of the living. A ghost. Unseen unless she chose to make her presence known.

Her gown flowed around her in enough layers of shiny satin and sheer tulle to make Cinderella drool with envy. But the highlight of her ensemble: the shoes—red and strappy and garnished with a pair of sparkling wings, adding to the impression of a floating spirit. As though her feet would never quite touch the ground. I pressed one finger to them, half-expecting glitter to rub off.

The glossy finish rippled like water, and for a moment, another image surfaced on the poster. A girl wearing the same red shoes. She stood, haloed in the bleak yellow light of a subway station, face masked by shadow. Alone in the middle of the tracks.

The shrill and steady whistle of an oncoming train keened into my ears, and I gasped, yanking my finger back as though zapped. The keening cut off as abruptly as it had started. The poster reverted to its original form.

I blinked and squinted at it, hugging my books tightly as though they were a life raft keeping me tethered to reality. That softball must have hit me harder than I thought.

“Hey, Annora?”

A short brunette I recognized from gym class approached. Her eyes were dark and doe-shaped, her hair the plush brown of a teddy bear, and her softball swing—deadly. I almost rubbed the tender spot on my head, caught myself, and smoothed my hair. And now the girl—her name was on the tip of my tongue—waited for me to speak.

I cleared my throat. “Hello.”

“I wanted to say sorry.” She shrugged one shoulder and flexed her neck like she had a cramp. Or maybe she needed to physically crank the words out. “For hitting you with the softball.”

I wasn’t sure whether she was being nice or making fun of me. It was a tough call since I wasn’t used to being on the receiving end of apologies. The girl went still and watched me. Oh right. My turn to talk again. I chuckled, an auto-response. “Did you do it on purpose?”

She widened her eyes. “Why would you think that?”

I put on a smile that felt like something I’d dug from the back of my closet, dusty and a size too small. Hopefully, it came across as natural from the outside. “Don’t worry, my head is harder than it looks. You’re Betty, right? Aren’t we in U.S. History together, too?”

“Betsy Kimball.” She held out her hand. Her fingernails were painted rainbow colors. With Sharpies? I could like this girl. “And yes. Mr. Morgan’s class.”

I shifted my books and shook her hand, keenly aware of my grip, careful not to squeeze too tight or too loosely. Since my brain didn’t modulate pressure well, I had to pay attention to how much force I applied when closing cabinets or setting down a glass or writing with a lead pencil. Betsy smiled, so I must have struck middle ground.

“What do you think of the Sadie Hawkins idea?” She pointed a purple-nailed finger toward the poster, and her eyes did a half roll.

I chewed the inside of my cheek, embarrassed I’d never actually read the poster, an oversight I quickly remedied. “So, the girls have to ask the boys to Homecoming, instead of the other way around?”

“Yeah.” Her lips made a flat line. “It’s not very inclusive. I mean, what if a boy wants to ask a boy? Or a girl wants to ask another girl?”

“It does seem a bit outdated.” Something in her expression made me adjust my vocal setting to cottony-soft.

“Whatever.” She sighed. Pure misery flashed over her face before she tucked it behind a fraying thread of a smile. “It’s not like I’d ask anyone.”

“Aw, why not?” I didn’t know Betsy, but the insecurity coming off her triggered my nurturing instincts. “The worst they could say is no, right?” Realizing this was not the most encouraging scenario, I added, “Hey, the boys are probably having as hard of a time as us, you know? Worried no one will ask them.”

She swallowed hard, as though my advice were only marginally palatable. “Do you know who you’re asking?”

Betsy blinked her big eyes a few times.

“Me?” The word squeaked out like a stepped-upon mouse, making me cringe. “I’ve gotta get to class.”

I glanced around, getting my navigation system back on track. Escaping her loaded gaze. Beaming her another smile, brighter than the last. Hoping it could replace an answer, or at least make her forget the question. Now would have been a handy time to have some disappearing-ghost skills at my disposal.

She turned back to the poster and sighed again, expelling a large quantity of air for such a petite person. I shifted foot to foot. There had to be a way to end our exchange on a positive note. Hurry up and say something!

“Make you a deal,” I said quickly as my mind raced my tongue. “I’ll ask someone if you will. We can report back in History about how it goes?”

My tongue obviously won.

She perked up and nodded. “Sure.”

All the way to English, panic assaulted my stomach. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d put myself out to make someone feel better, but as much as I wanted to help Betsy, I’d probably made things worse for both of us.

I had a certain knack for doing that.

No matter how I tried to avoid these situations, to fade into the background, I always seemed to stumble smack into trouble. If I were a ghost, I wouldn’t be the spooky kind that sneaks up, sending the slightest shiver scurrying over someone’s skin. No, I’d be the chain-rattler everyone heard coming a mile away.

And instead of screaming, they’d laugh.

***

After dismissal, I shuffled my way through the crowded courtyard. The entire school seemed to be standing around, staring ahead enrapt. Some had their phones held up, recording.

As I neared the center of the crowd, a streak of black clothing flipped through the air. A sweep of brown hair brushed the ground, dangling between two steady arms. Even upside down, the boy was unmistakable.

Holmes Dubose: The boy I sat behind in Honors English. The boy whose name I’d doodled in my notebook and surrounded with a fleet of tiny hearts before realizing what I’d done. The boy I’d unconsciously begun imagining as the love interest in the novel I was currently reading. But this was real life.

And the boy barely knew I existed.

He sprang from a handstand to his feet in one smooth motion. Without pausing, his toned body leaped between benches, vaulted over bike racks, and scaled the high wall surrounding the courtyard. Each movement flowed flawlessly into the next. The group of students cheered and applauded with every new feat. I could see why.

Holmes didn’t just move. He moved with precision, technique, finesse.

He was a ninja with total control over his body. And he made it look easy. I would probably have broken a bone or two by merely thinking about attempting any one of the stunts he pulled off with practiced ease and efficiency.

I could have watched him all day, though. Especially hidden in the crowd like this, anonymous. He was beautiful in every way a boy could be, nearly six feet of long limbs and smooth skin and gravity defying style. The expression he wore, intense but far-away, reminded me of someone absorbed in a good book. Like he was unaware of the attention he drew. His confidence was magnetic, yet unassuming.

It was hard to take my eyes off him, but I had a mission to pursue. I’d made a promise.

The few students who weren’t watching Holmes either chatted in small groups or hunched over their phones. I searched for a friendly face, an open, inviting expression. Everyone looked either busy or bored, and in either case, unapproachable.

A thick-necked guy leaned against the metal fence, a small laser light tucked in his hand. He centered its red dot on the butt of every unfortunate girl who passed. Typical.

Whose bright idea was it for me to ask someone to the dance? Oh, yeah. Mine.

My stomach twisted into a rope and climbed toward my throat. Walking up to someone and starting a conversation was not something I did, or thought I could do. But what would I say to Betsy tomorrow if I didn’t keep my end of our deal? She was counting on me.

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