by Crystal Smalls-Wright (@CSmallsWright)

YA Suspense
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Query

PRETTY AS FIRE, AND JUST AS DANGEROUS, is an 78,000-word young adult suspense novel with mystery and thriller elements. This story has #OwnVoices BIPOC representation, and is told from the perspective of a bisexual unreliable narrator. The story will appeal to fans of the high-stakes friend dynamics in DARE ME by Megan Abbott and ONE OF US IS NEXT by Karen M. McManus.

Frustrated by the crappy hands she’s been dealt in life - being stuck in a Podunk town, shitty friend and familial relationships, and being broker than a joke, Indira and her diverse crew of friends play a game called Devil’s Up. Every month they meet for this nefarious game and dare each other to commit petty crimes for cash. First, it’s stealing. Then, it’s blackmailing their teacher. Eventually, the game gets out of control and someone ends up dead— thanks to bottled-up anger, a quest for revenge, and a rash of fires that turns the town on its heels.

Desperate to break free of the toxic mess she helped create, Indira’s trapped between friends who’ve turned to mortal enemies and the dirty cop who’d rather exploit their crew than uphold the law. Indira feels like her life is out of control and going up in flames. She’s desperate to gain a semblance of control. Now, Indira will have to come clean about her involvement, betraying her friends and face possible prison time — before she becomes the next to die.

I’ve been writing professionally since I obtained my first byline while an intern at The Georgetown Times newspaper at seventeen. I received my B.A. in Journalism and English from The University of South Carolina in Columbia and an MBA thereafter. I’m a current member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) & The Authors Guild. I’m also a 2022 #RevPit winner for this manuscript.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

First Five Pages

Chapter 1

I was pouring out my heart to a scarecrow.

“Seventeen years ago, two people had sex and because of that selfish act, now I have to figure out how to survive,” I whispered, well aware the scarecrow couldn’t speak back. Ugh, get it together, Indira.

“You understand my dilemma, don’t you? I’m tied to this group.” I bore into the scarecrow’s brown button eyes. Its chunky straw-colored hair under a khaki bucket hat cooled the feverish touch of my sweaty palms. “You wouldn’t tell where my bones were buried, would you?” I chuckled at the stick figure with its arms outstretched on a wooden stake, like it had given up. “You can’t give up yet; gotta keep the birds away from the rice. I can’t give up either.”

I sighed and diverted my attention away from my fuzzy reflection in the scarecrow’s brass belt buckle. My caramel complexion and curly coif didn’t need a lick more of sun. Sweat from my forehead drenched my matted bangs over my eyes and the beauty mark on my chin needed lotion in the worst way. I whipped at Ivy, leader of our crew, as her luscious lips parted to speak. She was meaner than a raging bull, but I found her looks and swagger attractive.

“Gimme more time, on a call. But get ready, it’s going down.” Ivy yelled into a megaphone, poking her head out from the second level window of the red barn several feet away.

My eyes darted to the others spread out over the property. Chauncey back flipped off bales of hay while Dana and Scottie played Gin Rummy at an old rickety table under the window where Ivy had appeared. Raven’s tawny hands babied her geraniums at the entryway of the barn. I shot Ivy a twisted glare as my heart fluttered and my insides tingled. My body yearned for her, yet my mind knew she was more full of shit than a porta-potty.

“Are y’all listening?” I didn’t need to be closer to peep Ivy’s hazel pupils aglow and her stiletto purple nails waving wildly. “Meet me downstairs in five minutes.”

I shot my friend the scarecrow an exasperated look. The picturesque landscape at the Dudley farm was perfect for relaxing, though today’s visit wasn’t leisurely. Rows of waist-high rice plants, a metal cylinder-shaped silo and tons of tractors and other heavy machinery, dozens of buildings and a wooden log fence surrounded the perimeter of the multi-acre property.

“I’m all done. Come meet me now.” Ivy yelled what seemed like seconds later.

I patted the scarecrow’s spindly arm and forced my feet to move. Like mindless drones, we followed Ivy’s shrill voice and formed a semi-circle in the barn’s warm, shadowy entryway. My insides twisted like the thick white cobwebs in the corners of the dusty barn. The sporadic disbursement of hay on the stained cement floor reminded me of my own frenzied, scattered thoughts ricocheting in my mind.

That’s why I was here, entangled with a group I loved but also loathed. Our past bonded us like glue. What else could we do when money was scarce and opportunities in this shitty town were obsolete? Our interwoven deeds linked us, with no easy out, immovable like a finger trap—the more we pulled apart, the more this group remained stuck together.

“Hey,” I said dryly after I swallowed a lump in my throat and steadied my trembling hands by stuffing them into my jean pockets. Ivy’s warning of things intensifying worried me.

Dana's pale lips didn’t mumble a word, but her hug smothered me like the pork chops I had for supper earlier.

“Thanks, I needed that.”

Raven winked and Scottie threw me a crisp salute.

“Were you talking to the scarecrow again, Indira?” Chauncey flashed a grin, the gap in his front teeth on full display. The deep hues of his brown skin glistened with sweat as the tuscan-colored sun set. “You chat with them like they can talk back.”

“They listen and don’t judge me.” I kept my focus low. “Cute shorts, Raven.”

“Thanks.” she strutted to show off her outfit while I said a silent prayer for my stomach to stop churning and resisted the urge to upchuck my dinner.

All talking ceased once Ivy’s wheat Timberland boots stomped downstairs. The humming of the red barn’s ceiling fan soothed my anxiety and kept me from breaking down in hysterics when Ivy whipped out the first dare bag. The anticipation as the six of us waited to draw our dares had us in a collective chokehold; Ivy’s text message earlier in the day warned things were turning up a few notches.

“Is everyone ready?” Ivy grinned as she shook the bag three times. “It’s your lucky day, Raven. You’re up first.” Ivy winked.

Raven reached in and closed her eyes. “Please be an easy Devil, please,” she mumbled as she swooshed her hand around in the dare bag. I leaned over to Chauncey to speculate.

“Quiet, everyone,” Ivy shushed the growing rumblings of chatter. “Let’s hear what you pulled, Raven.” Ivy’s eyes shone with excitement. She stretched her neck and peered at the white strip of notebook paper in Raven’s shaky hands.

Raven’s eyes widened, her jaw slacked for a moment, and dread trickled down my spine.

“Hell no,” Raven protested, dropping the strip in a small puddle of water, dirt, and hay.

“Share what you chose with us.” Ivy tapped her foot.

My stomach churned with that familiar mix of nerves and excitement; I, too, was impatient. I hated this, but I loved it as well. I gripped my knees, jaw tight, as I leaned forward.

“It says I have to burn the Miller’s boat.” Raven’s voice cracked as a pained expression emerged on her face. Her jittery hand reached to cover her mouth. My eyes widened; my jaw dropped open. Raven could only blink at the slip as it floated in the water. “What sense would that make? That’s too evil.” The blue ink was now bleeding onto the edge of the page.

“Do it, draw for Devil’s Up, or we vote.” Ivy placed her hands on her hips and sighed. It was clear she was losing her patience by how her right eye twitched. “Hurry and decide now.”

This was getting too risky. It wasn’t fun anymore. It was more like torture. Playing games was supposed to be enjoyable, but this had taken a turn no one fathomed. Devil’s Up was a take on Truth or Dare, except there were no truths, only tricks and stunts. Devil meant taking the easier route; however, the stakes were higher, and the rewards were greater if you went Devil’s Up. What Ivy suggested meant Raven was up shit’s creek without a paddle. The others spread around the barn, staring and pacing as we awaited Raven’s decision. My body swayed left to right. I struggled to keep my balance from the stress as Ivy and Raven stared each other down. Raven stood quiet; her head hung low. My teeth chattered as I waited with bated breath.

“We’re all familiar with the rules by now, aren’t we?” Ivy walked a few feet, kicked the overturned white bucket, then folded her arms. “Fuck it. It’s time for a refresher.” She grinned as she twirled and froze, looking in my direction. Our eyes met... and not in the romantic way I’d been longing for. I flinched and my stomach sunk like a stone.

“Indira.” She waved me forward from where I cowered, behind an old silver step ladder ridden with splotches of stained paint. “C’mon, read us the rules. Say ‘em like you mean it.”

“Me?” I pointed to myself. My shaky knees struggled to carry me closer and out of the shadows as I bit the insides of my cheeks.

“Yes, you, Indira. Hurry.” My arms wrapped tight around me, I opened my mouth to speak, to protest. But the words died in my throat as heat rushed to my cheeks. We’d been playing for over a year, and we all knew the Devil’s Up Commandments by heart:

“Rule #1,” I cleared my throat and adjusted my collar as I spoke, “no talk or mention of the game outside of playing, regardless if it’s with each other. Rule #2, every member votes if a dare is disputed except the host, who only votes as a tiebreaker. Rule #3, no new members are allowed unless we vote on it.” The barn creaked and I jumped, shooting a look towards the tall doors. Raven mumbled something as my heart pounded.

“Indira, hurry and finish—” I white knuckled a fist of hay, cursing Ivy under my breath.

“Rule #4, if you get caught, no snitchin’. Rule #5, the game host rotates for each game, no exceptions. Rule #6, we all make up dares beforehand. Rule #7, if you choose Devil’s Up, you can skip the Devil dare. Rule #8, doing the Devil’s Up will get you one hundred bucks from everybody in the crew.” I spat out the last words fast, my lungs struggling to take in air.

“Man, I’m not tryna hear this right now. Ain’t no way I’m gonna —” Raven screamed.

“Let Indira finish, Raven. Then you can speak.”

“Rule #9, not doing a Devil gets you kicked out of the group for a month. Do it twice and you’re gone for good. Rule #10, not finishing a Devil’s Up means you’re out permanently. Rule #11, everyone’s gotta take part in each meetup unless excused ahead of time.”

“Please, I’m asking for grace, Ivy.” Raven begged. I squirmed and bit my fingernails.

“Grace is what you say before supper for the self-righteous who think it matters.”

“Hand over the other dare bag,” Raven muttered, averting her gaze from Ivy’s stare. Raven wasted no time and pulled fast. “Oh shit,” Raven huffed, her chest moving up and down with each breath.

“You’re crazy as fuck if you think I’m burning down my family’s farm.”



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Photo by Markus Petritz on Unsplash

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