Authors: Carol M. Tanzman
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Mysteries & Detective Stories, #Performing Arts, #Dance
I hear the name first. Behind me, in the park. The end of daylight savings time has brought dusk earlier than I expected, so I can’t quite see the guy’s features. He looks sinister in his long, gray trench coat.
“Dancergirl—” he starts. The roar of a bus cuts off the rest. I glance at the street. Yes! If I can get to the corner before the bus leaves, I’ll be safe.
My legs weigh me down. Heeled boots cover my feet and I can’t get any traction. I look over my shoulder. The guy is gaining….
The pneumatic hiss of the closing bus doors gets my attention.
“No!” I wail. “Don’t leave! Wait!”
The driver sees me through the side window. Gives an evil smile. A cloud of noxious smoke spurts out of the tailpipe as the bus pulls into traffic. The old man sitting in the back seat looks at me. His toothless grin mouths, “Dancergirl…”
I wake up fighting for air. It’s 2:00 a.m. It was only a dream…this time.
For Peter Cooper
His faith and quirky brilliance lit the way
You know the feeling you get when you’re on the subway. Or a bus. Coffeehouse. Anyplace where people hang out. You’re texting, or cramming the rest of your homework, when suddenly you feel…something. Back of the neck prickle, goose bumps all over your arms.
You glance up—and there he is. Some cretin, pupils burning, staring at you like he’s got X-ray vision. Ripping through your clothes. Bra, panties—whatever turns the creep on. He catches your eye—that’s what he’s hoping to do—and then he does something gross. Draws his tongue over his lips, makes some crude smacking sound, gives a lewd wink. Immediately, you look down, pretending you haven’t seen anything.
But you know he knows….
That’s exactly what’s happening. The sick feeling that someone’s staring at me. Only I’m not on the subway. Or the bus. Or even a park bench.
I’m in my bedroom. Alone.
“Question of the day,” Jacy says. “What’s the worst thing that could happen to you?”
Jeremy Carl Strode, aka Jacy, settles beside me on the worn marble stoop of the brick building we both call home. Jacy and his parents live on the fifth floor; Mom and I have the apartment above them.
“Alicia!” His bony elbow pokes me. Jacy’s wearing the vintage AC/DC tee I gave him for his sixteenth birthday and a pair of ripped jeans. Knowing him, he’s probably got on zero underwear because of the August heat wave.
“I heard you,” I say. “Are you talking about school next year or, like, life?”
I fan my orange tank top over my stomach. “Is this for the
Just before classes ended in June, Jacy was named features editor at WiHi, our neighborhood public school officially known as Washington Irving High. He’s in line for editor-
in-chief when we’re seniors
he can keep his father, “Mr. Go to MIT and Be An Engineer,” out of his mop of curly hair.
“Let me think,” I say.
“That’ll take a while.”
“Not everyone aces Calc in tenth, genius-man.”
Jacy ducks his head in embarrassment and checks his cell. “Better get going if you want to show up to work on time.”
In June, I’d scored a job at Moving Arts, the studio where I study dance. The sweetest part is that I can take as many classes as I want for free.
Halfway down the steps, Jacy trips and slides the rest of the way on his butt. My laugh cuts through the muggy air.
“Glad I amuse you,” he mutters.
“All the time.”
I give him a hand up and we head north past midsize apartment buildings, neat brownstones and the ethnic restaurants that, according to my mother, give the Heights its charm. Air-conditioned cars glide down the street, although the sidewalk is empty. The smell of garbage baking in metal cans is enough to cause the fainthearted to, well, faint.
“Got it!” I pull a rubber band from my messenger bag and twist my long, wavy hair into a ponytail. “Worst thing—it’s the spring concert and the auditorium is sold-out. There’s a scout from Merce Cunningham’s company. I’m doing, like, fifteen pas de bourrée—” I demonstrate the step-side, crossback, step-side move “—and then I trip. Not just a stumble but a humongous slip. The next thing you know, I’m sprawled facedown across the stage. God, how humiliating is that?”
The audience laughs. Samantha Warren gives a snarky smile as she completes her set of perfect pas de bourrée. I try desperately, awkwardly, to catch up to the count, knowing my entire career-to-be is ruined—
“I knew you’d say something like that.” Jacy sounds triumphant. “You always think you’re going to tank a performance.”
“I could easily blow a dance!”
“Not ever!” Jacy insists.
Pleased, I coat my lips with French Vanilla ChapStick. We’ve reached the intersection of Clinton and Montague. Clothing boutiques, Trinity Church and upscale art galleries line the sidewalks. Moving Arts Dance Studio stands across the avenue, west of the subway entrance.
worst nightmare?” I ask.
No answer. Instead, Jacy steps off the curb—and that’s when I see it. Without a doubt, he could do the math:
If an SUV travels at forty miles an hour and an idiot steps directly into its path, it would take X seconds to smash said idiot’s brains—
My arm shoots out. Desperate fingers pull his tee. “Watch out!”
A horn blares. Tires squeal. Jacy falls into the gutter with barely an inch to spare.
“Omigod!” I breathe. “Do you have any idea how close you came to roadkill?” He grins as he stands. “Don’t laugh, Strode. It’s, like, the third time you’ve done that since school let out!”
“Sorry?” I jerk him around so he has no choice but to stare directly into my eyes.
“I didn’t see the car,” he mumbles. “It came down the street really fast.”
“Not that fast.
“So you’re Superman with X-ray eyes and I’m not.”
“Don’t be a jerk,” I say.
“I have to be someplace, and you’re late.” He makes a show
of looking both ways. “Is it safe to cross now, Mommy dearest?”
I stare at him, and he actually waits for me to nod before stomping off toward the subway.
Now, how does that work?
Jacy’s the one who does something stupid and I get snapped at. But that isn’t the only thing that pisses me off. We’ve been together more than fifteen minutes, and he didn’t bother to mention he’s meeting someone.
Who? Jacy hasn’t dated anyone since his spring breakup with Tiffany Kahlo. If he were hanging out with someone new, well, you’d think I’d be the first to know.
It’s not like I’d be jealous or anything. Everyone knows it’s a disaster to hook up with someone you’ve been friends with since third grade. A person you had to inform, at age twelve, that deodorant is a rather useful invention. Somebody you know goes commando on hot days and you don’t even find it gross anymore. Put simply, Jacy and I have WTMI: Way Too Much Information about each other.
Whatever. By the time I enter Moving Arts, the line of tutu-skirted preschoolers waiting to check in for Fairy Tale Dance reaches halfway across the studio’s air-conditioned lobby. The din is deafening, which is why I stamp at least fourteen class cards before realizing what should have been obvious.
What’s the worst thing that can happen?
With the stunt he pulled out on the street, Jeremy Carl Strode clearly avoided having to come up with an answer.
That’s when I decide there’s a new question of the day.
—is Jacy hiding?
I’m in the middle of organizing class cards when I feel a presence at the other side of the reception desk. Lynette Williams, the studio’s owner and a former professional dancer herself, points to the clock.
“If you’re taking Quentin,” she says, “go change. Lord knows you’d better be on time.”
I hurry down the hallway. Another perk of working at the studio is that I have my own locker in the teachers’ changing area. That means I don’t have to get undressed in front of a million people. Baring my privates to a bunch of gossipy girls is not something that floats my boat.
Alone in the small room, I throw on my dance stuff and twist my hair into a bun. Its waviness comes from my mom. Although born in Puerto Rico, my mother and her family moved to Baltimore when she was a baby. After nursing school, Mom married a musician who was a mixture of Italian, African-American and, he claimed, a bit of Cherokee. They followed his dream to Brooklyn but he left town a year or so after I was born.
The mixed-salad heritage gave me almond eyes, full lips and a button nose—an “exotic look” my friend Clarissa says is “hot right now.” Long legs help make battements, straight-legged kicks, my specialty. The Ballet I teacher used to call me “the Battement Queen.” Jacy, however, thought I said “Batman’s Queen.” For years after, whenever we played superhero, my special power was the lightning-fast kick-to-the-villain’s-head. Jacy picked laser fingers that could burn any object.
Right now, however, I wish I had the power of invisibility. Class has already started by the time I slip into Studio A.
“Nice of you to join us, Ms. Ruffino.”
Quentin Carlyle, Modern IV’s oh-so-fabulous teacher, is a Brit with a rep. It’s mainly because he used to perform with Martha Graham’s company, although it’s obvious he had a lot of ballet. That’s why he insists that everyone taking his class have enough classical training to keep up, which is fine with me. I started with ballet when I was little, before my mad love for Modern kicked in.
Quentin has short gray hair, a flexible body and a disapproving glare that tightens the muscles of even the best dancers. Definitely old-school, the Cranky Brit will bite the head off anyone who calls what he teaches “Contemporary.” He always choreographs an unbelievable duet for the winter concert. The female part is the Moving Arts dream role.
“Back row.” He points a slender finger. “Make it quick.”
Samantha gives me her “poor baby” look—her concern so fake it’s laughable. She’d gotten there fifteen minutes earlier to warm up on her own. Her parents are rich, so she doesn’t have to stamp class cards and replace toilet paper before taking class.
Sam’s practically anorexic, with silky hair that would make her a perfect choice for shampoo commercials—except for one
thing. Her eyes. Not only are they two different colors—one is dark brown and the other ocean-blue—but the blue eye is almost double the size of the brown one. It’s like God was playing Mr. Potato Head when she was created, got distracted by an earthquake or something so He pulled eyepieces from different sets.
Shooting her a “no problem in my life” smile, I settle between Keisha Watson, so shy she practically rents the last row, and “Check Out My Guns” Blake Russell. Blake’s worried that someone will question his manhood. He works out—and flirts—constantly. He gives me his “you’re so bad” wink, but I ignore him to concentrate on Quentin.
I live for this class. Even though the Cranky Brit’s an obsessive-compulsive drill sergeant, hurling insults left and right, it’s not only my technique that improves after every session. When I nail one of his combinations, the surge of confidence it gives me is unreal. It’s as if Quentin has reached inside, pulled everything I’m good at and laid it right out there for all the world to see.
The floor warm-up ends. As we move to the round, wooden barre attached to the back wall for a series of parallel leg lifts, I glance at the mirrors lining the front of the room. Already, tendrils of hair have escaped my poorly twisted bun to curl into sweaty ringlets.
Quentin snaps his fingers. “Muscles adore heat, luvies. Streeetch.”
After the barre, I down some water and watch him demonstrate the day’s combination. Its quick leap comes out of an off-balance turn. It flows beautifully but is, I soon find out, extremely tricky.
Chaîné, coupé, jeté. Quentin choreographed the opening turn in bended-knee plié, not the half-toe lift a ballet teacher
would choose. It gives the combination a grounded beginning, so that the off-balance coupé, coupled with the big leap, is more of a surprising contrast.
But it’s hard. The room fills with the musky odor of hard work and quiet concentration.
“Alicia!” Quentin’s bark startles me. “You look like an elephant. Shoulder toward your throwing leg, then bend deeply as you land. And don’t look at your feet! Demonstrate, Samantha, that’s a luv.”
Her effortless leap ends with an elegant landing that barely whispers against the wood. She gives me an oh-so-concerned smile. “Do you want me to show you again?”
“I got it, thank you.” My voice matches hers—poisoned honey.
Quentin gives the rest of us the knotted-together, bushy-eyebrow glare. “Same arm as leg, dancers. Right arm reaches for the
leg!” Lightbulb-popping “ohs” circle the room as several people make the adjustment.
He raps his knuckles on the mirror. “Fours across the floor. There’s room for three sets, back to front on the diagonal. And don’t forget. Make it your own or you’ll never get out of the corps!”
Make it my own? I’m still having trouble making it correctly. I slink into the last group alongside Keisha. With her long neck and perfect cheekbones, she looks like Ethiopian royalty. She’s also way too talented to hide in the back. Then again, Keisha’s several years younger than the rest of us, so that might explain why she’s such a shrinking violet.
She and I mark the combination while the quartets travel across the floor. “Down, down, turn,” I mumble as each group starts. When it’s our turn, I start off fine but somehow screw up so I end behind the beat.
What’s wrong with me? I’m the only one in the room who can’t figure it out. Not only that, but Samantha’s next cross is flawless. She twists her wrist to give the leap an extra flair.
Everyone watches, and not because of her giant blue eye. Al ready, it’s obvious that the winter duet is Sam’s to lose.
As I mimic the quartet ahead of me, Keisha shakes her head. “You’re adding an extra chaîné after the first jump, Ali. Two steps, not three.”
Aha! That explains why I start off fine but get behind half way across the floor. I give Keisha a grateful nod as we get into place.
The beat drives my muscles. Halfway across the room, I hit the timing of the second leap just right and find myself air borne. Yes! With toes pointed hard, I finish strong, controlling the landing.
The next two crosses are heaven. I don’t think about anything. Not Samantha, not the duet, not my feet. I’m catapulted straight into the never-never land of pure dance, where music and movement are the only things in the world that exist. I could stay here forever….
I land the final plié soft as whipped cream. Quentin’s eye brows rise, his version of a nod of approval.
Class ends. Dancers applaud, Quentin bows. Samantha gives me a stony glare and storms off to the dressing room. She hates it whenever the Cranky Brit notices anyone but her.
Blake palms me a sweaty low five. Samantha dumped him just before the spring concert so he gets off whenever she’s pissed—which is most of the time.
He wraps a towel around his neck. “Want to get a slice at Tony’s?”
I try not to laugh. All Anorexic Sam eats is fat-free frozen yogurt. Not exactly he-man food.
“Can’t. My mom’s made dinner.”
I drain the last of the water bottle and float into the teachers’ dressing room. As soon as I get home, I plan to work on the combination in my bedroom. Slow it down some, then speed it up. Just for fun, I want to see how fast I can actually—
The sound echoes like a gunshot in the small room. Half-naked, I bring my leotard to my chest.
“Sorry.” Eva Faus, the petite, thirtysomething choreography instructor, stands next to a full-length, now-closed locker door. “Thought you saw me.”
“Wasn’t paying attention.”
She eyes my sweaty leotard. “Quentin?”
“That’s ’cause the man’s got chops. I saw him dance years ago. God, he’s beautiful onstage.” Eva wears a green unitard. With her spiky hair and nose ring, she reminds me of a punked-out forest nymph. “You haven’t taken any choreography classes, have you?”
It’s not really a question.
“I’m not sure I’m ready.”
She laughs. “Oh, you’re ready. I saw you in Mara’s trio last spring—lovely. There’s room in the fall class. You should sign up.”
Holy moly! Nobody just “signs up” for Choreography. You have to get Eva’s permission, which, apparently, I just did.
A mental bow to Quentin. There’s no way I’d have gotten this good without Modern IV—
Modern IV class. After Eva leaves, I do my happy dance, something like a salsa. Feet moving to the beat in my head, I sprinkle baby pow
der over my body before slipping back into the orange tank and denim skirt. Then I check my cell. Two text messages. Clarissa: What’s up? And another from my friend Sonya: Godfather marathon. Nothing from Jacy.
My flip-flops make soft, slapping sounds as I head home. A slight breeze has sprung up and the street pulses with movement.
In my blissed-out, after-class state, dance is everywhere. Pedestrians swarm out of the subway, an urban line dance snaking past the fruit stand. Pigeons diving for bread crumbs create a swooping pattern more intricate than the New York City corps de ballet. Kids play hopscotch chalked onto the sidewalk, the rhythmic jumping its own music: two, one, one. Two, one, one. Two.
The bodybuilder doing curls in front of a second-story window, muscular arms pumping, keeps a steady tempo: up, down. Beat. Up, down. Beat. He catches my eye and winks. I hurry across Clinton.
Mr. Ryan, recently retired, sits on a folding chair in front of his brownstone. He wears collared, buttoned-down shirts all year, long-sleeved in the winter, short-sleeved in the summer, but it’s his fingers, tap-dancing on a laptop, that grab my attention.
He glances up. “Hot enough for you?”
“Really. Do you know when it’s supposed to break?”
“Not till after the weekend,” he says.
Maybe I can get Jacy, Clarissa or Sonya to do a Sunday matinee at the Quad. Doesn’t matter what we see; AC all afternoon sounds good to me.
Up ahead, Jacy lounges on the stoop, grocery bag at his side. His hair, frizzed by the humidity, looks like a clown’s wig.
“Your hair is a beast, Strode.”
He shrugs. “I’ve been waiting forever.”
“Didn’t know I was late.”
Clearly, Jacy’s not mad anymore. Still, I’d like to know where he went. “Whatcha do today?”
“Nothing much,” he says. “But I’ve got a surprise for to night.”
“Yeah? What’s in the bag?”
“Picnic stuff. Reggae at the band shell. Sonya and Clarissa are already there.”
I glance up. The brick structure was built in the early 1900s when six floors was a big deal. Now, it’s just another old building housing a mixture of rent-control holdouts like me and Mom, and newer people who pay zillions to live in the same-size apartments.
“I already talked to your mom,” Jacy says. “She’s cool as long as we get back by ten and you beep her the minute you get in.”
Mom, a charge nurse for Mercy Hospital, works the night shift. She usually leaves the apartment by nine o’clock. Cell phones aren’t allowed in hospitals so we have a beeper code that I cannot forget to use—or I’m in big trouble. 04, for OK, means “I’m home.” 78 is short for “running late.” And 505—SOS—means “I need help.” I’ve never needed that one, although as Mom says, “This
Brooklyn. The crazies are everywhere.”
I shake my head. “Have to shower before I go anywhere.”
Jacy buries his nose in my neck.
“Stay away from the pits!” I shriek.
“You don’t smell bad. Forget the shower. Seize the moment.”
“You always say that when you want to do something at the last possible second,” I grumble. “You know I like to—”
“Plan. But this is the last concert of the summer. The
gave it two stars.”
“I thought you were boycotting the
Yeah, they do. Then again, somethings don’t. If Jacy doesn’t want you to know about something, there’s no way you’ll know. Unless, of course, you do a little bit of detective work on your own.