Winner of the 2022 Scholastic Art and Writing National Gold Medal and Best In Grade Awards
London, England 1902
Madame Lavigne’s School of Ballet
Back straight, toes pointed, eyes ahead, mouth shut. Over and over, I repeat the list. Back straight. I stand taller. Toes pointed. I squeeze my toes. Eyes ahead. I stare at a spot on the far wall. Mouth shut. I haven’t uttered a word for fifteen minutes.
When it is my turn to be assessed, Madame whips the ruler to my spine. She lifts my arms, watches their movement, then moves to my legs. I shiver under her harsh gaze.
Our teacher is nothing if not strict, but we don’t mind. We are here to become the best ballerinas England has seen. The best that the world has seen. Madame’s teaching methods are rigorous, but necessary.
We all line up, the older girls on the right and us younger ones on the left. Everyday we do the same, like clockwork. Same routines, same level of skill, but always varying levels of satisfaction. Some days I go to sleep feeling as if I could dance up into the sky and nobody would be able to pull me back to the earth. Other days I feel like I should never dance again and it would be an embarrassment if I ever did. But I am still here, so I suppose the good days are more frequent than the bad.
We start running through our drills. Plies first, then on to the pirouettes. Legs straight and toes pointed the entire time, as they should be. We don’t mess up. The movements are engraved in us, body and mind. It’s all second nature.
We finish with our pirouettes. I walk over to the barre and grab it with both hands, preparing for an arabesque. Get it right this time. You’ve been practicing.
I ease my grip on the barre. If there is one thing Madame hates, it’s harsh posture. Ballet is about beauty and grace, not anger and tension. We have to be strong, but we cannot be rough. I daintily hold onto the barre, then lift my leg. Higher and higher it goes, until it is level with the floor. I hold it there. I count to one hundred. I drop my leg to the ground.
Then I do it all again.
My toes are bleeding again.
It’s a price you must pay if you want to dance, though I sometimes wish it didn’t hurt so much. And I really dislike blood.
I quickly wrap my last toe in a bandage, then lace my slippers back up. I join the girls in our line. Afternoon rehearsals are dedicated to our recital practice. We hold performances twice a year, one in the spring and the other in winter. The winter show is approaching. I think we are ready, but don’t let that thought slow my practices. I have to dance like the world is watching me, because someday, it might.
“Begin,” Madame commands.
We join hands and pick up where we left off before our break. I lift and spin in rhythm, just as I was taught. My fellow dancers do the same. All of us are in time, dancing to the rhythm of the music and to the beats of our hearts.
Something catches my eye and makes me miss a step. I glance over to Madame, but I don’t think she saw my slip. I turn back to my dancing, while trying to figure out why it was the door that had startled me.
I then realize that it’s open.
The door to the studio is always shut. There are other classes being taught and we do not want any interruptions. But now, it’s open.
Perhaps the door wasn’t latched correctly. The school is old, and the doors don’t work like they used to. In fact, the door to my chamber sometimes swings open when it storms. It scares my roommates terribly.
The music ends and we stop dancing. Our performance is long, so Madame has it split into three parts. The third, and the next one we will practice, is the hardest. I dance a section along with my closest friend, Hadlee. Our bit isn’t very long, but it’s important.
I join up with Hadlee to prepare for our part. She has a puzzled expression on her face. Her perfect eyebrows are furrowed together and her small lips are pursed. She isn’t the brightest, so a number of things could be confusing her.
“Is something wrong?” I venture.
Hadlee shakes her head then places her hands on her hips. “Florence, there are thirty of us, aren’t there?”
I pause to think, then nod. “There are.”
“Then who are they?”
I look to where Hadlee is pointing. At first I see nothing other than a pair of girls. They’re tall, have their dark hair pulled into neat buns atop their heads, and look to be about seventeen. I don’t recognize them. They must be new.
But then they turn towards us and I nearly gasp. Their faces are completely identical.
Not only are they identical, but perfect. Long noses, rosey cheeks, plump lips pulled into lovely smiles.
“Their faces are odd, aren’t they?” Hadlee asks.
“Whatever do you mean?”
“I can’t say. But something feels wrong about them.”
“We should get ready,” I tell Hadlee, trying to change the subject. She looks inclined to stare at the girls more, but gives in.
Hadlee and I take our places. Group by group the girls dance. Some are partner dances, some trio, all the way up to five in a group. But best of all are the solos. They’re quick, as are all of the dances, but it doesn’t make them any less stunning. Someday it will be me dancing a solo.
“Ready?” Hadlee whispers next to me. I pull my shoulders back and take a deep breath. We’ve got this. We’ve got this. We’ve-
“What are they doing?”
I gape at the scene, dumbfounded. What on earth…
The two dancers, the new ones, are in the middle of the floor.
Dancing our routine.
And they’re doing it perfectly.
The girls glide and leap, arms linked together. Their legs are enviously straight and their rhythm never wavers. The same cheery smile is plastered on both their faces.
And then as quickly as it began, it’s over. They dance out of the spotlight and a new group takes their place. I look around to the others watching. Girls are openly staring at me and Hadlee, then turning to stare at the new girls. They look as confused as I feel.
“What was that?” Hadlee exclaims as the music dies down and the dance is over.
I just shake my head. I don’t know.
Madame approaches us and I let out a sigh of relief. She can explain all of this to us. There must have been a mistake.
“I expect more from the two of you,” Madame practically spits, “This won’t go unnoticed. You have a responsibility in this performance. That was unacceptable.”
“What was?” I ask.
Madame’s face twists into such a look of disgust that I shrink back. “Choosing not to dance, then talking back.” She shakes her head. “That behavior will not be tolerated.”
“But we couldn’t-”
Madame cuts Hadlee off with a sharp look, then turns on her heel and marches away.
“I don’t understand,” I say, voice shaking. I’ve never made her angry. It’s a terrible, terrible feeling.
“The new girls were there!” Hadlee exclaims. “We couldn’t have danced!”
But Madame hadn’t mentioned them at all. She wanted us to dance. It’s as if she didn’t see the girls at all.
No, that can’t be. She must have just expected us to dance, regardless of the new dancers joining along. Use your head, Florence. You should have danced. Now you’ve gone and messed everything up.
“We’ll talk to the girls,” I decide. “They must know what’s going on.”
But as I look around the room, I can’t find them amongst the other dancers. I search, but they’re gone. It’s as if they’ve disappeared.
As I take off my shoes and examine my bloody toes, I finally realize what Hadlee was talking about. I realize why the dancers were so unsettling.
Their faces, so symmetrical, so perfect. So still.
Their mouths never moved. Their noses never twitched.
And they never blinked.
“There was an incident last night.”
I exchange glances with the girls around me. We are huddling close together, robes pulled tight around us, bare feet shivering on the wood floors. It must be the crack of dawn, the sun just barely shining through the windows.
Madame looks us over, then continues. “Winn is missing.”
A gasp arises from somewhere in the crowd and a muffled sob echoes in the large hallway. Whispers rise up amongst us.
“Silence!” Madame commands. The talking is cut off instantly.
“We are searching for her now,” Madame continues, “But if anyone has any knowledge of where she may be, you will speak to me immediately.”
“She’s gone!” a girl wails. Her amber curls are in a frizz, tears wetting her cheeks. “She’s gone!” Her friends comfort her, tears of their own running down their faces.
“Her things are gone too,” someone says.
“And her bed is made,” somebody else adds.
“Off to your rooms now,” Madame instructs, waving us off. “There will be no further discussion of this, unless with a teacher.” With that she leaves us, dozens of girls standing in the dark, weary and confused.
Hadlee and I are ready this time. We won’t make the same mistake we made yesterday, and Madame will be proud.
“Ready, Florence?” Hadlee whispers. It’s been hard to stay focused today, what with all the chaos from this morning. We’ve all been dazed and distracted after Winn’s disappearance. They haven’t found her yet, only her ballet slippers. They are the only things she left behind. The slippers were found hanging from a door frame. She must have put them there before she left, but for what reason I don’t know. Nobody does.
“Yes, ready,” I answer. I push all thoughts out of my head except for the task at hand. Our dance.
The trio of girls one stage end their performance. Then with a deep breath and a prayer begging for no mistakes, Hadlee and I are dancing away.
But it isn’t just us.
It’s them too.
The two dancers are here again, stepping in time with me and Hadlee. I shoot a look at Hadlee, but she’s content making sure she doesn’t miss a step. I try not to stare at the dancers as we dance, but I cannot help it. Their moves are far superior than mine. They’re so beautifully graceful. And their faces.
Their odd, odd faces.
It’s difficult to see them clearly while dancing, but when I catch a clear look at one of the girls’ face a shiver goes down my spine. She looks at me, smile wide and bright. And hard.
The girl spins closer to me, much closer than she should be. I try to ignore her, pirouetting then doing a grand jeté to the side in an attempt to put some space between us. But she follows. The girl comes close again, much closer than the first time. Her face is only a breath away from mine, and I falter, falling off my toes and stumbling back. She only smiles at that, unblinking eyes unnaturally cheery.
I try to move, but my feet stay still. For the first time in my life, I can’t seem to dance.
The girl reaches her hand out towards me. Not knowing what else to do, I take it. Cold immediately erupts in my hand and shoots down my arm. I drop her hand, and when I do, the dance ends. It’s over.
I look over to Madame, who is watching me with a disgusted look on her face. She doesn’t look at the other dancers at all. Just me. I desperately want to explain that the dance threw me off and that I don’t understand the new routine. I want to explain that the dancers confused me. The dancers…
Once again, they’ve disappeared. I turn in a circle, looking for them, but it’s useless. I cradle my hand to my chest, the one that I touched the girl with.
It’s still cold.
Another girl last night.
And another the night before.
All throughout the week, it’s the same news.
She ran away.
We don’t know what happened.
No, they haven’t found her.
If you know anything, tell us.
It’ll be okay.
No need to worry.
It was always just a name. Some girl that happened to go to the same school as me. Some unlucky girl who disappeared.
It was always the same. It never mattered to me.
Until it was Hadlee’s name.
Then it wasn’t just some girl. It was the girl. The only one that mattered.
“Florence, your new partner will be Laura.”
I look up at the girl’s face. It’s bright and ripe with hope. But it isn’t Hadlee’s, so I look away.
It’s been a week since she left. My one true friend, gone.
And I don’t think she’s coming back.
“Florence?” Laura asks tentatively, “Are you ready?”
Hadlee is gone, but I am not. I’m still here.
So I have to dance.
Click, click, click
Madame’s footfalls grow further and further away, until they’re only a faint echo in the distance. I stare up at the ceiling, straining to hear any other noise. Anything.
The nights used to be filled with whispers and hushes and girly giggles. But now it’s silent.
All my roommates are gone. I’m the only one who is left.
I give in to my restlessness and sit up. It must be the middle of the night, but I can’t sleep because I’m not tired. And if I were tired I would sleep.
But I am not tired.
I crawl under my bed. It’s cold under there, so I pull my stockings up higher to cover my knees. I blindly fumble for Hadlee’s slippers in the shadows of my bed. I was the one who found hers hanging over the door. I didn’t tell anyone, I just hid them under my bed. They’re the only thing I have left of her.
When I find them I bring them to me, clutching the shoes to my heart.
“Oh, Hadlee,” I whisper. I cling onto every memory I have of her. Every sweet memory of the sweet girl. I inhale her slippers, expecting to smell the faint lavender scent of her perfume.
But I smell something rotten instead. Sharp and sour. I throw the slippers out onto the floor.
Crawling out from under the bed, I see that the slippers landed near the door. I scoop them back into my lap and examine them closer. They look like they always have.
But not the insides.
I drop the shoes and cover my mouth with my hands, forcing myself to not throw up. Inside the shoes are the biggest, nastiest maggots I have ever seen. They wriggle and squirm, feeding off of a dark, sticky thing in Hadlee’s shoes. A dark sticky thing that I realize is blood.
A small gasp escapes my lips in exchange for a scream. I scramble to my feet, kick the shoes away from the door, then throw it open. I race out. I don’t know where to go, but I can’t stay here.
I sprint down the long corridor, then up the stairs. The attic is at the top. Something draws me towards it. I run even faster.
I’m out of breath when I reach the top. It’s dark and I’m cold and I’m scared and there was blood and maggots and Hadlee’s gone and I don’t know what to do.
There are three corridors here. Three doors down each.
And noise only comes from behind one.
It’s later than midnight. Everyone in the school is asleep.
But up here in the attic, someone is awake.
I walk towards the door because what else should I do? Anything ahead of me is better than all the things I’ve run from.
Moonlight spills through a small window at the end of the corridor, illuminating my path ever-so slightly. I walk to the door, almost floating. My hand is on the door now. I don’t know how, or when, or why, but it’s there and I push.
I have to see what’s on the other side.
She’s looking right at me. I know she is. I know it’s her.
And next to her is our roommate, Clara. And next to Clara is another girl. And another. And another.
They’re all here.
All up against the wall.
All with a rope tied ‘round their necks.
All with broken limbs hanging at odd angles.
But not alone.
In the center of the small room are the two girls. The new ones. Who are dancing.
On a girl.
On a body.
A dead one.
Leaping. Spinning. They rise and fall turning pirouettes on the body. They’re heavier than they should be, cracking the girl’s bones. I can hear it. It’s loud. It’s really, really, loud.
I cover my ears and the door falls open. That’s even louder. The dancers look at me. The beautiful dancers.
Who are no longer beautiful.
Their faces have changed. Their lips are cracked and dark. Cheeks hollow. Hair dark and stringy.
And their eyes…
Oh, the eyes.
Down their cheeks, over their collarbones, into their leotards. Dark, black tears.
And now they’re smiling.
One turns towards me. She smiles wider, black teeth showing.
She walks forward. Closer. Closer.
The dancer smiles again.
Puts a finger to her lips.
She shuts the door.