Chapter One

It is my sincere belief that teachers are deranged, sadistic creatures. No other race of people in the world would decide to put together 250 teenagers and tell them to dance, dammit, dance – or you fail. I'm experienced in telling whether people are deranged, sadistic or otherwise mentally imbalanced. I have grown up with two older brothers who feel it is their mission in life to be as weird as possible. Thus, I am the best person to judge whether or not it is a good idea to make teenagers work together in close quarters and it is not.

"This is not happening, this is not happening, this is not happening," I repeated under my breath as I walked into the overflowing Student Centre (which is really an indoor basketball court but used for every function a school requires) and stepped into a place in the circle of people. This really couldn't be happening.

I don't mean to alarm you, but what I am going to tell you may give you cause to sneer, laugh or otherwise snort in derision. I am going to tell you something so heinous, so disgusting, so unreasonable, that you will never look at teachers the same way again. For let it be known, from this moment forth, that the students of Mountain Creek High School were forced, under unfair amounts of duress, to learn how to Latin American and Ballroom dance together. Not only were they forced to dance together, but they had to do it in the middle of summer, and they had to do well. I am convinced the ground shook underneath us the day we were told of the certainty of our doom. I am sure God was laughing.

Perhaps you, sitting there in your lounge rooms, your bedrooms, your studies or your offices, think that I am being over dramatic. I tell you I am not. I stand before you as sane as any seventeen year old girl can be, and tell you that we were threatened by the very end of the world. Think about it. The insanity has got to start somewhere, but it won't stop at Latin American dancing in education, oh no! It'll spread to the health system, the defence force and eventually – to the government. There will be no stopping it.

On the other hand, perhaps I have had too much sugar.

"And one, two, three, one, two, three, one, two, three. Come on children, sexy! Seeeexy! I want to see the sexy!" I shuddered and decided that the dance teacher Spoinette really needed to die.

There is a creature that lives inside me, which takes great pleasure from someone else's pain. This creature wakes up in moments such as these and tries to climb out and attack people. It is very dangerous. I am grateful for the school for letting me attend here in light of the danger to their students. Then again, I don't think they gave me a lot of credit for sanity when I enrolled and explained to them about my creature. I call him Snakey because he reminds me of a snake; mild mannered and placid until provoked and then BAM; a headache and a fear for your life. Snakey and me have an agreement; he has a short temper and he can come out when I have lost my mild temper.

He wanted to come out right now, and kill the little old man who was teaching us this horrid form of torture, but I was holding him in because I didn't want anybody to get hurt before Snakey reached the teacher. We were crammed inside the Student Centre and we were rotating around the floor in two large circles. Snakey and me were in the outer circle, so I was afraid for everybody between Snakey and the dance teacher in the middle. Under normal circumstances, perhaps I wouldn't have bothered so much, except that these people were my friends!

Well, okay, so most of them didn't know me and if they did, chances are they didn't like me, but I still had to face them for the rest of my school life. I thought it would be even harder to look them in the eye after I had blasted between them and screamed at the little professional dance teacher who everybody seemed to adore despite his being in league with the school teachers.

"That's it, now. One, two, three, sexy, two, three, one, two, sexy, everybody!"

I convulsed as I swung around backwards, and my cheeks puffed out like I had stuffed them too full of marshmallows. My partner looked worried.

"Are you going to be sick?" He asked me nervously and I shook my head and calmed myself as best I could. I didn't really like the person I was dancing with (he was one of the notorious group of bad boys whom I was a little bit scared of), but he still didn't deserve Snakey.

"No," I told him sighing. "If Spoinette keeps that up though, I might. Why doesn't somebody tell him that telling sixteen and seventeen year olds to be sexy really borders on paedophilia?"

The boy, whose name by the way is Will, looked like he was going to throw up as well, but I thought he was trying not to laugh rather than trying not to let his inner demon out. At least, I hoped so; this was my last clean school shirt.

"Perhaps they like it," Will suggested with a wink.

"Oh, undoubtedly," I said. "I always knew I was in a class of freaks."

"Takes one to know one," he said and I grinned.

"I know," I said and let him spin me out. "But I never claimed to be anything else."

Then he was gone and I was facing some other sweaty, uncoordinated, unfortunate soul who stepped on my feet and held my hand too tightly. Or I may have stepped on his feet; with me it was hard to tell. You might think by the way I have been talking about this, that I was an elegant dancer who found it easy to keep up with the steps. Yeah, not so much.

To be honest with you, I was stunningly uncoordinated. I had the grace and style of a rhinoceros with a sore leg. Nothing stuck with me and I never managed to look like the beautiful girls in the class whose hips moved like they weren't attached to the rest of them when they did the cha cha. It wasn't fair. But I don't care very much about fairness, so it became my life's goal to learn all these things these girls could do. Because I wanted to dance. I dreamt every night of being the centre of attention, being sexy and wearing the shimmering ball gown and long white gloves, and being the girl every man wants to dance with. I vividly recalled the way my curves would drive men wild with desire and I woke up every morning with a smile on my face. This determination to succeed gave me the ability to ignore the looks from my parents as I practiced the cha cha while waiting in line at the supermarket. If anybody approached me about it, I just told them I was slowly going insane and here was the number they should call if it got out of hand.

"Slide, slide, walk two three! Very good, children. Now let's try the tango, music, please – oh, is it goodbye already?" The little dance teacher said astutely as the loud bell rang, announcing our freedom.

"Thank freaking God!" I growled to myself and pushed my way through the stampede to meet my best friend Claire outside the entrance. "Why oh why are they doing this to us?" I cried, burying my head in her shoulder. She patted my back sympathetically.

"It's just to give us an easy mark," She said soothingly. "Take it as an assignment and you'll be okay."

Without warning, my life narrowed down to that one statement.

"Oh damn!" I exclaimed and started to pace, wringing my hands desperately. "I'd forgotten this was all for assessment. We're going to need partners and the like. Oh god, we're doomed and I'm going to end up in a Centrelink office moaning about my psychiatric problems from dancing that have disabled me from ever finding a job. I'll wait for my payout every Thursday and have six cats and yell at the boy over the road for having his music too loud. I'll dream about dancing and the people in the nursing home will think I've gone nuts and take me away to the hospital where they'll give me sleeping drugs so I'll never wake up and I'll live the rest of my life dancing with Spoinette who will step on my toes and tell me to turn until I can't turn anymore and – oh, thanks, Claire!"

Claire stepped back from me, twisting the cap back on the water bottle. I wiped the moisture from my face and tossed my sopping hair out of my face.

"You'll find a partner," She told me mildly. "But if you keep ranting about having six cats and dancing with Spoinette, you might find it harder than before."

I glanced around me and found that I was indeed being stared at even more than usual. I blushed and gave them a royal wave before picking up my bag and running far, far away.

It's times like these you need Minties, I mused to myself a week later, sitting at the back of the wretched Student Centre watching everybody choose dance partners, either that or to be intelligent, beautiful and popular and not necessarily in that order. I toyed anxiously with the hem of my shirt, my mind running through all my possibilities. 'All' of them being a choice of two, of course.

I dodged glances as I stared despondently at the two boys in question. After much agonising, it had come down to either Thomas Maroney or Michael Smith, both of whom I was vaguely acquainted with and whom I had danced with before and found to be patient and agreeable. But choosing between them turned out to be a harder choice than I had anticipated, not because they were both such stellar options, but because they really were not.

Thomas was sort of intellectual, which I liked – perhaps there would be some conversation during practices that stretched beyond the conversations I usually had with boys; yes, no, maybe, go away. But he didn't like dancing at all; he considered it too unmanly or something.

So I was leaning towards Michael, for the sole reason that he danced remarkably well and he cared about his grades like me, so he'd probably practice as hard as I wanted to. On the other hand, he drove me crazy with his boring anecdotes and in depth explanations of things I didn't care about. Which was the lesser evil? I sure as hell didn't know.

I sighed and much preferred to stay neutral. Not an option, however, and so I chose Michael and started heading towards him. I stopped short when Will Cunningham stepped in front of me, effectively blocking my progress.

"Uh … hi?" I asked him, confused and intimidated. It was the same Will I'd danced with before and I didn't like him any more now than I did then. He scared me, because he stood for just about everything I feared or abhorred. He disobeyed school rules by wearing a non-regulation jacket, dying the tips of his hair blond and he always wore a piece of jewellery, which we weren't allowed. Sometimes it was pointy and scary. He also swore occasionally and spoke back to teachers, but in my opinion his biggest crime was belonging to the group of teenagers known as 'punks'. I suppose I disliked him based on nothing more than a stereotype and because he had the nerve that I didn't have to be free and disobey authority figures.

Whatever the reason, I didn't want to talk to him.

"Look," I said after a moment had passed, "I don't know what you want with me, but I have to find a dance partner before I'm forgotten about."

"That's what I wanted to talk to you about, actually," Will said, but I hardly heard him.

"I won't live on Centrelink payments," I told myself out loud, "I'll get a job at the supermarket and never buy anything so I can put all my money into a retirement fund. And I won't have cats. I'll have birds instead, because they cost less."

"Um, Jessica?" Will interrupted, looking bemused and worried. "What exactly does Centrelink payments and having birds have to do with dancing?"

I stared at him like he was an idiot (well, he was in my opinion, but that's not the point).

"It has everything to do with it!" I exclaimed in a strained voice, and I saw that the corners of Will's mouth twitched. "What do you want, anyway?" I said, finally realising I sounded a bit insane and having the grace to feel embarrassed.

"Well, I was going to ask you to be my dance partner," He said and I'm fairly sure my jaw dropped. "But if you're going to talk about Centrelink payments and birds and supermarkets, I might have to reconsider this a bit."

"Look, birds are less expensive than cats," I told him with authority. "And it doesn't matter whether you reconsider or not, because I'm not going to dance with you."

A look of shock and annoyance spread across Will's face and I suddenly regretted my bluntness.

Luckily, a distraction appeared, in the form of Michael Smith, who was walking towards me with his habitually bland expression fixed firmly in place.

"Hey," I said as he reached me, nervously ignoring Will who was a menacing presence behind me.

"Hey Jess," he responded, his voice muffled by his cumbersome braces. "You know how we have this assessment coming up?" I nodded. "Well, I was wondering if you would …"

I was just thinking how glad I was that my dilemma was being solved for me, when a voice unmuffled by braces came from behind me.

"Hey, back off, we were talking!"

Michael looked behind me and I did the same. My heart dropped as I realised Will was still standing there.

"Will!" I exclaimed, slightly less than angry and more than a little bit scared (Snakey had taken cover the moment Will appeared, damn traitor). "What exactly do you think you're going to achieve by intimidating everyone?"

"I want you to dance with me." He replied evenly, unperturbed by my heated words.

"Hey, chill," Michael cut in, laughing a little nervously. "I wasn't going to ask Jess to dance!" He seemed to find it amusing and I frowned. "I wanted her to ask Claire for me, but if it's going to be this much trouble, I'll just do it myself." And he wandered away, shaking his head.

I was left alone with Will, who was looking intimidating again.

"I don't want to dance with you," I told him slowly. "What more do you want?"

"How many other people do you think are going to ask you?" Will asked rationally, but harshly.

"It doesn't matter," I told him. "If nobody else asks me I'll dance with a teacher. I do not want to dance with you."

"Why not?" He asked. "I'm a good dancer."

"Yes, but I don't like you," I said bluntly and fled.

A week later and I still hadn't solved my problem. Assessment was looming like a tsunami in front of me, marked on my calendar in big red letters. Two months was an awfully short amount of time to learn how to dance, and learn how to get along with my partner. I wasn't sure which was going to be worse.

"Bugger, damn, crap," I muttered, which were about the closest things to swear words I

ever uttered out loud. Then I remember I was in public and looked askance around me, but there was nobody near me. Oh, except for Thomas Maroney. Hey …

"Oi, Thomas!" I said, and moved over closer to him. "Who you dancing with?"

"Deena," Thomas said nervously and moved away from me again. "She's er my girlfriend, you know."

Oh damn.

"Well, obviously," I mumbled. "I didn't mean … oh, well, gotta go!"

Damn, damn, and bugger. I wanted to say 'bollocks' but my Dad always tells me off for that. How had I let this happen? Assessment was practically tomorrow and I didn't have a partner. Would they fail me? Could I really handle the humiliation of dancing with a teacher? I sat down heavily on a nearby bench and bit my lip so I wouldn't cry. Or so Snakey wouldn't get out, whichever happened first. Sometimes being unpopular really sucked. Will was starting to look better by the minute.

Then, something amazing happened. The cutest, most popular, most talented guy in the school started heading in my direction. Oh help!

He's not coming to see you, I admonished myself. But I still ran a hand through my unruly, mousy brown hair, straightened my shirt and sat up a bit straighter. Just in case, you know. Then he waved at me and I almost fainted. Well, not really, but I blushed. And then cursed myself for not waving back, now he probably thought I was rude. I watched him out of the corner of my eye, expecting him to swerve at any moment, but he kept on coming and my heart beat faster with every step.

Then I wondered what on earth he wanted with me. I hadn't been overly obnoxiously lately, had I? Maybe he was just coming to be mean to me in general, people did that sometimes. I rub them up the wrong way. Andrew was smiling though, and he had waved.

"Breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe," I chanted as a mantra until he was almost right in front of me.

"Hi," he said as he reached me.

"Hi," I said. "Uh … what's new?"

"You," he said, smiling.

"No, I'm not," I said. "I'm old, really. I'm seventeen, I've been here since year eight, that's old."

"No," Andrew cut in over the top and I was so relieved I wanted to kiss him (not just because he was cute, or anything). "You and me are new. We're the newest couple dancing together for this class."

"Oh," I said faintly. "That kind of new. Got it."

"Good," Andrew said. "I'll see you at three o'clock then."

"Three o'clock," I echoed. "Got it."

"Um … see ya," Andrew said and walked away.

Oh dear.