They weren’t allowed sweets, but Jess had sneaked in a box of Maltesers and now they’d all get in trouble because Abigail had managed to smear chocolate down the front of her leotard and couldn’t get it off.
She was crying silently, cheeks turning an ugly mottled red as she frantically tried to scrub off the stain using her own saliva.
Olivia had known better than to eat any. Jess was new and hadn’t had to visit the cellar yet and it wasn’t Jess who’d have to face Miss Sabrina. Abi would never tell, and the empty box had been flung through the dressing room window into the street.
The air traced icy fingers along the girls’ bare skin as they jostled to get nearer the mirror. Hair pins snapped, netting scratched tight goosefleshed skin, ribbons fluttered and breath came in ethereal white clouds. Nobody spoke.
Deep in the walls the pipes groaned lazily in the hush of the frigid little room. The girls collectively shuddered, moving closer together without meeting each others eyes.
Miss Sabrina arrived to collect them for class, a scraping of black hair and paper-thin white skin stretched taut over brittle bird bones. She found them ready, lined up, toes in perfect third position. Jess smiling in front of scowling Olivia. Abi cowering behind the others, hoping not to be noticed.
As the girls filed out they heard the smack of Miss Sabrina’s hand on the doorframe, trapping Abi inside the room. Not one girl looked back as Abigail wordlessly followed the mistress’ pointing finger towards the cellar, tears spilling down her blotchy cheeks.
Then impulsively Olivia turned and hissed ‘Just stay quiet and still. You’ll be alright’.
Miss Sabrina always told the girls there was nothing down there to be scared of, just an old boiler and a lot of rusty pipework. It was only a place to think about what you had done. But she always had a secret smile that played on her lips as she said it.
Abigail stepped into the yawning blackness, her little pink satin slippers drew her inexorably down. Her punishment was twenty minutes time out in the cellar and no dinner. She heard the shuffle of feet above her as the girls filed into the studio. Flecks of plaster showered down around her shoulders like flakes of snow; the air was still and heavy with waiting.
At the bottom the door gaped obscenely, drawing her inside, swallowing her whole. Somewhere deep inside something drew ragged, rasping breaths, then a guttural moan swelled from the furthest, blackest corner. It seemed to travel along the walls towards Abigail, like blood coursing through the great veins of some enormous beast. She bit her lips, tasting blood as two pricks of orange flickered, blinked and stared at her. Her breath came fast, fighting panic, stifling the scream that was rising her chest, hands fluttering to the white skin of her chest. In the darkness something breathed to life and the door slammed shut.
Upstairs the other girls silently lined up at the barre. As class began the pipes in the walls shuddered with drawn-out eldritch groans that wove ecstatically through the dance and flooded their hearts with panic and pity.