Today we’re thrilled to reveal the cover and an exclusive excerpt for Until We Break by Matthew Dawkins! The book will be released on September 20, 2022 by Wattpad Books. Preorder it here.
For Naomi Morgan, the only Black dancer at the Riverside Dance Academy, winning the Prix de Ballet is the only goal she’s ever cared about. But when Jessica, her best friend, dies tragically, this event rocks her off course, setting into motion a series of events that change her life, and her family’s lives, irrevocably. And then, in the middle of her performance, she slips—falls—and breaks her ankle.
After Naomi’s injury, she’s forced to deal with not only Jessica’s death, but also what she wants from life, from dance, and at this pivotal moment, she meets Saint. A street artist expressing his views on everything he feels is wrong in the world. The two of them come together, and it’s their journey of self-discovery that kicks off a movement in their sleepy California town—and the two of them soon stand tall against every odd stacked against them. Dreams are important, but real life is truly what matters . . .
The girls were determined to watch the sunrise. It was Jessica’s idea. She desperately wanted to do something that felt normal, an activity that other teenagers often wasted their time on during their long weekends or days off or summer holidays. Time at their age was brief and selfish, Jessica had told Naomi. Even briefer was their time away from The Riverside Dance Academy. Before they knew it, they’d have to go back into the dance studio in order to bend and twist themselves into shape for their next dance competition. Right now was their only time to feel free. She said it and it already began to sound liberating to Naomi’s ears.
It was why in response Naomi suggested they lie on the carpeted floor tonight instead of on her bed. As she was explaining it, Naomi wasn’t sure if this was the once-in-a-lifetime type of freedom Jessica had in mind, but the other girl did not hesitate to collapse on the floor. Jessica asked Naomi for the blanket off her bed, and Naomi quickly grabbed it for her. Maybe Naomi was onto something after all. Naomi dropped right next to her best friend on the carpet and threw the blanket across their bodies. Comfortable now, she turned on her back to watch her ceiling fan.
“Have you ever seen the sunrises in Riverside?” Jessica asked.
“Well, I’ve been awake at sunrise but never actually stopped to watch it. Why?”
Jessica tutted. “You have to pause to pay attention to these things, Naomi.” She looked over at her. “You’re going to love it. It’s like a sunset but better. Instead of everything turning black, everything turns into color. For a moment you forget the sky is supposed to be blue. That’s how much color you can see.”
Naomi turned to look at her and asked, “How often do you watch sunrises?” It was hard to imagine Jessica regularly waking up at this hour just to watch the sun come over the horizon. Usually, she didn’t even want to wake up for their 8:00 a.m. rehearsals.
Shrugging, Jessica answered, “I’ve only done it once.” Naomi’s eyebrows raised. “But that one time was enough, you know? Like, I can still remember it. How often do you need to experience something beautiful to know how amazing it is?” They remained on the floor long thereafter. They moved on from talking about sunrises to sunsets, which Jessica insisted were worse in a lot of ways. Sadder was the word she used. Then they talked about Naomi’s dad’s promotion. The new burger place that was opening downtown. How, perhaps if they weren’t homeschooled, their friend group wouldn’t be just them in Naomi’s bedroom at five in the morning.
Cutting herself off mid-sentence, Naomi sat up. “Speaking of burgers, I’m hungry. Should I grab us some snacks?”
Jessica leaped up. “I was just about to say that! Do you think there are any leftovers from dinner? It was so good!”
“Probably. But mom would say we shouldn’t eat pork this late at night.” Naomi’s head fell. She was just about to suggest making a sandwich as an alternative when she looked up and saw Jessica grinning at her. Naomi laughed. “What?”
Jessica pushed her. “So, we don’t ask her! She’s probably gone to sleep by now, anyway!”
Naomi laughed again, her grin matching her best friend’s this time. She nodded. “Alright, let’s do it.”
Slowly tiptoeing down the staircase and taking extended, far-reaching steps all the way to the kitchen, Jessica and Naomi gripped each other by the arm, snickering. Naomi tried her hardest to not bust out laughing when Jessica gently opened the fridge and asked if they should grab the tub of potato salad to-go.
Now Naomi wasn’t sure if wasting was the right word. Maybe other people their age would often waste their free time on whatever felt easiest, but being out here did not feel like a waste at all. After all, Naomi was with Jessica, they were holding in laughter which only made them want to laugh more, and the sun was about to come up. It didn’t feel fair to describe such a good thing as if it was something meant to be discarded. Naomi couldn’t offer an alternative to describe what they were spending their time doing instead of dancing, but it definitely did not feel like a waste. It felt, actually, like the opposite.
Milliseconds before the timer on the microwave hit zero, Jessica stopped it quickly. She spun to Naomi. “I almost forgot!” If the microwave had begun to beep, Naomi’s parents probably still wouldn’t have heard it from all the way upstairs anyway. Naomi decided against reminding Jessica about that though.
Instead, she pushed her cold plate into Jessica’s arms. “Do mine! Do mine!”
Jessica grabbed it and replaced the plates in the microwave. They inhaled the aroma of the steaming jerk pork and rice and peas. Jessica turned to Naomi and soberly told her, “This. This, Naomi Morgan, is heaven.” Naomi fought back the urge to ask what kind of heaven deserved to be called a waste.
When both plates of food were finished, the girls scurried back up to Naomi’s room. They gently took the steps two at a time, shutting off all the lights they had needed to turn on, and finally locked the bedroom door behind them. Naomi plopped down onto the floor. “You know, I’m starting to think you’re only my friend for my mom’s cooking.”
Jessica had already dug in. “Fair observation,” she said in between bites and opening the potato salad she had decided on bringing with her. “But I would also like to posit that we have a number of things in common. See example A: our shared suffering in the academy.”
Naomi was spooning rice into her mouth now too. “As a rebuttal, I would like the jury to take a look at example B: Jessica Kingsley refusing to even swallow her food before speaking.”
Jessica smacked her lips. “The oxygen helps the food oxidize. Better for flavor.”
Naomi let out a howl. “That’s gross, and it doesn’t even make sense!”
Jessica shrugged, on to the next forkful.
They sat in silence for a moment, Naomi watching the other girl continue to eat. She spun her fork aimlessly in the rice. “I still can’t believe Prix is this summer.”
Jessica groaned. “I don’t want to think about it. This is our break, please. We get two weeks for ourselves out of the whole year and this time, I’m determined to take full advantage of it.”
Naomi wasn’t sure how Jessica could not think about the Youth American Grand Prix. For the past few weeks, Naomi had been watching documentary after documentary and thinking of the best ways to structure her days to get more dancing in. “I know, but isn’t it scary to think about?”
“Only if you let it scare you, Naomi.”
It was easy for her to say. Jessica Kingsley always had solos. Naomi had seen the back of her curly head of hair as she glided across the studio floors so often at this point that she could probably draw it from memory alone.
Watching Naomi sink into herself, Jessica dropped her fork and put her plate down. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to sound insensitive. But, Naomi, you’re a talented dancer. I know it. Valentino knows it. Everyone at the academy knows it. If you keep overthinking, you’ll psych yourself out.”
“Thanks, so are you. I just don’t know how you’re so calm about it. You know our odds.”
Jessica took up her plate again. “I’ll stress about it when I set foot back in the theater. But right now, I just—I just want these two weeks, outside of that cage, to be ours. Our time. No dance academy. No Valentino. No Prix. And definitely no New York City Ballet Company. Just us. Right now.” Her mouth was beginning to turn up at the sides, the tips of her teeth eventually appearing.
Naomi had been rehearsing herself out of breath for ballet for so much of her life that now, every time Jessica mentioned relaxing, it felt like a sinful idea. Jessica had been a worrier once, too, but in the past few years her strict shell had eroded. She didn’t stay up late rehearsing. When they got to crosswalks, she didn’t practice her stances while waiting for her turn to walk. Jessica didn’t even talk about ballet all that much anymore. Yet, it never stopped her from being one of the top dancers at the academy. Naomi, however, was sure the moment she began to relax in the same way, all of her success would slip from her fingers like slick oil. Dread bubbled in the pit of her stomach just thinking about it. She was about to ask Jessica how she managed to dance so well without taking ballet that seriously anymore when Jessica glanced over her head, shock replacing her grin.
Jessica sat up. “Oh look! The sun’s coming up! It’s happening!”
She took Naomi’s arm and pulled her up. Naomi let out a laugh. “Where are we going now?”
Her best friend spun, glancing at her in astonishment. “Outside! We can’t watch the sunrise from your bedroom window, are you mad?” Giggling, the girls ran out the door this time, not caring how loud they were. The whole neighborhood could wake up, and it wouldn’t matter. Maybe they should have been waking up for this. Maybe this was something everyone ought to see. Jessica surely thought so. Outside, the sky had only just begun changing color. White clouds were swimming in pink and the orange sun was starting to appear over nearby houses.
Naomi shrugged. “Maybe we should have watched it from the roof.”
“This works!” Jessica shouted. Still running across their lawn. “Come on, let’s get closer! These houses are in the way!” Naomi laughed.
She went after Jessica, set to waste more of their free time together or whatever it was that meant being able to feel the fresh sun on their faces in a quiet, lonely neighborhood; but Jessica was already out on the road by now, still running in her long summer dress. She was far ahead of Naomi and too far into the road itself to notice the brief honk of a car. By the time she turned, the car and Jessica had left Naomi’s field of vision. Naomi ran out after them, her heart slamming against her chest. Peering down the street, she saw that the car was only a few feet away. Jessica’s body, however, was four blocks down. And she wasn’t moving. Naomi screamed.
Everything breaks—that’s what the metal barre is for at the Riverside Dance Academy. Young dancers new to pointe shoes and rubbing tiger balm onto their ankles, at first, use the barre to help keep their balance. But after a few years, when they’ve broken enough pointe shoes and their bodies have begun to ache, they realize that bones break far too easily and these horizontal waist-high metallic barres drilled into either wall of the dance studio are really here because dancers often need something to squeeze.
However, on a stage where they need it most, there are no barres. There is only the open floor.
The entire Riverside Dance Academy was holding on to the barre now. For the past four minutes they had been lined off in an unmoving, low plie. Their bodies were still as concrete—hushed. The only sound was that of Valentino’s quick, bare-footed pacing across the marley floor. It was his instruction that was keeping them there. Punishment, he called it, after hours of abysmal dancing.
Naomi supposed punishment was the right word. Her legs were burning now, and her outstretched arm felt more and more like it was just begging for permission to go limp. But she also knew that from the pain she would emerge a much better dancer. The agony of what a proper low plie felt like would be seared into her muscle memory and she would be that much closer to perfection next time.
The dance studio had one barre bolted into each wall on the right and left side of the room. Unless Valentino made the decision to rearrange them, the same girls always latched to the places on the barre that were closest to the front of the room in order to self-correct themselves more accurately in the mirrored wall ahead. The few boys in the academy were scattered between the middle and the back; not because they didn’t care for their own correction, but because the odds for a girl to get into an academy were three times slimmer than theirs. They would have to wrestle and bicker to secure a spot that close to the front over a girl whose career was already closing in on her. The students watched as their instructor moved individual dancers, slapping and twisting their postures into place. He pulled faces down and snapped gazes into their correct directions. Wherever the eyes look, the body follows, was what he often told them.
Naomi’s eyes were trained on Valentino from across the room. Each time he adjusted a dancer, Naomi mirrored the correction herself. Wrists higher but not too high. Back straight but not stiff. At times like this, Naomi saw her requirements clearly. If the other dancers were smart, they would be paying attention too.
Valentino Beaumont had created the Riverside Dance Academy a little under a decade ago, but he still couldn’t quite afford a building of his own just yet. In fact, his classes currently resided in the basement of The Fox Performing Arts Theatre, so chipped walls and chilly air conditioning were the norm. None of that, however, stopped the twenty-something dancers from paying the slightly outrageous class fee to receive his instruction. Because in ballet, you pay for art not facilities, and here in the run-down building sitting awkwardly in Downtown Riverside, the art was taught by Valentino Beaumont who in turn had been taught by George Balanchine. That type of art was priceless. The dancers knew it too. A man as talented as Valentino deserved better recognition for his craft than what the little Riverside community was able to give him—it was partly the reason all the dancers were holding their breath around him now.
Finished setting them into place, Valentino backed away. With his back flush against the mirrored wall and the dancers all arranged in his field of vision, he snapped his fingers at his latest intern and the teenage boy bolted upright. The dancers watched him clumsily shove his phone into his pocket and, from his corner in the studio, set his fingers to the piano. Valentino said, “The routine. Again.” Then, over the tune of the music beginning, he counted them off.
Naomi brought to life all the corrections she’d observed. Her head smoothly travelled with her arm, her movements were precise, and she maintained her pointe perfectly all throughout. She could feel her body singing with the music, her muscles twisting in harmony. But out of the corner of her eye, she caught Valentino turning to the opposite side of the room. He was still cranking arms to where they belonged and, under his breath, critiquing the same dancers that he’d shouted at only seconds ago. He spun around to the entire class and loudly said, “If this is how you intend to dance at The Youth American Grand Prix this summer, save yourselves the humiliation and do not bother signing up.”
She was sure she was executing the barre routine elegantly, even after their full eight-hour class. Naomi waited for him to look at her.
Valentino continued speaking over the music. “This is an international competition, meaning the best dancers from across the world will be there. I guarantee you that each and every one of them wants your spot in your dream company.” In front of Naomi, Bethany could hardly extend her right leg, and Naomi was sure the shaking barre was thanks to Samantha trembling two spots behind her. Sandwiched between them, Naomi knew her movements looked even sharper. She waited for Valentino to notice even that fact.
“Here is your reality check, ladies and gentlemen. Dancing is beautiful, yes. The best dancers make what we do look magnificent, even pleasurable.” Valentino’s tone darkened. “But when every other dancer in the room looks magnificent, where does that leave you? Hard work, dedication, and struggle is what separates the best of us from the worst.”
Naomi made sure all her limbs were extended. She pushed herself upright. Checked the angle of her feet.
The class silently watched Valentino retrieve his discarded bag and shoes from the front of the room despite the ongoing music. Many of them froze in place or came off pointe completely. Walking out with his back to them, he said, “Grand Prix is only two months away. Come ready on Monday with a routine of your choosing, and we’ll be getting to work. I’m in need of some serious impressing.” He turned around a final time to face their eager expressions. “There is only one dancer in here right now who I think stands a shred of a chance.” Valentino’s eyes, followed by everyone else’s, landed directly on Naomi. It lingered for a moment and there was a flicker of something agreeable that passed over the man’s expression. Then Valentino spun and exited the dance studio. The piano music abruptly stopped. Valentino’s intern quickly collected his things from around his spot at the piano and stumbled out after him.
The academy let out a collective exhale. Murmuring and distancing themselves from the barre, dancers pulled off their pointe shoes while others simply went out the door. Naomi was smiling. It happened so suddenly, really. She was only exhaling like everyone else when the grin managed to quickly escape onto her face. She knew it was only a barre routine, but Valentino’s affirmation meant that she must be getting closer to perfection. When she finally wrestled her smile down and lifted her chin again, there were eyes staring back at her in the mirrored wall. Only briefly. Then they scattered. She didn’t catch a specific face, it just felt as if they were all one person.
“There she is.” Suddenly, Jessica was standing directly in front of her. Her hands reached out to grab Naomi’s shoulder and a huge smile was on her face. “Good job today.”
Naomi nodded, but she couldn’t help noticing how much Jessica looked like one of them here. One of the one person. Jessica could pull off the ‘ballet pink’ tights just like they could, and in the mirrored walls, she never stuck out like a dark bruise on white paper. She supposed that quality—of sameness and uniformity—transferred into Jessica’s effortless dancing. Naomi could not help but wonder which of her own qualities transferred into her dancing.
“I’m proud of you,” Jessica continued.
Naomi’s head cocked. “Really? You don’t have any notes?”
As if she didn’t want to say anything at first, but since Naomi had asked, she might as well be up front about it, Jessica told her, “Well it isn’t how I’d do it. Of course, your extension was uneven and sometimes you came out of the plie too late, but you did great nonetheless.” She smirked. “Everyone else seems to think so. Didn’t you see the look on their faces when Valentino said you were better than them?” Jessica crouched to the floor and began stretching. “They were practically steaming.”
Naomi joined her best friend on the floor. “He didn’t say that.” Jessica was twisting her body into the stretches, not the slightest strain on her face while Naomi flushed her legs against the floor and slowly took her toes into her palms. A sharp snap cracked from the tendons in her ankle. She clenched her teeth.
Jessica responded, “Of course he did. Didn’t you see his face? I’m sure I saw an almost-smile when he looked at you.”
Briefly looking up into her green eyes, Naomi nodded before returning her eyes to her ankle again. She tried bending it back and forth in search of the pain that had settled somewhere beneath her skin.
Jessica followed Naomi’s concerned gaze. “I’m sure that happens to every dancer in the top companies. That just means you’re on the right track.” When Naomi didn’t take her eyes off her ankle, Jessica added, “The School of American Ballet will be at Prix this year, you know.”
“You’ll impress them, I know it. You’ll get into their program, and then from there, you’ll get scouted to dance in the New York City Ballet. It will take work but we’ll get there. I believe that.”
Her tone was flat, dark even. But Naomi swore there was also a light breaking out from it, warming and brightening their conversation. “It’s been our dream since we were little,” Naomi said out loud. The few dancers still idling in the studio spun around at the whispers. They exchanged glances and hushed murmurs.
“And we’ll get there,” Jessica affirmed.
Naomi smiled widely at that. She set her palms on the floor behind her and looked through the stained studio windows touching the ceiling. The view was barely visible, but every now and then she saw a car drive by. Naomi muttered thoughtfully, “Can you imagine us leaving Riverside? This place feels endless.”
“Tell me about it. There won’t be any good dancers left.” Naomi chuckled sheepishly. “I’m serious. Look, Samantha is trembling! She cannot keep up!”
Naomi sprung forward, her mouth agape. A contagious laugh erupted from the both of them—one that had a few heads in the studio turning.
If Naomi was being honest, she wasn’t sure how she would survive if her best friend didn’t go to the New York City Ballet with her. Where she was the routine, Jessica was the music. And everyone knew a routine without music was meaningless.
It wasn’t too dark on the walk home. There was still a bit of sunlight peeking out from the horizon between homes, and, anyway, the girls had each other. Even if there were no lights in the sky or on the streets and it was pitch black the whole way, they were still two halves of something bright when together. During their walk to Naomi’s house, they were organizing the itinerary for their departure from Riverside and preparing for their future dancing with the New York City Ballet. They had decided that Jessica would dance both swans in Swan Lake and Naomi would be Giselle in Giselle every time they performed those ballets, but no matter who the lead was, they would share each other’s dressing rooms. Then they went on a tangent about sharing everything, except tights. Jessica told Naomi that her dad would give her his car so she could pick Naomi up one summer evening and the pair of them would drive straight to New York together for their first day. Road trip music was to be strictly pop, nothing slow. Windows would be down all the way, even at night, and whenever they got cold, they would use the blankets in the back seat. Wasn’t it usually cold in New York? They would have to go shopping the next day for warmer attire when it inevitably snowed. These conversations always seemed so far away and imaginary at first, but with each added detail, their hypothetical future began to feel more and more like a sure present.
Their conversation had trailed off into silence by the time they arrived at the front door of Naomi’s house. Naomi undid the laces of her sneakers on the front porch and stepped inside with Jessica behind her. The house was silent even though it was barely seven in the evening, but on Fridays, Naomi knew, her mother was in the living room. The girls made their way there together and as expected, the entire space was littered with dental floss and shiny fabrics. Naomi’s mother sat in the midst of it, oblivious and hard at work.
Naomi cleared her throat over the noise of her mother muttering to herself. Aja Morgan looked up and saw her daughter in the doorway. “Oh good, you’re home. I’m done with these, but I think I might save those for Monday, how’s that sound?” Aja pointed across the floor covered with loose newspaper sheets to a pair of freshly dyed dark-brown tights, then to a pair of untouched light ‘flesh-colored’ tights.
Naomi smiled. “That’s fine, Mom. Thanks.”
“Are you sure?”
Briefly, Naomi wondered what the girls’ mothers who didn’t have to dye their daughter’s tights did on a Friday evening. Watch television, maybe? “Positive,” she answered.
Aja began recollecting the un-dyed tights and folding them into a nearby bag. “How was ballet?”
“Good,” was Naomi’s usual answer, despite whatever had happened that day. It came so naturally now, the lying. The first and only time Naomi had answered with something true, her mother had sat up with her all night to watch her practice the Sugar Plum Fairy variation from The Nutcracker in her standing mirror until it was perfect. Aja told her no matter what, they would get the variation right. She had spent too much money, too much time, and too much effort for her to be anything less. Looking back, Naomi wasn’t sure if they ever got to perfection, but she distinctly remembered the sound of her mother’s miscounts at around three in the morning.
Jessica nudged Naomi in her side. She gave Naomi a look, then nodded her head at Aja. Then it dawned on her. Naomi cleared her throat. “Valentino said I have a shot at Prix, I think”
“He did?!” Aja stood up and skipped over the fabrics on the floor. She embraced her daughter in a tight hug. “Oh, you’re going to do so well!”
Naomi nodded. This, too, was beginning to feel like more of a sure future. She continued, “Well, he said something like that.”
Aja squeezed harder. “I’m so proud of you, Naomi.” Then, slowly, she disengaged from her daughter and held her face, searching her eyes. “But you know if you didn’t do well this year I’d understand, right?”
Naomi blinked. “What do you mean?”
Aja closed her mouth. She was thinking. Naomi could see the thoughts swirling in her eyes. Her mother said to her, “Losing a friend at this age can be hard, Naomi. You don’t have to put any more pressure on yourself.”
The walls of their large living room began caving inward. Naomi must have pulled a lever or accidentally brushed against a hidden red button because her mother’s hands clutching her face now felt like a trap. Naomi looked to her right, to the spot where Jessica had been just a moment ago, but there was no one there.
She licked her lips, lying quickly. “I’m doing fine.” The walls stopped moving.
Aja embraced her again. “But if you ever need to talk, I’m here. Jessica would be so proud of you, Naomi.”
Slowly Naomi placed her hands around her mother to seal their hug. She waited for the walls to recede as well, but they didn’t move. Pulling back again, Aja told Naomi she was going to make dinner and it would be ready soon. Naomi nodded, thanked her, and went up to her room alone. She locked the door behind her and dropped her bags to the ground.
Two weeks ago, after the funeral, Jessica had come back to help Naomi re-organize this space. The television was no longer on the wall because dancers didn’t have time to watch movies. The carpet was rolled into a cylinder in the corner because how was she supposed to practice on a carpeted floor? Jessica even told her to bring the standing mirror from the living room in here so she could sit up with her every night and count her variations, like her mother used to. Jessica never miscounted.
“Don’t listen to her.”
“You know I’m with you, right? I’ll always be right here with you.”
Naomi looked up and there she was, really. Jessica was standing right there in the corner of her bedroom. Where else would she be? They were supposed to dance in the New York City Ballet together. Drive there with the windows down listening to pop music. None of that could happen if Jessica was dead.
Matthew Dawkins has always had a passion for storytelling and today, he uses this passion to fuel his career, create award-winning stories and promote a tight-knit community of online writers.
Online, Matthew is a 2018 Watty Award Winner for his debut novel, Wicked, Wild, Wonderful. Having amassed over 150,00 reads on Wattpad, Matthew prides himself on crafting prose and poetry that interrogate the world around us and offers new explorations of the relationship we have with society.