Shelly Steig

Shelly Steig has more than two decades experience which includes five novelty science books for children, four books for adults, and more than 350 articles in national and regional magazines. On the editing side, she’s worked as a copy editor for a children’s publishing company, as well as an on-staff editor for a travel magazine. In between, she’s fit in some copywriting as well as back-cover copywriting. Shelly was a 2017 Pitch Wars mentee, and recently won the Golden Pen award for her then work-in-progress: THE TRUTH (SORT OF) ABOUT THE ICEBERG. She's a member of SCBWI and is the editor of the RMC-SCBWI's member magazine "KiteTales." Shelly is represented by Laura Bradford of Bradford Literary Agency.

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A twelve-year-old must save her family's struggling Las Vegas pawn shop after she loses Elvis' mortuary toe tag. To keep her celebrity-impersonating parents from bankruptcy, she creates a fake, crashes casinos, and faces her fear of Elvi (in the plural) at the King of Rock 'n Roll World Convention.
My Submission


It’d taken nearly the entire school year, but I’d finally bartered my way to a better seat in the lunchroom. This one was only two tables away from the popular kids so now I could study their every move. My best friend, Darius Walker, eased into a tight spot across from me as if he didn’t care what anyone else thought. How did he do it? I’d had to trade homemade handpies for prepackaged Twinkies, bus trays, and toss disgusting trash. It was worth it. If I kept it up, next year I might get close enough to actually hear what the royalty of Spring Valley Middle School were saying.

I patted stray curls back into my ponytail and smiled. Nothing could ruin my moment. Not a rubbery taco shell filled with mystery meat. Not even Darius sitting mouth open, half his sandwich hanging out. It plopped on his tray. Darius said, “Um, Tru . . . ”

“Hm?” Two tables over, Brook-Lynn threw her head back and laughed. Her hair rippled like black satin ribbons. I tried a mini hair toss of my own, but my ponytail might as well have been a wire brush adhered to my head.

Darius continued in a squeaky voice, “Parental units incoming—”

I turned around. Mom, Dad, and my four-year-old brother, Robbie, sashayed into the jam-packed room. Mom wore a pink satin strapless gown, platinum-blonde wig, stick-on mole, and bright red lipstick. She looked like Marilyn Monroe, an old-school Lady Gaga—minus the voice since she sounded more like a three-year-old with the wind knocked out of her.

Dad had on his bling-covered white jumpsuit with peacock feathers running down the legs. His chest toupee fluffed out from a deep V and the hair on his head had so much wax in it, it shone like hard plastic in the glaring fluorescent lights. My brother was decked out in an identical kid-size version of Dad’s outfit. One of his fake sideburns had come unglued and crept down his face like a centipede.

This was like the set-up for one of Dad’s favorite jokes: Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and mini-Elvis walk into a crowded middle school cafeteria.

But there was nothing funny about it.

They paraded over to where I sat. Ms. Schuman, the office secretary, nearly skipped along beside Dad, fluttering her hands in the air. She kept saying, “Oh. My. Gosh! You look just like Elvis!”

I hoped maybe they wouldn’t see me and my classmates wouldn’t figure out who they were. But their visitor stickers gave them away. As they got closer, I looked anywhere but at them. At the Skittles that had skittered across the floor. At the fire exit map. Right then I wanted to pull the alarm and clear the room. Which would mean a two-day suspension.

It might be worth it.

When they caught up to me, Mom swished her skirt and sang in a breathy voice, “Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy twelfth birthday Miss Tru-u.” Everyone gaped at Mom, so she struck another pose. “It’s all make-believe, isn’t it?” she said doing her favorite Marilyn impersonation. Then she smiled and winked.

Why? Why’d they have to bring their act to school? All the boys ogled Mom. I wished they’d impersonate a Wookiee or an Ewok. Something where every inch of skin was covered.

“And . . . ” Dad pouted his lips . . .

Don’t do the—

He grasped his cape, pulled it out like a bird’s wings, then put one leg out front and shimmied.

All over.

Robbie stepped into position beside Dad and tried to imitate him, but it was more like he spun a hula hoop—without the hoop.

With their mouths gaping in surprise, my classmates looked like a school of fish. Brook-Lynn and Kaytee snapped a selfie with my parents in the background. There was no way in the world I would ever live this down. Ever. There was a word for it: mortified. Which meant causing death. That was definitely happening since I was dying of humiliation.

Dad hugged me. “I love you birthday girl,” he said in his normal voice.

Robbie wrapped his arms around my legs. “I love you too Twu.” Even in his ridiculous costume, he was too cute to be mad at. I hugged him back and kissed the top of his head. Ewww. His hair putty nearly glued my lips together. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand.

Dad said, “We got a short-notice gig at Graceland Chapel. I’m sorry we won’t have as much time to celebrate your birthday, but we wanted to let you know in person instead of sending a message. Also, mind helping Nana out at the shop? You can sell, but if anyone wants to pawn, give them a claim slip and tell them our experts need to take a look. That should hold them off until I get back tomorrow. Nana will pick you up after school.”

I choke-coughed. Hadn’t I already suffered enough humiliation for one day? To be honest, my family wasn’t all that weird for Las Vegas. Still, they should have realized that since I lived and went to school in Spring Valley, coming to the lunchroom in costume would forever brand me as the girl whose parents imitated famous dead people. Dead as in buried. In the ground. Not as in the other definition: defunct.

“Tru, you listening?” Dad asked.

I turned to look at him.

“Nana’s not up to snuff yet on how to close, so you’ll have to help her with that. Think you can handle it?”

I nodded.

Mom winked at me. “You’ll do great. See you tonight.”

Mom, Robbie, and Dad walked toward the door.

Darius leaned over. “Your dad is awesome.”

“Yeah, right. How’d you like your parents to show up at lunch looking like escapees from Madame Tussaud’s?”

“At least yours show up. My dad’s never even made a parent-teacher conference.”

“Uh-huh.” I was almost in the clear. They were at the exit. Maybe Dad wouldn’t—

But then Dad spun around and morphed once again into Elvis. He waved at the lunchroom. “Thank you, thank you very much.”

I held my breath until they disappeared from sight. Finally. Elvis had left the building.


Just about every kid in and around Vegas came across Elvis in some way or another. There are more than 5,000 impersonators—‘scuse me, Elvis Tribute Artists or ETAs as Dad insisted I call them—running around town. Plus, our school always did a unit on him in music history. Mr. Simpson taught that Elvis Presley had lived in the deep south and was a dirt-poor white boy who sang like a Black man. He’d crossed social, racial, and musical barriers, and was known as The King because he made Rock ‘n’ Roll so popular.

Once upon a time, it didn’t bother me that Dad pretended to be Elvis. After all, impersonating was a sure-fire way to make much-needed money. But why couldn’t he do Frank Sinatra or Michael Jackson? Especially when Dad knew my fear of Elvises was getting worse, not better. I whooshed out air as my shoulders folded forward. Mom reminded me nearly daily that Dad was the best Elvis in the business . . . and we needed the business.

I wasn’t too surprised when after lunch one of my classmates yelled down the hallway, “What’s green and sings songs? Elvis Parsley.”

Then another asked, “If Elvis were alive right now, what would he be doing? Clawing at the lid of his coffin.”

I may have been the most humiliated student ever at Spring Valley Middle School, but at least Mom and Dad were finally trusting me to watch the store. Yes, Nana was technically in charge, but I was the one Dad was depending on. I still couldn’t believe it.

Especially since I’d messed things up so badly last year.

When the bell rang, I rushed to the door. If I was the first outside, maybe none of the other kids would see Nana roll up. I dashed to the curb and looked around. No Nana. I tapped my foot. Come on, come on. There was a rumble even before the doors swung open and the rest of my classmates escaped.

Brook-Lynn and Kaytee sidled over next to me. Brook-Lynn liked to remind everyone that her name was pronounced, “Brook. Pause. Lynn. Not like the city.”

Kaytee made sure everyone said, “kay-TEE.” Mom’s family lopped off a few letters with each generation. Gertrude. Trudy. Tru. I guess their parents did the opposite. I always pictured a thought bubble above Brook-Lynn and Kaytee’s heads where every word had twice as many letters at the end.

“Your Dad looks just like Elvis,” Kaytee said.

“Oh, shut up Kaytee.” Brook-Lynn tossed her silky black hair. Actually, Kaytee’s thick brown waves were hair. My frizz bomb was hair. But Brook-Lynn had tresses—that looked perfectly smooth like in a shampoo commercial.

“It’s so cute that your parents still come to see you on your birthday. I remember when my parents did that. In elementary.” Brook-Lynn smirked. “’Course they came in normal clothes.”

I wanted to shout, “Shut up!” But after what happened at lunch, I couldn’t take a chance I’d get bumped back a table. So, I bit the side of my cheek and smiled.

Brook-Lynn and Kaytee laughed and walked off. I held my breath as they passed out of sight. Whew. My foot beat against the ground like a tap dancer during a finale. No Nana yet and most of the popular kids were gone.

Then Axel Paz walked out the door carrying his skateboard. I froze and sighed all the way from my toes. Not only was he cute, he owned the popular table. Even his name was perfection. Axel Paz? How did his parents even come up with that? For the rest of my life I’d lug around an old lady name. Sure, some of those were coming back—Mae, Ida, Dorothy . . . Not Gertrude. For good reason. Gertrude sounded like someone choking while trying to say, “You’re rude.” Dad told me I should be proud to be his mother’s namesake. At least they’d nicknamed me Tru. Mom said it was to remind me to be true to myself.

Axel looked straight at me, then turned in my direction. Oh my gosh, is he coming to talk to me? Nana be late, please! He continued his stride toward me. My heart tapped in my chest faster than my feet could ever go. He was! Coming to talk. To me.

Axel was only a few feet away when an engine roared and Nana’s ancient purple Cadillac turned into the circular drive. She’d rolled the car’s top down and wrapped her hair in a colorful scarf like she was a 40s Hollywood starlet. Fins stuck out from the back of the Caddy like rocket fins. The red leather seats shone like just-applied lipstick. Nana hit the horn, and the song “Viva Las Vegas” blared from the speakers.

Axel gaped.

He couldn’t know she was there to pick me up, so I took off, ducked into a doorway, and hid. A while later I circled the building. Nana sat in the parking lot thumping her hands on the wheel.

Axel was nowhere in sight, so I raced to the car.

Nana looked up. “There you are Tru dear. Hop in! I was beginning to wonder if you’d taken the bus.”

I scrunched down in the front seat to make sure no stragglers saw me.

Nana turned and looked at me. “Why are you hunched down so low?”

I sat up straighter and clicked my seatbelt into place.

“We’ll need to hurry. What took you so long?” Nana started the car.

“I had to, um, talk to my teacher.”

As Nana drove, the wind whipped my hair into a frenzy. I clutched at it with both hands. We left quiet Spring Valley behind and headed toward Weird Central: Las Vegas. Where people came to do things they’d never do at home like stuff themselves to bursting at buffets and stay up all night cramming quarters into slot machines.

How weird is Vegas? Well, you can buy lobsters and expensive paintings out of vending machines, and load up on survival gear from the Zombie Apocalypse Store. Speaking of apocalypses, way back in the 1950s, tourists stood on their hotel balconies and watched atomic bombs being tested only sixty miles away. Those gawpers probably still glow in the dark. Speaking of explosions, the whole town turns out when developers blow up a historic hotel to make room for a new one that costs billions. You heard right. Billions. Many of those billion-dollar hotels “plant” Astroturf instead of grass. Which they water. I guess it’s all about keeping up appearances. Then there’s this mysterious place called Area 51 where supposedly the Air Force stashed aliens’ pickled corpses. There’s even a guy running around town who swears he has proof extra-terrestrials wear human costumes and play poker at the casinos.

A few minutes later Nana screeched around a corner and roared onto Las Vegas Boulevard—which is nicknamed “The Strip.” Even in the heat, thousands of people stampeded over the crosswalks, stepping out into the road to take photos of the Luxor Casino’s big black pyramid, Aladdin’s castle, and New York, New York’s fake skyline.

Another group of people gawked at the miniature Eiffel Tower in front of Paris casino. From the sidewalk, someone said, “Vi-o-la” as if it were a name, not the way a real French person would pronounce “vwala.” Nana sat through two lights drumming on the steering wheel, then swerved the car around the tourists and turned onto a side road. She rolled into our parking lot and took off her scarf. “Let’s go keep shop,” Nana hefted her luggage-sized purse onto her shoulder.

Our store, You Bet Pawn, sat in a strip mall, a block off The Strip. The smell of curry drifted from the Star of India and mixed with the oily stink of Frying Nemo’s Fish & Chips. A barber shop and 7-Eleven took up the other two storefronts. Nana pulled the keys out of her purse and handed them to me.

I unlocked the knob, then two bolts, and opened the door. Inside it was quiet, and sunlight streamed through the tall windows.

Shoot! The alarm. I ran to the keyboard and entered the code, then peeled off the “Back at 4!” sign taped to the door. I flipped on all the overhead lights and the ones in the display cases.

Nana fluffed my hair. “You’re a good one, you know.”

I nodded and gazed at the L-shaped room. This was my imaginarium. The display cases held coins from a shipwrecked Spanish Galleon, glass slippers from the new-ish “Cinderella” movie, and stamps from places with exotic names like Zanzibar and Sikkim that didn’t even exist anymore.

A hobnob of chandeliers hung from the high ceiling and cast rainbow prisms across the glass cases and mirrors. A portrait from Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion hung from the wall closest to the door. It was eerily backlit and the eyes followed me wherever I went.

I could spend hours flipping through an old dictionary from the 1970s—decades before words like Google, emoji, and unfriend had even been thought up. A leather-bound set of Encyclopedia Britannica took up the rest of the bookcase. Beautiful gold decorations wound around the spines, and the books smelled musty and faintly of cigar smoke. When business was slow, I read through them. Did you know there was once a planet called Pluto? But it got unplanetized. That’s not actually a word, but it’s kind of like getting unfriended on a bigger scale. I wondered what Pluto had done—not shone brightly enough or been close enough to the sun? I could relate.

It was really hard, but I tried not to get too attached to the merchandise since things came and went.

I’d organized most of the displays by color. Dad laughed at me at first, but our store now drew more women than any other pawn shop in the area. So, he let me have my way.

Mom was awesome at making costumes and had even been working on some for Cirque du Soliel. Tutus, long dresses with big bustles, and pirate costumes all hung on a round rack. I fingered the fuzzy material of a dog costume. Mom thought wearing masks in Las Vegas’ heat was worse than wearing stage make-up, so she always left a hole where the face would be.

I vacuumed the floor and then opened the cabinet where gold and silver gleamed, and light bounced off diamonds like fireworks. Nana hadn’t noticed I still had the keys. I turned them over in my hand. They tinkled like beautiful bells. One had a sticker on it that said, “Master.” With these I could be master of the pawn shop. At least until Nana remembered I wasn’t supposed to open the cases alone. I stuffed them into my pocket.

Nana had slipped the largest engagement ring on her finger, then held it up. “I’d like to get married again someday. No one could replace Papa, but it does a get a little lonely at nights. You know having someone there to cuddle with—”

Ewww. My face got hot. Too much information! To distract myself, I took a ring off its stand and put it on my finger, then held it up the way Nana was doing. The diamonds twinkled like fairy dust and I pictured a certain someone on one knee. Mrs. Axel Paz. Hmmm, sounded pretty good. Tru Paz.

The bell jangled as the door opened. I looked up. Of all the people in our pawn shop, or even in all of Las Vegas or even all the world, how could it be that certain someone?