One of 2020’s most highly-anticipated reads They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman is right around the corner, but we can’t wait until then to start reading. So today we’re sharing 20 pages of it! Scroll down for a sneak peek at the murder mystery of the summer!
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You sure you don’t wanna come to Quentin’s tonight? I type, trying to find the line between obsessed and friendly, desperate and chill. Adam never wants to come to Player parties now that he’s in college, but after seeing him at Diane’s, I wish he would.
Nah, you do your thing. Not sure those guys need me hanging around anymore. See you next time.
My stomach sinks. I miss him already and he’s not even gone.
I shove my phone into my pocket and push the lock down on Quentin’s front door. The house sits on a tiny, tree-lined street straddling the border between Gold Coast and Clam Cove. Everyone calls his cul-de-sac Gold Cove for short. The houses here are smaller, painted in the same four colors—navy, crimson, birch, or gray—because they’re registered as landmarks with the historical society. They all date back to 1825 or earlier.
Each mailbox on this street has a little gold plaque nailed to it, a signal that these homes are special, they are old. And in Gold Coast, old doesn’t just mean dusty or unkempt. It means you were here when big things happened, that you appreciate the historical distinctions the town has been awarded. Or that you were able to suck up to the right real estate agent twenty years ago when the town sold them off one by one. If you own one of these historical houses, it means you belong, no matter what.
It makes sense that Quentin lives here. He’s beyond obsessed with Gold Coast history and can recite every single mayor since the Revolutionary War. His fascination transferred over to Prep in middle school, too, when he learned that the school’s founder, Thomas Grace, quite literally came over on the Mayflower and eventually settled the area as a beachside oasis. I think the weird colonial vibe inspires his art or something. Otherwise why would he know that the Grace’s lineage died out in the early twentieth century when all of his descendants tragically caught scarlet fever? So random. He’s basically become the keeper of Player history, too. He was the first of us to successfully memorize the Player packet, able to recite the chant backward and forward, and spew basic info about every single Player when called on during lineups.
At the house, it’s just him and his mom, a Welsh novelist who drinks her scotch neat. His dad died of cancer before we became tight and Quentin never brings him up. Their place always feels cozy, like a cabin in the mountains even though it’s only a few miles from the beach. Every other stair creaks just a bit, and the front door is so short that Quentin has to duck his head when he enters.
Their stuff is everywhere, not put away by a cleaning service twice a week like at Nikki’s or Henry’s. Even the shed out back is comforting. It once belonged to a blacksmith or something but Quentin’s mom converted it into an art studio for him. Now it smells like turpentine and charcoal pencils. The last time I was in there, he had tacked up portraits of all the Players. Even Shaila.
“Finally!” Nikki throws herself into my arms and I wrap myself around her, burying my face in her jean jacket. It’s so thin and soft, like leather.
“Sorry,” I say, sheepish. “Got held up. Adam’s in town.”
“Oooh!” Nikki coos. “You’re like the Adam whisperer. Come on.” She takes my hand and weaves through the living room, past the reclaimed wood end table and over a woven basket full of fleece blankets. But before we make it to the kitchen, she stops. “Heads up,” she says, tossing her hair over her shoulder. She’s parted it in the middle so she looks like an indie princess. “Robert made the jungle juice, so . . . you know.” She feigns passing out and her voice drops to a whisper. It’s hard to hear over the booming music.
I grimace. “I’ll make my own drink, then.”
Before she can respond, I feel someone move up behind me. “There she is.” In a beat, Henry spins me around to face him and slips a warm hand onto the small of my back. His fingers press into my skin and I shiver.
“Here I am,” I say. Henry’s face is flushed, but he’s steady and his eyes are locked on mine, like he’s actually, for real, happy to see me. A bout of sweetness blooms in my chest, and for a second, I forget that I spent the whole day drooling over Adam.
“Missed you today, J,” Henry says, his mouth forming a tender little pout.
“Oh yeah?” I lean into him, letting myself be enveloped.
“Maybe just a little. Want a drink?” I nod. Henry turns and shouts into the kitchen. “Make way! Make way! Jill Newman has arrived! And the girl wants a drink!” Like that, the crowd parts, leaving a little aisle for me to shuffle down toward the kitchen island. But I hide behind my hair as everyone stares. Being in the Player fishbowl sometimes sucks.
I take my time mixing a cup of whatever’s available as Henry leans up against the wall, scanning the room. He thrusts his drink toward Avi Brill, his producer on the Prep News channel, who’s standing near the TV. Looks like he’s trying to queue up some sad-ass documentary to play on mute.
“Classic,” Henry mumbles. Then he turns to me. “Heard you were with Adam.”
The muscles in my stomach tense. “Yep.”
“What?” I ask, my jaw clenching. “You know we’re friends.”
“I know,” he says, wrapping his hand around my waist again. “I just get jealous sometimes. I feel like he’s been into you forever.”
Has he? My face flushes and I hope Henry doesn’t notice.
“I mean . . . I get it.” Henry smiles a lazy grin, as if his mouth is too heavy to hold up, and slips a finger through the loophole of my jeans. “You’re the best.” Henry takes a sip. “He knows we’re together, right?”
“Of course.” I raise my hand to scratch the back of his neck. Henry really is one of the good ones, I have to remind myself even if he’s clearly downed a few cups of Robert’s juice. “He’s only in town for the weekend. I won’t even see him tomorrow. It’s no big deal.”
“I know, I know.” Henry pulls me to him hard and his body feels like a slab of concrete.
“Promise you like me more than him?”
“Promise,” I whisper into his chest. I will it to be true. I want it to be true. And saying it now, out loud, is easier than the truth. The truth is unnecessary. The truth is dangerous. “Let’s find Quentin.”
Henry follows me into the backyard. The music is quieter out here, and string lights rim Quentin’s lawn, giving the whole party a softer feel. I finally spot the host sitting on his childhood slide with Barry Knowlton, the sophomore who made the state swimming team last year. Barry sits between Quentin’s legs with his eyes fixed on Quentin like he’s the most beautiful creature in the world. Quentin drags his forefinger down Barry’s chin and they smile like dummies. Wrapped in a private moment, they’re totally oblivious of all of us making a hot mess in Quentin’s backyard. Envy flares in my stomach, for their intimacy, the sweetness. But I try to stomp it out like a fire. I wonder if people are jealous of Henry and me, of what they think we have.
No, wait, of what we do have. We do.
Quentin’s eyes suddenly meet mine and he whispers something into Barry’s hair. In a few steps, Quentin’s at my side.
“We have to talk,” Quentin says, inserting himself in between me and Henry. “You too, man,” he says to Henry. His voice is tinny and urgent. We follow him behind a bunch of bushes, out of view from the rest of the party. Henry and Quentin keeping looking at each other, seeming to exchange whole sentences with their eyes over my head.
Their moms were college roommates who moved to Gold Coast together to ensure their families grew up side by side. Quentin and Henry’s friendship was obvious. It made them fight like brothers, with iced-out silence or by wrestling in the mud. But they always made up easily thanks to an unwavering understanding that they were bound together not by choice, but by Mom-ordained duty. Another bond I couldn’t break. No matter how many inside jokes Quentin and I made, or how many times I felt Henry’s bare skin above mine, I’d never worm my way inside their brains, like they had done with each other.
I admitted this once to Henry when we were stoned and lying on the dock behind his house over the summer. “I wish I had what you and Quentin have,” I said lazily.
“You have Nikki,” Henry said, dragging his fingertips over my goosepimply stomach. His touch tickled and I suppressed a giggle.
“Not the same. It was like that with Shaila, though,” I said. It was the first time I had admitted that out loud, that Nikki wasn’t enough to replace Shaila. It dawned on me that I probably wasn’t enough to replace her, either.
“I was always jealous of you two, you know,” he said. “Of the way girls get to be best friends with each other in such an obvious way. It’s so much weirder with guys.”
What an odd thing to say, I thought. The boys had it so much better in just about every way. Especially in the Players. But Henry’s admission made me like him more. He felt delicate. Before I could press him, Henry stood and galloped to the end of the dock, folding his body into a cannon ball and launching himself into the ocean below.
Now, Henry and Quentin jostle each other in one of those aggro-chest-bump ways. “Yeah, man,” Henry says, shoving a shoulder into Quentin’s side. “I’ll get the others.”
“C’mon.” Quentin motions toward one of the massive weeping willows lining the yard. We race to part its stringy leaves like a beaded curtain. “Some 007 shit, huh?” I say.
“You didn’t check your phone all day, did you?” he says.
“Not really.” When Adam and I were together, I usually forgot.
“There’s something you have to see.” Quentin reaches into his pocket and pulls out a folded piece of newspaper. It’s flimsy, from the crumbling Gold Coast Gazette.
“Where’d you get one of these?” I laugh. My family was the only one I know who still got the Sunday Times and even that was archaic. Dad says he could never give it up.
“Just read it.” He crosses his arms, impatient.
My eyes try to focus in the darkness and it takes a few seconds for the letters to come into view. It’s short, just a couple of paragraphs, but the words drain all warmth from my body.
notorious local killer seeks appeal
Graham Calloway, the boy who struck a deal after confessing to killing fifteen-year-old Shaila Arnold, seeks to exonerate himself three years after her death. Calloway, who is scheduled to be transferred to New York Federal Prison when he turns eighteen in June, has released a statement through his lawyer confirming the news:
“In light of new evidence, I, Graham Calloway, believe I was wrongfully prosecuted in the murder of Shaila Arnold. I will be seeking a new trial to prove my innocence. I aim to clear myself of all wrongdoing. I did not kill Shaila Arnold. I withdraw my confession.”
The Arnold family could not be reached for comment but the Gold Coast Police Department issued their own statement, standing by their original detective work: “We will review all new evidence but support our detectives who investigated Ms. Arnold’s horrific death. We have no additional comment at this time.”
I look up, dazed and nauseous.
“They’re over here!” Nikki shouts. She bursts through the leaves, causing them to rustle around her. Marla, Henry, and Robert are quick on her heels and they all tumble into the circle beneath the willow. Nikki’s eyes dart to the clipping in my hand. “He showed her.”
My head spins and I find the ground with my hands. “You all knew?” I stammer.
“I tried calling you earlier today, but . . .” Nikki’s voice trails off.
“When she couldn’t get you, we thought it’d be better to talk about it in person,” Marla says softly.
“You okay?” Henry whispers. He rests a gentle hand on my shoulder and his boozy breath is hot on my ear.
“What does this mean?” My voice is hoarse and I can’t make sense of the words.
For a beat no one says anything, and all we can hear is the party raging on without us.
“He’s a liar,” Robert finally says, his fist wrapped tightly around a cup. “We were there. We all know he did it.”
Everyone is quiet for a moment. I wonder if they’re trying to push memories of that night away, too. How the fire smelled like burning rubber. Shaila’s hard, steady gaze before everything started. My hands around her wrists. Her fierce, clomping gait as she walked away for the last time.
“Such bullshit,” Nikki says, toeing the dirt with her combat boots. “Of course he has to come back and ruin our senior year.” She wrinkles her nose like the whole thing smells like shit, which it does. “As student council president, I’m going to talk to Headmaster Weingarten about this on Monday. No way this is going to interfere with the rest of our semester!”
“We can’t get involved. It’s not worth it,” Quentin says. He shakes his head and picks up a stick, dragging it over the ground. “Not with college applications coming up.”
“But what if Graham’s telling the truth?” I say under my breath.
Five pairs of eyes turn to me. “You can’t be serious.” Henry laughs.
“You’re the journalist,” I spit back. “Aren’t you the least bit curious? Don’t you want know what happened?
Henry’s mouth forms a straight line. “We already do.”
“Can we all just agree not to think about this?” Nikki pleads. “Let’s just drop it, okay? If we ignore him, the rest of Gold Coast will, too. That’s just how it is and you all know it.”
Heads nod around me and one by one, they stand and leave.
“C’mon, babe,” Henry says, extending his hand.
I shake my head. “Just give me a sec, okay?”
He nods and walks back to the house. Huddled against the tree alone, I can almost forget about the party around me, the other Players, the undie wannabes, the countless vile pops we completed to get here. I watch as my friends trail back inside. We’re all we have. I want to wrap my heart around them and hold them close. I want to tie them to me to keep them safe. To do what we couldn’t do for Shaila.
Maybe they’re right. It’s not worth rehashing the past.
But there’s something I just can’t shake.
I reach for my phone with an unsteady hand and pull up Rachel’s texts.
Graham didn’t kill Shaila. He’s innocent.
My phone feels heavy in my hand, too heavy to hold, and the sky begins to swirl around me.
“Jill, you okay?” Henry returns and kneels down next to me. His hand slinks up the back of my shirt. It burns my bare skin.
I muster a nod. “Just drank that too fast,” I say, pointing to my cup.
“I’ll get you some water, babe.”
“Thanks,” I mumble.
The ground is wet and hard under my hands and I push myself up to stand, taking one last look at what Rachel said.
It’s all so messed up. Can we talk?
The first time I spoke to Rachel I thought it was unfair that she had to breathe the same air as me. She was striking, with cheekbones too high for someone who wore a high school uniform every day and eyes that were so dark that sometimes you could barely see her pupils. She always wore her hair in soft waves that waterfalled down her back. When I got a haircut that year, I showed the stylist her class picture as inspiration. But my mane was never as smooth, always a little too unruly.
She found me in the library one day in early October of freshman year, with The Odyssey open in front of me. I tapped my fist against the desk, hoping that by some miracle I would absorb the final two hundred pages in thirty minutes flat before our midterm. My GPA was about to take a nosedive and for the first time, I could feel my scholarship slipping away, everything spiraling out of my control.
I had planned to stay up until 3 a.m. to cram, but I fell asleep with the thick book splayed out on my chest and all the lights still on. I woke up in a panic when my regular alarm sounded at 6:07. It took a Herculean effort on my part not to break into sobs right there in the stacks.
“You look like shit,” Rachel said. She rested her hands on the book and leaned down low so I could see the top of her cleavage peeking out over a lacy black bra. “Beaumont?” she asked.
I nodded. A ball sat in my throat. I swallowed hard.
“You know Adam, right? You’re Shaila’s friend?”
I nodded again.
“Cool.” Rachel disappeared and my face grew hot, mortified that she would run to Adam to tell him how spazzy and gross I was. What loser screwed up this epically? A minute passed and then another, and then Rachel was standing in front of me, holding out two pieces of paper. “Here,” she said. “It’s a pattern. First answer’s A. Second’s B. Third’s C. Rinse and repeat. You get the picture. He’s just using Mrs. Mullen’s test from last year. And the year before that. She never changes it.”
“What?” I whispered, incredulous that she just had the answers.
Rachel smiled. “Trust me. Look it over, then destroy this. If anyone catches you with it, we’re done for, got it?” I thought about how disappointed Mom and Dad would be if I got caught cheating, if I was suspended or worse. How would I be able to live with myself? But then I pictured failing the test, losing my ride to Gold Coast Prep and all the college connections and the status and . . . I could feel the most precious pieces of my life slipping away. My chest pounded as I grappled with what I was about to do. I took the paper in my shaking hands.
“You owe me one,” Rachel said with a wink before she skipped away, her hips swinging with every perfect step.
The next week, when Mr. Beaumont dropped a graded paper back on my desk, he stabbed at the red numbers proclaiming 98. “Well done, Jill.” I had purposely messed up one answer to throw him off my trail. I should have been elated, but instead I couldn’t feel a thing. I stuffed the exam way down into my backpack and tried to forget about it, about what I had done.
Rachel was right, though. I would pay her back throughout that year with various pops, like picking up her favorite donuts from Diane’s and researching her history term paper on the Vietnam War. I even steamed her prom dress so she could pose for perfect pictures with Adam.
It would be months before I knew the full scope of the Player Files, how there were only straight-up answer keys for small tests like this one. It would be the only one I ever used.
The real power lay in the gray areas, where former Players passed down access to an elite and explicit network of tips, like which local doctors would write you a note proving you needed extra time on standardized tests (Robert and Marla employed that one), and which college departments were partial to Players (a grad from the early aughts now works at Yale’s art program; Quentin has been emailing with him regularly for months). There was even a script on how to ace a case study given by the dean of admissions at Wharton (Henry freaked when he found that one).
If Gold Coast Prep’s whole schtick was to set you up for life, the Player Files took it one step further. They made you untouchable.
We didn’t get the password to the app that housed them all until we were fully initiated, but throughout freshman year, we got flashes of its muscle, like when a senior felt pity toward us.
Shaila never touched the app. She didn’t need it.
When I got that English exam back, Shaila craned her neck to see my score. She smirked in approval. “Next time maybe you’ll get 100.” She gritted her teeth and pulled at a stray cuticle between her thumb and her forefinger. “Just don’t go beating me,” she said. “First in class is my shit.”
I managed a smile and waited for her to break into giggles, but she held my gaze in a frigid standoff before turning away completely.
It was obvious that Shay was smart. She’d been in honors classes since middle school, and the homework packets that took me days took her just a few hours. English was her favorite. She often skipped study hall to go to Mr. Beaumont’s office hours, though she called him “Beau” for short. He was assigning her Shakespeare on the side to prepare for the SAT Subject Test, she said. She’d emerge from his classroom with weathered, worn copies of The Tempest and King Lear and a small, secret smile.
After a particularly grueling pop where we had to stand in the ocean in November, wearing only bikinis, while singing Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” for an hour, I asked Shay why she wanted to be a Player, why go through with all the hard stuff if she wasn’t going to reap the real rewards. She wrapped a terry towel around her body and looked at me with a baffled expression and quivering lips that had turned a pale shade of blue.
“It’s the most fun we’ll ever have,” she said.
She died with a perfect GPA.
Shaila was destined for Harvard. It was basically in her blood. Mrs. and Mr. Arnold had met right there on Harvard Yard. I’d heard the story just once from Mrs. Arnold after she downed six martinis on Shaila’s fourteenth birthday.
Shaila’s mom, formerly known as Emily Araskog, was a sweet girl who had moved to Cambridge to attend Harvard from the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where she had lived her entire life in a penthouse that overlooked Central Park. She’d grown up with an elevator operator who wore white gloves and a smart gray uniform, complete with a little hat that he tipped to her when she walked through the ornate wrought-iron doors.
Old money, Mom had whispered to Dad when she met Mrs. Arnold. A grade-A WASP. And it was true. The Araskogs’ lineage dated back to the Liberty Bell, Mrs. Arnold said.
One day, Emily was sitting on a bench in Harvard’s leafy quad when a football hit her square in the face, knocking her onto the ground. When she looked up in shock, a blond man in a crimson sweatshirt was standing over her.
“Gil Arnold,” he said after apologizing profusely.
He took Emily out for a drink, and then dinner, and then the rest is history. They married the week after graduation and the Krokodiloes, Harvard’s oldest a cappella group, performed at the reception. Within just a few years, Gil built a multibillion-dollar hedge fund in Manhattan and the Arnolds decided to plant roots in Gil’s hometown, Gold Coast.
Emily was hesitant to leave Manhattan and her and Gil’s close friends, the Sullivans, whose daughter Kara had started crawling around with baby Shaila. But Gil’s other childhood friend, Winslow Calloway had just moved back home and snagged a plot on the beach. Wouldn’t it be so nice to join them and be near the ocean with all that space? The fact that their kids could go to the best private school on the East Coast, which would only be a few miles away from their home, sealed the deal for Emily.
And so, Shaila was indoctrinated with Crimson pride from the moment she emerged from Emily Arnold née Araskog’s womb. Swaddled in a ruby red blanket, little baby Shaila was told it would be her destiny to follow in her parents’ footsteps.
Twenty-four hours after the news about Graham broke, I’m lying in bed staring at my phone. I scroll through the texts, past Adam’s adios message before heading back to school and past Henry’s night, babe note, until I find Rachel’s unfamiliar number.
I wonder if she’s thinking about me as much as I’m thinking about her. She had to know that we would see the article in the Gazette but did she know that no one would want to deal with it?
I type out what I want to say and stare at the letters dancing on the screen. I picture Shaila on the morning of initiation, sipping from a mug of coffee while she laughed, giddy with anticipation. I can see her so clearly when I close my eyes. Her sunny face and long, thick lashes, daring me to betray her by responding to Rachel. But I also see the Players, and all of us promising just last night that we wouldn’t get involved. I hear Adam’s comforting voice. “Rachel is nuts,” he’d said at Diane’s.
But what if she’s not?
I bite my lip and close my eyes, shoving Shaila, my friends, and even Adam from my mind. I make a decision. I turn my back on them.
I hit send.
“I call this meeting of the Players to order!” Nikki announces, smacking a plastic gavel on the coffee table. The six of us are sprawled around Nikki’s living room for the first official tribunal of the year. Piles of bagels and shmear, courtesy of Nikki’s parents’ credit card, are stacked on the table. But no one’s ready to start just yet.
Henry sits between my legs on the floor and furiously scrolls through Twitter, reading some thread by his favorite New Yorker writer who just published a new investigation.
“Man, this dude is a legend,” Henry murmurs. “I’d kill to interview him about sourcing.”
I pat his head like a puppy.
“Dude, I can probably hook it up,” Robert says. “My dad knows all those guys.”
“Your dad knows all the writers at The New Yorker?” Quentin asks, skeptical.
“Uh, yeah. I grew up in the city, you know.”
“No! Really?” Nikki says, feigning shock. “None of us knew that!”
“Just remember who got you fakes this summer,” Robert spits. “I’m the one with that connect.”
We all grumble and roll our eyes, shoving each other with elbows and pillows. I check my phone, more out of hope than necessity but there’s nothing there. Waiting for Rachel to respond has been torture.
No one brings up Graham or the article in the Gazette. Instead we’re pretending like nothing happened, like we could still go about our normal Players’ rituals as usual. Glossing over things is a Gold Coast tradition and I am happy to follow suit. No one needs to know I texted the enemy.
I avert my attention to Marla, who stares intently at the screen in her lap, the Dartmouth admissions portal open in front of her. She applied there early with hopes of walking on the field hockey team.
“You know we won’t hear for a few months, right?” I whisper. Acceptances were still so far off, I had to force myself not to think about them.
Marla throws her head back against the couch. “Ugh, I know. I’m obsessive.”
Quentin grumbles next to us. “Don’t I know it.” He had submitted his portfolio to Yale’s art program and was dying to hear back, too. “Cannot believe we have to wait eons for this.”
I rest my head on Quentin’s soft shoulder and try to push thoughts of being at Brown with Adam out of my head, of crushing that Women in Science and Engineering scholarship exam I’d only get to take if I got in. It’s too much to wrap my brain around. “Uh, hello!” Nikki yells before banging her gavel again. “The Toastmaster is talking here.” As president of the student council and Toastmaster of the Players, I think it’s safe to say the power has gone to her head just a little.
Quentin groans and tosses a pillow at her.
“It’s time. We gotta pick freshman,” she continues.
Marla drops her phone and sits up straight.
Robert claps, throwing a fist in the air. “Fresh meat! Let’s do it!”
Nikki opens a frayed green binder and pulls out a stack of papers containing photos and bios of all the potential freshmen. The binder had been handed down from Toastmaster to Toastmaster for who knows how long. Hell, maybe Mr. Beaumont even saw it. It holds all the official Players rules—how to nominate freshmen, specific songs and chants we had to learn, guidelines for creating pops, and, of course, the initiation rules. Only seniors were allowed to see the binder, and when last year’s Toastmaster, Derek Garry, passed it to Nikki before he left for Yale, we spent hours poring over its contents. When we reached the initiation section, we scanned it desperately, seeking answers for what had happened, but there was nothing.
Today, we’re stuck on the nominations chapter. We’d heard the whole stupid process could take hours. I remember Adam told me it took them the entire weekend and they pulled two all-nighters in a row to pick our squad. But Derek used the same line last year.
“You guys ready for this?” Nikki says, a grin spreading across her face. She’d been memorizing the binder all summer, preparing to lead us into a new year. She was ready to finally control the Players. This year will be different.
“First up, Sierra McKinley. Quentin, she’s your nom. What’s her deal?”
“Sierra’s in my AP drawing class—as a freshman, which is nuts—and she’s actually super talented. I told her so last week and she didn’t get all nervous the way the other freshmen do when I talk to them. She just said thanks and drew this insane looking bird and I was like, damn, that is very cool. Plus, she’s got that sick house up near the tollbooth and has like three acres of beach access. Mom went there for Fourth of July last year and they set off their own fireworks. Very good party house.”
Nikki smiles. “Anyone dissent?”
“She won’t put out!” Robert yells.
“How do you even know that, asshole?” I ask.
He smirks. “Wouldn’t you like to know.”
“You wish, Robert.” Nikki straightens her back and flips her hair over her shoulder. This was a bad week between them. “Next up, Bryce Miller.” She points to me. “Your pick?”
“Adam’s brother,” I say as a way of explanation. Heads around the room nod, but Henry looks down and starts thumbing through Twitter again. “I thought at first he was a little shit but he’s been super cool to Jared, bringing him around for band practice and stuff. I’m into it.”
Nikki nods in absolute seriousness. “Thoughts?” Her eyebrows shoot up to the group.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Marla says and I thank her silently for having my back. “Legendary is in his blood.”
“All right then,” Nikki says. “Moving on.” For the next three hours, Nikki runs through a dozen more names. We debate Gina Lopez’s suspicious gluten allergy, Carl Franklin’s legendary sneaker collection, Priya Kosuri’s actually-pretty-good attempts at being a style influencer, and Larry Kramer’s insane growth spurt that landed him near the seven-foot mark this spring. The boys demand a thirty-minute break to shoot around a basketball, while Marla, Nikki, and I laze next to the pool, passing around a vape.
“We’re almost at Jared, Jill,” Nikki says, taking an inhale. “What do you want to do?”
Marla nods. “Like I said, he is kind of cute.” She giggles.
“Mar, I swear,” I say and swat at her arm. I try to think. “We decided that things would be different. We would be different. Nikki, you’re Toastmaster now, the first girl ever. So we’re in charge.”
They nod. “I want him here, if we’re still in on that promise,” I say. “Nothing bad can happen to him or any of the others. We can change everything. We can make this fun, the way it’s supposed to be.”
“Hell yeah,” Nikki says. “I’ll make sure of it.”
“If that’s the case, if that’s really the case, I’m all in,” I say.
Marla passes me the pen and I inhale deeply like Adam once taught me. Then I release. Everything is going to be different.
Jared is voted in, obviously, along with Sierra, Bryce, and a few others.
I let Adam know the good news.
Heck yeah, he responds in an instant.
Keep it cool, tho. We want it to be a surprise.
Obvi, Newman. I got this . . . wish I was there to celebrate with you.
My heart flutters.
Have the most fun possible. Ever. Period. All the time.
You know it.
We end the day with pizza and half a bottle of fancy whiskey that Nikki swipes from her parents’ bar. She puts on an old Adam Sandler movie and we lie like sloths until varsity running back Eli Jaffe group texts like sixty people saying he’s throwing a last-minute beer pong tournament. Henry, Robert, and Marla jump up to go, but Quentin, Nikki, and I stay behind and settle in for a Real Housewives marathon.
“This Toastmaster shit is exhausting,” Nikki says, splayed out on the couch, the tiny gavel still by her side. “Even more so than student council. At least there, no one questions me.”
“You’re ridiculous,” Quentin says. His stomach is covered in stray pizza crust crumbs. “You love this.”
Nikki sinks deeper into the couch. “Damn right, I love it. This time next year, we’re going to be pond scum, back at the bottom after years climbing our way to the top. You’re nuts if you think I’m not going to savor every second. I’m not ready to go back there yet.”
I reach for her hand and squeeze it.
“Intro night is gonna be amazing,” Quentin mumbles.
He’s right. It’s always my favorite, ever since we had ours. It’s a big party on the beach, the only one that was filled with hope and anticipation instead of dread.
Our intro happened on a warm night in October, just as the weather was starting to turn. Shaila suggested we all gather at Nikki’s since her parents would be away and Nikki jumped at the chance to host for the first time, to be a leader.
She broke out a bottle of tequila and we all took swigs, sizing each other up. I was close with Shaila, Nikki, and Graham, of course, but it was the first time I had really hung out with Robert or Marla outside of school. Robert had secretly always intimidated me. And Marla was still new, unattached to any solid friend group. At that point, Henry was just the cute, lanky kid on the school news channel. He had yet to make varsity lacrosse or fill out his six-foot frame. And Quentin was his best friend, the artsy guy, whose paintings hung in the middle school hallways. But somehow, for some reason, Adam, Jake, Rachel, and the rest of the senior Players had picked the eight of us and changed our lives forever.
That night, I looked around at the weird group and wondered what we each had to offer. I wondered what made me special. Why I had been plucked, instead of one of my eighty-two other classmates. Everyone else looked so ready, so alive, that my heart swelled with affection. I hoped they would become family or something like it.
After an hour, Graham’s phone buzzed with the go-ahead from Rachel. He whispered something into Shaila’s ear, and they both erupted into a fit of giggles. Nikki rolled her eyes at me, and we shared an annoyed smirk. Classic couple shit.
Then, Graham cleared his throat. “Let’s go.”
He led us in a single file line behind Nikki’s house, where the grass kissed the sand before it became beach. From there, her house looked like a UFO, dropped down to earth by chance. The eight of us continued silently, guided by the inky sky and a million little stars.
I looked up to find Orion and then Aries, the Little Dipper, too. Each one set me at ease, more signs this was all so right. My stomach flipped and I felt like I was on the brink of greatness. I knew that this was the night I had been waiting for my entire life. It had to be. It was the brightest I’d ever seen the Milky Way. We continued marching across the sand in silence for another mile until we heard the sounds of drunk people who thought they were whispering. “Shhh! They’re coming.”
A blazing bonfire came into view and soon we could hear the grainy sounds of some house song coming from a portable speaker. Graham stopped as two headlights approached. Shit, I thought. The cops.
Shaila grabbed at his hand in the dark, and they glued their shoulders together as the brightness grew bigger.
But there were no uniforms or sirens. A sand buggy stopped and someone stepped out. I squinted into the darkness. It was Adam. His eyes met mine but he didn’t smile, didn’t show any sign of recognition.
“Be quiet,” Adam said, his mouth in a hard line. “Follow me and do as I say. If you don’t there will be consequences.” He looked at me again before turning the buggy around, heading back toward the flames.
We ran after him, breathing heavily to keep up. The fire grew taller as we got closer and when we were standing right in front of it I felt like we had found the center of the earth. “Line up!” Adam yelled.
We scrambled into a row and I found myself in between Nikki and Shaila, standing so close that my fingers grazed theirs. My eyes adjusted and I made out familiar faces. Rachel. Jake. Tina. Derek Garry. They stood by class, a handful of sophomores off to the right, a smattering of juniors to the left, and the seniors in the middle with their arms crossed, holding bottles. They looked ready for a fight.
Adam cleared his throat. “Players.”
The voices rose around us in unison and I made out the words, crisp and clipped.
“Gold Coast Prep, hear our cries
Born and bred until we die
For years and years, our fair sea
Has held us up and kept us free
From brush to waves and dusk till dawn
We rise and fall, like kings and pawns
We’ve read the rules, we’ve learned them well
We’re Players till the end, we yell.”
A chill ran down my spine and the sand stretched before us, echoing the chanted words. Wind rustled the tall grass of the dunes and waves crashed onto the shore.
And then Jake spoke. “You have been chosen by this year’s senior class to be Players. But that doesn’t mean you are a Player. It just means we think you could be. This year you’ll be faced with challenges, some fun, some . . . not. If you make it through, if you choose to continue, then you will be a Player. You’ll get access to things you never dreamed about.”
Along the edge of the circle, the other Players nodded their heads in solemn motions. The hair on my neck stood straight up. It sounded like Jake was offering us the world.
But what would we have to do to get it?