I didn’t mean to kill the first one. Honest. It was just
. . . too easy, I suppose. She was already in the water, and when I plunged my hands in to help her out, I kind of . . . changed my mind. Something inside me snapped. I held Little Miss Perfect’s head down and waited for her to stop thrashing around. It took longer than I thought, and then she just . . . floated there. Limp. Pathetic, really. “Accidental death,” according to the experts. That’s nearly right. Like I said, it’s not like I set out to do it. It felt good, though.
I can’t believe we’re back here already.
Summer had passed by in a daze thanks to the bang to the head I took at the end of last year. Instead of going to beach parties with my friends and staying up to watch the sunrise like I’d planned, my days were full of police interviews and PTSD. That last day of school had started so perfectly, and then . . .
“Liz.” A sharp hiss and an elbow in my ribs bring me back to the present. Taylor is standing up straight, her gorgeous hazel eyes focused on the stage, for all the world playing the perfect mourner. I mimic her, my gaze following hers to a large easel draped in black cloth. It’s displaying a blown-up photograph of Morgan.
The girl who drowned on the last day of school.
“Pay attention.” Taylor says this out of the corner of her mouth, like she’s a bad ventriloquist with one of those creepy puppets. She does it so effortlessly—not one muscle in her face moves. I guess I haven’t recovered as well as I thought, even after all those hospital visits over the summer. I try to concentrate, I really do, but my mind wanders as the headmistress’s words blur into one long sermon, each pause punctuated by the squeaking sound of rubber heels on the parquet floor. Autumn is seeping into the corners of the building already and the air smells of rain and damp, freshly laundered uniforms.
I study the picture. Morgan was pretty, in a preppy, Reese Witherspoon in Cruel Intentions
kind of way. She looked so sweet and unassuming, which I know was total bull. Truth is, Morgan had the personality of a venomous snake. You did not
cross her, if you knew what was good for you; she’d make your life at Morton a living hell if she felt like it. It had been her idea to take the boat out on the lake that night, her big moment after being sworn in as head girl. She’d bullied most of us into it, from what I remember, though admittedly I don’t remember much. Not after the boat flipped.
Dr. Patel, the headmistress, ends her monologue with a request for a moment of silence. She’s flanked by several members of the faculty—some of them are crying, dabbing handkerchiefs or tissues at their faces. Her sharp black trouser suit is conservative, appropriate for a pupil’s memorial, but super stylish and paired with some killer heels. I can’t help admiring anyone who can walk in shoes that high, never mind run the country’s most elite boarding school in them. The rest of the staff look frumpy in comparison. I watch the clock and sway slightly. I’m not used to standing up for so long after spending the summer in bed watching nineties teen movies.
Taylor ignores me, her head down, eyes closed: the perfect pupil. And mourner. Her long, naturally red hair falls like a curtain, spilling over the gray tweed of her blazer. Morton Academy’s very own Cheryl Blossom, standing right next to me.
Dr. Patel calls the memorial to a close and bodies start to shuffle toward the exit in silence.
“So,” I whisper as we wait our turn to file out of the hall, “how does it feel?”
Taylor looks at me as we emerge through the tall, wooden doors into the corridor, smiling with her mouth but not her eyes. “How does what feel? Being passed over for head girl? Being so close to that full-ride scholarship I could practically taste it? Great, thanks for asking.”
“Oh, come on. You’re deputy! That’s still pretty sweet. Plus”— I lower my voice, even though everyone else has resumed their own conversations too—“you know what that means for Jewel and Bone. Being deputy in the society means you get your pick of colleges.”
Now the smile reaches her eyes.
“Yes, I do. I am very excited for this year. If I can just find the right sponsor, schmooze the right rich person, then I won’t have to worry about working through university at all. Just think of all the people we’re going to meet, the events we’ll get to go to. . . .”
get to go to,” I correct her, smiling ruefully. “Some of the perks of the society don’t stretch past head and deputy, remember?”
“Yeah, sorry.” Taylor chews her lip and avoids my eyes. “I know that if you hadn’t helped me and Kat with the scavenger hunt, you would have finished it before us. You’d be the one being sworn in as deputy head tonight, and—”
“Hello, gorgeous!” A deep voice interrupts her as two heavy arms thump down around our shoulders. I’m kind of grateful for the interruption. Marcus’s aftershave is so strong I start to cough, but Taylor immediately twinkles up at him. I duck out from under his arm and let them have a moment.
“What do you both look so serious about?” He looks good, like maybe he actually slept over the summer. Lucky him.
“Oh, you know—life, death.” She waves her polished fingernails in the air. “How I spent half an hour choosing a shade of lipstick that didn’t clash with the funeral flowers.” Taylor glances around furtively. “Actually, we were just talking about my ceremony at JB tonight.” She stands on her tiptoes to kiss him. “You know your girl is moving up in the world.”
“I sure do. I still think you should’ve gotten the top spot instead of Jameela, though. I mean, if there was anything I could do . . .” He walks out of the hall with us, but I stop listening as we start up the corridor to the entrance hall.
God, I missed this place. I breathe in deeply, as though I can inhale the pure essence of Morton into my very soul. I love the feeling of belonging, being one of a handful of kids from all over the country who are invited to attend such an exclusive institution. It doesn’t matter who we are or where we’re from—we’re here because of our brains. Rich, poor, it doesn’t matter at Morton. We’re all here because we are damn clever—and the truth is that most of us wouldn’t have gotten the chance otherwise. It’s in the middle of nowhere and boarding is compulsory. There’s no internet access without supervision, either—that’s one of Morton’s unique selling points: good old-fashioned bookwork. You win some, you lose some, I guess.
I take a second to remind myself it’s all real. The stone ceiling soars over us, and our shoes tap softly on the ancient stone floor as we weave through bodies clad in gray blazers that are piped with an almost lurid acid green. The mahogany wall panels glow, sunlight streaming through the long windows that allow us glimpses of the vast, manicured gardens beyond them. We pass the headmistress’s office and start to climb the large, curving staircase that always makes me feel like I’m in a Disney film. The handrail is gleaming, so polished that it’s slick beneath my hand. The whole place smells of wood and citrus and I adore it. It smells like home.
“Hurry up, Liz.” Marcus and Taylor are watching me with amusement from the landing above, and I realize I’ve zoned out a bit. “Stop daydreaming.”
“Sorry.” I duck my head to hide my flaming cheeks as I take the remaining stairs two at a time until I reach the landing beneath a huge stained-glass window. I walk slowly, following them through the wide double doors into the West Wing. Yes, I said West Wing—that’s how big this place is.
This floor is all classrooms and the science labs are right next to classics, so I watch the perfect couple disappear into their room and then enter my own class. Classics is my main subject—all students do three in total, but we have been hand-selected for these classes in particular. It’s kind of like a specialty, something we will take on to college, maybe even get fast-tracked. The teaching here is the best in the country—expectations are high. There’s hardly anyone here yet; the assembly interfered with the timetable for the first full day back, so I choose a desk in the middle row, by a window that looks out onto a wide expanse of water.
I move quickly, my flesh crawling as memories of that night once again try to claw their way to the surface. I take a seat at the opposite side of the room, as far from the window as I can get.
The classroom fills up slowly and I’m pleased we have a small group—not that we ever have large classes, with only fifty chosen to attend Morton in each year group. The teacher arrives last, and I’m happy to see we’ve got Professor Insoll again. The man’s a legend—in the world of ancient religious artifacts, anyway. He used to teach at a university, but I guess Morton pays pretty well—plus it has to be a bonus when you have a bunch of kids who are desperate to learn rather than perpetually hungover undergrads.
We go through all the usual first-day-back motions—new textbooks, a prep schedule that looks ridiculously full, and a winter exam timetable. I’m busy writing my name on everything when a note slides across my desk.
“Pass this to Jameela,” a voice hisses.
Jameela? Hmm. I wonder if it’s Jewel and Bone business, maybe a note about the first of the donor meetings, where we’ll get to meet prospective sponsors who will hopefully pay our way through college, but a quick glance around reveals that hardly anyone else in the class would have that kind of information. I shrug and pass it on to Frank, just in case. I can’t go handing out potential secret society information to just anybody. “For Jameela,” I mouth, nodding to the girl with long, dark braids sitting in front of him. I go back to signing my name with a flourish and forget all about the note.
Until Jameela shoots out of her seat, screaming, and drops the paper like it’s on fire.
Copyright © 2023 by Cynthia Murphy. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.