Read an Excerpt
By Daisy Whitney
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers Copyright © 2013 Daisy Whitney
All rights reserved.
I will pretend I know nothing.
When she asks me about the Mockingbirds, I will deny everything.
I won't reveal who we are and what we do, even though she has summoned me here to her inner sanctum "to discuss matters pertaining to the Mockingbirds." That's what the note says, the one her secretary hand-delivered to me moments ago on crisp white stationery, sealed with the official emblem of the office of the dean of Themis Academy.
Ms. Ivy Merritt.
She is second in command here, and that puts her in charge of students, faculty, activities, and all disciplinary matters. Even though discipline is a loaded word at this school.
"Please come in," she says, and gestures to the brown leather chair across from her desk. As I sit down, I quickly survey her office. Her desk is lined with photos of two dogs. Weimaraners. I've seen her walking her dogs around the campus. She lets them off leash, and they stay next to her the entire time, perfectly trained.
She notices me looking at the photos.
"Frederick and Fredericka," she says proudly. "Do you have dogs?"
"No," I say. When you go to boarding school, that whole "If we get a puppy, I promise I'll walk it" plea doesn't really work on parents.
"They're twins," she adds.
Twins? They're called littermates, lady, as in brother and sister.
"That's nice," I say, but I'm not really interested in her dogs' family tree. I'm just trying to ignore the nervous feeling growing inside me, the twitchiness of not knowing what the dean wants. I've talked to her before, heard her D-Day speeches, watched her happily overseeing student performances at the Faculty Club. Ms. Merritt is a Themis institution herself—she went to school here (the third generation in her family to attend) before returning as a teacher and then working her way up in the administration. She is the school's biggest cheerleader; she attends as many sporting events and student performances as she can, and she always cheers the loudest.
Of course, none of that gives me any insight into the matters pertaining to the Mockingbirds, and as far as I am concerned, any matter pertaining to the Mockingbirds must be kept secret from any teacher or administrator, no matter how much school spirit she possesses.
Maybe especially because of how much school spirit she possesses.
I look around some more, hunting out clues. The shelves behind her desk are lined with books, plaques, awards, but there's an empty space on the top shelf. It seems to have been cleared out, recently dusted and polished.
She's angling for something this year. Another award.
Ms. Merritt moves from her desk to the chair next to me, scooting it even closer. I watch her inch nearer still. I force myself to focus on something else—like the tight braid in her hair or the ugly glasses she wears. Ms. Merritt is pretty, but she's one of those women who try to hide their beauty by wearing glasses and pantsuits and never letting their hair down.
"First of all, thank you so much for coming. It's such an exciting time—the start of your senior year—so I thought we could begin our meeting by talking about your college plans," she says. I'm thrown off because I thought we'd be talking about the Mockingbirds, or at least the a cappella singing group we tell the administration we are. "Is Juilliard still at the top of your list?"
"Yes," I say, giving her only the briefest of answers so we can get to the real agenda: not dogs, not college, but the matters pertaining to the Mockingbirds she called me here to discuss.
"We haven't had a student admitted to Juilliard in four years," Ms. Merritt continues, then places her hand on mine. My first instinct is to yank my hand away. I don't like being touched by teachers, by adults. "But I have all the faith in the world that you're going to change that for us, aren't you?"
"Sure," I say, because what can I say? Of course I want to get into Juilliard. It's only been my lifelong dream.
"The school needs this, Alex," she says, and I detect a note of pleading in her voice. Then she presses her hand harder against mine. I look down at her hand, its veins all fat and blue, and then back up at her. I want to know why I'm here, because it can't just be about my college plans. But she's not letting on. Instead, she's just holding my hand tighter, and I don't like it. I start to wriggle my hand out from under hers.
She looks down, noticing my discomfort, and releases me. "I'm sorry. I should be more sensitive about your—" She stops, then says, delicately, in a whisper, "Personal space."
It's as if she just dropped a tray in the cafeteria and now it's silent, dead silent, and we all wait for someone to break the seal with a sound.
I make the first move. "What do you mean by that?" I ask, because she knows something. I want to know how much she knows.
"What happened to you last year," she says, lowering her voice again, like this is a secret only the two of us know. "As if what you went through wasn't hard enough, I imagine there are students who don't really know what to think about it, seeing as the issue was never formally brought forth. And now you're having to live with people still having all those lingering questions of ... shared culpability," she says, shaking her head, as if the thought disturbs her. "But I hope you know that had you decided to come to me about the situation with that boy, there never would have been a question about what really happened. And, of course, you can come to me about anything," she adds. "That's my job. That's why I'm here."
I am floored. I don't even know where to start, because I'm thinking ten things at once, but the first one is this: Ms. Merritt knows I was date-raped by another student last year, even though I never told anyone in the administration. I try to open my mouth to speak, but words refuse to take shape, and all I manage is "How?"
"There are many students here who share things with me," she says as she leans closer, patting my hand as if trying to set me at ease. But I'm not at ease. I'm not cool with students talking about me, and I'm definitely not comfortable with them telling her—especially since she doesn't seem very sensitive about my personal space after all. "And you should know that you can trust me too."
For a second I can feel the walls of her office looming closer, falling toward me as if they're going to enclose me too tightly. But the very thought of anyone insinuating I was somehow to blame for the assault strengthens me, and I push back. "How can you say there is any shared culpability?"
"Alex, you have to understand I'm not saying there was or wasn't. But you and he never came to me, so I don't know the details. How am I to know whose fault it actually was?"
"Fault? It was his fault."
She waves this away, then nods to the desk photos of her dogs. "I find that positive reinforcement works best," she says, and I expect her to break out a basket of dog biscuits and maybe offer me one. "And that's why I say it's time to simply move on and focus on the good stuff. Like Juilliard." Now there's a beaming smile on her face. "The fact of the matter is, you are extraordinarily talented. You have an opportunity before you with Juilliard, and it's one we both want. Your admission there would mean so very much to me, and to you, of course. So let's not focus on the past, or any past troubles. Let's celebrate your talents instead, since not only are you our star piano player, but I see that you're also heading up the Mockingbirds singing group," she says, tapping a piece of paper on her desk. It's a list of the students who head up the various groups and clubs at Themis. I had to submit my name last week to qualify for a mailbox in the student-activities office and for the right to post flyers around campus. But does she know singing is just a cover for what the Mockingbirds really do?
"And that is why I have decided I want the Mockingbirds to perform in two weeks at our first Faculty Club event this year," she adds. "It's part of my purview to select the students who will perform, and it's imperative that the faculty have a good year. I want our headmistress to be happy, and I want all our teachers to be happy. We want them to love teaching here, and part of that comes from things like the Faculty Club performances. I do hope you will say yes." There's that hint of pleading again.
This is the reason she called me to her office? This is the matter pertaining to the Mockingbirds? It's not to tell me she knows I was assaulted, although she does. It's not to tell me the Mockingbirds need to cease and desist, as I'd thought. Instead, it's simply to invite us—the a cappella singing group we're not—to sing at the upcoming Faculty Club event in front of the teachers as they eat warm chocolate-chip cookies and drink hot cocoa and wax on about how wonderful it is to teach at Themis Academy? Oh, the perks! Aren't they great!
Call it positive reinforcement. Call it turning the other cheek. It amounts to the same thing: she knows what happened to me and she's dismissing it, wiping her hands clean. I'd like to say this makes me sad, or mad. But instead, I feel like it's business as usual at Themis Academy, where the record matters more than the reality and where the Mockingbirds are undoubtedly needed.
And if all she wants to see is one side of our story, if all she wants is the happy, chipper, cheery face of high school, then we'll give it to her.
"Ms. Merritt, it would be my pleasure to perform with my merry band of Mockingbirds before your Faculty Club," I say with a broad smile.
As she thanks me and says good-bye, I wonder whether she knows that we're not singers at all—that our true job is to police, protect, and prosecute other students. That we are the school's underground student-justice system.
I don't know which thought is more troubling: that the Mockingbirds are here in the first place to uphold the code of conduct because the school won't, or that she'd willingly let us exist to do just that.
"Can you sing?"
"Not to save my life," Martin says as he opens the door to his room and lets me in. "You?"
"Nope," I say.
"What's so funny about that?"
"Well, I have an excuse. I'm a science geek," he says. He's right. I even pilfered his favorite gray shirt with Science Rules in red letters to sleep in during the summer. It's well worn and reminds me of him. I wore it nearly every night, and still do. "But aren't you supposed to have every sort of musical talent known to humankind?"
I shake my head, because my musical talents stop cold when I step away from the bench. Despite being able to pick a note, any note, out of an aural lineup, my voice is an un-tamed instrument. "I am afraid my musical abilities are very specialized," I say, feeling momentary relief as I shift away from thoughts of Ms. Merritt.
"Specialized. That's such a PC way of putting it," he says, then turns the lock on the door. It clicks shut. He reaches for me, wrapping his arms around my waist.
"Decontaminate me, please. I was just in Ms. Merritt's office," I say, and Martin obliges by pressing his lips softly against my neck and his hands firmly against my hips.
I relax into the feeling of him, something I didn't get nearly enough of when school was out for the summer. I saw him yesterday when I returned to school, and last night, and this morning, but we're still making up for lost time.
As his lips make their way up my neck, I let his hair fall through my fingers, remembering the first time we kissed, the first time I wanted to touch his soft brown hair, and how I still love the way his hair feels on my hands. As I watch the strands fall gently through my fingers, he pulls me to him, my chest against his, his mouth nearing mine, closing the space between us. Then his lips are on mine and all I can think is, how did I go a whole summer with hardly any of this? This kissing, this closeness, this boy.
And that's how the next hour goes by in about ten seconds, it seems. When we finally come up for breath, tucking in shirts and adjusting shorts that didn't quite come all the way off, because we haven't gone all the way yet, I tell him everything about my meeting with the dean. I don't leave out a single detail. Martin cringes, cursing her as I repeat the words shared culpability.
"But the thing is, I still have moments when I think I could have done something different. Like I could have shouted louder or pushed him off me," I say, and then tuck my face into his shoulder.
I feel Martin's hand on my hair, his whisper in my ear. "It wasn't your fault. It'll never be your fault. It was one hundred percent his, and I don't care what Ms. Merritt or anyone says to the contrary."
I breathe him in, the familiarity of him, this boy I know, comforting me. "And this is how people see me now. As the girl who was ..." I stop because no matter how many months have passed, I feel like I've been marked with an R. "How do you see me? Is that all you see when you look at me?"
He laughs, but it's a reassuring one; he's not laughing at me. "It's the thing I never see. Because I see you, only you."
I can't help smiling, but inside I want to be where he is. I want to see me the way he does—without seeing what happened first. Sure, I can be all tough and how dare you say it was my fault? to Ms. Merritt, but she touched a nerve inside me that's still tender. Because as much as I don't have any lingering questions whatsoever, I know some students probably do, and the thought sickens me.
"And then I also see a totally hot piano player, because there is no way I can look at you and say pianist. Sorry, but too weird a word for a guy to say. And then I see this girl who still likes me and still listens to my science stories after six months. Which is pretty awesome. And I also see the head of the Mockingbirds, and then I remember, Oh crap, Alex is in charge of me. I'd better be a good helper Mockingbird."
Then it's my turn to laugh, only I am definitely laughing at him and the way he's making fun of himself, since he's on the board of the Mockingbirds too— which means he helps decide which cases we take on. He's been a Mockingbird since he was a sophomore, working his way up to membership on the board. He's in the Mockingbirds because he believes in them, because he wants to help others.
But I'm brand-spanking-new to the group. And I'm the leader for one and only one reason—because I was raped. I didn't earn the post by putting in my time. I didn't work my way up or campaign. It was handed to me because the leader is always someone who brought a case and won it. And while that night when Carter Hutchinson took my virginity while I was passed out was many months ago, the memory of it can all come roaring back in an instant.
After Carter was found guilty by the Mockingbirds, I was sure I'd survived the hardest part. But then I went home for the summer and found that being away from school made me think about that night even more. I no longer had the buffer of classes, the daily regimen of a schedule. It was summer, lazy time, just the piano and me, and in that empty space the memories started surging again, like the sound of a fire engine that starts one town over, then grows steadily nearer, until it's blaring in your ear.
I thought I had moved on from victim to survivor, but there I was feeling victimized all over again—this time by my mind, which betrayed me by replaying that night whenever it wanted, the memories turning on and off with a vengeance, like flashing neon lights. My sister, Casey, who's four years older, took me to a counselor, someone she found back home in New Haven. The counselor helped, told me it wasn't unusual for survivors—she always called me a survivor—to go through a period of time when the assault feels closer, fresher. It's like right before the wound can close, it has to be reopened one last time and flushed out.
Excerpted from The Rivals by Daisy Whitney. Copyright © 2013 Daisy Whitney. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
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