It's good to be Chloe Wynn Berringershe has it allmoney, privilege, and a ticket to the college of her dreams. Or at least she did until the FBI came knocking on her front door, guns at the ready, and her future went up in smoke. Now her B list celebrity mother is under arrest in a massive college admissions bribery scandal, and Chloe might be the next one facing charges. The public is furious, the headlines are brutal, and the US attorney is out for blood.
As everything she's taken for granted starts to slip away, Chloe must reckon not only with the truth of what happened, but also with the examination of her own guilt. How much did she really know-or guess? Why did her parents think the only way for her to succeed was to cheat? And what does it really mean to be complicit?
Bestselling author Julie Buxbaum takes on the college admissions bribery scandal that rocked the country in this timely tale of the hyper elite and the hyper competitive, and the lengths they go to stay at the top.
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My younger sister, Isla, will claim that she heard the footsteps before the doorbell rang, like a swelling movie score. On. The. Count. Of. Three. That she knew then what was to come. The guns, the hard metal handcuffs, the cameras, the headlines, the conversion from human being into meme.
The everything being over, just like that.
I don’t believe her.
Isla has also sworn that she had a dream about an earthquake the night before the big one in Thailand last fall, that she suspected Beyoncé was going to drop that surprise album, that three years ago she predicted everyone would grow tired of cupcakes and start eating macarons instead. Which is to say that Isla likes to be the first to know stuff, to take credit for willing into being that which is incapable of being willed. I am always the last to know. Maybe this is the biggest difference between us, how comfortable we are anticipating that which can’t be anticipated, how prepared we are for that for which we can’t prepare.
I am not ready. The apocalypse shouldn’t arrive when you’re in flip-flops or wearing sweatpants that have your high school’s acronym (WVHS) spread along your backside. At least, this wasn’t how I’d always pictured the end: I’d expected to need a stash of batteries and a flashlight and canisters of water, none of which would have helped make this moment any easier.
I certainly didn’t expect hungry paparazzi with cameras slung around their necks.
I hear the doorbell, which triggers a Pavlovian burst of joy. The doorbell usually announces the arrival of something good: cosmetics I ordered from Sephora, a swag box from the studio that my mother will pass on to me and Isla; less often and less exciting but still plausible, a script sent in a rush from her agents, which may mean a new shooting location for my mom and a family adventure. Vancouver or Atlanta. Last time, Scotland. Once, luckily, New Zealand.
But it’s 6:30 a.m. on a Monday, a school day, too early for UPS, too early for anything, really, except coffee. It’s still dark and foggy, the world cruelly indifferent to the fact that I am not, nor will I ever be, a morning person. When LA has not yet become the city I love, full of glitter and grit, and is instead a sleepy and quiet town. My toenails are painted in alternating cardinal and gold, a detail that will be dissected by the tabloids later. They match my brand-new oversized Southern California College sweatshirt. This last item, I will, of course, end up regretting even more than my polish or the letters on my butt, a convenient way for my idiocy to be memorialized.
I’ll be honest, since there’s no other way left to be: There’s a whole lot I will end up regretting.
But before I swing the door open, I’m still blissfully unaware of what’s on the other side. In my uncaffeinated haze, I imagine a cardboard box on the stoop: the teal eye shadow palette I impulse-ordered last night to beta test for prom. Later, when all I have is time, when the hours stretch long and lonely, I will realize this first instinct made no sense at all. I didn’t pay for overnight shipping.
When the chime fades, there’s a hard knock and an “Open up,” and I wonder what’s the UPS guy’s problem.
“Coming,” I yell back, and then, “Relax, dude.”
My dog, Fluffernutter, thinks I’m talking to her, and so she lies down at my feet and rolls over to expose her belly. I take a second to give her a quick rub. When I tally my long list of mistakes later, this will not be one of them. Fluffernutter, ever loyal, gave me one more moment of ignorance, an extra second in the before.
Another knock, so I scoop up the dog, kiss the top of her curly brown head, and then open the door with a “Hold your horses.”
When we watch this moment on TMZ, and then again on CNN and MSNBC, and even for a dark minute on Fox News, my face is blurred because I’m only seventeen and still a minor. Afterward, Isla will turn to me and say, “ ‘Hold your horses’? Really?” and I will shrug, like Who cares? though she will be right and again I will be wrong: This will turn out to be another thing that makes me look bad in the court of public opinion, if not a real court one day.
You don’t say Hold your horses to the FBI.
The relief of my blurred-out face is short-lived. My picture will soon be splashed across magazines and newspapers and most indelible of all, the Internet, images borrowed from my mom’s old Instagram posts and therefore legally considered public domain.
On the porch, seven men spread out in a line, all wearing black bulletproof vests, lettered like my pants (though theirs say FBI, not WVHS, of course), guns pointed in that way you see on television procedurals. Two-handed grips. Serious faces.
This must be some sort of joke, I think.
My mother’s fiftieth birthday is coming up, though she has so far refused to acknowledge it, partly because according to IMDB and Wikipedia, she’s only forty-five. The only reasonable explanation for the scene in front of me that I can conjure up on such short notice is this: It’s a gag. These men are strippers. As soon as my mom makes her grand entrance, cheesy techno music will start blaring and they’ll all do that one-piece tear-off. A choreographed move down the line, like Rockettes. Aunt Candy, my mother’s best friend, is exactly the sort of person who would think sending FBI strippers to your door at 6:30 a.m. is hilarious. When she had a colonoscopy last spring, she blew up the black-and-white picture of her poop-flecked insides, had it expensively framed, and sent it to us as a Christmas present with a card that said, Now you know me inside and out. My mom hung the photo in the guesthouse bathroom, and if you didn’t know any better, you’d think it was a modern art masterpiece and not what it really is: proof that Aunt Candy is literally full of crap.
“Can I help you?” I ask, smiling despite the hour. Because it’s still funny, this before-moment, when I think that I’ll get to see these semi-handsome muscley men undress and dance. When I still believe they’re carrying toy guns and not semiautomatic assault rifles. When my default was friendly, not defensive.
“We’re here for Ms. Joy Fields,” they say, and at the exact same minute, I hear my mom exclaim in a panic: “You weren’t supposed to answer the door.”
My mother, Joy Fieldswho you probably already know as Missy, the surrogate for the two gay dads on the long-running aughts CBS sitcom My Dad, My Pops, and Me, or more recently as the queen in Blood Moon, the royal vampire show on the CWis an actress, and therefore, I don’t react when I hear her nervous voice behind me. She’s won six People’s Choice Awards, she can weep on command, and sometimes she speaks with a British accent just for fun.
Which is to say, my mother can be a little dramatic.
Then again, as the world will learn mere minutes from now, I can be a little oblivious.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
“Go get your father,” she says, and she puts her arm out straight across my chest, like she does in the car when she has to stop short. A reflex to protect me. Her hair drips water onto her shoulders, and when I see she’s not wearing any makeup, that she’s run here straight from the shower and hasn’t even stopped for undereye concealer, it hits me, finally: This is not a practical joke. This is real.
“Just give me a minute to get dressed first,” my mom says to the man in front of her, like she knows exactly what’s going on, like she’s not surprised that they are here, only that they are here this early, slightly ahead of schedule.
“Ma’am,” the guy in the center says, in a surprisingly mild voice, and he does a hand signal thing to the others that obviously means Put down your guns, which they do, all at once, as synchronized as Rockettes, a bizarre version of my original imagining. I feel a sudden relaxation in my body; at some level I must have known that these were actual weapons, with bullets, and that they were pointed, if not quite directly at me, then close enough. “Someone can bring your clothes later, no problem. Please hold out your wrists. I have a warrant for your arrest. You have the right to remain silent. . . .”
I don’t hear all of it, though I can guess what he says, because I live on this planet and have therefore seen Law & Order. Isla, who despite being one year younger is always one step ahead, must have been standing here at least part of the time, because she’s the one who fetches Dad. He comes running in his pajamasa T-shirt we bought him as a joke last Christmas that says Master of the Universe (the tabloids will have fun with that too) and fancy pajama pants from Fred Segal, crisp and paisley. He has a phone glued to his ear. I can’t imagine who he could be calling.
The cops are already here.
My mother is led to a waiting car, and they do the hand-on-the-head thing while she ducks into her seat, and for a second, before I remember what’s happening, even though they are gentle, I wince. My mom hates anyone, other than her stylist, touching her hair. She’s convinced she’s thinning at the back ever since an unflattering paparazzo shot of her scalp, exposed on a windy day, was featured on the cover of Star with the headline inside “missy’s” cancer scare!
Thirty seconds later, my phone beeps in my pocket and a New York Times alert reports what I’ve witnessed in real time.
The headline: joy fields, sitcom star, arrested on multiple fraud charges in countrywide college admissions scandal.
And that’s when I know: This is all my fault.
“Listen, I realize it’s not your fault you’ve been body snatched,” Shola, my best friend and partner in crime, says. It’s a Sunday morning, only three weeks into senior year, and I sit studying for the SAT at the dining table, refusing to put away the books to go swimming. Before now, it’s always been the other way around. Shola, fastidious and focused, me the one begging her to go outside and play. “But who are you and what have you done with my best friend?”
Last spring, Shola managed to get a 1560 on the SAT without a $500-an-hour tutor, and then to see what would happen, took the ACT and walked away with a 34. So she can put her feet up, which she is doing now, literally, on the chair next to mine. If she weren’t my best friend and my favorite person in the world, I might hate her just a little.
“Be supportive of Nerd Chloe,” I say.
Beyond the sliding glass doors, the pool’s bright blue water ripples, a rectangular oasis with chaise lounges scattered around, like wheel spokes. A big woven basket sits full of Turkish towels, all rolled and at the ready. It’s a crime against humanity that I am stuck inside deciphering math equations.
“Please never refer to yourself in the third person ever again. It’s icky.” Shola turns back to reading a romance novel, because even though I have to study and she doesn’t, she prefers hanging out here rather than at her own house, which isn’t a house but a small apartment with only two bedrooms over in West Adams. She shares bunk beds with her three brothers and sisters. “Come on. I’ll even let you have the unicorn float this time.”
Shola, at five foot eleven, is the shortest in her family, but sometimes when we stand next to each other, I have to crane my neck to make eye contact. This is only one of the many ways in which I feel small next to her. Shola is Nigerian American and beautiful, and she recently dyed her short hair platinum blond, like a young Grace Jones, because she has no fear. Sometimes it’s confusing to be best friends with someone so effortlessly cool. We met in seventh grade, before either of us noticed how much better she was at everything, and it’s an unspoken tenet of our friendship not to dwell on my relative mediocrity.
Instead, we’ve gone the much healthier route of my celebrating her accomplishments like they are my own. Her wins are my wins. To be jealous of Shola would be to miss the point entirely.
“Pancakes, ladies?” My mom glides into the room wearing a pristine red gingham apron I’ve never seen before, red short-shorts, and matching four-inch red stilettos, and holds out a giant stack of pancakes plated on a red ceramic platter. Shola and I grab a few from a red rubber spatula and as she pirouettes back out, my mom stage-whispers: “I swear I put on five pounds just from the smell.”
“Marie Claire profile,” I say to Shola before she can ask. Shola already knows that my mother is not the type to make pancakes on an ordinary Sunday morning because: carbs. Not to mention my mom doesn’t usually color-coordinate her clothing with our kitchen utensils. In fact, this might be the first time I’ve seen her play sexy homemaker, though she does bake a lot of holiday cookies in Christmas movies on the Hallmark channel. In those, though, she’s always forced to wear plaid and cutesy Santa hats.
Readers of women’s magazines would be devastated to learn that unlike her party line“I love nothin’ more than a burger and fries”originally coined in a string of McDonald’s commercials in which my mother smiles while digging into a Big Mac, the real way my mom keeps so thin is, spoiler alert, by the time-tested method of not eating, a fast metabolism, religious exercise, and, to leave no room for error, a frightening amount of self-shaming.
My mom spins and does Pilates and works out with a personal trainer named Raj, who she pays to yell in her face and to push her so hard she sometimes pukes. As she likes to say, Fans don’t want to know how the sausage is really made. The truth is that fans don’t want to know that the body they celebrate as beautiful may in fact be the product of a clinical disorder.
True story: Despite the fact that McDonald’s residuals, at least in part, paid for this house, I wasn’t allowed to step foot into one. Isla and I only went once I had my own driver’s license, a tiny act of rebellion and curiosity that ended up giving both of us diarrhea.