Read an Excerpt
It’s the first day of school and I’m already being forced to socialize.
“I’m dead serious,” Nicky Cassidy says, his eyes wide and his acid-wash shirt stained with what looks like tomato sauce. “Juice WRLD is alive, Celine. The planet needs to know.”
My TikTok account has 19,806 followers—@HowCeline SeesIt, feel free to take me to 20K—so God knows how I’m supposed to inform the entire planet of anything. Besides, I make videos about UFOs and vaccines (conclusion: I believe in both) and that guy who hijacked a plane and literally vanished with the ransom money. I don’t make videos about people’s tragic deaths because it’s rude and tacky.
Also, I don’t take requests. For God’s sake, I am a conspiracy theorist. There must be some glamor in that, or else what’s the point?
“Sorry, Nicky,” I reply. “Still no.”
He is appalled by my lack of sensitivity to his cause. “You’re joking.”
“Fine. If you don’t want to tell the truth, I’ll do it. Your TikTok’s shit anyway.” He storms off, leaving me to cross campus on my own.
So much for Mum’s hope that I’ll make more friends this year.
Oh well. I inhale the warm September air and stride through the school’s higgledy-piggledy pathways alone. Rosewood Academy is a rambling maze, but this is my final year, so I know it like I know Beyoncé’s discography. It takes five minutes to reach the Beech Hut—aka our sixth-form common area/cafeteria, a tiny, musty building that begs to be knocked down. I snag my usual table by the noticeboard and get on with the very important business of ignoring everyone around me.
I’m on my phone stitching together some footage of cows that I filmed this weekend for a video about the possibility of cannibalistic bovine overlords running the beef industry when my best friend slides into the chair beside me and waves a glossy leaflet in my face.
“Have you seen this?” Michaela demands, her pink curls vibrating with excitement.
“I haven’t,” I say, “and if you put my eye out with it, I never will.”
“Don’t be miserable. Look.” She slams down the flyer and crows, “Katharine Breakspeare!” Then she clicks her tongue piercing against her teeth, which is Minnie’s personal version of a mic drop.
It works. I fall all over that shiny piece of paper like it’s a plate of nachos.
There she is: Katharine Breakspeare, her wide mouth severe (no ladylike smiles for Katharine, thank you very much) and her hair perfectly blown out. They did a whole article in Vogue about that blowout, which is ridiculous considering Katharine’s famous for her trailblazing career in human rights law. Commentators call this woman the James Bond of the courtroom because she’s so damn cool; she’s won at least three internationally significant, high-profile cases in the last five years; she bought her mother an entire compound back in Jamaica to retire to. And Vogue is talking about her hair. I mean, yes, the hair is gorgeous, but come on, people.
Katharine Breakspeare is the blueprint and one day I’m going to be her, building my mum a house in Sierra Leone.
My eyes narrow as I study the leaflet. “ ‘Apply for the Breakspeare Enrichment Program,’ ” I read. “Her nature bootcamp thing? But that’s only for undergrads.”
“Not anymore.” Minnie grins, tapping the words in front of us. “ ‘Award-winning enrichment program now open to those aged sixteen to eighteen—’ ”
“ ‘—for the first time ever,’ ” I finish reading. “ ‘Set yourself apart from the crowd, nurture early bonds with prestigious employers, and be in with the chance to win a full university scholarship. . . .’ ” My mouth is numb. My throat is dry. My nerves are fried. “I need a drink.”
Michaela is a dancer; she never goes anywhere without a disgustingly heavy two-liter flask of water. “Here ya go,” she says brightly, and causes a small earthquake by slamming it on the table.
“Where did you get this?” I demand between desperate gulps, shaking the Golden Leaflet of Opportunity.
“Mr. Darling’s office.”
“Mr. Darling’s— Minnie. It’s the first day of school. How are you on his shit list already?”
“I’m not,” she says primly. “It was a preliminary warning. You know: Focus on school this year, Michaela, or you’ll die homeless under a bridge by twenty-five. The usual morale-boosting stuff.”
“Oh, babe. That’s not true. He’s just jealous of your fabulous hair and giant brain.”
“Stop. You know I don’t listen to him. I have bigger plans.” It’s true. She’s going to be like Jessica Alba in my older sister’s favorite film, Honey, except much cooler and actually Black. Then she winks and taps the paper. “And so do you.”
No, I don’t: focusing on school is my big plan, because that’s how you get into Cambridge, which is how you get an excellent law degree and take over the world.
But I’ve done the research and read the forums: companies— including law firms—fall all over themselves to hire Breakspeare Enrichment Program alums because the program produces uniquely driven and capable candidates with work ethics and abilities worthy of Katharine’s own reputation. It’s not like other enrichment programs where you memorize textbooks and complete work experience. In this one, you’re put out into the wilderness where you try to survive and, ideally, thrive, for what I’m sure are completely logical reasons. (It is true that I’m hazy on details, but I trust that Katharine knows what she’s doing.)
Nature isn’t really my thing—not anymore. But I would gargle pond water to get within three feet of this opportunity for the clout alone, never mind the scholarship. So it turns out this is it: my new agenda for the last year of school. Goodbye, Latin Club, and farewell to volunteering at the animal hospital.
It’s time to make space for camping with Katharine.
Apparently, anyone interested in the details can attend a meeting in Nottingham later this week. I flip the leaflet over, searching for a map, but instead I see a QR code labeled “RSVP” and the logos of all the companies involved. The list is long. Some are huge, like Boots; some are small but powerful, like Games Workshop; and I see plenty of law firms, too, which is—
My dad’s firm is a sponsor.
Minnie sees my face, then follows my gaze. “What? What?” She squints at the page.
“Wear your glasses, Michaela,” I mutter sharply.
“Not with these lashes.” She bats her falsies at me (I think I feel a breeze), then reads “ ‘Lawrence, Needham and Soro, corporate law, established 1998.’ ”
I swallow hard. My throat is dry again. I chug some more water.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Minnie says. “I do need that, you know. You want me to dry up like a prune?” She reclaims the mammoth bottle and says, “Soro. Why does that sound familiar? Soro, Soro—”
“My dad works there.”
Minnie winces. She’s my best friend, so we know stuff about each other’s families. As in, I know her gran’s a lesbophobic cowbag and she knows my dad ditched us for his second family ten years ago and I haven’t seen him since. The usual girl stuff. Grimacing, she squeaks, “Maybe the sponsoring firms won’t be super involved?”
“I honestly couldn’t care less.” I’m not lying. He’s the one with something to be ashamed of. I’m the one who’s a credit to my family name.
Which is Bangura, not Soro, thank you very much.
I slip the leaflet into my bag, pressed between the pages of a textbook to keep it fresh and uncreased. “I’ll think about this. Thanks, Min.”
She blows me a kiss as the bell rings, and we get up for class. Only then do I realize who slunk into the Beech Hut while Minnie and I were talking.
Bradley Graeme is here.
Alongside, you know, a ton of other people, but he stands out as the King of Uselessness. He and his breathless fan club are ensconced at their usual table, miles away from the admin office, which allows them to get away with breaking all kinds of rules.
Case in point: Bradley Graeme is currently bouncing a Completely Illicit Football off his head. His short, shiny twists are jumping, and his grin is wide and carefree the way only a truly terrible person’s can be.
Minnie leans in as we walk by. “Do you think Brad’s applying to Cambridge?”
“Of course he is,” I mutter. When does he ever miss a chance to show off?
“So, you might see him at interviews and stuff. Right?”
Ugh. God forbid. “I don’t care, stop looking at him.”
She arches an eyebrow. “You started it.”
Yeah, well. Who can avoid looking at Bradley? His sheer annoyingness creates its own gravitational pull.
His fan club—consisting of 70 percent boys’ football team and 30 percent girls whose parents pay for their mammoth Depop wardrobes, which equals 100 percent skinny, glowing people who practice TikTok dances unironically and spend their weekends being bland and hooking up at house parties—is absolutely entranced by his tomfoolery like they’ve never seen a ball before. Except for Jordan Cooper, who rolls his eyes, snatches the ball out of the air, and says in his flat American accent, “Cut it out, or Mr. Darling will rip you a new one.”