On a beautiful spring day, six college students with nothing in common besides a desperate inability to pay for school gather to compete for the prestigious Hyde Fellowship.
James—The rule follower
Emily—The social justice warrior
The six of them must surrender their devices when they enter Hyde House, an aging Victorian structure that sits in a secluded part of campus.
Once inside, the doors lock behind them. The students are not allowed to leave until they spend eight hours with a college administrator who will do almost anything to keep the school afloat, and Nicholas Hyde, the privileged and notoriously irresponsible heir to the Hyde family fortune. If the students leave before time is up, they’ll be immediately disqualified.
But when one of the six finalists drops dead, the other students fear they’re being picked off one by one. With a violent protest raging outside, and no way to escape, the survivors viciously turn on each other.
The Finalists is a chilling and profound look at the lengths both students and colleges will go to survive in a resource-starved academic world.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)|
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THE HOUSE SITS ON the far eastern edge of campus, nestled in the woods among the sycamores, the maples, and the white oaks, all older than the college. Older than Kentucky itself. To reach it by car, one must turn left off the main road that circles campus and onto Ezekiel Hyde Lane, a narrow, winding strip of asphalt that cuts through the trees, enters the clearing, and ends in the small parking lot on the side of Hyde House. On foot, the house can be reached by way of the numerous paths that cut through the trees and give the campus its natural beauty.
I step out of my car and look back up the road I just traveled, and it's easy to believe the world doesn't exist even though the rest of campus is just a third of a mile away. Standing on the Hyde House grounds can feel like standing in another century, which is exactly the way Ezekiel Hyde, the founder of the college and its first president, wanted it to stay.
The sun is bright, and its rays hit the windows of Hyde House, reflecting the light, capturing the morning glow.
Is it weird to say the sight of that house still lifts my spirits?
It's eight fifteen, and I'm early. Which is good. I want to be here before the students. More than anything, I want to be here before Ezekiel Hyde's great-great-great-great-grandson, Nicholas, arrives.
I climb the portico steps to the Neo-Federal structure. Up close the brick is more weathered than I realized. I reach for the brass knob, which is tarnished. The heavy black door needs to be repainted. For years, the college's board of trustees has wanted to renovate the house, but the money is never there. The college has a list of projects that never get done.
I pull on the knob and, not surprisingly, find the door locked.
I step off the right side of the portico, my shoes sinking into the soft soil, and press my face against the window. I've been in Hyde House many times for college events and know the layout well. I'm staring into the music room, the space where Major Hyde, his family, and subsequent generations of Hydes came to listen to recitals on the piano. The piano originally moved to the house by Major Hyde fell into disrepair and was sold in the 1990s, but a music stand remains along with a bust of Major Hyde's favorite composer, Wagner.
The sun warms the back of my neck. I wait on the lawn in front of the house. In the distance, the campus is quiet on a Saturday morning in April. The students sleep off the night before. Purple hyacinths bloom in the flower beds, and I catch their overwhelming scent. A robin chirps in a nearby tree.
I want to call Rachel, apologize for our fight earlier. Money. We only fight about money. We have to decide whether to get new windows or a new roof, and we disagree about which is the higher priority. Our household is like the college-there's never enough money to go around.
But before I can hit the call button, the phone rings.
"Shoot," I say, then answer. "Hello?"
"Hey, Troy. It's Grace."
"Hey, Grace." I try to keep my voice buoyant and not let any irritation show, even though my boss-the president of the college-is calling to check up on me. But she's not just my boss-she's my friend. She and Rachel belong to the same book club, and just last weekend Grace and her husband, Doug, came over to our house for drinks. "How are you on this fine morning?"
"Is he there?" she asks. She cuts to the chase. Today is about business. On another day, we would talk about our kids-Grace's oldest son, Michael, is in the same grade as my oldest daughter, Rebecca-but I know Grace has other things on her mind.
"If by 'he' you mean Nicholas Hyde, then no, he isn't here yet. No one is."
"Damn it. When did you talk to him last?"
"It's been about a month. And that was just a short email."
"Yeah." Grace sounds defeated. She never sounds defeated. "I can't get ahold of him either. Did you know he left Kentucky and moved to California?"
"He did? I thought he was still living in Lexington. He didn't tell me."
"He's lost both his parents in the last year. That's a terrible blow for anyone. And I know he was close to his mother. Very close."
"Maybe that's why he moved to California. His mom was his last real family tie here."
"I'm worried about this, Troy. He's not connected to the college or to Kentucky the way the Hydes always have been. You know as well as I do his father would never have left us twisting in the wind."
"You're absolutely right. I'm worried too. Nicholas is pretty much the only living heir of Ezekiel Hyde. Certainly the only direct descendant. And he controls the estate."
"And they've been giving us less and less every year. For the last decade. And it's been coming to us later and later every year, which makes it harder to budget and plan. Is it too early for a drink?"
"A bit. But if you want to get one tonight, you know our patio bar is always open to you and Doug."
A car comes down the main road and turns onto Ezekiel Hyde Lane. It makes the slow, winding run in my direction and pulls up and parks next to mine. An older model with a dent in the fender. A middle-aged man steps out, trim and tall. He wears a dark suit with a white shirt and a thin black tie.
"The students are starting to arrive. I think this is-"
"Troy," Grace says, "remember what we talked about."
I know right away what she means. The 100 More Initiative I've been working on for the past two years.
"I think it's fantastic you want to increase the number of minority and first-time students at the college. That's why we promoted you to this position. It's not just because you're my friend and a nice guy. It's to raise money. But we've been falling short. You've been falling short. The Hydes are giving less, so we need to raise more from other sources. And the board is-"
"Nicholas promised us the money for One Hundred More. Two million dollars. We shook hands on it."
"Do you know how much a handshake is worth?" Grace asks. "Don't let him leave without getting a real commitment. Okay?"
"That's my plan."
"I'm sorry, Troy. You know I am, but I don't have to remind you of what's at stake. For the college or for you personally."
"I get it, Grace. We'll toast our success tonight, have a drink around the fire."
The man in the dark suit comes my way, almost marching. Back straight as a flagpole. A chin made of granite. His heels clack off the pavement, and his hair is cut close to his head.
"Grace, the students are-"
"Wait, Troy. There's one more-"
The man reaches me, extends his hand. He doesn't seem to notice or care that I'm on the phone.
"Vice President Gaines, sir. It's a pleasure to meet you. I'm James Stephenson. Retired, United States Army. Thank you for the opportunity to compete for this scholarship, sir."
We shake. My hand feels like it's been slammed between two bricks.
"Sir, I know no Black student-indeed, no student of color-has ever won the Hyde Scholarship. I'm intent on being the first, and I want to thank you for the chance."
"Well, it's not me. It's the Hyde family and their board-"
"Sir, I was wondering if I could express some concerns to you before we begin-"
"Troy, are you there?" Grace asks.
"Just a minute, Grace. Can we speak in a moment, Mr. Stephenson?"
"Call me Captain Stephenson, sir."
"Okay, Captain Stephenson. Can we speak in a moment?"
He remains in front of me, hands folded behind his back. Parade rest. His shoes are so polished and clean, they reflect the sky like the windows of Hyde House.
I hold up my index finger. "Just one moment."
I walk fifteen feet away and switch the phone to my other ear. "Okay, Grace, I'm back. But you don't have to tell me again that I've missed my fundraising quotas two years in a row. I'm well aware-"
"No, Troy, not that. Something else. Something about the scholarship process today. I'm afraid we have a situation brewing there. And you need to be ready for it."
BEFORE I ASK GRACE what is going on-and before she is able to tell me-two campus police cruisers turn off the main road and come down Ezekiel Hyde Lane. They stop at the boundary of the grounds of Hyde House, a couple of hundred feet from where I stand.
Two officers step out of each cruiser, and a cool wave of relief passes through me.
"Grace, don't worry about it. The campus police are here, and I see Chief. He'll let us in now. Problem solved."
"Troy, that's not it."
The four police officers open the trunks of the two cars and pull wooden sawhorses out. They stand them up across the entrance to the Hyde House grounds, creating a barricade that shuts off vehicle traffic. Even Captain Stephenson has turned away from staring at me and fixed his eyes on the activities of the police.
"What's going on, Grace? The cops are making some kind of perimeter at the edge of the lawn. They've never done that before."
"That's what I'm trying to tell you, Troy." Grace speaks to me in the way I speak to my daughters when they are slow to understand something. "We've received word there are going to be protests during the process today. A number of students are going to gather, so I notified the campus police. We want them to keep the protestors back as far as possible."
"They're protesting against their fellow students competing for a big scholarship?"
"No, it's not that."
A couple of students come walking toward the house from one of the paths that cuts through the woods from the south. A man and a woman. They appear to be having a passionate conversation. The young woman-who is tall and lanky like an athlete-seems to be trying to convince the guy-who is almost strutting like he's in a movie-of something. He's listening, nodding his head as she speaks. Captain Stephenson has noticed them as well and turns in their direction.
"Then what's the problem, Grace?"
"It's the Hyde family they're going to protest. They want us to divest from the Hyde family fortune. You know they think money made in coal is blood money."
"I thought the Hydes settled that. They have a plan to move away from coal to green energy during the next two decades."
"You know that's not nearly fast enough for the students," Grace says.
"What good does it do to block the road?" I ask. "Can't someone reach us by one of the paths?"
"They met outside the student union. Then they're marching over to Hyde House as a group. We know which way they're going."
The police appear to have the sawhorses all in place. And just in time. About thirty students carrying signs and chanting approach Hyde House from the direction of campus. They walk down the main road, the one I just drove over to get here, and then turn down Ezekiel Hyde Lane, heading in the direction of the police barricades. It's hard for me to make out the chant from this distance, but I can kind of read one of the signs, which a student holds high in the air. It's written in red paint-at least I hope it's paint-on white poster board.
NO BLOOD MONEY!
Captain Stephenson turns his whole body in that direction, facing the protestors. "I don't like the looks of that," he says, shaking his head.
For a moment, I worry. What will happen when they reach the cops? I don't want anyone to get hurt. And I don't want any arrests or fights. The police are outnumbered, but I know they're armed. The cops tense, their bodies primed for action. They all stand with hands on hips, but I know that puts their hands closer to weapons-pepper spray, Tasers, guns.
The protestors continue to chant as they approach the edge of the lawn, their faces angry and determined.
"Grace, I think we . . ."
"What is it, Troy?"
My body tenses like I'm about to brawl.
But the protestors stop behind the barricade. They don't appear interested in pushing their way through or making any more trouble. They chant and wave their signs, but there's no actual trouble.
I breathe a sigh of relief.
"It's okay, Grace. They stopped. They're facing the cops, but they're not too loud. Once we're inside, the students should be able to concentrate. The house is old and keeps sound out pretty well. But they are blocking the driveway to the house."
"The cops are going to take care of that," she says. "They can protest, but they can't block traffic."
The young man and woman continue their discussion off to the side. They stand close together. The woman wipes at the corner of her eye. A tear?
"Grace, I think I need to go. The students are arriving."
"There's one more thing."
"What else could there be?"
"Can you read any of the other signs?"
"I can try, but you're testing my middle-aged eyesight. They're kind of far away." I watch, squinting as the signs move up and down. Someone beats on a tambourine, making an oddly discordant jingling. "I think there are a couple about blood money. One about paying for education with coal. Another about killing Mother Earth. Oh, and one nasty one about slaughtering the innocents. I guess it has a nice biblical touch. You can tell the protestors I appreciate the large type they're using."
"That's the one I was worried about," Grace says.
"What about it?"
Grace sighs into the phone again. "Well, we were trying to keep this under wraps until we could fully investigate the claim, but word leaked out on social media this morning. It's about Ezekiel Hyde's service in the Civil War."
"You mean Major Ezekiel Hyde."
When I say the word "Major," Captain Stephenson looks my way. He raises his hand like we're in a classroom, reminding me he still wants to talk. I hold up my index finger again and then point to the phone.
"Yes," Grace says, "Major Ezekiel Ellis Hyde. This is courtesy of Charlie Porter in History." She sighs. "Oh, Charlie. He's uncovered something about Major Hyde's service in the Civil War."
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