The first day of school always means the same thing: a tribute to Shaila. Today should be the first day of her senior year. Instead, she is, like she has been for the past three years, dead. And we are due for one more reminder.
“Ready?” Nikki asks as we pull into the parking lot. She throws her shiny black BMW, a back-to-school present from her parents, into park and takes an enormous slurp of iced coffee. “Because I’m not.” She flips the mirror down, swipes a coat of watermelon pink lipstick over her mouth, and pinches her cheeks until they flush. “You’d think they could just give her a plaque or start a charity run or something. This is brutal.”
Nikki had been counting down to the first day of senior year since we left for summer break back in June. She called me this morning at 6:07 a.m. and when I rolled over and picked up in a hazy fog, she didn’t even wait for me to say hi. “Be ready in an hour or find another ride!” she yelled, a hairdryer blowing behind her into the speaker.
She didn’t even need to beep her horn when she showed up. I knew she was waiting out front thanks to the deafening notes of Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know.” We both have a thing for eighties music. When I climbed into the front seat, Nikki looked as if she’d already had two Starbucks Ventis and a full glam squad appointment. Her dark eyes glimmered thanks to a swatch of sparkly eyeshadow and she had rolled the sleeves of her navy Gold Coast Prep blazer up to her elbows in an artful yet sloppy manner. Nikki’s one of the only people who can make our hideous uniforms actually look cool.
Thank God my nightmares stayed away last night and the near-constant bags under my eyes had disappeared. Didn’t hurt that I’d had a few extra minutes to apply a thick coat of mascara and deal with my brows.
When Nikki pulled out of my driveway, I was giddy with anticipation. Our time had come. We were finally at the top.
But now that we’re actually here, parked in the Gold Coast Prep senior lot for the first time, a shiver slinks down my spine. We still have to get through Shaila’s memorial and it hangs over us like a cloud, ready to rain all over the fun.
Shaila was the first student to ever die while attending Gold Coast Prep, so no one knew how to act or what to do. But somehow, it was decided. The school would start the year off with a fifteen-minute ceremony honoring Shaila. The tradition would last until we graduated. And as a thank you, the Arnolds would donate a new English wing in Shaila’s name. Well played, Headmaster Weingarten.
But no one wanted to remember Graham Calloway. No one mentioned him at all.
Last year’s assembly wasn’t so bad. Weingarten stood up and said something about how much Shaila loved math—she didn’t—and how she would have been so thrilled to be starting AP Calc if she was still with us—she wasn’t. Mr. and Mrs. Arnold showed up, as they did the year before, and sat in the front row of the auditorium, dabbing their cheeks with cotton handkerchiefs, the old-fashioned kind that were so worn, they were almost translucent and probably held residual snot from decades before.
The six of us sat next to them, front and center, identifying ourselves as Shaila’s survivors. We were chosen as eight. But after that night we became six.
When Nikki weaves through the parking lot and into the spot reserved for class president, Quentin is already waiting for us. “We’re seniors, bitches!” he says and slaps a piece of notebook paper against my window flashing a hastily drawn doodle of the three of us. In it, Nikki holds her senior class president gavel, I grasp onto a telescope twice my size, and Quentin’s covered in flaming-red paint to match his hair. Our little trio makes my heart melt.
I squeal at the sight of real Quentin and fling the car door open, throwing myself at his middle.
“You’re here!” I say, burying my face into his doughy chest.
“Aw, Jill,” he says with a laugh. “C’mere Nikki.” She launches herself into our hug and I inhale the dewy scent of Quentin’s laundry. Nikki leaves a sticky kiss on my cheek. In seconds, the others appear. Robert, with his slicked-back hair, takes the last puff of a mint-flavored Juul and shoves it into the pocket of his leather jacket. He should get a handful of demerits for wearing it in favor of his blazer, but he never does. “I can’t believe we have to do this again,” he says.
“What? School or Shaila?” Henry comes up behind me and rests a hand on the top of my butt, nipping my ear with his teeth. He smells overwhelmingly male, like freshly cut grass mixed with expensive French deodorant. I blush, remembering this will be the first time we’re seen at school together as a we and inch closer to him, tucking my shoulder into his armpit.
“What do you think?” Robert rolls his eyes.
“Shut up, you idiots,” Marla says, whipping her platinum-blonde braid over her muscled shoulder. Her face is tanned from a summer spent training at the best field hockey camp in New England. Her stick hangs low over her back in a tie-dyed canvas bag, its taped handle peeking out the top. The ultimate sign of varsity realness. She wears it well.
“Whatever,” Robert mumbles. “Let’s get this over with.” He walks ahead, leading us onto the grassy quad, manicured and untouched after a summer without students. If you stand in just the right spot, below the clock tower and two steps to the right, you can glimpse a sliver of the Long Island Sound just a mile down the road and the tall sailboats swaying carefully next to one another. The salty air makes my hair curl. There’s no use owning a flatiron here.
I bring up the rear and gaze at my friends’ backs. Their perfect silhouettes set against the sun. For a moment nothing exists outside the Players. We are a force field. And only we know the truth about what we’ve had to do to get here.
Underclassmen—Nikki calls them undies for short—trot along the paved walkways, but no one comes close to our little unit. They keep their distance, tugging at their too-stiff white button-downs, tightening belt buckles and rolling up their pleated baby blue skirts. None of them dare to make eye contact with us. They’ve learned the rules by now.
I am sweating by the time we reach the auditorium, and when Henry opens the door for me I’m filled with dread. Most of the velvet-covered seats are already filled and big bug eyes turn to see us walk down the aisle to our places in the front row next to Mr. and Mrs. Arnold. They’re both dressed in black. When we approach, they stand and dole out pursed-lipped air kisses to each of us. The smacking sounds echo through the cavernous room, and the scrambled eggs I had for breakfast curdle inside my stomach. The whole thing reminds me of my grandfather’s funeral when we stood for hours, receiving guest after guest until my puckered mouth wilted like a flower. I am the last to greet Mrs. Arnold and she digs her crimson nails into my skin.
“Hello, Jill,” she whispers into my ear. “Happy first day of school.”
I manage a smile and wriggle my arm from her grasp after a moment too long. When I squeeze in beside Henry and Nikki, my heart beats fast. Shaila stares back at us from a gilded frame, sitting on an easel in the middle of the stage. Her golden locks fall in full, beachy waves and her deep green eyes have been made more electric with some help from Photoshop. She looks the same as she always did, forever fifteen, while the rest of us have acquired additional pimples, more painful periods, nastier dragon breath.
The theater smells like freshly xeroxed paper and sharpened pencils. Gone is the musk that had settled in by the end of last spring’s school year. This place was the one thing the Arnolds got right for her memorial. The auditorium was Shaila’s favorite spot on campus. She starred in every class play she could, emerging from afternoon rehearsals on a euphoric high I couldn’t understand. “I need the spotlight,” she said once with her deep, full laugh. “At least I can admit it.”
“Good morning, Gold Coast,” Headmaster Weingarten bellows. His bowtie is slightly askew and his salt-and-pepper mustache looks recently trimmed above his pointy chin. “I see many new faces among our ranks and I want to say welcome from the bottom of my heart. Join me.”
People turn to the newbies, kids who had spent their previous lives in public schools and up until today thought the first day of school meant homeroom and roll call, not saying what’s up to a dead girl. Now, in this new and strange place, their bewildered expressions betray them. They are obvious. I was one of them once, back in sixth grade. My scholarship came through only a week before classes started and I came to Gold Coast Prep not knowing a single soul. The memory nearly gives me hives.
“Welcome!” The rest of the auditorium says in unison. Our row stays silent.
“You may be wondering why we are here, why we start every year in this very space.” He pauses and wipes a tissue across his forehead. The air conditioning whirs on overdrive, but he still glistens with sweat under the bright stage lights. “It is because we want to take time to remember one of our best, one of our brightest, Shaila Arnold.”
Heads turn toward Shaila’s portrait, but Mr. and Mrs. Arnold keep their focus on Headmaster Weingarten straight ahead.
“Shaila is no longer with us,” he says, “but her life was radiant, one we cannot forget. She lives on in her family, in her friends, and within these halls.”
Mr. and Mrs. Arnold nod their heads.
“I am here to tell you that Gold Coast Prep is, and will always be, a family. We must continue to protect one another,” he says. “We will not let another Gold Coast student be harmed.” Nikki’s elbow presses into my rib cage.
“So take this as a reminder,” Headmaster Weingarten continues. “At Gold Coast Prep, we strive to do good. We aim to be grand. We see ourselves as helping hands.”
Ah, the Gold Coast motto.
“Join in if you know it,” he says, smiling.
Five hundred and twenty-three Gold Coast Prep students, ages six to eighteen, raise their voices. Even the new kids, who were instructed to memorize the stupid words before they even set foot on campus.
“At Gold Coast Prep, life is good. Our time here is grand. We see ourselves as helping hands,” the chorus says in a creepy sing-song.
“Very good,” says Headmaster Weingarten. “Now, off to class. It will be quite a year.”
Copyright © 2020 by Jessica Goodman. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.