Dreams are like knees--you don’t realize how fragile they are until something rips them to shreds.
I sank onto the first row of bleachers overlooking Fairview High’s athletic field. One hand rubbed the massive brace gripping my leg, which was tight after my cross-campus trek. The other clutched the strange envelope I’d found in my locker but hadn’t opened in my rush to arrive.
Arrive, so I could leave before the game started.
Girls in royal blue jerseys and blue-and-white striped socks sat on the grass, stretching. I’d made it in time. Warm-ups, I could handle. Games, however, were more torture than physical therapy, a tactic that could’ve cracked terror suspects.
If I’d happened to schedule PT during the three playoff games the past two weeks . . . well, it was purely coincidental.
Several teammates waved from the field. One shouted, “We miss you, Britt. Can’t wait to have you back.”
My heart stutter-stepped as I returned the wave. They’d be waiting a long, long time. But they only knew about the knee, not the rest of it.
When the soccer ball made its appearance, a shot of pain kicked through my chest.
I yanked my attention to the cream-colored envelope. Handwritten letters across the front spelled out my name: Brittany J. Hanson. A round, raised seal on the flap displayed the monogram PCM, the C larger in the center. The card inside read:
The honor of your presence is requested
Today, May 20, at fifteen minutes past three
in the afternoon in classroom A−6.
A Unique Opportunity Awaits.
It resembled the announcements we’d received when my sister and brother graduated college, but unlike those, this card didn’t say who sent it or the meeting’s purpose.
Three-fifteen was . . . I checked the scoreboard clock. Four minutes ago.
Was it worth the trip? I couldn’t run, so I’d definitely be late. But it intrigued me.
I shouted “Bye” and hurried across campus as fast as the knee brace allowed.
Unique opportunity. The phrase set my pulse racing. I could use one of those. Didn’t even have to be unique--I’d settle for any old opportunity. It had come knocking once this year, but after I let it in, it bolted without the courtesy of a goodbye.
Granted, unique opportunities were rare. I shouldn’t get my hopes up. But it was better than the ninety minutes of fingernail-extracting, tooth-yanking misery of a soccer match I couldn’t play in.
Plus, someone who used calligraphy might serve snacks like tiny sandwiches or something wrapped in bacon. I never passed up bacon.
A-6 was my English classroom, but why would our teacher, Ms. Carmichael, invite me to anything? Her comments on my essays frequently included the words uninspired, lack of thought, and disappointing. Was she the mysterious PCM who had access to my locker?
When I reached the room, Amberlyn Hartsfield was sitting in the front row. Spence Lopez, a guy from the football team, lounged a few seats away, and another boy slouched in the last row with a book, long hair hiding his face. No one else was present. Also, negative on the bacon snacks.
Fancy invitations for four people? Weird.
Amberlyn grunted, showing my lack of punctuality had not gone unnoticed. “Some things never change.”
Her muttered words reached me, which I’m sure she intended.
“Like your constant uptightness?” I dropped into the seat next to Spence, smothering a sigh of relief to be off my feet. “Whatever this is, it hasn’t started yet. What’s the big deal?”
She straightened a colored notebook and the invitation in the exact center of her desk. The stationery looked natural in her manicured hands. Her mail probably always arrived this way--party invites, credit card offers, and political flyers delivered on heavy cardstock in engraved envelopes.
Her gaze flicked to my leg, and I saw the condescension drain from her face. For a second, she resembled the girl who used to share secrets and red Skittles with me.
Pity-politeness based on failed friendship. Fantastic.
I swallowed a growl. “No spring practice today?” I asked Spence. “Don’t you have freshmen to train?”
He shook his head, making the longer hair above his undercut flop. “Girls took over our field for a strange sport called soccer.”
I punched his shoulder.
He grinned. “The other guys are watching the game. They were talking about how much the team misses you. Will you be able to play summer league?”
Every time I received a similar question, it felt like a ball to the gut at short range, the air physically forced from my lungs. “Not sure. I might be on my yacht, cruising the Riviera.”
He snorted. Our small town south of Santa Barbara, California, contained two types of people--those who owned yachts and those who cleaned them. Spence and I did not own yachts.
Actually, I did know the answer to his question. I just hadn’t told anyone. The doctor’s diagnosis constantly echoed in my head. Phrases bounced around like out-of-control soccer balls: blood clotting disorder, blood thinner, no contact sports, change your diet, watch out for sharp objects. Be careful, be careful, be careful.
But as long as I was the only one who knew, as long as I never spoke the words, I imagined I could contain it. Undo it.
“Any idea what this is about?” He lifted his chin to point to the front of the classroom.
“Nope. I was hoping for snacks.” I glanced around, but no bacon had magically appeared.
The guy in the back sprawled in his seat, wearing a Captain America shirt and reading a beat-up paperback with a spaceship on the cover. I recognized him now--Peter Finch, a sullen guy I’d had classes with for years. He looked up and caught me staring. His blank gaze didn’t change, but his lip curled.
I thought that expression was reserved for supervillains but apparently not. He aimed his sneer alternately at me and Amberlyn. What was his problem? Captain America was supposed to be nicer than that.
Groaning, I faced front. Whatever this opportunity was, it’d better be good.
“Do you think this is a psychological experiment?” I tapped my non-braced leg against the desk. “To see how long we sit here?”
“No, Ms. Hanson,” a proper British voice said from the doorway. “It is not.”
My posture straightened at the familiar accent.
Our English teacher, Ms. Carmichael, glided across the room and settled at her desk.
As was usual in her class, she presided. There was no other word for it. In her first year teaching here, she already ruled the school. Her styled, short hair was a pale blond probably called Champagne Bubbles or Old Money. Glasses dangled from a beaded chain around her neck, always accompanied by pearl earrings and flawless makeup that made her appear younger.
“Thank you for coming.” She regarded each of us. “As your invitations stated, I have a unique opportunity for you.”
Her expression didn’t reveal anything. Her cultured voice filled the room, each word enunciated in a crisp British accent.
“I’ve decided to try something rather exciting. I called you here because I am offering each of you a chance to compete for a prize of one hundred thousand dollars.”
A wild laugh escaped my throat.
Spence made a strangled noise.
Amberlyn gasped and sat up straighter.
Our questions tumbled over each other--“Is this for real?” “How is that possible?” “You’re joking, right?”
She waited until we fell silent. “Yes, this is real. It’s not a joke.”
A hundred grand was . . . a lot of money. So much I couldn’t comprehend it. And hardly information you dropped so casually. My brain conjured images of stacks of bills, of Scrooge McDuck swimming in a pile of gold coins.
Another image replaced those: the letter from UCLA, saying if I still planned to enroll in the fall, I owed ten thousand dollars by September 1 for registration, housing, and a hundred various fees, many I suspected they had made up.
And that was for this year, to say nothing of the following three, when I wouldn’t have partial help. Even if they let me keep this year’s money, no more would come. People don’t pay for work you can’t do.
Since my original Life Plan had been forced into an early retirement, I needed a new one. As my mom and siblings enjoyed pointing out so frequently, most Life Plans required a college education. One I no longer had a way to pay for.
This prize would cover those made-up fees and more.
Next to me, Spence leaned forward, his hands gripping the sides of the desk.
Amberlyn capped and uncapped her pen repeatedly.
Were the others dreaming of what they’d do with the money? College, a new car, traveling the world. It seemed too good to be true.
“Where’s the money coming from?” I asked. “Is this school-sponsored?”
“The school has approved this trip,” Ms. C said. “But it is something of a personal endeavor. I’ve been blessed with resources and wish to help others.”
“I didn’t realize teaching paid so well,” I muttered to Spence.
“Who said the money came from teaching?” Ms. Carmichael met my gaze.
“Who cares where it comes from,” Spence said. “What do we have to do to win?”
“Is there an application?” Amberlyn asked. “Do we have to write something?”
“Like a book report or an essay?” I added.
Or something equally likely to eliminate me? I’d had my chance at earning money, and it certainly hadn’t involved academics. My odds of winning anything from an English teacher? Whose class discussions I avoided and whose books I found tedious? I might as well leave now.
Ms. Carmichael folded her hands and rested them on the desk. “Ah yes. Now we come to the fun part.”
My hopeful heart pounded in my ears. My brain kept repeating that this couldn’t be real. The rest of my body ignored the logic. Don’t get excited. You can’t win anyway.
“The contest will be a scavenger hunt,” she said.
That sounded promising. Action-oriented, physical, concrete. I might stand a chance.
“Inspired by classic British literature,” she continued.
Not so promising. I held my breath.
“To take place in England.” She smirked like she knew she’d saved the best for last.
Sweet. I finally breathed. The laugh bubbled out again.
Amberlyn squeaked. Spence met my gaze, his eyes wide and bright. Even Peter grunted behind me.
But . . .
“That’s not exactly cheap,” I said. “Assuming we need the cash prize, how are we supposed to pay for a trip across the pond?” I tried to mimic her accent on the last three words.
“That will be taken care of.”
“You’re paying for us to go to England and giving one of us cash?” I drummed my fingers on the desk. “What’s the catch? Do we have to use this for college or books or something?”
Amberlyn raised her hand even though there were only four of us. “Is this like when the French club went to Paris or the student council to DC?”
“They didn’t get cash prizes for those,” I said.
“That you know of,” Amberlyn replied.
“There is no catch.” Ms. C’s face remained calm. “You may use the money however you see fit. Consider it an investment in your future.”
I tapped the desk. “So how does it work exactly?”
“I’ll handle the arrangements, speak with your parents, and ensure you have adequate supervision while overseas. All you have to do is decide if you’re willing to be challenged and possibly learn about yourself in the process. Travel tends to have that effect.”
Learning about myself didn’t sound fun, but I never said no to a challenge. A scavenger hunt in England was a better way to spend my summer than watching from the sidelines as my team played soccer without me. Or wearing a chicken costume on the main drag, holding a sign for the Lord of the Wings restaurant like my siblings had.
“Why us?” Spence asked.
Peter still hadn’t spoken, but his posture had straightened and he’d been listening to Ms. C with wide eyes.
“I selected each of you for a specific reason that will be made clear in time.” A glint in her eyes, the slightest quirk of her mouth, said Ms. C was enjoying this.
What possible reason could she have for me? English was far from my best subject.
But I could win this, with less contemplation and more action. The familiar pregame energy built inside me--a feeling I’d missed the last few weeks--making my muscles tense, my senses sharper.
Deep breath through the nose, count to ten, release slowly. Better not to imagine how winning could change my life. Wanting things rarely ended well, especially things I didn’t have control over. Even things I thought I had control over were ending badly recently.
Indifference was a proven armor.
“When do we leave?” Amberlyn uncapped her pen again and poised it over her notepad. “How long will it take? What can we do to prepare?”
“If you agree, you and your parents will sign a nondisclosure agreement, and I will provide your plane ticket. You’ll leave at the end of June and be gone for ten days. Though you’ll begin in London, where I will meet you for the start of your journey, the trip will take you throughout the UK. Other details--including the specifics of your tasks--will wait until you arrive.”
Amberlyn’s grip tightened on her pen, and I could practically hear her teeth grinding. Personally, I figured not being able to prepare favored me.
Plus--London. I’d never been farther from Southern California than the Grand Canyon. If I didn’t win, at least I’d be getting a free trip to England. Images of men in red uniforms and tall, black hats paraded through my mind. I couldn’t contain a giant grin.
“Why the mystery?” I asked.
“When it is your money involved, you may be as mysterious as you wish.” This time she fully smiled, telling me she didn’t mind my interrogation.
My mind whipped through questions. Would Mom let me go? Would I be better off getting a job that guaranteed money? Would I stand a chance against Amberlyn, Peter, and Spence?
Overthinking never accomplished anything. Action was better. Despite my efforts not to get excited, desire ignited inside me. I needed to believe something good could still happen to me.
I nodded once. “Where do I sign?”
A month later, I crossed the tiny gap between the airplane and the gangway--my first step onto a new land. My heart skipped, and my feet wanted to join it, my enthusiasm overcoming the fact that I felt like I’d been run over by a bus.
Amberlyn, with her sleeping pills, doughnut-shaped pillow, and travel-size makeup bag, looked ready for a photo shoot. She frowned as I waved goodbye to my businessman seatmate. “I bet he’s never had a worse flight. You’re so rude.”