In Arvin Ahmadi's 2018 debut novel Down and Across, readers were treated to a humorous and heartfelt coming-of-age novel set in modern-day Washington, DC. But in his sophomore novel, the author takes things in a totally different direction: Girl Gone Viral doesn't come out until May 21, 2019, but Bustle has an exclusive look at the cover and an excerpt from the forthcoming novel below!
When her father disappeared after her 10th birthday, Opal Hopper was left with nothing but a cryptic note. Seven years later, Opal still hasn't found her missing dad, but the talented coder has enrolled in a boarding school for technical prodigies. She's working on letting go.
That is, until WAVE, the world's biggest virtual reality platform, announces a contest where the winner gets to meet its billionaire founder — the same billionaire who worked with Opal's dad, who might know where he went, and who may or may not be responsible for his disappearance. But when Opal goes viral, the contest spins out of control. How far is she willing to go for the truth she's sought all these years?
A fun and inventive young adult novel, Girl Gone Viral is a timely story about identity, family, and the power of technology. Though it doesn't hit shelves until May 2019, Bustle is excited to share the book's cover and an exclusive excerpt — all below!
EXCERPT: Chapter 2
I rip off the headset.
I can’t tell which is beating harder, my head or my heart.
It takes a second for my eyes to adjust from pixels to reality. From the mess of Hailey Carter’s life to the spotless white halls of the Palo Alto Academy of Science and Technology. From her floral-printed sundress to the track sweatshirt in my lap and Dr. Travers’ brown loafers right in front of me. He’s my History of Social Media teacher, and he’s letting us work on the assignment outside the classroom.
I look up at Dr. Travers. His arms are crossed.
“You’re supposed to be on Instagram, Ms. Hopper.”
You’d think the sudden presence of my teacher would freak me out more, that the slow tap, tap, tap of his foot would intimidate me. Instead, my heart calms down. Hailey Carter’s voice drains out of my head. I’m back.
“Sorry,” I reply sheepishly. Dr. Travers gestures at my headset. I slip it into the pocket of my hoodie. He gestures again, this time to my side. I pick up the class-issued iPhone.
Instead, my heart calms down. Hailey Carter’s voice drains out of my head. I’m back.
He smirks. “Back in my day, if we wanted to be delinquent, we just checked that little phone under our desks. Headsets weren’t quite in vogue yet.”
A few of the other kids in my class are scattered throughout the hall, holding back snickers.
“Now, I know it’s smaller, heavier, and much slower than what you’re used to,” Dr. Travers says, “and it only has one screen. But I thought the experience of scrolling through Instagram on an iPhone would make the assignment more authentic.”
“Like digging up fossils, or setting foot in the Colosseum.”
“Just like that.”
I’m waiting for Dr. Travers to leave, but as if he’s just seen my private thoughts, he crouches and lowers his voice. “Your mind’s stuck on that contest, isn’t it?”
My eyes jump and meet his square glasses.
“I swear that’s not what I was doing—”
“Of course it was. You were on WAVE. Besides, I’ve seen you and your friends with your cameras, filming Ms. Lee around campus.” Dr. Travers chuckles, and I realize he might actually be watching our channel. “You know, Opal, I fully expected some of our students to enter. Kara Lee, absolutely. We have so many ambitious minds at this school, and where better for lofty dreams than virtual reality? But I never would have expected you. You’re taking quite the risk, aren’t you?”
My breath tightens, like someone’s gripping my lungs. Dr. Travers isn’t knocking my ambition; he’s acknowledging my past. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned in high school, it’s that people talk. And when it comes to my attempt at winning Make-A-Splash, there’s plenty for people to talk about.
“Now get back to work.”
Dr. Travers disappears into the classroom. If we went to a normal high school, my classmates would take his departure as a cue to ditch the iPhones and mess around. It’s a Friday afternoon, after all.
But nothing is normal at PAAST. Everyone gets back to work.
I swipe to unlock this ancient phone, astonished at how tiny the screen used to be before they made them retractable and foldable. I open Instagram. Our assignment is to look at formerly popular accounts and identify patterns in how they posted: time of day, ratio of selfies to non-selfies, frequent themes. Dr. Travers likes to joke in class that if he’d been born with six-pack abs instead of early onset male pattern baldness, he could have used those tactics to be “Insta-famous.” Instead he settled for Twitter and teaching.
But nothing is normal at PAAST. Everyone gets back to work.
But I can’t focus on the assignment. My mind is still lingering on that viral Hailey Carter breakdown. That line. It’s ringing in my ears. Get me out of this world.
Maybe that’s why it caught me off guard when Dr. Travers brought up the contest. I mean, everyone at school knows I’m entering — but they also know better than to bring it up around me, because winning would mean returning to a world I was supposed to have left behind.
My senior year was all set before this contest. I’d worked hard these last three years at PAAST, piling on extracurriculars and good grades to get into Stanford. The plan was to apply early decision and create new memories there. But then I heard about Make-A-Splash. Join the WAVE, I read on the official page after I’d come out of the shower, my hair dripping over my shoulders. If you’ve ever thought about hosting your own channel, now is your chance . . . The winning team will be rewarded with $1 million, flights to Palo Alto Labs’ headquarters, and an exclusive meeting with Howie Mendelsohn . . .
Seven years ago, when I needed him most, Howie Mendelsohn couldn’t give me the time of day. News of the contest brings all those memories flooding back, a wave of emotion crashing into my perfect sand castle of stability.
At the end of the period, I mosey into the classroom to drop the iPhone back in the bin on Dr. Travers’ desk.
“Earth to Opal? You look like you saw a ghost.”
News of the contest brings all those memories flooding back, a wave of emotion crashing into my perfect sand castle of stability.
It’s Moyo. His puffy vest jacket brushes the back of my hand, and he smells faintly of autumn leaves. I turn around.
“Oh, wow.” Moyo’s eyes pop. “I amend my statement. You look like you asked the ghost to prom and it turned you down.”
I muster a playful smile. “Ghost prom sounds a lot more interesting than the crap we’ve been airing on WAVE.”
“Just wait until you see what Kara asked me to design for Monday’s episode. You’ll wish we were doing ghost prom.”
“I swear, if it’s another shopping trip to Paris . . .”
“Mon chéri! Un béret, s’il vous plaît!”
My expression sours as I think about how badly I’d misjudged Kara’s star power. I learned the hard way that just because she’s been a fixture on Zapp since the days when it overtook Instagram on multiscreen phones, it doesn’t mean she’s any good in VR. Kara’s Zapp brand is best described as Lifestyles of the Rich and Almost Famous. (Sample caption: “Another trip to St. Barts, ugh.”) I never bought the whole rich-kid self-deprecation act, but plenty of other people did. I assumed her two hundred thousand followers would appreciate a fully immersive look into her life, so we started Kara Lee: Behind the Scenes on WAVE. But three-second snippets don’t translate into full episodes. Kara’s clunky. She’s awkward. She said “such that” twenty-seven times in one half-hour episode. I counted.
I nearly tore Kara’s hair out last weekend. She’s driving our chance of winning Make-A-Splash into the ground. I keep trying to bring up data— what do her fans want, what are they clamoring about in chat rooms— but Kara’s convinced she knows her brand better than the numbers do.
I should have known she wouldn’t listen. Kara’s the star, and I’m essentially tech support. That was the arrangement. She gets her way.
History of Social Media is our last class of the day, so Moyo and I head back to the dorms together. He regales me with some of the absurd Instagram captions he saw during the assignment, and when I tell him about a particularly bad pun involving Middle Eastern food, Moyo hunches over and pretends to vomit. “I falafel,” he says. In the senior hall, we pass his soccer teammates, who raise their eyebrows and nudge elbows like they always do whenever they see us together, even though Moyo and I have been friends, just friends, since freshman year. We stop outside my door.
“What are we doing this weekend?” Moyo asks. “There’s a new taco place on University Avenue I kind of want to check out.”
“I’m staying in,” I say.
“Again?” Moyo lets out a disappointed sigh. We spent all of junior year dreaming about senior off-campus privileges, and so far, I’ve spent the first three weekends holed up in my dorm room.
“I want to see if I can do something to pull our numbers up. You know the contest ends next week, right? Monday’s episode is our last chance.”
Moyo shrugs. “Won’t do any good with Kara treating us like we’re invisible. But your call. Let me know if you need a break.”
I enter my dorm room, which is even messier than Hailey Carter’s life. The school year started barely three weeks ago, and my floor already looks like a post-apocalyptic war zone, complete with Red Bull shrapnel and dirty laundry debris.
My walls are checkered with glowing “You May Also Enjoy” tiles from WAVE, years’ worth of Hailey Carter meltdowns in XP form, ready for 360-degree consumption. Because WAVE wants you to experience as much as possible in their world, anytime, anyplace. “If you liked Hailey’s epic lunch meltdown, then you’ll love the time she threw a hissy fit in the middle of Times Square!” I’ve experienced them all, though. Hailey’s bizarre antics are virtual reality gold. She’s the joke that keeps on giving, and there are rumors that she’s been so good for WAVE that they’re going to sponsor her rehab.
Get me out of this—
There’s a knock at the door.
As soon as the voice-activated lock pops open, Shane barges into my room. He’s wearing a white undershirt that looks like it hasn’t seen a washer in eons. His brown hair is chaotic, even messier than it was on the first day of classes, when Dr. Travers called him out for having “Bieber hair.” No one really understood what that meant, but it annoyed Shane enough that he dropped the class.
“We miss you in HSM,” I say.
“Whatever. Dr. Travers is lame.” Shane’s bouncing on his feet, grinning widely. “I have something you’ll like.”
A stranger might raise a brow at Shane’s lack of hygiene and his spastic energy, but I’ve known him for too long to worry. He traces a long stroke over the tablet he brought with him, finishing with a flick, and my walls suddenly fill with endless lines of data. When I process the glowing text, my jaw drops. This code is more beautiful, more detailed than Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel—and more revealing than his David.
“Shane.” I gawk. “How did you . . .”
“Don’t ask questions,” he says, pinching my lips closed. I haven’t seen Shane so drunk with pleasure since we actually went drinking off-campus last year. “Consider it a gift.”
“There’s no way you got all this data—” I lower my voice. “Legally.”
“And there’s no reason anyone should find out,” Shane says, grinning slyly. That smile combined with his giddy drunkenness takes me back to our awkward kiss freshman year, and how I probably shouldn’t let him pinch my lips in the future. I raise a brow, and Shane rolls his eyes. “Come on, Opal. After that showdown with Kara last weekend, I thought you could use some ammunition. I mean, screw Kara—you understand WAVE better than any of us. Now you have the numbers to prove it.”
“Even if this wasn’t impressively sketchy, I don’t know how we’re going to analyze all this data in one weekend.”
“We can’t, but you can. My parents are dragging me with them on one of those ‘device-free’ retreats in Monterey this weekend. Which reminds me—I should probably go and, like, shower and hug my laptop goodbye.”
Before I can open my mouth to object, Shane shoots off one last grin and leaves.
I stare at the writing on the wall. Snippets of numbers, letters, and symbols ripple before my eyes, and slowly, Hailey Carter’s wounded voice becomes an afterthought. I’m comforted by code. After my dad disappeared, I didn’t touch a command line for a year—but the first time my fingers plucked out the words hello, world again, it was like a rope pulling me out of my pit of depression. Sometimes I wonder if I followed in my dad’s footsteps as a coder because I had something to prove. But I’ve always loved numbers. They were my way of making sense of the world before he left, and I’ve only needed them more since.
But what Shane’s given me—these aren’t just numbers. They’re people’s lives.
Imagine someone watching you when you think you’re alone. Imagine them recording your face’s every move: every time you laugh or cry, every flinch, every blink. That’s what WAVE started doing last week in an effort to “provide users with the best, customized experience.” The idea is that the data is for internal use only, and for XPs that explicitly ask for permission.
Unless you’re Shane. Because somehow, my friend has hacked into millions of headsets and stolen that data. And that data has found its way to my walls. I stare the way you can’t help but stare at the hot neighbor through the window taking his shirt off.
Imagine someone watching you when you think you’re alone. Imagine them recording your face’s every move: every time you laugh or cry, every flinch, every blink.
Then I get to work. I would never release people’s private data, but it doesn’t mean I can’t study it. For the next forty-eight hours, I’m plugged in. Headphones. Liquid meals. Allergic to sleep and showers and other bodily needs. I’m swatting bugs in my code, getting loopy off if loops and for loops and, Jesus Christ, it’s like a roller coaster.
But toward the end of this blurry trip, I discover a secret in the numbers. It’s the kind of discovery that would get all the internet trolls talking—that could win us the attention we need to win Make-A-Splash.
I discover that everyone is lying.
Excerpt from Girl Gone Viral, Copyright © 2019 by Arvin Ahmadi. Used by permission of Penguin Young Readers.