When Karen M. McManus's young adult mystery debut, One Of Us Is Lying, hit shelves in 2017 it became an instant bestseller and a favorite of thriller lovers. In the Breakfast Club meets Pretty Little Liars story, five students entered group detention and only four emerged. By the end of detention, Simon, the creator of Bayview High's notorious gossip app, was dead. Now, McManus is returning to Bayview High in One Of Us Is Next, out Jan. 7, 2020. Bustle has an exclusive excerpt from the book below!
Though a ton of copycat gossip apps have sprung up in the year since Simon's death, none has been able to fill the void he left. Until now. This time it’s not an app — it's a game: Truth or Dare. When the truths turn dark and the dares turn deadly, students Phoebe, Maeve, and Knox know they can't count on the police for help. Simon is gone, but someone is determined to keep his legacy at Bayview High alive. And this time, there’s a whole new set of rules.
Below, Bustle has an exclusive excerpt from Karen M. McManus's One Of Us Is Next, out in January. Read on — if you dare:
Chapter Three: Knox
Wednesday, February 19
I scan the half-off clothing rack next to me with a feeling of existential dread. I hate department stores. They’re too bright, too loud, and too crammed full of junk that nobody needs. Whenever I’m forced to spend time in one I start thinking about how consumer culture is just one long, expensive, planet-killing distraction from the fact that we’re all going to die eventually.
Then I suck down the last of my six-dollar iced coffee, because I’m nothing if not a willing participant in the charade.
“That’ll be forty-two sixty, hon,” the woman behind the counter says when it’s my turn. I’m picking up a new wallet for my mother, and I hope I got it right. Even with her detailed written instructions, it still looks like twelve other black wallets. I spent too long debating between them, and now I’m running late for work.
It probably doesn’t matter, since Eli Kleinfelter doesn’t pay me or, most days, even notice I’m there. Still, I pick up my pace after leaving the Bayview Mall, following a sidewalk behind the building until it narrows to nothing but asphalt. Then, after a quick glance over my shoulder to make sure no one’s watching, I approach the flimsy chain-link fence surrounding an empty construction site.
There’s supposed to be a new parking garage going into the hillside behind the mall, but the company building it went bankrupt after they’d started. A bunch of construction companies are bidding to take over, including my dad’s. Until then, the site is cutting off what used to be a path between the mall and Bayview Center. Now you have to walk all the way around the building and down a main road, which takes ten times as long.
Unless you do what I’m about to do.
I duck under a giant gap in the fence and skirt around a half-dozen orange-and-white barrels until I’m overlooking a partially constructed garage and what was supposed to become its roof. The whole thing is covered with thick plastic tarp, except for a wooden landing with a set of metal stairs along one side, leading to part of the hill that hasn’t been dug into yet.
I don’t know who at Bayview High first had the bright idea to jump the five-foot drop onto the landing, but now it’s a well-known shortcut from the mall to downtown. Which, to be clear, my dad would kill me for taking. But he’s not here and even if he were, he pays less attention to me than Eli does. So I brace myself against one of the construction barrels and look down.
There’s just one problem.
It’s not that I’m afraid of heights. It’s more that I have a preference for firm ground. When I played Peter Pan at drama camp last summer, I got so freaked out about getting flown around on a pulley that they had to lower me to barely two feet off the stage. “You’re not flying, Knox,” the production manager grumbled every time I swung past him. “You’re skimming at best.”
"It’s not that I’m afraid of heights. It’s more that I have a preference for firm ground."
All right. I’m afraid of heights. But I’m trying to get over it. I stare down at the wooden planks below me. They look twenty feet away. Did someone lower the roof?
“It’s a great day for someone to die. Just not me,” I mutter like I’m Dax Reaper, the most ruthless bounty hunter in Bounty Wars. Because the only way I can make this nervous hovering even more pathetic is to quote a video game character.
I can’t do it. Not a real jump, anyway. I sit at the edge, squeeze my eyes shut, and push off so that I slither down the last few feet like a cowardly snake. I land awkwardly, wincing on impact and stumbling across the uneven wooden planks. Athletic, I am not.
I manage to regain my balance and limp toward the stairs. The lightweight metal clangs loudly with every step as I make my way down. I heave a sigh of relief once I hit solid ground and follow what’s left of the hillside path to the bottom fence. People used to climb over it until somebody broke the lock. I slip through the gate and into the tree grove at the edge of Bayview Center. The number 11 bus to downtown San Diego is idling at the depot in front of Town Hall, and I jog across the street to the still-open doors.
Made it with a minute to spare. I might get to Until Proven on time after all. I pay my fare, sink into one of the last empty seats, and pull my phone out of my pocket.
There’s a loud sniff beside me. “Those things are practically part of your hand nowadays, aren’t they? My grandson won’t put his down. I suggested he leave it behind the last time I took him out to eat, and you would have thought I’d threatened him with bodily harm.”
I look up to a pair of watery blue eyes behind bifocals. Of course. It never fails: any time I’m out in public and there’s an old woman nearby, she starts up a conversation with me. Maeve calls it the Nice Young Man Factor. “You have one of those faces,” she says. “They can tell you won’t be rude.”
I call it the Knox Myers Curse: irresistible to octogenarians, invisible to girls my own age. During the Cal State Fullerton season opener at Café Contigo, Phoebe Lawton literally tripped over me to get to Brandon Weber when he sauntered in at the end of the night.
"I call it the Knox Myers Curse: irresistible to octogenarians, invisible to girls my own age."
I should keep scrolling and pretend I didn’t hear, like Brandon would. What Would Brandon Do is a terrible life mantra, since he’s a soul-sucking waste of space who skates through life on good hair, symmetrical features, and the ability to throw a perfect spiral — but he also gets whatever he wants and is probably never trapped in awkward geriatric bus conversations.
So, yeah. Selective hearing loss for the next fifteen minutes would be the way to go. Instead, I find myself saying, “There’s a word for that. Nomophobia. Fear of being without your phone.”
“Is that right?” she asks, and now I’ve done it. The floodgates are open. By the time we reach downtown I know all about her six grandkids and her hip replacement surgery. It’s not until I get off the bus a block from Eli’s office that I can go back to what I was doing on my phone in the first place — checking to see if there’s another text from whoever sent the Truth or Dare rules yesterday.
I should pretend I never saw it. Everyone at Bayview High should. But we don’t. After what happened with Simon, it’s baked into our collective DNA to be morbidly fascinated with this stuff. Last night, while a bunch of us were supposed to be running lines for the spring play, we kept getting sidetracked by trying to guess who the unknown texter might be.
"I should pretend I never saw it. Everyone at Bayview High should. But we don’t."
The whole thing was probably a joke, though. It’s four o’clock when I push through the doors of Until Proven’s office building — well past the twenty-four-hour deadline for whoever’s supposed to be playing the game to respond — and the latest Simon wannabe has gone silent.
I pass the coffee shop in the lobby and take an elevator to the third floor. Until Proven is at the far end of a narrow corridor, next to one of those hair replacement clinics that fills the entire hall with a rank chemical smell. A balding guy comes out of its door, his forehead unevenly dotted with wispy tufts of hair. He lowers his eyes and slinks past me like I just caught him buying porn.
When I crack open Until Proven’s door, I’m immediately hit with the buzzing sound of too many people crammed into too small a space, all of them talking at once.
“How many convictions?”
“Twelve that we know of, but there’s gotta be more.”
“Did anybody call Channel Seven back?”
“Eighteen months, then released, then right back in.” “Knox!” Sandeep Ghai, a Harvard Law grad who started working for Eli last fall, barrels toward me from behind an armful of red folders stacked up to his nose. “Just the man I was looking for. I need forty employer kits compiled and sent out today. Sample kit’s on top along with all the addresses. Can you get these out for the five o’clock mail run?”
“Forty?” I raise my eyebrows as I take the stack from him. Until Proven doesn’t only defend people who Eli and the other lawyers think are wrongfully accused; it also helps them find jobs after getting out of jail. So every once in a while, I mail out folders full of résumés and a cover letter about why hiring exonerees, as Eli calls them, is good for business. But we’re usually lucky if one local company a week is interested. “Why so many?”
“Publicity from the D’Agostino case,” Sandeep says, like that explains everything. When I still look confused, he adds, “Everyone turns into a concerned corporate citizen when there’s a chance for free PR.”
I should’ve guessed. Eli’s been all over the news after proving that a bunch of people convicted on drug charges had actually been blackmailed and framed by a San Diego police sergeant, Carl D’Agostino, and two of his subordinates. They’re all in jail awaiting trial, and Until Proven is working on getting the phony convictions reversed.
The last time Eli got this much press was for the Simon Kelleher case. Back then, Eli was the lead story on every news show after getting Nate Macauley out of jail. My dad’s company hired Nate a couple of weeks later. He still works there, and now they’re paying for him to take college classes.
After Bronwyn Rojas left for Yale and Until Proven started looking for another high school intern, I figured Maeve would take it. She’s tight with Eli, plus she was a big part of why Simon’s plan unraveled in the first place. Nobody would’ve looked at Simon as anything except a victim if Maeve hadn’t tracked down his secret online persona.
"Nobody would’ve looked at Simon as anything except a victim if Maeve hadn’t tracked down his secret online persona."
But Maeve didn’t want the job. “That’s Bronwyn’s thing. Not mine,” she’d said, in that voice she uses when she wants to end a conversation.
So I applied. Partly because it’s interesting, but also because I wasn’t exactly fighting off other job opportunities. My father, who tells anybody who’ll listen that Nate Macauley is “one helluva kid,” never bothered asking if I wanted to work at Myers Construction.
To be fair: I suck at anything tool-related. I once wound up in the emergency room after hammering my thumb to a pulp when hanging a picture. But still. He could’ve asked.
“Five o’clock,” Sandeep repeats, cocking finger guns at me as he backs away toward his desk. “I can count on you, right?” “I got it,” I say, looking around for some empty space. My gaze lands on Eli, who’s the only person at Until Proven who gets an entire desk to himself. It’s stacked so high with folders that when he hunches forward while talking on the phone, all you can see is his mad scientist hair. By some miracle, the table behind him is empty.
I head that way, hoping that maybe I’ll get a chance to talk with him. Eli fascinates me, not only because he’s ridiculously good at his job but because he’s this guy you probably wouldn’t look at twice if you passed him in the street. Yet he’s so confident and, I don’t know, magnetic or something. Now that I’ve worked with him for a few months, it doesn’t surprise me that he has a gorgeous fiancée, or that he manages to get people who are involved in criminal cases to spill all kinds of things they probably shouldn’t. I want him to teach me his ways.
Plus, it would be great if he learned my name.
"Eli fascinates me, not only because he’s ridiculously good at his job but because he’s this guy you probably wouldn’t look at twice if you passed him in the street."
I haven’t even made it halfway across the room, though, before Sandeep yells out, “Eli! We need you in Winterfell.”
Eli rolls his chair back and peers around the folders. “In what?”
“Winterfell,” Sandeep says expectantly.
When Eli still looks blank, I clear my throat. “It’s the small conference room,” I say. “Remember? Sandeep gave them names so we could tell them apart. The other one is, um, King’s Landing.” Sandeep, like me, is a huge Game of Thrones fan, so he named the rooms after two locations in the story. But Eli’s never read the books or seen an episode of the TV show, and the whole thing confuses the hell out of him.
“Oh. Right. Thank you.” Eli nods distractedly at me, then turns back to Sandeep. “What was wrong with just saying ‘the small conference room’?”
“We need you in Winterfell,” Sandeep repeats, his voice edging into impatience. Eli stands with a sigh, and I get a wry smile as he passes. Progress.
I spread my files across the empty conference table, lay my phone beside them, and start assembling employer packets. As soon as I do my phone starts buzzing with a string of texts from, of course, my sisters. I have four of them, all older than me, all with K names: Kiersten, Katie, Kelsey, and Kara. We’re like the Kardashians, except without any money.
"We’re like the Kardashians, except without any money."
My sisters will start a group conversation about anything. Birthdays, TV shows, current boyfriends or girlfriends, exes. Me, frequently. It’s a nightmare when they all start caring about my love life or my future at once. Knox, what happened with Maeve? She was so nice! Knox, who are you taking to prom? Knox, are you thinking about colleges yet? Next year will be here before you know it!
But this time, they’re talking about Katie’s surprise engagement on Valentine’s Day. She’ll be the first Myers to get married, so there’s a lot to discuss.
They go quiet eventually, and I’m halfway through the packets when another text comes in. I glance down, expecting to see one of my sisters’ names — probably Kiersten, because she has to have the last word on everything — but it’s a private number.
Tsk, no response from our first player. That means you forfeit.
I expected better from you, Phoebe Lawton. No fun at all. Now I get to reveal one of your secrets in true About That style.
Crap. I guess this is really happening. Though, how bad could it be? Simon never bothered featuring Phoebe on About That, because she’s an open book. She hooks up a lot, but she doesn’t cheat on people or break them up. And she’s one of those girls who flits easily between Bayview High social groups, like the invisible boundaries that keep most of us apart don’t apply to her. I’m pretty sure there’s nothing anyone could say about Phoebe that we don’t already know.
"Simon never bothered featuring Phoebe on About That, because she’s an open book."
Gray dots linger for a while. The anonymous texter is trying to build suspense, and even though I know I shouldn’t take the bait, my pulse speeds up. Then I kind of hate myself for it, and I’m about to put my phone facedown on the table when a text finally appears.
Phoebe slept with her sister Emma’s boyfriend.
Hold up. What?
I look around the Until Proven office like I’m expecting some kind of group reaction. Sometimes I forget I’m the only high school student here. Everybody ignores me, since they have shit to deal with that actually matters, so I look back at my phone. It’s gone dark, and I press the Home button to reactivate the screen.
Phoebe slept with her sister Emma’s boyfriend.
This can’t be real. First off, does Emma Lawton even have a boyfriend? She’s one of the quietest, least social girls in the senior class. As far as I can tell, she’s in an intimate relationship with her homework and that’s it. Plus, Phoebe wouldn’t do that to her sister. Right? I mean, I don’t know her well, but there are rules. My sisters would draw blood over something like that.
More texts appear, one right after the other.
What’s that, Bayview? You didn’t know? Shame. You’re behind on your gossip.
Here’s a little advice for the next time we play: Always take the Dare.
Thursday, February 20
I should know the protocol for checking in with someone who just got their deepest, darkest secret leaked to the entire school. I’m kind of rusty, though. It’s been a while.
I was at Café Contigo yesterday doing homework when the texts about Phoebe came through. As soon as she took a break from serving tables and checked her phone, I knew the gossip was true. The look on her face was exactly the same as Bronwyn’s eighteen months ago, when the About This copycat site that Jake Riordan kept up after Simon died revealed she’d cheated in chemistry. Not just horror, but guilt.
"I should know the protocol for checking in with someone who just got their deepest, darkest secret leaked to the entire school. I’m kind of rusty, though. It’s been a while."
Emma came barreling through the café door soon after, red-faced and shaking. I almost didn’t recognize her. “Is this true? Is that why you’ve been acting so weird?” she choked out, holding up her phone. Phoebe was at the cash register counter next to Luis’s father, taking her apron off. I’m pretty sure she was about to play sick and get out of there. She froze, eyes round, and didn’t answer. Emma kept coming until she was inches away from Phoebe’s face, and for a second I was afraid she might slap her. “Was it while we were dating?”
“After,” Phoebe said, so quickly and emphatically that I was sure that was true, too. Then Mr. Santos sprang into action, putting an arm around both Phoebe and Emma and shepherding them into the kitchen. That was the last I saw of either of them for the night.
I thought Mr. Santos had been quick enough to keep their fight private until I noticed two sophomores from the Bayview High baseball team approaching the counter. “Takeout for Reynolds,” one of them said to the waiter, who was suddenly covering the entire room plus the cash register. The other boy never looked up from his phone. By the time I got home and checked in with Knox, he’d already heard everything.
“Guess the latest Bayview gossipmonger knows their dirt,” he said.
Last night, I kept wondering if I should text Phoebe: You okay? But the thing is, even though I’ve always liked her, we’re not friends. We’re friendly, mostly because I spend way too much time where she works, and because she’s one of those extroverted people who talks to everyone. She gave me her number once, “just so you’ll have it,” but I’ve never used it before, and it felt like a weird time to start. Like I was curious instead of concerned. Now, heading downstairs for breakfast, I still don’t know if that was the right call.
"I kept wondering if I should text Phoebe: You okay? But the thing is, even though I’ve always liked her, we’re not friends."
Mom’s sitting at the table when I enter the kitchen, frowning at her laptop. When Bronwyn was here we used to always eat breakfast at the kitchen island, but something about sitting next to her empty stool makes me lose my appetite. Mom would never say it, because Bronwyn being at Yale is a lifelong dream for both of them, but I think she feels the same way.
She looks up and flashes me a bright smile. “Guess what I got?” Then her eyes narrow as I pull a box of Froot Loops from the cabinet next to the sink. “I don’t remember buying those.” “You didn’t,” I say. I fill a bowl to the brim with rainbow-hued loops, then grab a carton of milk from the refrigerator and take a seat beside her. My dad comes into the kitchen, straightening his tie, and Mom shoots him the evil eye. “Really, Javier? I thought we agreed on healthy breakfast foods.”
He only looks guilty for a second. “They’re fortified, though. With essential vitamins and minerals. It says so right on the box.” He grabs a few from my bowl before I add milk and pops them into his mouth.
Mom rolls her eyes. “You’re as bad as she is. Don’t come crying to me when your teeth rot.”
Dad swallows his cereal and kisses her cheek, then the top of my head. “I promise to endure all cavities with the appropriate level of stoicism,” he says. My father moved to the States from Colombia when he was ten, so he doesn’t have an accent, exactly, but there’s a rhythm to the way he speaks that’s a little bit formal and a little bit musical. It’s one of my favorite things about him. Well, that and our mutual appreciation of refined sugar, which is something Mom and Bronwyn don’t share. “Don’t wait on me for dinner, okay? We’ve got that board meeting today. I’m sure it’ll go late.”
“All right, enabler,” Mom says affectionately. He grabs his keys from a hook on the wall and heads out the door.
I swallow a giant mouthful of already-soggy Froot Loops and gesture toward her laptop. “So what’d you get?”
She blinks at the shift in conversation, then beams. “Oh! You’ll love this. Into the Woods tickets, for when Bronwyn is back next week. It’s playing at the Civic. You can see how Bayview High stacks up against the professionals. That’s the play the drama club is doing this spring, right?”
I eat another spoonful of cereal before answering. I need a second to muster the appropriate level of enthusiasm. “Right. Fantastic! That’ll be so fun.”
Too much. I overdid it. Mom frowns. “You don’t want to go?”
“No, I totally do,” I lie.
She’s unconvinced. “What’s wrong? I thought you loved musical theater!”
My mom. You have to give her credit for how tirelessly she champions every single one of my passing interests. Maeve did a play once. Ergo, Maeve loves all plays! I was in the school play last year and it was—fine. But I didn’t try out this year. It felt like one of those things that I’d done once and could now safely put on the shelf of experiences that don’t need to be repeated. Yep, tried it, it was all right but not for me. Which is where I put most things.
"My mom. You have to give her credit for how tirelessly she champions every single one of my passing interests."
“I do,” I say. “But hasn’t Bronwyn already seen Into the Woods?”
Mom’s forehead creases. “She has? When?”
I chase the last of the Froot Loops with my spoon and take my time swallowing them. “Over Christmas, I thought? With, um... Nate.”
Ugh. Bad lie. Nate wouldn’t be caught dead at a musical.
Mom’s frown deepens. She doesn’t dislike Nate, exactly, but she doesn’t make a secret of the fact that she thinks he and Bronwyn come from, as she puts it, “different worlds.” Plus, she keeps insisting that Bronwyn is too young to be in a serious relationship. When I remind her that she met Dad in college, she says, “When we were juniors,” like she’d matured a decade by then. “Well, let me try to catch her and check,” Mom says, reaching for her phone. “I have thirty minutes to return them.” I smack my forehead. “You know what? Never mind. They didn’t see Into the Woods. They saw The Fast and the Furious part twelve, or whatever. You know. Same thing, pretty much.”
Mom looks confused, then exasperated as I tip my bowl to loudly guzzle the pink milk.
“Maeve, stop that. You’re not six anymore.” She turns back to her laptop, brow furrowed. “Oh, for God’s sake, I just checked my email. How can there be so many already?”
I put down my bowl and grab a napkin, because all of a sudden my nose is running. I wipe it without thinking much more than It’s kind of early for allergies, but when I lower my hand — oh.
Oh my God.
I get up without a word, the napkin clutched in my fist, and go to our first-floor bathroom. I can feel wetness continuing to gather beneath my nose, and even before I look in the mirror I know what I’ll see. Pale face, tense mouth, dazed eyes — and a tiny river of bright red blood dripping from each nostril.
The dread hits so hard and so fast that it feels as if someone’s Tasered me: there’s a moment of cold shock and then I’m a trembling, twitching mess, shaking so hard that I can barely keep the napkin pressed to my nose. Red seeps into its cheery pattern as my heart bangs against my rib cage, the frantic beat echoing in my ears. My eyes in the mirror won’t stop blinking, keeping perfect time to the two-word sentence rattling through my brain.
It’s back. It’s back. It’s back.
"Pale face, tense mouth, dazed eyes — and a tiny river of bright red blood dripping from each nostril."
Every time my leukemia has ever returned, it’s started with a nosebleed.
I imagine walking into the kitchen and showing the bloody napkin to my mother, and all the air leaves my lungs. I can’t watch her face do that thing again — that thing where she’s like a time-lapse movie, aging twenty years in twenty seconds. She’ll call my dad, and when he comes back to the house, all his cheeriness from this morning will be gone. He’ll be wearing that expression that I hate more than anything, because I know the internal prayer that accompanies it. I heard him once after I’d nearly died when I was eight, the words in Spanish barely a whisper as he sat with his head bowed next to my hospital bed. “Por favor, Dios, llévame a mi en su lugar. Yo por ella. Por favor.” Even though I was barely conscious, I thought, No, God, don’t listen, because I reject any prayer that has my dad asking to take my place.
If I show my mother this napkin, we’ll have to climb back on the testing carousel. They’ll start with the least invasive and least painful, but eventually you have to do them all. Then we’ll sit in Dr. Gutierrez’s office, staring at his thin, worried face while he weighs the pros and cons of equally horrible treatment options and reminds us that every time it comes back, it’s harder to treat and we must adjust accordingly. And finally we’ll pick our poison, followed by months of losing weight, losing hair, losing energy, losing time. Losing hope.
I told myself the last time, when I was thirteen, that I would never do it again.
My nose has stopped bleeding. I examine the napkin with my best effort at clinical detachment. There’s not that much blood, really. Maybe it’s just dry air; it’s February, after all. Sometimes a nosebleed is just a nosebleed, and there’s no need to send people into a frenzy about it. My pulse slows as I press my lips together and inhale deeply, hearing nothing but air. I drop the napkin into the toilet and flush quickly so I don’t have to watch thin threads of my blood fan into the water. Then I pull a Kleenex from the box on top of the toilet and wet it, wiping away the last traces of red.
“It’s fine,” I tell my reflection, gripping the sides of the sink. “Everything is fine.”
"Sometimes a nosebleed is just a nosebleed, and there’s no need to send people into a frenzy about it."
Bayview High’s new gossip game sent two texts this morning: an alert that the next player would be contacted soon, and a reminder link to the rules post. Now everyone is reading the new About That website en masse at lunch, absently shoving food into their mouths with their eyes glued to their phones. I can’t help but think that Simon would be loving this.
And if I’m being perfectly honest — I don’t mind the distraction right now.
“I’m still mostly surprised that Emma had a boyfriend,” Knox says, glancing at the table where Phoebe is sitting with her friend Jules Crandall and a bunch of other junior girls. Emma is nowhere in sight, but then again, she never is. I’m pretty sure she eats lunch outside with the only friend I’ve ever seen her with, a quiet girl named Gillian. “Do you think he goes here?”
I grab one of the fries we’re sharing and swirl it in ketchup before popping it into my mouth. “I’ve never seen her with anyone.”
Lucy Chen, who’d been deep in another conversation at our table, swings around in her chair. “Are you guys talking about Phoebe and Emma?” she asks, fixing us with a judgmental stare. Because Lucy Chen is that girl: the one who com- plains about whatever you’re doing while trying to horn in on it. She’s also this year’s literal drama queen, since she has the lead in Into the Woods opposite Knox. “Everybody needs to just ignore that game.”
Her boyfriend, Chase Russo, blinks at her. “Luce, that game is all you’ve been talking about for the past ten minutes.” “About how dangerous it is,” Lucy says self-righteously. “Bayview High is a high-risk population when it comes to this kind of thing.”
I suppress a sigh. This is what happens when you’re bad at making friends: you end up with ones you don’t particularly like. Most of the time I’m grateful for the easy camaraderie of the drama club group, because they keep me company even when Knox isn’t around. Other times I wonder what school, and life, would be like if I made more of an effort. If I ever actively chose somebody instead of just letting myself get pulled into whatever orbit will have me.
"I suppress a sigh. This is what happens when you’re bad at making friends: you end up with ones you don’t particularly like."
My eyes stray toward Phoebe, who’s chewing with her eyes straight ahead. Today must be rough, but she’s here, facing it head-on. She reminds me of Bronwyn that way. Phoebe is wearing one of her usual bright dresses, her bronze curls tumbling around her shoulders and her makeup perfect. No fading into the background for her.
I wish I’d texted her last night after all.
“Anyway, I’m sure we all know who’s behind this,” Lucy adds, jerking her head toward a corner table where Matthias Schroeder is eating alone, his face barely visible behind a thick book. “Matthias should’ve been expelled after Simon Says. Principal Gupta’s zero-tolerance policy came too late.”
“Really? You think Matthias did this? But Simon Says was so tame,” I say. I can’t bring myself to dislike Matthias, even though my name was all over his short-lived copycat blog last fall. Matthias moved here freshman year, right around the time I started coming to school more, and he never really fit in anywhere. I’d watch him sidle past groups that either mocked or ignored him, and I knew that could easily have been me without Bronwyn.
Chase grins. “That guy had the worst gossip ever.” He puts on a breathless voice. “Maeve Rojas and Knox Myers broke up! Like, yeah, dude. Everybody already knows and nobody cares. Most drama-free breakup ever. Try again.”
“Still,” Lucy sniffs. “I don’t trust him. He has that same disgruntled-loner vibe that Simon had.”
“Simon didn’t have—” I start, but I’m interrupted by a booming voice behind us calling out, “What’s up, Phoebe?” We all turn, and Knox lets out a muted “Ugh,” when we see Sean Murdock leaning back in his chair, his thick torso twisted in the direction of Phoebe’s table. Sean is Brandon Weber’s most assholish friend, which is really saying something. He used to call me Dead Girl Walking freshman year, and I’m pretty sure he still doesn’t know my actual name.
Phoebe doesn’t answer, and Sean pushes his chair away from the table with a loud scraping noise. “I didn’t know you and Emma were so close,” he calls over the chattering buzz of the cafeteria. “If you’re looking for a new guy to share, I volunteer my services.” His friends start snickering, and Sean raises his voice another notch. “You can take turns. Or double-team me. I’m good either way.”
Monica Hill, one of the junior girls who’s always hanging around with Sean and Brandon, gasps loudly and slaps Sean on his arm, but more like she’s trying to egg him on than stop him. As for Brandon, he’s laughing harder than anyone else at his table. “In your dreams, bro,” he says, not even glancing in Phoebe’s direction.
“Don’t get greedy just cause you’re hitting that,” Sean says. “There’s plenty of Lawton love to go around. Right, Phoebe? Twice as nice. Sharing is caring.” He’s cackling now. “Listen to me, Bran. I’m a poet and I know it.”
It’s too quiet, suddenly. The kind of silence that only happens when everyone in a room is focused on the same thing. Phoebe is looking at the ground, her cheeks pale and her mouth pressed into a tight line. I’m half on my feet with the overwhelming need to do something, although I have no clue what, when Phoebe raises her head and looks directly at Sean.
"It’s too quiet, suddenly. The kind of silence that only happens when everyone in a room is focused on the same thing."
“Thanks but no thanks,” she says in a loud, clear voice. “If I wanted to be bored and disappointed, I’d just watch you play baseball.” Then she takes a large, deliberate bite from a bright green apple.
The hum in the room erupts into full-on hoots and catcalls as Chase says, “Damn, girl.” Sean’s face turns an ugly red, but before he can say anything one of the lunch workers steps out from the kitchen. It’s Robert, who’s built like a linebacker and is the only person at Bayview High with a louder voice than Sean. He cups his hands around his mouth like a megaphone as I sink back into my seat.
“Everyone gonna settle down in here, or you need me to get a teacher?” he calls.
The noise volume cuts in half instantly, but that only makes it easier to hear Sean’s parting words as he turns back toward his table. “Spoken like the slut you are, Lawton.”
Robert doesn’t hesitate. “Principal’s office, Murdock.” “What?” Sean protests, spreading his hands wide. “She started it! She came on to me and insulted me all at once. That’s a violation of the school bullying policy.”
Resentment surges through my veins. Why am I keeping quiet, exactly? What on earth do I have to lose? “Liar,” I call out, startling Knox so much that he actually jumps. “You provoked her and everyone knows it.”
Sean snorts over the murmur of agreement in the room. “Nobody asked you, Cancer Girl.”
The words make my stomach plunge, but I roll my eyes like it’s an outdated insult. “Ooh, burn,” I snap.
"Resentment surges through my veins. Why am I keeping quiet, exactly? What on earth do I have to lose?"
Robert folds his tattooed arms and takes a few steps forward. Rumor has it that he used to work in a prison kitchen, which is pretty solid job training for what he does now. In fact, it’s probably why he was hired. Principal Gupta learned at least a few things from last year. “Principal’s office, Murdock,” he growls. “You can go on your own, or I can take you. I promise you will not like it.”
This time, I can’t hear whatever Sean mutters under his breath as he gets to his feet. He shoots Phoebe a death glare as he passes her table, and she gives it right back. But once he’s gone, her face just sort of—crumples.
“Someone’s getting detention,” Chase calls in a singsong voice. “Try not to die, Murdock.” I suck in a breath, and he grimaces apologetically. “Too soon?”
The bell rings, and we start getting our things together. A few tables over, Jules takes Phoebe’s tray and whispers something in her ear. Phoebe nods and loops her backpack over one shoulder. She heads for the door, pausing beside our table to let a knot of sophomore girls push through the narrow space between chairs. They all look back at her and burst into muted laughter.
I touch Phoebe’s arm. “Are you all right?” I ask. She looks up, but before she can answer I spot Lucy approaching from her other side.
“You shouldn’t have to put up with that, Phoebe,” Lucy says, and for a second I almost like her. Then she gets that self- righteous look on her face again. “Maybe we should tell Principal Gupta what’s going on. I’m beginning to think this school would be better off if nobody had a phone in the first—”
Phoebe whips around in her direction, eyes blazing. Lucy gasps and stumbles backward, because she’s overdramatic like that. Although Phoebe does look poised for an attack, and when she speaks, her voice is ice cold.
“Don’t. You. Dare.”
Excerpt copyright © 2020 by Karen M. McManus, LLC. Cover photograph (second girl) © 2020 by Nabi Tang/Stocksy; all other photographs used under license from Shutterstock.com. Published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
You can now pre-order One Of Us Is Next by Karen McManus, out in Jan. 2020.