By M. Doty
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Emily Kessler thinks she has it all figured out. She eats, sleeps and trains for competitive swimming. All she has to do is keep her grades high and swim times short — short enough to live up to her sister Sara’s. But walking the crowded maze of unfamiliar high school hallways is like diving headfirst into shark-infested waters. Shark #1: Dominique, her biggest competition on the swim team and all-around mean girl. Shark #2: The adorable and popular Ben Kale… Emily can’t resist his smile no matter how hard she tries. When the pressure builds to the point where Emily isn’t sure she can stay afloat, she begins to question the strict path her life has always followed.
The hit mobile game Surviving High School comes to life in an original novel about perfection, failure, and following your dreams.
Table of Contents
A Preview of How to be a Star
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Emily Kessler willed the corners of her mouth to rise and her eyes to light up as she stared into the massive camera lens. If her photo turned out like usual, she'd be stuck with a miserable school ID card all year. She hadn't looked happy in a picture in months.
Smile, she thought. Smile.
"Uh, great. Hold it just like that," said the photographer, scrambling to find the button on his camera. Emily's mouth was starting to hurt.
"Just one more second—"
Forget it, she thought. I'm doomed.
By the time the flash went off a few seconds later, she was wearing her usual intense expression: awesome for scaring the Speedos off the other swimmers during a meet, terrible for trying to make friends… or meet a cute guy.
A few seconds later, the photographer apologized as he handed Emily her new ID.
"I usually don't say this," he said, "but if you 'lose' this after a few weeks, they'll send you back here to get another one."
"Thanks," she said, accepting the card. She knew there'd be no point in taking him up on his offer.
Out in the hallway, a line of other freshmen stretched into the distance and around a corner. Rows and rows of endless lockers went on as far as the eye could see, and Emily wondered which one was hers. She squinted at the sheet of paper the school had mailed her a few days earlier. Locker 1322? The number itself seemed overwhelming. Her middle school had only had six hundred students, less than half the number here at Twin Branches High.
The students in line smiled, laughed, chewed gum, read over their schedules, chatted, and flirted. Emily watched them nervously. How could they possibly look so happy and calm?
Somewhere, in one of these halls, Nick Brown was walking around, looking for his first class and getting ready to start his senior year. Nick Brown was here. And Sara wasn't. It just didn't seem fair. How could the world be like this, where you got a girl killed and then just showed up at school the next year as if everything was normal?
Emily still didn't understand how it had happened, really. Sara almost always walked or jogged home from school. Given the storm that night, she might have decided to get a ride, but why hadn't she just called their parents? To ride home with some random guy from school—that wasn't Sara's style.
The first few days after Sara's death were a black hole in Emily's memory. Whatever Emily had thought or felt back then, it was simply gone. A week went by before she'd had the courage to ask her parents about the details of what had happened.
She'd walked into her dad's office one evening to find him sitting in a chair and staring at the screen of a laptop that had gone into standby mode.
"Dad," she'd said, "why did she ride home with him—with Nick Brown?"
The mention of the boy's name had made her father cringe.
"Your sister made a stupid mistake," he said.
"But why did she—"
He turned his attention back to his computer then, clicking it awake, and Emily had stood stupidly in the doorway, watching him type for a few moments before retreating to the solitude of her room. Emily's father had always been intense, but something had changed in him after the accident, as if any joy he took in life had died along with Sara.
And for all this, she had Nick Brown to thank.
Just thinking about him made Emily's throat constrict and her chest burn. Who knew what would happen if she actually saw him? The best she could hope for was to make it through the next year without bumping into him. Yeah, right. Twin Branches High School was big—but it probably wasn't that big.
As Emily turned to start looking for her first class, her best friend, Kimi Chen, ran up and snatched the freshly printed ID out of Emily's hands. They looked down at the photo together: Emily's brown hair was pulled back tight, and the flash shone off her forehead like it was a giant Ping-Pong ball. The worst thing was that her eyes, which were supposed to be blue, instead glowed crimson. The whole look was completely terrifying. Didn't the school's camera have red-eye reduction?
"Scary!" said Kimi, wrinkling her nose. "You totally look like that girl who gets possessed by a demon in that movie. You know, the one where the priest gets thrown out the window?"
"Great," said Emily, snatching back the ID and burying it in her jeans pocket. "I've always wanted to look like a movie star."
Emily gave Kimi a once-over. Kimi had styled her usually straight black hair into waves, and she wore a brown pencil skirt with a crisp white collared shirt and black wedges. Maybe a little formal for high school, but it was the first day. Lots of people dressed up. The whitening strips Kimi had been applying all summer made her teeth sparkle like snow and matched the single pearl she wore around her neck.
"You look—nice," said Emily.
"It's business casual," said Kimi, smiling coyly. "First impressions count for everything, and the teachers here need to know who they're dealing with. I'm going for a studious-yet-highly-efficient, sexy-secretary kind of look. What do you think?"
Two girls in the nearby line laughed a little too loudly, and Emily and Kimi turned to find out what was so funny. It took a moment for Emily to recognize Dominique Clark and Lindsay Vale without their swim caps on. Great. Two more people she'd hoped to avoid today.
"Nice outfit, Chen," said Dominique. "Let me guess. You're here to sell real estate?"
Kimi blushed and looked down at her skirt.
"This is vintage!"
"You mean 'old,' " said Dominique, smiling icily.
"Don't be so hard on her," added Lindsay. "At least her clothes fit." She glared over at Emily's baggy jeans and too-big sweatshirt. The clothes were hand-me-downs from Sara that Emily had dug out of a box in the garage a week earlier. She knew how loose they were, and her mom had offered to take her shopping, but Emily refused to wear anything else.
Kimi stared the blondes down, trying to melt them with her eyes. Both of them wore pastel summer dresses and had obviously visited the salon in the last twenty-four hours: Their shimmering platinum hair was as artfully arranged as Japanese flowers. Dominique and Lindsay didn't look good—they looked perfect.
After a second, Kimi smiled.
"At least Emily and I aren't wearing the same shoes," she said, pointing at their feet. Dominique and Lindsay looked down in horror. It was true. They were wearing the same designer ballet flats.
"Hope you had a nice summer, Emily," said Dominique, quickly recovering. "I noticed you didn't make it down to LA for training camp. Too bad. All the other girls were asking about you."
"My dad—Coach—thought it would be better for my form if I just trained here," said Emily, gritting her teeth. "Fewer distractions."
"Oh, he's totally right," said Dominique, twirling her hair around a finger, her French-tipped nail cutting through the air. "We ended up having to go to these awful parties with Michael Phelps and some of the other guys from the Olympic team. So boring. I'm sure you were better off here at Twin Branches with Coach. I can't wait to start working with him again."
"Come on, Emily," Kimi said. "Let's get out of here."
"See you at the pool!" Dominique called as Kimi dragged Emily away from the blondes and down the hall.
"Stupid name-dropper," said Kimi once they were out of earshot, her face flushed with rage. "She's not even that good of a swimmer."
"Yes, she is," admitted Emily.
"Okay, fine. But not as good as you—right?"
Emily had checked Dominique's summer race times online, and they'd been almost identical to her own. Over the last two years, ever since Dominique had moved to town to work with Emily's dad as part of a club sport back in middle school, the two girls had gone head-to-head dozens of times, with Emily dominating in breaststroke and butterfly and Dominique beating her in freestyle and backstroke.
"We'll see," said Emily. "It's a new year."
Kimi reached into her bag, took out a meticulously organized notebook, and flipped to the inside cover, where she'd taped her class schedule.
"Who do you have for homeroom?" she asked.
"Shoot. I've got Sanderson."
Emily glanced over Kimi's schedule.
"So we don't have homeroom together," she said, frowning as she read the list. "Or anything else. Aren't you in any honors classes?"
"Not this year," said Kimi. "It's all about strategy. Back in middle school, when I tried to step it up and take all those gifted classes with you, I got mostly B's and C's. I figure if I just take the regular stuff, I can pull off straight A's. Good for the résumé and good enough for my parents. Plus, I'll probably have way more time after school for, you know, 'activities.' "
Emily arched an eyebrow.
"I thought you stopped going to that hip-hop dance class."
"Some people's bones just aren't made to pop and lock, okay? I was actually thinking something more along the lines of flirting with hot guys at the mall," said Kimi. "You want to head over there after school?"
"I wish I could. But, you know, swimming. Besides, I don't have time for guys. I barely have time to text back and forth with you."
"Everyone has time for guys," said Kimi. "I mean, come on! Homecoming is only, like, two and a half months away. Then there's the winter formal two months after that. Not to mention prom in eight months—and that means getting a junior or senior to invite you. We're practically behind schedule already!"
"Me at a dance? You're kidding, right? You have met my dad." It was true that Emily's dad had set an outright ban on her dating, much less going to dances, until she was in college. Not that it really mattered: Between school, swim practice, and homework, Emily's schedule was booked for the next four years anyway.
"Your dad, huh?" Kimi asked. "I just thought that now that we're in high school, you might want to stop living like a nun."
"I have a great system with guys," said Emily. "I don't have time for them, and they're not interested in me."
"Sounds to me like you just haven't met the right one," said Kimi. "But we'll work on that."
"Okay," said Emily, eager to end the conversation. "I'd better get to class—if I can find it."
Kimi looked over Emily's schedule and wrinkled her brow.
"Hm… room 246B? That's probably on the second floor of the library building. Too bad. It looks like we're going in opposite directions. I'm headed down that hall over there."
"Our homerooms aren't even in the same building?" Emily felt a wave of panic rising in her.
"Relax," said Kimi. "There's a map on the back of your schedule. Just follow that and you'll be fine."
Unfortunately, Emily's journey to room 246B proved to be slightly more perilous than Kimi had predicted. Emily was halfway across the parking lot when she realized she'd been holding her map upside down and had to circle back. By that time, the first bell of the day had rung, and the halls were mostly empty.
Once she got to the library building, Emily's luck didn't get much better. The signs indicating where each classroom was located were all outdated, missing, or simply wrong, and she was forced to check every door, hoping she'd finally find the right one.
She was beginning to think she'd never get to room 246B when she bumped into a pretty redheaded girl dressed in a knee-length black skirt with matching leggings and a white tailored blouse. Rather than a backpack, the girl carried an elegant black leather handbag. Maybe Kimi's first-day outfit wasn't as out of place as Emily had thought.
"You look almost as lost as I am," said the redhead. "Which room are you looking for?"
"Well, then we're both in the same boat," said the girl, offering her hand. "I'm Alicia, by the way."
"I'm Emily." Given Alicia's sophisticated clothes and bag, Emily would never have pegged her for a fellow lost freshman. "Are you, like, a transfer or something?"
Alicia smiled. "Something like that. Come on," she added. "I think we're almost there."
Sure enough, Emily and Alicia found their classroom a few doors down. As they walked inside, Emily turned to Alicia and asked, "Want to sit together?"
Alicia smiled again. "Unfortunately, I can't."
Can't? thought Emily as she took a seat near the front of the room. Then, as she settled into her chair and looked up, she saw Alicia walk up to the whiteboard and write her full name: ALICIA PREZ.
"Apologies for my tardiness," Alicia said, turning back to the class. "They've literally moved my classroom four times in the last week as we've been getting ready for the new year. Trust me when I say that I arrived thirty minutes early in 246A."
The other students in the class chuckled as Emily cringed. She couldn't believe it. One class in, and she'd already completely embarrassed herself in front of her teacher. Are you, like, a transfer or something? She slunk low in her chair as if trying to hide from Alicia's gaze.
"Now," said Alicia, "a few ground rules for homeroom. One, you are permitted to call me Alicia or Ms. Prez, depending on your personal preference. Two, this is your homeroom—the place where you come to check in, tell me how you're doing, and complain about your other classes. Juicy gossip on the rest of the faculty is appreciated and even welcomed. It's my first year here, so I'm going to need all the ammunition I can get."
"Do you have a boyfriend?!" someone shouted from the back of the classroom, and Alicia's eyes suddenly went cold.
"Right. Number three: I may look like some starry-eyed innocent fresh out of grad school, but allow me to assure you that this kitty has fangs. Any more comments like that, and you may just find yourself transferred to homeroom with Mr. Upton—his first class of the year always starts with an informative scared-straight talk with some very nice felons who I'm sure would love to meet you."
There wasn't another peep out of the class.
"Excellent," said Alicia. "I just know this is going to be an awesome year."
The girl next to Emily turned to a black-haired guy behind her and whispered, "I want to be her."
Emily couldn't help but agree.
The rest of the morning passed smoothly. Almost too smoothly. Since Emily's run-in with Dominique and Lindsay that morning, no one bothered her about her clothes, her hair, or her stupid ID. In fact, no one paid attention to her at all. She kept an eye out for Nick Brown, but because he was a senior, it was unlikely they'd share any classes. She just had to be on alert in the hallways during period changes.
In Geometry, Emily breezed through the practice problems that Mr. Gibbs presented as "a taste of what's to come," but she didn't make a big deal about finishing them in five minutes like Deependu Mahajan or Eric Erickson. She sat in the back, calmly checking her work until Mr. Gibbs announced the answers.
In English, she tried to talk to Bryce Holmgren, Tony Kan, and a couple of the other guys she knew from the swim team, but after a quick hello they turned around and started chatting up Linda Byrne and Paula de Veer, whose mouths shimmered with lip gloss.
"You going to Ben Kale's place this Friday?" Tony asked the girls. "His parties are supposed to be legendary."
"Ben Kale? I thought he got expelled last year," said Paula.
"Just suspended," said Tony. "He's totally back with a vengeance."
"You think you can get us into his party?" asked Linda.
"For sure," said Tony. "Hot girls are always welcome."
Paula and Linda giggled, blushed, and said they'd "think about it," which meant they'd definitely be there. The guys didn't bother inviting Emily, not that she could go anyway. Still, she thought, they could have at least asked.
As she went from class to class, Emily felt like a visitor, an impostor, a middle schooler, or a narc trying unsuccessfully to infiltrate the high school. She stared at the older girls' dark skinny jeans or short dresses and at their arms wrapped around boyfriends in varsity jackets.
In an attempt to reassure herself, she tried to count the other girls wearing sneakers, but they seemed just as lost as she was, shuffling through the halls with their eyes on the gray tiled floor, holding their books tight against their chests, darting right and left to avoid physical contact—especially with guys.
At lunch, Emily sat with Kimi at a table in a corner of the cafeteria, where she would be able to spot Nick Brown or Dominique before they noticed her. Most tables at the edges of the cafeteria were either uninhabited or populated by pockets of nerds and outcasts, scrubby skaters, and geeks with long white boxes of gaming cards.
At the table to the left of Kimi and Emily, a pair of boys as pale as vampires rolled dice and pretended they were medieval warriors. One wore a T-shirt that read GAME GEEK across the chest. His questionably cooler friend had a Spider-Man backpack.
The next layer of tables in was filled with band and drama geeks who weren't necessarily popular but formed a large-enough contingent that no one messed with them. Then there were the preps, the dumber jocks, some of the more clean-cut skaters and punks, and the cooler half of the emo crowd—kids on the edge of popularity. And just past them, deep in the heart of the cafeteria, was the center table.
To understand the center table meant viewing Twin Branches High as a solar system. The nerds inhabited the icy asteroids on the farthest reaches. Then, as you got closer to the middle, the planets became larger, warmer, and more desirable—until finally you reached the sun, the bright center, the spot where only the most popular kids dared to sit: the center table.
The center table stood in the middle of the cafeteria beneath a massive skylight that bathed it in intense sunbeams, even on cloudy days. Unlike the long picnic-style tables that made up most of the cafeteria's furniture, the center table was circular and surrounded by an elegant, curved bench. Seating was limited, and upperclassmen tended to take up most of the space, but Dominique and Lindsay sat there flashing their perfect smiles at the cute boys who surrounded them. Emily tried not to look.
"Let me guess, a dark elf thief and a human cleric?" asked a small, plump, dark-skinned boy from the table to their right. "I can always spot fellow gamers."
"I don't—um, steal things," said Emily, slightly confused.
"Forgive Amir," said a tall, lanky guy with a serious computer tan and wearing a Batman T-shirt. "He's not used to conversations with actual females. We were just curious if you want to sit with us—since we're stuck together here in the outer reaches, you know? I'm Kevin, by the way. Kevin Delucca."
"Uh, sure—" Emily started, before Kimi cut her off.
"Actually, we have some private matters to discuss," she said.
As the boys returned to their game, Emily leaned over and whispered to Kimi, "What's up with you? They seemed like nice guys."
"Emily, Emily, Emily. Don't be so naïve. Right now, as freshmen, we're a fresh commodity here. Sure, we're not popular yet, but I'd like to think that one day we could be. If we start hanging out with guys like that, it's never going to happen. We'll be branded nerd girls for life."
"Okay," said Emily, though she didn't quite buy the logic. "I'm too hungry to talk much anyway."
While Kimi sat beside her nibbling on half a bagel and some cottage cheese, Emily pulled out her lunch: yogurt, a whey protein shake, orange juice, half a loaf of whole-wheat bread smeared with almond butter, Muscle Milk, a tin of almonds, a sack of vitamins, raisins, two bananas, and a package of thin-sliced turkey. Laid out in front of her, the food took up almost a third of their cafeteria table. Luckily, no one else was sitting with them.
"You sure you don't want a couple of pizzas to go with that?" asked Kimi, her eyes big.
"I guess I'm not that hungry," said Emily, smiling. "I had a big breakfast."
"I bet you did," said Kimi, savoring half a spoonful of cottage cheese. "How many calories a day are you up to now?"
"Eight thousand. But you should see the guy swimmers eat. I mean, most people don't regulate their percentages of carbs, proteins, and fats correctly. You'd be surprised how even at the Olympic level a lot of the guys are just eating deep-fried turkeys and cheese sandwiches. Some of them eat, like, twelve thousand or thirteen thousand calories a day, which is probably on the high end of what they should be—"
"Oh yeah," interrupted Kimi. "That would be a lot. I mean, eight thousand calories is barely anything—for a polar bear. It's so unfair. If I even eat, like, two extra cookies, my jeans don't fit anymore. My mom says our family has slow metab—"
"Eat! Eat! Eat! Eat!"
At the center table, a group of junior and senior guys had formed a circle around Dominique and were shouting encouragement as she ate. She actually was wolfing down two pizzas. As she got to the last couple of slices, the guys continued chanting: "Dominique! Dominique!"
Emily rolled her eyes. Show-off. Dominique had been hanging out with older kids—especially guys—ever since she'd come to town. Her older half brother, Cameron, swam for the guys' team, providing Dominique with an easy introduction to many of his teammates, who were among the most popular guys at school.
Cameron himself was more of a loner, a strong swimmer with a near-perfect body that left girls tripping over their own tongues. Even Emily, who heard barely any gossip, knew he'd dated half of the popular girls and hooked up with the rest. Today, he sat watching Dominique's performance with a wry smile, even as his friends cheered her on.
As Dominique finished the last slice, the crowd applauded and held up the empty pizza boxes for the rest of the cafeteria to see. A couple of the guys peeled off from the crowd and walked away, talking to each other. One was huge, his tight blue T-shirt straining to contain his bulky muscles. He also had the worst haircut in the world: a terrible buzz cut with the words GO LIZARDS shaved into the back, stretching from ear to ear.
- "Snappy dialogue [and] adorable chemistry..."—Kirkus
- "The story moves along at a compulsively readable pace. Teens will want to clear their calendars after they start this one."—SLJ
- On Sale
- Sep 4, 2012
- Page Count
- 224 pages