Cruel Intentions meets Gossip Girl in All These Beautiful Strangers. Read on for the opening chapter from Elizabeth Klehfoth's novel.
Cruel Intentions meets Gossip Girl in All These Beautiful Strangers. Read on for the opening chapter from Elizabeth Klehfoth's novel.
My father built the house on Langely Lake for my mother, in the town she grew up in. It was a hundred miles from the glassy skyscrapers my father built in the city, and a world away from the Calloway family name and money and penthouse on the Upper East Side.
The house on Langely Lake looked unlike any of the other houses in town, with their graying vinyl siding and slouching carports. No, the house on Langely Lake wasn’t a house at all. It was a fortress three stories tall, built of stone, with a thick fence and impenetrable hedges all the way around.
When I was a little girl, we spent our summers in that fortress. I remember slumber parties in a tent on the back lawn and afternoons spent sunning on the raft just off shore. I remember tall glasses of lemonade sweating on the patio and the sundresses my mother wore and her wide brimmed hats.
Once I thought my father had built that house to keep everyone else out, but then my uncle Hank found the photographs. They were in a shoe box, hidden under a loose floorboard in my parents’ bedroom. They were taken that summer, 2007, a few weeks before my mother disappeared. I saw the photographs and I realized I had been wrong about everything.
Because my father hadn’t built the house on Langely Lake to keep everyone else out. He’d built it to keep us in.
It all started that morning with a note, printed on thick card stock, no bigger than a business card.
Good morning, good day, some say, “Salut.” Herein lies a formal invitation, just for you.
Forgive the anonymity of the sender, but you know who we are.
And we’re big admirers of yours, from afar.
We’re the opposite of the Omega, the furthest from the end, Follow this clue to find us; we’re eager to begin.
The note was balanced on top of Knollwood Augustus Prep’s “Welcome Back!” flyer, printed in the school’s royal blue and gold colors, which announced that Club Day would be held in Healy Quad on Friday afternoon and encouraged every student to attend. This was followed by a list of all of Knollwood Prep’s student clubs and organizations. At the bottom, in delicate gold lettering, was the school’s mission statement to “foster students whose exacting inquiry and independence of thought drive them to excellence both inside and outside of the classroom.”
I might have missed the card stock note altogether if it hadn’t fluttered to the ground as I removed the flyer from my mailbox in the entrance to Rosewood Hall, the girls’ dormitory for upperclassmen. My heart stopped when I saw the note, for the first part—the sender—wasn’t difficult to figure out. You know who we are . . . We’re the opposite of the Omega, the furthest from the end. It was the A’s—the only club not listed on Knollwood Prep’s flyer and, in my mind, the only club worth joining.
It was the second part of the note I puzzled over as I sat in Mr. Andrews’s Introduction to Photography class. Normally, I couldn’t have gotten away with zoning out in class like that. Every class at Knollwood Prep was supposed to follow the Harkness method, meaning we all sat around a table facing each other, and we were expected to participate in the discussion with minimal intervention from our instructor. Some instructors even kept a notebook with every student’s name, and they would put a little tally mark next to our names as we talked. If, at the end of class, your name didn’t have a satisfactory number of tally marks next to it, they would send you a little note saying something like, We missed your voice in class today. Or, When not everyone speaks up, we all lose. Or, my personal favorite, You miss one hundred percent of the discussions that you don’t initiate.
But Mr. Andrews was new, just out of college, and he was much more lax than the other teachers. His Introduction to Photography class had been the most soughtafter arts elective this semester, not because of the subject matter, but because Mr. Andrews was, well, hot. He had that dark, rugged hipster thing going for him—flannel button downs that he didn’t tuck in; beanies to hide dark, unwashed hair; liquid brown eyes rimmed with babydoll lashes longer than my own. Also, he had a distinct edge over most Knollwood Prep boys—he could grow facial hair. He always had a perfect five o’clock shadow cloaking his well defined cheek bones.
Today, Mr. Andrews hadn’t come in with thick packets of photography theory for us to parse; instead, he came in with a nicelooking camera with a very long lens, which he passed around to all of us.
“This is called a telephoto lens,” Mr. Andrews said. “It produces a unique optical effect, which can create the illusion that two subjects separated by a great distance are actually very close. It’s a powerful tool for capturing candid moments when you can’t get physically close to your subject.”
He clicked a button on his laptop and a photo of a lion lounging in an African jungle displayed on the projector screen in front of the class.
“One of the most obvious examples of this is in wildlife photography or sports photography,” Mr. Andrews went on. “The photographer would physically be in danger if he or she were close to, say, a lion, or a professional baseball player up to bat. However, another, less obvious use is street photography, where an artist needs distance not for safety but to preserve the candidness of the shot.”
He clicked another button on his laptop and this time a photograph of a young woman and her child on a busy New York street filled the screen.
As he spoke, I stared down at the camera in my lap and fiddled with the zoom. I puzzled over the second half of the A’s riddle.
I have a head but never weep. I have a bed but never sleep. I can run but never walk.
Come meet me after dark.
The “when” was obvious enough—tonight after curfew. But the “where” was a giant question mark. What place had a head? Could it be a play on the headmaster’s office? Was the next line—I have a bed but never sleep—some riff on Headmaster Collins’s vigilance? Maybe, but I couldn’t make the next line fit with that. Okay, so what place had a bed? Like, bedrock? Could it be talking about the quarries?
Something hard nudged my shin underneath the table and I looked up to see Royce Dalton, the most popular boy in the senior class, giving me a look from across the table. I was slow to catch on, but then he cleared his throat and glanced at Mr. Andrews, and I realized the whole class was quietly and expectantly looking at me. I sat up in my seat and set down the camera.
“That’s an excellent question,” I said slowly and deliberately as I racked my brain for what Mr. Andrews could have possibly asked me, or a tangent I could lead him on to distract him from the fact that I hadn’t been paying attention.
My eye caught on the screen in front of the class, on the picture of the woman and her child. The child was upset, and the woman had stopped; she was bending down so that she was eye-level with the little boy. She was reaching out, about to tuck a strand of the child’s hair behind his ear, to comfort him. I hadn’t noticed at first, but the woman appeared distraught as well. It made me wonder what had happened just before the picture had been snapped, and what had happened after. It was jarring to me that the photographer had captured this private, painful moment and put it on display for everyone to see. There was an illusion of being close, when the photographer was actually far away—not just physically, but emotionally as well. The photographer remained safe and protected, while displaying this vulnerable moment to the world for observation, for art.
“This may be a little off topic,” I said, “but your discussion of street photography got me thinking. I guess I understand the necessity of distance to capture the truth of a moment. But it seems ironic that in order to capture truth, you have to be duplicitous. Distance allows the subject to act naturally precisely because the subject doesn’t know they’re being watched. I guess, in the end, that raises an ethical question for me. Is that art—or an invasion of privacy? I’m curious to hear your take on that. I apologize if I’m jumping ahead.”
This was a defense mechanism I had learned a long time ago: 1) String enough buzzwords together to make it seem like you were paying attention. 2) Admit that your comment might be tangential to cover your bases. 3) Deflect with another question. With some teachers, the more tangential, the better, actually, because it made it seem like you were really considering the topic at hand. 4) End with a backhanded apology that hinted that your intellectual curiosity was leaps and bounds ahead of the pace of instruction. Suddenly, you weren’t the slacker zoning out in class; you were the deep thinker ahead of the game.
Mr. Andrews looked a little surprised by my deflection. “Hmm . . . interesting question, Miss . . . ?” he said.
It was almost endearing that he hadn’t bothered to memorize our names from the course roster over the summer.
“Calloway,” I said. “Charlie Calloway.”
A flicker of recognition lit up his eyes at my name and there was a slight pause, just a hair longer than was appropriate. That was a common response when I met people. I could see the gears clicking in their brains. Not one of those Calloways, surely? She’s not the girl whose mother . . . well . . . Poor thing. I could tell they always wanted to ask, but they rarely did.
“Miss Calloway,” Mr. Andrews said, his hand stroking his bearded chin as he considered my question. “Ethics and art. That’s always an interesting discussion.”
As Mr. Andrews started off again, I looked across the table at Dalton, who subtly lifted his finger to his lips like a cocked gun and blew at the imaginary smoky tip of the barrel. Killed it.
Thanks, I mouthed silently to him, and he gave me a conspiratorial wink.
The sky outside the dining hall was beginning to darken. There were only three hours left until curfew and I still hadn’t figured out the A’s riddle for the meeting place. The closest I had come were the old quarries about half an hour from campus. They were abandoned and had flooded with rainwater years ago, and sometimes in the late spring or early fall, Knollwood Prestudents would go up there on weekends. The brave ones would jump off the rocks and the lazy ones would drape themselves along the sides and sunbathe. I could easily imagine the quarry as a meeting place for the A’s, could even see some kind of initiation ritual that involved catapulting oneself off the highest rock in a pitchblack night when the lake was all but invisible below, but I couldn’t make all of the lines of the riddle fit.
As I turned the riddle over and over in my mind, I picked at the smoked salmon Alfredo on my plate and pretended that my mouth was full every time Stevie Sorantos asked me what her campaign slogan should be. She was running for treasurer of the student council—again—and she was harassing all of us into contributing a pithy line that would catapult her to the top of the polls.
“How about ‘Vote for me, or whatever,’” Drew offered, tossing her thick mane of dirtyblond corkscrew curls over her shoulder. “DGAF is today’s YOLO.”
“I like it,” Yael said. “Commanding yet disaffected. Playing hard to get.”
“It certainly works with the menfolk,” Drew said, wiggling her thick eyebrows at all of us.
“But I don’t want people to think I don’t care,” Stevie said, a hint of exasperation in her voice.
I rolled my eyes at Drew, who took a giant bite of her dinner roll to keep from laughing. As if anyone would ever think that Stevie Sorantos didn’t care.
Sometimes—okay, often—Stevie grated on my nerves because she just tried too damn hard. Treasurer of the student council. President of the Student Ethics Board. Always the first to shoot her hand into the air when an instructor asked a question. Once I caught her in the bathroom, eyes raw and puffy and wailing like her dog had just died because she had gotten a B+ on a lab report. More than once I had considered grinding Ambien into her water bottle just so she would be forced to chill the fuck out.
I knew why she was like that, of course. We all did. Stevie was a scholarship student, not that she ever told us this, and not that we ever talked about it. Knollwood Prep tried hard to eliminate socioeconomic distinctions with uniforms, and free tuition, MacBooks, and iPads for students who needed aid. But try as they might, Knollwood Prep couldn’t erase where we came from. Stevie didn’t wear the Cartier bracelets that we did; she didn’t have a YSL backpack or, well, brandname anything. Her family never went on vacation. She didn’t have a car. But none of these things gave Stevie away quite so much as her blatant eagerness to prove that she belonged. It was exhausting, and it missed the mark altogether. Because the only thing that mattered to the people who mattered was acting like nothing really mattered. As paradoxical as that was.
“Come on, Charlie,” Stevie said as I took another bite that I pretended was too big to talk over. “You always have the best ideas.”
“Hey now,” Drew said, pointing the asparagusloaded prongs of her fork at Stevie. “What about my idea? That shit is gold.”
Freshman year I had talked Stevie into doing a Sopranos themed campaign. Yael took these great blackandwhite photos of Stevie, one of her dressed up in a suit and sunglasses, another with Stevie in an upholstered armchair, a cigar hanging out of the side of her mouth and a cloud of smoke ballooning in the air. Drew and I blew the pictures up to posterboard size and put Tony Soprano quotes across the front:
“A wrong decision is better than indecision.”
“Well seeing as you called me up here, I might as well tell you . . . I’m in charge now.”
“All due respect, you got no f****** idea what it’s like to be number one.”
In the bottom righthand corner, in bold red letters that mimicked the title card of the show, we wrote: Vote Sorantos. All of the other candidates had gone the serious route with posters spewing platitudes, or worse—making some pun off their name. Stevie won by a landslide.
“Fine,” I said because I saw I had no other choice. “How about, ‘I’ve been doing this job for two years now. If you don’t think I’m qualified, go fuck yourself.’”
Yael pretended to consider it. “So much subtlety and finesse,” she said. “But is it too sophisticated?”
Stevie set her milk down on her tray so hard that it sloshed over the sides of the glass. I looked down and saw white pearls of milk dotting my sleeve.
“I see even pretending to take this seriously is too much to ask,” Stevie said, slinging her cheap Target bag over her shoulder and standing up.
“Stevie—” Yael started.
“I’m going to the library,” Stevie said, and headed off toward the far end of the dining hall, her bag bouncing against her back with every purposeful stride she took.
Yael sighed and gathered her things, giving Drew and me an exasperated smile.
“DEFCON Three,” she said. “I’ll run damage control.” “Now I feel bad,” Drew said when Yael was gone. “But I was serious about my DGAF idea.”
I shrugged and grabbed a napkin to dry my sleeve.
Stevie and Yael were my friends by default only—mainly because they were always around Drew, and Drew and I were always together. We ate our meals together, we sat next to one another in class, we spent long hours hanging out in the common room before curfew, and we shared a room. So, I made an effort with them—I went sailing with Yael’s family over the summer when our families were in Martha’s Vineyard at the same time. I invited Stevie to spend Thanksgiving with my family in Greenwich, since I knew the plane ticket to spend the holiday with her own family in Ohio was too expensive and she would have been stuck on an empty campus alone. I got along with them all right (most of the time, anyway), and I liked them okay, but we didn’t click the way Drew and I clicked. She and I just got each other.
Drew and I had been serendipitously placed together in the same dorm room freshman year with another girl we loathed named River, who never shaved and didn’t believe in deodorant, table salt, or listening to her folk music at a courteous volume. Apparently, she didn’t believe in studying either, because she was gone by the next semester. Living with River was like being hazed, and Drew and I had gone through it together. It had created an unbreakable bond.
Now I eyed Drew as she chewed animatedly and talked about the upcoming volleyball meet against our rival, Xavier.
I tried to ask her without asking her: Did you get one too? Did the A’s pick you? Because I couldn’t, well, just ask.
“What?” she said, and I realized too late that my attempts at telepathy had resulted in creepy hardcore staring. “Do I have something on my face?”
“Yeah, some sauce, just here,” I lied, pointing to a spot on my own chin for reference.
“Thanks,” Drew said, dabbing the corresponding spot on her chin with her napkin.
It was hopeless. Drew had an impenetrable poker face. So, I scanned the dining hall for my cousin Leo instead. Leo was two months my junior, but you’d never have guessed it by the way he loomed over me at six foot two. You also wouldn’t know we were cousins based solely off appearance. Leo had the traditional Calloway good looks; he was all bright turquoise eyes, goldenblond hair, and distinguished cheekbones. I, on the other hand, looked like my mother. I got her dark brown hair and wide gray eyes and pale, translucent skin, her short stature. This was a ring of hell that Dante had not imagined: looking in the mirror every day and seeing the one person you wanted most desperately to forget.
I spotted Leo two tables away, sitting next to Dalton and a mix of other popular junior and senior boys. His hair was still wet from his postfootballpractice shower and it hung down into his eyes slightly as he leaned forward to say something to his friends. I knew just by looking at him that he had been tapped by the A’s—I didn’t even have to ask. I saw it in the way he smiled that cocky, lopsided smile of his, the one that made the dimples peek out of his left cheek. Leo and I had always had an uncanny ability to read one another, a result of his seeing me through the hellfire that was my childhood. Leo had been the one to save me in the end, or at least, he had been the one to show me how to save myself.
“Shit,” Drew said. She had knocked over her water glass. The water spilled everywhere, running off the side of the table. I picked up my napkin and started to dab at the mess as Drew righted her glass.
“Your bag,” Drew said, and I pulled it off the table just before the spill reached it.
And then, it clicked. That was it. I knew where the A’s were meeting that night.
“I’m sorry,” Drew said. “I’m such a klutz.”
“No, thank you,” I said, without really thinking. “What?”
“Uh, nothing,” I said. “I meant, it’s no big deal.”
Curfew at Knollwood Prep was nine o’clock on weeknights. Normally Drew and I hung out in the common room until as late as possible, and then we’d sit up for hours at our desks finishing our readings or assignments and talking. But tonight, we both turned in early. I lay in bed and stared at the ceiling in the dark, trying to tell from Drew’s breathing if she had fallen asleep across the room and wondering how I would sneak out of our window without waking her.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the A’s.
Knollwood Prep had four types of club: the athletic, the academic, the special interest, and the, well, ridiculous (see the Cheese Club, where they sat around and, you guessed it, ate cheese). Being in these clubs meant silly rituals, or sweaty practices in the gymnasium doing suicides across the court in some primitive drive to prove your physical prowess, or meetings where you sat around a buzzer and answered questions while an elected secretary kept inanely detailed minutes. These clubs had meets with other schools and held events like bake sales or car washes to raise money for the local women’s shelter. At Knollwood Prep, you were expected to collect these clubs like trinkets on a charm bracelet so that on your college application you could say that not only did you get a rigorous academic education at one of the top preparatory schools in the country, but you were also a contributing member of your community, and were—that buzzword college admissions officers salivated over—“well rounded.”
But being in the A’s wasn’t something you could put on your college application. It wasn’t even something you could, well, tell anyone about. The A’s didn’t do bake sales or car washes; they didn’t involve cleats or sweating; and they most certainly didn’t have a secretary keeping minutes.
Last year, when the new dean of arts tried to make a Saturdaymorning culturalenrichment class mandatory, the A’s unleashed a smear campaign so vicious that the dean was gone by the end of fall semester. In the end, no one “knew” how the dean’s scandalous emails with a fifteenyearold girl with daddy issues from Maine had leaked to every student, administrator, and faculty member on Knollwood Prep’s LISTSERV, but everyone “knew” that the A’s were somehow behind it. While the headmaster had launched an investigation into this breach of school security, in the end he could do little but applaud that this indecent man was exposed and send him packing, effectively putting an end to those dreaded classes and preserving our precious Saturday mornings for the sacred act of sleeping in.
The A’s were the reason we had NoUniform Fridays, singleroom dorms for seniors, and a prom so decadent it was sometimes mentioned on Page Six. No one knew what dark form of blackmail, bribery, or manipulation went into acquiring these beloved rights and traditions, but everyone knew the A’s were behind them. The A’s could also get you out of some sticky situations. My freshman year, Celeste Lee, a supposed A, got in a fight with Stephanie Matthews in the girls’ restroom on the second floor of the science building and gave her a bloody nose. Celeste would have gotten suspended if Stephanie reported her to the administration. No one knows for sure what sort of arm twisting the A’s did behind closed doors, but when the headmaster called Stephanie into his office later that afternoon, she kept her mouth shut.
The A’s reach went beyond Knollwood Prep. It was rumored they had key players on the admissions boards of all the Ivy Leagues and Seven Sisters, and that their influence could get you in the door at the Fortune 500 company of your choosing after college graduation.
The A’s were something everyone knew about without really knowing anything about them. There was no way of even knowing who the A’s were, really, unless you were one of them. Because unlike all of the other clubs at Knollwood Prep, you didn’t choose to be in the A’s. The A’s chose you.
Drew called out my name softly in the dark, just loud enough for me to hear if I was awake but not loud enough to wake me if I was asleep.
I debated answering but eventually said, “Yeah?”
She sat up and flicked on the light. “Just say it already,” she said.
“Do you have somewhere to be tonight?” “Maybe,” I said.
“Thank god,” Drew said. She climbed out of bed and crossed the room to her closet. “I’ve been watching you all day to see if you had gotten one too, because I couldn’t just ask,” she said as she pulled on a pair of thick black leggings and boots.
“Who else do you think got in?” I asked as I dragged myself out of bed and started to rummage through my own closet. What did one wear to a latenight rendezvous with the most notorious secret society on campus? I decided on a pair of dark skinny jeans, my Keds, a black tank with oversized armholes, and a hoodie.
“I’ll throw myself off the Ledge if Marissa Wentworth got in,” Drew said.
So she had figured out the riddle. What has a head but never weeps? What has a bed but never sleeps? What runs but never walks? A river, of course. The A’s were meeting at the Ledge above Spalding River. People called it the Ledge because that’s what it was—a clearing in the woods off the county road that looked over a steep ravine and the river below.
“Marissa Wentworth is not A material,” I said. “They want someone with an edge. Someone who isn’t afraid to get their hands dirty.”
“Do you think Leo got in?” Drew asked. “Of course Leo got in.”
“He told you?”
“Not in so many words,” I said. “But come on, what world do we live in that Leo wouldn’t get in?”
“True,” Drew said, rolling her eyes.
Drew and Leo had dated for two seconds during our freshman year, which was about twice as long as Leo had been with anyone. It had ended how all of Leo’s trysts ended: badly. Still, even though Drew wasn’t Leo’s biggest fan, she had to admit that Leo was an obvious choice for the A’s.
Leo put an unconscionable amount of thought into everything he did, so it wouldn’t be right to say he was “effortlessly” cool—though something about the way he carried himself did evoke that word. Leo wore his hair slicked back from his forehead. He always dressed nicely—tailored jeans and Vneck tees that were fashionably distressed and sleek leather jackets. Leo exuded a confidence that made whatever he did seem cool. It would have been pointless to tease him about anything, because Leo thought more of himself than anyone I’d ever met, besides perhaps my grandfather.
One after the other, Drew and I slipped out of our second floor dormitory window into the thick arms of the elm that towered over Rosewood Hall dormitory. We lowered ourselves into the deep V of its trunk. Neither of us were strangers to forbidden latenight excursions.
In the Rosewood Hall parking lot, Drew turned her headlights off and shifted her BMW into neutral. Together we pushed the car to the road, only jumping in when we were sure we weren’t in danger of waking Ms. Stanfeld, our housemother, who lived in an apartment on the ground floor of the dormitories.
When we were far enough down the road, Drew opened her sunroof and howled at the moon. I laughed and put my arm out the window, fanning my fingers to catch the damp night air as it slid past.
We didn’t talk about what was happening or what was to come. We didn’t speculate about what the A’s would make us do to become one of them, even though we both knew that whatever it was, it would not be easy. Instead, we exuded an attitude of cool nonchalance and pretended we were neither excited nor terrified, when we were both.