By Lane Clarke
Formats and Prices
High school junior Michie is struggling to answer the question of who she is for her scholarship essays, the only chance she has at making it into Brown as a first-generation college student. The essay prompts would be hard for anyone, but since Michie's been estranged from her mother since she was seven, her concept of family has long felt murky.
Enter new kid and basketball superstar Derek de la Rosa, an instant crush who sends Michie's focus into a tailspin. At their teacher's suggestion, Derek enlists Michie as a tutor to help him catch up in Spanish class, turning life upside down. Because Derek? He is very cute, very talented, very popular, and very much has his eye on Michie, no matter how invisible she believes herself to be.
When Michie's mother unexpectedly reaches out to make amends, and with her scholarship deadlines looming, Michie will have to decide if she wants to reopen old wounds or close the door on her past once and for all. And as she spends more time with Derek, she will have to figure out how close she can risk getting to him, and how much of her heart she is willing to share. Because while Michie may not know who she is, she's starting to realize who she wants to become, if only she can take a chance on Derek, on herself, and on her future.
THE ILLUSTRIOUS AALIYAH, MAY SHE REST IN PEACE, ONCE said, If at first you don’t succeed, dust yourself off and try again, try again. Well, no offense to Aaliyah, but I say, if at first you don’t succeed, save yourself the heartache and give up. And if my good sis had been writing a scholarship essay for her dream college, I’m sure she would have agreed with me.
I glance at my blank computer screen. The cursor blinks steady and strong, like a healthy heart, knowing it can run in this race far longer than I can.
The mostly rotten wooden floors of our apartment creak under Grandma’s feet. She tries to be quiet in the mornings, on account of the fact that I sleep like a wind chime, easily disturbed. But our apartment yawns loudly as it stretches beneath us.
She knocks twice on my bedroom door, entering before I respond. Typical. I’m still in my pajamas (read: ratty old clothes too comfortable to donate but too effed up to wear out in public).
I sleep with my head at the foot of the bed because it feels safer farther from the wall. This is due to the roaches, and the water bugs, which I would happily trade for more roaches. It drives Grandma mad, but she says nothing as she finds me in that position now, my feet up against the headboard.
“What are you working on this early?” she asks. She’s already wearing her cerulean-blue scrubs and tie-dyed Crocs. Under-eye concealer that will smear off by midday hides the bags beneath her eyes. Grandma retired a long time ago but still works as a nurse’s aide to keep our heads above water. She invites herself the rest of the way into my room until she’s standing over me. From this angle, I can see the extra skin folded beneath her chin.
“Loads. Answering the questions of the universe. Why the chicken crossed the road. Who shot the deputy after Bob Marley shot the sheriff.”
She stares at me with a blank expression that barely masks her exasperation. I read her thoughts between the lines in her face, typed out in bold by her frown: Say less.
“College essay about who I am and why they should give me a truckload of money to grace them with my genius, blah, blah, blah.”
“And what’s hard about that? You know who you are?” She sits on the edge of the bed.
“I’m not sure Dear Admissions, I am the kid who definitely shouldn’t exist, but the world sucks and people suck more, so please let me into your world-renowned institution is the wave.”
She winces at my words. “You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself. I thought group was helping.”
“It is helping. It doesn’t erase what I am, though.”
Grandma put me in group therapy for children of sexual-abuse victims last summer, after a frightening downward spiral during Depressed Girl Summer earned me a 5150. My best friend, JoJo, deemed it The Incident. Basically, the hospital held me hostage so I wouldn’t play with matches or sharp objects. We affectionately call group R.P.E.—Raised as a Product of Evil—pronounced reap, like the Grim. You know, since most of us were pretty close to being on the other side before we ever took our first breath, if you catch my drift. That might seem crass, but we get to take some creative liberties, all things considered.
“You’re more than just one thing, Michie.” Grandma taps a finger against my nose.
“You have to say that. Or you go to grandma jail or something.”
She sucks her teeth before using both hands to push herself off the bed. Since her double-knee replacement, she’s not as spry as she once was, though she is young for a grandma. My mother was only fifteen when I crash-landed, so it’s not surprising.
“It’ll get better. I promise.” She begins to leave my room but then stops midway out the door. “And Michie, don’t let me catch you with your feet up on the furniture again.”
I drop my feet down in a blink.
“Lunch is in the fridge. Have a good day back,” she calls, before the front door opens and closes with a thud.
My hands type out another jumble of word soup before I give up. I slam my finger down on the delete button. That damn cursor stares back at me, flash, flash, flashing and never getting anywhere. It begs for raw honesty, the kind of trauma porn that colleges love. But I’m not ready to be that vulnerable, because the irrevocable truth is that who I am is my mother’s colossal mistake, big and bright like a supernova. She hates me with every fiber of her being. And I’m not just being extra. She’s told me so, which is pretty definitive proof. But also, she hasn’t bothered to see me or even talk to me since my seventh birthday.
I pull up Brown’s home page and stare at the smiling students (mostly white, with a token brown face here and there). It’s very “I read a lot of books” status quo of me to want to go there for college, like every other boy and girl on BookTube. I’m not reinventing the obsessed-with-literature wheel here.
But Brown, with an English Lit program I would sell my soul for, would be scared away if they really knew me. Because I am for sure a walking liability in the whole is this one most likely to crash spectacularly analysis. And I can’t scare away Brown. What began as a pit stop when visiting MIT with JoJo became the only thing I wanted. It was the first college campus I stepped foot on that felt like a fresh start. A place where I could reinvent myself. I’m not sure I deserve to be great, but if I do, there’s only one place for me to do it. Brown.
If I can get in, and even then, if I can afford to go. A lifetime’s supply of ifs.
I dig for my phone in the blankets and connect to the knockoff Bose speakers Grandma got me for Christmas. The opening beats of the playlist I put together from last year’s XXL Freshman Class bounce against the walls. I slam my laptop lid closed with a sharp snap, wincing at the sound. This MacBook cost two years’ worth of café money, and that was the secondhand eBay price. I’m dead if I break it.
I stumble to the bathroom in a rush, crashing into the old acoustic guitar I pilfered from my boss’s donation pile. The getting-dressed part of my morning routine is painless because I always wear the same thing—jeans, Converses, V-neck tee shirt. Sometimes ironic. Sometimes not. But my hair is its own beast, as I struggle to tame the curls into something manageable before I give up and pull it into a messy bun. I race down the hallway and glance at the microwave clock. Three minutes until the bus leaves me behind.
I grab my winter coat, throwing the hood over my head, no arms, and fly out of the door. My backpack is hanging from one shoulder, open like a wound as loose papers bleed out. I shove everything back in like a wartime trauma surgeon. Dr. Owen Hunt–style. I cup my hands in front of my mouth, breathing into them for warmth. My Fitbit, a Christmas gift from JoJo, flashes the time. One minute to spare. Nailed it.
A large group stands by a stop sign on the opposite side of the street from my bus stop. In the not-so-distant past, I was friends with many of them, but not anymore. Most of them don’t notice I’m here.
One smiles. Morgan Williams, a year older and the only one who acknowledges me with The Nod. I nod and smile back. She’s cool people, even if she did kind of shun me along with the rest of the neighborhood kids. Around here, school is no escape, where you’re greeted with old books and ceiling leaks. But I go to school in the suburbs, with new books and filtered water fountains and well-funded after-school activities. So I understand why I get treated like an outsider. We don’t have the same struggles anymore.
Soon an empty school bus stops in front of me. The doors pop open, rubbery edges squeaking. I smile up at the bus driver. She’s been picking me up since fourth grade, when I was first transferred out of district and enrolled in the gifted program.
“Morning, Ms. Turner,” I say, climbing up the steep steps.
“Good morning, dear,” she says, snapping the doors shut behind me.
I relax into the worn leather of my usual seat, starting my audiobook from where I paused it yesterday. Mr. Darcy is mid-first-proposal. I close my eyes as the bus jiggles beneath me, listening to the sounds of Pemberley for the next hour and a half until we pull into the empty bus bay.
The fluorescent lights in the junior hall buzz overhead as I rush to my locker. As is typical, the bus got in just late enough to require a light jog to first period—AP US History, or APUSH. Everyone else moves in slow motion, sullen and zombielike. All courtesy of the March SAT in a couple of months. Thank God, I took it this past October for the first and last time.
“Boo,” a voice clamors over my shoulder as I yank my locker open.
I yelp, almost slamming the door shut on my fingers. Joanna Kaplan, JoJo if you don’t want to die, both brilliant and beautiful, leans onto the wall of metal lockers. It’s like having a best friend who is equal parts Mila Kunis and Merriam-Webster.
“Jesus, Jo,” I wheeze, holding my hand to my chest. “You almost gave me a coronary.”
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means,” she deadpans, quoting one of our favorite films, The Princess Bride. “No one can give you a coronary. A coronary thrombosis, perhaps. Clogged arteries from too much red meat and few vegetables.” She raises an eyebrow brimming with accusation.
I roll my eyes. “I eat plenty healthy.”
“Candy corn is not a vegetable, Michie.”
I give her the closed-mouth smile older white women give me when my hair is especially big and I look more Black and less racially ambiguous.
She waits for me to close my locker before looping her arm through mine and pulling me toward class. The history department has its own wing in the back of the building.
“Quiz me,” she demands, squeezing my arm. JoJo is one of the juniors retaking the SAT in March. But while everyone else resembles The Walking Dead cast members, JoJo looks like one of those trophy girls at the Golden Globes—curled jet-black hair, contoured cheekbones, and winged liner that makes her green eyes pop. Though genetics have also dealt her a pretty stacked hand. Her mom was Miss Virginia when Persian women were still spit at. Not that they aren’t still.
I groan but acquiesce, calling out a list of words like a drill sergeant. I stop as we get to our desks, JoJo seated in front of me.
“I’ve studied so much with you, I could slay the test myself,” I tell her.
“Yes, you could.” She meets my eyes. “A 1300 is not getting you into Brown.”
She’s not wrong. It’s too low of a score for Brown but fine for most Virginia colleges, which is all that matters realistically, and financially. Especially if I can’t write a single scholarship essay without banging my head against a wall.
“That’s still the goal, right?” she asks.
I fiddle with the notebook in front of me, my notes from last night’s quiz prep handwritten like type font. “Brown isn’t even a real thing,” I mumble.
“Of course it’s real,” she says. “You, me, tearing up the East Coast fifty miles apart. Whatever we need to do to make it happen, remember? You’ve got the grades; you just need the grit.”
And the money. But I don’t expect her to appreciate the height of that hurdle. JoJo is toss out a full drink because it’s too cold to carry to the car rich. Oh, and schools have been throwing cash at her since she won an international collegiate robotics competition. When we were fourteen. She’s pretty much had a guaranteed full-ride spot at MIT since we were prepubescent. She, quite literally, cannot relate.
“All right, everyone. Let’s get started,” Ms. Yancey says from the front of the room, passing out quizzes for us to hand back.
JoJo spins to face forward, the topic dropped. I wish it were that easy to put behind me too.
It isn’t until I return to my locker at lunchtime that I realize my lunch is still sitting in the fridge at home. I forgot it in my rush out the door this morning. Damn it. My stomach growls mockingly as I mutter every swear word in the English language under my breath.
“Um, are you okay?”
I twist my head to find a small pixie-like blonde standing beside me with a can of Cherry Coke and a five-dollar bill in her hand.
“Sorry.” I chuckle, the sound more of a breathless snort than a laugh. “Yeah. Forgot my lunch. Low, uh, blood sugar.”
“You can buy lunch,” she says, like it’s obvious.
“Forgot my wallet,” I reply, though I don’t bring it to school on purpose in case I’m tempted to buy anything stupid, like six honey buns from the vending machines. Again.
She hands me the five dollars. By reflex, my fingers close around it.
“No, I don’t—” I sputter over my words.
“Please,” she responds, pulling her hand away like I’m a stray she wants to help but doesn’t want to touch. “You clearly need it more than me.” She glances down at my Converses, falling apart with frayed shoelaces.
She turns and I stare after her. I finally remember her name as she disappears out of sight. Brit. Short for Brita, like the water filter, she explained the first day of freshman year.
I push into the swinging cafeteria doors with a huff, the cacophony of noise bubbling out as the doors part open. I’m not sure how far five dollars goes, so I grab two bananas and a mini bottled water to be on the safe side. The woman standing behind the glass has an ice cream scooper in one hand, hovering over a platter of mashed potatoes. Each scoop makes a slurping sound, like water rushing down the pipes of an unclogged sink.
The cashier scans my school ID, waving me away with a flick of her hand. The money sits in my palm, limp. I don’t move.
“You gettin’ anythin’ else?” she drawls, whistling through spaces that once held teeth.
“Oh,” I mutter. “No. I didn’t pay yet.” I have never wanted anyone to take my money so badly.
“Free-lunch program,” she responds, her tongue tripping over the r sounds. She taps the computer, where my student account is pulled up on the screen. Balance due: N/A flashes at me like a Times Square neon sign.
My cheeks grow warm at the blatant reminder of my financial inferiority here. I stare at the five dollars like it’s venomous. The girl behind me in line drops her head down to hide a smile, or even worse, a laugh. Great, now I’ve made it a whole scene.
I retreat, crushing the bill into my pocket as if it were ticking. I’m itchy from embarrassment, ashamed that I feel ashamed. I have never considered myself free-lunch poor. And at Lee High, no one, and I mean no one, except I guess now me, gets free lunch. It’s one of the most affluent public schools in the state.
I slump down into my empty seat at the end of our table. Across from me, Gwen is on a tirade about her latest save-the-world passion project—bee endangerment. I peel a banana in silence and ignore its price tag. Zero dollars in cash, but breaking the bank in dignity.
“Okay, so I checked, and there’s a robotics tournament tonight at U of R,” JoJo says as she bites into a mini carrot. “Pick you up after work?”
“You only want to go to check out the team,” I grumble.
“I am done dating high schoolers. Amy Ferrara was a total nightmare. And Ben Haley turned me off of boys for two years and counting.” She holds up two fingers for emphasis. “Plus, I’m an old soul.”
“You just binge-watched Doc McStuffins.”
Her hand slams over my mouth. “You promised!”
Gwen stops midlecture, noticing us for the first time. “Oh, hey, are y’all going to the assembly after school?”
“Is it about honey desserts or vegan Oreos?” I ask, licking the inside of JoJo’s hand until she rips it away with a grimace.
“Oreos are already vegan,” Gwen answers.
“Barely,” JoJo says.
Gwen’s eyes narrow. She simply refuses to accept the fact that Oreos live a fraudulently vegan life since they’re cross-contacted with milk. The Scarlett Johanssen of the vegan community.
“That’s a technicality,” she responds. I don’t point out the irony of her veganism relying more on her convenience than the cold hard facts. “Anyway, no, the college fair assembly. Lee’s hosting this year, and we all get to enter a Hunger Games–esque, dog-eat-dog death match to get host assignments for each school. You work as some alum’s personal attaché for a few hours, and boom, you’ve got yourself a straight-to-Go, collect $200 card to the school of your dreams. They pretty much have instant admissions power.”
“Sounds awful. Pass.” I crack the top on my mini water bottle and gulp half of it down.
“No pass,” JoJo says. “Hosting is the Brown golden ticket. I can’t believe I forgot about it. This is it, baby. The big leagues.”
JoJo turns to Gwen, leaning forward with her elbows on the table. “We’re in. Save us two seats.” She glances at me with a raised eyebrow, challenging me.
“Fine.” I roll my eyes, but caterpillars settle in my stomach and cocoon themselves. I hope they turn to butterflies and not moths. I hope they mean something promising. Something beautiful.
VOICES COME FROM EVERY DIRECTION AS JOJO AND I move through the students crowding the auditorium’s middle aisle. Gwen waves with a large sweeping motion from the fourth row.
I apologize behind JoJo as we teeter-totter over everyone’s laps to get to our seats, praying I don’t pass gas in anyone’s face. I think I’ve endured enough back-to-school embarrassment for one, or two, or even three lifetimes.
A large projection screen hangs in the center of the stage. 2022 RICHMOND COLLEGE FAIR sits in large letters in front of geometric shapes. Robert E. Lee High School (yeah, I know… welcome to Richmond, folks) is in script at the bottom. For such an allegedly fancy affair, the presentation is giving me clip art.
Principal Hamil approaches the podium, and the room falls into instant silence. A prim woman in a knee-length pencil skirt and a bun so tight she looks inquisitive sits in a plastic chair behind him. Her legs cross at the ankle just like Grandmère taught Mia Thermopolis.
Principal Hamil clears his throat. His black hair, combed to the side to cover his receding hairline, glows beneath the lights. I’m not sure if his hair or his forehead is shinier.
“Thank you all for coming to today’s assembly detailing the process for hosting this year’s citywide college fair.” He scans the room for the impact of his words and receives nothing in return. Hamil’s like a Will Ferrell movie—it would be a more enjoyable experience if the effort wasn’t so strained. He clears his throat again.
“It’s a great and unexpected honor for Lee to be chosen as this year’s host.”
It’s actually not unexpected. Despite the fair being a citywide event, the only schools ever chosen to host are in the suburbs, of which there are seven, even though the fair is held in the heart of the city. So the chances of Lee being chosen are pretty high because 1) money, money, money; and 2) there aren’t enough brown kids here to make the Ivy League school representatives “uncomfortable.” Which also means that the inner-city kids never get to host, and thus never get the instant in to their dream schools. A self-fulfilling shit prophecy. I’m not even sure I want any part of it. Or if I deserve to skip the line when my next-door neighbors don’t get the same shot just because they go to school on the wrong side of the river.
But… Brown. JoJo is right. It feels selfish and dirty, but I want it. How broken must I be to want to take part in such a broken system?
“As I’m sure you are all aware,” he explains, “the process is simple. The online application will open at the close of this assembly. You will have one week to submit your applications by answering a series of short-answer questions and ranking your top three choices.”
I roll my eyes. Great, more essays when I’m doing so well on the ones I already have.
“After online submissions are evaluated, those selected will interview before a panel. Each panel will then write a report that the College Fair Board will use to make final decisions.”
Hamil clicks through the presentation as he explains. The participating schools are on the last slide. MIT (for JoJo), Sarah Lawrence (for Gwen), and Brown (for me, hopefully).
“As you leave, please take a brochure of the application requirements, as I will not be repeating myself. Now a few words from a representative of the board.” He nods in the woman’s direction, and she stands, joining him at the podium.
“Good afternoon,” she says, her voice quiet. “I’m Debbie Matthews, and I’ll be your main liaison to the board. I know there are always rumors that hosting guarantees a spot at your school of choice. This is false.” She gives us a tight smile. “We cannot make such guarantees, and the coincidence of hosts’ admission into their host schools is beyond our control. But we on the board are thrilled for this journey with you all and wish you the best of luck.”
She steps away and reclaims her seat.
“And with that,” Principal Hamil says, “dismissed.”
Sound erupts across the room. He looks pained at how excited we are to get out of there.
“You will definitely get MIT,” I tell JoJo, passing her a brochure from the table by the auditorium doors.
“I don’t know.” She shrugs, flipping through the pages as we make our way to the parking lot.
“What do you mean you don’t know? You and MIT are like a dream match. And they already want you.”
“Exactly,” she says. “They already want me. But hosting is your Hail Mary pass. I should pick a school I have to work for.”
I stop in the middle of the lot, earning a honk from a Bronco attempting to pull out of its spot.
“You don’t have to work for any school. You could get in anywhere comatose.”
She’s being weird. We both know she’s being weird. Tim Burton–movie weird.
“What school are you applying to, then?”
“I don’t know yet. I have to read the brochure. Yale is still a reach. And University of Chicago.”
UChicago. The school where her mom has been an assistant professor for three years and desperately wants to be tenured. The school that has kept JoJo’s mom halfway across the country for ten months every year since eighth grade. If she gets in, JoJo will finally get the mother-daughter time she pretends she doesn’t care about. But I don’t mention any of this, because while our mom situations are different, they both suck big-time. So I pretend I don’t know why her plans have suddenly changed.
“You want a ride to work?” she asks, holding up her keys.
“Is Cherry Garcia the superior Ben and Jerry’s flavor?” I ask, opening the passenger door.
“No,” she says. “It’s Phish Food, but I’ll allow you into my car anyway.”
She laughs, and I laugh, and the tension releases like a popped balloon.
People think being best friends means being open and exposed all the time. I think it means being able to hide in a safe place.
Javier Navarrete’s Pan’s Labyrinth score floats over the room as I run a rag doused in Windex over the stained-glass window at the front of the café. The inset letters spelling SIP AND SERENDIPITY glisten in the dim lighting.
Then I straighten the pillows piled high in the reading nook and reorganize the bookshelves that Taran, the café owner, built herself. My fingers drag over the tapestries brought back from Taran’s adventures abroad. I have traveled the world in this small corner.
I circle the room again and again, clearing tables of empty mugs. When the large coffee machine beeps twice, I pour its contents into a wide-lipped carafe marked At Your Own Risk.
The bell above the front door tinkles. The boy’s hair glides against the top of the doorframe, spiraled curls falling in every direction. He looks like he’s been drinking the sun from a firehose, he’s so golden. He takes in the world that Taran has crafted. His eyes shift from overwhelmed to awed in the space of a breath as he approaches the counter. Someone so long shouldn’t move with so much grace.
“Hi,” he says, reaching up a hand to scratch an earlobe. Up close, he has dark freckles across the bridge of his nose. They’re spread haphazardly, as if an artist flicked them over his face with a paintbrush.
“Hi,” I say, my voice pitched too high. I clear my throat. “Welcome to Sip and Serendipity.”
- On Sale
- Jun 20, 2023
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers