A girl accepts a mysterious invitation to play a deadly game in this suspense-filled thriller from the author of HEXED--perfect for fans of NERVE by Jeanne Ryan and Lauren Oliver's PANIC.
You are cordially invited to participate in a game of thrills and dares. Tell no one. And come alone.
Hope is sick of everyone treating her like she’s breakable. Sure, she has cystic fibrosis (basically really bad lungs), but she’s tired of being babied by her mom and her overprotective best friend, Ethan, not to mention worrying about paying for her expensive medication and how she’s going to afford college.And she’s bored with life in her run-down New Orleans suburb.
When an invitation arrives from a mysterious group that calls itself the Society, Hope jumps at the chance for some excitement. This could be her ticket out. All she has to do is complete a few dares and she just might win some real money.
But the Society isn’t all that it seems . . . and soon Hope finds that playing the game isn’t a choice—it’s a requirement.
“Dark, twisty, and thrilling.” —Danielle Paige, New York Times bestselling author of Dorothy Must Die
“A delicious and fast-paced read! This one kept me up way past my bedtime!” —Julie Murphy, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Dumplin’
A YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers
I can’t sleep. I can never sleep. I lie awake, completely alert, my heart beating into the mattress. Pale moonlight slashes through the Creature from the Black Lagoon poster across from my bed. Mellow guitar riffs mingling with the honking sax tunes of street performers in the French Quarter, a few blocks away, slip in through my open window. It really shouldn’t be open. Mom wouldn’t approve.
The time on my alarm clock stares back at me in big neon numbers. One a.m. I wonder what Ethan is doing right now. He’s probably asleep. Or maybe he’s hunched over the desk in his bedroom, cramming for a test, dark hair sticking out straight around his ears.
Or maybe he’s texting Savannah.
He’s probably texting Savannah.
I give up on sleep and drag my laptop off my nightstand, logging in to every social media site known to man. Ethan is offline. So is everyone else I know. I guess some people have school in the morning.
I guess some people have lives.
Sighing, I click over to my email. One new message. I lean closer to read the sender’s name: The Society. Weird. Sounds like spam, but you know what they say: life is short, read spam.
I open the email. The whole screen goes black before a pixelated rose slowly comes into focus. Words flash across the screen:
Dear Hope Callahan,
You are cordially invited to participate in a game of thrills and dares. That is, if Mommy will let you out of the house.
Come to 291 Schilling Road at midnight tomorrow. Tell no one, and come alone.
If you dare.
The sounds of the neighborhood fade away, and all I can hear is the boom boom boom of my heart. Adrenaline pumps through my veins, the computer weighted like a bomb in my hands.
Who could have sent this?
My first thought is Dad. Whenever something bad happens in our life, it’s usually because of him. Maybe he pissed someone off, an angry loan shark who wants to leverage me for money or something. At least then I’d know he cared. But he’s been gone for over a year this time. It’s possible he doesn’t even remember he has two daughters anymore.
A practical joke, then? I imagine five girls huddled over a computer, passing around a bottle of wine one of them stole from her parents and giggling as they typed out this message.
But why me? Why pick on the sick kid?
Maybe it was Ethan.
As soon as I have the idea, I know I’m right. Ethan can always tell when I’m getting cagey, and I probably looked pretty desperate today. And who can blame me, after six weeks of forced isolation? So he thought he’d help me have some fun. It would be so like him to do something like this. I type a response.
Very funny, Ethan.
I hit Send, put my laptop on the nightstand, and go back to not sleeping.
The alarm clock in Jenny’s bedroom blares to life through the paper-thin walls, jolting me awake. Of course, the moment I finally fall asleep, it’s time to get up.
All night I tossed and turned, parsing Ethan’s email for every possible meaning.
We’ve been best friends for three years, the kind of best friends where nothing is weird between us—he farts in front of me, I tell him when I have my period. But lately things have been different. I’ve always thought Ethan was decently good-looking, but then he started to wear his hair pushed back from his face in this way that makes his cheekbones and jawline look cut from glass. And then I noticed how broad his shoulders have gotten from swimming laps, and the way the muscles in his forearms shift and flex when he moves. And then I noticed the cute way he chews on his fingernails when he’s thinking, and then it was like I couldn’t stop noticing all the cute things about him. Next thing I knew, I had a raging crush on my best friend.
And now there was this email.
Did he actually want me to meet him at this address? And what would he say when I arrived? Which naturally led to many sleepless hours of fantasizing about him confessing his undying love for me, then pressing me against a wall with a desperate kiss. It was all I could do not to call him at four in the morning and tell him I love him too.
I drag out my laptop, still warm from the thousandth time I checked my email last night in case Ethan had replied.
No new messages, but I get another idea.
I plug the address into Google Maps. I don’t even have to check the email—the number is seared into my brain: 291 Schilling Road. I press Enter, and the map spins away from my sagging Iberville neighborhood to a spot a few miles away. The target stops on a lot that looks totally isolated. I switch to Street View and find an image of a very tall, very locked fence. Some distance beyond sits an old warehouse, slouching and gaping like a living thing.
Why on earth would Ethan want to take me there?
There’s a quick knock at my door. I minimize the window as Mom pokes her head inside.
“Hey, hon. Ready for your treatment?”
I nod, slide the computer off my lap, and lie in my designated spot in the center of my bedroom floor. I’ve spent so much time here I’m surprised there isn’t a permanent outline of me in the carpet.
Mom settles next to me and starts the whole routine, pounding my back with a cupped hand to loosen the secretions that plug up my lungs and make it impossible to breathe, which I’ll then hork into a plastic basin. It’s all very glamorous.
“How’s Ethan been?” Mom asks.
“Good.” The word comes out choppy, punctuated by the beats across my back.
“He hasn’t been by as much this week.”
“He’s busy with school.” I frown into the carpet, replaying our conversation last night.
Mom knocked on the door to say I had a visitor, and then Ethan was there. I felt suddenly self-conscious in my ratty brown bathrobe, but he didn’t seem to notice or care. He dropped his duffel by my bedroom door, tossed me a bag of contraband Skittles, and flopped onto my bed, all in one continuous motion. His hair was too shiny not to be wet, and he smelled faintly like chlorine. He’d come straight from swim practice.
I tore open the bag of Skittles and probably looked like a pig, stuffing the colorful candies into my mouth. “Mmm,” I moaned.
“Should I leave you two alone?” Ethan asked.
I threw a candy at his forehead, and he laughed.
“You didn’t call me back last night,” I said.
“I know, I had a calc test today, and I didn’t study.”
“How did it go?”
“Let’s just say I’ll be getting another Karin Sato lecture imminently.”
I’ve had the pleasure of being present for one of his mom’s legendary lectures, and it was . . . unpleasant. It’s one of the many things we have in common: our very invested mothers.
“So, tell me about school,” I said. “All the details. I want to feel like I’m there.”
“There’s a new kid,” Ethan said, “Isaiah something or other. He’s in my chem class, and he’s trying out for swim too, so he’s kind of latched on to me.”
“Oh no—” I started, but Ethan knew exactly where I was going and jumped in.
“Don’t worry. He’s not a Sam 2.0.”
I grinned, remembering the weird girl who followed me around for a few months last year. Though she was harmless at the beginning, I drew the line when she dyed her hair ash blond to match mine and started carrying an inhaler in her purse. It wasn’t funny then—it was totally creepy—but when I complained to the principal, it turned out it didn’t matter, because Sam had already transferred to another school. We can laugh about it now.
“Is Savannah still trying to hump you?” I asked.
Ethan smirked, and the Skittles felt suddenly heavy in my stomach. I forced a smile and needled him in the ribs. “Okay, what happened?”
“She wants to go to Tucker St. Clair’s party together tomorrow.”
A party. Another thing I couldn’t go to.
“I thought you hated Tucker St. Clair.”
“I do.” He sat up and grabbed the bottle of Cacharel Anaïs Anaïs on my nightstand, turning it from side to side so the liquid sloshed around.
I asked Mom for French perfume for my birthday last year and practically had an aneurysm when she actually got it for me. Even though I’m not allowed to wear it, I love the way the bottle looks next to the neat stack of French novels on my nightstand.
“So?” I pushed.
“So everyone is going. His parents are out of town for some charity thing.”
But it’s a weekday, I almost said. “Are you going to go, then?” I asked instead.
I felt his eyes on me, so I pretended to be very focused on twisting the Skittles bag closed.
“Do you want to hang out instead?” he asked.
Yes. God, yes. “No. You should go to the party.”
“Are you sure?”
My stomach flipped. I hadn’t expected him to agree so quickly. But why wouldn’t he? Savannah Thompson is blond, tan, and sweet, and I’d be willing to bet she wouldn’t cough and hack if he tried to kiss her. Or taste like a salt lick. So many attractive qualities in a girl.
I nodded. “Yeah, I’m sure.”
“Hope . . .”
Something about his voice made me unable to look up. I felt like he could see it written all over my face, all my pathetic longing and desperation.
He put the perfume down.
“Hope, look at me.”
I did. I’d spent so much time looking at his face I could have probably described it perfectly to a sketch artist. He had a small bump on his nose and a scar that slashed through his left eyebrow, and when the sun hit his eyes, they looked not just brown but flecked with amber, like the galaxy marbles Jenny and I used to play with in sandboxes in grade school, back when I was allowed to do things like play. His lips were parted, and I suddenly couldn’t look away from them.
There was a knock at the door then. I jolted back from Ethan as Mom popped her head in.
“Time for your treatment,” she said.
Sometimes I could accept my disease. Other times I wanted cystic fibrosis to die in a ditch.
Ethan cleared his throat. I could smell his musky scent through the chlorine on the old NYU sweater he wears after practice, and it was intoxicating. Our thighs were so close they were nearly touching. If Mom wasn’t there, I could have reached over and traced my finger along the hem of his jeans. He would have known then, without a shadow of a doubt.
The phone rang, and Mom disappeared.
“What did you want to say, before?” I asked, jumping on the opportunity.
He toyed with the drawstring on his hood. “I, well—”
The ringing stopped, and the door swung open again. Mom was there with the phone in her hand. “Just the bank.” She gave me a knowing look. Mom never answers when the bank calls. What’s the point when she has nothing to say besides “I can’t pay right now”?
Ethan popped up from the bed. “I’ll call you later, ’kay?”
I nodded into my lap, and then he was gone. Off to a life that didn’t include me, to school and parties and moonlight kisses with Savannah, while I lay on the carpet in preparation for yet another round of chest physio.
And then he sent me that mysterious email.
I didn’t say anything yesterday, didn’t kiss him when I should have, but tonight I can make up for all that. Things can change.
But they won’t, I realize. Because I’ll still be here, holed up in this apartment with its paper-thin walls. It’s hard to have a relationship when your mom is right there all the time. Another point for Savannah. I bet she doesn’t have her mother hovering over her 24/7 in case she breathes wrong.
“Hey, Mom?” I ask.
“Mmm-hmm,” she replies absently.
“Do you think I’m ready to go back to school?”
She pauses. Just for a second, but I notice.
“I mean, I feel well enough. I’m breathing easy, and I’m off the oxygen. I don’t get winded anymore when I walk, and I really miss seeing my friends.”
She shakes her head in my peripheral vision. Everything inside me tightens and liquefies, all at the same time.
“It may seem like you’re doing better,” she says, “but you’re not out of the woods yet. That chest infection nearly did you in, and it’s cold season. Becky at work has a nasty cough, and her kids are all sick too. It’s just a bad idea.”
I nod, but then I think about Ethan, about Savannah, about sitting in the same bed for another day, another week.
“Someone is always sick,” I say. “I can’t stay cloistered in my room my whole life just in case someone sneezes near me. Please, Mom. I want to go back. I need to.”
“She’s right.” My little sister, Jenny, appears in the doorway. She’s wearing pajamas, and her ash-blond hair is pulled into a messy bun on the top of her head. I’m pretty sure there’s mascara smudged under her eye. “You can’t keep her locked away all the time.”
“You say that like I’m evil,” Mom says, her hands momentarily leaving my back. “Her life is at risk!”
“But what is life anyway if you just spend it lying in bed every day?” Jenny counters.
“Jenny, that’s enough!” Mom says.
Jenny huffs and disappears down the hallway. I focus on a crack in the plaster so I don’t cry. Smooth jazz and whirring tires come in through my window.
“I thought I told you to keep the window closed,” Mom says irritably.
I don’t answer. Can’t.
Mom sighs heavily, and I know what she looks like even if I can’t see her: a balloon with the air let out, deflated and sad.
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” she says, more gently this time. “But it’s just too dangerous.”
“I know, Mom,” I say, because I can’t stand to upset her. “I just thought I’d try.”
She climbs off my back and hands me a plastic basin. “Don’t forget to do your breathing.”
I nod, and she leaves my room to get ready for work. I’m desperate to talk to Ethan, and for a moment I consider skipping the breathing exercise. But I promised her, and she seemed so sad and helpless. She usually puts on a good show, but sometimes, like now, when she has to remind me I’m a ticking time bomb, I can see how much my sickness weighs on her.