As I Descended
Lily raised her eyebrows at Maria—their usual look, the one that meant People are watching us, so you can’t sit that close—and Maria slid down onto the floor next to Austin, still giggling.
“Congrats, Ree.” Austin tipped his drink to Maria’s beer can in a toast. A trickle of rum rolled down the sleeve of his black mesh shirt. Austin was the school’s resident dealer, and for some reason he liked to pretend he was goth. “I can’t believe they let you off with a warning. That chandelier’s been up there since the Stone Age. You’ve got the magic touch, Princess.”
Delilah, slumped on the floor next to him, giggled and held up her drink, the liquid glistening in the candlelight that shined across the room. Her own top was so tiny it wouldn’t have had room to ride up. She was on her third Diet Coke of the night, and she was high on oxy. The combination of caffeine, fake sugar, and prescription painkillers had her at maximum intolerability.
“It was crazy,” Maria told Austin. Lily could see her hiding her smile. “Anyway, they told our parents too.”
“As long as they don’t stop you from going to homecoming,” Caitlin said. She’d climbed onto Maria’s bed and wrapped herself around Ryan. Tamika, who’d been dating Ryan up until yesterday, glared at them from the other side of the room. “That’s all that matters, right?”
Lily rolled her eyes. Caitlin, and all the other pathetic excuses for humans in this room, probably thought the dance really was all that mattered.
“What’d your parents say?” Emily asked.
Maria shrugged. Her parents hadn’t said a word. Not to her, anyway.
Lily, Maria, and Brandon had been brought into Dean Cumberland’s office that morning while the dean called their parents one by one. Lily’s mother had been so relieved to hear Lily wasn’t hurt, she barely even listened to the part about the drinking and the rule breaking. Brandon’s father had announced over speakerphone that Brandon would be grounded all summer, and did Dean Cumberland think that was punishment enough or should he take away Brandon’s computer and his phone, too?
But no one had answered at Maria’s. Not at either of her parents’ offices or on their cell phones. Finally the dean left a sternly worded message with Maria’s mother’s intern.
Maria had called her parents to explain. She’d left a voice mail pleading for her mother to call her back. But Maria’s phone didn’t ring that day.
Instead a dorm monitor stopped by their room while Maria was out at soccer practice. She told Lily the dean had spoken to Maria’s parents, and to tell Maria the girls didn’t need to worry about last night—the chandelier would be easy enough to restore for next semester.
Lily had never met Maria’s parents, but she knew enough about them, and about how Acheron was used to dealing with the genteel Southern families who were its livelihood, to know what that meant: the check was in the mail.
That didn’t help with Brandon’s two strikes, though. He was stuck staying in his room all night from now on. Unless he wanted to risk getting caught again. Three strikes on your record meant a minimum one-year suspension.
Sucked for him.
Lily hadn’t been in the mood for a party after what had happened the night before. Neither had Maria. Still, though, Delilah had asked. She wanted to celebrate, she said, because Acheron had done so well on the Kingsley Prize finalist list that morning.
And when Delilah Dufrey asked for a favor, you didn’t say no.
You wouldn’t think it to look at her, slumped on the floor giggling at a joke everyone else had forgotten ten minutes ago, but Delilah could be terrifying when she wanted to be.
That afternoon Delilah had caught Lily and Maria in the cafeteria. She’d made a big show of fixing her lip gloss in her pocket mirror and said, “Don’t you guys think it would be awesome if we hung out in your room tonight after lights-out? We’ve all been working so hard with the big game coming up. We deserve to take a break. I mean, we all saw how amazing the list was, right?”
There was no saying, No, Delilah, I don’t think that would be awesome at all, actually. Not unless you wanted to lose every friend you had.
That was the kind of power Delilah wielded. Somehow, she’d appointed herself the queen of the senior class.
It wasn’t as if Lily and Maria weren’t popular. Maria was almost as high up the totem pole as Delilah. Two boys had already asked her to homecoming, and even though she’d turned them both down, rumor had it another offer would come in before the week was out.
But “almost” didn’t cut it. At Acheron, if Delilah Dufrey didn’t like you, you might as well resign yourself to spending your high school career with the mousy-haired girls who gave themselves teddy bear tattoos with ballpoint pens.
It wasn’t just that Delilah was hot, either. Though she was, of course. She was hotter than she had any right to be, with her long blond hair and her sparkling eyes and her pert little nose that was so perfectly shaped the freshmen took bets on whether she’d had a nose job.
Nope. There had never been a single thing wrong with Delilah Dufrey.
She’d been unanimously elected homecoming queen last year, and everyone already knew the same thing would happen this year too. She was first in their class, edging out Maria by one one-hundredth of a point. She was senior class president and captain of the soccer team, the cross-country team, and the debate team. She was only vice president of the Gay-Straight Alliance, but that was because Mateo had founded the GSA back in their freshman year. And, of course, because Delilah wasn’t gay. At least, not gay enough.
And as of today, Delilah was first in line for the Kingsley Prize.
The Cawdor Kingsley Foundation Prize went to five graduating seniors from Virginia private schools based on their grades, extracurriculars, and all the other usual stuff. Each of the five winners came from a different school, and Acheron had had a winner every year since the award was created. It came with a free ride to the college of your choice, plus two years of grad school. Winning it pretty much guaranteed you’d get into any college in the country.
At Acheron, winning the Kingsley Prize was just called “winning.” You said the word and everyone knew exactly what you were talking about.
Cawdor Kingsley himself was dead now, but before that he’d been some rich “Southern gentleman” who’d made his fortune running manufacturing plants that had killed every fish, plant, and amoebic creature in half the rivers in the state. Like many a Southern gentleman before him, he’d been a proud member of his local White Citizens’ Council, barely one step removed from the Klan. Now his great-grandkids were trying to redeem the family name by giving his money away to everyone they could think of.
The preliminary list of finalists had gone up early that morning, with Delilah’s name right at number one. The list was just a formality, though. Everyone had already known the prize would go to Delilah. That was how it worked when you’d already won everything else there was to win. Most of the seniors hadn’t even bothered to put their names in.
That was the reason Maria had spent the evening getting drunk and glassy-eyed. Or part of the reason, anyway.
Officially, there would be a second round of judging in a few weeks, because the prize committee was still accepting late applications. They wouldn’t announce the declared winners until after Christmas.
Not that it mattered. Delilah was in first place now, and when the time came, Delilah would win. Then she’d get into her dream school, Princeton, and she wouldn’t even have to pay for it. Winning made you the most important person at Acheron. The alumni threw you a huge party. You’d be on the front page of the school newspaper and the local paper, too. Best of all, your name got added to the official Kingsley plaque, the first thing the student ambassadors showed to every group of prospective parents who came through the campus.
Every senior knew Delilah was guaranteed to win this year’s Kingsley Prize, just as they knew she was a shoo-in to win homecoming queen. Most of them knew about Delilah’s oxy habit, too, but no one seemed to care.
It had been more than a year since Delilah first started sidling up to Lily in the cafeteria, asking if she’d gotten her prescription filled yet. Lily was supposed to take the pills for her legs, but she hardly ever did—anything stronger than an Advil made her feel out of control, which made her anxious and nauseous, and sometimes that was worse than the pain in the first place—so at first she started giving Delilah one pill at a time, when she asked. Slowly, that turned into two pills at a time. Then four. Now Lily just handed over the whole bottle at the start of each month, saving only a couple for her really bad days. Once last semester Maria had seen Delilah bent over the sink in the locker room, snorting up the crushed pills with a rolled-up dollar bill. Super-classy homecoming queen behavior.
“Hey.” Mateo sank onto the bed next to Lily. He was sweaty, with dark hair curling over his forehead, but he smiled and held out a fresh can of seltzer. “Looks like you’re all out. Want this one?”
“No, thanks.” Lily tossed her empty can in the recycling and crossed her arms. It took more effort for her to go over to the cooler than it did for everyone else, but that didn’t mean she wanted gestures of pity.
“No worries. I’m stopping for the night myself.” Mateo set down his beer bottle and smiled again. He was showing off that slight Puerto Rican accent that made the other girls joke about trying to turn him straight. “So, are you excited about Stanford?”
Lily hid her surprise. No one ever asked her about Stanford. “Yeah, I guess.”
Stanford had been the number one school—really, the only school—on Lily’s list for as long as she could remember. She’d been hearing about it since she was a kid. Her parents had met there. Every now and then she took down the old album and looked at the pictures of them laughing together over candy-colored drinks, playing Frisbee on manicured lawns, and making silly faces into a black-and-white photo booth, looking at each other with light in their eyes.
To see Lily’s parents today, you’d never know they were the same people. Their faces were creased from years of worry, and the light in their eyes had been replaced by the dull glow of fatigue and resignation.
At Stanford, though, her parents had been happy.
Maybe at Stanford, Lily could see what it was like to feel that way. She just needed to make sure Maria wound up there, too.
Lily had told a few people at Acheron she was going to Stanford, but no one seriously thought she’d get in. No one remembered that Lily wrote poetry for the school literary magazine, or that she’d worked her ass off as class vice president (“President” Delilah was pretty much useless), or that her application essay on why the Americans with Disabilities Act had set the disability rights movement back thirty years had been called “sheer brilliance” by all three of Acheron’s college counselors. No one cared that Lily was a fourth-generation legacy at Stanford, or that her grandfather’s name was up on a sign over the entrance to the political affairs building.
When people at Acheron looked at Lily, they didn’t see all the things she’d done. They only saw The Girl with the Crutches.
Lily had been in the popular group ever since she first transferred to Acheron in sixth grade, when her newness and her crutches made her exciting and exotic. Except for Maria, though, no one had ever bothered to talk to her about anything real. And she’d heard what people around here said about her and Stanford. That if she got in, it would be “affirmative action.”
Lily had been in an accident when she was a kid, and even after all the surgeries she still couldn’t make it twenty feet without her crutches. Her legs hurt like hell most of the time. There wasn’t a single day when Lily didn’t have to push past the pain just to swing down the three steps that led to the school cafeteria.
Adults excused her from everything from gym class to field trips with a condescending look. And these Acheron assholes thought Lily had an advantage.
“I’ve got an idea!” Delilah said. “Let’s play Truth or Dare!”