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Their Vicious Games

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About The Book

“A brutally honest and haunting cautionary tale…exposing the lie that is meritocracy and the unrelenting toll that being a final girl takes. A bloody tale spun masterfully…a dark delight.” —Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, New York Times bestselling author of Ace of Spades

A Black teen desperate to regain her Ivy League acceptance enters an elite competition only to discover the stakes aren’t just high, they’re deadly, in this “spine-chilling thriller” (Publishers Weekly).

You must work twice as hard to get half as much.

Adina Walker has known this the entire time she’s been on scholarship at the prestigious Edgewater Academy—a school for the rich (and mostly white) upper class of New England. It’s why she works so hard to be perfect and above reproach, no matter what she must force beneath the surface. Even one slip can cost you everything.

And it does. One fight, one moment of lost control, leaves Adina blacklisted from her top choice Ivy League college and any other. Her only chance to regain the future she’s sacrificed everything for is the Finish, a high-stakes contest sponsored by Edgewater’s founding family in which twelve young, ambitious women with exceptional promise are selected to compete in three mysterious events: the Ride, the Raid, and the Royale. The winner will be granted entry into the fold of the Remington family, whose wealth and power can open any door.

But when she arrives at the Finish, Adina quickly gets the feeling that something isn’t quite right with both the Remingtons and her fellow competitors, and soon it becomes clear that this larger-than-life prize can only come at an even greater cost. Because the Finish’s stakes aren’t just make or break…they’re life and death.

Adina knows the deck is stacked against her—it always has been—so maybe the only way to survive their vicious games is for her to change the rules.

Excerpt

Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
WHEN MY MOM PULLS ME close in my cap and gown and whispers into my ear, “I’m so proud of you, Adina,” that’s when I know—I’ve lost.

The realization hits me so hard that my head goes hazy with it and the crushing stench of terror. But I push down the bile and wrap my arms around her.

“Thanks, Mom,” I whisper, burying my face in her neck.

She doesn’t sound like she’s lying, but I know she is.

I’m not Adina Walker, valedictorian, future Yale underclassman, destined for greatness. Not anymore.

I’m Adina Walker, college acceptance rescinded, unremarkable Edgewater graduate, destined for mediocrity.

Game over.

Life has never felt like a game to me, but I know that to everyone else, all my former classmates taking photos or filtering off the Green back to their drivers, that’s all it has ever been. That’s what makes losing it all hurt so bad—it meant nothing to them, but it meant everything to me.

I was six the first time I came to Edgewater, my tight curls tamed by bristle and grease into two puffs, dressed in a kilt and navy socks that slipped down my skinny, scab-laden legs. I stood on the Green, stuck between my mother and father as they rushed me past the blond and beautiful, toward the registration office. I asked my mother, “Are they royalty?”

My mother barely heard me, answering with a distracted, “Yes, of course,” then she adjusted my little bow and said, “Stand up straight, Adina-honey.” I did as she asked, all dressed up and shiny for my first day of first grade at the practically royal Edgewater Academy. I was precocious then, ready to make my mark.

But Edgewater Academy is a world of its own, unshifting and unmarkable, not changed by anything but the seasons in its two-hundred-plus years of existence. Positioned sixteen miles northwest of Lenox, Massachusetts, in the middle of nowhere, the only thing surrounding the campus’s edges are the cliques of stately Queen Anne and shingle houses, and the Colonial Revival country mansion at the top of the hill and the back of the woods, where the Remingtons live. The only exit and entrance to the school is a parking lot, stuffed to the brim with the blinding chrome of luxury cars—Porsches and Mercedes and one Tesla. And while it still looks as royal and stately as it did when I was just a little girl, I know now that there is no place for me here, and there never was. I know now that being welcomed amongst the crème de la crop doesn’t mean they’ll let you become one of them. It’s royal in a different way, an immortal superficial beauty, covering a fractured ugliness.

An ugliness that was intent on eating me up and shitting me out.

Now as I pull away, Mom stares at me, like she’s trying to read my mind, and I wonder if my pain is obvious. But before she can push me for more, I hear a sharp squeal and let go of her just in time to catch another person in my arms.

“We made it!” Toni cheers. She pulls back and flashes me a smile, all pearly whites and brown lipstick that’s somehow immovable even in the heat. She tosses her long black hair—100 percent Brazilian sew in, pin straight—over her shoulders and turns just in time to look into the lens of Mom’s phone.

I’m half a second late, so she only captures my profile while Toni beams in full.

“We made it,” I agree, exhaustion straining my words instead of the excitement that laced hers.

Toni’s smile falters just the tiniest bit and her arms tighten around me to the point of pain, but then she inhales shakily and forces the smile harder. Toni is dedicated to the fantasy of nothing being wrong, for both my sake and hers. She thinks it’s all her fault. It’s not.

I was the architect of my own failure. I lost my cool for just a second, and it cost me not just my acceptance to Yale but most of my friends and nearly my attendance at Edgewater Academy. Only my parents’ own strong standing as members of the faculty saved me from expulsion. After years of swallowing it all back, now it’s all over because of a single second of lost control.

“We’ll be by the car, sweetheart,” Dad says as he finally breaks away from the other school administrators. They cut me side glances, staring without really staring. It’s like they think I’ll crack again and attack like a wild animal.

Never again. No matter how much I want to.

My parents wave goodbye to the other faculty, finally leaving Toni and me alone.

I guide us from the center of it all to the very edge of the Green, under the shade. We watch everyone left pose for pictures, laughing loudly about how they’re going to summer in the South of France together, meet up to winter in Zermatt after first semester. Penthesilea Bonavich, freckled and redheaded sweet, off to Brown. Her perfect boyfriend, Pierce Maxwell Remington IV, going where all good Remington boys go. He’s a Harvard man. Even Toni’s twin brother, Charles, light-skinned so all the girls want him, is off to fuck the white girls of UPenn.

“Are you still going to the Remington luncheon?” I ask, turning away from all of them. That wasn’t always the plan. Our families were supposed to go together to lunch after graduation. We’d celebrated everything together—Toni’s pitch-perfect performances in the play, my academic awards—since we were kids, but after everything that happened, our parents are more… lukewarm to each other than they used to be.

“Um… yeah,” Toni says reluctantly. “You know Pierce and Charles can’t bear to be separated.”

She looks onto the Green at our former classmates, all off to their own ivy-covered walks of life, and I nearly choke on my envy.

“Do you want to go?” I hear Toni ask distantly.

“No,” I say, even though of course I do.

“Please, I don’t think they’d mind. And she won’t be there. It’ll be me, Charles, Pierce, his brother, and Penthesilea. They won’t mind three extra people, and you can ask Pierce about, you know, the…” Toni trails off.

But I know what she’s going to say.

The Finish. She wants me to beg a Remington for entrance to the Finish.

“I think the invitations were already sent out. I heard some people talking about it,” I say. We both know who the “some people” are, but we never clarify. “And I’m not the kind of girl that they’d invite anyway.”

Not rich. Not white. Not flawless.

“You don’t know that. All kinds of girls get invited,” Toni insists, her hands tightening around mine. “You heard what they did last year for that girl from Phillips Exeter? She’s at MIT and she’s flourishing. She wasn’t even accepted to MIT. She just, like, asked when she won. And then, the year before that, it was a scholarship girl from Taft, and now she goes to Cambridge. They’re paying for everything, even her living expenses. Come on, Adina. They’re the Remingtons. If they can do that, they can get you back into Yale, easy.”

I know she’s right. The Finish. Three tests. That’s all it would take to get back into one of the most prestigious institutions in the world. There is no application. There is no entrance fee. No one even really knows what the selection process is or how it all works. But the girls who compete are handpicked, the best of the best, the cream of the crop, going head-to-head for the support of the Remington Family, and all that entails. Tuition. Influence. Power. Admittance.

And all on another level than the other families of Edgewater. The Remingtons know everyone, and everyone who doesn’t know them wants to. There are libraries named for them, think tanks that defer to them, government officials begging for their approval. I’ve never known what it’s like to have that much power.

For me, though, it would feel like begging, begging for something I already earned. That’s one thing I can’t do again. But if there was the right opportunity, if an invite was offered in such a way that I was just given a way to prove myself again… then, maybe.

“When would that even be possible, Toni? And don’t say the luncheon, because I’m not going.”

Toni leans in and whispers, “The bonfire.”

I give her a warning look. “Toni.”

“You can talk to him there. I’ll even set you up at the luncheon. Mention you so that you’re front of mind,” Toni says. She’s already eagerly forming a plan, more optimistic than I could ever be.

She’ll be there. They’ll all be there,” I warn.

Toni scoffs. “Fuck them, who cares.”

She cares. I care.

I wasn’t like Toni, whose parents were D9 chapter presidents and Ivy-educated descendants of the Black elite from the Gilded Age. I was the daughter of the help, in the eyes of everyone else.

Still, the idea of showing everyone up one more time before I fade into obscurity is more tempting than it should be. To be invited to the Finish and win would show them all that I wasn’t the pitiful little upstart that cracked under pressure. And besides, I have nothing left to lose. With a long-suffering sigh, I say, “Come over at seven so we can get ready. Bring vodka.”

I’ll need a shot to be brave the way I’ll have to be to go where I’m unwelcome one last time.

“Do the shot and let’s bounce,” Toni insists, rocking back and forth in her excitement, a few hours later.

I grimace over my shoulder at her before I turn back to examine myself in my vanity. I look tired. I try to smile, to arch my neck, but give up quickly, reaching instead for the clear liquor next to the yearbook that I had a hand in making—the one that no one but Toni signed. I look at the pharmacy-developed photos of Toni and me tucked into the mirror frame as I pour. There were more but some are missing since March, ones that were full of the girls from the life I thought I had, a life that never quite belonged to me.

I throw the shot back and the burn wakes me up as it travels down my throat, not quite fire, but something close. Without the excuse of my former social calendar, I’m out of practice. I cough once, then twice, and Toni takes it as permission to swing a heavy fist at my back. I glare at her but her laugh softens everything inside me.

“You look nice,” I say. She does, ethereal in all white to match her feathered lashes.

“I’ve got to look better than nice,” Toni insists, her fingers curling into fists.

“Why? Do you have plans tonight?” I ask, surprised, leaning back against the vanity.

“I’m going to have sex with someone tonight. Maybe Franco,” Toni declares.

I fight to keep from rolling my eyes. So, this is just another extension of Toni’s crusade against her virginity. In some ways, it’s nice that something feels semiregular.

“Well, you’re going to be the prettiest girl there,” I declare.

Toni scoffs to herself, like she doesn’t believe me. “Not there,” she says, and it’s times like these that I remember the grit she buries under glitter. I recognize that kind of pain, one in conversation with mine.

Toni smiles through it, though, baring her teeth in a grin. No wonder they’re secretly terrified of her.

“Finish your eyeliner,” she commands. She pretends her mask didn’t slip as she stows the half-sized bottle in her duffel and shoves it into the corner of my room, tucked carefully underneath three of my sweaters. It’s unnecessary—my parents aren’t in the habit of sneaking around my room, even after my massive fuckup—but I don’t say anything.

I swipe the black liner on, the only makeup I know how to apply semiexpertly, before I grab a jacket and tug it around the champagne-colored corset top Toni wrapped me in earlier, declaring, “It picked you.” She’s right. There’s something about its fine-boned elegance that draws me in, a borrowed thing that I want to make my own, like my life.

“Come here, your hair,” she says, fluffing it.

There are girls who have touched my hair before. I remember even when I was just a kid, all of six years old, a girl burying her fist in my curls because she wanted to know if they felt like dog fur. But when Toni touches my hair, it feels reverent, like I’m loved, the way it was with my aunt’s hand in my hair, with my grandmother’s fingers twisting my ends, with every ancestor who has ever touched me and ever will.

“Dangly earrings. Gold, I think,” Toni murmurs, pressing a quick kiss to the top of my head before breaking the moment. She bounces back, clapping her hands. “Oh my God, they’re going to be so pissed. You look so good.”

She cackles at the flash of my middle finger, and I grab the earrings, then my boots, holding them by the laces. We stomp down the stairs, into the living room, and I call, “Hey! We’re going now!” without stopping as we move to the door. But my parents are right there on the couch, curled around each other, and their soft conversation creaks to a stop.

Dad looks over Mom’s head with a little smile. Mom tries to echo it, but it looks more like a grimace. She’s always been more readable.

“All right, girls. If you need me to drive you home—”

“We’ll call,” Toni promises.

“Are you sure, Adina? You don’t have to prove anything to anyone.”

She’s wrong.

“I’m fine,” I lie.

“Bye, Mrs. Walker. I’ve got her,” Toni says proudly, and I roll my eyes but Toni locks arms with me and tugs me out the door.

“You’re on aux, bitch,” she insists as we climb into her car. “You have the best playlist for this moment.”

This at least is the truth. I plug my phone in and scroll through my playlists until I land on “pov: you have the aux and you have something to prove.” When I press play, Toni crows loudly.

“God, you always make me feel like I’m the main character in a movie. Fuck, just music-direct my life,” Toni screeches over the bass.

“I live to create ambiance.”

For a moment everything is okay. It always is, driving in cars like this, speeding through the dark, our way lit by the neon-blue glow of the dashboard and the sharp orange of the streetlights reflecting off Toni’s silvery eyelashes. It’s the palette of an A24 movie made flesh, and it feels powerful. I am the main character, whom things are taken from, won then irrevocably lost, but while the open ending isn’t quite hopeful, at least it’s still about me. I’m not an asterisk or a footnote in my own life. I don’t have to hold my tongue here, because I’m the fucking star.

But as we drive through my neighborhood, if I look to the right or left beyond the lights, I see each cookie-cutter house. Every single one is the same, all two compact stories, wooden planks with navy-blue shutters and forest-green doors. Each lawn is perfectly manicured, modest, unassuming. And behind it are the boring lives of boring people.

When second cousins, aunts, or uncles twice removed learn that I go to Edgewater, they think of Gothic castles and uniforms and libraries and tweed. They think nihilism and wealth and Greek and blood so blue, it must be so much more special than the red of normal people. They think of a place that builds a generation of leaders, who will leave the green pastures of Massachusetts for chrome towers. For most of my classmates, that is their future, so my family is right to think all those things. Just not about me.

Because I live here, outside the great iron gates in capital-S Suburbia. Suburbia is sticky lip gloss and the same silver-gray sedan at the end of every driveway. It’s Chuck Taylors and blurry-eyed girls who stand on the edge of the local public school’s football field in cheerleading uniforms. It’s being stared at when they see you break the cookie-cutter mold in a plaid kilt, climbing out of a BMW that is not yours, wearing a gifted pair of diamond earrings that you cannot afford, and holding a purse that you borrowed. It’s the way they see you in all these things that aren’t yours, and know that they aren’t yours, because they see that you’re born from the same cookie-cutter house as theirs.

They know you’re Of Suburbia.

Because Suburbia sticks to you, like the chemical sugar of Yankee Candles and Bath & Body Works, even though you left the store hours ago. For years I was able to disguise the scent under borrowed Dior perfume and by sticking close to the shadows of girls who winter in Aspen. But one slip and the smell surfaced.

Suburbia is forever.

But the Finish looms in my mind like the last life raft. I know if I don’t try—no, if I don’t demand otherwise—Suburbia will be my forever, roll credits.

When we pull into the parking lot at the edge of the forest next to Edgewater, we’re one of three cars, meaning only the wealthiest are present, the kids who live in mansions walking distance away or who can afford the Uber Lux fare. It means that I’ll be more outnumbered than I thought.

We begin the hike, Toni struggling in her heeled thigh-highs, but determinedly crunching over the path. I follow her shadow, eyes trained on her back.

When we pass through the hollow thicket of trees into the clearing, there’s a brief moment where no one recognizes us. I catch sight of a few underclassmen, rising juniors still unsure of their new power, precocious rising freshmen, eager for their first night as fresh meat. The bonfire rages large enough that the crackles of the flames equal the thunderous bass that comes from the lone car parked just a little way away.

That’s the last moment of anonymity that we get. Because the kids on the car—the coolest people at Edgewater—see us, and the mood shifts, the air threaded with a threat.

This is my last day at Edgewater.

I do not miss it. I don’t think I ever will. And in that moment, I know for sure that it—and its occupants—won’t miss me either.

There’s only one last thing I need from it and then… I’m gone.

About The Author

Minnie Yang

Joelle Wellington grew up in Brooklyn, New York, where her childhood was spent wandering the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. Her love of the written word led her to a BA in creative writing and international studies. When she isn’t writing, she’s reading and when she’s not doing that, she’s attempting to bake bread with varying degrees of success or strengthening her encyclopedia-like pop culture knowledge. She’s the author of Their Vicious Games and The Blonde Dies First

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (July 25, 2023)
  • Length: 416 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781665922425
  • Grades: 9 and up
  • Ages: 14 - 99

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Raves and Reviews

* "A genre-bender that is part thriller, part horror, and part contemporary fiction with a splash of romance, this is a truly unique and creative story that teens will be unable to put down. The characters are nuanced and grow throughout the story, and the fast-paced action will keep teens guessing at what new horror might be just around the corner. But it’s the commentary on extreme wealth alongside subtle and outright racism and classism, that ensure that this story is not only relevant and timely but also one that will stick with readers long after the book’s dramatic final confrontation."

School Library Journal, starred review, September 1, 2023

"Wellington doesn’t hold back in this explosive debut novel....Anyone desperate for a Hunger Games–esque adventure will devour this debut."

– Booklist, July 2023

"A lethal thrill ride that will seduce you to the very end."

– Jarrod Shusterman and Sofía Lapuente, authors of Retro

"Debut author Wellington delivers a spine-chilling thriller."

– Publisher's Weekly, June 5, 2023

"In this debut thriller that calls to mind the Japanese dystopian film Battle Royale (2000) and the American horror film Ready or Not (2019)....Readers are rewarded with heart-stopping reveals. A twisty chronicle, filled with equal parts glory and gore, of an outlier who transforms into a modern “final girl.”

– Kirkus Reviews , May 15, 2023

"Elegant prose and complex characters spin us through the lavish maze of the Remington Estate—a breeding ground of secrets, lies, and competition—in a richly woven thriller that explores the lengths one girl will go to succeed in a world of classism and corruption."

– Ryan Douglass,  New York Times bestselling author of The Taking of Jake Livingston

"Fiendishly thrilling. Joelle Wellington's debut will shake you up and rock you to the core."

– Kit Frick, author of I Killed Zoe Spanos and The Reunion

“A fresh and daring debut with quick-witted prose, wild plot twists, and unflinching insights on power and privilege. An absolute thrill!”

– Jessica Goodman, New York Times bestselling author of They Wish They Were Us

“Wellington pens a brutally honest and haunting cautionary tale of what it means to survive in a world that wasn’t built for you, exposing the lie that is meritocracy and the unrelenting toll that being a final girl takes. A bloody tale spun masterfully, Their Vicious Games is a dark delight.”

– Faridah Abike-Iyimide, New York Times bestselling author of Ace of Spades

Awards and Honors

  • SLJ Best Book of the Year
  • New York Public Library 50 Best Books for Teens

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