THE FIRST TIME I MET HER WAS AT THE TAIL END OF ONE OF those endless weekday nights you could only have at a school like Sherringford. It was midnight, or just after, maybe, and I’d spent the last few hours icing my sprained shoulder in my room, the result of a rugby scrimmage gone horribly wrong just minutes after it’d started. Practices tended to do that here, something I’d learned in the first week of school when the team captain shook my hand so voraciously I thought he was about to pull me in and eat me. Sherringford’s rugby team had landed at the bottom of its division at the end of every season for years. But not this year, no; Kline had made a point of reminding me of that, smiling with every one of his strange little teeth. I was their white whale. Their rugger messiah. The reason why the school shelled out not just a tuition scholarship for my junior year but my transportation costs, too—no mean feat when you visit your mother in London every holiday.
The only real problem, then, was how much I hated rugby. I’d made the fatal mistake of surviving a maul on the rugby field last year at my school in London before accidentally sort of bringing our team to victory. I had only tried because, for once, Rose Milton was in the stands, and I had loved her for two passionate, secret, awful years, but as I learned later, the Sherringford athletic director had been in the stands as well. Front row, scouting. You see, we had quite a good rugby team at Highcombe School.
Damn them all.
Especially my cow-eyed, bull-necked new teammates. Honestly, I even hated Sherringford itself, with its rolling green lawns and clear skies and a city center that felt smaller than even the cinder-block room they gave me in Michener Hall. A city center that had no fewer than four cupcake shops and not one decent place to get a curry. A city center just an hour away from where my father lived. He kept threatening to visit. “Threatening” was the only word for it. My mother had wanted us to get to know each other better; they had divorced when I was ten.
But I missed London like an arm, or a leg, even if I had only lived there for a handful of years, because as much as my mother insisted that my coming to Connecticut would be like coming home, it was more like coming to a manicured jail.
All this is just to give you an understanding of how, that September, I could have struck a match and happily watched Sherringford burn. And even so, before I had ever met Charlotte Holmes, I was sure she was the only friend I would make in that miserable place.
“YOU’RE TELLING ME THAT YOU’RE THAT WATSON.” TOM WAS delighted. He smashed his round Midwestern accent into the flattest Cockney I’d ever heard. “My dear chap! My dear fellow! Watson, come here, I want you!”
The cell of a room that we shared was so small that when I flipped him off, I almost poked out his eye. “You’re a genius, Bradford. Seriously. Where do you get your material?”
“Oh, but dude, this is perfect.” My roommate tucked his hands in the pockets of the argyle sweater-vest he always wore under his blazer. Through a moth hole, I watched his right thumb wriggle in excitement. “Because the party tonight is at Lawrence Hall. And Lena is throwing it because her sister always ships her vodka. And you know who Lena rooms with.” He waggled his eyebrows.
At that, I finally had to close my book. “Don’t tell me you’re trying to set me up with my—”
“Your soul mate?” I must’ve looked violent, because Tom put two very serious hands on my shoulders. “I’m not trying,” he said, enunciating each word, “to set you up with Charlotte. I’m trying to get you drunk.”
Charlotte and Lena had set up camp down in the Lawrence Hall basement. As Tom had promised, it wasn’t hard to get past the hall mother. Each dorm had one (in addition to our army of RAs), an older woman from town who oversaw her students from the front desk. They sorted mail, arranged for birthday cakes, lent an ear when you were homesick—but they also enforced the hall rules. Lawrence’s was famous for sleeping on the job.
The party was in the basement kitchen. Though it was stocked with plates and pots and even a spindly four-burner stove, the pans were all so dented they looked like they’d been worn to war. Tom squeezed against the stove while I shut the door behind us; within seconds, one of the knobs rubbed a half-moon of grease onto his sweater-vest. The girl next to him smiled thinly and turned back to her friends, a tumbler of something dangling from her hand. There had to be at least thirty people in there, packed in shoulder to shoulder.
Grabbing my arm, Tom began shouldering us to the back of the tiny kitchen. I felt like I was being pulled through a dark, dank wardrobe into some boozy Narnia.