People Like Us
"Mean Girls meets Donna Tartt's The Secret History with a little bit of Riverdale mixed in. So yeah, it's epic."--HelloGiggles
"In People Like Us, Dana Mele delivers the Gossip Girl meets Pretty Little Liars young adult novel you've been waiting for."--Bustle
Kay Donovan may have skeletons in her closet, but the past is past, and she's reinvented herself entirely. Now she's a star soccer player whose group of gorgeous friends run their private school with effortless popularity and acerbic wit. But when a girl's body is found in the lake, Kay's carefully constructed life begins to topple. The dead girl has left Kay a computer-coded scavenger hunt, which, as it unravels, begins to implicate suspect after suspect, until Kay herself is in the crosshairs of a murder investigation. But if Kay's finally backed into a corner, she'll do what it takes to survive. Because at Bates Academy, the truth is something you make...not something that happened.
Debut author Dana Mele has written a taut, sophisticated suspense novel that will keep readers guessing until the very end.
Excerpt from People Like Us
Beneath the silvery moonlight, our skin gleams like bones. Skinny-dipping in the frigid waters of North Lake after the Halloween dance is a Bates Academy tradition, though not many students have the guts to honor it. Three years ago, I was the first freshman to not only jump, but stay under so long they thought I’d drowned. I didn’t mean to.
I jumped because I could, because I was bored, because one of the seniors had made fun of my pathetic dollar-store costume and I wanted to prove I was better than her. I kicked down to the bottom, pushing past clumps of moss and silky strands of pondweed. And I stayed there, sunk my ﬁngers into the soft, crumbling silt until my lungs twisted and convulsed, because even though the freezing water cut like knives, it was soundless. It was peaceful. It was like being encased safely in a thick block of ice, protected from the world. I might have stayed if I could. But my body didn’t allow it. I broke the surface and the upperclasswomen screamed my name and passed me a bottle of ﬂat champagne, and we scattered as campus police broke up the scene. That was my official “arrival” at Bates. It was my ﬁrst time away from home, and I was no one. I was determined to redesign myself completely into a Bates girl, and as soon as I took that dive, I knew exactly what kind of girl I would be. The kind who jumps ﬁrst and stays under ten seconds too long.
Now we’re the seniors and no first-years have dared to tag along.
My best friend, Brie Matthews, runs ahead, her sleek track-star body cutting through the night air. Normally, we would strip under the thorny bushes that line the lake next to the Henderson dorms. It’s our traditional meeting spot after we pregame in one of our rooms and stumble across the green together, still in costume. But Brie received an early-recruitment offer from Stanford tonight and she is on ﬁre. She ordered us to meet her at ten to midnight, giving us just enough time between the dance and the dive to ditch valuables, load up on refreshments, and deal with signiﬁcant-other drama. Then she met us at the edge of the green wearing only a bathrobe and an exhilarated grin, her cheeks ﬂushed and breath hot and sweet with hard cider. She dropped the robe and said, “Dare you.”
Tai Carter runs just ahead of me, her hands pressed over her mouth to cram her laughter in. She is still wearing a pair of angel wings and they ﬂutter with her long silvery hair twisting in the wind. The rest of our group trails behind. Tricia Parck trips over a tree root, nearly causing a pileup. Cori Gates stops running and falls to the ground, cracking up. I slow, grinning, but the air is freezing, and my skin is covered in goose bumps. I still get a thrill from the icy plunge, but my favorite part now is snuggling together with Brie under a mountain of blankets and giggling about it afterward.
I am about to make the final sprint across the patch of dead moss stretching from Henderson’s emergency exit to the edge of the lake when I hear Brie scream. Tai halts and I push past her toward the sound of frenetic splashing. Brie’s frantic voice escalates in pitch, repeating my name over and over, faster and faster. I tear through the bushes, thorns etching white and red stripes in my skin, grab her hands, and haul her up out of the lake.
“Kay,” she breathes into my neck, her dripping body shivering violently, teeth clicking and chattering. My heart batters my rib cage as I look her over for blood or cuts. Her thick black hair lies damply over her skull; her smooth brown skin, unlike mine, is unbroken.
Then Tai grabs my hand so hard, my ﬁngertips go numb. Her face, usually caught between a genuine grin and mocking smirk, is arranged in a strange blank stare. I turn and an odd sensation creeps over me, like my skin is turning to stone one cell at a time.
There’s a body in the lake.
“Go get our clothes,” I whisper.
Someone scampers away behind us, kicking up a ﬂurry of dry leaves.
Fragments of moonlight lie like shattered glass over the surface of the water. At the edge, tangles of roots reach down into the shallows. The body ﬂoats not far from where we’re standing, a girl with a pale, upturned face under about an inch of water. Her eyes are open, her lips white and parted, her expression almost dazed, except that it isn’t anything. An elaborate white ball gown blooms around her like petals. Her arms are bare and there are long cuts up and down her wrists. I grab my own half-consciously, and then ﬂinch as I feel a hand on my shoulder.
Maddy Farrell, the youngest of our group, hands me my dress. I nod stiffly and pull the loose black shift over my head. I am Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby, but my dress was repurposed from the costume Brie wore last year and it’s a size too large. Now I wish I’d chosen to dress as an astronaut. Not only is it freezing out, but I feel stripped and vulnerable in the gauzy fabric.
“What should we do?” Maddy asks, looking at me. But I can’t tear my gaze away from the lake to answer her.
“Call Dr. Klein,” Brie says. “She’ll contact the parents.”
I force myself to look at Maddy. Her wide-set eyes are glossy with tears, and dark, uneven streaks run down her face. I smooth her soft golden hair reassuringly but keep my own expression even. My chest feels like bursting and a siren is blaring somewhere deep in my mind, but I silence it with imagery. A room of ice, soundless, safe. No crying. A teardrop can be the snowflake that starts an avalanche.
“The school comes ﬁrst. Then the cops,” I say. No point in someone seeing on their newsfeed that their kid is dead before they get the phone call. That was how my dad learned about my brother. It was trending.
Maddy takes out her phone and dials the headmistress’s number while the rest of us huddle in the darkness, staring at the dead girl’s body. With her open eyes and lips parted as if mid-sentence, she looks so close to being alive. Close, but not quite. It’s not the first dead body I’ve ever seen, but it’s the first one that’s almost seemed to look right back at me.
“Does anyone know her?” I ﬁnally ask.
No one answers. Unbelievable. The six of us, separately, probably hold more social capital than the rest of the student body combined. We must know nearly every single student between us.
But only students are allowed at the Skeleton Dance. At other dances, we are permitted to bring guys and other off-campus dates. The girl in the lake is our age and elaborately dressed and made-up. She has a familiar face, but not one I can place. Especially not like this. I lean over, clutching my arms to try to keep from shivering too hard, to get another look at her wrists. It’s a grisly sight, but I ﬁnd what I’m looking for: a thin, glowing neon tube.
“She’s wearing the wristband. She was at the dance. She’s one of us.” I shudder at the words as they leave my lips.
Tricia studies the ripples in the lake without raising her eyes quite high enough to look at the body again. “I’ve seen her around. She’s a student.” She twists her silky black hair absently and then lets it fall over her perfect replica of Emma Watson’s Beauty and the Beast ball gown.
“Not anymore,” Tai says.
“Not funny.” Brie glares at her, but someone had to break the tension sooner or later. It knocks me back into myself again a little. I close my eyes and picture the ice walls doubling, tripling in thickness, until there’s no room for sirens in my mind, no room for my heart to thump chaotically off rhythm.
Then I stand up straighter and eye Maddy’s costume, Little Red Riding Hood with a scandalously short dress and a warm-looking cape.
“Can I borrow your cape?” I hold out one ﬁnger, and she slips the warm shrug off her pale, bony shoulders and hands it to me. I only feel a little bad. It’s cold and I’m a year older. She’ll get her turn.
A wailing sound ﬁlls the air and a swirl of red-and-blue lights hurtle toward us from across the campus.
“That was fast,” I murmur.
“I guess Klein decided to notify the cops herself,” Brie says.
Cori emerges from the darkness clutching a bottle of champagne, her catlike green eyes seeming to glow in the dim light. “I could have called Klein. But nobody asked.” Cori never misses an opportunity to mention her family’s connection to the headmistress.
Maddy hugs herself. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think.”
“Typical Notorious,” Tai says, shaking her head. Maddy glares at her.
“It doesn’t matter. She’ll be here soon.” Brie wraps an arm around Maddy. The bathrobe looks thick and soft, and Maddy nuzzles her cheek to it. I narrow my eyes and toss the cape back to her, but overshoot, and it lands in the lake.
Tai stabs the waterlogged mass with a stick and fishes it out, dumping it at my feet. “I remember her. Julia. Jennifer. Gina?”
“Jemima? Jupiter?” I snap at her, wringing the cape out as well as I can.
“We don’t know her name, and no one recognized her at all at ﬁrst,” Brie says. “It would be misleading to tell the police we knew her.”
“I can’t look at her face. Sorry. I can’t. So . . .” Maddy pulls her arms inside her dress, making her look like a creepy armless doll with her chalk-white skin and smudged dark eye makeup. “We should lie?”
Brie looks to me for help.
“I think Brie means we should simplify by saying we didn’t recognize her and leave it at that.”
Brie squeezes my hand.
Campus police arrive first, braking in front of Henderson and thundering out of the car toward us. I’ve never seen them move like that and it’s scary in a sort of pathetic way. It’s not like they’re real cops. Their sole job is to drive us around and break up parties.
“Stand aside, ladies.” Jenny Biggs, a young officer who often escorts us across campus after hours and turns a blind eye to our private soirees, ushers us out of the way. Her partner, a hulk of a male officer, barrels past us and wades into the water. A bitter taste forms under my tongue, and I dig my ﬁngernails into my palms. There’s no real reason for it, but I feel protective of the body. I don’t want his hairy-ass hands touching her.
“I think you’re not supposed to disturb a crime scene,” I whisper to Jenny, hoping she’ll intervene. She’s been really nice to us over the years, joking and bending rules almost like an older sister.
She looks at me sharply, but before she can say anything, the real cops arrive along with an ambulance. The EMTs make it to the lake before the cops, and one of them dives into the water after Jenny’s partner.
“Do not approach the victim,” barks one of the officers, a tall woman with a strong Boston accent, jogging toward the lake’s edge.
The campus police officer, now waist deep in the water, turns and crashes into the EMT.
“It’s like the incompetence Olympics,” Tai murmurs.
Another officer, a short Tony Soprano look-alike, nods dismissively to Jenny like she’s a servant. “Get this guy out of here,” he says.
Jenny looks a little miffed, but she waves to her partner, who reluctantly takes the EMT by the arm. They escort him up the bank, shooting daggers at the townie cops.
The woman officer, the one who called off the rescue mission, looks at us suddenly. She has a sharp chin, beady eyes, and over-plucked eyebrows that make her look sort of like a half-drawn Intro-to-Art exercise. “You’re the girls who found the body.”
She doesn’t wait for a response. She leads us over to the water’s edge as more officers arrive to rope off the area. Brie and I exchange questioning glances and I try to catch Jenny’s eye, but she’s busy securing the scene. Students are beginning to filter out of the dorms. Even housemothers— the adults in charge of each dorm—have drifted out and to the edges of the newly erected safety barriers and lines of police tape. The tall cop flashes a tight-lipped smile. “I’m Detective Bernadette Morgan. Which one of you girls made that phone call?”
Maddy raises her hand.
Detective Morgan whips a cell phone out of her pocket and shows the video screen to us. “I’ve got a terrible memory, girls, do you mind if I record this?”
“Sure,” Maddy says, then darts her eyes to me with an apologetic expression. Detective Morgan seems to note this with interest and ﬂashes me a crooked smile before turning back to Maddy.
“You don’t need your friend’s permission.”
Tai glances down at the cell phone. “Oh my God, is that an iPhone 4? I didn’t know they still made those. Or that it was legal to record minors making statements on them.”
The detective’s smile brightens. “Witness statements. Do I have your permission, or shall we go to the station and call your parents in?”
“Go for it,” Tai says, hugging herself and shivering.
The others nod, but I hesitate for just a nanosecond. Jenny is one thing, but I don’t have much faith in cops otherwise. I spent half of eighth grade talking to various police officers and it was a hellish experience. On the other hand, I would go to extraordinary lengths to avoid involving my parents.
“Fine,” I say.
Detective Morgan laughs. The sound is nasal and abrasive. “Are you sure?”
The cold is beginning to wear on me and I can’t help impatience and annoyance from saturating my voice. “Yeah. Go ahead, Maddy.”
But Bernadette’s not ﬁnished with me. She points to Maddy’s soaked, balled-up cape in my hands. “Did you remove that from the water?”
“Yes. But it wasn’t there when we got here.”
“How did it get there?”
I feel my face growing warm despite the cold of the night. “I threw it in.”
The detective sucks her cheek into her mouth and nods. “As one does. I’ll need to take it.”
Shit. This is how it starts. Little things like that. I extend the cape to her, but she calls over her shoulder and a short man wearing blue nitrite gloves appears and places it in a plastic bag.
She turns back to Maddy. “From the beginning.”
“We came out here to go swimming. Brie ran ahead. I heard her scream and—”
“Who’s Brie?” Detective Morgan points the cell phone camera at us one by one. Brie raises her hand.
“—and we found a body ﬂoating in the water next to her. Then Kay told me to call Dr. Klein before the police,” Maddy ﬁnishes.
“No I didn’t.” My voice comes out hard and shivery. “Brie did.”
Detective Morgan turns to me and runs the camera over me slowly from head to foot, scanning carefully over my scratched-up skin. “You’re Kay,” she says, with an odd smile.
“Yes. But actually, Brie said to call Dr. Klein.”
“Why does it matter?”
That catches me off guard. “Doesn’t it?”
“You tell me.”
I press my lips together tightly. I know from experience how police can take statements and then twist the words into something you didn’t mean to say. “Sorry. Are we in trouble?”
“Did any of you recognize the body?”
I glance around at the others, but no one jumps in. Maddy is stiffly rocking from side to side, her arms still folded up inside her dress. Cori is watching the police down at the edge of the lake with an odd expression of fascination. Tricia’s eyes are downcast and her bare shoulders are trembling. Tai just watches me blankly, and Brie nods for me to continue.
“No. Are we in trouble?”
“I hope not.” Detective Morgan makes a signal over our heads to another officer, and I glance at Brie. She actually looks worried and I wonder if I should be. She makes a lock-and-key gesture over her lips and I nod very slightly and raise my eyebrows at the others. Tai nods evenly and Tricia and Cori link pinkie ﬁngers, but Maddy looks seriously spooked.
Just then, I see Dr. Klein cutting a path through the crowd, a short but formidable woman, somehow impeccably dressed and composed even at this hour and under these circumstances. She brushes aside a police officer with a tiny wave of her hand and marches straight up to us.
“Not another word,” she says, laying one hand on my shoulder and one on Cori’s. “These girls are in my care. In their parents’ absentia, I am their guardian. You may not question them outside of my presence. Is that understood?”
Detective Morgan opens her mouth to protest, but it’s no use arguing when Dr. Klein has gone full headmistress.
“These students have just witnessed a horriﬁc event and Ms. Matthews is soaking wet and at risk of hypothermia. Unless you’re going to question them indoors, you will simply have to come back another time. I’ll be happy to accommodate your schedule during school hours.”
Detective Morgan smiles, again without showing teeth. “Fair enough. You girls have been through a lot. You go get a good night’s sleep, huh? Don’t let a tiny little tragedy ruin a great party.” She starts to walk away and then turns back to us. “I’ll be in touch.”
Dr. Klein ushers us back toward the dorms and darts over to the water’s edge.
I turn to Brie. “That was a bitchy thing to say.”
“Yeah,” Brie says, looking troubled. “It almost sounded like a threat.”