The St. Ambrose School for Girls

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A CrimeReads Most Anticipated Book of the Summer

Heathers meets The Secret History in this thrilling coming-of-age novel set in a boarding school where the secrets are devastating–and deadly.

When Sarah Taylor arrives at the exclusive St. Ambrose School, she’s carrying more baggage than just what fits in her suitcase. She knows she’s not like the other girls–if the shabby, all-black, non-designer clothes don’t give that away, the bottle of lithium hidden in her desk drawer sure does.

St. Ambrose’s queen bee, Greta Stanhope, picks Sarah as a target from day one and the most popular, powerful, horrible girl at school is relentless in making sure Sarah knows what the pecking order is. Thankfully, Sarah makes an ally out of her roommate Ellen “Strots” Strotsberry, a cigarette-huffing, devil-may-care athlete who takes no bullshit. Also down the hall is Nick Hollis, the devastatingly handsome RA, and the object of more than one St. Ambrose student’s fantasies. Between Strots and Nick, Sarah hopes she can make it through the semester, dealing with not only her schoolwork and a recent bipolar diagnosis, but Greta’s increasingly malicious pranks.

Sarah is determined not to give Greta the satisfaction of breaking her. But when scandal unfolds, and someone ends up dead, her world threatens to unravel in ways she could never have imagined. The St. Ambrose School for Girls is a dangerous, delicious, twisty coming-of-age tale that will stay with you long after you turn the last page.


chapter ONE

The St. Ambrose School for Girls

Greensboro Falls, Massachusetts


My first view of the St. Ambrose School for Girls is from the back seat of my mother's 1981 Mercury Marquis. The ten-year-old car is utterly unremarkable except for being reliable, and the reason I'm in the back is because I put the laundry basket full of my bedding in the front passenger seat. My mother is a smoker and I can't stand the smell. I have a theory that I can put my head out the rear window and get better air because I'm farther away from her.

I'm wrong.

We pull through a pair of stone pillars that are united by a graceful arch of black iron filigree, a necklace overturned, the perfect welcome to a pearls-and-sweater-set institution of learning. I'm being dropped off here for my sophomore year of high school. I'm a fifteen-year-old charity case on scholarship because I won a spot I was not aware of having competed for. My mother filled out the application and put a piece of writing of mine into the pool of candidates. Those five thousand words, which I had no intention of anyone ever reading, coupled with my idiot savant grades, were the key to unlock this door I do not want to enter.

"Look at this lawn," my mother remarks. She gestures around with her left hand, the lit cigarette between the fore- and middle fingers a laser pointer with an angry orange end. "This is a lawn. I'll bet they mow it every morning."

I am not as impressed with the lawn. I am not impressed with any of the brick buildings or the sidewalks that wind around the campus, either. All of this, from the acceptance to the packed sheets in that basket to the two-hour trip from where she and I live, has little to do with me, and everything to do with my mother's need to upgrade something in her life. Our tiny two-bedroom house is cluttered with issues of People, Star, Us Weekly, the National Enquirer, the Globe. Each one of them is a pulpy, soft-spined vacation into another, better world for her, and after she's done reading them, she keeps them like they're diaries of a trip she never wants to forget.

I wonder sometimes if she isn't moving me out of her house so that she can use my bedroom for storage space. I know this isn't true. The real story is that I'm the ninety-nine-cent houseplant she is shifting to a better, more sunny spot on the sill by the sink. I'm the pragmatism that I doubt she will admit to consciously, a recognition that her own life is a stagnation of going-nowhere, but damn it, she can figure out how to get her fucked-up daughter into Ambrose.

"Look at this campus. I tell you, Sally." She flicks her Virginia Slim out of her window, ashing onto the lawn and evidently missing the irony that she's crapping up the very thing she's admiring. "They know how to do things at this school."

My mother puts a push into a lot of her words, as if her tongue is frantically shoving the syllables out of her lipstick-slicked mouth, like someone trying to bail out a boat. For her, an ocean of unspoken urgency surrounds the hull of her leaky skiff of nervous chatter, so there are always words for her, and rarely a pause for consideration of content. She speaks like the magazines she reads, everything headlined, drama manufactured out of her dull and endlessly reconstituted reality of being a school lunch lady at Lincoln Elementary.

"Where are we going?" she asks. When I don't answer her, she looks over her shoulder. "Sally, help me here. Where are we going?"

My name is Sarah, not Sally. I'm not sure how I got the nickname, but I hate it, and the first thing I'm going to do here is introduce myself as Bo. Bo is a cool name for a girl, unisex and unusual, just as I am fairly unisex and definitely unusual. Unlike the other girls I see walking around the campus—who look like they've stepped out of the rainbow page of a United Colors of Benetton ad—I'm dressed in black and loose clothing. I'm also not wearing shoes, but lace-up boots with steel toes. My hair is dyed jet black, although my mouse-brown roots are starting to show already, a trail of mud at night.

My mother, whose name is Theresa, goes by Tera. Tera Taylor. Like a movie star. She said she named me Sarah so it rhymed, so we could be twins forever. She's told me over and over again she wants me to have a little girl and name it Lara to keep the tradition going, even though, technically, Lara does not rhyme with Tera or Sarah. It would have to be Lera. The fact that my mother can only get sort-of-there with her own construct is the kind of thing that should go on her driver's license.

I'm just hoping to make it to sixteen at this point.

"Sally, come on."

It's pointless to mention that I have not been on this campus before either, and there's no map to consult.

"I think it's over there," I say, pointing in any direction.

This mollifies her and we find the correct dorm by luck. Tellmer Hall is right out of the brochure of any New England prep school: brick, three stories, two wings, and one main entry with a limestone pediment bearing its name. Just below the slate roofline, there is a marble frieze bearing the names and profiles of musical luminaries: Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn. As I get out of the back of my mother's Mercury, I stare up at the faces and start counting down to Thursday, June 4, when, according to this year's school calendar, summer vacation starts.

"Look at this building. Just look at it."

My mother slams the driver's side door to add an exclamation point, and the sound of the hollow bang brings us attention from the other girls who are unpacking from their parents' cars. As my mother smiles in the direction of a Volvo station wagon and then a Mercedes sedan, there's expectation and relish in her still-attractive features, like she's prepared to be invited to dine with the Izod-wearing fathers and the Talbots-clad mothers. What she fails to notice, and maybe this is a blessing, is that their perusal of us is of short and disinterested duration, a cursory assessment of my black Goth-ness and my mother's synthetic-fiber, fake von Furstenberg dress. They don't even bother to reject us. We're not significant enough for that. We're something they look through, ghosts of the lower middle class.

"Go introduce yourself to the girls."

When I don't respond, my mother glares over at me, and then refocuses on the Mercedes as if she's trying out the logistics of dragging me to it.

She's going to need a fireman's hold.

"We have to unpack the car," I say.

The Mercury's trunk has two suitcases in it. One a battered black, the other a winsome blue that has inexplicably fared better with age—black seems like it would be stronger, more durable. I take them out one by one. As I straighten, I see around the corner of the dorm. There is a plumbing truck parked in the back. Albrecht & Sons. It is white with blue lettering, the telephone number starting with an area code I am not familiar with.

"You really need to introduce yourself," my mother says.

"Why do the plumbers need to meet me?"

"What the heck are you talking about?"

She exhales over her shoulder, flicks the butt onto the lawn, and lights another cigarette. She smokes when she's frustrated with me, but she also smokes for a lot of other reasons.

I look over to the Mercedes that has commanded her attention. The car has a rich, creamy yellow body, and its hubcaps are painted to match the sunny shade. The fact that, at this moment, there isn't a fellow student of my own age to introduce myself to anywhere near it is irrelevant. My mother wants to go over and make acquaintances between adults, and as she stares at the mother and father, she gleams like lamé. In her mind, she's no doubt advancing way past dinner in the small town we went through about two miles down the road. She's spending a late-season week at their summer house. Then they're all skiing together wherever people like that ski together in Colorado during Christmas break. Finally, three years from now, she sees them all sitting together at graduation, sharing in-jokes and reminiscing with a tear about how fast the young ones have grown up, and how lucky they are to have found each other.

Lifelong friends in a blink, the assumptions and the fantasy as real to her as my own assessment that the last thing those two wealthy people want is for a pair of scrubs like us to do anything other than wash that pretty, buttercup-colored sedan of theirs.

"You're being ridiculous," she announces. "We're going over there."

My mother links her lower arm through mine, and I think of the old-fashioned Wizard of Oz movie, Dorothy lined up with her friends, skipping down the yellow brick road. It's an apt image on one level, at least. We're going to my mother's version of the wizard, and out of the two of us, I'm the only one who cares what's behind the curtain. My mother is not just content to be on the surface; staying superficial is necessary for her survival.

The parents of the Mercedes—and, presumably, a student who's also in this dorm—look at us a second time as we approach. I'm embarrassed by everything about my mother: the dress, the lipstick stain on her cigarette, her peroxide yellow hair, this Hail Mary "introduction" that has taken us over a boundary line that to me is as obvious as a border wall. I'm also ashamed of my cheap black clothes, even though they are a persistent expression of my inner self, a signal to the world that I am different and apart from the crowd. Armor.

The good news about looking like a freak is no one tries to talk to you.

"Isn't this a marvelous campus!" my mother says. "I'm Theresa—Tera Taylor. This is Sarah Taylor. She goes by Sally. How do you do."

Ah. She's switched into Rich Person Dialect. I've heard her do this before. She picked it up while watching Robin Leach.

And so much for my going as Bo here.

The father's eyes go to the V in the top of my mother's dress. Then he looks at her mouth. My mother recognizes this perusal and shifts her body so that one hip moves out of place, the inquiry on his part answered with an affirmative on hers. Meanwhile, the wife notices no part of this currency exchange between her husband and what could arguably be called a tart. The other mother's eyes land on me, and the pity in them makes me look at the pavement.

I don't want any part of this. But this whole thing, from the clandestine application and shocking admission to the excited way my mother talked all summer long about my coming "to St. Ambrose" to this "introduction," is the same rabbit hole for Tera Taylor, a glossy magazine she is creating for herself. The defect in her reasoning, which is a blindness similar to the other mother failing to see her husband's flirtation, is that no one else is going to buy this bullshit. I'm no more a St. Ambrose girl than Tera Taylor could be.

"Greta will be down in a minute, I'm sure," the mother of the Mercedes is saying. "She was here last year as a freshman so she's excited to see everyone."

"Greta and Sarah!" My mother claps and ash falls on the back of her hand. She shakes it off with a grimace she almost hides. "The two of them will be the best of friends. It's fate."

"Here is Greta now."

My eyes swing like the boom of a sailboat, an attempt to come about and salvage this poor tack I'm on. What I see emerging from the darkened interior of the dorm gives me no relief. It is blond. It is tall. It has limbs that would be described as willowy in a supermarket romance novel.

It has the eyes of a predator.

Even, if not especially, as it assumes the facsimile of a pleasant expression.

"Greta's" smile is shiny and white, a second sun. She has freckles dusting across a nose that is so straight and perfectly proportioned, you might assume she'd had it done—until you look at her father and realize that all that aquiline is the result of breeding, no donkey in this bloodline of thoroughbreds. She also has cheekbones with hollows under them—which makes me decide her baby fat was ordered to vacate the premises years ago—and her clothes are expensive and right out of Seventeen magazine: a boxy turquoise jacket, a coral crop top, a kicky skirt with contrast leggings, ballet flats.

She is a jewel.

"Greta," her mother says, "this is your new best friend, Sally."

There is no awkward pause because the girl puts her hand right out. "Welcome to Ambrose."

My mother golf-claps around her cigarette again, but doesn't burn herself this time.

I glance at Greta once more in case I was wrong, in case my insecurities have misconstrued what is actually going on. As our eyes meet, she somehow manages to smile wider and narrow her stare at the same time. It's a cute trick.

If you're Cujo.

My heart pounds sure as if I am already running in the opposite direction, throwing myself in the trunk of the Mercury, and refusing to come out until I am released from this ruse.

My mother is wrong. Greta and I will never be friends.

And one of us is going to be dead by the end of the semester.

chapter TWO

It is forty-five minutes later. I'm back down by the car, and the Mercury is empty of my things, the laundry basket returned to the front seat without its load of folded sheets and blankets. My mother is embracing me, and I breathe in the familiar scent of cigarette smoke and Primo, the knockoff Giorgio perfume she buys at CVS. She's leaving not because I have unpacked, but because she is getting no further than the introduction stage with Greta's parents. They've made the disappointing choice to help their daughter settle in across the hall, ignoring the incredible opportunity of forging a relationship with Theresa who goes by Tera.

I know this dose of reality is challenging my mother's imaginary world so she's got to go before the spell is broken, Cinderella pulling out of the ball early before she realizes she's actually at a pool hall. I'm the glass slipper in this analogy, and I'm very certain that my mother's already anticipating a Parents' Weekend reunion with her new best friends, my residence at Tellmer the thread that will connect her once again with the objects of her aspiration.

Things are going to work out for her. She just knows this.

She's getting behind the wheel now. She's lighting another cigarette. Absently, I note that she has only four left in the pack. She'll stop for gas and more Virginia Slims at the Sunoco down in the little town, but I have to believe the fumes of her fantasy are what will really carry her back to our meager existence, not whatever unleaded she pumps into the tank of her old car.

My mother looks up at me, and for an instant, the façade breaks and I see what is underneath. She's worried about me. So am I. But my reality is not one that I can invite her into because this flare-up of motherly concern will not last more than a moment for her. The split in the clouds of her busy internal life is something I cannot trust and not because she's abusive. She's far from cruel; she's just self-absorbed. Accordingly, I've learned the hard way that I'm the only savior I've got in this world.

"You're going to be fine," she says through an exhale of smoke.

She has to believe this because to entertain the opposing option that I will not be fine and leave me here anyway means she's a negligent mother. Which she's not. I have been fed, watered, clothed, and housed since the moment of my birth. The damage she does is never intentional, and besides, her desperate, twitchy, clawing need to distinguish herself from her lot in life tortures her much more than it does me.

I've always felt sorry for her.

"I'll call you every Sunday at two p.m.," she tells me.


"You have the money I gave you."


There's a long pause, and as things become uncomfortable, her eyes skip out to the lawn. The sight of the grass she is so taken with must calm her because she nods once, the sharp head bob like a gavel coming down on a court case, the verdict in. Then she waves at me with her cigarette and I step back to watch the Mercury pull away. In the wake of her departure, I link my arms around my middle. I blink in the lightning-bright sunshine of fall. I smell clean air.

The leaves on the trees are still green. This will not last.

I turn and face the dorm, seeing it properly for the first time. The glossy black door has been propped wide with a brass weight, and there are windows open all across the front of the building, the lower sashes pushed high, no screens to buffer the sounds inside. Voices, high and low, form a symphony that could have been written by the members of the roofline's frieze, and I close my eyes, trying to find the repeating sequence that pulls all of it together. There is none.

My stomach cramps as I walk into the dorm's cool interior. Straight ahead is the main staircase, and beyond it, through a broad archway, I see a big open area with no furniture and floor-to-ceiling windows. To the left is a room with several mismatched tables, a couple of chairs, and eight phones with long cords that crisscross institutional-grade carpeting.

Okay, so that is where I have to be every Sunday at two p.m.

To the right, on the wall, is a varnished wooden rack of open-air mailboxes, each cubbyhole marked at its top with a name tag slid into a brass holder. There are missives in each of the slots already, a multicolored assortment of notices that have lollygagged in their compartments, forming rows upon rows of the letter c.

I leave my set of papers where they are because no one else has picked up theirs, and in my disinterest in the communiques, I figure I am fitting in with the crowd here for my first, and maybe only, time. The stairs are made of the same dark-colored and varnished wood as the mailboxes, each step protected against wear by a black-treaded pad that will also provide purchase when students come in with rain on their sneakers or snow on their winter boots. The banister is the same kind of wood again, and I wonder what sort it is as I troll my hand up the smooth and spindled support.

When I get to the second floor, I stop on the landing. Ahead, there is a closed door with a brass plate on it that reads Residential Advisor. I look to the long halls on the left and the right. The student rooms are set at equidistant measures down both sides of the pale-brown-carpeted corridors. For a moment, I panic because I can't remember which way I should go and I can't think of how to come up with the correct analysis. There are too many excited voices, too many people walking around with suitcases and duffels, and too many perfumes and colognes mingling in the humid, still-summer air, a department store's fragrance counter come to Christmastime's agitating life.

Everyone is energized by the fresh start that the new school year brings. New notebooks and packs of pens, new textbooks with bindings that are uncracked. New teachers, new subjects. New friends, new boyfriends. I recognize this phenomenon because a similar buzzy buoyancy infected everyone on the first day of my public high school a year ago. I witnessed it from afar then, too.

Right. I go to the right.

As I make my way down to my room, I realize I'm more like my mother than I'm comfortable with. We're both outsiders to so much, although at least I am content to stay where I am on the far-flung fringes.

My room is not that far down, located just past the bathroom that services our wing with six shower stalls, six toilet stalls, and six sinks. As I pass by, two men in work uniforms come out with buckets of tools and a coiled snakelike contraption. They don't look at me. They're sweaty and they are clearly ready to have whatever job they are doing over with. Perhaps their wish has been granted, I think, because they seem to have packed up.

"Are you boys done?"

At the sound of the male voice, I turn back around. There's a man standing in the juncture of the hallways, by the stairs. He has his hands on his jean-clad hips as if he's in charge, but he's got a Nirvana Bleach tour T-shirt on. His dark hair is a grow-out of a much shorter cut, the ends perking up as if they are making a break for it, the brown color deepened by dampness and lightened by streaks of copper. His cheeks are shaved. His face is breathtakingly handsome. He is wearing a wedding ring.

I am glad my mother left before meeting him. And I am curious how he can call two men in their fifties "boys." He is at least twenty-five years younger than they are, fully mature, yet nowhere near dad status.

The plumbers walk over and talk to him about pipes. He asks questions. I hear nothing.

The more I look at him, the more I feel strangely excited and a little nauseous. My palms sweat and a giggle trembles up between my lungs even though there is no joke anywhere near me.

He doesn't notice my presence, and this makes sense. For one thing, there clearly are some issues with the pipes—not the sort of thing you want with twenty rooms full of young women. But I'm also not the kind of girl that people notice for the reason I'd want someone like him to notice me.

As I continue on to my room, a residual of the man follows me, my molecules supercharged and vibrating even as I leave the sight of him behind.

The room I've been assigned to is 213, and as I pass through its open doorway, I want to close things up. I have a paranoia about open doors. About people staring at me. About my secret getting out. My roommate hasn't arrived yet, though, and it seems rude to shut her out before she even gets here.

Our space is generously sized and split down the middle by an invisible line. The walls are whitewashed down to the chair rail that runs around about four feet off the floor, and under that rail there's beadboard that's varnished the same color as the floor, as the banister, as the stairs, as the mailbox cubbies. The arrangement of what is mine and what is my roommate's is a mirror image, the beds wedged into the corners on either side, the bureaus at the foot of the beds, the narrow desks pushed together in front of the tremendous, many-paned window that makes up the whole wall opposite the door.

The furniture is not fancy. The beds have no box springs, just mattresses, and even those are covered with a practical plastic barrier that is stitched into the batting. The bed frames are metal and the headers and footers rise up on both ends to the chair rail level, as if that piece of molding is a height restrictor. The bureaus are old wood. So are the chairs that go with the desks.

I'd chosen the right side for no practical reason and every superstitious one. As I first entered with the laundry basket of bedding suspended between my cramped, stinging hands, it was immediately apparent that I had to be on the right side or everything would go badly. If I ended up on the left, these next nine months were going to be consumed by academic trials I cannot best, pretty girls who hate me, and an enduring, baseless homesickness that cannot ever be cured because I don't actually enjoy living with my mother in our home. As long as I'm on the right, though, there's a chance I'll come out on the June side of this sophomore year with, if not a glowing experience, then at least something I tolerated.

Something I lived through.

I glance over my shoulder at the door. The 213 on it bothers me tremendously and I stare across the hall at the closed-up room opposite me. It bears the more coveted 14 after its 2, and I wish I could change rooms with that Greta girl who is not my best friend. I can't, of course. I'm a cog in this wheel of pairings and location assignments, and if childhood has taught me anything, it's the reality of endurance.

Behind 214's closed door, there are voices. High, shrill, bubbly. There is music, too. Paula Abdul, bright, cheerful, danceable. Parents venture past the members-only party and ignore the muffled sounds. Every single girl who passes by looks and lingers, like she's trying to figure out how to get in there, the code to that vault of valuables.

I find myself yearning to be welcomed into room 214, too, and I hate it. This hollow coveting is my mother's persistent hobby, and after watching her want things she cannot, and will never, have, I'm not interested in impotent cravings. If I start with that stuff now I'll be just like her as a grown-up, greasy-lipped, smoking a Virginia Slim, wearing a cheap knockoff dress as I flirt with the father of one of my daughter's schoolmates. The good news is that I know damn well that my black wardrobe and my matte, dyed-black hair are, among other things, guaranteed to cut off access to 214 right at the pass. This justifies my aesthetics. I'd rather make things like that Paula Abdul dance party an impossibility than be tortured with a string of maybe-I-mights that are forever defeated.

I walk over to the window, lean across my shallow desk, and check out what's behind the dorm. I see a parking lot with three spaces and a tremendous oak that seems as big as our whole building. Then there's a stretch of mowed grass that declines to a thick border of unruly vegetation that is ready to give someone ticks or at least poison ivy. Through the rare breaks in its entwined growth, I can make out a stream that is flowing fairly fast.

On Sale
Jul 11, 2023
Page Count
368 pages