Today on the site I’m thrilled to be revealing the cover for Derek Milman’s upcoming dark academia YA thriller, A Darker Mischief, which releases from Scholastic on July 2, 2024! Here’s the story:
The Honeys meets The Secret History in a work of dark academia like no other — a boarding school thriller about a queer teen from Mississippi who finds himself swept into a world of old money, privilege, and the secret society at the heart of it all.
When Cal Ware wins a scholarship to an elite New England boarding school, he’s thrilled to leave his past behind. Back home in Mississippi, he was the poor, queer kid who never fit in. But at Essex Academy, he’ll be able to reinvent himself. Or so he hopes…
But at Essex, Cal’s classmates only see his cheap clothes and old iPhone. They mock his accent, and can’t believe he’s never left the country, or heard of The Hamptons. Cal, at his breaking point, is about to give up and return to Mississippi when he learns about a secret society on campus — the key to becoming Essex royalty.
Cal knows he’s not exactly secret society material, but to his surprise, he finds an unlikely champion in the handsome, charismatic, and slightly dangerous Luke Kim. As they get swept up in the mystery and glamour of the Rush process, Cal finds himself falling in love for the first time.
But as the initiation rituals grow riskier — and increasingly nefarious — Cal must decide how far he’s willing to go, and how much of himself he’s willing to sacrifice, to save everything and everyone he cherishes most. Because nothing at Essex — not even Cal’s first love — is quite what it seems.
And here’s the chilling cover, designed by Chris Stengel with art by Colin Verdi!
But wait, there’s more! Read on for the Prologue and first chapter of A Darker Mischief!
There’s blood on my shirt.
I dangle the sleeve over the bathroom sink, turn on the cold water, and rub the stain with my thumb. “Out, damned spot.” I start to laugh maniacally as I rub harder. But it isn’t funny. I got bitten, and there cannot be blood on me.
I stomp out of the bathroom, shaking out the shirt. Luke left the TV on, and our school is on the news, as it always is these days. Wall-to-wall coverage. I’ve never gotten used to these reports. There are no updates about Gretchen Cummings, the vice president of the United States’s daughter, a sophomore here at Essex Academy, who went missing a few weeks ago.
I walk over to a window and stare down at the campus. It’s unlikely somebody would spot a boy at the top of a tower, in a library that doesn’t exist. If someone did see me, trapped in the tall paned windows, a white blur in the blast of morning sun, would they think I was a ghost?
I watch FBI and Secret Service agents down below, combing the campus. “This is terrible,” I say, out loud, to no one. Our campus is on the TV, reflecting in the window onto the campus itself, an off-kilter illusion.
I turn away as the microwave dings.
Sunlight scorches the old volumes on the bookshelves, bequeathed by donors to a Latin department that never was. Luke and I can’t leave the tower at the same time. He absconded before I was awake. But I still smell traces of him. Fresh and athletic. The scent of possibility.
I walk across campus, quiet and sleepy, but not totally dead. I’m another overworked sophomore lugging a duffel bag, getting an early morning start.
No one notices me.
I enter Bromley Laboratory, easily accessible this time of day. No security cams. The door to the basement Is unlocked, propped open a few weeks ago. If the Feds searched here, they concluded their search a while ago.
No one notices me.
I walk down a hallway, open a red metal door at the end, sidle through a pump room, and enter the underground steam tunnels, everything gently hissing. I float down the humid corridors. I reach the B-25 utility room, enter the combination to the lock on the door, and remove it. It’s cooler in here, cleared out, except for the bucket and the flimsy cot.
“Breakfast,” I say, standing at the door.
Gretchen Cummings sits up in her cot, drawing her knees to her chest. I can tell by her ashen complexion that she’s been up for a while. I close the door behind me, removing the steaming hot orange pizza bag from the duffel and dropping it to the concrete floor. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I think as I approach her, pointing a finger warningly. “No biting this time.”
SEPTEMBER—SIX MONTHS EARLIER
I’m sitting alone in Graymont Dining Hall. Graymont looks like a cafeteria you might find on the ground floor of a museum. Round wooden tables on parquet floors; paned oval windows, flanked by heavy tan curtains. We’re required to be in Academic Dress for dinner: white collared shirt, tie, blue jacket, dark slacks. I loosen my tie—it’s legit strangling me.
Boarding school isn’t exactly what I expected. When I learned I’d be leaving my shabby public high school, I got consumed by fantasies about my new life. I imagined myself striding down wide, verdant lawns, my tie flying in the autumnal breeze, chatting feverishly with earnest classmates about nineteenth-century poetry, while referring to any authority figure I didn’t like as “that old windbag.”
I imagined myself giving a presentation in front of stained glass windows to thunderous applause. And being congratulated later at dizzying parties in elegant common areas, spinning colored lights flashing off domed ceilings with crown moldings, as champagne bottles popped.
Yeah, not quite.
I tap my fingers on the table, glancing over at Ashton Jarr, Toby Darling, and Lily Rankin. They’re sitting one table over, and I’m going to tell myself they’re unaware of me instead of actively ignoring me. They walked in together after I was already eating. We’re
tenth graders in the same English class—Mechanics of Word and Identity—a fancy-shmancy way of saying we’re studying basic grammar and learning to write complete sentences in our own style. Toby and Ashton are also my housemates.
For a while, we were a loose, casual friend group. The type that forms the first few weeks of school and then dissipates or culls its members. I’d been invited along to watch movies with them or grab coffee in town; we usually sat together for cafeteria meals, and we traded numbers. But lately, I’ve seen them go off and do stuff on their own (they post everything to their Instagram stories), so I’m not really sure where I stand.
Last week, Ashton asked if I wanted to crash this upper-class party with them. I was flattered, thinking, I’ve been officially accepted, and spent the whole week trying to hide how excited I really was.
Tonight’s the night. But no one’s texted me. Or mentioned anything.
Part of me wants to go up to them, be direct, ask what’s up. Part of me fears the awkwardness of the conversation. But I’m really terrified of the possibility of rejection, and the emotional spiraling that could follow.
The faculty take turns joining us at dinner. Tonight, it’s Mr. Dempsey, an English teacher. I watch him making the rounds. Sometimes if a teacher sees you eating alone, they’ll come over and talk to you. Suddenly, I would rather experience literally anything other than Mr. Dempsey cracking dad jokes and asking if I’m making friends here while everyone stares.
I get up and walk over to Ashton, holding my empty tray.
“SZA was paying tribute to Princess Diana,” Ashton is saying.
“Like Jessie Ware was with that Warhol polaroid of Bianca Jagger at Studio 54.”
“Huh,” says Toby. “And Kendrick with DAMN?”
“That was just him, dude.”
They’re always talking about either sports or the history of album covers, encompassing this oddball knowledge of pop culture history, trying to outdo one another.
“Physics homework tonight,” Lily says to Ashton, tapping his knee.
Ashton turns to Lily. “I’ll meet you at the library.” Ashton finally sees me standing there.
“Hey,” he says, clapping me on the back while Toby flicks my ear, simultaneously, as I sit down. Toby is a goofball with a streak of snark. In twenty years, he’ll probably bring golden retrievers into dive bars. Girls are really into Ashton; I get the appeal. He’s tall, athletic, radiates sensitivity, has a mop of chestnut curls piled on his head, piercing dark eyes that don’t go with the rest of him—a pretty work in progress.
They go on chatting while I sit there staring at my empty tray, until I clear my throat and Ashton raises his eyebrows at me. “Just checking—you guys still going to the party tonight?”
Why does my voice sound so high MY GOD.
Ashton and Toby exchange glances. Uh oh.
“I have . . . like . . .” I try not to stammer. “I have . . . someone else. . . other plans . . . just need to know for scheduling purposes.” Scheduling purposes?
Ashton rises. “Let’s walk.”
We walk three feet in the direction of the exit, where students are dropping their empty trays, before Ashton clamps his hand down on my shoulder. “Look, man, it’s . . . not a good fit.” I turn to face him. The way he frowns involves all these furrows and creases bunched together like an ancient map of waterways.
“Fit?” This was my fear. I try not to hang my head like a child being scolded.
“Us. The party.” He scratches the back of his neck, clearly not wanting to have this conversation. “Look, uh. Lily is friends with Gemma Brassaud. It’s her birthday party, at Quinlan. Lily’s sister went here, and she knew Gemma’s sister. That’s how we—”
“They asked who we wanted to bring, like outright, and crossed off your name.”
I feel sweat forming on my upper lip. “Literally? With a Sharpie?”
Ashton throws his head back and laughs, like You’re so charming and that’s totally why we’ve been friends until right now.
“No, verbally. Like: Not him. Don’t bring HIM.”
I don’t feel the need to make this easier for Ashton. “Not. Him.”
“I . . . sorry to be blunt.” He sighs, doing the solemn thing again, like he’s an army commandant bringing tragic news to a slain soldier’s wife. When I get any kind of tough news, I always take it in stride. But it’s like radiation sickness. It’ll really hit hours later.
And then Ashton says that stupid thing people always say that helps nothing.
“It’s not personal.”
The empty tray is beginning to wobble under my arms. I want to get out of here.
“Well, yeah, hey, have fun. Definitely don’t let me hold you back.”
“Cal, I’m sorry!” I hear behind me as I throw down my tray and exit Graymont.
I’m a sophomore transfer, and after I got over the stress of the morning rush for the showers, I learned that the rules of Essex are unwritten, but they’re like electricity coursing through everything. You don’t see them, but they power the school. The international and day kids tend to stick together, for instance, and everyone courts the day kids because they have cars (though we’re not supposed to ride with them), and they’re the ones who sell weed to everyone. Cliques are huge here. They offer a measure of protection against the elements. But I’m not in a clique. I’m clique-less. A lone wolf. And no one trusts lone wolves . . .
After dinner, I walk back to my dorm feeling weighted down by Ashton’s spurning, a hopelessness creeping in. I tell myself: I’ll spend the rest of the evening burying myself in homework! That’ll take my mind off the party I got uninvited to!
Another thing I had to figure out here were all the various pranks I might fall victim to so I could mentally prepare for their eventuality. As I walk upstairs to my hall, I’m too distracted to notice all the heads half peeking out of cracked-open doors. As soon as I step inside our room, our small plastic wastebasket, filled to the brim with water, perched precariously above the door, tumbles onto my head.
“TSUNAMI!” I hear everyone in the hall shout behind me.
Oh fuck me.
The Tsunami is a common prank around here, especially for underclass students. It doesn’t mean you’re hated. But the timing sucks.
The force of the water literally knocks me to the floor.
At that moment, another lone wolf enters the room and sees the mess. “Oh shit, sorry,” my roommate, Jeffrey, says, closing the door behind him, the jeering in the hall growing softer. “My bad. I forgot to lock the door.”
“How am I so drenched?” I pull at my cold, heavy clothing sticking to my skin.
“Those things hold a lot of water.”
“Shit.” I hold up my phone. It won’t turn on. I restart it. Nothing.
“Ugh,” says Jeffrey. He reaches into the bathroom and throws me a towel. I wrap it around my shoulders. “I think I can fix that. Hold on!” He runs out of the room while I stare at the brown institutional carpeting, shivering, dripping.
Jeffrey Gailiwick hails from Freemont, New Jersey. We got put together because he’s a sophomore transfer too and Essex must have thought if we had that in common, we’d be friends for life. It’s been a neutral situation so far. Jeffrey’s hard to get to know. He can get quiet and stare into space for long periods of time.
With limpid eyes the color of pipe smoke, and a mane of tousled black hair, there’s a definite Byronian vibe to him. He spends a lot of his downtime listening to Sufjan Stevens, reading The Wasp Factory, and scrawling in black leather journals. We share a double in Foxmoore House—an imposing, stately brick building, covered in ivy.
Jeffrey rushes back into the room holding a glass measuring cup and a plastic bag of rice.
He rips open the bag and pours it into the measuring cup. He jumps up, runs into our tiny bathroom with the energy of an ER surgeon; I hear the medicine chest opening and closing, the sound of plastic caps being twisted open, thrown on the floor. Jeffrey returns and adds a handful of those little plastic cylinders that come in pill bottles. “Give me your phone.” I hand it over. He drops it in the measuring cup and shakes everything up, like he’s making a magical potion.
“Trust me,” he says. And he’s right. After an hour, I sigh with relief as the Apple logo flickers back on to my cracked screen. It hasn’t been that long, and I’m not sure why I was expecting anything else; it’s one of those moments where I realize no one was looking for me. There are no missed calls or texts. No DMs. No notifications about anything. I didn’t get tagged anywhere. There’s nothing at all.
Derek Milman is the author of Scream All Night (HarperCollins) and Swipe Right for Murder (Little Brown / Jimmy Patterson). A graduate of Yale Drama School, Derek has performed on stages across the country, and appeared in numerous TV shows and films, working with two Academy Award-winning film directors. He lives in Brooklyn.