Eight friends. One game. A dozen regrets. And a night that will ruin them all, in this high stakes gripping story of manipulation and innocence lost, from the author of Bleed Like Me.
Chloe Sanders is ready for a change. She’s tired of watching her best friend Eve turn away from her for the more interesting and popular Holly Reed, and tired of living with her grandparents while her parents volunteer overseas. Chloe spends her days crushing on a guy named Mateo, being mostly ignored by Eve and Holly, and wishing the cornfields of Iowa didn’t feel so incredibly lonely.
Then a new girl transfers to her high school—Chloe Donnelly. This Chloe is bold and arty and instantly placed on a pedestal by Eve and Holly. Now suddenly everyone is referring to Chloe Sanders as “Other Chloe” and she figures the only thing to do is go with it.
Chloe Donnelly introduces all her friends to a dangerous game: a girls vs. guys challenge that only has one rule—obtain information by any means necessary. Chloe Donnelly’s got power over everyone—secrets she’s exploiting—and she uses it to keep them all playing. When the game turns nasty, soft-spoken Mateo chooses Other Chloe to help him expose everything Chloe Donnelly has done. But neither realize just how much the truth could cost them in the end.
Four-Letter Word 1 Chloe Donnelly transferred to our high school the day Melissa McGrill miscarried a baby none of us knew about on the floor of the disgusting locker room showers. It wasn’t like I didn’t notice a new girl, of course. It was after spring break, and who starts in a new school after spring break? Particularly small, boring Grinnell High School, which had little to show for itself beyond a decent baseball team and a state-recognized antibullying poster slogan. But still, any interest I might’ve had in a new student was sidelined by the mental image of a blood-covered baby gasping its last breath on unclean, scuzzy tiles.
Most of the morning I couldn’t shake the picture in my head. I had to ask Mr. Meyers to repeat his question about As I Lay Dying twice before I finally could answer correctly. By the time I got to lunch, the miscarried baby in my mind had grown extra hands and a mouth that opened and closed like a hungry fish.
“Did you hear about Melissa?” Eve asked as soon as she slid onto the bench across from me in the cafeteria. It was burrito day, and I couldn’t stand the wet-dog smell of the school’s cafeteria burritos. Eve always got two of them.
“Yep,” I answered, and shoveled a handful of pretzel sticks into my mouth, trying not to breathe through my nose.
Eve squinted at me, then adjusted her headband so her zit-free forehead was on full display, all that flat-ironed light-brown hair framing her face. She waited a few seconds and then huffed, “Is that all you have to say?”
Things with Eve had been pretty crappy since spring break. Even before that, really. I hated seeing the side of her that was so impatient with me, but it’d be a lie to say that side didn’t come out more and more frequently every day. I’d been trying everything I could to be more what she wanted, but it never seemed to be enough.
“Did you want me to say something else?” I tried, going for teasing, but maybe sounding snippy because the burrito smell was bad and my stomach already hurt thinking about that dead baby.
The first two years of high school Eve and I had been best friends, barely able to make it through class without texting each other. But that was before Holly. Holly with her beautiful face and her perfect dancer body, and her insistence that Eve ditch me over spring break.
“A girl miscarried at the Catholic school last year,” Holly said, setting her tray of burritos down and squishing on the bench beside Eve. Always beside Eve, never sliding in next to me. “But not during gym class. Gross. I can’t even imagine. . . .”
Neither could I, was the thing. Or rather, I didn’t want to imagine it anymore. That was part of the reason why I didn’t have anything to say about it. Because everything my imagination was conjuring up was horrible, and I couldn’t reconcile that with what I knew about Melissa. Melissa, who helped me run a lemonade stand during new student orientation at nearby Grinnell College when we were in elementary school. Melissa, who was the person I’d told about my own mom’s miscarriage when I was thirteen years old and how for a while I didn’t think my family would survive it.
“It’s not that big a deal,” a voice said next to me, and before I could look up, I was being shoved down the bench by a large canvas messenger bag and a girl whom I’d never spoken to before. Half of one of my butt cheeks was hanging off the side of the bench, but I was too shy to push back. “Abortions are way bloodier than miscarriages. I’m Chloe, by the way. Chloe Donnelly.”
I dropped my head and studied her through my curtain of hair—my bangs were taking way too long to grow out, but my forehead was a mess of acne so I didn’t mind so much. Plus, my hair was the perfect two-way mirror. No one could see in, but I could see out.
There was nothing interesting about the way Chloe Donnelly looked; she was plain, dark hair to her shoulders, and a basic face with slightly too much makeup, including bright-pink lip liner, which I thought made girls look trashy. I almost dismissed her altogether as not really worth getting to know in the two months we had left of our junior year. But then she pushed my hair from my face and tucked it behind my ear like we were friends, and studied me with her wide, light-blue eyes. They looked practically white, and I couldn’t decide if they were creepy or angelic, but they made her look less average.
I shifted my butt back onto the bench and shook my hair back to its curtain position. Chloe Donnelly’s clothes were dark and a bit New York arty for being in Grinnell, Iowa, but not exactly drastic or extreme enough to make her stand out. Except the longer I studied her, the more she did stand out. And not just her eyes. It was as if the atoms around her were all sucking in their stomachs to give her more space.
“I just started here,” she said, pulling a recycled lunch sack from her messenger bag. The sack was faded green and had an Earth Day logo peeling off the side. She had rings on every finger of her left hand, and a single ring on the pointer finger of her right hand, a thick silver band that almost covered her first knuckle with a purple stone embedded in it.
Eve and Holly stared at her—no curtains of hair to hide their full-on gaping—before Eve finally said, “I’m Eve, this is Holly, and her name is Chloe too.” She swatted the air toward me like I was a fly circling her wet-dog burrito, hoping to eat it and then barf it back up. Hurt must have registered on my face because Eve crossed her eyes and gave me a goofy smile like she used to when the two of us were being stupid. I laughed and Eve did too until Holly nudged her.
Chloe Donnelly looked at me, taking in my hockey shirt and dress-code-regulation-length jean skirt. “Another Chloe, huh?”
I wanted to say I was the first Chloe, but my tongue felt too thick in my mouth, so I resigned myself to nodding and hoping people wouldn’t start calling me Chloe S. like they did in elementary school when Chloe Brockenrick was in my class.
“So you’ve had an abortion?” Eve leaned forward and asked, because this was what she would ask. Eve was extremely curious, always wondering aloud what stuff would be like. What do you think it’s like to have a pierced tongue? Do you think the principal still has sex with his wife? Would you ever let anyone tie you up? I was the opposite of curious. Thinking about those things scared me a little. Or maybe more than a little.
The thing with Eve, though, was that as curious as she was, she usually never did anything about it. Her curiosity was all just out-loud speculation. Freshman year, when everyone was doing all those “challenges” on social media that involved shot glasses or cinnamon or marshmallows, Eve would endlessly tag people for them but never actually participate. She was the last one to ever try anything, and not only because of her hovery mom, who always seemed to be popping up at school events for one reason or another. Eve was as unadventurous as me, stuck in a tiny town in the middle of Iowa. It was one of the things that made us friends, being perpetually bored and not quite willing to change that.
“Of course I’ve had an abortion,” Chloe Donnelly answered, lifting a bony shoulder as if she was used to these sorts of lunchtime conversations. “I’m from Chicago.”
“Is Chicago an abortion hot spot?” I blurted out, going red as soon as the words dropped from my lips. That was the thing with me: I was a blurter. I had this humiliating habit of saying something inappropriate as soon as I was pushed out of my comfort zone.
Eve used to think it was hilarious—she’d even egg me on—but like everything else, she seemed embarrassed for me now. “Chloe. Oh my God.”
Chloe Donnelly turned to me. “No, Other Chloe, Chicago isn’t an abortion hot spot. But we are firmly a blue state, which is more than I can say about the mercurial, often-red-state status of Iowa.”
Mercurial? I blinked once, twice, then blurted, “Chicago’s not a state.” Jeez, what was wrong with me?
“Chlo-e,” Eve said again, holding out the final e like a whiny note of judgment and intolerance. I looked at her, hoping for the goofy eye-crossing face to spring up again, but that wasn’t happening.
Holly touched the bracelet on Eve’s wrist where she wore her half of their BEST FRIENDS charm. “Don’t you mean . . . ‘Other Chloe’?”
Eve touched Holly’s bracelet like it was some secret signal, then looked at Chloe Donnelly, totally ignoring the no-doubt-defeated expression on my face. “Yeah, that’s what I meant. Other Chloe.”
So within ten minutes of wet-dog-burrito lunch, I got to watch the Wonder Twins activate their best-friend superpower, I became “Other,” and Chloe Donnelly was launched onto a pedestal for Holly and Eve to fawn over. Another crap day in my life.
I’d completely lost my appetite, which no one seemed to notice, but Eve offered to share her second burrito with Chloe Donnelly. She passed, but then made us all exchange numbers with her. Though she did ask me first, and told me she thought my penguin phone case was “adorably retro,” so at least there was that.
* * *
“Did you hear about Melissa?” I said, as I sat next to Mateo in the back row of Spanish class, last and best period of the day. I always got there as early as possible because Señor Williams was a total hard-ass about during-class chatter and I didn’t want to squander even thirty seconds with Mateo. “Melissa McGrill? In gym class?”
Mateo raised his dark eyebrows so they made this upside-down V. And the tiny balloon of hope inside me that always surrounded talking to Mateo deflated. I hated his disappointed look. Hated it. “I’m not one to follow gossip, Chloe,” he said in this way that wasn’t exactly judging, but more a statement of fact about his character. I shoved my left ring fingernail into my mouth to gnaw at it, trying to figure out if there was a way to regroup.
He wasn’t a gossiper. I knew this. And he wouldn’t see this as an opportunity to ask about me and my life; he’d see it as me spreading rumors. Which sucked. It was a stupid thing to bring up with him, and I should’ve planned out a better conversation topic. A different way for him to get to know me. To see me.
Mateo wasn’t like anyone else in our high school. He was quiet and thoughtful and mysterious in an almost shy way. He’d moved to Grinnell the summer before this school year started, and I’d spent six months doing everything I could to get him to like me. Though I wasn’t completely sure what I’d do if he ever really did. Somehow my fantasies of us always stopped with him smiling and holding my hand and asking me out—wanting to spend time with me for real.
He didn’t dislike me, I didn’t think, but he didn’t say a whole lot either. I didn’t know if it was because he was Mexican American in a really white high school and felt out of place, or if he was just not chatty. Lots of guys weren’t. At least they weren’t chatty with me.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, tugging at a thread on the pocket of my skirt and trying to swallow down my embarrassment.
He nodded and flipped open his notebook. I peeked at him through my hair, zeroing in on his lip ring and wondering what it would feel like when I kissed him. If I kissed him. The thought of it ratcheted up a gas bubble of anxiety in my stomach, but it definitely seemed less like panic and more like excitement. Like the buzziness that comes from a maybe.
“I used to be friends with her. Melissa, I mean,” I blurted. Again. “I wasn’t trying to gossip. I have some experience with miscarriage.” Oh God. Did I just say that? “I mean, not mine. But . . . anyway, I had no idea she was pregnant. I didn’t even know she was dating anyone.”
Mateo didn’t say anything about my miscarriage experience, only shrugged. His shoulders were big—man shoulders—and I wondered if he lifted weights on his own or if it came from playing baseball or working. I’d heard he’d spent some of the summer helping his family on a farm where they lived, though I hadn’t gotten up the courage to ask him. Everything with Mateo felt a little like prying.
“It was a long time ago . . . when we were friends, me and Melissa. Elementary school and most of junior high. I haven’t hung out with her in forever. I see her in church, though. And I did see her once in town with a guy in an army outfit, or navy, or whatever. How do you even tell? Maybe he’s the dad.”
“This seems like gossiping,” Mateo said, and my cheeks burned hot.
“No. It’s not, though. I . . . I mean, I’m just worried, I guess.” The blood-baby in my imagination did another lap around my brain, and I slammed my eyes shut. What was I doing talking about this?
“Other Chloe,” a voice called, but I didn’t need to open my eyes to look for who it was. “Who’s your friend?”
I blinked the spots out of my vision and turned to Chloe Donnelly. “This is Mateo.”
She stood before him and eyed him like she had a lot of experience sizing up guys. Not that she was necessarily interested in him so much as she could quickly read and catalog attributes. I wished I was good at that, but I always got hung up on one thing. The way a guy’s ears stuck out or how he had a patch of acne along his chin or how one tooth tipped in front of the others.
“Mateo. Huh. So are you Latino?” she asked, as if her question was totally normal, not a million kinds of awkward and invasive and a little racist, particularly at GHS, where 92 percent of us were white kids. At least I’d never blurted-asked about his family’s background. Instead, I just waited, listening and memorizing everything he said, including him mentioning once that his mom grew up in Mexico City.
I shoved my fingernail into my mouth, gnawing the thumb this time, and let my gaze ping-pong between him and Chloe Donnelly. When Mateo—unsurprisingly—didn’t answer, Chloe Donnelly grinned wide as if she’d won something. Then she turned to me and said, “Can you hang out this afternoon? I need to get some stuff from Walmart and don’t feel like going alone.”
I dropped my thumb from my mouth and answered, “Yeah. Definitely.” I probably agreed too quickly, but I hadn’t gotten any texts from Eve all day and the idea of going home alone right after school—again—seemed too depressing to even consider.
I used to play hockey. I started at the Grinnell Community Center when I was really young, playing every chance I got, including making my parents build a backyard skate rink every winter. But then two years ago, after my parents concocted their bucket-list plan of joining the Spirit Corps—a nonprofit organization for whole families to do humanitarian service abroad—we all moved to Burkina Faso. I lasted eight weeks before I begged and pleaded to move back home and live with my grandparents, Nan and Pops. It was a stressful few weeks after that, when my parents tried to figure out if they could get out of their Spirit Corps commitment—they couldn’t without some serious financial repercussions—and they tried to convince me to stay. When I went on a hunger strike, they agreed to send me back as long as I spent summers and winter breaks with them.
Nan and Pops lived in Grinnell too, so presumably it should’ve been a fairly smooth transition. They did open their house to me without complaining or making it seem like a hassle at all. And my grandparents were pretty okay, but they weren’t the type to cart me all over the state to play travel hockey, and GHS sadly wasn’t big enough for a hockey team. So I pretty much had no extracurricular activities.
“Walmart is great. I love Walmart,” I said to Chloe Donnelly, which . . . sounded ridiculous.
“You sure you don’t have other plans?” Chloe Donnelly asked, her voice a little soft and concerned. “I don’t want to mess anything up for you.”
I peeked at Mateo again, wondering what he thought of my overenthusiasm, and then said as normal as I could, “No worries. I can rearrange things.”
“Great,” she said, slipping into the empty seat in front of Mateo as the bell rang. “It’ll be so pink.”
Christa Desir writes dark contemporary fiction for young adults. She lives with her husband, three small children, and overly enthusiastic dog outside of Chicago. She has volunteered as a rape victim activist for more than ten years, including providing direct service as an advocate in hospital ERs. She also works as an editor at Samhain Publishing. Visit her at ChristaDesir.com.
When is a game no longer just a game? Christa Desir’s bold and edgy Four-Letter-Word will leave readers breathlessly turning pages, sometimes horrified, sometimes titillated, always rooting for Chloe and Mateo to make the right choices and come out unscathed. The drama Desir brings out in sleepy, quiet Grinnell provides a hard and frightening glimpse into our current state of affairs, sparking a strong wish for acceptance for all who dwell within the pages of her story, and, with luck, for those, too, who live and breathe outside of them. A M-U-S-T R-E-A-D.
– Gae Polisner, author of The Memory of Things and The Summer of Letting Go
Raw, real, and impossible to put down. Four-Letter Word tackles fitting in, sexuality, and friendship in an authentic voice teenagers will both believe and love. Without a doubt, this is Christa's bravest, best work yet.
– Jennifer Mathieu, author of The Truth About Alice and Moxie
Tender, gripping, and deceptively haunting, Four-Letter Word reminds us just how necessary, dangerous, and potentially life changing some friendships can be. This novel is a startling jolt to the heart.
– Brendan Kiely, New York Times Bestselling Coauthor of All American Boys and The Last True Love Story
Four-Letter Word is a mystery, a psychological thriller, and a searing look at what happens when we make a game out of other people's pain.
– Elana K. Arnold, author of Infandous and What Girls Are Made Of
When a magnetic new girl arrives at her high school, Chloe Sanders quickly falls into her orbit. It’s easy, since Chloe’s feeling isolated while her parents are volunteering in Burkina Faso and her former best friend drifts away, while the new girl, Chloe Donnelly, takes an instant liking to her. But shy, anxious Chloe Sanders soon discovers that Chloe Donnelly’s friendship is dangerous, particularly when she insists on playing a game that’s perilously close to blackmail. Desir does a great job of cultivating Chloe Sanders’ voice, fraught with constant worry and fear, despite the open-mindedness of her parents about things like sex. Desir offers a realistic, refreshingly sex-positive perspective in Chloe: she’s still figuring out how she feels about sex, and even though she’s well-informed, she’s nonetheless intimidated by the thought of the real thing, up until her enthusiastic but utterly awkward first sexual encounter with her crush. Though the plot about the game doesn’t quite coalesce, Chloe’s strong voice and perspective, as well as the warm, healthy friendships she ultimately cultivates, are eye-opening and rewarding. — Sarah Hunter
– Booklist, March 15, 2018
A game quickly turns sinister in this suspenseful novel from Desir (Other Broken Things) featuring high schoolers who have secrets to hide. In the game, captains of two opposing teams come up with a secret word, which the other team must guess by acquiring clues from the players, using “whatever means necessary.” It all seems innocent enough when introduced by new student, Chloe Donnelly, who recently arrived in Grinnell, Iowa, and is looking for a little excitement. Chloe Sanders, however, has her own reservations as the game soon spins out of control after players resort to sexual favors and blackmail to win. By the time the teens realize how dangerous the game is, Chloe Donnelly has too much leverage on everyone to make quitting an option. Though the premise and repercussions of the game are a bit contrived, Chloe Sanders’s battle to do the right thing, and her concern for her boyfriend, Mateo, who has the most to lose by quitting, provide a sense of urgency. Readers will likely be riveted to learn who ultimately wins the game and discover the truth about manipulative Chloe Donnelly.
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