From bestselling author Bethany C. Morrow comes a new adult social horror novel in the vein of Get Out meets My Sister, the Serial Killer, about Farrah, a young, calculating Black girl who manipulates her way into the lives of her Black best friend’s white, wealthy, adoptive family but soon suspects she may not be the only one with ulterior motives. . . .
Seventeen-year-old Farrah Turner is one of two Black girls in her country club community, and the only one with Black parents. Her best friend, Cherish Whitman, adopted by a white, wealthy family, is something Farrah likes to call WGS—White Girl Spoiled. With Brianne and Jerry Whitman as parents, Cherish is given the kind of adoration and coddling that even upper-class Black parents can’t seem to afford—and it creates a dissonance in her best friend that Farrah can exploit. When her own family is unexpectedly confronted with foreclosure, the calculating Farrah is determined to reassert the control she’s convinced she’s always had over her life by staying with Cherish, the only person she loves—even when she hates her.
As troubled Farrah manipulates her way further into the Whitman family, the longer she stays, the more her own parents suggest that something is wrong in the Whitman house. She might trust them—if they didn’t think something was wrong with Farrah, too. When strange things start happening at the Whitman household—debilitating illnesses, upsetting fever dreams, an inexplicable tension with Cherish’s hotheaded boyfriend, and a mysterious journal that seems to keep track of what is happening to Farrah—it’s nothing she can’t handle. But soon everything begins to unravel when the Whitmans invite Farrah closer, and it’s anyone’s guess who is really in control.
Told in Farrah’s chilling, unforgettable voice and weaving in searing commentary on race and class, this slow-burn social horror will keep you on the edge of your seat until the last page.
Release date: February 8, 2022
Print pages: 331
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Bethany C. Morrow
I’m sitting in a bedroom with the kind of vaulted ceiling I wanted in my own, in a house much larger and more extravagant than the one I can’t go back to, and the fact that I can’t enjoy it upsets me.
I feel fickle. Angsty. Defensive. Like an ordinary teenage girl, when all I’m ever doing is pretending to be one.
The house where I used to live is only a few blocks away, and being told it’s no longer mine is destroying me on the inside. It’s making it hard to eat, to maintain a train of thought about anything else. To decide what needs to happen next.
And something has to be done.
I cannot become accustomed to someone else being in control. Not just of what happens on the outside, but worse, of what’s happening on the inside of me.
I won’t allow it.
I would burn it all first.
When Cherish Whitman was ten years old, her parents orchestrated twelve days of Christmas for her. It doesn’t matter how spoiled you think you are; a reindeer playdate tops everything. Making angels in the snow when it’s unseasonably warm and the powder’s been brought in special is an experience that sets a standard, and Brianne and Jerry Whitman did not shy away from it. They didn’t worry about what expectations or extravagance would have to come next. They taught Cherish that she deserved it.
They taught us both, and I am a quick study.
Last year, I was part of the planning committee for Cherish’s sweet sixteen. My own had involved a dance hall, and a theme, and all the white kids we’ve gone to the academy with all these years. It wasn’t sensational and it wasn’t embarrassingly modest; it was perfectly forgettable, even if my parents’ budgetary reminders weren’t. When it came time for Cherish’s, my mother joked with the Whitmans that maybe I could do them a favor and suggest something equally modest for their daughter’s celebration, having been so reasonable about mine. I smiled along with them and then suggested a “quick” plane ride to the city for dinner and party-dress shopping—and Brianne Whitman was elated. The “recovery” mud baths and Swedish massages were entirely her idea.
Cherish is easy to love, but I’m almost equally enamored of the Whitmans. It’s the way they love her. It’s the unapologetic extravagance they dole out to their daughter, the way they never temper their coddling of her, that makes them remarkable. It shouldn’t, and I’m sure it doesn’t sound out of the ordinary until you know what makes their family unique. It becomes clear very quickly. It’s difficult to miss, even if you’ve known them as long as I have.
Color blindness requires the kind of delusional naïveté that I have only ever believed in Cherish. For one thing, you can’t be the intended beneficiary of color’s power and refuse to see it; that’s just refusing accountability. Only someone susceptible to its harm, who honestly and impressively never develops an awareness of that fact, could claim it. Cherish is just such a masterpiece, and the Whitmans are why.
“The guests are arriving, ladies,” Mr. Whitman informs us from the doorway of Cherish’s bedroom. Our bedroom, for the past couple of weeks. He’s got his hand over his eyes like one of us is a blushing bride and it’s bad luck to see us before the ceremony.
“Dad.” Cherish laughs, and it covers the groan I don’t mean to make out loud. “You can look!”
“Jerry!” Mrs. Whitman stops cornrowing Cherish’s hair and sends one of her trademark twinkling laughs toward the high ceiling. They’re always like the final stage of an exorcism, as though her joy will come billowing from her open mouth like a swarm of locusts. I almost see it, a cloud of gold above her head.
Both Cherish and her mother look at me with smiles or gaping amusement, asking with their expressions whether or not I can believe this wholesome, adorable scene, but I can’t muster a grin. I raise one corner of my mouth, and Cherish is satisfied, going back to her reflection in the vanity too quickly to notice anything’s off. Mrs. Whitman’s brow creases a little, but when I drop her gaze, she doesn’t let on.
She’s a consummate professional, Mrs. Brianne LePage Whitman. Her day job involves an ornate showroom, a pencil skirt and modest button-down, a classic chignon, and any of a thousand silk scarves tossed across one or both of her shoulders like she meant to do something with it but just casually ran out of time. She somehow conversationally explains one antiquity or another in the most intriguing detail, but as though it’s just something she knows, and then someone bids their entire net worth to take it home. When I was younger, I literally did not know she was paid for this; I thought it was just something wealthy white women do.
Today Brianne’s hair is down, and she’s wearing something she calls a garden dress, paired with her plain wedding band and an arrangement of light accessories Cherish would tell me are “tasteful” for the occasion. It’s little details like having jewelry for every occasion and knowing precisely how many there will be that taught me the difference between my family’s money and theirs. The Whitmans’ property backs up to the twelfth hole of the golf course, and I used to live a very short drive away, but there’s a difference between working to afford this community and choosing this community so you can still travel four times a year.
Cherish is their saving grace, or rather I’m close enough to their daughter to know that if the Whitmans stole the whole world, it would only end up at her feet. It makes it difficult to hold their privileged position against them, but I still feel so sick to my stomach right now that I could throw up all over what I’m sure is an irreplaceable antique rug. It’s Turkish mohair from the beginning of last century—that I specifically recall from the first time I tiptoed across it and Brianne set a sea of golden laughter free above her head.
“RahRah, you want Mom to braid your hair like mine?” Cherish is asking, two tight cornrows framing her face as though to keep her voluminous twist out contained.
“I’m happy to.” Brianne smiles at me, a trace of concern visible in her soft smile, her hands delicately clasped in front of her the way they sometimes are while exhibits are being positioned at the auction house.
This is what I’m talking about. Of course Brianne Whitman, blond, and svelte, and demure, knows how to cornrow. I mean, of course, because that’s the kind of mother she is. She’s not cunning like my mother and me, but she’s conscientious—and since she’s only Cherish’s mom, that’s enough. When Brianne found out she was going to have a Black daughter, of course she was mindful enough to take a class. Not just in Black American studies, either. On hair care, on skin and makeup, too. She wasn’t going to bring home a baby who looked nothing like her and act like her love was enough. That’s not who the Whitmans are.
Cherish is still occasionally checking me out in the mirror, and Mrs. Whitman hasn’t stopped looking at me like she wants to open her arms and swallow me inside, even as she wipes the rest of the gel from the back of her hand and applies it to Cherish’s edges.
“I’ve got a small headache,” I lie, and lightly crease my brow like I’m resisting a full grimace.
“Okay, definitely pass on the braids, then,” my friend says with a laugh. “You know my mom braids like she’s trying to cinch your scalp.”
Mrs. Whitman waves us off, jovially, because she knows how to graciously escape a compliment.
“Five minutes, okay, girls?” she chirps on her way out of the bedroom, but Cherish hops up from her mirror immediately after.
“I’m ready,” she says, joining me on the huge bed we share. “You wanna go snatch wigs and whatnot?”
“Snatch wigs?” I repeat back to her with all the intended judgment. “Is that what the white kids at the academy say these days?”
“You know they do. But seriously, there’ll definitely be a few toupees and hairpieces at this thing, and I will absolutely use my birthday pass on embarrassing blue bloods.”
“There’s no such thing as a birthday pass,” I reply, falling back into the crook of her arm.
“There for sure is. Everyone knows that.”
“Maybe for the actual wigs.”
“WGS? Really? Has that come back around already?”
“It never left.”
“You know you can be white girl spoiled even if your parents are Black, right?”
“Mmm,” I hum, so she hears the skepticism. There’s no use explaining what she couldn’t possibly understand. I’ve learned to coddle Cherish over the years, too.
“Okay, my hair’s gonna get flat,” Cherish says, forcing me back up when she rises. “Let’s get into it.”
“Would you be upset if I didn’t come down today?”
Her head falls to the side. “Would I be upset if you didn’t come to my birthday party because you wanted to stay upstairs and sulk?”
“Che. You don’t get to have three birthday functions in one weekend and then act salty when somebody gets tired. And—” Then my voice breaks.
I hate it because it’s not something I planned.
The break isn’t intentional. It’s not the execution of a subtle strategy, timed to elicit a specific response.
When the tears almost come, they’re because I’m not used to slipping.
“I’m not sulking. Thanks for being so supportive.”
However I look when I can’t choose between anger and sadness, the snarky expression slips from Cherish’s face, and it’d be satisfying if I’d done it on purpose. When she grabs me by the shoulders, pulling me in, I have to fight the urge to pinch her the way I used to pinch myself under the dining table, or beneath my desk the first few months at the academy, when I needed to bring the pain to the surface for release. I perfected the kind of pinch that breaks capillaries and really burns, and then leaves a bruise that’s like a tiny drop of purple ink that slowly spreads.
Most people grab a hunk of arm, but I’ve always had self-control. Because the key—after choosing just the right spot, like the place just above the elbow, on the inside—is to trap what almost seems like too small an amount of skin between finger and thumb, so that at first you don’t expect the pain. Then, as you tighten, you twist.
It’d be easy enough to reach that spot on Cherish when we draw back from the embrace, if I let my hands slide down her arms, but I won’t. I’m just sick of feeling unlike myself, of feeling physically ill, and Cherish is just being Cherish. Sometimes obtuse, often insufferably spoiled . . . but always mine.
Even now, even without pinching her, I feel slightly better when I’m wrapped up in her arms.
“BB! I’m so sorry, RahRah, don’t cry,” she says into my hair, and like I’m any other teenage girl, her reaction ensures that I must. I want to be sick right this minute, just to purge the unfamiliar ache and frailty. I am exhausted at feeling like I could break.
“I’m sorry, Che.” I can’t wipe my eyes because she’s trapped my arms between us and she’s hugging me too tight. For a moment, I consider that this was her strategy. That she meant to bring me to tears. I wonder what it’s like to be this fragile all the time, and whether she’s decided I have to find out.
“I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking, I was trying to make light of it, but I shouldn’t have.” She moans into me the way Mrs. Whitman does when she’s heartsore for someone.
I believe her—until she speaks again.
“I’ll never act white girl spoiled again. Promise.”
She only says it to make me laugh. Which I do, my shoulders relaxing when my suspicion fades.
“Yeah, right. You are not capable of that kind of self-control.”
“Okay, you’re probably right. Also, it’s just really fun.” This time we both laugh. “Being a spoiled white girl when you’re Black is literally my favorite thing ever. It confuses very literally everyone.”
“That’s the only reason I put up with it.”
“Whatever. You love me.”
“Ugh. Don’t remind me.” We both try to check our reflections in the vanity at the same time and end up shoving each other, playfully. “Fiiine,” I say through a sigh. “Let’s get the finale over with.”
Cherish hoots, grabbing my hand and pulling me down the long staircase, through the house, and out into the backyard.
The Whitmans’ sprawling, triple-tiered backyard is nothing short of a private park. The front has no yard at all, instead boasting an ocean of stone pavers in varying shades of gray and the perfect sprinkling of cloudy blue all the way up to the door. The back more than makes up for it, and today the park is decked out with garden lighting, waitstaff circulating hors d’oeuvres so small you’d have to sneak a tiny army of them off the platter to make them count, and half the city’s rich and/or local famous. There are way more adults than teenagers, which makes sense because we’ve finally arrived at the event geared toward applauding Cherish’s parents for raising an amazing daughter. There’s always one.
As soon as we make our appearance, Cherish and I are wrangled back up toward the house, up the rolling lawn to the patio and pool, and Mr. Whitman holds the mic up to his wife’s glass, which she clinks with a knife to get the crowd’s attention.
“Oh, you can stay in the pool, gang. This’ll only take a moment,” she says, leaning closer to the microphone than necessary, like she doesn’t know exactly how the contraption works. It isn’t age; Mrs. Whitman is barely older than my mom, and her twinkling laugh and bouncy blond hair almost make up for the fact that she doesn’t have her daughter’s built-in font of youth, melanin. She’s just used to a discreet headset during auctions.
“Che, can you come here, honey?” Mr. Whitman beckons her from my side, and a few of their guests clap like she’s receiving an award.
“As you all know, this is our baby girl, our universe, our shared heartbeat, Cherish.” Mrs. Whitman is already dabbing at her eyes, but she’ll keep it together. Brianne LePage Whitman has never flubbed a speech or an auction yet.
“You surprise me, every year,” Brianne’s saying directly to Cherish now, and when I see them standing together, they just look like a family.
Mr. Whitman’s the kind of fit dad whose abs you can make out through his polo, and he doesn’t even have the decency to be graying or thinning yet, which my dad says is like hitting the white-guy lottery because it’s hard for them to look corporate professional with a shaved head. What’s worse, Jerry doesn’t seem obsessively conscious of his full head of hair, rarely reaching up to flaunt or confirm its thickness. He never looks like he has a worry in the world, especially not right this minute, while he smiles down at his daughter and lovingly tugs on one of her braids.
“I know people hate us,” Brianne jests to gentle resistance from her audience, while Cherish’s attention volleys between her parents. “But we say it because it’s true. You have never given us a day’s worry or trouble.”
This is where someone could’ve quipped that Cherish never gave her a contraction or stretch mark, either. It’d be shocking, but only because the Whitmans do not keep tasteless company. As adoptions go, transracial ones leave pretty few doubts, on sight. But the Whitmans don’t casually talk adoption, which I’ve come to appreciate. Cherish is their daughter; they’ve made sure of that.
“You’re brilliant, and beautiful.” And then Brianne looks at me for longer than her trademark engaging-the-audience glance. “And an amazing judge of character. Farrah, honey, you come over here, too!”
“Crap,” I mutter through a smile when, as expected, all eyes descend on me. If I were more myself, I would’ve seen this coming. I would have decided ahead of time which way I wanted to play it, and why. Without forethought, I’m forced to settle for the most remedial and cliché response.
I gingerly make my way across the expanse of lush green, not letting my eyes land on any particular partygoer for too long. The key is letting my smile fluctuate as though I’m trying to convince myself I shouldn’t be self-conscious. I do know a few of them. My hair stylist and my pediatrician are here, the former because I referred her to Cherish, and the latter because Mr. and Mrs. Whitman convinced my parents it was a big deal for me to have a Black doctor, given what Black girls and women face with the healthcare industry. Cherish’s pediatrician became mine, too; same with her orthodontist in eighth grade. Brianne said raising a well-adjusted and protected Black girl takes intentionality, and she and my mom were pretty close friends after that.
When the walk to the Whitmans genuinely begins to feel longer than it should, I realize I do actually feel exposed. It isn’t part of the act. I’m not myself. I’m not in control, which was proved upstairs with Cherish, even if it was only a small break. And even though it’s my parents’ fault, it’s made worse by the fact that they aren’t even here. Out of a queasy stomach, a hot bolt of anger flashes up my spine because I really wanted them to be.
They were supposed to be here for this. They were supposed to be here so that, at the very least, I wouldn’t look orphaned. They were supposed to be here so that I would not be facing the side glances and too-gentle smiles on my own.
Polite society is a misnomer.
In this community, there’ll be no rounding a corner to find someone heatedly exchanging details of the Turner family’s foreclosure—but that’s because everyone already knows.
My parents are supposed to be here so it doesn’t look like they’re trying to save face. Especially when I don’t get to. But they aren’t here, and I get no reassuring squeeze from my mother, no forehead kiss from my dad. I ball my hands into tight fists at my sides, but it’s not for comfort. It’s for control.
It’s because I am tired of feeling betrayed, and it’s getting harder to keep my mask in place.
Finally, I reach Brianne Whitman, and when I tuck into her extended arm, she pulls me into her side the way she clearly wanted to upstairs. And I do feel better.
“For those of you who don’t know, this is Farrah Turner, and she and Cherish have been best girlfriends—sisters!—basically since the day they met. What was that, fourth grade?”
“Third,” Jerry corrects her without even consulting us, but he’s right, and Cherish and I both laugh. “But fourth grade is when it happened.”
“Oh my gosh,” I say, and put my face in my hands, to everyone’s amusement.
“Dad,” Cherish whines.
“Oh, you have to tell it. Is it okay if he tells it, girls? It’s so precious!” Brianne gives the microphone to her husband, putting her other arm around me and lacing her fingers together at my hip before she starts the unconscious mom-sway. I let my head drop against her shoulder, face still in my hands, but fingers splayed so I can see Mr. Whitman getting ready to tell the family’s favorite story of Cherish and me.
“Hi, all, I’m Jerry Whitman,” he begins, and his friends laugh. “Better known as Cherish Whitman’s dad, you know how it is.” He’s a natural, just like his wife, but he makes you feel like he hadn’t planned to tell you anything, and now he’s just charmingly rambling in a way that makes perfect sense. “That started at church when Cherish was about four years old. People stopped greeting me and just spoke to the adorable little girl in my arms, which, I mean, I couldn’t blame them. She had these huge eyes.” He stops, like he just realized his daughter’s right there and he can look into the eyes he’s describing. “She still does.”
Cherish does what she always does under the warmth of her parents’ adoration; she glows. Her dimple is at maximum deepness, and her hair moves like a cloud over her shoulder when she dips her head.
“Anyway.” The mic rests against his chin and he scratches his forehead. “So, Farrah and Cherish met in third grade, and it was obvious that they adored each other, but when they were in fourth grade,” he emphasizes, as though to remind us that he had it right, “that’s when Brianne and I really fell in love with Farrah. I was still flipping houses back then.”
A murmur carries through the yard, and Jerry waves it off without looking.
“I know, I know, everybody did it. We all did. HGTV destroyed a generation. So, I was going to check on a property in renovation, and I took the girls with me—they probably had some rehearsal or something.” He glances between us. “Dance? Were you still doing ballet? Anyway, I had them both with me, and we go to the property, and of course, I get totally sidetracked with the workers and putting out a half million fires. And there was a bunch of base moldings that had been torn out and stored on the side of the house, because the dumpster also hadn’t been delivered yet. I know, flipping is a nightmare from start to finish,” he says, as though he can actually make out the playfully annoyed murmurs of friends who’ve apparently gone through house-flipping phases of their own. “So, as kids do, Cherish and Farrah found said base moldings, complete with probably an inch and a half of nail shooting up from them every so often. And before you report me, this was the first and last time I ever brought either of them to a renovation site. Because, of course, the girls decided to make a game of stomping the nails to the side. Not their brightest moment, but they really are smart girls, I promise.”
I can feel my face getting hot, and eventually Brianne notices how hard I’m cringing. She laughs, the way I knew she would, and jostles me between her arms.
“And so finally, Cherish stomps her little foot down to really give it to a nail, and because the universe will not be mocked, the nail decides instead to really give it to her. Goes straight into her foot.”
There are gasps and moans from the partygoers, which Jerry accepts with sage nodding, his free hand kneading his daughter’s shoulder.
Cherish lets her head fall before swiveling it in my direction, her bottom lip caught between her teeth when her eyes meet mine. She’s trying not to smile so wide, and now I can’t help it. Because no one knows what we’re thinking right now; it’s just ours. When my best friend rolls her eyes skyward and then closes them, only I know why, and instead of wearing a blushing expression, I swell. My chest rises until Brianne Whitman’s hold of me is taut, and then I let the breath out, slow and satisfied.
No one knows why but Cherish and me.
“That’s not when I found them,” Jerry Whitman is saying. “Because I think Cherish was so shocked, she didn’t even scream, and Farrah didn’t come racing into the house to find me and say that Cherish was hurt. No. Farrah—seeing her best friend hurt, and not knowing how to help her or spare her or make it stop hurting—slams her foot down on one of the nails. I kid you not. She impaled her little foot to share in her best friend’s pain.”
What began as gasps and gapes of probable disapproval become sighs and coos. They’re being told of an absolutely ridiculous act of comradery that only a child would be silly enough to think rational, and it suddenly makes sense with the benefit of hindsight, the proper framing of a generously catered birthday party, and a charming storyteller.
“And I told Cherish that day, at the doctor’s office, where the girls were getting tetanus shots . . . I’m glad you found Farrah.”
All the Whitmans turn to me, and despite the dozens and dozens of eyes trained on us, and despite my parents’ inexcusable absence, the warmth I feel isn’t embarrassment or anger. It’s quiet like the hush that’s fallen across the many tiers of the yard, and peaceful, like I haven’t felt often enough lately. ...
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