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The Gatekeepers

Jen Lancaster

  “How could we know that forever could end at seventeen?”

  Anyone passing through North Shore, Illinois, would think it was the most picture-perfect place ever, with all the lakefront mansions and manicured hedges and iron gates. No one talks about the fact that the brilliant, talented kids in town have a terrible history of throwing themselves in front of commuter trains.

  Meet Simone, the bohemian transfer student from London, who is thrust into the strange new reality of an American high school; Mallory, the hypercompetitive queen bee; and Stephen, the first-generation genius who struggles with crippling self-doubt. Each one is shocked when a popular classmate takes his own life…except not too shocked. It’s happened before. With so many students facing their own demons, can they find a way to save each other—as well as themselves?



  For Officer Bob Heelan of the LFPD—thank you for your thirty years of service to this community


  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Chapter 37

  Chapter 38

  Chapter 39

  Chapter 40

  Chapter 41

  Chapter 42

  Chapter 43

  Author's Note




  Paul “Paulie” Barat, age 17, a North Shore High School junior and cherished son of Henry Barat and Merle Sloan-Barat, died suddenly on Saturday, May 28, in North Shore. He’s survived by his parents and his younger sister, Anna. A gifted actor, Paulie participated in NSHS’s musical theater productions, senior one-act plays, and variety shows, and won the Illinois State speech team titles in both Humorous Interpretation and Original Comedy. His joyful personality and captivating laugh will be eternally missed. Visitation will be held from 5 to 9 p.m. Monday, May 30th, at the Good Shepherd Methodist Church at 191 Oakley Road in North Shore. The funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday, May 31, at Good Shepherd, with interment to immediately follow at North Shore Memorial Gardens, South Quadrant. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations in honor of Paulie be made to the Paul Barat Memorial Fund, c/o North Shore Thespians.


  Macey Lund, age 18, of North Shore, passed away on July 17th. Loving daughter of Therese and Geoffrey; sweet sister of Knox and Langley. A seasoned athlete, Macey led the Lady Knights to capture the Illinois Division I Soccer Championship and was blessed to perform her beloved Irish dance on three continents, including special presentations for Pope Francis and Queen Elizabeth. Memorial Service to be held Wednesday, July 20th, 3:15 p.m. at the Church of Christ, 212 West Wisconsin Ave., North Shore. Info: Harper and Horvath Funeral Home, North Shore. Interment will be private. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations in her name to AYSO Youth Sports, North Shore.


  7:55 AM

  where r u?

  8:11 AM

  r u coming??

  8:17 AM

  seriously wtf, when will u be here?


  10:34 AM





  Seventy-one, seventy-two, seventy-three.



  You can do it, I tell myself. You have to do it.

  Seventy-four, seventy-five.

  Stop being the kind of lard-ass who let her boyfriend pressure her into scarfing down onion rings. “They’re so good,” he’d insisted. “Extra salty, really crispy. They’re the perfect balance of light batter and onion, like tempura. The chef brought his A-game to the deep fryer. You’ll be sorry if you don’t at least try one.”

  Whenever our squad wants to meet for dinner, I suggest a place with a salad bar. I always eat the same thing—a blend of arugula and romaine, shredded carrots, red cabbage, diced peppers, and celery sticks, tossed in lemon juice, with a side of fat-free ranch dressing. If I’ve been good, I grab a grapefruit or an apple for dessert at home.

  Obviously, I wasn’t good last night.

  Liam wouldn’t let it go, though. He leaned across the table, doing that baby-feeding, airplane-in-the-hangar move with the onion ring, complete with sound effects. Everyone in the whole restaurant started looking at us. Sure, they’re always looking at us, because Liam’s kind of our school’s Golden Boy, but last night they were seriously staring. The easiest thing was to open up and just eat the stupid, greasy thing. So I chewed and smiled when all I wanted to do was to spit it into my napkin—but I’d never hear the end of it if I did that.

  I swear Jasper Gates was ready to search inside my mouth afterward to make sure I’d actually swallowed, like on those cheesy survival game shows where the host verifies contestants downed the whole worm. Jasper was the one who demanded I eat another, because the first one was “too small.” Sitting there, all kicked back and smarmy in his obnoxious plaid shorts and Ray-Bans, I wanted to smack him. Who wears sunglasses inside at night? We’re in Illinois, not LA. And my diet is Jasper’s business how exactly? Do I get on him for the stupid loafers he insists on wearing without socks, even when it’s snowing?

  Can you believe he actually wonders why I call him the JasHole?

  Ugh, I hate Liam’s friends.

  Seventy-six, seventy-seven.

  I dig in my heels and try to spring up even more quickly as I run the stadium steps for the third time. My pulse quickens inside my chest.


  That’s more like it.

  My brother Theo and his best friend, Braden, turned me on to running the stairs, something their football coach makes them do first thing in the morning during the season. That way they can spend the afternoon drilling on the field or weight training for their two-a-days. Kids at other schools can’t believe how much our teams practice. They always say this after we’ve beaten them, so you tell me who’s got it right.

  One twenty-one. One twenty-two.

  Well, most of us believe in all the practice.

  Ahem, Liam.

  First, he makes me ingest a fatty carb bomb and then he doesn’t even show to run the stairs with me this morning? He claimed he hurt his knee playing ultimate Frisbee after soccer practice yesterday. Last night, the JasHole was all, “You should give it a rest, brah. Don’t want to be a gimp when the season starts. Take it easy.”

  Well, guess what, Liam?

  Winners walk it off.

  Winners play through the pain, brah.

  Winners make time to run the stairs, each day, every day, even those days when they know they’ll be up until 2:00 a.m. writing their final AP Italian theme on Il pendolo di Foucault.

  I keep going.

  I mean, my calves feel like they’re on fire right now, like they’re being poked with burning hot knives, but the discomfort’s just spurring me on.

  Go. Run faster.

  I make it to the top and sprint back down the steps double-time. I don’t count the stairs on the way down; that’s considered rest.

  Rest is for the weak.

  Three hundred. Three hundred and one. Three hundred and two.

  Move it, Calorie Mallory. Get your fat ass up those steps. Knees up. Knees up to the chest. More. Do more.

  I ask myself, Do you think the New Trier Trevians ate onion rings last night? Hell, no. Did the Lake Forest Scouts wolf down fro-yo last week? Doubtful.

  Hustle. Now.

  I glance at my iWatch. All right, I’m in the zone. I’m at 95 percent of my target heart rate. I’m a finely tuned machine, burning off serious blubber. Keep it up.

  Five hundred forty-nine. Five hundred fifty. Five fifty-one.

  I’m sweating now, but that’s good because sweat is fat crying for mercy.

  I mean, why would Liam slam on the brakes now? Why would he look for an excuse to slack? Our senior year starts Monday.

  This is the time to go balls-out.

  We haven’t reached the summit. There’s no time to coast. We’re coming up on the hardest part of our twelve-year academic climb—applying to college.

  Now is when we show the world what we’re made of.

  Now is when we prove we have the right stuff for Princeton’s early decision.

  Now is when we lay the groundwork for our senior year.

  Liam and I spent the past couple of months honing our skills at our camps, getting in our volunteer hours, and doing our extra coursework so that we’ll to be ready to kill our exams and nab our respective state championships when classes start. Winning those matching Homecoming King and Queen crowns come October wouldn’t hurt, either, because that would show that we’re social as well as athletic and academic.

  We’re the full package. We’re hashtag BarbieandKen.

  Which is why we have to push ourselves harder right now.

  I don’t want to give up. Quitting? Not an option. I remember what happened over the summer with Paulie and Macey, and I feel like I’ve swallowed glass, like I’m all slashed up inside. They had everything...until they decided they didn’t, so they gave up. Stopped fighting. Braden speculates that maybe they both burned so brightly, flaming out was inevitable.

  I refuse to accept that.

  So I need to be strong. I need to be hard. That’s why I’m not even allowing myself a drink of water until I hit my first one thousand steps.

  I give myself a gut-check. Are you tired, Mallory? Do you want to surrender? Yeah? That’s because you’re not reaching your full potential. You’re at a B-minus of effort right now, and that’s an unweighted grade, non-honors track. Your performance doesn’t even merit a state school, let alone Ivy League early decision. What are you going to do, end up somewhere mortifying like the University of Iowa, with all the slackers? NO. You’ve sacrificed for this. You’ve earned this. Claim what’s yours.

  I step it up.

  I push and pump my arms.

  Explode. Off. Each. Step.

  I won’t give up.

  I can’t flame out.

  I harness the energy inside of me.

  I go harder and higher.

  Senior year starts in three days.

  And I will be ready.


  12:30 PM

  can we walk by again @ 1:00 PM?


  12:31 PM





  “So this is your homerun swing?”

  I don’t reply.

  Kent persists. “Walking back and forth in front of the new girl’s house in the broiling sun ’til she notices you?”

  The beads of sweat dotting his upper lip give him the illusion of having a mustache.

  Yeah, he wishes.

  “Trust in the process,” I assure him. As we approach her house, I slow my pace so drastically, it’s like we’re suddenly a couple of senior citizens mincing along behind our walkers.

  “I trusted in the process an hour ago, back before my Chucks were melting into the asphalt.” He points at his black Converse. “Now I just want to strip down to my underwear and lie on an air conditioning vent. I wanna mainline a pony keg of Gatorade.”

  I attempt to explain my rationale again. “She’s gonna notice us out here. She’s gonna notice us and then she’s gonna invite us in, at which point we’re gonna be charming and shit and it’ll all happen from there,” I say. “My plan is foolproof.”

  Kent tugs at his vintage Run-D.M.C. Adidas T-shirt, which is now drenched in perspiration and clinging to his narrow frame like a second skin.

  “Please. Your ‘plan’ is the opposite of foolproof.” Kent makes air quotes with his fingertips when he says the word plan. “This is the worst ‘plan’ in the history of ‘plans.’ If this ‘plan’ were in World War II, this would be your Stalingrad. PS, you’re the Germans losing 330,000 men in this scenario, not the Soviet resistance. Pretty sure MENSA’s revoking your membership over said ‘plan.’”

  Kent’s probably right, but I refuse to admit it. See, I’m so desperate to meet this girl that I don’t even care. While it sounds premature, I have a good feeling about her and I can already tell she’s different in all the right ways. (I’m not psychic. My mom had the 411 long before the first moving truck arrived. She’s not only on the Homeowners’ Association but she’s also the Realtor who listed the house.)

  I’ve been thinking about this girl ever since I heard she existed. Scoop is, the family’s here from London and the mom’s writing some book about the suburbs. Maybe one of those coffee-table books, wide and thick, with as many pictures as words? North Shore makes total sense because nowhere is more suburban than here.

  I’m serious—we should be listed in Wikipedia under “suburbs” because this town elevates the suburbs game to a whole new level. Peace and quiet? Check. Amazing school system? Check. Lots of natural beauty and green space? Check. Nonexistent crime stats? Check.

  Beyond that, North Shore sets rules on how things should look. Image is everything up here. For example, like every other suburban town, we have a McDonald’s. However, there are no golden arches out front of ours, ’cause someone decided that would be tacky. Instead, there’s a small, tasteful wooden sign posted amid a bunch of wild roses. Also, the restaurant’s housed in a big green Shaker-style barn, with columns and white-paned windows.

  It’s weird.

  The town’s as strict with home standards as it is with businesses. Like, no one’s allowed to chop down trees on their own property without a permit, so every home is surrounded by lots of old-growth oaks. Most of the houses, especially those close to the lake like ours, sit on two or three acres. (Ask me how much this sucked when we used to trick or treat. We wanted candy, not cardio.)

  Basically, North Shore’s nothing but big ol’ houses on huge green lawns, yogurt shops, and fancy, useless designer boutiques. I hate having go all the way up to Gurnee or Libertyville to buy comic books, yet there’s three places downtown to pick up a two-hundred-dollar sweater for your purse dog. I’d be all, Who wants that stuff?

  Except I know at least ten people who would.

  Anyway, the new family bought the Barat house, which is why I feel conflicted about being excited that they’re here. I hadn’t
talked to Paulie much since junior high, or hung out with him since grade school, but it’s still really sad. My mom, who’s usually totally in the know, isn’t 100 percent sure where the Barats went. Their attorneys handled the sale because the family hauled ass out of North Shore ASAFP.

  I can’t blame them.

  The new girl’s dad is this world-famous, super-eccentric British artist with a man-bun. I looked up a lot of his stuff online. He’s always doing these avant-garde art installations, often so bizarre they end up on the news. I read a listicle on BuzzFeed about him. The piece that stuck out most was his exhibit in Burundi, a country where something like 75 percent of all the residents are undernourished. The guy built a replica of McDonald’s golden arches out of bags of liposuctioned fat as a statement about global inequality.

  What did that even smell like once the sun hit it?

  (FYI, his piece was not shaped like a Shaker-style barn.)

  My point is, no one’s like that here in North Shore; no one has that kind of social conscience.

  No one’s super-eccentric.

  No dads have man-buns, that’s for damn sure.

  The girl’s name is Simone and she’s my age and on her Instagram, she’s smokin’ hot, but not in a fake, plastic-y way like everyone else in this town. Maybe that’s because her mom was a famous model. Simone’s got this long, coffee-colored wavy hair that’s shaved on one side and she kind of dresses like a vocalist from a ’70s rock group. The times I’ve spied her from the street, she’s been wearing lots of scarves and bangles and other cool stuff that definitely does not come from J. Crew.

  Simone has a casual elegance, like a Disney princess who doesn’t know what she is because an evil queen gave her amnesia and forced her to live in the forest. She strikes me as worldly and wise and chill, deep and interesting in a way that all the brittle future sorority girls in my school are not. She definitely doesn’t seem like the type of girl who’d eviscerate you for the cardinal sin of asking her to a middle school mixer, leaving you shamefaced and speechless in the middle of the cafeteria, too terrified to ever try again.