In her new novel The Nine (out this week from She Writes Press), author Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg peeks behind the curtains of a prestigious east coast boarding school, where secrecy and scandal may as well be on the syllabus. This back-to-school page turner concerns a young man whose entire future rests on his performance at Ivy-geared Dunning Academy - and what he decides to do with the secrets he discovers there.
In this excerpt, Sam, our earnest young protagonist, is tapped to be in a secret society called “The Nine." He's ripe for the picking, as Dunning Academy had him feeling severely defeated, thanks to his dismissal by the swim coach, escalating academic pressure, and a humiliating sexual experience. In addition, The Nine would be something of his own, something his mother would know nothing about:
FROM "THE NINE"
Sam set his phone alarm for 3:00 a.m. and snuck out of the room so as not to wake Ethan. Entering the boiler room nine minutes later, he found Justin Crandall in his pajamas, waiting cross-legged on the floor. Justin’s goofy smile and shimmering swimmer’s hair were uplit by a flashlight he grasped in front of his chest.
“You?” Sam said, rushing forward in amazement. He couldn’t believe Justin was the grand prize.
“Dude! I’m so pumped about this.” Justin jumped to his feet and slapped Sam on the shoulder. It was a brotherly, welcoming gesture, Sam’s first man-to-man, and despite the unusual setting, it flooded him with warmth.
After the back slapping and laughs, Justin adopted a more serious tone. “I need to lay out all the risks; then you can decide whether to take it or leave it,” he said.
He spoke slowly, emphasizing the enormity of the tradition. He described the legacy of the Nine, its history, its exclusivity, and the honor of being tapped. Although his voice was solemn, Justin’s face softened, and every so often he winked. “You’ll need to take a vow saying you’ll put the brotherhood above all else.”
Sam nodded that he understood.
“Okay. What have you heard about us already?”
“Just . . . just rumors.”
“Well, the active membership consists of three sophomores, three juniors, and three seniors, but the alumni number in the hundreds.”
“Yeah, that’s what I heard.”
“The brotherhood was started by nine students back in 1890. They wrote out the group’s mission on an old scroll, which we still have. We’ll read from it to begin the first meeting of the fall.”
Justin touched on the Nine’s major milestones, which seemed to have petered out in the sixties. He said interest in the group sort of fluctuated after that but was resurrected two decades later, in his father’s era, when Dunning started admitting girls and increasing the number of minority students. “You see, some alumni feared those changes marked the end of Dunning as they knew it, so they resuscitated the Nine to provoke the administration and regain control.”
“Don’t worry—it’s not like that anymore,” Justin said. “I mean, of course we still try to undermine the bastards, but now we just pull pranks.”
Sam laughed. “There have been some really good ones this year.”
“It’s gotten tougher since Williams hired Dean Harper. He was brought here to out us, to expose our identities.”
Sam shook his head. “But it’s like the best-kept secret on campus,” he said. For example, Sam had never expected Justin, his clumsy, easygoing friend, to be one of them. In hindsight, it should have been obvious, given all his family connections.
Justin rubbed his eyes. “It’s late. We should get back upstairs. But I just want you to know you don’t have to worry. I’ll be the one guiding you through the process.”
“Initiation, but you’ll do fine.”
Sam’s heart raced as he realized his acceptance wasn’t a fait accompli. “What happens?”
“There’ll be a ceremony and then a little bit of hazing, but it’s fun. You’ll like it,” Justin said. “After you pass everything, we have meetings to decide which missions to move forward with. We’ve been doing a lot of stuff, but it’s not high-tech, not like your robotics.” He chuckled. “We want some remote-controlled stuff—stuff that’s funny and cutting-edge but doesn’t hurt anybody.”
“And it’s not, like, a protest anymore?”
“Because of the girls and, like, the minorities?”
Justin stared back at Sam, as if he didn’t quite understand or didn’t want to deal with so pointed a question at this late hour. In the dim light, with his blond hair askew, he reminded Sam of a dopey golden retriever, with round, searching eyes and a puzzled tilt to his head.
“Nah, I mean, we’re in it for the attention, and mostly the laughs,” Justin finally replied. “And who doesn’t like to annoy adults?”
Sam smiled and nodded.
“We need to let them know who’s really in charge,” Justin said, regaining momentum. “Williams thinks he is Dunning Academy. But nothing could be further from the truth. There are so many brilliant, important people who’ve graduated from this place, and they look out for their own. Think about it: the way Williams and Harper take themselves so seriously is actually offensive. My father and my uncle always say those two are only here to keep the heat on and make sure the food gets served. We have highly paid, avant-garde teachers and a precocious student body. It’s a recipe for beautiful things, but the rules police want to get in the way.”
“Like Mr. Willis?”
“Exactly! The Nine bring guys like him down to earth. And our alums support us completely.”
“What do you mean?” Sam asked. It wasn’t as if he’d ever seen grown men who weren’t part of the staff or faculty roaming the campus.
“They challenge us to think big; budgets aren’t an issue. If you need expensive electronic parts, that won’t be a problem.”
Sam felt his pulse quicken. “I’m dying to get my hands on some new circuit boards. The only ones we get are for the MIT competition.”
“That’s why we recruited you, Sam. You’re the future. We need you to up our game, especially in light of this Faceless group. They’re like the whole Occupy movement, exposing privilege and the like. When our alumni council learned about their stronghold on the Dunning campus, let’s just say they weren’t pleased. But, like I said, Faceless is only online; they don’t use the tunnels.”
“Wait, back up. What tunnels?”
“Sam, my boy, you have barely scratched the surface of what exists here. After you’re officially initiated, Dunning will become your oyster.” Sam sat with that thought for a moment, the idea of accessing places unknown. Before Justin ended the conversation, however, he needed to ask one more question.
“Who are the other initiates in my class?” He held out hope for Ethan.
“There’s Raymond, you know, on the football team? His father and grandfather were Nine, so he was guaranteed. And then there’s this kid Saunders, who’s smart, like you, plays soccer and runs track and is fast as hell. He’s also a little bit off the radar. Dean Harper assumes we’re all jocks and legacies, so we’ve picked a few he’d never suspect.”
Sam swallowed the backhanded compliment. “Have you considered my roommate, Ethan—”
“Sorry, dude, but we have our reasons. But be grateful I fended off that jerk Max. It was tough—he’s a legacy, you know.”
Sam exhaled in disappointment.
“Don’t worry. You’re part of the special forces now,” Justin said. “We’ll be everything you need.” He took Sam by the shoulder.
“Okay, so, what’s next?” Sam asked, relaxing under Justin’s intoxicating smile.
“Wait for contact to be made. It’ll be over the summer. Your orientation materials will be delivered to you before school starts next September.”
Sam nodded, already thinking about how he’d keep his mother from snooping through his mail. Justin slapped him again on the shoulder. He was only one year older, but his strength penetrated Sam’s back.
“There’s one last thing,” Justin whispered, as they walked through the door.
“It’s sort of for security purposes. Just helps keep tabs on everyone.” Justin handed him a first-generation pager. “If it beeps, follow the directions and call in. If it gets lost or goes missing, no problem—no data is stored on it; nothing is retrievable. But try not to lose it over the summer. It’s how we’ll find you. Do you have travel plans?”
“I don’t think so.”
“They tracked me down on my family’s vacation to Italy. Delivered my orientation package with the room service tray one morning in Florence. It knocked my socks off.”
Excerpted from "The Nine" by Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg, out now from She Writes Press. All rights reserved.