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A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2019!
“Gripping and timely.” —People
“The YA debut we’re most excited for this year.” —Entertainment Weekly
“A book that knocks you off your feet while dropping the kind of knowledge that’ll keep you down for the count. Prepare to BE slain.” —Nic Stone, New York Times bestselling author of Dear Martin and Odd One Out

Ready Player One meets The Hate U Give in this dynamite debut novel that follows a fierce teen game developer as she battles a real-life troll intent on ruining the Black Panther–inspired video game she created and the safe community it represents for Black gamers.

By day, seventeen-year-old Kiera Johnson is an honors student, a math tutor, and one of the only Black kids at Jefferson Academy. But at home, she joins hundreds of thousands of Black gamers who duel worldwide as Nubian personas in the secret multiplayer online role-playing card game, SLAY. No one knows Kiera is the game developer, not her friends, her family, not even her boyfriend, Malcolm, who believes video games are partially responsible for the “downfall of the Black man.”

But when a teen in Kansas City is murdered over a dispute in the SLAY world, news of the game reaches mainstream media, and SLAY is labeled a racist, exclusionist, violent hub for thugs and criminals. Even worse, an anonymous troll infiltrates the game, threatening to sue Kiera for “anti-white discrimination.”

Driven to save the only world in which she can be herself, Kiera must preserve her secret identity and harness what it means to be unapologetically Black in a world intimidated by Blackness. But can she protect her game without losing herself in the process?

ISBN-13: 9781534445437

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers

Publication Date: 09-01-2020

Pages: 352

Product Dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 1.00(d)

Age Range: 12 - 17 Years

Brittney Morris is the author of SLAY, The Cost of Knowing, and The Jump, and has written video game narrative for Insomniac Games’s Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 for PlayStation 5, Unknown Worlds’s Subnautica: Below Zero, and Soma Games’s The Lost Legends of Redwall. She is the founder and former president of the Boston University Creative Writing Club. She holds a BA in economics. You can find her online at and on Twitter or Instagram @BrittneyMMorris.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: Playing the Game 1. PLAYING THE GAME
By day, I’m an honors student at Jefferson Academy. At night, I turn into the Nubian goddess most people know as Emerald.

The second the bell rings, I’m out of my desk seat and bolting through the classroom door. There’s a battle tonight between PrestoBox, a master wizard from the Tundra, and Zama, a Voodoo queen from the same region. I absolutely can’t miss it. Once safely in the hallway, I pull out my phone and open WhatsApp to find a new text from the game mod, Cicada.

Cicada: You watching the tundra semifinals tonight?

I smile, glancing up for a second to watch where I’m going as throngs of students pour from classrooms and navigate around me.

Me: Wouldn’t miss it.

“Hey, Kix!” comes Harper’s voice, startling me from my thoughts. I look up to see her and my sister, Steph, walking toward me in their matching pink T-shirts with the Greek letters for Beta Beta Psi, a collective of the eight most outspoken, unapologetic, woke feminists at Jefferson Academy. Leave it to my parents to transfer us to a high school that prepares its students for college so thoroughly, they claim to have the most robust high school Greek life program in the country.

“Hey, Harp. Hey, Steph,” I say, trying not to sound disappointed that I won’t get out of here for another ten minutes. I slip my phone into my back pocket and put on my best happy to see you face.

“Hey, Kiera,” Steph says with a grin, brushing her bangs out of the way of her lime-green glasses. Steph has a new pair of cheap plastic glasses for each day of the week, and her hair is always pressed straight and cut neatly at her shoulders. She insists keeping her hair straight saves time in the morning, but until she can prove it, I’ll keep my five-minute wake-up-and-shake-out-my-twist-out routine.

“I’m heading home early today to get started on our Beta Beta posters for the game next week,” she says. “Each one is going to have an inspirational word at the top in huge bubble letters—like ‘endurance’ and ‘perseverance.’ We’re going to have the players sign them and put them up in the halls around school afterward. Plus, Mom said she’ll take me out later tonight to get more permit hours. Wanna walk with me?”

I thought endurance and perseverance were kind of the same thing, but if I start in on that conversation, I really won’t get out of this hallway before the duel starts. Harper chimes in before I can answer.

“Actually, Steph,” says Harper, “I wanted to talk to Kix for a second. Need to ask her advice about something.”

That’s what she calls me. Kix. Like the cereal. Or like the shoes. I can’t tell and never bothered to ask. Steph and I look at each other. We both know what’s coming. Harper is about to ask me an impossible question, because she knows Steph isn’t going to give her a straight answer.

“Well, now I’m curious,” says Steph. “What is it?”

Harper glances over her shoulder as if she’s watching for someone, and she folds her arms across her chest and shrugs.

“It feels kind of weird to even be asking this question, but I’m asking because I genuinely don’t know the answer.”

I sigh and nod at her to just ask the question already. She always prefaces these with a disclaimer if it’s going to be one of those questions with two wrong answers. She didn’t used to be like this. When we were kids, Harper used to come over our house for Mario Kart, Legacy of Planets, and snacks. We used to talk about Usher and Fresh Prince, and boys in our class, and babysit her little brother, Wyatt. But now Steph is president of Beta Beta, and Harper is VP, and as royalty of the most feminist high school sorority in the country, Harper acts like she has to talk about polarizing stuff all the time.

“Okay, fine,” says Harper when it becomes apparent Steph isn’t going anywhere. “I was thinking about changing my hair. Something fun and new, but, like, with bohemian vibes. There’s one style I really want to get, but I need to ask you about it first.”

Steph and I exchange looks again. When it comes to hair discussions, Steph and I have been on the Black girl hair journey together, and we have more in common than she and Harper ever will in the hair department. But I look back up at Harper, with her short blond pixie that hasn’t held a curl since middle school prom, when her mother had to use half a can of hair spray. She’s the only person I know who can rock a pixie like that, and since she stands about a foot taller than me with a long, willowy frame, it fits her. But I let her finish her question.

“I need to, like, ask you, though, and don’t be afraid to say no,” she begins. “Am I allowed to get dreadlocks?”

Oh, what a question. Is she allowed to get dreadlocks? She’s asking permission to wear a hairstyle that’s been debated by people of many races for years and years as to whether it’s appropriating Black culture. How am I supposed to tell her yes without giving the disclaimer that I can’t speak for all Black people, and that she could ask any of us this question and get a different answer every time?

“That’d make a great question for the Weekly!” chimes in Wyatt, stepping between Steph and me, leaning his arm on her shoulder and grinning at me. Nobody would guess by their looks that Harper and Wyatt are brother and sister. And by Wyatt’s freckles, bright blue eyes, messy dishwater-blond hair, lanky frame, and lack of height, nobody would guess he’s sixteen, and not twelve.

“I, uh...,” I begin, looking to Steph. She’s always better with these kinds of situations than I am.

“Seriously, Kiera, can I interview you about this?” Wyatt asks with that big, toothy grin. Even though he’s only a junior, he’s chief editor for the Jefferson Weekly, and he runs the political topics column like a criminal investigator, hyperanalyzing his interviewees’ answers, looking for cracks in their views so he can write them up with those clickbaity titles he always uses. I can see it now: “Black People Don’t Mind White People Wearing This ONE Hairstyle.”

Between Wyatt as chief editor for the school newspaper even though he’s only a junior, and Steph, also a junior, as president of Beta Beta Psi, I feel like my college applications could have been so much more resplendent than they were when I submitted them. If only I could include my favorite after-school activity in my list of accomplishments.

“You can interview me!” offers Steph, and I can’t help but smile a bit. There’s no way Wyatt’s going to go for that. Steph is an expert debater who gives airtight answers to any question you ask her.

“We all know what you think about white people doing things, Steph,” says Wyatt. “You tell us all the goddamn time.”

Steph punches his arm so hard, he flinches and holds it close to him.

“Really?” he asks.

“I mean, if you’re going to assume I’m going to be an angry Black woman about this, I wouldn’t want to disappoint you.”

“Steph,” I say, shaking my head. She’s talking too loud in this hallway, and people are looking at us now. The last thing the only two Black girls at Jefferson Academy need is to be seen as the loud ones. I just want to go home. Without having to answer Harper’s question. I just want to log in, transform into Emerald, and talk to Cicada for the rest of the night.

“I’ll have to think about that, Harper,” I say, hoping she’ll wait awhile and maybe forget about it.

“Okay,” she says, obviously disappointed, folding her arms over her chest. “Oh, we’re still on for math at eight tonight, right?”

Oh shit. It’s Thursday. I had to move Harper’s and my tutoring lesson to Thursday this week since Wyatt is playing in the Civil War baseball game next week and Steph and Harper need time tomorrow when they’re both available to write their opening speech as president and VP of Beta Beta. But I do need the money. Cicada and I want to add more RAM to our servers because we’re about to launch more game cards soon. That’s sixty bucks down the drain if I cancel this week.

“Uh,” I begin. When I say I absolutely can’t miss the Tundra Semifinals today, I mean it. I need to be there. The game gets bugs sometimes. Weird stuff starts happening when people try to hack in coins or trade new weapons. Lately, characters have been glitching out when they use a new crossbow that was released last week—falling through the map or losing upgrades—and when that happens, everyone blows up my DMs. Why?

Because I’m the game developer.

Nobody knows. Not even my family. Not even my boyfriend, Malcolm.

“Pretty sure my queen is busy tonight,” comes a familiar voice from behind me. Two strong arms encircle my waist and kisses are being planted gently up the back of my neck, and I can smell Malcolm’s Ralph Lauren cologne behind me.

“Hey,” I say happily, looking up to see the progress he’s making with his goatee, smiling when I see he had his dreads freshly twisted this weekend, his Killmonger hairdo. I cuddle up under his arm. Normally, I would call him Boo, but I feel weird using that word in front of everyone here.

“Aaaand, that’s my cue to go!” announces Steph, turning on her heel and heading swiftly for the front door.

I have to physically concentrate on not rolling my eyes. Steph and Malcolm hate each other for the pettiest reasons. Malcolm thinks Black women don’t need sororities because they’re already sisters, and the word “sorority” is a fancy word for clique. Steph thinks men have no business telling women what to do. That leaves me in the chasm in the middle, agreeing with both of them.

Harper and Wyatt exchange glances. They always get quiet around Malcolm, the kid who got expelled from Belmont High on the south side.

“Right,” says Wyatt, glancing over his shoulder, probably to make sure Steph is far enough away not to hear him. “Soooo, just let me know about the interview, okay?”

I look up at Malcolm, whose thick eyebrows have sunken slightly.

“What kinda interview?” he asks.

“Wyatt wants to interview me for the Jefferson Weekly,” I say quickly, hoping Wyatt catches my hints. “It’s about Black hair. I think Wyatt’s trying to give diverse opinions some visibility in the paper.”

Malcolm motions to Wyatt with his chin and says, “?’Bout time we had more diverse opinions in the Weekly. Okay, Wyatt, I see you.”

Which means, in Malcolm-speak, “well done.”

I nod and smile at Wyatt and glance at Harper, who’s looking between me and Malcolm like she knows there’s nothing she can contribute to this conversation, and that we’ll have to discuss the whole dreadlocks thing later, when we’re not in front of Malcolm, whose verdict on the subject she already knows.

“Tutoring some other time, Harper, okay? I’m sorry, but I really am busy tonight. We’ll meet next week.”

I’ll let Harper and Wyatt think I want a night alone with Malcolm. I’ll let Malcolm think I have homework.

“Thanks,” I say to him once Harper and Wyatt have turned and walked halfway down the hall. But before I can even begin explaining to him why he can’t come over tonight, he’s looking at me with disappointment in his dark, glistening eyes, studying mine.

“What’s up?” I ask.

“You were doing it again,” he says, pulling his arm from around me and opening his locker. He slings his backpack off his shoulder, pulls out a couple of textbooks and his vape pen from the bottom shelf, and stuffs them inside his bag.

“Doing what?”

“The voice.”

I roll my eyes.

“That’s the only voice I have.”

“That’s the only voice you have when you’re around those two,” he says, pointing down the hall at them. Then he pauses, and his expression softens. “I love you. You know that.”

He leans in and kisses my forehead before pressing his forehead against mine.

“I want you to be yourself around me, and around them. I want my Black goddess all the time, but you out here sounding like you work in a call center.”

I wish I could invite Malcolm into my world after school, into my game, where every word I speak reflects the Black goddess he sees in me, the one he got to see at Belmont, the one who rocked braids and almost made the Belmont High drill team. The walls may have been defaced with vandalism, and the lockers may have been falling apart, but at least we got to be ourselves.

I smile up at him now. He has a scar in the middle of his bottom lip from the fight that got him expelled from Belmont—the fight that might have gotten me hurt if he hadn’t intervened.

I step up on my tiptoes and kiss that scar. Malcolm and I left Belmont together after freshman year, and Steph joined us. I left so many of our Black friends there, and I appreciate Malcolm doing his best to make sure I don’t leave my Blackness there with them. If he knew about SLAY, if he’d just give the game a chance, he might realize just how proud I am of us. But I can see the whole conversation now. He’d ask me why I’ve poured so much effort into a video game when I could be focusing on college prep and getting a good job, so I don’t join what he is constantly reminding me of: the mass of Black people who waste their lives on video games, junk food, drugs, unemployment, baby daddy drama, and child support. According to him, video games are distractions promoted by white society to slowly erode the focus and ambition of Black men. He wouldn’t understand.

“I’m sorry,” I admit. If I was doing the telephone voice, I didn’t mean to.

He grins and rubs his nose against mine.

“Now, about me coming over tonight.”

I know in my head that I can’t actually have him over to my house tonight, but the way he says it...

I bite my lip and smile. Malcolm is fine as hell, and he knows I know it. We’re lucky—his parents don’t care what he does or where he goes, and my parents don’t mind giving us privacy at the house, since they’d rather we be there than at “some drunken party,” as Mom puts it.

Not sure what kinds of drunken parties she thinks are going down here at Jefferson. If people are throwing them, Malcolm and I are never invited.

“I have homework,” I say. It’s not a complete lie. I do have homework. There’s a math test next week on polynomials that’s going to kick my ass if I don’t get it together and start studying.

“Can I help?”

He knows damn well if he came over, we wouldn’t be studying anything but each other.

“It’s American history,” I lie. His least favorite subject. It’s the only way to keep him away from the house while I immerse myself in the game. As far as Malcolm is concerned, American history is white history, and therefore antiBlack.

“You actually study for that shit?”

“I study so my final transcript doesn’t disappoint Spelman. Even if they admit me, if my final grades are too low and they change their mind, Atlanta won’t be a thing for us.”

That’s it, Kiera, I think, guilt-trip him.

“Fine, whatever.” He shrugs. “I’ve got some decolonizing to do anyway. S’called The 48 Laws of Power. Robert Greene. You heard of it?”

By “decolonizing,” he means reading. Knowing Malcolm, the book is written by a Black man about Black men getting their education, starting their own businesses, becoming the heads of households, and raising gorgeous little Black children with their gorgeous Black queens. Malcolm’s happily ever after. He’ll stay up all night reading books like that. I can’t complain about it, though—there’s something sexy about a strong, stoic boy who reads a lot. But he only reads books by Black men, Black women who edify Black men, and white men who reinforce his non-race-related philosophies, leaving me to keep my Cline and Le Guin to myself.

I laugh at the irony of all those conversation-ending texts I get saying he’s going to go “decolonize,” leaving me to play SLAY uninterrupted.

“Well, maybe I should read it to you sometime,” he says, leaning in close and whispering in my ear. “Maybe right before I put you to sleep.”

I roll my eyes, but his game is working. My whole body is screaming to let him come over tonight. The duel starts in fifteen minutes, which means it might be over by the time he reaches my house. That should give us a couple of hours together before Mom gets home. Just because my parents are lax about us having sex in the house doesn’t mean we want them hearing us.

But just before I can give in, Malcolm is backing away from me.

“But I’ll leave you to your homework,” he says, hands up comically with that big, goofy smile of his. “Just let me know when I can come over. I want to worship my queen.”

And he winks and turns away, shrinking farther and farther down the hall among the rest of the students clustered in groups to gossip before whatever after-school clubs they might have. I sigh, wishing so badly that I could invite him into the game with me. His attitude and curiosity would make him an expert dueler. I don’t know if I’ll ever convince him that SLAY is different. To him, video games may be a distraction from becoming great, but I meant for it to do the exact opposite: to showcase how awesome we are as Black people, how multifaceted, resilient, and colorful we are. And I’ve tried hypothetical questions with him, like What if someone made a game that was just for Black people? but he doesn’t even entertain the idea. “They make things ‘just for us’ all the time—we’ve got Black movies and Black History Month. They give us our own shit to distract us from the fact that we don’t have control over their shit. Separate is not equal. That doesn’t even come close to leveling the field.”

He’ll never get it. It’s whatever. I’ve just decided to stop bringing it up.

At least, at last, I’m finally free to go home. I clip my backpack across my chest and race down the Jefferson front steps, past the students clustering in their cliques, past the kids waiting for their parents to pick them up.

My house is just down the street from the school, so I walk home most days. It gets annoying sometimes, living so close. Game days make traffic on our street a nightmare.

But I can’t complain about the neighborhood. Bellevue, Washington, is one of the cleanest cities I’ve ever seen, in real life or on TV. Perfectly manicured trees line every public sidewalk, like they do at Disneyland, and I haven’t seen a pothole since we moved here from SoDo—that’s “south downtown”—three years ago, when Dad got promoted. Lucky for me, it happened shortly after Malcolm got expelled, and I got to follow him out here to Jefferson, which I love and hate. I love that I can charge these kids sixty dollars a session to tutor them in math. It’s a nice addition to my résumé, and it gives me extra cash to spend on RAM, server maintenance, and in-game artwork. But I hate, and I mean hate, being “the voice of Blackness” here. At Belmont, where 50 percent of the students are Black, and 70 percent are people of color, Malcolm and I got to be normal. Nobody was asking to touch my twist-out, nobody was asking him about his locs, and nobody was asking us for permission to appropriate Black culture as if we’re the authority for our entire race.

I take in the fresh air. It’s only Thursday, and if I’m going to get through the rest of this week, the rest of this semester, and graduate, I’m going to have to stay calm and focus on my homework. I’ll be out of here, and hopefully into Spelman, soon enough.

I reach our little gray house at the end of the cul-de-sac that caps Newberg Lane. It’s smaller than most of the houses on this street, but it still doesn’t feel like home. Not like our home in SoDo anyway. This new house has two obnoxious white pillars on either side of the front door, and a wreath, and a peephole.

I notice a new decoration on the porch—a stuffed rabbit doll made of pink tube socks, sticks, and various brightly colored plastic eggs. That wasn’t here when I left for school this morning. Mom is clearly home early, and in a decorating mood, which means she’s going to ask me for help. Good thing I didn’t invite Malcolm over.

I mentally prepare myself for the encounter, since I have to get through it quick. Then I pull my keys out of my backpack’s water bottle compartment, unlock the front door, and swing it open.

“Mom?” I ask.

“We’re in the dining room!” I hear Steph from the other side of the house, since she had a five-minute head start on me. A much quieter voice mumbles something, and I assume it’s Mom reminding Steph not to yell in the house, even though no one’s home but the three of us.

I carefully untie my shoes and carry them with me into the kitchen, where I keep my shoe toothbrush in the pen drawer, so nobody will confuse it for a mouth toothbrush. I don’t know why I’m so particular about keeping my white shoes white. They’re just Keds. Not like they’re a pair of two-hundred-dollar Yeezys a lot of other Jefferson kids have. But it still irks me when they get dirty.

I find Mom and Steph sitting at the dining table, which always has eight place mats and a seasonal centerpiece, just in case Mom ever wants to throw a spontaneous dinner party. Although with her new schedule at the dental clinic, I doubt she’ll ever really have time. She and Steph are hard at work poking pink and yellow plastic gerbera stems into a horn-shaped white basket in the center of the table and eating popcorn.

“Hey!” exclaims Steph. She looks up at me through new red glasses—apparently, she’s already bored of the green ones she was wearing earlier. These ones are as big around as baseballs, with the lenses punched out. Mine are boring black frames, with prescription lenses. Simple.

“Hey.” Mom smiles up at me.

“You’re home early,” I say.

“I finished with my last patient and they told me they were okay for the rest of the day, probably because of that billboard we put up last year reminding people to brush twice a day. I told y’all it was a good idea,” says Mom, tossing a few kernels of popcorn into her mouth.

“Haven’t you also been telling people to avoid hard candy, caramel, and popcorn?” Steph asks, reaching for another handful and widening her eyes and smiling playfully across the table.

“I know optometrists who stare at their cell phones all day, and I know doctors who eat peach cobbler,” says Mom with a grin, sliding the bowl closer to herself and grabbing a huge handful. She shrugs and looks up at me.

“Sit down with us and have some, Kiera. We’re decorating, if you want to join us.” Mom pulls out the empty chair between them at the head of the table.

“No thanks,” I say as politely as I can. “I have homework. Steph, I thought you were coming home early to work on posters.”

Steph wrinkles her nose playfully at me and glances at Mom.

“I can’t have a snack first?” she asks, and shoves another handful of popcorn into her mouth.

She’s staring at me with one eye narrowed, which means she’s analyzing me. It’s like she can see exactly what I’m thinking. Since I’m the worst at maintaining a poker face, I reach for the bowl of popcorn and toss a few kernels into my mouth. They’re buttery and salty, and I think Mom used some of that cheese powder her assistant, Karen, got us for Christmas last year. But Steph isn’t letting me off that easy. She’s still staring at me.

“Why do you ask?” she pries.

“No reason,” I say, just as my phone buzzes with a text.

“You expecting someone? Maybe a certain someone? A certain Hotep whose name I won’t mention?”

She calls Malcolm a Hotep, which, in her mind, is a brotha who claims he’s for Black power, when he’s really for Black male power, homophobia, misogyny, and other regressive ideologies. I say as long as Malcolm is encouraging our people to do better, and me to do better, I can’t complain, even if he says a few off-color things every so often. He may not “get” feminism all the way yet, but he’s a work in progress.

I deflect her question. “Jealousy ain’t cute, Steph.”

“Don’t say ain’t in my house,” says Mom with raised brows.

I made “Ain’t” a card in the game, since Ebonics is part of what differentiates the American Black experience from American “other” experiences. It’s ours. And I’ll use the word “ain’t” however I please as soon as I log in.

But my mom’s raised eyebrows ain’t playing. “Boo-Boo the Fool” is another card in the game. It’s a Battle card, since “Do I look like Boo-Boo the Fool?” is a rhetorical question that essentially translates to “I wasn’t born yesterday.” It’s a challenge to say something else and see what happens, and so are raised eyebrows, which is why the card features an artistic rendition of my mom’s. But as long as my mom still feels the need to “correct” Ebonics, like when we say words like “ain’t,” she’ll never see the card, or the game. She’d just be disappointed.

It’s not that I don’t get why she does it. She doesn’t want us to walk into a job interview one day with “Ay, bruh, I ain’t got much ’sperience, but I’ma do what I gotta do to get the job done, you feel me, cuz?” but Steph and I know how to alternate. It’s like speaking two different languages. One when I’m home, FaceTiming Malcolm, and one when I’m at Jefferson, blending in. I can do both flawlessly. But some nagging fear in the back of my mom’s mind thinks that if she doesn’t snuff out every “finna” and “talmbout” and “I’on,” Steph and I will be forever unemployable, and every dime she’s spent at Jefferson will go down the drain.

“Yes, Mom,” I say, pulling my phone out and stealing a glance at the screen. A new text from Malcolm.

Malcolm: See you tomorrow. Until then, listen to this and miss me.

He attached a new song by the Weeknd—that one that was nice and slow that I suggested we make love to. Why does he insist on teasing me like this when he knows he can’t come over tonight? I let out a frustrated sigh and look back up at Mom and Steph.

Steph is looking at me with a smirk now, and I’m sure she knows it’s Malcolm. She changes the subject, and I’m grateful, but the new topic she chooses is one I’ve heard a thousand times.

“Did you notice my new glasses?”

I nod. “Red looks nice on you.”

“Thanks!” she beams, rolling up both sleeves of her tight pink sweater.

Mom leans in closer to Steph, examining her glasses extra close, so close that Steph actually leans backward a bit.

“Is that... Scotch tape?” asks Mom.

“They’re from Goodwill,” explains Steph with a shrug as she picks up a big green leaf and nestles it in the basket. “But they broke in my purse on the way home. Had to fix ’em somehow.”

“You couldn’t find another pair of red glasses?” asks Mom.

“Not ones that look like the ones from Rihanna’s music video. I may go to Jefferson, but I’m not about to spend Jefferson money on glasses.”

I smile at that. Steph and I have our frugality in common, although mine is mostly based on the fact that I use every last dime I can find to maintain the game.

“But Scotch tape, Steph? Really,” says Mom. “You could find a nice new pair on Amazon that doesn’t look so...”

Steph leans back against her chair and folds her arms over her chest, challenging Mom to finish the sentence.

“Tacky,” says Mom. I know she’s avoiding the word “ghetto,” after Steph’s lecture to the family last week about how “ghetto” is just a derogatory code word for innovative. “I just don’t want those kids at Jefferson ostracizing you and your sister.”

Too late for that.

“I get it, Mom,” replies Steph. “But I genuinely don’t care. If I wear red tape-covered glasses, quote lyrics from The Chronic regularly, and speak in AAVE, and that’s enough to get me ostracized, it’s going to happen no matter what I do.”

Okay, I have to ask. “What’s AAVE?”

“Oh, please don’t get her started,” sighs Mom, looking up at me like I just asked Steph to recite the Gettysburg Address for us.

“No, Mom, this is important. Kiera needs to hear this. It stands for African American Vernacular English, and—”

“Actually,” I say, glancing back at my phone. It’s already 3:08. I have seven minutes to log in. “Sorry I asked. I need to get to studying. Biology exam tomorrow.”

I turn to leave through the kitchen just as Steph launches into, “Okay, we’ll talk later, though, right? This is important!” at a thousand decibels, after which comes a swift shhhhhhh from Mom to remind her not to yell in the house.

When I get to my room, I lock the door and run to my computer chair. When I log in, there are 641 new DMs in my SLAY inbox. That’s the name of the game—SLAY. It’s not an acronym, although that’s always the first question of anyone who