We are so excited to bring you this exclusive excerpt of Slingshot by Mercedes Helnwein!
I didn’t think it was going to be anything like this when I finally fell in love. I thought it was going to be pretty simple. Like, I’d love someone and they’d love me. I thought that’s the way it worked.”
Grace Welles is stuck at a third-tier boarding school in the swamps of Florida, where her method of survival is a strict, self-imposed loneliness. And it works. Her crap attitude keeps people away because without friends, there are fewer to lose.
But when she accidentally saves the new kid, Wade Scholfield, from being beaten up, everything about her precariously balanced loner world collapses and, in order to find her footing again, she has no choice but to discover a completely new way to exist.
Because with Wade around, school rules are optional, weird is okay, and conversations about wormholes can lead to make-out sessions that disrupt any logical stream of thought. Nothing’s perfect, but that’s not the point. When they’re together everything seems uncomplicated in a way that Grace knows is not possible.
Except it is.
So why does Grace crush Wade’s heart into a million pieces?
Acidly funny and compulsive readable, this debut is a story about two people finding each other and then screwing it all up. See also: soulmate, stupidity, sex, friendship, bad poetry, very bad decisions and all the indignities of being in love for the first time.
“I’M WADE, BY THE WAY,” HE SAID.
I gave him my name reluctantly and then made a point of focusing elsewhere in the room. We were sitting in the main office, waiting for Mr. Wahlberg, the headmaster, to see us.
I had never gotten into very serious trouble at school, but I did have a consistent if innocuous relationship with Mr. Wahlberg due mainly to Algebra II and PE, in which I made little to no effort of any kind. I found both of these subjects completely irrelevant to my existence and had no objections to being sent to the office about it. In fact, I preferred it to either PE or al- gebra class, and with time, I had become pretty familiar with the place. The potted plants, the bad oil paintings of Mr. and Mrs. McCleary, who had started the school in 1973, the an- nouncement board, the staff photo, the light gray carpeting, and the stain on the ceiling by the door to the hallway. In a way, I liked the office. It was comforting in its predictability. Plus, it was full of adults, and sometimes I needed to get out
of the raging hormonal bloodbath that was the majority of life at school. Grown-ups were so much more lethargic. It could be very relaxing.
This time was different, though. Waiting to be called into Mr. Wahlberg’s office, I felt the cold sweat start to build at the back of my neck and my stomach become detached and queasy. There was no doubt that we were in a fairly sizable amount of shit, but that wasn’t what was making me nervous. It was the social implications of what I had gotten myself into: this person sitting inches away from me, bouncing his leg up and down, trying to talk to me as though we were now on the same side of something. I had never asked for this. All I had wanted was to shoot Derek in the face for being such an A-1 piece of shit. It was supposed to be a distraction from Mr. Sorrentino—something to make me feel better—but it had backfired on me. Somehow, I had been packaged off onto the same team with this sweating, breathing stranger who was a boy and whose elbow had bumped into my arm twice already because he couldn’t sit still. It was nauseating.
“Hey!” Wade tapped me on the shoulder, oblivious to my attempts at blowing him off by not-so-subtle means of body language.
I gave him a nervous glance.
“Hey, that was insane—that thing with the slingshot,” he said. He kept his voice low so that Mrs. Martinez wouldn’t be able to hear from where she sat at her desk, but his words were full of breathless excitement. “How come you know how to shoot with one of those things?”
I turned away, focusing on the staff photograph—top left- hand corner, to be exact—where Mr. Sorrentino stood smiling back at me with his devil-may-care hair flopping into his face.
“I practiced a lot when I was younger,” I said. “Why?”
“I don’t know.”
“I didn’t think slingshots actually worked—you know, that you can actually hit things with them accurately.”
“That’s what they’re made for.”
“I just always thought they were toys.” “They’re not toys.”
“Yeah, I believe you,” he said with a laugh.
The way he laughed caught me off guard. There was an unapologetic warmth in his manner. Boys didn’t laugh like that—at least not the cool ones, who usually had a derisive, overconfident, joker-asshole vibe going at all times. I couldn’t tell if Wade was the cool kind or not, even when I stole a furtive glance. He sat with a defined slump to his shoulders. His finger- nails were dirty and bitten low. No particular haircut, just hair grown out slightly too long, probably out of carelessness. Un- done shoelace. Bruise under his eye, courtesy of Derek. Baby fat still in his face.
“Thanks, by the way,” he said. “For helping me out.”
His eyes were fixed on me with that same magnetic inno- cence that had been in his laugh. It really seemed that he gave no fucks about me being a dick.
“Yeah. I wasn’t doing it to help, though,” I said. “Then why’d you do it?”
I concentrated back on Mr. Sorrentino’s smile. “It’s just Derek. His stupid face, I guess.”
“I can live with that,” he said with another laugh.
I angled my body slightly away from him, trying to make it clear that just because fate had thrown Mrs. Gillespie into our path did not make us a duo of any sort.
The wait was taking forever. Wade sat next to me, fidgeting as the minutes drained away. He made one or two more at- tempts at conversation, and I shoved them back into his face. Eventually, he got up to help Mrs. Martinez find her glasses,
which she had misplaced. Mrs. Martinez was the keeper of Mr. Wahlberg’s office—a large lady (height more than width), probably in her late forties with a penchant for cozy wear (e.g., oversize sweaters, often with cats on them, and slip-on shoes that looked like something one would wear at home on the couch). She was all right as far as school personnel was con- cerned. Anyway, she and Wade sorted through the mess on her desk for about five minutes, and the whole time, they talked about these two crazy cats that Mrs. Martinez said she had who liked to carry off her glasses and hide them in weird places at home. Wade laughed at her story and told her about some dog he once had as a kid. It was bizarre. I didn’t get his angle.
“Look,” Wade said, holding up the glasses.
“Well, I’ll be!” Mrs. Martinez exclaimed, delighted. “Where were they?”
“Under all this stuff,” he said, pointing to a messy pile of papers. “Don’t you ever clean your desk?”
“Oh, I’m terrible, aren’t I?” she said as he handed them to her. “Those are the old timetables for the Christmas charity fundraiser. What are those still doing there? Pass them to me will you, hon?”
He grabbed the stack of papers and passed them over to her.
“Those were supposed to be in the recycling bin.” “You want me to drop them off there?” he asked.
She stopped her bustling around and took her time to look him over. Her small eyes narrowed in concentration, as though trying to make sense of an undiscovered form of life. “You’re a real sweetheart, you know that?” she said. “Your parents sure did something right.”
Wade let out a small snort of amusement. “I mean it,” she said. “You’re a gentleman.”
His amusement turned quickly into discomfort. “It’s not a
big deal,” he said, scratching his arm. “I can drop them off if you want.”
“Thanks, hon, but Tara will get to it in a minute, and I think Mr. Wahlberg is almost ready for you.”
He walked back and fell into the seat next to me. I quickly looked away again, and we continued to wait silently.
Mr. Wahlberg was a wiry man. Tall, thin, probably in his fifties, and not much appetite for life left in him. He wore pale yellow shirts and combed his hair straight back from his receding hairline. On that day, he wore a tie that had musical notes all over it, which struck me as bizarre since I couldn’t imagine him listening to music. He seemed too miserable— certainly too miserable for a tie with musical notes on it.
“This qualifies as a weapon,” Mr. Wahlberg said, holding up the slingshot.
He let the significance of his statement sink in.
“I wouldn’t call it a weapon, per se,” I said eventually, staring hard at my knee.
Mr. Wahlberg sighed. “I’d really appreciate it if we could skip the song and dance this time, Miss Welles. The rules and regulations are very clear about objects that could be used as weapons.”
“Right. Totally. I just think that’s super vague, though,” I said. “Because per that rule, anything could be used as a weapon. I could technically use a sock to strangle someone. I mean, who decides if a slingshot or a sock is a weapon any- way?”
“I do,” he said.
“Right, but that’s what I’m saying—it’s arbitrary. Like, there’s no need for any real logic, per se. It’s just what you decide. But anyway, that’s all I’m saying.”
When I was nervous, I tended to say per se a lot. It was easy to throw in pretty much anywhere in a sentence.
Mr. Wahlberg closed his eyes and began massaging his eyeballs, which is something he did when it was necessary to prove to people that he didn’t have it easy in his line of work. Wade and I sat watching the eyeball massage. After a moment, Mr. Wahlberg dropped his hands on the desk and pulled himself together.
“We’re not here to discuss why I have risen to the exalted position of school principal, where clearly my powers know no limits and my whims are the law. Let’s keep it simple: the two of you were caught running through the hallways during lessons this morning, very nearly taking Mrs. Gillespie’s head off in the process, and you were carrying a slingshot. And that, Miss Welles, puts you in very hot water.”
“It’s my slingshot,” Wade said, raising his hand.
Mr. Wahlberg focused on Wade with a blank expression, and for a second, I thought he was going to go into another eyeball massage, but he didn’t.
“My dad gave it to me when I was a kid,” Wade started to explain. “It doesn’t even really work—like, the elastic is totally worn out—and anyway, it’s just a toy. I just keep it around, you know, to remind me of home. I didn’t know it was such a big deal. Sorry.”
Mr. Wahlberg took Wade in for a long moment. His eye- brows drew together. “How are you settling in?” he asked Wade.
“Really well, to be honest.”
Mr. Wahlberg’s expression remained unaltered. His eyes drooped down a little on the outer edges, and his mouth was an almost perfectly horizontal line of non-emotion.
“I know you had a difficult time at your last school,” he said. Wade didn’t reply but seemed undaunted. Polite, wide-
“Your parents were hoping this would be a fresh start for
you,” Mr. Wahlberg went on. “This is, what—your fourth school in two years, I believe?”
“Yeah . . .” He squinted up at the ceiling for a moment as though counting the number of schools in his head. “Yeah, four.”
“Two of those were expulsions.”
Wade nodded with a shamefaced grimace that looked pretty bogus to me. Mr. Wahlberg regarded him carefully for a moment.
“I like to believe that this is the kind of place that can give you all the resources you need to turn over a new leaf,” he said eventually. “I’ll tell you, we’ve had plenty of success with kids being able to find themselves here. I’ve seen it happen. I’m not interested in who you were at your previous schools. What I’m interested in is who you intend to be here at Midhurst.”
“Right. Well, that’s what I’m interested in too actually.” “Is that so?” Mr. Wahlberg didn’t seem to buy it.
“Yeah. No joke,” Wade said. “I know it sounds like I’m full of sh—or, like, I can come off insincere and stuff sometimes, but I’m not. I’m actually being sincere right now about turning over a new leaf and all.”
God, he was either so good or so bad at talking his way out of a scrape that I couldn’t figure out which it was. I didn’t think Mr. Wahlberg knew either. He folded his arms over his chest and proceeded with some caution.
“Well, listen, I’m going to give you the same chances I give anyone else. Clean slate. No judgment. I’m not going to sit here, expecting you to fail just because that would be the easy way out for us all. I’m afraid I’m going to expect you to succeed like I would expect any of my straight-A students to succeed. That is my promise to you: a fair chance. But what you make of that chance is up to you. And I’m not going to lie—it worries
me that the semester has just started and here we are. It’s a bad start, Mr. Scholfield.”
No one said anything for a moment. Wade had lost a small trace of his absolute cool. He remained attentive, but his right leg had started bouncing again.
“I would hate to have to call your parents and tell them that we have a problem.”
Pausing after saying something like that was a particularly low move, I thought.
Mr. Wahlberg continued, “Let me ask you this: Do you want to be here?”
“Are you sure about that? Because if you’re not, I’m not interested in wasting anyone’s time.”
“Yeah, I know,” Wade said. He was rubbing the arm of his chair. “I get that. It would be stupid if anyone wasted their time on me, but I like this place. I really do. I’m serious about not wanting to screw it up.”
Mr. Wahlberg leaned back in his chair with a thoughtful frown, no doubt still trying to determine whether that had been penitence in Wade’s voice or just really high-end derision. For a moment, we just sat there, listening to the ticking of Mr. Wahlberg’s wristwatch, waiting for the verdict. The phone rang out in the main office, and Mrs. Martinez’s pleasant voice answered. And then Mr. Wahlberg opened one of his desk drawers and pulled out a piece of paper, which he placed in front of Wade.
“These are the school rules and regulations. I’d like you to copy them out thirty times over the weekend and see me on Monday. You think you can do that?”
A wide smile broke out across Wade’s face. “Yeah, abso- lutely.”
“If you’re serious about wanting to stay here, Mr. Scholfield, I am perfectly willing to be convinced of it.”
Wade was full of relief as we walked out of the office, and I, in contrast, was in a real stink of a mood because Mr. Wahlberg had also assigned us a week of cleaning the dining hall after dinner, which ranked only second to cleaning the toilets.
“Yikes!” Wade said, wiping his brow in an exaggerated manner as we walked back into the hallway. By the way he acted, one would have thought it was all a big joke to him, but his hand was trembling a little when he made the motion of wiping his brow.
“You didn’t have to pretend the slingshot was yours,” I said, sounding heartless in a way that I couldn’t control.
“Can’t help it if I’m that kind of guy,” he said.
I didn’t even crack a smile. “Well, it was pointless, because I don’t care if I’m expelled or not. All those empty threats wouldn’t have bothered me personally.”
He looked intrigued. “Wait, you think he was bluffing?” “Of course he was. He needs your tuition fee. You think
Mr. Wahlberg gives an actual shit about you ‘turning over a new leaf’?”
“Well, maybe. I don’t know the guy.”
“He doesn’t. He just likes to hear himself talk.”
I didn’t know if Mr. Wahlberg just liked to hear himself talk or not, but I said it because I couldn’t think of anything else to say, and besides, I didn’t want to have to thank Wade for taking the fall. It was chivalrous in a way that I was ill equipped to handle.
“Hey, hold on a second,” he called out when I turned to walk in the opposite direction he was heading.
I stopped reluctantly. “What?”
“I can’t tell if you hate me or if that’s just your personality,” he said. “Not your personality, but your—you know—the way
you act when you’re uncomfortable. My best friend at my last school had a way of losing his nerve in front of people, and some of the stuff he said made him seem like a jerk. I figured that was maybe the same thing with you too. Or do you hate me? It’s all right if you do, but I don’t want to jump to conclu- sions—in case you don’t actually hate me, I mean.”
I hesitated, and not fully certain of what he was even ask-
ing, I said, “It’s my personality.”
He smiled, seemingly with relief. “Okay, awesome.”
My face began to feel hot again. His effortless insight made me sick. It only added to my humiliation, being dissected like this and having my unattractive traits thrown into my face.
I didn’t bother answering him. I turned and walked away.
And Derek McCormick. I could no longer remember why exactly I had shot Derek. Maybe I was a psychopath.
About the Author:
Mercedes Helnwein is a visual artist and writer. She was born in Vienna, Austria, and grew up in Germany, Ireland, and partially the US and the UK. Instead of going to college she moved to L.A. where she began putting on art shows with her friends and selling her drawings. Her obsession with writing began at age ten when she wrote her first short story for a school assignment – The Celery Stick Who Became President. She currently lives and works in L.A. and Ireland. Slingshot is her debut novel.