“What would you do with a million pounds?”
There was something important behind Lizzie’s question, I could tell by the way she kept twisting her short dark hair into knots as she showed us into her room. She was a ball of condensed energy, all excitement.
“You bring us up here for a quiz, Lizzie?” Grady asked as he dumped himself into a beanbag. His knees almost hit his ears and he grinned. Grady could be a bit odd, but his smile was infectious and Lizzie grinned back.
I leaned my skateboard against the doorway, took a Coke from the six-pack Grady handed me from his bag and passed the rest around. Carmen had already made herself at home and was lying on the bed. She downed half of her can before Lizzie opened hers. My brother, Will, eyed his before taking it, as if wondering what Grady would want from him later if he accepted.
Lizzie was still running her fingers through her pixie-cut. I remembered the row three years earlier when she first wanted the style. Her mum had forbidden it, so Lizzie had hacked off her long plaits with nail scissors.
“I thought we were heading into town?” I said.
“I need to show you something first. Take a seat – it’ll take a while to load.” She switched on her computer, but remained standing.
As the monitor flickered into life I looked around her room. The last time I’d been in here the walls had been pastel pink and we’d spent whole days playing Legend of Zelda on her Wii. Now the walls were a light blue-grey, the posters had morphed from Justin Bieber into Nina Simone and there was a pile of climbing gear in one corner. But it was the same desk; I ran my finger over our initials carved into the right-hand side and smiled. The bed was the same too: plain white ironwork, decorated with homemade paper birds and butterflies wired on to the joins. I sank my feet into the rug, remembering the feel of the wool on my stomach, the controller in my hand and Lizzie beside me.
“What happened to your mum’s ‘no boys’ rule?” Will slid into the chair by the desk. The way his hair was always hanging over his eyes would drove insane, but girls liked it, apparently.
“Seeing as I’ll be at uni in a few months, Mum got reasonable.” Lizzie didn’t take her eyes off the screen.
“I’m so glad it’s summer. I mean, those exams nearly killed me!” Grady took a sip of his Coke and sighed. “Hey, have you heard about the Coca-Cola conspiracy?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Did you know Coke is the main cause of the US obesity epidemic? These cans contain, like, over forty milligrams of sodium. That makes you even thirstier, so you drink more. It’s why there’s so much sugar in it – to hide the salt.”
I pointed at the Coke. “So, you don’t want it?”
“It’s all about making informed choices. I can have a glass of water after.” Grady burped.
Carmen laughed. “You are funny, Grady.”
Will looked sideways at Carmen, then away.
“OK, ready!” Lizzie turned her monitor so the rest of us could view the display and pointed to a spinning logo. “Check this out.”
Carmen rubbed absentmindedly at the blue kestrel tattooed on the inside of her wrist. “What’s the Gold Foundation?”
“It’s run by Marcus Gold,” Grady jumped in. “The multi-billionaire. He owns half of Silicon Valley, runs all those charities, has that airline – Goldstar.” He took a deep breath and carried on. “He’s rumoured to be part of Yale’s Skull and Bones society. He’s definitely a Freemason and probably one of the guys behind 9/11, he—”
“The only people behind 9/11 were the terrorists.” Lizzie frowned at him.
Grady sighed. “If you’d ever read the information I send you—”
I kicked his beanbag. “We’re never going to take anything written by David Icke seriously, Grady. He thought he was the Son of God. Give it up.”
“Guys.” Lizzie grabbed her mouse and scrolled down the page. “Look!”
1. Are you the best? Are you driven to succeed? Are you in top physical shape?
2. Will you be between sixteen and twenty years old on 15th August 2017?
3. Can you get a team of five together?
4. Do you want to win £1 million pounds … each?
Under-eighteens need permission from a parent or guardian to apply.
Grady rolled off his seat and moved closer to the screen. “A million pounds each!”
“That’s what it says.” Lizzie nodded excitedly.
Will frowned. “Why is Gold offering so much money?”
“He’s a philanthropist,” Lizzie said. Grady snorted loudly but she ignored him. “See here, it says he wants to give bright, proactive teens a push in life. The winners get investment advice to help them make the best of their prize money.”
“Well … we don’t have to take the advice,” Grady said thoughtfully. “There’s a lot I could do with a million pounds.”
Carmen began to skim read. “It says we have to fill in a load of assessment forms.”
“But what’s the competition?” Will put his hands behind his head. “What do we have to do?”
“The teams that pass the assessment stage go into a lottery. Ten teams get chosen and they’re flown out to a remote island owned by Gold, where there’ll be tests of endurance and intelligence.” Lizzie could barely suppress her excitement. “It sounds like orienteering and puzzle-solving along with a bit of geocaching, rock climbing … that kind of thing.”
“That sounds great!” I looked at my brother. I hadn’t come up with anything to occupy us over the summer. “We’d enter even without the prize money. Right, Will?”
“There’s nothing in here we can’t do.” Lizzie bounced on her toes. “We’ve got Grady’s gaming skills for puzzle-solving. Will was the best orienteer when we did Duke of Edinburgh and we all know his brain is a miracle. You can fix practically anything, Ben – and Car, you were brilliant when Noah broke his leg last year. If we pass the assessment and get through the lottery, we could totally win this.” Lizzie looked at Carmen. “What do you think?”
“I don’t know, chica.” Carmen avoided her gaze. “I’d have to take time off work. I told the salon I could work full-time, starting next week.”
“You enjoyed Duke of Edinburgh.”
“I liked helping at the animal shelter. But you promised when I agreed to do DofE that we’d have a fun summer. This does not sound like fun.”
“A million pounds, Car.” Will brushed his hair out of his eyes. “It would pay for vet school.”
“That was a secret.” She glared at him. “A stupid dream.”
“You never told me that’s what you wanted to do!” Lizzie adjusted her glasses and sat next to her. “You have to come with us. You’d be a fantastic vet!” She smiled. “We can’t do it without you.”
“Fine.” Carmen threw up her hands. “I can always get another floor-sweeping job if I lose this one.”
“What about you, Grady?” Lizzie asked.
He grinned. “I’m in if you guys are.”
e’d only let Grady join our Duke of Edinburgh squad after Noah’s accident left us a man down and his dad put him forward but, despite his oddities, I was glad we had. Grady never went anywhere without his ‘bag of tricks’ – he embodied that old scout motto, Be Prepared. Plus, Will seemed to like him, which was a definite plus.
“We’re entering then?” I looked around.
“This is going to be amazing, you guys.” Lizzie leaped up and clicked on the link to download the entry forms.
My phone blinked and vibrated. “Will, Mum’s calling.”
“She’s calling you.” Will didn’t even look up.
I left my drink and went out to the landing. There was no telling what mood she’d be in. I took a deep breath, let the phone ring for as long as I dared and then accepted the call.
“Where are you?” she snapped.
“Hi, Mum. We’re at Lizzie’s.”
“Will’s with you?”
“Don’t take that tone with me.” I could picture her sitting on the chair in the hall, her pale brown hair hanging over her face. Her hair was just like Will’s – mine was ginger, like Dad’s. “Are you watching him?”
“He’s almost seventeen, Mum.”
“You know how delicate he is.”
My jaw tightened. “Yes, I’m watching him.”
“You have to be there for him, Ben.”
“He was the worst affected when your father left.”
“I know, Mum.”
Her tone changed. “You’d better not be eating anything over there. I’ve got your dinner on.”
“Yes, Mum. I mean, no, we’re not eating.”
Will and I were only allowed what Mum put on the table. This month we were ‘doing Atkins’. I never thought I’d miss carrots and I’d kill for a plate of chips.
“Just like your father! You make promises then you go and do whatever you want.” She was working herself up; probably standing now, pacing.
I held the phone away from my ear as she began to yell at me. “… your responsibility … don’t you go thinking you’re too good…”
I waited until she calmed down, then said, “Everything’s fine here, Mum, honestly. We’ll be back for dinner.”
“Why don’t you make a cup of tea and relax?”
“That’s a good idea, Ben.” Her voice softened and I sighed. I couldn’t figure out if she’d worry more when we left home or less. She was the one who had let Will do his exams a couple of years early and apply to Oxford. She wanted to be able to brag about her genius son.
I took a deep breath. “I’ll see you later, OK?”
Will looked up as I walked back in. “The usual?”
I tossed the phone on to the bed. “The usual.”
The forms had to be filled in by hand and posted, so Lizzie had printed them out. The others had already started. Carmen hummed tunelessly until Lizzie reached over and switched on her old record player. Nina Simone’s deep voice filled the room.
“Are you sure your mum will let you come, Will?” Lizzie asked. Her fingers had gone back to her hair, worrying. I wanted to hold her hand to calm her; I gripped my pen tighter.
“She’ll be fine with it,” Will said.
I snorted. “She won’t be ‘fine with it’. But Will should be able to talk her round. It would be easier if we could tell the local paper we were applying – she’d love that. But the prize money should go a long way toward persuading her.”
“I don’t understand this dumb confidentiality clause – why can’t we tell the papers?” Grady frowned. “It seems suspicious to me. If this was all above board, it would be everywhere.”
“It’s on the internet, Grady.” Lizzie tapped her pencil impatiently. “It is everywhere.”
“It’s not a bad thing,” I said. “The fewer people who know about the competition, the more chance we have of getting through.”
“Anyway,” Carmen added, “do you really want to be in the papers saying, ‘We’re entering this competition.’? If we lose everyone will know. If we win, we’ll be hounded for the money – it happened to my Uncle Javi.”
“You have a millionaire uncle?” I asked.
Carmen let out a laugh. “Chico! No! He won a year’s supply of ham. All he had, day and night, were calls from people wanting free ham.” She rolled off the bed. “I don’t know my blood type; I need to call Mami. Can I use someone’s phone?”
“Out of credit again?” Lizzie tossed hers over.
Carmen caught Lizzie’s phone. “Always.” She danced into the hall and down the stairs. “Buenos días, Mrs Bellamy. You look lovely today!”
I started my own form while Carmen was out of the room, looking up only when she jumped back on to the bed saying, “I am O-negative, by the way.”
“That’s unusual, isn’t it?” Lizzie frowned.
“I am Spanish, remember!” Carmen said, as if that explained it.
“Actually,” Grady said, “it means you’re descended from the Nephilim … or aliens. Opinion is divided on which it is. I’ll send you a link.”
“Ben, have you got to part two?” Lizzie asked me. “These questions are nuts – listen to this. Success is based on survival of the fittest; I don’t care about the losers.”
I turned over my page. “I’m not there yet…”
“What are we meant to answer though? I mean, what do they want us to say? Look at these.” She shoved her form at me.
Success is based on survival of the fittest; I don’t care about the losers.
I find myself in the same kinds of trouble, time after time.
For me, what's right is whatever I can get away with.
In today's world, I feel justified in doing anything I can get away with to succeed.
I am often bored.
Before I do anything, I carefully consider the possible consequences.
I pointed to the question at the bottom of the page. “That’s easy – we’ve got to strongly agree, right? Show that we’re going to think things though, not rush into dangerous situations.”
“Carmen would have to lie, then.” Lizzie ducked as Carmen threw a pillow at her head. “Seriously though – I don’t know what they want.” She looked at Will. “What do you think? Should we tell the truth?”
Will folded his arms. “You’re asking me if I think you should manipulate the system?” He showed his Will-grin; a semi-scathing twist of the mouth.
I looked at my form. “You’re really OK with cheating, Lizzie?”
“For a million pounds, are you kidding?” she cried.
I shook my head. “There are two hundred questions here. It’s designed to trip us up. And you don’t know what they’re looking for – I think we need to answer honestly.”
Will nodded. “Ben’s right.”
“You want to be honest?” Lizzie’s eyes were round. “You – Will Harper?” She turned to Carmen, who flicked her pink-tipped hair over one shoulder. “Carmen?”
“It’ll be easier to do it as myself, chica. More fun.”
“I agree.” Grady tossed his pen in the air but dropped the catch.
“Of course you do,” Lizzie muttered. “Fine. But I’m going to blame you guys if we get rejected before we even reach the lottery.”