First off, are you as entertained by the HERETICS ANONYMOUS cover as we are?! Okay, cool, now that that’s settled, let us tell you a little story. It’s about five unlikely friends and all-around misfits who band together with the hopes of creating a space where they can be themselves—and end up starting a full-on revolt at their strict Catholic high school.
This book is freaking hilarious. And it doesn’t hit shelves until August 7th, but you’re in luck because we have all the details in this exclusive early excerpt! This has been one of our absolute favorite reads of the summer so far, because:
A. Who doesn’t need something that is truly laugh-out-loud funny these days?
B. Beneath the hilarious pranks and witty dialogue is a story that’s really all about learning to understand and respect people who are different from you—whether in beliefs, life experiences, or just opinions about dress codes. And who can’t get behind that message?
But we’re not going to just tell you how wonderful HERETICS ANONYMOUS is. Instead, we’re going to reveal the first three chapters right here and let you see for yourself! Read on below for a sneak peek of this charming new comedy!
There is something truly evil about plaid.
It might look like just a crisscrossed grid of colors, but in my experience, much like comets and black cats, plaid is a harbinger of doom. The amateur bagpiper who played at my grandpa’s funeral wore plaid. The scratchy suit I was stuffed into three Christmases in a row was plaid. Dad’s boss, who promoted Dad and is therefore ultimately responsible for the disaster my life has become, probably wears plaid boxer shorts. The evil has to be hiding somewhere.
And eviler than all other plaid things is the monstrosity I’m staring at from across my bedroom like it’s a tartan rattlesnake.
“It’s a tie, Michael,” Mom said after I opened the package from the school uniform supplier last week and threatened to test out how flame-retardant the polyester fabric really was. “You’ve worn them before.”
Yeah, to funerals and dinners with grandparents at stuffy, boring country clubs. Not to school. I’ve been to four different schools—two public, one private, and one “experimental learning community”—and none of them required ties.
There are lots of things Mom promised would be no big deal. Like moving for the fourth time in ten years. Or changing schools a month and a half into eleventh grade. Or switching from a public school that observes “winter” break to a school whose motto is Deus Meus et Omnia—My God and My All. So far, she’s been epically wrong about all those things, so there’s no real reason to trust her about the tie.
In fifteen minutes, I have to leave for what should be the second Monday in October but is instead my first day at a school I’ve never even seen. The plaid tie sits on top of a box of books I still haven’t unpacked. It’s mocking me.
I grab the tie and loop it around my neck, under the collar of the Mandatory Required white button-up shirt that’s only half tucked into the Mandatory Required stiff navy pants. I can’t remember exactly how to put the tie on.
Attempt #1: I go under instead of over, and it twists and curls into itself like a birthday party noisemaker.
Attempt #2: I measure wrong, and the skinny half sticks out three inches from behind the fat half.
Attempt #3: It’s inside out. I put it on inside out.
This must be what someone about to be hanged feels like, how the noose feels so limp and harmless even though it’s going to slowly, painfully suck the life out of him.
I should have asked Dad to give me a refresher course in Basic Man Skills before he got on the red-eye for Brussels last night, but that would have interfered with my record-breaking six days of not talking to him. It would be one thing if we moved all the time because we had to, if Dad was a soldier or a diplomat or an escaped convict. But in reality, Dad’s job has something to do with sales and the importation of plastic pool covers, and we move each time he reaches for that next rung on the corporate ladder.
I give up on getting the tie straight and pick up the final piece of my uniform, a navy blazer with a patch over the left breast that reads ST. CLARE’S PREPARATORY SCHOOL. They could have called it HELL and saved on the embroidery costs.
Some people are cut out to follow a higher being, like God or the hosts of the Home Shopping Network, but there are other people, people like me, who find it harder to follow the whims of parents or teachers or two-thousand-year-old undead Jewish mystics with strong opinions on divorce.
I didn’t lose my faith or anything. I never had it in the first place. I never believed in any kind of God, just like I never believed in werewolves, or ghosts, or that mixing Pop Rocks and soda would make your stomach explode. Okay, I did believe that last one, but only until A. J. Rubin pushed a can of Coke and a bag of rock candy across our kindergarten lunch table and dared me to try. So I did, and my stomach didn’t explode. And as I gulped down the rest of the soda, I had my first epiphany: just because a person says something is true doesn’t mean it is, and anyone who tells you otherwise is probably trying to keep you from doing something fun.
The next year, when I was seven, I gave a presentation on the unlikelihood of Santa Claus for show-and-tell, but Amy Buckley burst into tears two sentences in and ruined the whole thing. In middle school, I put together a list ranking religions from most plausible to least plausible and shared my findings at Christmas dinner, which caused my great-grandmother to reroute my Christmas money to her church collection plate.
And now, at sixteen, older and wiser and dressed like a middle-aged investment banker, I’m preparing to face the greatest challenge of my nonbelieving life:
For the first priest I’ve seen in real life, Father Peter is disappointing. I was half hoping to meet one straight out of The Exorcist, black robes and giant crucifixes, or maybe a medieval friar with the top of his head shaved, but Father Peter looks like every principal I’ve ever had: middle-aged, glasses, joyless. If I didn’t know he’d devoted his life to indoctrinating impressionable children and never getting laid, he’d almost look normal.
He scans some papers in a manila folder and then glances across his desk at me. “Michael Ausman,” he says, and I nod even though it isn’t a question. “I see you’ve come to us very highly recommended by our board member Craig Collins.”
It wasn’t enough for Dad’s boss to uproot my family last minute, oh no, he also had to arrange my acceptance at the area’s best private school. I would have preferred the local public school. It’s huge. The bigger the school, the easier it is to blend in.
“It’s unusual for a student to enter after the semester’s already begun—”
Maybe for him. I’ve done it before.
“—but your grades from your previous school show you’re a competent student, so I can’t imagine you’ll struggle to catch up, will you?”
“No,” I say.
Father Peter raises an eyebrow. “No, what?”
My left leg is cramping. “No, I won’t struggle to catch up?”
Father Peter shakes his head. “No, Father,” he supplies.
My throat goes dry. I am not going to call this man with bitten-down nails and dandruff flakes on his sweater Father. I already have a father, even if I’m this close to filing for emancipation.
Father Peter drums his fingers on his desk in a way that tells me I’m not getting out of this office with my dignity intact.
“No, Father,” I say, with more breath than words.
He sighs and gets up from his desk. “Ms. Edison will give you your schedule. First period starts in ten minutes.”
I start for the door, but Father Peter’s voice jerks me back. “I haven’t dismissed you yet, Mr. Ausman,” he says. “Before you go, I want you to understand something—my job at St. Clare’s is to mold young men and women into leaders in their church and their community. Whether or not you enjoy that process is irrelevant.” His face softens. “But I’ve been at this school for two decades, so I can tell you from experience: being here is only a punishment if you make it one. You’re dismissed.”
No one under the age of forty has talked to me yet. A boy sharing my lab table gives me a quick once-over as he sits down, but then turns away. I have three classes before lunch, which means I have three hours to forcibly insert myself into someone’s friend group. That’s all you need—one person to eat lunch with on the first day. Understanding any complex social hierarchies can come later.
There’s static from the loudspeaker, and the class quiets down.
“Gooood morning, St. Clare’s!” The kid on the intercom is so cheerful I instantly hate him. “Let’s give thanks for another beautiful day, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
As if connected by strings, the entire class crosses themselves, perfectly synchronized. I swipe clumsily up, down, then across my body, finishing at least two seconds behind everyone else. The loudspeaker voice has already moved on.
“It’s October ninth, the feast day of Saint Denis, patron saint of Paris, France, and rabies victims. Here are today’s announcements—”
Standard reminders for SAT sign-ups, chamber choir auditions, and volleyball games follow, and for a second I feel like I’m in my old school again, wondering if we’ll get to blow anything up during lab.
“Please bow your heads for morning prayer.”
So much for that.
After an uncomfortably long prayer I barely understand, my chem teacher starts to write lab procedures on the board. Someone taps my shoulder, and I turn around to see a girl with wheat-colored hair, a gold cross around her neck, and a uniform shirt buttoned all the way up to the top. She’s sort of cute, in an Amish kind of way, and I’m willing to look past the cross necklace if it means someone will treat me like I’m not invisible.
“Hi,” I say. “I’m—”
“You did it backward,” she says with a seriousness usually reserved for presidential funerals.
I look back at her, confused, and her mouth twists.
“You crossed yourself backward,” she clarifies.
“Oh,” I say. “Yeah, I haven’t had tons of practice, so—”
“It’s up, down, left, right.” She mimes it slowly, like I’m a stupid golden retriever.
“What,” I joke. “Does it summon Satan if I do it backward?”
“No,” she says, narrowing her eyes, “but it’s wrong.”
I suddenly get the feeling she’s not telling me this because she cares if I get it right next time. She’s telling me because it makes her feel smarter for already knowing.
“That’s too bad,” I say. “I was hoping for a Lucifer sighting.”
“That’s not funny,” she says. My brain agrees with her. My mouth does not give a shit.
“I’m not joking.” I put on my best earnest face. “Do you know how I could do it? Is there a spell? Ritual sacrifice?” I lean closer. “Do you think Satan prefers goats or sheep? I’ve had the hardest time finding a baby.”
The girl stares at me, then spins back around, probably plotting her own personal American Inquisition.
It’s first period and only one person definitely wants me dead. Things are going better than expected.
By third period, I’m exhausted, and the three-floor climb to my next class doesn’t help. I’m so sick of getting lost in hallways. Dad promised I wouldn’t have to do this again, he promised I could stay in one place for high school. But the second he got a better offer, the moving boxes came out, just like always. I don’t know what I expected.
As I struggle up the steep, narrow staircase, I look at my schedule.
PERIOD 3: HISTORY—SR. JOSEPH
What the hell does that mean, SR. JOSEPH? The only thing I can think of “SR” standing for is “Sir.” Sir Joseph. Maybe he’s a knight.
I reach the classroom as the bell rings, panting from the climb, but I’m not greeted by a man with a lance and a full suit of armor. Instead, it’s a stout, dour woman in a calf-length gray dress, her hair and ears hidden under a black head covering. My teacher isn’t a knight. She’s a nun.
“You’re the new one?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say. “Michael.”
“I’m Sister Joseph Marie. You can call me Sister.”
Sister. Father. It’s like getting a whole other family I don’t want to spend time with.
She points to an empty chair near the back. “Have a seat there. The class is presenting reports on American historical figures today, so you’ll observe for now.”
I sit. If I want any chance of making it out of this place alive, I’m going to have to find a friend. Not a best friend or anything sappy like that—just close enough to eat with. Close enough to get invited to parties. But not too close. A surface-level friend, the kind of person you can leave behind if you have to.
Sister Joseph Marie selects her first victim, a girl named Jenny Okoye. She seems terrified of everyone in the room, so I dismiss her as a potential friend almost immediately.
“My presentation is on civil rights activist Diane Nash,” she begins, tucking a few of her long black braids behind her ear.
“Louder, please,” Sister Joseph Marie says. “They can’t hear you in the back. Or the front.”
Jenny looks helplessly at her stone-faced classmates and tries again. “DianeNashledthefirstsuccessfulcampaign—”
Sister Joseph Marie pinches the bridge of her nose. “Miss Okoye, it’s not a race.”
Jenny holds her pink notecards in a death grip. “Diane Nash,” she forces out, “was only twenty-two years old when she led the first successful campaign to integrate lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee. She was arrested dozens of times during her decades of activism, which only goes to show that well-
behaved women rarely make history.”
Sister Joseph Marie rises from her desk, holding up her hand for Jenny to stop. “I would like to make a brief historical correction here. Well-behaved women often make history. They’re called saints.”
Before Jenny can faint, die of embarrassment, or both, a clear voice pipes up from directly in front of me.
“Sister, you can’t be serious.”
I didn’t even glance at the girl in the seat in front of mine before I sat down, and now all I can see is the back of a starched uniform blouse, a lint-free sweater vest, and a tumble of dark brown hair tied back with a red ribbon.
Sister Joseph Marie raises her eyes to the heavens. “If I wasn’t serious, I wouldn’t have said it.”
“But that’s not true,” Red Ribbon says. “Well-behaved women don’t make history. Saints included.”
I’ve been at this school for exactly 122 minutes and 46 seconds—not that I’m timing—and even I know this penguin lady with a dude’s name is not a person to cross. But none of my classmates look surprised.
Sister Joseph Marie clears her throat. “Miss Peña, I’m sure you’re not suggesting any of the saints recognized by the Holy Roman Catholic Church behaved in any way unsuited to their status, are you?”
Red Ribbon tilts her head to the side, considering. “No.”
“Good. Now, Miss Okoye, if you’ll—”
“Joan of Arc,” Red Ribbon cuts in, “was sentenced to burn at the stake by a church court because she wouldn’t wear a skirt.”
“Saint Joan’s trial was a bit more complicated than that.”
“Saint Mary MacKillop was excommunicated for insubordination.”
“That was lifted,” snaps Sister Joseph Marie as Jenny edges back to her seat.
“Saint Catherine was martyred because she wouldn’t marry who she was supposed to; so were Saint Agnes and Saint Agatha and Saint Lucy.”
“They were martyred because they were committed to chastity,” Sister Joseph Marie says. “That’s different.”
“What about Saint Clare?” Red Ribbon gestures at the school banner hanging above the whiteboard. “The saint this school is named for ran away from her parents when she was eighteen because she didn’t want to get married, and then decided to live in the woods with Francis of Assisi, who was basically a giant weirdo who really liked animals. Do you actually think she would have been considered well behaved?”
Sister Joseph Marie waves the question away. “Take it up with your theology teacher,” she says, “because you’re getting very close to blasphemy.” The girl in front of me takes a long, deep breath in, shoulders hitching and ribbon quivering.
“Well, if you’re going to ignore the fact that most of those women chose to die rather than do what other people told them to, then I think you’re pretty close to blasphemy.”
There’s something about Red Ribbon’s voice, I think, as I watch Sister Joseph Marie cycle through several shades of red. It’s clear and steady and urgent, like she’s used to being interrupted. It sounds like the flute my sister plays, the way it can soar into the highest notes without sounding squeaky, how it can sound like an instrument three times its size.
As Sister Joseph Marie, now a color closest to eggplant, writes furiously on a pink detention slip, I decide I know two things to be true:
1. The girl with the red ribbon is out of her mind.
2. She’s going to be my new best friend.
I learn a third absolute truth as I dart through the hallways after history ends: tailing someone is a lot harder when everyone’s wearing the same outfit.
I have to talk to this girl. She’s got to be a nonbeliever like me, or Sister Joseph Marie wouldn’t have accused her of blasphemy. That’s what they tell people right before they burn them at the stake. I saw it on the History Channel. At worst, she’s an agnostic, and that isn’t a deal breaker.
I push through the crowd, following brief flashes of red as the girl moves at a rapid clip. I could catch up with her, but I have no idea what I’d say if I did. Hi, my name’s Michael, are you also a depraved sinner? Hey, I’m Michael, want to have lunch and discuss the obvious absence of a loving God? She turns at the end of the hall, past a statue of a sad-eyed Virgin Mary.
I skid around the corner, desperate not to lose sight of her in the sea of plaid, and suddenly find myself face-to-face with a dark-haired girl whose brown eyes are looking at me suspiciously. The tail end of a red ribbon peeks out from behind her ear.
“Hi,” I say.
“Hi,” she says. “Why are you following me?”
“I’m Michael.” I stick out my hand, and immediately wish I’d wiped it on my pants first. She ignores it.
“Okay. Why are you following me, Michael?”
“I’m in your history class.”
“You’re also really bad at answering questions.”
I put my hand down, my face prickling.
“I just—” I scramble for something to say that doesn’t make me sound like an unhinged stalker. “I wanted to tell you I thought it was really cool what you did in class. How you stood up to her.”
Red Ribbon’s face softens for a split second, then tightens right back up. She hugs her book bag to her chest. “I didn’t do it to be cool. I said it because I really believe it.”
“I can tell,” I say.
“Oh.” She relaxes her grip on the book bag.
“So . . . I wanted to tell you that.”
Because your voice sounds like the flute my sister has. Creepy. Because I know we’re the same. Doubly creepy. Because it’s lunch and I don’t know where to go. Creepy, desperate, and sad.
“I didn’t want you to feel like you were alone, in thinking what you said,” I tell her. “That sucks, and I feel like it probably sucks more here than other places.”
She looks me up and down carefully. “I’ve never seen you before.”
“I’m Lucy.” She swings her book bag onto her shoulder. “Do you want a tour?”
As Lucy and I wend our way down spiral staircases and in and out of corridors that occasionally lead to nowhere, I wish I had a map. And I wish Lucy, who walks as fast as she talks, would slow down.
“The school nurse is around that corner, to the left, but seriously, don’t bother, she’s not even allowed to give you Advil unless you have a note, and the teachers’ lounge is that room to the left of the Saint Francis statue, though I can’t think of why you’d need to go there.”
She finally takes a breath and I wonder if I should have been recording her. Lucy showed me the whole school, top to bottom, but now that we’re on the ground floor, I can barely remember my own name.
“And to conclude our tour,” Lucy says, pushing open a heavy oak door, “this is the dining hall.”
“You mean the cafeteria?”
She shrugs. “I’ve never heard anyone call it that.”
As soon as I step inside, I decide “dining hall” is the more appropriate word. Cafeterias have metal tables and tubs of limp vegetables. They smell like burnt pizza and grease. This place has dark wood tables and smells like freshly squeezed lemons. I grab a grilled cheese sandwich and sweet potato fries before meeting up with Lucy in the salad bar line.
“Hey, Lucy,” says the boy ahead of her in line, who I recognize from history. He has his arm wrapped all the way around a pretty girl’s waist, looking like a possessive toddler with a teddy bear. “Are we ever going to have a class where you don’t go off on some feminist rant?” The girl beside him giggles.
“I don’t know, Connor,” Lucy says, examining a bottle of salad dressing. “Are we ever going to have an assembly where you don’t try to fingerbang your girlfriend in the back of the auditorium?”
The girl goes pink. Connor quickly steers his girlfriend out of the food line, glaring at Lucy over his shoulder.
“During an assembly?” I ask Lucy.
“That’s what Jason Everett said, and he was sitting right behind them.” I must look shocked, because she nods at the crowd of uniformed students sitting down to lunch. “Don’t let the kilts fool you. This is still high school.”
Lucy leads me to a table where a tall boy with glasses sits reading a book, alternating between turning pages and shoveling spoonfuls of pudding into his mouth.
He doesn’t look up as we sit down, still frowning at the book.
“What the hell does mirabile dictu mean?” he asks.
“You’re still on that section of the Aeneid?” Lucy says. “It was due like last week.”
“I’m aware. Does mirabile dictu mean ‘strange to say’ or does it mean ‘wonderful to say’?”
“It means both,” Lucy says. “Strange and wonderful. Miraculous.”
“It can’t be both, that doesn’t make any sense,” the boy says.
“I think it does. Aren’t most wonderful things a little bit strange?”
“Whatever.” He closes the book and notices me for the first time. “Who’s this?”
“A stray,” Lucy says before I can answer myself. The back of my neck gets hot. A stray?
“I’m Michael,” I say. “It’s my first day.”
“I’m Avi,” he says, “and normally I’d try to get to know you better, but I’m right in the middle of failing Latin.”
“I’ll write out the translation for you,” Lucy offers.
“Yes, please,” he says, sliding the book toward her.
“If,” she continues, “you sign my detention slip.” She holds out the crumpled, salmon-colored notice between two fingers. Avi’s face falls.
“What did you do?” he says, managing to sound both reproachful and bored.
“Sister Joseph Marie and I had a minor theological disagreement. Sign it?”
He shakes his head. “You’re going to get caught.”
“I have orchestra practice after school, I can’t miss it,” she says. “Mr. Mead is on detention duty today, I checked. You’re great at his signature. Please?”
Avi looks too straitlaced to commit forgery in a crowded cafeteria, and I expect him to refuse, but he sighs and accepts the detention slip, looking warily over his shoulder.
“You could always stop arguing with teachers,” he says as he signs the slip. “Then we wouldn’t have to do this.”
“This time it was necessary.” She glances over at me. “Michael thought it was cool.”
Avi looks up at me. His eyes narrow. “Did he?”
“Yeah,” I say. “It was awesome.”
“See?” Lucy says to Avi, and flashes me a smile.
“Especially all the stuff about the saints,” I say. “I mean, I have no idea who any of those people are, but it was so smart, you found a way to use her own religious bullshit against her.”
Lucy stops smiling, but I can’t stop talking. “I spent this whole morning thinking I was going to be stuck with a bunch of, like, mindless Catholic sheep people for the next two years,” I say. “I’m so glad I’m not the only one.”
“Not the only what?” Lucy asks.
“You know,” I say, taking a bite out of my grilled cheese. “The only atheist.”
Lucy and Avi look at each other. Avi laughs. Lucy doesn’t.
“I’m not an atheist,” she says.
“Agnostic, then,” I say. “Whatever.”
“No,” Lucy says. “I’m Catholic.”
A bite of grilled cheese sticks in my throat. “What?” I cough. “But all the stuff you said in class—”
“I said those things because I’m Catholic. Sister Joseph Marie was diminishing the bravery of women who died for their God.” She pauses. “And my God, too.”
I have few talents, but I am indisputably a world champion in destroying a friendship before it ever starts. I try to catalog how many ways I insulted her religion. At least three.
“But don’t worry,” Lucy continues. “You won’t be surrounded by—what was it? Sheep people?”
Well, when she says it like that, I sound like an unbelievable asshole. Probably because I am an unbelievable asshole.
“Believing in something doesn’t make me a sheep, and it doesn’t make me stupid,” Lucy says. “I mean, there are awful people at this school, there totally are, but they aren’t mindless. Except maybe Connor.” She glances over to where Connor sits, pouring hot sauce into his mouth as his friends laugh hysterically. “But I don’t think that has much to do with his religion.”
I want to tell her I’m sorry, I didn’t mean what I’d said. But I did mean it, and that makes it worse.
“It’s fine,” she says, waving it off. “It’s your first day. Twenty-
four-hour grace period.”
“Really?” I say.
“We sheep people are big believers in grace,” Lucy says.
Avi leans in. “If it makes you feel better, the first time I had lunch with Lucy, I asked her if she blamed my people for killing Jesus.”
“Which, to be clear, I don’t,” Lucy says.
“But to be fair, it has historical precedent,” Avi points out.
“You’re Jewish?” I ask. He nods. “But like—how Jewish?”
“It’s not a math equation,” Lucy says.
“I light candles on Chanukah,” Avi says. “I eat my body weight in hamantaschen on Purim and sat shiva when my grandma died.” He puts his finished bowl of pudding back on his tray. “But tomorrow, I’m going to have a carnitas taco for lunch, because I don’t think pork is unclean. I think the ancient Israelites were smart to avoid it, because it goes bad fast and it can make you sick, but I’m not an ancient Israelite. And I trust the lunch ladies.”
“But still, you have a religion,” I say. “You both do.”
“What do you think this is?” Lucy asks me. “The Albigensian Crusade?”
“I have no idea what that means.”
“It means no one cares you’re an atheist. Actually—” She pauses, and there’s a glint in her eye. “That might be really great,” she says, but weirdly, she’s looking at Avi when she says it.
“Why?” I say, feeling like I’ve missed something.
“You know, for some fresh blood,” she says, still looking at Avi, not me. He gives the smallest shake of his head, and she shrugs but looks disappointed.
“What do you have after lunch?” Lucy asks. I dig my schedule out of my backpack.
“Theology,” I tell her. “With . . . seriously? Another nun?”
She leans over my shoulder to look, and her red ribbon brushes against my chin. Her hair smells like vanilla extract and what I think might be incense.
“Oh, but it’s Sister Helen,” she says. “She’s sweet, you’ll like her. Avi and I are both in that class, we’ll take you.”
We go to bus our trays, and at the trash cans is the blond girl from chemistry. Lunch doesn’t seem to have improved her mood. When she sees us, she glances from me to Lucy and Avi, then heaves a long-suffering sigh. “Typical,” she mutters as she pushes past us.
“That’s Theresa,” Avi says. “Lovely girl. Really personable.”
“Yeah, we met,” I say. “I don’t think she likes me very much.”
“You’re in excellent company,” Lucy says.
When we reach Sister Helen’s classroom, Lucy lets Avi go in first, then turns around, smiling like she’s about to lead me into a surprise party. Like she knows something I haven’t figured out yet. Something strange and wonderful.
“Don’t worry,” she tells me. “There’s room at this school for people like us.”
As I follow her through the door, I hold on to that word like it’s a life preserver.
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