On a Monday in late September, Bronwyn Rojas scrolls through About That, the gossip app featuring all the rumors and drama swirling through her Southern California school, Bayview High. Simon Kelleher, the creator of the app, comes up behind her at her locker and tells her to just wait until she sees tomorrow’s post. Bronwyn, embarrassed to be caught on About That—especially by Simon of all people—closes her locker and walks down the hall, dismissively asking Simon whose life he’s planning on ruining next. Simon follows her, explaining that his app is a “public service,” and that the students featured on it “bring it on themselves” by lying and cheating in the first place.
The first paragraphs of the novel establish the atmosphere of Bayview High: it is a place obsessed with gossip, and controlled by a resident rumor-monger who deals in people’s secrets and lies. Though Simon inflicts stress, humiliation, and pain on his classmates, he sees his work as a “service,” and takes pride in exposing people’s darkest secrets; any collateral damage they suffer he sees as their problem, not his.
Bronwyn’s phone flashes an alert, reminding her that she has Mathlete practice at a local coffee shop. Bronwyn isn’t going to make the meeting, though—today, she has detention. Simon does, too, and is shocked to learn that he and Bronwyn are heading down the hall towards the same destination—Mr. Avery’s third-floor lab. Bronwyn insists she’s been “wrongfully accused” of whatever she did as she storms into the lab, where three other students are already seated.
It is clear that Bronwyn, a brainy student dedicated to her extracurricular activities, is not usually—if ever—in detention. The novel is beginning on a day that is not like any other at Bayview, and it follows that the events about to unfold will be similarly singular and disorienting.
Nate Macauley, a drug dealer and troublemaker, taunts Bronwyn for getting detention. Cooper Clay, a jock, tosses a piece of paper his friend, a popular girl named Addy Prentiss. Bronwyn is devastated that she’s stuck in detention—she wants to be at Mathletes so she can flirt with the team’s newest recruit. She tries to plead her case to Mr. Avery, insisting that the phone he found in her backpack earlier wasn’t hers. To prove it, she holds up her own phone. Bronwyn knows any student would have to be “clueless” to have a cell phone in their bag during Mr. Avery’s lab—he requires students to leave their phones in their lockers during his class, and spends the first several minutes of every session checking bags. This afternoon, Bronwyn’s phone was in her locker, and Avery found a dummy phone in her bag.
This passage serves to establish the great irony of Bayview High; though it’s a place totally steeped in gossip and rumors, many of which are fueled by rampant and ubiquitous use of social media and technology, there are some teachers like Avery who have had enough. Additionally, this passage sets up one of the novel’s central mysteries: it seems that someone put a fake phone in Bronwyn’s bag to get her into trouble, and as readers will soon see, she is not the only victim of this questionably intentioned prank.
Addy turns around, shocked; a dummy phone was in her bag, too. Cooper speaks up to say that the same thing happened to him. Simon laments that someone has “punked” them all, and wonders why someone would want to trap a group of students with overwhelmingly clean school records in detention. Simon speculates that Nate rigged detention so that he could have some company, but Bronwyn thinks Nate is too lazy for such a scheme.
An atmosphere of finger-pointing and assigning blame quickly descends upon the room as the students gathered for detention try to make sense of the strange circumstances that brought them here. Whether this group will be able to overcome their judgements of one another and work together to solve this mystery will become one of the novel’s most crucial plot points.
Mr. Avery tells the students he doesn’t believe them and begins outlining their assignment. For the next hour, until 4:00 P.M., they’ll each be tasked with writing a 500-word essay on how technology is ruining American high schools—by hand. Whoever doesn’t complete their essay will have to return for detention again tomorrow. Bronwyn begs Mr. Avery to reconsider, as they’ve all clearly been the victims of a prank, but Avery just confiscates Bronwyn’s real phone and sits down at his desk.
Avery’s stubborn hatred of all things technological causes him to turn a blind eye to his students’ pleas; he clearly doesn’t trust or respect his students, and certainly doesn’t take them seriously. The ways in which adults underestimate or judge teens is a central theme throughout the novel, and it starts with Avery’s willful ignorance of his students’ very real issues.
The narrative switches to Cooper’s perspective. His hand cramps as he writes his essay—he can’t remember the last time he wrote something by hand. Plus, he’s using his right hand—though his left hand is the dominant one, his father urged him to learn how to develop strength in his right hand as well so that he didn’t waste his left arm (his pitching arm) on “crap that don’t matter.” Cooper has struggled for years with the pressure his father has put on him to become a great baseball star.
This passage begins to more deeply establish the inner lives of the four central characters. Though Cooper, through Bronwyn’s eyes, was introduced as a stereotypical jock, the perspective switch to his point of view allows him a chance to show the ways in which his life and his thoughts are deeper and more complex than they seem at first glance.
Simon reaches for his backpack and digs around inside, complaining that he can’t find his water bottle. Mr. Avery points towards the sink at the back of the room and tells Simon to quietly get a drink from there. Simon takes a cup from a stack on the counter, fills it, and heads back to his seat with it. Once he’s back, he asks Nate if he has rigged detention. Mr. Avery shushes the boys before they can argue—at that moment, there is the sound of a car crash out of one of the windows in the school parking lot. Nate gets up and goes over to one of the windows, remarking that there are never any accidents in the lot.
There is a strange and almost mechanical flow to the events of detention—and Simon, who more or less runs the entire school, seems to be orchestrating the connections and conversations going on within the room. The car accident—which other students state almost never happens in the student lot—is another hint that something is afoot.
Bronwyn, Addy, and Cooper go over to the window as well. After a moment, Simon joins them. They all stare outside: two cars, a red one and a gray one, have collided at a right angle. Mr. Avery goes outside to make sure no one has been hurt, leaving Bronwyn in charge. Simon heads back to his desk, picks up his water glass, and leans out into the hallway, watching Mr. Avery leave. Simon points out that each student in detention today is a “teen-movie stereotype.” Cooper is the jock, Addy is the princess, Bronwyn is the brain, Nate is the criminal, and Simon is the “omniscient narrator.” Cooper thinks of Simon’s widely-hated gossip app, and wishes Simon wouldn’t publish the cruel rumors that already make the hallways of their high school hard enough. Cooper admits that he’s “pretty freaked” by the idea of what Simon could write about him.
This passage further cements the idea that Simon is a deeply feared puppeteer who pulls strings throughout the school every day. Even in this scene, he seems to be in control of the atmosphere in the room, even though two far more popular students are present. Simon’s cruel grip on the school gives him a kind of power that even someone as popular as Cooper cowers before, afraid of how fragile his own reputation is in the hands of someone as ruthless and petty as Simon.
Simon takes a drink of water and then frowns, saying the water tastes like crap. Cooper thinks Simon is being dramatic—but then Simon drops his cup and falls to the floor, wheezing. Bronwyn and Nate immediately rush over to Simon, and Nate realizes that Simon needs an epi-pen. Bronwyn gets up to find a teacher and call 9-1-1, grabbing her phone from Mr. Avery’s desk and running into the hall. Cooper kneels next to Simon, whose lips are already turning blue. Nate rifles through Simon’s bag, looking for his epi-pen, but can’t find it.
The events of the afternoon grow stranger—and even deadly—when Simon collapses. The fact that his epi-pen is missing (combined with all the other strange occurances that have been observed this fateful afternoon) seems impossibly convenient—or inconvenient, depending on who’s really pulling the strings.
Mr. Avery, Bronwyn, and two other teachers rush into the room, and Mr. Avery sends Cooper down the hall to the nurse’s office to look for an epi-pen. Cooper runs to the office—it’s empty. He quickly sees a wall-mounted box labeled EMERGENCY EPHINEPHRINE, and pulls the cabinet open. There is nothing inside of it. He rifles through a storage cabinet, but can’t find anything resembling a pen. Ms. Grayson, one of the teachers, enters the nurse’s office and helps him check the supply cabinet. Another teacher joins them, and after a minute Ms. Grayson sends Cooper back to Mr. Avery’s room. She asks him to tell the others that she and the other teacher are going to keep looking.
Events continue to grow stranger and more dire as Cooper realizes that someone has taken all of the epi-pens from the nurse’s office; this seems to confirm that Simon’s attack is not an accident, but a premeditated act which has been carefully planned. This information doesn’t even rise to the forefront of Cooper’s consciousness, though, as he seems genuinely desperate to find the pens and help save Simon.
Cooper rushes back to Mr. Avery’s room and finds that the paramedics have arrived. Three of them bring a stretcher into the room; one of the paramedics stabs Simon with a syringe while the other two lift him up onto the stretcher. Addy is standing in a corner of the room, crying. Cooper goes over to her and comforts her. The paramedics ask Mr. Avery to accompany them out of the room; he does, leaving the four students shell-shocked. Addy asks if Simon is going to be okay; Nate admits that he doesn’t think he will be.
The events of the strange and fateful afternoon crescendo as the paramedics arrive; the students are alternately shell-shocked and traumatized by what they have just witnessed, and have not yet considered how bad the situation will be for each of them.