After a childhood in foster care, Bitter is thrilled to have been chosen to attend Eucalyptus, a special school where she can focus on her painting surrounded by other creative teens.
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Bitter by Akwaeke Emezi, out from Knopf Books for Young Readers on February 15.
After a childhood in foster care, Bitter is thrilled to have been chosen to attend Eucalyptus, a special school where she can focus on her painting surrounded by other creative teens. But outside this haven, the streets are filled with protests against the deep injustices that grip the city of Lucille.
Bitter’s instinct is to stay safe within the walls of Eucalyptus… but her friends aren’t willing to settle for a world that’s so far away from what they deserve. Pulled between old friendships, her artistic passion, and a new romance, Bitter isn’t sure where she belongs—in the studio or in the streets. And if she does find a way to help the revolution while being true to who she is, she must also ask: at what cost?
Bitter had no interest in the revolution.
She was seventeen, and she thought it was ridiculous that adults wanted young people to be the ones saving the world, as if her generation was the one that had broken everything in the first place. It wasn’t her business. She was supposed to have had a childhood, a whole world waiting for her when she grew up, but instead kids her age were the ones on the front lines, the ones turned into martyrs and symbols that the adults praised publicly but never listened to because their greed was always louder and it was easier to perform solidarity than to actually do the things needed for change. It didn’t matter. None of it fucking mattered.
Bitter sat in her room and ignored the shouts from outside her window, the stomping of feet, the rhythmic chants, thousands of throats swelling to the same song. Lucille was a brutal city to live in. There had been mass shootings at the public schools, at the movie theaters, at the shopping centers. Everyone knew someone else who had died from something they didn’t have to die from. Too many people had seen others die, even if it was in frantic livestreams and videos, witnesses risking their lives and freedoms to record the cops and their gleeful atrocities. Too many mothers had buried their children under a lethally indifferent administration. All of Bitter’s friends were sick of it, and rightfully so. The world was supposed to have gotten better, not become even more violent, rank with more death. It was no wonder the people took to the streets, masses swallowing the roads and sidewalks, because in a world that wanted you dead, you had to scream and fight for your aliveness.
Sometimes Bitter wished she didn’t live so close to the center of the city, though; every protest in Lucille seemed to stream past this building, the sound leaking up the walls, levering its way over her windowsill, stubbornly penetrating the glass and blinds and curtains. Bitter wished she could soundproof it all away. She curled up in the large gray armchair pushed against the wall as far from the window as her room would allow and bent her head over her sketchbook, turning up the old-school music in her headphones and worrying at the steel ring in her lower lip. The metal was cool against her tongue, and Big Freedia’s voice fell into her ears over an accelerating beat as Bitter mouthed the words along, trying to match the speed, her pencil making quick, strong strokes over the paper. A mouth grew under her hand, a tail and a sleek neck, smooth round scales packed neatly on top of each other, curve after curve peeking out. She made its eyes as dark as she could, small black stones nearly weighing through the paper.
Sometimes, when she had music filling her ears and paper spreading at her fingers, Bitter could almost feel the bubble she was building, as if it was tangible, a shield that would protect her better than her weak windows. If she got it just right, maybe she could block out everything else entirely. Maybe when the stomps and chants five floors down on the street turned into screams and people running, the bubble could block out the other sounds that Bitter knew would come with it—the clank and hiss of canisters, the attack dogs barking, the dull heaviness of water cannons spitting wet weight on flesh. On the bad days, there was gunfire, an inhuman staccato. Sometimes the streets were hosed off afterward. Bitter frowned and bent closer to her drawing, adding a crest of spikes. It looked like a dragon now, which was fine, but it just wasn’t right. She ripped out the sheet from her sketchbook and crumpled it into a messy ball, tossing it aside. She’d have to start again, pay more attention to what she was pulling out of the page.
Almost immediately, she felt a brief pang of regret at having crumpled up the dragon. Maybe she could’ve tried to work with it instead, but Bitter knew the answer even as she asked the question. There were things she could draw and then there were things she could draw, and when the streets were loud the way they were this evening, only the second sort of thing would do. Only the second sort of thing could make her feel a little less lonely.
She was about to start sketching again when her door swung open and someone stepped in. Bitter pulled off her headphones, pissed at the interruption, but the visitor raised her hands in peace. “Don’t even start, Bitter—I knocked! You never hear anything with those headphones on.” She was a tall girl in a neon-pink hijab, which framed her soft face. Her lashes were a mile long, and tiny iridescent stickers were scattered over her cheekbones. Bitter relaxed. “Hi, Blessing. Wha’s the scene?”
Without her headphones, the sounds from the street seemed to fill up her room. Blessing sat on the bed, stretching her legs out in front of her. Her jeans and hoodie were covered with colorful doodles, flowers and suns and rainbows. It was aggressively adorable, and Bitter hid a smile. The two girls had been friends for years, since they’d both come to this school and started living in the dorms, small bedrooms lined up next to each other. Blessing had been the one who shaved Bitter’s head for the first time, dark tufts of hair falling in clouds around them, and Bitter had kept her curls cropped close since then, because she could, because here she was as free as she’d ever been. They both knew how special that was. Blessing had been in and out of queer shelters since her parents kicked her out, but then a social worker found her and told her the same thing Bitter had been told—that there was a private boarding school called Eucalyptus, that it was for young artists and she’d been selected, that none of the students had to worry about paying for it. All they had to do was graduate.
It made no sense. No one knew who owned the school, only that it was full of kids like Bitter and Blessing who had been found and brought somewhere safe. They all had the same story of the first time they walked into Eucalyptus: the rush of relief and security they’d felt when they met Miss Virtue, the extraordinarily tall woman who ran the school. Miss Virtue had a deep voice, a shock of steel hair, and the most eerie gray eyes, and she was always dressed in the sharpest suits they’d ever seen, not to mention that she was the kindest person they’d ever met. All the kids ignored that first rush of relief because they’d learned the hard way that you couldn’t trust first impressions, but after a while, they also learned that Eucalyptus was different, and that was because of Miss Virtue. You couldn’t help but feel safe around her, not because she was soft or anything, but because there was something behind her dark skin, something terrifying that leaked through her gray eyes and made everyone uncomfortably aware that her kindness was a deliberate choice. It also made them feel safe, like she would go to horrific lengths to protect them, and that was what they needed, someone who believed they were worth burning the world down for.
Still, all the students were curious about who Miss Virtue worked for, whose money ran Eucalyptus, how and why they had been chosen to attend, but there were no answers for these questions. Even the hacker kids couldn’t find a trail that would explain any of it. Bitter didn’t care. Eucalyptus was safe, and that was all that mattered, especially when you knew what other options were out there. Bitter had bounced around foster homes since she was a baby, ending up with a steady foster family when she was eight, and she had removed all memories of the years before that, on purpose, because she needed to stay sane and some memories were like poison.
Her new foster family had known her biological parents, but they hadn’t liked Bitter very much. Your father was a monster, the woman there used to say, and you’re going to end up nowhere. It kill your mother, you know—that’s why she give you this name, that’s why she did die when you was a baby, you born with a curse. They were religious, and they didn’t like how loud Bitter was, how she stared at them with unflinching eyes, how she liked to draw almost as much as she liked to talk and challenge and yell. It was just Bitter and the woman and her husband, both from her mother’s island, both stern and cold, and while they weren’t as cruel to Bitter as she felt they could’ve been, her whole life in that house had been one continuous wilting. When she’d pierced her lip, the woman had slapped her so hard that new blood fell against Bitter’s teeth, so she’d started running away like she was taking small calm trips. Inevitably, she was found and brought back, found and brought back, until the Eucalyptus social worker found her and asked her if she wanted to leave, and yes, hell yes, she wanted to leave. And the woman and the man came and said goodbye and preached at her for a little bit, told her things about herself Bitter had stopped believing, and then the social worker took her away, and then there was Eucalyptus and Miss Virtue and Blessing, and Bitter had all the friends she could roll with, all the time to draw that she wanted, and a room with a door she could lock, even if it was all too close to the city center.
“We’re going out to the park later to smoke, if you wanna come,” Blessing said. “After the protests die down. I know you don’t like to be near all that shit.”
Bitter tucked her feet under her legs and put her sketchbook aside. “Who’s we?”
Blessing shrugged. “Me, Alex, and some new kid she’s decided to drag along.”
Alex was Blessing’s girlfriend, a sculptor who’d arrived at Eucalyptus a few months ago with a rolling trunk full of tools. Her lean arms were covered with little scars from burns and cuts because she worked with metal, and a story spread around the school pretty fast that she’d been part of Assata, the young rebels behind most of the protests and direct action, the ones who faced down the police with flaming flags and holy ash. Rumor had it that Alex had been recruited by Eucalyptus, had walked away from the front lines to come to their school and make art. That direction was unusual; it was more likely that the school lost students who ran off to join Assata, not the other way around. Bitter wanted to ask Alex if it was all true, and if so, why she’d left, but it wasn’t the kind of thing you just asked someone like that. Not when Assata kids were turning up dead in their own cars with bullet holes in their heads and suicide lies in their police reports, not when their families were being spied on, when the archivists were being thrown in prison for documenting the horrors happening in their communities. You kept it quiet, you kept it as rumors and whispers. You just didn’t ask.
“Okay.” A smoke in the park sounded great to Bitter. It would be chill by then, no more crowds and stomping, and the stars would be out.
“Aight, cool.” Blessing stood up. “I’ll leave you alone with your drawing. I know how you get.”
Bitter rolled her eyes. “Whatever.” She was already flipping her sketch pad open by the time the door closed behind Blessing’s chuckle. Her friends could always tell when she was in a mood, and they knew that drawing would help. Bitter slipped her headphones back on and decided to try for something simpler.
Under her pencil, a round figure stretched out over an hour, gossamer wings and multiple eyes. She kept it small and tight, a mutant ladybug that could fit in her palm. Then she painted slow watercolors over it in shades of gray and black. When it was time for the finish, Bitter got up and locked her door first. No one could ever see this part. She reached for a tack from her desk and stabbed the tip of her thumb with it, watching the bead of blood that bloomed forth before squeezing it gently onto the drawing. The red seeped into the monochrome of the tiny creature, and Bitter sucked at the wound on her thumb to stop the bleeding. She touched the drawing with her other hand and called it the way she’d been doing since she was a little kid.
Come out nuh, she said in her head. Come out and play.
Even though she’d seen this happen countless times before, it still looked unbelievably cool when the creature wriggled out from the paper, tearing it open. It shook itself on the sketch pad, and Bitter grinned.
Welcome, she said.
Her little creatures couldn’t talk, and they always vanished after a day or two, but Bitter could feel them, and they made her feel less alone, chittering across her room. This one climbed onto her palm when she held her hand out and bounced up and down on its thin legs. Bitter laughed.
Yuh real cute for an ugly thing, she told it.
It wriggled and flapped its delicate wings, lifting into the air with a buzz. She watched it fly around her bookshelves, checking out her plants, its body a dark smudge in the air with a glint of blood red when the light caught it. There was always a deep calm that spread over Bitter when she brought her work to life. It made her bubble into something real— it was a particular magic that she shared with no one else, and if this was so unquestionably real, then everything that was out there didn’t have to be. This was her favorite world to live in.
The creature landed on the windowsill and bumped against it a few times, buzzing impatiently. Bitter sighed and walked over to it.
What, you want to go outside?
It flew up again, whirling around her head before settling on the back of her hand. Bitter lifted it up to eye level.
All right, she said. Come back before yuh disappear, okay?
It vibrated on her hand and flapped its wings again.
Yeah, yeah. That’s what allyuh does say. Bitter smiled and opened the window, watching her creation fly away and vanish into the night air. The stars were out and the moon was a dripping peach in the sky. She stared out at Lucille for a moment, then closed her window and pulled on her hoodie. It was time to go find Blessing.
Bitter was expecting to find Alex and Blessing tangled up together on Blessing’s bed like they always were these days, cuddling and giggling and being disgustingly cute, but when Bitter stepped into Blessing’s room, her best friend was alone and ready to head out.
“We’ll meet them in the park,” she told Bitter, handing her a small bottle of rum.
Bitter nodded and took a sip before slipping it into her pocket. “You bring the speakers?”
“Nah, Alex said it’s better to lay low tonight. Too much tension from earlier.” They left Eucalyptus through a side gate that shouldn’t have been open, except that the school had given up on trying to keep it closed, since the locks kept getting broken no matter how sophisticated they got. Eucalyptus kids liked nothing more than a challenge.
The streets around the park were littered with debris from the earlier protests, trampled cardboard and a few water bottles leaking milk. Some of the Assata kids were cleaning up, and seeing it irritated Bitter. There wouldn’t be anything to clean up if they just stayed home in the first place. She made a face and gave them a wide berth as she and Blessing entered the park, but one of them caught her expression and straightened, spikes swinging from knots at the ends of her purple braids.
Bitter swore under her breath. “Oh shit, that’s Eddie.”
Blessing looked over curiously. “Homegirl from the summer? Didn’t you ghost her?”
“That’s not the point.” Bitter tried to hide behind Blessing, but it was too late.
“Look,” Eddie called out, her eyes fixed on Bitter. “It’s some basic Eucalyptus bitches! What did y’all do today, draw some stick figures while the real ones were out here making change happen?” Her mouth was twisted in challenge, and she had a mottled bruise around her left eye, a scabbed cut slicing through her eyebrow.
Anger shot through Bitter. “You feelin’ real bold, oui?” Blessing grabbed her arm to hold her back, but Eddie was already dropping her trash and walking toward them.
“Oh, I got time today,” she yelled from across the street. “Let’s go, come on.”
Bitter shook free of Blessing and took a step forward, ready to face down Eddie, but she hesitated when she saw who was pulling up behind the girl. She recognized him as one of Assata’s leaders, a tall blue-black boy in a wheelchair, the one with a voice like a prophet. He was always organizing, seeming to be both a backbone and an amplifier for the chanting masses whose noise kept pouring through her windows. His presence was heavily intimidating, enough to stop Bitter in her tracks.
“Back off, Eddie,” he commanded.
Eddie whipped around but deflated as soon as she saw who it was. “I’m just fucking with them, Ube.”
Ube cut his eyes at her. “Focus on your own shit. They ain’t your business.” She glared at him, then at the girls, before stalking off with the others, picking up the frontline debris.
“We eh need your help,” Bitter snapped.
Ube stared coolly back at her. “Who says I was helping you?”
He turned and left before Bitter could form a retort, and Blessing laughed.
“I like him,” she said.
Bitter rolled her eyes. “You just think he cute.”
“Aw, come on. He’s doing good work out here. All the Assata kids are.”
Bitter didn’t say anything. Blessing had become even more pro-Assata since she started dating Alex, and it was something Bitter was too scared to ask her about. What if the rumors about Alex were true and she was still loyal to Ube and his comrades? What if Alex decided to leave Eucalyptus and go back to Assata? What if she took Blessing with her? Bitter didn’t want her oldest friend out there in the screams and fire. Assata kids died. She wanted Blessing within the school walls, in the safety it felt like only Eucalyptus could provide.
They came up to their favorite oak tree, with the graffiti- soaked picnic table and benches laid out underneath. Alex was sitting on the table in her usual all black, small keloids glinting dark on her wrist as she lit a joint. Her eyes shone behind her pink glasses when she saw Blessing, and she swung her legs down, stretching out her arms. “Hey, baby,” she crooned, and Bitter watched Blessing melt into her girlfriend’s arms, their mouths meeting like home. She glanced away, annoyed at the spike of jealousy that burst through her. It wasn’t that she wanted Alex or Blessing—not like that, at least—but watching how they clicked stung. Bitter had dated a lot of people at Eucalyptus, and none of it had ever felt the way Blessing talked about Alex.
It didn’t matter, she reminded herself. None of this was real enough to matter.
She stepped around them and climbed up on the picnic table, pulling a lighter out of her back pocket. The lovebirds were murmuring to each other, soft giggles interspersed be- tween the words. Bitter tried not to roll her eyes. She hated when couples acted like they were the only ones there, like their feelings could protect them from the rest of the world. The lighter flame crackled as she flicked it on and off, and then she heard a breath behind her. Bitter jumped off the table, singeing her finger as she backed away.
There was someone else there, sitting at the end of one of the benches.
“What the fuck?” Bitter shouted.
Blessing and Alex snapped their necks around, their eyes sharp and alert, Alex’s hand reaching for something in her waistband. Bitter wished she’d brought something with her—pepper spray, or a knife, anything. This was Lucille— you never knew who was in the shadows.
Blessing took a step forward and frowned. “Bitch,” she said to Alex, “ain’t that the new kid?”
Alex dropped her hand and huffed out a breath. “Bruh! Can you not sit there like a fucking lurker? That shit is creepy as fuck.”
Bitter stepped next to Blessing as the boy at the edge of the bench stood up and walked toward them, his hands held out in apology. “Sorry, sorry,” he said. “I was falling asleep small. I didn’t mean to frighten anyone.” He had a gap between his two front teeth, a wide mouth, and long eyelashes.
Bitter tried not to stare at the way his dark skin gleamed over his cheekbones, the broad slope of his shoulders, the cut of his arms, the way his chest stretched out his T-shirt.
“You have a bad habit of sneaking up on people,” Blessing complained. “You did the same shit this afternoon when we met!”
The boy ran a hand through his short dreadlocks. “It wasn’t on purpose! I’m just quiet.” He shrugged and hooked his thumbs into the pockets of his jeans, then turned to Bitter. “I’m very sorry I startled you,” he said, his voice gentling.
His accent was from somewhere else, somewhere warm. Bitter felt her pulse quicken as his eyes met hers—there was something tender about how he was looking at her, and she wondered if he looked at the rest of the world the same way. The boy held out his hand, and when Bitter slid her palm into his, part of her chest exhaled without her, a locked fraction of her spine unwound and clicked free. She could hear Blessing’s voice as if it was filtered, and the boy’s gap-toothed smile was breaking open again, but this time it was just for her, and it felt like it was happening in slow motion, a prolonged dazzling.
“Bitter,” Blessing was saying, “this is Aloe.”
Excerpted from Bitter, copyright © 2022 by Akwaeke Emezi.