Home > The Inheritance Games

The Inheritance Games
Author: Jennifer Lynn Barnes



When I was a kid, my mom constantly invented games. The Quiet Game. The Who Can Make Their Cookie Last Longer? Game. A perennial favorite, The Marshmallow Game involved eating marshmallows while wearing puffy Goodwill jackets indoors, to avoid turning on the heat. The Flashlight Game was what we played when the electricity went out. We never walked anywhere—we raced. The floor was nearly always lava. The primary purpose of pillows was building forts.

Our longest-lasting game was called I Have A Secret, because my mom said that everyone should always have at least one. Some days she guessed mine. Some days she didn’t. We played every week, right up until I was fifteen and one of her secrets landed her in the hospital.

The next thing I knew, she was gone.

“Your move, princess.” A gravelly voice dragged me back to the present. “I don’t have all day.”

“Not a princess,” I retorted, sliding one of my knights into place. “Your move, old man.”

Harry scowled at me. I didn’t know how old he was, really, and I had no idea how he’d come to be homeless and living in the park where we played chess each morning. I did know that he was a formidable opponent.

“You,” he grumbled, eyeing the board, “are a horrible person.”

Three moves later, I had him. “Checkmate. You know what that means, Harry.”

He gave me a dirty look. “I have to let you buy me breakfast.” Those were the terms of our long-standing bet. When I won, he couldn’t turn down the free meal.

To my credit, I only gloated a little. “It’s good to be queen.”



I made it to school on time but barely. I had a habit of cutting things close. I walked the same tightrope with my grades: How little effort could I put in and still get an A? I wasn’t lazy. I was practical. Picking up an extra shift was worth trading a 98 for a 92.

I was in the middle of drafting an English paper in Spanish class when I was called to the office. Girls like me were supposed to be invisible. We didn’t get summoned for sit-downs with the principal. We made exactly as much trouble as we could afford to make, which in my case was none.

“Avery.” Principal Altman’s greeting was not what one would call warm. “Have a seat.”

I sat.

He folded his hands on the desk between us. “I assume you know why you’re here.”

Unless this was about the weekly poker game I’d been running in the parking lot to finance Harry’s breakfasts—and sometimes my own—I had no idea what I’d done to draw the administration’s attention. “Sorry,” I said, trying to sound sufficiently meek, “but I don’t.”

Principal Altman let me sit with my response for a moment, then presented me with a stapled packet of paper. “This is the physics test you took yesterday.”

“Okay,” I said. That wasn’t the response he was looking for, but it was all I had. For once, I’d actually studied. I couldn’t imagine I’d done badly enough to merit intervention.

“Mr. Yates graded the tests, Avery. Yours was the only perfect score.”

“Great,” I said, in a deliberate effort to keep myself from saying okay again.

“Not great, young lady. Mr. Yates intentionally creates exams that challenge the abilities of his students. In twenty years, he’s never given a perfect score. Do you see the problem?”

I couldn’t quite bite back my instinctive reply. “A teacher who designs tests most of his students can’t pass?”

Mr. Altman narrowed his eyes. “You’re a good student, Avery. Quite good, given your circumstances. But you don’t exactly have a history of setting the curve.”

That was fair, so why did I feel like he’d gut-punched me?

“I am not without sympathy for your situation,” Principal Altman continued, “but I need you to be straight with me here.” He locked his eyes onto mine. “Were you aware that Mr. Yates keeps copies of all his exams on the cloud?” He thought I’d cheated. He was sitting there, staring me down, and I’d never felt less seen. “I’d like to help you, Avery. You’ve done extremely well, given the hand life has dealt you. I would hate to see any plans you might have for the future derailed.”

“Any plans I might have?” I repeated. If I’d had a different last name, if I’d had a dad who was a dentist and a mom who stayed home, he wouldn’t have acted like the future was something I might have thought about. “I’m a junior,” I gritted out. “I’ll graduate next year with at least two semesters’ worth of college credit. My test scores should put me in scholarship contention at UConn, which has one of the top actuarial science programs in the country.”

Mr. Altman frowned. “Actuarial science?”

“Statistical risk assessment.” It was the closest I could come to double-majoring in poker and math. Besides, it was one of the most employable majors on the planet.

“Are you a fan of calculated risks, Ms. Grambs?”

Like cheating? I couldn’t let myself get any angrier. Instead, I pictured myself playing chess. I marked out the moves in my mind. Girls like me didn’t get to explode. “I didn’t cheat.” I said calmly. “I studied.”

I’d scraped together time—in other classes, between shifts, later at night than I should have stayed up. Knowing that Mr. Yates was infamous for giving impossible tests had made me want to redefine possible. For once, instead of seeing how close I could cut it, I’d wanted to see how far I could go.

And this was what I got for my effort, because girls like me didn’t ace impossible exams.

“I’ll take the test again,” I said, trying not to sound furious, or worse, wounded. “I’ll get the same grade again.”

“And what would you say if I told you that Mr. Yates had prepared a new exam? All new questions, every bit as difficult as the first.”

I didn’t even hesitate. “I’ll take it.”

“That can be arranged tomorrow during third period, but I have to warn you that this will go significantly better for you if—”


Mr. Altman stared at me. “Excuse me?”

Forget sounding meek. Forget being invisible. “I want to take the new exam right here, in your office, right now.”




Rough day?” Libby asked. My sister was seven years older than me and way too empathetic for her own good—or mine.

“I’m fine,” I replied. Recounting my trip to Altman’s office would only have worried her, and until Mr. Yates graded my second test there was nothing anyone could do. I changed the subject. “Tips were good tonight.”

“How good?” Libby’s sense of style resided somewhere between punk and goth, but personality-wise, she was the kind of eternal optimist who believed a hundred-dollar-tip was always just around the corner at a hole-in-the-wall diner where most entrees cost $6.99.

I pressed a wad of crumpled singles into her hand. “Good enough to help make rent.”

Libby tried to hand the money back, but I moved out of reach before she could. “I will throw this cash at you,” she warned sternly.

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