Luce barged into the fluorescent-lit lobby of the Sword & Cross School ten minutes later than she should have. A barrel-chested attendant with ruddy cheeks and a clipboard clamped under an iron bicep was already giving orders - which meant Luce was already behind.
"So remember, it's meds, beds, and reds," the attendant barked at a cluster of three other students all standing with their backs to Luce. "Remember the basics and no one gets hurt."
Luce hurried to slip in behind the group. She was still trying to figure out whether she'd filled out the giant stack of paperwork correctly, whether this shaven-headed guide standing before them was a man or a woman, whether there was anyone to help her with this enormous duffel bag, whether her parents were going to get rid of her beloved Plymouth Fury the minute they arrived home from dropping her off here. They'd been threatening to sell the car all summer, and now they had a reason even Luce couldn't argue with: No one was allowed to have a car at Luce's new school. Her new reform school, to be precise.
She was still getting used to the term.
"Could you, uh, could you repeat that?" she asked the attendant, "What was it, meds - ?"
"Well, look what the storm blew in," the attendant said loudly, then continued, enunciating slowly: "Meds. If you're one of the medicated students, this is where you go to keep yourself doped up, sane, breathing, whatever." Woman, Luce decided, studying the attendant. No man would be catty enough to say all that in such a saccharine tone of voice.
"Got it." Luce felt her stomach heave. "Meds."
She'd been off meds for years now. After the accident this past summer, Dr. Sanford, her specialist in Hopkinton -
and the reason her parents had sent her to boarding school all the way in New Hampshire - had wanted to consider medicating her again. Though she'd finally convinced him of her quasi-stability, it had taken an extra month of analysis on her part just to stay off those awful antipsychotics.
Which was why she was enrolling in her senior year at Sword & Cross a full month after the academic year had begun. Being a new student was bad enough, and Luce had been really nervous about having to jump into classes where everyone else was already settled. But from the looks of this tour, she wasn't the only new kid arriving today.
She sneaked a peek at the three other students standing in a half circle around her. At her last school, Dover Prep, the campus tour on the first day was where she'd met her best friend, Callie. On a campus where all the other students had practically been weaned together, it would have been enough that Luce and Callie were the only non-legacy kids. But it didn't take long for the two girls to realize they also had the exact same obsession with the exact same old movies - especially where Albert Finney was concerned. After their discovery freshman year while watching Two for the Road that neither one of them could make a bag of popcorn without setting off the fire alarm, Callie and Luce hadn't left each other's sides. Until ... until they'd had to.
At Luce's sides today were two boys and a girl. The girl seemed easy enough to figure out, blond and Neutrogena-commercial pretty, with pastel pink manicured nails that matched her plastic binder.
"I'm Gabbe," she drawled, flashing Luce a big smile that disappeared as quickly as it had surfaced, before Luce could even offer her own name. The girl's waning interest reminded her more of a southern version of the girls at Dover than someone she'd expect at Sword & Cross. Luce couldn't decide whether this was comforting or not, any more than she could imagine what a girl who looked like this would be doing at reform school.
To Luce's right was a guy with short brown hair, brown eyes, and a smattering of freckles across his nose. But the way he wouldn't even meet her eyes, just kept picking at a hangnail on his thumb, gave Luce the impression that, like her, he was probably still stunned and embarrassed to find himself here.
The guy to her left, on the other hand, fit Luce's image of this place a little bit too perfectly. He was tall and thin, with a Di bag slung over his shoulder, shaggy black hair, and large, deep-set green eyes. His lips were full and a natural rose color most girls would kill for. At the back of his neck, a black tattoo in the shape of a sunburst seemed almost to glow on his light skin, rising up from the edge of his black T-shirt.
Unlike the other two, when this guy turned to meet her gaze, he held it and didn't let go. His mouth was set in a straight line, but his eyes were warm and alive. He gazed at her, standing as still as a sculpture, which made Luce feel rooted to her spot, too. She sucked in her breath. Those eyes were intense, and alluring, and, well, a little bit disarming.
With some loud throat-clearing noises, the attendant interrupted the boy's trancelike stare. Luce blushed and pretended to be very busy scratching her head.
"Those of you who've learned the ropes are free to go after you dump your hazards." The attendant gestured at a large cardboard box under a sign that said in big black letters PROHIBITED MATERIALS, "And when I say free, Todd" - she clamped a hand down on the freckled kid's shoulder, making him jump - "I mean gymnasium-bound to meet your preassigned student guides. You" - she pointed at Luce - "dump your hazards and stay with me."
The four of them shuffled toward the box and Luce watched, baffled, as the other students began to empty their pockets. The girl pulled out a three-inch pink Swiss Army knife. The green-eyed guy reluctantly dumped a can of spray paint and a box cutter. Even the hapless Todd let loose several books of matches and a small container of lighter fluid. Luce felt almost stupid that she wasn't concealing a hazard of her own - but when she saw the other kids reach into their pockets and chuck their cell phones into the box, she gulped.
Leaning forward to read the PROHIBITED MATERIALS sign a little more closely, she saw that cell phones, pagers, and all two-way radio devices were strictly forbidden. It was bad enough that she couldn't have her car!
Luce clamped a sweaty hand around the cell phone in her pocket, her only connection to the outside world. When the attendant saw the look on her face, Luce received a few quick slaps on the cheek. "Don't swoon on me, kid, they don't pay me enough to resuscitate. Besides, you get one phone call once a week in the main lobby."
One phone call ... once a week? But -
She looked down at her phone one last time and saw that she'd received two new text messages. It didn't seem possible that these would be her two last text messages. The first one was from Callie.
Call immediately! Will be waiting by the phone all nite so be ready to dish. And remember the mantra I assigned you. You'll survive! BYW, for what it's worth, I think everyone's totally forgotten about ...
In typical Callie fashion, she'd gone on so long that Luce's crap cell phone cut the message off four lines in. In a way, Luce was almost relieved. She didn't want to read about how everyone from her old school had already forgotten what had happened to her, what she'd done to land herself in this place.
She sighed and scrolled down to her second message. It was from her mom, who'd only just gotten the hang of texting a few weeks ago, and who surely had not known about this one-call-once-a-week thing or she would never have abandoned her daughter here. Right?
Kiddo, we are always thinking of you. Be good and try to eat enough protein. We'll talk when we can. Love, M&D
With a sigh, Luce realized her parents must have known. How else to explain their drawn faces when she'd waved goodbye at the school gates this morning, duffel bag in hand? At breakfast, she'd tried to joke about finally losing that appalling New England accent she'd picked up at Dover, but her parents hadn't even cracked a smile. She'd thought they were still mad at her. They never did the whole raising-their-voice thing, which meant that when Luce really messed up, they just gave her the old silent treatment. Now she understood this morning's strange demeanor: Her parents were already mourning the loss of contact with their only daughter.
"We're still waiting on one person," the attendant sang. "I wonder who it is." Luce's attention snapped back to the Hazard Box, which was now brimming with contraband she didn't even recognize. She could feel the dark-haired boy's green eyes staring at her. She looked up and noticed that everyone was staring.
Her turn. She closed her eyes and slowly opened her fingers, letting her phone slip from her grasp and land with a sad thunk on top of the heap. The sound of being all alone.
Todd and the fembot Gabbe headed for the door without so much as a look in Luce's direction, but the third boy turned to the attendant.
"I can fill her in," he said, nodding at Luce.
"Not part of our deal," the attendant replied automatically, as if she'd been expecting this dialogue.
"You're a new student again - that means new-student restrictions. Back to square one. You don't like it, you should have thought twice before breaking parole."
The boy stood motionless, expressionless, as the attendant tugged Luce - who'd stiffened at the word
"parole" - toward the end of a yellowed hall.
"Moving on," she said, as if nothing had just happened. "Beds." She pointed out the west-facing window to a distant cinder-block building. Luce could see Gabbe and Todd shuffling slowly toward them, with the third boy walking slowly, as if catching up to them were the last thing on his list of things to do.
The dorm was formidable and square, a solid gray block of a building whose thick double doors gave away nothing about the possibility of life inside them. A large stone plaque stood planted in the middle of the dead lawn, and Luce remembered from the Web site the words PAULINE DORMITORY chiseled into it. It looked even uglier in the hazy morning sun than it had looked in the flat black-and-white photograph.
Even from this distance, Luce could see black mold covering the face of the dorm. All the windows were obstructed by rows of thick steel bars. She squinted. Was that barbed wire topping the fence around the building?
The attendant looked down at a chart, flipping through Luce's file. "Room sixty-three. Throw your bag in my office with the rest of them for now. You can unpack this afternoon."
Luce dragged her red duffel bag toward three other nondescript black trunks. Then she reached reflexively for her cell phone, where she usually keyed in things she needed to remember. But as her hand searched her empty pocket, she sighed and committed the room number to memory instead.
She still didn't see why she couldn't just stay with her parents; their house in Thunderbolt was less than a half hour from Sword & Cross. It had felt so good to be back home in Savannah, where, as her mom always said, even the wind blew lazily. Georgia's softer, slower pace suited Luce way more than New England ever had.
But Sword & Cross didn't feel like Savannah. It hardly felt like anywhere at all, except the lifeless, colorless place where the court had mandated she board. She'd overheard her dad on the phone with the headmaster the other day, nodding in his befuddled biology-professor way and saying, "Yes, yes, maybe it would be best for her to be supervised all the time. No, no, we wouldn't want to interfere with your system."
Clearly her father had not seen the conditions of his only daughter's supervision. This place looked like a maximum-security prison.
"And what about, what did you say - the reds?" Luce asked the attendant, ready to be released from the tour.
"Reds," the attendant said, pointing toward a small wired device hanging from the ceiling: a lens with a flashing red light. Luce hadn't seen it before, but as soon as the attendant pointed the first one out, she realized they were everywhere.
"Very good," the attendant said, voice dripping condescension. "We make them obvious in order to remind you. All the time, everywhere, we're watching you. So don't screw up - that is, if you can help yourself."
Every time someone talked to Luce like she was a total psychopath, she came that much closer to believing it was true.
All summer, the memories had haunted her, in her dreams and in the rare moments her parents left her alone. Something had happened in that cabin, and everyone (including Luce) was dying to know exactly what. The police, the judge, the social worker had all tried to pry the truth out of her, but she was as clueless about it all as they were. She and Trevor had been joking around the whole evening, chasing each other down to the row of cabins on the lake, away from the rest of the party. She'd tried to explain that it had been one of the best nights of her life, until it turned into the worst.
She'd spent so much time replaying that night in her head, hearing Trevor's laugh, feeling his hands close around her waist, and trying to reconcile her gut instinct that she really was innocent.
But now, every rule and regulation at Sword & Cross seemed to work against that notion, seemed to suggest that she was, in fact dangerous and needed to be controlled.
Luce felt a firm hand on her shoulder.
"Look," the attendant said. "If it makes you feel any better, you're far from the worst case here."
It was the first humane gesture the attendant had made toward Luce, and she believed that it was intended to make her feel better. But. She'd been sent here because of the suspicious death of the guy she'd been crazy about, and still she was "far from the worst case here"? Luce wondered what else exactly they were dealing with at Sword & Cross.