15 February 2017

One

Perfect Strangers

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 DJ 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.

Fallen

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! BTW, 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.

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