CHAPTER 1. 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.
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. Well 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.
"Okay, orientation's over," the attendant said. "You're on your own now. Here's a map if you need to find anything else." She gave Luce a photocopy of a crude hand-drawn map, then glanced at her watch. "You've got an hour before your first class, but my soaps come on in five, so" — she waved her hand at Luce—"make yourself scarce. And don't forget," she said, pointing up at the cameras one last time. "The reds are watching you."
Before Luce could reply, a skinny, dark-haired girl appeared in front of her, wagging her long fingers in Luce's face.
"Ooooooh," the girl taunted in a ghost-story-telling voice, dancing around Luce in a circle. "The reds are watching youuuu."
"Get out of here, Arriane, before I have you lobotomized," the attendant said, though it was clear from her first brief but genuine smile that she had some coarse affection for the crazy girl.
It was also clear that Arriane did not reciprocate the love. She mimed a jerking-off motion at the attendant, then stared at Luce, daring her to be offended.
"And just for that," the attendant said, jotting a furious note in her book, "you've earned yourself the task of showing Little Miss Sunshine around today."
She pointed at Luce, who looked anything but sunny in her black jeans, black boots, and black top. Under the "Dress Code" section, the Sword & Cross Web site had cheerily maintained that as long as the students were on good behavior, they were free to dress as they pleased, with just two small stipulations: style must be modest and color must be black. Some freedom.
The too-big mock turtleneck Luce's mom had forced on her this morning did nothing for her curves, and even her best feature was gone: Her thick black hair, which used to hang down to her waist, had been almost completely shorn off. The cabin fire had left her scalp singed and her hairline patchy, so after the long, silent ride home from Dover, Mom had planted Luce in the bathtub, brought out Dad's electric razor, and wordlessly shaved her head. Over the summer, her hair had grown out a little, just enough so that her once-enviable waves now hovered in awkward twists just below her ears.
Arriane sized her up, tapping one finger against her pale lips. "Perfect," she said, stepping forward to loop her arm through Luce's. "I was just thinking I could really use a new slave."
The door to the lobby swung open and in walked the tall kid with green eyes. He shook his head and said to Luce, "This place isn't afraid to do a strip search. So if you're packing any other hazards" — he raised an eyebrow and dumped a handful of unrecognizables in the box—"save yourself the trouble."
Behind Luce, Arriane laughed under her breath. The boy's head shot up, and when his eyes registered Arriane, he opened his mouth, then closed it, like he was unsure how to proceed.
"Arriane," he said evenly.
"Cam," she returned.
"You know him?" Luce whispered, wondering whether there were the same kinds of cliques in reform schools as there were in prep schools like Dover.
"Don't remind me," Arriane said, dragging Luce out the door into the gray and swampy morning.
The back of the main building let out onto a chipped sidewalk bordering a messy field. The grass was so overgrown, it looked more like a vacant lot than a school commons, but a faded scoreboard and a small stack of wooden bleachers argued otherwise.
Beyond the commons lay four severe-looking buildings: the cinder-block dormitory on the far left, a huge old ugly church on the far right, and two other expansive structures in between that Luce imagined were the classrooms.
This was it. Her whole world was reduced to the sorry sight before her eyes.
Arriane immediately veered right off the path and led Luce to the field, sitting her down on top of one of the waterlogged wooden bleachers.
The corresponding setup at Dover had screamed Ivy League jock-in-training, so Luce had always avoided hanging out there. But this empty field, with its rusted, warped goals, told a very different story. One that wasn't as easy for Luce to figure out. Three turkey vultures swooped overhead, and a dismal wind whipped through the bare branches of the oak trees. Luce ducked her chin down into her mock turtleneck.
"Soooo," Arriane said. "Now you've met Randy."
"I thought his name was Cam."
"We're not talking about him," Arriane said quickly. "I mean she-man in there." Arriane jerked her head toward the office where they'd left the attendant in front of the TV. "Whaddya think—dude or chick?"
"Uh, chick?" Luce said tentatively. "Is this a test?"
Arriane cracked a smile. "The first of many. And you passed. At least, I think you passed. The gender of most of the faculty here is an ongoing, schoolwide debate. Don't worry, you'll get into it."
Luce thought Arriane was making a joke—in which case, cool. But this was all such a huge change from Dover. At her old school, the green-tie-wearing, pomaded future senators had practically oozed through the halls in the genteel hush that money seemed to lay over everything.
More often than not, the other Dover kids gave Luce a don't-smudge-the-white-walls-with-your-fingerprints side ways glance. She tried to imagine Arriane there: lazing on the bleachers, making a loud, crude joke in her peppery voice. Luce tried to imagine what Callie might think of Arriane. There'd been no one like her at Dover.
"Okay, spill it," Arriane ordered. Plopping down on the top bleacher and motioning for Luce to join her, she said, "What'd ya do to get in here?"
Arriane's tone was playful, but suddenly Luce had to sit down. It was ridiculous, but she'd half expected to get through her first day of school without the past creeping up and robbing her of her thin facade of calm. Of course people here were going to want to know.
She could feel the blood thrumming at her temples. It happened whenever she tried to think back—really think back—to that night. She'd never stop feeling guilty about what had happened to Trevor, but she also tried really hard not to get mired down in the shadows, which by now were the only things she could remember about the accident. Those dark, indefinable things that she could never tell anyone about.
Scratch that—she'd started to tell Trevor about the peculiar presence she'd felt that night, about the twisting shapes hanging over their heads, threatening to mar their perfect evening. Of course, by then it was already too late. Trevor was gone, his body burned beyond recognition, and Luce was… was she… guilty?
No one knew about the murky shapes she sometimes saw in the darkness. They'd always come to her. They'd come and gone for so long that Luce couldn't even remember the first time she'd seen them. But she could remember the first time she realized that the shadows didn't come for everyone—or actually, anyone but her. When she was seven, her family had been on vacation in Hilton Head and her parents had taken her on a boat trip. It was just about sunset when the shadows started rolling in over the water, and she'd turned to her father and said, "What do you do when they come, Dad? Why aren't you afraid of the monsters?"
There were no monsters, her parents assured her, but Luce's repeated insistence on the presence of something wobbly and dark had gotten her several appointments with the family eye doctor, and then glasses, and then appointments with the ear doctor after she made the mistake of describing the hoarse whooshing noise that the shadows sometimes made—and then therapy, and then more therapy, and finally the prescription for anti-psychotic medication.
But nothing ever made them go away.
By the time she was fourteen. Luce refused to take her meds. That was when they found Dr. Sanford, and the Dover School nearby. They flew to New Hampshire, and her father drove their rental car up a long, curved driveway to a hilltop mansion called Shady Hollows. They planted Luce in front of a man in a lab coat and asked her if she still saw her "visions." Her parents' palms were sweating as they gripped her hands, brows furrowed with the fear that there was something terribly wrong with their daughter.
No one came out and said that if she didn't tell Dr. Sanford what they all wanted her to say, she might be seeing a whole lot more of Shady Hollows. When she lied and acted normal, she was allowed to enroll at Dover, and only had to visit Dr. Sanford twice a month.
Luce had been permitted to stop taking the horrible pills as soon as she started pretending she didn't see the shadows anymore. But she still had no control over when they might appear. All she knew was that the mental catalog of places where they'd come for her in the past—dense forests, murky waters—became the places she avoided at all costs. All she knew was that when the shadows came, they were usually accompanied by a cold chill under her skin, a sickening feeling unlike anything else.
Luce straddled one of the bleachers and gripped her temples between her thumbs and middle fingers. If she was going to make it through today, she had to push her past to the recesses of her mind. She couldn't stand probing the memory of that night by herself, so there was no way she could air all the gruesome details to some weird, maniacal stranger.
Instead of answering, she watched Arriane, who was lying back on the bleachers, sporting a pair of enormous black sunglasses that covered the better part of her face. It was hard to tell, but she must have been staring at Luce, too, because after a second, she shot up from the bleachers and grinned.
"Cut my hair like yours," she said.
"What?" Luce gasped. "Your hair is beautiful."
It was true: Arriane had the long, thick locks that Luce so desperately missed. Her loose black curls sparkled in the sunlight, giving off just a tinge of red. Luce tucked her hair behind her ears, even though it still wasn't long enough to do anything but flop back down in front of them.
"Beautiful schmootiful," Arriane said. "Yours is sexy, edgy. And I want it."
"Oh, urn, okay," Luce said. Was that a compliment? She didn't know if she was supposed to be flattered or unnerved by the way Arriane assumed she could have whatever she wanted, even if what she wanted belonged to someone else. "Where are we going to get—"
"Ta-da!" Arriane reached into her bag and pulled out the pink Swiss Army knife Gabbe had tossed into the Hazard Box. "What?" she said, seeing Luce's reaction. "I always bring my sticky fingers on new-student drop-off days. The idea alone gets me through the dog days of Sword & Cross internment… er… summer camp."
"You spent the whole summer… here?" Luce winced.
"Ha! Spoken like a true newbie. You're probably expecting a spring break." She tossed Luce the Swiss Army knife. "We don't get to leave this hellhole. Ever. Now cut."
"What about the reds?" Luce asked, glancing around with the knife in her hand. There were bound to be cameras somewhere out here.
Arriane shook her head. "I refuse to associate with pansies. Can you handle it or not?"
"And don't tell me you've never cut hair before." Arriane grabbed the Swiss Army knife back from Luce, pulled out the scissor tool, and handed it back. "Not another word until you tell me how fantastic I look."
In the «salon» of her parents' bathtub, Luce's mother had tugged the remains of her long hair into a messy pony-tail before lopping the whole thing off. Luce was sure there had to be a more strategic method of cutting hair, but as a lifelong haircut avoider, the chopped-off pony was about all she knew. She gathered Arriane's hair in her hands, wrapped an elastic band from her wrist around it, held the small scissors firmly, and began to hack.
The ponytail fell to her feet and Arriane gasped and whipped around. She picked it up and held it to the sun. Luce's heart constricted at the sight. She still agonized over her own lost hair, and all the other losses it symbolized. But Arriane just let a thin smile spread across her lips. She ran her fingers through the ponytail once, then dropped it into her bag.
"Awesome," she said. "Keep going."
"Arriane," Luce whispered before she could stop herself. "Your neck. It's all—"
"Scarred?" Arriane finished. "You can say it."
The skin on Arriane's neck, from the back of her left ear all the way down to her collarbone, was jagged and marbled and shiny. Luce's mind went to Trevor—to those awful pictures. Even her own parents wouldn't look at her after they saw them. She was having a hard time looking at Arriane now.
Arriane grabbed Luce's hand and pressed it to the skin. It was hot and cold at the same time. It was smooth and rough.
"I'm not afraid of it," Arriane said. "Are you?"
"No," Luce said, though she wished Arriane would take her hand away so Luce could take hers away, too. Her stomach churned as she wondered whether this was how Trevor's skin would have felt.
"Are you afraid of who you really are, Luce?"
"No," Luce said again quickly. It must be so obvious that she was lying. She closed her eyes. All she wanted from Sword & Cross was a fresh start, a place where people didn't look at her the way Arriane was looking at her right now. At the school's gates that morning, when her father had whispered the Price family motto in her ear—"Prices never crash" — it had felt possible, but already Luce felt so run down and exposed. She tugged her hand away. "So how'd it happen?" she asked, looking down.
"Remember how I didn't press you when you clammed up about what you did to get here?" Arriane asked, raising her eyebrows.
Arriane gestured to the scissors. "Touch it up in the back, okay? Make me look real pretty. Make me look like you."
Even with the same exact cut, Arriane would still only look like a very undernourished version of Luce. While Luce attempted to even out the first haircut she'd ever given, Arriane delved into the complexities of life at Sword & Cross.
"That cell block over there is Augustine. It's where we have our so-called Social events on Wednesday nights. And all of our classes," she said, pointing at a building the color of yellowed teeth, two buildings to the right of the dorm. It looked like it had been designed by the same sadist who'd done Pauline. It was dismally square, dismally fortresslike, fortified by the same barbed wire and barred windows. An unnatural-looking gray mist cloaked the walls like moss, making it impossible to see whether anyone was over there.
"Fair warning," Arriane continued. "You're going to hate the classes here. You wouldn't be human if you didn't."
"Why? What's so bad about them?" Luce asked. Maybe Arriane just didn't like school in general. With her black nail polish, black eyeliner, and the black bag that only seemed big enough to hold her new Swiss Army knife, she didn't exactly look bookish.
"The classes here are soulless," Arriane said. "Worse, they'll strip you of your soul. Of the eighty kids in this place, I'd say we've only got about three remaining souls." She glanced up. "Unspoken for, anyway…"
That didn't sound promising, but Luce was hung up on another part of Arriane's answer. "Wait, there are only eighty kids in this whole school?" The summer before she went to Dover, Luce had pored over the thick Prospective Students handbook, memorizing all the statistics. But everything she'd learned so far about Sword & Cross had surprised her, making her realize that she was coming into reform school completely unprepared.
Arriane nodded, making Luce accidentally snip off a chunk of hair she'd meant to leave. Whoops. Hopefully Arriane wouldn't notice—or maybe she'd just think it was edgy.
"Eight classes, ten kids a pop. You get to know everybody's crap pret-ty quickly," Arriane said. "And vice versa."
"I guess so," Luce agreed, biting her lip. Arriane was joking, but Luce wondered whether she'd be sitting here with that cool smirk in her pastel blue eyes if she knew the exact nature of Luce's backstory. The longer Luce could keep her past under wraps, the better off she'd be.
"And you'll want to steer clear of the hard cases."
"The kids with the wristband tracking devices," Arriane said. "About a third of the student body."
"And they're the ones who—"
"You don't want to mess with. Trust me."
"Well, what'd they do?" Luce asked.
As much as Luce wanted to keep her own story a secret, she didn't like the way Arriane was treating her like some sort of ingenue. Whatever those kids had done couldn't be much worse than what everyone told her she had done. Or could it? After all, she knew next to nothing about these people and this place. The possibilities stirred up a cold gray fear in the pit of her stomach.
"Oh, you know," Arriane drawled. "Aided and abetted terrorist acts. Chopped up their parents and roasted them on a spit." She turned around to wink at Luce.
"Shut up," Luce said.
"I'm serious. Those psychos are under much tighter restrictions than the rest of the screwups here. We call them the shackled,"
Luce laughed at Arriane's dramatic tone.
"Your haircut's done," she said, running her hands through Arriane's hair to fluff it up a little. It actually looked really cool.
"Sweet," Arriane said. She turned to face Luce. When she ran her fingers through her hair, the sleeves of her black sweater fell back on her forearms and Luce caught a glimpse of a black wristband, dotted with rows of silver studs, and, on the other wrist, another band that looked more… mechanical. Arriane caught her looking and raised her eyebrows devilishly.
"Told ya," she said. "Total effing psychos." She grinned. "Come on, I'll give you the rest of the tour."
Luce didn't have much choice. She scrambled down the bleachers after Arriane, ducking when one of the turkey vultures swooped dangerously low. Arriane, who didn't seem to notice, pointed at a lichen-swathed church at the far right of the commons.
"Over here, you'll find our state-of-the-art gymnasium," she said, assuming a nasal tour guide tone of voice. "Yes, yes, to the untrained eye it looks like a church. It used to be. We're kind of in an architectural hand-me-down Hell here at Sword & Cross. A few years ago, some calisthenic-crazed shrink showed up ranting about overmedicated teens ruining society. He donated a shit-ton of money so they'd convert it into a gym. Now the powers that be think we can work out our 'frustrations' in a 'more natural and productive way. "
Luce groaned. She had always loathed gym class.
"Girl after my very own heart," Arriane commiserated. "Coach Diante is ee-vil."
As Luce jogged to keep up, she took in the rest of the grounds. The Dover quad had been so well kept, all manicured and dotted with evenly spaced, carefully pruned trees. Sword & Cross looked like it had been plopped down and abandoned in the middle of a swamp. Weeping willows dangled to the ground, kudzu grew along the walls in sheets, and every third step they took squished.
And it wasn't just the way the place looked. Every humid breath Luce took stuck in her lungs. Just breathing at Sword & Cross made her feel like she was sinking into quicksand.
"Apparently the architects got in a huge standoff over how to retrofit the style of the old military academy buildings. The upshot is we ended up with half penitentiary, half medieval torture zone. And no gardener," Arriane said, kicking some slime off her combat boots. "Gross. Oh, and there's the cemetery."
Luce followed Arriane's pointing finger to the far left side of the quad, just past the dormitory. An even thicker cloak of mist hung over the walled-off portion of land. It was bordered on three sides by a thick forest of oaks. She couldn't see into the cemetery, which seemed almost to sink below the surface of the ground, but she could smell the rot and hear the chorus of cicadas buzzing in the trees. For a second, she thought she saw the dark swish of the shadows—but she blinked and they were gone.
"That's a cemetery?"
"Yep. This used to be a military academy, way back in the Civil War days. So that's where they buried all their dead. It's creepy as all get-out. And lawd," Arriane said, piling on a fake southern accent, "it stinks to high Heaven." Then she winked at Luce. "We hang out there a lot."
Luce looked at Arriane to see if she was kidding. Arriane just shrugged.
"Okay, it was only once. And it was only after a really big pharmapalooza."
Now, that was a word Luce recognized.
"Aha!" Arriane laughed. "I just saw a light go on up there. So somebody is home. Well, Luce, my dear, you may have gone to boarding school parties, but you've never seen a throw-down like reform school kids do it."
"What's the difference?" Luce asked, trying to skirt the fact that she'd never actually been to a big party at Dover.
"You'll see." Arriane paused and turned to Luce. "You'll come over tonight and hang out, okay?" She surprised Luce by taking her hand. "Promise?"
"But I thought you said I should stay away from the hard cases," Luce joked.
"Rule number two—don't listen to me!" Arriane laughed, shaking her head. "I'm certifiably insane!"
She started jogging again and Luce trailed after her. "Wait, what was rule number one?"
As they came around the corner of the cinder-block classrooms, Arriane skidded to a halt. "Affect cool," she said.
"Cool," Luce repeated.
All the other students seemed to be clustered around the kudzu-strangled trees outside Augustine. No one looked exactly happy to be hanging out, but no one looked ready to go inside yet, either.
There hadn't been much of a dress code at Dover, so Luce wasn't used to the uniformity it gave a student body. Then again, even though every kid here was wearing the same black jeans, black mock-turtleneck T-shirt, and black sweater tied over the shoulders or around the waist, there were still substantial differences in the way they pulled it off.
A group of tattooed girls standing in a crossed-armed circle wore bangle bracelets up to their elbows. The black bandanas in their hair reminded Luce of a film she'd once seen about motorcycle-gang girls. She'd rented it because she'd thought: What could be cooler than an all-girls motorcycle gang? Now Luce's eyes locked with those of one of the girls across the lawn. The sideways squint of the girl's darkly lined cat-eyes made Luce quickly shift the direction of her gaze.
A guy and a girl who were holding hands had sewn sequins in the shape of skulls and crossbones on the back of their black sweaters. Every few seconds, one of them would pull the other in for a kiss on the temple, on the earlobe, on the eye. When they looped their arms around each other, Luce could see that each wore the blinking wristband tracking device. They looked a little rough, but it was obvious how much in love they were. Every time she saw their tongue rings flashing, Luce felt a lonely pinch inside her chest.
Behind the lovers, a cluster of blond boys stood pressed against the wall. Each of them wore his sweater, despite the heat. And they all had on white oxford shirts underneath, the collars starched straight up. Their black pants hit the vamps of their polished dress shoes perfectly. Of all the students on the quad, these boys seemed to Luce to be the closest thing to Doverites. But a closer look quickly set them apart from boys she used to know. Boys like Trevor.
Just standing in a group, these guys radiated a specific kind of toughness. It was right there in the look in their eyes. It was hard to explain, but it suddenly struck Luce that just like her, everyone at this school had a past. Everyone here probably had secrets they wouldn't want to share. But she couldn't figure out whether this realization made her feel more or less isolated.
Arriane noticed Luce's eyes running over the rest of the kids.
"We all do what we can to make it through the day," she said, shrugging. "But in case you hadn't observed the low-hanging vultures, this place pretty much reeks of death." She took a seat on a bench under a weeping willow and patted the spot next to her for Luce.
Luce wiped away a mound of wet, decaying leaves, but just before she sat down, she noticed another dress code violation.
A very attractive dress code violation.
He wore a bright red scarf around his neck. It was far from cold outside, but he had on a black leather motorcycle jacket over his black sweater, too. Maybe it was because his was the only spot of color on the quad, but he was all that Luce could look at. In fact, everything else so paled in comparison that, for one long moment, Luce forgot where she was.
She took in his deep golden hair and matching tan. His high cheekbones, the dark sunglasses that covered his eyes, the soft shape of his lips. In all the movies Luce had seen, and in all the books she'd read, the love interest was mind-blowingly good-looking—except for that one little flaw. The chipped tooth, the charming cowlick, the beauty mark on his left cheek. She knew why—if the hero was too unblemished, he'd risk being unapproachable. But approachable or not, Luce had always had a weakness for the sublimely gorgeous. Like this guy.
He leaned up against the building with his arms crossed lightly over his chest. And for a split second, Luce saw a flashing image of herself folded into those arms. She shook her head, but the vision stayed so clear that she almost took off toward him.
No. That was crazy. Right? Even at a school full of crazies, Luce was well aware that this instinct was insane. She didn't even know him.
He was talking to a shorter kid with dreads and a toothy smile. Both of them were laughing hard and genuinely—in a way that made Luce strangely jealous. She tried to think back and remember how long it had been since she'd laughed, really laughed, like that.
"That's Daniel Grigori," Arriane said, leaning in and reading her mind. "I can tell he's attracted somebody's attention."
"Understatement," Luce agreed, embarrassed when she realized how she must have looked to Arriane.
"Yeah, well, if you like that sort of thing."
"What's not to like?" Luce said, unable to stop the words from tumbling out.
"His friend there is Roland," Arriane said, nodding in the dreadlocked kid's direction. "He's cool. The kind of guy who can get his hands on things, ya know?"
Not really, Luce thought, biting her lip. "What kinds of things?"
Arriane shrugged, using her poached Swiss Army knife to saw off a fraying strand from a rip in her black jeans. "Just things. Ask-and-you-shall-receive kind of stuff."
"What about Daniel?" Luce asked. "What's his story?"
"Oh, she doesn't give up." Arriane laughed, then cleared her throat. "No one really knows," she said. "He holds pretty tight to his mystery man persona. Could just be your typical reform school asshole."
"I'm no stranger to assholes," Luce said, though as soon as the words came out, she wished she could take them back. After what had happened to Trevor—whatever had happened—she was the last person who should be making character judgments. But more than that, the rare time she made even the smallest reference to that night, the shifting black canopy of the shadows came back to her, almost like she was right back at the lake.
She glanced again at Daniel. He took his glasses off and slid them inside his jacket, then turned to look at her.
His gaze caught hers, and Luce watched as his eyes widened and then quickly narrowed in what looked like surprise. But no—it was more than that. When Daniel's eyes held hers, her breath caught in her throat. She recognized him from somewhere.
But she would have remembered meeting someone like him. She would have remembered feeling as absolutely shaken up as she did right now.
She realized they were still locking eyes when Daniel flashed her a smile. A jet of warmth shot through her and she had to grip the bench for support. She felt her lips pull up in a smile back at him, but then he raised his hand in the air.
And flipped her off.
Luce gasped and dropped her eyes.
"What?" Arriane asked, oblivious to what had just gone down. "Never mind," she said. "We don't have time. I sense the bell."
The bell rang as if on cue, and the whole student body started the slow shuffle into the building. Arriane was tugging on Luce's hand and spouting off directions about where to meet her next and when. But Luce was still reeling from being flipped the bird by such a perfect stranger. Her momentary delirium over Daniel had vanished, and now the only thing she wanted to know was: What was that guy's problem?
Just before she ducked into her first class, she dared to glance back. His face was blank, but there was no mistaking it—he was watching her go.