Barron’s dad makes him toe the line, and to keep his friends, they do too. The new guy could never fit in… but Revi doesn’t act like he even wants to, which drives Barron crazy. Life takes a drastic turn, and Revi Porter’s long hair, soft lips, and aggravating emo dress code are the last things on Barron’s mind. There’s no room for petty grudges in the struggle to survive. When saving a little girl leaves Barron lost in the dark, will he learn how to really see?
“Everyone have their slipcards? You’re going to need them.” Barron ignored the lecturing teacher. Everyone waited in the parking lot, at his request, while he went over all the rules. Like they didn’t all know them already.
Well, maybe not the new kid.
Who dressed like that? He was obviously trying to attract all sorts of the wrong attention. Guys around here did not wear their hair long and flowing, curling around their shoulders. Jeans were meant to fit relaxed and held up with a belt, not tight and barely reaching sharp hipbones just begging to be squeezed in a bruising grip.
Barron could see the new kid’s hip bones because his shirt was rucked up under his black jacket. Black on black, how original. Emo brat with the dark clothes, flaring nostrils, and narrowed eyes. The only thing he couldn’t ruin were his soft lips, somehow a much darker red than he would have expected from his honeyed skin. Those lips had been haunting Barron for more than a week. They didn’t have classes together, thankfully.
He strutted when he walked. Cocky bastard.
Barron jerked. He scowled. “What?”
“Excuse me? You want to rephrase that.” The now was unspoken but hung clearly in the air. His teacher could have his dad on face-to-face conference in seconds. It wouldn’t be the first time, either.
“Sorry.” Barron abandoned his slouch against the fence, snapping to attention fast enough to make the muscles in his back protest. “Yes, Mr. Hodge?” He’d better straighten up and fly right. The same words his father enjoyed snapping at him on a damn near daily basis echoed in his mind.
Barron dug the frayed slipcard out of his back pocket. They were supposed to last the entire school career from their very first day, but his saw a lot of mileage. Demotions, detentions, parent notes… they’d probably have cut down an entire forest just for him if they still sent letters home. “Got it.” He handed it over to his teacher who stuck it in his reader, eyeing the screen until it beeped.
“Oh good, not forged for once.”
“Who’d do that? It’s a field trip to a cave.” He frowned. Barron saved his forges for important things, like covering for when he had to skip. He didn’t want anyone knowing he took off school to head over to the used bookstore to attend seminars by Erink Brogherd. The guy was local, but he was going to be a big-name author one day. Barron followed his blog and always attended his talks.
“One never knows, Mr. Pernell.” Mr. Hodge handed back his slipcard. Barron shoved it into his pocket, already back to watching the new guy. He leaned against the fence, hanging on with his hands above his head; a chunky watch covered one wrist and the other was layered with leather, yarn, and cord bracelets.
“Time to go!” Mr. Hodge shouted. “Two to a seat.”
Barron barreled on to the first bus to nab the last seat. He hated feeling knees in his back from idiots behind him. “Hey, Creed, sit with me.” His friend was skinny as a rail. Barron would get more of the seat if Creed sat with him.
Thavin and William sat in front of them. Barron reached up and yanked on Thavin’s hair.
“What the hell, man?”
“It’s getting too long.” Barron tugged on it again. “You need a cut.” He’d only get to keep his friends as friends if they toed the line his dad made him toe. So he put pressure on them when he had to. He needed his friends. Luckily, they’d been listening to him for years and didn’t really question it anymore.
“Whatever.” Thavin turned sideways in the seat. “I’ll do it tomorrow.”
“Man, can you believe they’re making us go on this trip again? How many times have we seen the Doestrin caves?”
“Every other year since we were old enough not to piss our pants in the dark.” Creed pulled a pack of gum out of his pocket.
“Nah.” Barron shook his head when Creed offered it to him.
“What kind?” William was a mooch, but he was picky about the kind of gum he’d chew.
“Kick ass. Gimme.” William had a thing for retro sayings. Had to match the name his parents had saddled him with. He snagged two pieces.
“Hey pig, just one,” Creed objected.
“I am.” He offered one square to Thavin.
“You know I don’t like that caffeinated crap.” Thavin shook his head.
“Guess I’ll just have to keep both squares.” William popped them both in his mouth and chewed quickly. “Hmm… good.”
“Dumbass.” Creed smacked him upside the head. “Those better last you all day.”
“Yeah, well, I’m gonna need them to stay awake. I’m sick of these cave trips too. Thank God we graduate next month.”
“Let me have your attention, please.” Mr. Hodge stood at the front of the bus. “We have an hour-long ride to the caves.” He rolled his eyes at the groan. “Followed by a four-hour tour of the caves.”
“What?” Thavin frowned. “Tours are two hours.”
“Hey, Mr. Hodge, what gives?” William shouted over everyone.
“I will explain if you guys can shut your traps for a few minutes, so stop talking.” Mr. Hodge was actually a pretty cool guy for an older teacher. He wore jeans and button-up shirts over a tee most days. None of the suits and loafers some teachers wore. He had a sense of humor, too.
Most of the time.
“This trip to the caves is for the senior class. I know you guys have been to the Doestrin cave system and really enjoy it”—he rolled his eyes at their boos—“but there are some very delicate crystalline structures down a tunnel at the back of the caves you’ve never seen. We hope that by now, as seniors about to graduate, you can be trusted into an area of the caves not generally open to the public. You have no idea how much the fines will be if we’re wrong. Fines that the school will not pay, by the way.”
Mr. Hodge sat in the seat behind the auto driver controls. As soon as their scheduled departure time hit, the bus started up and began the drive out of the city to Doestrin National Park.
Buses weren’t all that different from the ones his grandpa told him about. Kids were still crammed into uncomfortable seats, the buses were loud, and they bounced a lot more than anything with hover air tires should. Barron wished he could’ve driven his car. It’d taken him three summers to earn the money himself, but he was determined to have some freedom over the summer when he wasn’t working for his father’s firm.
Barron sat back and listened to his friends bullshit each other about the party last weekend. He hadn’t gone. His dad had grounded him for the less-than-perfect grade on his trig exam. Not that it mattered what he got. Barron was going to Parks University in the fall, tuition already paid for the first semester.
His friends were all going too. Barron idly scanned the bus. The preppy girls all sat together a few seats in front of them, their squeals audible over the hum of the anti-grav motor under the bus.
What were they squealing over? Abbe and Hazea had their heads together, leaning forward to talk to the people in front of them. He could tell it was the twins by their garish purple hair. One ducked down and Barron stiffened.
The new kid sat with his back to the window, talking to the girls seated around him. They were all fascinated by him, of course. Barron hadn’t seen him get on their bus. The guy flicked his hair back over his shoulder. Barron ground his teeth together.
“Hey, Bar, what’s up?” Creed followed the direction of his gaze. “Ahh, the new guy. Who moves right before graduation?”
“Someone who shouldn’t be happy. Of course he’s surrounded by all those girls, so of course he’s probably giddy as a pig in shit.”
Barron blinked. “What the hell did you just say?”
Creed grinned. His orange hair, pale skin, and gap-toothed grin always made him look like a jack-o’-lantern to Barron. The guy was stick thin, but he had a round face. He shrugged. “William, of course.”
“Hey, that’s a good one!” William snickered. “My gram taught me it. She grew up on a farm. Back when they actually had farms, that is.”
“Whatever.” Barron went back to staring at the new guy.
“His name’s Revi Pore-something or other.” Thavin frowned. “I don’t remember exactly. He moved from Alabama? I think.” He worked in the office and often got them information before everyone else got it. “I processed his ID file yesterday for his slipcard. Wherever he lived last was super slow sending the data.”
“He looks like a girl,” Barron muttered.
“Yeah, you and your obsession with hair. He’s gotta set your OCD on fire.” Thavin snapped his fingers. “Porter. That’s his last name.”
“Or maybe other parts of him are on fire.” William raised his eyebrows and leered at him. Barron reached up and smacked him upside the head.
“Knock it off. He’s not my type.” Barron sank down, wedging his knees against the seat in front of him. “Wake me up when we get there.” He closed his eyes, but he didn’t sleep. If he listened hard, and filtered out all the other sounds, he could hear him. The new guy.
His drawl stood out against the clipped tones of the guys and high-pitched gabbing girls. His looks might drive Barron crazy, but his voice was very… nice. Shit.
Not part of the program. Barron was going to find a nice jock boyfriend who liked sports and beer and could hold a conversation with his dad.
Barron’s irritation spiked as he ended up standing behind the kid as everyone shuffled off the bus. He should have made William and Thavin go first. Two of the girls had stepped into a seat by their friend so they could get off together. Of course he waved them ahead of him with a campy limp wrist wave, removing the buffer between Barron and the annoyance that was Revi Porter.
The guy didn’t even shuffle like the rest of them. He might as well have minced down the aisle. Barron clenched his hands into fists. They approached the steps, and he couldn’t take it anymore.