Fallout (Lois Lane #1) - Gwenda Bond

CHAPTER 1

“Remember the plan,” I muttered.

I sped up as the school came into view, a telltale yellow bus lumbering away from the curb. The soles of my knee-high boots clicked against the concrete sidewalk.

Fit in. Don’t make waves.

A small herd of stragglers were still dragging their feet toward the three-story, pristine brick structure of East Metropolis High. I’d made it before first bell, then—barely. A slouchy boy in a baggy T-shirt held the door for me. That must mean my carefully selected ensemble of a plaid mini, black tights, and sweater with a small, cute skull-and-crossbones motif was okay. I’d been to enough new schools to know that people didn’t hold doors if they thought you were dressed too weirdly.

“Where’s the office?” I asked the first studious-looking girl I saw.

She shyly pointed up the hall, and I set off as the bell rang.

This was a bigger school than I was used to, more people roaming the halls, the classrooms fuller and in greater number. The school colors were blue and red, and walking down the hall felt a little like being inside an American flag. My Army general dad would love it.

I spotted a sign hanging up ahead that read “Principal and Administrative Office.” But when I got closer to the glassed-in area, I hesitated. There was a line.

Six boys—no, wait, a couple of them were girls—stood in silence a few feet away from the door. They were dressed in all black, and obviously together, facing each other in rows of three. How they stared at each other tempted me to joke, Get a classroom. Except on second look, it wasn’t moony-eyed-in-love staring. It was more intense than that.

“So . . .” I said when they didn’t budge. Or speak. “Are you waiting?”

“Yes,” a boy with brown hair said.

“But not for you,” another added, in a flat tone creepily similar to the first.

The second bell rang. We became the only people left in the hallway.

“I didn’t think you were,” I said, in a nice way. “It’s my first day here.”

None of them spoke.

Oh-kay.

“Thanks for the warm welcome.” I went wide around them to the door. “I’ll just cut the line now.”

Inside, the layout was simple: a reception area with a few chairs and a desk positioned to serve as gatekeeper. Behind it, the first few feet of a carpeted beige hallway were visible, leading, no doubt, back to the principal’s office.

No one was at the desk, so I sat down to wait. Patiently. As patiently as possible when I was already late on my first day at a brand-new school, anyway.

I hoped they hadn’t pulled up my transcripts, seen my dreaded permanent record, and decided not to admit me. If permanent records even existed, which I wasn’t sure about.

Then again, nothing in my life had ever been permanent. I might be biased.

I took a deep breath, crossing my fingers that the rude group in the hallway wasn’t an omen. Things had to be different here. I had to be different here.

“Don’t screw this up, Lane,” I whispered.

Then I heard voices. Overheard, actually. They were coming from up that bland beige hall. And they were arguing.

No one had showed up to help me, and the creepy group outside wasn’t loitering where they could see in the windows. So it wasn’t like there was anyone to notice when I got up and moved a little closer to the gatekeeper’s desk to better hear what the argument was about . . . And a little closer . . . And right on past the desk . . . There.

I stopped at the edge of the hall, still technically in the front office. But now I could hear what they were saying.

“Principal Butler, please.” The girl speaking had a quiet voice, but it was raised and wavering. “You know I would never inconvenience you without justification. I know how it sounds, but the Warheads are annihilating my sanity. Or endeavoring to. I swear to you, they’re . . . doing something to me. To my mind. Cognitive assault. Psychological coercion. Those are the closest terms I can find, though they are not precisely correct.”

That was some SAT-worthy vocabulary. Impressive.

I started to edge closer, into the hallway, but I forced myself to stop. I needed to stay out of view, under the radar. I did not need to be caught trespassing in admin offices.

That didn’t stop me from listening hard.

“Anavi,” a smooth, older man’s voice said, “I can see something is bothering you, but now