Exposure (Virals Series #4)by Kathy Reichs, Brendan Reichs
“If you like the TV show Bones (I do) or Maximum Ride, you’ll love Virals.”—James Patterson
Another thrilling Virals adventure from New York Times bestsellers Kathy and Brendan Reichs.
When twin classmates are abducted from Bolton Prep, Tory and the Virals decide there’s no one/b>/i>/b>/i>/i>/i>… See more details below
“If you like the TV show Bones (I do) or Maximum Ride, you’ll love Virals.”—James Patterson
Another thrilling Virals adventure from New York Times bestsellers Kathy and Brendan Reichs.
When twin classmates are abducted from Bolton Prep, Tory and the Virals decide there’s no one better equipped than them to investigate. But the gang has other problems to face. Their powers are growing wilder, and becoming harder to control. Chance Claybourne is investigating the disastrous medical experiment that twisted their DNA. The bonds that unite them are weakening, threatening the future of the pack itself.
The Virals must decipher the clues and track down a ruthless criminal before he strikes again, all while protecting their secret from prying eyes. And everyone seems to be watching.
Read an Excerpt
“Someone spent a lot of time and energy cleaning that area.
My guess is, they were concealing evidence.”
“Of a violent crime,” Shelton finished. “Oh Lord.”
Hi gulped. “The Gable twins didn’t run off, did they?”
I shook my head. “I think somebody snatched them.
Or . . . worse.”
I didn’t want to finish that thought.
“What should we do?” Ben asked.
I considered our options. “We already took pictures. Now we treat this entire room like a crime scene. I’ll dust the door for prints, while—”
A loud bang broke the stillness.
My head whipped to the windows facing the backyard.
I saw a dark form kneeling in the grass outside.
Also by Kathy Reichs and Brendan Reichs
Beads of water tumbled from the darkness above.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
The girl shifted, angling her pale face away from the cascade. Sodden blond hair hung lank to her shoulders, filthy with grime and debris.
The boy rose from where he crouched. Ushered the girl across the narrow stone chamber. Silently took her place. Dirty rivulets began rolling down his cheeks, gathering at the chin before dropping to the earthen floor. He took no notice. There were no dry places.
Outside the dim, moldy cell, beyond a line of rusty steel bars, a red light glowed. Steady. Unblinking. Their sole companion.
Shivers racked the girl’s body. She began to whimper.
The boy reached without looking and squeezed her shoulder. The crying ceased, replaced by a smattering of snotty hiccups.
The red light watched. Fixed. Indifferent.
Time passed, unmarked by any further movement.
The whimpers soon returned. This time, the boy didn’t bother to reach.
Suddenly, a loud bang broke the stillness.
Two pairs of eyes darted, nervously probing the impenetrable gloom.
The noise repeated, followed by a shriek of metal.
Instinctually, the boy and girl drew closer together.
The rasping clatter grew, echoing off the ancient stone walls.
A shadow, blacker than the surrounding dark, materialized overhead. Descended.
The boy and girl watched, breathless, their fingers interlocked.
The shadow took form—a bucket. Wooden, bound with frayed rope, and splintered along its sides. It lowered steadily on a thick metal chain.
The bucket lurched to a stop. Dangled five feet from the floor.
The boy stood. Cautiously peered over the rim.
Inside was a hunk of stale bread, already wilting in the damp, fetid air.
The prisoners attacked the loaf ravenously. Devoured the paltry meal in seconds.
“I’m still hungry,” the girl whispered.
The boy shook his head.
With a squeal, the pail began to ascend. Angrily, the boy lashed out with both fists, sending the bucket arcing and spinning as it rose.
“What do you want with us!?” the boy bellowed. “Let us out of here!”
A chuckle echoed from somewhere high above.
The girl began to weep.
The bucket swung its way skyward. Disappeared into the gloom.
The red light gleamed.
In moments, all was dark and silent once more.
What I’d like from you is the truth, Miss Brennan.”
The defense attorney’s gravelly voice boomed inside the courtroom.
A jolt of adrenaline tore through me.
My mind had wandered. Impossible, I know, given the circumstances. But a second hour of questioning was taking its toll.
And this pompous toolbag showed no signs of winding down.
I cleared my throat. Shifted on the witness stand.
“Could you repeat the question, sir?” Stalling for time.
Parrish sighed dramatically. “Again?”
Parrish sneered, doubling his already abundant collection of chins. No doubt he thought me rattled.
Honestly, I was just tired. Tired, and incredibly on edge.
I had to watch every single word.
“Do you need a break, Miss Brennan?” Crossing his arms, Parrish nodded toward the district attorney’s table. “Perhaps a chance to get your story straight with counsel?”
“Objection!” Nell Harris shot to her feet, suit jacket flapping, her ice-blue eyes radiating anger. “Mr. Parrish is impugning the witness before the jury! His false, incendiary comment must be stricken from—”
Judge Felix DeMerit raised a placating hand. “Sustained, Ms. Harris.”
Afternoon sunlight slanted through the tall windows behind his lofty bench, reflecting from his liver-spotted scalp.
“Watch yourself, Counsel.” DeMerit glared at Parrish over the rims of his old-fangled reading glasses. “Miss Brennan is a minor, and not the party on trial here. Make your case, but she shall be accorded proper treatment. Am I understood?”
“Of course, Your Honor.” Stroking his scraggly beard, Parrish aimed for contrite. Aimed, and failed. “My sincerest apologies to both Miss Brennan and the Court.”
Whispers swirled inside the cavernous room, Charleston’s largest chamber of justice. Though camera crews had been barred from the chamber—due to the presence of minors as witnesses—dozens of other media members packed the gallery. The remaining seats were filled by government officials, police functionaries, members of the Bar, and the city’s elite. Armed bailiffs lined the aisles and walls, and double-manned every door.
Charleston hadn’t seen a trial like this in years, nor dealt with a crime remotely as sensational. Everyone with enough pull to wrangle access had squeezed onto one of the long wooden benches.
To watch me.
The fourteen-year-old schoolgirl who’d outsmarted a psychopath.
It was Monday, the first day of the year’s fourth month.
A local blogger had already dubbed me “April Fool.”
“The jury shall disregard the last comment made by Mr. Parrish.” Judge DeMerit swiveled to face me. “Do you need a short break, Miss Brennan? This isn’t an endurance contest, it’s a court of law.”
I wasn’t. Not even close. But I wanted this nightmare over ASAP.
Despite the courtroom’s subarctic temperature, my sweat glands were starting to churn full tilt. I was thankful my Bolton Prep blazer was a deep navy blue.
Pit stains do not increase credibility.
I fiddled with my ponytail before remembering Harris’s advice: Don’t fidget. Sit up straight. Address your answers directly to the jury. Try not to lose your cool.
So far, I was struggling on all counts.
I hoped my face wasn’t paler than my usual Irish white. And that freckles didn’t really multiply when you lied, as my mother had warned when I was little.
If true, I’d soon be covered head to foot.
A quick glance at the jury. All twelve were eyeballing me.
Was that pity in their eyes? Skepticism? Boredom?
I couldn’t tell. Wasn’t sure I wanted to know.
Just get through this. Ben did. So can I.
My gaze flicked to the gallery, though I knew Ben wasn’t there. Couldn’t be. By rule, one witness can’t be present for the testimony of another. To avoid collusion, I think, though it’s a stupid rule—if people want to lie, they’re going to lie. Period.
Because Ben and I were definitely lying. Some.
There was no way around it.
We couldn’t tell the whole truth. Not without exposing what we were. Revealing the hidden powers we possessed. Announcing our warped DNA to the public.
Putting our lives at risk.
Not gonna happen.
Inadvertently, my eyes drifted to the one spot I’d avoided since taking the stand.
Another set was staring back.
No welcome there.
Only anger. Oh yes, plenty of that.
The Gamemaster beamed pure hatred from his seat at defense counsel’s table. He wore a cheap gray suit and a pair of “innocent man” glasses. But the fake plastic lenses failed to mask his palpable rage. I nearly gasped at its intensity.
Had he been glaring at me the whole time? Couldn’t everyone see he was crazy?
I tore my eyes away, searched for a more comfortable landing spot.
My father manned the first seat of the front row, his mop of curly brown hair disheveled by constant worrying with his fingers. Kit looked equal parts incensed, fretful, and supportive. Catching my eye, he gave me a firm nod and flashed a thumbs-up.
I exhaled slowly. At least one person was in my corner.
I knew this day was killing him—Kit had made it abundantly clear that he didn’t like my being called as a witness. He didn’t want me in the same room as that monster.
But Harris had been adamant—Ben and I were the keys to a conviction. Uncomfortable as testifying might be, I had no intention of letting the Gamemaster go free.
Side note. I wasn’t speaking to Ben. Hadn’t since the hurricane.
Not now. Focus.
I spotted Hi and Shelton, sitting beside Kit. Relaxed a fraction more.
Those two had been spared this ordeal—Harris thought two eyewitnesses were sufficient, and Ben and I were the obvious choices. Shelton had nearly passed out in relief, but I suspect Hi was disappointed. That boy loves a show.
They sat side by side, wearing matching Bolton uniforms—white button-up shirts, maroon ties, tan pants, and navy sport jackets adorned with griffin crests. Hi was wearing his blazer properly, rather than his usual inside out.
Even Hiram Stolowitski was taking this seriously.
Noticing my glance, Shelton nodded encouragement, his thick, black-framed glasses bouncing on his nose.
Hi winked. Raised and shook both fists. Then beat his flabby chest like a gorilla.
Okay, maybe not too seriously.
“I’ll try again.” Parrish adopted an expression of long-suffering patience, tossing a quick glance at the jury to measure the effect of his performance.
“You claim that five of you—” Parrish turned to squint at Hi and Shelton, before returning his gaze to me, “—were lured to and trapped inside a basement by my client. Correct?”
“This group included Mr. Benjamin Blue?”
Parrish pivoted to face the jury. “That would be the same Ben Blue who has already admitted complicity in these crimes.”
I sat up straighter. “Ben only helped before The Game turned dangerous. He didn’t know what the Gamemaster really had planned. Once Ben did, he tried to stop—”
“So he claims,” Parrish interrupted. “How very convenient for him. And for his deal with the prosecution.”
“Objection!” Harris popped up once more, looking daggers at Parrish. “Withdrawn.” Parrish crossed to his table and picked up a thick file marked Exhibit B. “Miss Brennan, in a statement to police you asserted that a massive steel grate trapped your group inside a ventilation room.”
Not a question. I didn’t respond.
Parrish smirked at my small defiance. “Yet when police arrived three days later, they found the way clear, and the metal grate lying broken and to the side. The report described its condition—thick steel bars, twisted, with some pieces snapped clear in half.”
My perspiration waterfall resumed its flow.
Parrish adopted a quizzical expression. “Can you explain that?”
“Explain what?” Lame response, even to my partial ears.
“You claim that this grate was a sinister trap, designed and constructed by my client.” Parrish moved in closer, like a buzzard circling a carcass. “So how did it end up mangled on the basement floor?”
“We managed to escape.” I couldn’t look at the jury.
“You managed to escape?” Parrish’s brows rose theatrically. “This inescapable prison? How, pray tell?”
I swallowed. “We dislodged the grate from the wall.”
“You dislodged it?” His eyes widened with exaggerated wonder. “A five-hundred-pound metal barrier, composed of interlinking steel bars?”
“That’s right.” Curtly spoken. His habit of repeating my answers was beyond irritating. “There were four of us pounding on the thing. It was stressful. We must’ve had enough adrenaline pumping to pull it off.”
Parrish snorted. “That’s pretty darn impressive, to snap steel bars like matchsticks.”
I felt blood rush to my face. Hoped the jurors didn’t notice.
My explanation sounded sketchy, even to me. But I couldn’t reveal how we’d really done it. Couldn’t tell the jury we have freaking superpowers.
You see, fellow citizens, my friends and I were recently exposed to a canine supervirus, and have developed tremendous physical and super-sensory capabilities as a result. We ripped that grate from the wall by unlocking wolf-like powers hidden in our DNA.
I wasn’t sure which would happen first—the Gamemaster’s acquittal, or my committal.
The jury stirred. I saw doubt creep onto several faces.
Parrish moved in for the kill. “Isn’t it more likely that you found that big ol’ grate already lying on the ground? Where it’d been resting, broken, for years? That your friend Ben Blue took you straight to it, as part of his dangerous prank?”
“Of course not!”
Parrish’s voice sharpened, his drawl disappearing. “You were never trapped in that room, were you, Miss Brennan?”
Enough defense. Play offense.
“Maybe the bolts were poorly seated,” I said firmly.
Parrish paused, assessing my words. The Gamemaster shifted in his seat.
I pushed ahead. “Police investigators found three-inch steel bolts scattered on the electrical room floor. Look in that report you’re holding—they matched a series of drill holes surrounding the ventilation room’s doorframe. Keep reading, and you’ll see where CPD confirmed that those holes were newly excavated, and that the runners flanking the doorway had recently been greased.”
Parrish held up an index finger. “That’s neither here nor—”
I cut him off. “CPD also confirmed that the quarter-inch screws securing the steel bars were purchased locally, only a month before the incident. Same with the grate’s track-locking mechanism. And please reread the statement of Max Fuller, a freelance welder in Myrtle Beach. He recalls building the wheel assembly just six months ago. The DA sent you that one, correct?”
Parrish’s face purpled. “Listen here, missy. I’ll ask the questions.”
“I thought you wanted a response?” I shot back. “Evidence proves the grate was recently constructed and attached to the basement wall. It slid down from the ceiling and locked us in. As its maker intended.”
Parrish struggled for words. He waved a hand weakly, attempting to regain control of the exchange. I declined to let him.
“Why did the grate fail?” I shrugged, then turned my most earnest face on the jury. “I honestly can’t say for sure, but my friends and I are only alive because it did. It was a gift from God. And for that reason, I don’t question my good fortune.”
Smiles. Nods. I noticed the Gamemaster seething in his chair.
“Who knows?” I met his glare directly. “Maybe the whole apparatus was poorly constructed.”
“Liar!” The Gamemaster slammed both fists on the defense table. “I built it perfectly!”
The courtroom froze in stunned silence.
“The Game was flawless!” Spittle flew from the Gamemaster’s mouth as he suddenly sprang up and vaulted over the table. “You cheated! You had help somehow!”
Screams. Breaking glass. The sound of chairs overturning.
The Gamemaster bounded toward the witness stand, madness in his eyes.
Something stirred deep within me.
No! Not here!
Then a crush of bodies swarmed the Gamemaster. He disappeared under a pile of tan bailiffs’ uniforms, still struggling to reach me.
The gallery erupted in chaos.
Judge DeMerit pounded his gavel, but no one paid any attention. Mayhem engulfed the courtroom as more guards entered the well and flung themselves atop the enraged defendant.
Slowly, the officers regained control. Multiple sets of handcuffs appeared and were applied. Bailiffs began peeling off the dog-pile like layers of an onion.
And there, at the bottom of the scrum, was Kit.
He was panting like a marathoner, arms still wrapping the Gamemaster’s legs in a death grip. He’d clearly been first to react.
“This Court is in recess!” Judge DeMerit bellowed, still hammering away. “The witness is dismissed. Bailiffs, remove the jury and remand the defendant into custody.”
As some officers hustled the jurors from the room, more guards marched the now-silent Gamemaster through a rear door.
Harris sped to the stand and grabbed my hand, her short blond bob now as mussed as an abandoned bird’s nest. “Are you okay, Tory?”
I nodded, still too shaken to speak. Harris escorted me over to Kit, who was seated at the prosecution table, holding a napkin to his nose.
“Nice tackle.” Unsure what to do, I squeezed his shoulder.
“Missed my calling.” Kit rubbed the side of his face. “I’m a born linebacker.”
Shelton and Hi appeared at my side.
“Oh, man!” Shelton had both hands on his dome. He seemed winded, despite not having moved during the attack. “Things just got real in here.”
“I’ve said it before, Tory.” Hi shook his head in wonder. “You have a natural gift for pissing people off. And not just kinda mad. Like, lose-your-freaking-mind, rush-the-stand-in-open-court bonkers.”
My eyes rolled. “Thanks.”
Harris smoothed her suit with trembling hands. “We need to clear the courtroom.” Despite everything, I detected an undercurrent of excitement in her voice. “I’ll walk you out.”
I cast a final look back at the stand. Judge DeMerit stood frozen behind his bench, gavel in hand, a stunned expression on his face.
I hear that.
Kit gathered me with one arm and we hustled from the chamber.
Shelton pulled the portal shut behind us.
My heartbeat finally slowed.
I sank into a chair beside our bunker’s circular worktable.
What a day.
“I still can’t believe he came at you like that!” Hi, for the third time. He dropped into the space-age super-chair attached to our computer workstation. “That was a pure psycho move right there. What a loon.”
Hiram can be described as husky or chubby, depending on your generosity. A funny kid, with twinkling brown eyes and wavy brown hair, Hi has quick wits and a razor-sharp tongue. He’s also a science nut, and loves setting up complex experiments.
Hiram had ditched his school uniform, and was now sporting faded brown cargo shorts and a red Gremlins tee. He was obsessed with retro gear—half the time, I’d never even heard of the subjects.
Hi was always happy to explain. At length.
“Sorry I froze in there, Tor.” Shelton frowned as he shirt-wiped his glasses. “Not exactly my ‘One Shining Moment,’ huh?”
I waved off his apology. I knew Shelton hated how skittish he could be.
“Hey, I froze, too.” My skin crawled at the memory. “Let’s just hope the jury got a good look. And that Parrish doesn’t find some way to spin it. That man is a snake.”
“True story.” Shelton had changed into Bermuda shorts and a yellow polo. Both hung loosely on his skinny frame. Shelton’s dark chocolate skin mirrors that of his father, Nelson, but he’d inherited the soft facial features of his Japanese mother, Lorelei.
Our computer ace—a cyber-hacker extraordinaire—Shelton’s equally adept with codes and puzzles. An expert lock picker, too. He’s not, however, much of a thrill seeker. Shelton’s list of phobias is a mile long.
Shelton had turned sixteen in November, the second Viral to clear that lofty bar. He’d gotten his driver’s license just after Christmas, and now spent countless hours searching used-car websites, hunting the perfect ride.
I’d celebrated my fifteenth birthday six weeks before the trial. We’d kept the festivities low key—just Shelton and Hi, Kit and Whitney, a few gifts, and a three-course meal at Husk. I’d been more than satisfied, though why Hiram thought I’d want an Angry Birds T-shirt was still a mystery.
No Bolton Prep kids had been invited, not even Jason.
He’d understood. The last thing I wanted was to broadcast how young I was. How I’d skipped a grade, and was “so smart.” That hadn’t worked out for me in the past.
Maybe next year.
Ben hadn’t been invited to my birthday, either. That was harder.
But facts were facts: Ben had worked with the Gamemaster.
He’d known who that lunatic was, all along, and said nothing.
I hadn’t seen Ben much since his confession the night of the hurricane. Not that I’d wanted to see him. He’d turned seventeen in December, and I’d been invited to a celebratory dinner—along with Hi and Shelton—but didn’t attend.
How could I?
“You have to admit,” Hi said suddenly, “that wacko is pretty agile. He got, what, halfway to strangling you? Not a bad effort.”
Shelton blew out a breath. “When the Gamemaster started moving, I just couldn’t believe it. His lawyer must be going crazy right now.”
“He’ll have nightmares about Kit diving for his knees,” Hi added. “I’m pretty sure that was an illegal tackle. Chop block. Something.”
I was replaying the courtroom madness in my head when something brushed against my kneecaps. I glanced down. Spotted Cooper’s giant head poking from beneath the table.
The wolfdog pawed at my lap, his deep blue eyes locking onto mine. He could usually sense when I was feeling troubled.
Part of our unique bond? Or just a pet’s intuition? Who knew.
“Hello, dog face.” I scratched behind his gray-brown ears.
The four of us were holed up inside our clubhouse, an ancient Civil War bunker at the northern tip of Morris Island, the middle-of-nowhere barrier isle on which our families lived. Hidden deep inside a sand hill overlooking the Atlantic, the remote dugout was practically invisible to the outside world.
I felt safe there. Mainly because no one else knew the bunker existed.
Except Ben, of course.
I pushed the thought away.
Morris Island is essentially off the grid, an empty stretch of hills, fields, and cattail-covered dunes that forms the southern half of the entrance to the Charleston Harbor. The entire four square miles is one parcel, owned by the Loggerhead Trust, which preserves it in a mostly undeveloped state.
Only one modern structure exists on Morris—the small townhouse complex where we all live. A single road connects our neighborhood to the outside world—a one-lane, unmarked strip of blacktop winding south through grassy meadows before crossing to Folly Island.
Our tiny community is one of the most isolated in the Lowcountry. We live in virtual exile from the rest of Charleston. Even most locals think Morris is uninhabited.
The Loggerhead Trust also owns the townhouse complex, and leases its ten identical units to employees working at the Loggerhead Island Research Institute, one of the most advanced veterinary research facilities on the planet.
Kit and I have one. Which makes sense, since Kit is not only LIRI’s director, but also the founder and manager of the trust.
The Stolowitski and Devers clans each have a unit—Hi’s dad is the institute’s chief lab technician; Shelton’s dad is IT director, while his mother is a vet tech working in Lab One. Ben’s father, Tom Blue, operates the institute’s shuttle boat, Hugo, and lives in the last unit on the right. Ben splits time between there and his mother’s place across the bay in Mount Pleasant.
“Has anyone cycled the batteries lately?” Shelton asked.
“Yeppers.” Hi was booting the iMac. “Did it yesterday. We’re good to go.”
Once a key outpost protecting the city from naval attack, our bunker had been forgotten by the world. At least, until my friends and I discovered it while tracking down a stray Frisbee.
Things had changed quite a bit since that day.
At first the dugout had been little more than a dark, drafty hill cave, empty but for a dangerous mine entrance and a splintery wooden bench. But as a result of our adventure chasing the legendary she-pirate Anne Bonny, we’d acquired some funds and put them to good use.
Cash—and backbreaking effort—had transformed the bunker into something special. Meticulously up-fitted, and jammed with the latest technology, our clubhouse now had enough juice to land a space shuttle.
Indoor-outdoor carpet covered the floor, and a clever retractable window sealed the wall-length cannon slit overlooking the ocean. The interior was decorated with sleek modular furniture—circular drafting table, matching chairs, cabinet, bookshelf, and our totally kick-ass computer workstation.
Hi had demanded and received a mini-fridge. The old wooden bench still ran beneath the window, but had been sanded, polished, and stained. A quartet of cheery floor lamps manned the corners.
Our largest purchase, by far, had been a solar-powered generator. Getting the bulky-yet-delicate gadget delivered—and hauled out, undetected—had been a nightmare. But we’d somehow pulled it off, installing the four-panel array in the scrub grass just above the bunker’s entrance.
“Stupid wireless is on the fritz.” Hi rose and stepped into the bunker’s second chamber. Fumbled for the light. That room was always dark—we’d permanently sealed the cannon slit and boarded over the collapsed mineshaft snaking from its rear.
Bundled cables dangled from metal shelves against the wall, each packed with hardware. Wireless routers. Servers. Blade drives. AV equipment. A dozen other high-tech components. The bottom rack housed a row of industrial-sized rechargeable batteries.
Coop followed Hi, eyes alert to his every move. The room’s far corner doubled as the wolfdog’s private lounge: Kong doggie bed, food and water dispensers, and a half-dozen antlers, bones, and slobber-covered chew toys scattered on the floor.
“Relax, Cujo.” Hi reset a power strip on the upper shelf. “Just tripping the modem. Your kingdom remains undisturbed.”
Coop walked to his bed, circled twice, then curled up and went to sleep.
Hi returned to the main room and plopped back into his chair.
“What was the problem?” I asked.
“Network was out of whack.” He avoided my eye. “Ben might’ve stopped by and tried surfing the net. He always forgets the password. I fixed it.”
Shelton walked to the window and peered down. “The mooring ropes have been moved. He probably came by yesterday.”
I didn’t comment.
Outside our hideout, a narrow path knifed down the hillside to a tiny cove hidden among the rocks. Shielded by a pair of rugged stone outcroppings, both path and cove were hidden from view by sea. Within the bay was an ancient sunken post, perfect for mooring a vessel away from prying eyes.
Ships passed night and day, entering and exiting the harbor, their occupants never imagining that a high-tech nerve center was tucked away inside that hill.
The remodel had taken weeks, cost thousands, and stretched the limits of our abilities at subterfuge. But the results were worth it.
And, thankfully, Hurricane Katelyn had spared our lair.
I’d been a nervous wreck while riding out the storm at my great-aunt Tempe’s house in Charlotte. A full week had passed before we could finally return.
Katelyn had pummeled Charleston with sustained winds of over 130 mph. Our island had gotten shellacked—the storm even knocked out the small bridge to Folly.
With less than thirty residents on Morris, fixing that particular span wasn’t high on the county’s priority list. In the end, Kit elected to have the repairs done privately, with LIRI funds. Anything to get us all home.
We’d weatherproofed the bunker as best we could, dismantling the solar array and hauling it inside—a backbreaking process I hoped never to repeat. But we’d had no clue whether the centuries–old hill cave would survive a Category 4 tempest.
But the gods had been kind—the townhouses were mostly unharmed, and our hideout had survived with nothing more than some mild flooding.
“Is the trial almost over?” Hi’s question brought me back. “This drama-in-real-life is cutting into my TV time.”
I shrugged. “The DA isn’t sure what Parrish will do next. I mean, his client just went psycho in front of the jury. Harris is worried the judge might declare a mistrial.”
“Mistrial? So you’d have to do it all over again?” Shelton’s eyes widened as he took the seat across from me. “But the Gamemaster practically confessed! What a nightmare.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself.
“Ben will freak if he has to testify twice,” Hi said. “Parrish was way harder on him than you, Tor. He tried to make it look like Ben was responsible for everything.”
I glanced at the window bench. Where Ben always sat.
Had always sat.
Before he betrayed us.
My eyes jerked away. I didn’t like thinking about it.
Hi and Shelton had forgiven Ben almost immediately, but I couldn’t. To me, his betrayal was still too raw. Ran too deep.
Plus, I wasn’t ready to deal with the other stuff between us.
He’d confessed something else that night. A secret I kept to myself, even now.
Ben had done it all to impress me. He wanted to be more than just friends.
Even five months later, I didn’t know how to feel about that. About any of it.
So I did what I do best when it comes to boys—avoid the topic.
Hi must’ve read my thoughts.
“Ben didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said quietly. “Not the bad parts. He wouldn’t have done that to us, Tory. You know that.”
I didn’t respond.
Maybe I agreed, but it didn’t change how I felt.
How can I ever trust him again?
Ben, one of my closest friends. The boy I’d gone to school with every day, and hung out with for hours afterward. A member of my pack. A Viral.
Ben, who was practically family. In some ways, even closer.
Ben had been kicked out of Bolton Prep for his role in the Gamemaster scandal. That’s why he mostly stayed with his mother now. Myra’s Mount Pleasant apartment is much closer to Ben’s new school, Wando High.
Ben’s expulsion wasn’t fair. Even I could admit that. But when is life fair?
There was nothing fair about Mom getting killed.
Ben was gone, and we couldn’t change it.
Closing my eyes, I tried to banish the topic.
And felt a tingle in the corner of my mind. A slight . . . pull. Barely perceptible, like a mild ocean current. A gentle breeze of Viral awareness, tickling the recesses of my brain even though my powers were switched off.
I’d experienced it a half-dozen times since the hurricane. Most recently in court that morning. The sensation came and went without warning—I could neither summon it, nor capture it once it surfaced.
And lately, the effect was getting stronger.
Which worried me.
Was this some lingering psychological remnant? Post-traumatic stress? A harmless echo of the measures we’d taken while fighting the Gamemaster, soon to fade?
Or was it the harbinger of a more serious, permanent change in my psyche? The first symptom of opening a door that, once unlocked, can never be fully closed again.
The feeling escalated, taunting my conscious mind. It was maddening, being right on the cusp, yet unable to grasp it at all. I nearly ground my teeth in frustration.
Calm down. Let it come to you.
“Tory?” Shelton was eyeing me strangely. “You okay?”
Hi waved a hand before my face. “Anyone home? Got that bad mojo working?”
Ignoring them both, I slowed my breathing. Closed my eyes, and tried to wrap my mind in the strange sensation. Delve into its essence. Keep the slippery vibe from fading away.
Something slid into focus.
Suddenly, I could feel Coop’s presence, though he was sprawled on his doggie bed in the other room. A similar awareness extended toward Shelton and Hi. It went beyond merely sensing their locations. The vibe felt like . . . kinship. A strange knowing.
I could sense the Virals in a way I can’t explain.
Hi. Shelton. Coop. Even Ben, far away.
But you’re not flaring.
How was that possible?
By now, you’re probably wondering what I’m talking about. Here’s the deal.
Last year, my friends and I were infected by a supervirus, a vicious little pathogen created by Dr. Marcus Karsten, the former director of LIRI and my dad’s old boss. Hoping to strike it rich with a new vaccine, Karsten combined DNA from two different strains of parvovirus, accidentally creating a third.
Major problem: This newborn germ was contagious to humans. My friends and I caught it while rescuing Cooper, whom Karsten was using as a test subject.
Once inside us, the ruthless bug rewrote our genetic code, slipping canine sequences into our human double helixes.
The sickness struck first. Headaches. Fevers. Nightmares. Blackouts.
Strange transformations followed, as the microscopic invader shuffled chromosomes like playing cards.
We evolved, or regressed. Became something new, yet ancient.
The wolf became a part of us. And something more.
We learned how to flare.
I still can’t describe it very well. My mind warps and snaps. Powerful forces rack my body. Primal instincts resonate in my subconscious.
Then my powers unleash.
Every sense blasts into hyperdrive. Hearing. Sight. Scent. Touch. Taste. Each becomes sharper than humanly possible. My muscles pulse with canine speed and agility. I practically smolder with energy. And my eyes blaze with golden light—an unfortunate side effect we have to conceal.
After nearly a year, the effects don’t seem to be fading. Quite the opposite.
The wolf now lives inside our cellular blueprint. Welding us into a pack.
We’re Viral. Genetic freaks. A brand-new species.
And we don’t have the slightest idea what to do about it.
What if the sickness returns? Or the mutations grow more extreme? Could the powers simply vanish one day? Or will they become too intense, our wolf traits overcoming their human counterparts?
With Karsten gone, I’d thought any chance of finding answers had vanished along with him. Then we discovered his flash drive. A lifeline in the dark.
Small problem: We can’t access the information on it. The stupid files are encrypted.
“What’s goin’ on, Tory?” Shelton’s voice dragged me back to the present. He was tugging an earlobe, a nervous habit. “Did it happen again?”
The sensation wavered. Began to slip away.
“Explain what you’re feeling,” Hi suggested. “Talk it out.”
“I can’t explain. I wish I could. Ever since the storm, this odd sensitivity randomly comes and goes, like a memory just out of reach. Or a song lyric I can’t place.”
Hi snorted. “Too bad we can’t Shazam your head.”
“You get this vibe without flaring?” Shelton pressed. “Just out of the blue?”
Then, on impulse, I tried something.
Power burned through me.
Fire in my veins. Ice down my spine. A thousand sparking needles, tattooing my skin.
The flare burst to life like a supernova, kicking my senses into overdrive.
Vitality poured into my muscles. The wolf came out to play.
“Hey, I’m in.” Molten gold exploded in Hiram’s eyes. His chest heaved as he struggled to catch his breath.
“Playing with fire,” Shelton muttered, but in seconds the same glow ignited behind his irises. Hands shaking, he removed his glasses and set them on the table—while flaring, Shelton’s vision was as sharp as a laser.
Though our eyes gleamed with equal intensity, our powers weren’t uniform. The mutations varied slightly with each of us. Why? Who knows. Add it to the list of things we don’t understand.
Hiram can see with spectacular precision, far outstripping the rest of us. Shelton has the best ears. Ben becomes strongest and fastest. Me? A little weirder.
When flaring, my nose can sniff out almost anything, even other people’s emotions. Anger. Fear. Panic. Worry. Envy. Each has a specific odor, if you can catch the scent and know what to look for.
My theory involves hormones and pheromones, but, in truth, I’m not sure. My brain just makes these leaps, and I’ve learned not to question them.
It does work. After the events of the last year, I no longer doubt my instincts.
But that’s not the apex of what Virals can do.
When in close proximity, our powers become extrasensory.
Telepathic. Psychic. Whatever term you prefer.
During the hurricane, somehow, I shattered the mental walls separating us, allowing the Virals to share thoughts as easily as words. No: more than that. We could communicate without words, tapping into one another’s senses, and sending fully formed ideas, images, and emotions. Even seeing through one another’s eyes.
In those singular moments, our minds had melded.
Five beings, blending to form one unified consciousness. Completely. Seamlessly. The pack became whole. Our powers, fully unleashed.
So—bonded, hearts and minds—we’d gone hunting. And bagged our prey.
The feeling was amazing. Breathtaking. And, honestly, terrifying.
Since that day in the storm, however, I’d been unable to duplicate the complete telepathic effect. No matter how many flares I burned, or how hard I tried with Hi and Shelton, even Coop, I couldn’t force the same perfect union. I was stuck.
You need Ben. The pack must be whole.
I shoved the thought away. Though I knew it was true.
These special talents have saved our lives more than once, but we struggle to control them. Every time I think I’ve mastered my abilities, I discover how little I really know.
As my flare unfolded, I tested boundaries, seeking the strange sensation I’d felt moments before.
Coop fired through the doorway, fur bristling.
Our eyes met. He settled on his haunches, watching me.
Hello, I sent.
Sister-friend, Coop responded.
Something skipped inside my brain. The connection wavered. I tried to focus my concentration, but the tenuous link refused to solidify.
Ben. He’s too far away. Our pack is fractured.
No. More than that.
Lately, my powers had seemed . . . off. Out of sync, as if they’d somehow slipped from their usual groove. Tiny disturbances had been cropping up for weeks.
I closed my eyes. Tried to focus.
Suddenly, pressure built inside my chest. The air leaked from my lungs. As I struggled to catch my breath, an electric shiver crawled along my spine.
What in the world?
My flare blipped from existence. The room spun at its abrupt departure.
Coop whined, cocked his head.
“What was that?” The light vanished from Shelton’s eyes. “My flare just snuffed out like a candle. And things . . . things don’t feel right.”
“Same here.” I blinked rapidly, steadying my head with shaking hands. “I didn’t release my flare, either. It felt like a fridge was dropped on me, then my powers just . . . disappeared.”
“Ditto.” Hi was red-faced, his flare gone. “No es bueno.”
My brow furrowed. “Something seems wrong. Like the powers have changed somehow.”
Shelton slipped his glasses onto his nose. “Changed how?”
“I don’t know. But we’d better figure it out. Quickly.”
“Rain check?” Hi nodded toward the clock. “As much as I love making myself dizzy, we’ve got a fun-filled day coming up tomorrow. School should be a blast.”
I winced. “I’d been blocking that out.”
“Unhealthy.” Hi dug a string cheese from the mini-fridge. “Gotta face your fans.”
Since foiling the Gamemaster, we Morris Islanders had become something of a sensation at Bolton Prep. The trial had reignited the hysteria, and today’s events were sure to be front-page news. I wasn’t looking forward to another day of being gawked at in the halls.
“I can’t wait for this to be over.” Gathering my things. “I hate the spotlight.”
“You said it,” Shelton agreed. “Invisibility is way better than notoriety.”
“You two are nuts.” Hi raised the roof. “Go big or go home, I say.”
“Sure, Hi.” I whistled for Coop to follow. “Right now, let’s just go home.”
I halted at the steps to my townhouse.
“I have to go in, don’t I?” My shoulders slumped at the prospect.
“You can crash in my garage,” Hi offered. “There’s a pop-tent in there somewhere. Heads up, though—our cat uses it as his emergency litter box. It smells pretty bad.”
My nose crinkled. “Charming.”
The last rays of daylight were fading as the sun melted into Schooner Creek. The air remained sticky and warm, one of those classic spring nights in the Lowcountry. I’d probably sleep with my window open, if the bullfrogs weren’t croaking too loudly. So different from the still-frigid gloom of my native Massachusetts.
The walk back from the bunker had taken twenty minutes, mainly because we hadn’t hurried. It’s an easy stroll down the beach, and you can’t get lost. Our block is the only building for miles.
Kit had recently dubbed our neighborhood Exile Acres. The name stuck.
“Later, peeps.” Hi fumbled for keys as he climbed to his front door. “I’m gonna watch Battleship at nine if you guys wanna live chat. Fair warning though—it looks absolutely terrible. Like, shockingly, horrifically bad.” With that, he disappeared inside.
“Bye.” I didn’t move.
A gentle breeze swept off the Atlantic, carrying the bitter tang of sea salt and stirring the azaleas Mrs. Stolowitski had planted along the front walkway. Out over the dunes, fireflies bobbed and winked like floating candles, as a legion of crickets began their nightly serenade.
On Morris, you could close your eyes and pretend the civilized world didn’t exist.
So peaceful. Like a land out of time.
Coop nudged my leg. I reached down and absently stroked his back.
I can’t stand out here forever. Or can I?
“That bad, huh?” Shelton had paused to watch me from his stoop. “I thought ya’ll worked things out?”
“It’s horrible,” I grumbled. “I can stand Whitney in small doses, but suddenly I’ve got a lifetime supply. The hits never stop.”
“Good luck with that.” Shelton waved once, and was gone.
More seconds ticked by.
Coop yipped. Danced a circle. He took a few steps toward the dock, turned, and barked twice.
“I hear ya, dog breath.” Shaking my head. “But we’re already late. Hiding will only make it worse.”
With a piteous sigh, I trudged up to the front door.
Slipping inside, I climbed the three steps to the main level. Before me stretched our living room, dining room, kitchen and breakfast nook, all lined up in a row. To my left, a narrow staircase descended to Kit’s tiny home office and a single-car garage.
Up one flight were two bedrooms, each with its own bathroom. Thank God.
The top floor, once Kit’s awesome man cave, had recently been transformed into a formal sitting room. Don’t get me started. Double doors opened onto a spacious roof deck with a spectacular ocean view.
Nice digs, if you can handle all the stairs.
Though I barely recognized the place anymore.
Our furniture used to be strictly Ikea. Simple, durable catalog gear to make any yuppie proud. Those days were over.
Delicate antiques now dominated the common areas. Gilded mahogany side tables. Lacquered chests and brazilwood bureaus. A tassel-trimmed silk ottoman. Pointy, upholstered chairs.
At times, I wasn’t sure where I should sit, or what I could touch.
The fancy pieces looked so . . . uncomfortable. Breakable. The bizarrely asymmetrical coffee table seemed destined to collapse at any moment. A pair of living room lamps resembled medieval torture devices.
Worst of all, I’d been evicted from the bedroom facing the ocean. It was the larger chamber of the two—okay, fine, it was the master—but I’d been its sole tenant since joining Kit on Morris. It was mine.
No longer. As Kit explained, the bigger bedroom was better suited to handle a double occupancy. And, with the back room all to myself, I’d still have the most space out of anyone.
Blah blah blah.
I’d been unceremoniously bumped to Kit’s smaller, rear-facing cell. Thanks so much.
Why all the changes?
The reason was sashaying around my kitchen at that very moment.
Whitney Blanche DuBois. My father’s ditzy gal-pal.
The blond bombshell had become a permanent resident at Casa de Kit.
My own private nightmare.
Hurricane Katelyn had shown less mercy to Whitney’s property than to ours. A massive oak had reorganized her kitchen, after crashing through the two stories above it. Pouring rain and gale-force winds had done the rest.
Homeless, Whitney had moved in with us while her place underwent repairs.
Five months later, she showed no signs of ever leaving.
“Tory, darling!” Whitney cooed in her sugary Southern drawl. “I thought we’d discussed being home before sunset. It’s not safe for a girl to wander alone after dark.”
Coop slunk past me and beelined for his food dish. Whitney tracked him from the corner of her eye.
Make no mistake—wolfdog and bimbo did not get along.
Whitney considered Coop a wild animal infesting the property. Coop considered Whitney a meddling interloper disturbing the peace. I backed the wolfdog’s take.
“Sorry,” I mumbled. “Lost track of time.”
“Don’t talk to your shoes, sweetheart.” Whitney tsked. “A proper lady prides herself on making firm eye contact.”
I fought an urge to flip her the bird. “Thanks for the tip.”
Whitney desperately wanted for us to be friends. But her personality and priorities made it all but impossible. I’d tried my hardest to like her. And failed. Repeatedly.
It is what it is. The woman doesn’t get me, and I can’t fathom her.
But Kit adored his Barbie girl, so I kept those thoughts to myself. As far as he knew, the bimbo and I were getting along okay.
Oh, sure. Everything’s just hunky-dory.
Kit’s an outstanding marine biologist, and a good dad, but he’s not the most perceptive guy on the planet. Or even top half. A fact I’d used to my advantage more than once.
You’re probably wondering about that.
I’d been living with Christopher “Kit” Howard for over a year, ever since my mother was killed in car accident. Broadside. Drunk driver. Mom never stood a chance.
The pain still surfaces unexpectedly. I’ll hear a Rolling Stones song, or see a ratty yellow futon, and boom, it all comes rushing back. A raw wound that never quite heals.
I try to hide the eruptions, but the guys can always tell. They do their best to support me even though it makes them uncomfortable. It’s very sweet, but teenage boys make lousy grief counselors. Same with Kit, though he’s getting better at it.
I’m working things out on my own. Seems easier that way.
If the accident hadn’t happened, I’d likely never have met my father.
A sad thought.
Kit and I got off to a rocky start. He’d had zero idea how to deal with the shattered, weepy teenage girl who’d dropped into his life like an H-bomb. But slowly, we’d learned to trust each other. To peacefully coexist, and even enjoy each other’s company.
We’ll never have a “normal” father-daughter relationship—I call him Kit, and decided to keep my last name—but we weren’t strangers anymore. Real progress had been made since those first awkward weeks.
Until he’d added the ditz to our household, anyway.
And Whitney’s dreadful presence wasn’t the only change.
As if making up for prior negligence, Kit now watched me like a hawk. That’ll happen when your teenage daughter manages to get stalked, attacked, shot at, or arrested every few months.
What can I say? Being Viral is like golfing in a thunderstorm.
Trouble seems to find me.
“That you, sport?” Kit emerged from the kitchen wearing an apron that said “Hail to the Chef.” The mind weeps. “Good walk?”
“Yes.” I swept past Whitney. “It’s getting really nice outside.”
Kit knew my friends and I had a secret clubhouse, but he didn’t pry. Which was fortunate. The bunker’s true scope would blow his mind.
Tossing my bag onto one of the awful chairs, I flopped on the living room couch, the lone piece of furniture to survive Extreme Makeover: Whitney Edition.
I pretended not to notice as Whitney retrieved my bag and hung it by the door.
Whitney was a compulsive straightener. I don’t know why it bugged me, but it did.
Whitney walked over and kissed Kit’s cheek. “I was just telling Tory how it’s not wise to walk alone after nightfall.”
“I learned a lot.” Straight-faced.
“Okay, who’s hungry?” Kit forced a smile. “Tory, set the table. Now, please.”
Sometimes I pitied my dad—he often walked on eggshells around the two women in his life.
You brought her here, pal. We were doing just fine before.
I laid out the flatware and took my usual seat. Whitney began distributing her latest masterpiece: chicken-fried steak, okra, mashed potatoes, and butter beans, everything slathered in thick, beefy gravy.
One point I’ll concede—Whitney is a phenomenal cook. Lights out. I can’t imagine how she maintained her figure, eating like that, but I was happy to be along for the ride. Her culinary prowess was the sole perk of sharing a roof.
“Tory!” Whitney flashed synthetically whitened teeth. “Now that you’ve debuted, have you thought about how you’d like to give back to the community? We’ll need to get you admitted first, but there are several interesting committee openings in the Mag League.”
I froze, mid-bite. “The what?”
“The Magnolia League.” Mascaraed lashes fluttered in surprise. “Surely you’ve heard?”
“Can’t say that I have.” Voice flat. I didn’t like where this was going.
Whitney turned disbelieving eyes on Kit. “The Magnolia League of Charleston is only the most exclusive young women’s service organization in the South. I’m sure all of your debutante friends have already joined.”
“My debutante friends? Who would they be, exactly?”
“I don’t understand.” Whitney cocked her head like a sparrow. “I’m referring to the wonderful group of young ladies with whom you shared your introduction. Why, you’re practically sisters now! Members of a debutante class are lifelong friends. You girls will be grouped together when you join the League.”
I’d thought this nonsense dead and buried. Apparently my debut was merely a prelude to a life sentence.
I tried to be diplomatic. “I’m not sure that’s a good fit for—”
“It’s a perfect fit. Tory, this is simply what you do as a member of polite society. It’s also a tremendous honor. Only daughters of the finest families are even considered for admission.” Whitney’s lips thinned. “Frankly, you’re lucky to still be invited, after this nasty court business.”
My jaw clenched. I fought an impulse to say something I’d regret. Whitney describing the Gamemaster’s trial as some kind of embarrassing inconvenience drove me bonkers.
“It’s completely up to you.” Kit gave me a hopeful look. “Might be fun?”
“You simply must continue with your charitable work.” Whitney practically whined.
“I’ll think about it.” Changing the subject. “Everything good at work, Kit?”
“What?” Kit lowered a forkful of mashed potatoes. “Oh, fine, fine. Business as usual. The hurricane damage has been repaired, and the monkeys seem unaffected. Overall, we were very lucky.”
“We need to pay better attention to the social side of things.” Whitney folded her napkin and placed in on her lap. “Your employees need diversions, living out here in the sticks.”
Meaning you do, you harridan.
“There’s much more to do in the city,” I said innocently. “When is your place due to be finished?”
“Not for weeks yet,” Whitney murmured.
Kit dodged my eye. “What diversions did you have in mind, Whitney?”
She perked up. Had been waiting for the question.
“We should host a block party. Right outside, on the front lawn. We could rent a white pavilion, tables and chairs, and serve barbeque and iced tea. Maybe have some games. Croquet. Or even badminton! And door prizes, of course.”
“Oh, of course,” I repeated.
Kit gave me a warning look.
Whitney clapped her hands, delighted by her own idea. “Doesn’t that sound wonderful? And LIRI should cover the entire cost. A gesture like that would show the neighbors how much you care about their well-being.”
“Great idea,” Kit said automatically. “You should organize it.”
Whitney positively beamed. “I’d be honored. Tory, you can help!”
I braced myself for the coming storm.
Downtown. Tuesday morning. 7:00 a.m.
Time to face the music.
Shelton, Hi, and I stepped off Hugo, exited the marina onto Lockwood Drive, and walked south to Broad Street. Moments later we reached Bolton Preparatory Academy’s majestic front gates.
I stopped. “Ugh.”
“Yep.” Hi adjusted his backpack. With no court appearance that morning, he was back to the inside-out jacket, with the blue lining exposed. “Gonna be wild.”
Shelton snorted. “By wild, you mean horribly awful, right?”
Bolton Prep is Charleston’s oldest and most prestigious private school. For well over a century, admission to its hallowed halls has been a coveted and expensive status symbol. Most students hail from the city’s wealthy elite.
My crew couldn’t have been more out of place.
As an incentive for LIRI employees living out on Morris Island, the institute provides tuition for their children to attend Bolton. Otherwise, we’d never set foot inside. And since the drive to campus takes over an hour, LIRI also provides Tom Blue’s daily shuttle service. All in all, not a bad deal.
Hi, Shelton, and I were on the backstretch of our sophomore year, my second at the academy. Our time there hadn’t been easy.
To most of our classmates we were aliens—unknowable foreign beings, dropped from the sky to spoil their lavish party. For a few, our presence was actually offensive. We had no place in their indulgent, privileged world.
Everyone knew we attended on scholarships. We’d been called “island refugees,” “boat kids,” even “peasants.” Rarely had a day passed without one of us getting picked on.
The three of us had identical schedules that year, so we watched one another’s backs.
“Safety in numbers” is a real thing.
Our course load was nearly all AP classes, which drew students from across Bolton’s different grade levels. The previous semester Ben had been in half our classes, too, despite being a junior. Obviously, he was no longer around. Sometimes it felt like a limb was missing.
For a group of middle-class, unapologetic science geeks, Bolton was a social minefield. The mocking began the first time I opened my locker, and found a Barbie doll dressed like a homeless woman. And when those same jokesters discovered that the “snotty ginger genius” was also the baby of the class, the sniping turned uglier.
Freshman year had been brutal. No other way to describe it. Only my Morris Island buddies had kept me from demanding a transfer. Depressingly, sophomore year hadn’t started much better.
But that was all out the window.
The Morris Island Three. That’s what they called us now.
Since the events of last fall, we’d practically become celebrities.
The Gamemaster saga had been headline news for months. Every infinitesimal detail of the case had been examined, debated, printed, broadcast, and blogged. There were seven Tumblr accounts dedicated to the trial alone.
Our classmates had learned what almost happened at the debutante ball. Most had been there that night, or had friends or family who’d attended. They’d learned that the “boat kids” had stopped a murderous psychopath. That those dirty “peasants” had saved their upper-class asses.
The effect was shocking.
Former tormentors now regarded us with something close to awe. Dozens of wide-eyed classmates—many who’d never glanced our way before—had personally thanked us for what we’d done. A few seemed too intimidated to even approach.
Sometimes the world flips upside down, then forgets to right itself.
Suddenly, every day at Bolton felt like that.
Which isn’t to say we’d become popular. The majority still avoided us, unable to bridge the gap from grudging respect to actual friendship. But the taunting had stopped. The pranks had been discontinued.
Fine by me.
Being left in peace was enough.
Our classmates’ change in attitude didn’t extend to Ben, however. They took his expulsion as irrefutable confirmation of his complicity in the Gamemaster’s schemes. Nothing could convince them otherwise. I’d stopped trying.
Shelton checked his watch. “Bell in five.”
“All right, you jackals.” Hi squared his shoulders. “Come and get some Hiram.”
They both looked to me. I nodded.
Hi pounded his chest—once, twice—then strode through the archway. Shelton and I followed him down the cobblestone path. Circling a cherub-capped fountain, we entered the quad and made for the mammoth granite lions flanking the school’s front steps.
Students filled the courtyard, chatting in groups among the benches and delicate rock gardens, soaking in the morning sunlight before first bell. The usual morning scene.
Maybe no one will care.
As we crossed the flower-lined plaza, conversation stopped.
Heads turned. Eyes followed. Whispers flew behind cupped hands.
Crap. The local TMZ was tuned in to us.
Hi’s head whipped this way and that. “They’re staring like we’re buck naked.”
“Keep moving,” Shelton hissed. “This is excruciating.”
“Just follow me.” Ignoring the gawkers, I hurried to the giant wooden doors and slipped inside. A deep breath. Then, face set to neutral, I fired down the hallway. AP Calculus was first period. I needed my book.
Rounding the first corner, my heart sank.
Jason Taylor was idling by my locker. Pretending not to be.
“Tory!” Jason flashed a grin. “I heard you did great yesterday. Did that guy really pull a knife on you?”
“Knife? What?” Argh. Worse than I thought.
“That’s the rumor outside. Didn’t sound too likely.”
Jason had the whole Nordic thing going. Ice-blue eyes. Pale skin. White-blond hair. His body was Thor-sized, too. Captain of our lacrosse team, Jason was a sick athlete.
He was also infatuated with me.
A problem that appeared to be getting worse.
These days, Jason seemed to pop up everywhere I went. I worried he’d planted a tracking chip on me, like a prized Labrador.
Don’t get me wrong—Jason’s a fantastic guy, and a true friend, one of the few non-Virals I could count on in a jam. He’d been instrumental in thwarting the Gamemaster, risking his life to help save others. That’s not something you forget.
Romantically, however, he just didn’t do it for me.
No tingle. No spark. Chemistry fail. I didn’t understand why, but there it was.
Jason spoke as I shuffled my books. “Did you know Chance was there?”
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