Excerpt: Chapter 5
I don’t want to answer any more uncomfortable questions, so I spend the rest of the night reading comic books in my room. The next thing I know, sunlight’s streaming through the blinds. Drool’s sliding down my chin. Lemon’s standing by his desk, holding a frying pan over a flaming trash can.
Instantly awake, I sit up. Scoot back. Keep both eyes on the fire.
“Relax,” Lemon says. “This one’s under control.”
This one? As opposed to all the others that weren’t?
“Class starts in ten minutes,” he adds.
“What class?” I manage.
“The schedule’s on your K-Pak. Your K-Pak’s on the desk.”
I watch the fire for another second, then slide out of bed and take what looks like an oversize iPhone from the desk. It resembles the device Annika had at dinner last night. It turns on immediately, and the screen fills with six pulsating blue words.
seamus hinkle, year one, semester one
“It can ID you by any part of your body,” Lemon says.
“Like fingerprinting?” I ask, watching the blue letters fade.
He slides his K-Pak from the pocket of his jeans. He holds it out so I can see the dark screen, then places it on the floor and presses on it with one bare big toe. The surface illuminates with a glowing imprint and six pulsating blue words.
lemon oliver, year one, semester one
“Is Lemon your real name?” I ask.
He doesn’t answer. He bends down, snatches up the device, and returns to the flaming trash can, which does appear to be under control.
While he cooks, I play with the mini computer. I touch a rotating envelope labeled k-mail, and the screen fills with a dozen or so unread messages. I open the one titled “Hinkle, S., Schedule.”
“Biology?” I read. “Math? Art?” These courses don’t sound any different from the ones I’d been taking at Cloudview Middle School.
As fast as my heart fell, it lifts again. Does this mean I’ll be going back to Cloudview Middle School? And that these courses are only to make sure I don’t fall too far behind?
The thought’s so encouraging that I find clean jeans and a T-shirt in my duffel bag and change my clothes. I even hang up the suit in my closet to keep it from wrinkling further, just in case there’s another reason to wear it later.
I’m straightening the white button-down shirt on a hanger when I remember the robot cuff links. They’re still missing. I’d asked members of the Kanteen cleaning crew if they’d happened to come across them, but they hadn’t. I don’t know how I could’ve lost them either, since I’d been fiddling with them only minutes before they’d disappeared, and I’d barely moved in my chair.
Done cooking, Lemon takes the trash can to the bathroom and turns on the water. I hurry across the room, grab the phone, and hit talk.
“Hoodlum Hotline,” a woman says. She sounds like the same one as yesterday.
“Hi, I’m calling to report a . . .” My voice trails off. What am I calling to report? “Um, I have—I had—these cuff links. They were a gift from my dad, and I was wearing them at dinner last night, but then they disappeared.”
“You were looking at them one minute and then in the next—poof! They were gone? Right before your eyes?”
Realizing how this sounds, I pause. “Pretty much.”
“So you think someone stole them?”
“What? No, I—”
“You’re reporting a theft?”
The bathroom’s silent now. Worrying that Lemon’s listening, I bring the receiver closer to my mouth, cup my hand around
“Seamus Hinkle,” the woman says loudly, as if dictating to someone else in the room with her. “Tattling in the first degree!”
There’s a click, and the line goes dead.
Lemon comes back into the room with the smoking trash can. He tosses his empty paper plate on top of its black, wet contents, grabs his backpack from the desk chair, and steps into his moccasins on his way to the door. “Later.”
“Wait.” I drop the phone to its base and dart around the room, gathering my sneakers and K-Pak, a notebook and pen. By the time I close and lock the door, Lemon’s already rounding a corner down the hall. “I’m coming!”
He doesn’t stop, but he does slow down. I catch up and together we leave the dorms and walk through the main courtyard. We don’t talk, and that’s fine by me, because I’m taking advantage of this time I didn’t think I’d have to breathe the fresh air, listen to the birds, admire the fall colors. Were leaves always so pretty? I’ll have to ask Mom the next time we speak.
“Have you talked to your parents since you got here?” I ask Lemon as we enter another building. This one has three floors. With its sleek, wooden exterior and shiny windows, it looks like some sort of futuristic ski lodge.
That’s all we have time for before he shuffles into a classroom. I follow. When he passes the rows of desks in favor of a couch at the back of the room, I find an empty desk in the second row. I’d sit in the first row to make a good impression, but no one else is, and
More kids enter the classroom. Most appear to be around my age, a few a year or two younger. They take their seats and unpack notebooks and pens. I wonder where they’re from, what they did to get here.
According to the schedule, class should begin at nine a.m. I watch the second hand go around the clock hanging above the door. At 8:59 my pulse quickens. At 8:59 and thirty seconds, my face warms. At 8:59 and fifty-five seconds, I wipe my forehead with my T-shirt sleeve.
As the second hand nears twelve, I brace for the shrill ringing of a bell and a stern adult throwing open the door and striding into the room. That’s how Mr. Carlton, my homeroom teacher back at Cloudview, starts the day, and he’s in charge of a class of normal, fairly well-behaved students. Who knows how serious a teacher of troubled youth will be? What if he yells? Or gives us eight hours of homework a night? Or—
The door opens. I hold my breath, but there’s no bell. There’s no stern, angry adult either. There’s only a tall teenager who looks like he just woke up.
“Hey,” he says.
I think he’ll take a seat with the rest of us, but instead he goes to the desk at the front of the room, plops into the chair, and yawns. I recognize him from Annika’s introductions last night; I think his name is Harold. He’s wearing faded jeans, an orange T-shirt with a white outline of two crossed, shackled fists, and aviator sunglasses. His dark blond hair hangs to his shoulders; it’s tangled and knotted, like he hasn’t brushed it in days.
Still wearing his sunglasses, he puts a duffel bag on the desk and reaches inside. When he pulls out a stuffed unicorn, a groan comes from the back of the room.
“How did you do that?” a girl asks. “I hid it so well after last class.”
“Not well enough, I guess.” Harold pulls his arm back and launches the unicorn forward. It lands in front of a girl with short blond hair. “Ten demerits for Houdini, zero for the Gabster.”
Next he pulls out a comic book.
“Betty and Veronica Double Digest? I don’t even know if I should give this back.” But with one flick of the wrist, he sends it flying through the air. It lands on the desk of a kid with spiky black hair, who picks it up and smacks his forehead with it. “Another ten demerits for the master magician. Zilch for Abe.”
He pulls an iPod, key chain, and sweater from the bag. A Frisbee, Slinky, and jump rope. A long lighter shaped like a matchstick goes to Lemon. Kids smile and frown, happy to have their things back but annoyed they lost them in the first place. I’m trying to figure out what’s going on when Harold, who apparently likes to be called Houdini, pulls out a green satin ribbon. He pinches one end of the ribbon between his pointer finger and thumb and holds it in front of him.
He shakes his head. I turn in my chair to watch the girl with the red hair and warm copper eyes walk to the front of the room.
“Not nearly as challenging as I’d hoped,” Houdini says when she reaches him.
She takes the ribbon and starts back for her seat. As she nears my row I offer a small, encouraging smile, but she doesn’t see it. She simply looks straight ahead and ties back her hair in a perfect green bow.
Houdini claps his hands together. I jump. Turning back, I see that he’s pushed his sunglasses on top of his head . . . and is looking straight at me.
“Hola, Hinkle,” he says with a grin.
I look behind me, like I really do have a clone following my every move.
“New kid’s confused. Anyone care to explain what just happened?”
My classmates turn and check me out. I slide down in my chair.
“Nobody wants to take the gold star hit, huh?” Houdini asks. “Fair enough. I’ll—”
“Houdini stole our stuff.”
I look behind me again. This time, Elinor’s looking back.
“For class,” she says. “Every week he tries to take something of ours without us knowing. When he succeeds, he gets demerits. When he doesn’t, we do.”
New kid’s even more confused now.
“But I thought this was math,” I say.
“It is,” Elinor says. “At Kilter, math is the addition and subtraction of personal belongings.”
I look at Houdini just in time to see him chuck two small, shiny objects my way.
“Kilter Academy Rule Number One,” he says. “Don’t dress to impress. You have more important things to worry about than whether your socks match your shoes—or your cuff links match your stuffy button-down shirt, as the case may be.”
Heart racing, I grab the gold robots and shove them into my jeans pocket.
“Who wants to share Rule Number Two?” Houdini asks.
There’s a long pause. Then Elinor says, “Get as many demerits and as few gold stars as possible. That’s how we’re graded here.
Demerits are like As and gold stars are like Fs.”
What about Bs and Cs? Isn’t there something between demerits and gold stars? Like gray triangles?
And in what weird academic world are demerits considered a good thing?
“Rule Number Three?” Houdini prompts.
“You have to go to classes,” Elinor continues. “We have six a day, Monday through Friday. Three in the morning and three in the afternoon. Every now and then we have a special history lecture, which we find out about from K-Mail. When you’re not in class, you should be completing assignments, studying, and having fun.”
“You have thousands of complimentary items at your disposal,” Houdini adds. “TVs, movies, video games, you name it. Just press the party hat icon on your K-Pak and order from the long list of fun items that appears. And speaking of fun, Rule Number Four?”
“You have to get all your teachers,” Elinor says.
“Get?” I ask, heart racing. “What does that mean?”
Houdini explains. “Kilter faculty members, including yours truly, will teach you specific skills useful in surprising, scaring, or otherwise messing with adults. In order to advance to the next training level, by the end of the semester you must use these skills to surprise, scare, or otherwise mess with your teachers. You can do so anytime, anyplace. The only restriction is that you get each instructor with the skills they teach.”
“So to get you,” I say slowly, trying to put it together, “I’d have to steal something of yours?”
“Without me knowing.” Houdini grins. “Good luck with that. I’m almost as tough as Mr. Tempest.”
Mr. Tempest. He was the older teacher at Annika’s dinner table last night. “What does he do?” I ask.
“He’s the school historian. He hardly ever leaves Annika’s side, so he’s very hard to get. In fact, he’s the only faculty member you can get by any means necessary—and who you don’t have to get in order to advance.”
“That doesn’t mean you can’t try,” a kid calls out from across the room.
“But it does mean you probably won’t succeed. If for some strange reason you do, you’ll receive extra credit—and much respect from the entire Kilter community.” Houdini nods to Elinor. “Last rule?”
“There are no other rules,” Elinor says.
“Any questions?” Houdini asks.
“Yeah,” says a kid at the back of the room. “We already know all this, and we’re supposed to learn how to swipe candy from store register racks today. Why are we wasting so much time on the new guy?”
Houdini shoots him a look. “Because—”
“I have a question.”
Houdini forgets about the kid at the back of the room and grins at me. “Awesome. Give it up, Hinkle.”
I just wanted to stop him from telling everyone what Annika told me last night—that I’m Kilter’s first murderer—and now I try to pick from the millions of questions spinning through my head.
“Can we talk to our parents?”
The class bursts into groans and giggles. Clearly, this was the wrong choice.
“Sure,” Houdini says. “But who here really wants to?”
I raise my hand. When there are more giggles, I look behind me and see that I’m the only one. So I lower it.
“No worries, Hinkle. I get it. Your parents think they’ve signed you up for a kick-butt reform school, and you think they should know that’s not the case. But I guarantee that if you give Kilter some time, you’ll have no desire to share our little secret. And if ever you’re tempted to spill the beans, just remember whose idea it was for you to come here.” Houdini tilts back in his chair, rests his feet on the desk. “Who are your parents going to believe? The adults they’ve entrusted to mold you into a model citizen? Or the terrible kid they’re so desperate to control?”
He gives this a moment to sink in. Knowing it’ll take much longer than that, I quickly ask my next question.
“But if this isn’t a reform school . . . what is it?”
Houdini’s feet drop to the floor. He leans forward. Holds my eyes with his. “A world-renowned, top secret training facility.”
“Kilter Academy for Troubled Youth doesn’t accept just anyone,” Houdini continues. “Each semester, the admissions board receives thousands of applications and fills only thirty slots. Acceptance is based on a number of criteria, the most important being a student’s natural talent for bad behavior.”
“Like the kind we get grounded for?” I ask.
“But we’re not here to learn good behavior?”
I try to solve this puzzle on my own, but it makes no sense. “Then what exactly are we training for?”
Houdini’s grin takes up his whole face and makes him look even younger than he is.
“You’re training,” he says, “to become professional Troublemakers.”