The first time I set eyes on the new kid, he’d just pressed himself into a handstand on the stone wall above the cliff. Right away my heart started pounding and my shirt collar seemed to tighten around my neck—I had a complicated relationship with heights—but I couldn’t tear my eyes away from him either. His feet seemed to float there, as steady as a hot-air balloon, under the black, low-hanging clouds. Only the flexing and relaxing of his fingers on the rough stone hinted at the effort it took to balance like that. His hair, longer than regulation, hung down from his head in bronze-colored curls, and the dark blue necktie of his school uniform dangled to one side of his grinning face. Below him, the river that ran underneath Inverness Prep roared. I couldn’t see it from where I stood, but I could picture it on the far side of the wall, crashing down over the cliff face like shattering glass.
Beside me, Bex stood on the toes of her scuffed black
combat boots to see over the crowd. An upswell of rapturous giggles came from a trio of girls on her far side. “That’s right, ladies,” Bex muttered. “Good looking and he can do a handstand. Obviously, this guy’s the whole package.” She hadn’t noticed me silently freaking out. Landing on her heels, she said, “What’s your expert opinion, Lee? Gay or straight?”
I cut a look at her.
“Relax, Walk-In. Nobody heard me.”
That was Bex’s name for me: the Walking Walk-In—a semiaffectionate allusion to my closetedness.
My gaze slid back to the boy. I tugged at my collar and tried to pull myself together. “How can you tell he’s good looking? He’s upside down.”
“I can tell.”
“All I can tell is he tied his tie wrong.” Trying not to sound too interested, I added, “Know anything about him?”
She shook her head. “He picked a hell of a day to start, though.”
By then everybody on the terrace had turned to watch the show. A loose crowd of students had formed around him, the FUUWLs and a few others. Their pucks hovered in a cluster over their heads, the palm-size disks held aloft by softly whirring rotors. Bex wandered closer to get a better look at the kid, but I kept my distance. I noticed Dr. Singh, the robotics teacher, hunched in her wheelchair near the school entrance, having a smoke and observing the proceedings. “What a goddamn idiot,” she muttered in her wheezy smoker’s voice. But
she didn’t make a move to intervene, which didn’t surprise me. She wasn’t exactly a disciplinarian.
Meanwhile, my heart still felt like it might punch through my chest any second. In my mind, I could already see the boy losing his balance and vanishing over the edge. I imagined it happening fast, like a magician making himself disappear. I knew the FUUWLs must’ve put him up to this.
Bex and I called them FUUWLs (pronounced fools) because you could practically see the words “FUTURE UNSCRUPULOUS ULTRAPOWERFUL WORLD LEADER” tattooed on their foreheads. The pack of them had conquered Inverness Prep the way other kids might conquer a video game, ruthlessly mowing their way to the top in every category: academics, sports, popularity. Just seeing them around school, with their flawless hair and calculating eyes, never failed to turn my stomach.
A ragged wind gusted across the terrace, ruffling the boy’s curls and whipping the cuffs of his khakis around his ankles. The crowd gasped. One of the trio of girls let out a thrilled scream. Several pucks shot higher, ready to capture the kid’s final moments on video. My heart jackhammered against my rib cage. But his legs didn’t budge.
I edged closer to Dr. Singh. “Do you think I should go find Headmaster Stroud?”
She exhaled a dribble of smoke but didn’t answer. Her salt-and-pepper hair, in its usual messy ponytail, stirred in
the breeze. Her eyes, still fastened on the boy, had taken on a strange intensity.
The FUUWLs had also appointed themselves enforcers of Inverness Prep’s time-honored traditions, including the Freshman Stand. At the start of each year, while everybody waited on the terrace to be ushered inside for the Welcome Assembly, the upperclassmen would dare the boys from the incoming freshman class to stand on that wall—not on their hands, just on their feet. That was terrifying enough, especially when the wind kicked up, which it always did. The older kids would laugh and hurl insults at the petrified freshmen half crouching on the wall, and they’d torture the ones who hadn’t had the courage to do it even more mercilessly.
Although in my case, things had played out differently. I suppose that year’s upperclassmen couldn’t resist the temptation after everything they must’ve read about me on the Supernet. When I refused to climb up, three of them grabbed me and deposited me there themselves. When I tried to scramble back down, they formed a barrier to block me. So there I stood, my body shaking, my glasses misting with spray, the wind shoving at me as if it wanted to join the game too. The whole time, the boys standing below me chanted the nickname the sleaziest gossip sites had coined for me a few weeks earlier: “Leap. Leap. Leap.” Probably knowing they’d get in serious trouble if Headmaster Stroud caught them taunting me, they repeated the name—or was it a command?—in a
whisper, their voices blending with the brutal smashing of the waterfall.
Before the Welcome Assembly my sophomore and junior years, I’d made sure to skulk in the main hall so I wouldn’t have to watch the ritual. Today, though, it had taken me by surprise. The school year had started a month ago, and the new boy didn’t look like a freshman, but the FUUWLs had clearly decided the tradition still had to be observed in his case. They were sticklers that way. And it appeared he’d taken them up on their dare and gone one step further.
My hands in fists at my sides, I glanced up at Stroud’s office window, all the way at the top of the school, wishing he’d look down and see what was happening and put a stop to it. He always seemed to see everything. But today he must’ve already come downstairs for the special assembly.
A mechanical thundering filled the sky, drowning out even the noise of the waterfall. I looked up again. A black helicopter slid into view above the school. While everybody else gaped at the huge chopper hanging over our heads, my eyes jumped back to the boy.
“Oh, God,” I murmured.
Another blast of wind, much bigger this time. The kid’s legs wobbled, then scissored frantically back and forth.
Before I could make a move, a hand grabbed my wrist, the fingers digging into my skin like an animal’s claw. Dr. Singh
peered up at me with eyes that had turned huge and wild. “Please, Lee,” she rasped. “Just let him fall.”
“What?” I sputtered. No time to make sense of it. I wrenched my arm out of her grip and barreled forward, shoving people out of the way. Others had noticed the boy flailing now, but they were hesitating, unsure what to do. The wind smashed into him. His hands staggered a few steps to the left. Ten feet from the wall, my shoe caught on a flagstone. The floor flew up and slammed into my cheek. All the air blew out of my lungs.
I rolled onto my back, my eyes squeezed shut. I knew what I’d see when I opened them: the boy, vanished.
My eyelids lifted. Above me, dark clouds. The boy’s feet, as steady as a hot-air balloon. His grinning upside-down face. “Gotcha.”
The wind had slackened. The helicopter had disappeared. It must’ve circled around to land on the school’s front lawn. A few kids snickered, like they’d known all along he’d been faking the wobbling. A soft purring came from my inside blazer pocket: Gremlin, trying to calm me down.
A voice growled, “Mr. Medina, get down from there at once.”
I lifted my head. Headmaster Stroud glared at the new kid from the entrance to the main hall, the grim expression on his craggy face matching the one on the stone raven carved into the wall above him. The boy’s feet smacked the terrace next to me. He grabbed his blazer and shrugged it on, his flushed face still wearing a breathless grin. “Sorry, sir.”
Stroud frowned a second longer but didn’t say anything more to the boy, or to the FUUWLs, either. Officially, the school administration condemned the Freshman Stand, but I hadn’t ever heard of anyone actually getting in trouble for instigating it. “You may come in,” he told us, “and line up to enter the auditorium.” Then, to me, “Get up, Lee.”
Technically, Stroud was also my grandfather, but that didn’t mean I was entitled to special treatment—unless you considered an extra share of contempt special treatment. While the other kids crowded toward the doors, their pucks swarming along with them, a hand appeared above me: the new boy’s. I flinched as I took it. His skin felt hotter than I’d expected.
He gave me a wink and melted into the crowd. For a second I stood staring after him like an idiot, my face burning. Then I remembered Dr. Singh, and her hand clutching my wrist. Just let him fall. A cold breeze blew in from the lake, chilling the back of my neck. I looked for her, but she’d disappeared too.