P H L O G I S T O N
« Chapter 1 »
"The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed." — Carl Jung
A quick glance around showed that the grounds were empty. A wide, flat expanse of grass stretched before us, but my gaze was automatically drawn to the large, dark building that sat in the middle of it. All of my attention was focused on that building.
"I can't believe we're actually doing this," I whispered. "It's midnight and we're out on our first mission. Guys, we're insane."
Tess giggled. "It's like we're secret agents."
"Except we're the bad agents," Rena said. "No good agent would ever break into a school in the middle of the night."
Adriana laughed. "Rogue agents. I like it."
"This'll be so easy," Tess said. I could hear the self-assured confidence in her voice. "Our plans are completely foolproof. Right, Stella?"
"Sure," I said, shrugging even though I didn't expect her to be able to see me with the darkness that surrounded us. "We have everything we need. Flashlights. Gloves. The keys to the school, courtesy of Tess…"
"Rena's computer-hacking skills," Adriana added cheerfully.
"Adriana's uncompounded enthusiasm," Rena muttered.
"And Stella's getaway plan," Tess contributed.
I smiled. "Then we're all set. Let's go."
We raced across the lawn, heads down and shoulders hunched like the spies in the movies we were often watching. An image of the four of us dodging bullets popped into my mind, and the ridiculousness of it nearly made me laugh aloud. I suppressed the urge, attributing it to hysteria. I couldn't get hysterical. This was my plan, and I had to see it through.
We stopped in front of the school's main entrance. Tess pushed her way to the front, the keys already in her hand. As she fingered through them, searching for the one that would unlock the main door, the keys jangled, causing Rena to surreptitiously look around.
"Hurry up," she whispered nervously.
Tess found the key, unlocked the door, and ushered us all inside. The door clicked shut behind us. A flashlight snapped on behind me, and I followed Adriana's lead, turning mine on too. A bright beam of light spilled out, and I looked around, amazed at how different the school looked by night. The change was almost eerie. There were no students milling about in the hallways, no kids jostling each other in an attempt to get to class on time, no chatter, laughter, or any noise whatsoever.
I turned to see my best friends' reactions. Rena, too, was looking around, as if she had never seen the school before. Tess was waiting patiently for Rena and me to move on. And Adriana was already halfway down the hallway. Realizing that we weren't right behind her, she turned back, her dark hair flipping over her shoulder, and shot us a look. I grinned at the impatience in her dark-green eyes, and hurried to catch up.
"In and out, fifteen minutes max," I said as we ran down the hallways towards the main office. I glanced towards Rena for confirmation.
She gave me a small half-smile. "Ten, tops," was all she said.
Tess unlocked the door to the main office, and she and Rena went inside. Adriana and I exchanged looks before splitting up—without a single word being spoken—to go our separate ways.
I doubled back towards the main entrance, my assigned area. Adriana patrolled the hallway outside the main office.
My footsteps echoed loudly in the silence of the hallways. The sound was slightly creepy, so I attempted to step more softly. I stopped and listened. I couldn't hear Adriana at all. But then again, she was graceful, and she was an athlete. She knew how to tread lightly.
I reached the main doors. Outside, it was pitch black and scary. I turned away from the door, my flashlight sweeping over a row of lockers.
The minutes ticked by. Shadows loomed with each sweep of my flashlight. I almost expected something to jump out and attack me. Rena had said that she would only need ten minutes. How much time had already passed?
My guess was that the ten minutes had already elapsed. But I knew that the mind could easily distort time. And I knew that Rena was dead-on accurate and punctual. If she said ten minutes, she meant ten minutes. So that meant that my notion of time was off.
I glanced at the clock hanging above the main entrance. It told me that I was five minutes off; only five minutes had elapsed since Tess and Rena had entered the main office. I sighed.
Five minutes and two seconds later, I heard footsteps approaching. I breathed out in relief as I spotted the girls walking towards me.
"It's done," Rena said simply. She was grinning smugly, as was Tess. Adriana, too, looked a lot happier.
"You're two seconds late," I informed them.
"Better than three seconds early," Adriana retorted. She also knew the importance of time. It was essential in the precise timing of sports, which were her life.
"Now that we're done," Rena said, "can we get out of here?"
I nodded my agreement, and the four of us left the building as unobtrusively as we had entered it. Once we were safely on the sidewalk, I felt as if a huge pressure had been lifted from me, and I smiled. "That was awesome."
Tess was laughing. "We're amazing."
Adriana hugged all of us. "Thank you guys so much! Now I'm not failing math anymore!"
Rena made a noise of disapproval, but her eyes were dancing with amusement. "Changing the grades on the computer. We're so immoral."
"Now you can stay on the soccer team," I told Adriana. "But this is the first—and last—time we're bailing you out in math. You'd better study, missy."
Adriana mock-pouted at me. "Yes, mom."
Rena wrinkled her nose. "How in the world did you ever manage to do so badly, anyway? You're not stupid."
"So says the certified genius," Tess murmured under her breath. I laughed.
"The teacher hates me," Adriana said, shrugging. "And I don't do my homework."
At Rena's sharp look, she relented. "I had soccer, okay? He gives way too much homework. It's not fair. It's like he purposely gives the class more work every time we have a game."
"He's a loser," Tess said helpfully.
Rena grinned. "Fair enough, then. Oh, and Stella, the B you got on your last test is now an A, so don't be too surprised if your grade rises a few points."
I threw my arms around her. "Did I ever tell you how much I love you, Rena?" I said, grinning. "You're my biggest hero."
"And mine!" Adriana chipped in, joining the hug.
"Group hug!" Tess said happily, and we did just that.
In the middle of our celebrating, someone's phone went off. Loudly.
"Someone please pick up the phone," I mumbled.
"Stella! It's for you!" my mom yelled.
Huh? Where'd she come from? I thought blearily.
"Stella Mackenzie! Get your butt out of bed and pick up the phone!" she shrieked.
I winced, then rolled over and reached for the phone near my bed. "Hello?" I answered, still half-asleep.
"It's a miracle," was the first thing that Tess said to me.
"It's terrible," Rena disagreed.
"It's both good and bad," Adriana allowed.
"What are you guys talking about?" I groaned.
"The school burned down," three voices chorused in my ear.
"What?!" Instantly, I was awake. "What—when?—wait, what?"
My best friends laughed at my coherence. "This morning. And before you ask, yes, it's true. My mom confirmed it," Tess told me. Her mom worked for the Board of Education. Mrs. Lexington knew everything there was to know about the school and the school systems in the area.
"It what?" I demanded.
"Our school was "accidentally" set on fire," Adriana informed me. "No one knows who did it yet."
"Please tell me that you're kidding."
"No such luck," Rena said, and her tone said it all. They were speaking the complete and utter truth.
"So our school burned down," I said flatly. It was more of a statement than a question.
"Well, not completely… but it's in dire need of repairs," Tess offered.
Rena broke in. "It's all over the news—"
"—and apparently they've cancelled school," Adriana added.
"—and everyone keeps calling me to confirm it." Tess sounded vaguely annoyed.
"You're popular," I said, my voice tinged with amusement. "Deal with it."
"I don't even know half of these people," she protested.
"Well, they know you. Plus, you'd know everything there is to know, with your mom working for the Board of Education and all," Adriana said.
"Guess what?" I said randomly. "Before you called me, I was asleep—"
"Really?" Tess gasped. "We had no idea!"
I rolled my eyes at her sarcasm, and continued as if she hadn't said anything: "—and I had a dream about our first mission."
Adriana laughed. "I remember that! The objective of the entire operation was to keep me from failing."
"It was so nerve-wracking, though," Rena said.
"But you loved it," Adriana said to her.
"Admit it, Serenity. We all enjoyed it," Tess drawled.
"Don't call me that."
Tess laughed, and I could almost see her blue eyes sparkling. "You know you love me."
The truth was that everyone loved Tess. She was the classic blonde-haired blue-eyed beauty. The guys in our school were always chasing after her, and she flirted with every single one of them. She was a real heartbreaker—quite shallow too, at times—but we loved her anyway, because she had a great personality and a bright nature.
Adriana's words echoed my thoughts. "As if you didn't have enough lovers already," she said wryly.
"Because I don't scare all of them away," Tess retorted.
I could almost picture Adriana rolling her eyes. With her straight dark hair, intense green eyes, and athletic frame, she easily matched Tess in the looks department. However, unlike Tess, she didn't care about the attention of boys. She was an athlete through and through; she played pretty much every sport in existence and excelled at every single one of them. She had earned the respect of pretty much all of the jocks in our school, so they considered her a good friend and didn't mess with her like they did with the cheerleaders.
"I don't scare them away," Adriana said indignantly. "I'm friends with guys, and I like it that way."
I laughed. "You definitely just read my mind."
"Pros of being best friends for years," Rena said. "But back to the topic at hand: what are we going to do while the school is being repaired?"
I smiled to myself. That was typical Serenity. Rena was always logical, reasonable, sensible, and practical—everything that Adriana and Tess were not. And she was the smartest one out of all of us. She was at the top of the class in almost every subject, but for some reason, she wasn't considered a nerd or geek. Maybe it was because she was best friends with Tess and Adriana, resident Beauty Queen and Warrior Princess respectively.
Likewise, being best friends with them kept me from being a complete social nothing. I wasn't gorgeous like Tess. I wasn't athletic like Adriana. And I wasn't a genius like Rena.
I was the idea-girl, the evil mastermind behind all of our group's plots. Adriana teasingly called me the team leader, but I knew I wasn't. In a group as tight as ours, there were no leaders. We were a single entity in four (completely different) bodies.
"We can visit the school," Adriana suggested.
"Or you guys can come over and we can ask my mom," Tess offered.
"Or we can visit the school and then ask Tess's mom," Rena compromised.
I grinned. "Okay, then. I'll see you girls in ten."
I couldn't stop smiling even after I had hung up the phone. Things were looking up. The seasons were changing and fall was underway, but it felt like summer all over again.
"God," Rena breathed. "It's—"
"Burnt?" I offered.
"Destroyed?" Adriana suggested.
"Totally and completely annihilated?" Tess contributed, being the total drama queen that she is.
"—so different," Rena finished wryly.
"That too," I agreed. The fire had destroyed nearly the entire west wing of the school, and from what I could see, the damage was extensive. The entire scene was roped off, and exasperated policemen were shooing annoying news reporters away from the building.
As I wandered around, I caught snatches of news reports here and there: "... Lakeside High School, where early this morning, a fire was reported. At approximately 5:15 this morning, the fire department was alerted to a blaze in the school... Police have no clues as to what started the fire. So far, numerous searches have only turned up a pack of cigarettes near the school entrance... However, since the fire started from within the school, it is highly unlikely that the blaze had to do with any teenagers smoking near the building..."
"They're kidding, right?" Adriana said, overhearing the same thing. "Since when have schools burned down because of some stupid teenager's cigarette?"
"An arsonist disguised as a teenage smoker?" Rena suggested. "Or a huge prank?"
"A dare," I decided, since it made more sense. "Tess, what do you think?"
"She's not listening," Adriana said, sounding annoyed. "She's over there, flirting with some random guy."
Rena and I turned around at the same time. And just as Adriana had said, Tess was busy talking and laughing and working her charm on some poor innocent guy.
I sighed. "Not again."
Adriana was already marching over to her, looking ticked off.
This time, it was Rena's turn to sigh and say, "Not again." We exchanged knowing glances before running after Adriana, hoping that the situation wouldn't blow up between our two fiery friends.
Luckily for us, it didn't. We neared cautiously, watching interestedly as the guy said something that made both girls laugh. I wondered what Adriana was playing at; usually, she would just tell Tess off and then drag her away. However, she didn't seem to have some ulterior motive this time, and besides, scheming and manipulating was more of my thing.
Up close, it was obvious what had attracted Tess to this guy. He was good-looking, with dark hair, bright blue eyes, and smooth, chiseled features. At the moment, he was laughing at something one of the girls had said, and a dimple flashed.
"Hey," Tess greeted as we approached, "this is Kyle. Kyle, my two other best friends, Stella and Rena."
"Hi," I said, for lack of a more creative thing to say.
"You guys go to this school too?" he asked, gesturing to the now-decrepit building.
"We did," I said, "but seeing as half of it is missing, I highly doubt that we'll still be going."
"You don't go to Lakeside," Tess said suddenly. "What school are you from?"
The boy—Kyle—looked amused. "You probably wouldn't know it."
"Try us," Adriana said. She knew all of the schools in the area, having competed against all of them in her sports.
A strange expression flitted across Kyle's face, but it was gone as soon as it had come. "Riavale. Heard of it?"
Adriana's eyes darkened. "No."
Kyle's grin was back, with a "told-you-so" quality to it. "It's not that far from here, actually. It's a boarding school."
"Uh-huh." Adriana's voice was deadpan. "Then why are you here?"
There it was again—that strange, fleeting expression. "I was curious," he said, shrugging. "Plus I heard that my school might get some transfer students from here."
"Transfer students?" I asked with a sinking heart. Did that mean that we weren't just going to have another summer vacation?
But of course. It had been silly of me to hope otherwise.
He shrugged. "Don't know. That's just what I heard."
Suddenly, the school being burned down didn't seem so wonderful anymore. Tess must have come to the same conclusion, because she sighed and said, "We should go and ask my mom." Adriana and Rena agreed, and we all said our goodbyes to Kyle and left.
Since it was a gorgeous day out, we decided to walk back to Tess's place. On the way, we discussed Kyle.
"He's lying," Adriana decided.
"How do you know?" Rena asked.
"There's no Riavale around here. I would know."
"He said it was a boarding school," Tess reminded her.
"But then why isn't he there?" Adriana countered. "If it's a boarding school, why is he leaving the premises?"
"That's funny," Rena said, "because I was thinking the exact same thing."
I remembered the strange expression on his face, like he was hiding something.
"And he had this look on his face, like he was keeping something from us," Tess said, unknowingly echoing my thoughts. I wasn't surprised that she had noticed, though; she was usually very perceptive when it came to reading people's facial expressions. Likewise, Adriana was good at reading body movements, Rena was good at analyzing people's behaviors, and I was good at assessing their actions. The four of us combined made an amazing psychoanalysis team.
"It's not like there's anything for him to hide," Rena said with a small frown.
"Maybe he feels guilty because he's the one who set the school on fire," Adriana suggested mischievously.
We all found that image funny for some reason, and after a few minutes of laughing, we moved on to another subject and completely forgot about Kyle.
Tess's mom met us at the door. She had the phone to her ear and was looking pretty stressed out.
"She's been getting calls nonstop from concerned parents," Tess whispered to us, rolling her eyes. I grimaced in sympathy; I didn't envy Mrs. Lexington at all.
"Yes… I'm sure you'll find out soon. Yes, we'll let you know. Thank you. No, your daughter won't fail. No, of course not. Bye." She hung up the phone and gave us a small, tired smile. "Hi, girls. Don't mind me… I've been getting these calls since six in the morning…"
"Mom," Tess blurted, "is it true that they're transferring students to other schools?"
Tess's mom groaned and rubbed at her forehead, prompting Rena to ask, "Mrs. Lexington, are you okay?"
She smiled. "I'm fine, dear, but thank you for asking. And yes, honey, it's true. Students are being districted to other schools in the area."
"What about us?" Tess wanted to know.
"Which schools?" Adriana asked at the same time.
Mrs. Lexington answered Adriana's question first. "Beachwood High, Clover Prep, Hope Valley High, and a bunch of others. There are thousands of students to transfer, so it's not an easy or quick process."
"What about us?" Tess repeated.
"You girls are still unknown. Why, where would you like to go?"
"None of them," Adriana muttered. "Their sports teams all suck."
I laughed. "Anywhere, as long as the four of us are together," I said.
"How about Riavale?" Adriana asked with an impish grin. We all laughed at that.
"Let's go watch a movie," Tess suggested. Of course, we all agreed to that. However, what we couldn't agree on was what movie to watch. Tess wanted romance. Rena wanted fantasy. Adriana wanted action. And I wanted mystery. Of course, us being us, we settled on comedy and drama.
Halfway through the movie, Tess's mom popped her head into the room. "Girls? I've got news."
"Yeah?" Tess said, methodically eating popcorn and not taking her eyes off of the screen.
"You've all been transferred."
"To where?" Adriana asked, interested.
"But see, I didn't do the transfer—I don't know who did—but you guys are all together, which is what you wanted, and Adriana, I think the sports teams are pretty good, and Rena, the academics are excellent—"
"Mom," Tess interrupted. "Which school is it?"
Mrs. Lexington shifted, looking slightly uncomfortable. There was an awkward silence.
Tess pressed the "pause" button, freezing the movie. All of us turned to look expectantly at Mrs. Lexington.
She sighed. "The database said that there was no more room in the other schools—"
"So are we going to be like, home-schooled?" Tess asked.
Her mom grinned. "No, no. There's no way anyone would be able to home-school you pack of brats."
Of course, we all protested at that, but deep down inside, we knew it was true.
"So if there's no more room in the other schools," I said slowly, "what does that mean?"
"That we can go to school out-of-state," Tess chirped. "Like Hawaii!"
"South America!" Adriana enthused.
Tess gave her a look. "What's there in South America?"
"Amazing soccer players," Adriana said, with a look that clearly said, "Duh."
"We could just, you know, not go to school," I said, trying to sound innocent.
"No chances of that happening," Tess's mom told me, looking amused.
"So what's going to happen to us?" Rena asked.
Mrs. Lexington sighed. "Well, the four of you—along with about ten other students—have been transferred to Riavale Academy."
It took a moment for her words to sink in. When it did, Tess choked on her popcorn and Adriana nearly spit out her soda. I exchanged a look with Rena and then we both burst out laughing. The other two joined in, and pretty soon, we were all rolling around on the floor laughing and unable to stop.
"Um… girls?" Mrs. Lexington said uncertainly. "Are you okay?"
"Riavale," Tess gasped between spurts of laughter. "Oh my god. Who would've thought?"
Mrs. Lexington surveyed us, looking bemused. "Well, girls, I'm glad you're having fun. But I have something else to add that you should probably know."
Tess wiped the tears from her eyes and sat up. "Yeah?" she asked.
"Well, going to Riavale is the only way that you guys will get to stay together. Otherwise, you'd all be transferred according to last name."
I thought about that. Stella Mackenzie. Tess Lexington. Adriana Gallagher. Serenity Ashford. None of our names were all that close, except for maybe mine and Tess's.
"You see, Riavale is a boarding school. And it's not cheap—you have to pay to be in it, obviously—but I can pull a few strings to let you guys go there. But there's just one thing…"
"Which is?" Rena asked.
Mrs. Lexington didn't look too enthusiastic. "Well, you see… Riavale Academy is kind of an all-boys school…"