Chapter 1

Vince’s back popped as he stretched after the car ride. It wasn’t a terribly long trip, but it was long enough to make the former nomad feel cooped up and trapped. Thankfully, he’d held it together and now he gazed at his reward: Lander campus, lush in the late summer as students scurried about its grounds. He didn’t recognize any of them, which was to be expected given Lander’s size, but he did recognize the looks in some of their eyes. Confused, excited, filled with wonder, and trying to piece together where the building they needed was, these were clearly freshmen. Vince would have offered them some assistance; however, he had other duties to first attend to.

Vince pulled his own backpack from the trunk of Ms. Daniels’ station wagon, then helped Hershel with his luggage. Hershel paused their unloading process when his mother approached.

“Be sure to take care of yourself,” Ms. Daniels said as she held her boy tight and gave him a kiss on the cheek.

“Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll be careful,” Hershel assured her. Vince was next to receive one of Ms. Daniels’ powerful embraces, though mercifully he was spared the cheek kiss that accompanied Hershel’s.

“Thank you for everything, ma’am,” Vince said politely. “I really appreciate you letting me stay in your home this summer.”

“Such a proper young man. You watch out for yourself, too. I expect you both back safe and sound when the year ends.”

“I’ll do my best,” Vince said. Ms. Daniels accepted this for the honesty it was and stepped back into her car. With a quick crunch of tires and small cloud of dust, Vince and Hershel found themselves once more alone in the world of Lander.

Vince tossed his backpack on his shoulders and scooped up a few of Hershel’s bags. “It’s good to be back,” he commented as they began the brief walk to Melbrook.

“No joke," Hershel agreed. “You think we’re the first ones?”

“Since Alice actually lives in California and Mary was staying with her, I’m sure they beat us back,” Vince said, answering the question Hershel had clearly wanted to ask. Hershel turned a bit red in the ears with embarrassment, though why he felt the need he wasn’t sure. He and Mary were boyfriend and girlfriend. She’d even visited twice over the summer’s span. So while there was no rational reason for him to turn red at the accusation of missing her, the tips of his ears burned all the same.

They came upon Melbrook shortly, its familiar brick facade a strangely comforting sight. It had been freshly pressure-washed and all but shone in the afternoon sun, welcoming back those who called it home with warmth and comfort. The boys buzzed in through the front door, then walked through the hallway door and entered the common room to find they were the last arrivals.

Alice hopped off the couch and dashed over, giving Vince then Hershel powerful hugs that only a girl with her height and arm span could manage. Mary was subtler, giving Vince a quick half hug, then sidling up to Hershel and taking his hand in hers as she stood close. Mary was never one for gratuitous affection, but the understated action spoke volumes of how she’d missed her man.

The final body to shamble up from its sprawled position on the couch was a sandy-haired youth with a new pair of sunglasses, somewhat more fashionable than last year’s, seated on the bridge of his nose.

“I knew you’d come back,” Vince said, shaking his friend’s hand.

“Believe it or not, after living with you nut jobs, Vegas felt... boring.” Nick spat out that last word, wiping his tongue across his teeth to scrape away the bad taste that accompanied it.

“Whatever you say,” Vince agreed. Nick moved on to give a quick shake of the palms to Hershel as well, and just like that, all five of the Melbrook students were reassembled.

“So when did you guys get in?” Vince asked.

“Mary and I made it this morning, Nick only beat you two by about an hour,” Alice informed him.

“Cool, so have you gotten to talk to anyone?” Vince asked. “I spoke to Will and Thomas briefly over the summer. They weren’t exactly happy with us, but I think we’re okay with them.”

“Alex harbored no ill will at all,” Hershel added.

Alice shook her golden locks to the negative. “We weren’t as close with the others as you guys were, and we haven’t really been able to run them down and talk things out today.”

“Why not?” Hershel asked.

A well-built man in spectacles stepped into view from their kitchen.

“I’m afraid I’m to blame for that,” Dean Blaine said, striding across the room and taking a seat in one of the area’s many chairs.

“You didn’t let them leave?” Hershel asked.

“I prefer to say I strongly advised against it until the rest of you had arrived. You see, we have much to talk about, and I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t give you a comprehensive idea of what to expect in this new school year,” Dean Blaine explained.

“So what should we be expecting?” Vince asked.

“To put it bluntly: adversity,” Dean Blaine replied.