EVEN BEFORE HE GOT ELECTROCUTED, Jason was having a rotten day.
He woke in the backseat of a school bus, not sure where he was, holding hands with a girl he didn’t know. That wasn’t necessarily the rotten part. The girl was cute, but he couldn’t figure out who she was or what he was doing there. He sat up and rubbed his eyes, trying to think.
A few dozen kids sprawled in the seats in front of him, listening to iPods, talking, or sleeping. They all looked around his age … fifteen? Sixteen? Okay, that was scary. He didn’t know his own age.
The bus rumbled along a bumpy road. Out the windows, desert rolled by under a bright blue sky. Jason was pretty sure he didn’t live in the desert. He tried to think back … the last thing he remembered …
The girl squeezed his hand. “Jason, you okay?”
She wore faded jeans, hiking boots, and a fleece snowboarding jacket. Her chocolate brown hair was cut choppy and uneven, with thin strands braided down the sides. She wore no makeup like she was trying not to draw attention to herself, but it didn’t work. She was seriously pretty. Her eyes seemed to change color like a kaleidoscope—brown, blue, and green.
Jason let go of her hand. “Um, I don’t—”
In the front of the bus, a teacher shouted, “All right, cupcakes, listen up!”
The guy was obviously a coach. His baseball cap was pulled low over his hair, so you could just see his beady eyes. He had a wispy goatee and a sour face, like he’d eaten something moldy. His buff arms and chest pushed against a bright orange polo shirt. His nylon workout pants and Nikes were spotless white. A whistle hung from his neck, and a megaphone was clipped to his belt. He would’ve looked pretty scary if he hadn’t been five feet zero. When he stood up in the aisle, one of the students called, “Stand up, Coach Hedge!”
“I heard that!” The coach scanned the bus for the offender. Then his eyes fixed on Jason, and his scowl deepened.
A jolt went down Jason’s spine. He was sure the coach knew he didn’t belong there. He was going to call Jason out, demand to know what he was doing on the bus—and Jason wouldn’t have a clue what to say.
But Coach Hedge looked away and cleared his throat. “We’ll arrive in five minutes! Stay with your partner. Don’t lose your worksheet. And if any of you precious little cupcakes causes any trouble on this trip, I will personally send you back to campus the hard way. ”
He picked up a baseball bat and made like he was hitting a homer.
Jason looked at the girl next to him. “Can he talk to us that way?”
She shrugged. “Always does. This is the Wilderness School. ‘Where kids are the animals. ’”
She said it like it was a joke they’d shared before.
“This is some kind of mistake,” Jason said. “I’m not supposed to be here. ”
The boy in front of him turned and laughed. “Yeah, right, Jason. We’ve all been framed! I didn’t run away six times. Piper didn’t steal a BMW. ”
The girl blushed. “I didn’t steal that car, Leo!”
“Oh, I forgot, Piper. What was your story? You ‘talked’ the dealer into lending it to you?” He raised his eyebrows at Jason like, Can you believe her?
Leo looked like a Latino Santa’s elf, with curly black hair, pointy ears, a cheerful, babyish face, and a mischievous smile that told you right away this guy should not be trusted around matches or sharp objects. His long, nimble fingers wouldn’t stop moving—drumming on the seat, sweeping his hair behind his ears, fiddling with the buttons of his army fatigue jacket. Either the kid was naturally hyper or he was hopped up on enough sugar and caffeine to give a heart attack to a water buffalo.
“Anyway,” Leo said, “I hope you’ve got your worksheet, ’cause I used mine for spit wads days ago. Why are you looking at me like that? Somebody draw on my face again?”
“I don’t know you,” Jason said.
Leo gave him a crocodile grin. “Sure. I’m not your best friend. I’m his evil clone. ”
“Leo Valdez!” Coach Hedge yelled from the front. “Problem back there?”
Leo winked at Jason. “Watch this. ” He turned to the front. “Sorry, Coach! I was having trouble hearing you. Could you use your megaphone, please?”
Coach Hedge grunted like he was pleased to have an excuse. He unclipped the megaphone from his belt and continued giving directions, but his voice came out like Darth Vader’s. The kids cracked up. The coach tried again, but this time the megaphone blared: “The cow says moo!”
The kids howled, and the coach slammed down the megaphone. “Valdez!”
Piper stifled a laugh. “My god, Leo. How did you do that?”
Leo slipped a tiny Phillips head screwdriver from his sleeve. “I’m a special boy. ”
“Guys, seriously,” Jason pleaded. “What am I doing here? Where are we going?”
Piper knit her eyebrows. “Jason, are you joking?”
“No! I have no idea—”
“Aw, yeah, he’s joking,” Leo said. “He’s trying to get me back for that shaving cream on the Jell-O thing, aren’t you?”
Jason stared at him blankly.
“No, I think he’s serious. ” Piper tried to take his hand again, but he pulled it away.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t—I can’t—”
“That’s it!” Coach Hedge yelled from the front. “The back row has just volunteered to clean up after lunch!”
The rest of the kids cheered.
“There’s a shocker,” Leo muttered.
But Piper kept her eyes on Jason, like she couldn’t decide whether to be hurt or worried. “Did you hit your head or something? You really don’t know who we are?”
Jason shrugged helplessly. “It’s worse than that. I don’t know who I am. ”
The bus dropped them in front of a big red stucco complex like a museum, just sitting in the middle of nowhere. Maybe that’s what it was: the National Museum of Nowhere, Jason thought. A cold wind blew across the desert. Jason hadn’t paid much attention to what he was wearing, but it wasn’t nearly warm enough: jeans and sneakers, a purple T-shirt, and a thin black windbreaker.
“So, a crash course for the amnesiac,” Leo said, in a helpful tone that made Jason think this was not going to be helpful. “We go to the ‘Wilderness School’”—Leo made air quotes with his fingers. “Which means we’re ‘bad kids. ’ Your family, or the court, or whoever, decided you were too much trouble, so they shipped you off to this lovely prison—sorry, ‘boarding school’—in Armpit, Nevada, where you learn valuable nature skills like running ten miles a day through the cacti and weaving daisies into hats! And for a special treat we go on ‘educational’ field trips with Coach Hedge, who keeps order with a baseball bat. Is it all coming back to you now?”
“No. ” Jason glanced apprehensively at the other kids: maybe twenty guys, half that many girls. None of them looked like hardened criminals, but he wondered what they’d all done to get sentenced to a school for delinquents, and he wondered why he belonged with them.
Leo rolled his eyes. “You’re really gonna play this out, huh? Okay, so the three of us started here together this semester. We’re totally tight. You do everything I say and give me your dessert and do my chores—”
“Leo!” Piper snapped.
“Fine. Ignore that last part. But we are friends. Well, Piper’s a little more than your friend, the last few weeks—”
“Leo, stop it!” Piper’s face turned red. Jason could feel his face burning too. He thought he’d remember if he’d been going out with a girl like Piper.
“He’s got amnesia or something,” Piper said. “We’ve got to tell somebody. ”
Leo scoffed. “Who, Coach Hedge? He’d try to fix Jason by whacking him upside the head. ”
The coach was at the front of the group, barking orders and blowing his whistle to keep the kids in line; but every so often he’d glance back at Jason and scowl.
“Leo, Jason needs help,” Piper insisted. “He’s got a concussion or—”
“Yo, Piper. ” One of the other guys dropped back to join them as the group was heading into the museum. The new guy wedged himself between Jason and Piper and knocked Leo down. “Don’t talk to these bottom-feeders. You’re my partner, remember?”
The new guy had dark hair cut Superman style, a deep tan, and teeth so white they should’ve come with a warning label: do not stare directly at teeth. permanent blindness may occur. He wore a Dallas Cowboys jersey, Western jeans and boots, and he smiled like he was God’s gift to juvenile delinquent girls everywhere. Jason hated him instantly.
“Go away, Dylan,” Piper grumbled. “I didn’t ask to work with you. ”
“Ah, that’s no way to be. This is your lucky day!” Dylan hooked his arm through hers and dragged her through the museum entrance. Piper shot one last look over her shoulder like, 911.
Leo got up and brushed himself off. “I hate that guy. ” He offered Jason his arm, like they should go skipping inside together. “‘I’m Dylan. I’m so cool, I want to date myself, but I can’t figure out how! You want to date me instead? You’re so lucky!’”
“Leo,” Jason said, “you’re weird. ”
“Yeah, you tell me that a lot. ” Leo grinned. “But if you don’t remember me, that means I can reuse all my old jokes. Come on!”
Jason figured that if this was his best friend, his life must be pretty messed up; but he followed Leo into the museum.
They walked through the building, stopping here and there for Coach Hedge to lecture them with his megaphone, which alternately made him sound like a Sith Lord or blared out random comments like “The pig says oink. ”
Leo kept pulling out nuts, bolts, and pipe cleaners from the pockets of his army jacket and putting them together, like he had to keep his hands busy at all times.
Jason was too distracted to pay much attention to the exhibits, but they were about the Grand Canyon and the Hualapai tribe, which owned the museum.
Some girls kept looking over at Piper and Dylan and snickering. Jason figured these girls were the popular clique. They wore matching jeans and pink tops and enough makeup for a Halloween party.
One of them said, “Hey, Piper, does your tribe run this place? Do you get in free if you do a rain dance?”
The other girls laughed. Even Piper’s so-called partner Dylan suppressed a smile. Piper’s snowboarding jacket sleeves hid her hands, but Jason got the feeling she was clenching her fists.
“My dad’s Cherokee,” she said. “Not Hualapai. ’Course, you’d need a few brain cells to know the difference, Isabel. ”
Isabel widened her eyes in mock surprise, so that she looked like an owl with a makeup addiction. “Oh, sorry! Was your mom in this tribe? Oh, that’s right. You never knew your mom. ”