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Dear Luce,

Since our phone time is now ridiculously insufficient (Can you please petition for some more?

It's downright unjust), I'm going to get all old-fashioned on you and take up epic letter writing.

Enclosed you will find every single minuscule thing that happened to me over the past two weeks.

Whether you like it or not

Luce clutched the envelope to her chest, still grinning, eager to devour the letter as soon as her parents headed home. Callie hadn't given up on her. And her parents were sitting right beside her. It had been way too long since Luce had felt this loved. She reached out and squeezed her father's hand.

A blaring whistle made both her parents jump. "It's just the dinner bell," she explained; they seemed relieved. "Come on, there's someone I want you to meet."

As they walked from the hot, hazy parking lot toward the commons where the opening events of Parents'

Day were being held, Luce started to see the campus through her parents' eyes. She noticed anew the sagging roof of the main office, and the sickly, overripe odor of the rotting peach grove next to the gym. The way the wrought iron of the cemetery gates was overcome with orangey rust. She realized that in only a couple of weeks, she'd grown completely accustomed to Sword & Cross's many eyesores.

Her parents looked mostly horrified. Her father gestured at a dying grapevine winding its decrepit way around the splintering fence at the entrance to the commons.

"Those are chardonnay grapes," he said, wincing because when a plant felt pain, so did he.

Her mother was using two hands to grip her pocket-book to her chest, with both elbows sticking out - the stance she took when she found herself in a neighborhood where she thought she might be mugged. And they hadn't even seen the reds yet. Her parents, who were adamantly against little things like Luce getting a webcam, would hate the idea of constant surveillance at her school.

Luce wanted to protect them from all the atrocities of Sword & Cross, because she was figuring out how to manage - and sometimes even beat - the system here. Just the other day, Arriane had taken her through an obstacle course-like sprint across the campus to point out all the "dead reds" whose batteries had died or been slyly "replaced," effectively creating the blind spots of the school. Her parents didn't need to know about all that; they just needed to have a good day with her.

Penn was swinging her legs from the bleachers, where she and Luce had promised to meet at noon. She was holding a potted mum.

"Penn, these are my parents, Harry and Doreen Price," Luce said, gesturing. "Mom and Dad, this is - "

"Pennyweather Van Syckle-Lockwood," Penn said formally, extending the mum with both hands. "Thank you for letting me join you for lunch."

Ever polite, Luce's parents cooed and smiled, not asking any questions about Penn's own family's whereabouts, which Luce hadn't had the time to explain.

It was another warm, clear day. The acid-green willow trees in front of the library swayed gently in the breeze, and Luce steered her parents to a position where the willows obscured most of the soot stains and the windows broken by the fire. As they spread out the quilt on a dry patch of grass, Luce pulled Penn aside.

"How are you?" Luce asked, knowing that if she'd been the one who had to sit through a whole day honoring everyone's parents but hers, she would have needed a major pick-me-up.

To her surprise, Penn's head bobbed happily. "This is already so much better than last year!" she said. "And it's all because of you. I wouldn't have anyone today if you hadn't come along."

The compliment took Luce by surprise and made her look around the quad to see how everyone else was handling the event. Despite the still half-empty parking lot, Parents' Day seemed to be slowly filling up.

Molly sat on a blanket nearby, between a pug-faced man and woman, gnawing hungrily on a turkey leg. Arriane was crouched on a bleacher, whispering to an older punk girl with hypnotizing hot-pink hair. Most likely her big sister. The two of them caught Luce's eye and Arriane grinned and waved, then turned to the other girl to whisper something.

Roland had a huge party of people setting up a picnic lunch on a large bedspread. They were laughing and joking, and a few younger kids were throwing food at each other. They seemed to be having a great time until a corn-on-the-cob grenade went flying and almost blind-sided Gabbe, who was walking across the commons. She scowled at Roland as she guided a man who looked old enough to be her grandfather, patting his elbow as they walked toward a row of lawn chairs set up around the open field.

Daniel and Cam were noticeably missing - and Luce couldn't picture what either of their families would look like. As angry and embarrassed as she'd been after Daniel bailed on her for the second time at the lake, she was still dying to catch a glimpse of anyone related to him. But then, thinking back to Daniel's thin file in the archive room, Luce wondered whether he even kept in touch with anyone from his family.

Luce's mother doled cheddar grits onto four plates, and her father topped the mounds with freshly chopped jalapeсos. After one bite, Luce's mouth was on fire, just the way she liked it.

Penn seemed unfamiliar with the typical Georgia fare Luce had grown up with. She looked particularly terrified by the pickled okra, but as soon as she took a bite, she gave Luce a surprised smile of approval.

Luce's mom and dad had brought with them every single one of Luce's favorite foods, even the pecan pralines from the family drugstore down the block. Her parents chomped happily on either side of her, seeming glad to fill their mouths with something other than talk of death.

Luce should have been enjoying her time with them, and washing it all down with her beloved Georgia sweet tea, but she felt like an imposter daughter for pretending this elysian lunch was normal for Sword & Cross. The whole day was such a sham.

At the sound of a short, feeble round of applause, Luce looked over at the bleachers, where Randy stood next to Headmaster Udell, a man whom Luce had never seen in the flesh before. She recognized him from the unusually dim portrait that hung in the main lobby of the school, but she saw now that the artist had been generous. Penn had already told her that the headmaster showed up on campus only one day of the year - Parents' Day - with no exceptions. Otherwise, he was a recluse who didn't leave his Tybee Island mansion, not even when a student at his school passed away. The man's jowls were swallowing his chin and his bovine eyes stared out into the crowd, not seeming to focus on anything.

At his side Randy stood, legs akimbo in white stockings. She had a lipless smile plastered across her face, and the headmaster was blotting his big forehead with a napkin. Both had their game faces on today, but it seemed to be taking a lot out of them.

"Welcome to Sword & Cross's one-hundred-and-fifty-ninth annual Parents' Day," Headmaster Udell said into a microphone.

"Is he kidding?" Luce whispered to Penn. It was hard to imagine Parents' Day during the antebellum period.

Penn rolled her eyes. "Surely a typo. I've told them to get him new reading glasses."

"We have a long and fun-filled day of family time scheduled for you, beginning with this leisurely picnic lunch - "

"Usually we only get nineteen minutes," Penn interrupted in an aside to Luce's parents, who stiffened.

Luce smiled over Penn's head and mouthed, "She's kidding."

"Next you'll have your choice of activities. Our very own biologist, Ms. Yolanda Tross, will deliver a fascinating lecture in the library on the local Savannah flora found on campus. Coach Diante will supervise a series of family-friendly races out here on the lawn. And Mr. Stanley Cole will offer a historical guided tour of our prized heroes' cemetery. It's going to be a very busy day. And yes,"

Headmaster Udell said with a cheesy, toothy grin, "you will be tested on this."

It was just the right kind of bland and hackneyed joke to earn some canned laughter out of the bunch of visiting family members. Luce rolled her eyes at Penn. This depressing attempt at good-natured chuckling made it all too clear that everyone was here in order to feel better about leaving their children in the hands of the Sword & Cross faculty. The Prices laughed, too, but kept looking at Luce for more cues on how to handle themselves.

After lunch, the other families around the commons packed up their picnics and retreated to various corners. Luce got the feeling that very few people were actually participating in the school-sanctioned events. No one had followed Ms. Tross up to the library, and so far only Gabbe and her grandfather had climbed into a potato sack at the other end of the field.

Luce didn't know where Molly or Arriane or Roland had sneaked off to with their families, and she still hadn't seen Daniel. She did know that her own parents would be disappointed if they saw nothing of the campus and didn't participate in any planned events. Since Mr. Cole's guided tour seemed like the least of the evils, Luce suggested they pack up their leftovers and join him by the cemetery gates.

As they were on the way over, Arriane swung herself off the top bleacher like a gymnast dismounting a parallel bar. She stuck her landing right in front of Luce's parents.

"Hell0000," she crooned, doing her best crazy-girl impression.

"Mom and Dad," Luce said, squeezing their shoulders, "this is my good friend Arriane,"

"And this" - Arriane pointed at the tall, hot-pink-headed girl who was slowly picking her way down the bleacher stairs, "is my sister, Annabelle."

Annabelle ignored Luce's extended hand and swept her into her open arms for an extended, intimate hug.

Luce could feel their bones crunching together. The intense hug lasted long enough for Luce to wonder what was up with it, but just as she was starting to feel uncomfortable, Annabelle let her go.

"It's so good to meet you," she said, taking Luce's hand.

"Likewise," Luce said, giving Arriane a sideways glance.

"Are you two going on Mr. Cole's tour?" Luce asked Arriane, who was also looking at Annabelle as if she were crazy.

Annabelle opened her mouth, but Arriane quickly cut her off. "Hell no," she said. "These activities are for absolute lame-o's." She glanced at Luce's parents. "No offense." Annabelle shrugged. "Maybe we'll have a chance to catch up later!" she called to Luce before Arriane tugged her away.

"They seemed nice," Luce's mother said in the probing voice she used when she wanted Luce to explain something.

"Um, why was that girl so into you?" Penn asked.

Luce looked at Penn, then at her parents. Did she really have to defend, in front of them, the fact that someone might like her?

"Lucinda!" Mr. Cole called, waving from the otherwise unoccupied meet-up point by the cemetery gates. "Over here!"

Mr. Cole clasped both of her parents' hands warmly and even gave Penn's shoulders a squeeze.

Luce was trying to decide whether she should be more annoyed by Mr. Cole's participation in Parents' Day or impressed by his fake show of enthusiasm. But then he began speaking and surprised her.

"I practice for this day all year," he whispered. "A chance to take the students out in the fresh air and explain the many marvels of this place - oh, I do love it. It's the closest a reform school teacher gets to a real field trip. 'Course, no one's ever shown up for my tours in years past, which makes you my inaugural tour - "


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