Zinder Bale's School of Villainy: Sample chapters
Chapter One: Jeremy
Jeremy Butters sat alone in the corner booth of the coffee shop. He took a sip from his cup, and sighed.
Sweet with a hint of caramel and brown sugar.
Dad would like it. I should bring him some tomorrow.
He took another sip. The drink was rich and expensive. It was the kind of coffee that made him feel older than he was. It wasn’t that he didn’t like being eleven, but he never quite saw himself like others his age. He’d never known another eleven-year-old who’d built an electromagnetic shock blaster out of a CRT television, a twenty-amp speaker, and a garage door opener. Or one who had assembled and mounted a death ray while hanging from the top of a utility pole. Or even one who had robbed four banks in three states in less than fifteen minutes.
Jeremy took another sip of coffee.
“Cranberry tart,” the cashier called.
Jeremy stood and navigated the cluster of tables, squeezing past a bald, fat man furiously typing away at his computer. Jeremy approached the counter where his freshly baked pastry waited in a paper sack.
“Could you tell me what type of beans were brewed for this cup?” Jeremy asked the cashier. She had at least nine sets of earrings, and her fingernails were painted in black and white zebra stripes.
I wonder how many hours those that took to do, he mused.
She shrugged. “Brown?”
“Well, yes. I know that, but you see, my father, he loves coffee, and I’ve, well I thought it might be nice to get him something new, something he—” Jeremy paused. Villain tenet #629: Don’t ramble. No one wants to follow a rambler. Rambling suggests uncertainty in oneself and will not inspire confidence in one’s minions. Besides . . . this cashier either doesn’t know what bean this coffee is from, or she doesn’t care. Thank her for the pastry and walk away. “Thank you,” he said.
“Sure thing,” she said.
Note to self: learn more about coffee beans.
He took the bag, but paused as soon as he lifted it. Something was wrong. The sack that supposedly held his six-ounce cranberry tart was a good sixteen ounces too heavy. Something was in his pastry bag that did not belong.
He quickly studied the room to see if anyone was watching him. On any other day, an bloated breakfast bag would have barely agitated his paranoia; however, there had been so many peculiarities over the last few days that he was on a heightened sense of awareness. Wednesday morning, he could have sworn someone was spying on him from behind a chokeberry bush. On Thursday, a distracted construction worker seemed more interested in Jeremy’s behavior than in smoothing the wet slab of concrete at his knees. And then just yesterday, some of his tools had gone missing—and Jeremy never misplaced his tools.
This was not some oversized pastry: something else was in his bag.
He casually parted the brown paper with two fingers and peeked inside.
Multicolored wires spaghettied around a black shape, no bigger than a baseball. His heart clenched.
Don’t react, he told himself. You’re probably being watched. Act like nothing’s wrong.
He clamped down on the inside of his cheek, focusing on the pain to suppress any expression of alarm.
Villain tenet #14: don’t panic—not when you are humiliated in front of your betters, not when your carefully constructed mega-death-ray has unexpectedly overheated, and not even when a tight-wearing superhero has you cornered and there’s nowhere to run.
Don’t panic, Jeremy chanted inside his head. Think of your options.
I can drop the bag and run. Maybe throw it across the room before the bomb inside explodes?
No. Think harder.
Someone put this here for me. I need to find out who it is.
“Excuse me, miss?” Jeremy called to the cashier. She looked up. “Do you have a plastic sandwich bag?”
She sighed just loud enough to let him know how long the line of customers was and how inconvenienced she felt by the request, but just quiet enough that some bratty eleven-year-old probably wouldn’t notice. She rummaged under the counter until she finally found a Ziplock baggie.
“Perfect,” he said. “Oh, and you have very nice fingernails.”
For the first time, her mouth broke into a genuine smile, and her face brightened with appreciation. “Thank you so much,” she said, glancing at the zebra stripes.
Villain tenet #93: Compliments build allegiances. Criticisms tear them down.
Even in the face of certain death, Jeremey would not forget his tenets. He scanned the faces in the room while the cashier continued to admire her nails. A man with glasses too big for his head studied the Wall Street Journal. A woman lounging on a corner sofa devoured a thick novel with a picture of a half-dressed man on its cover. Others focused on their coffee or chatted in pairs. Just when Jeremy started to think that his stalker wasn’t in the room, a lanky man with puffy eyes looked up from his magazine and stared directly at him.
Jeremy knew the difference between the casual glance of a coffee house lounger and the watchful stare of a pursuer—and the bulbous eyes of the thin man were anything but casual.
Instead of returning to his corner booth, Jeremy shuffled between the tables, making his way past the glass display of donuts and toward the hallway with the restrooms. As he passed the fat man with the computer, Jeremy faked a stumble and purposely sloshed his coffee cup toward the man’s table. The man threw a protective arm in front of his computer. As Jeremy fell to the floor, he covertly reached under the man’s chair and yanked the computer’s power cord from the outlet in the wall.
“Excuse me,” Jeremy said. “I’m sorry.”
He set his coffee cup on the man’s table as he crawled to his feet. The man glanced at the cup, and in this split second of distraction, Jeremy planted his foot on the cord’s power adapter and jerked the plug free.
He wadded up the cord and hid it behind his pastry bag before picking up his coffee. Once he regained his composure, he proceeded to the bathroom. As he walked, he listened for any sign that his pursuer was following. He heard the soft slap of a magazine being set aside and the squeak of a chair sliding away from a table.
Work fast. You won’t have much time before he reaches you.
Once out of sight, Jeremy darted inside the bathroom and searched each of the four empty stalls. He fished through his pockets. Normally, he’d have a utility tool, a miniature blowtorch, ten feet of nylon rope, and a set of wire cutters with him; however, someone had stolen his tools two days ago, and the only thing he had with him now was a two-inch pocket knife. He cringed, wishing for the wire cutters that weren’t there.
He flipped out the blade and made a loop with the end of the laptop cord. He sawed at the cord until the knife sliced through. Holding the cut cord, Jeremy shaved away the rubber sheath until frayed, silver wires were exposed. He plugged the undamaged end into an outlet then piled the rest of the long cord into the sink, careful not to let the exposed wires touch any drops of water on the ceramic.
He gently pulled the hidden explosive from his cranberry tart bag.
A complicated rainbow of wires and plugs tangled around the bomb. Careful not to nudge any of the contacts, Jeremy slipped the explosive into the ziplock baggie from the cashier and set it in front of the fourth stall. He pulled off his shoes and socks, sighing when he realized he was about to ruin his favorite pair socks—tall, blue socks with pictures of yellow bolts of electricity crackling through them.
Villain tenet #18: Success demands sacrifice.
He wadded up his beautiful lightning socks, stuffed them down the toilet, and flushed.
A gurgling noise told him that the socks had done their duty and had not died in vain. The clogged toilet filled to its seat, and water splashed onto the floor.
As Jeremy slipped his feet back into his shoes, the bathroom doorknob turned, and the lanky man entered.
Jeremey scrambled back to the sink next to the exposed electrical cord. As soon as the door closed behind the man, Jeremy snatched up the frayed end of the laptop cord.
“Don’t move,” Jeremy said, holding up the laptop cord, “or we both die.”
A cocktail of confusion and uncertainty struck the man. He froze. The pool of toilet water continued to swell, its edges reaching the ziplock baggie on the floor.
“If you take one step, I will drop this into the water.” Jeremy lowered the cord’s exposed wires closer to the water spilling over the floor.
“Wait! What are you doing? Stop that.”
Jeremy met the man’s eyes. “Who are you working for?”
“I’m—I’m just the putpocket. I don’t know anything!”
“You’re a pickpocket?”
“No. A putpocket.”
The man stared at the bomb inside the plastic bag then looked at his watch.
Jeremy snapped his fingers to redirect the man’s attention. “Look at me—not at that,” he said, nudging the bag with his toe.
“But it’s—” The man looked at his watch again: “It’s going to explode in less than two minutes. We need to get out of here. Now.”
Jeremy’s heart began to race. He was easily as nervous about the timer as the putpocket seemed to be, but Jeremy remembered Villain Tenet #40: when you are the most afraid, act the most nonchalant.
Jeremy put on his best look of indifference. “It doesn’t matter.”
“But it’s going to explode!” the man screeched.
“Focus,” Jeremy said. “Answer my question. Or we both die. Understand?” He didn’t wait for the man to respond. “What’s a putpocket?”
“I—I don’t steal things from people. I put things in their pockets.”
“Things?” Jeremy cocked his head. “Like explosives?”
The man shifted uncomfortably—eyes still on the bag—and held up an envelope. “And other things. . .”
Jeremy reached over and took it. His name was inked above a red wax seal on the back.
“Is this . . .?” Jeremy paused, staring at the envelope.
The man nodded. “The response to your application.”
“Is it good news?”
“I was only to give it to you if you survived.” The putpocket glanced at the water. “The bomb was your final entrance test.”
At the man’s words, Jeremy fought to hold back a grin. “Well, then, it was very nice meeting you, but as I’m sure you understand, I have to be on my way.” He tapped the envelope against the back of his hand. “I have some packing to attend.”
Jeremy kicked the bomb to a dry corner of the room and tossed the frayed end of the cord into the center of the puddle. The putpocket squealed, and his whole body tensed, but both he and Jeremy wore rubber-soled shoes and would likely be unharmed.
A spark danced along the water, and a pop echoed through the bathroom. The lights in the coffeehouse dimmed and died.
Jeremy looked at his watch. “I’d move away from that stall if I were you. And don’t follow me.”
With that, he slipped into the darkness of the coffee shop, followed by the squealing putpocket. Seven seconds later, an explosion rumbled from the bathroom, and Jeremy listened to a geyser of water erupt from the sock-clogged toilet.
He took out his phone and called his father.
“Hello, Jeremy. How has your—”
“I got it,” Jeremy said, unable to hide the glee in his tone. “I got the letter.”
“Are you on your way home?” his father asked. “Wait to open it. I’ll have the family here in ten minutes!”
Jeremy hurried home. Villain Tenet #231 suggested that he should proceed with caution and judgement in the face of victory, but for the first time in a long while, Jeremy didn’t care about following one of his villain tenets.
His face broken into an open-mouthed grin, and he ran the rest of the way home.
When he arrived nine minutes later, his family was waiting expectantly.
Jeremy stood before them and broke the envelope’s wax seal. Inside, was a small note. His father, Warren Butters, leaned forward in his chair, gripping one hand in the other.
With a deep breath, Jeremy began: “We are pleased to inform applicant Jeremy Butters of his acceptance to Zinder Bale’s School of Villainy.”
“Hoorah!” his father gave the air a sharp uppercut with a bony fist.
With strength beyond what her ninety-pound frame should allow, Jeremy’s mother pulled her son into a suffocating hug. “Oh, honey, I’m so proud!”
Grandmother Butters gave him a soft, encouraging smile. Grandfather Butters warbled his approval, in a shaky voice, as he leaned forward in his plush recliner. His frail body looked like a tangle of wires draped in a wrinkled blanket of skin. “Another generation of Butterses in the family business. I almost lost hope after your daft sister wasn’t accepted.”
Jeremy frowned. Rose was too sweet for a life of villainy, and there was nothing wrong with being sweet. The world needed cupcake makers as much as it needed villains. As far as Jeremy was concerned, villainy was not for everyone, despite what Grandfather Butters thought. It was that sort of attitude that saturated the villain industry with far too many not-so-evil geniuses—villains with flashy schemes that never actually happened, powerful weapons of destruction that never really worked, and masterful methods of torture that they themselves could never quite stomach.
“Well, when do you start?” Grandfather Butters continued.
Jeremy scanned the document. “I'm not allowed to say.”
Grandfather Butters nodded with a boyish grin.
Jeremy read to himself.
Information below is for the student’s knowledge only:
As of this moment you are one of twelve members of the 117th Ring of Zinder Bale’s School of Villainy. You will rendezvous with your ring under Duck River Bridge two sundowns after next. Your ring leader will provide further instructions.
Bring only what you can fit in your pockets—nothing more.
The sound of congratulations blurred into the background of Jeremy’s mind as he smiled at the paper in his hand. Though only a boy of thirteen, Jeremy would show the world what a true villain could be.
Chapter Two: Skye
The faint-hearted didn’t even try to get accepted to the renowned Academy of Heroism and Heroic Actions. If the “Wrestling with a Lion” section of the entrance exam didn’t scare you off, the “Catch a Car” or “Stop a Train” portions might. If not those, then four hours of fill-in-the-bubble tests would definitely finish the job.
But for those hopefuls who remained — the few, the proud, the stupid — the last remaining hurdle was the final interview.
No tricks, no powers, no sidekicks.
Just an interview.
With twelve of the world’s biggest superheroes.
But Skye was the daughter of Lady Swift and The Blue Thunderbolt. No Fear was literally her middle name; she rescued her first puppy at the tender age of three and ate aptitude tests for breakfast.
And now, standing in front of those twelve trustees, their faces and identities hidden behind shadowy shields, she felt only what might be called—if she were to be excessive—the tiniest twinge of excitement.
In truth, this was the moment she had lived for. Ever since she could walk, her older brother Blaine — Mr. Sensational, to his adoring public — had regaled her with tales of his time at the Academy. The fully interactive city, complete with robotic civilians crying for help; the faculty and their 4,721 save-the-day moments between them; the villain faces jokingly pinned to the dorm room dart boards . . .
AHHA had taken up residence in her brain as a magical place since then, and her determination to get accepted was larger than the comet her father had pushed away from the Earth’s atmosphere just last week.
Skye had personally starched her crisp white shirt four times before the iron overheated, and her wrinkle-free blazer and skirt would have met the approval of even the most fastidious of bat cave butlers. Her mother had helped her shine her shoes that morning, right after redirecting a hurricane off of Florida’s coast. This interview needed to be as perfect as her flawless French twist, and she would make it happen as surely as she had aced every single bubble-sheet test they had placed in front of her.
“What do you believe the most important attribute of any superhero should be, Ms. Blackwell?” one of the trustees asked from behind the shadows.
Skye straightened, practically clicking her heels together as she stood at attention. “Heroes are selfless,” she answered firmly. “They sacrifice what they need to, whether it’s wealth, attention, or public accolades, to get the job done.”
“And would you be willing to sacrifice like that?” another trustee asked.
“In a heartbeat,” Skye said.
“And where do you stand on covert operations?” a female’s voice floated down from the dais where additional shadows loomed above Skye.
Skye felt herself stand even taller, as though personally offended by the question.
“A hero never hides,” she said firmly.
(Hero Handbook, Article 2, Section 8B, Subsection 9.27, thank you very much.)
“Darn tootin!” one of the trustee’s shadows exclaimed enthusiastically, tacking on a loud “yee-haw” for good measure.
Skye suppressed a smile. No on was supposed to know who the trustees were, but only an idiot would fail to recognize the thick Texas drawl of Surefire, a superhero whose electrical whip could — and frequently did — convince bandits that some time in the ol’ calaboose was a better option than fighting.
“Platitudes are simple things,” a quiet voice said from the edge of the half circle of trustees. The shadowed figure leaned forward, hands clasped and elbows on their knees, gazing at her closely.
“But how far would you be willing to go? What would you give up? Your family? Your reputation? Your entire world?”
For the first time since she had started down the path to becoming a superhero in her own right, Skye paused. It was a brief hesitation, though—barely a blink. She knew the right answer, just like she always knew every right answer.
“I will sacrifice whatever is necessary.”
“How do you think it went?” Skye’s mother asked her for the umpteenth time. It was a question that didn’t need answered, seeing as how the names of the lucky six future superheroes who had been accepted into AHHA would be read across the Superhero Network in just a few minutes, but Skye answered it anyway.
“I think it went well,” she said.
“Ah!” her father interrupted, swinging his cape out of the way as he dropped down beside her on the couch. “A hero is—”
“Always confident,” Skye chanted in unison, completing his thought. “I know the power trials and testing went well. It’s always so hard to tell with interviews. But I tried my best.”
“Good girl,” her father nodded in approval, twirling a fork in his right hand. “A hero is also humble.”
“Where is your brother?” Skye’s mother asked no one in particular, moving from the kitchen to the living room so quickly that Skye didn’t even have time to blink.
“He’ll be here,” her father said, leaning back on the couch with an entire apple pie cradled in his hands. The whipped cream piled on the pie threatened to slide off onto his utility belt, which sat discarded next to him. He crossed his spandex-clad ankles and tried to keep his fork from slipping out of his gloved hands.
“You really should change before dinner,” Skye’s mother said, raising an eyebrow at him.
“Eh, Jimmy’s gang is planning to rob the Kiss My Heart jewelry store at 7:30,” he said. “Couldn’t miss this announcement, though! A fourth graduate from AHHA in the family — this’ll shut Soundskimmer up for sure.” He adopted a tinny falsetto: “‘My kid swung a tornado into outer space.’ ‘My kid reconnected an iceberg to Antarctica.’ Man alive, that guy’s annoying in the break room. But not tomorrow!”
He ruffled Skye’s hair affectionately, juggling his pie all the while. She grinned and straightened the mess. The walls of the family home were filled with shelves highlighting her family’s many achievements—that one time her father rescued the president, her mother’s first race with an SR-71 Blackbird, the first time her brother stopped an earthquake—but nothing made her father more proud than the line of AHHA graduation photos. There was room for one more picture.
Getting into AHHA wasn't just a continuation of a family tradition. It was more than that. It was also a chance for her to hone her powers, learn from the greatest superheroes the world had ever seen, and enter into their ranks as a hero in her own right. Only a fool would take an opportunity like that lightly, and she wasn’t a fool. Flashcards, practice bubble sheet tests, hero job shadowing, minor rescues, tutoring sessions with other telekenetics — Skye had dedicated her life to the pursuit of truth, justice, the American way . . . and also, a spot at AHHA.
Heroes were never scared, and she wasn’t either. Sure, it had been a little nerve-wracking to stand in front of the Board of Trustees while they fired hypothetical questions at her, just as it had been nerve-wracking to stand up in the talent trials while they fired literal rockets at her, but both had ended well. Of course, the endless bubble sheet tests and questionnaires had been intimidating, but no more intimidating than piledriving that lion. But preparation is the perfect remedy for anxiety, and now, secretly, Skye allowed herself to feel confidence.
She was born to be a superhero.
Just then, her brother Blaine — Mr. Sensational, to his adoring fans — dropped through the house’s open skylight and landed on one knee in the traditional heroic pose.
“I told you the skylight was a good idea,” Skye’s mother observed through a mouth full of apple pie.
“Where have you been?” Skye asked.
“I had a meeting,” Blaine said, straightening up and dusting off his cape. “It went long.”
One rapid spin, and he was suddenly in civilian clothes, ready to watch the Superhero Network’s broadcast with the rest of the family.
“What I wouldn’t give for quick-change powers,” Skye’s father grumbled, as he always did. “Spandex and apple pie don’t mix.”
“Oh! It’s starting!” Skye’s mother exclaimed suddenly, jumping for the remote and turning the volume up on the TV. Skye’s heart dropped into her stomach and sat there like she’d swallowed a watermelon, while her heart started to dance a West Coast Swing.
“Welcome to the six o’clock broadcast,” the newscaster said cheerily. “I'm Night Enchantress, and this is my cohost, Freezerburn. Our top story for tonight follows up on the disappearance of Captain Pulsar, who has been missing now for almost three months.”
“I heard he’s touring Saturn,” Skye’s mother said.
“Not a chance,” her father countered. “He hates the cold. I think he’s just taking it easy at the Atlantis Hotel under Gibraltar. I know Hammerhead was begging him to visit last year.”
“Three months is a long time for either option,” Skye said, frowning at the TV and trying to calm her skittish heart at the same time. She had been following the Captain Pulsar story closely, mostly because the disappearance of the world’s most powerful superhero was worth watching. But when you’re indestructible, can fly, and occasionally shoot lasers out of your eyes, a months-long disappearance had to be a choice, right?
“Maybe villains kidnapped him,” Skye’s father joked, licking whipped cream off his fingers.
Skye snorted at the thought. Villains, like Captain Pulsar’s disappearance, were worth watching, but mostly just for entertainment purposes. Oh sure, there were occasional super-geniuses or sorcerers who caused trouble for the more powerful superheroes, but most villains were just begging for scraps of attention. Sure, they melted the Statue of Liberty once in a while or spun Australia like a top occasionally, but making kangaroos nauseous was no way to take over the world.
“Tonight, as I’m sure many of you know, is a special night for six future superheroes,” the news anchor said, switching over stories to the one Skye actually cared about. “And with more on that, I’m happy to welcome Headmaster Derecho, of the Academy of Heroism and Heroic Actions here to continue the story.”
As Headmaster Derecho — so named for his ability to blow over buildings (although a hero would obviously never do such a thing) — took his place at the news anchor’s desk, calmly tapping a single piece of paper on the desk in front of him, Skye unconsciously pulled her long blonde hair into both fists and squeezed.
“Darling, you’re levitating the couch,” her mother said, putting a calming hand on Skye’s shoulder.
“Oh, sorry!” Skye said, dropping the couch down from where it had been floating, jolting them all.
“Ah man,” her father groaned, picking pie crust off his cape.
“Told you,” her mother shrugged.
“Here we go,” Blaine said quietly, pulling their attention back to the TV.
“As always, I am delighted to be back to announce the incoming class at the Academy of Heroism and Heroic Actions,” Headmaster Derecho said, his deep voice echoing through the airwaves.
Across the country, civilians ate their dinner, went to movies, and laughed with friends, not knowing that the superheroes in their midst were largely glued to their television screens for this once-a-year announcement.
“Someone could rob a bank right now, and I’d let ‘em,” Skye’s father whispered.
Headmaster Derecho leaned forward and cleared his throat.
“AHHA is proud to welcome the following new members to its ranks,” he said. “Erick Washington, aka The Human Snowball; Paul Gutierrez, aka Wingflight; Naomi Mizota, aka Ms. Brimstone; Rebecca Salinger, aka Technagirl; Nicholas Kretschmer, aka Stretchimal; and Jemima Abbott, aka Star Woman.”
Skye stared at the television in silence.
Six names. Six pictures. Six acceptance letters currently being beamed out across six official Hero fax machines.
And none of them were hers.
She fell back against the couch, stunned.
“Is . . . is that it?” her father asked the empty air. “Are they going to read more names after commercials?”
“Maybe they’re not done yet,” Skye’s mother echoed.
Skye didn’t say anything.
But Headmaster Derecho did.
“While we honor the achievements of these six budding superheroes, there’s another story at work this evening, and it takes me down a path I very much dislike traveling,” he said. “As all of you are aware, being a superhero requires standards of behavior that go beyond those of ordinary men and women. When someone violates these standards, our only acceptable response as a community is to point out the failings and call for each of us to be better.”
“This isn’t normal,” Skye’s father said, leaning his elbows on his knees as he listened intently.
“For the first time since the AHHA opened, the school saw a student achieve perfect scores on both the aptitude and written tests,” Headmaster Derecho said.
Skye, to her astonishment, saw her own picture appear in the corner of the screen. It was last year’s school picture, where she couldn’t have looked more all-American if she had tried.
Well . . . actually, she had been trying. All-American was kind of what she did, especially on picture day.
“However, an investigation into Ms. Blackwell’s scores revealed alarming discrepancies indicating flaws with the results. To be blunt, it is my sad duty to report that Skye Blackwell has been found guilty of cheating on the Academy of Heroism and Heroic Action’s entrance exam.”
“What?” Skye whispered.
“In light of this incident, we have found it necessary to pull Ms. Blackwell’s application to the Academy, as well as install a lifetime ban preventing her from ever entering the renowned ranks of our world’s superheroes.”
Tweaking her fingers, Skye turned down the volume on the TV without moving from where she sat.
Silence filled the room. It poked at Skye and gnawed at everyone until it became too uncomfortable to bear.
Superheroes don’t like being uncomfortable.
“Skye?” her mother asked. It was a single, innocent word, but Skye flinched at the obvious question it contained.
“Is this true?” her father demanded, looking over at her with a frown.
“I didn’t cheat,” she swallowed. “I would never.”
“But Headmaster Derecho and the Board of Trustees — they wouldn’t make a mistake like this,” her mother said in confusion. “Superheroes don’t make mistakes.”
“You can’t really think . . .”
Skye glanced at the television, where Headmaster Derecho had been joined by Surefire and two other superheroes. The three of them were mouthing words on the volume-less television, breaking down the discrepancies in her test for the entire superhero world to see. More pictures of her flashed on the screen: her Hero Scouts capeing ceremony at age eight, her lifting the family car in the air while her parents waved from the sunroof, the family Christmas card with the four of them smiling from atop a cloud over the Grand Canyon.
“Can you explain why they might think you cheated?” Skye’s mother probed.
“Why would I cheat?” Skye asked, jumping to her feet and pacing across the room. “I didn’t need to cheat. I would never cheat!”
“Perhaps the pressure we placed on you . . .” her father said, running his hand over his head as the weight of the situation sank in. “Maybe this is our fault.”
“No!” Skye exclaimed. “I didn’t cheat!”
She looked at Blaine, who was still sitting quietly on the couch.
“You know I wouldn’t cheat,” she said. “Tell them! Help me tell everyone!”
“Skye . . .” Her brother looked down. “I mean . . . the entire board must’ve been convinced by the evidence.”
She stared at her brother, open-mouthed.
“Really, Blaine?” she whispered, feeling tears welling up despite herself. She clenched her jaw.
Heroes don’t cry.
But maybe cheaters did.
Abruptly, she turned on her heels and ran for the relative safety of her bedroom. Every step upward felt like a part of her life was crumbling to the ground behind her. To be accused of cheating? Unthinkable. To be prohibited from attending the Academy? Catastrophic. To be banned from being a superhero, for life? Devastating.
Skye slammed her bedroom door and fell across her bed, grabbing her hero tablet and pulling up the Hero Web. Scanning through the newly-posted headlines, it seemed like her name was the only one that existed in the world. Darksource could steal an entire country, at this rate, and nobody would even notice. It was too much fun to talk about how the daughter of two famous superheroes was, apparently, a super villain instead.
She powered down the tablet and squeezed her eyes shut. How could her parents think she would cheat? How could Blaine? How could anyone? And what could she do about it?
Soon, Skye heard her parents leave the house, her father launching through the skylight and her mother zipping out the door. She knew the two of them must’ve gone to see the Board of Trustees at the Base skyscraper, because their hushed voices soon returned, bringing snippets of conversation with them. She wasn’t meant to overhear, but she did, all the same.
“Showed me the test results,” her father whispered. “Every answer the same, right down to the essay answers, word-for-word.”
“We’ll have to talk to her,” her mother murmured. “Maybe boarding school . . . correct her where we failed . . .”
Skye’s mother came knocking around nine, but she ignored her. Her father followed later, around ten, but she stayed quiet. Then Blaine followed, around midnight, asking quietly through the door, “Are you okay?”
And she never would be again.