The Loners

Page 1



David remembered her. Julie Tanaka. She used to be gorgeous. He’d spent an entire semester of biology class fantasizing about her. She was perpetually tan and had a physique that always rendered David speechless. But now she looked like an old sewer rat. The tip of her nose was gone, like a piece of string cheese with the end chomped off. Her arms were spindly, and her bony joints jutted out like thorns.

Her skin was brittle and dry. Her white hair was dirty and frayed. He studied Julie’s eyes. They were full of hate. She seemed hungry to get a little payback for what over a year in this place had done to her.

She’d get her chance any minute now.

David surveyed the quad. Hundreds of kids stood along the perimeter, staring up at the massive gray veil that obscured the sky. The dim daylight that passed through the translucent canopy cast dull shadows across David’s lean face. He took stock of his competition. Some kids hopped up and down or stretched their muscles. Others wrung their hands. They were grouped by hair color. The blue-hairs stood together at the south wall, the reds at the east opposite the yellows, and so on all around the quad.

But David had no group. He had only his brother, Will, at his side. A familiar rumbling echoed in from the distance.

It was almost time. Anxious chatter got drowned out as the rumbling grew into a quickening thunder. The gray sky began to wobble and shake. The noise settled right above the quad, and the protective canopy convulsed like the ocean’s surface in a violent storm.

David shouted a staccato command at Will. “Southeast corner!”

He could barely hear his own voice over the swelling roar above. It didn’t really matter. Will knew where to meet. David still reminded him every time. And he always got back the same exasperated nod from Will.

David trained his eyes back on the gray canopy and saw what everyone was waiting for. A twenty-yard incision split it open from the outside, revealing a brilliant slash of aqua-blue sky. Kids too timid to step foot onto the quad leaned out of windows and doorways for this brief contact with the outside world. Many of them stretched their arms skyward. Some of them sobbed. Others clapped their hands together in prayer.

They came for this moment only, to catch a glimpse of the blue sky, to feel the warmth of the sun. They didn’t have the courage to participate in what would happen next.

A black military helicopter eclipsed the view of the sky and lowered its giant cargo through the opening. Pallets of food, water, and supplies were lashed together into a single block the size of a school bus. The mass of supplies breached the slash and hung there, suspended by a cable forty feet above them.

The cable detached with a plink. The block of pallets fell.

It cracked into the ground and broke apart, scattering supplies all over the quad. As the helicopter retreated, an unseen mechanism mended the slit in the gray canopy. The kids on the perimeter bolted from the school walls and charged the mound of supplies. Colors collided. All around David kids kicked, clawed, and stomped each other to get at the food.

David never thought high school would be this hard.


BEFORE . . .

DAVID THREW HIS GIRLFRIEND’S PHONE INTO the toilet. It sank to the bottom of the bowl, two years down the drain. The bathroom door was locked behind him. The door muffled the blasting music and drunken shouting of the house party on the other side. He couldn’t deal with all those people out there yet, he had to wrap his mind around what he’d just seen.

An hour ago when Hilary had forgotten her phone in his Jeep, he shouldn’t have checked her text messages. But he did. And there it was, a text from Sam Howard asking her what underwear she was going to wear that night.

David wrapped his hands around the cold porcelain sink in front of him. He wanted to rip it out of the wall. If David hadn’t checked that stupid pink phone, then he never would have known. Maybe that would’ve been better. Then he wouldn’t have driven to this shitty party at Sam’s house and spotted Sam and Hilary together at the end of a long hall full of sweaty people. He would have spared himself the sight of Sam covertly palming Hilary’s ass, and Hilary swatting it away, blushing and smiling. She liked it.

There was a knock on the bathroom door.

“Occupied,” David said.

“It’s me,” Hilary said from the hall.

David popped the lock, swung the door open, grabbed Hilary by the wrist, and pulled her into the bathroom. He kicked the door closed.

“Hey! What’s with the rough stuff?” Hilary said, and jerked her arm free of his grip.

She stood inches from him in the cramped, closet-size bathroom, looking more beautiful than ever. She had one of those impossible faces, the ones that only seem to exist on magazine covers. And her body, Jesus. David had always told her that if she ever posted a naked picture on the Internet, all of the comments would be angry claims that she was Photo-shopped.

“Are you having a good time?” David asked.

“What are you doing here? You don’t come to parties.” She scrunched up her nose like she was grossed out. It was the way she flirted. She faked like she thought you were a weirdo. David used to see it as a challenge. But this time, she wasn’t pulling it off. He studied the way her lips fidgeted, the way her eyes wanted to look away from his.

“You got a text,” David said, and he nodded toward the toilet.

She looked at her pink phone in the still water.

“I just got that phone, psycho!”

Her outraged expression went calm and controlled as she continued to stare at the phone. She must have been realizing she’d been caught. Her lips were wet with a berry-colored gloss. Her makeup was prom-night perfect. She’d gone all out tonight, but it wasn’t for him.

“Sam? Why Sam, of all people?” David asked.

She let out a tense breath and raked her fingers through her hair.

“We need to talk, David.”

“No, you need to talk. Tell me why.”

“I don’t know. It just happened.”

“Really? You’re giving me the it just happened excuse?” David said.

Where was I’m sorry? David thought. Where was I love you and I made a horrible mistake?

“You had to know this was coming,” Hilary said.

David stared at her. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

“Are you serious? You’re gonna tell me this is my fault?”

“You know, this past year was hard on me too,” she said.

“It was hard on you that my mom died? Oh, real sorry about that.”

“This is why I haven’t been able to talk to you. You won’t listen,” Hilary said.

“No, I’m listening. Tell me how it’s okay that you slept with one of my teammates.”

“I’m not happy when I’m with you, David!” Hilary said. “What do you want me to say?”

With all of the anger he had coursing through him, her words still cut deep.

“This whole time I thought you cared about me,” David said.

“I do. I’ve been there for you. Through the funeral, through everything. Every day. You know I was.”

“And then every day, you snuck off to bang Sam?”

“No,” she said. “I’ve only been seeing Sam a couple weeks.”

“Only?” David laughed in disbelief. “What do you see in that jackass?”

“He’s got big dreams,” she said without hesitating. “He’s going somewhere.”

“Wow. Who the fuck are you?” David said.

Hilary tilted her head in that certain way she did when she was about to boil over.

“I didn’t change, David, you did! What happened to the guy who gave a shit?”

“I’m right here.”

“Yeah? ’Cause I only see the quarterback who quit the team in the middle of the play-offs, the one who stopped hanging out with all our friends. I honestly thought you’d pull your shit together and try to be happy again.” Hilary leaned forward, pointing at him.

“But then I realized you want to be miserable,” she said.

“You don’t ever want us to hang out with anyone, you spend all day alone, you work extra night shifts at the supermarket, all so you never have to move on.”

“You’re too good to date someone who works at a supermarket?” David said.

“I’m too good to date a loser.”

Her words were a kick to the balls. At first it was pure shock, then the shock gave way to a terrible, clenching ache that hurt worse and worse with every second.

Hilary’s venom seemed to drain out of her. Her posture became awkward, and she backed toward the door.

“I’m sorry,” Hilary said.

She opened the door and left.

David emerged from the bathroom with his chest out and his shoulders pulled back. He pushed through the crowd in the hall, ignoring the watchful eyes around him.

He stepped into the living room. It was large with reddish wooden walls, like a cabin in the woods. The high ceiling had two large skylights, blacked out by the dark night above them.

The wood floor was scuffed and brown and tilted to the east.

There were two couches and two recliners, all pointed toward an obscenely large big-screen television, not a flat screen, an old six-foot-tall black box that dominated the room and played a muted NFL game on its burned-out screen. The music was fast and harsh but was nearly drowned out by everyone talking over each other. He saw guys using thin excuses to touch girls, and he saw girls flawlessly acting like they didn’t know what the guys were up to. People were clustered into separate groups all across the room. There were almost as many new kids as familiar faces, transplants from all across Colorado, thanks to the job boom in Pale Ridge. David watched as a new kid orbited the different groups like a party satellite, hoping to penetrate one of the circles. All the kid was looking for was a little approval, just a slight parting of a circle or a nod of acceptance. He hovered around one group after another until the message sank in. They all knew he was there, and they weren’t going to let him in. The kid shuffled out of the room, straining to look casual, red keg cup clutched in hand, in search of other circles that might be less selective.

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