The Loners

Page 11

“Your mouth is real small,” Brad mumbled, taking a step into the booth. He tried to stuff his empty plastic cup into his pocket, but it slipped out of his hand and rattled onto the floor. He didn’t seem aware of it.

David’s view of her was completely obscured by Brad now.

His chest tensed, and he edged forward. Brad’s voice devolved into a drunken murmur. He was so wasted. How was he even standing up?

“No, Brad,” she said. “Leave me alone.”

David had moved close enough that he could hear their hushed conversation. He was out of the shadows now, much closer than any of the other spectators dared go. He didn’t really know why. What he did know was that he couldn’t fight with a Varsity.

“No? Who do you think you are?” Brad said.

“I’m a Pretty One,” she said, with a sudden burst of confidence.

“Oh, really? ’Cause word is you got kicked out.” He’s not going to rape her . He’s just trying to scare her.

David looked back at the rest of the spectators and prayed that one of them would intervene. As a group speaking out, maybe they could diffuse the situation. Some of them looked upset, but the gleam in their eyes was sadistic. They weren’t going to stop this spectacle. David felt a drip of sweat slide down his temple.

“C’mere, party girl,” Brad cooed as he pawed at her.

“Get away from me!”

She threw all her weight against Brad in a moment of frantic bravery. He wasn’t expecting it, and the booze slowed his reaction time. She squeezed out of the booth.

“You’re not going anywhere,” Brad said. He was angry now.

Brad yanked her over to him by her sleeve. His hand flopped down on her thigh, and he roughly tugged her dress up toward her hips. Her eyes locked with David’s. Something gave way inside him. David let go of his bag. His feet broke into a run before he’d even decided to do anything. His whole body flashed hot. In five steps he crossed the foyer and clumsily kicked Brad in the side with all the momentum of his run.

Brad shouted in pain and fell away from the girl. He looked up at David, shocked and angry.

“Walk away, Brad,” David said, standing in front of the girl, shielding her.

“Oh, did you decide to get brave now, washing machine?” Brad said as he pulled himself off the floor. His face was convulsed with rage. “I’m gonna break that neck.” Brad swung at David’s chin with bad intentions. David ducked, but Brad’s fist glanced off the crown of his head. It threw him off balance, and David knocked the girl onto the ground behind him. A burning pain flared across his skull.

Brad cocked his other fist back, but David was faster. David threw everything he had into an uppercut that made something pop in his own shoulder. It connected with Brad’s chin.

Brad staggered back. He slipped on a pile of ash, fell, and cracked his head on the industrial steel of the testing booth.

His body went limp.

David was in an adrenaline haze. Bearing his teeth like an animal, he spun around to face any other attackers in case one of the shadow kids had suddenly gotten bold. The first face he saw was Will’s. All his anger drained away at once.

Will was standing twenty yards away. His face was a mask of confusion. He looked from the girl to David to Brad, like it was a puzzle he couldn’t make sense of.

Will hurried into the foyer, “What’s going on?” He dashed over to the girl, who was still on the floor, and grabbed her by the shoulders. “Lucy, are you okay?” Will said.

Will shook her when she didn’t answer.


The girl wasn’t listening. She was staring right through Will, up at David. Tears were swelling in her eyes.

David floundered, trying to catch his breath. A voice floated in from what seemed like an ocean away. He couldn’t hear the words exactly. David turned to see one of the Freaks who had been hiding in the shadows. He was now kneeling over Brad.

“What’d you say?” David asked.

“Brad’s dead.”


THE HALLWAY WAS DARK. THE ONLY SOUND was the shuffling of the girl’s and Will’s feet behind David.

“Hurry up,” Will whispered.

David realized he was creeping along at a snail’s pace. He couldn’t be too careful. There were plenty of witnesses to what had just happened. Word would travel fast. Distant fluorescent light from an adjacent hallway gleamed off the aluminum of the bashed-up elevator doors at the end of the hall.

The girl coughed. Her name was Lucy. Will knew her somehow. He insisted she come with them. It was the last thing David needed now, a third wheel. David waited for a moment in case the cough prompted any hidden attackers to step forward. Nothing happened.

He waved for Lucy and Will to follow. He tried to move slowly, but with every step toward home, he couldn’t help but speed up. By the time the three of them reached the end of the hall, they were all running. David threw open the door to the control closet, a few feet right of the aluminum elevator doors.

“Get in,” David said. Will gently took Lucy by the hand and led her inside. David made one last scan of the hall for any sign of approaching intruders and ducked in, pulling the door shut behind him.

Inside the closet, Will was already climbing up chunky machinery to a small ventilation duct, the width of a large pizza box. He slid himself in feetfirst, then turned back to Lucy and extended his hand to her.

“I’ve got you,” Will said. There was a good-natured smile on Will’s face that looked foreign to David. Will hoisted Lucy up into the vent, and David followed. David crawled blind through the cold metal air duct. His mind flashed bright with images of the scene in the foyer. The furious uppercut. Brad’s head cracking against the metal of the booth. The awful silence that followed. The Freaks all stared at David. Was that fear in their eyes? Or disgust? When he’d stumbled away from Brad’s body, some kids jumped back like they thought he might come after them too.

David squeezed out of the vent and into the pitch-black elevator shaft. He descended a few rungs of the metal maintenance ladder and dropped down onto the top of the elevator car. It creaked under the weight of three people, and every noise they made echoed as if the shaft had no bottom.

He reached up and pulled his backpack after him.

David couldn’t see two feet in front of him. Will pulled open the emergency hatch of the elevator they were standing on.

A weak brown light drifted up from the car’s interior. It illuminated the crisscrossing laundry lines David had rigged across the elevator shaft. Clothes hung down, still damp from the scrubbing earlier in the day.

“Here, let me help you,” Will said. He took Lucy by the forearms and lowered her down inside until her toes touched the floor. David didn’t like this. No one was ever supposed to know about their home.

“Lucy, I need to talk to Dave here for a sec,” Will said. “Make yourself at home. I’ll be right down. I can’t wait to talk.” Will dropped his smile and closed the hatch. David heard Will clomp toward him. He could just make out Will’s face inches from him.

“What the hell were you thinking?” Will said. “You had to do it again. Do you know how much shit is coming our way now?”

“It’s . . . I reacted to the situation, I didn’t know he would . . .

We’ll figure something out.”

Will’s face was barely visible, a dark, judgmental blur. David felt Will’s finger jab between his ribs. David shuffled toward the edge of the elevator car. One step backward and he’d plummet.

“You’re not dragging me down again.”

“She can’t stay here,” David said.

David heard Will back away. Will opened the hatch and dropped down inside.

He’d killed someone. David had to steady himself on the elevator cables. His hands felt numb, but his nerves buzzed.

How the hell did that happen? It was just a punch, and now Brad was gone. A whole history, a whole life. Done. He was probably being stuffed into a locker somewhere near the gym, with all of Varsity in the hallway, watching, and pacing, and hatching bloody plans to make things right.

David walked toward the light of the hatch. He lowered himself down inside.

When David landed in their crowded box, Will was wearing that good-natured smile again and lighting candles. Lucy looked all around at her new surroundings. The low voltage emergency lights cast a straw-colored glow onto the six-by-six-foot space. Shelves made from the tops of classroom desks lined the walls up by the ceiling. The lowest shelf contained all of David’s and Will’s food supplies and two sets of clothes for each. The upper shelf housed everything else: makeshift weapons, knickknacks that David and Will had salvaged from their lockers, library books, and everything else they owned.

David’s laundry supplies were gathered in a cinched sack that hung from the ceiling to save floor space. Their beds took up most of the floor, makeshift mattresses that were just piles of discarded clothes. There was about two square feet of clear floor space left. That’s where Lucy sat, her knees pulled in close to her body.

Will finished lighting the candles. They were precious supplies. Normally, David would get mad that Will was wasting them, but what did it matter now? Will pressed a button on the control panel, and the emergency lights turned off. The elevator car was dark and warm by candlelight. Will fished out a piece of dry bread from his loot sack, broke it in half, and handed half to Lucy. As she took it from him, their fingers touched. David noticed that Will let his fingers linger on hers longer than necessary.

“Lucy, you have nothing to worry about, okay?” Will said.

The tears collecting in Lucy’s eyes threatened to spill over, but she tapped them dry with a square of white cotton from her purse. She took a bite of bread and tried to settle herself.

“I like your place,” she said.

The sensation of his fist connecting with Brad’s jaw flickered through David’s knuckles again. For an instant, he reveled in it. No matter what he told himself, he had enjoyed knocking Brad to the ground. Before that Freak said Brad was dead, David had felt a rush of pride filling his chest.

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