The Loners

Page 15

The elevator stood at the corner of two perpendicular hallways. David had no idea which way to go. Right now, his brother could have been anywhere. He had no idea where to start looking, and he wanted to panic. David grabbed his forehead as if he was trying to squeeze out a single clear thought.

The Skaters . . . if Will had been taken, the Skaters might have heard something. They spread gossip at every stop on their trash route. It was a safe assumption that they had already broken the story of Brad’s death over the PA in his sleep. But David could offer them a scoop. He could trade on his side of the story in return for info on Will. He started for the administrative offices, where the Skaters lived.

He didn’t get far before he was spotted. A white-haired kid was creeping out of a classroom dead ahead of him.

David accidentally locked eyes with him. He was the Scrap kid with the trampled hand from the quad. The kid’s eyelids peeled back when he saw David’s face. He waved David over with his bent fingers. The kid took off down the hall, limping fast, then stopped and looked back. He waved David forward again, with more urgency this time. What did he want?

A racket snapped David out of his thoughtshead. It came from the hallway behind him. It sounded like kicking on lockers. Then there was male laughter, a lot of it. It could’ve been a Varsity posse looking for him. He didn’t want to find out.

David ran toward the Scrap. The kid limped down the long hall and into a math classroom that stank of sour armpits.

David shut the door behind him as gently as his fear would let him. The room was a dumping ground. There were piles of junk, bloodstained rags, tied-off plastic bags with God knows what inside, and a puddle of oily brown liquid on the floor that David wanted nothing to do with. The Scrap moved an unhinged, ruined door that was resting against the wall and revealed a hole that had been burrowed through the wall.

“I’m Mort,” he said. “Remember me?” The kid smiled with pride—he was almost giddy. Mort was soaked with sweat, which dripped off his nose and slicked his hands, but he wasn’t the least bit out of breath. “Don’t worry. Come on.” Mort crawled through the wall. David followed, still fearful of the locker kickers in the hallway behind him.

The room on the other side of the wall had a malfunction-ing fire sprinkler by the ceiling that spit an uneven drizzle of water over the room. The constant flow of water had bubbled the paint on the walls and buckled the floor tiles. One fluorescent bulb in the far corner cast a sickly light on six Scraps before him. Their conversation stopped dead when David stood up.

David didn’t know the effeminate Korean kid with his eyes cast down. Next to him were a gangly set of twins, one boy and one girl, both with long white hair. David had never seen them before, but they seemed young enough that they couldn’t be more than sophomores. They each kept a finger hooked through the other’s belt loop. They looked like the dirty hillbilly kids you wouldn’t want to meet if you hoofed it too far into the mountains.

Nelson Bryant was a year below him. He was a ruddy runt of a kid who looked like he was born in the wrong century, like he should be wearing suspenders and knickers. David always felt sorry for Nelson because he was mostly deaf and wore the biggest pair of old-school hearing aids he’d ever seen. Nelson must have ditched the hearing aids when they ran out of batteries because he held a plastic chem lab funnel up to his ear like the ear trumpets David had seen in old Civil War–era photographs.

The last Scrap was Belinda Max. The ceiling light glared off of her wet scalp. David wondered how much she’d gotten in return for giving Hilary her hair. She bounced over to him.

“Mort! You found him?” Belinda said.

“Sure did,” Mort said with a laugh like a panting dog. He placed his sweaty hand on David’s shoulder. David shrugged the nasty thing off.

“Why are you looking for me?” David asked.

“Leonard, get him something to drink. Would you, um, you know, like something to eat?” Belinda said, and the Korean kid began frantically searching the room.

“Here, let me get you a dry chair,” Nelson said.

David’s discomfort grew with his impatience. He looked back to the hole in the wall that Mort now blocked.

“I don’t want a chair. What . . . what do you guys want from me?”

“Oh, no, you have nothing to worry about,” Belinda said.

“Not from us.”

“We want you to be . . .” Leonard started, his words losing all volume halfway through his sentence. He blushed and looked away when David met his eyes. He held out a bottle of dirty water. David shook his head, and Leonard backed off.

“You’re safe here,” Belinda said. “You’re with Scraps.” Belinda’s eyes filled with tears. David was confused about whether she was happy or sad. This crew of weirdos wasn’t getting him any closer to finding Will. Every second he was out of the elevator his chances of surviving until graduation were in a nosedive.

“I have to go,” David said. The locker kickers must have been gone by now.

“Yeah, but . . . let us help you,” Belinda said, spilling tears from her eyes but smiling.

“Okay. Have you seen my brother? Will Thorpe? Do you know him?”

Belinda bit her lip. She looked on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

“What?” David said, suddenly worried by her tears. “You saw him? What’s wrong?”

“It’s just . . . I’m so glad to have you here.”

“Here’s your chair,” Nelson said, and scooted a chair behind David. It hit his knees, and he sat without thinking.

“Nelson, have you seen Will?” David asked.

“Ooh, no, I don’t have any pills. Do you have a headache?” Nelson said.

That funnel didn’t seem to work very well. David’s chair was anything but dry. This was enough. He had to get out of here.

“Mort, thanks for the hiding place, but I’m leaving,” David said.

The mountain twins burst out laughing. They were having a murmured conversation. The girl snickered and gripped the boy’s arm like she’d fall over without his support. While she doubled over laughing, he picked things out of her hair like a mother baboon.

David turned to crawl back through the hole. Belinda rushed in front of him, pushed Mort out of the way, and blocked the hole with her bulk. David tensed up. This was more than weird, it was getting dangerous.

“No, but you can’t go!” Belinda said.

David tightened his grip on his pipe.

“And why’s that?”

“We need you,” Belinda said, her voice choked with emotion. “You’re the one we’ve been waiting for.” David realized he’d walked right into a trap. He let the pipe slide out of his sleeve and lifted it up, ready to swing. He clenched his face at Belinda, and she cowered.

“You lookin’ to sell me out to Varsity? Huh? I’m not your meal ticket.” David said.

“We want you to lead us. Our gang,” Belinda said. David lowered the pipe a little.

“Huh?” He would have laughed, but he was too on edge.

“A gang for Scraps,” Belinda continued, tears welling up again. “So we can have rights, fight for our fair share together, and y’know, protect each other.”

The look on her face had no hint of humor to it.

“I’ve got bigger problems right now,” David said.

“Yeah, but . . .” Belinda’s voice jumped to a desperate octave.

“No, but that’s the whole thing. If there was a gang for us, then you wouldn’t have had to do what you did yesterday. That girl woulda had someplace to go.”

David could admit that the idea was nice—safety in numbers, a team of people he could trust to take care of Will after he left, a place for Lucy as well. But how? Take on Varsity and every other gang with these six misfits at his back? They’d never stand a chance.

“I’m not your guy. I’m nothing special,” David said.

“Yeah, but no, but you are. You’re the one! You stood up to them. If other Scraps knew you were doing it, they’d join.

They’ll follow you, David,” Belinda said.

He looked over to the twins. The boy had his head tilted back and his mouth open, trying to catch droplets from the sprinkler. The girl twin held her dirty hands like a gutter to catch more water and funnel it into her brother’s mouth.

“I’m leaving,” David said, and tucked his pipe into his sleeve. He gently moved Belinda to the side. She grabbed his hand with both of hers and held on to it as he crouched and entered the hole.

“No, but please,” she said.

David looked back at her and saw a pain that he recognized, the frustration of giving your heart and soul and watching everything still go to shit anyway. For a moment he wanted to say yes, that he would be their captain, that he would take on the school, that he’d prove her right, but he didn’t speak. He let the moment pass.

“I’m sorry.”

She let his fingers slip from hers as he crossed into the stinking math room. David opened the door to the hallway and poked his head out. Totally empty. It was still early. He knew Varsity was up and lurking, but most of the school was still asleep. He might have time. He had to find out if Will was okay. He jogged in the direction of the Skaters once again.

David hit the stairs fast. He ran for a couple minutes. He was in Geek territory, not far from the auditorium. David stared down a long hallway. Geeks slept in the rooms on either side. He ran down it, hoping to reach the end as fast as he could. A third of the way down the hallway, the ceiling lights flickered on.

It must have been later than he thought. David poured on the speed, but Geeks began to spill out of the classrooms, ready to start the day. He drew his hood even farther over his face, kept the pipe at the ready up his sleeve, and slowed to a brisk walk. He felt sure that, past the green fabric of his hood, every eye in the hallway was pointed right at him. He was completely exposed.

He kept his eyes glued to the floor and only looked up when he had to. He passed a pair of kids chatting on his left side.

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