The Loners

Page 16

He waited for a comment. A shout. The clapping of footsteps after him. But nothing happened.

Another pair of Geeks approached, lugging water. David held his breath. They passed without a word.

Halfway down the hallway, more students began stepping out from classrooms. And then more. And more. It seemed like they were never going to stop. Like a nightmare. David hunched over and picked up the pace. He nearly collided with someone and got a peeved “Watch it!” thrown his way. He kept walking, but just as he rounded the corner, a voice rang out.

“Hey, it’s you!”

The voice sounded like it had come from directly in front of him. David flinched and looked up, expecting the worst.

The source was a scruffy band Geek with a sharp nose and pockmarked cheeks. But he wasn’t shouting at David. He was pointing at another kid next to David who held a Frisbee.

“I knew it was you! What, were you just never going to give it back?”

David glanced at the Frisbee thief next to him, who was fumbling for a response. For a moment he didn’t know what to do. He was still frozen, as if he’d been caught. The thief made eye contact with David and recognition flashed in his eyes.

David aimed his eyes back at the floor and strode forward, but it was too late. He heard the noise of a phone camera shutter behind him. In two seconds, the Frisbee thief was at David’s left side, walking in unison with him.

“Hey, you’re David, right?”

David ignored him and lengthened his stride. The kid backed off for a moment, then matched David’s new pace.

“Yo, what’s your problem, man? Back off,” David spat out, mustering faux anger. He didn’t want to look at the kid, but it was tough to achieve a scary “Back off!” when he was looking straight at the floor.

“You’re him! I was in Spanish with you,” the kid said. “Taylor.

That’s my name. Remember?”

“I didn’t take Spanish,” David lied. But he remembered Taylor.

“Tayloroso,” he used to call himself. Every time Señora Pérez went around the room asking each student “Cómo estás? ,” when she got to Taylor he would answer with a spicy flair, “Yo siento muy . . . Tayloroso! ” The kid was annoying.

Tayloroso held his phone up, trying to get a shot of David’s face. David broke into a run.

“Hey! Hold on! I want to talk to you,” Tayloroso shouted, running after him. When David didn’t stop, Tayloroso yelled at the top of his lungs, “Hey, it’s the kid who killed that Varsity!” David pushed hard and gained a slight burst of speed. He heard shouts of recognition from the other students. Someone pulled David’s hood off. It didn’t matter now. He had to keep moving. He flicked his head back to see just how many kids he was dealing with. Five more were running beside Tayloroso.

“That’s him! That’s the guy!” Tayloroso hollered.

Groggy kids poked their heads out of classrooms. Some of them grabbed at his sweatshirt and laughed. They swarmed behind him. His legs wouldn’t move fast enough; it felt like a nightmare. David let the pipe slide down out of his sleeve and into his hand. Maybe the sight of a weapon would keep them away .

Wishful thinking. Someone snatched the pipe out of David’s hand. He looked back at the mob chasing him as he rounded a corner. His vision flared white. He hit the floor before he realized he’d been punched. David blinked through the haze and the pain and saw two Varsity guys towering over him.

A third person stepped between them. It was Sam. His voice was the last thing David heard before an incoming Varsity fist smashed his vision to black.

“Tell everyone. The execution of David Thorpe starts in ten minutes.”


DAVID AWOKE WHEN SOMETHING LONG and cold and rubbery coiled around his neck and choked his throat shut. The white-hot light of the market seared his eyes at first. A crowd of people stared at him. That thing that gripped his neck, it yanked him up, it bit under his jaw and bent his head down; pain cut up through his neck like a cleaver. He had no air. David dangled by his neck, toes scraping for the floor, fingernails raking at his windpipe. He tried to suck in a breath, but it only hollowed his stomach.

He was being hanged. David thrashed his feet, which twisted him around to face the other end of the hall. He saw Fudgey, the football team’s kicker, and three other Varsity guys holding an orange extension cord that was looped over a sprinkler pipe above David and cinched around his neck.

They leaned back like it was a game of tug of war.

“All right, let him on his feet.”

The noose went halfway slack, and David found the ground.

He gagged. Blood rushed to his head, and he felt his sense of balance slip away. Another pair of Varsity guys wrenched his arms behind him and held him up; David’s legs were just noodles in shoes.

“You all know why we’re here,” Sam’s voice said from behind him. “Yesterday David Thorpe murdered my friend Brad Hammond.”

David’s vision came back into focus. The market was packed with people, except for a fifteen-foot-wide circle of clear floor around David. Each gang was represented. The crowd was riveted, almost excited, as they waited for his life to be taken in front of them. He remembered seeing a lot of those very same faces in the stands on a Friday night, during his final season, cheering him on.

“There aren’t many rules in here,” Sam said, “ but I’m making one today. No one kills my friends.” David’s breathing settled into a rhythm, and he was able to lock his legs straight underneath him; he felt somewhat solid again. Solid and scared out of his mind.

“You don’t kill us,” Sam continued. “You hear me? You try anything, and what’s about to happen to him . . . I’ll make sure it’ll happen to you.”

“He hit his head!” David shouted.

All eyes snapped to him.

“It was one punch,” he went on. “Brad fell and hit his head.

I didn’t murder him!”

“Liar. You liar!” Sam said, “Fudgey, shut him up,” Fudgey let go of David’s right arm and clamped his hand over David’s mouth. David bit down on the Fudgey’s finger. Fudgey screamed and fell back. David spun and drove the sharp part of his elbow into the other guy’s ear. It was Anthony Smith, a linebacker who’d always hated David. To his right, the Varsity guys holding the extension cord dropped it and ran at him. David dashed forward.

He got a good five feet into the crowd before he felt the noose yank on his neck. It stopped him dead just as he came face-to-face with a Nerd girl in the crowd. She had dry, frizzy black bangs that nearly covered her eyes.

“He was going to rape her!” David said.

The Nerd girl froze, terrified. Her eyes shook as she looked back at him; she looked like she was being mugged. Conversations burst out through the crowd. His noose jerked up and back, pulling David off his feet; he crashed to the floor, onto his back. The crowd towered over him like sequoias. The noose pulled again and dragged him back through the crowd.

Lit from above, the faces of the crowd were lost in shadow.

“She was all alone, she had no one to protect her!” David yelled up to them.

Once he was pulled back into the clearing, five Varsity guys jumped on him. They pinned his arms behind him again, throttled him around, and forced him back into place, under the sprinkler pipe.

“Guys, listen to me,” David said to them. “You know me. I wouldn’t do something like that!”

Sam grabbed a fistful of David’s hair and cranked his head back. Sam’s eyes were flared open so wide that David could see white above his corneas. He spoke in a raspy hush that only David could hear.

“You just had to start it back up, didn’t you?”

“Sam, don’t do this.”

A scraggly vein inflated across Sam’s forehead.

“You did this to yourself.”

“Just—just think for a second. What are you doing?”

“Lift!” Sam said.

David heard a collected heave of effort from behind him.

The cord clenched his neck so hard his head wanted to pop off his body. Again, his feet couldn’t find the floor, his lungs were stuck empty. His hangmen heaved again, and David rose farther above the heads of the crowd. His feet chopped at the air.

He couldn’t scream. He looked into the crowd. Someone needed to help him. They had to. But each person he looked to looked away, as though he wasn’t there. As though he wasn’t being lynched right in front of them. They did nothing.

The sound of his own gagging became muffled, like he was hearing it through a pillow. The world darkened. He was an anvil dropped into the ocean, sinking away from life, down into the dark and the cold.

He saw Will.

His vision was dull, but he opened his eyes wider. Will charged into the far end of the hallway. He lugged an overstuffed black garbage bag over his shoulder. Within seconds, a stampede of hollering Varsity guys rushed into the hallway after him. Will ran into the dense crowd, and the stampede barreled in right after him. The smashing of bodies sparked a ripple of violence as opposing gangs careened. When Will broke through to the open circle, he swung the bag around.

Food flew out in a wide arc and scattered onto the floor. The hallway went berserk.

Fights erupted everywhere. People punching, whelping, falling down below him. The tumult overtook the clear circle of floor underneath him. Fudgey and his other hangmen were knocked to the floor. David heard the noose zip over the pipe.

He felt air rush down his throat and his body lose all weight for a moment before he smacked down onto the floor. The feet of the brawlers above kicked him and stepped on him.

Chubby hands picked him up. It was Belinda. She had her arms around his hips, holding him into her plush flank. Mort’s sweaty hands held his head and shoulders. Together, they rammed their way through the thrashing crowd, carrying him. Leonard, Nelson, and the weird twins crowded around, shielding David from view. They carried him away from the hallway riot, out of the market, and into a dark hall. The roaring chaos in the market faded until all David could hear was the huff and wheeze of Belinda’s breathing.

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