The Loners

Page 18

“Leonard . . . hey. You remember me, right?” Leonard shrugged. It was sort of a yes, a shy yes.

“I’m looking for David.”

“He’s inside.”

Leonard’s voice was quiet and melodic.

“Thanks,” Will said as he reached for the door handle.

Leonard pushed Will’s hand away.

“Nobody go—” Leonard said, and then Will couldn’t hear the rest.


“Nobody goes inside,” he said, this time only slightly louder.

“Yeah, but I’m his brother.”

“I—don’t know that.”

Leonard’s voice dropped an octave midsentence. Will wasn’t buying it.

“I saved him in the market. You were there. Let me in.”

“A lot of people want to see David right now.” Will rolled his eyes and grabbed for the door handle again.

Leonard grasped his wrists. Will shook them loose and balled up his fists, ready to fight. Leonard squeaked.

“Looks like you’re B-list around here, Spaz,” someone said.

Will scoured the huddle of Scraps nearby for the speaker and saw Smudge leaning against the wall, smirking back at him. Will sank. If there was a worse witness to his rejection at the door, he couldn’t think of one.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Will said.

Smudge thumbed the Scraps beside him,.“These stalkers came for protection. I came ’cause . . . well, I just wanted to see what happens next.”


“Yeah. Your bro’s, like, the next Moses or something.” Will glanced back at Leonard and the four Scraps who came to his aid. They eyed Will suspiciously.

“I think he’s changing clothes in there,” Will said in an attempt to sound off the cuff. “That’s why they won’t let me in.” Smudge’s smile widened.

“Lucy’s in there.”

“Oh. Yeah?” Will said.

“They might be taking clothes off, but I’m not sure they’re putting ’em back on,” Smudge said.

“Shut up.”

“Hey, man, I’m just saying. He saves her life one day, goes toe to toe with the most powerful guy in school the next. I’m not imagining any dry panties in that room.” Will remembered the fantasy painted by the Freak girl he’d overheard in the hall. Just be glad David’s alive, Will thought.

But he could feel jealousy rising up in him.

“I rescued him,” Will said.

“Not the way I heard it.”

Did everyone have their eyes closed when he saved the day? This was unbelievable.

“I don’t believe you,” Will said. “Lucy’s not in there.”

“What’d she think of the necklace?”

Will pressed his hand on his pocket. He could feel the links of the fine chain through the worn denim. He had forgotten all about it with everything that had happened. And suddenly, it seemed much less special.

“I—I haven’t seen her yet,” Will muttered.

The door that Will wasn’t allowed go through opened.

“Well, here’s your chance,” Smudge said.

Belinda emerged from the other room. Everyone went quiet.

Kids gathered around like band groupies. There were ten of them.

“He’s ready to speak,” Belinda said. Her voice warbled with reverence. She stepped aside, and David appeared in the doorway with Lucy next to him. Will tensed up. Lucy had her arm wrapped around his waist, and his arm was around her shoulder. Will needed them to stop touching each other.


Lucy was supporting David, walking him gently as he winced with every step. His neck was purple, and he had a swollen eye. Lucy was so tender with him. Will remembered her sweet touch in his hardest moments of Wild-Trek, her kind words, her total belief in him. And now it was all for David.

This wasn’t the heroic return Will had been hoping for. He turned away and stepped into the shadow of the nearest trash pile. He didn’t want to be seen by them yet. He was sure David hadn’t noticed him, and Lucy had her eyes on David, but Will knew Smudge was watching him, probably loving it.

David spoke. His voice rasped from the abuse to his throat.

It only made the Scraps listen more intently.

“It’s been a hell of a day.”

Nervous laughter bounced around the clearing.

“A lot of you know about Belinda’s idea of forming a new gang, so Scraps like us could be fed and protected. I know that’s why you’re here right now. I don’t know if I can be what you need, and I’m sure things will get harder before they get any easier, but none of us should have to fight alone. The gang begins now with all of you. I am officially accepting Belinda’s offer to be your leader.”

Everyone burst into cheers. Will didn’t make a noise.


WARM COPPER LIGHT SPLASHED AGAINST Lucy’s bed. She watched it sparkle like raindrops on her dress. Lucy smiled. Over to her right, beyond the fort of broken school desks that carved out her sleeping area, Leonard was unfolding an emergency fire blanket. The light from a halogen work light beamed off its crinkled metallic surface.

Lucy drew in a deep breath and let it all out. It had been nearly a week and a half since David’s escape from Varsity.

Today, for the first time, she felt at ease. She sat up and looked at her area. She was grateful for her pillow. Old socks in a zip-lock freezer bag. She had taped it shut with an airtight seal.

Every day here was an unending battle against stink. Lucy had scrubbed every nook and cranny around her area.

She had to. She’d started to feel like the filth was infecting her dreams. Nearly every night for the past week she’d had nightmares about Brad. She was there in the booth again, trying to get away, but David never showed up. What happened next was awful. She fought with everything she had, but Brad was always stronger. Every time she woke up, shaking, surrounded by trash, she’d yearn for her old, soft bed in the girls’

locker room. She’d never realized how luxurious her Pretty One life was compared to how Scraps were living. It all made her wonder if she’d made a huge mistake by defying Hilary.

Lucy stretched. She opened her tattered white pocketbook and pulled out a brown glass bottle of pure vanilla extract. She dabbed a little behind each ear. From inside one of the desks she pulled a shard of mirror. It belonged to Dorothy, an ex-art Geek, who’d joined up with their group last week. Dorothy had held her own photography show in the foyer months ago, full of naked pics she had taken of other art Geeks without them knowing. She’d said she was trying to confront people with the nude human form to start a dialogue about how similar and how vulnerable all of them were underneath, no matter their gang affiliation. The Geeks kicked her out instead.

Lucy checked herself out in the squash-shaped mirror. It was marred with gouges, but it let Lucy see enough to know whether she was walking around looking like a ghoul. Her lemon blonde coloring had faded. Her hair would be white soon. She tied it up in a high bun. There was no point in checking out her dress. She’d worn it every day and slept in it every night for weeks. She knew what it looked like. Bad. She put the mirror back in the desk. Her sweater was as dirty as her dress. Her fingers traced the hole where Hilary had torn off her Pretty Ones emblem.

No, she thought. She didn’t belong with the Pretty Ones.

Today, she was more sure than ever. It took getting out to see how unhappy she’d been in her life in the gym. Early in the quarantine, when Hilary offered her a spot in the gang, it just made sense. McKinley was a new school for her. Her family had only moved to Pale Ridge that summer. She didn’t really know anyone. It seemed like her best bet at staying safe. Maybe the other girls felt the same way, but no one talked about it. They all went along with whatever demented orders Hilary passed down from Sam. She felt she’d escaped from a cult.

“We made a great haul today,” someone said.

Lucy peeked her head around the cluster of desks and saw Mort limp through the basement doors, backed by the twins.

They wove their way through trash piles to the heart of the camp, which was hidden behind the largest pile in the room.

They each carried trash bags and dumped the contents out on chairs for the other Scraps to see. Mort’s bag contained food. Both the twins’ bags contained dirty laundry. Belinda, bucket in hand, scooped up an armful of laundry. Will poked through the food and held up a bottle of vinegar with a puzzled look to Mort.

“Vinegar? Seriously? What, does the military think we’re pickling eggs in here?”

Lucy smiled. Thank God for Will. He’d been there for her every day, reminding her of stories from their trip in Utah together. He was so sweet. He helped her remember that before the Pretty Ones, she was a girl who was adventurous, who liked to laugh, who thought for herself. It had all been so easy to forget. She was so attracted to Will back then, but he never made a move.

A kick ball rested on the ground near Will, inside the chalk outline of a four-square court. Nelson had found the ball in the trash. He’d organized a four-square tournament that had really helped to bring people together. The only precaution was being sure not to make too much noise when they played.

That went for every aspect of their life down here. They’d managed to keep their little camp secret so far by hiding in the boiler room whenever the Skaters rolled in and dropped their trash at the end of their runs. The Skaters never had any reason to venture this far back into the trash.

Lucy stepped out of her quarters. So far, she’d opted out of group activities like kick ball because she just needed time to herself after what had happened with Brad. She could only get away with that for so long. It was time for her to join the gang. Belinda was washing a sweater in a mop bucket. She wrung it out. Lucy approached her.

“I can hang stuff if you just want to wash,” Lucy said.

Belinda ignored her, hung the sweater on a turned-over chair, and turned back to her sudsy bucket of gray water. Lucy bit her lip.

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