The Loners

Page 20

Lucy pulled down her scarf and said, “We used it to scrub everything clean.”

David looked down at the place setting before him. His plate was made from the square cover of a binder. An anarchy symbol and other ancient classroom doodles were scrawled onto it in ballpoint pen. A spread of crackers and a few cuts of salami were scattered over it. He took a deep breath, then looked to the gang.

“Hi, everybody,” David said. “Um . . . I guess, first, I want to thank Will and Lucy for putting together this dinner—”

“It was Lucy’s idea, not mine.” Will said abruptly.

“Well, all the same, I think it’s just what we needed. Right?” There were a few nods, but for the most part, the faces he saw echoed his fear. They wanted answers. A state of the union. He had to tell them that he didn’t have a clue.

“Anyone have any news?” David asked.

“A Skater threw his trash bags at me yesterday,” Nelson volunteered.

“I think we might be losing trades because we smell bad,” Mort said.

“No shit,” Will said.

“Do we have more food coming in, ’cause I might want to save this if we don’t,” Dorothy said, looking at her plate.

“Well . . . ,” David said.

“What are we gonna do, David?” Will said. It was more of a challenge than a question. David stared down the length of the table at his obnoxious brother. Will was leaning into the flickering light now. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m sick of living like a rat.”

The table gasped and muttered about Will’s insolence.

They waited for David’s swift and strong response, which would put Will in his place. Seconds passed. Smudge laughed.

David’s anger over Will’s comment was making it hard to think straight.

“Unfortunately, the situation is—”

In the middle of David’s sentence, a Varsity tore the tent open. The whole table sprang to their feet at once and scattered. The tent was torn to pieces. Someone smashed into David from behind. He tumbled forward, got caught in the tatters of black plastic, and fell to the ground. He dug his way out of plastic to see the camp under a full-scale attack.

Varsity was destroying everything in its path. Three of them were pulling down the desk wall of the girls’ quarters.

Will was wrestling with a Varsity on the ground. He saw the boy twin yank his sister out of the way, just in time to miss the swipe of a Varsity pipe. He saw Nelson get knocked into a trash wall next to him. Nelson held his chest and grimaced in pain. A Varsity stood over him with a lacrosse stick.

David spotted a file cabinet drawer in a pile of trash by his feet. He grabbed it and swung it hard into the Varsity’s head, catching him in the ear with the drawer’s metal corner. The Varsity crumpled to the ground. Half of his ear was torn away.

David reached out to pull Nelson up when a sharp pain dug into his ribs. He dropped to one knee. He jerked around as fast as he could manage. His attacker was already running the other way, holding a field hockey stick in his hand. He couldn’t see his face, but whoever it was, David thought the guy was a coward, until he saw all of Varsity running back to the double doors that exited to the stairwell. Most of David’s gang was strewn across the clearing, groaning from their injuries.

A plume of brown smoke rose up from trash clustered by the exit. And then, the first lick of orange flame.

“Fire!” David shouted.

David ran toward the fire. Will and Mort were on his heels.

Others pulled themselves to their feet. David stomped on the first small fire he came to, a flaming, stuffed garbage bag. He kicked it toward the exit, but the doors were closing.

David ran to stop them. In the brief moment before they closed, David locked eyes with Sam on the other side.

“You’re not coming out until the food drop!” Sam shouted.

“I’ll be waiting in the quad!”

With a flick of his hand, he signaled the Varsity members to follow him up the stairs. The doors closed. David wrenched his hands around both knobs and pulled. Please open. Nothing gave. David pulled and yanked. He pressed one foot on one door and jerked on the other. Didn’t even budge.

David spun around to face the basement. Will was shouting orders to everyone. People were smothering fires wherever they found them. Noxious smoke the color of dirt clouded the lights above. It took twenty minutes before every flame was out. People were coughing and hacking. They were smeared black with soot and sweat. Ghostly ash hung in the air. Piles of trash bags were now misshapen hills of black magma.

Will looked up to David, who leaned against the door. He didn’t even want to say it, but there was no hiding it.

“We’re trapped.”


WILL CLOSED HIS EYES AS LUCY’S FINGERTIPS slid down his cheek. Soft. Gentle. She stroked more paint on.

It was cold, but the warmth of her fingers radiated through.

She drew a jagged line down his jaw.

It had been Lucy’s idea to do the war paint. She concocted it out of a mixture of watered-down glue mixed with ash, and she’d devoted the entire morning to painting everyone’s faces. This was Lucy’s contribution to the battle effort. She hoped that if they looked like savages, maybe people would believe they were. Nobody argued with her plan; they needed all the help they could get.

He looked at her. She looked at his cheek. He could feel her warm breath touch his nose. The last time he’d been this close, really this close, he was too young and stupid to know what to do. He’d just lain inches from her all night in that tent in Utah, their noses almost touching, their hands clasped.

Why didn’t he kiss her then?

Lucy bit down on her plump lip. Will could barely handle how adorable she looked when she concentrated. The fierce painted lines on her face couldn’t betray her beauty. Her skin glowed especially white against the muddled black of the war paint. She was perfect.

Will’s hand was in his pocket. He rubbed the fine gold necklace between his fingers. He wanted to pull it out. He wanted to tell her everything he felt about her. Lucy’s fingers trembled as she painted a stripe down his nose. She was scared.

They all were. They were hungry and rattled after four days and nights of Varsity pounding on the locked doors, taunt-ing them, telling them they were going to die when the food drop came. It was no way for Lucy to have to live, terrified, scavenging trash for forgotten crumbs wedged in wrapper creases. He’d tried to comfort her, but she said she was fine.

She said they needed to focus on keeping everybody else’s spirits up. That was just like her. He didn’t care about the rest of them, only her.

“Lucy . . .”

“Yes,” she said, her voice caught in her throat.

Will pulled his hand out of his pocket with the necklace clutched in his clammy palm.

“There’s something I—”

David stepped into view behind Lucy. He held the thick wooden leg of a desk in his hand. A heavy metal L-bracket was still bolted to its end. Will paused.

“They’re going to open the doors soon. Let’s get ready,” David said.

Lucy looked up at David, and her chest heaved. She nodded quickly. David gave her pat on the shoulder before walking to the doors. She leaned toward David’s touch. She’d never responded to Will that way. No gift, no matter how nice, was going to outweigh everything she thought David had done for her. If he was going to get Lucy to see him for who he was, it would have to be from something he did, not something he bought her.

Will stuffed the necklace back into his pocket. Too much, too soon, he scolded himself. He’d been playing everything wrong.

How did he get her to sleep in that tent under the stars? He’d been crazy that day. He’d sprinted all the way across Devil’s Spine, that narrow rock bridge, without ever touching the guide rope. Chazz was pissed at him, saying it was a stupid risk, but Lucy . . . she looked at him differently after that. He had to do that again. He had to be her hero today.

“What were you saying?” Lucy said.


Lucy promptly finished Will’s face paint. She pulled away from Will and walked with David to where the group was gathered by the locked doors. Will lifted himself to follow, but someone held him in place.

It was Smudge.

“It looks like a dog dumped on your face,” Smudge said.

“So now I know what it feels like to be you.”

“You scared?”


“I’m not going,” Smudge said.

“What? You have to. We need everyone we can get.”

“You’re crazy if you think you got a fighting chance in that drop. It’s suicide, man. I’m not dying for your brother.”

“Yeah, but—”

“What about your girl? You gonna let her die too?”

“I’m not going to let her fight,” Will said.

“Dude, there’s gonna be, like, a hundred Varsity out there.

It’s a joke. If you go out there with them, you’re gonna die.

You’re all gonna die.”

David faced his tiny gang in front of the locked doors. The food drop would be starting soon. Blackened faces looked back at him. The paint couldn’t cover their fear.

“We’re gonna make it,” David said.

It was a lie. This food drop was a fixed fight. Sam had trapped them in the basement without food for days. He wanted them tired and hungry. He wanted to break their spirits, so they’d be easy to take down. David had no choice but to play Sam’s game.

David heard the shuffle of footsteps down the stairs outside the double doors. He turned to face them, slapping on a mean face. The handles moved, and the doors were pulled open from the outside. Trash scraped against the floor. The Varsity doormen remained hidden in the shadows. His fellow Scraps crowded close behind him, and David took the first step up the stairs.

They all wore at least five layers of ruined clothes they’d found in the dump for extra padding. Some had even poked holes in linoleum floor tiles and tied them to their bodies for added protection. Each of them carried a weapon, if not two: pipes, shivs, lengths of chain. The twins each carried a pair of scissors, broken apart, one blade in each hand. Belinda hefted a book bag full of bricks. The slashes of black paint marring their faces were dry and cracked now. They stank like hell.

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