The Loners


Page 22



“What the hell are you doing?” he shouted at her. Her eyes were still savage from the fight, but David’s voice seemed to tame her.


“Don’t touch me,” she said, and jerked free of him.


When David reached out to take her hand, a rock hit him in the forehead. He didn’t lose consciousness, but he clutched his eyes shut and bent in pain. When he opened them again, Will was already hurrying Lucy off the quad. All around, rocks, bricks, pencil sharpeners, staplers, and other small objects rained down from above.


David looked up to see white-haired kids throwing those objects out of second-and third-floor windows. Their target was a large group of Varsity guys who were dragging a huge unbroken pallet of food toward the gym. The Varsity guys were pelted over and over, bricks ricocheting off their helmets. The ones without helmets bailed until there weren’t enough of them to haul the pallet. Ritchie was on their trail and moved swiftly with a pack of white-hairs to reverse the pallet’s path. The supplies had all been scooped up, and the fights were dying down.


“Scraps!” David called out, his hands raised victoriously in the air. “Let’s roll!”


As David turned toward the southern exit, he saw Sam tromping toward him, his heavy steel chain dangling from his hand. David knelt down to pick up a bat that had been lost by a Varsity. He took a wide stance and dug in.


Sam was closing in fast. Scraps, eager to prove themselves to David, stepped into Sam’s path to stop him. Each one received a vicious slap of chain for their trouble. But they still piled in.


Five feet from David, Sam was consumed by vengeful Scraps.


They hated Sam. They fought each other for the privilege of hitting him. They kicked his face, they pounded his ribs, they tore at his skin. They were going to kill him. David caught glimpses of Sam’s face through the writhing heap. Sam was in agony. He met David’s gaze. Sam was scared. Truly, honestly scared.


“Get off him!” David shouted.


No one listened.


“I said stop!”


The mob backed off, leaving Sam on his back, bloody and limp. David stood over him. Seeing the tyrant who had tormented him for a year lying broken on the ground in front of him was better than any trophy he could ever win. David walked away. Varsity members swooped in fast and carried Sam off.


David led his gang off the quad. No one blocked their path.


He saw awestruck grins and nods of begrudging respect from the other gangs. If it was a show they were looking for, David had delivered. David’s gang regrouped near the foyer. The initial nine were now nearly a hundred, their faces blood-streaked and smiling. Each one had their arms full with food.


“Let’s go eat,” David said.


David walked toward the West Wing with an army in his wake.


15


THREE FOOD DROPS HAD PASSED. DAVID stood in front of a metal door, with twenty-two of his gang members behind him. They all wore makeshift armor and carried weapons. They called themselves the Loners now. Ritchie and Gonzalo flanked David. David held a machete he’d made by hammering a radiator cover flat. The hallway had no func-tional ventilation, so the air had a dead, dusty quality that made David feel like he was inhaling someone else’s exhale.


David pounded on the wide metal door with three solid knocks, then dragged the tip of his machete across the width of the door. The Loners behind him clutched their weapons tight and kept their eyes on the hallway behind.


The door opened a crack, still fastened shut by a heavy chain on the inside. Leonard looked out.


“Welcome back,” Leonard said, but the rest was too quiet to hear. He still lost heart midway through sentences, but Leonard was coming out of his shell bit by bit, now that he worked the door.


Leonard pulled the door open. The twenty-two Loners followed David into their home, a three-story stairwell they had dubbed the Stairs.


David hung his machete up in the armory, a triangular alcove under the bottom flight of stairs. The others did the same, adding their armor and weapons to the piles.


With the door locked behind them, David felt safe. It was a feeling he was still getting used to. He took to the first flight of stairs. About fifteen of the now ninety-four Loners were hanging on those steps, talking quietly and playing games.


Being in a gang was an adjustment for all of them, and they still had their Scrap instincts. They flinched at any sudden noise; they still ate the bare minimum of their food and saved the rest, unsure whether this new, steady flow of nourishment could last. They were still learning to trust each other, but they seemed to trust David, and that was a start. Each of the fifteen lit up as David walked by. The girls reached out and touched him with affection. He smiled.


David heard a rumbling of anticipation up the stairs.


People knew he was coming, and he felt like a celebrity. He reached the first landing of the staircase. It was packed with white-headed Loners eating dinner. They stood, clustered onto the twenty-by-thirteen-foot space that served as the gang’s food storage and kitchen. More sat on the next flight of stairs up, chatting and chowing. Nelson doled out rations of canned mandarin oranges and cold hot dogs. David could already taste the mouthwatering combination of salt and the syrup on his tongue. Nelson waved to him. He was the ideal choice to put in charge of splitting up the food equally, mainly because he never heard anyone’s complaints.


“Everybody, huddle up!” David said as he stepped onto the landing. They stopped eating and looked to him. He couldn’t help but love that feeling, the respect they showed him, the gratitude.


“So, we just got back from a meeting with the Sluts. I got some pretty good news. As of today, if any Loner runs into trouble on the east side of school, you can go to the cafeteria, and the Sluts will take you in until backup arrives.” The Loners cheered through mouths clogged with food.


“But I’m talking about serious, end-of-the-world stuff here, guys. Please don’t go knocking on their door just because you want to use their bathroom, okay?”


There was a smattering of laughter. He’d caught them at the right time. Food always put people in a good mood.


“I don’t know,” Ritchie said. “They do keep those bathrooms spotless.”

David grinned. He slapped Ritchie on the shoulder.


“This guy took a cast iron dump in there. Almost ruined the whole deal.”


The crowd broke out in real laughter this time. David always ragged on Ritchie in his speeches. It was becoming a popular routine.


“Seriously, Ritchie, we eat the same food. How does your ass smell like that?”


More laughs. Ritchie hung his head, playing along as usual.


As David scanned the jubilant faces of his gang, their laughter filled him with purpose. He wanted to do right by them.


Everything that happened before was worth it for this feeling. He punched Ritchie playfully on the arm. Having Ritchie and Gonzalo around was great. He’d forgotten what it was like to have solid people with him that he could count on.


They knew what it meant to be part of a team.


Will walked down the stairs, through the crowd, shirtless.


David’s smile faded. Will paid no attention to David, didn’t even look at him. He maneuvered through the crowd of attentive listeners, grabbed his share of dinner, then tromped back up the stairs. David forced a smile for his audience.


“Anyway, the point is, we’ve got friends on that side of school now, and we’re gonna do the same for any of Violent’s girls who come to us for help. Sound good?” They cheered in response.


“Solid. Have a great dinner, everybody,” David said, and he made his way to the second flight, through back pats and high fives. He took his tin-can dinner from Nelson and headed up.


He had one thing on his mind: crashing. Two more flights and he could fall face-first onto the sofa cushions in the corner of his room and check out completely. It’d been a long day.


Running the Loners had been a privilege so far, but it left him exhausted.


“David?”


David turned to see Dorothy. Her greasy,white hair hung to one side, her shirt was wrinkled, and she had ink stains on her fingers.


“Oh, hey, what’s up?” David said.


She held out her hand to reveal a perfect paper square with a tiny portrait on it. She placed it in David’s hand.


“It’s you,” she said.


“Hey . . . cool. I love it. Thank you.”


She had been giving him tiny homemade gifts every couple days. He was starting to feel she did it out of guilt.


“Listen, Dorothy, I just want you to know that no matter what went down with the drop, it’s in the past. You’re a Loner now—”


A look of horror twisted Dorothy’s face and had gotten worse with each word David said. She turned and bolted down the stairs.


“Okay,” David said.


He studied the miniature portrait. The lines were light and wobbly. The look on his face was stern, and he stared off into the distance. What was he supposed to do with these things?


He tucked it in his jeans pocket and rounded the banister to the second-floor landing, the lounge.


Ten class chairs sat in an imperfect semicircle; piles of library books on loan from the Nerds were scattered around the room. Mort sat on one of the piles, reading a paperback, probably staining the pages with sweaty fingers. Belinda was checking her hair growth in the gang’s only mirror, mounted on the wall. There were a dozen Loners crowded together in the corner watching one cell phone screen. They leaned forward in a huddle to hear the audio from its little speaker. It was one of three phones in the whole gang. By now, it was hard not to know every song and every video on those three phones by heart, but they listened anyway.


Will came bounding down the stairs into the lounge.


“Boom,” Will said. He held out a double-wide power strip with four phone chargers plugged into it, their cords draping off like dead snakes.


“How sweet is this?” Will said.


The dozen cell phone watchers nodded and ooh’d.


“Where’d you get those?” David asked.


Will’s face grayed at the sight of David.


“Don’t you worry about it, boss. All you need to know is they’re ours now,” Will said.



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