The Loners

Page 25

“You’re dead, Loners! Dead!”

They clomped off, back from where they came. Will dropped to his ass and struggled for breath. Loners poured down the stairs. They packed the first flight, scared and curious. The crowd parted for David.

“Shit,” Will said.

Gonzalo chuckled under his breath.

“What the hell just happened?” David said. He rushed forward.

“I got us a TV,” Will said, holding his gaze.

In the armory, Leonard tipped the TV back onto its stand and wheeled the whole rig out for the gang to see. The room reacted as though they had just seen a magic trick. People gasped and clapped.

“You got us a TV, or you stole a TV?”

“I stole a TV, David. You think those Freaks were just doing a free delivery?”

David glared at him, but Will stared at Lucy. She flicked her eyes between Will and the TV, like she couldn’t believe what he’d pulled off.

“You want to start a war with the Freaks over a TV?”

“And some movies,” Will replied.

“What movies?” Gonzalo said, pushing off the wall and shuffling toward the cart.

“I don’t know, there was a stack of them—”

“Forget the movies! We don’t need any more enemies.” David was acting like he was Will’s dad again, but Will wasn’t going to look like a chump in front of Lucy.

“They hate us already for moving in on their action on the quad, so do the Skaters. If you don’t want trouble, you shouldn’t have started a gang.”

“You want Loners to get killed so you can watch DVDs?” David looked desperate. Deep down, Will knew his brother had a point. Maybe he’d taken it too far, to impress Lucy. He felt a twinge of regret, but then again, he’d already taken it this far.

“Are you telling me we have to give this stuff back?” Will said.

The whole gang leaned forward. David scanned the room.

All eyes were on him. David looked down at Will again, and with a face as cold as a corpse’s, he said, “Take the TV up to the lounge and hook it up.”

Exhales all around. David was angry, angrier than Will could remember. It raised the hairs on Will’s neck. David turned his back on Will and walked back up the stairs. Will had won, but he’d played dirty to pull it off. Guilt needled at him, but the crowd’s murmured conversations grew once David was gone. People crowded around him, they patted Will on the back and thanked him. Then they walked to the cart, all bunching around it and stroking the TV like it was a new-born baby. Lucy was the only one to stay put. She watched Will, concerned.

Will pulled out a DVD he’d wedged in his waistband behind his back. It was a documentary on wildlife in the Caribbean.

He tossed it to Lucy.

She caught it, looked up, and smiled.

Will bit on his tongue to keep from smiling back too hard. He wanted to look cool. That was the smoothest thing he’d ever done. He noticed his tongue was sore, a sign that he had seized in his sleep. Maybe last night. Maybe the night before. He didn’t know for sure, and he didn’t care. He felt phenomenal.

“Yeah, she picked you over David today,” Smudge said. “You know why? Because she felt like it. Tomorrow, maybe she won’t. Maybe she’ll do something so fucked, you’ll want to jump out of a third-story window and splatter your head onto the quad, ’cause at least then you could stop thinking about her. And she’ll stand there looking all pretty and innocent, she’s gonna go, ‘Oh, that’s so sad. Poor, poor Will.’ That’s the way these bitches work. See, they know they can get away with murder, so they do.”

“Jeezus, Smudge.”

Will sat against the wall in Smudge’s little closet apartment.

The only light source was a lone ceiling light at the far end of the computer lab. It was weak and cold, and it muted all the colors around Will. The closet reeked of soiled clothes and dried beans. Smudge’s stolen items were usually neatly organized, but now they lay scattered on the floor, intermin-gled with garbage. Smudge sat across from him in the closet, thoughtlessly picking at a scab on his neck.

“Just warning you,” Smudge said, his voice trembling.

“Are you all right, man?”

“I’m great.”

Smudge wiped his cheek. Will squinted through the dim light. Was that a tear?

“You know, Dorothy came back,” Will said. “You could come back too. Be a Loner. Those phone chargers were a big hit.

They’d love you if they knew you supplied them.”

“Ugh, shut uuuuup,” Smudge said.

“I’m saying, we’d like to have you. Why not? It would be fun.” “I like it here.”

Smudge ate raisins off the floor.

“Well, anyway. . . . I’m gonna take her on a date,” Will said. “I just need to come up with somewhere great. I’m out of ideas.”

“Oh, I got it.”

Will sat up, excited for the big idea.

“In my pants,” Smudge said.

“Come on. I’m serious.”

“So am I. Do yourself a favor. Don’t fall for a Pretty One. Just don’t. They smile at you, but they don’t mean it, they just want the attention. The moment you go for it, they’ll laugh at you.”

“She’s not a Pretty One anymore.”

“No? You think that shit just goes away? Trust me, she’s a tease.”

“Lucy’s not like them,” Will said.

“Yeah, well, none of us are like we used to be, are we?”

“She’s different. Don’t say that shit about her.” Smudge flicked a laser pointer on and off, beaming the sparkling red light into Will’s left eye.

“Willie, she’s another bitch like the rest of ’em.” Will couldn’t stand to look him, the little worm, hunched over in the corner of his dirty box. What did he know about girls? Will shot to his feet.

“Fuck you, man. Why do I even hang out with you?” Will said.

Will stomped away, toward the exit.

“Hey, wait!” Smudge said.

“Go to hell.”

“I didn’t mean it.”

Will kept walking. “Yeah, well, you look like a fetus. I don’t mean that either.”

Smudge caught up with Will by the door and gripped Will’s elbow with his dry, chicken-bone fingers.

“Hey I’m sorry! You don’t have to leave,” Smudge said.

“Why can’t you be happy for me?”

“I went too far, okay? It’s probably gonna be fine with Lucy.

You’re right, it could be it, y’know? She could . . . like you.”

“Whatever, man. You’re still being dicky, even when you apologize.”

Will pulled his arm away and walked out the door.

“I know a place you could take her on a date,” Smudge said.

Will stopped. He turned back. Smudge’s eyes were wide, desperate.

“A place no one else knows about. Would blow her mind, for sure,” Smudge continued.

“Is this a joke?”

Smudge shook his head. His forehead wrinkled with worry.

“Can you vouch for her?” Smudge asked. “Can you guaran-tee she can keep a secret?”

Will couldn’t think of anyone he trusted more than Lucy.

And this was starting to sound really good.

“Yeah. Definitely.”

Smudge fished a folded-up sheet of paper out of his pocket, along with a pen. He scrawled something along the top edge, then tore that part of the paper off.

“You’ll keep coming by, right?” Smudge said, eyes downcast.

The torn ribbon of paper dangled from Smudge’s fingers.

Will ached to know what was on it.

“Why? So you can make fun of me more?” Will said.

Smudge looked up.

“You’re the only one who talks to me,” he said.

Will cringed. Smudge talked so much shit, sometimes Will forgot how sad and lonely he was.

“I can maybe stop by tomorrow?” Will said.

“Sure, whatever,” Smudge said.

He handed Will the paper.

“All right, dumbass, see you later,” Will said, and walked away fast.

“Yeah, later, prick,” Smudge said eagerly.

Will rushed around the corner, and when he got to the first functioning ceiling light, he opened the paper. It was the combination to a lock. And underneath the combo, in large, chicken-scratch letters, it read: Locker 733.


DAVID’S MACHETE CLAPPED AGAINST HIS back with every step. He’d fashioned a sheath for it out of thick, folded cardboard and fastened it to his back with string. He looked over the chaos of the market, at all the flapping mouths, the bared teeth, and the grabbing hands.

He didn’t want to be here long. Get in, get out. Thirty Loners stood behind him carrying goods for trade; the rest he’d sent back to the Stairs with the food they’d need until the next drop came.

“Ritchie, take Nelson and your team to the Sluts. Try to get the bulk of supplies from them. Toilet paper, soap, the usual.

Everybody else, make your free trades, but stick close to each other.”

“Loners!” somebody shouted over the crowd. David didn’t have to look up to know who it was: Bobby Corning, the Freaks’ leader, who now insisted on being called Jackal. He painted his face white. He thought it made him look undead.

David couldn’t bring himself to call Bobby Jackal. Before he’d decided to reinvent himself as a satanic singer-songwriter, Bobby had spent his freshman year in pastel polo shirts. That was hard to forget.

“You picked a good day to die!” Bobby said as he cut through the market with a swarm of Freaks behind him. Other gangs stopped what they were doing to watch.

“That’s your big line?” David said with a grin that covered up the anxiety churning his insides. “I hope you didn’t spend all day on it.”

Bobby’s face soured. “No, I just came up with it right now!” he said. He flipped his blue bangs out of his eyes with his sharpened black nails.

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