The Loners

Page 3

Today was going to suck. Sam would want payback. Everyone was going to be gossiping about him. If it were up to him he’d skip today. But he had to go. Today was his little brother’s first day of high school.

David peeled back his flannel sheets and stood. His room was in shambles. There were used plates and glasses on the floor along with piles of dirty clothes, free weights, and one overflowing trash can. He couldn’t believe he had gotten used to living in such filth. He resolved to clean it up the minute he got home. David pulled on a frayed T-shirt that was draped over a lamp, and then some dark jeans from the floor. He’d had these clothes since football season of last year, and they still fit. His room might have gone to hell, but at least he’d maintained his fitness. He slipped on a black hooded sweatshirt and pulled the large hood over his unruly brown hair.

David dug his feet into his favorite beat-up sneakers and took the stairs down two at a time.

He stepped into the kitchen and smelled burnt food. The room was small, with counter space and a breakfast nook taking up most of it. The walls were painted the color of mar-malade, and his mother’s old lace curtains cast floral patterns across the floor. Will stood in front of the fridge. He was short and stringy, and he drank orange juice out of the carton with the refrigerator door wide open. Smoke plumed up from a pan on the stove. David ran to it and switched off the burner.

“What are you doing?” Will said.

There were pancakes in the pan, dry and brown on top, charred black on the bottom. “You’re gonna burn the house down,” David said. He took the pan off the stove and walked it to the trash.

“Whoa, whoa, there’s nothing wrong with those,” Will said.

“They’re incinerated.”

“I like ’em crunchy,” Will said. He took the hot pan from David. David shook his head. Will could be so stubborn.

Will slid the stiff, blackened disks onto a plate. David moved to the counter and opened Will’s epilepsy medication.

He shook out some pills.

“Already took ’em,” Will said. David gave Will a puzzled look, and Will shook his head again. “Dude, if I managed to remember taking my meds for three weeks on the trail, I think I can manage myself from now on.”

Will sat down at the kitchen table with his burnt breakfast.

It had been their father’s idea to enroll Will in a three-week leadership expedition called Wild-Trek. He’d left for Utah kicking and screaming, but when he’d come back four days ago, he was more confident than David had ever seen him.

“So you take one trip with Chazz the Scoutmaster—”

“He’s a wilderness instructor,” Will said.

“Right. One trip with him, and you’re a brand-new man, huh?” “Somethin’ like that.”

“So you’re probably not scared about this being your first day of high school or anything.”

“Nope. I’m gonna rule that place. It’s just another challenge for me to overcome.”

Will had been talking in aphorisms and affirmations since he got back from his trip. David had to admit, he was a little jealous of Will’s newfound positivity.

“So, what happened out there at this big sausage fest?” David asked. “Did you guys give each other a lot of back rubs and stuff?” David did his best meathead voice. “You climbed that rock like a champ today, Chazz. C’mere and lemme lube up your thighs.’”

Will laughed. He had black flecks of char on his teeth. Will had their mother’s sharp, angular features, not like David who had a rounder, fuller face, like their dad’s.

“It wasn’t a sausage fest. There were girls,” Will said.

“There were girls? Or there was a girl?”

“No. There were girls. It was a coed trip.” Will blushed. David laughed. “Now it all makes sense! You come home all smiles, and you clean up your act. There definitely was a girl. What is she, like, a hippie chick?”

“Don’t worry about it, it’s none of your business.”

“Did you make out with her? I hope you at least tried, you don’t want to get stuck in the friend zone.”

“I don’t want to talk about this,” Will said.

“I’m going to need her phone number.”

“Shut up.”

“Ooh, and her e-mail address. Where are your baby photos?” Will threw a burnt pancake at David like a Frisbee. It bounced off his shoulder. David laughed. Teasing aside, he was happy for Will. His little bro was growing up.

“How was that party the other night? I thought you were dead up there yesterday,” Will said.

David deflated at the mention of the party. What could he tell him? That the party was all right, until he committed social suicide?

“It sucked,” David said.

“You know you have to start taking me to these parties. You promised you would once I started high school.” David didn’t have anything to say. Will was so pumped, so enthusiastic to start his high school life. David hoped that he hadn’t ruined it for Will already, because whatever horrible reputation he had created for himself this weekend, he might have created it for Will too, just by being his brother.

Above their heads, the blue sky was limitless. David drove Will to school in his old ’95 Jeep Wrangler. It had no doors and no roof, just a roll cage and a windshield. The road raced by beneath them. The wind whipped through David’s hair and then fluttered down the back of his shirt.

David had no idea what was in store for him once he got to school. He tried to relax and appreciate Colorado’s majesty all around him. It was true what they said, fresh air made a world of difference. The trees were shifting to the yellow, red, and auburn shades of fall. Even though the road was entirely within the cool shadow of the Rockies to the west, the turning leaves seemed to radiate warmth. David watched a single bird above as it flew in the opposite direction of its flock.

“Oh, I forgot,” Will said. “Dad called. His trip is canceled, he’s coming home tonight.”

“What? How could you forget to tell me that?”

“Dunno. Just did.”

It was great news. David couldn’t wait for his dad to be back. His dad had to travel for work, and when he was gone the house felt so empty. But when he got back, it always felt like a home again.

“How long is he going to be home?”

“He said a week.”

David smiled, more at ease than he’d been all morning.

Will straightened his clothes and made sure the zipper was cinched closed on his book bag as he had already done twice since they left the house. Will seemed a little more nervous than he’d let on.

“You want some advice about high school?” David asked.


“I’ll tell you what Mom told me before my first day.” Will’s eyes went wide. He listened without blinking.

“She said be nice to everyone, but if someone is mean to you, you be mean to them right back.”

“I like that,” Will said.

McKinley High School crested over the horizon and stared back at them with its countless, tinted eyes, baring its white column teeth. The main building was a giant gray brick on a pristine, manicured hill. The Pale Ridge city council decided they needed a new, larger high school to accommodate the town’s growing population, so they tore down the old one and put this one up in its place. The closer David got to the new school, the larger he realized it really was. By the time he pulled into the parking lot, the tremendous building seemed large enough to fit four of his former high schools inside of it.

David navigated the expansive school parking lot until he found a spot. Rows upon rows of cars gleamed in the sunshine.

He and Will got out of the Jeep and joined the sea of kids who drifted slowly through the grid of parked cars, toward the school. David drew his black hood up over his head.

“This is gonna be a fresh start,” Will said, staring at the towering three-story block of a building.

“That’s right,” David said. But he didn’t believe it. He felt as though he was walking into a trap. They reached the end of the parking lot. The flow of students bottlenecked at the pavilioned front doors, causing the herd to pack in close and shuffle forward as one big mass, like a crowd entering a con-cert. David saw Alan standing by the front door, talking to Anthony Smith, Rhodes Dixon, and Brad Hammond, three of Sam’s best friends from the football team. Alan made eye contact with David, then stiffened and looked away quickly. That was not good. David stopped walking forward.

He had a strong urge to get back to his car and drive away.

He swore he could hear people whispering his name through the fabric of his hood. All of his fears about being jumped or shunned or mocked over Saturday night weren’t theoretical anymore. They were real. David’s hand closed around his car keys in his pocket.

“Dave,” Will said from afar.

Will was ten feet ahead, standing still in the slow-moving crowd and looking back at David. His face was twisted in concern. He looked like he knew just what David wanted to do at that moment.

“You’re coming, right?” Will said. His voice cracked as he spoke. David knew that look in his eye. For all his brave talk, Will was scared to walk through those doors alone. He needed his big brother.

“I’m coming,” David said.

David and Will walked into their new school together.

The school was brand-new. The hallways smelled like paint fumes. The lockers looked fresh out of the factory, the floors didn’t have one scuff or stain yet. Everything shined, colorful and bright. The place was so huge it was disorienting.

Finally, David located his first-period classroom and went inside. The classroom was empty except for Mr. Meyer, his English teacher from last year. Mr. Meyer was a nice guy in his late twenties. His face looked younger than that, but his unfashionable clothes and his weird beard proved that he was a teacher.

“Mr. Meyer? You’re teaching world history now?”

“David, hey, man. No, there’s no first-period class here.”

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