The Loners

Page 36

They’d come to see the return of David.

“How are you doing?” Lucy said, sidling up to him. Worry creased her brow.

“I feel like a million bucks,” he said. It was curt and insin-cere, enough to say bad question, bad time without hurting her feelings.

He just kept pushing forward to the foyer like an express train. He marched into the area, bumping a few kids out of the way as he did. He didn’t stop until he was a good ten yards in. All talk in the room stopped.

He planted himself there like a colossal Roman statue forty feet tall and made of bronze. The Loners flanked him, creating a ring, looking out at the McKinley population. David peered out at the kids staring back at him. What they didn’t know was that David was focusing only on their mouths as they whispered. He couldn’t bear to meet their eyes yet.

The stitching on his eye patch prickled his face. He ached to adjust it, but he knew everyone had their eyes on it. The slightest acknowledgment that it irritated him would have been Varsity’s first small victory.

David scanned the crowd for Hilary. He had intended for hers to be the first eyes he met. He found the Pretty Ones, but there was no sign of her. Varsity was close at hand, and at the front was Sam. Sam was grinning at David and talking out the corner of his mouth to Diaz and Dixon. David felt a magnetic pull toward Sam. He had an overwhelming urge to kill him right there. If David did kill Sam, where would it end?

It could start an all-out war. How many Loners would die? If David were to strike back, it would have to be definitive. He’d have to wipe Varsity out completely so they wouldn’t be able to retaliate. He would have to win it all in one move.

What did that mean? He had to kill them all?

It seemed like an insane thing to consider. But what if they went after Lucy next? What if they found Will before he could?

What if they went for his other eye?

“You need me to murder Sam for you real quick before I go?” Gonzalo said, leaning in.

David couldn’t hold on to his steely expression. He broke into a grin.

“Would you mind?”

“Sure, I could do some kind of suplex or an elbow drop superquick. He’ll be dead, then I’ll bounce. Cool?” David’s grin gave way to an honest laugh. He turned to his friend and appreciatively took him in. Gonzalo had a bitter-sweet look on his face. Two months ago, David didn’t know if Gonzalo felt any emotions at all. He’d been a deadpan giant then. Now he was a close friend, and he was clearly worried.

Gonzalo knew the situation. He knew the pressure that was now on David. He also knew that this room was a time bomb.

David thought that Gonzalo probably wished he could stay to fight just as much as he couldn’t wait to run out the front door.

David gave Gonzalo a heartfelt squeeze on the shoulder, as if to give him permission to go. Gonzalo walked to the front doors beside the graduation booth. They were covered with the scratched-in signatures of past graduates. He grabbed the car key that was hanging on a string off a door hinge.

Gonzalo found a clean spot among the three hundred or so names on the doors and scratched his name: GONZALO. He turned to the booth, stepped inside, and placed his thumb on the scanner. A moment later, the screen in the booth flashed: PROCEED TO EXIT FOR PROCESSING.

Gonzalo walked to the door and waited for it to open, but nothing happened. The door should have opened for him.

Gonzalo looked puzzled. The crowd whispered about it. Gonzalo walked back to the booth, scanned his thumb again, and still the door didn’t open.

A sob echoed from the cluster of Loners. It was Sasha. She’d been a wreck all morning, crying and barely able to stand.

Belinda had to hold her up now. The graduation booth not working was just too much now. Gonzalo looked at Sasha as he tried the scanner again.

“It’s okay, Sash. Don’t worry, girl.”

She nodded, tears pouring out of her eyes.

David heard a dull clunk. All heads turned to see the doors to the outside swing open. David could see that beyond the door, the coffin-sized containment cell was not there, and the double doors looked out to a large white room. He felt an impulse to run for that room. That was the way to freedom, and it was wide open.

A soldier in a black haz-mat suit and riot gear stepped forward. Thirty more, identical to the first, charged through the doors in a tight formation. Dread seized David. They hadn’t seen anyone from the outside for eighteen months, not since the booth had been installed. This felt wrong. David grabbed Lucy on instinct and pulled her away from the doors. Gonzalo ran back with the Loners. Sasha screamed like mad.

“Get back!” David shouted to the Loners. They retreated to the edge of the foyer in a tight formation around David. Every other gang did the same, finding cover behind the prominent pillars of the room.

The students peered out at the soldiers. It was a quiet face-off.

The soldiers held clear bulletproof shields in front of them, with slots in the middle to stick their assault rifles through.

They assembled in a line, spreading out to form a wall of shields. Between that front line of soldiers and the door, another team of soldiers broke into two lines that faced each other, with their shields out to form a wide hallway that led to the exit.

“There’s been a malfunction in the automated exit process,” one soldier hollered. “If this is your release day, line the hell up! We will be scanning for infection! If you try to leave without being scanned, we are prepared to use maximum force!” As if that wasn’t clear enough, another soldier shouted,

“We’ll lay you rats down! Just try something!” Everything about the soldiers’ entrance and their attitude was jittery. They were on edge, and it made David feel queasy.

Gonzalo looked to David, just as unsure.

“What do you think, D?” he said.

“I think you should get the hell out of here before they change their mind.”

Gonzalo nodded. He leaned down to Sasha to give her one last kiss, and she jumped on him like he was a jungle gym. She grabbed his face and pressed it against hers.

“I love you so much, baby,” Sasha said. “I gonna miss you like fucking crazy.”

Tears wet Gonzalo’s eyes, and he bit down hard on his lip to fight them back.

“I’m gonna see you soon, Sash. Real soon, okay?” She let go of him and turned away. Belinda and Lucy opened their arms to her. Gonzalo strode toward the soldiers. Graduates from different gangs stepped forward and formed a line down the center of the foyer behind him.

A cube the size of a walk-in closet, made of thick slabs of clear plastic and mounted on a black metal base with all-ter-rain tires, rolled in from the outside and continued down the hallway of soldiers. Its motor buzzed like an electric pencil sharpener.

“What the hell is that?” David said.

The cube came to a halt five feet in front of Gonzalo.

“It’s a fat guy in a little box,” Lucy whispered without missing a beat.

A man sat inside the cube, behind a small steering wheel and a set of computerized panels. He was some kind of scien-tist, or maybe that was overstating it, but he had on a clean white lab coat. His flabby bulk barely fit into the cube. And he was terrified. This clearly wasn’t in his job description. He shook as he looked around the room. His eyes were so wide it looked like toothpicks held them open.

“Uh . . . f-f-first student. Step, uh, come forward.” Gonzalo approached the box. The fat man shrank back in his seat.

“Place your hand in the glove,” the fat man said.

Gonzalo slid his hand into a long, rigid, rubberlike glove that extended into his box from the outside, like an incuba-tor. The glove sealed tightly around his wrist. Gonzalo waited.

The fat man stared at the screen on his equipment and patted the sweat from his round, hastily shaven cheeks.

Finally, the fat man said, “Name?”

“Gonzalo Mendez.”

“Take your hand out of the glove.”

Gonzalo did as the man asked. There was a slight hum of whirring parts, and then the hand-hole spit out the glove lining that had fit over Gonzalo’s hand. It landed with a nasty splat on the ground.

Gonzalo waited for the fat man to say something. The guy seemed to be busy with follow-up procedures on the panel.

“Come on, man,” Gonzalo finally said.

The fat man looked up, rattled.

“Oh, uh, you’re free. You’re processing section is F. Proceed to the exit.”

Boos echoed out from the crowd at the fat man’s performance.

“YOU SUCK!” someone shouted.

Someone else threw an oily clump of rags from far back in the room. It smacked onto the side of the cube. The fat man jumped in his seat, making the cube rock from side to side on its wheelbase. The man’s heart rate must have tripled. Some kids laughed. The soldiers choked up on their rifles. The rag slid down the plastic, leaving a trail of goo behind it.

“See you on the other side, McKinley,” Gonzalo said.

Gonzalo walked into the hall of shields. His face transformed when he looked through the doors to the white room.

Clean, cool light washed over Gonzalo’s face. He breathed in deep. His smile was reverent. It was like nothing David had ever seen from Gonzalo. The rest of his life was waiting for him. He stepped through the door.

And then Gonzalo was gone.

David felt exposed and vulnerable again. He felt the focus of the room shift back on him. He’d been maimed by a girl he used to date; he was half blind; his brother was missing; and he’d just lost the strongest fighter in his gang.

Five more students were set to graduate. Dickie Bellman was next in the graduation line. That wasn’t right.

Dickie was at least a year too young to be phasing out of infection. Everyone who had graduated so far would have been a senior. Dickie would only have been a junior at this point. A panic fluttered in David.

“What’s Dickie doing?” Lucy whispered.

The Freak behind Dickie was trying to pull him out of the line by his shirt, but he clearly didn’t want to cause a commotion that would involve the soldiers. Dickie pushed the Freak off and hustled up to the cube. Without prompting, he stuck his hand into the glove. As Dickie waited for a response from the fat man, whispered conversation spread through the crowd. People were making the same observation David and Lucy already had.

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