The Loners

Page 38

Another scream rolled down the hall at him. It sounded closer than before. Will pocketed both phones in a hurry. He needed to stay sharp. He rounded the corner into the main hall of what used to be the science department. He came to a hall with a caved-in ceiling. Everything smelled like mold.

Will figured there was a broken water pipe somewhere, and it probably had been flooding since the explosion. Water trickled down the walls in steady rivulets. The floor was slick. The rest of the hallway was impassible, caved in completely. He ducked into a doorway.

The room beyond had no floor. A ragged, gaping hole took up nearly the entire room. Floor clung to the walls around the room’s edges. like a shattered window. Will stood on one of those shards, inches from the crumbled edge. Wavy brown stains marked the ceiling and the high part of the walls.

Below, as best as he could make out, were the remains of four smaller rooms, their walls crushed by what used to be the ceiling above them. Will tried to make sense of what they used to be. The obliterated skeletons of computers, printers, and swivel chairs were half buried in the rubble. It was the computer lab for the science department, a part of the school Will never had a chance to see when it was new.

There was a dog in the middle of the room below.

It was a German shepherd with tan-colored fur and a black snout. Will felt like he was dreaming, but he knew he wasn’t.

He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a dream. Will softened, looking at the dog.

“Hey, buddy.”

Will lowered himself into the room below. He held his hand out as he approached the dog.

“Come here, pooch.”

The dog cocked its head like it was considering the offer. It sniffed the air.

“Come here.”

The dog sniffed his hand.

“What are you doing here, pal? Where’d you come from?” Will marveled at it. He dared to scratch behind its ears. The dog let him.

“I’m not so bad, right? You like me, huh?” The dog panted. The corners of its mouth pulled up, which made it look like the dog was smiling. Its breath was hot and comforting. It was an amazing thing for Will to be in the company of another creature that meant him absolutely no harm.

There was no duplicity in the eyes he saw before him. If he ever got out of McKinley, he was definitely getting a dog.

Will noticed a trail of blood on the floor leading from the dog to a hole in the wall of rubble. The blood was dripping off the hock of its hind leg. The wound was fresh. A set of tags dangled from the dog’s collar. As he reached for them, there was a wet crunch somewhere behind him. Will whipped his head around.

Smudge was frozen with his back against the wall, standing on the lip of the broken floor above. He must have been creeping inch by inch across the room behind Will, trying to sneak past.

The dog barked. The sound battered Will’s ear, and he jumped. Smudge shimmied across the shards of floor, toward the door Will had just come through. Will ran toward Smudge.

He jumped up and grabbed the lip of the floor above. The dog bounded away. Smudge disappeared through the door. Will pulled himself up and ran into the hallway after Smudge. Will slipped on the slick hallway floor and crashed into a soft, wet wall. The spongy drywall gave way, and Will landed in the sop-ping space between the walls.

He pushed himself out of the plaster trap and raced down the hallway. As he closed on the hallway’s entrance, he heard Smudge shriek. Will dashed out to the entrance of the ruins, where he’d first heard that burnout scream.

He skidded to a stop when he saw that half of the cracked staircase was gone. The missing half of the staircase had collapsed under Smudge’s weight. Smudge was impaled on a ragged piece of rebar from what was left of the top of the stairs. The rebar jutted out through his neck, and his body dangled with nothing underneath him.

Will knelt by him. Smudge clutched his neck with his free hand, desperately trying to keep blood in his body. He was breathing in short, hysterical bursts. It wouldn’t be long.

“Will . . . you gotta . . . help me, man.” Will climbed across the debris and grabbed Smudge by the hair.

“What are you doing?” Smudge said.

“You’re gonna die,” Will said without emotion.

“Will, come on—”

Will didn’t move. Smudge’s eyes bulged in disbelief.

“Will! We’re friends!”

“Not anymore. Why did you let Hilary in?”

“I don’t . . . I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Smudge said.

Will shook him. Smudge shrieked.

“Admit it!”

Blood poured out of his neck like the stream of a weak gar-den hose. The color in his already pallid skin was nearly gone.

His next breath marked a significant downturn. He could barely keep his eyes open now.

“I’m tired,” Smudge said.

“You did it.”

“Yeah,” Smudge said. His voice was thin and it warbled. “I’m sorry, Willie. I didn’t know what they were gonna do.” Smudge tried to swallow. “They told me they were just going to raid the food supply. I didn’t know anybody’d get hurt.” Smudge shook his head, his eyes fading.

“Why?” Will said.

“There was a girl. Amber. A Pretty One. I loved her. . . .” Smudge was nearly gone.

“She didn’t like me, but Hilary made her make out with me.

You gotta understand. . . .”

His last word had no volume, only breath, and it was the last breath Smudge would ever take. “I’m sorry, man.” Will let go of Smudge and leaned back. He stared into Smudge’s cooling eyes. Will began to cry. The lights above him dimmed a little more.


DAVID WAS ALONE, STARING UP AT A CEILING LIGHT that was glowing and then fading, over and over again.

It throbbed like a deathbed heartbeat. The school’s lights had gone out hours ago, and then came back like this. The building must have been running on a backup generator.

He reached up and pulled his hoodie tight over his head, that old comfortable feeling. He wore a pair of cheap sunglasses, with the lens poked out for his good eye. It was his attempt at a disguise, so he could take to the halls in search of Will. He went alone. He didn’t want to pull the Loners into his mess.

The halls had become more dangerous by the day as panic overtook the school. As long as the doors stayed closed, more seniors meant to graduate would die. And if another drop didn’t come in two weeks’ time, they’d starve to death. Now, more than ever, David needed to find his brother. He needed to set things right.

He had a savage headache.

David whisked himself through the shadows, reaching his right hand out to gauge the distance from the wall on his blind side. These night jaunts were good for getting his bearings back. Life with one eye had proved to be maddening. He banged into corners a lot. Doorways seemed to narrow on him sometimes. It was the athlete in him that wouldn’t submit to the handicap. He had to master his new, limited perspective.

Thunk, thunk, thunk. He ran his fingers along the handles of the lockers he passed. David had to be strong. He couldn’t slip. That’s what got him half blind in the first place. The Loners needed their leader now more than ever. They were all scared. David kept telling everyone not to panic, that the military would open the doors again. But it was his job to say that, to get his team through the game. What he should have been doing was figuring out how they were going to get food when theirs ran out. But that was for tomorrow. He still didn’t know how tonight was going to pan out.

He turned a corner. David heard a noise up ahead. He stopped. Voices were coming from a classroom down the hall.

The door was open. He couldn’t make out what they were saying.

David stepped back around the corner and waited, sticking his head into the hall just enough to have a view of that classroom door. A figure stepped out. It was Kemper, the leader of the Nerds. He had bad posture, unkempt black hair, and he was always cheerful. Violent walked out after him, collecting her mussed red hair into a ponytail. Kemper and Violent kissed. Passionately. David grinned. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Way to go, Kemper.

David watched as Violent reached up and grabbed a handful of hair on the back of Kemper’s head. She turned Kemper around and pressed his back against the lockers. She kissed him deeply. Kemper said something to Violent that David couldn’t make out, and Violent giggled.

This was the strangest romantic coupling David had seen so far in McKinley. Now he understood why they were meeting in the dark on neutral territory. It was the same reason he had to sneak out to see Hilary. An affair between two gang leaders stirred up way too much drama. David was comforted by it though. Even when things were this bad, two people who were into each other would still find a way to get together.

They kissed good-bye and went their separate ways. Violent walked away from David, and Kemper walked toward him.

David ducked his head back around the corner and clung close to the wall. Kemper, smiling like a goof, passed without noticing David. He whistled a tune that faded off as he disappeared around a corner.

David got moving again. He was wasting time. He’d been avoiding the foyer for the past half hour. He’d just go there and see what happened.

David dragged his feet the whole way there.

The foyer had the same surging and fading light. He exhaled softly, trying to keep his cool, and walked toward the graduation booth. He stepped in. The metal was scuffed from abuse.

The booth’s walls were plastered with Skater stickers.

David placed the pad of his thumb on the scanner and prayed to hear the buzzer that would mean his time wasn’t up just yet.

Sam lay quietly on a towel. He let the water from the pool air-dry his body. He liked looking at his body. He could honestly say it was perfect. That was what four hours a day in the gym created. He worked hard. Nobody could say that he didn’t.

He listened to the water lap at the edges of the pool. It was only a matter of time before the maniacs would be shaking down the doors to the gym. They’d be hungry. They’d be angry. And there were a lot of them, a whole school full.

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