The Loners

Page 40

“You looked it,” Will said.

“Look, man,” David started to say, but his conviction faded as he struggled for the right words.

“David’s going to die tomorrow,” Lucy blurted out. She knew David didn’t want to dwell on it, but how could she not?

“Yeah,” Will said. “I heard.”

David was breathing fast. He got up and walked over to Will with urgency.

“I’m so glad you’re here, Will. I was afraid I—” Will socked David in the chin, knocking him down.

“No!” Lucy said. She ran to David and helped him up. David gestured for her to stay back. He looked up at Will, holding his jaw where he’d been hit.

“I’m sorry it had to happen this way,” David said.

“Fine. I don’t ever want to talk about it again,” Will said.

Will extended his hand to David. David took it. Will pulled him up to standing. Lucy knew that she had caused all this strife between them. She wanted to say something to make it better.

“Will,” Lucy said. Will looked at Lucy, his eyes so cold when they used to light up at the sight of her. It made her wince.


“I don’t know,” she eventually said.

Will turned to David.

“None of us are going to die,” Will said.

David gave Will a puzzled look.

“Why?” David asked.

“I found a dog.”



It was David’s only option. Faced with starvation, the Loners wanted out as well, even if it meant putting people on the outside in danger. At this point, it was leave or die.

But it was a long way from the Stairs to where Will found this dog, a lot of different gang territories to cross. All they had was the hope that however that dog got in, they could go the same way to get out. David’s chances were slim. He’d probably die before they found this theoretical exit. The idea of spending his last few hours trudging around the ruins and looking for holes in the walls sounded awful. He wanted to spend his last hours in bed with Lucy. She wouldn’t allow it. As soon as Lucy heard Will’s news, it lit a fire of hope in her that she spread to everyone else. Nearly the entire gang was behind Will’s plan.

They wanted out of this place once and for all.

“I think if we head through the commons, that’ll be the fast-est,” Will said.

Will was pointing at a school map laid out on the floor of the armory. David’s headache was getting worse, and he was having trouble concentrating. Besides Will, Leonard passed weapons out to Loners in a steady flow. David took a baseball bat. He didn’t trust himself with one eye and his machete yet.

Will continued, tapping the map: “That means either going through Freaks’ territory or Varsity’s. I think it’s a pretty easy choice.”

“We’ll go Freaks,” David said, massaging his jaw. It still hurt.

It was weird. David felt closer to Will now, after the punch, than he ever had before.

“We ready?” David said.

Will nodded. David signaled the twins to draw back the barricade and open the door. David stared at the lit hallway. He took a breath and stepped out of the safety of the Stairs. He’d never step foot in the Stairs again. Will walked in stride with David, and an army of ninety Loners followed. They stuck close to one another, timid but excited at the prospect of reaching their promised land. The hallway was quiet.

They approached the first intersection, and Will placed his hand out across David’s chest, signaling him to stop.

He did, and all the Loners shuffled to a stop behind them.

David looked down at Will’s hand on him. It felt good to have his brother looking out for him. He wondered if the conflict between them was really squashed, or just put on ice.

“I’ll scout the next hall,” Will said.

Will bounded off to the next turn, twenty feet or so ahead.

David marveled at how fast his brother was and how quiet.

Will pressed his back to the wall, then peered around it for a good thirty seconds. Finally, he waved the rest of the gang forward. David began the short march.

The school’s PA system crackled to life. David stopped. Will looked up at nearest speaker.

“Wake up, McKinley. This is Sam.”

A wave of anxiety washed over David at the sound of Sam’s voice. The PA was set to its loudest volume. Every click of his teeth, every burst of breath could be heard. Sam’s voice flooded the hall.

“I have an announcement to make. Varsity is offering a one month supply of food from our surplus to any gang that brings us David Thorpe. It’s dinnertime, McKinley. Come and get it.” Sam was a bastard to the bitter end. He couldn’t even let David die in peace. David knew every Loner was staring at him, maybe even considering how they could profit from Sam’s offer. David exhaled in one long, slow breath.

He started walking. He could sense Lucy close behind, but he didn’t know how many Loners would follow. He walked a good ten feet before he heard anything. Then, footsteps. He couldn’t tell how many. If they all ditched, he couldn’t blame them. Every gang in school had empty stomachs, and Sam had just left a steaming pie on the windowsill.

David reached Will, then turned to face the gang. Most had followed him. Fifteen kids hung back. They stood frozen, ashamed of their choice. They stared at the floor, shifting their weight back toward the Stairs. He was flattered by all the familiar faces still standing in front of him: Mort, Belinda, Nelson, the twins, Sasha, Ritchie, Leonard and his new boyfriend, Josh. They’d been through a lot of shit, and they were about to do it again.

David cleared his throat and spoke with an even-keeled cadence.

“If we get separated, stick to the plan. We’ll meet up in the ruins at room 1206. Keep your weapons close and your eyes sharp.”

“This way,” Will said, and they all hurried forward.

It was still slow going. They had to be cautious. Will scouted ahead. The twins and Ritchie checked that they weren’t being followed after they rounded each corner. And in between, there were dropped rations, arguments, untied shoes, and piss breaks. At seventy or so heads, they were no stealth operation.

David would occasionally look to Lucy to check on her.

“I’m all right,” she kept saying. He didn’t believe her.

Will stayed on David’s right side, covering his blind spot.

Having his brother so close again was the only relief David felt.

They arrived at the wide entrance to the commons. It was a large two-story student lounge area. Faint mustard-yellow light poured down in intermittent pools from hanging ceiling lamps, and the block columns that held up the second-floor balcony cast long shadows. The outfacing wall had been one big window that looked out on the school’s front lawn. Now it was all metal plating, and the glass lay shattered on the ground, forming a jagged creek that ran the wall’s length.

“Let me take a look,” Will said, eyeing the columns suspiciously.

Will ran into the room, looking behind every column. He got to the other end of the expansive room, gave David a thumbs-up, and waved him through.

“Stay close to each other,” David said.

He led them out at a brisk pace. When he reached the column that marked the halfway point, all the lights shut off.

They were in darkness. David wondered if the school generator had finally given out.

“Will! Are you all right?”

“I’m okay!”

David heard a coarse rumbling in the distance, first from the hall in front of him, then from the hall behind. He stuck his arm out to locate Lucy and grabbed at something squishy.

Belinda gasped. There was no time to apologize. The growling rumble was coming faster now.


“I’m here,” she said.

He saw a ball of fire in the distance. The fireball moved fast, circling the room. More flying fireballs popped up around the room. One was coming right at him. It was a Skater on his board, holding a torch.

“Skaters!” David shouted. The Skater swung his torch at him, and David narrowly avoided the blow. The flame revealed a flash of Lucy’s terrified face beside him.

More torches descended from the balcony. Skaters were charging down the stairs, joining the flaming parade that poured in from the hallways. They circled the edges of the giant room, their flames too far away to illuminate the area around David. He still couldn’t see two feet in front of him.

“If you got phones, use ’em!” David shouted.

David pulled out his phone and clicked on the screen. He held it out in front of him trying to penetrate the darkness.

Other Loners did the same, and they bunched together back to back and side to side. The room was a dangerous swirl of fire with a center of dancing white rectangles of light.

David could make out a shadow charging him. He tightened his grip on his baseball bat and swung at the murky shape.

He hit something. He heard a body hit the floor. He raised his phone to get a look at his victim and caught sight of a pair of Vans scampering back into the darkness.

Someone jabbed the end of a skateboard into his kidney.

The blow knocked the bat out of his hand. David crumpled down to his knees. Other Loners groaned around him as invisible brutes rained down pain on them. The Skater swung their skateboards wherever they saw a phone.

David fumbled to find his bat, but he heard the squeak of a sneaker to his left. He punched at the darkness. The punch whiffed through the air. He lost his balance and tumbled away from the Loner phalanx. Another skateboard cracked him soundly on the back of the head. He fell flat on the ground. All around him was chaos. He struggled to right himself, peering through the darkness with his one eye. A pair of arms bear-hugged David from behind and lifted him off the ground. He was still delirious, but he kicked at the shadows and tried to pry the hands off of him. Other unseen hands joined in, grabbing David’s right ankle, then his left shin.

They carried him away.

“Help! They’ve got me!”

His shout added to the chorus of grunts and screams from the others. No one would hear it. He felt himself be thrown into the air. For a second, he was weightless, then he slammed down on a cloth surface. It wasn’t the floor. He flung his arms out to the sides. He felt poles, duct tape, and string making walls on either side of him. He stood and knocked his head against the same woven barrier above him. He was in the cage that the Skaters used at the food drops.

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