The Loners

Page 44

“They’re crushing me,” he said.

“David, just come on. It’s okay.”

“David, there’s nobody there,” Lucy said softly.

She reached out and took David gently by the hand. David looked to Will, his eye wide and helpless.

“Am I holding Lucy’s hand?”

Lucy looked on the verge of tears.

Will couldn’t believe David was this far gone already. It was a strange sensation, taking care of David. He felt like he’d been walking a tightrope and someone just took away the safety net.

The Slut with the chest wound hacked out a wet cough. It sounded bad.

“Let’s go! What are we waiting for?” Violent said.

Will pulled his brother forward while Lucy whispered quiet words of encouragement to coax David up the last leg of the climb. Their exchange was intimate, tender, and hard to watch.

Will threw open the door to the third floor. It was a short hallway, a straight shot to the fire exit door that would let them in the library. He was glad they didn’t have to mess with the library’s front entrance. It was notoriously rigged with a series of deadly traps that had mangled raiders in the past.

As far as Will knew, this back hall was safe.

Violent brushed passed them and walked to the door. She pounded on it. A metal plate slid aside, and the narrow rect-angular window revealed a fat-necked kid with brilliant white teeth. He silently scanned the faces in the hall.

“Get Kemper! We’ve got injured,” she shouted through the door.

Moments later the door opened, and Kemper stepped into the hall. He and Violent engaged in a hushed dialogue. Occasionally, she would gesture back in their direction. Kemper nodded, and Violent walked back to Will, David, and Lucy.

“So, what’s the deal? Who’s calling the shots now?” she asked in a matter-of-fact tone.

David was staring at the ceiling.

Will stepped forward and awkwardly cleared his throat.

“Uh, me. What’s going on?” Will said.

“They’ll let you guys through. But you gotta check your weapons. They’ll give them back once you get to the other side. That’s the deal,” Violent said.

“Uh . . . gimme a minute.” Will strolled away from Violent.

It sounded like a bad idea, but it was their only option.

Will looked to his gang. Ritchie walked among the gathered Loners, checking on everyone, pepping them up with words of assurance. He strutted around like a mini David. God damn it, he hated Ritchie. Always trying to replace him. Obnoxious little gnome.

“Ritchie,” Will said, “can I talk to you for a second?” Ritchie sneered in response, then swaggered over to Will.

“What?” Ritchie said.

“We need to hand over our weapons to pass through,” Will said.

“Get out of my face with that,” Ritchie said.

“This is the only way,” Will said.

“Yeah, I get that, moron. That doesn’t mean we’re not walking into an ambush! Unarmed! Are you out of your mind?”

“David swore to me that we can trust Violent’s relationship with the Nerds.”

“Was that before or after he was fighting people that weren’t there?”

“After. But I believe him. Look, Ritchie, we don’t have time to argue. David’s going to die. Can’t you do it for David? He needs your help.”

Ritchie wiped his scarred face with his hands, frustrated.

“This is such bullshit.”

Will couldn’t lose him.

“Are you gonna make me say this?” Will said. “The gang doesn’t like me. They won’t listen to me. But they trust you. . . .” Ritchie was shaking his head. There was one last thing Will was hoping he didn’t have to say.

“And I’m sorry I pushed you down the stairs.” Ritchie looked back at the gathered gang. He cracked his knuckles.

“Shit. I guess we have to try.”

“Thanks,” Will said.

Ritchie walked back toward the other Loners. He stopped halfway and turned back to Will.

“I still think you’re a prick,” Ritchie said. He went to break the news to the gang.

Will walked back over to Violent.

“Deal,” Will said.

Violent nodded to Kemper. There was no going back now.

Five minutes later, Will led the Loners into the library.

“Wipe your feet,” Kemper said as he slid the barricade back in place behind Will, David, and Lucy.

“Fussy, fussy,” Violent said to Kemper with a smile. He blushed.

Will looked down at a maroon rug. He couldn’t remember the last time someone had asked him to wipe his feet, but he could hardly object. The library was a marvel. The carpet was clean.

Every book was in its place. It even smelled like a new building.

Kemper clapped his hand on Will’s back with a friendly smile. “Welcome. Have you ever come to the library before?

Even before the quarantine?”

Will shook his head.

“Well, everything is almost exactly like it was. Pretty cool, right? Nonfiction is over here. Fiction is on the far side. Over there are the computer stations, but obviously, all we have is a local network. Not that we can use it when the power is—”

“We need to get to the ruins,” Will said flatly. Will didn’t know Kemper that well, but a couple seconds told him the guy was a chatterbox.

“Oh . . . right. I’ll take you to the east fire door. From there, you can take the stairs to the science department. Then, which way are you headed? Because—”

“We got it from there, okay? Let’s go,” Will said.

Kemper clamped his lips, like he was holding his breath. It looked like it hurt him to shut up. He forced a nod and led the Loners through a maze of bookshelves. Will was in awe of the Nerds’ little utopia. They’d converted tall bookshelves into bunk beds, four beds high. They passed through the common area where Nerd medics were tending to wounded Sluts. Mort and the other injured Loners joined them. The rest of the Nerds seemed unbothered by the interruption. The majority were reading books. Others were engaged in rounds of role-playing games. Will and Lucy shared a look of wonder.

“This place is amazing,” she said.

“Amazing,” he replied.

Kemper led them through the stacks on the east side of the library, and they reached the far wall. David grabbed Will and stopped.

“Whoa . . .”

Will turned to see David staring through the window of a study room. He pawed at the glass with wide eyes. The central desk was cluttered with the innards of electronics and looping wires. It looked like some sort of two-way radio with a microphone. Thick cables ran from the main box up the wall and into the ceiling. Kemper quacked a laugh.

“Cool, right? My masterpiece. It’s a ham radio,” Kemper said with a nod. “We’re trying to make contact with the outside.”

“It’s real?” David leaned in and asked Will.

“Totals,” Kemper said proudly. “Now all I have to do is make it work. I had a really cool idea the other day. I’d like to get a phone network going between the gangs. It would be great for negotiations. It’d be so much safer around here. Shouldn’t be too hard. The phone lines are already there. The hardest part really would just be everybody’s cooperation.” Kemper continued prattling on as he led them down a long corridor of eight-foot-tall bookshelves. Will was in front with David and Lucy and Violent. Seventy Loners followed behind them. The corridor of shelves ended at a barricaded red fire door, identical to the one that got them into the library. A line of Nerds stood in front of it, each holding one of the Loners’

weapons. Kemper gave his people a casual wave.

“All right, guys, open it up.”

A black-haired kid with an infestation of freckles shook his head.

“We want David,” he said.

Will clamped his hand tight on David’s arm. He shot Kemper a furious look.

“What the hell’s going on, man?” Will asked.

Kemper furrowed his brow and shook his head.

“No, no. This is not . . .” Kemper clucked, trying to make sense of what was happening. “Henry, what are you doing? Is this some sort of joke?”

Will could see it for what it was. Mutiny. Nerds filed out from the stacks on either side of them. They were stone-faced.

Their earlier distractions, reading and gaming, that was all a ruse. Nerds clutched thick, heavy dictionaries in their hands, ready to swing.

“Give us David now!” the freckle-face said again, with more bass in his voice.

Kemper stomped forward and stretched his arms out as if he was protecting all the Loners.

“Henry, this is unacceptable. Put that bat down right now—” Henry planted his bat right in Kemper’s gut. Kemper stared at his gang mate in confusion and crumpled to the ground.

Violent growled and threw the freckled kid to the ground.

“Push!” a voice shouted.

Bookshelves behind Will toppled over, crushing the majority of the Loners underneath them and raining books down on their heads. The Nerds attacked from every angle. Will fled, pulling David and Lucy with him. Nerds poured out from every corner after the trio. Books sailed through the air after them. One smacked directly into Will’s temple. It was a hardback encyclopedia, and it knocked him off his feet.

“Will,” Lucy cried out.

He lost his grip on David and fell to the ground. He was in pain. He rolled over and struggled to his feet, still woozy.

He saw a cluster of Nerds tear David away from Lucy. She shrieked. It took four Nerds to hoist David up and push him onto a rolling book cart. They ran fast, wheeling David through the common area and back toward the west fire door.

He couldn’t lose him.

But he did. Will tried to run, and he fell, still dazed from the book to the head. By the time he pulled himself back up, David was gone. He had spent years protecting Will, and Will hadn’t lasted an hour in David’s shoes.


LUCY RATTLED THE HANDLES OF THE LIBRARY doors and yanked with all her weight. The Nerds had forced her out, but she had to get back in. She had to get back to David.

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