The Loners

Page 50

David stumbled away from the obstruction. The dogs were still there. He heard the sound of a thousand dogs, panting in unison. Each dog he passed bared its teeth as he neared. He saw one dried-blood paw print and then another. He hoped the trail would lead him outside.

David careened off jutting rocks, avoiding scratching claws and snapping teeth. He could only see two feet in front of him by the phone’s anemic light. He followed the blood trail wherever it led, sometimes having to crawl on his stomach. He lost track of the trail at times and crawled into cramped passages that came to dead ends.

It could’ve been minutes or hours since the tunnel’s collapse. He had no way of telling the difference. He might have been traveling in circles, he couldn’t tell. He kept going.

His vision was savaged by more things that weren’t there.

They couldn’t be there. He saw all the rubble as acne-scarred flesh. He saw his own arms as eels, black and wet and squirm-ing. For a good fifty feet Sam silently followed close behind him, with his arms outstretched, wanting a hug.

But gradually, the hallucinations faded. In time, he didn’t feel like his brain was evaporating anymore. He didn’t feel that nuggets of lungs were rising up in his throat. He just felt like he’d been beaten up by the whole football team, which he had been. It was a good feeling.

David turned a jagged corner. He crawled into a slim space between two horizontal slabs of wall. If whatever was holding those two slabs apart gave way, David would be squashed flat. As he slithered through, David’s phone died. The battery was done.

David threw the phone aside and continued on, blind. His hands were his eyes. He felt his way through rocky crevices and disjointed passages. He saw light ahead, a dark gray shimmer in the blackness. He moved toward it as fast as he could. The light forced him to squint. A short tunnel of debris extended above him like a chimney, and beyond it, he saw the gray material of the canopy, just like in the quad. It glowed from the moonlight shining through. He climbed—one final effort. Something scurried down the rocks by him. It was a rat.

David pulled himself out of the tunnel and onto a slanting hill of rubble. He realized that he was on top of what once was the East Wing. The heavy synthetic material of the canopy was in his face; it covered the entire hill of rubble. He could almost see the moon beyond it, a crinkled blur of white.

He caught just a whiff of cold, fresh air, but after a year of breathing the recycled, dead air in the school, that whiff was like a spoonful of sugar. He turned his head when he heard a flutter, and he saw a tattered hole in the canopy above him. It was being blown about by a chilly winter breeze. He crawled up to it, grabbed the gnawed and torn edges of the hole, and pulled his head through. A limitless night sky was above him.

The stars were sharp and brilliant pinholes, and the silver moon was nearly full. He breathed deeply. The air was rich, like biting into a tomato off the vine.

I did it, he thought. I got out.

David climbed out from underneath the canopy. The material sloped up and up above him, over the hill of craggy ruins, all the way to the roof of the remaining building. He looked below him. The canopy ended at the ground, twenty feet down, and beyond it, he saw trees. Real trees. He didn’t realize how much he’d missed them until he saw them. He half slid, half climbed down the rest of the canopied rubble hill and stepped onto grass. It was soft under his shoes. The lawn of the campus stretched out before him. He ran to a nearby tree. He just had to touch it. The bark was aged and rough and natural. He savored another gust of fragrant air. It smelled of leaves and grass and rain. He never wanted to be inside again.

Thirty yards away, there was a double line of chain-link fence. It surrounded the entire campus, and razor wire was spooled along its top edge. He saw a guard tower. He saw parked jeeps. Moonlight shimmered across the lawn. There were prefabricated buildings across the campus that he didn’t remember. When he looked at the school itself, he saw that the canopy covered the entire massive building, like the school was undergoing a permanent fumigation.

He had to get off this campus. The world needed to know what was happening in McKinley, and it was up to him to tell them all. He couldn’t afford to screw it up. He knew he should wait, survey the scene, make sure no one was around, but he couldn’t. He had to move.

David ran for the fence.


SAM TRUNDLED DOWN A PITCH-BLACK HALL. It had been two weeks, and the lights still hadn’t come back on. He couldn’t see a thing. His muscles spasmed with each step, and his legs wobbled underneath him. His belly twisted and growled. He could taste his own bile on his tongue. The food was gone. His food. The rest of the school had devoured it all.

Those animals. He despised every one of them. They turned on each other like Sam knew they would. The gangs fell apart, and now they all lay out in the quad, starving and helpless.

Like babies. Disgusting, pink little babies, crying and waiting for someone to feed them.

He’d show them. There was a gas line to the boiler in the basement. He’d break it loose. He’d let it leak for a day, maybe two. Then he’d drop a torch from the third floor down the center shaft of the stairwell.

The babies would burn. He’d hear their wailing screams as the fire boiled the flesh off their bones. He’d probably burn too, but he’d be dead soon anyway.

Sam saw a pumpkin-colored glow coming from around the corner ahead. It was the fluttering light of a torch. He crept forward, careful to not make a noise, and peeked around the corner.

There in the front foyer, standing by the graduation booth, with their backs to Sam, were Will Thorpe and his skank friend, Lucy. Will held the torch while the skank tried her thumb on the booth’s dormant scanner.

Sam slipped his kitchen knife out of his belt. The fire’s light glinted off the blade’s serrated edge. He snuck toward them.

Revenge was only fifteen feet away.

The back of Will’s neck was exposed. Sam could see the bumps of his vertebrae nudging out from Will’s neck just slightly. He’d push the blade in between them and twist.

Ten feet. They still hadn’t heard him. He slunk forward.

This was too perfect. He had to suppress an urge to laugh.

Four feet. He tightened his fingers around the knife’s handle.

Two feet.

Sam heard the smooth SHIIICK of metal sliding against metal. The steel doors to the outside opened. Brilliant daylight gushed in through the doorway, brightening the entire room. He winced and shielded his eyes.

Sam darted behind a nearby column and hid. He braced himself for men in gas masks and haz-mat suits. The soldiers were probably coming to slaughter them once and for all. He peeked around the edge of the pillar just far enough to see Will and the skank. They hadn’t moved. They stood there, like idiots about to be shot. Sam poked his head out farther. He could see the open door to the outside now.

A teen boy with white hair walked in. Sam couldn’t believe what he was seeing. The kid wore dark blue jeans and a ski jacket, and he carried a hunting rifle. He was followed by more white-haired teens, all wearing casual clothes and tot-ing guns. There must have been forty of them.

Sam glanced back to Will and the skank. They were just as dumbfounded as he was.

The kid in the ski jacket homed in on the two of them. His face brightened. He lowered his gun and walked toward them with a big smile.

“You got no idea how long it took us to get that door open,” he said. “You okay? You hungry?”

Will and the skank stared back.

“Don’t worry,” the kid said. “Everything’s gonna be okay.”

“Where are the soldiers?” Will asked.

“Oh, they’re gone,” the kid said. “We came to get you out.” Sam felt small fingers touch his wrist. He jumped and spun around. A girl stared up at him. She had a round, wholesome face and long white hair that draped over the shoulders of her down vest. She couldn’t have been older than thirteen.

“Hi,” she said sweetly.

Sam slowly snuck the knife down the back of his pants.

“Hi,” Sam said.

“You want some food?” the girl asked. She pulled a granola bar out of her pocket.

His pulse quickened at the sight of the small pistol clutched in her other hand. He smiled.

“Actually, uh . . . you got any more of those guns?”

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