The Loners

Page 6

“You stay away from me, Thorpe. Me and my team. Nothing’s changed.”

Sam disappeared around the same corner Will had turned earlier. David punched the floor in frustration. He couldn’t believe he’d tried being nice to that prick.

David would never forget the arc of blood that sprayed from Danny Liner’s neck as he clutched the wooden shard planted deep in his throat. That was when the school truly changed.

It happened following a violent drop in which David saw a freshman get his leg broken so severely that a jagged piece of bone tore out of his shin. Two sophomore girls had clawed deep grooves into each other’s faces over a rare bottle of moisturizer.

When the drop was over, everyone had retreated to the sidelines to go hide their haul somewhere. Sam and six other guys from the football team had joined forces that day. They’d gone so far as to give their little gang a name, Varsity. Working together, each Varsity member secured twice as much as they would have alone. Varsity was the talk of the quad.

Everyone wanted to form a little group of their own before the next drop.

The Varsity guys were carrying their shares toward the exit, but Sam lingered by his own pile, right in the middle of the quad. He was eating a strip of beef jerky. Torn cardboard and trampled packaging littered the area around him. It was a brazen act to eat in public. No one did it anymore, unless they wanted to get robbed.

“If you distract him, I can get his food. We’ll be set till the next drop,” Will said.

“Are you nuts? We’re not stealing his food.”

“It’s not his food, Dave,” Will said. “He’s just standing next to it.”

David watched Sam tug on the jerky with his teeth. He hoped he choked on it. David was still burning from their run-in, but that didn’t mean it was okay to rob Sam. Slashed jeans were one thing, but Will thinking assault and robbery was a swell idea troubled David. Danny Liner, one of the remaining seniors, strode across the quad and planted himself between Sam and his food. They were too far away for David to hear their conversation, but the situation was clear soon enough.

Danny slapped Sam across the face with a heavy hand. Sam toppled backward onto the ground, amid the fractured wood of the supply pallets.

Will clutched his stomach and laughed loud enough for the entire quad to hear. Sam’s face flushed red. He got up, with a shard of wood in his hand the size of a railroad spike, and he buried the thing in Danny’s neck, right under the Adam’s apple.

“Whoa,” Will said.

All noise stopped. Conversations died midsentence. The crowd collectively forgot what they were doing or thinking or saying, and they watched Danny squirm and twitch on the ground. His neck was a fountain of blood, spraying a rasp-berry stream with each heartbeat, each stream arcing lower in the air than the last. Moments later, Danny Liner was another corpse lying in a blood puddle.

No one spoke. There had been ruthless competition, fights, robberies, and injuries, but never murder. Sam looked nearly as surprised as everyone else. He stared at Danny’s body with confusion. There was a line of Danny’s blood across Sam’s face, like a drizzle of chocolate syrup over a scoop of ice cream.

Sam’s gaze moved from Danny to the disturbed crowd, who still struggled to make sense of this. Something switched.

Sam began to stalk around Danny’s body and stare into the crowd like he was challenging them to meet his eyes.

“That’s right!” Sam said.

David moved Will behind him out of instinct.

“Nobody takes my food! You hear me?”

Sam panned across the gaping faces until he settled on David. He held his stare.


“This is all your fault,” Will shouted at David as they ran. Five members of Varsity chased Will and David through a dirty, cluttered hallway. David ran by a crying boy who threw a brick into the last functioning ceiling light above him. The fluorescent tube burst into a puff of glass powder, and that section of hallway went black.

“It’s ’cause of your bullshit.”

“Shut up!” David said.

David yanked Will into a girls’ bathroom by the collar of his shirt. Inside, three girls crowded around a fourth who was sitting in a desk chair and had her head tilted back into a sink full of yellow liquid. Lemon Kool-Aid packet wrappers from the drop littered the floor.

The girls’ heads turned as one. David could hear their pursuers run past, down the hallway. The fourth girl lifted her head up from the sink. It was Hilary. Her wet hair was a vibrant yellow.

“David?” Hilary said.

She looked into his eyes. God, he missed her! She was the only one he could ever really talk to. He wanted time to stop and everyone else to fade away. The other girls began to shout.

“Help!” they screamed.

Will pulled David out of the room, back into the darkness.

The five Varsity guys ran at them from the far end of the hall.

David and Will sprinted past four classrooms and rushed down a flight of stairs.

They took every odd turn they could, doubled back, and ended up on the first flight of the main staircase, in the foyer of the school. They stopped, hearts thumping and legs ready to quit. There was no sign of Varsity on their tail. The glass front wall that once let in brilliant sunlight, now mostly shattered, looked out to a cold wall of steel sheets welded together.

Will slumped down against the wall of the main staircase, while David checked all exits.

“I think we’re good.”

“Screw you. They want you, not me.”

Will was right. Sam had been using Varsity to terrorize David for weeks.

“I’ll get us into one of the other gangs,” David said.

“Wake up, David. Sam’s got it out for you. No one is going to take on Sam as their enemy just to let you in. He straight up killed somebody.”

David was tired, and he was sick of Will’s attitude.

“Don’t kid yourself,” David said. “Nobody wants you either.”

“I’d have a lot better shot if I wasn’t hooked up with you.”

“Then be my guest. Go ask one of the gangs. Just try not to piss your pants while you’re doing it!”

Will jumped on him. David knew he’d taken it too far. Will hated to admit it, but no gang wanted him with or without David. His epilepsy made him a liability. Will got David in a headlock and tried to squeeze the life out of his neck. It was a solid hold, and Will was giving it everything. He was stronger than David thought. David slammed Will hard against the wall, and his brother’s grip popped loose. David slipped out.

Will grabbed a shard of glass off the steps and thrust it in front of him like a knife. David stared the shard. It made no sense.

“What the hell are you doing?”

Desperate anger contorted Will’s face. Blood dripped from his tight grip on the shard. His breath sputtered like he was about to cry. Three Varsity guys ran into the room from the first-floor hallway. David and Will ran up the stairs but stopped halfway when the other two gang members appeared at the top of the flight. Will swung his glass shard wildly at them. The Varsity guys closed in on them, taking one slow step at a time.

“Don’t worry, guys,” one of them said, laughing. “Sam’s got a real fun game set up for you in the gym.” A hissing-popping sound rang out. David took his eyes off his pursuers. Sparks flew from a central metal plate at the school’s front entrance. A molten red line was being cut through the steel in the shape of a doorway. When the siz-zling red line met the floor, the metal cutout toppled inward, sending dust whooshing up in a filthy cloud. Outside, it was dark. It must have been night.

The Varsity guys forgot about David and Will entirely when twenty soldiers, armed with machine guns and wearing black haz-mat suits, hustled into the foyer. With military efficiency, they secured the entrance in a semicircle formation, guns ready to fire at any sudden movement. Their faces were shielded by the tinted lenses of their masks. Students who had wandered in shouted down the halls for everyone to come quick.

The soldiers said nothing as they erected a set of heavy, hinged steel doors to the outside. More and more students flooded into the room and onto the stairs, staying a good thirty feet from the soldiers until it was standing room only on the floors and the stairs. Each new gang was represented: the Geeks, the Nerds, the Sluts, the Skaters, the Freaks, the Pretty Ones, and Varsity, which was now made up of every male athlete in the school. No one spoke to the soldiers, for fear of getting shot at again. The more kids who appeared, the faster the soldiers worked. Within a half hour, they erected a single-occupancy booth equipped with an identification scanner and a video screen above it. It was stationed off to one side of the steel doors. One of the soldiers powered up the booth. The screen flickered to life, and a man in military fatigues appeared on-screen. He was in his forties, with hair so thin on top it looked like a brown mist hanging above his scalp. The skin under his drooping eyes was dark and sunken.

The crowd of students collectively leaned forward for a better view of the twenty-inch screen.

“I don’t know where to start,” the man said through the machine’s tinny speakers. The machine’s feeble volume put a hush over the crowd. No one could bear to miss a word.

“I’m Lieutenant Bernard Sanders. I’m here for the day to oversee the installation of the machine you’re watching me on right now. Your government would like me to express its—” The man paused to swallow.

“Our regret that you’ve been left alone so long with so many unanswered questions. I will try to explain the current situation as best I can. You are carriers of a contagious, parasitic virus. In the simplest terms, the virus thrives only in the bodies of pubescent teenagers, and it makes you fatally poi-sonous to everyone else. Any adult or any young child who comes within a few feet of you dies almost instantly. The toxic pheromone you now produce attacks the tissues of the lungs, rapidly breaking them down. It would be the equivalent of inhaling a highly potent acid. Your virus was engineered, illegally, by the labs of the nearby weapon manufacturer, Mason Montgomery Technologies. You may know it. Some of your parents may have even been employees there. A military task force was sent in to investigate the illegal activity and shut them down. There was a raid. They found teenagers held captive as test subjects for the virus.”

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