The Loners

Page 7

The man stopped. He took a long drink of water and kneaded his eyes like he was working a knot out of a muscle.

“The raid,” he said, “did not go as planned. One of the infected teens escaped. Once outside, he stole a car. He was chased and very nearly caught. But he got away, and he ran into your school. Knowing the catastrophic repercussions of an entire school becoming infected with this virus, the decision was made to destroy the East Wing of your school.” The crowd gasped. People began to talk, stirred up by the implications. Others hushed the talkers so that the rest could be heard.

“We fired a missile. The hope was that we could minimize the casualties, destroy the virus, and spare the lives of the rest of you. The virus was not destroyed, as you know. Despite our efforts, many infected students escaped that day, and they have infected other teenagers. It spread far faster than we could contain it. More than three thousand died in the first forty-eight hours. Colorado is under evacuation orders, but as you can imagine, that has been an extremely challenging and complicated process. Meanwhile, the virus continues to spread, and casualties are mounting. We hope to reach containment of the virus soon, but there is no way to know when.

The situation changes every day.”

People around David were starting to panic as the impact of those statistics settled in.

“Do you think Dad—” Will said to David.

“No,” David said, cutting him off. “He was traveling that day, remember? He was in—”


“Right. He’s fine.” That seemed to be enough for Will, and David was glad to have a believable answer for once.

“I do have . . . good news,” the man continued. “As puberty declines, the virus will leave your body. When it has completely left your body, you will lose your immunity to the toxic pheromones, and any exposure to infected teens will be fatal. What you see before you is an automated testing station. To operate it, place your thumb on the scanner. If you are transitioning out of infection, the machine will display your scheduled release time, which could be immediate, or somewhere within the following twenty-four hours. At such a time, return to these doors, and scan your thumb again. The doors will open, leading you to a containment chamber, and from there you will be transitioned back to the world outside.” Excited whispers danced out of the darkness as students processed the news. The man cleared his throat. “The telltale sign of the virus leaving your body is a bloody nose. It could happen two or three times in one day. Do not wait to schedule your release. The further you get into that second day, you will be plagued by headaches and then dementia. On the third day, you will have a hacking cough, and death will come quickly.” He loosened his collar and let out a weary sigh. “I wish I could tell you that more improvements are on the way and that we will open up communications between you and the outside. But there are a lot of people who want your school destroyed. The nation is divided on what should be done with you. We are stretched beyond our limits, and all of our efforts must be directed at the management of the epidemic outside.

Hang tight in there. We’re doing the best we can.” The screen went dead, and one of the soldiers muttered into his headset microphone. The steel doors swung open from the outside. One by one, the soldiers backed out of the school with swift precision. There was a sudden surge of sound as kids shouted every possible question they could think of, all at once. But within seconds, the soldiers were all gone, and the doors were securely shut. Kids rushed the entrance. Some went straight for the doors, bashing against them in the hope they would give way. They didn’t. Most gathered around the testing booth, pushing and pulling for a chance to get their finger scanned.

Will looked to David. He smiled with excitement. It was the first happy moment David had shared with his brother in months. David imagined those steel doors in the foyer opening up for them both.

A Nerd and a Freak fought over who could use the scanner next. Both of their gangs got involved, and the area around the machine became a messy brawl. A Varsity was hit by an errant elbow meant for a Freak, and the rest of Varsity joined the violent tumult. David tugged Will away from the spectacle, and they rushed back to their supply closet home.

David and Will sat and talked for hours. They dreamed of the day they’d get out. They each made big plans for their first day back on the outside. They convinced themselves the outside would be safe again by the time they transitioned out of the virus. They talked about how differently they’d live their lives once they had a taste of real sunshine, fresh food, and natural air again.

All they had to do was stay alive.




The drop was in full swing. Red, blue, black, and yellow heads of hair swirled and collided with each other all around him. A mound of boxes, packaged supplies, and glinting silver bags of powdered soup sat in the middle of the dead brown grass of the quad. People tore away at the edges of that central pile as fast as their hands could grab the items.

A fight erupted between a Skater with a triple Mohawk and a stocky Geek whose black hair had a thick orange stripe down the side. They fought over a box of salt and tumbled into David’s path. David roll-dodged around them and kept sprinting. He felt like he was back on the football field, running it all the way to the end zone.

A red-haired Slut to his left got cracked in the head when she stooped to pick up a package of men’s briefs. There was a lot of blood. Scalp wounds always bled a lot.

David doubled back to face the central mound again. The multicolored battle in front of him looked like a blood-soaked Skittles commercial. David actually liked that each gang had its own signature hair. It helped him gauge danger. If there were too many of any one color, he knew to steer clear of that area.

Know what you want, grab it, and get out. That was David’s rule for the drops. He kept running, swaying with the sea of lunging bodies, and scanning the ground for neon-green boxes of detergent. Most people went for food and clothes and blankets and the like before they worried about laundry supplies. David’s livelihood depended on things staying that way.

A string of bulky figures in stained white athletic jerseys and football helmets advanced in unison, creating a moving wall toward the densest group of boxes—the food. Varsity laid claim to most of the food, every time. The shrink-wrapped clusters of military rations and canned goods shimmered in the dim sunlight that passed through the gray canopy. When a pint-size band Geek tried to dart through an opening in the jock blockade to get to the food, the nearest Varsity member reached out and clotheslined him. The kid dropped like a sack of rocks, then gasped for air on the ground.

David heard a chain reaction of laughter to his right. He turned to see a group of girls jumping up and down, clapping and letting bloodthirsty screams rip. Their hair was the color of lemon sherbet, and it undulated with the bounce of their bodies.

“Kick that Geek in the face!” yelled one.

Their skirts swished side to side with every gleeful cheer, giving anyone who dared to look a peek at their perfect legs.

“Make him bleeeed, Varsity!” squealed another.

David loved and hated the Pretty Ones. His body wanted them, they were the prettiest after all, but his mind knew it was smarter to fear them. They were partnered up with Varsity, and David still made consistent daily efforts to fly under Varsity’s radar.

David spotted a fellow Scrap on the sidelines, another white-haired kid like him, with no gang. The Scrap’s face was gouged with scars, and two thirds of his right eyebrow was gone. The kid ran into the fray as fast as he could with his limp. He made a grab for two shining soup bags on the ground. A pack of Freaks sprinted past, knocking him down and trampling his hand. The kid barked in pain and abandoned the soup. He scurried back to the sidelines, holding his bent claw with his good hand.

David needed to keep his mind on the game, but he couldn’t.

That Scrap would probably starve if that hand didn’t heal. He ran an arc around a cluster of people who fought over a new pair of jeans. He snatched up the soup packets and tossed them to the Scrap. The kid picked them up, smiled at David with genuine surprise, and staggered away. Whatever grungy mouse hole that kid was crawling back to, at least he’d have something to eat there.

David caught a glimpse of neon green through the flickering of running legs. A box of laundry detergent sat perfectly on top of a hot plate. He sprinted toward it.

As David wove his way through the fray, a giant Varsity was doing the same from the other direction, his eyes fixated on the hot plate. David could try to snag the hot plate too. It would catch a good price in the market. But a broken leg could cost him everything, and then Will would have no one to look after him. David plucked up the detergent and kept running. The trihawked Skater from earlier, his box of salt locked under his arm, pounced on the hot plate. He had it in his hand for only an instant before the Varsity steamrolled him into a concrete bench. The Pretty Ones erupted into more cheers as the Varsity did an end-zone celebration dance.

David made one last circle around the edge of the drop.

One box of detergent was all he needed, but if he could get another, or a replacement sewing kit for tailoring jobs, that wouldn’t hurt. There were fewer people fighting now, and the bigger items were already taken. Skaters loaded their loot into their cage on wheels, constructed out of sprinkler pipes and duct tape. Most of the movement on the quad came from the writhing of the wounded.

There was nothing left to grab. David peered to the southeast corner, his rendezvous point with Will. His brother wasn’t there. Nausea curdled his stomach. He whipped his head back in the direction of the drop, looking frantically for his brother, sweat stinging his eyes.

Finally, he spotted Will, not far from where the Skater met the bench. He was making out with a Scrap girl with tangled white hair. David jogged to them. Their mouths were mashed together with such force that David didn’t know if he was watching two people kiss or a mother bird feeding her baby.

Will was bigger now, thanks to a recent growth spurt. He looked like a young man; there was no trace of boy anymore.

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