The Loners

Page 9

Zachary held out six Geek show tickets, but drew them back when David reached for them.

“Do you love me?”

“Oh, Jesus,” Will said. He shook his head and walked over to a table where tattoo designs were displayed.

“David, what’s with him?” Zachary said. “I know he’s your brother but . . . attitude adjustment, please!”

“He’s jealous of your hair, which looks fantastic today, by the way,” David said.

“Mmm. I’ll have more clothes for you tomorrow, pretty lips,” Zachary said.

Zachary handed him the tickets with a wiggle of his eyebrows. David collected Will from the tattoo area and hurried to the hall.

“Are you sure you’re not gay?” Will said. “I can’t believe you go along with that stuff. I wouldn’t have.”

“You’re so homophobic.”

“You can’t call me homophobic for not wanting to flirt with Zachary. But I can call you gay, because you want to have a bubble bath with him.’”

“Gotta keep the customers happy.”

“You mean horny.”

David laughed. He held up a bundle of black clothes for the tall girl on guard duty at the Sluts’ doorway.

“Go ’head,” she said.

Before David could enter, a herd of eight blonde Varsity linebackers trudged out of the room. David spun his back to them. He whipped his black hood over his head. He hoped his body blocked their view of Will. They sounded drunk. He could almost feel a hand about to thud down onto his shoulder, but then their footsteps faded.

He opened his eyes. Will was looking at him with a face like he’d just sniffed rotten milk. David dared a look over his shoulder. Varsity was gone. Why were they here? Did they not go first today? They always demanded to trade first. That was why David had spent so much time washing clothes earlier, to avoid them. But this was a jarring reminder that no matter how many precautions he took, he was never truly safe.

Will shook his head and walked ahead of David into the Sluts’ trading post.

Inside was an expanse of red hair. You could tell what fla-vor of Kool-Aid the girls used, cherry here, fruit punch there, a faded pink that probably was strawberry but needed a redye. Two Sluts slap-boxed just inside the entrance. Nearly all of them wore tight black pants, and there wasn’t a sleeve left attached in the whole room. The Sluts were not a rich gang, they had no special item or service, but they traded almost everything. If you wanted it, they probably had it, which was great for anyone who didn’t want to, or couldn’t, get their supplies from Varsity. The Sluts were the only gang with an open-door policy. As long as you were female and you were willing to fight tooth and nail on the quad, you could have a place in the Sluts.

David spotted their founder, Violet Kelly, behind a trading table nearby. She went by the name Violent now. Violent wore football shoulder pads with pencils sticking up out of them like porcupine quills and a necklace made of sharpened cafeteria cutlery. Violent had the reddest hair in school, and her eyes were vibrant green. She had shaved off her white eyebrows and replaced them with fake ones made of carefully cut pieces of black electrical tape.

David approached her. She was counting out condoms for a Geek girl, who traded them for a three-pack of fresh athletic socks.

“Got your order,” he said.

Violent looked up at David, her face pinched in aggravation.


“Delivering your stuff.”

“Oh. These better be spotless, Jacob.”

“It’s David, but yes, don’t worry . . . they’re clean.” She stayed suspicious as another Slut collected the laundry.

David could never tell if he really had remained a stranger to Violent week after week, or if she just wanted him to think so.

“Didn’t I call you ‘Ragman’ last time? I like that. That’s your name, Ragman.”

“You could call me David,” he said. Violent didn’t laugh. He pushed on. “So, we’re looking for the usual, a week’s food, whatever you got. We have six Geek show tickets and these items for trade. Will lifted his sack of loot from the drop onto the table. Violent looked through Will’s items and fixed him with a direct look that made him blush. Violent’s demeanor cheered a bit.

“Kathy, bring me five days’ worth, on the light side.” A Slut girl brought over a small collection of canned fruit, canned tuna, refried beans, dry soup, and two bottles of tomato juice. As David stuffed those items in his bag, Violent stared at Will with increased interest.

“What’s your name?”

Will met her stare with a look of defiance.

“I’m Will.”

“That’s not a lot of food for a week, Will. And there’s two of you.”

“What about it?”

“Ooh, he’s got a little fight in him,” Violent said to the other girls. “I’ll tell you what about it. I could help you. I have a lot of food, I got everything. Maybe you should come visit me some night. I’ll make it worth your while.”

David stopped putting the food away. He watched Will stand there, frozen on the edge of a response.

“What do you say, girls?” Violent said to the entire room.

“Would he make a good rent boy or what?” Sluts converged from around the room, circling Will, looking him up and down, squeezing his arms, giggling, and detailing their opinion of each part of him, like they were buying a horse.

“Rock hard,” one of them said with a flare of her nostrils.

Will shrank under all the female attention, overwhelmed.

“All right, all right. That’s enough, back to work. Show me some hustle,” Violent said.

The girls dispersed. Will’s breathing was heavy and fast.

David zipped up his bag and led Will away from the table.

“Think about it, Bill!” Violent called out after them.

“I can’t believe you went along with that stuff,” David said as they entered the hallway. “I sure wouldn’t have.”

“Shut it.”

They had nothing left to deliver and nothing more to trade, but David spotted a medic table set up outside the Nerds’ trading post. There was a line of injured people in front, wearing filthy clothes, freshly stained with blood and dirt. Could be good for a quick buck.

David led Will over to the medic table. The Nerds had a couple first-aid kits open and medical books from the library laid out on the table. The Freak at the front of the line was writhing in his seat, getting a V-shaped cut in his arm stitched up with lavender thread. David rooted through his bag to find the mini cleaning kit he kept in there. He approached a couple people who were waiting.

“Get your clothes cleaned before those stains set. I can do it right here for half price. Who wants to save their clothes?” A few people in line looked over with mild interest. Will hung by the door and peered into the Nerd’s room like it was a girls’

shower. He stroked his cell phone in his hand. It was caked with layers of duct tape on the back for protection. Inside the classroom, Nerds had refurbished laptops and phones laid out on tables. David could almost hear Will’s requests already: David, can you buy me a charge? Can I get one of their genre packs of mp3’s? I need my left earbud fixed. He heard those things from Will every time they passed a Nerd.

“If you don’t have a stain,” David said to the line, “maybe you have a torn shirt or pants? I can mend that for you.” A frumpy Nerd who obviously spent no time thinking about his appearance outside of dying his hair plain black out of allegiance to his gang came out of the Nerds’ room and planted himself in front of David.

“No panhandling. Come on, you gotta get out of here.” David buried his frustration, put his kit away, and walked.

He ignored the heat he felt on the side of his face from people in the line staring at him. He hated how low he’d had to bring himself to survive. How far was too far down? He wasn’t that Scrap in quad, but he was close. He was ready to call it a day.

“David, wait up,” Will said, jogging after him. “You’re just going to leave me there?”

“Oh, sorry,” David said. He hurried toward the market exit, past Varsity’s classroom. David wouldn’t look into it. Not that he was afraid Sam was inside: He knew Sam would be back at the gym at the Varsity drop party by now, drunk on homemade moonshine. David didn’t look in because he couldn’t bear to see it. He didn’t want to see the piles and piles of food or the lines of traders from each gang who stood in there, all at Varsity’s mercy. If Varsity was happy with you, the price of food would be low; if they were upset, it would be high. There was always someone walking away from the trading table in tears.

The Pretty Ones’ classroom was a different story, David always got an eyeful of that before he left the market. Their room seemed to glow from its pristine white walls. They were the only clean white walls David ever saw anymore. Inside the room was the greatest injustice in McKinley. All of the school’s most gorgeous, luscious, kill yourself for them girls belonged to one gang, and they only dated Varsity guys. They wore white dresses. They played with their yellow hair.

David would have gladly done their laundry, but the gym and athletic facilities where they lived with Varsity was equipped with washing machines. They had white-sheeted tables of beauty products on offer, along with hair extensions and wigs. But like all boutique products, they were expensive.

Girls from the other gangs had to save up for months to buy a Pretty Ones product.

As David and Will got close to the doorway, he stopped. He saw a Scrap girl in a chair on top of a black garbage bag drop cloth. He knew her: Belinda Max. David guessed Belinda had weighed more than three hundred pounds before the explosion, but a year as a Scrap in the shadows had changed her.

She’d lost at least eighty pounds, but she didn’t look any more confident for it. All David really knew about her were the taunts he used to hear in the halls: “Maximum load!” Belinda shivered in the chair. She had long curly white hair with a bright luster to it.

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