Authors: Lex Thomas
“Who are you?” a Varsity yelled.
“My name’s Gates,” the red-eyed boy said. “Look, just calm down. We’re infected just like you. And we were trying to get you out of here.”
“Bullshit!” a Freak shouted.
Gates’s red eye flared. “It’s not bullshit! You think we want to be trapped in this place?”
“Who was in that bus?” a Geek yelled.
“How the hell should I know?”
“Gates?” a Freak girl next to Lucy said in a trembling voice. Gates calmed at the sight of her worried face. She held a torch, and firelight licked the thin lines of scar tissue that stood out in sharp relief all down her forearm.
“Yeah?” he said to her.
“What’s out there?” she said.
The crowd went quiet. It was what they’d all wanted to know for the last year and a half.
“Well … what exactly do you know?” Gates said.
“The military told us that the virus was spreading, and they were working on fixing it and we haven’t heard anything since,” Belinda said from the back of the room.
He blinked his way through what Belinda had just said, his red eye blinking much more than the other.
“Shit, I don’t know where to start,” Gates said. “Uh …”
The room waited patiently for any information he could give them. Gates seemed surprised by just how captivated they all were. A minute ago, they were a vicious, barking mob.
“Let’s see,” Gates went on. “The infection hit us about three weeks after you. Most of us went to St. Patrick’s Academy down in Denton.”
“The private school?” Will said.
“Yeah,” Gates said, brightening a bit when he saw that it was Will asking. “We’d heard there was a quarantined school
in Pale Ridge and all these people had died, but Denton is fifty miles south of here, and the news said we had nothing to worry about.” His eyes unfocused as he got lost in the memory. “The day it hit us, it was school spirit day. All our parents were there. We were all out on the lacrosse field. One second it was fine, the next, parents were vomiting blood all around me. My mom—”
Gates cleared his throat and stopped talking. He looked out at the crowd of McKinley kids again.
“I’m sure this stuff is nothing new to you. Must have been the same here,” he said. “But when the soldiers came for us, they didn’t try to quarantine us, or capture us. They started shooting. Two hundred and thirty-two of us eventually made it out of there alive. We hid anywhere we could, and we stayed on the move. They were evacuating the whole state, and they were having a hard time. People driving over each other’s lawns, and cars crashing into each other and shit. It was nuts. The virus was spreading so fast. The more kids caught it, the more adults died. Parents with teenagers were trying to get their kids out of the state before they caught the virus. It got real messy. Any soldier that saw a teenager with a bald head, they’d kill you. And it wasn’t just the soldiers either. Everybody had guns. Fuckin’ grandmas were shooting at us.”
Lucy could hear the crowd get sick. Her stomach sank too. She thought of her own family trying to leave Colorado, scared they were going to die. Somewhere along the way she’d
convinced herself not to think about whether her parents had died. She thought most kids in here had done the same. Now, those feelings took hold of her again.
“We ate what we could steal or what we could hunt,” Gates continued. “We hid wherever we could. In the mountains, in the sewers. Empty barns. But we were never safe. They murdered so many of us. Some were lucky enough to phase out. There’s only forty-two of our original group now.”
“Are our families out there?” a sunken-chested Nerd boy said.
Gates looked at him, perplexed. “Were you listening?”
The Nerd boy continued to stare at Gates, like he hadn’t answered him yet.
“No, they’re not,” Gates said.
The Nerd turned and walked back into the crowd.
Gates took a deep breath. “Since the evacuation, the only adults around have been military search squads. I take that back … there are a few nut-jobs out there that refused to move out, and every once in a while you’ll get some angry bastards who come back to Colorado, wanting to kill any infected they can. That’s probably who was driving this bus. But mostly, it’s been soldiers and infected.”
“They didn’t let you turn yourself in?” Lucy said.
A flicker of a snarl upset Gates’s somber face.
“No, they did,” he said. “They drove these giant armored trucks around. They’d blast the same announcement over and
over, that we wouldn’t be harmed if we came forward and got into the back of the truck. They said they had a facility for the infected where they would be taking us, and we’d be safe there. A lot of other kids did turn themselves over.”
Emotion choked Gates to a stop again. One of the outsiders, a girl with short white hair, walked to Gates and gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze. He cleared his throat and dug his knuckle into his red eye, then started up again.
“But it was all bullshit,” Gates said, and shook his head. “You can be sure they drove those kids straight to a gas chamber.”
This boy is a liar
, Lucy thought. He was playing with their heads with all this talk of murderous adults on the outside. He had to be a liar.
Please let him be a liar
“And then, you’ll love this … that offer to turn ourselves in had an expiration date. They let us know that if we didn’t turn ourselves over by their deadline, our refusal to come forward would be viewed as a hostile action. That’s what they called it. Like we were the bad guys. They said that we would be considered ‘deadly threats with intent to do harm.’ Basically, turn yourself in or we’re going to come kill you. And that’s the way it’s been since then; we run, they hunt us. Well, it was until about a month ago.”
“What happened a month ago?” Lucy said, annoyed that this guy was pausing dramatically. He had the room riveted, and he knew it.
“The military picked up and left. Just like that. We’d been
hiding in the woods over by Tilsing Hills, and we stayed there for a week ’cause it seemed like it had to be a trick. But another week passed, and they still didn’t come back. Eventually, we went ahead and walked into town. That first day we took whatever we wanted from the stores and houses we could break into. There were other kids like us, crawling out of their hiding places and passing through. We traded information, stuff we knew about where we’d been. Somebody said they heard McKinley was still locked up and you weren’t being fed anymore. We figured somebody better let you out.”
“You guys are kinda celebrities to the kids out there. You’re the first ones. There wasn’t an infected out there who didn’t wish they could trade places with a McKinley kid. No one shoots at you in here. For whatever reason, you all got to stay safe in your high school, they even fed you.”
Lucy found herself cussing uncontrollably, but she wasn’t alone. The whole hallway was pissed.
“You got no idea what it’s been like in here,” a voice said, louder than the rest. Lucy knew it immediately. Violent pushed through the crowd with a slight limp. She didn’t seem to care that the outsiders were tightening up on their guns. She stopped just ahead of the rest of the McKinley kids, and stood there fuming, with a sharp cafeteria knife in her hand. She looked so strong, like none of this had frightened her in the least. Violent could handle anything.
“Hold on. Hold on,” Gates said, putting his hands up. “I’m not saying you had it easy—”
The crowd shouted over him. It didn’t matter what he said; he’d crushed their dreams of what the outside could be, and now they were once again locked inside a place where there was no hope. They continued to shout questions and insults at the outsiders for nearly fifteen minutes, and they would’ve kept going all day if news hadn’t come filtering through the crowd that something crazy was happening in the quad.
THE GRAY CANOPY THAT USUALLY HUNG
over the quad was now stretching toward the sky. It was as if God was outside the school, holding a giant vacuum cleaner to the middle of it. The canopy’s center rose up into the air like a circus tent, and the gray material pulled taut, still clinging to the four walls of the quad. Will heard the heavy grinding of a distant motor. He saw the canopy start to pop away from the wall in different spots all around the quad’s edge. With each pop came a puff of concrete dust, and the canopy would pull bits of wall away with it.
Nearly everyone in the school was there, staring up at the rising ceiling and freaking out. Belinda was to Will’s left, Lucy to his right. A small group of Loners crowded in close around them.
The distant motor lurched. The canopy had reached the
limit of its elasticity. With a tremendous rip, the canopy tore away from the school entirely.
The quad was flooded with sunlight. Will had to shield his eyes at first. When he took his hand away, he saw a brilliant orange crane arm cutting diagonally across the blue sky. The heavy gray material of the canopy hung from the crane’s cable like a wet towel.
Everyone gasped at the sight of the sky. Will’s spirits soared into the boundless space above his head. Fresh air engulfed him. He took a deep breath in, and it made the air he’d been breathing for the last year and a half seem like car exhaust. He was practically outside. Kids were hugging each other around him. He saw Lucy smile. The crane turned slowly, and swung the giant canopy away from them.
Will scanned the bright, overexposed quad. Edges were sharper. Corners of the quad that once were lost in shadow were now found, and in the new light, they lost some of their menace. It went the same with people’s faces. The dim, gray light that had shined through the old canopy used to paint deep shadows under their eyebrows, obscuring their eyes, turning their brows into cliffs and their eyes into chasms. In the clarity of full daylight, their eyes looked like normal teenage eyeballs.
He saw that there were tangled bushels of razor wire along the top edge of each of the quad’s four walls. There were two people on the roof, standing behind the hip-high razor wire
hedges. A man and a woman, in motorcycle helmets, both wearing scuba tanks on their backs. Air hoses curled over their shoulders and tucked up into their helmets. The man’s helmet was black, the woman’s lilac. He wore a canvas jacket and trousers. She wore a beige, zip-up hoodie and unfashionable jeans. There was a guitar amp, half covered in stickers, by the man’s feet.
The man bent over and plugged a black microphone cord into the amp. It let out a harsh squelch of feedback. Will saw that the other end of the long cord was attached to his helmet.
“We represent a network of concerned parents,” the man said in a muffled but strongly amplified voice.
The quad went silent.
“I’ll get right to the point.” The man continued, “We didn’t plan on driving a bus into your school, but we had to do something. I know this may not be what you want to hear, but we have decided that we can take better care of you in here. We won’t be letting you out.”
“What the fuck?” Will said. The crowd’s roar around him drowned him out. It was so malicious, so full of hatred, that it frightened Will.
Lucy was red in the face beside him. “You can’t do this!” she screamed.
“Listen to me!” the man shouted. “The military wants you dead.”
That got the crowd’s attention.
“In fact, they think you’re dead right now. I know because I knew the man put in charge of running McKinley for the military. I hounded him for months with requests to open up lines of communication with you. It never worked. But a month ago, he contacted me and told me that they were pulling out of McKinley and ceasing the delivery of food. He and all his men had to report to the front lines to aid in the effort to quarantine every uninfected teen in the country. See, they’ve given up on containing the virus. They’re locking up all the healthy teens now, so that the virus can’t spread. And they’ve passed a new law that makes it legal to kill an infected teen in self-defense, or if they come within twenty-five feet of you. I read that only one way. The government wants to kill the infected off. You all included. The last thing the man told me before he hung up was that he’d been given the order to kill all the students in McKinley before he withdrew.”
Gasps rippled through the crowd.
“Thank God he couldn’t go through with it,” the man went on. “At least somebody in that operation had a conscience. He lied to his superiors and told them he’d filled the school with poison gas. And then he told me that McKinley was my responsibility now.”
“Let us out!” an outsider screamed.
“We’re only doing what is best for you,” the man in the motorcycle helmet said. “In here, we can keep you safe. People
are moving back to Pale Ridge. The government announced that they have done all they can to clean the virus out of Colorado, and the risk of running into an infected is nearly the same as anywhere else. If we let you out, we couldn’t stop someone from killing you. Those kids who got out earlier, off hiding wherever they’re hiding now, they’ll have no one to protect them when the time comes. But we can keep you safe in here. We can defend this place. We’re not going to leave. I need you to understand that. We won’t leave you. No matter what.”
“Whose parents are you?” a Geek girl called out.
The man paused before answering.
“We’ve talked to former graduates. We know what things are like in here, and we’ve decided that we can’t tell you. We don’t want our children to be targeted.”
Kids began calling out their parents’ names, and saying,
The woman in the lilac helmet elbowed the man. The man unplugged his microphone cord from the amp, and she plugged in her own connection. Her voice was a muffled blast of emotion.
“I want to say this to my own kids, so I’ll say it to all of you. We love you. That’s why we’re here.”
Will heard kids start weeping and whimpering around the quad. Everyone was in shock. Will didn’t know what to think
of any of this, but what he did know was that wasn’t his dad up there, his dad wasn’t that tall.
“Bring in the food, they need to eat,” the woman said to the man.