Authors: Lex Thomas
Gates’s bloodshot eye blinked continuously, and it scrunched up that side of his face, but his other eye was clear and piercing. It didn’t blink at all.
“We’re going to go over there to your friends. And you’re gonna tell them to hand over the rest of the guns to my gang,” Sam said, “Or they can watch me blow your brains out.”
Lucy was frozen with dread. It was a horrifying thought. Varsity with guns.
Gates busted up laughing.
“You think this is funny?” Sam said. His eyebrows bunched and he gritted his teeth.
Gates tried to stop laughing. He clamped his mouth shut, his cheeks puffed out. Lucy really wanted Gates to stop. After everything they endured, the last thing she needed was to watch Sam blow someone’s head off.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be laughing. Go ahead. Pull the trigger,” Gates said.
“What?” Sam said.
“It was super rude of me to laugh at you like that. I understand if you have to pull it.”
“You don’t know who you’re tempting!” Sam yelled. “You think I’ve never killed someone? Ask anybody here.”
Gates chuckled again, then he sighed.
“You don’t have any bullets,” Gates said.
“Yes, I do,” Sam said.
“No … actually you don’t. I recognize that gun. That’s my friend, Shelly’s, gun. See that little spot of pink nail polish on the trigger guard?”
“Shelly,” Gates said loud and clear. “Is this your gun?”
“Yep,” a sweet voice said from amid the Saints.
There were giggles from some of the girls around the quad. Sam blushed. His face shook with anger, and then he pulled the trigger.
The gun didn’t go off.
. Three more times, it didn’t fire. Gates never flinched once.
“We ran out of bullets two weeks ago. Been looking for more though if you have any hot tips,” Gates said.
Sam didn’t know quite what to do now. He took his gun from Gates’s head and let it hang at his side. The crowd snickered, and the laughter was spreading like an infection. Sam’s cheeks went a darker shade of red. He pushed away from Gates.
Lucy saw a lopsided smile bloom on Will’s face.
, she thought,
just leave it alone. Sam’s a maniac
Will cupped his hand beside his mouth to shout to the whole quad.
“Those aren’t the only blanks he’s been shooting since I kicked his balls up into his stomach.”
The quad erupted in laughter. This audience was all too eager to hurt Sam’s feelings, to have him put in his place. Lucy knew she was. She laughed, but it was a short laugh, because she was watching Sam’s face. She saw the pain he felt when he looked back at everyone mocking him. And she saw the fury build up in him, and his eyes lock on Will.
Sam lunged for Will.
Before he could get to him, Gates jumped in front of Will, and shoved Sam back.
“I can’t let you do that,” Gates said. “This guy saved my life.”
Will walked up and planted himself beside Gates. The two of them stood together against Sam.
“You want to fight us both?” Will said, grinning again. “Feeling confident about that?”
Sam flicked his jittering eyes back and forth between his opponents.
“Varsity, back me up!” Sam yelled.
Varsity stayed seated on the ground at the south wall. They kept their heads low, and continued to eat. Most kept their gaze trained on their food. They didn’t seem eager to be a part of Sam’s embarrassment. Sam getting rejected by his own gang really got the crowd laughing.
Sam screamed at Varsity, “What the hell are you doing?”
When none of them answered, Sam crossed the quad and stomped into the crowd of Varsity guys. He went berserk on them, shouting orders, all while the school laughed at him. Sam whipped his hand in the direction of the gym, and Varsity shuffled off the quad, most of them looking disgruntled and embarrassed.
“Who was that guy?” Gates said to Will.
“What’s your name?”
“Well, hey, Will …,” Gates said and stuck out his hand again with a giant smile. “I just wanted to thank you. I don’t know what to say really. I owe you my life.”
Will shook his hand.
“Don’t worry about it,” Will said.
Will was beaming. He seemed very happy with himself for standing up to Sam. He seemed even happier that the Loners had witnessed it.
Colin walked up to Gates. “Hey, dude, remember me?”
“Oh shit. Puke guy. How’s it goin’?” Gates said.
A few other Saints came rushing up to Gates.
“You good, Gates?” one of the boys said.
Lucy barely looked at the Saint boy’s face. She was transfixed by what was hanging from one of the belt loops on the kid’s jeans. A white leather eye patch.
“Hey!” Lucy said.
All the Loners and the outsiders looked at her. She pointed to the eye patch.
“Where did you get that?” she said.
The outsider boy held the white leather eye patch in his fingers. “Oh, this? Yeah, we were looting some houses in town. I took this off a dead kid. It’s cool, right?”
DAVID WAS DEAD. WILL WISHED HE COULD
unknow it. But he’d seen the evidence along with everyone else, David’s eye patch, hanging off that kid’s hip as a trinket. They’d grilled that Saint about what the body looked like. Apparently, it had been shot all to hell, something Will couldn’t handle thinking about. The body’s description fit David’s height and build along with the white hair and the ruined eye. Even after hearing all that, Will wanted to stay a skeptic. And he would have if the house the body was in hadn’t matched Will and David’s house, right down to the overstuffed, blue chair in the corner of the living room. There was no explaining it away. David was really dead. Will had known there was a possibility his brother had died when the tunnel collapsed, and he thought he had come to terms with it in the last couple weeks, but it was only the possibility that he
had come to terms with. To know for sure was an entirely new level of pain, and Will wasn’t sure he could take it.
He gripped a torch made from a broken metal curtain rod. The flaming part was a full roll of toilet paper that had been soaked in cooking grease. Fire was the only reliable light source since the power had gone out over a month ago. Without a torch you were stumbling through a vacuum, with nothing to remind you that you physically existed other than the hard floor pressing into your feet.
Will walked at a brisk clip, down the hallway, toward the Stairs. The Loners kept pace with Will. He must have seemed like he was taking charge, but he wasn’t really, he just felt like he might start crying if he slowed down. He didn’t want to fall apart in front of them. He could feel that the gang was only holding on by a string, and he didn’t want to be the one to snip it. The torch flame fluttered, it was nearly out. They’d need to start a fire soon.
Will and the Loners arrived at the first floor door to the Stairs. He pushed, and the door swung open. When Will and Lucy had returned to tell the gang that the door to the outside was open, they’d run for the foyer right away. No one had locked the door to their home base on the way out, because they hadn’t expected to ever return.
Will hesitated. By the torch’s light, only the armory and the first flight up were revealed. Everything above was black.
“Well … we’re home,” Will said.
No one replied. It was cold silence behind him. He couldn’t blame them. The Stairs didn’t feel anything like home now. It only felt like a place where David used to be alive.
Will stepped inside. One by one, the Loners shuffled in behind him. They moved aimlessly around the bottom landing, like sleepwalkers. Will glanced at Ritchie and saw that tears brimmed on the edge of his eyelids, sparkling in the firelight. Ritchie loved David, everybody knew it. He was closer to David than Will had been for a while there. Ritchie stared up the staircase, into the blackness that light couldn’t penetrate. It was like he was peering into his own grave.
“We should get a fire going,” Will said.
Ritchie saw Will looking at him. He flinched, and shook his head, quick and violent, like a chicken.
“This table’s broken,” Ritchie said, moving to a tipped table in the armory. “I’ll bash it up.”
Will nodded. He didn’t want to talk feelings with Ritchie, or anyone for that matter. If he popped the cap on his anguish, he was afraid he’d never get it back on.
Ritchie made a loud racket, stomping the table. He wasn’t giving anyone an angle on his face as he beat the living hell out of that wood. Will looked around at the others. Leonard was hugging himself and refused to open his eyes. Belinda had her arms wrapped around Lucy and whispered comforting
words to her. Mort rubbed his temples like he had a bad headache. Colin was staring at Will with pity, but he looked away as soon as Will caught his eyes.
“Okay,” Will said with a clap, “let’s help Ritchie out, huh? Let’s get that wood up to the lounge.”
The group drifted up the stairs, trailing Will and his torch. He stepped onto the landing where the Loners shared meals together. It was also where David would do his speeches and gang announcements.
Always wait till they’re chewing
. That was what David used to say about delivering bad news to the gang. Will would never see his brother again.
He climbed up another flight, to the second landing, the lounge. The flat-screen TV he’d stolen from the Freaks was there, still faceup to be used as a table. The piles of library books were there too among the mismatched chairs. Their pages would be good kindling.
People dropped wood shards and chunks of table in the center of the landing. They clattered onto the floor. The noise of it was jarring in the unnatural quiet. There should’ve been the sound of seventy-seven other kids there, going about their daily tasks.
They assembled some of the wood and the crumpled-up pages of a pirate novel into a pile, inside a disembodied sink in the middle of the floor. Within five minutes of touching the fading torch to the paper, the whole sink was ablaze. The
thirteen sat on the floor, in a tight circle, around it. They watched the black smoke rise up the stairwell.
The burning wood crackled. Loners stared into the flames, hoping to lose themselves in it. Now and then, they’d kick up conversation.
“Like, if I’d gone to St. Patricks, and had to go on the run …,” Belinda said, “I-I never would have made it. I can’t run fast.”
“I would have liked it,” Ritchie said.
“Getting hunted sounds good to you? I’d slit my throat if I had to live like that,” Mort said.
“I’m just saying I would have been good at it. I could’ve survived.”
“Do you think the others are okay out there?” Leonard asked in a thin voice.
“They’ll make it if they stay together,” Will said.
No one replied. He kept his focus on tending to the fire.
“Colin, cut it out!” Ritchie said.
Colin had been scratching at the crotch of his jeans for the last few minutes.
“What? I’m just itching my dick,” Colin said.
“I wish you had gotten out,” Ritchie said.
Silence settled on the group again. The knowledge that David was dead hung in the air like a stench. No one wanted to talk about it. Or maybe they didn’t want to talk about it around Will. He could see them looking at him with worry.
Belinda broke eye contact every time Will looked at her. Ritchie wasn’t being an asshole to Will for once. Lucy was the worst; she looked at him like he was about to shatter into bits. He couldn’t deal with it.
Will got up and left them all by the fire. He decided to busy himself with chores. He gathered blankets from the sleeping area one flight up, for people to have something soft to sleep on. He organized the food into neat piles in the corner. He went and opened the third floor door to the hallway so the smoke would have somewhere to go. Will kept on like that, creating little jobs for himself and completing them, while ignoring every request for him to stop and sit by the fire with the others, until the Loners had all succumbed to sleep.
The fire dwindled in the blackened sink. Will sat by his sleeping gang mates, around the fire, watching its flames shrink, and die. When the fire went out completely, it took the light with it. Will had never been afraid of the dark, but in this darkness, this cold void, he began to panic. He needed to restart the fire immediately. He needed the light. There were some matches in his backpack.
Will stumbled up the stairs, feeling his way with his hand on the handrail. He rounded the corner, waving his other hand out in front of him like a blind man. The stair he slept on, his stair bed, was six steps up the next flight. He counted until he was standing on the fifth step, then he crouched and patted his hands around until he felt the canvas material of
his backpack. He picked it up. The matches were in the front pocket.
When Will’s fingers touched the cool metal tab of the front pocket’s zipper, his mind flashed back to the first day of school, when David drove him to McKinley in his Jeep, and Will couldn’t stop nervously zipping and unzipping his bag. He remembered being scared of going to high school, but excited at the same time to be in the same school as his brother. He remembered the breeze whipping through David’s messy brown hair. The ratty black hooded sweatshirt he always wore. Pale Ridge rushing past as they cruised through green lights. David teasing him, giving him advice. They had no idea that a catastrophe awaited them that morning. The brutal world they would have to endure. They had no idea that David, the depressed quarterback who had quit the team, would rise to be the savior and protector of the rejected, defenseless kids without gangs.
David could have done something great if he’d had a normal life. If none of this had ever happened, or if he had survived whatever killed him. He could have helped people. He would have been a success, Will knew it. He had more potential than Will ever would. But David would never get any of that. He’d never get to be in his twenties, or his thirties. He’d never have a wife, or kids, or a career. He’d never grow into an old man. He’d never know anything but the struggle that started
that day they walked into this school, the same struggle that eventually robbed him of his life.