Authors: Lex Thomas
“I want to learn to sing.”
HE WAS LOSING HER.
Will sat on the stairs, alone in the dark. He’d traded all the lightbulbs in the Stairs for two salamis and an old matchbook. It hadn’t been a popular decision with the Loners who had stuck around in the weeks since the Sam incident. Will couldn’t bring himself to care though. He preferred the dark.
Lucy’s voice below made him sit up, but he didn’t answer.
“Is anybody here?”
He couldn’t see Lucy, only the white rectangle of her cell phone’s screen, moving through the black. Will coughed. The white rectangle turned toward him and shined a weak, milky light in his direction.
“Hi,” she said. Lucy tilted her phone’s light back at her own face. She forced a slight smile, but he could tell she was sad. Join the club.
“Might want to stay back. I don’t want to get you sick,” Will said.
It had been going around, clogged nose, pulsing pain behind the eyeballs, exhaustion, and a sore throat. The Saints must have brought it in, because it was all over the school now.
“Here,” Lucy said, and handed him her phone. He shined it on her as she put down the water jugs she’d been lugging.
“How much water have you had?” she asked.
“Not enough, probably.”
She nodded and knelt down. As she poured some water into a tall thermos, she stared off at an empty wall, her brow bunched up, and her eyes too far open.
“I’ll start a fire,” he said.
Will rocked forward; he needed the momentum to stand. He drew the crinkled metallic fabric of an emergency fire blanket tighter around his shoulders. There was wood already piled up in the disembodied sink on the floor. He put the phone on the floor, faceup, and lit a match. Will tossed it into the sink and the book pages under the wood caught fire right away. The flames grew into a respectable campfire. Lucy hadn’t said a word the whole time.
Will sat down, out of breath from the strain. Lucy walked over and handed him the thermos. He drank half of it in one gulp. Lucy sat near him. Still silent.
“Are you doing all right?” Will asked.
She nodded. He knew she was lying. She leaned toward the
flame, eyes closed. Will watched ribbons of golden light flutter across her face. Her cheekbones were round like twin scoops of butterscotch ice cream. A tear spilled from her eye. It drew a gleaming string of light down her cheek.
“They’re all gone,” she said.
“Who’s all gone?”
“The only ones who were left. Belinda went Nerds. Ritchie went Skaters. And Mort and Colin—” She let out a breath. “… Leonard. All gone.”
Will slumped. “Matter of time, I guess,” he was barely able to say.
It was just the two of them.
Will’s headache tightened like a fist inside his head. Nausea bubbled in his belly. He had failed David. The Loners had fallen apart. He took deep breaths. Lucy was staring at him, clearly concerned. He didn’t want that.
“It’ll be all right,” Will said.
It was the most he could muster. He wanted to promise her that he’d protect her and provide for her, that was what she wanted. But, he couldn’t promise what he couldn’t deliver. He couldn’t even protect himself. He’d proved that when Sam dug a trench in the quad with his face.
“What do you think we’d be doing right now if none of this ever happened?” Lucy said.
“For real?” he said.
“You want to talk about this now.”
“I see you as really fat,” Lucy said.
It made Will smile.
“Out of all the possible scenarios of being outside, you’re fantasizing about me gaining weight?”
She bounced as she laughed.
“I’ve seen you scarf cans of clam chowder with no spoon,” she said. “I’m just saying. You’re going to balloon. It’s gonna be scary.”
“Okay, you want to play like that?” he said. “Have you watched yourself chug fruit punch? You’re like a pelican.”
“A pelican!” Lucy said with mock outrage. “That’s not the kind of thing you just make up! You’ve actually thought that before, haven’t you!”
That made Will laugh even harder. “See, this is great. Maybe the Loners fell apart for a good reason,” Will said, excited. “Who needs all them? We have each other. It can be just the two of us. We could go back to the elevator. We could be happy.”
Lucy twisted her lips from side to side. Her silence made the crackling fire sound loud, like crumpling cellophane in his ear.
“Will, I’m worried about you.”
Ouch. The scenario of the two of them in the elevator
had just spilled directly out of Will’s heart, and it clearly did nothing for her. He felt like an idiot for blurting out his feelings.
“I’m fine,” he said.
“You haven’t seemed fine lately.”
God, why was she saying this? She could just turn him down instead of keep reminding him that he was a broken person.
“Same as always,” he said, working hard to keep a lid on any angry tone.
“Will, I think … We need to get realistic—”
“I am being realistic. David and me had a whole business before the Loners. We did fine as just two people.”
“You barely pulled it off, and that’s when things were stable. Who knows how reliable these parents will be?”
That was a bullshit excuse. If it were David asking her to go live in the elevator, just the two of them, she’d be there in a second.
“Are you joining another gang?” Will said.
Lucy opened her mouth. It hung open for a moment and then she closed it.
“I’ve thought about it …,” she said. “I mean, wasn’t being in a gang the whole point of forming the Loners? Isn’t that what we fought for?”
He wasn’t going to beg her. He wouldn’t sink that low. He really wanted to beg. He was ravenous to beg.
“… And I know you probably think that nobody wants you because of … what happened,” she said.
“You’re right,” Will said.
“But that’s not true,” Lucy said, pouncing. “I mean, okay, you’ve got a lot of enemies. The Freaks and Varsity. And the Skaters probably haven’t forgiven you for their boards, but—I talked to some Geek who said they’re desperate for people to join, and Zachary hasn’t seemed to hold a grudge about the Loners putting him in a cage.”
The Geeks wouldn’t have Will. Not after what happened in the quad. No one would. Lucy was fooling herself. She needed to believe it. He guessed she’d never forgive herself if she bailed on poor, little, epileptic Will.
“Geeks, huh? That seems like a good gang for a coward,” Will said.
Lucy stared at him, confused.
“That’s not funny.”
“I’m not laughing. I’m just saying, that’s what you are.”
“Why are you talking like this?”
“Think about it. You always hide. In the Pretty Ones. Behind David. Why not behind Zachary?”
“I’m trying to help you, Will.”
“Don’t strain yourself.”
“Don’t say this stuff. You don’t mean it!”
“Why are you here?” Will said. “Why don’t you just walk
to the auditorium right now? You probably have your bag packed. Am I right?”
Lucy didn’t answer. She looked down.
“Then go,” he said. “Get the fuck out of here. I don’t want you around me.”
“No!” she said. “You can’t do this. I won’t leave you.”
She cried. She was going to hate him, but that was better. If she hated him, she might be able to forget about him.
“Do yourself a favor …”
She looked up, cheeks wobbling, eyelashes clumped by tears. “… and fuck off,” Will said.
She slapped him. She disappeared up the stairs, crying, then came back down, with a small, half-full backpack over her shoulder, and her phone lit up in her hand. She walked right past him and her phone’s glow faded off down the stairs toward the ground floor exit.
If he was going to go after her, this was his chance. To take it back. There was still a window, he hadn’t heard the door open or shut yet.
Will struggled to his feet. He let the crinkly blanket fall off him as he trudged to the top of the stairs. Down past the darkness of the stairwell he saw Lucy standing at the open door, her cell phone shining on her face. She looked up at him. If he persuaded her to stay, she’d only leave later. He could never be what she needed.
“Don’t come back! You hear me?” Will shouted. “I don’t want your pity!”
She slammed the door shut and left. Will walked back to the sink fire and sat. He tried to let the flames warm him. They wouldn’t last long. The cold of the empty Stairs would win in the end. Will had better get used to it. He was alone for good.
“I WANT TO BE A SLUT,” LUCY SAID.
Violent looked surprised. She stood in the doorway to the cafeteria, holding the door open. There was an ugly Slut beside her, who was topless. These girls were a marvel. Even their breasts were aggressive. Violent looked different in the middle of the night. Her red hair was a mess, and the stitched seam of her pillow had left its imprint across her cheek. She wore a XXL boy’s black T-shirt, full of holes and rips. Without her tape eyebrows, her sinister makeup, and all the spiky armor, Violent almost looked nice, like a mom. A mom with no eyebrows.
“Violent, I know I missed the deadline on your offer, but—”
Violent raised her hand to quiet her. She pulled Lucy close and wrapped her in a sturdy hug. It took Lucy completely by surprise.
“Ssh,” Violent said. “Come in. We can talk in the morning. Right now it’s time to sleep.”
That was good by Lucy. She’d never felt so drained. The empty cafeteria was quiet. It smelled faintly of berries. Everything was clean and organized, every weapon hanging in its place on the far wall, like the pegboard wall of tools her dad used to have in their garage. The main floor of the cafeteria had been cleared away. The dining hall tables were broken down and stashed up against one wall. The beige plastic cafeteria chairs were stacked high next to them.
“Lips, get her a mattress,” Violent said to the topless girl. Lips. It was a joke of a nickname. The girl barely had any lips at all. They were just thin, flat strips of skin. It was almost like her face stopped and her mouth began without an intermediary step. Lips nodded to Violent and walked off.
Violent led Lucy toward the kitchen without a word. She stopped at the doorway and took her shoes off. Lucy figured she should do the same. She put her stuff down and slipped off her white canvas sneaks that had served her for so long. It was a lie to call them white. She couldn’t wash them as well as David used to, and even he couldn’t get them white. They were gray and speckled with black like an Oreo milk shake. She put them in a cabinet, next to where Violent put hers.
Lucy followed Violent into the heat of the kitchen, where Sluts lay sleeping all over the floor. They were nestled in around each other like jigsaw puzzle pieces. The only light in the room came from the oven door windows, receding rectangles of glowing red.
Violent led Lucy through the obstacle course of bodies. From what she could make out, most of them wore boxers and T-shirts with the sleeves torn off. Even that seemed too hot to sleep in. The heat from the ovens pressed in all around her like a sauna. The purr of the gas ovens softened all other sounds. Violent reached a clear spot of floor by the dishwashers, far from the ovens, but still entirely warm.
“You can sleep here tonight,” Violent said in a low hush.
Lips arrived silently and dropped a man-shaped mattress on Lucy’s spot of floor. The mattress was a pair of khaki pants and a long-sleeve denim shirt that had been sewn together and stuffed with pink wall insulation, which puffed out where the seams had come apart. Lucy lowered her bag to a spot right next to the mattress.
Lucy opened her arms to hug Violent again. Instead, Violent patted her shoulder and walked off with Lips.
“Okay,” she said, mostly to herself. “Okay, then …”
She guessed that was it. This was her gang now. She lowered herself down on her headless, handless, footless mattress man. She scanned the nearby faces, trying to see if she recognized any of them. Not a one. She was sleeping with a bunch of strangers. What had she gotten herself into? Was she so desperate to prove Will wrong that she’d actually thought for a second she could be a Slut? When she knocked on the cafeteria door she felt like she knew what she was doing, she thought she wanted everything Violent had described about
being a Slut. Now she feared that she was not like these girls, that she would not be accepted here, and she wouldn’t have what it takes to be one of them.
You’re a coward
. She swore she’d never forgive Will for what he’d said. She cussed him in her mind, but no matter how many times she wrote Will off, she’d hear him say those sharp words again. She just wanted to forget about him, and the Loners and how everything had gone so wrong.
She squeezed her mattress man. The oven heat seeped into her, soothed her. It made Will’s words hurt less and less. She felt sleep pull her under, into the warmth.
It was the clong of a steel ladle on an iron skillet that woke Lucy up. It took a second for her to remember where she was.
“Five more minutes for chores!”
Every light in the kitchen was on. She looked around the floor and saw that she was the only one still sleeping. The other Sluts had already risen and stored their bedding away. Lucy sat bolt upright. No, it couldn’t start like this, with her looking like a big slacker. She looked over at a Slut standing by one of the stovetops. She held a huge steel pot by its towel-wrapped handles. The Slut tipped the pot and poured steaming water on the tile floor. The piping hot puddle spread fast toward Lucy. She sprung to her feet with barely enough time to keep from being scalded. She picked up her mattress man, just as the water touched it. The soaked fabric seared
her fingers. She looked around for her bag, but it was gone.
Lucy tiptoed around the scalding mop water. Steam rose knee-high. Every Slut she walked past ignored her; they were completely focused on their tasks. Lucy could feel the walls they had up against her; but she was determined to break through. She approached a bony Slut pouring ash into a tall aluminum broiling pot.