And then salvation arrives in a most unlikely form.
It's Alexis, the talkative girl from the school bus! She comes up beside her, with Chaz gnawing at her shoulder. "People pull the alarms all the time," she says. "Well, at least I got out of Math."
Suddenly the policeman's eyes shift to Alexis.
"Stop right there, miss."
Alexis looks stunned. "Who, me?"
"Step aside. We'd like to ask you a few questions."
Risa walks right on past, holding her breath for fear that her gasp of relief might draw the officer's attention again. Risa no longer fits the profile of what they're looking for . . . but Alexis does! Risa doesn't look back; she just continues down the steps to the street.
In a few moments Connor catches up with her. "I saw what happened back there. Your friend may have just saved your life."
"I'll have to thank her later."
Up ahead, Hannah reaches into her pocket with her free hand, pulls out her car keys, then turns left toward the faculty parking lot. It's all going to be okay, Risa thinks. She's going to get us out of here. Risa might just start believing in miracles, and angels. . . . And then she hears a familiar voice behind her.
She turns to see Lev—he's spotted them—and although he's far away, he's quickly working his way through the crowd toward them.
"Risa! Connor! Wait!"
It wasn't enough to just turn them in, now he's leading the cops directly to them—and he's not the only one. Alexis still stands with the policeman at the school's side entrance. From where she stands she can easily see Risa, and she points Risa out to the cop. The cop instantly pulls out his radio to inform the other officers.
"Connor, we're in trouble."
"I know—I see it too."
"Wait!" screams Lev, still far away, but getting closer.
Risa looks for Hannah, but she's vanished into the crowd of kids in the parking lot.
Connor looks at Risa, fear overwhelming the fury in his eyes. "Run."
This time Risa doesn't hesitate. She runs with him, breaking toward the street just as a fire truck bursts onto the scene, siren blaring. The truck stops right in their path. There's nowhere to run. The fire alarm had mercifully been pulled at the perfect time, and it's gotten them this far, but the commotion is fading. Kids are milling instead of moving, and cops in every direction zero in on the two of them.
What they need is a fresh commotion. Something even worse than a fire alarm.
The answer comes even before Risa can formulate the entire idea in her mind. She speaks without even knowing what she's about to say.
"Start clapping. Trust me!"
A single nod from Connor makes it clear that he gets it, and he begins bringing his hands together, slowly at first, then more and more quickly. She does the same, both of them applauding as if they were at a concert cheering for their favorite band.
And beside them, a student drops his backpack and stares at them in utter horror.
"Clappers!" he screams.
In an instant the word is out.
ClappersClappersClappers . . .
It echoes in the kids around them. In an instant it reaches critical mass, and the entire crowd is in lull-blown panic.
"Clappers!" everyone screams, and the crowd becomes a stampede. Kids bolt, but no one is sure where to go. All they know is that they must get away from the school as quickly as possible.
Risa and Connor continue to clap, their hands red from the force of their duet of applause. With the mob racing in blind terror, the cops can't get to them. Lev has vanished, trampled by the panicked mob, and everything is made worse by the fire siren, which blares like it's sounding out the end of the world.
They stop clapping and join the stampede, becoming a part of the running crowd.
That's when someone comes up beside them. It's Hannah. Her plans of driving them off campus are gone, so she quickly hands Risa the baby.
"There's an antique shop on Fleming Street," she tells them. "Ask for Sonia. She can help you."
"We're not clappers," is all Risa can think to say.
"I know you're not. Good luck."
There's no time to thank her. In a moment the wild crowd pulls them apart, taking Hannah in a different direction. Risa stumbles and realizes they're in the middle of the street. Traffic has come to a halt as hundreds of kids race in a mad frenzy to escape the terrorists, wherever they are. The baby in Risa's arms bawls, but its cries are nothing compared to the screams of the mob. In a moment they are across the street, and gone with the crowd.
This is the true meaning of alone: Lev Calder beneath the trampling feet of a stampeding crowd.
"Risa! Connor! Help!"
He should never have called out their names, but it's too late to change that now. They ran from him when he called. They didn't wait—they ran. They hate him. They know what he did. Now hundreds of feet race over Lev like he's not there. His hand is stomped on, a boot comes down on his chest, and a kid springboards off of him to get greater speed.
Clappers. They're all screaming about clappers, just because he pulled the stupid alarm.
He has to catch up with Risa and Connor. He has to explain, to tell them that he's sorry—that he was wrong to turn them in and that he pulled the alarm to help them escape. He has to make them understand. They are his only friends now. They were. But not anymore. He's ruined everything.
Finally, the stampede thins out enough for Lev to pick himself up. A knee of his jeans is torn. He tastes blood—he must have bitten his tongue. He tries to assess the situation. Most of the mob is off campus, in the street and beyond, disappearing down side streets. Only stragglers are left.
"Don't just stand there," says a kid hurrying past. "There are clappers on the roof!"
"No," says another kid, "I heard they're in the cafeteria."
All around Lev, the bewildered cops pace with a false determination in their stride, as if they know exactly where to go, only to turn around and pace with the same determination in another direction.
Connor and Risa have left him.
He realizes that if he doesn't leave now with the last of the stragglers, he'll draw the attention of the police.
He runs away, feeling more helpless than a storked baby. He doesn't know who to blame for this: Pastor Dan for cutting him loose? Himself for betraying the only two kids willing to help him? Or should he blame God for allowing his life to reach this bitter moment? You can be anyone you want to be now, Pastor Dan had said. But right now, Lev feels like no one.
This is the true meaning of alone: Levi Jedediah Calder suddenly realizing he no longer exists.
The antique shop is in an older part of town. Trees arch over the street, their branches cut into unnatural angular patterns by the profiles of passing trucks. The street is full of yellow and brown leaves, but enough diehards still cling to the branches to make a shady canopy.
The baby is inconsolable, and Connor wants to complain to Risa about it, but knows that he can't. If it hadn't been for him, the baby wouldn't even be part of the equation.
There aren't all that many people on the street, but there are enough. Mostly it's kids from the high school just knocking around, probably spreading more rumors about clappers trying to detonate themselves.
"I hear they're anarchists."
"I hear it's some weird religion."
"I hear they just do it to do it."
The threat of clappers is so effective because no one knows what they really stand for.
"That was smart back there," Connor tells Risa, as they approach the antique shop. "Pretending to be clappers, I mean. I would never have thought of that."
"You thought quickly enough to take out that Juvey-cop the other day with his own tranq gun."
Connor grins. "I go by instinct, you go by brains. I guess we make a pretty decent team."
"Yeah. And we're a bit less dysfunctional without Lev."
At the mention of Lev, Connor feels a spike of anger. He rubs his sore arm where Lev bit him—but what Lev did today was much more painful than that. "Forget about him. He's history. We got away, so his squealing on us doesn't matter. Now he'll get unwound, just like he wants, and we won't have to deal with him again." And yet the thought of it brings Connor a pang of regret. He had risked his life for Lev. He had tried to save him, but had failed. Maybe if Connor were better with words, he could have said something that would have truly won him over. But who is he kidding? Lev was a tithe from the moment he was born. You don't undo thirteen years of brainwashing in two days.
The antique shop is old. White paint peels from the front door. Connor pushes open the door, and bells hanging high on the door jingle. Low-tech intruder alert. There's one customer: a sour-faced man in a tweed coat. He looks up at them, disinterested and maybe disgusted by the baby, because he wanders deeper into the recesses of the cluttered store to get away.
The shop has things from perhaps even' point in American history. A display of iPods and other little gadgets from his grandfather's time cover an old chrome-rimmed dinner table. An old movie plays on an antique plasma-screen TV. The movie shows a crazy vision of a future that never came, with flying cars and a white-haired scientist.
"Can I help you?"
An old woman as hunched as a question mark comes out from behind the cash register. She walks with a cane, but she seems pretty surefooted in spite of it.
Risa bounces the baby to get its volume down. "We're looking for Sonia."
"You found her. What do you want?"
"We . . . uh . . . we need some help," Risa says.
"Yeah," Connor chimes in, "Someone told us to come here."
The old woman looks at them suspiciously. "Does this have something to do with that fiasco over at the high school? Are you clappers?"
"Do we look like clappers to you?" says Connor.
The woman narrows her eyes at him. "Nobody looks like a clapper."
Connor narrows his gaze to match hers, then goes over to the wall. He holds up his hand and jabs it forward with all his might, punching the wall hard enough to bruise his knuckles. A little painting of a fruit bowl falls off the wall. Connor catches it before it hits the ground and sets it on the counter.
"See?" he says. "My blood isn't explosive. If I were a clapper, this whole shop would be gone."
The old woman stares at him, and it's a hard gaze for Connor to hold—there's some sort of fire in those weary eyes. But Connor doesn't look away. "See this hunch?" she asks them. "I got it from sticking my neck out for people like you."
Connor still won't break his gaze. "Guess we came to the wrong place, then." Glancing at Risa, he says, "Let's get out of here."
He turns to leave, and the old woman swings her cane sharply and painfully across his shins. "Not so fast. It just so happens that Hannah called me, so I knew you were coming."
Risa, still bouncing the baby, lets out a frustrated breath. "You could have told us when we came in."
"What fun would that be?"
By now the sour-faced customer has made his way closer again, picking up item after item, his expression showing instant disapproval of everything in the shop.