In Time, p.1Part #1.50 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken
Copyright © 2013 by Alexandra Bracken
Cover design by Sammy Yuen
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SOMETIMES, even when the roads are quiet and the others are asleep, she lets herself worry she made the wrong choice.
It’s not that she doesn’t like the group—she does. Really. They stick together and they play it smart, driving on side streets as much as they can instead of the highways, with the open, endless fear those offer. They’re never mean unless they’ve gone without food or sleep or both for too long, or when they’re scared. When they camp for the night, they sleep in a great big circle, and the girls like telling stories about the kids they knew in Virginia, at East River. They all laugh, but she has trouble putting the faces to the names. She can’t remember where the lake was in relation to the fire pit, and she wasn’t there that one time they all put on a play for one another. She wasn’t there because she was with her friends. She was in a different car, a better one, a happier one. Because when the girls stop telling these stories, the same ones over and over again, there’s only silence. And she misses the warmth of her friends’ voices, even if they were just whispering, lying and saying it would all be okay.
Maybe it’s bad—she doesn’t know—but secretly she’s glad no one expects her to tell stories of her own. That way she gets to keep them to herself, tucked tight against her heart. She presses her hand there when she’s scared, when she wants to pretend it’s them teasing and laughing and shouting around her, and not the others. When she wants to feel safe.
She keeps her hand there all the time. Now.
The mountains around her are flying by and the girls are screaming that they need to go faster, faster, faster. She sees the car through the back windshield of the SUV. The man hanging out the passenger-side window looks like he is aiming the gun directly at her. The driver has a face like he’d be willing to drive through a firestorm to get to them, and she hates him for it.
She wants her voice to join with the others’ screaming and crying. The words are lodged in her throat. The boy behind the wheel needs to stop the SUV, slam on the brakes, let the monsters chasing them get out of their own car and think they’ve won. We are five to their two, she thinks, and if we can catch them by surprise—
But their SUV is suddenly flying like it’s gone up a ramp. The seat belt locks over her chest hard enough to steal her breath in that one second they’re in the air—then they’re spinning, the glass is smashing, the car’s frame is twisting, and not even she can hold in her screams.
LISTEN, no matter what anyone tells you, no one really wants this job.
The hours are endless and the pay is crap. No, I take that back. It’s not the pay that’s crap. There’s a sweet little penny in it for you if you can hook yourself a decent-sized fish. The only thing is, of course, that everybody’s gone and overfished the damn rivers. You can drop in as many hooks as you want, buy yourself the shiniest bait, but there just aren’t enough of them still in the wild to fatten up your skeletal wallet.
That’s the first thing Paul Hutch told me when I met him at the bar this afternoon. We’re here to do business, but Hutch decides that it’s a teaching moment, too. Why do people constantly feel like they have to lecture me on life? I’m twenty-five, but it’s like the minute you take actual kids out of the picture, anyone under the age of thirty suddenly becomes “son,” or “kid,” or “boy,” because these people, the “real adults,” they have to have someone to make small. I’m not interested in playing to someone’s imagination, or propping up their sense of self-worth. It makes me sick—like I’m trying to digest my own stomach. I’m no one’s boy, and I don’t respond to son, either. I’m not your damn dead kid.
Someone’s smoking a cigarette in one of the dark booths behind us. I hate coming here almost as much as I hate the usual suspects who haunt the place. Everything in the Evergreen is that tacky emerald vinyl and dark wood. I think they want it to look like a ski lodge, but the result is something closer to a poor man’s Oktoberfest, only with more sad, drunk geezers and fewer busty chicks holding frothy mugs of beer.
There are pictures of white-capped mountains all around, posters that are about as old as I am. I know, because our mountain hasn’t had a good snow in fifteen years, or enough demand to open in five. I used to run the ski lifts up all the different courses after school, even during the summer, when people from the valley just wanted to come up and do some hiking in temperatures below 115 degrees. I tell myself, At least you don’t have to deal with the snotty tourists anymore—the ones who acted like they’d never seen a real tree before, and rode their brakes all the way down Humphreys’ winding road. I don’t miss them at all.
What I miss is the paycheck.
Hutch looks like he crawled out of a horse’s ass—smells like it, too. For a while he was working at one of those tour group companies that let you ride the donkeys down into the Grand Canyon. They closed the national parks, though, and the owner had to move all the animals back to Flagstaff, before ultimately selling them off. There’s no work for Hutch to do there anymore, but I’m pretty sure the woman lets him sleep out in the stables.
He’s been here for hours already; he’s looking soggy around the edges, and when I walked into the dark bar, he glanced up all bleary and confused, like a newborn chick sticking its head out of an egg. His hair is somehow receding and too long at once, the wisps halfheartedly tied back with a strip of leather.
Trying to speed things up, I slide a crumpled wad of money his way. The stack looks a lot more impressive than it actually is. I’ve been living off tens and twenties for so long I’m convinced they stopped printing the bigger bills.
“It’s not that I don’t think you can do it, son,” Hutch says, studying the bottom of his pint. “It just sounds easier than it is.”
I should be listening harder than I am. If anyone knows what the job’s really like, it’s him. Old Hutch tried for six months to be a skip tracer, and the prize he won for that misadventure was a burnt-up, mutilated, four-fingered hand. He likes to tell everyone some kid got to him, but seeing as he’s managed to burn down two trailers by falling asleep with a cigarette in his hand, I’m inclined to doubt it. Still, he milks it for all he can. The sight of the gimp hand gets him sympathy drinks from out-of-towners stopping in the Evergreen. Some extra nickels and dimes, too, when he’s holding a cup at the corner of Route 66 and Leroux Street, pretending his white ass is a military vet from the Navajo Nation. Somehow he thinks that combination elevates him over the rest of us bums.
“Can I have the keys?” I ask. “Where’d you park it?”
He ignores me, humming along to the Eagles’ “Take It Easy,” which this bar has on loop apparently for no reason other than the fact that Arizona is mentioned once in it.
I shouldn’t be buying this truck from him. I know there’s going to be something wrong with it; it’s older than I am. But this is the only one I can afford, and I have to get out of here. I have to get out of this t
“Another one,” he says stubbornly, trying to flag down Amy, the bartender, who is doing her absolute best to deny his miserable existence. She and I have talked about this before—it’s hard to look at him. His teeth got bad over the years, and his cheeks sag so low they’re practically hanging like wattles against his neck. He’s only forty-five, but he already looks like the after photo of a meth addict—the mug shot of the killer on one of those crime TV shows they’re always rerunning. His breath alone is like a punch to the face.
I used to like Hutch a lot. He got to know my dad when he dropped off fresh produce at the restaurant. Now it’s like…I don’t know how to explain it so it makes sense. It’s like he’s a cautionary tale, only one you know you’re speeding toward without brakes. A glimpse of the future, or whatever. I just look at him and I know that if I don’t get out of this place, I’m going to be this old man who’s not even old, but smells like he pisses himself on a regular basis. The guy who spins and spins and spins on his barstool, like he’s riding the old carousel at the fairgrounds.
Hutch slides the key out of his pocket but slams his hand down over it when I reach for it. His other hand traps mine, and then he’s looking at me with these wet, feverish eyes. “I loved your daddy so much, Gabe, and I know he wouldn’t want this for you.”
“He tapped out, which means he doesn’t get a vote,” I said, ripping my hand free. “I paid you. Now tell me where you parked it.”
For a second, I’m sure he’s going to tell me he parked it at the mall, and I’m going to have to walk my ass up the highway for an hour to get there. Instead, he shrugs and says finally, “On the north end of Wheeler Park. On Birch.”
I slide down from my stool, finishing off the pint I just paid fifteen bucks for. Hutch is still watching me with these eyes like I can’t describe. He pauses, then says, “But I’m telling you now, you ever find someone who likes the job, you better goddamn run the other way because you’re looking at the real monster. You’re looking right at him.”
I take my time walking to downtown—excuse me, “Historic Downtown,” they call it, like it needs that distinction because there’s another, more important downtown in Flagstaff, with skyscrapers. I take my time because the sun is out and it’s a beautiful blue-sky morning—the kind that usually makes everything beneath the sky seem that much shittier in comparison, but not today.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see the old train station where my dad and I used to lay pennies to be mauled on the tracks. For the first time in years, I consider crossing the street to sit on one of the benches, just because I know I’ll never do it again. I don’t know how I’d pass the time besides sit, though—what few trains are still running don’t take this route anymore. I’ve been doing a lot of that lately. Sitting around, doing nothing, thinking about work but not finding it. I think that’s the problem, all that sitting; it leads to thinking about all this bullshit, about the parks they had to turn into graveyards, about Dad’s restaurant’s still being empty after all these years, about the fact that we had to move to a new trailer because we couldn’t get the blood off the walls of the old one.
Damn Hutch, I think. The only thing Dad wanted was an out.
I head past the boarded-up shops. When I was a kid—I use that phrase a lot, when I was a kid. That was, what? Fifteen years ago? Are you still a kid when you’re ten? I guess it doesn’t matter, but it was right around then that this part of town was done up nice for the tourists. The buildings are practically ancient by Arizona standards. Dad told me most of them, including the red brick one with the white turrets, used to be old hotels. Now they’re bead shops, or they sell mystic crystal bullshit from Sedona or fake petrified wood. Those are the shops that survived the economy’s face-plant.
There’s no one out wandering around that morning, and little traffic. That’s the only reason I can hear the chanting three blocks from where the “protest” is taking place. I think about cutting up a block and going the long way, but the city commissioned this horrible memorial wall mural there that makes my skin crawl every time I pass it. In it, there are these five kids all running around this flower field. One of them is on a swing hanging from a cloud. It’s called Their Playground Is Heaven, if you ever make the trek up to Flagstaff and are in the mood to hate humanity that much more.
The mom squad is out in full force in front of City Hall. Of course. It’s a day that ends with y. Back a few years ago, I thought they might accomplish something just by the sheer number of bake sale goods they were producing and selling to raise money for the BRING THEM HOME fund. Now it’s obvious that was never the point.
I keep my head down and my hat pulled low, ignoring the squatty woman who rushes up in her too-tight mom jeans and bright yellow MOTHERS AGAINST CAMPS shirt, shoving her clipboard in my path.
“Have you signed the petition to Bring Them Home?”
Not really, lady.
“Would you like to sign the petition?”
As much as I’d like to swallow a bowl of broken glass.
Because I’m not super into the idea of having a couple thousand little freaks running around the country blowing shit up.
I take the clipboard and squiggle on one of the empty boxes, hoping it’s enough to get her to leave me alone. What’s really amazing to me is that despite the fact that they managed to grow their numbers, it seems like they’re doing less. Even with the addition of the spin-off group, Dads Against Camps, I know for a fact they haven’t gotten any information out of the government.
They have to know how pathetic they all look, right? They stubbornly gather here like cat hair to a black sweater, but there aren’t any politicians in City Hall these days—they just bus folks up from Phoenix every once in a while to make sure the town hasn’t dissolved into chaos or to barricade it off if it has. The parents just can’t bring themselves to break the pattern. Every day it’s the same scene of them standing around and talking to each other, hugging and crying and cupping ragged-edged photos of their freaks between their hands. These people—the “real adults,” my mom calls them—they sit around looking for forgiveness from the guilty. But if they really wanted to accomplish something, they’d be down in Phoenix. They’d be in D.C. or New York, trying to find whatever hole President Gray dug for himself, to make him answer for what he’s done.
They don’t even seem to notice every last bit of their freedom has been stripped from them, from all of us; they just care about the kids, the kids, the kids.
I want to tell Mrs. Roberts to stop being such a damn hypocrite—to tell Mr. Monroe, and Mrs. Gonzalez, and Mrs. Hart that they did this to themselves. They sent their “babies” to school that day and then stood around the playground fence with the rest of us, watching as the black uniforms ushered the freaks onto the buses. They regret it; now they see what most of us suspected all along. Those buses were only going one direction: away from them.
Here’s the thing I don’t understand: The government tells you over and over again, through the news, through the papers, on the radio, that the only way these freaks are going to survive is if they receive this rehabilitation treatment in these camps. They even roll out the president’s kid to prove that it “works,” parading him around the country in some kind of celebration tour that’s clearly designed to soften people’s attitudes about sending their freaks away. Okay, sure, fine.
But after a year or two passes, more and more freaks are affected. More are sent to these rehab camps by desperate parents. But in the meantime, we’re not seeing any “cured” freaks coming out of them. Not in year three, or year four, or year five. If these parents had been paying attention from the beginning, not running around like a band of panicked chickens, all of them scrambling for the last scrap of hope, none of them willing to be the one to stand up and question it, they would have seen the lie a mile away. They would never have registered their freaks in that online database, the one the government basically just turned into
It’s been six years. They’re not coming back, and even if they were, look at what these “real adults” have let this country become. Why would they want to bring a kid back into a place like this? Where the newspaper they’ll read is filled with lies, and every step they take and word they speak will be monitored. The kind of world where they can work their whole lives, only to be slowly smothered by knowing they’ll never amount to anything and things will never get better for them.
I just want them to admit that they did this to themselves, that they let Gray take their kids, but they also let him steal hope for the future. I’m so sick of having to feel sorry for these people when the rest of us are suffering, too.
I just want them to admit to themselves we’ve lost more than a few freaks.
I just want us all to stop lying.
There’s no gas in the old blue truck. Of course. I have to hike all over town begging people for a quarter of a liter here and another quarter there, and all the while these people are looking at me like I’ve asked them to set themselves on fire. I know the right people to talk to, though. They were the smart ones who saved up each gas ration the National Guard doled out by the old Sinclair gas station. I remember waiting under the sign—the big green dinosaur—shivering because it was five below, and the entire city was lined up down the highway, waiting their turn. About two years ago, the National Guard just stopped coming, and when they disappeared, so did the gas.
So did a lot of things.
They’ve turned the old fairgrounds into a trailer park and campground. Ten years ago if you had asked me to imagine a world where thousands of people were crammed into a few miles of space while thousands of houses sat empty and locked up by banks…I don’t know what I would have thought. Probably that you were talking about a bad movie.
Hutch says each kid can bring in around ten thousand dollars. Ten thousand dollars. One or two aren’t going to be enough to buy myself a real house or anything like that, but it might be enough to do one of those two-year university degree programs. With a certificate, I might be able to find a steady job in another town, and maybe that’ll mean an opportunity to own some kind of home, even if it’s in the far future. Staying here, I wouldn’t have a choice.
In Time by Alexandra Bracken / Young Adult / Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes