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       Sparks Rise, p.1

         Part #2.50 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken
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Sparks Rise

  Copyright © 2014 by Alexandra Bracken

  Cover design by Sammy Yuen

  Excerpt from In the Afterlight text copyright © 2014 by Alexandra Bracken.

  All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information address Hyperion, 125 West End Avenue, New York, New York 10023.

  ISBN 978-1-4847-2420-0



  Title Page









  Preview of In the Afterlight

  About the Author



  I DON’T forget faces.

  I don’t forget anything my eyes have landed on—not the smallest detail of the white flowering wallpaper in our neighbors’ house, not the cursive letters written on my classroom’s whiteboard, not the numbers that flashed on the screen as the man in the white coat adjusted my position under the machine’s metal halo, the signs on the towering fence as our bus pulled in for the first time. DANGER! HIGH VOLTAGE, AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY, NOT A LOADING ZONE, STAY ALERT.

  Its smells and sounds have gone hazy; I think, sometimes, that I can remember what it was like to lay out in the freshly mown grass in our backyard. I think it smelled sweet. I think I can just about remember how silky Scout, our golden retriever, was, lying in a patch of sunshine. There was laughter, too, from the Orfeo kids trying to climb over the wall between our houses, half tumbling into the bushes. What I remember most is the cloudless powder-blue sky. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I haven’t seen one like it since.

  This place has reduced my world to gray, black, brown.

  Everything gets filed away inside my head, neat and tidy, until I need it. Somehow, without trying, I pull the right card out of the deck each time. I test myself all the time; that same white coat, the one who’d been all freezing fingers and sneered words, told me not to—that using my freak catchall of a memory would somehow overload it, and I’d be as dead and stiff as the kids already buried. They tried that lie on all of us, I’m sure.

  For the first two years, I’d catch myself doing it, drawing out those memories, and close my eyes, throat swelling with thick panic. Stop it, you’ll die, you’ll die, Sam—

  For the next three, it was like a dare. Each success was a small pop of bright exhilaration to pepper forever sunless days. Every time I did it and nothing happened, I’d get that same feeling I had each time I snuck over to the Orfeos’ house on the Fourth of July, and they’d secretly save me one of their sparklers to run around with before my parents could even realize I was gone. I’d think of Dad preaching from Job, Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.

  Now...I just don’t care. A few months turned into years and now those years are morphing into forever, and there’s no getting out. It used to be enough to live inside the gray, to accept the things I couldn’t change even if that meant everything. They’ve been holding these warnings about a possible second wave of deaths, like an axe over our heads, as long as I’ve been here. Using our abilities will trigger it. Acting out will trigger it. Speaking or reading or thinking too hard about anything will trigger it. Only, they’ve done such a good job of making this place hell that I wouldn’t be surprised if the real one turned out to be a much nicer place.

  Salvation will be found in obedience. Dad’s parting piece of advice when he walked me to the school bus that morning. I’ve dismantled the phrase a thousand times in my head and tried to reassemble it into something I read in the Bible. He spoke in parables and proverbs, and when he realized what I was, he barely spoke at all. Some part of me still thinks he would have loved me more if I’d died, because it’d mean I was saved.

  Mom only wanted whatever Dad wanted.

  I thought that was what I wanted, too, until I saw my bunkmate actually die in front of me. In this cabin, almost a year ago, as hard as it is to believe now. And it was nothing like those men in suits with the dead-eyed smiles promised—that it’d be as simple as going to sleep and never waking up. But that night, I’d stood over her and watched death come and electrify her from the inside out—I remember thinking, stupid and stunned and exhausted, This can’t be right, because IAAN wasn’t supposed to make your body thrash, wasn’t supposed to make you scream loud enough that not even clenched teeth could contain the sound. I thought it would be quiet, and authoritative—like a steady, warm hand reaching through the darkness to lift you out of this world.

  Dad always spoke of God with more fear than reverence—always conscious of how angry He was with us, always disappointed as we fell short of His plan. In Sunday school, every lesson and teaching had been softened for us. He wasn’t an angry God, but a loving God. He was there for us when no one else was. We could lean on Him for strength.

  Now I think that Dad was right all along. There’s no mercy, not in life, not even in death.

  I’m already awake when the morning alarm starts clanging through the speaker in the far corner of the room. I stay on my back a moment longer, rubbing my hands over my face, before sitting up and sliding over the side of the bunk bed. My bare toes land on the edge of the wooden frame beneath me, and I use it to stretch over my mattress and straighten out my sheets. My shoes and sweatshirt are under the bottom bunk, but the space next to them is empty and has been since they took Ruby away.

  No one is talking this morning, but the cabin is filled with small sounds of life. The old bunks creak and groan as the girls sleeping up top jump to the ground. Yawns stretch tired faces wide open. Joints crack as stiffness is worked out. I slip my shoes on, running my fingers along the fading number scrawled there in black permanent marker, 3284, to brush the dirt away. I can’t bring myself to look at the empty bed again, the bare mattress where she used to sleep.

  I need to stop obsessing over this, but I can’t help it. Climbing up, climbing down, I can’t avoid the empty space; it sucks the air out of my chest, makes my head ache. I don’t understand how someone I barely knew can bring tears to the surface faster than thinking about my parents, my cousins, the other girls I’ve lived with for the last seven years. It’s like sitting in front of a nearly complete puzzle that’s missing only one piece—but that piece, the one that completes the image, is just...gone. Not in the box.

  Somehow, I lost it.

  I know I must have, because Vanessa, Ashley, all of them gave me these looks when the dark-haired girl first showed up a few years ago.

  “Whatever you fought about, it’s not worth it,” Ashley had whispered to me. The older girls were braver about talking in the morning. “I hate to see you guys like this. She doesn’t even talk now.”

  This swell of hurt and fear and something that felt too close to panic had tackled me from behind. The air was coming in and out of me in sharp bursts. There was no explanation for it, other than I was...something was wrong with me. My head. I didn’t forget faces. I didn’t forget anything. And yet everyone was acting like she’d been with us from the beginning. They were making me dizzy with these looks of confusion and pity and curiosity. I broke into a cold sweat at Ashley’s words. The pieces of me that were already barely holding together after the punishment I’d taken a few days before began to drift apart.

  Is this the second wave? I remember thinking.
Do we slowly lose what we can do? Were our minds just going to one day blink out?

  But all the other cards were in place. I tested it every morning, every night. Address numbers on my block. Mia Orfeo’s bookshelves. Pages of the Bible. Patterns of Christmas tree ornaments. No Ruby, never any Ruby before that moment. She’d come right over to me, small and pale—face smeared with grime like she’d been working in the Factory all day with us. And she’d gripped me like I was going to be able to drag her out from whatever she was drowning under. Green eyes, shining with pain. The PSF that day had pounded me into the ground with his baton before locking me in the cage for hours. I must have said something to him to make him punish me. A wrong look, something I muttered. But that was hazy, too. They must have brought Ruby in while I was gone.

  That was the only word she ever said to me: Ruby. I asked when she’d come in, what her name was, and the only thing she’d managed to choke out was her own name.

  The truth is, she lived like a shadow. Silent, always trying to make herself as small and quick as she possibly could. The PSFs, they never picked on her, they never noticed her, and it was hard not to be resentful when I could barely make it one day without—

  I shook my head, smoothing my hair back into a ponytail.

  How can I remember each day from the moment they brought me through the damn gate until that evening, but she’s just not there? She’s dissolved like smoke.

  How can you miss something, feel so awful about it, when you’re not sure you had it in the first place?

  From the next bunk over, Vanessa clucks her tongue in warning—a hurry the heck up. I can tell we have a day of rain ahead of us by the way the mildew stench seems particularly strong. If we’re getting rain, it means it’s too warm for snow, and that is always, always, always a blessing.

  The winter uniforms are nothing more than forest-green sweats. There are no coats, unless you’re working in the Garden. The Laundry, Factory, and Kitchen are all, in theory, heated. At the end of each Garden shift, you pass the woolen gray monstrosities back in; I can’t tell if it’s because they just aren’t willing to pony up and pay for coats for the whole camp, or if they’re afraid we’d try to stash something inside of them. Hiding sharp-tipped trowels and hand pruners, smuggling strawberries, I don’t know.

  I take another deep breath and hold it in my chest until I can’t resist the burn. Falling into my spot in line, the earthy dampness of the cabin finally fades under the familiar smells of plain detergent, shampoo, and sleep-warmed skin. The overhead lights that snapped on at the alarm wash everyone’s skin out to a chalky ash.

  The electronic door locks click one, two, and three before the heavy metal swings open and a PSF steps inside, her eyes sweeping over our lopsided lines. With Ruby gone at my right, Vanessa has had to step up into her space, leaving Elizabeth alone at the back to walk with the stare of the PSF burning into her neck.

  The steel-gray light from the overcast sky creeps into the cabin like a delicate fog. I blink my eyes against it, fighting the urge to hold up a hand to shield them as the PSF inspects first our uniforms and, next, the general state of the cabin.

  Rather than say a word, the woman, blond hair twisted into a tight, low bun beneath her black cap, whistled and waved us forward, the way she would have called a dog to her side. It set my teeth on edge and spun my exhaustion into annoyance. There’s something about her smirk today I don’t like. Her eyes keep darting back and forth between whatever is standing out along the soggy trail and us.

  I square my shoulders as Vanessa and I pass by her, a halfhearted attempt to brace myself for the freezing January air; the sting of it turns our skin pink and our breath white. I was wrong about it not being cold enough to snow; in a West Virginia winter, what’s rain one moment turns to icy sleet in the next, and then, just as you settle into that misery, suddenly there are large, fluffy snowflakes drifting down around you like feathers.

  I’m so distracted by the effort it takes to not give in to the clench of my shoulders and arms, to concentrate on not showing them how badly my body wants to shiver, I don’t even see them until the lines have filed out behind me. Cabins are opened and emptied by number, a careful sequence that involves stopping, going, stopping again as everyone is led out onto their right trail, wherever it is they’re supposed to be going—wash houses, Mess Hall, or straight to work until lunch. It’s timed down to the second, and half of the time I think it only works because everyone’s too tired and cold to try to resist being dragged into the pattern. What’s the point, anyway?

  But because every day is exactly the same, it should have been the first thing I noticed—the very first, given the bright red vests they’re wearing. The uniforms beneath them are dark, smoky gray—not the black of the PSFs. The pads of my fingers sting just looking at them—it’d been so hard to get the plastic needle through the thick fabric I’d pricked myself enough times to draw blood. Three months ago, we’d sewn buttons on them, as well as patches of numbers across the breast pockets. I’d thought nothing of it at the time. We’d dyed and stenciled any number of prison uniforms, so I’d just assumed...I just thought we’d never see them again.

  Beside me, Vanessa manages to cut off her gasp but can’t get her body’s instinctive response under control. To our PSF’s satisfaction, she flinches and looks away quickly, like the sight of the Red alone could burn her.

  I don’t need to look around me to know that at least half of our cabin has already figured out what’s happening. Those same girls have already moved on to drawing further conclusions that will take me another week to puzzle out. For all our differences, our Green minds really only function in two ways—my way, the storage locker, or their way—the ability to connect multiple dots of a situation or problem as easily and quickly as breathing. I get the impression we bore them every time we try to talk to them, like they always know what we’re about to say next. In a fraction of a second, they can look at Vanessa’s reaction, see how young the new people are, assess the color of the vest, recognize the uniforms we helped stitch together, and recognize now, in context, that the frustrating number patches were really Psi identification numbers. I can practically feel their minds churning behind me, whipping up a frenzied series of thoughts. Reds.

  If I know them, those girls will be thinking ahead, their conclusions slanting toward the future. Why are they here? How will it affect me? When will they leave? But I’m trapped in the past. Do the other girls remember, the way I do, the faces under the caps they wear? They’re blank, so completely vacant that it looks like their features have been painted on their skin.

  My stomach begins to turn over itself, the burning taste of sick rising in my throat like acid. How? How did they do this to these kids? I know the first face that we pass along the way to the Mess Hall; I know that girl because she was at this camp. She was here for almost two years before they took the Reds and Oranges out that night. I don’t forget faces, and even though I’d tried cutting the memories up and storing them in a dark, locked place, I can feel them bubbling back up, trying to merge together again. Fires in the cabins. Fires in the Mess Hall. Fires in the wash houses. The sky stained black with smoke. The boy who tried running from the Garden, who fried himself against the fence when his fire couldn’t melt the metal fast enough. That winter, that whole winter, we’d gone without real vegetables and fruit because the only things he’d set on fire that day were our food and himself.

  The thing about the Reds was this: no matter how still they were, watching them was like having eyes on a pot of water set to simmer. A small uptick in temperature could set them to boil—it could happen that fast, in a second of carelessness. They were the monsters of our stories, ones who couldn’t bring themselves to lurk in the shadows. And as terrifying as they were, as little as they cared about the rest of us, I never felt so defeated as I did when the camp controllers removed them. Because even if the rest of us were pathetic and too
scared to even make eye contact, they were always pushing back, they were always fighting, they never fell into the pattern.

  I thought they’d killed them. We all did.

  My feet get sucked down into Thurmond’s dark mud; I can’t even feel the cold anymore; panic heats my blood and makes my hands jitter at my side uselessly.

  They hold no weapons that I can see—no guns, or knives, or even the handheld White Noise machines. I guess that makes sense. They’re the weapons themselves.

  What have they done to them? How easy would it be for them to do it to the rest of us?

  I count twenty along the way to the Mess Hall, spaced out evenly, filling in the gaps where there used to be PSFs. Where there are black uniforms, they’re hanging back off the trails, watching us pass by in clusters, talking to each other and smiling, actually smiling about it, the sickos.

  It feels like a challenge—like they want to see us shrivel up just that little bit more when we see how helpless we really are. Just when you become numb to the cold running bony fingers up and down your bare skin, when your muscles become too used to the punishing schedule of go, go, go, go, work, work, work, work, when you realize it’s possible to turn a deaf ear on hateful words—that’s when the men up in their Tower know they need to change the rules of whatever game they’re playing with us.

  Vanessa keeps trying to catch my attention; I see her nodding toward each Red we pass, as if I could somehow miss that they’re there. The sleet has turned back into rain, and before we get within a hundred feet of the Mess, we’re all drenched, the icy water slicing through our clothes and skin, down to our bones. I can’t give the PSFs the pleasure of seeing me look at each of the Reds. I try to watch them out of the corner of my eye, assessing each face. I recognize about half of them; that makes sense. There just weren’t that many Reds at Thurmond to begin with, and even back then, they tried to keep boys and girls separate at meals and the different work rotations. It was harder to cross paths with them, and it takes me a little longer to dig around for the right memories, but I have them. My eyes shift again, assessing what’s ahead as we come up on the Mess Hall. And then—

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