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The darkest minds, p.11
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       The Darkest Minds, p.11

         Part #1 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken
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  “You all right, Zu?” he asked. The girl gave him two thumbs-up, her yellow gloves the only bright spot of color in the van.

  “Well, I’m fine, thanks for asking,” Chubs said. His little glasses were crooked on his face as he smoothed his blue button-down shirt. For good measure, he leaned forward and smacked the back of Liam’s head. “And by the way, are you out of your freaking mind? Do you know what happens when a body is thrown from a car at high velocity?”

  “No,” Liam interrupted, “but I imagine it’s not pretty or appropriate for an eleven-year-old’s ears.”

  I glanced back at Zu. Eleven? That couldn’t be right.…

  “Oh, so you can throw her in the path of bullets, but she can’t hear a scary story?” Chubs crossed his arms over his chest.

  Liam reached down and pulled his seat back upright. When he sat back, it was with a grimace and clenched fists. There was a fresh cut above his eye. Blood dripped from his chin.

  I saw the green highway sign through the haze of rain. It didn’t matter what town or exit number it said. I just wanted to get off the road and out of the driver’s seat.

  My entire body was numb, exhausted, as I took my foot off the gas. The minivan followed the curve of the ramp with only the slightest nudging, and by the time we reached the road, it came to a natural stop. I pressed a hand to my chest to make sure my heart hadn’t given out on me.

  Liam reached over and put the parking brake on.

  “You did a good job,” he began. His voice was quieter than I expected. Unfortunately, it did nothing to calm the pissed off snake that was coiled tight around my stomach.

  I reached over and punched him in the arm. Hard.

  “Ow!” he cried, pulling away from me with wide eyes. “What was that for?”

  “That was not like riding a bike, you asshole!”

  He stared at me a moment, his lips twitching. It was Suzume who burst out into a fit of silent laughter, an endless stream of gasping and shaking that turned her face bright pink and left her breathless. Seconds passed with her laughter as the only sound able to float up above the rain—at least until Chubs put his face in his hands and let out a long groan.

  “Oh yeah,” Liam said, popping his door open, “you’re gonna fit in real nice.”

  The rain had slowed to a drizzle by the time Liam got to work on the back tire. I had stayed exactly where I was in the driver’s seat, mostly because I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be doing. The other two kids had jumped out of the car after him, Suzume heading to the back of the van with Liam, and Chubs in the exact opposite direction. I watched through the cracked windshield as he made his way toward a sign pointing us in the direction of the Monongahela National Forest. After a minute, he pulled something—a paperback book—out of his back pocket, and sat down at the edge of the road. Feeling more than a little envy, I squinted, trying to make out the book’s title, but half of the cover was missing, and the other half covered by his hand. I don’t know if he was actually reading or just glaring at the text.

  I had pulled us over into Slaty Fork, West Virginia, if the road signs were to be trusted. What I thought had been some hickville back road had actually been Highway 219, in the middle of nowhere. Marlinton might have lost its people, but it didn’t look as though Slaty Fork had any to begin with.

  I stood up from the driver’s seat and made my way to the back of the minivan. My hands were still trembling, as if trying to shake out that last bit of adrenaline singing in my blood. The black backpack that Rob and Cate had given me had been thrown into the backseat, covered in a few loose sheets of newspaper and an empty bottle of Windex.

  I brushed the backpack off and set it down next to me on the seat. The newspaper was over three years old and stiff with age. There was a half-page ad for a new face cream someone had oh-so-cleverly called Forever Young.

  I flipped the sheet over, looking for any actual news. I skimmed over an opinion piece that celebrated the rehabilitation camps and was more amused than offended that Psi kids were now being openly referred to as “mutant time bombs.” There was also a short article on rioting that the reporter claimed was “the direct result of escalating tensions between the West and East government on new birth legislation.” At the very bottom of the page, past some fluff story about the anniversary of some train conductors’ strike, was a picture of Clancy Gray.

  “President’s Son Attends Children’s League Hearing,” is what the headline beneath it said. I didn’t need to read more than the first two or three lines to get the basic gist: the president was too big of a coward to come out of hiding after a failed assassination attempt, so he sent his freak baby to do the dirty work for him. How old was Clancy now? I wondered. The pictures at Thurmond were identical to this one, and I had never thought of him as anything older than eleven or twelve. But he must have been eighteen or close to by now. Practically an old geezer by our standards.

  I tossed the paper aside in disgust and reached for my backpack again. Rob had said there was a change of clothes inside, and if that was the case, I was getting out of my Thurmond uniform once and for all.

  A plain white shirt, a pair of jeans, a belt, and a zip-up hoodie. I could handle that.

  The knock on the window startled me enough that I nearly bit my tongue clean off. Liam’s face appeared there, drawn in tense lines. “Can you bring those clothes to me for a sec? I need to show you something.”

  The very second I knew his eyes were on me, every bone, muscle, and joint in my body snapped to attention. With the faint taste of blood in my mouth, I jumped out of the sliding door, taking in the sight of the van. If it were possible, the car looked worse than before—like a toy that someone had wedged down the sink and run through the garbage disposal. My fingers came up to trace one of the fresh punctures on the side paneling where a bullet had slammed through the thin metal.

  Liam knelt beside Zu, who was holding on to the spare tire with everything she had, and went to work cranking the van up on the jack and off the demolished back right tire. I came to stand behind them just in time to watch Liam wave his hand in front of the hubcap. The nuts twirled out on his command, collecting in a neat pile on the ground.

  Blue, I registered. Liam was Blue. What did that make the others?

  “Okay,” he began. He blew a strand of his light hair out of his eyes. “Take out the shirt you were about to change into.”

  “I’m—I’m not changing out here,” I said.

  He rolled his eyes. “Really? You’re worried about your modesty when we’re going to have League agents on our tail in a matter of hours? Priorities, Green. Take out the shirt.”

  I watched him for a moment, but even I wasn’t sure what I was looking for.

  “Feel around the collar,” Liam said. He set another nut on the ground by his feet. “You’ll find a bump.”

  I did. It was small, no bigger than a pea, sewn into the otherwise nondescript shirt.

  “Chubs has a little fancy lady kit under the front seat,” he said. “If you’re going to change into it, you need to cut the tracker out of that shirt.”

  The “little fancy lady kit” turned out to be a box of thread, scissors, and a tiny piece of embroidery. On a scrap of fabric, someone—Chubs?—had sewn a perfect black square. I stared at the mark, rubbing my thumb over its raised surface.

  “Anyway, you should probably change out of the uniform,” Liam continued. “But be sure to check the pants and the sweater, too. I wouldn’t put it past them to use more than one.”

  He was right again. I found one sewn into the waistband of the jeans, one in the hem of the hoodie, and even one glued inside the belt buckle—four trackers for one girl, plus one that had been sewn into the lining of the backpack itself.

  Liam finished replacing the tire with the spare faster than I thought possible. Zu helped him place the nuts back in their sockets and slowly crank the car back down. When he handed the tools to her, she knew exactly where to put them in the trunk.

  “Here,” he said, holding his hand out to me. “I’ll take care of them.” My hands trembled as I handed the trackers to him. He threw them on the ground, and crushed them beneath the heel of his shoe.

  “I don’t understand.…” I began. But I did, in a way. They wouldn’t have gone to all that trouble breaking me out if they hadn’t had a method of keeping tabs on me if I got recaptured or separated from them.

  Liam’s hand came out toward me, and the sheer panic at the thought of his touch had me jumping back, trying to put as much air between us as I could. It still wasn’t far enough; his hand dropped between us, but I felt the warmth of his upturned palm brush my shoulder as if it had actually rested there. My arms came up and crossed over my chest, and some mangled mess of anxiety and guilt rose up from deep in my guts. I tried to focus on the Psi identification numbers on the top of my shoes to keep from jumping away again.

  You are acting like a nervy five-year-old, I told myself. Stop it. He’s just another kid.

  “They tell you a lot of lies in the Children’s League, the biggest being that you’re free,” he said. “They talk about love and respect and family, but I don’t know any family that puts a tracking device on someone and then sends them out to be shot up and blown away.”

  “But we didn’t have to kill them,” I said. My fingers tightened around the backpack straps. “There was another kid inside. Martin. He didn’t…he didn’t deserve to…”

  “You mean—” Liam wiped the grease and dirt from his hands off on the front of his jeans. “The kind of—” He made a vague motion with his hands, which I think was supposed to indicate Martin’s plump stature. “That guy?”

  I nodded.

  “The tree didn’t actually hit them,” Liam said, leaning against the minivan’s sliding door. “They might still be alive.”

  Liam guided me back toward the passenger seat and whistled to get Chubs’s attention. Somewhere behind me, I heard Zu climb back into Black Betty.

  “Look,” he continued, “they all wear the trackers. I’m sure another League agent will be along in a little while to help them. You can go back if you want, or we can take you to the bus station like I said we would.”

  My hands were still by my side, my face as blank as a clear sky, but I wasn’t fooling him. He tuned in to my guilt like I had been wearing it plain as day on my face. “It doesn’t make you a bad person, you know—to want to live your own life.”

  I looked back and forth between the road and his face, more confused now than ever. It didn’t make sense for him to want to help me, not when he already had two other people counting on him. That he wanted to protect.

  Liam opened the back door for me, tilting his head toward the empty seat inside. But before I could even consider the cost of staying with them, if just for a short while, Chubs’s arm shot out and he ripped the sliding door shut in front of my face.

  “Chubs—” Liam warned.

  “Why,” Chubs began, “were you with the Children’s League?”

  “Hey now,” Liam said. “This is a don’t-ask-don’t-tell operation. Green, you—”

  “No,” Chubs said, “you decided that. You and Suzume. If we’re going to be stuck with her, I want to know who this person is and why we got chased down by gun-toting lunatics trying to get her back.”

  Liam lifted his hands in surrender.

  “I…” What could I tell them that wouldn’t sound like a complete and total lie? My head felt light; I was almost too exhausted to think. “I was…”

  Zu gave me a nod of encouragement, her eyes bright.

  “I was a runner in the Control Tower,” I blurted. “I saw the access codes to the computer servers the League wants access to. I have a photographic memory, and I’m good with numbers and codes.”

  That was probably overkill, but apparently I had sold it.

  “What about your friend? What’s his deal?”

  The longer they stared at me, the harder it became to not fidget. Get a grip, Ruby.

  “You mean Martin?” I said, my voice sounding high to my own ears. “Yesterday was the first time I had ever seen him. I don’t know what his story was. I didn’t ask.”

  I wished I didn’t know what Martin’s story was.

  Chubs slapped the side of the minivan. “Don’t tell me you believe that, Lee. We knew everyone by the time we broke out.”

  Broke out. They actually escaped? Shock left me speechless for several moments until I asked, finally, “Really? All three thousand of them?”

  The boys took a step back at the same time.

  “You had three thousand kids at your camp?” Liam asked.

  “Why?” I looked between them, unnerved. “How many were in your camp?

  “Three hundred at most,” Liam said. “Are you sure? Three thousand?”

  “Well, it’s not like they gave us an official number. There were thirty kids per cabin and about a hundred of those. There used to be more, but they sent the Reds, Oranges, and Yellows away.”

  Apparently, I had blown his mind. Liam let out a strangled noise at the back of his throat. “Holy crap,” he finally managed to squeeze out. “What camp was it?”

  “It’s none of your business,” I said. “I’m not asking you where you were.”

  “We were in Caledonia, Ohio,” Chubs said, ignoring a sharp look from Liam. “They stuck us in an abandoned elementary school. We broke out. Your turn.”

  “Why, so you can report me to the nearest PSF station?”

  “Yeah, because, clearly, we’d be able to stroll up and lodge a sighting report.”

  After a moment, I blew out a harsh breath. “Fine. I was in Thurmond.”

  The silence that followed seemed to stretch on longer than the road beneath us.

  “Are you serious?” Liam asked, finally. “Crazy Thurmond, with the FrankenKiddies?”

  “They’ve stopped testing,” I said, feeling strangely defensive.

  “No, I just—I just…” Liam raced through the words. “I thought it was all filled up, you know? That’s why they bused us to Ohio.”

  “How old were you when you went into camp?” Chubs’s voice was measured, but I saw his face fall all the same. “You were young, right?”

  The answer popped out before I could stop myself. “The day after my tenth birthday.”

  Liam blew out a low whistle, and I wondered exactly how much of Thurmond’s reputation had leaked out in the time I had been there. Who were the ones talking about it—the former PSFs assigned there?

  And, if people knew, why hadn’t anyone come to help us?

  “How long were you guys in Caledonia?”

  “Suzume was there for about two years. I was there for a year and a half, and Lee was there for a year or so.”

  “That’s…” A small, ugly voice inside my head whispered, That’s it? even as the better part of me knew full well that it didn’t matter if they had been there for one year or one day—a minute in one of those camps was enough to smash you into pieces.

  “And you’re what, sixteen? Seventeen?”

  “I don’t know,” I said, and the thought nearly knocked me back against the van. I really wasn’t sure—Sam had claimed it was six years, but she could have been wrong. We didn’t keep track of time at Thurmond in the usual way; I recognized seasons passing, but somewhere along the line I had stopped trying to mark it. I grew bigger, I knew every winter that I must be another year older, but none of it…it just hadn’t seemed to matter until now. “What year is it?”

  Chubs snorted, rolling his eyes heavenward. He opened his mouth to say something, but stopped once he got a good look at my face. I’m not sure what kind of expression I was wearing, but it erased his exasperation in two seconds flat. His narrowed eyes widened into something that looked very much like pity.

  And Liam…his expression seemed to dissolve entirely.

  I felt the hair on my neck begin to prickle, my fingers twist the fabric of my uniform shorts. The absolute last thing—the last t
hing—I wanted was to be pitied by a bunch of strangers. Regret washed down through me, flooding out even my anxiety and fear. I shouldn’t have said anything at all; I should have lied or dodged the question. Whatever they thought Thurmond was like, whatever they believed I’d gone through, it was bad enough to mark me as pathetic in their eyes. I could see it in their faces, and the irony stung more than I expected it to. They’d taken in a monster, thinking it was a mouse.

  “Sixteen, then,” I said, once Liam had confirmed the year. Sam had been right after all.

  Something else was bothering me. “They’re still creating new camps and sending kids to them?”

  “Not so much anymore,” Liam said. “The younger set—Zu’s age—they were hit the hardest. People got scared, and the birthrate dropped off even before the government tried banning new births. Most of the kids that are still being sent to camps are like us. They escaped detection during collections or tried to run.”

  I nodded, mulling this over.

  “At Thurmond,” Chubs began, “did they really—”

  “I think that’s enough,” Liam interrupted. He reached past Chubs’s outstretched arm and opened the sliding door for me again. “She answered your questions, we answered hers, and now we’ve gotta hit the road while the going is still good.”

  Zu climbed in first, and, without looking at either boy, I followed, heading to the rear seat, where I could stretch out and hide from any more unwanted questions.

  Chubs took the front passenger seat, throwing one last look back at me. His full lips were pressed so tight together they were colorless. Eventually, he turned his attention to the book in his lap and pretended that I wasn’t there at all.

  Black Betty purred as Liam hit the accelerator and my entire body vibrated with her. She was the only one willing to speak for a long time.

  The rain was still coming down, casting a gray light around the car. The windows had fogged, and for a minute I did nothing but watch the rain. Car headlights were flashing through the front windshield, but it was nowhere near dark.

  Chubs eventually turned the radio on, filling the quiet space with a report about America’s gas crisis and the drilling that was happening in Alaska as a result. If I wasn’t already halfway to sleep, the droning from the humorless newscaster would have put me there.

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