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The darkest minds, p.12
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       The Darkest Minds, p.12

         Part #1 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken

  “Hey, Green,” Liam called back. “You have a last name?”

  I thought about lying, about making myself into someone that I wasn’t, but it didn’t seem right. Even if I let these people in, they’d forget about me soon enough.

  “No,” I said. I had a Psi number and the name I’d inherited from my grandmother. The rest didn’t matter.

  Liam turned back to the road, his fingers drumming on the steering wheel. “Got it.”

  I dropped back down on the seat, pressing my hands against my face. Sleep came for me eventually, just as the storm clouds peeled back to reveal a pristine night sky. Without the sound of rain, I could just make out the quiet song floating from the car speakers, and Liam’s deep voice as he sang along.


  CHUBS WAS THE ONE TO WAKE ME. It was a quick slap to my shoulder, like he couldn’t bring himself to touch it long enough to put the effort into shaking me, but it was enough. I had been curled like a shrimp on one of the cramped seats, but at his touch, I bolted out of it, knocking my head against the window. I felt its cold touch on the back of my neck as I all but tumbled in the narrow space between the front seat and mine. For a single, foggy instant, I couldn’t remember where I was, never mind how I had gotten there.

  Chubs’s face crossed back into my line of sight, one eyebrow arched at my tangle of limbs. And then it all came back to me, like a punch to the throat.

  Damn it, damn it, damn it, I thought, trying to smooth my dark hair out of my face. I had only meant to rest my eyes for a few minutes—and who knows how long I’d been conked out? Judging by Chubs’s expression, it hadn’t been a short nap.

  “Don’t you think you’ve slept long enough?” he huffed, crossing his arms over his chest. The van felt warmer, and I didn’t realize why until I sat up and saw the dark blue fabric that had been strung up to cover the rear windshield.

  The reality of the situation struck me at once, with a sharp twist in my side. I’d left myself wide open in a van of strangers—so wide open, in fact, that Chubs had been able to put a hand on me. God, I didn’t know which of us had come out luckier in the end—him, for not having his brain wiped clean, or me for avoiding yet another potential disaster. How stupid could I be? The second they knew what I was, they’d throw me out, and then where would I be? Speaking of which…

  “Where are we?” I pulled myself back up into the seat. “Where are the others?”

  Chubs sat in one of the middle seats, dividing his time between the book in his lap and the world of trees just outside the tinted car window. I moved, trying to follow his gaze, but there was nothing to see.

  “Somewhere near the lovely city of Kingwood, West Virginia. Lee and Suzume are checking something out,” he said.

  I had leaned forward without realizing it, trying to see what he was reading. It’d been years since I’d even seen a book, let alone read from one. Chubs wasn’t having it, though. The moment my shoulder brushed his, he snapped the book shut and turned to give me the nastiest stink eye he could muster. Even with his too-small glasses and my knowledge of his little fancy lady kit under the front seat, I reminded myself there was a distinct possibility he was capable of killing me with his brain.

  “How long did I sleep?”

  “A day,” Chubs said. “The general wants you up and ready to report to duty. He’s in one of his go-go-go moods. You may only be a Green, but he’s expecting you to help.”

  I chose my next words carefully, ignoring the smug look on his face. Let him think that if it made him feel better. He was smarter; there was no debate about that. He probably had years of education on me, had read hundreds more books, and could remember enough math to actually be useful. But as small and stupid as he made me feel, there was no ignoring the fact that all it would take is one touch, and I could have read him the contents of his brain.

  “Liam’s a Blue, right?” I began. “Are you and Zu both Blue, too?”

  “No.” He frowned, and it took him several moments to decide whether or not to reveal his next bit of information. “Suzume’s Yellow.”

  I sat up a little straighter. “You had Yellows at your camp?”

  Chubs grunted. “No Green, I just lied to you—yes, we had Yellows.”

  But that didn’t make sense—after all, if they took the Yellows out of Thurmond, why wouldn’t they have taken them from all the camps?

  “Did…” I began, unsure of how to ask this. When she first pulled me into the van, I thought she was just shy and skittish around strangers. But I hadn’t heard her utter a single word in the entire time I had been with them. Not to me, not to Chubs—not even to Liam. “Did they…do something to the Yellows? To her?”

  The only way the van’s atmosphere could have electrified faster was if I had thrown a live wire into a full bathtub.

  Chubs turned toward me sharply, drawing his arms up, crossing them in front of his chest. The look he leveled at me over his glasses would have turned a weaker soul to stone.

  “That,” he said slowly—precisely, I thought, to make sure I understood, “is absolutely none of your business.”

  I held up my hands, retreating.

  “Were you even thinking about what could happen to her when you followed her?” he pressed on. “Do you even care that your friends in the green SUV would have gladly scooped her up?”

  “The people in the green SUV—” I began, and would have finished, had the door not suddenly rolled open behind us. Chubs let out a noise that could only be described as a squawk and just about flew into the front passenger seat. By the time he had settled himself down, his eyes were almost as wide as Zu’s, who stood watching him from the door.

  “Don’t do that!” he gasped, clutching his chest. “Give us a little warning, will you?”

  Zu raised an eyebrow in my direction, and I raised one right back at her. After a moment, she seemed to remember the reason she had come and began waving us outside, her bright, sunny-color glove flashing.

  Chubs unbuckled his seat belt with an aggravated sigh. “I told him this was a waste of time. They said Virginia, not West Virginia.” He turned his gaze back toward me. “By the way,” he added, “that SUV was tan. That’s some photographic memory you have.”

  An excuse leaped to my throat, but he cut me off with a knowing look, and slammed the door behind him.

  I jumped out of the van and followed Zu. As my feet sunk into the mud and sad, yellowed grass, I had my first good look around.

  A large wooden sign, leaning back like someone had nearly run it over, said EAST RIVER CAMPING GROUNDS, but there was no river, and it certainly wasn’t your typical camping ground. If anything, it was—or once was—an old trailer and RV park.

  The farther we walked from the minivan, the more nervous I felt. It wasn’t raining, but my skin felt clammy and cold to the touch. All around us, as far as my eyes could see, were the burned-out silver and white husks of former homes and vehicles. Several of the larger, more permanent trailers had entire walls ripped or charred away, revealing kitchens and living rooms with their insides still intact, if not waterlogged and infested with animals and slowly rotting leaves from the nearby trees. It was like a mass grave of past lives.

  Even though screen doors had been ripped off or warped, even though some RVs knelt on whatever tires had been slashed, there were still signs of life all around. Walls were decorated with pictures of happy and smiling families, a grandfather clock was still counting time, pots were still on stoves, a small swing set remained undisturbed and lonely on the far end of the grounds.

  Zu and I navigated around an RV that was now on its side, following a path of deep footsteps in the mud. I took one look at the RV’s rusted bones and immediately turned away, my hand tightening around Zu’s gloves. She looked up at me with a questioning look, but I only shook my head and said, “Spooky.”

  When the rain came, it hammered against the metal bodies around us, rattling a few of the weaker roofs and screens. I jumped back with a yelp when a tr
ailer’s door fell into our path. Zu only jumped over it and pointed ahead, to where Chubs and Liam were locked in conversation.

  It had taken me a second to recognize Liam. Under his jacket, he wore a blue sweatshirt with the hood pulled up over what looked like a Redskins hat. I had no idea where he managed to find them, but a pair of aviator sunglasses obscured a good portion of his face from view.

  “—isn’t it,” Chubs said. “I told you.”

  “They said it was at the east edge of the state,” Liam insisted. “And they could have meant West Virginia—”

  “Or they could have been screwing with us,” Chubs finished for him. He must have heard us approaching, because he jumped and turned around. The moment he locked eyes with me, he scowled.

  “Mornin’, sunshine!” Liam called. “Sleep okay?”

  Zu darted out ahead of me, but I could feel my feet begin to drag with an invisible weight as I came toward them. I crossed my arms over my chest, steadying myself enough to ask, “What is this place?”

  This time, it was Liam who blew out a sigh. “Well, we were hoping it was East River. The East River, I mean.”

  “That’s in Virginia,” I said, looking down at my shoes. “The peninsula. It empties into the Chesapeake Bay.”

  “Thank you Detective Duh.” Chubs shook his head. “We’re talking about the Slip Kid’s East River.”

  “Hey.” Liam’s voice was sharp. “Lay off, buddy. We really didn’t know anything about it until we were out of camp, either.”

  Chubs crossed his arms over his chest and looked away. “Whatever.”

  “What is it?”

  I felt Liam turn his attention back to me, which immediately prompted me to turn my attention back to Zu, who mostly just looked confused. Get a grip, I ordered myself, stop it.

  I wasn’t afraid of them, not even Chubs. Maybe a bit when I thought too hard about how easily I could ruin their lives, or pictured their horrified reactions if they were to figure out what, exactly, I was. I just didn’t know what to say or how to act around them. Every movement and word on my part felt uncomfortable, shrill, or sharp, and I was beginning to worry that the feelings of hesitancy and awkwardness were never going to lift. I already felt like the freak of freaks without the added realization that I lacked the basic ability of communicating normally with other human beings.

  Liam sighed, scratching the back of his head. “We first heard about East River from some kids in our camp. Supposedly—and I mean supposedly—it’s a place where any kids on the outside can go and live together. The Slip Kid, who runs the show, can get you in touch with your folks without the PSFs finding out about it. There’s food, a place to sleep—well, you get the picture. The problem is finding it. We think it’s somewhere in this area, thanks to a few fairly unhelpful Blues we ran across in Ohio. It’s the kind of thing that…”

  “If you’re in the know, you’re not supposed to talk about it,” I finished. “But who’s the Slip Kid?”

  Liam shrugged. “No one knows. Or…well, I guess people know, they just don’t say. The rumors about him are pretty incredible, though. The PSFs gave him that nickname because he—supposedly—escaped their custody a good four times.”

  I was too stunned to say anything to that.

  “Kind of puts the rest of us to shame, huh? I was feeling really bad about myself until someone told me the rumors about him.” Liam shuddered. “Supposedly he’s one of those—an Orange.”

  That single word thundered down around me, freezing me in place. Liam went on to say something else, with a lot less disgust, but I couldn’t hear him over the roar in my ears. I didn’t hear a word of what he was saying.

  Slip Kid. Someone who could help kids get home, if they had a home to return to, and parents who remembered them and wanted them. A life to reclaim.

  And, potentially, one of the last Orange kids out there.

  I squeezed my eyes shut, pressing the heels of my palms against them for good measure. I didn’t qualify for his help, not in the traditional way. Even if I could get in touch with my parents, it wasn’t like they would welcome a girl they considered a stranger back with open arms. There was Grams, but I had no way of knowing where she was now. After finding out what I had done, would she even want me?

  “Why do you even need this guy’s help?” I interrupted, still feeling light-headed. “Can’t you just go home?”

  “Use your brain, Green,” Chubs said. “We can’t go home, because PSFs are probably watching our parents.”

  Liam shook his head, finally taking his sunglasses off. He looked exhausted, the skin under his eyes baggy and bruised. “You’ll have to be really careful, okay? Do you even want me to drop you off at a bus station? Because we’d be happy—”

  “No!” Chubs said. “We most certainly would not. We’ve already wasted enough time on her, and she’s the reason we have the League after us, too.”

  A sharp pain sprouted on the left side of my chest, just above my heart. He was right, of course. The best option for everyone would be to drop me off at the nearest bus station and be done with it.

  But it didn’t mean I didn’t want to, or need to, find this Slip Kid as badly as they did. But I couldn’t ask to stay. I couldn’t impose on them anymore than I already had, or risk ruining them with the invisible fingers that seemed bent on tearing apart every single connection I managed to make. If the League caught up to us and took them in, I’d never forgive myself. Never.

  If I was going to find the Slip Kid, I was going to have to do it by myself. You’d think I’d be used to the thought of taking on each day with no one beside me, that it’d be some kind of relief not to be in constant danger of sliding into someone else’s head. But I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to step out under the gray overcast sky alone and feel its chill work its way under my skin.

  “So,” I said, squinting at the nearest trailer. “This isn’t East River.”

  “It might have been, once,” Liam said. “They could move around from time to time. I hadn’t really considered it.”

  “Or,” Chubs groused, “they could have already been taken back into PSF custody. Maybe this was East River, and now there is no more East River, and we’re going to have to find a way to deliver Jack’s letter and get home by ourselves, only we won’t ever, because of the skip tracers, and we’ll all be thrown back into camp, only this time they’ll—”

  “Thank you, Chuckles,” Liam cut in, “for that rousing burst of optimism.”

  “I could be right,” he said. “You have to acknowledge that.”

  “But you could also be wrong,” Liam said, dropping a reassuring hand on Zu’s head. “In any case, that’s what we’re going with now: this was just a false alarm. Let’s see if we can find anything useful, then we’ll hit the road.”

  “Finally. I’m sick of wasting time on things that don’t matter.” Chubs shoved his hands into his trouser pockets and stalked toward me. If I hadn’t jumped out of the way, his shoulder would have knocked into mine and sent me stumbling back.

  I turned, my eyes following his path as he kicked rubbish and rocks out of his way. Liam was suddenly standing next to me, his own arms crossed over his chest.

  “Don’t take it personally,” he said. I must have made a sound of disbelief, because he continued. “I mean…okay, the kid is basically a grumpy seventy-year-old man trapped in a seventeen-year-old’s body, but he’s only being this insufferable to try to push you out.”

  Yeah, well, I thought, it’s working.

  “And I know it’s not an excuse, but he’s as stressed and freaked out as the rest of us and—I guess what I’m trying to say is, all of this acid he’s throwing your way? It’s coming from a good place. If you stick it out, I swear you won’t find a more loyal friend. But he’s scared as hell about what’ll happen, especially to Zu, if we’re caught again.”

  I looked up at that, but Liam was already walking away toward a far row of battered trailers. For one crazy second I thought about foll
owing him, but I’d caught Zu out of the corner of my eye, her bright yellow gloves swinging at her sides. She jumped in and out of the trailers, stood on her toes to peer into the smashed windows of the RVs, and even, at one point, started to crawl into wreckage of an RV that looked like it had been split in half by a tornado. The metal roof, which was hanging on by what looked like two flimsy joints, was swaying and bouncing under the combined forces of rain and wind.

  Although she had the hood of her oversized sweatshirt pulled snug over her head, I watched as one of Zu’s gloved hands came up and brushed the side of her face—as if she was pushing a strand of hair out of her eyes. It didn’t strike me as strange until she did it again, only to pale slightly as she caught herself.

  The conversation I had tried to have with Chubs in the van came crashing back to me.

  “Hey, Zu…” I began, only to stop short. How were you supposed to ask a little kid if someone had played slice and dice with her brain without trampling over an already painful memory?

  The truth of it was, they only shaved kids’ heads at Thurmond when they wanted to do some poking around inside of their skulls; they had all but stopped by the time I arrived, but it had taken a while for the older kids’ hair to grow back out. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I had wondered if this wasn’t the case with her after all—if the reason she couldn’t speak was because they had crossed a few wires they shouldn’t have, or gone a step too far in the name of finding a “cure.”

  “Why did they cut your hair?” I asked, finally.

  I knew plenty of girls that would have preferred shorter hair—myself included—but aside from an annual haircut for the girls, we didn’t have much say in the matter. The way that Zu seemed to stroke her ghost hair made me think she hadn’t had much say, either.

  If she had been upset by my question, she didn’t show it. Zu brought her hands up to her head and began to scrub at it, making a face of acute discomfort. Seeing that I wasn’t getting it, she slipped one hand out of its glove and went to work scratching at her scalp.

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