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The darkest minds, p.13
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       The Darkest Minds, p.13

         Part #1 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken
 

  “Oh,” I said. “Oh! You mean your group had lice?”

  She nodded.

  “Yikes,” I said. It made sense, but it still didn’t explain why she couldn’t open her mouth and answer me. “I’m so sorry.”

  Zu lifted a shoulder in a half-hearted shrug, then turned and bounded up into the nearest RV.

  The door wobbled and protested as I followed her in, squealing as its hinges worked. Zu made a face, and I made one back at her in agreement. The whole home smelled sweet, but…not pleasant. Almost like rotten fruit.

  I started in the small, central living space, opening and closing the pale cabinet doors. The seat cushions were done up in an obnoxiously bright purple, but they, like the small TV hanging on the wall across from them, were coated with dust and dirt. The only thing out on the counter was a single coffee mug. The back sleeping area was equally spare—a few cushions, a lamp, and a closet with a red dress, a white button-down shirt, and a whole fleet of empty hangers.

  I had only just reached for the shirt when I saw it at the edge of my vision.

  Someone had attached it to the RV’s windshield in place of a rearview mirror. It was nothing that would have seemed odd from the outside, looking in, or drawn attention unless you were really, truly staring at it. But inside, standing only a few feet away from it, I was close enough to see the red light at the base of it, close enough to see that camera inside was pointed toward everything and everyone that passed by on the road in front of it.

  And if I could see Betty from where I was, so could it.

  The camera’s shape was slightly different from the ones they had at Thurmond, but close enough to make me think the same people were behind it. I looked down at Zu and she looked up at me.

  “Stay right here,” I said, reaching for the coffeepot on the table.

  I crossed the RV in three steps, the coffeepot out in front of me like a sword. I kicked aside a few empty boxes and trash, and saw, mixed in with the litter of plastic bags, a small red glove. Too small for any adult’s hand.

  I didn’t realize the pot was still in my hand until I brought it down against the device and smashed it. The cheap glass body broke off and fell to the ground, leaving me holding its handle. The black bulb stayed perched exactly where it was, only now, the camera’s eye rotated to face me.

  It’s on, I thought through the haze of panic, searching for something else to smash it with. It’s recording.

  I didn’t remember calling for her, but Zu appeared at my side in an instant, stuffing something under the front of her oversized sweatshirt. She must have recognized it, too, because before I could even get another word in, she was pulling off one of her yellow rubber gloves and reaching toward it.

  “Don’t—!”

  I’d never seen a Yellow use their abilities before. I’d suffered the aftereffects, of course—power outages across the camp, White Noise when the camp controllers thought one of them had done it on purpose. But they had been gone so long at Thurmond that I had stopped trying to imagine what it must have been like for them to speak the mysterious language of electricity.

  Zu’s fingers had only brushed against it, but the camera began to let out a high-pitched whine. There was a bolt of white-blue that seemed to leap from her bare finger to the camera’s outer shell. That same crackling line whipped down over the plastic, causing it to smoke and warp under its heat.

  Without warning, all of the lights in the RV flashed on, glowing so molten hot that they shattered. The vehicle began to cough and sputter, shaking under our feet, as its engine found itself miraculously revived after a long sleep.

  Zu jammed her hand back into its glove and crossed her arms over her chest. She squeezed her eyes shut, as if willing it all to stop. But we didn’t have time to wait around and see if it would. I moved toward the door, grabbing the front of her sweatshirt to all but drag her out of the RV. She was still stumbling as I pulled her around to the end that faced the road, and Black Betty.

  “Come on,” I said, not letting her slow. The brightness was gone from her face, blown out like a candle. “It’s okay,” I lied. “We just need to get the others.”

  There was a camera installed in the front windshield of every trailer in that front row; I spotted them one by one as we ran back toward Betty. There was no point trying to get rid of them now. Whoever was going to see us had likely already seen us. We just had to get out of there, and fast.

  They could be old, I tried telling myself, throwing Betty’s door open. They could have been installed years ago, in case of robberies. Who knew where the video they recorded was being sent? Maybe nowhere at all.

  And at the same time, my heart was beating out a completely different track. They’re coming, they’re coming, they’re coming.

  I thought about yelling for the others, but they could have been anywhere in the park. I climbed into the van after Zu and did the only other thing that seemed to made sense in that moment: I banged the heel of my palm against the wheel. The high whine of Betty’s horn shook the sleepy landscape awake. A cluster of birds flew up from the nearby trees, hitting the sky at the same moment I began beating out a faster, more insistent rhythm.

  Chubs appeared first, booking it down one aisle of RVs, and Liam a second later, a few rows over. When they saw that it was still just us, they both slowed down. An annoyed look crossed Chubs’s face.

  I leaned out of the open driver’s side window and shouted, “We have to go—now!”

  Liam said something to Chubs that I didn’t hear, but they did as they were told. I stayed crouched between the two front seats as they boys jumped inside.

  “What?” Liam was almost out of breath. “What’s wrong?”

  I pointed to the nearest trailer. “They have cameras installed,” my voice rasped. “In every one of them.”

  Chubs sucked in a sharp breath.

  “You’re sure?” Liam’s voice was calm—too calm. I could tell he was forcing it, even as his fingers fumbled to put the keys in the ignition.

  The van’s back tires spun against the mud as he threw it into reverse. I went tumbling on to my backside with the force of his acceleration.

  “Oh my God,” Chubs was saying, “I can’t believe it. We got Hansel and Greteled. Oh my God—do you think it was her?”

  “No,” Liam said. “No. She’s sneaky for a skip tracer, but this—this is something else.”

  “They could have been there for a while,” I said, just as we found the highway again. It was empty and open in front of us, a gaping mouth ready to swallow us whole. “They could have been spying on the people that lived there. Maybe that really was East River.…”

  Or it was just a trap, for kids looking for the real East River.

  Liam propped his elbow against the door panel and his chin against his palm. When he spoke, the hundreds of snaking cracks in the windshield cut up his reflection. He pushed the minivan up into a faster speed, causing the wind to whistle through the bullet hole. “Just keep your eyes open and let me know if you see anyone or anything acting suspect.”

  Define suspect. The rows of shuttered houses? A shot-up minivan?

  “I knew we should have waited until it was dark,” Chubs said, tapping his fingers against the passenger seat window. “I knew it. If those cameras were on, they probably got the license plate number and everything.”

  “I’ll take care of the plates,” Liam promised.

  Chubs’s lips parted, but he said nothing, only resting his head against the window.

  “Should I be looking for PSFs?” I asked, as we drove over another railroad track.

  “Worse.” Chubs sighed. “Skip tracers. Bounty hunters.”

  “The PSFs are stretched pretty thin, by all accounts,” Liam explained. “Same with the National Guard and what’s left of the local police. I don’t know that they’d send a unit all the way out here on a tip. And unless they just so happen to have a resident bounty hunter in this neck of the woods, we’re going to be fine.”
r />   Those were famous last words if I had ever heard them.

  “The reward for turning in a kid is ten thousand dollars.” Chubs twisted around to look at me. “And the whole country is broke as a joke. We are not going to be fine.”

  I heard a train in the distance, its horn so similar to the ones that had passed by Thurmond at all hours of the night. It was enough for me to dig my fingernails into the skin of my thighs and squeeze my eyes shut until the nausea passed. I didn’t even realize the conversation had rolled on without me until I heard Liam ask, “You okay, Green?”

  I reached up and wiped my face, wondering if the wetness there was from the rain, or if I’d been crying without realizing it. I didn’t say anything as I crawled to the rear seat. I didn’t jump into their conversation about where they would need to look next for East River, though I wanted to. There were hundreds, thousands, millions of places the Slip Kid could have set up camp, and I wanted to help them puzzle it out. I wanted to be part of it.

  But I couldn’t ask, and I needed to stop lying to myself. Because every second I stayed with them was another chance for them to discover that skip tracers and PSFs weren’t the real monsters of the world. No. One of the real ones was sitting in their backseat.

  For once, the music was off.

  It was the silence from the speakers that unnerved me, more than the deserted roads or the empty shells of repossessed houses. Liam was a constant stream of motion. Looking around the abandoned small towns we drove through, glancing at the gas level, fiddling with the turn signal, fingers dancing on the steering wheel. At one point, his eyes flashed toward mine in the rearview mirror. It was just for an instant, but I felt the small twinge in my stomach as sharply as I would have if he had taken a soft finger and run it down the length of my open palm.

  My face was flushed, but something inside of me had gone very cold. It had been half a second, no more, but it was plenty long enough to notice the way his eyes had darkened with something that might have been frustration.

  Chubs was in the front seat folding and unfolding something in his lap, over and over again, almost like he didn’t realize he was doing it.

  “Will you cut that out?” Liam burst out, agitated. “You’ll rip it.”

  Chubs stopped immediately. “Can’t we just…try? Do we need the Slip Kid for this?”

  “Do you really want to risk it?”

  “Jack would have.”

  “Right, but Jack…” Liam’s voice trailed off. “Let’s just play it safe. He’ll help us when we get there.”

  “If we get there,” Chubs huffed.

  “Jack?” I didn’t realize I had said it aloud until Liam’s eyes looked up at me in the rearview mirror.

  “It’s none of your business,” Chubs said, and left it at that.

  Liam was only a little more forthcoming. “He was our friend—in our room at camp, I mean. We’re trying…we’re just trying to get in touch with his dad. It’s one of the reasons we need to hit up the Slip Kid.”

  I nodded toward the sheet of paper. “But before you guys broke out, he wrote a letter?”

  “The three of us each did,” Liam said. “In case one of us backed out at the last minute and didn’t want to come or…didn’t make it out.”

  “Which Jack did not.” Chubs’s voice could have cut steel. Behind him, house after gorgeous colonial house passed in rapid-fire succession, their colors winking at us through her window.

  “Anyway.” Liam cleared his throat. “We’re trying to put his letter in his dad’s hands. We tried going to the address Jack gave us, but the house had been repossessed. He left a note saying he was going to D.C. for work, but no new address or phone number. That’s why we need the Slip Kid’s help—to find where he is now.”

  “You can’t just mail it?”

  “They started scanning mail for this exact reason about two years after you went to Thurmond,” Liam explained. “The government reads all, speaks all, and writes all. They’ve crafted a lovely little story about how we’re all being saved and reprogrammed back into sweet little darlings at camp, and they don’t want anyone to get wind of the truth.”

  I honestly had no idea what to say to that.

  “Sorry,” I mumbled. “I didn’t mean to give you a shakedown about it.”

  “It’s okay,” Liam said, after the silence had stretched to the point of breaking. “It’s fine.”

  There wasn’t a way to explain how I knew. Maybe it was the way Liam’s hands tightened on the steering wheel, or how he kept glancing in his side mirror throughout the conversation, long after a silver car had passed us from the other direction. It could have been the way his shoulders sagged, sloping down in a way that was so defeated. I just knew, long before I caught his worried eyes in the rearview mirror.

  Slowly, without disturbing Zu and Chubs as they watched an endless stream of forest pass by the side windows, I crouched between the two front seats again.

  Liam met my gaze for a split second, nodding in the direction of his side mirror. See for yourself, he seemed to say. So I did.

  Trailing behind us, back about two car lengths, was an old white pickup truck. With the rain fogging up the air between the two cars, I couldn’t tell if there were one or two men inside. They looked like little more than two black ants from where I was sitting.

  “Interesting,” I said, keeping my voice even.

  “Yep,” he said, his jaw clenched. The muscles of his neck strained. “Gotta love West Virginia. Glorious Mountain State. Land O’Many John Denver Songs.”

  “Maybe…” I began slowly, “you should pull over and look at a map?”

  It was one way of feeling out the situation. Liam was about to turn onto George Washington Highway—slightly wider than the twisting road we were leaving. If the truck was following us, they wouldn’t be able to stop without revealing it. In any case, whoever was driving the truck wasn’t being aggressive about it. If he was a bounty hunter, as Liam apparently thought, they were probably feeling us out, too.

  We continued up Gorman Road, following its natural curve. Black Betty slowed in anticipation of the upcoming turn. Liam hesitated half a second before flipping his turn signal on. I looked in the mirror, my heart lifting when I saw the truck turn its other blinker on. They were turning right. We were going left.

  Liam blew out a long sigh, finally sitting back against his seat as the minivan reached the intersection of the highway and the road. There was another car turning off the highway, a small silver Volkswagen; both Liam and I threw up a hand to block the intense glint of the sun against its windows.

  “Okay, Old Man River.” Liam gave the car an impatient wave. “Go ahead and turn before the next century. No, take your time, shave, contemplate the universe…”

  Lynyrd Skynyrd was blasting through the pickup truck’s open windows as it pulled up alongside us, creaking and groaning in the way all old cars seem to do. “Free Bird.” Of course. It had to be Dad’s favorite. Two seconds into the damn song, and it was like I was back in the front seat of his squad car, cruising around town. That was the only time I got to listen to the good music—when it was just the two of us, cruising. Mom hated the stuff.

  A laugh bubbled up inside of me as I watched the driver bob his head in time with the music. He howled the words at the top of his lungs, exhaling each lyric with a puff of cigarette smoke.

  And then it was replaced by a different sound—a shriek of sorts. I looked up just in time to see the Volkswagen slam on its brakes right in front of us, jolting to a stop and sending another blinding glare of sunlight our way.

  “You have got to be kidding me!” Liam made as if to press his hand down on the horn, but not before the driver of the Volkswagen rolled down his window and pointed something black and gleaming at us.

  No. The world went into sharp focus. Sound evaporated around me. NO.

  I reached up and slapped Black Betty’s radio button on, turning it up as loud as it would go. Liam and Chubs both started yellin
g, but I knocked Liam’s hand away before he could switch it off.

  The White Noise cut straight through the music from the speakers, tearing at our ears. Not as loud or as powerful as I was used to, and not even close to as bad as it had been last time, but still there, still agonizing. My radio trick couldn’t drown it out, not completely.

  The others crumbled around me, shriveling at the first piercing shriek.

  Liam fell forward against the wheel, mashing his hands up against his ears. Chubs knocked his head into the passenger seat window, as if trying to ram the noise out of his head. I felt Black Betty began to drift forward, only to jerk to a stop when Liam hit the brakes instead of the gas.

  The door opened beside me, and a pair of arms circled Chubs’s waist, trying to untangle him from the seat belt. I pulled myself up off the floor and lashed a hand out, catching the man’s cheek and raking my fingernails down as hard as I could. It was enough to startle the truck driver, the same one that had been nodding his head to “Free Bird” two seconds before, into dropping Chubs. He was left half hanging in his seat, half hanging out.

  The driver stumbled back against the bed of his truck, his words drowned out by the thunderstorm of noise that had settled over the three cars. It was only then that I saw the badge hanging around his neck on a silver cord, and the bright red Ψ stitched there. They weren’t skip tracers.

  Psi. PSF. Camp. Thurmond. Capture.

  The man from the Volkswagen had opened the driver’s side door of the van and was trying to unhook Liam’s seat belt. He wasn’t large in any sense of the word—he looked like he could have been an accountant, with thick glasses and hunched shoulders from spending too many hours at a desk. But he didn’t need strength, not when he was holding the black megaphone in his hands.

  Some of the PSFs at Thurmond carried the noise machines around with them, blasting them at small, rowdy groups, or just to see a few kids squirm. What did they care? They couldn’t hear it.

 
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