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The darkest minds, p.15
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       The Darkest Minds, p.15

         Part #1 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken

  “You should go check on Lee and Zu,” I said.

  “No, because then they’ll be all pissed off I’m not taking care of you.” After a moment he admitted, somewhat reluctantly, “Besides, you did seem to…well, you’re worse off than the rest of us, at least. They can wait.” He must have seen the corner of my mouth twitch, because he added, “But don’t think you’re going to get all the bandages—these are superficial wounds at best.”

  “Yes, sir,” I said, tossing the disinfectant wipe out of the window. He handed me a new one for my other palm, eyes still narrowed, but maybe, just maybe, softening at the edges. I felt myself relax a bit, but I wasn’t suffering under any delusion that we were about to start braiding friendship bracelets for each other.

  “Why did you lie?”

  My head shot up at his question, suddenly feeling very light. “I didn’t—what are you—I’m not—”

  “About Zu.” He glanced back over his shoulder. His voice was quiet when he continued. “You said she only knocked that guy out, but…that wasn’t the case, was it? He was killed.”

  I nodded. “She didn’t mean to—”

  “Obviously not,” he said, sharply. “I was wondering why no one was coming after us, and I got worried, knowing what it would do to her…and, well, I guess you have some common sense after all.”

  It came to me then as I looked at him—one of those rare, perfect crystallizations of understanding. He wanted me out because he saw me as a threat to them. He wouldn’t ever trust me until I proved myself otherwise—and after my slip in messing up the color of the SUV, that was likely to be half past never.

  “What’s the world with one less skip tracer, anyway?” He bent down to retrieve his briefcase again, replacing the unused supplies in it.

  That’s right, I thought, sitting up straighter. I didn’t tell them.

  “They weren’t skip tracers. They were PSFs.”

  At that, Chubs actually barked out a laugh. “And I’m guessing their uniforms were stuffed under their plaid shirts and jeans?”

  “One of them was wearing a badge,” I said. “And the orange device they were using—I saw one at Thurmond, once.” Chubs didn’t look convinced, but we didn’t have the time—and I certainly did not have the energy—to be running circles around the truth for the next hour. “Look,” I continued, “you don’t have to believe me, but you should know that one of them radioed in a Psi number—42755. That’s Liam, right?”

  I gave the story from my end and left the rest for him to fill in from his side. By the time I got to a description of the orange device, he had heard quite enough. He sucked in a deep breath, his lips drawing together to a point, until he looked more ferret than human. I held my own breath as he rolled down his window and proceeded to relate, down to the exact words, what I had just finished telling him, like he didn’t trust me to do it myself.

  “I told you the PSFs would catch up to us!” he kept repeating, like we hadn’t heard him shout it the first ten times. “We’re just lucky it wasn’t her.”

  I wondered who he meant but knew better than to ask.

  Liam ignored him and kept his back to us, still bent over the silver drinking fountain. Zu stood next to him, dutifully holding the button down so he could use both hands to scrub his face in the stream of water shooting out of it.

  I used the last of the wipes to clean the dirt off my own face. “I just want to know how that PSF recognized him, even before he used this orange thing. It flashed, but he knew the number off the top of his head. He didn’t need to wait for it to tell him that.”

  Chubs stared at me a moment, then brought a hand up to pinch the bridge of his nose. “Everyone had their photo taken when they were processed. Didn’t you?”

  I nodded. “So they put together a network for searching the photos?” I asked.

  “Green, how the hell am I supposed to know that?” he said. “Describe it to me again.”

  The orange gadget must have been some sort of a camera or scanner—that was the only explanation I could drum up that Chubs didn’t shoot down as being moronic.

  I pressed my hands against my eyes, trying to fight back the urge to vomit.

  “It’s bad news if that’s all it takes for them to ID us,” Chubs said, rubbing a hand over his forehead and smoothing out the wrinkles there. “If we weren’t already screwed—they probably know we’re looking for East River now, which means they’re going to have more patrols out, which means they’re going to be watching our families even closer, which means it’ll be even harder for the Slip Kid…”

  He never finished his train of thought. He didn’t have to.

  I let out a humorless laugh. “C’mon. They’re going to send out a whole armada for a few freaks?”

  “First of all, armadas are comprised of ships,” Chubs said. “And second, no, they wouldn’t send one out for a few freaks.”

  “Then what’s the—”

  “But they would send one out to get Lee.”

  He didn’t wait for me to piece it together.

  “Green, who do you think was the mastermind behind our camp’s breakout?”

  When the others were ready to return to the minivan, we played a silent game of musical chairs. Chubs took the middle seat on the passenger side, and Zu, her usual perch behind the driver’s seat. I had two options at that point: crawl into the rear seat or tough it out in the front seat, while trying to act like everything was all hunky-dory and pretending that Chubs hadn’t just told me Liam was responsible for what might have been the only successful camp breakout ever.

  In the end, exhaustion won out. I managed to collapse into the passenger seat feeling about as lovely as a wilted head of lettuce, just as Liam climbed into the driver’s seat.

  He grinned. “Must be tiring being the big hero.”

  I waved him off, trying to quiet the small, ridiculous buzz of happiness in my chest that came with his words. He was just trying to be nice.

  “Good thing we had the ladies there to take care of business,” he continued, turning to Chubs. “Otherwise you and I would be rolling around in the bed of a truck, halfway back to Ohio.”

  Chubs only grunted, his coloring still faintly gray.

  Liam looked a little better, at least. His face was tinged pink from the shock of cold fountain water, and his fingers still seemed to be twitching every so often, but his eyes had lost that cloudy, unfocused look. Considering it was his first time being ear-tased by the White Noise, Liam had recovered fast.

  “All right, team,” he said, slowly. “Time for a Betty vote.”

  “No!” Chubs startled back to life. “I know exactly where you’re going with this, and I know I’m going to be overruled, and I—”

  “All those in favor of letting our girl wonder stay with us for the time being, raise your hand.”

  Both Liam and Zu raised their hands immediately. Zu looked at me with a smile that seemed particularly bright next to Chubs’s glowering face.

  “We don’t know anything about her—hell, we don’t know that what she has told us is even true!” he objected. “She could be a psychopath who kills us in our sleep, or calls her League buddies in just when we let our guard down.”

  “Gee, thanks,” I said dryly, half flattered he thought I was capable of that level of scheming.

  “The longer she stays with us,” he added, “the more likely it is the League will catch up to us, and you know what they do to their kids!”

  “They won’t catch up with us,” Liam said. “We took care of that already. If we stay together, we’ll be fine.”

  “No. No, no, no, no, no,” Chubs said. “I want to register my nay vote, even though the two of you always win.”

  “Well, don’t be a bad sport about it,” Liam said. “This is democracy in action.”

  “Are you sure?” I asked.

  “Of course I am,” Liam said. “What I wasn’t okay with was the thought of dropping you off at some back-of-beyond Greyhound station with no mon
ey, no papers, and no way of knowing for sure you got where you’re going safe and sound.”

  There it was again—that smile. I pressed my hand against my chest, trying to keep things at bay. Locked inside. To keep my hand from reaching out to brush the one he had put on the armrest of my seat. It seemed so sick, so wrong, but all I wanted to do was slip inside his mind and see what he was thinking. Why he was looking at me like that.

  You really are a monster, I thought, pressing a fist tight against my stomach.

  I wanted to protect him—at that moment, it was suddenly clear to me exactly what I wanted: to protect them, all of them. They had saved me. They had saved my life and hadn’t expected a single thing in return. If the showdown with the undercover PSFs had shown me anything, it was that they needed someone like me. I could help them, protect them.

  I didn’t think I could ever begin to repay them for taking me in and letting me stay as long as I had, but if I could control myself long enough, it would be a start. It was the best I could do with what I had.

  “Where are you trying to go, anyway?” Liam tried to keep his voice casual, but his eyes had darkened, obviously troubled. “Could you even get there on a bus if you tried?”

  I told them the feeble plan I’d half-baked inside of the gas station. I fingered the ends of my long, tangled hair, and was surprised to feel some of the tightness in my chest ease up long enough for me to take a deep breath.

  “What’s in Virginia Beach?”

  “My grandmother, I think,” I said. “I hope.”

  Yes, Grams, I reminded myself. Grams was still an option. She remembered me, didn’t she? If I could help them find the Slip Kid—and if he could help me—then wasn’t there a real chance I could see her again? Live with her?

  It was a lot of ifs. If we found the Slip Kid. If he was an Orange. If he could help me figure out how to control my abilities. If he could help us contact our families.

  Once I had tapped into the vein of doubts, the rest came flooding in.

  What if Grams—the thought was crushing—had passed away? She was seventy when I was taken, which meant she’d be inching closer to eighty. I had never even considered it a possibility, because I couldn’t remember a time that she didn’t look glowing and ready to take on the world with little more than her silver hair, a neon fanny pack, and matching visor.

  But if I wasn’t the same person I had been six years ago, how could I expect her to be? If she was alive, how could I ask her to take care of her freak granddaughter—protect me and hide me—when there was a chance she couldn’t take care of herself?

  It was too much to think about now, too much to consider and agonize over in a logical way. My brain was still thrumming from the effects of the White Noise, but my weak heart made the choice easy for me.

  “All right,” I said. “I’ll stay.”

  And hope that none of us regret it.

  The deep wrinkle that had appeared between Liam’s brows eased but didn’t disappear. I knew he was studying me, his light eyes flicking over my face. Trying to figure out, maybe, why I had hesitated so long to agree. Whatever conclusion he came to made him sit back with a sigh and adjust the mirrors in silence.

  Liam had the kind of face that you could read and instantly know what he was thinking—it made it easy to trust that whatever he was saying was true. But there was a practiced quality to his expression now, an intense concentration to keep his face blank. It looked unnatural on someone who seemed to always have a grin tucked in the corner of his mouth. I leaned back, trying to ignore the throbbing in my head and the pitiful dying animal noises coming from Chubs once he remembered how much pain he was in.

  Liam silently passed him a half-empty water bottle from under the driver’s seat. I glanced back at Zu out of the corner of my eye, but the twilight had lulled her to sleep. A thin sheen of sweat coated her forehead and the skin above her lips.

  The car rumbled back to life. Liam exhaled as he cut a diagonal path through the parking lot. He didn’t seem to know which direction to turn when we finally found the road.

  “Where are we going?” I asked.

  He was silent for a moment, scratching his chin. “We’re still headed to Virginia, if I can find it. I think we crossed the state line a while back, but I don’t know where we landed. Not too familiar with this area, to be honest.”

  “Use the damn map,” Chubs groused behind him.

  “I can figure it out without it,” Liam insisted. He kept swiveling his head back and forth, like he expected someone to appear and guide him in the right direction with road flares and fanfare.

  Five minutes later, the map was spread out over the steering wheel, and Chubs was gloating in the backseat. I leaned over the armrest, trying to make sense of the pastel colors and crisscrossing lines on the flimsy, ripped paper.

  Liam pointed out the boundaries of West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina.

  “I think we’re about…here?” He pointed to a tiny dot that was surrounded by a rainbow of crisscrossed lines.

  “I don’t suppose Black Betty has GPS?” I said.

  Liam blew out a sigh, patting the steering wheel. He had decided we were going right. “Black Betty may drive the straight and true path, but souped up, she is not.”

  “I told you we should have taken that Ford SUV,” Chubs said.

  “That piece of—” Liam caught himself. “That box on wheels was a death trap—not to mention its transmission was shot to hell.”

  “So, naturally, the next choice was a minivan.”

  “Yep, she called to me from the parking lot of abandoned cars. The sun was shining through her windows like a beacon of hope.”

  Chubs groaned. “Why are you so weird?”

  “Because my weird has to be able to cancel out your weird, Lady Cross-stitch.”

  “At least what I do is considered an art form,” Chubs said.

  “Yes, in ye olde medieval Europe you would’ve been quite the catch—”

  “Anyway,” I cut in, now in full possession of the map, “we have to be close to Winchester.” I pointed to a dot on the western end of Virginia.

  “What makes you say that?” Liam began. “Are you from this area? Because if—”

  “I’m not. I just remember driving past Keyser and Romney while the two of you were out. And with all the Civil War Trails signs, we should be near one of the battlefields.”

  “Those are some good detective skills, Nancy Drew, but, unfortunately, those signs pretty much mean nothing in this part of the country,” Liam said. “You can barely go fifty feet without hitting a historical marker for the place this army crossed, or that guy died, or where James Madison lived—”

  “That’s in Orange,” I interrupted. “We’re nowhere near that.”

  The soft blue light of evening gathered around his blond hair, stripping it of color. He studied me for a minute, scratching his chin again. “So you are from Virginia, then.”

  “I’m not—”

  He held up a hand. “Please. No one outside of this state gives a crap about where James Madison’s house is.”

  I sat back. Walked right into that one.

  It was my mom’s fault. As a high school history teacher, it had been her personal mission to cart Dad and me around to every major historical site in the area. So while my friends got to have pool parties and sleepovers, I got to walk around one battlefield after another, posing for pictures with cannons and Colonial reenactors. Fun times, made even more fun by the thousands of bug bites and peeling sunburns I always showed up with on the first day of school. I still had scars from Antietam.

  Liam smiled at the dark road, keeping the minivan’s headlights off. I thought it was fairly brave—or stupid—considering the commonwealth of Virginia had never considered it a priority to install lights on its highways and roads.

  “I think we should stop for the night,” Chubs said. “Are you going to find a park?”

  “Relax, buddy; I got this,” Liam

  “You keep saying that,” Chubs muttered, sitting back, “and then it’s, Oh, sorry team, let’s huddle together for warmth, while the bears try to break in and eat our food.”

  “Yeah…sorry about that,” Liam said. “But hey, what’s life without a little adversity?”

  That had to have been the fakest attempt at optimism since my fourth grade teacher tried reasoning that we were better off without the dead kids in our class because it’d mean more turns on the playground swings for the rest of us.

  I lost track of their conversation after that. It wasn’t that I had no interest in hearing all about the bizarre traditions and habits they’d managed to form in the two weeks since escaping their camp; I was exhausted with trying to figure out why, exactly, those two were able to cling to the thin thread that bound their friendship together.

  Eventually Liam found Highway 81, and Chubs found a shallow, restless sleep. The endless stream of old trees, only a few fully dressed for spring, passed by my window. We were going too fast, and we were too far into twilight, for me to make out the patchwork of leaves that had grown in. Wherever we were, there were still traces of the dead leaves from the fall before staining the highway’s cement. Almost as though we were the first car to drive the road in quite some time.

  I leaned my forehead against the cool glass, reaching over to point the AC vent directly at my face. My headache was still there, pinching the space behind my eyes. The freezing air would help keep me awake, and, if nothing else, alert enough to catch my mind blindly groping for Liam’s.

  “You okay?”

  He was trying to watch both the road and me. In the dark, I couldn’t do much else besides make out the curve of his nose and lips. A part of me was glad I couldn’t see the bruises and cuts there. It had only been a few days, a blink in my collective sixteen years of life, but I didn’t need to see his face to know soft concern would be there. Liam was a great many things, but mysterious and unpredictable weren’t included in that deck of cards.

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