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The darkest minds, p.16
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       The Darkest Minds, p.16

         Part #1 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken
 

  “Are you okay?” I countered.

  The car was quiet enough for me to hear his fingers drumming on the steering wheel. “Just need to sleep it off, I think.” Then, after a moment, he added, “Did they really use that on you at Thurmond? A lot?”

  Not a lot, but enough. I couldn’t tell him that, though, without fanning the flames of his pity.

  “Do you think the PSFs figured out where you’re going?” I asked instead.

  “Maybe. We could have just been at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

  Chubs woke behind us with a loud yawn.

  “Not likely,” he said sleepily. “Even if they weren’t intentionally tracking us, I’m sure they are now. They were probably forced to memorize your ugly mug and Psi number. We already know you’re a tasty treat for the skip tracers”

  “Thank you Mr. Sunshine and Smiles,” Liam gritted out.

  “For what it’s worth, the guy seemed surprised that it was actually you,” I said. “But…who is this person you keep talking about? The woman?”

  “Lady Jane,” Liam said, as if that explained everything.

  “Excuse me?”

  “It’s what we call one of the more…persistent skip tracers,” he continued.

  “First, it’s what you call her,” Chubs said. “And second, persistent? Try she’s been on us like a shadow ever since we got out of Caledonia. She shows up everywhere, at any time, like she can guess what we’re going to do before we do it.”

  “The lady is good at what she does,” Liam confirmed.

  “Can you please not compliment the person trying to drag our asses back to camp?”

  “Why do you call her Lady Jane?” I asked.

  Liam shrugged. “She’s a rare British lass in a crop of bloodthirsty Americans.”

  “How did that happen?” I asked. “I thought they closed all the borders.”

  Liam opened his mouth to answer, but Chubs got there first. “I don’t know, Green; why don’t you hit her up for a chat and tea next time she comes around to capture us?”

  I rolled my eyes. “Maybe I will if you tell me what she looks like.”

  “Dark hair up in a bun, glasses—” Liam began.

  “—long, sort of hooked nose?” I finished.

  “You’ve seen her?”

  “In Marlinton. She was the one driving the red truck, but…” Cate and Rob had taken care of that. She had been left behind. “Well, she wasn’t there this time,” I finished. “Maybe we lost her for real.”

  “Fat chance,” Chubs grumbled. “The woman is a Terminator.”

  We passed one rundown motel after another, some occupied more than others. I sat up in my seat when Liam turned into an old Comfort Inn’s parking lot, only to immediately back out of it with a low whistle. There were no cars in the parking lot, but a dozen or more men and women were hanging around outside of their rooms, smoking, talking, fighting.

  “We saw this a lot driving through Ohio,” he explained without me having to prompt him. “After people lost their houses, they’d go to the nearest closed hotel and try to fight over the rooms there. Gangs and all that crap.”

  The motel he settled on was a Howard Johnson Express, one with a quarter of its parking lot filled with different makes and models of cars and the blue VACANCY sign on. I held my breath as he navigated around the outer ring of rooms, careful to avoid driving past the office. He picked a spot at the very edge of the lot, surveying the line of rooms in front of us. Two were easily ruled out—we could see the glow of the TV through the windows and curtains—but the others weren’t as obviously occupied.

  “Wait here a sec,” he said, unbuckling his seat belt. “I’m going to scope out the area. Make sure it’s safe.” And it was just like before; he didn’t bother to wait for any of us to protest. He just jumped out of the car, glanced into each room he passed, and began to jimmy the door of his choosing.

  Chubs and I were left to divide up the last of the food we had gathered from the gas station in Marlinton. Our inventory was down to a bag of Cheetos, peanut butter crackers, some Twizzlers, and a snack pack of Oreos, plus the candy I had managed to stuff into my backpack. It was every six-year-old’s dream feast.

  We worked silently, avoiding each other’s gaze like champions. Chubs’s fingers were quick and nimble as he opened the peanut butter crackers and started in on them. The same ratty book was on his lap, the pages open and smiling up at him. I knew he couldn’t actually be reading them—not with eyesight as bad as his, at least. But when he finally decided to talk to me, he didn’t so much as glance up from it.

  “Enjoying our life of crime yet? The general seems to think you’re a natural.”

  I reached over to wake Zu, ignoring whatever it was he was trying to imply. I was too exhausted to deal with him, and, frankly, none of the comebacks warring at the tip of my tongue at the moment were likely to win him over.

  Before I could step out of the van, my backpack and food in hand, Chubs’s hand reached out and slammed the door shut again. In the dim light of the hotel, he looked…not angry, exactly, but certainly not friendly, either. “I have something to say to you.”

  “You’ve already said quite a bit, thanks.”

  He waited until I had looked back at him over my shoulder before continuing. “I’m not going to pretend like you didn’t help us today, or that you didn’t spend years living in a glorified shit hole, but I’m telling you now—use tonight to think seriously about your decision to stay, and if you decide to slip out in the middle of the night, know that you probably made the right choice.”

  I reached again for the door, but he wasn’t finished. “I know you’re hiding something. I know you haven’t been completely honest. And if you think for some insane reason that we can protect you, think again. We’ll be lucky to make it out of this mess alive without whatever crisis you’re bringing to the table.”

  I felt my stomach clench, but kept my face neutral. If he was hoping to read some clue in my face, he was going to be disappointed; I’d spent the better part of the last six years schooling my expression into perfect innocence under the threat of guns.

  Whatever he suspected couldn’t have been the truth, though, otherwise he wouldn’t be giving me one last chance to duck and run. He would have personally punted me out of the van, preferably at a high speed, in the middle of a deserted highway.

  Chubs rubbed a thumb across his lower lip. “I think…” he started. “I hope you get to Virginia Beach, I really do, but—” He pulled the glasses off his face and pinched the bridge of his nose. “This is ridiculous, I’m sorry. Just think about what I said. Make the right choice.”

  Liam began waving at us from the door of the room, keeping it propped open with his foot. Zu put a hand on Chubs’s shoulder. He jumped, blinking in surprise at the touch of yellow rubber. She had been so silent, I had forgotten she was there, too.

  “Come on, Suzume,” Chubs said, dropping a hand on her shoulder. “Maybe if we’re lucky, the general will deign to let us take showers. And, maybe if we’re really lucky, he’ll actually take one himself.”

  Zu followed him out the side door, casting an anxious look my way. I waved her off with a forced smile and reached in the backseat for my black backpack.

  I didn’t notice it until I was already outside, the darkening sky sapping away the last bit of the van’s warmth from my skin. One of my hands reached out to hold the sliding door open as I leaned back into the minivan and pulled the book out of the passenger seat’s back pouch. It was the first and only time I had seen it free from Chubs’s hands.

  The flat, empty M&M’s bag he was using as a bookmark was still in place. I flipped the book open to that page, and didn’t need to look at the spine to know instantly what book it was. Watership Down, by Richard Adams. No wonder he had gone to such great lengths to hide what he was reading. The story of a bunch of rabbits trying to make their way in the world? Liam would have a field day.

  But I loved that book, and appare
ntly Chubs did, too. It was the same old edition my dad used to read to me before bed, the one I used to steal from his study and put on my shelf for when I couldn’t sleep at night. How had it come to me just when I needed it the most?

  My eyes drank in each word, worshipping their shape until my lips started forming them and I was reading aloud for everyone and no one to hear. “All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.”

  I wondered if Chubs knew how the story ended.

  TWELVE

  THE HOT WATER WAS ENOUGH to make me forget I was standing in an old motel shower, washing my hair with shampoo that reeked of fake lavender. In the entire compact bathroom, there were only six things: the sink, the toilet, the towel, the shower, its curtain, and me.

  I was the last one in. By the time I finally walked through the motel room door, Zu had already been in and out and Chubs had just barricaded himself in the bathroom, where he spent the next hour scrubbing himself and all of his clothing until they stank of stale soap. It seemed pointless to me to try to do laundry in a sink with hand soap, but there was no bathtub or laundry detergent for him to use. The rest of us just sat back and tuned out his impassioned speech on the importance of good hygiene.

  “You’re next,” Liam had said, turning to me. “Just make sure you wipe down everything when you’re done.”

  I caught the towel he threw to me. “What about you?”

  “I’ll take one in the morning.”

  With the bathroom door shut and locked behind me, I dropped my backpack on the toilet seat cover and went to work sorting through its contents. I pulled out the clothes they had given me and dumped them on the floor. Something silky and red spilled out on top of the pile, causing me to jump back in alarm.

  It took several moments of suspicious inspection to figure out what it was—the bright red dress from the trailer’s closet.

  Zu, I thought, passing a tired hand over my face. She must have grabbed it when I wasn’t looking.

  I poked at it with a toe, nose wrinkling at its faint scent of stale cigarette smoke. It looked like it was going to be a size too large for me, not to mention the somewhat icky feeling that came with knowing where it had been.

  But, clearly, she had wanted me to have it—and wearing it, loath as I was to admit it, was smarter than running around in my camp uniform. I could do this for Zu; if it made her happy, it’d be worth the discomfort.

  There was no shampoo, but the Children’s League had thought to give me deodorant, a bright green toothbrush, a pack of tissues, some tampons, and hand sanitizer—all travel-sized and zipped up tight in a plastic bag. Under that was a small hairbrush and water bottle. And there, at the very bottom of the bag, was another panic button.

  It must have been there the entire time, and I just hadn’t realized it. I’d thrown the first one Cate had given me away, leaving it behind in the mud and brush. The thought that this one had been in my bag all this time—the entire time—made my skin crawl. Why hadn’t I thoroughly searched the bag before now?

  I picked it up between two fingers and dropped it into the sink like it had been a piece of hot coal. My hand was on the faucet, ready to drown the stupid thing in water and fry it for good, but something stopped me.

  I’m not sure how long I stared down at it before I picked it up again and held it toward the light, trying to see if I could peer inside of the black outer shell. I looked for a red blinking light that would tell me if it was recording. I held it up to my ear, listening for any kind whirring or beeping that would tell me if it was activated. If it was on, or if it really was a tracker, wouldn’t they have caught up to us by now?

  Was it so bad to keep it—just in case? Just in case something happened again, and I couldn’t help the others? Wouldn’t being with the League be better than being thrown back into Thurmond? Being killed—wasn’t anything better than that?

  When I put the panic button back in the pocket of the backpack, it wasn’t for me. If Cate had seen me she would have smiled, and the thought only made me angry all over again. I couldn’t even believe in my own ability to protect these kids.

  Stepping under the shower’s perfect warm spray was already surreal enough without having to hear the click-click-click-beep of Thurmond’s automatic timer to keep my wash time under three minutes. It was a good thing, too, since the dirt seemed to come off me in slow layers. A good fifteen minutes of scrubbing and it felt like I had turned every inch of my skin inside out. I even tried using the bubblegum pink razor that had been included in the hotel’s small pack of soap and shampoo, opening up old and new scabs on my shins and knees.

  Sixteen years old, I thought, and this is the first time I’ve been able to shave my legs.

  It was stupid—so stupid. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I didn’t care. I was old enough. No one was going to stop me.

  My mom always came back to me in flashes. Sometimes I’d hear her voice, just a word or two. Other times, I’d have a memory so real it was like reliving the moment altogether. And now, as I kept at it, all I could think of was that conversation we’d had about this very thing, and her smile as she repeated over and over again, “Maybe when you’re thirteen.”

  Eventually, I washed the razor off and threw it in the direction of my bag. I didn’t think anyone else would want to use it now. With blood running down my legs, I turned my attention to the nest on my head. My hair was still too tangled for me to run my hands through it. I had to work through it knot by knot, using more of the shampoo than I had ever meant to, and by the time I was finished, I was crying.

  I’m sixteen.

  I don’t know what brought it out. One minute I was fine, and the next it felt like my chest had collapsed in on itself. I tried to take in a deep breath, but the air was too hot. My hands found the wall’s white tile first, a second before the rest of my body collapsed against it. I sat down on the rough, fake stone floor of the shower, and pressed my hands to my chest, grateful for the noise of the running water and overhead vent, which hid the sound of me breaking into pieces. I didn’t want them to hear me like this, especially not Zu.

  It was stupid, so stupid. I was sixteen—so what? So what, I hadn’t seen my parents in six years? So what, I might never see them again? It’s not like they remembered me anyway.

  I should have been happy that it was over, that I was out of that place. But inside or out, I was alone, and I was beginning to wonder if I always had been, if I always would be. The water pressure wavered, its temperature spiking as someone in the next room over flushed the toilet. It didn’t matter. I could barely feel it blasting against my back. My fingers went to my bleeding knees and pressed down, but I couldn’t feel that, either.

  Cate had told me that I needed to divide my life into three acts and close the first two behind me—but how did someone do that? How were you just supposed to forget?

  There was a knock on the door. Faint, almost tentative at first, but more insistent when I didn’t answer right away.

  “Ruby?” I heard Liam’s voice call. “You okay?”

  I took a deep breath and reached back, hand feeling through the air for the faucet. The water overhead faded to a mere drizzle, and then a drip, and then nothing at all.

  “Can you—uh—open the door? Just for a sec?” He sounded nervous enough to make me nervous. For one terrifying split second I thought something had happened. I reached for the towel and wrapped it around myself. My fingers flicked the lock over and were turning the doorknob before my brain caught up.

  A blast of icy air was the first thing to hit me. Liam’s wide eyes were the second. The pair of big white socks in his hand, the third.

  He glanced around the bathroom over my shoulder, his mouth pressed in a grim line. The motel room was darker than it had been when I first walked in; w
e must have been well into night now. So I couldn’t be sure, not in any real way, but I thought I caught a hint of color flooding the tips of his ears.

  “Is everything all right?” I whispered. He stared at me, letting the warm fog from the bathroom wash over him. “Liam?”

  The socks were thrust in my direction. I looked down at them and then up at him, hoping I didn’t look as flabbergasted as I felt.

  “Just wanted to…give you these,” he said, giving them a little shake. He thrust them again in my direction. “You know, for you.”

  “Don’t you need them?” I asked.

  “I have a couple extra pairs, and you have none, right?” He looked like he was in some kind of pain now. “Seriously. Please. Just take them. Chubs says your extremities or whatever are the first things to get cold, so you need them, and—”

  “Oh my God, Green,” I heard Chubs say from somewhere in the room. “Just take the damn socks and put the kid out of his misery.”

  Liam didn’t wait for me to hold out a hand. He reached past me and deposited them on the counter, right next to the sink.

  “Um…thanks?” I said.

  “Great—I mean, no problem,” Liam turned to walk away, only to turn back again, as if thinking of something else. “Okay. Great. Cool—well, so you—”

  “Use your words, Lee,” Chubs called. “Some of us are trying to get some sleep.”

  “Oh, right. Sleep.” Liam made a vague motion toward the room’s bed. “You and Zu are going to share. I hope you don’t mind.”

  “Of course not,” I said.

  “Okay, great!” He put an abnormally bright smile on his face. I wondered what he was waiting for me to do or say—if this was one of those moments that being trapped in a cabin with dozens of girls for six years had failed to prepare me for. It was like we were speaking in two different languages.

  “Yeah, um, great,” I repeated, more confused now than ever. That seemed to do the trick, though. Liam turned and walked away without another word.

 
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