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The darkest minds, p.17
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       The Darkest Minds, p.17

         Part #1 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken

  I picked up my new socks from the counter, examining them. Just before I shut the door, I heard Chubs’s voice, tinged with his usual told-you-so.

  “—hope you’re pleased with yourself,” he was saying. “You should have just left her alone. She was fine.”

  But I hadn’t been, and somehow Liam had known.

  It took me several long moments to realize it was Zu’s dream.

  She and I were on the room’s queen-sized bed, huddled together for warmth. The boys were on the floor with the blankets, using extra towels stolen from a cleaning cart as pillows. The collective brain trust of Chubs and Liam hadn’t been able to figure out how to turn down the air-conditioning unit, which insisted on spitting out its frosty breath every time the room so much as dared to spike to sixty degrees.

  I had been hovering around the sweet, milky edges of sleep for hours when I felt the itch at the back of my mind. There was a part of me that had been expecting it; even though my body had settled onto the bed like a slab of concrete, my brain was still buzzing around in circles, processing what had happened with the PSFs, wondering if I could do what I had done to that man again, when Zu’s bare feet brushed against mine, and that was all it took. I was pulled into her dream headfirst.

  I was Zu and Zu was in a small bed, staring up at the underbelly of a brown mattress. Darkness blurred around us until finally some recognizable shapes emerged. Stacks of bunk beds, a chalkboard, bright blue cabinets that stretched from floor to ceiling, large windows boarded up with plywood, and strange square discolorations on the wall, where posters must have once hung.

  I couldn’t tear away. That was the dangerous thing about dreams—how quickly you became tangled in it all. People naturally let their guard down when they slept, so much so that sometimes, if the dream was frightening enough, I didn’t even need a touch to be drawn into it.

  I couldn’t smell the smoke, but I saw it right away, gliding beneath the old classroom’s door like spilled milk racing across the ground. A moment later, I jolted up, rolling until I was off the bed completely. I watched in slow, dawning horror as a dozen girls jumped down from their bunks and gathered in a buzzing huddle at the center of the room.

  One girl, who must have been a good head taller and four years older than the others, tried to get them to crouch in a line beneath the windows, with no success. Her arms were waving through the air, the long sleeves of her simple, mustard-yellow uniform blurring.

  And then, the alarms went off and the door at the far end of the room swung open.

  The sound the bell made was nearly as excruciating as the White Noise, its pitch stretched and distorted by the dream. I was jostled forward as the other little girls made a break for the door. It didn’t seem to matter to them that the smoke was suffocating, or that it didn’t have a visible source.

  In the place of neat, orderly lines was mass chaos. Kids with green, navy, and yellow uniforms spilled out into the white-tiled hallway. The emergency lights were on, fire alarms flashing red and yellow along the wall. I was thrown into the crushing river of bodies, all headed in the same direction—the direction of the smoke.

  My vision blurred with tears and forced the breath out of my chest. One glance over my shoulder was enough to see some of the older kids, both boys and girls, dragging out the blue cabinets from their room and knocking them over in front of the silver double doors at the other end of the hallway.

  We weren’t evacuating at all. We were escaping.

  My vision was swimming in black by the time we were pushed through the other set of doors and into the cramped stairway. The smoke was thickest there, rising not from shimmering flames but two small black canisters—the kind PSFs kept hooked on their belts, waiting to be thrown into a crowd of unruly kids.

  So the PSFs set them off? No, that wasn’t possible. It was much more likely a few kids had nabbed them, to get the alarms going and the doors open. That was probably the extent of their emergency protocol.

  We were trapped in that stairwell, our bodies pressed against everyone else’s in one shivering mass of nerves and exhilaration. I tried to keep my eyes forward and feel for the steps under my feet, but it was hard not to see what the darkness and flashing lights were doing to the other kids. Some were crying hysterically, some looked on the verge of passing out, but some were laughing. Laughing, like it was a game.

  I don’t know how I spotted the other small Asian girl under the tide of hands and heads. She was wedged in the bottom left corner of the stairwell landing, standing on her toes, her green uniform barely visible. Her hair was gleaming black under the emergency lights, and her arm was above her head, outstretched—toward me?

  The minute I made eye contact with her, her face lit up in recognition. I saw her mouth form Zu’s name. I tried to reach out, to grab her hand, but the swarm of people around me pushed me down, jostling forward. By the time I turned around, she had disappeared, too.

  I didn’t see one PSF or camp controller—not until we were at the base of the stairwell, stepping over, but mostly on, the three prone black figures on the ground. Their faces were swollen into bruised masks. Blood collected on the ground under them.

  Someone, probably a Blue, had ripped the doors from their hinges and sent them flying outside, into what looked like a wasteland of white snow. The ground was unnaturally bright under the moonless sky—partly from the dream, partly from the searchlights that switched on as the pitch of the alarm changed from a trill to a warning siren.

  Once we were out those final doors, we were running.

  The snow was knee-deep, and most of the kids weren’t wearing anything beyond their paper-thin uniforms—most of them hadn’t even remembered to put on their shoes. Tiny flakes floated into the deep intersecting lines of footprints, and for a moment I felt myself slow, watching the way the snow was neither flying nor falling. Just hovering there, like a held breath. Lighting up like a thousand fireflies under the camp searchlights.

  And then the spell was broken, shattered with the first gunshot.

  And then it was bullets flying over us, not snow.

  The screams ripped jagged and piercing from the throats of hundreds of kids. Five—ten—fifteen—it was impossible to count the kids that suddenly pitched forward, falling face-first into the snow, screaming and howling in pain. A nightmarish red began to creep through the snow like spilled ink spreading, expanding, devouring. I reached up to my cheek, to the wetness there, and when I pulled my hand away, my brain finally connected that I had run straight through a spray of blood. I was covered in it—someone else’s blood was dripping down my cheeks and off my chin.

  We ran harder, faster, toward the back right corner of the chain-link fence surrounding the old school. I threw a look back over my shoulder to the brick school building, to the dozens of black figures on top of its gray slate roof, to the dozens more pouring out from the first story windows and doors. When I turned back, the field in front of me was covered in heaps of every color—Yellow, Blue, Green. And red. So, so much red. They formed lines, unwilling barriers that others had to jump over to keep going.

  I fell forward, barely catching myself on the snow. Something—someone had caught my ankle. A Green girl on her stomach, crawling toward me, her eyes open, her mouth gulping at the air. Help me, she was sobbing, blood bubbling up over her lips, help me.

  But I got back up and ran.

  There was a gate at this edge of the camp; I could see it now that I was within a few hundred feet of it. What I couldn’t see was what was causing the backup of kids, why we weren’t dashing through the gate to get to freedom. With a jolt, I realized there were almost three times as many kids down in the snow behind me than there were in front of me.

  The cluster of kids surged forward with a unified wail, hundreds of hands straining forward. My size made it easy for me to slip through legs and fight my way up to the front, where three older boys in blue uniforms were struggling to keep the crowd of kids back from both the gate itself and th
e one-man watch booth beside it, which was currently playing host to three people: an unconscious PSF, Liam, and Chubs.

  I was so shocked at the sight of them, I nearly missed the blur of green that was a little kid rushing for the fence. He darted around the teenagers in his path and threw himself against the bright yellow bars holding the gate firmly in place.

  He had only just touched it when all of the hair on his head seemed to stand on end, and a burst of light flashed under his fingers. Instead of releasing it, his hand only seemed to clamp down harder, frozen in place as thousands of volts of electricity sent his body into a frenzied fit of shuddering.

  Oh my God.

  The gate was still on. Liam and Chubs were trying to turn it off.

  I felt my own scream bubble up in my throat when he collapsed to the ground, finally still. Liam yelled something from the booth that I couldn’t hear, not above the screams from the kids around me. The sight of that boy burst the temporary bubble of calm in a heartbeat.

  The PSFs were closer now; they had to be, because when they started firing again, it was like shooting fish in a barrel. Each layer of kids fell down and away, peeling back to reveal a new, fresh layer for the kill—I couldn’t see the snow beneath them anymore.

  Kids turned and bolted in every direction, some heading back toward the school, others following the edges of the electrified fence, looking for another way out. I heard dogs bark and the growling of engines. Combined, the noises sounded like a monster straight out of hell. I turned to look at the trail the animals and snowmobiles were blazing toward us, when something hard slammed into me from behind, throwing me into the thick snow.

  I’m shot, I thought, half in shock.

  No—that wasn’t right. The blow had come from an elbow to the back of the head. The Blue girl hadn’t even seen me as she turned and ran back toward the camp. I rolled over just in time to see her with her hands in the air, a clear surrender, and still—still—they shot her. She shrieked in pain and crumbled to the ground.

  It wasn’t just the girl who hadn’t spotted me in the snow—no one did. I felt my arms, stinging with the cold, strain as I tried to push myself up and out of its freezing touch, but every time I made progress, another foot came slamming down across my shoulders and back. I had enough time to cover my head, but that was it. There was no getting air to my chest—I was screaming and no one could hear.

  Rage and despair ripped through me. The crush of stampeding kids pushed me deeper and deeper into the snow, and I kept thinking, can you drown like this? Can you suffocate in the freezing dark? Would it be better to die this way?

  Hands reached around my waist. Freezing air flooded my lungs in a single, painful gasp as I was lifted up and out of the snow.

  The gate was open now, and the kids who had been steady and calm enough to remain—who had been lucky enough not to be hit—poured through, running for the dense cluster of trees ahead. There couldn’t have been more than twenty—of the hundreds of kids who had flooded through the halls of the old school—twenty.

  I felt warm, impossibly warm. The arms holding me tightened. When I looked up, it was into Liam’s bright eyes.

  Hang on tight, okay?

  Zu woke with a gasp, coming up from her nightmare for a long drag of air.

  I was thrown out of the dream, sent hurtling back into the freezing hotel room. Through the topsy-turvy vertigo that slammed into me, I turned toward Zu, my eyes adjusting just enough to make out her silhouette.

  When I reached for her, I found someone else’s hands already there.

  Liam shook his head, trying to snap himself out of sleep’s lingering grasp. “Zu,” he whispered. “Hey, Zu…”

  I stayed perfectly still.

  “Hey,” Liam said gently, “you’re okay. It was just a bad dream.”

  My gut twisted when I realized she was crying. I heard a scraping sound, wood against wood, like he had taken something out of the nightstand.

  “Write it down,” Liam said. “Don’t force yourself.”

  It must have been the hotel stationery. I shut my eyes, waiting for him to switch on the cheap nightstand lamp, but he kept to his rule: no lights outside the bathroom.

  “What are you sorry for?” he whispered. “The only one that needs beauty sleep is Chubs.”

  She let out a shaky laugh, but her body was still tense next to mine.

  “Was it…the same one as before?” The bed dipped as Liam sat down.

  “A little different?” he repeated after a moment. “Yeah?”

  The silence stretched a little longer this time. I wasn’t sure she was still scribbling in the darkness until Liam cleared his throat and said, in a rough voice, “I could never forget that. I was…I was really worried you had tried to touch the gate before Chubs figured out how to switch it off.” And then, so soft that I might have imagined it, he said, “I’m so sorry.”

  The guilt and misery that coated the words were like a kick to the chest. I felt myself shift forward on the bed, drawn to the pain there, desperate to reassure him that what had happened there in the snowy field hadn’t been his fault. It scared me, knowing how well I understood him in that moment.

  But I couldn’t. This was a private conversation, just like her memory had been private. Why was I always trespassing into places I didn’t belong?

  “Chubs isn’t the only one that thinks it’s too dangerous. But I think Ruby’s tough enough to make it without us if she wants to. Why?”

  More scribbling.

  “The only thing Chubs wants is for us to be safe,” he said, still whispering. “Sometimes that gets in the way of him doing what’s good for others—seeing the big picture, you know? It’s only been two weeks since we got out. You got to give him more time.”

  He sounded so confident then that I felt a small part of me give. I believed him.

  “Oh, man.” I could practically see him running a hand through his hair. “Never be ashamed of what you can do, you hear me? If you hadn’t been there, we wouldn’t be here.”

  The room settled back into a peaceful quiet, save for Chubs’s wheezing snores.

  “You feeling better?” he asked. “Need anything from Betty?”

  She must have shaken her head, because I felt the bed shift again as Liam stood. “I’ll be right here. Just wake me up if you change your mind, okay?”

  I didn’t hear him say good night. But instead of lying down, I saw him sit, back flush against the bed, watching the door and anything that might come through it.

  A few hours later, with the moon still visible in the gray-blue morning sky, I gently untangled Zu’s fingers from the front of my dress and slipped out of the bed. The red glow of the alarm clock on the nightstand burned the time into my mind: 5:03 p.m. Leaving time.

  None of us had really unpacked our things, on Liam’s insistence, but I had to collect my toothbrush and toothpaste from where I had left them next to Chubs’s in the bathroom. There was one set of HoJo toiletries left out by the sink, next to the world’s ugliest coffeemaker. I stuffed them into my bag, along with one of the smaller hand towels.

  Outside, it was only a few degrees warmer than it had been in the room. Typical bipolar Virginia spring weather. It must have rained the night before, too. A feathery white fog threaded through the cars and nearby trees. The minivan, which last night had been parked on the far end of the lot, was now stationed directly in front of the hotel room. If I hadn’t walked right by Black Betty, running my hand against her bruised side, I don’t think I would have seen Liam at all.

  He was kneeling beside the sliding door, slowly scraping off the last of the BETTY JEAN CLEANING sign with his car keys. At his feet was the Ohio plate that had, at one point, been screwed into place. My feet drifted to a stop a few feet short of him.

  There were dark circles under his eyes. His face was drawn in thought, his mouth set in a grim line that didn’t suit him at all. With his damp hair combed back and his face clean-shaven, he could have looked a good two or
three years younger than he had the day before, but his eyes told a different story.

  My shoes scuffed the loose asphalt, catching Liam’s attention. He started to rise. “What’s wrong?”


  “You’re up early,” he explained. “I usually have to drag Chubs into the shower and blast him with cold water to get him going.”

  I shrugged. “Still on Thurmond’s schedule, I guess.”

  He rose to his feet slowly, wiping his hands on the front of his jeans. The way his eyes flicked toward me made me think he wanted to say something, but, instead, he only gave me a small smile. The Ohio license plate was tossed into the backseat, and in its place was a West Virginia plate. I didn’t have a chance to ask where it had come from.

  I dropped my backpack at my feet and leaned against the minivan’s door. Liam disappeared around the back of the car, reappearing a few minutes later with a red gas can and a chewed up black hose in hand. With my eyes closed and ear pressed against the cool glass, I soaked up the honeyed singsong radio commercial for a local grocery store. When the broadcaster came back on, it was with a grim forecast of whatever was left of Wall Street. The woman read the stock report like a eulogy.

  I forced my eyes open, letting them fall where Liam had been standing only a second before.

  “Liam?” I called before I could stop myself.

  “Over here,” came the immediate reply.

  With a quick glance to the row of aquamarine motel doors, I shuffled around the back of the van until I was a few feet behind him. I stood on my toes, leaning to the right to get a better look at what he was doing to the silver SUV parked next to the van.

  Liam worked silently, his light eyes focused on the task at hand. One end of the hose was shoved deep into the belly of the SUV’s gas tank. He looped the excess length of the unruly hose around his shoulder, and let the other end fall in the red can.

  “What are you doing?” I didn’t bother to hide my shock.

  His free hand hovered over the length of the hose, gliding it back in our direction. It was almost like he was tugging in a line, or at least motioning someone forward. A few drops of pungent liquid began to drip from the free end of the hose.

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