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The darkest minds, p.18
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       The Darkest Minds, p.18

         Part #1 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken
 

  Siphoning gas, I realized. I’d heard about people doing this during the last gas shortage, but I’d never actually seen it done before. The liquid began to fill the can in a smooth pour, filling the space between us with a sharp odor.

  “Gas crisis,” he said with an unapologetic shrug. “Times are a little desperate, and we were running on fumes for a while yesterday.”

  “You’re Blue, right?” I said, nodding toward the hand guiding the gas into our red can. “Could you just move Betty along without it?”

  “Yeah, but…not for long.” Liam sounded shy. When he pressed his lips together, they turned an unnatural shade of white and highlighted a small scar at the right corner.

  When I realized I was staring, I squatted down beside him—more to hide my embarrassment than actually help. Stealing gas was, surprisingly, not all that complicated.

  “I guess I’m just impressed you can use your abilities at all.”

  A part of me wondered, then, if I hadn’t had it backward this entire time. The way things were at Thurmond…the camp controllers were so vigilant about making sure that we were terrified of getting caught using our abilities, and we were made to understand from the beginning that what we were, and what we could do, was dangerous and unnatural. Mistakes and accidents were not excuses, and punishment was not avoidable. There was to be no curious testing, no stabbing at limits to see if there was a way to push through them.

  If Liam was so accomplished with his abilities, it probably meant he had taken years to practice, most of those spent outside of camp walls. It never occurred to me to think that other kids, safe at home, hiding out—that the others, who had never seen the inside of a cabin, experienced the grave and still nothing that was life at camp—might have managed to teach themselves amazing things. They weren’t afraid of themselves; they weren’t crippled by the weight of what they didn’t know.

  I had the strangest feeling—like I had lost something without ever really having it in the first place—that I wasn’t what I once was, and wasn’t at all what I was meant to be. The sensation made me feel hollow down to my bones.

  “The whole thing’s pretty straightforward for us Blues,” Liam explained. “You look at something, concentrate hard enough to imagine that object moving from point A to point B, and it just…does,” he said. “I bet a lot of the Blues at Thurmond figured out how to use their abilities. They just chose not to. Maybe something to do with that noise.”

  “You’re probably right.” I hadn’t had enough interaction with the Blue kids to know.

  Liam jerked the hose back and forth as the stream of gas slowed to a measly drip. I glanced up, searching the parking lot and motel doors for signs of life, and didn’t settle back down until I was sure we were alone.

  “Did you teach yourself?” I asked, testing my theory.

  He glanced my way. “Yeah. I went into camp pretty late and had plenty of time alone, bored out of my mind, to figure things out.”

  Naturally, the next question was: Were you in hiding? But I wouldn’t be able to ask that without him asking about my history and how I was caught.

  This had to stop. My hands were shaking like he had just told me he was about to strangle the life out of me. Nothing he had done up until now had proven him to be anything other than nice. Hadn’t he shown me, time and time again, that he was willing to be my friend if I was willing to let him?

  It had been so long since I’d even wanted a friend that I wasn’t sure I even remembered how to go about making one. In first grade, it had been stupidly simple. Our teacher had told us to write down our favorite animal on a sheet of paper, and then we had to go around the room until we found someone with a matching animal. Because making friends was supposed to be that easy, apparently—finding someone else who liked elephants.

  “I like this song,” I blurted out. Jim Morrison’s voice was soft and barely reached us from where it was filtering through Betty’s speakers.

  “Yeah? The Doors?” Liam’s face lit up. “‘Come on baby, light my fire,’” he crooned in a low voice, trying to match Morrison’s. “‘Try to set the night on fire.…’”

  I laughed. “I like it when he sings it.”

  Liam clutched his chest, like I had wounded him, but his recovery was quick. The radio DJ announced the next song; it was like Liam had won the lottery. “Now this is what I’m talking about!”

  “The Allman Brothers?” My eyebrows were inching up my face. Funny, I had pegged him for a Zeppelin fan.

  “This is the music of my soul,” he said, nodding his head in time with the music.

  “Have you ever actually listened to the lyrics?” I asked, feeling the anxiety lift off my shoulders. My voice was growing steadier with each word. “Was your father a gambler down in Georgia that wound up on the wrong end of a gun? Were you born in the backseat of a Greyhound bus?”

  “Hey now,” he said, reaching over to flick my hair. “I said it was the music of my soul, not my life. For your information, my stepdad is a mechanic down in North Carolina and, as far as I know, still alive and well. But I was born in the backseat of a bus.”

  “You’re joking.” I honestly couldn’t tell.

  “Am not. It made the newspapers and everything. I was the Miracle Bus Boy for the first three years of my life, and now I’m—”

  “‘Trying to make a livin’ and doin’ the best I can’?” I finished.

  He laughed, the tips of his ears tinged with a faint pink. The song went on, filling the air between us with its rapid pulse and relentless guitars. Every piece fit together effortlessly; not quite country and not quite rock and roll. Just warm, fast, Southern.

  I liked it even better when Liam started singing along.

  When the flow of gas had stopped, he carefully pulled the hose free and replaced the gas cap. Before he stood, Liam knocked his shoulder into mine. “Where in the world did you get that dress?”

  I snorted, picking at the skirt. “Present from Zu.”

  “You look like you want to throw it into a fire.”

  “I can’t promise there won’t be an unfortunate accident later on,” I said, very seriously. When he laughed again it felt like a small victory.

  “Well, Green, it was nice of you to put it on,” Liam said. “Though be careful. Zu’s so starved for girl time that she might turn you into her own personal dress-up doll.”

  “Kids these days,” I said. “Think the whole world belongs to them.”

  He grinned. “Kids these days.”

  We moved from car to car, working our way down the parking lot. He didn’t ask for my help, and I didn’t ask him any more questions. We could have stayed together in that comfortable silence for hours, and it still wouldn’t have been enough for me.

  THIRTEEN

  CHUBS AND ZU WERE NOT HAPPY to be woken up at five thirty a.m., and even less enthusiastic about Liam forcing them to make the bed while we freshened up the bathroom and replaced the used towels. Not exactly clean of us, but it was better than alerting the management they had hosted a bunch of squatters for the night.

  Chubs took one look at me as he marched out to the minivan and stopped dead in his tracks. He wore his thought plain as day on his face: You’re still here?

  I shrugged. Deal with it.

  He shook his head and let out another one of his sighs.

  Once we were settled, Zu and Chubs in the middle seats, we all watched as Liam closed the hotel room door, cup of crappy hotel coffee in hand.

  That’s right, I thought, glancing at Zu out of the corner of my eye. She had curled up on her seat and was using her gloved hands as a pillow. Didn’t get much sleep, did he?

  Liam ran through his usual routine of checking the mirrors’ position, adjusting the recline of his seat, buckling himself in, and turning the keys in the ignition. But Liam’s next order of business upon returning to the minivan wasn’t to answer any of the number of questions Chubs threw his way about where we were going. He waited until his friend was good and
snoring before calling back to me, “Can you read a map?”

  The embarrassment and shame that washed through me painted my face red. “No. Sorry.” Wasn’t that something your dad was supposed to teach you eventually?

  “No problem.” Liam patted the empty passenger seat. “I’ll teach you later, but for now I just need someone to watch the signs for me. Come on up to the copilot chair.”

  I jerked a thumb in the direction of Chubs.

  Liam only shook his head. “Are you kidding me? Yesterday he thought a mailbox was a clown.”

  I unbuckled my seat belt with a sigh. As I climbed over Chubs’s outstretched legs to the front, I glanced over my shoulder, my eyes going to his too-small glasses. “Is his eyesight really that bad?”

  “Worse,” Liam said. “So, right after we got the hell out of Caledonia, we broke into this house to spend the night, right? I woke up in the middle of the night hearing the most awful noise, like a cow dying or something. I followed the wailing, clutching some kid’s baseball bat, thinking I was going to have to beat someone’s head in for us to make a clean getaway. Then I saw what was sitting at the bottom of the drained pool.”

  “No way,” I said.

  “Way,” he confirmed. “Hawkeye had gone out to relieve himself and had somehow missed the giant gaping hole in the ground. Twisted his ankle and couldn’t climb out of the deep end.”

  I tried so hard not to laugh, but it was impossible. The mental image was just too damn good.

  Liam reached over and switched on the radio, letting me choose the station. He seemed satisfied with my decision to stay with the Who.

  With the window down all the way, I leaned out, resting my chin on my hands. The morning air was warm, licked by the first rays of sunlight. When I looked up past the very tip-top of the wild trees, there was nothing but blue sky.

  A small sound, a ghost of a sigh, was released behind us. Both Liam and I turned to look at Zu’s sleeping face.

  “Did we wake you up last night?” he asked.

  “I caught a little of it,” I said. “Does she have a lot of nightmares?”

  “In the few weeks I’ve known her, it’s been an every other night thing. Sometimes she dreams about Caledonia and I can talk her down, but I never know what to say about her family. I swear, if I ever meet her parents, I’m going to…”

  His voice trailed off, but the anger coating them had given the air a palpable charge.

  “What did they do to her?”

  “Gave her away, because they were afraid of her,” he said. “Like, me and Chubs? Our folks tried to keep us hidden, and that’s why we went to the camp late. Zu’s parents actually sent her away when she short-circuited her dad’s car in the middle of a freeway.”

  “Oh, God.”

  “They sent her during the first official Collection.” He propped an elbow along the door panel and leaned his face against his hand. His Redskins cap hid his eyes from view. “I forgot you missed this.”

  I waited for him to explain.

  “It was after most people our age had already been taken or were in hiding. The government issued a notice that any parents who didn’t feel safe or capable of taking care of their kiddos could send them to school on a specific morning, and the Psi Special Forces would be there to collect them for rehabilitation. Kept it all very hush-hush to avoid upsetting the children or inciting them to misbehave.”

  I rubbed my forehead, trying to force out the images flittering through my mind. “Did she actually tell you this?”

  “Tell me—tell me, you mean?” He kept his eyes straight ahead, but I saw his hands choke the wheel. “No. She wrote it out in bits and pieces. I haven’t heard her say a single word since…”

  “Since the breakout?” I finished. I felt relieved in spite of everything I knew. “It’s a choice, then, not something they did to her.”

  “No, it has everything to do with what they did, and it’s not a choice,” Liam said. “I think maybe the most frustrating feeling in the world is to have something to say but not know how to put it into words. To have lived through something but not be able to get it out of you before it festers. I mean, you’re right—she can talk, and maybe one day she will. After everything I’ve put her through, after what happened…I just don’t know.”

  It was the most frustrating feeling in the world, second only to the inherent helplessness that came with being trapped in a camp, all of your decisions made for you. After what had happened with Sam, I didn’t say a word for almost a full year; there was just no way to vocalize that kind of pain.

  The radio jumped as we lost the station’s signal, switching through a Spanish language channel, then to one with classical music, before finally settling on the dry, nasally voice of a man reading the news.

  “…to inform you that initial reports indicate that four separate explosions were set off this morning in Manhattan’s subway…”

  Liam’s finger shot out to switch the channel, but I changed it right back.

  “—though confirmation has been slow to come out of the city, we believe these explosions were not nuclear or biological in nature, and were concentrated around midtown, where President Gray was rumored to be in hiding after the most recent attempt on his life.”

  “League, West Coast, or fake?” Chubs’s sleepy voice floated up behind us.

  “Our sources indicate that President Gray and his cabinet believe this to be the work of the Federal Coalition.”

  “Federal Coalition?” I repeated.

  “West Coast,” the boys answered together. Chubs elaborated. “Based out of Los Angeles. They’re the section of the government that survived the D.C. bombings and weren’t crazy about the idea of Gray disregarding that whole two-term limit they had set up. They’re mostly talking heads since the military sided with Gray, obviously.”

  “Why is Gray in New York and not Washington?” I asked.

  “They’re still rebuilding the Capitol and the White House, only it’s not going so well since, you know, they defaulted on all of their debt,” Liam said. “He spread the government out between Virginia and New York for its protection. To make sure none of the fugitive Psi groups or the League got any ideas about wiping it all out at once.”

  “So the Federal Coalition…they’re against the camps? The reform program?”

  Chubs sighed a little. “Hate to break it to you, Green, but something you’ll learn pretty fast is that we’re not exactly a priority to anyone right now. Everyone’s more focused on the fact that the country is broke as a joke.”

  “Who do we like, then?” I pressed.

  “We like us,” Liam said after a while. “And that’s about it.”

  There were, apparently, only two restaurant chains left in the state of Virginia, or at least the western half of it: Cracker Barrel and Waffle House—and one wasn’t open before nine o’clock in the morning.

  “Thank goodness,” Liam said in a solemn voice as he parked a short distance away from the Waffle House. “I don’t know how we would have chosen between these two fine culinary establishments.”

  He had nominated himself to order whatever food he could afford with twenty bucks, but refused when I asked if he wanted me to go with him.

  Zu held up a small notebook, waving it to get his attention as he stepped outside.

  “Done already?”

  She nodded.

  “Why don’t you have Chubs check your answers? No, don’t make that face. He’s better at math than I am, anyway.”

  “You’re damn right I am,” Chubs said, without looking up from his book.

  Zu flipped the flimsy notebook open to a blank page and scribbled something down. When she held it up for him to see, Liam grinned.

  “Whoa, whoa—long division? I think you’re getting ahead of yourself, ma’am. You still haven’t conquered your double-digit multiplying.”

  I watched him hop out of the minivan, a flare of annoyance shooting up from my core. All of this would have been so much easie
r if he wasn’t the only one of us who looked old enough to pass for twenty—at least I’d feel a lot better knowing one of us could be out there watching his back. Liam must have felt my gaze burning through the back of his jacket, because he stopped and turned to wave before disappearing around the corner.

  “You really have to stop encouraging him,” Chubs was saying to Zu. I glanced back, watching as he used the blunt end of her pencil to follow lines of numbers on the page. “He needs to accept reality at some point.”

  Zu’s face scrunched up, twisting like a piece of hard lemon candy was stuck on her tongue. She punched him in the shoulder.

  “I’m sorry,” he said, but clearly wasn’t. “It’s just a waste of time and energy to teach you this stuff when you’re never going to get the chance to use it.”

  “You don’t know that,” I said. Flashing Zu a reassuring smile, I added, “You’ll be ahead of everyone else your age by the time things go back to normal.”

  When had I started believing in “normal,” anyway? Everything I had been through up to that point could only be used as support for Chubs’s argument. He was right, even if I didn’t want to admit it.

  “You know what I’d be doing if things were normal?” Chubs said. “I’d be picking which college I was going to attend later this fall. I’d have taken my SATs, gone to football games and prom, taken chemistry…”

  His voice trailed off, but I picked up the frayed ends of his thought all the same—how could I not? These were the exact things I thought about when I let myself get to that dark place of should-be and could-have-been. My mom said once that education was a privilege not afforded to everyone, but she was wrong—it wasn’t a privilege. It was our right. We had the right to a future.

  Zu sensed the shift of mood. She looked between us, lips moving silently. We needed a change of subject.

  “Pffft,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest and leaning back against the seat. “Like you would have ever gone to a football game.”

 
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