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The darkest minds, p.19
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       The Darkest Minds, p.19

         Part #1 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken
 

  “Hey, I resent that!” Chubs handed Zu her notebook. “Here, you need to work on your nines.” When he turned back to me, it was with a disapproving look. “I can’t believe you of all people fell for his cotton candy dreams.”

  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

  “You were in Thurmond for what—five years?”

  “Six,” I corrected. “And you’re missing the point. It’s not that I believe in what Lee’s saying; it’s that I hope he’s right. I really, really hope he’s right, because what’s the alternative? We’re stuck hiding out until their generation dies off? We flee to Canada?”

  “Good luck with that,” Chubs said. “Both Canada and Mexico have built walls to keep us out and them in.”

  “Because they thought IAAN was a contagious disease.”

  “No, because they’ve hated us all along and were only looking for the right excuse to keep our fat asses and fanny packs out of their countries forever.”

  Liam chose that exact moment to reappear, four Styrofoam containers balanced between his hands. He was moving fast, almost at a run. I leaned over and popped the door open for him, and he all but dumped the containers on my lap.

  “Oh God, what now?” Chubs cried.

  “Whoa—” I began, trying to keep the hot food from spilling all over my legs and the seat. Betty’s engine started with a snarl, and suddenly we were rocketing backward. With the sheet blocking the back window, Liam had to rely on using the side mirror to navigate us down the road and up into the small back alley that divided the Waffle House from an abandoned jewelry consignment store. I braced an elbow against the door as he steered the old minivan past the Dumpsters to the cramped employee parking lot tucked away in a dead-end around the corner. The minivan lurched to a stop, throwing all four of us forward.

  “We’re…going to stay here for a little while,” he announced to our terrified faces. “Don’t panic, but I think I saw…I mean, it’ll just be safer here for a bit.”

  “You saw her.” It wasn’t a question; Chubs already knew the answer before he asked. “Lady Jane.”

  Liam rubbed the back of his neck as he leaned forward. He had left the nose of the minivan out far enough so we could peer around Waffle House’s wall to see down the alleyway. “Yeah. I’m pretty sure.”

  How was it possible that she had caught up with us?

  “Holy hell,” Chubs squawked. “Pretty sure or definitely sure?”

  After a moment Liam answered, “Definitely sure. She’s got a new set of wheels—a white truck—but I’d recognize that smug face anywhere.”

  “Did she see you?” I asked.

  “I don’t know,” he said. “Probably not, otherwise she and whoever her new boy toy is would have tried to run me down. They drove by just as I was leaving.”

  I craned my neck forward, trying to see far enough past the wall of the restaurant to the alley opening. As if on cue, a glinting white truck rolled by, two dark figures in the front seats. Liam and I flew back against our seats at the exact same moment, looking at each other in alarm. I don’t think either of us took a breath until we were sure no one was coming down the alley to investigate.

  He cleared his throat. “Um…how about you pass out the food? I’ll just check—”

  “Liam Michael Stewart,” Chubs’s voice thundered from the backseat, “if you step one foot out of this minivan, I will order Green to run you down with it.”

  “Don’t think I won’t,” I warned, knowing exactly what Liam wanted to do: go out and risk his neck by walking down the alley to make sure the coast was clear. When I handed him a Styrofoam container, he slumped back in his seat, accepting defeat.

  Liam had ordered each of us a simple meal of scrambled eggs, bacon, and two pancakes without syrup. The others dug in with gusto, inhaling the meal in five bites. I gave my pancakes to Zu, before Liam had the chance to.

  After some semblance of calm had settled back over us, he pulled his map up and spread it out over the wheel. The dashboard clock beside him said 7:25 a.m., and when he turned to face us, it was with an expression of determination I had never seen someone wear so early in the morning.

  “Okay, team,” he began. “We need to get back on the right track. I know our last East River was a total bust, but we have to keep looking. So let’s review the facts those Blues gave us: Eddo.”

  It was only after a full minute of silence that I realized that was the extent of the “facts.”

  “We should have tried to bribe them for more information,” Chubs said.

  “With what?” Liam said, setting the map down. “They wouldn’t take you, Chubs, and you’re our most precious commodity.”

  Chubs, unsurprisingly, did not find that funny.

  “Did they spell Eddo out for you? Was it one ‘d’ or two?” I asked. “Because if it’s an actual clue, that could make a difference.”

  The two boys shared a look.

  “Well…crap,” Liam said, finally.

  I felt a sharp tug on my arm, and turned toward Zu, who was holding up her notebook for us to see. She had written the letters E-D-O.

  “Nice job, Zu,” Liam said. “Good thing one of us was listening.”

  “And that was it?” I said.

  “The only other thing they coughed up was that if we hit Raleigh we’d gone too far south. And we had to beg for even that,” Liam confessed. “It was really pathetic.”

  “They could have been pulling our legs, too,” Chubs said. “That’s what irritates me the most. If East River is so great, why were they leaving?”

  “They were going home; remember, the Slip Kid—”

  While they were arguing, I slipped the map out from under Liam’s hands and squinted at it, trying to make sense of the lines. He had given me a very vague rundown of how to route a path from point A to point B, but it was still overwhelming.

  “What are you guys thinking?” I asked. “What theory were you working with?”

  “We ran across the kids right around the Ohio state line,” Liam said. “They were coming from the east, headed west. If you add that to the other bit about D.C. and Raleigh, the likely candidates become West Virginia, Virginia, or Maryland. Zu said Edo is another name for Tokyo, but it seems a little far-fetched he’d be there.”

  “And I think it’s a code,” Chubs said. “A cipher of some kind.” He sat up a little straighter, turning to face me fully. The way the smile spread over his face made me think of a nature documentary we watched once in school, about the way crocodiles flash their teeth as they skim through the water toward their prey. “Speaking of codes, didn’t you say the League broke you out because you were a world-class code breaker?”

  Crap.

  “I didn’t say world-class…”

  “Oh yeah!” Liam’s face lit with the most heartbreaking expression of excitement. “Can you take a stab at it?”

  Double crap.

  “I—er, I guess,” I said, careful to keep my face neutral. “Zu, can I see the notebook again?”

  They were all staring at me; they might as well have been sitting on my chest for how paralyzing it was. It was near freezing in the van without the heat on, but my body felt heavy with hot, sticky panic. I was holding on to that notebook like it was a prayer from heaven.

  I knew there were kids out there who could plug in a few dozen letters into their brain and spew out complex coordinates or immediately spot a riddle hidden in a puzzle, but I definitely was not one of them.

  Chubs snorted. “Looks like the League picked a lemon.”

  “Hey,” Liam said, his tone sharp. “We’ve been mulling over the damn thing for two weeks and have figured out exactly nothing. You can’t even give her an hour to think about it?”

  Could I sub out the letters EDO for numbers? 5-4-15? God, what other kinds of codes were there? A railroad code? No—that wasn’t right. Or was it not a code? That would make a hell of lot more sense, actually. The riddle had to be something that kids both in and out of camps could figure
out, and it couldn’t be too difficult, otherwise no one would ever get it.

  Lie, I thought, reaching up to smooth a stray piece of hair back from my face. Just lie. Just do it. Just say something! What did three-digit numbers usually represent? A price, a time, an area code—

  “Oh!” If I was right, Oh God was more like it.

  “Oh?” Liam repeated. “Oh what?”

  “I’d forgotten—well…” I corrected myself. “I could be remembering it wrong, so don’t get too excited, but I think it’s a Virginia area code.”

  “There’s no area code that’s four digits,” Chubs said. “Five-four-fifteen doesn’t work.”

  “But five-four-zero does,” I said. “People sub out O for zero when they talk sometimes, right?”

  Liam scratched the back of his head and looked over at Chubs. “Five forty? Does that sound familiar to you?”

  I turned toward Chubs, suddenly seeing him in a new light. “You’re from Virginia?”

  He crossed his arms and looked out his window. “I’m from Northern Virginia.”

  Well, that figured. “Five forty is western Virginia,” I explained to Liam. “I’m not sure how far north and south it extends, but it should be right around this area, I think.” I showed him on the map. I didn’t just think, I knew. 540 had been my area code when I lived with my parents in Salem. “There are a number of cities and towns, but there’s also a lot of undeveloped land—not a bad place to hide out.”

  “Is that a fact?” Liam kept his eyes on the road and his voice even, but there was something maybe a little bit too casual about it. “Did you grow up near there?”

  I looked down at the notebook in my hands again, feeling something clench in my chest. “No, I didn’t.”

  “Virginia Beach, then?”

  I shook my head. “Not any place you’ve been or heard of.”

  I heard Chubs’s tongue cluck as he opened his mouth to say something, but there was a sharp cough from the driver’s seat. The topic had been dropped, and no one was willing to try picking it up again, least of all me.

  “Well, it’s as good of a lead as any, though I wish the area was a little smaller.” He glanced my way. “Thanks, Ruby Tuesday.”

  A not unpleasant warmth rushed up from my center. “Don’t mention it.” And if I’m wrong… I let the thought trail off. It was a good lead.

  With one last glance down the alley to make sure it was clear, Liam refolded the map and tossed it back into the open glove box. Betty came back to life with a low growl.

  “Where are we going?” Chubs asked.

  “It’s a place I know.” Liam gave a one-shoulder shrug. “Someplace I stayed before. The drive shouldn’t take us that long—maybe two hours. If I get lost, though, one of you Virginians is going to have to step up to the plate and help me out.”

  It had been a very long time since someone had labeled me like that—as a person with a home. It was true, I had been born here, but Thurmond had been my home for nearly as long as it hadn’t. Gray walls and concrete floors had bleached out almost every memory of my parents’ house, stripping away first the small details—the smell of my mom’s honey-soaked biscuits, the order of the pictures lining the staircase wall—before going on to devour the bigger ones, too.

  I used to wonder—at night when it was quiet enough in the cabin to think, when I let myself get to the point of wishing for home—if the home in my heart was supposed to be the place where’d I’d been born, or if it was the place that was raising me. If I got to choose it, or if it had somehow already claimed me.

  The truth was, when I looked at my reflection in the window, I couldn’t see any bit of the Ruby that had lived in a little white house at the end of a lane, honey sticking to her fingers and hair falling from her braids. And it made me feel empty in a way—like I had forgotten the words to my favorite song. That girl was gone forever, and all that was left was a product of the place that had taught her to fear the bright things inside of her heart.

  We passed exit after exit to Harrisonburg and the turnoffs for James Madison University. Driving down a major highway with nothing more than a prayer that no one would pull us over wasn’t exactly my idea of a good time, but, for now, the risk seemed worth it—at least for the view.

  I loved the Shenandoah Valley, every inch of its gorgeous spread. When I was little, my parents used to pull me out of school early for a long weekend of hiking or camping. I never brought books or video games for the drive—I didn’t need them. I would just stare out the window and drink it all in.

  You know in movies, the ones set in older times, when the shot freezes on the hero or heroine gazing out over the forest, or river, and the sun catches the leaves at just the right slant, and the music begins to swell? That’s exactly how I felt as we entered the Shenandoah Valley.

  It didn’t hit me until that moment, until the first glimpse of the gauzy blue mist surrounding the mountains, that we really were in western Virginia. That if we stayed on the highway, we’d be two hours away from my parents in Salem. Two hours.

  I didn’t know how to feel about that.

  “Ugh,” Liam groaned, pointing toward the temporary road sign up ahead: 81 CLOSED BETWEEN HARRISONBURG AND STAUNTON. USE LOCAL ROADS.

  By nine o’clock in the morning, we were finally deep enough into Harrisonburg to find its pulse of life. Here and there we saw restaurants opening their doors to the morning light. We passed a few older adults pedaling away on their bikes, balancing precariously on two wheels with their briefcases or bags, their heads bent toward the sidewalk. They didn’t even look up as we passed.

  No JMU students, though. None that I could spot.

  Chubs sighed at the sight of them, leaning his forehead against the window.

  “You okay, buddy?” Liam asked. “Need to stop and smell the scholasticism?”

  “What’s the point?” Chubs shook his head. “It’s closed like all of the others.”

  I whirled around in my seat. “Why?”

  “Lack of students, mostly. If you’re old enough to go to college, you’re old enough to be drafted. Even if that wasn’t the case, I doubt people can really afford it anymore.”

  “Jesus, that’s depressing,” I said.

  “The offer still stands,” Liam told his friend. “You know I’m happy to break into a classroom for you if you need to sit in one of those cramped seats and stare at a whiteboard for a while. I know how much you like the smell of dry erase markers.”

  “I appreciate that,” Chubs said, folding his hands in his lap, “but it’s not necessary.”

  We passed what I thought must have been a black wrought iron fence, but it was almost impossible to see, trapped as it was beneath what looked to be raggedy, patchwork blanket. It wasn’t until we got closer that I realized what we were actually looking at: hundreds, maybe thousands of sheets of paper that had been tied and taped onto the fence or stuck between the thin bars.

  Liam slowed the car, tilting his sunglasses down to squint at them.

  “What do they say?” Chubs asked. “I can’t…”

  Zu only put her head back down and shut her eyes.

  They were “Missing” posters with the faces of little kids and teenagers, photographs, signs whose wording had been smeared away by rain—the biggest of these being a banner that said nothing more than MATTHEW 19:14. It hung crookedly, almost like someone had tried to rip it down, only to have someone else come along and halfheartedly string it back up. The wall of faded paper took a beating as the wind blew through the fences, ripping some of the more decrepit sheets free and making others flutter like hummingbird wings. And where there was room, we saw stuffed animals and flowers and blankets and ribbons.

  No, not missing, I thought. Those kids had been taken, or really were gone forever. Their parents and families were searching for them, posting their pictures, because they wanted them back. Needed them.

  “God.” Liam’s voice sounded strained. “Where did they say we could pick the eig
hty-one back up again?”

  The ash trees lining the lonely one-lane back road were just coming into their lovely young skin, but in the afternoon light their shadows couldn’t have been longer.

  FOURTEEN

  I SLIPPED OFF INTO SLEEP somewhere between Staunton and Lexington, and woke up just in time to get a perfect view of the towering white warehouse that was Roanoke, Virginia’s former Walmart.

  Sure, the blue sign was still clinging desperately to the side of the building, but that was about the only recognizable thing about the Supercenter. A number of stray carts wandered across the parking lot aimlessly, carried this and that way depending on each moody gust of wind. With the exception of a few abandoned cars and green Dumpsters, the enormous blacktop parking lot was empty. Against the tangerine blush of the afternoon sun, it looked like the apocalypse had already touched down in Virginia.

  And we were only a stone’s throw away from Salem. A ten-minute drive. My stomach clenched at the thought.

  Once again, Liam insisted on going in alone to check it out. I felt Zu’s rubber glove on my arm and didn’t need to look at her face to know what kind of expression I would find there. She didn’t want him charging into what looked like an honest-to-God hellhole alone anymore than I did.

  This is why you stayed, I reminded myself. To take care of them. And, in that moment, the person that needed me most was the one walking away.

  I jumped out of Betty, my hand gripping the door handle.

  “Honk the horn three times for trouble,” I said, and slid the door shut. Liam must have heard, because he waited for me, leaning against one of the rusted shopping cart stalls.

  “Any way I could convince you to go back to Betty?”

  “Nope,” I said. “Come on.”

  He fell in step beside me, fists dug deep in his pockets. I couldn’t see his eyes, but the way he was slouching toward the demolished doors was telling enough.

  “You asked me before how I knew about this place.…” he said, when we were nearly to the entrance.

  “No—no, it’s okay. I know, none of my business.”

 
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