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The darkest minds, p.20
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       The Darkest Minds, p.20

         Part #1 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken
 

  “Green,” Liam said. “It’s okay. I just don’t know where to begin. You know Chubs and I were both in hiding? Well, it wasn’t exactly pleasant for either of us. He at least got to stay at his grandparents’ cabin in Pennsylvania.”

  “Ah, but you had the pleasure of holing up in this fine American establishment.”

  “Among other places.” Liam said. “I…don’t like to talk about that time in front of Zu. I don’t want her to think that that’s what her life is going to be.”

  “But you can’t lie to her,” I said. “I know you don’t want to scare her, but you can’t pretend that her life isn’t going to be hard. It’s not fair.”

  “Not fair?” He sucked in a sharp breath, closing his eyes. When he spoke again, his voice had returned to his usual soft tones. “Never mind, forget it.”

  “Hey,” I said, taking his arm. “I get it, okay? I’m on your side. But you can’t act like it’s going to be easy. Don’t do that to her—don’t set her up to be crushed. I was in camp with thousands of kids who grew up thinking Mommy and Daddy were always going to be there for them, and they—we—are all coming out of this seriously damaged.”

  “Whoa, whoa,” Liam said, all traces of anger gone. “You are not damaged.”

  That, I could have protested until I was blue in the face.

  Whoever had unhooked Walmart’s glass sliding doors from their tracks hadn’t done a good job of finding a safe place to store them. Shards of glass coated the cement floor, blown out dozens of feet from the black metal frames. We stepped over and through their mangled shapes, entering that small, strange space where the greeter would have been.

  Next to me, Liam’s foot slipped against the sallow dust collected on the floor. I shot an arm out to brace him as he grunted in surprise. Even as I helped him right himself, his eyes remained fixed on the ground, where a dozen footprints fanned out in the dust.

  Every shape and size, from the jagged pattern of the sole of a man’s hiking boot to the decorative swirly curls left behind by a young child’s tennis shoe, all stamped out there like cookies cut from a fresh spread of dough.

  “They could be old,” I whispered.

  Liam nodded but didn’t pull away from my side. I hadn’t fooled either of us.

  The store’s power had been shut off some time ago, and it was clear it had been open to the wild for too long. There was only a second between when we first heard the rattling in the nearby shelves and when Liam jumped in front of me. “It’s—” I began, but he silenced me with a shake of his head. We watched the shelves, waiting.

  And when the deer, a gorgeous, sweet thing with a silky caramel coat and big black eyes, came prancing out from behind the overturned magazine racks, Liam and I looked at each other, dissolving into shaky laughter.

  Liam pressed his finger to his lips and waved me forward, his eyes scanning the dark fleet of identical cash registers in front of us. Someone had taken the carts from the store and tried stuffing them in the lanes, as if to create a kind of fortified wall against any unwanted visitors. Carefully, without disturbing the pileup of plastic baskets, we climbed up and over the nearest register’s conveyer belt. Standing on top of it, I could see where more shelves had been lined up in front of the other exit. It looked as though something huge had come slamming through it at one point, bursting through the makeshift barricade.

  What did that?

  I think there’s some part of everyone, Psi or not, that’s tuned into the memories of a place. Strong feelings, especially terror and desperation, leave an imprint on the air that echo back to whoever’s unlucky enough to walk through that place again. It felt like the darkness was stroking beneath my chin with a beckoning finger, whispering to me to lean forward and know its secrets.

  Something terrible happened here, I thought, feeling a cold drip down my spine. The wind whistled through the broken doors, playing us the kind of screeching song that made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.

  I wanted to leave. This was not a safe place. This was not a place to bring Zu or Chubs—so why was Liam still going forward? Overhead, the emergency lights flickered on and off, buzzing like boxes of trapped flies. Everything beneath them was cast in a sickly green light, and as he moved farther and farther down the first aisle, it seemed like the darkness waiting at the end of it would swallow him whole.

  I sprung forward into the sea of empty metal shelves, half of which were knocked flat on their backs or leaning against others in slanted lines, their shelves buckling under some invisible weight. My sneakers squeaked as I wove through the sea of lotions, mouthwash, and nail polish on the floor. Things that seemed so necessary in the past, so vital to life, wasted and forgotten.

  When I caught up to him again, my fingers closed around the soft, loose leather of his jacket’s sleeve. At the slightest tug, Liam turned, his blue eyes lit up in surprise. I took a step back and pulled my hand back to my side, shocked at myself. It had felt natural to do it—I hadn’t been thinking at all, only feeling a very sharp, real need to be close to him.

  “I think we should leave,” I whispered. “Something about this place doesn’t feel right.” And it had nothing to do with the strange crying of the wind, or the birds high up in the old store’s rafters.

  “We’re okay,” he said. His back was to me, but he slipped his hand from his pocket. It drifted back toward me, floating up through the darkness. I didn’t know whether he meant to motion me to move forward, or for me to take it, but I couldn’t bring myself to do either.

  We walked side by side toward the back right corner of the store; it seemed that this section of the store, with all of its hardware and lightbulbs, had been left somewhat alone, or at least hadn’t seemed as useful to the people who had picked the other shelves to the bone.

  I saw where we were headed immediately. Someone had set up their own little camp, using bright blue pool rafts as mattresses. A few empty boxes of graham crackers and Hostess cupcakes were piled on top of a cooler, and on top of that was a small wireless radio and lantern flashlight.

  “Wow, I can’t believe this is still here.” Liam stood a foot behind me, his arms crossed over his chest. I followed his gaze down to the dozens of indentations in the cracked white tile. They were almost enough to distract me from the patchwork of old bloodstains on the ground beneath his feet.

  My lips parted.

  “It’s old,” Liam said, quickly, like that would make me feel any better.

  Liam reached toward me, forcing a smile. I blew out the breath I had been holding and reached up to take his hand.

  At almost the exact moment our hands touched, I saw it. The emergency light above that section of the back wall snapped back to full glare like a spotlight, illuminating the enormous black Ψ painted there, along with a very clear message: GET OUT NOW.

  The thick, uneven letters looked like they were weeping. The light crackled and went back out with a loud pop, but I still threw myself forward, out of Liam’s grip, straight for the spray-painted message. Because that smell…the way the words drooped…I pressed my fingers against the Psi symbol and they came away sticky. Black.

  Fresh paint.

  Liam had only just reached me when I felt the strangest sensation of burning, right at my core. I looked down, expecting to see a spark igniting the front of Zu’s ridiculous dress, and then I was falling, and Liam was falling on top of me. Bulldozed right over, as if we had been nothing more than two daisies poking up through the cracks in the tile.

  Liam’s shoulder rammed into my chest, knocking the air out of our lungs. I tried to lift my head to see exactly what had happened, but there was this weight—this solid, invisible slab of stone—keeping me on my back, and Liam flat against me.

  The floor was freezing at my back, but my entire focus was on the solid press of his shoulder against my cheek. Our hands were caught between us, and for a moment I had the uneasy sensation of not knowing where one of us began and the other ended. He swallowed hard, the pulse
in his throat close enough for me to hear it.

  Liam moved to lift his head, straining the muscles that lined the strong column of his spine. “Hey!” he shouted. “Who’s there?”

  The only response was another shove from the invisible hands Suddenly we were shooting across the ground, Liam’s leather jacket squealing against the dusty floor as we slid. I watched the emergency lights beyond Liam’s head pass with dizzying speed, tracking together like a single beam. Riotous laughter followed us down the aisles, seeming to come from below us, above us, on either side. I thought I saw a dark shape move out of the corner of my eye, but it looked more like a monster than a person. We tore through ribbons of ripped shower curtains, the body lotion, the bleach, to the line of cash registers at the front of the store.

  “Cut it out!” Liam yelled. “We’re—”

  There are some sounds you hear once and never forget. A bone breaking. An ice cream truck’s song. Velcro. A gun’s safety clicking off.

  No, I thought, Not now—not here!

  We slid to a painful stop at the checkout lanes, the impact with the metal jarring every sense out of my body. There was a single moment of agonizing silence before the once-dead store lights surged into brightness. And then, the cash register flashed on, conveyer belt sputtering to life—first one lane, then the next, and the next. Every single one, falling to order like soldiers. The numbered signs above blinked between yellow and blue, like a dozen warning signals, faster than my eyes could follow.

  At first I thought it was White Noise; all at once, the building’s security alarms, intercom system, and televised displays went off, a hundred different voices screaming at us. Block after block of ceiling lights snapped on, electricity pouring through them after years of existing as nothing more than hollow, dusty veins.

  Liam and I turned to see Zu, her bare right hand splayed out against a checkout lane. Chubs was next to her, his face ashen.

  After only a few seconds of Zu’s power surge, the lights on the registers began to pop like firecrackers, dropping streams of blue-white sparks and glass to the ground.

  She had only meant for it to be a distraction, I think; a flash and a bang to draw the attention of our attackers away from us long enough for an escape. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her waving us toward her, but the machine under Zu’s other hand had heated to a terrifying molten glow. I felt the invisible grip on me slacken suddenly, but fear kept me still as the dead. She wasn’t letting go. Liam and I must have had the same thought—the same scorching fear—because we pushed to our feet, shouting for her to stop.

  “Turn her off!” someone managed to shout over the alarms.

  “Zu, let go!” Liam stood and stumbled over cans of sunscreen and bug spray from a nearby display. I saw him lift his arms, ready to yank Zu away with his abilities, but Chubs was faster. He tugged the glove off Zu’s other hand and pulled it over his own, then all but ripped her arm away from the metal.

  The lights went out. Just before the overhead bulbs exploded, I saw Zu’s face as she came out of whatever trance she had been locked in. Her big eyes were rimmed with red, her short black hair on end, freckles standing out against the full flush of her oval face. The sudden darkness gave Liam the opportunity to knock both her and Chubs to the ground.

  And then, by some small miracle, the emergency lights flicked back on.

  The first sign of movement didn’t come from us. I saw our attackers clearly now, climbing over the mangled heaps of white shelves. Four of them, each dressed in layers of black, each with a gun raised and ready. My first thought, as it almost always was when I saw anyone in a black uniform, was to run. To get the others and bolt.

  But these weren’t PSFs. They weren’t even grown-ups.

  They were kids, like us.

  FIFTEEN

  AS THEY CAME CLOSER, I saw their mismatched dark clothes and the grime on their faces. They were all thin limbs and hollow cheeks, as if they had stretched out a great deal in a short period of time.

  All boys, about my age.

  All easy to take, if we had to.

  “Christ on a cracker,” the one closest to me muttered, shaking his mop of red hair. “I told you we should have checked the van first.”

  Liam’s blond head popped up from the wreckage.

  “What the hell are you fools trying to pull?” he snarled. There was another sound, too, like the mewling of a kitten. Or a little girl crying.

  I climbed over a bin of bargain DVDs to get to them. Zu sat on the floor, her pink palm facing up toward Chubs’s squinting eyes. Without the glasses perched on his nose, he looked like a different person. “She’s all right,” he said. “No burns.”

  Liam was suddenly standing beside me, using my shoulder for balance as he climbed over one of the overturned shelves.

  “You okay?” he asked.

  “Fine,” I said. “Pissed. You?”

  “Fine. Pissed.”

  I thought for sure I was going to have to hold him back as we came closer to the cluster of boys, but his fury seemed to fall away from him with each step. The other kids had regrouped beside an overturned display of neon-colored pool noodles. The tallest one, his cloud of frizzy brown hair hovering around a pencil-thin neck, stepped in front of the others—the ginger kid who had spoken before, and two big-shouldered blonds that looked like brothers.

  “Look, man, I’m sorry,” he said.

  “Do you always do crap like this?” Liam said. “Attacking folks without even checking to see if they’re armed—if they’re like you?”

  The leader bristled. “You could have been skip tracers.”

  “And it was your Yellow that did all of—this.” The ginger kid gestured toward the shelves. “The girl needs a leash.”

  “Watch your mouth,” Liam snapped. The blond brothers took a step forward, their eyes lighting at the challenge. “She wouldn’t have panicked if you hadn’t pulled guns on us.”

  “We wouldn’t have had to use them if you’d paid attention to our warning back there and just left.”

  “Because you gave us so much time to get away—” Liam snapped.

  “Look, we could go back and forth forever and it won’t solve a damn thing,” I interrupted. “We were hoping to spend the night here, but if you’ve claimed it or whatever, then we’ll go. That’s the only reason we came—for shelter.”

  “For shelter,” the leader repeated.

  “I’m sorry, did I stutter?”

  “No, but my ears are still bleeding from your Yellow’s meltdown,” he snarled. “Maybe you should say it again, baby, for good measure.”

  Liam shot out an arm, cutting off my warpath before it could start.

  “We just want to stay here a night. We’re not looking for any trouble,” he said flatly.

  The leader gave me the once-over, his eyes drifting to a stop where my hands were fisted at my side, bunching up my dress.

  “Looks like you already found it.”

  The leader’s name was Greg, and he hailed from Mechanicsville, Virginia. The nervous ginger-haired kid refused to introduce himself but was called Collins by the others. I caught that he was from some town in Pennsylvania, but that was as much as he was willing to share with anyone. The blonds—who were, as I guessed, brothers—were Kyle and Kevin. The only thing the ramshackle group had in common, outside of their pool of food and an alarming pile of firearms and knives, was their camp in New York, which they lovingly referred to only as “Satan’s Ass Crack.”

  They told the incredibly dramatic—and highly improbable—tale of their escape from PSF custody over our shared meal of fruit snacks, stale Pringles, and Twinkies.

  “Let me get this straight,” said Chubs, his face etched with disbelief. “You were being moved from one camp to another?”

  Greg leaned back against one of the glass freezer doors. “They weren’t taking us to another camp. They packed up as many guys as they could and said we were being brought to a testing facility in Maryland.”
r />   “Only guys?” Chubs asked.

  “We didn’t have girls there.” Greg’s voice was heavy with disappointment. That explained a lot—particularly why he still seemed to be inching toward me, no matter how far I scooted away. “Otherwise I’m sure they would have been loaded up, too.”

  “I’m surprised they even told you that much,” I said, trying to steer the conversation back on track. “Do you think that’s actually where they were bringing you?”

  “No,” Collins cut in. “It was pretty clear that they had orders to get rid of us.”

  “And a storm flooded the road, flipping the bus and allowing you to escape?”

  That was the part of the story I had problems with, too. It was that easy for them? A simple intervention of Mother Nature, and they were saved, washed out to freedom and a new life Biblical-style? Where was the detail of PSFs traveling with them?

  “We’ve been holed up ever since. It took something like six months to get word to my dad that I was out and safe, and another three to get some kind of response from him.”

  Chubs leaned forward. “How, exactly, did you get in touch with them? The Internet?”

  “Nah, man,” Greg said. “After that terrorist business, you can’t even search for recipes online without the PSFs snooping and breaking down your door. All they need is one whiff of trouble.”

  “What terrorists?” I interrupted.

  “The League,” Chubs said. “Don’t you remember—ah.” He seemed to realize his mistake a second late, and, with more patience than I thought he possessed, explained, “Three years ago, the League hacked into the government’s Psi databases and tried posting information about the camps online for everyone to see. Other groups took that as their cue to hack into banks, the stock exchange, the State Department…”

  “So they cracked down on it?”

  “Right. Most of the social networking sites are gone, and all of the e-mail services are required to monitor the e-mails being sent on their servers.” He turned to the other boys, who were staring at me with varying degrees of interest and curiosity. I don’t think Kevin—or was it Kyle?—had stopped staring at me the entire time I had sat there.

 
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