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The darkest minds, p.21
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       The Darkest Minds, p.21

         Part #1 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken

  “How, then?”

  “Easy,” Greg said, with a highly unnecessary wink in my direction. “We used what was left. I put an ad in my hometown paper with a message only my brother would get.”

  I didn’t need to look to know that Chubs had narrowed his eyes. He tensed beside me. “And who paid for this ad? The editors didn’t just let you put that in there for free, did they?”

  “No, the Slip Kid paid,” Greg said. “He set everything up for me.”

  I sat up straight, kicking aside some of the empty foil wrappers. “You’ve actually been in contact with the Slip Kid?”

  “Oh yes. He’s like…a god,” Collins said, his breath rushing out. “He gathered all of us together. Kids from all over New England and the South. Every color. Older kids, young ones, too. They say that the PSFs stay away from his court in the woods because they’re afraid of him. That he set his camp on fire and killed all the PSFs sent to bring him back.”

  “Who is he?” I asked.

  The four of them grinned at one another, the jumping shadows from the emergency lights making them look even smugger.

  “What else?” Chubs said, sucking all of this down eagerly. “How was he able to send the money for the ad? What’s East River like—where is it?”

  I glanced back over my shoulder to Liam, who stood behind me, leaning against what used to be a TV dinner freezer. He’d been strangely quiet the entire time, his lips pressed tight together, but his face otherwise perfectly devoid of emotion.

  “They have a sweet setup at East River,” Collins said. “But if you want to get to East River, you have to find it for yourself.”

  “Sounds that way,” Liam said, finally. “Are there a lot of kids there?”

  The four of them had to think about this. “More than a hundred, but not, like, in the thousands,” Greg said. “Why?”

  Liam shook his head, but I was surprised to see a hint of disappointment there. “Just wondering. Most never were in camps, I take it?”

  “Some.” Greg shrugged. “And some found it after dodging skip tracer or PSF custody.”

  “And the Slip Kid—he doesn’t have…” Liam seemed to struggle to figure out how to ask his question. “He doesn’t have plans for them, does he? What’s his endgame?”

  The others seemed to find the question as strange as I did. It wasn’t until Greg said, “No endgame. Just livin’, I guess,” that I realized I hadn’t once thought about the reason why Liam would be looking for the Slip Kid. I’d just assumed that he and the others wanted to find him to get home and to deliver Jack’s letter—but if that really was the case, what had sparked the fire in Liam’s eyes? His hands were stuffed in his jacket pockets, but I could see the outline of them curling into fists.

  “What about directions?” I asked.

  “Well, now.” Something changed in Greg’s expression; a slick smile took over his face as his free hand landed on my foot. The brothers, Kyle and Kevin, hadn’t said a word since we’d sat down in their makeshift encampment in the freezer aisles, but now looked at each other with identical expressions of knowing. I tried to gulp back the revulsion rising in me.

  “I’m sure they’d be happy to have you,” Greg said, his fingers sliding up from my shoe to stroke my ankle. I started to push away but stopped when he added, “It’s in a really great location near the coast, but there just aren’t a whole lot of girls. They could use something so…nice to look at.”

  His fingers moved again, tracing a line up my calf. “You should go. It’s safer than getting caught by one of the tribes. There’s a group of Blue kids that hangs out around Norfolk—they’re nasty. Steal the clothes right off your back. There was a tribe of Yellows around here for a while, but a kid we were in camp with claims they were all taken in by PSFs.”

  All of this tribe stuff was new to me. Kids banding together and roving the countryside, trying to avoid getting caught, taking care of one another? Amazing.

  Greg’s warm, fleshy palm continued its ascent until it swallowed up my knee and squeezed—and that was as far as he was ever going to get. I felt the trickle at the back of my mind, the buzz that pushed past even my anger, and had to close my eyes at the flash of images that followed. A glimpse of a shining yellow shell of a school bus coming down a dirt road. A woman’s blurry face, her mouth moving in silent song. A campfire flaring up into the night sky. The faces of Kevin and Kyle leaning close to what looked like a clock radio, in the middle of a trashed electronics store; the numbers on the clock’s face were climbing, but not counting time. They lit an electric green glow in the dark—310, 400, 460, 500, until it finally stopped on—

  My hand clenched into a fist as I started to detach from both Greg and his silky swarm of memories, but Chubs was already there. He reached across my lap and began to peel Greg’s fingers off, one by one, with a look of pure disdain. For his part, Greg only looked slightly dazed, his eyes glassy, unaware of what I had just done. I glanced around wildly, my heart lodged somewhere between my mouth and chest, but no one seemed to have noticed my slip. The only one who moved was Chubs, and it was just to scoot closer to me.

  Damn it, I thought, squeezing my eyes shut again. One hand drifted up to press against my forehead, as if I could hold back the invisible fingers there by force. Too close. That was way too close.

  “What was that kid’s name again? The Yellow who worked with us in the kitchen? Fred? Frank?” Collins lay back on his sleeping bag, folding his hands over his chest.

  “Felipe—Felipe Marino?” Greg’s eyes came back into full focus and continued up my legs, past where his hand had been allowed.

  “Felipe?” Liam interrupted, as if coming out of a trance. “Did you say Felipe Marco?”

  “You know him?”

  Liam nodded. “We traveled together for a while.”

  “Must have been before he got his ass caught here,” Greg said. “He was the one that told us about this place. Said he was here with his friend—that you?”

  “Yeah. What happened to him?” Liam knelt, wedging himself between Greg and me. “They brought us to separate camps.”

  Greg shrugged. “He was in one of the earlier buses they were taking to Maryland. Who knows?”

  So the Yellows at their camp had been removed, too. They must have only been taken from the bigger camps, not the smaller ones that had been cobbled together farther west.

  “I miss that kid. He was smart. Knew how to use his powers—better than your pet, at least. Might as well send her back for all the good she’s going to do for you.” Greg nodded toward Zu, who was sitting with her back to us, working through the pages of multiplication problems Liam had made for her.

  And that was about as much as I could take.

  “You have two seconds to tell me you’re kidding,” I said, “or I’m punching you in the face.”

  “Do it,” Chubs hissed beside me.

  But Liam put a firm hand on my shoulder, effectively shutting down any chance I had of making good on my threat. He kept his face passive, easygoing, but his breath hitched in his throat. He stretched his fingers out, brushing them against mine on the floor. I jolted at the touch but couldn’t bring myself to pull away.

  Greg held up his hands. “All I’m saying is there’s something off about her. She’s not like the others, is she?” He leaned closer. “Is she retarded? Did they do testing on her?”

  “She’s mute, not deaf,” Liam cut in smoothly. “And I promise you, she’s probably five times smarter than the seven of us put together.”

  “I’m not so sure about that,” Chubs began. “I’m—”

  Liam silenced him with a look and brought his lips down next to my ear. “Take Zu?”

  I nodded, my fingers tapping his to show that I understood. I pushed myself up off the ground, feeling calmer now.

  When I reached Zu, I held out my hand to her. She raised hers without looking up, blindly reaching for mine. I stared at the yellow glove in front of me, streaked with dirt and black grime, an
d, despite what had happened a few minutes before, pulled it right off her little fingers.

  I couldn’t say why I had done it; maybe being so close to Liam and not losing control had made me stupidly brave, or maybe I was just sick of the reality that forced her into them. All I knew for sure was that if I never saw Zu wear those gloves again, it would be too soon.

  Zu jerked when she felt the warm skin of my hand against hers, and tried to tug away. Her eyes went wide, but I couldn’t tell if it was from worry or wonder.

  “Come on,” I said, squeezing her hand. “Girl time.”

  Her face brightened, but she didn’t smile.

  “Don’t go too far,” Liam called after us.

  “Don’t go too far,” the other boys echoed, then burst out into laughter.

  Zu’s nose wrinkled in disgust.

  “I know what you mean,” I said, and took her as far away from them as I could.

  For the first ten or so minutes we spent walking around the store, Zu kept turning to look at our linked hands, as if she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Every now and then, some bin of unwanted DVDs or an aisle endcap of pointless knickknacks would catch her attention, but her dark eyes would always wander back to where our hands swung between us. We had just turned down one of many ravaged cleaning supply aisles when she gave my arm a tug.

  “What’s wrong?” I asked, kicking aside a stray mop.

  Zu pointed at the glove I was twirling around with my free hand.

  I lifted our hands between us. “What’s so bad about this?”

  She blew out the breath she had been holding, and it was evident I had missed the point. I was dragged all the way to the other end of the aisle, where she let go of my hand to snatch a white box from the shelf. Zu went to work tearing the box open, tossing aside the foam and plastic stuffing to get the old-fashioned silver toaster inside.

  “I’m not sure we’re going to need that,” I started slowly.

  She pinned me with a look that very clearly said, Quiet, please.

  Zu tugged the other glove off her hand and spread all ten fingers out along either side of the appliance. After a moment, I saw her shut her dark eyes.

  The metal piping that served as the toaster’s innards heated to a glowing red. A long black cord dangled near her feet, unplugged. The cheap little thing only lasted another minute before its insides started to melt together. I made her put it down at the first sign of smoke.

  See? she seemed to be saying. Get it?

  “But you can’t do that to me,” I said, reaching for her hand again. “You don’t have to worry about hurting me, because you never could.”

  I know how it feels, is what I really should have been saying. I know what it’s like to be scared of what you can barely control.

  I had forced myself to stop thinking about what I had done to that undercover PSF. I didn’t let myself wonder if I could do it again, let alone test it out. But how, I wondered, were either of us ever going to learn to control ourselves if we couldn’t practice? If we couldn’t stretch and test boundaries?

  “Let’s see if we can find something useful,” I said, slipping my fingers around hers again. I waited until I felt her hand close against mine before leading her back down the aisle. “What do you think—”

  I’m not even sure what I was about to ask her, but she wasn’t paying attention to me. Zu stopped so suddenly and gripped my hand so damn hard, that I stumbled back a few steps. My eyes followed the line of her outstretched arm to the upended clothing and shoe racks.

  More specifically, to the lone hot pink dress dangling from an otherwise empty rack.

  Zu took off at a run, blitzing down the aisles of extension cords and buckets. I tried to keep up with her, but it was like the wind had caught her heels and was propelling her forward. She stopped just short of the rack. I watched, fascinated, as one of her hands reached out to stroke the fabric, only to pull back at the last second.

  “Beautiful,” I told her. The dress itself flared out at the waist, with a big ribbon bow at the place where the sleeveless top met the pink and white striped skirt. She looked like she wanted nothing more than to pull it down, hug it to her chest, and press her face against the satiny fabric.

  I could think of about a thousand things I missed while I was at Thurmond, but dresses were not on that list. My dad’s favorite story to tell strangers and indulgent relatives was the day he and Mom tried to button me up into a blue one for his birthday party when I was three. Because the buttons were so small and impossible for me to reach, I shredded the fabric by hand, bit by gauzy bit. I spent the rest of the party proudly parading around in Batman underwear.

  “Are you going to try it on?” I asked.

  She looked back up at me and shook her head. Her hands dropped from where they were hovering over the plastic hanger’s shoulders, and it took me a moment to recognize what was happening.

  Zu thought she didn’t deserve it. She thought it was too nice, too new, too pretty. I felt a sweltering hate rise in me, but I didn’t know where to direct it. Her parents, for sending her away? Her camp? The PSFs?

  I pulled the dress off the silver rack with one hand and took Zu’s arm in the other. I knew she was looking at me again, her dark eyes wide with confusion, but instead of explaining—instead of trying to force her to understand the words I wanted to say—I led her over to the dressing rooms in the center of the clothing section, thrust the dress into her hands, and told her to try it on.

  It was like tugging a boat in to dock on a thin line. The first few times I handed it to her, she would put it down and I’d have to pick it back up again. I don’t know if her desire finally won out, or if I’d managed to exhaust even her wariness, but by the time she appeared, peeking out from around her dressing room’s door, I was so relieved I almost cried.

  “You look amazing.” I turned her back around, so she could see herself in the room’s tall mirror. When I finally coaxed her to look, I felt her shoulders jerk under my hands—saw her eyes go huge and bright, only to droop again a moment later. Her fingers began to pluck at the fabric. She was shaking her head, as if to say, No, no I can’t.

  “Why not?” I asked, turning her so she was looking at me. “You like it, right?”

  She didn’t look up, but I saw her nod.

  “Then what’s the problem?” At that, I caught her sneak another look at herself in the corner of the mirror. Her hands were smoothing the fabric of the skirt, and she didn’t seem aware of it in the slightest.

  “That’s right,” I said. “There is no problem. Let’s see what else we can find.”

  After, she wanted to find something for me. Unsurprisingly, the adult section had been decimated by looters; my choices seemed limited to hunting gear and industrial jumpsuits. After several patient explanations about why I didn’t need the silky cornflower blue nightgown or the skirt with daisies on it, she—with a look of total and complete exasperation—accepted that I was only ever going to try on jeans and plain T-shirts.

  And then she pointed to the bra rack, and a part of me wanted to crawl under the discarded piles of kids’ pajamas and die. The letters and numbers might as well have been in Chinese for how much sense I could make of them, and I half expected Zu to start laughing when the first touch of frustrated tears welled up in my eyes.

  There were not many times I’d stop and think, I wish Mom were here. I understood now, at least, that what I had done to her I could never fix. She would never look at me again and recognize me, and I would never be able to think of anything other than the look in her eyes when she saw me that morning. It was strange how my feelings about her seemed to change by the minute; that one moment I could remember what it felt like for her to brush my hair, and the next, be furious that she had abandoned me. That she hadn’t taught me how to live in my own skin and be a girl, like she was supposed to.

  But whose fault was that, really?

  Zu’s lips puckered in thought, her eyebrows knitting together as she
surveyed the Everest of undergarments in front of us. She began to pluck one of every size, tossing them back toward me until both of us were laughing ourselves silly for no real reason at all.

  Eventually, I found what I thought might have been the right fit for me. It was hard to tell; they had all been so damn uncomfortable with their wires and pinching straps. While I changed out of my dress, Zu happily pulled together an outfit for herself that looked like something out of a store catalog—the pink dress, white leggings beneath it, and a jean jacket that was one or two sizes too big for her. The rest of the things she found were stuffed into a flower patterned backpack I pulled down off a display for her. Now that she had found her own things, she wanted to go the whole hog and pick out things for the boys, too.

  When I found her a new pair of tennis shoes with rosy laces, she actually wrapped her arms around my waist and hugged me, like she could squeeze the thanks into me. And while Zu was not especially impressed by the pair of short black boots I found for myself in the men’s section, she didn’t try to force any of the ribbon flats or towering high heels on me.

  Zu was in the process of neatly folding a button-down shirt she had chosen for Chubs when I remembered something.

  “I’ll be right back,” I told her. “Wait right here, okay?”

  It took me a few minutes to find the aisle again. Liam and I had walked past it so quickly as we made our way toward the back of the store, I wasn’t altogether sure that I hadn’t imagined seeing them. But there they were, just above the cleaning supplies—a pair of bright pink rubber gloves dangling amid a sea of traditional yellow ones.

  “Hey, Zu,” I called as I made my way back to her. I dangled them out in front of me and waited for her to turn around. When she did, her mouth actually fell open. She was so dazzled by her new gloves that she walked with her hands stretched out in front of her—the way a princess examining the collection of fine jewelry around her fingers and wrists would. I watched her curtsy and twirl in her new dress as we lapped the store, all the while her feet dancing over the evidence of what had happened at the checkout lanes. Watching her, feeling the exhilaration swelling in my chest, I couldn’t say I was all that aware of the broken glass and flickering monitor displays, either. We turned down the dimly lit corridor of cosmetics, and I could barely keep the grin off my face.

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