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The darkest minds, p.22
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       The Darkest Minds, p.22

         Part #1 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken
 

  Liam found us there a short while later, just as Zu was tying off the braid she’d woven in my hair with a glittery hair tie. I sat on the tile and she sat on the shelf behind me like some fairy queen. “Magnificent!” I told her, when she held a broken mirror out in front of my face. “You are incredible.”

  And my reward for that was the feeling of her arm’s birdlike bones twining around my neck. I twisted around so that I was facing her, because I wanted her to see my face—I wanted her to see how serious, how sincerely I meant it when I repeated myself. “You are incredible.”

  “You two have been busy, I see.”

  Liam leaned against the aisle’s endcap, eyebrows raised. Zu bounded toward him, scooping up the shirts and socks she’d picked for him.

  “Thank you—oh God, Chubs is going to piss his pants when he sees this!” His hand came down to rest on top of her head. “Jeez, I leave you two alone for a little while and you clean out the joint. Good job.”

  I pushed myself up off the floor, helping them gather up the clothes and supplies we’d managed to scrounge up. That done, we started our slow, reluctant shuffle back to the others. All three of us seemed to be aware that once we left that peaceful moment, it would be behind us forever.

  Zu had only just darted out a few steps ahead of us when Liam turned to me and said, “Thanks for doing this. I’m glad you got what I meant.” He gave my braid a little playful tug. “I just wanted to ask them a few more questions.”

  “And you didn’t want”—I nodded toward Zu—“to hear?”

  He looked down at his feet, and when he looked back up, his ears were pink. “Yeah, but also…you were kind of distracting them.”

  “What? I’m sorry I threatened them or whatever, but—”

  “No—distracting them,” Liam repeated. “With your…face.”

  “Oh.” I recovered quickly. “Did you get anything useful out of them?”

  “The names of a few of the friendlier tribes, a few cities under lockdown for insurrection—stuff like that. I just wanted to get a sense of what was happening in Virginia.”

  “I meant about the Slip Kid,” I said, maybe a little too eagerly.

  “Nothing we didn’t have before. Apparently everyone takes some sacred oath not to reveal more information than that. Totally ridiculous.”

  “They really wouldn’t give you any more information?” I said.

  Liam looked down at the ground. “Greg made us an offer—a trade—but we turned him down.”

  “What did he want?” What was so valuable that they wouldn’t trade it for the one thing that would reunite them with their families? Black Betty?

  “Doesn’t matter,” Liam said, and there was finality in his voice. “If those numbnuts managed, I’m sure we can find East River ourselves. Eventually.”

  “Yeah,” I said, with a light laugh. “True.”

  Out of the corner of my eye, I watched him hoist the pile of clothes onto his shoulder, his gaze never leaving where Zu was hopping and skipping through the field of cans and old magazines. I glanced down at a blond movie star’s face as we passed it, my eyes falling over the words SHE FINALLY TELLS ALL printed under her face.

  “Can I ask you something?”

  “Of course,” he said. “What’s up?”

  “Why are you looking for the Slip Kid?” I asked. I felt his eyes on me, and I knew what explanation was coming. “I mean, besides wanting to help Chubs and Zu get there, and trying to deliver Jack’s letter. Is it because you want to go home, or…?”

  “Any reason in particular you’re asking?” His voice was even. Testing.

  “The questions you were asking them about the camp,” I explained. “It just seemed like you were trying to figure something out.”

  Liam didn’t reply for a long while, not until the tents they’d set up for the night were in sight. Even then, it wasn’t an answer. “Why do you want to find the Slip Kid?”

  “Because I want to be able to see my grandmother.” Because I need to understand how to control my abilities before they destroy everyone I care about. “But you didn’t answer my question.”

  Zu dashed through our tent flap, and the lantern in the tent lit up Chubs’s delighted face. When she handed his new things over, he folded her into an enormous hug, lifting her off her feet with the force of it.

  “It’s…the same as you,” he said. “I just want to get home.”

  “Where’s that?”

  “See, that’s the funny thing,” he said. “It used to be North Carolina, but I’m not so sure anymore.”

  We stood staring at each other for a moment, nearly toe to toe, and when he lifted the flap of the tent for me, I couldn’t help but wonder if he had picked up on my half-truth as easily as I had picked up on his.

  SIXTEEN

  IT WAS AN HOUR, MAYBE MORE, before liam’s breathing evened out and he began to snore. He slept flat on his back, his hands resting against the soft flannel of his shirt. His face, which earlier had seemed marked by old, bruising shadows, looked young again. He might have been able to pass as a twenty-year-old with his facial scruff and solid build, but he didn’t fool anyone while tucked away in sleep.

  His face was turned toward Zu, who slept between us under a mountain of blankets and was currently the only thing that was keeping me from inching closer to him; from slipping my hand under his bigger one and learning the contents of his dreams.

  But the distance between us was there for a reason. Imagining a future in which I didn’t exist, in which I had unwittingly erased myself from his memories, kept my hands pinned under my legs and my mind, for once, in check.

  When I heard Greg and his pals stir in their tents next to ours, I finally gave up all pretense of sleep. Their voices began as a low murmur indistinguishable from one another, and grew louder as the minutes ticked by. Finally, they turned their lantern on to the lowest setting, just enough to be visible through our own green tent’s shell.

  I slipped out the other side of the tent, careful to keep my footsteps soft against the concrete. Their whispers grew in volume and urgency the closer I came.

  “—them,” Greg mumbled. “We don’t owe them anything.”

  My hands clenched at my side, all of the anxiety and distrust that had been swelling up inside of me over the past few hours coming to a head. For a single second, I wished that I had brought my backpack inside the store with me. The panic button was there, waiting to be used if the situation blew up fast and ugly. Stupid Ruby, I thought. Stupid.

  I wasn’t worried about taking care of Greg and his friends. Even with their guns, we still had a chance. But if they tried to pull something while we were asleep, or if they called in reinforcements—

  My feet stopped mid-stride.

  Chubs had beaten me to guard duty.

  He sat facing the tents, his long, spidery legs crossed in front of him, and Zu’s workbook in his lap. He was leaning toward the others’ tents, concentrating so hard on picking up their conversation that he missed my approach and nearly jumped out of his skin when I appeared.

  “Zu?” He squinted in my direction.

  “Zu?” I whispered back. “Really?” I mean, really?

  I took Zu’s workbook and pencil out of his hands and flipped the page without looking at whatever he had been writing.

  WHAT ARE YOU DOING? I wrote, showing it to him. He rolled his eyes and refused to respond when I tried to put the pencil back in his hand.

  DO YOU THINK THEY’RE GOING TO TRY SOMETHING?

  After a moment, he sighed and finally nodded.

  ME TOO, I scribbled. COME WITH ME?

  By the way his shoulders slumped, Chubs seemed to think he didn’t have much of a choice. He stood quickly and quietly, wiping his palms against the front of his khaki pants.

  “I have a bad feeling about this,” Chubs said when we were out of earshot. The tents were in our line of sight, but we weren’t in theirs. “About them.”

  “Do you think they’re going to
try to rob us?”

  “I think they’re going to try to take Betty, actually.”

  There was a long pause; I felt Chubs’s eyes slide over to me, but my own were fixed on the tents, watching for trouble.

  “You should go back to sleep.” There was a gruff edge to his voice as he crossed his arms over his chest. But there was also something about the way he said it that made me wonder if he was waiting to see what I would reply. “What are you even doing up?”

  “Same as you, I guess,” I said. “Making sure no one gets brutally mugged, beaten, or murdered in their sleep. Watching to see if those kids are the assholes I think they are.”

  Chubs snorted at that, rubbing his hand over his forehead. It took some time in silence, but I felt the air between us ease from a guarded hostility to something that felt to me like acceptance. His shoulders were no longer bunched up with tension, and when he tilted his head toward me, I saw it for the subtle invitation it was. I took a step closer.

  “It was bad enough he had to come back here,” Chubs mumbled, more to himself than to me. “God…”

  “Liam?” I asked. “This is where he and his friend were captured, right?”

  Chubs nodded. “He’s never told me the whole story, but I think what happened was that he and Felipe were traveling and ran into a tribe of Blues. Instead of recruiting them like Lee hoped, the tribe beat the hell out of them and stole everything they had—food, packs, family pictures, you name it. They came here for a few days to regroup, but they were in such bad shape that they couldn’t get away when the skip tracers finally showed up.”

  Something hard settled in my throat.

  “Lee thinks that that tribe probably called them in,” Chubs continued. “That they got a cut of the reward.”

  I didn’t know what to say. The thought of a kid, of any of us, turning against our own kind made me want to smash the shelf we were leaning against into a heap of metal.

  “I trust Liam,” I said slowly. “He’s such a good person, but he’s so easy for others to read—and they don’t have the best intentions.”

  “Exactly,” Chubs said. “He’s so busy looking inside people to find the good that he misses the knife they’re holding in their hand.”

  “And even then he’d probably blame himself for the person having the knife to begin with, and apologize for being such a tempting target.”

  That was what troubled me the most about Liam—if he was any more trusting and good-hearted, he would have been a Boy Scout. It was either an amazing feat of stubbornness or naiveté, I thought, for someone who had seen so much death and suffering to still believe so unconditionally that everyone was as stand-up as he was. It was something that inspired both exasperation and a fierce sense of protectiveness in me—and Chubs, too, it seemed.

  “I think we both know he’s far from perfect, no matter how hard he tries,” Chubs said, settling himself down on the ground and leaning back against the empty shelf. “He’s never been a big thinker, that one. Always rush, rush, rushing to do whatever his gut tells him to, and then drowning in his own self-pity and guilt when things blow up in his face.”

  I nodded, absently fiddling with a tear in the sleeve of my new plaid shirt I hadn’t noticed before taking it. After hearing Liam with Zu, I knew that he felt an intense guilt over what had happened the night of their breakout, but it sounded like it might run even deeper than that.

  “I can fix that for you later.” Chubs nodded toward the torn fabric. His long fingers were splayed out over his knees, tapping against the bones. “Just remind me.”

  “Who taught you how to sew, anyway?” I asked. Apparently it was not the right question to ask. Chubs’s back went stiff and straight, like I had dropped an ice cube down the back of his shirt.

  “I don’t know how to sew,” he snapped, “I know how to stitch. Sewing is for decoration; stitching is for saving lives. I don’t do this because I think it’s pretty or fun. I do it for practice.”

  He stared at me over the rims of his glasses. Waiting to see if I got what he was trying to say.

  “My dad taught me how to stitch before I went into hiding,” he said, finally. “In case of emergencies.”

  “Is your dad a doctor?” I asked.

  “He’s a trauma surgeon.” Chubs didn’t bother to hide the pride in his voice. “One of the best in the D.C. area.”

  “What does your mom do?”

  “She used to work for the Department of Defense, but got fired when she refused to register me in the IAAN database. I don’t know what she’s doing now.”

  “They sound great,” I said.

  Chubs snorted, but I could see him warm to the compliment.

  The minutes dragged by, and the conversation waned. I found myself reaching for Zu’s notebook and flipping it open to the beginning. The first few pages were mostly sketches and doodles, but those gave way to page after page of math problems. Liam’s handwriting was neat and precise, and, surprisingly, so was Zu’s.

  —Betty traveled 118 miles in three hours. How fast was Lee driving?

  —You have five Snickers bars to share with three friends. You cut them in half. How many will each friend get? How can you make sure the leftovers get shared equally so Chubs doesn’t complain?

  And then I got to a page with completely different handwriting. Messy and smeared. The letters were darker, as if the writer had been pressing down on the paper too hard.

  I’m not sure what else can be said about this book that hasn’t already been said. I’m

  out of clever things to say, I’m afraid. Jonathan Swift has always been a favorite, but I

  can’t get over how clever his wordplay is throughout the novel. I really can’t

  get over how similar it is to Robinson Crusoe at times, especially when he’s on the ship

  to Lilliput. Though his interaction with the Lilliputians wasn’t the strongest section,

  you would be hard pressed to find equally clever interplay of parody and originality. I

  can see why the book has been studied so carefully by scholars over the years. We

  meet Gulliver as a dreamy young man in search of adventure, trying to get

  anywhere that would involve sea travel, and see him evolve masterfully. If I had to

  name the best section of the book, it would probably be the Laputians section, a

  place I would greatly like to visit, because my own head is often stuck in the clouds,

  and to be able to study philosophy and mathematics all day—a dream. There was a

  time or two over the course of the novel that I felt Swift had gone overboard and

  missed some opportunities to drive home his idea of what the ideal society should be.

  You, as the reader, are left to figure it out for yourself. This book is perfect if you

  love thought-provoking literature from an objective, rational viewpoint, or if

  you dream about one day traveling the world yourself.

  “Umm…” I held the page up for him to see. “This yours?”

  “Give me that,” he said. His face was wild with panic. Not just panic—by the way his nostrils flared and his hand shook, it was almost like I had scared him half to death. Guilt shot through me. I passed it back to him and watched him tear that sheet of paper out.

  “Hey, I’m sorry,” I said, worried about the tinge of green coloring his face. “I didn’t mean anything by it. I’m just wondering why you’d practice writing essays when you said you didn’t think we’d ever get to go back to school.”

  He continued to stare at me for several seconds, until something in his stony expression finally gave. Chubs blew out the breath he’d been holding.

  “I’m not practicing for school.” Instead of tucking the sheet of paper inside the briefcase, he laid it out between us. “Before…before camp, my parents thought the PSFs were investigating them, which, you know, they were. They sent me up to my grandparents’ cabin to hide, and—you remember what I said about the
Internet being policed? We had to find a way around it, especially when they started putting pressure on Mom at work.”

  I glanced down at the sheet of paper again. “So you used to send book reviews?”

  “I had a laptop and a few wireless Internet cards,” he said. “We would post book reviews online. It was the only way we could think of to talk without them catching on.”

  He leaned over, covering the paper so only the first column of words was visible. I’m out can’t get to you can meet anywhere name place and time missed you love you.

  “Oh.”

  “I wanted to write it out now,” Chubs said. “In case I can get online, but only have a few minutes.”

  “You’re pretty genius,” I said slowly. “Your whole family.”

  I got a snort in response. Duh.

  The question I really wanted to ask him was inching its way up my throat when he pulled a deck of cards out of his briefcase.

  “Want to play a few games?” he asked. “We’re going to be here a while.”

  “Sure…but I only know Old Maid and Go Fish.”

  “Well.” He cleared his throat. “We don’t have the right deck for Old Maid and, unfortunately for you, I excel at Go Fish. I won the Go Fish tournament in fifth grade.”

  I grinned, waiting for him to deal my cards. “You are a star, Chubs, a—” His nose wrinkled at the name. “I can’t call you by anything else if I don’t know your real name.”

  “Charles,” he replied. “Charles Carrington Meriwether IV, actually.”

  I tried to keep my face as straight as possible. Of course he would be named something like that. “Okay, Charles. Charlie? Chuck? Chip?”

  “Chip?”

  “I don’t know, I thought it was kind of cute.”

  “Ugh. Just call me Chubs. Everyone else does.”

  I figured it out.

 
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