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The darkest minds, p.23
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       The Darkest Minds, p.23

         Part #1 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken

  It must have been half past five in the morning, well after several delirious games of cards and charades that had been brought on by too much candy and too little sleep. Both of us had been waiting for the other shoe to drop, to be proven right about the other boys. We kept the baseball bat beside us and never once turned our backs to the tents. When exhaustion finally set in, we took turns curled up on the ground, trying to steal a few minutes of sleep here and there.

  I picked up Zu’s notebook again in an attempt to avoid being lulled to sleep by Chubs’s rhythmic snores, and added a few clouds and stars to the first page of doodles. The pages fanned out under my fingers as I flipped through the notebook again, not catching until I found what I was looking for.


  It was an area code for this part of the state, I was sure of it. Grams had lived down near Charlottesville for a time, and I had a very vague memory of standing in the kitchen of my parents’ house, staring at her number printed on a notepad beside the phone. But the area it covered—that was no small bit of land, and there was no real guarantee that it was supposed to represent an area code in the first place.

  It was easier to think of it now without three eager sets of eyes on me, but slightly complicated by the fact that I was running on fumes, sleepwise. With more than enough time to kill, I started in again—rearranging them, trying to create anagrams, substituting different letters for others.

  The feeling snuck up on me slowly, crawling back up through the crowded, tired portions of my brain. The other number—540—where had I seen that? Why did it feel like—?

  When it came to me, I almost laughed. Almost.

  I had seen the number on the radio in Greg’s memory only a few hours earlier, burning brightly through even the murkiest clouds of his thoughts.

  It was 540 AM—a radio station.

  Shaking Chubs back awake wasn’t enough for me, not when I thought I would actually burst at the seams with excitement. I all but pounced onto Chubs’s back, both scaring him senseless and kneeing him in the kidney in the process. I’m not sure what sound he made when I landed, but I was fairly certain it wasn’t human.

  “Wake up, wake up, wake up!” I hissed, hauling him huffing and puffing and cursing to his feet. “When they gave you EDO, did they say anything else?”

  “Green, if I can still walk tomorrow, so help me God—”

  “Listen to me!” I hissed. “Did they say anything about tuning in, or picking it up?”

  He fixed me with a baleful look. “All they said was to check out Edo.”

  “Check out?” I repeated. “Those exact words?”

  “Yes!” he said, exasperated. “Why?”

  “I was wrong before,” I said. “I don’t think the number has anything to do with a phone number. We were right before. The last letter isn’t a letter at all—it was supposed to be a zero. Five forty. It’s some kind of radio station.”

  “How in the world did you reach that conclusion?”

  Ah. The tricky part in all of this. How to B.S. the fact I had cheated and seen the answer, rather than being in possession of brain power to actually work it through. “I was trying to think of what else uses three digit numbers, when I remembered hearing them—Greg and the others, I mean—talk about needing to find a radio here. I should have mentioned it to you guys before, but I didn’t think anything of it until now.”

  “Oh my God.” Chubs was shaking his head, mildly stunned. “I don’t even believe it. We have honestly had such shit luck this entire trip I thought at least two of us were going to end up dead in a ditch somewhere before we figured it out.”

  “We need a radio,” I said. “I think I’m right, but if I’m not…we need to test it before telling the others.”


  “No!” I wasn’t about to leave the tent unguarded, even for fifteen minutes. “I thought I saw a radio in the back—let me go grab it.”

  The store was rushing around me in dark streams and fading colors as I ran, but I wasn’t afraid of what was lurking there, not now. I hadn’t imagined the radio after all. It was back in the small cluster of rafts and blankets that Liam and his friend had set up the last time he was here.

  Chubs was pacing in front of the shelves by the time I got back. I set the small device up on a shelf that was about eye level and began to fuss with its buttons, searching for the ON switch.

  I had to be the one to start it up—and the one to fumble with the volume knob when it just about blew our eardrums out with static. The thing was ancient, a beat-up silver box, but it worked. The speakers jumped between voices, commercials, and even a few old songs I recognized.

  “It has to be AM,” Chubs said, taking the radio in his hands. “FM frequencies don’t go up past 108 or so. Here we go—”

  My first thought was that Chubs had somehow tuned it to the wrong station. I had never heard a sound like the one sputtering through the speakers—a low growl of static pierced by what sounded like a tub of broken glass being tossed around. It wasn’t painful like the White Noise, but it wasn’t pleasant, either.

  But Chubs was still grinning.

  “Do you know what this is?” he asked, and was all too happy to explain when I shook my head. “Have you heard that there are certain frequencies and pitches that only kids with a Psi brain can pick up?”

  I braced a hand on the shelf to keep from doubling over. I had. Cate had told me as much, when she explained the camp controllers had embedded a certain frequency in the White Noise to root out any of the dangerous ones still hiding out in the other cabins.

  “It’s not so much that others can’t hear the noise, it’s that their brains translate the sounds differently than ours do—really fascinating stuff. They did some testing with it at Caledonia, to see if there were any pitches that certain colors couldn’t pick up and others could, and it always sounded like this when we couldn’t—”

  No sooner had the words left his mouth, than there was another sharp click, and the noise cut off altogether, replaced by a soft, male voice whispering, “If you can hear this, you’re one of us. If you’re one of us, you can find us. Lake Prince. Virginia.”

  That same message, three times, before it clicked again and switched back to the frequency we had heard before. For a long time, Chubs and I could only stare at one another, speechless.

  “Oh my God!” Chubs said, “Oh my God!” And then we were saying it together, jumping up and down, arms flung around one another like two damn fools—like we had never, ever wanted to reach over and slap each other multiple times on multiple days. I hugged him without any kind of fear or self-consciousness, fiercely, with a rush of emotion that almost brought tears to my eyes.

  “I could kiss you!” Chubs cried.

  “Please don’t!” I gasped out, feeling his arms tighten around my ribs to the point of cracking them.

  Either by his internal clock or Chubs’s excited squeaks, Liam woke first. I saw him out the corner of my eye, his head of tousled blond hair sticking out of the tent. He looked between us once and retreated back into the tent, only to reemerge a second later looking torn between confusion and worry.

  “What’s wrong?” he asked. “What’s going on?”

  Chubs and I glanced at each other, wearing identical grins.

  “Get Zu,” I said. “You guys are going to want to hear this.”


  ACCORDING TO CHUBS, Jack Fields was the second son in a family of five kids, and the only one to survive Idiopathic Adolescent Acute Neurodegeneration. His father had owned an Italian restaurant, and his mother died of cancer when he was young. Jack was unremarkable in appearance, the kind of kid you would pass in a school hallway and not think twice about. But he was stealth cool, the only one in their room that knew what Liam was talking about when he started in on Japanese horror flicks or articles from back issues of Rolling Stone. Apparently, he liked to tell stories in weird voices and spent years scratching out a replica of New York City’s skyline on th
e converted classroom’s blackboards. The PSFs assigned to their room had been so impressed with the sheer detail of his work that they actually let him finish.

  More importantly, Jack took great pleasure in antagonizing the camp controllers by using his abilities to lift things off their belts and out of their pockets, or to throw things into their paths so that they’d trip and fall in front of everyone. To hear Chubs talk, you would have thought Jack Fields was a saint walking on earth, a disciple of Awesome, preaching the proper way to use their Blue abilities after spending years figuring it out for himself.

  Which was probably why he was the first one the camp controllers shot in the back of the head the night the kids tried to make their escape.

  Liam was silent as we approached Petersburg’s outer city limits, only nodding once or twice to confirm that the craziest parts of Chubs’s tale were true. He had been just as excited as the two of us when we dragged him over to listen to the broadcast, but slowly, over the course of a few hours, his mood had deteriorated. When Chubs’s stories died out, so did all conversation in the van.

  “It’s supposed to be really beautiful there,” I said, suddenly, then winced at how awkward it sounded. “Lake Prince, I mean.”

  Liam didn’t looked stressed so much as profoundly sad. That was what worried me—that he was sinking into something that not even our breakthrough could pull him out of.

  “I’m sure you’re right,” he said, quietly. He handed me the half-folded map. “Can you put this back in the glove box?”

  I certainly hadn’t been looking for it when I opened the small compartment, but there they were, nested on top of a pile of crumpled napkins.

  Truthfully, I had been expecting envelopes, or at the very least lined notebook paper. Which was stupid and didn’t make any sense, because it’s not like their camp had arts and crafts days. It’s not like they were just given the paper and pens. Still, I had been expecting the letters to be something…heavier. For Chubs and Liam to be carrying theirs with them.

  Jack’s letter was on top, written on half of what looked like a computer printout, folded over several times. He had managed to squeeze his father’s name in tight capital letters on the back of the paper, between the large black words: AREA RESTRICTED.

  Instead of putting the map away, I took the letter out, only vaguely aware of the argument Liam and Chubs had gotten into over the best route to Lake Prince. I wasn’t thinking much of anything as my fingers slid over the wrinkled surface, smoothing it out as I unfolded it. No date in the upper right-hand corner, just a hasty, straight to the point Dear Dad.

  I didn’t get to take in another word. Liam reached over and ripped the paper out of my hand, crumpling it slightly in his fist.

  “What are you doing?” he demanded.

  “I’m sorry, I just…”

  “You just what?” he barked. I felt my body jerk in response. “It’s personal! It’s none of your business what it says.”

  “Lee…” Chubs said, sounding every bit as surprised as I felt. “Come on.”

  “No, this is serious. We don’t read each other’s letters!”

  “Never?” I said. “What if you can’t find his dad and the letter has some clue about where he might be?”

  Liam was shaking his head, even as Chubs said, “She has a point.”

  He said nothing, but his hands trembled on the steering wheel. It was his silence that stung, and when I couldn’t take another second of it, I reached over and turned on the radio, sending up a prayer that an Allman Brothers’ song would be on. Instead, Betty picked up a news talk show.

  “—children are in containment for their own good, not just the safety of the American public. My well-placed sources in the Gray administration have informed me that all instances in which a child has been removed from rehabilitation early have resulted in their untimely death. There is simply no way to reproduce the routine of medication, exercise, and stimulation these rehab centers are using to keep your children alive.”

  Liam punched a knuckle against the volume button, trying to turn it off. Instead, the tuner jumped to the next available station, and this time it was a woman’s voice delivering the bad news. “Sources are reporting that two Psi fugitives were picked up on the Ohio–West Virginia border, traveling on foot—”

  Betty turned so hard and fast into the empty rest stop that I swore she did it on two wheels. Liam parked diagonally across three different spaces, throwing the brake on with a fast, “Be right back.” One minute he was beside me, and the next, we were watching the back of his red flannel shirt as he jumped over a puddle of stale rainwater and headed for the Colonial-style brick building and vending machines.

  “That was…dramatic.”

  I turned to look at Chubs over the seat, but he was just as confused as I was.

  “You should probably follow him,” Chubs said.

  “What should I say?”

  Chubs gave me one of his looks. “Really? You need me to spell it out for you?”

  I had no idea what he meant, but I went anyway, tracing Liam’s trail of anger and frustration past the restrooms, past the abandoned sitting area, to the other side of the building, where there was wild long grass, trees, and absolutely no way we could have seen him from Betty.

  He stood with his back toward me, sagging against the rest stop’s wall. Arms crossed over his chest, hair standing on end. I thought I was being quiet like a fox, but he knew the moment I stepped behind him. His grief hung around us like humidity, seeping into my skin. I felt the invisible fingers at the back of my mind awaken. Howling, like a feral cat that’d been caged too long.

  I kept my distance.


  “I’m okay. Go back to the van.” Again, with the forced, bright voice.

  He dropped to a crouch, then completely to the ground. But I didn’t move, not until he leaned forward and stuck his head between his knees, looking like he was about to throw up everything in his stomach.

  I stared long and hard at the place where his light hair curled against his neck, at the exact spot an old bruise disappeared down his shirt collar. My hand lifted at my side to push the soft fabric away. I wanted to see how far the ugly mark extended. To see what other old wounds he was hiding.

  You touched him before, a little voice whispered at the back of my mind, and nothing happened then.…

  Instead, I took a step back and away, so I was no longer standing directly behind him, but off to the side. Distance. Distance was good.

  “You’re right, you know,” he said quietly. “I don’t want to find the Slip Kid just to deliver Jack’s letter. I don’t even want to use him to help me find my family. I know where they are and how to reach them, but I can’t go home. Not yet.”

  Somewhere behind us, I heard one of Betty’s doors slide open, but it didn’t break the stillness of the moment. “Why not? I’m sure your parents miss you.”

  Liam rested his arms over his knees, his back still to me. “Did Chubs tell you…did he say anything to you about me and the League?”

  He couldn’t see it, but I still shook my head.

  “Harry—my stepdad—he knew from the start that the Children’s League was bad news. Said they would use us worse than Gray ever would, and wouldn’t shed one damn tear if we died helping them. Even after…even after Claire—Claire is, was, my little sister.” He cleared his throat. “Even after she was gone, he used to remind me that no amount of fighting was ever going to bring her back. Cole had already joined up with them, and he came back to get me to go with him. To fight.”

  Was. Was my sister. Was gone. Another victim of IAAN.

  “I bought into it. I was so angry, and I hated everyone and everything, but there wasn’t anyone to direct it at. I was there with them for weeks, training, letting them turn me into this weapon. Into the kind of person that would take an innocent person’s life just because it served their needs and what they wanted. My brother was like a stranger; he even kept this—this thing
he called a kill chart in our room. And he’d add to it, every time he killed someone important. Every time he completed a mission. And I would come in after training all day, and I’d look at it and think, How many of those people had families? And how many of those people had people who needed them like we needed Claire? And that’s just it—they all did, Ruby, I’m sure of it. People don’t live like islands.”

  “So you got out.”

  He nodded. “Had to run during a training simulation outside. I was trying to get back to Harry and Mom when the PSFs picked me up.” He finally turned so he was looking at me. “I can’t go back to them yet, not until I earn it. Not until I make it right.”

  “What are you talking about?”

  “While I was with the League I realized that the only people that were ever going to help us were ourselves. So when I figured out a way to break out of Caledonia…” Liam’s voice trailed off. Then he said, “It was horrible. Horrible. I totally failed them, even after I promised it would work out in the end. So why—” His voice caught. “You heard what that newscaster said. Only a few of us got out, and they just keep picking us off like rabbits in hunting season. So why do I want to do it again? Why can’t I shake it? All I want is to help more kids break out of Caledonia—out of Thurmond—out of every single camp, one by one.”

  Oh, I thought, feeling vaguely numb. Oh. I had only ever wanted to find the Slip Kid to help myself, to figure out how to tame my abilities. But all along, Liam had wanted to find him because he was sure he’d be able to help others. That, together, they could figure out a way to save the kids we’d all been forced to leave behind.

  “It’s just so unfair, you know? All this morning, I kept thinking, it’s so goddamned unfair that I’m here, so close to finding East River, and the rest of them are gone.” He pressed the back of his hand to his eyes. “It makes me feel sick. I can’t shake it. I can’t. Those kids they were talking about on the radio—I’m sure they were from Caledonia. I just…” He took in a ragged breath. “Do you think…do you think they regret following me?”

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