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The darkest minds, p.24
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       The Darkest Minds, p.24

         Part #1 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken
 

  “Not for a second,” I said. “Listen to me. You didn’t force them to follow you. You only gave them what the PSFs and camp controllers took away from them—a choice. You can’t live in a place like those camps and not know what the consequences might be. If those kids followed you out, it was because they chose to. They believed you when you said we’d all get home someday.”

  “But most of them didn’t.” Liam shook his head. “In some ways, it would have been safer for them to stay in the camps, right? They wouldn’t have been hunted. They wouldn’t have had to see how afraid everyone is of them, or felt like they don’t have a place out here.”

  “But isn’t it better to give them that choice?” I asked.

  “Is it?”

  My head was pounding, and my shoulders ached. By the time I finally thought of something to say, Liam was climbing up onto his knees.

  “What are you still doing here?” Not upset or angry. Not anymore.

  “Watching your back.”

  He shook his head, a sad smile on his face. “You’ve got better things to worry about.”

  “I’m really sorry.” The words tumbled out of me in a breathless rush. “I shouldn’t have opened his letter. It was none of my business. I wasn’t thinking.”

  “No—no, I’m the one that’s sorry. I didn’t mean to blow up at you. God, it was like Dad was talking through me. I’m so, so sorry.”

  Liam looked down, and when he looked back at me, his lips were pressed tight together. I thought he might cry or scream, and felt myself sway forward at the same time he took another dangerous step toward me. It made me feel boneless to meet his gaze straight on, but I wanted the truth from him even as I worried the intensity of his gaze would burn me.

  “Come on, let’s go back.” He shook his head. “I’m fine. I shouldn’t have left those two alone again.”

  “I think you need another minute,” I said. “And I think you should take it. Because when you get back in that car, you’ll have people depending on you.”

  He tried to reach for my arm, but I took a step back.

  “I don’t know what you’re—” he began. God, I wanted to take his hand when he offered it. Mine were frozen, needled with pain.

  “Here—” I motioned between us. “This is a place where you don’t need to lie. I meant what I said before, but I can’t help you if you don’t tell me what’s really going on inside your head. If you need to talk or vent or scream, do it with me. Don’t just get up and go like that again—like you always do. I know you think you’re protecting us, but, Lee, what happens if one of these days you go off and don’t come back?”

  He took a step toward me, his eyes darkening with something I didn’t recognize. It never occurred to me how tall he was, but he seemed to tower over me then, leaning down until our faces were level with each other. I could see what I would have done if our situation had been different. If I had been in control of myself. I could see what he wanted.

  What I wanted.

  My foot slipped against a rock as I stepped away, my back scraping against the wall, my head sending me spiraling into panic. It was trilling in anticipation, relishing how close he was. Maybe his anger had evaporated, but whatever he was feeling now was stronger than before, stronger than pain or frustration or fury. The words Get away from me and Don’t were stuck in my tight chest, wedged between terror and want. Liam’s lips formed my name, but there was nothing outside of the blood rushing in my ears.

  I tried one last time to wrench myself away, but my knees, the traitors, buckled under me. Spots in every shade of the rainbow popped and burst in front of my eyes.

  And that’s when he grabbed me, only this time it was to hold me up, not pull me to him. It didn’t matter. The moment his hands circled my waist, he was gone.

  EIGHTEEN

  MY EYES WERE SHUT, but I could imagine what must have happened. How his pupils must have shrunk and then dilated, open and vulnerable. Waiting for a command.

  Liam’s mind was a blur of colors and lights. One moment I was standing next to a young, blond boy in overalls, clutching a woman’s hand. Then I was balancing on the front bumper of an old car as a gentle-faced man with strong arms pointed out the engine. I saw the face of a kid rocket back as I punched him in the nose, heard a roar of approval from a circle of boys formed around us. I stared at Chubs’s long legs as they hung over the edge of the top bunk, and then I was standing in front of Black Betty, watching Zu climb into the backseat, looking frail and hungry.

  And then I was seeing me.

  I was seeing me with the sunlight reflecting off my dark hair, laughing my fool head off in the passenger seat. I didn’t know I could look like that.

  No.

  No.

  No! I don’t want to see—

  I slapped him across the face. The sound echoed up through the tree branches. Pain flared in my hand, spreading quickly up my arm to the center of my chest. I heard something else, too—a snap, like a dried-out wishbone being pulled apart. I reeled back, as if he had been the one to hit me. I almost wished he had, because the pain would have distracted me from the dizzy disorientation that came next.

  I panicked. I knew from countless experiences at Thurmond that the best way to break a connection was to do it slowly, carefully. Unravel the invisible threads linking us together one by one. Wasn’t this exactly what had happened with Sam? One wrong touch and I had pulled back so hard and so fast from her mind that I ripped away every single trace of me.

  Wasn’t it?

  Wasn’t it?

  The pain lessened, the farther I dragged myself away from him.

  “Ruby?”

  Why did I always have to do this? Why couldn’t I just hold it together for once?

  Liam was staring at me. At me, not through me. He looked focused, if not completely bewildered. My eyes fell on the red welt forming on his cheek.

  Had I heard that right? My name?

  “What the hell just happened?” He let out a strangled laugh. “I feel like I just got hit by a linebacker.”

  “I slipped—” What could I possibly say? The truth was on the tip of my tongue, dangling there, but if he knew, if he knew what I had just done to him…

  “And there I was, trying to be all valiant and stuff by catching you?” He chuckled, using the closest tree to help him stand. “Lesson learned! You’re falling next time, darlin’, because, man, you have a hard head.…”

  “I’m sorry.” I whispered. “I’m so, so sorry.…”

  Liam stopped laughing. “Green…you know I’m just kidding, right? Really, it takes a special kind of guy to get knocked out by the same person he’s trying to catch. Aside from bringing back a few humiliating memories of school sports, I’m fine, honestly—what?”

  Do you even remember what we were talking about?

  “Oh my God,” he said, all of a sudden noticing I was still on the ground. “Are you okay? I can’t believe I didn’t even ask—are you hurt?”

  I avoided the hand he offered. It was too soon.

  “I’m fine,” I said. “I think we should head back now. You left Betty running.”

  My voice sounded calm, but inwardly I was such a desert. All of the hope that had sprung there, growing and spreading and yielding like a stream, had dried up in an instant. I had slipped up, but he didn’t know. They never did.

  This couldn’t happen again—I was lucky this time; he still remembered me, even if he couldn’t recall what I had done, but there was no guaranteeing that luck would hold.

  No more touching. No more fingers brushing against arms, or shoulders pressed against shoulders. No more taking his hand, no matter how warm or big it was.

  That alone was a reason to find this Slip Kid. To beg him to help me.

  “Yeah…yeah.” He nodded, but I didn’t miss the way his brows furrowed when he looked my way again, or the grinding ache in my chest when he passed by and didn’t let his hand reach for mine.

  I stayed five steps in front of
him as we made our way back around the rest stop, past the water fountains, through the silver benches and tables under the overhang. I moved faster, practically jogging as I came around the corner. I half expected to see Chubs and Zu outside trying to rig the vending machines into burping up whatever snacks they had left.

  But it wasn’t Chubs waiting there for me, and it certainly wasn’t Zu.

  Dark hair, darker eyes. A man that couldn’t have been older than twenty-five, with a scar that began just under his right eye and raced up to his hairline, where the shiny pink skin had prevented any hair from growing back. My brain processed his features one by one, in agonizing slowness. I watched as his face twisted, turning his narrow nose up in disgust.

  Liam called my name in a panic, his feet thundering against the cement. Run, I wanted to scream to him, What are you doing? Run! I turned back to face the man—the skip tracer, in his wrinkled blue Windbreaker—just in time to see the butt of his rifle flying down toward my face, knocking every thought clear out of my skull.

  Pain blinded me, flashing white beneath my eyelids. But I was down, not out. When the man tried to haul me up by the front of my shirt, I swung a leg around and caught him by the ankles. He landed on the ground with a grunt, his gun clattering against a nearby patch of rocks. I kicked until I made contact with something solid. I knew it wasn’t enough.

  I tried pushing myself up to my feet, but the world swung wild and loose under me. My head throbbed, and something hot and wet poured down over my right eye—blood. I could taste it then, just as plainly as I felt the air move as Liam lifted the man clear off the ground with a wave of his hand. He threw him like a rag doll into the sharp edges of the picnic tables, knocking the skip tracer out in a single blow.

  Zu, Chubs, Zu, Chubs, my mind was stuck on a loop. I pressed a hand against my forehead, to the place where the gun had burst the skin in a jagged line.

  I don’t know what happened next. It felt like my head was skipping seconds as we moved. At one point, I think Liam must have tried to help me up, but I pushed him away with clumsy, slow hands.

  Run! I tried to say. Get out of here!

  “Ruby—Ruby.” Liam was trying to get my attention, because he hadn’t seen what was up ahead.

  Zu and Chubs were sitting on the ground, outside of Betty. Their hands were handcuffed behind their backs, and their feet tied straight out in front of them with a length of bright yellow rope. Standing over them was none other than Lady Jane.

  This was the first time I had seen her up close—close enough, at least, that I could make out the beauty mark on her cheek and the sunken quality to her eyes behind the black frames of her glasses. Her dark hair was down around her shoulders and curling with the humidity, but her skin still looked as though it had been pulled taut over the sharp angles of her face. Her black shirt was tucked neatly into her jeans, and a black utility belt was there to keep them both in place. I recognized the countless devices hanging from the belt. The orange identifier, a Taser, handcuffs…

  “Hello, Liam Stewart,” the woman said, her accent cold and silky.

  Next to me, Liam braced his feet and threw his arms up—to knock her back, I think. The woman only tsk-tsked, nodding a head toward her outstretched left arm. My eyes followed its angle downward, to the gun pointed at Zu’s head.

  “Lee—” Chubs’s voice was unnaturally high, but it was the look in Zu’s eyes that planted me in place.

  “Come here,” the woman said. “Slowly, with your hands on top of your head—now, Liam, otherwise I can’t be sure that my finger won’t slip.” She cocked her head to the side.

  Panic, I thought. The panic button—where? My backpack was somewhere tucked under the front passenger seat. If I could get to it, if I could reach the door—

  “Yeah?” Liam spat. “And what’s the going rate for me these days? How much did it get cut back when it took you three weeks to finally catch up to us?”

  Her smile faltered, but returned with far more teeth than before. “You’re still at a healthy two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, love. You should feel proud of that. You barely fetched me ten thousand the first time around.”

  Liam was vibrating with rage, too choked up to speak. I heard his breath catch in this throat. I suddenly understood how he had known so much about her—this was the same woman who had captured him before.

  “You can’t imagine my surprise when your name popped back up in the bounty database—and with that kind of reward? It seems that you’ve gotten yourself in a fair bit of trouble since we last met.”

  “Yeah, well,” Liam said, his voice rough. “I do my best.”

  “But, darling, how could you be stupid enough to go back to that place? Didn’t you think I’d look for you there?” The woman tilted her head again. “Your friends were only too willing to tell me where you were headed and why in exchange for letting them go. Lake Prince, is it?”

  My pain gave way again to fear. If she finds East River… God, I couldn’t even imagine the consequences.

  Liam could, from the look of it. His knuckles were white with the effort it took him to keep his fingers clutched in his hair.

  “If I can pull in that much for you, imagine what I’ll get for a whole camp full of kids,” she said. “Enough to finally buy my way home, I think, so thank you for that. You have no idea what kind of funds it takes to get an official to look the other way and admit someone from a disease-ridden country.”

  The next second of silence that passed was deafening, only because I knew exactly what he would say next.

  “If you let them all go, you can have me,” he said, both hands still on his head. “I won’t give you any trouble.”

  “No!” Chubs shouted. “Don’t—”

  The woman didn’t even need a moment to consider it. “You think I’m going to do you any favors? No, Liam Stewart, I’m going to take all of you, even that girl of yours—maybe you should consider her condition before you try to bargain?”

  His eyes slid my way, taking in the blood streaking down my face. I tried to keep my vision straight as I took the tiniest step forward.

  “I don’t know where you came from, little girl, but I can assure you that where you’re going won’t be nearly as pleasant.”

  I’m not going back.

  None of us were. Not if I could help it.

  “Come here,” she said, her eyes on me but her gun still trained on Liam. “You first, little girl. I’ll take special care of you.”

  I went one step at a time, ignoring Liam’s sharp intake of breath and the buzzing in my ears. My eyes went from Chubs, to Zu, to the woman’s all-too-pleased face. Everyone was watching me.

  Everyone will know.

  And no one would be willing to have me after that.

  “Turn around,” the woman barked. Her eyes flickered over to where her partner was still hidden behind a tangle of picnic tables. I saw her grip relax ever so slightly on her handgun with her focus torn, and I took my chance.

  My knee flew up, nailing her just under her chest. The gun clattered to the ground, and I heard Liam take two running steps in my direction, but somehow I was faster. Blood was alive and warm on my face, dripping from my chin. The woman’s eyes widened as my hand closed over her exposed throat, slamming her back against Betty’s door. When her gaze met mine, I knew I had her. The pain that exploded behind my eyes told me so.

  Slipping into her head was as easy as releasing a sigh. Seeing her pupils shrink and explode back out to their normal size, it felt as though someone had wrapped a line of barbed wire around my brain and was tightening it with every passing second.

  Chubs’s face appeared at the corner of my vision, eyes wide. When he tried to stand, I knocked him back down with my foot. No. It wasn’t safe. Not yet.

  The woman looked around, her eyes wide and unfocused. That’s when the pounding began in my ears. Da-duh, da-duh, da-duh, da-duh… I couldn’t tell if it was my heart or hers.

  “Hand him your gun,” I sa
id, tilting my head toward the place I knew Liam was standing. When she didn’t move, I pushed the image of her doing it through the bubbling black shapes of her mind. I couldn’t bring myself to look at his reaction as the black weapon was placed in his outstretched hand.

  “Listen to me very carefully,” I said. The blood was bitter in my mouth. “You are going to turn and walk back across the highway. You are…going to walk into that forest and keep walking until an hour passes…and you are going to sit down in the middle of it and not move. You’re not going to eat…or sleep…or drink, no matter how much you want to. You’re not going to move.”

  Imagining that into her mind, pushing the thought of her doing exactly that, was becoming more difficult. Not because my grip on her was slipping, but because my grip on consciousness was.

  You can do this, I told myself. It didn’t matter that no one had ever taught me, or that I had never practiced. In the end, it was all instinct. Like I had known all along.

  I closed my eyes and went to work sorting through the darkened memories bubbling up behind her eyes. I found myself driving down the highway, one hand on the wheel, the other pointing to the rest stop up ahead. I parked the car a ways back, half hidden by the trees, and began to walk toward the lone black van in the parking lot. I stayed with this memory, taking in the scent of rain and grass, feeling the light breeze, until her partner reached the van, his rifle up and ready to fire.

  I forced the memory out of her mind, imagining nothing but air where Black Betty had been in the parking lot. I traced the line of memories back to the boys at Walmart, to the secret they had revealed about East River. The images slipped away in smears of light, like raindrops racing down a car window.

  “Now, you’re…you won’t remember any of this, or any of us.”

  “I won’t remember any of this.…” she parroted, as though the thought had just occurred to her.

  I let go of her neck, but my pain didn’t go away. Her eyes regained some of their focus. The pain didn’t go away. She turned sharply on her heel and started to make her way toward the deserted highway.

 
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