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The darkest minds, p.25
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       The Darkest Minds, p.25

         Part #1 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken
 
The pain didn’t go away.

  No, it got worse. A trickle of sweat began at my temple and worked its way down the length of my spine. I was drenched. My hair clung to my face. My shirt was a second skin. I dropped into a crouch. If I was going to faint, it was better to stay close to the ground.

  God, I don’t want to faint. Don’t faint. Do. Not. Faint.…

  I heard Liam say something. His foot came into my line of sight, and I leaned away.

  “Don’t—” I began. Don’t touch me. Not right now.

  And it was strange, because the last thing I saw before I closed my eyes wasn’t the old asphalt, it wasn’t the sky, or even my reflection in Betty’s panels. It was a glimmering memory of my own. Of a few days before, when Liam had been in the driver’s seat, singing along to Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla” at the top of his lungs, so off-key that it had even Chubs laughing. Zu had been sitting right behind him, moving in time with the music, her entire body rocking out to the wailing electric guitar. And it had been so easy then, to laugh and pretend, even if just for a second, that we would be okay. That I belonged with them.

  Because they hadn’t known—none of them had known, and now that they did, it was over. It was all over now, and I would never have that back.

  I wished that I had gone for the panic button. I wished that Cate could come and take me away from them, back to the only people who would ever embrace me for the monster I was.

  NINETEEN

  WHEN I WAS ABOUT TO TURN ten years old, the most significant thing about that number was that it was double-digits. It didn’t really feel much like a birthday, anyway. At dinner, I sat bookended by my parents at the table, moving peas around my plate, trying to ignore the fact that neither of them were speaking—to each other, or to me. Mom’s eyes were rimmed with red and glassy because of the argument they’d had a half hour before; she was still valiantly trying to gather up kids for a surprise birthday party for me, but Dad forced her to call and cancel. Said it wasn’t the kind of year to be celebrating, and, as the last kid alive on my block, it would be cruel of us to hang the birthday banner and tie up the usual cluster of balloons outside. I heard the whole thing from the top of the stairs.

  I didn’t really care about the birthday either way. It wasn’t like I had anyone left I really wanted to invite. What was more important to me was the fact that, at ten, I was suddenly old—or rather, would be old soon. I’d start to look like the girls in the magazines, be forced to wear dresses and high heels and makeup—go to high school.

  “In ten years from tomorrow, I’ll be twenty.” I don’t know why I said it out loud. It was just this profound realization, and it had to be shared.

  The silence that followed was actually painful. Mom sat straight up and pressed her napkin to her mouth. For a moment I thought she might stand up and leave, but Dad’s hand came down to rest on top of hers, settling her like an anchor.

  Dad finished chewing on his barbecued chicken before giving me a smile that quivered at the edges. He leaned down a ways so our identical green eyes met. “That’s right, Little Bee. And how old will you be ten years after that?”

  “Thirty,” I said. “And you’ll be…fifty-two!”

  He chuckled. “That’s right! Halfway to the—”

  Grave, my mind whispered. Halfway to the grave. Dad realized his mistake before the word fully left his mouth, but it didn’t matter. All three of us knew what he meant.

  Grave.

  I knew what death was. I knew what happened after you died. At school, they brought in special visitors to talk to the kids that came back. The one assigned to our room, Miss Finch, gave her presentation two weeks before Christmas, wearing a bright pink turtleneck and glasses that covered half of her face. She wrote everything out on the whiteboard, in thick, capital letters. DEATH IS NOT SLEEPING. IT HAPPENS TO EVERYONE. IT COULD HAPPEN AT ANY TIME. YOU DO NOT COME BACK.

  When people die, she explained, they stop breathing. They do not have to eat, they no longer speak, and they cannot think or miss us like we miss them. They do not, ever, ever wake up. She kept giving us more examples, like we were too stupid or little to understand—like the six of us left hadn’t sat there and watched Grace’s lights go out. Dead cats cannot purr, and dead dogs cannot play. Dead flowers—Miss Finch pointed to the bundle of dried flowers on my teacher’s desk—do not grow or bloom anymore. Hours of this. Hours of being asked, Do you understand? But for all of her answers, she never got around to the one question I had wanted to ask.

  “What does it feel like?”

  Dad looked up sharply. “What does what feel like?”

  I looked down at my plate. “To die. Do you feel it? I know that it’s not the same for everyone, and that you stop breathing and your heart stops beating, but what does that feel like?”

  “Ruby!” I could hear the horror in Mom’s voice.

  “It’s okay if it hurts,” I said, “but are you still in your body after things stop working? Do you know that you’ve died?”

  “Ruby!”

  Dad’s bushy eyebrows drew together as his shoulders slumped. “Well…”

  “Don’t you dare,” Mom said, using her free hand to try to pry his big one off her other trembling fingers. “Jacob, don’t you dare—”

  I kept my hands clenched together under the table, trying not to stare at Mom’s face as it paled from a deep red to a stark white.

  “No one…” Dad began. “No one knows, sweetheart. I can’t give you an answer. Everyone finds out when it’s their time. I guess it probably depends—”

  “Stop it!” Mom said, slapping her other hand down on the table. Our plates jumped in time with her palm. “Ruby, go to your room!”

  “Calm down,” Dad told her in a stern voice. “This is important to talk about.”

  “It is not! It absolutely is not! How dare you? First you cancel the party, and when I told you—” She strained against his grip. I watched, my lips parting, as she picked up her water glass and threw it at his head. In ducking, he lifted his hand from the table, just enough for her to wrench away and stand. Her chair clattered to the ground a second after the glass shattered against the wall behind Dad’s head.

  I screamed—I didn’t mean to, but it slipped out. Mom came around to my side of the table and grabbed me by the elbow, hauling me up, nearly taking the tablecloth with me.

  “Cut it out,” I heard Dad say. “Stop! We have to talk to her about it! The doctors said we needed to prepare her!”

  “You’re hurting me,” I managed to choke out. Mom startled at the sound of my voice, looking down at where her nails were digging into the soft skin of my upper arm.

  “Oh my God…” she said, but I was already in the hallway, flying up the stairs, slamming my bedroom door shut and locking it behind me, closing out the sound of my parents screaming at each other.

  I dove under my heavy purple bedcovers, knocking the row of carefully arranged stuffed animals to the ground. I didn’t bother to change out of the clothes I had worn to school, or turn off the lights, not until I was sure my parents were still in the kitchen, and far away from me.

  An hour later, breathing the same hot air under the comforter in and out, listening to the rattle of the air vent, I thought about the other significant thing about turning ten.

  Grace had been ten. So had Frankie, and Peter, and Mario, and Ramona. So had half of my class, the half that never came back after Christmas. Ten is the most common age for IAAN to manifest, I had overheard a newscaster saying, but the affliction can claim anyone between the ages of eight and fourteen.

  I straightened my legs out and pressed my arms in at my sides. I held my breath and shut my eyes, staying as still as possible. Dead. Miss Finch had described it like a series of stops and nots. Stopped breathing. Not moving. Stopped heart. Not sleeping. It didn’t seem like it should have been that simple.

  “When a loved one dies, they don’t get to wake up,” she had said. “There are no comebacks or do-overs. You may wish the
y could come back, but it’s important that you understand they can’t, and they won’t.”

  Tears slipped down the side of my face, dripping into my ears and hair. I turned to the side, smashing a pillow over my face, trying to block out the screaming match downstairs. Were they coming up to my room to yell at me? Once or twice I heard heavy footsteps on the stairs, but then Dad’s voice would float up to me, booming and terrible, yelling words I didn’t like or understand. Mom sounded like she was being gutted.

  I drew my legs up to my chest and pressed my face against my knees. For every two breaths I was taking in, I was lucky to get one out. Inside my chest, my heart had been racing for what felt like hours, jumping with every shatter or thud from downstairs. I stuck my head over the covers just once, to make sure that I had locked the door. That would make them even angrier if they tried it, but I didn’t care.

  My head felt light and heavy all at once, but worst of all was the pounding. The dum-dum-dum at the back of my head, like something was inside of me knocking against my skull, trying to break out.

  “Stop it,” I whispered, squeezing my eyes shut against the pain. My hands were shaking so hard I couldn’t keep them over my ears. “Please, please stop!”

  Hours later, when my feet carried me downstairs, I found them in their dark bedroom, deep into sleep. I stood in the sliver of light coming through their open doorway, waiting to see if they would wake up. I had half a mind to climb into bed between them like I used to do, into that small space between them that I knew was warm and safe. But Dad had told me I was too big to be doing such silly things.

  So instead, I walked over to my Mom’s side of the bed and kissed her good night. Her cheek was slick with rosemary-scented cream, cool and smooth to the touch. The instant I pressed my lips there, I jumped back, a flash of white burning inside my eyelids. For one strange second, the image of my own face had leaped to the front of a long series of jumbled thoughts, then disappeared, like a photo drifting into dark water. Her blanket must have shocked me—the jolt traveled all the way up to my brain, flashing it white for a second.

  She must not have felt it, because she didn’t wake up. Neither did Dad, even when the same strange thing happened.

  As I made my way back upstairs, the tightness in my chest vanished, lifting away with the comforter as I kicked it to the floor. The head-splitting pain released its grip on my brain, leaving me feeling like my tank had run empty. I had to close my eyes to block out the sight of my room swaying in the darkness.

  And then it was morning. My alarm went off at seven exactly, switching over to the radio, just as Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” was starting. I remember sitting straight up in bed, more surprised than anything. I touched my face, my chest. The room seemed unnaturally bright for so early in the morning, despite the curtains being closed, and within only a few minutes, the headache had crept back in, claws out.

  I rolled out of bed and onto the floor, my stomach turning with me. I waited until the dark spots had stopped floating in my eyes, and tried to swallow to ease my dry throat. I knew this feeling—I knew what the clenching in my guts meant. Sick. I was sick on my birthday.

  I stumbled out of bed, changing into my Batman pj’s on the way to the door. Mom would be even angrier at me if she knew I had slept in my nice button-down shirt; it was wrinkled and drenched in sweat, despite the cold clinging to my bedroom window. Maybe she’d feel bad about the night before and let me stay home to show how sorry she was.

  I wasn’t even halfway down the stairs when I saw the wreckage in the living room. From the landing, it looked like a pack of animals had gotten in and had a field day throwing around pillows, overturning an armchair, and smashing every single glass candleholder that had been on the now-cracked coffee table. Every picture on the fireplace mantel was facedown on the ground, as were the line of school portraits my mom had placed on the table behind the couch. And then there were the books. Dozens of them. Mom must have emptied out every book in the library in her anger. They littered the ground like rainbow candy.

  But as scary as that room was, I didn’t feel like throwing up until I reached the last step and smelled bacon, not pancakes.

  We didn’t have many traditions as a family, but chocolate pancakes on birthdays was one of them, and the one we were least likely to forget. For the past three years they’d forgotten to leave out milk and cookies for Santa, somehow forgotten their pact that we would go camping every Fourth of July weekend, and even, on occasion, forgot to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. But forgetting the birthday pancakes?

  Or maybe she was just mad enough at me not to make them. Maybe she hated me after what I had said last night.

  Mom had her back to me when I walked into the kitchen and shielded my eyes from the sunlight streaming through the window above the sink. Her dark hair was pulled back into a low, messy bun, resting against the collar of her red robe. I had a matching one; dad had bought them for Christmas the month before. “Ruby red for my Ruby,” he had said.

  She was humming under her breath, one hand flipping the bacon on the stove, the other holding a folded newspaper. Whatever song was stuck in her head was upbeat, chipper, and, for a moment, I really did think the stars had aligned for me. She was over last night. She was going to let me stay home. After months of being angry and upset over the tiniest things, she was finally happy again.

  “Mom?” Then again, louder. “Mom?”

  She turned around so quickly, she knocked the pan off the stove and nearly dropped the gray paper into the open flame there. I saw her reach back and slap her hand against the knobs, twisting a dial until the smell of gas disappeared.

  “I don’t feel good. Can I stay home today?”

  No response, not even a blink. Her jaw was working, grinding, but it took me walking over to the table and sitting down for her to find her voice. “How—how did you get in here?”

  “I have a bad headache and my stomach hurts,” I told her, putting my elbows up on the table. I knew she hated when I whined, but I didn’t think she hated it enough to come over and grab me by the arm again.

  “I asked you how you got in here, young lady. What’s your name?” Her voice sounded strange. “Where do you live?”

  Her grip on my skin only tightened the longer I waited to answer. It had to have been a joke, right? Was she sick, too? Sometimes cold medicine did funny things to her.

  Funny things, though. Not scary things.

  “Can you tell me your name?” she repeated.

  “Ouch!” I yelped, trying to pull my arm away. “Mom, what’s wrong?”

  She yanked me up from the table, forcing me onto my feet. “Where are your parents? How did you get in this house?”

  Something tightened in my chest to the point of snapping.

  “Mom, Mommy, why—”

  “Stop it,” she hissed, “stop calling me that!”

  “What are you—?” I think I must have tried to say something else, but she dragged me over to the door that led out into the garage. My feet slid against the wood, skin burning. “Wh-what’s wrong with you?” I cried. I tried twisting out of her grasp, but she wouldn’t even look at me. Not until we were at the door to the garage and she pushed my back up against it.

  “We can do this the easy way or the hard way. I know you’re confused, but I promise that I’m not your mother. I don’t know how you got into this house, and, frankly, I’m not sure I want to know—”

  “I live here!” I told her. “I live here! I’m Ruby!”

  When she looked at me again, I saw none of the things that made Mom my mother. The lines that formed around her eyes when she smiled were smoothed out, and her jaw was clenched around whatever she wanted to say next. When she looked at me, she didn’t see me. I wasn’t invisible, but I wasn’t Ruby.

  “Mom.” I started to cry. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be bad. I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry! Please, I promise I’ll be good—I’ll go to school today and won’t be sick, and I
ll pick up my room. I’m sorry. Please remember. Please!”

  She put one hand on my shoulder and the other on the door handle. “My husband is a police officer. He’ll be able to help you get home. Wait in here—and don’t touch anything.”

  The door opened and I was pushed into a wall of freezing January air. I stumbled down onto the dirty, oil-stained concrete, just managing to catch myself before I slammed into the side of her car. I heard the door shut behind me, and the lock click into place; heard her call Dad’s name as clearly as I heard the birds in the bushes outside the dark garage.

  She hadn’t even turned on the light for me.

  I pushed myself up onto my hands and knees, ignoring the bite of the frosty air on my bare skin. I launched myself in the direction of the door, fumbling around until I found it. I tried shaking the handle, jiggling it, still thinking, hoping, praying that this was some big birthday surprise, and that by the time I got back inside, there would be a plate of pancakes at the table and Dad would bring in the presents, and we could—we could—we could pretend like the night before had never happened, even with the evidence in the next room over.

  The door was locked.

  “I’m sorry!” I was screaming. Pounding my fists against it. “Mommy, I’m sorry! Please!”

  Dad appeared a moment later, his stocky shape outlined by the light from inside of the house. I saw Mom’s bright-red face over his shoulder; he turned to wave her off and then reached over to flip on the overhead lights.

  “Dad!” I said, throwing my arms around his waist. He let me keep them there, but all I got in return was a light pat on the back.

  “You’re safe,” he told me, in his usual soft, rumbling voice.

  “Dad—there’s something wrong with her,” I was babbling. The tears were burning my cheeks. “I didn’t mean to be bad! You have to fix her, okay? She’s…she’s…”

  “I know, I believe you.”

  At that, he carefully peeled my arms off his uniform and guided me down, so we were sitting on the step, facing Mom’s maroon sedan. He was fumbling in his pockets for something, listening to me as I told him everything that had happened since I walked into the kitchen. He pulled out a small pad of paper from his pocket.

 
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