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The darkest minds, p.26
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       The Darkest Minds, p.26

         Part #1 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken
 

  “Daddy,” I tried again, but he cut me off, putting down an arm between us. I understood—no touching. I had seen him do something like this before, on Take Your Child to Work Day at the station. The way he spoke, the way he wouldn’t let me touch him—I had watched him treat another kid this way, only that one had a black eye and a broken nose. That kid had been a stranger.

  Any hope I had felt bubbling up inside me burst into a thousand tiny pieces.

  “Did your parents tell you that you’d been bad?” he asked when he could get a word in. “Did you leave your house because you were afraid they would hurt you?”

  I pushed myself up off the ground. This is my house! I wanted to scream. You are my parents! My throat felt like it had closed up on itself.

  “You can talk to me,” he said, very gently. “I won’t let anyone hurt you. I just need your name, and then we can go down to the station and make some calls—”

  I don’t know what part of what he was saying finally broke me, but before I could stop myself I had launched my fists against him, hitting him over and over, like that would drive some sense back into him. “I am your kid!” I screamed. “I’m Ruby!”

  “You’ve got to calm down, Ruby,” he told me, catching my wrists. “It’ll be okay. I’ll call ahead to the station, and then we’ll go.”

  “No!” I shrieked. “No!”

  He pulled me off him again and stood, making his way to the door. My nails caught the back of his hand, and I heard him grunt in pain. He didn’t turn back around as he shut the door.

  I stood alone in the garage, less than ten feet away from my blue bike. From the tent that we had used to camp in dozens of times, from the sled I’d almost broken my arm on. All around the garage and house were pieces of me, but Mom and Dad—they couldn’t put them together. They didn’t see the completed puzzle standing in front of them.

  But eventually they must have seen the pictures of me in the living room, or gone up to my mess of the room.

  “—that’s not my child!” I could hear my mom yelling through the walls. She was talking to Grams, she had to be. Grams would set her straight. “I have no child! She’s not mine—I already called them, don’t—stop it! I’m not crazy!”

  I had to hide. I couldn’t let him take me to the police station, but I also couldn’t dial 911 to get them help. Maybe if I waited it out, they’d get better on their own? I dashed toward the storage tubs on the other side of the garage, squeezing past the front of Mom’s car. One, maybe two steps more, and I would have jumped inside the closest tub and buried myself under a pile of blankets. The garage door rolled open first.

  Not all the way—just enough that I could see the snow on the driveway, and grass, and the bottom half of a dark uniform. I squinted, holding a hand up to the blinding blanket of white light that seemed to settle over my vision. My head started pounding, a thousand times worse than before.

  The man in the dark uniform knelt down in the snow, his eyes hidden by sunglasses. I hadn’t seen him before, but I certainly hadn’t met all the police officers at my dad’s station. This one looked older. Harder, I remembered thinking.

  He waved me forward again, saying, “We’re here to help you. Please come outside.”

  I took a tentative step, then another. This man is a police officer, I told myself. Mom and Dad are sick, and they need help. His navy uniform looked darker the closer I got, like it was drenched straight through with rain. “My parents…”

  The officer didn’t let me finish. “Come out here, honey. You’re safe now.”

  It wasn’t until my bare toes brushed up against the snow, and the man had wrapped my long hair around his fist and yanked me through the opening, that I even realized his uniform was black.

  When I finally came to in the gray light, I knew by the curve of the rear seat and the smell of fake lemon detergent that I was back in Betty.

  The van wasn’t on and running, and the road wasn’t passing underneath me, but the keys had been left in the ignition and the radio was on. Bob Dylan whispered the opening verse of “Forever Young” through the speakers.

  The song cut off abruptly, replaced by the DJ’s flustered voice.

  “—sorry about that.” The man let out a nervous, breathy laugh. “I don’t know why the system brought that one up. It’s on the no-play list. Uh…back to…the music. This one’s a request from Bill out in Suffolk. Here’s ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’ by the Animals.”

  I opened one eye and tried to sit up, with zero success. The throbbing in my head was so brutal, I had to clench my teeth to keep from getting sick all over myself. A good five minutes must have passed before I felt strong enough to reach up and touch the pain’s epicenter on my right temple. My fingers brushed against the jagged, raised surface of my skin, feeling each coarse stitch holding it together.

  Chubs.

  I pulled my right arm in front of me. It flopped around, useless and asleep, until the blood began to fill it again. Then it was fire and needles. But the pain was good. It roused the rest of me from its stubborn sleep.

  It didn’t let me forget.

  I should go, I thought. Now, before they get back. The thought of seeing any of their faces made my chest feel like it was going to explode.

  They know.

  They know.

  I did start to cry then. I wasn’t proud of it, but I knew I couldn’t go through this again and come out of it in one piece.

  Footsteps sounded outside.

  “—saying it’s too dangerous.” Chubs. “We need to consider getting rid of her.”

  “I don’t want to talk about this right now.” Liam sounded agitated.

  I used one of the seat belts to pull me upright. The sliding door was wide open, giving me a perfect view of where Chubs and Liam stood in front of a small fire, which was ringed by a series of mismatched stones. The sky was dipping into night.

  “When are we going to talk about it, then?” Chubs said. “Never? We’re just going to pretend like it never happened?”

  “Zu will be back soon—”

  “Good!” Chubs shouted. “Good! This is her decision, too—this is all of our decision, not just yours!”

  Liam’s face was as red as I had ever seen it. “What the hell are we supposed to do, just dump her here?”

  Yes, I thought. That’s exactly what you should do. And I had started to climb over the middle seats to tell them that much when Chubs lurched forward, throwing Liam onto his back without touching him. Unfazed, Liam pressed his mouth into a tight line, raised his hand, and literally pulled the ground out from under his friend’s feet. Chubs hit the dirt with a sharp gasp, too stunned to do anything but lie there.

  Liam stayed on the ground, too, pressing his fists against his eyes.

  “Why are you doing this to us?” Chubs cried. “Do you want to get caught?”

  “I know, I know,” Liam said. “This is my fault. I should have been more careful.…”

  “Why didn’t you just tell me?” Chubs continued. “Did you know this whole time? Why lie about it? Do you even want to get home, or—?”

  “Charles!”

  His name cracked as it left my throat. I didn’t think I sounded anything like myself, but the boys recognized my voice at once. Chubs’s face lost some of its heat as he turned to where I stood clutching the minivan’s sun-warmed frame. Liam pushed himself up off the ground.

  “I’m gonna go, so you—don’t fight anymore, okay?” I said. “I’m sorry I lied to you. I know I should have left, but I wanted to help you get home because you had helped me, and I’m sorry, I’m so, so, sorry—”

  “Ruby,” Chubs said. Then again, louder. “Ruby! Oh, for the love of…we were talking about Black Betty, not your Orange ass.”

  I froze. “I just…I thought…I understand why you would leave me behind.…”

  “Huh?” Liam looked horrified. “We left the radio on in case you woke up, so you’d know that we didn’t leave you.”

  God help
me, that only made me cry harder.

  When a girl cries, few things are more worthless than a boy. Having two of them just meant that they stared at each other helplessly instead of at me. Chubs and Liam stood, up to their ears in awkward, until Chubs finally reached out and patted my head like he would have patted a dog.

  “You thought that we wanted to get rid of you because you’re not really Green?” Liam sounded like he was having a hard time wrapping his head around that. “I mean, I’m not thrilled you didn’t trust us enough to tell us the truth, but that was your secret.”

  “I trust you, I do,” I said, “but I didn’t want you to think that I had forced my way in or manipulated you. I didn’t want you to be afraid of me.”

  “Okay, first?” Liam said. “Why would we think that you pulled a Jedi mind trick on us to let you stay? We voted—we asked you. Second, what in the name of God’s green earth is wrong with being Orange?”

  “You have no idea—” What I’m capable of.

  “Exactly,” Chubs cut in. “We have no idea, but it’s not like we’re going to win any awards for normalcy anytime soon. So you get into people’s heads? The two of us can throw people around like toys. Zu once blew up an AC unit, and all she did was walk by it.”

  It wasn’t the same, and they didn’t understand that.

  “I can’t always control it like you can,” I said. “And sometimes I do things—bad things. I see things I shouldn’t. I turn people into things they aren’t. It’s horrible. When I’m in someone’s head, it’s like quicksand; the more I try to pull free, the more damage I do.”

  Chubs started to say something, only to stop. Liam leaned down so his face was level with mine, so close that our foreheads were nearly touching. “We want you,” he said, his hand slipping through my hair to cup the back of my neck. “We wanted you yesterday, we want you today, and we’ll want you tomorrow. There’s nothing you could do to change that. If you’re scared and you don’t understand your crazy abilities, then we’ll help you understand—but don’t think, not for one second, that we would ever just leave you.”

  He waited until I was looking him in the eye before continuing. “Is this why you acted that way when I said the Slip Kid might be an Orange? Is that really why you want to find him, or do you just want to go to your grandmother’s? Because either way, darlin’, we’ll get you there.”

  “Both,” I said. Was it so wrong to want both?

  I had stopped crying, but my lungs felt sticky, heavy, and getting in even an ounce of air was too much effort. I don’t know why my brain was as still as it was, but I was trying not to think about it. Liam and Chubs both took an arm. I was lifted out of the van, guided over to the crackling fire.

  “Where are we?” I asked finally.

  “Somewhere between North Carolina and the Great Dismal Swamp, I hope,” Liam said, his hand still on my back, now rubbing circles there. “Southeast Virginia. Now that you’re awake, I need to check on Zu. You two stay put, okay?”

  Chubs nodded; we watched Liam go in silence, then Chubs turned to me. “Ruby,” he began, voice perfectly serious. “Can you tell me who the president is?”

  I blinked. “Can you tell me why you’re asking this question?”

  “Do you remember what happened?”

  Did I? The memory was milky and distorted, like I was glimpsing someone else’s dream. “Angry man,” I said. “Rifle. Ruby’s head. Ouch.”

  “Cut it out; I’m being serious!”

  I winced, touching the stitching in my forehead again. “Can you keep your voice down? It feels like my head is about to cave in.”

  “Yeah, well, serves you right for scaring the hell out of all of us. Here, keep drinking this,” he said, handing me what was left of our water bottle. It didn’t matter that the water was stale or warm; I finished it off in one gulp. “I mean, my dad used to say that head wounds look worse than they actually are, but I legitimately thought you were a corpse.”

  “Thanks for stitching me up,” I said. “I’m looking a little Frankenstein, but I guess it’s appropriate, all things considered.”

  Chubs gave me a weary sigh. “Frankenstein is the name of the doctor that created the monster, not the monster itself.”

  “Couldn’t let that one go, could you?”

  “Don’t get on my case about it. You’re the one that doesn’t know her classic literature.”

  “Funny, I don’t think they had that one in Thurmond’s library.” I hadn’t meant for it to come out as sharply as it did, but it wasn’t a pleasant experience being reminded that your education level equaled that of a ten-year-old.

  He had the decency to look apologetic as he let out a deep sigh. “It’s just…take it easy, will you? My heart can only take so much stress.”

  All along, while listening to Chubs and Liam try to talk me down, some part of me had been trying to work through the argument I had overheard. I could understand, as horrifying as it was, the need to leave Betty behind. The PSFs and skip tracers all seemed to know to look for her now. But there had been something else underlying their words—something else that had them at odds. I had a feeling I knew exactly what it was, but I couldn’t ask Liam. I wanted the truth, not a sugarcoated version of it. The Team Reality take. Only Chubs could give that to me.

  But I hesitated, because next to his feet, on the ground between us, was Chubs’s copy of Watership Down. And I kept thinking about this one line, the one that had made me so angry the first time I read it as a little kid.

  Rabbits need dignity and, above all, the will to accept their fate.

  In the book, the rabbits had come across this warren—this community—that accepted food handouts from humans in exchange for accepting that some of them would be killed by the same humans in return. Those rabbits stopped fighting the system, because it was easier to take the loss of freedom, to forget what it was like before the fence kept them in, than to be out there in the world struggling to find shelter and food. They had decided that the loss of some was worth the temporary comfort of many.

  “Will it always be this way?” I asked, drawing my knees up to my chest and pressing my face against them. “Even if we find East River and we get help—there’s always going to be a Lady Jane around the corner, isn’t there? Will it even be worth it?”

  The will to accept their fate. In our case, that fate was to never see our families again. To always be hunted and chased down to every dark pocket of earth we tried to hide inside. Something had to give—we couldn’t live that way. We weren’t made to.

  I felt him drop a heavy palm on the back of my head, but it was a long time before he could piece together his thoughts.

  “Maybe nothing will ever change for us,” he said. “But don’t you want to be around just in case it does?”

  I don’t know if it was the smoke from the campfire that calmed me, or the sudden reappearance of Zu, who had come back from scouting a nearby campsite, making sure it was deserted. As she wrapped her arms around my waist, the boys began to pool together what was left of the food in Betty.

  “So that’s how you figured out the clue,” Liam said. “You saw a memory of it?”

  I nodded. “Not so impressive now, is it?”

  “No—no, that’s not what I meant,” Liam said, adding quickly, “It’s just I’m trying to imagine what the inside of that kid’s head looked like, and the best I can come up with is a swamp filled with alligators. It must have been terrible.”

  “Not as terrible as slipping into someone’s head I actually like,” I admitted.

  “Did you?” Chubs said after nearly ten minutes of silence. Liam was busy testing out whether he could use Betty’s car key to pry open the lids of the fruit and soup cans.

  “Did I what?”

  “Did you ever get inside our heads?” he finished. The way he asked reminded me of the way a kid would ask for the end of a bedtime story. Eager. Surprising—in all of my nightmares about them finding out the truth, I had pictured Chubs taking it t
he worst.

  “Of course she’s in our heads,” Liam said, his arms straining to open the can’s lid. “Ruby is one of us now.”

  “That’s not what I meant,” Chubs huffed. “I just want to know how it works. I’ve never met an Orange before. We didn’t have any at Caledonia.”

  “That’s probably because the government erased them all,” I said, dropping my hands in my lap. “That’s what happened to them at Thurmond.”

  Liam looked up, alarmed. “What do you mean?”

  “For the first two or three years I was there, we had every kind of color, even Red and Orange,” I said. “But…no one really knows why or how it happened. Some people thought they were taken away because of all the trouble they caused, but there were rumors they were being moved to a new camp where they could do more testing on them. We just woke up one morning and the Reds, Oranges, and Yellows were gone.” And it was just as terrifying for me to think about now as it was then.

  “What about you, though?” Chubs asked. “How did you avoid getting bused?”

  “I pretended to be Green from the start,” I said. “I saw how scared the PSFs were of the Oranges, and I messed with the scientist who was running the classifying test.” It was a struggle to push the rest of the words out. “Those kids were…they were so messed up, you know? Maybe they were like that before they got their abilities, or they hated themselves for having them, but they used to do terrible things.”

  “Like what?” Chubs pressed.

  Oh God, I couldn’t even talk about it. I physically could not speak. Not about the hundreds of mind games I watched them play on the PSFs. Nothing about the memory of having to scrub the floors of the Mess Hall after an Orange told a PSF to walk in and open fire on every other soldier he saw there. My stomach turned violently, and I could taste it, the metallic bitterness of blood. Smell it. I remembered how it felt to scrape it out from where it was packed painfully under my nails.

  Chubs opened his mouth, but Liam held up a hand to shut him up.

 
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