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The darkest minds, p.27
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       The Darkest Minds, p.27

         Part #1 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken
 

  “I just knew I needed to protect myself.”

  And, truthfully, because I was scared of the Oranges, too. There was something wrong with them. With us. It was the constant chatter, the flood of everyone else’s feelings and thoughts, I think. Eventually you learned how to block some of it out, to build up a thin wall between your mind and others’, but not before everyone else’s poisonous thoughts were in there, staining your own. Some spent so long outside of their own heads that they couldn’t function right when they finally had to return their own.

  “So now you see,” I said, finally, “what a mistake it was to let me stay.”

  Zu was shaking her head, looking distraught at the suggestion. Chubs rubbed at his eyes, hiding his expression. Only Liam was willing to look me straight in the eye. And there was no disgust, or fear, or any of the thousand other ugly emotions he was entitled to; only understanding.

  “Try to imagine where we’d be without you, darlin’,” he said, quietly, “and then maybe you’ll see just how lucky we got.”

  TWENTY

  THAT NIGHT, WE SLEPT IN THE VAN, each sprawled out on a seat. I let Zu have the rear seat, and stayed up front next to Liam. I felt uneasy in the silence, and sleep didn’t come easy, even when I called to it.

  Sometime around five in morning, just as I was about to give into the fuzz covering my brain, I felt someone run a light finger down the back of my neck. I rolled over onto my other side, and Liam was there, half-awake.

  “You were muttering to yourself,” he whispered. “You okay?”

  I propped myself up on an elbow, wiping the sleep away from my eyes. The rain had condensed on the windows, covering the cracked windshield like a filmy overlay of lace. Every time a fat raindrop dislodged itself and went streaking down the glass, it was like a tear in the fabric.

  Looking out into the forest was like searching someone’s dreams, disorienting and unsettling, but inside the van, everything was sharp. The lines of the reclining seats, the dashboard knobs—I could even read the tiny printed brand name on the buttons of Liam’s shirt.

  In that light, I could see every bruise and cut on his face, some just beginning to heal, and others that had long-since scarred. But what held my attention wasn’t the bruise on his cheek—the same one I had given him a few days and lifetimes before—but the way his hair was standing almost straight up, curling around his ears and against his neck. The storm had turned its color to a darker shade of honey, but it didn’t lose any of its softness. It didn’t make me want to reach out and touch it any less.

  “What?” he whispered. “What are you smiling about?”

  My fingers brushed against his hair, trying to smooth it down. I realized what I was doing a full minute after Liam had closed his eyes and leaned into my touch. Embarrassment flared up in my chest, but he grabbed my hand before I could pull back and tucked it under his chin.

  “Nope,” he whispered, when I tried to tug it away. “Mine now.”

  Dangerous. This is dangerous. The warning was fleeting, banished to the back corners of my mind, where it wouldn’t interrupt how good it felt to touch him—how right.

  “I’m going to need it back eventually,” I said, letting him run it along the stubble on his chin.

  “Too bad.”

  “…crackers…” a voice breathed out behind us, “yessss…”

  Both of us turned, watching as Chubs twisted around in his seat and settled back down, still fast asleep.

  I pressed a hand over my mouth to keep from laughing. Liam rolled his eyes, smiling.

  “He dreams about food,” he said. “A lot.”

  “At least they’re good dreams.”

  “Yeah,” Liam agreed. “I guess he’s lucky.” I looked back at Chubs’s curled up form and, for the first time, realized just how cold it was without the heat from Betty’s vent.

  Liam let his head slide down to rest against his other arm, threading his fingers through mine. He seemed to be studying the shape they made, the way my thumb appeared to rest naturally on top of his.

  “If you wanted to,” he began, “could you see what he was dreaming about?”

  I nodded. “But those things are private.”

  “But you’ve done it before?”

  “Not intentionally.”

  “To me?”

  “To the girls in my cabin at camp,” I said. “To Zu that night in the motel. I’ve been in your head—once. Just not in your dreams.”

  “Two days ago,” he said, putting it together. “At the rest stop.”

  It was instinct to pull back, to let go before I felt him let go first, but he didn’t allow me.

  “Don’t,” he said. “I’m not mad.”

  He brought our hands down against his forehead, not looking at me when he asked, “Does it make it worse? To be touching someone, I mean. Is it harder to control?”

  “Sometimes,” I admitted. I didn’t know how to explain it, because I had never wanted to. “Sometimes, when I’m tired or upset, I’ll pick up on someone’s thoughts or a memory they’re thinking about, but I can avoid being pulled in if I don’t touch the person. Touching them when my head is like that…it’s an automatic connection.”

  “I thought so.” Liam sighed, closing his eyes again. “You know, when we first met, you used to go out of your way to avoid touching us. I kept wondering if it was something you had been trained to do at your camp, because every time one of us would try to touch you or talk to you, you’d jump like we had shocked you.”

  “I didn’t want to hurt any of you,” I whispered.

  His eyes flashed open again, somehow brighter than before. He nodded to our linked fingers. “Is this okay?”

  “Are you okay?” I countered. I recognized the look on his face—it was nearly identical to the grief he’d worn at the rest stop, talking about his own camp. “What are you thinking about?”

  “I was thinking about how strange it is that we haven’t even known each other for two weeks, but it feels like I’ve known you for much longer than that,” he said. “And I’m thinking that it’s frustrating to feel like I know certain parts of you so well, but other parts of you…I don’t even know what your life was like before you went to camp.”

  What could I tell him? What could I say about what I had done to my parents and to Sam that wouldn’t scare him into letting go?

  “This is a place where we don’t have to lie,” he said, motioning between us. “Didn’t you tell me that?”

  “You remember?”

  “Of course I do,” he said. “Because I keep hoping that goes both ways. That if I ask you why you don’t want to go home to your parents, you’ll tell me the truth, or if I ask you what Thurmond was really like, you’ll stop lying. But then I realized that it’s not fair, because it’s not like I want to talk about my family. It’s like…those…”

  I turned to look at him, waiting as he tried to piece together his thought. “I don’t know if I can explain it,” he said. “It’s hard to put into words. Those things—those memories—are mine, you know? They’re the things that the camp didn’t take away when I went in, and they’re the things I don’t have to share if I don’t want to. I guess that’s stupid.”

  “It’s not stupid,” I said. “That’s not stupid at all.”

  “And I want to talk about everything with you. Everything. But I don’t know what to tell you about Caledonia,” he said. “I don’t know what I can tell you that won’t make you hate me. I was stupid, and I’m embarrassed and ashamed, and I know—I know—that Charles and Zu blame me for what happened. And I know that Cole has told Mom about it by now, and she’s told Harry, and the thought just makes me sick.”

  “You did what you thought was right,” I said. “I’m sure they understand that.”

  He shook his head, swallowing hard. I reached over with my other hand to brush the hair out of his eyes. The way he turned his face toward me again, closing his eyes and tilting his chin, made me brave enough to do it again. My finger
s followed the natural wave of his hair, tracing the strands down around his ear.

  “What do you want to do?” I whispered.

  “I’ve got to wake the others up,” he said. “We have to keep moving. On foot.”

  My hand stilled, but it was clear that he had made his choice.

  “What’s the rush?” I asked, lightly.

  There, at the right corner of his mouth, where his scar met his lips—a faint smile. “I think we could let them sleep, at least for a few more hours.”

  “And then?”

  “We’ll hit the road.”

  Two hours rolled right on by around us. We both must have fallen asleep at some point, because by the time I opened my eyes, the condensation was shrinking against the glass, and a few rays of morning light had made it to the forest floor.

  As I stirred, so did Liam. For a while, we said and did nothing beyond working out the cricks and kinks from the awkward positions we slept in. When it came time to finally let go of his hand, I felt the first touch of cold air work its way in from outside.

  “Wake up, team,” he said. His shoulder popped as he reached back to slap Chubs’s knee. “Time to carpe the hell out of this diem.”

  Less than an hour later, we were standing in front of the black minivan, watching as Zu did one last check under the seats. I buttoned my plaid shirt up to my throat and wrapped a red scarf I’d picked up around my neck three times—not because I was all that cold, but because it helped hide the disturbing bloodstain smeared down my front.

  “Yikes.” Liam’s expression was grim as he leaned over and pulled my hair out from where it was trapped beneath the collar. “Would you rather wear mine?”

  I smiled and zipped his coat up for him. My forehead was still tender to the touch, and the stitches were as ugly as sin, but I was feeling better. “Was it really that bad?”

  “Evil Dead II bad.” Liam bent down to add a few of his clothes to my backpack. Something red appeared in his hand. “Just about gave me a heart attack, Green.”

  “You can’t really call her Green anymore,” Chubs pointed out. He was making the difficult decision about which books to abandon and which to take with him, and had seemed to settle on Watership Down, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and some book I had never heard of called Howards End. Left behind: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and The Sound and the Fury, which Chubs had taken to calling The Snore and the Just Kill Me.

  “Yeah,” I said. “No more Green…”

  “All done?” Liam called to Zu. When she gave him a thumbs-up, he threw her pink bag over one shoulder and my backpack over the other. “Any day now, Marian Librarian. I thought you were the one that wanted to check out.”

  Chubs gave him the finger, leaning forward to put his full weight into closing the briefcase. I leaned over to help him, trying to avoid the look on Liam’s face as he stood there staring at Betty’s mangled black shell. Zu was crying without making a sound; Liam had his hands on her shoulders, holding her steady. Even Chubs looked at the car with a rare softness, his fingers bunching up the fabric of his pants.

  I understood why we were parting ways with Betty now; the other skip tracer that had been with Lady Jane was still out there, and there was some chance that the woman had reported the car to whatever bounty network the skip tracers used. But I also understood why Liam had been so reluctant to do it. Unlike the abandoned and withered small towns we had driven through in western Virginia, the nearby cities and their populations were still holding on, which meant there would be more folks on the road, and Betty, with her bullet holes and cracked windows, was not exactly inconspicuous. Then there was the fact that we had little to no gas left, and no easy way of finding more, aside from going up and down and siphoning it from the abandoned cars along the nearby highway. There was too much traffic—too many potential eyes—running down the road to do it.

  Liam had gotten us as close as he could to Lake Prince, but it was anyone’s guess how long it would take us to walk there.

  “It feels like we should do something,” he said. “Like, send her off on a barge out to sea and set her on fire. Let her go out in a blaze of glory.”

  Chubs raised an eyebrow. “It’s a minivan, not a Viking.”

  Zu pulled away from his grasp and headed for the trees to her left. Liam rubbed the back of his neck, at a loss. “Hey,” he started, “it’s okay, we’ll—”

  But when Zu reappeared in our line of sight, she wasn’t empty-handed. Clutched between her fingers were four small yellow flowers—wild weeds, by the looks of it. The kind we always used to have to pull up in Thurmond’s garden every spring.

  She walked over to the van, stood on her toes, and lifted up the closest windshield wiper. With delicate fingers, she positioned each flower in a row, keeping them straight across the cracked glass.

  Something cold and wet caught on my eyelashes. Not tears, but a misty rain, the kind that soaked through you slow and sure, driving you crazy with chills in the process. And I realized then how unfair it all was that we couldn’t just crawl back inside of the car; that even if we made it to East River, we’d be soaked and sore for days.

  This car—this had been a safe place for them. For us. Now we had lost that, too.

  I shoved my hands in my pockets and turned away, heading for the trees. My fingers brushed again something hard and smooth in my pocket, and I didn’t need to pull it out to know that it was the panic button. In the beginning, I had kept it because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to protect them on my own, and now…I had half a mind to drop it and let the ground claim it. Liam had confirmed everything that I’d suspected, but it seemed foolish to toss it then, when there was a chance for us to use them like they would have used us. If a PSF or skip tracer caught up to us now, I could press the button, and the agents that showed up would be more than enough distraction for us to have a chance to get away.

  But it still didn’t make me feel any less ashamed of how relieved I felt to find it still there—to know that Cate, with all of her promises to take care of things, was still out there, still only a touch away.

  Liam thought the easiest and fastest way to navigate our small pack to East River was to travel alongside the roads that we would have taken had we still been in Betty. We were close enough to the highway to hear the occasional car whiz by, or see the flash of some long, silver-bellied semitruck out of the corner of our eyes, but, he assured us, out of their line of sight. This was the way he had traveled after escaping the League, how he had navigated through most of Virginia—how he hoped to get home.

  We were debating whether or not Chubs had broken his toe against an exposed tree root when the wail of a truck’s horn shattered the silence. The booms that came next were infinitely worse—the thundering of something heavy falling and the resounding crack of metal snapping.

  We all jumped—I dropped Zu’s hand to cover my ears. The way the tires squealed just before the crash came was like the warning signal for White Noise.

  Liam reached over and gently pried my hands from my ears. “Come with me for a second.” He turned back to the others. “You guys watch the bags.”

  Before the sound had even settled in the air, we heard the screams. Not the desperate kind—the one you’d hear when someone was terrified or hurt or even out of their head with grief. This was a war cry. A rising rebel yell. After that, there was no chance of Zu or Chubs coming with us. They stayed behind to watch the bags as Liam and I made our way to the line of trees that separated us from the rain-soaked asphalt of the highway.

  The semitruck was on its side in the middle of the road, as if it had been flung there like a toy. The smell of burned rubber and smoke curled my stomach as we crouched down, and I was concerned the trail of sparks in front of us would turn into a wall of flame.

  Liam stood up and was nearly at the shoulder of the road before my hand managed to catch his elbow.

  “What are you doing?” I had to shout over the sound of the rain pinging against the silver, ri
ppled body of the trailer the truck had been hauling.

  “The driver—”

  Needed help, yes, I knew that, and maybe it made me soulless and horrible, but I wasn’t about to let Liam be the one to do it. Trucks didn’t just flip over on their side for no reason. Either there was another car and driver we couldn’t see, or…

  Or the yelling and the accident were connected.

  Liam and I were still standing out in the open when the figures in black came pouring out of the trees opposite us. Every inch of them was covered in black, from the ski masks pulled down over their faces to their black shoes. There was an entire highway between us, and still the sight of them was enough to make me reach out and grab Liam’s arm, squeezing it until I was sure he’d be left with a permanent imprint of my fingers.

  There were at least two dozen figures in black; they moved in unison, with practiced ease. And it was so weird, but watching them flood the road and divide into two groups—one that went to the front of the truck, the other to the back where its boxed contents were spilling out—reminded me of a football team running a play. The four of them sent to the front cab climbed up and ripped the door open. The driver, who was screaming something in a language I didn’t understand, was hauled down to the ground.

  One of the figures in black—a big one, with shoulders the size of Kansas, pulled a knife from his belt and, signaling for the others to hold the driver down, pressed its silver blade against the man’s palm.

  I heard a scream and didn’t realize it had belonged to me until that same black monster’s head swiveled toward us. Liam jumped at the ten gun barrels that swung our way. The first bullet was close enough to nick his ear as it whistled by. There wasn’t even time to turn and run. The firing stopped long enough for three of the figures to rush forward, screaming, “On your knees!” and “Head to the ground!”

  I wanted to run. Liam must have sensed this, because he latched onto my shoulder and forced me down, pressing the side of my face against the cold, rough asphalt. The rain picked up, filling my ear, my nose, my mouth as I tried to bite back another scream.

 
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