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The darkest minds, p.28
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       The Darkest Minds, p.28

         Part #1 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken

  “We’re not armed!” I heard Liam shout. “Easy—easy!”

  “Save it, asshole,” someone hissed.

  I was intimately familiar with what it felt like to have a barrel of a gun dig into my skin. Whoever was doing it this time had no qualms about dropping a knee onto my back, along with their entire weight. The gun’s metal mouth was cold against my cheek, and I felt someone weave a hand in my hair and give a sharp twist. That’s when I disconnected from the pain and lifted a hand, trying to twist my body enough to grab whoever was holding me. I was not powerless—we were not going to die here.

  “Not those!” I heard Liam say. He was begging. “Please!”

  “Awww, don’t want your precious papers to get wet?” The same voice as before. “How about you try being worried about yourself or your girl here, huh? Huh?” He sounded like a jock amped up on too much juice and game adrenaline.

  Someone stomped their foot down on the same hand I was trying to maneuver toward my attacker’s skin. I let out a choked cry, wishing I could turn my head to see what was causing Liam to do the same.

  “Doctor Charles Meriwether,” the voice read out, “2775 Arlington Court, Alexandria, Virginia. George Fields—”

  The letters.

  “Stop it,” Liam said. “We didn’t do anything—we didn’t see anything, just—”

  “Charles Meriwether?” another voice said. Also male, this one with a heavier Southern accent. I almost didn’t hear him over the rain. “George Fields—like Jack Fields?”

  “Yes!” Liam made the connection a full second before I did. This was a tribe—these were kids. “Yes, we’re Psi, please—we’re Psi like you!”

  “Lee? Liam Stewart?” There was a shuffle of feet running toward us.

  “Mike? That you?” That, from Liam.

  “Oh my God…stop, stop!” The gun lifted off my face, but I was still pinned to the ground. “I know him—that’s Liam Stewart! Stop! Hayes, get off of him!”

  “He saw; you know the rules!”

  “Jesus, are you deaf?” Mike yelled. “The rules apply to adults—they’re kids, you asshole!”

  I don’t know if Liam finally managed to throw him off, or if Mike’s words did the trick, but I felt Liam rise next to me, and opened my eyes in time to see Liam drive his shoulder into the black figure on top of me. I gulped in a full chest of air.

  “Are you all right?” he asked. He put his hands on either side of my face. “Ruby, look at me—you okay?”

  My hands came up to grab his. I nodded.

  Of the six guys gathered around us, only two pulled their knit ski caps up off their faces: the big kid—big in a Hercules kind of way—with ruddy skin and black paint under both eyes, and another one with olive coloring, shaggy brown hair pulled back into a short ponytail. The latter was Mike. He reached over and pulled the letters out of Hercules’s hand and pressed them against his own chest.

  “Lee, man, I’m so sorry. I never thought—” Mike choked up. Liam let go of one of my hands to clap him on the back. “What the hell are you doing here?”

  Liam took the letters back from him, and reached back to draw me forward again. “We’re okay now,” he told me. It seemed to be true enough. The other kids in black had lost interest in us the minute Mike stepped up.

  “God, Lee,” he said, wiping the rain off his face. “Oh my God, I can’t believe you actually made it out.”

  Liam’s voice was tight. “I thought you were with Josh when…”

  “I was, but I got through the fields.” He added, “Thanks to you.”

  Another kid, this one with skin as dark as Chubs, jerked his thumb in Liam’s direction. “This is Lee Stewart?” he demanded. “From Caledonia?”

  “From North Carolina,” Liam said, with surprising venom.

  Mike gripped Liam’s hand, his entire body shaking. “The others—did you see if any of the others made it out?”

  Liam hesitated. I knew what he was thinking, and I wondered if he would tell Mike the truth about how many kids actually escaped that night.

  Instead, their watches went off at once, a shrill beep.

  “That’s time,” Hercules said to the others. “Grab the supplies and head back. The uniforms will be here any second.”

  A single gunshot punctuated his order like an exclamation point, thundering across the open road. Liam and I both jumped back, away from them.

  The kids at the back of the truck were tossing down the entirety of the truck’s load: boxes and crates of brightly colored fruit. My lips parted at the sight of green bananas, just a few days shy of being ripe.

  When they moved off and started back toward the trees, I had a clear view of the truck driver being rolled, unconscious and bound, into the ditch alongside the road.

  “So, you’re what?” Liam rubbed the back of his neck. “Raiding anyone stupid enough to drive by?”

  “It’s a supply hit,” Mike said. “We’re just trying to bring in a little food to eat, and this is the only way that works for us. We just have to do it fast—in and out before anyone notices us and can follow us back home.”

  “Back home?”

  “Yeah. Where are you guys headed?” Mike had to shout over the people shouting for him. “You should come with us!”

  “We already have our own tribe, thanks,” Liam said.

  Mike’s dark brows furrowed. “We’re not a tribe. Not like that, at least. We’re with the Slip Kid. You heard of him?”


  EAST RIVER WAS, after all that speculating, nothing more than a camping ground. A big one, of course, but nothing I hadn’t seen before a dozen times over with my parents. After the buildup that Mike and the others had given it, you would have thought we were walking toward Heaven’s pearly gates, not some old camping spot that had been called Chesapeake Trails in its past life.

  Since Mike had been the one to convince the others to take us along, he was the one stuck babysitting us as we hiked up the muddy unpaved road, saddled with boxes of fruit that were as heavy as they were tempting.

  “We go on these things—we call them hits—to gather up supplies for the camp. Stuff like food, medicine, you name it. We also raid stores from time to time.”

  Liam had given me his jacket to wear to ward off the rain. Though it had turned to a faint drizzle as we walked, the damage had already been done to the flimsy cardboard boxes in our arms. Every now and then, the bottom of a carton would give out completely, and whatever kid was carrying it would be forced to stuff the sodden piles of fruit into their pockets or carry them cupped in their shirts. Kids were doubling back to pick up the scattered, bright trail we were leaving behind us. Every once in a while, I would catch myself from being distracted by the bright trail we were leaving behind.

  When Mike had his back turned to us, Liam snuck a hand in the top box and held an orange out in front of my face, a shy smile on his lips. When he dropped it in my jacket’s pocket, he leaned over, his sweatshirt hood slipping off his head, and pressed a light kiss against my bruised cheek. After that, the cold trickle on my skin seemed to evaporate.

  “Ow, ow, ow, ow,” Chubs chanted behind us. “Ow, ow, ow, ow.”

  “You know,” Mike said, “it gives me hope that, after everything he’s been through, Chubs is still the same Chubs we all know and love.”

  “Aw, that’s not true,” Liam said. “This is Chubs two-point-oh. He hasn’t cried once this entire walk.”

  “Give him a few minutes.” Greg snorted. “I’m sure he won’t let us down.”

  “Hey,” I said in a low, warning tone. “Not funny.”

  Chubs was still trailing behind, the gap between us growing with each mile marker we passed. I stopped and waited for him, not wanting him to feel like he was being left behind.

  “Need some help?” I asked as he limped up to me. “My box isn’t too heavy.” And his was, I could tell. He was saddled with grapefruit.

  I could see in his eyes that he desperately wanted to trade, even if it
was only for a few minutes. Instead, he lifted his chin and said, over the cardboard flap, “I’m fine, though I appreciate your asking.”

  Liam and Mike burst out laughing about something—even Zu looked back to grin at them, Liam’s hat falling over her eyes. It was amazing how much better Liam looked after only a few hours; his face was animated with a kind of energy I hadn’t seen…well, ever.

  “What was he like?” I asked quietly. “When he was in camp?”

  Chubs blew out a long sigh. “Well, for one thing, he was a lot more annoying with his whole, We’re gonna make it, guys, we’re gonna get out one day Pollyanna shtick. That’s been dying a slow death now that he’s realized just how sucky everything actually is.”

  He stopped to shift the box in his arms. “I mean, what do you want me to tell you? Lee is Lee. Everyone loved him, even some of the PSFs. They picked him out of all of the Blues to be a runner for the control center of our camp.”

  “Yeah? And what were you like in camp?” I asked, smiling.

  “Ignored, for the most part,” he said. “Unless I was with Lee.”

  As if he’d heard his name, Liam turned. “Hurry up, ladies! We’re going to be left behind.”

  Mike was in the middle of explaining how he had hitchhiked from Ohio to Virginia after breaking out of Caledonia, when Chubs and I finally caught up to them. Zu tugged the sleeve of my jacket and pointed through the trees to our left.

  I had been so involved in my conversation with Chubs that I had completely missed the silky blue lake that had suddenly come into view. The clouds pulled back, revealing the sun high overhead. The water sparkled under its touch, throwing its light around the trees that lined its every side. Through them, I could see I could see a small T-shaped wood dock at the other end, and, beyond that, several wooden cabins.

  “So it’s more of a place to hide, then,” Liam was saying. “Can he help us get in touch with our folks?”

  Mike frowned. “I guess, but he usually asks that you stay and help with the camp for a few weeks in return. Plus, why would you want to go home now? It’s much safer here.”

  I could tell Chubs wanted to press this issue, but Liam charged on with yet another question. “How long has the Slip guy had this setup?”

  “Two or so years, I think,” Mike answered. “Man, I can’t wait until you meet him. You are going to lose your mind.”

  Chubs rolled his eyes heavenward, and I got the distinct impression that he and Mike were not all that fond of each other.

  “And there are hundreds of kids here just roaming around unchecked?” I asked. “How has he been able to stay here so long without the PSFs catching on?”

  Mike had already explained how the camp worked. All of the kids who had gathered there—some who had escaped from camps or capture, others that had been able to hide out long enough to avoid it all together—had responsibilities.

  “Oh, see, now that’s the beauty of being under the Slip Kid’s protection,” Mike said. “The PSFs can’t attack him because of who he is and what he could do to them. Even ol’ Gray is terrified of him.”

  “I know who it is!” Liam snapped his fingers. “Santa!”

  Zu giggled.

  “You’re not too far off,” Mike said. “This is going to sound super sappy, so feel free to give me shit for it, but every day here feels like Christmas.”

  I saw what he meant right away. Once we reached the clearing that, I assumed, had once been used for campers to set up tents, we were surrounded by dozens of kids. To our right, teens were playing volleyball—with an actual net. I heard a few shrieks of laughter and stopped to let a few little girls rush by in front of me. They were the ones that caught Zu’s attention.

  They all looked happy. Up and shiny and smiley. And clean. Not covered in cuts and bruises and mud like we were, but in decent clothes and shoes. A few kids lounging under the trees stopped whatever it was that they were doing and actually helped us carry the fruit boxes toward a white building marked OFFICE CAMP/SHOP without being asked or prompted.

  The Office/Camp Shop was the sturdiest of the structures we had passed so far, built in a more permanent style than the smaller log cabins with their dark green doors.

  “This is where we keep the food,” Mike said, like it was the most exciting thing we were ever going to hear. “And where the Slip Kid runs the whole show—I’ll bring you guys in for an introduction. Get permission for you to stay a while.”

  “We need permission?” Chubs asked. “What happens if he says no?”

  “He’s never said no before,” Mike said, shifting the box onto his shoulder so he could drop an arm around Chubs’s shoulder. Seeing he had my attention, he grinned ear-to-ear.

  “Now, you couldn’t have been at Caledonia. I would remember a face like yours.” I think he thought he was being charming with those dark eyes and dimples. He looked over at Lee, who was fighting back a smile as he watched my reaction. “Where did she come from, and where can I find one?”

  “Picked this one up at a gas station in West Virginia, bargain price,” Lee said. “Last one on the shelf, sorry.”

  Mike laughed again, giving Chubs’s shoulder a squeeze before he hopped up the steps, ducking under a white sheet that had been strung up over the building’s small porch. I glanced at it, then had to look again.

  The enormous black Ψ painted there had stopped Zu dead in her tracks and turned her face a sickly shade. I couldn’t move—couldn’t look away from it. Liam cleared his throat, his jaw working, as if trying to shake the words loose.

  It was enough to stop Zu and me dead in our tracks, at least. Alarm lit up her face like a candle. Liam gave his friend a confused look.

  “What?” Mike asked, seeing our reactions.

  “Any reason in particular you’ve decorated this fine establishment with our mortal enemies’ symbol?” Liam said.

  It was the first time I had seen Mike’s expression drop the entire time we’d been with him, which was close to two hours. Something hardened in his eyes, something strained the muscles in his jaw. “That’s our symbol, isn’t it? It’s Psi. It should represent us, not them.”

  “How do you explain the black, then?” Liam pressed. “The armbands, the shirts…?”

  He was right. Everyone, in some form or another, had the color on them. Most were apparently satisfied with tying a black band around their arm, but others, and not just the ones that had hit the truck for supplies, were in head-to-toe black.

  “Black is the absence of all colors,” Mike said. “We don’t segregate by color here. We all respect one another and our abilities, and we all help one another understand them. I thought if anyone would be on board with that, it’d be you, Lee.”

  “Oh no, no, I am on board. I am, like, captain of that ship,” Liam said. “I was just…confused, that’s all. Black is the color. Got it.”

  The screen door creaked open again. Mike caught it with his foot. “Coming?”

  Inside, I was surprised to feel a wave of heat hit my face and see the overhead lights on. Electricity—I remembered Greg mentioning something about the Yellows rigging the system to work, but did they have running water, too?

  The front rooms were filled with piles of blankets and bedding, a few stacked mattresses, and a number of unidentifiable gray plastic tubs. The backroom—the Shop in the Office/Camp Shop combo—was to the right of a small, white-tiled kitchen. Mike waved to the kids inside, who were turning whatever delicious creation was inside of their pots with long wooden spoons.

  The old store’s wood shelves were painted a dour green, but stuffed with a rainbow assortment of canned food and bags of chips, pasta, and even marshmallows. Liam let out a low whistle at the sight of the boxes of cereal stacked high over our heads.

  I thought Chubs might cry.

  We left the fruit on the floor in a shady corner of the room, near a girl with cropped blond hair and a midriff-baring black shirt. She was still clapping her hands in delight, bouncing on her toes. She couldn
t have been more than fourteen or fifteen and seemed to have as many piercings in the cartilage of each ear.

  “I knew you’d be happy, Lizzie,” Mike said, tossing her a grapefruit.

  “We haven’t had fruit in ages,” she said, her pitch rising with every word. “I hope this all keeps for a few weeks.”

  Mike led us out of the room, leaving Lizzie to coo over the pineapples and oranges. “Let’s go upstairs. He should be done meeting with the security team by now. Hayes handles hits, but Olivia—you’ll meet her—coordinates watch duty around the perimeter of the camp. If you want, I can talk to her about getting you assigned there.”

  He looked down at Zu. “But unfortunately for you, my dear, everyone under thirteen has to sit through lessons.”

  That caught Chubs’s attention. “What kinds of lessons?”

  “School stuff, I guess. Math, a little science, some reading—depends on whatever books we were able to scrounge. It’s important to the boss that everyone gets the basics down.” Mike stopped at the top of the stairs and looked over his shoulder. “I know you never liked using them, but there are lessons on how to use your abilities, too.”

  Chubs cleared his throat behind me. “I’m fine with what Jack taught me.”

  “Jack…” Mike’s voice trailed off. “Man, I miss that kid.”

  On our walk over, he had explained that there were five kids from Caledonia living in the Slip Kid’s camp. Mike was the only one from Liam’s old room, but there were two Blue girls, one Yellow boy, and a Green who had somehow made it all the way to eastern Virginia.

  The second story of the building was more of an attic; the entire floor was one open room, but it was a nice one. Mike knocked on the door, waiting for the “Come in,” before daring to twist the handle. I heard Chubs let out a nervous squeak, and I was surprised to feel my own heart skip a beat.

  The door opened to the middle of the room. To the right was a white curtain, drawn all the way over to hide what I thought was probably the living area. The window behind the curtain let in enough afternoon light to hint at the shape of a bed and dresser.

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