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The darkest minds, p.29
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       The Darkest Minds, p.29

         Part #1 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken
 

  The other half of the room was set up like an office. There were two bookshelves filled with binders and books of every shape and size. An old metal desk with peeling black paint sat in between. There were two simple chairs in front of the desk, and a long table pushed to the far left wall, with all sorts of electronic equipment. A TV was on, set to one of the news channels. President Gray’s face filled the screen, flanked by two American flags. His mouth moved, but the TV had been muted. The only sound, aside from Chubs’s sharp intake of breath, was Clancy Gray’s fingers striking the keys of the sleek silver laptop.

  I would have recognized him even if he had shaved his head of thick, wavy black hair—if he had tattooed his cheeks, or pierced his long, straight nose. I had spent six years staring up at every single one of his portraits at Thurmond, memorizing every mole, the shape of his thin lips—I was even intimately familiar with the peak of his hairline. But it was nothing like seeing the real thing. Those portraits hadn’t captured his dark eyes, and they certainly hadn’t been able to predict how striking he’d turn out to be as he aged.

  “Just a sec—” He glanced up from his screen in our direction and immediately did a double take.

  “Boss?” Mike said. “You okay?”

  The president’s son rose slowly, shutting the lid of his laptop. The rolled-up sleeves of his white shirt slid down his tan arms.

  This is the Slip Kid? I thought. Him? Surprise was an understatement. Brain-numbing shock, the kind that reduced my train of thought to an inching crawl, was an understatement. I didn’t even have a second to collect myself before the next three words passed his lips. There was no way I could have, because Clancy Gray looked straight at me and said the very last thing on earth I expected.

  “Ruby Elizabeth Daly.”

  My reaction was way too strong for something as innocent as my full name. It wasn’t like he had spat out three vile cusswords or screamed “Kill them now!” or “Lock them up!” I shouldn’t have stumbled back, tripping over my own boots, but I was nearly to the door before I even realized it.

  Clancy took a step forward, but Liam pushed him back, hard.

  “Lee!” Mike sounded scandalized.

  Clancy held up his hands. “Sorry—I’m sorry! My bad. I should have realized how that would sound. I was just surprised to see you.” He leaned around Liam with an apologetic smile, and I paused at the door, momentarily stunned by how white and straight his teeth were. “I’ve read your file so many times on so many different networks that I feel like we’ve already met. There are so many people out there looking for you right now.”

  “And which one do you plan on turning her over to?” Chubs snapped.

  I stood still, letting Zu keep one arm wrapped around my waist. Clancy’s face flushed at the accusation, his dark eyes flicking back over to me. “None of them. I just collect information, watch the networks to see what everyone is buzzing about. And that just happens to be you, Miss Daly.” He paused, rubbing a hand absently over his shoulder. “Let’s see if I remember all of this—born in Charlottesville, Virginia, but raised in Salem by her mother, Susan, a teacher, and her father, Jacob, a police officer. Attended Salem Elementary School until your tenth birthday, when your father called into his station to report an unknown child in his house—”

  “Stop,” I muttered. Liam looked over his shoulder, trying to divide his attention between me and the boy reciting the sordid tale of my life.

  “—but, bad luck, the PSFs beat the police to your house. Good luck, someone dropped the ball or they had other kiddies to pick up, because they didn’t wait around long enough to question your parents, and thus, didn’t pre-sort you. And then you came to Thurmond, and you managed to avoid their detecting you were Orange—”

  “Stop!” I didn’t want to hear this—I didn’t want anyone to hear it.

  “What’s the matter with you?” Liam shouted. “Can’t you see you’re upsetting her?”

  Clancy, maybe anticipating another hard shove, moved to the other side of his desk. “I’m excited to meet her, that’s all. It’s not often that you find another Orange.”

  A spark lit at the center of my chest, spreading quickly up to my brain. He is an Orange. The rumors were right. He might actually be able to help me.

  “But…weren’t you reformed?” I asked slowly. “Isn’t that why they let you out?”

  “You of all people should know they can’t reform shit at Thurmond, Ruby,” he said. “How is good ol’ Thurmond, by the way? I had the dubious honor of being its first inmate—got to see them build the Mess Hall brick by brick. Did they really hang my picture up everywhere?”

  A better question: Did he really think I was going to pull up a chair and shoot the breeze about the good old days?

  Clancy sighed. “Anyway…if you’re Ruby, then you must be Lee Stewart. I’ve read your file, too.”

  “Anything good in there?” Mike asked with a nervous laugh.

  “The PSFs have been following your every move,” Clancy said, leaning back in his chair. “Which means you need some place to lie low for a while, right?”

  Liam hesitated a split second before nodding.

  “You made a good choice coming here. You can stay as long as you need.” Clancy rested his hands on his chest. “Now that I’ve managed to upset everyone, Mike, do you want to take them to a cabin and get them set up in the rotations?”

  Mike nodded. “For the record, you didn’t upset me, boss.”

  Clancy laughed, rich and slow. “Okay, good. Thanks for all of your hard work today, by the way. Sounds like it was a good haul.”

  “Like you wouldn’t believe,” Mike said, moving toward the door. He waved us after him, but he no longer looked at us with the same warmth. “Cabin eighteen is open, right?”

  “Yeah, Ty and his guys went tribal on us,” Clancy said. “I don’t know that anyone has gone in to clean it since they left, though, so I apologize if it’s a mess.”

  And then he was staring at me again, one corner of his lips turning up, then the other. A warm, fizzling sensation filled my head, sending my pulse spiking. I turned away and broke eye contact, but the image still flooded my mind, spilling in until I thought I might choke. In my mind’s eye, I saw Clancy and me alone in the same room, him on one knee, offering a rose in my direction.

  Forgive me? His voice was loud in my ears, echoing as I stumbled down the stairs.

  How had he done that? Waltzed right through every single one of my natural defenses. And why was my brain suddenly alive and reaching out for whoever was closest, whoever was stupid enough to let me in?

  I lifted my face from where I had buried it against Liam’s shoulder. When had I done that? When had we gotten outside—when had we walked all the way to the cabin?

  Liam’s eyes tried to catch mine as I pulled away. My head ached, physically ached for him. It was too dangerous to stand so close to him.

  “Not right now,” I whispered.

  Liam’s brows drew together, and his lips parted with something he wanted to say. After a moment, he only nodded and turned back toward the cabin, bounding up the steps.

  I needed to get as far away from them as I could, at least until the trilling inside of my head died down. There was no plan or map involved; I just set off down a nearby path. A few kids, all strangers, called after me in concern, but I ignored them, following the smell of mud and molding leaves until I found the lake we had passed.

  The trees and brush had overgrown the path down to the T-shaped wooden dock, and where there weren’t plants in my way, there was a rope, along with a sign that warned DO NOT ENTER.

  I slipped under it and kept heading down, not stopping until I sat on the edge of the old sun-bleached dock and put my head between my knees, listening to the sounds of kids laughing and yelling in the distance, wondering when the feeling would return to my legs long enough for me to stand, and when the imprint of Clancy Gray’s voice would fade.

  Alone, I thought, lying down on the old wo
od. Finally alone.

  Dinner was served at exactly seven that night. There was no intercom or alarm system in the camp, but there were cowbells. Apparently that was a universal call for food, because once the first bell rang, others echoed back, spreading the noise through the cabins and trails, all the way down to where I sat studying my reflection in the dark water.

  It was easy enough to find the action—two hundred–odd kids gathered around a raging bonfire to eat wasn’t exactly subtle. My feet slowed the closer I came, watching as a few of the older boys threw more logs into the fire’s grasping fingers. Rings of old logs provided makeshift seats for those who already had their food and didn’t want to eat alone in their cabins.

  The kids we had seen in the kitchen had set up a table full of what looked like slow cookers and were making runs between the office building and the fire to replenish them. Dozens of kids waited in line for their turn at the pots, their plastic bowls pressed against their chests in anticipation.

  I spotted Liam straight off, standing rather than sitting on one of the logs. He had a bowl of chili in each hand and was scanning the area. Chubs would have walked right by him if Liam hadn’t nudged him as he passed. He asked Chubs something, but I caught only part of his response.

  “Uh, no thanks. I read Lord of the Flies. I know how this works—everyone starts dancing around the fire and painting their faces and worshipping a decapitated pig head and then someone gets hit by a boulder and plummets to their death—and, surprise, it’s the fat kid in glasses.” Liam started laughing, but even I could see how uncomfortable Chubs looked. “I think I’m going to play it safe and go read—and, hey, there’s Ruby! You two can enjoy the degeneration of human decency without me.”

  Liam whirled around so fast his footing slipped, and he came dangerously close to dropping both bowls on the bushy-haired girls sitting beside him.

  “Have fun,” Chubs said as he hurried past me. I caught his sleeve and swung him back around.

  “What’s wrong?” I asked.

  He shrugged, a sad smile curling the ends of his lips. “I’m just not up for it tonight, I guess.”

  I knew the feeling. After it being just the four of us alone for so long, suddenly being around so many people, even if they were kids like us, was a little stressful. If he hadn’t liked it when one new person—me—had invaded his world, I could only imagine what this was doing to his nerves. “Well, if you change your mind, we’ll be here.”

  Chubs patted my head fondly and continued up the dirt trail, back to our assigned cabin.

  “What’s gotten into him?” Liam asked, offering me the steaming bowl of food.

  “I think he’s just tired,” I said, and left it at that. “Where’s Zu?”

  He nodded to the left, where, sure enough, Zu’s smiling face appeared at the center of a small group of boys and girls her age. When she saw me, she waved. I wondered how it was possible for her face to be so vibrant. The Asian girl sitting next to her nodded as Zu gestured to her, as if knowing her every thought without her having to whisper a word. When Zu reached over to knock back the hood of the girl’s “Virginia Is for Lovers” sweatshirt, she revealed a long, glossy black braid.

  “Oh my God,” I said, making the connection instantly.

  “What wrong?”

  “That kid was in your camp,” I said. “I saw her in Zu’s nightmare. They got separated.”

  “Really?” The dawning realization that spread across his face was adorable. “Guess that explains why they tackled one another to the ground earlier.”

  I laughed. “They did?”

  “Yeah, they were rolling around like puppies in the grass—hey, Zu!” She looked our way again. “Come here a sec. No, bring your friend—”

  When the two girls were on their feet, I was surprised to see the other girl stood a good four inches above Zu’s head, though she looked like couldn’t have been more than a year older than her.

  Zu took the girl’s hand and flounced over to us, grinning. She was back to wearing the hot pink dress.

  “Hi there,” Liam said, holding out his hand to the girl. “My name is Liam, and this is—”

  “I know who you are,” the girl interrupted. “Liam and Ruby.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “Suzume told me all about you.”

  “Told you—told you, or…”

  “Of course she didn’t tell me,” the girl huffed, earning a sharp elbow to her side. She turned and said something to Zu in Japanese, who, in turn, shook her head and reached up to tug the girl’s braid.

  “Okay, fine!” The tall girl turned back to us, flanked by the campfire. “I’m Hina. Suzume is my cousin.”

  “Oh, wow!” I said, looking to Zu. “Are you serious? That’s amazing!”

  She was bouncing on her toes, still smiling.

  “And you were at Caledonia together,” Liam said, slowly. “Zu, why didn’t you mention it? We could have tried to track her down. Are you a Yellow, too?”

  “I’m a Green,” Hina said, pointing to her full head of hair. “Duh.”

  Zu gave us an apologetic shrug before tugging Hina away, back to the circle of younger kids who were engrossed in some kind of card game. Liam turned toward me with a look of pure amazement. “Did I just get sassed by a twelve-year-old?”

  “I guess it runs in the family,” I said, spinning my spoon around my bowl. The chili was warm, with a wonderful kick. I don’t think I’d eaten anything other than the slop they’d served at Thurmond and junk food in almost seven years, and the fact that someone had put even the barest amount of effort into it…I had to go back and get seconds, thirds, until I physically could not stuff myself anymore.

  Being so close to the fire with a belly full of delicious food was making me feel drowsy and safe. I slid down off the log so I was sitting on the ground, reclining against Liam’s legs.

  “That reminds me.…” Liam said. “Would you believe Zu actually started jumping up and down and clapping when I told her she had to get up at seven to go do some good ol’-fashioned book learnin’ with the other Cubbies?”

  “Cubbies?”

  “Daily lessons. School.” He tapped my nose with the clean end of his spoon. “Stick around, Ruby Tuesday, and you’ll start picking up the cool-kid lingo, too.”

  When we finished eating, Liam set both of our bowls in one of the many plastic tubs floating by. The Blue controlling the one closest to us was a skinny kid, who looked like he weighed about half of what his tub did. I blinked once, twice, wondering if I was imagining it. It was the first time I had ever seen kids use their abilities so…frivolously. It was a strange contrast to what was otherwise a picture of normalcy. At least, what I assumed normalcy looked like. A few kids strummed on guitars or used their log as a drum set. Most were talking quietly, or playing card games.

  Liam slid down behind me, finding just enough room between my back and the old log. The shimmering air around the flames, combined with the delicious heat, made my muscles turn to mush. His hand came up to brush the stray strands of hair off the back of my neck. I leaned back until I was resting against his chest, nestled between his knees.

  “You okay now, darlin’?” he whispered in my ear. I nodded, my fingers finding the bare skin of his forearms, tracing the muscles and overlying veins there. On a discovery mission, searching for something I hadn’t even realized I wanted until now. His skin was so soft, his hands warm and wide, knuckles bruised and torn with brittle scabs. I pressed my own hand on top of his, weaving our fingers together.

  “I had to be alone for a little while, but I’m okay now.”

  “All right,” he whispered. “But next time, don’t go where I can’t find you.”

  I didn’t doze off so much as relax. It seemed like the longer I sat there, the quieter my head became, the more the aches and knots in my body worked themselves out, leaving me as soft as the dirt under us.

  Eventually, someone brought out a decades-old boom box, and even the kids with guitars stopped playin
g in deference to the Beach Boys. I seemed to be the only one in the entire camp who didn’t dance, but it was fun to watch the others. Zu, in particular, as she twisted her hips and threw her arms in the air—at least until she ran up to us and began to tug on our arms. I managed to beg off, but Liam didn’t have nearly as much willpower.

  They were both laughing when the track switched to “Barbara Ann,” twirling when “Fun, Fun, Fun” came on. I should have known something was up when they both turned to me wearing identical devious looks.

  Liam held up a finger in my direction, beckoning me over to him. I laughed and shook my hands in front of me. “No!”

  He grinned—his first real grin in days—and I felt something tug at my belly button. The sensation was warm, tingling, and familiar. Liam pretended he was hauling a line in, and Zu actually stopped her frolicking to act it out with him. Their faces were flushed and glowing with a sheen of sweat. With nothing but fine dust and mud between us, I slid right over to them—right into Liam’s outstretched hands.

  “No fair,” I whined.

  “Come on, Green,” he said. “You could use a good dance.”

  Zu spun around us, waving her arms in time to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” I put my hand over Liam’s, letting him drop it over one of his shoulders. He took my other hand without asking, and held it lightly in his own. “Step up on my feet.”

  I gave him what I hoped was an incredulous look.

  “Trust me,” he said. “Come on, before our song is over.”

  Against all my better judgment, I put my feet over his, waiting for him to wince at my weight. At least his bones felt sturdy under mine.

  “A little closer, Green; I won’t bite.”

  I leaned forward, close enough that my cheek was resting against his shoulder. Liam’s hand tightened around mine, and I found my other hand bunching the fabric of his shirt. And I was embarrassed because I was positive he could feel my heart hammering in my chest.

  “No spinning,” I said. I wasn’t sure if my head or heart could take it. Up close, he was so warm, and so beautiful. I was already dizzy enough.

 
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