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The darkest minds, p.3
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       The Darkest Minds, p.3

         Part #1 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken
 

  “What are they going to do with us?” I whispered up to her. We were at the far left end of the cabin, our bunk wedged in the corner. The walls of the structure had been thrown together so quickly that they weren’t completely sealed. Every now and then a freezing draft and sometimes a snowflake whistled in from the silent outdoors.

  “I dunno,” she said quietly. A few beds over, one of the girls had finally dropped off into the oblivion of sleep, and her snores were helping to cover our conversation. When a PSF had escorted us to our new residence, it had been with several warnings: no talking after lights-out, no leaving, no use of freak abilities—intentional or accidental. It was the first time I had ever heard anyone refer to what we could do as “freak abilities” instead of the polite alternative, “symptoms.”

  “I guess keep us here, until they figure out a cure,” Sam continued. “That’s what my dad said, at least, when the soldiers came to get me. What did your parents say?”

  My hands hadn’t stopped shaking from earlier, and every time I tried shutting my eyes all I could see were the white coat’s blank ones staring right back into mine. The mention of my parents only made the pounding in my head that much worse.

  I don’t know why I lied. It was easier, I guess, than the truth—or maybe because some small part of it felt like it was the actual truth. “My parents are dead.”

  She sucked in a sharp breath between her teeth. “I wish mine were, too.”

  “You don’t mean that!”

  “They’re the ones that sent me here, aren’t they?” It was dangerous, how fast her voice was rising. “Obviously they wanted to get rid of me.”

  “I don’t think—” I began, only to stop myself. Hadn’t my parents wanted to get rid of me, too?

  “Whatever; it’s fine,” she said, though it clearly wasn’t and it wasn’t ever going to be. “We’ll stay here and stick together, and when we get out, we can go wherever we want, and no one will stop us.”

  My mom used to say that sometimes just saying something aloud was enough to make it true. I wasn’t so sure about that, but the way Sam said it, the low burn beneath her words, made me reconsider. It suddenly seemed possible that it could work out that way—that if I couldn’t go home, I would still be all right in the end if I could just stick with her. It was like wherever Sam went, a path opened up behind her; all I had to do was stay in her shadow, out of the PSFs’ line of sight, and avoid doing anything that would call attention to me.

  It worked that way for five years.

  Five years feels like a lifetime when one day bleeds into the next, and your world doesn’t stretch any farther than the gray electric fence surrounding two miles of shoddy buildings and mud. I was never happy at Thurmond, but it was bearable because Sam was there to make it that way. She was there with the eye roll when Vanessa, one of our cabinmates, tried to cut her own hair with garden shears to look more “stylish” (“For who?” Sam had muttered. “Her reflection in the Washroom mirror?”); the silly cross-eyed face behind the back of the PSF lecturing her for speaking out of turn yet again; and the firm—but gentle—reality check when girls’ imaginations started running too wild, or rumors sprung up about the PSFs letting us go.

  Sam and I—we were realists. We knew we weren’t getting out. Dreaming led to disappointment, and disappointment to a kind of depressed funk that wasn’t easy to shake. Better to stay in the gray than get eaten by the dark.

  Two years into life at Thurmond, the camp controllers started work on the Factory. They had failed at rehabilitating the dangerous ones and hauled them off in the night, but the so-called “improvements” didn’t stop there. It dawned on them that the camp needed to be entirely “self-sufficient.” From that point on, we’d be growing and cooking our own food to eat, mucking out the Washrooms, making our uniforms, and even making theirs.

  The brick structure was all the way at the far west side of camp, cupped in one end of Thurmond’s long rectangle. They had us dig out the foundation for the Factory, but the camp controllers didn’t trust us with the actual building of it. We watched it go up floor by floor, wondering what it was for, and what they would do to us there. That was back when all sorts of rumors were floating around like dandelion fluff in the wind—some thought the scientists were coming back for more experiments; some thought the new building was where they were going to move the Reds, Oranges, and Yellows, if and when they returned; and some thought it was where they were going to get rid of us, once and for all.

  “We’ll be fine,” Sam had told me one night, just before they turned the lights out. “No matter what—you hear me?”

  But it wasn’t fine. It wasn’t fine then, and it wasn’t fine now.

  There was no talking in the Factory, but there were ways around it. Actually, the only time we were allowed to speak to one another was in our cabin, before lights-out. Everywhere else, it was all work, obedience, silence. But you can’t go on for years together without developing a different kind of language, one that was all sly grins and quick glances. Today, they had us polishing and relacing the PSFs’ boots and tightening their uniform buttons, but a single wiggle of a loose black shoelace and a look toward the girl standing across from you—the same one who had called you an awful word the night before—spoke volumes.

  The Factory wasn’t much of a factory. A better name probably would have been the Warehouse, only because the building consisted of just one huge room, with a pathway suspended over the work floor. The builders had enough thought to install four large windows on the west and east walls, but because there was no heat in the winter or AC in the summer, they tended to let more bad weather in than sunlight.

  The camp controllers tried to keep things as simple as possible; they set up rows and rows of tables lengthwise across the dusty concrete floor. There were hundreds of us working in the Factory that morning, all in Green uniforms. Ten PSFs patrolled the walkways above us, each with his or her own black rifle. Another ten were on the ground with us.

  It was no more unnerving than usual to feel the press of their eyes coming from every direction. But I hadn’t slept well the night before, even after a full day of work in the Garden. I had gone to bed with a headache and woken up with a glossy fever fog over my brain, and a sore throat to match. Even my hands seemed lethargic, my fingers stiff as pencils.

  I knew I wasn’t keeping up, but it was like drowning, in a way. The harder I tried to work, to keep my head above water, the more tired I felt and the slower I became. After a while, even standing upright was taking too much effort, and I had to brace myself against the table to keep from swan-diving straight into it. On most days, I could get away with a snail’s pace. It wasn’t like they had us doing important work, or that we had deadlines to meet. Every task we were assigned was just glorified busywork to keep our hands moving, our bodies occupied, and our minds dead with boredom. Sam called it “forced recess”—they let us out of our cabins, and the work wasn’t difficult or tiring like it was in the Garden, but no one wanted to be there.

  Especially when bullies came to the playground.

  I knew he was standing behind me long before I heard him start counting the finished, shiny shoes in front of me. He smelled like spiced meat and car oil, which already was an unsettling combination before a whiff of cigarette smoke was added to the mix. I tried to straighten my back under the weight of his gaze, but it felt like he had taken two fists and dug the knuckles deep between my shoulder blades.

  “Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen…” How was it that they could make mere numbers sound sharp?

  At Thurmond, we weren’t allow to touch one another, and we were beyond forbidden to touch one of the PSFs, but it didn’t mean that they couldn’t touch us. The man took two steps forward; his boots—exactly like the ones on the table—nudged the back of my standard white slip-ons. When I didn’t respond, he snuck an arm past my shoulder, on the pretense of sorting through my work, and pressed me into his chest. Shrink, I told myself, curling my spine down, ben
ding my face to the task in front of me, shrink and disappear.

  “Worthless,” I heard the PSF grunt behind me. His body was letting off enough heat to warm the entire building. “You’re doing this all wrong. Look—watch, girl!”

  I got my first real glance at him out of the corner of my eye as he ripped the polish-stained cloth out of my hand and moved to my side. He was short, only an inch or two taller than me, with a stubby nose, and cheeks that seemed to flap every time he took a breath.

  “Like this,” he was saying, swiping at the boot he had taken. “Look at me!”

  A trick. We weren’t supposed to look them directly in the eyes, either.

  I heard a few chuckles around me—not from the girls, but from more PSFs gathered at his back.

  It felt like I was boiling from the inside out. It was December, and the Factory couldn’t have been warmer than forty degrees, but lines of sweat were racing down the curves of my cheeks, and I felt a hard, stiff cough welling up in my throat.

  There was a light touch at my side. Sam couldn’t look up from her own work, but I saw her eyes slide over to me, trying to assess the situation. A wave of furious red was making its way up from her throat to her face, and I could only imagine the kinds of words she was holding back. Her bony elbow brushed against mine again, as if to remind me that she was still there.

  Then, with agonizing slowness, I felt the same PSF move behind me again, brushing my shoulder and arm with his own as he gently deposited the boot back on the table in front of me.

  “These boots,” he said in a low, purring voice as he tapped the plastic bin containing all of my finished work. “Did you lace them?”

  If I hadn’t known what kind of punishment I’d get for it, I would have burst out into tears. I felt more stupid and ashamed the longer I stood there, but I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t move. My tongue had swelled up to twice its usual size behind my clenched teeth. The thoughts buzzing around my head were light and edged with a strange milky quality. My eyes could barely focus now.

  More snickers from behind us.

  “The laces are all wrong.” His other arm wrapped around my left side, until there wasn’t an inch of his body that wasn’t pressed up against mine. Something new rose in my throat, and it tasted strongly of acid.

  The tables around us had gone completely quiet and still.

  My silence only egged him on. With no warning, he picked up the bin of boots and flipped it over, so dozens of boots scattered across the length of the table with a terrible amount of noise. Now everyone in the Factory was looking. Everyone saw me, thrust out into the light.

  “Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong!” he sang out, knocking the boots around. But they weren’t. They were perfect. They were just boots, but I knew whose feet would slide into them. I knew better than to screw it up. “Are you as deaf as you are dumb, Green?”

  And then, clear as day, low as thunder, I heard Sam say, “That was my bin.”

  And all I could think was No. Oh no.

  I felt the PSF shift behind me, pull back in surprise. They always acted this way—surprised that we remembered how to use words, and use them against them.

  “What did you say?” he barked.

  I could see the insult rising to her lips. She was rolling it around on her tongue like a piece of hard lemon candy. “You heard me. Or did inhaling that polish kill whatever helpless brain cells you had left?”

  I knew what she wanted when she looked over at me. I knew what she was waiting for. It was exactly what she had just given me: backup.

  I hung back a step, crossing my arms over my stomach. Don’t do it, I told myself. Don’t. She can handle it. Sam had nothing to hide, and she was brave—but every time she did this, every time she stood up for me and I shrunk back in fear, it felt like I was betraying her. Once again, my voice was locked away behind layers of caution and fear. If they were to look into my file, if they were to see the blanks there and start looking into filling them, no punishment they’d give Sam would ever compare to the one they’d give me.

  That was what I told myself, at least.

  The right side of the guy’s lips inched up, turning a grim line into a mocking smirk. “We’ve got a live one.”

  Come on, come on, Ruby. It was all in the tilt of her head and the tightness of her shoulders. She didn’t understand what would happen to me. I wasn’t brave like she was.

  But I wanted to be. I so, so wanted to be.

  I can’t. I didn’t have to say the words aloud. She read it easily enough on my face. I saw the realization come together behind her eyes, even before the PSF stepped forward and took her arm, yanking her away from the table, and from me.

  Turn around, I begged. Her blond ponytail was swinging with each step, rising above the shoulders of the PSFs escorting her out. Turn around. I needed her to see how sorry I was, to understand the clenching in my chest and the nausea in my stomach had nothing to do with the fever. Every single desperate thought that ran through my head made me feel sick with disgust. The eyes that had been on me lifted two by two, and the soldier never came back to finish his personal brand of torment. There was no one left to see me cry; I had learned to do it silently, without any fuss, years ago. They had no reason to so much as look my way again. I was back in the long shadow Sam had left behind.

  The punishment for speaking out of turn was a day’s worth of isolation, handcuffed to one of the gateposts in the Garden regardless of the temperature or the weather. I’d seen kids sitting in a mound of snow, blue in the face, and without a single blanket to cover them. Even more sunburned, covered in mud, or trying to scratch patches of bug bites with their free hands. Unsurprisingly, the punishment for talking back to a PSF or camp controller was the same, only you also weren’t given food and, sometimes, not even water.

  The punishment for a repeat offense was something so terrible, Sam wouldn’t or couldn’t talk about it when she finally returned to our cabin two days later. She came in, wet and shaking from the winter rain, looking like she had slept no more than I had. I slid off my bunk and was on my feet, rushing to her side, before she had even made it halfway across the cabin.

  My hand slipped around her arm, but she pulled away, her jaw clenched in a way that made her look almost ferocious. Her cheeks and nose had been wind-whipped to a bright red, but she didn’t have any bruises or cuts. Her eyes weren’t even swollen from crying, like mine were. There was a subtle limp to her walk, maybe, but if I hadn’t known what had happened, I would have just assumed she was coming in from a long afternoon of working in the Garden.

  “Sam,” I said, hating the way my voice shook. She didn’t stop or deign to look at me until we were by our bunks, and she had one fist curled in her bedsheets, ready to pull herself up to the top bed.

  “Say something, please,” I begged.

  “You stood there.” Sam’s voice was low and rough, like she hadn’t used it for days.

  “You shouldn’t have—”

  Her chin came down to rest against her chest. Long, tangled masses of hair fell over her shoulders and cheeks, hiding her expression. I felt it then—the way that the hold I had on her had suddenly sprung free. I had the strangest sensation of floating, of drifting farther and farther away with nothing and no one to cling to. I was standing right beside her, but the distance between us had split into the kind of canyon I couldn’t jump across.

  “You’re right,” Sam said, finally. “I shouldn’t have.” She drew in a shuddering breath. “But then, what would have happened to you? You would have just stood there, and let him do that, and you wouldn’t have defended yourself at all.”

  And then she was looking at me, and all I wanted was for her to turn away again. Her eyes flashed, darker than I had ever seen before.

  “They can say horrible things, hurt you, but you never fight back—and I know, Ruby, I know, that’s just how you are, but sometimes I wonder if you even care. Why can’t you stand up for yourself, just once?”

&nbs
p; Her voice was barely above a whisper, but the ragged quality to it made me think she was either going to scream or burst out into hysterical tears. I glanced down to where her hands were tugging at the edges of her shorts, moving so fast and frantic that I almost didn’t see the angry red marks that circled her wrists.

  “Sam—Samantha—”

  “I want—” She swallowed, hard. Her tears caught in her eyelashes, but didn’t fall. “I want to be alone now. Just for a while.”

  I shouldn’t have reached for her, not with fever and exhaustion pressing down on me. Not while I was trembling with a bone-deep hate for myself. But I thought, then, that if I could tell her the truth, if I could explain, she wouldn’t look at me that way again. She would know that the last thing—the absolute last thing—I ever wanted was for her to be hurt because of me. She was the only thing I had here.

  But the second my fingers touched her shoulder, the world dropped out from under me. I felt a fire start at the ends of my hair and burn its way through my skull. The fever I thought I had kicked suddenly painted the world a fuzzy shade of gray. I was seeing Sam’s blank face, and she was gone, replaced by white-hot memories that didn’t belong to me—a whiteboard at school filled with math problems, a golden retriever digging in a garden, the world rising and falling from the perspective of a swing, the roots of the vegetables in the Garden being pulled free, the brick wall at the back of the Mess Hall against my face as another fist swung down toward me—a quick assault from every side, like a series of camera flashes.

  And when I finally came back to myself, we were still staring at each other. For a second, I thought I saw my horrified face reflected in her dark, glassy eyes. Sam wasn’t looking at me; she didn’t seem to be looking at anything beyond the dust floating lazy and free through the air to my right. I knew that blank look. I’d seen my mother wear it years before.

  “Are you new here?” she demanded, suddenly defensive and startled. Her eyes flicked down from my face to my bony knees, then back up again. She sucked in a deep breath, as if coming up for air after a long time beneath dark waters. “Do you have a name at least?”

 
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