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The darkest minds, p.32
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       The Darkest Minds, p.32

         Part #1 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken
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  Clancy waved at the few kids in black around the fire pit. His presence sent a buzz through the air. Smiles bloomed on every face we passed, and there wasn’t a single person that didn’t wave at us or call out some kind of greeting, even if it was just a quick, “Yo!”

  “Do you ever talk to any of them about what you’ve been through?” I asked.

  He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye, as if the question had startled him. I watched as he tucked his hands in the back pockets of his pants, his shoulders slumping with his thoughts.

  “They’ve put their trust in me,” he said, with a small, sad smile. “I don’t want to worry them. They have to believe I can take care of them, otherwise our system wouldn’t work.”

  This “system” was something else. It’s one thing to carve the Psi symbol into the side of buildings and string up banners over porches, but to actually internalize the message?

  My first true example of this came when the girl in charge of the camp’s gardens stomped up to us on the main trail and demanded that Clancy punish three kids who she believed had been stealing fruit under her nose.

  It took me two seconds of listening to Clancy talk the situation out to realize that the way of life at East River wasn’t built on a foundation of hard and fast rules, but rested almost entirely on his good judgment and what everyone under him perceived to be fair.

  The accused were three Green boys, only a few months out of Cubbies. The girl in charge of the Garden had left them sitting in the dark dirt like ducks in a row. Each wore black shirts, but their jeans were in different states of disarray. I stood off to the side as Clancy knelt in front of them, completely unbothered by the wet earth staining his own pressed pants.

  “Did you steal that fruit?” Clancy asked gently. “Please tell me the truth.”

  The three boys exchanged looks. It fell on the larger one sitting in the middle to answer. “Yes, we did. We’re very sorry.”

  I raised my brows.

  “Thank you for being honest,” Clancy said. “Can I ask you why?”

  The boys were silent for a few minutes. Finally, through some coaxing, Clancy got the truth again. “Pete has been really sick and hasn’t been able to come to meals. He didn’t want anyone to know, because he thought he’d get in trouble for not coming to Cleaning Duty this week, and he—he didn’t want to let you down. We’re sorry, we’re so sorry.”

  “I understand,” Clancy said. “But if Pete is really sick, you should have told me.”

  “You said at the last camp meeting that the med stuff was low. He didn’t want to take any medicine, in case someone else needed it.”

  “It sounds like he needs it, though, if he’s too weak to come to meals,” Clancy pointed out. “You know that when you take food from the garden, there’s a chance that it could throw off the meals we have planned for everyone.”

  The boys nodded, looking miserable. Clancy looked up at the kids gathered around us and asked, “What would you like them to do in return for taking the fruit?”

  The girl in charge opened her mouth, but an older boy stepped up and leaned the rake in his hands against the simple fence surrounding the garden. “If they’re willing to help weed for a few days, a couple of us will take turns sitting with Pete and making sure he gets meals and medicine.”

  Clancy nodded. “That sounds fair. What does everyone else think?”

  I thought the girl in charge was going to stamp her foot in anger when everyone else agreed on that “punishment.” She was deeply unhappy with the outcome, if the red in her cheeks was any indication. “This isn’t just a one-time problem, Clancy,” she said, walking us out of the garden. “People think they can just come in here and take what they want, and it’s not like we can lock it like the storeroom!”

  “I promise I’ll put it on the agenda at our camp meeting next month,” Clancy said with one of his smiles. “It’ll be right at the top of new business.”

  That seemed to satisfy her, at least for now. With one curious look flung in my direction, the Empress of Vegetables turned on her heel and marched back into her domain.

  “Wow,” I said, “she’s a real gem.”

  He shrugged, absentmindedly fiddling with his right ear. “She has a valid point. If we start running low on food in the storeroom, we have to lean on the gardens, and if that’s been picked over, we’re in trouble. I think everyone here has come to understand how interconnected life is at East River. Hey—do you mind if I stop by and visit Pete?”

  I smiled. “Of course not.”

  The little boy was buried under a mound of blankets—if the bare mattresses around it were any indication, the other boys had gladly donated theirs to his pile. When his flushed face finally emerged from the covers, I said hello and introduced myself. Clancy stayed to speak with him for a good fifteen minutes, but I waited outside in the fresh air, watching the comings and goings of the camp. Kids waved and smiled at me, like I had been there for years, not a few days. I waved back, something tightening in my chest. I don’t know when it had dawned on me, or if it had been a slow, creeping realization, but I had begun to understand that black—the color that I had trained myself to fear and hate—was the same thing that allowed these kids to feel a small measure of pride and solidarity.

  “You’ll never feel alone here,” Clancy said, shutting the cabin door behind him. We walked to the laundry building next, then made a stop by the wash houses to test the faucets and make sure the lights were still working. Every now and then, someone stopped Clancy to ask a question or air a complaint, but he was never anything other than patient and understanding. I watched him unravel a misunderstanding between cabin mates, take suggestions for dinner, and give his opinion on whether the security team needed more kids assigned to it.

  By the time we reached the cabin that served as the Cubbies’ classroom, I was dead on my feet. Clancy, however, was ready to give his weekly lesson on U.S. history.

  The room was small and crowded, but well lit and decorated with colorful posters and drawings. I spotted Zu and her pink gloves even before I saw the teenage girl at the front of the room tracing a finger down the length of the Mississippi River on an old map of the United States. Hina sat next to Zu, of course, frantically scribbling down notes. I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised me, but the kids actually cheered when Clancy appeared in the doorway. The girl relinquished the front of the room to him immediately.

  “Alllll right, alllll right,” Clancy began. “Who can tell me where we left off?”

  “Pilgrims!” a dozen voices chimed in.

  “Pilgrims?” he continued. “What are those? How about you, Jamie? Do you remember who the Pilgrims were?”

  A girl about Zu’s age sat straight up. “People in England were being mean to them because of their religion, so they sailed to America and landed at Plymouth Rock.”

  “Can anyone tell me what they did after they got there?”

  About ten hands shot in the air. He picked a little boy close to him—he might have been a Green, but he could just as easily have been a Yellow or Blue. My usual method of distinguishing kids from one another was failing me now that we were all mixed together. Which, I suppose, was the point.

  “They set up a colony,” the boy answered.

  “You got it. It was the second English colony, after the one set up in Jamestown in 1607—not too far from where we are now, actually!” Clancy picked up the map the teacher had been using and pointed out both places. “While they were on the Mayflower, they created the Mayflower Compact, which was an agreement that guaranteed everyone would cooperate and act in a way that would be beneficial to the colony. When they arrived, they faced a lot of hardships. But they all worked together and created a community where they were free from the English crown’s rule and could practice their faith openly.” He stopped pacing for a moment, casting his dark eyes out over his audience. “Sound familiar?”

  Beside me, Zu was all wide eyes. I was sitting close enough to see th
e freckles on her face, but, more importantly, feel the happiness radiating off her. I felt my own heart lift. Hina leaned over to whisper something in her ear, and her smile only grew.

  “Sounds like us!” someone called, from the back of the room.

  “You bet,” Clancy said, and talked for the next hour and a half about how the Pilgrims interacted with the native tribes, about Jamestown, about all the things my mother used to teach at her high school. And when he had used up all his time, he took a small bow and motioned for me to follow him outside amidst all the groans and complaints from the Cubbies. We were both still chuckling as we walked to the fire pit, where they were just starting to set up for dinner. I felt a number of eyes latch onto us immediately, but I didn’t care. I actually felt a small thrill of pride.

  “So?” Clancy said, as we stood beside the Office’s porch, listening to the bells calling everyone to dinner. “What do you think?”

  “I think I’m ready for my first lesson,” I said.

  “Oh, Miss Daly.” A smile curled at the edges of his lips. “You already had your first lesson. You just didn’t realize it.”

  Two weeks passed like a page tearing from an old book.

  I spent so many hours of so many days locked inside Clancy’s room, pushing images into his mind, blocking him from trying to do the same, talking about the League, Thurmond, and White Noise, that we both fell out of sync with the camp’s schedule. He had his daily meetings, but instead of asking me to leave, he had me wait on the other side of the white curtain, where we were now conducting most of our practice sessions.

  There were times he had to go out and inspect the cabins, or handle an argument, but I almost always stayed up in that musty old room. There were books and music and a TV at my disposal, which meant I never once had the opportunity to be bored.

  I still saw Chubs at some of our meals, but Clancy often had food brought to us. Zu was even harder to track down, because when she wasn’t in class, she was with Hina or one of the older Yellows. The only time I really spent with the two of them was at night, before the camp’s lights were shut off. Chubs, more often than not, was a ghost—always working, looking for ways to catch Clancy’s attention by stitching up the kid who’d split her lip or suggesting a more efficient way of harvesting the garden. The longest I sat with him was when he took out my stitches.

  Zu, for her part, delighted in showing me what she had learned in school, and the tricks the other Yellows had taught her outside of it.

  After a few days, she stopped wearing her gloves. It only really hit me one night, while she was brushing out my hair. I had pulled away to go switch off the lights, but she beat me to it—she snapped her fingers, and the overhead light blinked out.

  “That’s amazing,” I gushed, but it would have been a terrible lie to say I didn’t feel a pang of jealousy in how much progress she had made. I had only been able to block Clancy out of my mind once, and not before he had found out about what had happened to Sam.

  “Interesting” had been his only comment.

  While I saw Zu and Chubs every day, Liam was a completely different matter. The security team had him scheduled for the second watch—five p.m. to five a.m.—all the way at the far west end of the lake. He was usually too tired to stumble back to the cabin after his shift, and spent most of his days sleeping in the tents they had set up near that entrance. I saw him once or twice talking animatedly to a crowd at breakfast, or visiting with Zu at Cubbies, but it was always from the window of Clancy’s room.

  I missed him to the point of a real, physical ache, but I understood that he had responsibilities. When I had a thought to spare, it usually went to him, but I was so focused on my lessons that it was hard to let my mind drift to anything else for too long.

  Clancy laughed, drawing my attention back to him from the window, and I suddenly wasn’t sure how I could let my thoughts wander. He was wearing a white polo shirt that emphasized the natural glow of his skin, and pressed khaki pants casually rolled at the ankle. Whenever he was out with others, he was properly buttoned up, his clothes clean and ironed within an inch of their lives—but not with me.

  Here, we didn’t have to put on any show. Not for each other.

  When we first started these lessons, it had been from either side of his ridiculous desk; it felt like I was squaring off against a school principal, not being guided through a Psi lesson by my freak guru. Next, we had tried the floor, but after a few hours of sitting, my back felt like it was ready to crumble. He had been the one to suggest sitting on his narrow bed. He had taken one end and I had taken the other. Then, we started inching closer. Bridging the distance on his red quilt, nearer to each other with each lesson, until one day I snapped out of whatever haze Clancy’s dark eyes had put me in and realized our knees were pressed up against one another.

  “Sorry,” I mumbled, when I turned back toward him. “Can we go from the top?”

  He found everything about me amusing, apparently. “Take it from the top? Are we rehearsing for a play? Should I get Mike in here to start building props?”

  I’m not sure why I laughed at that—it wasn’t even all that funny. Maybe trying to throw my brain at his for the last twenty minutes had made me loopy. The only thing I seemed sure of was how big and reassuring his hand felt as it took mine and squeezed.

  “Try again,” he said. “This time, try to imagine that those invisible hands you were telling me about are actually knives. Cut through the haze.”

  Easier said than done. I nodded and closed my eyes, trying to fight back the flood of color in my cheeks. Every time he used my lame way of explaining how my brain seemed to work, I felt embarrassed, even a little bit ashamed. He had laughed the first time I made the comparison, waved his fingers in front of my face like he was casting a spell over me.

  He had tried a number of different methods to try to demonstrate how to do it. We’d gone down to the pantry so I could watch him slip into Lizzie’s mind and, for no other purpose than to make me laugh, ask her to cluck like a chicken. Clancy had tried to show me how easy it was to affect the moods of multiple people at once, settling an argument between two kids without saying a single word. At one point, we’d sat on the stoop of the Office and he’d read me the thoughts of everyone who passed by—including poor Hina, who was, apparently, harboring a desperate crush on Clancy.

  The truth was, he could do everything and anything. Block me out, push in an image, a feeling, a fear. Once, I was sure, he had even passed on a dream to me. I didn’t want to feel like I was disappointing him, not when he was giving me so much of his precious time—the thought made everything inside of me clench with fear. He told me to take it slow, that it had taken him years to master all of this, but it was impossible not to want to rush through the lessons, to get a grip on my abilities as soon as possible. It seemed to me that the best way to repay his kindness was to master myself to the point where I could stand beside him and feel pride, not shame, in what I could do.

  Until I could unlock his secrets, we were never going to be equals. He had called me his “friend” several times, during our lessons and in front of other kids, and it surprised me how much I recoiled at the term. Clancy had hundreds of friends. I wanted to be more than that—I wanted him to trust me and confide in me.

  Sometimes, I just wanted him to lean closer, to tuck my hair behind my ear. It was a repulsively girly thought, though, and I wasn’t sure what dark corner of my mind it had come crawling out of. I think my head was playing tricks on me, because I knew what I really wanted was for Liam to do that—do more than that.

  But every time I tried to slip into Clancy’s mind, I was thrown back. Clancy had so much control over his powers that I didn’t even have time to feel the usual disorienting rush of thoughts and memories. Every single time, it was like he had drawn a white curtain around his brain. No amount of tearing could bring it down.

  That didn’t mean I didn’t try, though.

  Clancy smiled, reaching over to b
rush my hair back over my shoulder. His hand lingered there, sliding over to cup the back of my neck. I knew he was staring at me, but I couldn’t bring my eyes up to meet his, even as he leaned closer.

  “You can do this. I know you can.”

  My teeth clenched until I felt my jaw pop. A muscle twitched in my right cheek. I tried drawing the hundreds and thousands of wandering fingers together, focusing them into something sharp and lethal enough to penetrate his wall. I squeezed his hand, increasing my grip until I’m sure he felt pain, and threw the invisible dagger toward him, diving in as fast and hard as I could. And still, the moment I brushed up against that white wall, it felt like he had reached over and slapped me across the face. He sighed and dropped his hand.

  “Sorry,” I said, hating the silence that followed.

  “No, I’m the one that’s sorry.” Clancy shook his head. “I’m a terrible teacher.”

  “Trust me, you are not the problem in this equation.”

  “Ruby, Ruby, Ruby,” he said, “this isn’t an equation. You can’t solve it in three easy steps, otherwise you wouldn’t have accepted my help, right?”

  I looked down as he began to rub his thumb over my upturned palm. A slow, lazy circle. It was strangely calming, and almost hypnotizing to watch.

  “That’s true,” I began. “But you should know I haven’t exactly been…honest.”

  That got his attention.

  “The others—they were looking for you because they thought you were some magic man that could get them home. But I wanted to look for you because I was banking on the rumors that you were an Orange, and that you might be willing to teach me.”

  Clancy’s dark brows drew together, but he didn’t let go of my hand. Instead, he rested his other palm on the sliver of space between our crossed legs. “But that was before I told you what the League was planning for you,” he said. “What did you want me to help you with? No—let me guess. Something to do with what happened to your parents, right?”

  “How I erased myself,” I confirmed. “How to keep it from happening again.”

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