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The darkest minds, p.33
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       The Darkest Minds, p.33

         Part #1 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken

  Clancy closed his eyes for a brief moment, and when he finally opened them, his eyes seemed darker than before, almost black. I leaned in closer, picking up on a strange mix of sadness, guilt, and something else that seemed to be seeping through his pores.

  “I wish I could help you with that,” he said, “but the truth is, I can’t do what you can. I have no idea how to help you.”

  I have no idea how to help you. Of course. Of course he didn’t. Martin was an Orange, too, but he didn’t have the same abilities I did. I wonder why I’d assumed the Slip Kid would.

  “If you…tell me about it, and explain how you think it works, I—then I might be able to figure something out.”

  It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t talk about it; it was that I didn’t want to. Not right then. I knew myself well enough that I could predict the choked words and teary explanation that would follow. Every time I let myself think about what had happened, I always came out the other end exhausted and shaking, feeling every bit as scared and hopeless and horrific as I did when those moments had actually occurred.

  He watched me from under those dark lashes of his, a look of understanding quick to come. His thumb hovering over the pulse point in my wrist. “Ah. It’s a Benjamin. I should have expected that, I’m sorry.” Seeing my look of confusion he explained, “Benjamin was my old tutor back—well, back before everything went to hell. He passed away when I was very young, but I still can’t talk about it. Still hurts.” One side of his mouth curled up in a rueful smile. “Maybe you don’t have to say anything at all, though. We could try something else.”

  “Like what?”

  “Like you blocking me this time, not the other way around. I bet it’ll be easier for you.”

  “Why do you say that?”

  “Because you’re not vicious enough to put up a good offense—trust me, that’s a compliment.” He waited for me to smile before continuing. “But you are guarded. You don’t show your cards to anyone. There are times that you’re impossible to read.”

  “I don’t mean to be,” I interrupted. Clancy only waved me off.

  “It’s not a bad thing,” he said. “In fact, it’ll help you.”

  Well, it certainly hadn’t helped me fend off Martin.

  “Can you sense when someone is trying to break into your head?” he asked. “There’s a tingling sensation.…”

  “Yeah, I know what you’re talking about. What should I do when I feel it?”

  “You have to push right back up against them, throw them off whatever track they might have been on. In my experience, the things you really want to protect, like memories or dreams? They have their own natural defenses. You just need to add another wall.”

  “Every time I tried to get into your head, it was like a white curtain blocked me.”

  Clancy nodded. “That’s the way I do it. When I feel the sensation, I push back the image of that curtain and I don’t let up, no matter what. So what I want you to do is bring to mind some kind of secret or memory—something you wouldn’t necessarily want me or anyone else to see—and I want you to drop your own curtain down to protect it.”

  I must not have been doing a good job of hiding my hesitation, because he took both of my hands in his again, lacing our fingers. “Come on,” he said. “What’s the worst that could happen? I see some embarrassing moment? I think we’re good enough friends now that you can trust me when I say I won’t tell a soul about any falls or public puking.”

  “What about streaking and eating playground sand?”

  He pretended to consider it for a moment, grinning. “I suppose I could refrain from sharing that with the entire camp at dinner.”

  “What a fair, just leader you are,” I said. After a moment, I added, “Do you really consider me a friend, or are you just saying that because you want to see me get my four front teeth knocked out when I tried to play soccer?”

  Clancy shook his head and laughed. His favorite stories always seemed to be the ones that involved me trying to pretend I was a boy, or the fast-food binges my dad used to take me on when my mom was out of town at a teacher’s conference. They were so completely foreign to his experience, I realized, that I must have seemed like an alien.

  “Of course I consider you my friend. Actually…” he began, his voice low. When he glanced at me again, his dark eyes were burning with a kind of intensity that made me feel like my head was full of air, ready to float away. “I consider you a lot more than that.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “You may have been looking for me, but let’s just say that I was waiting for you. It’s been a long time since I felt like someone understood what I was going through. Being an Orange…you can’t compare it to what the others are. They don’t understand us or what we can do.”

  It’s only us, came a small voice in my mind, it’s just the two of us.

  I squeezed his hands. “I know.”

  His attention seemed to wander, his eyes carrying over to the other side of the room, toward his computer and TV. I thought I detected a glimmer of sadness in his eyes, a real kind of pain, but just as quickly, it was gone, replaced by his usual confident expression.

  “You ready to try?”

  I nodded. “I promise I’ve been trying. Please—please, don’t give up on me.”

  I was surprised when I felt his hands pull free from mine. Stunned, when I felt them glide up my bare arms and over my shoulders. I didn’t stop him. This was the thing about Clancy—the thing I was quickly coming to terms with. With him, I didn’t have to be afraid, not of what I could do intentionally or by mistake. I didn’t have to throw up every defense I possessed to keep my brain’s wandering hands still, because Clancy was more than capable of keeping me out of his head.

  But Liam…he was something precious, something I could break with a single misstep. Someone I couldn’t be with, not right then, not the way I was.

  Clancy leaned forward to begin his work. I leaned forward, too, right up against his chest, where it was warm and smelled of pine and old books and thousands of possibilities I had never known.

  I didn’t block him on the first try—I didn’t even block him on the fifth try. It took three days and his witnessing almost every sour, cheek-reddening memory in my head for me to finally throw up some kind of defense.

  “Think deeper,” he told me. “Think about something you wouldn’t want anyone else to know. Those memories will provoke your strongest defenses.”

  There wasn’t anything left that he hadn’t already seen. I swear, the kid could have been a brain surgeon for how sharp and accurate his pokes and prods were. Every time I brought to mind a memory or thought and tried to put an invisible wall around it, my defenses crumbled, as flimsy as waxed paper. Still, he didn’t get frustrated.

  “You can do this,” Clancy kept repeating, “I know you can. You’re capable of more than you’ll admit to yourself.”

  It was his strange badgering for some kind of juicy memory that finally produced my first actual result.

  “Does it have to be a memory?” I asked.

  He seemed to consider this. “Maybe you should try something else this time. Something you imagine.” It could have been my mind playing tricks, but his face suddenly appeared much closer to mine. “Something you want. Or…someone?”

  The way he said it made me think it was a question, a serious one cloaked by a casual voice. I kept my face impassive.

  “Okay,” I said. “I think I’m ready.”

  Clancy didn’t look so sure. But I was. This particular fantasy had been creeping up on my dreams for weeks, invading the slips of time when I wasn’t holed up practicing my abilities.

  It came to me in the middle of our third night at East River, right at the hour that separated day from night. I startled awake in bed, confused as I listened to Chubs snore and Zu toss and turn. Every inch of my skin had tingled as I tried to process what I had just seen, if any of it had actually happened—if any of it might actually happen.

  This was a dream I could never share, one I carried deep inside my heart, tucked so far down that I hadn’t even realized it was there until it sprang out of me, fully formed.

  I must have dreamed we were in spring. The cherry blossom trees at the end of my parents’ street in Salem were in full bloom. We drove past them in Black Betty—Liam and I, sitting up front together, listening to a Led Zeppelin song that might not have even been real. Outside of my parents’ house were white balloons, tied off on either side of the white fence’s gate, floating arrows that pointed us up to the open front door. Liam took my hand, wearing exactly what he had worn the day I had met him, and together we walked straight down the house’s main hallway, through the pale yellow kitchen, until we found the door to the backyard and everyone outside waiting.

  Everyone. My parents. Grams. Zu. Chubs. Sam. All sitting around a blanket my parents had spread out over the grass, eating whatever it was my dad was grilling. Mom was running around, tying up more balloons, her hands still stained with dark dirt after planting all of the new, pale flowers that flooded over what once had been a yard of plain grass. We said hello to everyone, I hugged Sam, I pointed out the birds up in the trees to Zu, and introduced Chubs to my mother.

  And then, Liam bent down and kissed me, and there were no words to describe that.

  Clancy’s intrusion came like all the others had before, first with a tingle, then with a roar. I had been so lost in thinking about the dream that I hadn’t even felt him take my hand to start that trial run.

  I liked Clancy a lot. More than I ever expected. But he didn’t have a place in this dream. There was nothing there I wanted to share with him.

  I clenched his hand back, hard, and threw everything I had into sending my other set of hands out from inside me, like a shove.

  His curtain strategy hadn’t worked for me, but this one? Using offense as defense? This one was maybe a little too effective. Even before I opened my eyes, I felt Clancy jerk back, sucking in a hiss of what sounded like pain.

  “Oh my God,” I said, when I finally shook the haze from my mind. “I’m so sorry!”

  But when Clancy looked up, he was smiling. “Told you,” he said. “Told you that you’d figure it out.”

  “Can we do it again?” I asked. “I want to make sure it wasn’t a fluke.”

  Clancy rubbed at his forehead. “Can we give it a rest for a little while? I feel like you just tackled my brain.”

  But Clancy didn’t get a rest. Almost as soon as the words had left his mouth, we both heard a very different kind of warning. There was a shrill wail from the other side of the room, one I had never heard before, almost like a car alarm. He winced, tucking his head down to escape the noise, even as he jumped up from the bed.

  He made his way to his desk, flipping open his laptop lid. His fingers flew as he typed in his password, the blue-white screen of the laptop illuminating his pale face. I came to stand behind him just as he clicked open a new program.

  “What’s happening?” I asked. “Clance?”

  He didn’t look up. “One of the camp’s perimeter alarms was triggered. Don’t worry—it might be nothing. We’ve had animals step a little too close to the wires before.”

  It took me a minute to realize what I was looking at. Four different color videos, one in each corner of the screen; four different viewpoints of the camp boundaries. Clancy leaned forward, bracing his hands on either side of his laptop.

  He reached across me to get to the wireless black radio sitting on the other side of his desk. He never once took his eyes off the screen.

  “Hayes, do you read me?”

  There was a moment of silence before Hayes’s gruff, “Yeah, what’s up?” came crackling through the speaker.

  “The southeast perimeter alarm was triggered. I’m watching the feed now, but—” I think what he was going to say was, I don’t see anyone or anything, but his next words had me ducking under his arm to take a look at the screen myself. “Yeah, I see a man and a woman. Both in camo—unfriendlies, by the look of it.”

  And there they were. They looked well into middle age, but it was hard to be sure. Both were wearing what could only be described as hunting attire, head-to-toe camouflage. Even their faces appeared to have been painted brown.

  “Got it. I’ll take care of it.”

  “Thanks…get them to back off, will you?” Clancy said carefully, then turned the volume of the radio all the way down.

  Southeast perimeter—good, not Liam’s area. I let out a grateful sigh.

  My eyes were still on the screen when Clancy shut the laptop lid. “Let’s get back to work. Sorry for the distraction.”

  I could feel my surprise betray me. “Don’t you need to go out there?” I asked. “What’s Hayes going to do to them?”

  Clancy only waved me off. Again.

  “Don’t worry about it, Ruby. Everything is under control.”

  One crack might not be enough to bring a fortress’s defenses down, but it was enough to splinter into two cracks, and then three, and then four. After the initial breakthrough, it became a mission of mine to find different ways to slip into Clancy’s mind. I never got to stay for very long before I was unceremoniously tossed out, of course; but every small victory spurred me on to achieve another, and then another. I could catch him when his thoughts were focused on something else, trick him into trying to protect one memory when I was really going after another. It surprised Clancy, but I thought it also, in a secret way, excited him. Enough, at least, to have me start practicing on others.

  It was like running downhill in a way; the momentum carried me through all sorts of experiments, big and small. I made a spectacular mess of dinner one night when I pulled each of the six kids working on it aside and planted six very different ideas about what they were supposed to be making for the meal—all at the same time. I had one girl so convinced her name was Theodore that she began to cry whenever anyone told her otherwise. It became so easy, in fact, to convince someone to do what I asked, or suggest that they had done something they really hadn’t, that Clancy told me it was time to move on to trying to do the same without having to touch the unsuspecting test subject first.

  I was getting there, slowly, and maybe not entirely surely, but there was something almost delicious about feeling the same powerful swell of abilities that had once terrorized me corked and controlled. Every aspect of them became sharper, easier.

  But on the Tuesday that followed, we were interrupted again.

  One of the older Yellows, a girl named Kylie, came pounding on Clancy’s door. She didn’t wait to be let in; I actually fell off the bed with the force of her entrance.

  “What’s this about you denying our request to leave?” Tangles of dark curls flew around her face. “You let Adam leave, you let Sarah’s group leave, you even let Greg and his guys go, and you and I both know they have the collective brainpower of a fly—”

  The floorboard squeaked as I took a step back toward the bed. Clancy had left the curtain open when he went to answer the door, so Kylie had a full view of me. She whirled back toward Clancy, who had put two pacifying hands on her shoulders. “Oh my God! Are you in here fooling around? Did you even look at my proposal? I spent days on that!”

  “I read it three times,” Clancy said, motioning me forward with his hand. He looked at her with the same calming smile and patience he had shown me since our lessons began. “But I’m happy to discuss why I had to decline now. Ruby—tomorrow?”

  And just like that, I found myself outside in the morning sunshine.

  The spring weather was still sporadic—cold and dismal one day, perfectly warm the next. Spending two weeks holed up with Clancy had made keeping up with the season’s bipolar tendencies even harder. I stripped my sweatshirt off and pulled my hair up in a messy bun. My first thought was to check in on Zu, but I didn’t want to interrupt her lessons. I tried to find Chubs in the gardens, but the girl in charge told me—in her bossiest voice—that s
he hadn’t seen him in a week, and she was going to rat him out to Clancy for the punishment he deserved.

  “Punishment?” I repeated, bristling, but she didn’t elaborate.

  I found him in the next logical place.

  “You know,” I called as I stepped onto the dock, “bread is actually bad for ducks.”

  Chubs didn’t so much as look up. I sat down next to him, but it only prompted him to stand up and stalk away, leaving his bag and book behind.

  “Hey!” I called. “What’s your problem?”

  No response.


  He whirled back around. “You want to know what my problem is? Where do I even start? How about that it’s been almost a month, and we’re still here? How about the fact that you and Lee and Suzume are all off making friends and skipping around even though we’re supposed to be working to learn a way to get home?”

  “Where is this coming from?” I asked. Maybe he hadn’t fit in as naturally as Liam and Zu had, but I saw him talking to other kids as he worked. He seemed okay—maybe not happy, but, then again, when was he ever? “This place really isn’t that bad—”

  “Ruby, it’s horrible!” he burst out. “Horrible! We’re told when to eat, when to sleep, what to wear, and we’re forced to work. How is this any different from camp?”

  I sucked in a sharp breath. “You’re the one that wanted to come here! I’m sorry it’s not living up to your high and mighty expectations, but it works for us. If you’d just try, you could be happy here. We’re safe! Why are you in such a hurry to leave?”

  “Just because your parents didn’t want you, it doesn’t mean that the rest of ours don’t. Maybe you’re not in a hurry to get back, but I am!”

  He might as well have shot me straight through the chest; I felt all of the blood leave my heart as one of his hands came up to clutch his dark hair. “I’ve been working so hard, I’ve been trying, and God, you didn’t even ask him, did you?”

  “Ask him—?” But I knew. As soon as the words left my mouth, I knew exactly what promise I had neglected to keep. The anger in me deflated. “I’m so sorry. I’ve been so wrapped up in lessons that I forgot.”

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