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The darkest minds, p.34
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       The Darkest Minds, p.34

         Part #1 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken
 

  “Well, I didn’t,” he said, and left me standing alone in the sunlight.

  An hour later, I was under a stream of warm water, hands pressed to my face.

  The camp’s wash rooms—one for boys, one for girls—were about as glamorous as an outhouse. The floors were beveled concrete, the shower stalls wood planks and plastic curtains crawling with black mold. We used the rooms every night to brush our teeth and wash our faces, and, once or twice a week, to shower. But today, without floral shampoo and conditioner perfuming the air, I realized the cavernous room smelled like sawdust.

  I stayed in there until I heard the bells signal the end of lunch. I still hadn’t formulated a plan for the rest of the day when I walked outside—and into the one person I hadn’t realized I was desperate to see.

  Liam stumbled back a few steps at impact, his wet hair clinging to his cheeks, longer than I remembered.

  “Oh my God,” I said with a laugh, pressing a hand to my chest. “You scared the hell out of me.”

  “Sorry about that.” He smiled, extending a hand toward me. “Hey—I don’t think we’ve had the chance to meet. I’m Liam.”

  TWENTY-FOUR

  I DON’T KNOW HOW LONG I stood there staring at his hand, bile rising in my throat as fast and steady as a scream.

  Oh my God, no, I thought, taking a step back. No, no, no nonono…

  “See, you look exactly like a friend of mine, Ruby, but I haven’t seen her in ages, so I’m…” His voice trailed off. “Okay, was that joke really that bad?”

  I turned around, pressing my face against my towel so he wouldn’t see my tears.

  “Ruby?” He looped his own towel around my waist and drew me to his side. “That was the Liam Stewart way of saying, Hi, darlin’, missed you something fierce. Oh, wow, bad enough to make you cry?”

  He smoothed his hands down over my hair. “Okay, that’s it—” He bent down, and before I could stop him, lifted me over one shoulder.

  Liam didn’t let me wiggle free until we were back at Cabin 18. He dropped me on the folded futon that Zu and I had been sharing, making a quick stop at his bed for a blanket.

  “I’m not cold,” I said, when he wrapped it around my shoulders.

  “Then why are you shaking?” Liam sat down next to me. I turned so my face was resting in the crook of his neck and I was breathing in his clean, woodsy smell.

  “I’m just pissed at myself,” I said when I found my voice. “I told Chubs I’d ask Clancy if he could use his laptop, but I got distracted and forgot.”

  “Hmm…” Liam’s fingers were busy untangling my wet hair. “I don’t think he’s upset at you. I think he’s upset that I’m keeping us here. It’s just reinforcing his fears about not getting home.”

  “How do I make it up to him?”

  “Well, for one thing, you could ask about the computer,” he said, his other hand taking mine. “Though I still don’t really understand how you’re in the position to ask to borrow it. I feel like I haven’t seen you in ages.”

  “You haven’t,” I said. “You’re always on watch.”

  He laughed. “It’s lonely sitting up in a tree without you.”

  “I want to hear about what you do all night,” I said. “Have you tried talking to anyone about freeing the camps yet?”

  “I brought it up with some of the guys on my watch, and Olivia. She’s trying to get us in to see Clancy about it. I think…I think it’s going be great, I really do. It could work.”

  “Clance said that the western gate is the one that used to give them the most trouble,” I said, twisting to look up at him. “You’re being careful, right?”

  Liam went very still beside me, so still that he seemed to forget to breathe.

  “Clance, huh?” he said in an unnaturally light voice. “I guess you are in the position to be asking favors.”

  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

  Liam sighed. “Nothing, sorry. I didn’t mean for that to come out like that. It’s great that you guys are friends.” I tried to look up at him, but he was looking at the other end of the cabin, where a set of drawers with our things rested against the wall. “So he’s been giving you lessons?”

  “Yeah,” I said, wondering how much, if anything, I should hold back. “He’s been teaching me how to keep others from prying into my head.”

  “What about tricks to keep you from slipping into others’ heads?” Liam asked. “Is he helping you with that, too?”

  “He’s trying to,” I said. “He said that if I strengthened my control over my abilities, that would come naturally.”

  “Well, you can always practice that with me,” he said, resting his forehead against mine. I felt the trickle start at the back of my mind, the warning before the flood. Clancy had told me that when I felt it coming on, I needed to break all physical contact and imagine a white curtain sweeping between me and whomever I was with.

  But I didn’t want to do either.

  I felt his lips travel from my forehead, whispering something against my eyelids, my cheeks, my nose. His thumbs stroked the length of my jaw, but even they stilled as I pulled back and turned away from him.

  “What are you so scared of?” he whispered, his voice laced with hurt.

  Had this boy really once just been a stranger?

  Had I really once thought that I’d be able to live a life without him in it?

  “I don’t want to lose you.”

  He made a noise of frustration, his eyes clear and bright as he spoke. “Then why are you the one that keeps letting go?”

  I never got the chance to answer. A moment later, Hina burst through the cabin door, Zu in tow, and told us they were leaving.

  “Okay, okay, slow down,” Liam said. Zu was darting around the cabin, collecting her things, as Hina’s mouth ran a mile a minute. I wasn’t sure whom I was supposed to be paying attention to—my friend or the girl she had, apparently, elected to speak for her. Every time Hina opened her mouth, Liam and I reverted back to the same state of shock.

  Zu. Leaving.

  Leaving.

  I caught her on her way to the drawers, steering her to the futon and forcing her to sit. She must not have picked up on our shock, because her face was bright and glowing. I studied it, the way her smile seemed to crackle with her own brand of electricity, and felt something inside of me shrink in defeat.

  “Us and three others,” Hina said, breathlessly. I wondered if she had run all the way over from class. “Two Blues and a Yellow. Kylie finally got permission to leave the camp.”

  Liam twisted around to look at Zu when he said, “And go…for a hike?”

  Zu made her Are you serious? face.

  “Help me out here. Tell me what you want to say.”

  Hina was finally silent, and for a moment, one crazy second really, I thought Zu was actually going to open her mouth and have out with it. Liam’s entire body tensed, as if he was expecting the same thing. But Zu only slipped her notebook back out of her pink duffel bag and wrote in her neat, looping handwriting. When she flipped it over, she was looking him right in the eye.

  I want to go with them to California.

  I know I should have been happy for her. I should have been celebrating the fact that she was finally able to come out and tell us exactly what she wanted. I just never imagined what she’d want would be a future without us.

  “I thought Clancy turned down Kylie’s request to leave?” I asked Hina.

  “He did, but she said she finally wore him down.”

  “What’s in California?” Liam asked, leaning against a cabin wall.

  “My parents have a house there,” Hina explained, “and they’re waiting for us. The West Coast government isn’t going to turn us back over to the camps.”

  “What about Zu’s parents?” I asked. “They—”

  To her credit, Hina knew what I was trying to ask without my having to ask it. “My father has not been on speaking terms with my uncle for some time.”

&nb
sp; “Zu, that’s a long trip,” Liam began uncertainly. “What if something happens? Who else is going? That Talon kid?”

  She nodded, and all of a sudden her eyes were on me. I tried to give her an encouraging smile, but I was worried I might burst into tears instead. We all waited as she scribbled out another hasty note and showed it to Liam again.

  You don’t have to worry about me anymore. Isn’t that good?

  “I like worrying about you.” Liam put a hand on her head. “When would you be leaving?”

  Hina at least had the decency to look guilty. “We actually have to leave right now. Kylie is worried Clancy might change his mind. He wasn’t…all that happy.”

  “That’s a little fast,” I choked out. “Have you really thought about this?”

  Zu looked right at me when she nodded. The next note was for both of us. I want to be with my family. I just don’t want you to be mad at me.

  “Mad?” Liam shook his head. “Never. Ever. You’re my girl, Zu. We just want you to be safe. It would kill me if anything happened to you.”

  There was a knock at the door. Talon, an older Yellow with his hair woven into intricate dreadlocks, appeared first, followed by a wide-eyed Chubs. Liam stood.

  “Good,” he said. “I was hoping to talk to you.”

  Talon nodded. “I figured. Kylie and Lucy are here, too.” She stuck her head inside and waved. “Do you want to talk outside?”

  Liam’s hand reached out and touched the small of my back. “Help her pack?”

  “Are you nuts?” I heard Chubs say. “You barely know these people!”

  “Excuse me,” Hina protested, her hands on her hips. “In case you’ve forgotten, she’s my cousin.”

  I’ll miss you, too. Zu stopped piling her things into her pink suitcase and tore the sheet of paper out for Chubs to keep. He sat so suddenly that he almost missed the futon. For several moments, he couldn’t do anything other than stare at her. I knew the feeling.

  “Did Kylie say why you guys had to leave tonight?” I asked, sitting beside Chubs.

  Zu only shrugged.

  “I mean…are you guys just going to walk to California?” Chubs said, his voice rising with each word. “Do you have some kind of plan?”

  “Maybe you’ll find a new Betty,” I said, but the moment I uttered her name Zu stopped packing and shook her head. The next note took some time for her to write.

  No, there’s only one Betty.

  “And apparently she wasn’t enough for you,” Chubs said, with a shocking amount of hurt. “I guess everything is replaceable, even us.”

  Zu took a deep breath, walking over to him with her pink bag at her side. He tried to look away, but she was standing right in front of him, wrapping her arms around his neck. All he could do was hug her back, his face hidden in the fabric of her jacket.

  The camp’s bells began to ring, a frenzied sound that didn’t cease until it had driven everyone outside. I let Zu and Hina lead us, pushing a path through the gathered kids. This was the first time their black garb seemed remotely appropriate.

  Kylie handed a piece of paper to Lee, and he nodded at whatever she was telling him. Lucy was next to them, as tiny and quiet as ever, but she reached up and patted Liam on the shoulder in what I guess was supposed to be a reassuring way. All happy pretenses were gone. The only way to describe the look on his face was stricken.

  “—borrow that pen?” he asked Talon. The boy began to pat down his black cargo pants, searching the pockets until he came up with a blue-capped pen. With it in hand, Liam knelt down in front of Zu and tore off half the sheet of paper Kylie had given him.

  I wished I could have seen what he had written there, but it wasn’t for my eyes. When he was finished, he folded the paper over several times and pressed it into her palm.

  The bell fell silent. Everyone’s eyes shifted to the right, where Clancy appeared at the head of the path, Hayes towering beside him. His face, which I had grown used to seeing relaxed and proud, was pinched with what was either annoyance or anger.

  “Kylie has decided to go tribal and will be leaving immediately.”

  A murmur of surprise rippled through the crowd.

  “She will only take these four with her,” he shouted over the noise. “There will be no more requests to leave granted until our numbers are full. Is that understood?”

  Silence.

  “Is that understood?”

  Chubs jumped beside me at the noises and shouts confirming that, yes, it was.

  Clancy turned sharply on his heel without another word, heading back in the direction of the office. As soon as he reached the white building, the kids around us seemed to exhale the collective breath they had been holding, turning to each other with confused whispers.

  “That was weird.”

  “Why didn’t he give them bags, like he usually does?”

  “He’s worried if our numbers get down too low, there won’t be enough people here to protect the camp.”

  My eyes floated up toward the office until they fixed on Zu waving me over.

  No gloves, I thought, watching her hand fall back to her side. Hopefully never again.

  “Do you really have to leave now?” I asked when I reached where she and Liam were standing. The clusters of kids swarmed Kylie and the others, wishing them good luck and offering up blankets and bags of food.

  Zu put on a brave smile, wrapping her arms around my waist.

  “Please be safe,” I told her.

  The next note was for me and me alone. When all this is over, will you come find me? There’s something I want to tell you, but I don’t know how to say it yet.

  My eyes traced every inch of her face. It was so different from the girl I had met only a few weeks ago. If she had changed this much in so little time, how could I even be sure I’d recognize her years down the line, after the dust of all this hell finally settled?

  “Of course,” I whispered. “And I’ll miss you every day until then.”

  Just before they stepped off the trail and into the untamed forest, Zu turned and gave us one last wave. Beside her, Hina did the same. Then, they were gone.

  “She’ll be okay,” I said. “They’ll take care of her. She should be with her family. Her real one.”

  “She should be with us.” Liam shook his head, his breath catching in his throat.

  “Then maybe we should follow her.”

  Liam and I turned back. Chubs was trailing behind us, his eyes hidden as the drooping sunlight caught his glasses.

  “You know we can’t,” Liam said. “Not yet.”

  “Why not?” Chubs advanced toward us, his voice losing all semblance of calm it held before. Feeling the curious eyes on us, I drew them both off the main path.

  “Why not?” Chubs repeated. “Clearly we aren’t going to get the help we need to track down our parents or Jack’s. It’d be better for us to just go now, before anyone misses us. We could still catch up with her.”

  “And do what?” Liam asked. He ran a frustrated hand through his already mussed up hair. “Wander around until we just so happen to stumble on them? Hope that we don’t get our asses caught and thrown back into camp? Chubs, it’s safe here. This is the place we’re supposed to be—we can do so much good from here.”

  I saw, maybe even before Liam did, that this was the wrong thing to say. Warning alarms went off in my mind at the sight of Chubs’s nostrils flaring and his lips twisting with anger. I knew that whatever was about to leave Chubs’s mouth would not only be sharp, but cruel.

  “I get it—I get it, Lee, okay?” Chubs shook his head. “You want to be the big hero again. You want everyone to adore you and believe in you and follow you.”

  Liam tensed. “That’s not—” he began, angrily.

  “Well, what about the kids who followed you before?” He slapped around the pocket of his trousers before pulling out a familiar folded piece of paper. Chubs’s grip on the letter nearly crushed it. “What about Jack, and Brian, and Andy, an
d all of them? They all followed you, too, but it’s easy to forget about them when they’re not around, isn’t it?”

  “Chubs!” I said, stepping between them when Liam advanced, his right fist swinging up.

  I’d never seen him look so perfectly furious before. A wave of crimson washing up from Liam’s throat to his face.

  “Can’t you just admit you’re doing this to make yourself feel better, not to actually help anyone else?” Chubs demanded.

  “You think…” Liam almost couldn’t get the words out. “You think they’re not in my head every goddamn second of every goddamn day? You think I could ever forget something like that?” Instead of hitting his friend, Liam hit himself, banging his fist against his forehead until I finally caught his arm. “Jesus Christ, Charles!” he said, his voice breaking.

  “I just…” Chubs stalked past us, only to stop and turn back again. “I never believed you, you know,” he said, his voice shaking, “when you talked about us getting out of camp and getting home safely. That’s why I agreed to write my letter. I knew most of us wouldn’t make it, with you in charge.”

  I stepped forward the same moment Liam did, holding my hands out in front of me to keep him from doing something I knew he would regret. I heard Chubs storm away behind me, heading back in the direction of our cabin. Liam tried to take another step forward, but I pressed back against his chest. Liam was breathing hard, his fists balled up at his sides.

  “Let him go,” I said. “He just needs to blow off steam. Maybe you should think about doing the same.”

  Liam looked like he was about to say something, but instead, he let out a frustrated grunt, spun on his heel, and started toward the nearby trees, in the exact opposite direction Chubs had taken. I leaned back against the trunk of the nearest tree and shut my eyes. My chest was too tight to do anything other than take in shallow, short breaths as I waited.

  It was nearly dark by the time he emerged, rubbing his face. The skin on both hands was torn and bleeding from smashing them into something solid. His face was drawn in the twilight, as if the flush of anger had been ripped out of him and he’d been left with nothing more than gray sadness. I held out an arm to him as he came near, wrapping it around the solid warmth of his waist. His arm settled down over my shoulders and he pulled me close, pressing his face against my hair. I took in a deep breath of his comforting smell—wood smoke, grass, and leather.

 
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