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The darkest minds, p.37
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       The Darkest Minds, p.37

         Part #1 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken
 

  The boys in front of us stood where the path met the silver wire marking East River’s boundaries. Clancy was at the center, looking infinitely more pulled together than he had a few short hours ago.

  “I think we need to have a talk,” Clancy said, his voice pleasant. “It seems like something dangerous is about to happen.”

  “We’re heading out,” Liam said, the anger in his voice barely contained. “And we don’t want trouble.”

  “You can’t just go.” Hayes pushed his way to the front of the group, looming at Clancy’s side like a cannon waiting to be aimed. “We have a system here, and you haven’t earned your keep yet.”

  The words had just left his mouth when we heard the sound of footsteps and voices crashing through the dried brush of the other, bigger trail behind them. Olivia appeared first, followed by Mike and four of the other kids Liam had been working alongside the past month. They reacted the exact way we had—first, cringing away from the light, then stopping short in shock.

  “What’s going on?” Olivia demanded, cutting around the line of kids in black until she was standing right in front of Clancy. “Why didn’t you radio me?”

  “Hayes and I have it under control.” Clancy crossed his arms over his chest. “You should head back to your posts.”

  “Not until you tell me what’s happening—” She whirled around to face us, taking in our bags. “Are you leaving?”

  “Lee,” Mike said, making the connection at the same time. “What are you doing?”

  “It seems that Liam Stewart is staging another breakout,” Clancy said, “or at least was attempting to. Looks like it’ll be just as successful as the last.”

  “Go to hell,” I cut in, grabbing Liam’s arm before he could have a go at Clancy. He was shaking with anger, but we were outnumbered—didn’t he see that?

  “Ruby,” Clancy said quietly, with all of the familiarity of the kid I had thought was my friend. “Come on, can we at least talk things through?”

  Yes, a voice whispered in my ear. Wouldn’t that be for the best? The tightly wound anger in my chest began to unravel, slowly at first, then in a strange, cool rush. My fingers slid from Liam’s. All of a sudden, it did seem like talking was the best option—the only option. I had been so angry and afraid before, but this was Clancy.

  It was Clancy.

  I took a step toward him, toward that smile. I could…I could forgive him, couldn’t I? It would be easy. Everything with Clancy was easier. My feet moved on their own, knowing exactly where I needed to go. Where I was supposed to go.

  But Liam didn’t let me, and Chubs wasn’t about to, either. I felt the latter’s hands grab my backpack. The moment Liam stepped back in front of me, Clancy disappeared from sight, and I couldn’t remember why it had felt so important to go to him, to let him walk me back to camp.

  “Stop it!” Liam yelled. “Whatever you’re doing to her, stop it!”

  “He’s not—” Mike began, looking between Liam and Olivia. I saw her just beyond Liam’s shoulders, her face a grim mask. Behind them, the other kids from Liam’s watch detail were abuzz, unsure of where to look.

  “I’m not doing anything,” Clancy said, his voice taking on an edge of ice. “You’re the one that’s jealous of the relationship she and I have.”

  The boys around him began to nod in agreement, their faces strangely expressionless.

  “You’re the one that’s trying to break the rules here,” he continued. “Because it is a rule, isn’t it, Liv? If you want to leave, you have to ask me, right?”

  She hesitated, but nodded.

  Liam’s arm dropped from in front of me slowly. His brows drew together, and he seemed to incline his head toward Clancy, as if listening to something the rest of us couldn’t hear. I felt, rather than saw, the tension leave the lines of his shoulders. He took a step back, and then another away from me, one hand going to his forehead. “Sorry…I just…I didn’t mean…”

  “You’re happy here, aren’t you?” Clancy asked, pleasantly. “There’s no reason why you can’t go back to feeling that way. There are rules here. You know them now, and you won’t break them again, will you?”

  “No,” Liam said, his voice hoarse. He was staring at me, but his eyes had taken on a milky quality that I recognized at once. And so, apparently, did Chubs. His own eyes narrowed, zeroing in on Clancy with pure, razor-sharp fury.

  “Let me tell you what I think about your fucking rules,” he said, his voice dripping with venom as he pushed past Liam. “You sit up in your room and you pretend like you want what’s best for everyone, but you don’t do any of the work yourself. I can’t tell if you’re just a spoiled little shit, or if you’re too worried about getting your pretty princess hands dirty, but it sucks. You are fucking awful, and you sure as hell don’t have me fooled.” The full force of Clancy’s cold gaze fell on Chubs, but he went on, undaunted. “You talk about us all being equals, like we’re one big happy rainbow of peace and all that bullshit, but you never once believed that yourself, did you? You won’t let anyone contact their parents, and you don’t care about the kids who are still trapped in camps your father set up. You wouldn’t even listen when the Watch kids brought it up. So what I want to know is, why can’t we leave?” He took another step forward, cutting off Clancy before he could start speaking. “What’s the point of this place, other than for you to get off on how great you are and toy with people and their feelings? I know what you did to Ruby.”

  The others stood by in silence, but the longer Chubs spoke, the clearer their eyes became; Mike, in particular, shook off Clancy’s influence with a look like he was about to be sick. The other kids’ eyes flicked around, nervous and unsure.

  Clancy had been perfectly still the entire time Chubs had torn into him, but now that Chubs was finished, Clancy leaned in close, as if he were about to whisper a secret to him. Only, when he spoke, his voice was loud enough for us all to hear. “I toyed with more than her feelings.” His eyes flicked to Liam’s face. “Didn’t I, Stewart?”

  The sweep of furious crimson that washed up over Liam’s throat to his face was enough to tell me exactly what kind of image Clancy had pushed into his head.

  “Don’t!” I screamed, but it was too late for that.

  What happened next passed so fast that half of the people gathered there must have missed it. Liam raised his fist, ready to launch it into Clancy’s smug face, but his hand got no farther than his shoulder. Every part of him—every muscle, every joint, every sinew—went board-straight, like he had received a great electric jolt. He froze, and a breath later, he was on the ground and Hayes’s fists were slamming into his face.

  “Stop!” I begged, ripping free of Chubs’s grip. I knew what Clancy had done to him, and why he couldn’t even raise a hand to protect his face. I saw a spray of blood hit the dirt, and it was more than I could take.

  It was more than any of us could take.

  “Clance,” I heard Olivia say, “that’s enough. You made your point. Hayes—you’ll kill him!”

  Again and again and again, on whatever surface of skin he could find, Hayes drove his fist into Liam, like he could pound his fury into him. The blows didn’t stop until Clancy put a hand on his shoulder, and even then, Hayes made sure to get one last punch in across the face. He heaved Liam up by the front of his shirt, and when Clancy nodded to him, Hayes slammed Liam back against the ground and stood up, leaving him a limp mess of raw skin facedown in the dirt.

  The moment the two of them were out of sight, Chubs and I both lurched forward, pushing through the circle of kids that closed around Liam. We got maybe two steps before Mike blocked us from going farther.

  “Don’t,” he said. “You’ll only make it worse.”

  “What are they going to do to him?” Chubs said.

  “Go back to your cabin,” he told us. “We’ll take care of him.”

  “No,” I said, “we’re not leaving without him.”

  Mike rounded on me. “I don’t kn
ow what the hell you said to him or made him think, but Lee was happy here. This is exactly what he needed, and you’ve screwed him over—”

  “Don’t you dare,” Chubs snapped. “Don’t you dare blame her for this. Your head is so up the Slip Kid’s ass you can’t see anything that’s going on around you!”

  Mike bared his teeth. “We all put up with you at Caledonia because Liam asked us to, but I don’t have to do that here.”

  “Whatever,” Chubs said. “Do you think I care about that? The only thing I care about is what’s going to happen to Lee—you know, the one that put everything on the line to get us out in the first place?” His words had the desired effect. Mike paled in the darkness. “You can have your stupid Slip Kid, but don’t expect us to let you keep Lee.”

  We threw ourselves forward again, trying to claw our way through to reach him. A pair of arms wrapped around my chest, another around my legs, and it didn’t matter how hard or loud we were screaming, the kids dragged us away from Liam all the same.

  Chubs and I sat on Liam’s bunk, not speaking, not moving, not doing anything but watching the cabin door. Through the windows, we saw curious faces—gawkers and guards alike, all trying to figure out exactly what had happened. Lights-out had come and gone, but it wasn’t like either of us was going to be able to sleep. Judging by the two figures in black standing directly in front of our door, it didn’t seem like we’d be able to leave, either. Not after our failed escape attempt, and certainly not after Chubs had rained down a verbal hailstorm on Clancy.

  “Where did you learn to talk like that?” I finally asked, but he only shrugged.

  “I tried to imagine what Lee would have said, and went from there.” Chubs rubbed the top of his head. “Did I really say he had pretty princess hands?”

  I let out a strangled laugh. “All that and more.”

  The seconds ticked by at half the speed of my thoughts.

  “Why weren’t you affected?” I wondered aloud. “He did try it on you, didn’t he?”

  “He tried; I definitely felt it. Little did he know…” Chubs tapped his forehead. “Steel trap. Nothing gets out or in.”

  I had a fleeting thought that what he was saying could very well be true, and that it might even explain why his was the only head I had managed to avoid slipping into, but we heard a loud shuffle of steps on the path, and everything else flew straight out of my head.

  Olivia and another kid came stumbling in, one of Liam’s arms over each of their shoulders. His face was turned down, and I could see where mud had caked into his hair. The rain had started about an hour after we had left him.

  “Lee,” Chubs was saying, trying to get him to rouse. “Lee, can you hear me?”

  We helped them lay him out on the futon. It was dark enough in the room that I didn’t see the extent of his beating until Olivia set a flashlight lantern down on the floor beside him.

  “Oh my God,” I said.

  Liam’s face turned in my direction, and for the first time, I realized he was actually awake—his eyes were swollen shut. I let my hand fall on the arm hanging off the side of the futon, and moved it so it was across his chest. The breath escaped his lips in wheezing sighs. There was a thick layer of gummy, dried blood caked around his nose, his mouth, down to even his chin. Daylight would reveal the rest of the bruises.

  “He needs antiseptic,” Chubs said, “bandages, something—”

  “If you two come with me,” Olivia replied, “I’ll walk you to the supply room. No one will be out to bother us.”

  “I’m not going to leave him,” I said, still crouched beside Liam on my knees.

  “It’s all right.” I barely felt Chubs’s hand on my shoulder as he brushed by.

  The screen door creaked open and shut behind us; I waited until I heard the shuffling footsteps of the other kid follow them out before I looked back down at Liam’s face. I moved my fingers, feather-light across his face, as gently as I could. When I came to his nose, he let out a sharp hiss, but he didn’t try to twist away until I brushed his swollen split lip.

  I don’t know if I had ever cried as much as I had in the past month. I had never been like the other girls in my cabin at Thurmond, who cried every night, and then again every morning when they realized their nightmare had been real. I wasn’t even a crier as a kid. But there was no way to hold them back now.

  “Do I…look as pretty as I feel?” His words were slurred. I tried to get him to open his mouth, to make sure all of his teeth were still there, but his jaw was too tender for me to touch it. I leaned forward to press my lips against where my hands had been.

  “Don’t,” he said, one eye just barely cracked open. “Not unless you mean it.”

  “You shouldn’t have gone after him.”

  “Had to,” he managed to mumble out.

  “I’ll kill him,” I said, anger flaring up inside of me. “I’ll kill him.”

  Liam started to chuckle again. “Ah…there she is. There’s Ruby.”

  “I’ll get you out of here,” I promised. “You and Chubs. I’ll talk to Clancy, I’ll—”

  “No,” he said. “Stop—it’ll make things worse.”

  “How could things possibly get any worse?” I asked. “I messed everything up for you. I ruined everything.”

  “God.” He shook his head, mouth twisting into a shadow of a smile. “Did you know…you make me so happy that sometimes I actually forget to breathe? I’ll be looking at you, and my chest will get so tight…and it’s like, the only thought in my head is how much I want to reach over and kiss you.” He blew out a shaky breath. “So don’t talk about getting me out of here, because I’m not leaving, not unless you’re part of the package, too.”

  “I can’t go with you,” I said. “I won’t put you in that kind of danger.”

  “Bull,” he said. “Nothing’s going to be worse than being apart.”

  “You don’t understand—”

  “Then make me,” Liam said. “Ruby, give me one reason why we can’t be together, and I’ll give you a hundred why we can. We can go anywhere you want. I’m not your parents. I’m not going to abandon you or send you away, not ever.”

  “They didn’t abandon me. What happened to them was my fault.” The secret had slipped out of me like a long exhale, and I’m not sure which of us was more surprised by the admission.

  Liam settled into silence, waiting for me to continue. It occurred to me then that this was it. This was really the moment I was going to lose him. And all I could think about was how much I wished I had kissed him one last time before he started fearing me for what I was.

  I leaned my head down on the cushion beside his. In a whisper, because I wasn’t brave enough to say it any louder, I told him about going to bed the night before my tenth birthday, about how I woke up expecting my usual birthday pancakes. About the way they locked me in the garage like some wild animal. And when that story was over, I told him about Sam. How I had been her Chubs until I wasn’t, until I was nothing at all.

  My throat burned when I was finished. Liam turned his face toward mine. We weren’t even a breath apart.

  “Never,” he said after awhile. “Never, never, never. I am never going to forget you.”

  “You won’t have a choice,” I said. “Clancy said I won’t ever be able to control it.”

  “Well I think he’s full of it,” Liam said. “Listen, what I saw in the woods, when you…”

  “When I kissed you.”

  “Right. That…that really happened, didn’t it? What he—what that asshole—did. That happened to you. He kept you there, frozen, like he did to me.”

  Yes, but also no. Because a small part of me had wanted Clancy to do it. Or had he only made me want him, played my emotions with a single touch? I nodded, finally, my insides still squirming with revulsion at the memory of his skin against mine.

  “Come here,” said Liam softly. I felt his fingers’ light touch run along the crown of my head, feather-soft as they came down to cup
my cheek. When I lifted my face, he met me halfway and kissed me. I was careful not to touch his face, only his shoulder and arm. When he pulled back, I seemed to follow, my lips searching for his.

  “You want to be with me, right?” he whispered. “Then be with me. We’ll figure it out. If nothing else, I trust you. You can look inside my head and that’s all you’ll see.”

  His warm breath spread over my cheek like another kiss. “Mike worked it out. He’s going to try and find a way to sneak us out, and then you, me, and Chubs? We’re gonna hit the road. We’re going to find Jack’s father, we’re going to find a way for Chubs to reach his parents, and then we’re going to talk about what we want to do.”

  I leaned over and pressed a kiss to his forehead. “You really don’t hate me,” I breathed out. “You’re not scared—not even a little?”

  His battered face twisted with what I thought was supposed to be a smile. “I’m scared to death of you, but for a completely different reason.”

  “I’m a monster, you know. I’m one of the dangerous ones.”

  “No you aren’t,” he promised. “You’re one of us.”

  TWENTY-EIGHT

  CHUBS RETURNED A FEW MINUTES AFTER Liam faded into a restless sleep. He stirred again when we began cleaning the cuts and gouges on his face, reaching for my hand at the first touch of stinging antiseptic. When I felt his grip began to relax, and saw his eyelids flutter shut again, I finally released the breath I had been holding.

  “He’ll live,” Chubs said, seeing my expression. He was stuffing away the rest of the supplies in my backpack. “He’ll have a wicked headache in the morning, but he’ll live.”

  We took turns sleeping, or at least pretended to. My body was thrumming with anxious unspent energy, and I could hear Chubs muttering to himself, as if trying to work through the night’s events.

  And then came the sound of feet slapping against the concrete steps of the cabin once more, and we gave up pretending altogether.

  “Lizzie—” I heard one of the boys outside our door say. “Are you—”

  She pushed past them, throwing the screen door open so hard that it slammed against the wall. Liam startled awake, more confused and disoriented than he’d been before.

 
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