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The darkest minds, p.39
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       The Darkest Minds, p.39

         Part #1 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken
 

  TWENTY-NINE

  MY LEGS WERE HALF FROZEN when we were finally brave enough to move. It had been silent for some time—since the sun began to warm the sky. The helicopters disappeared first, then the sound of gunfire. Between the two of us, there was only breathing and whispered fears about what had happened to the others—to Liam.

  “I don’t know,” he said. “We split up. He could be anywhere.”

  I had wanted to get us out of the water two hours before, but we kept hearing the sound of falling trees and the crackling remnants of the terrible firestorm.

  My muscles were so stiff that it took me three times as long to pull myself onto the dock than it normally would have. Chubs collapsed beside me, shaking with each cold breeze that slashed over our wet clothes. We crawled our way back up the path, staying low to the ground until we were sure, positive beyond measure, that we were the last ones left.

  Most of the cabins were gone—piles of charred wood and stone. A few still stood, burned out and hollow or missing their roofs. Ash flew around us like snow, collecting on our hair and sticking to our wet clothes.

  “We should go to the Office,” I said. “Get inside. We can gather up supplies and then try to go out and search for Lee.”

  Chubs’s feet slowed beside me, and I saw for the first time how red his eyes were. “Ruby…”

  “Don’t say it,” I warned, my voice sharp. It wasn’t an option. “Don’t.”

  I didn’t want to think about Lee. I didn’t want to think about Zu or the other kids who had gotten out of camp. We had to keep moving. If I stopped now, I knew I would never be able to start again.

  The front rooms were clear. The boxes and tubs had been removed. I forced Chubs to walk behind me when I slipped into the storage room, but it was empty.

  “Maybe they got him,” Chubs said, rubbing his head.

  I grimaced. “When have we ever been that lucky?”

  Upstairs, the bedroom was perfect. Before he left, Clancy had made his bed, put away the stacks of paper and boxes, and, it appeared, dusted. I ripped the white curtain back, joining the two halves of the room while Chubs fussed with the TV, clicking the power button on and off.

  “They cut the electricity,” he said. “Want to bet they cut the water, too?”

  I collapsed down in Clancy’s office chair and pressed my face against the dark wood. Chubs tried to peel Liam’s wet jacket off my shoulders, but I wouldn’t let him.

  “Thank you for coming to find me,” I said, closing my eyes.

  “You dumbass,” said Chubs affectionately. He patted me on the back. “Always running right into trouble.”

  When I didn’t move, I felt his hand still on my shoulder. “Ruby?”

  “Why did he do this?” I whispered. Everything in this room reminded me of Clancy, from the smell to the way he had organized the books by color on the shelves. “He just threw them all to the wolves.”

  Chubs squatted down beside me, his knees cracking like an old man’s. His hand never left my arm, but he seemed to struggle with what he wanted to say next.

  “Far be it from me to even approach untangling that hellhole of a mind,” he said, carefully. “But I think he just liked being in control. In charge. It made him feel powerful to manipulate people because he knew outside of this place he was just as vulnerable as the rest of us. There are some people like that, you know? The darkest minds tend to hide behind the most unlikely faces. He put on a good leader act, but he wasn’t like…he wasn’t like Lee—or Jack. He didn’t want to help kids because he believed everyone deserved to feel strong and protect themselves. Clancy was only ever thinking of himself. He would never have jumped in front of another person and…He would never have taken a bullet.”

  At that, I sat up. “I thought Jack was shot escaping?”

  Chubs shook his head. “Jack was shot protecting me, and he protected me because—” He took a deep breath. “Because he thought I couldn’t protect myself. He didn’t realize how much he had taught me.”

  “I’m so sorry,” I said, feeling tears prick at the back of my eyes. “For everything.”

  “Me too,” he said after a minute, and I didn’t need to look back to know that he was crying, too.

  The laptop was stored in the top drawer of his desk, the note taped to the top of it glaringly yellow.

  Ruby,

  I lied before. I would have run.

  —CG

  “Chubs!” I called, waving him over. The power-on chime was oddly sweet. Little bells.

  “He just left it here?” Chubs asked, tapping his fingers against the desk. “Is the wireless card still there?”

  It was, but Clancy had taken care to wipe everything else from the computer. Only the icon for the Internet was left, sitting in the middle of the screen.

  “Why does the clock in the corner say fifteen?” Chubs asked, sitting down in the chair. I leaned over to see what he was pointing at. The battery life. We only had fifteen minutes.

  “That asshole,” I fumed.

  Chubs shook his head. “It’s better than nothing. As long as the connection holds, we can use it to try to figure out a way out of here. We can even look up Jack’s father’s new address.”

  “And post your message to your parents,” I said, feeling a frail wave of happiness cut through me.

  “It’s okay. I’d rather use these…fourteen minutes to find Jack’s dad,” he said. “I might even be able to put a call through to him if the computer has a microphone.”

  He didn’t dare try to call his own parents.

  “Seriously,” I began. “It’ll take you two seconds to post the message. Do you remember it?”

  “Enough to make it work,” he said.

  I moved around the room listlessly, listening to him type, taking in the room’s stale smell. My feet drew me over to the side of Clancy’s bed, where I finally stopped, my anger at him overwhelming even the anxiety I felt.

  The window was coated in soot and protested bitterly when I tried to throw it open. The flood of fresh air that rushed in made it worth the fight; I leaned forward, bracing my arms against the sill. The camp was spread out before me in piles of ash and scorched earth, but it was all too easy to imagine where the clusters of kids had once stood, waiting to get their food by the fire pit. When I closed my eyes, I could hear the laughter and radio drifting up to me, taste the spice of chili and wood smoke on the air. I saw Liam below, the firelight turning his hair pure gold as he bent his head in quiet conversation with the others.

  And when my eyes opened, I was no longer just imagining him.

  I tore out of the room, ignoring the way Chubs’s voice followed me. I stumbled down the stairs, trying to take too many at once, flew through the entryway and out the door that was barely hanging from its frame.

  He was down the trail, back toward the cabins, struggling to get around the maze of fallen trees and buildings. His battered face was twisted with grief and fear, and he could barely limp through the wreckage.

  “Lee!” The word exploded out of me. He dropped the charred wood from his hands and struggled over the tree, blindly fighting his way through its leaves and branches. Seeing me. Believing and not believing it all at once. “Oh my God!” I threw my arms around his neck and nearly took us both down.

  “Thank you,” he was whispering, “thank you, thank you.…” And then he was kissing my face, every inch of it he could find, wiping away the tears and soot, chanting my name.

  Liam wasn’t the only one who escaped, but he was the only one who came back.

  He had relived the night for us as we sat in Clancy’s office, eating what food was left in the supply room. Chubs had the laptop at his side, checking every few minutes for a message from his parents, or rechecking the address he had found for Jack’s dad.

  When the fighting had broken out, it was enough of a surprise that most of the Watch kids couldn’t get to the cabins from the outer gates in time to make a real difference. The ones who were off duty came to
our cabin and forced him—“Carried me, is more like it,” Liam said, bitterly—away, running for one of the hidden side trails that had been marked for this exact purpose. They moved until morning, not stopping until they reached that same stretch of highway that they had picked us up on.

  “There were maybe twenty of us at most,” he said, gripping my hand. “All in bad shape. Liv and Mike found a working car and piled the ones that were scary bad into the back, to go find a hospital, but…”

  “What about the rest of them?” I asked.

  “They split.” Liam rubbed at his eyes and winced. The skin there was still tender, blooming to black.

  “And why didn’t you?” Chubs demanded. “What the hell is the matter with you that you’d come back here, knowing that there could still be PSFs?”

  Liam only snorted. “You think that mattered to me for a second when there was a chance the two of you were still here, too?”

  We didn’t have time to waste; we all knew the PSFs well enough to know that there was a chance they would double back and check for survivors. The two of them went to work immediately in the supply closet, trying to figure out how much food we could carry with us. I tried to be useful, too, but I could feel my attention drifting upstairs, to Clancy’s desk.

  I finally gave into my restlessness and left the two of them locked in an argument over canned food. I made my way back upstairs, patting the inside pocket of Liam’s jacket to make sure Jack’s and Chubs’s still-damp letters were there.

  There were two minutes left of the laptop’s battery. The power icon was flashing, warning that reserves were low. The screen dimmed and the lights in the keyboard switched off. I typed as fast as I could, searching the online White Pages for Ruby Ann Daly, Virginia Beach.

  No results.

  I tried again, just with her name but no location. A listing did pop up, but it was for Salem. I hadn’t lived there in close to a decade, but I recognized my parents’ address when I saw it.

  A minute and fifteen seconds. I looked in the Web-site history for the site Chubs had talked about, the one that let you make calls, and typed in the phone number. I lost two seconds with each ring.

  I don’t think I wanted to talk to her so much as to hear her speak. Going to her wasn’t an option for me anymore. There were more important things to take care of. But I needed to know that she was still out there—that there was one more person in the world who remembered me.

  It clicked. My heart jumped up into my throat, my fingers curling against the desk.

  My mother’s voice.

  Hello, you’ve reached the residence of Jacob, Susan, and Ruby Daly…

  I don’t know why I started to cry then. Maybe I was exhausted. Maybe I was tired of how hard everything had become. I was happy that the three of them were together, that Mom and Dad had fixed their family and replaced one Ruby with another. The thing I’d realized most over the past few days was how important it was for us to take care of one another and stick together. And they were taking care of each other. Good.

  Good.

  But it didn’t mean that I wasn’t going to close my eyes and pretend, if only for a few minutes, that I was the Ruby who still lived on Millwood Drive.

  THIRTY

  HOURS LATER, when it was just the three of us back on the road, we finally had a chance to tell Liam exactly what had happened to us the night before.

  “Thank God Chubs found you,” Liam said, shaking his head. “You knew him better than any of us, and you still went.”

  “I really thought I could control him,” I said, leaning my forehead against the cool window. “I’m an idiot.”

  “Yes, you are,” Chubs agreed. “But you’re our idiot, so be more careful next time.”

  “Cosigned,” Liam said, hooking his fingers over mine on top of the armrest.

  We’d found the car abandoned along a side road a few miles west of East River, and picked it only because it still had a quarter tank of gas. Driving in this car was nothing like driving in Betty. Chubs’s long legs dug into the back of my seat, and the car smelled like old Chinese food. Still, it was running. After a while, it would become ours.

  “There’s another one,” Chubs said, tapping on his window.

  I opened my eyes and craned my neck back, catching a quick look at the white pole. On top of it was a white box, and on top of that was a small antenna. Cameras, everywhere.

  “Maybe we should get off the highway,” Liam suggested.

  “No!” Chubs said. “We’ve seen two whole cars since we got on the sixty-four, and it’ll take us twice as long to get to Annandale if we get off again. They’ll be watching for Betty, anyway, not this car.”

  Liam and I shared a look. “Tell me again what your mom’s message said?”

  “She said to make a reservation at my aunt’s restaurant and wait for them in the kitchen,” Chubs said. “I did that from East River, so we should be set to meet them there tonight. My aunt will probably even feed us.”

  “Let’s drop you off first, then,” Liam said.

  “No,” Chubs said. “I want to deliver Jack’s letter.”

  “Chubs…”

  “Don’t Chubs me,” he snapped. “I owe Jack a lot. I want to do this.”

  The address for Jack’s father was a Days Inn motel, far away from Annandale’s neighborhoods of sprawling homes. Liam seemed to think that the motel had been converted to a temporary housing complex for the workers rebuilding D.C., but there was no way to prove his theory until a rickety old bus pulled up alongside our car in the parking lot and unloaded a dozen dust-covered men, clutching neon vests and hard hats.

  “Room 103,” Liam said, leaning over the steering wheel. He squinted with his good eye. “The guy in the red shirt. Yeah, that’s him—Jack looked a lot like him.”

  The man was short and square, with a graying moustache and a wide nose.

  Chubs reached between us and plucked the wrinkled letter out of my hand.

  “Slow down, Turbo,” Liam said, clicking the car locks on. “We haven’t even checked to make sure he’s not being watched.”

  “We’ve been out here for almost an hour—do you see anyone? The only other cars in the parking lot are empty. We lay low, like you wanted, and it worked.” He reached over and pulled the lock up manually. Liam stared at him for a moment, before relenting.

  “All right; just be careful, will you?”

  We watched him scurry across the parking lot, glancing around. Making sure there really was no one out watching room 103. He tossed a told you so look over his shoulder.

  “Nice,” Liam said. “Real nice.”

  I reached over and rubbed his shoulder. “You know you’ll miss him.”

  “It’s insane, isn’t it?” he said, with a light laugh. “What am I going to do without him telling me how dangerous it is to open canned food the wrong way?”

  Liam waited until Chubs had raised his hand and knocked before unbuckling his seat belt to lean over and give me a light kiss.

  “What was that for?” I said, laughing.

  “To get your mind on the right track,” he said. “After we take him home, we have to figure out how to find Zu and the others before the PSFs do.”

  “What if—”

  The door to room 103 cracked open, and the face of Mr. Fields appeared, tired and suspicious. Chubs lifted the wrinkled letter and extended it out to him. I wished Chubs had turned at an angle so we could have made out what he was saying. The man’s face flushed crimson, so dark that it matched his work shirt. He yelled something, loud enough that his next-door neighbors opened their curtains to see what was happening.

  “This is bad,” Liam said, unlocking his door. “I knew I should have had him practice with me first.”

  The door shut in Chubs’s face, only to open again all the way. I saw a flash of silver, saw Chubs raise his hands and take a step back.

  The gunshot tore through the sunset, and by the time I screamed, Chubs was already on the ground.
<
br />   We ran toward the room, screaming for him. All the complex’s residents were standing outside now, mostly men, some women. Their faces were monstrous blurs.

  Jack’s father raised his shaking gun toward us, but Liam threw him back into his room and pulled the door shut with a sweep of his hand. My knees slid across the loose asphalt as I dropped down beside Chubs.

  His eyes were open, staring at me, blinking. Alive.

  He tried to tell me something, but I couldn’t hear over the screaming from inside 103. “Fucking freaks! Get out of here you goddamn freaks!”

  Bright red blood bubbled up from just below Chubs’s right shoulder, spreading out over his shirt with hundreds of gliding fingers. I couldn’t do anything at first. It didn’t look real. Liam diving for the man’s gun, pointing it at 104 and 105, not real.

  “It’s okay,” someone said behind us. Liam whirled around, his finger on the trigger, his face set in stone. The man raised his hands; he was holding a small phone. “I’m just calling nine-one-one, it’s okay; we’ll get him help.”

  “Don’t let them call,” Chubs gasped. “Don’t let them take me.” He choked on the words. “I need to go home.”

  Liam looked back over his shoulder. “Grab his legs, Ruby.”

  “Don’t move him,” the man from 104 said. “You’re not supposed to move him!”

  Jack’s father appeared behind us again, but the man with the cell phone tackled him back into the room and kicked the door shut behind him.

  “Grab him,” Liam said, tucking the gun into the waistband of his jeans.

  I slipped my arms under Chubs’s, carrying him the same way he had carried me. One of the other men stepped forward—maybe to stop us, maybe to help.

  “Don’t touch him!” I screamed. They backed off, but only just.

  Chubs pressed his own hands against the wound, his eyes wide and unblinking. Liam took his legs, and together we carried him. The men called after us, telling us the ambulance would be there any minute. The ambulance, along with every PSF. The soldiers wouldn’t save him; they wouldn’t. They’d rather see a freak kid die.

 
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