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The darkest minds, p.40
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       The Darkest Minds, p.40

         Part #1 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken
 

  “Don’t let them take me,” Chubs squeezed out. “Keep my legs below my chest, Lee, don’t lift them so high, not for chest wounds, breathing difficult—”

  It wasn’t the babbling that sent the spikes of fear straight into my heart, but the unending pulse of blood leaking out from behind his hands. He was shaking, but not crying. “Don’t let them take me.…”

  I climbed into the backseat first, pulling Chubs in behind me. His blood soaked through the front of my shirt, burning against my skin.

  “Keep…pressure on it,” Chubs told me. “Harder…Ruby, harder. I’m going to try to…hold it in with…”

  His abilities, I think. The blood did seem to slow somewhat when his hand covered it again. But how long could that actually last? My hands covered his, shaking so hard they probably did more harm than good.

  “God,” I was saying, “oh my God, don’t close your eyes—talk to me, keep talking to me, tell me what to do!”

  The car squealed as we turned out of the parking lot. Liam hit the gas as hard as he could, slamming his palms down against the steering wheel. “Shit, shit, shit!”

  “Take me home,” Chubs begged. “Ruby, make him take me home.”

  “You’re going—you’ll be fine,” I told him, leaning over so he could see my eyes.

  “My dad…”

  “No—Lee, hospital!” I wasn’t speaking in sentences, and Chubs wasn’t either, not anymore. He made a sound like he was choking on his own tongue.

  When the glimpses came, they were washed in the same bright red as his blood. A man sitting in a large armchair, reading. A beautiful woman leaning across a kitchen table. A cross-stitch pattern, an emergency room sign. The black at the edge of my vision was curling up. Someone had taken a knife and driven it straight down into my brain.

  “Alexandria is a half hour away,” Liam shouted, turning back over his shoulder. “I’m not taking you there!”

  “Fairfax Hospital,” Chubs wheezed out. “My dad…tell them to page Dad.…”

  “Where is it?” Liam demanded. He looked at me, but I had no idea, either. It occurred to me then that there was a chance we would be driving around so long that Chubs would die. He would bleed out right here, right now, in my lap. After everything.

  Liam whipped the car around so hard I had to brace Chubs and me from flying off the seat. I bit my tongue in an effort to keep from screaming again.

  “Keep talking to him!” Liam said. “Chubs—Charles!”

  I don’t know when and where he had lost his glasses. His eyes were red at the edges, staring up at my face. I tried to hold his gaze for as long as I could, but he was trying to hand me something. Chubs lifted his hand from where it had fallen across his stomach.

  Jack’s letter. Its edges soaked in wet, sticky blood, but open. Waiting to be read.

  The handwriting was small and cramped. Each letter had a ghostly halo around it from the time it had spent submerged with the two of us in the lake, and some were gone completely.

  Dear Dad,

  When you sent me to school that morning, I thought you loved me. But now I see you for what you are. You called me a monster and a freak. But you’re the one that raised me.

  “Tell him to read…” Chubs licked his lips. I had to lean down to hear his voice over the wind outside. “Tell Lee to read my letter. I wrote it…it was for him.”

  “Charles,” I said.

  “Promise—”

  Whatever lodged itself in my throat made it impossible to speak. I nodded. A rush of blood bubbled up under our hands, coming faster than before.

  “Where is it?” Liam was shouting. “Chubs, where is the hospital? You have to—you have to tell me where it is!”

  The car began to quiver, then howl, sounding more beast than machine. Liam hit a pothole in the road that sent the front hood flying up, along with a cloud of gray-blue smoke. We got another ten, maybe twenty feet, before the car jerked to a dead stop.

  I looked up, meeting his gaze.

  “I can fix it,” Liam swore, his voice breaking, “I can fix it—just—just—keep him talking, okay? I can fix this. I can.”

  I waited until I heard the door slam behind him before I closed my eyes. Chubs had gone so still, so pale, and no amount of shaking or yelling would bring him back out of it. I felt his blood leak past my hands, scarlet under the overcast sky, and I thought about what he had said the night Zu left us. It’s over. It’s all over.

  And it was. The unnatural calm that settled over me told me as much. All along, I’d been fighting. I’d been fighting the moment I left Thurmond, struggling against the restraints everyone wanted to wrap around me, kicking and clawing against the inevitable. But I was tired now. So tired. I couldn’t deny what a part of me had known from the moment the PSFs had burned my world down. What a part of me had known all along.

  What had Miss Finch said, all those years ago? That there were no do-overs, no comebacks? That once someone was gone, they were gone forever. Dead flowers didn’t bloom, and they didn’t grow. A dead Chubs wouldn’t smile, spout off rambling sentences, wouldn’t pout, wouldn’t laugh—a dead Chubs was unimaginable.

  I reached into the pocket of Liam’s jacket and pushed the panic button. Twenty seconds clicked by, each one feeling longer than the last. It gave a little vibration, a little acknowledgment, and I released it.

  Outside, Liam was banging metal against metal—growing more helpless and angry by the second. I wanted to call him back to us, to have him next to Chubs, because I was sure this was it. I was sure he was going to die right there in my arms, less than twenty-four hours after he had saved me. And I couldn’t do anything for him other than hold him.

  “Do not die,” I whispered. “You cannot die. You have to take calculus and go to football games and go to prom and apply to colleges and you absolutely cannot die. You can’t—you can’t—”

  I detached completely. A familiar numbness took hold of my entire body. I was vaguely aware of Liam shouting something outside. My arms tightened around Chubs’s chest. I heard feet shuffling against the loose asphalt outside; all I could smell was smoke and blood. All I could hear was my own heartbeat.

  That’s when the door across from me opened, and Cate’s face appeared.

  And that’s when I began to cry, really cry.

  “Oh, Ruby,” she said, anguished. “Ruby.”

  “Please help him,” I sobbed. “Please!”

  Two pairs of hands reached in to lift me out. My arms were still wrapped around Chubs. I couldn’t move my hands. There was so much blood. I kicked and butted against whoever was trying to pull us apart.

  “Ruby, sweetheart,” Cate said, suddenly next to me. “Ruby, you have to let go now.”

  I had made a mistake. This was a mistake. I never should have called them. A terrible noise filled the air, and it wasn’t until Liam was there, holding me back, his arms around my shoulders, that I realized I had been screaming the entire time.

  There were three cars surrounding our smoking, useless hunk of metal. All SUVs.

  “If you get him help, we’ll go with you,” I heard Liam tell Cate. “We’ll go with you. We’ll do whatever you want.”

  “No,” I cried. “No!”

  Liam was holding me steady, but I felt the way his arms shook. We watched them load Chubs’s still form into the back of one of the SUVs, and the door had barely shut before it tore off down the highway. Chubs’s blood was still warm on my skin, cooling every second, and it made me want to crawl out of it.

  “Please,” Liam said, his voice breaking. “Calm down. You have to calm down. I’ve got you. I’m right here.”

  There was a pinch on the back of my neck; there and gone, faster than taking a breath. All at once, I felt my muscles relax. I was being dragged forward on limp legs, the image of the nearest white SUV swimming in and out of focus. Lee? I wanted to say, but my tongue was too heavy. Someone slid a dark hood over my face, and I was being lifted—up, up into the air, like my father used to do
when I was just a kid. When I thought I could grow up and fly.

  And then the real darkness came.

  THIRTY-ONE

  IT WAS THE COLD WATER THAT WOKE ME, more than the woman’s soft voice. “You’re all right,” she was saying. “Ruby. You’re gonna be fine.” I’m not sure who she thought she was fooling with her sweet little B.S., but it wasn’t me.

  The smell of rosemary was back, filling my nose with a memory that felt both ancient and new. Which was it?

  When I felt the press of her hand against mine, I forced my eyes open, blinking against the sunlight. Cate’s face swam in and out of my vision. She stood and crossed the room, drawing the gauzy curtains shut. It helped somewhat, but I was still having trouble fixing my sight on any one thing. It was glancing off bright, shiny surfaces. A white dresser, pale purple wallpaper, a flashing alarm clock, a mirror on the opposite wall, and our reflections there.

  “Is this real?” I whispered.

  Cate sat at the edge of my bed, the exact same way she had at Thurmond, only now she wasn’t smiling. Behind her, Martin leaned against the wall in camo pants and boots. He looked like a completely different person to me. I hadn’t fully recognized him at first glance. The roundness in his face had thinned out, sinking his eyes further into his skull. Someone had been dumb enough to give him a gun.

  “We’re in a safe house outside of Maryland,” she said.

  “Lee?”

  “Safe here, too.”

  Not safe, I thought; never safe with you.

  I felt the urge to run rise up deep from my bones; it was instinct now. Exhaustion and pain had stripped every other sensation away from me. My eyes scanned the room—two windows, the only other exit aside from the door. I could break the glass. I force Cate back with a single brush of my mind, get Liam, and we could be gone before anyone noticed. It could work.

  “Don’t even try,” Cate said, following my eyes. She slipped a small silver object from the back pocket of her jeans and held it out to me, the rough pattern of the speaker face up. “Even if you could get past me, every single one of the agents downstairs is carrying one of these on them. Judging by your last hit of Calm Control, you’re not going to be of much use to Liam when they take him out and shoot him for your insubordination.”

  I jerked away. “They wouldn’t—” But I saw the truth of it in her eyes. They would. They risked everything to break me out of Thurmond. They fought off skip tracers to get me back. I had already seen in Rob’s mind that despite what they claimed their mission was, they didn’t have any qualms about offing a few kids if it meant getting the ones they wanted.

  “How could you even think about it?” Martin hissed. “Do you know how much time she wasted looking for you?”

  Cate waved him off. When she leaned toward me again, I saw there were splatters of blood across the front of her shirt. Dark. Dried.

  The memory came into painfully sharp focus. “Chubs—what happened to Chubs?”

  Cate looked down at her hands, and something in me clenched.

  “Honestly,” she said, “I’m not sure. We haven’t been able to contact the group of agents that took him, but I know they reached the hospital.” Cate reached for my hands, but I wouldn’t let her take them. The thought turned my stomach. “He’s safe. They’ll make sure he’s taken care of.”

  “You don’t know that,” I said. “You said it yourself.”

  “But I believe it,” Cate said.

  I wanted to tell her that her beliefs weren’t worth a damn thing when she spoke again. “I’ve spent the last month looking for you. I stayed in this area, hoping you’d eventually show up, but Ruby, where were you? Where did you go? You look like—like—”

  “East River,” I said.

  Cate sucked in a sharp breath. So the League had heard about what happened.

  “Oh, that’s perfect,” Martin said, pushing himself up off the wall. He slid the strap of his rifle over his shoulder and stalked toward me. “Sitting around on your ass for weeks doing nothing? Figures. I’ve been actually making a difference. I’ve been part of something.”

  He made as if to touch my leg, but I grabbed his wrist tight in my hand. I wanted to see what he had gone through for myself—the training, the screaming instructors. I latched on to the strongest of his memories and spread it open in my mind. I wanted to glimpse our future.

  Martin’s memory bubbled up like hot tar, forming and shaping itself until I was standing where he had stood. The package that had been in his hands was now heavy in mine. I felt the weight of it cramp my fingers, but my eyes were focused only on the climbing numbers on the elevator’s display: 11, 12, 13… The bell dinged as it passed each floor, heading to 17.

  I cast a sly look to the girl standing next to me, dressed in a skirt suit, her young face caked with enough makeup to age her well beyond her years. She clutched her leather tote bag to her side like a shield, and it was only when she released it that I noticed her hands were shaking.

  I was wearing a FedEx uniform; I could see myself through Martin’s eyes, reflected in the elevator’s silver doors as they slid open.

  We were in an office building of some kind. It was dark out, but there were still men and women working, tucked away in their cubicles, their eyes glued to their computer screens. I didn’t stop, though, and neither did the girl at my side. Her face had broken out in a sweat, heavy enough to smear her makeup, and I felt a stab of irritation go through me at the sight of it.

  The largest office was located at the far back corner of the building, and that was where I was headed. The girl all but let out a sigh as I left her by the drinking fountains. She was there for backup. This was my mission.

  The door to the office was closed, but I could see someone’s shape behind the frosted glass. He’s still here. And so, thankfully, was his executive assistant. She looked confused at the sight of the package, but all it took was a single stroke at the back of her hand. Her eyes went glassy, unfocused, and I knew I had her. The elderly woman got up from her chair and turned toward the office door. I left the package right on her desk.

  Free of that weight, I hustled back through the maze of cubicles, catching the eye of the girl by the fountain. When I jerked my head toward the elevators, she followed, looking back and forth between the elevator bank and the office floor, her lip caught between her teeth.

  She didn’t do anything stupid until we were outside, though. I jogged down the steps, heading for the waiting FedEx van and the dark-haired man sitting in the driver’s seat. I was already at the door when I realized she wasn’t behind me. The girl was frozen at the top of the marble steps, her eyes wide and her face as pale as the stone beneath her feet.

  She was going to run back into the building to warn them about the explosive, to warn them. Weak. The words shot through my mind, as crisp as if they had been drilled there. Ditch and die. Double-cross the League and die.

  I took the handgun from under my seat and leaned out the open window. But I never got a shot off. Upstairs, high on the seventeenth floor of the building, an explosion blew out a shower of glass and concrete, and she had disappeared under their weight.

  Martin’s hand stayed at my side, and he stopped moving. This is what it means to be one of them, I thought. This is what they will turn us into. I had slipped into his mind to confirm my suspicions, but even I was surprised at how easy it had been. Weeks ago, when we first got out, I hadn’t been able to fend him off. Now, all he had to do was brush by me and I overpowered him. With a single touch.

  Clancy had taught me well.

  I looked at Martin again, feeling a strange sort of pity for him. Not because of what I was about to do, or the way I would be using him, but because he thought he knew what it meant to be powerful and in control. He honestly still thought he was stronger than me.

  I put a finger on the back of his hand, just one.

  “What’s your name?” I asked him.

  The reaction from him was priceless. There wasn’t an
ounce of color left in his cheeks, and his lips began to smack against one another, trying to form the word, trying to call up a memory that was no longer there.

  “Where are you from?”

  I could see the panic now; it caused his eyes to bulge. But I still wasn’t finished.

  “Do you know where you are now?”

  I almost felt guilty—almost—when I saw the moisture began to gather at the corner of his eyes. But I also remembered how helpless and afraid he had made me feel, and I regretted not having done more. A plan was forming at the back of my mind, and it was almost too terrible to acknowledge as my own.

  “I don’t—” He gasped the words out. “I don’t—”

  “Then maybe you should leave,” I said in a cold voice.

  I barely had to push the image of him doing it. He bolted from the room, slamming the door behind him. Running from the scary monster.

  Cate stared after him, an unreadable expression on her face. “Impressive.”

  “I thought he could do with an attitude adjustment,” I said. I kept my voice cold and flat, just the way I thought she’d want it. I had seen enough to know the viciousness these people demanded, and I needed them to want me. “Since it seems we’ll be spending a lot of time together now.”

  Her pale blond hair fell over her shoulders as she bowed her head, but Cate didn’t deny it. We were trapped here. She had accepted Liam’s deal.

  “I guess it was never really a choice to begin with,” I continued. “Eventually, you were going to have to bring me in.”

  “You are a valuable asset to the resistance.” Cate lifted her hand toward me, only to drop it before it could touch my face. Smart lady. She knew what I could do. “I hoped you would come to see that on your own terms.”

  “What about Lee?”

  “He’s a security risk now that he’s seen this safe house and the agents here. He’s safer with us, Ruby. The president wants him dead. I’m sure he’d come to see that…eventually.”

  My hands twisted against the pale bed sheets. A weapon. Liam as a weapon. Liam, who could barely lose his temper without feeling guilty. He had fought so hard to escape this violence, and I’d turned him right back toward it. They’d put their hands on him and press him into their mold, and he’d come out the other end of it as the same dark creature he had struggled to avoid becoming.

 
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