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The darkest minds, p.5
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       The Darkest Minds, p.5

         Part #1 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken
 

  Despite the harsh words, I saw the slightest flicker of fear in his face. That moment, the shift from fear to fury, could have summed up the feelings of every soldier at Thurmond. We’d heard rumors that service in the military was no longer voluntary, that everyone between the ages of twenty-two and forty had to serve—most of them in the army’s new Psi branch.

  I gritted my teeth. The whole wide world spun under me, trying to pull me back down to its dark center. The PSF’s words returned to me.

  Another night? I thought. How long have I been here?

  Still woozy, I followed the soldier into the hallway. The Infirmary was only two stories, small ones. The ceiling crept down so low that even I felt like I was in danger of scraping the top of my head on the doorframes. The treatment beds were on the first floor, but the second was reserved for kids needing to go into what we called Time Out. Sometimes they had something the rest of us could catch, but mostly it was for kids that went completely off their rocker, broken brains broken further by Thurmond.

  I tried to stay focused on the movement of the PSF’s shoulder blades beneath his black uniform, but it was difficult when most of the curtains had been left open for anyone to peer inside. Most I could ignore, or cast only a brief glance their way, but the second to last stall before the exit doors…

  My feet slowed of their own accord, giving my lungs time to breathe in the scent of rosemary.

  I could hear Dr. Begbie’s gentle voice as she spoke to another kid in Green. I recognized him—his cabin was directly across from mine. Matthew? Maybe Max? All I knew was that there was blood on his face, too. Crusted around his nose and eyes, smearing across his checks. A stone dropped in my stomach. Had this Green been marked too? Was Dr. Begbie cutting him the same deal? I couldn’t have been the only one to figure out how to dodge the sorting system—who to influence, when to lie.

  Maybe he and I were the same color beneath our skin.

  And maybe we would both be dead by tomorrow.

  “Keep up!” the PSF snapped. He didn’t try to hide his annoyance as I hobbled after him, but he didn’t need to worry; you couldn’t have paid me to stay in the Infirmary, not while I was conscious. Not even with the new threat hanging over my head. I knew what they used to do there.

  I knew what was under the layers of white paint.

  The earliest kids they had brought in, the first guinea pigs, had been subjected to a whole array of electroshock and brain-chop-shop terrors. Stories were passed around camp with sick, almost holy reverence. The scientists were looking for ways to strip the kids’ abilities—“rehabilitate” them—but they had mostly just stripped their will to live. The ones who made it out were given warden positions when the first small wave of kids was brought to camp. It was a strange bit of luck and timing that I had come in during the second wave. Each wave grew larger and larger as the camp expanded, until, three years ago, they’d run out of space completely. There were no new buses after that.

  I still wasn’t moving fast enough for the soldier. He pushed me forward into the hall of mirrors. The exit sign cast its gory light over us; the PSF shoved me again, harder, and smiled when I fell. Anger flooded through me, cutting through the lingering pain in my limbs and any fear I had that he was taking me out somewhere in order to finish the job.

  Soon we were standing outside, breathing in the damp spring air. I took a lungful of misty rain, and swallowed the bitterness down. I needed to think. Assess. If he was taking me outside to be shot, and was on his own, I could easily overpower him. That wasn’t the issue. But in fact, I had no way of slipping past the electric fence—and no idea where the hell I was.

  When they had brought me to Thurmond, the familiarity of the scenery had been more a comfort than a painful reminder. West Virginia and Virginia aren’t all that different, even though Virginians would have you believe otherwise. Same trees, same sky, same awful weather—I was either drenched in rain or sticky with humidity. Anyway, it might not have been West Virginia at all. But a girl in my cabin swore up and down that she had seen a WELCOME TO WEST VIRGINIA sign on her ride in, so that was the theory we were working with.

  The PSF had slowed considerably, matching my pathetic pace. He fumbled once or twice against the muddy grass, nearly tripping over himself in full view of the soldiers high above on the Control Tower.

  The moment the Tower came into view, a whole new weight added itself to the ball and chain of terror I was dragging behind me. The building itself wasn’t that imposing; it was only called the Tower because it stuck up like a broken finger in a sea of one-story wooden shacks arranged in rings. The electric fence was the outer ring, protecting the world from us freaks. Cabins of Greens made up the next two rings. Blues, the next two rings. Before they were taken away, the few Reds and Oranges lived in the next rings. They’d been closest to the Tower—better, the controllers thought, to keep an eye on them. But after a Red had blown up his cabin, they moved the Reds farther away, using the Greens as a buffer in case any of the real threats tried to make a run for the fence.

  Number of escape attempts?

  Five.

  Number of successful escape attempts?

  Zero.

  I don’t know of one Blue or Green who had ever tried to make a run for it. When kids did stage desperate, pathetic breakouts, it had been in small groups of Reds, Oranges, and Yellows. Once caught, they never came back.

  But that was in the early days, when we had had more interaction with the other colors, and before they shuffled us around. The empty Red, Orange, and Yellow cabins became Blue cabins, and newly arriving Greens, the biggest group of all, filled the old Blue ones. The camp grew so large that the controllers staggered our schedules, so we ate by color and gender—and even then, it was still a tight squeeze fitting everyone at the tables. I hadn’t seen a boy my own age up close in years.

  I didn’t start breathing again until the Tower was at our backs and it was clear, beyond a shadow of a doubt, where we were headed.

  Thank you, I thought, to no one in particular. The relief lodged in my throat like a stone.

  We reached Cabin 27 a few minutes later. The PSF walked me to the door and pointed to the spigot just to the left of it. I nodded, and used the cold water to wash the blood off my face. He waited silently, but not patiently. After a few seconds, I felt his hand grab the back of my shirt and yank me up. Using his other hand, he slid his access card through the lock on our door.

  Ashley, one of the older girls in my cabin, shoved the door open the rest of the way with her shoulder. She took my arm in one hand and nodded in the direction of the PSF. That seemed to be enough for him. Without another word, he took off down the path.

  “Jesus Christ!” she hissed as she dragged me inside. “They couldn’t have kept you another night? Oh no, they have to send you back early—is that blood?”

  I waved her hands away, but Ashley pushed past the others and brushed my long, dark hair over my shoulder. At first I didn’t understand why she was looking at me like that—with wide eyes, rimmed with a raw pink. She sucked her bottom lip in between her teeth.

  “I really…thought you were…” We were still standing by the door, but I could feel the chill that had taken over the cabin. It settled over my skin like cold silk.

  Ashley had been around these parts for far too long to really crack, but I was still surprised to see her so frazzled and at a loss for what to say. She and a few other girls were honorary leaders of our sad, mismatched group, nominated mostly because they hit certain bodily milestones before the rest of us, and could explain what was happening to us without laughing in our faces.

  I offered a weak smile and a shrug, suddenly without words again. But she didn’t look convinced, and she didn’t let go of my arm. The cabin was dark and damp, the usual smell of mold clung to every surface, but I would have taken that over the Infirmary’s clean, sterile stench any day.

  “Let me…” Ashley took a deep breath. “Let me know if you’re not, got it?”<
br />
  And what would you be able to do about it? I wanted to ask. Instead, I turned to the back left corner of our cramped cabin. Whispers and stares followed my zigzagging path around the rows of bunk beds. The pills tucked tight against my chest felt like they were on fire.

  “—she was gone,” I heard someone say.

  Vanessa, who slept on the bottom bunk to the right of mine, had snuck up to Sam’s bed. When I came into view, they stopped mid-conversation to stare down at me. Eyes wide, mouths wider.

  The sight of them together was still sickening to me, even after a year. How many days and nights had I spent perched up there with Sam, steadfastly ignoring Vanessa’s attempts to drag us into some stupid, pointless conversation?

  Sam’s best-friend slot had been vacant for less than two hours when Vanessa had slithered in—and not a day went by that Vanessa didn’t remind me of that.

  “What…” Sam leaned over the edge of her bed. She didn’t look haughty or hostile, the way she usually did. She looked…concerned? Curious? “What happened to you?”

  I shook my head, my chest tight with all the things I wanted to say.

  Vanessa let out a sharp laugh. “Nice, real nice. And you wonder why she doesn’t want to be your friend anymore?”

  “I don’t…” Sam mumbled. “Whatever.”

  Sometimes I wondered if there was a part of Sam that remembered not just me, but the person she used to be before I ruined her. Amazing how I had managed to erase every good part of Sam—or at least, all the parts I loved. One touch, and she was gone.

  A few girls asked me what had happened between the two of us. Most, I think, assumed Sam was being cruel when she claimed that we had never, ever been friends and never would be. I tried to play it off with shrugs—but Sam was the only thing that had made Thurmond bearable. Without her, it was no life at all.

  No life at all.

  I fingered the packet of pills.

  Our cabin was brown on brown on brown. The only color was the white of our sheets, and most of those had aged to an ugly yellow. There were no shelves of books, no posters, no pictures. Just us.

  I crawled onto my low bunk, dropping face-first into the worn sheets. I breathed in their familiar scent—bleach, sweat, and something distinctly earthy—and tried not to listen to the conversation above me.

  A part of me had been waiting, I think—desperate to see if I could fix what I had done to my friend. But it was done. It was over, and she was gone, and the only one to blame was me. The best thing I could do for her was disappear; even if Dr. Begbie was playing me and they really were going to get rid of me, they wouldn’t connect us. They wouldn’t question or punish Sam because they thought she had helped me hide, like they would if we had still been friends. There were over three thousand of us at Thurmond, and I was the last Orange—maybe in the entire world. Or one of two, if the boy in the Infirmary was like me. It had only been a matter of time before they found out the truth.

  I was dangerous, and I knew what they did to the dangerous ones.

  The camp routine ran itself through, as it always did, churning us through the Mess Hall for dinner, to the Washrooms, and back to the cabin for the night. The light was dim and fading outside, clinging to the first fringes of night.

  “All right, kittens.” Ashley’s voice. “Ten minutes till lights-out. Whose turn is it?”

  “Mine—should I just pick up from where we left off?” Rachel was on the other side of the room, but her squeaky voice carried well.

  I could practically hear Ashley’s eyes rolling. “Yes, Rachel. Isn’t that what we always do?”

  “Okay…so…so the princess? She was in her tower, and she was still really sad.”

  “Girl,” Ashley cut in, “you’re going to have to spice this up, or I’m skipping your boring ass and going to the next person.”

  “Okay,” Rachel squeaked. I rolled over onto my side, trying to get a glimpse of her through the rows of bunk beds. “The princess was in terrible pain—terrible, terrible pain—”

  “Oh God,” was Ashley’s only comment. “Next?”

  Macey picked up the loose story threads the best she could. “While the princess was locked away in her tower, all she could think about was the prince.”

  I missed how the story ended, my eyelids too heavy to keep them open.

  If there is a single thing I’ll miss about Thurmond, I thought as I edged toward sleep, it’s this. The quiet moments, when we were allowed to talk about forbidden things.

  We had to find a way to amuse ourselves because we had no stories—no dreams, no future—other than the ones we created for ourselves.

  I swallowed the two pills one at a time, the taste of chicken broth still on my tongue.

  The cabin lights had been off for three hours, and Sam had been snoring for two. I unsealed the bag and dropped the little pills into my hand. The clear bag went back into my bra, and the first pill went into my mouth. It was warm from being so close to my skin for so long, which didn’t make it any easier to swallow. I popped the next one in before I lost the nerve, and winced as it clawed its way down my throat.

  And then, I waited.

  FIVE

  I DIDN’T REMEMBER FALLING ASLEEP; only waking. Of course I did—my body was shaking so hard that I rolled right out of bed and hit my face against the next bunk over.

  Vanessa must have jumped out of her skin with the sudden bang and movement of her bed, because I heard her say, “What the hell—Ruby? Is that you?”

  I couldn’t get up. I felt her hands on my face, and registered she was now screaming my name, not just whispering it.

  “Oh my God!” someone said. It sounded like Sam, but I couldn’t open my eyes.

  “—emergency button!” Ashley’s weight settled over my legs; I knew it was her, even as my brain came in and out of consciousness, and a white hot light was burning behind my eyelids. Someone shoved something in my mouth—rubber and hard. I could taste blood, but I wasn’t sure if it had come from my tongue or my lips or…

  Two pairs of hands lifted me from the ground, dropping me on some other surface. I still couldn’t open my eyes; my chest was on fire. I couldn’t stop shaking, and my limbs felt like they were caving in on themselves.

  And then I smelled rosemary. I felt soft, cool hands pressing against my chest, then nothing at all.

  Life came back to me in the form of a hard slap across the face.

  “Ruby,” someone said. “Come on, I know you can hear me. You have to wake up.”

  I cracked my eyes open, trying not to cringe as the light flooded in. A door opened and creaked shut somewhere nearby.

  “Is that her?” a new voice asked. “Are you going to sedate her?”

  “No, not this one,” the first voice returned. I knew that voice. It was as sweet as it had been before, only this time it had a sharper edge. Dr. Begbie’s hands came up beneath my arms and propped me up. “She’s tough. She can handle it.”

  Something smelled horrible. Acidic and rotten all at once. My eyes flew open.

  Dr. Begbie was kneeling beside me, waving something beneath my nose.

  “What—?”

  The other voice I had heard belonged to a young woman. She had dark brown hair and pale skin, but that was all that was remarkable about her. Not realizing I was watching her, she stripped her blue scrubs off and threw them at Dr. Begbie.

  I didn’t know where we were. The room was small, filled with shelves of bottles and boxes, and I couldn’t smell anything besides whatever it was Dr. Begbie had used to wake me.

  “Put these on,” Dr. Begbie said, pulling me to my feet whether my legs were ready or not. “Come on, Ruby, we’ve got to hurry.”

  My body felt heavy, cracking at all my joints. But I did as I was told, and pulled the scrubs over my uniform. While I was dressing, the other woman put her hands behind her back and waited as Dr. Begbie wrapped them together with thick silver duct tape. That finished, the doctor moved to tying the other woman’s feet t
ogether.

  “You’re meeting them in Harvey. Make sure you take Route two-fifteen.”

  “I know, I know,” Dr. Begbie said as she chewed off another piece of tape and placed it over the woman’s mouth. “Good luck.”

  “What are you doing?” I asked. My throat was scratchy, and the skin around my mouth seemed to crack as I spoke. The doctor pulled my hair back, twisting it up into a messy bun that she secured with a rubber band. The other woman watched as her ID tags were dropped over my neck and Dr. Begbie put a surgical mask over my face.

  “I’ll explain everything once we’re out, but we can’t waste time. They’ll be doing rounds in twenty minutes,” she said. “You can’t say anything, understand? Play along.”

  I nodded and let her push me outside of the dark room and into the dimmed hallway of the Infirmary. Once again, my legs seemed to be failing me, but the doctor took it all in stride. She looped one of my arms over her shoulder and supported most of my weight.

  “We’re moving,” she muttered. “Return the cameras to their normal feeds.”

  I looked over, but she wasn’t talking to me. She was whispering to her gold swan pin.

  “Not a word,” she reminded me as we turned down another long hallway. We were moving so fast that we rustled the white curtains of the examination stalls as we passed them. The PSFs were black blurs as they stepped out of our way.

  “Sorry, sorry!” Dr. Begbie called after us. “I’ve got to get this one home.”

  I kept my eyes on the straight lines of tile passing under my feet. My head was still spinning so badly that I didn’t realize we were heading outside until I heard the beep of the doctor’s card passing through the lock swipe and felt the first drops of cool rain hit my scalp.

  They kept the camp’s enormous stadium lights on at all hours of the night; the lights stood like giants across the camp, but all they reminded me of were night football games, the smell of fresh cut grass, and the back of my dad’s red Spartan sweater as he yelled for his old high school’s team to run some damn offense at the top of his lungs.

 
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