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The darkest minds, p.6
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       The Darkest Minds, p.6

         Part #1 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken
slower 1  faster

  It was a short walk and stumble from the back of the Infirmary to the pebbled parking lot. I actually wasn’t sure if I was hallucinating or not—my sight went in and out of focus, but it was impossible to miss the sound of crunching gravel and the voice that yelled, “Everything okay over there?”

  I felt, rather than saw, Dr. Begbie tense. I tried to keep moving, to use her shoulder to prop myself up, but my legs just weren’t working anymore.

  When I opened my eyes again, I was sitting up, staring at the standard-issue boots of a PSF soldier. He knelt down in front of me. Dr. Begbie was saying something to him, her voice as calm as the first time I had spoken to her.

  “—so sick, I offered to drive her home. I put the mask on her to make sure she didn’t give the bug to anyone else.”

  The soldier’s voice became clearer. “I hate that we always get sick from these kids.”

  “Would you mind helping me walk her over to my Jeep?” Dr. Begbie asked.

  “If she’s sick…”

  “It’ll just take a minute,” the doctor interrupted. “And I promise that if you have so much as even the sniffles tomorrow, I’ll nurse you back to health myself.”

  That was the voice I recognized—so sweet that it sounded like little bells. The soldier chuckled, but I felt him lift me up all the same. I tried not to lean against him, to grit my teeth against the jarring motion, but I could barely keep my head from rolling back.

  “Front seat?” he asked.

  Dr. Begbie was about to respond when the PSF’s radio crackled to life. “Control has you on camera. Do you need assistance?”

  He waited until Dr. Begbie had opened the front passenger side door, and he set me down on the seat before replying. “Everything clear. Doctor…” He took my tags in hand, lifting them off my chest. “Dr. Rogers has the virus that’s been going around. Doctor…”

  “Begbie,” came the quick reply. She slid into the driver’s seat and slammed the door shut behind her. I glanced over, watching as she fumbled to get the key in the ignition. It was the first time I noticed her hands shaking.

  “Dr. Begbie is driving her home for the night. Dr. Rogers’s car will be here overnight—please inform the morning guards when they do their tally.”

  “Roger that. Tell them to head straight for the gate. I’ll notify the watch patrol to wave them through.”

  The Jeep sputtered to life in a series of grinding protests. I looked out through the windshield, to the electric fence and the dark, familiar forest behind it. Dr. Begbie reached over to fasten my seat belt.

  “Man, she’s out of it.” The PSF was back, leaning against Dr. Begbie’s window.

  “I did give her some pretty strong stuff.” Dr. Begbie laughed. I felt my chest clench.

  “So about tomorrow—”

  “Come by and say hello, okay?” Dr. Begbie said. “I have a break around three.”

  She didn’t give him a chance to reply. The tires spun against the gravel and the windshield wipers squealed to life. Dr. Begbie rolled up her window with a friendly wave, using her other hand to steer the car back and pull out of the parking space. The little green numbers on the dashboard read 2:45 a.m.

  “Try to cover your face as much as possible,” she muttered before flicking on the radio. I didn’t recognize the song, but I recognized David Gilmour’s voice, and the ebb and flow of Pink Floyd’s synthesizers.

  She turned the volume down, taking a deep breath as she turned out of the lot. Her fingers tapped out a nervous rhythm on the steering wheel.

  “Come on, come on,” she whispered, glancing down at the clock again. There was a line of two cars in front of us, each waved forward with agonizing slowness. I thought she was going to crawl out of her skin by the time the last car pulled forward into the night.

  Dr. Begbie hit the gas too hard and the Jeep lurched forward. The seat belt snapped into a locked position when she slammed on the brakes, knocking the air out of my chest.

  She rolled the window down, but I was too tired to be afraid. I pressed my hand over my eyes and sucked in a deep breath. The surgical mask brushed against my lips.

  “I’m taking Dr. Rogers home. Let me just get her passes—”

  “It’s fine. I have you on the schedule for tomorrow at three p.m., is that correct?”

  “Yes. Thank you. Please indicate Dr. Rogers will not be in.”

  “Understood.”

  I was too tired to try to control my brain’s wandering fingers. When Dr. Begbie touched me again, brushing the hair out of my face, an image bloomed to life behind my eyes. A dark-haired man, smiling broadly, with his arms around Dr. Begbie, spinning her, and spinning her, and spinning her, until I could hear her delighted laughter in my ears.

  Cate cracked our windows, and the air rushing by brought in the scent of rain and carried me quickly into sleep.

  SIX

  IT WAS STILL DARK OUT when I opened my eyes.

  The AC blew through the vents, batting at the little yellow cardboard tree hanging down from the rearview mirror. Its vanilla fragrance was sickeningly sweet and so overwhelming that it turned my empty stomach. Mick Jagger crooned next to my ear, singing about war and peace and shelter—those kinds of lies. I tried to turn my face away from wherever the song was escaping from, but I only managed to smack my nose against the window and strain my neck.

  I sat straight up and almost hanged myself on the gray seat belt.

  We weren’t in the Jeep anymore.

  The night came back like a deep breath, complete and overwhelming all at once. The glow of the green dashboard lit the scrubs I wore, and that was enough to flood my mind with the reality of what had happened.

  Smears of trees and undergrowth lined a road that was completely dark, save for the small car’s weak yellow headlights. For the first time in years, I could see the stars that Thurmond’s monstrous lights had faded into nonexistence. They were so bright, so clear that they couldn’t have been real. I didn’t know what was more shocking—the endless stretch of road or the sky. Tears pricked at the back of my eyes.

  “Don’t forget to breathe, Ruby,” came the voice beside me.

  I pulled the surgical mask down from over my mouth as I looked over. Dr. Begbie’s blond hair was around her face, sweeping against her shoulders. In the time it had taken us to get from Thurmond to…wherever we were, she had stripped off her scrubs and changed into a black T-shirt and jeans. The night stained the skin under her eyes like bruises. I hadn’t noticed the sharp angles that made up her nose and chin.

  “You haven’t been in a car for some time, huh?” She laughed, but she was right. I was more aware of the forward lurch of the car than I was of my own heartbeat.

  “Dr. Begbie—”

  “Call me Cate,” she interrupted, a bit harsher than before. I don’t know if I reacted to the abrupt change of tone or not, but she immediately followed with, “I’m sorry, it’s been a very long night and I could use a cup of coffee.”

  According to the dashboard, it was 4:30 a.m. I had only had two hours of sleep, but I felt more alert than I had all day. All week. All my life.

  Cate waited until the Rolling Stones had finished out their song before turning down the radio. “All they play are oldies now. I thought it was a joke at first, or something Washington wanted, but apparently that’s all that gets requested these days.” She snuck a look at me out of the corner of her eye. “I can’t imagine why.”

  “Dr.—Cate,” I said. Even my voice was stronger. “Where are we? What’s going on?”

  Before she could answer, there was a cough from the backseat. I twisted around despite the pain in my neck and chest. Curled up there in a protective little ball was another kid, about my age, or maybe a year younger. That other kid. Max—Matthew—whatever—from the Infirmary, and he was looking far better than I felt as he slept on.

  “We just left Harvey, West Virginia,” Cate said. “That’s where we met with some friends that helped me switch cars and remove Martin back the
re from the medical trunk we had to smuggle him out in.”

  “Wait…”

  “Oh, don’t worry,” Cate said quickly. “We made sure it had air holes.”

  Like that was my biggest concern?

  “They just let you take it out to the car?” I asked. “Without even checking it?”

  She glanced at me again, and I was proud of the look of surprise there. “The doctors at Thurmond use those trunks to transport medical waste. The camp controllers started forcing the doctors to dump the waste themselves when the budget got cut. Sarah and I had duty for this week.”

  “Sarah?” I interrupted. “Dr. Rogers?”

  She hesitated a split second before nodding.

  “Why did you tie her up—why did she—why are you helping us?”

  She answered my question with one of her own.

  “Have you ever heard of the Children’s League?”

  “Bits and pieces,” I said. And only in whispers. If the rumors were true, they were an antigovernment group. They were the ones the younger kids—the later arrivals to Thurmond—claimed were trying to take down the camp system. The ones that supposedly hid kids so they couldn’t be taken. I had always assumed they were our generation’s version of a fairy tale. Nothing that good could ever be true.

  “We,” Cate said, letting that word sink in before continuing, “are an organization dedicated to helping children affected by the government’s new laws. John Alban—have you heard of him? He was formerly an intelligence adviser to Gray.”

  “He started the Children’s League?”

  She nodded. “After his daughter died and he realized what was going to happen to the kids who survived, he left D.C. and tried to expose all of the testing that was happening at the camps. The New York Times, the Post, you name it—none of them would run the story, because, by then, things were bad enough that Gray had them under his thumb for ‘national security’ reasons, and the smaller papers folded along with the economy.”

  “So…” I was trying to wrap my mind around this, wondering if I had misheard her. “So he created the Children’s League to…help us?”

  Cate’s face lit up in a smile. “Yes, that’s exactly right.”

  Then why did you help only me?

  The question sprung up like a lone weed; ugly, and deeply rooted. I rubbed a hand over my face, trying to clear the rumblings in my brain, but I couldn’t tear it out. There was a strange feeling rising in my chest that followed—like something heavy was trying to work its way up from my center. It might have been a scream.

  “What about the others?” I didn’t recognize my own voice.

  “The others? You mean the other children?” Cate’s eyes were focused only on the road in front of us. “They can wait. Their situation wasn’t as pressing as yours was. When the time is right, I’m sure we’ll go back for them, but in the meantime, don’t worry. They’ll live.”

  I recoiled almost instantly at her tone more than her words. The way she said that—they’ll live—was so dismissive, I half expected to see a hand come up into the air to wave me off. Don’t worry. Don’t worry at the way they’ve been mistreated, don’t worry about their punishments, don’t worry about the guns constantly trained on their backs. God, I wanted to throw up.

  I had left them behind, all of them. I had left Sam, even after I promised we’d get out together. After everything she had done to protect me, I had just left her there.…

  “Oh—no, Ruby. I’m sorry, I didn’t even realize how that would sound,” she said, turning back and forth between me and the road. “I just meant…I don’t even know what I’m saying. I was there for weeks, and I still can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like. I shouldn’t act like I know what you went through.”

  “I just—I left them,” I told her, and it didn’t matter that my voice was breaking, or that my hands had come up to clutch my elbows to keep from grabbing her. “Why did you only take me? Why couldn’t you save the others? Why?”

  “I told you before,” she said softly. “It had to be you. They would have killed you otherwise. The others aren’t in danger.”

  “They’re always in danger,” I said, and wondered if she had stepped a single foot beyond the Infirmary. How could she not have seen? How could she not have heard it, felt it, breathed it in? The air at Thurmond was so coated in fear that you could taste it like vomit at the back of your throat.

  It had taken me less than a day in that place to see that hatred and terror came in circles, and that they fed off each other. The PSFs hated us, so they had to make us fear them. And we feared them, which only made us hate them even more. There was an unspoken understanding that we were at Thurmond because of each other. Without the PSFs there would be no camp, but without the Psi freaks there would be no need for PSFs.

  So whose fault was it? Everyone’s? No one’s? Ours?

  “You should have just left me—you should have taken someone else, someone who was better—they’ll be punished because of this, I know it. They’ll hurt them, and it’s my fault for going, for leaving them behind.” I knew I wasn’t making sense, but I couldn’t seem to connect my thoughts to my tongue. That feeling, the heart-swallowing guilt, the sadness that took hold and never let itself be shaken free—how did you tell someone that? How did you put that into words?

  Cate’s lips parted, but no sound came out for several moments. She took a firm hold of the wheel and guided the car over to the side of the road. Her foot came off the gas and she allowed the car to roll to a hesitant stop. When the wheels finally ceased spinning, I reached for the door handle, a spike of total and complete grief cutting through me.

  “What are you doing?” Cate asked.

  She had pulled over because she wanted me to get out, hadn’t she? I would have done the same thing if our situations had been flipped. I understood.

  I leaned back away from her arm as she reached over, but instead of pushing the door open, she slammed it shut and let her fingers linger over my shoulder. I cringed, pressing back against the seat as hard as I could, trying to avoid her touch. This was the worst I’d felt in years—my head was humming, a sure sign I was dangerously close to losing control of it. If she had any thoughts about hugging me, or stroking my arm, or anything my mom would have done, my reaction was more than enough to convince her not to try.

  “Listen to me very carefully,” she said, and it didn’t seem to matter to her that at any moment a car or a PSF could come charging up the road. She waited until I was looking her in the eye. “The most important thing you ever did was learn how to survive. Do not let anyone make you feel like you shouldn’t have—like you deserved to be in that camp. You are important, and you matter. You matter to me, you matter to the League, and you matter to the future—” Her voice caught. “I will never hurt you, or yell at you, or let you go hungry. I will protect you for the rest of my life. I will never fully understand what you’ve been through, but I will always listen when you need to get something out. Do you understand?”

  Something warm bloomed in my chest, even as my breath hitched in my throat. I wanted to say something to that, to thank her, to ask her to repeat it again just to be sure I hadn’t misunderstood or misheard her.

  “I can’t pretend like it never happened,” I told her. I still felt the vibrations of the fence under my skin.

  “You shouldn’t—you should never forget. But part of surviving is being able to move on. There’s this word,” she continued, turning to study her fingers gripping the wheel. “Nothing like it exists in the English language. It’s Portuguese. Saudade. Do you know that one?”

  I shook my head. I didn’t know half of the words in my own language.

  “It’s more…there’s no perfect definition. It’s more of an expression of feeling—of terrible sadness. It’s the feeling you get when you realize something you once lost is lost forever, and you can never get it back again.” Cate took a deep breath. “I thought of that word often at Thurmond. Because the lives
you had before—that we all had before—we can never get them back. But there’s a beginning in an end, you know? It’s true that you can’t reclaim what you had, but you can lock it up behind you. Start fresh.”

  I did understand what she was saying, and I understood that her words were coming from a true, caring place, but after having my life broken down into rotations for so long, the thought of dividing it up even further was unimaginable.

  “Here,” she said, reaching inside the collar of her shirt. She pulled a long silver chain up over her head, and the last thing to reveal itself was the black circular pendant, a little bigger than the size of my thumb, hanging from it.

  I held out my hand and she dropped the necklace into it. The chain was still warm from where it had been kept against her skin, but I was surprised to find that the pendant wasn’t anything more than plastic.

  “We call that a panic button,” she said. “If you squeeze it for twenty seconds, it activates, and any agents nearby will respond. I don’t imagine you’ll ever need to use it, but I’d like you to keep it. If you ever feel scared, or if we get separated, I want you to press it.”

  “It’ll track me?” Something about that idea made me vaguely uncomfortable, but I slipped the chain on anyway.

  “Not unless you activate it,” Cate promised. “We designed them that way so that the PSFs wouldn’t be able to accidentally pick up on a signal being transmitted from them. I promise, you’re in control here, Ruby.”

  I plucked the pendant up and held it between my thumb and index finger. When I realized how dirty my fingers were, and how much dirt was still packed under my nails, I dropped it. Me and nice things didn’t go well together.

  “Can I ask you another question?” I waited until she had finally nudged the car back onto the road, and even then it had taken me a few tries to get the words out. “If the Children’s League was formed to end the camps, why did you even bother getting me and Martin? Why didn’t you just blow up the Control Tower while you were there?”

 
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