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The darkest minds, p.8
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       The Darkest Minds, p.8

         Part #1 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken

  “That’s weak,” Martin interrupted, looking right at me. “You probably didn’t even have to use your powers.”

  I didn’t like to think of them as powers—that seemed to imply they were something to celebrate. And they were most definitely not.

  “I told someone to trade places with me when they started separating all the O’s and R’s out. Didn’t want to go down with them, you know?” Martin leaned forward. “So I took one of the new Greens aside who was about my age, and made him and that warden think he was me. Same for anyone who asked. One by one. Cool, huh?”

  The disgust coiled in my gut. He didn’t feel sorry about doing any of this, that was clear. Maybe I had lied about what I was, but I hadn’t damned another kid to do so. Was that what having control over your Orange abilities turned you into? Some kind of monster—someone who could do whatever you wanted, because no one was capable of stopping you?

  Was that what being powerful was like?

  “So you can make people believe they’re someone they’re not?” Cate said. “I thought Oranges could only command someone to do something. Sort of like hypnosis?”

  “Nah,” Martin said. “I can do much more than that. I get people to do what I want by making them feel what I want them to feel. Like that kid I switched places with? I made him feel too scared to stay in his cabin, made him feel like it would be a good idea to pretend to be me. Anyone who questioned me—I made them feel crazy for doing it. So I can sort of command people to do stuff, but it’s more like, if I want someone to hurt someone else, I have to make him feel really, really pissed at the person I want him to attack.”

  “Huh,” Cate said. “Is it the same for you, Ruby?”

  No. Not at all, in fact. I looked down at my hands, to the dark mud still caked under my fingernails. The thought of revealing exactly what I could do made them shake in a way I hadn’t expected. “I don’t throw feelings into someone; I just see things.”

  At least, as far as I knew.

  “Wow…I just…wow. I know I keep saying this, but you two are really something amazing. I keep thinking of all the things you could do—how much help you’ll be to us. Incredible.”

  Twisting around, I lifted my head just enough to look out to the road. Behind me, I felt Martin grab a few loose strands of my hair and begin to twirl them around his fingers. I could see the reflection of my round face in the rearview mirror—the big eyes that seemed almost sleepy; thick, dark brows; full lips—I could see the revulsion slide over it.

  I shouldn’t have, but I took the bait. Martin barely had time to brace himself before I whirled around and slapped that same clammy hand back down into his lap. My next breath caught in my throat. Do not touch me, I wanted to say; don’t think I won’t break every single finger on that hand. But he was grinning at me, his tongue on his cold sore, his hand rising again. Only this time, he wagged his fingers in my direction, taunting. I leaned forward, ready to grab that same wrist, to shut the pig down cold, hard, and fast.

  But that was exactly what he wanted. The realization flowed thick and slow through me, inching its way to my guts. He wanted me to show him what I could do, to be willing to fuel my abilities with the same kind of viciousness pumping through him.

  I turned my back on him again, my fists tightening with his triumphant chuckles.

  Had the anger even been mine, or had he pushed it into me?

  “Everything okay back there?” Cate called over her shoulder. “Hang on tight, we’re almost there.”

  Whatever Marlinton normally looked like, it was that much worse under the cover of gray clouds and a layer of misty rain. Strange and terrible enough to distract even Martin from the games he was playing with my head.

  The deserted shopping centers with broken storefronts were disturbing enough before we cut into the first neighborhood of little brown and gray and white houses. We passed a number of empty cars along the street and in driveways, some with bright orange FOR SALE signs still stuck in the back window, but all of them covered in a thick skin of brown, rotting leaves. The cars were surrounded by piles of junk and boxes—furniture, rugs, computers. Entire rooms full of rusting, useless electronics.

  “What happened here?” I asked.

  “It’s a little hard to explain, but do you remember what I told you about the economy? After the attack in D.C., the government was thrown into a tailspin, and one thing led to another. We couldn’t pay off our national debt, we couldn’t provide money to the states, we couldn’t provide benefits, we couldn’t pay government employees. Even small towns like this one didn’t escape. People lost their jobs when companies failed, and then they lost their homes because they could no longer pay for them. The whole thing is terrible.”

  “But where is everyone?”

  “In tent cities, outside of the big cities like Richmond and D.C., trying to find work. I know a lot of people are trying to go west because they think there’s going to be more work and food available, but…well, I imagine it’ll be safer. There’s a lot of looting and vigilante groups roaming about here.”

  I was almost afraid to ask. “What about the police? Why didn’t they stop them?”

  Cate bit her bottom lip. “It’s like I just told you—the states couldn’t afford to pay their salaries, so they were let go. Most of the police work is done by volunteers now, or the National Guard. That’s why you need to stay close to me, okay?”

  It only got worse when we passed the elementary school.

  The pastel jungle gym, or whatever was left of it, was stained black and twisting toward the ground. Clusters of birds were perched along its broken backbone, watching us as we blew past the stop sign and turned the corner.

  We passed what must have once been the cafeteria, but the entire right side of the building had crumbled in on itself. The rainbow mural of faces and suns painted on the other side of the building was visible just beyond the tangled web of yellow police tape blocking off the wreckage.

  “Someone planted a bomb in the cafeteria, just before the first Collection,” Cate said. “Set it off during lunchtime.”

  “The government?” Martin pressed, but Cate didn’t have an answer for him. She switched her blinker on as she made another right, signaling her turn to no one in particular.

  A city with no people.

  My breath fogged up the window as we left that neighborhood behind and sped toward another strip mall. We passed a Starbucks, a nail salon, a McDonald’s, and another nail salon before Cate finally pulled into a gas station.

  I saw the other car immediately—a tan SUV, a kind I had never seen before. The man leaning against it wasn’t pumping gas. That would have been impossible. All of the gas pumps were beaten in, their hoses and nozzles strewn across the concrete.

  Cate honked, but the man had already spotted us and was waving. He was young, too, at least as young as Cate, with a small build and dark brown hair that fell over his forehead. As we got closer, the smile on his face bloomed into something brilliant, and I recognized him then as the man from Cate’s thoughts. The one she had pictured in dazzling colors and lights as we left Thurmond.

  Cate barely had the car in park before she threw her door open and bolted straight for him. I heard her let out a sharp laugh as she threw her arms around his neck, knocking into him with so much force that the sunglasses flew off his face.

  Martin’s sweaty palm touched the spot where my neck met my shirt collar, giving me a light squeeze, and that was it for me. I pushed the car door open and stepped outside, whether Cate wanted me to or not.

  The air was damp with a thin mist of rain, brightening the trees and grass into an electric green. It clung to my cheeks and hair, a welcome relief after spending the last few hours confined with Martin the Mouth Breather, who seemed to be coated with something perpetually sticky.

  “—they found Norah about a half hour after you left,” the man said as I walked up. “They sent two units after you. Did you run into any trouble?”

” Cate had an arm around his middle. “But I’m not surprised. They’re stretched so thin right now. But where are your—”

  Rob shook his head sharply, a shadow passing over his face. “I couldn’t get them out.”

  Cate’s whole body seemed to slump. “Oh…I’m sorry.”

  “It’s fine. Looks like you had more success than I did—is she all right?” Both of them turned to look at me.

  “Ah—Rob, this is Ruby,” she said. “Ruby, this is my…this is Rob.”

  “Such a boring introduction!” Rob clucked his tongue. “They’ve been hiding the pretty ones at Thurmond, I see.”

  He held out his hand to me. A large palm, five fingers, hairy knuckles. Normal. By the way I stared, you would have thought his skin was covered in scales. My hand stayed pressed flat against my thigh. I took a step closer to Cate.

  There wasn’t a gun in his hand, or a knife, or a White Noise machine, but I could see cuts and bruises, some fresh, crisscrossing the back of his hand, all the way to his wrist, where the angry red lines disappeared beneath the sleeves of his white shirt. It was only when he pulled his hand back that I noticed a spray of small red spots on his right shirt cuff.

  Rob’s face tightened when he saw where I was looking. That same hand disappeared behind Cate’s back, tightening around her waist.

  “Total heartbreaker, right?” Cate glanced up at him. “She’ll be perfect for inside jobs. Who could say no to that face? An Orange.”

  Rob let out an appreciative whistle. “Damn.”

  People who valued Oranges. Imagine that.

  “Is Sarah all right?” I pressed.

  Rob only looked confused.

  “She means Norah Jenkins,” Cate said. “The name Sarah was just her cover.”

  “She’s fine,” Rob said, putting a hand on my shoulder. “As far as I know they’re still questioning her. I’m sure our eyes in Thurmond will update us if anything changes.”

  My hands suddenly felt numb. “Is Cate your name?”

  She laughed. “Yes, but my last name is Conner, not Begbie.”

  I nodded, only because I didn’t know what else to do or say.

  “Didn’t you say there were two of them?” Rob was staring over my shoulder. On cue, I heard a door open and slam shut behind me.

  “There he is,” Cate said, clucking like a proud mother hen. “Martin, get over here! I want you to meet your new comrade. He’ll be driving with us to Georgia.”

  Martin strode up and took the man’s hand before Rob had the chance to offer it.

  “Now,” Cate said, clapping her hands together. “We don’t have much time, but we need you to wash up and change into something a little less conspicuous.”

  The SUV let out a steady chime as Rob opened one of its rear doors. As he turned, a few scattered rays of sunlight caught the metal handle of the gun tucked into the waistband of his jeans. I took a step back as he reached for something inside the car that I couldn’t see.

  It was stupid of me not to have expected one or both of them to be packing some kind of heat, but my stomach tightened all the same. I turned away, looking at the splotches of old oil tattooed on the pavement, and waited for the car door to slam shut again.

  “Here you go,” Rob said, passing us each a black backpack. My fellow freak snatched his, checking its contents like it was a party favor bag.

  “It looks like the bathrooms in the station still have some running water. I wouldn’t try drinking it though,” Rob continued. “There’s a change of clothes and some necessities in there. Don’t take a million years, but feel free to wash that camp off you.”

  Wash Thurmond off me? Rub it off like a splatter of mud? I may have been able to erase everyone else’s memories, but I couldn’t scrub away my own.

  I took my bag without a word, the beginnings of a headache rumbling at the base of my skull. I knew what that meant well enough to take a step back. My heel caught on the uneven cement, sending me stumbling toward the hard ground. I threw out my arms in a lame attempt to reclaim my balance, but the only solid thing I found was Rob’s arm.

  He may have thought he was being chivalrous by catching me, but he should have let me fall. My brain released a blissful little sigh as it went tumbling into Rob’s thoughts. All at once, the pressure that had been building in the back of my mind released, sending a tingle racing down my spine. I gritted my teeth at the sinking sensation, anger flooding my system as I tried to yank myself away.

  Unlike Cate’s memories, which came and went like fluttering eyelashes, Rob’s thoughts seemed almost lethargic…velvety and murky. They didn’t piece themselves together so much as seep into one another—like ink dropped into a glass of water, the dark mass stretching and slithering until it finally polluted everything that had once been clean.

  I was Rob, and Rob was staring down at two dark shapes—two dark sacks covered their heads, but it was obvious that one was a man and the other a woman. It was the latter that had my heart thrumming in my ears. The strength of her sobbing shook her entire body, but she never stopped struggling against the plastic ties binding her hands and feet.

  Rain came down around us like an afterthought, running down through the gutters of the nearby buildings. Through the filter of Rob’s mind, it sounded like static. Two enormous black Dumpsters came into focus out of the corner of my eye, and it was only then that I realized we were in an alley, and we were alone.

  Rob’s hand—my hand—reached out and ripped the hood off the woman, sending her dark hair flying over her face.

  But it wasn’t a woman at all. It was a girl, no older than I was, wearing a set of dark green clothes. A uniform. A camp uniform.

  Tears mixed with rain, dripping down over her cheeks into her mouth, Her colorless lips formed the shape please and her eyes seemed to scream no, but there was a gun in my hand, silver and shining despite the low light. The same gun that was tucked in the back of Rob’s jeans. The same one that was now pointed at the girl’s forehead.

  The gun jumped in my hand as it went off, but in that instant, the flash lit up her terrified face, an unfinished scream drowned out by the bang. A spray of blood flicked up over my hand as her face seemed to cave in on itself, staining the dark jacket I wore…and the edge of the white cuff beneath it.

  The boy died the same way, only Rob didn’t bother to even take his hood off before he ended his life. The bodies were lifted into the Dumpsters. I shrank back and away from the scene, watching it grow smaller, and smaller, and smaller until the dark, cloudy haze of Rob’s mind swallowed it whole.

  I tugged myself free, coming up from the inky pool with a sharp gasp.

  Rob released my arm instantly, but Cate dove forward and would have taken his place if I hadn’t raised both hands to stop her.

  “Are you all right?” she asked. “You’ve gone pale.”

  “I’m okay,” I said, trying to keep my voice calm and steady. “Still feeling a little woozy from the medicine.”

  Martin let out an annoyed sigh behind me. He was hopping from foot to foot, grumbling impatiently. He slid a suspicious eye in my direction, and for half a heartbeat I was afraid he knew exactly what had just happened. But, no—connections like that were fast, and lasted only a few seconds, no matter how long it felt to me.

  I kept my eyes on the ground, carefully avoiding both the adults’ faces. I couldn’t bring myself to look at Rob, not after seeing what he had done—and I knew if I looked at Cate, I’d give myself away in an instant. She’d ask me what was wrong, and I wouldn’t be able to lie, not convincingly. I’d have to tell her that her boyfriend or partner or whatever he was had left the brains of two kids splattered all over an alleyway.

  Rob tried to offer me a plastic water bottle from the front seat, his mouth stretched in a thin line. My eyes settled again on the tiny red flecks staining his cuff.

  He killed them. The words echoed through my head. It could have happened days, maybe even weeks ago, but it didn’t seem likely. Wouldn’t he have
changed his shirt, or tried to clean it off? And then he came here—to kill us, too?

  Rob smiled at me, all of his teeth showing. Smiled. Like he hadn’t just snuffed out two lives at point-blank range and watched the rain carry their blood into the gutters.

  My hands were shaking so hard now that I had to fist them around the backpack to keep him from noticing. I thought I had escaped the monsters, that I’d left them locked up behind an electric fence. But the shadows were alive, and they had chased me here.

  I’m next.

  I swallowed the scream working its way up my throat, and smiled right back at him, my insides twisting. Because I had no doubt, not one single wisp of uncertainty, that if he knew what I had just seen, Cate would spend the next few days bleaching my blood out of his shirt, too.

  She knows, I thought, following Martin into the gas station. Cate, who smelled like rosemary, who carried me down the hallway, who saved my life. She must know.

  And she kissed him anyway.

  The inside of the gas station looked like it had been ravaged by wild animals, and there was a fairly good chance that it had been. Muddy paw tracks in all shapes and sizes created dizzying patterns on the floor, cutting over sticky patches of red and brown to the shelves of food.

  The store smelled like sour milk, though the drink cases were still flickering with intermittent electricity. Most of them had been cleared out of sodas and beer, but there was a surprising amount left—and no wonder. The store had marked up milk to ten dollars a carton. The same went for the food. Some shelves had rows of untouched chip bags and candy bars, all priced like they were endangered, precious goods. Others had been picked clean, or were exploding with popcorn and pretzels after their bags had been gutted.

  I had a plan before I even realized it.

  While Martin entertained himself by fiddling with the soda dispenser, I grabbed a few bags of chips and chocolate bars. A flash of guilt cut through me as I stuffed them in my bag, but, really, who was I even stealing from? Who was going to call the cops on me?

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