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The darkest minds, p.9
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       The Darkest Minds, p.9

         Part #1 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken
 

  “There’s only one bathroom,” Martin announced. “I’m using it first. Maybe if you’re lucky, I’ll leave some water for you.”

  Maybe if I’m lucky, you’ll drown yourself in it.

  He slammed the door shut behind him, and any guilt I might have felt about leaving him behind disappeared. Maybe it was cruel of me, maybe I would spend the rest of my life feeling guilty about abandoning him without so much as a warning, but there was no way I could tell him what I was about to do without alerting Cate and Rob. I didn’t trust him enough to believe he wouldn’t shout for them, or try to hold me there.

  I wasted no time in stepping out of what had been Sarah’s—Norah’s—scrubs, leaving them in a heap on the floor. The uniform I was wearing under them was a dead giveaway to what I was, but the scrubs were too baggy to run in. I needed to get away fast.

  Martin must have turned the faucet up all the way, because I could hear the water sputtering as I stepped around some of the broken glass from the store’s big windows.

  I came around a shelf just in time to see Rob break away from kissing Cate. He patted around his jacket pockets, and out came a cell phone. Whoever it was, he wasn’t all that happy to be talking to them. After a minute, he threw the phone at Cate and moved to the driver’s side of the car. She turned her back to me, spreading out what looked to be a map over the hood of the SUV. When Rob appeared again, he had a long black object tucked under one arm, and he was holding another by its barrel. Cate took the rifle from him without so much as even glancing at it, and pulled its strap over her shoulder. Like it belonged there.

  I recognized them—of course I did. Every PSF officer that walked the perimeter of the electric fence carried an M16 rifle, and I was sure every camp controller that watched us from high up on the Tower had one within reach, too. Is that what they’re going to use on us? I wondered. Or are they expecting me to use one, too?

  The rational part of my brain finally kicked in, stomping down the chaos of panic and terror that had overtaken me. Maybe there was a reason Rob had killed those kids. Maybe they had tried to hurt him even though they were tied up, or maybe—maybe they had just refused to join up with the League.

  The realization rose inside my chest like fire, burning everything in its path. Just the thought, the image, of having to touch one of those guns, of being expected to fire one of them… Is that what it would take to be a part of their family?

  Or would I have to be like Martin and become the weapon myself?

  My dad had served as a cop for over seven years before he had to shoot someone. He never told me the whole story. I had to hear it secondhand from the kids in my class, who had read about it in the paper. A hostage situation, I guess.

  It wrecked him. Dad wouldn’t come out of my parents’ bedroom until Grams drove out from Virginia Beach to pick me up. When I came back home a few weeks later, he acted like nothing had happened at all.

  I don’t know what would force me to pick up a weapon like that, but it wasn’t a group of strangers.

  I had to get out. Get away. To where didn’t matter in that moment. I was a lot of things, terrible things, but I didn’t want to add murderer to that list.

  There was a sound like crunching glass, just loud enough to hear over the bathroom’s running water and the buzz of the drink coolers. The water shut off, and it was only then that I heard the rustling again. I whirled around, just in time to see the door with the EMPLOYEES ONLY sign swing open and shut behind the low food shelves.

  A way out.

  I glanced back out the window one last time, making sure Cate and Rob still had their backs to me, before bolting past the display of beef jerky and heading straight for that door.

  It’s just a raccoon, I thought. Or rats. Not for the first time in my short life, rats were a preferable option to humans.

  But the crinkling came again, louder, and when I pushed the door open, I wasn’t staring at a group of rats ravaging a bag of snack food.

  It was another kid.

  EIGHT

  HE—NO, SHE—OPENED HER MOUTH, her lips parting in a silent gasp. At first blink I hadn’t been able to tell, but she was definitely a girl, and a little one at that. Eight, maybe nine at most, judging by her size. Just a baby, drowning in an oversized Indy 500 shirt, complete with checkered flags and a bright green race car. Even weirder, her hands and arms up to her elbows were covered by bright yellow rubber gloves—the kind my mom used to wear when she scrubbed the bathroom or did the dishes.

  The Asian girl’s dark hair was shaved down into a buzz cut, and she was wearing baggy boys’ jeans, but her face was so pretty she might have been a doll. Her full, heart-shaped lips formed a perfect O of shock, and her skin paled in such a drastic way that the freckles on her nose and cheeks stood out all the more.

  “Where did you come from?” I managed to choke out.

  The stunned look on her face flashed to one of terror. The hand she didn’t have jammed down into a container of Twizzlers slammed the door shut with a streak of yellow.

  “Hey!” I pushed it back open in time to see her dash out the door at the other end of the stockroom, heading out into the rain. I was right behind her, throwing the backpack over my shoulders as I ran past the shelves. The door had caught on a large rock and went flying open as I kicked it and sprinted through.

  “Hey!”

  Snack-sized bags of pretzels and chips were spilling out from her pockets and beneath her shirt.

  She had every right to be terrified of the half-crazed girl chasing after her. I could waste time feeling bad about it later; but, for now, my mind had gotten a whiff of hope, and it wasn’t about to let it escape through a parking lot. She had to have come from somewhere, and if she had a way out of this town, or a place to hide until Cate and the others gave up on me, I wanted to know about it.

  The gas station’s back lot was only four parking spaces wide, and one of them was taken up by an overturned Dumpster. I heard animals tittering inside it as I sprinted after her, keeping my eyes on the back of her gray T-shirt. Her legs were pumping so fast beneath her that she tripped where the lot’s loose asphalt met a patch of wild grass. My arms flew out to catch her, but the girl recovered just in time.

  I was within two steps of being able to grab the back of her shirt when she suddenly picked up her speed, zipping through the small cluster of trees that separated the station from what looked like another road.

  “I just—just want to talk to you!” I called. “Please!”

  What I should have said was, I won’t hurt you, or I’m not a PSF, or something that would have clued her in to the fact that I was just as screwed in the safety department as she was. But my chest was on fire, and my lungs constricted, stretched tight and useless by the pain in my ribs. The panic button was jumping up into the air, bouncing against my chin and shoulders. I ripped it off so hard, the chain’s clasp snapped.

  The little girl leaped over a fallen tree trunk, her sneakers squelching through the forest muck. Mine weren’t much quieter, but Martin’s voice drowned us both out.

  “Ruby!”

  My blood ran so cold, it seemed to cease pumping through me altogether. I should never have turned back to look over my shoulder, but I did, more out of instinct than fear. I didn’t realize that my feet had stopped moving until Martin’s round shape appeared on the other side of the trees. He was close enough for me to see the red flush that had overtaken his face, but he hadn’t seen me. Not yet.

  “Ruby!”

  I had expected to find nothing but trees and air waiting for me as I picked up my run, but there she was, a short distance away. The girl had tucked herself behind a tree, not hiding, but also not beckoning me forward. Her mouth was pulled into a tight line, eyes darting back and forth between me and the direction of Martin’s voice. When I started toward her, she took off so fast that both feet jumped up from the ground. Scared off like a little rabbit.

  “Come on,” I gasped, pumping my arms at my side. “I ju
st want to—”

  We broke through the trees, pouring out onto a deserted stretch of road. On the other side of the dead-end street was a line of little ramshackle houses, their windows boarded up like black eyes. I thought for sure that she was heading toward the closest one—the house with the gray fence and green door—but she made a hard right and ran for the minivan parked on the side of the road.

  The car was dented beyond repair, not just on the bumpers, but on the side doors and the roof. And that was to say nothing of the shot-out and cracked lights, and the black paint that was flaking off in clumps. The nicest thing about it was the cursive, swirling logo that someone had painted along the sliding door: BETTY JEAN CLEANING.

  But it was a car. A way out. I wasn’t thinking about the logistics at that point—about whether it had gas, or if its engine would even start. I think my heart grew a pair of big, fluffy white wings at the mere sight of it, and nothing was going to shoot it down.

  The girl was running so hard, she slammed into the side paneling of the minivan and bounced off it. She landed hard on the ground but recovered faster than I ever would have. With both yellow-gloved hands on the door handle, she ripped the sliding door back with a sound loud enough to shake the birds from the nearby roofs.

  I got there just in time for her to close the door and slam her hand down on the lock.

  I could see my reflection in the tinted glass—see how she must have seen me. Eyes that were wide and wild, a tangled mass of dark hair, clothes that would have otherwise been too small if camp hadn’t made me so damn skinny I could see bones in my chest I didn’t know existed. I ran around to the other side of the car, putting the minivan between me and anyone who’d come charging out of the trees.

  “Please!” My voice was hoarse. Martin’s bellowing voice was either echoing around in my mind, or it was actually getting closer. The windows’ tint was light enough that I could look through them and skim the trees for any flash of his waxy skin. If he was getting closer, then Cate and Rob wouldn’t be far behind. They must have heard him yelling by now.

  Two choices, Ruby, I thought. Go back or run.

  My head and heart were in agreement on run, but the rest of my body—the parts that had been tormented by White Noise, poisoned, and mistreated by people who claimed they only had the best intentions—stubbornly held its ground. I sagged against the minivan, deflated. It was like someone had crushed my chest in a vise, spinning the handle until every ounce of air and courage had been squeezed out of me.

  Years at Thurmond had taught me to stop believing I could ever get away from the life people were so eager to set for me. I don’t know why I thought it would be any different on the outside.

  I heard footsteps crashing through the trees and undergrowth, louder with each second. When I looked up again, Cate’s startlingly blond hair was weaving in and out of the trees, glowing under the drizzly clouds like a firefly.

  “Ruby!” I heard her call. “Ruby, where are you?”

  And then there was Rob, walking right behind her with the gun in his hands. I looked right to the houses on the street’s dead end. Farther down the opposite end of the street, I saw signs with symbols I didn’t recognize—but that, the unknown, that had to be better than going back to Cate.

  The little girl inside of the car looked at me, then turned to look at the trees. Her lips pressed together, pulling down into a frown. One hand was clenched on the door handle, the other on her seat’s armrest. She started to stand once, only to sit back down and look one more time in my direction.

  I swiped at my face with the back of my hand and took a step back. Hopefully the girl knew well enough to hide herself when Cate and Rob ran after me. I’d lead them as far away as I could—it was the least I could do after scaring a few years off her life.

  I hadn’t even fully turned to go when I heard the door roll open behind me. A pair of hands reached out and seized the back of my uniform shirt, twisting the fabric for a better grip. When she yanked, I fell back, hitting the closest seat. My neck snapped against the armrest and I rolled onto the rough carpet behind the front passenger seat. The door roared shut behind me.

  I blinked, trying to clear the dark spots swimming in my vision, but the other girl wasn’t about to wait for me to get settled. She climbed over my tangled legs to get to the rear seat, grabbing my shirt collar and giving it a hard tug.

  “Okay, okay,” I said, crawling toward her. My fingers slid against the minivan’s gray carpets. With the exception of a few stacked newspapers and tied-off plastic grocery bags tucked under the rear seat, the inside of the minivan was pretty well kept.

  She motioned for me to crouch down behind one of the middle seats. As I pressed my knees against my chest, I realized that despite the fact that I had followed her order to the letter, she still hadn’t spoken a single word to me.

  “What’s your name?” I asked. She draped herself over the top of the rear seat, her feet kicking at the air as she dug around for something in the back. If she heard me, she pretended not to.

  “It’s all right; you can talk to me.…”

  Her face was flushed when she reemerged, a paint-splattered white sheet in hand. She pressed a finger to her lips and I wisely shut my mouth. The girl shook out the folded fabric and threw it over my head. The smell of fake lemon cleaner and bleach assaulted my nostrils as the sheet settled around me. I opened my mouth to protest, reaching up to yank it away from my face, but something stopped me.

  Someone was coming—no, more than one person. I caught snippets of their back-and-forth, heard their feet slap against the pavement. The sound of a door opening stopped my heart dead in my chest.

  “—I swear to God it was her, Liam!” The voice was deep, but it didn’t sound like an adult. “And, look, I told you she’d beat us back. Suzume, did you run into trouble?”

  The other car door opened. Someone else—Liam?—let out a relieved sigh.

  “Thank God,” he said, with a hint of a Southern drawl. “Come on, come on, come on, get in. I don’t know what’s going on, but I don’t want to stay long enough to find out. The skip tracers were bad enough—”

  “Why won’t you admit that it was her?” the other voice snapped.

  “—because we ditched her in Ohio, that’s why—”

  Above the sound of Liam’s voice and the blood pounding between my ears, I heard another voice.

  “Ruby! Ruby!”

  Cate.

  I pressed both hands against my mouth and squeezed my eyes shut.

  “What in the world?” the first voice said. “Is that what I think it is?”

  The first gunshot popped like a firecracker. It might have been the distance, or the army of trees and undergrowth muffling it, but it seemed harmless. A warning. The next one had much sharper teeth.

  “Stop!” I heard Cate scream. “Don’t shoot—!”

  “LEE!”

  “I know, I know!” The engine sputtered to life, and the squeal of the tires wasn’t far behind. “Zu, seat belt!”

  I tried to brace myself, but the car tossed me back and forth between the seats. At one point, my head cracked back against the plastic side paneling and drink holder, but no one was paying attention to the strange noises in the backseat when someone was firing a gun.

  I wondered if Rob had given the other rifle to Martin.

  “Zu, did something happen in the gas station?” the voice identified as Liam pressed. There was an edge of urgency to his words, but not panic. We had been driving for over ten minutes and were well away from the guns. His other companion, however, was a completely different story.

  “Oh my God, more skip tracers? What, were they having a freaking convention? You realize what would have happened if we’d been caught, don’t you?” he railed. “And they were shooting at us! Shooting! With a gun!”

  Somewhere to the right of me, the little girl giggled.

  “Well, I’m glad you find it funny!” the other one said. “Do you know what happens whe
n you get shot, Suzume? The bullet rips through—”

  “Chubs!” The other boy’s voice was sharp enough to cut off whatever gory tale he was about to share. “Settle down, okay? We’re fine. That was a little bit closer than I would have liked, but still. We’ll just have to try to make better mistakes tomorrow, right, Zu?”

  The first voice let out a strangled groan.

  “I’m sorry about before,” Liam said. His voice was gentle, which was enough for me to put together he was talking to the girl, not the guy who had moved on to moaning in dismay. “Next time I’ll go with you to get food. You’re not hurt, right?”

  The vibrations from the road dulled their voices. A loose penny was clattering around so loudly in the drink holder that I almost reached up from under the sheet to grab it. When the first boy spoke again, I had to strain my ears to hear him. “Did it sound like they were looking for someone to you?”

  “No, it sounded like they were shooting at us!”

  Feeling left my hands, draining from the tips of my fingers.

  You’re safe, I told myself. They’re kids, too.

  Kids who had unwittingly put themselves in the line of fire for me.

  I should have known this would happen. This, not my fear of setting off alone into a deserted town, should have been my first concern. But I had panicked, and it was like my brain had melted into a simmering pool of terror.

  “—a number of things,” Liam was saying, “but let’s try to focus on finding East River—”

  I needed to get out now. Right now. This had been a terrible idea, maybe even my worst. If I left now, they still had a chance of escaping Cate and Rob. I would still have a chance of escaping them, too.

  I looped the straps of the backpack over my shoulders again and kicked the sheet off. Taking in a deep drag of the musty, cool air-conditioning, I used the rear seat to prop myself up.

  Two teenage boys were in the front seat, facing the road. It was raining harder now; the fat drops were falling too fast for the windshield wipers to keep up with them, making it look as though we were headed straight into an Impressionist’s vision of West Virginia. Silver skies were above and a black road was below—and somewhere in between, the luminescent glow of the trees with their new spring coats.

 
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