Deleted Chapter: A Letter That Never Arrived

Alex Bracken:

“I’m pleased to share this deleted chapter from The Darkest Minds. Because of the way I revise, constantly repurposing lines and condensing scenes into one another, I don’t generally have true deleted scenes that were just simply snipped out. So you’ll see echoes of moments that are in the final story, perhaps just in different places in the narrative. You’ll also see threads, ideas, and characters I just decided to cut.”

Originally, in the first few drafts of the book, the letter subplot carried much more weight. Liam, Zu, and Chubs were cruising around delivering them and only sort of looking for East River. While I love that this part of the story demonstrates how genuinely good, innocent, and decent they are, it wasn’t thrusting the story forward the way it should have.

In these scenes you’ll see their attempt to deliver one such letter foiled by an unlikely person, and you’ll see a good example of the repurposing I mentioned above in how Ruby reveals her abilities. Enjoy, and please don’t share with people not subscribed to the newsletter–I’d like to keep this as an exclusive reward. Thank you!  (Oh, and please also note that this obviously isn’t copyedited!!)

These scenes are set after the chapters in Walmart and the moment where Ruby accidentally slips into Liam’s mind when he gets out of the car for a breather. It takes the place of the scene at the rest stop when they’re attacked by Lady Jane.

After driving through so many dead and abandoned little towns and neighborhoods, Jack’s Redford Lane was like a shot of electricity to my system. Not only were all of the houses in this particular Petersburg neighborhood occupied and thriving, but from where Liam had pulled the van over at the end of the block it looked like… they were having a street-wide garage sale.


“This is weird,” Liam said. Chubs climbed up to the front to get a better look at driveway after driveway of boxes of junk and old furniture. “I mean, it’s super weird… right?”

“Is that…” Chubs began, pointing at something I couldn’t see, “a clown?”

“That would be a mailbox, Hawkeye.”

Cars lined both sides of the street, packed so close together that bumper kissed bumper. Most were small compact vehicles—to save money on gas, if I had to guess.

While we sat there, at least two more cars pulled down the street, followed by an elderly duo on their yellow bicycles.

I saw the sign a second later, white and dangling from a tree. The letters painted on it were thick, bold, and red. “Save Petersburg Battlefield,” I read. “Friends of the Petersburg Battlefield Fundraiser. The government may have forgotten, but we never will.”

“Ah,” Liam said. “That makes a little more sense, I guess? Seems like the National Park system would be one of the first things cut with a government hurting for cash.”

“Nice of them to be fundraising for us,” Chubs grumbled. “What’s the point of grooming some stupid field if there won’t be anyone around in the future to gawk at it?”

Valid point.

“Anyway,” Chubs said. “Can we just find Jack’s house and get out of here? Which one is his?”

Liam looked down at the letter in his hand. “5671—I think it’s that blue one, with all the shirts hanging on the garage door. What’s the plan, friend?”

Chubs sat back on his heels. “It seems easy enough. Do you have any money left on you?”

“Three whole bucks, at most,” Liam said.

“Can’t you go up, pretend to buy something, then slip his dad the letter with the money?”

“Would it be better to wait and come back later, though?” His fingers were drumming against the steering wheel as he turned the van around. We parked three streets over; the noise from the street sale followed us.

“Maybe, but I think there’s enough people around that you wouldn’t stick out like you would lurking around the bushes after nightfall.”

“First of all, I don’t lurk—I prowl,” he said, “Second, I’m open to more opinions on this. What say you, Ruby Tuesday?”
“Honestly?” I sounded just as tired as I felt. “I think we should just get it over with.”

“Zu?” Liam called. “Want to vote on this?”

She shook her head.

“Ah, outnumbered.” Liam unbuckled his seatbelt at looked at his former bunkmate. “Are you going to come with me? They might have some books out.”

Chubs went very still, his fingers tightening around my seat’s armrest. He looked anywhere but at Lee, his face betraying the fear that had sent his heart tumbling down into his stomach. I was getting too keyed into their feelings; he was shedding enough anxiety that even I felt my guts clench.

“Um… I mean… I could, but what if…” If Liam had been testing his friend to see just how safe Chubs thought it actually was, he had his answer.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Liam said, before Chubs could break out into hives. “Be cool, Ponyboy, you don’t have to come.” He turned to me. “Still got my back?”

I nodded.

He passed me his hat and sunglasses. “Put these on, all right?”

“What about you?” I said. I didn’t like the idea that he’d be out in the open, so exposed to scrutinizing eyes.

“Me? I’ll be fine. Adult is an attitude, not a number, right?”

Before he shut his door, Liam leaned back in, resting his arms on the headrest. “Hey, Zu—watch over this kid for me, will you?” He jerked his thumb towards Chubs, who was back to practicing his stitches on a scrap of fabric. Zu gave him a thumbs up, which Liam was quick to return. He turned to Chubs. “You—be good.”

He slammed the door shut before Chubs could work up a flustered response.

“Shall we?” I watched him, my heart bobbing miserably between frustration and longing as he began to offer me his arm, only to let it fall limp again at his side.

Liam kept his face down, his hands deep in his pockets, and his shoulders hunched. “Do you think we should have parked farther away?” he whispered.

“It’ll be fine,” I said. “If something happens, we’ll deal with it.”

He didn’t look at me, but I caught the tilt of his crooked smile. “You’re pretty brave for a Green. Is it bad that I’m happy you’re out here with me?”

No, but it is bad that you think it’s okay for you to be out here by yourself.

It wasn’t really a neighborhood-wide yard sale as it was a kind of farmer’s market. There seemed to be more trading going on than buying. In fact, many of the homes had no junk they were trying to pawn off, only bins of fruit, or stands of cloth-covered jam jars. Both Liam and I had to force ourselves to walk past a man offering barbecue pulled-pork sandwiches for three dollars. The real stuff, too—the classic vinegar based sauce that used to make my dad’s eyes roll back in his head with every delicious bite.

For a weekday, there did seem to be an absurd number of people out and around. There were too many blanks for me, here. Why weren’t these people at work—were they selling things because they were out of a job? Why did they put out so many children’s toys and clothing, knowing that no one would have any use for them?

It could have been worse, I reminded myself, all of this stuff could just as easily been thrown away. Wasted and forgotten about. There was just something gruesome about seeing the face of a doll you used to own staring up at you from a table piled with books your parents used to read to you every night.

I knew he would never say it, and at this point I felt so in line with him that he didn’t need to, but Liam was anything but comfortable here.

“You okay?” I said, following him over to the nearest table. Not Jack’s house, but the one next door, whose plump owner sat amongst her collection of concrete lawn animals like the queen of the suburban jungle.

“There seem to be a lot of people over at his place, huh?” he said, quietly. “It’s the most popular house on the street.”

I looked over my shoulder, and sure enough he was right. While many of the other homes on the cul-de-sac had four, five, maybe six people browsing their sale items, there were at least twice as many trampling around Jack’s yard. It wasn’t like the sale itself should have demanded that kind of crowd size. The bins and tables were smaller than the other houses on the street; the main attraction seemed to be home-grown vegetables.

There was a small circle of women surrounding whoever was sitting inside of Jack’s garage. Judging by the glimpse of a pink sneakered foot I caught, it was most likely a woman—maybe his mother or a sister. The next largest cluster is a group of three middle-aged men, all hovering over a pile of bright, furry stuffed animals. When one of them lifted his arms to stretch, his plain t-shirt lifted just enough to reveal the handle of a gun tucked between his waistband and skin.

Liam followed my line of sight. “Damn.”

My eyes fell on the table in front of us and I reached for the clear zip-loc bag of pastel foam letters—the kind they give to babies. Bright enough to stimulate brains, but large enough that you couldn’t shove them in your mouth and choke, unless, of course, you were a two year-old me, who, according to parental legend, ate anything that wasn’t nailed down.

I lined up the letters P, S, F, and tapped the table twice, trying to draw Liam’s attention back to me.

He shook his head. He slid the letters P and F away and replaced them with a T. ST. Skiptracers. What had Liam said before—that the PSFs were stretched so thin these days, it wasn’t uncommon for them to send skiptracers to do their dirty work?

He shook his head. “They’ve figured us out. Guess it was only a matter of time.”

How was that possible? How had they pieced it together and all known to converge here? A wave of terror crashed over me at the thought of Zu and Chubs sitting defenseless and unaware in Betty. Liam had parked far enough away that they might not have caught our arrival, but if someone were patrolling the length of the street, peering into cars or running plates, the first car they’d check out would be the old minivan with bullet holes.

Had one of the skiptracers in West Virginia survived? Had one of them reported us, or a description of the car?

Liam pressed a hand against the right side of his chest, where he had stuck Jack’s letter. I saw the agonizing choice laid out in front of him.

“Maybe they’re not,” I whispered. “Maybe we’re wrong.”

He gave me a sad smile as he reached inside his jacket—not for the letter, but the small silver ring he used for the van’s key. Instead of handing it to me, he put it on the table and slid it over to me. “I can meet up with you later. The old shopping center we passed a ways back. The one with the dollar store.”

It occurred to me then that even a week ago, this situation would have melted me into a pool of quivering flesh. How was it, then, that the fear that spiked so sharply in me a moment before had settled into something useful—something strong?

No.” I grabbed his wrist. “If they’re here for you, then they won’t think to look for me. They won’t even look twice in my direction.”

I pulled the sunglasses off my face and placed them on his. “Meet you there in fifteen minutes.”

He shook his head fiercely, his face setting into stone. “I have a better idea.”

I followed him into the garage, ducking under the enormous metal door, which was frozen halfway between open and shut. If Liam had been planning on somehow using the neighbor or playing off any sympathy she might have had for us, he was in for a rotten surprise. There was no one in there but us. We squeezed between a small white car and a wall of gardening tools, squinting at each other in the dim light. The lawnmower still reeked of newly cut grass.

I tried to ignore the annoyance that crept up inside of me as he put himself between the door to the house and me. When was he going to get that I wasn’t the one that needed to get out of here alive?

He held out the key to the minivan and dropped it in the front pocket of my green jacket. Before I could protest, he explained, “If this doesn’t work, you have to get back, okay? Promise me.”

Liam didn’t wait for me to agree.

A deep breath in, a deep breath out. That’s the only preparation he needed to raise his fist rap against the door that would lead us inside the house. Of course. Where I might have snuck inside unannounced, he had to do the polite thing and knock.

I turned my back to him, bending over to watch for anyone coming from the other direction.

The pop of the door pulling away from its frame and Liam’s strong arm connecting with my back were the only warnings I had to run. By the time I turned around, the only person standing the doorway was Cate.

[Chapter Break]

            “Ruby.”

She was there, and then she was gone, blocked by Liam’s wide shoulders, vanishing out of my sight like a mirage. But I hadn’t imagined her—she was there, in one piece, looking at me like—like—

Like she had when she’d taken my hand in Thurmond’s infirmary, and told me everything would be all right.

Cate, alive. My brain clung to those two words as a potent mix of dread and disbelief kept me pinned in place. No, that wasn’t right; because as terrified as I was to see her standing in front of me like some willowy ghost, I also felt… relief. Knowing that we hadn’t left her to bleed out on that road like heartless monsters after all, that the person who had ensured I’d live to see another day had lived to see one herself. No matter what sort of company she kept, I didn’t want her dead.

I hated myself for how it comforted me to know that she was still alive, because I knew who she worked for and what they were capable of. I knew why she was here: for me. For us. My jaw was working, trying to get something, anything, out. Trying to tell Liam to turn and run while he still could. She’s alive, my head was screaming. Liam was right. He was right.

I heard the footsteps approach from behind me, shuffling up until I could smell the gasoline and cigarettes. I had wasted his chance to get out.

“Liam Stewart, right?” Cate asked. “You are Liam. You could be your brother’s twin. I went on a few operations with him before he switched to deep cover.”

She said it casually enough, in her usual calm, reassuring voice, but I could see the muscles tense in Liam’s back at the mention of a brother I had no idea existed.

“Ruby,” Cate tried again. She took a step forward, letting the door shut behind her. I caught a glimpse of her white-blonde hair, just one, before Liam moved in front of me again. Cate vanished behind a wall of muscle and leather.

“Will you guys please come inside?” she said. “We only want to talk to you. You’re both smart enough to see what’s actually going on here.”

“Are those skiptracers yours?” Liam bit out. I’d never heard him sound like that before, with an edge of cold steel to his words.

“Of course not. They don’t even know we’re here.” I could hear the smile in her voice. “There’s a bigger bounty on League members than kids these days.”

“I’m sure there is.”

“Liam…” Was this the same voice Cate had used on me in the infirmary? Had I been so starved for sweetness that I drank every drop of molasses she had given me? That was a voice that could sing a sheep to slaughter. “Consider your options, here. You’ve made it this far, don’t allow yourself to be caught now. What will happen to your friends?”

At that, I stepped out from behind Liam, hoping every ounce of loathing I felt burning inside of me was reflected on my face.

“Just to talk?” I confirmed. I didn’t need to close my eyes to see the faces of the kids burning in the fire as she shut the door on them, or hear that girl beg for her life just before Rob shot her. People lie. Memories don’t.

“Yes,” Cate said. “There are three other League agents inside. One in the backyard, one in the kitchen, and one keeping an eye on the owner of this home. If it would make you more comfortable, Liam can wait out here. Brian here will protect him.”

One guy. Good. Liam can take one guy. He can get to the others and go. I turned to look at him, hoping my eyes conveyed that much. They must have conveyed something, because he paled. His brows drew together as he shook his head.

“Absolutely not,” Liam said. “We’re not separating even for a second.”

Dammit, I thought. Dammit, Lee.

“Can you bring the man over from next door?” I heard myself ask. “So Liam can give him something?”

“Ruby—“

“Don’t forget,” I cut him off, “the whole reason we came.”

But he knew, he must have, that I was really saying, Don’t forget the others.

If I could get Cate alone, I could get away from her. All it would take was a second inside of her head, and I could compel her to stay away from me. But not now—not in front of Liam and the man standing behind us with the gun.
Cate lifted her hand and signaled to whoever—Brian?—was standing behind me. “Done.”

My shoulder brushed Liam’s as I passed. “It’ll be okay,” I promised him.

He pulled me to him, leaning down to whisper, “Don’t believe a word they tell you. I’ll be there in just a minute.”

Cold comfort.

*

I followed Cate through a small, cluttered laundry room, ducking under the shirts that had been hung up to dry. The owner must have run the wash that morning, because the entire house was perfumed with a sweet, clean linen scent. It made me self-conscious of how I must have looked—how I must have smelled. I was so pissed at myself for wanting to comb a hand through my hair that I had to fight the urge to break my own fingers.

The kitchen itself was small, but painted a bright, cheery blue that made the space seem larger than it actually was. The cabinets, the swirling patterns of decorative tile on the countertops, even the checked linoleum floor were all complimentary shades of the same color. The silver refrigerator and the man leaning up against it stood out like black eyes.

“That’s Georgie,” Cate said. “Say hi to Ruby, Georgie.”

My plan to invade her mind up and flew away, like a startled huddle of birds. I held my next breath in, trying to force myself to calm down.

The man grunted, crossing his arms over his chest. At his side was a gun, but I was more concerned about the size of his bulging arm muscles. Georgie wore nondescript street clothes and a hat pulled over his short, graying hair.

“What?” I asked, “you mean Martin isn’t here for this party? Or did you and Rob already ‘take care’ of him, too?”

Cate looked about as surprised as she would have if I had reached up and slapped her clear across the face. “He’s in Georgia, Ruby. Remember? That’s where we were all headed.”

“Right,” I managed to squeeze out, fighting down the bile in my throat. “Right.Georgia. And I’m sure Rob was the one that drove him down there.”

She was looking at me, her mouth pressed in a tight line. Her eyes narrowed with what I recognized as confusion, forcing a flash of doubt through me. I couldn’t tell if she was trying to decode the underlying meaning to my words to see how much I actually knew, or if she genuinely had no idea what I was hinting at.

The first thing Cate did was sit me down at the kitchen table, and motion for Georgie to pull a plate of food out of the refrigerator. He did so with another grunt, but without complaint. When he set it on the table in front of me, along with a napkin and fork, his gun knocked against my arm.

“I take it this means you knew we were coming today,” I said, glancing down at the plate. I was half offended she thought this little show would work on me.

Cate sat down beside me, missing my grimace. “We’ve been here for the last four days, actually, from the moment we got word you were spotted by PSFs outside of Kingwood. I was only worried you’d split with Liam and go your own way.”

My fingers rested on either side of the plate of apple slices and cheese in front of me. I wondered if Georgie had arranged the food into the shape of a flower, or if that had been Cate. “How did you know we’d be here?”

“It was an intelligence officer in the Psi Special Forces that finally put together the pattern of sightings—why they were making dozens of little stops in Ohio and West Virginia before heading home to their own families–”

“You have an agent in the intelligence office?” I interrupted.

“Several of them. Liam’s name and Psi number are high on our list of flagged words,” she explained. “He’s family to us, and we’ve been trying to make sure he gets home safely.”

“I wouldn’t tell him that,” I said, leaning back in my seat. My arms crossed over my chest on their own accord. “I don’t think it’s mutual.”

“I’m guessing he hasn’t told you about what happened, then, has he?” Cate said. “Ask him about it, but keep your mind open. What happened at Caledonia was a terrible mistake, but he refuses to let us make amends for what happened.”

“Then leave him alone,” I said. “That’s all he wants.”

Cate’s hair was loose around her face, and though she was wearing a nice, simple dress and sweater, there was something slightly off about her appearance. She kept tugging the sleeves of her gray cardigan up and down her arms. “Eat, won’t you?”

I turned my face away. “Is that all you wanted to talk about?”

Her hands reached out to take mine, but I pulled them back, slipping them under the table. “I’m really glad you’re all right, Ruby. I know you think I’m only saying this because I’m trying to convince you to come with me, but it’s true.”

“You wanted my abilities, not me,” I reminded her. “You wanted an Orange, you didn’t want Ruby.”

“Why did you leave?” she asked, after a moment. “Why did you run away? If you were scared, you should have talked to me about it…”

I shook my head, wondering if I could grab her from under the table. Command her to let us go without Georgie noticing.

“Talk to me, Ruby, tell me what you’re thinking.”

“What’s the point?” I asked, my hand blindly reaching out for her leg.

“Was it something I said?” she asked. “Did I say something that upset you?” Cate stood suddenly from the table and began to pace length of it. She seemed to finally work something out, because she stopped, mid-stride.

“Did you see something that upset you?”

I shouldn’t have looked away. It only confirmed her suspicion.

“What did you see?” Cate didn’t look panicked, only concerned. “Something I was thinking about?”

“No.”

“Rob, then.” She braced her hands against the table. “I’m just trying to put this all together, here. You were scared of something you saw in Rob’s head—did it have to do with you and Martin? I promise that he’s fine. He’s in Georgia, training.”

I took a deep breath. “Rob was suppose to get a couple of kids out of camp too, right?”

She nodded. “The camp in Tennessee. But you heard what he said. He couldn’t get them out without blowing his cover.”

I couldn’t believe the way my next words shook. “I think you should ask him again.”

“Are you saying he lied about not being able to get them out?”

“I’m saying he got them out and shot them both in the head.”

Georgie pushed himself off the fridge, but Cate held up a hand to still him. Her face had darkened considerably, but she seemed to be holding it together. “That’s a serious accusation, Ruby. Why would he do something like that?”

“That’s a god damn lie,” Georgie said, “that’s what it is!”

I held her gaze. “I saw what I saw.”

“I told you I wouldn’t let anyone hurt you, though,” she said.

Was that supposed to be reassuring? Like I’d never had an adult lie to me before? I let out a humorless laugh. “You know what I realized when I was in that gas station—when Rob pulled out those guns? You were expecting us to use them, too. Maybe you can live with knowing that you offed someone, or that your boyfriend likes to murder kids, but next time open your eyes when you’re making out with him. You might see the bloodstains on his shirt sleeves.”

Cate’s hand thundered down against the table. I jumped back, and was surprised to see she had done so, too. Just as quickly as she had lashed it out, she pulled her hand back and pressed it against her chest. It was several agonizing seconds before she smoothed her pale blonde hair behind her ears and was able to speak again.

“Fine, you don’t want to fight,” she said. “I’m asking you to accept our protection. That’s your only real option here, aside from being thrown back into Thurmond or any number of the camps. Only, this time? They’ll know what you are, and they won’t hesitate to end your life. I understand why you ran, but don’t kid yourself. You know as well as I do that you absolutely cannot ever go home, not with things the way they are now.”

I opened my mouth to dispute this, but she silenced me with a wave of her hand.

“All three of those kids are in the PSF system as dangerous fugitives. They have people watching their houses every day, every hour. The government is distracted by having to clean up the mess Liam’s made, but once they’re done dealing with the families, they’ll turn their attention back to hunting him down.”

“The families?” I managed to cut in. “What are you talking about?”

“The ones he’s been visiting. Telling them about what happened to their sons.” Cate stopped herself, studying my face for a reaction. Trying to figure out how much of this I already knew. “Have you heard the name Sonnen before?”

“Never.”

“General Sonnen heads the PSF division now. He replaced the original general—the one in charge when Liam incited the breakout. From what we understand, Sonnen is under strict orders from Gray himself to make an example of Liam. After finding out that he was spreading classified information about the camps, Sonnen’s been paying a visit to each and every home Liam and his friends have gone to, silencing them.”

I almost couldn’t get the question out. “He killed them?”

“Some,” she said. “The ones that refused to sign a confidentiality agreement.”

I was almost afraid to ask. “What… what about Liam’s family?”

“His brother was able to get to them in time,” Cate said. After a moment she added, “In the car—just after we left Thurmond—you asked me if people knew what was going on. What was really going on at the camps. Do you remember that?”

I nodded, trying to squeeze feeling back into my hands.

“The ones who do know, like PSFs or government officials—they’re all forced to sign confidentiality agreements, and the government considers it treason if they decide to break their silence. Others have no voice because Gray and his lackeys control all communication. Radio, TV, newspapers, the internet. Liam’s heart is in the right place, but I don’t think he understands the consequences of his actions.”

“What was he supposed to do, then?” I asked. “Stay silent? Let those families spend the rest of their lives thinking they’ll get their kids back one day, never knowing they’ve been murdered?”

“Ruby, I know. I know, all right? But what you and your friends don’t understand is why the government sees those families as such a threat. Gray is terrified of any hint of rebellion—he’s afraid that if the truth spreads, people would rise up and he would lose power. Right now, people can’t speak out, not while the government is holding their surviving kids hostage.”

I don’t think I had understood, not until that moment, the extent of what was happening to the country. Sure, I had seen the poverty, the deserted small towns, the abandoned businesses and schools, but I wasn’t thinking big enough. The discontent and fear from losing all those millions of kids, the ruined economy—we were on the edge of something, the precipice. Gray had expanded his influence and control because he understood that all it would take to send the country into absolute chaos was one good, hard push.

“How do I know any of this is even true?”

“The same way you knew I wasn’t lying before, when I told you the camp controllers would kill you if you stayed. These are the kind of people we have leading our government now. We have to answer action with action. The thought of you—ofany of you—becoming collateral damage in the upcoming days…”

Cate bent down, retrieving something from the bag by her feet. “I came here to warn you, but also to give you this.“ She opened her palm, revealing a small black disc, no bigger than the size of a dollar coin. “We call them panic buttons. Hold it down for twenty seconds, and any and all agents nearby will come to help you.”

“I’m done taking gifts from you—you think I don’t know what was in those clothes you gave me?” I said. “Oh, sure, you’ll come racing to my rescue. Meanwhile, you’ll be tracking us at all times.”

Cate shook her head. “It only works when it’s activated.”

“I don’t need it.”

“Of course you don’t,” she said. “But what if one of the other kids you’re with does? What if they use the Calm Control against you? What if you become separated from Liam and the others?”

Emotional manipulation: one of the many tools in Cate’s box of tricks. It was amazing how quickly she was able to identify my weaknesses—and she didn’t need to reach into my mind and sort through my memories to do it. No wonder the League had her acting as a recruiter. There was a reason she was so sweet and pretty; she needed to be able to draw people in and get their defenses down so she could figure out what mattered most to them.

“I know you want to do this your own way, that for some reason you think your freedom will be taken away if you come with me,” she said. “But I’ll wait. However long it takes for you to make up your mind. I’ll come for you wherever you are, no matter the distance or the time.”

When she slid the black disc across the table again, I took it. But not for me. “You don’t give up, do you?”

“No.” She smiled. “And neither do you.”

Liam burst through the door; I looked up just in time to see Georgie twist Liam’s behind his back and slam the side of his face down against the nearest countertop. With a gun pressed into the back of his neck and Georgie screaming at him to stay down, Liam couldn’t do much more than lift his free arm up to show that he wasn’t armed.

“Georgie,” Cate admonished. The man and all his two hundred pounds of muscle immediately backed off, slinking away with his tail between his legs.

I helped Liam up, wrapping an arm around his center to steady him as he swayed. He blinked, like he was trying to regain control of his vision. His chest rose and fell in a sharp, jerking motion, and I realized the red in his face had nothing to do with his head being slammed against the tile. His hair was wild around him.

“I think you’d both better leave,” Cate said. “Go out through the backyard. You’ll have to climb over the fence. We’ll try to distract the skiptracers.”

I was still clutching the black disc in my hand, hard enough for the shape to cut into my palm. When I was sure Liam wasn’t looking, I slid it into the pocket of my jacket. Cate didn’t miss this; a ghost of a smile passed over her lips, which only made me angry all over again for not having faith in my own ability to keep everyone safe.

“Those weren’t our orders,” Georgie said. “We were told specifically—“

“You report to me and I report to Alban,” She said it in the same, sugary voice as before, which disarmed the man faster than any cutting order. “It’s on me. You were just following my instructions.”

He sighed, leaning up against the black refrigerator doors. “You know Lewis is going to have a problem with this.”

“Of course he is,” she said, turning to Liam. Cate slid a folded sheet of notebook paper out of her back pocket and held it out to him. He crossed his arms and turned his face away.

“Oh, God,” said the other agent, barking out a laugh. “Will you look at that? Heis related to Cole.”

“Here,” Cate said, handing it to me this time. “This is the procedure Cole established to contact his family.”

Color flared again in Liam’s cheeks and ears.

“You’ll fill him in, won’t you?” Cate said, squeezing my shoulder one last time. “It was nice to meet you, Liam Stewart. I’ll let your brother know you’re alive.”

I watched her feet as she walked toward the door; Georgie went out first, muttering something into his wristwatch—some kind of communication device, maybe? A sound like a whine began to ring in my ears, and I felt the slightest itch at the base of my skull—the pull towards someone else’s thoughts.

Liam. I was still holding onto Liam, my fingers pressing into his side. I tried to slip my arm away from where it was trapped between his soft flannel shirt and the silky lining of his jacket, but he pressed me closer to his side, and glared at her over his shoulder.

“You’re going to need to get rid of that van, you know,” she said. “It’s in the system.”

My heart was still pounding in my ears when she shut the door kitchen door behind her, heading, presumably, back out through the laundry room.

“Are you all right?” Liam wrapped his other arm around me, pulling me around so I was fully enveloped. I didn’t protest. How could I? My entire body felt like it was about to float away; he was the only thing keeping my feet to the ground, to reality. I wanted this. I needed this. When my arms came up and my hands pressed against his back, when I pressed my face against his shoulder and pulled him closer, he finally asked, “What did she want?”

“To recruit me,” I said, my voice muffled. “Did you give Jack’s dad the letter?”

He shook his head. “It was pointless coming here. He moved a few months back to Annandale, right up by D.C., to do construction work. I got his address, but damn.Dammit.”

Normally I would have taken the time to correct his line of thinking, to show him it hadn’t been pointless, but we were standing in the middle of a stranger’s kitchen, with what appeared to be dozens of bounty hunters and wannabe terrorists pretending to buy baby clothes and broken clocks outside.

Liam must have had a similar thought, because he pulled back, dropping his arms back to his side. “To be continued?”
I nodded, clearing my throat.

“Out the back,” I said, tilting my head toward the glass door. As far as I could tell, we only had three options. Out the laundry room and through the garage, out the back door and over the wall, or through the house in the vain hope there might be a side door somewhere.

“Do you really trust her?” His voice was calm, but I could see the frustration in his eyes.

“I don’t think we have a choice,” I said. “There are two other agents in the house, and I don’t think the original plan was to let us go.”

Liam looked at me for a moment.

“Zu and Chubs are being watched,” I reminded him, hoping it would be enough to jumpstart his decision. It was.

The frustration peeled away from his face, replaced with a stony determination. “Let me go first, all right? You still have the key?”

I tried to give it back to him, but he wouldn’t take it. When we reached the door, he threw a hand back to stop me, his light eyes carefully scanning the small yard for trouble. When he found none—to his obvious disbelief—he pulled the door open as carefully as he would have opened a box with a bomb inside.

The back yard consisted of a small flowerbed, a copse of trees, and a patch of pitifully dead grass, which actually crunched under our feet as we cut through it. The fence Cate mentioned was taller than I had expected and hoped for. The tall, slender planks were sunburned and peeling, hot to the touch. Liam pulled himself up to look over it.

“Just woods on the other side,” he said. “We’ll have to cut through them and take the long way around to Betty.”

I nodded, feeling the small hairs rise on my arms. The wall was solid stone, all white stucco. We really were going to have to climb it.

He laced his fingers together in front of him, holding his linked hands together for me to use as step up. “Up and over,” he said.

I glanced one more time over my shoulder. Laughter, voices, and faint music drifted towards us from the neighborhood fundraiser.

Liam hoisted me up with surprising ease. I twisted my body over the top of the fence, dragging my legs over to the other side. My landing was about as graceless as they come. I face-planted in the soft mulch, my palms and knees sinking down into the mud. Overhead, I heard the birds high up in the trees scatter as the gate rattled.

The cool spring air caused the even the smallest hairs on my body to stand at attention, goosebumps rippling over my skin in a wave. I waited until Liam’s hiking boots were right in front of my face before picking myself up off the ground.

But it wasn’t Liam.

Dark hair, darker eyes. A man that couldn’t have been older than twenty-five. With a scar that began just under his right eye and raced up to his hairline, where the shiny pink skin had prevented any hair from growing back. My brain processed his features one by one, in agonizing slowness. I watched his face twisted into undisguised fury, turning his narrow nose up in disgust.

“I knew it,” he spat. “That bitch.”

Liam called my name in panic, his feet scrambling against the stone wall as he pulled himself over it. When I turned back to face the man in his wrinkled gray button down, I was just in time to see the butt of his rifle flying down toward my face, knocking every thought clear out of my skull.

Pain blinded me, flashing white beneath my eyelids. But I was down, not out. When the man—the League agent–tried to haul me up by the front of my jacket, I swung a leg around and caught him by the ankles. He landed on the ground with a grunt, his gun clattering against a nearby patch of rocks. I kicked until I made contact with something solid. I knew it wasn’t enough.
I tried hauling myself up to my feet, but the world swung wild and loose under my feet. My head throbbed and something hot and wet poured down over my right eye—blood. I could taste it then, just like I felt of air as Liam threw the agent back with a wave of his hand, and then tackled him, too, for good measure.

Zu, Chubs, Zu, Chubs, my mind was stuck on a loop. I pressed a hand against my forehead, to the place where the gun had burst the skin in a jagged line. My breath came hard and fast as I watched Liam hover over the still agent, the rifle clutched in his hands. I staggered over to him. The agent was out cold, bleeding from the nose Liam had just broken.

I don’t know what happened next. It felt like my head was skipping seconds as we moved. At one point, I think Liam must have tried to carry me, but I pushed him away with clumsy, slow hands. All I needed was a shoulder to lean on. The pain drove knives into my skull, but I could still get to Zu and Chubs.

“Ruby—Ruby,” Liam was trying to get my attention as we cut down the street. We should have gone up one more street before cutting over to where we had parked Betty, but I was in a hurry. There was an agent watching the car. I didn’t care who saw me as we sprinted past one end of the neighborhood sale. Someone was playing music loud enough that it drowned out the heartbeats throbbing in my ears.

Liam held out a hand to steady me as we skidded to a stop. Betty was in full view, parked in the shade of an oak tree… but so was the blond man in workout clothes, walking his golden retriever past the van. His sweatshirt was tight enough to see where he had stuffed a gun in his sweatpants. The agent slowed as he passed the van, craning his neck to look inside the tinted windows.
Next to me, Liam braced his feet and threw his arms up—to knock the man back, I assumed. But that wasn’t going to solve anything. If he had been trained right, the man would radio in the sighting of us immediately. The rest of the agents would swarm in, and there’d be no chance the others could escape.

I elbowed Liam square in the chest, hard enough to knock the air from his chest and send him staggering back. The man must have heard him grunt, because he whirled around. Somehow, I was faster. Blood was alive and warm on my face, dripping from my chin. The agent’s dark eyes widened as I grabbed the back of his shirt and whirled him around, slamming him into Betty’s passenger door. The leather dog leash dropped between us, and the dog bolt out between our legs as my hand closed over his exposed throat. When his gaze met mine, I knew I had him. The pain that exploded behind my eyes told me so.

Slipping into his head was as easy as releasing a sigh. Seeing his pupils shrink and explode back out to their normal size, catching a glimpse of his unnaturally bright memory of Betty under the tree, it felt as though someone had wrapped a line of barbed wire around my brain, and was tightening it with every passing second.

Chubs’ face appeared on the other side of the window, eyes wide. When he tried to open the door, I slammed the agent back again and shut it. No. It wasn’t safe. Not yet.

The young man looked around, his eyes wide and unfocused. That’s when the pounding began in my ears. Da-duh, da-duh, da-duh, da-duh… I couldn’t tell if it was my heart or his. In his mind, past the blurs and hazy shapes, I found the memory of him reporting the sighting of a 2000 Dodge Caravan with the words Betty Jean Cleaning on the side. The response had come immediately from the other agents: monitor until further instructions.

“Hand him your gun,” I said, tilting my head toward Liam. I couldn’t bring myself to look at his reaction as the black weapon was placed in his outstretched hand.

“Listen to me very carefully,” I said. In the edge of my vision, I saw Zu’s pale face appear at Chubs’ side. Then, my vision split and I was seeing two of each. Damn.

The blood was bitter in my mouth. “Radio in that the two kids in the car bolted, that they saw you and got spooked. Explain… that they’re running into the neighborhood and everyone should get into positions.”

He did.

I closed my eyes and went to work sorting through his sighting of the van. The memory shimmered. I found myself walking down the street beside him, a dog in front of him, fighting against the leash. I stayed with this memory, taking in the scent of rain and grass, feeling the light breeze, until we turned a street corner and found the van.

I forced the memory out of his mind, imagining nothing but air where Black Betty had been on the street. Either I was getting scary good at pushing images, or the man completely lacked the mental facilities to throw up any kind of resistance. His memory slipped away in smears of color, like raindrops racing down a car window.

When I was satisfied with my work, I looked him straight in the eye and said, “Now, you’re… you’re going to sit on the other side of this tree and take a nice, long nap. When you wake up in a few hours, you won’t remember any of this, or any of us.”

“I need to take a nap…” he parroted, as if the thought had just occurred to him.

I let go of his neck, but my pain didn’t go away. His eyes regained some of their focus, but the pain didn’t go away. He turned and walked to the other side of the tree, not bothering to take his weapon back, but the pain didn’t go away.

It got worse. A trickle of sweat began at my temple and worked its way down the length of my spine. I was drenched. My hair clung to my face. My shirt was a second skin. I dropped into a crouch. If I was going to faint, it was better to stay close to the ground. God, I don’t want to faint. Don’t faint. Do. Not. Faint…”

I heard Liam say something, then the door roll open, then Liam again—his foot came into my line of sight, and I leaned away.

“Don’t—“ I began. Don’t touch me. Not right now.

Then the darkness swallowed me.

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