Home > The Darkest Minds (The Darkest Minds #1)(8)

The Darkest Minds (The Darkest Minds #1)(8)
Alexandra Bracken

“We’ll be fine,” Sam had told me one night, just before they turned the lights out. “No matter what—you hear me?”

But it wasn’t fine. It wasn’t fine then, and it wasn’t fine now.

There was no talking in the Factory, but there were ways around it. Actually, the only time we were allowed to speak to one another was in our cabin, before lights-out. Everywhere else, it was all work, obedience, silence. But you can’t go on for years together without developing a different kind of language, one that was all sly grins and quick glances. Today, they had us polishing and relacing the PSFs’ boots and tightening their uniform buttons, but a single wiggle of a loose black shoelace and a look toward the girl standing across from you—the same one who had called you an awful word the night before—spoke volumes.

The Factory wasn’t much of a factory. A better name probably would have been the Warehouse, only because the building consisted of just one huge room, with a pathway suspended over the work floor. The builders had enough thought to install four large windows on the west and east walls, but because there was no heat in the winter or AC in the summer, they tended to let more bad weather in than sunlight.

The camp controllers tried to keep things as simple as possible; they set up rows and rows of tables lengthwise across the dusty concrete floor. There were hundreds of us working in the Factory that morning, all in Green uniforms. Ten PSFs patrolled the walkways above us, each with his or her own black rifle. Another ten were on the ground with us.

It was no more unnerving than usual to feel the press of their eyes coming from every direction. But I hadn’t slept well the night before, even after a full day of work in the Garden. I had gone to bed with a headache and woken up with a glossy fever fog over my brain, and a sore throat to match. Even my hands seemed lethargic, my fingers stiff as pencils.

I knew I wasn’t keeping up, but it was like drowning, in a way. The harder I tried to work, to keep my head above water, the more tired I felt and the slower I became. After a while, even standing upright was taking too much effort, and I had to brace myself against the table to keep from swan-diving straight into it. On most days, I could get away with a snail’s pace. It wasn’t like they had us doing important work, or that we had deadlines to meet. Every task we were assigned was just glorified busywork to keep our hands moving, our bodies occupied, and our minds dead with boredom. Sam called it “forced recess”—they let us out of our cabins, and the work wasn’t difficult or tiring like it was in the Garden, but no one wanted to be there.

Especially when bullies came to the playground.

I knew he was standing behind me long before I heard him start counting the finished, shiny shoes in front of me. He smelled like spiced meat and car oil, which already was an unsettling combination before a whiff of cigarette smoke was added to the mix. I tried to straighten my back under the weight of his gaze, but it felt like he had taken two fists and dug the knuckles deep between my shoulder blades.

“Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen…” How was it that they could make mere numbers sound sharp?

At Thurmond, we weren’t allow to touch one another, and we were beyond forbidden to touch one of the PSFs, but it didn’t mean that they couldn’t touch us. The man took two steps forward; his boots—exactly like the ones on the table—nudged the back of my standard white slip-ons. When I didn’t respond, he snuck an arm past my shoulder, on the pretense of sorting through my work, and pressed me into his chest. Shrink, I told myself, curling my spine down, bending my face to the task in front of me, shrink and disappear.

“Worthless,” I heard the PSF grunt behind me. His body was letting off enough heat to warm the entire building. “You’re doing this all wrong. Look—watch, girl!”

I got my first real glance at him out of the corner of my eye as he ripped the polish-stained cloth out of my hand and moved to my side. He was short, only an inch or two taller than me, with a stubby nose, and cheeks that seemed to flap every time he took a breath.

“Like this,” he was saying, swiping at the boot he had taken. “Look at me!”

A trick. We weren’t supposed to look them directly in the eyes, either.

I heard a few chuckles around me—not from the girls, but from more PSFs gathered at his back.

It felt like I was boiling from the inside out. It was December, and the Factory couldn’t have been warmer than forty degrees, but lines of sweat were racing down the curves of my cheeks, and I felt a hard, stiff cough welling up in my throat.

There was a light touch at my side. Sam couldn’t look up from her own work, but I saw her eyes slide over to me, trying to assess the situation. A wave of furious red was making its way up from her throat to her face, and I could only imagine the kinds of words she was holding back. Her bony elbow brushed against mine again, as if to remind me that she was still there.

Then, with agonizing slowness, I felt the same PSF move behind me again, brushing my shoulder and arm with his own as he gently deposited the boot back on the table in front of me.

“These boots,” he said in a low, purring voice as he tapped the plastic bin containing all of my finished work. “Did you lace them?”

If I hadn’t known what kind of punishment I’d get for it, I would have burst out into tears. I felt more stupid and ashamed the longer I stood there, but I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t move. My tongue had swelled up to twice its usual size behind my clenched teeth. The thoughts buzzing around my head were light and edged with a strange milky quality. My eyes could barely focus now.

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