Once / Page 11

Page 11


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The night I left, I had stood there in the doorway to our bedroom, listening to my friends’ breathing, and wondered when I’d be able to return. In Califia, every time Maeve taught me something—how to use a knife, shoot an arrow, climb a rope—I’d imagined bringing the women of Califia with me back to School, Quinn or Isis beside me as we charged through the dim dormitory, waking the girls from sleep. I hadn’t imagined things happening like this.

Ruby’s eyes were half closed. As she clung to the fence her body swayed back and forth, her limbs loose. “What’s wrong? What did they do to you?” I asked. My eyes darted around the small lawn. I noticed a few girls from my class, and a few more from the year above, sitting at the stone picnic tables. Maxine, a button-nosed girl who had gossiped incessantly, had her head down on the table. “Ruby?”

“Get away from the fence,” a guard called from inside. The woman was short and thickset, her cheeks covered in pockmarks. “Stand back!” She pointed her gun at me but I ignored her, instead pressing my face against the fence so my nose nearly touched Ruby’s.

“Where’s Pip?” I whispered. Ruby didn’t look at me, her eyes fixed on my battered gray boots. “Ruby, answer me,” I hissed more urgently. The guard inside the pen was coming toward us. Stark had climbed out of the Jeep. We didn’t have much time.

Ruby looked up at the sky. The sun hit her chestnut eyes, illuminating the browns and golds hidden in their depths. Say something, I thought as Stark started toward me, Lowell right behind him. Please just say something.

“Back away from the fence, Eve! Enough,” Stark called. Then, to the guard, “Lower your weapon!”

“Please,” I urged.

She parted her lips to speak. “Where did all the birds go?” she asked, then rested her forehead on the fence.

Stark grabbed my elbow. He raised his hand to the guard, signaling for her to lower her weapon. “All right, enough. Back in the truck,” he muttered, his fingers digging into the soft flesh of my arm.

As they loaded me back into the Jeep and tied me to the carriage once more, I kept my eyes on Ruby. She was still leaning against the fence, her mouth moving, as if she hadn’t even noticed I’d gone.

Lowell started the engine and the Jeep’s tires ground against the hard earth. The gate pulled back. I felt that familiar loneliness, the bottomless, empty feeling of having no one. The place that had stolen Pip and Ruby from me had taken Arden, too. I watched the stone wall disappear behind the trees as the gate shut, so much of my life still trapped inside.

ten

THE SUN SLIPPED BEHIND THE MOUNTAINS. THE WOODS WERE giving way to wide stretches of sand. I sat tied to the Jeep’s metal insides, my body stiff and sore from so many hours in the truck. We were forced to drive on the bumpy, bare ground beside the asphalt to avoid the many motionless, scorched cars blocking the roadway. The Jeep passed under giant signs, their paper ripped and peeling, images faded in the sun. PALMS, one read. ONE RESORT. TOO MANY TEMPTATIONS. Another showed bottles of amber liquid, the glass beaded with sweat. The word BUDWEISER was barely legible.

We sped toward the City’s walls. Massive towers rose up from the desert, just as we’d been told at School. My thoughts were with Arden and Pip, strapped to those metal beds, and with Ruby and her unfocused stare. Ruby’s question kept playing in my head—What about me? The guilt returned. I hadn’t done enough. I had left that night, assuming there would be a chance to come back. More time. Now, with my hands bound, just outside the City of Sand, there was nothing I could do to help them.

As we approached the fifty-foot wall, Stark pulled a circular badge from his pocket and held it out for the guards to see. After a long pause, a gate opened in the wall’s side, just big enough for the Jeep to pull through. We drove inside, then rolled to a stop in front of a barricade. Soldiers circled the Jeep, their rifles drawn. “State your names,” someone yelled from the darkness. Stark held out his badge and recited his name and number. The other two men in the truck did the same. A soldier with sunburned skin studied the badge, while others checked the car, shining lights beneath the metal carriage, on the men’s faces, and on the floor around their feet. The beam ran over my hands, still in their plastic restraints. “A prisoner?” one of the troops asked. He kept the flashlight on my wrists. “Do you have papers for her?”

“No papers necessary,” Stark answered. “This is the girl.”

The soldier studied me with beady eyes, smirking. “In that case, welcome home.” He signaled for the troops to fall back. The metal barricade rose up. Stark pressed his foot on the pedal and we sped toward the glittering City.

We passed buildings lit from within, bright blue and green and white, just as my Teachers had described. I remembered sitting in the cafeteria at School, listening to the King’s addresses over the radio, telling of the restoration. Luxury hotels were being turned into apartment buildings and offices. Water was supplied by a local reservoir called Lake Mead. The lights shone in the top floors of every tower, the pools glowed a perfect crystal blue, all of it powered by the great Hoover Dam.

The Jeep sped through a sprawling construction site on the outskirts of the City. Sand drifts were ten feet high in some places. Troops walked along the top of the wall, their guns pointed out into the night. We passed crumbling houses, piles of debris, and a massive pen filled with farm animals. The smell of waste stung my nostrils. Giant palm trees towered above us, their trunks withered and brown.

As we neared the center of the City, the land opened up. Gardens spread out on our left and a concrete lot on our right. Rusted airplanes sat in front of a decrepit building with a sign that read McCARRAN AIRPORT. We sped past wrecked neighborhoods and the shells of old cars, until buildings rose up around us, each one grander than the next. They were all different colors, buzzing with electric light.

“Impressive, right?” The soldier with the scar asked. He sat beside me in the backseat, twisting open his canteen.

I stared at the building in front of us: a giant gold pyramid. A green tower rose up on the right, its glassy surface reflecting the moon. Impressive wasn’t the word. The polished structures were unlike anything I’d seen before. I’d only known the wild—broken roads, houses with their roofs caved in, black mold that spread over the School walls. People strolled on metal overpasses above the streets. At the end of the main road a tower shot up into the stars, a bright red needle against the night sky. We’ve survived, the City seemed to say, with every glittering skyscraper, every paved road or planted tree. The world will go on.

The Jeep was the only car on the street. It moved so quickly that people went by in a blur. I could tell they were mostly men from their broad shoulders and heavy builds. Tiny white dogs roamed the street, nearly a third the size of Heddy. “What are those?” I asked.

“Rat terriers,” the scarred soldier said. “The King had them bred to deal with the rodent infestation.”

Before I could respond, the Jeep was turning left, cutting up a long road that snaked toward a massive white building. Rows of government Jeeps sat out front. Soldiers were stationed along a strip of narrow trees, machine guns slung across their backs. I stared up at the expansive white structure. The main entrance was lined with sculptures—winged angels, horses, women with their heads cut off. After driving so many miles, we were here. The Palace.


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