Once / Page 12

Page 12


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The King was upstairs, waiting for me.

Stark took me from the Jeep, his hand clamping down on my arm. I could barely breathe as we entered the circular marble lobby. The King’s face had haunted me for months. I thought of the photo I’d grown up with in School. His thin gray hair hung over his forehead. His skin was loose around his jowls and his beady eyes were always watching, following you wherever you went.

Soldiers milled about the lobby, some talking, others pacing in front of a fountain. Stark took me through a set of gold doors into a small mirrored elevator and punched a code into a keypad inside. The doors slid shut and then we were moving, up, up, my stomach rocking as the floors flew past—fifty gone, then fifty more.

“You’re going to regret this,” I said, straining against the plastic bands around my wrists. “I’ll tell him what you did. How your men threw me onto the ground in that parking lot. How you threatened to kill me.” I looked down at the gash in my arm, the crusted blood turned black.

Stark shook his head. “Whatever it takes,” he said, his voice flat. “Those were my orders. Do whatever it takes to bring you here.” Then he turned to me, his eyes bloodshot. He clutched the collar of my shirt and pulled me toward him so my face was just inches from his. “Those men you killed were like brothers to me. They served with me every day for three years. The King will never punish you for what you did, but I will make sure you never forget what happened that day.”

The doors opened before us with a terrifying bing! Stark’s nails dug into my arm as he led me to a room across the carpeted hall. “You’ll wait for him here.” Then he pulled a knife from his pocket and sliced the plastic restraints in two. My hands tingled from the sudden rush of blood to my fingers.

The door closed. I leaped up and grabbed the handle, knowing before I even tried it that it would be locked. A long mahogany table sat in the center of the room, surrounded by a few heavy chairs. A massive window looked out onto the City, a two-foot ledge just a few inches below. I went to the glass, wedging my fingers beneath the pane, straining against it. “Please open,” I muttered under my breath, “please just open.” I had to get out of that room. It didn’t matter how.

“They’re sealed shut,” a low voice said. My spine stiffened. I turned. Standing in the doorway was a man of about sixty, with gray hair and thin, papery skin.

I stepped away from the window, my hands dropping to my sides. He wore a deep-blue suit and a silk tie, the New American crest embroidered on his lapel. He stalked forward, taking one slow lap around me, his eyes scanning my tangled auburn hair, the linen shirt soaked through with sweat, the scrapes around my wrists from where I’d been bound, and the wound on my arm. When he finally finished his survey, he stood before me, then reached out and stroked my cheek. “My beautiful girl,” he said, running his thumb over my brow.

I smacked his hand away and staggered backward, trying to put as much space between us as possible. “Stay away from me,” I said. “I don’t care who you are.”

He just stood there, staring. Then he took a step forward, and another, trying to get closer to me.

“I know why I’m here,” I spat, circling the table, moving backward until I was pressed against the wall. “And I would rather die than bear your child. Do you hear me?” I raised my arm to strike him but he caught my wrist instead, his grip firm. His eyes were wet. He leaned down until his face was level with mine.

When he finally spoke, each word was slow and measured.

“You aren’t here to bear my child.” He let out a strange laugh. “You are my child.” He pulled me toward him, cradling my head in his hand, and kissed my forehead. “My Genevieve.”

eleven

WE STOOD LIKE THAT FOR A SECOND, HIS HAND ON THE BACK of my head, until I broke free. I couldn’t speak. His words rushed in and corrupted everything—past and present—with their horrible implications.

I felt light-headed. What had my mother told me? What had she said? It was always the two of us, for as long as I remembered. There were no pictures of my father on the wall above the staircase, no stories told about him at bedtime. When I was finally old enough to realize I was different from the children I played with, the plague had swept through, taking their fathers as well. He was gone, that was all I needed to know, she’d said. And she loved me enough for both of them.

He produced a shiny piece of paper from the inside pocket of his suit jacket and held it out to me. A photograph. I took it, studying the picture of him, many years before, his face not yet touched by time. He looked happy, handsome even, with his arm around a young woman, her dark bangs falling in her eyes. He was gazing down at her as she stared into the camera, unsmiling. Her face held the confident expression of a woman who knows she is beautiful.

I held the picture to my chest. It was her. I remembered every line of my mother’s face, the slight dimple in her chin, the way her black hair fell onto her forehead. She was always scrambling for a pin to hold it back. We had played dress up that day in my room, before the plague came. I could still hear the children outside, shouting and laughing, the sound of skateboards on the pavement. I wore my shoes with the pink bows. She took my other elephant barrette and put it in her hair, right above her ear. Look, my sweet girl, she said, kissing my hand, now we are twins.

“I met her two years before you were born,” the King began. He led me to the table, pulling out a chair for me. I obliged, thankful when my body sunk into the cushion, my legs still shaking. “I was already the Governor then, and was doing a fund-raising event at the museum where she worked. She was a curator before it happened,” he said. “But I’m sure you know that.”

“I hardly know anything about her,” I managed, staring at her eyes in the photo.

He stood behind me, his hands resting on the back of the chair, looking over my shoulder. “She was giving me a private tour of the gardens, pointing out these plants that smelled like garlic and kept the deer away.” He sat down beside me, raking his fingers through his hair. “And there was something in the way she spoke that struck me, as if she were always laughing at some joke only she understood. I stayed two weeks there, and then we kept in touch after. I would come to see her whenever I wasn’t in Sacramento. But eventually the distance was too much for us. We lost touch.

“Two years later, the plague came. It was gradual at first. There were news reports of the disease in China, in parts of Europe. For a long time we thought it had been contained abroad. American doctors were coming up with a vaccine. Then it mutated. The virus was stronger; it killed faster. It reached the States and people began dying by the thousands. The vaccine was rushed onto the market, but it only slowed the disease’s progress, drew out the suffering for months. Your mother was trying to reach me but I had no idea. She sent emails and letters, called before the phones went out. It wasn’t until I was quarantined that I discovered the correspondence in my office. A whole stack of letters was piled on my desk, unopened.”

I remembered that time. The bleeds had gotten worse. She went through handkerchief after handkerchief, trying to keep her nose dry. She’d finally gone to sleep one afternoon, her bedroom dark as I wandered out. The house across the street was marked with a red X. The lawn beside it was dug up, the dirt turned over where they’d buried the first bodies. The quiet scared me. All the children were gone. A broken bicycle sat in the middle of the road. The neighbor’s cat was outside, lapping at the end of a hose, as I approached the door. I’d walked in, looking for the couple I’d seen coming and going so many times before, the man with the brown hat. I remembered the smell, thick and foul, and the dust that had accumulated in the corners. We need help, I’d said, as I took a few tentative steps into the living room. Then I saw his remains on the couch. His skin was gray, his face partially sunken in from decay.


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