Once / Page 14

Page 14


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“But that’s what everyone’s saying,” she repeated. “They’re searching for the boy in the wild. There’s a warrant out for him.”

“You don’t understand,” I managed. “They’re all lying. You don’t know what the King has done out there. He’s evil—”

Beatrice’s eyes widened. When she finally spoke her voice was so low I could barely hear it over the running water. “You didn’t mean that,” she whispered. “You cannot say such things about the King.”

I pointed to the window, the land stretched out for hundreds of miles. “My closest friends are imprisoned right now in those Schools. They are being used like farm animals, like they never imagined or hoped for anything different.”

I let the photograph fall to the floor and put my head in my hands. I heard Beatrice shuffling around the bedroom, opening and closing drawers. The tap was still running. Then she was beside me, tugging the sour, sweat-soaked shirt from my body, helping me step out of the muddy pants. She set a hot, soapy cloth on the back of my neck and ran it over my shoulders, working the dirt off my skin.

“Maybe you misunderstood or misheard,” she said matter-of-factly. “It’s a choice the girls have at the Schools—it’s always a choice. The ones who are part of the birthing initiative volunteered.”

“They didn’t,” I said, shaking my head. “They didn’t. We didn’t …” I bit my bottom lip. I wanted to hate her, this foolish woman, who was telling me about my School, my friends, my life. I wanted to take hold of her arm and squeeze, until she listened. She had to listen—why wouldn’t she just listen? But she worked the washcloth over my back, gently lifting up the thin straps of my tank top. She wiped the dirt from my legs and out from between my toes and rubbed at the mud behind my knees. She did it with such care. After so many months on the run, of sleeping in the cold basements of abandoned houses, her tenderness was almost too much to bear.

“They hunted us,” I went on, letting my body relax just a little. “The troops hunted me and Caleb. They stabbed him. And my friend Arden was dragged back to that School. She was screaming.” I paused, waiting for her to argue, but she was kneeling beside me, the washcloth hovering over the gash on my arm.

She turned over my hands, staring at the bluish-red line around my wrist where the restraints had been. The cloth slipped over the mark, working at the raw skin, the blood now a thin, purple crust. “We shouldn’t be talking about the troops this way,” she said slowly, less assured. “I can’t.” She looked up at me, her eyes pleading with me to stop. Finally, she turned away and picked up a nightgown she’d laid out on the bed.

I took the ruffled dress from her hand and slung it over my head. I wanted to cry, to let my body heave with sobs, but I was too exhausted. There was nothing in me left. “He can’t be my father,” I mumbled, not caring if she was listening. “He just can’t be.” I lay down on the bed and closed my eyes.

Beatrice sat down beside me, the mattress springs creaking underneath her. She pressed a clean washcloth to my face, wiping around my hairline, my cheeks, then folded it and placed it gently over my eyes. The whole world was black.

The day had been too much. The hope of seeing Caleb, the soldiers’ attack, Arden and Ruby and the King with his declarations—the weight of it fell on me, pinning me down. Beatrice was right beside me still, her gentle fingers rubbing at my temples, but she seemed so far away.

“You’re not feeling well,” she offered. “Yes,” she repeated to herself as I drifted off. “That must be it.”

thirteen

THE KING STEPPED OUT ONTO THE OBSERVATION DECK AND gestured for me to follow. My legs were unsteady as I stared at the tiny world a hundred stories below. The wall wrapped around the City in a giant loop, stretching for miles beyond the central cluster of buildings. Expansive crop fields sprouted up in the east. Old warehouses spread out to the west. The land at the edge of the wall was covered with fallen buildings, garbage heaps, and rusted, sun-bleached cars.

“I suppose you’ve never been this high up before?” the King asked, glancing at my hands, which were curled tightly around the metal railing. “Before the plague, there were buildings like this in every major city, filled with offices, restaurants, apartments.”

“Why did you bring me here?” I asked, staring at the short rails in front of me, the only thing preventing a fall. “What’s the point of this?” I’d spent the day in the top floors of the Palace. My arm was stitched and bandaged. I’d soaked in the bath, clogging the drain with dirt and bits of dead leaves. The King had insisted I accompany him to this immense tower, all the while rambling on about his City. My City now.

He moved easily around the narrow deck. “I wanted you to see the progress for yourself. This is the best view in the entire City. The Stratosphere used to be the tallest observation deck in America, but now we use it as the army’s main lookout tower. From up here a soldier can see for miles. Sandstorms, gangs. In the event of a surprise attack from another country or one of the colonies, we’ll have plenty of warning.”

Inside, the glass tower was swarming with soldiers. They peered through metal scopes, scanning the streets below. Some sat at desks, headphones on, listening to radio messages. I saw my reflection in the windows. The skin beneath my eyes was puffy. I’d woken in the middle of the night, trying to decide what to do about Caleb. I knew I could put him in even more danger just by mentioning his name. But I also knew Stark wouldn’t stop searching for him. I couldn’t let him be punished for what I’d done. “There’s something you should know,” I said after a long while. “Stark lied to you. The boy who was in the wild with me—he wasn’t the one who shot the soldiers.”

The King froze by the metal railing. He turned to me, squinting against the sun. “What do you mean?”

“I don’t know what Stark told you, but that boy helped me in the wild. He saved me. I was the one who shot the soldiers when they attacked him.” My throat was tight. All I could see was the soldier’s body hitting the pavement, the blood pooling beneath him.

“You can’t punish him,” I continued. “You have to call off the search. It was self-defense. They were going to kill him.”

The King turned, his head cocked slightly to one side. “And what if they did? Who is he to you? This Caleb person, the one you sent the message to that night.”

I stepped back at the sound of his name, knowing that I had revealed too much. “I didn’t know him well.” My voice was unsteady. “He acted as my guide over the mountain.”

He narrowed his eyes at me. “I don’t care what he told you, Genevieve. Strays can be incredibly manipulative. They’re known for taking advantage of people in the wild.” He pointed out over the horizon, to where the mountains touched the sky. “There’s a whole ring of them who trade women just like you. Any girl they can find.”

I wiped the sweat from my forehead, remembering Fletcher, that truck, the metal bars that seared my skin. There was truth to what he said, but if it hadn’t been for the King none of us would’ve been on the run in the first place. There would’ve been nothing to escape from. “Is that any better than what you’ve done? What’s the alternative? Fill our heads with lies and send us off to some building to have children we’ll never see grow up, never get to hold or feed or love?”


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