Once / Page 21

Page 21


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“The dissidents?” I kept my voice low, thankful when the trumpet blasted a few loud notes. Everyone around us was absorbed in their own conversations, clinking their glasses together in cheers.

“There’s opposition to the regime. Moss brought me here to lead a build—we’re constructing tunnels under the wall to bring in more people to help fight. Eventually we’ll smuggle weapons in from the outside. There are three tunnels in all. Moss is talking about a revolution, but without guns we’re helpless against the soldiers.”

Caleb kept his lips close to my ear as he told me about the Outlands, the vast, barren blocks beyond the City’s main street, where old motels were being used as housing for the lower class. Some lived in warehouses, others in run-down buildings without hot water or even plumbing. The regime had designated housing based on the assets individuals were able to contribute after the plague. Jobs were assigned by the government. Most Outlanders worked cleaning the luxury apartments and office buildings in the City center, staffing the shops in the Palace mall or running the new amusements that were opening up throughout the City. The King had established endless rules: no drinking, no smoking, no weapons, no trading without his consent. No one was to be out after ten o’clock. And the City was enter-only—no one could leave.

“All of the workers here are trapped. The regime decides their weekly allowance, what jobs they have. They keep telling everyone that the conditions will improve, that the Outlands will be restored just like the rest of the City, but it’s been years. Now there’s talk of expansion, of conquering the colonies in the east, of restoring and rebuilding there.”

“The colonies?”

“Three large settlements to the east that the King has visited. Hundreds of thousands of survivors are there. He considers them part of The New America already, but until the colonies are walled in, until troops are stationed inside, they’re technically separate.”

“They’re looking for you. Stark, that scared kid—” I stumbled over the word. “He told them you were the one who killed the soldiers. What if they find you here?”

“Without a shirt on I’m just another one of the workers.” Caleb pressed his hand to his shoulder, where his tattoo was. I’d noticed it the first day I met him, the circle with the New American crest in it. Every boy from the labor camps had one, like a stamp, marking them as property of the King. “They’re looking for me in the wild, not working in the Outlands like every other slave.”

“And Moss? Where is he?” I asked.

“It’s better if you don’t know.” Caleb pulled the brim of his cap down to hide his eyes. “A dissident got caught a few months before I arrived here. They think he was tortured. He gave up names. Suddenly people were disappearing, being taken away to prison.”

“Was the man killed?” I asked, my throat tight.

“One of our contacts is working as a janitor inside the prison, but he couldn’t get to him in time. It was a real blow. The dissidents consider one another family—if one person is in trouble, everyone is. They would’ve done anything to help him.”

I squeezed Caleb’s hand as I told him about the last three months: my time in Califia, Arden’s arrival, our escape and capture, my days in the Palace with the man who called himself my father. When I was done the crowd had thinned out. Half the booths were empty, strewn with glasses and smoldering ashtrays.

Caleb tucked a few stray hairs back under my cap, so gently it nearly made me cry. Then he pulled a folded paper from his pocket and spread it out on the table, revealing a map of the City with routes outlined in different colors. He explained how the troops had their routines, specific streets they patrolled in ninety-minute blocks. The dissidents had learned their patterns and used them to avoid being caught. He copied one route down on a napkin, marking the path back to the City center, how to reenter the Palace and which staircase to take. Then he copied another for me to use in two nights’ time.

“Let’s meet here,” he said, pointing to a spot on the second map. “There’s another dissident who works that building at night who will point you in the right direction.” He studied my face and smiled. “I have a surprise for you.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“If I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise, would it?” He laughed.

I stared at the place he’d marked; it was right on the main road, diagonally across from the Palace fountains. “But you could get caught.”

“I won’t get caught,” Caleb said. He smoothed down the corners of the paper with his palm. “I promise. Just be there.”

“How long will it be before the tunnels are completed? Can’t we hide out until then?” He said the other dissidents were concerned about his meeting me, that it might compromise them, but he’d assured them I could be trusted.

Caleb shook his head sadly. “We don’t know. The one that’s furthest along is at a standstill. We need blueprints to continue. And if you turn up missing … they’ll know you’re somewhere inside the walls. They’ll come looking.” He put his hand to my cheek. “It’s a good sign that you made it here tonight, though. We’ll just have to meet like this until things are more certain.”

We sat there for a while, my face nestled against his chest, until the singer sang her last song. The band packed up their instruments. Glasses clinked together. Slowly, we made our way out.

Caleb’s hand rested on the small of my back as we climbed the stairs, feeling our way in the dark. The Outlands were quiet. Figures moved behind a curtain in the window of an old motel. We passed a parking lot lined with rusted cars, a dried-out pool, a long strip of empty houses. “I can walk you to the corner,” he said, clutching my hand. He nodded to the street just one block away.

I felt the map in my pocket, each step bringing us closer to good-bye. I would see him again soon. Still, I cringed at the thought of lying alone in that bed, between the cold, crisp sheets. “It’s just two days,” I said aloud, unsure who I was trying to comfort.

“Right,” Caleb agreed. He kept his eyes on the road as we approached it. “It’s not that long, really,” he said, but he didn’t sound convinced.

We were almost to the corner. He would turn right, further into the Outlands, and I’d turn left, back toward the Palace. When we were just a few yards away, Caleb pulled me into a doorway set off the narrow street, the two-foot threshold just deep enough for us both to press inside. He held my face in his hands, his expression barely visible in the darkness. “I guess this is good-bye,” whispered.

“I guess so,” I said softly.

He kissed me, his fingers hard against my chin. My arms gripped his back as I pulled myself closer. His hands were in my hair. My heart sped up as his finger dipped inside the neck of my sweater, tracing lines over my collarbone. He leaned down and I kissed his closed eyelids, that tiny scar on his cheek.

Somewhere in the distance a Jeep backfired, the boom! startling me from my waking dream.

“I have to go—we have to go,” I breathed.

I pulled away first, knowing that if I didn’t leave then I never would. I turned to go, giving his hand one final squeeze.


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