Once / Page 25

Page 25


I turned back, noticing two boys my age who were stapling down carpet. An older worker, maybe twenty, walked slowly down the corridor, carrying a giant wooden crate. When he passed one of the spotlights I made out his face, gaunt and sickly, his eyes sunk back into his skull. His shoulder bore the same tattoo as Caleb’s. Somewhere above us a terrible drilling sound split the air.

“Where is he?” I said, my voice flat. I walked faster, with purpose, thinking of all the boys in the dugout.

The soldiers strode in front of me, toward a glowing blue light. They glanced at one another, their faces uncertain, unsure if they should’ve brought me here or not. “Genevieve,” a voice called out. Two figures appeared at the end of the hallway, silhouetted by the light. “What are you doing here?”

“I needed to speak with you,” I said. The King was standing with Charles, who looked momentarily happy, his smile disappearing when he saw my face. I pushed past them, into the wide room. An eerie light filled the space. The walls were all glass, forming several enclosures with plants and giant, fake rocks.

“Would you give us a minute?” the King said finally. The men’s footsteps receded down the hall. He stepped beside me, facing a tank filled with yellow grass. High above, a mountain lion lay out on a flat rock, its ribs jutting out of its side.

“She told me,” I said, not turning to meet his gaze. “Clara told me about your wife. She said my mother was your mistress.” My entire body felt hot. “Is that true?”

The King turned back to the corridor, where Charles and the soldiers had left. “This isn’t the best time to talk about this,” he said. “You shouldn’t have come here.”

“There will never be a good time to talk about it.” I stared at him. “You didn’t want me to come here because you don’t want me—or anyone—to see how all of your projects are built.”

His face flushed and his eyes went dark. He rubbed at his forehead, as if trying to calm himself. “I understand you’re angry,” he said. “Clara shouldn’t have said anything. It was not her place.”

He turned and walked the length of the room, his arms crossed over his chest. “I don’t like that word—mistress. I know how it sounds and it wasn’t the case. When I met your mother I was separated from my wife.” He paused in front of a glass case titled GRAY WOLVES. Two giant dogs were tearing at red meat. Another gnawed at a broken bone.

“So she was your mistress,” I said, unable to control my voice. “And you brought me here, telling me how you’d been looking for me for so long, how broken up you were without your daughter, and you just happened to leave out that you had a whole other family?”

The King cleared his throat. “I am sorry,” he said, laboring over each word, “that I didn’t tell you about my other children. But it’s not something I like to speak about. I’m more concerned with the future, just like everyone else in this City. We’re all trying to move on.”

The softness in his voice startled me, pulling me out of my own head and into his. I wondered how they had died, if their noses had bled like my mother’s, if they had been together, as a family, or been separated in the hospitals. I wondered if he had held them, despite the warnings not to, if he had been the one to mash up their food and press it against their dry tongues.

“What were their names?” I finally asked. I had to know, just wanted to picture them, if only for a moment. I had siblings—at one point, if not now. The thought filled me with a strange sadness. “How old were they?”

He turned back to me. He had pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and was twisting it around his fingers, turning them pink. “Samantha was the oldest. She was eleven when she died. Paul went first—he was eight. And then Jackson, my little guy.” A faint smile appeared and then was gone. “He wasn’t even five years old.”

I remembered the plate I’d prepared in the kitchen. How I’d sat leaning against her bedroom door, devouring the last of those mushy pink beans, comforted by her intermittent coughs. Before she had retreated to her room she had shown me how to open the cans, her hand around mine as we squeezed the metal gadget. They had been in a row, one for each day, over twenty cans long. Only open one can, she’d said, as she moved around the house, locking all the doors. No more than one each day.

“I’m sorry,” I said softly. We stood side by side, and for that minute, in the stillness of that room, he was not the King. I was not the Princess, taken against her will to the City. We were two people trying to forget.

He rubbed his forehead with his hand. “I really loved your mother. And I was going to get a divorce. That was always the plan,” he said. “But things were complicated between us. We were living different lives, in different cities. I never even knew she was pregnant. And then later, when the plague happened, it changed everything. I couldn’t have left Sacramento even if I had wanted to. There was no way for me to help her. Everyone was just surviving.”

“Did your wife know about her?” I asked, feeling sick even as the question left my mouth. “Did you ever tell her, or was my mother a secret?”

“I was planning on a divorce,” he repeated. “I was just waiting for the right time.”

I turned and walked past him, starting down a tunnel with a glass enclosure on one side. There, just thirty feet away, was a grizzly bear like the one I’d seen in the wild. It lay there, seeming half alive, its head resting on a plastic rock.

“The only two people who can understand a relationship are the two people in it,” he said from somewhere behind me. His shoes clacked against the broken stone floor. “You can’t know what that time was like.”

“I know that you lied,” I said. “You lied to everyone.” I stared at our reflections in the glass, the way our noses both slanted a little to the left, our cream-colored skin, the curtains of black lashes that fanned out over our eyes. We stood there, the two of us side by side, looking through ourselves into the small enclosure.

“I was happy when I was with your mother,” he continued. I wasn’t quite sure if he was speaking to me or not. He gazed up at the massive animal, his voice clear of anger. “It’s hard for me to look at that picture, to see myself then. I was happier than I’d ever been in my life. She always seemed like she was vibrating at a different frequency altogether. She was nearly thirty when I met her. It was right after she’d taken a hiatus from painting.”

I turned to look at him. “I never knew she was a painter,” I said. Our house had slowly faded from memory. I could see only snippets of it—the old grandfather clock that sat in the hall, the beaten gold weights that hung inside it, making its hands move. The glow-in-the-dark stars on my bedroom ceiling, the stain on our couch from where she’d spilled tea. I couldn’t remember even a single paintbrush, no canvases or art on the walls. “I learned at School.”

“I know,” he said, not elaborating on how. A smile crossed his lips, and he let out a small laugh. “I was with your mother on my fortieth birthday. She had planned this whole day. We went hiking along the beach, and she brought this miniature chocolate cake she’d made for me. She carried it the whole time, nearly four miles, just so we could eat it up there, overlooking the ocean. And she sang this silly song to me, this—”

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