Once / Page 29

Page 29


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Caleb stepped forward, raising his hand to shield me from the man’s accusations. “Enough, Curtis. We’re not going into this again, not now.”

But I ducked under his arm, unable to stop myself. “You don’t know me,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. I leveled my finger at his face. “Have you been in the Schools? Please, since you seem to know so much, tell me what it’s like there.” The man stepped back, but his eyes were still locked on mine, refusing to look away.

We could have stayed like that for hours, staring each other down, but Caleb took my arm, pulling me away. “Let’s get out of here,” he whispered. He gave Harper a little half salute, and then we were back in the hangar, the door clicking shut behind us. “I shouldn’t have brought you here. Curtis and Jo have been good to me since I’ve arrived—they were the ones who found me a place to stay, who backed me when the others were unsure about letting me lead the digs. They’re not usually like that. They’ve just seen what can happen to dissidents who are discovered.”

“I hate the way they looked at me,” I muttered. We moved through the silent warehouse, under the rusted bellies of planes.

When we reached the door Caleb stopped, resting his palm on the side of my face. “I know,” he said, pressing his forehead to mine. “I’m sorry. They may never completely trust you. But I do—that’s what matters.”

We stayed there for a moment, his breath warming my skin, his thumb grazing my cheek. “I know” was all I could manage. The tears were hot in my eyes. Here we were, miles from the dugout, from Califia, and there was still no place for us. We were bouncing between worlds, he in mine, I in his, but we’d never be able to truly be together in either one.

Caleb looked down at his watch, its glass face split in two. “You can take the second street parallel to the main strip. Turn through the old Hawaiian marketplace to get back. It’s empty at this time of night.” He looked into my eyes. “Don’t worry, Eve,” he added. “Please don’t worry about them. I’ll see you tomorrow night.”

I pressed my lips to his, feeling his fingertips against my skin. I held them there, wanting the awful, uneasy feeling to subside, wishing we could be back on the dock, those three words floating between us. “Tomorrow night,” I repeated as Caleb slipped another folded map into my pocket. He kissed me good-bye—my fingers, my hands, my cheeks and brow. I stayed there for just a moment. The rest of the world seemed far away.

But when I started across the City, alone but for the sound of my footsteps, Curtis and Jo’s words returned. I found myself arguing my case to an imaginary room, explaining away my place in the Palace—something even I wasn’t completely certain of. It wasn’t until I passed the wide fountain, its surface glassy and still, that I thought of Charles. I saw his face in the conservatory that afternoon as he pointed to the glass dome, describing all his plans for the restoration.

I ran up the stairwell, taking the steps two at a time, ignoring the burning in my legs. Fifty flights went by quickly, my body energized by the sudden thought. Finally, there was something I could do.

twenty-four

“THE BUILDINGS THAT ARE TO BE RESTORED ARE FIRST determined by your father,” Charles said, spreading the photos over the table. “We tour the place, take measurements, see what kind of shape it’s in. Then I go through all the information I’ve recovered from before the plague—floor plans, blueprints, photos—to learn about the building’s original condition, decide what can be restored and what we want to do away with.”

I nodded, my eyes darting to the long drawers on the other side of the room. The suite on the thirtieth floor had been converted into Charles’s office. The bed and dressers had been replaced with wide cabinets, and the desk sat in front of a glass wall overlooking the main strip. A long wooden table was set up with models, miniature versions of some of the sites I’d seen in the City center: the domed conservatory, the Venetian’s gardens, and the Grand’s zoo. A smaller room held more models, some piled one on top of another. I’d asked him for a tour of his office at breakfast that morning. Charles’s face had brightened. The King had urged us to go, even though our plates sat on the table, the food still hot.

I picked up another photo of the roller coaster and arcade in the old New York, New York compound. “It’s fascinating,” I offered. The worn snapshot showed people strapped into the car, screaming, their cheeks blown back by the wind. It was fascinating to see the world as it once was, so many years before. But it was impossible to look at it without thinking of how we got here, now—of the boys in the dugout or the scars that crisscrossed the top of Leif’s back.

“I’m relieved to hear you say that,” Charles said. “I could talk about this for hours. Sometimes I worry I’m boring you.”

I let out a low laugh, remembering one of Teacher Fran’s sayings. “Only boring people get bored,” I said softly. I turned a photo over in my hands, trying to decipher the smudged writing on the back. When I glanced up, Charles was looking at me. “The Teachers used to say that.” I shrugged. “It’s silly, I know.”

“The Teachers,” he said. “Right. I just realized we’ve never talked about your School.”

“If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” I added, pointing the photograph at him. “That was another thing they used to say.” I looked through the doorway behind him. This one room contained so many documents—papers piled high in corners, blueprints of most of the buildings in the City center. There had to be more information here, something that would be useful to Caleb—I just had to find it.

“But you were the valedictorian.” He plucked the photo from my grasp and set it down. I suddenly felt awkward, exposed even, now that I had nothing to do with my hands. “You must’ve enjoyed it somewhat.”

“I did while I was there,” I said, knowing I couldn’t tell him the truth right now. About how our Teachers had twisted our lessons. About my friends who were still trapped inside. I walked over to his desk, pretending to look at a baseball resting on a stack of loose-leaf notebooks. Every surface was covered with maps. Scribbled notes were taped to the window.

“You like my paperweight?” he gestured at it. “You can still see the grass stains if you look closely. It’s one of the few things I have from when I was a kid.”

I held it for a moment, studying the faded red stitching that was coming undone in places. “Where did you grow up?”

He opened his hands, signaling for me to throw it to him. “A city in Northern California. There were government transports during the migration, trucks that made the trip here week after week. It took us nearly two days with stops. Everyone had to be cleared by a doctor beforehand.”

I tossed it across the room in a slow arc. I thought of the quarantine wing at School, how lonely those first weeks were. The Teachers would only speak to us through a window in the door. I was so young, but I still remembered how I’d check myself every morning, searching my skin for any sign of the bruises symptomatic of the plague.

“They gave us these masks to cover our mouths,” Charles went on. “I remember being fifteen and looking around at all these faceless people, most of them traveling to the City alone. It was surreal.” He threw it back to me.


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